Distill all the characteristics of American culture into one word, and you’ll likely find grandiosity. “Bigger is better,” “Go big or go home,” “Too big to fail,” and the like are our taglines of choice. Anything we do is bound to be better if you toss a “mega”, “super”, or “hyper” out front.
Neither is the Church immune to this phenomenon (witness “megachurches” and “celebrity pastors” in case you have any doubts). It cuts across theological and denominational lines, to the point that we are not even aware of it or how it colors our ministry. An implicit code demands every event or project we undertake to be thoroughly planned, promoted, hyped, executed, well-attended, and measurable. If any step of that procedure is given short shrift, we question whether anything “really” happened.
Over 50 years ago, novelist Walker Percy fingered the wrist of post-WWII America to find this idea pulsing within.
In The Moviegoer, Percy paints his protagonist, Binx Bolling, as a dislocated individual—lost in suburbia and the art of moneymaking, yet oddly ill at ease with nearly every aspect of existence. Binx seeks significance and transcendence in watching and re-watching popular movies; the shared world of mass culture is more real to him than anything else. Through Binx (and one scene in particular where William Holden’s presence brightens an otherwise dull afternoon in the French Quarter), Percy describes how people and places are authenticated, not by their actual nature, but only when they are acknowledged by the transcendent reality of Hollywood.
This desire for worldly significance, to be on the radar of the kingmakers of politics and mass media, afflicts almost all Americans, and it has only metastasized since Percy first diagnosed it. Only rarely do we see it outright; more often it seeps into our thoughts and actions with hidden designs for otherwise innocent and noble work.
The situation is no better in the Church, and, if I’m honest, in my own heart.
Do we gobble up books, videos, blogs, and conferences featuring the best and brightest pastors because we earnestly desire to grow in appreciation and understanding of the Gospel or because we hope being close to these men & women and their ideas rubs off some “real” ministry on us? Do we rush to donate time and resources to relief after a natural disaster out of genuine concern for the suffering of the victims or because we want great stories about how “we were there” to tell our family and friends? Do we promote our writing and church services through social media in order to benefit others or to pad our own egos?
These are fine lines, and, though we should check our motives often, we should never stop doing good things. Still, these temptations tug at us, urging us to be double-minded. We want so desperately to be noticed, to be certified by our peers and a watching world as “real”.
The problem is that “real” ministry does exist, and it often looks a lot like hard work and patient suffering with few observable results. “Real” ministry often takes place far from the cameras and microphones, away from the chattering hordes of Twitter and Facebook.
Our cultural blinders are so strong that we often miss the work God has put directly in front of us while we crane our necks to see if our true calling might be just around the bend. Even when we recognize the ministry at hand, we might give less than our full effort, treating the people we serve as stepping stones. The local church becomes a training ground where we wait to be called up to the big leagues with a book deal or a spot on the staff of a well-known church. Even if ambition lies closer to home, the chimera of a vibrant and growing church entices many to water down or sideline the Gospel for the sake of “success”.
As the story of The Moviegoer progresses, Binx’s discomfort with life and detachment from everyday responsibilities are upended by a series of events and choices that force him to reengage with the world around him. His catharsis comes as he turns from projecting himself into the illusory world of movies to become a director of sorts. In the unfolding metaphor, Binx begins producing the project of his life, framing shots and executing takes for the benefit of those closest to him, leaving his former idols on the cutting room floor, and God alone in the theater audience.
In the same way, “real” ministry requires us first to recognize that God alone determines reality. When He calls us, it is according to His plan for His glory—not our plan for ours. There is an artistry to living faithfully and sacrificially among the people God places in our care that, though it is seldom celebrated on earth, “is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).
There is nothing wrong with growing or well-known ministries—God uses faithful people, big and small. The problem is when we see one as more valuable than the other, forgetting that neither is anything but for the cross of Christ. Obey God where you’re at, and if you get noticed, don’t change a thing.
Note: For a piercing look at “real” ministry, I cannot recommend this book enough.
Posted by Justin Lonas
Neil Postman didn’t set out to write theology when he published Technopoly back in 1992, but I’ve seldom read theology that more accurately describes man and his flight from God. His classic critique of the unexamined acceptance and celebration of technology has helped me see just why it is that I find it so difficult to worship, pray, and otherwise give God His proper due in my daily life.
Though I confess to more than a few Luddite sympathies, neither Postman nor I are strictly “anti-technology”—broadly defined, technology (from the shepherd’s staff and the farmer’s plow on up) can be a tremendously useful piece of our mandate to fill the earth and subdue it. Still, he urges caution, reminding us that the things we create to make our lives (ostensibly) easier and better always have unintended consequences, ranging in severity from the annoying to the catastrophic. Even the purported goods of a technology often reshape our world in ways that cause us to sacrifice skills and wisdom to its given mode of operation.
In particular, reading Postman has illuminated three things for me.
First, his idea of “invisible” innovations (i.e. things which once did not exist but now slide below our radar as part of “the way things are”), like the numeral zero, chemical contraception, or antibiotics, alter our concepts of space, time, reality, and control. It’s easy for us to be wary and skeptical of big, visible technologies (say, atomic weapons), but it’s often the little things that have the biggest impact on our thinking over time. His ideas here have found eerie vindication in recent years as neurological studies have shown how our brains are actually “rewired” by the technologies we employ (see here, here, and here for just a few examples). We have to be careful to consider the implications and consequences of every new technology we allow into our lives, and this takes time, research, thought, and prayer.
Technopoly provides a good reminder that Marshall McLuhan’s warning that “the medium is the message” is as true as ever–in the technological realm, this is expressed in the idea that everything looks like a nail to a man wielding a hammer. We are always tempted to accomplish every task presented to us by means our favored gadgets (or schools of thought–even our categories for ideas are a technology of sorts). This gives Christians wishing to “engage the culture” a warning to avoid doing so through any technological means that demeans the message of the Gospel or reduces it to the same level as trivial things. There is a level at which the Word of God and Christianity as a whole will never be welcome within a fully technological world because the establishment can have no other gods before it.
Second, Postman shows how, the more and more technological (vs. physical/organic) our societies become, the more we are governed by the tyranny of statistics. If something is not trackable, quantifiable, and sortable, we are duped into believing that it must be somehow less than real. The dangers of this idea for the ministry of the Gospel are profound. In a world ordered this way, which makes more sense (and brings in more donations)? A ministry strategy that can point to x conversions, y recommitments, and z baptisms or a ministry that patiently wades through the morass of sin in the human heart to bring a handful of men and women to a saving and lasting faith in Christ over the course of decades? Leaving the 99 to reach the 1 doesn’t add up in the statistical realm.
Third, though Postman was not, to my knowledge, a Christian, he understood that people are designed to uncritically trust in something, giving it their full confidence and shaping their lives around its constancy. For much of human history, this trust was placed in the supernatural–whether in the One True God or in various false “gods”–men understood that there were things beyond themselves that they could not subdue, so they worshipped. Once that trust gets dislodged by doubt, desire, or dominion, however, Postman observed that it drifts from place to place. In our present era, it has landed on science and technology–there is no suffering under the sun that a new innovation will not ameliorate, no problem the experts cannot answer.
The trouble is that this new foundation is unstable, being wholly unsuited to the weight of the world placed on its shoulders. Once our technopoly (that is, the reign of technology) collapses, as it someday must, Postman fears mankind’s confidence may collapse with it, leading to despair and desolation.
As with most cultural critics, Postman is far better at diagnosing the problem than prescribing an effective solution, and Technopoly (like many of his other works) bequeaths that task to his readers.
The one thing that gives me hope after reading Postman (and a quick glance out the window to be reminded that his social observations were spot on and the phenomena he described decades ago are now in full flower) is that he doesn’t factor the actual existence and influence of God into his equations. God is not merely a pillar of support imagined by ancient man, but the Creator and sustainer of all there is. That’s why all such secular “doomsday” scenarios seem somewhat hokey to me–if tomorrow the worldwide power grid crumbled, God would still be on His throne, and my responsibilities before Him are still the same.
The challenge of worship in a still-functioning technopoly, however, is to remember that God is on His throne even when the whizbangery of the day wants me to believe that the apparent authority it has over me is absolute. This means shutting down, logging off, etc. is as important a spiritual discipline as anything else because it is a prerequisite of any of the others–I’ve never truly prayed, worshipped, or meditated on the Word while in the thrall of the digital.
A little lesson in this came to me over this past month. For Christmas, my wife contacted an old friend of mine–a baker–and arranged for me to spend the afternoon with him learning the art of sourdough bread-making. Since then, I’ve spent part of every weekend corralling “wild” microbes, kneading them into dough, and waiting for the mythos of fermentation and a 450-degree oven to turn this pungent goo into a loaf of bread worthy of the king’s table. Once you’ve tasted this stuff, going back to the mass-produced air bubbles we call “bread” in this culture is not an option.
It’s been a visual reminder that the old ways can still be good ways (people have been making bread this way since time immemorial–it is a way to work with, rather than around, the created order of things) and that efficiency is not always synonymous with speed and volume. Just because something is billed as “the best thing since sliced bread” doesn’t make it a net good for your life. Next time somebody tries to sell you that lot, stop and ponder whether you’d rather choke down store-bought simplicity or something better and more valuable than convenience can comprehend.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city the watchman keeps awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; for He gives to His beloved even in his sleep” (Ps. 127:1-2).
Posted by Justin Lonas
N. B. – For a good reflection on technological issues from a Christian perspective (that also takes into account the current digital revolution), I highly recommend Tim Challies’ The Next Story.
Originally published in Pulpit Helps, November 2008, and updated for Disciple Magazine, October 2010.
It seems as though many who’ve encountered Christ, from the very beginning, have confused His mission with political solutions to the world’s problems. From Herod’s violent reaction to the perceived threat of the King’s birth (Matt. 2) to the crowd Jesus fed who then sought to make Him king (John 6:15) to the general perception that He had come to establish an earthly kingdom (exemplified by the disciples misunderstanding of His death in John 20:9-10), men have misinterpreted the Kingdom of God according to their own vision.
Through the centuries, we see this pattern repeated—in Constantine, the aggregation of power in the medieval Roman Catholic Church, the Crusades, the alliance between Church and state through most of modern European history, etc. While in America the relationship between religion and politics was designed to be more distant than in the nations of our forebears, there is still significant overlap. In this heated election season, both sides are quick to invoke God and reach out to the Christian community. The tendency to assign God to a political party and vote accordingly is pervasive—but that’s not what He calls us to.
While there are certain issues never to be compromised on (i.e.—protecting the sanctity of life), almost all political positions involve man’s ideas and plans and therefore are likely to be fundamentally flawed. When we passionately identify ourselves as a Church with any party, we can cheapen our witness by allying ourselves with unbiblical policies and programs. Such a commitment detracts from our ability to reach the lost by creating additional stumbling blocks for unbelievers. Those uncomfortable with being confronted about their need for a Savior will be that much more resistant to that message delivered by someone who is perceived as a political opponent. “The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” (1 Cor. 1:18a)—why would we want to make it more difficult for someone to come to the Truth?
At the risk of oversimplification, Americans tend to take one of two approaches in this arena, both of which are damaging to the Gospel. 1) We cherish our religious freedom and we believe that it is the government’s job to enforce morality in the culture, or 2) We cherish the work of Christ and we believe it is the government’s job to do justice and love mercy.
When we succumb to the first approach, we show a watching world that Christianity is not as important in society as general conservatism and that we don’t trust God to redeem men from the inside out as He has always done. When we fall to the second, we show the world that Christianity is less about personal sacrifice and more about making sure someone else takes up their cross and gives involuntarily to the poor and needy through taxes. We show that we don’t trust God to move His Church to live out His kingdom. In either case, we show a willingness to compromise certain key teachings of Christ in order to advance a temporal agenda.
Both approaches belie a fundamental distrust of God’s view of things—if there is one theme that Jesus hit over and over again during His ministry, it was that His kingdom was not of this world. He had eternity in view in everything He did, and Christian involvement in politics can easily devolve into idolatry of the present and visible over the permanent and invisible.
Politics is, fundamentally, about gaining and leveraging power. It revolves around the ability to make others do what you want them to, the desire to protect your interests, and a belief that we must solve our own problems rather than allowing God to work in His time. Christ calls us rather to settle offenses personally and quickly (Matt. 5: 21-26), to graciously accept persecution and go the extra mile (Matt. 5:38-42), to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48), to trust God to reward righteousness practiced in secret (Matt. 6:1-6), and to treat others as we would like to be treated (Matt. 7:12).
Most of all, He has called us to be fishers of men and to make disciples. Men’s hearts are not changed through political action, but by the work of the Spirit. Accordingly, that should be the focus of our lives and work. If we focus on political solutions to the problems facing the world, we forfeit opportunities to show Christ through service. Governments can provide many services, but without the ability to address the base-level need of humanity, they can never make men whole.
As dangerous an animal as politics can be, it is important to distinguish it from governing authority. Though it is difficult to separate the two in our country, there is an important distinction—governments are instituted by God to preserve order, punish evildoers, and protect the weak. As such, we are told to submit to them (Titus 3:1, Rom. 13:1) to pay our taxes (Rom. 13:6-7) and to pray for our leaders (1 Tim. 2:2). These passages assume the absolute despotism of the day as the norm and that citizenry has but two choices—obedience and disobedience. The concept of representative government of, by, and for the people (cherished though it may be by most Americans) is not given a category in Scripture. We struggle with this, in short, because we are torn between the submission and prayer commanded of us and the very tangible ability to change things through political action.
As in all professions, God has placed many of His servants in the realm of government. Working with authorities to achieve godly goals is noble and right (as we see in Daniel and Esther) when it is a part of our primary goal of following Him and spreading His Truth. Through such action, William Wilberforce was able to lead the movement to eradicate slavery in the British Empire and stir a revival of true Christianity in that nation. Christians working within governments have helped save untold thousands of lives around the world through disease prevention, aid programs, and peace negotiations, giving men the opportunity to live to hear the Truth. In our own day, believers fight valiantly for the right of unborn children to live, both politically and practically (through adoption and crisis pregnancy centers).
These two temptations—to believe that politics can solve all our problems or to believe that God never uses political action to advance His plans—are always knocking at our door. Even as we seek to focus on our primary mission as His Church, we must be careful to recognize that God’s will and the authorities He set over us are not always in conflict. As we head into the voting booth soon, let us strive to vote according to scriptural principles, but remember that no party or candidate has a platform that wholly conforms to God’s commands. No matter the outcome, our responsibility is to trust the Lord’s sovereignty, submit to and intercede for those He places over us, and be about His business in all aspects of life—not just in the ballot box.
Posted by Justin Lonas
What happens when a pastor has an awakening in his own relationship with Christ? When he comes to an understanding of the Word that renews his passion for the Gospel and the work of the ministry? He is bound (and responsible) to share his discovery with his congregation as an evidence of the grace of God in His life and the life of the local body.
What happens when he addresses the congregation, however, may not be nearly so joyous as his initial breakthrough. Often, the substance of spiritual growth involves things (conviction of sin, deeper understanding of grace, shift of focus from self to Christ) that will necessarily step on the toes of those who are not interested in the things of God and attend church for merely social or personal reasons. Sometimes, however, even those who share the pastor’s sincere faith and desire for growth will take offense at a challenging teaching from the Word.
I’ve seen far too many pastors get frustrated when they have a clear sense that the Lord is leading them and their churches into greater obedience to His Word but their congregation is either unmoved or even hostile to the changes in practice that obedience might lead to. In recent months, a few pastors I’m acquainted with have been fired or pressured to backpedal in their teaching under threat of dismissal. In those cases I’m familiar with, the pastors in question have been pilloried for being “too Calvinist” for preaching the glory of God’s work in sending His Son to die for our sins in a way that gives God’s power in redeeming us precedence over man’s work in responding.
I’m not sure why the congregations of these pastors have rejected their sincere teaching, and I don’t want this post to be a quibble over doctrine or semantics. What I do want is to outline a few helpful principles that churches and pastors should apply when this type of situation (a pastor relaying a doctrinal/obedience awakening to a church that hasn’t experienced the same awakening) arises.
Posted by Justin Lonas
Originally published in Pulpit Helps Magazine, April 2009.
On the face of it, Easter seems like a straightforward celebration of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins.
Without doubt, the salvation of mankind was an integral part of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The wider view of Calvary, however, reveals Christ crucified as the cornerstone of God’s plan for His ultimate glory.
From the very beginning, Easter was calculated for; in the midst of meting out the justified curses on His handiwork after their rebellion, God promised a coming redemption (Gen. 3:15). Later, he clarified his promises through the prophets, most notably via a man named “Salvation is God” (Isaiah). Isaiah begins to distinguish between two comings of Messiah—he elaborates on the theme of the coming king who will crush Satan’s head (Is. 9:1-7), but adds to it the narrative of the “suffering servant” who would be undeservedly punished to take away the sins of mankind (Is. 53:1-12). As we see throughout Scripture, both appearances are crucial to a proper understanding of Christ. Paradoxically, the Jews were so focused on the second, triumphal coming that they had Jesus crucified for blasphemy at His first.
The events surrounding the crucifixion are further evidence of the cosmic significance of that day. The thorns woven into His crown evoke a powerful irony as a product of the curse was used to mark the King on the day He settled the score; the story arc of fall and redemption came full circle. Athanasius of Alexandria in his On the Incarnation speaks of the earthquakes, darkness, and raising of deceased saints at Christ’s death as the whole of creation bearing witness to the fact of His Lordship and the act of redemption.
While Easter often draws our focus to the cross, the resurrection is the foundational act that gives fullness of meaning to everything that came before. Sometimes we think of it as the happy ending to the “real story” of atonement, but without rising from the dead, Christ’s work would not have been complete. Among others, four reasons stand out as to why the resurrection deserves paramount attention.
1) It was prophesied.
Isaiah is replete with references to Messiah’s return to reign after His suffering. In 55:11-13, he says “So will My word which goes froth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. For you will go out with joy and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up, and instead of the nettle the myrtle will come up, and it will be a memorial to the Lord, for an everlasting sign which will not be cut off.”
The “Word” spoken of here most likely refers to Christ. The Lord’s declaration that He would not return empty tells us that His death alone was not the sum total of His task on earth. The work of redeeming creation referenced in this passage is not yet complete, but it is promised; the crucified servant, therefore, had to be raised to return. In Matt. 20:18-19, John 2:19, and elsewhere, Jesus predicted His death and resurrection, seldom mentioning one without the other.
2) The Resurrection defeated death and Satan.
Christ’s atonement had a manifold purpose: to defeat not only sin but death and Satan. Whereas His sacrificial death covered the sins of humanity, only His resurrection cast aside death and dealt the crushing blow to Satan’s power.
Paul’s polemic against disbelief in the resurrection in 1 Cor. 15 makes clear that Christ’s return to life was the key both to eternal life and to the demise of death. Paul proves that Christ was in fact raised (vv. 4-8), that His ongoing life is key to our salvation (vv. 16-19), that His resurrection heralds eternal life for those who follow Him (vv. 20-23), and that death itself has been defeated by Christ’s act (vv. 26, 54-57). “But Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20-21). Paul reiterated this truth to the Thessalonians, encouraging them to grieve with hope in the assurance of resurrection and Christ’s victory over death (1 Thess. 4:13-18).
3) It brought greater glory to God
Perhaps the only thing that could show God’s holiness, power, and love more than casting His only son away from Himself by making Him into sin itself to atone for our sins (2 Cor. 5:21) was for Him to be restored to fellowship with Jesus by raising Him from the dead. Christ the “first fruits” was welcomed back to the Father, opening the door for all those who believe in Him to be adopted into the Kingdom. For the first time since the fall, the Lord was able to enjoy fellowship with His creation without violating His holiness.
Additionally, In Luke 24:35-36, Jesus points out that His suffering and resurrection were necessary for Him to enter into His glory. His triumph over death and Satan showed once for all His ultimate power. Because He died the death of a cursed criminal on the cross, His resurrection brought supreme honor and glory from the greatest dishonor man could subject Him to.
4) The Resurrection empowered Christ’s followers
Jesus’ very public death, without a public resurrection, would have easily quashed the spread of His teaching. As Jesus prophesied in Matt. 26:31-32, His death scattered the disciples, but He drew them back to Himself and commissioned them after He was raised. Athanasius cites the empowerment of the disciples after the resurrection as evidence of Christ’s defeat of death. The early Church clearly did not fear death as the culture around them, braving persecutions and martyrdom to take the Gospel to the corners of the known world within a few generations of Christ. The resurrection reinvigorated the disciples’ commitment to Christ’s message and paved the way for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Living it out
Clearly, Easter should motivate us to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the truths that form the backbone of our faith. It is a time for us to reflect on the cost of our redemption, the meaning of forgiveness, and the glory of God. More than that, however, it should stir us to give flesh to the reality of Christ’s life; we are to, as Paul said in Phil. 2:12 “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” The magnitude of Christ’s work on the first Easter (not just physically, but theologically [giving up His nature, becoming separated from the Father, etc.]) demands a response of obedience to His holiness and mercy. The obligation is one of gratitude; the God who gave His Son for us is not interested in forced obedience.
Living the resurrection should encompass both submission to God’s will, and dedication to Christ’s call to make disciples. When we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8), our actions fly in the face of human nature because they are flowing from the life within us. In that way, we give evidence to Christ’s resurrection; only if He was raised and is alive could He continue to work among men.
Jesus Himself desires that we carry on His mission in the power of the resurrection. In His “High Priestly Prayer” of John 17, He pleads to the Father for His disciples, saying, “Sanctify them in truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth” (vv. 17-19). In taking the Gospel to our neighbors and the nations, we are fulfilling Christ’s call and His hope for our lives.
John’s gospel concludes with a musing on the scope of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). There is a definite sense in which every believer tells a unique part of that story until the whole world is indeed filled with truth and majesty at the second coming. The glory of the resurrection is seen each day in the fullness of Christ’s living Body, the Church. Perhaps that is what the celebration of Easter is truly about
Posted by Justin Lonas
“Now I exhort you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.
“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider our calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that just as it is written, ‘let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” (1 Corinthians 1:10-31).
Posted by Justin Lonas
These days there is much discussion in the Church about the permissibility of behaviors for Christians. These issues range from cultural (what movies/music/entertainment choices are appropriate for Christians) to sexual (what are acceptable actions between a man and his wife; what are the parameters of marriage; etc.) to lifestyle (drinking, smoking, etc.) and everywhere in between.
At the risk of reductio ad absurdam, I see such debates typically coming at issues from one of two perspectives (each replete with proof-texts to hurl at their opponents): the restraining impulse to abolish any behaviors outside biblical prescriptions and a notion of “good Christian living” or the antinomian impulse to “follow your heart.” The extreme ends of this spectrum are easy enough to recognize (i.e. the Holiness denominations vs. old Mainline churches), but often opinions fall somewhere on a spectrum between the two. The arguments may look like a loosely restraining “some things that aren’t expressly biblical can be good if they fit our idea of ‘good clean fun’” or a loosely grounded antinomian “whatever is not expressly forbidden in Scripture is OK.”
To try to hold any kind of a biblically sound, logical, and socially realistic middle when these questions heat up is difficult at best. Nevertheless, I think that is exactly what we are called to do.
Christians of all stripes are quick (and right) to exult in the fact that salvation is a transformative experience: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17). For restrainers, the temptation is to interpret that from a purely external view. They tend to say that this idea means that we are to put away everything that our culture values and create a new, Christianized (or at least sanitized) subculture that is noticeably distinct. For antinomians the temptation runs the opposite direction. They might say that what they do with their time, money, bodies, etc. is not the point, so long as they feel that Christ has changed their hearts to be more loving, caring, or what have you. The restrainers can quickly fall into a ditch of being distinct to the point of becoming insular–they shut out the world and end up failing to reach the lost. The antinomians can quickly fall into a ditch of being at ease with the culture to the point of being completely unrecognizable as Christians–they welcome the world without critiquing it and end up failing to reach the lost.
This, I think, is where we find the middle: to be transformed by Christ is to be overtaken by, in the words of Thomas Chalmers, “the expulsive power of a new affection.” The change is total, encompassing internal and external. When Christ lives in us, He must change our character: “For those whom He foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son…” (Rom. 8:29). This necessarily changes our external behavior as well, not simply in good deeds toward others, but in our personal standards of conduct: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” (1 Pet. 1:14-15). What gets lost in these often well-intentioned disputes is the core question of why whatever issue is at hand distracts us from Christ.
If I obsess over making sure I am perceived as holy without growing deeper into Christ (who is the only source of righteousness in my life), I lose touch with the reason for holiness, trading it for pride. If I obsess over my behavioral “rights” without recognizing that my life serves as testimony to the One who lives within me, I have traded my Savior for the will of the flesh.
In whatever situation arises, the determining factor for a Christian response should be our answers to these two questions. 1) What has Christ provided me from His overflowing grace that I may be ignoring in order to stand in my own power rather than His? 2) What has Christ asked of me from His holy authority that I may be refusing in order to indulge my desires? If the old cliche that Christianity is “not a religion, it’s a relationship” is true (and I believe it is), then to take a stand on anything without asking those two questions is a lot like buying a sports car without asking your wife.
Posted by Justin Lonas
Here are a few books (in no particular order) that I encountered this year of varying genres that I would say are worth recommending for one reason or another.
Luke: The Gospel of Amazement, Michael Card
This wasn’t a particularly exegetical or particularly thorough commentary, but it caught my attention for its style. Card looks at the biblical text with an artist’s eye, and reminds us that the coming of Christ into the world was nothing less than astonishing. It is too easy to get stuck in a rut spiritually, and Card’s “devotional commentary” drags you back to the sheer wonder of our Lord and His love for men. Read my full review HERE.
Don’t Call It a Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day, Kevin DeYoung, ed.
Some books are great at covering vast expanses of material in succinct and engaging ways. This is one of those. A bunch of young-ish pastors and theologians from around the world team up to tell a new generation of Christians the basics of theology, and the result is a great reminder of what we believe and why it matters. In particular, Greg Gilbert’s chapter on the message of the Gospel is probably the most powerful expression of the central truth of Scripture I’ve read in a long time. Read my full review HERE.
Truman, David McCullough
I love history, and I love getting a glimpse at history through biographies. Learning abstract ideas is useful, but opening a window into someone’s life to watch how those ideas play out over decades. Perhaps nobody is writing better biographies presently than David McCullough, and his Truman is a monumental work (in scope and depth). Though I find I disagree with many (if not most) of his political viewpoints, I think I’d have loved to have dinner and a Poker game with Harry Truman. McCullough’s portrait of the 33rd president shows the authenticity and grit of the last true “man of the people” to inhabit the White House.
Basic Economics, Thomas Sowell
I’m a longtime follower of Sowell’s incisive and prescient newspaper columns, but somehow I’d managed never to read any of his books until now. In the pages of Basic Economics, he unlocks the mysteries of the marketplace in ways that anyone could understand, bringing the complexities of the “dismal science” into principles that every voter should bring to bear on their elected officials. If more people would read and take to heart these lessons, the populace might never again elect someone whose political platform includes any form of government tampering with domestic and international markets.
How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home, Derek W. H. Thomas
Derek Thomas’ short and sweet meditation on “the greatest chapter in the Bible” was one of my favorite surprises this year. Thomas is quick to remind us that this Gospel spelled out so beautifully by Paul in Romans chapter 8 is the heartbeat of our faith, and that we can never devote too much time and energy to telling and retelling its mysteries to God’s great glory. Indeed the cross of Christ is the center point of all God’s creation and character, as Paul writes, “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). How could we spend our energies on anything less? Read my full review HERE.
What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert
Beyond simply articulating the pitfalls of a misdirected mission (i.e., that doing all manner of social good at the expense of Gospel proclamation fails to achieve eternal good), DeYoung and Gilbert issue a rallying cry for the Church to recapture the excitement and joy that comes from pursuing Christ’s commission to us. They remind readers that what ultimately leads to the transformation believers seek in the world is the blood of Christ and the work of the Spirit, and they challenge believers to remember that God chooses to break into the lives of the lost through the faithful proclamation of His Gospel through the Church. They make the foundational point that the only thing the Church does that no one else in the world will do is to make disciples of Jesus, and that this should be our driving motivation. What Is the Mission of the Church? is a well-written, well-researched, and much needed book—it might be the most important Christian book of 2011. The implications of our interpretation of our mission for the Body of Christ are tremendous. Read my full review HERE.
The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek
Sowell whet my appetite for a more in-depth look at socio-economic studies, so I took a stab at Hayek’s magnum opus. It’s a bit dense at times, but that’s more a reflection on the reader than the author. This is a tremendous repository of wisdom for citizens of any nation. Hayek’s commentary on issues from unionism to taxation to social security to state coercion reads as though it was taken from present-day political discussions rather than a 5-decade-old treatise. This is a more openly ideological work than most books on economic theory, but Hayek’s razor-sharp intellect makes his arguments in favor of limited government and free markets sound like the height of accepted wisdom. A must-read for anyone in any kind of policymaking position.
Desiring God, John Piper
I’m rather embarrassed to have never read this classic before., but I’m glad I took the time to enjoy it this year. Enough has been said about this book elsewhere to fill a shelf (and Piper’s eponymous parachurch is a daily fleshing-out of its themes), and all I’ll add is that it is a unique and powerful work. Joy is the only valid motivation for the Christian, as it wasn’t for duty that Christ died.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Another one I’m embarrassed to have missed up to this point. Finn is so ingrained in the fabric of our American culture that it’s easy to think you know the story without ever having read it. It’s easy to see why it’s one of the classics–Twain’s narrative style is comically brilliant, his themes touch every aspect of life in 19th century America, and his insight into the soul of the nation still resonates. Truly the firstborn of American novels.
A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, Paul E. Miller
I had heard about this book from various quarters for quite a while, but I wasn’t in a hurry to get a copy. Frankly, I’m not a fan of books about prayer and other spiritual disciplines because they often share a common flaw–an author assumes that the way that God worked with him in his own life is somehow a measurable, normative prescription for how God works with everyone. Miller delightfully avoids this temptation, and the result is a book that is both bold and helpful. Read my full review HERE.
Posted by Justin Lonas
Lamentations 1:12-14, 20.
“Is it nothing to all you who pass this way?
Look and see if there is any pain like my pain
Which was severely dealt out to me,
Which the Lord inflicted on the day of His fierce anger.
From on high He sent fire into my bones,
And it prevailed over them.
He has spread a net for my feet;
He has turned me back;
He has made me desolate,
Faint all day long.
The yoke of my transgressions is bound;
By His hand they are knit together.
They have come upon my neck;
He has made my strength fail.
The Lord has given into the hands
Of those agiainst Whom I am not able to Stand.
See, O Lord, for I am in distress;
My spirit is greatly troubled;
My heart is overturned within me,
For I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword slays;
In the house it is like death.”
Lamentations is one of my favorite books of the Old Testament. Its intense grief over the destruction of Jerusalem gives way to a profound picture of God’s hand in both good and evil that shows clearly that He is the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. What I sometimes gloss over in reading this book, though, is that the destruction wrought upon Jerusalem that moved Jeremiah’s pen came from within. The blight on Israel was a result of their collective sins, and they recognized it (though only after it was too late).
The implications for daily life are painfully real. I so seldom lament the sin in my own life and the destruction it causes. Even when I do, the tendency is always to lament the consequences and fail to connect them to the sin. We are the child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, regretting our lack of cookies rather than the breach of trust and relationship with our parents our actions caused. We go on this way, stumbling from transgression to transgression without considering the brokenness of our own hearts.
When God allows our sins to bear fruit in pain and suffering, it is really His special grace to call our attention to our eternal destiny through such temopral consequences. The destruction wrought by our sinful actions should move us to consider our sinful hearts and our cardinal sin of rebellion against our Great and gracious Creator. The brokenness that comes when sin “catches up to us” should drive us to the cross, where the consequences of all man’s sin are on full display, heaped on the Son–”once for all, the just for the unjust” (1 Pet. 3:18). As Charles Hodge put it, “It is obvious that no severity of mere human suffering, no destroying deluge, no final conflagration, not hell itself can present such a manifestation of the evil of sin and of the justice of God as the cross of his incarnate Son.”
When we fail to recognize these connections, to lament and mortify our sin, we heap further guilt on our heards. What is lament but to dwell on our own failure in the face of God’s holiness and to consider ourselves as He does? For the believer, lament is a crucial discipline, the result of which is not despair but the joy of Christ’s sacrifice considered anew. It is only through lamenting the sin that stains us that we can see the grace of God in full. This is what allows Jeremiah to say from the depths of sorrow, “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never ceases, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness” (Lam 3:21-23).
Posted by Justin Lonas
What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, 2011, Crossway, Wheaton, Ill., ISBN 9781433526909, 283 pages, $15.99, softcover.
Among evangelical Christians these days, there is a groundswell movement toward cultural transformation—not simply to reach the world with the Gospel of Christ but to do the work of renewing communities and creation as a whole to make ready for the new heavens and the new earth. This philosophy goes by several names with different shades of meaning: social justice, kingdom building, missional ministry, shalom, etc.
Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have written What Is the Mission of the Church? to address this “mission drift” and call the Church to remember that its specific priority is the proclamation of salvation—the redemption of mankind from the righteous wrath of a holy God through the shed blood of His Son Jesus Christ.
Though their aim is to correct a popular level misconception, the authors rightly critique the theologians and pastors who have propagated exegetical and hermeneutical faults to drive the movement. They are careful and nuanced in their argument, but pull no punches when expositing the key passages used as source texts for the other side of the debate (Gen. 12, Lev. 19, Isa. 58, Amos 5, Matt.25, etc.). The level of scholarship employed and the winsome tone of the book make their case a strong one. The book is not meant to be a polemic against an opposing viewpoint, but rather a plea for all believers to let Scripture, not culture, determine the focus of our efforts in this world.
DeYoung and Gilbert are not attempting to undermine the good work done by believers in various venues, rather they criticize such alternative interpretations of the Church’s core mission as “putting hard ‘oughts’ where there should be inviting ‘cans’.” That is, they warn against confusing the good things that Christians may be individually called to do with the overarching goal that the Church gathered must pursue.
They carefully define “mission” as the central priority of the Church to which all other activities point and provide support. They point out repeatedly that the Church is given its mission specifically by Christ, and that its mission is distinct from (though part of) the overall mission of God in restoring a fallen creation—our mission is not exactly the same as God’s mission, and we shouldn’t take that unobtainable responsibility on ourselves.
Beyond simply articulating the pitfalls of a misdirected mission (i.e. that doing all manner of social good at the expense of Gospel proclamation fails to achieve eternal good), the authors issue a rallying cry for the Church to recapture the excitement and joy that comes from pursuing Christ’s commission to us. They remind readers that what ultimately leads to the transformation believers seek in the world is the blood of Christ and the work of the Spirit, and they challenge believers to remember that God chooses to break into the lives of the lost through the faithful proclamation of His Gospel through the Church. They make the foundational point that the only thing the Church does that no one else in the world will do is to make disciples of Jesus, and that this should be our driving motivation.
What Is the Mission of the Church? is a well-written, well-researched, and much needed book—it might be the most important Christian book of 2011. The implications of our interpretation of our mission for the Body of Christ are tremendous.
Take: Must Read
Posted by Justin Lonas