“And such were some of you”

29 November 2022

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.
(1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

There are two ways to abuse “…and such were some of you, but you were washed….”
1. think it’s an instant, automatic transformation
2. think that it doesn’t really happen

Both of these are mistakes. I’ve known no shortage of addicts who want to believe that #1 is their reality. God can really do that, and sometimes, He does. More often, He shows you the possibility of success, and then lets you walk it out the hard way. He doesn’t just want you off yoru substance of choice; He wants to make the non-addictive life a part of your character. He wants to teach you how to feel your feelings rather than numb them — and cast them on Him when they’re too much. Whatever the hungry darkness that waits to consume you, He wants you to know that He can walk you through it. Not theoretically; He wants you to know it in your bones. He wants to walk through it with you. In the words of C.S. Lewis, He is making you fit for the Kingdom of God, and He doesn’t care what it costs Him, or what it costs you.

The opposite error is to think that being a “Christian drunk” or a “Christian kelptomaniac” or a “Christian lesbian” is just who you are as a person, that that’s that. No, I have the worst–and best–possible news for you: you were washed. These things about you–nobody is saying they weren’t really true. But that was then; you were washed. There is nothing inevitable about your sins, not anymore.

What are we to do with this? Tell the truth, of course. If you fit the definition of a drunk, then there’s nothing wrong with copping to it, as long as you do it in a spirit of confession. “Hello, my name is Jack, and I’m an alcoholic,” may be true today, and you shouldn’t hesitate to tell the truth if it is. But when the Kingdom of God has fully come, it won’t be true anymore. Which is to say, that’s not who you are. Your identity is something else; “alcoholic” is a barnacle clinging to you. You will enter into the Kingdom; the barnacle will be scraped off in due time. You should be looking forward to it, not investing your identity in the barnacle.

If you pray “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” and mean it, then you need to admit the possibility that the barnacle could be scraped off sooner than later.

So call your sins out for what they are and really confess them. Nothing wrong with that. And then, having laid your sinful desires at the foot of the cross, don’t pick them back up. Don’t identify with them, because God says you were that, but you were cleansed from it. Confession isn’t the whole process; the next step is accepting the identity God has given you.

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Mediocre Coffee and Cheap Donuts

22 November 2022

In Acts 2, Peter preaches that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ. When they ask “What do we do?” it’s because they believe what Peter said. If they didn’t believe him that Jesus is Messiah, then there’s no need to ask for instructions. Then Peter gives the instructions: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

Does this mean everybody needs to get dunked to go to heaven? Some people have thought so. Others have tried to engineer some kind of special circumstance for this audience that would no longer apply today: they were under the unique curse of blaspheming the Holy Spirit; the baptism is required because they crucified the Messiah; they were in a transitional dispensational period; baptism was for Jews, not Gentiles, etc.

But no; no special pleading is required. But you do need a robust biblical theology of baptism. If baptism is the New Covenant analog of the Flood (as Peter will later write in 1 Peter 3:21), then baptism delivers you from the judgment that is coming upon the wicked world, and delivers you into a new one, just like the Flood did with Noah. That’s not some transitional/dispensationally unique item for this moment in Acts; that’s just what baptism does.

For these specific people in Acts 2 (who were lately shouting “Give us Barabbas!”), the judgment they have coming is about crucifying the Messiah, sure. But it’s not as if (say) the Ephesian Gentiles Paul preached to didn’t have their own judgment to deal with: they “were by nature children of wrath” until God saved them. There’s always plenty judgment to go around, and the consequences of sin are always deadly (cf. James 1).

For the Acts 2 Jerusalemites, the water baptism was the Christian community in Jerusalem receiving them into itself. If they heeded the warnings of Hebrews, baptism saved their lives, because when the Jewish revolt began, the Christian community fled the city, correctly believing Jesus’ promise that it would be destroyed. If they did not heed the warnings of Hebrews and returned to Judaism, then they were swept up in the revolt and–as promised in Hebrews–suffered a fate far worse than stoning.

For the Ephesians, and for us, baptism joins us to the Christian community. For most evangelicals, that really means nothing, because most evangelicals have no community to speak of, and therefore nothing to join. It would be a mistake to read that defect in our praxis into our theology. Our sin in this matter is entirely foreign to the New Testament. The life of the Body in the NT is a thick, substantial, literally life-saving community, and that’s the backdrop for this text.

Live like the heathens outside the community, and all the judgments that fall on the heathens outside the community will fall on you: “because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience; therefore do not be partakers with them.” Join the community and come under its discipline and rule of life, and you get to skip all that. Baptism admits you to the community (just as excommunication excludes you from it.)

Take Carlos for example: when I met him, Carlos was living on the street, addicted to anything that would numb him out. He’d been badly hurt, and he’d done a lot of damage to other people too, and he was running from all of it. I led him to Christ, and then found out he was suicidal, and I’d just helped him be sure he’d go to heaven. (That’ll do something for your prayer life!) A local fellowship he was already somewhat hanging out with baptized him, and when he really joined in Christian fellowship, God’s people supported him in kicking his addictions, finding a job, finding housing, getting a vehicle. Last time he came by, I hardly recognized him, he looked so good.

Meanwhile, Jimmy OD’ed on heroin in a Burger King bathroom, another guy froze to death, another guy was murdered for a sleeping bag or something similarly stupid…you get the idea. Christian fellowship saved Carlos’ life. Real sharing of life, not standing around after church and lying to other middle-class suburbanites about your week over mediocre coffee and cheap donuts.

I know that sounds harsh. The reality is harsh. Because we refuse to share life with one another, we deprive each other of the life-giving support the Body is supposed to provide. We can’t obey the “one anothers” if we don’t really spend time together, and obeying the “one anothers” is an essential part of the Christian life. Without it, we live subchristian lives. When our fake fellowship fails to yield benefits–as of course it will–we end up with an anemic view of the community, and therefore an equally anemic view of what baptism accomplishes by bringing someone into it.


Functional Mysticism

19 November 2022

Here’s a Merriam Webster definition of mystical: “involving or having the nature of an individual’s direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality.” Let’s start with that.

Does the Bible describe direct subjective communion with God? Yes, and this is not remotely controversial. Abraham met God and talked with Him. Moses conversed with God as a man speaks to his friend. Gideon argued with God; Jacob physically fought Him. Isaiah saw a vision that nobody else saw; God told John to look for the Spirit descending like a dove; Saul of Tarsus heard a voice where everyone else heard thunder.

What about today? Today, the Christian faith teaches that you can be a partaker in the divine nature. The Christian faith teaches that if you belong to Jesus, you have been born again spiritually, and are presently indwelt by God Himself in the Person of the Holy Spirit. The Christian faith teaches that the indwelling Spirit comforts and teaches you (among other things). If these subjective experiences are actually happening in your life, then you have a direct, relational experience of God Himself. 

You might not like the word mystical to describe it, but…re-read that definition. If you have a real relationship with God, there it is. 

If those things are not happening in your life…well, then you’re not a practicing Christian. I’m not saying you’re not going to heaven; how would I know? You and Jesus can work that one out. But if you do not have an actual, real-life experience of the realities the New Testament promises to God’s people, if those things aren’t actually happening in your life, then you do not have a Christian spirituality.

At best, you’re an ideologue whose drug of choice happens to be theology. Maybe your doctrinal paperwork is all in order, and that’s great as far as it goes. As far as doctrinal paperwork goes, Jesus was a Pharisee (and so was Paul) so you see how far that gets you. 

Gentle Reader, I am confident of better things where you’re concerned — there’s lots of folks whose doctrinal paperwork ain’t caught up to what they actually do in real life. But that’s a problem, because that gap between your actual walk with God and the things you’re willing to affirm causes you to criticize people who are willing, not just to live, but to tell the truth. You need to update what you’re willing to say, so that it matches what you know in practice.

If you don’t, then you will push people into the arms of the enemy. When kids that grew up in the church go looking for a functioning spirituality at the coven down the street because all they ever saw at church was talk and moralizing, that’s on us. And it’s high time we quit talking like we don’t have the real thing, because we actually do.


Without the Glue

8 November 2022

Back in college, I was part of a “cell church.” The idea was that the actual church meeting was the small-group meeting that happened during the week, where we shared a meal and spent time discussing how to apply the Bible to our lives. The Sunday morning gathering, where all the cells came together (in our case, in a rented synagogue), was not the church meeting proper, but a time of celebration and teaching. The goal was to get a little closer to the kind of church life we see in Acts 2, and it worked…we got a little closer.

Over the next couple decades, I had a variety of formative influences, and I grew as a Christian, but I never really learned how to disciple effectively. I learned how to teach effectively. Every attempt to make disciples devolved into teaching, and while teaching is part of the task — a necessary part — it’s not the whole job. I knew I was missing something, and didn’t know what, or how to get it.

Moving to Englewood, Colorado, changed that. Here, the local pastors gather monthly and pray for one another and the One Church in Englewood (which happens to meet in separate buildings). One of the older men in the group, a Dutch Reformed pastor named Dave, took several of us under his wing. Over the next couple years, Dave taught us to disciple effectively, and also pitched the concept of missional community: a spiritual extended family on mission together, as it were.

Now, most of the writing around missional communities at that time wanted to market it as some exciting new move of God, which didn’t make any sense. To the extent that there was a solid New Testament case for something like it–and there clearly was, in the first-century oikos–the missional community obviously couldn’t be new. Certainly there was a New Testament case for making disciples; that was hardly some exotic new move of God; it was Christianity 101.

And yet, the North American church, desperate for effective interventions in the culture, was doing everything but that. If we total up all the time, talent, energy, money, etc. that the churches were expending — a sort of ecclesiastical equivalent to the GNP — we’ll find that the vast majority of the Gross Church Product goes into things that really have nothing to do with making disciples. That being the case, the great need was and is simple repentance: We have occupied ourselves with secondary things at the expense of our primary mission. Time to get back to it.

No shortage of ink has been spilled on that particular subject, so I won’t belabor it here, except to say this: in the intervening decade or so, nearly every “missional community” I’ve seen, heard about, or been part of, has fizzled out, stagnated, or fallen back into being a standard-issue church small group (not necessarily a bad thing to be, but hardly the heady vision were were sold, is it?). Not coincidentally, there’s a significant difference between the first-century Christian oikos and the twenty-first century missional community that is supposedly emulating it. Joining a twenty-first century missional community was a boutique lifestyle choice. The members’ survival needs were attended to elsewhere; missional community was a leisure-time activity.

The preindustrial oikos was not a choice; it was a survival strategy. In the preindustrial oikos, members spent their days working shoulder to shoulder to care for one another and serve their larger community in ways that generated income for the oikos — whether they were making purple dye like Lydia’s household in Philippi or bringing fish to market like Simon Peter’s in Capernaum. An oikos like Lydia’s and Peter’s got transformed into an engine for mission when its members came to Jesus, of course, but that was never its only purpose. The preindustrial oikos was how people survived. Your oikos was not just a social club; it was your job, your living arrangements, your educational system, your medical care, and your retirement plan, all rolled into one. You couldn’t opt out of your oikos without cutting your own lifeline.

When we tried to replace the preindustrial oikos with a social club devoted to serving a particular group of people–however noble the cause–it overwhelmingly failed. Of course it did! We were trying to have an oikos without the glue that holds an oikos together.


Apostles: Just the Twelve?

1 November 2022

Some folks have an idea that apostleship died out in the first century; that it was just the Twelve, and no more. This is a theologically convenient (for some) stance that has no basis in exegetical reality. The attempt to limit apostleship to the Twelve by appealing to Acts 1:21-22 fails because of Acts 14:4,14, Gal. 1:19, 2 Cor 8:23, and (arguably) Rom. 16:17. The mere existence of Barnabas, James the brother of Jesus, and especially Titus as apostles is enough to blow the whole thing wide open: it’s plainly more than just the Twelve. Once we know that, we don’t have to resort to tortured explanations of passages like 1 Cor. 9:2 and Rev. 2:2, and those passages begin to make a whole lot more sense.

The broader usage gives us a hint at what apostleship looks like beyond the Twelve, and Paul gives us another one in Rom. 15:23. Paul says there’s no longer room for him to minister where he is. What is it that there is no longer room for? Certainly there are plenty of unbelievers to evangelize and plenty of believers to disciple. He’s an apostle, which is to say a spiritual arsonist. He gets the fire started; once it grows to a certain point, he hands it off to others to feed, and he moves on to start another one.

We still need those people today; they’re the ones that start new works of all kinds. Might as well give them the right name, and acknowledge their spiritual gift for what it is.


Dead Man’s Faith: A Review

25 October 2022

Back in 2019, John Niemela of Message of Life Ministries wrote an article-length review of my Dead Man’s Faith. John sent me a draft of the review before it was published, but I’ve never been able to link to it because the review was behind a paywall.

It is now in the open. The article begins on page 71 of this file.

I’m deeply grateful for his kind words and thoughtful review. I still plan to rework the material into a popular-level book at some point, and when I do, I’ll be taking his perspective into account. In the meantime, if you want the Cliff-notes version of my book, John’s review is a great overview of the high points and I highly recommend it to you.


Far Better, and Far Simpler

11 October 2022

As simply as I can say it, the new birth is irreducibly relational; you are born again when you trust Jesus Christ to save you. There is no consistent reading even of John’s gospel, let alone the whole New Testament, that successfully presents a single proposition as the content of saving faith. The thing can be described in propositions to an extent, but it’s not actually a matter of subscribing to propositions. Propositions didn’t die for your sins; Jesus did.

Many people balk. “How does one have assurance?” they want to know. “What must I believe, to be sure that I am saved?”

Ah, my friend, if you’re thinking in terms of “what I believe,” you’re missing the point: it’s not “what,” but Who! It isn’t about “correct belief” or “fulfill[ing] the ‘belief’ condition.” The news is far better, and far simpler, than that.

This Jesus that we meet in (say) the pages of John’s gospel — He wants to save you, sacrificed everything to save you, and He means to see it done. You need not fret about fulfilling conditions or fussing about with propositions any more than you need fret about your insufficient moral merits. Rest assured, you are inadequate! Whether we’re talking about your morals or your theology, you are inadequate! The whole point is that Jesus met the conditions for you, and He will save you. He’s got you; your assurance comes from knowing that it’s Him that’s got you.

Theologically speaking, that’s sufficient. Practically, there’s another avenue as well. Eternal life just is knowing God (Jn. 17:3) and it’s not something you hope to get eventually, it’s something you have now (Jn. 5:24). Assurance naturally grows in the living of it. I have the paperwork to prove that Kimberly married me, but where do I get my day-by-day comfort and assurance that our relationship is what I think it is? Not from looking at the paperwork – what kind of relationship would that be? I am assured that I know Kimberly in the day-to-day living with her, and so it is here, because like a good marriage, eternal life is not having your papers in order; it is knowing a Person.


Not Theological Safecracking

4 October 2022

In the past decade and a half in one particularly small pond, a whole lot of folks have spilled a whole lot of ink on the question of what, exactly, one has to believe in order to have everlasting life. Some folks favor a focus on the promise of eternal life itself; others prefer to focus on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus; there’s debate about whether someone has to understand the deity of Christ; whether repentance is required (and what exactly repentance would mean in that context), and so on. Stacks of arguments have been exchanged, and–more’s the pity–not a few anathemas.

But the presumption of the whole debate is that there’s a magical Stack ‘O Propositions somewhere in the platonic aether: believe all the propositions, and “Achievement Unlocked!” A trumpet sounds in heaven, angels dance, and you’re saved; miss one, and you’re not there yet. The whole debate is just about what’s in that stack.

The whole debate is fundamentally wrongheaded. Propositions are necessary, but they’re not stained glass; they’re plate glass. You’re not meant to look at them, but through them, at Jesus. The evangelistic passages in Scripture are a series of windows in the same wall, with Jesus standing outside on the lawn waiting for you to look and live. Does it matter which window you look through? Start anywhere; look through them all eventually. Certainly they’re all profitable — we should be interested in looking at our Savior from every angle we can reach.

He, not the propositions, is the object of your faith. However defective you may be, however defective your theology may be, if He is the one you’re trusting, you will be saved. Conversely, however flawless your propositions, if in the end you’re trusting your theological acumen for assembling the right set, you are failing to grasp the heart of the gospel. Eternal life is knowing a person, not theological safecracking.

Now, to some people, “knowing a person” sounds hopelessly vague and subjective. And you know what? It is subjective! Knowing a person can’t be purely objective; there’s no way to take the personal element out of personal knowledge. But it isn’t vague.

When you know a person, you know that particular person. When you know Jesus, it’s Jesus that you know: a particular person, the one that John baptized and that turned water to wine and that died for your sins and rose from the grave and ascended to the Father’s right hand where He intercedes for you — that one, not not Frank or Harry or Susan or Hay-zoos the taco truck guy.

“Ah,” says the proposition-meister, “but all those are propositions about Jesus.”

Well, let me be the first to say duh. Again, propositions are windows. You look at Jesus. He’s the one you’re knowing. Peter got some of those propositions wrong, once upon a time. Argued with Jesus about whether He was going to die. He still knew Jesus, didn’t he?

So why does this concept of knowing a person feel so hopelessly vague to some people? I’d suggest it’s because they have a prior commitment to a philosophical construct wherein faith is defined as persuasion of a proposition, and can’t be conceived of in any other way. From that vantage point, talking about faith in a person is at best shorthand for an implicit proposition, and at worst hopelessly vague.

There’s two problems with that view. The first is that the Bible regularly talks about faith in a person. We can’t be critical of how God actually says things. The second problem is that there’s not necessarily a good reason to concede that philosophical construct.

Moreover, if we follow the proposition-hunting to its logical conclusion, it necessarily leads down a particular road. If saving faith is nothing but faith in a saving proposition, then what’s the “saving proposition”? That question can only take us to one of two places. Either we conclude with Gordon Clark that there appear to be multiple saving propositions, any one of which will suffice (an option Clark seems to have found embarrassing), or we end up in a bitter fight over various options that can’t be ruled out. The latter option has been rather thoroughly explored over the past decade and a half, and I think we can safely say it sucks. If you end up down a road where there’s only two forks, and both of them are wrong, then you took a wrong turn a ways back, didn’t ya?

The wrong turn was taking faith as merely propositional. Faith is irreducibly personal; saving faith is trusting the right Person to save you. “Believe in Jesus” is the precise statement; the various “believe that” statements are looking at the same Person through different windows.


A Minimum Standard

27 September 2022

The purpose of this post is to recommend that you go read three other posts, with this one as a kind of introduction, so I’ll keep this brief. I’d like to commend the three posts below as examples of a kind of minimum acceptable standard for a Christian understanding of the nature of God’s creation. We are Christians; we have been taught by Scripture that the world is not at all what the materialists think it is. They are not right as far as it goes; they are wrong all the way down, and certain (to a modern mind) startling conclusions follow from that fact — conclusions which most faithful evangelicals have not really thought through. So I want to commend the discussion below, in which someone (and a committed cessationist, at that!) thinks it through:

Regarding the first installment, I should tell you that grasping the point he’s making does not require clicking through to the other articles he references, although if you’re curious, knock yourself out (the link to Toby Sumpter’s post is broken, but you can find it here). There’s a second and third follow-up post to that one. All of them are pretty brief.

I should add, as a kind of postscript to that third post, that Wilson does not grasp the important distinction between prophecy and inscripturation — the two certainly are not the same thing — but that’s a conversation for another day.


Here We Are, Debating It

20 September 2022

We looked last week at the practical contribution academic theology frequently doesn’t make to the church. This week, we’ll take a look at a thing that all too often happens instead.

Here’s a game people run. It’s not a game academics run, so much as a game that other movers and shakers run using academics. But a healthy level of skepticism for academics is necessary if you’re going to stay immune to this one.

It goes like this: select the sin of your choice and induce some academics to ‘re-examine’ the tradition on the point, to ‘establish dialog’ around ‘these sensitive subjects,’ and so on. You might be able to do this on the cheap if you pick the right people, but spreading some money around really helps: fund some conferences and a few postgraduate fellowships, and you’ll find no shortage of academics excited to dive in. That research and academic writing produces a smattering of of journal articles and a few books arguing that, you know, perhaps we’ve been a bit hasty in condemning <whatever sin you’d like to justify>. Let’s call those articles and books Round 1.

Now of course there will be pushback, and that’s fine. You use that pushback around Round 1 to describe the issue as ‘controversial’ and ‘hotly debated.’ At this point, you are already winning. Your sin of choice used to be universally condemned, obviously beyond the pale, and now it’s “controversial,” perhaps even “debatable.” After all, here we are, debating it. See how that works?

But it gets better. Let the controversy rage for a little, then fund Round 2 of books and articles. You will call your Round 2 publications “the latest scholarship on this issue,” which you contrast to the obviously older (and therefore dangerously retrograde) positions of your detractors. The Round 1 works are now referred to as “Dr. Arnold’s groundbreaking article” or “the classic re-examination by Dr. Quisling.”

And then when people challenge you, and dare to point out the obvious big-E-on-the-eye-chart point (“It’s wrong!”), you sigh, and say — with great longsuffering, and a little sadness — that they’re plainly mired in old bigotries, and definitely not keeping up with the current best thinking on this issue. Then patiently explain that (while we realize an unfortunate few are lagging behind), we’re going to follow the scholarly consensus nonetheless, and trust that they will catch up in due time. Your bought-and-paid-for scholars and the cavalcade of transgressive idiots that are following in their train will definitely not yet constitute a consensus, but that doesn’t matter. You just claim consensus anyway, and move forward.

You can run this same playbook to justify everything from Marxism to race hatred to pedophilia — which is the next frontier — and it works the same way every time. With enough grant money, you can buy yourself a gaggle of academic whores willing to go all the way with the position of your choice. In this way you manufacture for your view something that the world is pleased to call ‘respectability.’ Execute the play well enough, and your scholarly opponents will not be able to treat your project with the contempt it deserves without getting drummed out of the scholarly guild themselves: after all, are there not peer-reviewed papers, conferences, respected scholars on your side? The mores of the scholarly community require that we take such things seriously.

Jesus never took such literally damned nonsense seriously, and neither should we.