A Different Sort of Grace

9 May 2023

“Of His fulness we have all received, and grace in place of grace. For Law came through Moses; grace and truth through Jesus Christ.”

In the closing sentences of his introduction, John lays out a contrast between Moses and Jesus. Moses gave us one thing, and Jesus is now giving us something in its place. What we got through Moses was the Law. What we get through Jesus is grace and truth.

If that’s all he said, then we could walk away with a simple contrast: law on one hand, grace and truth on the other. But it’s not that simple, because John tells us the substitution is “grace in place of grace.” It’s not law vs. grace. It’s the Law-that-was-grace-already vs. grace-and-truth-through-Christ.

We had one sort of grace; we are now being given a different, a higher, sort of grace. There’s a real contrast here, and John wants us to feel the difference. He also wants us to know that contrast takes place within a continuity of divine grace toward us. Jesus changes everything, and yet Jesus is in keeping with everything that has come before.

When you read what comes before, read it with this in mind.


Walking through Hebrews

25 April 2023

I’m walking through Hebrews with Chris Morrison of Gulfside Ministries. You can find chapter one here, and the links will be listed under the Media tab as they become available. Interaction in the comments on Youtube is welcome.

What if it’s more literal than we think?

18 April 2023

Read Hebrews 3.

Go on, I’ll wait.

What is this rest into which the addressees of the book are in danger of not entering?

In American churches, we live downstream from the Great Awakenings, and so we tend to read in terms of individual salvation from hell to heaven when we die. If you read Dillow–and you should–you’ll be introduced to a good case that it’s speaking of entering into heavenly reward when we die.

But what is it about this chapter that suggests we should read it eschatologically at all? The example that the author uses is the Exodus generation. They weren’t headed to heaven; they were headed to Canaan. They didn’t fail to attain heaven and go to hell; they failed to attain Canaan and literally died in the desert. Living in the shadow of 19th-century hymnody, we effortlessly read “Canaan” as heaven, but what is the biblical case that we should read it that way? Is there one?

I’d like to suggest that we–at least experimentally–try reading this passage, with its example of earthly judgment and earthly rest in this life, as if it’s talking about earthly judgment and earthly rest in this life. Go back and read it again with that in mind — see what you think.

He Planned to Succeed

7 March 2023

John tells us his purpose in recording the signs Jesus did: “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (Jn. 20:30-31)

John is unique among the books of the New Testament in that it contemplates an unbelieving audience. Does that mean that once we believe, we have nothing further to learn from the book? Not at all!

In a modern evangelical setting, we tend to think that John’s evangelistic purpose means it’s a gospel tract – when they believe, John has accomplished what he set out to do. Not quite. John is not a modern evangelical, and this is not some 100-word “Ticket to Heaven” pamphlet.

John intended to succeed, and he had no intention of leaving his new, baby believer readers to their own devices. His gospel is meant to be read, believed, and then re-read as a believer. What happens when they believe? John tells us: “…and that believing, you may have life in His name.”

This “having life” thing — how does it work? Well, John’s already told us that too: this is not something that happens when you die; the life Jesus gives begins now, when you believe (3:36) and continues forever (5:24). If John convinced you before you got to 20:30-31 — which he’s certainly trying to do — then your life has already begun!

Moreover, Jesus has already told us that simply possessing life is not His goal for you: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” And earlier: “He who believes in Me, as the Scriptures have said, out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.”

How does one live abundantly, you ask? Especially now that Jesus is gone?

The Last Discourse to the rescue! In 13:1, John frames the discourse in such a way that it also advances his evangelistic purpose, but let’s not miss what this whole teaching is. Starting in 13:31, Judas has left the room. Jesus is speaking only to believers — the 11 faithful disciples — and He’s teaching them how they will live when He has returned to heaven. As we listen with their ears, we learn how to conduct abundant lives today.

So listen! I just sat down and re-read John 13-17. I’d encourage you to do the same today.

Taking Another Swing

28 February 2023

I’ve taken up the matter of pleading “descriptive, not prescriptive” to avoid actual narrative hermeneutics before…but apparently I didn’t hit it hard enough, so we’ll be taking another swing here. So let’s talk about this.

“Descriptive, not prescriptive” is such an oversimplification, even in narrative, that it’s practically lying by omission. Applied consistently, it would undermine Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in Matthew 19, Paul’s case for justification by faith in Romans 4, the case for the priesthood of Christ in Hebrews 7, and many other crucial passages.

Let me explain: If we consistently apply the “descriptive, not prescriptive” rubric to biblical narrative passages, then…

  • We respond to Paul’s argument from Genesis 12-17 in Romans 4: “What Rabbi Paul fails to understand, you see, is that the events of the Abram narrative – promise before circumcision – are descriptive, not prescriptive. You can’t just run away with a thing like that and decide it applies to you.”
  • We respond to Jesus’ application of Genesis 1-2 in Matthew 19: “Rabbi Jesus, of course, makes the same mistake in applying Genesis 1-2 to complex contemporary problems of marriage and divorce.”
  • We respond to Hebrews’ application of Genesis 14 in Hebrews 7: “The anonymous author of Hebrews attempts to draw from the simple facts of the Melchizedek account a prescription for bypassing the divinely inspired Levitical priesthood, but what he fails to grasp, of course, is that the Genesis account is descriptive, not prescriptive.”

Now of course, we actually don’t do any of that,* although here’s a little challenge for you: go ahead and take your “descriptive, not prescriptive” reading of Acts and show how it differs in any significant respect from the three above dismissals of the plain teaching of the New Testament. I’ll wait….

As I say, we don’t apply the principle consistently at all, because this is not really a matter of principle. We’re happy enough to ignore our blanket proscription on applying narrative when we like the application. We just trot it out when something makes us uncomfortable – some idiot wants multiple wives because David had them, or someone wants to actually emulate the church order Paul describes, or sing what the early church sang. “Descriptive, not prescriptive” is a handy–if lazy–substitute for having an actual hermeneutics of narrative and having to discern what faithful application looks like.

I don’t mean that everyone who invokes “descriptive, not prescriptive” is lazy. Some of them are (otherwise) hardworking exegetes whose training failed them by not teaching them how to exegete narrative (I understand — my training didn’t cover it either!) They’re following their teachers, who bilked them out of a chance to productively read the 2/3 of the Bible that is narrative. There’s a kind of tragic sincerity to some of these folks, in the same way there would be to a devout village synagogue member who really did believe the gold sanctified the altar, because his rabbi told him so. But devout as the person might be, the position deserves scathing mockery.

All this gets particularly rich when we turn to the book of Acts. Here, we’re not talking about some other period of history where things were genuinely different – before the Fall, say, or Israel under the Law. We’re talking about the founding of the Church. Pleading “descriptive, not prescriptive” about Acts would be like pleading “descriptive, not prescriptive” about the War for Independence, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. It’s our founding! We need not all go about in tricorn hats to believe that our founding history and documents have important prescriptions for us.

It’s amazing how theological conservatives understand the prescriptive nature of America’s Christian founding, but can’t grasp the book of Acts in the same way. Unfortunately — as is generally the case with a hermeneutical cancer like this one — the slimy little thing won’t stay where they want to keep it (in the narrative passages alone). I saw a guy just this week opining that he didn’t see how it made sense to “model yourself off an obscure passage in a letter to a categorically messed up church.” He was talking about the prescriptions for church order in 1 Corinthians 14.

I can’t wait to see him apply the same rubric to 5:1-3!

*We know that we’re justified by faith because Abraham received the promise before he was circumcised. We know that severe sin after justification doesn’t cause us to lose it, because God didn’t impute sin to David after he committed adultery and murder (Romans 4). We know that we shouldn’t divorce for “incompatibility” because from the beginning it was not so (Matthew 19). We know that we should follow Jesus rather than going over to Judaism because Jesus has a superior priesthood – and we know that because Levi paid a tithe to Melchizedek (Hebrews 7).
While we’re at it, we know that we should not continue in sin that grace may abound because Jesus died and rose, and we died and rose with Him.

Everything But Interpretation

6 December 2022

“What is a moderate interpretation of the text? Halfway between what it really means and what you’d like it to mean?”
-Antonin Scalia

Many Bible ‘interpreters’ just don’t read the text that’s actually in front of them.

Invoking the old saw that “no passage stands alone” and an unconscionably loose application of the regula fidei, they will find meaning everywhere but the passage at hand. Confronted with a difficult passage in (say) the Gospel of Mark, they will veer off like meth-driven hummingbirds to passages in 1 Corinthians, Revelation, and James. Mark’s original audience didn’t necessarily have access to any of those books, but never mind that.

But no. If the passage at hand is in Mark, and somebody is getting it wrong, then the first place to show it wrong is right here, in the passage at hand. If it’s a misinterpretation, then it’s a misinterpretation here. Conversely, if you’re hoping to establish what this passage means, there’s no substitute for demonstrating your point from this passage right here. Hermeneutics is reading what’s in front of you, not free-associating from the text in front of you to three other–allegedly clearer–passages, taking an average of those passages, then reading that back into the text in front of you. That’s everything but interpretation.

A man who can’t be trusted to address the passage in front of him, can’t be trusted with two or three witnesses elsewhere. Bet you dollars against bent toenail clippings that when you get into those passages, he does the same thing: run to three other passages rather than deal with what’s in front of him. Again, everything but interpretation.

And this is to say nothing of the even worse case where the man free-associates from the words in the passage at hand to his favorite systematic theology. No. Pace Niles Eldridge, meaning cannot forever be going on somewhere else. Reading a tendentious interpretation of a handful of cross-references back into everything else in the Bible, and justifying it with an appeal to regula fidei, is just cowardly. Face the passage in front of you. Be corrected by the passage in front of you.

It’s true enough that no passage stands alone. If we’re working with a passage in Mark, then it is first of all contained by the other passages in the Gospel of Mark. Attend to the context it actually has, and see where that takes you.

“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.

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.

The Longest Sentence

30 August 2022

Ephesians 1:3-14 is one long sentence in Greek — the longest sentence in the Greek New Testament. In it, Paul uses the pronouns “we” and “you” in a surprising way — to refer to Jewish believers and Gentile believers, respectively. That fact comes as a bit of a surprise to a modern reader, and you’re not alone — it was a surprise to the original readers too! But if you accept that “we” and “you” are exclusive of one another in vv. 12-13 – which you have to – then you’re stuck with it throughout. There’s no natural breaking point within the sentence. But the original readers aren’t going to know that ‘we’ just refers to Jewish believers until they hear vv. 12-13, so there’s a penny-drop moment there where they have to re-evaluate what they’ve heard, thus:

Paul blesses God for blessing Jewish believers with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, even as He chose them in Christ to be holy and blameless before Him by predestining them to sonship adoption through Christ, in keeping with God’s purposes, so that His glorious grace might be praised. In keeping with His grace, He fully accepted the Jewish believers by accepting Christ, in whom the Jewish believers have redemption (forgiveness of sins), in keeping with God’s abundant grace which He wisely abounded toward them by revealing the mystery (His household-management plan to bring all things together in Christ).

In Christ the Jewish believers have obtained the inheritance to which God predestined them (in keeping with the public presentation [Gk. prothesis] of His plans [throughout the OT]) in order that they – the first to hope in Christ – would bring praise to His glory. The Gentiles also believed, once they heard the gospel, and were sealed by the same Holy Spirit who guarantees the Jewish believers’ inheritance.

It’s not a surprise that Jewish believers would end up as Paul describes — God publicly announced His plan to do exactly that in the new covenant prophecies centuries before Christ. But Gentiles?

As Paul develops his argument in Ephesians, it turns out that the mystery to which he alludes in v. 9 is that the Gentile believers would be made one body with the Jewish believers – all who are united to Christ are united to each other in one new man, the Church. There are no longer two groups, but one, and the blessings apply equally to the whole group. That unity of the Body — with one another and pre-eminently with Christ — is the main point of the book, and it’s powerful. Paul spends the latter three chapters unpacking the practical implications.

Why does Paul begin this way? Because he is making his case to a mixed Jew-Gentile church that they need to become one in practice to reflect the oneness God has already given them in spiritual reality. He wants his Gentile readers to be grateful for the Jews who faithfully spread the message of Christ to the Gentiles. And likewise, he wants his Jewish readers to see that although the Gentiles came later, they have been fully integrated into all the blessings of Christ — nothing has been held back.

Here’s a challenge for you: knowing this is how Paul is using “we” and “you” early in Ephesians, read 2:1-10, and see what he’s doing there. Have fun!

Stones into Bread

27 April 2021

What do you do when you have a genuine need going unmet? It’s one of the great tests, and of course Jesus showed us how to handle it. After His baptism, Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Luke tells us that He fasted for 40 days while the devil tempted Him. At the end of that time, He was literally starving. He needed food, and there was none.

At that moment, the devil attacked. “If you’re the son of God, then turn these stones to bread.”

First the devil attacked his identity: are you really the son of God? Are you sure? If you won’t even use the power to feed yourself when you’re starving, then what’s the point anyway? God’s supposed to be taking care of you here, and all I see is rocks.

Jesus responds with a line from Deuteronomy, when Moses is teaching a new generation to trust God by reminding them of their history. He says “God humbled you, allowed you to suffer hunger, and then fed you with manna that you did not know, nor did your father know, in order to teach you” — and this is the part Jesus quotes — “that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God’s mouth.”

You see what Jesus is saying? He’s applying Israel’s experience as the template. First we have a need, and it hurts. The need is real. Then the devil shows up and tempts us not to trust God, to try to do it our own way. And if we fall for it, then we end up trying to eat rocks.

Jesus resisted, and when the temptations were over, angels came and fed Him.

Give in, and you eat rocks; resist, and God gives you manna.

But it’s hard. You know what? Jesus knows firsthand how hard it is; He’s been there. Right this minute He is sitting at the Father’s right hand as your High Priest. He has all the resources of heaven at His disposal, and He is ready to give you the help you need to get through it. He is sympathetic, not condemning. He wants you to ask for help. So ask for help, and He will help you.