Guilt Without Accusations

17 January 2023

How do you talk with contemporary people about guilt? If you grew up with a fairly traditional Christian set of categories, it can be tricky. In a self-consciously post-Christian world, people tend to blow off the things you would normally say. There’s a place and time to preach a barn-burner, but in general, my goal is to speak about guilt without taking the role of the Accuser. The devil’s got that one covered. It’s not like he needs my help.

The fact that guilt and brokenness don’t fit into the contemporary sense-making scheme doesn’t mean that contemporary people have somehow eliminated them. One of the dangers of thinking everything is a “language game” or everything is socially constructed is that you think you can change reality just by changing language. Guilt and shame are enduring realities; people today are as guilty and broken as a preconversion Luther — but unlike Luther, they’ve been deprived of the language to make sense of it all. Because that language has lost currency, there is no generally accepted way of talking about those realities, but people try to put them into words anyway. I spend a lot of time listening for what language this person is going to use. Some common options include absorbing the sin into their identity (“I guess I’m just a cheater”), attempting to positive self-talk it away (“I just gotta stop focusing on the negative”), or aspirational sociopathy (“Eh, shit happens; gotta move on”).

If I can help someone put their guilt into words, then I’m not the one who’s accusing them of something. They introduced the problem; I’m just helping them sort it out. At that point, I can introduce sin by way of contrast:

“We used to talk about this kind of thing as sin. We’ve kind of ruined the word; anymore the only time we talk about sin is when we’re selling desserts or lingerie. But it used to mean something. In the classical sense, sin doesn’t mean you had 5% too much fun or some crap like that. It means missing the mark. It means that you were built for a purpose, and you stepped outside the design parameters in a way that’s gonna hurt you and others around you. See, God is not a tight-shoed, overly regimented Father who says ‘Don’t play!’ He’s a caring Father who says ‘Don’t play in traffic.’

“What I’m hearing you say is that you did play in traffic, and you got hurt, and some other people got hurt because of you. You can’t make it all better, and you don’t know what to do about it, because the culture you live in has deprived you of any way to make sense of that and deal with it.

“The good news is that what’s happening in you is actually totally normal. You’re not crazy or negative or neurotic; you’re actually built to notice when you’re outside the parameters in damaging ways. Just like physical pain is designed to tell you when something is wrong, guilt is moral pain designed to tell you something is wrong. Just like with physical pain, the purpose is not to punish you for doing a bad thing; it’s to motivate you to correct the problem. Even though the culture is a little brain-dead on this, God hasn’t forgotten how to deal with it.”

From there, I can go straight to what the cross and the resurrection really mean, or I can take a more priestly role and lead them into a direct confession of their sin in the situation we’ve been discussing, in order to then talk about the cross and God’s promise of forgiveness and life.

Lots of people have heard of Jesus dying on the cross; many of them don’t know what it means. When Jesus was crucified, every sin, every weakness, every sickness, every character flaw, every dark thing that separates us from God, all of it was nailed to the cross with Jesus. Died on the cross with Jesus. Was buried in the heart of the earth with Jesus. And when God raised Him from the dead three days later, Jesus did not come out of the grave dragging along a Hefty bag of your crap. It’s gone. It’s done.

Anything that you think is separating you from God — He’s already tended to it. You could let it go today, right now, and be free for the rest of your life.


Not Literal Enough

2 June 2021

I looked into Progressive Dispensationalism briefly 20+ years ago, didn’t find it remotely compelling, and haven’t felt a need to revisit it. I might be missing something, but life is short, and I kinda don’t think so. It seemed to me at the time that PD was something of a mediating position between Covenant Theology and classic dispensationalism, and I don’t think the weaknesses of dispensationalism lie in that direction. The problem is that dispensationalists don’t read literally enough.

That sounds weird, but it’s true. A dispensationalist sounds like a wooden literalist when he’s standing next to, say, Ken Gentry talking about Matthew 24, or Richard Gaffin talking up the Church as the new Israel. But stand that same dispensationalist next to Jim Reitman talking about Abraham’s children in Galatians, and see what happens. The problem with dispensationalists isn’t so much hermeneutics as a failure of nerve: they won’t apply their own hermeneutic consistently in places where the Scriptures don’t perfectly match the system.

At the end of the day, dispensationalism is a bit like Calvinism — a clever system that takes in some genuinely biblical insights and was God’s gift for a particular historical moment, but can’t be organically generated from the text, and has to flatly contradict Scripture occasionally in order to keep the system going. The biblical insights are well worth keeping, but why try to digest the whole carcass when we can loot the corpse and move on?

One of the major sticky points is the Kingdom of God. Classic dispensationalists tend to hold that there is no present reality to the Kingdom of God because the lion is not presently lying down with the lamb and Jesus is not sitting on David’s literal throne. Against that, I note that Jesus Himself said “if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you.” Has come. The lion wasn’t lying down with the lamb then either, but Jesus still said what He said.

The lion really will lay down with the lamb, and Jesus really will sit on David’s literal throne when the Kingdom has come in its fullness. By speaking of the Kingdom as a present reality in His own time, Jesus forces us to acknowledge that it’s possible for the Kingdom to be truly present without being fully present in its final consummation — and what good news that is! Jesus is King now. If He is ruling within the reach of my arm, then His Kingdom is here now.

So with (say) a guy like Grant Hawley (whose book I recommend reading, even though I heartily disagree in spots), I find I agree with him far more than not when it comes to particulars like our present relationship to the covenant with Noah, our relationship to the Law, the future of Israel, and so on. However, the bubbles-on-a-string dispensational charts don’t represent those truths well; they tend to emphasize the discontinuity at the expense of things that really do continue. Our discontinuous relationship with the Law is based on our continuous relationship with Abraham and the (Noahide) priesthood of Melchizedek expressed in our older Brother Jesus (as the book of Hebrews elegantly explains). It’s all One Story, and a lot of the power to read our present circumstances in biblical categories comes from being able to see it as all a single story with motifs and themes that repeat, but like themes in music or dance — never exactly the same. In biblical studies, typology is not first and foremost a feature of literary texts; it is a philosophy of history. Typology in the real world is a mark of authorship, and the world is being authored by the same God who wrote the biblical texts.

In the nature of the case, you can always claim that this instance of the motif is different from the others, because something about it always will be different. The head-crushing women of Judges, David taking on Goliath, and Jesus crushing the serpent’s head are all quite different in certain respects, but the differences are not the most important thing about them.

Even the Little Ones

14 July 2020

Paul writes to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:16) that “all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable…that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In some passages of Scripture, it’s a bit challenging to find the profit. Take, for example, Psalm 137, which ends with “O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, Happy the one who repays you as you have served us! Happy the one who takes and dashes Your little ones against the rock!”

What do we do with this? One popular approach is to skip brusquely to “we can’t apply this literally, so let’s make up something edifying” as this author has done. I’d like to propose something better: something that starts with taking the psalm seriously in its original context.

Israel is in Babylon, having been brutally conquered and dragged into captivity. The psalm is a lament posing a question: how do they worship in a foreign land? This is not a simple question. The musical service of Zion was originally designed to serve as a parallel at David’s Tabernacle to the Tabernacle sacrificial service at Gibeon. At Solomon’s Temple, the musical and sacrificial services were brought together. (There are ascension offerings and ascension psalms, and so on.) With the Temple destroyed and the sacrifices no longer happening, was it even appropriate to sing the songs of Zion? (The editors who arranged the Psalter set it up so that the following songs answer the question posed in Psalm 137, but that’s a topic for another day.)

As they grapple with the question, their captors are demanding that the musicians sing songs of Zion purely for Babylonian amusement. Can you imagine? You’re a Levite, a son of Korah, your whole life devoted to sacred music in the Temple. All of a sudden, it’s all destroyed, and you’re a slave, and your master demands that you play sacred Temple music for the amusement of his guests at a drunken pig roast. That’s what Israel’s sacred musicians are facing.

And so the psalm closes with a curse on Babylon, and a blessing on the conqueror who does to Babylon what Babylon did to Judah. It’s not hyperbolic language; it’s a literal curse. It quite likely came to pass in the days of Belshazzar, with Darius’ Persian troops receiving the blessing.

So that’s what’s going on. After the cross, applying such a thing is complicated. You don’t get to curse your enemies and just say you’re following the example of the psalmist; the cross really did change some things. Today, we face strong counterexamples.

Jesus did the exact opposite of this curse on the cross (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”) Stephen followed His example (“Lord, do not charge them with this sin.”) James charges his readers that blessing and cursing ought not come from the same mouth (Jas. 3:8-12). In tension with that, Jesus Himself pronounced judgment on Jerusalem (Mt. 23:33-39), Peter cursed Simon Magus (Ac. 8:20-23), Paul blinded Elymas (Ac. 13:9-11), and asked God to repay Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim. 4:14). Of those, two were clear means to the end of furthering repentance (Simon Magus) and the gospel (Elymas), and both had the desired effect (you could also put church discipline in this category). Matthew 23 arguably works this same way, given how it ends in v. 39, although we haven’t seen the fulfillment yet. Paul’s treatment of Alexander the coppersmith is less clearly redemptive, but notice that Paul does not specify what should happen to him, instead leaving him in the hands of the Lord to judge.

Where does that leave us? Before the cross, cursing your enemies was just common sense. Afterward, not so much. The Old Covenant is dead, and under the New, even the curses have a redemptive purpose. We are not allowed to simply follow the example set in Psalm 137; instead, we are called to follow Stephen’s example instead. Or Peter’s, cursing redemptively. So it is the easiest thing in the world to (in practice) just scrap the psalm–for all practical purposes, to mentally remove it from the canon of Scripture. “It’s not applicable today,” we say, and that’s that.

This is precisely where the ancient church comes to our rescue. Rather than simply discarding the psalm as an artifact of its time and place, inscripturated for some reason but utterly inapplicable today, the ancient interpreters take Paul at face value: *all* Scripture is God-breathed and profitable. The goal is not to figure out what we can disregard as “not applicable today,” but to wring every last bit of transformation out of our encounter with the Scriptures that we can get. 

So where is the profit here? If we may not have this hatred toward our enemies, the ancient interpreters ask, is there something, some enemy, that we *should* have this hatred toward? Of course there is. “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). We really should cultivate this antipathy — not toward people, but toward sin. The psalm really should resonate with us, not because we beg God to slaughter our enemies’ children, but because we call on God to destroy our sins.

Even the little ones.

When God Needs Correcting

13 May 2020

In the course of a study on Philippians 3, I ran across this study on σκύβαλα (the Greek word rendered with the inappropriately genteel “rubbish” in verse 8). I commend the article to your attention; it’s well worth reading in its entirety. I’m going to quote the final paragraph here, because in it, the author does something really odd (the underlining is mine):

In Phil 3:8, the best translation of σκύβαλα seems clearly to be from the first group of definitions. The term conveys both revulsion and worthlessness in this context. In hellenistic Greek it seems to stand somewhere between “crap” and “s**t.” However, due to English sensibilities, and considering the readership (Christians), a softer term such as “dung” is most appropriate. The NET Bible, along with a few other translations, grasp the connotations here, while most modern translations only see the term as implying worthlessness. But Paul’s view of his former life is odious to him, as ours should be to us. The best translation, therefore, is one that picks up both worthlessness and revulsion, and probably a certain shock value.

Did you notice that sentence in the middle? “God said one thing, but it’s more appropriate to say something softer, because our feelz.”

Of all the literally damned nonsense.

God knew His audience and English sensibilities from eternity past; He said what He said. If He’s bruising your feelz, it’s not by accident. Why would we presume to correct him with a “softer” expression?

Model yourself after Jesus and those who follow Him, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:1. Talk how God teaches you to talk. You should not be sloppy; do your homework (which is why I recommend you click through and read the whole article, actually — it’s a great example of solid exegetical work.)

You should not automatically go for the reading that best fits your sensibilities. Your sensibilities may run to cucumber sandwiches or more in the shock jock direction; none of that matters. God said what He said.

Do your homework, and then don’t lose your nerve


Going to Extremes

21 April 2020

I had occasion to speak on Deuteronomy 14:22-26 and Matthew 21:12-17 at Faith Community Church in Littleton, CO on March 22nd. Owing to plague-driven necessity, the sermon was pre-recorded. You can find the video link here. If you prefer audio, see below.

You might also want to read Speaking with an Edge.

Which Eradicated His Doubt

8 April 2020

Once upon a time, they brought a demon-possessed boy to Jesus. Mark tells the story:

And when the boy saw Jesus, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth. So Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?”
And he said, “From childhood. And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him, but if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!” Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, “He is dead.”
But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.

In the midst of trial, it is often very hard to get yourself to 100% certainty that God is going to come through. We struggle with this. So did the boy’s father. He had no plan B at all — Jesus was his last hope — and yet, he cannot bring himself to trust all the way.

But the thing to notice here is what Jesus does.

Jesus does not say, “Come back when you have no more doubts.” Jesus hears his prayer, and answers it.

Trust Jesus enough to show up. Trust Him enough to ask. And see what He will do.

Going Literal, on Steroids

11 February 2020

A while back, Theopolis Institute hosted an online conversation on the quest for human maturity. The scholar who took the lead, one Dr. David Field, proposed a side-by-side comparison of four approaches: Protestant/Reformed, the Desert Fathers, Zen Buddhism, and Freudian/Jungian depth psychology. The initial article is a real jaw-breaker; very long, but the follow-up conversation (and the furor it caused in some quarters) is worth wading through it. While I commend the entire conversation to your attention, I want to call particular attention to this bit of commentary by the director of Theopolis, Peter Leithart:

As David explains the “prima facie case” for his proposal, his radicalism shows its face. He out-Bibles the Bible-only types, opening an expansive horizon for investigation along a Biblicist pathway….

David starts by taking the creation of Adam with what some will regard as naïve literalism: Man becomes a living soul because the breath/Spirit of God is breathed into him. Our spirits are breath because God’s Spirit is breath and we are made in His image. Our inmost self is “God’s life in us.” We are dust animated by divine breath.

For David, this isn’t a poetic flourish. It’s the truth about man, tied to the inextricably physical fact that we must breathe to live. Say what you will about the intake of oxygen and the outflow of carbon dioxide. The essence of breathing is a rhythm of sacrifice, of laying down life in order to take it up, of receiving life we do not have in ourselves; breathing is a dance of divine inspiration, deathly expiration, glorifying conspiration.

Along this line of reflection, David has, and has not, left the Bible behind. At first, it appears that Scripture serves as little more than springboard; much of what David says might be described as “natural theology,” drawn from steady observation of the simplest of human experiences. But his account of that experience is shaped at every moment by the Bible; every claim is theologically charged. Breathing is death-and-resurrection; and so it is also the radical self-denial of discipleship; and so it is also transfiguring union with God. And all the while, David is talking about breathing– not “spiritual” breathing, or breathing as a metaphor for something less gritty and earthy, but breathing. The entire paragraph aims to provide a theological account of the practical power of controlling, holding, pausing our breath. Biblical and natural realities snap together like pieces of a puzzle – provided we doggedly cling to the Bible as fundamental anthropology.

In conversations where the authority of Scripture and the sufficiency of Scripture are very much at issue, this doggedly literal approach is not just a productive way forward. It is the only productive way forward. I’m looking forward to more of it.

One Book or Two?

7 January 2020

In Matthew’s usage, “fulfill” has a fuller sense (if you’ll pardon the expression) than just the Micah 5:2//Matthew 2:5-6 predictive prophecy usage. For example, the Hosea 11//Matthew 2 usage is real fulfillment, but it’s not predictive prophecy. The Hosea passage is not a prediction of the future Messiah, but a reflection on Israel’s history: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.”

The original sense in Hosea is critical to Matthew’s meaning. Knowing that Israel is God’s son is necessary to understanding the points that Matthew is making: first, that Jesus is Israel (in a meaningful sense that Matthew will spend the whole book exploring), and second, that the land of Israel has become spiritual Egypt – a point that will be reinforced by John the Baptist when he calls the remnant out into the desert to pass through water.

We don’t want to read something into the text that isn’t there. At the same time, we don’t want to miss something that *is* there—and the NT shows us repeatedly that there’s a LOT more there than one might think at first glance. From Jesus Himself proving the resurrection by exegeting a verb tense in Genesis (Luke 20:37-38) to the fulfillments of the first few chapters of Matthew (1:22-23, 2:15, 17-18, 23) to the dizzying displays of Hebrews, the NT shows us a way of reading the OT that we wouldn’t have come up with on our own. It had to be revealed to us.

In conservative circles, we have gotten our hermeneutics from the Book of Nature (mostly as read by E. D. Hirsch), which is very useful as far as it goes. But God wrote two books–God’s Word and God’s world–and the Book of Scripture also has something to teach us about how to read well. We should not refuse to learn that set of lessons as well.

What is the Kingdom of God?

27 August 2019

We looked last week at the difficulties inherent in saying that the Kingdom of God is future (which it is) and still trying to maintain that it is somehow a present reality (which Jesus said it was.) That causes headaches, and one of the major questions that arises is “What do we mean by ‘Kingdom of God’?”

So let’s tackle that. I need to begin by observing that we get in a lot of trouble when we over-theologize biblical words in the effort to manufacture theological terms. People who talk/teach for a living love doing that sort of thing–it makes job security for them–but the truth is often much simpler. This is one of those cases.

The kingdom of God is where God rules.

There you go.

All the rest of this post is in anticipation of the acute whataboutitis that afflicts theological discussions. They want it to be more complicated than it really is. 

Does God rule in heaven now? Yes. So that’s part of God’s Kingdom. Will He rule on Earth on the last day? Absolutely. So that’s what the consummated Kingdom looks like. Was God’s rule extended when Jesus cast out that guy’s demon in Luke 11? Yup, sure was. So the Kingdom of God came right there. (See Luke 11:20 and its parallel in Matthew 12:28, and note the verb tenses.)

In between the Fall and the Consummation, Jesus brought the Kingdom of God, and said so. His followers preached the word of the Kingdom, and did the works of the Kingdom, as Jesus did. We still do so today (saving where we have accepted the excuses of institutionalized unbelief and allowed ourselves to be discouraged from actually following Jesus.)

From that day to this, anywhere the word of the Kingdom is obeyed and the works of the Kingdom are done, the Kingdom of God has come upon you, just as it once did in Jesus’ day.

Has the Kingdom come in its permanent fullness? No. No more than it did in Jesus’ day. Is the kingdom really, truly present? Yes—just as it was in Jesus’ day. Then He was bodily present. Today, He is present in His Body, and where the King is present, honored, and obeyed, the Kingdom is among you.

Biblical Voices: the Sage

30 May 2019

The Bible is a book of specific, verbal revelation. In it, God speaks. You would expect such a book to lead off its proclamations with phrases like “Thus saith the Lord…,” and in many places it does.

However, not in all.

In Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in particular, we find a different voice coming to the fore. It’s not the voice of a prophet or a priest, delivering a word directly from God. It’s the voice of the sage, the wise man observing the world. Where the prophet says, “God said…” the sage says “Here’s what I saw…,” and then “Go look for yourself!”

Van Til and other thinkers downstream from him have made much of the observation that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. So it is. If you don’t start there, they will say, then you haven’t got anything. I want to make a slightly different point. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, not the whole of wisdom. There’s nothing holy about willfully remaining a beginner. The goal is to grow.

So once you have the fear of the Lord, you have the beginning. What more do you need? Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise!

Do you see? A sage, speaking in Scripture, is telling you to go outside Scripture into the world, pay attention to what is happening there, and contemplate it–because you will gain wisdom by so doing.

Can you interpret the world wrongly? Sure. Just like you can interpret verbal revelation wrongly. Discernment is required. Mistakes will be made. But God has given us the task: it is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to search it out. Let’s be about it.