Ascension Day: What Did Jesus Going to Heaven Do for Us?

The life of Jesus: Jesus was born of a virgin. He lived the perfectly obedient human life. He died an atoning death. He rose victoriously from the grave. The end.

Okay, that’s not the whole story. There is a part I left out. Did you spot it? After He rose again, Jesus spent 40 days appearing on and off to the apostles, and finally He ascended into heaven. This event, simply enough, is called the Ascension. Given that today is 40 days since Easter, I thought it would be appropriate to say a little something in memory of this event.

The Ascension usually receives little attention, and I do not think this is fair. People view it as the happy ending. It’s the part of the story we need to get the resurrected Christ out of the picture and explain why He isn’t still around. But indeed, there is more to it than that, and this has been woefully ignored. So here’s a quick summary of two things the Ascension does for us:

  • The Ascension secures our salvation by establishing Jesus’ eternal role as High Priest. Hebrews mentions early on how after Jesus performed His atoning work He passed through the heavens and sat down at the right hand of the Father. And what does He do there? He brings sanctified humanity into the presence of God so that man and God can experience the reconciliation He won. For the Scripture says, “We have a great High Priest who has gone into the very presence of God—Jesus, the Son of God.” Because of this, it then says, “Let us have confidence, then, and approach God’s throne, where there is grace. There we will receive mercy and find grace to help us just when we need it.” As a human representative, Jesus is our priest in heaven before the Father.

    So we who have found safety with him are greatly encouraged to hold firmly to the hope placed before us. We have this hope as an anchor for our lives. It is safe and sure, and goes through the curtain of the heavenly temple into the inner sanctuary. On our behalf Jesus has gone in there before us and has become a high priest forever, in the priestly order of Melchizedek.

    Hebrews 6:18b-20

  • The Ascension made time for people of every tribe, tongue, and nation to be saved. What would Jesus have done if He had not left? Wouldn’t He simply keep on with His task, and get straight to judging the world? After all, Jesus did not rebuke His disciples for thinking He would restore the kingdom to Israel, only that He was doing it right then. The Old Testament didn’t even prophesy about separate comings; it treated Jesus’ first and second comings as a single event. But by ascending, Jesus has created time for evangelism. If the end had come then, only a handful of people would be saved. But God wanted to give everyone time to come to the knowledge of the truth through the preaching of the Gospel. Not until every people has heard will Jesus return to finish what He started (Matt. 24:14).

    First of all, you must understand that in the last days some people will appear whose lives are controlled by their own lusts. They will make fun of you and will ask, “He promised to come, didn’t he? Where is he? Our ancestors have already died, but everything is still the same as it was since the creation of the world!”…But do not forget one thing, my dear friends! There is no difference in the Lord’s sight between one day and a thousand years; to him the two are the same. The Lord is not slow to do what he has promised, as some think. Instead, he is patient with you, because he does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants all to turn away from their sins.

    2 Peter 3:3-4, 8-9

Thinking of these things, let us thank God that Jesus did not only live for us, die for us, and rise for us, but also ascended for us! Amen.

Ascension Day: What Did Jesus Going to Heaven Do for Us?

Misconceptions about Misconceptions about the Bible

People have a lot of funky ideas about the Bible. And it’s no wonder, given that it is the worldwide bestseller, was completed 2000 years ago, and is revered as God’s word by many millions of people. Anything with that kind of place in the world is bound to find several strange receptions.

One thing which frequently happens with the Bible is the publishing of articles in print and online which claim to reveal the truth about misconceptions people have regarding the Bible. A quick Google search proves this. This is unsurprising and often necessary. After all, there’s quite a bit of nonsense the average Joe, and even the average born-and-bred Christian, believes about the Bible that is not true at all. So let those with knowledge correct the ignorant. Deal with misconceptions about the Bible.

But there is a troubling trend which is evident from even the top search results. Many of the so-called “misconceptions” the top articles correct are in fact orthodox Christian teachings, or at least something closely related. Here’s an example from one of the articles on Google’s first page of results:

The character “Yahweh” in the Hebrew Bible should not be confused with the god of western theological speculation (generally referred to as “God”). The attributes assigned to “God” by post-biblical theologians — such as omniscience and immutability — are simply not attributes possessed by the character Yahweh as drawn in biblical narratives. Indeed, on several occasions Yahweh is explicitly described as changing his mind, because when it comes to human beings his learning curve is steep. Humans have free will; they act in ways that surprise him and he must change tack and respond. One of the greatest challenges for modern readers of the Hebrew Bible is to allow the text to mean what it says, when what is says flies in the face of doctrines that emerged centuries later from philosophical debates about the abstract category “God.”

Um, is that okay? Of course there are lots of people who argue this, even some within Christianity, but is that really a misconception about the Bible, or the result of different worldviews and how they address the questions surrounding the Bible, divine revelation, and the divine nature? After all, Calvin and Bavnick handled the OT weirdness pretty handily with their theology of accommodation. But here it is asserted without consideration of debate that a traditional view is one of people’s misconceptions about the Bible.

The problem I’m seeing is how many people use the guise of “Guess what you never knew about the Bible?” to promote skeptical, anti-Christian views as the facts. This is standard fare. I could multiply the examples:

  • Lots of articles says, “Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch!” (the first five books of the Bible), “We now know that it came way later from four distinct and contradictory sources edited into one book.” This is far from settled, except in the minds of people who have ruled out a priori the possibility that the Creator God really did reveal Himself to the people of Israel in word and powerful deeds. And this isn’t merely a conservative Christian vs. the rest of the world matter, either. The popular JEDP theory touted by blogs and magazines galore has been under increasing question in recent years, partially due to the way that a robustly historical and contextual reading of the Pentateuch seems to work best if it is taken as a whole.
  • Many will say, “Guess what? The word for ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7:10 actually meant ‘young women’ and was mistranslated into Greek, so Matthew and Luke actually invented the virgin birth to fulfill a mistranslated prophecy!” In fact, a large number of people consider this a settled fact. Yet the debate continues, even among real scholars, over the meaning of the word almah and, perhaps more importantly, the way that the NT authors cited the OT. This is not a settled matter by any means.
  • Of course, there’s also the classic “The Bible has really changed from the originals,” which is patently false as far the evidence can lead us. Every new discovery leads towards the opposite conclusion, but that doesn’t stop bloggers and journalists from reporting it as a scholarly consensus and fact that the Bible we have is totally unreliable.

I could go on, but I would risk making a fool of myself by speaking on matters above my pay grade (as if I’ve completely refrained from doing so already). My goal here certainly isn’t to prove the skeptics and secular scholars wrong. I merely want to point out the secret you won’t find in popular writings: none of these misconceptions about the Bible are as settled or certain as people on either side of the aisle would like to pretend. 

I say “either side of the aisle” for good reason, too. There’s no airtight case for most of what we believe about the Bible and history as Christians. Yes, there are rational reasons to believe, but the evidence isn’t overwhelming and demanding. But likewise, the consensus among many who aren’t orthodox Christians is far from guaranteed. There are compelling arguments, but no proof which can force the hand away from faith.

This brings me to the crux of the matter, namely the spiritual perspective. Despite what we assume about matters of facts, proofs, and evidence in today’s scientific and technological world, there is no objective and impartial judge over all these matters. Everyone stands either from a place of faith or of unbelief, either thinking as one united to the mind of Christ through the indwelling Holy Spirit or thinking according to the wisdom of this world in resistance to the One who is Truth. Therefore we have to own up to that, and in the case of sensationalist bloggers and reporters claiming to know why classical Christianity is false we must hold them accountable. They are not objective, and their claims are not settled reality. There is debate and, although it sounds awfully silly to those without the rule of faith, spiritual warfare going on.

Basically, don’t believe the common misconception that basic Christian doctrine is a misconception about the Bible. ‘Cause that’s not necessarily true.

Misconceptions about Misconceptions about the Bible

How To Be a True Biblicist (Or, Unexpected Truth about Taking the Bible Seriously)

“I just believe the Bible.” People say this a lot, and in a previous post of mine I examined why that’s not really true for anyone. That said, there is a worthy ideal behind that statement. Pardon my Protestantism showing, but I believe we are called as Christians to subject all of our thoughts and beliefs to the teachings of the Bible. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the final authority for us. This means we have to accept what the Bible says in faith, at some points even just giving up on the use of our own reason.

This brings me to the term “Biblicist.” This word is usually only used by people who either don’t know, don’t care, or don’t understand major doctrinal systems, and wish to indicate that they simply believe what the Bible teaches. As an example, many people in the debate over Calvinism/Arminianism claim to be neither and call themselves “Biblicists” instead. Regardless of how true that is—most of the people I hear say this just agree with Arminianism without the name—there is an implied concept of what it means to just believe the Bible, and that concept is regarded as a worthy goal.

I, too, believe that we should be content to believe the Bible, and just take it for what it really says. But I do not agree with the popular idea that you can do this just by reading the Bible, thinking about it by yourself, and sticking with your first impressions. While many people do this, and many people would even say this is what you should do, I do not believe this is at all faithful to Scripture. The irony then becomes that in trying to respect the Bible, they end up abusing it.

So what does it really mean to take the Bible seriously? How can we “just believe the Bible” in a way that is neither naïve and ignorant nor critical and arrogant? Here are several points about what I think it means to be a true Biblicist:

  • A true Biblicist reads the Bible. As obvious as it sounds, actually reading the Bible is a must to really treat it faithfully. Brilliant theologians, angry KJV-onlyists, and the everyman believer alike all struggle with this. Reading the Bible is key, but way too often we don’t really do it. That makes a difference in both how we live and what we believe, since the more we read the Bible the more stuff we realize is in there that we didn’t even know about.

  • A true Biblicist reads about the Bible. What many people don’t realize is that you can’t read the Bible for all it is worth without also reading about the Bible. Why is this? See, the Bible was written for us, but not to us. Every book of Scripture was written to people of a totally different culture, in totally different cities, with totally different worldviews. So there are phrases, nuances of words, and even entire lines of thought which would make immediate sense to the original authors and audiences of the books of the Bible, but not to us (or, worse, they could give us a completely different impression than they did the original audience). This is why we have to read about the Bible in order to learn what they knew that we don’t know. Otherwise we’re likely to make the Bible say things it isn’t really saying.

  • A true Biblicist reads the Bible with trust. As opposed to the skeptic who suspects errors, biases, or political agendas behind the text of every page, the true Biblicist assumes the authors to be reliable, straightforward, and honest without good reason to think otherwise. When he runs into something that throws him off, he does research, uses real reading comprehension, and approaches it all with charity before shouting, “Error!” or “Contradiction!”

  • A true Biblicist reads the Bible honestly. As opposed to the fiery young apologist who uses his own creativity or fantasy to figure everything out, and accepts or promotes far-fetched answers to the perplexing problems of the Bible, the true Biblicist is willing to accept when the Bible doesn’t make sense. He won’t deny the difficulties, and he won’t go to absurd lengths to reconcile everything that doesn’t obviously connect (e.g. he won’t propose that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice). He’ll say, “I don’t know,” when he can’t figure out a passage.

  • A true Biblicist reads judges tradition by the Bible. I am fairly squarely within the broader Reformed tradition, theologically speaking. Most of my family and friends are in the Baptist tradition, or a closely related part of the evangelical Protestant tradition like Pentecostalism. All of these traditions must be judged by Scripture. The true Biblicist is willing to move from one tradition to another based on what he finds in the Bible. He will not force fit everything the Bible says into his tradition’s party lines.

  • A true Biblicist reads the Bible within a tradition. Reading the Bible without tradition is a quick way to fall into all kinds of heresy. The broader Christian tradition tells us about the Trinity and Jesus’ dual natures, and without this tradition you’d need to be a genius to sort this all out by yourself in a single lifetime. More specific doctrines like election, end times, baptism, and spiritual gifts are all interpreted differently in different traditions, and the true Biblicist recognizes this. He does not seek to understand the Bible all by himself, but instead joins forces with like-minded believers so that he can share in the wisdom and insight God has given them, both the fellow members of his tradition in the present and the formers of that tradition from the past.

  • A true Biblicist forms his own opinions on what the Bible says. Unlike the “my daddy taught me this” traditionalist, the true Biblicist reads and wrestles with the Bible personally. He doesn’t just inherit his ideas and beliefs from his parents, pastors, and teachers, because they are all fallible, normal /people. Instead, he checks the Bible himself to make sure that what he is hearing is true.

  • A true Biblicist never forms opinions on the Bible all by himself. Even though the Biblicist seeks to understand the Bible for himself and not just take the word of others as Gospel, he also listens closely to the words of others for help. The Holy Spirit works in all believers of all places and times, so the true Biblicist recognizes this valuable resource. He knows that he is not the smartest, most educated, most enlightened, or more spiritual reader of the Bible, so he is ready and willing to seek advice, insight, and answers from other Christians, even those from totally different traditions.

  • A true Biblicist respects the Bible as the word of God. The Bible claims for itself in various ways a special status as God speaking to people through human authors. It is filled with divine authority, and when we read the Bible we (through the power of the Holy Spirit) hear the voice of God. It comes from the Father through the Spirit working in human beings to testify about the Son. Therefore the Biblicist listens to God when He reads the Bible.

  • A true Biblicist recognizes that Jesus is the Word of God. There is a reason that I capitalize Word when referring to Jesus but not the Bible. The Bible does not seek to be the focus of our attention, the utter fulfillment of God’s revelation, but to make us see Jesus Christ—the Word who was in the beginning—in its pages. It is Jesus who is the exact expression of God’s nature and the radiance of His glory, God’s final revelation of Himself in word and deed. The Bible serves not to usurp Jesus’ role as final revelation and make us focus on itself, but to complement His role by unpacking and explaining Him with inspired authority. After all, the Scriptures themselves do not save and sanctify us. They lead us to the Son of God, the eternal Word, who accomplished it all!

And while all of this is necessary to be a true Biblicist (even if some of these points are rather counter-intuitive), there is a final and perhaps most important part of being a true Biblicist. The Bible is meant to be understood with the illuminating work of God’s Holy Spirit, and there is only one way to receive the power of the Spirit. This way is prayer. The true Biblicist prays that God the Father will give Him the help of the Spirit so that He can see the glory of the Son in the Holy Scriptures. Without this, all of the other efforts will fall short. The Bible, after all, is just words without the Spirit of the Living God bringing them to life in our hearts. So let us pray that He will do it! Amen.

How To Be a True Biblicist (Or, Unexpected Truth about Taking the Bible Seriously)

Immanuel Means Love Your Neighbor

Now all this happened in order to make come true what the Lord had said through the prophet, “A virgin will become pregnant and have a son, and he will be called Immanuel” (which means, “God is with us”).

Matthew 1:22-23

If we needed a word to summarize the Christian faith, the Gospel of our salvation, we could perhaps choose Immanuel, “God with us.” In the beginning, God walked with the man He had created in the Garden. He continued to speak to Cain and Abel, Enoch, and Noah, despite the world’s increasing sinfulness. He made a solemn covenant to Abraham and his descendants, spending over 400 years working to give them a land, an identity, and a system of worship. He came to them in fire, in cloud, in the Ark, in the Tabernacle, and eventually in the Temple. Finally, He did the unthinkable and became Himself a human being, one of us. He lived among us, and we saw His glory. He died, rose, and ascended on behalf of us all, and poured our His Spirit to live in our hearts. The day is still coming when He will usher in the final fulfillment of His covenant with humanity—“I will be your God and you will be my people”—when God’s heaven and man’s earth will become one. Truly this is the story of God with us. This is the history of Immanuel.

If this is true, if Immanuel is really the theme of our faith, then naturally we should want to follow its logic and implications in our lives. Our theology and our practices should reflect how, in Jesus Christ, God is with us. But how that works for us isn’t always obvious. I personally believe there is a big principle of Immanuel which we don’t often reckon with. What is it?

Immanuel means love your neighbor.

How is this? What does “God with us” have to do with loving your neighbor, except maybe in the remote sense that both are taught in Scripture? Much in every way! In fact, there is perhaps no better reason to love your neighbor than the fact that in Jesus Christ, God Himself is with humankind.

See, Immanuel creates startling new ground for our relationship with other people. If people were just people, all tiny creatures sitting far beneath the creator God who holds Himself high above them, then there would be little reason to treat or see others with dignity, respect, or compassion. After all, “what is mankind that you are mindful of them?” Yet God does not hold Himself apart from mankind. Instead, God created a covenant with His created people so that He would be our God, not just God. Because of this we are valuable. Moreover, in due time, He climaxed that covenant by turning Immanuel into Incarnation, for it is written: “The Word was God…The Word became flesh and took up residence among us.”

This is the core of Christianity, and also the biggest reason to love our neighbor. God does not only come to us from outside of us to show us love. Instead, He became one of us. The Father sent His only Son to become a person like us. The Word of God became “like His brothers in every way,” and “since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these.” And if God Himself has become a human being, if the Father’s own beloved Son is one of us, then we know that humans seriously matter.

Remember this, for this is key. If God Himself has become one of our race, if the Father’s only Son is a human just like us, then there is no more important source of value for people. If we are going to love God, we have no choice but to love the race He became part of. If we are going to honor the Father, we must also honor His Son’s own people who share flesh and blood with Him.

Because of this, love is an inescapable imperative of Immanuel. Because God became human, we must love humans. Whoever doesn’t love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. Since in Christ “God with us” is fulfilled, and since Christ is a human being, how can we love Him without loving both God and people? We must obey the second commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” in order to obey the first, “Love the Lord your God,” because with Jesus’ birth God Himself became our neighbor. And there is no greater way God could have given our neighbors worth than to become one of them.

All of this is why people matter, why we have to love them, and why not loving your neighbor is a sin against God Himself. Anything you do against people you do against the Father whose Son is one of them. Isn’t this the meaning of the parable of the sheep and the goats? In fact, I think I’ll conclude by providing this parable from the Lord’s own mouth:

When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

For I was hungry
and you gave Me something to eat;
I was thirsty
and you gave Me something to drink;
I was a stranger
and you took Me in;
I was naked
and you clothed Me;
I was sick
and you took care of Me;
I was in prison
and you visited Me.”

Then the righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or without clothes and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and visit You?”

And the King will answer them, “I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.” Then He will also say to those on the left, “Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels!

For I was hungry
and you gave Me nothing to eat;
I was thirsty
and you gave Me nothing to drink;
I was a stranger
and you didn’t take Me in;
I was naked
and you didn’t clothe Me,
sick and in prison
and you didn’t take care of Me.”

Then they too will answer, “Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or without clothes, or sick, or in prison, and not help You?”

Then He will answer them, “I assure you: Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me either.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Matthew 25:31-46

Immanuel Means Love Your Neighbor

The Bible Is Not a House of Cards

What do very many Christians and very many atheists have in common? Believe it or not, they view the Bible pretty similarly. What could an atheist and a Christian both think about the Bible? Both often act as though the Bible were a house of cards.

We’ve all seen card houses. As children, we all made them. They were always a very difficult project, trying to stack each flimsy card just right to keep the whole building from falling down. And fall down they did. At the slightest disturbance, if even one card was removed or wiggled, the entire house crashed.

To far too many people, the Bible works more or less the same way. Every statement in Scripture is a card, and the whole Bible is the house. If a single statement were found false, mistaken, or even just a bit uncertain, the falling card would mean the collapse of all 66 (or 73, for my filthy papist Catholic friends) books and indeed the Christian faith as at all trustworthy.

The logic behind treating the Bible this way is usually quite straightforward. According to the Christian side, the Bible is the word of God. Since God can’t lie or even make a mistake, every word in the Bible must be certainly true. Therefore if a single word in Scripture were less than completely true, the Bible could not be God’s word. So Christianity is false.

But this is a completely wrong way to approach the Bible. Let’s say we found for sure a definite error or contradiction in Scripture. What would be the possible implications? There are, generally speaking, two options:

  1. The house of cards logic is correct, which means that because of this error, the entire Bible is not trustworthy. So Christianity is almost certainly false. This position is taken by many pop-level atheists, and is also the fear many Christians would have if they found an error.

  2. The house of cards logic is false. Even though there’s an error, the Bible can still be considered the word of God. But in this case the “word of God” does not mean every last individual word comes straight from God’s mouth. A more flexible theory of Biblical inspiration is probably true (see my post on the different theories). Christianity can still be true. This position is assumed by very many Christians outside pop-theology.

Obviously, option 2 is preferable to option 1 for multiple reasons. For one, remember that Christianity is based on Jesus first, and the Bible second. Historically, Jesus did rise from the dead, regardless of whether the Bible has errors or not, so Christianity is true. As well, remember that no other book is held up to an all-or-nothing standard. If the Bible was not the word of God, we would have to treat what the Bible says just like we treat what every other book says. In that case there would be still good reasons to believe that Scripture is at least generally reliable, that Jesus did rise from the dead, that the apostles spoke authoritatively for Christ’s church, and even that the Old Testament is a useful historical resource. Based on pure facts, evidence, and human reason all of this would be true even if the Bible wasn’t God’s word.

If that is not enough to persuade you, I would also suggest that the Bible can easily be God’s word even if there are errors. There are several theories of Biblical inspiration out there. Some allow for errors, some don’t, but most of them still call Scripture “God’s word,” say that He actually speaks using the Bible, and agree that our Bible has final authority over the faith. I wrote a post about the major theories a while back, and you can look at that list to understand what I mean if you don’t. So if the Bible did have an error, maybe verbal, plenary inspiration would be wrong, but something else like dynamic inspiration—which does say the Bible is God’s word and final authority—could be the truth.

So I propose a different analogy for the Bible. God’s word is not a house of cards, but a house of many materials built on a firm foundation. That foundation is the history of Jesus Christ, including the history of the Israel who brought Him into the world, the history of His own life, and the history of the church of His apostles. All of these things really happened, and behind them all is the work and word of God, His powerful acts and equally powerful words by which He brought Himself to humanity. Even if the Bible was never written down and passed on to us, this all still happened in our own space and time history. God through Jesus is a physical part of our human past. So with this firm of a foundation, even if there were cracks or rot in the walls or floors, the house of God’s word would still stand.

The Bible, then, is more than anything a testimony to these foundational facts of history. What God did and said in the past are now fixed realities, and the words of Scripture tell us about them. We can see the Bible as the word of God because God’s own prophets and apostles, led by the power of the Holy Spirit, wrote it as permanent witness to God’s revelation in the human world, including His greatest and final revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ.

If this is how we see the Bible, then errors become less important. The text we read in Scripture is the, to use an analogy, courtroom testimony of witnesses to what God has done and said. So even if the witnesses were to make mistakes, forget things, or interpret something wrongly, what God actually did and said remains solid and fixed. The Bible is built on a firm foundation, and so is no house of cards but the house of the wise man.

All this, by the way, is not to suggest that the Bible actually is full of errors and needs special defense. No, I think that Scripture speaks for itself (actually, the Holy Spirit speaks for, through, and with Scripture), showing us that we can trust the Bible. Yet for the sake of the faith of many people, and to keep ourselves from being ridiculous before skeptics, I do propose this understanding so that we do not have to worry about errors in the Bible even if they do exist, since our faith is focused on something, make that Someone, who is Himself the undefeatable Truth. My concern is truly a pastoral one: I want people to know their faith in Christ needn’t be shaken just because they can’t find any answer to reconcile two genealogies or Resurrection accounts.

In case this isn’t clear, by the way, I’m not actually saying there are errors in the Bible. I’m not convinced that there are, but I definitely wouldn’t stake my life that there aren’t. If we are to be faithful to the God who created the real life world, we have to judge that based on what is actually in the Bible, not by our doctrines of inspiration. What we believe about the book God gave us has to be based on what is really true about what He gave. My true attitude is this: if there are no errors in the Bible, I praise God for giving us such perfect record of who He is and what He does! If there are errors in the Bible, I praise God for even making human mistakes work towards His all-consuming purpose of redemption, just like He does in our lives all the time! Either way, God is glorified, because we have a book from the Father, about the Son, given through the Holy Spirit for our sanctification. Amen!

(P.S. To any of you more learned readers out there, you may think my explanation of the Bible sounds really Barthian. While I do find Barth a very helpful influence with his language of witnesses and testimony, I am more conservative on Scripture than he is. My theory of inspiration is not actually Barthian, and honestly I still default to verbal, plenary inspiration.)

The Bible Is Not a House of Cards

When God Steps Back: The Law and The Problem of Evil

Evil is evil. Could there be a statement more pathetically obvious, yet more profoundly ominous? We live in a world rife with evil. Every day, there is murder and mayhem on the news. School shootings have become more routine than Presidential elections, and more children on this planet are malnourished than well-fed. Many nations reek with poverty and injustice, even including parts of our own.

Yet simultaneously, as Christians we affirm the existence and immanence (which basically means closeness to our world) of a good God. This God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. He is love, and He is the true life. He is the Lord All-Powerful, able to do all He decides to do, who overflows with mercy and compassion to those in need.

To most people, these two realities are at least at tension with each other, and for many they are outright contradictions. How can so much evil fill a world created, sustained, and cared for by a good and omnipotent God? The problem of evil boggles minds upon minds.

Throughout history, numerous solutions to the problem of evil have been proposed. The Gnostics attributed evil to the god of matter and good to the God of Spirit. Ancient polytheist religions imagined very many gods—some good, some evil, and none flawless—who determined the fortunes of the world. Many dualistic religions posit an evil force and a good force, equal to each other and locked in conflict. Within Christianity, we’ve had many of our own ideas. Augustine considered evil a lack of God like how darkness is a lack of light. Free will as the source of evil was the favorite answer of many throughout church history, from the early fathers to modern Arminians and Molinists. Calvinists say that evil is decreed, ordained, and made certain by God for His own purposes to His glory, though God Himself stays out of evil directly.

Certainly, no one can completely explain evil. If we could, evil could not be as evil as it really is. Without mystery and darkness, evil simply becomes an ugly tool, unlikeable but manageable and necessary to the world (an implication of classical Calvinism which I take issue with). We must always understand that we will never understand evil completely.

This all said, I’ve been reading a book named Atonement by Thomas Torrance, a proper genius. He suggests an interesting understanding of why and how sin runs as loose and rampant as it does in the world, though not an explanation of how it originated. Here is an apologetically long quote, which I will summarize and explain afterwards (all emphasis mine):

On the one hand sin is rebellion against God, but on the other hand sin gains part of its character as sin from the divine resistance to it. If God not oppose sin, there would be no really objective and ultimate difference between sin and righteousness. Thus the divine opposition to sin is a factor in the qualification of humanity as sinful before God…But, as Paul felt, the disturbing factor seemed to be that God actually withheld his full opposition to sin and allowed it so much freedom that it challenged his righteousness and deity. Yet that was in the very mercy of God, as the cross showed, for the cross reveals that God withheld his final resistance to sin until, in Christ, he was ready to do the deed which would also save us from his wrath…

A very significant fact we have to consider is that before the death of Christ the difference between man and God is given an order of relative validity, or established in the extent of its separation from God…It was established (a) by the condemnatory law which expresses the divine judgment on sin, although that law was not yet fully enacted and inserted into history, and (b) by God’s withholding of final judgment against sin, for that means that God withheld from man his immediate presence which, apart from actual atonement, could only mean the destruction of humanity.

This merciful act of God by which he holds himself at a distance from fallen men and women and yet places them under judgment establishes, as it were, the ethical order in which righteousness has absolute validity and yet in which mankind has relative immunity and freedom

Here then is the fact we have to consider: the law of God which repudiates human sin at the same time holds the world together in law and order and gives it relative stability—but sin takes advantage of that and under the cover of the law exerts itself more and more in independence of God. That is why the New Testament speaks of the law as the strength of sin, for its very opposition to sin gives sin its strength, and by withholding final judgment from the sinner, holds or maintains the sinner in continued being.

Whew, that was a long quote! So, I’ll restate and summarize his point. According to Torrance, after the fall God had a problem. If He gave Himself fully to humanity, we would be destroyed (this is because God in His holiness is a consuming fire, which would bring Hell to sinful men). The solution to this was the law: by setting up a moral standard in between God and humanity, God actually keeps us and our world in a basically stable order. We are not burned up by God’s wrath, but He steps back and withholds Himself from the world.

The problem is that this mercy—God’s holding back of Himself to keep from judging and killing us in our sins—is the very thing which sin uses to run rampant. Every step God takes back to keep us from the fire of His holiness is a step evil can use to wreak havoc while God is at a distance.

In this understanding, the law is both the mercy of God and the judgment of God, while also being opposition to sin and the very thing which lets sin run loose. With the law, God steps back from the human world so He doesn’t destroy us, though what the law says still puts a judgment on evil. But with the consuming fire of God’s holy love hanging back, sin and death have room to do what they please and wreck everything.

This is the situation of the world outside of Jesus, the problem of evil. But in Christ this problem is fixed. Jesus was and is God, and was and is human. So when He lived a perfect human life, died a substitutionary human death, and rose to a new human life, He created an eternal and safe place for God and people to live together. In Jesus, since He is perfect and sinless humanity, God can be perfectly present. The Father doesn’t withhold Himself from the Son, and the Son is not destroyed because He has no sin in Himself.

This is why Jesus is our refuge, and our salvation. When we become “in Christ,” when we are united with His death and resurrection, we get to have perfect communion with God through His human Son. Though in our sinful human flesh we would be condemned to Hell by being brought near to God, in Jesus Christ’s perfect human flesh we are raised to eternal life by being brought near to God.

In sum, then, God created the law to separate Himself from sinful man, because if He was with us completely we’d be condemned by His holy love. Yet this separation by the law is exactly the room sin and evil need to run rampant and wreak havoc on the world. This situation can only be repaired in Jesus, the only person in whom God and humanity are united without opposition. Most of the world hasn’t accepted Christ yet, though, so the world at large is still stuck in separation from God which leaves room for boundless evil. The only solution is to spread the Gospel, brining more people into the refuge of Jesus until He returns. Then the entire human world will be brought back into God’s complete presence, with the result that those who refuse Jesus will suffer the fate of God’s eternal consuming fire while everyone in Christ will be saved to eternal life.

Amen, hallelujah! Come, Lord Jesus!

When God Steps Back: The Law and The Problem of Evil

TULIP Status Update

As many of you know by now, I am no longer a classical Calvinist. But alas, as almost as many of you probably wonder, what I believe on such matters is no longer obvious, either. So for anyone who never read all of my posts on Evangelical Calvinism (located here if you are interested), or for anyone who read them and simply went away confused, I thought I would offer this post as a simple overview of my stance on the five points of Calvinism, aka TULIP. Hopefully, this will be of some clarity. So without further ado, here are my stances on the five points:

Total Depravity: On the point that the human fall has made us all completely incapable on our own of seeking God, to bring Him any faith or good works, I still completely agree. We are altogether lost and dead in our sins from the beginning, and cannot possibly make any free will choice for God. Whatever the state of our human will, we are so corrupt that we only choose against God.

Unconditional Election: On the doctrine that God has, in eternity past, freely and unconditionally chosen a certain mass of humanity for salvation and, either by that choice or as its own choice, a certain mass for damnation, I do not agree at all. The Scriptures are clear in their insistence that God has loved the entire world, and God elects those He loves. I would instead argue that God has chosen all people for Himself, and within all people chose Israel as a special people through whom He would bless all people, and within Israel chose Jesus as the Mediator by whom He would redeem all people, the Jew first and also the Gentile.

Limited Atonement: On the doctrine that Jesus’ death was only intended to apply to the sins of the elect, I also vehemently disagree. A quick glance at the New Testament proves that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was offered on behalf of the entire human race. To say otherwise would be to deny that Jesus’ human nature was real enough to make Him one of us, or that through Jesus’ nature as the divine Word we all exist and were created.

Irresistible Grace: On the belief that the Holy Spirit’s inner call to salvation is offered only to the elect, and to them cannot fail to bring them to faith, I cannot agree. There is a definite current in the New Testament of people being condemned because they resist the Spirit’s work toward salvation. Moreover, if this were the case, then ultimately the reason people do not believe is because God refused to give them the infallible cure to unbelief, yet the Scriptures do not seem to attribute unbelief to God, except in the case of hardening the heart after someone initially displays stubborn unbelief.

Perseverance of the Saints: On the final point that all genuine believers are given by God the gift of enduring to the end and keeping the faith, I more or less agree. The New Testament seems to see two kinds of “believers,” those who have a temporary and shallow faith and eventually fall away, and those who have an unassailable faith wrought by the unfailing work of the Holy Spirit in the irreversible new birth. Despite all struggles, backslides, and lapses, God seems willing and able to keep His saints until the Day of Christ Jesus.

With all this said, I’m sure there are still unanswered questions. So what I’d like to do now is construct my own TULIP, one which represents from a positive perspective what I actually do believe. So here is my TULIP, for the quasi-Evangelical Calvinist.

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Total Inability: In substance the same as total depravity, it simply means that we are too sinful from birth onward, because of our race’s fall, to possibly approach God with any faith or good works on our own. If we are to believe and repent, we will have to be transformed from this very sinful state.
See: Isa. 44:18, Jer. 9:6, 13:23, John 6:44, 65, Rom. 3:9-19, 8:7-8, 11:32, 1 Cor. 2:14

Universal Atonement: The most important difference from classical TULIP, I strongly affirm that Jesus’ work was on behalf of absolutely all people. He lived, died, and rose as the representative of all and the substitute for each. Atonement has no limits except for Christ Himself: it is found in His person and life alone. Moreover, Jesus’ work was objectively efficacious for all, actually accomplishing justification, sanctification, forgiveness, and redemption for each and every person. All that remains is for the Holy Spirit to actually impart this subjectively into the life of lost individuals.
See: Isa. 53:6, Lk. 23:34, John 1:29, 2 Cor. 5:14-15, 1 Tim. 2:3-6, Heb. 2:9, 1 Jn. 2:2

Layered Election: Contra classical Calvinism, I believe that God has chosen the entire human race for Himself, to be His own people and He be their God. This election is the guarantee that God will give Himself for all people. It entered history with the election of Israel as the people though whom God would reveal Himself and bless all nations. Finally, Jesus Himself came from Israel as the Chosen One of God, and by His faithful obedience in His life, death, and resurrection He accomplished the end goal of election, free salvation, for all. By His work He brought redemption to all people, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile. While this layered election at the universal level is designed for salvation, the historical instance of this election is not who God chooses to save but who God chooses as His instruments, servants, and ambassadors to share salvation with all the rest of the world.
See: Gen. 12:3, 18:18, 30:27-30, 39:5, Deut. 4:37, Ps. 72:17, 76:68, Matt. 12:18, Lk. 9:35, John 3:16, Acts 3:25-26, 9:15, Gal. 3:16, Eph. 1:4,  1 Tim. 2:4, Heb. 1:8-9, 1 Pt. 2:3-4, 2 Pt. 3:9

Impossible Grace: I do agree with the classical Calvinists that God’s grace altogether precedes our response, and indeed that God must be working in us through the Holy Spirit for us to be able to believe. When people come to Christ, they do so because of the sovereign and unpredictable work of the Holy Spirit. However, I do not think of this grace as some impersonal force the Spirit pours on us to create faith like some chemical reaction. Instead, we believe because the Spirit imparts to us the very life of Jesus, who is Himself God’s grace. So when we do believe, it is us, yet not us, but Christ believing in us. The faith we exercise in our lives we hold by the faith Jesus Himself held on to throughout His human life. But this is not an exclusive and irresistible call. It is given to very many, if not even all! While it is overwhelming and should be irresistible, by some mysterious and seemingly impossible evil of sin people do indeed refuse this new life of Christ from the Spirit. It doesn’t make sense, but many people do close their eyes, stick their fingers in their ears, and sing loudly to resist the sweet call of Jesus. In this way they smash themselves against the speeding train of God’s love and find themselves condemned.
See: Ezek. 36:26, Matt. 11:27, 16:17, 23:37, John 3:3, 8, 6:44-46, 12:32, Acts 7:51, Gal. 2:20 KJV/NET, Eph. 2:4-10, Phil. 1:29

Preservation by the Spirit: Finally, I am in fairly substantial agreement with the old P in TULIP. The New Testament seems to indicate that there are ultimately two kinds of people who believe in Jesus: there are those with what I call the “faith of the flesh,” which people can muster on their own without the Spirit and usually for wrong motives, and which is always temporary or too shallow to produce any fruit. There are also those with the “faith of the Spirit,” a true and living faith created in Jesus’ life and given to us when the Spirit calls us to new birth, which does produce good fruit and will endure to the end. God remains faithful to these true believers by protecting them from apostasy through His Holy Spirit using Jesus’ perfect faith.
See: Job 17:9, Ps. 37:28, Jer. 32:38-40, Matt. 10:22, 24:24, Lk. 8:4-15, John 4:14, 6:37-39, 10:28-30, Gal. 6:9, Phil. 2:12-13, Heb. 3:14, 10:39, 1 Pt. 1:3-5, 1 Jn. 2:19, Jd. 1:20-21

TULIP Status Update