With this post I officially begin my blog’s companion podcast, The Nicene Nerdcast. I don’t have much in the way of introduction to give you, so here’s the first installment. This is the result of some of my ponderings on race and the Church in recent days.
Lately I’ve been on a reading binge of G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. I have too much to say on the treasures I’ve found in them to possibly remember to blog about it all. That’s a shame. On the bright side, there’s still lots of good stuff to mention.
One of my favorite paragraphs I’ve come across (maybe, it’s hard to narrow down favorites from such writers) is one in which Chesterton discusses the notion of progress, specifically in relation to the modern world. Everyone likes to talk about progress, though the fever was undoubtedly higher in his day. We still have progressives in politics (of many kinds: economic progressives, cultural progressives, environmental progressives, etc.), and we probably have far more now in theology. In fact, these so-called “progressive” theologians are my chief targets here, whereas Chesterton was more concerned with a political temperament. But much of what he had to say is relevant to either.
A chief characteristic of progressive Christianity is questioning. They like to ask questions regarding what the Bible says about homosexuality, what the Bible says about gender, what the Bible says about salvation, and of course just how seriously we need to take what the Bible says at all. The framing assumption is that we must ask these questions afresh because the classical answers are, we now see, in some way broken, obsolete, or unrealistic. For many of these issues, a sufficient Chestertonian response might be that the classical answers have not been tried and found wanting; they have been found difficult and left untried. But I disgress. My point here isn’t about whether the progressive’s questioning process will lead us to better answers than the traditional ones or not. My point, or rather Chesterton’s, is that you can’t really call yourself “progressive” in such a state of uncertainty. If you are stuck in questioning phase, you can’t genuinely say whether you’ve been making progress towards anything or not, since you don’t know where you’re going. And in Chesterton’s day, it didn’t matter how efficiently and skillfully you could run the the government. If you don’t know where you’re running it to, you can’t say that “progress” is underway. I’ll let Chesterton himself elaborate and leave it at that. The quote is from his excellent, excellent book What’s Wrong with the World:
As enunciated today, “progress” is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative. We meet every ideal of religion, patriotism, beauty, or brute pleasure with the alternative ideal of progress—that is to say, we meet every proposal of getting something that we know about, with an alternative proposal of getting a great deal more of nobody knows what. Progress, properly understood, has, indeed, a most dignified and legitimate meaning. But as used in opposition to precise moral ideals, it is ludicrous. So far from it being the truth that the ideal of progress is to be set against that of ethical or religious finality, the reverse is the truth. Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible—at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word “progress” than we. In the Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth century, the direction may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree. Whether the future excellence lies in more law or less law, in more liberty or less liberty; whether property will be finally concentrated or finally cut up; whether sexual passion will reach its sanest in an almost virgin intellectualism or in a full animal freedom; whether we should love everybody with Tolstoy, or spare nobody with Nietzsche;—these are the things about which we are actually fighting most. It is not merely true that the age which has settled least what is progress is this “progressive” age. It is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least what is progress are the most “progressive” people in it. The ordinary mass, the men who have never troubled about progress, might be trusted perhaps to progress. The particular individuals who talk about progress would certainly fly to the four winds of heaven when the pistol-shot started the race. I do not, therefore, say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common. Progress is not an illegitimate word, but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us. It is a sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith.
“The end is near! Jesus will be back any day now!”
As Christians, not only do we hear this a lot, but very many of us say it a lot as well. If you look on Facebook or Twitter, or if you go to Bible studies or listen to people’s prayer requests, you find a common sentiment that finally, in the 21st century, we are living in the last days and Jesus will return probably in our lifetimes.
This sentiment is nothing new, of course. It has been around since Jesus ascended. But that’s exactly why we should be skeptical of it today. If 2000 years ago everyone thought Jesus would BRB, but He didn’t, I don’t know why we would think that our day has a significantly different chance than they did.
But many people think they have proof. After all, didn’t Jesus say that the end would come with signs of war, famine, earthquakes, and violence? Today is more violent, war-torn, and full of natural disasters than ever before, right? So Jesus has to be coming back especially soon.
There are two problems with this. Firstly, Jesus never said any of those things were signs that the end was about to come. Instead, He specifically said they are not signs of the end. Here is the relevant passage in Matthew:
Then Jesus replied to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and they will deceive many. You are going to hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, because these things must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these events are the beginning of birth pains.
“Then they will hand you over for persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of My name. Then many will take offense, betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. Because lawlessness will multiply, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be delivered. This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations. And then the end will come.
Pay close attention. Jesus specifically lists all of these problems with the notice, “the end is not yet.” These wars, earthquakes, famines, persecutions, and lawlessness are all part of the beginning of the birth pains, not the end. These evils began even before the end of the first century. They began in full force ages ago. Jesus warned the disciples not to freak out or be confused by these signs. He told them, “All of this stuff will look frightening, but they don’t mean the end is here!” So the way people use these events today is in fact the opposite of how Jesus spoke of them.
The other problem with this line of thought is that it misreads the present. Even if these things were signs of the end, then we shouldn’t expect Jesus to come back now, because we have less of this stuff today than at almost any other time in history. These days out of the hundreds of countries in the world, only a couple of them, mostly in the Middle East, are at war. This is different from most of history. There is less war today than ever before. The same goes for famine. With modern technology, there is more food in the world than ever before, and even when prices have gone up a bit there has been no shortage of food in Western countries since the Great Depression (and even then, there have been many worse periods in history). Developing countries are actually developing and suffer less famine than they ever did in previous centuries (except Yemen, which is being systematically starved by the Saudi war and our abominable US support). Natural disasters don’t appear to have changed much.
Even violence hasn’t really changed. We think these mass shootings and terrorist acts are bad and new, but in fact they are tame compared to history. The Holocaust is in the past now. But even before that, constant tribal warfare, torture, brutal methods of execution, vigilante justice, and barbarian pillaging were all widespread for most the past. The idea of a landmass and population as large as the United States, for example, not being filled with wars and political murders and lynchings and human sacrifice is a novelty. Abortion, infanticide, and the rampant sexual immorality which have only in the past several decades infiltrated Western countries were already the norm in the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day. Overall, not much seems any worse than it ever has.
Thus, what many people see as signs of the times just really aren’t. They’re illusions. This doesn’t mean Jesus isn’t coming back soon. I think He may come back at any time, though to be honest I expect the Gospel to reach a lot more of the unreached world first, per the last verse in the text I quoted. But the point is we have no idea when He will come, there is no specific reason to think we are especially close right now, and we can only hope, pray, and evangelize if we do want it to be soon (which we should).
The truth is, as long as the Church is around, we will be waiting with the feeling that Jesus’ coming is right around the corner, and that’s honestly because He is. While the years may extend, Jesus is never far away. Heaven and earth are but separated by a thin curtain, a curtain Jesus has already opened, and in His Church Jesus constantly blurs the lines between this age and the age to come. So we will always feel the pressure of Christ’s coming on our time, and we will always long for His final day of salvation. But whenever that day will come, well, we can just have no idea.
Here’s something worth keeping in mind from Russell Moore’s new book, Onward:
The next Billy Graham might be drunk right now. That’s a sentence I remind myself of almost every day, every time I feel myself growing discouraged about the future…That’s what the elderly theologian taught me, as I stood there and wrung my hands over the pragmatism, the hucksterism, the liberalizing tendencies I saw in the Christianity around me, and wondered, “Does gospel Christianity have a future in this country at all?” He looked at me as though I were crazy. Of course gospel Christianity had, and has, a future. But the gospel Christians who will lead it may well still be pagans. He was right. Christianity is not like politics, rife with the dynasties of ruling families. God builds his church a different way.
The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might be a misogynistic, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now. The next Charles Spurgeon might be managing an abortion clinic right now. The next Mother Teresa might be a heroin-addicted porn star right now. The next Augustine of Hippo might be a sexually promiscuous cult member right now, just like, come to think of it, the first Augustine of Hippo was.
But the Spirit of God can turn all that around, and seems to delight to do so. The new birth doesn’t just transform lives, creating repentance and faith; it also provides new leadership to the church, and fulfills Jesus’ promise to gift his church with everything needed for her onward march through space and time (Eph. 4:8–16).
Remember this next time you have a problem with anyone, and next time you fear for the future of Christianity.
Do not love the world or the things that belong to the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For everything that belongs to the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s lifestyle — is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever.
1 John 2:15-17
This world will burn. I don’t mean that the physical, spacetime universe will be permanently destroyed, of course.1 I mean the rulers and systems of this age, the present cultures, structures, and institutions which are beholden to the flesh and the devil, which foster sin and exacerbate suffering. These are what John and Paul often refer to in Scripture as the “world” or “this age.” And as John said just above, they are passing away. The world will be condemned and toppled when Christ returns to judge and recreate.
But it is easy to talk about this stuff in general, abstract terms. What is this condemned world in real, actual life? What does it mean to love it and the things in it, as John warned us against? I’ve been giving this some thought lately, and it is not too hard to see how it works. The world offers its own vision for life in direct opposition to the call of Jesus. Naturally, this vision takes different forms in different cultures, and I do not know much about the way of worldly life presented to people in most cultures, but what I am familiar with is the American one. So what is the world in America?
One easily identifiable component of the world system in America is its relentless pursuit of personal wealth and “success.” Our society is powerfully shaped by this idol. Ideally, we go to school to get qualifications that land us in decent jobs from which we can work our way up to riches. Few make it all the way through this journey to the top, but its role as the standard goal is unquestionable. The life of corporate advancement, complete with expensive clothing, status watches, luxury cars, and all the rest, is taken for granted as an ideal, part of the good life for which we Americans strive.
Yet, while diligently working in a profitable job is by no means an evil or a sin, the system behind this success culture is clearly and certainly corrupt to the core. Quite frequently, it demands that you offer in sacrifice your integrity, your spouse, your children, your commitment to your church, and by all means your sacrificial giving on its pagan altar. It breaks apart families and in fact even individuals under stress and the pursuit of the wind. You are not permitted to give with unlimited generosity, sacrificing wealth and status too thoroughly to help the least of these, but must spend freely and extensively on certain restaurants, gizmos, and fashions with symbolic functions in order to climb the ladder. This system is greed and pride incarnate, the actual reality of the “pride of life.” It may be true that it is entirely possible to have one of these jobs while not participating in these corruptions, but it remains a frightening world, and one which demands intentional, diligent Gospel devotion for a follower of Christ to spiritually survive.
The world also manifests itself in the reigning sexual ethos, where the only thing that matters is personal sexual expression and unrestrained choice. The union of easy divorce, endlessly accessible birth control, affordable abortion options, casual hookups, proliferating online porn, and the de-shaming of adultery brings forth a sexual culture of death. It creates emotional distress, insecure men, unfulfilled women, rapidly spreading diseases, fuel for sex trafficking, and broken homes (the last of which tends to bring with it a host of other problems, such as generational poverty, drug abuse, gang crime, and school violence). What is hailed as “liberation” is actually slavery to the flesh. The culture which asks “What’s wrong with consenting adults doing what they want in the bedroom?” is the very same culture which robs millions of people of their consenting freedom to slavishly serve (in many cases quite literally) the god Sexual Pleasure.
I could go on exposing the systems and structures which make up the world, but I want to move on to make a more important point. We must hate the world. These systems are evil, pure evil, ruining God’s creation and the humans He loves so much, and they will be damned to Hell when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. We are not allowed to flirt and compromise with the enemy of God’s create humanity, even if this enemy is made up in large part of those same humans. Whoever may make up many of the ground troops, the rulers and powers behind the world are Satan and his hordes. To participate in the systems they have set up on earth in their time of power is to participate in cosmic, demonic rebellion against God. The force that might tempt you to a “harmless” casual hookup is the same one that turned a mere man into a naked, superstrength, chain-breaking monster before driving a horde of pigs to cast themselves off a cliff to their deaths.2
This brings me to a related point about human accountability. We often wonder how God could really be justified in condemning so many normal, seemingly decent people. Would it really be right for God to punish polite Jim Bob down the road just because he’s not sure Jesus rose from the dead? Yet I want to say on this that the majority of people are not as innocent as they look. No, Jim would never buy a sex slave, but he does give his money to a porn website that acquires much of its “talent” from trafficking organizations. Yes, Jim pays for welfare with his taxes, but despite his ability to afford a BMW he has politely ignored every email, telephone, and visitation campaign asking for his support for starving orphans in Afghanistan for 15 years. And of course, Jim would never expand his company with a sweatshop filled with impoverished children, but he has no problem making major business deals giving money to companies that do just that. He might be innocent of thousands of awful crimes, but in the end God sees how he is aiding and abetting tens of thousands.
The world is an omnipresent web of wickedness, and to avoid getting caught in it takes great care. But as Christians we must take that care, because to do otherwise is to entangle Christ with Satan. Nothing can result from such a union but pain, suffering, and judgment. As John said above, “the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever.” If we do not want to pass away with the world, we will have to cling to Christ, but to cling to Christ is to hate the world which opposes Him and His reign of grace. There is no other option. Hate the world or burn with it.
This will lead us to some tough questions about the lines and connections in participation with the evils of the world. We know it would be sinful for us to submit children to labor in rough conditions with pitiful pay just because they can’t survive otherwise, but is it wrong to give our money to companies that do so in exchange for affordable shoes? All evangelical Christians would agree that homosexuality is wrong, but does that mean we shouldn’t come to our gay non-Christian friend’s wedding? And while I may just need a job, is there something inappropriate in trying to sell services for a company that I’m convinced is seriously (though legally) ripping people off?
These questions all need to be addressed, but in addressing them all we must remember the enemy. The world is the devil’s kingdom. Let us not get drawn in, but draw our swords and fight to stand for the kingdom of God instead.
As many of you know, I’m in college right now. I’m also happily married. In fact, I can’t imagine doing my adult life single. Several other young couples seem to feel the same way, and I pray God blesses them. Marriage truly is a wonderful gift, and a powerful sign of the relationship between Christ and His Church. That said, I’m concerned with the relentless promotions and endorsements (even some of the prayers) for marriage I see given to my fellow students. As great as marriage is, it’s not the only lifestyle available to Christians. Our Lord Jesus Himself did not go that route, but another. Celibacy is also an option.
Both Jesus and Paul exemplified the celibate call, devoting their entire lives to a sacred mission for God rather than taking on the earthly entanglements1 of marriage. This is not to say, of course, that marriage is at all a bad thing. Indeed, it is rather a very good and natural part of the original creation.2 It remains the bedrock of healthy society and plays an important role in the life of the Church. There are few more potent images of the union which Christ enters into with His Church than the union of man and woman.3
Nonetheless, marriage is at its heart part of this age, the world that is passing away.4 Practically speaking, it was needed to fill the earth with people who could reflect the image of God in worship and service.5 This purpose is expiring in the new creation, which has already begun breaking into the world through Christ’s resurrection and the outpouring of His Spirit upon His Body at Pentecost. The new world is ever present before us as we wait for the return of Jesus, and when He does return marriage will be finished.6
In addition to all of this, marriage is, well, quite a task. I’m not complaining; I love it! Nonetheless, it takes up a great deal of time and effort, time and effort which could be spent by the single person doing a wide variety of other things for the kingdom of God.7 There are serious practical differences in serving God with a family and without one. While of course a married person can serve God passionately and effectively (that is my goal, after all!), the single person can do so with greater flexibility, freedom, simplicity, and even risk. I will never be able to drop everything and risk my life or even just my livelihood for missional and ministry purposes the same way that, say, the Apostle Paul could.
So what I do I aim to say? To all of you unmarried college students and youngsters out there, especially my co-learners at the
Bridal Baptist College of Florida, don’t assume that marriage is, must be, or should be in your future. There is an alternative, indeed a radically countercultural (even for Christian culture) one. You can not marry, and you can not have sex. Everyone in our culture outside the Church expects you to be regularly sexually active, either within marriage or without. Sex is in fact almost given god-like honors. “You must not repress your sexuality,” you are told. That would be a sacrilege against the rite of sexual self-expression and satisfaction. It’s unhealthy (ritually unclean?) and prudish/ignorant (heretical?) to deny yourself such pleasures. Even within many Christian circles, these basic tenants are often (at least subconsciously) accepted, only with the caveat that the right place for all of this sexual expression is marriage. A commitment to lifelong celibacy amounts to a polemic, if not a declaration of war, against corrupted modern sexual ethos.
In addition to this, a commitment to celibacy functions as a powerful eschatological sign to the world. Marriage, as I noted before, is proper to the old creation, and will pass away. To commit to celibacy in the present stands, then, as an anticipation and symbol of the future state. In cultures with particularly strong family ties, where getting married and having children can affect all sorts of relationships, social status, fortunes, reputation, or property rights, celibacy serves to declare trust in God rather than these temporary systems. Refusing to marry or engage in sexual activity in the present is a way of showing the world that you are part of a different world, the age to come, in which reproduction is by the power of the Spirit rather than by man, satisfaction is found in union with Christ rather than sexual union, and the family that truly matters is the family born of God, brothers and sisters of Christ, rather than the family born naturally.
In today’s culture, though, celibacy is essentially seen as a death sentence, at least for our social/relational selves. The fear goes that a celibate person is missing out on what makes life count, on true love and intimate personal relations. Yet Christ declares an alternative. He promises and creates a new family, a new web of relationships, in His Church.8 I wrote on this in a previous post, and it matters for the question of celibacy. Lifelong celibacy may rule out relationships of sexual-romantic and paternal/maternal love, but those are not the only kind of relationship which be fulfilling and truly loving. When we come together as Christ’s body, allowing Him to reform our hearts, minds, affections, and interests by His Spirit, then we can more than make up for this lack, supporting those who would commit to celibacy. This is a high calling for those of us who are Church family, demanding that we be genuinely interested in and compassionate towards each other, but for those of us who follow Christ, what else do we expect?
So, then, I simply ask you all, actually and personally as my fellow youngsters, to seriously consider this. You BCF people, I know they call it the Bridal College of Florida. But there are very few other lifestyles in our culture which can have the same power as committed celibacy, especially in this post-Obergefell world. It is a sign of Christ and His kingdom, comes highly recommended in Christian history, and I honestly believe can and will change your life, if you are willing to take the plunge.
(P.S. I know it may seem odd that I write so encouragingly of celibacy when I myself am married. Yet I need to be, and I know it. I’ve known for a very long time that God designed me specifically to marry. I couldn’t do life any other way. Not everyone is like that. Many people are not. And it concerns me that this valuable and powerful Christian lifestyle is so neglected and marginalized today.)
(P.P.P.S. Speaking of guest writing, if anyone wants to guest write here you can/should hit me up at email@example.com)
The title here is as descriptive as they get. I basically have a bunch of random thoughts about Christmas. I could write them all as separate posts and try to elaborate and go into loads of detail, but why do that when it’s almost Christmas and you have people to see, presents to wrap, and plans to make? So here you go, assorted thoughts on Christmas from yours truly:
- The way I see it, the question about “the meaning of Christmas” is rather pointless. Christmas is too big and straddles too many groups and cultures to even have a single meaning. It it’s not something laid out by God’s will in Scripture, so we have no basis for saying it even has to be about Jesus, though of course it’s great if it is. The more important question, in my mind, is “What will you make of Christmas?” or perhaps even, “What will you make Christmas mean to people in need?”
- Following somewhat on that point, I personally tend to see basically two Christmasses as my personal framework. To me, there is the celebration of Jesus’ birth as one thing, and the common cultural traditions as another thing, both of which happen to be called “Christmas.” I enjoy each one in its own way and as its own thing. I love to think about the significance of Christ’s birth, and to call the world to think about the Savior. In a mostly independent way, I love the air of cheer, joy, friendliness, presents, trees, lights, and celebration. The two can overlap somewhat, but I nonetheless enjoy each part of Christmas in its own right.
- I think Christmas is a very interesting phenomenon. What drives massive portions of the human race to calm down a bit on the hostility, celebrate peace, exchange gifts, and try to be a little happier than usual? It seems to be something that came along apart from the celebration of Jesus’ birth, so what led everyone to do this once a year? Why aren’t we mostly the same all year long? What power lies behind this kind of global day of the good that something like the Christmas truce could even happen? It’s all rather odd to me, and I cannot help but think that God intervenes, at least a little bit, to give us this time of year. Who’s to say that snow angels aren’t really angels?
- Why was Jesus born? “To save us from our sins” is the usual answer. So I’d like to ask next, “Would Jesus have come if the Fall never happened and we didn’t have sin?” This is an interesting question, and I believe myself that the answer is “yes.” A neglected part of our theology of salvation is how essential it is for God and man to be united in the person of Jesus Christ, the God-man. Eternal life is not merely the biological reality we would have if we never sinned; it is the life of eternal communion with the Triune God, a life given to us through the Holy Spirit and created by the life of Jesus, the only person in whom divine life and human life are always and completely united and reconciled. So even without sin, I’m convinced that we would not have eternal life without Christmas. Jesus was always destined to be the one Mediator, the Reconciler, the Firstborn over all creation, God’s Word in flesh.
- I think most churches should take a far more active role in bringing Christmas blessings directly and personally to the people of their local communities. Not just giving money and/or outsourcing to another organization. Not just contributing to a Christmas charitable thingo. Not just shoeboxes. Actually getting out, taking gifts of many different kinds, and sharing the love of Christ face-to-face with loads of people. Not just cheap gifts, either. Nice gifts. Gifts like you would want someone to give you. It’s like that one rule Jesus taught. What was that, again?
- “Away in a Manger” seems to imply the heresy of Docetism. Just sayin’.