Being Christians: Marked Out as God’s People

My current reading project is The New Testament and the People of God by N. T. Wright. I hope one day to finish the entire series of which this is the first book, namely Christian Origins and the Question of God (for that matter, so does Wright). It’s been a very interesting study so far, covering the nature of literature and history, epistemology, Jewish history, the first century Jewish worldview, Christian history, and now the worldview of the first century Christians. An important part of studying worldviews is the study of praxis, what people in a group (in this case people within the mainstream first generation Church) do.

According to Wright, the distinctive elements of early Christian praxis could be summed up in a few major categories: mission, sacrament, worship, ethics, sacrifice, and martyrdom. In each of these areas, Christians were noticeably different from the rest of the world, which consisted basically of pagans and Jews. The gist of the differences is as follows:

  • Mission:
    The early church had evangelistic fervor. Unlike the pagans, the Christians spread their teachings with enthusiasm and love. They used their lives instead of legal decree to lead people to the truth. Unlike the Jews, who mostly kept their religion to themselves and frowned upon Gentiles, the Christians felt themselves compelled to persistently offer their good news to all the world.
  • Sacrament:
    The early Christians took baptism and Communion for granted. Every new convert was hastily baptized, and they regarded their baptisms as having significance to new creation and union with Christ. Every time they met (or nearly so) they partook of the Lord’s Supper together. No pagan rituals were anything like this. The Jews’ closest equivalents were baptizing Gentiles converts to Judaism, though it was never given the significance of Christian baptism, and Passover, which was a far more elaborate (and legally binding) ritual than the simple sharing of bread and wine.
  • Worship:
    The worship of Christians is perhaps the most distinctive point. The pagans worshipped very many gods and goddesses, one for almost every part of the natural and supernatural worlds. They also were legally obligated to worship Caesar. Jews, of course, worshipped only one God, Yahweh, and believed all other gods to be shams. Christians continued the Jewish tradition of worshipping one God alone, contrary to the pagans, but in a manner strange and scandalous to Jews included Jesus, a crucified carpenter/prophet from Nazareth, in the worship of their God, though at this time they didn’t explain exactly why or how that worked.
  • Ethics:
    Even secular historians who thought poorly of Christianity were astounded at the virtuous lives of the early Christians. They did not, like the pagans, engage in any kind of sexual immorality. They refused to lie or cheat or steal. Unlike many Jews, they demonstrated love, hospitality, and grace to people of every kind, even the worst of sinners or the lowest members of society. Any accusations made against Christians could only be against rumors of what they might do in secret, or against their dangerous doctrines. They character was generally impeccable.
  • Sacrifice:
    Possibly the strangest way that Christians were different for a religious group was how they handled sacrifice. Unlike both pagans and Jews, they never performed sacrifices, easily one of the most basic elements of religion at the time. They felt a need neither to satisfy pagan gods nor to continue participating in the Levitical priestly system. Instead, if they spoke of sacrifice at all, it was in reference to their Jesus dying for them, or of their own suffering for Him.
  • Martyrdom:
    Pagans saw no need to die for their faith. If anything, they worshipped their gods in order to be saved from death. The Jews had martyrs, but never so many as the Christians, who at times died almost daily. The Christians were noticed for the way they seemed to spit in death’s face, as though it had already been defeated.

In these ways, the Christians stood out blatantly from the rest of the world. They were nothing like the pagans, and their new message directly undermined mainstream Judaism. Indeed, their differences were so striking that they were by some classified as a totally new kind of people or race. You had Greeks, Jews, barbarians, and now Christians. 

This, of course, was right to be the case. We all know as Christians that God has called us to a new and different life than that of the world. We are holy, that is, set apart. We are the ekklesia, the called out ones. In a world of Gentile sinners and unbelieving Jews, we are the true Israel, the true humanity. God has redeemed the human race, and we are the firstfruits in Christ. The overlap between the kingdom of God and this present age is found in the Church. Therefore we ought to be different in very notable ways from those who are still in Adam, who have yet to experience God’s new life created in Jesus and applied by the Holy Spirit.

So what is my point now? Upon reading the section on early Christian praxis in The New Testament and the People of God, I started thinking of ways that we can today still stand out in each of these categories. We are still God’s people, and still as such should be set apart. But how? I’d like to quickly run through some ideas based on what I’ve mentioned about the early church. We can, like our spiritual ancestors, be different in these ways:

  • Mission:
    The world today has many causes and missions. But your average people don’t think much about them. You don’t expect to meet any random person and find them on a mission to convince someone of this or accomplish that. When you do, it’s an exception, and usually thought of as weird. That last thing our culture condones is any kind of mission in personal, day-to-day interactions which says in any absolute terms, “What I have to say is for everyone, period. It’s not a matter of opinion. You won’t get away with ignoring or rejecting it.” Yet we are called to tell the whole world that Jesus is Lord, that He died and was raised for the sins of all people, and that He will return to right every wrong and heal the world with new creation. If we do this in our everyday lives and interactions, and yet also do it with love and grace instead of the stereotypical condemnation or Hellfire scare, we will stand out and people will notice that we have a unique message with a unique method.
  • Sacrament:
    If you ask people what they associate with church, you will rarely hear anything about baptism or Communion. Yet these rituals were defining for the early Christians, so much so that on the basis of their secret Communion meetings people accused them of cannibalism. We must learn to make baptism a big deal, so that no one will think of becoming a Christian apart from in Christ dying to sin and rising to Spirit-led life. To demand with the utmost seriousness a physical act of identification and commitment as the first step of a religion that’s actually not a cult will raise eyebrows and get noticed in our culture. With Communion, as well, if we make it our constant and weekly practice, investing it with both its proper sanctity and its vitality, then we will find that all church visitors or seekers will be confronted every time they come: you need Jesus’ body and blood, but you can’t share in these while you deny Him with word and/or deed. The need to repent and enter the loving community of those who do feast on Christ’s benefits will be evident and, again, strange to a world that’s all about including everyone.
  • Worship:
    As it stands, formal worship is not a part of the lives of most people in the world, so participating in Christian worship at all stands out some. Yet people expect this for churchgoers. What is required to actually stand out in worship is two-fold: we must let worship flood the rest of our lives, so that praise for the Creator and gratitude to our Redeemer is evident in all we say and do. We must also be different in what we refuse to worship: we cannot let politicians, musicians, actors, speakers, authors, government, business, or anything or anyone else own our allegiance or affections.
  • Ethics:
    To stand out in ethics, we have a lot to do. The world thinks of itself as good. Part of what we must do as God’s restored humanity is live our lives so blamelessly and virtuously that we prove them wrong. This will mostly take the form of everyday details. While of course on larger matters like abortion and homosexuality, we stand out, these are not what make us stand apart in ways that are really valuable. The ways which count most are small. Don’t gossip at the water cooler. Don’t try to cheat anyone, or lie about all the things people think it’s okay to lie about. Don’t flatter to the face or curse behind the back. Don’t speak in vulgar ways. Don’t try to get any revenge, or hold grudges, or even just mention that you hope someone “gets what’s coming to them.” If you disagree with someone, make sure any discussion includes clarity and charity. Don’t accuse people who disagree with you of anything without doing research from their side. Don’t demonize people. Be hospitable. Welcome strangers into your home (that one in particular stands out these days). Love everyone all the time. Participate in culture while refusing to take part in the sins involved. All these little differences add up and can make us a peculiar people.
  • Sacrifice:
    Nowadays, in mainstream society no one performs animal sacrifices. So how do we stand out? Two ways come to mind. First, our society believes that we must make personal sacrifices, doing special good, to atone for our sins. We must sacrifice for forgiveness. That people believe this is clear enough if you watch any TV. We must respond with a resounding “No!” and proclaim that forgiveness is accomplished exclusively through Jesus. The other point is that people of the world offer lots of sacrifices in their daily lives which we must not take part in. People sacrifice all the time with their families to make money. When they get the money, they sacrifice their means of blessing others on the altars of the gods Technology and Luxury. Some people sacrifice their children to the goddess Fame by passing them through the fire of the entertainment industry. They sacrifice their marriages for the sake of personal fulfillment. To appease the wrathful god of Sexual Liberation, they sacrifice their bodies and hearts to people they know should not have them. All of these sacrifices, and more, made in worship of money, the American Dream, education, progress, autonomy, sex, or self-expression—we must refuse to participate in any such rituals. When we do, we will be noticed. Indeed, our society still worships the same gods as the Greeks did; they just call them by their normal names—sex, alcohol, wealth, etc.—instead of Aphrodite, Dionysus, or Plutus. And just like the Greeks did, people today think it is awfully strange when others don’t worship them as well.
  • Martyrdom:
    Martyrdom has always been unusual, so it remains one of the most powerful ways to stand out. Yet American Christians do not usually show the same spite of death that the early Christians were known for. Most still take great pains to make sure they stay healthy and whole. And to some extent this makes sense. We don’t live where you can be persecuted just for being a Christian. Yet our victory over death in Jesus must still be made known, because the watching world deals with death every day. So what we need are Christians willing to risk their lives and bodies by going on dangerous foreign missions, or even just living in dangerous parts of our own society. Christians who penetrate both hostile nations and American ghettos, who risk their lives both to take Bibles to Koreans and to help inner city youth escape crime and gangs. Those of us who are guaranteed a good resurrection by the Spirit must take advantage of this hope to accomplish the most risky ministries, and help everyone in need. Both in the evangelistic and in the socially beneficial, we ought to stick out our necks. Hanging out with people with serious, contagious diseases so they can know love and grace? That should be our work. Taking down violent criminal organizations and leaders? Who better to do that than men whose God told them to seek justice and then promised to raise them from the dead?

I hope by this point I’ve said at least something you may find helpful (goodness knows I’ve written quite a bit). If I’ve learned anything by studying the early church, it’s that Christians stood out like bright lights in dark places. Yet most modern American Christians (myself included more or less) seem to fit in well enough with our culture, sitting in the tidy little box of what the wider world thinks Christians are allowed to look like. I pray we will not stay this way, but that God by His Spirit will lead us all on to new things, so that we may be the light of the world as He has called us to. In Jesus name, amen.

 

Being Christians: Marked Out as God’s People

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire

The Cure That Killed the Patient

The Old Testament can be a very scary place. You can’t disagree if you’ve read much of it at all, unless of course you like massive body counts and total destruction. From the frequent application of the death penalty to the bloody conquests of Israel over the Canaanite peoples, there is a lot to unsettle the stomach. I know from experience the strain this violence can create on attempting to have relationship with the God revealed in Jesus Christ during the New Testament.

What I find more disturbing, though, is how many people in popular theology these days are trying to handle this tension. Writers like Peter Enns and others have promoted dealing with these tough texts by more or less excising them from our theology. Because Jesus is the true Word of God and is so non-violent in the Gospels, they argue, the portraits of divine violence in the Old Testament must be distorted by bad Jewish theology. “God lets His children tell the story,” so they say.

As I explained in a recent post, this is a very problematic approach to the Old Testament. The God of the New Testament, the God who dwells fully in Jesus Christ, identifies Himself with Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. Enns and Co. would agree with this. But what they miss is that Yahweh’s defining moment in the Old Testament is made precisely of the kind of very violence they say God must not have done based on Jesus. What is this defining moment? The Exodus. Over and over again in the Old Testament, God identifies Himself as the God who brought His people out of Egypt1. And there is no separating God’s saving Israel in the Exodus from the violent miracles involved2. So if the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has any continuity at all with the God who led Israel out of Egypt, we cannot ignore Old Testament violence. And if He is not the same God, then we’re left in Marcion’s heresy with a completely unintelligible Christ and a foundationally misled New Testament.

Another Way? Maybe Holy Love

Of course, I’ve said as much as this before. What I’d like to address in this post is an actual alternative. Usually after dismissing the tea-strainer approach to the Old Testament, I and others who stand firm on this issue don’t have much of a positive response. If discounting the stories of OT violence as Israelite distortions is the wrong way to understand them, then what is the right way? Should we just swallow the whole without trying to comprehend what our God of love was doing then?

Obviously, apathy isn’t the way of faith, either. We need to try and apply what we know of God in Jesus Christ to what happened in the Old Testament, but we must do so with recognition that the “wrath of the Lamb”3 actually does exist. So how can we do this? I intend in this post to provide something of a way forward, with help from, again, T. F. Torrance, this time drawing mostly from his shorter book The Mediation of Christ.

What do we know of God’s love? We know that this love characterizes God in a deep way4, was revealed in the cross5, and is no more or less applicable to God than His holiness6. So what do these truths tell us? A couple of thoughts come to mind. First off, if holiness is as essential to God as Scripture indicates (and anything repeated three times like in Rev. 4:8 must be), and yet John can say, “God is love,” then these two “attributes” of God must be intimately related and connected, perhaps only two forms of one reality (especially if God is simple). God is not just holy and not just love, but is “holy love.”

What does holy love look like? For an understanding of holy love to “work”, that is, to do justice to what God has revealed of Himself in our history, the definition must be able to handle both Joshua and 1 John, the “Stone the blasphemers” and the “Neither do I condemn you.” So my attempted construction of this concept is as follows: Holy love is love so powerful and incomparable that it stands above all lesser loves, endlessly opposing them for not being loving enough. A holy love cannot compromise with hatred or self-love, but instead burns against them like a fire. Holy love is a freely devoted living for the beloved, which is so for the beloved that the lover must contradict anything which threatens the beloved, whether other people or the beloved herself. So to the beloved in herself, holy love appears like this: “You reveal the path of life to me; in Your presence is abundant joy; in Your right hand are eternal pleasures”7. But to whoever threatens the beloved, holy love appears as a “consuming fire”8.

With this understanding of holy love in mind, the second part of this post will attempt to examine the specific Old Testament problems. At this point, I’ve nearly hit 1000 words, which is the max attention span of the average blog reader. So even if you could read more, I think I’d prefer to split this post because I have quite a bit more. I’ve only laid the groundwork for the rest of what I have to say. I guess try to think about what I’ve said so far until part two comes ’round.

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire

For Now, I Am Sinner and Saint (Simul Justus et Peccator)

The Christian life is a complex one. On one hand, we are righteous, and truly so, as I explained in a recent post. But on the other hand, we clearly continue to sin and get tangled up in the problems of this age. As John tells us, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us” 1. So we find ourselves in this awkward place, caught between the past and the future in a muddled present.

We often have a difficult time making sense of this, too. “Am I righteous? Am I a sinner? What exactly am I and why do I act the way that I do?” We hear different things from different preachers about exactly how these two things balance and function in our lives. But of course it’s not the theological theory itself that we want; we want out. What we need is a way forward. However our sin and righteousness interact, we want to know how to put the sin further and further down.

This is especially relevant if you think like I do. See, my mental processes when it comes to sin have two defining traits: big picture thought and introspection. First, my brain functions on the big picture. What makes it easier to do theology makes my flaws and failures all the more frustrating: with every little detail I see how it connects to and blends with a larger picture. So when I do wrong, what I see is not merely the stain on the wall but the entire growth of mold throughout the house. This is compounded by my obsessive introspection: I cannot stop looking in and examining myself over everything I do. The result of this blend is often a frustrated pessimism about myself. One mistake focuses me on the cracks running through my entire character and conduct, which seem too big to be repaired. 

But when I find out that everything about me, running down to my least conscious everyday motivations, is polluted by sin, what am I to do? If even my best actions seem to, upon closer inspection, be tainted by selfishness or pride, how can I advance? What can I do to truly serve my God, or love my neighbor? What’s the point of even trying if all my tries will even be sinful? Will not my every sacrifice be, in the end, of blemished lambs?

This is where I found help from Martin Luther (and Karl Barth). Luther made a famous statement regarding our life as Christians: simul justus et peccator. We are “simultaneously justified and sinner.” Every moment we live in tension between the old man, the sinner who is dead through the Cross2, and the new, the saint created by the Resurrection3. God’s “Yes” and His “No” sound to us all at all times.

I don’t mean to say that God sees us as half-righteous, or that the old man still counts for anything. Far from it! Everyone in Christ is a new creation, and that’s all that matters to God4. But we live in what the Bible calls the “last days,” the time between the times when the old things are still hanging around but fading, and the new things are working their way in. Jesus has won and redeemed us, but He is away and in the mean time while we wait for Him to return we experience both the old reality and the new one, both sin and salvation.

So what is my point, exactly? I’ve learned from Luther and Barth that we have to accept the peccator side of the equation, the “No” of God which will hang over us until death. We are sinners still. That is the old reality, which though it is dying and defeated still exists. And we have to live with that. I have to live with that. Though by grace I am being renewed each day and march on towards the day of resurrection and restoration, until I reach this goal I cannot escape the condemned part of my existence.

This is the frustration which I must subdue. I want to be whole. I want to be good and righteous and innocent. But for now I’m not. Which means I am in the wrong. I sin. I have actually mixed and polluted motivations. Even when I think I’m being good, I’m still sinning. There are cracks, moral faults, running all the way through my life. Nothing I touch or do is totally pure. Even my best love has selfish distortion. And all of these things fall under the judgment of God. All of them incur His wrath and disapproval for good reason. And I must accept that. I’m not yet who God has recreated me to be, and until that day I’m still never innocent.

Yet there is the other side of the equation. So I am messed up. I may be a sinner in too many ways, the old and fallen creation wielding far too much power. But that can’t keep me from following God. My motives may not always be pure, but they’re not altogether rotten. Help my unbelief, Lord, but I do believe. For even in my weakness, I don’t have to rely on my own merits, anyway. As I just posted, I’m relying 100% on Jesus’ faithfulness, not my own.

So this is the key to keep moving: I must accept the two-pronged death blow to pride. I am so messed up, but I’m not relying on myself anyway so I might as well keep fighting the good fight. When my motives are mixed, so what? I stand by Jesus, whose motives were never impure, so I should just keep pressing on. If I wished to sing on stage to glorify God, but I suspected pride may be involved in my wish as well, I should sing anyway for Him, knowing that my pride is crucified with Christ either way. Even if I know my obedience will be fraught with mistakes and sinful failings, I should offer it anyway, because my living sacrifice is not made pure by my own goodness but by my High Priest before the Father.

So in sum, I can only suggest this: We’re sinful. Deal with it. Keep obeying and never give up in despair at your unworthiness, because our Savior is worthy. Accept God’s judgment on your wrongdoing, and strive for righteousness anyway. You know in the end there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.

For Now, I Am Sinner and Saint (Simul Justus et Peccator)

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