The Father Loves Baby Steps

As Christians, we will always, until our resurrection and glorification, still be growing up. We have been born again, and after every birth one remains an infant for quite some time. The thing about the new birth is that, being a reality of the Holy Spirit acting upon our minds and hearts, it doesn’t always lead to the same obvious, consistent growth that our first, bodily births do. It’s mixed and splotchy and inconsistent, not because of any fault on God’s part but because of our sinful absurdity. 

Despite our ridiculousness, our heavenly Father is good, loving, and patient with us. We have been adopted by grace alone, regardless of the sins which beset us, and because we stand by this grace in Jesus Christ, we are perpetually accepted before God. This means that He stands ready and waiting to encourage and accept our every move along His way, while simultaneously ready and waiting to forgive all our stops and tantrums along the way when we stop and confess them to Him.

This fact of grace has been something encouraging to me as of late while doing my personal evangelism class at BCF. I know quite well that I am sinfully and woefully inadequate when it comes to sharing my faith with other people (primarily because I am sinfully and woefully inadequate when it comes to conversing with other people). I have made little progress, but I have made some. I was able to share my testimony recently. It wasn’t very hard in the particular case, though I had expected it to be more difficult. This was nothing, especially in comparison to other, more mature Christians, or in comparison to Christ Himself.

Despite my slow and crawling progress, God is gracious. Having adopted me for Himself, He is not cruel to and ready to punish me, but a happy Father who loves His new son. He accepts and rejoiced over my baby steps without for a moment compromising His demands for perfect obedience. He is a kind Father, and He loves me more even than I love my own son.

So remember this in all your faltering obedience. Never deny and forget that you are still a sinner and imperfect and even rebellious, but likewise never forget that God loves your baby steps towards Him.

The Father Loves Baby Steps

A Taste of Karl Barth as His Best

Karl Barth (pronounced “Bart”) was, without question, one of the most interesting theologians of the 20th century. Certainly he wrote more than many of the rest combined. Originally trained in German liberal theology and higher criticism, he eventually reacted and made a sharp break back towards orthodox Christianity, reasserting the transcendent reality of God over and against the liberals who saw everything as being about human experience and personal “faith.” He didn’t come all the way back to what we modern evangelicals believe (e.g. he never came back to question the results of higher criticism much, resulting in a unique but nonetheless problematic doctrine of Scripture), but he made several excellent contributions even so.

For Barth, Jesus held a powerful place at the center of all theology. Nothing could be taken for granted if it was not robustly controlled and shaped by the reality of Jesus Himself, which led him to significantly revise certain doctrines he inherited from the Reformers he drew from if he did not see them as Christocentric enough, the most notable example being predestination/election. This tendency also led him to reject the idea of natural theology, that we can learn anything useful about God from the study of anything other than His personal, direct revelation (e.g. creation) unless that revelation was first accepted.

Anyway, I think Barth was at his best in two places in particular: his understanding of the relationship between God and man, and his commitment to restrict all revelation first to and through Jesus. Alas, today I only have time to focus on the first of these. I’ll give a bit of explanation and then let Barth speak for himself.

Unlike the liberal theologians he turned against, Barth was committed to the belief that there was a real God outside of and above us, fully free and sovereign, not dependent upon the world. His opponents did not think this way. For them, there might be a real god, or perhaps “god” is just a way of talking about the human experience of faith. If there was a real god, he certainly wasn’t the utterly free, distinct, holy being Barth (and Scripture!) spoke of. Barth strongly opposed this conception and insisted that, in essence, God is God. Yet he also combined this belief with the firm insistence that, using that absolute creative freedom, God had chosen to be love, and to create and enter into covenant relationship with mankind for Himself. In Barth’s view, God is God, yet He has freely chosen not to be God in any other way except as the loving God of man, and has created man to be nothing other than God’s own. God commits and binds Himself to man for all eternity, swearing off any option to be God by Himself alone, our of sheer grace and sheer freedom. Yet, despite His condescension to forever be man’s God, He remains the free sovereign, worthy of all glory and superior to us in every way.

Here are some quotes from his book The Faith of the Church to illustrate my point:

The New Testament knows three kinds of glorification: a glorification of God by man (this Jesus Christ accomplishes), a glorification of man by God, and a glorification of God by God Himself. But the New Testament does not know of any glorification of man by man himself. Man may glorify only God and not himself, whereas God glorifies Himself and glorifies man…Man’s glory is like making a big noise, like trying to show off himself greater than he is. God does not need to make any fuss about his glory: God is glorious. He simply needs to show Himself as He is, He simply needs to reveal Himself. That is what He does in man, His creature, in whom He wants to be reflected.

pp. 26-27

We must stress—even if it seems “dangerous”—that the glory of God and the glory of man, although different, actually coincide. There is no other glory of God (this is a free decision of His will) than that which comes about in man’s existence. And there is no other glory of man than that which he may and can have in glorifying God. Likewise, God’s beatitude coincides with man’s happiness. Man’s happiness is to make God’s beatitude appear in his life, and God’s beatitude consists in giving Himself to man in the form of human happiness. In this relationship between God’s glory and man’s glory, God’s beatitude and man’s happiness, we must note that God always has precedence: our glory is founded upon His glory; our happiness is founded upon His. God remains ever independent, master and sovereign. Man is only a servant. God gives, man receives…God then is essentially love and grace…God does not exist without this will to encounter us, to make us live and participate in Him. That is His steadfastness.

pg. 31

And finally, a glimpse of the other point I was saying Barth is good about, combined with this one:

Apart from the relation between God and man such as exists in Jesus Christ, all that we said would be equivocal and dangerous and even false. What was said about the relations between divine and beatitude and human happiness, between the glory of God and the glory of man is then an abstract truth: it is the explanation of the basic theses of Christian theology. What we say concerning the relationship of God and man, we say it in Jesus Christ. It is first in Christ that there is a coincidence of divine glory and human glory. It is in him that the encounter between divine beatitude and human happiness takes place. There is no humanity “in relation to God” that was not first realized and prefigured in “Jesus Christ”…In order to fulfill the true humanism, then we must believe in Jesus Christ. There is no humanism without the Gospel.

A Taste of Karl Barth as His Best

Glimpses: Joseph and Jesus Say “Fear Not”

[“Glimpses: Seeing Christ before Christ” is an ongoing series consisting of brief reflections on places in the Old Testament that the light of Christ can be seen.]

Today I was reading Genesis 50:15-26 and I noticed something exciting. At the conclusion of the long struggle of Joseph’s story, his brothers come before him in fear, barely hoping on the basis of a made-up fatherly deathbed request to be spared for their sins. But what happens is probably not what they expect. Verses 18-21:

Then his brothers also came to him, bowed down before him, and said, “We are your slaves!”
But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. Therefore don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your little ones.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. 

It’s a lovely ending showcasing the triumph of mercy, and I realized that this resonates deeply with the New Testament as well. Joseph is often noted to be a type of Christ, and it is hard to find a place that is more poetic than here. This passage could just as well be rewritten about our approach to Jesus. We come to Him, the risen and enthroned Lord of the universe, the Lion of Judah who judges and makes war, realizing that “it was my sin that held Him there” on the Cross. Should we not expect wrath and fury? Yet He responds otherwise:

“Do not be afraid. I am the in the place of God. Though you did evil against Me, God planned it for good to bring about the present result — the salvation of many people. Therefore don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your little ones.”

Amen. We’re no better than Joseph’s brothers, but the Greater Joseph is even more gracious. So the thought for today: how ought we to live in view of such mercy?

Glimpses: Joseph and Jesus Say “Fear Not”

Love the Trumpers, Hate the Trump

(Before I say anything, I just want to point that I would never actually condone hating anyone, Donald Trump included, even usually in jest. But it was the best title idea I had.)

I believe that Donald Trump is an awful person, doesn’t know what he would really be doing in the White House, and has no business being President of the United States. I do not believe it would be appropriate to vote for him, especially as a conservative Christian, to whom the competence and character of our leaders should matter. (As John Adams said of the White House, “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.” Donald Trump is neither one.)

Nonetheless, I am not happy with the way many people treat and speak of Trump supporters, who make up a third of all Republicans, not to mention more-than-insignificant portions of other groups. There are a lot of people out there who want to vote for Mr. Trump, and I think the whole “these people are the scum of the earth/what’s wrong with America” mentality is arrogant and uncharitable. Assessments of their motives and feelings like that of Rachel Held Evans strike me as fundamentally misguided and overly judgmental. Are we really to believe the reason so many people support Trump is that they just want to be easy winners who abandon the downtrodden instead of bearing the Cross with the least of these?

What so many people seem to be forgetting is that, even though Trump is obviously a one-percenter, his supporters are mostly not. They are not the privileged (despite the fact that they’re mostly white), they are not the well-off, but they themselves are in fact the poor, needy, and oppressed. Trump’s supporters are mostly white working class people, not the most destitute on earth but neither quite the comfortable middle class. They’re generally ignored or maligned by the socially acceptable, progressive, upper middle class, as well as the donor class which power the government, and the non-white lower classes to boot. They have no friends or allies in politics, media, or the respected blogosphere. People dismiss them as privileged, racist, and bigoted (and certainly at least some of them are), and feel justified in giving them no voice or sympathy.

Many people have already written more and better on this than I can. Rod Dreher, for example, has shared an enlightening letter from a Trump supporter and an interesting article about why Trump matters to his main constituency. Similar articles abound, though I can’t find some of the other good links I was looking for. I recommend you reading and contemplating them if Trumpmania confuses or interests you.

The plights of people who support Donald Trump are real, and I want to make this point in direct opposition to people like Evans (above) or the media folks who just “can’t even” at his supporters. Most of these people love to preach tolerance, inclusion, and doing good to the least of these. Even when people as a group tend to statistically share certain negative characteristics, a root cause is sought out with empathy and slowness to judge. Except for people like Trump supporters. No charity is extended to them. Despite the struggles, poverty, and frustration of the white working class, they are simply scolded for their vulgarity, racism, and bigotry (whether real or imagined for each) and told to join in the progressive love-fest for all of the other suffering people out there.

My challenge is for people to take the progressive rhetoric seriously. Do you want to reach out to the poor, the neglected, and the disenfranchised? Is that essential to your Gospel? Then, however you feel about Donald Trump himself, be kind to his supporters. They’re real, normal people with concerns and aggravations that Trump is willing and unafraid to address. Do you find Trump’s deport-them-all ideas racist? (I find them mostly absurd.) Instead of judging his supporters as such, try empathizing with the frustration of rural Jim Bob whose son can’t get a job doing farm work because it’s cheaper to hire José who snuck into the country. Trump speaks to Jim’s struggle, so ponder the solution rather than condemn him.

Basically, feel free to oppose Donald Trump. But if you hate the Trump, don’t forget to love the Trumpers. (Though if you have a stable friendship or family relationship with one, by all means feel free to [gently] rebuke him.)

Love the Trumpers, Hate the Trump

Don’t Forget that Celibacy Is an Option

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.S. I’ve written on this once before, and my friend Clark also wrote on it as a guest writer.)

(P.P.P.S. Speaking of guest writing, if anyone wants to guest write here you can/should hit me up at thenerd@thenicenenerd.com)

Don’t Forget that Celibacy Is an Option

Will We Apply “Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself” to Our Wallets?

“This is the most important,” Jesus answered:
Listen, Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.

“The second is: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other command greater than these.” 

The second greatest rule of Christian life is to love our neighbors as ourselves. Indeed, this rule is barely distinguishable from the first and greatest rule, since to love God is also to love those whom He has made and loves Himself. As Paul says, if we have everything else but do not have love, we have nothing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “as yourself” part, though. We’re not just called to treat our neighbors well, to be nice and kind, even a bit sacrificial, and not mean. More than all of that, we are called to love our neighbors with the same kind of interest and concern with which we love ourselves. The rule could be restated: “Whatever you do to benefit yourself, be sure to do that same kind of thing to benefit others.” And while this restatement may get “amens,” we usually fail miserably to actually implement and follow it in our daily decisions.

This seems to be especially the case when it comes to money and possessions. I don’t know about you, but I find that I rarely spend my money on other people in anywhere near the same way that I spend it on myself. Take one simple example. Say you have an old cell phone, and you want to upgrade. You buy a nice new phone, and give your old phone away to a friend. That’s nice, but what if you thought proactively about treating your friend as you would yourself? What if you did the radical opposite of this situation?

What if you did this instead? You think you want a new phone. But your old phone still works. You would just like a nicer phone. At the same time, you know your friend would like a nicer phone. So instead of buying a fancy new phone for yourself, you buy the phone for your friend and keep your old phone. That’s what you would do for yourself, so why not do it for others?

This kind of thing, spending money and using possessions for others as much as you would do for yourself, presses itself upon my mind often. Obviously, you can’t treat yourself and everyone else exactly equally, because your means can’t support every family on earth. You need to apportion enough to yourself to sustain yourself, otherwise you can’t give help anyone. But once you have what you need, what justifies spending more on yourself than others? What gives you more a right to your money and possessions than other people, especially those in need?

Loving other people as yourself means being willing to do for others things you would usually only bother doing for yourself. That includes the way you spend money. If you would buy a new car for yourself, then if you can truly afford it why not do so for someone who needs one even more than you do, or equally?

This is radical. This is hard. This is not something any of us will probably ever succeed in truly living up to. Yet we can take steps. Next time you want to go out to eat, why not give someone else a gift card? Next time you think about unnecessarily upgrading your phone, why not upgrade someone else’s? The possibilities are endless. It should all make sense if we really love our neighbors as ourselves.

Again, as always, I repeat that we don’t have to sacrifice all goods for ourselves. But still. Just think. Let both extremes plague you until you settle into a good pattern. I pray that for me as well.

Will We Apply “Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself” to Our Wallets?

Jesus Prayed, “May They Be One as We Are One” (My Growing Passion for Church Unity)

Unity. This word frequently presses on my mind in relation to the Church. There appears to be little unity these days. We’ve splintered into thousands of denominations. Even the large denominations and groups are internally divided in many ways. Churches split from churches for stupid reasons. Churches fall apart because of horrible, divisive people. So many groups make their distinctives as though they were the Gospel itself. Baptists condemn those who baptize infants, conservative Protestants in general condemn those who don’t follow sola fide, Pentecostals accuse other groups of lacking the Spirit, Catholics anathemize anyone who doesn’t follow the Pope, Calvinists accuse all others of compromising God’s sovereignty or even works-righteousness, many evangelicals (or more fundamentalist ones) condemn everyone who doesn’t subscribe to strict Biblical inerrancy, progressives accuse conservatives of bigotry, etc.

This is to our shame. Do we have the right to divide Christ? Of course we must stand up for truth, and rebuke and correct fellow believers when they go wrong, and rally around the Gospel of Christ as opposed to all false Gospels, but where is the line? I believe wholeheartedly that the line is Jesus Christ Himself, the Son of God and Lord of All. Those who trust in Him are all bound in a way that condemns and transcends their divisions.

I, alas, do not have all of the experience and eloquence to make the case I want to make, so I want to highlight an amazing series of blog posts by Alastair Roberts. I deeply agree with and resonate with almost everything he says in these posts about church unity and denominations. I’m just going to link to his posts on this and provide an excerpt from each.

#1: The Denominational Church

The Gospel itself is not as complicated as our various ways of articulating its logic are. The Gospel itself is remarkably simple: the declaration that Jesus is Lord and that God raised Him from the dead. It is this that is central. The central truths of the Christian faith are well summarized in the Nicene Creed. If these central truths are comparable to a language like English, the varying articulations of the Gospel that one encounters among the different denominations are like regional dialects. While there are better and worse ways of articulating the Gospel and some ways of articulating the Gospel that are at risk of becoming a different ‘language’ altogether, we must beware of so identifying our ‘dialect’ with the ‘language’ that we exclude some other ‘dialects’ altogether.

#2: Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 1

We can often take a posture similar to that of Jonah in relation to Nineveh. We see the liberal church and delight to pronounce divine judgment upon it, not thinking that God may have a purpose of surprising grace in the situation. The story seldom ends in quite the same way as we think that it will do. Our God is a god who adds the twist to every tale.

It has been almost five hundred years since the Reformation began and yet, despite numerous predictions of its imminent demise over the last centuries, the Roman Catholic church is still with us. In fact there are exciting signs of new life in many quarters. There has been a resurgence of biblical scholarship. Among the laity in many areas there has been an increased reading of the Bible. As Mark Noll has observed, with the new Catholic lectionary more Scripture is read in Catholic worship than is read in many Protestant congregations. Some of the finest theology of the last century has come from Roman Catholics. Undoubtedly many of the errors are still widespread. However, the story is far from over. I would not be surprised if God still has wonderful purposes for the Roman Catholic church.

#3: Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 2

I believe that one of the reasons why God has saw fit to split His Church is in order to ensure that various important perspectives and insights are not lost in a premature union. Rather than permitting the creation of a weak, unsatisfactory and compromised union between various parties, God wishes to preserve the insights that He has given to various parties intact, until the time comes when the Church as a whole is mature enough truly to take these insights on board. Among the various denominations God has scattered lessons that He wishes His people to learn. When the lessons have been learnt — and not until then — the denominations will cease to be necessary.

#4: Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 3

Theology is the Church’s task of narrating the itinerary that will lead us to God. Theology must retain both the simplicity and the complexity of the gospel. Theology should not lose us in the back alleys, but must always keep us directed towards our destination. Theology, when done well, will help us to see the finest details of the varied sights along our path, all the while identifying the path itself with the most wonderful simplicity and clarity.

The theologian should always recognize that the path is so much greater than his itinerary can ever be. Other guides might have noticed things that he has missed. Furthermore, the fact that another guide does not mention some of his favourite sights does not necessarily mean that they are directing people along different paths.

Jesus Prayed, “May They Be One as We Are One” (My Growing Passion for Church Unity)