Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Christ Would be Lord of Your Emotions Too (Thoughts on Valentine's Day)

Emotions get a bad rap. I remember my dad saying things like "you can't trust your emotions." Now, I agree that you can't trust fallen emotions, but you can't trust fallen reason or the fallen will either.

But, Christ redeems us whole, not just reason, not just will, but emotions too.

And, Christ is Lord of it all. That means he commands us to think and believe, to will and to act, and to feel and emote.

I didn't realize this was controversial till I stepped in it [the proverbial 'it'] last week. Somewhere along the line, we drew a false distinction between joy and happiness, between love as an act and love as an emotion. I believe these are absolutely false distinctions.

Let me make a case briefly, using love as my example. No Christian can seriously question that we are called to love - to love God, to love neighbor, even to love our enemies. Sometimes this gets interpreted to mean that we ought to do loving things for the other, after all, love must be expressed in practical, real ways. It's not just a warm fuzzy emotion.

With this, I can partially agree. Love isn't just an emotion. It's more, but it's not less. Love must include affection.

Think about worship for a moment. What would worship be like without genuine feeling, without affection for the one we worship? Is God content to have us do loving things for him, like serve him out of duty, obey him, etc? No! We must feel something for God. We must feel love and serve and obey.  I think 1 Corinthians 13 makes this pretty clear.
13:1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (ESV)
Paul speaks of loving things - worship in tongues of men and angels, giving to the poor, surrendering to martyrdom. But if these aren't done in love, read 'with genuine affection/feeling', they are nothing!
This is true of our earthly relationships too. If my wife does loving things for me - buys me Valentine's Day candy, cooks dinner, keeps my clothes clean and ironed, even shows all kinds of physical affection - but feels nothing for me, is she a loving wife? No!  Emotions are important.

The same is true of joy and happiness. We've divided the two concepts when no such division is sustainable biblically (and doesn't show up in church writings until very recently).  Too often we've contended that you can be joyful, but not happy - in other words, joy isn't an emotion. But it is!  The Bible uses words that get translated 'joy' or 'happiness' as synonyms. True, biblical joy/happiness is deep and well rooted because it's grounded in the gospel and in God, but it's still an emotion. And it's true that it's possible to be joyful/happy and grieve and be sorrowful and mourn. They aren't mutually exclusive but that doesn't mean joy isn't an emotion. Joy is an emotion, call it happiness if you will, and it should touch our faces sometimes (in smiles).  You can't be glumly joyful!

So, I don't always feel happy or feel love. I''ll admit it (and it comes as no surprise to those who know me). Is that ok?  My answer is no. It's not. Something is wrong in my faith and obedience and I should repent, seek forgiveness. If I don't feel love for my wife, I should still show love, but pray fervently that God would fix my emotions and allow me to also feel love. If I'm not happy, I ought to ask God to make me happy - not the kind that depends on my circumstances or comfort, but deeply, biblically happy in Him!

Christ commands. He is Lord. The wind and the waves obey...so should my heart! 

For more on happiness and joy, look here at this article, and also this interview with Randy Alcorn

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Why I Cringe When I People Say America Was/Is A Christian Nation

Below is text from one of my 2010 posts. Claims that the U.S. was/is a Christian nation get repeated by the right (when arguing for traditional family values) and the left (i.e. as a Christian nation we ought to welcome refugees)...and it always make me cringe.


Last night I spoke to a small group of international graduate students on the topic "Is America a Christian Nation?" I asked at the outset if they had been given the impression that America was a Christian nation and they all agreed that they had.

I began by asking what it is that makes an individual a Christian. I outlined three essential things. First, an internal work of God referred to as 'regeneration' or 'being born again'. That is the work of God and the sine qua non of being a Christian - without that work, we are still dead in sin and not a part of the Kingdom. This internal change will be manifested externally in the Fruit of the Spirit, but these externals flow from (necessarily) the internal change and cannot be forced or produced simply by the will of man.

Second, Christians are defined right belief. I asked, "if I told you I was an atheist who believed in God, what would you say?" Rightly they understand that I wouldn't be a real atheist, for atheists are marked by a specific belief, namely in the nonexistence of God. Likewise, real Christians are marked by certain beliefs. John, in his first letter articulates a doctrinal test -those who are truly believers will confess Christ. Those who don't, aren't genuine believers, but antichrists. Paul articulates the importance of right belief in several places, but look specifically at Galatians 1:6-9 and his condemnation of 'another gospel'. The early creeds, accepted by Catholics and Protestants (and with minor disagreement, Orthodox believers) are a wonderful summary of what true Christians have believed for centuries.

Finally, there are certain actions that mark of genuine Christians. Again, I asked, "what makes someone a vegetarian?" Obviously, vegetarians are marked off by certain practices, more so than beliefs. They don't eat meat. So Christians are marked off by certain actions, among them is participation in the sacraments of baptism and communion. The New Testament does not allow for a category of believer that is unbaptized or non-participatory in the sacramental life of the Body of Christ (I know, the exception is the thief on the cross). Likewise, the NT doesn't allow us to conceive of believers who are not connected to the life of the church.

Having established what it means for a person to be a Christian, we moved on the discuss what it means for a nation to be Christian. First, a nation could be officially Christian in that it recognized/supported/regulated a state church. England is officially Anglican. Denmark has the Danish National Church (Lutheran). In a similar way, many states officially support Islam as the state religion (Iran, Kuwait, etc.), and several officially support Buddhism (Cambodia, Thailand, etc.).

Second, a nation could be established explicitly on Christian principles, theology, Scriptures, etc. The charter of the Plymouth Colony(Mayflower Compact) is such a document, stating,

"Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic..."

Third, a nation could be considered Christian if the vast majority of the population is Christian (but, on that, see the discussion above regarding the marks of a true Christian). So, do these apply to America?

Going back to the early 1700's, N.America was controlled by three colonizing powers: France, Great Britain, and Spain. Before the 1700's, other nations, like the Dutch, controlled some portions of N. America, but by 1700, it was those three that controlled the entire N.American continent. Two of the three were Roman Catholic, England was officially Protestant. Of the three groups of settlers (English, Spanish, and French), only one came for explicitly religious reasons. The Pilgrims (Separatists) and the Puritans settled in Massachusetts in hopes of finding freedom from (Anglican) persecution. However, not all British settlers came for religious reasons. Alongside the Dissenters (Pilgrims & Puritans) looking for freedom came good Anglicans who were motivated by the hope of a new life or financial prosperity.

Moving ahead to the time of the Revolution and the founding of the United States as a nation, many Christians look back to our Founding Fathers as pillars of Christian virtue who sought to establish a nation on the Christian principles. There is, however, good reason to question this. (I won't even raise the issue of whether or not rebellion against a sovereign is biblical, I'll just direct your attention to 1 Peter 1:13 and Romans 13:1-7). While it is absolutely true, that many pastors were supportive of the Revolution and that many of the Founding Fathers were good Christians (Patrick Henry, John Witherspoon, and Samuel Adams -who's better known for his beer than his role in founding our nation), that is certainly not the whole story. Among the founders there were quite a few Deists (and heretics). Ben Franklin denied the deity of Christ. John Adams denied the Trinity. Thomas Jefferson took scissors to his Bible and cut out all things supernatural, including the resurrection of Christ. Can such men be considered Christian? The did talk of god, but they eschewed a Christian understanding of God. They're god was sub-Christian. Thomas Paine was worse yet (or maybe better yet). He said, "I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all." No wonder he was referred to as the 'filthy little atheist'! Moreover, Washington, while being a regular church goer refused communion for his whole adult life. In addition, he was a Grand Master in the Masonic Lodge - something that cannot easily be reconciled with genuine Christian convictions. (Regarding the image: in the words of an author I can't remember, 'Praying doesn't make you a Christian any more than going to McDonalds makes you a hamburger.' Ok, the quote is actually, 'going to church doesn't make you a Christian...' but you get the idea.)

Considering all of this, I believe we can say that Christianity was certainly influential, but not exclusively so. Maybe more important than Jesus or Moses were the Enlightenment philosphers in vogue at the time - Kant, Rousseau, etc - and their elevation of autonomous reason over revelation (ie. 'we hold these truth to be self evident').

Moreover, beyond the small circle of founders, the population at large, while certainly thinking of themselves as Christian, could be thought of as only nominally so. Belief in God can be assumed, as well as a general Judeo-Chrsitian ethic; however, it is estimated that only 10-15% of the population attended church regularly. [Interestingly, more people attend church regularly now than when this nation was born, in terms of sheer numbers and also percentage of population. So it could be argued we are more Christian now than then. I don't think most would like that argument.]

In addition, when you look at the founding documents of the United States, you don't see any gospel orientation (not even a specifically Christian orientation like in the Mayflower Compact). Certainly vague talk of God or Creator is there, but Deists could affirm that No mention of Christ or the gospel. There was never an officially sanctioned state church for the nation (though many states supported the church - Anglican or Congregational). In fact, our Constitution distances us from any form of established religion. Our leaders are not subject to any religious test (Article 6.3), and religious liberty (not just of Christians) was articulated in the 1st amendment. Interestingly, Patrick Henry understood this to be grounded in the gospel, writing,"It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship." I disagree with him on the first part, but affirm the connection between the gospel and religious freedom in the second part of the quote.

It must be conceded that American's breathed Christian air. The Judeo-Christian ethic was assumed. I've even heard it said that the god atheists disbelieved in was the Christian God (not a Muslim god or Hindu god, etc). However, that is a far cry from saying we were founded on Christian principles.

So, I believe saying America is a Christian nation doesn't do justice to the historical complexities surrounding the birth or our nation. In addition, and more importantly, it doesn't do justice to the nature of genuine Christianity. This is why I cringe when I hear pastors or theologians or lay people saying it. Do we really want that baggage?

First, American civil religion isn't Christianity. Morality isn't Christianity. Christian does come with a moral system, but the moral system, which American did, by and large, embrace, isn't what is essential to Christianity.

Second, looking at the history of our nation, we cannot claim it was a Christian nation and then turn a blind eye to the atrocities we have, as a nation, committed. This is, I believe, very important to own. Slavery. The dispossession of and slaughter of Native Americans. The confinement of Japanese in internment camps. Entrenched racism. And that's the short list. No wonder people in other parts of the world hear America claiming to be a Christian nation, look at our history, and conclude they want nothing to do with Christianity.

Lastly, I think Christians should think long and hard about whether or not the idea of a Christian nation is even biblical. Can a Christian America be squared with Jesus' statements regarding the spiritual nature of his kingdom? I don't think they can be easily reconciled.

I'll conclude with a long quote from Richard Alpert in the Huffington Post:

“Speaking from the heart of the Muslim world in Turkey's Cankaya Palace in April 2009, President Barack Obama answered the question with the nuance that has come to characterize his public statements: America, he declared, is "a predominantly Christian nation" but "we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation."

The President's answer seems to strike a discordant tone between reality and self-perception. On the one hand, American has no official church or religion. The United States Constitution expressly forbids a national religion. Yet on the other hand, Christianity is the religion of a substantial supermajority of the American population. According to the latest results of the Pew Research Centre's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, nearly 80 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian.

But there is no contradiction in the President's statement. America is, and indeed always has been, a nation of Christians but it is not, nor has it ever been, a Christian nation.”

Want more. Watch this short video from Bryan Chapell, President of Covenant Theological Seminary.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The Obedience of Faith

Romans 1:1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (ESV)
This morning I read Romans 1 as part of my devotional reading. One phrase from the above paragraph kept coming back to mind throughout the day - "the obedience of faith".  The NIV renders it as "the obedience that comes from faith". 

My first thought was personal. My faith, the beliefs in the truths of Scripture, my trust in Christ my King...all of this ought to lead to obedience. There is a malfunction in my faith if it isn't leading to obedience.

My second thought was church related. This was Paul's goal; it ought to be ours too. Not just acceptance of doctrines, not just faith by itself, but faith accompanied by works, trust and obedience. Not cheap grace and flimsy faith, but vital faith that produces the fruit of obedience.

Paul holds together two great doctrines we have driven a wedge between - justification and sanctification. They are different, but go together. Justification is by faith. So is sanctification. Justification precedes sanctification, but is never found all by itself.

These two doctrines go hand in hand because both are found in, and only in, union with Christ. It is by being united to Christ that we receive his righteousness and are declared 'saints' before God's bar. But, being united to Christ means his life flows through us and pushes itself out in good works, in love and in holiness. We can't be united to Christ for one, justification, and not the other.

Paul's ambition should be ours - obedience from faith for the sake of his name!

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Shakespeare and Cats

Imagine with me two actors stepping onto stage to do a scene. One of these actors is dressed in a traditional Elizabethan costume - fine, clean, almost regal. The other actor, is in a Cat costume. They begin delivering their lines, and they are very clearly reading from a different script, with a different setting, different use of language, etc.

That was me. And, it is indicative of many churches and the fundamentalist church culture. We were cats on stage in a Shakespearean play. We were out of place, looked odd, talked funny. I wore shirts that said "His Pain, Your Gain." I listened to different music (Petra, Degarmo and Key, Stryper if I was in a spandex mood), read different books, spent my time in different ways (though we had a weakness for movies, so on that point there was commonality between me and my non church friends).

Looking back, there was benefit to this kind of church culture. It was clear we were to be different; we were living a different story. But it is possible that these kinds of superficial differences between the church and the wider surrounding culture can, I'm afraid, mask points of alikeness - even sinful alikeness. We may listen to different music and wear weird tshirts, but do we still love money, worship power, etc.?

Imagine a different, but similar scenario. Two actors walk onto stage, both wearing the same Elizabethan type costume. Both deliver their lines with the same accent, cadence. It takes a little while because of the similarities, but eventually you realize that they too are reading from different scripts. One is reading from Othello, the other Hamlet. Different stories, but similar in more ways than Shakepeare and Cats.

That, I feel is an appropriate illustration for much of modern evangelicalism. We're similar to the wider culture in many ways - and that is not always inappropriate. One can listen to U2, or even Megadeth on occasion and enjoy the talent of these musicians, even be edified by truths the speak of in their lyrics. I can buy some shirts from Old Navy and not all from Christian bookstores. I can read non Christian novels. I watch many of the same shows and movies (though not all) that my non-church going friends do.  Many similarities. But many very important differences.

The challenge is that these differences are not always easy to notice.  They differences are less superficial and more nuanced, not at the level of fashion or musical preferences, but of loves and priorities. For this reason, it is easy for watchers to think we're reading from the same script, at least for a while.

I think this is true for our kids too; after all, our kids are our biggest watchers. Growing up in a fundamentalist background, we knew we were 'aliens and strangers'. It's not as clear to my kids, I would suspect. The differences aren't as blaring, not as noticeable to the naked eye.

So I, and all parents of kids in evangelical or mainline churches need to be more vigilant, pointing out where the scripts for the Christian and the nonChristian diverge. Our kids need to know that they're living in a different story and a different plot line. It won't be as obvious as when you see a Cat on stage with Romeo, but it's incredibly important. So, we need to be vocal about our loves, motivations, priorities, etc. And, we need to make sure out kids have a firm grip on the central story of God and his people!

We need to do this work of reminding ourselves, and our kids we're in God's story.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Complete Reading List 2016

BOOKS 2016 (Rated out of five thumbs up)

The Theology of Augustine, Matthew Levering 👍👍👍👍
Augustine on the Christian Life, Gerald Bray 👍👍👍👍
Confessions, St. Augustine 👍👍👍👍👍
What is the Mission of the Church, Kevin DeYoung 👍👍👍👍
Being Mortal, Atul Gawande 👍👍👍👍
The Man Of Sin, Kim Riddlebarger 👍👍👍
1&2 Thessalonians, John Stott 👍👍👍
Religions Next Door, Marvin Olasky 👍👍
Christianity and Religious Pluralism, Harold Netland 👍👍👍👍
The Baptized Body, Peter Leithart 👍👍👍
Public Faith, Miroslav Volf 👍👍👍
Silence, Endo 👍👍👍👍👍
Ordinary, Michael Horton 👍👍👍👍
Silence and Beauty, Fujimura 👍👍👍
Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic Age 👍👍👍
Janson Equation, Robert Ludlum 👍👍
Blood in the Water (Destroyermen Series), Taylor Anderson 👍👍👍👍
Only One Way, DCosta, Knitter and Strange 👍👍👍
A Theology of Inclusivism, Neal Punt 👍👍👍
Who Can Be Saved, Terrance Thiessen 👍👍👍👍
Top Secret, WEB Griffin 👍👍👍👍
Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance 👍👍👍👍
Assassination Option, WEB Griffin 👍👍
The Samauri, Endo 👍👍👍👍👍
To Change the World, James Davidson Hunter 👍👍👍👍
Introduction to the Blues, Elijah Wald 👍👍👍
How not to be Secular, James Smith 👍👍👍