Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Beauty Regimen for God's People

This fall I've been teaching on the topic of holiness in my ACG. I decided on this topic for two reasons. First, there was the desire to tackle something more practical than topics we've covered recently. Second, the connection between holiness and the church's (and believer's) witness is a strong one in both the Old and New Testaments. The holiness of God's people is to be attractive and beautiful, an adornment to the proclamation of the gospel.

This second theme is one that is counter-intuitive to many of us because when we think of holiness it doesn't seem all that at attractive or beautiful. In fact, when asked what images or thoughts come to mind when we think of holiness, the response was typically negative. That's not true when I asked about we think about God's being holy, but when asked to think of people who take holiness seriously, the images were stogie, prudish, unhappy, grumpy, etc.

This shouldn't be the case. Holiness is beautiful. Just look at Psalm 29:

      Ascribe to the LORD, you heavenly beings,
         ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
       Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
         worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.

There's an ambiguity in the last phrase above. It's unclear if the holiness referred to is God's holiness or if the psalmist is calling us to come and worship God clothed in holiness. Either way, the fact remains - holiness is deemed beautiful, splendid!  The same words come again in Psalm 96

      Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness;
         tremble before him, all the earth.

Think also of the scenes of heavenly worship we're given access to in Isaiah 6 or Revelation 4. The angelic beings sing 'Holy, holy, holy'. Yes, these words are definitely filled with a reverent awe. But it's more. It's also an appreciation of that which is supremely beautiful.

Here's an important bridge in my thought process. The holiness we as believers are called to ought to be beautiful since God's is. Theologians divide God's attributes into two categories: incommunicable attributes and communicable attributes. The incommunicable attributes are those which we, as creatures do not share, like eternality, like self-existence (aseity). God's communicable attributes are those which he shares with his creation - like love, patience, and holiness. There is a difference in how we are holy when compared to God. God is holy. We are made holy by God, by sharing in his holiness. So, if we're sharing in God's beautiful holiness, our's ought to be beautiful too.

Why don't we see holiness as beautiful? I think there's two key aspects of a full answer. First, those who speak much of holiness are often displaying a caricature of holiness - a version of holiness that is culturally conditioned and usually has a lot to do with lists of taboos (cards, drinking, dancing, movies, etc.). I once worked at a summer camp that was serious about holiness. I was handed a list of tshirts I had worn to work that were deemed inappropriate. It included a Petra shirt (yes, the classic Christian rock group) and a Levi's "Button your Fly"  shirt (remember those you children of the 80s/90s).  If that's what holiness is, it's not beautiful.

But the second reason is even more to blame I think. We don't see holiness as beautiful because our eyes are out of focus. They're clouded by the remnants of our sinful natures. They don't quite see as God sees; not yet.

So, I pray that God will put lenses on to teach me to see that holiness is indeed beautiful. To fight for holiness isn't just to fight against sin, the world, and the devil...it's to fight for BEAUTY!

I love these words from Edwards,  "holiness is a most beautiful, lovely thing. Men are apt to drink in strange notions of holiness from their childhood, as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour, and unpleasant thing; but there is nothing in it but what is sweet and ravishingly lovely. Tis the highest beauty and amiableness, vastly above all other beauties; tis a divine beauty, makes the soul heavenly and far purer than anything here on earth…”

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Missional Application of the Seven Letters: Emphasize Warnings and Promises

It is clear from the seven letters that the reward of eternal life with Christ is conditioned upon perseverance. Persecution is not the only pressure that threatens the church and her mission so perseverance is not only to be thought of in terms of enduring suffering, but also persisting in doing good, in pursuing holiness, and in loving well.

Throughout the study of the seven letters we have seen that faithfulness to the witness bearing mission of the church requires fidelity to God as the sole object of worship and does not allow for a syncretistic blending of allegiances or affections. Moreover, the mission requires the church to keep itself clean from the stain of immorality and pursue holiness. Love is also an essential element of the witnessing task given to the church – a love for God, love for brotherhood of believers, and a love for the unbelieving neighbor. In summary, the church is to be a contrast people, their uniqueness serving to draw the world attention and ire.

Jesus takes the mission of the church quite seriously and threatens to come in judgment upon those churches that forsake, compromise or abandon their missional calling. It is, I believe, the duty of the the church and especially its pastors to issue these warnings to its members on behalf of Jesus, calling her to become “conquerors” and so fulfill the mission given to them and attain the promise of eternal life in the kingdom.

In five of the seven letters Jesus issues explicit warnings and calls to repentance. Jesus threatens to come to Ephesus and remove her lampstand if they did not return and “do the works they did at first” (2:5). The church at Pergamum would face Jesus waging war against them with the sword of his mouth if they did not repent of their toleration of false teachers leading them into idolatry and immorality. In Thyatira, Jesus had given Jezebel and her followers ample time to repent, but proving unwilling they faced judgment including being thrown onto a sickbed and death. Jesus will come against Sardis like a thief in the night if the church does not wake up. The Laodicean church is about to be spewed out because they have become indistinguishable from their culture and hence useless.

Maybe even more significant are the conditional promises given to each church. In each of the seven letters the inheritance of salvation is made conditional upon “conquering” (νικάω). Implied in these promises is a threat that those who do not conquer (or “overcome”) forfeit the promised inheritance in the future kingdom. Two examples will suffice to emphasize the nature of these implied warnings. To the church at Smyrna Jesus says, “The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” Implied in these words is the warning: those who don’t conquer will suffer a second, eternal death. Also consider Jesus words to the church at Sardis, “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life.” Again, it only those who conquer will have their names indelibly written in the book of life. Could the stakes be any higher?

When considered together, the seven letters present the church with an urgent plea to overcome all that will threaten her ability to faithfully complete her mission of bearing witness to the world. Conquering always includes maintaining belief and refusing to give into disbelief, but it also includes overcoming sin that is a stain on the church's witness, false teaching that threatens to shipwreck the church, resisting idolatry and immorality and, in summary, being the distinct people of God.

Moreover, it is clear that conquering or overcoming must be a persistent activity; one does not conquer once, but must continue conquering, persevering to the end. Even those churches that were commended are called to persevere in their faithful witness and lay hold of their eternal reward.

This concern for perseverance in faith must inform the teaching ministry of every pastor; yet, several factors conspire to make many pastors reluctant to emphasize these and the many other warning passages of Scripture as well as the conditional nature of many biblical promises.

Of course, threats and conditions will never be popular, even when the pastor is only communicating a threat made by the church’s Lord. But even courageous pastors are often reluctant to teach the biblical warnings. The main reason, I believe, is the lack of clarity regarding the complex of issues surrounding these warnings – issues related to the nature of faith, the importance of works, assurance of salvation, etc. In some cases this reluctance may be the fruit of an overly simplistic doctrine of perseverance of the saints or eternal security, while in others it may stem from a reluctance to preach anything akin to a work-based salvation.

While a complete study of the issues related to perseverance is not possible, a few truths need to be considered as important theological background to a proper presentation of these warnings. First, regarding faith, pastors need to acknowledge and teach a robust understanding of faith that is more than simple mental assent or belief. Schreiner and Caneday liken faith to a multifaceted gemstone and demonstrate how the many metaphors utilized in scripture for Christian faith are necessary to fully grasp what is required by the concept, metaphors that include athletic images (running a race, training, etc.), military images (fighting the good fight, armor, etc.), rational metaphors (knowing, understanding), sensory language (hearing, seeing), images of discipleship (following), bodily action (eating, drinking), and metaphors of endowment (receiving).

While some of these metaphors emphasize the passive aspects of faith, when taken as a whole it should not be missed that there are many active aspects to faith. Commenting on Hebrews 11, Schreiner and Caneday point out “In every case, faith sprang into faithful action. God commends each one [Abel, Noah, Abraham, Rahab, etc.], not merely for possessing faith, but for faith that obeys.”

This truth is also apparent, for example, in the letter to the church in Ephesus where Jesus calls them to “do the works you did at first.” Christ expected their faith to give rise to action. Schreiner and Caneday continue, emphasizing faith’s perseverance, “God is pleased with faith that perseveres; God does not commend a person for a singular act of faith that fails to endure. God does not reward faith that does not go the distance.”

This too is seen in several of the letters to the churches in Asia. To the church at Smyrna Jesus says, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” This does, of course, raise the issue of a believer’s eternal security and assurance. How does one fit the necessity of perseverance alongside Biblical promises that seem unconditional and emphasize the believers secure standing before God?

In navigating these doctrines, teachers must avoid blunting the warnings by superimposing the promises overtop of the admonitions to persevere (and vice versa). Schreiner and Caneday are right, "We believe that God’s promises of assured salvation have their proper function to ground our faith in God and to assure us that God faithfully keeps his promises to his children. We also believe that God’s admonitions and warning have their distinctive function to evoke faith that perseveres in holy devotion to God’s heavenly call on in Christ Jesus. Thus, God’s warnings do not conflict with God’s promises. His warnings serve his promises, for his warnings elicit belief and confidence in God’s promises."

Pastors who blunt the warnings of Scripture, refuse to preach Biblical warnings, or avoid the conditional nature of biblical promises deprive their churches of the full counsel of God. In so doing, they fail to recognize that God uses these warnings, admonitions and conditions to reinforce faith and beckon the believer to persistence. Too often pastors get caught up explaining [away] these warning texts, importing the theological truths that those who truly comprise God’s people and have genuine faith will persevere till the end (being preserved by God’s sovereign power through his Spirit) and this truth’s corollary, that those who fail to persevere prove their faith was not genuine saving faith. But, the point of these texts is different.

The conditional promises of Revelation, let alone the repeated warnings, are not included in Jesus’ letters to the church to explain that those who have fallen away were not sincere in their faith to begin with (though other texts make this point), but to call the churches to repentance and encourage them to persevere and overcome. Schreiner and Caneday call attention to this propensity for pastors to interpret the “the biblical warnings from the retrospective vantage point of apostasy completed rather than from the prospective threat lest someone fall away.”

While the retrospective vantage point is the focus of some passages (i.e. 1 John 2:19), turning every passage this way is unwarranted and counterproductive – God inspired both the backward looking explanations of apostasy and the forward looking warnings for the good of his church. Just as the author of Hebrews urges individual believers to “lay aside every weight” that hinders them from running well and “run with endurance the race set before us,” so in Revelation 2 & 3 Jesus urges every church and every member of the church to cast off that which would hinder them from their mission of bearing witness and remain faithful so that they will numbered in the company of who conquer and lay hold of their eternal reward. Pastors must bring these pleas to their churches.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Could Paul Have Been Wrong?


The question came up (not for the first time) last week as I was preparing to preach on 1 & 2 Thessalonians. It's common to hear that Paul, at the outset of his ministry, thought Jesus would be returning within his lifetime. So, did he? Could Paul have been wrong?

It depends. 

Paul might have thought the earth was the center of the universe. He might have thought Spain represented the western edge of the world. He might have thought baseball was boring. If so, he would have been wrong.

Paul could have been wrong about a lot of stuff because Paul wasn't inspired, inerrant or even necessarily authoritative in all areas.

Not even all his theological opinions were necessarily correct. For example, I have conversations with my Grandma and occasionally, the topic will turn to Christ's return. Grandma usually says something like, 'I really think I'm still going to be around when Christ returns.' Is it possible Paul had similar conversations?  Sure. 'Hey Timothy, did you hear Nero set the fire in Rome. Dude's crazy. The world's going nuts. I think maybe Christ could be coming soon.'

Problem? No!

It's even possible that Paul articulated some of those theological thoughts in sermons in churches.

Pushing it a little further, not even all of Paul's writings were necessarily inspired.  There's probably some letters we don't have - a lost letter to Corinth, one to Laodicea. Maybe one to mom and dad. Could there have been errors in those letters. Sure.

It's the letters of Paul that are included in the canon of Scripture that are inspired and free from doctrinal error. It's the teachings of Paul (and James and Peter and whoever wrote Hebrews, etc.) included in the pages of the New Testament that are authoritative. 

I think we as evangelicals sometimes get caught fighting battles we don't need to fight because we assert too much.  I have no interest in defending Paul, James, etc against error. I do have a stake in the fight when it comes to the Bible and to the apostles inspired and authoritative writing.

So, the much more important question: Are Paul's NT writings on the timing of Christ's return in error. Did Paul teach in the pages of the NT that Jesus would be coming during his lifetime?
No, he didn't. But, I can understand why people might think he did.

Here's a few of the places where Paul may appear to be saying Christ's coming was going to be soon (since some attribute Hebrews to Paul, erroneously I believe, I'll handle two verses from Hebrews as well):

1. Phil 4:5 - "The Lord is at hand."

Sam Storms, of whom I a huge fan, points out that this could mean one of two things. He writes, "This phrase 'at hand' could be taken temporally or personally. That is to say, he may be referring to the nearness of Christ in terms of time or space.

If it's personal, then its saying Christ is with you and there to give you the strength you need. This phrase does come, signicantly, in a prayer.

However, I think it's likely a temporal reference. But, this doesn't mean Paul was teaching that Christ would come back soon (as we think of soon).  He spoke at the end of Philippians chapter three of our citizenship in heaven from which 'we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ'.  I think Paul is speaking of Christ's return which is 'at hand'.  And it has been 'at hand' for a long time and simply means 'impending'/'imminent'.  It could happen at any time (though in 2 Thes., written well before Philippians, Paul teaches that it won't come until the 'Man of Lawlessness' is revealed) .

2. 1 Thess 4:16-17 - "For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord."

Since Paul says "we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up..." some have used this verse to argue that Paul mistakenly thought Christ would return while he was still alive. This, I think, fails the common sense test. Paul was alive when he wrote it, so naturally he would have put himself in the category of those who are alive vs. those who are dead. He could have said, "then we, if we're still alive at the time, will be caught up...," but that's just needlessly cumbersome and a little pedantic. Paul put himself in that category because, at the time, it was true - he was among those still alive who'd be caught up with Christ in the clouds, not one of those who'd be resurrected.

Paul writes similarly in Romans13:11, "For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand."  Obviously, if Christ's return is an event in history it's nearer now than it was earlier. Time/History move forward - future events get nearer. But what about the night being done and the day being at hand?  Read below on the Hebrews 1:2 passage.

3. Hebrews 1:2 - "Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son"

Again, I don't think Hebrews was written by Paul (it doesn't claim to be), but many do. This text clarifies a lot I think. In these last days God has spoken to us through his Son. So the last days are connected to the revelation of the Son, which means the last days began when he was revealed.

The Bible speaks of two stages of history - this present (evil) age and the age to come. Sometimes the language is used to convey this same idea is 'former days' vs. 'later days' or 'last days'.  With Christ the age to come broke into the present evil age and the two ages now, for a time, overlap. But, the entire period from Christ's first advent till his return is rightly called 'the last days'.  See also Acts 2:17 where Peter reminds the people witnessing the outpouring of the Spirit that this is what the prophet Joel said would happen 'in the last days'.

4. Hebrews 10:37-38 - "Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”

The author here is contrasting the relative shortness of waiting (and enduring suffering) with the length of eternity. The greatness of the believers reward, which is eternal, is worth waiting for. In fact, the wait, though it seems exceedingly long to the one suffering, is but 'a little while' when compared to the span of eternity in which they'll enjoy their reward.

Also, the second half of this verse is a quote from Hab. 2:3-4. The full quote is helpful, "If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay." There is a recognition that the response could seem slow, but wait for it...it won't delay.

The quote fits our call to wait for Christ's return very well. It may seem slow by our standards. But God isn't delaying - it will come in the fullness of time. Wait for it. Be awake, vigilant, prepared and eager. 

No problems here. No real challenges to the truthfulness of Scripture. Paul wasn't wrong in what he wrote. To see this you just need to look at the fullness of what Scripture teaches, not simply isolated texts and phrases. And you can't define terms as you wish, you need to understand how Paul (or anyone else who writes) used a phrase. Hermeneutics 101.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Take a Load Off

Especially true of sound eschatology...as the books of 1& 2 Thessalonians attest.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Missional Application of the Seven Letters: Prepare for Suffering

Continuing to think through some missional applications of the seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor, we need to consider the theme of suffering. As we learn to live the narrative and “indwell God’s story”, our individual and corporate life's will increasingly be shaped by the story. As the church lives out her mission and becomes the “contrast community” she was called to be, persecution will inevitably follow.

Persecution is explicitly mentioned in two of the letters we have examined. Jesus knows of the tribulation of the believers in Smyrna and encourages them in the face of what they are about to suffer while calling them to be faithful even unto death. Also, Antipas was martyred in Pergamum, and despite this the other believers were holding fast.

Three other letters speak of the enduring church, though violent persecution is not necessarily the source of suffering. The Ephesian church was “enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake” under pressure from false apostles (from what we know about the circumstances in Ephesus it is likely that Christians were the object of intense vitriol and violence; see Acts 19). Thyatira is commended for their patient endurance and called to “hold fast” to what they had, not yielding to temptation, false teaching or persecution. Philadelphia is suffering from the false Jews who comprise the synagogue of Satan, but are patiently enduring.

Sardis and Laodicea do not appear to be suffering any degree of persecution at the time of writing (or be in significant danger of suffering except under the judgment of God). This lack of suffering is likely due to the degree to which they had sinfully assimilated themselves into the pagan culture. The conclusion that can be drawn from these letters is that faithful churches will likely suffer and need to endure tribulations that may include persecution, whether slander or violence.

Stott writes, “If the first mark of a true and living church is love, the second is suffering.” This has certainly proven true through large swaths of the church’s history and is true in many places across the globe today; yet, in the West the church has enjoyed a relative amount of ease and comfort. That is not to say there has been no pockets of persecution even here in the United States , but on the whole, this has not been the norm. This should lead us to ask two poignant questions.

First, why are we not facing more opposition? Is it because God has blessed us with a period of peace and allowed the church to flourish or is it because we have become so sinfully accommodating to our culture that we are no threat to the status quo. I believe there is some truth is both answers and both need to be thoughtfully explored, though likely the latter is more to credit/blame. Again, Stott writes, “We shrink from suffering. The ugly truth is that we tend to avoid suffering by compromise.”

Secondly, the we need to ask if we and our churches are prepared for suffering and persecution should the situation change. How would the church fare if she were to face the same kind of persecution and suffering that Pergamum did, or Ephesus? Faithful shepherds will, as we see Jesus doing throughout these letters, prepare the church for suffering. Keener states it bluntly, “If we have not prepared ourselves and our congregations to die for Christ’s name if necessary, we have not completed our responsibility of preparing disciples.”

I believe there are five important ways we need to be preparing ourselves and our churches for suffering. First, we need to remind ourselves that suffering is normal for the faithful Christian; it is their lot. Peter tells us as much, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). Demonstrating this truth will be natural for the pastor committed to telling the grand story of Scripture: Abel was murdered by a jealous brother for his righteous offering. The people of God suffered in Egypt. The prophets suffered and were persecuted by unrighteous kings and queens. Peter and Paul are a part of this suffering story. The story includes people who, though righteous, suffered. This part of the story needs to be heard in our churches, for as much as we would hate to admit it, the “prosperity gospel” has found an all too eager audience in our evangelical churches. Suffering is seen as something to be avoided and even a sign of divine displeasure. People have been taught that being in God’s will is a safe place, free from danger or hardship. So we need to start by reminding ourselves and our churches that suffering is normal, and according to Jesus would inevitably come to his followers.

Second, suffering needs to be put in the context of God’s love and commitment to do his people’s good. Of course God disciplines his children, as every loving father does. But even beyond discipline which calls for repentance, God allows his people to suffer persecution to test and refine their faith (see James 1:3,12; 1 Peter 1:7). There is a mysterious element to God’s will as it relates to suffering: in some instances God rescues from violent persecution while at other times he allows his church to suffer greatly. Yet, in both circumstances, we must place the outcome within the context of God’s love and concern for their ultimate good. Keener comments, “Suffering has a way of reminding us which things in life really matter, forcing us to depend radically on God, and thus purifying our obedience to God’s will.”

Third, God's promise His grace is sufficient to see us through the suffering needs to be heralded over and over again. Jesus makes his intimate knowledge of and presence with the churches a point of emphasis in each of the seven letters – he is the one who walks among the seven golden lampstands and “knows” them. To some this would be disconcerting, for Jesus knew their failings. But, for the faithful church enduring persecution it was meant to be an encouragement. Jesus knew their struggle, was with them in the midst of it, and offers his strength to endure it.

Fourth, we need be pointed to Christ and his pattern of suffering. Jesus himself does this in the letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia. To the suffering church at Smyrna Jesus identifies himself as the one “who died and came to life”, reminding them that he too suffered but also that he prevailed. The church at Philadelphia had taken to heart “the word about my [Jesus’] endurance”, noting and emulating his pattern. Of course this theme is an oft repeated one throughout the New Testament. For example, Hebrews 12:3 encourages the believer, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Churches need to sound this note clearly – our suffering is something the author of our faith himself endured and it is, in some mysterious way, participation with him in suffering.

Finally, we need to think often about the hope we have if we will endure. Setting aside the conditionality of these promises for a moment (more on that soon), we need to have our eyes set on our future hope so that we grasp what it is that stands to be gained on the other side of patient suffering. The glory the believer will attain and the reward of eternity in God’s perfect shalom needs to be a theme we come to often in our teaching, preaching, praying, and conversing. This is the focus of each letter’s conclusion – the right to eat from the tree of life in God’s paradise, immunity from the second death, hidden manna, a place in Christ’s kingdom, white garments, the crown of life, God’s name, sitting with Jesus on his throne, etc. The sufferings the believer endures will only seem “light and momentary” if we know and long for the true “weight of glory” that will be granted to those who endure.

Keener sums this call to be ready for suffering up well, “Revelation prohibits us loving our lives more than his gospel; it summons us to follow the model of Antipas as faithful witnesses, no matter what the cost.” Being faithful to our mission will lead to suffering, but Christ, our suffering servant walk with us through it and rewards us richly after we have suffered "a little while."

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Prayer From a Needy Man

Lord, I thank you for your willingness to supply all my needs.
At every point I stand needy, there you stand ready to meet my need.

I am your creation, so dependent on you utterly. You are my Sustainer.

I am a sinner and stand in need of your grace and mercy. You are my Redeemer.

I'm drowning in guilt and shame. You are my Savior.

I need to be freed from the defilement of sin. You are my Sanctifier.

I need daily sustenance. You are my Provider.

I'm weary. You are my Rest.

I need purpose in a world that pulls towards meaninglessness. You are my Telos.

I need security amid the tumult of today. You are my Refuge.

I'm worried. You are my Peace.

I need wonder and mystery. You are the Three-in-One God.

I'm lost. Your are the Way.

I'm confused. You are the Truth.

I'm dying. You are Life.

Show me all the ways I think I'm self sufficient. Reveal yourself there as the one who meets the needs I don't even know I have.

Be gracious and ever giving.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Why did I become a Calvinist?

Another question: What led you to your calvinistic position, especially after attending an Arminian (Wesleyan) college?

I think I was predisposed to Calvinistic theology and against Arminian theology growing up. My dad (who doubled as my pastor) wouldn't have identified himself as Reformed or Calvinistic, but he strongly emphasized the doctrine of eternal security. I began to see, in seminary, how they ‘doctrines’ of grace all hang together – it’s really hard to consistently hold a doctrine of eternal security without also predestination, etc. 

Interestingly, in my first semester at Trinity I had to write a personal statement of faith. Looking back at it the whole thing was pretty Arminian except for an strong affirmation of eternal security. So, it was sometime during seminary that I began to identify as Calvinistic. I know it wasn't until after a few years in ministry that I fully adopted the label 'Reformed' and the theology that goes with it (covenant theology, infant baptism, high view of the sacraments, etc).

Oddly, one of the main ideas that pushed me over the edge into Calvinism was the doctrine of ‘limited atonement' (the 'L' in TULIP). I prefer the label 'definite atonement' or 'particular atonement' (over against the Arminian notion of universal or general atonement). In many, that’s the last domino to fall. For me, it was one of the first. 

John Owen argued 1) either Christ died for all the sins of all the people (universalism), 2) or some of the sins of all of the people (in which case, we’re all up the creek without a paddle, or 3) all of the sins of all of the people (the traditional Reformed perspective).  Some countered that Christ died for all the sins of all the people but that this gift needed to be accepted by faith. Owen came back by asking if rejecting this gift was a sin (is unbelief is sin).  If so, then did Christ die for that sin? If not, then your back to option 2 above (some of the sins of all of the people). 

Anyway, you asked me what made me switch. That was one factor. There were others. For example, having accepted the doctrine of total depravity (which Arminius accepted also), one is left with the question of how one finds faith and repentance. Arminius posited 'prevenient grace' as prerequisite to faith. God offers this prevenient grace to all prior to conversion, making faith and repentance possible, but not inevitable. This grace is resistible. 

So then, if all have received prevenient grace but only some respond favorably, the question becomes 'why?'  Why do some respond with faith while others respond in disbelief. The answer can be articulated differently, but it boils down to something the sinner does. It takes the final outcome out of God's hands and puts it in the sinners. So the answer to 'why is this person saved and not that person' when both have received prevenient grace becomes, in essence, 'because this one is better (because he believed) than that one (who didn't believe)'.  

The Calvinst says the believer believes because God gave the grace to do so; the unbeliever remains in his unbelief because God passed him over. Of course that raises different questions, but the believer simply cannot claim any credit for his salvation, so all the glory goes to God.  

I 'switched' (from an inconsistent blend of Arminian/Calvinistic doctrines) to a more consistent Reformed postion because I believe, at the end of the day, the Reformed theologian accounts for the full range of biblical truth. The Calvinist scholars can allow all of Scripture to 'have its teeth', explaining how the different threads of truth are weaved together into a coherent theological framework. There are two ‘poles’ of text – those that emphasize God’s sovereignty in salvation and those that emphasize man’s need to choose. I think Reformed interpreters deal well with both; I’m less convinced by the Arminian treatments. Of course, there remain passages I'm puzzled by, mysteries I can't explain, etc. But on the whole, I think the Reformed position addresses these more fully.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Book Review: God at Work, Gene Edward Veith Jr.

Gene Edward Veith Jr's book, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life is one I will be recommending a lot to friends (I finished the book on Monday and have recommended it twice already this week). It's not a long book, and not overly technical. Instead, Veith offers and accessibly and liberating look into the doctrine of Christian vocation.

I've read several of Veith's books, including State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe and Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture, but this one is the best I've read.

Most of us probably think of vocation in terms of career. Veith reminds us that vocation is much more than what we do to 'bring home the bacon', though, of course, it is that too. We have vocations (yes plural) in our families - I am called to be a husband, father, son, brother, grandson, etc. We also have our vocations within society - I'm an American, a voter, a taxpayer, a neighbor, etc. Then there is our vocations in the church. And, of course, there is our vocation as workers.

Veith explains why this doctrine was so important to the Reformers, especially Luther. He writes in the introduction, "The doctrine of vocation amounts to a comprehensive doctrine of the Christian life, having to do with faith and sanctification, grace and good works. It is a key to Christian ethics. It shows how Christians can influence their culture. It transfigures ordinary, everyday life with the presence of God" (17).

If you're a college student wondering how to choose a vocation, read this book. If you're forty and in the work force, but disillusioned by the monotony of the daily grind, read this book. If you're a stay at home mom looking to find some significance in the tedium of raising small children, read this book. If you're in the church, or in society, you got it, read this book. (I think that covers everyone). 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Missional Application of the Seven Letters: the Story

In earlier posts (spanning a couple of months now) I have outlined the missional concerns of each of the seven letters and argued that all of the commands and promises, rebukes and commendation, need to be understood in light of the church’s mission.

But, to truly grasp the church’s mission one must see how it flows out of the entire storyline of Scripture. It is not enough for a church’s concept of mission to hang upon a few texts in the New Testament, not even the Great Commission in Matthew 28. If the mission is truly going to govern the life of the church and its members, as it should, then the concept of mission must be robust.

Goheen and Bartholomew contend (quoting Stroup), “At the center of Scripture is a set of narratives and these narratives are the frame around which the whole of Scripture is constructed. Apart from these narratives the Prophets would not be intelligible and without the frame of the Gospel narratives it would be difficult to understand the full meaning of the parables, epistles, creeds, and hymns of the New Testament.”[1] It is through this story that we understand God’s mission and the mission he has given his church.

Wright contends, “Mission is not just one of a list of things that the Bible happens to talk about, only a bit more urgently than some. Mission is, in the much-abused phrase, ‘what it’s all about.’”[2] Köstenberger and O’Brein add, “…the divine plan of extending salvation to the ends of the earth is the major thrust of the Scriptures from beginning to end.”[3]

In each of the seven letters, what Jesus says to the church hangs on their knowledge of God’s mission and their role in it as faithful witnesses. They knew the story and the story shaped their understanding of God and of themselves. The churches in Asia Minor knew where they had come from and where they were going. John readily drew upon various parts of the story, like the tree in Eden or Jezebel’s leading Israel into idolatry, Balaam, as well future judgment, the eternal kingdom, etc. The drama of Scripture dictated, or was supposed to, who they were and what they did. Without a knowledge of their missional calling that was shaped by the larger story of Scripture, neither the imperatives nor the promises of the letters would have much power. Inside the story of Scripture and the participation of the church in God’s ongoing redemptive mission, these commands and promises are potent.

So, how well do we know and how well can we articulate the larger plotline of Scripture? Of course, many in the church bemoan the loss of Biblical literacy in the church today (I have met some Christians who’ve grown up in church but don’t know who Moses was). But more disconcerting than people’s lack of knowledge of individual bible stories is a loss of the story. This is more troubling because, in the absence of the true story (as told in the pages of Scripture), we will/our children will/the people in our churches will, of necessity, adopt another meta-story as the true story for their lives. And, if we adopt a story other than the story of Scripture, we will learn to play the characters that story demands we play. The responsibility of making this story known is the church's, but it a responsibility shared by pastors, parents, children’s ministry staff, youth ministry personnel, small group leaders, etc.

The story needs to shape how we approach every passages of Scripture. We need to tell the grand story to ourselves over and over again. In addition, we must consider how each individual part fits into this grand story. Bryan Chapel, in his influential Christ Centered Preaching, correctly asserts, “We determine the meaning of a passage by seeing not only how words are used in the context of a book or its passages, but also how the passage functions in the entire scope of Scripture…Regard for context requires us to consider an immediate text in the light of its purpose in the redemptive message unfolding through all of Scripture.”[4] The exegetical task isn’t complete until we (the preacher, teacher, small group leader, devotion giver, etc.) have asked how that particular passage of study fits into the grand scheme of redemptive history. Moreover, I would argue that the homiletical task isn’t complete until that pastor determines how he will communicates this to the church.

Week in and week out, the church must be immersed in the big story of Scripture. It is through this story the church learns about and is compelled to take up its missional task. This does not mean, however, that the we should never teach or preach doctrine or touch on topics related to marriage, parenting, finances, or other such “felt needs”. (I am not a staunch advocate of the redemptive-historical approach to preaching, though there is much to commend the approach.) It does mean, however, that this type of teaching must, in some way, show the connection to the overall mission of God’s people and the story of Scripture. In fact, I would argue that teaching the story necessarily leads to doctrine and doctrinal preaching as well as real life application for God’s people.

Telling the story of Scripture reveals a God who is active, a God who shows who he is through his action in the world. One could argue that most of what we learn of God comes through “indirect characterization” – we are shown God’s character in action more than we are told about God’s character. We see God is patient through his longsuffering dealings with Israel. We see God is wrathful though the conquest of the land. We see God is love in a myriad of ways, all culminating in the coming and dying of Jesus, his Son. Greidanus writes, “…the canon intends to tell us about God – not God in the abstract, but God in relationship to his creation and his people, God’s actions in the world, God’s coming kingdom.”[5]

Fortunately, Scripture also provides us with inspired interpretations of these actions and true propositions regarding God’s character. We are told “God is love,” and God warns us “I am a jealous God.” There is story and there is doctrine too; doctrine is summary and interpretation of the Biblical story. These two things, the narrative and doctrine, should not be divorced. For the church, there can be no articulation of the meaning or purpose of a passage that is independent of theology, for Scripture’s purpose and meaning are profoundly theological.[6] Thus the our task is not only to tell the story, but to interpret it. This interpretation of the story is done under the authority of Scriptures interpretation of its own story, which is given to us. In other words, the church must also preach and teach biblical doctrine as it flows from the grand story.

The letters to the seven churches confirm the importance of doctrine, of correct teaching. Ephesus faced false teachers and had done an admirable job of exposing them. Pergamum had to contend with those who held to the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. And, Jezebel was deceiving the church at Thyatira with her false teaching. Unfortunately, false teaching is an ever present danger and one the church must contend with.

A new survey summarized in Christianity Today contends that “Most American evangelicals hold views condemned as heretical by some of the most important councils of the early church.”[7] While there are certainly false teachers roaming our churches looking for people to lead astray, the vast majority of those who hold heterodox views due so not because they have rejected Biblical doctrine but because they have not been taught true doctrine. The author of the article cites Beth Felker Jones, a professor of theology at Wheaton College, who agrees, “Participants who gave unorthodox answers are not heretics, but probably lacked quality resources.”[8] Those who have not been properly trained in orthodox doctrine do, however, become easy prey for those false teachers who lead people astray. Those with teaching responsibilities in the church (which includes just about everyone, for parents are to teach their children) must teach doctrine, telling people “this is what the story means”, and reinforce its importance for the believer and the church.

Doctrine must, however, always be connected with the story. Story gives doctrine life and specificity. Moreover, doctrine needs to be connected to the church’s mission. The mission gives doctrine purpose. Our mission requires we testify regarding the historical events of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and tell people what it all means. If doctrine is lost or corrupted, the church’s mission is threatened and her very reason for being is imperiled.

In addition to asking “What does it mean,” teaching the story will also lead people to ask “What does this story require of me?” The story provides the grounding for the all of the biblical imperatives. We see that in Revelation 2&3. The story was being written and the church had their role to play in it – they were required to do and to be in ways that conformed to their God given task of bearing witness.

The church was to be a fellowship of love that would mark them as Christ’s followers, yet the Ephesians had abandoned their first love. The church was to be the faithful and holy bride of Christ, yet Jesus rebukes the Christians in Pergamum and Thyatira for their unfaithfulness including idolatry and immorality. The good works of the believer and their overall manner of life were to be integral to their mission, drawing people’s attention and leading them to praise their Father in Heaven; but, the works of the Christians in Sardis were not complete and many had soiled their garments, making the witness ineffective at best. Laodicea’s compromised rendered them useless – they completely blended with their culture, failing to be the contrast community of Christ.

The story was to shape the church’s and the Christians life, and these reshaped lives are a part of God’s mission plan. Wright is correct, “there can be no biblical mission without biblical ethics”[9]; the two are interconnected. Consequently, telling the story of the missionary God and his missional people provides the perfect bridge to application. Alasdair McIntyre points to the essential nature of story for ethics, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”[10] Emlet reminds us, “It is important to realize that the Bible not only tells a true story; it also demands a response. The authors of Scripture write with intention – their words are meant to provoke a response from the reader…all Scripture is written with a pastoral intent, not simply the imperative portions.”[11]

Understanding the grand story of Scripture and the task we have been appointed addresses the main concerns of people in unique and profound ways. Daniel Doriani delineates four large ethical questions people wrestle with that the church must address (particularly, but not exclusively, from the pulpit): the question of duty (“what should I do?”), the question of character (“who should I be?”), the question of goals (“to what should I devote my life?”), and the question of discernment (“how do I distinguish truth from error?”).[12] In addition to these ethical questions, people are wrestling with many metaphysical questions – who am I, why am I, where is all this heading, what’s wrong with the world, what’s wrong with me, is there a remedy to what ails us. All of these questions are addressed by Scripture and the overarching narrative it tells.

More than being simply being addressed by the grand story of Scripture, compelling answers to these questions requires the story and the mission it conveys. Ethics and mission are intertwined, for the whole life of the missional people of God is shaped by their mission – they were and are to be a distinct people set apart for God and his purposes. Johannes Blauw writes regarding OT Israel, but his words hold for the NT Israel, the church, as well: “When Israel forgets the distinction between herself and the nations, she commits treason not only against the covenant of God but also against those nations for whose sake she has been set apart.”[13]

Ethics requires the story; the story requires ethical application. Bartholomew and Goheen are correct, contending, “If we really want to recover the authority of Scripture in our lives then we urgently need to recover the Bible as a grand story that tells us of God’s ways with the world from creation to re-creation, from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem. Only thus will we see out way clear to indwell God’s story and relate it to all of life today.”[14] The church that desires to bring the authority of Scripture to bear on its life needs to allow this grand story to shape it.

[1] Craig G. Bartholomew and Michal W. Goheen, “Story and Biblical Theology,” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 146.
[2] Christopher J.H. Wright, “Mission as a Matrix for Hermeneutics and Biblical Theology,” in Out of Egypt, 104.
[3] Andreas Köstenberger and Peter O’Brein. Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, 263.
[4] Bryan Chapel, Christ Centered Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 79.
[5] Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1988), 113.
[6] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Craig G. Bartholomew and Daniel J. Treier, Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 21.
[7] Kevin P. Emmert, “New Poll Finds Evangelicals’ Favorite Heresies”, Christianity Today (posted Oct 28, 2014). Accessed Oct 30, 2014 at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/octover-web-only/mew-poll-finds-evangelicals-facorite-heresies.html
[8] Ibid
[9] Wright, The Mission of God, 358.
[10] Alasdair McIntyre, After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory, 3rd edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 216. Daniel Taylor illustrates this wonderfully in his book The Skeptical Believer. He tells of how Miss Owens, his fifth grade teacher, asked him to choose Mary to dance with him when it came time for him to pick a dance partner in class. Mary had a bad leg and wasn’t one of the pretty or popular girls. She was always last to get picked. Ms. Owens encouraged young Daniel to make the choice because “It’s what a Christian should do.” Dr. Taylor points out that Ms. Owens wasn’t appealing to a command or a set of rules, but to the Christian story. She was asking Daniel to live as though that story was his story. He writes, “The story is much more likely to shape how I actually behave on a given day that propositions, rule, or analytical reason…I couldn’t have done anything else and still considered myself part of the story.”[10] Daniel Taylor, The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist (St. Paul, MN: Bog Walk Press, 2013), 120ff.
[11] Michael R. Emlet, Crosstalk: Where Life and Scripture Meet (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2009), 51.
[12] Daniel M. Doriani, Putting the Truth to Work: The Theory and Practice of Biblical Application (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 98. A secular study on teaching methodologies performed by Ken Bain shows that demonstrating how the content of your class connects with the questions students come into your class wrestling with greatly aids in “deep learning”. Bain noticed in his research that the best college educators grabbed their students’ interest at the outset and kept it “by helping students see the connection between the questions of the course and the questions that students might bring to that course.” Ken Bain. What the Best College Teachers Do (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 31.
[13] Johannes Blauw, The Missionary Nature of the Church: A Survey of the Biblical Theology of Mission (London, UK: McGraw Hill Book Company, 1962), 82.
[14] Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, “Story and Biblical Theology,” in Out of Egypt, 144.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Double Predestination

Another great question from the same friend who asked about God changing his mind. He writes, "My biggest question with Calvinism deals with the concept of double predestination. How do you handle this topic? Does that bother you?"

I did struggle with double predestination (election/reprobation) at one time. What helped ease the discomfort was understanding how they differ from one another. Predestination unto salvation require God to act positively (causally) in the life of the believer, extending grace that will awaken them to spiritual things and bring them to saving faith. Predestination unto judgment (reprobation) doesn’t require that kind of active (causal) influence of God. It simple requires that he not extend grace to some. Apart from this grace no one will saved, no one will come to faith and love for Christ. And since grace isn’t deserved, we can’t charge God with being unjust.

Scripture does speak of God hardening hearts, which seems to be close to a positive (causal) act of predestining someone to judgment (Pharaoh, the Canaanites, John 12:40, Romans 9:18). Even here though, this act of God, as I understand it, is a removal of restraint that leads to further hardening. The best way I’ve come up with to explain it as that sinful man is on a slippery slope. Sin threatens to pull him ever downward in deeper depravity, deeper hardness of heart, etc. Sinners aren’t as bad as they could be, but only by the grace of God. When God removes his grace (which again, we need to see as undeserved), it’s like removing the blocks behind a truck on a steep incline. The slide to hardness of heart is inevitable.

Systematicians speak of the ‘asymmetry of predestination’ – it’s a positive-negative type of action. One group he chooses and acts decisively to bring about faith, the other group he leaves in their sin, he passes over (which also is decisive in that no one will come to faith if they are passed over).

John  Gerstner was helpful for me as a was thinking through this years ago (this and freewill), but I can’t remember what works in particular (probably A Primer on Free Will or A Predestination Primer). Once, when asked if he believed in double predestination he came back, "It's double or nothing."

Augustine articulated this doctrine of election/reprobation before Calvin. Cavin himself defended it as biblical and logically necessary (election and reprobation being two sides of the same coin) but called it decretum horrible (dreadful decree). or . Once, when asked if he believed in double predestination he came back, "It's double or nothing." Augustine articulated this doctrine of election/reprobation before Calvin. Cavin himself defended it as biblical and logically necessary (election and reprobation being two sides of the same coin) but called it decretum horrible (dreadful decree).

It's a doctrine that I'd say is hard to accept (in part due to my fallen concepts of fairness, etc.) but also hard to get away from biblical and logically.

Monday, March 09, 2015

God does it, but through means

This morning I was reading a section of 2 Corinthians. I love 2 Corinthians 5 and the section on 'the ministry of reconciliation'. And 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 got me thinking about the church and its relationship to Israel again.  But it was 2 Corinthians 7:6-7 that I saw in a fresh light.

Paul reminds us that God provides comfort to the downtrodden, downcast, and discouraged. That's a truth we hold dearly when we grieve, mourn, struggle with sadness. We pray often that God would comfort others in the midst of loss or sorrow.

But does God offer his comfort directly to the soul of the downcast? Certainly he can, but in 2 Corinthians 7 the comfort comes to Paul through another, namely Titus. Titus came to Paul, and this coming was comfort to Paul; in fact, he counted it as God's comfort. Moreover, the comfort Titus extended to Paul was, in part at least, the encouragement that he was loved by the church at Corinth.

The application is simple, but important. When we pray that God will comfort others, we should be ready to extend God's comfort to them. Speak of God's promises. Extend God's love and presence by our love and presence.

And this principles extends to so many areas. We pray that someone will come to faith in Christ, and while its possible that God will send an angel to proclaim the gospel directly to the person,  it is far more likely that God is calling us to be his mouthpiece to extend the outward gospel call to the person we pray for. Or, we pray that someone will see the error of their ways and come to make more wise decision; and it's likely God is calling us to speak truth in love. We pray that God will meet the financial needs of someone we are close to; and it's likely that God is calling us to be generous and be a part of God meeting that need.

That's what it means to be God's instruments, God's vessels, God's ministers...God's people.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

A Missional Reading of the Letter to Laodicea

The last of the seven, the letter addressed to the church at Laodicea records the harshest words from Jesus to any of the churches in Asia Minor. The words or rebuke for the Laodicean church are not balanced by any words of commendation, making the church at Laodicea unique in its total lack of health – as a whole they are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked”. This assessment comes from the “the Amen, the faithful and true witness.”

His diagnosis would have seemed incongruous with the perceived situation of Laodicea, but his diagnosis is true. The city was wealthy; in fact, so wealthy it rebuilt itself, without Roman aide, after devastating earthquake in 60AD. Their ability to recover without aide was a source of great civic pride. The cities wealth came from various sources, including banking, trade, and textiles. Laodicea lay at the crossroads of major trade routes, serving as a gateway into Asia. In addition, Laodicea had a large textile industry and grew famous for the soft black wool they were able to produce.

Religiously, Laodicea was a diverse blend with a remarkably large pantheon of gods/goddesses. Many of the old Asian deities continued to be venerated even under Roman rule, though some were collapsed into the Greek/Roman system becoming associated with their gods. Worship of the traditional Phrygian god Men Karou and the temple of Men (also a healing center) were important to the city and it is likely that Men became associated with the Greek god Asklepios as both were healing gods. In addition, the god Zeus played a very prominent role in the religious life in Laodicea. The Laodicean version of Zeus was unique, however, being influenced by the traditional worship of Men and other Phrygian and possibly Syrian elements; thus, the chief god of the region was often referred to as Zeus Laodicenus.

The rise of the imperial cult was fairly natural and maybe even inevitable given the way the empire (and the emperor) was received by Asia. Augustus was received as the “Savior of the race of men”. In addition, Asian peoples worshipped Augustus as god incarnate and “hailed the birthday of Augustus as the beginning of a new year, and worshipped the incarnate god in public and in private.” In the early part of the first century, the city of Laodicea was in competition with other cities for a temple to Caesar. Toward the end of the 2nd century, Laodicea was so honored and given the title neokoros and the right to build a temple for the worship of Emperor Commodus.

When considering the religious life of Laodicea, we must not neglect to consider the Jews and the worship of YHWH. Under Antiochius III a good number of Diaspora Jews were relocated to the region, including the city of Laodicea, to provide stability to the region. These Jews were already more Hellenized than their Palestinian counterparts and received material benefits for relocation as well as ongoing religious freedoms. This population grew by to be quite large by the first century. Cicero records that a large sum of gold, 20 Roman pounds, was seized from Jews in Laodicea en route to the temple in Jerusalem in 62BC. Ramsay, citing Reinach, contends that this amount would be equivalent to 15,000 drachmas. Since the annual temple tax was two drachmas for every free adult, Ramsay concludes there was approximately 7500 Jewish freedman living in Laodicea.

No material witness to the existence of a large Jewish presence has yet been found in Laodicea. Based on this silence, some have concluded that the Jews of Laodicea must have been very Hellenized (making the identification of Jewish names on graves, etc., impossible). Ramsay, relying on material evidence from Hierapolis, notes many of the Jews in Laodicea must have been citizens and were quite possibly organized into trade guilds. Moreover, it is probable that the gospel was first carried to this group of Jews within Laodicea, as was Paul’s common practice.

The biblical witness seems to indicate that it was Epaphras who took the gospel to the people of Hierapolis and Laodicea instead of Paul directly (Colossians 4:12-13). The early converts to Christianity were, then, likely Hellenized Jews used to, in essence, blending in to the surrounding culture. This seems to have been a problem for the church whose mission demanded it stand out as a contrast society rather than blend in.

Jesus rebukes the church for being neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. As such, Jesus threatens to spit them out of his mouth. Hemer in his Letters, argues that Jesus’ condemnation of the Laodicean lukewarmness should be understood in light of the tepid water supply on which the city depended. The city was supplied with water via an aqueduct system from springs six miles to the south. Though potable, the water was very hard being filled with mineral deposits. When the water reached the city it was not hot and so had no therapeutic value (as the hot springs in Hierapolis did). Neither was the water cold and refreshing (as the water supply in Colossae was). Thus, on this interpretation, the water was useless and by implications, the church is useless to Christ. The church was not fulfilling its missional purpose and had become a dead weight, a nonfunctioning member of the body.

This interpretation stands in contrast to the more traditional interpretation that has taken “lukewarmness to denote a compromise between the fervent ‘heat’ of a believer, and the indifferent ‘cold’ of an unbeliever.” Against the traditional understanding, Rudwick and Green have convincingly argued that both “cold” and “hot” are presented as “equally commendable alternatives”, which certainly would not have been the case if “cold”’ was intended to convey “indifferent.”

Koester offers a better alternative to Hemer and to the traditional interpretation. Koester agrees with Hemer that cold and hot both have positive connotations in the text. However, he points out that Laodicea was not the only city that had its water piped in via aqueduct. If this would make the water lukewarm and undrinkable then the water of other cities (including Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum and Sardis) would be equally objectionable. In fact, as Koester notes, the water of Laodicea seems to be of a better quality than the water Hierapolis.

A further problem with the approach taken by Hemer is the connection of the “hot” in v. 15-16 with the therapeutic hot springs of Hierapolis. There is no indication that the hot water of Hierapolis was desirable for drinking. Yet, the words of Jesus seem to imply that both the hot and cold waters (actually, nothing is said about water at all) are taken into the mouth. If the church was hot or cold they would avoid being spewed out, leading to the conclusion that both were desirable for drinking.

Koester suggests, quoting Plato, “[when] thirst is accompanied by heat, then the desire is for a cold drink; or, if the thirst is accompanied by cold, then the desire is for a hot drink. ” Koester builds a compelling case for this alternative, drawing upon ancient written sources which speak of the practice of warming wine to be drunk on cold days or cooling it on warm ones.

If one believes the imagery is a reference to drinking habits rather than the Laodicean water supply, then Jesus is condemning the Laodicean church for not being sufficiently distinguished from its surrounding. Hot water or wine is desirable when the weather is cold (and cold water or wine when it is hot) because it stands in stark contrast to the environment. Lukewarm is undesirable because it does not stand in bold relief and consequently has no ability to refresh. The churches lukewarmness means they have become no different from their surrounding culture, but have acclimated themselves to it to such a degree they are no longer the contrast community they have been called to be. Jesus’ response to this lukewarm church is graphic – he threatens to spit them out from his mouth.

It seems very possible that the believer’s material richness is what led them to compromise in ways that blunted their witness. Beale suggests that the Laodicean church may have even looked to their economic prosperity as sign of their spiritual health, even citing the connection between OT Israel’s prosperity and spiritual health as a precedent to support her case. But, if the church at Smyrna was poor because she had maintained her witness and been ostracized by her pagan city, then Laodicea is rich because she has accommodated her pagan culture and set aside her calling to be a witness in favor of comfort, ease and wealth.

Jesus counsels the church to look past the luster of her worldly wealth and buy true treasure from him – the same true treasure that made Smyrnan believers wealthy despite their material poverty. Also, Jesus offers the white garments of holiness (and triumph) to cover the churches nakedness. The shame of nakedness is a prophet symbol for judgment, but to receive fine new clothing was an honor. This reality was hidden from the eyes of the Laodicean church, showing that, despite being in a city famed for their medicinal eye salve, they were blinded and needed the healing balm of Jesus applied to their spiritual eyes so they could see their pitiful spiritual condition.

Remarkably, even in the midst of this most harsh letter, Jesus affirms his ongoing love for his church. The harsh words of rebuke are born out of his love and hope that the church will repent. Jesus invites them to open the door for him, so he can come in and eat with them. This is a wonderful invitation to a wayward church and her individual members to renew fellowship with their Lord, and fellowship in the most intimate manner.

This church was not a conquering church, but an assimilated one. However, to those who repent and press on in the calling of being witnesses, in being the salt and light Jesus demanded they be, Jesus offers the extraordinary promise of sharing his throne with them. While much regarding the exact timing and nature of the rule Christ offers his overcoming followers remains ambiguous, the honor is surely great. This honor, like all the rewards that have been promised in the preceding letters, presumes the accomplishment of God’s redemptive mission through Christ, the establishment of the eternal kingdom, and the church’s faithful participation in it (only then will she be granted this honor).

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Does God Change His Mind?

Earlier this week a friend sent me a couple of really good questions, and with his permission, I'm posting questions and my responses here. The first question has to do with God changing his mind in Numbers 14:11-21 where Moses pleads with God to spare the Israelites. Some have suggested this text and the others like it support the notion of open theism - that God doesn't know the future acts of free persons (they are unknowable) but is a God who responds to these real choices. I'm not inclined (like, at all) to go this direction, so how do I deal with these passages as a Calvinist? Do these passages challenge my assumptions about sovereignty, God's foreknowledge, etc.

You run into a number of these kind of passages where God appears to change his mind. Abraham ‘negotiating’ with God; God relents from destroying Nineveh after they repent, etc. A few things have helped me understand these passages. First, the language of God changing his mind is, I believe, anthropomorphic – like God sitting or walking, etc. It puts the workings of God in language we relate to. Calvin wrote of God speaking to his children in lisps and whispers, like parents talk to infants. I think this is an example of this gracious condescension.

Second, it's helpful to understand that just as God ordains the final outcome also ordains the means he will use to achieve his desired outcome. Sometimes the ordained outcomes are different than God’s stated intentions, so when God pursues his ordained outcome it may appear as though God has changed his mind or ‘repented’.  The story of Jonah and Nineveh is a prime example of this. Jonah 3:10 says, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.  Of course God’s intention was that they’d repent all along – that’s why he sent Jonah (and Jonah knew it, much to his chagrin - see Jonah 4:1-3).

The same principle appears to be at work in Numbers 14. God’s intentions were to put the people in the land. To wipe them out at this point would be to renege on promises he had made – something God will not do. So God ordains that Moses will act as an intercessor and that He will relent from judgment in response to Moses intercession (to prefigure Christ’s intercession).  This is, in essence, how prayer works too. God’s will is going to be accomplished, but he uses means – a prayer warrior, and evangelist, etc., to accomplish his will.

I don’t think these passages challenge (at least they don’t destroy) a strong view of God’s complete sovereignty. God was sovereign even over the kind of prayer Moses offered on behalf of the people and sovereignly determined he would relent in wrathful judgment in response to this prayer.

It is more troubling to consider what God truly changing his mind would mean. How can God be all wise if he changes his mind regarding his ultimate intentions? Was his initial intention wise? Was it right? If so, then how can changing your mind be wise? Right?  Open theism opens a scary can of worms unnecessarily and contrary to the overarching teaching of Scripture.