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A non-denominational church in Livonia, Michigan with Biblical teaching, worship, and kid's ministries.

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Immersed in a New Covenant: Why We Baptize Believers

Wed, 06/12/2019 - 8:02pm

Human hearts are prone to grow dull to the wonders of God’s world, and the glories of his salvation — and baptism is no exception.

In the ordinariness of the waters, we may come to overlook what baptism dramatizes: that God himself has rescued us from omnipotent wrath, that he has transferred us from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his beloved Son, that he has plucked us from the course of this world and seated us, by faith, with his own Son in the heavenly places. If we only had eyes to see, baptism broadcasts the most stunning mercies and graces a fallen creature could ever receive, and does so with a striking individual focus.

While we partake together at the Table, one baptizee stands alone (with the baptizer) in the water, as God himself, through his church, communicates his particular acceptance, love, and commitment to the professing believer.

Immersed in the Covenants

Godly laymen, ministers, churches, and seminaries stand on both sides of the believer-baptist and infant-baptist divide. The issues can be diverse and complex. They can be as big as how we put the whole Bible together (how the Old and New Testaments relate) or how Christians have (and have not) practiced baptism for two thousand years.

As a believer-baptist, however, I’m slow to let the discussion get away from particular biblical texts too quickly. I find infant-baptists often eager to talk theological systems and constructs, which we must. But in the end, we must take care to continually return to the specific texts from which those systems and constructs arise. We dare not overlook or minimize the plain, stubborn, obvious reading of particular biblical texts, even if we indeed must proceed, in due course, to the theological and covenantal dynamics relevant to baptism.

I’ve already highlighted six massively important texts, among others, that any faithful vision of Christian baptism should not ignore or treat lightly. Now we turn to the relationship of the old covenant to the new, often the wheelhouse of the infant-baptist. I am persuaded that — when we think carefully through the continuities and discontinuities of the covenants and the fittingness of circumcision and baptism as covenantal signs — the discussion firmly favors the believer-baptist.

Mystery and Prophecy

The great doxology at the end of Romans captures, in sum, that the relationship of the old covenant to the new is one of both continuity and discontinuity:

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith — to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Romans 16:25–27)

The Christian gospel is both prophecy fulfilled and mystery revealed. With Christian eyes, we look back at the old covenant and discover “the mystery that was kept secret for long ages” but “has now been disclosed.” World-shattering truths remained hidden until Jesus came (discontinuity). And yet, how is the mystery now made known? Through the prophetic writings (continuity).

It is along these lines of continuity that we commend many infant-baptists for their “God-honoring effort to see unity between the old and new covenant people of God” (John Piper, Brothers, 156). The issue, then, at least among Reformed believer- and infant-baptists, is discontinuity. And in particular the political and ethnic essence of the first covenant related to the new.

Discontinuity Between Covenants

Ephesians and Colossians tell us that at the heart of this mystery, long hidden, now revealed in Christ, is a former ethnic focus on Jews now expanded to include Gentiles (non-Jews, as in “now . . . made known to all nations” in Romans 16:25–27). “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). Here two millennia later, the earth-shattering nature of this shift may be lost on many of us Gentile Christians.

In Ephesians 2:11–13, Paul writes to Gentiles, who are now Christians, reminding them of their status during the era of the old covenant:

Remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision (Jews), which is made in the flesh by hands — remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For Gentile Christians, this is marked discontinuity: we were far off; now we have been brought near. We were separated from Christ; now we are in him, united with him by faith. We were strangers to the covenants of promise; now we are included as beneficiaries. We were without God, and without hope; but now in Christ we have him, and in him true hope. And we were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel.”

Alienated from the Commonwealth

That the people of God, under the terms of the first covenant, were a “commonwealth” (Greek politeia), a political nation-state, is a striking difference from the global, transnational essence of the new covenant that now formally includes every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.

The first covenant established God’s people, the Jews, as a nation-state alongside, and in distinction from, the Edomites, Egyptians, Philistines, and eventually Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans. God chose to raise up his own physical, ethnic nation to receive his first-covenant oracles (“the elementary doctrine of Christ,” Hebrews 6:1), preparing the way for his own coming in the person of his Son. God then transcended physical, ethnic, and political bounds through the cross-work of Christ, the giving of his Spirit, and the commissioning of his new-covenant people to take the message to the ends of the earth.

This is not to say that, under the terms of the first covenant, no Gentile could have been grafted into the people of God, but such was exceptional, not normative. God made provision for proselytes (Exodus 12:48; Numbers 9:14; Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 21:10–13). However, the fundamental dividing line between Jew and Gentile stood, and proselyte Gentiles were required, in essence, to become Jews to join the first-covenant people and tie themselves to the geographic center of the Jerusalem temple. A Gentile could not remain true to his original ethnicity and become a Jew. These were mutually exclusive ethno-political identities. To become a Hebrew would have meant to leave behind one’s people and nation.

The old covenant was irreducibly an ethnically centered covenant, which made circumcision (which is less fitting and more difficult with adults) an appropriate rite of initiation for those born into the covenant. The normal pattern of initiation into the old covenant was by physical birth, which is expressly not the way one comes to join in the new covenant. Rather, one is born again spiritually into the new covenant (John 3:3; 1 Peter 1:3, 23; James 1:18), which makes baptism (less fitting and more difficult with infants) an appropriate rite of initiation. John Piper summarizes the point:

Entry into the old covenant people of God was by physical birth, and entry into the new covenant people of God is by spiritual birth. It would seem to follow, then, that the sign of the covenant would reflect this change and would be administered to those who give evidence of spiritual birth. . . . The new thing, since Jesus has come, is that the covenant people of God are no longer a political, ethnic nation but a body of believers. . . . The visible people of God are no longer formed through natural birth but through new birth and its expression through faith in Christ. (Brothers, 160)

God’s People Grown Up

The discussion of relevant lines of discontinuity could go on at great length, but one additional note to include in this limited space is the paradigm of Galatians 3–4.

Having introduced Abraham in Galatians 3:14, and that in Christ “the blessing of Abraham” has “come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith,” Paul addresses the relationship between the law (of Moses) and the promise (to Abraham). The law — that is, the old covenant, which God gave through Moses — came 430 years after the promise to Abraham and does not nullify the promise (Galatians 3:17). Rather, God gave his law (the old covenant) to serve the fulfillment of the promise that he would bless the nations (the Gentiles) through Abraham’s offspring. Paul then asks, Why the law? Why did God give the law-covenant, the old covenant, through Moses? His answer, in part, comes in Galatians 3:24–29:

The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

The law-covenant (the old covenant) served as a guardian, or tutor, for the people of God in their youth. From Moses until the coming of Christ, we find the people of God in infancy, childhood, and adolescence. The old covenant guarded God’s people in an era of redemptive-history immaturity and incompletion — until maturity and completion came with the coming of Christ, and God’s people matured beyond the guardians and managers of the old covenant (Galatians 4:1–5).

By Belief, Not Birth

Such a framework of old-covenant childhood to new-covenant adulthood corresponds with a shift from infant-circumcision to believer-baptism. The circumcision of male infants fits with the nature of the old covenant and its ethnic focus and geopolitical center. But the nature of the new covenant, with its trans-ethnic focus on “those who believe” (Galatians 3:22), fits with the baptism of professing believers. Entrance into the new covenant is not by birth but by belief. Not first birth but new birth.

The sign of the covenant, then, is properly applied to spiritual newborns, not physical newborns. Old-covenant circumcision, which Paul says was “made in the flesh by hands” (Ephesians 2:11), now has been fulfilled in new birth, the circumcision of the heart, “a circumcision made without hands” (Colossians 2:11), such that he would say, in contrast to unbelieving Jews, that Christian Gentiles, “who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh,” are the true circumcision (Philippians 3:3).

As the old covenant guarded God’s people in their redemptive-historical immaturity, and circumcised their infants, so the new covenant binds together God’s people in their maturity, and baptizes those who have been born again and give credible expression to saving faith in Jesus.

Reformed Faith in Full Flower

For believer-baptists, such covenantal dynamics are not typically the first move in our argument, nor are they the end. I will turn, in another article, to how believer-baptism actually makes more of the (often overlooked) Reformed concepts of covenant signs and seals, the so-called “means of grace,” and the Westminster Confession’s commendation of lifelong baptismal “improvement” through faith.

An article like this can only scratch the surface of the biblical data, from beginning to end, relating to the continuities and discontinuities between the old and new covenants. However, my hope is that this brief sketch of the frameworks of Ephesians 2:11–13 and Galatians 3–4 will be helpful in establishing some of the key differences between the old and new covenants, and the corresponding appropriateness of infant-circumcision in the first and believer-baptism in the new.

Should My Boyfriend and I Travel Alone?

Tue, 06/11/2019 - 9:02pm

Is it wise for a girlfriend and boyfriend to travel together and stay in the same hotel? Should they? Pastor John gives three reasons why they shouldn’t.

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Reading the Bible Upside Down: Why the Pope Changed the Lord’s Prayer

Tue, 06/11/2019 - 8:02pm

As the dust settles around Pope Francis’s approval of changing the translation of the Lord’s Prayer, there is one vital angle on this that has not received much attention — the implications of the Pope’s rationale for the change.

The Pope’s decision to approve the change from the traditional translation “Lead us not into temptation” to “Do not let us fall into temptation” was based on this reported rationale:

“I am the one who falls; it’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen,” Francis explained to Italian broadcasters about the phrase change. “A father doesn’t do that. A father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation. That’s his department.”

Others have weighed in on the exegetical and theological problems with the proposed change. It’s not a new issue. I wrote an article ten years ago titled “Does God ‘Lead Us into Temptation’?

All I want to do here is point out how the Pope’s reported rationale reveals an approach to Scripture that undermines its authority. His approach is to do what you might call a hermeneutical headstand. He turns things upside down.

Who Says What Fathers Do?

Right side up, we would say, “The Bible teaches that God does such and such. Therefore, we should seek to discover the wisdom and goodness of why he would act that way.” But standing on our heads, we would say, “We already know what is wise and good before the Bible tells us. So, if this text tells us God acts contrary to what we know, we will conclude that the text can’t mean that, or it’s mistaken.”

Daring progressive Christians say the text is mistaken; less daring progressives claim to hold fast to biblical authority while changing the meaning to fit their prior view of God. In either case, authority has shifted from heaven to earth.

The Pope says, “A father doesn’t [lead his children into temptation]. A father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation. That’s his department.” This is upside down. God is a good father to his children. A perfect father. And since he is God, and not a mere human, his perfections should not be forced into the mold of our fallible views of what good fathers do. Having perfect wisdom, and knowing all things, our heavenly Father does things no human father should do.

What No Human Father Does

For example, no human father should take the life of his child as a sacrifice for others. But that is what God did to his one and only divine Son who was perfectly pleasing to him.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. . . . Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief. (Isaiah 53:4, 10; see Acts 4:27–28)

No human father should take the life of his child to spare that very child a worse fate, namely, hell. But that is what God sometimes does.

That is why some of you have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined [in this case with death] so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:30–32)

No human father should take the life of his child’s children to prove the faithfulness of his child, but that is what God did to Job’s children.

“A great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. (Job 1:19–22)

No human father should send a famine on his children’s land. And no human father should send one of his children into slavery to be the means of saving his brothers. But God did both of these.

When he summoned a famine on the land and broke all supply of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave. (Psalm 105:16–17)

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Genesis 50:20)

My point here is not whether God “leads us into temptation.” My point is: We should learn whether he does or not from Scripture, not from our prior notions of what good fathers do. Our notions are finite, and distorted by sin and culture. We must continually refine them by what the Bible teaches.

Lead Us Not into Temptation

The Bible teaches that we should pray, “Our Father . . . lead us not into temptation.” It really does mean “lead into” or “bring into” (see also Luke 5:18; 12:11; Acts 17:20; 1 Timothy 6:7; Hebrews 13:11). Which may mean,

Father, since “a man’s steps are from the Lord” (Proverbs 20:24), forbid, we pray, that any temptation we encounter by your leading would trap us and suck us in with no way of escape. For you are faithful, and you have promised that with every temptation “you will provide the way of escape, that we may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Do for us, dear Father, what you did for Jesus, when you “led(!) him by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). You filled him with the word of God and, though he was led to the crisis of temptation by your Spirit, he did not get sucked into sin, but triumphed by your word (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10). For this same grace, in all your leadings, we earnestly pray. Amen.

Luke 6:20–26: How Christians Laugh

Tue, 06/11/2019 - 9:02am

Those who follow Christ can weep now, can be poor and temporarily hated now, and yet remain wildly blessed because theirs is the coming kingdom.

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Why the Third Day? The Promise of Resurrection in All of Scripture

Mon, 06/10/2019 - 8:02pm

ABSTRACT: Jesus and his apostles claim that his resurrection on the third day was “according to the Scriptures.” The hope of the resurrection stretches back far beyond the empty tomb to the hopes and prophecies of God’s old-covenant people. At the same time, Jesus’s rising inaugurates God’s new creation in the present and points us to the day when all the tombs will be emptied — and God’s people will rise to meet their Lord with resurrected bodies.

For our ongoing series of feature articles by scholars for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Jason DeRouchie, research professor of Old Testament and biblical theology at Bethlehem College & Seminary, to trace the hope of resurrection from Genesis to Revelation. You can also download and print a PDF of the article.

We are nearly two decades into the twenty-first century, and Christians all over the world are still hoping in the resurrection. This hope is not new. We have longed for resurrection since God first awakened faith in the earliest Old Testament saints. Equally, resurrection also should have been dreaded by rebels who persist in their unbelief, for after resurrection comes the judgment.

Following the original creation of humanity, Jesus’s resurrection unto glory is the most decisive event in the history of mankind, for it brings the dawning of the new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) and validates that those in Christ are no longer imprisoned under sin, the payment for which is death (Romans 6:23; 1 Corinthians 15:17). The New Testament is clear that the Scriptures foresaw “that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead” (Luke 24:46; cf. Luke 24:7; John 20:9; Acts 17:2–3; 1 Corinthians 15:4) and that, “by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light” both to the Jews and the Gentiles (Acts 26:22–23). These statements raise the question: Where does the Old Testament anticipate the third-day resurrection? A close assessment of a number of New Testament texts that cite or allude to specific Old Testament texts gives us an initial clue how those living at the dawn of the new creation were seeing anticipations of the resurrection in their Bible.

New Testament Citations and Allusions of Old Testament Resurrection Texts1

In arguing against the Sadducees that the resurrection should be hoped in, Jesus stressed that God “is not God of the dead, but of the living,” as is clear when he identified himself to Moses at the burning bush as “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Mark 12:26–27; cf. Exodus 3:6). Similarly, when asserting his God-given authority to judge, Jesus alluded to Daniel 12:2, declaring that “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28–29). Later, when defending himself before Felix in Caesarea, Paul alluded to the same Old Testament text when he claimed that those of the Way (i.e., Christians) have “hope in God . . . that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:14–15).

In Acts, both Peter and Paul identify that Psalm 16:10–11 foretold Christ’s resurrection (Acts 2:25–31; 13:34–35). After citing Psalm 16:10 that “you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption,” Peter stressed of David that “he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ” (Acts 2:27, 31). Paul speaks similarly, adding to Psalm 16:10 citations from Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 55:3:

We bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, “I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.” Therefore he says also in another psalm, “You will not let your Holy One see corruption.” For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. (Acts 13:32–37)

Finally, 1 Corinthians 15:54–58 recalls both Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14 to stress for the church in Corinth the certainty of their hope for resurrection.

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Whereas Isaiah had declared that Yahweh would “swallow up death forever,” thus identifying him as the anticipated savior (Isaiah 25:8–9), the immediate context of God’s original queries through Hosea offered little hope: “Shall I ransom them [i.e., Ephraim] from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion is hidden from my eyes” (Hosea 13:14).2 Such judgments would not remain forever, however, for he tore them that he could ultimately heal them (Hosea 6:1–2), moving them to seek Yahweh their God and David their king (Hosea 3:5) and healing their apostasy as they would find shelter under the shadow of their royal representative (Hosea 14:4–8). Thus, the sting of death would be overcome through the victory of our Lord Christ, just as Paul declared.

Potential Third-Day Resurrection Typologies in the Old Testament3

It is noteworthy that none of the above texts that the New Testament points to includes any mention of a third-day resurrection, yet both Jesus (Luke 24:46) and Paul (1 Corinthians 15:4) stress that the prediction of Christ’s being raised on the third day was “written” and was “in accordance with the Scriptures.” It seems likely, therefore, that we should look for typologies that foreshadow a third-day resurrection event, and when we broaden our perspective here, a number of further texts become possible sources for the New Testament claims. We will look at them by moving from back to front through the canon.

First, Jesus paralleled his own coming resurrection with Jonah’s resurrection-like deliverance from the belly of the fish: “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40; cf. Jonah 1:17–2:10[2:1–11]).4 Jesus reads the Jonah story typologically, seeing it as both pointing to his exaltation through trial and clarifying how his resurrection would signal salvation through judgment.

Second, building off what was already noted, Hosea declared that the end of Israel’s exile would be like a resurrection after three days:

Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth. (Hosea 6:1–3)

Significantly, the prophets are clear that the Christ would represent Israel, bearing the people’s name and saving representatives from both Israel and the other nations (Isaiah 49:3, 6). At the end of his book, Hosea himself appears to make this connection between the one and the many when he relates a plural people with a singular “Israel,” under whose shadow they will find refuge (Hosea 14:4–8 in the Hebrew, seen in the ESV footnotes; cf. Zechariah 3:7–9). Thus, in Christ’s resurrection on the third day, the true Israel in him rises to life.5

Third, Christ portrays his death as a baptism (Luke 12:50), and the New Testament authors portray the judgments of both the flood (1 Peter 3:20–21) and the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:2) as baptisms. Because the initial Passover sacrifice marks Israel’s birth as a nation, and because the parting of the Red Sea likely happened on the third day after this new creation, the great exodus event also may point typologically to Christ’s third-day resurrection.6 Significantly, on the mount of Jesus’s transfiguration, Moses and Elijah identified Jesus’s coming work in Jerusalem as an “exodus” (Luke 9:30–31, ESV = “departure”), thus signaling the fulfillment of the second exodus anticipated throughout the prophets (e.g., Isaiah 11:10–12:6; Jeremiah 23:7–8; Zephaniah 3:19–20).

Fourth, it was “on the third day” of his journey to sacrifice his son that Abraham promised his servants, “I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you” (Genesis 22:4–5). Reflecting on this story, the writer of Hebrews declares of the Patriarch, “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:19). Yahweh promised, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named” (Genesis 21:12), and this offspring, who was distinct from Isaac, would be the one who would multiply like the stars, who would possess his enemies’ gate, and who would be the channel of divine blessing to the nations (Genesis 22:17–18). Thus, the substitutionary sacrifice that saved Isaac’s life (Genesis 22:13) and the youth’s own deliverance pointed ahead to the greater offspring who would triumph only through great tribulation.

Fifth, the New Testament portrays both baptism (e.g., Romans 6:4–5; Colossians 2:12) and sprouting seeds (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:35–38) as images of resurrection. As such, we may see the earliest anticipations of Jesus’s third-day resurrection in the fact that the first sprouts came forth out of the watery chaos on the third day following the original creation (Genesis 1:11–13).7

Other Old Testament Resurrection Texts8

Beyond the texts already cited, the Old Testament supplies a number of other anticipations or predictions of future resurrection. First, there are three examples of nonpermanent resurrections — that is, types of resuscitations wherein God temporarily revives a person who has recently died. Elijah, for example, brings to life the son of the widow from Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17–23), and the act validates his prophetic role (1 Kings 17:24). Similarly, God uses Elisha to restore the woman’s son in Shunem (2 Kings 4:18–37), and after Elisha dies, a man’s corpse is revived when it touches Elisha’s own corpse in a tomb (2 Kings 13:20–21). The author of Hebrews wrote that some prophets were agents of resurrection (Hebrews 11:35), thus identifying how all these Old Testament events foreshadow and give hope for the more ultimate resurrection that will include permanent glorified bodies.

Next, with Israel’s exile and following restoration in view, Yahweh declares through Moses, “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39; cf. 1 Samuel 2:6; 2 Kings 5:7). Because “healing” always follows “wounding,” it is clear that God’s “making alive” after “killing” envisions the restoration blessing of resurrection following the curse of death. Kenneth Turner has noted that, by using words like perish, destroy, annihilate, and the like, Moses in Deuteronomy portrays Israel’s exile as a “death,” by which the nation as Yahweh’s elect son and servant “loses her identity, history, and covenant relationship with Yahweh. Restoration from exile, then, is a resurrection from death to life.”9 And because Jesus Christ, as “Israel” the person, represents “Israel” the people (Isaiah 49:3, 6), his bodily resurrection following his bearing the curse-judgment (Galatians 3:13) inaugurates the fulfillment of this promise.

Living in the midst of exile, Ezekiel envisioned the fulfillment of Yahweh’s Mosaic predictions of the people’s resurrection. Whereas covenant obedience could have led to life (Leviticus 18:5; Ezekiel 20:11, 13, 21), Israel’s covenant rebellion had resulted in the nation’s exilic death, so that God portrays them as dried up bones filling a field (Ezekiel 37:1; cf. Jeremiah 8:1–2). Nevertheless, Yahweh promises, “Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:5), and the result was that God resupplied them human form, breathed into them the breath of life, “and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army” (Ezekiel 37:10). The vision anticipated how God would “raise you from your graves,” putting “my Spirit within you,” resulting in life and making his people his temple (Ezekiel 37:13–14; cf. 36:27). Thus, “My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Ezekiel 37:27; cf. 2 Corinthians 6:16).

Earlier, building off his claim that Yahweh would “swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:8; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:54), Isaiah declared, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!” (Isaiah 26:19). The means for this awakening and exultation is then unpacked in the fourth servant song. The prophet first highlights the servant-person’s resurrection when he identifies his seeing offspring after his substitutionary sacrifice: “It was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand” (Isaiah 53:10). We then hear Yahweh declare, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11). Because Yahweh declared his servant-person righteous (cf. Isaiah 50:8), this righteous one would be able to bear the sins of many in death, and through his victorious resurrection all those in him — his spiritual progeny — would be declared righteous. Yahweh’s servant person was “Israel” (Isaiah 49:3), and “in the Lord all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory” (Isaiah 45:25).

Beyond Psalms 2:7 and 16:9–11, noted above (cf. Acts 2:25–31; 13:32–35), the Psalter includes a number of other pointers to resurrection. For example, in Psalm 22, the very one forsaken of God and afflicted to the point of death (Psalm 22:1–21[2–22]) promises to proclaim God’s name to his brothers (Psalm 22:22[23]), which implies resurrection (cf. Matthew 28:10; Romans 8:29; Hebrews 2:12). Furthermore, we are told that before the Lord “shall bow all who go down to the dust,” which highlights a future beyond the grave for those who die (Psalm 22:29[30]). The sons of Korah end Psalm 48 with the testimony of the faithful that God “will guide us beyond death” (ESV footnote). They then assert in Psalm 49 that the proud “are appointed for Sheol” but that “the upright [ones] shall rule over them in the morning” (Psalm 49:14[15]). With the voice of the royal representative, they declare, “God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me” (Psalm 49:15[16]). At the very least, such assertions point to a spiritual resurrection. Similarly, in Psalm 71, the psalmist points to life after death when he writes, “You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again” (Psalm 71:20). Two psalms later, Asaph contrasts the terrifying end of the proud (Psalm 73:17–22) with God’s commitment to bring the humble to glory and to be their strength and portion forever (Psalm 73:24–26).

Finally, both Job and the Preacher in Ecclesiastes point to the hope of resurrection. Job questions, “If a man dies, shall he live again?” (Job 14:14). He seems to answer in the affirmative, for he then states, “All the days of my service I would wait, till my renewal should come.” And again, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25–26). We also learn that at the end of Job’s trial-filled life, which included the death of his ten children (Job 1:2, 18–19), he had another “seven sons and three daughters” (Job 42:13). But because we are told earlier that “the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10), the text may imply the spiritual resurrection of his earlier kids, similar to the way Jesus spoke of Yahweh’s declaring, “I am the God of Abraham” — not “of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:32).10

The Preacher was convinced that death would come to all, both those who are good and those who are evil (Ecclesiastes 9:2–3), and that “there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing” (Ecclesiastes 7:15). Nevertheless, “Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him” (Ecclesiastes 8:12). The Preacher was certain in a future hope beyond the grave for the righteous.

Resurrection in the New Testament11

In fulfillment of Old Testament anticipations, each of the four Gospels concludes with stories of Jesus’s bodily resurrection from the dead (Matthew 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1–10), and the rest of the New Testament portrays this as the watershed event that alters the course of world history. Jesus’s resurrection happens on the first day of the week (John 20:1, 19), thus symbolizing the inauguration of the new creation (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23; 2 Corinthians 5:17). It establishes Jesus Christ as the Righteous One (1 Timothy 3:16; cf. Isaiah 50:8; 53:11; 1 John 2:1) and Lord and Judge of the universe (Matthew 28:18; Acts 2:36; 17:31; Romans 1:4; 14:9). It also secures justification for all who believe (Romans 4:25; 6:8–11; 1 Corinthians 15:17), initiates the spread of the good news (Romans 1:16–17; Galatians 1:11–12) and a Spirit-empowered global mission of salvation (Matthew 28:19–20; John 20:19–22; Acts 1:8), and supplies the necessary lens for understanding the Old Testament (John 2:20–22; 12:13–16; 20:9).

Jesus’s resurrection creates for all in him a living hope for “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Peter 1:3–5), and it provides hope for the entire created order that it will be renewed (Romans 8:18–25; cf. Colossians 1:20) — “Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:23). In his resurrected body, Jesus retained physical signs of his execution so as to validate his identity (Luke 24:39; John 20:20, 25, 27; Acts 1:3), but he could remain unrecognized until he chose to disclose himself (Luke 24:16, 31; John 20:14, 16; 21:4, 12). He could walk and dialogue with others (Luke 24:15–17; John 20:15), vanish and appear at will (Luke 24:31, 36–37; John 20:19, 26), be touched (Luke 24:39; John 20:17, 27), and eat (Luke 24:30, 42–43). He was rightfully worshiped and visibly ascended to heaven (Luke 24:51–52; Acts 1:9).

Jesus compared God’s power to raise the dead (e.g., Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:6; 2 Kings 5:7) with his power to overcome spiritual death by presently giving people eternal life (John 3:16; 5:21, 24–26); such initial “resurrection” gives certainty of consummate resurrection following physical death, first spiritually and then bodily (John 5:28–29; 11:25–26; 14:2–3). Paul, too, notes that, although “we were dead in our trespasses,” God has already “made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4–7). Believers are, thus, already experiencing a spiritual resurrection, and Christians who die before Christ’s second appearing enter into a state of conscious rest in the presence of Jesus (Luke 23:43; John 14:2–3; 2 Corinthians 4:14; Philippians 1:23). But when Christ does return, those who already experienced initial spiritual resurrection will then be given new supernatural bodies that will never wear out (Romans 8:11; Philippians 3:20–21). “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. 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” (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17).

In the pattern of Elijah and Elisha, in the New Testament God uses prophetic figures to revive individuals who recently died in order to identify Jesus’s power over death. But whereas Elijah asked God to act (1 Kings 17:21–22), Jesus, acting as God, simply commands, as in his resuscitation of a synagogue ruler’s daughter in Galilee (Mark 5:35–43), the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11–17), and Lazarus (John 11:1–53). Working under the power of Christ, Peter, too, re-enlivens a young girl in Joppa (Acts 9:36–43), and in Ephesus Paul revives Eutychus after he fell from a window and died (Acts 20:7–12). In each of these examples, God’s temporary resurrection of a person who recently died both validated the prophet’s authority and foreshadowed the power of Jesus to lastingly raise the dead (John 11:25–26; cf. Luke 7:16–17; John 9:32–33).

As noted above, Scripture anticipates “a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15; cf. Daniel 12:2; Matthew 25:46; John 5:28–29). This is what Revelation 20:12 refers to when it asserts, “I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done” (cf. Matthew 25:31–32; 2 Corinthians 5:10). Scholars continue to disagree on the meaning and proper temporal referents of Revelation 20:1–6, which mentions “the first resurrection” and “the second death” (Revelation 20:5–6). While the text is not explicit, the ordinals “first” and “second” imply at least a “second” and “first” for both resurrection and death. Furthermore, “the first resurrection” likely applies only to believers (“Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection!” Revelation 20:6) and refers to the spiritual life already enjoyed by believers who die (cf. Luke 23:43; Philippians 1:23).12 In contrast, “the second death” will apply only to nonbelievers (“over such [i.e., those who experience the first resurrection] the second death has no power,” Revelation 20:6) and relates to the eternal state of the unregenerate in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14).13 The note that “the rest of the dead did not come to life” (Revelation 20:5) refers to the unbelievers who, after physical death, remain “dead in [their] trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) but who will rise at the final judgment.14

Christ’s resurrection impacts the Christian’s present ethics and future hope. As for ethics, Paul says, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1). Similarly, the apostle notes, “We were buried . . . with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. . . . So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ” and must not let “sin therefore reign in your mortal body” (Romans 6:4, 11–12; cf. 1 Corinthians 6:12–20; 2 Corinthians 5:15). Our identification with Christ in his resurrection demands that we live as part of the new creation.

Related to this, our own reconciliation with God should move us to engage in a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17–19), for Christ’s resurrection now gives our preaching, faith, and labors eternal purpose (1 Corinthians 15:14, 58). Jesus’s resurrection awakens confidence in the life to come (1 Corinthians 15:23), and what we hope for tomorrow changes who we are today (2 Peter 1:4). We are empowered to radical mission and radical joy amid a world of chaos and suffering, knowing that when Christ returns, our new body will be raised in glory and power, bearing the very image of the man of heaven, the divine Son (1 Corinthians 15:43–44, 49; cf. Philippians 3:20–21). Come, Lord Jesus!

The Nature of Resurrection Hope

What is resurrection hope? It is not only resurrection itself but also what follows resurrection — namely, joy in the presence of our Savior. Let us consider more carefully Isaiah 53:10–11, which parallels human and divine perspectives on Christ’s death and resurrection.

It was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.

Through direct prophecy, both verses begin by detailing Christ’s brutal suffering unto death, and then they highlight his resurrection unto joy. First, God’s delight was to “crush” his servant-person, to “put him to grief,” the manner of which would be a penal substitutionary death as “an offering for guilt” that would include the deepest “anguish.” In this one act, God’s righteous servant would “bear [the people’s] iniquities.”

But there is more. Three specific, all-motivating elements would rise on the other side of this atoning sacrifice — “he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” Seeing, prolonging, prospering! Over seven hundred years before Jesus’s appearing, Isaiah implies the reality of resurrection because he foresaw that the wrath-bearer, whom God identifies as “the righteous one,” would continue to carry out God’s will by lastingly saving “many” blood-bought “offspring” from the peoples of the world (cf. Isaiah 54:3). His atoning work would “sprinkle many nations” (Isaiah 52:15) and “make many to be accounted righteous” (Isaiah 53:11). Yahweh’s words identify what this reality would bring to the servant: “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:11). The Hebrew here actually suggests the satisfaction was the seeing of the many offspring who would be accounted righteous — a people for God ransomed “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

It seems likely, therefore, that the nature or content of “the joy that was set before [Jesus],” by which he “endured the cross,” was none other than the community of saints that would be birthed from his resurrection event (Hebrews 12:2). And our hope of resurrection now includes our participating with the many in Christ. Such compelling joy motivated Christ to carry his cross, and it should motivate us as we carry ours (Mark 8:34; Hebrews 12:2–3). And having already been united with Christ and raised with him in an inaugurated way, we are already tasting the joys of Christian community with every new soul that is saved.

All Will Meet Him

The Old Testament anticipates the (third-day) resurrection of God’s people following an exilic death (e.g., Deuteronomy 32:39; Hosea 6:2; Daniel 12:2), and it clarifies that the new life of the community will be multiethnic in nature and will result from the representative suffering servant’s own triumph over death (Isaiah 53:10–11; Psalm 16:10). Jesus Christ’s resurrection on the third day fulfills Old Testament predictions (Luke 24:46–47; 1 Corinthians 15:4), establishes him as the reigning King (Romans 1:4; Matthew 28:18), inaugurates the new creation (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23; 2 Corinthians 5:17), justifies the many (Romans 4:25), calls believers to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4; Colossians 3:1), births a global mission (Matthew 28:19–20; John 20:19–22; Acts 1:8; Romans 1:16–17; Galatians 1:11–12), and supplies hope to all believers of their own resurrection (Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 15:43–44, 49; Philippians 3:20–21; Hebrews 9:27–28). It also should stress to non-believers that they will indeed meet the heavenly Judge face-to-face (Daniel 12:2; Matthew 25:46; John 5:28–29).

  1. See Mitchell L. Chase, “The Genesis of Resurrection Hope: Exploring Its Early Presence and Deep Roots,” JETS 57 (2014): 467–71. 

  2. The translation here is a mixture of the NASB and ESV. 

  3. See Nicholas P. Lunn, “‘Raised on the Third Day According to the Scriptures’: Resurrection Typology in the Genesis Creation Narrative,” JETS 57 (2014): 523–35; Stephen G. Dempster, “From Slight Peg to Cornerstone to Capstone: The Resurrection of Christ on ‘the Third Day’ According to the Scriptures,” WTJ 76 (2014): 371–409; Joel R. White, “‘He Was Raised on the Third Day According to the Scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15:4): A Typological Interpretation Based on the Cultic Calendar in Leviticus 23,” TynBul 66 (2015): 103–19. 

  4. Throughout, Scripture citations in brackets refer to the Hebrew Bible, whose verse numbers sometimes differ from English translations. 

  5. For the significance of this text in the backdrop of the New Testament’s assertion that the third-day resurrection of Jesus was “according to the Scriptures,” see esp. Dempster, “From Slight Peg to Cornerstone to Capstone,” 404–9. 

  6. See Lunn, “Raised on the Third Day According to the Scriptures,” 527–30. 

  7. Cf. Mitchell L. Chase, “‘From Dust You Shall Arise’: Resurrection Hope in the Old Testament,” SBJT 18.4 (2014): 11; Lunn, “Raised on the Third Day According to the Scriptures,” 532–34. 

  8. See Chase, “From Dust You Shall Arise,” 9–29; Chase, “The Genesis of Resurrection Hope,” 467–80; Lunn, “Raised on the Third Day According to the Scriptures,” 523–35; Dempster, “From Slight Peg to Cornerstone to Capstone,” 371–409. 

  9. Kenneth J. Turner, “Deuteronomy’s Theology of Exile,” in For Our Good Always: Studies on the Message and Influence of Deuteronomy in Honor of Daniel I. Block, ed. Jason S. DeRouchie, Jason Gile, and Kenneth J. Turner (University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 190, 194. He further notes, “The people will continue to exist physically in exile; yet, as a single entity, Israel is said to ‘perish’ or ‘be destroyed.’ So, it is not Israel as an historical or socio-religious people, but Israel as Yahweh’s elect son and servant (Deuteronomy 1:31, 7:6, 14:1) that is put to death. Exile constitutes the death of Israel as a nation in covenant — a covenant comprised of a dynamic relationship between Yahweh, the nation, and the land. Whatever existence continues, it is discontinuous with the past.” Turner, “Deuteronomy’s Theology of Exile,” 194; cf. Kenneth J. Turner, The Death of Deaths in the Death of Israel: Deuteronomy’s Theology of Exile (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011). 

  10. On this proposal, see, e.g., Franz Delitzsch, Job, trans. Francis Bolton, Commentary on the Old Testament 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), s.v. Job 42:13; John E. Hartley, The Book of Job, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 542; Robert L. Alden, Job, NAC 11 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993), 413. 

  11. See esp. N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God 3 (London: SPCK, 2003). For a brief synthesis of his view, see N.T. Wright, “Resurrection Narratives,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 675–76; N.T. Wright, “Resurrection of the Dead,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 676–78. For more on the doctrine of resurrection, see the entire issue of SBJT 18.4 (2014). 

  12. See Meredith G. Kline, “The First Resurrection,” WTJ 37 (1975): 366–75; Meredith G. Kline, “The First Resurrection: A Reaffirmation,” WTJ 39 (1976): 110–19. As noted above, both John and Paul identify that the “first resurrection” is actually inaugurated at conversion (John 5:21, 24; Ephesians 2:6; Colossians 3:1) and consummated when, following physical death, persons presently exiled enter their heavenly citizenship, awaiting the reunion with their bodies at the “second resurrection” (John 5:28–29; Philippians 3:20–21). 

  13. See G.K. Beale, “The Millennium in Revelation 20:1–10: An Amillennial Perspective,” CTR 11.1 (2013): 29–62. 

  14. Both John and Paul identify that physical death is merely the consummation of the “first death” that was already inaugurated at conception through a person’s identification with Adam (Romans 5:12, 18–19) and the spiritual death lived out in the land of the living (John 3:18, 36; 5:24–26; Ephesians 2:1, 5). 

Pharisaism, Money, and the Greatness of God

Mon, 06/10/2019 - 11:03am

What makes the heart of a legalist tick? You might be surprised how often, despite appearances, it is simply this: the love of money. John Piper delivered this message at a chapel for Crossway Books.

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Do Human Technologies Ever Threaten Divine Sovereignty?

Sun, 06/09/2019 - 9:02pm

At any moment, God can put a complete stop to the plans of man. Rebellious human plans never threaten a sovereign God.

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His Sermons Roused a Sleeping Church: J.C. Ryle (1816–1900)

Sun, 06/09/2019 - 8:02pm

When John Charles Ryle first entered the pulpit in the Church of England, the preaching of his day was “dry, heavy, stiff, dull, cold, tame . . . and destitute of warmth, vivacity, direct appeal, or fire” (J.C. Ryle: First Bishop of Liverpool, 103).

Ryle made every effort to break the mold, even as a dignified bishop of Liverpool. His simple clarity was renowned. One older lady came to the church hoping to hear the bishop, but afterward said to a friend, “I thought I’d hear something great. . . . He’s no bishop. I could understand every word” (J.C. Ryle: That Man of Granite with the Heart of a Child, 253). Ryle took it as a great compliment.

Alongside simplicity and clarity, Ryle’s preaching carried what J.I. Packer calls an “electric force of utterance” — a force that recovered the biblical emphasis on not just teaching the word, but heralding it (Faithfulness and Holiness, 11).

Thorough, Entire Change

Ryle was born on May 10, 1816, near Macclesfield, in the county of Cheshire, England. His parents were nominal members of the Church of England with no interest in vital religion. They would never embrace Ryle’s evangelical faith, which he came to when he was 21 years old.

Until the age of 21, Ryle says, “I had no true religion at all. . . . I certainly never said my prayers, or read a word of my Bible, from the time I was 7 to the time I was 21. . . . My father’s house was respectable and well conducted but there really was not a bit of [true] religion in it” (J.C. Ryle: A Self-Portrait, a Partial Autobiography, 35). But things were about to change dramatically.

Near the end of 1837, three factors conspired to work what Ryle called “a thorough and entire change” (A Self-Portrait, 35): a severe illness, the arrival of a gospel preacher in his hometown, and the influence of evangelical books. He tells us the truths that the Holy Spirit pressed on his soul in those days:

Nothing . . . appeared to me so clear and distinct, as my own sinfulness, Christ’s preciousness, the value of the Bible, the absolute necessity of coming out of the world, the need of being born again, the enormous folly of the whole doctrine of baptismal regeneration. All these things, I repeat, seemed to flash upon me like a sunbeam in the winter of 1837 and have stuck in my mind from that time down to this. (A Self-Portrait, 42–43)

Pushed into the Ministry

For the next three and a half years, he worked mainly in the bank that his father owned. Then disaster struck in June 1841, when he was 25 years old. His father lost everything in bankruptcy. Ryle describes this event as so traumatic that “if I had not been a Christian at that time, I do not know if I should not have committed suicide” (A Self-Portrait, 54).

Now what would he do? He had no idea. The rector of the parish of Fawley, Rev. Gibson, knew of Ryle’s conversion and leadership gifts, and asked him to be the curate of Exbury. It was a strange way to enter the ministry in which he would become the foremost evangelical spokesman of the Church of England in his day.

I never had any particular desire to become a clergyman, and those who fancied that my self will and natural tastes were gratified by it were totally and entirely mistaken. I became a clergyman because I felt shut up to do it, and saw no other course of life open to me. (A Self-Portrait, 59)

He prepared two written sermons each Sunday, spoke extemporaneously on Wednesday and Thursday, and visited sixty families each week. The church was soon filled on Sunday. But he resigned in two years (November 1843) for health reasons. “The district thoroughly disagreed with me. . . . Constant headache, indigestion, and disturbances of the heart then began and have been the plagues, and have disturbed me ever since that time” (A Self-Portrait, 64).

Years of Singular Trials

After a five-month curacy at Winchester, he accepted a call to be the Rector at Helmingham, about eighty-five miles northeast of London, where he began on Easter 1844. He was now 28 and still unmarried. Not until now had his income been sufficient to support a wife — which was one of the reasons he accepted this call after only five months at Winchester. But in Helmingham he stayed seventeen years.

In October 1844, his first year there, he married Matilda Plumbpre. She was 22, and he was 28. A child, Georgina, was born in May 1846, and Matilda died June 1847. Ryle was married again, in February 1849, to Jessie Walker, but their ten years together “were years of singular trials” (A Self-Portrait, 79). Jessie was never well.

On five occasions, she had to be confined in London for two months each, and one side effect was that Ryle preached in at least sixty different churches in London and became very popular for his power in the pulpit, to which he responded, “I always felt that popularity, as it was called, was a very worthless thing and a very bad thing for man’s soul” (A Self-Portrait, 80).

Jessie bore four children over the ten years of their marriage: Isabelle, Reginald, Herbert, and Arthur. But then in May 1860, after a long battle with Bright’s disease, she died. During the last five years, Jessie was unable to do much at all, and when she died the entire load of the five children, with the oldest only 13, fell to their father, especially the three little boys. Ryle writes,

As to holidays, rest, and relaxation in the year, I never had any at all; while the whole business of entertaining and amusing the three little boys in evening devolved entirely upon me. In fact the whole state of things was a heavy strain upon me, both in body and mind, and I often wonder how I lived through it. (A Self-Portrait, 81)

“Prince of Tract Writers”

The year after Jessie died, Ryle accepted a call to be the Vicar of Stradbroke about twenty miles north of Helmingham. He had served seventeen years in the tiny village of Helmingham and would now serve Stradbroke for another nineteen years. The year he began at Stradbroke, he was married a third time, October 24, 1861, to Henrietta Legh-Clowes. He was 45, she was 36, and they were married for twenty-eight years, until she died in 1889, eleven years before his own death in 1900.

During the thirty-six years in the rural parishes of Helmingham and Stradbroke, Ryle was becoming a national figure of prominence in the Church of England. He was constantly writing and traveling to speak. “He was Evangelicalism’s best-known and most respected writer and spokesman through the 1870s” (Faithfulness and Holiness, 51).

One of the great ironies of Ryle’s life is that he took a brilliant first class in classics at Oxford, was a constant reader of old and new theology, collected a five-thousand-volume library, and yet, in tiny rural parishes, became “the Prince of tract writers” (That Man of Granite with the Heart of a Child, 70).

“Tracts” in those days were little booklets that in Ryle’s case had been sermons and that sold for pennies. The fact that Ryle put such a premium on publishing practical tracts on Christian living and church life shows how zealous he was for personal holiness and church reform. In writing and preaching, he was first a pastor, and “as he read,” Packer points out, “alongside the question ‘Is it true?’ the question ‘What effect will this have on ordinary people?’ was always in his mind” (Faithfulness and Holiness, 71).

At the age of 64, after thirty-six years in rural parishes, when most people are ready to retire, he was called to be the first bishop of Liverpool. So he moved from parishes of 300 and 1,300 to a city of over 700,000 with all the urban problems he had never met face-to-face. He served in this post for twenty years, until two months before his death on June 10, 1900, at the age of 84.

Forceful Clarity

What made Ryle such a popular evangelical spokesman and such a powerful preacher — so powerful that we are still reading his sermons over one hundred years later? We have seen that the preaching of his day as “dry, heavy, stiff, dull, cold, tame . . . and destitute of warmth, vivacity, direct appeal, or fire” (J.C. Ryle: First Bishop of Liverpool, 103). His was the precise opposite. Ryle returned true preaching to the pulpit.

Biblical preaching, as opposed to teaching — the Greek word kerussein as opposed to didaskein — involves a kind of emotional engagement signified by the word heralding. There is in preaching a kind of urgency and a kind of forcefulness. A message is being delivered from the King of the universe — with his authority, in his name — and this message deals with matters of infinite importance. The eternal destiny of the hearers hangs on how they respond to the message.

This is preaching. And no matter what a preacher’s personality or preferred tone, this preaching necessarily involves urgency and forcefulness and a penetrating conviction that aims to come with divine thrust into the minds and hearts of the listeners.

Ryle’s preaching is a model for preachers in these ways. Ryle knew that he had to crucify his florid, literary style which marked his early preaching (That Man of Granite with the Heart of a Child, 60). The nature of preaching demanded something different. Something simpler, but more forceful and penetrating. What developed was astonishing. Packer refers to his

brisk, spare, punchy style . . . its cultivated forcefulness, its use of the simplest words, its fusillades of short, one-clause sentences . . . its rib-jabbing drumbeat rhetoric, its easy logical flow, its total lack of sentimentality, and its resolve to call a spade a spade. (Faithfulness and Holiness, 19)

Do Not Linger

Consider an extended portion of what Packer means by the “electric force” of “fusillades” and “rib-jabbing, drumbeat rhetoric.” This is from a sermon on Lot’s lingering as he came out of Sodom and how so many Christians linger as they leave sin.

Would you be found ready for Christ at his second appearing — your loins girded — your lamp burning — yourself bold, and prepared to meet him? Then do not linger! . . .

Would you enjoy strong assurance of your own salvation, in the day of sickness, and on the bed of death? — Would you see with the eye of faith heaven opening and Jesus rising to receive you? Then do not linger!

Would you be useful to the world in your day and generation? — Would you draw men from sin to Christ, adorn your doctrine, and make your Master’s cause beautiful and attractive in their eyes? Then do not linger!

Would you help your children and relatives towards heaven, and make them say, “We will go with you”? — and not make them infidels and despisers of all religion? Then do not linger!

Would you have a great crown in the day of Christ’s appearing, and not be the least and smallest star in glory, and not find yourself the last and lowest in the kingdom of God? Then do not linger!

Oh, let not one of us linger! Time does not — death does not — judgment does not — the devil does not — the world does not. Neither let the children of God linger. (Holiness, 193)

Even as he pressed eternal realities on the hearts of his hearers, however, Ryle never forgot that God himself must act to save. On his gravestone, two verses of Scripture capture the two aspects of the Christian life that he heralded most: the fight and the gift. First, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). And then, “By grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8).

Was He Too Prone to Wander? Robert Robinson (1735–1790)

Sat, 06/08/2019 - 8:02pm

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love.

Robert Robinson wrote these words as a young man in his twenties, a few years after his conversion. They appeared in 1758 in one of the stanzas of his now classic hymn, “Come, thou fount of ev’ry blessing.” The hymn as a whole is a great testimony to the grace of God that had saved him, notwithstanding a heart that was “prone to wander.”

By the time of his death at 54 years of age, however, some wondered if Robinson had indeed wandered, at least theologically. He died just after spending time with Joseph Priestley, one of the most infamous political and theological radicals of the late eighteenth century. Priestley and his fellow Unitarians (who denied the deity of Christ) were quick to claim Robinson as one of their own. Priestley even claimed that Robinson “attacked Orthodoxy more pointedly and sarcastically than I had ever done in my life.”

So how far had Robert Robinson wandered?

Poor, Uneducated, Fatherless

Robinson was born in a small market town near Norwich in southeast England in 1735. He was born the same year that the great evangelist George Whitefield was converted in his college rooms at Oxford, and while a local revival was stirring Jonathan Edwards’s parish in New England and spreading up and down the Connecticut River Valley. But it would be another seventeen years before Robinson would hear Whitefield preach and be himself drawn into the orbit of the revival movement.

In fact, his home was “devoid of piety,” and his parents’ marriage was described as a disaster. By the time young Robert was entering his teens, his dissolute father was being sued for debts. His father abandoned the family and died soon afterward. Although his mother’s family had wealth, lands, and houses, Robert’s grandfather resented the marriage and as a cruel gesture left his daughter only half a guinea (about $100 in today’s terms). Robert’s mother could see that her son had some intellectual capacity, so to keep him in school she took in boarders and “plied the needle” as a seamstress. Soon it was all too much, though, and by the time Robert was thirteen, his formal education had to be given up.

A friend of the family had a brother in London who was a barber, and the decision was made to send Robert to the city to be bound as an apprentice in that trade. This meant he would become the charge and responsibility of his master for seven years, until his apprenticeship was complete. He would spend his teen years away from home in the big city.

“Jesus Sought Me”

One historian talks about “the guilty apprentice syndrome,” meaning that there were many young men who left the morally reinforcing social structures of the countryside and got into trouble when immersed in the anonymity and temptations of a city like London. When such young men happened upon the evangelical preaching that was spreading throughout the metropolis, their consciences were easily wounded.

This is exactly what happened to Robinson. On Sunday, May 24, 1752, he was one of a gang of young people who went and got a fortune-teller drunk on cheap gin, and then visited Whitefield’s Tabernacle at Moorfields “to mock the preacher and pity his hearers,” but instead Robinson was haunted by Whitefield’s sermon on the wrath to come. Day and night he was troubled as he recalled the message. This unrest culminated three years later in his wholehearted conversion. We know this from a cryptic notation he made in Latin on a blank leaf in one of his books. It said that on Tuesday, December 10, 1755, he “found full and free forgiveness through the precious blood of Jesus Christ.” No wonder he would soon write in his famous hymn:

Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Bought me with his precious blood.

Embracing the Baptists

About the time he was completing his apprenticeship, he began to have thoughts about entering the ministry, and he used to practice preaching sermons to himself for up to an hour at a time. He stayed in London, working in his trade for a couple of more years, and then in 1758 he returned home to his uncle’s farm in Suffolk, near where he grew up. He was now 22 years of age, and he began in earnest to copy Whitefield and the other Methodists, preaching without notes and gathering a society in the village. He was soon invited to preach at James Wheatley’s Tabernacle up the road in Norwich. It was in a hymnbook published by Wheatley that Robinson’s famous hymn was first published.

Though his time in the Norwich area was short, it was significant. It was here that he met and married Ellen Payne, with whom he would have twelve children. Here too his convictions led him to dissent from the Established Church, with whom the Methodists were still closely connected, and to set up an Independent Calvinistic church in town. Then he went on to receive adult baptism. He would be a Baptist ever after.

It was the famous Baptist writer Anne Dutton who informed the deacons in the Stoneyard congregation of Particular Baptists at Cambridge that “there was a youth at Norwich who had been preaching among Methodists but had lately been baptised and wanted to settle in a Baptist congregation.” He began preaching for the Cambridge Baptists in a kind of probationary role. He felt unworthy, given his irreligious upbringing, his lack of education, and his youth. But after two years, he was ordained as their permanent pastor.

Pastor of the Dissenters

His ministry began with 34 people huddled in a “damp, dark, cold, ruinous, contemptible hovel” in a town that despised Dissenters. Still, he remained faithful to his calling, and in time a new church meeting house was erected, and within fifteen years there were two hundred families in the church, with morning congregations of six hundred and evening gatherings of eight hundred. He reached a thousand more through his itinerant preaching in surrounding villages during the week. At a time when the percentage of Dissenters was falling in most of the counties around Cambridge, Robinson’s influence increased their numbers significantly in Cambridgeshire.

Robinson was unquestionably a beloved and effective pastor for three decades in Cambridge. This was his principal ministry. We don’t know a lot about his continued use of hymns, but there is a note in the church book that will seem familiar to anyone today who has met with conflict over styles of music in church: “Heady people . . . found fault with certain tunes.” These were the so called “sprightly tunes” introduced in the Sunday evening lectures, designed to reach a wider “town and gown” audience. Evidently some church members did not like Robinson’s “seeker friendly” methods.

Tolerant to a Fault

In the mid-1770s, Robinson was increasingly drawn into public activism to defend religious and civil liberties. He was keenly aware that the laws of the land still imposed disabilities on Dissenters. Robinson was driven to study church history to defend the cause of Nonconformists. For him, the Reformation was principally about freedom of conscience, rather than doctrinal statements. “The right of private judgment,” he wrote, “is the very foundation of the reformation.” He came to dislike the binding of anyone’s conscience by a statement of faith.

In the political sphere, he was an active voice for parliamentary reform (and was mentioned by name in the House of Commons by Edmund Burke). He was also an early opponent of slavery and the slave trade, preaching and petitioning against it. He stated clearly that slavery was incompatible with Christianity. On the same principal of liberty, he welcomed the American and French Revolutions. In fact, he was visited by General Read, Washington’s second-in-command, who offered him passage to America and land if he would drop everything and come.

Robinson was a man open to other viewpoints and tolerant — perhaps to a fault. He was friendly with political and theological radicals, including Unitarians and others with who denied Christ’s divinity (Socinians). There was a small Socinian group in his congregation in Cambridge, and he refused to take sides against them when division opened up over the question.

Like many others before and since, Robinson wanted to appeal only to the Bible and not to any statements of faith or creeds. But there is always a danger that this way of thinking can lead to an unhealthy elevation of private judgment. If we think we can recover the true Bible message on our own, without any dependence on doctrines derived from Scripture and received by the wider church, we may indeed find ourselves “prone to wander.”

When Freed from Sinning

How far Robinson in fact wandered theologically by the end of his life is a question still debated. If he hadn’t gone to Birmingham and preached in Priestley’s church just days before his death, he might have been remembered differently. A year before he died, he reaffirmed what he had written earlier, that the Socinians were mistaken brethren, and in one of his last letters he affirmed he was neither a Socinian nor an Arian.

Six years after Robinson died, the Anglican evangelical John Newton wrote to Robinson’s biographer, saying that he hoped his own spiritual history would terminate where Robinson’s began. He worried that Robinson in his later years was more inclined to help people doubt than believe. And he worried Robinson had been traveling the same road as Joseph Priestley from skepticism to Unitarianism.

It is hard to know for certain. But Newton was surely right about the early years of Robinson’s ministry. There is abundant evidence from the 1750s and 60s to show that Robinson was animated by an evangelical faith and piety that was later compared to Jonathan Edwards.

We should also remember with some sympathy that Robinson was, late in life, a broken man. By 1790, the year he died, he was physically and mentally ill. His sermons became incomprehensible, and some described him as insane. He never recovered from the death of his 17-year-old daughter Julie in 1787. He faced a financial crisis that could have sent him to debtors’ prison. And many of his friends had turned against him.

Thinking of his suffering at this distance, the final verse of his great hymn takes on more poignancy. The verse isn’t sung much anymore, but we can perhaps imagine Robinson at the end singing its first quatrain, trusting, as we all must, in Christ’s “boundless grace” as the ultimate hope in the face of death:

On that day when freed from sinning
I shall see thy lovely face,
Clothèd then in blood-washed linen
How I’ll sing thy boundless grace.

He Sees with New Eyes: My Love for David Powlison (1949–2019)

Sat, 06/08/2019 - 8:02pm

I love David Powlison, who passed away yesterday morning, and would like to honor him and exult in his Savior by giving you seven reasons why.

I say “love,” not “loved,” because that’s the way love is. It doesn’t cease to be during separations. And this one will be short.

1. I love him because when he spoke I saw.

I made no secret that I ranked him with C.S. Lewis as a see-er of what is really there. It was no coincidence that one anthology of Lewis is titled A Mind Awake, and one anthology of David’s is called Seeing with New Eyes. They were both profoundly awake to the quiddity of things — to wake up in the morning and be aware of the firmness of the mattress, the pleasant weight of the blanket on your feet, the warmth of the sun rays, the soft murmur of the distant traffic, the sheer being of things.

Lewis and Powlison gently shook me awake from the recurrent slumbering of my mind in theoretical and abstract reconstructions of things, one step removed from the concreteness of reality. Wake up! Those people have noses! (Lewis). Wake up! Those people have stories! (Powlison).

I invite you to listen to a few of David’s short videos on YouTube. Just when you think there is nothing more that can be said about this inscrutable personal problem, he sees it from a new angle, then another angle, and another. Then I realize that my speechlessness before this sorrow was owing to my not being alive to what is really there. Wonders. Wonders in the broken human being in front of me, and wonders in the word of God. He helped me see, again and again.

2. I love him because he was gently amazed at the amazing — and everything is amazing.

Let me illustrate with a story he told:

Some 1,500 years ago, the warrior-chief of a primitive, Germanic tribe bluntly questioned a visiting missionary, “Why should I believe in this Jesus that you tell me about?” The man of God answered, “Because in Jesus Christ you will find wonder upon wonder — and all true.”

David believed that Jesus Christ — revealed in Scripture — is the key to rightly seeing and experiencing everything. And everything, rightly seen, is amazing. And, rightly experienced, everything is healing — eye-opening, joy-giving. Jesus, seen and spoken wisely, is the key to all that is true and good and whole and honest and lasting. God’s Son and God’s word do not go begging among the secondhand stores of secular philosophies or psychologies.

If we are to serve people well, David said,

We must know the sheer glory and goodness of what our Father has given us in Jesus Christ. To know Jesus in truth and love is to find the one thing worth finding, the one lasting happiness, the purpose of life.

Just when we are about to sit down and look at a glossy, coffee-table book of mountain pictures, David takes us by the arm and pulls us up to the next rim of Himalayan heights of Scripture, and says, “Look at Reality! This is amazing! And more relevant to every troubled life than anything in the glossy imitations.”

3. I love him because his language is alive with what he has seen.

If you only see, and don’t say, how do you serve anyone? But if you see what is concretely amazing, and yet say it with vague abstractions, how will people see and savor the wonders you see? David did not do this. You could touch his words. They were real. This is a gift. For example, he counseled,

Don’t ever say words such as “indicative” or “imperative” or “normative, situational, existential” when you are speaking with a human being who is still breathing.

I laughed out loud when I read that! Don’t load people with wonderless jargon from your specialty. Press through your beloved shorthand to the concrete reality and find words that touch the soul.

Don’t use shorthand — “gospel, cross, metanarrative, justification, sovereignty, redemptive-historical,” and so on — when you have an opportunity to use longhand. The Bible only uses shorthand after the meaning is crystal clear, established in some detail in the context. And biblical shorthand typically moves forward with a nuance or fresh angle, rather than simply talking in technical jargon. Most people get very little out of shorthand, but get a great deal out of details and stories.

Shorthand is needed. Indeed, it is inspired by God. But it’s the “detail,” the “context,” the “crystal clear meaning,” the “nuance,” the “fresh angle,” the “stories” that waken. In some mouths this counsel might have put me off, but David has my trust as a rock-solid lover of Romans, as well as Ruth. So, I listened when he said,

Become as Ruth-ian as you are Roman-esque, as Psalmic as you are Colossianic. We who are Reformed by conviction have always loved Truth, and now we love The Story. But we still have a hard time paying attention to the stories and all the other things that are true.

4. I love him because he is radiantly serious.

Jokesters do not help my happiness or my fruitfulness. Levity, it seems to me, is what happens to the soul when the quest for happiness loses touch with reality. To do good to people we must not lose touch with reality. We must know some things. For example, David writes,

We must know the gravity of our condition as human beings. We tend to defect. We are false lovers. We are traitors — compulsively, blindly.

The Christian Counselor (that’s all of us believers in some measure) is serious because of the terrifying propensities he sees in the mirror. But along with those dreadful facts, “We must know the sheer glory and goodness of what our Father has given us in Jesus Christ.” So, the Christian Counselor is radiant with joy.

At least David was. In my experience he was never glib, or gloomy. He did not wear the heaviness of his troubles on his sleeve. They made him earnest, but not onerous. He was not a party pooper, nor the resident clown. He was serious — the opposite of superficial — radiantly serious. No one greeted me like David Powlison — eyes fixed on mine, smiling gently, seeing, asking.

5. I love him because he is calmly unshakeable but corrigible.

He devoted some of his best thinking to how he could profit from the critics of his best thinking. This was part of the bigger vision — the peaceful, happy vision— that God and his word are infallibly true even when we are not infallibly right. The safest place to live and minister is not in the fortress of defensiveness, but in the shadow of the Almighty, ready to learn from every serious witness.

David turned every detractor into a doctor for his soul. Why waste a criticism by being defensive? He liked to say, “Critics, like governing authorities, are servants of God to you for good (Romans 13:4).” As usual he got much more specific:

Nobody likes to be criticized. But critics keep us sane — or, by our reactions, prove us temporarily or permanently insane. Whether a critic’s manner is gracious or malicious, whether the timing is good or bad, whether the intention is constructive or destructive, whether the content is accurate, half-true, or utterly false, in any case the very experience of being criticized reveals you. To what madnesses are you prone?

Not many people talk like this. David Powlison does. And I am the more sane for it.

6. I love him because he knew that the counsel of Christ radically opposed and opened the world.

He knew that all truth is God’s truth. But, just as importantly, he knew that any truth cut from God as truth is radically untrue — untrue to all that is most important, most beautiful, most precious, most lasting. Biblical counseling was not a baptized imitation of the world’s ideas. It grew from the unfathomable roots of Reality in God.

God’s way is qualitatively different from everything else available in the bazaar of options, of other counsels, other schemas, other practices, other systems.

We are not at a loss when our roots grow deep and wide in the vastness of God’s wisdom. “God speaks profoundly and comprehensively to the concrete conditions of every person’s life.”

But the counsel of Christ is not only opposed to, and better than, all the world; it also opens the world as a treasure trove of human experience. David did not believe it was possible or desirable to move directly from Bible-reading to soul-healing. Nobody exists in that kind of bubble, where there is only a Bible, a reader, and a sinful, wounded soul. This reader — this counselor — has been formed by ten thousand experiences in life, besides what he sees in the Bible. Some have been harmful. Some helpful. Some both.

David’s point is this: the radically comprehensive, God-centered, Christ-exalting vision of Scripture turns the world into a school of endless wonders — horrible and beautiful. With Christ as Creator and Teacher the universe becomes a university of discovery. The Bible reader — the biblical counselor — is no longer passive about being shaped by the world, but actively pressing through appearances to depths of insight in human experience.

We see this not only in the way David listened perceptively (to us), but also in the way he read fiction and history. Why did he love Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment) and Alan Paton (Cry, the Beloved Country) and Mark Helprin (A Soldier of the Great War)? He tells us:

Of course, I love [them] in a different way than I love Scripture. But alongside Scripture, I most love novels and histories. Why? Because you learn about people. You gain a feel for human experience. You come to understand riches and nuances that you could never understand just from knowing the circle of people you happen to know. You come to understand the ways that people differ from each other, and the ways we are all alike — an exceedingly valuable component of wisdom. You become a bigger person with a wider scope of perception. All those things you come to know illustrate and amplify the relevance and wisdom of our God. I love fiction and biography for the same reasons that an 18th century pastor would read his Bible and his Shakespeare.

David Powlison was absolutely confident that the counsel of Christ was the decisive, indispensable, finally authoritative word of God over against all the God-omitting world. And he knew that world was a treasure chest of discovery awaiting Christ as the key.

7. I love him because he is finally centered on the sweetness of the love of God in Christ.

When he counseled a friend who could not shake the feeling that God was distant, yes, he counseled “Listen to Scripture” (2 Timothy 4:2). Yes, “Talk heart to heart with a friend” (Hebrews 3:13). Yes, “Eat and drink the Lord’s Supper” (Matthew 26:26—29). Yes, “Take time to carefully consider the beauty of a flower” (Matthew 6:28–29). Yes, “Remember the Christian leaders whose lives and teaching most influenced you” (Hebrews 13:7). Yes, “Remember Jesus lived Lamentations 3, and lived it for you” (Lamentations 3:22).

But his counsel reaches a crescendo on this sweet note:

And remember that the most repeated sentence in the entire Bible is “His steadfast love endures forever.” God thought it worth repeating that his steadfast love lasts forever. And it’s worth our repeating it, too. Say it out loud, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end.”

I am writing this tribute in Bideford, England, just after hearing the news of David’s death. Just this morning, Noël and I were walking through a graveyard in nearby Buckland Brewer, a village where my great, great-grandfather, John Piper, was born. In the cemetery among centuries-old gravestones there was a circular cement marker with the engraved word, “Reserved.”

Marked or not, your spot, and my spot, is reserved by God. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. In life, David Powlison taught us how to live, and to help others live. In death, he helps us prepare to die. Few reminders could be sweeter than the one he leave with us: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end.” Never.

Luke 6:20–26: The Kind of People God Blesses

Sat, 06/08/2019 - 10:47am

If we are Christ’s disciples — whether poor, hungry, weeping, or persecuted — we are blessed.

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Treasure in the Field: Enjoying God Through the Game of Baseball

Fri, 06/07/2019 - 8:02pm

I’m not necessarily aiming to win you to my joy in baseball. What I do hope to do in focusing on my particular joy in baseball is illustrate how to enjoy God himself through his created world.

I’ve selected baseball as the case study because it’s a thick joy, a complex joy, with many layers. Some joys are simple and direct. You eat honey and then you go straight to God. Honey is good. God is good. But other joys are complex and interwoven and take us deeper into the world first, before they take us Godward.

Psalm 19 shows us that the heavens declare the glory of God in a thick and indirect way. The sun moving across the sky is like a bridegroom on his wedding night, and like a mighty warrior running into battle (Psalm 19:5). So, if you want to hear the glory of God in the heavens, you have to first dive deeply into weddings and marriage and battles and manhood and the sun. You have to explore the thickness of creation in order to know and enjoy God clearly in it.

Enjoying the Perfect Game

That’s the kind of thick joy that baseball is for me. First, there is the physical aspect. Running, throwing, hitting, catching, coaching — all of these require physical effort and skill, which engage us as embodied beings.

Second, there’s the recreational aspect. Baseball, like many forms of recreation, provides a respite from the cares and burdens of life.

Third, there’s a philosophical aspect. Baseball is “a perfect game” — so claims David Bentley Hart in his essay by that title. Hart says that baseball may be America’s greatest contribution to the history of civilization.

He rightly notes that baseball is distinct from most other sports, which are basically about moving a ball from one end of the court or field or pitch to the other in order to score more goals or points than the other team before time runs out. Baseball is different. There’s no clock, only 27 outs, which means, as Yogi Berra famously said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” As long as there is one out, one strike left, anything can happen.

There’s the exact fittingness of the dimensions — ninety feet between the bases, and sixty feet and six inches from the rubber to the plate. Everything so exquisitely timed that a ball fielded cleanly in the infield is almost always an out, but a slight bobble is almost always a hit.

It’s a team sport with a decidedly individualistic bent, as pitcher and hitter stare each other down with little to no help from anyone else. There are the tactics and strategies that change from inning to inning and pitch to pitch. There’s the seasonal movement from the promising brightness of Spring Training to the dog days of summer to the intensity of autumn (and the knowledge that all good things come to an end).

As Hart also notes, baseball recalls the innocence of Eden, as well as the intrusion of evil into paradise, whenever the Yankees come to town. These be deep matters, and the philosophically inclined among us have much to ponder in America’s pastime.

Thick Joy

Fourth, there’s a social dimension to the enjoyment — the teamwork, the shared training that builds brotherhood and camaraderie.

Fifth, for me, there’s a multifaceted familial dimension. My grandfather played and managed in the majors. My dad worked in the front office for minor league teams. My father-in-law has been an Astros fan since the sixties and got to experience, in person, the greatest game in Astros history (Game 5 of the 2017 World Series) with his wife and two children.

There’s the bonding with my boys as I practice and play with them. And there’s a nostalgic dimension for me now, as I coach my boys, and remember my childhood when my dad taught me to throw and hit, and I played in the front yard with my brothers.

Finally, there’s a bittersweet dimension, because five years ago, we buried my dad after a seven-year battle with dementia, and I miss him most on the baseball diamond. I wish he could see my boys play. In short, for me, baseball is a thickly woven thing of earth.

How Natural Joys Become Joys in God

But joy in baseball is a natural joy. There is nothing spiritual about it. So how does my joy in baseball become a joy in God? That’s the question Christian Hedonists ask. There are hundreds of answers to this question. I’ll give four.

1. Baseball trains future men.

Joy in playing and coaching baseball becomes joy in God when I recognize that physical training has some value, including value as a picture of training in godliness (1 Timothy 4:8). A significant part of that value is in raising boys to become men.

Baseball, like many sports, creates the opportunity for channeling masculinity in fruitful directions. Baseball awakens ambition, competition, the drive for excellence, intense emotions in victory and defeat. These are all good, but dangerous. Coaching my sons in baseball is an opportunity to train them to master these emotions and to cultivate humility, patience, diligence, perseverance, and joy in all circumstances. Such habits of natural virtue and self-mastery are a crucial part of growth in maturity and are of great use in cultivating spiritual virtue and godliness.

2. Baseball allows me to express God’s heart to my sons.

Joy in baseball becomes joy in God when I share joy with my sons and therefore love them by showing them what God is like. We know the distinct delight of introducing another person to one of our favorite pleasures. The pleasure of sharing is distinct in kind from the pleasure of the object or activity. It’s one thing to enjoy reading a book that I love; it’s another flavor of joy to give that book to my son whom I expect will also love it and find that he does. The anticipation of sharing that story with him, of seeing him light up at the same parts, of entering into the joy for the first time, is its own reward. This is what parents are: the bringers and introducers of joys.

God is like that. He is a hedonist at heart, as C.S. Lewis wrote. He loves to be the bringer of joys. One reason he made the universe is so that there could be some third thing which he could bring to us, eyes aflame with knowing expectation, and say, “Here you go. Try it.”

We catch a glimpse in the creation of Eve — Adam’s solitude, God’s recognition that it’s not good, the failed attempt at finding a helper among the beasts, and then the deep sleep, the awakening, the triumphant “At last!” I can’t help picture God with a sly grin as he builds the woman from Adam’s rib. He pictures the scene when Adam awakes; he anticipates the euphoria, the way that parents anticipate their children’s joy on Christmas Eve as they place the presents around the tree.

I know it’s an analogy; God is, after all, simple and timeless, without shadow of turning (or anticipation). Whatever likeness there is between my experience as the bringer of joy to my sons and God’s experience of bringing joy to us, there is also a great unlikeness, because God is not in time, God is not complex, God does not anticipate, God does not change. But despite that unlikeness, I believe that the likeness is real. My joy in sharing baseball with my boys is something like God’s joy in sharing everything with me, including baseball.

3. Baseball helps me toward holiness.

Joy in baseball becomes joy in God when it helps me to kill sin and pursue holiness. When I’m on the field, burdens lift. There’s a much-needed respite from the pressures of life and ministry, an echo of Eden, which I deliberately wield in the fight of faith. When I’m shaping my boys into men and sharing joy with them and showing them what God is like, I’m doing what I was made for.

And so, in coaching, I feel God’s pleasure. And in feeling God’s pleasure, I put my sin to death. I’m a better husband, a better father, a better pastor. When I wield baseball in the fight for holiness, joy in baseball becomes joy in God.

4. Baseball points me to the world to come.

The bitter-sweetness of my dad’s absence brings a note of earthly sorrow and heavenly hope into the present joy. In other words, my sorrow on the field points me forward to the day when sorrows and sighings flee away. My sadness because of my dad’s absence on that baseball field is a reminder of the coming day when, as Tolkien said, everything sad comes untrue.

I sometimes imagine heaven as a little-league baseball game, with my boys playing, me coaching, and my dad watching. It’s a joy I’ll never have on earth. I don’t know that I’ll have it in heaven. I have no idea how the distinct joy of playing catch with a seven-year-old while being watched by a seventy-year-old could be there. How old will we be in heaven?

A mother knows that the pleasure of holding her newborn is one of the highest joys of her life. But how can there be newborns in heaven? And isn’t my heavenly baseball game just like a barren woman who pictures herself in heaven rocking her newborn to sleep? What is the point of imagining such impossibilities?

But in my case, the heavenly ball game is not what I really want. The ball game is a placeholder for something. It’s a way of reaffirming my belief in Revelation 21:4: “he will wipe away every tear from my eyes.” It’s my way of believing the promises of God.

But God didn’t promise me the baseball game with my sons and my dad. That’s true. But he did promise, “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11). “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).

All things, including the baseball game and the barren woman’s child. Either heaven will have my ballgame, or something better. Either heaven will see the barren woman with her baby, or something better. But since I have no clear picture of what the “something better” might be, I project my greatest desires (which are often the converse of my greatest earthly sorrows) and then say, “Even better than that.”

Make Imagination Serve Your Joy

So you see, the exercise is not in vain. The fact that the mind of man has not conceived what God has prepared for those who love him doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t exercise our mental muscles, just as the fact that the love of Christ surpasses knowledge doesn’t mean that we should cease trying to know it. Pushing the limits of our conceptions (provided we remember that they are only our conceptions) doesn’t threaten the joys of heaven. No one will be disappointed, least of all me. We work out our imaginations here so that we can, metaphorically speaking, give God’s omnipotent goodness a workout there.

Joy in the things of earth become joys in God when they are

  1. received and recognized as pictures of spiritual reality and on-ramps to spiritual virtue,
  2. shared with others as a way of loving them,
  3. wielded as a weapon in the fight of faith, and
  4. enjoyed (or grieved) as a way of anticipating the joys of the new heaven and new earth.

And that’s just a sample. There are countless variations and combinations of earthly joys, custom-made for each one of us, all designed as invitations from God to know and delight in God. Each joy individually, and all earthly joys together, are calling us to go further up and higher into the life of the God of all pleasure.

When enjoyed rightly, they transform the idolatry and ingratitude of Romans 1 into the thanksgiving and adoration of the renewed heart. Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father, and every good and perfect gift is designed to lead us back to the Father of lights, in whose presence is fullness of joy and at whose right hand are pleasures forevermore.

For more on enjoying God through his gifts, watch or listen to Joe Rigney’s plenary address from the 2019 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors “Christian Hedonism and the Things of Earth,” where he first took up baseball as a case study.

Was Job a Man or a Myth?

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 9:02pm

Job is a profound book on human suffering, worthy of a lifetime of study. But was Job himself a real, historical character? And does it matter?

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Not Safe, But Good: The Men We Desperately Need Today

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 8:02pm

I can still remember being startled by the thought: Jesus doesn’t seem very nice.

Unquestionably compassionate, gracious, and patient, Jesus also said and did things that, as I read through Mark, surprised me. The kind of things that today would get him trolled on Twitter and flagged on Facebook.

It was then that I began to think that if Jesus was not “nice,” if he — the one to whom all Christian women also look (2 Corinthians 3:18), and yet, the epitome of a godly man — did not fit within my vision for manhood, then it, not he, needed to change. The more I considered him — the more I considered the long lineage of godly men in the Scriptures — the more I stood confronted: Could these fit within my current conceptions of masculinity?

What about your conception? When you consider a good Christian husband, an upstanding churchman, a godly man, what qualities come to mind?

Traits such as generous, thoughtful, agreeable? Is this man slow to impose, quick to listen, ready to sympathize? Does he speak gently and serve graciously? Does he routinely defer to others’ preferences? Something about this ideal seems unquestionably right — but if this tender side is all, it also should strike us as uncomfortably wrong.

Godly men will indeed emanate compassion, humility, service, and love. This is true. But is this the whole truth? Has the ideal of manhood in the modern church become just a gentle shadow of what God made it to be?

Not Safe, but Good

When we teach about masculinity, do qualities like strength, initiative, zeal, and courage make our list? When we assess men for church office, and when we look for small group leaders and godly mentors, do we commend men who would make good shepherds — industrious, passionate, resilient men, able to corral sheep and willing to combat wolves?

Do we celebrate male strength, courage, zeal, and initiative because we know these are required in order to guard, protect, subdue, and lead? Such men of God who are gentle exactly because they are first strong? Men like Gandalf, who, after exuding his strength of presence, could then softly say to Bilbo, “I am not trying to rob you. I am trying to help you.” A tiger, not a kitten, can exhibit gentleness because he is first strong.

Endangered is that species of lionhearted masculinity that bears Aslan’s description: “not safe, but good.” Our present ideals, like the ones I once held, do not require goodness to make men safe, because they ensure that men are safe regardless of goodness. The man reborn in this image says nothing uncomfortable, rallies no charge, and shows little, if any, initiative. He is goaded to be convictionless, passionless, perhaps even Christless, if but subdued.

But such is not the vision of he who made man. Instead of blunting his sharp edges, God has a different solution for creating good men: rebirth, looking to Christ, and training in righteousness. Godliness must balance his natural perils. He achieves mature manhood through adding the fruit of the Spirit, not subtracting his God-designed nature. Kindness, self-control, compassion flavor his strength, courage, determination — not eclipse them.

Where Have the Men Gone?

Such men — gentle and strong — present a paradox to the world. His hands build up his household, wrestle with his boys, sip tea with his daughters, and grip the hilt of his Sword against the agents of darkness (Ephesians 6:10–20). He is a godly warrior who sleeps in his armor — fierce and meek and good wherever he finds himself. The description can, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, be redeemed: “Thou wert the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest” (Le Morte D’Arthur).

We err when we divide the two: brutal on the one hand, soft on the other. While our society increasingly chooses the latter, some wonder: Where have all the men gone?

We can read, as of an alien species, about men who “through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (Hebrews 11:33–34). Men who actively sought for glory, honor, and immortality. Men of faith who hoped for a better country than the one they had. Men who risked much, lost much, and gained more. Men who lived by faith in the living God.

Lukewarm religion, let’s never forget, makes for lukewarm masculinity. And lukewarm masculinity allows too many men to pass by church doors in favor of Islam, Jordan Peterson, or simply ESPN on the road to destruction.

Dying Flame of Masculinity

As I surveyed the lineage of godly men, I honestly wondered how many saints of old would feel discomfort with the feminization, not only of our society, but also in some of our churches.

Would we emasculate men of old? Would we not chide Abraham for wandering, Jacob for wrestling, Joshua for fighting, Elijah for mocking, Noah for madness, Job for arrogance, Daniel for incivility, Nehemiah for violence, Nathan for high-handedness, John the Baptist for name-calling, Paul for divisiveness, and the Son of God for brandishing a whip and turning over tables in the temple?

Have we chosen the conveniences of niceness over the discomforts of godliness? I fear someday lying comfortably beneath the inscription, “Here lies a father, husband, churchgoer — just a really nice guy.”

“Nice” says nothing of spine, of edge, of valor, and thus it can say little of righteousness or purpose. Nice requires no courage, no conviction, and no willingness to make enemies with the wicked. Jesus warns against such palatability: “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).

Now, we may be tempted, where we have swerved off the road, to overcorrect the error. This would lead us into the other ditch of parasitic strength. Such abominations endure in our day, in all their cruelty, abuse, and cowardice. We must not exchange “good, but not strong” for “strong, but not good.” We cannot charge forth in the flesh instead of being led by the Spirit. We must not settle with feeling like men in our own strength; we must become better men through divine power and self-sacrifice.

Men Set Ablaze

One step on the road to recovery is to reemphasize that unnerving trait of many men of old: godly jealousy. We must reclaim the pulse and convictions of a godly man, not just his actions.

Our God is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5). He will not share his glory, or bride, with another. And he fashions men who increasingly burn with his own righteous jealousy. These men, ablaze with zeal for the glory of God, for the health of the church, and for the souls of the lost, will, in certain circumstances, erupt to shatter the status quo. Zeal for the glory of God — not cultural civility or secular sensitivity — is the proper harness for biblical manhood. Godly jealousy makes good men dangerous — to the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Consider Moses, the meekest man on the earth (Numbers 12:3). Enraged by his people’s idolatry to break God’s tablets, he melted their golden calf, and made them drink it (Exodus 32:20). His love for his people and God’s glory acted resolutely against their idolatry.

Consider David, the poetry-writing shepherd-boy who could not simply stand by and watch an uncircumcised Philistine defy the armies of the living God — no matter how menacing he stood (1 Samuel 17:26). He could not listen quietly while his God’s name was defamed.

Consider Phinehas, an African whose name meant “the Negro.” Jealous with God’s jealousy, he turned away God’s wrath by impaling two high-handed sinners in the climax of their romance (Numbers 25:6–13).

Consider Elijah, a man tormented by the unbelief of Israel. He called a public showdown with the prophets of Baal and mocked them for hours (1 Kings 18:20–40). He longed for the people to know the true God and follow him alone.

Consider Paul, a former persecutor of the church who sat provoked as he saw the city full of idol-worship instead of Jesus-worship, and publicly lifted up his voice to challenge the great philosophers and rulers of Athens (Acts 17:16). He lived for kingdom business while many laughed at, opposed, and beat him.

All the King’s Men

Consider Jesus Christ, who grabbed whips, named names, and promised to return with weapons drawn. He is the Lion of Judah who knelt down and played with children (Mark 10:14). And the Lamb from whom men shall run, unsuccessfully begging mountains to crush them rather than face his wrath (Revelation 6:16).

He destroyed “arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5), crushed the dragon’s skull, and yet did not break a bruised reed (Isaiah 42:3). And he went to Calvary, not because niceness led him outside the camp to die among thieves and garbage, but because he burned with a passion for his bride, his Father’s name, and his own glory (John 17:4; Romans 3:25–26; 1 Peter 3:18).

Spurgeon’s last words in the pulpit portray the proper ideal:

[Jesus] is the most magnanimous of captains. There never was his like among the choicest of princes. He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle. When the wind blows cold he always takes the bleak side of the hill. The heaviest end of the cross lies ever on his shoulders. If he bids us carry a burden, he carries it also. If there is anything that is gracious, generous, kind, and tender, yes lavish and super abundant in love, you always find it in him. (Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers, 288)

The King’s men will be found, with Christ, in the thickest parts of the battle. They will eschew wasting their lives venturing nothing, growing warm for nothing, exercising no initiative, taking no stands, building no fortitude of faith, engaging in no spiritual battle, carrying no burdens, planting no flags on unconquered hilltops. The men of this King, for the very reason that they despise playing with foam swords against the forces of evil, create the safest culture for their women and children. Dangerous men under God, holding one another accountable, will not stand idly by as the bears maul those they should rather protect and nourish.

Meek and fierce. Tough and tender. Leaders and servants. Not safe, but good.

Men like Jesus.

Hard Questions Will Only Serve Him: A New Dawn for Christian Apologetics

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 8:02pm

I have waited my whole life to read The Lord of the Rings to my kids. Last night, we hit my favorite scene, in which the shield-maiden Éowyn confronts the Witch-king of Angmar: a terrifying agent of evil, before whom all, but she, have fled.

When Éowyn challenges this undead King, he mocks her with the words of a prophecy. “Thou fool! No living man may hinder me!” But Éowyn, who has gone into battle disguised, laughs at the line. She pulls her helmet off, her hair flows free, “No living man am I,” she says, and kills her foe. What looked like a promise of victory for the enemy only prophesied defeat.

After nine years working with Christian professors at leading secular universities, I believe we are on the edge of a similar reveal. If we look beyond the secularizing West, which prophesies Christianity’s demise, to the global stage, we’ll discover that Christianity is thriving and growing, while the proportion of people without religious affiliation declines.

If we look more closely at each seeming roadblock to faith, like the three examples below, they turn out to be signposts to Christ.

1. Diversity

Christianity is an exclusivist faith. We claim Jesus is Lord, regardless of race or place or culture. But rather than pulling against diversity, as many assume, Christianity is the greatest movement for diversity in all of history. Jesus tore through the racial and cultural barriers of his day (John 4:5–29) and commanded his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Two thousand years later, Christianity is not only the largest global worldview (and expected to remain so) but also the most racially and culturally mixed.

To be sure, Christians have sinned time and again in this respect, and turned the love-across-differences (to which Christ calls us) into hatred, racism, and xenophobia. But the New Testament texts and the global church are the two greatest rallying points for diversity in all of history. Indeed, far from stamping out diversity, Christianity insists on it.

2. Science

Christianity proclaims an all-powerful Creator God. But far from that belief pitting us against science, it aligns us with the very origins of the modern scientific method.

The first empirical scientists believed that the God who created the universe is rational, and so they hypothesized that he built the universe according to rational laws. But they also believed this God is free, so the only way to find out what those laws are was to go and look. These two beliefs laid the foundation for empirical science, the project (in early astronomer Johannes Kepler’s words) of “thinking God’s thoughts after him.”

To be sure, science can raise complex theological questions, but Christians have been at the forefront of science from the first, and today, there are Christians at the cutting edge of every scientific field that is thought to have discredited Christianity. Rather than conceding science to atheism, we should be thrilled to discover more about God’s world — not because we don’t believe in a Creator, but precisely because we do (Revelation 4:11).

3. Sexuality

Believing that sex belongs only in marriage between one man and one woman puts us at odds with unbelieving friends. Indeed, we may find ourselves accused of hatred and bigotry. Rather than being a tiny candle in the wind of progressive morality, however, biblical sexual ethics are well supported by the data around human flourishing.

For women in particular, increasing numbers of sexual partners correlates with more sadness, depression, and suicidal ideation, while for both sexes, stable marriage is measurably good for one’s mental and physical health. Married people have more and better sex than their unmarried peers, and the happiness-maximizing number of sexual partners in the last year turns out to be one!

When it comes to same-sex sexuality, we are utterly at odds with our immediate culture. But in this area as well, Christianity has more resources than most think. Some of the first Christians experienced same-sex attraction and came to Christ with homosexual histories (1 Corinthians 6:9–11). The same is true of the church today, as increasing numbers of same-sex attracted Christians are standing up for biblical sexual ethics on a costly platform of personal sacrifice.

The Bible calls us to firm boundaries around sex. But these are not hateful barriers designed to keep people out. Rather, they are marks on the playing field of human life, designed to create space for different kinds of love, each mirroring a different aspect of God’s love. In light of this, the Bible calls us to a particular model of marriage, a high view of singleness, and deep intimacy in friendships, where we are brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:50), one body (Romans 12:5), “knit together in love” (Colossians 2:2), and comrades in arms (Philippians 2:25). Indeed, Paul calls his friend Onesimus his “very heart” (Philemon 12) and tells the Thessalonians he was among them “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7).

In true Christian community, no one is left out. So, our response to the secular mantra “Love is love” need not be hostility or defensiveness. Rather, it can be our single Savior’s radical claim: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Best Answer in Apologetics

In the area of sexuality, as in every other area of apologetics, Jesus lies at the heart of the answer. We believe that marriage is one man and one woman for life because it models Christ’s love for his church (Ephesians 5:22–33). We believe that the scientific method works because the universe is sustained by the all-powerful word of God (Hebrews 1:3). We believe in love across racial and cultural difference because one day people from every tribe and tongue and nation will worship Jesus in fellowship together (Revelation 7:9–10).

Just as Éowyn’s revelation of her sex spelled death for the Witch-king of Angmar, so time and again, when we look more closely at supposed obstacles to faith, they point us to Christ. So, let’s not sound the retreat. Instead, let’s arm ourselves with love, prayer, and humility — and with the best insights we can glean from God’s world through careful study — and let’s meet our unbelieving friends where they are.

Christ’s love compels us to embrace the hardest questions, knowing his truth will surely win the day.

You Can Hate Abortion and Love Women: What’s Under the Debate over Life

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 8:02pm

Seeking adventure, you post the following syllogism to your social-media page and hang on for the ride:

Premise 1: It is wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings. Premise 2: Abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being. Conclusion: Abortion is morally wrong.

Right away a friend is typing. Six minutes later, you have a string of comments, not all of them nice. “Why do you hate women?” “What are you doing for kids after they’re born?” “Do you have a uterus? If not, shut up!” You expected controversy, but marvel how a simple syllogism provoked such outrage. It feels like something else is going on here. Indeed it is.

Larger Worldview Divide

What’s driving the abortion controversy is not who loves women and who hates them. Rather, it’s a serious philosophical debate about who counts as one of us. Either you believe that each and every human being has an equal right to life, or you don’t.

Legally, the issue defies compromise. The state either recognizes the humanity of the unborn and thus protects them, or it doesn’t and thus permits killing them. Imagine it’s 1860 and the Supreme Court says, “We take no position on whether or not slaves are human beings. When scientists, philosophers, and theologians can’t agree on that question, the court is in no position to decide. Therefore, individual slave owners can choose for themselves whether to free their slaves or keep them.” A court that rules that way is not neutral. It’s taking the position that slaves do not deserve the same liberties free people do.

In short, like slavery in the 1860s, the underlying controversy is a question of philosophical anthropology — namely, What makes humans valuable in the first place? That question isn’t going away anytime soon. Until it’s decisively settled, you can expect more controversy.

Two Rival Views

Pro-life advocates, following Lincoln and The Declaration of Independence, hold to an endowment view of human value. That is, humans are valuable by virtue of the kind of thing they are, not some function they perform. Although they differ immensely with respect to talents, accomplishments, and degrees of development, they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature that bears the image of their Maker. Their right to life comes to be when they come to be.

Abortion-choice advocates more or less espouse a performance view of human value. Being human is nothing special. What matters is your ability to immediately exercise an acquired property like self-awareness, desires, or sentience. Notice that both positions — the endowment view and the performance view — use philosophical reflection to answer the same foundational question: What makes humans valuable in the first place? Pick a side. There is no neutral ground here. That’s why abortion debates can heat up in a heartbeat.

Real-World Example

During his UNC Wilmington debate with pro-life professor Mike Adams, abortionist Willie Parker admitted under cross-examination that he intentionally kills human beings. When Adams pressed him to justify his actions, Parker accused Adams of failing to distinguish “human beings” from “human persons.”

Idling beneath Parker’s assertion is a philosophical anthropology known as body-self dualism, which he made no attempt to explain or defend. According to body-self dualism, the real “you” is not your body, which is mere matter in motion. Rather, the real “you” is your thoughts, aims, desires, conscious decisions, capacity to reason, and capacity for relationships. Before you gain (or once you lose) cognitive function in these areas, your living body exists, but “you” do not.

Personhood theory applies body-self dualism to law and ethics. Personhood theory says being human isn’t enough to ground your right to life. Only “persons” have that right — that is, those who achieve a certain level of cognitive functioning. Lose that function and you forfeit your right to life. In short, we are left with two classes of human beings: human nonpersons we can legally kill and human persons we can’t. If you don’t make the grade, actual persons can override your interests, including your right to life.

For example, bioethicist Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Institute insists that once a patient loses “the capacity to reason, to have emotions, and to enter into relationships,” he cannot be called a “person” any longer (Nancy Pearcy, Love Thy Body, 86). “It is a mere body only” and the sanctity of life no longer applies.

John Harris from the University of Manchester applies personhood theory to the beginning of life. “Nine months of development leaves the human embryo far short of the emergence of anything that can be called a person.” A “person,” for Harris, is “a creature capable of valuing its own existence.” Only the lives of persons are important. It is not wrong to kill nonpersons or fail to save their lives “because death does not deprive them of anything they value” (54).

Peter Singer, in his defense of infanticide, is more precise. A “person” is a being “who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future.” Fetuses and newborns need not apply.

Five Problems with Body-Self Dualism

Personhood theory grounded in body-self dualism is deeply problematic, and pro-life Christians can be ready to say why.

First, body-self dualism is subjective.

Why should anyone think there can be such a thing as a human who is not a person? In his debate with Adams, Parker presented no argument for that. He merely asserted it. Suppose Parker replies that personhood is grounded in an immediate capacity for self-awareness or consciousness. Okay, but why are those traits value-giving in the first place?

As Christopher Kaczor points out, requiring actual consciousness renders us nonpersons whenever we sleep. Requiring immediately exercisable consciousness excludes those in surgery. Requiring the basic neural brain structures for consciousness (but not consciousness itself) excludes those whose brains are temporarily damaged.

On the other hand, if having a particular nature from which the capacity for consciousness is present makes one a valuable human being — even if one can’t currently exercise that capacity — then those sleeping, in surgery, or temporarily comatose are valuable, but so also would be the normal human embryo, fetus, and newborn (Kaczor, Ethics of Abortion).

When personhood is detached from the living human body, human value is entirely subjective. Who decides which traits matter? Might makes right. Those making the rules decide if your life is worth living.

Second, body-self dualism is counterintuitive.

If pressed, you are forced to say things like, “My body existed before I did,” or “I was mere matter until my conscious self showed up.” You also must admit that you’ve never hugged your mother, since one cannot hug desires, thoughts, and aims. And if you’re a psychologist, don’t even think of curing multiple personality disorders. That would entail mass murder, given multiple personalities — each with separate aims, desires, and thoughts — are intentionally destroyed in treatment.

At bottom, body-self dualism cannot explain simple statements like “you see.” Sensory acts like seeing involve bodily acts (via the eyes) and intellectual acts (via the mind). Both, Kaczor argues, are inextricably wound up in human nature.

Third, body-self dualism cannot account for human equality.

Does each and every human being have an equal right to life, or do only some have it by virtue of some characteristic which may come and go within the course of their lifetimes? If an arbitrarily selected trait like self-awareness grounds fundamental human value, and we don’t share that trait equally, those with more of it have a greater right to life than those with less. Human equality is a myth.

Fourth, body-self dualism distorts human “dignity.”

Parker confuses intrinsic dignity, which we have by virtue of our humanity made in the image of God, with attributed dignity, which we earn through achievement or performance. As Kaczor points out, the beach bum and the university scholar are both equal in their God-given, intrinsic dignity. However, they differ in their attributed dignity (Defense of Dignity, 5).

Fifth, body-self dualism justifies killing for the greater good.

Such thinking provides a philosophical foundation for intentionally killing innocent human beings outside the womb and justifies involuntary euthanasia and involuntary organ donation. That is, if the interests of actual persons can override the rights of a cognitively disabled patient, what’s wrong with intentionally killing him to benefit others? Given the logic of personhood theory, there is no theoretical ground for opposing such killing.

If that weren’t bad enough, on personhood theory, cognitively disabled humans could be — and perhaps should be — used for organ harvesting that benefits actual “persons.” To borrow an example from Frank Beckwith, suppose a developmental biologist alters the brain of a developing fetus so he never attains self-awareness. At age five, the child is killed in order to provide organs for actual, self-aware people (Defending Life, 139–40). On theoretical grounds, how is this wrong?

Protecting Human Rights for Everyone

Christians have a better foundation for human dignity. Instead of setting aside an entire class of human beings to be killed because they don’t measure up, we say that all humans have equal value because they equally bear the impress of their Maker. Differences of size, development, cognitive function, or dependency have no moral significance.

The abortion debate is not about a surgical procedure. It’s about a larger worldview question that demands an answer: Are the unborn members of the human family?

When a friend takes offense at your pro-life stand and accuses you of hating women, instead of getting defensive, gently clarify the issue that divides you:

I hope you don’t believe pro-lifers hate women, but I think you are right about one thing: If the unborn are not members of the human family, I am indeed unfairly imposing my views on women. However, if each and every human being has an equal right to life, and the unborn is one of us, can you see things my way? That is, if you shared my position that abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being, wouldn’t you do everything you could to stop it? Wouldn’t you want unborn humans protected by law just like everyone else?

Of course, I realize you don’t share my position, so my point here is really quite modest: The issue that separates us is not that I hate women and you love them. What separates us is that I believe the unborn are members of the human family and you don’t. That’s the issue I hope we can talk about.

Immediate Aid, Eternal Relief: Why Christians Work for Both

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 8:03am

We have no need to prioritize temporary aid or eternal relief. Christians labor for both because Jesus himself cared about both.

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Why Does God Discipline Some Christians with Death?

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 9:02pm

Why would God take some of his children home as a means of discipline when he could have prevented their sin another way?

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My Quiet Times Are Anything but Quiet

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 8:02pm

I have come to believe that many women are not reading their Bibles consistently because our imaginations have failed us. We have some idea of what Christian piety looks like, but it is almost always tethered to a particular lifestyle — one we unfortunately don’t have.

When we imagine Bible reading, what we are seeing is something like the life of a scholar. We see uninterrupted focus and commentaries. We see a pastor in his study, where the word is his life’s work. We see someone living at a lake house — no intrusions, complete serenity, perfect coffee. Maybe we see the life of a superwoman, who rises well before dawn because she cares so much more than we ever will be able to. We see calm. We imagine focus. We see heroic diligence.

Simply put, we see the Christian practice of reading the Bible as dependent on a really specialized kind of moment — a moment that seldom (to never) graces our own life.

Limits We Lay on the Word

When we feel guilty or wonder what is wrong with us for never reading the word, we spend all our time trying to create the perfect circumstances wherein Bible reading might flourish, instead of seeing how we can make it happen in this life, with these obstacles. If we’re going to meet with God, we’ll need to get creative.

A faithful (busy and distracted) mother may think that the only way for her to become a woman of the word would be for her to suddenly be a new person in a new life. In other words, our idea of piety and spiritual discipline simply does not mesh with the life that God has called us to. But these are limits we have placed on the word, not limits God places on us.

Isn’t it simply a lie that tells us our life is not compatible with faithfully reading the word? Why are we so easily kept from such perfect food for our souls?

Useful for Who?

The apostle Paul says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Notice that Scripture itself tells us that it is useful in equipping us for every good work, in order that we might be complete. That who might be complete? Just the scholars and pastors and those who possess a very orderly or extraordinarily diligent life? No, not just them! That the servant of God may be complete. The believer. You. The mother of small children, and the one carpooling all the time. The mother who is awakened too early by a hungry infant, and the one who is overwhelmed with small questions and interruptions, who has more on her to do list than she can ever do. The multi-tasker with the scattered mental status to prove it.

For some reason, many of us have not bothered to imagine what piety in this kind of life of chaos and interruptions might look like. We still think of Bible reading as a “quiet time.” But what if your life is inescapably loud?

The Inescapably Loud Life

I know my own life, and quiet is not the word for it. Every once in a while, of course, it is — a couch and coffee and quiet time. But if I was waiting for those moments to read the word, I would maybe read a chapter every week and a half. That simply can’t sustain me.

When your life is really busy, and your schedule packed, and the physical demands heavy, would you decide to cut down on food? Maybe once a week I can eat a piece of cheese, but otherwise my life is so crazy there is no time to eat!

Kids asking suddenly large questions, my phone ringing, the timer on the oven going off, the little one having a problem, time to pick someone up from track, another quick trip to the grocery store. These are the very good works that the word is equipping me for. Why would I think these moments are not worthy of the word? Or that these moments are somehow beneath it — that spiritual food is unnecessary for what is clearly a spiritual marathon?

This is my life. This is my calling. These are my duties. And this is the spiritual food that strengthens me for this life, this calling, and these duties.

My Dream for Women

I would love for every woman to be able to imagine another kind of piety because we have seen it in action. Women who are singing psalms while they fold the clothes. Women who are listening to the Bible while they clean bathrooms or vacuum. Women who are talking about what they just noticed in the word to the kids in the back of the car, snatching a second to read another chapter while waiting in a parking lot. Women whose hands are so very full of good works for which they are perfectly equipped because they are being fueled by the good word, however hastily eaten.

What would the world look like if all those women, whose hands are in so many places doing so much good, were thoroughly equipped by the power of the word? What if we got over our ideas of what piety looks like and realized that it certainly includes our callings too?

Praying for a Super Bloom

Paul says, “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20–21).

Every once in a while in a desert climate, there is an unusually wet spring and the whole desert erupts in bloom — it’s called a super bloom. It is a stunning phenomenon. The seeds that have always been there, dry and dormant, suddenly responding to the unexpected moisture in life and color and joy. Desert hills suddenly covered in purple, orange, yellow.

That is my hope and prayer — that as Christian women pursue faithful reading of the word in our normal lives, finding all the unexpected ways to get it done no matter our surroundings and the apparent obstacles, we will see a super bloom of godly women. Women who are so saturated in the word that all over the usually barren landscape we will see the gospel blossoming. Gospel living fed by gospel water, in the lives of women whose hands are in everything.

As we get creative in our Bible reading, God will pour out his Spirit to help us live and thrive and mother in ways we have not yet imagined.

Evidence of the New Birth: Living Out Identity in Christ

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 9:02am

All of the New Testament commandments are a call to become in experience what we are in Christ. And what we are in Christ is a new creation.

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