Friday, December 31, 2021
Friday, December 24, 2021
Monday, December 20, 2021
I'm taking a couple weeks away from the blog as I celebrate the Christmas holiday with my family. I will, however, continue putting up the weekly Scripture-prayer videos on Fridays, so you can look for those on the 24th and the 31st. Merry Christmas!
Friday, December 17, 2021
Thursday, December 16, 2021
The answer to the first question, by most of the Christian tradition, would be “Yes, God does control history…but it depends on what you mean by ‘control’.” We acknowledge that God is sovereign over all things, but there are two different ways of interpreting what this means. It could mean that God is in active control over everything that happens, that history, indeed, proceeds entirely according to his own divine plan. Or, it could mean that God holds sovereign prerogative over all things—he has the power to direct events whenever he so chooses, but he may also permit events to happen of their own accord without his active involvement in directing them. Even if merely the latter is true, most Christians would still believe that God intentionally directs some events, such as the great narrative of the Old Testament. What, then, does this part of “his story” have to say to us as Christians?
Why did God bother with the Old Testament story?
Up until the Protestant Reformation, the dominant way to read the Old Testament was as an allegory—it was a story in which God was placing elements which all pointed toward and foreshadowed Christ. However, in terms of Christian theology, the Old Testament seemed to be unneeded. If human beings were sinful from the time of the Fall, and the remedy for sin was the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, then why didn’t God just send Jesus right away? What was the point of Israelite history and the Law if it didn’t actually solve humanity’s problem?
The Calvinists shine new light on the Old Testament
John Calvin, following less than a generation after Martin Luther, was one of the leading lights of the Protestant Reformation. He engaged in a labor of biblical-theological synthesis practically unseen in Christianity up to that point. His book, Institutes, was the first truly biblically-based systematic theology that the Christian faith had ever produced. Instead of mining the Old Testament simply for allegories of Christ and the church, Calvin and his followers carefully studied the structure of the Old Testament until they had discerned an overarching pattern: God’s sovereign guidance of history through the means of covenants.
Covenant Theology - The Calvinists saw three great covenants operating in the Bible:
- The Covenant of Works: This covenant was established with Adam and Eve, and later expanded under Moses as the Law for the people of Israel. Under this covenant, God gives commandments for humanity to keep; the reward for keeping them is life in relationship with God; the reward for breaking them is death. Adam, as the “federal head” of all humanity, broke the covenant of works; all of us, incorporated in him, share his punishment, and we also ratify his actions with our own sins.
- The Covenant of Grace: This is the covenant of the New Testament, instituted in Christ. Jesus himself, as the “federal head” of a new humanity, perfectly fulfills all the requirements of the Covenant of Works. We enter the covenant of grace through faith in Christ, and, incorporated under his headship, we benefit from his perfect keeping of the Covenant of Works.
The Three Uses of the Law
Even though the first covenant is superseded by the covenant of grace, Calvin and the reformers recognized that it was still God-given and still had application to the Christian life. Martin Luther had posited two uses for the Law: (1) civil use, in which the righteous standards of the Law help us organize civil society, so that the wickedness of unredeemed humans is curbed; and (2) pedagogical use, in which the Law convicts an unredeemed person of sin, confirms his inability to be righteous, and points the way to Christ. However, as Calvin recognized, these two uses alone would mean that redeemed Christians still have no actual use for the Law. So Calvin discerned a third use: (3) didactic use, in which the Law (although it no longer has power to condemn the believers) helps Christians find the way to a holy, righteous way of living. In this way, even the Law becomes a gift of God’s grace.
The Sovereignty of God over All Things
Thus, Calvin saw in the events of the Old Testament evidence about the way God works: he orders the events of human history toward his own ends and makes them part of his grand narrative. In the same way, Calvin followed the tradition of Augustine in claiming that God is in active control over all things, even our individual lives. Everything we experience, including our faith in Christ, comes from the will of God alone, and it is only by his gracious choice that we are saved.
If God is really sovereign over everything, do I really need to take responsibility for anything? The answer, of course, is yes. The best advice here comes from an old Christian saying: “Believe as if everything depended on God, and act as if everything depended on you.” The wisest course of all is to take everything that happens to us as mercies and disciplines coming from the hand of God, and at the same time to take responsibility for our own actions.
Study the Old Testament! These books are given to us by God for our growth in holiness. Though we are no longer under condemnation for our failure to keep his commandments, those commands can still help to guide us on our way to a full, joyful life of righteousness.
Tuesday, December 14, 2021
Monday, December 13, 2021
Saturday, December 11, 2021
Friday, December 10, 2021
Thursday, December 09, 2021
This has been the driving question of all human religions. Many ancient religions said that we must provide sacrifices to the gods to find their favor, or follow certain rules. By the time of the Protestant Reformation (16th century AD), most Christians in Europe would have given a whole list of answers to that question: “In order to find favor with God, you must be baptized into the church, receive the sacraments, confess any mortal sins to your priest, pay money for spiritual ‘indulgences,’ and then after death proceed through purgatory until you are finally free from sin.” All of these answers came from layers of Christian tradition that had developed over the centuries. Martin Luther, however, began with another question: “What is our ultimate source of authority?” And if the ultimate authority is not layers upon layers of human traditions, then maybe the answers we’ve been giving to the question of how to find God’s favor have been wrong.
The Problem of Christian Authority in the Late Middle Ages
The rule of Christianity, from the very beginning, has been simple: “Jesus is Lord.” It is Christ alone who is the center of our faith, and the Bible is honored because it stands as the first and only authoritative witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. However, the early church never set any clear boundaries on the relationship between later Christian traditions and the Bible, and as the centuries wore on, and fewer and fewer people in Europe were able to read the Bible for themselves, the slowly-developing traditions of the Catholic church became the main authority for Christian faith. This led to a number of problems, not the least of which was the sale of “indulgences”—the teaching (sanctioned by the pope) that if you donated to certain worthy causes, the pope could grant you (or a deceased family member) a free pass through purgatory. The famous catchphrase was, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” However, by the 1400s and 1500s, a new generation of scholars were learning Greek and Hebrew, were reading the Bible for themselves, and were finding that many of these Catholic traditions seemed to run against the spirit of the Scriptures themselves. So which one should be given pre-eminence?—the Bible, even though its interpreters now faced the challenge of applying a text that was a millennium-and-a-half old to the contemporary world?—or the traditions of the church, which were assumed to be directed by the active ministry of the Holy Spirit?
Sola Scriptura (“Scripture Alone”)
Luther looked at the evidence for the two sources of authority: Scripture and tradition; and found that tradition was not matching up to the spirit of the New Testament church as revealed in the Bible. That being the case, tradition could not be considered “inspired” by the Holy Spirit or authoritative in the same way that Scripture was—the Bible had to take precedence. He called this theological rule “Sola Scriptura,” and proceeded to write a complete translation of the Bible into German, so that ordinary Christians around him would finally have access to the Scriptures.
Sola Fidei (“Faith Alone”)
Once the question of authority was settled, Luther went back to the Bible with fresh eyes, to see what the New Testament itself, unencumbered by later interpretations, said about the biggest question of all: how to find favor with God. What Luther found was that the popular-level Catholicism of the Middle Ages seemed to be pointing in the wrong direction. There was nothing in the Bible that made the performance of certain actions on our part the prerequisite of God’s grace. We were expected to be baptized, take communion, and give generously, but these things were not the things that saved us, because it wasn’t anything on our part that could save us. It was God’s grace alone that opened the way for us to receive his favor; and the one and only thing we had to do to receive that gift was to say Yes to it with our whole beings: this is the response of faith. So Luther made this his second rule of faith—“Sola Fidei”—it is faith in Jesus Christ that saves us, and nothing else. Other good actions on our parts are an indicator of whether we actually have that saving faith in Christ, but it is not the acts themselves that grant us favor with God. Jesus has already won that favor for us, completely apart from our actions.
In our Baptist practice, we know that it is not baptism that saves us, or taking communion, or anything like that. However, we still sometimes fall back into the habits of trying to earn favor with God. We sometimes conceive of God as perpetually disappointed or frustrated in us because of our continued struggles with sin; we might picture him as a disapproving father or a meticulous judge keeping careful track of all our transgressions. We need to remind ourselves, day in and day out, that when God looks at us, he sees the righteousness of his own Son; we need to remind ourselves that there is nothing we could possibly do to make him love us more, because he already loves us to an infinite degree.
Tuesday, December 07, 2021
Monday, December 06, 2021
Friday, December 03, 2021
Thursday, December 02, 2021
We Baptists don’t have a handy, immediate source for questions like this. We tend to prefer to start with biblical verses (such as “love your neighbor as yourself”) and then reason from there, even if the specific issue in mind isn’t addressed by the verse itself (so, since we are called to love our neighbors, that is, to do unto them as we would have them do unto us, and Jesus implies that everyone is our neighbor, then slavery cannot be morally right). This is persuasive up to a point, but on some issues, the opposing viewpoint is able to argue right back by reasoning from Scripture. (On the slavery issue, Christians in the south argued that it was justified by God’s cursing of Canaan in Genesis 9, by the fact that OT saints like Abraham had slaves, and by the fact that no one in the NT condemns it—in fact, in Philemon, Paul sends a runaway slave back to his master.) So, is there another authority we can reason from besides just the Bible in order to make our case? The tradition of Christianity says that there is: a system of ethical reasoning known as “natural law.” The basic principle is that we can look carefully at the world around us to discern God’s intent from the way things are designed, and then try to fulfill that intent. On the issue of slavery, natural law helpfully shows us that all people in the world are born the same way, develop the same way, have the same kind of moral and intellectual faculties, and (thanks to more recent science) share essentially the same DNA—thus there is no basis, from natural law, to give one race or group superiority over another: the natural world itself tells us that slavery is immoral.
Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law
The Natural Proof for the Existence of God
Aquinas wrote a number of powerful proofs for the existence of God. Unlike Anselm, whose argument rested only on the logic inherent in the idea of “God” itself, these arguments start from observations of the natural world that everyone can agree on: things like—“everything in motion had to be set in motion by an outside force,” and “everything that exists, exists because it was caused—in the natural world alone, we do not observe an effect without a cause.” Taking these observations, he devised a system which showed the absurdity of an “infinite regression.” That is to say, you can’t just have an infinite span of “caused events” in eternity past, nor an infinite series of things in motion, without having an “uncaused cause” or an “unmoved mover” somewhere back there who started it off. Logically, an infinite regression is an impossibility; otherwise we would not currently exist (because the logical idea of an infinite series before our existence means that, ultimately, that series will never actually reach the point where it produces us, or else it would not be infinite). But we do exist, therefore there must be an “uncaused cause.”
Natural and Supernatural Reasoning about Human Perfection: the Seven Virtues
Aquinas also gave us a helpful breakdown of the dynamics of human morality, the perfection of which are called “virtues.” He saw that there were some human virtues which could be deduced from reasoning about the natural world alone—these were the four “classical virtues” from Greek philosophy; and three virtues that we could not have discerned from nature, but were revealed to us in Christ.
Prudence, or wisdom—the practice of careful, thoughtful discernment about our actions and their consequences (i.e., “common sense,” which happens not to be very common, unfortunately)
Justice, or fairness – doing right to others (including honesty, give and take, keeping promises, etc.)
Temperance, or restraint (self-control) – reining in our appetites so they don’t rule over us; practicing moderation
Fortitude, or courage – the practice of confronting fear and uncertainty, and of sticking to it in hard situations
Faith – belief in God and obedience to him; more than just intellectual assent to a list of doctrines, true faith is a relational trust that should transform your life
Hope – setting our eyes on God’s ultimate victory and the triumph of his love over all other things; refraining from despair and refusing to give up
Love, or charity – Making God and others the center of our lives rather than pursuing our own self-interest; seeking the glory of God in worship and in our daily actions, and seeking the good of our neighbor in kindness and forgiveness. Not so much a “feeling” as an act of will: “Do not waste time wondering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did” (C. S. Lewis).
Tuesday, November 30, 2021
Monday, November 29, 2021
- Cecil Spring Rice
Friday, November 26, 2021
Monday, November 22, 2021
I'm taking a little bit of a break from the blog over the Thanksgiving holiday, but I'll still post Friday's "Praying through the Word" video, since it's the first installment of the new liturgical year (Advent begins on Sunday!).
Saturday, November 20, 2021
Friday, November 19, 2021
Thursday, November 18, 2021
Our initial impulse might be to say, “God’s revelation has given us all we need to know about Christian faith and practice, so we don’t need anything more than what the Bible teaches.” However, in practice, this attitude doesn’t actually work. Because the Bible is a complex book with a lot of different genres of writing, it is open to a lot of different theological interpretations on subjects like the nature of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, the practice of the Lord’s Supper, what the end times will look like, etc. To actually arrive at a theological position on any of these topics, Christian thinkers need to apply the use of reason to the biblical text to find the most plausible interpretations. In fact, most of Christian history has given broad freedom to the use of reason to explore theology, philosophy, and science, and the results of those explorations have given us new ways of thinking about revealed truth. This method of rational exploration, though, does have its dangers.
Anselm & Abelard – Whose Theology Should We Listen To?
The Power of Reason: Anselm’s Rationalistic Apologetics
Anselm was convinced that God had given human beings the power of reason so that it could be used to his glory. His motto was: “Faith seeking understanding,” starting from faith and then reasoning from there, with the expectation that reason could shed an even brighter light on the truth of the Gospel. One area where Anselm put this to the test was in apologetics (the defense of the faith). He wanted to devise an argument for the existence of God that could be proved by reason alone (i.e., that just by thinking through the logic of a statement, without any help from the Bible or Christian experience, he could convince someone that God exists). To do this, he came up with a quirky logical argument (“the ontological argument”) which defines God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Now, if that thought exists only in our own minds, then it is by definition not “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Why not? Because we can conceive of a being that fits that statement and actually exists in reality, not just as an idea in our mind. Thus, since an existent “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” is clearly greater than a non-existent one, then God must exist. This argument has often been viewed as little more than logical sleight-of-hand, but many philosophers today are still convinced of its validity when expressed in certain forms.
Reasoning about the Atonement
Anselm was the first Christian thinker to devise a new way of thinking about the theology of the atonement, based on what he found in Scripture (especially the book of Romans): that our sins can be conceived of as crimes against God, and since God is so great and our crimes so heinous, nothing we could possibly do could atone for them except the ultimate penalty: death. But Christ took the punishment for our sins on himself, so that we now have right legal standing with God. This is known as the “penal substitutionary model” of the atonement.
Other, more ancient interpretations of the atonement also existed, which the church fathers had reasoned out based on biblical evidence: (1) the moral influence model, which Anselm’s rival Abelard championed as the only true expression of atonement theology. This model says that Jesus lived an exemplary life, taught us how to live, surrendered himself non-violently up to death as an illustration of God’s love, and rose from the dead as an inspirational symbol of the power of virtue. In essence, what Christ did on the cross was teach us the right way; (2) the ransom model, in which Christ’s sacrifice paid the ransom-price to redeem us from under the power of Satan; (3) the healing model, in which Christ’s death and resurrection began the deep healing of our sinful human nature; and (4) the Christus Victor model, in which Christ’s death and resurrection was his triumph over the powers of sin, Satan, death, and hell.
What both Anselm and Abelard got wrong was that they assumed that there could only be one right way to think about the atonement—that one of these models was right, and the others were wrong. But Christian tradition has always upheld all of these models to a greater or lesser degree; they do not exclude one another. On the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for our sins and taught us the right way and ransomed us from sin and Satan and began our healing from sin and triumphed over the powers of death and hell.
Tuesday, November 16, 2021
Monday, November 15, 2021
Saturday, November 13, 2021
Friday, November 12, 2021
An invitation to prayer through the words of Mark 13:1-8
Thursday, November 11, 2021
In our Western evangelical tradition, we have a quick answer to this question: sin. Sin is the problem of humanity. However, what we may not realize is that we often think about sin only according to one of its many Scriptural metaphors—that of a legal wrongdoing against God’s law, which puts us in need of legal satisfaction. Thus, we speak mostly about salvation in terms of “forgiveness.” While this element of the theology of sin is certainly present in Scripture, it is not the only way of thinking about mankind’s problem. In fact, it was not the predominant way of thinking about the human condition in the early church.
Irenaeus of Lyons: What was God’s original purpose for humanity?
We tend to assume that God created humanity in its intended state—that when he created Adam and Eve, their situation represented the ideal state of the human condition: innocence of wrongdoing and relationship with God. However, this is merely one interpretation of the Genesis story, and it’s not the only one. An earlier interpretation comes to us from Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 200 AD), who interpreted Genesis to say that God created Adam and Eve in a situation of moral infancy (for instance, no knowledge of right and wrong—Gen. 2:15-17; 3:4-5), and thus God’s original intention was that humanity should grow towards ever greater moral and spiritual development, and ever deeper relationship with God. It is a view of humans as being always in progress towards God, with the Garden of Eden as just the starting point, not the final ideal.
If this way of thinking about humanity is true, then sin is not simply a case of “paradise lost” which can be restored by dealing with sin’s legal debts. Rather, sin must be seen as an obstacle on our path to our greater growth towards God. Sin, in this conception, is not a legal offense against God, it is a failure to live up to what God has intended for humanity. (This is, in fact, the closest literal definition for the Hebrew word for sin: “missing the mark.”)
The Plot Thickens: The Effects of Sin
|Irenaeus of Lyons|
1.) First, there is ancestral sin (sometimes called “original sin”)—the inherent, inborn tendency of all human beings to choose sin rather than God (Rom. 3:23; 5:12). This is often described by the church fathers as having the nature of a disease—as such, we need healing from sin (Ps. 41:4; Mark 2:17; James 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:24).
2.) Second, there is death (Rom. 5:12). There are two dimensions to this—because of sin we suffer spiritual death, which is separation from God (John 5:24; 8:51); we also suffer physical death (Gen. 3:19; Rom. 6:23; 8:10). Physical death is an obstacle to gaining of God’s goal for us—we cannot be ultimately united with an eternal God if we are not eternal ourselves. Thus, physical death needs to be overcome. (On the other side of the coin, though, many early church fathers considered that God’s penalty of physical death in response to Adam’s sin was actually a mercy—“so that sin would not be everlasting.”)
3.) Third, there is bondage to Satan—his kingdom is characterized by rebellion from God, so by choosing our own way instead of God’s plan, we have essentially transferred our allegiance to Satan’s kingdom. But to get out from under Satan’s dominion, we need more than a simple transfer of allegiance—Satan’s kingdom has no citizens, it has only slaves. As such, we are in need of freedom (Acts 26:17-18).
What Did Jesus Accomplish for Us?
1.) By the mere fact of Mary’s assent to God’s plan (the reversal of Eve’s rejection of that plan) and the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus united human nature and divine nature in his own person (John 1:14), and opened a way for us to fulfill our ultimate destiny of being raised up into union with God.
2.) By his teaching and his example of godly living and self-sacrifice, Jesus taught us how to live so as to grow towards our ultimate goal (Phil. 2:5-6; 2 Pet. 1:3).
3.) By his death on the cross, Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice for sin (Col. 1:22). In Jesus, the Son of God gave himself up to the penalty of death—both physical death and, at least for a moment, spiritual separation from the Father (Mark 15:34).
4.) By his Resurrection from the dead, he defeated death definitively, shattered the power of Satan’s kingdom, and began the healing of the human race from sin (Rom. 5:19; 6:9; 1 Cor. 15:21-22, 54-55; Heb. 2:14-15)
5.) By his ascension to the Father’s side, he glorified human nature into full union with the Father (Heb. 4:14-15); thus, as we become united to him through the Holy Spirit, we begin to share in the life of God himself (1 Cor. 6:19; 2 Pet. 1:4).
A Deeper Vision of Salvation
According to the early church, then, forgiveness is only one part of what God has done for us in salvation. He has begun the healing of our sin nature, he has defeated the power of death, and he has redeemed us from our slavery to Satan’s kingdom. Not only do our sins not count against us now, but we are actually able to continue the journey that God intended for humanity from the very beginning—to grow progressively deeper in virtue, higher in our knowledge of God and our practice of love, and, as we grow, to experience more and more union with God’s own nature. Ultimately, the church fathers believed that we could grow so close to God that his own nature—his goodness and beauty—would fill us up in the same way that iron in a forge takes fire’s own nature into itself. As C. S. Lewis puts it, “Christ became man so that men could become ‘little Christs’.”
Tuesday, November 09, 2021
Monday, November 08, 2021
Saturday, November 06, 2021
Friday, November 05, 2021
Thursday, November 04, 2021
Question: What are the best day-to-day practices that characterize a good Christian life?
Here in our own 21st-century Baptist tradition, we have our own answers to this question: having a daily “quiet time” in which to pray and read the Bible, being part of a local church fellowship, giving to the church, etc. But it’s good to realize that not all of our Christian brothers and sisters throughout history have shared our list of preferred practices. In many cases, although the underlying big ideas of Christian practice—like prayer, generosity, etc.—remain the same, the actual practices can look quite different. It can be an inspiration and a challenge to examine closely what other Christian traditions have done in order to live a good Christian life.
How to Become a Christian (a hypothetical early church conversion)
Step #1 – You encounter the Christian message. Most probably, you will be told about it by a family member or friend; or, just as likely, you might witness a miraculous healing or an exorcism, or be impressed by the way Christians in your city are taking care of plague victims and unwanted babies. You start attending a local church to explore this faith a bit for yourself. Impressed by the beauty of the liturgy the power of Scripture, and the love of the Christians, you profess faith in Christ.
Step #2 – You become a “catechumen.” For three years, you will be part of a closely-guided group of new believers who will be instructed in basic doctrine and trained to live a moral, upright life. In every worship service, you are dismissed partway through, since you are not yet allowed to participate in communion.
Step #3 – If you pass through the moral and doctrinal training of catechesis, on the morning of Easter Sunday, you will be baptized. Before baptism, you symbolically renounce Satan and his kingdom, and transfer your allegiance to Christ and his kingdom. You might also be “chrismated,” that is, anointed with oil and given a new Christian name. As a baptized person, you can now be a full part of the church.
Day-to-Day Practices of Early Church Christians:
Prayer – Most early Christians would have been taught to pray not only daily, but usually multiple times a day (for laypeople, usually three times a day), using a system known as “the hours” or “divine offices.” Prayers could be spontaneous or recited, but almost always included the Lord’s Prayer. (1 Tim. 2:1; Eph. 6:18)
Fasting – Although it wasn’t a legalistic requirement, most early Christians would have made an attempt to participate in a mild fast every Wednesday and Friday. (Matthew 6:17-18; Mark 2:19-20)
Hospitality – One of the regular practices of early Christianity was that Christians had homes that were always open to other Christians who were traveling through, whether already acquainted with them or not. (Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9; Rom. 12:13; Matt. 10:40-41, 25:34-35)
Almsgiving – Giving was expected of Christians, not only in the church service itself, but a whole-life orientation of generosity, which included giving alms to the poor. (Luke 11:41, 12:33; Acts 9:36, 10:30-31; 2 Cor. 9:6-9; Gal. 2:10)
Confession – Early Christians were very serious about trying to live holy lives, and so they carried out the Scriptural command to confess their sins to each other (usually to the leader of their church, but sometimes another lay Christian). (James 5:16)
Scripture – Most early Christians would not have had access to their own copies of the Bible, so they framed their worship services around the public reading of Scripture. (1 Tim. 4:13)
Are There Different Types of Christians?
Early on in Christian history, Christians began to think of themselves as separated into two or three different “orders”—(1) clergy, such a pastors/priests and bishops, (2) laypeople, and (3) monks, hermits and nuns.
Why did they make these distinctions?
The distinction between clergy and laity arose early. Even though the New Testament teaches “the priesthood of all believers,” it also assigns some special roles and ministries to a certain few (1 Tim. 3:1-10; Titus 1:5). Thus, gradually, “clergy” became the class of those who spent all their time on the ministry, whereas “laity” were those engaged in work that was not specifically ministry-oriented.
The distinction between laity and monks, however, rose a bit later. Christians began to feel a dynamic tension between some of the commands of Scripture that gave a very high standard for Christian life and what they were actually able to accomplish (Matt. 5:48, 19:21; 1 Thess. 5:17). So while the laity strove to keep the faith and observe the “spirit of the laws” of the New Testament, monks represented those few Christians who could give all their time, energy, and effort to keeping every command of the New Testament to the fullest degree.
- Take your moral responsibility as a Christian seriously. The early church trained its new believers for three full years in the hard skills of fighting sin, practicing spiritual disciplines, and being serious about pursuing holiness. We need to recognize that living a God-glorifying Christian life is something that needs continuous work.
- Try out some of the practices of the early church. In our tradition, we tend to be much weaker than the early church was on the practices of hospitality, fasting, and confession.
- Let yourself be challenged and moved to action by Scripture’s call to “perfection.” But at the same time, recognize that we are not “lone ranger” Christians; we are part of one Body, and the spiritual gifts of other Christians help to fill in the gaps of our own giftedness.
Tuesday, November 02, 2021
Monday, November 01, 2021
Friday, October 29, 2021
An invitation to prayer through the words of Mark 12:28-34
Thursday, October 28, 2021
This is a tricky theological question. It’s tricky because, on the one hand, we would like to think that we actually have genuine free will, including the ability to choose to follow God simply because we choose to do so. However, the Bible seems to teach in several places that human beings are so immeasurably sinful, right from the moment of birth, that it is only by the grace of God that we can choose to follow him. Thus, our wills do have a part to play, but we are only able to choose God if God first makes it possible for us to do so. Almost all Christian denominations now hold this position (theologically referred to as part of “original sin” or “the depravity of man”), but in a variety of different forms.
- Augustine was one of the leading lights of the early church fathers in the western Roman Empire, pastoring a church in present-day Tunisia and writing many theological works during the late 4th and early 5th centuries. Many of his theological models became dominant in the thinking of the medieval Catholic church, and were passed on to great Reformers like Luther and Calvin (and, as such, even some of our Baptist theology is Augustinian in flavor).
- Around the turn of the 5th century, a British theologian named Pelagius came to Rome and began to teach that human beings have free will in the complete sense—they can choose to be righteous simply by the power of their will alone. Although Pelagius thought that in practice, everyone eventually sins, in theory he believed it possible to be sinless simply by always choosing righteousness. He did not believe in the idea of a hardwired disposition towards sinfulness in all human beings (what we refer to as “original sin.”)
- Augustine opposed Pelagius and his followers with great passion. He felt that not only did the Pelagian position run against the teaching of Scripture, it also seemed to empty Christ’s sacrifice of much of its meaning. If human beings could, in theory, be sinless simply by the exertion of their wills, then, in theory, there could be people who would have no need of the forgiveness that Christ won for us on the cross.
- To combat Pelagius, Augustine put forward his view of the biblical doctrine of original sin:
(1) that all humans are hardwired with a predisposition to sin (as an effect of the Fall, not of God’s original creation), making it impossible for anyone to be sinless outside of Christ’s sacrifice (Gen. 8:21; Psalm 51:5; Rom. 3:9-12);
(2) that because of sin, human beings are not even able to say “Yes” to God unless God gives them a special dispensation of grace by which to say yes (Ps. 14:2-3; John 6:44; Rom. 5:6; Eph. 2:1-5);
(3) that we also inherit the “guilt” of sin simply by nature of being human, meaning that we all stand under the wrath of God as the legal consequence of Adam’s sin—this is sometimes referred to as imputed sin (Rom. 5:12, 18-19; Eph. 2:3);
(4) and that, further, God only gives His special grace, enabling conversion, to some people, not to all. This leads to Augustine’s famous doctrine of predestination—that God knows and chooses in advance those who will be Christians, and only enables those specific people to respond with a “Yes,” to salvation (Rom. 8:29-30; Eph. 1:5, 11). Those who are not predestined cannot be saved.
- Reception of this doctrine: #1 and #2 of this doctrine are currently accepted by all major Christian denominations. #3 is largely accepted in the West (by Catholic & Protestant churches, but not by Eastern or Oriental Orthodoxy), and #4 is still hotly debated (in evangelical circles, this debate is known as Calvinism vs. Arminianism).
- A Little Deeper on #4: Augustine’s reasoning for predestination is that God is omniscient and outside of time, so he already knows everyone who will respond to him with a yes. The combination of this foreknowledge and his sovereignty means that, in effect, only those who are foreknown to be saved will even get the chance to say yes to God. (This doctrine would later be presented in an even harder form by some later Calvinists.) In opposition to predestination, some theologians hold to a doctrine called prevenient grace—although we indeed do need the help of God’s grace in order to say yes to him, God has made that grace already available to everybody through Jesus Christ (John 1:9; 1 Tim. 2:4; Titus 2:11); thus anyone, through the gift of prevenient grace, can say yes to God if they choose to do so.
- How do we decide between predestination and prevenient grace? In a certain sense, this is a choice between shades of gray—both positions hold that all people are sinful and in need of God’s grace, that God has made a way for people to come to him in faith through Jesus Christ, and that we as Christians are obligated to preach the Gospel to everybody. The major difference seems to be a point of emphasis: predestination emphasizes the glory and sovereignty of God, and prevenient grace emphasizes His love for all people. Because of the rules of logic, both positions can’t be entirely true, but the Bible seems to leave either option open, so either one is a possibility for genuine Christian belief.
Whether we accept the Augustinian doctrine of predestination or not, the Bible makes it clear that God reached out for us, chose us, and saved us in spite of our sinful inability to come to him on our own—for that, the only appropriate response is to give thanks!
Under either way of looking at the question of sovereignty, we always have to remember the Bible’s teaching that God does indeed love all people and that we have an obligation to spread the Gospel. Even those who hold to predestination say that a fatalistic attitude (“If God has predestined who will be saved, then He’ll do it all by himself and I don’t have to do anything”) is inappropriate—so share the good news!