Category Archives: Theology

Athanasius on the Incarnation

OntheincarnI have not posted in about four months due to an overextended schedule. Hopefully, that is done for a while. Here is an old post from a few years ago that is relevant on this Christmas day.

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I have just started my way through St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation to help with my Advent  reflections.  For Athanasius, the study of theology always leads to worship and wonder – or maybe it is better said that for him theology and worship are intertwined.  His words are in bold italics below.

Now, Macarius, true lover of Christ, we must take a step further in the faith of our holy religion, and consider also the Word’s becoming Man and His divine Appearing in our midst. That mystery the Jews traduce, the Greeks deride, but we adore; and your own love and devotion to the Word will also be the greater, because in His Manhood He seems so little worth.  For it is a fact that the more unbelievers pour scorn on Him, so much the more does He make His Godhead evident (page 25).

A placard in Olympia, WA, placed next to Christmas displays at the capitol: “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens our hearts and enslaves our minds.”
That is nothing compared to the current, horrible persecution of Christians in Orissa, India.
Does not our handling and reaction to suffering, persecution, foolishness of the world, etc. reveal who we really are, just as Christ’s sufferings reveal his nature?  Is not the world’s hatred of us believers an affirmation of our faithfulness to Christ?  The Son could only reveal himself in fullness by taking human form – there needed to be something physical, touchable, to abuse, so that the world could see how a perfect man reacts and so that man’s sinful hatred of God could be even further exposed.  In a similar fashion, our handling of suffering reveals our level of sanctification – which is a measure of how like Christ we are.

He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men (page 26).

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV).  The Word took on flesh due to a mission, and that mission was to save souls.  That mission originated in and was motivated by the love of God the Father for the world.  Yes, God takes sin seriously – his Son had to take on a body so that he could die in our place – but love drives the whole enterprise. To ignore such love is utter foolishness and great affront to God.

We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning.  There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same same Word Who made it in the beginning (page 26).

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made…. And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-3, 14, ESV).

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make
His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as the curse is found.
(Joy to the World, verse 4).

The Son, the Word, was co-creator in the beginning.  And he is the One through whom the New Creation comes, both in our experience presently of regeneration and in the new heavens and new earth at his second coming.  No act of creation, whether physical or spiritual is apart from the Word. The creator takes on what He created in the beginning, humanity, to redeem humankind.  He uses the vessel, humanity, though which sin entered the world, to redeem it. Talk about reversals! Amazing! Athanasius points out that before the Fall, Adam and Eve were in fellowship with the Word, but with the Fall left its life-giving embrace.  God had not only made them out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word (page 38). So the Word came to man to give life again to all who would respond. The responders are embraced. With just a few sentences, Athanasius connects the beginning of the Bible to its end, showing the Word to be central figure in all of history.

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Joshua Duggar and Mistakes vs. Sins

Yesterday it came out that Joshua Duggar, eldest son of the “19 Kids and Counting” show, now married with three of his own kids, molested several of his sisters when he was fifteen years old. The media loves dirt and scandal, especially on conservative Christians, so the story has spread like wildfire. Both Joshua, his parents, and his wife have issued statements, in which responsibility was taken for Joshua’s actions. Always helpful, Russell Moore has offered a good reflection on the issue.

But what Jim Bob and said in their statement interests me in particular on a biblical/theological level.  I certainly do not want to study their statement as though it was written by a professional theologian, but the choice of a particular word has caught my eye. It did because I hear it out of the mouths of Christians a lot. That word is “mistake.” Here is short bit of what they wrote:

“Back 12 years ago our family went through one of the most difficult times of our lives. When Josh was a young teenager, he made some very bad mistakes and we were shocked.”

Certainly they had to be careful with their statement and they do have experience with wording things for media consumption. But that word “mistake” is the wrong word to use, at least in terms of a biblical worldview. It is the wrong word because Joshua did not make mistakes but committed sins. The difference is significant. When one makes a mistake one errs. Think of your checkbook register. You make a mistake when you make a math error or forget to record a check and thus screw up the balance in your register. You intended to get the balance correct but you accidentally got it wrong. But a sin is different, properly understood. A sin is intentional. You know an action is wrong and you do it anyway. That is a sin.

Joshua Duggar had to know that molesting his sisters was a sin. He had been raised in a Christian family with conservative values and boundaries. He also has a God-given conscience. So to call what he did a “mistake” is woefully inaccurate.

Too often I hear Christian people refer to the sins of their children or their own as “mistakes.” I suspect that it often is an attempt to minimize what was done. But sometimes it is simply the influence of the world on the thinking of Christians. Our grasp on a truly biblical worldview is so weak at times that we do not stand apart in our speech.

A Christian’s grasp of a biblical worldview and deliberate employment of it takes work. But it is worth it because without it we often do not look at things in the way God has revealed that we should. And when we do not look at things the way God intends us to, we cannot live for him as fully as we should. God deserves our best.

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Bad Theology at Funerals

When good, biblical theology is pushed aside or is simply unknown, the void is not left unfilled. Other thinking takes its place, and the results are often sentimental drivel or some vaguely Christian sounding thought that is profoundly misleading. Human beings are inherently religious, and thus it is normal for us to look outside ourselves for some kind of meaning and way to make sense of life.

One occasion that such thinking is expressed at is the funeral. We have heard comments like this about the deceased: “God needed another angel in heaven,” or that “God could not wait to have” the deceased. These comments reflect the erroneous ideas that human beings are transformed into angels when they die, and that God is impatient. The former does not understand that humans and angels are different beings altogether, and the latter is an unintentional assault on the character of God.

One sad example that shows up at funerals is a saying that is written on some type of stone material  and often delivered by a local florist. The idea is that grieving family can take that stone and set it up in their yard somewhere after the funeral. The saying goes like this:  tears and heaven 2

If tears could build a stairway

and memories a lane,

I’d walk right up to heaven

and bring you back home again.

Why is this so sad, terrible, and unbiblical? As an expression of grief and love for the deceased, it is truly heartfelt. But the theology is horrific. Heaven is where believers go at death, the place where God is, and this is often called the “Intermediate State.” Believers go be “with Christ” (Phil. 2:3, 2 Cor. 5:8) if they die before His return, and there they await the coming resurrection in blissful joy. So, if that is the case, why in the world would any of us want to yank a  Christian from heaven and bring him or her back here to this world that is full of sin and suffering, away from the immediate presence of the Savior?!? One would have to be tremendously selfish to want to remove a person out of a blissful existence just to have their company. Instead, at the death of a true believer we should grieve over the temporary separation and consequent pain from the believer by death, but we should NOT feel bad for the deceased believer – he or she is now doing better than we are! We should rejoice that he or she is now with the Lord and make sure that eternity with Jesus is our destination as well. Our wish should not be a reunion in this life, but our hope should be in a reunion at Christ’s second coming: “and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).

Don’t exchange biblical truth for sentimental drivel or bad theology. Learn the Scriptures and expel unbiblical thinking that you may know the true hope of the Lord.

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Easter Sermon Synopsis: Sustainable Joy

Here is the outline of today’s Easter sermon, “Sustainable Joy.” Included are just a few expository comments, not the full sermon.Jesus_Resurrection_by_highigh

Main thought: The resurrection of Jesus gives us sustainable joy! How so?

I. It speaks of a new world

As Christians, we have joy in the midst of this messed up world, this sin-sick world, because the tomb of Jesus is open and empty. And that tells us that death is not the end, that sin will not always win, that God intends to and will turn things around one day, that our Savior is victorious over all the stuff we live in each day. The tomb is our glimpse into a glorious future where death is no more, where sin is no more, were suffering is no more, and where the enemies of the gospel will be defeated once and for all. As the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:49, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” God is in the resurrection business – Jesus’ own resurrection demonstrates that! The resurrection shows us a new world and that sustains our joy while we wait for it to come.

II. It speaks of a unique Savior

The Apostle Paul says so in Romans 1:4. Speaking of Jesus, he writes, “and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the resurrection from the dead.” What he means is this: when Jesus was raised from the dead, it was as though God the Father was putting his stamp of approval upon Jesus. The resurrection was God’s endorsement, God’s proof, that this Jesus really is his Son, that Jesus really is the one and only true Savior. The thinking is simple: God would not raise from the dead a fake, or a liar, or a false prophet, or just a special spiritual teacher, because everyone would look at it as an affirmation of that person’s life, ministry, and very identity. God would not raise someone if it risked misleading people. God is a God of truth! And so, when he raised Jesus from the dead, it was as if God was saying, “Will the real Son of God, the real Messiah, please stand up!” And he did!

III. It speaks of a definitive victory

Our Lord Jesus had a definitive victory when he was raised on the third day. He did not earn some title in professional sports or lead an earthly army to victory. No, he rose victorious over sin and death. As the Easter hymn “Up From the Grave” says,

Death cannot keep his prey, Jesus my Savior!
He tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord!
Up from the grave he arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er his foes;
He arose a victor from the dark domain,
And he lives forever with his saints to reign,
He arose! He arose!
Hallelujah! Christ arose!

The author of the book of Hebrews in our New Testament writes of this victory in chapter 2: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,  and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14-15).

 

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Key Concepts from “The Way of the Master”

Way of the Master 2A few years ago I took my Sunday School class through  The Way of the Master Basic Training Course. Overall, it was a good experience for us, even though we did not complete every aspect of the course. Since my class was not composed of people who elected to sign up for the course knowing what it would require, I did not push them all to complete every assignment. But we did gain a clearer understanding of the gospel and how to present it more effectively.
Below is a short summary of key ideas from the course.
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Central idea: the “Modern Gospel” is not the biblical gospel.

The foundational idea of The Way of the Master evangelism program is that there is a difference between the “modern gospel” and the biblical gospel. The modern gospel presentation, which Ray Comfort says grew in the early 1900’s, begins this way: “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” This is an appeal to the non-Christian for life enhancement, which basically says, “Jesus will make your life better if you embrace him as Savior.” The biblical gospel presentation, according to Ray Comfort, starts with a warning: “You are a sinner and will face judgment one day.” We can see this starting point in the ministry of Jesus in his conversation with the woman at the well (see specifically John 4:16-20) and the rich young man (Mark 10:17-22). In both accounts, Jesus holds up the standard of God’s Law to them, helping them see their own sin. For the woman, he holds up (implicitly) the seventh of the 10 Commandments, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14, ESV). For the rich young man, he (implicitly) holds up the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), which the young man had violated by giving wealth first place in his life. The Apostles essentially did the same thing when they held up God’s law and coming judgment to help people see their urgent need for forgiveness (i.e., Acts 17:30-31).
The difference between the two gospel presentations is illustrated well with Ray Comfort’s story of the two parachutes. A man on an airplane is approached by a flight attendant and is offered a parachute. She argues persuasively that if the man puts on the parachute, it will enhance his flight. After some consideration, the man decides to give the parachute a try, so he straps it on. But when he sits back down, he finds that he cannot sit upright in his seat because of the parachute, and finds it generally uncomfortable. But he wants to give it a good try, so he keeps it on. After a little while, he notices that others on the flight are pointing at him and snickering. Finally, when his back and ego have had enough, he takes off the parachute and throws it on the floor and says, “Stupid parachute!” As far as he is concerned, he gave it a good try and he won’t get duped like that again. The promise was that the parachute would improve his flight, but in reality it only made it more difficult. He was looking for a better flight, but only received discomfort.
A second man on the flight is approached by the flight attendant and is offered a parachute. The flight attendant explains that the plane is having mechanical problems and the pilot expects it to crash land very soon, and the best hope of survival is get off the plane while it is still in the air. The man eagerly receives the parachute and straps it on tight and even asks for some pointers on how to deploy it properly. He sits back down in his seat and occupies himself while waiting for the right time to jump. The parachute is uncomfortable and he cannot sit fully upright like the first man, and some of the passengers snicker at him, but he does not care! He did not put on the parachute to enhance his flight, but to save his life! If anything, the hardships of wearing the parachute make him look forward to the jump!
The modern gospel is like offer to the first man, a promise of life enhancement. The biblical gospel is like the offer to the second man, salvation from dire consequences. Only the second man understood his parachute to be essential and accepted the discomfort that came along with it.
Why is this so important? There are several reasons. (1) If we begin the gospel presentation with the idea that “God has a wonderful plan for your life,” the sinner may simply “test drive” Jesus, but not truly depend up him in faith, which does not result in salvation. (2) Also, if after we begin with “God has a wonderful plan for your life” and then later begin to talk about sin and the cross, the sinner may feel tricked at this bait-and-switch. (3) What is more, when a sinner hears that “God has a wonderful plan for your life,” they think that means God will eliminate or at least greatly reduce suffering in their lives, for what could be more wonderful than that? The problem is, Jesus promises things like persecution and the Bible nowhere promises easy life to those who follow Christ. In fact, in many ways life may get far more difficult after conversion. (4) Furthermore, the message of the cross will be offensive and foolishness to the sinner. Offensive, because the typical non-Christian hears the evangelist implying that he is a sinner when he does not think he is, and foolishness, because there are plenty of people far worse than him. The solution of the cross will not make sense to such people because they do not see the urgent problem of their own sin and upcoming judgment.

Central method: use the Law of God to help the sinner self-diagnose

So how do we help them see their sin and desperate need for forgiveness? We use the Law of God as a mirror to help non-Christians self-diagnose. The main tool for this is the 10 Commandments, and it is all handled with questions such as, “Do you consider yourself to be a good person?” This is a crucial question, because most non-believers will say yes, sometimes even emphatically. This is because the criteria they use to evaluate their own behavior is something they have made up and/or adopted from society, not gleaned from the Bible. In other words, the standard they are using lets them off the hook.
The Way of the Master method gently yet directly walks people through enough of the 10 Commandments to help sinners see their own need for forgiveness. The goal is to prick the sinners’ God-given conscience with the Law of God. God has given people a conscience and the Holy Spirit appeals to that God-given sense of right and wrong and the reasonableness of judgment through the Word of God. This is crucial because it is part of sinful human nature to minimize sin and think of ourselves and not all that bad. So questions like, “Do you think you have kept the 10 Commandments?” with a walk-through of several of them helps the non-Christian self-diagnose themselves as liars, idolaters, murderers, thieves, and more. When this is carefully handled, and the non-Christian person is receptive, the Law of God will undercut their self-righteousness and ignorance and prepare them for the message of grace. With their sin and consequent guilt embraced, for the first time the message of the cross will make perfect sense to them, and they will be ready for the parachute of the gospel.

Thoughts for us Wesleyans

Wesleyans have understood the gospel to be about far more than forgiveness and escaping hell (as does Ray Comfort). We do not want to simply say to people, “If you repent and believe in Christ, God will forgive you and grant you eternal life.” We want to put it this way: “If you repent and believe in Christ, God will forgive and transform you in this life, and grant you heaven after this life is over.” Historically, Wesleyans are all about the transformation of the sinner into one who loves and serves God in holiness of heart and life. So it is important for us to emphasize both forgiveness and transformation. We believe whole-heartedly in the necessity of forgiveness, but for us forgiveness is simply the doorway into what God is really after, and that is a transformed, sanctified life.

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What the Written Word of God Can Do

As I strive to read more of the written word of God in 2015 than I did in 2014, Bible reader young womanI find it motivating to meditate upon what the written word of God can do. Here are just a few of things it can do:

1.  Satisfy – The Scripture satisfies the core of who we are in a way that no other spiritual food can do.

And he said to me, “Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” 2 So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat.
3 And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.
(Ezek. 3:1-3 ESV)

…the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart (Psa 19:8 ESV).

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life (1Jo 5:13 ESV).

2. Equip

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2Ti 3:16-1 ESV).

3. Enable Victory
11 I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you (Psa. 119:11 ESV).

4.  Convert/Lead to Repentance
17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom 10:17 ESV).

36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
(Act 2:36-37 ESV).

Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads.
2 And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.
3 And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the LORD their God
(Neh 9:1-3 ESV).

5.  Transform

2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2 ESV).

6.  Reveal

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12 ESV).

7.  Give Wisdom

Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me.
99 I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation.
100 I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts (Psa. 119:98-100 ESV).

7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple (Psa 19:7 ESV).

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Witherington on Preaching

Dr. Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary, has written several interesting posts about preaching on his blog. Witherington is a New Testament scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary and is a respected evangelical scholar. These posts come from the perspective of a man who is an academic, churchman, and former pastor. He holds a high standard for preaching and I resonate with several of his points.

Here are a couple of excerpts from The Problem of Preaching – Part Three:

The preacher who wants to be a responsible interpreter of the Bible for his or her people then must either: 1) learn the original languages that God decided were suitable for his Word to be expressed in, and 2) commit himself or herself to doing homework— studying the Word of God with the help of good commentaries, studying to find himself approved, committing himself or herself to life long learning of and about that Word. If 1) is simply impossible, then this means one must do an even better job with 2). It does not mean that one just reads some English translation and then brain storms. The contexts of the Word of God are in many ways very different from ours, and if one reads the Bible without contextual study one will read it anachronistically— reading into the text modern notions, and one’s own opinions and ideas. Frankly God’s Word deserve more respect than that. If it is the most important book in the world for the world’s salvation then it deserves careful and prayerful detailed study of it. It deserves everything we can invest in understanding it and conveying its meaning to others.

And:

I once had a student approach me in frustration. He came from the more pentecostal end of the spectrum and he was one of those people who actually considered too much learning about and of the Bible and its contexts as possibly getting in the way of being a good preacher. He said to me “I don’t know why I need to learn all this stuff, I can just get up into the pulpit and the Spirit will give me utterance.”

My response was “yes you can do that, but it’s a shame you are not giving the Holy Spirit more to work with. Don’t use the Holy Spirit as a labor saving device.

What Witherington has to say above is very true. The work required of good, biblical preaching is significant, scholarly, and time-consuming. That is why many preachers, even ones who have graduated from a good seminary where they were taught exegetical skills, rarely develop expository sermons. But the motivation to learn the skills, build the library, and put in the time for such sermons comes with a high view of biblical inspiration. If the preacher is convinced that God has spoken in His Word, continues to speak through his Word, and wants to convey to the congregation the specifics of that Word that are only revealed to the preacher through serious study, then expository preaching and the work it requires is an accepted burden of the preacher. Wrapped up with this high view of biblical inspiration is also the understanding that what God has revealed MUST be heard. Therefore the preacher must study, understand, unpack, and then organize and deliver the truths of a text for listeners.

Many preachers say that they have a high view of the Bible, but their preaching does not back up their words.

 

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