The Paradoxical Nature of Fulfillment

“If you want to be my follower you must love me more than your own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, more than your own life” (Luke 14:26, NLT).

One of the biggest lies Satan wants you to believe is that fulfillment in life is self-created. Thankfully, Jesus loves us enough to tell us the truth. While his words in the text quoted above may seem incredibly unloving, harsh, and downright crazy, they aren’t. In truth, they are liberating.

A few weeks ago during our family Bible reading time, I read Jesus’ words above to our children. You should have seen their faces and heard their questions. Consider the paragraphs that follow an extended mediation on Luke 14:26. Here goes:

In the immediate context, Jesus reveals his longing for the kingdom to be filled with all kinds of people—people from every tribe, nation, and tongue (14:12-24). Still, he wanted the crowds that followed him (v. 25) to understand the cost of discipleship. Thus, although multitudes of people traveled with him throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus was not primarily interested in popularity. His words comforted the afflicted as well as disturbed the comfortable.

If you place Jesus’ words within the larger narrative of Scripture, they sound quite similar to the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). But even as you read the first commandment, keep in mind what God says just prior to this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (v. 2). Thus, because God created us, he owns us. He rightly demands our service and worship. While we must honor our mothers and fathers (v. 12)—and others in positions of authority—we do not accord them the same honor we do God (Acts 5:29).

Additionally, while we may recoil at Jesus’ words, consider the fact that by nature we’re all worshipers anyway. We can’t not worship. We will give ourselves to something or someone totally, even if that person is ourselves—which comes most naturally to us anyway. As Owen Strachan rightly observes, “The human heart in its natural state is not generous to competitors.”[1] In a real sense, therefore, we can say: Whatever rules your heart, rules you. You are a worshiper whether you realize it or not.

But here’s where the problem comes. If I give myself to something within creation, I’m doomed to disappointment. God created human beings in such a way that nothing within creation can fully satisfy us. Thus, as writers for centuries have noted, there exists within all human beings a “God-shaped abyss.” And as Pascal noted, “the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.”[2]

And so we come full circle to Jesus’ words in Luke 14:26. Here’s the paradoxical truth: In calling us to give our lives away in service to him, Jesus shows us the way to supreme joy. True life is found in not living for myself.

Given that we’re created in God’s image this makes complete sense. God is fundamentally “other-oriented” at the core of his being, hence his invitation to us to commune with him—an invitation extended to us so that we might partake in the joy he has in himself.[3] This is why the Father sent the Son. And as Calvin noted: “to devote himself completely to saving us, Christ in a way forgot himself” (Institutes 2. 17. 6).

So, when you think about it, Christ’s words in Luke 14:26 are gracious words coming from the Savior who knows us better than we know ourselves.

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[1] Owen Strachan, The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile World (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015), 2.

[2] Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensees (trans. W. F. Trotter; New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), 113.

[3] The language of “other-oriented” comes from Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 68.

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More Thoughts on Sola Scriptura

Recently I expressed my appreciation for the Protestant Reformation and noted my agreement with the five solas. After explaining what the Reformers meant by sola Scriptura I noted that I had some further thoughts on this point. This topic has interested me since my time in Bible College. I wanted to know how sola Scriptura relates to church tradition. In my judgment, Protestants are weak in this area and should willingly embrace the creedal consensus of the church. Here’s why:

Readers who are familiar with sola Scriptura will know that it is often condemned due to its misuse in the history of the church. Unfortunately, contemporary Protestants badly misunderstand this rallying cry of the Reformation. More often than not they assume that sola Scriptura means that the Bible is the Church’s or individual’s only authority. This is not true. Keith Mathison rightly notes that the magisterial Reformers taught that the Bible was the church’s only infallible authority, not the church’s only authority.[1]

Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin embraced a healthy understanding of tradition, which in turn caused them to engage the patristic writers, appropriate the “Great Tradition,” and appreciate the theologians who came before them.[2]  Whether knowingly or unknowingly, when American Protestants reject any notion of tradition out of hand, they reveal that they have misunderstood sola Scriptura and have read into this Reformation principle a post-Reformation understanding.[3] Those who deny the role of tradition in any sense are clearly descendants of the Anabaptists, and not the Protestant Reformers. Thus, in the current state of Christianity, “The result is a modern Evangelicalism which has redefined sola Scriptura in terms of secular Enlightenment rationalism and rugged democratic individualism.”[4]

In my judgment, contemporary Protestants should learn from their forebears and develop an appreciation for the catholicity of the church; that is, the broader catholic tradition. This involves appreciating and perhaps even reciting, memorizing, and utilizing the catholic creeds during worship services. By “catholic creeds” I’m referring to the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed.

I love the way Kevin Vanhoozer puts it: “Sola Scriptura functions properly only in the context of the whole church. What God has joined together—canonicity and catholicity—let no one (especially theologians) put asunder.”[6]

And by the way: There’s much historical precedent for this in Reformation history. Briefly, consider the following:

This desire of Reformation-minded Christians to demonstrate their catholicity can be seen in a number of ways. For example, one of the ways the Westminster Assembly sought to demonstrate its catholicity was by taking into consideration what many of the church fathers said on a host of issues.[7] Letham notes that the writings of the Westminster Divines are filled with citations from the patristic and medieval era. Additionally, those attending the Westminster Assembly were in line with the Protestant Reformers who “were at odds not with the Catholic tradition but with its immediate representatives.”[8]

The Dutch Reformed tradition which subscribes to the Three Forms of Unity also sought to demonstrate its catholicity by reciting the Apostles’ Creed and basing questions twenty-three through fifty-eight of the Heidelberg Catechism on this symbol. Insofar as Baptists have a Reformation heritage,[9] I would argue that they should embrace the catholic creeds as well.

John Calvin is one of the premier examples in Protestant history of one who, while Reformed in his theology, also appropriated the best of the patristic heritage.[10] For example, it is widely known that his Institutes were outlined under the main heads of the Apostles’ Creed. In the Prefatory Address to King Francis found in the Institutes, Calvin deals with the objection of those who are accusing the Protestants of promulgating novel doctrines. He gives his response in no uncertain terms: “If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory—to put it modestly—would turn to our side.”[11]  Similarly, in Calvin’s debate with Jacopo Sadeleto, he said, “As to our doctrine, we hesitate not to appeal to the ancient church.”[12]

This is quite brief, I know. But still, it at least shows that the Protestant Reformation leaned heavily on the patristic era.

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[1] Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001), 238ff; one may also wish to consider Anthony N. S. Lane, “Sola Scriptura? Making Sense of a Post-Reformation Slogan,” in A Pathway into Holy Scripture, ed. Philip E. Sattherwaite and David F. Wright (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 297-327; D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). Scott Manetsch notes, “Calvin’s doctrine of sola Scriptura did not preclude him from calling upon the authority of the early church fathers or the customs of the patristic church in an effort to demonstrate the fundamental continuity between the gospel of the reformers and the message of the early church. If Scripture was Calvin’s highest authority, it was not the only authority to which he appealed” (“Is the Reformation Over? John Calvin, Roman Catholicism, and Contemporary Ecumenical Conversations,” Themelios 36:2 (2011): 185-202. See pg. 192. Pagination may vary.

[2] Alister McGrath, “Evangelical Theological Method: The State of the Art,” in Evangelical Futures: A Conversation in Theological Method, ed. John G. Stackhouse (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 15-37. See esp. 35. Also cf. idem, “Engaging the Great Tradition: Evangelical Theology and the Role of Tradition,” in Ibid., 139-158. See esp. 143-146.

[3] See D. H. Williams, “Scripture, Tradition, and the Church: Reformation and Post-Reformation,” in The Free Church & The Early Church: Bridging the Historical and Theological Divide, ed. D. H. Williams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 101-126.  Williams says Martin Chemnitz, Francis Turretin, Johannes Wollebius, and Herman Witsius failed to distinguish between Tradition with a capital “T,” and tradition with a lowercase “t.”  Tradition with a capital “T” refers to the body of doctrine summarized in the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, while tradition with a lowercase “t” refers to spurious doctrines promulgated by the Roman church.  Williams says many of the post-Reformation theologians failed to make this necessary distinction. They often equated Tradition with the Council of Trent’s “unwritten traditions.”  Thus, “‘Tradition’ would ever after have a negative connotation.”  See pp. 123-124.

[4] Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, 239. I’m reminded of Nathan Hatch’s observation that the abuse of sola Scriptura early on in American history brought with it “the unraveling of theological orthodoxy by an exclusive appeal to biblical authority.” See his essay, “Sola Scriptura and Novus Ordo Seclorum,” in The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History, eds. Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 59-78. See esp. 63.

*No footnote 5. I removed it.

[6] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2016), 130.

[7] Robert Letham, “Catholicity Global and Historical: Constantinople, Westminster, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century,” Westminster Theological Journal 72 (2010): 43-57.

[8] Ibid., 49, 52. Also cf. Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Philipsburg: P&R, 2009), 96.

[9] James M. Renihan, “‘Truly Reformed in a Great Measure’: A Brief Defense of the English Separatist Origins of Modern Baptists,” The Journal of Baptist Studies 3 (2009): 24-32.  The 1689 London Baptist Confession, which is similar to the Westminster Confession, makes reference to the “catholic or universal church.”  In my view, one of the weaknesses of the catechism based upon the 1689 Confession is not including questions on the Apostles’ Creed.

[10] Alister McGrath, “Evangelical Theological Method,” 35.

[11] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 18.

[12] John C. Olin, ed. A Reformation Debate: John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 64.

Appreciating the Reformation

I’ve been reading Ligonier Ministry’s Tabletalk magazine for many years and continue to enjoy doing so. May 2017 marked its fortieth year of publication. In order to celebrate their fortieth anniversary, the theme was “Why We Are Reformed.” Although I am not part of a confessionally Reformed denomination, I do appreciate the Protestant Reformation, and I joyfully affirm the five solas: Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Sola Gratia (Grace Alone), Sola Fide (Faith Alone), Solas Christus (Christ Alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone).

Sola Scriptura – I appreciate this rallying cry of the Reformation because the cry insists that the Bible is the sole infallible source of divine revelation. To be sure, we may value the writings of our favorite theologians—be they patristic, Reformation, and post-Reformation—but we never accord their contributions the status “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). This is what sola Scriptura maintains.

(For more academic-ish thoughts on this point, go here.)

Sola Gratia – The Reformers insisted that salvation is by grace alone. We don’t contribute a scintilla to our salvation. The background to this doctrine was the medieval notion that God’s grace comes to sinners after one does his or her best.  Luther’s rejoinder was succinct: the idea that a person could do his or her best, which would consequently place God in someone’s debt, fails to understand the true extent of humanity’s sinfulness. Thus, in contrast to the medieval view, when Reformation-minded Christians declared that salvation was “Sola Gratia,” they were asserting that fallen sinners have no claim upon God whatsoever and that God, in his grace, saves sinners by overcoming all their resistance, granting them a new heart that pants after God, loves Christ, and bears fruit in keeping with repentance (Ezek. 36:26-27; Luke 3:8).

Sola Fide – Theologian Timothy George notes that “Protestantism was born out of a struggle for the doctrine of justification by faith alone.”[1] In the Reformers’ minds, this doctrine was so important they called it the “material principle” of all theology.[2] Simply put, we must answer the question: How can I stand in the presence of a holy God with any hope or confidence that he will accept me? The Reformers answered simply: Through faith in Christ. But what does this mean? It means to trust in Christ, to collapse on him, to look away from yourself and look to Christ. Still, we must be clear on a few important matters. Faith is not meritorious. Faith doesn’t do anything; faith receives. The best way to translate the Greek word pistis is trust, because it carries with it the idea of entrusting oneself to Christ.

Your faith did not propitiate the wrath of God; Jesus did. It’s for this reason that Joel Beeke writes, “Faith is not our rock; Christ is our rock.”[3] Sinclair Ferguson puts it this way: “Faith is our response, but it is not our contribution.”[4] Faith is not a good work: “Faith is the orientation of persons outside themselves.”[5] When we trust in Christ alone for salvation, Christ’s perfect life and death are credited to our account and we are accepted by the Father. The Spirit indwells us and we rest assured that God will bring his work in us to completion (Phil. 1:6).

Solus Christus – The reason we rest in Christ alone is because he has accomplished everything necessary for our salvation. No merit on our part, no merit of any saint, no merit of any good work can be added to what Christ has done. All the blessings of our salvation are ours by virtue of our union with Christ: Justification, adoption, reconciliation, etc. Yet we must remember that “God does not have lumps of ‘righteousness’ or ‘salvation’ that he tears up and lobs down from heaven. He has his righteous Son.” Thus, “The greatest benefit of our union with Christ is Christ.”[6] And he is our righteousness. Hallelujah!

Soli Deo Gloria – This is where all the other solas lead. Why? Put all this together: Scripture is from God (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:19-21). God in his grace saves us (Eph. 2:8-9). The Faith that saves is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 2:25). Christ was sent by the Father to accomplish our salvation (John 3:14-16; Rom. 5:5-8; 1 Jn. 4:8-10 et. al.). Thus, we cry with the Apostle Paul, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).

 

[1] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: B&H, 1988), 62.

[2] James Montgomery Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? Rediscovering the Doctrines That Shook the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 129.

[3] Joel R. Beeke, “Justification by Faith Alone (The Relation of Faith to Justification),” in Justification by Faith Alone: Affirming the Doctrine by Which the Church and the Individual Stands or Falls, ed. Don Kisler, rev. ed. (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 2003), 93.

[4] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Ephesians (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), 50.

[5] Richard Lints, “Living by Faith—Alone? Reformed Responses to Antinomianism,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 36.

[6] Michael Reeves, Rejoicing in Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015), 86, 85.

Why Do We Wound Each Other?

“Victims victimize others, who then send their own vengeance ricocheting through the larger human family ~ Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

Back in May, Professor Dan Doriani of Covenant Theological Seminary wrote an article for The Gospel Coalition titled “Why Do Churches Wound Their Pastors?” As a local church pastor, the title caught my attention.

Not surprisingly, he notes that the most common way churches wound their pastors is through criticism and opposition. Still, Doriani doesn’t clearly answer the why question. He answers the how question—they criticize or oppose the pastor—but that doesn’t answer the why.

Admittedly, in attempting to answer this question, we are peering deeply into the human heart to see why people do what they do. The difficulty here is that we can’t see into a person’s heart. Nevertheless, we move forward humbly, seeking to answer the question as best we can.

As the title of this blog suggests, I’m writing on the broader issue of why we wound people in general, not just pastors. Thus, the points I make apply to all image-bearers.

Before you give your pastor (or anyone for that matter) criticism, be sure you pray first. Ask God to help you truly discern what your motives are. Do you genuinely love and respect the other person? Is your goal to build the other person up? If you’re bothered by something he or she has said don’t go to the other person until you’ve had time to calm down. Remember that an “outburst of anger” is identified as a work of the flesh in Scripture (Gal. 5:20) while kindness, gentleness, and self-control are in line with the fruit of the Spirit.

But still we have to ask: Why would a Christian ever intentionally wound another person?

 Here are some random thoughts:

First, people (some more than others) struggle to manage their emotions. Author Daniel Goleman refers to this phenomenon as lacking emotional intelligence. Simply put, emotional intelligence refers to the ability to manage your emotions and to respond properly to the emotions of others. Furthermore, this involves the ability to understand your emotions. In my mind, lacking emotional intelligence is another way of talking about lacking self-awareness; or we might use Peter Scazzero’s term emotional health.

Scazzero, in his books Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and The Emotionally Healthy Church, argues that it is not possible for a person to be spiritually mature without being emotionally mature. I agree. Simply put, if you have a PhD is systematic theology yet behave like an emotional infant, then you’re not spiritually mature.

Second, people fail to exercise self-control. In a social media filled world this may sound crazy, but it’s true: we don’t have to articulate every thought that comes to mind. Instead, we pray, asking the Lord to guard our mouths (Ps. 39:1). A person with self-control displays wisdom. Prov. 11:12 says “Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense,” and Prov. 14:17 reminds us that “A man of quick temper acts foolishly.” Who can forget Prov. 16:32? “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” Remember that as a believer in Jesus Christ you have renounced self-lordship (Lk. 9:23). You are not your own (1 Cor. 6:19). You no longer worship your desires. You now welcome the mini-deaths that make up your daily reality.

Third, we haven’t had good role models. I’m not playing the victim card on this one, I promise. Rather, I’m saying that poor relational skills tend to run in families. Few people make it out of their families of origin as emotionally whole people. Most parents have not taught their children how to relate to others well. And here’s the thing, parents: This is more caught than taught. When your children see you throw an adult tantrum, they’re learning how to process their own emotions the same way. In my experience, those who haven’t learned how to process their emotions well tend to be passive-aggressive, giving others the silent treatment and angry looks, settling for a passive pleasantness, while fuming on the inside.

Fourth, we haven’t disciplined ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). People may say they don’t have to attend church to be a Christian, but all the strong, mature believers I know rarely miss church. Additionally, all the godly people I know read the Bible and pray regularly; they love and serve others, and show hospitality. In other words, they’ve disciplined themselves for the purpose of godliness, and this includes making community—life in the church—a priority. Again, Proverbs sheds light on this facet of our walk with God: “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desires; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Prov. 18:1).

As I say on most of my blogs, this post isn’t meant to be comprehensive. These are some thoughts that came to mind and what I’ve seen in my life and ministry.

Secularism: A Short Christian Response, Part II

In the previous post I explained what secularism is and why it doesn’t work. In this post I (very) briefly delineate why we need a “revelational epistemology” and why it is superior to secularism.

What We Need

 We need an authoritative standard outside ourselves against which to measure our thoughts and actions. In the words of Stephen Wellum, we need a “revelational epistemology.”[1] We need a word from outside ourselves to tell us what is true, what is really there—a God’s-eye point of view. “Leave man to guess God’s mind and purpose,” J. I. Packer says, “and he will guess wrong; he can know it only by being told it.”[2] Thankfully, God is a communicative being who has disclosed himself in Scripture![3] As Millard Erickson rightly notes, our doctrine of Scripture “is the most important for epistemological purposes.”[4]

Scripture, therefore, is our “epistemological warrant” for knowing what is true. Thus, as we live in a great contest of narratives, Christians cannot cave to relativism, rather we are to relativize all reigning plausibility structures and evaluate them in light of biblical revelation.[5] If our views are castigated for being out of accord with “reason,” then we must tell our conversation partners that their understanding of “reason” is flawed. Yes, we use our reason when we think and read and analyze, but “reason” itself is not a source of information. Thus, when “reason” is erected as a criteria of truth, then “reason” is misunderstood.[6] Please understand: The Christian worldview is not opposed to reason; we simply maintain that God’s self-revelation is the source of all truth.[7]

We need a biblically informed understanding of the human person. We are limited, finite creatures. Yet God has gifted us with the ability to think and reason, but we are not to exercise our reason autonomously. For starters, as created beings, “any claim to autonomy relative to God is mere pretense”;[8] secondarily, exercising our reason autonomously essentially nullifies the Word of God, making it unnecessary.[9] We receive his Word in humility and read it in humility.

A biblically informed understanding of the human person also gives us confidence that we can comprehend God’s Word as we read it. This conclusion follows if we understand the plotline of Scripture. Here’s what I mean: Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer notes that redemptive history consists of a series of “gracious communicative initiatives,” whereby God seeks to share his love and life with us.[10] God’s Word is a “gracious communicative initiative”—an element of the missio dei, the mission of God.[11]

In light of this reality, God reveals himself in such a way that we can understand his Word. Because language is capable of communicating truth, we read Scripture carefully. As we read, we keep each passage in context. We seek to remain cognizant of where the passage fits within each human author’s argument. We read it in light of its canonical context—where it fits in the unfolding drama of redemption. We pray for understanding as we read and study. No, this doesn’t mean that we will understand things the way God understands things. Nevertheless, we can really know things. Just because our understanding isn’t comprehensive doesn’t mean we throw our hands in the air in disgust and embrace the nihilistic notion that no truth exists—a notion, incidentally, that is on its face self-defeating and contradictory.[12] Whenever Lesslie Newbigin confronted someone who held such a position, he would wonder to himself, “How does the doubter know so much about the unknowable?”[13] Hence, you can’t be skeptical and dogmatic at the same time.

Our Creator-covenant Lord has revealed himself to us in Scripture. The Scriptures are an element in the economy of redemption whereby God communicates with his image-bearers. Given the way he has made us, we can trust that he has equipped us to receive, read, and understand his Word. Our doctrine of Scripture as well as our doctrine of humanity help us to steer clear of both rationalism and skepticism.

Conclusion

In these two posts I have tried to underline the weaknesses and inconsistencies of the secular worldview and demonstrate the superiority of the Christian worldview. In this current cultural climate Christians should engage those with a secular outlook, confident that our worldview has the moral capital to make sense of life and reality and account for human rights and human dignity. Given the superiority of the Christian worldview, we must teach it to our children and congregations.

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[1] Language and concept taken from Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 69 et. al.

[2] J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (1958; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 92, emphasis mine.

[3] John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 42.

[4] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 480.

[5] See further Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 57.

[6] Ibid. as well as N. T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 81, 86.

[7] See further R. Albert Mohler Jr., “A God-Centered Worldview: Recovering the Christian Mind by Rediscovering the Master Narrative of the Bible,” in For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper, eds. Sam Storms and Justin Taylor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 351-366. See esp. 355.

[8] R. Scott Clark, “Whosoever Will Be Saved: Emerging Church, Meet Christian Dogma,” in Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, eds. Gary L. W. Johnson & Ronald N. Gleason (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 120.

[9] Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 131.

[10] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016), 62.

[11] Graham A. Cole, “Why a Book? Why This Book? Why the Particular Order within This Book? Some Reflections on the Canon,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 459.

[12] D. A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 10-11.

[13] Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 21.

Secularism: A Short Christian Response, Part 1

What Is Secularism?

My guess is you’ve heard that our (western) world is becoming increasingly secular. But what is secularism and what does it mean? This question, of course, can be answered in more than one way. In his massive tome A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor notes that the word “secular” can have more than one meaning. First, it can refer to the absence of God in public space, that is, in discussions related to politics, education, and recreation. Secondly, it can refer to people who no longer attend religious services. Thirdly, due to the shift in plausibility structures, it can refer to the fact that many people no longer find belief in God plausible.[1] (More on this below.)

In addition, according to theologian and cultural critic Al Mohler, secularism refers to “the absence of any binding theistic authority or belief.”[2] In other words, it’s about rejecting a personal God who exerts authority over a person’s life.

Evidences of secularity are on display throughout our world. For example, we see it in the materialistic mentality of many people. This involves thinking that life is all about acquiring more possessions. Moreover, this mindset reveals itself when we act as if nothing beyond this world exists.

Secondly, we see this in the moral relativism espoused in university settings. Many students are taught that absolute truth does not exist; and even if it does, they cannot know it. Ironically, although moral relativism is self-refuting, people continue to embrace it.

Thirdly—and perhaps most strikingly—increasingly belief in God is seen as implausible. Secularism has so invaded the minds of many that belief in the God of the Bible and in the reality of objective truth is now seen as odd, and in some cases, dangerous. For this reason, belief in God has become privatized—another sign of secularization, since what undergirds this idea is the notion that religious beliefs are subjective and do not count as items of knowledge.[3] This state of affairs testifies to the advance of secularism.

Exactly how our culture came to this point is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say, however, that sociologists agree on the following: 1) modernization leads to secularization, which leads to the marginalization of religion,[4] and 2) a culture of non-belief tends to rise as societal health improves.[5]

The secular outlook has flourished in our contemporary world because it presents itself as value-free, tolerant, and non-judgmental. Furthermore, it promotes certain ideas that are taken as givens: We don’t need religion to explain the world; religion restricts us from expressing our freedom; religion prevents people from getting along, etc. In most cases (though certainly not all) defenders of secularism castigate traditional Christianity, labeling it hierarchical, imperialistic, and patriarchal.[6]

 

Why Secularism Doesn’t Work

Two reasons quickly come to mind as to why secularism doesn’t work as a worldview: It’s both illogical and unlivable. To take but one example, consider the fact that many advocates of secularism insist that society must make “progress” regarding a host of social and ethical issues. Given that secularists tend to be moral relativists, however, one wonders how the concept of “progress” can really mean anything. After all, if moral norms do not exist, how can there ever be anything like “progress”? To make “progress” assumes that there is a moral norm toward which society should move. For instance, was the abolition of slavery a mark of progress? My guess is many secularists would say yes (I certainly do!). But one must ask: On what basis can they make such a claim? As Tim Keller asks the question, “If there is no truth, on what basis can the weak say to the strong that what they are doing is wrong?”[7]

In short, you can’t say no moral norms exist, while simultaneously calling for society to make “progress,” which assumes a moral norm.

Here’s another example: The call for tolerance undermines moral relativism. As philosopher Francis Beckwith notes, “[T]he call to tolerance by relativists presupposes the existence of at least one nonrelative, universal, and objective norm: tolerance.”[8] Another philosopher, Tom Beauchamp, also makes a great point: “The proposition that we ought to tolerate the views of others, or that it is right not to interfere with others, is precluded by the very strictures of the theory [of moral relativism].”[9]

In short, you can’t say no moral norms exist, while simultaneously calling for tolerance, which assumes a moral norm.[10]

Here’s a third reason secularism doesn’t work: Secularism doesn’t have the moral resources to call for social justice. Concepts like human dignity and human rights are metaphysical in nature. In order for a person to advocate for these ideas, then, he or she must “embrace a philosophy of the human person . . . that can provide substantive content” to these notions.[11] Ideas like human dignity and human rights do not arise out of a purely naturalistic worldview. After all, as K. Scott Oliphant reminds us, “If all is matter, then nothing really matters.”[12] How one thinks about human beings influences the way one treats human beings.[13]

Perhaps an example would help: The French philosopher Jacques Maritain assisted in writing the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948). This document waxes eloquent on the “inherent dignity” and “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Additionally, the authors go on to affirm that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

My guess is you agree with these sentiments. Nevertheless, philosopher Paul Copan notes that the document leaves much to be desired: “What is missing, though, is any foundation or basis for human dignity and rights.” In a moment of honesty, Jacques Maritain quipped, “We agree on these rights, providing we are not asked why. With the ‘why,’ the dispute begins.”[14]

The naturalistic worldview is not the only problem, however. Secularists often argue that morality is self-authorizing. In other words, no moral source outside the self exists and people shouldn’t have to conform to any external authority. Again, this outlook simply doesn’t work. Proponents of secularism regularly want to obligate others to behave in a certain way while simultaneously arguing that morality is relative. What they are finding is that it’s impossible to make normative claims without appealing to a moral source outside the self. This is why legal scholar Steven D. Smith says that “a comprehensively naturalistic worldview cancels itself out.” Thus, ultimately, “Most of us really believe in a realm of value that cannot be adequately accounted for in purely naturalist terms.”[15] To paraphrase philosopher Hans Jonas, you can’t have ethics without metaphysics.[16]

To be clear: I’m thankful that self-described secularists, humanists, and atheists stand for social justice. I’m glad they want to help the poor, feed the starving, and clothe the naked. However, I hope they can at least appreciate why Christians have trouble seeing how their worldview provides a solid foundation for their heartfelt pleas.

 

Tim Keller’s conclusion is apropos:

“The humanistic beliefs, then, of most secular people should be recognized as exactly that—beliefs. They cannot be deduced logically or empirically from the natural, material world alone. If there is no transcendent reality beyond this life, then there is no value or meaning for anything. To hold that human beings are the product of nothing but the evolutionary process of the strong eating the weak, but then to insist that nonetheless every person has a human dignity to be honored—is an enormous leap of faith against all evidence to the contrary.”[17]

_______________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 2.

[2] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Advance of Secularism,” Tabletalk 41:3 (March 2017): 11.

[3] David T. Koyzis, Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), 67. The idea that religious claims do not count as items of knowledge is on display in the legal realm as well. See, e.g., Francis J. Beckwith, “The Courts, Natural Rights, and Religious Claims as Knowledge,” Santa Clara Law Review 49:2 (2009): 429-458.

[4]  D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 37; Michael Horton, “Introducing the Secularization Thesis,” Modern Reformation 22:5 (September-October 2013): 28-41

[5] Robert B. Stewart, “The Future of Atheism: An Introductory Appraisal,” in The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath & Daniel Dennett in Dialogue, ed. Robert B. Stewart (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 3.

[6] At least this is how feminist theologian Sallie McFague describes it. See her essay, “An Epilogue: The Christian Paradigm,” in Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks, eds. Peter C. Hodgson and Robert H. King (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 326. Careful readers will note that all of McFague’s assertions are value-laden judgments. Also, whether she realizes it or not, every time she calls for people to practice “social justice,” she is being “judgmental.” For a more nuanced presentation of justice see Harvard political philosopher Michael J. Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009). On page 261 he rightly notes, “Justice is inescapably judgmental. . . . Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things” (emphasis mine).

[7] Tim Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016), 202.

[8] Francis J. Beckwith, “A Critique of Moral Relativism,” in Do the Right Thing: Readings in Applied Ethics and Social Philosophy, 2nd ed., ed. Francis J. Beckwith (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2002), 18.

[ 9] Tom L. Beauchamp, Philosophical Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982), 42.

[10] Of course, most fair-minded people can see that the appeal to tolerance has almost always been selective. See, e.g., D. A Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 81-87 for some examples.

[11] Francis J. Beckwith, “Dignity Never Been Photographed: Scientific Materialism, Enlightenment Liberalism, and Steven Pinker,” Ethics and Medicine: An International Journal of Bioethics 26:2 (Summer 2010): 94.

[12] K. Scott Oliphant, “Secularism and Our Christian Hope,” Tabletalk 41:3 (March 2017): 22-23. Scientism and philosophical naturalism seek to apply the scientific method (which is a great method by the way!) to all areas of human inquiry. But the biblical-theological worldview helps us see that “some things really exist that science has no access to. . . . Science . . . is not the only discipline that gives us true information about the world” (Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998], 166).

[13] For some incredibly sad examples of what can happen when humans see others as less than human see David Livingstone Smith, Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others (New York: St. Marten’s Press, 2011).

[14] See further Paul Copan, “God, Naturalism, and the Foundations of Morality,” in The Future of Athiesm, 141ff.

[15] Steven D. Smith, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 199, 204.

[16] Hans Jonas, “Technology and Responsibility: Reflections on the New Task of Ethics,” in Society, Ethics, and Technology, eds. Mortan E. Winston and Ralph D. Edelbach (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009), 126, 131.

[17] Keller, Making Sense of God, 48-49. I recently got around to reading Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air. Kalanithi was a well-educated neuroscientist and neurosurgeon. He wrote his memoir while he was dying of cancer in his mid-thirties. Earlier in his life he described himself as an “ironclad atheist.” As he was dying of cancer, however, he came to see that his scientific view of the world could not account for love, meaning, beauty, honor, suffering, and virtue.

New Post Coming Soon on Secularism

In the next few weeks or so I should be posting a new blog on secularism. My guess is you’ve heard that our culture is becoming more secular. But what does that mean? What is secularism? How does secularism manifest itself? How should the church respond? Obviously these are huge questions that deserve a book-length treatment. I won’t be writing a book, just a short blog. Stay tuned . . .

25 Good Quotes from A Book

Titles for books aren’t always helpful. Given this reality it’s possible that you pick up a book thinking it’s going to be really bad, but once you start reading you find out it’s really good. This is what happened to me when I worked my way through Harry Schaumburg’s book False Intimacy: Understanding the Struggle of Sexual Addiction.

The book was required reading for my pastoral counseling class. As soon as I saw the title for the book I thought to myself, “This probably won’t help me at all.” How wrong I was! I took eleven pages of notes. Page after page of my copy is filled with highlights, along with underlined sentences, brackets around paragraphs, etc.

Even if you don’t struggle with sexual addiction, you should read this book. In fact, if you’re put-off by the title, forget about it. Think of it as a book on addiction in general. That’s basically what it is. I found it to be incredibly helpful in understanding how God works in our lives, what God wants to do in our lives, as well as how to cope with struggles, disappointments, and unmet expectations. In what follows, you’ll find twenty-five quotes that stood out to me. Trust me, you’ll find these convicting and enlightening:

“[I]n every relationship there is a feeling of inadequacy or shame. . . . We want to feel confident and in control, acting like people we really aren’t. We hope to impress people sufficiently so they will accept us in the way we deeply desire. We fear being ‘found out’ and losing relationships with others. We conclude that the people we interact with determine our personal value. We trust in the false gods of people who can let us down rather than recognizing that only God can give us ultimate value, experiencing legitimate shame because we don’t trust Him as Father, and choosing to depend on Him to meet our deepest needs for intimacy” (32).

“Either the deceitful heart can change, or Christian faith is just a lot of fanfare” (54).

“The essence of sin is autonomy from God, a failure to be dependent on Him” (60).

“Natural human desire becomes an evil desire when the desire has the objective of self-interest. . . . It is hard to see self-interest, especially in ourselves, when we hurt so much and just want what seems so legitimate—relief. But when we turn our own unmet legitimate desires into justifications to take matters into our own hands, we cross the line into evil desire” (63).

“God doesn’t promise to fulfill all our desires in this life. Only when we acknowledge our helplessness and our inability to meet our deepest needs can He pick us up, enable us see ourselves as we really are, and provide eternal restoration and healing” (68).

“The popular way of understanding what life is all about is to look at the human condition as defined by our own understanding rather than by God’s wisdom communicated through the Bible” (73).

“Frequently we do not see God being in the circumstance unless He is doing something that prevents the situation from happening or changing the circumstances” (86). . . We even go as far as expecting divine protection as an inalienable right” (144).

Many of us believe “that difficult situations place an obligation on God to respond according to what we define as necessary to our well-being” (86).

“To taste what we desire and don’t have is to know the level of helplessness that either moves us toward God or drives us toward insanity” (105).

“Most of us will discover that when we relate to others, even to a spouse we have promised to love and cherish, we do so with self-centeredness or self-protection. We don’t want to face the fact that we’ve failed to love our spouse in significant ways. That feels as if we’re beginning to crawl on our bellies into a dark cave. So we tend to believe in our own goodness” (106).

As you examine yourself and your motives, you’ll head in one of two directions. Either you will harden yourself to shore up your own defenses while you try to rely even more on yourself, or you will soften, allowing your self-reliance to seep away as you know God more intimately. This latter process will be painful, but it is only through the fire of such self-examination that any of us can be refined” (108).

“Many people want to be able to sin with impunity and still have God’s blessing on their lives” (134).

“Whenever self-interest remains a priority, biblical faintheartedness is the result. It is easy to feel sorry for someone, easier to feel sorry for ourselves. When our lives, and particularly our relationships are in total chaos, self-interest (taking care of ourselves) comes naturally. Trusting in God seems insane. More often than not, we define faith as seeing God in circumstances. But in chaos we never see God. Faith should be defined as knowing that God sees us in the chaos. Self-interest leads to self-pity, which leads to faintheartedness, not godly courage” (138).

 “The Bible never condemns us for admitting weakness. If anything, God condemns us for finding strength” (143).

Read the next three quotes carefully and perhaps pause to pray, asking God to search your own heart: “The deceitful heart comes to Jesus with preconceived notions of its own, which become fundamental heresies. The most common has to do with what Jesus will do. There is massive unlearning to be done at this point. Then, and only then, can we fix our eyes on Jesus, rather than on what He is doing in our lives” (144).

“Faith is very weak, if not impossible, when life is built on our own terms and conditions” (145).

“When we can unlearn our independence, we can learn to trust in God Himself, not in what He is doing or not doing. Such brokenness leads to humility, which sustains godly courage over the long haul” (145).

“Humility is a willingness to surrender our rights to our rights. If we are sorrowful and grateful and admit our utter dependence on God, then we become broken. Out of that weakness flows a humility of spirit that voluntarily gives up all the rights we have to ourselves. The choice comes down to finding our life and therefore losing it, or losing our life and therefore finding it. It takes godly courage to lose everything in order to gain everything” (146).

“The essence of sin is ‘I will never allow anyone to rule my life other than myself.’ That rebelliousness is alive in an outwardly good man or women, and in an outwardly bad man or woman. Remember, sin is not about behavior but about our defiant claim to the right to rule our own life” (159).

“Am I willing to trust God with my pain and disappointment, to allow Him to be the source of ultimate fulfillment in my life? Will I submit to Him all my desires and my needs for relationships?” (166).

O, how desperately we need to learn this! – “Obeying God is not a formula for God to provide you with everything you consider to be essential to your life” (192).

“Simply living by the rules, obeying, and doing what is right, doesn’t indicate a pure heart. Until we deal with our internal uncleanness, we shouldn’t be shocked at sexual misconduct within the church” (196).

We need to be able to answer the question seriously: “What has God really promised to do in your life?”  – “When we begin to believe that God’s plan for our lives is to improve our relationships and circumstances now, churches quickly fill with people who focus on the primacy of personal need, evaluate God’s goodness in terms of meeting those needs, and subtly move to justify anything that feels like it’s from God” (198).

“Self-justification comes easily when we start with our needs and define God as the resource who will meet those needs. It’s easy to view God as the One who heals those needs rather than the One who deals with the sin that leads to eternal, spiritual death” (198).

“God’s primary purpose is not to offset the pain of living in this sinful world. He doesn’t exist simply to solve each and every problem we face in this life—or even the ones we perceive will crush us. He calls us to become absorbed in fulfilling His will and purpose, to deny ourselves for the good of others and to His glory. Our joy should be in serving and loving God” (199).

“In many ways, the church falsifies spiritual reality by pretending that people’s lives can be nearly perfect in this fallen world” (214).

Okay . . . take a deep breath. Inhale. Exhale. Some of those are hard to take in. I’m convinced, however, that a lot of our struggles as Christians (and non-Christians) stems from a misperception of what God’s ultimate plan is for us. If you’re anything like me, you need to go and spend some time alone with God, searching your heart, and asking yourself this question: Do I love God? Or am I using God to get something else besides God?

Serious about Joy

I’ll never forget the year 2005. Not only was it the year I started Bible College, but it was also the year I learned about biblical joy.

One evening I was sitting in my bed reading John Piper’s book The Dangerous Duty of Delight, and I felt a surge of energy within me. I thought to myself, “God is serious about my joy.” I wished someone had told me about this sooner! Through John Piper I learned about Jonathan Edwards, and through Edwards I learned (to quote Piper), “that God is glorified most not merely by being known, nor by merely being dutifully obeyed, but being enjoyed in the knowing and the obeying.”

Notice why God indicts his people through Moses: “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart . . .” (Deut. 28:47).

David referred to God as his exceeding joy (Ps. 43:4), and in another Psalm he calls God’s people to worship and to “Serve the LORD with gladness” (Ps. 100:2). Psalm 37:4 enjoins us to “Delight yourself in the LORD.” Like Moses in Psalm 90:14 we should pray, “Satisfy us in the morning with your lovingkindness, that we may . . . be glad all our days.” And finally, one of my favorite verses in the Bible (and the words my wife has been instructed to place on my tombstone): “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11).

Of course, the idea of joy isn’t limited to the Old Testament. Jesus taught this as well. Counterintuitively, Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad” (Matt. 5:11-12a). On another occasion, he tells us why he instructs us: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” And why did he go to the cross? The writer to the Hebrews tells us: “. . . for the joy set before him” (12:2). Unbelievable.

Are you getting the hint yet that God is serious about joy? God doesn’t just want obedience; he want us to delight in obedience.

Take a few more examples–all of which indicate that we’re not only to act in a certain way, but to feel a certain way. When someone sins against us, Jesus says you must “forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35). As Piper notes, Jesus does not say, “Make a mere decision to drop the grievance.” No. Jesus says, “Experience a change of heart.”

The apostles fall right in line. Peter commands us, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” Paul, in Romans 12:10 also commands, “Love one another with brotherly affection.” This is the same apostle who said he was “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10), hence his call to the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always” (4:4).

I always wanted joy. And so do you. Our problem, according to C. S. Lewis, is that “we are far too easily pleased.” We settle for “scenic vacations, accomplishments of creativity, stunning cinematic productions, sexual exploits, sports extravaganzas, hallucinogenic drugs, ascetic rigors, managerial excellence, etc. But the longing remains” (Piper).

Speaking personally, it wasn’t until God saved me that the longing was satisfied. To be sure, the ache for fullness of joy remains, but I experience the foretaste now. The best is yet to come.

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