A Brief Theology of How People Change

In my previous blog post I noted that I was writing a paper for school on how people change. For what it’s worth, I’ll go ahead and post it below for you perusal. Feedback is certainly welcome. It’s not perfect, but it is complete!

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In his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, Jesus instructs his disciples on how renewal comes to a person’s life. He tells Nicodemus that he will be “lifted up,” and that the life of the age to come will invade the present life of anyone who looks to him in faith.[1] Nevertheless, while Christians believe God can change lives, they still struggle to grasp how this takes place. Without intending to be comprehensive, in what follows I will briefly sketch what the Bible teaches regarding how people change.

In short, biblical change is a process, beginning with regeneration. Following this supernatural act, transformation involves attending to the means of grace (prayer, Scripture, and sacraments), as well as ongoing repentance, disciplined reflection, redemptive relationships, understanding one’s new identity in Christ, and what a number of new writers refer to as “rehabituation.”

First, change begins with regeneration. Regeneration refers to the supernatural work of God, whereby he grants spiritual life to spiritually dead sinners (Ezek. 36:25-26; Eph. 2:1-3). In this act God renovates the heart—“the core of a person’s being, by implanting a new principle of desire, purpose, and action.”[2] Such a heart renovation is necessitated by the fact that, according to the Bible, the human heart is desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9), full of evil (Mk. 7:21-23), loves darkness rather than light (Jn. 3:19), does not seek God (Rom. 3:10-12), is a slave to sin (Jn. 8:34; Rom. 6:16-20), cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14), and cannot submit to God (Rom. 8:9).[3] Clearly, human beings need more than simply self-improvement; what is needed is resurrection life. Thankfully, this is exactly what God promises to give—resurrection life by virtue of our union with Christ.[4] God’s work of regeneration, then, is what brings desire for change, upending our fallen notions of happiness, reordering our loves so that we love him supremely and love everything else properly.[5]

Second, as one embarks on a journey of obedience, one must avail themselves to the “means of grace.” Simply stated, the means of grace are those spiritual “resources” God gives to his people to assist them in their walk with him.[6] Traditionally, the means of grace are identified as God’s Word, prayer, and the sacraments, but can also encompass “providences,” that is, various trials and hardships that come into one’s life.[7] As we sit under God’s Word in church and digest it in our personal lives, God remakes us in his Son’s image. As we speak to him in prayer, voicing our supplications and laments, we grow in closer communion with him. As we experience the confirmation of his promises made to us in the sacraments, our consciousness of salvation is strengthened, and we enjoy a preview of the supper we long to celebrate with our risen King (Isa. 25:6-9).[8] These are formative and shaping moments in our earthly pilgrimage.[9]

In addition to the means of grace enumerated above, several other practices are crucial for effecting change in a believer’s life. While not often mentioned, disciplined reflection is necessary if one is to enjoy transformation. By “disciplined,” I mean that one must discipline himself/herself to set aside time for reflection. By “reflection” I mean self-examination. Far from being an exercise in narcissistic navel-gazing, self-knowledge is a prerequisite for spiritual growth.[10] We must know ourselves well enough to be able to trace our acts of disobedience back to the wrong thinking patterns that gave birth to the sinful action in the first place. This enables us to break free from the idols that grip our hearts.

Sin, Richard Lovelace noted, is rooted in “an organic network of compulsive attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors deeply rooted in our alienation from God.”[11] Sustained reflection is needed for growth because we must learn why we do what we do and say what we say. We must look our sin squarely in the face and confess the heart attitudes behind them to God. Sadly, many Christians prefer to hide, remaining fiercely committed to self-protection. God, however, invites us to “come out of hiding.” “He loves us,” Stephen Seamands writes, “naked, vulnerable and fragile as we are.”[12] God’s love must be received in an “undefended state—in the vulnerability of a ‘Just as I Am’ encounter.”[13] We need to see our sin in all its horror, ugliness, and reprehensibility, and then feel Jesus place both hands on the side of our head, look us in the eyes, and say, “I forgive you, I don’t reject you, I love you, I want you.” This kind of “stubborn love” brings lasting change: “When we are truly known, particularly in the darkness and shadows of our lives, by a love which does not reject, we are cemented to God.”[14] Sustained reflection that takes us into the dark places in our hearts, causing us to see ourselves for who we really are, is absolutely essential to our growth.

Next, biblical transformation involves redemptive relationships. By “redemptive relationships” I am referring broadly to the role of the church, as well as small groups or accountability groups. In contrast to the rife individualism in our culture, the Bible presents a robust ecclesiology. God’s covenant promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 establishes the fact that God’s design is to have an international body of believers who willingly, lovingly, and joyfully submit to Jesus as Lord.[15] God’s agenda, therefore, is for a person’s discipleship to take place in a community of believers. This means that the biblical portrait of discipleship is at odds with any notion that might suggest that one’s spirituality is not linked to the visible church.[16] The New Testament epistles make plain that one’s union with Christ is thoroughly ecclesiological in nature.[17]

While this may sound burdensome to contemporary believers, God’s purpose is that his people come alongside one another to bear one another’s burdens, encourage each other, and hold each other accountable—in short, become change agents in each other’s lives.[18] No wonder, then, that Proverbs 18:1 says, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” The ancient sage’s advice makes sense because we need others. We resist other people getting into the details of our lives, viewing them as nosy. In the context of a genuinely loving relationship, however, our hearts are softened, and knowledge of the other person’s care for us makes their unpleasant comments acceptable.[19] In sum, relationships play an integral role in our sanctification because it is only in the context of relationships that we experience the joy of being known, forgiven, and still wanted.[20]

Another important element in the ongoing change of a believer is repentance. In announcing the arrival of his kingdom, Jesus called people to repent (Mark 1:14-15), and as Martin Luther stated in his ninety-five theses, when Jesus uttered these words, “he willed the whole life of the faithful to be an act of repentance.”[21] Although a believer’s sins have been completely forgiven when he or she initially turned away from their sins and trusted in Christ (Eph. 1:7), the Bible makes clear that believers continue to sin (1 Jn. 1:8). Nevertheless, the Bible also discloses that a believer is one who hates and makes war on their residual sin (Rom. 7:15-16, 24; 8:13; 1 Jn. 3:9). For these reasons, ongoing repentance is a key component in a believer’s continual growth. In short, repentance involves, 1) a sense of shame, 2) humility, and 3) sorrow and regret.[22]

In ongoing repentance a believer is not “re-justified,” but rather experiences cleansing and washing. Naming specific sinful actions and attitudes and agreeing with God that they are wrong is a powerful—and painful!—experience, but one that brings a great sense of release. The action evidences a broken will, which in turn opens the floodgates of heaven, and allows one to enjoy God’s smile and grace.[23]

Another central element involved in transforming a believer’s life is the issue of one’s identity. The Good News is so good because it declares that a believer is no longer identified by his or her past sins, but is instead defined by what Christ accomplished. In Paul’s words, our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). His crucifixion is our crucifixion (Gal. 2:20), his death is our death (Rom. 6:8; Col. 3:3), his resurrection is our resurrection (Rom. 6:4; Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1). Our identity is framed by our union with Christ.[24]

For this reason, Ivor Davidson rightly notes that Paul’s declaration, “You are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19), “is a declaration not of infringement but of emancipation.”[25] Thus, each day a believer must fill his or her mind with gospel realities: You are accepted, you are delivered, you are not alone, you have authority.[26] Revel in the truths found in Hebrews 2:11, Ephesians 2:6, and Colossians 3:1, highlighting the fact that it is indicatives and not subjunctives that describe our standing before God.[27]

Finally, in the process of changing, a believer should expect difficulty. After all, believers are in a spiritual battle. In light of this, recent writers have emphasized the importance of “rehabitutation.”[28] Simply put, the word refers to the process of change within a believer. While God is able to bring dramatic change in a moment, more often than not God brings about change gradually. Our habits and loves are disordered, and the process of sanctification involves retraining our habits, loves, and desires—in short, “rehabituation.” Overcoming sinful actions, therefore, “is more like a weightwatchers program than listening to books on tape.”[29]

Taken together, living out the elements listed above, while daunting, can effectuate transformation in a believer’s life. God will use these means and activities to restore his image in us as well as cultivate Christ’s character in us.[30]

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[1] See further Andreas J. Köstenberger, “Lifting Up the Son of Man and God’s Love for the World: John 3:16 in Its Historical, Literary, and Theological Contexts,” in Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century. Essays in Honor of D. A. Carson on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, eds. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Robert W. Yarbrough (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 151.

[2] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christians Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1993), 157. While I will not defend it here, Scripture teaches that regeneration is monergistic and precedes faith. See, e.g., Matthew M. Barrett, “The Scriptural Affirmation of Monergism,” in Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy, eds. Matthew M. Barrett and Thomas J. Nettles (Cape Coral, FL: Founders, 2013), 120-187. See esp. 147-187, as well as Mark A. Snoeberger, “The Logical Priority of Regeneration to Saving Faith in a Theological Ordo Salutis,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 7 (Fall 2002): 49-93.

[3] While Christians affirm the reality of the noetic effects of sin (i.e., that the fall effects the way we think), we also believe that because human beings are created in the image of God, he has endowed us with the ability to think, reason, communicate, and comprehend what is written or spoken. See, e.g., John Bolt, “Sola Scriptura as an Evangelical Theological Method?” in Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, eds. Gary L. W. Johnson and Ronald N. Gleason (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 62-92. Nevertheless we also believe that “Sin creates a moral deficiency within us by which we are indisposed to truth” (R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984], 51).

[4] See further Lane G. Tipton, “Union with Christ and Justification,” in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for Us in Justification, ed. K. Scott Oliphant (Ross-shire: Great Britain, 2007), 23-49.

[5] David K. Naugle, Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 1-29.

[6] The word “resources” is taken from John M. Frame, Salvation Belongs to the LORD: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006), 261.

[7] See, e.g., Sinclair Ferguson, “The Reformed View,” in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, ed. Donald L. Alexander (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1988), 71-72. The role of the church in sanctification will be discussed later in the paper.

[8] Brandon C. Jones, Waters of Promise: Finding Meaning in Believer Baptism (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 7, 135; Russell Moore, “Baptist View: Christ’s Presence as Memorial,” in Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper, eds. John H. Armstrong and Paul E. Engle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 30-44

[9] Debra Dean Murphy, “Worship as Catechesis: Knowledge, Desire, and Formation,” Theology Today 58:3 (2001): 321-332.

 [10] Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1980), 82.

 [11] Ibid., 88.

[12] Stephen Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2005), 128.

[13] David G. Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 24.

[14] C. Frederick Barbee & Paul F. M. Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 57. The phrase “stubborn love” comes from David Hansen, The Power of Loving Your Church: Leading through Acceptance and Grace (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1998), 55. In context, Hansen is explaining the meaning of the Hebrew word hesed.

[15] Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, New Studies in Biblical Theology 23 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007), 83-84.

[16] The most recent statistics suggest that this is what many Americans believe. See, e.g., “Among Unchurched Americans,” Facts & Trends 63:2 (Spring 2017): 15.

[17] Brannon Ellis, “Covenantal Union and Communion: Union with Christ as the Covenant of Grace,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 92.

[18] David Powlison, Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community (Winston-Salem, NC: Punch Press, 2005), 99.

[19] Timothy and Kathy Keller, The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms (New York: Viking, 2015), 349.

[20] Sharon A. Hersh, The Last Addiction: Why Self-Help Is Not Enough (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2008), 33.

[21] Martin Luther, “The Ninety-Five Theses,” in Documents of the Christian Church, eds. Henry Bettenson & Chris Maunder, new ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 206.

[22] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2013), 68.

[23] On what a broken will looks like, see Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Brokenness: The Heart God Revives (Chicago: Moody, 2005), 51.

[24] Michael Reeves, Rejoicing in Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015), 63.

[25] Ivor J. Davidson, “Gospel Holiness: Some Dogmatic Reflections,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 210.

[26] Richard Lovelace calls these the four platforms Christians must stand on. See his Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 210.

[27] Davidson, “Gospel Holiness,” 202.

[28] See, e.g., James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016), 53-54; Steven L. Porter, “The Gradual Nature of Sanctification: Σάρξ as Habituated, Relational Resistance to the Spirit,” Themelios 39:3 (2014): 470-483.

[29] Smith, You Are What You Love, 65.

[30] Language borrowed from Derek Tidball, “Holiness: Restoring God’s Image: Colossians 3:5-17,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 26, 31.

An Update on Where I’ve Been

Again, for the one or two of you who read this blog, you might have noticed that I have not posted anything in over a month. I can state the obvious up front: It’s my fault! I simply haven’t made the time to write a blog. That said, I have been writing. But it’s been a paper for school entitled, “A Theology of How People Change.” Don’t worry, it won’t appear in an academic journal any time soon. I had certain constraints that I had to follow.

After I finish that paper I plan to write again for the blog, at least one post a month, if not more. Still, I have stayed busy in pastoral ministry. There’s always plenty to do!

Oh yeah, I also updated my “Currently Reading” page. Take a look-see and join me in some good reading!

Our Ultimate Concern

Two recent discussions with fellow pastors centered on spiritual apathy. We were seeking to answer the following questions: Why do so many Christians live defeated lives? Why are so many Christians not fully engaged in church life? How do we make sense of the lack of consistent church attendance?

In doing some research on these questions, I was led back to Richard Lovelace’s well-known book Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal. It’s hard to believe this was written in 1980. Here’s what he said:

The “ultimate concern” of most church members is not the worship and service of Christ in evangelistic mission and social compassion, but rather survival and success in their secular vocation. The church is a spoke on the wheel of life connected to the secular hub. It is a departmental subconcern, not the organizing center of all other concerns. Church members who have been conditioned all their lives to devote themselves to building their own kingdom and whose flesh naturally gravitates in that direction anyway find it hard to invest much energy in the kingdom of God. They go to church once or twice a week [once or twice a month nowadays] and punch the clock, so to speak, fulfilling their “church obligation” by sitting passively and listening critically or approvingly to their pastor’s teaching.”

After grieving the spiritual condition of those described by Lovelace, I felt the need to grab my copy of The Valley of Vision and pray one of the Puritan prayers: “O may I never fall into the tempers and vanities, the sensuality and folly of the present world! It is a place of inexpressible sorrow, a vast empty nothingness. Time is a moment, a vapor, and all its enjoyments are empty bubbles, fleeting blasts of wind, from which nothing satisfactory can be derived. Give me grace always to keep in covenant with thee, and to reject as delusion a great name here . . . together with all sinful pleasures or profits.”

Thinking through Success

I still remember taking the Strengthfinder 2.0. test. My results indicated that I valued significance. As I’ve written previously, when I saw my score I was disappointed with myself. I didn’t see this trait as something to prize. I was (and continue to be) wary of this characteristic.

One way I’m tempted to feel significant is through accomplishments. In a word, I want to be successful. This raises a question: What is success? Without pretending to be comprehensive, I’d like to offer a few thoughts.

Success means knowing and living in communion with the triune God of Holy Scripture. Before we can say someone is successful, we must know what the purpose of life is. We know a lawnmower isn’t working properly when it fails to cut the grass. We know a sponge isn’t working properly when it fails to clean the plate. Similarly, we can only properly evaluate our lives or the lives of others if we know how God intended for us to live. In other words: Success is inextricably linked to telos or purpose.[1] Human beings are created in the image of God and were designed to reflect his character in their lives and relationships. Success, then, means to know God (Jn. 17:3) to glorify God in all we do (1 Cor. 10:31). Success means longing to please God and living in perpetual communion with him. Pleasing God in this way, I think, includes knowing ourselves. We must know ourselves well enough to be able to trace our acts of disobedience back to the wrong thinking patterns that gave birth to the sinful action in the first place. This enables us to break free from the idols that grip our hearts.

Success means loving our neighbors. I can think of nothing more countercultural at the moment than putting the interests of others above your own. Since God is fundamentally other-oriented, those who image him should be as well. The Parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates what this looks like. We care for, serve, love, and disadvantage ourselves in order to advantage others—thus exemplifying the wisdom of God, fulfilling the law of God, and “enfleshing” the justice/righteousness and mercy of God (Micah 6:8).[2]

Each day—yea, each moment—is a battle to believe this is true. If you’re anything like me, you’re tempted to think living for yourself is the pathway to blessing and happiness. To make matters worse, our culture only reinforces these impulses. “You deserve this,” commercials tells us. “You owe it to yourselves,” we are often told. No wonder we’ve come to see “the sovereignty of our appetites as normal.”[3] Jesus, however, tells us this is a dead-end. Living solely for yourself is a black hole. It leads to emptiness, despair, and death. To curb these tendencies and begin to live differently we must learn new habits. We need to practice hospitality and generosity. We need to pour out our lives for others. No wonder James told us: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27).

Success means working faithfully where God plants us. By this I simply mean to labor for God’s glory in your present social location. Responsibly “cultivate the earth” where God has placed you.[4] Exactly what this looks like will depend on your location, vocation, and gifts. The idea that we ought to “bloom where we’re planted,” might induce the beautifully looking gag reflex we all enjoy seeing. Why? Because most people strongly dislike their jobs. My guess is most people agree with Andrew Delbanco’s paraphrase of a quote originally spoken by Henry David Thoreau—that “life is worth living only when it furnishes the mind with something worth dying for.”[5] The average person’s 9 to 5 doesn’t do this.

How do people work faithfully when they hate their job? For starters, if you hate your job, I see no reason biblically why you must stay there. To be sure, you may feel you need to stay because, even though you hate it, it pays the bills and you have an attractive benefits package. Still, if one is hopelessly unhappy, I think it is fine to prayerfully consider leaving. Secondly, after talking the matter over with your spouse, prayerfully begin looking for another job. Nevertheless, ask yourself this question: Am I expecting too much of my next job? To be blunt: Don’t expect your next job to satisfy you.

As a believer, see yourself on mission for God wherever you are planted. I sometimes wonder: Is God as concerned about my personal fulfillment as I am? I’m not suggesting that God delights seeing his children in agony. I’m simply pondering whether my aspirations are always aligned with God’s will. My job may not bring me personal satisfaction, but if God uses me to lead someone at my place of employment to Christ, and that relationship blossoms to a close friendship, I think God is pleased. Maybe that’s what he wants after all.

In conclusion, Burk Parsons is right: “[B]iblically defined success doesn’t always look like success to the world.”[6] Additionally, as Christians let’s not forget: “The most successful man who ever lived looked like a failure in the world’s eyes, but in the eyes of the Father, He was a true success,” which is why the Father “highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:9).[7]

 

[1] See further Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016), 186-187; James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016), 88-89.

[2] The truly wise life is doing justice and mercy, concepts which are defined in the Law of God. Waltke correctly argues that “righteousness” and “wisdom” are “correlative terms.” See, e.g., Bruce Waltke, “Righteousness in Proverbs,” Westminster Theological Journal 70 (2008): 225-237. See esp. 233.

[3] Russell D. Moore, Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 95.

[4] The idea of “cultivating the earth” is taken from Gen. 2:15, but I’m borrowing the language from Michael E. Wittmer, Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters to God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 124.

[5] Andrew Delbanco, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 75.

[6] Burk Parsons, “True Success,” Tabletalk 41:1 (January 2017): 2.

[7] Nate Shurden, “Worldly Success,” Tabletalk 41:1 (January 2017): 9.

You Can’t Hide What You Believe about God

In one of his journal entries, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote about the significance the family plays in the lives of the children of believers. In a section entitled, “The greatest danger for a child, where religion is concerned,” Kierkegaard wrote:

The greatest danger is not that his father or tutor should be a free-thinker, not even his being a hypocrite. No, the danger lies in his being a pious, God-fearing man, and in the child being convinced thereof, but that he should nevertheless notice that deep in his soul there lies hidden an unrest which, consequently, not even the fear of God and piety could calm. The danger is that the child in this situation is almost provoked to draw a conclusion about God, that God is not infinite love.

Following this, I read a couple of interesting sentences from the well-known theologian Sinclair Ferguson, where he said:

We cannot hide what we really believe God is like. Our personal disposition is an unending expression of our understanding of and trust in his character. How we live, how we respond to challenges, crises and trials, reveals what we really believe about God, what we really think “deep down” about him.

Then I started to think about some of the Christians I’ve come in contact with throughout my life. And then I considered my own behavior and what it might reveal about God. And then I ponder what my behavior is instilling in my children.

Generally it seems true that what a person believes about God is expressed in their behavior. Those who believe God is gracious and forgiving tend to be gracious and forgiving. In contrast, those who are stern, critical, overly judgmental, and plain old unhappy, tend to view God as harsh, unloving, and unkind. Perhaps this is an overstatement, but as I’ve gotten to know people, and have been privileged to hear their stories, when their defenses come down, those who are unhappy and angry seem to have a sub-biblical vision of God.

When I look back over my life and think of the various seasons God has taken me through, I am embarrassed about my past behavior. I don’t think my behavior rightly expressed the joy, love, and grace of God. Thankfully, a number of years ago God brought me to the end of myself. During that time, God met me in my hour of need, and it was in that instance that God’s love was made real to me in a way it previously had  not been.

As I think about what my behavior says to my children, I am reminded that, with our children, more is “caught” than “taught.” I can teach my children about God, Jesus, and the Bible all I want. I can teach them about how we shouldn’t worry and judge others; I can teach them about love, forgiveness, and grace. I can say that attending church, reading the Bible, giving, and showing hospitality is important, but if my actions say otherwise, it’s all hot air. Our children (and all human beings) are more than brains on a stick. We have imaginations that need to be captured by God’s majestic grace. We have affections that need to be stirred by the beauty of Christ and the life he calls us to live. None of this happens over night. We need to put practices into place that lead to new patterns of living, issuing forth in new habits that permanently shape and form our lives.

In so doing, I suspect that our character will begin to change. Our habits shape and form the type of people we become. As we make space in our lives to digest God’s Word through personal Bible reading and church attendance, as well as set aside time to meditate on what we’ve read and heard, we trust that the fruit of the Spirit will evidence itself in our lives in practical ways.

The Gift of Memory

“Great is the power of memory, exceeding great is it, O God, an inner chamber vast and unbounded!” ~ Augustine (354-430)[1]

“It is more important that we should remember God than that we should breathe: Indeed, if one may say so, we should do nothing else besides” ~ Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390)[2]_______________________________________________________________

I remember my first day of kindergarten. I remember the first time I lied to my father. I remember celebrating Christmas with my extended family in south Florida. I remember the first time I saw my wife, Debra.

Have you ever paused to thank God for the gift of memory? Are you amazed that God allows you to remember certain events from your past—a beautiful sunset, the smile of a child, or maybe a word or phrase from a loved one?

God wants us to remember. He wants us to remember that we are loved. He wants us to remember that we’ve been redeemed. And he wants us to remember the singular blessings of our lives—those moments when, perhaps even with tears, we’ve said, “Wow, God is good.”

But what does this look like in our daily lives? I think Professor Scott Redd is on to something when he says, “Faithful memory is covenantal memory.”[3] By this he means that memory is “a righteous habit of mind,”[4] wherein we recall God’s words and promises from the past that encourage and instruct us in the present and furnish us with hope for the future.

Faithful (or covenantal) memory reminds us that God has spoken to us, and calls to mind the fact that his communication with us has been via promise and fulfillment.

Here’s what this involves: A righteous habit of mind involves living under the authority of God’s Word. God promised Adam and Eve that if they ate from the tree they would die (Gen. 2:16-17). Apparently Eve either forgot God’s Word to her or was unconvinced. Faithful (or covenantal) memory calls to mind each day the reality that God has spoken, feeds on God’s Word (Deut. 8:3; cf. Matt. 4:4), and seeks to live under it. Looking back on redemptive history reminds us that God wants us to live under his word. He sent prophets to his people to call them to repentance, urging them to obey the law, and turn back to his ways—that is, to remember that he had spoken (Jer. 6:16).[5] Each time we open up the Bible we’re reminded that God is a communicative being who seeks to share his life and love with us.

Secondly, a righteous habit of mind involves remembering our dependent status. Simply put, this means realizing that we’re not God. Yes, we’ve been created in his image (Gen. 1:26); yes, we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14); yes, we’ve been “brilliantly created”; but because of the Fall we’re also “brilliantly destructive.”[6] We’re desperately broken on the inside. Although we were created to put God at the center of our lives and joyfully surrender to his lordship, we would rather usurp his authority and assert our own will.[7] We foolishly assume that his authority over us is an impediment to our authenticity, failing to realize that the precondition for living an authentic life requires that we know who made us and why he created us.

I am aware that the previous sentence is not shared by all. To be sure, it brings into focus a competing narrative of our culture: Whose definition of freedom and human flourishing is most desirable? Whereas secularists locate freedom “in an individual subject’s spontaneous power of choice,”[8] the Bible defines freedom as “glad submission to the will of God.”[9] Embracing our dependent, servant status means a life of humility and surrender—a life of faith seeking understanding.

Finally, a righteous habit of mind involves living with expectancy. By living with expectancy I mean living with eternity in mind. Living with eternity in mind leads to making wiser decisions (Ps. 90:12). The wisest decision of all is abandoning oneself to the triune God. Abandoning oneself to the triune God is the wisest decision of all because he is the only one who can satisfy the longing soul (Ps. 107:9 et. al.). Sin, therefore, is preferring other things to the Lover of our Souls. Well did John Piper say, “Sin is trying to quench our unquenchable soul-thirst anywhere but in God.”[10] Every fiber of our being yearns to behold God’s beauty and dwell in his presence (Ps. 27:4). Sadly, sin blinds us to God’s beauty, which in turn leads us to choose a life of sin—a life filled with lesser beauty.[11]

Living with expectancy, however, constrains us by reminding us of what awaits us: “Your eyes will behold the King in his beauty” (Isa. 33:17a). Every tear will be wiped from our eyes (Rev. 21:4). In the new creation “no inhabitant will say, ‘I am sick’” (Isa. 33:24). With this vision firmly in mind, we prefer death to the denial of Christ; obedience to Christ over the passing pleasures of this world. With this vision firmly in mind we can say with the men who were taken to their deaths in Fidel Castro’s concentration camps, “Viva Cristo Rey!”[12]

Faithful memory is covenantal memory. God has spoken. Therefore, let me memorize his Word. God has spoken. Therefore, let me meditate on his promises. God has spoken. Therefore, let my imagination be captivated by what awaits me. Tolle Lege.

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[1] The Confessions of St. Augustine (trans. John K. Ryan; NY: Doubleday, 1960), 10. 8. 5.

[2] On God and Christ (trans. Frederick Williams; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2002), 27-28.

[3] Scott Redd, “What Should We Remember?” Tabletalk 40:12 (December 2016): 17.

[4] Ibid., 18.

[5] John L. Mackay, “Spokesmen for God,” Tabletalk 37:11 (November 2013): 18.

[6] Language borrowed from Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), xi.

[7] Peter J. Gentry, “Kingdom through Covenant: Humanity as the Divine Image,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 12 (2008): 16-42.

[8] See David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 226.

[9] Peter F. Jensen, “God and the Bible,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 495.

[10] John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998), 81.

[11] Augustine, Confessions, 2. 5. 10; 2. 6. 13, 14.

[12] Armando Valladares, Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag (trans. Andrew Hurley; San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books, 2001), 15.

 

Reflections on the Fall of Man: A Miscellany on Autonomy, Lordship, and Sanctification

Like many Christians, the New Year means I once again begin reading through the Bible—from beginning to end. Starting at the beginning, therefore, means reading the account of the Fall recorded in Genesis 3. As I read through the chapter, I once more found myself engrossed in the story.

Let’s remind ourselves of what we read: Satan comes to Eve and asks, “Did God really say you must not eat any of the fruit in the garden?” “Of course we may eat it,” the woman told him. It’s only the fruit from the tree at the center of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God says we must not eat it or even touch it, or we will die. [Note that she misquotes God’s word to her]” “You won’t die!” the serpent hissed. “God knows that your eyes will be opened when you eat it. You will become just like God, knowing everything, both good and evil” (Gen. 31-5, NLT).

In verse 6 we read, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate” (ESV, emphasis added). What went wrong? Sinclair Ferguson’s analysis is dead-on: “The serpent’s tactic was to lead her [Eve] into seeing and interpreting the world through her eyes (what she saw when she looked at the tree) rather than through her ears (what God had said about it).”[1] What did God say about it? “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Gen. 2:16-17, ESV).

What made Adam and Eve’s sin so heinous? Above all, in light of God’s Word to Adam and Eve, their response is a quest for moral and epistemological autonomy.[2] Read carefully how J. I. Packer describes what took place. In the Fall, he says,

Man accepted the invitation to pursue wisdom by constructing a private interpretation of life out of the resources of his own independent judgment. He sought intellectual self-sufficiency, ability to solve all life’s problems without reference to the word of God. . . . Pride, and more particularly intellectual pride, was thus the root sin.”[3]

To reiterate: The sin of Adam and Eve was a quest for moral and epistemological autonomy. This involved interpreting life based upon what they saw, rather than submitting to God’s Word. Why is this such a big deal? Here’s the answer: Given that God is the Creator and we are the creature, we are not entitled to begin with the self. Given that he is the Creator and we are the creature, we are not free to construct a private interpretation of life. “Any claim to autonomy relative to God is mere pretense,” to quote Scott Clark.[4]

I am fully aware that these comments are not in step with the culture. Most likely some people reading this find the above analysis grotesque, manipulative, restrictive, and oppressive. Yet I want to assert (with some force) that it is freeing, liberating. How so? Allow me to explain.

First, all reasoning is subject to some kind of criterion. Everyone has a standard. Furthermore, as John Frame points out, “If we reject God as our norm, we must find another (rationalism) or despair of knowledge (skepticism).”[5] Renouncing one’s intellectual self-sufficiency, therefore, is not oppressive; on the contrary it is freeing. God has spoken and his Word is our norm. We are not left to our own devices. For our part, then, freedom is found in recognizing that we are creatures and then living in line with our dependent status. This brings me to my second point.

Secondly, because he is our Designer and Creator, God’s commands lead to liberation, not enslavement. In other words, God’s commands are not “busywork”: “To break them is to violate your own nature and to lose freedom, just like a person who eats the wrong foods and ends up in a hospital.”[6] Thus, if Clark’s statement above that “Any claim to autonomy relative to God is mere pretense” seems harsh, understand that this evaluation is grounded in humanity’s telos, that is, the purpose of human existence. His judgment is anchored in biblical revelation and is consonant with a biblical-theological account of humanity: “I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23). This means that as created, dependent beings, we are not free to decide what is right and wrong. Instead, wise living means looking to God for guidance, receiving his Word, and living in the “fear of the LORD” (Prov. 1:7; cf. Ps. 123:1-2).

Finally, nothing I have said here is intended to be pessimistic about humanity. In fact, postmodern authors’ view of humanity is far bleaker than the biblical record, leaving no possibility for meaningful communication, meaning in life, human dignity, or justice. (One of the great ironies of our day is that the purveyors of moral relativism are often the same people issuing passionate pleas for others to engage in the work of social justice, seemingly unaware that their worldview cannot make sense of their pleas.)[7]

Still, we ask: Where do we go from here? What does this mean for you and me? The answer is as simple as it is profound: We look to Jesus Christ—the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45): “The first Adam was tested in the God-blessed garden and fell. The Second Adam was tested in the God-cursed desert, and won.”[8] The heart of the second and last Adam is the heart we all desperately need. It’s the kind of heart that can say without guile, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (Jn. 4:34). It’s the kind of heart that says with authenticity, “Behold, I have come to do your will” (Ps. 40:7; cf. Heb. 10:9). God’s desire is for his image-bearers to joyfully abandon themselves to him without hesitation or reservation.[9] Such a heart accurately reflects the dependence our createdness demands. Hence, Jesus is the true human: “He is humanity as it should be.”[10]

Amazingly, the Bible tells us that in the gift of regeneration, we have been given in a new heart (Ezek. 36:26-27). Because of the work of Christ, we have been declared right with God (Rom. 5:1; 8:1); we’ve been adopted into God’s family (Gal. 4:1-7); we’re secure in his love (Jn. 10:27-29); and we have his promise that he will complete his work in our lives (Phil. 1:6). We are slaves no longer: neither to ourselves, nor our appetites, or others. Indeed, the declaration “You are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19) is not a declaration “of infringement but of emancipation.”[11] Our union with Christ gives us a new identity. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

Wise living involves receiving God’s revelation and orienting our lives accordingly. This posture follows logically from the fact that God, in his grace, has communicated with us, making known his will and his ways. In regeneration God has given us new hearts that “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6), leading believers to avail themselves to the means of grace as well as develop gospel-shaped habits. Therefore, we are people of hope, knowing that God will restore his image in us, forming Christlike character in us, and, in turn, restore our humanity.

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[1] Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 72.

[2] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 63.

[3] J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (1958; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 139.

[4] 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: Crossway), 37.

[5] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987), 124.

[6] Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016), 115.

[7] See further Paul Copan, “God, Naturalism, and the Foundations of Morality,” in The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath & Daniel Dennett in Dialogue, ed. Robert B. Stewart (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 141-161.

[8] Russell D. Moore, Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 41.

[9] See further Michael Horton, “Obedience Is Better Than Sacrifice,” in The Law Is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant, eds. Bryan D. Estelle, J. V. Fesko, and David VanDrunen (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), 315-336. See esp. 316.

[10] Paul Miller, Love Walked among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2014), 191.

[11] Ivor J. Davidson, “Gospel Holiness: Some Dogmatic Reflections,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), 210.

Top Ten Quotes of 2016

Ten quotes to ponder as we near the end of 2016:

“Evil—and complicity with evil—is usually done under the cover of numerous rationalizations that declare the evil to be everything but what it is” – Shelby Steele, Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (47).

“Thoughtful Christians who sincerely seek to base their beliefs on the Scriptures will be a little nervous if the beliefs they think are biblical form no part of the major streams of tradition throughout the history of the church; and therefore, historical theology, though it cannot in itself justify a belief system, not only sharpens the categories and informs the debate but serves as a major checkpoint to help us prevent uncontrolled speculation, purely private theological articulation, and overly imaginative exegesis” – D. A. Carson, “Recent Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture,” (73) in Collected Writings on Scripture.

“We do not negotiate what we want for reality. God defines reality” – John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin (116).

“A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you would ever imagine” – Marilynne Robinson, Gilead: A Novel (6).

“Living now constantly in the shadow of unwanted, built-in, automatic utopianism, we are constantly confronted with issues whose positive choice requires supreme wisdom—an impossible, and in particular for contemporary man, who denies the very existence of its object: viz., objective value and truth. We need wisdom most when we believe in it least” – Hans Jonas, “Technology and Responsibility on the New Task of Ethics,” in Society, Ethics, and Technology (130).

“Deconstructionist analysis and an enshrined relativism make of every phenomenon but a ghostly apparition, dependent upon the interpreter for meaning. . . . The only certainty in this plastic process is the critic, endowed with the empowering insight to realize that all meaning (except, of course, that which the critic discerns) is a chimera. Nothing could be more despotic than this ‘democracy of meaning,’ for in it the Western critic controls the process by which meaning itself is to be discerned. The apostles of ‘diversity’ control the processes by which thought itself is to be judged as ‘valid.’ Thus Western secular intellectuals use the mind in much the same way as the Western news media use the camera: selectively, and with the conviction that the tool confers existence itself upon that on which it focuses” – Anthony Ugolnik, “Living at the Borders: Eastern Orthodoxy and the World Disorder,” First Things 34 (June/July 1993): 16.

A response to those who say no religion has the whole truth: “How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have?” Tim Keller, The Reason for God (9). In his prequel to this volume, Keller notes, “[E]ven our most rigorous rational thinking is shot through with various forms of faith.” Keller cites philosopher Michael Polanyi’s article “The Critique of Doubt,” where Polanyi argues that doubt and belief are ultimately equivalent because (in Polanyi’s words), “The doubting of any explicit statement . . . denies [one] belief . . . in favor of other beliefs which are not doubted for the time being.” Thus the conclusion: “So, for example, you cannot say, ‘No one can know enough to be certain about God and religion,’ without assuming at that moment that you know enough about the nature of religious knowledge to be certain about that” – See Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (38).

On professors who espouse postmodern ideas and insist that language is incapable of communicating truth: “If the professors really believed it, they’d just keep quiet” – Bruce S. Thornton, Plagues of the Mind: The New Epidemic of False Knowledge (48). Hence, I have to give Philip Gorski credit for telling the truth: “Our own relativism is rarely as radical as [our] theory requires” (See his essay “Where Do Morals Come From?” online.

“The only good Protestant is a catholic Protestant—one who learns from, and bears fruit for, the whole church” – Kevin Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (33).

“Salvation is not grounded in the believer’s being like Christ, but rather being forgiven ‘in Christ’” – Richard Lints, “Living by Faith—Alone? Reformed Responses to Antinomianism,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice (43).

My Top Ten Books of 2016–And Three Articles

Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance—Why The Marrow Controversy Still Matters. 

A theologically rich yet pastorally sensitive treatise. The casual reader may be intimidated by the title of this book, but please: Don’t let that stop you! Ferguson takes the reader on a journey back to the 18th century into a small Scottish parish. Along the way he brings to light the background information necessary to make sense of a theological controversy that erupted due to the republication of The Marrow of Modern Divinity. Trust me, this is much more than a piece of arcane theological reflection; it is highly practical. Ferguson exhibits the best of what a pastor-theologian is to be. I would highly recommend this book to every Christian, but pastors will be especially helped by reading this monograph.

Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism.

Levin offers a brief yet thorough overview of American politics since World War II, and argues that frustration in the political arena stems from both parties—Democrats and Republicans—suffering from nostalgia. Both parties are offering the American public nothing more than reruns of past agendas. This infatuation with midcentury prescriptions fails to take into account America’s unique cultural moment, leading to a misdiagnosis of present problems, which then leads to misguided solutions. Although Levin’s arguments require some familiarity with political science and economics, I’m sure novices can make do. If you keep a dictionary close by, you’ll be just fine. This was a fascinating read. I can see why scholars on both the Right and the Left have given this book such a high marks.

Steven D. Smith, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse.

The bottom line is this: words like “justice,” “equality,” “dignity,” and, yes, even the phrase “unalienable rights,” are all empty concepts. They mean absolutely nothing until we define what they mean, explain why they are valuable, and unpack how we justify holding our views. In other words, when we say, “All human beings should be treated with dignity and respect,” Smith will ask you to answer the questions, “Why? Where do you get this idea that human beings should be treated with ‘dignity’? What does ‘dignity’ mean?” In asking such questions, Smith forces readers to see that such questions cannot be answered from a secular standpoint. This is because “A comprehensively naturalistic worldview cancels itself out” (199). Smith doesn’t stop there, however. The point he wants to emphasize is that “most of us really believe in a realm of value that cannot be adequately accounted for in purely naturalist terms” (204). As the late philosopher Hans Jonas noted, “You can’t have ethics without metaphysics.” Jonas’s (and Smith’s) observations reveal the inadequacy of our discussions over “culture war” issues and related topics. Smith argues that we need to stop “smuggling” our metaphysics into ethical discussions and be honest about what we’re doing (even if we can’t justify our essentially “religious” beliefs). In fact, Smith urges us to bring religion into our conversations. While he admits that this might lead to some heated discussions, he thinks it’s worth it because it will force us to deal with our actual differences.

J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God: Some Evangelical Principles.

 It’s hard to believe this book was published in 1958. Perhaps what’s even harder to believe is how relevant Packer’s book is up to the present day. In the course of the work Packer defines “fundamentalism” and “liberalism,” and then looks at the issues of authority, Scripture, faith, and reason. While reading this book may not cause a person to embrace the authority and integrity of the Scriptures, it at least makes clear where each side stands. The book does not advance any new thesis, but it’s a must-read for those interested in the doctrine of Scripture.

David Powlison, Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community.

Much wisdom, much insight, much practical application is found in Speaking Truth in Love. While not a “how-to” book, describing the ins and outs of observation, diagnosing, and prescribing a course of action intended to lead to personal healing and renewal in the classical sense, Powlison provides readers with a thoroughly biblical analysis of human personality and offers key ingredients that will lead counselors in the right direction in offering wise counsel. This begins with properly understanding human beings—creatures made in the image of God who by design are dependent beings. God has invaded our world with his revelation, the Bible. God speaks to us through his Word and also show us how to speak to him through his Word. This provides comfort as well as serves as a resource for how to live our daily lives. God has not left us hopeless; instead, Christ comes to us clothed in the gospel and repentant sinners find forgiveness in his life, death, and resurrection. Understanding this reality serves counselors well, as they realize that they are very much like the people they counsel—broken and in need of forgiveness. These “wounded healers” must prayerfully seek to provide counselees with counsel that is faithful to the Bible as well as connected to real life. Much of counseling is learning how to do just this.

Tim Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical.

Keller calls this book a “prequel” to his former work The Reason for God. Since the release of Reason Keller has been engaged in many discussions with various kinds of people, leading him to see the necessity of laying some groundwork before getting to the ideas propounded in his earlier volume. For example, in chapter two of Making Sense of God he has a chapter entitled, “Isn’t religion based on faith and secularism on evidence?” Following this chapter Keller deals with topics like suffering, joy not based on circumstances, the harm principle, and the problem of identity. In sum, Keller makes good on what he sets out to do: thoroughly deconstruct all other worldviews and demonstrate that Christianity is not only coherent, but the most desirable worldview of all.

Ryan T. Anderson, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom.

This book was released soon after the Obergefell decision. Anderson’s goal is to provide a definition of marriage and then demonstrate what the consequences will be of redefining marriage. Without referencing any religion or appealing to any sacred text, Anderson defines marriage as a comprehensive, exclusive, and permanent union of one man and one woman ordered toward procreation. Since the law teaches, shapes ideas, and influences what people do, Anderson argues that the law could not remain neutral forever. Given that marriage is not defined in the Constitution, however, unelected justices should not have been the ones making this decision. As he states at one point in the book, “Under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be” (67). That said, now that the law has changed, Anderson goes on to make plain how the Obergefell decision will make it more difficult for people to live out the dictates of their consciences. Furthermore, he shows why sexual orientation is not like race, and hence why the comparison should stop being made. (I have a sneaking suspicion that the comparison will continue.) Another consequence of redefining marriage will be its affect on children. Regardless of what people will say, most social scientists agree (all agreed prior to the sexual revolution) that children do better with a mother and a father. Nevertheless, I wonder how much longer we will hear about the importance of fathers being involved in the lives of their children, given that proponents of the sexual revolution now argue that there is no real difference between male and female.

Harry Schaumburg, False Intimacy: Understanding the Struggle of Sexual Addiction. This book was required reading for a class I took on pastoral counseling. Although it deals specifically with sexual addiction, the truths communicated apply to all of life. In my experience, most people never pause to consider how they relate to food, alcohol, work, shopping, or Internet use. More often than not, when people feel a strong compulsion, they simply give in and view their behavior as normal. Instant gratification is part of American culture. We’re not good at waiting. Even if you don’t struggle with any addiction, this book will help you understand yourself. As a pastor, I’m often shocked by the lack of time people devote to understanding themselves—why they do what they do, say what they say, think how they think, respond how they respond, etc. The lack of self-awareness can be shocking at times. This book may not answer all your questions, but I think Schaumburg delivers on his goal: “The best I can offer is to help you move closer to God.”

Armando Valladares, Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag. I purchased this book prior to Fidel Castro’s death. Nevertheless, his death prompted me to begin reading Valladares’s memoir sooner than anticipated. I knew the sordid details of his arrest, imprisonment, and torture would challenge my ability to finish the book, but I was determined to press on. Without giving away all the details, Valladares was arrested for opposing Castro’s communist regime. He and his fellow prisoners were beaten mercilessly, tortured repeatedly, and forced to live in inhumane conditions—all with a view to getting them to accept communism. On one occasion Vallardares and two of his compatriots escaped, but were captured two days later. For this attempt they were thrown into solitary confinement for close to six months. Rather than giving them water to drink, the guards would pour their own urine and feces into their cells and force them to live in this condition. Through it all, Valladares kept his faith in Christ and credits God with giving him the strength to endure this most difficult trial. Many of his fellow prisoners opposed communism due to their Christian convictions. Tragically, many of them were killed. In perhaps the most moving section of the book, Valladaras recalls the words his fellow brothers in Christ would shout as they were headed to their execution: Viva Cristo Rey!

 Paul J. Silvia, How to Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. As a first year PhD student, I know tons of writing assignments await me—book reviews, research papers, and class lectures. When a professor recommended this book to me, I resolved to purchase it ASAP. And I’m glad I did. My main takeaway is that I must make a writing schedule and stick to it. I must guard my study time with a blowtorch. Silvia provides readers with an important life lesson: You don’t find time, you allot time in order to accomplish tasks. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Favorite Articles of the Year:

Arthur Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law” (Duke Law Journal 1979).

Similar to The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse and Hans Jonas’s thesis highlighted above, Leff argues that ethical evaluations cannot be binding unless they have “supernatural grounding.” We may wax eloquent on why we think certain laws are just or unjust, but these can be nothing more than opinions unless we appeal to a higher authority. If we can’t appeal to a transcendent realm, Leff says every person is free to respond with what he calls “the grand sez who?” Leff concludes by bemoaning these circumstances:

 “As things now stand, everything is up for grabs. Nevertheless:
Napalming babies is bad.
Starving the poor is wicked. Buying and selling each other is depraved.
Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot—and General Custer too—have earned salvation.
Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.
There is in the world such a thing as evil.
[All together now:] Sez who?
God help us.”

Gina Dalfonzo, “‘An Odd Sort of Mercy’: Jen Hatmaker, Glennon Doyle Melton, and The End of the Affair.”

Dalfonzo tackles the skewed and self-interpreting definition of love running rampant in our culture. Two popular evangelical authors came out in support of gay marriage this year: Jen Hatmaker and Glennon Doyle Melton. (After Melton’s divorce to her husband she posted a picture of herself with her new girlfriend–well-known soccer player Abby Wambach.) Dalfonzo succinctly summarized the words of many affirming Christians: “If God is love, then the more love, the better.” Dalfonzo responded: “The idea sounds good, yes—but it also asks us to overlook some significant truths about the nature and limits of love, as well as God’s desire and calling for His people.” Here’s my favorite section of the article:

“Evangelical Christians have fallen too much into the habit of believing God exists to affirm our deepest desires, whether material or sexual. We have forgotten that sometimes God, for reasons of His own, calls us to nail our desires to that ugly, painful, bitter cross. But the mystery of Christianity is that what dies is also raised again to life. Resting in his mystery of the paradox of faith: that God has our greatest good in mind when He calls us to the cross.

Tim Keller, “Why Does Anyone Become a Christian?”

Again, this is classic Keller: “If a religion is not different from the surrounding culture, if it does not critique and offer an alternative to it, it dies because it is seen as unnecessary. If Christians today were also famous for and marked by social chastity, generosity and justice, multi-ethnicity, and peace making — would it not be compelling to many? Ironically, Christians were ‘out of step’ with the culture on sex to begin with, and it was not the church but the culture that eventually changed.”

 

 

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