Bewitched?

Bewitched?

About once per month, I’m going to slowly write my way through a short commentary on the Letter to the Galatians. I’ll deliberately skip the usual analysis typical of this genre–no “scholarly” questions, text-critical issues, and minimal formal interaction with opposing viewpoints. I’ve taught through the book four times now, and feel I’m in a position to have something competent to say on the matter. My aim is to write for normal Christians who just want to know what the text means. So, here I stand.

For reasons that aren’t important, I’m publishing this series beginning with Galatians 3:1-6. That is this article. The real fun stuff, of course, comes in Galatians 3:7ff. You’ll have to wait for next time for that!

First things first …

Here are some conclusions of mine, up front, so the reader can know the lay of the land:

  1. The Mosaic Law is not a vehicle for salvation, and it was never intended to be one.
  2. The Law was given to teach God’s people (a) how to worship Him rightly, which includes instructions about forgiveness of sins (moral cleanness) and ritual uncleanness, (b) to have a written moral code that is fairly comprehensive, but not exhaustive, and (c) to live as brothers and sisters in a particular society for a particular time.
  3. The Law is a tool for holy living, a guardian to keep people in a holy “holding pattern” while the plane circled the airport, waiting for Jesus’ first advent so it could “land.”
  4. Some flavors of pop dispensationalism have done incalculable damage by confusing Christians about the relationship between the Mosaic Law and the Gospel.

Now, to the text!

There is one issue on which every reader of the Letter to the Galatians must have an opinion. How you answer this question will determine whether you rightly or wrongly understand this letter. Here is the question:

  • Did God intend the Mosaic Law to be a way of salvation?

That’s it. That’s the question. If you can answer it, then you’ve unlocked the key to this letter. No matter what happens, if you continually ask yourself this question and remind yourself of the answer, then you can understand this book. If you don’t ask the question, then you’ll likely go wrong. If you answer it wrongly, then you’ll take a bad turn pretty quick. I’ll explain by and by—let’s dive into the heart of this letter.

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?

Galatians 3:1-2

They’ve been tricked. Fooled. Hoodwinked. They know the truth, but they’ve been convinced otherwise. Paul preached the truth to them—they saw him explain with their own eyes, heard with their own ears. They know better than this. As Paul asks his question in v.2, we should picture him holding up his hand to forestall any heated objection from his audience.

“No!” he says. “You listen! Lemme ask you one thing—did you receive the Spirit by doing things to gain God’s favor, or by just believing what you heard? Which one!?”

The question is rhetorical. They know the answer. They know what Paul taught them. There’s nothing to say. The Spirit is tied to salvation, and that has never been by works—by doing things from the Mosaic Law.

Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?

Galatians 3:4

Paul is deliberately provocative, here. To miss the Gospel and wander off into Jewish legalism is a terrible mistake. He’ll explain just how big a mistake it is, later (Gal 4:8-10). But, for now, he presses the point home with another rhetorical question. If they admit they did receive the Holy Spirit by simply believing the truth about Jesus (not by working to curry favor), then do they really suppose they have to add “things” to Jesus, to seal the deal? Add works? Add rules?

Rules are fine. Rules are good. God has standards of conduct. But, these flow from a true love for God—not the other way around. This is the great tragedy of Judaism in Jesus’ day, and in Paul’s. It’s why Jesus was so unhappy with the religious establishment. It’s why they were so angry at Him. They spoke different languages, as it were—they had different faiths. They had a different God.

The Jewish establishment had a God of legalism, where relationship was predicated on right conduct (orthopraxy). To have a relationship with God, you gotta follow the rules. So, for example:[1]

  • A beggar who reaches inside a home on the Sabbath to receive a food gift has committed sin. The act of reaching inside the window makes it so.[2]
  • If you search your clothes for fleas on the Sabbath, you have sinned.[3]
  • On the Sabbath, you must only roast meat if there is time for a crust to form on the surface, during the daytime. If you fail in this, you have sinned.[4]
  • If you rise to extinguish a lamp because you’re afraid of Gentiles or thugs, don’t worry—it isn’t a sin![5]
  • God kills women in childbirth because they are insufficiently reverent when preparing the dough offering.[6]

I could go on. But, it’s clear there is little love in this kind of relationship. Where is the love? There can’t be loving obedience under this kind of system. This is why Jesus said, “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders …” (Mt 23:4). One writer summed up this “other Gospel” pretty well:

Nothing was left to free personality. Everything was placed under the bondage of the letter. The Israelite, zealous for the law, was obliged at every impulse and movement to ask himself, what is commanded. At every step, at the work of his calling, and prayer, at meals, at home and abroad, from early morning till late in the evening, from youth to old age, the dead, the deadening formula followed him. A healthy moral life could not flourish under such a burden, action was nowhere the result of inward motive, all was, on the contrary, weighed and measured. Life was a continual tournament to the earnest man, who felt at every moment that he was in danger of transgressing the law; and where so much depended on the external form, he was often left in uncertainty whether he had really fulfilled its requirements.[7]

So, yes—it’s foolish to fall for this. To believe this is a real relationship with God. To believe the false teachers who are peddling this nonsense. That’s why Paul is upset.

Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?

Galatians 3:4-5

Is everything they’ve accepted about Christ pointless? Was it all worthless? For nothing? Paul repeats his question under a different cover with the same point—do we work to be rewarded with salvation’s blessings, or do we simply believe what we hear about Christ?

So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Galatians 3:6

This question is also rhetorical. The answer is “we believed what we heard about Christ.” Good! They’re in great company, then—because Abraham also simply believed God, and was counted righteous. We should all follow Abraham’s example! He had the right idea before the Mosaic Law became twisted up in knots and perverted by the Jewish establishment. So, Paul suggests, let’s go back to Abraham and see what he can teach us about real faith.

We’ll turn to this, next time.


[1] The Mishnah dates from approximately A.D. 200. But, it is a generally accurate compendium of tradition and rules that were around in Jesus’ day. We see a strong resemblance of its Sabbath regulations in Mark 7. Even if one wishes to quibble about the precise applicability of a compiled book ca. 170 years after Jesus’ death, it still captures the flavor and ethos of the relationship this system imagines God has with His people.   

[2] Shabbat 1:1, in Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 178–179.  

[3] Shabbat 1:3, in Mishnah.  

[4] Shabbat 1:10, in Mishnah.  

[5] Shabbat 2:5, in Mishnah.  

[6] Shabbat 2:6, in Mishnah.  

[7] Emil Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, second division, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1890; reprint; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2012), p. 125. See all of §28.  

How to Interpret Prophecy: A Guide for the Perplexed

How to Interpret Prophecy: A Guide for the Perplexed

I recently completed a massive project which I want to share with you all. I’ve produced a series of nine short videos explaining how to interpret biblical prophecy in a responsible way. Interpreting prophecy is hard! There’s often too much drama, too much speculation, and too much passion invested based on poor methods. This nine-part video series aims to address this problem. I’ve also written a 39-page booklet to accompany this video series, which goes into more detail.

I hope this project is of some use to Christians who are looking for a sane approach to prophecy that avoids the date-setting, “ripped from the headlines” approach which has characterized too much of the genre.

If you’re an “ordinary” Christian looking for a solid book to understand prophecy, perhaps the best I can recommend is an older work by R.B. Girdlestone, The Grammar of Prophecy: An Attempt to Discover the Method Underlying the Prophetic Scriptures. It’s a short book, and Girdlestone was an Anglican minister from an earlier era, but this is an excellent work on the subject. For my money, it’s the best thing a Christian can buy.

The videos are below, and here is the accompanying booklet. If you want more information about a subject I mention, please refer to the booklet.

The Tale of the Two Builders

The Tale of the Two Builders

Recently, our family drove from Washington State to Tennessee, to drop our oldest son off at college. One day, in the wilderness of western Colorado, I spied a shiny new Corvette ahead of me. It was plodding along at about 65 mph on a stretch of interstate where the speed limit was 80 mph. Yet, there he stayed—at 65 mph.

I was driving a rented Toyota Prius, set to “eco” mode. In the fast lane travelling at 85 mph, I rapidly ate up the distance between us. I felt certain the Corvette driver wouldn’t let this happen. Yet, I passed him like he was standing still. The driver was oblivious. The wind was in his silver hair, and he had a big smile on his face. He didn’t care about me or my Prius. We left him behind, the Prius whirred onward in “eco” mode, and the shiny Corvette was soon lost to sight.

That man obviously didn’t buy the Corvette to use it. The car was eye candy, a toy to show off, not a “real” car.

Jesus says our faith isn’t eye candy, something to be pretty but not really touched—it’s a serious thing, not a hobby. The problem for too many of us is that it is external, it is eye candy, it never touches our hearts, it never renovates our lives—or it renovates only the most convenient parts of it. We build our lives on other things, while putting Jesus on our dashboard like a divine bobblehead—“I spend time with Him everyday!”

The parable

This isn’t a new thing—it’s an old, old thing. Our parable, the Tale of the Two Builders, is about this problem.

Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.

Matthew 7:24-25

This is a simple, two-point parable that basically explains itself. There is a man, a house, and its foundation. The threat is a flashflood. Will the house stand? Only if its foundation is situated on the rock. The one who does this is the one who hears Jesus’ words and does them. Jesus is the rock.

But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.

Matthew 7:26-27

The same flood sweeps through, but this house is different—its foundation is built upon sand. The ground will wash away from under. Disaster looms. You either build your house on Jesus or on sand—which is anything but Him. Again, hearing Jesus’ words and doing them determines the foundation.

Well … What Did Jesus Say?

The parable is tied to the words Jesus just finished saying—the Sermon on the Mount (“SoM”). The SoM doesn’t outline “conditions of entry” for us into God’s family. Instead, it describes the inevitable fruit of salvation[1]—renovated hearts + minds = renovated lives.

This isn’t the place to discuss the SoM in any detail. It’s enough to state that it forms the context for the Tale of the Two Builders, and to fashion a sketch outline of Jesus words. There are three categories in the SoM:

MoralAdultery + lust (Mt 5:27-30)
Cheap divorce (Mt 5:31-32)[2]
Rash oaths (Mt 5:33-37)
AllegianceBe salt and light (Mt 5:13-16)
Follow commands—honest fruit (Mt 5:17-20)
Honest, quiet prayer with God (Mt 6:1-13)
Honest, quiet fasting (Mt 6:16-18)
Treasures below v. above (Mt 6:19-24)
Seek His kingdom and righteousness above treasures below (Mt 6:25-34)
Asking God for help (Mt 7:7-12)
Brotherly loveMurder + grudges (Mt 5:21-26)
Love v. retaliation (Mt 5:38-42)
Love for enemies (Mt 5:43-48)
Giving to needy quietly (Mt 6:1-4)
Forgiveness (Mt 6:14-15)
Don’t be hypocritically judgmental (Mt 7:1-5)

I’ll highlight two representative teachings:

  • Adultery + lust. Jesus went beyond externalism and emphasized that the “adultery” prohibition isn’t simply about the act, but about the heart condition which produces the action. Noting that someone is physically attractive is not the issue—lusting is![3] Sin isn’t about the letter of the law, but the spirit. Sin begins with internal premeditation—in the heart, not with overt physical action.   
  • Following commands—fruit. Jesus famously said that “anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven,” (Mt 5:1). This isn’t a statement emphasizing the impossibility of following the law. Rather, it’s noting the inevitable fruit of real salvation—loving obedience.[4] If you love God, you won’t pick and choose when to follow Him. You’ll just want to do it. This means the enigmatic statement which follows (“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven,” Mt 5:20) isn’t irony—it’s a real statement of fact. You’ll never see the kingdom of heaven unless your righteousness exceeds the pseudo-righteousness of these “esteemed teachers.”

If you claim to be a Christian, there will be fruit. It might not be the best fruit. It might not even be edible fruit—every tree has a bad year! But, it will be recognizable fruit. This is the SoM. Hence, our parable.  

More Than a Coffee Table Faith

The SoM not just individualistic, but communal—the commands throughout are plural! The Jesus community has a mission, and we’re failing if we lose that focus. If we lose our saltiness, we’re off mission.

The challenge is that we can only perform our mission when we’re in contact with the world around us. “The church is properly understood only when it is seen as the sign of God’s universal kingdom, the firstfruits of redeemed humanity.”[5] We must be seen for what we are. We gotta be salty, which means we gotta hear and do Jesus’ words from the SoM.

There are at least three ways to view “church v. culture:”

  1. withdrawal—run for the hills, disengage, fight defensively.
  2. rule—push for a Christian Americana (e.g. Moral Majority)
  3. be a prophetic minority—“in the world but not of it” (Jn 17:14-16)

The latter is the biblical option. Prophets nettle precisely because they go against the grain. If we’re not following Jesus’ words, who are we following? What are we doing? How then can we fulfill our mission?  

The problem is that there are, right now, two kingdoms + two masters + two cultures.[6] God and Satan are building rival kingdoms in parallel and in conflict over the same space and over the same people. Satan doesn’t simply act by persecution—he acts via seduction, too.[7]

The result of his seduction may well be a “culture Christianity” that’s hermetically sealed from every aspect of your life where it could make a difference. In “culture Christianity,”[8] abstract Christian values are always more important than the Christian Gospel.[9] It often isn’t “real” Christianity, at all. Like that Corvette I passed in a Prius in western Colorado, it’s meant to be put on a shelf, to be seen and admired, never actually embraced.

In the same way, Jesus can become a figurehead to be seen, spoken about, “worshipped,” but never loved—something else has prime of place. Jesus and the Gospel are a coffee table book.

And that means a coffee table “Christianity” will get run over by a semi-truck—because it isn’t real! It’s not an accident the SoM ends with three warnings, right before our parable (Mt 7:13-23): (1) the narrow gate, (2) false teachers and fruit, and (3) true and false disciples? Why do you think our parable begins with “therefore/οὖν” (Mt 7:24)?

Jesus gives us a clue when He opens the SoM by listing those who are particularly blessed by the Good News; (1) the poor in spirit, (2) those who mourn, (3) the meek, and (4) those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Why these folks?

Because these are the people for whom Jesus’ counter-cultural call are most attractive, because they’re the ones who feel the injustice of this world most keenly—who are the most uncomfortable. Satan’s seduction has less to work with. So, they’re the ones who are likely the most devoted followers—the folks with their houses on a firm foundation.

Jesus spoke against materialism—the idea that life consists in the abundance of your possessions (Lk 12:14)—and said “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well,” (Mt 6:33). What does that mean?[10]

It means that we take everything else in this world, all our own values, ideals, efforts, and dreams and throw them into the shade for the sake of Jesus and His kingdom more and more as we grow more like Christ, and less like our old selves.

In this parable, Jesus takes a sledgehammer to coffee table Christianity, to the bobblehead Savior, to casual, cultural “faith” that’s designed to look pretty on a shelf, but not actually touch anything in our lives.

In this parable Jesus, in a way infinitely more powerful than if He’d just spoken plainly, says this to each of us:

You can say whatever you like, but everyone builds their life on something. And not everyone who says they love me actually knows me. So—what will happen to your house when the rains come?


[1] See especially Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, trans. H. de Jongste(Phillipsburg: P&R, 1962), §29, pp. 241-255.

[2] Divorce is allowed in a number of circumstances. See Tyler Robbins, “When May Christians Divorce?” https://eccentricfundamentalist.com/2021/03/23/when-may-christians-divorce/.  

[3] See Sheila Gregoire, Rebecca Lindenbach, The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2021), ch. 5.

[4] Along this line, see Ridderbos, Coming of the Kingdom, pp. 246-249.  

[5] Rene Padilla, “The Mission of the Church in Light of the Kingdom of God,” in Mission Between the Times: Essays on the Kingdom, rev. ed. (reprint; Carlisle, UK: Langham, 2010), p. 208.  

[6] Rene Padilla writes, “The purpose of the Antichrist is to destroy the church either by means of persecution from outside on the part of an anti-Christian government, or by means of enticement into error from within on the part of an anti-Christian religion. The reality of his present activity does not allow us to hold that there exists a road by which humanity can travel from history into the Kingdom of God. The pilgrimage toward the Kingdom takes place in the midst of a conflict in which the powers of darkness are constantly opposed to the fulfillment of God’s purpose in Jesus Christ. Thus there cannot be mission without suffering,” (“Christ and Antichrist in the Proclamation of the Gospel,” in Mission Between the Times, p. 138). 

[7] Padilla, “Christ and Antichrist,” in Mission Between the Times, p. 141. 

[8] On this, see especially the discussion in Padilla, “Evangelism and the World,” in Mission Between the Times, pp. 36-42. This paper was Padilla’s talk at the 1974 Lausanne Conference. 

[9] “… from the very beginning, Christian values were always more popular in American culture than the Christian gospel. That’s why one could speak of ‘God and country’ with great reception in almost any era of the nation’s history but would create cultural distance as soon as one mentioned ‘Christ and him crucified.’ God was always welcome in American culture. He was, after all, the Deity whose job it was to bless America. The God who must be approached through the mediation of the blood of Christ, however, was much more difficult to set to patriotic music or to ‘Amen’ in a prayer at the Rotary Club,” (Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel (Nashville: B&H, 2015), p. 6).

[10] See especially Ridderbos, Coming of the Kingdom, §32, pp. 285-292.

“It is not these values that determine the content of Jesus commandments, but quite the opposite, the Kingdom is again and again represented as the highest good, which dominates and puts into the shade all human values, interests, and ideals. The ‘righteousness’ required from his disciples by Jesus is not the ‘righteousness of the Kingdom’ because it asserts these ‘values,’ but much rather, because it demands the absolute sacrifice of all these things for the sake of the Kingdom. It is the absolutely theocentric character of the Kingdom which determines the content of Jesus commandments. Especially in their radical demands they are intended to govern the whole of life from this theocratic standpoint and to put everything in the balance for this single goal,” (p. 287; emphasis in original).

It isn’t an accident

It isn’t an accident

Many people yearn to make sense of their lives and this world. Why do things happen the way they do? Is it part of a plan? Is there no plan? Using the analogy of a train plodding its way along, there are at least ways people often think of this world and their place:

  1. The runaway train. It hurtles down a track without a controller at the wheel—whatever happens happens. This is the way of scientism and secular humanism. There is no plan, no purpose, no guiding hand—malevolent or otherwise. There is just random meaninglessness.
  2. Fate. The train that is this world is controlled by an impersonal, uncaring, disinterested, and faceless controller we don’t know, can’t see, can’t fathom. This is “blind luck,” Fate, Destiny.
  3. The Good Controller. This is the Christian answer. This is the true God. He controls the train. Under His control, you can see Him, know Him, love Him, trust Him—and He makes Himself available to anyone who wants Him.

Christians need to know—to really know—that you, your life, your circumstances, aren’t an accident. Your life isn’t the result of an impersonal, uncaring Destiny. God knows, sees, cares, drives the train that is your life, my life, all of our lives. One life touches so many others,[1] and the confluence of all the events, circumstances, actions (good or bad) in this world work together to bring His story closer to home—His train closer to its station.

The account of Paul’s voyage across the Mediterranean and shipwreck on Malta confronts us with this truth. I didn’t know how to preach the passage. It’s a tough narrative. What are Christians supposed to do with it? If they’re ever imprisoned on a ship headed from Caesarea to Italy, are they to make sure to stay the Winter in Crete? Is that God’s message in that passage (Acts 27:1 – 28:10)?

Then I thought about God’s assurance to Paul that he would indeed testify about Christ in Rome (Acts 23:11). I thought about providence, about God’s rule over this world, and then I thought of the bizarre confluence of events that had to happen to put Paul on that ship from Caesarea that day (Acts 27:1):

  1. Paul could have not gone to Jerusalem. Folks begged him to not go. I likely wouldn’t have gone, I’m not ashamed to say.
  2. Paul could have not gone to the temple that day. He only went to placate James—to please a Judaizing faction within the Jerusalem church (Acts 21:20-26). What if he’d gone the next day, instead?
  3. What if the Jewish zealots hadn’t made an oath to kill Paul (Acts 23:12-15)? They might have then sorted the matter out in Jerusalem.
  4. What if Paul’s nephew hadn’t caught wind of the death plot (Acts 23:16)?
  5. What if Lysias, the Antonia garrison commander who received word of the plot, had been a fool and ignored the threat?
  6. What if Paul had offered Felix a bribe (Acts 24:26)? I might have done!
  7. What if Paul hadn’t appealed to Rome two years later (Acts 25:10-11)?
  8. What if Festus, newly arrived in Judea, had persuaded Paul to be tried at Jerusalem? 

What circumstances, actions, and willful decisions had to coalesce together to produce Paul boarding that ship from Caesarea, that day? What similar gelling of decisions, actions, and circumstances have produced your life? Your situation? Is there a Good Controller driving this train, or is it just plunging on blindly—a runaway train bound for heaven knows where?   

As I mentioned, I believe you have three choices:

The Christian story says God is the Good Engineer—the Good Controller. He sees. He knows. He cares. He shepherds this world along towards His goal—a kingdom community with restored relationships all round.

Consider what you know about the Scriptures in light of two questions:

First—does Scripture give us the impression that we’re supposed to laze around, eating ice cream, because “God’s in charge”?

No—it takes disciplined effort to obey God! Jesus is genuinely frustrated by our decisions to oppose His Gospel offer (Lk 10:8-16). Paul says we’ll only see the kingdom after much persecution (Acts 14:22). Peter urges us to be a light among the pagans (1 Pet 2:11ff), which suggests we can decide to do otherwise! And then again we have the unique confluence of people, circumstances, and willful decisions that brought Paul to that beach in Malta.

This means your life is a result of choices you’ve made and choices other people make that impact you—our choices do matter!

Second, does this then mean that God is a spectator who simply watches the world from the outside—like a visitor at a zoo?[2]

No—all this happened because God wanted Paul to go to Rome (Acts 23:11, 27:24). Jesus had to be rejected and crucified. The Assyrians had to crush the Northern Kingdom. The Babylonians had to destroy Judah. The Medo-Persians had to destroy Babylon.

So, your life is also a result of choices God has made that shape and impact the choices you and other people make.[3]

  1. Paul went to the temple that day because he was accommodating James, who was accommodating a noisy faction within his congregation.
  2. Jews from Asia “happened” to be there that day (Acts 21:27).
  3. Paul decided not to bribe Felix, so he stayed in custody for over two years.
  4. The knowledge about the assassination plots in Jerusalem no doubt factored into Paul appealing to Caesar—he didn’t feel he would get a fair shake in Judea!
  5. It was Paul’s extensive travel experience, including being shipwrecked thrice and adrift in the open sea for over 24 hours, that gave him credibility with Julius, the detachment commander who escorted him to Rome (Acts 27:42-44; cf. 27:9-10, 21-26, 31-32, 33-38).
  6. It was Julius’ entire upbringing that shaped him to respect Paul’s integrity and keep him alive as the ship foundered on the shoals in St. Paul’s Bay (Acts 27:42-44).
  7. It was Paul’s innate kindness to help gather firewood after the shipwreck that resulted in the viper bite, which resulted in him healing many Maltese islanders.

Is this all an accident? A coincidence? Does this train have a controller at the wheel, or doesn’t it? If you’re a Christian, you must believe it does.

I want to leave you with something much more personal than philosophical axioms, so here it is—providence is about election, not metaphysics.[4] Here’s what I mean:

If you’re a Christian, then God is your heavenly Father—think on that!—and you’re His adopted son or daughter, and Jesus is your brother (Heb 2:11). This means it’s the Father’s job, His aim, and His burden to take care of you. Away with cold abstractions about aseity, being “without passions,” or about immutability, or chilly syllogisms. Save these for the lecture hall—I’m talking about real life, for real people, in the real world.  

  1. If you’re a Christian,
  2. then God is steering your life, shepherding it along as part of His story
  3. you’re part of that new kingdom community He’s making, so you and all His children can have a perfect relationship with Him in the better world to come

This means you aren’t a pawn, a chess piece, or a cipher on a divine spreadsheet—He chose you, rescued you, and sent His Son to die for you to make you a sibling. That means you’re not a dog tied to a cart, being dragged unwillingly along the path of a cold Fate or faceless Destiny.[5] Good Fathers never do that to their children, and God is the best Father. Why do you think He revealed Himself with this title?

You might ask, why isn’t my life better, then?

Little children don’t understand why parents do what they do—no candy, go to bed early, stay away from “that friend.” The kids don’t understand because they view “fairness” from their little perspective—we know the “right view” is from the parent’s perspective! We can’t see the bigger picture, but if God is the best Father, then He knows what He’s doing. Psalm 23 doesn’t say, “I’ll never have troubles again!” It says, “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me!”[6]

God never promises a care-free life. He does promise that He’s the Good Controller, steering the train towards the right station, in the right way, for the right reasons. Trust and rely on your Heavenly Father.

Your life isn’t an accident. Your circumstances aren’t an accident. You aren’t an accident. You did things (good and bad). People did things to you (good and bad). And God has a plan in and through it all.

Your life isn’t an accident. Trust the Good Controller to bring the train home.  


[1] Yes, I’m paraphrasing Clarence, the angel (second class) from It’s a Wonderful Life.  

[2] Emil Brunner, Dogmatics, 2:150.  

[3] French Confession of Faith (1559), Article 8, from Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3, p. 364. “… he hath wonderful means of so making use of devils and sinners that he can turn to good the evil which they do, and of which they are guilty.”

[4] Brunner, Dogmatics, 2:149ff.  

[5] Brunner, Dogmatics, 2:157.  

[6] Brunner, Dogmatics, 2:155.  

Carl Henry and being baptist

Carl Henry and being baptist

I’m reading through a little book Carl Henry wrote during the Reagan years, titled The Christian Mindset in a Secular Society. He writes something here that I felt I must share. It’s about the relationship between the Church and the State. Henry suggests that the church’s job is about more than personal evangelism. Like an occupying army, he suggests the church is to be “light and salt in a darkening and decaying society,” (p. 39). He then writes this (p. 40):

Speaking as a Baptist, should we do as Henry suggests? Should we “insist” on applying Christian ethical absolutes to national life? What is disturbing is that Henry suggests pluralism is a sham. It’s true that somebody’s values will be advanced in any piece of legislation, policy, or administrative rule. It’s also true that a key mark of the Baptist ethos is that we wish government to leave everyone alone so we can all worship as we see fit, without interference or sanction. Baptists believe this because any coercion, any outward pressure, any legal compulsion to “make” someone a Christian is both (1) a waste of time, because it won’t work, and (2) spiritual abuse. So, Baptists have not historically sought or wanted State sanction for religious activities.

Henry was a Baptist. That makes his negative remarks about pluralism (and more recent culture war moves by more modern Baptists) so puzzling. Baptists should not desire State sanction or approval for any religious speech or act, because this would implicitly or explicitly force other faith groups to accept Christian moral values. Baptists recognize that the precedent of State sanction might smile on Christians today, but what about tomorrow? We’re all for State-sponsored approval as long as it favors us. But, what if it doesn’t?

Henry continues:

Henry has doubled down. While I admit I’m not sure how to square (1) my Baptist convictions against State sanction for religion in any form, with (2) my desire to see Christ’s values advocated for in the public square, I insist that Henry’s comments here are not Baptistic in the slightest. His reasoning appears to go like this:

  1. This country was founded on Christian principles
  2. and it ain’t very Christian anymore
  3. so we gotta advocate for Christianity in our national life as part of our Gospel mission

This is incorrect. However, it’s complicated. Behold the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

See https://constitution.congress.gov/constitution/

You can’t establish a religion, can’t prohibit exercise of religion, and you can’t stop public religious speech. So much is clear. But, it’s also true that the Constitution (and its Amendments) came about in a Christian-ish milieu. The Constitution Annotated, the official “living” government publication providing context for the origin and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, notes this:

Probably at the time of the adoption of the constitution and of the amendment to it, now under consideration, the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state, so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience, and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.8 The object, then, of the religion clauses in this view was not to prevent general governmental encouragement of religion, of Christianity, but to prevent religious persecution and to prevent a national establishment

The Constitution Annotated, Amendment 1.1.1, Historical Background on Religion Clauses

So, it’s apparent that while America did not have an official State church, its implicit atmosphere was broadly Christian. We can see, then, why Carl Henry and others frame the Church/State relationship the way they do. Are they wrong to do so?

I fear they are indeed wrong. This does not mean I believe Christians should withdraw from society and ignore the moral problems of the day. It also does not mean Christians ought to wed themselves to a particular party, like so many barnacles to a ship. But, these are topics for another time.

I can say, however, that I don’t believe Henry’s approach here can be called Baptist.

Telling the Better Story: Christians and “Pride Month”

Telling the Better Story: Christians and “Pride Month”

Introduction[1]

Fade in on the little town of Bomont, presumably in rural Illinois. At a pulpit in a small local church is the Reverend Shaw Moore. He’s fond of crazed pastoral rants against dancing. You may recognize him—he’s the angry pastor-dad from Footloose.

There are still some Reverend Shaw’s around—less than there used to be, but still plenty everywhere. He epitomizes the wrong way to think about the sexual and gender confusion in our society.

What should Christians think about Pride Month?

This article is not about “why it’s wrong.” It’s not a list of “unstoppable” answers to “destroy” the opposition. Instead, it’s a proposal for a better way to think about these issues. It proceeds in five stages:

  1. A snapshot of reality in 2022—a quick assessment for the church
  2. Stories or scripts … and you
  3. The LGBTQ script
  4. The Christian script
  5. What should Christians think about Pride Month?

Where We Are—A Frank Assessment of Reality in 2022

I’ll share three snapshots of the reality of life in the West, in 2022. These are not crazed stories from dark corners on the web. They’re from mainstream news outlets:

Trans people are … cathedrals?

The first anecdote is a short video from Middle Church, in New York City. This church has a pastor on staff who boasts in his bio that he won the seminary drag contest. The video’s thesis is that “trans people are cathedrals.”[2] Like cathedrals, trans people are always in flux, always being remodeled, expanded, contracted—being restored. And like cathedrals, the narrator intones, trans bodies are sacred, holy spaces.  

Sarah and Dickie

In Dusseldorf, there lives a 23-year-old woman named Sarah Rodo, who wishes to marry her toy Boeing 737, which she’s named “Dicki” (for reasons about which I dare not speculate).[3] One news article features Sarah clad in lingerie, bathed in a deep red light, cradling Dickie in her arms. The caption notes, “Sarah says she is particularly attracted to Dicki’s face, wings and engine.”[4]

Sweet Miku

Thirdly, I present a Japanese man who has married a plush doll depicting a fictional anime character:[5]

… life with Miku, he argues, has advantages over being with a human partner: She’s always there for him, she’ll never betray him, and he’ll never have to see her get ill or die. Mr. Kondo sees himself as part of a growing movement of people who identify as ‘fictosexuals.’

What does this reality mean?

It means people increasingly have no idea what Christianity is or what it means—it’s parallel to us recoiling at Sarah and poor Dickie! And, because nothing is more personal than sex or felt identity, this means there will only be increasing confusion and anger at Christians as we oppose the sexual redefinitions entrenched in our society. So, we need to explain the Christian story to them like they know and understand nothing—because they probably don’t. We need more than, “Jesus loves you, and has a wonderful plan for your life.” That means nothing to many people, today.

If that is the case, then I suggest three wrong approaches that will likely have to die, especially regarding sexual ethics, because of this reality:

First: a retail (“come to me”) evangelism model is weak, and it always has been.

The “if we have the event at the church building, they will come!” mindset needs to die. If you are in the rural or semi-urban Midwest or South, this may not apply.

Second, the death of the confrontational model.

Because of the cultural disconnect between Christ and culture, “one off” evangelistic encounters are likely not enough by themselves to be successful[6]—the “gap” is too much! Could one conversation with Sarah (the plane girl) convince you to initiate a sexual relationship with a toy plane? That’s the “gap” you’re dealing with, in some cases. This gap will only grow!

Salvation is a cultivating process[7] (e.g. parable of the sower, Mt 13:3-8—see also the Rainer model[8]), so relationships and roles are important. When you have a relationship with people, you earn the right to speak truth. In this cultivation cycle, you don’t always know your role—you’re likely a waystation on the person’s spiritual trajectory.   

Third, lots of law, but little or no grace.

This is Rev Shaw’s way. The vibe is not evangelism, but disgust and distance. You change your statement of faith to “keep the gays away.” You amend your by-laws so “they” can’t “force you” to use your church building in a way you disapprove. The goal is isolation from “those people.” This is the default model in many traditional churches—usually led by older pastors from a different era

So, we need something more—we need to “tell the better story.”  Accordingly, there are at least two wrong attitudes that achieve nothing that we ought to throw overboard:

First, don’t be full of anger and outrage.  

This common attitude is directly opposite to what the parable of the weeds and the wheat tell us (Mt 13:24ff).[9] In that parable, the field is the world. Jesus likens the kingdom situation to this world. What’s the situation? The world is a mess—a mixed bag. Good wheat is intermingled with the weeds. The kingdom’s servants ask whether they ought to go pull the weeds up. Jesus says no—wait until the end, and the angels will harvest the field appropriately. Until then, this world will remain a mess.

This false model assumes:

  • The world should be a pure world—a Christian world,
  • But, it ain’t like that,
  • So, that makes us mad,
  • So, we wage a crusade to “take America back” for God.

This is a lie. The true model, from the parable, is that this world is and will remain very messy. So, sexual and gender confusion reign. Big surprise! The second wrong attitude is just as deadly:

Second, don’t be warm Jello.

In our quest to “listen,” we forget God really does have something to say about sexual ethics—and has a message of liberation from wrong ideas and desires.

What’s Your Story?

Everyone has a “story” or a “script” that shapes their view of the world. The filter thru which they interpret things, understand themselves, and their place and role in the world. It answers the “big questions” of life. This “script” also answers more immediate, practical questions:

  • Who do I love?
  • Who can I love?
  • What is a man?
  • What is a woman?
  • How do I know who am I?
  • What’s expected of me and how do I live up to it?

So, the Japanese guy who married a doll has a story.

Sarah Rodo, the plane girl, has a story.

People confused by their gender have a story.

People confused about their sexual feelings have a story.

You may not like it or understand it, but they each have a script that they’ve made up or adopted that makes their choices “make sense” to them and gives them an identity.

Mark Yarhouse, a Christian psychologist out of Wheaton College who specializes in sexual and gender issues, identifies three stages for identity:[10]

  1. Dilemma. My experiences and feelings are not what’s “normal” or “expected.”
  2. Development. The business of finding, sorting, and weighing answers to these dilemmas.
  3. Synthesis. Your solution to the problem—you figure out “who you are” and come to some conclusions.

How you sort all this out depends on what “script” or “story” you find most persuasive about life. Like actors with their scripts for their roles, our “script” gives us our cues, tells us our lines, and lets us know what’s expected of us—“this is your part, this is your role, and this is how we expect you to play it.”

For example, in some generic flavors of American culture today:

  • A 19-year-old boy can’t come back to live at home, because that would make him a loser. But, a girl of the same age can come home without stigma.
  • A man who sleeps around is a hero, but a woman who does the same is morally bankrupt.
  • A man “should” like hunting, fishing, shooting guns, and grilling. A woman “should” like Hobby Lobby, journaling, and Lifetime movies.

None of these are biblically mandated, but they’re real, they’re out there, and they’re “the script” many of us accept as “the way things are.” We learned the script at home, at school, from friends, from family, from experience. They’re baked into everything. The key tell is that these scripts are more felt or implied, than explained.

We have “lines” for sexual feelings + gender, too—but what if these roles don’t fit you very well? Someone’s gonna hand them a new script, a different script—one that claims to “explain” their feelings. It’ll either be the world’s script—the LGBTQ script—or it’ll be Christ’s script. Or it’ll be both. But someone’s gonna hand them a script.

The LGBTQ Script[11]

The LGBTQ community has a script to hand to confused people.[12] I present to you the Gingerbread Person:

Here’s a precis of the LGTBQ script:

  1. Your feelings are natural, good, and healthy.
  2. You need to discover “who you are,” and working out your true “gender identity”[13] is the key to your self-discovery.
  3. Your sexual attractions and/or inner feelings about your gender are the core of who you are as a person—it’s your identity!
  4. So, your sexual behavior and/or gender expression is the fruit of your identity.
  5. The only way you can be “true to yourself” is to live out that identity before the world

This is a very powerful script. If you’re a confused 15-year-old girl, what do you think she’ll find more compelling?

  1. Embrace sexual attractions or inner feelings to “discover who you really are?”
  2. Or, a guy with a “Footloose preacher” vibe: “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!”

The Better Story

Taking a strictly defensive “Alamo approach”[14] is the wrong way to respond. This includes (but is not limited to) sermons from Leviticus, amendments to the doctrinal statement to “protect” the church, and anger and rage a la Rev. Shaw.

The right way is to tell a different story; a better story! Identity is not about  feelings as the pathway to self-discovery, but a choice about love and loyalty—will you follow your feelings or will you follow God?

What does God’s story say about identity? The best synopsis is from 1 Peter 2:9-11:

  1. You can be a part of something infinitely larger than yourself.
  2. Part of a chosen people.
  3. Part a royal priesthood to show and tell God’s story of love to the world.
  4. A citizen of a holy nation—one that transcends any nationalist loyalties from the here and now.
  5. Part of God’s special possession to tell about His mercy and love.

God came to rescue us from ourselves, give us a new name, a new family, a new heart, a new mind, and a better tomorrow. This identity is part of a story:

  1. God is making a community,
  2. thru Jesus the King,
  3. for His coming kingdom

You think the bible’s story is about salvation? Covenant? Kingdom? Promise? No—all these are waypoints in aid of something fundamentally simpler—a community, a restoration of the fellowship we were made to have with God and with each other.

This story has at least three plot moves:

  1. Creation. God made everything, and He made it good.
  2. Fall. Our first parents ruined it all, when Satan deceived them.  
  3. Rescue. God’s plan to fix the mess, thru Jesus the King.

What place does Jesus offer us in this story?

  1. Identity—join me!
  2. Peace—reconciliation!
  3. Purpose—to be royal priests!
  4. Renovation—to remodel our hearts and minds to mirror His!

Tell the Better Story

Think with me, now—isn’t this such a different story than the LGBTQ script? Isn’t it such a better response than to only circle the wagons and preach angry sermons from Leviticus 18?

There is a concept in military strategy called “peer competitor,” which refers to an evenly matched geo-political foe. For example, China is a near peer competitor with the USA and some believe they will likely outmatch us within one or two generations.  

The Footloose preacher is not a peer competitor to the LGBTQ script. He’s a babe in the woods, ranting at the sky—an artifact from very different era. He isn’t interested in telling the better story—only in the “purity” of his tribe.

But, the Christian story is more than a “peer competitor” to the LGBTQ script. It’s an alternative story—a better story. So, churches and their people must tell that story, persuade, make people think, beg them to see Jesus and His love.

We must give people real answers to real questions about a sexual or gender script that don’t feel they fit into very well. Basically, we need to tell the better story—the Gospel story.

For the sermon from this material, you can find the audio version here:

You can watch the sermon here:


[1] See also my sermon of the same title from 26 June 2022 at https://youtu.be/rSkL0WWhbDs.

[2] See “Trans Cathedrals: Beauty in Becoming,” (23 June 2022) on Middle Church’s (https://www.middlechurch.org/) YouTube channel at: https://youtu.be/_jy1YnrGK54.

“Cathedrals are trans bodies—beautiful and holy in every inch and in every moment of existence. They are beautiful and holy when they are first built, and beautiful when they are altered and edited, and they are beautiful and holy in the midst of that change. Even engulfed in scaffolding, even in the midst of a collapse. And their holiness and beauty is reflected in the lives of trans people—who do not only mimic the form of Christ on the cross but contain in their bodies the holiness of creation”

[3] Liam Coleman, “ AIR YOU JOKING? I’m turned on by planes and one day want to marry my toy Boeing,” The U.S. Sun. 30 May 2022. https://www.the-sun.com/news/5455665/turned-on-planes-marry/.

[4] See https://nypost.com/2022/05/31/woman-sexually-attracted-to-planes-wants-to-marry-toy-boeing/. This is a re-print of The U.S. Sun’s article, but it contains an additional photograph with the caption which I quoted. 

[5] Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno, “This Man Married a Fictional Character. He’d Like You to Hear Him Out,” New York Times. 24 April 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/24/business/akihiko-kondo-fictional-character-relationships.html.  

[6] “Many Christians learned a mechanical, aggressive approach to evangelism. We attended workshops and read books based on techniques developed by people who have the gift of evangelism. That is the problem. When those of us who are not gifted evangelists muster up the courage to try these techniques, the results are usually disappointing—which makes us feel guilty and often offends others. We begin to think of ourselves as substandard disciples who are simply not able to share our faith. Although we want to see friends and colleagues come to Christ, we stop trying out of fear and frustration.

The problem is one of perspective, not inability. We tend to think of evangelism as an event, a point in time when we explain the gospel message and individuals put their faith in Jesus on the spot. Done!” (Bill Peel and Walt Larrimore, Workplace Grace: Becoming a Spiritual Influence at Work (Longview: LeTourneau Press, 2014; Kindle ed.), KL 196).

[7] Peel and Larrimore, Workplace Grace, KL 258.  

[8] Thom S. Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door: Understanding Faith Stages as Keys to Sharing Your Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003; Kindle ed.), KL 863. 

[9] See my sermon, “Cosmic Risk—The Parable of the Weeds.” 03 April 2022. https://youtu.be/RcBJnM9da1I?t=3251

[10] Mark Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), p. 46.

[11] The approach here is inspired most directly by Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian, ch. 2. A good deal of what follows is from his work.   

[12] See, for example, the latest discussion of the Gingerbread Person at https://www.genderbread.org/. See also the Gender Unicorn for a similar discussion, at https://transstudent.org/gender/.

[13] See “What is Gender Dysphoria?” at https://psychiatry.org/Patients-Families/Gender-Dysphoria/What-Is-Gender-Dysphoria

[14] See my article “Christ, Culture, and the Church,” EccentricFundamentalist.com. 06 June 2022.  https://eccentricfundamentalist.com/2022/06/06/christ-culture-and-the-church/.

No surprises here

No surprises here

Menachem Kalisher’s dissertation, Preaching Messianic Prophesies (soon to be published in book form), is underwhelming as a doctoral project. His hermeneutics are idiosyncratic, his defense of expository preaching lacks intellectual rigor, his measurements of project impact are ineffective, and his project goals (while surely valuable) are ill-suited to the expository preaching format.

Idiosyncratic Hermeneutics

Kalisher relies heavily on word similarity between passages to draw connections in a way that is not obvious to the reader. This procedure unwittingly creates a false perception of an intrinsic competence disconnect between the pastor and the congregation—the pastor is necessary, because only he can “see” these alleged links.

For example:

  • Kalisher claims Isaiah 52:8-9 alludes to Deut 32:43—but his only evidence is a similarity of a song for joy in the last days (p. 72). He offers no proof, no contextual indicators other than a similarity about eschatological joy.
  • He states Isaiah 52:10-12 echoes the Exodus motif (Ex 13:21, 14:20), and again cites nothing but word similarity in support (pp. 74-75). He says this describes salvation from Satan, but context suggests merely an eschatological ingathering.

In short, Kalisher does not appear to preach the text—he freights it with alleged context from outside the passage. This is not an effective way to model bible interpretation to a congregation.

Expository Discussion Lacks Intellectual Vigor

Kalisher’s definition of expository preaching (“EP”) lacks any reference to the Spirit (p. 31), which is a common oversight. Walter Liefeld’s discussion is more helpful.[1] Kalisher lists three alleged dangers of not conducting EP, for which he provides no support save some M.L. Jones quotations and unrelated charts (pp. 38-43). Correlation does not equal causation. Kalisher seems to rely on a sympathetic audience’s assumptions to carry his argument, rather than research. His depth of discussion here would be unpersuasive even for a blog post.  

Ineffective Metrics for Project Assessment

Kalisher’s pre- and post-project questions are unimpressive. His goals for the project are to enable his congregation to:

  1. understand and appreciate expository preaching
  2. appreciate roles in the economic Trinity
  3. learn to study God’s word, God’s way
  4. grow in Messianic self-identity

Here are his questions to measure two of these goals (pp. 38, 39):

Kalisher fails to define the doctrine of the Trinity in the dissertation, and his survey questions are not robust enough to measure comprehension. He fails to define what “biblical” means related to the term “Trinity”—a misstep, because the term itself does not appear in Scripture. Kalisher does not present other preaching methods, leaving the congregation little choice but to conclude EP is correct because he says it is.

Thesis in Search of a Degree

Kalisher’s project is ill-suited to an EP framework because it consists of him talking at the congregation, rather than with it. An interactive study format would better allow him to achieve and measure his four goals. As it is, Kalisher’s project seems less like objective research and more like a preconceived thesis in search of a doctoral degree.


[1] “… preaching that explains a passage in such a way as to lead the congregation to a true and practical application of that passage,” (Walter L. Liefeld, New Testament Exposition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), p. 6).

Christ, Culture, and the Church

Christ, Culture, and the Church

This world is a mess. A few decades ago, Carl F.H. Henry wrote: “The West has lost its moral and epistemic compass bearings. It has no shared criterion for judging whether human beings are moving up or down, standing still, or merely on the move only God knows where.”[1] In the absence of a Biblical world-explanation, Henry argued, “[t]he search for an alternative model is beset with confusion, and Western society drifts indecisively toward chaos. Secular scholars seem unable to tell us where we are.”[2]

This is surely correct, even if (32 years hence) it prompts an eye roll and a muttered, “yeah, no kidding!” from the reader. My burden is to suggest what local churches ought to think about this situation—what we ought to do about it, what our posture towards this world ought to be.

First, I’ll define “culture” so we begin on the same page. Second, I’ll sketch[3] three helpful paradigms. The first is from the 1950s, the second from 1994, and the third from 2006. Each tries to answer this same question, in its own context. Each is inspired by the first. Finally, I’ll sketch out my own approach and confess with which paradigm my sympathies lie.

What is Culture?

The term “culture” means the distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviors, and way of life for a particular nation or people.[4] H. Richard Niebuhr suggests “culture” is a synonym for “civilization” or what biblical writers called “the world.”[5] In turn, the definition of “civilization” brings us back round to where we began: “the society, culture, and way of life of a particular area.”[6]

Niebuhr—Christ and Culture

H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous book began life as a series of lectures in which he sought to consider the “double wrestle of the church with its Lord and with the cultural society with which it lives in symbiosis …”[7] Niebuhr’s writing sparkles with an academic vibe. He doesn’t write as a churchman confronting urgent problems, but as a scholar reclining in his armchair, puffing on his pipe, staring into an ethereal distance. There’s nothing wrong with academics, of course—I only mean that his discussion is dispassionate and abstract.

He lays out a five-fold taxonomy of how the church ought to relate to culture:

  1. Christ against culture. The church is always in opposition. There is a war footing. Christ is opposed to this world, its culture, and He calls us to come out from the world and be separate.[8]
  2. Christ of culture. He guides civilization to its utopian goal of brotherhood and value. Christ “confirms what is best in the past, and guides the process of civilization to its proper goal.”[9] There is no antagonism.
  3. Christ above culture. Only thru salvation will Christ lead us to utopia.[10]
  4. Christ andculture in paradox. We must obey both authorities in this life while we endure and wait for Jesus. There is duality and tension here that is admittedly a bit schizophrenic—many people are likely here.[11]
  5. Christ transforms culture. This is a conversionist position. Jesus is a leaven that works on society from inside out, spearheading the Gospel all about.[12] There is a positive view of culture—”a sort of Jesus will fix it now” feel.[13]  

Bloesch—Responding to Reality

Donald Bloesch was a longtime professor of systematic theology at Dubuque Theological Seminary, in Iowa. In the inaugural tome of his seven-volume systematic, he described four possible responses to modernity.[14] His approach is practical, more “real,” and less theoretical than Niebuhr’s. He is less discussing a theory of Christ v. culture, and more describing how Christians choose to respond to the world as it is.

Here is Boesch’s typology, with some free paraphrasing from me. Not each response will contain all the traits, but the “feel” will be familiar:

  1. Restoration. There is a more insular focus on “rebuilding the walls” of the church. A “clear and hold” the line against the world ethos. A Christian counterculture mindset may produce a ghettoized outlook. There is impatience with dialogue with “the enemy.” Apologetics is largely defensive, to assure insiders they have “the truth.” There may be a scholastic fidelity to creeds, and a sectarian emphasis on the purity of a particular church. Empirical rationalism or fideism may be present.[15]
  2. Accommodation. We must update and revise the faith to reach people. We ought to forge a theology that can gain support from and connect with culture. This is essentially Niebuhr’s “Christ of culture.” Bloesch notes “the Christ it upholds is drawn from and shaped by the cultural ethos more than by the biblical revelation.”[16] This is traditional liberal theology. I would put Schleiermacher here, and perhaps some of Rauschenbusch and radical feminist theology like that of Rosemary Reuther, which locates authority in experience.[17]
  3. Correlation: This is a mediating, “Christ above culture” approach. Apologetics prepares the way for theology, and Christ will eventually reconcile culture with Himself. “[I]nstead of categorically repudiating worldly wisdom, they endeavor to assimilate it in a Christian world view or faith perspective.”[18]
  4. Confrontation. This is Bloesch’s position. It focuses on the antithesis between faith and culture. Its goal is conversion to the kingdom of God. The Gospel confronts and calls us to defect to God. It’s more about proclamation than apologetics—a “Christ transforming culture”-ish approach. The kingdom is leaven in the world, changing it from within. It is “not an apologetic that leaves the fortress of faith to engage in struggle with the world on its own terrain but an apologetic that finds its security precisely in the fortress of faith and calls the world to unconditional surrender by acknowledging the authority of the fortress of faith over its own domain.”[19]

Keller—All/And

Tim Keller re-shaped Neibuhr’s categories, helpfully critiqued each, and didn’t settle on either model.[20] Each of us, he suggested, is likely attracted to aspects of different models based on our gifts. We ought to treat these models and their attributes like a buffet—picking and choosing strategies based on our cultural moments and context.[21]

Here is Keller’s taxonomy:

  1. Transformationalist. We engage culture through an emphasis on pursuing our own vocations from a Christian worldview.[22]
  2. Relevance. “The animating idea behind the Relevance model is that God’s Spirit is at work in the culture to further his kingdom.”[23] This is Niebuhr’s “Christ of culture” and “Christ above culture.”
  3. Countercultural. The church is a, well … countercultural alternative society opposed to the world.
  4. Two kingdoms. “God rules all of creation through the ‘common kingdom’ in which people operate by natural revelation and the ‘redemptive kingdom’ in which Christians are ruled by special revelation.[24]
Keller, Center Church, p. 231.

My approach—Bloesch-ish

There is a reason why I defined “culture” at the outset. I’m skeptical that the distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviors, and ways of life for particular nations or peoples in Creation 1.0 will survive the jump to Creation 2.0. So, I don’t believe the church is called to “influence culture,” because this culture is scheduled to go up in flames. This doesn’t mean local churches must be isolationist. I don’t believe congregations exist to “influence culture,” but to push God’s counterculture into the public square as the ordained alternative. Supporting inner-city Gospel missions, crisis pregnancy centers, local schools (etc.) are not ends in and of themselves—they’re vehicles to show and tell God’s values and His Gospel to outsiders.

So, I’m largely unmoved by Keller’s framing (see his horizontal bar across the middle of the graphic), because “influencing culture” is not a goal. Getting people to defect from pagan culture and to God’s community is the goal. Churches must use innovative means to achieve that, motivated by love, compassion, and justice.

So, my framing is less “how do we influence culture” and more “how should we respond to culture.” Thus, I believe Bloesch’s discussion was more helpful. I have freely adapted and condensed his taxonomy and contextualized it for 2022. How should local churches respond to the disaster that is American culture? There are at least three different, contradictory ways Christians choose to answer that question:[25]

  1. The Alamo (defense). Fortify the walls, stock ammo, hunker down, and wait for Jesus. This is a defensive ethos—it’s about protecting the church. Even apologetics is less about engaging the enemy than about protecting Christians from being seduced by the Dark Side—like poor Kylo Ren. The mantra is to keep things pure and strong while we hold off “the enemy.” Despite protestations, it’s often less about evangelism and the Great Commission, and more about protecting church from danger. There is a pervasive “things ain’t like they used to be, and I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore” vibe at work.
  • Play-Dough. Accommodation to cultural tastes, with rationalizations. God is not a gendered being, feminine pronouns for Her are fine, Jesus has no sexual ethics, do what makes you feel good, faith is about feeling, not doctrine, “you do you.”  
  • Confrontation (offense). This perspective is less about “protecting the church,” and more about winsomely confronting the world employing various innovative means, and calling people to defect from Satan to Jesus.

It might be helpful to picture these three ways in simple pictures:

  1. The Alamo. Fade in on a castle with its doors barred, its drawbridge raised, its moat filled with hungry crocodiles, snipers on the parapets,[26] people sheltering inside, archers deploying, knights with swords at the ready, anxious to charge if the door is breached. The villages round about are the enemy—and they want to destroy your kids.
  2. Play-Dough. Focus in on the same castle. The folks are burning it down. They sift through the rubble and donate the stones to local nationals to build a shrine to a Veggie Goddess—who is really just Jesus by another name, anyway.   
  3. Confrontation. The castle is the church’s stronghold in an unholy land—an embassy to represent Christ to folks who want to know more, and at the same time a forward operating base to push His message into the world aggressively, forcefully … and engagingly. It wants local nationals to join the castle community.

Your view of “church v. culture” will shape your posture towards the world:

  1. Alamo: Focus on holiness for defensive purposes, so you’re not seduced by the Dark Side (like Vader). Emphasis on bible reading, bible interpretation, defending the faith. A relentless, perhaps even unwitting “insider” focus—resources emphasize being educated about “dangers” facing the church, protecting your children, etc.
  2. Confrontation. Pushing the message and implications of the Gospel outside the church’s walls—spiritual combat with a winning smile.

I fear many of us are tempted to adopt the Alamo ethos. There is a time and place for defense. But, we mustn’t forget offense—and we certainly can’t confuse belligerent defensiveness with that winning offense. For example, June is Pride Month:

  1. Alamo. We preach defensive sermons from Leviticus 18 and tell our congregation that “homosexuality is bad,” and distribute free books to the congregation explaining why transgenderism isn’t Scriptural.
  2. Confrontation. We record several short videos telling a better story than the “sex as identity” message so many people believe, then spend several hundred dollars advertising these videos on social media platforms in our local community, and invite comment and discussion.

I believe churches ought to err on the side of Confrontation, which is really just evangelism. It’s easy to stick with the Alamo ethos. I think we must do more.


[1] Carl F.H. Henry, Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), p. 15.  

[2] Ibid, p. 16.  

[3] I cannot hope to do more than briefly sketch these approaches—consult the referenced works for more detail and do not assume my abbreviated discussion here captures all the nuance of each author’s position!

[4] Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “culture,” noun, 7a. March 2022. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/45746?rskey=Ztxhta&result=1&isAdvanced=false  

[5] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951), p. 32.  

[6] New Oxford American Dictionary, s.v. “civilization,” 3, p. 317.  

[7] Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. xi.  

[8] Ibid, pp. 40-41. “That world appears as a realm under the power of evil; it is the region of darkness, into which the citizens of the kingdom of light must not enter; it is characterized by the prevalence in it of lies, hatred, and murder; it is the heir of Cain. It is a secular society, dominated by the ‘lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life,’ or, in Prof. Dodd’s translation of these phrases, it is ‘pagan society, with its sensuality, superficiality and pretentiousness, its materialism and its egoism.’ It is a culture that is concerned with temporal and passing values, whereas Christ has words of eternal life; it is a dying as well as a murderous order, for ‘the world passes away and the lust of it.’ It is dying, however, not only because it is concerned with temporal goods And contains the inner contradictions of hatred and lie, but also because Christ has come to destroy the works of the devil and because faith in him is the victory which overcomes the world. Hence the loyalty of the believer is directed entirely toward the new order, the new society and its Lord,” (Ibid, p. 48).

[9] Ibid, p. 41.  

[10] “… true culture is not possible unless beyond all human achievement, all human search for values, all human society, Christ enters into life from above with gifts which human aspiration has not envisioned and which human effort cannot attain unless he relates men to a supernatural society and a new value-center. Christ is, indeed, a Christ of culture, but he is also a Christ above culture,” (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 42).

“These men are Christians not only in the sense that they count themselves believers in the Lord but also in the sense that they seek to maintain community with all other believers. Yet they seem equally at home in the community of culture. They feel no great tension between church and world, the social laws and the Gospel, the workings of divine grace and human effort, the ethics of salvation and the ethics of social conservation or progress,” (Ibid, p. 83).

[11] “Hence man is seen as subject to two moralities, and as a citizen of two worlds that are not only discontinuous with each other but largely opposed. In the polarity and tension of Christ and culture life must be lived precariously and sinfully in the hope of a justification which lies beyond history,” (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 43).

[12] “Christ is seen as the converter of man in his culture and society, not apart from these, for there is no nature without culture and no turning of men from self and idols to God save in society,” (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 43).

[13] “Hence the conversionist is less concerned with conservation of what has been given in creation, less with preparation for what will be given in a final redemption, than with the divine possibility of a present renewal,” (Ibid, p. 195).

[14] Boesch, Theology of Word & Spirit, pp. 252-272. 

[15] “A sectarian theology will do battle for the sake of the church or the elect, the gathered fellowship of true believers, not for the sake of the world for whom Christ died,” (Bloesch, Word & Spirit, p. 268). 

[16] Ibid, p. 257.  

[17] “If a symbol does not speak authentically to experience, it becomes dead or must be altered to provide a new meaning,” (Rosemary Reuther, Sexism and God-talk: Towards a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon, 1993), pp. 12-13).

[18] Bloesch, Word & Spirit, p. 262.  

[19] Bloesch, Word & Spirit, p. 271.

[20] Timothy Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), pp. 194-243.

[21] Ibid, p. 240.

[22] Ibid, p. 197.  

[23] Ibid, p. 202.  

[24] Ibid, p. 209.  

[25] This is adapted from Donald Bloesch’s discussion in A Theology of Word & Spirit (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), pp. 252-272. 

[26] I’m aware modern snipers didn’t exist in medieval times, but just go with it …

Cold as Ice …

Cold as Ice …

Elliot Johnson’s book, Expository Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, Academie, 1990), is a frigid text. There is no Spirit, no warmth, no piety—only the cold technician fretting over his syllogisms. Johnson says nothing other authors have not said better, clearer, more succinctly. A few examples will suffice.

Single, Unified Meaning

Johnson declares a text has a “single, unified meaning.”[1] He quotes J.I. Packer, who likens the interplay of divine and human authorship to the incarnation.[2] He rejects sensus plenior[3] (contra. Thomas[4]). The human author expresses the divine author’s single meaning—even if the human author is unaware of a deeper meaning.

Thomas rightly throws in the towel and admits there are many instances where the New Testament author “goes beyond the grammatical-historical sense in using a passage.”[5] However, Johnson seeks refuge in exegesis to justify “trouble passages.”[6] He writes: “… the shared single meaning of the text is the basis of and has control over any related fuller sense and reference.”[7]

This is unsatisfactory. Paul applied quotations from Hosea, out of context, to make a case for Gentile inclusion (Rom 9:25-26; cf. Hos 2:23, 1:10)—a technique which contradicts Johnson’s thesis.[8]

The “Meaning” of a Text

Here we have the great divide. What does a text “mean”? Johnson says significance is from the interpreter’s point of view based on his needs, while meaning is the Author’s perspective.[9] Significance is true if the interpreter has reasoned in a valid fashion, from the meaning, to derive application.[10] “[T]he message of the author/Author should determine the limits in the content of the principles to be applied.”[11]

Where is the Spirit? He does not seem to  exist in Johnson’s world[12]—even when referenced, He is merely depicted as a tool in service of rationalism.[13] Donald Bloesch suggests a better way: a distinction between (1) historical, and (2) revelatory meaning in a text—the Spirit brings significance of the text to bear on us in a personal way.[14] Scripture is the vehicle or channel thru which God speaks, by the Spirit[15]—reading Scripture by faith is a truth event.[16] For Johnson, however, meaning and significance are merely logical, rational—can it be critically defended?[17]

He speculates about probability determinations to validate meaning. In contrast, the Scripture suggests illumination is necessary (Ps 119:18; cf. Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.21)—a concept that has always been distasteful to rationalists,[18] which they give it lip-service or not.

Four Normative Acts

Regarding application, Johnson declares “a textual message may be applied in and to the extent that it expresses aspects of God’s normative acts toward the accomplishment of his purposes …”[19] These “normative acts” are (1) tragedy, (2) judgment, (3) salvation, and (4) blessing. “Based on these normative aspects, the textual message now continues to speak.”[20] He provides no justification for these categories, which are as shapeless as Jello. Ascension Sunday is five days hence—where would such a sermon application fit into this artificial rubric?

Summary

There is a horrid artifact from 1976 by Tim and Beverly LeHaye titled The Act of Marriage[21]—a Christian sex manual, complete with anatomical charts. It describes in mortifying detail the mechanics of intercourse on the wedding night, with topic headers like “the great unveiling,” “foreplay,” and “culmination.” It distills a very personal act into a series of prescribed moves. One imagines the unfortunate couple lying together, the book open before them like an illicit IKEA manual.

My point is that this is not lovemaking, and Johnson’s book is not hermeneutics. It’s mechanical. It’s cold. It has no heart. The Spirit has flown.  

This is an unhelpful text. Any alternative would be more useful.


[1] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1990), p. 52. 

[2] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics, p. 52.

[3] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 32.

[4] Robert Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), pp. 241—253. 

[5] Ibid, p. 241. 

[6] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics, p. 53; cf. Parts 2-3. For a more modern attempt to do the same, see Abner Chou, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2018). 

[7] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 53. Emphasis added. 

[8] Alva McClain’s argument that the object of Paul’s quotations at Romans 9:25-26 referred to Jews is unpersuasive (The Gospel of God’s Grace (reprint; Winona Lake: BMH, 2010), p. 183). See (1) John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 2, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), p. 38, and (2) Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 612-614.   

[9] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 228.

[10] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 228.

[11] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 237.

[12] Indeed, according to the index, Johnson only discusses illumination by the Spirit four times in this text, and each instance is pro forma.

[13] “As a believer can know that I know through Spirit-directed consistency of thought in interpretation,” (p. 284). The Spirit exists to ensure we think logically. There is no direction, here. No guidance. Johnson actually dares to suggest God must limit Himself to our forms of hermeneutical logic if He wishes to communicate to us (Expository Hermeneutics, p. 55). As Inspector Gadget used to say, “Wowzers!”

[14] Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), pp. 188-192. See also the discussion by Henry Virkler and Karelynne Ayayo, Hermeneutics, 2nd ed.(Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), pp. 27-29.

[15] “This object is the not the text in and of itself but the text as an instrument of the Spirit, in whose hands it becomes a mirror of the divine wisdom,” (Bloesch, Holy Scripture, p. 178).

[16] Bloesch, Holy Scripture, pp. 48-50. Millard Erickson suggests something similar, while issuing caveats against a neo-orthodox view of Scripture (Christian Theology, 3rd, pp. 220-222).

[17] Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics, p. 274. 

[18] Johnson would likely agree with Hodge that the Spirit is merely a guide to the text. “Although the inward teaching of the Spirit, or religious experience, is no substitute for an external revelation, and is no part of the rule of faith, it is, nevertheless, an invaluable guide in determining what the rule of faith teaches,” (Hodge, Systematic, 1:16).

[19] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 216.

[20] Elliot Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics,p. 217.

[21] Tim and Beverly LeHaye, The Act of Marriage (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976; Kindle ed.). 

Romans 1 isn’t “about” homosexuality

Romans 1 isn’t “about” homosexuality

Christian brothers and sisters often read Scripture in very different ways. I suspect it goes back to two things; (1) what theologians call “prolegomena”—how we “do” theology, and (2) what Scripture is—its nature. The latter will often inform the former.

Is Scripture a yet-to-be systematized “code book of theological ordinances?”[1] A “store-house of facts”[2] or a “transcript from God”[3] waiting to be classified by inductive reasoning?  Christian Smith calls this the “handbook model” of interpretation,[4] where the Scriptures are a compendium of teachings on an endless array of subjects—romance, politics, the 2nd Amendment, economics, and even dieting.

Did God give us the Bible so we could distill from it advice for dieting? Alternative medicine? Cooking? Gardening with biblical plants? Politics? I hope we can agree not. Still, some interpreters insist we can cull disparate facts from our store-house of Scripture and discern God’s thoughts on various topics.

This is an unwise approach. At best, it makes God “say” things out of context. At worst, it makes God “say” things He actually never said—like tips on “biblical strategies” for financial freedom.

This article will provide one example—is Romans 1 “about” homosexuality? To be sure, it discusses and condemns sexual deviancy, but is that what it’s “about”? Surely not. Yet, many Christians disagree because they have an implicit “handbook” or “store-house” view of Scripture. So, Romans 1 is “about” homosexuality, and 1 John 2:2 is “about” the atonement! 

What Romans 1 is really about

Take a stroll through Romans 1-3 with me, and I’ll show you what I mean. I’ll begin at Romans 1:18 …

God is upset at everyone who rejects Him, no matter who they are—we all “silence the truth with injustice” (Rom 1:18). Why the anger? Because we ought to know God is there, that He exists, and that must mean He holds us responsible for ignoring the markers in nature that point us to Him. Who made this? Who sustains it? How did this all get here? God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and Godhead—“have been clearly seen, because they are understood through the things God has made,” (Rom 1:20). We can catch glimmers of God from creation. So, we’re all without excuse.

The problem is that we don’t care, and so our “foolish hearts were darkened,” (Rom 1:21). Just like Fleetwood Mac, we go our own way. A spiritual incompetence and degeneracy sets in, growing ever worse with the passage of time. We worship other things—absurd things (Rom 1:23). “So, God abandoned them to their heart’s desires,” which results in a further spiral down the moral abyss (Rom 1:24).

God made us to be a certain way—to find purpose and solace in (1) our vertical relationship with Him and then, as the fruit of this communion, (2) in proper relationship with one another. The problem is that, when our vertical relationship with God is twisted (the most basic foundation for reality), then our most precious horizontal relationships with one another will be twisted, too (Rom 1:24).  

This is why God abandons us to our “degrading lust” (Rom 1:26, restating v. 24)—because we chose to worship things of this world rather than God (Rom 1:25). What happens is that we twist even our closest, most precious relationships—love and sexual union—out of all bounds (Rom 1:26b-27). Just as we didn’t acknowledge God, so God chooses in some circumstances to not acknowledge us (Rom 1:28)—to stop restraining our evil impulses, to walk away and leave us to destroy ourselves, as it were.

What results is akin to abandoning a garden for two seasons—a real mess (Rom 1:29-31). In all this, Paul has been describing the same consequence (not a compounding one)—we ignore God, so He lets us go our own way. Sexual deviancy is the penultimate fruit of that sad equation. There are others—all of which damage or destroy our relationships with one another. This is a knowing and willful insurgency, at least on some level (Rom 1:32; cf. Psalm 2:1-3).

So much for the “outsiders,” those who weren’t entrusted with God’s revelation. Surely “insiders” are in a much better state?

This is where Paul launches a broadside against proud externalism—against the same kind of glib smugness that Jesus criticized so powerfully (Lk 18:9-14). Gentiles are so awful, so degenerate, so messy in their sin—who can stand it? Some might be tempted to say (in their hearts, even if not aloud), “Thank God we Christians aren’t like those LGBTQ kooks!”

Well, Paul says, we so-called “insiders” aren’t necessarily better off at all. Don’t judge others when you commit some of the same crimes (Rom 2:1). See, for example, Ted Haggard. God’s love is meant to lead to repentance—to a real change in heart and life (Rom 2:4). After all, God will repay everyone according to their works (Rom 2:6; cf. Ps 62:12). This is the same warning John the Baptist gave (Lk 3:1-14). God can make even stones into children of Abraham—He wants loving obedience, not dead externalism.

Being an insider, being an Israelite, is meaningless in and of itself (Rom 2:7-10). “God does not have favorites,” (Rom 2:11). It’s the ones who actually do the law who are counted as righteous (Rom 2:13), and that means merely being “an insider” gets you no points. In fact, Paul suggests “insiders” will be judged more severely in the end because they had more information (Rom 2:12).

So, he declares, if you’re an “insider” who is an awful hypocrite and an embarrassment to God, you actually have nothing (Rom 2:17-23). “As it is written, ‘The name of God is discredited by the Gentiles because of you,’” (Rom 2:24; cf. Isa 52:5 LXX). The external marks of “membership” in God’s family are pointless in and of themselves—“circumcision is an advantage if you do what the law says,” (Rom 2:25; emphasis mine). In fact, if an ethnic “outsider” loves God by doing what He says, he is a truer believer than a fake “insider” (Rom 2:26).   

Paul says being “in the family” has nothing at all to do with being an Israelite. An “outward circumcision” that doesn’t touch the heart, the spirit, the affections, is nothing (Rom 2:28). “Instead, it is the person who is a Jew inside, who is circumcised in spirit, not literally” (Rom 2:29) who is a true “Jew,” that is, a true member of God’s family, a true child of Abraham (Gal 3:26-29). 

“So, what’s the advantage of being a Jew? Or what’s the benefit of circumcision?” (Rom 3:1). Paul knows Israelites will be tempted to scoff and demand answers. What’s the advantage, then? Well, plenty! Jews were trusted to be custodians of God’s truth (Rom 3:2). But, God’s faithfulness doesn’t evaporate because of an insider’s unfaithfulness (Rom 3:3-4). This doesn’t mean our faithfulness doesn’t matter, of course (Rom 3:5-9).

“So, what are we saying?” Paul asks (Rom 3:9). This is the heart of his message—the destination he’s been working towards since the first chapter of the letter—“both Jews and Greeks are all under the power of sin,” (Rom 3:9). Romans 1 isn’t “about” sexual deviancy. Romans 2 isn’t “about” pride and externalism. The letter condemns both in the strongest terms. But, Romans 1-3 is about something much simpler—no matter who you are (a homosexual, a trans individual, a proud Baptist, or an adulterous hypocrite), you’re a slave to sin right now unless you trust in Jesus. There is no “inside track” to salvation. No such thing as a “beyond the pale” outsider. We’re all born as outsiders (homosexuals, trans people, proud Methodists, and angry drunks alike), and we each need Jesus to rescue us from our own private hells.  

Paul then produces a catena of quotations from Psalm 14 and 53 to show this to us—“there is no righteous person, not even one,” (Rom 3:10). The law shows this to us, it unveils who we really are, it breaks us and makes us admit to ourselves (if nobody else) that we cannot be good enough (Rom 3:19-20).

So, we’re left with a problem—how shall this breach between us and God be reconciled? As the Dread Pirate Roberts once remarked, “if there can be no arrangement, then we are at an impasse …” But, God has made an arrangement. Righteousness doesn’t come from the law at all. It comes “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in Him. There’s no distinction,” (Rom 3:22).

This is the context for those famous words so many believers memorize: “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus,” (Rom 3:23-24). Most English translations have “redemption” for the CEB’s “ransom,” but that’s a word choice that’s lost its power and become “churchy” and safe. The word means liberation from slavery, from a kidnapper, after a price has been paid. In this way, through the liberation Jesus effects, God both demonstrates He didn’t “forgive and forget” about all the sins we committed in times past (cf. Heb 9:15), or the one’s we commit now. Thus “he treats the one who has faith in Jesus as righteous,” (Rom 3:25-26).

Bragging has no place among God’s children, because our righteousness is predicated on faith in Jesus, not on “keeping” the law (Rom 3:27-28). Adoption into God’s family isn’t a Jewish thing—it’s for any and everyone. “Yes, God is also the God of the Gentiles,” (Rom 3:29). Whether you’re an “insider” or an “outsider,” God can make you righteous if you have faith in Jesus (Rom 3:30). Whoever you are, your only hope is to trust in Jesus. Not in your ancestry. Not in your head knowledge of the Scriptures. But, in Jesus.

This is what Romans 1:18-3:30 is “about.” Not sexual deviancy. It contains a discussion on sexual deviancy, but only in service of a more basic point—we’ve all (every one of us—“insider” or “outsider”) sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, and only Jesus can make us righteous. Ironically, when Christians cry “Romans 1” in frustration and disgust, and shake their heads sadly at “what’s happening to our country,” they may well run afoul of Paul’s warnings from Romans 2—our own sins of hypocrisy or priggish self-righteousness may render us just as guilty

Can we do better than this?

This article is not a veiled proclamation of my own “deconstruction.” It’s an example of what I believe is a better way to read Scripture. It considers the text in its context, not as a repository of data to be molded according to taste into an a la carte buffet of categories. There are other examples:

  • 1 Corinthians 7 isn’t “about” how wives must give their husbands sex.
  • John 5:26 isn’t “about” eternal generation.
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 isn’t “about” the rapture.
  • Genesis 10 isn’t “about” how mankind “failed” a “test,” making it necessary for God to initiate a new “dispensation” with Abraham.

You may sincerely believe the texts contain these things, but in no conceivable world are they “about” those subjects. And, if that’s true, then should we wrench these passages out of Hodge’s “store-house” to add them to a systematic casserole we’re cooking up to answer a question the writer wasn’t addressing, in that context?

No, we should not.   

Space is fleeting, so I’ll toss out some grenades for thought and retire into the night.

  1. It seems to me that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a more fruitful approach to doing theology. It guards against the frigid scholasticism Horace Bushnell warned about so passionately in his 1848 address “Dogma and Spirit.”[5] The Quadrilateral tempers a frigid rationalism and dogmatism with spiritual experience, reason, and historical theology. It promotes an evangelical catholicity, which I well know is not always reckoned as a virtue.
  2. Donald Bloesch is representative of a method which sees revelation as “truth + event.” We cognitively receive truth from Scripture, then God communicates and confronts us by the Spirit. “Revelation happened in a final and definitive form in the apostolic encounter with Jesus Christ. But revelation [in the sense of truth + Spirit-directed encounter-event] happens again and again in the experience of the Spirit in Christ.”[6] There is a conjunction between (1) the Word of God, and (2) sacred Scripture, (3) by the action of the Spirit.[7]
  3. In contrast, Hodge declares the Spirit has no true revelatory role; He only illuminates the bible.[8] Revelation is only static—an objective truth that is “there” on the page. There is no dynamic interplay of “truth + event,” where Scripture is the channel for God to speak.
  4. Many evangelical systematics follow Hodge’s “store-house” approach (e.g. Millard Erickson).[9] For example, Carl F.H. Henry declares that revelation is the (sole?) source for all truth, that we can only recognize that truth by exercising reason, that “logical consistency” and “coherence” (which I take together to basically mean “credible systemization”) are our truth tests, and that “[t]he task of Christian theology is to exhibit the content of biblical revelation as an orderly whole.”[10]

The “store-house” view of Scripture will produce a “Romans 1 is about homosexuality!” result. As you ponder that, remember this—Acts 15 is “about” Baptist polity, too!


[1] Alister McGrath, A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), p. 170. Quoted in Roger Olson, The Journey of Modern Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013), p. 632. McGrath was criticizing Carl F.H. Henry.

[2] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:10. 

[3] Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), p. 65.

[4] Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012), p. 5. 

[5] See the anthology titled Horace Bushnell, ed. H. Shelton Smith (New York: Oxford, 1965), pp. 43-68.  

[6] Bloesch, Holy Scripture, p. 50.  

[7] Bloesch, Holy Scripture, p. 58.  

[8] “Although the inward teaching of the Spirit, or religious experience, is no substitute for an external revelation, and is no part of the rule of faith, it is, nevertheless, an invaluable guide in determining what the rule of faith teaches,” (Hodge, Systematic, 1:16).

[9] Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), pp. 53-65.

[10] Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Waco: Word, 1976), p. 215.