Preaching to the straw man choir?

Preaching to the straw man choir?

Jonathan Cruse’s book What Happens When We Worship has a simple point. Something important happens between us and God when we worship (p. 1). He presents a theology of worship (ch. 2-7), the pieces of a proper worship service (ch. 8-13), and some brief remarks about how to prepare for worship (ch. 14-15).

This is a flawed book written with more zeal than tact.

The author is Very ReformedTM, which is something better experienced than described. He repeatedly impugns the motives and intent of millions of Christians across the world with broad brush accusations of mercenary pragmatism, and straw men caricatures. This is Cruse’s default rhetorical device. It works well when you’re in an echo chamber. It doesn’t work so well if you desire to reach and persuade an audience that doesn’t already agree with you. For example:

  • Cruse suggests that, for Christians, “[g]oing to church gets the same checkmark in the to-do list as going to the grocery store or doing homework,” (p. 1). This is unhelpful. Would Cruse really characterize his own congregation this way? Or, is he just talking about “other churches?”
  • He claims some Christians “dutifully suffer through the service while secretly wishing church wasn’t an obligation,” (p. 3). Who are these people? What real Christian would describe his habitual attitude this way?
  • Cruse writes, “Sadly, many Christians think the only way to worship with joy and gladness is through manufactured means,” (p. 3). Note his use of “many.” He then declares most churches either have an (1) entertainment approach, or (2) a mystical approach (pp. 4-8). His descriptions drip with sarcasm and scorn. He declares, but does not prove, that churches that disagree with him are motivated by mercenary pragmatism. “[I]t wins people to worship with something that will tickle their fancies and yet never save their souls,” (p. 5).

If you don’t do worship the way Cruse thinks it ought to be done, you are a compromiser who is worldly. The problem is that Cruse never defines “worship,” and he makes such sloppy and broadbrush characterizations of his targets that you don’t really know who he’s talking about. Is he attacking something like Hillsong NYC? Or, my own congregation? Would Cruse accept that the local Calvary Chapel engages in authentic worship? You don’t know, because Cruse doesn’t tell you, because this book is simply preaching to the choir.

… when we capitulate our worship to the trends of the culture, we have lost something powerful that is meant to be happening in worship: we are meant to be separated from the world.

p. 71

This sounds lovely, but Cruse never defines the aesthetic style that he believes is “holy,” and so we have no idea what this even means. I presume the local Calvary Chapel thinks their worship style is holy. Why are they wrong?

The entire book proceeds in this manner. Cruse’s seeming contempt for congregations which are not Very ReformedTM and don’t practice his peculiar form of the Regulative Principle negate his entire message … unless you already agree with him.

The author’s historical horizon seems to begin with the Reformation. He locates orthodoxy within a framework that begins at Calvin and ends with the Puritans. He lacks a catholic sense of solidarity or familiarity with the global church, past and present, as betrayed by his cursory comments about mysticism (pp. 6-8). He likes to provide quotes from famous theologians from secondary sources (p. 5 (fn #2), p. 19 (fn #4-5), p. 175 (fn #2)), which is quite sloppy.

Cruse sees evangelism as something that happens through the means of grace during worship. He argues the only imperative verb in Mt 28:19 is “make disciples,” and cites a book in support, but not the Greek text itself (p. 21, fn. 7), which I presume he can read. He admits that, yes, you must make disciples by evangelizing, but you really make disciples by having true worship, so that’s the key thing. The church fulfills the Great Commission when it gathers for worship (pp. 21-22). The “divinely mandated” methods for church growth are the ordinary means of grace―word and sacrament (p. 115). Cruse thus unfortunately embodies the old stereotype of Reformed folks as the “frozen chosen.” His theology of evangelism is horrifying.

He has a truncated version of God as the celestial policeman. There is little love or grace. God is the stern judge, ready to kill. Cruse writes:

One pastor I know sometimes opens the worship service by saying, ‘If you are not a Christian, we are glad you are with us today. We hope you will be encouraged by your time with us. But I must warn you that we come to meet with God today, and if you are not right with Him, you may not like what He reveals to you about Himself.’ That’s the idea.

pp. 72-73

Cruse appears to lack any concept of God as the grieving husband (Hosea 1-3) who seeks His darling child―whose heart yearns and aches to rescue His people (Jer 31:20) and who loves His chosen with an everlasting love (Jer 31:3). His Calvinism swamps his theology proper, and so Cruse topples off the tightrope and presents a God of profound anger. In short, I think John Gill would have liked the author very much.

Any positive contributions the author does make are covered with more grace in other tomes. I suggest Hughes Old’s Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Ministers as a guide to incorporate the traditional aspects of Western liturgy into your service, to the extent practicable.

This is a book written for Very ReformedTM people who want to feel those warm tickles inside that tell them that, yes, they are right to be Very ReformedTM. I wish them good luck with that. I’m off to listen to an Unspoken song. I suspect Cruse would not approve.

Christus Victor as atonement

Christus Victor as atonement

This sermon presents a Christus Victor model for the atonement through the Resurrection. While the work is not included here, I’ve done extensive word studies on the “ransom” and “redeem/redemption” word groups and translated excerpts from the relevant passages ― all of which is background to the approach that frames this sermon. In short, I’m convinced that (notwithstanding the valid penal substitution angle) Christ’s death was a ransom to Satan which Jesus then took back after three days.

The analogies of the fishhook and the mousetrap are not mine, but were suggested by great theologians over 1,400 years ago. The Christus Victor model was the dominant view in the Church until the 12th century. Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor (ca. 1930) is a paradigm-shifting little book that I suspect many modern theologians cite more than they actually read. If you have questions about this model for the atonement, I suggest Gregory of Nyssa’s discussion in his catechism (ch. 22-26, see the footnotes) along with Aulen’s book. Above all, for pastors who read this, I encourage you to read beyond the narrow and “safe” lanes of your particular ecclesiastical orbit.

Seeing the Resurrection Through New Eyes

God paints reality in shades of black and white. Spiritual life or death.[1] Salvation or damnation. Rescue or prison. Liberation or slavery. Adoption or eternal exile. Cosmic victory or defeat.

This last one is how I invite you to view the Resurrection. It’s one way Jesus viewed it. Not just payment to God for sins. Not just satisfying God’s justice and a cosmic sense of “rightness.” But a divine victory for you over the forces of real darkness.

There is darkness in this world and in our souls, you know. Why do we do bad things? Why did a madman kill a Capitol police officer two days ago? Why did a guy murder six women in Atlanta, last month? Why did Hitler exist? Stalin? Mao?  Why did the U.S. government engineer and carry out forced deportation of Indians to the West in the early 19th century―something even Hitler is on record as drawing inspiration from?[2] Why did some churches in the antebellum South own slaves?[3] Why has there been a military coup in Myanmar? Why is this world so dark? Why is Starbucks espresso so bitter?  

These are existential questions that cry out for answers. Why is there “evil” in this world, and inside me, too?

Well, because we’re sick. This world is sick. This whole creation is sick. We need to be rescued from ourselves, liberated, delivered, bought back and led to safety. Shown the way by the God who made us. Who’s working to reverse what’s gone wrong.

We’re in trouble. We’re lost. We’re without hope. We’re criminals in God’s universe. We have a prison sentence hanging over our heads … But God has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! And, He does it here, on Easter Sunday, through the resurrection.

Jesus of Nazareth, God’s only Son, came here to rescue us. In return, He asks us to change our allegiance. To repent. To turn. To acknowledge our insurgency against God. To apologize and mean it, and to believe He really can rescue us.

That’s what the resurrection is about. Rescue. Liberation. Being ransomed and set free from a kidnapper.   

You’ve put together furniture. You know about those assembly kits. They come with pre-packed screws, Allen wrenches, washers, all that stuff. The bible’s portrait of Christ’s ministry is like that. We’re used to using only the #3 screw and the Allen wrench (penal substitution). We’ve forgotten there a #5 screw, and a different Allen wrench, and a washer or two that we can also pick up. Now, you can use the same screws for everything, and the thing will still “work.” But, it’ll work better if you use all the tools.

And so, we’ll understand Christ better if we look at all the facets of this diamond. We’re stuck on the Cross. We hardly mention the resurrection when we think of the Gospel. It’s time to redeem the empty tomb as Christ’s victory over Satan for us.

The Parable of the Strong Man―Christ as Victor

Jesus paints His interaction with Satan as a battle that He wins. In Luke 11:20-23, in the context of rejecting the accusation that He’s an agent of Satan, Jesus offers this little analogy:

But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

The blanks aren’t hard to fill in. Satan is the strong man guarding his home. Picture him patrolling his front yard with a shotgun and a scowl. Jesus is the stronger man who attacks Satan, overcomes him, tosses his weapons and armor aside, then takes everything that belongs to him. Mark, in his version of the same parable, records Jesus saying:

But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house (Mark 3:27).

In order to go into the house, Jesus first has to destroy, tie up, overcome, hog-tie, defeat the strong man in single combat. Then, he can plunder, steal, take by force, rob the guy’s goods from his home.

This is a battle, a combat. Jesus will crush Satan, beat him down in his own driveway, then go inside and rob everything he’s got. He’ll back a pickup up to the front door and loot everything Satan has. As Satan lies in the flowerbed moaning, Jesus will kick him in the face once more for good measure.  Then, He’ll hop back in the truck and drive away with Satan’s goods in the back.  

But, how does it happen? What does it look like? Jesus paints an exciting picture, but it’s a metaphor―He doesn’t mean it literally―so we wonder. Will it be a frontal assault (a la Pickett’s charge or Normandy)? Or, will it be more crafty, more sneaky, more delicious and hilarious in its victory?

Winning the Victory―The Great Payoff

I want you to think of two words: “ransom” and “redeem/redemption.” Both these terms appear in your bibles, but we’re so used to seeing them that they’ve lost their force. They’ve become Christianese, not English.

“Ransom” means what you think it means.[4] It’s the payment that rescues someone.[5] In the New Testament era, it usually meant the price paid to free a captive from a captor.

Let me share an example.

On 03 March 1932, someone kidnapped Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s 20-month old baby from their home in New Jersey. The mother was taking a bath and the baby was alone in the crib. When they discovered the child missing, Lindbergh grabbed a gun and searched the house and the grounds. He found a ransom note on the window sill:

Dear Sir! Have 50.000$ redy 25 000$ in 20$ bills 15000$ in 10$ bills and 10000$ in 5$ bills After 2–4 days we will inform you were to deliver the mony. We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the Police the child is in gut care.

The kidnappers eventually raised the ransom to $70,000. Intermediaries met with the kidnappers to negotiate, and they provided articles of the poor baby’s clothing to prove they were for real. Lindbergh paid $50,000 of the ransom. But, the parents never got the child back. People found the baby dead in the woods near the Lindbergh home on 12 May 1932.

“Redeem” or “redemption” means the act of buying back the slave; setting the captive free. These words are two sides of the same coin. Ransom is the price Lindbergh paid, and “redemption” is the rescue Lindbergh hoped to achieve with that ransom. They’re near synonyms―different words with almost the same meanings.

Now, once we get that set in our minds, I want you to think about what these passages mean:

Mark 10:45: For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Ransom means paying money to a kidnapper―who’s the kidnapper?

1 Timothy 2:5-6: For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

Ransom means the price to buy a hostage back from a captor―who’s the captor?

Titus 2:14: … who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Redeem means the act of buying our freedom from a hostile agent―who’s the hostile agent?

1 Peter 1:18: you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.

Christ’s death was the price to buy off someone to let you go―who’d the payment go to?

Romans 3:24: … and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus

How does God make you righteous? By the redemption, the purchase from slavery, that’s because of Christ Jesus―but purchase from whom?

1 Corinthians 1:30: And because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.

Jesus is the Wisdom, the Righteousness, the Sanctifier … the Redeemer,  the Liberator who bought us back from the slavemaster―who’s the slavemaster?

Ephesians 1:7: In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace,

Redemption is the great purchase and rescue from bondage―rescue from whom?

Hosea 13:14: I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol; I shall redeem them from Death. O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting?

God buys us back from death, who’s kidnapped us. Death is a force that needs to be paid off so it’ll let us go―how does Jesus pay death off for us?

Jeremiah 31:11: For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him

God buys us back from our captor; buys him off and rescues us from hands too strong for us to break―how does this ransom drop happen?

Who’s the Payoff To?

As strange as it might seem at first glance, God paints Christ’s death and resurrection as Jesus ransoming us from Satan.[6] My own translation of 1 Timothy 2:5-6, keeping in mind the real meaning of “ransom,” is this:

For there is one God, and one mediator between God[7] and men―the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a payoff[8] for the benefit[9] of all people …”

Why do I say this? Well, a ransom goes to the kidnapper and God isn’t the kidnapper! Satan is the kidnapper. He’s kidnapped unbelievers, he controls them, they naturally “belong” to him―are you still his captive? God made us for Himself in the beginning, but now that’s all reversed. The Apostle Paul says we’re all born as “sons of disobedience” and are “children of wrath,” (Eph 2:1-3). The Apostle John writes “we are from God, [but][10] the whole world lies in the power of the evil one,” (1 John 5:19). This is why the scripture says when we become believers, we’re rescued (that word is not an accident!)[11] from the “domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” (Colossians 1:13-14). There’s a transfer of ownership.

So, this “payoff,” this ransom, must go to Satan. It’s what “ransom” means. It’s what “redemption” means. So, it’s what had to have happened. “The Son of Man came … to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many,” (Mark 10:45). This doesn’t displace “paying for my sins, as my substitute,” but augments it―Christ’s ministry is a diamond with different facets.

But, we wonder, didn’t Satan try to stop Jesus from going to the Cross?[12] There’s the temptation in the wilderness (Mt 4:1-11). There’s Peter trying to stop Jesus from going to the Cross. “Get behind me, Satan!” and all that (Mark 8:33). It seems like Satan did try to stop Jesus at first, but he apparently changed his mind.

After the Lazarus miracle, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin decided Jesus had to die, but quietly, discreetly (Jn 11:45-53). Then, on Palm Sunday, we see the uneasiness among Sanhedrin (Jn 12:9-11, 19). Satan sees this and senses opportunity. We know this, because on Wednesday during Holy Week (cf. Mark 14:1), Satan decides to go all in for force:

Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them (Lk 22:3-4).

Satan changed his tactics―why?

Why Did Satan Switch Tactics?

The scriptures tell us:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Jesus’ death destroys Satan. Then, Jesus delivers, releases, sets us free. We’re the “goods” and “spoil” that Jesus plunders from Satan’s house, from that analogy from Luke. The resurrection is when He triumphs over Satan. God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him [Christ],” (Colossians 2:15).

The resurrection is when Jesus points His finger and laughs at Satan, mocking him. If this were a bad movie (that is, one of those movies that are so bad they’re actually good), we might imagine a scene like this:

  • SATAN: “No! It can’t be! It can’t … !”
  • JESUS: “Yep, it’s me! Surprise, sucker!”

But, again, why did Satan accept this “payoff?” Why did he orchestrate it? Isn’t he crafty enough to avoid this mistake? Satan isn’t stupid, so Jesus must have deceived him, and He must have done it by attacking Satan’s great weakness.

How’d he do that? Well, Satan has great pride. He wants to replace God and rule over all. He’s been trying to kill Messiah from the beginning. Revelation 12 gives us a dramatic picture of all that. Then we think about Herod the Great’s slaughter of the children in Bethlehem. The temptation in the wilderness. He attempts to kill Jesus in His hometown synagogue (Luke 4:29-30). Then the machinations with Judas.

Satan originally tried to tempt Jesus away from the Cross. To divert Him, offer a shortcut. Satan’s afraid of the Cross. But, Satan changes his mind sometime between Lazarus and Palm Sunday. He thinks he can handle the Cross.

So, like a gambler, Satan spins the roulette wheel and puts all his chips on the Cross, figuring He can handle it. Because he has great pride

Why would Satan change his tactics and push events towards an outcome he’s tried to avoid for nearly three years? Jesus must have bluffed Satan―tricked him.

How’d He do it? How did he trick Satan?

The Devil’s Mousetrap―”It’s a Trap!!”

During the last week of Jesus’ life, He declared: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out,” (Jn 12:30-31). It’s as if Jesus said, “By my death this Friday, and my resurrection on Sunday, I’ll defeat Satan and leave him lying broken and beaten on his own front porch!”

The Cross is a deliberate trap―a trojan horse, a subterfuge, a divine false flag operation meant to fool Satan into making a bad bet.[13] Satan thought he’d win―why else would he try it? You think he thought he’d lose, and was just going through the motions? Of course not. Jesus knew He’d win―why do you think He went through with it?

The Cross is actually the greatest double-cross in history. At the end of the last supper, just as they got up from the table to head to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus declared:

I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me (John 14:30-31).

Jesus knows Satan’s got nothing on Him, but goes ahead―and that’s the point! Jesus fooled Satan by cloaking Himself in humanity.[14] “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory,”[15] (1 Corinthians 2:8).

His new and real humanity made Satan “forget” who He is, to underestimate Him, to think He’s weak (cf. Isa 52:13-53:12). Why else would Satan even try the temptations? He knows who Jesus is, but always thinks he can get him, trick him, tempt him, outwit Him.

And so, Jesus made Satan believe he could actually pull this off―and does it from within this broken system. He uses Satan’s own weaknesses against him and defeats him by craft―not by brute force,[16] but by “fair play,”[17] by playing the game from within the sinful system and winning.

Satan has no claim on Jesus. None. Jesus has no sin, so He’s not under any penalty. He’s out of bounds. It’s against the rules for Satan to take Him. Yet, Satan takes Jesus anyway―he kills him. He thinks he can get away with it. He thinks he can handle it.

But, by taking an innocent man against the rules,[18] Satan loses everything he has. His power is broken. He’s ejected the magazine from his own weapon just as Jesus comes walks up the driveway. He’s defenseless!

If you imagine a scene from that same “so bad its good” TV movie, it might look something like this:

  • Satan (defiant, smirking): “These criminals are mine, and I’m in charge here!”
  • Jesus: “Yeah, well … you just killed me, and I never sinned, so you actually have no power over me at all. You have no claim on me. You had no right to take my life.”
  • Satan (licking lips nervously): “What do you mean?”
  • Jesus: “It means you just fell for it, buddy. I let myself be captured by you. I let myself be killed to pay for everything bad anyone’s ever done. I tricked you into letting me inside your gates, and I’ve broken your power. And now, I’m gonna prove it to everyone by heading back in three days. How do you like them apples?”

And so, to continue the scene, the resurrection is when Jesus punches Satan in the face, beats him down in his own front yard, steps over his body and goes into the house to grab all the folks out of the basement and bring them to safety―do you want to come along? Or, do you want to stay in the bad man’s house?

It isn’t surprising that Jesus paints His victory in violent terms, because “[t]he reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil,” (1 John 3:8).

Exhortation―Victory in Jesus!

Jesus’ death and resurrection is like a fishhook[19] with Christ as the bait. He dangles there, tantalizing, irresistible. Satan gobbles Him down and is poisoned. He vomits up everything he has. Then he perishes; dead because of his own pride.

Or, you could think of it like a mousetrap.[20] Satan goes for the tasty Tillamook sharp cheddar cheese. The trap snaps, breaking his neck. His power over his slaves is gone. He knows about the trap, knows it’s dangerous, but thought he could beat it. And so he dies like a fool.

Jesus pays the ransom with His life, then takes it right back once He locks away the kidnapper. “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again,” (John 10:17-18).

He picks up the ransom bag from beside the mousetrap where Satan dropped it. “Thanks for watching this for me, I’ll take it back now!” Satan’s legs are still spasming as Jesus walks away, bag in hand.

This is the truth. The hook, barb, or poison dart that death uses to sting every one of us is sin (1 Corinthians 15:56)―which is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). We commit divine crimes by breaking God’s law, and sin’s power is that it brings death. It accuses us, “Look what you’ve done! This means death is coming for you pal, ‘cuz it means you belong to me,” (1 Corinthians 15:56) But, as the Apostle Paul says, “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

The resurrection is Jesus’ battle cry of victory, and it’s supposed to be ours, too. A victory over evil. A victory over the Accuser. A victory over everything that’s so wrong in this world. Satan ain’t dead yet, but he’s that mouse, choking with a broken neck in that trap. Kicking his legs and fading out. He’s the fish caught on the hook, gasping in the bottom of the boat. Growing weak, dying.

And so, in light of this, Jesus says to you and I, “Come with me if you want to live!”[21] Have you done this? Pledged allegiance to Him? His victory is why we have hope! Come to Jesus and take the victory He’s won for you.


[1] See also the Didache 1.1: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways,” (The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., trans. J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, revised by Michael Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), p. 149).

[2] Claudio Saunt, Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory (New York: Norton, 2020), p. xvi.

[3] Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson, Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2021), pp. 117-118 (esp. fn. 57).

[4] The word group is λύτρον, ἀντίλυτρον, ἀπολύτρωσις, λυτρόω, λύτρωσις, λυτρωτής.

[5] Alistair McGrath summed up three implications that go with “ransom” idea from the New Testament scriptures; (1) liberation or rescue, (2) a payment, and (3) someone to whom the ransom is paid (Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Malden: Blackwell, 2001), p. 415).

[6] “For being free from debt, He gave Himself up to that most cruel creditor, and suffered the hands of the Jews to be the devil’s agents in torturing his spotless flesh. Which flesh he willed to be subject to death, even up to His speedy resurrection, to this end, that believers in Him might find neither persecution intolerable, nor death terrible, by the remembrance that there was no more doubt about their sharing His glory than there was about His sharing their nature,” (Leo the Great, “Sermon 72,” in NPNF 2.7, pp. 184-185). Emphasis mine.

[7] The genitive in μεσίτης θεοῦ καὶ ἀνθρώπων is a genitive of space.

[8] Lest anyone think I’m being blasphemous, you’ll see “payoff” as a suggested synonym for the noun “ransom” in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2012), p. 723, and the Oxford definition for the noun “ransom” is in line with the Greek lexicons I’ve cited, above (see New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2011), s.v. “ransom,” n., p. 1445).

[9] I take the preposition ὑπὲρ to be expressing benefaction.

[10] I believe the conjunction καὶ expresses contrast (cf. NEB, REB), but the point is made even with a translation of “and.”

[11] The relevant word here (ὃς ἐρρύσατο ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ σκότους) means “to rescue from danger,” (Louw-Nida, 21.23; cf. BDAG (907)). I’d render it as “… who rescued us from the power of darkness.”

[12] This objection is common. Representative examples are James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 328, and Friedrich Büchsel and Otto Procksch: “It is by no means commensurate with Jesus’ powerful concept of God that the many should have to be rescued from bondage to Satan. This concept demands that they be liberated from indebtedness to God,” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), s.v. “Λύτρον,” B.4, p. 344).

R.C.H. Lenski objects that the offering cannot be to Satan, because Jesus said He committed His spirit into the Father’s hands; Lk 23:46 (Interpretation of Mark’s Gospel (Columbus: Wartburg, 1946), p. 465). However, this citation from Ps 31:5 is simply an expression of absolute trust. As the representative man, Jesus trusts the Father completely. And, Jesus surely knows the whole plan (cf. Jn 10:18). Lenski’s objection does not stand.

[13] On the fairness and justice of this subterfuge, see Gregory of Nyssa, “The Great Catechism,” ch. 26, in NPNF 2.5 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1893), pp. 495-496.

[14] Gregory of Nyssa (“Catechism,” ch. 24, in NPNF 2.5, p. 494) and John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” §3.1, in NPNF 2.9 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), p. 45).

[15] This is likely a deliberately vague reference to both human and demonic “rulers.” David Garland blithely dismisses this understanding at 1 Cor 2:6 based on the phrase’s usage in the NT, and remarks it only refers to Satan when it’s in the singular (1 Corinthians, in BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), pp. 93-94). This is an unpersuasive analysis―the context can suggest either. C.K. Barrett is correct to see spiritual forces (The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 72).

[16] “He overcomes evil, not by an almighty fiat, but by putting in something of His own, through a Divine self-oblation,” (Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, trans. A.G. Herbert (London: SPCK, 1931; reprint, Crossreach, 2016, Kindle ed.), p. 43.

[17] “The background of the Latin theory may truly be called legal; but in the Fathers the essential idea which the legal language is intended to express is that God’s dealings even with the powers of evil have the character of ‘fair play,’” (Aulen, Christus Victor, p. 43).

[18] The Christus Victor model stumbles badly here because it can’t articulate how, exactly, Jesus’ death and resurrection wins victory for His people. It can’t describe the mechanics of this victory. It has no concept of substitution, of satisfaction, of justice. Chrysostom’s attempts to explain fall flat (John Chrysostom, “Homilies on the Gospel of St. John,” Jn 12:31, in NPNF 1.14 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), p. 249). This is where the penal substitution model excels. It’s necessary to cross-pollinate the two models. I realize my brief sketch here has some logical holes, but I think it’s faithful to the best aspects of both models.

[19] This is from Gregory of Nyssa (“Catechism,” ch. 24, NPNF 2.5, p. 494) and John of Damascus (“Orthodox Faith,” §3.27, NPNF 2.9, p. 72).   

[20] Augustine, “Sermon 261.” Excerpt from Alister McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, §5.10, 3rd ed. (Malden: Blackwell, 2007), pp. 352-353.

[21] I know I’m channeling Reece from “The Terminator,” but if it works, it works …

God rules the world

God rules the world

The latest question I tackled during theology class with my congregation is “why did a good God allow Adam and Eve to choose sin, when He knew it would lead to so much pain?” This is really a question about the doctrine of providence. Christians have always affirmed that our first parents had a choice to make; a willing, intelligent, volitional choice. But, how does that work, then?

It works by a version of divine providence known as compatibalism or (depending on who you read) as a concursive operation by which God works through primary, secondary, and tertiary means. I wrote the following two articles on this topic a while back. They explain the approach I’ll take here:

  1. “A Guy Named Sihon,” 03 September 2018.[1]
  2. “God and the Naughty Assyrians, 22 October 2018.[2]

As I said, the question about Adam and Eve and sin is really a question about providence―what is “providence?” Here it is: God ordering things to turn out like He decided. Thomas Watson has written, “God is not like the artificer that builds a house, and then leaves it, but like a pilot he steers the ship of the whole creation.”[3] Have you ever considered that, if God is not deliberately steering this world in His own way, then all prophesy is a lie?

Here are the best resources for you to think through this issue (in order of priority):

  1. Discussion from Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity.[4]
  2. 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, Article 5 (esp. the scripture references which accompany the discussion).
  3. 1618 Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 13.
  4. Discussion from Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith.[5]

There are two basic models floating about in the Christian world:

  1. Divine chess: God is the grandmaster chess player, reacting to our moves, and He’ll always win. He “looks down the corridors of time … seeing the future.” This is popular, but unbiblical―scripture won’t support this view in any way, shape or form. It’s a philosophical construct that often avoids the implications of scripture. God sees the future, but He doesn’t determine or govern it. Does scripture show us God as a psychic who can tell the future, or the God who upholds and controls creation itself?
  2. God rules: He does what He wants, we do what we want, but His will is always done … somehow!

Here’s the basic case, in brief:

  1. God rules and governs as He sees fit,
  2. and so everything which happens is due to Him,
  3. and His decisions are always good, holy, wise and just,
  4. yet people make their own intelligent, willing decisions—we do what we want, when we want,
  5. and God operates in us and through us, and in and through other people and external circumstances,
  6. channeling our true desires (good or bad), their true desires (good or bad), and all circumstances (good or bad) for His purposes,
  7. often without us even being aware of it.

Perhaps the clearest, most beautiful expression of providence is from the 1618 Belgic Confession, Article 13. I’ve mentioned it before. Read what it says:

We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them, according to his holy will,

He is in charge, He governs, and His will shall be done.

so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment;

God doesn’t “look down the corridors of time.” He determines time itself.

nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed.

The Church has always believed this, and God’s character demands this interpretation. We’ll talk more about this conundrum at a later date. The mental conundrum is due to our shortcoming―our perspective is too small to “get it”

For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner even when the devil and wicked men act unjustly.

God is at work, even when the devil and wicked men do what they want to do―and we don’t know how that works, except to say that it does work that way.

And as to what he doth surpassing human understanding we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of;

The mystery card is valid, as long as it’s never played too soon. Here, it’s time to play it.

but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God which are hid from us,

We accept His will, even if we don’t understand it. We acknowledge we don’t understand, can’t understand, and may not ever understand.

contenting ourselves that we are disciples of Christ, to learn only those things which he has revealed to us in his Word without transgressing these limits.

We don’t have the full story, and we accept that.

This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation,

All this isn’t frightening, but comforting―why?

since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father,

He watches over us, cares about us, loves us, and no matter what happens, it isn’t a situation out of His control. The alternative is chaos. Little children who see their parents terrified become terrified themselves. God is never terrified, or caught off guard by events. He controls events. He determines events.

who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under his power that not a hair of our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow, can fall to the ground, without the will of our Father, in whom we do entirely trust;

Will we trust, or will go beyond what He’s revealed?

being persuaded that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies that, without his will and permission, they can not hurt us.

God commands Satan, who can only touch us if God allows it. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it,” (1 Cor 10:13).

Here are some (not all) controlling passages to “see” this version of providence from the scriptures. If you look them up, consider how our free decisions interplay with God’s decisions.

  1. Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.”
  2. Revelation 17:17.
  3. Jeremiah 25:8-11 (cf. 25:12-14); 27:1-11.
  4. Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6; 12:13-25; 42:11 (“all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him”).
  5. Habakkuk 1.
  6. Dan 4:34-35.

Here’s a short video of me presenting this during class:


[1] Retrieved from https://eccentricfundamentalist.com/2018/09/03/a-guy-named-sihon/.  

[2] Retrieved from https://eccentricfundamentalist.com/2018/10/22/god-and-the-naughty-assyrians/.  

[3] Thomas Watson, A Complete Body of Divinity: Sermons Upon the Westminster Shorter Catechism (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1878; reprint; Vestivia Hills: SGCB, 2016), p. 84.

[4] Watson, Body of Divinity, pp. 83-89.  

[5] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), pp. 350-372.  

When may Christians divorce?

When may Christians divorce?

I updated this article on 12 April 2021. This paper is not an exhaustive discussion, but rather a brief survey of the primary texts with some brief “pulling the threads together” analysis.

Periodically, throughout the years, I’ve re-visited the “when can Christians legitimately divorce” issue. First time was before seminary, when someone asked me if she had biblical grounds to leave a spouse who beat her. Second time was at seminary, where that particular sub-culture taught the “only for adultery and desertion” approach. Third, fourth and fifth times have been over the past decade-ish, since I’ve been a pastor.

Well, I come before you to declare I’ve figured everything out …

Just kidding.

This is a hard topic. I’ve had to think through this issue again, and so I present my conclusions here to you. I may be wrong, of course. Some will undoubtedly disagree with me. This is not an exhaustive discussion, but a brief positive survey of the most primary texts. I don’t interact with opposing viewpoints; you can find whole books that will do that for you. In this post, I just provide a brief positive statement of my position. Perhaps it will change one day. You may find my complete paper here.

The bottom line

The bottom line is a Christian may divorce under the following scenarios, each of which is an egregious fracture of the marriage covenant:

  1. Sexual betrayal: physical adultery or an egregious, repeated and seemingly (to a reasonable person) unrepentant breach of sexual allegiance more generally (Deut 24:1; Mt 5:32, 19:9)
  2. Neglect: refusal to provide food or clothing ≈ material neglect (Ex 21:10-11; cf. 1 Cor 7:33-34 “how to please wife/husband”)
  3. Desertion: an implication from the previous, whether carried out by a believer (1 Cor 7:10-12, and principle also logically follows from Ex 21:10-11 (cf. 1 Cor 7:33-34 “how to please his wife”)), or an unbeliever (1 Cor 7:15).
  4. Physical abuse: an implication from the previous
  5. Failure to provide marital privileges: refusal to provide “marital rights” ≈ the expected matrix of sexual relations, affection, and expressions of love (“love” is a decision, not a feeling). Analysis should be totality of circumstances, not a legalistic weighing of scales

My Interpretive Presuppositions

These are my broader interpretive presuppositions about the texts herein. They help you understand where I’m coming from, up front:

  1. Exodus 21:10-11 provides a general principle about divorce that transcends covenants and the immediate context in Exodus 21.
  2. Genesis 1-2 is the controlling passage for Jesus that expresses God’s idealistic heart for the covenant of marriage. It therefore must be our heart, too.
  3. Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18 are both excerpts from larger teaching that God did not see fit to provide for us. They stand alone, without context, as disparate pieces of collected teachings. Therefore, their interpretation should be controlled by the larger context of Matthew 19 and Mark 10.
  4. Jesus’ statements in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 are explicit responses to the pro “any cause divorce” interpretation of Deuteronomy 24, and we must interpret them in that light. They are not blanket statements covering all circumstances; they are simply Jesus’ interpretation of Moses’ intent behind the exemption at Deuteronomy 24. “[T]he Gospels record the whole debate as if it was concerned solely with divorces in Deuteronomy 24:1.”[1]
  5. At 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is responding to a misguided craze for sexual asceticism, and we must interpret his comments on divorce and remarriage there with that context in mind.

Some Overarching Principles to Consider

A pastor (and a congregation) must remember these things:

You’re a Counselor, not God

The pastor’s role is to advise the Christian and guide him to make the best decision in light of the matrix of biblical truth. A pastor can only advise based on his observations and the best data he can gather. He may be wrong because the parties provided skewed data. Everybody is responsible to the Lord for their own decisions.[2]

Sometimes You Gotta Face Reality

Sometimes there has been so much baggage, so much hurt, so much water under the bridge, that one or both parties just will not put forth the effort to repair the damage biblically. Stanley Grenz writes, “it must be admitted that divorce is at times but the formal declaration of the actual state of affairs.” He explains “… divorce is not an abrupt termination of a marriage. Rather, it is but the final statement concerning the process whereby the marital bond has been violated for some time.”[3]

Better Peace Than Forced Misery

See Romans 12:8; 1 Corinthians 7:15; and the previous heading, above.

Sometimes, human failure and sin in the marriage will cause great suffering. “At this stage, the principle of God’s compassionate concern for the person’s involved, God’s intent to establish shalom or human wholeness, must take precedence over the concern to maintain the inviolability of marriage.”[4]

This peace includes an honest assessment about whether they can continue to live together as husband and wife. “Peace by necessity includes a peaceful parting and a resolution of lingering responsibilities of their marriage, including a division of material goods and a just arrangement for providing for the children. Finally, interpersonal peace must work toward a normalization of their relationship as two separate persons, including the cessation of whatever hostilities the marriage breakup may have engendered.”[5]

In short, when faced with hardened hearts that will not put forth the effort to fix the issues, coupled with the ongoing pain and hurt caused by the compounding baggage, it may be best to just “call it” and acknowledge the marriage has been over for quite some time―no matter that the legal veneer is still in place. Formalize what the de facto reality already is and will continue to be. This is not a “get out of jail free” card, but a call to carefully examine the realities of the situation while balancing all the biblical teaching―especially the command to “if possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” (Rom 12:18).

Put the Blame Where it Belongs

“A marriage is ended by the person who breaks the marriage vows, not by the wronged person who decides to end the broken contract by enacting a divorce.”[6]

Yet, There’s Likely Plenty of Blame to go Around

“Legalistic approaches, therefore, run the danger of viewing complex marital problems too simplistically. A legalistic structure seeks to force the situation into categories of ‘guilty partner’ versus ‘innocent partner’ which simply may not fit the case at hand. The determination of ‘innocent partner’ in many cases of marital breakup is difficult, if not impossible. It may well be that both parties share in the guilt.”[7]

Divorce is not the Unpardonable Sin

This shouldn’t have to be said, but it must be said.

Divorce is not God’s Intention for Marriage

This also shouldn’t have to be said. It isn’t a “Get Out of Jail Free!” card. Jesus’ burden was to uphold God’s intent for marriage from Genesis.

Besides the scriptures themselves, the two most helpful resources for me were:

  1. David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), and
  2. Andrew Naselli, “What the NT Teaches about Divorce and Remarriage,” in Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 24 (2019), pp. 3-44.

Again, you may find my full paper here.


[1] “There were no debates about the validity of neglect and abuse as grounds for divorce in any ancient Jewish literature, for the same reason that there are none about the oneness of God: these principles were unanimously agreed on. Rather than indicating that Jesus did not accept the validity of divorce for neglect and abuse, his silence about it highlights the fact that he did accept it, like all other Jews at that time,” (David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church [Downers Grove: IVP, 2003], p. 96).

[2] “Only the Lord really knows the heart; as Jesus said, evil comes from within and loves the dark. We cannot leave it up to a minister or a church leadership team to decide when a marriage ends; it is up to the individual victim, in prayer before the Lord. Only they and the Lord know what their life is really like. Only they know if their partner has expressed repentance, and only they will have to live with the consequences of the decision,” (Instone-Brewer, Divorce, pp. 104-105). 

[3] Stanley Grenz, Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective (Louisville: WJK, 1990), pp. 133, 126.

[4] Grenz, Sexual Ethics, p. 128.  

[5] Grenz, Sexual Ethics, pp. 137-138.  

[6] Instone-Brewer, Divorce, p. 42. 

[7] Grenz, Sexual Ethics, pp. 136-137.  

Baptist fundys and the church of sepia

Baptist fundys and the church of sepia

Here is an article from a fundamentalist Baptist organization. The author writes:

There is no doubt that biblical Christianity is under attack as it never has been before not only in this country but around the world. The mentality with which we face the battle is revealing the underlying weaknesses of our respective movements.

The first sentence is absurd, historically. The second is perceptive, but likely not in the way the author intended. The great tragedy of the corpse that fundamentalism has become is that its only distinctive contribution to the broader evangelical conversation is sectarianism. This negative ethos has diminishing returns, which is why Baptist fundamentalism is a corpse as a movement, even as its ethos (rightly understood; see this article) is a pearl of great price:

  1. First-stage fundamentalism was built on advocating for a broad biblical orthodoxy in the face of apostasy. It’s heirs are the conservative evangelicals. It’s why the people who still do this today are evangelicals.
  2. Second-stage fundamentalism is what we typically mean when we use the term, and its ethos is on separation from conservatives who aren’t conservative enough. That is why second-stage fundamentalism is a cut-flower movement that’s dying in the vase on the countertop. It has no real distinctive, positive presentation other than separation. Ask a self-described fundamentalist why he’s not an evangelical and he’ll say “separation.” There is your proof.
  3. Thus I say that, properly understood, fundamentalists should be conservative evangelicals.
  4. Fundamentalism as a movement has mission drift. It has forgotten its purpose. Long ago, its original ethos of “that isn’t Christianity, this is Christianity, and let me tell you the real story of Jesus and His love!” largely degenerated to “those Christians are compromisers, so stay away from them and be pure, like us!”
  5. It all doesn’t have to be this way, but it is, and so it’s all very sad.

So it is with our article and the organization from whence it came. Even as he tries to urge introspection, our author can’t help but rehash the old story of lost battles from last century. The frame of reference is stuck in neutral; in a sepia tone from the Truman/Eisenhower era. Fundamentalism’s own proponents are often incapable of framing their movement without reference to evangelicalism; that wealthier and successful cousin of whom they’re always jealous. This chip on the shoulder is ever-present, stalking the movement’s hopes, fears, and dreams—shaping its very essence. The mindset is akin to the “lost cause” myth of the South, complete with its own stable of heroes, villains, and the call to interpret defeat as honor in the context of a perpetual martyrdom.

Fundamentalism, as a movement, is that church that spends its time pining for the good old days, looking back with proud smiles at yellowing scrapbooks. It has no positive presentation. Even as it tries to muster the strength for forward motion, it’s all framed with reference to the past. And, as with that stereotypical dying church, you try to be polite and say the right things, but it’s all really a bit sad.

It didn’t (and doesn’t) have to be this way, which makes it sadder still.

What is sin? And other easy questions …

What is sin? And other easy questions …

We have a bi-monthly theology class with interested folks from my congregation. Right now, we’re considering the doctrine of sin. This might seem dry as dust, but it’s not. If you read the notes, below, perhaps you’ll see why. I’ve included short-ish excerpts from the teaching session if you want the Cliff Notes version in the meantime!

Kind of a big deal …

This question “what is sin” answers one of the “big questions” of life.[1] Everybody has these big questions, and they’re usually variations on these five:

  1. Origins: How did we get here? How did the world get here? What are we as human beings? How can we be sure we know anything about reality at all? What’s the purpose of life? Is there a Creator and Sustainer, or is life just random chance and accident?
  2. Suffering: What’s wrong with the world and with us? What are good and evil? Who defines these terms? Why does the world hurt people? Why do we hurt each other? What happens when we die? Why do we die?
  3. Hope: Is there a solution to suffering? Will there be justice? What is justice? What basis do we have to look forward to some “better day?”
  4. Rescue: How is this hope, whatever it is, achieved? What are its effects? Does it bring justice? Is this redemption individual, corporate, or both?
  5. The End: How will everything end? What will it be like? When will it happen? What will happen?

So, this isn’t an academic consideration—it shapes and defines how we understand the world, ourselves and God in many ways:[2]

  1. God: If sin isn’t so serious, then we’ll tend to think of God as the smiling, perhaps senile grandfather. He’s indulgent. He forgives. He forgets. But, if sin is indeed quite serious, then we’re more likely to see God as pure, righteous, and holy.
  2. Ourselves: If sin is a matter of grading on a curve, then “goodness” is about how we compare ourselves to each other. We aren’t so bad, after all! None of us is Ted Bundy! But, if there is no curve, but a moral standard set by God, then we’re supposed to reflect God’s image and are held to His standard. This means we’re all in serious trouble.
  3. Salvation: What we think about sin shapes how much “trouble” we’re in. If we’re basically good, then we don’t need much supernatural intervention. Maybe just a push, now and then. But, if we’re criminals without hope, then we do need a divine intervention!
  4. The Church: What we think about sin shapes what we think the Church is here to do. If we’re basically “good people” in our natural state, then the Church exists to be positive, to be caring, to show love via mercy ministries (e.g. In His Steps). But, if we do need that divine intervention, then the Church is here to show and tell the Gospel and bridge-build towards the Gospel as we interact with our communities.
  5. Society: What we think about sin shapes how we understand politics, and our society. If we’re basically good, then we solve problems in our world by fixing unwholesome environments. If we need a divine intervention, then we see that nothing will really be solved until people’s hearts are changed by the Gospel. The ultimate hope is then in Jesus’ second coming and His establishment of the new community.

What is sin?

I’ll start with a brief survey of how some folks in the Church have answered that question.

The text we’re using for theology class, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, offers this: “sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.”[3] This is a standard definition, no doubt derived from the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith. Notice that Grudem captures three categories; actions, thoughts, and nature.

Here’s the Belgic Confession, Art. 15:

We believe that, through the disobedience of Adam, original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature, and an hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother’s womb, and which produceth in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof; and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind. Nor is it by any means abolished or done away by baptism; since sin always issues forth from this woeful source, as water from a fountain: notwithstanding it is not imputed to the children of God unto condemnation, but by his grace and mercy is forgiven them. Not that they should rest securely in sin, but that a sense of this corruption should make believers often to sigh, desiring to be delivered from this body of death.”

Note the emphasis on sin as a status, an infection that has spread to all people.

Here is the Church of England’s 39 Articles, Art. 9:[4]

Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in the Greek, “Phronema Sarkos”, which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh, is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

Now, we turn to the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, Art. 6, which explains sin is a “corruption of nature” (6.5):

By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation (6.2-3).

Finally, we have the Lutherans in the Augsburg Confession (1630), Art. 2:

… since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mother’s wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin is truly sin [that is, there is actual individual guilt] and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.”[5]

Sin is actually three different things at the same time, like layers of the same onion. We’ll go from the most obvious example of sin to its most fundamental essence:

Sin as lawlessness

Sin is lawlessness (1 Jn 3:4)—failing to follow God’s laws. It means breaking God’s law by what you do or don’t do; e.g. “thou shalt not kill” (Ex 20:13) and “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” (Jas 2:8-9). It also means breaking God’s law by what you think; Mt 5:27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Sin as a controlling disease

But, as the survey of various confessions makes clear, sin is also a disease that owns, controls, and shapes people—“it infects our personal ‘control center’”[6] and produces “guilt and pollution.”[7] One excellent controlling passage is Romans 6:1 – 7:6, which you can read through and note at your leisure.

This means that, as a hereditary disease, sin controls us. We’re its slaves, and it corrupts all our affections. It’s a “total act” that involves all of our beings, because it springs from the heart (Prov 4:23; Mt 12:33-37). “The heart of man is evil … It is the Headquarters of the General Staff, not the office of some lesser official … the whole man rebels against God, ego totus, and in this rebellion all the individual powers of his body-mind economy are mobilized.”[8]

It’s shape comes from our environmental and social nexus[9] and is always evolving, mutating, expanding, shape-shifting—it can be “baked in” even to the level of the structural fabrics of our society (e.g. racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, ageism, religious hatred, ecological pollution, genocide).[10]

Indeed, experience shows is daily how evil ‘infects’ society, spreading from one person to another, and perhaps involving them in it against their will. The power of the ‘infection’ is as great in the moral sphere as it is in physical epidemics. We ought to be aware of the fact—and remind others of it—that evil spreads to institutions and conditions, ‘infects’ them, and then breeds further evil, which, in turn, ‘re-infects’ the lives of human beings as individuals. Further, it is evident that the evil which is incorporated in asocial institutions, and the evil which becomes a mass phenomenon, waxes great and assumes demonic forms, which, as a rule, are not found in any individual evil. Evil which takes the shape of social wrong, or is incorporated in institutions, or as a mass phenomenon, is worse than evil in any individual form, in isolation.”[11]

All this is why we must be “born again” (Jn 3:5-7), because we need a new mind and new heart (cf. Ezek 36:25-26)—the Spirit must “wash” us clean (Titus 3:5) and “cleanse” us from this disease. Union with Christ (pictured by the object lesson of believer’s baptism) breaks that metaphysical slavery and sets us free.

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Romans 6:4-5

Sin as cheating on God and rejecting His community

Largely following Stanley Grenz, with an assist from Emil Brunner and Millard Erickson, I believe the most basic essence of sin is infidelity to God and His plan for community.[12] Other suggestions are (1) rebellion and apostasy,[13] (2) selfishness,[14] (3) a privation or absence of goodness,[15] or (4) displacement of God.[16] These are good options. Still, infidelity and rejection of community seem to strike at the heart of “sin.”

God made us to be in community with Him and each other. By sinning, our first parents rejected His community (just as Satan had done), and so God had to expel them from Paradise (“he drove out the man,” Gen 3:24).

The bible’s story is God choosing and rescuing a community for His kingdom—we’ll only have peace and purpose in our lives when that relationship is fixed by pledging allegiance to Jesus. Sin is the great “problem” that stands in the way; lawlessness caused by a controlling force that has ruined our hearts and minds.

This isn’t an impersonal, legal crime, but a personal attack and rejection—infidelity,[17] adultery (cf. Hosea 1-3), a hurtful treachery (Hos 6:7; Isa 48:8; Jer 3:1-2, 8-10, 20, 5:11; Ezek 16:15f). There’s a reason why God so often frame this treachery as “adultery.” It’s the ultimate betrayal, the most personal and hurtful betrayal imaginable. It’s why God chose to use it when He expressed His anger.

So, “sin” is fundamentally about saying “no” to God’s community; “cheating on Him” and thus destroying our relationship with Him (fear of Him; Gen 3:10), with each other (Gen 3:7, 16), and with the natural environment God gave us (Gen 3:17-19)—the world God gave us is no longer our friend.[18]

For fun, I’ll also throw in a video of the free-ranging discussion we began during our last class on the question “why did God allow Adam and Eve to sin? This is one of the trickiest questions of the Christian faith. It all comes down to providence, and HOW God controls this world. In this video, the other pastor in my congregation lays out some options, we look at scripture, and then have a free-ranging discussion about the topic. If you want to know the answer to this question, read Article 13 from the 1619 Belgic Confession of Faith:

We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them, according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment; nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed.

For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner even when the devil and wicked men act unjustly. And as to what he doth surpassing human understanding we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God which are hid from us, contenting ourselves that we are disciples of Christ, to learn only those things which he has revealed to us in his Word without transgressing these limits.

This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father, who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under his power that not a hair of our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow, can fall to the ground, without the will of our Father, in whom we do entirely trust; being persuaded that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies that, without his will and permission, they can not hurt us.

Here is our free-flowing discussion on the topic. Next time, we’ll narrow things down and see what the Church has taught and believed about this difficult subject.


[1] For good introductions to the concept of “worldview,” see Ronald Nash, Worldviews in Conflict (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992)and James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door, 6th ed. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2020).

[2] Erickson, Christian Theology, pp. 515. 

[3] Grudem, Systematic, p. 490. 

[4] Retrieved from https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/book-common-prayer/articles-religion#IX

[5] Theodore Tappert (trans. and ed.), “Augsburg Confession,” in The Book of Concord (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), p. 29. I am quoting from the German translation, not the Latin.  

[6] Grenz, Theology, p. 185. 

[7] Hodge, Systematic, 2:188. 

[8] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, pp. 94-95.  

[9] Donald Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), p. 41.

[10] Bloesch, Jesus Christ, p. 45. 

[11] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952), p. 96.  

[12] I am following Grenz’s excellent work, here (Theology, pp. 187-188).

[13] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, pp. 90-93. For rebellion alone, see Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 6 (Waco: Word, 1984), pp. 246f.

[14] Henry Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), pp. 246-247. “… all the forms of sin can be traced to selfishness as their source.”

[15] John of Damascus, Orthodox Faith 2.4, in NPNF 2.9. “For evil is nothing else than absence of goodness, just as darkness also is absence of light,” (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), p. 20. See also Augustine, where he explains trying to discern the cause of evil is like trying to “see darkness” or “hear silence.” We don’t know it by perception, “but by absence of perception,” (City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson [reprint; New York: Penguin, 2003], 12.7, p. 480.

[16] Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 530.  

[17] Calvin, Institutes, 2.1.4; “hence infidelity was the root of the revolt.”

[18] “The sinful destruction of community has been the human predicament from the beginning. The transgression of our first parents led to the unmistakable disruption of community. Their act brought alienation or estrangement where once had been only fellowship. The innocent transparency in the presence of each other they had once known gave way to shame (Gen 3:7). In addition, Adam and Eve now feared the face of God who had lovingly created them (v. 10). And they now experience the bitter reality that the world around them was no longer their friend (vv. 15, 17, 19),” (Grenz, Theology, p. 188).

Tuesdays in Galilee: Faithful Life in the Old Covenant

Tuesdays in Galilee: Faithful Life in the Old Covenant

I love the Book of Hebrews. It has the deepest Christology in the New Testament and in all of scripture. It also makes us think very deeply about the similarities and differences for the faithful believing life between the Old Covenant and the New. This very issue has come up repeatedly over the past few weeks within my own congregation, as we’ve worked our way through the heart of the “Jesus is the different, better High Priest” section which begins at Hebrews 7. Because the benefits Jesus brings to the faithful covenant member are so much better, people naturally want to know what was so different about one’s relationship with the Lord before Jesus came.

So, people ask questions. They want to know about salvation. They know it wasn’t “by works,” but so often people don’t really know any more than that. They want to know about obedience—why did people obey God, back then? Fear or love? People ask about atonement—was it about getting back a salvation lost, or about maintaining a ruptured relationship that still existed? What’s “new” about this New Covenant?

As every astute interpreter knows, these are weighty questions. Hard questions. If you’re a dispensationalist of any flavor, I submit they’re even harder. More specifically, the more you fancy discontinuity in your system, the harder these questions will be to explain without lots of charts. This short article outlines how I answered some of these questions just this morning.

First, I will lay my cards on the table to either save some readers heartburn, or to provide fair warning so you can reach for the antacid tablets in advance:

  1. I believe the Church has a direct relationship to the New Covenant right now. Israel will be brought into the covenant later, as promised. In short, Rodney Decker’s exegesis of Hebrews 7-10 cannot be gainsaid.[1]
  2. I see more continuity than discontinuity. Classical dispensationalists may wish to take the antacid tablets at this time.
  3. I believe Old Covenant saints were indwelt by the Holy Spirit. I follow Rolland McCune on this.[2]

When you compare a faithful believer’s relationship with God in the Old Covenant v. the New Covenant, there are at least four broad categories to consider:

My remarks here are not exhaustive and are little more than brief notes to orient the reader. My points are proven, I believe, by the “controlling passages” I identify. In fact, during class this morning the category which prompted the most discussion and puzzled looks was “why obey?” I suspected this would be the case. Next week, we will walk through my “controlling passages” on this and have a fun discussion. For this article, however, it will suffice to simply state a positive case and beat a hasty retreat!

These “controlling passages” I identify below are not the only place where these truths can be found; they’re just excellent representative passages.

Becoming a believer?

This has always been the same—allegiance to God because you trust His promise of the Messiah to come. What one knows and understands about this promise changes throughout time, as God provides more revelation. Abraham knew more than Noah. Moses knew more than Abraham. David knew more than Moses. Like a pixelated video that sharpens as bandwidth increases, clarity about the Messiah and His mission increases throughout the biblical story.

To be sure, some people (like Abraham) knew more than one might guess (Heb 11:8-16). But, the basic point stands.

The controlling verse is Genesis 15:6, and its greater context. The controlling passage is Romans 4 (esp. Rom 4:9, 22). Galatians 3:1-9 is an outstanding supporting, controlling passage.

Jesus didn’t preach a new message, but announced He was the fulfillment of the same old message (Lk 24:25-27, 44-53; Acts 1:1-11). This is why the Church’s earliest evangelism (Acts 2, 3, 13) and martyrdoms (Acts 7) emphasized the necessary continuity to the Tanakh. Salvation has always been by grace, through faith—and this “faith” has never been intellectual or emotional assent to facts, but a pledge of allegiance to God and all that entails.[3]

Why obey?

This, too, has always been the same—honest love for God. No matter if you’re Noah after the flood, or Tyler in 2021, you do what God says because you love Him. Period.

The controlling passages are Deuteronomy 6:4-6, Mark 12:28-34, and Hosea 5:15, 6:4-6. One could also supplement this list with any other passage from the minor prophets that condemns externalism. Hosea and Amos are both fertile ground for these denouncements. A subordinate controlling passage about the necessity of fruit for true obedience (because it flows from the heart) is James 2:14-26.

Sin after salvation?

The essence of this ritual has always been the same—honest repentance and a plea to God for forgiveness. Repentance means to confess and pledge to forsake sin (Prov 28:13). However, the Old Covenant also required an atoning sacrifice as the fruit of honest repentance in order to atone for the sin. Of course, this last step is not necessary in the New Covenant.

The sacrifice was never the essence of the matter. The point has always been about repentance from the heart accompanied by plea for mercy. The atoning sacrifice must flow from true repentance.

The controlling passage is 1 Kings 8:22-53. Pay particular attention to Solomon’s prescient scenarios of disobedience (“for there is no one who does not sin,” 1 Kgs 8:46), and the formula he presupposes must happen in each instance to obtain God’s mercy. Sacrifices are never mentioned. Honest repentance is. Of course, the sacrifices are necessary. But, at root, it has never really been about the sacrifices (Hosea 6:4-6; cf. Mt 9:13).

Shape of the relationship?

Here we come to the major differences. The shape and structure of one’s relationship to God is very different between the covenants. Here are three key differences:

  1. God was the head of His people’s government on earth. Now, men and women are the heads of secular governments on earth.
  2. One had to regularly undergo ceremonial cleansing for normal “life happenings,” back then. This had nothing to do with deliberate sin. It simply meant that, as a by-product of being a sinful human being, you would regularly be ceremonially “dirty” or “unclean” and unable to draw near to God. But, in the New Covenant, Jesus has perfectly cleansed all His people. This is why believers can now “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” (Heb 4:16).
  3. One had to regularly undergo moral cleansing by way of atoning sacrifices. This is what people typically think of when they consider Christ’s perfect, once for all sacrifice which rendered that system obsolete.

Newness of the new covenant

I propose there are three ways in which the new covenant is “new.” It isn’t that salvation itself is new or different. The “newness” and “betterness” that Jesus has wrought (cf. Heb 8:6) is a closeness of relationship. In short, the New Covenant is “new” and “better” because it provides perfect peace, in these ways:[4]

  1. A new kind of relationship (Heb 8:10). Instead of God’s law as an external standard which one will always fail to meet (no matter how gracious a band-aid He provided in the meantime), now it’s a “finished” thing because of Jesus’ active and passive obedience. In the Old Covenant, you’re in a family where you’re regularly confronted, by way of the sacrifices for your sins, with your failure and unfittedness to be adopted. However, in the New Covenant you’re assured Jesus has paid for your past, present and future sins in toto. Just as a finished Polaroid is clearer than one yet developing, the believer’s relationship with God is now so much closer.
  2. Perfect forgiveness (Heb 8:12). God will no longer “remember” our sins in the sense that He doesn’t hold them against us—because Jesus has now paid for them. In that since, it’s akin to a mortgage. You live in the house and call it your own, but it really belongs to the bank. When you pay the mortgage off, nothing outward has changed. You still live there. It’s still “yours.” But now, you have a new peace and freedom. The debt is paid. The bank has no claim on you. Or, you can consider a similar analogy with a maxed-out credit card vs. one that has been paid off and cancelled. It’s the peace that’s the point. No matter how benevolent your creditor is, it’s blissful to be released from the debt.
  3. Pure membership (Heb 8:10-11). Unlike the Old Covenant, the New has a pure membership of believers.

Food for thought

Hopefully this brief sketch helps clarify some of the questions about a believer’s relationship to God in the Old and New Covenants. It’s a difficult subject, with innumerable rabbit-trails. I could say so much more. But … I’m not going to! If you wish to see me explain these concepts you can watch the teaching session from my congregation yesterday, below. Be aware we aren’t in our usual location, so the sound isn’t quite as sharp, but it’s perfectly watchable:


[1] Rodney Decker, “The Church Has a Direct Relationship to the New Covenant,” in Dispensational Understanding of the New Covenant: Three Views, ed. Mike Stallard(Schaumberg: Regular Baptist Press, 2012), pp. 195-222.

[2] Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit: DBTS, 2006-2009), 2:272-280.

[3] See Matthew Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017).

[4] Here I’m particularly indebted to comments on the new covenant by Philip Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 94. “The difference between the old and new covenants is that under the former that law is written on tablets of stone, confronting man as an external ordinance and condemning him because of his failure through sin to obey its commandments, whereas under the latter the law is written internally within the redeemed heart by the dynamic regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, so that through faith in Christ, the only law-keeper, and inward experience of His power man no longer hates but loves God’s law and is enabled to fulfill its precepts.”

William Lane echoes Hughes and remarks, “The quality of newness intrinsic to the new covenant consists in the new manner of presenting God’s law and not in newness of content. The people of God will be inwardly established in the law and knowledge of the Lord,” (Hebrews 1–8, vol. 47A, in WBC [Dallas: Word,1991], 209).

In a somewhat similar vein, Homer Kent explains, “[i]t is not implied that no one under the Mosaic covenant had the proper sort of heart, any more than one would say that no Israelite knew the experience of having Jehovah as his God. The point is that the covenant itself did not provide this experience, and many lived under its provisions and yet died in unbelief. The new covenant, however, guarantees regeneration to its participants,” (Epistle to the Hebrews [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972; reprint, Winona Lake: BMG, 2010], 153. Kent’s explanation shades over to emphasizing the pure membership of the new covenant, rather than explaining just how this “new heart” arrangement was different in the new covenant vice the old.

F.F. Bruce explains about the “newness” of having the law internalized: “It was not new in regard to its own substance …  But while the ‘formula’ of the covenant remains the same from age to age, it is capable of being filled with fresh meaning to a point where it can be described as a new covenant. ‘I will be your God’ acquires fuller meaning with every further revelation of the character of God; ‘you shall be my people’ acquires deeper significance as the will of God for his people is more completely known,” (Hebrews, KL 2183, 2188-2190).

Is natural law the answer?

Is natural law the answer?

This article was updated on 07 February 2021

When Christians consider whether and how to legislate morality, we’re immediately confronted with the fact we’re actually asking two questions:

  1. What should inform the content of public morality in an ideal sense? That is, setting present geo-political realities aside and focusing only on transcendent values, what is “the public good,” how can we know it, and to what extent should we advocate for it in the public square?
  2. How does the Church apply this public morality in real life, within the geo-political, pluralist realities that are the real world?

One way some Christians have answered the first question is to turn to natural law theory; specifically, a broadly Christian form of natural law. Is this a fruitful path?

What is natural law theory?

When we say, “natural law,” we mean it is “natural” in the sense that it reflects the nature, essence or intended form of something (X). “Law” refers to a normative dictum that explains what X, in light of its nature, should do in certain circumstances.1 This means human beings can (1) observe the nature and intended purpose of something, and (2) these observations form the basis for moral values and obligations.

So, to bring this down to earth, consider human beings. Natural law is our perception (even unwittingly) of the divine order within ourselves, by which we’re inclined to right action. We can observe ourselves, draw conclusions about our meaning and purpose, and so learn how we ought to behave. If you’re ever bored enough to read legal statutes, you’ll find that human laws are the result of a society’s reasoned application of general principles to particular cases for the common good. This is why even something so esoteric as the Washington State insurance code can proclaim:2

The business of insurance is one affected by the public interest, requiring that all persons be actuated by good faith, abstain from deception, and practice honesty and equity in all insurance matters.

It’s doubtful the Washington State legislature wittingly relied on natural law theory to craft this statute. Yet, there is an implicit appeal to such a law in that text. There is a public interest. Good faith can be known, defined, and it is “good,” (etc.). Indeed, some form of natural law must be the foundation for human law.3 Or else, we’re cast into the morass of subjectivism and individualism.

Christian natural law theory says scripture presupposes this divine ordering. David Haines and Andrew Fulford advance three propositions to express this idea:4

  1. there is an objective order to the universe;
  2. this order is objectively visible, there for all to see, “whether one is wearing the spectacles of Scripture or not;” and
  3. at least some unbelievers perceive this order.

They explain:

the very fact of divine creation seems to point towards what has been traditionally called natural law: the notion that there is, because of the divine intellect, a natural order within the created world by which each and every created being’s goodness can be objectively judged, both on the level of being (ontological goodness), and, for human-beings specifically, on the level of human action (moral goodness). Ontological goodness is the foundation of moral goodness.5

In one of his famous five “proofs” for God’s existence, Thomas Aquinas explained we can perceive God from the observable order of the world:6

We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

God, as it were, created everything as a carpenter plans and creates a piece of furniture.7 He sees an image in His mind’s eye, then executes that plan. Thus, God has a moral standard to which men are accountable, and His mind contains that “ideal” purpose and end of everything in His creation.

Scripture presupposes that this natural ordering and purpose exists. Here are but a few examples:8

  • Jesus’ so-called “Golden Rule” (Mt 7:12) presupposes that everyone, regardless of their spiritual state, acknowledges it is “good” to treat others equitably. This is as close to a universal moral good that one can get.
  • Deuteronomy 4:5-6. If the Israelites obey God’s laws, pagan nations “will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people,’” (Deut 4:6). If unbelievers can look at God’s objective “good” and appreciate it, like it, acknowledge, want it—then there must be an objective “good” to define human flourishing. It isn’t a social convention; it actually exists and can be seen, known, appreciated.
  • In creation, God pronounced it all “very good,” which surely means there is an objective “good” to this world.

How, then, can we know right and wrong?

Well, first we need to understand that everything, including men, women, boys and girls, is made by God for a specific purpose or end. An ear is made to hear. A sock is made to fit on your foot. A book is meant to be read. A car is meant to transport you to and fro.

You can abuse the original design by using it in a way the designer didn’t foresee. For example, a neighbor of mine recently used his Jeep to prop up a section of fencing that had collapsed in his backyard. It “worked,” I guess, but it was crude. Why? Because the Jeep wasn’t designed to do that—it wasn’t its nature or raison d’être.

You could say there is a “fitness” and “unfitness” to everything, depending on its created purpose.

Thus fitness or unfitness may be affirmed, at every moment, of every object in existence, of the volition by which each object is controlled, and of every intelligent being, with regard to the exercise of his will toward or upon outward objects or his fellow-beings. Fitness and unfitness are the ultimate ideas that are involved in the terms right and wrong.9

So, consider marriage, children, government, attitudes towards elders, the sanctity of life, political society, political authorities—what are God’s purposes for these institutions? What is their nature? When you find that out—when you figure the ends for which God made them—then you have a secure base from which to understand and uphold these realities in the world.10

But, again, how can you figure out these ends? How can you know what they are?

Certainly, the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives one a new mind and a new heart, along with the illumination to understand divine revelation. Indeed, if God created a binding moral order, it seems He’d be remiss if He did not reveal Himself and this moral order to His creation.11

Not so fast?

However, natural law seems to not require this step. Instead, it asks one to reason from natural revelation—to extrapolate from the observable order to “think God’s thoughts after Him” in a whole host of modern contexts. Specifically, we can know right from wrong by considering various forms of the questions (1) what is the nature and purpose of the one doing the action,12 and (2) what is the purpose of the action, (3) what are the motivations behind the action, (4) what are the consequences, (5) what are the means by which we propose to accomplish this end, and (6) what are the circumstances surrounding the action?13

However, Haines and Fulford’s blanket assertion that when human beings observe human nature and draw conclusions about it, “we are thinking God’s thoughts after Him,” is not quite correct.14 Satan has thrown a dark cloak over people’s minds to “keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,” (2 Cor 4:4). This a blindness to reality, including natural law, for which we must account. This means unbelievers will not always “see” the natural order flowing from a created order at all. Christians will usually have to do a three-step dance when pressing the reality of natural law; (1) it exists, (2) your sin stops you from seeing it in creation, and then (3) do you see it now?

Indeed, there are non-Christian theories about natural law predicated on secular bases. These contrasting theories “differ widely about what human nature is and, as a result, about the moral theory that can be derived from it.”15 Indeed, different schools of thought (even within Christian circles) disagree about the essence of human nature itself and, thus, the implications about the “ends” to be drawn from its nature. “Unless that picture can be firmly established in sufficient detail to warrant the moral inferences drawn from it, the theory as a whole will lack credibility.”16

So, for example, can we legitimately employ natural law theory to forbid birth control? After all, the reasoning goes, the “natural end” of marriage is procreation (or, is it!?), and birth control would impede this purpose, so it is morally wrong. It therefore seems that to be most persuasive, Christian natural law theory must function with some degree of abstraction.

Preliminary assessment

Nevertheless, does natural law theory provide the Church with a framework to understand the “public good” regarding legislation of morality in the public square? It does, but only obliquely. Simply put, why do Christians need natural law theory when they could just point to scripture? That, of course, is the rub—nobody wants to use scripture in the public square. Natural law theory, for all its promise, seems to be a method for reasoning “God’s way” while not actually pointing to anything God has said.  

Does it answer our second question? That is, does natural law theory help Christians “think God’s thoughts” via legislation in a pluralist society, in 2021? Haines and Fulford say it does:

The precisionists and the Anabaptists were wrong to deny that any just political order could be founded that did not submit to their own private and special revelation, since justice can be known from the wisdom in God’s creation.17

I am not yet convinced. To use just one example—people in the West simply do not acknowledge God’s justice or God’s objective order. Natural law theory appears to gravely underestimate the noetic effect of sin, which will inevitably prevent some people from agreeing with the specific implications of its general premises. In other words, while natural law theory supplies the Christian with some philosophical heft as a complement to a Reformed epistemology, I am not convinced it alone is a suitable vehicle for grounding moral values or legislation.  

I am very new to the concept of natural law theory, and perhaps I have misunderstood it here. But my assessment at this date is that it would be simpler to use scripture to advocate for God’s values in a pluralist society. In that respect, it reminds me of the debate between classical and presuppositional apologetics.


Notes

1 David Haines and Andrew Fulford, Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense (Lincoln: Davenant Press, 2017), pp. 4-5. 

2 Title 48, Revised Code of Washington; RCW 48.01.030. Emphasis added. 

3 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 8. 

4 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 51.

5 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. ii.

6 This is Thomas Aquinas’ “fifth way” of proving God’s existence from Summa Theologica, First Part, Q1 (“does God exist?”), A2.

7 “[T]he divine mind ‘contains,’ or is, the ideas of all created beings—what we call exemplar causes—in much the same way that the carpenter’s mind contains the idea of a finished table prior to beginning his work,” (Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 23).

8 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, pp. 52ff. 

9 Andrew Peabody, A Manual of Moral Philosophy (New York: Barnes, 1873), pp. 35-36. 

10 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, pp. 24-27. 

11 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 51. 

12 The Westminster Larger Catechism sums it up nicely when it says, “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy Him forever,” (Q1, A1).

13 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 38. 

14 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 44. 

15 Gerald Hughes, “Natural Law,” in Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, revised ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), p. 414.

16 Hughes, “Natural Law,” p. 414. 

17 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 111.  

Life matters

Life matters

Each year in January, our congregation celebrates the gift of life and focuses on some aspect of the sin of abortion in the United States. This year, we were honored to have the Executive Director of Options Pregnancy Clinic in Olympia, WA speak to our congregation:

I then followed with a short sermon challenging our congregation to look beyond a cardboard approach to the sin of abortion, and to consider what the Church’s attitude should be towards a people and society that celebrate abortion.

Is pluralism a dead end?

Is pluralism a dead end?

I have come to realize a defining issue for Christians is the Church’s relationship to the State, particularly in matters of morality. The Constitution is a pluralist document. It does not go “on the record” for or against one particular religion, though Christianity certainly loomed large in the philosophical and moral shaping of the founders by dint of their culture. Instead, it guarantees religious freedom of conscience for all.

That much isn’t too controversial. The controversy comes with this question: what moral values should therefore inform legislation?

Every piece of legislation, every value judgment by the State, comes from some objective or otherwise “authoritative” and recognized moral standard. The line that “we cannot legislate morality” is both true and false. It’s true in that we can’t change people’s hearts, but every criminal law on the books in local, State and Federal jurisdictions recognizes the deterrent value in having penalties to curb otherwise “immoral” actions (e.g. murder, sexual assault, etc.). As long as there was a broad, implicit consensus about the content of morality (in America’s case, a generic Christian-ish deism), then people could reasonably be on the same page. This is no longer the case.  

Morality is legislated all the time. It certainly was in Bostock v. Clayton County, this past summer—a decision akin to Roe v. Wade for the transgender issue. The difference is we have competing and antithetical moral value judgments in our society; judgments that come from very different philosophical worlds. In this sense, I’m not certain pluralism is really tenable. It seemed like it could be if people operated from a common moral and epistemological foundation, even something as generic as a Christian ceremonial deism. But, that isn’t the case today.

Consider this excerpt from the splendid book by Gaines M. Foster, Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, 1865-1920. He recounts what ensued after yet another attempt by Christian lobbyists to amend the Constitution to proclaim explicit allegiance to Jesus as King in 1896 (p. 109):

For me, this is a true puzzle. I am doing research right now for a short book about the evolution of sexual mores in American society by examining key U.S. Supreme Court decisions from Roe v. Wade to Bostock v. Clayton County. I plan to examine each decision, and the accompanying transcripts of oral arguments and legal briefs, and provide a succinct analysis from a conservative Christian perspective. Of course, this means I’ll immediately come up against the Church’s relationship to the State regarding moral legislation.

I have much to read on Christian political philosophy and natural law. But, right now, these are my thoughts:

  1. Every State must identify a foundation from whence it draws its ideas about morality. After all, we will always legislate someone’s morality. We should be honest about that.
  2. Pluralism is a chimera unless the people have some shared epistemological foundation from which to argue, even if that foundation is something as generic as a Christian-ish deism.
  3. The United States used to have such a generally shared foundation, but no longer does. So, the public square arguments about morality will continue to escalate.
  4. Therefore, I am not certain an ostensible pluralism is a viable way forward in today’s Western culture, where morality is largely determined by majority consensus.
  5. But, I am uncertain what a Christian response to this environment ought to be. Here is where the concept of soul liberty clashes with the imperative to advocate for future kingdom values. Should Christians, for example, really be “for” something God hates (e.g. drag queen “story hour”) in order to uphold pluralism and religious liberty for all?

I don’t have answers to any of this. It’s some measure of comfort to me that Gaines Foster, author of Moral Reconstruction, didn’t have the answer, either. He ends his book with this line:

The fundamental tension built into the moral polity of the early republic thus persists two centuries later: a democratic republic needs a moral citizenry but cannot force its citizens to be moral.

Moral Reconstruction, p. 234