Christ and Sonship

I’m working on a catechism that I intend to self-publish. It’ll be an amalgamation of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Larger Catechism, Spurgeon’s catechism (itself an edited, not original, work), Keach’s catechism and a few odds and ends from me.

I intend to give it away to new members who join the congregation where I minister, and to have it available as a cheap, inexpensive resource I can point people towards. I self-published my last book, and I am very happy with Amazon’s self-publishing options. They produce a quality trade paperback that’s quite a bargain if you have the patience to do your own editing and layout.

I’m using the Heidelberg Catechism as my base, lightly editing some of the questions and answers as I go. Occasionally, I’m adding significant portions of material. One of them is regarding Christ and His Sonship. Compare the original material and my revisions, below:

Original

Q: Why is he called God’s “only begotten Son” when we also are God’s children?

A: Because Christ alone is the eternal, natural Son of God. We, however, are adopted children of God—adopted by grace through Christ.

My revision

Q: Why is He called God’s one and only (or “begotten”) Son, since Christians also are children of God?

A: Christ is not God’s “Son” in a biological sense, but in a different sense. It means He has the same nature as the Father, which means the same power, glory majesty and honor. Thus, Luke calls Barnabas a “son of encouragement,” which means he has an encouraging nature. This is the way in which Jesus is God’s “Son;” He is equal.  

Christians, however, are children of God by adoption, through grace, for Christ’s sake. We do not naturally belong to Him. Instead, He wrests sinners from Satan’s grasp, brings us into His family and clothes us in His Son’s perfect righteousness.

Differences

The original kept the unfortunate rendering “only begotten,” which really means “unique” or “one and only.” So, I changed it.

It also, I believe, retained a wrong idea of what “sonship” means. I don’t believe in the doctrine of eternal generation, and I don’t believe most people (even theologians) can really explain what it means in normal language without conveying the idea of derivation. I am certainly not alone here; no less a theologian than Millard Erickson (see his excellent Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?) criticizes the doctrine. See especially David Beale’s discussion of eternal generation’s doctrinal development (Historical Theology In-Depth, 2 vols. [Greenville: BJU Press, 2013], 2:142-170).

So, I don’t believe Christ’s sonship has anything to do with an eternal generation from the Father. The very idea smacks of some kind of derivation. I believe Christ’s sonship refers primarily to His equality with the Father, and I made sure to bring this out.

Book Review: “The Evangelicals” by Frances Fitzgerald

Frances Fitzgerald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with a B.A. in Middle Eastern history. She has written numerous books. In 2018, she published The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (730 pgs). This book is particularly interesting for several reasons. First, Fitzgerald is a responsible journalist and historian. Second, she does not appear to be an evangelical insider, which means she may have a more objective viewpoint. Third, the issue of the “Christian right” has become very, very relevant since Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States in 2016.

So, I picked the book up at my local library. Fitzgerald explains:1

this book is not a taxonomy or attempt to describe the entirety of evangelical life, but rather a history of the white evangelical movements necessary to understand the Christian right and its evangelical opponents that have emerged in recent years.

Fitzgerald begins with the first Great Awakening and moves rapidly through the American religious scene until arriving at Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority by page 291. The remainder of the book (340 pages of text) chronicles the Christian Right over the past 40 years.

Rather than offering a blow by blow account of the work, I’ll confine myself to some brief remarks.

Comments on the book

Fitzgerald’s survey from the Great Awakening to the mid-20th century is outstanding. Very helpful, relatively brief, but comprehensive.

It appears Fitzgerald relied heavily on secondary sources. Time and time again, I turned to the endnotes to trace a particular quote or fact, and saw a secondary source cited. For example, Fitzgerald even cited a secondary source when describing Calvinism (pg. 15)! Likewise, when I looked for primary sources for quotations from Billy Graham’s publications I found in her text, I also saw secondary sources. This is very disappointing. Fitzgerald knows better.

I found a few misspellings in the earlier part of the book. Fitzgerald also, for some bizarre reason, consistently misnamed the Southern Baptist Convention’s publisher as “Boardman & Holman” (it’s actually “Broadman and Holman”).

The chronicle of the modern Christian Right is encyclopedic. In fact, it’s rather overwhelming. Some readers might be fascinated with moment by moment accounts of James Dobson’s advocacy efforts in the 2004 election. I am not! Fitzgerald would likely have done better to survey the era with a lighter touch and save room for analysis. Robert Jones, in his The End of White Christian America, covered the same ground in a little over 30 pages.

Indeed, the book is very light on analysis. Fitzgerald has a meager 11-page epilogue where she tries to pull some threads together. Some of this analysis is very insightful. For example:2

The Christian right was an equally forceful reaction, not against liberal theology, but rather against the social revolution of the 1960s. Its dominant theme was nostalgia for some previous time in history – some quasi-mythological past – in which America was a (white) Christian nation. But which time exactly? Would its leaders have been content with reversing the Supreme Court decisions made since the 1960s? Or would they have insisted that America must be by law a Christian nation? Naturally there were differences among them, but by failing to specify how far they would go to reverse the process of separating church from state, men like Pat Robertson and James Dobson allowed their opponents to charge that they wanted a theocracy.

And this:3

In the 1990s the Christian right was a powerful movement, but mainly because of those who had lived through the Long Sixties. Later generations had absorbed some of the shocks of the women’s movement and the gay rights movement, and were less fearful and angry about them. After the turn of the century, the Christian right maintained its power largely because of the further shock of same-sex marriage. In other words, the decline of the Christian right began earlier than assumed. Then, by allying themselves with the unfortunate George W. Bush, they created a backlash among evangelicals as well as among others. Emboldened, the ‘new’ evangelicals broadened the agenda, and in a sense came full circle with a return to the reformist imperatives of the antebellum evangelicals, such as Lyman Beecher and Charles Finney. The Christian right tried to resist, but the younger generation was not with them except on abortion. the death or retirement of the older leaders was a sign of the changing regime

And this:4

Presidential election votes might seem to belie it, but evangelicals were splintering. For more than thirty years Christian right leaders had held evangelicals together in the dream of restoration and in voting for the Republican establishment and policies that favored the rich in exchange for opposition to abortion and gay rights. No more. Evangelicals no longer followed their leaders.

Fitzgerald would have immeasurably strengthened her book if she had gone lighter on the encyclopedic history, and heavier on the analysis. In that respect, she made the same error Larry Oats made in his otherwise outstanding The Church of the Fundamentalists. Lots of details, facts, names and dates. Little analysis to pull things together. The book just … ends.

The most enlightening chapter, for me, was entitled “Billy Graham and Modern Evangelicalism,” particularly Fitzgerald’s discussion of President Eisenhower’s attempts to use civil religion as a unifying force in the face of the Communist threat. I’d never heard this before. I wonder how much of the simplistic ‘Merica! rhetoric you see so much of in some evangelical circles stems from Eisenhower’s efforts?

Fitzgerald succeeded in deepening my disgust with the Christian Right as a political movement. I do not believe America is or was a “Christian nation,” though it was undoubtedly influenced by Christian thought (see Christian historian John Fea’s excellent Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?). I vehemently disagree with all flavors of American nationalism mixed with the church. I think Falwell, Dobson (et al) are kind, decent men who wasted their talents in the political realm.

The more I read about the history of Christian Right’s engagement in the public square, the better context I have to frame my heretofore unfocused distaste for political action in the name of Christ. Here, two mainline scholars have something to teach us:5

Whenever Christians think that we can support our ethic by simply pressuring Congress to pass laws or to spend tax money, we fail to do justice to the radically communal quality of Christian ethics. In fact, much of what passes for Christian social concern today, of the left or of the right, is the social concern of a church that seems to have despaired of being the church. Unable through our preaching, baptism, and witness to form a visible community of faith, we content ourselves with ersatz Christian ethical activity—lobbying Congress to support progressive strategies, asking the culture at large to be a little less racist, a little less promiscuous, a little less violent.

Falwell’s Moral Majority is little different from any mainline Protestant church that opposes him. Both groups imply that one can practice Christian ethics without being in the Christian community. Both begin with the Constantinian assumption that there is no way for the gospel to be present in our world without asking the world to support our convictions through its own social and political institutionalization. The result is the gospel transformed into civil religion.

Hauerwas and Willimon wrote their book nearly 30 years ago and explained it “could be read as an extended reflection on politics in the name of Jesus.”6 Falwell looms large in their discussion, and the book seems (in part) to be a reaction against the political activism of the Reagan years. Writing only three years ago, Robert Jones interpreted Resident Aliens (and Russell Moore’s own work Onward) as a recognition by Christians that they’d lost the culture and must re-frame expectations from “this is our world” to “we’re a people in exile.” Indeed, Jones likened Hauerwas to a “hospice chaplain, dispensing a critical palliative care theology for a mainline Protestant family struggling toward acceptance as WCA [white Christian America] faded from the scene.”7 My own thoughts are that Hauerwas and Willimon can teach evangelicals a thing or two about cultural engagement. Their vision of the church is deeper than a good deal of what I’ve read from the evangelical-fundamentalist tradition. It’s certainly a healthier alternative than the Falwell-Dobson-Robertson model.  

Fitzgerald views the “Conservative Resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention as a “fundamentalist uprising” (see ch. 9). This will irritate my fundamentalist brothers and sisters who still insist on applying the old, tired appellation of “neo-evangelical” to the conservative evangelicals. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald is correct. John MacArthur, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, James White, Ligonier Ministries (et al) are fundamentalists. They might not identify themselves as such, but they are. Baptist fundamentalism, in contrast, is a small and struggling movement that hasn’t deserved the title of “fundamentalist” for a long while. The conservative evangelicals are the ones who engage the culture and confront apostasy, and Fitzgerald rightly recognizes them as “fundamentalists.”

Final thoughts

Fitzgerald wrote an outstanding book. I give it 4/5 stars. Essential reading for any evangelical pastors who want to understand where their movement came from and where it’s going. We need to know history. It helps us not make the same mistakes every generation. Read it!

Notes

1 Frances Fitzgerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 3.

2 Ibid, 626.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid, 635.

5 Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, revised ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014), 80-81.

6 Ibid, 7.

7 Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 214.

Jesus’ Prophesy

This is my sermon from this past Sunday, from Mark 10:32-34. In this passage, Mark shows us the third time Jesus prophesies about the manner of His own death. To appreciate this prophesy, we look at what Jesus’ favorite title “Son of Man” means, and what it means in light of the prophesy of His own betrayal, execution and resurrection. Finally, we consider the comfort that fulfilled prophesy gives Christians as we consider promises that have yet to be fulfilled.

For the downloadable audio and sermon notes, see the sermon on the Sleater Kinney Road Baptist website. This sermon is part of a larger series on the Gospel of Mark.

Book

In addition to being an Investigations Manager for a Washington State agency, I’m also a pastor at my church. So, I’m pretty busy – which is why I haven’t written much here for the past year or so. But, having said that, this past March, I self-published a book about Baptist polity.

Why did I do this, and what do I have to say that’s worth reading? Fair enough. Here are some short answers:

  1. I wrote the book in a deliberately low-key, conversational style. I tried to avoid using an academic tone. Basically, my target reader is an interested, “ordinary” Christian of any denominational stripe.
  2. I frame the matter as a contrast between the members of the Old and New Covenants. If you’re a dispensationalist, this is a unique way of putting things. Basically, I argue like a Reformed Baptist.
  3. I argue for open communion; that is, anybody who confesses Christ as Savior and claims to be a member of the New Covenant may partake of the Lord’s Supper.
  4. I argue that believer’s baptism isn’t a prerequisite for participation in the Lord’s Supper, and interact at length with the arguments against this position.
  5. I argue for immersion as the correct mode of baptism by a very thorough look at the relevant passages. But, I’m also honest enough to admit the case isn’t a “slam-dunk.” It’s an inference from good principles. I’d give immersion a C+/B- on a grading scale, but I think it’s the best way.
  6. The book isn’t polemical. I love and respect other ecclesiastical traditions, and interact with them fairly. I just think they’re wrong!

I wrote the book for ordinary church members. Most books about polity are written for pastors by theologians. Mine is written for ordinary Christians by a pastor. The only recent book with similar aims is one by Kevin Bauder, a theologian at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minneapolis. But, Bauder writes from a dispensational framework and his audience is Baptist fundamentalists.

I tried my best to present a winsome, irenic and positive case for the Baptist way to “do church.” If you’d like to check the book out, here it is (in trade paperback and Kindle):

William L. Craig on Ben Shapiro Show

Ben Shapiro, the conservative commentator who is the darling of the Republican internet and who sells, among other things, insulated beverage cups with “leftist tears” emblazoned on the front, just released an outstanding Sunday special interview with William L. Craig.

Craig is a Christian philosopher, and is perhaps the most prolific and public face of intellectual Christian apologetics today. His theology seems to trend Wesleyan, he is not a fan of Reformed soteriology, and he isn’t keen to defend the doctrine of inerrancy. Nevertheless, he is a true Christian believer. More than that he’s a conservative Christian believer.

God has (and is) using Craig in a remarkable way in Christian academia and in presentations to students in the academy. In short, Craig is a brilliant ambassador for Christ in a context many of us don’t have access to. Perhaps his most accessible book for “normal” Christians is On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision.

In his interview with Shapiro, Craig discusses some common apologetic arguments for the existence of God, why he believes the Christian God is the God of the universe, and even provides his own salvation testimony. This is an excellent interview, and Craig does a wonderful job of representing Christ for a worldwide audience. I can’t recommend it highly enough:

Thoughts About the Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity is hard to teach, because there are so many ancient heresies to guard against and because, well … it’s complicated. But, the Scriptures present God as triune. That means we need to teach about Him. We need to teach Christians to know Him and love Him as He is; and He’s triune.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the doctrine of the Trinity; probably more than most pastors. That, and Christology, are my own hobby horses. Some people find joy in making complicated end-times charts. Others find fulfillment in being a Baptist fundamentalist. Still other Christians find their religious self-identity in a particular view of the doctrine of salvation. I like to study about who God is, and how He’s revealed Himself.

I just finished Millard Erickson’s God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity. It’s a very good book, but probably not the most engaging thing for the “average” Christian to read. It presupposes a lot of theological training. Erickson’s book is one of the most helpful works on the Trinity I’ve read. On balance, I’d say Carl Beckwith’s The Holy Trinity may have had a more formative influence on me, but this might be because I read it first. Beckwith is a good Lutheran, and Erickson is a irenic conservative Baptist, but they’ve both produced very fine works on this most important of doctrines.

As I think on the doctrine now, here is a non-exhaustive list of things (in no particular order) I think need to be emphasized if one wishes to teach the Trinity in a comprehensive way.

1: The “three foundations” James White mentioned in his excellent book The Forgotten Trinity

  • Monotheism; there is only one God
  • There are three divine persons
  • Each person is co-equal and co-eternal

I think the best way to do this is to walk through several passages of Scripture that support each foundation. The trick is to be comprehensive without being exhaustive.

2: The definitions of “Being” and “Person”

Both these terms have baggage, and were fought over during the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries. We need to consider how the great creeds seem to use these terms, but we shouldn’t be slaves to, for example, 4th century expressions of theological categories. In other words, just because the 4th century creeds may not have intended to convey a more modern concept of “personhood” which includes self-consciousness, this does not mean this modern definition of “personhood” is wrong!

The terms “being” and “person” are good; but their proper definitions must always comport with Scripture. I am concerned with a kind of rote confessionalism that encourages an almost slavish devotion to old formulations of eternal doctrine. This isn’t a call to jettison historical theology; it’s simply a call to not be a slave to it.

3: The Trinity as a society of persons

This is Erickson’s term, and I like it. He wrote, “The Godhead is a complex of persons. Love exists within the Godhead as a binding relationship of each of the persons to each of the others,” (221). He explained:

… the fundamental characteristic of the universe is personal … The supreme person is indeed a person, with identity, thought, will and personality, with whom it is possible to have a relationship, conscious to both parties. This supreme being, however, was not content to remain solitary. He acted to create reality external to himself. This involved the creation of the material universe and all physical objects within it. It also involved bringing into existence other selves besides himself. These persons, to a large extent, exist for relationship with the creating and originating God. If, then, the most significant members of the creation are persons in relationship, then reality is primarily social. This means that the most powerful binding force in the universe is love.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 220-221.

This is good, but I think he could have brought more of the holiness attribute into play. God’s love is defined by His holiness. It doesn’t exist apart from it. I buy that God didn’t have to create creation (and, particularly, human beings), so clearly He desired worship and social interaction, so clearly He is social.

But, is “love” the best way to get this across? Probably. I struggle to express this without having to toss in caveats about how this isn’t narcissism on God’s part. He didn’t want us because of who we are; He wants us to worship Him because of who He is. In other words, we aren’t doing God any favors by being believers! God isn’t a harried middle-manager who’s “so happy to have us on the team,” so to speak.

4: Perichoresis as the guard against tritheism

I never heard about this doctrine at seminary; or, at least, I don’t remember. I first came across it in Carl Beckwith’s volume. Erickson echoes it here. Briefly, Erickson explains, “[p]erichoresis means that not only do the three members of the Trinity interpenetrate one another, but all three are intimately involved in all the works of God,” (235).

This is perhaps most clearly seen in Jesus’ promise about the coming of the Spirit, in John 14-16. In a recent sermon on that same passage, I described this interpenetration as an eternal, divine union between Persons. I was happy to see Erickson echo my own thoughts and state, “[t]he Godhead is to be thought of as less as a unity, in the sense of oneness of simplicity, than as a union, involving three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” (264).

The generic, conservative expressions of the Trinity (even in some theological texts) is often a functional tritheism. This doctrine of perichoresis was revolutionary to my own thinking, and I think it’s rightly the key to avoiding the charge of tritheism.

5: Analogies can be useful

There are lots of really bad Trinity analogies. Some theologians believe we should cast aside all attempts to make analogies, because they each inevitably fall short. Erickson disagrees, and sees them as useful symbols for pointing to a larger reality. Erickson explains:

It is simply not possible to explain it [the doctrine of the Trinity]unequivocally. What must be done is to offer a series, a whole assortment of illustrations and analogies, with the hope that some discernment will take place. We must approach the matter from various angles, ‘nibbling at the meaning’ of the doctrine, as it were.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 268.

What I’ve taken away from this is that some analogies are useful to get at different aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity.

  • for the idea of a composite union forming one entity, Erickson suggests the analogy of the brain, the heart and the lungs forming distinct but integral parts of a human body. Each is quite useless on its own, and by itself each could never be called “human.” But, combined together, we have a human being. Thus it is with the Persons of the Trinity; they do not exist and have never existed without each other. They are more than the sum of their parts.
  • for the concept of interpenetration as closeness of relationship, Erickson suggests a marriage.

6: There is no eternal subordination of function or nature

Most conservative evangelical pastors are taught that there is an eternal subordination of function in the Godhead. That is, Father, Son and Spirit are equal in power, glory, honor (etc.), but they have different roles in accordance with their functions. The Father is always “in charge,” as it were, because He has a particular role to play. This is why the Son always obeys the Father, etc.

Advocates for this position often reach to the analogy of complementarian marriage; men and women are equal before God, but the husband is in charge because he’s been assigned a superior role. There is equality in essence, but subordination in function.

I couldn’t agree less. I think this idea, variously called eternal functional subordination (EFS) or eternal subordination of the son (ESS), is terribly misguided. I disagree with EFS wholeheartedly. I’ve read Bruce Ware’s Father, Son and Holy Spirit (EFS) and I’ve read Erickson’s book against EFS. As far as I’m aware, only Erickson, Kevin Giles and D. Glenn Butner have written book-length works against EFS – the rest of the generically conservative evangelical folks seem to tilt towards EFS.

The issue of eternal generation is tied up with EFS; it’s advocates generally don’t hold to eternal generation. Interestingly, Erickson opposes EFS and dislikes eternal generation. J. Oliver Buswell Jr., who didn’t address the issue (‘cuz it wasn’t an issue in his day), presents Christ’s functional subordination as temporary and strongly suggests we get rid of eternal generation altogether. David Beale, a theologian and historian much closer to home, dedicated perhaps 30 pages of his historical theology to arguing against eternal generation. 

Speaking for myself, I don’t understand eternal generation and have never read an account by a theologian who seemed to understand it, either (including Beckwith, who is otherwise excellent). I think Shedd came close, but I forgot his reasoning one day after reading it – it’s very convoluted. It smacks of some kind of ontological subordination to me, no matter which way you slice it – and it doesn’t seem tied to the text.

Erickson writes:

I would propose that there are no references to the Father begetting the Son or the Father (and the Son) sending the Spirit that cannot be understood in terms of the temporal role assumed by the second and third persons of the Trinity, respectively. They do not indicate any intrinsic relationship among the three. Further, to speak of one of the persons as unoriginate and the others as eternally begotten or proceeding from the Father is to introduce an element of causation or origination that must ultimately involve some kind of subordination among them …

There is no permanent distinction of one from the others in terms of origination. While the Father may be the cause of the existence of the Son and the Spirit, they are also mutually the cause of his existence and the existence of one another. There is an eternal symmetry of all three persons.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 309-310.

Erickson unpacked this at great length in his book examining EFS, Who’s Tampering With the Trinity, which I recently read and agreed with.

Now what?

I want to teach the Trinity in church one day, unpacking these concepts in a way average, ordinary Christians can understand. These concepts, mentioned briefly above, will likely form the backbone of what this teaching series will eventually look like. The problem, again, is how to be comprehensive without being exhaustive. I don’t think I can do that, right now.

So, for now, I nibble around the edges a bit, emphasizing what I can as the text suggests it. Right now, I preach a sermon on either the Trinity, or Father, Son and Spirit each time we observe the Lord’s Supper, which is monthly. In this manner, I’ll likely cover all of this eventually but I’d like to bring it all together in two sermon or two, one day. I don’t know if I can do that!

But, I can at least say that I’ve read (and continue to read) widely on the subject, and I’ve gotten to a point where I can accurately sketch out where I need to go. The latest three watershed revelations for me are that (1) the concept of perichoresis is extraordinarily helpful and biblical, (2) EFS is quite dangerous, and (3) the doctrines of eternal generation and the Spirit’s procession (i.e. some sort of taxis with the Godhead) are likely extra-biblical and can be dropped.

I plan to order Erickson’s book on God’s attributes, and his tome on the incarnation soon. It may not come as a great surprise that Erickson is my favorite theologian! I need to read Beckwith’s book again, and I plan to see what Moltmann and Brunner have to say about the Trinity, too. I also need to delve into the patristic authors more. There’s always more to read, but it’s always fun.

Orphans, Widows, the Poor … and Justice

God wants His people to live a certain way. To act a certain way. To have certain honest motivations. He wants His people to love one another, and to prove it by their actions.

The fruit of real salvation is moral and spiritual reformation, because you love God. You don’t “clean yourself up” to gain favor with God; that’s not possible. Instead, because God has already changed your heart and mind and given you spiritual life, you reform your life with His help. Part of that means you love your fellow believers.

Well-meaning Christians often cite biblical commands to care for the poor, the widows and orphans, and try to apply these to mercy ministries. Douglas Moo, a conservative commentator, is representative of this trend when he applies one of these passages (James 1:27) in a generic way to society at large. He implies James is issuing a call to mercy ministries in the context of evangelism:

Christians whose religion is pure will imitate their Father by intervening to help the helpless. Those who suffer from want in the third world, in the inner city; those who are unemployed and penniless; those who are inadequately represented in government or in law—these are the people who should see abundant evidence of Christians’ ‘pure religion’.

Douglas J. Moo, James, vol. 16, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 90.

This is all true, but it isn’t what James meant. That passage, and others like it, don’t teach this. Instead, they teach Christians to care for one another, to love one another, to watch out for one another. To be sure, it’s a wonderful evangelistic strategy to couple mercy ministries with Gospel proclamation. You can win a hearing for the Gospel by helping people. But, that’s not what these passages are about.

Who’s the audience?

When Jesus summarized the entire thrust of the Old Covenant law (Mk 12:28-34), He said it had two foundations:

  1. to love God with everything you had (Deut 6:4-5), and
  2. to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself (Lev 19:18).

If you look at both these citations, who was the audience? They were both addressed to Old Covenant members. They weren’t for unbelievers. They were for believers.

Regarding the first citation (Deut 6:4-5), Moses preached the Book of Deuteronomy to explain the Old Covenant to the people as they prepared to invade the Promised Land (“Moses undertook to explain this law …” Deut 1:5). As for the second, the context in Leviticus shows it was written for believers, too. But, beyond that, take a look at the context around the citation to “love your neighbor.” It tells us quite a bit:

  • Israelites had to leave some of their harvest from vineyards and crops for the poor and needy in their covenant community; their believing community (Lev 19:9-10)
  • They couldn’t steal or lie to one another. They also couldn’t bear false witness against one another (Lev 19:11-12)
  • They couldn’t oppress or rob one another; that is, they had to compensate one another fairly. They had to pay wages on time. They couldn’t take advantage of the blind or deaf. Why? Because Yahweh is Lord, and they should fear His wrath for disobedience (Lev 19:13)
  • They had to uphold justice and righteousness in legal matters (Lev 19:15)
  • They couldn’t slander one another (Lev 19:16)
  • They had to settle disputes among themselves, rather than let hate simmer in their hearts. There was no room for grudges or plots of vengeance; rather, they had to love one another (Lev 19:17-18).

What’s behind all this? What’s the concept undergirding all these commands? Simple: God’s people ought to love each other. They ought to care about each other. They should want to prove it by their actions. God expects His people to live His way, and part of that is to love fellow believers.

If you can understand this, then you can understand the references in the Bible to the widow, the orphan and the poor. You can understand who those commands are directed to.

Proving the point

The rest is pretty easy. Here are some representative examples from Scripture:

When Moses said this:

You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns.

Deuteronomy 24:14

He was referring to fellow covenant members; either native born Israelites or proselytes who had joined the community. He was referring to how God’s people should interact with each other. This echoes the commands from Leviticus 19.

Moses meant the same thing when he continued, and wrote this:

You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.

Deuteronomy 24:17-18

This speaks for itself, and so does the audience.

One of the condemnations the prophet Ezekiel brought against nation of Judah was their moral wickedness; specifically, the way they mistreated one another. Ezekiel wrote:

Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you.

Ezekiel 22:7

You should read the entire paragraph for context, but Ezekiel’s point here is very clear. Part of their sin is their mistreatment of one another, especially those who deserve special respect – parents, proselytes who have joined the community, and the most vulnerable in the covenant society.

This was the same sentiment the Apostle John had when he wrote, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth,” (1 Jn 3:18). His observation was borne out of the same worldview that Ezekiel had, that Moses had, that Jesus had. God’s people should love one another, and show it.

In Zechariah’s day, as he and Haggai struggled to encourage the returned exiles to rebuild the temple, he reminded them of their father’s mistakes:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” But they refused to pay attention hand turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear.

Zechariah 7:8-11

Before the Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians, before the Babylonians crushed Judah, God was angry with His people for how they mistreated one another.

Even Amos, who wrote during the secular glory days of the Northern Kingdom, had the same message:

Thus says the Lord:

“For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals—

Amos 2:6

What does this mean? It’s difficult to nail down precisely, but it’s clear the rich and powerful in Israelite society were oppressing the vulnerable. You get the picture of them accepting bribes to sell out the righteous for silver, or for material possessions. He continued:

those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
    and turn aside the way of the afflicted

Amos 2:7

You get the image of those in power smashing the faces of the poor into the dirt, and turning away those who are afflicted and helpless. This is a perversion of the society God commanded the Israelites to model.

And, finally, we come to James:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

James 1:27

James is talking to Christians about what their faith should look like. The fruit it ought to bear. What is the mark of a true Christian, of true religion? Well, simple! This command is really an inversion of Jesus’ summary. James says we must (1) love fellow believers, and (2) keep ourselves free from this evil world, which really means an all-consuming love for God.

What about the parable of the good Samaritan?

This is a good question. Why did Jesus give the parable? What prompted Him to employ it? He had a reason, didn’t He? Here’s the context:

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

Luke 10:25

The 72 disciples have just returned, and given an ecstatic report of their ministry success (“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven …” Lk 10:18). Jesus rejoiced with them; “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” (Lk 10:23). He is glad God has revealed His plan to these simple men.

And, on the heels of this great event, the lawyer stands up and asks Jesus the question. He isn’t sincere; he wants to “put him to the test.” Jesus asks the man about the Old Covenant law, and he correctly responds by summarizing it the same way Jesus has done (Lk 10:26-28).

But, the man wants more. He’s “desiring to justify himself,” (Lk 10:29). He wants to limit his responsibilities as much as possible. He responds just like a stereotypical lawyer. Define “love.” Define “neighbor.” If he can narrow his target as much as possible, it’ll make his obligations so much easier to meet!

Think about it; would your spouse accept this kind of logic? What would you think if, at the altar on your wedding day, your husband halted the ceremony and said, “Now, I agree with all the lovey stuff, in theory. But, let’s clarify a few things. Define ‘until death.’ Define ‘love.’ Define ‘cherish.’ Let’s get this down on paper before we go any further!”

Are these the actions of a loving, would-be husband? I don’t think so! This is a guy who’s not serious. A guy who’s looking to do as little as possible. It’s the same with the lawyer. Jesus knows this; it’s why he tells the parable.

The Samaritan was a “good neighbor” because he didn’t care about legalistic qualifications, or legal definitions, or his strict scope of responsibilities. He saw a need, and he met it. That man is the good neighbor. That man fulfills the intent of the Old Covenant law, because he showed mercy.

What’s the point? The point is that a good neighbor is someone who shows mercy, not someone who seeks to do as little as possible in order to justify himself in his own mind. That’s why Jesus told the parable.

Wrapping up

The Old and New Covenant commands to care for widows, orphans and the poor are to believers, and their primary application is to widows, orphans and the poor within the believing community. True faith and Christian religion won’t seek to minimize this responsibility or shirk it; it will prove itself by genuine mercy and kindness to fellow believers in need.  

Mercy ministries to the general public are outstanding vehicles for evangelism. They just aren’t what these “justice” passages are talking about.