Story Time with Uncle Anselm

anselmAnselm was a brilliant guy. A genius. This past year, I read his book Why God Became Man. He published it in 1097, so you could say it’s a bit of a antique. Anselm’s book is really about why Christ had to take on a human nature and be conceived of and born to a virgin. But, along the way, he tackled the reason for Christ’s death and thus popularized the “satisfaction theory” of atonement, which envisioned God as an overlord of sorts who was owed “satisfaction” or payment by his subjects for crimes committed, in order to set things right.

This theory is very intriguing, and it’s not too far from the penal substitution theory most conservative Christians are taught. I’m confident in saying this, because I doubt many Christians (even those in academia who ought to know better) have actually read Anselm’s book. I have.

Here, I want to provide an extended excerpt, and some brief commentary. Anselm’s book is fascinating for two reasons; (1) he structures it as a dialogue between himself and a bright student named Boso, and (2) he’s remorselessly logical. Anselm would have been a swell lawyer.

As you read this, remember two things:

  1. There really were Christians in the Medieval period
  2. Christians in 1097 really were smart

Here we go …

What it is to sin and to give recompense for sin

Anselm: What we have to investigate, therefore, is the question: ‘By what rationale does God forgive the sins of men?’ And, so that we may do this more clearly, let us first see what it is to sin and what it is to give satisfaction for sin.

Boso: It is for you to demonstrate and for me to pay attention.

Anselm: If an angel or a man were always to render to God what he owes, he would never sin.

Boso: I cannot contradict this.

Anselm: Then, to sin is nothing other than not to give God what is owed to him.

Boso: What is the debt which we owe to God?

Anselm: All the will of a rational creature ought to be subject to the will of God.

Boso: Perfectly true.

This is pretty brief, but it’s good enough for me. God made us, so our duty is to be completely subject to God’s will in our lives. That’s an umbrella definition, but it’s more than big enough to cover the bases. So far, so good.

Anselm: This is the debt which an angel, and likewise a man, owes to God. No one sins through paying it, and everyone who does not pay it, sins. This is righteousness or uprightness of the will. It makes individuals righteous or upright in their heart, that is, their will. This is the sole honour, the complete honour, which we owe to God and which God demands from us. For only such a will, when it can act, performs actions which are pleasing to God. Even when it cannot act, it is pleasing in itself, because no work without it is pleasing. Someone who does not render to God this honour due to him is taking away from God what is his, and dishonouring God, and this is what it is to sin.

God demands your entire will be subject to Him. You exist to serve Him. If you fail to do this, you commit sin and dishonor God, who is your Creator. This is fine. Excellent stuff.

As long as he does not repay what he has taken away, he remains in a state of guilt. And it is not sufficient merely to repay what has been taken away: rather, he ought to pay back more than he took, in proportion to the insult which he has inflicted.

For just as, in the case of someone who injures the health of another, it is not sufficient for him to restore that person’s health, if he does not pay some compensation for the painful injury which has been inflicted, similarly it is not sufficient for someone who violates someone else’s honour, to restore that person’s honour, if he does not, in consequence of the harmful act of dishonour, give, as restitution to the person whom he has dishonoured, something pleasing to that person.

This makes sense, doesn’t it? You can’t just repay God by doing what you should have done. No, you have to do more than that in order to set things right. Isn’t that what Leviticus says? If you steal from a guy, you have to pay him back more than what you stole (Lev 6:1-5). That’s why Jesus knew Zaccheaus was actually sorry (Lk 19:1-10).

One should also observe that when someone repays what he has unlawfully stolen, what he is under an obligation to give is not the same as what it would be possible to demand from him, were it not that he had seized the other person’s property. Therefore, everyone who sins is under an obligation to repay to God the honour which he has violently taken from him, and this is the satisfaction which every sinner is obliged to give to God.

Things won’t be right between you and God unless and until you repay the honor you stole from Him by your crimes. You have to “satisfy” God in order to set things right. This is not far at all from the penal, substitutionary theory. The two theories are very, very close cousins. Perhaps even step-siblings.

Boso: With regard to all these matters, seeing we have undertaken to adopt a logical approach, I have nothing to say in contradiction, though you frighten me a little.

Who says Medieval guys don’t have a sense of humor!?

Whether it is fitting for God to forgive a sin out of mercy alone, without any restitution of what is owed to him

Anselm: Let us now return to the main argument and see whether it is fitting for God to forgive a sin out of mercy alone, without any restitution of the honour taken away from him.

Boso: I do not see why this should not be fitting.

Isn’t this still a question, today? Why doesn’t God just forgive and forget? Why doesn’t He just be “loving” and forgive sin, without demanding satisfaction? Isn’t that what real love is, to forgive unconditionally?

Anselm: To forgive a sin in this way is nothing other than to refrain from inflicting punishment. And if no satisfaction is given, the way to regulate sin correctly is none other than to punish it. If, therefore, it is not punished, it is forgiven without its having been regulated.

Boso: What you say is logical.

If you don’t punish a criminal, then you’re left with unregulated lawlessness. We instinctively understand this in society, with the criminal justice system. This is why it’s “not fitting” if a municipality unconditionally “forgives” a serial killer, and lets him go without punishment. Why can’t we understand this when it comes to God’s criminal justice system, too?

Anselm: But it is not fitting for God to allow anything in his kingdom to slip by unregulated.

Boso: I am in fear of sinning, if I want to disagree.

Indeed.

Anselm: Therefore, it is not fitting for God to forgive a sin without punishment.

Boso: That follows.

Yes, it does.

Anselm: There is another thing which also follows, if a sin is forgiven without punishment: that the position of sinner and non-sinner before God will be similar— and this does not befit God.

Boso: I cannot deny it.

Why obey the law, if the law-breaker faces no penalty? Why shouldn’t we all just do whatever we want, if there’s no incentive for holy behavior? We’ll all be forgiven in the end, right? So, why not party?

Anselm: Consider this too. Everyone knows that the righteousness of mankind is subject to a law whereby it is rewarded by God with a recompense proportional to its magnitude.

Boso: This is our belief.

Anselm: If, however, sin is neither paid for nor punished, it is subject to no law.

Boso: I cannot interpret the matter in any other way.

Nor can I …

Anselm: Therefore, sinfulness is in a position of greater freedom, if it is forgiven through mercy alone, than righteousness— and this seems extremely unfitting. And the incongruity extends even further: it makes sinfulness resemble God. For, just as God is subject to no law, the same is the case with sinfulness.

Boso: I cannot object to your reasoning. But, when God teaches us to forgive those who sin against us, he seems to be being contradictory— in teaching us to do something which it is not fitting for him to do himself.

Exactly! God wants us to forgive, but He won’t do the same without first demanding “satisfaction?” Why on earth? What a good question!

Anselm: There is no contradiction in this, because God is giving us this teaching in order that we should not presume to do something which belongs to God alone. For it belongs to no one to take vengeance, except to him who is Lord of all. I should explain that when earthly powers take action in this way in accordance with right, it is the Lord himself, by whom they have been appointed for the task, who is acting.

Interesting answer. God can demand satisfaction, because He is Creator, and vengeance belongs to Him (Deut 32:35).

Boso: You have removed what I thought to be an inherent contradiction. But there is another matter about which I want your answer. For, since God is so free that he is subject to no law and no judgement, and is so benevolent that nothing can be conceived of more benevolent than he, and since there is nothing right or proper except what he wishes, it does seem surprising that we should be saying that he is in no way willing to forgive an injury to himself, or that it is not permissible for him to do so, whereas we are in the habit of seeking forgiveness from him even for things we do to other people.

Boso wants to know why God is intent on demanding satisfaction when He Himself can set (or abolish) the very principles by which he demands this satisfaction! In other words:

  1. God made this standard,
  2. which means He’s not bound by it (i.e. it’s not an external compulsion forced upon Him),
  3. which means He could abolish the requirement for satisfaction if He wanted to.

Anselm: What you say about God’s freedom, his will and his benevolence is true, but we ought, in our reasoning, to understand these concepts in such a way as not to impugn his dignity. For the term ‘freedom’ relates only to the freedom to perform what is advantageous or fitting, and one should not give the name of ‘benevolence’ to something which brings about a result unfitting for God. A statement that, ‘What God wills is just and what he does not will is unjust’, is not to be understood as meaning that, ‘If God wishes anything whatsoever that is unfitting, it is just, since it is he who wills it’.

Ok, fair enough. God will not will something that is against His own character. To suggest He would do so impugns His dignity. Got it.

For the argument that, ‘If it is God’s will to tell a lie, it is just to tell a lie’, is a non sequitur. Rather, the liar is not God. For a will cannot wish to tell a lie, if it is not one in which the truth has been corrupted, or, more accurately, one which has been corrupted by the fact of deserting the truth. When, therefore, one says, ‘If it is God’s will to tell a lie’, this is no different from saying, ‘If God is a being such as to wish to tell a lie’. It does not follow, then, that telling a lie is just.

Unless, that is, we adopt an interpretation of the kind used when we say with reference to two impossibles, ‘If this thing is so, then that thing is so’, when neither ‘this’ nor ‘that’ is the case; for instance, if one were to say, ‘If water is dry, then fire is wet’, given that neither is true. It is therefore only true to make the statement, ‘If it is God’s will, then it is just’, about things which it is not unfitting for God to wish. For if it is God’s will that it should rain, then it is a just thing that it should rain; and if it is his will that some man should be killed, then it is just that he should be killed.

In consequence of this reasoning, if it is not fitting for God to do anything in an unjust and unregulated manner, it does not belong to his freedom or benevolence or will to release unpunished a sinner who has not repaid to God what he has taken away from him.

Boso: You are removing all the objections which I thought could be raised against you.

Hopefully, this little excerpt is having the same impact on you as it did on poor Boso! Why don’t you buy Anselm’s major works, and read this little book for yourself?

The Curious Case of the Christian Cake Baker

cake
Jack Philipps, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop

This article is a short summary of the oral arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd.  v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on December 5, 2017. For those who’ve been following the news, this is the “Christian cake baker case.” Oral arguments are an opportunity for both sides to defend their legal positions in person, and answer any questions the Justices have. The Supreme Court will rule on this case sometime in 2018.

In the article, I provide a few bits of commentary. But, this is primarily a summary.[1] Hopefully, it can spur each of on to consider the issue of soul liberty in the public square in these troubled times.

Baker’s Response (Kristen Waggoner, Alliance Defending Freedom)

Philipps’ objection is not with the people who want the cake, his attorney argued. Instead, the objection is the message it communicates. “The First Amendment prohibits the government from forcing people to express messages that their violate religious convictions,” (4:12-19). The back and forth centered on this point. What is “speech?” How do you separate the identity of the customer from the message the product communicates?

Ginsburg opened by asking about off the shelf products; would Philipps provide these to a same-sex couple (4:21-5:4; 10:9-19)? Absolutely, Waggoner said, a pre-made item wasn’t compelled speech (5:5-8). The crux of the issue is intent. When Phillips puts a pre-made product on display “in the stream of commerce in a public accommodation setting, his speech has been completed,” (6:1-4). However, when you consider custom designed cakes, it’s a whole new ballgame (6:7-10). Thus it is with Phillips; “we are drawing the line prior to the compulsion — there can be no compulsion of speech,” (6:4-6). And, this is about more than putting “words and symbols” onto the cake – it’s the act of custom making the product itself (8:8-19).

So, where is the line? Who can claim an artistic exemption on the basis of compelled speech? The justices hammered away on this line. Can a florist (11:9-13)? Yes, Wagonner said (11:14-17). What about a wedding invitation designer (11:18-21)? Of course (11:22). What about hair stylists (12:8) or makeup artists (12:17)?

  • “Absolutely not,” Waggoner says (12:9).
  • Justice Kagan is aghast; “Why is there no speech in — in creating a wonderful hairdo,” (12:12-13)?

Waggoner provided a legal answer, but not a particularly logical one. A tailor, a chef, a hairstylist and a makeup artist don’t produce “speech” because they (1) aren’t communicating a message with their product, and (2) their product isn’t analogous to other forms of protected speech (12:9-11; 12:23-13:5; 14:16-21).

This prompted Justice Sotomayor to ask how the Court could protect Phillips’ cake as a medium for public expression, when its primary purpose is to be eaten (15:21-25)!? Simple, Waggoner replied.

“[I]in the wedding context, Mr. Phillips is painting on a blank canvas. He is creating a painting on that canvas that expresses messages, and including words and symbols in those messages,” (16:9-14).

Well, what about sandwich artists (16:24-17:3)? The difference, Waggoner says, is the message being conveyed:

… when we have someone that is sketching and sculpting and hand designing something, that is creating a temporary sculpture that serves as the centerpiece of what they believe to be a religious wedding celebration, that cake expresses a message (17:4-10).

This distinction is the heart of the issue, according to Waggoner. If the very nature of the product is communicative, then you have “speech,” and this speech cannot be compelled. For example, this is why architecture is not “speech,” because “buildings are functional, not communicative,” (17:20-23).

Justice Breyer weighed in:

So, in other words, Mies or Michelangelo or someone is not protected when he creates the Laurentian steps, but this cake baker is protected when he creates the cake without any message on it for a wedding? Now, that — that really does baffle me, I have to say (18:4-10).

So, where on earth is the line (19:1-11)? What should we do? The answer, Waggoner says, is simple: “Is the individual who’s being compelled to speak objecting to the message that’s contained in that speech or the person? And that’s usually a very obvious inquiry,” (20:7-11). This is why Waggoner believes the issue of public accommodation laws related to race are completely different; “we know that that objection would be based to who the person is, rather than what the message is,” (23:3-6).

Here is the dividing line, and it isn’t something a secular Court can decide. Is sexual identity a legitimate category at all, from a Christian perspective? You can’t set theology aside here, because it informs how you answer the question. Everybody has a foundation for his worldview, and the Christian worldview (based on the Scriptures) proclaims that all sexual thoughts, intents and actions outside a monogamous, male and female sexual relationship in the context of a marriage covenant is deviant. To the Christian, “sexual identity” is not a legitimate category, because it isn’t part of the original, “good” created order. Race is, sexual identity is not.[2]

Waggoner, of course, didn’t go there. She simply continued to push the distinction between the racial public accommodation laws (which were about who the person is) and the Phillips case which, she insisted, is about the message, not the people. It’s unclear whether she (and her client) actually believe this, or if it’s merely a convenient legal peg to hang their case on.

How can the State fairly decide whether this message vs. identity distinction isn’t just a smokescreen? This was Justice Gorsuch’s question (24:18-21), and he didn’t receive a satisfactory answer.

Solicitor General’s Response on Behalf of Baker (from Noel Francisco)

Francisco insisted there must be “breathing space” for free speech protections for business owners, so they aren’t compelled to engage in “speech” for an event they disagree with (26:1-8). Dignity interests cut both ways, he argued (28:1-8).

What about a situation in a rural context, where only very limited services are available (28:10-29:11)? Leave that to the individual states, Francisco said (29:12-17).

Where is “the line?” You figure that out, he answered, by applying a two-fold test:

  1. can the “art” in question be analogized to traditional art in a legitimate way, and
  2. “is it predominantly art or predominantly utilitarian,” (41:1-3)?

In Phillips’ case, Francisco observed, “people pay very high prices for these highly sculpted cakes, not because they taste good, but because of their artistic qualities,” (41:3-6).

The goal is the intent of the purchaser. Is it merely a cake to be eaten? Why not go to Safeway? No, they clearly sought out Phillips so he could create, sculpt and fashion a special cake which is analogous to a traditional sculpture “except for the medium used,” (40:18-20). Is the creation’s purpose and effect intended to be (1) artistic, or (2) utilitarian? That is the key to answering the question (42:2-24).

In Phillips’ case, they sought him out for artistic purposes, to create an artistic and aesthetic effect on the wedding guests. Thus, they asked him to “speak” through the medium of the cake, and his “speech” must be protected. Francisco closed with a “slippery-slope” argument:

… if you were to disagree with our basic principle, putting aside the line about whether a cake falls on speech or non-speech side of the line, you really are envisioning a situation in which you could force, for example, a gay opera singer to perform at the Westboro Baptist Church just because that opera singer would be willing to perform at the National Cathedral (46:13-21).

State of Colorado (from Frederick Yarger)

Colorado’s position is simple (47:12-22):

  1. if you are a retail establishment, then
  2. you’re subject to anti-discrimination laws, and
  3. “you cannot turn away from your storefront if you’re a retail store,” (65:21-23).

It really is that simple and, if you’re a retail establishment, the State can require you to serve a customer (50:11-19).

What about, say, a same-sex couple who went to Catholic Legal Services and demanded to be given legal service related to their marriage? Would Colorado force them to provide service (50:21-51:23)? Yes, Yarger says, if Catholic Legal Services were operating in a retail context, “then Colorado would have the ability to regulate them,” (52:3).

Justice Kennedy brought up an interesting point. Colorado’s opinion read, in part, that “freedom of religion used to justify discrimination is a despicable piece of rhetoric,” (52:14-16). Why shouldn’t the Court assume Colorado is prejudiced against religion, and act accordingly? Kennedy asked Yarger three times if he disavowed the statement, and Yarger tap-danced mightily to avoid answering (52:17-53:15). If there were a bias on Colorado’s part, he claimed, of course there would be the problem (54:12-16). But, such was not the case (55:15-23).

Colorado’s issue, Yarger said, is that Philipps’ actions were based on the identity of the customer. Phillips may claim the message is the problem but, Yarger argued, the message here is linked with the customer’s identity, so the argument lacks merit. “[T]he message in this case, Your Honor, depended entirely on the identity of the customer who was ordering the cake,” (62:15-18). So, if the baker chooses to refuse service, he is being discriminatory (63:16-21).

Justice Kennedy, once again, chimed in with some stern words (64:3-8):

Counselor, tolerance is essential in a free society. And tolerance is most meaningful when it’s mutual. It seems to me that the state in its position here has been neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’s religious beliefs.

Yarger disagreed, and his position hinges on granting the idea that “sexual identity” is a valid category, on par with race and sex (64:14-65:3). They’re protected by public accommodation laws, so “sexual identity” must be, too.

Attorney for Homosexual Couple (from David Cole)

Cole traveled over much of the same ground Yarger did. Beware the slippery slope; “to accept his argument leads to unacceptable consequences,” (74:20-21). Sexual identity is a valid category, along with race and sex (75:9-16).

Cole dismissed Francisco’s “artistic purpose and effect” argument. If a mom buys a cake for a child’s birthday party, “no one thinks that the baker is wishing happy birthday to the four-year-old. It’s the mom,” (78:1-3). The issue isn’t some alleged “message,” it’s the identity of the homosexual couple. “Because in this case, again, the only thing the baker knew about these customers was that they were gay. And, as a result, he refused to sell them any wedding cake,” (79:4-8).

For Colorado, if you’re in retail, your private beliefs do not allow you to discriminate against a protected class (92:6-10), and sexual identity is a protected class (87:13-19; 89:7-10). Justice Kennedy retorted, “your identity thing is just too facile,” (89:23-24).

Conclusion

The legal arguments hinge on whether the act of making a cake is “speech,” and whether that “speech” can be compelled by the State. Both sides presented valid “slippery-slope” arguments in support of their own positions. On balance, it is doubtful whether you can logically separate the identity of a homosexual couple from the message their wedding cake is meant to convey.

Aside from the legal arguments, there is a more profound question for the Christian – where is the dividing line between one’s right to soul liberty, and the opportunity to share the Gospel in all sorts of negative contexts? Could Philipps have baked the cake, and still made a positive opportunity out of this? Have his actions served to “maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation,” (1 Pet 2:12)?

Should we allow everyone do what they want, according to their own consciences? Is this the best solution? Os Guinness wrote a book advocating a sophisticated version of this approach, and remarked,

Soul freedom for all was once attacked as naive and utopian, and it is still resisted as subversive. Yet it is not only a shining ideal but a dire necessity today and an eminently practical solution to the predicaments of our time. Truly it is the golden key to a troublesome situation in which the darker angels must not be allowed to dominate.”[3]

But, when it gets down to brass tacks, how do we actually do this? This case is about that question. How do you allow people to express their sincere beliefs, yet crack down on genuine bigotry and hatred? How do you carve out these exceptions, and where does it end?

Guinness remarked that, in the end, soul freedom depends on people thinking and acting like adults, and taking their civic responsibilities seriously. “Reciprocity, mutuality and universality are the key principles of this vision of a civil public square. In this sense a civil public square is the political embodiment of the Golden Rule.”[4] In this day and age, these are not virtues that totalitarians (on either side) are anxious to model. Instead, activists seek to force their views on the public by force of law, not by persuasion and discussion in the public square:

“The constant pursuit of rights through law alone rather than the habits of the heart has caught Americans in the toils of ever-spreading law. On the one hand, it has led to a strengthening of the law at the expense of the habits of the heart, of litigation at the expense of both civic education and the role of parents and schools, and of the lawyers and the lawyer class at the expense of other public servants.[5]

This case is the fruit of this particularly poisonous tree. The Court has been made the arbitrator of morality. How can the Court fulfill this mission? How can it draw the line this homosexual couple wants it to draw? In a moment of candor, Justice Breyer admitted, “I can’t think of a way to do it,” (59:11-12).

Notes

[1] I make no attempt to summarize or even reference the various briefs filed by the Petitioners or Respondents. Here is the question before the Supreme Court. If you’re interested, you can find them. Throughout this article, I’m referencing the official transcript of oral arguments. The citation format in the article is page number : line number.

[2] Of course, in the end, the only category distinctions which have eternal significance are (1) believer or (2) non-believer. Or, as the Didache puts it, “there are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways,” (Didache 1:1).

[3] Os Guinness, The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), 14.

[4] Guinness (Global Public Square, 181).

[5] Guinness (Global Public Square, 149).

Husbands and Wives (No. 1)

marriageWhat should a Christian wife do, if she’s married to an unbeliever? Generally, I think there are two possible responses. The first is to be tempted to break the marriage covenant:

  • Maybe she hit the road, and dump the guy?
  • Perhaps she should preach to him incessantly, and heckle him to “get saved” and become a Christian?
  • Should she take a judgmental, self-righteous attitude?

The second response is to be tempted to mix your Christian faith into secular culture, in an attempt to curb any possible offense it might cause in your family, and in society – go along to get along, as they say:

  • Maybe she should go with her husband to worship the gods and goddesses at the pagan temple?
  • Maybe she should burn incense in homage to the Emperor?
  • Maybe she should internalize her faith, and make it a totally private affair. In other words, become a “secret” Christian?

In this passage (1 Peter 3:1-7), the Apostle Peter talks about this problem. His advice is very, very simple – be submissive to your unbelieving husband, because he might be won over to the Gospel by your Christlike way of life.

Listen to the first discussion about this passage, and read the teaching notes, too. As always, the audio and teaching notes for the entire book of 1 Peter are here. Ciao!

Letters from Legion (No. 2)

letterMy dear Frederick: [1]

I read your last email with joy in my heart! You say your Christian is going through a difficult time; that his wife has left him and run off with her “personal trainer” from the gym. This is excellent news, my boy! You must strike when his defenses are at their weakest – never lose an opportunity to help him doubt the Enemy’s goodness, kindness, mercy and grace.

Make the enemy a tyrant

Don’t tempt him to doubt the Enemy’s providence; his governance over everything that happens. No, Frederick – we want him to keep believing that God (in the words of one of the Enemy Forces’ wretched creeds), “leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without his orderly arrangement.”

You see, we don’t want him to doubt that God governs His creation. He certainly does! What we want, Frederick, is for this young man to doubt God’s goodness. You must do everything you can to make the Enemy seem cold, distant, uncaring and unmerciful. Make the man despise God for allowing this to happen. Poison his mind with bitterness! Instead of recognizing that God governs and controls everything, but people are still morally responsible for their own actions – lead him to believe that God is a cruel despot, a wicked kitten playing with a spider.

He’s the poor spider, Frederick – and God is the kitten who tears off a leg here, smashes his body there and finally (when he grows tired of this play), eats him whole and leaves a few stray bits and pieces on the floor to rot.

Keep the scriptures abstract

You wrote that the young man is trying to find comfort in the Scriptures. You specifically mentioned the book of 1 Peter, where the cursed apostle warned believers that “this is favor with God – if, when you’re doing right and suffering, you endure it. This is why you slaves were called to salvation!” And, when he wrote, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will do right and entrust their souls to a faithful Creator.”

Don’t wait for a moment, Frederick! This is a critical moment for the young man; a turning point. The Enemy teaches that He calls men from slavery to us, sets them free, and calls them to live a life in devoted service to Him. He calls them to worship His Son as their King and Lord. He tells them to trust in His good providence, and to always realize that everything He does is for a good, holy and just reason. No, no, no!

We can’t allow this mindset to last, my boy. The good news is that this mindset is extraordinarily counter-cultural. It goes against every instinct in his body, and your object is to keep this at an intellectual level. Make this a sterile, cold and abstract kind of doctrine. The very word doctrine conjures up images of ivory-towers, thick books, and dreary lecture-halls.

Keep it there. Keep it far away from so-called “real life.” Keep the scriptures academic; don’t let them become practical. Encourage your young man to think he’s special, unique – that the pain he’s feeling is one of a kind, and the scriptures don’t speak to his situation.

Encourage him to keep the old habits

At heart, Frederick, people are narcissists. They’re in love with themselves, and it takes tremendous effort to make them love God more. This process only begins with the so-called “new birth,” when the Enemy gives his new subjects a new heart, soul and mind. He awakens them spiritually (that’s when we lose them, Frederick), and gives them the ability to love him and his son. But the good news is these habits have to be learned. Many of the Enemy Forces don’t bother to cultivate this behavior, so they’re easy prey for us when disaster strikes.

But, always remember – “disaster” for the Enemy is sweet music to our ears!

Farewell, for now …

I must dash. I’ll send you another email in a few weeks. Remember this, and you’ll do well:

  1. Keep him away from the scriptures
  2. Push the doctrine of God’s providence, but crush any thoughts that He’s good and kind. Make God a tyrant, not a loving King.
  3. If he does read the scriptures for help during his suffering, keep everything he reads abstract, cold and distant. Emphasize the dryness of doctrine, and the pain of his personal experience.
  4. Cultivate his bitterness, feed his pain, bury his thoughts of God’s goodness, crush his theological notions of God’s kind providence, and maximize every thought about divine injustice.
  5. Make the young man hate God for doing this to him.

I can’t wait to write again, Frederick. I’m anxious to see what you do with what I’ve taught you! Our Father Below greets you. May the Cursed One be blasphemed forever.

Your loving uncle,

Legion

Notes

[1] Some readers will recognize this letter is inspired by C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece The Screwtape Letters, which is a fictional set of letters between a high-ranking demon (Screwtape) and his young nephew, Wormwood. In these letters, Screwtape offers young Wormwood some practical advice about how to ruin the life of an ordinary young man who has recently become a Christian.

Lewis was a Christian, and this work functions as sort of a mirror into one’s own soul. It’s one of the most brilliant pieces of literature written, I believe. I can’t hope to match Lewis’ style and content, but I can at least give it a shot.

Real Christian Life … and Slavery (No. 5)

peterToday, I managed to finish my Sunday School march through 1 Peter 2:18-25. Why on earth would Peter tell his readers, “this is favor with God – if, when you’re doing right and suffering, you endure it. This is why you slaves were called to salvation!” The Apostle answered that question by drawing a parallel to Christ, our Savior.

Christ lived, suffered bled and died on behalf of all people, many of whom couldn’t care less.  In the same way, Christian slaves (and, by extension – all Christians) have been called to salvation to do right (i.e. be faithful Christians who live holy lives), and (if necessary) endure hardship. And, we’re supposed to do it all for the sake of the people we have influence with – some of whom couldn’t care less, either.

Christ is our example.

Along the way, I made some brief comments about how this vision of the Christian life (i.e. we’re slaves for God, and He called us to salvation so we can be witnesses for Him) is extraordinarily counter-cultural. Christian pop-culture in America is largely consumed with narcissism, and the Gospel is so often framed as a tool to give you success. God is the Cosmic Butler, and is Jesus the Divine Therapist.

I suggest two books which discuss this unfortunate state of affairs; Christless Christianity by Michael Horton, and Soul Searching – The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, by Christian Smith.

The audio for the lesson is below. As always, all the audio and teaching notes are on the 1 & 2 Peter Teaching Series page. Cheers!

 

Against a “Social Justice” Interpretation of the Gospels

stopIt’s common in conservative Christian congregations to hear a lot of talk about how we ought to help the poor, the downtrodden, the homeless and the disadvantaged. These are all worthy goals, as long as we always keep one thing in mind:

Christian social activism is a means to Jesus’ Good News, not the Good News itself.

This is not a subtle distinction; it’s vital. Consider this:

  • If a Christian congregation (or para-church organization) provides money and food to the poor, or shelter, food and aid to the homeless (etc., etc.) without also preaching, teaching, explaining and applying the Gospel in a persuasive, winsome and loving way … then all you’re doing is ensuring these people go to hell with a bit more money, food and shelter than they’d otherwise have.

Social programs are vehicles for the Gospel. They aren’t the Gospel. They’re the practical outworking of a desire to bring the Good News of perfect forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation and adoption into God’s family and coming kingdom to this present evil age.

I’m not sure all Christians really understand this distinction. Many times, they appeal to the Scriptures to support their social programs. Unfortunately, I believe they interpret some of these passages incorrectly. I believe most of this is due to a wrong-headed understanding of Christ’s Kingdom, and (in some quarters) a startling ignorance of the context of the various prophetic passages which speak of the peace, justice, righteousness and “social justice” which will characterize Christ’s reign here on earth.

But, all that is a story for another time – to the passage!

Wrongly dividing the word

Many Christians appeal to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount to support this social ethic. I want to gently push back on this. However, because I don’t have the time or energy to tackle the Sermon on the Mount, I’m going to use John the Baptist’s sermon beside the Jordan River as my text.[1]

John fulfills prophesy

John the Baptist came on the scene to prepare the Israelite people to receive their Messiah. The Gospel of Luke tells us “he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet …” (Lk 3:3-4).

Luke went on to quote a passage from Isaiah 40:3-5, which explains that a special messenger will prepare the way for Yahweh to return. Once He does return, Yahweh will lead His people from captivity back to the Promised Land (Isa 40:6-11). That messenger was John the Baptist, who the prophet Malachi told us Yahweh would send before the terrible day of judgment (Mal 4).

So far, so good. John is the fulfillment. He’s the guy Isaiah and Malachi promised would come. And, this is exactly how the Gospel of Mark starts out, too.

John was preaching to old covenant members, not strangers

Here is what you have to keep in mind, and it’s something many Christians seem to forget all about – John came to preach to Old Covenant Israelites.

Why should you care about this? Well, the Old Covenant wasn’t only composed of believers – it was a mixed covenant:

covenant

If an Israelite boy was born to proud parents in Capernaum, then he’d be circumcised as an external sign that he’s a member of, and heir to, the Old Covenant promises. Then, he’ll (hopefully) be brought up to know, trust, love and believe in Yahweh for salvation. His parents will teach him about Yahweh’s grace, love, mercy and kindness (cf. Deut 6:20-25). Hopefully, this boy will grow into a young man who loves Yahweh with all his heart, soul and might (Deut 6:5).

Here’s the problem – not every little boy and girl grew up to know, love, trust and believe in Yahweh for salvation. Some did; some didn’t. Those who didn’t either left the Israelite community entirely, or perhaps “played along” by following the rituals, ceremonies and observing the prescribed festivals in a rote, mindless and empty fashion.

The Old Covenant was a mixed multitude. The New Covenant is not.

You have to understand that John the Baptist was preaching to Old Covenant members, and he was calling them to be faithful to the Old Covenant law, to prepare their hearts, minds and souls to receive the Messiah – whose ministry was just about to begin.

Why should you care?

Because John wasn’t preaching to homeless strangers on freeway off-ramps, or to inner-city families who didn’t have enough money to make ends meet. He was preaching to fellow covenant members. This means, if you want to import this text (and John’s commands for right behavior) into today’s New Covenant context, then the only direct parallel is to believers. This doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t care about the poor or the homeless; it just means they shouldn’t use these texts to justify social programs. The context won’t allow it.

John preaches to the people

Here is his opening salvo:

He said therefore to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him,

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” (Lk 3:7-9).

This is fairly simple, but profound. The Gospel of Mark tells us that “there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem,” (Mk 1:5). This was some crowd!

John began by insulting them, striking right at the heart of the legalistic approach to the law so many of them had. He called them a group of snakes. He told them they had to prove their repentance; an outward, pious “show” wouldn’t do it. They couldn’t count on their Israelite blood, because that had never guaranteed anything. Remember the chart, above – at best being born an Israelite (i.e. Tier #1) meant you’d hear about Yahweh and His mercy and grace, so hopefully you’d become a believer (i.e. Tier #2).

So, the natural question is – what should these folks do, then? What kind of fruit is John looking for?

And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” (Lk 3:10).

Good question. Let’s see …

And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise,” (Lk 3:11).

The most basic expression of real love for God (Deut 6:5) is to love your fellow covenant member just as much as you love yourself (compare Mk 12:28-34). What does this look like, then, at a practical level? Well, it could look like a lot of things, but one good example is to provide clothing and food to folks who don’t have any.

On to the next group:

Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you,” (Lk 3:12-13).

Israelite tax collectors shouldn’t defraud other Israelites. Sounds simple, right?

Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages,” (Lk 3:14).

Jewish soldiers shouldn’t abuse their power and positional authority, and shouldn’t steal.

The answer is pretty simple – he’s looking for them to actually obey and follow the Old Covenant law out of a pure heart. He’s telling them to put the law into practice in their own contexts, in everyday life, starting right now. 

Basically, that means loving your neighbor as yourself (see Mk 12:31; Lev 19:18, 34). And, remember, the context of this Old Covenant command was for Israelites and foreign Gentiles who had, in some form or fashion, joined the Old Covenant community. These commands have always been for Covenant people, and also for those on the way to likely becoming part of this community.

John’s preaching is right in line with the Old Testament prophets who pleaded with Israel to return to the Lord and live faithfully:

Her officials within her
are roaring lions;
her judges are evening wolves
that leave nothing till the morning (Zeph 3:3)

The prophet Zephaniah wrote an entire book, where he recorded his own sermons against this kind of externalism. He paints a picture of moral corruption at the highest levels of society in the Southern Kingdom.

Her prophets are wanton,
faithless men;
her priests profane what is sacred,
they do violence to the law (Zeph 3:4)

Yahweh, however, is a stark contrast to their treachery:

The LORD within her is righteous,
he does no wrong;
every morning he shows forth his justice,
each dawn he does not fail;
but the unjust knows no shame (Zeph 3:5)

This message, and John the Baptist’s preaching, is an indictment against this kind of fake “faith.” John’s sermon (and Jesus’ own commands from the Sermon on the Mount) aren’t a manifesto for Christians to sally forth and provide food and shelter or the homeless. It’s a call for God’s true people to return to covenant faithfulness, which means doing what His word says, because we love Him.

“I have cut off nations;
their battlements are in ruins;
I have laid waste their streets
so that none walks in them;
their cities have been made desolate,
without a man, without an inhabitant.
I said, ‘Surely she will fear me,
she will accept correction;
she will not lose sight
of all that I have enjoined upon her.’
But all the more they were eager
to make all their deeds corrupt,” (Zech 3:6-7).

This is the true context of John’s message; a call for God’s people to “prepare the way of the Lord” and “make his paths straight” (Lk 3:4; cf. Isa 40:3) so they’ll be ready for Yahweh to lead them back from exile.

Rightly dividing the word

So, what should Christians do with John the Baptist’s message, today? How do we translate this to a modern context? Well, you have to remember the original context, and accurately translate it to a New Covenant context:

  • John was preaching to Old Covenant Israelites, and calling them to repent and actually live according to the law out of a pure heart.
  • John’s commands for ethical behavior must be understood in that context; he’s telling Jews how to live according to the law out of a pure heart, and he agrees with Jesus that the most basic fruit of love for God is to love your fellow covenant members.
  • So, John is teaching them to show love for one another, according to their own particular context, while they wait for the Messiah to show Himself.

So far, so good – but what about right now?

  • In a New Covenant context for today, we’d direct this message to Christians in a local church. We’d call them to repent and actually live according to God’s Word out of a pure heart.
  • The most basic fruit of love for God is to love your fellow covenant members. The New Covenant only has one tier (see the chart, above), and this means you show your love for God by loving the brethren in your congregation most of all (see 1 Pet 1:22 – 2:3)
  • So, we should use John the Baptist’s message to teach Christians to show love for one another according to our own particular contexts, while we wait for the Messiah to return.

Does this mean we shouldn’t feed the homeless, or help the poor? Heavens, no! It just means these passages don’t teach that. These social programs are good and fine, but they’re nothing more than vehicles for the Gospel. The Good News is all that matters, and we can deliver it in many, many ways. Social programs are one way, but they aren’t the only way.

Notes

[1] Make no mistake, the Sermon on the Mount issue is “complicated,” and it would take a great deal of time to address the topic well. I don’t have that time. My only goal here is to sound a note of caution about a default “social justice” interpretation of the ethical commands in John the Baptist’s preaching, and (by extension) Jesus’ own preaching.

What I Read in 2017

libraryWell, the title says it all! This list only includes non-fiction books, and (for the most part), they’re unashamedly nerdy. But, I don’t think that will be a surprise to too many people.

  1. The Holy Trinity by Carl R. Beckwith. A very thorough, scholarly work by a Lutheran theologian. I doubt I’ll ever read or find a more orthodox and comprehensive discussion of the Trinity. I was particularly blessed by his discussion of the opera ad extra, or the concept that all three Divine Persons actually work simultaneously in everything they do – thus Yahweh (in His simplicity) is fully and completely at work in every action. The author writes, “If the essential attributes, like the external acts of the Trinity, belong equally and indivisibly to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as the church rightly confesses, why do Scripture and our creeds sometime assign them more particularly to one person? The explanation given by the Fathers and reformers has been that the external acts and essential attributes of God may be appropriated or attributed more particularly to one person in order to more fully disclose the persons of the Trinity to our creaturely ways of thinking. This doctrine of appropriation assists us conceptually and aims to focus our prayers and worship on the divine persons,” (KL 9443-9448). I’d never read this before. So wonderful!
  2. Battle Cry of Freedom – The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson. A standard, one-volume history of the years leading up to the Civil War, and a stirring account of the war itself. Probably the best, most comprehensive one-volume history you’ll ever find. I read it when I was 16, and just re-read it again.
  3. The Korean War by Max Hastings. A fascinating book by a solid journalist. I’ve read David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter and T.R. Fahrenbach’s classic This Kind of War in years past. This is a good book.
  4. Salvation by Allegiance Alone – Rethinking Faith, Works and the Gospel of Jesus the King by Matthew Bates. Thought-provoking. His major thesis is that the concept of allegiance is inherent in the idea of faith. He discusses what the components of the Gospel actually are, dabbles a bit in the New Perspective on Paul, and tries desperately to find a via media between Biblical orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, with regard to works and their relationship to salvation. Thought-provoking book, even though I don’t agree with all of it.
  5. The Old Testament is Dying by Brent Strawn. The title says it all. An excellent book. The author draws a parallel between dying languages, and how many Christians know (or, actually, don’t know) the Old Testament. Pastors should read it.
  6. God the Son Incarnate – The Doctrine of Christ by Stephen Wellum. The best and most thorough book on Christology I’ve ever read. The author spends a great deal of time disagreeing with various flavors of kenotic Christology. He asks and discusses deep questions about Christology. Every thinking pastor (and, no – not all pastors like to think) should ponder this. I hope to read Gerald Hawthorne’s The Presence and the Power this coming year, which takes a kenotic view of the incarnation.
  7. The European Reformations by Carter Lindberg. A wonderful, balanced look at the various reformations in Europe.
  8. Fools Talk – Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion by Os Guinness. One of the best books on apologetics I’ve ever read. Guinness writes for normal people, and his burden is for normal Christians to move beyond mere “arguments” and persuade people on the other side. He wrote, “Our urgent need today is to reunite evangelism and apologetics, to make sure that our best arguments are directed toward winning people and not just winning arguments, and to seek to do all this in a manner that is true to the gospel itself,” (pg. 18). You should read this.
  9. The Story of Reality – How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important that Happens in Between by Gregory Koukl. An excellent book to give to seekers, who don’t know anything about the Christian faith.
  10. Flags out Front by Douglas Wilson. This is a silly bit of satire about the culture wars. It’s fiction but, like all satire, it’s really not fictional, you know …
  11. Onward – Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel by Russell Moore. I was disappointed in this book. It’s not because he doesn’t have good things to say; it’s more that I’ve just heard this before.
  12. Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen. This book is a classic for a reason. Liberalism (I personally prefer Guinness’ term “revisionism”) is not a form of Christianity; its a different religion entirely. Read it.
  13. The Conviction to Lead – 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters by Albert Mohler. A good book, even if some of the advice is too abstract to be practical. Mohler’s experience has been in Christian academia, and it shows. Some of his advice cannot be translated into the secular workforce, or even into a local church. Nevertheless, its a good book.
  14. A Passion for Leadership – Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service by Robert Gates. The best book on leadership I’ve ever read. Extraordinarily practical and realistic; never abstract. Gates headed the CIA, the Texas A&M university system, and the Department of Defense. I’d say he knows what he’s talking about. If you work in a bureaucracy, this book will help you. Mohler is undoubtedly a seasoned bureaucratic warrior, but Gates is a Jedi Grand Master – and it shows.
  15. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. The classic account of the international intrigue leading up to the First World War. The account culminates in a gripping account of the first month of the war, right up until the First Battle of the Marne. And, to top it all off, Tuchman didn’t even have a history degree. A massive work. Extraordinarily readable. I first read it when I was 15, and was delighted to read it again.
  16.  The Apostolic Fathers by Michael Holmes. A collection of very early Christian writings, which gave always been known by this title. Good stuff.
  17. Christian Theology by Millard Erickson. This is the standard systematic theology text at many conservative Baptist seminaries. This is a wonderful book, and it was the text I was assigned in Seminary. I didn’t re-read all of it, but I did go through significant portions of it. I don’t agree with everything, but it’s always good food for thought.
  18. The Book of Concord by Theodore Tappert. This is the standard compendium of Lutheran confessional thought. Good for reference.
  19. Baptist Confessions of Faith by William Lumpkin. The title says it all. Baptists stand on the shoulders of some great and godly men, who we can all learn from. The 1644 London Confession and the 1833 New Hampshire Confession, for example, are landmark documents.
  20. God’s Word in Our Hands – The Bible Preserved for Us edited by James Williams. This book was written for a fundamentalist Baptist audience, against a King James Only-ist view of the bible and preservation of Scripture. But, it’s excellent for everybody. Very, very helpful stuff.
  21. Workplace Grace – Becoming a Spiritual Influence at Work by Bill Peel and Walt Larimore. A wonderful, practical book about how to, well … share your faith at work. Read it.
  22. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant by Ulysses Grant. Grant was (eventually) the lead Union general in the war, and later President of the United States. His memoirs are excellent.
  23. On the Incarnation by Athanasius. This man lived and ministered in the 4th century, and his thoughts about Christ’s incarnation are profound. Much better and more helpful than most of what you’ll read on the topic today.
  24. Encouragement isn’t Enough by Jay Adams. A short, helpful book about how to offer meaningful encouragement to fellow Christians who are struggling.
  25. Saving Eutychus – How to Preach God’s Word and Keep People Awake by Gary Millar and Paul Campbell. This would be a helpful book for beginning preachers. I didn’t like it.
  26. Preaching the New Testament edited by Ina Paul and David Wenham. A collection of helpful essays on preaching from various genres in the New Testament. Thought-provoking, interesting, and helpful. Read it.
  27. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages by R. W. Southern. Good, accessible book. If I read it again, I’ll probably understand a whole lot more.
  28. The Challenge of Bible Translation – Communicating God’s Word to the World edited by Glen Scrogie, Mark Strauss and Steven Voth. Excellent book. If only more pastors who’ve had Greek and/or Hebrew training would read and ponder this book before pontificating on Bible translations …
  29. Why God Became Man by Anselm of Canterbury. The single best work on atonement, sin, and the purpose of the incarnation I’ve ever read, or will likely ever read. Anselm wrote this book at the tail-end of the 11th century. It’s structured in a discussion format around a fictional dialogue between he and a student, named Boso. Every theological student should read this. It’s better than most of what you’ll get in a standard systematic theology text.
  30. Retro-Christianity – Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith by Michael Svigel. This is really a book about ecclesiology, or the church. It’s written in a very accessible way for “normal” Christians. It’s probably the most helpful book I’ve ever read which explains the Christians life, and the role of the church, to a Christian.

Who knows what next year will bring …