Category Archives: Christianity

What does it mean to “glorify God”?

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31

What does it mean to glorify God?

This is one of those questions I’ve always struggled to find a concrete answer for. John Piper in Don’t Waste Your Life offers a great illustration.

First, he says we shouldn’t think of the word glorify like we think of the word beautify. To beautify means to add to somethings beauty, to make it more beautiful than it already is. But we can’t add to God’s glory. We can’t make him more glorious, since He is already perfectly glorious.

Instead, he thinks a more helpful synonym is magnify. We can magnify in two ways, like a microscope or a telescope. A microscope makes something that is small appear large. This would be the wrong way to look at glorifying God. But a telescope makes something unimaginably great appear closer to what it actually is. To glorify God is to magnify God in this way.

Piper states in like this:

“God created us for this: to live our lives in a way that makes him look more like the greatness and beauty and infinite worth that he really is. In the night sky of this world God appears to most people, if at all, like a pinprick of light in a heaven of darkness. But he created us and called us to make him look like what he really is. That is what it means to be created in the image of God. We are meant to image forth in the world what he is really like.”

Further Reading: 
Don’t Waste Your Life

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Are Christians morally obligated to vote only for candidates likely to win?

Are Christians morally obligated to vote for one of the top two candidates in an election? Is our choice necessarily binary? Are we required to do this to be responsible citizens and adults?

I’d like to examine those questions through the lens of what I’ll refer to as “Bounded Christian Utilitarianism.” This isn’t really a thing, but it wound up being a good description to how I approach the problem.

This approach will take the consequence of our political choices into account, but won’t make the consequences the end of our ethical responsibility.

First, a story:

I recently had a Twitter conversation with a thoughtful friend who was bothered that I would opt out of voting for reasons of principle:

“Isn’t there a responsibility to choose the best option? Weren’t you, like, 1% happier that [Candidate X] defeated [Candidate Y]? Isn’t the world, like, 1% better with [Candidate X] winning? Choosing the better of two sub-par options, isn’t that what we’re called to do, as adults? As citizens?”

I responded that I don’t believe I have an absolute moral obligation to vote for one of two options, though I do have a responsibility to love my neighbor.

He responded that voting was a tangible way to love your neighbor. I don’t disagree. In fact, I wrote a whole series of blog posts which made that exact argument. But voting is only one – very minor – way of loving my neighbor. It’s a piece, not the whole. And, as I will argue, it’s a piece with boundaries. This is what got me to bounded Christian utilitarianism. I’ll explain that one word at a time.

What is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism, put simply, is the premise that we have an ethical duty to increase the total amount of happiness in the world and decrease the amount of suffering.[1] An action is ethical if it increases the total happiness, and unethical if it adds to suffering. Since some actions might do both, you would subtract the suffering produced from the happiness produced to get an overall score. Applied to politics, you’d want to implement policies that increased overall happiness and reduced suffering. It’s a simple and elegant system.

What do I mean by Christian Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a secular system, but it could be expressed in Christian language as well, in terms of loving your neighbor. A Christian might observe that “happiness” is not the greatest of all goods. Loving someone doesn’t necessarily mean making someone happy (at least not in the immediate short-term). Instead, we speak of loving your neighbor as yourself.

If we define expressing love as “doing what is good for another person” then a Christian utilitarian might express it this way: My choice is moral if it maximizes the amount of good I am able to do to my neighbor while causing the minimal amount of harm.

When applied to politics, a Christian utilitarian votes for politicians and policies which do the most good to the greatest number of people, and minimize the amount of harm. Again, it’s a simple and understandable system. Generally, I am a Christian utilitarian in politics. Keeping important principles like freedom and wisdom in mind, I try to vote for politicians and policies which will do good to my neighbor without harming him.

What is Bounded Christian Utilitarianism?

While utilitarianism – whether expressed in its secular or religious forms – are simple and clear, they open the door for oppression and other evils. For instance, you could argue from a utilitarian perspective that it is okay to enslave a small group of people if it means great benefits for the mass of people. The math still works. The overall good outweighs the evil. But slavery is wrong all the time, regardless of whether it helps one or fifty or a thousand people. The math might work, but you still end up with injustice.

Utilitarianism can be used to justify tyranny and remove freedoms. It can justify doing evil for the sake of some greater good. It’s an ends-justify-the-means system. In fact, history is replete with people in power finding certain “sacrifices” acceptable to meet some desired, utopian, end.

So, while we should seek to do good to our neighbors, the utilitarian system must be bounded. A pure calculation like making the world 1% better isn’t the ethical choice if it means doing evil to get there.

What are the boundaries?

In politics, it can be hard to discern what those boundaries should be. Almost every policy potentially does some harm. An open trade policy will probably “lift all boats” but it will also inevitably lead to some level of job loss. A closed policy will help American workers but harm people in poverty overseas and probably also increase the cost of goods which will in turn “harm” consumers. It’s a no win. If we say that a policy or politician must do no harm, we would have to drop out of politics entirely. We would probably have to stop doing a lot of other things, too.

But there’s a difference of kind between the kind of harm done by a trade policy and the oppression or enslavement I referred to above. What’s that line? Maybe each person will draw different ones, but I have drawn two lines.

My first line is this: I will not participate in unjust systems. I’m using “unjust” as it relates to people being made in the image of God. Each person is given is endowed certain rights by God and justice upholds those rights. One of those rights is the right to life. Our abortion laws systematically rob the most vulnerable in our society of this right. It is an unjust system. So, I draw a line here. Another right I would recognize is the right to freedom. Slavery is another unjust system. So were the Jim Crow laws of the South. Thankfully, these have been done away with (though more work needs to be done to reduce racism and systems of racism).

My second line is this: I will not participate with a wicked person. Nobody is perfect. I get that. But there is a difference between an imperfect public servant and a person who is marked by a life of foolishness (in the biblical sense). My first reason for this is utilitarian: I don’t believe that private wickedness stays private. I believe that it will inevitably cause harm to others. My other reason relies on Scripture. Paul commands us not to be “partners” with those under God’s judgment because of wickedness. I interpret my vote as a partnership of sorts, and therefore a violation of God’s command.

I’m sure there are other ways to draw lines, and I know other people draw different ones than I do, but I am certain that utilitarianism needs lines. A pure consequentialist – someone who measures their actions, political or otherwise, by the outcome more than the act – will always be dangerous to justice, regardless of their good intentions. No matter how much good you want to do, if you’re okay with doing wrong to get there, you’re still doing wrong. The road to hell is well paved by the intentions of consequentialists.

In fact, while most people who object to the fact that I would choose not to vote for one of two major candidates express utilitarian arguments, I doubt most of them would refuse to draw any lines at all. Almost everyone will draw a line somewhere. (If your “choice” was between someone who wanted to bring back slavery and someone who murdered children, are you really morally obligated to vote for one or the other.) Instead, most people object to where I draw the line. Those on the Left either are not disturbed by abortion, or not as disturbed as I am, or they don’t think that a vote for a pro-choice candidate who could make an impact on abortion law is participation in the system. Those on the Right either thought the candidate was merely flawed or, if he was wicked, argued that character wasn’t really a disqualifying factor or that a vote for such a person didn’t constitute a “partnership” as I have described above. But most would have agreed that some line somewhere was necessary.

Here’s where the role of conscience comes into play. The lines I have formed have themselves been formed by my conscience. If I’ve done it right my conscience has been formed by the Word of God. But my conscience could be weak – I could have put the lines up too early. Or my conscience could be seared – I could have put them up too late. But, it is the role of the conscience to help determine where the lines need to be drawn to avoid sin.

The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Dilemma: The action of inaction

Those who choose not to vote, or to vote for a candidate very unlikely to win, face a dilemma. They might say that they are not acting, but in fact they are. Inaction is a form of action. More than one person said to me in 2016: “Not voting for Candidate A is a vote for Candidate B”. Or, “voting for Candidate C is really a vote for Candidate B.” While I wanted to dismiss this as linguistic and logical absurdity, there is a ring of truth to it. If I would have otherwise voted for Candidate A and choose not to, then I make a win for Candidate B a tiny bit more likely. In other words, my action – to vote for Candidate C – does have a consequence, one in which I would need to reckon.

The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Response Part 1: Act and Consequence

My first answer to this dilemma is theological. I separate act from consequence. I am responsible for my act. God is responsible for the result. The future is ultimately in God’s hands and He can intervene to bless or override my action as He wills.

There’s a danger in this distinction, of course. God has created an ordered world where act and consequence are linked in cause and effect. I am responsible for knowing the likely consequence of my action and so need to act in such a way to get the result that will do good form my neighbor. This is why I’m a Christian utilitarian. I am responsible for knowing the likely results of my actions, and acting accordingly. But, I’m a bounded Christian utilitarian because there are times when getting the result I want (doing good to my neighbor) would require me to act in a way contrary to God’s Word. In that instance I must act with faith, refusing to break God’s law and trust the future to God.

(As an aside, in big issues like politics people, even experts, can be pretty terrible at predicting the results of their actions. I’m not sure we should have a lot of faith in our ability to see the future even if God weren’t part of the equation!)

This is part of what it means to have faith and to act in faith, to do what you believe is right and trust that God will use that faithful action to do what is ultimately right.

The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Response Part 2: Aiming for a consequence

My second response is that in voting for Candidate C, I am also aiming for a consequence, for a result which I believe, in the long run, will bless my neighbor. If I believe that both parties have become corrupt, then I want to either prop up a party/candidate that is not corrupt, or at least send a message to the corrupt parties that I will not be complicit in their corruption. A few votes won’t make a difference, but a lot would. I think we suffer from a failure of the imagination. For the degree to which both major candidates in 2016 were reviled, it would have been an ideal time to send this message. But, people said, it just can’t happen and thus we shouldn’t try. But since we shouldn’t try, that’s exactly why it couldn’t happen. We’re somehow bound to a system that we all think is terrible. But we’re only bound to the system because we believe it’s the only way. We somehow think voting is the only thing that matters, but are unwilling to use our votes in a way that really would.

The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Response Part 3: Moving beyond voting

I said near the beginning that voting is one way to love your neighbor. It’s a part, but not the whole. In fact, it’s a very small part. A single individual can have much more impact doing other things. And, if you feel you cannot vote in a specific election don’t despair that you are failing your neighbor, and don’t let others convince you that you. Instead, get to work tangibly loving your neighbor.

This is the perfect time to reiterate something I’ve said before: The church is its own politic. It is a people with a purpose and a mission. It aims to love and glorify God and love and reach the world. The church can influence the nation politic in numerous and profound ways. We can pursue justice, speak up for the oppressed, provide for the poor, and work for justice. We can be a counter-politic within the broader politic, a counter-culture within the broader culture, acting as salt and light in the world. We shouldn’t downplay the potential role of the church within society.

But we can also work outside of the institutional church to love our neighbors, too. Get involved. Do good. Use your imagination. Don’t imagine that voting is more than it is. It’s a way, one way, to love your neighbor. Use it wisely, but remember that it is bound. Don’t let it bind you.

[1] One of the most important books I’ve read on competing theories of justice is Justice by Michael Sandel. My description of utilitarianism in this post relies on Sandel’s description of it.

What does Paul mean when he says “do not be partners with them”?

For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.

Ephesians 5:5-7

What does Paul mean when he says we should not be partners with the “immoral, impure, or greedy” person? More specifically, what does he mean by “partner”?

Let’s cover the obvious first. He doesn’t mean that we should be completely isolated from the world. We’re called into the world in order to share the love of Christ with the world. Jesus Himself spent a lot of time with sinners without violating this – or any – command of God.

On the other side, it’s obvious that, at a minimum, we shouldn’t participate in sin ourselves. We shouldn’t be immoral, impure, or greedy. At least Paul means that we shouldn’t sin, but I think he means more than that here. He’s already called us to live obediently. No, his concern here is with believers “partnership” with people in their wicked acts.

Lessons from the Old Testament

The first Scriptural reference that comes to mind – since my pastor is currently preaching through Kings – is the story of Jehoshaphat. It’s an interesting story because it’s not very cut and dry. Jehoshaphat, who was the good king of Judah, allied himself with Ahab, the wicked king of Israel. His first alliance was for a war. He rode out with Ahab to fight Ramoth Gilead. The battle was a trap that God set for Ahab, who was mortally wounded. Jehoshaphat (who was dressed up like Ahab) had a brush with death, but was spared by God (2 Chronicles 18:31). Later, Jehoshaphat had an alliance with Ahab’s (almost as wicked) son Joram. In this case, God gave the alliance victory, but only because of Jehoshaphat (” Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord Almighty lives, whom I serve, if I did not have respect for the presence of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, I would not pay any attention to you.”) So, Jehoshaphat didn’t suffer any consequence for his military alliances with Ahab, at least nothing explicitly stated in Scripture. But, there’s an important clue that Jehoshaphat shouldn’t have made this alliance and was only spared because of he otherwise served the Lord.

Here’s how Jehoshaphat’s story is wrapped up in 2 Chronicles 20:

35 Later, Jehoshaphat king of Judah made an alliance with Ahaziah king of Israel, whose ways were wicked. 36 He agreed with him to construct a fleet of trading ships. After these were built at Ezion Geber, 37 Eliezer son of Dodavahu of Mareshah prophesied against Jehoshaphat, saying, “Because you have made an alliance with Ahaziah, the Lord will destroy what you have made.” The ships were wrecked and were not able to set sail to trade.

This follows the principle from Ephesians 5:6-7. Jehoshaphat partnered with a man under God’s judgment, and because of that experienced some of that judgment himself, though he was also spared from what could have been a lot worse.

The other example that comes to mind is when Israel was about to be invaded by the Babylonians. To try to avoid military defeat, they turned to Egypt. Here’s what I wrote last year:

As the threat of invasion loomed and the prophets warned of God’s judgment the leaders and people of Israel looked to Egypt for answers. Remember, it was the Egyptians who enslaved Israel. The Egyptians were still enemies of God and they were still under God’s judgment. Going to Egypt was a tactical move, but it was not a move that pleased God. Going to Egypt was an attempt to thwart or escape the Babylonians, but it was also a moral compromise.

Jeremiah warned Israel that their peace with Egypt would prove futile: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of me, ‘Pharaoh’s army, which has marched out to support you, will go back to its own land, to Egypt. Then the Babylonians will return and attack this city; they will capture it and burn it to the ground” (Jeremiah 37:7-8). If you go to the Egyptians, Jeremiah says, “You will be disappointed by Egypt as you were by Assyria” (Jeremiah 2:36).

Modern Examples

The news this week offers two possible modern examples. Both are political and controversial. Sorry about that. I’m less interested in an individual’s conclusion on the matters, than on illustrating the process.

The Wedding Cake: Yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop. Phillips refused to make a wedding cake for a gay wedding and was found in violation of an anti-discrimination law. Phillips appealed to the Supreme Court. The legal question (or one of them) is over whether baking a cake is an artistic expression and thus protected speech. If it is, then the Court will likely rule for Phillips. Or, the court could view the case through the lens of discrimination and say that Phillips refused to bake the cake simply because his customers were gay. If they do that, then they will likely rule against Phillips.

Legal questions aside, we can also view this case from the perspective of Ephesians 5:7. Was Phillips right morally to refuse to bake the cake for the gay wedding? If we believe what the Bible says about homosexual behavior, and we see baking a wedding cake as – to some degree – a religious expression and thus even an act of worship, then Phillips decision makes sense. He would be actively and creatively partnering in an activity is morally objectionable.

But how far should Christians take this? An owner of a auto body shop in West Michigan once said he wouldn’t provide services to gay couples. That seems like a different kind of thing altogether. I’m sure it wouldn’t be legally protected, nor do I think it falls under Ephesians 5:7. Why? Because the auto body shop owner isn’t partnering in any sinful behavior, he would just be working on a car. His would be a clear act of discrimination from a legal perspective, and unwarranted from a biblical one.

The Sleazy Politician: We’re less than a week away from a special election for an Alabama senate seat. The Republican in the race is Roy Moore, a man who has portrayed himself as a man with Christian values. He has, however, been accused of sexual assault against girls, by multiple people. He denies these charges, but even what he has admitted to is creepy. It’s hard to prove one way or the other what happened but the volume of accusers, plus the things we do know, make him look guilty (to me, anyway). If we believe he is being falsely accused, that’s another matter, but if you believed he were guilty, would voting for him be a violation of Ephesians 5:7?

Like the cake shop question, it’s not entirely clear. What is a vote anyway? What message are you sending with a vote? Is it always a decision between two evils, or can it just be a decision between two “bads”. Do you have an obligation to vote for one or another or is it okay to opt out? Indeed, would a Christian be obligated to opt out in this case? (See this excellent post by pastor Kevin DeYoung on Voting in a Two-Party System)

If I were voting in Alabama, I would opt out for multiple reasons, and one of them would be to avoid violating Ephesians 5:7. To me, a vote is an endorsement. It sends a message. It’s a partnership. It’s what sends a person into office. So, in this case I could not in good conscience partner with someone who appears to me, based on the evidence, to be a wicked man. Neither could I vote for someone who supports abortion. Again, for me this would be partnership in a systematic evil.

Questions to ask 

Both the Old Testament examples, and the modern day examples, illustrate that it’s hard to know where to draw the lines. Why would Jehoshaphat experience judgment for creating a fleet of trade ships with Ahaziah, but not for the shared military campaigns with Ahab and his son? Should we avoid putting money into mutual funds because we could be funding businesses with unethical practices or goals? How bad does a politicians character or policies have to be for us to refuse to vote for them? There’s considerable gray area here, and it can be hard to know what constitutes partnership and what doesn’t. But that doesn’t get us out of the obligation of doing the hard work. Complete isolation or disregarding the command aren’t options. We’re called to the hard work of wisdom – and grace towards others in hard decisions.

When faced with a possible instance of “partnership” with someone engaged in doing wrong, these diagnostic questions might be helpful to ask:

Will this partnership cause me to participate in an evil act? There’s nothing wrong with driving a car, but if you’re driving the getaway car for an armed robbery you’re knowingly providing material support to someone doing wrong. Even if you’re a taxi driver and it’s your job, if you know what you’re doing, it would be wrong to participate.

Will this partnership lead me to moral compromise? The initial establishment of the agreement might not be wrong in itself, but it could lead to later compromise. For instance, getting involved with someone with shady business practices, or getting support with a lot of strings attached, is a good way to lead to moral compromises down the road.

What message does this partnership send? Not only: “What do I mean by this partnership?” but “How will this partnership be reasonably understood?” Voting for a sleazy politician sends a message, intended or not. It sends a message to political parties that they don’t need to put forward a candidate of character. In this case it sends a message that all this talk of the importance of character and morality doesn’t really matter when it comes to election time. Specifically baking a cake for a gay wedding would be reasonably interpreted as an endorsement of that wedding. On the other hand, buying mutual funds would probably not be see as an endorsement of every company that the mutual fund is split between.

How significant is the partnership? Jehoshaphat’s partnerships with Ahab weren’t mere business transactions. They had an alliance. The more meaningful an alliance the more dangerous it would be to participate. Voting for someone is different from running their campaign, for example, though both might be a problem. This also gets to a related question: What do you know or what should you know? If I sell a car to someone who uses it to run down some pedestrians, I’m probably not guilty of anything. But if I knew that he was going to use the car for that purpose, I’d be guilty as sin.

There are probably more diagnostic questions we could ask, but my main point is that we need to ask them. This is an area where simple answers don’t often work. We need the Holy Spirit to grant us discernment.

A quick personal story: I work in the area of aviation, and have frequently worked on projects for the U.S. military. I would constitute this a partnership. I had to wrestle with the question of whether or not I was okay with working on aircraft which would likely be used in military operations to deploy troops or fire weapons. If I objected to military force (or America’s use of military force) I should have avoided this partnership and either asked to only work on civil projects, or found another job. I decided, ultimately, that if I were conscripted I would serve in the military. Since I would not object to serving in the military, I decided that my very tangential role in the “military industrial complex” would not be a problem. My point here is simply that we need to do the work and ask the questions. By God’s grace, He will bring all things to light. That light gives us guidance, but it also exposes evil and makes it open to judgment. We need to be illuminated by the light, not exposed – and judged – for partnerships that displease God.

3 behaviors that have the biggest impact on spiritual growth (according to data)

I’m currently reading No Silver Bullets by Daniel Im. This is a book written primarily for pastors and church leaders, to help their ministries become more effective in making disciples.

No Silver Bullets relies heavily on research conducted by LifeWay. LifeWay’s research examined two types of data. First, they identified eight characteristics of a spiritually mature disciple. The eight characteristics were: biblical engagement, obeying God and denying self, serving God and others, sharing Christ, exercising faith, seeking God, building relationships, and living transparently. Second, they looked at around forty behaviors which they thought could contribute to those eight characteristics. Then, they measured which behaviors had an effect.

Not surprisingly, some behaviors had strong correlations to some outcomes. For instance, regularly praying for friends or family who aren’t believers was a strong predictor of whether or not someone shared their faith. Some of the correlations were surprising. For instance, there was a strong correlation between confessing your sins and sharing your faith.

But, there were three behaviors which had the biggest impact on the eight indicators of spiritual maturity, and they had an impact on all of the indicators. In other words, these three behaviors don’t just help you grow in one area, but in all areas.

As a pastor, they’re not all the surprising to me. But they are often neglected. Here they are.

Reading the Bible: We’re not talking about in depth Bible study here, we’re just talking about regularly opening up your Bible and reading it. This behavior helps people grow not only in Bible engagement, but in serving God, denying self, building relationships, and all the other indicators of mature discipleship.

Attending church worship services: The more people attended worship services, the more they grew spiritually. It’s pretty simple, really. It makes sense. And yet, regular attendance is waning, even among the committed. Don’t neglect it.

Attending a small group (Bible study, Sunday school class, etc.): Those who engaged with smaller groups of believers didn’t just grow in building relationships, but, again, in each of the key indicators.

Are you serious about growing in your faith? We can’t manufacture growth – it’s the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. But, we can be faithful and wise. The fact that these behaviors correlated to spiritual growth makes sense. They’re biblically mandated behaviors. We’re called to meditate on God’s Word, to not forsake the fellowship of unbelievers, and to practically find ways to love brothers and sisters in Christ. It should be no surprise that in doing those things which Christ commands, we will grow closer to Christ Himself.

Book Recommendation
No Silver Bullets: Five Small Shifts that will Transform Your Ministry

Book Review: Galatians Backstory/Christory by Phillip A. Ross

Because of my blog, I occasionally get requests from independent authors to review their books. As an aspiring independent author myself (I have a book in the works right now) I want to support others. Also, free books! The latest book is Galatians – Backstory/Christory by Phillip A Ross. Thanks for the book, Phil. Here’s my review.

Summary

Galatians – Backstory/Christory is a commentary of sorts on the book of Galatians though it differs from a traditional commentary in several key respects. The first chapter of the book is about what Ross calls “The Backstory,” or the metanarrative of Scripture that lies behind the major themes in Galatians. Ross’s goal in sharing this backstory is for us to have the right lens to read Galatians. This chapter is by far the longest and sets the foundation for the rest of the book. The rest of the book walks through Galatians section by section, applying components from the backstory as it goes. You get an interesting mix of Systematic theology and biblical exposition, where the backstory functions as Ross’s systematic theology, the lens by which he performs his biblical exposition on Galatians. In another blog post he refers to this process as “biblical discernment.”

The Backstory: Ross begins by re-telling the story of the Old and New Testaments. The principle theme here is of God bringing people and culture to a greater level of maturity and conformity to God’s law. To do this God adopts the symbols of fallen humanity to seek perfect obedience. For instance, he adopts the symbol of child-sacrifice in order to test Abraham’s faith. He adopts the symbols of sacrifice for Israel’s sacrificial system to reveal His nature to them.

On the one side, then we have God teaching humanity by using symbols and language they can understand. On the other side you have humanity confusing symbol for reality and gradually moving away from God. So, for Ross, first the Tabernacle, then the Kingdom, and then the Temple were departures from God’s original plan. Even though God worked in each of these, they represent a failure on Israel’s part to fully follow God.

There’s a similar movement with the law: The 10 commandments represent the purity of God’s speech, the standard of obedience. The Deuteronomic code represents the work of Israel’s elders – still sanctioned by God but only for a specific time and place. The Torah, which Ross describes as both the biblical material and extra-biblical material developed by the Pharisees, is yet another application. We need to apply God’s law to specific situations, but we have a problem when we attempt to apply that single application to every time and place. What we need is a fresh understanding of the law and a fresh application of it. The “calcification” of the law leads to slavery. A reformation to the original purity of God’s will leads to freedom.

This is the lens through which Ross reads Jesus’s ministry, particularly seen in his cleansing of the Temple. Jesus sees how the symbols of religion have been confused with a true relationship with God and he sees how the law has become a burden. Both are characteristics of the Temple Establishment, the religious leaders who held sway over the Temple and Israel’s religion. In clearing the Temple, Jesus was calling for prophetic reform. He was calling people past the symbolism of religion to the reality of God. In condensing God’s commandments into two: Loving God and loving neighbor he was doing something similar with the law.

The Backstory in Galatians: The primary enemy Paul faces in Galatians, then, is the Temple establishment, which stressed the importance of religious ritual and obedience to the whole of the Torah, including extrabiblical laws. Paul argues instead that that what we need is not more laws, but a new heart. We get that new heart through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. It is that same regenerating work of the Spirit which enables us to repent and believe in Jesus. That is not to say that Galatians is opposed to the law. Instead, Paul affirms that faith is what leads us to obey the law of Christ. But we’re not called to obey the Old Testament laws, but to hear Christ’s call to the original code: Love God and love your neighbor, and then figure out how to apply it (through the Spirit) to our current age.

We principally apply the law of Christ by being characterized by the virtues outlined in the fruit of the Spirit. Ross takes a unique approach in interpreting the fruit – at least one I had not heard before – where he describes the fruit as the “food for the seed.” That is, the Spirit is planted and grows where the virtues of love, joy, peace, etc. are present. So, the regenerating work of the Spirit gives us new hearts, and out of those new hearts we provide fertile ground for the Spirit to continue to grow.

How does all this relate to freedom? Ross summarizes as follows: “Paul’s point was that the laws and customs of Moses were being trumped by the laws and customs of Christ… Paul was not trying to institutionalize [the law of Christ], but to contrast the freedom in Christ to interpret and apply the Ten Commandments for a new age. They had freedom from the inherited laws and customs of Moses and the errant Second Temple establishment – not the freedom to do whatever they wanted, but the freedom to do what God originally wanted humanity to so…” (207, emphasis added) Again, “the freedom that Paul was talking about was the freedom to abandon the Second Temple in order to build the Temple of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (209)

Galatians and culture: This book is thick and covers a lot of topics and many of them can’t be covered in this review. However, I wanted to make a note on Ross’s description of culture. Culture is often seen as something that is maturing. It starts out very immature, and God had to condescend to speak a language it could understand. But culture has matured and is maturing. This maturation process primarily happens through the work of Christ in the world. Like the yeast that leavens the whole bread or like the mustard seed that grows into a large tree, so will Christ’s work be in the world. The end times are not a moment, but a process worked by the Spirit. We participate in the work by understanding God’s word for our time and providing that “fruit” for the Spirit to work: the virtues of Christ in us.

Again, quoting Ross: “God’s purpose is to put an end to sin, to reduce the destructiveness of sin, one person at a time. God’s purpose is the regeneration of humanity, and the establishment of shalom by creating a great harvest of the fruits of the Spirit… And the success of this grand plan requires planting Christ’s seed – the grace of Jesus Christ – in every culture, in every individual.” (290) Indeed, Ross insists God has made gradual but meaningful progress: “Humanity today is not the same as humanity was during previous eras… The establishment of Christian culture is a central feature of Christ’s mission.” (297)

It’s difficult to summarize such a long and multi-faceted work. Ross dealt with a wide range of topics. But the main points I pulled out of the book are these: (1) The primary lens we should view Galatians from is the conflict between the Temple establishment and the work of the Holy Spirit. (2) Old Testament laws need to be re-understood and re-applied in the light of Christ. (3) The Holy Spirit regenerates believers. (4) The work of Christ, through the Spirit, is the redemption of all human culture, a gradual but sure process.

Analysis

It is clear that Ross has spent a lot of time studying and interacting with Scripture. I really appreciate his emphasis on the metanarrative and on attempting to understand Galatians in the light of the whole story of the Bible. He weaves together Old Testament stories, passages from Galatians, and the life and work of Christ into a single work. I also appreciate his desire to be faithful to what he refers to as the “veracity” of Scripture. He holds it in high regard. On that and many other points in the book we agree.

We do, however, have a different systematic theology. My purpose in this post isn’t to argue which is right, but to highlight the consequences of those differences.

First: What is the primary conflict in Galatians? And what, then, is freedom? For Ross the enemies are those who say that you must follow the Second Temple law. Freedom is the power, through the Spirit, to re-interpret and re-apply those laws in the light of Christ. I would agree that this is a component of the conversation, but my perspective is that the real conflict goes to the question: How can we be saved? Is it by obeying the law (any law) or by grace through faith alone. Paul’s opponents argued that circumcision – a work – was necessary. Paul argued it was all grace. This question, how can one be made right with God, is at the heart of Galatians. Freedom from the law, then, is freedom from the law as a means of salvation. We’re now free to obey God from a position of gratitude.

Second: What’s happening to culture and what is the Christian’s response to culture? For Ross, the formation of culture through the Christian witness is central to Christianity. Indeed, it’s one of God’s ultimate goals. I’m not sure I agree, at least not in this age. In this age, God’s goal is the salvation and formation of a particular people: the Church. The church’s relationship with the culture is complex. Some parts of culture can be affirmed. Some should be critiqued and rejected. We should be a witness to the culture. We invite people to follow Christ. But the formation of culture isn’t our primary task.

Third: What does The End look like? My perspective on the mission of the Church and the task of Christianity is closely related to my view of the end of the world. I see in Scripture a sudden event, a time which constitutes Christ’s return, the Day of the Lord, the day of ultimate salvation and judgment. Before that time culture will get better and worse. It will show both improvement and corruption. Culture cannot be “fixed” until that point. But on that day God will make all things new and evil will be swept away in judgment. Goodness will be firmly and irrevocably established. The task of the church is to prepare people for that day, or for their own day, the day of their death when they face the judgment seat of Christ. We still try to be salt and light in our culture, of course, because we love our neighbors. For their sake we want a world with less poverty, less violence, less oppression, less greed, less hatred, etc. But our first task is declaring the good news, not just that God brings about improvement, but that He brings about rescue.

Postscript: Galatians and Christian Reconstructionism: In an email exchange with the author I learned that he was interacting specifically with what is called Christian Reconstructionism. Christian reconstructionism advocates a theonomy (not to be confused with ecclesiocracy): “A Christian form of government in which society is ruled by Divine Law” (via Wikipedia). Most atheists I come across believe that most Christians want a theonomy, even though this is actually a minority position. This is not a movement I know a lot about, but it was behind much of Ross’s thought.

Ross interacts with the Christian Reconstructionist movement on several key points. First, he shares the view of a gradual improvement and Christianization of society and he sees that as something Christians should work towards as a primary aim.

Second, though, he disagrees with many in the movement who believe that Old Testament law applies to our world today. Instead, he would say that we’re free from that law, that we should instead look to the law of Christ: love God and love neighbor, and then through the aid of the Spirit, discern how it applies to our modern world.

Third, he seems to argue for a bottom-up instead of top-down approach. The Christianization of culture/society/government happens not with a coercive approach, but through the personal regeneration of the Holy Spirit, the spreading of the seed of the gospel, and the fruit of the Spirit manifest in the lives of believers. While I’d still disagree that the Christianization of culture is a primary task of the church, I appreciate critique of the Christian Reconstructionist movement.

* For a test case in how I see the interaction between the church and one aspect of culture – particularly political engagement – see this post on refugees and immigration.

The gospel of sin management vs. the gospel of new creation

22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:22-24

In the book Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis asks the question: Is Christianity hard or easy? His response is that it is both hard and easy. It’s hard in that we’re called to give up our selves to follow Jesus – a nearly impossibly hard thing to do. It’s easy in the sense that God enables us to do it by giving us a new identity. It’s easier than doing what many of us try to do: trying to be good without doing the first step of having been made new.

C.S. Lewis puts it like this:

The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self – all your wishes and precautions – to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves’, to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time to be ‘good’. We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way – centered on money or pleasure or ambition – and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown. – Mere Christianity

What Lewis is describing here is what other authors have referred to as “the gospel of sin management.” The gospel of sin management says that following God is all about managing our sin, trying to control it, trying to get rid of what is bad and increase what is good. Now, I’m all for self-control, for less sin and more righteousness, but “the gospel of sin management” tries to get to this step first and by itself, as though we can simply will ourselves into moral perfection.

Lewis argues that we need to be made new creations. We need new identities. He likens it to being toy tin soldiers being made into real people. And, for that to happen, we need to have come in contact with the One truly real person: Jesus Christ.

His argument aligns perfectly with Ephesians 4:22-24 quoted above. In the passage Paul calls us to “put off the old self” and “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” This isn’t just code for “try to do less bad and more good” but live in accordance with the new identity we have in Christ. This new identity is closely associated a new mindset, a new way of thinking and looking at the world.

Only after this inner transformation are we called to the transformation of our actions, to sin management. Again quoting Lewis: “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”

But what if we’ve already been saved, we’re already receiving the new life of Christ, and we are still often on the losing end of temptation in our lives? How then does this apply? Perhaps we need to shift to the idea of surrender. We need to surrender “ourselves”, our own desires, our own happiness, to the will of God, and live instead in accordance with who he is making us to be. As James 4:7 says “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Submission precedes resistance.

That is when self-control comes back into play – self-control as a fruit of the Spirit – as something that doesn’t arise from our own natures, but a supernatural gift from God, a natural outcome of living as new creations.

What’s the role of the mind in overcoming sin?

How do we overcome sin, especially habitual sins which frequently defeat us? This is a challenge for many Christians and there are many different answers. I’m preparing for a sermon in a few weeks on Ephesians 4:27-24, verses which hold two major keys for victory over sin. One of those keys I want to talk about in this post: the importance of renewing our minds.

17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17-24)

The first thing that struck me about this passage is how important right thinking is to Paul. Paul is urging the believers in Ephesus to “live a life worthy of the calling they have received” (4:1). That means a radical change, a departure from one way of life and entrance into another, a change of identity.

He urges them to stop living like “the Gentiles.” Here he uses this word as a stand-in for those who are separated from the life of God (see 4:18). Their lives are characterized by (1) a spiritual condition that is hardened against God, (2) a mind that is futile, darkened, and ignorant, and (3) a lifestyle that is characterized by a lack of moral sensitivity. If there’s an ordering of events here it would likely be that the spiritual condition leads to a darkening of the mind, which leads to a lifestyle opposed to God, but both my experience and the text lead me to believe that these are more interrelated.

My interest here is the emphasis Paul puts on the second part, the role of the mind. Paul describes the fallenness of the “Gentile” thinking in three ways. First, their thinking is “futile”, that is, it doesn’t get them anywhere. There’s motion, but no progress. Having denied God, they have denied reality. In denying reality, their thoughts get no traction, they’re ultimately futile. Second, their understanding is darkened. It lacks light and illumination. Third, they’re “separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them.” Sometimes ignorance makes someone more forgivable (“they didn’t know what they were doing was wrong.”) But Paul isn’t describing ignorance in this way, but as something which makes them more guilty. They’re not ignorant because they haven’t had a chance to learn, but because they rejected the learning available to them.

Paul’s purpose isn’t to set up an “us-versus-them” polemic here, but to urge those Gentiles who had put their faith in Christ to “put off” this old way of thinking. It’s not “us-versus-them” but “who we were” vs “who God is making us to be.” How does this transformation from old to new happen? Well, if the problem is in the mind then the solution will also be in the mind. They were taught to be “made new in the attitude of their minds.” Having had their spiritual condition already transformed through salvation, they needed now to allow the transformation of their minds.

This renewal happens by understanding what they have been taught, namely, “the truth that is in Jesus.” This happens decisively when we hear and respond to the gospel, but Paul also has a continual process in mind. In other words, we need to be regularly taking in truth, remembering the truth that we have learned, and applying truth to our lives.

How does this apply to overcoming sin? We can, and should, deal with our sinful behaviors directly. However, sinful behavior is often fueled by lies. “I can’t stop sinning so why bother trying” is a lie. In the first place, those who are in Christ are no longer slaves to sin. In the second, the reality that we will never be perfect should never stop our pursuit of holiness. “This sin doesn’t hurt anyone” is a lie. All sin has destructive consequences and at the minimum it is harmful to you. Some lies are more subtle, even subconscious. No one would say that a woman is a mere object, but when men look at porn that’s how they’re treating them. It’s a denial of their full humanity. There are many other lies, or corruptions of the mind, which fuel sinful behavior. To deal with the root of the behavior, then, we need to deal with our minds – they need to be renewed.

We need to regularly meditate on the truth of the gospel. In the gospel we see the seriousness and destructiveness of sin alongside the grace of God, both to forgive and to enable obedience. The truth of the gospel undermines the lies we believe to justify our sin. We need to watch closely what goes into our minds. The old adage “garbage in, garbage out” still rings true. Just as regularly feeding on the truth works its way into behavior that is pleasing to God, regularly feeding on lies, or on those things which will make us spiritually callous or morally desensitized leads to behavior that is displeasing to God. Paul is wise when he calls us to think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable.” (Philippians 4:8)

Of course, we can know all the right answers and still be riddled with sin. We need an inner transformation that goes beyond mere cognition. We need a shift in the will. At the same time, we’re foolish to neglect the role that our minds and thoughts in our spiritual formation. Want to overcome sin? Start by allowing God to transform your mind.