Category Archives: Doctrine

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.

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On the #NashvilleStatement

What is the Nashville Statement?
The Nashville Statement is a doctrinal statement produced and signed by a number of high profile evangelical leaders regarding marriage, sexuality, and gender. The statement has generated a fair amount of controversy and confusion. This is unsurprising, given that this is such a hot-button topic in our culture and the historic Christian perspective is considered backward and hateful by many. Still, there is nothing in it that is outside the bounds of what Christians have been saying for two thousand years.

Furthermore, while the statement was written by CBMW (“The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood”), there is nothing particularly “complementarian” about the statement.[1] Biblical egalitarians, while disagreeing with complementarians on gender roles within the church, could still agree with this statement.

If it’s what Christians have agreed on for centuries, what’s the point in saying it now?

One of the primary objections has been that this doesn’t need to be said, and that in saying it, evangelicals are elevating one sin over another. “Do these Christians talk as much about racism or greed as they do about sexuality?” That might be a fair question, but it misses the point. I suspect this statement was made now because this question is up for debate in Christian circles. Many Christians are, in fact, abandoning a biblical understanding of creation and God’s purposes for marriage and sexuality. This statement weighs in on this debate and call Christians to commit to a side. No one disagrees that greed is wrong, so while it’s a major emphasis in the Bible, a statement on greed isn’t necessary. It might win you some points, but it doesn’t need to be said.[2]

What about Article X?

Most of the controversy among evangelicals who would otherwise agree with this message is surrounds Article X. This article states that approving of “homosexual immorality or transgenderism” constitutes “an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.” And, it denies that this issue is a “matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.”

This statement has been interpreted differently by different people. Some have understood this to mean “you’re not saved if you disagree with us.” Others have interpreted it to mean that “this isn’t just an area where it’s OK to ‘agree to disagree’ and that diverging from the biblical witness on this point constitutes real damage to the faith.” If it means the former – where agreement on this issue is a pre-requisite to salvation – then I would disagree with this article. The things you must believe is very small. But I don’t think that was the intention of the statement. I believe that the statement is saying that this set of doctrines gets at the core of who we are as humans and who God is as our Creator, and that the biblical witness is clear on these issues. Therefore, disagreement here isn’t just something we can say is unimportant.[3]

Is the moral authority of this statement undermined by evangelical support for Donald Trump?

Exasperated sigh.

The charge of hypocrisy is simply a common part of debate these days. It’s impossible for anyone to say or do anything without the charge of hypocrisy. Frankly, I tend to tune most of it out. Unfortunately, for me this time it has a ring of truth. My great fear during the 2016 election was that by supporting such an obviously immoral man, evangelicals would hurt their witness and lose their moral authority to speak out on these kinds of issues. And, while the charge of hypocrisy would certainly come up regardless, in this case it sticks.

On the other hand, several of the signers were, in fact, some of Trump’s most vocal critics (e.g. Russell Moore). Also, just because someone is hypocritical, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. While the charge of hypocrisy does stick in some cases, it doesn’t necessarily undermine the argument. That’s the case here.

Of course, wherever there is hypocrisy, and whenever it is rightly pointed out to us, we should respond with repentance.

Is the statement hateful?

Finally, the most common argument against the Nashville Statement is that it is hateful. This is a serious charge for Christians to consider given that we’re called to be known for our love.

It is possible that the statement could have included some level of repentance and that may have helped. It is possible that it could have had a more pastoral tone. But, after reading it a few times, I have failed to find anything in it that is mean spirited or harsh. Finally, and sadly, I’m sure it will be the case that some will use the Nashville Statement as a weapon against their neighbors, who they are called to love.

Yet, most people who find it hateful do so because of its content. If you take issue with its content, then you take issue with what Christianity (and other religions) have always believed. Many people do, of course, but there’s nothing especially different in this statement from what has been said throughout Christian history.

So, is Christian doctrine hateful? Space doesn’t allow me to fully and adequately address this question. But my short answer is that God is a loving God and that He gives us ethical commands for our good. His law is intended to lead toward human flourishing. Christians argue for biblical ethics and doctrine because we believe that it will lead to a more abundant and joyful life (though the path to abundant life inevitably leads through suffering). We are most free when we live within the created order, God knows the created order (because He created it), and following him leads ultimately to goodness, life, and freedom. Even if you disagree with this worldview, I hope that at least you will understand our motives.

[1] Article IV states “divinely ordained differences between male and female reflect God’s original creation design” is a “complementarian” as it gets. While complentarians might disagree with what those differences are, they don’t disagree that there are differences. Furthermore, it’s clear from the statement (Article V) that these differences are in regard to sexuality and gender.

[2] A fair objection might be that while this needs to be said it should be done within the context of a church discussion, or at an ecclesial structure. What complicates this is that many churches do not have such a structure, or these structures are weak.

[3] For more on this, see Preston Sprinkle’s article “The Debate About Same-Sex Marriage is not a Secondary Issue” written before the #NashvilleStatement.

Is God knowable?

IT & CO.

We are part of It. Not guests.

Is It us, or what contains us?

How can It be anything but an idea,

Something teetering on the spine

Of the number i? It is elegant

But coy. It avoids the blunt ends

Of our fingers as we point. We

Have gone looking for It everywhere:

In Bibles and bandwidth, blooming

Like a wound from the ocean floor.

Still, it resists the matter of false vs. real.

Unconvinced by our zeal, it is un-

Appeasable. It is like some novels:

Vast and unreadable.

– Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars

“I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.” – Ephesians 1:17

4137M0L1m+L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars is an exploration of the otherworldly. She wonders whether we are alone in this universe. Ghosts and spirits make themselves known. The dead enter a new plane of existence. She contemplates the divine. But any true knowledge of what sort of Being this might be is ultimately beyond answer. As in the above poem, It is “vast and unreadable.” Smith captures the agnosticism of our age. Yes, perhaps there is some divine energy, or idea, or person. But such a being is beyond our knowing.

Is God knowable?

Is it necessary to believe that God is “vast and unreadable”? After all, for God to be truly God he must be eternal and infinite. What can limited beings like ourselves know of The Infinite?

If we are left to ourselves, then yes, God is simply beyond our grasp. We can understand something of his divinity and power through creation. We can understand his moral beauty through our consciences; our grasp of the reality of good and evil. But this knowledge will necessarily be limited and obscure.

What we need is a God who communicates with us. Paul prays “I keep asking that the God… give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation.” In other words, knowledge of God comes through divine gift. Paul identifies that divine gift as the “Spirit of wisdom and revelation.” That Spirit is none other than God Himself in the person of the Spirit.

We receive knowledge of God through the Spirit. But how does the Spirit speak to us? Is it private, secret, and personal knowledge? While I think personal knowledge plays a part, the bigger part of the Spirit’s communication with people is public. The Spirit, through human agents, gives us the Scripture. (There’s a reason, Smith, why we search for the transcendent in Bibles.) The Spirit points us to Christ, the ultimate revelation of God.

God can be known, and not just known about. He is not an It, not an idea, neither “what we are or what contains us,” but who formed us, not “teetering on the spine of the number i” but ultimately real and self-existent. He is knowable because He has made himself known, and made himself knowable.

On the connection between Predestined and Included

A member of our church called me this past week and asked me to put in writing one of the main points from last Sunday’s sermon on Ephesians 1:11-14. [That sermon is available here.] Specifically, she asked me to (1) provide a definition of ‘predestined’ (2) Provide a definition of ‘included.’ And (3) describe how the two are connected. My answer is below. If you’re interested in my personal journey on this topic, you can read this post.

Predestined:  In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” (1:11) I’m not sure I can provide a definition of predestined but I can offer a description of it. First, we have been predestined/chosen to receive the blessings of salvation; to be made holy and blameless (1:4) and to be adopted to sonship (1:5). Second, we have been predestined/chosen according to God’s eternal will, “before the creation of the world” (1:4). Third, this means that God always initiates salvation. His actions are always prior both in purpose and time. To the extent that we respond in faith – and I believe that our response is a real and free response – it is because God demonstrated the initiative. There is nothing about which I could boast.

Included: “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation.” (1:13) “Included in Christ” carries with it two interlocking ideas. First, it means that we have been spiritually united with Christ through personal conversion. Second, it means that we have been included within the people of God. Notice Paul’s argument in 2:11-22. Prior to Christ, the Gentiles were “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel” but now they have been “brought near by the blood of Christ.” To be brought near is to become part of one body, become citizens with God’s people, and become members of one household. We are included in Christ when we hear, and by implication believe, the gospel.

What is the connection between predestined and included? There’s an interesting parallelism going on in these verses. “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined… And you also were included in Christ.” The two are not identical concepts (as I’ve hopefully shown above) but they are interrelated. How, then, are they connected?

First, we need to note that the concepts of election, predestination, and being chosen, do not come out of nowhere for Paul, but are built on Israel’s history. Abraham was chosen by God to be the father of a nation. Israel is God’s chosen people. To be “chosen” in the Old Testament would mean being part of Israel. The purpose of God choosing Israel was to bring glory to Himself and so that Israel could be a light and a blessing to the world. We see the same concept here in Ephesians. Paul’s emphasis is not just on the individual nature of salvation, but on the reality that God is forming a people of faith by including both Jews and Gentiles in Christ.

Second, this previous point is emphasized by a very important shift in pronouns. Verses 3-10 uses the pronoun “us” and describes the reality for all believers. Verses 11-12 “In him we were also chosen… we were the first to put our hope in Christ” uses the pronoun “we.” Verses 13-14 shifts the pronouns to “you.” “You also were included…” There’s some dispute here but I take the “we” to be Paul and his companions who were believers prior to the creation of the Ephesian church, and the “you” to be those in the Ephesian church (and likely surrounding churches) primarily made up of Gentiles.

Why does this distinction matter? It highlights one of the purposes of God’s election. Like Israel we see a two-fold purpose. First, it brings glory to God (see verse 12). Second, it is God’s way of creating a people who will be a light to those who are yet excluded from Christ, aliens and foreigners, without God and without hope. To be chosen, then, is to be called to proclaim the gospel so that others may believe and be included in Christ.

This doesn’t resolve a number of mysteries, but those I leave to God, like how to reconcile God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom. I think this means that we are chosen to by virtue of our being members by faith of God’s chosen people and it means that we are members of God’s people by virtue of our being chosen before the creation of the world. Only an eternal God can make that all work. But he’s a good God, so that’s enough.

The Paris Agreement and Romans 8

With President Trump’s announcement to pull out of the Paris Agreement, the environment has been in the news a lot lately. I was reading in Romans 8 this morning. Here are some observations:

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Romans 8:19-22 (emphasis added)

“The creation” here probably means more than just “the planet.” Paul sometimes situates personal salvation within God’s greater plan for the redemption of the entire created order (the cosmos) and that is what he is doing here. Also, it would be anachronistic to draw a direct line between “frustration,” “decay,” and “groaning,” to present day concepts of pollution and environmental degradation. Still, there are some important points to be made here for our modern situation.

First, the decay of creation matters to God. Because God created our planet, he cares for it. His concern is not limited to the fate of individual humans. He clothes the flowers. He feeds the sparrows.

Second, “environmental degradation” is man-caused. At its most fundamental level, the frustration and bondage to decay experienced by creation is the result of Adam and Eve’s sin. It should not surprise us that human activity – marred by sin as it is – results in further damage and decay.

Third, God will bring about the eventual redemption of creation. The earth and the rest of the cosmos will undergo a radical change at the end of time – we will have a New Heaven and a New Earth – but that radical change is described here as a release from bondage, as redemption. That is, it will in some sense be a moving back to its original created goodness while simultaneously be a moving forward to a new kind of creation.

Fourth, there are several implications for man’s (especially “children of God”) relationship with creation. (1) As God cares for creation, we should to. It’s a special gift to us which we should work to protect and nurture. We should do what is within our power to be good stewards of that gift. (2) Mankind nevertheless plays the central role in God’s plans. In Romans 8, personal freedom and redemption are the central theme of Paul’s thought. It’s right and good to think about the impact of regulations on the lives of individuals. (3) We nevertheless inhabit creation. We are not disconnected from our planet. Our fates – both in the sufferings and decay of sin and in the freedom and glory of ultimate salvation – are intertwined. It’s wise to keep this in mind.

Note: For a really solid Christian understanding of this topic check out Francis Schaeffer’s Pollution and the Death of Manor read my summary here.

What should we do with our moral and religious instincts?

I saw an article headline recently that said something along the lines of “Atheists are smarter because they overcome religious instincts.” I confess I didn’t read the article, but it did get me thinking, What should we do with our moral and religious instincts?

First, it’s worth noting that we do, indeed, have moral and religious instincts. Sociologist/Moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt, talks in The Righteous Mind of people having moral “taste buds” which we use to intuitively make moral judgments. He describes his own journey of discovering this principle and  his surprise at how universal those moral senses are. Some cultures consciously ignore or downplay certain senses, but according to Haidt we’re all basically pre-wired to make moral judgments, to distinguish between right and wrong.

Along the same lines, we all have a religious sense, a sense of the transcendent, a sense of meaning and purpose, and a sense that there is a God (or are gods). Even the article mentioned above (which I presume to be anti-religion) concedes that people are pre-wired with a “religious instinct.”

The question, then, is how do we interpret that instinct and what should we do with it?

Haidt interprets both morality and religion as products of evolution processes. Unlike other atheists he sees them as good things which help us work together and therefore accomplish more overall good in the world. But for Haidt they don’t correspond to any reality outside of themselves. We have a “moral sense” but there is not “objective morality.” Morality is merely a product of brains and our civilization. We have an intuition that things are right and wrong, but there are no corresponding abstract “rights” and “wrongs” which could ultimately act as judges.

Haidt doesn’t indicate that we should therefore jettison/overcome either the religious or moral instincts (even though he has, so to speak, seen through them.) But other’s do.

But there’s another way to interpret these religious instincts and moral senses, that they correspond to an objective morality. Haidt’s metaphor of “senses” is apt. Our senses do provide us with an “evolutionary advantage” in the sense that they help us to survive in a hostile world. But they also correspond to the world outside of ourselves. In fact, the two are interrelated. The fact that I can taste spoiled food helps me survive, because it corresponds to the reality of spoiled food. Likewise, moral instincts that have both helped us accomplish great things and correspond to a moral reality outside ourselves, to real categories of right and wrong, justice and injustice, good and evil. The same with religion. Perhaps we should understand the universality of religion as evidence that there is a corresponding religious and spiritual reality, that we have a sense of God because there is a God.

This is in fact what the Bible says. The Bible says that all of us have a sense that God exists and that there is a moral law (to which we fall short.) We have religious and moral senses. The Bible also says that those senses and instincts have been dulled and twisted by sin. We all can see that there is a God and that there is a moral law, but we do not see those things clearly.

So what do we do with those instincts? Should we “overcome” them? I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of being “too clever by half.” The Bible also has a name for that, it’s called “suppressing the truth.” Or, should we seek greater clarity? Let’s not try to see “through” religion and morality. Let’s try to see their reality more clearly.

Foundations for a life that pleases God

Yesterday I started a series on the book of Ephesians. I used the opportunity to lay out some of the major themes of the book as foundations for living a life pleasing to God.

The reality and character of God. In our secular age, it has become rather popular to jettison the idea of God all together as a mere illusion or crutch and to find some other foundation of life. Even among people who believe in God, He is far from foundational, instead, He is a peripheral part of life which we bring in or throw out as seems useful to our own goals. But for Paul, the reality and character of God forms the very foundation for every other argument he makes.

Reality: What Paul assumes in Ephesians, the writer of Hebrews makes explicit: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

Character: Paul is less interested in defending the reality of God than he is in describing his character. Indeed, the purpose of much of Ephesians is simply to draw his readers to love and worship God. God is the creator of all things (3:89). He is “over all and through all and in all” (4:6). He is the “glorious Father” (1:17). And, He is characterized by great love and as being “rich in mercy” (2:4). In this vision of God, He is the creator and sustainer of all things – and thus serves as a good foundation not only for our personal lives but for the entire cosmos. Further, He is not a distant and removed creator, but one who loves and shows mercy to his creation.

God’s work in Christ. Many monotheistic religions would affirm this vision of God as the foundation for life, but what makes Christianity unique is this second foundational principle: God’s work in Christ. God’s work in Christ naturally flows out of his love and mercy. How does He show us love and mercy? By sending His one and only Son into the world to save the world (John 3:16). And what did Jesus do? He gave us “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (1:7). He “brought us near [to God] by the blood of Christ” (2:13). He “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms” (1:19b-20).

The Christian faith rests on the foundation of the historical reality of Jesus, on His historical death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Through this reality we can be forgiven, redeemed, reconciled, and made alive.

God’s gifts, given through Christ. Through the work of Christ, and out of the boundless riches of God’s mercy and grace, God gives gifts to those who believe in him. These gifts are expanded throughout the letter but nowhere more than in Ephesians 3:3-10 (explanatory video in the link), but for the purposes of this blog I will focus on just three which are mentioned in 1:1-2: Paul’s apostleship, Grace, and Peace.

Paul’s apostleship: In some circles, it has become popular to accept the teachings of Jesus but reject Paul, but to do so would be a mistake. Indeed, God has given us apostolic teaching as one of the key foundations for the church (2:20). Specifically, God gave Paul special insight (revelation) into the mystery of the gospel; that Gentiles could be saved and incorporated into the people of God in the same way that Jews could, through faith alone, apart from the law. It was in large part due to Paul’s special mission to the Gentiles that the church expanded the way that it did.

Grace: Grace is God’s unmerited favor and this unmerited favor is what leads to our salvation. It equips us to serve the body of Christ, making it mature in the faith. And, will be revealed in its fullness when Jesus returns.

Peace: In our harried 21st century lives we’re particularly interested in how to achieve inner peace, but the peace which Paul refers to in Ephesians is, first, peace with God and second, peace with one another within the body of Christ. But, it makes sense that if we were to achieve peace in these first two senses, an inner peace would likely follow.

Without these gifts – knowledge of the gospel revealed through Paul’s apostleship, grace, and peace – the Christian life would be impossible. We would simply lack the power to accomplish what God has commanded us to do.

Our identity in Christ: Paul spends a large portion of his letter exhorting Christians to obey God. But prior to these commands he identifies his audience as “God’s holy people… faithful in Christ Jesus.” This identity comes first and foremost from what God has done for us. Out of God’s great mercy he sent Jesus. Jesus died on the cross and rose again. It is through this work that God grants us the gifts of grace and peace. And, it is these gifts which make us truly holy in the eyes of God. We’re objectively holy, with a righteousness that comes from God and is received through faith, even before we are subjectively and imperfectly holy. Indeed, our faithfulness flows out of this new identity in Christ, and apart from that identity, living a faithful life would be impossible.

There are many things in life competing for our core identity. But our identity in Christ is the only one which will never, can never, be shaken.

Actions: Only after laying this firm foundation does Paul lay out the moral exhortations later in the letter: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1). It may be useful to think of Christianity as an iceberg. Most of the iceberg is below the surface. This forms the foundation of the iceberg and makes that which is above the water stable.

In Christianity, this foundation is the rich theological principles of the character of God, God’s work in Christ, God’s revelation, grace, and peace poured out on us, and the reality that when received by faith these form in us a new and lasting identity. The “above the surface” part of the Christian faith is what we actually do. These too are essential, but are not foundational. We make a mistake when we flip the proportions of the iceberg, when we make Christianity essentially about what we do, de-emphasizing theology and the incredible work of God. Such a faith is fundamentally unstable. If we get the foundations right, the actions, while still requiring the hard work of obedience, will follow naturally.