Category Archives: Doctrine

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.

On the inevitability of structural racism

This article is a summary of John Piper’s article Structural Racism: The Child of Structural Pride. My purpose in summarizing it here is (1) to disseminate its ideas to my readers and (2) to reinforce and crystalize those same ideas in my own mind by writing them down. As is usually the case, reading the primary source is more beneficial than then its derivatives.

The goal of Piper’s article is to “reduce the instinctive, white, evangelical reaction against the idea of structural racism or systematic racism.” I share the same goal here. As I have navigated the dangerous waters of discussing racism one of the major obstacles has been discussing the idea of systematic racism. A fair number of white evangelicals I have interacted with are eager to condemn personal racism but are convinced that (a) systematic/structural racism is a thing of the past and that there are only small pockets of individual racists and (b) that by talking about systematic racism we either label everyone a racist or somehow devalue discussions of personal responsibility. I think that both of these convictions are wrong – that structural racism is both inevitable and more pervasive than most white people realize (including myself) – and that talking about structural racism doesn’t need to lead to either a false sense of guilt (“everyone is a racist”) or reduce the need to talk about personal responsibility.

Piper’s strategy is to focus on the theological question of systematic racism rather than particular instances of it. He aims “to show that, if your mind is Bible-saturated, you would consider it absolutely astonishing if structural racism were not pervasive wherever sin is pervasive.” In other words, Piper sees structural racism as inevitable in a fallen world, kept in check only by the grace of God.

First, some definitions. Piper chooses a “street-level” definition of race as “a group of people distinguished primarily by skin color, but also by facial features and hair type.” Racism, then, is “an explicit or implicit feeling or belief or practice that values one race over other races, or devalues one race beneath others.” Finally, he defines structural racism as “the cumulative effect of racist feelings, beliefs, and practices that become embodied and expressed in policies, rules, regulations, procedures, expectations, norms, assumptions, guidelines, places, strategies, objectives, practices, values, standards, narratives, histories, records, and the like, which accordingly disadvantage the devalued race and privilege the valued race.”  What is important in this final definition is that the effects of structural racism may linger “even if non-racist people now inhabit the institutions where the racist structures still holds sway.” To say that an institution, law, practice, procedure, etc. contains structural racism is not necessarily to impugn the people that inhabit that institution as being racist. (I’ll note, though, that sometimes we are culpable of our own blindness, lack of empathy, failure to listen, and/or failure to act. To speak of structural racism should also not absolve individuals of personal guilt when it is present.)

From there Piper outlines three realities of our world which makes structural racism inevitable.

First, personal human sin: Rebellion from God is characterized by hostility toward God and hostility towards our fellow man and hostility towards those different from us is generally easier than towards those who are like us. “If we are ‘malicious,’ how much more with those who are different from ourselves. If we ‘murder,’ how much more those who are different. If we ‘deceive,’ how much more the alien.”

Second, a supernatural devil: The task of the devil is to lie, kill, and destroy and he is constantly working against us – or rather with the sinful natures within us. Given this reality Piper asks “can we be surprised if he works through all the social institutions of this world to cultivate misunderstanding, distrust, bias, partiality, suspicion, ill-will, antagonism, hostility, murder, pogroms, lynchings, ethnic cleansing, holocaust, genocide?” The history of ethnic and racial strife bears witness to the reality of this evil.

Third, evil world systems: Finally, the Bible speaks of a “present evil age”, a “present darkness”, a world system which enslaves. What Piper aims to show here is that while evil exists within the human heart, it is “strengthened and extended by Satan into a global matrix of evil.” The evil that exists within the world is greater than the sum of its parts. The overall evil in the world is more devastating than just the addition of all the sins of the human race. Instead it becomes embedded in a system, a mindset, a culture, and pervades our policies and institutions.

Piper concludes this section: “I can think of no sin that is not systematic or structural.” If no sin is spared the inevitability of becoming systematic or structural, why should we make an exception for racism?

Next Piper looks at the sins of pride, greed, fear, and lust and shows how they all pervade the systems of the world and, then, how they relate to racism. I will simply quote Piper at length here:

In such a world, it would be inconceivable and utterly astonishing if there were no such thing as structural racism. In this world of sin and Satan and a decadent world system, it is incomprehensible that one sin would be privileged to escape systemic expression. This is true not only for statistical reasons, but for organic ones. Racism is the spoiled child of pride. And structural racism is the sturdy child of structural pride. They are organically connected. Pride gives birth to racism. Structural pride gives birth to structural racism.

Racism is an explicit or implicit feeling or belief or practice that values one race over other races, or devalues one race beneath others. Why do we do this? Because of pride. Egotism. Haughtiness. Vain-glory. What could be clearer than the fact that we devalue other races in order to exalt our own, and gain the advantages that go with it? This is why racism is also the sibling of the fraternal triplets greed, fear, and lust. We value our own race, and devalue others to gain benefits (greed), avoid perceived loss (fear). And all the while lust aids and abets the process by sucking the vestiges of decency out of our souls.

Note that Piper is not saying that institutions, procedures, etc. feel or are guilty of pride or racism, but that they “institutionalize the minds of the proud, greedy, fearful, lustful people who create them.” They allow the evil of their creator to live on even when that creator is no longer present. They pave the way for injustice, and block the path of righteousness.

“There will be policies that promote a visible pecking order that feeds on and furthers pride. There will be strategies of cut-throat competition that grow with the nutriments of greed. There will be procedures of micro-management that waken and exploit fear. There will be assumptions of dress that exploit lust.”

It should come as no surprise to us that Piper finds the solution to the problem of personal and individual racism in the gospel. The gospel begins by destroying our pride and then enables and emboldens us to dismantle first the evil in our own hearts and then that which exists in the structures which surround us.

One of the big payoffs for me here is that when we understand the inevitability of structural and systematic evil – including racism – we’re in a better position to hear our brothers and sisters when they point to a particular instance of it. We ought to be cautious of just “blaming the system” – as Piper certainly is – and each supposed instance can be evaluated in its own right, but nor should we just dismiss it out of hand. If we refuse to see it where it is present, we won’t have the tools needed to work for justice.

Communion service, November 8

communion

On Tuesday, November 8, at 8:00 pm, our church will be holding a special communion service. The purpose of this election day communion service is not to compete with the task of selecting our government leaders, but to put it in perspective.

Communion is an essential Christian practice which should be performed regularly. It is typically celebrated as part of a Sunday worship service. For our church, the meaning is the same in whatever context it is performed. It is a God-ordained way of memorializing and proclaiming the death of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. It is an occasion for confession and reconciliation. It is an opportunity to thank God for the body of Jesus which was broken and the blood that was spilled for us. But we have placed this communion service on this particular day and this particular time for a purpose – so that we can re-orient our hearts toward the eternal and re-prioritize our lives around the gospel, the good news of Jesus.

In a sense, there is a “confession of the election” and a “confession of the gospel.” By “confession” here I mean a statement of beliefs. In other words, when we think about an election we tend to hold to certain beliefs. Those beliefs are not always in line with the gospel. Sometimes they stand in opposition to it. Sometimes they simply need to be relativized in relation to it. Sometimes it is possible to hold both beliefs in tension. Sometimes the gospel undermines our false beliefs. One of the goals of the communion service is to proclaim the “confession of the gospel.” In the context of this particular day and time, this will necessarily be contrasted with the “confession of the election.” Allow me to elaborate:

The confession of the gospel is that we all must approach the cross with humility, confessing our sins, and our sins alone.  The confession of the election allows us to believe that ours is the side of righteousness and to look down on our political adversaries. Communion breaks down our pride and self-righteousness.

The confession of the gospel is that we as believers are fundamentally united in Jesus, through his reconciling work. The confession of the election allows us to believe that we fundamentally divided by political parties. Communion reminds us of our essential unity around the table.

The confession of the gospel is that Jesus conquered our greatest enemies of sin and death through his sacrifice on the cross. The confession of the election leads us to believe that victory can only be one through earthly power. Communion reminds us that the greatest victory ever performed was won through love and self-sacrifice.

The confession of the gospel is that God is sovereign and that it was through the sovereignty of God that Jesus died for our sins. The worst that man could ever do – killing the author of life – turned out to be the exact way in which God would atone for the sins of his enemies and bring about his perfect will. The confession of the election is that our futures depend on the will of man and that man stands in that decisive place, either for good or for evil. Communion reminds us that God is sovereign and that he will bring about ultimate good, no matter what path it takes to get there.

The confession of the gospel is that after Jesus’ death and humiliation he was raised and glorified. God raised Jesus up and place him the position of ultimate authority. There is one who reigns over the entire earth and to whom all other authorities are subject. The confession of the election is that authority rests in the government. Communion reminds us that Jesus is still the one with ultimate authority.

The confession of the gospel is that Jesus’ death instituted a new era in salvation history, allowing for a new relationship between God and his people. If we can speak of a time on which history turns that time was two-thousand years ago. It was the days of Jesus’ death and his resurrection. The confession of the election is that election day is the most important day in history. The narratives of the political activists frame November 8th as the day on which history turns. Communion reminds us that history has already turned and it turns along the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Finally, the confession of the gospel is that Jesus is coming again. We celebrate communion in anticipation of that future wedding banquet of the resurrection. We proclaim the Lord’s death, until he comes. The confession of the election is that – unless the people act in a particular way – all is lost. Communion reminds us that because God has already acted, all is already won. 

We invite you to join us.

On confronting evil

ethicsDietrich Bonhoeffer lived in a time of stark evil, during the rise of fascism in Germany. In Ethics he writes this description:

“Today there are once more villains and saints, and they are not hidden from the public view. Instead of the uniform of greyness of the rainy day we now have the black storm-cloud and brilliant lightning-flash. The outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness.” 66

Bonhoeffer observed that there were many approaches to attempting to oppose such stark evil. He was critical of many of them, particularly of the theoretical ethicist for whom evil was a theory, an abstraction. The moral theorist fails to reckon with the reality of evil and is therefore ineffective.

Then he moves on to the failure of others.

The reasonable man. Those who attempt to oppose evil through reason alone “neither perceive the depths of the evil nor the depths of the holy.” They believe that reason is enough to hold the sinking ship together. They are end up disappointed by the ultimate unreasonableness of the world and withdraw.

The ethical fanatic. The ethical fanatic believes that he can oppose evil through “the purity of his will and of his principle.” But Bonhoeffer notes that it is the nature of fanaticism to aim wide of the mark, to be like a bull charging at the red flag instead of the one holding it. The fanatic, however ideal and noble his cause, is undone by his superior opponent.

The man of conscience. Here Bonhoeffer refers to the person who is most concerned with maintaining a clean conscience and who is primarily guided by that inner voice. But Bonhoeffer worries that evil will also overwhelm him. “Evil comes upon him in countless respectable and seductive disguises so that his conscience becomes timid and unsure of himself, till in the end he is satisfied if instead of a clear conscience he can have a salved one.” The man only concerned with conscience falls easily into self-deception.

The man of duty. But perhaps one can keep oneself clean by claiming duty. “Responsibility for the command rests upon the man who gives it and not upon him who executes it.” So the argument goes (to disastrous consequences we now know through our historical lens.) No, the man of duty “will end by having to fulfil his obligation even to the devil,” becoming not an opponent of evil, but party to it.

The man of absolute freedom, or what we might call the realist. This person is not bound to their conscience. They are willing to “sacrifice a fruitless principle to a fruitful compromise.” And, “he will easily consent to the bad, knowing full well that it is bad, in order to ward off the worse.” But Bonhoeffer knows that this, too, is foolish. This man ultimately blinds himself to what is bad or worse and also becomes party to evil.

Bonhoeffer’s final critique is of the man of private virtuousness. If one cannot fight evil in the public sphere at least this person can seek refuge here. “He does not steal. He does not commit murder… Within the limits of his power he is good.” But this can only go so far. Eventually for this man to avoid all public conflict he must blind himself to the injustice around him through a process of self-deception. He will either face internal conflict or will become a Pharisee, easily judging others while himself steering clear of that which makes him uncomfortable.

So what is Bonhoeffer’s solution?

“A man can hold his own only if he can combine simplicity and wisdom.” 70.

By simplicity Bonhoeffer means “to fix one’s eye solely on the simple truth of God at a time when all concepts are being confused, distorted and turned upside down.” In other words, simplicity means to be wholeheartedly fixed on and committed to God, to be single-minded and single-hearted.

By wisdom Bonhoeffer means to “see reality as it is” and to “see into the depths of things.” Wisdom and simplicity go hand-in-hand because “it is precisely because he looks only to God, without any sidelong glances at the world, that he is able to look at the reality of the world freely and without prejudice.” And again, “only that man is wise who sees reality in God.” In other words, we can’t see into the depths of the reality of the world unless we can look squarely at God, since the reality of the world rests in God. This is what it means to combine simplicity and wisdom.

But Bonhoeffer admits that this all sounds theoretical and, indeed, impossible. “No man can look with undivided vision at God and at the world of reality so long as God and the world are torn asunder. Try as he may, he can only let his eyes wander distractedly from one to the other.” But all hope is not lost, for Bonhoeffer sees one, and only one, solution to this: Jesus.

In Christ “there is a place at which God and the cosmic reality are reconciled, a place at which God and man have become one. That and that alone is what enables man to set his eyes upon God and upon the world at the same time.” Furthermore, the reality of Christ is not a principle and is not theoretical. It is not love in the abstract. It is the God-man entering into reality, into history, and into the starkly evil world in which we actually live, bearing the evil of the world upon his shoulders, healing the wounds of the world through his stripes.

To live with simplicity and wisdom then, is to keep our eyes and our hearts fixed on Christ. And it is only Christ who is the “Reconciler of the world.” Bonhoeffer concludes, “It is not by ideals and programmes or by conscience, duty, responsibility and virtue that reality can be confronted and overcome, but simply and solely by the perfect love of God.”

In light of eternity, how does what is done in this life matter?

“If it’s all about where we will spend eternity, how does anything I do now matter at all?”

This is a question we received from a teen at our church recently. It’s not the first time it has been asked.

Here’s the dilemma (as the teens see it anyway): Compared to eternity, this life is but a breath and a whisper. The pain and joy we experience now are temporary. If our destination is Heaven then any joy we experience now will be small in comparison to the joy we’ll experience in a life untainted by sin and pain. Any sorrow from pain we have experienced will be wiped away. If our destination is Hell then our joys from this life will be immediately forgotten and our pain will feel slight by comparison. If this life is just a test (how do you respond to Jesus?) why have all the other stuff in between (growing up, going to school, having a family, working in a career, etc.?) Or, in another arena: If either God forgives all sins in Jesus, or just a single sin is enough to separate you from God, why even try? In light of eternity, what difference does it make if it all comes down to whether or not I trust in Jesus for salvation? Why would God give us this life in the first place? It just seems so arbitrary.

Some of the issue here comes from how we sometimes explain the gospel. Is it really all about heaven and hell? Is this life nothing more than a test? One of the biggest challenges, especially for young people, is seeing past the nose on their own face. They are caught up in the Now, in the immediate challenges, in the temporary pleasure or pain they are experiencing. So we rightly point out to them the temporary nature of those things and urge them to have a long-term perspective, an eternal perspective. But sometimes when we do this we lop off parts of the gospel. We boil it down to just what happens after we die. I think this adds to the confusion.

Here’s what the gospel often looks like:

salvation1

We live a short life (seventy or so years) and then we die. When we die we face the Judge and we will be judged based on how we respond to Jesus. This moment is the “final exam.” If we have accepted Jesus as our Savor, we spend eternity with God. If we do not, we are condemned in our sin and spend eternity apart from Him. If this is the whole story of the gospel, then everything we do in this life matters to the extent that it prepares us or others for eternity. In other words, I try to be a good student or a good worker so that I have integrity in my witness and thus prepare others for eternity by helping them to respond to Jesus in the right way. I’m a good parent so that my kids will accept Jesus. I’m a good preacher so that the unsaved will hear and believe and so that the congregation will be prepared to witness to their friends and family. This view of the gospel is correct. I don’t mean to belittle it in any way. But it’s not the whole story.

To get the whole story we need to take a step back and look at more than just our own stories.

salvation2

This picture represents the history of the world. The history of the world starts with God’s creation of the heavens and the earth. In this short stage, everything was very good. But Adam and Eve sinned and brought about the Fall. Since that time the world has been under the curse of sin. Everything good is twisted. Everything whole is broken. Every good gift is abused. This creation/fall duality explains why we live in a world of such beauty and such tragedy. The beauty is the result of God’s creation. The tragedy is the result of our rebellion, so much so that all of creation groans under the weight of the curse.

But God has not left us to our own devices. Instead, he has been working throughout history in order to redeem (buy back from spiritual slavery) a people for himself. This people is blessed in order to be a blessing to the whole world. We live in a world, then, that is both getting better and worse at the same time. One force (rebellion) moves the world away from God. The other force (God’s redemption) moves the world toward God and more in line with the original created goodness. This constant tug and pull will never be resolved in this age, though. For that we await Christ’s return. At this point the battle is won. Goodness and justice will reign.

The final stage of the journey is when God brings about the “New Heaven and the New Earth.” This is an earthly existence. In some ways it will be radically different than the world we experience now, since it will lack a few things we take for granted; sin, sorrow, and death. But in other ways it will be very similar. I expect that will be still be able to do things like plant gardens, build buildings, make art, sing songs, take walks, engage in conversation, and act creatively. We won’t be mere spirits then, but will have spiritual bodies, not unlike that of the resurrected Christ, who is the firstborn over all creation.

The blue line in the picture above is your life and it is a miniature version of the first diagram. You live, you die, you go to either Heaven or Hell. But when Christ returns something new happens. You experience what the Bible calls “the resurrection.” Your spiritual existence is clothed with an immortal and imperishable body and you take up your residence on the above mentioned new earth. Heaven (as in, the place where your soul goes when it is separated from your body at death) is not the end. It’s where we wait (albeit in the presence of Jesus) until God makes all things new at which point we resume a physical existence in a physical world without sadness, sickness, sin, and decay.

It’s with this new broader understanding of the gospel that we can now to see how everything we do in this life has meaning. It does have meaning in that it prepares us and others for eternity, but it has meaning in and of itself as well.

But before I extrapolate on that more, I need to clarify that the relatively short time we experience on earth compared to eternity on the New Earth does not thereby nullify the meaning of the life here and now. When I give my child a toy on Christmas morning I know that there’s a decent chance the she will only play with the toy until Christmas night. She’ll get bored or move on to a different toy or it will break. But even if she only plays with it for a few hours her joy in those hours is not wasted. She enjoys the gift and, as the giver of the gift, I am pleased. It’s not the most important thing in her life. The joy it gives is temporary. But it’s not meaningless. It still matters.

The same is true in life. Some of the things we do, or the things we enjoy, are temporary and fleeting. They are not the most important thing, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter at all. And, when done or enjoyed to the glory of God, it is imbued meaning by that same Eternal God.

At this point I want to introduce two terms. The first is shalom. Shalom is a Hebrew word that means “peace.” But it means “peace” in a much fuller sense than we typically use it. One sense of “peace” is “cessation of hostility,” and shalom certainly includes this meaning. But it means more than that. It means wholeness. It means that everything is working as it should. It means that life is in harmony.

Shalom is what the world experienced in creation. Before sin Adam and Eve had a perfect relationship with each other, with God, and with the world around them. They were whole. They were in harmony with creation. Shalom is also what we will experience on the New Earth. We will live without hostility, without jealousy, without depression, without sickness, without death. We will be at peace with God and with each other. Life will be exactly the way it’s supposed to be.

The second term I want to use is flourishing. Flourishing is a word used to describe plants and other living beings. When plants flourish they grow, they bear fruit, they flower, and they scatter seeds. Flourishing means life, and it means abundant life. When a plant fails to flourish, it droops, it doesn’t bear fruit, it shrivels up and eventually dies. When a civilization flourishes it produces wealth and art and culture. When it fails to flourish it falls into civil war, disease, and death. I’ve seen people flourishing, too. I’ve also seen people shrivel up like a plant that lacks sun and water. They turn in on themselves, or turn on others, even their friends. This is always a sad and pitiable sight.

Again, flourishing is what we had before the Fall and it’s what we will have on the New Earth. Once again we will see abundant, growing, creative life. Those who live and reign on the New Earth will experience shalom and flourishing in every possible sense.

And it is within this framework that we begin to see how everything might matter now.

The Bible describes salvation as a new birth, as a new creation. When we are united with Jesus, we are united with the One who not only grants us eternal life (future) but who actually is the resurrection and the life. When are saved we are, in some sense, already experiencing aspects of the future Kingdom of God on the New Heavens and the New Earth.

The experience of the believer is one that not only anticipates the flourishing and shalom of the future state, but experiences it now, though to a lesser and more uneven degree. This isn’t a prosperity gospel, since the prosperity gospel tends to understand shalom and flourishing only in terms of health and wealth. But the Bible understands what it means to be blessed in very different terms, in terms of peace, contentment, joy in all circumstances and, even more fundamentally, in finding complete satisfaction in the person of Jesus as we enjoy with gratitude each gracious gift our Heavenly Father provides us with, even when those “gifts” feel painful, like periods of trial, testing, and discipline.

But this taste of the future is not only for our lips. God’s act of salvation is cosmic. He is redeeming the world, and he is doing it through a redeemed people, those who have decided to trust him as their savior and receive the new birth which he offers. In other words, we remember God’s original good design in creation, we anticipate the re-created shalom of the New Earth, we experience a taste of it in salvation, and then we extend it to the world around us.

So how do we extend it to the world around us? Let’s see this in a few ordinary and concentric circles of life:

When we personally obey God’s Word we bring ourselves into alignment with him. Often we think that we will have the most peace and joy by disobeying God. We see him as a cosmic killjoy. But this is, in fact, just the deceptiveness of sin. God, as our Creator, knows best what will bring about our lasting joy and happiness and his laws are for that purpose. Sometimes obedience is hard and it involves self-denial but, in God’s economy, this is actually the way to abundant life. That could mean treasures in heaven, but often times we experience earthly rewards our obedience as well (hard work typically pays a lot better than laziness). My point is this, the way to experience shalom is to obey God.

We extend this shalom to others in various ways. When we are a good friend we extend peace and joy to our friends. When we work in a job we extend the goodness of creation through the service of others and the building up of civilization. When we raise a family, we say “yes” to others around us and “yes” to the world, bringing about care, and stability. Even when we are playing a game I believe that God is pleased, that he sees this as us gratefully (assuming we’re doing it gratefully) receiving a gift and enjoying it with others. When we do all these things to the glory of God we experience and extend the goodness of God’s original intent in creation and we get a foretaste of what is to come on the new earth.

One of my college professors preached at our church recently and his take way line was “Everything matters, but somethings matter more. Some things matter more, but everything still matters.”

This is true. Eternity matters more, but that doesn’t mean this life ceases to matter. God gave it to us as a gift. He wants us to use it in a way that glorifies him. When we do that it is pleasing to God. If it is pleasing to God, it matters for eternity.

Two signs of political idolatry

Timothy Keller’s book Counterfeit Gods covers a variety of potential “idols” – created things which we may be tempted to lift up to the place of “god” in our lives – money, romantic love, success, etc. The one that I most resonated with (read: am frequently tempted by) is political idolatry.

Political idolatry happens when some political good turns into a supreme thing. “When love for one’s own people becomes an absolute, it turns into racism. When love of equality turns into a supreme thing, it can result in hatred and violence toward anyone who has led a privileged life” (98). Here the end justifies the means, political leaders become “messiahs”, and political policies become “saving doctrines.”

This is a description of an extreme condition, but there are many smaller steps which take you there. Keller offers two signs of political idolatry.

#1: Inordinate Fear

“One of the signs than an object is functioning as an idol is that fear becomes one of the chief characteristics of life. When we center our lives on the idol, we become dependent on it. If our counterfeit god is threatened in any way, our response is complete panic. We do not say, ‘What a shame, how difficult,’ but rather ‘This is the end! There’s no hope!’” (98-99)

I think this explains many of the extreme responses we see during each political cycle. The side perceived as losing threatens to leave the country and becomes agitated and fearful, even violent. If their “side” or their candidate is out of power “they experience a death.” The focus all their attention on where they disagree with their opponents, instead of finding some common ground. The result is a poisonous political environment.

#2: Demonizing the other side

“Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken, but to be evil” (99). The Bible views sin as the primary problem in the world. Political idolatry, on the other hand, turns some political ideology into the main problem. Also, instead of seeing God as the ultimate solution, it sees something else (a rival ideology, a political victory, a politician, etc.) as the ultimate solution. When this happens our opponents don’t just disagree with us, but represent the embodiment of evil.

At this point I want to push back on Keller a little bit. There are a few instances, I think, where a political ideology can be so opposed to God that there is simply no word other than “evil” to describe it. Nazis in Germany were not just following a “mistaken” ideology, but an evil one.

It’s standard these days, though, to justify extreme reaction to some political ideology or candidate by comparing them to fascism or Hitler. But this is rarely justified and just might indicate that some form of idolatry is at play.

The result of political idolatry being widespread in a culture (which I think it is), is “constant political cycles of overblown hopes and disillusionment” (101) and “increasingly poisonous political discourse” (101). Sound familiar?

Not everything is political idolatry

I want to offer one word of caution for those who would see political idolatry under every rock. Not all patriotism is nationalism. Not all political activism points to idolatry. Keller quotes C.S. Lewis,

“It is a mistake to think that some of our impulses – say mother love or patriotism – are good, and others, like sex or the fighting instinct, are bad… There are situations in which it is the duty of a married man to encourage his sexual impulse and of a soldier to encourage a fighting instinct. There are also occasions on which a mother’s love for her own children or a man’s love for his own country have to be suppressed or they will lead to unfairness towards other people’s children or countries.” (103)

Natural affections are not a problem in themselves and engaging in politics can be a way of showing love of neighbor or standing up for justice for those who are being denied it. The problem comes when those natural affections are given too much weight.

On a personal note, the election cycle has actually been redemptive for me. It has revealed pockets of idolatry in my own heart. But that revelation, while it hurt at the time, has enabled me to trust more securely in Christ.

Because He Lives

This past week I felt utterly bombarded by bad news. Part of this is because of my own failure to disconnect from electronic media. But part of it is that we just live in a very dark, hostile, and broken world. It’s scary out there. It can be easy to believe that the world is spiraling out of control.

But today is a day to celebrate the day that Jesus rose from the dead! And that day changed everything. It changed everything for the world. It changes everything for us.

I’m reminded of the words of the old hymn “Because He Lives”. The chorus goes like this:

Because he lives
I can face tomorrow
Because he lives
All fear is gone
Because I know he holds the future
And life is worth the living
Just because he lives

From here we could go on and on:

Because he lives death is not the end.

Because he lives the powers of evil have been disarmed.

Because he lives I know that not only can God break into history, but He has in a decisive way.

Because he lives no matter who has power for now on earth, Jesus sits on the throne of heaven.

Because he lives I know that since, in what looked to be a moment of utter defeat, God gained the ultimate victory, no situation can be too bleak that God cannot show his power.

Because he lives I know Jesus is the righteous judge who brings perfect justice in the end.

Because he lives I have the power to live a life pleasing to God.

Because he lives I am free from the slavery of sin and the fear of death.

Because he lives one day I will live in a resurrected and incorruptible body.

Because he lives I can trust God when he says that there will be a time of “no more crying, no more tears.”

Because he lives I know that God is able to transform all of creation.

Because he lives I know that history, in all its bleakness and decay, will have a happy ending for those who trust in the one who died and rose again.

Because he lives… because in time and space the God-man Jesus who was really dead, really came to life… because this historical reality is attested to by those who, with nothing to gain, gave up their lives to tell what they had seen and heard… because he lives, I know that he really is the Resurrection and the Life and the right now, in him, we experience the power of the resurrection, and that in the future we will experience it again, and then without the devastation of sin and the sorrow of death!

He is risen. He is risen indeed.