Tag Archives: Christianity

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.

The two paradigm shifts that finally helped me find peace with the doctrine of election

This post isn’t a defense of a theological position, though it contains a fair amount of theology. Instead, it’s the story of my theological journey (thus far) regarding the doctrine of election. I’m not even exactly sure how to categorize where I currently stand, or where I would fall on some Calvinist/Arminian spectrum.

When I was a teenager most of my angst, as near as I can recall, came from three places – worry about why I didn’t have a girlfriend, fear of death, and frustration that I either could not understand, or did not want to accept, certain theological positions of those around me. I found the doctrine of election, of predestination, particularly noxious. To me it was an offense to man’s free will and to God’s love and justice. I believed that God could simply not be good if God predestined certain people for salvation, and not others. And, since God was good (to think otherwise is certainly the most terrifying of all possible realities) predestination must be false and so I sought every possible escape hatch I could find. This feeling persisted into my college years, and I think that the book Why I’m Not a Calvinist still sits on one of my bookshelves. It’s been a number of years since I read it and I remember it being quite good. I would still recommend it (along with other complementary books on the subject).

Since that time I’ve had two major paradigm shifts in my thinking that have helped me “find peace” with the doctrine of election. The first one was in my conception of God. The second one was in my conception of the doctrine itself. It’s important that both came to me at about the same time. I should say that the two were in process at the same time since each was years in the making.

I’m telling this story now because in a couple of months I will begin preaching through the book of Ephesians, and right from the start Paul declares that God “chose us in [Jesus] before the creation of the world… in love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:4-5). The topic is inescapable. And since I want to be faithful to the whole council of God, I’m preparing now for what I plan to say on the subject.

Paradigm shift #1: From formula to Person

The first paradigm shift started when I was a freshman in High School, though it took years to come to fruition. During that time I began to realize that God was not a formula to be solved, but a Person to be known and trusted. In my theological wrestling I was trying to reduce God to a series of finite propositions. The problem with this methodology was that it rested on a misunderstanding of who God was. I wanted him to conform to my understanding of things like justice and love and fairness. But if God was really God, this was never going to work, and through God’s grace he let a light bulb come on in my head. I realized then that God was a Person who could be known – even if not fully known – and who could be trusted – even if I didn’t understand all of his actions. When that happened all I needed was to know two things about God, that he was good and that he was powerful. From there I could simply trust his person that he would never do anything which violated those two first principles. Instead of deciding whether or not God was good based on based on my judgment, I accepted that he was good, and adjusted my judgment accordingly. I didn’t need to understand everything anymore, I just needed to trust him.

The second major step logically flowed from the first but the foot didn’t fall for me until I took Systematic Theology in Seminary some 13(?) years later. My professor, Mike Wittmer, was explaining that certain elements of God’s divinity were incomprehensible to finite minds. In the created realm certain things could not be true – something could not be three and one at the same time – but in the uncreated realm this was possible. Hence, the Trinity. These attributes of God are therefore a mystery to us which will never be understood but which are no less true. Furthermore, God is glorified in this mystery, because it helps us know that we are really talking about God and not something devised by man. If we could fully understand or quantify God, then it would be likely that we were really speaking of something other than God. Such is the case with the apparent paradox between God’s election and man’s free will. It would seem, from the human perspective, that either man is free or God is sovereign. The one would destroy the other. If God chooses, then man’s “choice” is a mere illusion. If man chooses, then God is not fully sovereign (at least, not the the kind of sovereignty required by the doctrine of election). But in the uncreated realm, man’s freedom and God’s sovereignty can exist without contradiction. It’s a mystery. And, for my story anyway, that was a big paradigm shift.

At the time I had an objection: My professor argued that God’s mystery added to his glory. My argument was that it was not God’s mystery which added to his glory but his revelation. Isn’t Jesus, God’s ultimate self-disclosure, “the radiance of God’s glory?” I still think I had a point, but now I know that the flaw in my argument was that it was a false dichotomy. God is glorified in his mystery (because then we know we are reaching towards the divine) and in his revelation (because then we know the character of his divinity: his holiness, his justice, his love).

Paradigm shift #2: A shift in how I understood the doctrine of election

The second shift had to do with how I understood the doctrine of election. This shift is connected (though I don’t know the nature of the relationship) to a broader shift in my thinking – from an individualistic worldview to a community oriented worldview. For a long time everything was connected to the individual, and the individual only. This was particularly true in my theological thinking. It’s all about me and my relationship with Jesus. The broader community – the church – exists solely for the purpose of helping individuals come to know Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, to get out of hell, and to live a reasonably holy life. I perceived election in the same paradigm – God capriciously picking out some random assortment of individuals for personal salvation. For fairly obvious reasons this seemed blatantly unfair (especially if human free will was a mere illusion and so man had no real say in the matter). Now, I don’t want to discount the importance of the individual’s relationship with God. We all will ultimately stand on our own before the judgment seat and we are each accountable for our own response to God. But sometime around my time in Seminary I added an important component to my faith: a more robust theology of community.

Specifically, I began to see the connection between a believer’s “election” and God’s election of Israel. God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (individuals, to be sure) in order to create for himself a community and a nation. That nation, Israel, was God’s chosen people. They were his elect. As members of his chosen people they received certain privileges: the law, the prophets, the priestly system, victory in battle, supernatural abundance from the land, etc. They also had certain responsibilities: a requirement to follow the law or experience the weight of the curses and exile from the land. They had a mission: to be a light to the surrounding nations. God’s election of Israel, then, was both exclusive and inclusive. It was exclusive in the sense that out of all the nations God only chose Israel. It was inclusive in the sense that if other nations were to see Israel acting out its mission they could themselves glorify God and be “saved.” Consider Ninevah. The story of Jonah includes the story of their repentance and salvation, even though they were not part of God’s people. Or consider Ruth. She began as a foreigner, but through faith she became a member of the people of God. She joined the elect.

Israel never quite fulfilled its mission as the people of God. It consistently turned to idols and therefore experienced the curse of the law and was sent into exile. Even after its return from exile and renewal of the covenant, it remained a shadow of what it was.

But the mission of the elect was fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is the “chosen one” par excellence. Those who are united to Jesus through faith become part of the chosen people. To borrow the metaphor from Paul: “You [Gentiles] have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root” (Romans 11:17). Notice the connection between predestination and our relationship to Christ in Ephesians. We were chosen “in him”. We were predestined for adoption “through Christ.” Later in Ephesians 1 Paul states the “we were also chosen in him, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity to the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of salvation” (Ephesians 1:11-13a). I added the italics to highlight the progression of the “we” who are chosen and predestined as a first to put their hope in Christ to the “you” who were later included in Christ when they heard and believed the gospel. When that happened, it could be well said that they are part of the “us” who were “chosen in him before the creation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4).

The implications of this paradigm shift for the doctrine of election are significant for me. Most importantly, it emphasizes the responsibilities and mission of the people of God. Israel’s mission was to be a a light to the Gentiles by faithfully holding to the covenant and bringing the prophetic warning of coming judgment. The church has a more explicit mission, to invite people to become united to Jesus through faith and, in so doing, become part of the people of God. It adds an inclusive element to what is usually seen as a radically exclusive doctrine.

But I want to hasten to add that this new paradigm does not remove the mystery of God. For me, this explains well how Paul is using “chosen” and “predestined” in Ephesians, but it doesn’t carry as easily over to Romans 9 where we see another sort of glory revealed: The glory of God’s sovereignty to show mercy on whom he will show mercy, apart from human will. When I read Romans 9 I always need to fall back onto my first paradigm shift and decide to trust God, not my ability to solve an equation. I’m not sure I will ever (on this side of glory) be fully satisfied with Paul’s answer to the question posed in Romans 9:19 (Q: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will? A: “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?”), but I know my Father in heaven well enough, and I see his love and goodness clearly enough, to find rest in him.

Refugees and immigrants: A case study in Christian political engagement

Immigration, either from Mexico, or through refugees coming from Syria or surrounding nations fleeing from war and violence, is a hot topic in the news these days, and an important one for Christians to think critically about. There’s a lot on the line, both for those immigrants seeking a better life, or really any life at all, and (potentially) the future of America.

The purpose of this post isn’t to take one position or another, at least not a national political position, but to think about how this issues is understood through different lenses, and then think critically of the various positions being held. [Edit: Upon further reflection, this didn’t quite turn out to be true, see the quote from O. Alan Noble below which reflects the sort of position I find most compelling.]

What is clear

What is clear is that Christians ought to have compassion for those in other countries who are seeking to escape from war, violence, persecution, or extreme poverty and that Christians ought to have compassion for those neighbors in the United States who are especially vulnerable to injustice – including immigrants. As I have elsewhere argued, and where many others have been doing for a while now, the Old Testament is full of instructions to care for widows, orphans, and aliens living within the land. The call to care for strangers and sojourners is directly tied to Israel’s status as foreigners and strangers in Egypt. This principle in the Old Testament is consistent with the general principle of all Scripture that Christians should have compassion (that leads to material care) for those who are especially vulnerable. I can’t think of a single Christian I know – Republican or Democrat, Trump supporter or Trump detractor – who doesn’t agree with this.

What is less clear

What is significantly less clear is what role the Civil Government – in this case the American government – should do.

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Imagine that it was the “Right” that was calling for more open borders and the “Left” that was calling for tighter borders and controls and let’s also imagine that the “Right” was still heavily populated with evangelical Christians who were using the Scriptural argument above as a key part of their argument. I can picture the complaint of the “Left” already: You need to leave God out of politics. We live in a secular world. Do you want us to adopt all the laws of the Old Testament, too? Do you want us to become a theocracy!?

I think that the current more-open-borders-because-we-should-have-compassion-because-the-bible-tells-me-to position (sorry, I should shorten that name) is at least somewhat open to that charge. That position, to the extent that it argues for a one-to-one relationship between Israel and the United States, ironically makes the same mistake that it often complains those of the “Moral Majority” school of making.

The conservative argument against the more “compassionate” position of those calling for more admission of refugees is that, while it’s the role of the church and individual Christians to show compassion, it’s the role of the Civil government to restrain evil by bringing about justice for its citizens and protecting its borders from outside threats. If more immigration and refugees pose a threat to the people of this nation, then it would be the role of the government to protect its citizens by enacting greater controls, more “extreme vetting,” building a wall, or even banning immigration from certain countries.

I am sympathetic to this argument because I generally believe that the sanctioned role of government is rather limited. I also find it somewhat ironic, since those arguing in this way want to see religion and religious beliefs play a larger role in government in many other areas.

(As an aside, since I can’t help but compare most political issues back to abortion, it’s interesting to note that one of the legal justifications for abortion is that you’re not a citizen until you are born. Only citizens have rights under the constitution so only babies which have been born have the right to life (regardless of whether or not they are living humans, which they are). On the other side of the political spectrum, I’ve seen conservatives argue that non-citizens (read: refugees) don’t have rights since they are non-citizens while liberals argue for a more inclusive vision for mankind that doesn’t worry so much about citizenship.)

And so on one side of the spectrum we have a very simple God-and-government position: The Bible tells us to be compassionate towards strangers and foreigners and the vulnerable so we should have a more open immigration system. And on the other side we have a very simple separation-of-Church-and-State position: Yes, we need to be compassionate as individuals and a church but it’s the role of government to protect its own citizens from threats and not to worry about non-citizens.

A muddy middle

It should come as no surprise, if you’ve made it this far, that I want to argue for a more nuanced position than either two extremes. I admit it’s not fleshed out, but I will state my position as follows: I want a government that acts within its own realm of responsibilities and within its own character in a way that is informed by a biblical worldview. Let me unpack that:

A government that acts within its own realm of responsibilities. I don’t want my government to do everything or to take the role of the church or the role of the family. There are some “goods” which, while nevertheless good, are not the task of a civil/secular government to do. I don’t want my government doing evangelism or running church services, for instance. But, it is within the realm of the government to regulate its borders and it’s also within the realm of the government to act justly towards all mankind in a way that acknowledges a shared humanity (more on that last part in this post). It might not be the role of the government to care for refugees, but it might be the role of the government to make it possible for kind-hearted, gospel-driven citizens to do just that.

A government that acts within its own character. This may be a specifically American desire but America was founded on certain principles which I would hate to see lost or trampled on. Two of those principles are religious freedom and equality of persons. So, when Muslims are specifically targeted for exclusion, or when Mexican immigrants are demonized, we are acting outside of our character as a nation.

A government informed by a biblical worldview. I’m not saying I want a theocratic state, but I do want my government to be informed by a biblical worldview. In this case, I want it to be informed by an ethic of compassion towards the vulnerable as described in the Old Testament injunctions cited above, and then weigh that against relative threats to security and then act wisely and justly towards all people.

What we have then are (potentially) competing interests. The government ought to act in the best interests of its citizens – including security – and it ought to act in a way informed by biblical compassion for those who are especially vulnerable – including non-citizens. This is a muddy middle, perhaps, but it’s also the hard work of governance.

O. Alan Noble suggests just this sort of balanced position, arguing for community-based resettlement programs that makes room for the church to help refugees integrate into those communities. Addressing Muslim immigration in particular he states:

“Both extremes [Islamophobia and Mass Immigration] carry tremendous rhetorical weight in an election year, but neither reflects the kind of resettlement we actually do in the US. Carefully planned, community-based resettlement programs can help those in need, strengthen communities, offer new opportunities to share the gospel, and mitigate the major concerns about Muslim immigration.”

Two final notes

In many cases, the threat which immigrants and refugees plays to the American public seems to be trumped up out of proportion to the actual threat (see Ed Stetzer’s CT article). Sometimes immigration is even framed as an outside invasion, and not as families desperately seeking to get out of a horrible situation (which I think more accurately characterizes the vast majority of circumstances). We shouldn’t be naïve about the possibility of danger, but we should try to be accurate about just what danger there might be.

What if the government closes its borders entirely? What can Christians in America do then? Well, even before that happens the most direct way to help refugees for most of us is by working through organizations which have contact with refugees oversees. At the end of last year my family was able to contribute to Syrian refugee relief through the SBC.  If we want to care for immigrants and refugees, we need to do more than just complain about our government (though I have long maintained the role of advocacy) but be willing to be creative about how we can directly or indirectly love our neighbors in Jesus’s name.

What does it mean to “fear the LORD”?

Psalm 128:1 “Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in obedience to him.”

What does it mean to “fear the Lord?” Does it mean to be “afraid” of God? Does it mean to have a feeling of reverence and awe? I decided to look through Scripture to see how this phrase was used. While there are certainly more thorough explanations out there, here’s what I discovered:

First, the fear of the LORD is the attitude that comes from a recognition of God’s greatness

Occasions in Scripture in which “fear the LORD” appears often coincide with descriptions of God’s unparalleled greatness. Deuteronomy 10, which includes commands to fear the LORD also includes descriptions of his character: “To the LORD you God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it” (10:14). “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome” (10:17). “He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes” (10:21).

Other passages of Scripture also directly relate the manifestation of the power of God with the fear of the Lord. After crossing the Red Sea Exodus 14:31 says “when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” And again, after God dried up the Jordan for the Israelites to cross: “He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God” (Joshua 4:24). The fear of the LORD is also tied to a recognition of him as Creator, as the one who made the heavens (1 Chronicles 16:26), the one who spoke all things into existence (Psalm 33:8-9), and the one who established the boundaries for the sea (Jeremiah 5:22).

What sort of attitude are the writers describing here? “Reverence” is probably the best description. Psalm 102:15 says “the nations will fear the name of the LORD, all the kings of the earth will revere your glory.” The nature of Hebrew poetry invites us to draw a close parallel between “fear” in the first half of the verse and “revere” in the second half (see also Psalm 33:8-9). Jeremiah links “fear” with “trembling” (Jeremiah 5:22), showing that the sort of reverence intended is that which shakes us to the core.

Does the fear of the LORD imply fear of God’s judgment? While God certainly warns Israel frequently of impending judgment if they should turn away from Him, the phrase “fear the LORD” is not often linked with a threat of judgment. The closest connection comes in 2 Chronicles 19:9-10 where Jehoshaphat warns the judges whom he is appointing that they should “serve carefully and wholeheartedly in the fear of the LORD,” doing justice, or risk the LORD’s wrath coming on them and their community. Again, in Isaiah 8:13, Isaiah says that “The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.” So, while there is a sense in which fear the LORD has the possibility of judgment for sin in view (indeed, those who lack the fear of the LORD are also those who sin because they do not expect God to judge), it does not appear to be the dominant meaning of the phrase.

Instead, the fear of the LORD is connected with the attitudes of hope and trust. The psalmist parallels the fear of the LORD with “hope in his unfailing love” in both Psalm 33:18 and 147:11. Psalm 40:3 and Exodus 14:31 connect the fear of the Lord with trust in him. It makes sense that the people of God would see the power of God – and the reason for the reverent awe described above – as a reason to put their hope and trust in God, since God so often used his power on their behalf.

Second, the fear of the LORD is equated with obeying God’s commands

But the command to “fear the LORD” does not just describe an attitude, but a concrete action – obedience to the commands of God. Our opening text, Psalm 128:1, shows this parallelism immediately: “Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in obedience to him.” Deuteronomy 10:12-13 expands on this: “to fear the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to serve the LORD with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees.” Deuteronomy 10:20 connects the fear of the LORD with serving him and taking oaths in his name. This is the pattern throughout. See Deuteronomy 6:2 (“keeping all his decrees”), 6:24 (“obey all his decrees”), Joshua 24:14 (“serve him with all faithfulness”), 1 Samuel 12:14 (“serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands”), 12:24 (“serve him faithfully with all your heart”), Job 28:28 (“shun evil”), Psalm 111:10 (“follow his precepts”), Psalm 112:1 (“find great delight in his commands”), Proverbs 3:7 (“shun evil”), and Proverbs 8:13 (“to fear the LORD is to hate evil”).

This obedience to God’s commands is then tied to the blessings of God (again, see Psalm 128), long life in the land, and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding (which leads to even greater blessings). But the question of what it means to receive the blessings of God is a question for another day.

In summary, then, to fear the Lord begins with an understanding that He is the Creator God who is mighty and powerful. This understanding ought to lead us to a place of reverent awe, even trembling, though this is not the same thing as “being afraid.” (This is especially true for those who are “in Christ” and therefore should no longer have the fear of final judgment.) Finally, this attitude should lead us to love God, serve Him, shun evil, and obey his commands as we hope and trust in Him.

Connecting the dots between service and spiritual growth

The focus in 1 Corinthians 12-14 (and the focus of tomorrow’s sermon) is the spiritual growth – the “edification” – of the congregation; not necessarily the spiritual growth of the individual. But it’s worth asking, how does using your spiritual gifts contribute to your own spiritual growth? Here are a few answers:

Understanding that all gifts have a source in God (12:4-6) – and not in ourselves – enables us to have the sort of humility necessary to kill our pride and follow God. That truth also enables us to respond in worship and gratitude, the hallmarks of Christian obedience.

By using our gifts for the purpose for which they are intended – the common good (12:7) – in a community where others are doing the same, we can be built up far more than we ever could be on our own. The sorts of gifts described here are not lost when they are used, but are multiplied. You are able to benefit not only from the gifts God has given you, but from the gifts God has given others.

By seeing that every gift has a role to play, and that the diversity within the body is essential to its proper working, we can move from the immature mindset of dependence, and the arrogant mindset of complete independence, to the mature mindset of interdependence. This mindset is essential because it corresponds both with the world in which we actually live, and the community in which God intends us to live. We can only truly recognize this reality when we actively participate by using our gifts.

Most importantly, though, the use of gifts to serve other people is how we put action to the command to love God and love our neighbor. Following Jesus in this way is the best way to grow into spiritual maturity and become more like Christ.

On Comparisons between King David and Presidential Candidates

Several years ago a church in our area went through a very nasty split. The pastor had been caught in serious sin but refused to let go of the church or give up the pastorate. This pastor, and those devoted to him, warned detractors that they faced the judgment of God if they went up against the “Lord’s anointed.” His call was not from men, but directly from God. When other leaders in the church objected that his sin disqualified him from ministry he compared himself with King David and thus only accountable to God. The church eventually expelled him from ministry (and is doing great as far as I can tell) and this pastor planted a new church, right around the corner from my house. While this whole thing was going on a friend asked me to weigh in on how the comparison between the role of pastor and the role of King of Israel. As a response I wrote the post “Dear Pastor, You are Not King David”, which is still one of the most viewed posts on this blog.

I’m seeing this same comparison to King David a lot recently. This time it’s not in the context of the role of pastor, but the role of President. I have seen this comparison used, so far exclusively, to defend Donald Trump. I really do understand why some reasonable people feel as though it is responsible (though messy) and necessary (though painful) to vote for Donald Trump in order to prevent Hillary Clinton from appointing judges who will set back both religious liberty and abortion laws for decades. I disagree with this argument (as stated here and here) but I can understand it. But what pains me as a pastor is when I see sloppy, and dangerous, interpretations of Scripture, used purely for political reasons. I have become too numb to try to argue with anyone to vote or not vote for a particular candidate. But I am still passionate that Scripture not be abused for political reasons. If I had seen this argument once I would have ignored it, but it has become prevalent enough to warrant a response.

Allow me to restate how the argument is framed: God has used all kinds of people throughout history to carry out his will, even people who were morally sketchy. He used David, who committed adultery and murder. He used Samson who was hot tempered and easily seduced. Maybe God is using Trump in the same way. Trump has good policies (so the argument goes, though I personally have serious issues with some of them) and his character is not great, but God has used people of poor character in the past so we shouldn’t worry about Trump.

Let’s see what’s wrong with this argument:

First, it ignores the big differences between Israel and America in terms of government and selection of leaders. Israel was a theocracy. God ruled the nation through the king which he directly appointed, first through the prophet Samuel and then through family succession. In America, we have a democracy selected by the people. In Israel, the individual people took no responsibility for the selection of its leaders. In America, we do. We are called to act responsibly, seeking to love God and love our neighbors.

Second, and relatedly, it confuses God’s sovereign will with God’s moral will. Since these are theological terms, I will take some time to explain. In short, God’s sovereign will is what he actually does in history.  One of those things is the establishment of authorities. God established David and Solomon. He also established Barack Obama. I know that God set up Barack Obama as the president because that’s what happened in history and God is sovereign over history. If Trump becomes President, then that’s who God made president. If it’s Clinton, then a Clinton presidency is within God’s sovereign will. In accomplishing God’s sovereign will he will sometimes establish good leaders and he will sometimes establish bad leaders. Sometimes it’s a blessing for the nation. Sometimes it’s an act of judgment. (It’s hard to not view this election in terms of God’s (well deserved) judgment on our nation.) We don’t know God’s sovereign will until it happens.

God’s moral will, on the other hand, is what God wants us as humans to do. He wants us to love Him. He wants us to love our neighbors. He wants us to obey his commands. God has revealed his moral will to us in Scripture and he commands us to live in accordance with his moral will. To do this requires discernment and wisdom. We have to act on what we know is right and wrong and we have to act during times of moral ambiguity. Sometimes we have to think “what is most likely to occur?” or, perhaps, “what from Scripture tells me what I should expect will happen?”

Let’s bring this back around to the comparison between Donald Trump and King David. The comparison points to God’s sovereign will – God has, throughout history, used morally suspect leaders for a good purpose. This is, of course, true. And we should thank God for his mercy. But the conclusion – we should not worry about morally suspect leaders – does not follow. We should instead be asking the question – what from Scripture should we expect will happen if we elect a wicked person?

That brings me to number three. These comparisons cherry pick David and forget both the consequence of his sin and the history of Israel. Israel’s history is a pretty bleak one. The nation was quickly divided and conquered by outside forces. Why? What happened? Again and again the nation was ruled by kings who turned away from God and thus incurred his judgment. They were idolaters. They were wicked. They were proud. And they caused the nation to fall. And where did that seed of wickedness and judgment begin? There were seeds of it already in David. Does this in some way nullify God’s sovereign action? Am I saying God made the wrong choice? By no means. What I’m saying is that the moral character of the leaders of Israel contributed to its ultimate downfall.

I think we have reason to expect the same thing in this case. Let’s consider two more pieces of Scripture. First, take note of a pair of Proverbs in chapter 28. Verses 12 and 28 basically say the same thing: “when the wicked rise to power, people go into hiding.” Why do people go into hiding when the wicked rise to power? Because wickedness leads to injustice, and injustice to suffering. There is a direct correlation between the wickedness of the leader and the fear of the people. Second, it is wise to note that there are qualifications given for elders and deacons and that those qualifications have to do with the character of those being selected for leadership. Why are those qualifications in place? Because for a church to survive it needs leaders who have character. A wicked church leader guts and destroys a church, even if his theology is otherwise excellent. He will bully the flock. He will take advantage of it. Can God still use such a man for good purposes? You bet, and he has, but God has given his church the responsibility to act in accordance with his moral will.

But, you say, we aren’t looking for a pastor (or elder or deacon), we’re looking for a President. We don’t need someone who is a choir boy. Those qualifications for elders/deacons don’t apply here. You’re right. Those qualifications don’t apply. But the principle still applies. Character matters in leadership. Maybe there is a different set of qualifications, but character still matters.

Fourth, these comparisons are inevitably paired with a minimization of sin. I don’t think they necessarily have to, but they always are. Trump’s language isn’t abusive and lewd, it’s “locker room talk.” He’s just not PC. He can be “a little rude,” or “a little crude.” He “has faults.” He’s “not polished.” Sorry, but this minimization of sin is not becoming for believers in the gospel. Vote for him if you must but at least be honest. It’s a harsh conclusion I know but from my judgment Trump is a “wicked” man. He is a bully. He is full of pride and arrogance. His sexual liaisons and speech prove not only that he is unfaithful, but that he is a “fool” in the biblical sense of the word. He is a chronic liar. Friends, let’s not minimize this. If we seek to justify him because he has the “right policies” then we lose our credibility and prophetic voice, and we desperately need both of those. We’re called to speak truth to the powerful and the weak, to our enemies and our allies. Let’s do that. Let’s not cover up what is going on here.

As soon as these comparisons happen (either for pastors or Presidential candidates) I see Christians turn off their moral radar and begin justifying sin. Every time. Either it’s that the sin isn’t so bad (he just fell once, we need to show mercy, let he who is without sin cast the first stone) or it suddenly doesn’t matter because we’re not dealing with an ordinary individual. We’re dealing with God’s chosen. We’re dealing with the “anointed.” We’re dealing with someone who is called be God to sweep in and save America from evil Hillary.

Yes, those were words I read, and they were written without a hint of irony. Trump took the place of God in Isaiah 40. Trump became, for this “Christian” writer, the one through whom God would save, through whom God would reign. Friends, such words are borderline blasphemy. Our anointed Savor and Lord is none other than Jesus Christ and Him alone!

So, where does that leave us? I believe that character matters. Must the President be perfect. No, I don’t think so. But we need to use wisdom and judgment to ask, what characteristics are necessary for him to act in such way that will provide justice for my neighbor. I think honesty matters. Faithfulness. Humility. A teachable spirit. Fairness. Care for others. A willingness to be wrong. Coolness under pressure. Etc. All of these things will affect how a President leads and thus whether or not such a presidency would be good for my neighbor.

Judge for yourself. We are in difficult times and the situation is complex. Search the Scripture and search the heart of God. But whatever you choose, seek God’s moral will. God will handle his sovereign will. Thanks be to God that he can use anyone for any purpose. But make your decisions based on his revealed Word.

God bless,

Steve

What I was taught

Here’s what I was taught by my elders, by my spiritual leaders:

I was taught that…

character matters,

consistently bad character disqualifies you from leadership,

bad character in leadership degrades the institution being led.

I was taught that…

words matter,

lewd and sexually aggressive language is not funny or of little consequence,

our words reveal our character.

I was taught that…

women should be respected and held with esteem,

women should not be objectified, in word or deed,

how men treat women reveals their character.

I was taught that…

marriage is sacred and should be held in high esteem,

it is only the fool – in the biblical sense – who pursues another man’s wife,

knowingly inviting in the foolish king is unwise for a nation.

I was taught that…

if caught in a sin you don’t excuse it away,

you don’t minimize it,

you don’t redirect towards the sin of another,

you don’t “apologize if anyone took offense,”

you repent before God and before those hurt.

I was taught…

it is better to focus on doing right than justify the ends by the means,

it is unwise to ally yourself with someone who you know is wicked,

it is right to follow your conscience.

I was taught that…

God is sovereign over the course of history,

He is ultimately trustworthy,

and that those truths allow me to “seek first God’s righteousness” and leave history to God.

 

All of these things were true when I was taught them. They are true today. I will do my best to live according to these principles. Woe is me if I do not pass them along to the next generation.

God bless,

Steve