Tag Archives: Christianity

Walls, and how we try to overcome them

Separate, Excluded, Foreigners, Far away, Hostility

These are all words Paul uses to described a “dividing wall of hostility.” In the context of Ephesians 2, Paul is metaphorically describing the spiritual barrier which exists, first, between God and mankind, and second, between Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s aim is to demonstrate that now both Jews and Gentiles can be reconciled to God through the cross – apart from the law – and are subsequently reconciled to one another as they form one new humanity, body, building, temple, and household.

wall of separation

Sermon illustration representing the “wall of hostility” in Ephesians 2.

But even beyond the interesting, though now far removed controversy within the early church, Ephesians 2 tells a much broader story about how we can be reconciled to God and to one another.

Our age – like every prior age – is marked by separation and conflict, by walls of hostility. They exist between nations, social groups, and individuals. They exist in every institution: at work, in churches, in families, in governments and the like. The wall of separation goes by other names such as loneliness, alienation, or exclusion. The wall of conflict and hostility comes in many forms: division, slander, verbal and physical abuse, and malice.

Because these problems are so pervasive and damaging, different cultures have

sought to deal with them in different ways. I see three major ways in which our culture has tried to overcome these walls, with limited success.

Tolerance: One way to overcome some of the walls of hostility is through tolerance, or overlooking differences and offenses which might otherwise be a cause of conflict. Tolerance in many circumstances is a virtue. It is necessary for most interpersonal interactions. But some differences are too major to simply be “tolerated” and must instead be “resolved” in some other way. If you believe that there are systems of police brutality, those systems need to be overcome through justice, not tolerated. If you believe that your close friend’s course of life will lead to her destruction, you might need to bravely move beyond tolerance and into love, seeking what is best for her, even though your response may sound intolerant. In other words, while tolerance is appropriate in many circumstances, it needs to be practiced only within the broader virtues of love and justice.

Diversity: Another key concept in our pluralistic society is “diversity.” Diversity seeks to overcome hostility and separation by celebrating differences and intentionally bringing unlike people together. Again, I applaud many efforts at increasing diversity. Understood with a theological lens it means recognizing the image of God in each person, along with the differences in their creation and histories, their unique and edifying gifts and perspectives. Christianity is the most diverse… anything in the world. Heaven is a picture of diversity. But diversity is not a solution which solves all problems. For instance, it only deals in cases where external differences are obvious. But, even when all external differences are gone, when we’re dealing with a completely homogenous group, we still have a remarkable capacity for violence, division, isolation, and exclusion. Second, diversity by itself assumes amoral categories such as nationality, language, or recipes. But moral categories – or more specifically moral transgressions – such as lying, theft, and hatred, lie outside the bounds of diversity alone.

Radical Individualism: A third way to cope with the divisions amongst people is through a radical individualism. Essentially, I mean the response “I don’t care what anyone else thinks, I will be true to myself.” There are two important truths in this response we shouldn’t ignore. The first is that it is certainly possible to find all of our worth in other people’s opinions of ourselves. This is a reaction against that mindset. Second, each of us must “plot our own course” as it were, to live as individuals, and part of that means a certain integrity of self (though my definition of “true to yourself” is different from its common usage). However, while this attitude might make us care less about the wall of hostility, it doesn’t do anything to remove it, simply for the fact that it ignores the reality that we are social creatures who carry social responsibility. To say, “I don’t care what anyone else thinks” is to proclaim a lie – or to be a sociopath. We’re social creatures who simple must give attention to others. To say only, “I must be true to myself” is to risk ignoring the social responsibilities we all have. Sometimes those social responsibilities require me to say “no” to myself for the sake of others.

Each of these attempts at removing walls of hostility and separation – at least on the interpersonal level – can have a role to play. Many small offenses or differences can and should be tolerated. Diversity can be a cause for celebration and can overcome some hostility between differing groups. Personal integrity and caring less about what other people think can help us feel the pain of those walls less acutely. However, none on their own, or even those three together, can ever really bring about the lasting peace or wholeness we long for.

That’s because the root of this wall is a moral failure. And at the root of moral failure is a failure of our relationship with God. What must be dealt with first, then, is the wall of hostility – conflict and separation – which exists between us and God. Once the roots have been weakened, only then will we begin to see the branches start to fall off.

That leads us back, finally, to Ephesians 2:11-22, with Paul’s description of the wall of hostility, and his proclamation that it is dealt with in Christ on the cross. And, that, is the topic of my sermon tomorrow morning.

Are Christian Ethics Conservative or Progressive?

Coming to Terms:

First, I better clarify what I mean by “conservative” and “progressive.” I’m not referring to any specific set of policies as held by Republicans or Democrats, or even to politics in general. Instead, I’m referring to a view of ethics as it relates to history. When I ask if Christian ethics is “conservative” I’m asking if it primarily looks to the past, looking either to maintain or go back to an earlier ethic? When I ask if it is “progressive” I am asking whether it looks to the future, looking for a progression in ethics to some ideal state.

The Case for Conservatism

Most people tend to associate Christian ethics with conservatism, and there’s good reason why. The first leg of a conservative ethics is the doctrine of Creation. When God made the world, he made it in an ideal state. There was no human sin or suffering. We lived in a perfect relationship with one another and with God. A conservative ethic aims to help us understand what life was like before sin entered the world and then act accordingly.

The second leg of conservatism is revealed law. God has clearly revealed aspects of his moral will and he cannot lie. Therefore, we are not permitted to add novelty to these commands. We cannot “progress” pass prohibitions against murder or adultery or lying or theft. The laws were there from the beginning and they are bound up in the unchanging character of God. These immutable moral laws are thus worth “conserving.”

A conservative ethic is based on Creation, and assumes that God’s moral law helps us live rightly within that created order, or restrain sin so that less damage is done to it.

The Case for Progressivism

Whereas a conservative ethic is based on Creation, you might say that a Christian progressive ethic is based on the future Kingdom of God. Yes, God created the world, but we’re not going to get back to Eden. Instead, we’re asking God to bring the Kingdom of God – some future reality – into the here and now. The aim of the Christian progressive ethic, then, is to imagine what this future reality will be, and then act accordingly.

In terms of moral law, a person more bent towards the progressive view of history would notice that there are shifts within the law given throughout Scripture. Much of the Old Testament law was not so immutable after all. The sacrificial system found fulfillment in Christ (and being obsolete was done away with). Circumcision was replaced (either by baptism or faith, depending on your theological leanings). Dietary laws were likewise made null. Some laws seem to be given for a specific time and place, bound up either in the cultural context of the day, or in the theocratic nature of Israel. The question, then, is whether those progressions continue in light of the present and the future, and how much?

Some problems for both conservatives and progressives

Both strict conservatives and progressives as described here face some major challenges. Conservatives look back to creation, but outside of a few chapters in Genesis, that idyllic state is lost to us. The fact is that we live in a world sin, and even our own moral perceptions are marred by sin. Often conservatives choose some later development – perhaps ancient Israel, perhaps the early church, perhaps an earlier time in American history – as the point to which we should return. But the problem with this is obvious. Sin has been a constant force throughout history. There is no “ideal time” to which we could return. The only real historical developments are the way in which sin changes form. In terms of the written code, strict conservatives face two challenges: First, it is not exhaustive, so we must always attempt to correctly apply broader principles to current events. Second, what should we do with the “progressions” we see throughout Scriptures listed above?

But strict progressives face a similar problem. Less is known about the future than the past. Ideals of the Kingdom of God can only be perceived in its relation to Creation and the sin that has marred it. Furthermore, once allowing for a progression within the moral law (or within the written code), are we then left with moral chaos? If the past systems can always be overthrown, who is to say whether overthrowing it is a good or a bad idea? If you think a certain moral revolution is in order, on what basis is it good? If it’s based on some prior principle, haven’t you reverted to a conservative mindset after all?

Resurrection and Moral Order

resurrection and moral orderOliver O’Donovan’s thesis in Resurrection and Moral Order is that Christian ethics depends on the resurrection as the event which brings these two trains of thought together:

“In the resurrection of Christ creation is restored and the kingdom of God dawns. Ethics which starts from this point may sometimes emphasize the newness, sometimes the primitiveness of the order that is here affirmed. But it will not be tempted to overthrow or deny either in the name of the other.”

Again:

“From the resurrection, we look not only back to the created order which is vindicated, but forwards to out eschatological participation in that order.”

As O’Donovan sees it, the resurrection is God’s affirmation, or vindication of the created order. The created order is the reality with which all people need to reckon. In the resurrection God makes it clear that he is not abolishing this created order, but is affirming it. But in the resurrection God is nevertheless doing a radically “new” thing, a true novelty. Furthermore, in Christ’s resurrection we, through the Spirit, can look forward to our resurrection. Indeed, we participate in that resurrection now through faith, having been raised with Christ in a spiritual sense. The resurrection, therefore, allows us to look backwards to creation, and forwards to new creation.

But the forward-looking aspect is not an overthrow of the past. The created order is not abolished, not are the laws of Israel or anything within the written code, but is fulfilled. They are not contradicted, but set within their proper context – both historical and theological. God does not “go back” on his previous word, but his word is clarified in light of the present and anticipated fulfillment in the future.

Because there is an unbroken relationship between creation and the kingdom of God, we see each other more clearly. We can understand creation more clearly because we see in Jesus the first fruits of the new creation. And we can see the future kingdom of God more clearly because we understand that what we are looking for is not demolition, but a redemption.

The test case of marriage

Helpfully, O’Donovan applies this concept to the concrete topic of marriage. A conservative ethic looks back towards Adam and Even in the garden as its template for marriage. But a progressive might point to Jesus’s statement in Matthew 22:30 “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” Does this mean that marriage can be radically altered beyond the creation mandate? Can we progress “beyond” marriage as understood in the first chapters of Genesis? O’Donovan understood it in this way:

“Humanity in the presence of God will know community in which the fidelity of love which marriage makes possible will be extended beyond the limits of marriage. To this eschatological hope the New Testament church bore witness by fostering the social conditions which could support a vocation to single life. It conceived of marriage and singleness as alternative vocations, each a worthy form of life, the two together comprising the whole Christian witness to the nature of affectionate community. The one declared that God had vindicated the order of creation, the other pointed beyond it to its eschatological transformation. But the coexistence of the two within the Christian church did not mean the loss of integrity of either. Each had to function as what it was, according to its own proper structure. The married must live as married, the single as single. Neither would accommodate itself or evoke in the other an evolutionary mutation. Marriage that was not marriage could not witness to the goodness of the created order, singleness that was not singleness could tell us nothing of the fulfillment for which it was destined.”

In other words, in a Christian ethic based on the resurrection, marriage is affirmed as marriage, affirming the created order, and singleness is affirmed as singleness, pointing to a future transformation in the kingdom of God.

Is the Church weak or strong?

Pretty-ChurchIs the Church weak or strong?

Whatever adjective you put before the word “church” makes all the difference in this question. Is the global church weak or strong? Is the American church weak or strong? Is my local church weak or strong?

But the question I’m asking is if the Church (big C) is weak or strong? Are believers weak or strong?

If you know me at all, you’ll know that I rarely answer a question like this by picking one of the options. Is the Church weak or strong? It depends on what you mean. We are weak in three senses, and strong in at least one.

We are weak in the measure of our humanity. In our humanity we are a breath, we come from the dust and will return to the dust. We are finite and limited. We make errors. We get things wrong. Our strategies are sometimes ill conceived, our execution haphazard. Even on human terms of strength and weakness we are often seen as weak or foolish before a world that idolizes money and success. I have no faith in the human strength of the church.

We are weak in the measure of our sinfulness. Yes, the church is God’s holy people. We have been forgiven and redeemed. We are being sanctified. But our sin is still always before us. We wage war with it and we have the ultimate victory, but in the meantime, it wins some battles. Sin hampers our efforts. It weakens us beyond our humanity. This weakness is to our shame.

We are weak in the measure of our following after the crucified Christ. Jesus came in weakness. He emptied himself of the glory due him and came in humility. He humbled himself to death on a cross. He gained victory not through human strength, but through self-sacrifice. When he calls disciples, he calls them to take up their crosses and follow him. We take that same posture of weakness before the world, a posture of humility, death to self, and sacrificial love. To the extend we embrace this weakness, this weakness is to our glory.

But we are also strong. Or, at least, strength is available to us.

We are strong in the measure of our being filled with the fullness of Christ.

18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. – Ephesians 1:18-23

Paul prays that the Ephesians will know, that is, experience, God’s “incomparably great power.” That power is the power of the resurrection, of Christ’s position at the right hand of the Father, and of Christ’s reign over every power and authority, spiritual and physical, present and future. Notice the path of exaltation. Christ is lifted higher and higher throughout the passage. But the passage ends in descent, with Christ’s unique relationship with the Church – those who have put their trust in him. He exercises is headship over all things for the church. To the extent that the church is filled up with Christ, it knows the power of God. In this, then, we are strong.

How can we be filled up with Christ? By trusting and depending on him. Paul himself was no stranger to the weakness of the flesh, or of his battle with sin. But he learned that he could depend on God’s grace so that when he was weak, then he was strong, not a strength from himself, but Christ’s work in him. God gives grace to the humble. He strengthens the feeble. When we participate with him in his suffering, we can be assured that we will participate with him in his resurrection.

What does this power look like? Is it what the world will recognize as power? Perhaps. But more often it will only be manifested in weakness. It will show up as courage in the face of danger, hope in the face of suffering, perseverance in the face of temptation, and steadfastness under pressure.

So, is the American church strong or weak? Is the local church strong or weak? Is the global church strong or weak? To the degree we depend upon God and are filled up with Christ, we will remain strong.

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.

Has Christianity been “modernized”?

Pastor John and I received an interesting question last Sunday and I thought it was worthy of a rather extended answer. In general, most of my blog posts come either from questions I ask on my own, or questions posted to me. So, if you have a question you would like me to answer, I invite you to send it my way. 

Question (somewhat paraphrased): “There seems to be a big difference between “extremist” Islam and “modernized” Islam. I understand the majority call it a peaceful religion, and have reinterpreted many verses… although the literal interpretation seems to clearly stand as violent commands regarding what is ‘lawful’. From a Christian point of view, have we “modernized” Christianity?”

Answer: This a multi-faceted question and so I will address as follows. 1) In regards to Christianity, what could we mean by “modernized”? 2) Do we have a modernized version of Christianity? 3) Is such modernization a good thing or a bad thing? 4) What can we draw from the Islam/Christianity comparison?

1)     What could we mean by “modernization”?

Answer 1 – Modernization = Conformity: We could mean that Christianity, at its core, has conformed to the modern world. That is, that the Christianity we experience today is fundamentally different from that which was practiced in the first century. By fundamentally different, I don’t mean in its form but in its identity.

Answer 2 – Modernization = Contextualization: We could also mean that Christianity is fundamentally the same as it was at its founding but that it has been and continues to be contextualized (translated, adapted) to the cultures in which it manifests itself. That is, its core beliefs and values are the same, even though it is practiced in different ways in different ages and cultures.

Humans conform and contextualize all the time. Someone going to work wears “work clothes” and interacts with my co-workers in a “professional” manner, without changing who they are – contextualization. Conformity, on the other hand, would occur if that person worked in an unethical environment and therefore acted in a way contrary to their character.

2)     Do we have a modernized version of Christianity?

Yes, and in both senses… kind of. If we think of Christianity in sociological terms than what we see is that there is a great diversity among those who identify themselves as Christians. Many practice a conformed version of Christianity, changing Christian beliefs to fit the cultural values. The rest practice a contextual version of Christianity, attempting to translate Christian beliefs into the cultures language.

3)     Is such modernization a good thing or a bad thing?

That depends on what form of modernization you are referring to. Above I considered Christianity in sociological terms, as the actual practice of people identifying with a faith. But I would prefer to think about Christianity in terms of beliefs. In other words, a Christianity which has conformed to its culture has become something different, or if the conformity was only slight, it has simply lost its way on a belief or practice. From this perspective, modernization would be bad. Contextualization, on the other hand, is both necessary and positive, it’s a way of communicating a universal truth in an understandable way to a transient culture.

Several examples will shed important light on this.

Example 1 – Slavery: Slavery was social and economic reality during the era of the Old and New Testaments. It was quite different from the slavery practiced in the American South but it was slavery nonetheless. Both the Old and New Testaments assume this reality, but there are no explicit commands to abolish the practice. Today, all American Christians oppose slavery and find the practice abhorrent. In fact, Christians played a key role in abolishing the transatlantic slave trade and continue to play a key role in abolishing modern-day slavery. Did Christianity conform itself to the cultural norms or did it contextualize core beliefs of Christianity to a modern-day problem?

I would propose that Christians were contextualizing Christian truth to oppose slavery. What beliefs were contextualized? First, the Bible states that all people are created in the image of God. As an extension of this truth, people are not property nor are some people worth more than other people. All people deserve basic justice, including freedom. Second, we see a consistent moral argument against violence and oppression – and slavery is certainly a form of violence and oppression. Third, while Paul gives instructions on how slaves and masters ought to live together, he simultaneously undermines slavery but emphasizing that under Christ there are no slave/free distinctions. The point here is that ancient Christianity provided everything necessary to undermine slavery, Christians understood this, and applied that truth to abolish transatlantic slave trade.

Example 2 – Head coverings: In 1 Corinthians 11:2-6 Paul argues that women should cover their heads in worship. This is a difficult passage to interpret, but the key question is whether Paul was giving a command which applied to all cultures, giving a command to one culture but which carries with it some universal principle to be contextualized in some other way (example: Should Women Wear Head Coverings?), or was giving a command which only applied in one culture and has next to no application today. Some denominations believe that Paul’s command is a universal principle. In this case, modernization (not asking women to wear head coverings in worship) would be a form of cultural conformity. For others, not asking women to wear head coverings is a form of contextualization. The argument here is that the use of head coverings, or hairstyles, etc. communicates different things in different cultures. It communicated one thing in the Corinthian church, but communicates something totally different today. By removing this command, then, Christianity is modernizing, but not in a way that loses anything of its identity.

Example 3 – Gender accurate Bible interpretation: Just recently I read an Atlantic article with the headline: Southern Baptists Embrace Gender Inclusive Language in the Bible. The author Jonathan Merritt is referring to the a new Bible Translation, the CSB (Christian Standard Bible) that replaces “brothers” with “brothers and sisters” and “mankind” with “humankind”, etc. This is the same translation move made by the translators of the most recent NIV. For Merritt, this is a sign that the denomination is being moved by a more “progressive” doctrinal position and is a bellwether of things to come. The question is, is this translation decision a move towards “conformity” or “contextualization.” Some will certainly see it as cultural conformity wherein the translators are being swayed by the cultural pressure to do away with gender distinctiveness, but I think that such a view is misguided. The goal of the CSB (like the NIV) is not to translate word for word the Greek or Hebrew texts. Such a translation may be “literal” but it can also often be misleading. Instead, the goal of these translations is to express the meaning of the words. When Paul addresses “brothers” does he only have men in mind or is he referring to both men and women. It’s clear that he meant both men and women. His original audience would have easily understood this. And, up until very recently, all English speakers reading “brothers” in the New Testament would also have easily recognized this. Culture and language are always moving targets, and the translators decided that by translating the Greek word as “brothers and sisters” would clarify Paul’s meaning. In other words, there’s no loss, no cultural conformity, but instead contextualization, clarification, of the original intent.

The line between conformity and contextualization is not always clear, nor should we necessarily expect it to be. People will often disagree on where to draw the line but in general Bible believing Christians see modernization-as-conformity as a net loss and modernization-as-contextualization as a necessary means of speaking universal truth to an ever-shifting culture.

4)     What can we draw from the Islam/Christianity comparison?

Here I confess that my knowledge is rather weak, but it has been recently significantly bolstered by the writings of Nabeel Qureshi. I highly recommend Seeking Allah Finding Jesus and Answering Jihad. Contextualization is built into Christianity so that Christianity can be accommodated to a wide range of cultures without losing its core. Christianity is by far the most multi-cultural religion – the most multi-cultural anything – in the world. The same is not true for Islam. Qureshi would argue (I think) that Islam can only modernize by separating itself from its sacred texts. He wants to see Islam modernize, but not in the sense that it would return to its roots, but that it would move past them into something else entirely. In other words, Christianity is capable of modernizing-as-contextualizing without losing itself. The same does not appear to be true for Islam, though I would expect this final claim to be disputed by many practicing Muslims.

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.