Another Post-Christianity Post- Continuing Commentary from Al Mohler on Christianity in American Culture

April 30, 2009

A few weeks back I made this post sharing a recent Newsweek article about trends of Christian identification in the contemporary American society and SBTS President Al Mohler’s commentary on it.  Last Monday Al Mohler was back at it again, this time engaging an article that appeared in USA Today authored by Boston University professor Dr. Stephen Prothero criticizing the claims of the earlier Newsweek piece.  As Mohler shares, Prothero’s viewpoint was that “almost all the warnings about an increasingly secular America are overblown and mistaken,” to which Mohler wishes to add some clarification.

You can check out Mohler’s response here (or listen to the radio program at this link), but what the basic debate boils down to is how we define ‘Christianity’ and what it means to be a ‘Christian’.  On side we have Prothero who’s argument is simply, “If it says it’s a duck it’s a duck,” whereas Mohler stands on the other side saying, “If it says it’s a duck but looks like a cow and barks like a dog, it’s probably not a duck.”  Okay, well, maybe Mohler said it more elegantly when he stated that,

[M]y concern is that of a Christian theologian committed to the Gospel of Christ as the only message that saves sinners. Professor Prothero writes from a different perspective, at least professionally, and his concern is the fact that America sure looks Christian to non-Christians.

Here’s the deal.  Sure, 75-ish% of Americans call themselves Christian, but anecdotally and statistically informed observers know that there is a large disconnect between the nominal Christianity of our culture and the true Christianity of the Bible.  Just the fact that we are having divisions within the church over whether homosexuality is classified as sinful or if the words of the Bible are the inerrant, unchanging revelation of God points to the confusion inside Christianity, so how much more is this amplified outside of the church?

Honestly, it takes great self-denial to believe that America is not being increasingly secularized.  Prothero remarks that we are Christian as a nation because Christmas is a national holiday and Passover isn’t, but surely this is the opposite of proof for his argument.  The mythologizing of Christmas more than anything puts on display the fact that something which was once meaningful to a group of people for religious purposes has now become meaningful to a group of people (maybe the same group, maybe not) as a tradition of the secular culture.  The presence of Jesus does not make it Christian.  If that’s our criterion than we would have to say that South Park is a Christian cartoon and that Kanye West is a Gospel singer.  If Jesus is presented outside of the realm of Scriptural truth then he is nothing more than Santa or the Easter Bunny– a cultural construct which belongs to the pantheon of myths that we tell as a shared history of our country.  This is not Christianity, at least not in any way which makes sense for an intelligent man like Prothero to call it such. 

One wonders what the attractiveness is for people like Prothero to argue that true Christian belief is not on the decline?  Is it because Christianity as they know/practice looks no different than the majority of Americans know/practice it, and so admitting that this worldview is more secular than biblical means admitting that at best their interpretation on God’s word is wrong, and at worst that they are not really “Christians” at all?  I think this has a large part to do with it.  Please hear me, I do not know Dr. Prothero one bit and do not mean to stand in judgment of his heart on the issue.  I am simply arguing that it might be the case that some people have trouble seeing the post-Christian turn because the category by which they have chosen to label their self “Christian” is not a biblical category to begin with.

Regardless of the commentators, as people whose lives are focused upon the absolute truth of God as revealed in Scripture, there is no way for us to deny that post-Christianity and the rapid secularization of American culture are realities we must face.  To make a difference for Christ and bring the gospel forth in this climate it is important to develop our evangelism and missiology in a way which understands the specific challenges of a post-Christian context.  That is my desire, and something I have sought to do here on this blog, but this is not just the work of those “called into ministry.”  Every Christian has an obligation to upholding right doctrine and living in such a way that the glory of God is manifest in all that we do.  It is not easy, yet in light of what led us into it in the first place, we must elevate the importance of not watering down our theology or caving in to the sinful desires set to hinder our witness.

The mission fields are not just in the mountains of Peru or the plains of Africa anymore.  Our own country, the United States, as well as Canada and most of Western Europe are just as lost and in need of people to answer the call, saying “Send me into the post-Christian chaos.”

What We Believe- Article XIV, Cooperation

April 29, 2009

The next article that we come to in our trek through the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 is the 14th covering the issue of cooperation:

XIV.  Cooperation

Christ’s people should, as occasion requires, organize such associations and conventions as may best secure cooperation for the great objects of the Kingdom of God. Such organizations have no authority over one another or over the churches. They are voluntary and advisory bodies designed to elicit, combine, and direct the energies of our people in the most effective manner. Members of New Testament churches should cooperate with one another in carrying forward the missionary, educational, and benevolent ministries for the extension of Christ’s Kingdom. Christian unity in the New Testament sense is spiritual harmony and voluntary cooperation for common ends by various groups of Christ’s people. Cooperation is desirable between the various Christian denominations, when the end to be attained is itself justified, and when such cooperation involves no violation of conscience or compromise of loyalty to Christ and His Word as revealed in the New Testament.

Exodus 17:12; 18:17ff.; Judges 7:21; Ezra 1:3-4; 2:68-69; 5:14-15; Nehemiah 4; 8:1-5; Matthew 10:5-15; 20:1-16; 22:1-10; 28:19-20; Mark 2:3; Luke 10:1ff.; Acts 1:13-14; 2:1ff.; 4:31-37; 13:2-3; 15:1-35; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:5-15; 12; 2 Corinthians 8-9; Galatians 1:6-10; Ephesians 4:1-16; Philippians 1:15-18. 

It’s funny, but my main thought in reading through this article is that is serves primarily as an apologetic for the organization which commissioned its writing in the first place, the Southern Baptist Convention.  Nice.  But we must ask ourselves, Is what it says truly biblical?  Reading through the verses used as justification and scaling back the language used in the article which sounds more of corporate or political organizing I think that we do see a biblcal truth portrayed here, at least to some extent.

Many of the passages used in justifying the claims here are passages speaking of general cooperation between Christians which may or may not be usable in a context wider than the local church.  Texts such as those given in Ezra and Nehemiah demonstrate the principle of helping out our brothers, living a servant lifestyle, or what I would more generally put as “bear[ing] one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6.2).  However, that verse, Galatians 6.2, is conspicuously absent from the justification list, most likely because it is traditionally interpreted as a local church verse.  The question I ask is, If we are claiming a universal church of all believers, how is cooperation at all divorceable from this call in Galatians?  And if it is not, then how come we seek to make a special distinction for “associations and conventions”?  I’m not sure if I see this myself.

One special exception picturing a larger specialized gathering might be found in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.  At this point we see a special convening of the church to deal with particular controversies that had arisen in the early days.  This certainly sets a precedent for coming together in a unit larger than the local assembly for clarifying doctrine, but is this what we are doing in the Southern Baptist Convention.  In part yes, but we are also doing much more.  We have things like the Cooperative Program which function on a large scale like Paul’s offering for the church at Jerusalem in 2 Corinthians and elsewhere.  We also have our missionary organizations, NAMB and IMB, which are collections of skilled people trying to fulfill the Great Commission of Matthew 28 and Acts 1.8.  All of these fall under the umbrella of the SBC and all are good and God-honoring things.  However, to say that they are specifically laid out as the pattern of Scripture seems like a stretch to me.

On another note, a very interesting statement is made when the article says,

“Cooperation is desirable between the various Christian denominations, when the end to be attained is itself justified, and when such cooperation involves no violation of conscience or compromise of loyalty to Christ and His Word as revealed in the New Testament.”  

Why is this so interesting?  Well, I, at least, find it interesting in light of recent cries foul by certain commentators among the non-Calvinist wing of SBC life who berate upstanding Southern Baptists like Al Mohler and Mark Dever for their associations with Presbyterian and charismatic and even just plain non-SBC brothers through ministries such as Together for the Gospel, Ligonier and Desiring God.  In particular I recall the provost of one of our great Southern Baptist seminaries commenting at a recent (controversial) gathering that it is confusing for Southern Baptists to be so friendly with paedobaptists.  Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t joining “together for the gospel” be a justifiable end for teaming up across denominational lines with people maybe a little more reformed than ourselves?  What does that say when even our seminary leaders are having trouble affirming the BF&M in its entirety?

A Challenge from the Prophet- Reading Elijah’s Actions onto Our Own Ministries

April 28, 2009

I was reading the passages composing the life of the prophet Elijah this morning (roughly 1 Kings 17 through 2 Kings 2) and as I was reading I highlighted two verses that I want to share with you here.

The first verse occurs in the introductory account of Elijah, as a prophet who comes bringing a drought, only to find himself later bringing new life to a widow’s dead son.  After this event, that being the resurrection of the widow’s son, Elijah presents the now-living offspring to its mother leading to the following reaction:

And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” (1 Kings 17.24)

Elijah’s spiritual gifting of raising the dead boy confirmed to the widow that this message of God he was proclaiming was the truth.  Not only was he speaking of God (cf. v.18) but he was speaking a true word of God, which God was delivering through him, about the Lord’s power in regards to life and death, to fertility and infertility, over and above the power of the foreign gods and Baal.  Elijah’s message was true and his actions confirmed this, to which all the widow could reply is, “The word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”

What does it take to hear people say this of us today?  This makes me think in particular of the issue we raised concerning Rick Warren a few weeks ago.  Pastor Warren had a message that he was delivering with strength and integrity, that God’s intention for marriage is one man and one woman, and for the state to sanction elsewise, for the individual to support a statute declaring elsewise, was a stance in clear violation of God’s revealed word.  But then he wavered.  Instead of providing a firm resolve leading people to declare that “The word of the LORD in [his] mouth [was] truth,” Pastor Warren hedged and qualified and basically lied trying to ingratiate himself to a population which stood opposed to God on this issue.  He had a large enough platform to cast a decisive vote in favor of God’s design in marriage, and instead he squandered it for the ability to be liked by people in high places on the other side of the aisle, which one can only conclude hurts his position with both sides in the end.

We must live in such a way that the word of the LORD from our mouth is undeniably true.  Second, we find this statement from Elijah’s encounter with the priests of Baal in front of the people of Israel at Mount Sinai:

And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. (1 Kings 18.21)

Huh, interesting!?!  Here we find Elijah standing before the people of God confronting them with a decision to follow either God or Baal, and the people come off dumbfounded.  His proposition is priceless: “If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”  You better choose.  If you truly follow God as you say, then follow him and leave off this crap with Baal.  But if your god is really Baal then quit running around telling people that you serve the one true God.  

It is certainly no stretch to imagine Elijah saying the same thing at any church in America today only to receive the same response.  Our churches and schools and televisions are littered with people who claim to follow God (or God through Christ), only to later demonstrate that they are following Baal or some other pagan good of personal satisfaction and desire.  Our message gets watered down, our witness destroyed and our patience tried, watching people who don’t know Jesus from Beyonce claiming allegiance to Christ.  Yet we accept it without a word.  We let it be done without confrontation, and as such we see God’s name dragged through the mud of pop culture tolerance while the truth remains unproclaimed.  Elijah did not leave the people of Israel this option.  He said first and foremost that all cards were on the table.  Either you follow God or you follow Baal.  No one gets to ride the fence.  If only we had such courage in the culture today, to call out the hypocrisy of our nation instead of placating their sins and abusing the notion of grace as to not look intolerant to the world.  Who cares what they think?  Certainly not the incomparable God we serve.

So, here we have two strong statements from the life of Elijah.  Now let us seek to find them true in our own lives and ministries.

Am I Not Called to (Ad)Minister?- John Piper on Avoiding Sacred Substitutes

April 27, 2009

Having just concluded my reading of John Piper’s excellent book on pastoral ministry, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, I thought that I would share one more thought from it that was very convicting to me.

In the chapter entitled, “Brothers, Beware of Sacred Substitutes,” Dr. Piper develops an idea of how the Christian minister is to allot his time based around the text of Acts 6.2-4, 

And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

The life of the Christian minister is full of starts and stops, interruptions and diversions away from the biblical calling to “preach the word” and to “shepherd the flock of God” that is among them (2 Timothy 4.2, 1 Peter 5.2).  Expanding on this, John Piper notes that “most of [the interruptions to our spiritual growth] and most of our busyness is ministry-related, not ‘worldly’.”  By this he means that most of the distraction comes not in the form of sinful diversion but disguised as good, seemingly essential, administerial and care related ministries.  Such was the case with the elders in Jerusalem who were being side-tracked by the dispersion of meals and other provisions to the widows in their fellowship.  This is undoubtedly a good thing, and yet its goodness does not make it superior to the elders call “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (v.4).  Looking to contemporary examples, Piper remarks,

And what opposes the pastor’s life of prayer [and thus his whole calling] more than anything?  The ministry.  It is not shopping or car repairs or sickness or yard work that squeezes our prayers into hurried corners of the day.  It is budget development and staff meetings and visitation and counseling and answering mail and writing reports and reading journals and answering the phone and preparing messages. (p.61)

Honestly, even though I am not yet officially “in the ministry,” I understand this difficulty quite well.  As a servant in the church and one who wants to contribute as much as I can currently within the scope of the ministry that I have, I often find that I simply spread myself too thin by assuming that every responsibility that comes up which seems remotely related to what I’m doing is a dire task that I personally need to respond to.  Thus I find myself committed to meeting people at 5 different locations and 4 different times, while simultaneously calling businesses trying to schedule events or place merchandise orders, which undoubtedly pushes my day out in both directions, shortening my mornings and my nights, making me feel more pressed to pray than I am comfortable with, and so I just short-change it and resolve to be in prayer “the way I should be” the following day.  I let my desire to be everything to everyone in my public ministry interfere with my devotion to God and reliance on him in my private ministry.  This is precisely what the psalmist is speaking to when he says, 

It is in vain that you rise up early
     and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
     for he gives to his beloved sleep
. (Psalm 127.2)

God bless John Piper and his wise insights into the trappings of the Christian pastorate; how I have benefited from them as much as any writer outside of God’s inspired word.  Again, if you are or plan to be involved in the pastoral ministry and you have not already read Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, you need to obtain a copy and immediately bump it up to the top of your reading list.

You Owe it to Him, Right?- John Piper on the Debtor’s Ethic of Christian Living

April 26, 2009

Talking about stewardship yesterday I mentioned the “debtor’s ethic”, an idea that we should do things out of gratitude to God in order to pay him back for his blessings and/or the gift of salvation.  As I said, this was not a unique creation of my own but is something I read in the writings of Dr. John Piper.  Today I think I would like to expound on this ethic a little further.

The written idea of the debtor’s ethic, at least as I encountered it, occurs in John Piper’s book on pastoral ministry entitled Brothers, We Are Not Professionals.  In the fifth chapter of this book Dr. Piper makes the statement, “Brothers, beware of the debtor’s ethic.”  He then goes on to describe the debtor’s ethic writing that,

[i]t comes packaged as a gratitude ethic and says things like: “God has done so much for you; now what will you do for Him?”  ”He gave you His lfe; now how much will you give to Him?”

[In this] the Christian life is pictured as an effort to pay back the debt we owe to God.  The admission is made that we will never fully pay it off, but the debtor’s ethic demands that we work at it.  Good deeds and religious acts are the installment payments we make on the unending debt we owe God. (p.34)

From just this much I would imagine that many of us know exactly what Piper is talking about.  This mindset is especially prevalent in Catholic homes and communities, where the ideas of penance and works righteousness are widely accepted as biblical truth.  Of course, from this Piper then asks teh question, “Have you ever tried to find a Biblical text where gratitude or thankfulness is the explicit motive for obedience to God?”  He admits that there are passages which elevate the position of gratitude in our service, but states that not a single verse or passage exists which explicitly suggests this philosophy as being commended by Christ.

Why is this so bad though?  Is it not okay simply to serve God and do good things regardless of teh motivation behind it?  No, it’s not.  In fact, a key characteristic of Jesus’ earthly ministry was that he charged people to take the primary focus in obedience off of the observable physical acts and placing it on the intentions of the heart (cf. Matthew 5-7).  Having right motives in serving God is what makes our service acceptable to him, as Hebrews 11.6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”  Clearly, the focus of God is upon faith and our trusting in him.  Paying back an obligation can be a very apathetic action; acting in faith cannot.

I believe that we need to test for this in all aspects of our Christian lives.  The debtor’s ethic is an easy sin to fall into, yet a deadly mindset to overlook.  Even if we as believers have encountered and become aware of the yoke that the debtor’s ethic brings, we still manage to be in danger of succombing to it at any time.  The moment we sour on doing something, be it teaching Sunday School, loving our spouse, witnessing to the lost, or any other point of service in our lives, we find ourselves one step from continuing on sinfully trying to pay back a debt instead of proceeding to act in faith towards the one who has established us.  

Be on the lookout.  Burdening us with a sense of obligation to repay God is one of the more prevalent tricks of the devil today.  This is for sure a yoke we cannot bear; and yet, in light of God’s free gift of forgiveness through the sacrifice of Christ and our faith in this, it is not a yoke we need to bear either.

What We Believe- Article XIII, Stewardship

April 25, 2009

This week we continue in the articles of the Baptist Faith & Message which instruct us in practical matters, looking at Article XIII on stewardship:

XIII. Stewardship

God is the source of all blessings, temporal and spiritual; all that we have and are we owe to Him. Christians have a spiritual debtorship to the whole world, a holy trusteeship in the gospel, and a binding stewardship in their possessions. They are therefore under obligation to serve Him with their time, talents, and material possessions; and should recognize all these as entrusted to them to use for the glory of God and for helping others. According to the Scriptures, Christians should contribute of their means cheerfully, regularly, systematically, proportionately, and liberally for the advancement of the Redeemer’s cause on earth.

Genesis 14:20; Leviticus 27:30-32; Deuteronomy 8:18; Malachi 3:8-12; Matthew 6:1-4,19-21; 19:21; 23:23; 25:14-29; Luke 12:16-21,42; 16:1-13; Acts 2:44-47; 5:1-11; 17:24-25; 20:35; Romans 6:6-22; 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 4:1-2; 6:19-20; 12; 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8-9; 12:15; Philippians 4:10-19; 1 Peter 1:18-19.

Of all the practical theology articles, the one on stewardship probably has the highest likelihood of going way off course from what the Bible says, but thankful (surprisingly?) the authors of the BFM 2000 did not take the bait.  In fact, at no point has the BF&M ever been constructed too tightly on this matter.  I appreciate that, though unfortunately I do not think this is a point that many of our churches have actually taken to heart.

What I mean is this: whenever there is a special need in the church, or even a time for offering, the appeal to the congregation often comes in two unbiblical ways.  First, we always put tongue-in-cheek and add the disclaimer that giving is “Only for church members” and that guests should not give (maybe even that they should “offer” their visitors card instead).  Clearly we don’t want to impose upon non-believers as their conscience should not be leading them to give seeing as how their conscience is not even leading them to believe, but carrying this out too far simply adds into the consumerist Christianity that is rampant among believers today.  Great percentages of people hop from church to church, consuming ministries without ever putting down roots or contributing back in the first dime.  People will populate pews and attend classes, and yet will always take this disclaimer as a good enough reason for them not to give.  When presented in this way we make giving an offering sound like an idea our individual local church has had and not like a biblical concept promoted for believers throughout Scripture.  And particularly in the SBC one will find that a sizable amount of the giving to a local church does not actually stay in the local church, with so many commitments to cooperative programs and new works standing each week.  Thus, giving on a Sunday morning is not just lining the pastors’ pockets– it is lining the missions field in places that probably know very little about whatever local body it was that sent money there to support them in the first place.

Second, and more to the point, we speak frequently of the tithe, a tenth of the income that is to be given back to the Lord, and yet, in speaking this way we fail to find any biblical basis for asking for such an offering.  Sure, we often point back to Abraham’s giving of a tithe to Melchizedek, but this neglects the context of what the tithe was used for, which is better garnered in Numbers 18.21-24:

To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting, so that the people of Israel do not come near the tent of meeting, lest they bear sin and die. But the Levites shall do the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, and among the people of Israel they shall have no inheritance. For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as a contribution to the LORD, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel

So the focus of the tithe, the Scriptural recipients, were those within the Levitical priesthood.  The tithe served as income for the priests so that they could focus on making sacrifice and intercession for the people while not neglecting to provide for their families.  These men were set apart by God from birth to an important position within the sacrificial system and it would not have done to have them splitting their time between the temple and the field or market.  Thus the tithe was there to support them.

Unfortunately, for those promoting a tithe today, we no longer have a parallel for the Levitical priesthood in the church.  In fact, all believers, through the sacrificial death of Christ and the gifting of the Holy Spirit, are now on par with the Levitical priests, able to interact directly with the one mediator between God and men, that being Jesus (1 Timothy 2.5), and so with the passing of the Levitical priests and the sacrificial system we also see a passing of the requirement for the tithe.  Jesus speaks to this in places such as Matthew 23.23 where he displays that, like many other requirements under the law, this call to give a tithe is not  really a matter of the letter of the law but of the condition of the heart.  

Therefore, when later we interact with Paul, we find him making statements such as, “For if the readiness [to give] is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have” (2 Corinthians 8.12).  Too many times this is neglected in the church and instead the fixed concept of a tithe is pushed not as a matter of conviction or proportion, but as a payment into the great debt that we owe God for his blessings, a supremely unbiblical ideology which John Piper refers to as the “debtor’s ethic.”  Hopefully this will be one place where we can find our churches coming in line better with the BF&M and avoid promoting their own extrabiblical understanding of the requirements on the New Testament saints.

To Be Free of the Flesh, part 4- Applying the Final Resurrection Practically Today

April 23, 2009

Over the course of the last three posts we have been developing a perspective on the final resurrection, particularly as it focuses on the resurrection of believers.  We have argued that Scripture makes the case for a resurrection of the dead, and exchange of the living, from mortal physical bodies into immortal physical “resurrection bodies,” which for the believer will reign forever glorified and without sin in the holy presence of God.  We showed that God has at least two clear purposes in this; first, that the body and spirit be not separate but together as was original created; and second, that our physical bodies may dwell forever in a physical city which descends from the new heaven as the total fulfillment of the Promised Land from the time of Abraham forward.  

All of this is great to look at and reveals so much of God’s wonderful plan of salvation to us, that since his first calling of Abraham (and even before) God has had a plan to return us to an actual place of tabernacle with him on the Earth.  However, as much as God’s glory can be proclaimed through it, there seems to be something missing if we are unable to make a practical application of it in our daily lives.  My biggest issues with the eschatalogical madness of many contemporary evangelicals is that it is such a fruitless venture, producing books and charts and making little underinformed housewives paranoid about every news report mentioning Israel, but at the end of the day contributing nothing of value to the body of Christ.  As Thom Schreiner says in his commentary on 1 Peter, “Nowhere does the New Testament encourage the setting of dates or of any other kinds of charts. Eschatology is invariably used to encourage believers to live in a godly way” (p.210-211).  This is the sentiment that I see Paul expressing as well when he addresses the Thessalonian church about their fear over those who died before the parousia (1 Thessalonians 4.13-5.11), straightening out their theology and yet leaving them with the practical instruction to “encourage on another with these words” and to not worry about the actually timetable since “concerning the times and the seasons . . . [they] have no need to have anything written to [them]” (4.18-5.1).  Very little of what is taught concerning eschataology seems encouraging to me.  Instead it comes off more as dire warnings about nothing and egocentric pinings that we must be living near the day of his coming since things are soooo bad in our world today.  Therefore, if what I have said about the final resurrection has no capacity to encourage than we should leave off from it right now and move onto thoughts of more edifying ideas.

But alas, there does exist a practical application of the final resurrection to us in our daily lives.  And no, this is not the usual cop-out reason either, that one day we will have “perfect” bodies that will not contain the diabilities and aches and age of our current frame.  (I am told that I discount this layer of it because I am young, and I do understand the legitimacy of this idea, I just doubt its biblical importance.)  No, more than receiving a body that is physically perfect and free of flaw, what we will receive is a body that is morally perfect and free of flaw.  What do I mean?  I mean exactly what Paul tells us in Romans 7.21-24,

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

“Who will deliever me from this body of death?”  Who will keep me from following the temptations of my flesh over and above the desires of the new heart Christ has created in me?  Anyone who has continued to struggle with specific sins after becoming a believer in Christ can understand what’s being said here.  Our heart of flesh wants to follow the laws which God has written upon it (cf. Ezekiel 11.19-20) but the sinfulness of our physical bodies, containing the root of sin that they inherited as an heir of Adam (Romans 5.12ff), leads us away from God’s laws and back into the course of the world in which we once walked unaware (Ephesians 2.1-3).  This is the frustration of indwelling sin.  I see it frequently in myself and in the people I serve with and disciple and counsel throughout the church.  

Who will deliver me from this body of death?  That is God’s promise in the final resurrection for believers.  Not only will our glorified resurrection bodies be perfect from a physiological and anatomical sense, but they will be perfect in a righteousness sense.  There will be no more sin enslaving our members, drawing us away from God’s loving call of obedience.  As it says in Revelation 21, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away . . .  nothing unclean will ever enter [the New Jerusalem], nor anyone who does what is detestable or false” (vv.4, 27).  These things are all the result of sin and thus display the passing away of sin from the body.  All things will be restored, especially the sinlessness of all creation that God endowed it with in the beginning.  

This is hope.  This is practical.  I know and you know that those days of frustration at not being able to fully kill off that sin pattern that has haunted our lives from before regeneration til today will one day be gone.  We will no longer struggle with keeping pure thoughts or speaking honoring words or practicing righteous living, for the temptation of the flesh will be alleviated and we will be dressed in flesh that is not warring against us.  That is a reason to praise the God who has promised us of a final resurrection into glory.  That is the promise that we will one day be free from the flesh!

To Be Free of the Flesh, part 3- The Second Purpose of the Final Resurrection

April 22, 2009

Last time we stated that a first purpose in God’s plan of a final resurrection for all people is that he had always intended for the spirit and body to be married, and thus it is to this that he returns his creation in the end.  Today we will examine a second reason for the final resurrection of all people, believers in particular, to immortal, physical bodies.  To do this, let’s begin in Genesis 28.

Genesis 28.1-5 gives us an account of Isaac’s sending of Jacob to find a wife in Paddan-Aram at the house of his mother’s father, among the daughters of his uncle Laban.  Seeing him off, Isaac commissions Jacob with the blessings that have been passed down through the generations since Abraham, saying specifically, “May [God] give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham!” (v.4).  With this Jacob pictures the life for believers who are also labelled as “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 1.1, 2.11), a people whose citizenship is said to be in heaven, though they still live upon the earth (Philippians 3.20).

Continuing in Genesis 28.10-22 we find Jacob, freshly departed off to Paddan-Aram to find himself a wife, stop in the night to rest.  While sleeping he experiences the dream most of us know as the dream of Jacob’s ladder.  Among the things God says to Jacob in this encounter is, “The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring” (v.13), which is serves in reiterating the promise which Issac had just passed along to him.  The curious thing  is, that in looking back now, we see biblical testimony that this inheriting of the land never actually happened (cf. Hebrews 11.13, “These [the patriarchs, including Jacob] all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth“).  Moreover, this inheritance was not accomplished later by any if the succeeding generations of Israel, not Joshua (cf. Joshua 13.1), not David (cf. Hebrews 4.5-8), no one (cf. Hebrews 11.39).  Thus, we are left asking the question, “Did God lie?”  The answer to this is “No” and comes to us from Hebrews 11.16 and 13.14:

But as it is, [the patriarchs] desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11.16)

For here we [believers] have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. (Hebrews 13.14)

So, the promise is of a heavenly city yet to come.  But what does this even mean?  Is it further described in Scripture to us?  Gloriously yes!

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. (Revelation 21.1-3)

In Revelation 21, following the return of the conquering Christ in chapter 19 and the Great White Throne judgment in chapter 20, we see the picture of the final resting place for believers, and it is delivered to us as a holy city that comes from heaven down to a new earth (one that has been “set free from its bondage to corruption,” cf. Romans 8.19-22).  This is not a spiritual place in the sense of disembodied spirits inhabiting it; this is an earthly place within the physical creation made to be inhabited by physical bodies.  And just what physical bodies will inhabit it?  Why, immortal, sinless, glorified bodies of course!

Therefore, we see that a second, and  greatest reason for the final resurrection is because God’s ultimate plan of eschatalogical salvation for those called according to his name is a heavenly city on a regenerated planet where he may dwell freely with his people having no need for sacrifices or veils or priests.

Tomorrow we will spend one last day in this thought, working out what our response to the hope of a final resurrection should be in our everyday lives as believers.

To Be Free of the Flesh, part 2- The First Purpose of the Final Resurrection

April 21, 2009

In yesterday’s post we made the statement that all believers should be looking forward to a final glorification where the dead will be raised to life and all mortal flesh, either of the dead or of the living, will be exchanged for immortal flesh.  Today we will discuss one or two reasons why believers will be given “resurrection bodies,” but first I want to make a small note.  

Throughout yesterday’s remarks I mentioned the granting of “resurrection bodies” as something for the believer, and in the context of hope we will continue to speak about this in terms of the believer.  However, we want to make sure to acknowledge that the resurrection of the mortal and exchange into immortal is not just a promise solely for believers but it is something that will come about for unbelievers as well.  In their case it is not for eternal glorification, but instead for eternal condemnation.  We see this attested to in various New Testament passages:

[Jesus says,] Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear [the voice of the Son of God] and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. (John 5.28-29)

But this I [Paul] confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. (Acts 24.14-15)

Thus, we see the truth of a final resurrection is not just for believers, it is a promise to all of mankind.  In the end there is not simply death, but there is a second life, an eternal one, in which judgment comes and people are either glorified forever in the presence of God or sentenced to a never-ending punishment away from him.  Either way, the grave is no persons the final stop.

So, back to the resurrection experience for believers.  We are curious to understand just why it is that our story ends not as disembodied spirits floating about in the ether, but instead God makes for us a new skin suit, one that will never die away? Just what is the purpose?  All our flesh has ever known is sickness and pain and death of all sorts, why would we ever want to take that on again?

The first answer I see is because God wants us to be in the flesh.  Think back.  God created us as we see ourselves now.  We were not already formed beings that God chose to claim for himself.  We were nothing and God made us.  But he didn’t just make us spirit (soul, mind, whatever you wish to think of it as), he made us both spirit AND body.  For whatever reason that was important to God.  It was part of his plan to give us physical bodies and to place us upon a physical earth.

Yet, even more than him making for us bodies, he made for us perfect bodies!  Adam and Eve existed in perfect bodies, free of pain and suffering, and, most importantly, free of death.  If they would have made it through the probationary period, the Tree of Life awaited them and they would have lived forever (cf. Genesis 3.22).  However, at the moment sin came into the world through their disobedience, death in its various incantations came along as well (cf. Genesis 2.17, 3.16-19), and from this point on all bodies have been subject to dying and the corruption of the flesh (cf. Romans 5.12-20).  Then at death, body and spirit part (cf. 2 Corinthians 5.6-8), and we no longer are connected with the flesh the way God had meant us to be.  

Therefore, God resurrects us into immortal bodies because that is what he wanted all along.  Adam and Eve were created to live forever, but through their sin they, and subsequently all people, lost this privilege.  But God, in his great power, returns us to life, returns our spirit to the flesh, that we may exist in the form he had intended us to.  It was never his plan to have people existing as disembodied spirits.  God created body and spirit in one and said that it was very good.

Tomorrow we will examine a second purpose for the final resurrection of believers that we find in reading through Romans 8, 1 Thessalonians 4, Hebrews 11, and Revelation 21.

To Be Free of the Flesh, part 1- The Final Resurrection

April 20, 2009

If one has spent adequate time in Christian circles, even if they are not a believer, they may have heard something about the resurrection of believers.  Most people in American culture, I would imagine, are aware of the Christian claim that Christ was resurrected shortly following his death on the cross, but it is also true that in a complete theology of salvation, many Christians hold to a final resurrection of all believers from the dead (or, if they are not dead at the second coming, simply a reception of a “resurrection body,” i.e. a body that is renewed and will live forever).  This specific doctrine stems from passages such as Paul’s writings to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 15.51-52:

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

The Apostle Paul tells us that in the end, “all” people will be “changed” from their mortal flesh and into living, physical, “imperishable” bodies, whether alive or dead, in which case the dead will also be “raised.”  This theme is further developed, clarified, and attested to in places like John 5, Romans 8, and 1 Thessalonians 4.  The theological term for all of this is ‘glorification’, which Grudem defines as,

. . . the final step in the application of redemption.  It will happen when Christ returns and raises from the dead the bodies of all believers for all time who have died, and reunites them with their souls, and changes the bodies of all believers who remain alive, thereby giving all believers at the same time perfect resurrection bodies like his own. (Systematic Theology, p.829)

We know that glorification is the final step in the Pauline understanding of redemption from Romans 8.30 (“And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”)  This step is also discernible in the Petrine order through passages such as 1 Peter 1.3-5:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

It is Thom Schreiner who comments frequently on this idea of eschatalogical salvation in his commentary on 1 Peter, pointing out that the step of glorification is the “not yet” portion of the “now-not yet” tension kept throughout the New Testament in regards to salvation.

There remains much more biblically to be said supporting this claim, but I think what we have already covered is sufficient to make the point: believers are instructed to be looking forward to a final resurrection in which their current mortal body will be changed (or exchanged) for one that is immortal.  With that in mind then, there are a few questions I think are important to raise, such as why do we receive resurrection bodies, what purpose do they serve in the final plan of God, and what should our response to all this be in the meantime?  These we will try and answer over the next couple of days.