Gospel Issues and Weighing Doctrines

One of the issues that still needs clarification in Christianity is how to weigh doctrines. Christians have historically recognized that certain truths are fundamental or essential to Christianity, while others have less importance. But how do we know which doctrines are which?

In the last issue of Themelios, D. A. Carson writes an editorial offering some thoughts on what we mean when we talk about “gospel issues,” concluding that the category of “gospel issues” is helpful if it refers to “biblical and theological topics the denial of which clearly affect our understanding of the gospel adversely.” The point is that you cannot deny a certain truth or else you’ve seriously undermined the gospel. Other truths may be important, but they do not rise to the level of upmost importance like gospel issues.

I’ve heard a professor put it this way before: if you put a gun to my head and said “Deny the deity of Jesus or you’re dead,” by God’s grace I would hope to respond by saying “pull the trigger.” If you put a gun to my head and said “Deny the pre-tribulational return of Jesus Christ or you’re dead” I would say “Put the gun down and we’ll talk.” Some truths really are worth dying for.

Yet there still seems to be a lot of confusion about what qualifies for those kinds of truths. Recently, TGC (the same organization that publishes Themelios) ran a post discussing how “scholars” approach inerrancy. In the article, the author reached a startling conclusion:

Belief in the truthfulness of the Bible, then, like belief in the truthfulness of Christianity or materialism or anything else, is provisional—scholars hold to it (or not) on the basis of the evidence they’ve seen. Affirming the Bible is true, just like affirming the Christian creeds, is a statement of current conviction.

Dan Phillips picked up on one of the issues with this mindset: if all of our beliefs are merely provisional, is there anything worth dying for? Why die for what you believe today when tomorrow you may very well change your mind?

Though more could be said about the matter of the truthfulness of the Bible and Christianity, I’d like to consider a different doctrine and whether or not it would qualify as a “gospel issue.” The kinds of doctrines that usually fit in this category are things like the deity of Christ, salvation by grace, the resurrection of Christ, the Trinity, the second coming of Christ, substitutionary atonement, etc. What about the bodily resurrection of believers? Is that a “gospel issue”?

If you are like me, your first inclination would probably be to say “I don’t think it reaches first level importance.” But it seems like the Apostle Paul would put it in the category of “gospel issues” based on his discussion in 1 Corinthians 15.

Paul begins by noting the common ground shared by him and the Corinthians. He had preached the gospel truth held by all Christians—that Christ died for our sins, evidenced by his burial, and that he rose again on the third day, evidenced and testified by those who saw him after the resurrection. This was the gospel they believed—the gospel that would save them.

Having reminded the Corinthians of their shared faith in the resurrection of Christ, Paul moves to confront the problem in Corinth. Some in the church at Corinth were denying the bodily resurrection of the dead. We can’t know for certain why they were denying this. Perhaps it stemmed from a false understanding of the new life they had in Christ, so that they believed they were already experiencing a spiritual, resurrected life. Perhaps it stemmed from the philosophical belief of the time that the spirit was immortal but the body was not, so that the idea of resurrected bodies was absurd. Maybe it was a combination of sorts. What we do know is that some were denying that Christians would be bodily raised from the dead.

Paul responds to this false teaching by demonstrating the necessary conclusion of their belief in 1 Cor 15:12-13. He does so by offering a syllogism of sorts.

  • Dead people do not rise (their belief)
  • Jesus was a dead person
  • Therefore Jesus did not rise

This is an airtight argument. The unspoken premise is the second, but since no one (Christians and non-Christians alike) questioned whether or not Jesus was a dead person, Paul does not need to address it. The Corinthians denied the conclusion of C (as Paul had already stated, they all believed that Christ rose from the dead), but Paul shows that they can’t deny C and affirm A. In other words, denying the bodily resurrection of the dead adversely affected the gospel. It seems like it’s the kind of doctrine that would be worth dying for.

How does this help us with thinking about gospel issues? First, it should warn us about too quickly dismissing certain truths as unimportant just because we fail to see their significance. Second, it provides a biblical example of how certain doctrines that do not seem to be at the heart of the gospel are so closely connected that denying them means effectively denying the gospel. Perhaps we can use Paul’s discussion as a model for evaluating other doctrines to determine whether or not they are gospel issues.

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Mid-America Conference on Preaching
October 16-17, 2014
“Striving Together for the Faith of the Gospel”

Dear Fellow Servant of Jesus Christ:

It seems like every day brings more bad news in this crazy, sin-cursed world. And it seems, at least sometimes, like God’s people are dropping into defense-mode as the world becomes increasingly hostile toward Christianity. While all of this may be new to us, it is not different from the landscape that the churches in the New Testament faced. The Philippians, for example, were “granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Phil 1:29).

The darkness of our day should make us more urgent about obedience to Christ’s commission, not less so. To that end, the theme for our fall conference this year, based on Philippians 1:27, is “Striving Together for the Faith of the Gospel.” By God’s grace, we’ll gather for two days, October 16-17, to focus our attention on biblical truth about building greater unity within and between our assemblies for the sake of the gospel. Incredible gospel opportunities are all around us. We need to sharpen our focus on biblical truths that will equip and encourage us to make the most of them.

I hope you will plan to join us on October 16-17, 2014 for what I believe will be a wonderful time of refreshing fellowship, helpful workshops, and encouraging preaching. We will do all that we can to make it a time of genuine spiritual encouragement for you. We would love to have you join us!

For the sake of His name,

David M. Doran

President

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Reason #26 Why You Should Consider Visiting Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

Michigan Cherry Coffee

michigan cherry coffeeSure, you can order it online. But only Michigan coffeehouses serve freshly brewed coffee made from cherries grown just a few hours to our north. If you like coffee but haven’t tried Michigan Cherry coffee, you need to. And if you don’t like coffee, you should probably see a doctor.

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On Preaching Predictive Prophecy

While visiting a church a few weeks back I heard something I’ve not heard in many years: a sermon on predictive prophecy. Not a general sermon on the Second Coming, the final judgment, or the joys of heaven, but a sermon on the grind-it-out details of eschatology from the book of Zechariah.

I grew up with a steady diet of biblical prophecy. The books of Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation were perennial favorites. The late 1970s and early 1980s, as I remember them, were troubled times, and as Stan Gundry aptly pointed out back then, this kind of climate had a tendency to make believers long for a day when God will bring this troubled world to its conclusion and flex the muscles of his sovereignty to set things straight. So we got a lot of preaching on prophecy when I was a youth.

Now, it seems, we are paying penance for the excesses of previous generations, with the result that preaching on prophecy has all but disappeared. Part of this neglect is due to our aversion to controversy and speculation, both of which featured fairly prominently in the glory days of the biblical prophecy movement. But neglect is still neglect, and for those of us charged with preaching the whole counsel of God, it behooves us to reconsider the value of preaching predictive prophecy. It is, after all, a substantial block of the biblical record. And so, in no special order, let me offer a few positive reasons for dusting off those neglected sections of Scripture and carving out a few new sermons from their depths:

  • Preaching predictive prophecy keeps the present in proper perspective. When we focus entirely on the present, our scope of reality has a tendency to narrow inordinately. We start to think with a sort of forward-looking uniformitarianism, i.e., that the present is the key to the future. But that’s not true. What we imagine today to be “reality” will undergo sudden, explosive changes at some future point and what seems important now will suddenly come into proper perspective. Preaching prophecy helps us to see the present in the light of the future.
  • Preaching predictive prophecy keeps our affections properly aligned. Preachers who make much of predictive prophecy and especially those of a premillennial, pretribulational bent are often accused of being “escapists”—other-earthly and countercultural dreamers so eager to leave that that have lost all practical value for the present. But while the “desire to depart and be with Christ” can surely be emphasized to the neglect of the fact that “it is more necessary that I remain” (Phil 1:23), we should not forget that the former is “better by far.” We should, as Paul, be “torn” between the two options. A far greater problem than escapism in today’s church, I would hazard, is the unnatural ambivalence of Christians toward their “departure” and neglect of preparation thereto. Better a homesick alien, stranger, and pilgrim than one who has been taken captive to this world, who has lost all interest in escape, and who has developed a sort of spiritual Stockholm Syndrome that empathizes with and craves this world more than the next.
  • Preaching predictive prophecy keeps the climax of history in view. Modern evangelicals have rightly deduced that the death and resurrection of Christ enjoy a central place in the biblical story line that is rightly to be emphasized. But it surely is not the whole story, much less the climax of the biblical story line. The Day of the Lord, complete with the crushing of the nations, the purification and salvation of Israel, the revelation of the warrior-king Jesus Christ in unparalleled power, glory, and pomp, and his ascent to the throne of the world as King of kings surely must not be relegated to the periphery!
  • Preaching predictive prophecy keeps the mission of the church intact. A few years ago, Don Carson was asked how to keep the mission of the church in proper balance, and his response was spot on. He said, “Preach Hell.” His point was that preaching to humanity’s ultimate need keeps their temporal needs in proper perspective and keeps our message to the world properly evangelistic. I’d like to expand his answer. Preach Hell to the world, yes, and also preach Heaven to the saints. Preach the Rapture. Preach the Time of Jacob’s Trouble and the Purgation of Israel. Preach Armageddon. Preach the Incarceration of Antichrist and Satan. Preach the Second Coming. Preach the Kingdom. Preach the delivery of Christ’s Kingdom into the hands of God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power, including death, and God is all in all.

And don’t just preach in vague generalizations about eternity, sovereignty, and judgment. Preach the details too. Tell the story. Better, paint the story in vivid relief and give stamp that image upon the imaginations of your listeners. Do this successfully, and it will remain there forever. And the benefits of that practice will be substantial.

Posted in Preaching, Theology | Tagged | 14 Comments

Gareth Cockerill and the Point of Hebrews 11

I’m working up a paper on ‘The Story of Israel in Hebrews 11’ and one of the preliminary matters I’m trying to get a handle on is the point of the chapter. That is, before I can say anything about how Hebrews tells Israel’s story, I need to figure out what the author’s trying to do with his ‘catalogue of heroes.’ I was doing a bit of reading in Gary Cockerill’s (magnificent) new commentary and came across an article he’d published about this very issue. In it, he suggests that Hebrews 11 is about encouraging ‘resurrection faith,’ based on its references to resurrection in vv. 17–19 and v. 35. To prove his point, Cockerill argues for the centrality of these two references in the chapter’s structure. Here I’d simply like to summarize his argument and pass it along for consideration.

The centrality of vv. 17–19. Cockerill suggests that vv. 17–19 stand at the center of the chapter’s first major section (vv. 3–31). He begins by arguing that vv. 17–19 climax the ‘Abraham’ section of the ‘Abraham and Moses’ narrative, extending from vv. 8–31. Seven examples of faith are associated with both ‘heroes’—four directly related to the individual and three with their progeny/followers—and, for each, the fourth example (Isaac’s sacrifice, vv. 17–19; Passover, v. 28) acts as a climax. Each concludes the focus on the individual himself, each involves a sacrifice and each results in deliverance from death. Beyond this, Cockerill insists that vv. 17–19 climax the ‘Canaan and Egypt’ section (vv. 8–27) of the ‘Abraham and Moses’ narrative (vv. 8–31), a section Cockerill distinguishes from the ‘Exodus and Conquest’ material (vv. 28–31) within this same larger narrative. Here he notes that vv. 13–22 are situated between chiastically-parallel statements in vv. 8–12 and vv. 23–27 (v. 8//v. 27; vv. 9–10//vv. 24–26; and vv. 11–12//v. 23) and, moreover, that vv. 17–19 form the center of these bracketed verses, since vv. 13–16 and vv. 20–22 are parallel. Finally, Cockerill suggests that vv. 3–7 and vv. 28–31 are also parallel, which, of course, would further underscore the centrality of vv. 8–27 and, thus, vv. 17–19. He admits, however, that this suggestion rests on only one clear parallel, namely vv. 7 and 28.

The centrality of v. 35. Cockerill suggests that v. 35 stands at the center of the chapter’s second major section (vv. 32–38). He argues that the section divides, after an introduction (v. 32), into two ‘catalogues’—a catalogue of triumph (vv. 33–35a) and a catalogue of suffering (vv. 35b–38)—that the two catalogues, each comprising three parts, are chiastically-related (vv. 33abc//vv. 37d–38; vv. 33d–v. 34ab//v. 37abc; and v. 34cde//v. 36), and, therefore, that v. 35, with its ‘resurrection faith,’ stands at the center of the chiasm.

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Writing Advice from a Well-Known Author

CSLewisWritingAtDeskDuring his lifetime, C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) received thousands of letters from young fans who had read the Chronicles of Narnia and wanted to connect with the author. One such fan was an American girl named Joan Lancaster, who wrote to Lewis in June of 1956. We don’t know exactly what Joan wrote in her letter, but Lewis’s reply is one of the many letters preserved in his book Letters to Children (63–65). (As a side note, if you begin reading this little book you probably won’t put it down until you reach the last page. Lewis’s graciousness and creativity in these letters is quite refreshing. For a university professor, he treated children rather well.)

In his reply to his young admirer, Lewis talked about the nature of language and writing. He said that in his view “good English” was basically “whatever educated people talk,” and that this would necessarily vary depending on region and time. More significantly, he offered her five suggestions about how to become a better writer. Reading these, I realized that most of us could benefit from the advice. Here are Lewis’s suggestions with a little commentary added:

  1. Always try to use language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

In other words, be clear. If what you write could be misunderstood, it probably will be. When writing a term paper, article, or book review, try to have someone read what you’ve written aloud to you. Does it sound right? Did the reader stumble over certain sentences because he or she couldn’t tell where the emphasis belonged?

  1. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

A helpful book in this regard is William Brohaugh’s Write TightIf you have a tendency to blow past page limits when writing, you need to read this book. Long words don’t necessarily make a writer sound intelligent, in fact, sometimes quite the opposite. Regardless, you should be writing to communicate something, not to prop up your self-image, and good communication is usually direct and appropriately concise.

  1. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

Sometimes abstract nouns are needed, especially in academic papers. But when they are not, using them just adds another layer between the writer’s mind and that of the reader. 

  1. In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me.”

In grammar school you were likely taught to use lots of adjectives in order to make your writing more interesting. You were taught wrong. Whether you are writing fiction or prose, don’t pile on the adjectives. Instead, use strong nouns and verbs to communicate what you mean.

  1. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

More generally, don’t misuse words. Lewis uses the example of “infinitely.” The word I see (and hear) misused the most is “literally.” E.g., People say that they “literally died of laughing.” Unless you’ve figured out a way to communicate from the grave, you shouldn’t use this phrase. Make sure you are using the right word in the right place. Check a dictionary or usage guide if you’re not sure. The best long-term solution to the problem of misusing words is to read a lot of good literature. Good writers can help their readers become better writers.

A lot more could be said, but a wordy post about good writing would be rather ironic. If you are interested in improving your writing, a great little book to check out is Doug Wilson’s Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life. In about 120 pages, Wilson provides more advice about how to write well than most of us will ever be able to implement—though it wouldn’t hurt to try.

Posted in Book Review, Church History, Language | 1 Comment

Cultural Fundamentalism or Cultural Evangelicalism?

Over the past decade it has been popular to distinguish between “cultural fundamentalism” and “historic fundamentalism.” Cultural fundamentalism is regarded by its critics as very, very bad. It consists of folksy/outdated traditionalism that has drifted from its quaint, innocuous origins and has entered a bitter, skeptical stage of life—complete with theological errors of a sort that typically attend aging, countercultural movements. Historic fundamentalism, which focuses more on basic theological issues, fares a little bit better, but only a very little bit. Critics puzzle over those who accept this label, marveling that anyone would risk associative guilt by lingering near those nasty cultural fundamentalists: “Why not get with the program,” they ask, “and become a conservative evangelical?”

Part of the reason, I would venture, is that conservative evangelicalism itself appears, to all but those blinded by its euphoria, to be yet another cultural phenomenon—a new iteration of a broader movement (evangelicalism) that, let’s face it, has a track record easily as jaded as that of fundamentalism. True, the conservative evangelicals of today are a bit more conscious of theology and mission (that’s how the life cycle of ecclesiological “movements” begins), and their culture is more up-to-date; but it’s just a matter of time until the present iteration of evangelicalism grows old, propped up only by the same nostalgia that today keeps Billy Graham crusades and Bill and Gloria Gaither homecomings on cable TV (except that these will be replaced, for a new generation of elderly evangelicals, with John Piper recordings and Keith and Kristyn Getty sing-alongs that allow folks to relive the glory days).

Last week Darryl Hart, a notable critic of conservative evangelicalism (a.k.a. the “New Calvinism” and “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movements), wrote a scathing exposé of today’s culture-heavy evangelicalism. Speaking specifically to his own confessional concerns, he made the obvious point that the major attraction of the “New Calvinism” and the “Young, Restless and Reformed” movements wasn’t primarily theological (the “Calvinism” and “Reformed” part) but cultural (the “New, Young, and Restless” part). Calvinism, he observed, has been faithfully preserved for centuries in confessional churches (like the OPC of which Hart is a part) that guarded it far more carefully than the confessionally unconstrained evangelicals ever could. No, the major attraction of the “New Calvinism,” Hart opined, was that it offered something that the Old Calvinism didn’t, viz., “the sorts of celebrity, technology, mass crowds, and enthusiasm upon which the young sovereigntists thrive.” The “Gospel Allies” (a derogatory label Hart uses for the conservative evangelical movement) deliberately denigrate the Old Calvinists for one prevailing reason: They’re not new. And since they’re not new, they have little appeal for the young and restless crowd. The “Gospel Allies,” on the other hand, stay new by brokering alliances with cool, edgy, avant-garde, and (mostly) Reformedish celebrities like Driscoll, McDonald, and Mahaney, who, granted, might fall over the edge with which they flirt—but it’s worth the risk.

So what comes next? Well, if history is our guide, the generational cycle of cultural ecclesiology will soon move to its next phase, what I call ecclesiastical “niche-making.” The fundamentalist version of this is well documented. The 1940s and 50s revivalist culture (the best snapshot of which is found in its music) was all new and fresh and culturally edgy in its day. But now it is the realm of churches populated by 80-year-olds who can’t figure out why there are no “young people.” It’s happening again with the Patch the Pirate generation. Patch and Company were all the rage in the 1980s and early 1990s, but now they’re old news. Still, by publishing their magnum opus, Majesty Hymns, a coalition of Patch-culture churches lives on, populated mostly by those who were parents of small children during the 1980s. Now they’re beginning to wonder why the “youth group” is so small.

But evangelicalism is no different. Visit the various evangelical churches in your neighborhood and you’ll find Gaither churches, romantic but theologically vacuous churches from the golden age of CCM, and now Getty/Townend/SG churches (hint: this is where that missing generation has gone). I have little doubt that this cycle will repeat, because there is little in place to break the cycle. The pattern for all of these groups has been to push the cultural envelope until they create their niche, then settle down to enjoy it.

The possible conclusions, then, appear to be twofold: some churches will (1) do nothing and become culturally backward, ingrown congregations that reminisce together until they eventually die of old age, while others will (2) transition to the next cultural cycle and thrive for another 25 years or so. But is this the way it’s supposed to be? I think not.

The answer, I would suggest, is faithful ministry in confessionally bounded churches committed more to the spirituality of the church than they are to the socio-political and cultural relevancy of the church. By striving, self-consciously, to be as culturally transcendent as possible, I would argue, we can cultivate timeless, transgenerational bodies that do not need to reinvent themselves every quarter century to remain solvent. It will not be easy—after all, culture has told us for a hundred years that this is not the way church is done. But it’s definitely worth the effort.

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Can Christianity Be Good If It’s Not True?

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-z8mR-Z5qyjo/UybkjvWVV6I/AAAAAAAAAAA/Qifa3zuM1h4/s1600/true%2Bor%2Bfalse.jpg

In 1768 the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire wrote: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Voltaire was not trying to denigrate Christianity. Rather, he was arguing for the social benefit of belief in God. He thought that belief in God helped provide incentive to people to live morally and helped establish social order and justice. Thus, if God did not exist, it would be better for society to convince people that God did exist.

There are a growing number of atheists in our day who are clamoring for the abolishment of religion. The late Christopher Hitchens was a leading voice in this movement, and he did not hide his contempt for Voltaire’s sentiment. “Though I dislike to differ with such a great man, Voltaire was simply ludicrous when he said that if god did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. The human invention of god is the problem to begin with” (God is Not Great, 96).

In response to these calls for the abolishment of religion, some are continuing to argue that religion, though perhaps (likely?) false, is still good. Thus, much of the discussion has moved past the question of whether or not Christianity is true to whether or not Christianity (and religion more broadly) is beneficial. Where should Christians side in this debate? Should we tout the idea that religion has tangible benefits even if it is false?

One of the central tenets of the Christian faith is that Jesus is alive today—He rose from the dead. This historical event has been both questioned and affirmed for centuries. A couple of years ago, we held a lecture for our campus ministry at Wayne State University on whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. During the Q&A session afterward, a young lady—after stating that she was a Christian—asked whether or not it really mattered. Is anything changed if Jesus did not rise from the dead? Even if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, isn’t Christianity still good?

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he addresses an issue related to that question. Some in Corinth were denying the Apostolic teaching of the resurrection of the dead. In confronting this error, Paul considers the consequences if Jesus did not rise from the dead.

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:14-19)

What if Jesus did not rise from the dead?

The first consequence Paul mentions is that the preaching of the gospel would be empty. If Paul were to talk with the preachers in churches all over America who do not believe Jesus rose from the dead but still “preach” each Sunday, he would tell them it would be better if they just went fishing or golfing on Sundays. There is no truth to the message being preached if Jesus did not rise.

Some in our day might respond that the objective reality of Jesus’ resurrection is insignificant. What really matters is that we believe he is alive in our hearts! But Paul next states that our faith is empty if Jesus did not rise. The Christian faith is not about wishful thinking. It’s not hoping something is true in spite of the fact that it probably isn’t. It’s about trust in a person and what that person did. If that person did not do what he claimed, then the faith is empty.

Many today would point to the value of moral instruction that religion provides. But Paul next states that he and the other apostles are liars if Jesus did not rise from the dead. He and the other apostles have been preaching that God raised Christ from the dead, and if He did not then they have been lying about God. They have been testifying falsely against him. If they’ve been lying about God, why would we trust them on what they have to say about moral issues? (Or why would we trust Jesus on moral issues when He said He would rise from the dead?) Here’s some valuable advice you may want to tuck away: you don’t want to get your ethical instruction from someone who has been lying about the central part of their message!

But isn’t there still a personal, psychological benefit from believing in Christianity even if it is not true? Paul points out that our faith is of no value if Jesus is still dead. Whereas before Paul says our faith is empty, here he says it is futile or worthless. It’s incapable of accomplishing anything for us.

The reason our faith is futile is because it is not intended to provide a psychological benefit but to deal with our problem of sin. Jesus, as a sinless person, died to pay the penalty for our sins. The resurrection is God’s public display of approval of Christ’s payment for sin. But without the resurrection the payment was not accepted. If Jesus did not rise from the dead then his death was simply for his own sin—just like everyone else who has ever died.

If our sin has not been dealt with, then there is no hope of escaping death. If we are still in our sins, death is not simply falling asleep in Christ but is really the end—eternal separation from God.

Paul concludes by declaring that, if Christ is not raised, Christians are the most to be pitied. He is not simply saying that Christians are to be pitied because they expected heaven but didn’t get it. Christ’s resurrection has bearing on our current lives. It frees us to willingly sacrifice for the sake of God and others (cf. 1 Cor 15:30-32). But if Christ is not alive, there is no point in living a sacrificial life for others. We might as well simply live for ourselves.

Paul does not believe that the Christian life has meaning in itself if Christ is not risen. Christians are a bunch of fools if Christ has not risen! But as Paul points out in the next verse: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Cor 15:20). Christianity is worthless if it is not true. But Christianity is true, and the truth of Christianity is infinitely good.

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Book Giveaway Winner

The winner of our recent book giveaway was Chris K. in Clarkston, MI. His copy of Four Views on the Apostle Paul is in the mail. Congratulations, Chris. And thanks to all who participated.

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Book Giveaway: Four Views on the Apostle Paul

Four Views on the Apostle PaulHopefully, at this point in the summer you’ve made a pretty good dent in your summer reading list. We’re looking to add one more title to that list, and we’re going to give a free copy of Four Views on the Apostle Paul (Zondervan, 2012) to someone who comments on this post.

In order to enter the drawing, you need to leave a comment below telling us the author and title of the best book you’ve read this summer (outside the Bible). The book can be fiction or non-fiction, academic or popular, long or short. It doesn’t matter. To be entered, you only need to tell us the title and author, but if you really enjoyed the book and want to tell us why, that would be great too.

The deadline to be entered in the drawing is 11 pm (EST), Wednesday, August 13.

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The Obedience of the Gospel

It’s no secret that I have an abiding interest in the place and function of sanctification in the life of believers. The journey that began for me as a doctoral dissertation answering the Keswick model of sanctification that has historically punished dispensational fundamentalism has taken a new twist in recent years as a new threat has emerged within conservative evangelicalism: the gospel-driven sanctification approach most vividly seen in the writings of Tullian Tchividjian, but certainly not restricted to his sphere of influence.

In ultimate terms, I am not opposed to the label “gospel-driven” as applied to sanctification. My tension with the contemporary use of this label by those in the “contemporary grace movement” (as it is now being labeled in some Reformed circles) is that it restricts the gospel, in varying degrees, to Christ’s accomplishment of justification for us while giving scant attention given to Christ’s accomplishment of regeneration in us. As such, “gospel-driven” sanctification becomes, to a greater or lesser degree, an exercise in recalling Christ’s righteousness imputed in justification (with an attendant abhorrence of all that smacks of “doing” or “rule-keeping”) rather than as a disciplined cultivation and exercise of Christ’s righteousness imparted in regeneration. This is an irregularity of no small concern.

The Great Commission knows nothing of this irregularity. Its burden is not only to secure professions of faith, but to create Christ-followers who are baptized into local church communities and then “taught to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20). In short, the Gospel includes teaching new believers to keep God’s rules, both cultivating virtue and extirpating sin. This very compact expectation represents, I think, the very essence of sanctification, and it is a part of the Great Commission. Obedience is not, to be sure, necessary to salvation, but it is, most emphatically, necessary of salvation. So necessary are obedience and good works in the Christian religion that the Scriptures can say, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). The burden of this statement, which dominates several whole books of the NT canon (James, 1 John, and 2 Peter), informs us that obedience is important to God. As Rick Phillips has recently (and very carefully) explained, The Gospel Includes Sanctification (read the whole thing—he says things so very much more clearly than I). But let me take his statement one provocative step further: if the Gospel includes sanctification/regeneration (and I think Pastor Phillips is correct in affirming this), then to the degree that gospel presentations suppress/omit these ideas, they risk altering the Gospel into something other than what the Bible claims it to be. And that is a very, very big deal.

The reason we Protestants tend to diminish the importance of obedience is, of course, the real and vital concern that we might communicate to an unbeliever that one’s obedience contributes to one’s justification. This is a devastating error, and we rightly want to avoid it at all costs. And so, we reason, if introducing regeneration/sanctification/obedience in a Gospel presentation might confuse an unbeliever about the means of justification, then we may dispense with these topics as matters of secondary importance: it’s more important, after all, to get people saved than it is to get people holy. But this is a very anthropocentric sentiment that flies in the face of Christ’s earthly mission. Christ came not only to rescue his people from the guilt of sin, but also from the power and practice of sin—he came to destroy the works of the evil one and to create a heaven that is scoured free not only of guilt, but of all unrighteousness (see, e.g., 1 John 3:5–8; Rom 6:1–14; Acts 28:16; etc.).

I remain mindful that the “movements” from which many of us and many of our churches have emerged have emphasized obedience and rules to excess, and I cannot condone this. Still, we err mightily if we adopt the binary approach that sees libertinism as the only remedy for legalism. There is an excluded middle here that we badly need to discover.

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A New and Legitimate Way? David Moffitt’s Reading of Hebrews

Earlier this summer I had a chance to read and review a new and increasingly-influential book on Hebrews by David Moffitt, assistant professor of NT at Campbell University Divinity School. The review’s slotted to be published in the Fall edition of Trinity Journal. Here, however, I wanted to post a lightly revised, pre-publication version, principally because I think the book’s fundamental thesis is just plain wrong. I’ll explain why. But, first, a summary.

Summary. Moffitt tries to overturn two common assumptions in Hebrews’ scholarship. Against those who argue that (1) Jesus’ resurrection is unimportant for Hebrews and (2) Jesus’ resurrection has been conflated with his exaltation, he insists that Jesus’ resurrection should be distinguished from his exaltation and that Jesus’ resurrection stands at the center of Hebrews’ theology. He supports this intriguing thesis with three arguments.

First, he argues that Jesus’ human presence in heaven is what makes him greater than angels, which, therefore, presumes his bodilyresurrection (and ascension). The argument of Heb 1 turns, in other words, on ontology: the son, as an exalted human, is greater than angelic spirits. The focus on Jesus’ humanity in Heb 2, then, is less on humiliation than it is on eligibility and eschatology. The son became “like his peers” and, thus, eligible for the sort of eschatological exaltation described in Heb 1 and anticipated, according to Heb 2, in Ps 8. Second, Moffitt argues that Jesus’ qualification for priesthood—his perfection—required his resurrection. After all, Jesus’ appointment as heavenly (Melchizedekian) priest (Heb 8:1–2, 4) required death (Heb 2:9–11; 5:8–10) and an “indestructible life” (Heb 7:16). Jesus perfection, therefore, “st[ood] between [his] death and elevation to the heavenly priesthood” (p. 199). Third, Moffitt argues that Jesus’ resurrection, rather than his death, is at the center of Hebrews’ atonement theology. Hebrews, he insists, consistently presents Jesus’ offering as taking place inheaven, not on earth (e.g., Heb 9:11–12, 23–25), and Jesus’ offering as his offering of his resurrected, not bloody body (e.g., Heb 10:5–10; 13:12). Were it otherwise, the author’s Day-of-Atonement typology would be undone. Hebrews would bring to the center—sacrificial slaughter—what Leviticus leaves on the periphery. Jesus’ death, instead, serves as a model of exemplary suffering and, moreover, as a necessary, if still preparatory step for his (heavenly) atoning work (p. 294).

Critique. Moffitt’s thesis, while nicely argued, is nevertheless untenable, primarily for two reasons. First, Moffitt’s understanding of Jesus’ priesthood is reductionistic. Moffitt forces precision where Hebrews simply will not allow it. Hebrews—however frustratingly—never gives us a clear idea when Jesus became a high priest. While it could suggest that Jesus’ priesthood began only after his resurrection (Heb 7:16) or only once Jesus entered heaven (Heb 8:4), it could also suggest that Jesus’ crucifixion—his voluntary death—was itself a priestly act. After all, while one might, with Moffitt, separate sacrificial slaughter from atonement, no one—especially anyone familiar with the Day-of-Atonement ritual—would suggest only the latter was a priestly activity (see, e.g., Lev 16:11, 15). Second, Moffitt’s understanding of atonement is reductionistic. Whether or not sacrificial slaughter—death—is less central to atonement than the presentation of blood/life can presently remain an open question. Neither Hebrews nor the OT, however, will allow death to function simply as the preparation for atonement, which is to say, as simply the preparation for the atoning manipulation of blood in God’s presence. This sort of conclusion would make nonsense of those instances in the OT where atonement is secured by death alone, without any reference to the Levitical cult, much less to the ritual manipulation of blood (see, e.g., Exod 32:30–32; Num 25:13; 35:33; Deut 21:1–9; 2 Sam 21:3ff. et al.) or, related, to those cultic contexts which accent the atoning value of some ritual element other than manipulation (see, e.g., Lev 1:4; 4:26). Moffitt’s reading, moreover, is also out of step with a more traditional and, arguably, convincing reading of Lev 17:11, which emphasizes death—life given in the place of another’s life—rather than life released and, therefore, available for atoning purgation. Much the same, in fact, could be said for Hebrews, which stubbornly refuses to view Jesus’ death as simply preparatory for and, thus, “peripheral” to atonement (cf. p. 276). Rather, it is Jesus’ death itself that restores humanity’s lost glory (“because he suffered death,” Heb 2:9), frees humans from the devil’s grip (“by his death,” Heb 2:14), and provides the forgiveness necessary for the inauguration/mediation of the new covenant (“now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from…sins,” Heb 9:15; et al.). None of this, of course, requires a metaphorical reading of Jesus’ archetypical blood ritual, which is to say, none of this undercuts Moffitt’s more fundamental point about the literal nature of the Day-of-Atonement antitype. What does, however, is Hebrews’ one explicit reference to Jesus’ resurrection in 13:20. There the author says that Jesus was raised because of the efficacy of his covenant-inaugurating—and, thus, atonement-securing—death (“through the blood of the eternal covenant”). In other words, Jesus’ death—his blood—had atoning virtue prior to his resurrection and, thus, prior to the moment at the center of Moffitt’s thesis.

In sum, in an attempt to interpret Jesus’ priesthood consistently and his atoning presentation non-metaphorically, Moffitt has overcooked his evidence and, thus, misread Hebrews. Hebrews simply will not allow Jesus’ sacrifice to be separated from his priestly, atoning work.

Posted in Biblical Theology, Book Review, Exposition | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments