Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Work of Christ in His Mortal Life

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matt 4:23). 

Why didn’t Jesus go straight to the cross? What was the point in his hanging around for 30 years before even starting his ministry? What was he doing in that time? Because the Apostles’ Creed jumps from “born of the Virgin” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate” we “might be tempted to draw the false inference that what happened in between these two terminal events in the life of Jesus is unimportant for Christian belief.”1 The truth is this period is very important for Christian faith and practice, so I want to look at two things Jesus did during his mortal life. 

The first and most important thing Jesus did in his earthly life was to live perfectly. Jesus literally dared his challengers to prove he had ever sinned (John 8:46). That would be insane for any other human being to do. We know, even if we don’t like to admit, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” But Jesus never sinned. The apostles maintain that he was without sin (eg, 1Pet 2:22, 2Cor 5:21, Heb 4:15), something that was never claimed for Abraham, Moses, David, or any other revered figure. 

This means that Jesus always did what he was supposed to and never did what he wasn’t supposed to. He loved God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. He loved his neighbor as himself. He never lied or stole, never lusted or hated. He fulfilled every letter of the Law of Moses, and he also lived out the spirit of it. Had he sinned, he would not have been an acceptable sacrifice (cf, 1Pet 1:19). 

But he was certainly tempted to sin. We have the story of the wilderness temptation by Satan (eg, Matt 4:1-11), but he was tempted more than that. Hebrews says, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (4:15). 

People may say, “But he didn’t sin, so he doesn’t really understand temptation.” CS Lewis replies, “Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. ... A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means....”2 

Another common response is that Jesus didn’t sin only because he had the power of God. But he “emptied himself.” He had given up independent usage of his divine nature. So how did he refrain from sinning? By depending on the Holy Spirit. Jesus resisted temptation via the same means that is available to all Christians. The God who said, “Be holy for I am holy” (1Pet 1:16), showed us how it’s done. He desires that we follow his example, knowing that God “will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1Cor 10:13). Of course, we will fail often. He knows we are wedded to a fallen nature; he “remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). The same grace that took him to the cross is with us when we sin now: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9), but he desires to see us growing in holiness for his name’s sake. 

The second thing I want to discuss about Jesus’ earthly life was his proclaiming, and living, the inauguration of the Kingdom of God. The “Kingdom of God” is, very briefly, God setting everything right — including a broken creation, rebellious humans, and a world in which wickedness rules. Jesus came to say and to show that God was bringing an end to all of it. NT Wright says Jesus “was not a teacher who also healed; he was a prophet of the kingdom, first enacting and then explaining that kingdom. ... When Jesus announced the kingdom, the stories he told functioned like dramatic plays in search of actors.”3 Our Lord wants us to be those actors. He wants us to live out those teachings about the Kingdom of God. 

“But everything hasn’t been put right!” True. But the process has started. It will be completed. We live in what theologians call the “already but not yet.” The kingdom is already here, but it is not what it will be. Right now Christ wants to show the world what the kingdom looks like through his Church. So he taught us to forgive, to take care of the poor, to defend the weak, and to speak the truth in love to a world that does not know God. 

One day the process will be complete. Everything will be made new. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4). But in that day, it will be too late for the lost to join in the Kingdom of God. So we are to live it out now, to show them what could be and to call them to repentance and to trust in Jesus. 

For more on Christ and the Kingdom of God, see NT Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus

1 I. Howard Marshall, A Guide to Christian Beliefs 
2 CS Lewis, Mere Christianity 
3 NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus

Part of Christianity 101

Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Incarnation

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:5-7 NASB).

What was the most amazing event in history? The creation of the universe? Alexander conquering the world? The resurrection of Christ? Putting a man on the moon? No.

Nativity scene

The most amazing event in history is this: God became a man. The infinite wrapped himself in the finite. The eternal was born. It’s one of the most controversial aspects of Christian theology, but it’s clear that it had to be this way.

The image of God had broken itself. God’s representatives abandoned and turned on him. That could not be allowed to stand. Athanasius likens it to a king “who has founded a city, so far from neglecting it when through the carelessness of the inhabitants it is attacked by robbers, avenges it and saves it from destruction, having regard rather to his own honour than to the people’s neglect.”1

And how is God to fix this situation? Human rebellion required recompense that humans could not pay, because the wages of sin is death — paying our debt would destroy us. According to Anselm, “no one can pay except God, and no one ought to pay except man: [so] it is necessary that a God-Man should pay it.”2 The only way this would work is if God and humanity merged somehow.

But how? We don’t really know. All we can say on the authority of scripture is that the Son “emptied himself” (Phil 2:7). This is called the “kenosis.” Of what did he empty himself? Of his divinity? Not hardly. Even if it were possible, it would ruin the equation. Theologians speculate that he gave up the independent use of his divine power; that is, he depended on the Holy Spirit for every miracle. And he temporarily gave up (or perhaps "veiled" is a better term) his glory (cf, John 17:5, 17:24).

But the Son never ceased to be God. Instead, he added human nature to his divine nature. The two natures coexist in perfect harmony. It is not a divine nature with a little taste of humanity thrown in. It is not a human nature with a little bit of the divine on top. We say that Jesus is 100% God and 100% man. “But that’s 200%!” Yes, but it gets the message across that in Christ the complete divine Son was united to a complete human nature. And these two natures are “perfectly united with no mixture, confusion, separation, or division”3 with, as the Chalcedonian Creed says, “each nature retaining its own attributes.”

Erickson offers an analogy: Picture the world's fastest sprinter entering a three-legged race. His physical capacity is not diminished, but his performance is limited by his decision to restrict himself.4 Christ's divine and human natures worked together to achieve one goal, but the divine nature was voluntarily bound to human limitations.

What does it mean to say God became man? This God-man had the complete human experience. He was born. He got tired. He got lonely. He saw people he loved die. He felt fear. He experienced rejection. He was tempted. He died. He went through everything that humans go through.

What does it mean to say Christ was God in the flesh? It’s important to address a common error. From ancient times to the present day, false teachers have tried to say that Christ was only the exemplar of what we all can be. Sometimes it’s the idea that we all can become christs. More often today it’s that Christ only expressed the spark of the divine that exists in all of us. However it’s stated, it’s wrong. Christ was the unique God-man. The incarnation was a once for all event that will never be repeated.

Christ was not a man who was special. He was and is God made flesh. “The Bible from Genesis to Revelation presents a stupendous view of God, and then it tells us that Jesus Christ is all that God is.”5

The glory of the incarnation is that we do not serve an aloof God who watches from on high. We serve a God who came down and got in the muck with us. He knows what it means to be a human being, so he understands us, sympathizes with us, and advocates for us. That is a God who deserves our adoration.

For more on this topic, the classic text is Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. Be sure to get an edition with the introduction by CS Lewis which is worth the price of the book on its own. The works by Anselm and Machen (both quite short) are also very much worth your time.

1 Athanasius, On the Incarnation
2 Anselm, Cur Deus Homo (or Why God Became Man)
3 RC Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, emphasis in original
4 Millard Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine
5 J Gresham Machen, The Person of Jesus

Image credit: Rollstein via Pixabay

Part of Christianity 101

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Review: Another Gospel?

Another Gospel?
I recently commended to you the podcast and blog of Alisa Childers on Progressive Christianity. She's got a new book out, Another Gospel?: A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth. In it she tells the story of how she, a faithful Christian who had been raised in a theologically sound home and church, stumbled into Progressive Christianity and what she has learned since.

I had been looking forward to the book, but once it was actually released, I was a bit put off by the description and table of contents on Amazon. I don't really enjoy "spiritual biography" type books, and this was sounding like one of those. However, I wanted to buy her book because I enjoy her other work, so I gave it a shot and was relieved to find I had misunderstood.

Don't get me wrong, this book is definitely biographical. But her story, the issues she encountered at that church, is the framework to discuss the theological and apologetic issues that arise with progressives in general.

So what is the book? It's mostly an introductory level apologetics book like The Case for Christ or Know What You Believe. But the issues coming from progressive circles sometimes have a slightly different flavor than they do with general skeptics. What does it cover? The table of contents does not make it clear, so I will clarify it:

1: Introduction
2: How she ended up at a progressive church
3: The search for earliest Christianity
4: 5 things that can drive people to progressivism
5: What do Progressive Christians believe?
6: "Same wrapper, different candy" — How progressives cloak old heresies in familiar terms
7: Trusting the Bible — Textual criticism
8: Trusting the Bible — The gospels as eye witness accounts
9: The progressive view of bible (a low view)
10: The progressive view of salvation (univeralism)
11: The progressive view of the atonement (cosmic child abuse)
12: Reconstructing her faith — What are the essential Christian beliefs?

Framed around her narrative, the book really moves. It's compelling reading, and even if you've read other apologetics books, you'll probably learn some things about progressives you weren't aware of. I took "same wrapper, different candy" from the book. She talks about how progressives (like other heretics) take familiar Christian terms like salvation or inspiration and give them new meaning without telling you what they're doing. It turned out her progressive pastor thought the Bible is inspired ... in the same way Mozart was inspired. And speaking of other heretics, she shows how a lot of their teachings are heresies the church answered long, long ago, but since so few of us know anything about church history, we can fall into their traps.

Twice now I've said "other heretics." I do that seriously. Almost a hundred years ago J Gresham Machen wrote in Christianity and Liberalism that "Liberal Christianity" is not Christian at all. The names change, but the teachings really don't, and Childers shows that progressives, like the "liberals" and "modernists" before them, remove everything that make Christianity Christian and try to sell it as the same religion. And that's why you ought to read this book, to arm yourself and your kids so they cannot fool you.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Virgin Birth

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matt 1:18-19).

A virginal conception is impossible. A woman cannot get pregnant without the involvement of a man. Everyone knows this. Joseph certainly knew this — that’s why he assumed Mary was unfaithful. Virgin births don’t happen. And yet one did.

It’s hard to say that the virgin birth of Christ is an essential doctrine. People can be saved without ever having heard of it. They can be saved without believing it. Two of the gospels don’t mention it. Millard Erickson points out that the evangelistic sermons in Acts never mention it.1 Yet I will maintain that it is still a primary doctrine. The creeds insist that all Christians everywhere must believe it. Why?

Before we get into why it’s important, we should be clear about what we mean. Muslims distort our teaching that Jesus is the Son of God as meaning we believe that God the Father and Mary had a physical union, like something out of a Greek myth. When Mary was told, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35), what was meant was that the Spirit would make something in her body that was not previously there. No one “entered” Mary by the conventional meaning of the term. But God created. Some skeptics will try to equate the conception by the Holy Spirit as something akin to rape, but this was not forced upon Mary as an unwilling victim. Her response to the angel was: “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38). She was a willing participant in a supernatural, not physical, event.

So why is the virgin birth important? In telling us how the incarnation came about, the scriptures assure us of Christ’s full humanity. He did not just appear; he was born of a woman. He was not only a spirit — Mary gave birth in quite the usual way, so docetism is untrue. JI Packer says, “The Fathers appealed to the virgin birth as proof, not that Jesus was truly divine as distinct from being merely human, but that he was truly human as distinct from merely looking human as ghosts and angels might do.”2

But it also tells us his conception was special, so he was not a mere man who became the Christ as various heresies such as adoptionism have suggested. Moreover, since his beginning was unique, he is unique. We cannot become christs like the Ebionites taught.3

So the virginal conception of Christ puts boundaries on our theology. It keeps us from wandering onto the wrong path, so we have to hold onto it.

We also have to hold onto it because it’s true. The gospels tell us that Jesus was conceived by a virgin, so we believe it.

The only reason people reject the virgin birth is that they’ve allowed naturalism to creep into their theology. They simply cannot accept this miracle. Why do they doubt it? Because it’s impossible? Many things in the Bible are “impossible.” That’s pretty much the definition of a miracle. Which is the problem.

Rarely does it stop with the virgin birth. People who reject this teaching typically soon reject every other miracle in the scriptures. If the other miracles are untrue, then the Bible is full of lies. And if miracles don’t happen, Christ was not raised from the dead. “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1Cor 15:17).

card trick

As Packer points out, “The Bible says that the Son of God entered and left this world by acts of supernatural power.”2 The supernatural forms the bookends of Christ’s earthly life and fills much in between. What do we do with that? We own it. We embrace it. If Genesis 1:1 is true, if God created the universe out of nothing, any other miracle in the Bible is a parlor trick. We shouldn’t be ashamed of a miraculous birth because “miraculous” is what God does. And the same power that formed Jesus in the womb of a virgin, the same power that raised him from the dead, lives in us. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

As for the virgin birth, J Gresham Machen said it well: “Even if the belief in the virgin birth is not necessary to every Christian, it is certainly necessary to Christianity.”3

For a detailed defense of the virgin birth, see J Gresham Machen’s The Virgin Birth of Christ.

1 Millard Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine
2 JI Packer, Growing in Christ
3 J Greshem Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ

image credit: Christopher Cook

Part of Christianity 101

Thursday, October 8, 2020

What's Shaping You?

Today it's popular to think that you are what you want to be, but the truth is we are all a product of our genes, background, environment, and choices. The scriptures put a lot of emphasis on those last two.

One of the more popular passages in the Bible, Romans 12:1-2, says 

1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Because of the mercy God has shown us, Paul says, we ought to live our lives to God. So, don't be conformed to this world.

One of the things that always strikes me anew when I read that passage is that the verbs in verse 2 are passive. It's not "don't conform yourself to this world;" it's "don't let this world conform you to itself." Conforming to the world is something that just happens to you. Being transformed is also something that is done to you. 

The other thing is that this is binary. There are only two choices — if you're not being transformed, you are being conformed to the world.

If this just happens to me, what can I do about it? I can choose to renew my mind. That is the catalyst. God's Word does the transforming, but I choose to submit myself to it. 

How do we renew our minds? My filling our minds with God's word (and obeying what we find there). Of course, that's easier said than done. So I want to go over some ways I've found to be helpful.

Before I start, though, I want to put a caveat of sorts on what follows. The instruction to renew our minds was given before much of the NT was written. When it was given, and for long afterwards, most believers didn't have their own copy of the scriptures, in fact most were illiterate. So we shouldn't insist that the only way to renew your mind is to read the Bible daily. If the ancients could meditate on the scriptures without having a copy of them, then we can too. But it's a whole lot easier with a Bible. 

And if the modern world has given us wonderful new ways to get into the word, it has also given the world new ways to get into us. Once upon a time, people lived in little bubbles. Now we are continually bombarded by ideas from all around the world. TV, radio, billboards, bus ads, and the internet are an inescapable part of life for most in the West. The world is constantly trying to conform us to itself. We have to push back hard if we want to be transformed. 

Here are some things that can help. 

➤ First and foremost, we are best transformed by the word of God by spending time in the word of God. How much time? As much as you can. Five minutes a day is better than nothing, but how well is that going to counter 12 hours of inundation by the world? Quality is more important than quantity, but quantity is important. How can we get more Bible in?

I just came across something that I should have known, but it surprised me. You can read half of the books in the Bible in less than 30 minutes. Most of the rest can be read in about the same amount of time as a movie or ball game. We have the time to spend in the word if we choose to use it wisely. 

Do you have a smart phone? If so, you've got a Bible in your pocket. But you know that — you probably use it at church. So use it when you're in line at the grocery store, when you're in the bathroom, or when you're waiting on your kids. Make use of that dead time. 

Another way to get more time in the Bible is to listen to it. There are tons of audio Bible versions out there. You can listen while you commute or while you do the dishes. 

➤ OK, here I get a little more controversial: Spending time in the Bible isn't the only thing you can do. In fact, I think we'd just block it out if we just listened to it on repeat. So put Bible-saturated things in your life.

A devotional guide is not a Bible. But it can be a good way to start a day or take a coffee break and refocus on what's important. There are a lot of bad daily devotionals, but there are also a lot of good ones. Do a little research and find some. This year I've been trying to start my day with Tim Keller's devotional through Proverbs called God's Wisdom for Navigating Life. Next year it will probably be his Psalms devotional. Starting your day, or spending a few minutes at lunch, with Spurgeon or Stott or Tozer or Yancey is a good way to get a little more Bible and a little more biblical worldview in your day.

Just as the Bible is on audio, so are lots of good Christian books. That's actually how I get most of my "reading" done. Time in a good Christian book is not time in the Bible. But it's also time you're not being taught to think like the world. Invest in some good ones or see if you can get some from your library (which probably has access to more than you think). Hit up ChristianAudio.com's twice a year sale. If you've got an Alexa device or app, it can read Kindle books to you (I don't know about the other "digital assistants" out there).

Of course, Christian books are basically just long sermons (or sermon series). You can also listen to actual sermons. Besides the radio, a great many pastors put their sermons out in podcast form or on YouTube. I hope you have a wonderful pastor, but that doesn't mean you can't also benefit from RC Sproul, Chuck Swindoll, or Tony Evans. There are also online lectures you can access for free, eg, BiblicalTraining.org

And there is lots of apologetics content out there — Stand to Reason, Ravi Zacharias, Sean McDowell, and Frank Turek are just the tip of the iceberg. There are lots of great budding apologists on YouTube these days. Not only will these things shore up your Christian worldview and teach you to answer the objections to Christianity the culture throws at us, they'll teach you how to think, how to approach issues you've never encountered before.

A lesser thing for sure, but I think there's value in listening to good Christian music, too — where "good" means theologically sound. There is music than runs off the rails, but it usually (not always, though) doesn't get played on the radio. Music can teach, but I think it primarily serves the role of reminding us what we already know. 

I am not saying you should stop watching TV altogether, stop going to ball games, stop listening to your other podcasts, or stop listening to non-religious music. I'm saying switch some of that for this. I'll admit, I believe the more the better, but anything you add is an improvement over it not being there. 

When I started my current job, my commute was mostly to the sound of talk radio. I arrived at work agitated. By the time I got home, between work, traffic, and politics, I was walking in the door angry. Our entertainment choices do shape us.

Now I fill most of the silences of my day with things that point me toward God, remind me of what we're supposed to believe, or help me think well. I think I see positive changes in me over the years. I'm not yet what I want to be, but I'm definitely not what I used to be. I'm more patient, less suspicious, and less quick to speculate about motives. When conflict arises, I feel like I start from a much healthier place than I use to. 

I think I'm a better person for it. I think you would be too.

Recommended reading: How to Change Your Mind