A necessary caution & comfort

These days it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate misguided sincerity from crass advertising, but differing motivations can share the same deleterious effects.

Some time back I posted a quote from Thomas Weinandy on a pitfall of modern theology:

Many theologians today, having embraced the Enlightenment presuppositions and the scientific method that it fostered, approach theological issues as if they were scientific problems to be solved rather than mysteries to be discerned and clarified.

This statement made a lasting impression on me as I realized that the problem-solving quest isn’t unique to theologians but is part of the Christian culture in general. With decreasing attention spans and sound bite theology exploding on social media, it should come as no surprise that we have a very low tolerance for the mysterious, the unanswerable, the unmanageable.

Nowhere is this more evident than in so much talk about spiritual encounters in a worship setting. These days it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate misguided sincerity from crass advertising, but differing motivations can share the same deleterious effects. So for those tempted to buy into the hype that exhilaration is proof of God’s presence, Lewis offers a word of caution. And for those tempted to despair because they have no proof of God’s presence, Lewis offers you a word of comfort.

The presence of God is not the same as the sense of the presence of God. The latter may be due to imagination; the former may be attended with no “sensible consolation” . . . The act which engenders a child ought to be, and usually is attended by pleasure. But it is not the pleasure that produces the child. Where there is pleasure there may be sterility: where there is no pleasure the act may be fertile. And in the spiritual marriage of God and the soul it is the same. It is the actual presence, not the sensation of the presence, of the Holy Ghost which begets Christ in us. The sense of the presence is a super-added gift for which we give thanks when it comes.

Nonidentical twins: legalism & antinomianism

Legalism and antinomianism are, in fact, nonidentical twins that emerge from the same womb.

Some counter-intuitive insight:

The root of [Eve’s] antinomianism (opposition to and breach of the law) was actually the legalism that was darkening her understanding, dulling her senses, and destroying her affection for her heavenly Father.

…what the Serpent accomplished in Eve’s mind, affections, and will was a divorce between God’s revealed will and his gracious, generous character. Trust in him was transformed into suspicion of him by looking at the “naked law” rather than hearing “law from the gracious lips of the heavenly Father.”

…legalism and antinomianism are, in fact, nonidentical twins that emerge from the same womb.

…legalism and antinomianism seem to be simple opposites–all that is needed, it seems, is right doctrine. But the more basic issue is: How do I think about God, and what instincts and dispositions and affections toward him does this evoke in me?

It cannot be too strongly emphasized, therefore, that everyone is a legalist at heart. Indeed, if anything, that is the more evident in antinomians.

-Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ

The sin beneath the sin of cynicism

J.I. Packer cites Ecclesiastes(!) as his favorite book in the Bible and explains why in an interesting & helpful article at CT. The entire piece is worth reading but I especially appreciated how he describes cynicism against the backdrop of his own experience.

His basic description:

Cynics are people who have grown skeptical about the goodness of life, and who look down on claims to sincerity, morality, and value. They dismiss such claims as hollow and criticize programs for making improvements. Feeling disillusioned, discouraged, and hurt by their experience of life, their pained pride forbids them to think that others might be wiser and doing better than they themselves have done. On the contrary, they see themselves as brave realists and everyone else as self-deceived. Mixed-up teens slip easily into cynicism, and that is what I was doing.

His personal experience:

. . . I developed a self-protective sarcasm, settled for low expectations from life, and grew bitter. Pride led me to stand up for Christian truth in school debates, but with no interest in God or a willingness to submit to him. However, becoming a real as distinct from a nominal Christian brought change, and Ecclesiastes in particular showed me things about life that I had not seen before.

His conclusion:

Being too proud to enjoy the enjoyable is a very ugly shortcoming, and one that calls for immediate correction. Let it be acknowledged that, as I had to learn long ago, discovering how under God ordinary things can bring joy is the cure for cynicism.

The real eye-opener for me was Packer’s diagnosis of the sin beneath the sin of cynicism–namely, pride. If there’s a mask that pride can’t wear I haven’t found it yet.


The furor over Indiana’s RFRA is not surprising. In one sense, the political machinations mean very little to me. More significant in my mind is the way the Church thinks through the challenges pertaining to Christian life and witness. I’ve attempted to summarize the thoughts/arguments from one side of this debate.

Choosing not to provide a service for LGBT nuptials means:

  1. I must want to refuse any/all service to the LGBTQ community.
  2. I can’t be Christlike in the act.
  3. I’m choosing not to love a particular kind of sinner.
  4. I never want to associate with LGBTQ people.
  5. I’m a hypocrite unless I refuse to serve all sinners.
  6. I’ve chosen to condemn one (wo)man’s sin while ignoring all other sin.
  7. I lose my best opportunity to share the gospel.

As a full-time, vocational pastor the community requests my services for various wedding services. In an RFRA scenario, will Christians apply the baker/florist/photog critique to a pastor, too?

Sprinkle’s ‘Fight’ — Conquest & Monarchy

{This is the fifth post in a review of Preston Sprinkle’s book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence. Previous posts here: 1, 2, 3, and 4}

Fight.SprinkleIn chapters 4 and 5 Sprinkle covers the Israelite conquest of Canaan (“Kill Everything that Breathes”) and the rest of the OT (i.e. Judges-Malachi; “Swords Into Plowshares”). For the sake of brevity I’ll limit my interaction to three summary statements contained in these two chapters.

Concerning the relevance of Joshua’s conquest Sprinkle states:

. . . nowhere in Scripture, Old or New Testament, is Joshua’s conquest prescribed for future generations. It’s only a description of what happened. There is nothing in the Bible that appeals to the conquest as justification to wage war or engage in violence. Nothing. The conquest, like the flood and the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, was a one-time, non-repeatable event whereby God judged a particularly wicked people. (91)

The Conquest was indeed a unique event that is “non-repeatable” for the Church. Unlike the Israelites, today’s Christian hasn’t been commanded to eradicate people groups or seize territory. Granting that point, however, still leaves us with two related questions: (1) Does God continue to exercise judgment in human history through human instruments? (2) If yes, may a Christian ever be that instrument?

Turning his attention to the period of judges and kings, Sprinkle detects a national “digression into a warfare state.” As messy as Judges is, however, it’s not until 1 Samuel 8 that “Israel’s descent into secular militarism hits rock bottom.” But support for Sprinkle’s interpretation of this period can only come by a very selective reading of certain passages. For example, he sees Israel’s demand for a king as a demand for military might:

As we saw earlier, merely having a king isn’t the issue. Kingship was sanctioned by God. The issue, according to Deuteronomy 17 and here in 1 Samuel 8, is militarism: they want a military leader who will flex his muscles on the battlefield. Such misplaced trust is tantamount to idolatry, which triggers God’s wrath–wrath toward Israel’s thirst for military might. (100)

The claim that militarism is the issue in 1Samuel 8 just isn’t supported by the text. The contextual evidence makes it clear that the issue is who Israel would trust to rule (i.e. judge) them in Samuel’s absence.[1]  To be sure, a king would also be a military leader. But suggesting that Israel was only after a military leader is a stretch. 1 Samuel 8 isn’t the support he assumes it to be and this is characteristic of several other passages he would leverage for his view.

Finally, Sprinkle points to the pacifist strand in the prophets:

The prophets certainly don’t answer all of our questions about war and violence . . . For now it’s important to see that the prophets proclaim a message that in general moves away from violence and toward peace. And this is how the Old Testament ends. Longing for peace. This longing creates the seam that stitches together the seemingly contradictory portraits of violence in the Old Testament and nonviolence in the New. (113)

But this longing for peace didn’t begin with the prophets. It was the ideal even in times of violence and war (Deut 12:10; Josh 11:23; 2Sam 7:1, 11; 1Ki 5:4). The flip side of the prophets’ message is that, regrettably, war will always have a place in this world until the true King wages that one last battle that will end all war. Until then, is it possible (and even permissible) for the Christian take violent action even though he desires peace?

[1] That a ruler/judge, not a military commander, is the overall interest is shown by: (i) the repetition of the word judge (5x) (ii) the occasion — the people were facing a succession crisis when Samuel’s corrupt sons were set up as judges (iii) the elders’ request was “Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations.” (iv) the stated consequences for choosing a king cover a variety of societal issues–military inscription, taxes, servitude, family intrusion, property rights.

Buy this book

…if you are literate and still have a pulse you should seriously consider buying this book.

SpurgeonSorrowsYou should buy Spurgeon’s Sorrows if you: (i) suffer from depression (ii) love someone who suffers from depression (iii) minister to the depressed or (iv) want to know what/how Christians should think about depression. That is to say, if you are literate and still have a pulse you should seriously consider buying this book.

[If you count yourself among the sea of humanity who requires more than my recommendation before making a purchase, you can find a review here.]

Neither Jew nor Greek…but gay?

Last month the Washington Post (WP) ran an article on a “small but growing movement of celibate gay Christians.” The story stoked the discussion concerning the Christian and homosexuality; namely, whether or not a Christian can/should self-identify as gay.

For my part I can’t help but wonder why homosexuality is the only sin granted an attributive use when we discuss Christian identity. So as a simple thought experiment I tried to imagine how the WP story might read if the identity centered on a sin like lust or promiscuity:

When Bob converted to Christianity in 1998, he thought he might be the world’s first [monogamous] Christian [womanizer]. . . .

Today, Bob is a leader in a small but growing movement of [monogamous womanizing] Christians who find it easier than before to be out of the closet in their traditional churches because they’re [monogamous]. . . .

The reaction among church leaders themselves has been mixed, with some praising the [monogamy] movement as a valid way to be both a [womanizer] and Christian. . . .

Bob urges [men] not to focus so much on the [women] they can’t have and instead find other places to pursue intimacy, such as deeper friendships [with single women] that could be seen as spouse-like, [double-dating], and [working someone’s honey-do list] as ways to express intimacy. . . .

“I use the image of a kaleidoscope — the jewels inside are desires. If you turn it one way, it’s [lechery]. If you rearrange them it can be [ministering to women] or devotion to [Christ],” he said during a recent interview. . . .

You can see love, solidarity and beauty in [promiscuity] and still believe there is even more love and beauty in Christianity,” he says.

Try as I might, this approach just doesn’t seem to work. Having escaped sin as our master are we to keep it as a moniker? (1Cor 6:11; 2Cor 5:17)

Sprinkle’s ‘Fight’…and ours? (pt. 2)

Sprinkle begins his fly over of the biblical narrative by looking at God’s creation ideal–shalom (peace, well-being). Sin wrecks the ideal and violence begins to spread throughout the creation. Summing up the storyline prior to Abraham Sprinkle states, “. . .the early chapters of Genesis celebrate peace while showing disdain for violence among humans–even as just punishment for a killer.” (40) [emphasis added]

For support Sprinkle points to God’s dealing with Cain over the murder of his brother. He says:

Interestingly, God responds not by killing Cain–meeting violence with violence–but by placing a mark on Cain so that no one else will take vengeance on him. God responds to the first murderer with grace–a visible preservation of shalom. (40)

Two things need to be said. First, a hint of moral equivalence lies behind the notion that had God killed Cain he would be “meeting violence with violence.” Second, on Sprinkle’s reasoning this is exactly what God does–and on a global scale!–in Genesis 6-8 when he kills all living things for the corruption and violence in the earth.

Turning to the patriarchal narratives (Gen 12-50), Sprinkle asserts that “God’s desire for nonviolent peace remains the ideal—even when confronting injustice and enmity.” He goes on to say “There are two main exceptions to this nonviolent shalom in the book: Genesis 9 and 14.”

Genesis 9

Sprinkle quickly glosses over Gen 9:6 (just one paragraph!) which has traditionally served as a biblical warrant for capital punishment. One would expect this passage to require an extended response for a pacifist. But Sprinkle treats this section as little more than a wrinkle. His handling of the text generates ambiguity but he makes no attempt to bring clarity:

. . . several questions surround this verse. Is Genesis 9:6 a proverb or a command? In other words, does Genesis 9:6 give a general principle or an absolute command? . . . And does this verse give humans authority to administer the death penalty, or does it say that God will punish the murderer? These questions should caution us against racing to Genesis 9:6 to show that God wants all societies to institute the death penalty. (43)

The immediate context sheds light on these murky riddles: (1) Gen 9:6 is part of a covenant discourse. Covenants are by nature prescriptive; that is, they declare a new agreement and/or relationship. Accordingly, God grants punitive authority to man in the case of murder (2) that Gen 9:6 is a command is further signified by 9:5 which states that the Lord “will require your lifeblood . . . I will require the life of man.” (3) the reason for requiring a murderer’s life is because murder snuffs out one of God’s image bearers (9:6b). It is an offense against God Himself.

Sprinkle also betrays the significance of this passage for his overall argument. In the scheme of redemptive history he characterizes Gen 9:6 as an anticipation of the death penalty in the law of Moses (so Gen 9:6 is capital punishment after all). But even this admission is insufficient in light of the otherwise universal and timeless aspects of the Noahic covenant. If other features of the covenant—animals for food, no future flood, etc.—are granted to all of humanity for the duration of this present age we have good contextual reasons to read the murderer’s punishment as a universal, timeless stipulation.[1]

In my view Sprinkle not only obfuscates the meaning of the passage, he begs the question concerning capital punishment by limiting it to a distinctive of the Mosaic law. It doesn’t take much thought to get the idea that, in Sprinkle’s view, capital punishment will be only as permanent as the Mosaic law.

Genesis 14

Genesis 14 records a battle between two federations (14:1-10) which results in Lot’s captivity (14:11-12) and subsequent rescue by Abraham (14:13-16). Sprinkle acknowledges that “it’s probable that Abram’s militia used violence” but also notes that “Genesis 14 doesn’t say that God commanded Abram to do this, nor does it sanction his actions.” He concludes “the Bible often describes what a person did but doesn’t say that we should imitate him or her” and “Genesis 14 doesn’t clearly endorse violence, and it doesn’t celebrate violence in any explicit way.”

But the argument that God didn’t command Abraham to fight cuts both ways. If God didn’t declare “Thou shalt fight” then we may infer that Abraham chose to fight. And if Abraham chose to fight in defense of his nephew, what should the reader think concerning the blessing that Abraham receives in the aftermath of his violent raid?

Genesis 14:19-20 [Melchizedek] blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Interestingly, Sprinkle doesn’t even mention the blessing.[2] So his contention that Genesis 14 doesn’t clearly endorse violence is true to a point. The text has no “and God saw that the fight was good” or “Go and do thou likewise.” But neither does Genesis 14 clearly condemn violence. In fact, by concluding the narrative with a word of blessing, this story ends on a decidedly positive note.

In sum, I find Sprinkle oddly dismissive of Genesis 9 and less than even-handed in his statements on Genesis 14. The majority of Fight‘s Old Testament perspective is shaped by the Mosaic era which we’ll turn to in the next post.

[1] Just as the creation mandate delivered to Adam & Eve was for all humanity, so too was the “second” creation mandate delivered to Noah. It is not a simple foreshadowing of Israel’s national law-covenant.

[2] In an endnote he alludes to the blessing as recorded in Hebrews. “Heb. 7:1 [says] that Melchizedek blessed him upon his return. Hebrews still doesn’t explicitly endorse Abram’s violent actions. It says only that Melchizedek blessed him when he returned.” [279, n. 9]

Sprinkle’s ‘Fight’…and ours? (pt 1)

Fight.SprinkleNot too long ago I was having a back-and-forth with a friend on a biblical stance concerning (non-)violence. Whether through that discussion or some other he made mention of Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence by Preston Sprinkle. I got my hands on a copy and found the book to be a very readable defense of what would typically be called Christian pacifism (Sprinkle himself doesn’t prefer the term for his position).

Working Sprinkle’s arguments into our discussion was good but it was becoming a little labor intensive. In the hope of killing two birds with one stone I thought I’d take the seeds of that growing exchange and use it as fodder for the blog. So for the next several weeks I plan to offer a series of posts in response to the book.

Ultimately, I disagree with Sprinkle’s final analysis. That’s unfortunate since I think we agree far more than we disagree. But more on that later. For now I’ll use this introductory post to present an overview of the book in Sprinkle’s own words.

The book’s purpose & modus operandi–establish a Christian position on violence by starting with Scripture:

I’m writing this book to help contribute to the ongoing discussion of how Christians should think about warfare, violence, and their close cousin, nationalism . . . But in order to address these issues from a Christian perspective, we need to dig into Scripture to see what God does say about them. So often in heated debates, the Bible is rarely consulted. Or if it is, it’s done haphazardly or with blatant bias. Oftentimes we start with a view we are convinced is right; then we go to Scripture to find verses to support it . . . But we should at least work hard at laying aside our preconceived beliefs about warfare and violence and invite God to critique our view in light of His precious Word. [23]

Sprinkle’s thesis–Christians should not use violence:

I believe that the Bible advocates nonviolence. I do not believe that Jesus wants Christians to use violence. And if I can be so blunt: I think that a large portion of the American evangelical church has been seduced, whether knowingly or not, by nationalistic militarism. Yet our inspired Word of God aggressively critiques this very thing, as we will see. [23-24]

His definition of violence:

I will use the term violence to refer to: a physical act that is intended to destroy (i.e. injure) a victim by means that overpower the victim’s consent. [32]

Sprinkle’s goals for the book–rethink violence, snuff out militarism, & fight evil without violence:

First, I want everyone who reads this book to rethink what the Bible—and only the Bible—says about warfare and violence . . . Second, I hope that this book will help snuff out the militaristic spirit that has crept into the American church over the last few decades. Third, I pray that this book will help evangelical Christians to fight. Fight against evil. Fight against the schemes of the Devil. Fight against sin. Fight against injustice . . . But in light of what the Bible teaches, I pray that citizens of God’s kingdom would emulate their King and fight without using violence. [35]

I’ll close this intro by observing that Sprinkle develops his thesis by following a redemptive-historical approach to the texts. Consequently, readers will be disappointmented if they come to the book for commentary on a catalog of “violent” verses. Sprinkle is more concerned with seeing how violence fits in the Bible’s overall storyline as it moves from Creation to Christ to New Creation. Every systematic approach to Scripture has its strengths and weaknesses but Sprinkle’s choice served the discussion far better than mere proof texting.

So that’s the book in a nutshell (mostly in the author’s own words). In the next post we’ll take a look at how Sprinkle assesses violence in the Genesis narratives.

Hey, Christian! Leave that man alone! (pt. 1)

THE SCENARIO: During a time of congregational singing in a Sunday morning service a young man leaves his seat, makes his way to the front of the room, and kneels to pray. His praying appears passionate but not overly emotional.

QUESTION: What do you do?

ANSWER: Nothing—at least not immediately.

This scenario played itself out in one of our worship services recently. Two things came to mind upon further reflection, the first anecdotal the second pastoral.

First, gender differences play a (big) part in the way we respond to spiritual phenomena. More than one of our women commented on their desire to see someone (i.e. a man) go down to assist the young man. As the situation was unfolding, one of our women came and told me to “go put your arm around that man.” After the service another woman commented on how hard it was to watch the man kneeling alone as she resisted the urge to join him. At least one more wondered aloud (but not to me) why, being so close to the action, I would just sit there like a bump on a log.

Nothing like this was heard from the men. One of our men assisted the young penitent after a couple of minutes & another commented that God was evidently at work in the service but that was the extent of the masculine response.

Now it can be tempting to equate the feminine impulse to help with spiritual sensitivity. Conversely, we might label the unresponsive men as testosterone-laden dullards who wouldn’t recognize the Holy Spirit at work if He knocked them to the ground & made them bark.

But what if the women weren’t acting according to the Spirit but according to their nature? Maybe the women were just being women—showing empathy, sharing an experience, offering comfort, etc. In that case the typical woman would be no more or less spiritual in her yearnings than the typical man would be in his (supposed) aloofness. Further, if the reaction is “natural” mightn’t it also be wrong?


Disclaimer: The author understands that this post draws on gender stereotypes and that stereotypes are not universal laws. Not all women are equal in their emoting; not all men are equal in their cold, callous disregard of human feeling. The ruminations in this post belong to the author alone and should not be attributed to any church, denomination, or faith. –The Administrator


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