Sin & sympathy

A few weeks ago I said goodbye to a biblical caricature. Our Sunday morning Bible study had brought us to Jeremiah 37-38, usually noted for Jeremiah’s brief imprisonment in a muddy cistern during the latter years of the last king of Judah. The king was Zedekiah and until recently he was a cookie-cutter character of no more than two dimensions–one more rotten king in a long list of rotten monarchs from Israel’s divided kingdom.

In Jer 37:1-2 we’re told that:

. . . neither [Zedekiah] nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the LORD that he spoke through Jeremiah the prophet.

And 2 Chron 36:12 corroborates:

[Zedekiah] did what was evil in the sight of the LORD his God. He did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet, who spoke from the mouth of the LORD.

If statements like these were all we had to go on it would be easy to assume–as I have–that Zedekiah was just another arrogant, hard-hearted rebel who ignored the word of the Lord. But the picture of Zedekiah we find in Jeremiah 37-38 requires we leave room for the fear factor in his disobedience:

37:17 — King Zedekiah sent for him and received him. The king questioned him secretly in his house and said, “Is there any word from the LORD?”

38:5 — King Zedekiah said, “Behold, [Jeremiah] is in your hands, for the king can do nothing against you.”

38:16 — Then King Zedekiah swore secretly to Jeremiah, “As the LORD lives, who made our souls, I will not put you to death or deliver you into the hand of these men who seek your life.”

38:19 —  King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “I am afraid of the Judeans who have deserted to the Chaldeans, lest I be handed over to them and they deal cruelly with me.”

38:24 — Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “Let no one know of these words, and you shall not die.

In A History of Israel, John Bright ties these biblical strands together and presents us with a more complex, if not sympathetic, character:

Nor was Zedekiah the man to guide his country’s destinies in so grave an hour. Though he seems to have been well intentioned (cf. Jer. 37:17-21; 38:7-28), he was a weakling unable to stand up to his nobles (ch. 38:5), and fearful of popular opinion (v. 19). Furthermore, his position was ambiguous in that his nephew Jehoiachin was still regarded as the legitimate king by many of his subjects and, apparently, by the Babylonians as well. . . . The ambiguity of Zedekiah’s position undoubtedly undercut whatever authority he may have had. (328)

This view of Zedekiah is what the French call nuanced. [His erudition is astounding. -Shive]

But seriously, reconsidering Zedekiah offered some good reminders:

  1. Our sin isn’t always simple. Selfishness, deceit, doubt, pride–on their own any of these impulses are potent catalysts for sinful behavior. But the spiritual heart is a complex organ and often lies beyond our ability to diagnose (Jer 17:9), especially when our examination consists of little more than a passing glance.
  2. Sin is no less damnable when it solicits our sympathy. While we might consider Zedekiah’s fear of man to be a mitigating factor in his disobedience, the divine pronouncement is unswerving: Zedekiah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. This isn’t to suggest that God judges all men the same (Jer 17:10), but that all sin is equally damning no matter the circumstances.
  3. Sympathy can still be an appropriate response to sin. Although every sin leads to death not every sin requires the same treatment (Gal 6:1; Jude 22-23). The classic example is Prov 26:4-5 which offers two contrasting instructions on how to respond to a fool–don’t answer him (v4), give him an answer (v5)–leaving the reader to draw on wisdom for the appropriate action for the moment at hand. We might also consider that our monotonous mantras concerning another man’s sin betray our ignorance of the weakness of our own hearts. So I’ll just say I have a little more sympathy for Zedekiah these days.

 

I’ll take another dose of that, please

The Church has had greater intellects but I doubt she’s ever had a better counselor than John Newton.

In a letter to Lord Dartmouth, Newton addresses the universal plight of every Christian–that our actual lives fall far short of our convictions and desires. Newton illustrates the disparity between our desires and practice by considering the essential practices of prayer and Scripture reading.

Concerning prayer:

[The Christian] would willingly enjoy God in prayer. He knows that prayer is his duty; but, in his judgment, he considers it likewise as his greatest honor and privilege. In this light he can recommend it to others, and can tell them of the wonderful condescension of the great God, who humbles himself to behold the things that are in heaven, that He should stoop so much lower, to afford his gracious ear to the supplications of sinful worms upon the earth. . . And in this light he would consider it and improve it for himself. But, alas; how seldom can he do as he would! How often does he find this privilege a mere task, which he would be glad of a just excuse to omit! and the chief pleasure he derives from the performance, is to think that his task is finished…

And Scripture reading:

He believes it to be the word of God: he admires the wisdom and grace of the doctrines, the beauty of the precepts, the richness and suitableness of the promises; and therefore, with David, he accounts it preferable to thousands of gold and silver, and sweeter than honey or the honeycomb. Yet, while he thus thinks of it and desires that it may dwell in him richly, and be his meditation night and day, he cannot do as he would. It will require some resolution to persist in reading a portion of it every day; and even then his heart is often less engaged than when reading a pamphlet.

What are we to make of these pitiful performances in our Christian lives? Rather than make light of our sin Newton would have us make much of Christ:

But though we aim at this good, evil is present within us: we find we are renewed in part, and have still cause to plead the Lord’s promise, to take away the heart of stone, and give us a heart of flesh.

…Alas! how vain is man in his best estate! How much weakness and inconsistency, even in those whose hearts are right with the Lord! and what reason have we to confess that we are unworthy, unprofitable servants!

It were easy to enlarge in this way, would paper and time permit. But, blessed be God, we are not under the law but under grace. And even these distressing effects of the remnants of indwelling sin are overruled for good. By these experiences the believer is weaned more from self, and taught more highly to prize and more absolutely rely on him, who is appointed to us of God, Wisdom, Righteousness, Sanctification, and Redemption. The more vile we are in our own eyes, the more precious He will be to us; and a deep repeated sense of the evil of our hearts is necessary to preclude all boasting, and to make us willing to give the whole glory of our salvation to where it is due. Again, a sense of these evils will (when hardly anything else can do it) reconcile us to the thoughts of death; yea, make us desirous to depart that we may sin no more, since we find depravity so deep-rooted in our nature, that, like the leprous house, the whole fabric must be taken down before we can be freed from its defilement. Then, and not till then, we shall be able to do the thing that we would: when we see Jesus, we shall be transformed into his image, and have done with sin and sorrow forever. [John Newton to Lord Dartmouth, Letter 1, February 1772 in Letters of John Newton, pp 88-92]

That is good medicine for the soul and I need more.

Andy Stanley’s new sola

if we can’t even establish the meaning behind Groundhog Day I seriously doubt Christ’s resurrection will fare much better on Stanley’s ‘just-the-facts’ approach.

By now you’ve probably heard about Andy Stanley’s latest theological faux pas in which he deduces from Acts 15 that “Peter, James, and Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from the Jewish Scriptures.” This, he claims, is proof that Christianity is able to “stand alone” without being “propped up” by the Old Testament.

Considering that the NT has some sixteen hundred quotes from and allusions to the OT (a conservative estimate) some find this claim more than problematic. In fairness, Stanley would have everyone know that he hasn’t changed his views on inspiration and inerrancy but that he has changed the methods behind his messaging. His emphasis on Christ’s resurrection to the exclusion of the OT was a reaction to the success he believes the new atheists have enjoyed by riding a new wave of biblical criticism. On Stanley’s assessment, many people today stumble unnecessarily over something in or about the Bible–especially when they come to the OT. So while traditional Christians find his detachment from the OT disturbing, Stanley assures us that this disassociation is liberating for those who can’t get past the “dynamic, worldview, and value system depicted in the story of ancient Israel.” In short, Stanley believes that to reach future generations Christians need to trade in a culturally adulterated sola Scriptura for an apostolic sola anastasis.

What shall we say to these things?

1. People will always have reason to stumble over the Christian faith.
I appreciate Stanley’s desire to remove unnecessary obstacles to the faith but a singular focus on Christ’s death and resurrection (“Christianity is able to stand on its own two nail-scarred feet.”) is not the clean, simple solution he supposes. Stanley extols the good ol’ days of the early church when they preached an event rather than the Bible, failing to mention the offense of the cross and the dubious character of the resurrection in the first century (see Acts 17:18, 32; 1Cor 1:18, 23; 15:12). Christ’s resurrection had its own cultural baggage in the apostolic age as it does in today’s technological age.

More broadly, it’s not as if it’s only the OT that suffers from a credibility gap. The NT has similar problems in modernity’s public square. Has Stanley never heard of Bart Ehrman’s work? Will the people who object to the historicity and miraculous elements of the OT be more willing to affirm a virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, feeding five thousand, exorcisms, walking on water, a voice from heaven, bodily resurrection and a physical ascension through the clouds? (And we haven’t even gotten to the NT epistles and Revelation!) If Stanley can overcome the skeptic’s veto for the NT, he can certainly do the same for the OT. I’m all for keeping the focus on Christ but Stanley’s approach sounds more like capitulation than contextualization.

2. Both Jesus and the apostles preached the resurrection by the OT. I honestly don’t know how Stanley can declare the Christian faith unhitched from the OT on a straight reading of Acts. Let’s start with the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 which he portrays as Christianity’s official break with the OT. In a shocking disregard for the risks associated with aggressive facepalming, Stanley quietly passes over the point at which James supposedly “unhitches” the church from the OT by appealing to the OT (Acts 15:15-19). He also neglects to mention the conspicuous presence of OT texts in the apostles’ resurrection proclamations  (Acts 2:25-28, 30-31, 34; 3:18, 22; 4:11; 10:43; 13:32-35; 17:2-3, 24-26; 24:14-15; 26:6-8, 22-23; 28:23ff).

And it’s not as if Peter and Paul kept returning to the OT because they just didn’t know any better. Their sermon template was set by Jesus himself in his post-resurrection appearances. As Luke makes abundantly clear, Jesus explained (see #3) his death and resurrection by utilizing every part of the OT–the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets (Lk 24:25-27, 32, 44-47). Even if we were to limit our critique to the biblical evidence that he draws upon, the biblical support for Stanley’s claim is non-existent. His is not even an argument from silence and to call it cherry picking might be too generous.

3. The resurrection needs an explanation. Christ and his apostles built their preaching around the OT because the resurrection was an event that required an interpretation. To claim that something happened is only the first step in declaring what happened. That is, even if everyone agreed that Christ was raised we must still explain what it means that Christ was raised (i.e. why is it significant?). Ironically, Stanley seems to assume the revelatory meaning of the resurrection even as he treats it as self-explanatory. But if we can’t even establish the meaning behind Groundhog Day I seriously doubt Christ’s resurrection will fare much better on Stanley’s ‘just-the-facts’ approach.

Good intentions notwithstanding, there’s just no way to make sense of the resurrection without “hitching it” to the OT story. According to Paul, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” and he was buried and “raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1Cor 15:3-4). If Paul & Co. unhitched the Christian faith from the “Jewish Scriptures” as Stanley claims, to what Scriptures did the resurrection adhere? Jesus said that “these [OT Scriptures] testify about me” (Jn 5:39) and Paul makes it clear that the OT moves progressively toward the NT along a line of promise-fulfillment that culminates in Christ (Rom 1:1-2; Gal 3:8; Titus 1:2-3). These claims are in stark contrast to Stanley’s contention that the OT and NT stand as two covenants in conflict with each other. Any report of the OT’s theological expiration is greatly exaggerated (Gal 3:24; 1Tim 1:8ff; 2Tim 3:15).

Stanley is to be commended for his intention to “resist anything that makes faith in Jesus unnecessarily resistible. But following his counsel concerning the OT would be disastrous.

Although I am in the wilderness

Help me to see that although I am in the wilderness
it is not all briars and barrenness.

I have bread from heaven, streams from the rock,
light by day, fire by night,
thy dwelling place and thy mercy seat.

I am sometimes discouraged by the way,
but though winding and trying it is safe
and short;

Death dismays me, but my great high priest
stands in its waters,
and will open me a passage,
and beyond is a better country.

While I live let my life be exemplary,
When I die may my end be peace.

The Valley of Vision, “Shortcomings”

Grace changes the person

…grace does not simply jump to move us to action without first moving us as persons. Sanctifying grace changes the person, not merely the aggregation of their actions. Grace transforms the very character of the person, leading not only to increasing action in a holy direction but to growth in the very self.

— Michael Allen, Sanctification

Put your phone down and read

If you haven’t read Tony Reinke’s new book 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You here are three reasons to grab a copy and get to it:

  1. Wise perspective — Reinke has clearly spent some time thinking through the effects our smartphones have on us and yet he somehow manages to avoid the harangues that many of us fall into. Instead, Reinke endeavors to answer a very reasonable question: “What is the best use of my smartphone in the flourishing of my life?”
  2. Self-examination — A flourishing life comes by keeping a diligent watch over our hearts (Prov 4:23) and this book spends more time addressing motivations rather than mechanics. Whether you’re a technophile or a technophobe you’re still wielding a powerful tool. Wield wisely.
  3. Parental help12 Ways isn’t for parents per se but this book will equip parents to teach their kids how to walk wisely in a smartphone age. Several times I found myself thinking “My kids need to know/hear this” or “That’s a much clearer explanation of what I’ve been trying to get across to the boys.”

If you read the book and find nothing to glean then, as the Yardbirds sang, you’re a better man than I.

Repentance in Hamlet

Outside of Scripture, this passage strikes me as one of the most poignant depictions of man’s bondage to sin.

This semester saw Boy #1 and Boy #2 in a course on Great Books of the Western World that included a reading of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As expected, Shakespeare required a little bit of work on the front end–it takes some effort to re-calibrate the mind’s ear for old English written in verse–but in the end the labor was not in vain. That Bill Shakespeare will give you something to talk about.

The tragedy is best known for Prince Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy and rightfully so. But on this reading I found my mind more occupied with King Claudius’ failed attempt at repentance for the murder of his brother (King Hamlet) that enabled him to steal his brother’s throne and his wife. Outside of Scripture, this passage strikes me as one of the most poignant depictions of man’s bondage to sin.

O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t —
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not:
Though inclination be as sharp as will,
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And, like a man to double business bound
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood —
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offense?
And what’s in prayer but this twofold force,
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardoned being down? Then I’ll look up.
My fault is past; but O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?
That cannot be, since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder:
My crown, mine own ambition, and my Queen.
May one be pardoned and retain th’ offense?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law. But ’tis not so above:
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compelled
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults
To give in evidence. What then? What rests?
Try what repentance can. What can it not?
Yet what can it, when one cannot repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels: make assay.
Bow, stubborn knees; and heart, with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe
All may be well.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

(Act 3, Scene 3)

Sounds familiar

Jeremiah develops the idea of prophets who are deluded [23:25-32], contrasting the power of the genuine with with the worthlessness of the counterfeit. He finishes with an attack on the cheapening of the Lord’s word, where it is everywhere sought but only to be tamed, and where everyone’s claim to have it makes it impossible to hear a true word when it comes.  –Gordon McConville (New Bible Commentary, 691)

The terrible necessity of tribulation

Let Him but sheathe that sword for a moment and I behave like a puppy when the hated bath is over…

I am progressing along the path of life in my ordinary contentedly fallen and godless condition, absorbed in a merry meeting with my friends for the morrow or a bit of work that tickles my vanity today, a holiday or a new book, when suddenly a stab of abdominal pain that threatens serious disease, or a headline in the newspapers that threatens us all with destruction, sends this whole pack of cards tumbling down. At first I am overwhelmed, and all my little happinesses look like broken toys. . . . And perhaps, by God’s grace, I succeed, and for a day or two become a creature consciously dependent on God and drawing its strength from the right sources. But the moment the threat is withdrawn, my whole nature leaps back to the toys. . .

Thus the terrible necessity of tribulation is only too clear. God has had me but forty-eight hours and then only by dint of taking everything else away from me. Let Him but sheathe that sword for a moment and I behave like a puppy when the hated bath is over–I shake myself as dry as I can and race off to reacquire my comfortable dirtiness, if not in the nearest manure heap, at least in the nearest flower bed. And that is why tribulations cannot cease until God either sees us remade or sees that our remaking is now hopeless.

— C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

John 3:16 (pt 3)

18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”

Well, well, well. Since the last post it seems an SBC poohbah has demonstrated just how much we need this piddly series. But I digress.  [You can’t digress on your opening sentence, you dolt! —Shive]

In part 1 we said that Jn 3:16 needs to be read as part of the larger new birth discourse recorded in 3:1-21 so that we interpret 3:16 in its context and not in isolation. So this post will consider 3:16 in light of the discourse conclusion in vv 18-21. I’ll make two observations from the passage followed by an explanation of their importance in the debate over 3:16.

THE SPAGHETTI JUNCTION OF FAITH

First, verses 18-19 establish a connection between what one believes and what one loves. We start with a contrasting parallel between ‘the judged’ and the ‘not judged’ which turns on whether or not they believe. We even get a little repetition thrown in with the parallelism as a way to emphasize believe:

BELIEVE               → not JUDGED
doesn’t BELIEVE → JUDGED already → hasn’t BELIEVED

The repetition of v18 leaves the reader expecting to hear something more about believe in v19 since the verse alternates back to judgment. Maybe something like This is the judgment that the Light has come into the world and men [believed/trusted/entrusted themselves to] darkness rather than light… What we get instead is a statement about what a man loves which is all the more significant because it breaks the established pattern:

(18)believe–judge–believe–judge–believe–(19)judgment–love

What are we to make of this? On the one hand, believing and loving are distinct acts/conditions; on the other hand, the interchange between the two prevents us from considering them in isolation. People believe what they love and love what they believe.

Second, God‘s work is the difference between those who love/come to the Light and those who don’t. In verses 20-21 we have another contrasting parallel built on the relationship between a man’s work and his approach to the Light. Those who hate the Light do so because their deeds are evil and because the Light exposes them as such. The one who practices the truth, however, has nothing to fear from the Light. In fact, he comes to the Light in order that his works may be shown to have been worked in God. It’s precisely at this last phrase that the parallel breaks down for while the Light-hater’s work is attributed to himself the Light-lover’s work is attributed to God. Consequently, the ultimate difference between the two turns on the fact that one works on his own while the other is worked on by God.

It’s Complicated

The point in all of this is that much more is at work in 3:16’s whoever believes than what is generally assumed which brings us back to the problem of leveraging the verse against Calvinism. In my experience, whenever 3:16 is treated like Calvinist kryptonite the verse is divorced from its context and belief is reduced to a  simple, rational choice that turns on an act of the will.

believe-love-deedsBut when we take the verse in context we have to explain how belief and love work in concert with each other. I suppose we could claim that “love is a choice” but a moment’s reflection shows that that just won’t do because: (a) it can’t be supported by Scripture and (b) it fails the test of practical experience (would any rational person choose to love the Patriots?).

No, 3:16-21 would have us understand that (un)belief is bound to what a man loves and what he does. Unfortunately, this three-dimensional symbiosis is rarely observed or considered in 3:16 which perpetuates the treatment of belief as a single gear that needs to turn in a new direction even as the entire passage depicts belief, love, and deeds as interlocking gears that turn on and with each other. You can’t service the faith gear apart from rebuilding the engine and that kind of work involves more than a choice.