Law is easy (just find the right law)

The view that Christianity is all about following a set of rules—the only thing that matters is that you do x and don’t do y—has always appealed to a great many people.  After all, if all God wants us to do is meet a particular standard of behavior, then it’s easy to tell who’s a Christian and who isn’t.  More than that, it’s easy to look at yourself and tell how you’re doing.  One nice thing about a fence is that you always know which side of it you’re on.  The other is that you know exactly how far you can go before you’ve crossed it.  The fence tells you what you can get away with as much as what you can’t.

As I’ve said before, my time in pastoral ministry has convinced me that on the whole, people really don’t want grace, and we don’t want to live by grace.  We may say we do, and we may sing about it, but when you get down to brass tacks, we’d rather live by some form of law.  If you ask the law, “How many times do I have to forgive somebody before I can give them the punishment they have coming,” the law may tell you, “Three times,” or it may say “seven times,” but it will give you a standard you have a chance to meet.  Ask Jesus the same question and he says, “Seventy times seven”—once you lose count, you’re just getting started.  Law gives you a limit to what you have to do.  Grace calls us to keep going, and going, and going, long after we want to quit.

Whatever version of law we come up with, if it’s our idea and our standard, we will find ways to make it something we can live up to in our own strength.  In comparison to the holiness of God, we will inevitably make it far too small a thing.  For instance, many people say, “Christianity isn’t about believing certain things, it’s about living a life of love.”  That sounds very pious, unless we stop to ask a basic question:  how do we know what love is?  How do we know what it means to live a life of love?  To answer that question, we have to believe certain things, and what things we believe will determine the answer we give.

The classical Christian answer is that we know what love is because God is love, and God has revealed himself to us in his word.  He has shown us himself in his living Word who is his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and in the words of Scripture, which he inspired by his Holy Spirit.  Scripture shows us the truth of who God is, and thus what love is.  We take our definition of love from these pages.  If we set Scripture aside, we’re left to define love for ourselves, according to our own preferences, prejudices, and preconceived ideas.  We’re free to tell ourselves that all God wants from us is whatever we’ve already decided we want from ourselves.  It’s a lot easier to call ourselves followers of Jesus if we claim the right to plan the itinerary for ourselves.

(Excerpted, edited, from “The Heart of the Matter”)


Photo of the Reichsgerichtsgebäude Zwölftafelgesetze, Leipzig © 2010 Andreas Praefcke.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

The Parable of the Three Little Pigs

(This isn’t part of the sermon proper for September 8, but I read it just before the sermon; I originally wrote it back in 2007.)

The day of the Lord is like three little pigs who went out into the world to make their fortunes. Knowing the stories, they traveled until they found a place where no wolf had been seen for hundreds of years; then they settled down to build homes and earn their living.

The first pig just wanted to enjoy life, so he wasn’t interested in spending too much time building his house. “What’s the fastest way to get my house built?” he asked himself, and quickly settled on a straw house with no real foundation. In a short time, his house was finished; it was a little flimsy, but that didn’t bother him—he was rarely there, except to sleep.

The second pig sniffed with disapproval when he saw the first pig’s house of straw. “That’s simply not appropriate,” he said to himself. “Granted, there’s no need to go overboard—you shouldn’t take your house too seriously—but it’s important to have a nice, solid, respectable house, as befits a nice, solid, respectable member of society.” So the second pig built himself a house of wood, with which he was very pleased. “It’s no flimsy, disreputable shack like the first pig built, nor is it overbuilt like the third pig’s house; it’s just a good, practical house, enough and not too much.”

The third pig, meanwhile, wanted to build the best house he possibly could; he made sure he had the best possible foundation, then built his house of solid stone—top-quality granite, in fact—doing everything he could to ensure that his house would stand no matter what happened. He knew the other two pigs thought he was taking this whole house-building thing much too seriously, but he didn’t care; he wanted a house worthy of honor.

The three little pigs lived for some years in contentment, each pleased with the choices he had made, until one day a great wildfire swept unexpectedly through the area. The first little pig ran to his house of straw to save his valuables; but while he was in the house, the fire swept over it and it immediately burned to the ground, killing the little pig. The second little pig ran to his house of wood to save his valuables; but while he was in the house, the fire swept over it and it began to burn. The little pig dropped everything and ran; he escaped alive, but with everything he owned lost in the fire. He ran to the house of stone, where the third little pig let him in; while they were in the house, the fire swept over it—and passed on by. The house was scorched by the flames and smelled of fire and smoke, but was otherwise undamaged, because stone doesn’t burn.

For those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

(1 Corinthians 3:10-20, 6:19-20)


Photo ©2012 Daniel Case.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

On art that can truly be called “Christian”

We in the church in this country tend to throw around terms like “Christian music” and “Christian fiction” pretty carelessly, without really thinking much about them, or what they mean, or even if they actually can mean anything at all. There’s a good argument to be made that only people can truly be called Christian.  W. H. Auden once declared that there cannot be “such a thing as a Christian culture” because “culture is one of Caesar’s things.” I’m beginning to understand what he meant, I think, and his point is one with which we must reckon.

That said—as Christians, as people made in the image of God, we are most definitely called to be culture makers; in Tolkien’s terms, we were made to be sub-creators working under our great Creator, and we have both the need and the responsibility to do so wisely and well, in a way that is true to our faith. As I wrote a while back,

Stories matter. They matter because they’re the stuff of our life, of our reality and our nature, and the expression of the creative ability we’ve been given by (and in the image of) the one who made us—and we matter. They matter because they affect us, moving our emotions and shaping our view of the world, both for good and for ill. And as a Christian, I affirm that they matter because everything we do matters, because the best of what we do will endure forever. And if they matter, then we need to take them seriously, both as readers and, for those of us so called, as writers—for our sake, and for everyone’s.

The same can be said, in a bit of a different way, for music, the visual arts, and for the other media in which we create; and if we want to call that “Christian art” as a shorthand, then the shorthand has value, assuming we realize that’s all it is. But that still leaves us asking, how do we do this—and when we do it, what exactly are we doing?

Among the folks who are wrestling well with this interlocking set of questions are the writers at the group blog Novel Matters; my wife pointed me this morning to a post there by Patti Hill that I think is particularly good. Of course, she has a real advantage because she starts off quoting Flannery O’Connor, which is always worth doing:

Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty as possible.

To really understand where O’Connor is coming from in writing this, I think it’s important to add a couple other quotes from the same book:

Dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality. . . . It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight.

Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.

For O’Connor, then, I think we can fairly say that it’s our obligation as Christians to see the world truly and deeply, as it is rather than as we would like it to be—and that for those gifted and called to write or to create art in other ways (and if you are gifted, then you are called, in whatever way and to whatever degree), there is the further responsibility to represent reality in such a way that others can see more truly and deeply than they did before. Too many people (not just Christians, by any means) shy away from that, because as O’Connor says, it requires getting dirty—really digging into and dealing with the dirt of this world, because you cannot know this world and you cannot see it truly and you cannot portray it rightly without knowing and dealing with its dirt. There’s dirt all over the place, and in every human soul; you just can’t avoid it.

So then, how? Hill nails it, I think:

We look to Jesus.

No one saw the world more concretely than Jesus. A whore washed his feet with her tears. He not only made wine, he drank it. He touched leprous skin. He invited himself to a tax collector’s house for lunch. And, I’m thinking, he heard naughty words there. Caked with blood, spittle, sweat, and dirt he took the nails for us. Gruesome. Violent. Definitely off-putting. That’s crucifixion, the purest act of love.

To follow in the steps of Jesus, to write in a God-honoring, “dirty” way, we must see the world—as best we can—as Jesus sees it, with empathy, detail, and love. And so it is for the Christian writer to observe and portray the beauty and brutality and pain and suffering and redemption all through the eyes of love.

Yeah—that’s spot-on.

If it’s occurring to you that this all sounds like it’s not just about art, you’re right; after all, in a way, what we’re really asking here is how we’re supposed to create art as disciples of Christ—which is to say, how do we understand creation as discipleship—and that inevitably flips us around to the corollary: how do we understand discipleship as creation, as a process in which we stand under God our Creator as the sub-creators of our own lives, as the process of making our lives a work of art for God? As I’ve asked elsewhere, what does it mean for our lives to be poems for God?

Putting sin to death

I’ve read a lot of books on the Christian life over the years—that tends to be an occupational hazard of being a pastor, after all—and I can’t say I remember most of them; but one of the most important books I’ve ever read, one which has had a profound effect on my thinking, is a little book by the great Puritan pastor/theologian John Owen entitled On the Mortification of Sin in Believers. It’s a collection of sermons he preached on Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live”; Owen was a practical and pastoral theologian, and his concern was to lay out exactly how it is we may go about doing that.

It’s a splendid book, and of great value to anyone who wants to live a life pleasing to God, which is why I was pleased recently to discover two things. First, the full text of the book is available online through the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (which, by the way, is linked in the sidebar here; I’m not sure why it hadn’t occurred to me to look there for this book). Second, since Owen is a dense writer and no simple stylist, I was glad to find that Robert Thune has posted a brief outline of Owen’s argument, one which links in turn to a longer and more thorough outline of the book. I wouldn’t encourage reading either in lieu of Owen’s work, because there is so much good in the book, but they provide an excellent orientation to his argument. The longer outline in particular is a valuable reader’s guide.

What Owen is on to is a matter of great importance, and much neglected in the American church, which tends not to want to talk about the struggle against sin (or to take that struggle seriously); as such, his book may well be more important now than it was when it was written, for it provides a necessary corrective to our self-indulgent consumerist culture. It isn’t light reading, but it’s more than worthwhile, especially with Thune’s work to help, and I recommend it to anyone who’s serious about the Christian life.


As I noted last week, I’ve been sick, tired, and busy, which is a bad combination; at this point, there’s nothing for it but to punch through Christmas, and then I can take some time to rest and recharge. Thinking about it, though, I realized that that’s not the only issue: this interruption has knocked me off the discipline of writing. When I took up the thought of blogging as a spiritual discipline, that made a major difference in the frequency of my writing (as a look at the blog archive clearly shows), and I think it’s done me some good; and part of that has been the most basic part of the discipline, that of just sitting down and posting something, even if I don’t have anything particularly profound or significant to say. I’ve lost that in the last several weeks, and unfortunately, the last seven days of Advent aren’t a great time to recover it, especially with a wedding to do right after Christmas. That, I think, will need to be part of my more general recovery time through the Christmas season proper. That discipline has been too valuable for me—I don’t intend to let it go; and if it’s occasionally been valuable to others as well, then so much the more reason.

So, yes, I’m still around, still breathing, and still experiencing an occasional flash when one neuron is willing to talk to another; and while I can’t claim I’ll be back to normal posting frequency tomorrow, I fully intend to be soon. In the meantime, God’s richest blessings be upon you this Advent.

The prosperity gospel and the bursting of the American bubble

The latest issue of The Atlantic has a big cover picture of a cross against a blue sky with a “Foreclosure” sign on it, and the lurid main headline, “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” As is so often the case, the article in no way justifies the headline; it does, however, make a compelling case that a particularly pernicious American heresy, the so-called “prosperity gospel,” may have been a significant contributing factor.

Many explanations have been offered for the housing bubble and subsequent crash: interest rates were too low; regulation failed; rising real-estate prices induced a sort of temporary insanity in America’s middle class. But there is one explanation that speaks to a lasting and fundamental shift in American culture—a shift in the American conception of divine Providence and its relationship to wealth.

In his book Something for Nothing, Jackson Lears describes two starkly different manifestations of the American dream, each intertwined with religious faith. The traditional Protestant hero is a self-made man. He is disciplined and hardworking, and believes that his “success comes through careful cultivation of (implicitly Protestant) virtues in cooperation with a Providential plan.” The hero of the second American narrative is a kind of gambling man—a “speculative confidence man,” Lears calls him, who prefers “risky ventures in real estate,” and a more “fluid, mobile democracy.” The self-made man imagines a coherent universe where earthly rewards match merits. The confidence man lives in a culture of chance, with “grace as a kind of spiritual luck, a free gift from God.” The Gilded Age launched the myth of the self-made man, as the Rockefellers and other powerful men in the pews connected their wealth to their own virtue. In these boom-and-crash years, the more reckless alter ego dominates. In his book, Lears quotes a reverend named Jeffrey Black, who sounds remarkably like Garay: “The whole hope of a human being is that somehow, in spite of the things I’ve done wrong, there will be an episode when grace and fate shower down on me and an unearned blessing will come to me—that I’ll be the one.”

THEOLOGICALLY, THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL has always infuriated many mainstream evangelical pastors. Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose Driven Life outsold Osteen’s, told Time, “This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy? There is a word for that: baloney. It’s creating a false idol. You don’t measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn’t everyone in the church a millionaire?” In 2005, a group of African American pastors met to denounce prosperity megapreachers for promoting a Jesus who is more like a “cosmic bellhop,” as one pastor put it, than the engaged Jesus of the civil-rights era who looked after the poor.

More recently, critics have begun to argue that the prosperity gospel, echoed in churches across the country, might have played a part in the economic collapse. In 2008, in the online magazine Religion Dispatches, Jonathan Walton, a professor of religious studies at the University of California at Riverside, warned:

Narratives of how “God blessed me with my first house despite my credit” were common . . . Sermons declaring “It’s your season of overflow” supplanted messages of economic sobriety and disinterested sacrifice. Yet as folks were testifying about “what God can do,” little attention was paid to a predatory subprime-mortgage industry, relaxed credit standards, or the dangers of using one’s home equity as an ATM.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that state attorneys general had the authority to sue national banks for predatory lending. Even before that ruling, at least 17 lawsuits accusing various banks of treating racial minorities unfairly were already under way. . . . One theme emerging in these suits is how banks teamed up with pastors to win over new customers for subprime loans.

The emphasis there is mine, of course. Read the whole thing; it makes me think that part of the crash this country suffered may well be God’s judgment on the idolatry of his people.

What we don’t get about the gospel

This is just spot-on:

It’s no wonder that self-help books top the charts in Christian publishing and that counseling offices are overwhelmed. Our pride and our neglect of the gospel force us to run from seminar to seminar, book to book, counselor to counselor, always seeking but never finding some secret to holy living.

Most of us have never really understood that Christianity is not a self-help religion meant to enable moral people to become more moral. We don’t need a self-help book; we need a Savior. We don’t need to get our collective act together; we need death and resurrection and the life-transforming truths of the gospel. And we don’t need them just once, at the beginning of our Christian life; we need them every moment of every day.

—Elyse Fitzpatrick and Dennis Johnson, from Counsel from the Cross

(Emphasis mine.) That is, I think, the crux of the American church’s cultural resistance to the gospel; that’s the thing we don’t want to hear.

HT: Of First Importance

Sin and the gospel

When the devil comes and says, ‘You have no standing, you are condemned, you are finished’, you must say, ‘No! my position did not depend upon what I was doing, or not doing; it is always dependant upon the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Turn to the devil and tell him, ‘My relationship to God is not a variable one. The case is not that I am a child of God, and then again not a child of God. That is not the basis of my standing, that is not the position. When God had mercy upon me, He made me His child, and I remain his child. A very sinful, and a very unworthy one, perhaps, but still his child!

And now, when I fall into sin, I have not sinned against the law, I have sinned against love. Like the prodigal, I will go back to my Father and I will tell Him, ‘Father, I am not worthy to be called your son.’ But He will embrace me, and He will say, ‘Do not talk nonsense, you are My child,’ and He will shower his love upon me! That is the meaning of putting on the breastplate of righteousness! Never allow the devil to get you into a state of condemnation. Never allow a particular sin to call into question your standing before God. That question has been settled.

—D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Legalism tells us that we are still under the Law, that we must be good enough or we will be rejected. Lawlessness tells us that the Law is gone and we’re free to do as we please. The gospel tells us that when we fall into sin, we have not sinned against the law, we have sinned against love. The Rev. Dr. Lloyd-Jones, in this quote from his book The Christian Soldier, captures the heart of this about as well as it can be captured. We’ve been set free from the fearful, fretful tyranny of being good enough; the point of our sin is no longer that we’ve broken the Law and might be cast out from God’s presence, but rather that we have grieved the one who loved us and gave himself up for us, to whom we owe everything, and have contributed to the weight and agony he bore on the cross.

This is not, it should be noted, an easier truth to bear . . .

HT: John Fonville via Ray Ortlund

The keystone: humility

The connection between my last two posts—the first on why we should talk with those with whom we disagree, and the second on the nature of wisdom—may not be all that obvious, but I think it’s a profoundly important one. Specifically, the connection is humility, which is necessary for both, and which comes from both. It takes humility to talk with those we believe are wrong, not so that we can demonstrate to them how wrong they are, but in a receptive way that is open to what we might learn from them; and doing so teaches us humility, which helps us to grow wise. Wisdom in its turn breeds humility, and teaches us how much we have left to learn from others.

This might sound like a strange thing to say, but it’s true: wisdom is humble. Humility even more than wisdom is underrated, not the sort of thing we tend to praise people for, because it doesn’t draw attention to itself—and because we often tend to consider pride a good thing. From the point of view of the Scriptures, though, humility is one of the virtues which is supposed to define the people of God. The Catholic priest and philosopher Ernest Fortin went so far as to call it

the Christian virtue par excellence . . . humility first of all of a God who would humble Himself to take on our humanity and give His life as a ransom for the many. But humility as well for the believer—to understand that all is grace; that we have no right to claim anything as our own—not our life, not our gifts, not even our faith. We are at every moment God’s creation.

Think about that: we worship “a God who would humble Himself to take on our humanity and give His life as a ransom for the many.” That’s straight out of Philippians 2. No one ever had more reason to put his own interests and desires first, or to glorify himself, than Jesus; and yet he let go of glory, he let go of all the things pride values, and humbled himself to become a mere human being—and not even one who lived a rich, comfortable life, but a vagabond from the working class; and even beyond that, he accepted the horrible death of a convicted criminal. And he did it all for us, out of love, and set us his example to follow—and Paul points to that in 1 Corinthians 1 and calls Jesus our wisdom from God.

Does this mean, then, that God calls us to look down on ourselves, to put ourselves down and dismiss ourselves as unimportant? No. Those sorts of attitudes are counterfeits of true humility, and are really just pride in disguise; they still focus our attention inward, on ourselves, and they still put us at the center of everything we do. True humility takes our focus off ourselves altogether; it’s what Paul means when he writes in Romans 12:3, “Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” Humility is seeing ourselves clearly, in the light of God’s holiness and grace, and accepting what we see; it is the place where we are well aware both of our weaknesses and failures and of our glories and strengths, and don’t make too much or too little of either, because we know that our value and importance rests not in what we have done or what we can do, but only and always in the fact that God made us and loves us. As C. S. Lewis put it, someone truly humble could design the most beautiful cathedral ever built, and look at it and know it to be the most beautiful cathedral ever built, and enjoy it just the same as if someone else had done it.

This is why the Scriptures consistently associate humility with wisdom—to take another example, Proverbs 11:2 says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but wisdom is with the humble.” Wisdom begins with the understanding of our own limits—that is, I think, part of the reason for the declaration in Psalm 111:10 that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; one of the reasons for that is the recognition of just how great God is, and how small and limited we are. Wisdom requires the acceptance that we never know as much, we never understand things as well, we’re never as smart or as far ahead of the game, as we think—and that in consequence, we need each other. That requires humility.

We must humble ourselves before each other if we are to learn from each other; we must humble ourselves before God if we are to grow in his wisdom; we must humble ourselves to receive correction and rebuke if we are to learn from our mistakes; we must humble ourselves to confess our immaturity if we are ever to mature. We must humble ourselves to accept and admit our incompleteness, our brokenness, our sinfulness, if we are ever to be made complete, whole, and holy. And in the last analysis, we must humble ourselves to understand that “all is grace,” that none of us are self-made, but that “we are”—all of us—“at every moment, God’s creation,” if we are ever truly to be ourselves.

(Partially excerpted from “True Wisdom”)


Photo © John SalmonLicense:  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

What is wisdom?

Looking over my previous post, it seems to me that lurking under the surface of my argument there is a deeper concern: how do we move beyond trying to feel that we’re right, and actually begin to become wise? In that, I think I might be moving a bit against the grain of Western culture; in this place and time, calling someone “wise” is still considered to be a compliment, but it’s not necessarily the sort of compliment that breeds emulation. We may recognize wisdom as a good thing in the abstract, but I don’t know that it’s something our culture really prizes all that much.

Indeed, I’m not at all sure that as a culture, we’re even all that clear on what wisdom is. We tend to get it mixed up with the other things that we think of as related to our minds, with knowledge and understanding and intelligence—which isn’t helpful, because wisdom isn’t any of those things. Granted, to exercise wisdom, it helps to have a lot of knowledge, but there are many people for whom great knowledge just means the chance to be greater fools. Similarly with intelligence; intelligence can amplify wisdom, but it can’t increase the number of wise options available. It can, however, allow for the invention of lots of new ways to be foolish. Understanding is good and necessary, but we can begin to take pride in our understanding, and when that starts to happen, it can lead us astray very quickly. As the saying goes, logic is often nothing more than a way to go wrong with confidence.

Wisdom, by contrast, is all about being able to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s about facing the questions, “Is this a good idea, or not? Is this the right thing to do, or not?” and being able to answer those questions correctly. It is the ability to perceive the best thing to do—and then to go and do it. If someone can tell you what they ought to be doing but doesn’t go out and do it, we don’t call them wise, we call them a very particular sort of fool. Wisdom isn’t wisdom until we put it into practice; it’s all about how we live. Wisdom is about doing truth, not just knowing truth.

(Partially excerpted from “True Wisdom”)