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Go to Dark Gethsemane

April 6, 2012

published with permission from Kevin DeYoung

And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” (Mark 14:32)

Sometimes we picture Jesus far too serene. We imagine him in the garden praying rather stoically, “Not my will, but yours be done.” But the mood at Gethsemane was anything but tranquil. Mark 14:33 says Jesus began to be greatly distressed and troubled. Verse 34 says his soul was sorrowful unto death. And in verse 35 Jesus fell flat on the ground. Here is a man with the weight of the world, and heaven and hell, on his shoulders.

Never has a man prayed facing more temptation than Jesus faced in the garden. Never has a man prayed awaiting so much suffering. Never has a man prayed with such emotion and anguish. Luke records that “being in agony he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat become like great drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). It’s called hematidrosis: under intense pressure or fear, the blood vessels around the sweat glands contract and then dilate violently, causing them to rupture. Blood then enters the glands and is secreted through the pores of the skin. The endocrine system knew what was coming.

It is impossible to exaggerate the depth of Jesus’ anguish in the garden. Imagine knowing your child would die later today or that the planes were going to crash into the Twin Towers or that you’ll have a terrible car accident next Friday. That’s what Jesus knew was coming, only terribly and eternally worse. Jesus was facing more than death or sadness. He was facing God-forsakeness.

Jesus stared at the worst drink a man could drink–the cup of God’s wrath. He gazed into its bitter poison. He thought of draining it down to the dregs. And hoped for another way.

But there was no other way. Upon making his request three times–”Remove this cup from me”–Jesus was not set free from the suffering before him. Just the opposite. After praying in the garden, his closest friends disappoint him (Mark 14:36-41), one of his disciples betray him (14:42-49), and all his companions desert him (14:50).

This is dark Gethsemane where Jesus Christ–the perfectly obedient, perfectly faithful Son of God in perfect relationship with his Father–did not get his request granted. At least not his first one. The cup was not taken from him. The wrath would not be assuaged another way. Jesus could not avoid his infinitely grievous dark weekend of the soul. God’s will would be done. Not the way Jesus had hoped. But the way he was willing for it to be.

For us. For joy. For glory.

Parenting 001

May 23, 2011

published with permission from Kevin DeYoung

Does it seem like parenting has gotten more complicated? I mean, as far as I can tell, back in the day parents basically tried to feed their kids, clothe them, and keep them away from explosives. Now our kids have to sleep on their backs (no wait, their tummies; no never mind, their backs), while listening to Baby Mozart surrounded by scenes of Starry, Starry Night. They have to be in piano lessons before they are five and can’t leave the car seat until they’re about five foot six.

It’s all so involved. There are so many rules and expectations. Kids can’t even eat sugar anymore. My parents were solid as a rock but we still had a cupboard populated with cereal royalty like Captain Crunch and Count Chocula. In our house the pebbles were fruity and the charms were lucky. The breakfast bowl was a place for marshmallows, not dried camping fruit. Our milk was 2%. And sometimes, if we needed to take the edge off a rough morning, we’d tempt fate and chug a little Vitamin D.

Trial by Error

I don’t consider myself a particularly good parent. I was asked to speak a few years ago at some church’s conference. They wanted me to talk about parenting. I said I didn’t have much to say so they should ask someone else (which they did). My kids are probably not as crazy as they seem to me (at least that’s what I keep telling myself anyway), but if I ever write a book on parenting I’m going to call it The Inmates Are Running the Asylum.

There are already scores of books on parenting, many of them quite good. I’ve read several of them and have learned much. I really do believe in gospel-powered parenting and shepherding my child’s heart. I want conversations like this:

Me: What’s the matter son?
Child: I want that toy and he won’t give it to me!
Me: Why do you want the toy?
Child: Because it will be fun to play with.
Me: Do you think he is having fun playing with the toy right now?
Child: Yes.
Me: Would it make him sad to take the toy away?
Child: I guess so.
Me: And do you like to make your brother sad?
Child: No.
Me: You know, Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That means loving your brother the way he would want to be loved. Since Jesus loves us so much, we have every reason to love others–even your brother. Would you like to love him by letting him play with the toy for awhile?
Child: Yes I would daddy.

I try that. Really I do. But here’s what actually happens:

Me: What’s the matter son?
Child: I want that toy and he won’t give it to me!
Me: Why do you want the toy?
Child: I don’t know.
Me: What’s going on in your heart when you desire that toy?
Child: I don’t know.
Me: Think about it son. Use your brain. Don’t you know something?
Child: I guess I just want the toy.
Me: Obviously. But why?
Child: I don’t know.
Me: Fine. [Mental note: abandon “why” questions and skip straight to leading questions.] Do you think he is having fun playing with the toy right now?
Child: No.
Me: Really?! He’s not having fun? Then why does he want that toy in the first place?
Child: Because he’s mean.
Me: Have you ever considered that maybe you are being mean by trying to rip the toy from his quivering little hands?
Child: I don’t know.
Me: What do you know?
Child: I don’t know!
Me: Nevermind. [I wonder how my brilliant child can know absolutely nothing at this moment.] Well, I think taking the toy from him will make your brother sad. Do you like to make him sad?
Child: I don’t know.
Me: [Audible sigh.]
Child: He makes me sad all the time!
Me: Well, I’m getting sad right now with your attitude! [Pause, think, what would Paul Tripp do? Thinking . . . .thinking . . . .man, I can’t stop thinking of that mustache. This isn’t working. Let’s just go right to the Jesus part.] You know, Jesus wants us to love each other.
Child: I don’t know.
Me: I didn’t ask you a question!
Child: [Pause.] Can I have some fruit snacks?
Me: No, you can’t have fruit snacks. We are talking about the gospel. Jesus loves us and died for us. He wants you to love your brother too.
Child: So?
Me: So give him the toy back!

Then I lunge for the toy and the child runs away. I tell him to come back here this instant and threaten to throw the toy in the trash. I recommit myself to turning down speaking engagements on parenting.

Growing What You Can

I want to grow as a parent–in patience and wisdom and consistency. But I also know that I can’t change my kids’ hearts. I am responsible for my heart and must be responsible to teach them the way of the Lord. But nothin’ guarantees nothin’. I’m just trying to be faithful, and then repent for all the times I’m not.

I have four kids and besides the Lord’s grace, I’m banking on the fact that there really are just a few non-negotiables in parenting. There are plenty of ways to screw up our kids, but whether they color during church, for example, is not one of them. There is not a straight line from doodling in the service as a toddler to doing meth as a teenager. Could it be that beyond the basics of godly parenting, that most of the other techniques and convictions are nibbling around the edges? Certainly, there are lots of ways that good parents make parenting a saner, more enjoyable experience, but even the kid addicted to Angry Birds who just downed a pack of Fun Dip and is now watching his third Pixar movie of the week (day?) still has a decent shot at not being a sociopath.

I remember years ago hearing a line from Alistair Begg, quoting another man, that went like this: “When I was young I had six theories and no kids. Now I have six kids and no theories.” I must be smart. It only took me four kids to run out of theories.

Getting a Few Things Right

I look back at my childhood and think, “What did my parents do right?” I watched too many Growing Pains reruns and played a lot of Super Techmo Bowl (LT could block every extra point and Christian Okoye was a stud). I never learned to like granola or my vegetables (kids, stop reading this post immediately!). But yet, I always knew they loved me. They made me go to church every Wednesday and twice on every Sunday. They made us do our homework. They laid down obvious rules–the kinds that keep kids from killing each other. They wouldn’t accept any bad language, and I didn’t hear any from them. Mom took care of us when we were sick. Dad told us he loved us. I never found porn around the house or booze or dirty secrets. We read the Bible. We got in trouble when we broke the rules. I don’t remember a lot of powerful heart-to-heart conversations. But we knew who we were, where we stood, and what to expect. I’d be thrilled to give my kids the same.

I worry that many young parents are a) too adamant about the particulars of their parenting or b) too sure that every decision will set their kids on an unalterable trajectory to heaven or hell. It’s like my secretary at the church once told me: “Most moms and dads think they are either the best or the worst parents in the world, and both are wrong.” Could it be we’ve made parenting too complicated? Isn’t the most important thing not what we do but who we are as parents? They will see our character before they remember our exact rules regarding television and twinkies.

I could be wrong. My kids are still young. Maybe this no-theory is a theory of its own. I just know that the longer I parent the more I want to focus on doing a few things really well, and not get too passionate about all the rest. I want to spend time with my kids, teach them the Bible, take them to church, laugh with them, cry with them, discipline them when they disobey, say sorry when I mess up, and pray like crazy. I want them to look back and think, “I’m not sure what my parents were doing or if they even knew what they were doing. But I always knew my parents loved me and I knew they loved Jesus.” Maybe it’s not that complicated after all.

Lest We Drift Away: A Sermon for Good Friday

April 22, 2011

Almost everyone has flown on a plane before. So you’ve all sat through those opening instructions from the flight attendants about what to do in the event of an emergency. They say the same thing on every flight, every day, on every airline. And every day, on every flight, on every airline, almost no one pays attention to the message. I’ve flown several times in the past couple months and I can’t recall seeing anyone looking at the flight attendants or giving one second of thought to what they were talking about. No one pays attention to these instructions.

Why? For a few reasons I think. For starters, the flight attendants look bored out of their skulls. There is nothing in their demeanor to suggest they are very interested in what is coming over the loud speakers. The way they drop the little seat belt down and pull on the strings for the oxygen mask don’t exactly scream passion and interest.

Second, almost everyone on the plane has been on a place before. They’ve heard about the seat cushion as a floatation device and putting on your mask before assisting others. They know they should follow posted placards and that the nearest exit may behind you. Nothing new is ever said. The flight attendants never say, “Your seat cushion can be used as a floatation device, an oxygen mask will drop in front of you, and on this flight only your headrest turns into a parachute and the back of your seat becomes a rocket!” There’s nothing new, nothing exciting, so we don’t pay attention.

Mostly, we don’t pay attention because we don’t think it matters. We don’t really anticipate the plane crashing. And in the unlikely event that the plane does go down, we figure someone will tell us what to do. If not, we reckon we’ll be able to figure it out on our own.

It seems to me this whole experience of listening to flight attendants is eerily similar to church for many of us.

1. We have someone preaching to us who is pretty bored with the whole thing.

2. We’ve been to church and figure we’ve heard all the same stuff before. So why listen?

3. We don’t think we’ll really need to use anything we hear in church. And if we do, we’ll figure it out before the end comes.

So we don’t pay attention. We hear the gospel a hundred times and we don’t think anything of it. We celebrate dozens of Good Fridays and it never makes a difference. Jesus, cross, death, resurrection–it’s all just noise in the background of our lives as we try to get our seats to recline and open the tiny bag of peanuts. No one is listening.

But listen to Hebrews 2:1-4.

Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

This is one of five warning passages in Hebrews. These five passages are not teaching that genuine Christians can lose their salvation. What they are teaching is that some people with an external connection to Christianity will not in the end by saved. And further, these passages suggest that those who are saved at the end, will be saved by means of these warning. These passages are danger signs that keep the elect persevering to the end.

“We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard”–that’s the warning. Sit up straight. Put your feet on the floor. Shut your yap. And listen up. “Pay attention church people! You are in danger of drifting away.” Hebrews 6:19 says the promise of God is “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” So we’ve got warnings to the drifters and promises to those who are anchored.

Floating Away

There are a lot of ways to lose your spot on the river of faith. One way is to let yourself move away to another location. The waters get choppy and rough, so you take your boat somewhere else. That happens with the gospel. We ditch Christianity because life gets hard. We drift away because of suffering. Hebrews 10 says “But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometime being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes partners with those so treated.” And then verse 35 says, “Do not throw away your confidence.” In other words, “You used to be so firm in your faith. But then you got cancer, or someone didn’t like you because you believed the Bible, or you started having troubles with your kids. Something hard came into your life and it made you question your faith. You started to wonder if there was any point in being a Christian. Was it worth the cost?” you thought to yourself. So you compromised. You gave in. You pulled up anchor and let your boat float away.”

Or sometimes we look for another spot on the river because it seems it more enjoyable. When you first got interested in Christianity it was new and exciting. It gave purpose and order to your life. You liked the fellowship and the people. But then you found out how you were supposed to change. You learned that God, because he loves you, didn’t want you to have be a sexaholic, a workaholic, an alcoholic. You realized that following Jesus meant you couldn’t live any which you pleased. You belonged to God, and the God of the Bible is not an anything goes kind of God. So, unlike Moses, you decided to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin (Heb. 11:25). You decided to drop your anchor in a sexier port. As a result, even though you call yourself a Christian and you may go to a church once in awhile, you are not in the place you once were. Not by a long shot. You’ve drifted away.

But there’s an even easier way to leave the faith. You don’t have to pick up and move somewhere else because of suffering or the allure of sin. You can just drift. If you row your little boat out in the Mississippi River and take a nap for two hours, when you wake up you will not be in the same place. Without an anchor, you will have floated away with the current. That’s what happens in life. Hebrews 6:11 says “We desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish…”

Most church people drift away from God not because they meant to, but because they got busy, they got lazy, they got distracted, they had kids, they got a mortgage, a few illnesses came, then some bills, then the in-laws visited for a week, then the mini-van broke down, and before you knew what was happening the seed of the word of God had been choked out by the worries of life.

That’s the way it happens for many people. They never dropped anchor, and so they simply floated away when the currents got strong. They used to pray. They used to be interested in the Bible. They used to talk to God. They used go to church. They never woke up and decided “Today I’m going to stop being a Christian. They just drifted. That’s why Hebrews 10:24 says “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” Some of the Hebrews had checked out, stopped going to church, just floated away from the whole thing.

Listen Up

So what can we do to stop from drifting? Verse one tells us. “We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard.” We must keep a close eye on the gospel.

First, we must notice that it is a reliable message. Both of those words are important, reliable and message. The gospel is not the same as asking Jesus into your heart. The gospel is not a program for becoming a better you. The gospel is not a series of ethical commands. The gospel is not an experience of generic spirituality. The gospel is the good news that God so loved the world that he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, to fulfill the law, to suffer as a man, and to die on the cross, bearing the penalty for sin the we deserved, and being raised on the third day that we might be declared innocent and righteous before God. The gospel is a message.

And it is reliable. Eyewitnesses saw it and passed it on to others who in turn told others. The story of the gospel took place out in the open for all to see. This was no secret, mystery religion. These things did not happen in a cave somewhere. The miracles of Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit testified publicly that Jesus was not just another Rabbi or another prophet or another teacher, but he was, in fact, the Christ, the Son of the living God.

We must pay attention to this reliable message, lest we mistake false gospels for the real gospel, and end up believing in the Jesus of good causes, or the Jesus of good coffee, or the Jesus of good examples, or life coach Jesus, or greeting card Jesus, or prosperity Jesus, or positive thinking Jesus, instead of Jesus Christ crucified, dead, and buried for the sin of the world.

The other think we should notice is that this reliable message is the message about a great salvation. I think many church people drift from God because he seems so ordinary. They float away from the gospel because it strikes them as dreadfully boring. They give up on the Christian faith because, like the flight attendant instructions, it seems lifeless, passionless, inconsequential. But Hebrews tells us we have a great salvation.

It’s a great salvation because it saves us from a great wrath. The argument in verse 2 is from the lesser to the greater. If the message declared by angels, if the law of Moses given by angelic intermediaries proved to be reliable and disobedience to that law meant punishment, how much more will we face God’s wrath if we reject a greater message about someone greater than Moses declared to us by one greater than angels? Parents don’t let their kids get away with disobedience, your employer doesn’t turn a blind eye when you break company policy, the government will not let you go free when you break their laws, so why should we expect God to let us escape untouched if we neglect such a great salvation.

Jesus is Greater

We must pay closer attention to this message. The Devil doesn’t want you to see the details. He wants you to believe that God is the one Being in the universe who doesn’t care about justice. But it is not so. We will not escape if we neglect this message. But praise God there is deliverance from great wrath in this gospel message. And just as importantly, there is in this message of great salvation a great Savior.

The whole book of Hebrews is an extended argument for the superiority of Jesus Christ.

The prophets revealed God to the people, but Jesus Christ was the revelation of God himself.

The angels were sent from God to be his ministering servants, but Jesus Christ was loved by God as his only begotten Son.

The old covenant taught Israel the way to God, the truth of the law, and the life of holiness, but Jesus Christ instituted a new covenant in his blood that he himself might be the way, the truth, and the life for us.

The tabernacle made with human hands symbolized God’s presence among his people, but Jesus Christ, uncreated, made without human hands, was God among his people.

The kingdom in ages past shook the mountain at Sinai, but Jesus Christ promises a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

The High Priest from Aaron’s line offered sacrifices for himself year and year, day after day, but Jesus Christ, our sinless High Priest after the order of Melchizedek, has made a sacrifice once for all, never to be repeated.

The blood of bulls and goats was shed morning and evening, century after century, for the remission of sins, but Jesus Christ, the lamb of God, shed his own blood for the sins of the world, thus securing an eternal redemption.

Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, but Jesus Christ has been faithful over God’s house as a son.

Joshua led the people into the promised land, but Jesus Christ alone can give you Sabbath rest.

Abraham was a great man of faith, but Jesus Christ is the guarantor of all that Abraham had faith in.

All these saints and all these things were pointing the way to Jesus Christ, our great Prophet, Priest, and King, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12:2).

We must pay much closer attention to the gospel, to Jesus, and to the cross, lest by an imperceptible current we drift away. Heaven never tires of the cross, and neither should we. The saints in glory never grow weary of the singing the old, old story: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”

Do not let Good Friday pass you by like a set of airline instructions. Fix your eyes on the cross. Not as the place to show us our worth, but to show us the weight of our sin. Not as the pace where Jesus simply felt our pain, but where he bore our penalty. Not as the place where God overturned divine justice, but where God in mercy fulfilled his justice. Not as the place where love died, but where love reigned supreme. Pay careful attention to the cross. Here we see a great salvation, delivering us from a great wrath, revealing to us a great Savior who was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, that by his stripes we might be healed.

A Tale of Two Corners: Knowledge and Maturity

March 3, 2011

published with permission from Kevin DeYoung

In this corner you have our friend Mr. Bookworm. He’s not quite thirty years old. He’s very intelligent. He’s read Calvin, Edwards, Luther, and Bavinck. He knows Warfield and Hodge, Piper and Carson too. Since coming to the Lord in college, Mr. Bookworm has been on fire for learning. He listens to a dozen sermons each week on his iPod. He has a better grasp of current theological debates than most pastors. He loves Christian conferences, the good meaty ones. Mr. Bookworm knows all about hermeneutics, propitiation, covenant theology, the regulative principle, and the ordo salutis. He’s even teaching himself a little Greek. Hebrew and Latin are around the corner. Ugaritic, if he’s got time.

Mr. Bookworm is smart, serious about his faith, and genuinely wants to serve the Lord. But he’s twentysomething and not all that mature. In terms of knowledge, he’s playing in the Major Leagues, but as far as wisdom he’s batting below .200 in A ball. He doesn’t have gross sins, just some annoying ones. On the truth-grace scale, he’s all truth. He’s obnoxious, bordering on abrasive. He lacks all sense of proportion. He can’t see that a debate over presuppositional v. evidentialist apologetics is not as serious as Athanasius v. Arianism. Everything is a first-order issue because there are no other kinds of issues.

To make matters worse, Mr. Bookworm talks too much. He sees every conversation as a forensics match waiting to happen. He’s opinionated. He doesn’t ask questions. People are scared of him and he doesn’t know why. Except for those in complete agreement with him, Mr. Bookworm doesn’t have many friends. He’s not trying to be rude or arrogant. In fact, push come to shove he can be a winsome fellow. The problem is he has all this knowledge and doesn’t know how to use it wisely or winsomely.

In the other corner is Mr. Simple-Faith. He’s been a Christian for 40 years. He prays and reads his Bible every day. He’s raised four godly children. He’s been married for over 30 years. He’s quiet, sincere, and well-respected by everyone. But he’s not a huge reader. He never has been. He reads two or three books a year, one of them might be a Christian book, usually something popular and pretty lightweight. Mr. Simple-Faith has decent theological instincts. He knows the Bible is all true, Jesus is the only way to God, hell is real, and we can’t earn our way to heaven. He’s orthodox, but beyond the basics he’s pretty ignorant and, frankly, not very interested.

So who would you rather have as an elder in your church? Mr. Bookworm is more impressive, but Mr. Simple-Faith is probably going to make better decisions and be better received by the members of the congregation. Personally, I’d rather have maturity outpacing knowledge instead of the other way around.

Learning to Drive the Right Ride

It should go without saying that the goal is to have both. A mature Christian with little theological knowledge is not living up to his potential. A knowledgeable Christian without maturity has potential he doesn’t know how to use.

A theologically astute, immature Christian is like a five year old flying an Apache helicopter. Here’s this massive weapon; it can destroy arguments and defend against heresy. It can soar to the heavens and take in glorious sights no one at sea-level will ever witness. This theological helicopter is good for search and rescue, just as good for seek and destroy. Every congregational army would be thrilled with such a vehicle. It’s fast. It’s furious. It’s impressive. But it’s also dangerous. And with a five-year old behind the wheel (or whatever they have in choppers), some people are going to get hurt. It’s not wrong for a little kid to have a helicopter, but it would be nice if he grew up and took some flying lessons before taking the thing out for a spin.

On the other hand, a mature Christian content with the barest theological knowledge is like a 45-year old riding a tricycle. If I had to choose, I’d go with the trike-riding middle-aged man, but only because he’s a little safer than the five-year old fighter pilot. In a perfect world, the 45-year old would learn to ride something for grown-ups. Sure he can get around on the tricycle. But he can’t go very fast or very far. He’s limited in terms of what he can see and experience. He can’t do much to beat back enemies or scale new heights. He’s steady, but not the best he can be.

The goal in Christian discipleship is that we don’t have to choose between kids flying helicopters and adults riding little bikes. We want the most mature pilots flying the most intricate machinery. Our aim is for Mr. Knowledge to grow into Mr. Head-and-Heart and for Mr. Simple-Faith to learn to be Mr. Deep-Truth.

And if our congregations haven’t reached this equilibrium yet, we can at least provide a safety instructor for the kids and kick off the training wheels for the adults.

Cautions for Mere Christianity

January 28, 2011

published with permission from Kevin DeYoung

C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity is a classic. It is a winsome, thoughtful, well-written defense of the Christian faith. Some of its better known sections–like the famous liar, lunatic, Lord, trilemma–have become part of the way evangelicals think and speak. No doubt God has used Lewis and Mere Christianity to awaken affections for Christ, engage the mind for Christ, and remove obstacles for the Spirit to draw people to Christ. I’m thankful for all this. More than that, I’ve benefited from every Lewis book I’ve read.

But C.S. Lewis was not an evangelical. Mere Christianity shows why.

Let me highlight two significant problems.

Atonement, But How?

The first caution to raise concerns Lewis’ view of the atonement. Lewis believed Jesus died on the cross for sin, but he didn’t think it was important to understand the particulars of what Christ accomplished on the cross.

Now before I became a Christian I was under the impression that the first thing Christians had to believe was one particular theory as to what the point of this dying was. According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem quite so immoral and silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make. What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor an other is Christianity. The central belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter: A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work. (57-58 [pagination varies by edition)

Later Lewis says that “Christ was killed for us” and “His death has washed out our sins” but “any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary” (59). This impatience of careful thinking about the atonement is bad enough, but then Lewis goes on to make clear that he rejects the understanding of the atonement evangelicals (and the Bible I would say) find most central and most glorious.

The one most people have heard is the one I mentioned before–the one about our being let off because Christ had volunteered to bear a punishment instead of us. Now on the face of it that is a very silly theory. If God was prepared to let us off, why on earth did He not do so? And what possible point could there be in punishing an innocent person? None at all that I can see, if you are thinking of punishment in the police-court sense. On the the other hand, if you think of a debt, there is plenty of point in a person who has some assets paying it on behalf of someone who has not. (59)

Pay careful attention to what Lewis says in that paragraph. He does believe in a substitutionary theory of the atonement, but he rejects penal substitution. He admits that penal substitution is not quite as silly as it once sounded, but he still does not accept it. Instead, he argues that Christ pays a debt (which is true), but not as a punishment for our sakes.

Lewis’ theology of the atonement is confusing (see for example this helpful Touchstone article), but I would argue his view is more like Christus victor or ransom to Satan than penal substitution. Aslan’s death, you may recall, was a sacrifice to the Witch and was explained rather ambiguously as “deeper magic.” This is not the place to defend the critical importance of penal substitution. My point is simply that Lewis does not teach it in Mere Christianity, and in fact undermines it.

An Early Inclusivist

The second problem with Mere Christianity is Lewis’ inclusivism. Evangelicals believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to God. Further, they believe that conscious faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation (assuming we are talking about sentient beings; all Christians allow that infants and the mentally disabled may be in a different category). Lewis, by contrast, believed in what we might roughly call “anonymous Christians.” That is, people may be saved through Christ without putting explicit faith in Christ.

There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points. (178)

No matter how much we may like Lewis, this is simply a profound misunderstanding of the Spirit’s mission (and a rejection of John 14:6). The work of the Holy Spirit is to bring glory to Christ by taking what is his–his teaching, the truth about his death and resurrection–and making it known. The Spirit does not work indiscriminately without the revelation of Christ in view. Arguably, the Holy Spirit’s most important work is to glorify Christ, and he does not do this apart from shining the spotlight on Christ for the elect to see and savor. Again, we see the inclusivist Lewis at the end on Narnia where Emeth, a worshiper of Tash, is accepted by Aslan for following him all along without knowing it.

All that to say, yes, I have some cautions when it comes to Mere Christianity. Good book. But some serious deficiencies.

What Made David Great

January 20, 2011

published with permission from Kevin DeYoung

Everyone who knows the Bible knows that King David was a great man.

And yet everyone familiar with the Bible will also recognize that David did a lot of not-so-great things. Of course, there was the sin with Bathsheba, the murder of her husband Uriah, and the subsequent cover-up. That was not exactly delighting in the law of the Lord (Psalm 1:2). But there was also the ill-advised census motivated by David’s pride, not to mention a series of lessons in how not to manage your household well. For being a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22), David managed to follow his own heart quite a bit.

So with all these flaws, what made David great? One could easily mention David’s courage, his loyalty, his faith, his success as a leader, musician, and warrior. But he was great in other lesser-known ways as well. In particular, David was a great man because he was willing to overlook others’ sin but unwilling to overlook his own.

David was a gracious man, bearing with the failings of others, eager to give his enemies a second chance. Twice, while his friends advised him to strike down their enemy, David spared Saul’s life, (1 Samuel 24; 26). Though Saul opposed him at every turn, David did not rejoice at his death, but wept for the king and his son Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:17-27). David welcomed Abner when he defected from the phony king Ish-bosheth and mourned for him when distrusting Joab stuck him down (2 Sam. 3). David was unnecessarily kind to Mephiboseth (2 Sam. 9) and uncommonly patient with Shimei’s spiteful cursing. Later David would pardon those who rebelled against him during Absalom’s insurrection (2 Sam. 19:16-23). Time after time David showed himself to be unlike the sons of Zeruiah who lived to hold grudges and settle scores. David knew how to forgive. More than anyone prior to Jesus, David loved his enemies. Like no other Old Testament king, David was willing to welcome rebels back to the fold and overlook the sins of those who had opposed him.

But amazingly, David’s kind-hearted attitude toward his enemies did not translate into a soft attitude toward his own sins. Usually, people who are soft with others are soft with themselves, and those hardest on themselves are even harder on others. But David was different. He was gracious with others and honest with himself. I believe David’s greatness was simply this: for as much as he sinned he never failed to own up to his sin. I can’t find a single instance where David was rightly rebuked for his failings where he then failed to heed the rebuke. When Nathan confronts David for his adultery and murder, David, after he sees what Nathan is up to, quickly laments, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam. 12:13). When Joab sends the woman of Tekoa to change David’s mind about Absalom, he listens. When Joab rebukes David for loving his treacherous son more than his loyal servants, David does what Joab tells him to do (2 Sam. 19:1-8). Joab was often wrong in his advice to David, but when he was right David saw it and changed course. Likewise, after his foolish census, David’s heart struck him and he confessed, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done” (2 Sam. 24:10).

David knew how to forgive, and he knew how to repent too. He never blamed others for his mistakes. He did not make excuses based on family history, peer pressure, or the demands of leadership. He did not use passive language, referring to his sin as a dysfunction or a growth edge. He did not lament over his sins simply because of the negative effects they could have over his kingdom and his relationships. He saw his transgressions primarily in their vertical dimension, as an offense against almighty God (Psalm 51:4). He never ran from the light when it exposed his darkness. Instead, he squinted hard, admitted his iniquity and worked to make things right. When we consider how rare it is in our day for athletes, movie stars, and politicians to candidly and clearly take responsibility for their public sins, we should be all the more amazed that the king of Israel, arguably the most famous man in the history of God’s old covenant people, was humble enough to listen to the chastisement of those who were beneath him and change accordingly.

David was a man after God’s own heart because he hated sin but loved to forgive it. What better example of God could there be? God doesn’t just welcome his enemies in, he dies in their stead (Rom. 5:6-11). He is always eager to show mercy, always willing to give traitors a second chance. And yet, God is not soft on sin. He exposes it and calls on us to exterminate it (John 16:8-11; Col. 3:5). But of course, God, unlike David, is never guilty of his own sin. God showed his condescension not by humbling himself before a needed rebuke, but by humbling himself to take on human flesh and take up a cross (Phil. 2:5-8). David was great, but not nearly as much as great David’s greater Son.

Christianity Today and Al Mohler: A Long Profile in the Wrong Direction

October 6, 2010

Albert Mohler certainly doesn’t need me to defend him, and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, certainly doesn’t have to like everyone or everything I like. But the recent cover story by Molly Worthen on Southern Seminary’s president deserves comment for other reasons.

I could talk about the condescending attitude that permeates the piece, where presuppositionalism is defined as “a system of thought that boils down to the slogans” offered by Francis Schaeffer, Al Mohler is described as “not so much an intellectual or theologian as he is an articulate controversialist,” and Southern Seminary is cast as a group self-conscious fundies buying blazers and Redken hair products “to counter outsiders’ stereotypes of fundamentalism.”

I could talk about the way Worthen continually injects her beliefs into the story, calling old Princeton “hyper-rationalist” and inserting a parenthesis at one point to clear up that “Calvin’s own theology is distinct from that of his followers.”

I could talk about how the two sides that jockeyed for power in the SBC get termed “conservatives” and “moderates.” Mohler’s take on things is “pugnacious;” he’s an “inerrantist,” “doggedly fundamentalist,” and a “culture warrior.” Those opposite Mohler come across more reasoned, more balanced. The only time “liberal” appears is to describe the old Southern faculty that ran afoul of “fire-breathing trustees.”

I could mention the eye-rolling line that the current “diversity” at Southern means there are some four-point Calvinists or the sneer about Mohler being an elitist because he is certain he has the truth, “and those Baptists who protest simply are not initiated into the systematic splendor of Reformed thought.”

This long piece has a lot to say about Mohler, much of it helpful, much of it not. The bigger issue, however, is not what the piece says about Al Mohler, but what it says about Christianity Today. This is a magazine begun under the editorial leadership of Carl Henry, an inerrantist, a Calvinist, even one might say, a rationalist. Anyone familiar with Henry’s massive God, Revelation, and Authority would easily conclude, and rightly so, that it is Mohler who stands in the tradition of Carl Henry, and CT, at least as represented by this piece, stands, well, somewhere else.

Mohler is certainly controversial and it is right for journalists to explore controversies and get both sides to a story. But to paint Mohler—a champion of inerrancy, substitutionary atonement, and the historic Christian positions on abortion and homosexuality—as nothing but a controversialist and an heir of Prostestant scholasticism and dreaded Old Princeton is hardly fair, and hardly in keeping with CT’s general editorial philosophy. I have several years worth of CT’s in my office. There are dozens of profiles and virtually every one of them is warm and flattering, some almost puff pieces. I’ve read stories on Bill Gaither, Jack Hayford, Shane Claiborne, Donald Miller, Beth Moore, even Ted Haggard (before his “fall), and they are overwhelmingly positive. If CT is known for one thing it’s their penchant for writing favorable reviews of most everyone under the broad label “evangelical.”

So why such a condescending piece on one of evangelicalism’s most well-known leaders? Why go on the subtle offensive against one who is a defender of so much that Christianity Today was launched fifty years ago to defend? It would have been nice to see the magazine of “evangelical conviction” look at the man who, under God, led the largest denomination’s largest seminary back to historic orthodoxy, and portray him not as a “culture warrior” wrapped in pseudo-elitist garb or as the intellectual heir of slogans and scholasticism, but first and foremost—and I know this sounds crazy—as an evangelical.

Say it Ain’t Seu!

September 17, 2010

I have long admired the writing of World Magazine’s Andrée Seu. She is clever, funny, provocative, and a delight to read. She also has a habit of making eminently good sense.

This is why it was so surprising and disappointing to read her latest piece on Glenn Beck. She calls the conservative commentator and professed Mormon “a new creation in Christ.” Later she adds, “I can say without hesitation that I have not heard the essentials of the gospel more clearly and boldly in any church than on his program.”

This is her conclusion:

I have heard all the criticisms, and I can find sympathy for them—about the Mormonism, about the dangers of religious syncretism, etc. But regarding the Mormon thing, I think we should regard Beck as an Apollos and pray for a Priscilla and Aquila in his life, to steer him better (Acts 18). I just don’t see how anyone can listen to the man for a solid week and not be as blessed as I am by his courage, his utter lack of fear of man, and his sharp and personal testimony of Christ’s transforming power.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I don’t have time today to say much about Seu’s article or Glenn Beck. But I have to register my dismay at the creeping syncretism (see, ironically enough, Marvin Olasky’s latest piece for the same warning). At the absolute best, perhaps Beck knows so little theology that he is a Mormon in name only and all he cares about (spiritually speaking) is that  “Christ died for my sins.” But even if this were the case (and I have to believe he means something Mormon by Mormon), it is still unwise to liken him to a great, but slightly off, evangelist like Apollos. It is equally dangerous to assume a new passion for God equals a new creation in Christ.

All this Glenn Beck-Dinesh D’Souza at King’s College-restoring honor rally in D.C. business has exposed the temptation we all face to sacrifice theological precision at the altar of political likemindedness. It’s fine to agree with D’Souza’s economic philosophy or Beck’s approach to the Constitution and limited government, but there is a deep theological divide (or there should be) between a Reformation evangelical and a Roman Catholic or a Mormon. Many evangelicals may be thankful for Beck’s courage on certain social or economic issues, but the courage we really need, to borrow from a David Wells title, is the courage to be Protestant.

Not to mention the discernment to know who is and who isn’t.

A Lost Letter to Wormwood (part 2)

August 27, 2010

We pick up the letter with Screwtape’s instructions on how to keep his nephew’s college-aged subject away from church and perfectly wretched…

At the risk of insulting your diabolical intelligence, allow me to remind me of your course in Youth Misery. Recall the Three S’s of Satan, our Sinister Snake (I know, he sometimes gets carried away with alliteration, but it does help jog the old memory). The Three S’s of youth misery: Keep them separate. Keep them selfish. Keep them searching. Allow me to expound.

The First S: Keep them separate. Our Bureau of Statistics (remember there are lies, damned lies, and statistics) has documented evidence proving that the best way to keep young people from growing into devoted followers of the Enemy is to keep them far away from any of his grown-up, devoted followers. Church attendance allows for too much interaction between old and young. With this interaction come manifold dangers: modeling, mentoring, service, and hospitality.

Listen closely. Groups of students meeting together for prayer and study is, it’s true, a pernicious influence, but gladly, the influence is often short-lived. Soon, your subject will graduate and he will find that the rest of the planet is not like his university. He will not be surrounded by peers all his age with his same interests. It is to our advantage that he be unable to relate to anyone above the age of 25. This not only makes for misery, but it makes church involvement, and therefore the Christian life, much less likely.

This, of course, goes hand in hand with the Second S: Keep them selfish. It’s really quite simple.  All of our human subjects are selfish, but the young especially. It’s hardly their fault. They have no spouse or children to think of, only themselves. They have food handed to them on plastic platters. And they live in a country that believes for some strange reason, pleasant enough to us, that history doesn’t matter, that the old are useless, and that youth culture should be prized above all else. And yet, I must hasten to add, don’t underestimate your subject. Human youths are capable of extraordinary acts of courage and bravery and accomplishment, as the Annals of the Enemy record. Keep your youth far away from such examples. See to it that no visions of nobility or self-sacrifice or inspiration enter his head.

Which again, if I may repeat myself, is why church must be foresworn at all costs. It is at church that he will see examples of lived-out bravery and sacrifice. And, more importantly, it is at church that he will have to face his own selfishness. He will encounter music he doesn’t like and old people who do strange things and babies who smell and cry. (Incidentally, I only mention babies because your subject is male, as is mine. The female youth I am told must not, under any circumstances, be surrounded by small children, those children enticing the females to re-visit church rather than repulsing them away as with most male subjects). My point is that so long as the spiritual experiences of our youthful subjects can be catered to the whims and fancies of 18-22 year olds, the students will not likely stick with a church when they discover that churches must also deal with the whims and fancies of 8 year olds and grandmothers.

One more thing, students today love the idea of community. Do everything in your power to keep them loving the idea of community rather than loving their community. As long as they love their vision of community instead of loving the actual fleshly people around them, they will never have real community and they will stay far away from church.

The Third S, and I here I draw to a close, is to keep them searching. Use the native restlessness of this time to your advantage. Students think it is their inalienable right to be irresponsible and uncommitted. Feed this conviction. Do not, in any way, allow for your subject to consider commitment or service or what they call “accountability.” If he must be interested in God, keep it peripheral. Let him come and go and flit in and out of whatever spiritual venue suits him for the day. But see to it that he makes no promises, no commitments, no investment. And in the unlikely event that you cannot prevent such blunders, make sure there is no one in his life to hold him to his promises and commitments, especially those who are older and wiser. This goal is best served by keeping our patients away from church. Remember the cross-stitch (pardon my use of the foul word “cross”) above auntie’s fridge: “Keep them searching for the soul; never finding and never whole.”

All that’s left is for me to thank you for your patience in reading what has turned out to be a rather lengthy correspondence. Please do not hear my harsh words as anything but familial concern for your welfare and the good of our Infernal Kingdom.

Would you be so kind as to write me back as soon as possible? These are weighty matters and we truly live in troubled times. Might I suggest you use the post instead of email–what with your past internet struggles and dalliance with sermonography?

Say hello to your father for me. Best wishes in your malfeasance, malevolence, and malediction.

Unscrupulously yours,

Uncle Screwtape

A Lost Letter to Wormwood

August 26, 2010

Tis the season for the great migration of students to our institutions of higher learning. This week, next week, and into September, thousands of young adults will leave home and head off to college (“University” if you want to sound European). Many of these students are Christians. Some will look for Christian fellowship in their new home. Fewer will commit themselves to a church. This “fewer” is just as the devil likes it.

At one time or another every Christian writer tries his hand at a Screwtape Letter, the C.S. Lewis inspired form of address where you write like you’re one of the bad guys. I don’t claim to be very good at it, but here’s my humble attempt. Pass it on your friends and children. Churchless Christians are on their way to being no Christian at all.


Fall 2010, A.H. (Anno Hostis, “the year of our Enemy”)

My dear Wormwood,

It’s been too long time since last I wrote. In my defense, however, it was dreadfully cold up above. How do humans endure such miserable conditions? But poor weather aside, please accept my insincerest apologies for the delay in finally putting pen to paper.

I trust all is devious and devilish between you and your subject. I am not an easy uncle to please, but your efforts over the past several years with your subject have been, I must admit, rather impressive. True, high school is a particularly grand time for opportunistic spirits like ourselves.  But these advantages do not detract from your work, which has been to date, exemplary.

Your teenage subject has all the usual paradoxes of American youth we like to see down here: rebellious, yet disinterested; slothful, yet impetuous; disrespectful to parents, yet an irresponsible drain on their resources; tolerant of religions he knows nothing about, yet fiercely intolerant of the one he knows best. All in all, a splendid few years my injurious Wormwood. Bravo!

It is because your work has proven so trustworthy over the last few years, that I now feel obliged to speak with you quite candidly about a matter of grave importance. Your subject is now enrolled in what the earth world calls “college.” I do not need to remind you what splendid opportunities these places afford us. But there is one particular danger, and you must see to it that it is avoided at all costs. And that danger is church attendance.

Though your subject seems safe from the clutches of our Enemy Above, you will recall that he has spent the majority of his Sundays, thus far, in church. The habit may not be easy to break. If he tries church for a few weeks, make sure it is a pointless endeavor. Do not forget our little rhyme: “If to church one must go, lead him to an empty show. And when all we can do is meddle, makes sure on one church he does not settle.”

Church attendance is bad enough, nephew, but consistent attendance at the same church spells almost certain doom for our cause. If your human persists in his church interest, you simply must devise some way to shuffle him around from congregation to congregation. See to it he never knows the people he is worshiping with. Keep reminding him of how rotten the music is over here, and how long the sermon is over there, and how bland the coffee is at that other church. Trust me, it won’t take much to get him floundering on church. Almost any excuse will do.

College students are nothing if not critical. They are trained in it daily. Use this to your advantage, my dear boy. If your subject is determined to go to church, make sure he searches for the perfect church. Within a few weeks he will be fast asleep on Sunday morning, much to our Father’s delight.

Speaking of sleep, do whatever you can do keep your subject out late on Saturday evenings? Drink, girls, football, video games, paper—it doesn’t matter. Just keep him up. You know perfectly well how our Father Below insists on busyness at all costs and how terribly he depends on sleep deprivation for his work. It’s a well known fact among the higher ranks of devildom, that silly humans suspect our interference in the big things–death, accidents, spinning heads, and the like. They never expect that our work consists mainly in distraction.

So do not neglect our demonic bread and butter. Make Friday a fun day and Saturday a waste. He will have no choice then but to sleep on Sunday and use the rest of the day to get ready for Monday. Keep up your discipline my dear Wormwood or he will keep up his!

You will excuse me for my stern tone, but I cannot overstate the importance of this matter of church. Perhaps your youth prevents you from fully grasping the eternal significance of this issue. Heaven is at stake, my infernal child. Spirituality is one thing. God talk is generally harmless. Student “fellowships” as they call them are tolerable for a season. But for hell’s sake, Wormwood, church is absolutely out of the question.

Of course, it goes without saying some churches serve our cause nicely. Dead tradition churches. Silly entertainment churches. Social get-together churches. Political party churches. Loveless, divisive churches. Doctrineless churches. These are all wonderful. Our concern, and I must reiterate it is a deep concern, is with churches that act like churches, the ones that preach Christ and live out their blasphemous faith.

Such churches introduce many bad habits in our subjects. They become more thoughtful. They become more aware of our Enemy’s character and schemes. They learn to love each other, even people unlike them in situation and temperament. This can only bode ill for our work in the long run.

(Check back tomorrow for the conclusion of the letter)

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