Why Christians Need the Scriptures

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In his insightful, Freedom of the Christian, Martin Luther writes:

Let us then consider it certain and firmly established that the soul can do without anything except the Word of God and that where the Word of God is missing there is no help at all for the soul. If it has the Word of God it is rich and lacks nothing since it is the Word of life, truth, light, peace, righteousness, salvation, joy, liberty, wisdom, power, grace, glory, and ever incalculable blessing. This is why the prophet in the entire Psalm 119 and in many other place yearns and sighs for the Word of God and uses so many names to describe it…

Luther goes on to describe the Bible as one of the main pillars in the Christian faith. It is a necessary source of nourishment for the Christian. Even the Bible itself attests to this fact. Paul tells us that the scriptures give us encouragement and hope (Rom 15:4). The Psalmists tell us that God’s Word heals (Ps 107:20), and is a constant source of growth and life (Ps 1). Christ himself tells us that we are to live on the very words of God (Mt 4:11). Peter tells us to long and yearn for the scriptures as infants need milk (1 Pet 2:2). Jeremiah says of the scriptures, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and Your words because to me a joy and the delight of my heart. Overwhelmingly, we need the Bible, because it is God’s tool to nourish, sustain, and grow us. It is one of God’s main means to growing his people into the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:13).

But how does the Bible produce this sort of spiritual fruit within us? How does it help us and sustain us in this way?

Luther explains that the Bible does this by revealing to us the saving promises of God in the gospel, and producing faith within us. Luther even goes so far to say that “the Word [itself] is the gospel of God concerning his Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit who sanctifies. [The Bible is meant to] feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it, provided it believes…Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the Word of God”.

Luther makes a remarkable point here, that the scriptures are centered around and concerned entirely with the gospel of Christ. I think he’s right; any cursory reading of the Bible will reveal that it doesn’t actually cover everything we need to know. The Bible is concerned with one thing: salvation. And so, the scriptures primarily revolve around the gospel. They center around God’s gracious plan to save sinners, atone for their sins, clothe them in righteousness, adopt them, and make them forever his. Paul tells us this is 2 Corinthians 1:20, that all of God’s saving promises and actions find their fulfillment in Jesus suffering for sinners. In fact, the overwhelming theme of the Old and New Testament is this: “And you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Jer 30:22). This what the scriptures anticipate, long for, and find their fulfillment in. That God will have a redeemed people for himself in Jesus. And this is why Luther can say that the Bible is, in a very real way, the telling of the gospel itself.

But also, this is why the Bible is a delight, encouragement, nourishment, and a necessary source of growth: because the gospel is the only thing that justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies a sinner (1 Cor 1:30, Rom 16:25). As Luther says, “therefore it is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and consequently it would not need faith“. The gospel and the Bible are inextricably bound together. Because as Luther says, the only reason we need the scriptures is because we need the gospel. And because we need the gospel, God gave us the scriptures. Anyone who enjoys the grace of God found in the gospel, will treasure, grow in, be founded upon, and desire fully to read and know the Bible.

God gave us a book to read over and over again, that we might remember again and again who God is, what he does for sinners, and how we are saved through Jesus. It is a book “concerning all things necessary for…man’s salvation, faith and life” (WCF). 

Why are there so many Protestant denominations?

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I’ve thought over this question for quite some time. Within Evangelical Protestantism, there are myriads of denominations. There are so many, that the Catholic Church has given many spurious critiques of modern Protestantism. They argue that there is such disunity among the church that we can hardly call ourselves the true church. In fact, Catholics really do consider themselves to be the only true church!

But are numerous denominations within the evangelical church necessarily a bad thing? I really don’t think so. In fact, as opposed to the Catholic church, I think that denominations enable unity within the larger body of Christ. And I want to consider a few reasons why.

First, Protestantism, even with all of its differing denominations, agrees on the essentials (if you can’t agree on certain essentials, you would be considered unorthodox or heterodox as opposed to “evangelical”). All Protestants agree that men are saved by Christ alone through faith alone. They all agree on the Trinity. They all agree that the Bible is the Word of God. They uphold the life, death, and bodily resurrection of Christ. These (and more) are essentials that all evangelicals must hold to in order to be considered orthodox. And because of this, there is much more unity than diversity. Even with John Wesley and George Whitfield’s massive differences (and although they parted ways eventually) concerning the order of salvation, they both heartily agreed with one another on the condition for salvation — faith alone in Christ alone. This is what binds all of Protestantism together!

Second, the reason there are so many denominations is not because we simply can’t get along. Rather, the reason there are different denominations is because we all treasure the Word of God. We all agree that God has revealed himself to us by his Word (I recognize that within Protestantism, the doctrine of inerrancy, which I hold to, is debated — however, that God inspired the Bible is not argued). We have unity on the source of the scriptures — however, we do not have unity on the interpretation of certain scriptures. Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists, will all have differing views on controversial passages. For instance, while we all agree that Paul is speaking of election in Ephesians 1, we cannot all agree on the meaning and nature of election. Calvinists argue for unconditional election, Arminians argue for condition election, and others (some Arminians and Methodists) argue for corporate election. What none of us disagree on is that Ephesians 1 reveals to us God’s saving intentions for mankind — instead, what we disagree on is exactly what Paul is saying. Because of this, while there is much difference concerning specific doctrines, we have agreement on the Word of God: that the Bible is inherently divine revelation.

Third, while differing denominations can agree and have unity on essentials, we also must affirm that because we disagree on some things, it is not inherently wrong to serve in a church with which you agree. While a Methodist Church and a Baptist Church can work together to reach a community with the gospel, it could also be a challenge to work together within the same congregation (I’m not saying it’s impossible, but there are challenges — some churches are interdenominational and work together well!). Many Methodists, for example, ordain woman pastors, while many Baptist congregations see it as biblical to only ordain men pastors. It would be quite a challenge for complementarian Baptist pastors to work alongside some egalitarian Methodist pastors. The same is true when it comes to doctrinal issues. If a Prestbyterian and an Arminian Episcopal work together, how will they teach Romans 9? While they can agree that it is part of the canon, they disagree on the interpretation. For this reason, operating within a certain denomination isn’t wrongand in fact it is practically helpful to the progress of the gospel. Denominations don’t affirm disunity within Evangelicalism; actually, denominations exist because we agree on essentials, and uphold the Bible as the Word of God! 

For this reason, I am pleased when I see a fellow brother in the Lord standing on biblical convictions —  as long as they affirm essential biblical doctrines. I may disagree on certain other doctrines, and this may cause us to desire to work within differing denominations — but we can both agree on the essentials of the gospel, and that God’s Word is true.

One day we will all find out who was right. The Lord will clarify our misunderstandings, and we will worship him forever. Until then, we must stand on his Word, and wait for his coming.

How do you Interpret the Bible? The Two-fold Process (part 2)

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I my last post I described a two-part process by which to arrive at an interpretation that applies to our everyday lives. I compared interpretation to a two-story house, in which the first story is the historical context of the biblical book. In order to arrive at the second story of universal interpretation, you must first understand what the author intended to write to his original audience. This is by and large a contextual venture. We must understand contextual meaning before we can arrive at a meaning that applies to us today.

But how do we understand the first story of the house? What contextual clues do we look for when venturing toward the second story?

Within any given book there is going to be 5 layers of context. Some of these layers may require a commentary or two, but a few will just require that you read a bit more and dig further.

The 5 layers of context are…

1) Verse

2) Chapter

3) Book

4) Bible

5) Author / audience

1) Verse context is fairly simple. How do the verses before and after help give meaning to the verses at which you’re presently looking? For example, Paul says that “there is…no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” in Romans 8:1. While this statement seems pretty straightforward, we can find greater meaning if we look a few verses back into Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”. Paul had been frustrated over his inherent inability to obey God — he found only sin within himself. Who can deliver him from this sinful body? Christ can! By simply looking to one or two verses ahead or behind the passage you’re studying, you can find a wealth of helpful information. 

2) What about chapter context? This simply means to look at the chapters before and after the verses you are studying to give a better understanding of the author’s argument. We have already looked at Colossians 2:16-17, in which Paul tells his audience to reject any teacher telling them to add works to their salvation. How does Colossians 1 and 3 help us understand his argument? Colossians 1 explains Christ’s supreme rule over the church (Col 1:15-20), while Colossians 3 explains our position in Christ (Col 3:1-3). Consequently, we should trust in Christ alone for righteousness! Studying interlocking arguments within chapters is so helpful. How does chapter 1 connect with 2? How does 1 relate to chapter 4? etc…Tracking arguments and thoughts across chapters can be surprisingly enlightening.

3) Book context takes into account the themes found throughout the book, and how this helps us understand a given text. For instance, Paul says in Galatians 5:1: “for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery”. What has Christ set us free from? What yoke were the Galatians falling prey to? From the context of the entire book, we find that Paul was writing the Galatians because they had given into another gospel (Gal 1:6-10), and thought that by conforming to certain Jewish laws and accepting circumcision, that they could be righteous. For this reason, the focus of the entire book of Galatians will be that they had submitted to a hard yoke of slavery by which they could never be saved. This level of context requires that you read an entire book, possibly several times, paying attention to repeated themes. The theme we found in Galatians was freedom from the Law. But other books have differing themes. Ephesians focuses on the body of Christ, Romans focuses on justification by faith, and Colossians focuses on the supremacy of Christ.

4) Bible asks the question, “how does my passage fit within the context of the entire story of the Bible?” Tracking back to Galatians, Paul finds himself writing to an audience that thought they still had to observe the Mosaic Law. Obviously, because Christ came and fulfilled the requirements of the law, and died for our sins, this means that we no longer have to follow the law. By simply understanding that Leviticus was given to a people before Christ came, and that Galatians was given after, this can help us with interpreting scripture. For help with this, I would encourage you to read God’s Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts for greater insight into this.

5) Finally, by understanding who the author and the audience was, you can really get to understand your passage. For instance, the book of Hebrews was given to a Jewish audience who had struggled with lapsing back into Judaism. This really helps us when reading the book as a whole. The book of Hebrews covers the insufficiency of the Mosaic Law in comparison to Christ in salvation. Jesus is better eternally sufficient in saving, and the Law cannot save! If we understand the temptation of the original audience, it really gives deeper meaning and application. This step may require a commentary. But you can often find out much about the audience and the author just from observing steps 1-4.

All 5 of these layers of context helps us when moving to an interpretation that applies to us today. To really understand a passage, and get to the second story (so to speak), we must first understand all of these layers found on the first floor of our interpretive house.

 

 

How do you Interpret the Bible? The Two-fold Process

A Bible study

Biblical interpretation is not an easy process. The reason it is not easy is because every book of the Bible was written in a certain historical context that absolutely needs to be understood in order to find an interpretation that can be applied today. Another reason interpretation is hard is because, in a very real and tangible way, the Bible has two intended authors and audiences.

2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that all of the scriptures are God-breathed. What this means generally is that while there are human authors of each book, there is also a Divine Author behind the entire Bible. For this reason, there needs to be a layered approach to interpretation.

What I mean by this is that in order to really understand what the Bible means to us, we must first understand what the Bible meant to the author when he wrote it, and what he wanted to convey to his original audience.

I like to explain biblical interpretation like walking through a two-story home. Let’s just say that the interpretation that applies to us today is found on the second floor. In order to get to that level of universal application, you have to walk through the first floor. The first floor in this illustration would be the historical context and interpretation of each text.

If we are to rightly interpret any given text, we must first understand authorial intent. It cannot go any other way. While the Spirit breathed out the scriptures, he did it through men who lived in their own time, with their own customs, with their own purposes. And while their purposes were Spirit-driven and inspired, in order to see how the scriptures apply to us today, we must understand authorial/audience context. In order to get to the second story of a house, you must start at the first story.

For example, Paul writes in Colossians 2:16-17, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ”.

At first glance, it would seem that this passage really only had meaning for his original audience — no one has ever told me to observe a “new moon” (what does even mean?). However, if we realize what is exactly going on with Paul’s audience, we can find massive implications for our lives today. Paul began the letter of Colossians speaking of the supremacy of Christ over all things. The world was created by and through him (Col 1:15-17), making him Lord over the creation. And by his death and resurrection, he also becomes the supreme Lord over the new creation (Col 1:18-20). Because of this, Christians should trust that Christ is victorious and King over all beings, and over all things, sovereign Lord (Col 2:15).

Paul was saying all of this because, as we see in chapter 2, some were trying to persuade his audience that in order to be righteous before God (a “good” Christian), they needed to follow certain “rules”. They were told they had to eat certain things, or celebrate certain festivals, or even pay homage to angelic beings (Col 2:18).

But in fact, as we learn from Colossians 1, Christ’s supreme rule over all things was enough to make them more than righteous! From discovering this context, we can gather that in Colossians 2:16-17, Paul is calling his audience to trust in Christ alone for salvation, not being pressured to add other religious necessities to their faith. Some clever false teachers had almost convinced them that they had to add something else to faith in order to be saved. 

Consequently, the Holy Spirit (through Paul), is also exhorting us to trust in Christ alone! If we are trying to find confidence in anything we do (or anything we don’t do), than we are by definition letting go of Christ’s righteousness (Col 2:19). In this passage, the Spirit is calling us to recklessly trust in Jesus’ righteousness alone

Hopefully you can see how we traveled from the first floor to the second. First, we find what Paul was trying to tell his audience in Colossians 2. He was calling his audience to disregard the false teaching that salvation must be associated with some sort of good work — in fact, salvation is in Christ alone. But also, as we arrive at the second floor of interpretation, we find that we too must let go of “works” we may be trusting in, and fall on Christ alone.

This is biblical interpretation: walking from the first floor up to the second.

I plan on writing a follow-up post on exactly how to examine the “first floor”, and the differing types of contexts within any given passage.

What “Genre” are The Gospels?

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Narrative? Historical? Biographical? Novel? This is a question that I’ve often asked, as I’ve read through the gospels. What genre are they? And why must there be four of them?

I think that there is an inherent misunderstanding of the purpose and point of the gospels when we ask this question. We are trying to fit these four works into categories about which the early never thought. So how should we think about the gospels?

Scot McKnight, in his book The King Jesus Gospelexplains, saying:

“Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of a basic fact. The early Christians weren’t describing the first four books as a kind of literature, as if ‘gospel’ was a genre of literature and already had a number in the Dewey Decimal System of ancient libraries. No, we need to say this loud and clear: they didn’t call the first four books of the New Testament ‘gospels’. Instead, they called each one of them the ‘gospel’. They were saying there was one Gospel, but it was written down in four versions, the (one) Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In fact, to call them ‘gospels’ as we now do so casually is to suggest that there was more than one gospel…[The gospels] declare the story of Jesus, and that story is the saving, redeeming, liberating story…The gospel and the gospels are one and same”

What McKnight wants to highlight here is that when Matthew, Mark, Luke and John penned Jesus’ life, they were thinking in terms of gospel. They weren’t thinking of genres. And, biblically, the gospel is the story of Jesus as the anticipated Messiah who realizes and fulfills all that the Old Testament looks forward to. Because of this, when we read the gospel(s), in a very real way, we must read them as lengthened tellings of the one gospel, centering around the one Savior, Jesus Christ.

Should Christians Support the Death Penalty? Two Perspectives…

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This post comes after the “botched” execution of a death-row inmate in Oklahoma on April 29th, which, instead of quickly killing him, gave him a long and painful death resulting from a heart attack (source). 

This story has inevitably led to questions as to the legitimacy of the death sentence. Should Christians support the death sentence? This is such a controversial issue, which is why I will leave this question up to two theologians that I respect.

Southern Seminary leader Al Mohler affirms that the death penalty, being rooted in the Noahic Covenant, should be supported. “The death penalty was explicitly grounded in the fact that God made every individual human being in his own image”. This is very true. Every human is made in the image of God, and therefore, should not be killed. A murderer is found not only taking a life, but defacing the very image of God. Mohler also affirms that “in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul instructs Christians that the government ‘does not bear the sword in vain.’ Indeed, in this case the magistrate ‘is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the evildoer’ [Romans 13:4]”. In other words, God himself uses human government to punish those who murder, which implies capital punishment.

Mohler then considers the justice system in America as corrupt in some cases (I heartily agree), and that not all cases of murder should lead to the death sentence. He also says that in a just legal system, all peoples, not just the rich, should get a fair trial (again, agreed). Mohler concludes that “Christian thinking about the death penalty must begin with the fact that the Bible envisions a society in which capital punishment for murder is sometimes necessary, but should be exceedingly rare”. You can read the rest of the article here: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/05/01/why-christians-should-support-the-death-penalty/

Another theologian that I like disagrees with Mohler, however. Theologian and seminary teacher Roger Olson takes exception with Mohler based on the fact that America is not built (it maybe at one time was, but it is no longer, I suppose) on Biblical principles. He says, “Mohler seems to believe that IF the Bible calls for something American government should practice it. That’s a huge leap off the pages of the Old Testament to modern, secular government”. I actually agree with this point, though I don’t like where Olson takes it. Mohler assumes that America should run on biblical principles, which Olson rightly asserts could lead to the mindset that America should be a “‘Christian Reconstructionist’s theocracy”. Should Christians want a type of postmillennial Christianized society? I agree with Olson in saying , “no”. Nor should we ever expect that–in fact that Bible makes it clear that the culture all throughout the world will only digress.

Olson takes the argument too far however in saying, “the Old Testament ‘clearly calls for’ many things—including capital punishment for a broad range of offenses including adolescent rebellion against parents. Certainly for idolatry. Does Mohler think we, as a whole society, should then expand the death penalty for all the offenses for which it is called for in the Old Testament? I doubt it…”. I don’t like this because Olson is now comparing Mosaic law with the Noahic Covenant which came before that. The Mosaic Law applied only to the nation of Israel, while the Noahic mandate applied to everyone. Shouldn’t this delineation be made? I think so. Noah was not an Israelite, nor was Israel even in existence when he was alive — so why should we compare the Mosaic Law with this command? There should be a distinction. 

I will agree however that we really should probe these issues further than Mohler did in his post. And I agree that Olson raises good questions here: should we expect America to run off of biblical principles? If so, which ones? And which ones shouldn’t we enforce? Which ones have been fulfilled in Christ? Which ones still stand today? Is capital punishment still applicable today? Besides this, can we trust a secular society to administer just death sentences? Perhaps Mohler could have pressed the issues a bit more.

Olson concludes his argument, saying, “the fact is that capital punishment is never necessary which is the main reason ethical people, including Christians, should oppose it. Deadly force should never be used when it is not necessary. Capital punishment is absolutely never necessary”. I can appreciate Olson’s point here. Deadly force is often times necessary; self-defense, war, et al. But, in his mind, the death-sentence is not one of those “necessary” forces. You can read the rest of his article here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2014/05/my-response-to-al-mohlers-defense-of-the-death-penalty/

We should think long over these issues, and really consider what the Bible has to say. We also need to make clear qualified distinctions between Old Testament laws that are fulfilled in Christ (Mt 5:17) and laws that still apply in any given context. I have to say, I was not thrilled with Al Mohler’s lack of scriptural insight concerning these issues. But, neither was I thrilled with Olson’s lack of clarity on exactly when deadly force is necessary with criminals, and exactly what the purpose of the civil government is. Clearly the government yields the sword — if not to kill, then in what way? Either way, we need to be immersed in scripture when thinking over these things.

Finally, as Christians, we should always have a filter when we look at criminals. As much as they deserve death, so do we. And none of us are too far to be washed by the blood of Jesus.

So should Christian’s support the death sentence? I’ll let you examine Mohler’s and Olson’s arguments. It’s a question I’m still trying answer.

A Theology of Anger

James 1:20:

for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God

At first sight, this verse seems strange. Even in the context of James 1. In this first chapter, James is in the middle of a discussion of trials and hardships, and tells his readers to endure, pray for wisdom, and rejoice, for God is maturing their faith (1:3). Then James transitions into an exhortation to not simply understand the Word, but to be sure to obey it (1:19-27). Enduring under trials is not easy, but God tells us to obey during them, for trials are not random; they are for our maturity, so obey. But then James tells us this: your anger does not accomplish the righteousness of God. If we are keeping track with James, we can conclude that rather than obeying the Law of liberty (1:25) under trials, it is our natural response to become aggravated at the situation. Rather than enduring and rejoicing under a God-given trial, we become angered. We become embittered, and want to fix the situation. Things aren’t going the way that we expect. Things aren’t going the way we want them to go.

But the whole point of this passage is that God has not only promised to keep you in trials, but they are a main means of your maturity. Trials are a tool in the hand of God (1:3-4). They are part of God’s story, and he has written trials into your life so as to make you perfect and complete (1:4). Don’t get angry under trials, because that is not accomplishing God’s righteous and good purposes. In all reality, this type of anger is setting itself against the righteousness of God. It is attempting to thwart the sovereign tool of God. And just because pain or hurt was not in your mind when you entered into this trial, God is using it for you betterment.

And this gives us a good understanding of the nature of sinful anger. Paul says in Ephesians 4:26 that we are “to be angry, and yet not sin”. This tells us two things: one, it is possible to be angry and not sin, even to be righteous in our anger. But two, it is very possible to be sinfully angry.

What’s the difference between the two?

Well, what does your anger promote? God’s story, or your own? Sinful anger reveals that God is thwarting your plans. Sinful anger is upset because things happen outside of your desires. And in your anger, you want to fix the story and establish your version of righteousness. But this type of anger does not produce the righteousness of God; it produces your own idea of righteousness. God has other plans though. This type of anger is simply pride.

Righteous anger on the other hand establishes the righteousness of God. Isaiah 10:22 says:

Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness

What a perplexing text! This means that there is a type of anger, wrath even, that brims over with righteousness. An execution of godly anger can and does overflow with righteousness. When God executes judgment, it is not toward ruin, but to renewal and the establishment of righteousness across the cosmos. This indeed is the purpose of God’s wrath. He does not get his jollies from smiting us. No, his wrath is for the establishment of righteousness. And why? God says so in Genesis 3:15:

I will put enmity between you (Satan) and the woman, between your offspring and her offspring

Genesis 3 speaks of God’s plan to redeem and renew the earth. In Genesis 3:1-14, we witness the high rebellion of mankind. They had set themselves against God, and as a result they fell. But in Genesis 3:15, God declares that he will one day establish righteousness again on this earth. And one of the main ways that he will do it is through enmity (anger against). Enmity against the serpent and his offspring. Why? Because he does not desire that the righteous renewal of God spread across this globe. And for that reason God is ever at enmity with him. And in order to establish righteousness, he must execute anger and wrath against all those who set themselves against the righteous reign of God. Wrath must come against this serpent. Righteous anger then, is anger that is at enmity with the serpent. It is for the righteousness of God. It desires earnestly that God’s righteousness be established on earth.

So what is sinful anger? It is that anger which exalts itself against the sovereign plan of God. It is that anger which desires to establish its own righteousness. And this is why man’s anger cannot establish the righteousness of God (Js 1:20). They are set against one another. They are not in cahoots, but at enmity. Contrastly, righteous anger is that anger that is against the serpent. It exalts in the righteousness of God. It rejoices in the supremacy of Christ.