Category Archives: Salvation
Even when we know the Gospel, we still often get it wrong. In this video, J.D. Greear, Greg Gilbert, and Trevin Wax discuss the Gospel, life, and ministry, as they reflect on the nature of the Gospel and how it should impact and shape everyday life.
One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation by Jarvis J. Williams (B&H, 2010).
Evangelicals have worked hard over the last several decades to pursue a theological understanding of the human person, dealing with issues like fee will, gender, and mind/body, among others. But, on issues of race and ethnicity, we’ve been relatively quiet. I’m sure that’s partly because evangelicalism has a spotty track record on racial issues in general, making this a challenging topic for us to address. But, I think it may also stem from the fact that most of the books offering a theological perspective on race/ethnicity tend to be highly technical (i.e. nearly unintelligible to the uninitiated) and often do not spend much time on biblical/exegetical issues, which tend to be the primary interest of evangelical thinkers.
With One New Man, Jarvis Williams takes an important step forward in evangelical thinking about race/ethnicity. He offers a short, accessible work that deals extensively with the relevant biblical material. Its core argument is that humanity’s fall into sin involves both horizontal (God) and vertical (human) alienation, and, correspondingly, the Gospel promises both horizontal and vertical reconciliation. So, to understand racial reconciliation, we really need to understand the Gospel.
With this emphasis on the Gospel as it relates to racial reconciliation, it should come as no surprise that the structure of the book follows the story of redemption. After a quick introduction, Williams explains that the reason for racial reconciliation lies in the tragedy of the Fall and its impact on humanity (chapter 2). So, the only possible solution to the problem lies in the reconciliation offered to all people through the atonement (chapter 3). This doesn’t just reconcile us to God, but creates the possibility, even the necessity, of racial reconciliation as we all become “one new man” in Christ (chapter 4). Finally, Williams offers a short chapter on the practical application of these insights in churches today (chapter 5).
The most obvious strength of the book lies in its commitment to exegesis. Almost unique among books dealing with race, Williams spends the bulk of his time doing biblical theology and exegesis. That’s a refreshing change of pace for the genre.
But, Williams’ most valuable contribution is in his clear connection between racial discord, racial reconciliation, and the Gospel. For Williams, racial reconciliation is not an optional feature of the Christian life that we can get around to whenever we have some time between evangelistic events and discipleship classes. Racial reconciliation is fundamental to the “good news” that God made available in Jesus Christ and something that all Christians should be working toward.
Another key contribution is the distinction between “racial diversity” and “racial reconciliation.” “Diversity” is the mere presence different races in a single group. “Reconciliation” involves healing the wounds of sin and alienation so that the various groups come together in the true unity made possible through the atonement. And, Williams argues throughout that mere diversity is inadequate given the grand scope of the Gospel.
Finally, Williams offers some very helpful comments at the end of the book for how this can (and should) play out with respect to specific ministry realities. Unsurprisingly, he criticizes efforts that focus on mere diversity (e.g. occasional “joint” worship services or just striving for “multiethnic” churches). And, although he doesn’t mention it by name, he has no use for the “homogenous unit principle” – i.e. the idea that churches are most effective when they target a single demographic. Even at its best, he sees this as yet another reflection of racial discord that belies the life-transforming power of the Gospel.
Given the strengths of the book, I’d like to give it an unqualified endorsements. But, I can’t. Despite these strengths, the book does have some important drawbacks.
First, and most frustratingly, the book’s emphasis on the Gospel leads to a serious imbalance in the material. The two longest chapters of the book deal with sin and the atonement respectively. And, in those chapters, relatively little is said about race in particular. These chapters are just setting the stage by discussing the problem and the solution. But, that means Williams devotes over two-thirds of the book to setting up the discussion. By the time he finally reaches the material specific to racial reconciliation, the book is almost done. As important as I think the Gospel is in this discussion, I would have liked to see Williams spend less time on sin/atonement, work that has been done many times by others, so that he could devote more attention to making the connection with racial issues.
Second, the imbalance contributed to some important oversights. More interaction with other authors writing on race and theology would have alerted the reader to some of the complexities involved in the discussion. At the very least, it would have been good to see definitions of such key terms as “race,” “ethnicity,” and “racism.” Williams seems to view these as terms with relatively self-evident definitions. But that is far from the case, as a quick summary of the relevant literature would demonstrate. And, lacking clear definitions, it becomes difficult to assess Williams’ argument in places – especially in the final chapter where he writes on the practical application of his ideas. (For example, what exactly is a “racist” church? Is mere racial homogeneity sufficient to establish that a church is “racist”?)
Finally, a real problem arises when Williams tries to move from Pauline theology to racial reconciliation today. His discussion of “race” in the NT is really a discussion of Jew/Gentile relations. And, that makes sense given that Paul focuses primarily on these categories. But, he recognizes that “Jew” and “Gentile” in the NT are primarily religious rather than racial/ethnic terms: “The greatest difference was that the Jews’ and Gentiles’ hatred toward one another was not based on skin color, but on religion” (p. 122). But, if Jew/Gentile is fundamentally a religious rather than a racial distinction, how does one connect Paul’s theology of Jew/Gentile reconciliation to the problem of racial reconciliation today, which is a significantly different problem. I’m sure it’s possible to make important connections between the two, but unfortunately, Williams either doesn’t see the difficulty, or simply chooses not to engage it.
One New Man is a great book for seeing that racial reconciliation is a part of the Gospel story. It is neither optional nor secondary. Used in that sense, One New Man will be a helpful resources, particularly for those looking for more of an introductory survey of the relevant biblical material.
[Many thanks to Broadman & Holman for sending me a review copy of One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation.]
“Okay, I’ll go back. But no Jesus stuff this time.”
What exactly does it take to make a 4-year-old declare that she’s all done with Jesus stuff? Bait-and-switch evangelism.
Here’s what happened.
The Tragedy Begins
It’s the day before Easter. And, unexpectedly for the northwest, it’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon. So, my little girls grab their mom and head down the street to a church that is hosting an Easter carnival. Holding hands, they skip down the sidewalk with images of Easter egg hunts, candy, and cheap carnival games dancing through their young minds, never knowing what is really in store for them.
(This would be a good place to picture a dark cloud suddenly drifting in front of the bright, spring sun, casting a shadow across our happy scene. Or, just imagine some ominous music playing in the background. Either way, you get the point.)
Arriving at the church, the first thing they see is a big booth set up for face painting. Now, I have to admit that I’ve never understood the allure of face painting. But, for little girls, The thought of having someone smear cheap paint all over their faces in a way that vaguely resembles a flying bug is nearly irresistible.
So, they stop. And the tragedy begins.
Because, of course, this is the Gospel booth. And, from the Gospel booth there is no escape. It’s kind of like the Twilight Zone.
The Gospel Zone
Almost as soon as the girls sit down, one of the volunteers launches into the Gospel story. And my girls sit through it patiently. They’ve heard it before, but they’re too polite to interrupt. And, from the enthusiastic presentation, my wife suspects that they might be the only new people the church has seen all afternoon. She doesn’t want to ruin the fun. So they listen to the story.
That’s right. Apparently they weren’t sure that my girls caught everything the first time. And they really wanted it to stick. So, as soon as they were done with the story, they launched into it again.
The Twilight Zone does not surrender its victims easily.
Emerging from the Gospel booth almost 30 minutes later, they discover that the carnival is over. No more candy. No more games. No Easter egg hunt. They’ve missed it all.
Bait-and-switch strikes again.
The Old Switcharoo
Bait-and-switch evangelism is any time we tell people that they are getting one thing, and then we slip them the Gospel while they are there. Want some candy? Sure, come and get it. Oh, by the way, you’ll have to sit and listen to this story first.
Are we trying to make little kids hate the Gospel?
Why do we do this? Deep down, are we that afraid that they won’t want to hear? Do we doubt the power of the message that much? Do we think the Spirit can’t handle things?
And, what are we subtly communicating to ourselves and to other people about the Gospel when we do this? I’m afraid that we’re hinting that we really don’t think that the Gospel is all that. If I’m really convinced that I have the most amazing story that will transform your life forever, I’m not going to invite you over to my church for a football game and then try to slip it in between commercials. I’m going to invite you over to hear the story.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with parties, carnivals, football games, or any of the various ways that churches can connect with their communities, share life together, and allow the world to see a redeemed community in action. That must be done. And, along the way, we will have opportunities to share the Gospel as an organic expression of living in community together. But, that’s very different from the bait-and-switch.
When we trick people into hearing the Gospel, we annoy them and we undermine the very message that we’re seeking to promote. I’m sure it works at times, but pragmatic effectiveness is not an adequate measure for appropriate Kingdom living.
The quote at the beginning of this post? That came from my daughter one year later. A full year after her experience at the Easter carnival, she remembered what happened the last time she stepped into the Gospel zone, and she wasn’t about to let it happen again.
No more Jesus stuff for her.
The bait-and-switch at its finest.
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. To the NRA, I became a proponent of concealed hand guns, to win gun rights advocates.
What do you think? I recently received an email from someone at a church that is planning an outreach event that combines the Gospel and guns. The church is reaching out the community by offering a concealed handgun license course. But, the real purpose of the course is to reach out to people who wouldn’t otherwise come to church and use it as an opportunity to share the Gospel with them. So, ultimately, the event isn’t really about guns, it’s about the Gospel. The guns are just to get them in the front door.
My first reaction to this was not terribly positive. But, I had to stop and double-check myself. I didn’t grow up around guns and have never really understood the need for the average person to carry a concealed handgun. So, I have to consider the possibility that my reaction to this event has more to do with my personal biases than legitimate concerns.
My second reaction to this still isn’t terribly positive. At the very least, I don’t like bait-and-switch evangelism. Maybe that’s not what is being planned here. But it sure sounds like the kind of event where you invite people to something that sounds fun, and then you sneak the Gospel in the back door. Sure it’s a church event and people probably expect that they’ll need to endure the Gospel so they can get to the good stuff. But is that really how we want to do things?
But, more to the point, the way that we present the Gospel matters. And, I can’t think of any way of hosting an event like this without connecting the Gospel to a whole raft of issues surrounding gun rights advocacy and conservative political ideology, not to mention all of the images and associations that people have with handguns, none of which have anything to do with the Gospel. Do we really want to align the Gospel with things like this?
To be clear, this has nothing to do with the question of gun rights in itself. That’s a separate issue, and one that I don’t want to get into here. This is a question about where and how we share the Gospel and how that shapes the way people hear the Gospel.
What do you think? Is this just a cultural issue? I’m just a pampered city boy from liberal Portland, so I can’t really understand what’s going on here. Or, are there legitimate concerns in connecting the Gospel and guns in this way?
According to Scot McKnight, younger evangelicals are leaving the church in droves because we’re not teaching the Gospel well. According to him, 90% of evangelical children decide to follow Jesus. But, of those, only 22% will still be following Jesus when they’re 35. And, from McKnight’s perspective, the problem is how we present the Gospel.
McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel has been getting a lot of attention lately. And, now they’ve produced a very interesting promo video. I don’t usually link to these marketing videos, but this one seemed particularly intriguing. I may see if I can get my hand on a copy of the book to see where he goes anywhere unexpected with the argument (other than just pointing out the importance of “kingdom” in the NT gospel, of course).
I’m either posting this cartoon because I think it could be used as a good discussion starter on predestination, total depravity, and evangelism, or because I just want to rile up the Calvinists. I’m not sure. Either way, here you go.
On Christmas parents everywhere try to persuade their children that giving away a valued toy is somehow better than getting one. We extol the virtue of generosity, castigate the vice of selfish hoarding, and hope that they’ll eventually see the light. It’s a difficult task since kids intuitively believe that “a toy in my hand is worth two in yours.” But, we face the challenge anyway because we want our kids to understand that it really is better to give than receive.
The problem is that it’s not true. At least, it’s not as true as we think it is. Sometimes it’s more important to learn how to receive. More important, and harder.
Giving a gift feels good. You’ve done something nice for the other person, improved their life in some way. You’re a giver. And, we like being givers because it makes us feel meaningful, like we’re contributing.
Receiving a gift, on the other hand, can be painful. Sure, getting stuff is nice. But, it can also be uncomfortable, making us feel needy, dependent, and obligated. When someone buys us a gift, we think we have to return the favor. So, they immediately go on our gift list. And, until we’ve reciprocated, the scales remain unbalanced. We stay needy receivers obligated to some giver, and we don’t like that. Because we all know that an important part of “success” is to arrive at that point in your life where you are no longer dependent upon others. We call that “maturity.”
And we’re wrong.
Well, we’re not completely wrong. There is an unhealthy dependency, the kind that prevents people from growing into maturity and locks them into the kind of relationship in which one person is viewed solely as the giver and the other solely as the receiver. This creates a patronizing form of dependence caused largely by the giver failing to recognize their need to receive as well.
Receiving lies at the heart of what it means to be human. Fundamentally, we are needy beings: dependent on God for our existence and all the good gifts of creation, and dependent on one another for community, relationship, sustenance, and so much more. We’re needy. God created us that way.
“It is better to give than to receive.”
That’s not quite right. It is better to receive, and then to give. Only by remaining receivers can we remember who we are and what this story is all about. When we try to become givers, we twist God’s good creation into something it was never intended to be.
And, I think that was part of the mistake Adam and Eve made. There wasn’t anything wrong with the things they wanted in the Garden; food, beauty, and wisdom are tremendous gifts. The problem was that they no longer wanted to receive these from God as gifts, expressions of his grace and glory. Instead, of being receivers, they wanted to be givers, giving themselves what they wanted. Instead of embracing their neediness and vulnerability, standing with hands outstretched and receiving all that God had in store for them, they reached out and took.
In essence, they wanted to put themselves in God’s place. Rejecting dependence, they tried to take control and make the story about them and their glory.
So, they took, and they ate, and they fell.
How many times do I do the same every day?
[You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel book page.]
Audrey was an amazing 30-something woman with a great smile and an exuberant personality. She’d been attending our church for several years and she loved it. Being at church was one of the highlights of her week.
You see, Audrey was a special-needs person. I forget her precise condition, but she was wheelchair bound, could only communicate through a series of grunts, squeals, and hand gestures, and it was often difficult to know how much she really understood about what was happening around her. But, when she was happy, she wanted everyone to know…loudly.
And, Audrey was always happy at church.
Some were pretty vocal about wanting Audrey out of the service. They argued that she was so loud and distracting distracting that it interfered with worship. Who can concentrate with all that noise? And, they were concerned that she would keep visitors from coming back. Who wants to attend a church where you have to put up with that every Sunday?
Only a few voiced their concerns out loud, but my guess is that quite a few nourished the same thoughts quietly.
No one questioned whether she should be part of the church, they just thought that she needed to sit somewhere else. She could come, but she shouldn’t sit with us. Several even proposed that we put her in the nursery since that was the part of the church most suited for noisy attenders.
She could worship, but not with us.
Orderliness vs. Openness
As a parent, I’ve wrestled with a similar question before. Kids are disruptive and distracting. There really isn’t any easy way around it. They’re constantly doing something loud, cute, annoying, or interesting. Whatever it is, it’s distracting. And, when they’re my kids, I worry about how it’s affecting the people around us.
After all, didn’t Paul place a high value on doing things “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40)? If worship is to focus on God, shouldn’t we minimize or even eliminate those things that distract us from that task?
But, the church has always placed a high value as well on openness. Jesus rebuked the disciples when they tried to keep the children from him (Mt. 19:13-15) and Paul sharply criticized the Corinthians for their exclusionary communion practices (1 Cor 11). The Gospel is for everyone, and those who respond to the Gospel are united in Christ with one another through the Spirit.
Orderliness and openness. Both seem pretty important. What do you do when they collide?
The Open Gospel
Like many situations, some examples of orderliness vs. openness seem easier to address. If my 6-month-old has a terrible cold and covers everyone inside a three foot radius with a generous coat of both phlegm and snot, I’m thinking that it’s best to stay home. Likewise, if I find it impossibly distracting that the person singing next to me sounds like a cat caught in the dishwasher (don’t ask me why I know what that sounds like), I should probably get over myself.
But, other situations are much less clear. And, when there’s doubt, I think we should always err on the side of openness. Any other approach sends a message that ultimately undermines the Gospel. When we tell people that they can’t worship with us, we subtly suggest that they’re not good enough, that there’s a bar they have to clear to be worthy of worshiping with God’s people. And, it’s a short step from there to the conclusion that they’re not worthy of God, that there’s something more they need to do or be to merit a place at the table. And that’s not the Gospel.
I’m sure that’s not the message that we intend to send. We’re just trying to be “sensitive” to the others in the congregation. But, regardless of our intentions, that’s the message that often gets received. And it’s a devastating message.
My pastor consistently refused any suggestion that we should remove Audrey from the worship service. I never asked him why. It may have just been because he thought it would be rude. Or, it may have been because there was no other place for her other than the nursery – and putting a 30-year old woman in the nursery just seemed to be a step too far. I don’t know.
But, it taught me something about the Gospel. We all have a place at the table. We’re not pretty, well-behaved, orderly, or nice. We’d like to think that we are. And, we’ll do anything to look like we are. But we’re not. We’re a mess. And God invites us in anyway. I wonder if he finds us distracting?
I don’t know what Audrey’s doing now. She wasn’t even supposed to have lived to 30. So, maybe she’s passed on. But if she hasn’t, I hope she’s singing somewhere.
“My wife and I don’t want to have children. Is that selfish?”
He’s looking at me with complete earnest. This isn’t one of those hypothetical questions. He really expects an answer.
Straight out of Bible school, I quickly run through everything I can remember from my last theology class. Nope, I’m pretty sure we didn’t cover this. Great, now what am I going to do?
So, like all good pastors hit with an unexpected question, I shoot back with one of my own. “What do you mean?” I ask, hoping desperately for some flash of inspiration or suddenly remembered lecture to prepare me for whatever comes next.
“Well,” he continues, “we’re really happy and neither of us are particularly good with kids.” He fidgets a little before continuing, “But, we’re afraid that it’s selfish to keep some child from being born just because we don’t want kids. Is it fair to keep someone from existing just so we can be happy?”
And my brain froze.
But apparently my mouth kept working. He went home after a while thinking that he’d received godly counsel. I should track him down someday and find out what I said.
Now that I’ve had a few years to think about it, I realize what an odd question that was. It’s entirely possible that this couple really did have selfish issues that they needed to work through. Don’t we all? But, how can it be selfish to keep someone from existing? They don’t exist. You can’t owe them anything. Parents shouldn’t have children because they feel obligated to provide existence to these possible people, but because they want to share themselves and their love with their children.
Parents don’t have kids because they somehow owe it to their children. Having children is an act of grace.
Indeed, every act of creation is an act of grace.
For it to be grace, though, it has to be free. When we were living in Scotland, my wife would often take my daughter to one of the thrift shops in town. They loved to browse the various odds and ends that accumulate in a store like that. And, they developed a friendship with the lady who ran the story. Almost every time they left, the shop owner would run over and give Leah some little toy to take with her. The toys were for sale, but she was the kind of person who just loved giving presents and couldn’t stand to see Leah walk away empty-handed.
There were other times when Leah and Mary would buy something in the store. But, that’s not grace; it’s a transaction. For grace to be grace, it has to be free. Indeed, Mary could have insisted that she needed to pay for the toys; they weren’t expensive. But, that would have ruined the gracious nature of the interaction. Grace is gift. And, true gifts are free.
At the same time, grace is unmerited. “Merit” has to do with what you deserve, what you’ve earned. Leah will be coming home with her report card soon. And, since she does very well in school, she will be excited to show us her grades and hear us praise her for how hard she’s worked. She’s excited about her grades because she’s earned them. If she brought home her report card and discovered that her teacher had arbitrarily given her low grades, she would be devastated. She would rightly feel cheated because she’d earned much higher grades, she deserved better. (Now, my wife and I are both teachers, so I am very much aware that students—and their parents—often think they’ve earned much higher grades than they really have. But, let’s assume for the sake of the analogy, that Leah really has earned the higher grades.) Grades aren’t supposed to be arbitrary. They are supposed to be about merit. You earn them.
Paychecks work the same way. If my wife opened her pay statement at the end of the month and discovered that the school district had only paid her half of her salary, she would be upset, and rightly so. She works hard. And, she has an agreement with the school district that they will pay her a certain amount in exchange for that hard work. She’s earned her pay.
Grace works very differently; grace cannot be earned. Grace is gift. Kids understand grace better than adults do. Imagine a five year-old girl bringing her father some present that she has made at school. Has the father earned the present? Does the daughter owe her father a present? Such questions never enter the little girl’s mind. Sadly, the opposite is often true. In reality, many fathers have done much to suggest that they do not deserve the present. They have not been good fathers and have not earned the right to this gift of love. But, again, such questions rarely enter the little girl’s mind. They probably will when she gets older; but, for now, she just wants to give her daddy a present—a gift given regardless of merit.
No created thing deserves to be created. And, it certainly can’t earn its own creation. It just doesn’t work that way.
Every act of creation is a gift.
Every created thing testifies that this story is about God’s grace.
[You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel book page.]
Not all sentences are created equal. Most sit quietly, not doing much to get your attention. Others reach out and slap you upside the head. This was one of those.
I’m on one knee. The ring, a family heirloom, gripped in my right hand. Face upturned, I’ve just asked the Question. All I need now is the Answer.
And then it comes. One of those sentences.
Without a hint of a smile, she looks down at me and says, “Are you kidding?”
Fortunately, I’d placed my left hand on the ground for stability, otherwise I may well have tipped over and fallen into the river. We’d been dating for five years! So, it’s not like this was a surprise. Here I am on one knee, at a romantic location, with a diamond ring in my hand, and she wants to know if I’m kidding? I’m usually pretty good with words, but at that moment…speechless.
Some sentences just have that effect on you.
At the very beginning of the Bible, we run into this kind of sentence. Unfortunately, many of us have heard it so many times that it no longer surprises us. It has lost its shock value. But still, it’s one of the most amazing statements in the entire Bible.
“In the beginning, God created.”
Wait, he did what?
Stop and think about that for a second. God created. First, there was just God. And then he decided to make stuff.
And, why was this so amazing? Because God didn’t need to create. God doesn’t need anything. He is the one who gives everything—life, breath, land, and even time itself (Acts 17:22-34). He’s so far beyond us that he holds the entire universe in one hand, like I might cup a puddle of water in my palm, its existence dependent on me keeping it from dribbling through my fingers into nothingness (Isaiah 40:12). What could he possibly need from creation?
But, if God doesn’t need anything, why create? God was perfect before creation and would have been perfect without creation. So, why bother?
I have a few rules that I use when I teach about God. One of them is that if someone asks me a question beginning with “Why did God…?” I am very likely to answer with “I don’t know.” That only seems fair. Unless God explicitly tells us why he’s done something, we should be very careful about guessing. We’re more likely to describe why we think God should have done something, than say anything about why he actually did it.
Nonetheless, even if we can’t say for sure why God created, we know one of the main things that he does through creation: he glorifies himself. Everything that God made “declares the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1). As the twenty-four elders in the Book of Revelation proclaim, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11). Creation brings glory to God.
At its most basic “glory” refers to how amazingly awesome someone or something is. Think, for example, of an Olympic runner taking a victory lap just after winning her event. Everyone has just witnessed how amazingly awesome she is—her speed, strength, and skill. She displayed her glory in her race, and she continues to display her glory as she runs around the track. Or, consider the glory of a flower. Although not as immediately awe-inspiring as a perfect Olympic performance, the flower has its own glory. Consider the delicacy of its petals, the contour of its stem, the subtle shading of its colors. Amazing. Glory.
Something has glory, then, in the very fact that it is amazing in some way. But, we can also talk about giving glory. That’s what the crowd does as it cheers for the athlete running her victory lap. The crowd does not make her glorious—she’s already displayed her glory in the race. But it recognizes and celebrates her glory by cheering as she takes her victory lap. And, my daughters do the same thing when they rush into the house and drag me into the backyard to witness the glory of the flower, rejoicing in its beauty and unique splendor.
That’s how God’s glory works. Consider God in all his incredible wonder—his love, strength, power, creativity, holiness, wisdom, justice, and so much more. Everything God does displays his glory.
In the end, I can’t explain why, though I intend to ask someday. For now it’s enough to know that by creating God displayed his own awesome glory so that all of creation could respond in worship.
[You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel book page.]