Sunday, December 28, 2014

John Piper on The Legal and Relational Aspects of Forgiveness

Does God respond to us as a judge or as a father?

First, some context. The core of the good news of Jesus is that, even though we're sinners filled with guilt and shame for the evil we've done, God graciously forgives our debt when we put our trust in Jesus. This is unfathomable freedom!

With that context, we find a tough question when we dig deeper: How does this forgiveness thing work? Is God's forgiveness a legal, objective, decisive, once-and-for-all cosmic judicial ruling? Or is God's forgiveness a subjective, relational, emotional, organic, temporal act that is repeated for each of our sins?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Innkeeper

Suffering. We all face it sooner or later. And it can cause us to wrestle fiercely with God when we come to confess that he's sovereign over our pain - that he could stop it but he doesn't sometimes. It's hard - but healthy - to see him truly... Nothing is out of his control.

But he's also compassionate. The good news of the cross teaches us to look at Jesus, who (in God's sovereign plan) looked on us with mercy and suffered for our sakes. He endured a kind of betrayal, mocking, and torture that no one else has ever endured - not merely because of its severity, but infinitely compounded because of how unjust it was. He was morally spotless. He deserved no suffering and suffered worse than I do. But in love, he showed that we were worth it. There was a greater good than avoiding suffering: the salvation of the world! This is amazing news that teaches us, whatever the reason for our suffering, it's not because Jesus withholds his love from us.

Still, when we suffer, it can be hard to relate Jesus' suffering to ours in time and space. Jesus already saved the world by suffering. Further, that greater good was clear to Jesus, so he walked into it with eyes wide open (Heb. 12:2, John 10:11). What about our suffering? What does ours accomplish? Wouldn't it be easier if we too knew what was at stake?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Paul and Tim Keller on Depravity and Deprivation

What's our deepest problem? What causes us to make destructive choices? Is it that there's some depravity within us that innately drives us towards evil? Or is it that we've been wounded and deprived of goodness in a way that causes us to be defensive or lash out?

In the book of First Timothy, the apostle Paul warns and encourages his spiritual son and protégé, Timothy, in various ways. In 1 Timothy 6:4-5 specifically, Paul passionately describes a person who opposes Jesus' character and teaching: "He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain."

There are many important parts of this passage, but one that I want to highlight here is this: A sinful, selfish, person is both "depraved" and "deprived." And though we might not consciously oppose Jesus, Romans 3 makes it clear that we're all sinners.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Paul Miller on Naïvete and Cynicism

Is it possible to experience childlike trust and delight while still acknowledging a reality that contains evil? Or is it necessary either to be naïve (that is, to be numb intellectually) or to be cynical (that is, to be numb emotionally)?

In his book, A Praying Life [2009, p. 83-85], author and teacher Paul Miller sees Jesus offering a wise third way  something Miller calls "tension" and "cautious optimism." Here's an excerpt:

* * *

Jesus does not ignore evil. When he sends the disciples on their first missionary journey, he says, "I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16). The overwhelming temptation when faced with evil is to become a wolf, to become cynical and lose your sheeplike spirit. Jesus tells us to instead be warm but wary  warm like a dove but wary like a serpent.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

C.S. Lewis on Confidence and Humility

Is it possible to be confident and humble at the same time? — to value and use our talents well without thinking we're more valuable than others? Or is it necessary that we either be confident with pride or be humble with self-deprecation?

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis communicates that God's aim is for us to have confident humility (or humble confidence) in Him without it being necessary either for us to be arrogant on the one hand or to debase the value and talents He's given us on the other. Further, this gratitude and diminishing concern for self altogether is an outgrowth of conversion — the change from trusting in ourselves to depending fully on Jesus.

As you may be aware, Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters, for rhetorical effect, as letters from one demon named Screwtape to his demonic nephew, Wormwood. Therefore, "the Enemy" in this passage (from that diabolical perspective) is God; The "patient" is a human like us.

The following quote is all of Chapter/Letter 14.

* * *


The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion. No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue, I gather; not even the expectation of an endowment of “grace” for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation! This is very bad.

I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is especially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, “By jove! I’m being humble,” and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Louis C.K. and Tim Keller on Grief and Joy

I recently saw an interview on the Conan O'Brien show that caught my attention. In this segment, Conan interviewed comedian Louis C.K., who described a deep sadness that he carries:
Underneath everything in your life, there's that thing, that empty - forever empty... It's the knowledge that it's all for nothing and you're alone. It's down there. And sometimes when things clear away, you're not watching it. You're in your car and you start going, 'Oh, no, here it comes - that I'm alone.' It starts to visit on you - You know, just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it.
He went on to recount a time when he chose to let this deep sadness hit him, causing him to cry on the side of the road (Warning, some language):

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

John Gerstner on How Jesus Reconciles Justice and Mercy

In the last post John Piper described how, in some sense, God deeply opposes the sins of murder and the oppression of the innocent, and yet in some mysterious sense God did still will the sinful murder of Jesus, his innocent Son. Because that's a hard teaching, it may be helpful to consider the reason God planned and predestined this tragedy: This event reconciles justice and mercy in a way that gives us eternal life.

Let's consider the ideas of justice and mercy for a moment. If there had never been any injustice in human history, there would be no need for mercy. All would be fair and even. But we all commit injustice, and to this there are only two responses: Justice or mercy.

Which response is best? Paradoxically, both.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

John Piper on Whether Or Not God Wanted Jesus To Be Killed Unjustly

In his essay, Does God Desire All To Be Saved (2013), John Piper faces mystery and paradox in the Bible head-on. As he does so, he soberly admits that "some of the paths in this book are steep," (p. 9) and that "God’s emotional life is infinitely complex beyond our ability to fully comprehend," (p. 45).

The excerpt that I quote below (p. 19-21) is part of a larger argument in his essay, but here I think it can stand alone with integrity.

In this quote, Piper gives his answer to the question, Did God want Jesus to suffer and be killed unjustly or does God not want people killed unjustly? Piper finds that the answer is both.

(Italicized emphasis below is his.)

* * *

The betrayal of Jesus by Judas was a morally evil act inspired immediately by Satan (Luke 22:3). Yet, in Acts 2:23, Peter says, “This Jesus [was] delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” The betrayal was sin, and it involved the instrumentality of Satan, but it was part of God’s ordained plan. That is, there is a sense in which God willed the delivering up of his Son, even though Judas’s act was sin.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Relativity, Quantum Theory, and the EPR Paradox

I am not a physicist, but I do fit the technical definition of an "amateur:" I love learning what I can.

In November 2005, the APS News, a publication of the American Physical Society, published a brief article entitled "Einstein and the EPR Paradox" (Volume 14, No. 10, p.2; pdfweb). The article summarizes a significant paradox that currently exists in the scientific world.

On the one hand, it has been proven mathematically and experimentally that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. This is part of Einstein's theory of relativity, consistent with classical Newtonian physics. On the other hand, there's quantum physics, which seems to be equally true but appears to violate the Newtonian understanding of physics in fundamental ways, casting doubt on the very nature of matter, space, and time.

This excerpt from APS article explains further (bolded emphasis mine):

* * *

By the 1920s, it had become clear to most physicists that classical mechanics could not fully describe the world of atoms, especially the notion of “quanta” first proposed by Planck and further developed by Albert Einstein to explain the photoelectric effect. Physics had to be rebuilt, leading to the emergence of quantum theory.

Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr and others who helped create the theory insisted that there was no meaningful way in which to discuss certain details of an atom’s behavior: for example, one could never predict the precise moment when an atom would emit a quantum of light. But Einstein could never fully accept this innate uncertainty, once famously declaring, “God does not play dice.” He wasn’t alone in his discomfort: Erwin Schrödinger, inventor of the wave function, once declared of quantum mechanics, “I don’t like it, and I’m sorry I ever had anything to do with it.”

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Markus Bockmuehl on the Relationship Between 'Natural' Principles and Kingdom Principles in the Gospels

In his book Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics [2003, (122-126)], Markus Bockmuehl takes time to explore the concept of natural law in documents that were influential in forming early Christian ethics. In the excerpt below, Bockmuehl explains how in the Gospels, Jesus demonstrates a tension between the good order that God originally created and currently exists, and the good new order of the Kingdom of God that is both coming and is now here. (Emphasis below is his.)

* * *

The Jesus tradition, then, does contain a number of measured moral appeals to the created order. Against this, however, must be set several important passages in which Jesus takes up a seemingly 'natural' state of affairs only to subject it to subversion and critique. On the one hand, of course, we find a respect for common customs and institutions, and an ethic that is indeed deeply compatible with universal social needs and human aspirations. On the other hand, the disciples are repeatedly challenged not to give unquestioning assent to the seemingly natural assumptions of the status quo: despite a hearty affirmation of creation, mere allegiance to existing conventions is not good enough.

One of the key subersive texts in this regard appears in the context of the second great statement about the Graeco-Roman political system, a kind of foil to the earlier passage about paying taxes to Caesar:

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller on How Laying Claim To Nothing Makes Us Heirs Of Everything

The words in the title sum up a spiritual dynamic that C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller (among others) are compelled to address as they consider Jesus and Christianity.

In a certain chapter of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis seeks to persuade us that becoming transformed by surrendering to God is a far deeper and more necessary thing than simply being "nice." In doing so, he writes:
Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin. That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works. The question is what Miss Bates' tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick's would be like if he became one. Miss Bates and Dick, as a result of natural causes and early upbringing, have certain temperaments: Christianity professes to put both temperaments under new management if they will allow it to do so. [...]
The manager is going to put in new machinery: before Christ has finished with Miss Bates, she is going to be very "nice" indeed. But if we left it at that, it would sound as though Christ's only aim was to pull Miss Bates up to the same level on which Dick had been all along. We have been talking, in fact, as if Dick were all right; as if Christianity was something nasty people needed and nice ones could afford to do without; and as if niceness was all that God demanded. But this would be a fatal mistake. The truth is that in God's eyes Dick Firkin needs "saving" every bit as much as Miss Bates. In one sense (I will explain what sense in a moment) niceness hardly comes into the question.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Wayne Grudem on Scripture, Reason, and Paradox

The following is an excerpt from Wayne Grudem's volume, Systematic Theology. I'm lifting it from a section in which Grudem introduces the idea of systematic theology (pp. 34-35). (As you may know, systematic theology is thinking about God topic-by-topic.) It's worth noting that while Grudem here makes a number of assertions and easily affirms paradox, he takes about twelve hundred pages to discuss and apply these ideas.

(The italics in the text below are in Grudem's original.)

* * *

We find in the New Testament that Jesus and the New Testament authors will often quote a verse of Scripture and then draw logical conclusions from it. They reason from Scripture. It is therefore not wrong to use human understanding, human logic, and human reason to draw conclusions from the statements of Scripture. Nevertheless, when we reason and draw what we think to be correct logical deductions from Scripture, we sometimes make mistakes. The deductions we draw from the statements of Scripture are not equal to the statements of Scripture themselves in certainty or authority, for our ability to reason and draw conclusions is not the ultimate standard of truth - only Scripture is.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

G.K. Chesterton on His Discovering the Paradox of Christianity

The following is a quote from Chapter 6 of G.K. Chesteron's work, Orthodoxy, first published in 1908. The entire chapter develops the thoughts expressed in these quotes, but here I'm posting just a short excerpt (pp. 91-96).

* * *
As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind—the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness. In case any reader has not come across the thing I mean, I will give such instances as I remember at random of this self-contradiction in the sceptical attack. I give four or five of them; there are fifty more.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sam Storms on Word and Spirit (and Other Tensions) in the Christian Life

Sam Storms is known, among other things, for teaching that the Word and Spirit should converge in the church and Christian life. Below is a chart in which he contrasts numerous points of emphasis within two streams of evangelical Christianity.

Storms has published this chart in several places where it can be viewed in its greater context, including his website and his 2005 book, Convergence: Spiritual Journeys of a Charismatic Calvinist (111-113). (In that book, he qualifies that items in the chart are envisioned as tendencies rather than rigid categories, and that none of these observations are intended to judge one side or the other [111, 117].)

Some of the points below are topics of debate since they relate directly to the issue of whether or not certain gifts of the Holy Spirit continue today. I find that other items in the chart, while salient to that specific discussion, also represent points of healthy tension in Christian theology and experience in general.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Mathematician Dr. James Grime on Zeno's Paradox

Paradox does not exist purely in theology or philosophy; It's also found in mathematics and physics, often where infinity is concerned. The paradoxes of an ancient philosopher named Zeno are good examples of this.

Below, from the YouTube channel "Numberphile," is a good mathematical explanation of Zeno's paradoxes. (Not to mention we get to hear "tor-toise" pronounced phonetically.) At 6:07, Dr. Grime summarizes the two truths that stand in paradox: "So it sounds like I'm saying that you can complete an infinite process. Now, an infinite process doesn't have a last step. So how can something without a last step be completed? And that's the paradox."


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Charles Spurgeon on God's Sovereignty and Man's Responsibility

The following is a quote of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, from his sermon “Sovereign Grace and Man’s Responsibility,” originally delivered Sunday morning, August 1, 1858, at the Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens, London.

(My thanks to Adrian Warnock for drawing my attention to this quote by posting it to his blog.)

* * *

The system of truth is not one straight line, but two. No man will ever get a right view of the gospel until he knows how to look at the two lines at once.

I am taught in one book to believe that what I sow I shall reap: I am taught in another place, that “it is not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.”

Friday, January 31, 2014

John Piper and Mark Noll on Race and Christianity

The following is an excerpt from John Piper's 2011 book, Bloodlines (227-230). In this passage, Piper extensively quotes Mark Noll's God and Race in American Politics: A Short History (177-181). Both of these men summarize not only the complex relationship of Christianity and race in American history, but also the way the Christian message itself accounts for the seeming contradictions this complexity causes.

* * *

I conclude by confessing sin, warning against chronological smugness, and pleading for persevering sacrifice.

There is no point in trying to hide the fact that the Bible has been used by Americans to justify both race-based, demeaning slavery and its abolition. Mark Noll’s book God and Race in American Politics: A Short History clarifies this painful confession. With an eye for concrete (incarnational) stories and meticulous historical detail, Noll is above all a seer of the both-and. Or call it paradox. Or historical conundrum. There are no simple explanations.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Lesslie Newbigin on the Gospel And Paradox

To begin this post, I think it's fitting to explain briefly why I haven't continued writing on the subject matter of tension on this website as I'd originally intended. The reason is simple, really; It's a big subject and I'd like to be thorough.

I've enjoyed some fruitful thought about this. Nonetheless, until I consider my conclusions more developed, I'd like simply to post relevant quotes and examples of tension and paradox in theology, philosophy, and experience.

(And as I've written in another post, my goal in highlighting tension is not to play fast and loose with the truth. Rather, it's to bring attention to the fact that in some cases the truth cannot fully be grasped without "the other hand.")

To this end, I'd like to share a quote by Lesslie Newbigin on paradox found in the good news of Jesus.

* * *
“We know that sin and suffering belong together, not as an accident, but by a necessary connection. They ought to belong together - and that is another way of saying that God punishes sin. That is not an Old Testament doctrine abrogated by the gospel. It is taught by Jesus in the Gospels with an absoluteness that is nowhere exceeded in the Old Testament.