Sunday, December 6, 2009

Dekker's "Thr3e" - Pelagianism Alive and Well

I have to admit it: I'm a junky for the psycho-thrillers. Movies, that is, not books. I can tell you that watching "The Ring" in 2002 marked a coming of age for me and my movie-going experiences. So, when a friend told me about this Christian fellow, Ted Dekker, whose novel was made into a nail-biting thriller, I was intrigued.

The movie, Thr3e, was released in 2006. I recently had the opportunity to watch the film with friends on home video. Not that I'm a movie critic (nor is this blog devoted to such content), but I will tell you that from a purely entertainment standpoint, it's well worth the view. Low-budget, for sure, but behind the lackluster cinematography and screenplay, the plot alone is enough to keep one's attention. I have no doubt the book is equally worthy.

But, while the film is entertaining, the undertones presented by an outspoken Christian author are cause for viewer discretion to be advised. As the plot unfolds, we find seminary student Kevin Parson entangled in classic predicaments which force him to face his own sins and deepest secrets. Meanwhile, Parson is struggling to complete his doctoral thesis--a work on the nature of evil within man--which contains the theological message that viewers (whether aware of it or not) are asked to believe based on the story presented.

What the student, Parson, posits in his thesis soon becomes the reality of his life. (Warning: if you haven't watched the film and plan to, what follows may be a spoiler for you). The three main characters--Parson, his warm-hearted friend Sam, and the evil antagonist Slater--are eventually exposed as mere alter-egos of the skitzophrenic Parson. In the dramatic scene where the mystery is revealed, Parson's thesis is cited regarding the three (hence the title) natures that he argues every man contains: the evil, the good, and the moral creature struggling in between.

Had I not known of the author's professed faith, I would not have given the plot a second thought. It cannot be overlooked, however, that the Christian author Tim Dekker is offering his audience more than just an exciting plot. He is offering a statement on philosophy with deep theological implications.

Is man really entangled in such an epic battle? Are we torn within ourselves between the good nature and the evil? Scripture, church fathers, and historic doctrine all say no--and I humbly submit that I, too, deny an ounce of "good" in unredeemed Man. Man, outside of the redemption which comes through Christ, is not torn at all. There is no struggle. There is no epic battle of moral disposition. Man is, and has been since the fall, full of sin. "Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned" (Romans 5:12).

Though Pelagius' heresy was identified and condemned at its outset in the 4th century, his teaching has permeated the Church, both pre and post reformation. Not only so, but his notions of a morally-torn man struggling against and capable to overcome evil has been the tune of countless religions in every culture throughout history. Indeed, the Spirit's work in the world is not merely to reveal Christ as perfect and good, it is also to convict men that they, contrary to popular belief, are quite the opposite.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Who do you think you are?

A little over 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson penned a statement (amid a much longer document) that stated his belief that all men are created equal. 55 other men put their signatures on the document, affirming that they, too, believed this and the accompanying statements that it supported. Do you know what was so equal about these 55 men? They were all white males who owned black people because they didn't see them as equal--which meant, in turn, they didn't see them as men.

The problem with the perspective of our founding fathers was not their self-image. They knew they were white. They knew they were males. The problem was the inherent value that they placed on these qualities.

In the last few verses of Galatians 3, we find Paul charging something very similar. His opponents, the judaisers, were not incorrect in their self assessment. They were indeed Jews. They were indeed freemen. They were indeed male. And, as an interesting tidbit of historical context, those three attributes comprised a common prayer for the Jewish member of a synagogue in the 1st century--not unlike (though not identical to) the haughty prayer of the Pharisee in Luke 18.

The Judaisers were not wrong, however, in that they were Jews. They were male. They were freemen. They were wrong, however, in the ultimate relevance of these facts to the matter of their own righteousness.

However, this topic burrows far deeper into the theological and doctrinal realms than mere social justice and racial equality. In the verses that follow, the first 7 verses of Galatians 4, Paul goes on to describe exactly what sort of equal playing field "we"--both Jews and Gentiles--are all on. Paul describes all of God's sons as once being children, and as children, likened to slaves. Under the guide of masters, children are held prisoner to the most basic of rules--such as the Law.

But Christ, born of a woman under the Law, redeemed us. The language is very reminiscent of Exodus 13, where firstborn sons belong to God and must be killed, that is unless redeemed by the blood of a spotless lamb. So, then, having been redeemed in similar fashion we are spared from death and reinstated our "full rights" as sons--nay, even heirs, as if to say firstborn sons. As a deposit of this inheritance--since, after all, we are sons--God sent the Spirit of His Son.

So, up to this point you may be thinking that all this amount to the very familiar doctrine of the atonement. Where does all that "burrowing far deeper into the theological and doctrinal realms" come from? Well, ask yourself this. In the description Paul gives in this text, is there ever a moment when we are not children, even before we are redeemed and given full rights as sons? As Paul teaches his readers the right view of their humble beginnings with God, he is sure to remind them that God foreknew them and redeemed them with purpose.

Moreover, the spirit of the sonship is not just a deposit. He is not just sent to help us live as heirs. He is not just sent to give us special powers and supernatural abilities as God's children. No, it is the Spirit Himself who actually cries "abba, Father." The Spirit is not sent to those who believe, it is sent to those to believe.

So, who do you think you are? Are you the religiously pious overly confident in your own righteousness. Are you the spiritually insightful one who found God and pursued Him with all your might? Are you the loving soul mimicking Christ as you try to bring Heaven to earth? Or, are you the child, born a child of God, redeemed by His son, and even given the very Spirit by which you cry out to your Father?

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Did father Abraham really have many sons?

Well, if you grew up in a Sunday School like I did, you probably already have an answer for that. Of course he did, and many sons had Father Abraham, too. But, being the antagonist that I am, I have to ask: what does Scripture say?

In our study of Galatians, we find ourselves this week in the latter half of chapter 3 where Paul makes a startling statement about this Abrahamic lineage. Whereas Paul's Jewish opponents in the church would have been firmly rooted in their belief that their descent from Abraham warranted their higher importance in God's view, Paul has a new revelation for them. "The Scripture does not say 'and to seeds,' meaning many people, but 'and to your seed,' meaning one person, who is Christ" (Galatians 3:16).

The promise, specifically that of inheriting the aptly deemed "Promised Land," was given not to many children of Abraham, but to one. In the words of the Apostle Paul, God had in view just one of Abraham's seed that would inherit the land as promised. Now, Paul was no amateur Bible scholar, either. The Hebrew does indeed support the singular use of this term. So what do we make of it?

By contrast, of course, the Jews would quickly recall Moses' words in Deuteronomy 32:46-47. At this second reading of the Law, the young nation was promised that if they obeyed fully they "will live long in the land." That was the promise, after all. God swore on oath to give Abraham's seed the land of Canaan. Now, here they are at the border of the land and God promises them that it will indeed be theirs... on one condition. Obey fully.

But this kind of agreement, Paul points out, is not consistent with the idea of a promise. It's two-sided and conditional, and put in place by a Mediator. "A mediator, however, does not represent just one party; but God is one" (Galatians 3:20). God is one and in His promise it was He alone who would ensure the inheritance. So, is there conflict here? Does the Law as stated above contradict the promise?

"Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not!" (Galatians 3:21). In fact, there was one person who pulled it all off. By the Law, one man did obey fully. He did fulfill the Law--every letter. He did earn His inheritance just as God had promised. Christ, the God-man! Jesus Christ, the seed of Abraham and begotten of the Father, inherited the land according to the promise.

"Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham" (Galatians 3:7). By faith, we are not only adopted, saved, forgiven, justified, and made pure for presentation to God. We're made into the very image of Christ. We are "clothed" in Him. All the perfection that He accomplished is imputed to us, and in so multiplying the person of Christ by imputing Himself onto His people, God is making Abraham's one seed as numerous as the sands on the seashore.

As the song goes: "Father Abraham had many sons. Many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them..." Are you?

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Promise of the Spirit: A Defense of Credobaptism

Well, there's nothing like coming right out in the title and saying what this article is all about, eh? No creative tricky titles from this guy. I'll just lay it out there. Unless, of course, you have no idea what Credobaptism means and what I might be defending it against. It's quite simple really: do you take the plunge only after you believe, as an adult presumably, or should we in the Church baptize our infants (paedobaptism) as a sign of the promise much like the descendants of Abraham did with circumcision?

If you're new to the debate, the arguments on both sides are compelling. On the one hand, why would you baptize any infant without the ability to flex a sphincter, much less confess their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? On the other hand, Israel, God's chosen people, were instructed to mark the members of their community at just eight days old with an indelible mark, so what's the beef?

Circumcision was not credo-circumcion. No, infact, I'm quite sure few people would opt for that route. It was a sign given by God to remind Abraham and his descendants after him of the promise that God had made, and had not yet fulfilled.

We have the same promise today. Christ is said to have inaugurated eschatology. The kingdom is already but not yet. We are forgiven by Christ's past atoning death and resurrection, but we await the final and complete installment of His glorious kingdom and our glorified bodies when He returns. We wait.

But we do not wait without a reminder. Like Abraham, we were given a sign. God did not leave us without a tangible reminder of His eternal promise. What, then, is this reminder of which I speak? The sprinkling of some Evian on a baby yet in diapers? Is that how indelible, how powerful, how unforgettable and life-transforming the reminder of God's promise really is to us?

Well, if you read the title. You'll know that my answer is indeed, No. Instead, "Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory" (Ephesians 1:13-14).

Gosh, that language sure sounds reminiscent of circumcision, doesn't it. And, to add to the debate, Paul's argument to the Galatians echos the same notion. How could the Galatians be confident that circumcision was of no value to them? But of course, they had already received the Spirit, the promise. What purpose, then, could circumcision hold for a person already marked with an indelible seal which, more than simply reminding, even guaranteed what was to come.

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Exclusive Christianity: There is Not Other Gospel

Wow. What a harsh title. Isn't it just typical of some egotistical Christian to think he is the only one who is right. How absurd and closed minded the Church must be to have such a narrow view. With all the wisdom, all the great thinkers, all the various people on earth and differing views which constitute a celebratory diversity for so many modern thinkers... how can we be so backwards to think we're the only people right on the face of this grand planet?

In our study of Galatians this week, we took a closer look at Paul's outrageous claims in chapter 1:6-8. "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel... But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!"

Eternally Condemned? What was the crime worthy of such a judgment? To turn from the Gospel, perverting it from it's original truth. This leaves one of two options: either Paul was inescapably close-minded and unloving, warranting the complete dismissal of this and all his writings, or there must be something crucially important to the Gospel. So crucial, in fact, that to pollute the message with any falsehoods is a capital crime, worthy of death. Which is it?

While we may be under the impression that diversity of thought is good, that perpetual evolution of truth is the ultimate reality, and that any and all claims to exclusive truth must be folly--the reality is that these sentiments are not consistent with a Biblical outlook. Any perversion--modification, addition, revision, or outright restatement--of the Gospel will ultimately fail in one or both of the following ways:
  1. Failure to acknowledge the gravity of our sinful nature, which ultimately leads to idolatry of Man.
  2. Failure to recognize God’s complete character as He has revealed Himself, which leads to idolatry of a created god.

At the core of the issue is God, not man. The charge that Paul, and evangelical Christians today, are in fact intolerant and closed-minded will attempt to center the debate around man. The exclusivity of the Gospel has become an issue of Man's creativity and the assumption that it is our right to determine truth for ourselves. Inasmuch as this is the case, we are already idolaters.

The simple fact is that the Gospel is about God, not man. God desires that all men worship Him, and yet this cannot come about by spreading false testimony about Him--a false Gospel that is, as Paul said, really no Gospel at all.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Apostolic Authority

As we start digging into our study of Galatians this Sunday, the first topic that comes up is one that many would find odd to study from Scripture. Paul, the author of the letter, enters into a lengthy discourse about his own position of authority. In so doing, he describes his independence of the authority of Peter, James, and John--the ones who are called pillars. His claims seem brash, boastful, and downright arrogant. And, in fact, they would be just that if it weren't for one simple fact: he's right!

Apostolic authority is a subject often assumed, but rarely discussed in Bible studies. Why do we care so much what a renegade Jew who traveled Eastern Europe wrote on the matter of Christianity. What gives him the right to dictate for us the doctrines, teaching, and even the very Gospel which cannot be contradicted by any man, nor even an angel from heaven (Gal. 1:8)?

Paul builds his defense first drawing upon the source of his knowledge. Paul was clear in Galatians 1:11-12 that he received this gospel from no man, but from Christ himself. I asked a class, what would have been different if Saul had believed upon hearing Steven's sermon in Acts 7? The answer: he would not have met the qualifications as an Apostle. But when God was pleased to reveal His Son to Paul (1:15), then he received Christ by special revelation from the resurrected Christ.

What Paul so adamantly defends, no other teacher, pastor, missionary, or theologian in the church today can assert. Paul's authority is apostolic. As one who received the gospel direct from Christ, and learned direct from Christ, his office in the church is uniquely authoritative. There were 12 others with the same station in the early church. Some of whom wrote instruction to the early church, along with Paul, that we still have today. And, because of the authority we know to be true in Apostles, this collection of Apostolic writing is counted infallible, as the words of the prophets who came before.

No other Christian thinker, teacher, theologian, clergy, or otherwise has written anything which the evangelical community would consider God-breathed scripture. As we study Paul's authority in the first two chapters of Galatians, then, we study the basis for Biblical authority. This is the reason that we can debate Luther, but not Paul... or that we can dispute Augustine's writings, but not Peter's... or this very blog, for instance, but not the writings of James, John, and the other New Testament writers.

So, knowing the authority with which Paul's words come, how then should we hold these teachings in our own lives? I rarely get more animated in an argument than when someone opposes the clear teaching of scripture. I tolerate direct disagreement from my students gladly, but nothing angers me more deeply than when they refuse to yield to the authoritative, Apostolic writing of Paul, Peter, James, John, or any of those reputed to be pillars.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Discipline of Dying

Over the past year (or maybe even longer) I've been working on writing here and there when I have the spare time. The end goal: a new book on the Sovereignty of God. I'm excited to announce that it's nearly complete, but that's not really the point of my post today. Today, I share an excerpt fresh off the press.

For about 3 months now, there has been a chapter left hanging. Incomplete. Wrapped in an enigma I not only failed to solve (which is never my aim) but I could not even begin to explore it. The chapter was on Moral Imperative, and the question: in view of God's absolute sovereignty, why even try?

Finally, it hit me (I think, at least. I'll let the comments on this post be the judge as to whether it makes the final cut). The reality is that we do not try. We die. But, lest that seem a mere platitude of escapism, do not forget that when we die we do. There is no trying in God's law, there is only doing. Be perfect. Be holy.

I wish that believers everywhere would find far less comfort in the limited success of their efforts to obey. Instead, when faced daily with the realities of our iniquity, we ought to learn the discipline of dying to self—self-motivation, self-sufficiency, self-reliance—and living in Christ's power. We ought to "carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body" (2 Corinthians 4:10).

When we believe the lie that we, as Christian people, are somehow empowered now to live perfect lives, the reality of our present life lived in a dead carcass not yet regenerated will ultimately lead to disparity and defeat. We are, even after confessing Christ and receiving the Spirit, defeated by the moral imperatives of Scripture. And here, once again, in our present weakness we find strength only in God's power—His absolute sovereignty to work in and through us.

We know the folly of believing that one can earn salvation without the atonement of the cross. We are helpless but for His mercy. How much more foolish, then, after one's acceptance of Christ's atonement to go on in the Christian life pursuing moral imperative by our own will? How blinded have we become to take the same imperative which once drove us to our knees at the foot of the cross and later attempt its perfection within ourselves. No, the truth of the Gospel is that we must continually return to the cross, "to proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26) so as to confess with the Apostle Paul that "I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me" (1 Corinthians 15:10).

The Spirit's work in sanctification is not unlike His work in justification. Whereas we find righteousness through the imperatives of Scripture only when we die by the Law and receive Christ's imputed righteousness, so too does the Spirit sanctify us by the same imperatives which continually teach us to depend on Him for life. A deep thirst for Scripture is instilled in God's elect as a provision of God with the chief purpose that we find there not instruction for how to now succeed as Christians, but a perpetual conviction that we must "die every day" (1 Corinthians 15:31).

That is the discipline of dying. Scripture drives us to our knees begging for God's mercy more than once in the Christian life. Life by the Spirit begins in utter dependence on God and therein it must also continue.

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