Christian Truth is in the Service of Christian Love

In the introduction to his book First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics, Kevin Vanhoozer writes this, which is worthy of a devotional thought for today:

Christian truth is in the service of Christian love. If I speak in the tongues of Reformers and of professional theologians, and I have not personal faith in Christ, my theology is nothing but the noisy beating of a snare drum. And if I have analytic powers and the gift of creating coherent conceptual systems of theology, so as to remove liberal objections, and have not personal hope in God, I am nothing. And if I give myself to resolving the debate between supra and infralapsarianism, and to defending inerrancy, and to learning the Westminster Catechism, yea, even the larger one, so as to recite it by heart backwards and forwards, and have not love, I have gained nothing.

This one thing I know: there is no more vital task facing Christians today than responding faithfully to Scripture as God’s authoritative speech acts — not because the book is holy but because the Lord is, and because the Bible is his Word, the chief means we have of coming to know Jesus Christ.

Those who interpret the Bible rightly — those who look and live along the text, following the written words to the living Word — will have rightly ordered loves and rightly ordered lives. The apostle Paul leaves us in no doubt as to either his first theology or his first love: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).

Kevin Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture, & Hermeneutics (IVP Academic, 2002), 40-41

The Positives in the Negatives

but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5:8 ESV

Sin. The blood of Jesus. The wrath of God. Judgement. Aren’t these just negative, primitive, obscene and off-putting terms? Isn’t what we need in our modern world a much more palatable, positive type of religion which avoids these ideas and instead focuses on affirmation?

Imagine for a moment that you are standing on a busy street with a friend, and that friend says to you: “Let me show you how much I love you,” and then throws themselves in front of an oncoming bus, and dies.

You would probably think: “What in the world did he do that for?! What a tragic and pointless waste of a life!”

But now imagine that that bus was headed straight for you, but your friend acted to save you from certain death at the risk, no – at the cost of their own life. You would say: “Truly, that person loved me.”

Unless you understand the depth of the problem, you will never understand the extent of God’s love for you. That is why we can’t do away with terms and concepts like blood, judgment, wrath and sin.

Blood, for example, has both very negative and a very positive connotations – and both are important for understanding the central message of Christianity.

On the one hand, blood speaks of brokenness and guilt. If you have blood spurting out of your body, then something is broken, perhaps even mortally so. We use phrases like “blood on your hands” and “blood on your head” to refer to guilt.

And yet, blood also has positive connotations: “Life is in the blood” the Bible says. If you don’t have blood in you, you don’t have life. Every baby who is born comes into the world with the shedding of blood. Blood which is shed voluntarily for the sake of another is a heroic act of self-giving. It is through the shedding of Jesus’ blood that he causes us to be born again to new life.

I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain. (Galatians 2:21 NKJV)

What the verse above is saying is that if it were possible for a person to earn salvation by being good enough, then we could save ourselves, and if we can save ourselves, then Jesus Christ died in vain.

If we could save ourselves, Christ’s death was pointless, meaningless and tragic – like a person who throws themselves in front of a bus for no reason. But if we understand the depth of the problem from which Jesus saved us, then Christ’s death will mean everything to us, it will be an overwhelmingly positive act which affirms God’s love for us. It will change the way we think about God and ourselves, and it will change the way we live from that day forward and how we relate to others. Understanding what God saved us from fills us with 1) humility, so we don’t consider ourselves better than anyone or look down on anyone, and 2) confidence, that God truly loves me and is for me.

It is within these “negative” concepts that we find the overwhelmingly positive message of the gospel – a message which is infinitely more positive than any mere patronizing platitudes. If it is positivity and affirmation you desire, then it isn’t a circumvention of sin, wrath, judgement and blood that you need, but a b-line to the cross of Calvary, where these were in full force and God’s love was displayed in giving Himself to save all who would receive His gift by faith.

Is Christianity Just Another Form of Self-Seeking?

I received this question from a reader recently:
What would you say to someone who claims that “all people watch out for themselves first, even Christians come to their faith in order to selfishly serve themselves and to secure a positive afterlife.”?
I would respond to this claim by pointing out that the Christian ethic is acutely opposed to selfishness. This is exemplified by our God who self-sacrificially gave himself for us; forfeiting glory in exchange for shame, dishonor, discomfort, and death in order to save us. We are then encouraged throughout the New Testament to follow that example in how we relate to others: to lay down our lives for the sake of God’s mission, which is to rescue people out of darkness and death. Christians are encouraged to not seek our own good first, but to sacrifice for the good of others.
A great scripture on this is Philippians 2:3-8:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
When it comes to salvation, it is too simplistic to claim that Christianity is only about obtaining a “get out of hell free card.” Jesus said in John 17:3 that the essence of eternal life is knowing God; this means that for Christians, salvation is more than just being saved in the afterlife, it is being saved in the here and now, essentially giving up your life here on Earth for God’s plans and purposes, and this life of salvation continues on beyond death – which is what humans were originally created for to begin with, but which was ruined by sin (and the curse of sin, which is death).
This person would not be wrong in saying that many people turn to Christianity for purely selfish reasons. This is nothing new. A lot of people look to God as useful to them, but when you understand the Gospel, that changes: you begin to no longer see God as useful, you begin to see Him as beautiful, and that becomes your motivation in worshiping and serving him.
Do you see God primarily as useful or as beautiful?
Just because some people “do it wrong” doesn’t mean that the flaw is with Christianity. In fact, Jesus himself criticized such people harshly – particularly the Pharisees, who sought to use religion for selfish gain rather than giving up their lives to serve God and serve others. Jesus said that anyone who tries to hold onto their life will lose it, but only the person who gives up their life for the sake of the gospel will find it. The gospel he is referring to is the mission of God to rescue people – thus what he’s describing is a life of sacrificial love and service to others, which helps work out God’s plan for their life (that they would know God and be rescued from sin and death both now and for eternity).
One last thing: this person seems to be making a common assumption: that selflessness is the highest virtue. Consider this quote from CS Lewis on this topic:
If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness.  But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love.  You see what has happened?  A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance.  The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.  I do not thik this is the Christian virtue of Love.  The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.  We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.  If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.  Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.
– CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory 
For more on this, check out this article from the CS Lewis foundation, which goes into more depth on the topic of ethics and virtues.

The God Who Likes You

I was talking with a friend from church last night and we got to talking about the topic of “brokenness”.

This friend of mine referenced Psalm 51:17 “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” – and then he said a phrase which I found particularly interesting: “My God likes broken people.”

He wasn’t saying that God likes to break people – he was saying that, much rather than despising broken people, the God of the Bible actually likes them, in the sense of having affinity for them.

That reminded me of something: We as Christians tend to use the word “love” so much that it can lose it’s impact and weight; and even though “love” is supposed to be more than “like”, it would seem that because of our overuse, and perhaps mis-portrayal of the nature of “love”, “like” might actually have more significance to it.

Here’s what I mean: I have heard Christians say things to this effect: “I guess I have to love that person because I’m a Christian… but I sure don’t like them!”

I think that many times we even portray God’s love as a begrudging obligation which he has to do, but that doesn’t mean he has to “like” you!   For example:  “Well, I’m sure God loves that person (because He’s God and He doesn’t have a choice because He has to love everybody…)  but I’m sure that God LIKES me more than He likes that person…”

When we portray love as a dutiful thing which God and Christians are required to do, even if they don’t want to, “liking” people is what is left (at least in this perspective) to a person’s choice. It is in this sense that it actually means more to “like” someone than it does to “love” someone, because loving them is an obligation, but liking them is a choice.

I believe that God’s message to us would be: I don’t only love you, but I even like you!  I like the unique person I’ve made you to be!  I may not like your faults, but I came and died for those things, so that they could be put to death and the person I created you to be could be revealed to an ever-increasing degree. 

Furthermore, I believe that God would call us to not only “love” people out of obligation and duty, something you begrudgingly have to do, but I believe that God would call us to genuinely like people, choosing to have affinity for them and the unique people that God created them to be.

The other important area this gets into is the understanding that “Love”, as described in the Bible, is not primarily a feeling, but an action. To truly love someone is to will and to act for their good. Liking someone, on the other hand, is a feeling rather than an action.

Where our culture has gotten things mixed up is that we forget that love is primarily an action, not an emotion, and the result of this is that we end up contriving “loving” feelings for people for whom we feel no affinity. What is required of us is not the feeling of affinity, but the action of love. However, it is my experience that the feelings of affinity are one of the direct results of actions of love.

God showed his love for you in this: that while you were yet at enmity with him, he gave his son for you. Why? Because he wanted to save you and spend eternity with you. Why? Because he actually likes you.

 

Who is Barabbas?

Barabbas.

You might know the name.

The religious leaders of Jerusalem wanted to have Jesus killed for what they considered blasphemy: that he, a man, would say that he was God. The problem was, the Romans had taken away from them the right to execute capital punishment. Only the Roman authorities were allowed to carry out executions now.

So the religious leaders took Jesus to the occupying Roman authorities and they accused Jesus of being a usurper who had set himself up as King of the Jews – who intended to lead the people in a rebellion against Caesar.

Pontius Pilate knew that this was a ruse, but because he was afriad of the people rioting, which would be bad for him politically, he came up with a plan that he was sure would work: he chose the worst criminal he could find, and he reminded the people of the custom of that day, which was to pardon and release one prison of the people's choosing because of the feast of Passover.

The man Pilate chose was Barabbas – a rebel and a murderer.

Pilate was sure that the people would make the obvious choice, and release the innocent man – but he was wrong.

And as the people shouted “Crucify Him” about Jesus, Pilate washed his hands before the people, emphasizing that this was not what he wanted – and then…

the chains fell from Barabbas' arms and legs. And an innocent man was led to his death, and an unquestionably guilty man walked free.

Barabbas deserved to die. But he didn't. Jesus, the innocent one, died instead. And as a result, Barabbas was forgiven – the record of his wrongs was not held against him, nor would it ever be. Barabbas was given a clean slate.

Do you know who Barabbas is? Barabbas is YOU! Barabbas is ME!

You, me – we are the rebel – the one who deserved to die, but instead, the innocent one, Jesus died in our place, and as a result, we can walk free. The chains have fallen away. He died and now we live.

With Barabbas, what is striking is the injustice of the story – that a sinful man walked free, but a man who had done no wrong was executed. That is the very nature of grace – it isn't fair. It isn't fair that Jesus would suffer and be crushed for things he didn't do.

It's not fair, it's LOVE.

 

Acknowledging the Beauty of the Body

I don’t know how many times I have heard it or read it before. People referring to this phrase that Jesus said:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (‭John‬ ‭13‬:‭34-35‬ ESV)

But almost EVERY single time I heave heard or read someone refer to this statement, it is followed by commentary along these lines:

  • Jesus said people would know that we’re his disciples by our love for each other; and you’re not doing it well enough!
  • Jesus said people would know that we’re his disciples by our love for each other, not by our doctrinal purity!
  • Jesus said people would know that we’re his disciples by our love for each other, so do it better!

I spent this past weekend in Washington State and British Columbia. A dear friend of ours from our church in Hungary passed away, and his funeral was on Saturday in Langley, BC.

When I heard that this friend passed away, I called some friends in Everett, WA, where the husband is the pastor of Calvary Chapel Everett, to ask if they might be able to help me out if I were to try to attend the funeral. They quickly told me to go ahead and book the tickets and they would work out the rest: lodging, rides, etc. I also got in touch with people from my friend’s church in Langley to tell them I was trying to come, and they responded the exact same way.

This whole past weekend was spent with people from these two churches in Everett and Langley. A couple from the church in Everett picked me up at the airport and drove me to Everett, where a car and a place to stay the night were prepared for me. Of course, this was all done by people I had never met before

On Friday I drove up to British Columbia, and that night went to stay with a family from Christ Covenant Church. As soon as I arrived they welcomed me, and then I went with them to their church community group, where we ate, studied the Bible and sang and prayed together. Again, I had never met these people before, but they treated me like a long lost family member. There was something we had in common, a bond which was stronger than race, citizenship or accent (it was surprising how strong that Canadian accent can be!).

We went home and I ended up staying up until 2 AM conversing with the couple about so many things regarding our shared faith.The next day was the funeral, which consisted of 3 parts at 3 locations over the course of the whole day. During this time I got to see how well our friend’s wife was being cared for and loved by her church community there in Langley. And I felt loved and cared for by that community as well

I returned to Everett, where I preached at Calvary Chapel yesterday morning, and was once again loved and welcomed like a long-unseen family member.

This weekend left me considering those words of Jesus, and the commentary which is almost always attached to them – and it made me think: that’s what Jesus was talking about!

And to all those people bemoaning the perceived lack of love amongst Christians: I disagree with you. In my experience, the church has been the most beautiful, wonderful, true community. It’s something I want to be a part of. It’s something I believe in. Yes, it has its spots and wrinkles and blemishes, because it is made up of flawed people, but it is wonderful – and I come away from this weekend and the love that I experienced in amongst those Christians with the feeling of: THAT is what Jesus was talking about when he said that we will be known as His disciples by the love that we have for one another.

It doesn’t take a genius to identify weaknesses or problems or find fault; the basest among us is capable of that. To put it frankly: any moron can do that! But it takes nobility to identify beauty and light and goodness.

I talked to someone a while back, who, upon hearing that I was a pastor, immediately assumed that I would agree with her, that church is just the worst! She said that in her opinion, “Church is a necessary evil.” I told her that I couldn’t possibly disagree more! I love the Church! I believe in the Church! It is the most wonderful, most beautiful thing in the World! It is the Body of Christ, in the world, living out his mission and being his hands and feet.

How do you think this woman’s children are going to view the church as they grow up if she continues in this kind of attitude? Most likely, they will think of the Church as a “necessary evil” too. They might choose to attend when they are adults, but they will have been trained to look at it with a critical, cynical eye. I do not want that for my children! I want my children to grow up LOVING the church and seeing the beauty in it, and knowing it as the most wonderful, most loving community in the world – and one that they want to be a part of, not because they have to, but because it is so wonderful. And they should believe in it – because Jesus ordained it for OUR good, and for the good of the whole world!

And for this reason, my wife and I have determined never to speak badly of someone from church or discuss tension or bad things that people from the church have done in front of our kids, because we want them to love the Body of Christ rather than grow up cynical about it, considering it a “necessary evil”. (And may I say: far be it from any of us to use the word “evil” in reference to something ordained by our Lord! How can we call bad what the Lord called good for us and for the world?)

So, love the church! And keep on loving each other. And don’t always talk about how it’s lacking; recognize and acknowledge and rejoice in the beauty of this loving community, which is the Body of Christ, where Jesus’ disciples do indeed show love one for another, in a way that is a testimony to the world.

Give…expecting nothing in return

One of the sayings of Jesus that I find most inspiring and challenging is in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 6, where Jesus says:

“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.

(Luke 6:32-35 ESV)

Most of us do things for others with at least some expectation that we will receive something in return. If we are nice to others, we expect that they will be nice to us in return. If they are not, we tend to get upset about it.

Many of us give with the expectation, that at least the recipient will be appreciative of our generosity.

Many of us love, with the expectation that our love will be reciprocated – and if it is not, then we tend to “clam up”, because to love is to make oneself vulnerable, and unreciprocated love leaves us more vulnerable than reciprocated love.

But here is Jesus challenging us toward something that does not come naturally: to GIVE, expecting nothing in return.

Nothing.

Why? Because that is how God loves.  And if you do that, then you will understand the heart of the Father in a profound way, and you will be like Him. Because He gives to the ungrateful and the evil – He blesses people who don’t deserve it and don’t even appreciate it.  

If He gets nothing out of it, then why does He do it?   Because that is what divine love does: it gives, not as a means of coercion, but simply gives out of pure love.

I want to be that kind of person, to my wife, to my kids, to those around me – even to my “enemies”. This is the vision; only by the grace of God can I carry it out.

David and Jonathan: Man Love

Tomorrow at White Fields I will be teaching 1 Samuel 18 – which begins with David and Jonathan’s friendship. The text says that the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul (18:1).

This epic friendship between Jonathan and David includes Jonathan giving up his right to the throne in order to allow David to take the place given to him by God. Later on Jonathan helps protect David from Jonathan’s father, King Saul, who is determined to kill David.

After Jonathan’s death at the end of 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel begins with David’s mourning over the loss of his friend, which includes this statement: “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.” (2 Samuel 1:26).

This statement of David’s has led some to believe that David and Jonathan were more than just friends, that they were actually lovers.

The word “love” in the Greek Septuagint is the word “agape” – as opposed to “eros” (erotic, sensual love) – so it is quite clear that David is not talking about “making love” with Jonathan, but about a deep bond between these two men which was deeper, richer and more profound than any romantic relationship.

And therein is an important point that is being made in the text here: that the deepest bonds between people are not based on physical intimacy, but on sharing the same heart and desires and by being in the trenches together through hard times and good – such an important principle to keep in mind in regard to marriage as well. Marriage can’t only be built on a physical romantic relationship – it has to be built on a spiritual bond and a friendship as well. This is part of the reason why the Bible tells Christians not to be unequally yoked: because the spiritual bond, the same heart for God is an important building block for a solid marriage relationship.