Aren’t Justice and Mercy Incompatible by Definition?

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Recently at White Fields we have been studying through the Book of Jonah. Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria – a violent and imperialistic nation which posed a clear and present danger to the very existence of Israel. And Jonah was called to take them a message which carried with it the promise of mercy if they would repent of their sins and turn to the Lord.

Archaeologists and historians who have studied the Assyrian Empire report things such as human sacrifice, furniture upholstered with human skin, pyramids of human skulls, how they would put hooks in the faces of captives and leading them around by chains…

So it is not surprising that one of Jonah’s hesitations with going to Nineveh was that he didn’t think it would be fair for God to show mercy to people who did such terrible things. Jonah struggled with the question of how God could still be just if he were to forgive these sins and show them mercy.

This is a question many people struggle with:  If you forgive someone, then what about justice?  Can anyone just do anything they want and then say sorry, and suddenly it’s okay, and there are no repercussions? Where’s the justice in that?

For this reason, some people are hesitant to forgive those who have hurt them: because it kind of feels like in that case, they are getting away with it, or you are saying that it wasn’t a big deal — even though it was. (More on this topic here: Does Forgiving Mean Forgetting?)

One of the great promises of the Bible is that God is just, and even if we don’t see it in our lifetime, there will be justice.  Nothing is hidden from the eyes of God, and He will deal justly with every hurtful action and every wrongdoing. This gives us great comfort in the face of injustice, corruption and unfair and unethical behavior that we see or which touches our lives.

In the Psalms, the Psalmist often bemoans the injustice that he sees in the world: that those who lie, cheat and steal get ahead, at the expense of those who are fair and honest. Nice guys finish last. Good doesn’t always defeat evil. However, the Psalmist then goes on to comfort himself with the knowledge that, in the end, God will bring about justice: there is no wrong deed that will not go unpunished.

There’s only one problem with that:    ALL of us have done wrong things. Without exception…

So the problem with justice is: if God is totally just and judges every wrong deed, then that means that He will have to not only judge those who have sinned against us, but He will have to judge us as well.

But then, the Bible gives us the good news: for those who turn to the Lord, He will give them mercy!

But here’s the thing:   The definition of Justice is:  Giving someone what they deserve. On the other hand, the definition of Mercy is:  NOT giving someone what they deserve.

So, by definition: if you show someone mercy, then you are no longer being just! The two are diametrically opposed. So, if God shows mercy, doesn’t that mean He is no longer being just? Does one of God’s attributes therefore contradict another one of His attributes?

Isn’t mercy therefore a travesty of justice?

One of the great tensions of the Old Testament is the question of how God can be both Just and Merciful at the same time.

In my last post I wrote about another one of these great tensions: the question of whether the covenant with God is conditional or unconditional.

Neither of these tensions are actually resolved in the Old Testament. They only find their resolution in the New Testament – in Jesus.

The way that God can be both just and merciful at the same time, is because Jesus took all of the righteous judgment that we deserved, so that God could show us mercy. In this way, God remains completely just, and yet is able to show mercy without compromising his justice. In this way, He is both just and the justifier of the one who trusts in Jesus by faith. (Romans 3:26)

In Jesus, the Judge of all the Earth came to the Earth and took our judgment HIMSELF, so that we could be saved. It was the ultimate act of grace. 

Whereas justice is giving someone what they deserve, and mercy is not giving someone what they deserve, grace is giving someone something they don’t deserve.

Jesus is the answer to all the riddles.

Is God’s Love Conditional or Unconditional?

As a young Christian, I remember hearing that God’s love is unconditional. And yet, I also heard that it was necessary to believe in Jesus and embrace the gospel in order to become a child of God and receive salvation. Is that a “condition”? Is God’s love really unconditional?

I saw an interesting conversation online yesterday. It was a discussion over what was being taught at a certain church in regard to salvation, the love of God and the work of Jesus on the cross.

Recently William Paul Young, the author of The Shack, released his first non-fiction book: Lies We Believe About God, in which he lays out what he believes. I happened to see this book on the shelf at Walmart recently, alongside a bunch of other books in the religion/spirituality realm which I hope that no-one will ever read because of their aberrant/heterodox theology and claims about God.

Here’s a word of advice: As a rule, don’t buy books about God / Spirituality / Theology from Walmart.

Basically, in Lies We Believe About God, William Paul Young comes out as a full-fledged universalist; he believes that all people will be saved, that God doesn’t require anything of us, that the idea of Hell is a creation of Medieval Christendom for the purpose of manipulating people into submission, and that no matter someone does or believes, they are a child of God and will therefore be saved and have eternal life.

Of course, these beliefs fly in the face of what the Bible clearly teaches and what Christians have taught and believed for 2000 years. For an explanation of the content of this book and a response to it, check out this great article from the Gospel Coalition.

How this ties into the online discussion that I witnessed yesterday, was that this church which had embraced the views of Wm. Paul Young and had taken a hard turn towards universalist theology. As a result, some people had left the church while others had embraced this teaching.

The crux of both this online conversation and the beliefs of William Paul Young is the question of whether the love of God is conditional or unconditional. The one thing that was assumed as true by all, is that God’s love is unconditional, which then created some issues, questions and difficulties for those on both sides…

Some made the conclusion that if God’s love is unconditional, then even the requirement that one must believe in Jesus constitutes a condition! Therefore, they conclude: ‘believing in Jesus must not be necessary for salvation.’ Furthermore, they conclude: ‘God does not require anything of us in order to accept us as his children, since he loves us unconditionally, and therefore all people are children of God simply by virtue of having been created, and therefore all of the promises of the Bible which pertain to the “children of God” belong to all people universally, no matter what they do or believe.’

Others, who hold orthodox Christian beliefs, disagreed with this, pointing out that Jesus himself clearly taught that unless one believes in Him they will not have salvation (John 3:18), and that the status of “Child of God” is reserved for those who believe (John 1:12). They struggled, however, to explain how these things did not constitute “conditions” – which would then contradict the claim that God’s love is “unconditional.”

So what is the answer? Is God’s love conditional or unconditional?

First of all, I do believe that God loves all people, but the question of whether all people have salvation or are in a covenant relationship with God is another issue.

This question of whether the covenant with God is conditional or unconditional is one of the great tensions of the Old Testament. In some places, it seems to be saying that God will love and bless and be faithful to his people unconditionally, no matter what they do. Yet, in other places it seems to be saying that the covenant is conditional, that certain requirements must be met in order for it to apply.

This tension builds and builds throughout the Old Testament, but is never actually resolved… UNTIL we get to Jesus!

In Jesus, the question is answered and the tension is resolved. The message of the gospel is that Jesus met all of the conditions of the covenant so that IN HIM (and only in Him) God can love us and accept us unconditionally.

The message of the gospel is that Jesus met all of the conditions of the covenant so that IN HIM (and only in Him) God can love us and accept us unconditionally.

Jesus is the answer to all the riddles.

Is God’s love conditional or unconditional? The answer is: Yes.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus met all the righteous requirements of the Law, he fulfilled all of the conditions of the covenant, once and for all, on our behalf, so that if we are “in Him” by faith, then we are declared righteous, we are justified, and we have become children of God. Apart from Jesus, there is no such promise or hope. This is why the gospel is truly good news!

Much aberrant theology comes from deficient Christology.

May we be those who make much of Jesus and who celebrate the gospel: “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to His saints.” (Colossians 1:26)

What is Over-Realized Eschatology?

Oftentimes the word “eschatology” is thought of only in terms of the timeline of Jesus’ return. This is one aspect, but certainly not the full meaning of what eschatology is. “Eschatology” means the study of final or ultimate things. It comes from the word “eschaton,” which means “final event” or “culmination.”

The promise of the gospel is that because of what Jesus accomplished in his life, death and resurrection, ultimately, one day, God will wipe away every tear and sickness and death and all of the effects of the curse of sin will be eradicated forever (Revelation 21:1-4 , among others), and that there will be a new heavens and new Earth, a renewed and restored and redeemed creation in which all things are the way that God designed them to be apart from the curse of sin and death. That is the “eschatological (final/ultimate) hope” of the Bible for those who are “in Christ.”

In this sense, all of Christianity is eschatological, in that it hopes in and looks to a final culmination in which certain things will take place. Conversely, any form of “Christianity” that doesn’t have hold to this eschatological hope is arguably no longer true Christianity.

I have been reading Randy Alcorn’s book, Heaven recently. I picked it up expecting it to be a tedious read full of sentimentality, but I’ve been plesantly surprised. Instead, it presents a systematic theology of heaven, which reveals that this eschatological hope is much more material and physical than many Christians commonly think. If you haven’t read the book, I recommend you check it out.

Many of the problems with how people understand Christianity derive from misunderstandings about this eschaological hope and our place in relation to it today.

The picture the Bible uses to describe this place where we are at in history is: Dawn. Dawn is that in-between time after the first light of morning has broken the darkness of night – but before the sun has crested the horizon and driven out the darkness completely. During the dawn, light and dark are both present at the same time. But the promise of dawn is that the full day will come, it is only a matter of time.

Another picture the Bible uses to help us understand the world and our place in it, in relation to the eschaton, is Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, in which Jesus describes the world as a field in which God planted good seed, but an enemy came in and planted bad seed. The farmer then makes the surprising decision to allow the wheat and the weeds to grow together until the harvest, at which time they will be separated – the wheat brought into the storehouse and the weeds burned. This is a picture of the world we live in, where good and evil are both present, and God is fully committed to eradicating evil, but the day to do so has not yet come, thus these two “kingdoms” currently exist in the world at the same time, and yet the eschatological promise is that the kindgom of darkness and evil will be eradicated at the eschaton. (I recently taught a sermon on this parable. Click here to listen to it.)

An “over-realized eschatology” is when someone expects that the eschatological hope of Christianity is already here and now. They might say, Well, if Jesus has come and the Kingdom has come, then there should no longer be evil in the world, everyone should be healed of sickness, there should be no poverty or suffering, and everything should be the way that God designed it to be NOW, and if you believe well enough, or have enough faith, you will experience it.

This leads to what is sometimes called a “prosperity gospel,” which is best understood as an over-realized eschatology which expects something which will ultimately happen for those who are in Christ to happen right now. One of the problems with it is that it places an incredible burden on people by telling them, “If you’re not healthy and wealthy, it must be because you are doing it wrong.” It fails to take into account the nature of the world and our time and place in God’s plan of redemption, not to mention the sovereignty of God.

Converesely, there is such a thing as an under-realized eschatology. This is one which does not recognize that with the coming of Jesus into the world, the Kingdom of God has come to this world, even if not yet in fullness.
Both over- and under- realized eschatology fails to take hold of the “already, but not yet” nature of our unique place in time: after Jesus’ death and resurrection and before the eschaton – which is illustrated by the picture of dawn and the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.

Here is a good explanation of this principle from John Piper. The whole video is good, but the last part addresses this specifically:

Luther’s Big Anniversary

This year marks 500 years since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther – a German monk and professor of theology – nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This act is considered the official beginning of the Reformation.

To celebrate this anniversary some European countries have declared special events and programs. Ukraine, for example, has declared an official program called R500 that includes special teaching in public schools about the Reformation and Protestants. This is particularly interesting considering how Protestants in Eastern Ukraine have suffered persecution from separatist authorities.

In honor of this anniversary I’ll be posting some of my favorite quotes from Luther over the next few months. I grew up going to Lutheran school, so I have some familiarity with him and affinity for him.

Luther’s Large Catechism begins with some insight about the first commandment:

The First Commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods before Me

That is: Thou shalt have and worship Me alone as thy God.

What is the force of this, and how is it to be understood? What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God?

Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust be right, then is your god also true; and, on the other hand, if your trust be false and wrong, then you have not the true God; for these two belong together faith and God. That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.

Therefore it is the intent of this commandment to require true faith and trust of the heart which settles upon the only true God and clings to Him alone. That is as much as to say: “See to it that you let Me alone be your God, and never seek another,” i.e.: Whatever you lack of good things, expect it of Me, and look to Me for it, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, creep and cling to Me. I, yes, I, will give you enough and help you out of every need; only let not your heart cleave to or rest in any other.

To read the continuation, click here.

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made? What About Those Born Handicapped?

A few days ago I received a question from someone in our church:

Psalm 139 says: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

How is this true of those born with birth defects?

This past Sunday we started a class at White Fields called Christianity 101. The goal of the class is to teach people the core doctrines of Christianity over the course of 4 weeks. The first week covers the topic of: Who is God? To answer this question, we look at the various attributes of God and then consider: 1) the implications of that attribute for people in general, and 2) the application for you and your life in particular.

Before looking at the attributes of God, we begin with the question with which the Westminster Catechism begins: What is the chief end of man? Answer: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

What you find is that as you consider multiple attributes of God, the implications of these attributes compound together to answer questions like the one above.

For example, God is:

  • Sovereign (does what He wants, see: Psalm 115:3)
  • Omniscient (knows everything)
  • Omnipotent (can do anything)
  • Righteous (good)
  • Love
  • Immutable (having integrity, unchanging)

If all of these are true at the same time and all the time (that’s where the immutability comes in), then it helps us to determine an answer to many questions, including the one above.

The other factor to take into consideration is this: “the whole world lies under the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). We live in a fallen, broken world, which Jesus came to redeem, but as it stands now, “all of creation waits with eager longing…in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For…the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for…the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:18-25)

In other words: We live in a broken world, where things are not the way that they “should be.” One day, everything will be made right, because of the redeeming work of Jesus. As it is now, God can do anything, and He does whatever He wants, but He doesn’t always do everything that we think He should do. We must remember though, that He knows more than we do, and that everything He does (or doesn’t do) is based on love, and is for our ultimate good and for his ultimate glory.

One of the verses in the Bible that I find most encouraging is Revelation 16:7. In this section, we are reading about the vision that God gave John about the future and how, in the end, God wins and defeats evil for good. In this particular section, John is having a vision of heaven, and many people standing before the throne, after believers have been killed for their faith. And this is the statement that is spoken in heaven: “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments.”

In other words: there are a lot of things that happen here on Earth, about which we wonder: How is that fair? How can a good, loving God allow that to happen? But here is what this verse is telling us: that one day, when we get God’s perspective on things, the perspective that you can only have from heaven, you too will say: every judgment you made, O God, was right and true. You may not see it now, but you will. That’s the promise.

Regarding the omniscience of God, and that He has created us for His glory, it is like the time when Jesus’ disciples asked him about a man born blind:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:1-3)

God created us for His glory. That means that we are not the owners of our lives — we are tenants. (I will be talking about that subject this coming Sunday at White Fields as we study the Parable of the Tenants).

A few years ago, when our daughter was born, she suffered a severe oxygen deficiency which caused brain damage. She was in a coma for a week, and we were told she would be seriously handicapped for the rest of her life. During that time, my wife and I grieved, and we sought the Lord, both for our daughter’s healing, but also to give us the grace and strength to be able to handle whatever happened. We came to the conclusion, that no matter what happened, we wanted our daughter to be happy and to love God and know that He loved her. The fact is, that there are many mentally handicapped people who are happy and have a very pure love for God.
This week, I ran across this video about people with Down’s Syndrome being asked why they were so happy and why they love themselves and other people so much. It’s worth watching.

In the end, God healed our daughter. I’ve written about that story here if you’re interested in reading it: I Believe in Miracles. Here’s Why. If He hadn’t, we’d still love and trust Him, and our hearts do go out to those whose loved ones have not been healed…yet. That is the hope that we have in Jesus — that for those who are in Christ, it is only a matter of time before all is made right.

Maranatha. Come quickly Lord Jesus!

What Does it Mean that Jesus is the Son of God?

This week I’m hosting Calvary Live, a call-in radio show on GraceFM. One of the questions I received yesterday from a listener is a very common point of confusion:

If the Bible says Jesus is the Son of God, how is it that Christians say that he is God?

I answered this question on the air yesterday, but then got a follow-up question via email. Here are my responses; hopefully they will help others who have similar questions.

Understanding the Term “Son of God”

The term Son of God is used in reference to Jesus many times in the New Testament. In John 20:31, John says: “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” If believing that Jesus is the Son of God is so important, it is essential that we understand what that means.

“Son of Man” / “Son of God” / God the Son

Three different titles are often used of Jesus. Here’s what each of them refers to:

  1. Son of Man: This title is used 88 times in the New Testament, often by Jesus in reference to himself. It is a Messianic title which comes from the Old Testament book of Daniel: Daniel 7:13-14.
    By calling himself the “Son of Man,” Jesus is saying two things about himself: 1) He is the Messiah, 2) He is fully human. This is important, because there are those who are called monophysiteswho believe that Jesus only had one (mono) nature (physis), i.e. that he was either fully human or fully deity, but not both. This position is held by the Coptic (Egyptian) church, but is generally considered heterodox.
  2. Son of God: Refers to Jesus’ authority and deity. Thus by saying that Jesus is the Son of Man and the Son of God, the Bible is teaching that Jesus was at the same time: fully human, the Messiah, and fully God. More on this below.
  3. God the Son: Refers to Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. For great resources on the Trinity and the deity of Christ, click here.

“Son of God” refers to nature and authority, not to origin

Jesus is not the Son of God in the sense that he is God’s “offspring,” rather this term must be understood in light of how the term “Son of ______” was used in ancient, and specifically Hebrew, thinking/language.

One writer puts it this way:

The word “son” was employed among the Semites to signify not only filiation, but other close connexion or intimate relationship. Thus, “a son of strength” was a hero, a warrior, “son of wickedness” a wicked man, “sons of pride” wild beasts, “son of possession” a possessor, “son of pledging” a hostage, “son of lightning” a swift bird, “son of death” one doomed to death, “son of a bow” an arrow, “son of Belial” a wicked man, “sons of prophets” disciples of prophets etc. The title “son of God” was applied in the Old Testament to persons having any special relationship with God.
But the Messiah, the Chosen One, the Elect of God, was par excellence called the Son of God (Psalm 2:7)

So, to be THE Son of God was a title reserved for the Messiah (or Christ in Greek). This is very clear from several verses which equate the term “Son of God” with the Christ/Messiah.
For example: John 20:31 – …so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God…  or Matthew 26:63 – the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

However, when Jesus answers that question, affirming that he is the Son of God – he is accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Why would claiming to be the Son of God be considered blasphemy and worthy of a death sentence? It’s because the Jewish leaders understand exactly what the phrase “Son of God” meant: to be the Son of God meant to be of the same nature as God, in other words: to be God. That claim was considered blasphemy and according to Leviticus 24:15-16, a blasphemer was to be put to death.

We see this very clearly in an interaction between Jesus and a crowd in Jerusalem:

Jesus said… “I and the Father are one.”

Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”

“We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (John 10:30-33)

Hebrews 1:3 expresses this concept that the term “Son of God” refers to Jesus being of the exact nature as God, i.e. Jesus is God:

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being.” (Hebrews 1:3)

Not only did Jesus directly claim to be God – which was the very reason why the Jewish authorities demanded that he be executed, but Jesus made several other claims to the fact of his deity:

  1. Jesus invoked the ancient and sacred name of God (I am) in speaking of himself. For this reason, the Jewish people tried to stone him on more than one occasion, for example: John 8:58-59 – Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
  2. Jesus claimed to do things that only God could do, such as forgive sins (Matthew 9:1-8) and resurrect the dead (John 11:25)

So Son of God refers to Jesus nature and authority, not to his origin.

The opening verses of the Gospel of John makes it clear that Jesus did not come into being when he was born as a baby in Bethlehem, but that he had existed from eternity past, as he is indeed God made manifest in human flesh.

The understanding that the Messiah is in fact God himself, come to the world in human flesh, is found in the Old Testament

Perhaps the best, but certainly not the only example of this is found in Isaiah 9, where speaking of the Messiah, it says:

For to us a child is born, (a human child who will be born)
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end, (eternal).   (Isaiah 9:6-7)

Does Isaiah 53:10 say that Jesus is God’s “offspring”?

The question I got from another listener in response to this answer was asking if Isaiah 53:10 doesn’t actually refer to Jesus as the “offspring” of God.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

The answer is very simple: the “offspring” referred to here is the offspring not of “the Lord,” but of the “suffering servant” (the one whose soul is made an offering for guilt).

What this is referring to is how, through Jesus’ death, many others would come to (spiritual) life.

This is actually referenced to by Jesus in John 12:24, but in order to see this, we have to understand that the word translated into English as “offspring” is literally the word “seed”.

Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds (offspring).”  (John 12:24)

Isaiah 53:10 therefore, is not referring to Jesus as God’s offspring, but referring to those who will come to new life as a result of Jesus’ sacrificial death.

I hope this helps make sense of these things! Thanks for reading; if you have any comments or further questions, please write them below.

Good Friday: The Great Exchange

103 the crucifixion of christ-tintoretto

The good news of Good Friday is that “It is finished!” (John 19:30) Because of that, we can rest from our labors of trying to justify ourselves, and we can revel in hope, because not only were our sins imputed to Jesus, but his righteousness was imputed to us.

This is what it means when it says: “For our sake, He (God) made Him (Jesus), who knew no sin, to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

It’s the most astonishing exchange of all time: for those who receive Him (John 1:12), all of your sinfulness was placed on Him, and in return all of His righteousness was accounted to you.

Jürgen Moltmann puts it this way:

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” (from The Crucified God)

Moltmann goes on to say:

God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.

May your Good Friday be filled with reflection upon, appreciation for and response to what Jesus did for you on Calvary, the ultimate expression of God’s love for you!

 

Back to School

Yesterday I received my letter of acceptance from London School of Theology, where I will begin my postgraduate studies starting this September to get a Master of Arts in Integrative Theology.

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I will be studying via distance learning, which means I won’t have to travel at all and will be able to make my own schedule, both of which are important to me since I’m a full-time pastor and have a family at home. I looked into a local school in Colorado, but I prefer the British approach to education. Also, British schools are more affordable than US schools when it comes to studying Christian theology because in the US it is only taught in private universities because of the separation of church and state – whereas in the UK public universities can have theology departments. I would recommend Americans who want to study theology to really consider looking into studying via distance learning in Britain.

I’m excited to go back to school and continue my theological education. It’s been nice taking a year off, but I am ready to get back into it.

I am still in Kyiv; I fly home tomorrow morning. Today I got to visit Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary and speak to the students and staff.

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The faculty and students of Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary

Several months ago I met a couple who live in Berthoud, CO who run an organization called Ukraine Orphan Outreach. It was through them that I got connected to people at the seminary, and as it turns out there are several people from Calvary Chapel in Ukraine who work and study there.

I was impressed with their school and its mission: “To strengthen churches and transform society” – as well as the work they are doing to accomplish that. Having an interdenominational evangelical seminary in Ukraine is a great asset to the church here.

The school has many students from outside of Ukraine, and recently they started a second campus of their school in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. They also operate several mini-campuses in cities around Ukraine, for people who want to study with them but have difficulty coming to Kyiv.

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A class at UETS

I’m praying that God uses and blesses the work of UETS to raise up and train many ministers of the gospel to work in this country and the former republics of the Soviet Union.

Politics and Identity

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Over the past few weeks, I, like many of you, have been following the political developments in the U.S. In such a caustic and antagonistic climate, I would much rather be known for my stance on Jesus Christ and the message of the gospel than for my personal convictions about political matters. That is the drum that I will beat and the hill I will be willing to die on.

Why is it that the political climate is so caustic and people are so divided? According to many sociologists, philosophers and theologians, the issue is one of identity: namely, that one of the most common ways that people create identity is through “the exclusion of the Other.”

According to Zygmunt Bauman, “We can’t create ‘Us’ without also creating ‘Them.’ Social belonging happens only as some other contrasting group is labeled as the Different or the Other. We bolster our identity by seeing others in a negative light and by excluding them in some way.” (Modernity and Ambivalence, p. 8)

In other words: I can feel I am one of the good people because I know I am not one of the bad people. Therefore the “Other” must be degraded, excluded and/or vilified in order for me to have a sense of self-worth.

Croatian theologian and professor at Yale University, Miroslav Wolf, in his book Exclusion and Embrace, says that the reason we indulge in these attitudes and practices is that by denouncing and blaming the Other it gives us “the illusion of sinlessness and strength.”

One great example of this, Timothy Keller points out, is: “If I find my identity in working for liberal political and social causes, it is inevitable that I will scorn conservatives, and the same goes for conservatives regarding liberals. In fact, if the feelings of loathing toward the opposition are not there, it might be concluded that my political position is not very close to the core of who I am.” (Making Sense of God, p. 145)

In order to do this, Wolf says, we must “over-bind” and “over-separate”: To over-separate means to fail to recognize what we do have in common, and to over-bind means to refuse other people the right to be different from us.

This practice is common in many areas, not just in regard to politics.

Keller goes on to say: “If my identity rests to a great degree in being moral and religious, then I will disdain those people I think of as immoral. If my self-worth is bound up with being a hardworking person, I will look down on those whom I consider lazy. As the postmodernists rightly point out, this condescending attitude toward the Other is part of how identity works, how we feel good and significant.” (Ibid.)

Jesus himself gave an example of this:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 ESV

Jesus is describing people who excluded, degraded and vilified others for the purpose of bolstering their own sense of self-worth, value and identity. However, much to their surprise, Jesus tells them that God does not play this game – in fact, he is very much opposed to it, because it is rooted in pride and self-justification rather than humility.

What then is the solution?

The solution is this: we must find our identity not in being better than others, but in who we are in God’s eyes, because of what Jesus has done for us. We need an identity which is centered on the Cross.

The fact that Jesus went to the cross to die for our salvation is both a profound statement of our sin and failure, and at the same time the greatest expression of love and of our value to God. In this sense, my identity and value is not based on me being better than other people – rather it does not allow me to see myself as better than others. I, like them, have sinned and fallen short. My value, according to the gospel, is that God loves me so much that he was willing to pay the greatest cost and hold nothing back; he is that devoted and committed to me.

May we be those who find our identity in Christ, rather than in our political or other affiliations, and may the way Christians express their political views not be a hindrance to the message of the gospel.