Reading Log 2010

My reading goal when 2010 began, inspired in part by Trevin Wax’s average 100 books in a year, was to read one book a week. Given the shape this past year actually took, not surprisingly, I didn’t get anywhere near that goal. Instead, I averaged just about one book every two weeks (excluding teaching preparation, commentaries, and articles of any kind). Here they are, beginning with the most recent and moving backwards:

Generous Justice by Timothy J. Keller

The Doctrine of the Word of God by John M. Frame

The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth edited by John Webster

Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft

Discovering the Mind of a Woman by Ken Nair

What is the Gospel by Greg Gilbert

You Can Change by Tim Chester

A Gospel Primer for Christians by Milton Vincent

Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West by Lamin Sanneh

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe





Psalm 36 - The Blindness of Sin and the Hope of the Gospel


Text: Psalm 36:1-2


1 Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes.
2 For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.

Context:

Penned by David, Psalm 36 is, in the words of Derek Kidner “a psalm of powerful contrasts, a glimpse of human wickedness at its most malevolent, and divine goodness in its many-sided fullness. . . . Few psalms cover so great a range in so short a span.” The Psalm opens with a condemning and all-encompassing indictment of the wicked. Vv. 1-4 explain that evil infects not only the deeds and desires of the ungodly, but their heart, their eyes, their self-appraisal, their words, their will, their deeds, and their plans. Not just part but the whole of our being is consumed, given “over” and “up” (as the language of Romans 1 puts it), to willfully embracing the native desires of our fallen hearts. This corruption is so complete that transgression itself speaks “deep in his heart.” The picture here is one of a conscious turned in on itself: warped and mangled.

How very contrary is this to the messages we hear in literature, music, art, and entertainment? Again and again we’re told: “Just listen to your heart. Follow to the still, small voice inside you. And above all, be true to yourself.” Such is the power of sin that even our most inward part, the very center of our being, tells us to abandon God and live for our selves.

Interestingly, the psalm goes on to explain that the reason there is “no fear of God before their eyes” (v. 1) is because they “flatter [themselves] in [their] own eyes” (v. 2a). Pride blinds us, in other words, so that our iniquity literally “cannot be found out or hated” (v. 2b). As long as we oppose humility—defending ourselves and minimizing what we think, feel, and do—not only can we not dislodge and do away with sin, we cannot even see it. What possible hope is there if the entirety of our being, every faculty of mind and body, has been captivated by this self-glorifying addiction to love ourselves first?

Implication (Gospel):

Our hope comes from the gospel. As John Piper put it most recently, “There is no other object of knowledge in the universe that exposes proud, man-exalting thinking like the cross does. Only humble, Christ-exalting thinking can survive in the presence of the cross. The effect of the cross on our thinking is not cut off thinking about God, but to confound boasting in the presence of God.”

The cross exposes us simultaneously to the horrific depths of our sin—this is what it took for God to save us—as well as to the breath-taking depths of God’s love—this is what God was willing to do to save us. The cross humbles us by saying, “You are not loveable; but you are loved.” The gospel proclaims to us, in a single, unbelievable breath, that we are both more warped and sinful than we ever dared think and yet more loved and accepted that we ever dared dream. In this way, the gospel exposes to us how oppressive, disgusting, and ultimately suicidal our self-centeredness really is not by condemning us for it but by confronting us with the absolute and utter selflessness of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Application (Life):

Today I will distrust my natural instincts, thoughts, and feelings and instead focus on giving up my life in the pursuit of loving God and others.

“capacitating the incapacitated”


George Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit”
from The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth
Those who are awakened to lifelong conversion by the Spirit never cease to be sinners themselves. Yet despite their continuing sinfulness, the miracle of grace never ceases in the hearts (183).

What the miraculous operation of the Holy Spirit brings about [in conversion] . . . is not essentially restoration or healing but resurrection from the dead (184).

Since to be a sinner means to be incapacitated, grace means capacitating the incapacitated despite their incapacitation. Sinners capacitated by grace remain helpless in themselves. Grace does not perfect and exceed human nature in its sorry plight so much as contradict and overrule it.

In this miraculous and mysterious way, by grace alone—that is, through a continual contradiction of nature by grace that results in a provisional conjunction of opposites (coniunctio oppositorum)—the blind see, the lame walk, and the dead are raised to new life (cf. Matt. 11:4) (185).

Psalm 34 - God’s Hidden Presence and the Righteous vs. the Wicked


Text: Psalm 34:15-1


15 The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry.
16 The face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth.
17 When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.
18 The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.
19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all.
20 He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.
21 Affliction will slay the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
22 The LORD redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

Context:

The title of Psalm 34 begins: “Of David, when he changed his behavior before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.” The story of David and king Abimelech (or, Achish) is recorded in 1 Samuel 21:10-15. On the run from Saul, David is captured by a foreign army and taken before the king of Gath with this somewhat anecdotal charge: “Is not this David the king of the land? Did they not sing to one another of him in dances, ‘Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands’?” (1 Sam. 21:11). In other words: “Here we have found a foreign trespasser, a royal enemy of the state, and an incredibly dangerous and brutal one at that.” Fearing for his life, v. 13 tells us that David “changed his behavior before the [unsuspecting] king” and began to “pretend to be insane.” Upon seeing David’s condition, Abimelech chastised his soldiers and sent David away.

What’s interesting to me about this Psalm is how absent God appears in 1 Samuel 21, and yet how full of praise to God David is when he reflects back on the incident. Everything about the narrative points not toward a miraculous rescue by some mysterious, divine Presence, but to a much simpler explanation: David saved himself. After all, it was David’s quick thinking and clever actions that fooled the king of Gath and led to his freedom. Nowhere is it mentioned that God was at work. And yet, all through Psalm 34, David gives God the glory for his deliverance.

Another interesting element is the clear delineation (particularly in vv. 15-22) David sees between God’s treatment of the righteous and his treatment of “those who do evil” (i.e., “the wicked”). For example: God’s “face” is toward the righteous, His ears are open to their cry, and He delivers them from “all their troubles.” On the other hand, the Lord’s face is “against those who do evil” to “cut off the memory of them from the earth.” Similarly, while affliction, although besetting the righteous, will never ultimately overtaking them, it will (in the end) destroy and condemn the wicked. In all of this we see that, although God is a God of love, He is also a God of unrelenting justice.

Implication (Gospel):

My problem with God’s justice is this: I’m on the wrong side of it. Contrary to the fears and anxieties that most commonly beset me (fears about money, relationships, and reputation mostly), in reality, the biggest problem in my life is God himself. You see, if God’s orientation toward a person is so deeply effected by their righteousness (or lack thereof) what hope do I have of getting anything other than the worst that Psalm 34 says awaits the wicked?

The gospel answers this question by telling me that real hope lies not in cobbling together some pathetic and self-glorifying righteousness of my own, but instead in admitting my abject spiritual poverty and laying hold of Christ. Take vv. 15 and 16 for instance: the only reason God’s eyes are upon me and his ears “open to my cry” (v. 15) is because (on the cross) He set his face against Jesus to cut him off the memory of “those who do evil” from the earth (v. 16). In other words, Christ, the righteous, became as “those who do evil” so that I, the one who really does “do evil,” might become righteous.

Or, to use vv. 21 and 22: on the cross, Christ took the place of the wicked—being slain by my afflictions and experiencing the condemnation I deserved (v. 21)—so that, through this act of substitution, my life might be redeemed and the promise fulfilled: “none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned” (v. 22).

Application (Life):

Today I will focus on two things: one, recognizing God’s help and aid in the mundane things of life (i.e., in those place where I wouldn’t naturally see Him act work); and, two, giving up my worthless and prideful pursuit of earning righteousness in order to relying more and more on Christ.

Psalm 33 - What Do You Trust In?


Text: Psalm 33:16-17


The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue.

Context


Though not attributed to David himself, Psalm 33 serves well as a commentary on the life of a man who great hope and only Deliverer was the Lord. In contrast to the rest of the Psalm’s positive tone, verses 16 and 17 serve first to expose and then to immediately deconstruct the sources in which many of us are tempted to place our trust and hope: namely, human power. We so naturally love what we can see and rest secure in what is (by our estimation) “great.”

The underlying point is this: whatever we hope in most, wherever our ultimate trust lies, there we will find our “god.” It really doesn’t matter whether we pay lip-service to God or not. Whatever finally makes our hearts secure and enables us to sleep peacefully at night, that thing (and not the resurrected Christ) is what we worship.

Of course, the flip-side is also true: whatever we fear most, whatever thing, if we lost it, would make us a miserable, anxious mess, that (again) is our god. The profoundly useful thing about fear is that we often don’t know what we’re trusting in until it’s taken away. As long as our army is great, our bank accounts are full, our families are safe, and our reputation’s intact, it’s easy to say, “I trust in the Lord.” It’s only when those false hopes are demolished that we finally see (and more importantly, feel) what it is we truly hope in.

Implication (Gospel):

In the gospel, we see the ultimate contradiction in human hope and trust: it is not by might that we saved, but by weakness. The cross signals the end to any hope we might have had in what we consider great (or wise, for that matter). The cross ushers us into the truth that it is only through death that new life comes. And this Christ-shaped pattern now defines our lives. Through the gospel we are enabled to release our trust, as Psalm 22:7 says, in “chariots and horses,” and to instead anchor ourselves on “the name of the Lord our God.”

Application (Gospel):

Today I will confess to God all those things I’m naturally inclined to trust in—whether it’s my job, my reputation, my body, my money, my family, or even my religious efforts. In their place, I will (as Paul put it in 2Corinthians 12:9) “boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

Psalm 31 - Suffering, the King, and the Cross


Psalm 31:5 & 9-13

5 Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.
9 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away.
11 Because of all my adversaries I have become a reproach, especially to my neighbors, and an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have been forgotten like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many—terror on every side!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.

Text:

Taken up later by Jeremiah, Jesus, and author of Psalm 71, Psalm 31 is an intense, authentic, and (in the most meaningful sense of the word) raw expression of one man’s suffering and ultimate salvation. Utterly devoid of the usual religious pretenses, platitudes, and banalities, David writes with unflinchingly clarity of the stark emotional realities that living in a fallen, broken world create. And yet, although he is brutally honest, he is not hopeless. Two times in this Psalm, David walks the reader through his pain and in both instances he emerges on the other side clinging to the God who, as the Psalm begins, is a refuge, deliverer, rescuer, rock, and fortress. In this way, Psalm 31 is a powerful model for teaching us how to bring our suffering to God without belittling Him or our suffering itself.

Context:

In the context of the Bible’s overarching story, Psalm 31 bridges the gap between the failed kingship of Saul, the ascension of David himself, and the establishment of the Davidic Covenant/Dynasty (i.e., the “partial kingdom”).

Implication (Gospel):

As was briefly noted above, Jesus himself took up the words of Psalm 31:5 as his final, extinguishing prayer in Luke 23:46. However, even without this direct, cross-borne quotation, the Psalm is virtually teeming with the predictive/prophetic pattern that 1Peter 1:11 defines as “the sufferings of the Messiah and the subsequent glories.” In this way, Psalm 31 functions as a sort of internal monologue or emotional commentary on Jesus’ own physical and spiritual suffering. The only difference being that where David was merely “forgotten like one who is dead” and simply “became like a broken vessel,” Jesus was literally destroyed.

For example, as verses 15 and 20 intimate, despite David’s initial suffering the king himself was ultimately rescued from the hands of his enemies and persecutors, covered by God’s presence from the “plots of men,” and stored in God’s shelter from the “strife of tongues.” Far to the contrary, in the case of Jesus, on the cross we see God’s great and final King delivered into the hands of his enemies and persecutors, victimized by the plots of men, and openly exposed to the strife of tongues. And yet, it is out of that suffering and through the resurrection that the gospel takes shape.

Application (Gospel):

No matter how awful, pathetic, or seemingly hopeless my situation, even if as the Psalm says there is “terror on every side,” I can be secure in my suffering knowing that, because Christ died in my place, I will never ultimately be forgotten like one who is dead or become like a broken vessel. In fact, whatever suffering I face, because of the cross, becomes merely a window into the suffering Christ endured on my behalf. Because of this, suffering (of whatever sort) now serves to draw me closer to God and invite me deeper into his love.

Today I will regard my suffering as a opportunity to understand more deeply (without ever being forced to undergo its fullness myself) the wrath that Christ endured to save me from my sin.

Psalm 30 - Text, Context, Implication, Application

Psalm 30:1-5, 9 & 11-12

1 A Psalm of David. . . . I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up and have not let my foes rejoice over me.
2 O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
3 O LORD, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.
4 Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name.
5 For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
9 “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
11 You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness,
12 that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!

Text:

Attributed to David and described by its subscription as a “Song at the Dedication of the House [or, Temple],” this Psalm is a heartfelt celebration of God’s victory in delivering the persecuted king either from one of his many political-military enemies or some sort of physical sickness. Most likely the first of the two (based on the biblical stories of David recorded in 1st and 2nd Samuel), either way David praises God for rescuing him from the very brink of destruction: “you have drawn me up and have not let my foes rejoice over me . . . . you have healed me. . . . you have brought up my soul from Sheol [‘the grave’]; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit [to ‘death’]” (vv. 1-3). David’s joy is found not merely in a good outcome or a happy providence, but in God’s great reversal of his circumstances: from the pit to the palace, from dust to dynasty, from mourning to dancing, from sackcloth to gladness, and ultimately from death to life (v. 9).

Context:

In the context of the Bible’s overall story, Psalm 30 is located very near the beginning of Israel’s official geo-political monarchy: what Vaughn Roberts calls the “partial kingdom.” Immediately after the dethroning of Saul and prior to the kingdom’s split, collapse, and ultimate exile, Psalm 30 celebrates God’s victory in establishing David’s kingship while simultaneously looking forward to the perfect kingship of Jesus Christ.

Implication (Gospel):

What David describes in figurative terms, Jesus—Great David’s Greater Son—literally experienced. For those that argue the concept of resurrection is an exclusively New Testament idea, implied only briefly in places like Ezekiel 37 (and there only metaphorically as a symbol for the people of Israel’s return from exile), Psalm 30 functions like a prophetic signpost pointing toward (though, admittedly, not exhausting) the hope of resurrection as a “whole-Bible” doctrine. However, unlike David who was rescued from death, Jesus Christ was rescued through death so that we who justly deserve to “go down to the pit” might be raised up with him. His death becomes our death, so that his resurrection might become ours as well.

Verse 5 is particularly meaningful in this Christ-centered sense: “For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Upon the cross we see God’s infinite anger at sin—his holy, perfect, and consuming wrath leveled squarely the evil and corrosive cancer eating away at his creation—dealt with “in a moment”; while in the resurrection we see his “favor” forevermore. Weeping tarried in the dark night of Gethsemane; but joy arose Easter morning. God’s great reversal of David’s earthly circumstances is only a dim foreshadowing of the cosmic reversal accomplished in the gospel.

Application (Gospel):

As simple and trite as it may sound: there is nothing too hard for God. No matter how dire our circumstance, no matter how hopeless our condition, no matter how powerless our ability, God is in the business of bringing life out of death. As Psalm 30, the life of David, and the gospel itself all illustrate, God loves to get the glory of being the miraculous deliverer when nothing else could possibly help. Focusing on the gospel enables me to face life with profound hope and confidence, regardless of my poverty, pain, or past. Having this stable foundation also enables me to support and encourage those around me who have forgotten the gospel (even momentarily) with the very hope that supports me as well. Today I will focus on the power of God displayed in the gospel instead of the difficulties that confront me.

Psalm 28 - Text, Context, Implication, Application


Text: Psalm 28:1-3 & 7-9


1 Of David. To you, O LORD, I call; my rock, be not deaf to me, lest, if you be silent to me, I become like those who go down to the pit.
2 Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy, when I cry to you for help, when I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.
3 Do not drag me off with the wicked, with the workers of evil, who speak peace with their neighbors while evil is in their hearts.
7 The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.
8 The LORD is the strength of his people; he is the saving refuge of his anointed.
9 Oh, save your people and bless your heritage! Be their shepherd and carry them forever.

Context:

Psalm 28 is, most likely, the third in a triplet of Psalms (Ps. 26-28) designed to be read together and to focus its reader on, first, the need for preservation in times of trouble and persecution and, second, the inevitable (through labored for) joy in the Person and Presence of God. Attributed to David, we may assume these Psalms were either written during or as a reflection on the troubled king’s first hand experience of such persecution as well as God’s ultimate deliverance: “he [the Lord] is the saving refuge of his anointed [i.e., ‘his king’ or ‘his messiah’]” (28:8).

Implication (Gospel):

Though we, as sinners, justly deserve to be “dragged off with the wicked” (v. 3) and to have God “be deaf to us” so that we “become like those who go down to the pit” (v. 1) [i.e., like those abandoned to the grave and to hell], yet in and through His Son, God himself has taken the punishment we deserve. Jesus was, as Luke 22:37 (quoting Isaiah 53:12) says, “Numbered with the transgressors.” In other words, Jesus himself was both literally and spiritually “dragged off with the wicked,” in our place and for our good.

Because of this, God the Father, who was once our judge and enemy, has instead become our “our strength and our shield” (v. 7). God has blessed his people precisely by saving his anointed, that is, not simply by saving David as the Psalm indicates but by saving the ultimate David, God’s true King, Jesus Christ. Jesus has become (not only a “shepherd) but our “Good Shepherd” and he will carry us (that is, love, provide, and transform us) forever.

Application (Gospel):

Because Jesus has taken the wrath that I deserve and “carried me” like a shepherd, I can bear with the sins of those around me, not only putting up with them and forgiving them, but serving them and even “carrying” them when their own mistakes cause them to stumble. Today I will look for ways to care for the people around me, especially when they mess up and don’t deserve it.

Psalm 103 . . . Applied

Because God forgives all my iniquity . . . I can rest safely in His presence without fear of rejection, condemnation, or judgment (v. 3a).

Because God heals all my diseases . . . I don’t have to heal or fix myself; instead, I can rely on Him to heal and fix me (v. 3b).

Because God redeems my life from the pit [i.e., the grave, death, destruction] . . . I can trust Him to bring me out of any situation, no matter how dire, bleak, or painful it is. (v. 4a)

Because God crowns me with steadfast love and mercy . . . I don’t need to provide glory [i.e., “crowns”] for myself, nor do I need to go about earning God’s love and mercy; instead I can simply accept them and rest in them (v. 4b).

Because God satisfied me with good . . . I can stop incessantly worrying about how to care and provide for myself and, instead, concentrate on meeting the needs of others (v. 5).

Because God works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed . . . I don’t have to defend myself or prove that I’m right (v. 6).

Because God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love . . . I can fully entrust myself to him without fear of rejection and with full confidence in His perfect, fatherly love (v 8).

Because God does not keep His anger forever . . . I can let go of my anger and resentment (no matter how “righteous” it might feel) (v. 9).

Because God does not deal with me according to my sin nor repay me for my iniquity . . . I can depend unreservedly upon His grace and extend that same grace to people I feel have wronged me (v. 10).

Because God shows compassion to me like a father . . . I can lean upon Him as my ultimate and perfect Father and not demand that my earthly caregivers meet my needs (v. 13).

Because God has established his throne in heaven and because His kingdom rules over all . . . I can be secure in all circumstances knowing that nothing can come into my life apart from His good and sovereign purposes (v. 19).

Grace and Law (Revisited)


Paul F.M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life
The law crushes the human spirit; grace lifts it up.

The story of the Bible is the story of this perpetual war between law and grace. Law comes in . . . and human beings become excited by it. They become excited to resist it. The law, which is any form of external command, provokes the opposite reaction from the one it is in intended to provoke. Instead of inciting obedience or submission, it incites rebellion. It provokes revolutionary resentment (1).

Any judgment, any evaluation—even if it approves and speaks a blessing—will be heard as a negation. This is an absolute first principle of this book. Law is an attack. It is heard as a negation by its recipients. All laws are negation. God’s law is the negation (6).

The gospel of Christ has to do with guilt and with the ashamed response of imperfect people to a perfect God. The gospel represents a transaction involving guild and the shame of being caught in the reality of human being and human action, which is powerfully self-deceived. The gospel is about the relation between law, which is crushing, stunning, and wrecking, and grace, which is restoring, repairing, and recreative. . . . The gospel is about force and effect, punishment and rehabilitation. The focus of this book is on the gospel, the leverage of Christianity in relation to human resistance and brokenness . . . . The focus of this theology of everyday life in on how Christianity works (28).

Law, whether biblical and universally stated or contextual and contemporarily phrased, operates in one way. Law reduces its object, the human person, to despair (29).

[T]he law dispossesses love in every place to which it speaks (32).

What is grace? Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable. It is being loved when you are the opposite of loveable (emphasis added).

Let’s go a little further. Grace is a love that has nothing to do with you, the beloved. It has everything and only to do with the lover. Grace is irrational in the sense that it has nothing to do with weights and measures. It has nothing to do with my intrinsic qualities or so-called “gifts” (whatever they may be). It reflects a decision on the part of the giver, the one who loves, in relation to the receiver, the one who is loved, that negates any qualification the receiver may personally hold.

Grace is one-way love.

The one-way love of grace is the essence of any lasting transformation that takes place in human experience (36).

One-way love lifts up. One-way love cures. One-way love transforms. It is the change agent of life.

Grace depends on the fact that its origin is wholly outside myself. This is the heart of love; it comes to me from outside myself. Moreover, while it almost always elicits a response, which is my love in return, it comes toward me without any reference to my response. One-way love does not deviate on the basis of its goal. It is determined solely by its source.

One-way love is the change agent in everyday life because it speaks in a voice completely different from the voice of the law. It has nothing to do with its receiver’s characteristics. Its logic is hidden within the intention of its source. Theologically speaking, we can say it is the prime directive of God to love the world in no relation to the world’s fitness to be loved.

One-way love is also irrational because it reaches out to the specifically undeserving person. This is the beating heart of it. Grace is directed toward what the Scripture calls “the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). Not just the lonely, not just the sick and disconsolate, but the “perpetrators,” the murders and abusers, the people who cross the line. God has a heart—his one-way love—for sinners (37-38).

The grace of God assumes the worst concerning the human situation. It assumes the lowest possible reading of our anthropology. . . . Grace, which is one-way love, happens only at the point at which hope is lost (42-43).

For grace to be grace, there must be one-way love. For grace to be grace, it is necessary that I play no role whatsoever in that love. . . . The love of God, the true love of anyone, in fact, is a one-way love that travels from the deserving to the undeserving (59).

Grace as one-way love comes out of nowhere into a world determined by two-way love (“I will love you if you will love me”) and half-way love (“I will love you but I need a little sign, just a little one”) (62).

Grace is about life from death, or better, life to the dead (63).

Sin, Lies and Believing the Truth

Tim Chester, You Can Change
Sinful acts always have their origin in some form of unbelief. Behind every sin is a lie. The root of all our behavior and emotions is the heart—what it trusts and what it treasures. . . . [Our] problem is futile thinking, darkened understanding, and ignorant hearts. This is the cause of indulgence, impurity, and lust. We sin because we believe the lie that we are better off without God, that his rule is oppressive, that we will be free without him, that sin offers more than God (73-74).

This is a radical view of sin. It means many of our negative emotions are sinful because they’re symptoms of unbelief—the greatest sin and the root sin (75).
Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer for Christians
There is simply no other way to compete with the forebodings of my conscience, the condemnings of my heart, and the lies of the world and the Devil than to overwhelm such things with daily rehearsings of the gospel (14; emphasis added).
Psalm 62:11-12
One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you, O God, are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving. Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done.
Aaron Orendorff
In the wake of the powerfully redemptive tone of Psalm 62:11-12a, the close of v. 12 appears at first somewhat disconcerting. To begin with, David opens v. 11 by stating, quite straightforwardly, that when it comes to God there are two basic truths that outshine everything else; two fundamental, divine realities that are absolutely foundational to who God is and what He does: (1) God is strong and (2) God is love. Nothing could be more reassuring and worship inducing (particularly to sinful, hurting people) than those two facts. However (even with these two truths firmly in mind), given my own personal history, the last thing I’d want is for God to then move on to “rewarding” me “according to what [I have] done.” These two thoughts—God’s strong love and just recompense—appear (especially when measured against the brokenness and evil of my own life) at definite odds.

In addition to this particular tension, we read throughout the Psalter statements that likewise seem far to the contrary of the seemingly natural interpretation of v. 12’s close. Statements like, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Ps. 143:2), and even more plainly, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (103:10). Neither of these texts (nor the numerous others like them) sit well with a God who simply “gives us what we deserve.” The close of v. 12, then, cannot simply mean that God is (though at times strong and loving) at the end of the day a God of pure and strict justice, devoid of grace and mercy.

Instead, when placed in context, David is pleading with God to deliver him from his enemies. He is asking for God to vindicate him because (in this instance) he is truly in the right. Part of that vindication is rooted in the belief that God is a God of justice, just as he is a God of strength and love. David is not asserting his inherent status as a more righteous human being than those standing against him; even less is he pitting his life record against God’s perfect standard. He is simply pleading with God to save him from the false and wicked men “attacking” him and speaking lies (62:3). In the face of dire circumstance, David looks to God. He entrusts himself to “him who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:23).

Far from undercutting God’s strength and love, his justice supports them. The truths to which vv. 11-12 point (and likewise the “lies” which they confront) are profound.

If we believe God is weak (and, by implication, not strong), then we will be full of fear and doubtful as to whether or not He can help us. If God is weak, then we will be compelled to “take control” of our situation, to fend for ourselves, and to protect what’s ours (whether that be relationships, property, reputations, or even our emotions).

Similarly, if we believe that God is not loving, then we simply will not trust him to take care of us. Not only will we doubt whether or not He can help us; we’ll even doubt whether or not He’s willing to help us. If God is not fundamentally loving, then we will be compelled to either find other sources of love (dark, shallow, ultimately unsatisfying sources) or to prove ourselves to Him and earn his love.

On the other hand, because God is strong, I can trust that nothing that happens to me is outside of His control; nothing is bigger than Him. Because God is strong, I can admit that I am weak and rest in His care, protection, and sovereignty. I don’t need to be in control because God already is.

Similarly, because God is loving, I don’t have to prove myself or earn His affection. He loves me in spite of who I am and has demonstrated His love most powerfully through His Son. Because God is loving, I can trust that He wants to take care of me, will never abandon me, or leave me to fed for myself. I don’t have to search for love or earn it, but can rest in the love that already is.

“Moments of Ministry” Versus “Moments of Anger” or Why you can’t make marriage “personal”!

Paul David Tripp, What Did You Expect??
God is using the difficulties of the here and now to transform you, that is, to rescue you from you. And because he loves you, he will willingly interrupt or compromise your momentary happiness in order to accomplish one more step in the process of rescue and transformation, which he is unshakably committed to (22).

If you minimize the heart struggle that both of you have carried into your marriage, here’s what will happen: you will tend to turn moments of ministry into moments of anger. . . . Often, in these God-given moments of ministry, rather than serving God’s purpose we get angry because somehow our spouse is in the way of what we want. . . . [T]he reason we turn moments of ministry into moments of anger is that we tend to personalize what is not personal.

[W]hen you personalize what is not personal you tend to be adversarial in your response. When that happens, what motivates you is not the spiritual need in your spouse that God has revealed but your spouse’s offense against you, your schedule, your peace, etc. So your response is not a “for him [or her]” response but an “against him [or her]” response.

[W]e settle for quick situational solutions that do not get to the heart of the matter. Rather than searching for ways to help, we tell the other to get a grip, we attempt to threaten them into silence, or we get angry and turn a moment of weakness into a major confrontation (23-24).

The Gospel According to N. T. Wright


By way of introduction, John Piper opens The Future of Justification by chronicling a litany of Wright’s statements from a variety of works aimed at defining both what the gospel is as well as what it is not. The first of these statements, as it regards the gospel positively, captures well the basic thrust of Wright’s thought:
The “gospel” itself refers to the proclamation that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is the one, true and only Lord of the world.[5]
Key to Wright’s understanding (as Piper’s larger catalog makes clear) is the word “proclamation.” The gospel is, after all, news: the public declaration of something that has (first and foremost) happened in space and time. What precisely Wright means by the word “proclamation”—i.e., his formulation of the events themselves (both historically and theologically speaking)—is outlined at length by Wright in his earlier and frequently cited work, What Saint Paul Really Said. There the “gospel” is unfolded as an essentially “fourfold announcement about Jesus”:
  1. In Jesus of Nazareth, specifically in his cross, the decisive victory has been won over all the powers of evil, including sin and death themselves.

  2. In Jesus' resurrection the New Age has dawned, inaugurating the long-awaited time when the prophecies would be fulfilled, when Israel's exile would be over, and the whole world would be addressed by the one creator God.

  3. The crucified and risen Jesus was, all along, Israel’s Messiah, her representative king.

  4. Jesus was therefore also the Lord, the true King of the world, the one at whose name every knee would bow. . . .
The royal proclamation is not simply the conveying of true information about the kingship of Jesus. It is the putting into effect of that kingship, the decision and authoritative summoning to allegiance. Paul discovered . . . that when he announced the lordship of Jesus Christ, the sovereignty of King Jesus, this very announcement was the means by which the living God reached out with his love and changed the hearts and lives of men and women, forming them from the paganism which had held them captive, enabling them to become, for the first time, the truly human beings they were meant to be. The gospel, Paul would have said, is not just about God’s power saving people. It is God’s power at work to save people.[6]
As Piper’s own comments readily display,[7] Wright’s focus upon the kerygmatic (or, proclamatory) nature of the gospel as the express declaration of Jesus Christ’s lordship is far from controversial.

It is, however, upon what Wright says the gospel is not where disagreement begins:
My proposal has been that “the gospel” is not, for Paul, a message about “how one gets saved,” in an individual and ahistorical sense.[8]

“[T]he gospel” is not an account of how people get saved.[9]

The gospel is not . . . a set of techniques for making people Christians.[10]

Paul’s gospel to the pagans was not a philosophy of life. Nor was it, even, a doctrine about how to get saved.[11]
To these statements more could of course be added (not least because of Wright’s prolific body of work). However, rather than simply add “precept upon precept” (quote upon quote), the most useful (and, it ought to be pointed out, the most recent) summary of both Wright and Piper’s position on the gospel appeared last year in a June 2009 Q&A with Christianity Today. There, in the wake their successive books, both writers provided summary statements regarding their understanding of the gospel proper:
Piper: The heart of the gospel is the good news that Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead. What makes this good news is that Christ’s death accomplished a perfect righteousness before God and suffered a perfect condemnation from God, both of which are counted as ours through faith alone, so that we have eternal life with God in the new heavens and the new earth.

Wright: The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord.[12]
Thankfully, there is much that could be said about the agreement between these statements; nonetheless, for our purposes, it is not so much their agreement that concerns us, but rather their disagreement. As such, the primary difference lies squarely in Piper’s inclusion of the traditionally reformed doctrine termed imputed righteousness (what Piper refers to as being “counted”; see especially note 12) within the gospel message proper—i.e., within what the gospel in and of itself actually declares. Wright, as we will see, not only rejects the concept of “imputed righteousness” (though he is quick to replace it with a robust doctrine of union with Christ), he also draws a sharp distinction between what the gospel is as an historical proclamation of good “news” and what the gospel does as a result of its proclamation. For Wright, the gospel does not save because it is a message about how to be saved—not, in other words, because it is a set of ahistorical instructions (repent and believe) about what a person must do to inherit life in the “age to come.” Rather, the gospel saves but because when it is announced God is active (through his Spirit) to bring its hearers under the saving lordship of Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith come about as a result of God’s grace exercised through such preaching.[13] They are the covenantal badges by which God’s people are marked out.

The real crux of the matter, therefore, is not whether the gospel saves from sin via Jesus’ penal substitution (both authors affirm that is does). Nor is it Wright’s preference for Christus Victor as the controlling concept for understanding the atonement. Instead, the dispute lies in whether or not the gospel (to be the gospel) must include justification by faith through the imputed righteousness of Christ.

With this question in mind, our next task will be to begin examining the doctrine of justification itself.

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[5] N. T. Wright, “Paul in Different Perspectives: Lecture 1: Starting Points and Opening Reflections.” Pastors Conference at the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church, Monroe, Louisiana (3 January 2005). 28 December 2009. http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Auburn_Paul.htm.

[6] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 60-61.

[7] “Yes. That is an essential announcement of the gospel.” Piper, Justification, 18.

[8] Wright, Saint Paul, 60.

[9] Ibid., 133.

[10] Ibid., 153.

[11] Ibid., 90.

[12] Trevin Wax (compiler), “The Justification Debate: A Primer.” Christianity Today. June 2009. 12 April 2010. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/june/29.34.html?start=2. Equally interesting is the follow-up question: “How This Happens.”

“Piper: By faith we are united with Christ Jesus so that in union with him, his perfect righteousness and punishment are counted as ours (imputed to us). In this way, perfection is provided, sin is forgiven, wrath is removed, and God is totally for us. Thus, Christ alone is the basis of our justification, and the faith that unites us to him is the means or instrument of our justification. Trusting in Christ as Savior, Lord, and Supreme Treasure of our lives produces the fruit of love, or it is dead.

“Wright: God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ (the faithful Israelite), has come, allowing the continuation of his plan to rescue human beings, and, through them, the world. The Messiah represents his people, standing in for them, taking upon himself the death that they deserved. God justifies (declares righteous) all those who are ‘in Christ,’ so that the vindication of Jesus upon his resurrection becomes the vindication of all those who trust in him. Justification refers to God's declaration of who is in the covenant (this worldwide family of Abraham through whom God's purposes can now be extended into the wider world) and is made on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ alone, not the ‘works of the Law’ (i.e., badges of ethnic identity that once kept Jews and Gentiles apart).”

[13] Piper’s otherwise incisive comments in The Future of Justification about the questionable goodness of such a bare declaration—namely that Jesus is the world’s true Lord—are easily assuaged by Wright’s inclusion of the line “who died for our sins” in his definition of the gospel offered in Christianity Today. Cf. Piper, Justification, 18: “But one wonders how the death and resurrection of Jesus could be heard as good news if one had spent his life committing treason against the risen King. It seems as though one would have to be told how the death and resurrection of Christ actually saves sinners, if sinners are to hear them as good news and not as a death sentence.”

The Atonement - Propitiation


By Michael Blankenship and Aaron Orendorff

As we begin to explore the subject of Jesus’ atonement, it may be helpful to recap what was said by way of introduction a couple of weeks ago. Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, in the book Doctrine: What Every Christian Should Believe, open by offering the following definition:
Jesus’ work for us on the cross is called atonement (at-one-ment); Jesus our God became a man to restore [the] relationship between God and humanity. . . . Scripture repeatedly and clearly declares that Jesus died as our substitute paying our penalty “for” our sins (253).
Building off this excellent summary, our aim will be to unpack the reality that Jesus Christ—God’s incarnate Son—suffered on the cross in our place and on our behalf as the historical realization of three, interlocking theological truths: (1) the propitiation of God’s wrath, (2) the expiation of humanity’s sin, and (3) the reconciliation of both.

One quick side-note: We use the phrase “historical realization” intentionally in order to stress that the atonement is not an ahistorical abstraction—some sort of disembodied religious or philosophical truth, floating disconnected and unattached to real-life particularities, the dirt, nails, wood, sweat, taunts, blood, and pain, of a first-century Jew condemned to die on hill outside Jerusalem. The gospel is good news of something that has actually happened, a “historical reality” upon which all the beauty, wonder, hope, and theological truth of Christianity rests.[1] Keeping that thought firmly in mind, let us turn to the first element in the above definition and our subject for this post: propitiation.

Propitiation is a word seldom used today, which means that to understand what “the propitiation of God’s wrath” means we must first understand the concept of propitiation itself. The simplest, English equivalent of propitiation is the word satisfaction. An everyday sort of example might go like this: say I’m thirsty and so, in an effort to quench (that is, satisfy) my thirst, I drink a nice, big bottle of ice-cold water. Now we all know that a person can’t live without water; it’s not something that we choose to thirst for. So, in this case, to talk about satisfaction isn’t so much about a superficial feeling of desire. Rather it’s about something that the biology of being human demands, without compromise and indiscriminately.

In a similar way, God, though not having physical needs, authentically “thirsts” for justice because the need for justice is one of his essential, nonnegotiable attributes. Simply put: God, by his very nature, is just. Justice is part of who he is. Therefore, whenever something violates his sense of justice, satisfaction (that is, propitiation) is demanded.

Exodus 34:6-7 illustrates this point well because it bring together both God’s love and grace with his (equally as real) need for justice:
The LORD passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
As difficult as it may be for us to swallow, justice (particularly, God’s justice), cannot exist without punishment. In God’s economy, justice is both restorative (when understood from the viewpoint of the victim) as well as retributive (when understood from the viewpoint of the perpetrator). This means that “righting the wrongs in the world” is good news to those who have been victimized while at the same time bad news to those who have been the victimizers. To this end, the Psalms are literally full of prayers asking God to act “in his righteousness” both to defend and vindicate the oppressed (restorative justice), as well as, to destroy and condemn the oppressors (retributive justice).

Imagine, for example, a person who has committed murder is found guilty but that the judge presiding over the case simply lets him go. Is this just? Of course not. Moreover, it would be impossible for us to respect (much less love and worship) a judge who so terribly violated the rules of justice. This is especially true if we ourselves have been affected by the crime in question. In the same way, when human beings “sin” against God—when they violate His law—the punishment must meet the crime. To avoid punishment is to avoid justice.

Romans 2:1-3 helps us understand this principle by relating our own, everyday acts of judgment with God’s perfect, once-for-all, ultimate act of judgment:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?
Much like Exodus 34:6-7, Romans 2:1-3 stresses not only that God is just but that his justice demands satisfaction; it needs propitiation.

Throughout the Bible, the demand God’s need for justice creates is called his “wrath.” Unlike our wrath, which is often self-serving, ignorant, and hardly ever aligned with what is truly “good,” God’s anger is never out-of-proportion, never out-of-control, and always upholds what is right. In fact, as strange as it may sound, God’s wrath is actually an expression of his love. Becky Pippert, in her book Hope Has Its Reasons, explains it like this:
Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. De we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it . . . . Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference. . . . God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer . . . which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with whole being.
This “cancer” is called sin and Scripture tells us that God’s wrath stands against any and all forms of it in the world (Rom. 1:18).

Sometimes people ask, “Why did Jesus have to die? Couldn’t God just forgive us?” This question not only misunderstands what we’ve said so far about justice, it also misunderstands how forgiveness itself works. For example, imagine that your neighbor accidentally breaks your window in the middle of winter. Basically, you have one of two choices. On one hand, you can go the way of strict justice and demand that your neighbor pay for the broken window to be fixed (after all it’s winter and you can’t just live with a smashed-in window). Or, two, you can go the way of forgiveness and instead of making your neighbor pay for the window you can pay for it yourself. In this scenario, strict justice means that the perpetrator must pay while forgiveness means that you must pay. Either way the window must be fixed and this means that regardless of which way you choose someone has to pay. Through this simple example, it’s easy to see that nobody “just forgives.”

Applying this illustration to the cross, Tim Keller writes:
Forgiveness means bearing the cost instead of making the wrongdoer do it, so you can reach out in love to seek your enemy’s renewal and change. Forgiveness means absorbing the debt of sin yourself. . . . On the Cross we see God doing visibly and cosmically what every human being must do to forgive someone, though on an infinitely greater scale. . . . It is crucial at this point to remember that the Christian faith has always understood that Jesus Christ is God. God did not, then, inflict pain on someone else, but rather on the Cross absorbed the pain, violence, and evil of the world into himself. . . . [T]his is a God who becomes human and offers his own lifeblood in order to honor moral justice and merciful love so that someday he can destroy all evil without destroying us (192).
Think of it like this, when it comes to human sin and divine justice, God has a choice: he can either propitiate his wrath by punishing human beings themselves or he can make propitiation for human beings by absorbing the debt of sin himself. The wonder of the gospel is that God chose the latter and, in the person of Jesus Christ, suffered for the sins of humanity.

People often call attention to the physical suffering involved in Jesus’ crucifixion, but Scripture makes clear that this was not the worst of it. Jesus experienced a pain, which those who choose to believe in him, no longer have to experience. It was the pain of separation from God. Hence Jesus’ words upon the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” This is a powerful statement that allows us to see into the true suffering of our savior. This was God’s wrath, being taken up by Jesus himself, for our iniquities. As Jesus uttered these words, he was experiencing, quite literally, hell.

You see, the tragedy of hell (where God’s wrath is ultimately assuaged) arises not because of physical flames but because it means being disconnected from God for all eternity. When a person goes to hell, they experience all the infinite horrors and spiritual disintegration of not having loved, served, and worshiped God. But now imagine one man experiencing hell, not on account of his own sins (for he himself was sinless), but for the sins of all those who would choose (past, present, and future) to put their faith and trust in him. Jesus Christ truly suffered beyond our imagination or comprehension. The atonement means that God’s just wrath has been satisfied, absorbed by God himself, and that most amazingly, as 1 John 4:10 says: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

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[1] Nor should we say that the Jesus-event—i.e., his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension—is simply an “illustration” of who God is and what he does—that He is loving, gracious, sacrificial, and forgiving. Jesus, and in particular the cross, is more than a mere illustration; it is more than God’s ultimate word-become-flesh-picture. Rather, Jesus is an actual event, both in the life of God and in the life of the world, on the basis of which God is loving, gracious, sacrificial, and forgiving. The argument here is in some sense circular: God loves and so He sent Christ; God sent Christ and so He loves.

Introduction - N. T. Wright and the Doctrine of Justification

[T]he arguments I have been mounting . . . [are genuinely] fresh readings of Scripture. They are not the superimposition upon Scripture of theories culled from elsewhere.
—N. T. Wright, Justification (22)

My conviction concerning N. T. Wright is not that he is under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9, but that his portrayal of the gospel—and of the doctrine of justification in particular—is so disfigured that it becomes difficult to recognize as biblically faithful.
—John Piper, The Future of Justification (15)

Since the time of the reformation, the doctrine of justification has enjoyed a sort of controversial pride of place within widest circles of confessional Christianity. From Martin Luther’s quintessentially polemic statement on the foundational nature of sola fide—“if this article stands, the Church stands; if it falls, the Church falls”—to the Council of Trent’s “anathema” reply,[1] few doctrines have garnered such extended scrutiny and fierce debate. In recent years, however, a new voice has entered the fray. Led initially by the scholarly work of Krister Stendahl (Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, 1976) and E. P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 1977) and now carried on by the writings (both popular and scholarly) of N. T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn, the so-called “new perspective on Paul” has launched a fresh round of debate and (perhaps most interestingly) drawn fresh lines in this once firmly established dispute.


As the already immense bibliographies attest, this new exchange has not lacked for ink (whether digital or print).[2] In light, therefore, of such a sizeable pool of resources, rather than engaging the new perspective head-on in an attempt (at the very least) to summarize the various positions and counter-positions, the purpose of this series will be to examine the doctrine of justification as it appears in the work of N. T. Wright. As such, this analysis will draw primarily upon John Piper’s initial “response” to Wright’s earlier formulations in The Future of Justification[3] as well as Wright’s own most recent reaffirmation of his position in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.[4]

However, before delving into the specific (and far more contentious) issue of justification, it would be best to begin by briefly sketching Wright’s understanding of the gospel itself. We will explore this foundational topic in the next post.

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[1] “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.” The Council of Trent: Canons on Justification (Canon 9).


[2] See especially Michael F. Bird’s nearly eighteen page un-annotated “Biography on the New Perspective on Paul” from The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification, and the New Perspective (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 194-211.


[3] John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007).


[4] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009).

Change and the Superior Joy of the Gospel

Last night I began reading Tim Chester’s new book You Can Change: God’s Transforming Power for Our Sinful Behavior and Negative Emotions. Some you may recognize the name Chester from his previous book, Total Church (co-authored with fellow pastor, theologian, and missiologist Steve Timmis). Timmis and Chester are part of a church-planting network in England known as The Crowded House (hence the quintessentially British names). In the last few years, both men have contributed a great deal to the fresh emphasis in reformed circles (i.e., Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, and Jeff Vanderstelt) on community, mission and the gospel. You Can Change (as the title so unadornedly foreshadows) is essentially a guidebook on the aims, motivations, and means of biblical change. It is, to put the matter succinctly, a book on sanctification.

To that end, Chester begins his argument by making an important claim about the nature of biblical change, a claim which closely resembles John Piper’s now well-known sanctification-model, “Christian Hedonism.” Chester asserts:
One of our problems [with change] is that we think of holiness as giving up things we enjoy out of vague sense of obligation. But I’m convinced that holiness is always good news. God calls us to the good life. He’s always bigger and better than anything sin offers. The key is to realize why change is good news in your struggles with sin (10).

The secret of gospel change is being convinced that Jesus is the good life and the fountain of all joy. Any alternative we might choose would be a letdown (15).
Chester’s point (as the first three chapters go on to explain) is that real change both begins with and is pursued through two deeply-related and predominately internal acts of faith.

First, we must go about the often very slippery work of exposing sin (partcularly our own personal private sin) for what it really is. We must start, in other words, by concentrating on and creating in our hearts a real and tangible sense of both sin’s ugliness as well as its corrosive and destructive nature. At an emotional level, the pain that sin has caused in our lives previously is perhaps our best and most useful ally. Taking hold of that pain and in a very real sense reliving it (especially in the face of temptation) is one of the most practical tools we can deploy in our struggle with sin.

At an intellectual, conscious level, this means unmasking the false promises upon which sin operates. The attractiveness of sin (i.e., its “power”) is rooted in the false belief that sin will provide for us more joy and pleasure than will righteousness. This is especially true of the idols in our lives that hold us captive to their allure and deceptive beauty either through sheer, raw magnetism or through years of ingrained practice.

Bringing together the emotional and intellectual levels of this task, Chester describes sin as an “adulterous lover,” which in reality is “no love at all”:
Sin doesn’t love us. It tries to use us, abuse us, enslave us, control us, and ultimately destroy us. Sin takes from us and gives nothing in return. It may use enticing and seductive lies. Sin never brings true and lasting satisfaction (33).
This, then, lead us immediately into the second act of faith the change process demands: we must replace sin’s deceptive and inauthentic beauty with the thoroughly authentic and transformative beauty of the gospel. Our aim (as the Psalmist says) is to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” In other words, we must sense in our hearts (that is, at the very core of who we are) that there is more joy to be found in God’s ways then there is to be found in ours. It is not as though sanctification robs us of joy (though this claim, normally unspoken, certainly lies at the very heart of sin’s deceptive dogma). Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, it is sanctification that provides us with both a foundation for as well as a means of experiencing substantial, life-establishing happiness.

Again, Tim Chester:
[G]rowing in holiness is not sad, dutiful drudgery. It’s about joy. It’s discovering true joy—the joy of knowing and serving God. . . . Our job is to stop wallowing around in the dirt and instead to enjoy knowing God, to give up our cheap imitations and enjoy the real thing. All too often we think of holiness as giving up the pleasures of sin for some worthy but drab life. But holiness means recognizing that the pleasures of sin are empty and temporary, while God is inviting us to magnificent, true, full, and rich pleasures that last forever (35-36).
In the end, the only way we will actually begin to choose righteousness over sin consistently, the only way we will begin to really live a life marked by holiness and maturity, is by convincing ourselves (at the level of our hearts) that the former is more to be desired, more to be longed for, more to be enjoyed than the latter. Only when we see and experience the superior joy offered to us in the gospel will change become a reality.

The Atonement - Introduction

I began “the drama of dogma” a little over two years ago as a simple way to organize and chronicle my life as a student, reader, pastor and amateur theologian. With that purpose still in mind, I’m very excited to announce that over the next nine weeks or so, I’m going to be sharing this platform with my nephew and fellow blogger, Michael Blankenship. A few months ago, Mike started blogging at “Our Simple Faith” and I’ve really enjoyed reading his posts on everything from hope, to good works, to the problem of evil.

What makes me so excited about this particular endeavor is the coming together of two very different life-stages around a central tenet of the Christian faith. Mike is a sixteen-year-old-high school student from rural Oregon considering a future in Christian ministry. I’m a twenty-seven-year-old seminary graduate in Portland entering my second year of full-time, pastoral ministry. While these worlds could certainly be further apart than they are (after all, we’re both white-American males) bridging them—both conceptually as well as stylistically—should be a lot of fun and (I hope) both challenging and encouraging to those of you following along.

Our plan for this series is to focus on the contested and often misunderstood doctrine of “limited atonement” (also referred to as “definite atonement” or “particular redemption”). In the simplest terms possible, the doctrine of limited atonement claims that Jesus’ death secured (in the past) and applies (in the present) all the redemptive blessings necessary to save God’s people. The atonement, in other words, does not simply make salvation possible; it actually and effectually saves.

In an effort, however, to make “first things first,” as well as to make sure that we don’t get ahead of ourselves, our first goal will be to explore what the atonement in and of itself is all about. (A quick side-note: Whenever debating the “finer” points of a doctrine, which is what limited atonement is, it’s important to keep in mind the “broader” points of agreement that orthodox Christianity has, more or less, maintained throughout its history. This helps us not only to concentrate on the “essentials” but to also approach the “finer” points, as we’ve called them, with humility, love, and a real sense of unity.)

Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears offer the following definition in their book Doctrine: What Every Christian Should Believe:
Jesus’ work for us on the cross is called atonement (at-one-ment); Jesus our God became a man to restore [the] relationship between God and humanity. . . . Scripture repeatedly and clearly declares that Jesus died as our substitute paying our penalty “for” our sins (253).
Using that relatively simple summary as our starting point, it is possible to further define the atonement as the historical realization of three interlocking theological concepts: (1) propitiation, (2) expiation, and (3) reconciliation.

Because these words are new to most people, our aim in the next three posts will be to unpack each one in turn, examining them, defining them and rooting them in Scripture.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in doing some further reading on the subject, here are a few recommendations:
Death by Love by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears
Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray
Fifty Reasons Jesus Came to Die by John Piper
The Cross of Christ by John Stott
Lastly, you can read Mike’s introduction here.