Some Thoughts on Newtown, pt 3: The Solution to Evil

These are the last reflections I’ll share in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy.  I had been thinking, first, about God’s participation in our suffering through Christ.  This, in turn, necessitates the suffering of the people of God, so we who claim Christ must also enter into the suffering of the world.

Today, I want to turn my attention to evil, why it’s here, and the solution to evil in our world. … In 500 words.

It simply won’t do to say about evil that God allows it for some unknown higher purpose and still call that “good.”  It doesn’t matter how you slice it; when you take that approach, God never comes out looking good or holy, and He certainly never comes out looking like Jesus.

I believer we must say that the choices of every created being must be their own.  If we are to also say that every human being is created in the image of God (Gen 1:27), then we must also say that the Lord places infinite value on each life.  He did, after all, go to great lengths to save each life.  That means that we, along with the Creator, must abhor evil events like the shooting at Sandy Hook a week ago.  We must also say, though it may sound strange, that God cannot and will not overpower even the wicked choices of someone like Adam Lanza.

(Among the reasons we must say this is that God cannot elicit love from His creation, nor can He enter into a covenant with His people, if the created beings are not able to say both “Yes” and “No” to His ways.  The possibility for both must exist.)

Still, something must be done about evil.  God cannot be just if He does not do anything about the evil that His representatives (for those are what beings created in His image are) do.  He would not be a righteous King if He did not seek a solution to evil in His creation.

God’s plan for overcoming evil in the world has always been to defeat sin and death through the death and resurrection of Christ.  But Christ died and rose again two thousand years ago and evil still exists.  The solution since Jesus’ resurrection, as I understand it, has been to fill the people of God with His Spirit so that the people of God would freely say “Yes” to the Lord’s plans at all times and in all places.  So while human beings by necessity must be free to choose good or evil, God’s plan has been to so fill people with the Holy Spirit, to so enthrall them with His goodness and love, that they freely and happily choose good.

The free evil choices made by some, then, would be met with the freely made choices of sacrificial love by the Spirit-filled people of God.  While someone like Adam Lanza may have the freedom to choose death, the Body of Christ, likewise, has the freedom to choose to respond in love, in good deeds, in prayerful concern, in generosity, with hope, with patience, and so on.

The solution to evil for all time was Christ.  The solution to evil in our time is we who claim Christ.

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Some Thoughts on Newtown, pt 2: Our Suffering Church

Yesterday, in reflecting on the tragedy at Newtown, I wrote of the God who suffers, the God who is well acquainted with our sorrow through the life and death of Jesus.  We must remember that our God is neither distant nor unfeeling.

There are myriad implications of worshiping a God who has experienced all that we do.  Among these, however, today I’m thinking that the church, too, is called to suffer as Jesus had.

I take it as a general rule that the church throughout the ages has always had Jesus to stand as our model.  The people of God have always been meant to reflect the image of their God, a call which is no less true this side of the resurrection.  The body of Christ, ought to actually look like, well, the body of Christ.

Paul drops this idea to the church at Philippi, writing, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phi 3:10-11, NIV).

I don’t know about you, but I start nodding my head around “power of the resurrection.”  That nodding seems to cease somewhere around “sharing in his sufferings” and then turns to full on shaking at “becoming like him in his death.”  Alas, we can’t get past it.  If Paul was to attain to the resurrection, he felt compelled to spend himself in the manner Jesus had.  Paul had to proclaim the ascension of a new King, even if that led to his own death, which it did, by all accounts.

There is a longer passage from Paul’s writings, from his letter to the Romans, which better articulates the effect that the suffering of the faithful might accomplish on the earth.

Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation – but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it.  For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.  For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.  Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Rom 8:12-17, NIV).

We are desperate for the Spirit of sonship, are we not?  We rejoice in the ability to converse with the Father.  But it is this Spirit that should introduce us, as children of God, as brothers and sisters of Christ, to suffering.  Do an experiment.  Look to see where else “Abba, Father” appears in the gospels.  Did you find it?  That’s right: Mark 14:36.  Jesus is in the agony of Gethsemane, about to be arrested, taken to trial and crucified.  It is this Spirit that we share with Christ, the Spirit that shares in the world’s grief as it groans under the yoke of evil.

Paul continues:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.  The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.  For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:18-21, NIV).

We enter into suffering, not just alongside our fellow humanity, but with the actual creation itself.  We suffer along with the birds of the sky and fish of the sea, with the rocks, hills, floods and fields.  But is that next to the promise of our glorified selves, our redeemed and resurrected selves, filled with the Spirit of God to finally govern the earth in righteous faithfulness to the Creator?

The church is called to suffer as the Creator had, as our Savior had.  We are called to suffer because we are called to resemble our God.  But we are also called to suffer alongside the rest of the hurting creation in order that we might have a role in redeeming the lot.

What should the church be doing these days in the aftermath of the death of innocents in Newtown?  We grieve.  We mourn.  And we sacrifice by choice on behalf of those who didn’t get to choose whether to suffer.  In this, we reflect our God and we lay ground work for redemption.

Some Thoughts on Newtown, pt 1: Our Suffering God

It’s been a few days since the horrifically tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, less than 50 miles from my home.  I’m generally averse to responding quickly to things of this magnitude.  Although those who react first and loudest often receive the most publicity, seldom do the first things out of our mouths prove helpful in such cases.  So now that I’ve sufficiently missed any chance at generating a healthy bump in page clicks, I’ll share a few thoughts.

First and foremost, whatever we might say about this tragedy, we must allow it to align with the person of Jesus.  If the questions that arise pertain, for example, on the nature or character of God, then our answers must resemble the Jesus of the Gospels.

The New Testament writers consistently reflected on the life of Jesus and came to the conclusion that they had witnessed God in their midst.  Matthew gave Jesus the the title Immanuel, Hebrew for “God with us” (1:23).  Along with many similar statements, Jesus declares in John’s gospel that he “and the Father are one” (10:30).  Paul proclaimed him as “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), and Hebrews states, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (1:3a, NIV).

Anything we might conclude about God in the face of this or any other tragedy, must resemble the person of Jesus we encounter in the gospels.

That out of the way, my thoughts turned to an aspect of Jesus I don’t often like to think about.  In Mark 8, Jesus asks his disciples what folks are saying about him (v. 27).  The responses are varied, but then Jesus puts the question to them: “‘But what about you?’ he asked.  ‘Who do you say I am'” (v. 29a)?  Peter, ever with a quick reply (see paragraph 1 above), declares “You are the Christ” (v. 29b).  Truth be told, Peter hits the nail on the head here.  Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, Israel’s long awaited king come to redeem and restore the nation from centuries of oppression.

Then Jesus says something that shocks his disciples and ought to shock us as well.  “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (v. 31, NIV).  Jesus recognized that the Christ was destined to suffer.

This was not an unknown tradition.  Isaiah had written about the suffering of the Lord’s elected servant centuries earlier:

See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.  Just as there were many who were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness. … He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground.  He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.  Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. … He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.  By oppression and judgment he was taken away.  And who can speak of his descendants?  For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.  He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.  Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand (52:14; 53:2-5, 7-10, NIV).

We like to proclaim passages like Daniel 7, in which the Son of Man receives “authority, glory and sovereign power,” in which “all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him” (v. 14a).  We like to shout along with Peter that “God has made this Jesus … both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).  We like to announce that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev 11:15).  And we should.

But we must also, in the same breath declare the means by which God set Christ on the throne of heaven.  Christ achieves his victory over evil precisely by allowing evil to rule have its way with him.  NT Wright puts the awesome plan this way: “The story of Israel was to be the story of how God was going to deal with evil.  He would draw it onto one place, allowing it to do its worst at that point.  And he himself … would go to that place, would become Israel-in-person, in order that evil might do its worst to him and so spend its force once and for all” (How God Became King, 207).  Jesus was vindicated because he followed the Father’s path perfectly, and that path led straight through the jaws of the enemy.

Whatever else we might say about God and Sandy Hook, we must say that God is entirely acquainted with suffering.  We must say that knows and experiences the pain of the slain children, of the grieving families, of the Newtown and global communities, even of the young man Adam Lanza.

What Is Salvation?

I had an email waiting for me this morning with this simple question at the end of a lengthy preamble: What is salvation?  My response is below.

Salvation.  As I understand it, salvation is (and I’m testing out some new language here) assurance of one’s place in the world to come, which is also now.

The world to come, however, is not what most Western Christians think.  More often then not, we would equate this with going to heaven when we die.  While it is true that those who have placed their faith in Christ will reside with him in heaven upon death (Phi 1:23), this is never the end goal for New Testament believers.  The end goal is a physical resurrection in a renewed earth that is joined with heaven (See Phi 3:11, for example).

Anyway, the world to come was not heaven for either the Jews or the early Christians.  The world to come was the reality hoped for when God’s Spirit broke into the world and made right everything that was wrong in the Lord’s creation.  The world to come was the renewed and redeemed creation.  It was the longed for shalom.  Other terms for this might be the Age of the Spirit, the New Creation, or the Life of the Age (zoen aionion, usually translated “eternal life” in, for example, John 3:16).  We might also call this the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven.

via arongahagan.com

Jews had an expectation that there would come a day in the future in which this renewed reality would break into their world all at once, with the vindication of the righteous and the judgment of the wicked at one time.  Part of the great shock of the New Testament is that by virtue of the resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit, this future hope was actually breaking into the present in smaller, unforeseen doses in their present.  This diagram at right contrasts well the Jewish expectation (top) and the Christian realization (bottom).

Salvation, for the Jews, had been admittance into that future Age by virtue of their place in covenant with the Creator.  Their belief, broadly, was that God had entered into a unique covenant with the people of Israel that graciously guaranteed their place when the Lord acted to restore creation.  On their better days, they didn’t believe this was exclusive to them as Jews or as descendants of Abraham, but perhaps it was exclusive to those within the covenant (which could include Gentiles who took upon themselves the covenant).

This differs from our common understanding of salvation in several ways, but at least in its communal nature.  The covenant is for the entire people of God.  True, it was up to the individual to keep the covenant as best he could, and an individual could exclude himself from the covenant by throwing it off individually, but the default position was that God had graciously extended the covenant to the nation.  The default position was to be in the covenant and therefore secured a place in the world to come.

The issue at stake is not just salvation of the individual, but of the entire nation and of the earth they inhabit.

The fundamental shift following the resurrection for the early Christians, I believe, was simply the sudden awareness that this Age was now.  That they could, by the power of the Spirit, engage in the world to come in the present, that their salvation had already come.  (That, and it was now openly and freely available to Gentiles.)  This is what Jesus would have meant when he went about with his message:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.  “The time has come,” he said.  “The kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:14-15, NIV)
In other words, “the future Age of God’s Spirit, the Age to Come, is close at hand, so adjust your thinking and walk the way I’m going!”

This is why salvation and the Gospel need to be articulated in a more holistic manner.  Salvation is for everyone and for the creation in which they live.  The Gospel is the good news of God reestablishing dominion over this creation and setting right what has gone wrong, of God becoming king.

I should also say that the conventional Evangelical Gospel of atonement, that Christ came to die for the eradication of our sins, is also valid in this framework.  Sin was the very thing that put the peoples of the earth in bondage in the first place.  Sin was the thing that so distorted the good creation that it needed rescue in the first place.  Sin had to be dealt with in order for the Age to Come to break into the now.

I should also say that salvation is simultaneously present and future.  While the scandal of the Gospel in the first century was that this future age was bursting into the present (and among Gentiles), it remains the case that this is not a completely finished work.  It remains that the earth will not see the fullness of that Age until Christ’s return.  This is often referred to as “the already but not yet,” or a partially realized eschatology.

So there it is: salvation in a nutshell.

Legalism Is too Small a Problem for the Gospel

via stuffwhitechristianslike.com

So here’s my question.  Monday and Tuesday were a long winded attempt to ramp up to this.  Believe me, it’s going somewhere.  So here’s my question.  Is it a problem that many of us have founded our faith in the false notion that Christianity was birthed from a legalistic Judaism?

The answer, like the answer to most questions, is Yes.  And No.

First, the No.  The basic truth is that no one could reasonably live up to a standard that would put her on equal footing with her Creator.  That’s absolutely true.  Moreover, it is completely true that our sin, which kept us apart from our God, had to be dealt with.  It was getting to be a real problem.  So it’s fine to use some brand of legalism as a backdrop against which to highlight the brilliance of the Gospel.  The Gospel does address that.

But the Gospel is big enough to tackle much bigger problems.

Now, the Yes.  Promoting a legalistic interpretation of 1st century Judaism as the nature of the Israelites’ covenant with God skews the actual story of God’s work among His people, especially God’s work through Jesus.

The story, as Scot McKnight has so eloquently shown, has always been about the Creator working to reestablish humanity’s proper role as vice-regents on the earth.  We were always meant to govern the earth in cooperation with the Creator.  Although our position had long been abdicated by our sin, God elected Abraham and his descendants as a people through whom the Lord would restore that mandate, through whom the entire human race would be redeemed.

All of this is accomplished in the person of Jesus, who at the same time acted as the true Israel and the true human.  Jesus was what we were all supposed to be from the beginning–a human in perfect relationship with the Father, doing as the Father was doing, alongside Him.  As Stephen Neill has said, in Jesus the world exclaims, “At last we have seen a man” [1].

That is the Gospel.  It is not the war against legalism, man’s own best efforts.  Though certainly the Gospel defeats those well.  The Gospel is the completion of God’s agenda with Israel, in particular, and humanity, at large.  The Gospel is the inauguration of a new reality the Lord had been working to implement from the beginning.

More Yes.  Presenting the Gospel as God’s gracious act to save you from your own ill fated attempts to attain right standing with Him limits the scope of the Gospel to you and God.  Such an approach minimizes the Gospel.

For too long, we’ve whittled the Gospel down to a verbal assent to a set of propositions about whether Jesus died, whether he was raised from the dead, whether this was done on my behalf to eradicate my sins because I was incapable of attaining to God beforehand.  While all this is true, it’s just enough to get a person in the door (Again, see Scot McKnight).

Once in that door, the new believer often wonders at all the new rules there are to follow.  Don’t drink.  Don’t smoke.  Don’t sleep around.  Start giving.  Start reading your Bible.  Start praying.  Having just stepped out of world in which we told the unbeliever he could not do enough to reach God, we welcome them into a Gospel of grace … and tell them to get busy with a new set of things to do.  It’s confused more than a few.

But if the Gospel is chiefly about the restoration of humankind, the restoration of the entire created world, then we’ve got a different story to tell and a different community into which to welcome new believers.  No longer do we shout, “You’re all going to hell!  Get out while you can!”  Now we shout, “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified but has been raised again, this Jesus God has made Lord over the entire creation!”  (See Acts 2:36.)  Now the one true man is in a place from which the whole world can be made right, including its businesses, governments, environments, schools, hospitals, and everything else.  A big solution for a big problem.

And, oh by the way, every human being now has access to the Creator, such that they too may hear from Him and govern in partnership with Him.

1. Neill, Stephen.  What Is Man?  London: Lutterworth, 1968.  p. 37.

A Gospel of Grace Has Never Been a New Thing

via st-takla.org
via st-takla.org

So, it turns out legalism wasn’t really the it thing in first century Judaism.  As a result, it seems that Luther’s basis for declaring Judaism a works-based religion has been displaced.  The question still remains, What does that have to do with us in the 21st century?

It has been in vogue among evangelicals to tout Christianity as unique (and therefore superior) among religions because it is fundamentally grace-based.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph 2:8-9, NASB).  We shout it from the rooftops: Our salvation is a gift from God; we could have done nothing so good as to deserve it!  And rightfully so.

Those wanting to communicate the essence of Christianity often begin right here.  We endeavor to convince those outside the fold that they can never be good enough to warrant entrance into the family of God.  The chasm is too wide, the path too narrow, the way too steep.  I’ve got a brief little volume from the pastor of America’s largest church on my desk meant for those curious about the faith: Andy Stanley’s How Good Is Good Enough?  Our evangelistic messages often begin right here.

That’s been our method.  Convince folks they’ll never be good enough to get in, then share the good news that God has done the work for them through Christ.  Why?  Because it’s all about grace, and no other religion can hold a candle to grace.

Except that now we’re learning that Judaism has, all along, been about grace.  The Israelites were no dummies.  (At least, no dumber than we are.)  They knew that God was holy and that they, well, weren’t.  For us Christians, Paul’s words elicit deep gratitude: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).  The ancient Hebrews could very well have recited a similar refrain, mutatis mutandis: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, He delivered us from Egypt.”

Can we continue to say that Christianity is (and has been) the only grace-based religion in the world?  I suppose not.  The advent of Christ was not about the Creator introducing a grace-based method of salvation over against His earlier legalistic system.  It was about fulfilling earlier stages of the same gracious covenant He held with His people.  It was about establishing a means by which God could pour His Spirit upon all flesh, Jew and Gentile.

The Gospel certainly was a new thing that God was doing, but it was a new thing inasmuch as it was the fulfillment of what the Lord had already been up to for centuries.  The Gospel was new in that it began a bright new chapter in an already epic book.