The Jewish Story Is a Love Story

Unwittingly feeding my thoughts in the wake of reading EP Sanders’s seminal Paul and Palestinian Judaism, my rabbi friend said a remarkable thing in front of a classroom of Evangelicals last night.

Paraphrasing grossly, he said:

If you’ve ever held the notion that Judaism is some sad religion of people trying desperately to earn their way to God, it’s just plain wrong.  That concept is a Medieval Christian creation.  That’s not what Judaism is, or has ever been about.

The Jewish story is a love story.  For God so loved the world, He sent us the Torah.  The exodus event, you see, was our engagement to the Lord.  We had to then wait seven weeks before the relationship could be consummated.  When Moses receives and delivers the Torah at Sinai, that is our wedding with God.

He then quoted Hosea 2:19.  “And I will betroth you to me forever.  I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy” (ESV).

It’s a stunning and, I believe, accurate picture.

It has been said many times (in fact, I heard someone say it this weekend) that Christianity is the only religion in which God comes pursuing humanity.  In all others, humanity strains for God.  It’s simply not true.

Jews were never trying to earn their way into God’s good graces.  They all understand: the Creator came to them first.  God pursued them.  Their appropriate response of gratitude is to obey the Torah He had so graciously given.


One More Thing You Should Know about Paul, but Don’t


We said yesterday that salvation by grace was not a new idea that came with Paul.  In fact, it wasn’t even his primary way of thinking about salvation, according to EP Sanders in Paul and Palestinian Judaism.  Rather, Paul’s primary understanding for salvation was union with Christ.

Take a flip through Paul’s epistles and you’ll see this everywhere.  Believers are “in Christ,” or “with Christ” at every turn.  What is it that saves the Christian?  It is her participation with Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

How is it that we are unified with Christ?  Is it some kind of mystical experience in which our minds are suddenly and mysteriously awakened to some new reality?  Perhaps.  But not completely.

Is our unity with Christ found in our active mirroring of the life of Jesus?  Are we united with Christ when we do as he did, speak his words, suffer as he did, and die after his model?  Perhaps.  But not completely.

Paul is not clear on just how this works, but he is certain that this essential unity is reality.  Moreover, it is Paul’s most common way of speaking of the means of our salvation.  However we are saved, it is because Christ has first died to sin and been raised in vindication.  The resurrection event has cleared the path for our own renewed life in the Kingdom now and forever.

Three Things You Don’t Know about Paul, but Should

Six months later, I’ve finally gotten around to finishing EP Sanders’s epic classic, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. For those not in the know, Sanders’s 1977 forever shifted the course of both Pauline studies and our awareness of the first century Jewish world. Alas, 36 years later, his groundbreaking insights have not penetrated the depths of common Christianity.

Below are three of Sanders’s main points. Give them a read and ask yourself whether you’re there (or had ever even thought anything like these).

1. The Judaism of Jesus’ and Paul’s day was NOT legalistic. Sanders’s research covers all the Jewish literature we have from the 200 years before Christ and the 200 years following. Nowhere does he find evidence for a religion that was trying to earn its way to God. To be sure, devout sons and daughters of Abraham would have been meticulous in attempting to follow the Law given at Sinai (or some interpretation thereof). None of them, however, would have thought that their careful obedience would have saved them.

Rather, Jews of the day would have believed they would be saved by Yahweh by virtue of their place within the covenantal community. That is, a Jew is saved because she is a Jew. God had already acted through Abraham and Moses and David to declare His salvation for the people of Israel. It was a gracious gift given to the nation. Jews followed the Law, then, in order to stay in the covenant.

2. Paul’s primary contribution to the theology of Christianity was NOT salvation by grace. The analysis Sanders gives on this point is long and detailed, but suffice it to say that when Paul argued against the Law and for grace, it wasn’t because he thought the Law was bad and grace was a new thing God was doing. No, Paul, as a good Jew, would have thought that the Lord always acted graciously in saving His people. How God was doing it might have been new, but that God saved by grace was not.

For Paul, what was new was his declaration that salvation came through Jesus Christ. The Lord had done a new thing in the death and resurrection of Jesus. There was, then, no other path to salvation and the life of the Age.

3. Everything revolves around Christ, who is the solution. OK, so for most Christians this has always been the case. Christ is the center. What might be new for some is in the way we think about Paul’s arguments. Any time Paul may have encountered a problem, whether thinking about a troublesome situation in a particular church or, say, the general human condition, his first thought was likely Christ, who he was and what he had done. Christ is the answer for every problem.

Where the rubber meets the road on this third point is that Paul probably didn’t begin thinking through issues with, say, humanity’s plight, and then discover that Jesus was the solution. That is, Paul would not have thought, “Well, it’s obvious that all people are depraved and in need of a savior. It’s obvious we’ve all been long separated from our Creator. It’s obvious the Law was worthless in saving us. Therefore, Jesus accomplished all that was necessary to remedy these dire situations.” Rather, Paul started with the Christ event: Jesus was crucified, raised, and ascended to God’s right hand. Therefore, we must have needed a savior, Jews and Gentiles alike. Paul worked backwards, from the solution he knew to be true, to the plight that was unveiled by the solution.

Christ is the center.


A Brief Tribute to Dallas Willard, in Memorium


Sadly, Dallas Willard died yesterday morning at age 77.

The world is the worse for this loss.  The world was made better by his life.

If you’re not familiar with Dallas Willard, he was, by day, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California.  He is better known, however, for his tireless work in Christian spirituality.  His writings are clear, profound and dangerous for their capacity to transform a life.

His Spirit of the Disciplines is the unofficial companion piece to Richard Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline.  If Foster tells us how to practice many of the central disciplines for accessing the grace of God, Willard tells us why they work.

Hearing God is a wonderful introduction to a conversational relationship with the living God.  If you ever had the privilege of being in Dr. Willard’s presence, you had the distinct impression that this was a man who spent ample time in the Lord’s presence and knew the voice of God.


The Divine Conspiracy is, on its surface, a study of the Sermon on the Mount.  This belies its true purpose.  The Divine Conspiracy is a treatise on God’s invisible reality, fermenting beneath the surface of our “real” world.  Willard here opens the doors to the possibility of living the kind of life Jesus lived, living the eternal kind of life here and now.  The Divine Conspiracy is one of the few books (alongside Celebration of Discipline) I wish I could purchase for every believer in the world.  It’s that good.

Paul exhorts the Roman Christians, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:2, NIV).  Dallas Willard’s work has been the critical tool to aid the renewing of my mind.  For that, I am grateful to the Lord for the life of Dallas Willard.

Timothy Cardinal Dolan: Culture of Life

Confession: My general stance is pro-life, though I’ve hardly been vocal about it.  Perhaps to my credit, I’ve been disturbed or incensed at some of the ways believers have prosecuted the pro-life campaign.  To my shame, I’ve not sought a better way forward.

A week ago, I had the privilege of attending The Colson Center‘s Wilberforce Weekend, which was inspiring in the ideas shared and in the work being done by several innovative Christians around the country.  Each year, The Colson Center bestows the Wilberforce Award to an individual “making a difference in the face of tough societal problems and injustices.”  This year, the award went to Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York.

Posted here is Cardinal Dolan’s acceptance speech, the meat of which begins at the 7:15 mark.  The speech centers on the culture of life, and is both challenging and inspiring.  The salient quote: “Culture is humanity’s best effort to protect the baby.”

You Don’t Have a One-Track Mind; Why Would God?


Does our typical understanding of God’s foreknowledge paralyze us?

The most common way of understanding God’s omniscience in the Christian west is to assume that the future is laid out in God’s mind in much the same way that history resides in our heads.  The future is a single track, which the Lord has already traveled.  We humans have experienced the track up until the present, and, in our limited perspective, can perhaps see a mile or so down track.  But once the course bends around a hill or dips into a hollow, we have no idea what’s coming.  Nevertheless, God knows it.  He’s seen it.

“How delightfully orderly!” we exclaim.  “Such a reality should hardly produce paralysis, but firm confidence.  The whole of the future set down so neatly!”

Unfortunately, we do not experience reality in this manner.  Although we may perceive the past as a single railway of events already traveled.  We do not “experience” the future in this way.  None of us do.


Rather, our experience of peering into the future is the furthest thing from a solitary line of track disappearing into the horizon.  Instead, each of us looks into the future as something more like a vast trainyard.  From our perspective, the future is near limitless possibilities.

“How delightfully open!” we exclaim.  “Such a reality should hardly produce paralysis, but exuberant liberty.  To go anywhere!”

But for the believer’s constant awareness of a God whose future is a single, holy pair of rails.  Steel, no less.  Thus, the well-meaning Christian stares ahead at her perception of myriad options, each heading for a some wild destination.  She is paralyzed by the conception that only one track leads to God’s promised land.  All others, as enticing as they may seem, undoubtedly lead to perdition.  How to choose the right train?

But suppose the Lord’s foreknowledge is, in reality, much like our own perception of the future.  Suppose God stands with us in the trainyard, excited about the possibilities that lay in front of you, His son, daughter, friend.  There He patiently stands with you as you ask question after question.

“Where does this one lead, Lord?”

“Oh, you’ll like that one,” He smiles.  “That would prove quite a journey.”

“And what about this track?”

“A very different future there.  But don’t worry; I’ve laid an abundance of joy and redemption down that way, too.”

“God, what if I don’t like the direction I take?”

“Don’t fear,” replies kindly.  “There are plenty of switches and other trainyards along the way.  In fact, there’s another station where you can change course, just over that crest.”