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Muscular Christianity

Pastor Sean Harris of Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, made the news this week with his suggestion that physical pain was an appropriate way to correct effeminate behaviors in boys, as a way to stop sexual immorality before it began. He has since issued a clarification and a public apology, but as one of his more recent tweets suggests, nothing will be sufficient to stem the tide of controversy his sermon unleashed.

In my most recent article for Modern Reformation, I argue that biblical views of complementary gender roles are not only being rejected on the left, but assimilated on the right to a reactionary cultural ideology of caricatured stereotypes. Tragically, feminists and the LBGT community need these parodies of the traditional family, just as right-wing extremists need visible targets of social breakdown to justify their reactionary calls to arms. Both are unbiblical and deeply destructive of human identity and community.

It is hardly a newsflash that we’ve been living through an era of upheaval in gender roles. Churches have been divided over the role of women in ministry. In “Young, Restless, Reformed” circles, a new generation is discovering Jonathan Edwards and “masculine Christianity” in one fell swoop. Weaned on romantic—even sentimental—images of a deity who seems to exist to ensure our emotional and psychic equilibrium, many younger Christians (especially men) are drawn to a robust vision of a loving and sovereign, holy and gracious, merciful and just, powerful and tender King. As David Murrow pointed out in Why Men Hate Going to Church (2004), men are tired of singing love songs to Jesus and don’t feel comfortable in a “safe environment” that caters to women, children, and older people. His critique is familiar to many: men don’t like “conformity, control, and ceremony,” so churches need to “adjust the thermostat” and orient their ministry toward giving men tasks (since they’re “doers”). Men don’t like to learn by instruction; they need object lessons and, most of all, to find ways to discover truth for themselves.

I get the point about a “soft” ministry, especially worship, with its caressing muzak and the inoffensive drone of its always-affirming message. It’s predictably and tediously “safe.” Get the women there and they’ll bring their husbands and children. Not only has that not worked, it’s sure to bore any guy who doesn’t want to hear childrearing tips or yet another pep talk on how to have better relationships.

Click here to read the rest of “Muscular Christianity”

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Osteen: “God Wants to Supersize your Joy” — So what’s wrong with that?

The following is by Rev. Dr. Brian Lee, pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington D.C. and is used with his permission. This was originally posted on The Daily Caller on May 1, 2012


On Sunday night [April 29, 2012], 41,000 fans packed Nationals Stadium in Washington, D.C., to hear a message of hope, inspiration, and encouragement from Joel Osteen. Most paid about $20 (including fees) for the privilege.

Osteen sold out the stadium—a feat the Nationals rarely accomplish. But did he have to sell out to do so?

Osteen is the latest embodiment of the American Religion—Revivalism. For centuries now, preachers have known how to fill stadiums or circus tents and send people home with hope in their heart and a skip in their step. Osteen promises you will leave a transformed person—at least until his tour comes around again next year, when you can be transformed again.

Osteen’s message is a positive one for a difficult time. Every one of us has seeds of greatness inside, potential that has not yet been released, buried treasure waiting to be discovered. If you were a car, you would be the fully loaded and totally equipped model—”with pin stripes,” he says, gesturing to his suit.

Before God created you, he planned great things for you. As you stretch your faith, “God is going to show up, and show out, in tremendous ways. … If you don’t step into your destiny and release your gift, then this world will not be as bright as it should be.”

That’s a pretty positive message. What could be wrong with that?

The biggest problem with Osteen’s message about God is that it is really a message about me. God is a potential, a force, a co-pilot, waiting to be tapped and deployed. I may have a net below me, but I am the one that has to take the first steps on the wire:

Taking steps of faith is imperative to fulfilling your destiny. When I make a move, God will make a move. When I stretch my faith, God will release more of his favor. When I think bigger, God will act bigger.

God is as big as I think him to be.

Yes, this is the American Religion: a program, a plan, five simple steps to help me be all that I can be. This is the religion of the bootstraps, where “God helps those who help themselves.”

By the way, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that is a quote from the Bible. It’s not.

And that’s the second problem. Osteen’s message is not biblical. His promise that his audience will be taught the Bible—from a preacher who has admitted that teaching the Bible isn’t his strength—is fulfilled with a smattering of verses. These snippets are at best torn out of their context, at worst fabricated.

There’s this stretch: “God is saying to you what He said to Lot, ‘Hurry up and get there, so I can show you my favor in a greater way.'” In Genesis 19:22, the Angel does tell Lot “Get there quickly, for I can do nothing until you arrive there.” God waiting on Lot to step out in faith so he can bless him? Not exactly. It is God telling Lot to flee to Zoar, a city of safety, so he can rain down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah.

Osteen bolsters his bootstrap religion by quoting Jesus: “Roll away the stone, and I’ll raise Lazarus.” This, Osteen says, is a “principle,” “God expects us to do what we can, and He will do what we can’t. If you will do the natural, God will do the supernatural.”

One problem. Jesus does command them to roll away the stone, but no such quid pro quo is found in holy writ. This foundational principle is one of Osteen’s own making.

It is not primarily the details of Osteen’s biblical sunbeams that are problematic. It’s the overall message. What’s missing is any sense of human sin. Osteen leads his crowd in a mantra at the opening of his performance: “This is my Bible. Tonight I will be taught the word of God. I can do what it says I can do.” Again, bootstraps.

What does the Bible say we can do for ourselves? Our best works are like filthy rags, the prophet Isaiah teaches (Isaiah 64:6); we are like sheep gone astray (Isaiah 53:6). Paul says “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and includes himself in this “all” as “the chief of all sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). The big problem is that we don’t want what’s good for us, and when we do, Paul says, “The good that I want to do, I do not do” (Romans 7:19).

Ring true? It does for me. That’s why the stadium will be full next year. Self-esteem doesn’t help me, it just leaves me with more me, digging deeper within.

How about Jesus? Surely he’s more upbeat than Paul or the prophets? Well, he does offer this simple recipe to happiness: “Sell all you possess, give it away to the poor, and follow me.” You done that yet? Yes, he does say that our faith makes us well, but he is the healer our faith looks to. He also tells the paralytic to take up his bed and walk, but only after he has healed him.

What we want is the excitement and encouragement and affirmation of the stadium—”God is waiting for you to act.” What we need is the truth and compassion of Jesus—”Come to me you who are weary, and I will give you rest.”

After the adrenaline boost, I hope some of those 41,000 find their way through the desert to some place where they can get a drink of water.

Earlier Sunday, 45 worshipers (about 0.1% of Osteen’s crowd) gathered at Christ Reformed Church in Logan Circle—and other churches in this city—to hear a message of sin and salvation, the Good News of a God who loves those who are his sworn enemies. They responded to God’s word with prayer, song, and confession, and received the benediction of a God who pardons sin full and free.

There was hope and inspiration too, but of an entirely different sort. Admittance was free.

[Note: The author didn’t make it to Nationals Stadium on Sunday; he caught the previous “Night of Hope Event” at Yankee Stadium online.]

Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C. He formerly worked as a communications director both on Capitol Hill and at the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Editor’s note: Just so that you don’t think it is only cranky Reformed types who are saying these things about Joel Osteen, Salon.com also posted a piece on The Osteen Tour stop in D.C.: Joel Osteen Worships Himself

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Has the Gospel-Centered Emphasis Gone Too Far?

R. C. Sproul, James Boice, and J. I. Packer were already stirring many evangelicals with the vision of a great God who saves sinners by a grace that is amazing from start to finish. Out of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, chaired by Dr. Boice, a host of annual conferences sprouted up across North America. Ligonier Ministries gained a national platform. Inspired and nourished by these efforts, several of us started the White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation 20 years ago out of a concern that we need to recover the riches of the Reformation, with the gospel of justification in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, at its heart.

Over these two decades, we’ve been through a series of controversies within evangelicalism about the character of God and his gospel: open theism, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and the “emergent” movement, to name a few. Along the way, we’ve engaged Robert Schuller, with the publication of his Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, at a moment when it seemed from the Christian best-seller list that Christianity was being radically re-written in the subjective and therapeutic categories of modernity.

There are still enormous challenges, of course. As our latest issue of Modern Reformation points out, the diet of Christian trade books doesn’t exactly point in the direction of widespread renewal of catechesis. Nevertheless, there has been a proliferation of gospel-centered resources. Groups like the Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel sponsor large national conferences. Reared on moralism, a number of younger pastors—many of larger nondenominational churches—are being gripped by grace.

Just think of some of the titles of late in this genre: The Gospel as Center, D. A. Carson; The Prodigal God, Tim Keller; Jesus + Nothing = Everything, Tullian Tchividjian; Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary, J. D. Greear; The Good News We Almost Forgot, Kevin DeYoung; What Is the Gospel?, Greg Gilbert. I’ve added a few of my own logs to the “gospel” fire, so I can only rejoice in what Charles Swindoll called a while back “the grace awakening.”

Of course, there is always a danger that when you take God’s Word out of the church—out of the ambient environment of expository preaching, baptism, Communion, prayer, confession, absolution, and praise—it becomes a genre. Like “gospel music,” gospel or grace can easily become an adjective more than a noun—like a category on “Jeopardy,” carved up into emphases of each parachurch ministry. The latter can do a lot to put “first things” back on the radar, but they can’t proclaim the whole counsel of God week after week, baptize, commune, look after you and your family, and preach your funeral.

We have to be careful that this wonderful recovery of something so precious doesn’t become reduced to “the gospel thing.” I think that this is in part what people are reacting to when they wonder if it has all gone too far. But has it? From what I hear with some growing frequency, this is becoming a real question in our circles. With all this talk about grace, are we becoming antinomians? Maybe we’ve taken the gospel for granted, but are we now over-reacting by taking holiness for granted?

As I’ve said before, antinomianism (or what usually goes by that label) is never the result of taking the gospel too far; it’s the result of not taking it far enough. When, after treating justification so forcefully, Paul anticipates the question, “Shall we then sin so that grace may abound?”, his answer is an equally forceful “No—may it never be!” Yet it’s not by adding a dose of fear to douse the flames of libertinism, but by exposing us to the wideness of the gospel, that he answers this important question. Those who are united to Christ are not only justified but renewed, sharing in the benefits of his resurrection as well as his death. Sin is no longer in power over our lives and destiny. Finally, we are free to obey the command to offer ourselves to righteousness. No longer hearing the Judge’s conditions from Mount Sinai, we hear the Father’s commands from Mount Zion, with a better covenant and a better Mediator.

So does antinomianism really exist? Certainly there have been actual groups and individuals down through the ages advocating freedom not only from the moral law’s condemnation but from its precepts. In recent decades, some evangelicals have argued that one can accept Jesus as Savior but not as Lord. But is this a serious problem in our churches?

For whatever it’s worth, here is my take. There are basically three groups of professing Christians.

  • The first are nominal. These are folks who tell Gallup and other pollsters, as well as Christian friends and family members, that they’re believers. However, they resist any external authority; instead, the follow their own lights, their own inner intuitions, drives, and goals for maximizing their potential. Taking a pick-and-choose approach to religion, they do not belong to a local church, don’t really know what they believe and why, and consequently their lives are indistinguishable from those of their non-Christian neighbors.
  • The other two groups consist of what we might call the committed: those whose steady spiritual diet keeps them moralized and those who are regularly evangelized.

In the 1950s, Protestant liberals accommodated the faith to modernity by psychologizing, subjectivizing, and moralizing the faith. God was less a Lord and Redeemer external to the self than a power within us to realize our spiritual and moral potential as active agents of his transforming and affirming presence in the world. Meanwhile, conservative Protestantism was often obsessed with distinguishing itself from the world by narrowing the faith to a few fundamentals (fundamental though they indeed are) and superficial codes of behavior that have little or no scriptural justification.

As evangelical churches today accommodate to the psychologizing and subjectivizing of the faith, like mainline churches before them, we can expect more nominal attachments. Here one clearly finds at least practical antinomianism, despite a steady drumbeat of self-justifying moralism. People won’t go to hell for dancing—or for sexual promiscuity, but they may be frowned on if they aren’t happy, or perhaps drive SUVs and fail to participate in the various service projects listed in the bulletin. If all that’s important is finding the right spiritual technology for “my best life now,” then antinomianism is the theory regardless of the actual practices one chooses.

At its heart, though, this isn’t really antinomianism. It’s not a choice between law and freedom but between God’s law and the laws (principles, tools, expectations) that I determine suitable for judging my life and course of actions. After all, for all their personality differences, smiling life-coaches give you a work-out program every bit as arduous as anything you would have found in the party-crashing conservative churches of yesteryear.

There is a real process of secularization in the West, including the United States, and it’s deeper than “antinomianism-vs-legalism.” In my experience, at least, I just don’t run into many card-carrying antinomians in churches. What I do meet are (1) nominal Christians who aren’t converted and therefore are not communicant members of the church, (2) believers who are either self-deceived or burned out on a constant diet of “Do more/Be more” that takes the gospel for granted, and (3) believers who are regularly given a Christ who is great enough and a gospel that is big enough to save Christians, too. Those in the first two categories may be antinomians in theory (denying the external claims of a holy God), but they are far from it in practice; they simply exchange the divine condemnation that leads to Christ with the self-condemnation that leads to despair.

Those who are in the third category alone can pray, “Teach me thy ways,” with joy. They don’t pick-and-choose what they decide is useful or helpful for their life project. They don’t file out of the service saying, “I’m going to sin more so that grace may abound.” They receive the Word in the power of the Spirit: embracing the promises in faith and the commands as their “reasonable service…in view of the mercies of God.” As members of Christ’s body, they submit to the teaching and admonition of the one Christ who is saves to rule and rules to save. For this group of fellow pilgrims, among whom God’s grace in Christ has included me, there is a perpetual movement back and forth between confession of sins, absolution, good works, confession of sins, and on we go. There is joy and frustration, faith and doubt, obedience and disobedience. But the very terms associated with this cycle of sanctification tell the tale: In this new world, at least, antinomianism does not—for it cannot—actually exist.

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Common Objections

Modern Reformation contributor and street evangelist veteran Leon Brown sat down with us to discuss his article “Common Objections” – need some practical advice from an old hand?  Look no further!

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Would Jesus Have a Facebook Page?

“When [Jesus] came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.”

A recent article in USA Today by Cathy Lynn Grossman cites examples of the growing tendency in churches to treat the Internet as a genuine ministry-provider. It’s not just about having websites and email contacts, but about assuming that digital contact is actual ministry. [Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Church Outreach Takes on a New Technical Touch,” Wednesday, April 18, 2012.] According to the report, for example, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association offers a page for visitors to sign on the sinner’s prayer and “turn up in a real-time scroll of latest ‘decisions’ at www.SearchforJesus.net…” Grossman writes, “Technology should ultimately be an enhancement, not a replacement, for gathering in person for worship, discussion, debate and service to others, Drew Goodmanson says. Goodmanson is chief executive officer of Monk Development, which helps churches use the Internet to fulfill their missions. He appreciates that ‘you can have a digital Bible in the palm of your hand or connect with others in prayer any time anywhere.’ Nevertheless, Goodmanson says, ‘Jesus would not have a Facebook page. He wouldn’t be stopping in an Internet café to update his status.'” Thank God.

Responding to the USA Today article, Al Mohler helpfully points out some of the costs and benefits. It’s a great benefit that we can read lots of content on-line to which he had limited access before. Yet, he observes, “A digital preacher will not preach your funeral. The deep limitations of digital technologies become evident where the church is most needed. Don’t allow the Internet to become your congregation. YouTube is a horrible place to go to church.”

The episode I cited at the beginning, reported in Matthew 8:1-3, just wouldn’t have tweeted well.

First, it can’t be abstracted from its historical context. Under the old covenant, leprosy was a sign of sin’s guilt and corruption. Its victims were not just contagious, but ceremonially “unclean,” polluting the camp of Israel; they had to be quarantined from the covenant community (see Leviticus 13-15; Num 5:1-4). Which is what makes Jesus’s action all the more provocative.

Second, the healing can’t be abstracted from bodily contact. In most instances, Jesus spoke the word and people were healed, but in this rare case, he “stretched out his hand and touched him…” It would be a compassionate stroke by itself. On those rare foreys into public, sufferers from leprosy would have to yell, “Leper!”, as crowds parted nervously to avoid contact. Jesus reached out and touched the man. Yet this also meant something far more daring: he was making contact with someone who was ceremonially untouchable. Matthew adds the healing of another outcast: a Roman centurion’s son, in verses 5-13, commending the centurion’s faith: “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” And then he promises that people will come from all parts of the globe to “recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.” The servant’s son “was healed at that very moment.”

Clearly the point in both episodes, as well as thee other healings, including a demon-possessed man in verses 28-34 and the paralyzed man in 9:1-8, are signs confirming the truth of Jesus’s announcement about the kingdom.

Jesus touched people who shouldn’t have been touched, dined with people who shouldn’t even be in the neighborhood, enjoyed fellowship with people whose exclusion from the community was thought to be the condition for the Messiah’s arrival and re-institution of the national theocracy. Instead, the “unclean” are cleansed and fed the richest fare with Abraham, while those who were the most ceremonially santized are “unclean,” cast into outer darkness.

Jesus still bathes, feeds, and looks after sinners. But you can’t reduce this story to something “tweetable.” Jesus did not love people anonymously, but said to them, “Your sins are forgiven.” People came to him in faith, sat on the margins, or plotted his death—but they all did so in his presence.

Even after the resurrection, Jesus is made known to the disciples as the risen Lord through the Word that he expounded and the breaking of the bread (Luke 24). “As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you!’ but they were startled and frightened and thoughty they saw a spirit. And he said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Lk 24:36-29).

What about today, after Jesus has been raised bodily and ascended to the Father’s right hand?

Paul tells us that we do not have to climb into heaven or descend into the depths to find him; he’s as near as the gospel that is preached. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” This is why we need preachers and they need to be sent (Rom 10:5-17). The Spirit works ordinarily through the common lips of fallible and sinful ministers.

The apostles also teach that the Spirit works through the most ordinary elements in creation, sanctifying them for his holy use. United to Christ visibly in baptism with water and the Word, they are fed at the table with Abraham and all of the saints seated with Christ. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16).

Jesus doesn’t have a Facebook page. He doesn’t “friend” and “unfriend” at the click of a botton. He doesn’t offer anonymous advice. Although of him it could be uniquely said that he is unique, he does is not obsessed with expressing his uniqueness but delights in forming a fellowship of forgiven sinners around his hard-won victory.

So the apostolic community was embodied. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” They even shared their material treasures freely with each other according to abundance and lack. “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Ac 2:42-47).

The gospel is not just information. It is high-touch in a hi-tech age. Christ’s gathering of sinners in these last days is an official diplomatic mission, not from any earthly capitol but from heaven. Understanding God’s Word—being swept into the story—is not something that can happen in an instant; you can’t Google it. We have to be touched by Jesus Christ, as he speaks, baptizes, and delivers himself to our fleshy hands through ordinary stuff he has made. The leper may have been able to post the astounding announcement on his personal page, “I’ve been cleansed—Jesus just touched me and said, ‘You are cleansed’!” Yet the significance of the sign required context. Furthermore, for others to be touched, they need Jesus to touch them.

There are a lot of things we can do now in terms of distributing content, starting conversations, and networking with others. Yet no more than the fruit of Guttenberg’s printing press—mass-distributed books—can the Internet proclaim a new creation into being. No one exploited the printing press more than Luther, but he cautioned, “The church is a mouth-house, not a pen-house.” Even today, Christ is forming an assembly of guests for his wedding feast by his Word and Spirit.

Like all common gifts, technology requires wisdom and discernment. There is a time and place for everything. We don’t pretend that we are really present at Thanksgiving if we’re “joining” by Skype or video-conference. Children don’t grow up (or shouldn’t, at least) in digital homes, but real ones, where people have to wait in line for bathrooms. Why do people think that we can “grow up into Christ” without the joys and frustrations of living with other sinners?

Digitial deliverance from that now-ubiquitous fear of being disconnected, out of the loop or out of date distracts us from the real deliverance from the reign of sin and death. Are the uses to which digital technology are being put today advancing Christ’s mission or do they represent actually the avoidance of the kind of kingdom that Christ has inaugurated in the world—in fact, a way of conforming the kingdom of Christ into just another kingdom of this passing age?

Contrary to the propaganda of the techno-evangelists, the Internet cannot bring people together, bodily, to make them a communion of saints. It can deliver data, even crucial information about God’s Worrd, but it cannot deliver Christ with all of his benefits. For that, you just have to show up. You have to hear it to believe it, to be washed into its cleansing surf, and to be made into part of his “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” by tasting the morsels of that greater feast to come.

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Miller (Movie) Time!

You can follow Anthony Parisi at https://twitter.com/#!/anthonyparisi.

Legendary film director Orson Welles once said that “there are two things that can absolutely not be carried to the screen: the realistic presentation of the sexual act and praying to God.” Portraying the complexity of our spiritual lives in a visual medium like film is a daunting task. Most stay away from dealing with religion at all while others try and fail. While we’ve been blessed with some incredible exceptions (think Andrei Tarkovsky or Terrence Malick), many sub-par, exclusively message-driven efforts by evangelicals dominate the attention of the American public.

Enter Blue Like Jazz, the newly released film adaptation of Don Miller’s popular book. Longtime musician Steve Taylor directs from a screenplay he co-wrote with Miller and Ben Pearson. Their goal is not to offer gospel proclamation or heroic moral triumph but tell an honest story about the conflict of faith in the modern world. The book’s autobiographical introspection has been condensed into a simpler, coming-of-age narrative.

The story begins with young Don in his Texan Southern Baptist church. A smarmy youth pastor leads a prayer circle that quickly devolves into bowling watermelons and group games. Don is warned to avoid brainwashing by the “liberals” at college. In the next scene his deadbeat, hippie dad inversely laments the loss of his mind to the church. Later, a cross-shaped piñata showers communion cups on disappointed kids as a gospel illustration. These scenes culminate with a revelation that the (very married) youth pastor has been sleeping with mom, something the trivial atmosphere of the church hasn’t equipped Don to handle. He quickly snaps and flees to his dad’s alma mater, the famously liberal, agnostic Reed College. Here he begins to openly mock his faith as he considers leaving it all behind.

Amidst the fun, anarchic campus life Don encounters a diverse array of new friends. There’s a lovesick lesbian, a militant atheist in full Papal garb, and a (sometimes naïve) activist with a heart for humanitarian issues. Even though the satire is heightened, there’s enough nuance to stomach the clichés and uneven filmmaking. Self-aware of caricature, the film even invites discussion on archetypes and stereotypes as students debate the definitions in literature class. At the Q&A session following a screening in Irvine, Miller actually pointed out that some of the most suspect extremes (Reed’s mocking ceremony that crowns a campus Pope, a girl using the co-ed urinal, an atheist purging dorm room of religious books) were all from real life.

The filmmakers have a clear affection for each character. No one is unfairly demonized and everyone is given a voice at the table. This is a very rare quality. We meet hypocritical Christians and gracious, faithful ones. Churchgoing Penny fights for social causes but later admits to abandoning her suffering mom in an hour of greatest need. Agnostics air their jabs at religion but aren’t given a free pass either. On campus we see the champions of “tolerance” being anything but. As Don’s dad mocks the church he’s reminded that the congregation paid for groceries when he ditched the family. Taylor juxtaposes banal Christian bumper stickers “Are you following Jesus this close?” with their mirror image, “Abstinence makes the heart grow fondlers.” I can’t think of another movie that has captured just how sloganeering and prejudicial current talk about religion is. Moving past the hysterical put-downs, we’re shown how personal experience and emotion is often more formative than a reasonable argument.

Steve Taylor’s comedic sensibilities help steer the story away from melodrama. The personality that characterizes his songwriting is also felt here. At times the humor falls flat or grows tedious (like a sequence where a bear-costumed thief destroys Don’s bike) but the consistent energy enables Taylor to portray an inner, spiritual struggle in a strong and unique way. Knowing where Don has really come from and what he’s wrestling with gives the college wackiness a striking dissonance. All the fun, partying, and prank “activism” are colored by the lingering question: what will he do with God? The contrast of the upbeat soundtrack echoes how our externally happy lives often distract from or mask underlying turmoil.

The second half of the film grows somewhat disappointing, which is a real shame given all it has going for it. It’s often hard to believe that Don (who months ago was happily serving his church) would go to the extremes that he does. He gets increasingly mixed up with the Pope and his anti-religious antics, even helping place a giant condom balloon on top of the local Episcopal church. When he begins to realize how his behavior is beginning to hurt Penny and affect others, we’re never quite clear why Christianity remains existentially powerful enough to keep him on the fence.

A theism debate hints at our need for truth, love, and meaning that the strict materialist can’t account for. Penny’s passion for social justice inspires him. But we don’t see what’s specifically Christian about any of it. Don’s voice-over tells us that “sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.” Unfortunately, this is what we’re not quite shown. The best Penny can express is that she “likes Jesus” but we don’t really hear who he is or why she should. If Jesus is just one more guy who wants us to love each other, then what’s the big deal? Why not a thousand other prophets or self-help gurus, religious or secular, telling us the same thing?

In the end we hear Don describe how he tried to ditch God but can’t because “it’s like he’s following me around.” But some of the vagueness of Don’s wrestling with God undercuts the story. While it’s great that the movie doesn’t suddenly switch into sermon mode, a fear of being preachy or judgmental seems to hold it back from providing a more penetrating vision of Don’s journey or Christ himself. In interviews about the film, Taylor and Miller frequently talk about their intention to not be that kind of Christian movie. While I’m grateful they succeeded, I think this self-conscious defensiveness prevents the movie from rising to its full potential.

There also seems to be something of a generation gap going on. Younger generations are coming from a postmodern, pluralist context more than a fundamentalist one. At the evangelical college I attended, the common issue wasn’t judgmental ferocity but spiritual apathy and feeling-based mushiness. Throwing off the previous generation’s legalism sometimes led to biblical illiteracy and lack of serious discipleship. It was all “deeds not creeds” and “relationship not religion” but baby Jesus often got thrown out with the bathwater. After visiting a friend’s church where we took off our shoes and sang Coldplay for worship … I knew something had gone very wrong. Because of the changing landscape of evangelicalism, I feel Blue Like Jazz appeals to my generation but may do little to challenge it.

Still, it’s fantastic to watch a film about Christianity that’s characterized by grace and humility. The reverse confessional scene at the conclusion of the story is the film’s best. After a wild night where Don is crowned the new campus Pope, he finally stops wavering and comes out of the closet. Instead of hearing the student’s ironic confessions of sin, Don decides to apologize for himself and the ways fellow Christians have failed to be faithful witnesses for God. He takes the former Pope into the booth and admits to him that he believes in God, Jesus, “the whole deal.” He explains, “I came here to escape it because I was ashamed of it. But it turns out that I’m not just ashamed of my strange church or its political views or all the hypocrites. I’m ashamed of Jesus. I’m ashamed of Jesus because I want you to like me.”

Taylor delicately directs the scene and both Marshall Allman and Justin Welborn give vulnerable performances. I was struck by how moving it was. You can feel that here is the heart of Don Miller and the moment rings with authenticity. Like many of us, his criticism of the church can often go hand in hand with trying to be relevant, likeable, and fit in. Here we see that the movie isn’t a cheap shot at conservatives or secularists or hypocrites. It’s a personal confession.

In the book, Miller writes of a moment where we stop “blaming the problems in the world on group think, on humanity and authority” and start to face ourselves. He admits, “I hate this more than anything. This is the hardest principle within Christian spirituality for me to deal with. The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest.” Here is our age-old struggle to confess with the apostle Paul that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of who I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

As someone who doesn’t much care for the book or Miller’s writings, I expected to be unimpressed by this movie. Instead, I found a decently entertaining two hours at the multiplex. Even with its flaws and hang-ups there’s a lot to appreciate. In a pop culture world filled with cynicism and bitterness, Blue Like Jazz manages to express humility and open an inviting space for conversation. It’s a rare and welcome sight to see.

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More Scripture-Twisting on the Campaign Trail?

Raise your hand if you’re offended by politicians and church leaders using the Bible like a wax nose. On the left bank, there is the well-worn battery of references to Jesus and the rich young ruler, the command to “render unto Caesar,” and the last judgment where the sheep and goats are separated. As the Washington Post poses the question: “Jesus said, ‘Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ In a time of economic turmoil and record poverty levels, are tax cuts for the wealthy moral?” Regular “On Faith” columnist and former seminary president Susan Brooks Thistlewaite is ready with an answer—and verses to back it up. Jesus told the rich young ruler, “‘Sell all that you own and distribute the money.’ But the young man, ‘who was very rich,’ turned away. Jesus’ comment? ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’ (Luke 18: 21-25).” “All too true,” Ms. Thistlewaite sighs with all the self-satisfaction of someone who thinks she’s not the rich young ruler. “It’s also easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a bill with the rich paying their fair share of taxes to get through Congress. Not gonna happen.”

Meanwhile, back on the right bank, NPR reported yesterday the latest use of the Bible for small government. The report quotes Richard Land (head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) as saying that “the Bible tells us that socialism and neosocialism never worked. Confiscatory tax rates never work.” Really, the Bible tells us so? As it turns out, not in so many words. However, the Bible does tell us that because we are by nature sinful and selfish, “people aren’t going to work very hard and very productively unless they get to keep a substantial portion of that which they make for them and for their families.” (Is implies ought? Aren’t good laws supposed to guard the weak against the selfish ambitions of the powerful? Why couldn’t someone use the same logic to argue that out-of-wedlock teens shouldn’t have to carry their babies to term, since they’re not as likely to be ready to love and care for them?)

The report also cites the appeal to our Lord’s parable of the vineyard by WallBuilders’ David Barton. As the NPR piece puts it (better than Mr. Barton), in the biblical parable “the owner pays the worker he hires at the end of the day the same wage as he pays the one who begins work in the morning. Many theologians have long interpreted this as God’s grace being available right up to the last minute, but Barton sees the parable as a bar to collective bargaining. ‘Where were unions in all this? The contract is between an employer and an employee. It’s not between a group,’ Barton said. ‘He went out and hired individually the guys he wanted to work.'”
At least Congressman Paul Ryan (cited in the same report) has centuries of robust Catholic social thought to draw upon, including the idea of “subsidiarity” (similar to Abraham Kuyper’s concept of “sphere-sovereignty,” where the state isn’t the only charity in town). Like Rick Santorum, Mr. Ryan has been subjected to criticism by Roman Catholic scholars for his interpretation of subsidiary, but at least there is a broader tradition of reflection to draw upon than trading Bible verses that have absolutely no bearing on the subject at hand.

Sheep and goats (Matthew 25)

The sheep are commended: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'” The righteous wonder when they did all these things. “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me'” (Mat 25:35-40). A group of more politically liberal evangelicals calling itself Matthew 25 contributed significantly to President Obama’s first campaign. Former Republican senator John Danforth added, “I think Matthew 25 is a very good place to start” (Lisa Miller, “Heaven Help Him: Religious Centrists Bail on Obama,” Newsweek, Feb. 8, 2010, 18).

These verses are part of a single sermon that begins in Matthew 24:1: Jesus prophesies the destruction of the Temple (which occurred in 70 AD) and the signs of the end of the age, with a focus on a long period of the church’s tribulation until the gospel is preached to the ends of the earth. The emphasis in the sermon is on preparing his hearers for imminent persecution. The sermon concludes with the statements above about the final judgment, with the separation of the sheep and the goats. What’s intriguing is that the “goats”—those condemned—are clearly professing followers of Jesus. After all, they protest their loyalty to Jesus. The difference is that the sheep cared for each other. Earlier in the sermon, Jesus warned his followers that they would be hungry, thrown out of their homes by their own family members who would even turn them in to the authorities, imprisoned, and abandoned. The sheep are those who cared for their brothers and sisters—even total strangers—in the face of persecution, even at the cost of their own safety.

In other words, Matthew 25 is not a generic call to care for the oppressed. There are many other passages one could go to for that. Matthew 25 is a specific statement about how the Shepherd looks after his sheep and expects the sheep to do the same. So closely identified with his church is Christ that he could demand of Saul in Acts 9:4, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” We are to look upon fellow-Christians as we would Christ. Christians who, for fear of their own lives, refused to show solidarity with fellow saints—”these my brothers” (v 40), were in effect denying Christ himself.

Rich young ruler

The story of the rich young ruler (Mat 19:16-22) also has a context that is somewhat different from the issues related to the US tax structure. The man asked, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” The question itself provides a clue as to the point of Jesus’ strategy. The Mosaic covenant was based on reciprocity: fulfill the law and you will live long in the land. It never held out eternal life; the conditions of the covenant that Israel swore at Mount Sinai pertained exclusively to the temporary geo-political nation of Israel.

Yet the question the young man asks is how to have eternal life: what’s the missing work. The law hasn’t changed, Jesus replies: “‘If you would enter life, keep the commandments.'” “Which ones?”, the man asks. After Jesus restates the obvious (namely, the Ten Commandments), the man replies, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Talk about setting himself up! The man’s concern is not for God or for his neighbor, but for himself and the one good deed that will put him over the top. Alms-giving was part of the routine, too, so giving to the poor wouldn’t have been foreign to the man. However, “‘If you would be perfect,'” Jesus tells him, “‘go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.'”

It’s a bit cynical to suggest that the only thing Jesus was up to here was to convince the rich young ruler that he was not righteous. The kingdom that Jesus brings is defined by the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. It isn’t a check-list for feathering one’s own nest. The man’s problem was not only that he was self-righteous, but that he was also so bound up in his identity with his wealth that he couldn’t even recognize his neighbor. The love that Jesus himself demonstrates in his self-offering is far more reckless than that love that he demands of us. Jesus doesn’t merely tell his disciples that the take-away is that it’s hard for the self-righteous to enter the kingdom, but, “‘Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.'” Someone asked Nelson Rockefeller how much money it takes to be happy and he reportedly replied, “A little more.” From the earliest days of the apostolic era wealthy believers contributed significantly to the mission and welfare of the church as well as wider society. And yet, where there is more wealth, there is a greater opportunity to lodge one’s treasure in this age rather than in the age to come.

The bottom line is that the rich young man left sad, because he had many possessions. He had lodged his identity in both his moral and financial net worth and Jesus wouldn’t lower the bar. The man thought he had kept the law, but he really hadn’t kept it. The Pharisees might have made him chairman of the board, but Jesus told him the truth.

The tragic fact of this story is that those who invoke it against Republicans miss the point as badly as the rich young ruler. In fact, we show ourselves to be uncomfortably like the rich young ruler when we deflect the point to others—The Rich—and imagine that Jesus is suggesting that the Roman government should redistribute their income. The truth is, we are the rich young ruler and if we’re looking for “the one thing” we supposedly haven’t done to possess one more possession (eternal life), the command is for us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor. Have the invokers of this story done that? If they haven’t, then they don’t have a right to use the story against the “bad guys.”

Parable of the vineyard

Like all of the parables, this one is about the kingdom that Christ brings, as indicated by the phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”. As with the others, the focus is on the division in the house of Israel that Jesus precipitates. Outsiders become insiders and insiders become outsiders. Here, in Matthew 20, the master hires laborers. Israel is often called the Lord’s vineyard (Is 5:1-7; Jer 2:21; Hos 10:1). But in this case, the workers who had been there all day begrudge those who arrived near the close of the workday. Jesus says that the master replies, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So the last will be first, and the first last” (Mat 20:15-16).

The religious leaders had devoted their lives to hard work in the Lord’s vineyard. They multiplied rules for piety. And they begrudged God’s generosity in making room at the table, right next to Abraham, for sinners and Samaritans, much less unclean Gentiles.

Sadly, even the disciples get in on the act. Matthew places this parable right before the narrative of Jesus’ announcement of his crucifixion and resurrection as the disciples jockey for positions of prominence and authority in Jesus’ kingdom. “‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many'” (Mat 20:17-28).

It’s not surprising that Mr. Barton doesn’t find labor unions in this passage, since they didn’t exist in first-century Palestine and the parable doesn’t have the 2012 election in view.

Small government vs. socialism

It’s not just that Bible doesn’t give us enough data on small government versus socialism; it’s not written to a society that would have known what these economic arrangements were in the first place. It’s completely anachronistic to expect the Bible to address economic systems that would evolve through centuries of Western history.

There are plenty of laws in the Torah that would make a Tea Partier think twice before inviting theonomists to join them on the campaign trail. In fact, God’s indictment in the prophets against Israel’s thorough breach of covenant frequently turns on the nation’s mistreatment of the poor. In any case, if you’re looking for small government, these texts will probably disappoint. So far in the political debates I haven’t heard anyone try to apply Leviticus 25:29 to the housing crisis: “If a man sells a dwelling house in a walled city, he may redeem it within a year of its sale. For a full year he shall have the right of redemption.” Every detail of social and civic life was included in God’s law—not as universal applications of God’s moral law, but as pieces of a puzzle that distinguished Israel as God’s holy nation.

You can’t pick and choose which of Israel’s civil laws to invoke and apply to modern nation states. As the Westminster Confession explains (chapter 19), although the moral law remains binding upon all, the ceremonial laws given specially to Israel to lead them to Christ are “now abrogated under the new testament.” “To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”

That is precisely why Reformed social thought, in conversation with—and sometimes opposed to—Roman Catholic social thought has brought theologically-informed wisdom to bear on broader ethical questions that are not determined explicitly or even implicitly from Scripture. Even Christians who share the same biblical and theological convictions will differ on a host of specific applications and must be given the charity and liberty to do so.

According to a recent Pew Study, Americans think that there has been too much about religion in the political campaign. And no wonder. It’s no time for Christians to back away from concern for the common good, bringing their deepest convictions to bear just as others do. However, the trading of Bible verses ripped from their covenantal context and intention is a sure way to trivialize God’s Word in our society, in our churches, and in our own lives.

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Why the Missional Church Isn’t Enough

Jonathan Dodson posted a piece on The Gospel Coalition’s blog on Monday concerning how the “missional church” can easily turn its focus on consumerism instead of the history of redemption and God’s role in the advancement of his church. Here is an excerpt:

…Even with the resurgence of missional ecclesiology, we fail in sharing and showing the gospel in our own cultures. Clearly, the missional church is not enough, not only in its scope of mission, but also in its motivation for mission. When the motivation of the church is mission, we are destined to retreat, tire out, and fail. What, then, should we do? Throw up our arms in surrender and blend fully into our cultures with the hope of missional memory loss?

We need a greater, more captivating motivation than “missional church.” When the motivation for mission is mission, people will revert to consumerism. However, if our missional endeavors are motivated by something greater, more certain, than our oscillating passion for the advance of the gospel, then there is hope. If the history of redemption will not come to a close until God’s glory has been completed, then the assurance of mission starts and ends, not with the church, but with God! God’s commitment to his own glorious expansion throughout space and time is the hope of the world. The hope of mission is not the church; it is Jesus committed to ushering his full, redemptive reign over all space and time, including every people.

As we bring missional failure and success to the feet of Jesus, we will be increasingly motivated for mission by his mercy and his might. We need to be increasingly captivated by the expanding glory and beauty of Christ among the nations. Missional church is not enough. We need Jesus’ insistence on the spread of his redemption throughout history for his glory. We need his commitment to his complete glory breaking into history to complete the display of the riches of his grace.

Read the rest of “Why the Missional Church Isn’t Enough.”

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Communicating the Claims of Easter

The focus of my last post was the public character of the resurrection that makes the gospel rather different from the sheer power of personal assertion or experience. Here are some suggestions for communicating this central Christian claim to others—and not only at Easter!

    Suggestions for Conversations
  1. The gospel’s effects are deep and wide, so you can start anywhere in the argument. For example, in the philosophers’ forum in Athens, Paul began by telling his Epicurean and Stoic audience that they misunderstood who God is and how he relates to the world. God is neither irrelevant and aloof from the world (contra the Epicureans) nor part of the world (contra the Stoics). Though he doesn’t depend on the world, the world depends on him and God is concerned and involved with the world he has created, governs, and saves. It’s an argument for Christian theism, showing unbelievers how they cannot even live consistently with their own assumptions unless the Triune God known in Scripture is the source of all reality. You can also begin the conversation by sharing your own experience—the difference Christ has made in your life, as long as you realize that this isn’t the gospel itself. Or you can go straight to the resurrection and work more inductively, from the most particular claim to its broader implications.
  2. On one hand, don’t assume that you and your conversation partner share the same assumptions. On the other hand, don’t assume that you don’t share any common ground. Especially to the extent that one has been shaped by the naturalistic presuppositions that dominate academic culture in our day, a claim like the resurrection will be ruled impossible at the start. Miracles do not happen because they cannot happen: that’s the a priori assumption of the deistic/atheistic worldview of today’s Epicureans. If you’re reasoning with modern “Stoics”—basically, a pantheistic worldview, the assumption will be that everything is divine and miraculous; so the idea of special divine interventions like the resurrection will seem just as foreign to New Agers as to New Atheists. Again, you can begin by exposing the irrationality and inconsistency of these worldviews and then discuss the resurrection within the context of a biblical worldview or begin with the resurrection claim. One strength of the latter approach is that the resurrection, as a historical event, disproves their worldview. Here is an event that actually happened, which their worldview cannot account for. Even if they do not accept the argument, much less trust in Christ, this can at least help to weaken their excuse that the biblical claim is nothing more than private assertion or experience, unaccountable to public debate. It can help to expose to our friend the fact that he or she is “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness”—that is, no longer rejecting the claim because of reason but because of the same irrational act of mere will that he or she had attributed to believers.
  3. Remind yourself that the Spirit alone can give people faith through the gospel. As in the account of his raising of Lazarus (Jn 11), Jesus may ask us to roll away stones, but only he can raise the dead. The apostles not only testified to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but reasoned with Jews and Greeks. They gave arguments and evidences. At the same time, the gospel itself is “the power of God unto salvation…” (Rom 1:16) and it has to be proclaimed.

    Some Arguments for the Resurrection
  1. First, the New Testament itself provides historical access to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. To be sure, Scripture is the authoritative Word of God. However, even in conversation with those who do not share this conviction, we can point out that the New Testament texts enjoy an unrivaled transmission history compared with other historical texts.1 Historians rely on the eye-witness reports of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. You can pick up an English edition from Amazon. Yet there are only 8 copies and the earliest dates from 1,300 years after its original writing. However, we possess today fragments and manuscripts of the New Testament that date within decades of their origin and tens of thousands of ancient copies.
  2. Second, there is the evidence of the Old Testament prophecies. Perhaps a first-century Jew could have claimed one or two, but the probability of one person fulfilling literally hundreds of these prophecies made centuries before is statistically impossible. Except that one actually did. Like Cinderella, Jesus is the only one who fits the glass slipper of Old Testament promise. This is one reason why the Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide startled the liberal Protestant academy in 1982 with The Resurrection of Jesus, arguing that Jesus rose from the dead—even though Lapide does not believe that he was the Messiah.
  3. Ancient Jewish, Roman, and Christian sources agree that Jesus lived, died, and was buried. This is not even disputed by the scholarly consensus.
    • According to the Jewish Talmud, “Yeshua” was a false prophet hanged on Passover eve for sorcery and blasphemy. Joseph Klausner, an eminent Jewish scholar, identifies the following references to Jesus in the Talmud: Jesus was a rabbi whose mother, Mary (Miriam), was married to a carpenter who was nevertheless not the natural father of Jesus. Jesus went with his family to Egypt, returned to Judea and made disciples, performed miraculous signs by sorcery, led Israel astray, and was deserted at his trial without any defenders. On Passover eve he was crucified.2
    • Late in the first century, the great Roman historian Tacitus referred to the crucifixion of Jesus under Pontius Pilate (Annals 15.44). In AD 52, the Samaritan historian Thallos recounts the earthquake and strange darkness during Christ’s crucifixion (reported in Luke 23:44-45), although he attributes the darkness to a solar eclipse.3
    • Of course, alternative explanations to Christ’s death have been offered. The so-called swoon theory speculates that Jesus did not really die, but was nursed back to health to live out his days and die a natural death. In Surah 4:157, Islam’s Qur’an teaches that the Romans “never killed him,” but “were made to think that they did.” However, we know also from ancient sources how successful the Romans were at crucifixions. The description in the Gospels of the spear thrust into Christ’s side and the ensuing flow of blood and water fit with both routine accounts of crucifixion from Roman military historians as well as with modern medical examinations of the report.4 As for the Islamic conjecture, no supporting argument is offered and the obvious question arises: Are we really to believe that the Roman government and military officers as well as the Jewish leaders and the people of Jerusalem “were made to think that” they had crucified Jesus when in fact they did not do so? Furthermore, why should a document written six centuries after the events in question have any credence when we have first-century Christian, Jewish, and Roman documents that attest to Christ’s death and burial? Roman officers in charge of crucifixions knew when their victims were dead.

Liberal Rabbi Samuel Sandmel observes, “The ‘Christ-myth’ theories are not accepted or even discussed by scholars today.”5 Even Marcus Borg, co-founder of the radical “Jesus Seminar,” concedes that Christ’s death by Roman crucifixion is “the most certain fact about the historical Jesus.”6 There are numerous attestations to these facts from ancient Jewish and Roman sources. Even the liberal New Testament scholar John A. T. Robinson concluded that the burial of Jesus in the tomb is “one of the earliest and best attested facts about Jesus.”7

The burial of Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned in all four Gospels (Mt 27:57; Mk 15:43; Lk 23:50; Jn 19:38-39). This is a specific detail that lends credibility to the account. Furthermore, it’s an embarrassing detail that the disciples would not likely have forged. After all, according to the Gospels, the disciples fled and Peter had even denied knowing Jesus. Yet here is a wealthy and powerful member of the ruling Jewish Council (Sanhedrin), coming to Pilate to ask for permission to bury Jesus in his own tomb.

Adding to the embarrassment, according to John 19:38-42, Joseph was assisted in the burial by another leader of the Pharisees, Nicodemus (who met with Jesus secretly in John 3). Joseph was of such a stature that Pilate conceded to deliver the body over to him, but only after confirming with the centurion that Jesus was in fact dead (Mk 15:44-45). Everybody who was anybody knew where this tomb was, especially Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. There was no question about where Jesus had been laid.

The controversial claim is not that Jesus lived, died, and was buried. A little more controversial, though, is the claim that his tomb was empty on the third day. However, this is disputed by contemporary rather than ancient opponents.

  • Romans, too, were concerned about the disruption caused over Jesus’ empty tomb. A marble plaque was discovered with an “Edict of Caesar” commanding capital punishment for anyone who dares to “break a tomb.” Called the Nazareth Inscription, the decree was provoked by disturbances in Jerusalem and the plaque has been dated to somewhere near AD 41.8
  • Suetonius (75-130 AD), a Roman official and historian, recorded the expulsion of Jews from Rome in 48 because of controversy erupting over “a certain Chrestus” (Claudius 25.4).
  • In a letter to the Emperor Trajan around the year 110, Pliny the Younger, imperial governor of what is now Turkey, reported that Christians gathered on Sunday to pray to Jesus “as to a god,” to hear the letters of his appointed officers read and expounded, and to receive a meal at which they believed Christ himself presided (Epistle 10.96). Although unable to locate Jesus, dead or alive, the very fact that Jewish and Roman leaders sought alternative explanations for the resurrection demonstrates that the empty tomb was a historical fact. For the gospel story to have come to an easy and abrupt end, the authorities would only have had to produce a body.

Unsatisfied by alternative explanations (mass hallucination, a mere vision of a spiritually risen Christ, the disciples’ theft of the body from the tomb, etc.), Pinchas Lapide concludes that “some modern Christian theologians are ashamed of the material facticity of the resurrection.” Their “varying attempts at dehistoricizing” the event reveal their own anti-supernatural prejudices more than offering serious historical evaluation. “However, for the first Christians who though, believed, and hoped in a Jewish manner, the immediate historicity was not only a part of that happening but the indispensable precondition for the recognition of its significance for salvation.”9

Today, like every day since the first Easter, some mock, others express openness to further discussion, while still others embrace the Risen Christ, exclaiming with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28). Not only the Lord and God, but “My Lord and my God!” If faith involves knowledge, it is more than that; it is trust. It is not merely believing that Jesus of Nazareth is the risen Christ, but embracing him as our Lord and Savior.

We know God as our redeemer through his saving work in Jesus Christ. It is this revelation that is strange, counter-intuitive and even offensive to our fallen hearts. Contrary to our distorted intuitions, the gospel does not encourage our conquest of heaven through intellectual, mystical, and moral striving. It announces that even while we were enemies, he reconciled us (Rom 5:10). While we were dead in sins, he made us alive in Christ (Eph 2:5). We are saved by God’s good works, not our own (Eph 2:8-9). Because we are sinners, God’s speech is disruptive and disorienting. It is not we who overcome estrangement, but God who heals the breach by communicating the gospel of his Son. |The Word of the Risen Lord ~Our Lord’s resurrection is not just a wonder: one of those things that we chalk up to mysteries that we don’t yet have the tools to explain in natural terms.

First, the resurrection means that Jesus’s claims concerning himself must be ours. This one who was raised claimed to be the eternal Son of the Father who came down from heaven, the Word incarnate (Jn 1:1-4, 14). He prophesied his own death and resurrection, as well as the destruction of the Temple (which occurred a little over three decades later). The religious leaders were able to conclude from Jesus’ words and deeds that he “made himself equal with God” (Jn 5:18), and Jesus did not dispute this charge. Jesus assumed the role of judgment on the last day, which the prophets reserved exclusively for Yahweh.

Second, the resurrection means that Jesus’ view of Scripture must also be ours. Even Jesus submits himself to Scripture and the phrase, “It is written,” is for Jesus the highest court of appeals. The words of the prophets are simply the word of God for Jesus (Mt 4:4, 7, 10; 5:17-20; 19:4-6; 26:31, 52-54; Lk 4:16-21; 16:17; 18:31-33; 22:37; 24:25-27, 45-47; Jn 10:35-38).

Jesus assumes as historical truth the miraculous events, laws, and doctrines of the Old Testament. Also well-attested is the calling and authorization of the Twelve as his apostles, although Judas was replaced with Matthias. Jesus said that to hear the apostles is to hear Jesus himself, and to receive them is to receive the Father and the Son (Mat 16:16-20; 18; 28:16-20; Ac 1:8). The apostles themselves understood that they were speaking authoritatively in Christ’s name and in spite of some friction early on, Peter acknowledges Paul’s writings as “scripture” (2 Pe 3:16). Taken together these writings are called a canon (from the Greek kanon, “rule”): the norm for faith and practice.

Even more decisive for the liberation of his kingdom than George Washington for the American republic, Jesus founds his empire in his own blood. And the New Testament is his new covenant constitution.


[1] Historians today rely on classics like Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponesian War, Caesar’s Gallic War, and Tacitus’ Histories. The earliest copies we have for these date from 1,300, 900, and 700 years after the original writing, respectively, and there are eight extant copies of the first, ten of the second, and two of the third. In contrast, the earliest copy of Mark’s Gospel is dated at 130 AD (a century after the original writing) and there are 5,000 ancient Greek copies, along with nearly 20,000 Latin and other ancient manuscripts. The sheer volume of ancient manuscripts provides sufficient comparison between copies to provide an accurate reproduction of the original text. Ironically, a number of fashionable scholars attracted to the so-called Gnostic Gospels as an “alternative Christianity” have far fewer manuscripts and the original writings cannot be dated any earlier than a century after the canonical Gospels.[Back]

[2] Joseph Klausner, Yeshu ha-Notzri (Hebrew), Shtible, 1922. Translated and reprinted as Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Bloch, 1989), 18-46. Collected over the two centuries following Christ, the Talmud is of course further removed from the events than the New Testament. However, it contains a number of older fragments. Even the liberal Jewish Rabbi Samuel Sandmel observes, “Certain bare facts are historically not to be doubted. Jesus, who emerged into public notice in Galilee when Herod Antipas was its Tetrarch, was a real person, the leader of a movement. He had followers, called disciples. The claim was made, either by him or for him, that he was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. He journeyed from Galilee to Jerusalem, possibly in 29 or 30, and there he was executed, crucified by the Romans as a political rebel. After his death, his disciples believed that he was resurrected, and had gone to heaven, but would return to earth at the appointed time for the final divine judgment of mankind” (Rabbi Samuel Sandmel, A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, 3rd ed. [Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010], 33). The basic historical claims of the Apostles’ Creed are present in this description of the earliest belief of the Jewish Christians.[Back]

[3] Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 19-20. [Back]

[4] See, for example, William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association 255 (1986). See also the extensive bibliography on this point in Gary R. Habermas, “The Core Resurrection Data,” in Tough-Minded Christianity, ed. William Dembski and Thomas Schirrmacher (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008), 401 fn 10-11.[Back]

[5] Rabbi Samuel Sandmel, A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, 3[rd] ed. (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publications, 2010), 197.[Back]

[6] Marcus Borg, Jesus: A New Vision (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1987), 179.[Back]

[7] John A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973), 131.[Back]

[8] Clyde E. Billington, “The Nazareth Inscription,” Artifax, Spring 2005.[Back]

[9] Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, trans. Wilhelm C. Linss (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1982), 130.[Back]

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Horton & Olson conversation with Ed Stetzer

Last month, Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research interviewed Dr. Horton and Dr. Olson concerning For Calvinism and Against Calvinism on his The Exchange broadcast. The video is below:

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