Challenges: In What Sense?

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.
START AT THE BEGINNING or check out the PREVIOUS POST.

I’ve spoken briefly about the textual and theological consistency of the Bible, but there is another helpful trick I learned when reading and interpreting. It’s pretty simple. When you come to a passage, ask yourself, “In what sense is the author using this ________________ (word, phrase, metaphor, illustration, etc.)?”

Let me give several examples.

1. I remember a time a few years back when I was studying 1 Cor. 9 in the seminary library. I came across Paul’s phrase, “…lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (v. 27). This worried me. Other NT uses of the word “disqualified” clearly referred to lost people.

Was Paul saying that he could lose his salvation?

I don’t think so. Throughout chapter 9, Paul explains that he has given up some of his rights as a minister of the gospel with an eye toward eternal rewards. So, in what sense is Paul using the word “disqualified?” I think he knows that he will forfeit at least some of his “imperishable” (v. 25) rewards if his godly character is marred and he is no longer able to fulfill his calling.

2. James and Paul give us another classic example. It’s easy to get tripped up when we hear Paul say in Ephesians 2:8-9 that salvation is “not a result of works,” then turn over to James 2:24 and read, “…a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Is Paul speaking out against James’ teaching? Are they unintentionally contradicting one another? Or, is something else going on?

In what sense are they using their language?

When you read the context of Ephesians 2 and James 2, you see that each author has a specific purpose in mind. Paul is expounding God’s gracious acts in saving human beings, while James is addressing those who claim to have faith but have not been changed by it.

In other words, each author shows us a crucial facet of saving faith. Paul wants us to know that, if we’ve been saved, God did it. We didn’t work our way into it. But then James jumps in and adds, “And that gracious act of God saving you will change you! You’ll give generously to those in need because you’re now a different person!”

3. The word “salvation” itself carries a variety of meanings in the NT. It does not always mean eternal salvation from sin and death. Sometimes it simply refers to physical healing (e.g. Mark 5:28). Context will reveal the sense intended.

4. In Luke 9:59, a man wants to bury his father before becoming a disciple of Jesus, and the Master replies, “‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead.'” Conversely, Paul tells us in 1 Tim. 5:8, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” We’ve all heard explanations that harmonize these passages, but again I want to ask, “In what sense is Jesus telling one man to leave his father; and in what sense is Paul telling believers to care for their families?”

Jesus demands total allegiance from a half-hearted would-be follower, while Paul reminds those who are already believers to not shirk their responsibility to family. (Actually, Jesus says the same thing in Mark 7:11-13.) The Bible proclaims what each heart needs to hear.

Asking “In what sense does the author say _________________?” does not mean we can interpret a text to mean whatever we want it to mean. There are definite limits to the semantic and contextual ranges of words and phrases. When we ask “In what sense?” we need to acknowledge that context is king. A little work to understand the context of a passage can save us a whole lot confusion and frustration.

Challenges: Theological Consistency

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.
START AT THE BEGINNING.

In my previous post, I talked about how we can trust the Bible not just in spite of but because of textual variants. But the other challenge I faced regarding the trustworthiness of the Bible had to do with its theological consistency.

What I mean is: Does God contradict Himself? Does the Bible at any point present two versions of God that are incompatible? Or…does it ever make contradictory claims about what is real and true?

These questions ultimately led me to a field of study known as biblical theology, which has been my most enjoyable area of study in seminary.

To do biblical theology is to track a theme or topic as it progresses through the Bible. There’s actually been a resurgence of interest in this subject in recent years through the search for Jesus in the Old Testament. There are even children’s books getting in on the action (The Jesus Storybook Bible and The Biggest Story), but my ah-ha moment came when I heard this sermon by Tim Keller.

And while the question of theological consistency is even more complex than that of textual variants, time and time again I’ve discovered gifted preachers and writers who’ve helped me see that God never contradicts Himself, even when it might look like it at first.

Let me give just one example.

Some claim that God basically doesn’t give a hoot about the Gentiles in the OT but then suddenly loves all people in the New.

Sure…God did work almost exclusively through one nation (Israel) in the OT to advance His plan of redemption; but if this leads us to conclude that He only cared about Israel, we’ve missed one of the most amazing themes in the Bible.

Israel’s charter began with, “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3), and God doubles down on this promise many times in the OT. He exalted Himself over Pharaoh and Sihon and Og “that (his) name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Ex. 9:16); and it was (Josh. 2:10-11)! Israel was called to be “a light to the nations” (Isa. 49:5-6), reflecting God’s goodness and glory to them. It has always been God’s plan to “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy” (Psa. 67:4). And how was this to be accomplished? The psalmist prays, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us [Israel], that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among the nations” (Ps. 67:1-2). God didn’t change. He has always desired to bless His people that they might bless the world!

When we arrive in the New Testament, it becomes clear that Jesus is the true and better Israelite who will finally fulfill God’s desire to bless the nations: “God so loved the world that He sent His Son” (John 3:16). And now, He sends His New Covenant people (composed of Jews and Gentiles!) to preach the gospel to the whole world (Matt. 24:14)  making new disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:18-20). And what is the result of this? “A great multitude…from every nation…crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-10).

Yes, the Bible is consistent theologically.

I don’t yet see all of the connections and ways in which God’s plan develops from Genesis to Revelation, but that’s the fun of it! I get to spend the rest of my life discovering the vastness of God’s wisdom in piecing together a beautiful theological tapestry over time. 

 

If you’d like to delve a little more into biblical theology, I highly recommend the Bible Project. Here’s where you can find them on YouTube. And here’s my favorite video (so far!) that they’ve produced:

Also, here’s a sermon I preached on Psalm 67, trying to tie as many theological pieces together as I could:

Finally, here are some books to check out if you are interested in the subject.

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Challenges: Point of Reference

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.
START AT THE BEGINNING or check out the PREVIOUS POST

Not long after arriving at seminary, I hit one of the lowest points in my life. I found myself kneeling on a cold, hard floor in the back room of the hotel lobby where I was working the night shift. I spoke into what felt like nothingness: “God, I’m just not sure that I can believe in You anymore.”

Since the China mission trip mentioned in a previous post, questions and doubts had been piling to the ceiling of my mind. Some were big questions, like: “Why do You allow evil in the world?” and “How could You create a place like Hell?” But on that night, the questions were much more basic and practical: “Why would you call me to go to seminary and not provide a way for my family to be taken care of?” (I had only found a part-time job up to that point) and “Am I even cut out to be a minister?”

Eight and a half years later, I find it ironic – almost humorous – that I was tempted to abandon faith in the very God to whom I was addressing my questions and doubts. Whether I liked it or not, my point of reference was: there is a God.

I’ve since realized that we all start from some point of reference. It’s unavoidable. No one looks on from the outside and examines the nature of reality from an objective point of view. The question is whether or not we are willing to honestly assess the validity of our assumptions. Yes, my assumption was: there is a God, but not just that. I believed: there is a God…and He has spoken through the Bible…and, if I’m honest, some of the things He has said confuse or frustrate me. That was (and still is!) my point of reference.

The other two most common points of reference I see in the world around me are: feelings and niceness. Let me explain…

Some assert that the answers to life’s questions can only be known by means of personal experience. “It’s not real if I don’t feel it,” they insist. This is why skeptics doubt and atheist deny the existence of God. They think that they haven’t experienced God – that they haven’t “felt” Him with their five senses. And, given this point of reference, their conclusion makes perfect sense.

But how someone feels about a truth claim can’t affect its validity. It’s either true, or it’s false: God either exists or He doesn’t. The Bible is either God’s word, or it isn’t. How I feel doesn’t affect reality.

Others borrow loads of moral capital from monotheistic religions, customize that point of reference to their liking, and end up with a philosophy of niceness. “We all just need to love each other,” the mantra goes. And I don’t disagree. However, I know that sometimes the most loving thing you can do for a person is confront them about the self-destructive lifestyle they are living. But this practice is only partially acceptable to the philosophy of niceness. It’s okay to have an intervention with an alcoholic or a hoarder, but don’t dare confront a couple who is living together before marriage, and don’t even consider questioning today’s popular consensus on social issues. Again… Borrowed morality + customization = niceness.

To be clear, I think we should be nice to each other, and I affirm that no one truly believes anything until they experience it. But these ideas are only two parts to a larger whole, and I find them far too subjective to hold the weight of being my ultimate point of reference.

There are so many other points of reference I could examine here, and I could do a much better job at treating these two, but I need to get to the point.

If there is a God…and if He has spoken through the Bible…and if how I feel about what He said doesn’t affect its validity…but if I still need to experience this God (by some means!) in order to believe in Him…and if I am willing to examine the validity of my point of reference…then the next important challenge I need to address is: “Can the Bible be trusted?”

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Challenges: God is Good and Wants Me to Be Happy

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary. START AT THE BEGINNING.

No, I didn’t turn prosperity preacher during seminary. But I am convinced that the two most important truths I’ve learned during this time are two of the most important truths anyone can learn in life: God is good and wants me to be happy.

In some sense, most of the posts in this series will be devoted to why I am convinced that God is good. I probably won’t get too much push back on this claim. But some may think, “How can he claim that God wants him to be happy? That just sounds so self-centered and shallow.”

My answer begins and ends with the ministry of John Piper. Passion OneDay 2000 was a watershed moment for many believers in my generation. I wasn’t there in person, but it didn’t take long for me to hear about Piper’s sermon, “Boasting Only in the Cross.” (If you’ve never heard it, take a listen, and see why it impacted so many.) In this sermon, I heard loud and clear, “Don’t waste your life on trivialities! Pour it out in service to the kingdom!” I heard the hard sayings of Jesus and, like so many, became determined to do hard things for Jesus. A year later, I even found myself in China teaching English for half a summer in response to this call.

But in being introduced to Piper so late in his ministry, I missed some of the foundational writing which provided context for that OneDay sermon. I missed concepts like, “The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God” (Let the Nations Be Glad, 35, emphasis mine) and “God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him” (Desiring God, 10, emphasis mine). Yes, Piper said these kinds of things in the OneDay sermon, but I don’t think I heard them.

I heard that I needed to work hard for God. I heard that I needed give and live sacrificially. I heard that I needed to “deny myself.” (And I still believe these things!) Yet, even if subconsciously, I began to believe that these truths meant I needed to deny myself of happiness. Why? Because seriousness and sternness are innately godly…right?

Long story (for another time) short, I returned from China disappointed…disillusioned…and unhappy. For various reasons, I found myself questioning both God’s goodness and His desire for my good. And unfortunately I wasn’t able to shake these for a long time.

But what I’ve discovered during my time in seminary is that happiness in Christ is the fuel of the Christian life. Sure, there is a time and place for doing our duty when we don’t feel like it; but even in this, we know there is greater joy on the other side. It is our delight in God and His ways which ultimately make our obedience pleasing in His sight (cf. Ps. 27:4; Ps. 119:47).

The promise of the New Covenant is the gift of a new heart, which, by the power of the Spirit, is compelled to walk in God’s ways (Ezek. 36:26-27). This heart is a heart of joy, for the fruit of His Spirit is joy (Gal. 5:22).  As the psalmist says, “…in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11 ESV), and “I delight to do your will, O my God…” (Ps. 40:8 ESV). And, in the words of Jesus, “Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6).

Why do I use “joy” and “happiness” interchangeably? Because for so many I think the word “joy” has come to mean merely a sort of contended peace. And that’s not bad! But I do wonder if, in only using “joy” to describe the Christian life, such believers miss the command to “Delight yourself in the LORD…” (Ps. 37:4). Yes, we are content. Yes, we have peace. But our faces also light up and our hearts leap at the blessing it is to know and be known by – to love and be loved by – God! 

In this, my final semester of seminary, I finally read Let the Nations Be Glad and am almost halfway through Desiring God. I wish I’d read them two decades ago. Still, I am grateful for the help they have been in overcoming this emotional challenge.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I now believe that the most important thing I can do each morning, as I start my day, is find happiness in Christ. This helps me rightly delight in God’s good gifts without allowing them to become idols. Of course, I don’t live in a constant state of happiness. I have to fight for joy just like everyone else. But I’m grateful for the realization that this is something I can…no, I am commanded to…fight for.

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Challenges: A Little Background

As I approach graduation from seminary, I’d like to write a series of posts recounting some of the challenges I’ve faced over the past eight and a half years. Yes, it’s taken me that long to finish my M.Div., and yes, I am so…done. But I wouldn’t trade the time I’ve been given to soak up my classes for anything.

A little background to the series…

I came to seminary for several reasons. One, as I prepared lessons/messages for my former youth group back home, I realized that I didn’t really know how to study the Bible or preach it that well. I had a hunger to understand what I was looking at and how to communicate it.

Two, I had questions. Theological questions. Philosophical questions. And after attempting for a while to find the answers to these questions on Google and YouTube, it became clear that I needed a set of skills that I didn’t possess.

Side note… Nowadays when folks ask challenging theological questions of me, I usually respond with: “You’re asking a hard question. Are you willing to do the hard work required to find the answer?” Sadly, what I’ve found is that, while many don’t have a problem asking the deep questions of life, they simply don’t want to put in the effort that is necessary to find answers. Even more sad is how this apathy so often leads to either nominal religious belief or skepticism.  More on that later.

Back on topic…

So, to catch you up on my story. I didn’t find all the answers I was looking for. I think I found a lot of them, and I feel like many of the rest can be narrowed down to a couple of good options. But I’ve come to accept that there are several questions that I’m not going to get answers to – at least not in this life. And I’ve found peace even in this realization.

So, don’t think that this series is about me offering a shortcut or magic pill for life’s tough questions. It’s really about what I wish I could go back and tell myself a decade ago.
And it’s about helping people who may be now where I was then.

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That Doesn’t Make Sense!

On the one hand, there are a lot of religious people in the world who are out of touch with reality. I get that. On the other hand, one cannot get around the very clear biblical idea that God sometimes places His children in situations where trust in Him is required well beyond what makes sense. Sometimes we’re called to believe what God says when it doesn’t make sense, and other times we’re called to obey God’s commands when they don’t make sense.

– Hebrews 11:3 tells us, “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” All that exists was created out of nothing. This is illogical to many in our day.

– Genesis 6-9 and 2 Peter 3:5-6 explain that the whole earth was destroyed by water during Noah’s day.

– Genesis 17 and 21 tell us that Isaac was born to 100-year-old Abraham and 90-year-old Sarah.

– Genesis 22 recounts the testing of Abraham’s faith through the near-sacrifice of Isaac.

– Exodus 3 describes God speaking from a perpetually burning bush, and in chapters 7-12 extraordinary plagues in Egypt are God’s chosen means to release His people from slavery.

– Bread falls out of the sky in Exodus 16, and enough water for perhaps millions gushes out of a rock in chapter 17.

– Joshua is asked to walk around a city instead of besieging it (chapter 6).

– The sun stands still (Joshua 10).

– And righteous Job loses everything but his own life (Job 1-2).

Very little, if any, of this is makes sense to the modern mind; and for this reason, many seek to dismiss the Old Testament as an exaggerated fiction. Yet some of these very same people would claim Christ as Lord. But things do not get any easier to explain in the New Testament: water is turned into wine; the blind, lame, deaf, and mute are healed; water is walked on; and storms are stilled. Most significantly, Jesus dies on a cross and rises again bodily! How can any of this be sufficiently explained?

So the question at hand must be this straightforward: “Is there a God who created and controls all things or not?”

If He wrote the laws of physics and He invented time and space, then He is not subject these laws or constraints. He is not bound by “what makes sense” to us. He created “what makes sense,” and He has every right to go outside of it whenever He so chooses. 

And when He does chose to go outside of what makes sense to us, the question becomes: “Will we trust Him?”

Back to the religiously out-of-touch. The question is not: “If I have enough so-called faith, will God give me everything I think I need and want?” Nor is it: “No matter how foolish I am, He’s gonna keep making my life comfortable, prosperous, and easy, right?”

No. I think we go wrong when try to “have faith” in ways and in areas where the Bible speaks clearly in the opposite direction. If we are foolish with our money, God may exhibit grace to miraculously get us out of the mess we made; but most likely, He’s going to try and teach us by letting us stay in the mess. If we are unloving or unkind in our relationships with others, we should not expect to miraculously have deep friendships after a magic prayer.

Keep a budget. Say your sorry. Read and obey God’s Word. Live wisely. This is living by faith!

And when God chooses to act in extraordinary ways in your life, that habit of trusting Him in ordinary situations will carry over into the realm of what doesn’t make sense. 

“And without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (11:6).


The Moment of Total Victory

“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”
– 1 Jo 3:2-3 ESV

In church yesterday morning, the Holy Spirit’s work among us was obvious as we sang these words from the hymn “It Is Well”:

And Lord haste the day 
When my faith shall be sight
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll
The trump shall resound
And the Lord shall descend
Even so it is well with my soul.

As I sang, my mind joyfully turned to this phrase from 1 John 3: “When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” In fact, I can’t get that phrase out of my mind this summer. It’s about the moment when “My faith shall be sight.” The moment of glorification. The moment when believers will finally and completely cease all rebellion against God’s best for us (sin), and the moment when all of the brokenness which results from our sin will also cease. It is the moment of total victory.

It is as if that moment will be a flash of refining fire from which no one will be able to hide. Those who, by God’s grace through faith, have come to despise their sin and its effects will receive what they’ve been longing for: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). But those who reject the knowledge of God and His offer of eternal life will, sadly, also be given what they desire – separation from Him.

Our youth group went to camp a few weeks ago, and during one of the services, we were singing songs of worship. At that same moment, though, I couldn’t get my mind off of my own sinfulness. It felt like a dark cloud hovering over my soul. I was tempted to feel defeated, but then we began to sing Hillsong’s “O Praise the Name”:

I cast my mind to Calvary
Where Jesus bled and died for me
I see His wounds, His hands, His feet
My Savior on that cursed tree

Then on the third at break of dawn
The Son of Heaven rose again
O trampled death, where is your sting?
The angels roar for Christ the King

And I can hardly type the words of the final verse without hope, victory, and joy welling up in my heart:

He shall return in robes of white
The blazing sun shall pierce the night
And I will rise among the saints
My gaze transfixed on Jesus’ face

My gaze transfixed on Jesus face. Oh how my soul aches for that moment. I imagine it even now; and it’s amazing how, even in reflecting on that future total victory, I receive a power over sin that no amount of outward religious practice or self-righteous deeds could ever hope to provide. In fact, I think that this is at least part of what the Apostle Paul means when He says, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,” (Col. 3:3) and “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” (Rom. 12:2).

We can have victory over sin now as we set our minds on our final, total victory. 

And what should be the result of this aching to see Jesus face-to-face? What should come from our longing for that future day of glorification? John says, “Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” 

Purifying ourselves today will undoubtedly be more difficult than simply thinking about the gospel; yet it is certain that if we do not first find joy in reflecting on Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return, defeat is all the more likely. Again, overcoming sin today is going to take a lot of (formative and corrective) discipline and self-denial (see Heb. 12), but we dare not attempt it without first “Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).

Finally, don’t forget that “We are God’s children NOW.” And we have not received “the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear…but the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'” (Rom. 8:15). Romans 8 tells us that the aching in our heart for the moment of Christ’s appearing has been put there by the Holy Spirit, and it is the direct result of having been adopted as a son and daughters of God. Incredible!

So in your struggle against sin today…
look to the past – to the glorious gospel which has set you free,
look to the present – to the reality that you are a child of God, and
look to the future – to the total victory that awaits you when you see Him, for

“When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”

Praise His name!