And behold, a congressman stood up to challenge Jesus to see if his teaching could hold up in the real world. So he asked him, “Reverend Doctor, what’s your definition of a morally upright person that’s good in the eyes of God?” Jesus turned the question around on him and said, “You know your Bible, what does it say?” The Congressman, grateful for a childhood spent in Sunday School, easily answered “To love God with all you have and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus, somewhat coyly replied “You've got it, that's the requirement for being good enough before God.”
The Congressman, being himself a politician and used to giving and hearing clever answers that avoided the question, decided to try again. He was determined to show that his pragmatic approach to ethics was superior to Jesus’ pie-in-the-sky approach (all that business about non-retaliation and love of enemies - he couldn’t literally mean that, could he?). So he doubled down and asked Jesus “Which neighbors am I responsible to love, then?” Instead of answering the question, Jesus told this story:
“An American was driving from El Paso to Albuquerque and while stopped at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, inadvertently witnessed members of a drug cartel carry out a transaction for a trunk full of cocaine. They saw him, grabbed him, drove him a few miles from the gas station, savagely beat him and left him for dead by the side of the road. A few hours went by and an ICE agent drove by on patrol and saw the man but didn’t want to be distracted from his assigned section of the border he was monitoring and so didn’t stop to help. As the sun started to set, a local sheriff’s deputy passed by, but seeing the brutal nature of the beating, he feared that it was the cartel and he too decided not to involve himself. Finally, towards midnight a Honduran family came by in a pickup truck. Hours earlier they had sneaked across the border into the country and were hiding under blankets in the bed of a pickup truck driven by a friend who had been living in the country undocumented for the past year. Their headlights fell on the man’s crumpled form as they rounded the curve in the road where he lay. When the driver stopped, he assured his friends that they were not in trouble and explained what he saw. Without hesitation, the father jumped out of the bed of the truck and carried the man, placing him in the pickup’s bed. Using the truck’s first aid kit, he treated the man’s injuries. Now there was not enough room in the bed of the truck for all of them, so he rode alongside his friend in the cab, despite his risk of being seen. They drove to a 24 hour payday advance place where the friend obtained a loan which they used to get the man a room at a motel as well as leaving some cash with the desk clerk against any possible expenses when the paramedics arrived to take him to the ER.”
When Jesus had finished the story, he asked the congressman, “Which of the people proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the cartel?” The Congressman, barely able to make eye contact with Jesus, mumbled almost under his breath “The one who helped him.” Jesus just looked at him and said “Do that.”
My last post addressed the way that creeds or statements of faith can sometimes limit our ability to approach Scripture openly and hear God’s voice clearly. In that post I also observed that creeds can serve to give the impression that “faith” is restricted to the content of our beliefs. If that is the case, then the Protestant motto of “faith alone” suggests that as long as I believe correct doctrine, I am saved. This is flawed thinking for at least two reasons.
The first is that such a system is just a different way of embracing salvation by works. It trades deeds for thoughts and so the “work” becomes intellectual, but the result is the same: I am rewarded for thinking correctly about God. Biblical faith is an active trust in the person and work of Jesus, which of course involves agreeing with certain truths, but is not limited to an intellectual exercise and does not demand the sort of precision that some theological traditions seem to suggest is necessary to remain true to “the gospel”.
The second flaw in limiting the basis of salvation to right belief is that biblical faith, in addition to being an active trust, is tied to our works far more often than is often given credence in many Protestant circles. Of course there is the famous passage in James 2 in which the author makes the tension of faith and works explicit in saying that Abraham was justified by his works and not only by his “faith”. This has often been resolved by saying that a genuine trust in God results in works of righteousness that prove the faith is genuine but that it is still the faith that saves and not the works.
Over the past few years, I have been reading Scripture anew and trying to consciously set aside my theological convictions as lenses to understand it and letting it stand on its own. Three passages in particular have informed my journey in this area and led me to reevaluate the nature of the relationship between faith and works. The passages are Galatians 2:11-14 (in tandem with Acts 15), Matthew 25:31-46, and Hebrews 6:9-12 (in tandem with 10:19-39).
In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul is recounting an episode in his ministry in which he rebuked Peter publicly because his “conduct was not in step with the gospel”. The conduct in question is that Peter was refusing to eat with Gentiles but only with Jews. Table fellowship was a core practice of the early church and demonstrated unity, welcome and acceptance. Paul found that Peter’s conduct (or “works”) were sufficiently out of step with the gospel that it required a public rebuke. It is the sort of response the church has historically taken when a leader has abandoned orthodoxy (“right belief”) and labeled them a heretic. Heresy is the charge that someone’s belief is sufficiently incorrect to sever them from Christ. Here, however, Paul makes it clear that heresy is also a category that applies to orthopraxy (“right practice”). Indeed, this is the only instance of an apostle being publicly rebuked in Scripture and is consistent with the theme of the first church council in Acts 15 in which a doctrinal question is viewed through the lens of a particular practice (circumcision). Thus it is Peter’s works that render him in danger of denying the gospel.
In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus has been engaging in an extended teaching on the end of the age when His kingdom will fully come. The purpose is to inform and inspire the disciples to remain faithful while they await his return. This section comes at the conclusion of this teaching and surveys the scene at the final judgment when it will be determined who will enter Jesus’ kingdom and who will be excluded. The standard that is used has nothing to do with one’s belief. Instead, the measure has to do with what people have done for the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick and the prisoners. Those who have exhibited love, provision and welcome are permitted to enter heaven’s joys, while those who have not are cast into the eternal fire. The reason is that Jesus identifies with those groups so that one’s response to them is equivalent to one’s response to Christ. This is consistent with Peter’s error in Galatians where his heresy had to do with how he treated those (Gentiles) whom Jesus loves.
Finally, Hebrews 6:9-12 is the conclusion of a warning (5:11-6:8) to believers about falling away from Jesus. In it, the authors state that although their warning has been harsh, they are confident of their salvation. The reason is that “God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.” Here we see the connection between faith and works. The audience’s works, consisting of service to the saints (consistent with the other two passages), are motivated by love for God’s name. In a subsequent warning in 10:19-39 the authors equate “holding fast the confession of our hope” with stirring “up one another to love and good works”. They then point (again) to the audience’s experience of sacrificial service of the saints in hardship and equate this to having faith and preserving their souls. This goes beyond saying that true faith produces works. It defines true faith as a love for God that expresses itself in an active trust and an active love for what he loves, namely his people.
These three passages are representative of the totality of the New Testament in which there is less of a tension between “faith and works” than there is in many of our traditions informed by the theological conflicts among European believers in the 16th and 17th centuries. The consistent view is that those who are saved have been made a part of God’s family, trusting in his grace to reconcile them to himself and the other members of his household, exchanging hatred for love supplied by his grace. Thus our trust and obedience cannot be separated and neither is viewed as earning us merit before God since both are the result of the gracious provision of his Spirit.
All of this serves to soberly challenge the way I often approach grace as being let off the hook for needing to be scrupulous in my practice and choices as a follower of Jesus. It calls me to question who (or what) I truly love and trust most and how my life gives expression to that. It prompts me to reflect deeply on what I know about God and whether I’ve allowed it to penetrate my heart such that the worthiness of his name drives me to live a life of love for his people. And all the while, recognizing that guilt and shame never produce growth and so I ask Him to continue to shape and change my heart as a work of grace and seek to cooperate with him in that work. May it be so in all of us!
We live in a time that resists formulas of any kind. This poses a challenge for those of us who have been nurtured in our faith by creedal communities. By that I mean that the standard for admitting someone into fellowship is primarily based on agreement with a set of theological statements. Most churches have a statement of faith (ours certainly does) that attempt to define the essential, non-negotiable points of agreement that unite their particular congregation.
I love creeds. In seminary I was tasked on a few occasions to craft statements of faith and found the exercise thrilling and engaging. The process of looking through all that Scripture has to say on various topics and themes is one that has nourished my soul over the years. My background of being raised in the Evangelical Free Church gave me an early respect for challenging any statement of faith with the question “Where stands it written?” It presented Scripture, rather than the creed, as the final authority on matters of faith. In this post (which is long overdue) I will explore one of the dangers of creeds, which is that in practice they often usurp that proper place of Scripture in a way that cuts us off from the life-giving ministry of the Word. In a future post (and I promise it will not take four months this time) I will explore the reality that even when this danger is avoided, creeds are at best one half of the standard we should use in defining our fellowships. But for now…
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of should and of spirit, of joints and of marrow and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” - Hebrews 4:12-13
I recently preached on Hebrews 3:1-4:13 (listen here) and gave the context of this well-known verse as being the necessary means to enter God’s saving rest. The image is one of yielding ourselves to the sword in the hand of a gladiatorial opponent. The word is not in our hands, but in His, and there are things we must allow him to cut out, remove, and put to death by it. If we retain control of the sword, this cannot be done. I have become aware that creeds are one way that we attempt to retain control of the sword.
Our creeds are always the product of bringing our questions about God, life, culture and ourselves to the text of Scripture and expressing the answers we find therein. Creeds therefore must necessarily change over time because the questions we are asking change. Note that I am not suggesting that truth changes over time. Truth is fixed and eternal. Our expression of truth must constantly adjust as our understanding develops, grows and matures based on the questions we ask. We see this dynamic at work throughout Scripture itself as well as the history of the church as faithful saints bring their questions to God and receive fresh understandings of his nature. For instance:
Each of these questions opened a dialogue and a process that was rarely straightforward and was frequently fraught with tension. Creeds give expression to what is reached at the end of such a process but do not give room for a real dialogue to take place. They often serve to shut down discussion rather than to foster inquiry. It is telling that in very few instances when Jesus was asked questions did he answer them directly. Frequently he responded by asking a question himself! Indeed, even his teaching in parables is designed to provoke questions rather than to answer them.
It is worth thinking about how we approach Scripture, especially when we listen to those who teach us. We should consider: “Am I evaluating what is being taught based on its faithfulness to the text or based on its faithfulness to a particular statement of faith?” I find that often we are engaged in the latter activity. Instead of repeatedly submitting our creeds to the scrutiny of Scripture, we close ourselves off to what Scripture might be saying because of an acceptance of previously drafted statements.
Creeds also serve to limit our spiritual life by reducing faithfulness to an agreement on the particular points of doctrine our community has thought to be most important. I reflected recently on this idea and had to confess that our eternal destiny is not based on precisely correct theology any more than it is based on perfectly pure works. Right thinking is no more meritorious to secure salvation than right doing. What saves us is fidelity to the person and work of Jesus Christ the Nazarene and nothing else. All good theology is but a reflection on the wonder of the Son of God and the redemption He provides. I realized that I will never understand Him and His salvation perfectly and at any given moment I am guilty of any number of heretical opinions about Him. Yet He loves me and I love Him, of that I am certain. And so I strive every day to grow in my knowledge of Him and my appreciation of His work through Scripture and prayer, bringing my questions and trusting Him to guide me into truth. Creeds become useful tools in that process but hopefully never usurp the place of Jesus, His Spirit and His Word as my source of Truth.
I have been writing posts about the spiritual disciplines in a fairly undisciplined way over the past couple of months. The irony is not lost on me, believe me.
One of my deep convictions that I know we as God's people need to grasp hold of is that God still speaks and He is still at work. Often in our traditions we minimize one or both of these elementary truths and the symptoms of such views are legion. They also undermine true and vibrant discipleship to Jesus. In a future post I am going to talk about the disciplines of study and theology (which are not just for pastors by the way, and much harm has come from thinking they are) as necessary to continue to hear God's voice today. In this post, however, I want to offer a brief reflection on the purpose of prayer as it relates to both of those truths based in part on a recent experience I had.
First of all, prayer is deeply related to the truth that God is at work in the world. For the past year or more I have been engaged in the broad effort known as CityFest here in Grand Rapids under the auspices of the Palau Association. It has raised the bar for me of the sorts of dreams I have for what God can do and wants to do through His body in this region. Consequently it has impacted my prayer life a great deal. A central focus of the effort has been to raise up thousands of people to pray for the region and for the church. The invitation for the Palaus to come was in fact birthed out of a growing movement of churches uniting for prayer in the region. The bottom line is that we are convinced that God wants to bring revival in our time and so it drives us to prayer to implore him to do it!
Secondly, prayer is deeply rooted in the truth that God still speaks in the world. As I have been engaged in this regional work of revival, it has become common for me to see God clearly directing my steps in ways I could not otherwise have imagined. A potent example of this came in a recent planning meeting. We were discussing an idea related to the work which we had great passion and vision for, but we were frankly stumped as far as how to get it off the ground. We had set up this meeting and it was one of those times where you know everyone is hoping somebody else came with the silver bullet idea, because you certainly don't have it. As it became apparent that none of us had an answer, someone suggested we pray about it. Of course no one is going to say, in the moment, that that is a bad idea and yet I will confess thinking "I'm not sure this will really help, except maybe to buy us a few minutes." Shameful I know, but pastors are just as prone to faithlessness as anyone else.
I will (I hope) never forget what happened next. We began by confessing to God that we didn't have the wisdom, knowledge and expertise to do what we felt He wanted us to. We prayed against initializing our own plans and asked that He would help us think His thoughts after Him. As each of us prayed, I began to grasp a vision of what it was God wanted to do in mobilizing people for the task we had in mind. Our prayers took on a conversational tone as we engaged in an active dialogue with the Lord together. Afterwards, we looked at each other and within minutes felt we had a plan for moving forward that none of us would have conceived of when we got there.
In other words, we experienced the truth of James 1:5, "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him." James goes on to admonish that our asking be in full faith without doubting. It occurred to me that so many times I don't really expect God to answer prayers for specific guidance and wisdom, in clear violation of what He promises to do! The faith of my co-laborers that day encouraged me to confidently ask God for wisdom and he supplied it to us.
Imagine what God is wanting to tell us about what He is wanting to do through us in His world if only we would listen. I'm starting to ask more and more for this kind of guidance. Will you?
In a recent sermon I discussed how the President's statement that MS-13 gang members "are not people, they are animals" posed a problem for followers of Jesus who seek to live in line with His gospel. I thought this important since I have seen several people who claim the name of Christ defending the president's remarks. Based on a couple of subsequent interactions, I am convinced this is a conversation that needs to be broadened in order to move it out of being purely a political shouting match and so I wish to provide some further context and clarification of my comments.
1) The Significance of Words
At the outset, the President's defenders seemed to suggest that this was an off-handed remark, and thus did not merit scrutiny. Additionally, as has been the case so often with this president, it was suggested that his actions and not his words are what matter. Two passages come to mind that disallow us from taking such a casual stance. The first is Jesus' statement that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks....on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned." (Matthew 12:34-37 ESV) The second is from Jesus' little brother James who expands on this idea in ways very relevant to the president's words: "(The tongue) is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be so." (James 3:8-10) Here James identifies the impossibility of the same heart pouring out blessing and cursing sincerely and sites the problem of cursing people as being an offense against the image of God in them. This idea bears some further exploration.
2) Bearers of the Image
In referring to MS-13 members as "animals" the president entered a dangerous realm. It is clear he meant what he said since the white house posted a detailed defense of the remarks (which you can see here). He doubled down again on Tuesday night at his rally in Nashville when he asked the crowd "What did I call them?" and they shouted back "Animals!" The defense offered is that their heinous behavior renders such a label appropriate. Indeed, one professing believer I know cited the following statement from Dennis Prager in a column published by Investors Business Daily (full article here):
"Calling the cruelest among us names such as "animal" or any other "dehumanizing" epithet actually protects humans. The word "beastly" exists for a reason and is frequently applied to human beings. By rhetorically reading certain despicable people out of the human race, we elevate the human race. We have declared certain behaviors out of line with being human."
This sentiment strikes against a foundational truth of Scripture: human beings are made in the image of God and as such have a dignity that cannot be lost, ever. Even Jude, in condemning false teachers, says only that their behavior resembles that of unwitting animals who are destroyed by following their instincts (Jude 10). As harsh as that statement is, he is not removing the false teachers from the human race. Scripture no where suggests that the image of God in humanity can be lost or forsaken and thinking it can opens us up to potentially grotesque violations. While it feels satisfying to designate MS-13 as animals, being guilty of the heinous crimes they commit, such satisfaction hides either a self-righteousness in thinking we are unlike them or a defense against our awareness that we are.
3) The Bearer of the Cross
It is this thought that makes the president's remarks most repugnant to a follower of Christ. Christ came into a world populated by nothing but people guilty of the most heinous crime: seeking to overthrow the eternal, living God from ruling his creation and subjecting it to a holocaust of death and carnage. You are guilty of that. I am guilty of that. Humanity as a whole stands condemned and worthy of eternal suffering because of our flagrant rebellion against the beauty, kindness, goodness and truth of God's loving nature. We replaced it with hate and selfishness and greed and lust and malice and strife. The doctrine of depravity should caution us in how quickly we condemn others in their essence and write them off, because we find ourselves in those same crosshairs.
That is why we need the Cross. If any people deserved the appellation of "animals" the society that invented, perfected and widely practiced the public execution form known as crucifixion certainly did. Jesus subjected himself to this barbarism precisely in order to save the ones guilty of it. From the cross he did not cry out "You animals!" He cried out "Forgive them!" He did not write them out of the human race in order to elevate the human race. In inexplicable compassion, he still saw His Father's image indelibly printed on them and thus saw them worthy of redeeming. So in a singular act, he endured the scorn of being regarded as an animal, a "lamb lead to slaughter" (Is. 53:7), and his form "marred beyond human semblance" (Is. 52:14). In doing so he made possible the redemption of those who had scorned God's image so that we might be made new into the image of Christ (Rom. 12:1-2) and become a new humanity in him (1 Cor. 15, Eph. 4, Col. 2).
The gospel can only be good news for those who have the image and so to "read them out of the human race" is to put them beyond the gospel's reach. But if they are out of the reach of God's grace, I'm afraid we all are. Lord have mercy!
Below is a summary of the message I preached on May 13 from 1 Samuel 11:12-12:25 that did not get recorded. I surveyed five principles of biblical leadership from the passage and addressed them to the recent events concerning Paige Patterson's comments on domestic abuse that recently came to light and the response of the SBC.
1.) Godly leaders are secure in their identity and position in Christ and thus do not seek retribution against their critics (1 Samuel 11:12-15).
It is true that Saul does not get much right in his reign as Israel's king, and his greatest strength, humility, becomes a weakness of hesitancy. In this instance, however, when there is a cry to execute those who had questioned his rule, he cites God's deliverance as all the vindication he needed and that to execute them to prove a point would be gratuitous. Contrast this with the firing of a Ph.D. student from SWTS for criticizing Dr. Patterson's defense of his remarks. As followers of Christ, defensiveness is a toxic trait that undercuts our faith and our witness
2.) Godly leaders are transparent and invite accountability (1 Samuel 12:1-5).
Samuel goes a step further than Saul and actually invites charges of wrongdoing against him. This is not for the purpose of defending himself against such charges, but in order to make right any potential wrongs he committed against the people he had led. In the discussions in the SBC the past coupe of weeks, it is clear that in many circles the major problem is not what Dr. Patterson said, but that people are criticizing him for it. The highest good is the reputation of the leader, not how his words and actions might harm those he leads. Samuel models the sort of transparency and accountability that is unconcerned with how it might make them look to the public. It is significant that after decades of public service, no one brought any charges against Samuel. Where there is a lack of transparency, it is often because there is something that needs to be hidden.
3.) Godly leaders plead God's righteous case when confronting sin (1 Samuel 12:6-12).
Having re-established his leadership, Samuel proceeds to lay out his plea to the people of Israel. While their faithlessness and idolatry are certainly a concern to him, the way the text portrays this is that Samuel catalogs God's righteousness, not their wickedness. Samuel does not set himself up as an adversary of the people but as an advocate for God and His goodness. It is a plea for the people to be enthralled with God's faithful lovingkindness and to turn from the empty gods they have been serving. This has been one of the encouraging things in recent weeks for me to see. There are numerous voices in the SBC that are not taking the easy path of simply condemning Dr. Patterson for his remarks, but pleading with their brothers and sisters on behalf of God's goodness and for the sake of His reputation. Rather than posturing as vicious critics, these voices are winsome witnesses that are drawing the church back to righteousness.
4.) Godly leaders are followers first (1 Samuel 12:13-18).
This principle underlies all the rest. Samuel makes it clear that the people and their king must al be following God. He further seems to hold both king and people accountable for the other to follow. Then most dramatically, he demonstrates that he speaks not on his own but as a follower of God by asking God to speak to all of them in a mighty way. This shows that Samuel too, is under authority. Part if the challenge not only in the SBC but in the broader church as well, is that we still have an unhealthy view of leadership as being about positional authority. That tends to discourage the characteristics outlined in the first three points and creates a culture where leader are not followers first, and followers are tempted to simply follow a human authority rather than following Christ and being able to lead others themselves. The biblical vision is that all of God's people would be leaders in some capacity through relational influence grounded in their following of Jesus. When we lose sight of that, we see authorities abusing their positions to the hurt of those they lead.
5.) Godly leaders compassionately seek the good of those they lead (1 Samuel 12:19-25).
Samuel closes his address by indicating that although the people have rejected God as king by choosing a king for themselves, he will not cease to serve them in prayer and instruction. This is remarkable since they have also implicitly rejected Samuel as a leader and he could have simply washed his hands of them. Instead, far from being a farewell address (as it has often been called), Samuel's words indicate a fortitude to continue to love this stubborn people in the best way, by praying for them and showing them the good and right way. When Dr. Patterson's comments came to light he showed a remarkable lack of sensitivity when he indicated that he did not need to apologize because he had done nothing wrong. Having told a woman in an abusive marriage to stay in it, when she came to church later with two black eyes she asked him if he were happy. He replied that he was since her husband had come to church with her that week. He told this story as an illustration of biblical counsel regarding marriage. I can only imagine the tremendous damage his words did to that woman and to many who heard him share the story as a positive example. Thus, when he wrote an apology several days after insisting he had nothing to apologize for, he did not apologize to that woman and certainly did not seek to make right what he had done. This kind of callousness towards the under his leadership is the most egregious shortcoming he has displayed. More troubling is that many leaders who were quick to applaud his "apology" had been silent when others were insisting there was something to apologize for. This kind of self-protection of leaders is exactly the reverse of what Samuel models and the rest of Scripture holds up as "servant leadership". My prayer for the SBC and all other churches, including my own, is that we will witness a renewal of commitment to godly, biblical leadership so that as we follow our Lord and Savior we might lead others towards Him.
Marcus Little is the Senior Pastor of Berean Baptist Church. This blog is a place where he can share his thoughts and reflections on how Scripture intersects with life, work, community, culture and the events of our times.