History's Greatest Communicator

“He was a blue-collar worker with a lower-caste accent, and yet at the age of thirty, he put down his hammer and took to the streets. Speaking to crowds throughout Israel, this carpenter shook the message of traditional Judaism to its core. Where the religious leaders of his day focused on legalism, nationalism, and isolation from the outside world, he preached a message of love, humility, and restoration. Where the textual scholars hid away from the people and exercised a harsh religious code, he preached openness, love, and the need for a salvation that relied not on works but on the grace of God. Where others cast stones, he forgave. Where others passed by the poor, outcast, immoral, and destitute, he fed them, lingered with them, went into their homes, healed them, and spoke with them about their struggles and ideals. Where others saw fishermen, prostitutes, and tax collectors, he saw a group of disciples capable of changing the world.

Jesus never wrote a book, held office, or wielded a sword. He never gained sway with the mighty or influential. He never claimed a political victory. He never took up arms against the governing powers in Rome. Two thousand years after his death, billions of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, agnostics agree that he never preached a word of hate to gain influence with his followers. He did nothing for which those followers must now be ashamed. He was quiet but firm. He used the spoken word to disseminate a revolutionary message that would eventually spread from a small-town wedding in the deserts of the Middle East to the heights of power in Rome, Western Europe, Africa, and the modern United States.

It’s telling that one of Jesus’ followers, John, described him quite succinctly as “the Word” (John 1:1, 14). A symbol. A promise. An exhaled message of hope. A piece of communication strong enough to bridge the divide between God and man. The fulfillment of a story thousands of years in the making. It was in part through his revolutionary rhetoric that this humble man rose to prominence as the most influential figure in history.”

Joe Carter and John Coleman, How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator (Crossway 2009), pages 13-14.

Authority and Application

“We learn the meaning of Scripture as we apply it to situations. Adam learned the meaning of “subdue the earth” as he studied the creation and discovered applications for that command. A person does not understand Scripture, Scripture tells us, unless he can apply it to new situations, to situations not even envisaged in the original text (Matt. 16.3; 22:29; Luke 24:25; John 5:39f.; Rom. 15:4; 2 Tim. 3:16f.; 2 Peter 1:19-21 – in context). Scripture says that its whole purpose is to apply truth to our lives (John 20:31.; Rom. 15:4; 2 Tim. 3:16f.). Furthermore, the applications of Scripture are as authoritative as the specific statements of Scripture. In the passages referred to above, Jesus and others held their hearers responsible if they failed to apply Scripture properly. If God says “Thou shall not steal” and I take a doughnut without paying, I cannot excuse myself by saying that Scripture fails to mention doughnuts. Unless applications are as authoritative as the explicit teachings of Scripture (cf. The Westminister Confession of Faith, I, on “good and necessary consequence”), the scriptural authority becomes a dead letter. To be sure, we are fallible in determining the proper applications; but we are also fallible in translating, exegeting, and understanding the explicit statements of Scripture.  The distinction between explicit statements and applications will not save us from the effects of our fallibility. Yet we must translate, exegete, and “apply” – not fearfully but confidently – because God’s Word is clear and powerful and because God gives it to us for our good.”

John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1987), pp 84.

Why Truth Matters

Without truth we cannot answer the fundamental objection that faith in God is simply a form of “bad faith” or “poor faith.” The wilder accusation of “bad faith” … is one of the deepest and most damaging charges against [faith] in the last two centuries. …Christians believe, critics say, not because of good reasons but because they are afraid not to believe. Without faith, they would be naked to the alternatives, such as the terror of meaninglessness or the nameless dread of unspecified guilt. Faith is therefore a handy shield to ward off the fear, a comforting tune to whistle in the darkness; it is, however, fundamentally untrue, irrational, and illegitimate — and therefore “inauthentic” and “bad faith.”

In modern times the charge of “bad faith” was raised by the French existentialists but is more widely associated with Marxist and Freudian attacks on religion — religion for Marx was the “opium of the people” and for Freud a “projection.” Needless to say, the germ of the charge is far older and wider. “Fear made the gods,” wrote Lucretius as a first-century B.C. Roman. Or as Henrik Ibsen remarked as a nineteenth-century Norwegian, “Take away the life-lie from the average man and you take away his happiness.” Whatever the historical period, the dynamic of the accusation is the same.

… There are several possible responses to this charge, such as those who wield it are rarely courageous enough to turn it on their own beliefs, the very charge is itself the biblical critique of idols, and so on. But at the end of the day, there is no answer without one: Those who put their faith in God do so for all sorts of good reasons, but the very best reason is that they are finally, utterly, and incontrovertibly convinced that the faith in which they put their confidence is true.

Os Guinness in Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype, & Spin (Baker Books 2000), pages 76-77.

Indignity and indecency: Pascal on human nature

It is in vain, oh men, that you seek within yourselves the cure for all your miseries. All your insight has led to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves that you discover the true and the good. The philosophers promised them to you, but they were not able to keep that promise. They do not know what your true good is or what your nature is. How should they have provided you with a cure for ills which they have not even understood? Your principal maladies are pride, which cuts you off from God, and sensuality, which binds you to the earth. And they have done nothing but foster at least one of these maladies. If they have given you God for your object, it has been to pander to your pride. They have made you think you were like him and resemble him by your nature. And those who have grasped the vanity of such a pretension have cast you down in the other abyss by making you believe that your nature is like that of the beast of the field and have led you to seek your good in lust, which is the lot of animals.

Blaise Pascal, The Mind on Fire, ed. James M. Houston (Multnomah Pub, 1989), page 115.

Our Greatest Need

“If God had perceived that our greatest need was economic, he would have sent an economist. If he had perceived that our greatest need was entertainment, he would have sent us a comedian or an artist. If God had perceived that our greatest need was political stability, he would have sent us a politician. If he had perceived that our greatest need was health, he would have sent us a doctor. But he perceived that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from him, our profound rebellion, our death; and he sent us a Savior.”

– D.A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Baker Book House, 1992) (HT: Of First Importance)

Revelation and our mode of understanding

It could perhaps be more helpful if we were to begin to see that all of God’s revelation to us is anthropomorphic. It is, then, essentially accomodated revelation; it is revelation accommodated to our mode of being and our mode of understanding. It is not, therefore, that God’s revelation is accommodated to us when it speaks, say, of God’s eyes or his arm or his repentance, while it is not accommodated to us when it speaks of his eternity. One quotation from Calvin may help us see the matter more clearly:

“What, therefore, does the word “repentance” mean? Surely its meaning is like that of all modes of speaking that describe God for us in human terms. For because our weakness does not attain to his exalted state, the description of him that is given to us must be accommodated to our capacity so that we may understand it. Now the mode of accommodation is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us. Althought he is beyond all disturbance of mind, yet he testifies that he is angry toward sinners.”

While there can be no question that there are truths given to us in God’s revelation that point to his essential character, and others that point to his covenantal character, we should be careful to note that those covenantal attributes of God’s are no less “literal” than are his essential attributes. God’s repentance, then, is not simply something that “seems to us” like repentance. It is literal repentance, he is (covenantally) changing directions because of his faithfulness to his covenant. But it is repentance of a condescended, covenant God who has come down, taking on the form of a creature, in order to glorify himself, and it is repentance that does not in any way sacrifice, undermine, or otherwise alter his essential character as a se. He repents, all the while remaining the eternal, immutable “I AM.”

K. Scott Oliphint,  in Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology (P&R Publishing Company 2006), page 253-4.

Truth and Integrity

Truth and integrity lie very close to one another. In the absence of what is true, all that remains are power and manipulation. What takes the place once occupied by truth are private agendas, community ideals, rhetorical force, savage ad hominem attacks, fabrications, exaggerations, and power seeking. In the absence of truth, lying becomes the common coin of the realm. And this lying takes on especially virulent forms when it becomes religious. For then God is pressed into service for personal advantage. The stage is then set for terrible things to happen. We understand the dark side of this connection.

On the positive side, this connection between truth and integrity shows itself in that kind of ethical consistency that binds the whole of an individual’s life together. To know God is to know him in every facet of our being. It is to know him in our mind, heart, and emotional life, in our private world at home and in our public world, in worship, in Christian service, in the arena of ideas, in the conflict of worldviews, in the competition between religions. Because it is the same God whom we know in each of these ways, through the same truth that he has given us, a person of integrity will be the same person in all these arenas. The point about hypocrisy is that a person is different in different contexts. The person creates a post, or an image, to gain some advantage with some audience. The person and the pose, however are two different things. The point about integrity is that a person is the same, even when audiences may not be pleased and when there is, as a result, some cost to pay.

David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008) page 95.

The God who condescends

“The triune God made a decision – a decision of humiliation… This decision carried with it no necessity; it was not necessary for the second person of the Trinity to decide to humble himself. He had every right to refrain from such a decision and to not add to himself the humiliating status of humanity. But he determined not to. This second person – one who was equal to God, who is in the form of God, who is himself God (John 1:1) – did not stop being God (such a thing would be impossible), but rather he took on something that was not a part of his essential character previously. He took on human nature (John 1:14).

To be clear, Christ does not become the opposite of himself by taking on human nature. Moreover, it is not as though he gives up deity in order to become man. This pattern is nowhere given in Scripture; it is, as we have said, an impossibility (given what we understand of God’s essence). Rather, just as the “I AM” remains Lord while coming down to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so the second person of the Trinity remains God, while coming down to assume human nature and therefore becomes the God-man. This, as we have said, is the covenant; as the Westministers Confession reminds us, Christ is the substance of the covenant. It is covenant condescension, inconceivable to comprehend fully, but nevertheless central to a basic understanding of God and his relationship to creation.”

K. Scott Oliphint,  in Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology (P&R Publishing Company 2006), page 242.

Suffering and the Christian understanding of truth

No Christian teacher is worth listening to who is not willing to suffer if need be for the truth that is being taught. The readiness to suffer for the sake of the truth is intrinsic to the whole fabric of Christian living, and hence teaching, and thus not an optional part of the equation of the equipping of the public teacher of Christianity.

Paul’s teaching was personally validated by his willingness to be “exposed to hardship, even to the point of being shut up like a common criminal; but the word of God is not shut up” (2 Tim. 2:9). Some hearers will find in the truth of the one who was “nailed to the cross” merely a “stone of stumbling” and “folly” (1 Cor. 1:23; cf. Rom. 8:17, 18). Jesus did not hesitate to make it clear that his disciples must be prepared to “be handed over for punishment and execution; and men of all nations will hate you for your allegiance to me.”

The truth, Christianly understood, is an event in history, a birth, death, and resurrection, God’s own personal coming to us in mercy and grace, a Word spoken through a personal life lived, a personal event in which we are called personally to participate. To tell the truth rightly is to follow the one who is truth.

The “right method” for guarding Christian truth was set forth in Luther’s three concise instructions: oratio, meditatio, tentatio – first by prayer, then by textual meditation, but decisively by suffering temptation and the experience of testing through affliction. Listen to him poignantly acknowledge how much he owed to his enemies: “Through the raging of the devil they have so buffeted, distressed, and terrified me that they have made me a fairly good theologian, which I would not have become without them.”

Thomas C. Oden, Defending the Faith: Christian Apologetics in a Non-Christian World, paper presented at The 1995 Evangelical Theological Society Annual Meeting

Humility in the Wrong Place

“But what we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt — the Divine Reason… But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn… The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced.”

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 31-32.

Jesus, the Poor Man

In Proverbs and Matt 25, God identifies with the poor symbolically. But in the incarnation and death of Jesus… God identifies with the poor and marginal literally. Jesus was born in a feeding trough. At his circumcision Jesus’ family offered what was required of the poor (Luke 2:24). He said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matt 8:20). At the end of his life, he rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, spent his last evening in a borrowed room, and when he died, he was laid in a borrowed tomb. They cast lots for his only possession, his robe, for there on the cross he was stripped of everything.

All this gives new meaning to the question: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked or in prison?” The answer is—on the cross, where he died amidst the thieves, among the marginalized. No wonder Paul could say that once you see Jesus becoming poor for us, you will never look at the poor the same way again.

Tim Keller in The Gospel and the Poor, Themelios Vol 33, Issue 3, Dec 2008.

The chief obstacle to the Gospel

“What is the cause of this tremendous defection? For my part, I have little hesitation in saying that it lies chiefly in the intellectual sphere. Men do not accept Christianity because they can no longer be convinced that Christianity is true. It may be useful, but is it true?…The thought of the day, as it makes itself most strongly felt in the universities, is profoundly opposed to Christianity, or at least it is out of connection with Christianity. The chief obstacle to the Christian religion today lies in the sphere of the intellect.

That assertion must be guarded against two misconceptions.

In the first place, I do not mean that most men reject Christianity consciously on account of intellectual difficulties. On the contrary, rejection of Christianity is due in the vast majority of cases simply to indifference. Only a few men have given the subject real attention. The vast majority of those who reject the gospel do so simply because they know nothing about it. But whence comes this indifference? It is due to the intellectual atmosphere in which men are living. The modern world is dominated by ideas which ignore the gospel. Modern culture is not altogether opposed to the gospel. But it is out of all connection with it. It not only prevents the acceptance of Christianity. It prevents Christianity even from getting a hearing.

In the second place, I do not mean that the removal of intellectual objections will make a man a Christian. No conversion was ever wrought simply by argument. A change of heart is also necessary. And that can be wrought only by the immediate exercise of the power of God. But because intellectual labor is insufficient it does not follow, as is so often assumed, that it is unnecessary. God may, it is true, overcome all intellectual obstacles by an immediate exercise of His regenerative power. Sometimes He does. But He does so very seldom. Usually He exerts His power in connection with certain conditions of the human mind. Usually He does not bring into the Kingdom, entirely without preparation, those whose mind and fancy are completely dominated by ideas which make the acceptance of the gospel logically impossible.

… The situation is desperate. It might discourage us. But not if we are truly Christians. Not if we are living in vital communion with the risen Lord. If we are really convinced of the truth of our message, then we can proclaim it before a world of enemies, then the very difficulty of our task, the very scarcity of our allies becomes an inspiration, then we can even rejoice that God did not place us in an easy age, but in a time of doubt and perplexity and battle.”

Christianity & Culture by J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) published in The Princeton Theological Review, Vol. 11, 1913.