The Christian Story – introductory

As part of the Apprentice program at my church, I was given the assignment of writing a gospel tract for us to use in our church. The intention is to have something on-hand, produced in-house, that can be useful both for non-believers who are totally unfamiliar with the gospel, and edifying for Christians who could benefit from a more thorough understanding of it.

In planning for it, we wanted to show that the facts of the Christian gospel are not simply a theological system – they’re instead history that has been given an interpretation; real events that happened in real time in a real place that have significance for us. This was the perspective we started from, and I’ve decided to post the different sections periodically.

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Facing Judgment Resurrected

For about the last month I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the nature of justification by faith alone (JFA) for a paper that I’ll (God-willing) be finishing by the end of this semester. Most of it will be devoted to explaining what the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is and comparing it with historical definitions of JFA and how those definitions have been derived from the Bible.

Toward that end, the first book I read was John Piper’s The Future of Justification, which is a response to the NPP as expounded by N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. Wright is a popular New Testament scholar and has made some significant contributions to the defense of historic orthodox Christian doctrine over the years, especially in response to the liberal Jesus Seminar. However, his work over the past several years has been to attempt in redefining JFA in a way incompatible with that which the church has long held. Hopefully (for my own sake as much as anyone else’s) I’ll be trying to offer some concise statements of what I’ve learned that Wright says and some responses to it.

But, in the mean time, I wanted to share something I’ve learned from some of the other reading I’ve been doing, namely from Justified in Christ, edited by Scott Oliphint of WTS. It’s a collection of essays partly in response to the NPP, and partially just to provide a biblical and historical defense of JFA. Of the near half of the book that I’ve read so far, two essays have been the most striking: Union With Christ and Justication (Lane Tipton) and Justification and Eschatology (Richard Gaffin). Originally I avoided Gaffin’s article because the concept of eschatology intimidates me, but eventually I realized the subject wasn’t a particular eschatological viewpoint, but instead how we will be justified in the last judgment. Part of the reason this is so important is because of the new definition given to JFA by the NPPers, which, among other things, has justification occurring finally at the great final judgment on the basis of the whole life lived. If I read that correctly, it sounds as if the outcome of that final judgment cannot be known until the end of one’s earthly life, which to me seems to empty the gospel of good news.

Much of this idea of the NPP is based on Romans 2:13, which states that it is not the hearers of the law, but the doer of it that will be justified. Both Piper and Gaffin give great explanations of what this means in the context of the historico-orthodox teaching, but Gaffin, after doing so, goes on to give several reasons why believers can face judgment with confidence. And one of these is the doctrine of the resurrection.

I’ve typically thought of facing the judgment as I myself currently am – a frail, sinful human who, though he has much to answer for, will be acquitted because of Jesus. This picture, though is only partially accurate. Jesus tells us in John 5:28-29 that “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” So the resurrection will have drastically different significance for these two groups. Part of the promise to those resurrected to life is that “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body,” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). So for all those who “belong to Christ” (15:23), the resurrection will find us already with new, spiritual, glorified bodies.

This means that already as resurrected children of God, we are considered in Christ. For us, Romans 8:29-30 will be in the past tense. I will be conformed to the image of the Son. We will be like him, because we will see him as he is (1 John 3:2). So when we are judged, we are judged as those in the image of Jesus, with his spotless record and as those loved of God like he is. As Gaffin puts it,

In other words, believers, in union with Christ, will appear at the final judgment as already resurrected bodily. That is, they will appear there in their “spiritual bodies”, that is, bodies that are enlivened and transformed by the Holy Spirit and so are as imperishable as they are glorified and powerful (1 Cor. 15:42-44). Christians will appear for final judgment as fully conformed, by bodily resurrection, to the image of their brother, the exalted Christ…

If believers appear at the judgment as already resurrected bodily, they will appear there as already openly justified…This means, further, we may say, that, for believers, the final judgment, as it is to be according to works, will have for them a reality that is reflective of and further attests their justification already openly manifested in their bodily resurrection…It would be perverse to an extreme, then, to read Paul’s teaching on the final judgment…as leaving Christians in this life, in the face of death, uncertain of the future. […] To the contrary, everything at stake here, including their assurance, depends [not on their good works, but] on Christ, specifically his finished righteousness imputed [or reckoned, credited] to them, in union with him, and received by faith alone. (“Justification and Eschatology”, in Justified in Christ, ed. Oliphint, 21. bold emphasis added)

So at my resurrection, I will not appear before God as I am now. In fact, through my then-present status as “belonging to Christ” by my resurrection in glorified body, and what that consequently implies through imputation, it will be, for all intents and purposes, Jesus whom God is judging, and not me.

Figuring Out Fighting

I remember reading Mark Driscoll’s blog a few months ago about his trip to Vegas, and while on the whole it was an interesting play-by-play of his vacation, there was one particular line that caught my attention, spoken about MMA fighting:

I would strongly encourage all pastors and Christian leaders to spend some time familiarizing themselves with the fast-growing sport that is capturing millions of young men and ask yourself why.

This really caught my attention, for some reason. I think it’s probably because, as Driscoll usually laments/jokes about, a lot of churches today do seem as if they’re run and decorated by and for women. The church where I grew up, for instance, has light purple paint on the walls, darker purple/magenta carpet, and an assortment of flowers and plants all over the place. So I do think that this is part of something that sees guys my age avoiding the church. It just seems like heterosexual, firm-wristed men don’t belong there.

Earlier in the same entry, Driscoll does in fact explain why he thinks MMA is so popular (and consequently, in part, why the church isn’t):

Curiously, it is most popular with men ages eighteen to thirty-four–the exact group that most churches are abysmal at reaching and retaining, in part because most churches and pastors have no idea what to do with men who are not motivated by a weepy worship dude(ish) singing prom songs to a Jesus who is presented as a wuss who took a beating and spent a lot of time putting product in his long hair.

I think his caricature here is not totally unfair; like I said, I’ve been in some of these churches, and sang the same songs. It’s not that these churches are feminine in the fullest sense of the word, because that doesn’t have to connote mere cheesy sentimentality and mauve decorating schemes. But they are feminized. And that’s part of the problem.

I’ve really been wondering about this whole MMA deal as my own fascination for it has slowly grown as well, and so I’ve been asking that question Driscoll recommends to myself periodically since late September. Why are guys my age so fascinated with this? I don’t really remember any other organized fighting being all that popular, other than pro-wrestling (har). But, something else I’ve been reading has started bringing some light to why guys are into UFC et al.

 

“Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.”

 

This is part of Paul’s indictment of depraved humanity in Romans 3. This observation first hit me as I was talking to a guy I sometimes work with who described a bar fight he’d been in the night before over an inconsequential thing he couldn’t remember. These verses leapt to mind that I’d been reading around that time. It seems to me one of the biggest reasons that young men flock to this sport is because evil hearts love violence. I mean, even look at the secular hip-hop culture. The violence glorified there isn’t just competitive–it’s murderous. The way of peace they have not known, and they have no desire to walk in it.

So I do agree, part of the reason men are so uncomfortable is because what happens at a lot of churches isn’t something they can respect, or feel like they maintain a distinctive physiological difference from girls while doing it. But, part of it is that they’re evil, animal-like creatures in their lusts. Obviously we don’t see any great mystery (or compelling methodological conviction!) in the male mass-fascination with sex and pornography. Men are just crooked. And what they need is a simultaneously masculine presentation of what it means to know the universe’s king, and a strong challenge to be meek and lowly like him.

The Greatest of These

John Calvin on 1 Corinthians 13.7:

Love believeth all things—not that the Christian knowingly and willingly allows himself to be imposed upon–not that he divests himself of prudence and judgment, that he may be the more easily taken advantage of–not that he unlearns the way of distinguishing black and white. What then? He requires here, as I have said, simplicity and kindness in judging of things; and he declares that these two virtues are the invariable accompaniments of love. The consequence will be, that a Christian man will reckon it better to be imposed upon by his own kindness and easy temper, than to wrong his brother by an unfriendly suspicion.

One of the messages that has most impacted me in recent months was several weeks ago when my pastor preached through 1 Corinthians 13:1-7 in his series on spiritual gifts. Hearing him explain and apply the depth of Christian love was one of the more humbling (even humiliating) experiences I can recall having in years. Very seldom do I feel like a sermon examines me, but this is exactly what happened. It made me quiet (that is to say, it shut me up from self-righteous talk), aggravated my conscience, led me to repentance, and made me marvel at Jesus. As I grow older and by grace am able to subdue my flesh, big, obvious sins are less frequently found. But this only allows me to pay attention to the much subtler, and much more deadly, attitudes of the heart, which causes me to pant for deliverance from this body of death. Love eludes me. It isn’t my default setting. I’m frequently quarrelsome, sarcastic, wrongfully critical, and severe. I don’t believe, hope, or endure all things. I don’t consider others better than myself. I’m no Epaphroditus.

One of the Puritan prayers in The Valley of Vision says, “I long not so much to do, as to be; and I long to be like Jesus.” And if I’m going to be like him, I must love. I John 4:7-8 confirms this:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God,
and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.
Anyone who does not love does not know God,
because God is love.

So here is a severe warning: love is intricately interwoven with the new birth. If one doesn’t love, that one is not born again. I want so badly to image Jesus and be one who loves. To be one who is known for love, who genuinely considers others better than himself, and is willingly and joyfully a slave of all.

I long not so much to do, as to be; and I long to be like Jesus.