Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)

Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)

Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest, was one of my favorite authors and theologians.  He died last night.

I first read Capon when I was studying for my PhD at Emory.  My advisor, Walt Lowe, turned me on to Capon and assigned him in numerous courses, for which I was his teaching assistant, at Candler School of Theology. Now that I teach my own classes, I assign Capon’s work.

Capon wrote about the radical grace of God in a way that kept me sane while I was deep in academic theological studies.

Here are a list of some of his books. Below are quotes and excerpts.

Books

Quotes & Excerpts

“The cross is a sign of the fact that religion can’t do a thing about the world’s problems.” -Robert Capon

 

“The church’s job in filling pulpits is to find derelict nobodies who are willing to admit that they’re sinners and mean it.” -Robert Capon

 

“The name of the game from now on is resurrection, not bookkeeping.” -Robert Capon

 

“Jesus came to raise the dead. He didn’t come to teach the teachable, improve the improvable, or reform the reformable.” -Robert Capon

 

“The world is by no means averse to religion. In fact, it is devoted to it with a passion. It will buy any recipe for salvation as long as that formula leaves the responsibility for cooking up salvation firmly in human hands. The world is drowning in religion. It is lying full fathom forty in the cults of spiritual growth, physical health, psychological self-improvement, and ethical probity—not to mention the religions of money, success, upward mobility, sin prevention, and cooking without animal fats. But it is scared out of its wits by any mention of the grace that takes the world home gratis.” –Robert Capon, The Astonished Heart, page 105

 

“Christianity is not a religion; it is the proclamation of the end of religion. Religion is a human activity dedicated to the job of reconciling God to humanity and humanity to itself. The Gospel, however—the Good News of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is the astonishing announcement that God has done the whole work of reconciliation without a scrap of human assistance. It is the bizarre proclamation that religion is over—period.” – Robert Capon, The Mystery of Christ…and Why We Don’t Get It, page 62

 

“The reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellarful of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two hundred proof grace—of bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly.  The word of the Gospel—after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps—suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started.  Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale, neither goodness, nor badness, nor the flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.” –Robert Capon

 

“We are in a war between dullness and astonishment. The most critical issue facing Christians is not abortion, pornography, the disintegration of the family, moral absolutes, MTV, drugs, racism, sexuality, or school prayer. The critical issue today is dullness. We have lost our astonishment. The Good News is no longer good news, it is okay news. Christianity is no longer life changing, it is life enhancing. Jesus doesn’t change people into wild-eyed radicals anymore; He changes them into ‘nice people’.”Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart, page 120

 

“Marginality, in short, leaves the church free, if it is faithful, to cherish its absurdity; establishment just makes it fall in love all over again with the irrelevant respectability of the world’s wisdom and power.” Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart, page 64

 

“Just remember that what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the cancer cell, the liver fluke, the killer whale, and the loan shark–that if God is holding all things in being right now, he’s got some explaining to do if he hopes to maintain his reputation as the original Good Guy. Or, more accurately (since God steadfastly refuses to show up and explain anything, except by announcing mysteries and paradoxes), we’ve got a lot of explaining to do if we are to go on thinking of him in terms of his reputation. The point is this: if God seems to be in no hurry to make the problem of evil go away, maybe we shouldn’t be, either. Maybe our compulsion to wash God’s hands for him is a service he doesn’t appreciate. Maybe — all theodicies and nearly all theologians to the contrary — evil is where we meet God. Maybe he isn’t bothered by showing up dirty for his dates with creation. Maybe—just maybe—if we ever solved the problem, we’d have talked ourselves out of a lover.” –Robert Capon, Romance of the Word

 

“Let me tell you why God made the world. One afternoon, before anything was made, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit sat around in the unity of their Godhead discussing one of the Father’s fixations. From all eternity, it seems, he had had this thing about being. He would keep thinking up all kinds of unnecessary things – new ways of being and new kinds of beings to be. And as they talked, God the Son suddenly said, “Really, this is absolutely great stuff Why don’t 1 go out and mix us up a batch?” And God the Holy Spirit said, “Terrific! I’ll help you.” So they all pitched in, and after supper that night, the Son and the Holy Spirit put on this tremendous show of being for the Father. It was full of water and light and frogs; pine cones kept dropping all over the place, and crazy fish swam around in the wineglasses. There were mushrooms and mastodons, grapes and geese, tornadoes and tigers – and men and women everywhere to taste them, to juggle them, to join them, and to love them. And God the Father looked at the whole wild party and said, “Wonderful! just what I had in mind! Tov! Tov! Tov!” And all God the Son and God the Holy Spirit could think of to say was the same thing: “Tov! Tov! Tov!” So they shouted together “Tov meod!” and they laughed for ages and ages, saying things like how great it was for beings to be, and how clever of the Father to think of the idea, and how kind of the Son to go to all that trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend so much time directing and choreographing And for ever and ever they told old jokes, and the Father and the son drank their wine in unitate Spiritus Sancti, and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia saecula saeculorum, Amen.

It is, I grant you, a crass analogy; but crass analogies are the safest. Everybody knows that God is not three old men throwing olives at each other. Not everyone, I’m afraid, is equally clear that God is not a cosmic force or a principle of being or any other dish of celestial blancmange we might choose to call him. Accordingly, I give you the central truth that creation is the result of a Trinitarian bash, and leave the details of the analogy to sort themselves out as best they can.” –Robert Capon, Romance of the Word

 

“Let me tell you how God redeemed the world. On the eve of the Big Bang, over single-malt scotch and cigars, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were making a final run-through of their plans for the event. The Son was enthusiastic. ‘I think we’ve nailed it,’ he said to the Father. ‘I’m going to speak everything into being as your Word, and the Spirit here is going to breathe life into it. Then the two of us toss it back to you, and the cosmic party dances itself right into our Trinitarian lap. Elegant! Tov meod! Kala lian! Valde bona, and all that!’

‘I have a problem, though,’ the Spirit says. ‘I’m the one responsible for the PR in all this, especially when it comes to the fail-safe gambit of the Incarnation we’ve planned to cover both creation and redemption. The Son really does make the world, right? But with the human race locked into time and space, it’s going to look as if we haven’t seriously tried to redeem the mess they’ve made until Jesus shows up late in history. The fact that we’ve had the Son in there tidying things up from the beginning is the last thing they’ll think of. How do I convince them that the Incarnation isn’t just an afterthought?’

‘Easy,’ says the Father. ‘Sure, it will look as if the Incarnation of my Word is simply a response to sin. But since all three of us will have been intimately present to everything from square one, all you have to do is give them images that show both creation and redemption going on full force from the start. From before the beginning, in fact, since we’re talking about it right now. What’s the problem with that?’

‘The problem,’ the Spirit explains, ‘is precisely with the images. However many mysterious, right-brain images of the Word’s age-long presence I give them, they’re going to dream up transactional, left-brain ones and view him as something you inserted late in the day. Think of the damage they can do to your reputation as the Father who creates or even to the Son’s, as the one who redeems if they decide to think of you as the coach in a football game and the Son as the quarterback. Since you’re not going to reveal the Word’s Incarnation until some two-thirds of history has gone by, how do I stop them from thinking you kept him in the locker room until the fourth quarter? We three may know he’s been in there right from the first possession, but no one else will. Even your biggest fans are going to be hard put to sell that as brilliant management.’

‘Listen,’ the Father says. ‘I decide what’s brilliant management, not the fans. And as for my reputation, that’s your department, not mine. Besides, haven’t we talked about this practically forever? You know the drill. All through the process of revealing my Son in history, you keep slipping them images of the hiddenness of his Incarnation – of the mystery of the Word’s activity in the world even before you arrange for him to be born of Mary. You’re going to hang images like the Paschal Lamb and the Rock in the Wilderness in their minds. After that, all you’ll have to do is get somebody like Paul to say that those things were presences of Christ before Christ – that the Lamb and the Rock are in fact my Incarnate Word anticipating himself. What’s so hard about that?’

‘Plenty,’ the Spirit answers. ‘I’ve been doing simulations of human thought in my mind. I think we’ve underestimated the effects of cooping people up in four dimensions. Look at it from my point of view. You plunk Jesus into the world at one spot in history, and then you expect me to convince them he’s present as your Word in all of history – before, during, and after Jesus?’

The Son interrupts him. ‘But I really am going to be present. Or to put it their way, I really will have been all along. So I don’t see…’

The Spirit’s patience is wearing thin. ‘Give me a break! Since I’m the one who has to take everything that’s yours and get it across to them, I’m trying to solve your problems here too. Just think about what they’ll do with a Jesus who stays in history for only thirty-three years. Even if I get John to say that he’s the Word who made everything from the beginning, they’ll probably imagine him as a pot of holy soup we delivered too late for a good many of our customers. And after they’ve jumped to the conclusion that the Word wasn’t present to anyone who lived before Jesus, they’ll leap to the even more dreadful notion that nobody who lived after him can have his benefits until their assorted churches get him canned, marketed, and distributed to them.’

The Father tries to break in. ‘But what about the Pentecost party we’ve planned to get the church going? Won’t that…?’

‘I’m sorry,’ the Spirit insists, ‘but I’m afraid Pentecost will be just one more thing for them to misread. Don’t get me wrong: I’m totally on board with both of you. But suppose I do give you the rushing mighty wind and the party hats made out of fire. Even suppose I throw in the mystery of speaking in different languages in order to get the universality of the Son’s work into the picture. They’re still going to think the church is in the world to sell clam chowder to customers who never had it before. I mean, think of the possibilities for ecclesiastical arrogance. Jesus takes away the sins of the world, right? In him, everyone who ever lived gets free forgiveness for whatever went wrong in full, in advance, and all in one cosmic shot, no strings attached. I’m even going to get the church to include ‘one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins’ in the Nicene Creed so they’ll see that the Baptism of Jesus himself does the whole job, even if no one else ever gets baptized. But do you know what they’re going to do with that? They’re going to paint themselves into a corner and say that the unbaptized go to hell or even that sins after Baptism make forgiveness flake off like a bad paint job, and that unless Christians go to confession for a second coat before they die, they’ll go to hell too. Oh, sure. We’ve also agreed on this Reformation business where I convince them that nobody has to do anything to be forgiven except trust the grace that Jesus has already given everybody. But give them a hundred years after that and they’ll manage to turn faith itself into a requirement for grace: no faith, no forgiveness. Out the window again goes the free gift we’ve given them once and for all; and back in comes forgiveness as a deal that’s good only as long as they behave themselves.’

‘But why on earth,’ the Son wonders, ‘would they balk at getting something for nothing like that? Free grace and dying love isn’t enough for them? Would they rather we dealt with them on the basis of accountability?’

The Spirit just keeps pressing his point. ‘I don’t understand it any better than you do; all I know is what my simulations tell me. Human beings aren’t afraid of accountability; they’re crazy about it. If they can’t get credit for themselves or dish out blame to others, they cry “Unfair!” That’s why I pleaded with you to let me include something less subtle in the revelation. Remember? I suggested an image of the Son hiding a box of chocolates in every person’s house: the gift would be there whether they know it or not, like it or not, believe it or not. Maybe then they’d see that their faith doesn’t do anything to get them the chocolates of forgiveness; it simply enables them to enjoy what they already have. If they don’t trust the gift, of course, it won’t mean a thing to them. But the chocolates will always be there. I was even willing to make them miraculous, just to keep the element of mystery in the mix: no matter how many pieces anyone ate, the box would always be full. I still think it would have been a good idea.’

Finally, though, the Father has had enough. ‘I understand your difficulties,’ he says; ‘but after all, somebody’s got to be in charge here. In my mind, we’ve come up with a revelation that does the work of your chocolates without making us look like candy-pushers. The Son and I have every confidence in you. If you want to inspire the odd Christian apologist here or there to come up with images like that, be our guest. As I said, it’s your department. But we’re coming down to the wire here, so let’s call this a wrap. We have a big day tomorrow’.” –Robert Capon, The Fingerprints of God: Tracking the Divine Suspect through a History of Images, pages 1-4

The Bible and Anglican Liturgy

The Bible and Anglican Liturgy

Carl Trueman writes that in the Anglican liturgy, one finds “a structure of worship which is determined by the interface between theological truth and biblically-defined existential need.”  Trueman’s blog post is about about his visit to an Anglican service and the realization that Anglican worship services are both filled with and shaped by the Bible more than “any Protestant evangelical church of which I am aware – than any church, in other words, which actually claims to take the word of God seriously and place it at the centre of its life.”

Readings I have found helpful in thinking about a theology of liturgical worship:

In For the Life of the World Alexander Schmemann suggests an approach to the world and life within it, which stems from the liturgical experience of the Orthodox Church. He understands issues such as secularism and Christian culture from the perspective of the unbroken experience of the Church, as revealed and communicated in her worship, in her liturgy – the sacrament of the world, the sacrament of the Kingdom.

Zahl writes: “I believe in Bible-based verticality, which is another way of saying formal-litiurgical worship.” He reminds us that worship should be vertical, biblical, and Godward. No element of worship should creep into a service without having to pass this one-question test: “Does it accurately reflect Bible truth about God, Christ, and human?”

The worship of the Christian community, properly understood and done, leads worshipers to act out in their lives the love of God, which is at the heart of our worship. Worship also provides the power and the sustenance which makes this style of living possible. This Christian style of living, moreover, drives those who are committed to it back to the worship of God, to find forgiveness and strength. When this interdependent relationship is understood, the power of worship is illuminated and the power to live increased.

Liturgy For Living remains a classic text in the field of Anglican/Episcopal liturgy. This highly readable overview explores the meaning of worship from a theological, historical, and spiritual perspective. It then examines the history, theology, and meaning of specific Anglican liturgies including: Holy Baptism, Confirmation, the Daily Office, the Holy Eucharist, and the various pastoral offices.

Excerpts from Trueman’s blog post:

“So what exactly had she witnessed, I asked myself? Well, at a general level she had heard the English language at its most beautiful and set to an exalted purpose: the praise of Almighty God. She would also have seen a service with a clear biblical logic to it, moving from confession of sin to forgiveness to praise to prayer. She would also have heard this logic explained to her by the minister presiding, as he read the prescribed explanations that are built in to the very liturgy itself. The human tragedy and the way of salvation were both clearly explained and dramatized by the dynamic movement of the liturgy. And she would have witnessed all of this in an atmosphere of hushed and reverent quiet.”

“In terms of specific detail, she would also have heard two whole chapters of the Bible read out loud: one from the Old Testament and one from the New. Not exactly the whole counsel of God but a pretty fair snapshot. She would have been led in a corporate confession of sin. She would have heard the minister pronounce forgiveness in words shaped by scripture. She would have been led in corporate prayer in accordance with the Lord’s own prayer. She would have heard two whole psalms sung by the choir. She would have had the opportunity to sing a couple of hymns drawn from the rich vein of traditional hymnody and shot through with scripture. She would have been invited to recite the Apostles’ Creed (and thus come pretty close to being exposed to the whole counsel of God). She would have heard collects rooted in the intercessory concerns of scripture brought to bear on the real world. And, as I noted earlier, all of this in the exalted, beautiful English prose of Thomas Cranmer.”

“Yet here is the irony: in this liberal Anglican chapel, the hijabi experienced an hour long service in which most of the time was spent occupied with words drawn directly from scripture. She heard more of the Bible read, said, sung and prayed than in any Protestant evangelical church of which I am aware – than any church, in other words, which actually claims to take the word of God seriously and place it at the centre of its life. Cranmer’s liturgy meant that this girl was exposed to biblical Christianity in a remarkably beautiful, scriptural and reverent fashion. I was utterly convicted as a Protestant minister that evangelical Protestantism must do better on this score: for all of my instinctive sneering at Anglicanism and formalism, I had just been shown in a powerful way how far short of taking God’s word seriously in worship I fall.”

God & Sexuality

God & Sexuality

There are moments for Christians to decry rebellion against Christian sexual ethics, but we should also celebrate and talk about God’s original plan for sexuality too.

Christians too often express what has been called a “Puritanical”view of sex in which it is seen as something that is dirty and an abasement of human morality. However, God made humans inherently sexual beings, both in terms of their biological natures as male and female and in terms of their desires to use their bodies in the context of marriage for pleasure and procreation.

According to Stanley Grenz, “the assertion that sexuality belongs to the essential nature of the human person arises from two Christian doctrines, creation and resurrection. God created us as embodied beings, and in the resurrection recreates us in like fashion. Together the two doctrines confirm a basically holistic anthropology that includes our sexuality.”

In the Bible, human sexuality begins in the garden of Eden, where God created all things good, including the male and female and their sexuality, and commanded humans to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). Sex was God’s idea and an expression of shalom, peace, love, and unity.

It is after this original goodness when sins enters the world and all good things are distorted and everything goes haywire, including sex. About God, sex, creation, and sin, Robert Gagnon writes: “Scripture regards the urge to gratify intensely pleasurable sexual desires as part of God’s good creation. Nevertheless, given their often-insatiable quality, Scripture also recognizes a constant threat to the Creator’s norms.”

Thus, from the biblical perspective, there is one conclusion. The proper context for sex isthe “permanent, monogamous relationship called marriage. This perspective is the basic teaching of the Bible in both Old and New Testaments.” At the same time, there is much more in the Bible regarding sex, shalom, sin, grace, and hope.

Here is a slightly longer version of the Bible’s story about sex.

In the Beginning, In God’s Image

The Bible begins with God, the sovereign, good Creator of all things and the One who rules the universe. His creative handiwork—everything from light to land to living creatures—is called “good.”But the crown of God’s good creation is humanity. We are made in the very image of God. And God declared: “behold it was very good” (Gen 1:31). As the pinnacle of God’s creation, human beings reveal God more wonderfully than any other creature as we were created like God (Gen 1:26), by God (Gen 1:2), for God (Gen 2:15), and to be with God (Gen 2:15).

In Genesis 1:26, God says “Let us make man in our image.” The fact that our Creator gave us a remarkable title—“the image of God”—speaks of the inherent dignity of all human beings. The expression “image of God” designated human beings as representatives of the supreme King of the universe.

Multiply and Have Dominion

Immediately after making the man and woman, God granted them a special commission: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’”(Gen 1:28).This verse contains five commands:  “be fruitful,” “multiply,” “fill,” “subdue,” and “have dominion.”  These decrees reveal our most basic human responsibilities.

With the commission to multiply, Adam and Eve’s job was to produce so many images of God that they would cover the earth. Then God ordered them to have dominion over the earth, or exercise authority over creation, managing its vast resources on God’s behalf, not dominating it, but being good stewards of creation and creators of culture.

Multiplication and dominion are deeply connected to our being the image of God. To be sure, God had no problem filling the earth with his presence, but God chose to establish His authority on earth in ways that humans could understand. God commanded His images to populate the landscape of His creation. In the command to “multiply,” God wanted His images spread to the ends of the earth. His command to “have dominion” is God giving humans authority to represent Him in His world. Marital sex is one of the means by which we fulfill our calling of multiplying and taking dominion.

Shalom

God’s plan for humanity was for the earth to be filled with His image bearers, who were to glorify Him through worship and obedience. This beautiful state of being, enjoying the cosmic bliss of God’s intended blessing and His wise rule, is called shalom. Cornelius Plantinga writes, “In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom He delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”

Shalom means fullness of peace. It is the vision of a society without violence or fear: “I will give you peace (shalom) in the land, and none shall make you afraid”(Lev 26:6).Shalom is a profound and comprehensive sort of well-being—abundant welfare—with its connotations of peace, justice, and the common good.  Shalom means harmonious and responsible relationship with God, other human beings, and nature. In short, biblical writers use the word shalom to describe the world of universal peace, safety, justice, order, and wholeness God intended.

In shalom, sex was also a reflection of unity and peace between man and woman. It is a picture of two becoming one. God meant for sexual feelings, thoughts, and activity to be pleasurable and intimacy building in marriage.

Sin

Sin distorts this beautiful act of union, pleasure, calling, and worship. God intended humankind to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28), spreading divine image-bearers throughout his good world. This multiplying of offspring and exercising of dominion was to happen through the God-ordained sexual union between man and woman, husband and wife, in the context of marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen 2:24-25).

This peaceful, loving relationship was shattered by the entrance of sin into the world. Sin has distorted this beautiful act of union, pleasure, calling, and worship. Genesis 3 records the terrible day when humanity fell into sin and shalom was violated. Sin wrecks the order and goodness of God’s world. One scholarcalls sin “the vandalism of shalom.” Instead of unashamed intimacy and trust, there is shame and mistrust. Instead of grace, there is disgrace.

A foundational element of paradise—sexual innocence in community—has been spoiled by the treachery of sin. Sex—the very expression of human union, intimacy, and peace—became a tool for pain, suffering, and destruction after the Fall.

Grace

But sin is not the last word on the world or us. God reconciled the world to Himself through Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:21). By dealing with sin at the cross, Jesus made reconciliation between God and humanity possible, as well as reconciliation with one another.

The message of the gospel redeems what has been destroyed and applies grace to disgrace. God’s redemption imparts grace and brings peace. The effects of grace include our sexual past, present, and future. There is healing, hope, cleansing, and forgiveness for all who trust in Jesus.

God does not leave things broken, and is always at work redeeming the sin, wounds, and brokenness involved in human sexuality. Where sin does its damage, God brings forgiveness and healing, which are part of God’s larger plan of restoring shalom.

Hope

Redemption removes and rectifies the alienation introduced by the fall, restoring humankind to fellowship with God (Rom. 5:12-21; Eph. 2:1-22) and with itself (Isa. 2:1-5; Mic. 4:1-7). Further, Jesus’ resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit offer hope even now to grow and become more sexually whole in Christ.

In Christ there is also great hope for human sexuality. Lewis Smedes writes:

“Jesus did not have to talk about sexuality to affirm it. Sexuality is affirmed by the route that God took for the redemption of humanity. The Resurrection, as well as the Incarnation, carries the body-life of humankind in a deep divine embrace. Redemption is not the promise of escape from the demands or appetites of the body. To confess that Jesus Christ arose from the grave bodily is to reiterate God’s good feelings about his own creation of human beings as body-persons; to celebrate the Resurrection includes a celebration of human sexuality. God did not become man to show us how to get out of our body by means of spiritual exercises. He created a community of resurrection hope and invites us to bring our total sexuality into it. Christ’s resurrection makes permanent God’s union with the whole of humanity, and it thus affirms sexuality as part of our hope for ultimate happiness and freedom.”

God and God’s People

In the New Testament we also learn that human sexuality paints one of the most moving pictures of God’s relationship with His people. In the Old Testament, Israel is repeatedly portrayed as a wayward lover of God, who had redeemed her. In the New Testament, the church is referred to as Christ’s bride (e.g., Rev 19:7), and Paul explains that the one-flesh union of man and woman mentioned in Genesis is a picture of Christ and his church (Eph 5:28-33).

Jesus seems to imply that sex will not exist in heaven as it has on earth (Matt 22:30). Likely this is because the sexual union ultimately points to the relationship that Christ has with His people, which will be consummated upon His return. As we are the beloved of God, He promises always to satisfy all of our deepest longings and desires, allowing us to “drink from the river of Your delights” (Psalm 36:8; cf. Rev 22:1-2), now and forever in the age to come.

Conclusion

In the Bible, we find a divinely created pattern for sex, but in the Bible we also find it violated frequently and these violations are repeated throughout human history. God does not leave things broken, however, and is always at work redeeming the sin, wounds, and brokenness involved in human sexuality. God redeems and restores. He reestablishes the original peace and goodness that was violated by the Fall. God’s recreation is not simply a repair job so thing work a bit better than before. Rather, in his creative loving power God finds a way to restore his creation in such a way that everything is even better than it was before sin mucked everything up.

Stanley Hauerwas on Leadership

Stanley Hauerwas on Leadership

Stanley Hauerwas answers questions about Christian leadership in this 10 minute video, which is below. Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School. Thanks to Scot McKnight for putting it on my radar screen.

Here are some excerpts just to show you how good this interview is:

“Leadership is always persuasion.  It’s persuasion all the way down.  So much of how creative authority works is by being articulate for the community about what needs to be done in a way that defies limits.”

“I think many of the proposals about leadership are quite perverse, exactly because it gives the impress that you know what leadership is abstracted from communities that make leadership possible.”

“You must discuss these matters because leadership is about power. Power is rightly one of the gifts God has given us for the formation of good communities and good people.”

“I think about the book of Acts and how they chose Matthias. I think it is a very interesting to ask—and it’s a leadership questions—‘What kind of community do you need to be that you can choose you leadership by lot?’ Because basically, whether you’ve done it officially by lot, that’s the way it turns out.”

“Don’t lie.  It’s very simple. You may very often not know what the truth is.  Tell me that.”

“For any person that wants to be in leadership, if they try to lead in a way that means they don’t have to deal with people and to tell the truth to people, they automatically defeat community.”

“People called to administrative positions, if they are good, have to undergo a deep ascetical discipline. The ascetical discipline is because you are dealing with people who have possibilities and limits, and the limits will sometimes drive you crazy and you can not take it personally. This is to provide space for the different gifts of the community.”

“Recognize how fragile the power is and that you wouldn’t have it otherwise. Have enough confidence that you don’t have to win all the time. That’s a real ascetic discipline.  There really is a discipline of the ego that is absolutely crucial for being a kind of administrator that will allow the institution to go on once you are not longer there.”

Apologetic of Mercy

Apologetic of Mercy

My friend and former student, Chris Sicks, wrote an important book titled Tangible: Making God Known Through Deeds of Mercy and Words of Truth. In today’s Church there seems to be two well-intentioned groups. “Deed” people feed the hungry and help the poor while “Word” people proclaim the Gospel and engage in apologetics. The two often seem to compete with one another, but God always intended them to be partners. Sacrificial love can grab the attention of those we serve, opening their ears and minds to the words we share.

Chris was my student at Reformed Theological Seminary, where his personal ministry and his studies in my apologetics course combined to develop his thesis, which forms the basis for his book. His labors have resulted in a great book that I am proud to endorse and plan to assign in future courses. Chris cares passionately and has thought deeply about this topic.

He invited me to write the foreword, which is below.


 

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, He stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and declared that He was the fulfillment of these words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). In this declaration and in His ministry Jesus showed that bringing freedom for captives and relief to the poor and oppressed are at the very center of His divine mission. His ultimate act of liberation was His sinless life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection, which set His people free from slavery to sin and death. Yet His teachings and example show us that if the gospel message is to be recognized in its full power, the proclamation of the good news of Christ’s saving work should be accompanied by tangible acts of love, service, and mercy toward our neighbors.

Historically, the Christian church has at its best been known for exemplary love and sacrificial service to “the least of these”—the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Such service has provided a powerful apologetic for the gospel. The fourth-century church provides one example:

In his attempt to reestablish Hellenic religion in the empire, [the emperor] Julian instructed the high priest of the Hellenic faith to imitate Christian concern for strangers. . . . He therefore instructed the priest to establish hostels for needy strangers in every city and also ordered a distribution of corn and wine to the poor, strangers, and beggars. “For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort.”

In more recent history, Christian churches of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led the charge for the abolition of slavery, again providing a strong apologetic for the Christian faith and visibly embodying Jesus’ mission to proclaim liberty to captives.

Mercy ministry is an opportunity for Christian churches to take the gospel to those most in need, provide the marginalized and oppressed an alternative community centered on Jesus (the church), and show the transformative power of the gospel to the watching world. Moreover, responding to social injustice in our communities is a way the church can practice the charge of Jeremiah 29:7 for God’s people to seek the welfare of the cities where God has placed us, and to obey the call of James to practice “pure religion” (James 1:27) by caring for the most vulnerable.

Chris Sicks knows firsthand that mercy ministry is an effective apologetic for the gospel. A former atheist who rejected many intellectual apologetic arguments, Chris is now a pastor who leads numerous mercy ministry initiatives. He has seen with his own eyes how God uses the church to both help hurting people and to reveal Himself to them and others. In the midst of their suffering, people need to see God as Rescuer, Healer, Comforter, and Savior. Thousands of Christians are already serving the poor and oppressed, and many are also committed to the work of apologetics. Sicks’ intent is to help the church see how deeds of compassion can be a compelling argument for the existence of a loving God.

Chris is not promoting a repackaged Social Gospel. He understands that the gospel cannot be communicated through deeds alone; as Duane Litfin has written, “If it is to be communicated at all, the gospel must be put into words.” In this book, Chris repeatedly emphasizes that deeds of mercy are insufficient in themselves, and do not by themselves form an apologetic. Instead, the combination of deeds of mercy and words of salvation comprise what Chris has called the apologetic of mercy.

Most apologetic strategies target the head. In contrast, the apologetic of mercy begins with the heart. It is often in the midst of our pain that the “God of all comfort” makes Himself known most clearly. This is not a new idea, but it is the pattern of God’s gracious interaction with His people in the Old and New Testaments, and continues in His dealings with us today.

God has placed each of us in a particular place, in relationships with people who have needs. If we ask Him to use us to reveal Himself, we will have the privilege of showing His compassion and love to hurting people. As we make meals, give rides, or provide shelter, we will build relationships. When we share the gospel in the context of a merciful relationship, we speak with authenticity. Our words about God’s love are believable because we have shown God’s love in action and in truth (see 1 John 3:18).

Introduction to Acts

Introduction to Acts

I had the privilege of writing the notes on Acts for the Gospel Transformation Bible, which features all-new book introductions and gospel-illuminating  notes written to help readers see Christ in all of Scripture and grace for all of life.

Below is the introduction I wrote, which is included in the free sample. You can find out more here and get a copy here.


 

Author and Date

Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Both were written by Luke, a physi- cian who traveled with the apostle Paul. Acts ends with Paul under house arrest, awaiting trial before Caesar, c. a.d. 62. Many scholars assume Acts was written then because it does not record Paul’s defense, release, and further gospel preaching. Luke’s purpose for writing his Gospel (see Luke 1:3–4) applies to Acts as well: to give an “orderly” account of the early church after Christ’s resurrection.

The Gospel in Acts

Acts is the story of God’s grace flooding out to the world, from the cross and resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Nothing is more prominent in Acts than the spread of the gospel. Jesus promises a geographic expansion at the outset (1:8), and Acts follows the news of his death and resurrection as it spreads from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and the faraway capital of Rome.

The preaching of Jesus’ death and resurrection is central in Acts. The Greek verb for “preach the gospel” (euangelizo) occurs more in this book than in any other in the New Testament. About a third of the book of Acts consists of speeches, and most of these are speeches of Peter or Paul proclaiming the gospel. The good news of the salvation accomplished in Christ and applied by the Holy Spirit extends to the “ends of the earth” through preaching.

In Acts, “grace” is a parallel for “the gospel” or “salvation.” Jesus’ message is summarized as “the word of his grace” (20:32), believers are said to have received “grace” or to be “full of grace” (6:8), and they are challenged to continue in grace. The missionaries in Acts proclaim the grace of God, and it is through this grace that people are able to respond with faith.

Acts reveals God’s passionate pursuit of his people, beginning with his followers in Jerusalem, expanding to Samaria, then to the rest of the world. By the end of the book we see Paul living in Rome, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all bold- ness and without hindrance” (28:31). The gospel draws people in, consti- tutes them as the church centered on the grace of Jesus, and then sends them out in mission to the world. The new group of believers is marked by the Holy Spirit, who creates such a distinctive community that others are drawn in, experiencing God’s grace. At the same time, they take the gospel message to new people and new lands, making God’s grace known to the ends of the earth.

The gospel’s expansion is the culmination of what God has been doing since the beginning. Luke consistently grounds salvation in the ancient purpose of God, which comes to fruition at God’s own initiative. Acts shows that the new Christian movement is not a fringe sect but the culmination of God’s plan of redemption. What was seen only as shadows in the Old Testament God reveals finally and fully through Jesus Christ. The book of Acts does not primarily provide human patterns to emulate or avoid. Instead, it repeatedly calls us to reflect upon the work of God, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, establishing the church by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are invited to enter and participate in a story that is much bigger than we are.

In Acts, the gospel expands not through human strength, but through weakness, opposition, and persecution. Demonic forces, worldly powers and authorities, governmental opposition, language and cultural barriers, intense suffering and bloody persecution, unjust imprisonment, unbelief, internal disunity, and even shipwrecks and snakes all threaten to slow down the gospel’s advance. But opposition and suffering do not thwart the spread of Jesus’ grace; rather, they fuel it.

The gospel spreads despite barriers of geography, ethnicity, culture, gender, and wealth. Many of these barriers appear so inviolable that when the gospel is preached to a new segment of society, riots ensue. But Luke makes clear that no one is beyond the scope of God’s saving power, nor is anyone exempt from the need for God’s redeeming grace.

All people receive the grace of God through one man, Jesus Christ. Jesus’ gospel goes out to all places and all types of people, because Jesus is Lord of all.

Outline

I. Preparation for Witness (1:1–2:13)
II. The Witness in Jerusalem (2:14–5:42)
III. The Witness beyond Jerusalem (6:1–12:25)
IV. The Witness in Cyprus and Southern Galatia (13:1–14:28)
V. The Jerusalem Council (15:1–35)
VI. The Witness in Greece (15:36–18:22)VII. The Witness in Ephesus (18:23–21:16)
VIII. The Arrest in Jerusalem (21:17–23:35)
IX. The Witness in Caesarea (24:1–26:32)
X. The Witness in Rome (27:1–28:31)
Why You Can Trust Your Bible

Why You Can Trust Your Bible

Critics who doubt the reliability and trustworthiness of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life have issued a make-or-break challenge to the church. They ask us: “How can we be sure the Bible can be trusted as accurate?”

It’s common to see the argument that the Scriptures we have today aren’t the same as what was written by the apostles in the first century. Such arguments attempt to portray the Bible as unreliable and therefore irrelevant. As we will see, however, these challenges do not stand up to scrutiny.

What About Textual Variants?

The Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were probably written during the second half of the first century. We don’t actually have any of the original documents (called autographs) in our possession today. Instead, we have copies, often handwritten by scribes to preserve and circulate the words of the apostles so they could be passed around and used in worship services. The fact the original manuscripts were copied shows how important these writings were to local congregations. However, in the process of copying the manuscripts, scribes often made small changes, some of them unintentional and others intentional.

For example, early copies of the Greek New Testament were composed in an ancient style in which words were written in all capital letters with no spaces, punctuation, or paragraph divisions. A classic illustration of this style is the phrase “GODISNOWHERE.” A copyist would have to decide whether the phrase meant “God is now here” or “God is nowhere.” Context would determine the meaning of the phrase, so it’s not surprising a scribe could occasionally get things wrong. Furthermore, scribes sometimes misspelled words, wrote the same word twice when it should have been written once, or skipped over sections of text because the same words occurred later down the page. These are all examples of unintentional changes.

Other times, however, scribes changed the texts they were copying on purpose. This happened for a variety of reasons. They might make grammatical improvements or liturgical changes (such as adding a doxology), or they might eliminate apparent discrepancies, harmonize passages, or make doctrinal changes. However, even Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar who argues against the reliability of the Bible, recognizes, “Most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another.”

Because of the large number of variations in New Testament manuscripts, some argue the words of the New Testament are unreliable. But in fact, the vast number of New Testament manuscripts actually enables us to figure out what the originals said with a great deal of certainty. As Mark Roberts puts it, “Having many manuscripts actually increases the likelihood of our getting back to the original text.” Scholars can compare the various manuscripts containing the same passages of Scripture and determine, on the basis of internal and external evidence, which of the manuscripts most likely get the original wording right.

How Does the New Testament Compare to Other Ancient Documents?

The earliest manuscripts of the works of first-century historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius are dated from the 9th to 11th centuries—more than 800 years after the originals were written. In terms of the number of surviving manuscripts, there are 200 for Suetonius, 133 for Josephus, and 75 for Herodotus.

When we compare these ancient texts to the New Testament, the difference astonishes. For instance, the earliest New Testament manuscript is from around AD 125, while significant portions of the Gospels are represented in manuscripts from the late 2nd to early 3rd century. Whereas the best ancient historical works have 500 to 800 years between the actual date the work was written and the date of the earliest surviving manuscript, there is less than a 100-year gap between the writing of the Gospels and the manuscripts we possess. This difference cannot be overstated.

In addition, the sheer number of Gospel manuscripts we’ve found is staggering in comparison to other ancient works. As Mark Roberts notes, “The number of Gospel manuscripts in existence is about 20 times larger than the average number of extant manuscripts of comparable writings.” This figure doesn’t even represent the hundreds of thousands of quotes from the Gospels in the writings of the early church fathers. With nearly 2,000 manuscripts of the Gospels in hand, it becomes clear that to doubt the reliability of the Gospels is to doubt the reliability of nearly every ancient text ever found.

Scripture Is Trustworthy and Reliable

Because of who God is, and because of what God has done to preserve his Word, we have confidence the events described in Scripture are accurate and historical. This is important because Christianity, unique among world religions, depends on historical events: particularly Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As J. Gresham Machen writes, “Christianity is based upon an account of something that happened, and the Christian worker is primarily a witness.” Scripture tell us this account, revealing Christianity’s climax—its central, historical, and verifiable event: God’s gracious act of bringing salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Why Does Grace Matter?

Why Does Grace Matter?

Grace is not an abstract principle, but a reality of our life with God. As Karl Barth once emphasized: “Grace must find expression in life, otherwise it is not grace.” And you can be assured that God’s grace will embed itself into your life in profound ways. That is simply how the Holy Spirit works.

The grace of God extends down to us, not because we deserve it, but precisely because we do not deserve it (Rom. 5:8). When we are born, we are dead, condemned, depraved, corrupt, perverse, sinful, and completely unable to save ourselves or even lift a finger to enable salvation (Rom. 2–3; 6:23).

GRACE IS A GIFT

Our works, even attempts at good works, are not adequate to contribute to our salvation. We are often tempted to believe it is the spiritual effort that matters. As J. Gresham Machen once wrote,

The reception of [the grace of God] is faith: faith means not doing something but receiving something; it means not the earning of a reward but the acceptance of a gift. A man can never be said to obtain a thing for himself if he obtains it by faith; indeed to say that he does not obtain it for himself but permits another to obtain it for him. Faith, in other words, is not active but passive; and to say that we are saved by faith is to say that we do not save ourselves but are saved only by the one in whom our faith is reposed; the faith of man presupposes the sovereign grace of God.

But the intention of a dead man has no profound influence on a living God. Once the Spirit regenerates our dead hearts, we by faith receive the completed work of Jesus who accomplishes our justification—a declaration of his righteousness on us. As his grace continues to work in our lives, the gospel comes to fruition in every aspect of our life (Col. 1:6; 2 Peter 1:3–9).

Through and motivated by God’s grace, we are called to live in righteousness and holiness as God’s adopted children but we are not left to our own power. God has graciously sent the Holy Spirit to work in us to want to do and actually do true good works (Phil. 2:13; Eph. 2:8–10).

HE MEETS US

Our God of grace has a kindly disposition toward us, and throughout history he has demonstrated his grace in specific acts of kindness. He meets us in our places of hurt, sin, and brokenness and brings hope, healing, and comfort. It is in those seasons in our lives when the grace of God is most needed and best understood. The ultimate act of the God of grace is the ministry of Jesus: his incarnation, his sinless life, his death on the cross for the sins of the world, and his resurrection from the dead.

Our God of grace carries us all our lives, even when, and especially when, we are completely unable to move forward on our own. In fact, it is in our weakness that God’s grace is made perfect. In our state of disgrace, he continually and always gives grace.

“My grace is sufficient for you.’” 2 Corinthians 12:9

This post is adapted from On the Grace of God.

Theology of Ministry

Theology of Ministry

Encouraging and serving pastors is a blast.  I had the privilege recently of teaching the “Theology of Ministry” DMin course at Reformed Theological Seminary. There were 17 pastors in the class with over 100 years of ministry experience and representing churches for thousands of people.

The most lively and conversations we had focused on some wisdom from two of Carl Trueman’s posts.  Here are excerpts that captured our attention most.

“Luther’s Theology of the Cross”

The “theologians of glory,” therefore, are those who build their theology in the light of what they expect God to be like—and, surprise, surprise, they make God to look something like themselves. The “theologians of the cross,” however, are those who build their theology in the light of God’s own revelation of himself in Christ hanging on the cross.

The implications of this position are revolutionary. For a start, Luther is demanding that the entire theological vocabulary be revised in light of the cross. Take for example the word power. When theologians of glory read about divine power in the Bible, or use the term in their own theology, they assume that it is analogous to human power. They suppose that they can arrive at an understanding of divine power by magnifying to an infinite degree the most powerful thing of which they can think. In light of the cross, however, this understanding of divine power is the very opposite of what divine power is all about. Divine power is revealed in the weakness of the cross, for it is in his apparent defeat at the hands of evil powers and corrupt earthly authorities that Jesus shows his divine power in the conquest of death and of all the powers of evil. So when a Christian talks about divine power, or even about church or Christian power, it is to be conceived of in terms of the cross—power hidden in the form of weakness.

For Luther, the same procedure must be applied to other theological terms. For example, God’s wisdom is demonstrated in the foolishness of the cross. Who would have thought up the foolish idea of God taking human flesh in order to die a horrendous death on behalf of sinners who had deliberately defied him, or God making sinners pure by himself becoming sin for them, or God himself raising up a people to newness of life by himself submitting to death? We could go on, looking at such terms as life, blessing, holiness, and righteousness. Every single one must be reconceived in the light of the cross. All are important theological concepts; all are susceptible to human beings casting them in their own image; and all must be recast in the light of the cross.

This principle of faith then allows the believer to understand how he or she is to behave. United to Christ, the great king and priest, the believer too is both a king and a priest. But these offices are not excuses for lording it over others. In fact, kingship and priesthood are to be enacted in the believer as they are in Christ—through suffering and self-sacrifice in the service of others. The believer is king of everything by being a servant of everyone; the believer is completely free by being subject to all. As Christ demonstrated his kingship and power by death on the cross, so the believer does so by giving himself or herself unconditionally to the aid of others. We are to be, as Luther puts it, little Christs to our neighbors, for in so doing we find our true identity as children of God.

This argument is explosive, giving a whole new understanding of Christian authority. Elders, for example, are not to be those renowned for throwing their weight around, for badgering others, and for using their position or wealth or credentials to enforce their own opinions. No, the truly Christian elder is the one who devotes his whole life to the painful, inconvenient, and humiliating service of others, for in so doing he demonstrates Christlike authority, the kind of authority that Christ himself demonstrated throughout his incarnate life and supremely on the cross at Calvary.

 

“The Forgotten Insight”

It is often hard to discern where these theologians of the cross are to be found. Yes, many talk about the cross, but the cultural norms of many churches seem no different to the cultural norms of — well, the culture. They often indicate an attitude to power and influence that sees these things as directly related to size, market share, consumerist packaging, aesthetics, youth culture, media appearances, swagger and the all-round noise and pyrotechnics we associate with modern cinema rather than New Testament Christianity. These are surely more akin to what Luther would have regarded as symptomatic of the presence and influence of theologians of glory rather than the cross. An abstract theology of the cross can quite easily be packaged and marketed by a theologian of glory. And this is not to point the finger at `them’: in fact, if we are honest, most if not all of us feel the attraction of being theologians of glory. Not surprising, given that being a theologian of glory is the default position for fallen human nature.

The way to move from being a theologian of glory to a theologian of the cross is not an easy one, not simply a question of mastering techniques, reading books or learning a new vocabulary. It is repentance.