The true power(lessness) of the devil

September 26, 2020

Genesis 3.1-6

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ ” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.

Matthew 16.21-23:

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Ephesians 4.26-27:

Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.

James 4.7-8a:

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.


“The Devil made me do it.” A famous catchphrase popularized by the actor Flip Wilson, it has become the source of a theological understanding that suggests that the Devil has this pervasive power over people so as to abrogate their own independent choices and to get them to do something they shouldn’t otherwise. Listening to a recent sermon from one of my former professors, Ben Witherington, he tells the story of a student who borrowed a professor’s car, crashed it, and came back to the professor, blaming the devil for turning the steering wheel. The devil is an easy go-to scapegoat when it comes to deflecting personal responsibility for one’s behaviors. It is also an easy go-to explanation when we deal with people who we think are morally contemptuous, much like the Wisdom of Solomon thought the unrighteousness of the Gentile world is attributed to the power of the devil (Wis. 2.24). Sometimes, we as Christians might say they have a demon upon then to deal with our discomfort from the perception of egregious moral violations, which is only a stone’s throw away from what the Pharisees did to Jesus.1 In other cases, people oftentimes explain intrusive or self-deprecating thoughts they have to the devil. The various ways we try to appeal to Satan to explain problems in life is diverse and manifold, representing the way the devil has sometimes been raised to a quasi-god status in terms of his power.

However, when it comes to the Scriptures, Satan is never portrayed as having powers over the human mind and heart. Whereas God alone can test and see the heart, Satan is powerless when it comes to understanding having direct power over the human heart. When he accuses Job before God, the devil suggests Job has not cursed God because of how much Job has been blessed. Even though Job brings complaints before God that God comes to correct in an indirect way, Job never goes so far as to deny His relationship and dependence upon God. Satan is decisively wrong about Job’s heart, even though he thinks he knows Job’s true character. One of the underlying themes of the story of Job is the inability of others except God to truly know the hearts of people under suffering, as both Satan and Job’s friends are deeply wrong and mistaken about Job’s character.

In the story of the serpent in the garden and in the narrative of Jesus’ temptations, the power to tempt is not attributed to the ability of the devil to get inside your heart. Rather, the devil relies upon the desires laid up in our hearts and goads and seduces us towards them in such a way that it causes us to lose our sense of important truths and sense of goodness. Eve loses track of the truth about God’s commands. Jesus, by contrast, is tempted by the devil through Scripture to take power and demonstrate his authority, but Jesus’ continues to hold true to the knowledge of the Scriptures. The devil works not through the heart, but through “misleading truths,” which are truths framed in such a way that leads us to deny other important truths, that tempt people at the places where our hearts are vulnerable. One of the greatest sources of vulnerability is the fear of death that makes us tempted to do anything we can to stave off perceived threats, direct or indirect, to our life and well-being (Hebrews 2.14-15).

Satan tempts you and attacks you at your vulnerabilities. He doesn’t create them; he cannot. He is no god. If there are places of vulnerabilities in your life, it is because the vulnerability resides in your heart, whether it is the strong desires to go towards sin or the self-deprecating thoughts that compel you to wrongly devalue yourself. Sometimes people might feel like they have no control over their desires or their self-deprecations, in which case it can make sense to them to blame the devil, but even this is a reflection of one’s natural condition that the devil takes advantage of. Certainly, perhaps the temptations by the devil can make us subliminally think and say things that we are not conscious thinking or trying to say, but when someone blatantly crosses a deep moral boundary, that is a result of one’s moral susceptibility as a reflection of how one has lived life. Or, when we feel the heavy burdens in our life that we have little use or value, the devil may be pressing you there, but you need to seek help from those who can help you to reorganize the inner workings of your self-esteem. Even if one feels powerless, the solution to resisting the devil when he has a strong foothold is not to blame devil, but it is to seek the help and guidance for personal formation, either of moral formation to address one’s sins or mental formation to strengthen one’s sense of being beloved, Resisting the devil, as James talks about it, is not letting him take advantage of the vulnerabilities of your heart’s desires, but it is a whole other ball game when one has allowed the devil a strong foothold in one’s life.

However, it is important to go further in describing the work of Satan as he is described in the Scriptures. When Satan tempts or degrades us and we are giving into it, we are not simply giving in to our own weaknesses. Satan has tempted us to commit ourselves to a way of thinking about ourselves, others, and the world around us that blinds us to deeper, more important truths and goodness. When Peter rebukes Jesus for saying that He would die on the cross, Jesus calls Peter Satan because Peter’s human concerns that make him want Jesus not to die leads Peter to resist the very teacher Peter had just confessed that to be the Son of the living God. When Satan’s craftiness is effective, it can cause us to blindly resist God’s truth and purposes, even when we do recognize God and His good work. Much as Eve overlooked God’s commands at the temptation, Peter forgot Jesus’ authority as his heart was tempted by Satan. It leads us to be desirous and/or zealous for certain “truths” and certain “goods” that causes us to resist any possibility of something being different than we so passionately attached to.

One of the tricks of the devil is to convince us he doesn’t exist. But the other trick of the devil is to fool us as to how he actually works. As we overstate and overestimate his power, we miss and overlook the way his power does work. We can construct our various mythologies about Satan and the demons that we then use to derisively judge, much like some did under Second Temple Judaism. Yet, at the end of the day, the power of the devil is only so much as humans are vulnerable and give in to his power to believe his “misleading truths,” yet his kingdom cannot last because it is God who has the power to put His instruction in heart for us to deeply remember all the divine truths and goods altogether, to set people free in Jesus from the kingdom of the devil, and through the Spirit cultivate new desires of the heart that increasingly inoculates us to the wiles of the devil. Satan does not have the power of God, and so the devil’s power is only as we have been made vulnerable to him, through our own ignoring of our moral responsibility and through the devaluations and traumas that are inflicted on us from others.

The anatomy of a divided heart and its cure

September 25, 2020

Isa. 6.8-10:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” And he said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”

Matthew 11.15:

Let anyone with ears listen!

John 3.3:

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

If you study the neural underpinnings of perception and attention, you will find that there is a complex, step-by-step process by which our brains integrate information from our various senses into the experience we are familiar with in consciousness. Our brains process the information from each senses separately in the primary and secondary sensory areas before they are then integrated together in the associational cortices that connects all the information together that serves as the cognitive material that make up the contents of our conscious attention. As a consequence of this, there are various degrees to which our brains and minds process information in the world around us.

One of the most readily apparent differences of degrees is the difference we are aware of between hearing and listening. We are all familiar with those instances where we hear something that has been said, but we don’t give a lot of attention and thought to it. For instance, two people in conversation may have a break in their communication when one person gets distracted by something happen in their peripheral vision, causing them to momentarily lose track of what a person was saying, even though they heard the words.

However, another difference in perception can be described in terms of how much attention we giving in the act of listen. In passive listening, a person may hear what someone else says, but is not highly concerned to take care to determine whether they are understanding the other person correctly. They may simply assume they do, whereas active listeners take greater care to think through and consider what is being said. Active listening requires more attention and cognitive effort to achieve, but in so doing, the person’s own thinking and feeling is more open and malleable to the information they receive from another person, which makes active listening an integral part of have empathetic feelings that accurately represent what another person thinks and feels (rather than just simply assuming we know what someone feels).

All told, in the sensation of hearing, we have various degree of processing and attending to information, which means that the way we interact with those speaking can dramatically different from one situation to the next. Similarily, we can do the same with visual attention. A person may be aware of a painting in a book but not stop to give it much attention. Another person may study the painting for a brief moment and think what the significance of the painting is to them. Then, another person may give greater focus to the painting and all its masterful strokes and its portrayal of the scene that allow them to come to a greater understanding and comprehension of the painting.

While modern neuroscience and cognitive science are helpful in allowing us to understand the differences in these various degrees of processing, people living in pre-scientific world intuitively understood the differences between the various types of attention. We see this occurring in Isaiah 6.9, where God tells the prophet Isaiah what to speak to the people. Even as the people can hear what the prophet says and can observe the events happening to them in the social and political landscape, they will not be able to comprehend and understand what is being said and what is happening. They will sense and perceive, but their recognition of what is happening will escape them.

One of the recurring critique of the Old Testament prophets is that the people know what God has spoken, they know what God has commanded, they participate in religious piety, etc., but yet their heart is far from the substance of what God has said, commanded, and called for. In such a place, they operated in a divided heart, where they given a minimal degree of attention and awareness to God’s word, but yet their hearts are far from living out the meaning and purposes that God has for them. Such a phenomenon occurs when people passively pay attention, reacting to what they know from God without giving greater attention to consider if they are understanding God and reflecting on themselves in relationship to God’s word. When one does this again and again, people may hear and have a minimal degree of recognition of what is being said and done, but yet they do not deeply consider and seek to grasp the full meaning. If they do attempt to probe deeper, it is often an exercise in self-isolated imagination and confirmation bias where a person seeks to rationalize how what they know about God delivers to them the “truth” for what they already want to believe and rationalize. As a consequence of lesser degrees of attention and the absence of humility, people’s hearts become divided between a surface level devotion to God and a heart that does not grasp, but may even conflict with the word of God.

Ultimately, however, this is true of the human condition when it comes to knowing God. Because God is holy and we have in Adam been naturally separated from the close, intimate presence of God, we are all far from understanding and knowing God, and consequently, we are always inclined to interpret what we know of God from our own, egocentric frame of reference by which we appeal to God’s word as a source to legitimize and support what we want, while not giving deeper consideration of what God is calling for from us. While some people are more overt in their contradictory and dissonant way of life than others, it is the reality we all come from in knowing God. Our hearts are naturally divided because we struggle to engage in the form of active listening and comprehending of God because we are readily inclined in our own desires to fit God into the mold we want God to be shaped as.

However, even as this is the inevitable starting point, it is not our inevitable destiny. When Jesus declares that being born from above will allow someone to see the kingdom of God, this does not refer to a visual sensation of life lived in eternity, but rather the perception and comprehension of God’s kingdom in the midst of the all-to-earthly realities. When we are born from above, we are introduced into a whole new way of perceiving and making sense of God’s activity and God’s word. God plants within us the seed that when watered can grow over time to deeply understand God’s word in a way that we otherwise couldn’t. Our divided hearts are slowly transformed in a purity of heart, where one’s intentions are not divided between a surface level adherence to religion and a deeper level movement away from God’s word, but to a wholly encompassing desire for the goodness and righteousness of God’s kingdom. Because we are born from the heavens above, we can begin to recognize where heaven is meeting earth and through this, we can give deeper attention and meditation to God’s word that brings us to a more accurate understanding, that eventually moves our hearts to a purity of purpose and intentions.

All the meanwhile, as we move from the divided heart to the purity of heart, we experience all the struggles with the various desires of our hearts and how our passions and drives tempt us to things that do not go down the same path that God’s will would have for us. It is in this place, where we are aware of the divergence laid within out heart, that we put to death the deeds of the passions coming from our bodily experience by perceiving and understanding the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings and following the leading of the Spirit to a way of life that hits at the very root of sin. Through this, we experience the life of sanctification that continues to remove the division within our hearts and replace it with greater wholeness and purity of purpose.

It is our natural state as religious people to not be able to comprehend God and His righteousness, even as we have the sources of God’s teaching from the past in Scripture and traditions of the Church. It is only through believing in God’s self-expression and self-disclosure in Jesus Christ that we can begin to move down the route of understanding God as He is, so that we can then understand the true purpose of religion as expressed in Scriptures and the traditions. It is only when we behold Jesus and come to believe in Him, even as we live in that state of faith with a sense of uncertainty that receives from Jesus without presuming that we must fit Jesus into specific agendas, that the divisions of our heart between our seeking after God and the rest of our lives can be mended and cured.

Faith as the foundation for character and hope

September 22, 2020

Romans 5.1-5:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but wed also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Hope is one of those things in short supply in our present society. We are living in a state of fear, being driven by concerns about political power, coronavirus, the climate, the economy, racial tensions. Each of these things individually would be something to be concerned about, but for those who have a conscious awareness of them altogether, it can lead people down a spiral to radicalism, where pervasive and trenchant fear and anxiety lead some to the conclusion that the only solution is a radical upheaval and replacement. To the degree that such people do hope, it is to the degree that they believe they have the power to change the circumstances. In such a world, hope is tightly connected to a high degree of agency over the important processes and outcomes that borders on the need to control. In the end, such a hope is connected to a specific type of trust, trust in people like me and those who I identify with and think like me to address the challenges we are facing. There is a link between trust and hope, and that link runs through power and control.

With that in mind, the picture that Paul provides of faith and hope in Romans 5.1-5 seems to be similar on the surface. Because one has faith, there is a line of formative events and virtues that lead to the emergence of hope. However, there is something profoundly different between the two connections between faith and hope. For Paul, it is ultimately grounded in the loving power of God demonstrated and made known through the pouring of the Holy Spirit. This power, however, is not a power that gives one control and mastery over the world. Even as Christians saw the injustices and abuses littered throughout Roman society, they were powerless to be able to address them directly, head on, as they were a minority culture under Roman imperial power. Instead, the loving power of the God in the Spirit was connected to something different in the people’s lives: to face hardships and difficulties without being overcome. In the midst of this movement from faith to hope, there is a transformation that occurs in the faithful believer: that in the facing of sufferings that they could not control, they would learn endurance, and through the endurance, they would have the basic virtue necessary to grow and develop character.

What is going on here? How does this transformation take place? Is it that suffering is necessary to become holy in Paul’s eyes? Or is it that suffering is one place where believers have an opportunity to learn the type of character that makes people produce the fine fruit of love in their lives? I would suggest the latter, as it is my conviction that Paul’s purpose in Romans is to direct a Jewish Christian community in Rome to not fall into a Maccabean-like zeal against the Roman powers due to the way that Jews were often times derisively stereotyped, treated, and disregarded in Roman society, even if they did technically have legal protections  Instead, of going down the route of revolutionary zeal, Paul encourages them to face this trial as an opportunity where the suffering from being treated as second-class citizens would lead them towards a better way in becoming those people whose lives are lead by the Holy Spirit. However, even though Paul certainly recognizes his own intimacy with sufferings and encourages believers to face these trials, nowhere we do see a “martyr complex” where the only way to be faithful is to be persecuted. In fact, Paul hopes and prays that Christians can live in peace (1 Tim. 2.1-3).

If that case, Paul does not see suffering as necessary to grow, but it is a sufficient opportunity. If that is the case, what then is the connection between faith, character, and hope? How can we grow deeply in Christ without having to seek suffering? I would put forward this: the connect between Christian faith and hope is grounded upon the expectant imagination of the believer that colors the daily events of their lives.

Imagine a person who has the opportunity to interview for their dream career. The interview went very well and they were confident but there would be a period of a few weeks before they would hear back. In those moments between the interview and hearing back, they might start to think about all that the career would entail. They might imagine their relationship with their new colleagues, they might imagine the business trips they take, they may consider all the people they will help. In the midst of their time, they would begin to dream of what is to come based upon the confidence they have from the interview team and what is known about the job. The (relative) faith that the person has in obtaining this specific job, and not just some generic trust that somewhere along the lines something will work out, is the seed of imagination. In the midst of the imagination, they begin to think to themselves how they themselves are to address the various parts of their responsibilities. All the meanwhile, without their awareness, their imagination is impacted the way they will work in their hopeful vocation if the opportunity does come. Meanwhile, the more they imagine the future, the more hopeful they get about it. The processes of the expectant imagination both forms the person’s outlook and potential approach to the job and inculcates a deeper sense of optimism for the future. What is key in this formative process is that they person has a reason for their faith and confidence. Even though they have not obtained the job yet, it is their expectations that color the time between the interview and hearing back on the job.

Consider another example in the realm of marriage. A couple who has been dating for a while have gotten engaged and there is the excitement about the wedding. Their time together has made them trust one another so that they begin to imagine what life will be life living together. As the wedding day approaches, their expectant imaginations may begin to form the way they themselves prepare to live in marriage as to how to be a good husband or wife, which may even lead to some formal work such as premarital counseling. The more they consider this through the course of events, the more hopeful they become about their future together.

Of course, it needs to be said that the expectant imagination doesn’t always come true. The job might fall through or it might not be what they expected. There might be an unexpected breaking up of the relationship that prevents the marriage or the marriage might not be all that it is cracked up to be. In fact, the expectant imagination often leads to unrealistic expectations, as people rarely have a clear enough picture of the future. Nevertheless, the point is this: our positive expectations for the future based upon the confidence is a basis for changing the type of person we are and the source by which we begin to experience a deeper sense of optimism and hope for the future.

So it is with the Gospel. The faith that comes through belief in the resurrected Messiah brings forth the confident expectation of God’s promises given to Israel. Just as Abraham received the promise from God, so too can God’s people expect to see God’s faithfulness, even in the midst of trials and hardships. This frees the people to be able to face the challenges of life differently. Rather than take to revolutionary zeal in the face of persecution, they can trust that God will be faithful to them because God did not withhold His own Son. They can imagine life differently, no longer living according to the mindset of the flesh that is preoccupied by death that gets triggered when they face denigration, but instead live by the leading of the Spirit who directs believers towards life and shalom, with the hope that God is bringing about His promises. In the midst of this, the expectant imagination dramatically alters how they face life events. Meanwhile, because they can face the difficulties with confidence in the hearts, this gives birth to a deepening hope and optimism that isn’t conditioned to their having entire control of the outcomes of social and political life.

What is different, however, from the dream career and the engagement is this: the optimism that believers have is to simply based upon some past event In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ or some past words and promises from God. This optimism is because they know that God is actively at work in them at the present time through the Holy Spirit, the down-payment for God’s promises to be realized in the future. It is this leading of the Spirit who both forms them to be genuinely prepared for the future and is the continuing grounds for confidence in God’s promises. Because the Spirit has been given, the Christian hope in God’s faithfulness to His promises is not an unrealistic one, even if it might seem unrealistic to a world that requires confident knowledge of the whens and hows in order to have a confidence that begets hope. While the power that seeks control needs knowledge to have confidence, the power rooted in giving and receiving love needs only the evidential assurance of the beloved’s on-going intentions in order to generate and strengthen hope.

So, faith begets hopes, whether we have a uniquely Christian faith and hope or not. However, what makes the Christian faith and the Christian hope particular is that it is grounded upon the manfiestion of God’s loving power through Jesus Christ and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that grounds faith and cements hope. And it is this difference that makes all the difference in the world between various forms of faith and hope. The shape of Jesus’ life and His words and the specific desires and purposes that the Spirit leads shapes the nature of Christian faith, character, and hope that makes it unique from other types of faith, character, and hope.

The emergence of a new human nature

September 22, 2020

Romans 6.6:

We know that our old human was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.

Ephesians 4.20.24:

That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, the old human, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds and to clothe yourselves with the new human, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Colossians 3.9-10:

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old human with its practice and have clothed yourselves with the new [human], which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.

Within the Augustinian tradition in Western Christianity, there has been a basic explanation for human evil: that a sinful nature is inherited from our ancestors, going back to the Fall of Adam. This explanation then sets up for the solution to sin in Jesus Christ as the one by whose grace we are forgiven and set free from our sinful nature to live life righteously. The basic contours of this theological anthropology have had a tremendous intellectual and social influence on the Western world.

However, there is a weak point with this anthropological narrative. Insofar as it relies upon the comparison and contrast of Adam and Jesus in Romans 5, there is little direct textual support for the genetic inheritance of sin from one’s parents. If true, it would be a sufficient explanation for what Paul says, but the Western doctrine of original sin is by no means unanimous within the whole Christian tradition. It is the rejection of this doctrine that partly defines the differences between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism. Instead, Eastern Orthodoxy appeals to the ancestral sin of Adam that leads to the inheritance of the environment created as a consequence of the sin, while attributing sin ultimately to the devil. To that end, the interpretation of the fall of Adam is not much unlike the debates in science between the role of genetics and environment in various biological and physiological traits and diseases.

On the one hand, it isn’t out of bounds to consider that sin was inherited from parents. After all, many of the traits and characteristics of a parent are observed to be passed down to their children. Furthermore, David in the penitential Psalm 51 cries out “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” Nevertheless, it is not entirely clear this is meant literally as an explanation for the sin of all people, but rather as a hyperbolic device to establish how deep sin is a part of David’s own life. In a similar expression in Psalm 58.3, David ascribes people’s wickedness to coming from the womb by their speaking lies from their birth. The hyperbolic nature of David’s speech may be a way of figuratively pointing to familial lineage as the origin of a person’s specific sins, but it is not necessarily intended as an explanation with a universal scope for all sin.

If we look more closely at Paul’s discourse in Romans 5.12-21, it doesn’t seem that Paul says anything dramatically new that couldn’t have already been inferred from the creation narrative. No new information is being given about the role of Adam in the problem of sin. Rather than trying to provide specific teaching about Adam and sin, by comparing Romans 5.12 with Wisdom of Solomon 2.24, it seems that Paul’s purpose is more geared to rebutting the idea that the devil is the cause of sin. Instead of sin being the problem for those who belong to the devil, sin is a universal reality due to Adam’s actions. Paul cannot effectively make this argument to an audience who believes the devil as the cause by trying to add new ideas and information that would not be readily inferred from Israel’s Scriptures. Instead, Paul is summarizing what the Scriptures do say, which makes no mention of the hereditary nature of sin but instead points towards the condemnation that God pronounced in response to Adam and Eve’s transgression. In effect, God’s judgment against the couple separated humanity from God’s close, intimate presence, separated them from the provision of the tree of life, and brought pain and strike with human relations with each other and the world around them. Unless one tries to infer doctrines about sin and death that are neither expressly stated nor narratively represented in Genesis 3, the Fall narrative fits more so within the environmental explanation: sin is the consequence of living in a world that the actions of Adam and Eve brought to fruition.

I would go so far as to suggest that Paul’s understanding of the nature of redemption in Jesus Christ necessarily pulls from this environmental explanation. For Paul, he imagines believers putting on a new humanity by our union with Christ that is in according to the image and likeness of God back in Genesis 1. Jesus Christ as the image of God is the restoration of the Genesis 1 narrative for believers over and against the Genesis 3 narrative. This doesn’t make cohere well if sin is inherited as the body that we inherited from our parents still exists even as we believe in Christ: how can there be a crucifixion of the old human and the destruction of the body of sin if sin is a byproduct of our the body we received at birth? If, however, the body is formed by living in the world to become what Paul comes to refer to as the flesh, then Paul’s understanding of the redemption in Christ makes more sense. One can put on the new humanity because the old humanity was something learned as part of one’s former way of life, but one learns a new way in Christ which leads to the emergence of a new humanity. There is no intrinsic, genetic sinful nature that must be abolished, but there is only a body that the powers of sin and death have colonized and enslaved, which Paul refers to as the flesh, that is resisted, fought against, and successfully conquered through union with the crucified and resurrected Christ so that God’s grace comes to exercise dominion.

For Paul, there is nothing no less radical than the emergence of a new human, a new human nature that is unlike the old. This is not simply just a metaphor for having a different way of life with a few new habits, but there is a stark qualitative difference between what motivates and directs human behavior and life. The desires of the Spirit, rather than the out of control desires of the flesh, define the life of believers. In Christ, believers are having a new humanity that is formed according to the original creation intentions where God has drawn near to the believer to lead to living in the direct presence of God in the New Jerusalem, where the provision of life given in Christ that will culminate in the resurrection, where the changes of relations between each other in Christ and the ultimate restoration of right relations of everything in heaven and earth in the eschaton. The new humanity is a presently in-breaking reality in believer’s lives through the Spirit, who is given as a down-payment for the culmination of what is to come in the eschaton. In Paul’s minds, there is nothing less than an entirely different anthropological destiny that defines believers in Christ. This would stand in stark contrast to the Roman notion of the novus homo (“new man”) who were the first of their family to serve the Roman Senate, as the new humanity are given to the service of the Lord Jesus Christ rather than the centers of Roman power.

Paul’s explanation doesn’t fit well with either the Western emphasis on the hereditary nature of sin and guilt, nor with the Eastern emphasis on describing the origin of sin to the devil. For Paul, sin in the world originates with Adam, not the devil, but it is transmitted not through procreation but through the judgment pronounced by God that pushed humanity from God’s presence, isolated them from the provision of life, and overturned the harmony of creation (if one reads Genesis 3.22-24, the alternative to doing so would have been a far worse possibility) that has been bequeathed to humanity. For Paul, the solution, the cure is something so dramatic as to suggest that those in Christ take on a fundamentally different human nature from the world they inhabit, not in terms of materiality or physicality, but in terms of differing motivations brought about by the Spirit that is grounded upon faith in God and hope in the future that longs to be joined together in love.

The two expressions of agape love

September 18, 2020

Matthew 5.43-47:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

John 15.12-14:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you

We in the West live in an age of passion. We have been taught that the pathway towards truth, the pathway towards justice, the pathway towards well-being is to be found in strong emotions that we feel, speak from, and act upon, that our heart (in the modern sense of emotions, not the biblical sense of purpose) is the place where live if given meaning, hope, and direction. This is not an altogether bad thing in that our stronger emotions may be understood as our passions may be metaphorically understood as our bodies teaching our minds things that may be good to search for, explore, etc.

The problem, however, is the way we give passion primacy in determining truth and, as a consequence, the way our frameworks for morality, ethics, and justice are becoming increasingly prone to the black-and-white thinking of stark dualisms between pure good and utter evil. As a consequence, anything that might ruin our good ‘vibe’ is taken to be a sign of bad, wrong, evil, etc. Any person who says something that challenges our dreams of passionate bliss is hostile to us in some manner. When as a society our passions are given the primacy of truth in the form of emotivism, rather than possibilities to explore and learn from other sources, including most notably other people, we find ourselves in a world full of conflict and strife. In such a culture, is it any wonder that we are often biting each other’s heads off?

In Matthew 7.13-14, Jesus contrasts two instructed ways of life. One way of life that one enters into in a wide gate, representing the various teachers of Jewish piety and Torah in 1st century Judea, has a lot of people walking this broad path, but this ultimately leads to destruction. On the other hand, there is another way of life that is narrow, because Jesus alone is the one who brings people to the Father (John 14.6), that few find to take on a hard road that takes up the cross that will lead to life. While this passage has often been taken to be a warning about heaven or hell, where Jesus is the only one who can get you to heaven, it makes better sense with the Sermon on the Mount that this refers to the results that occur in people’s lives as a result of which path of religious instruction people take: do they embrace many of the so-called teachers of Israel, which ultimately leads to a way of life that puts people towards destruction as the Jewish rebellion of 66-70AD that culminated with the destruction of Jerusalem, or do they embrace the cross-bearing path that Jesus teaches that brings life? The former may seem right to many people, but it promises what it cannot deliver, whereas the latter path promises life only with the cost of being willing to give up one’s life.

How fitting this is for our current situation we face in the West. We have been taught by many people, including religious teachers, various ways of pursuing the good life. Whether it be some form of veiled Stoicism that appeals to God, Jesus, etc., but yet fundamentally denies the significance of emotions as if creation and the heart is by default bad and evil1 or the hostile reaction against Stoicism that teaches our passions provide the pathway to blessing, life, and (often relativistic) truth, we have witnessed the destructive trajectory that these teachers have brought about within Western society. Stoicism veiled within total depravity and pagan mythology veiled with popular psychology (and perhaps a dash of “love” from the Bible) has been a path that has brought us towards destruction. Shall we look at this year, 2020, as the year of God’s judgment come to fruition on the center of the Western world, the United States, by allowing the fruits of our sins, idolatries, ideologies, and ultimately teachings that lead to destruction to come to pass: coronavirus, a potentially record-setting hurricane season, record-setting wild-fires, all of which can in one way or another associated with the environmental devastation of God’s creation and our dreams of unhinged economic expansionism, protest, and unfortunately riots, in response to the pervasive injustices committing against African-Americans, and even a sign in the heavens of an asteroid that will come near to the earth the day before the presidential election? Perhaps what we have been taught for decades has been the road to perdition and God is allowing the fruits of our teachings to come upon us.

Is there any hope for our future? Can unity and peace beging to define our world more? Yes, if a people were to enter the narrow gate that brings people on the harder path, perhaps these people can be those who bring life and peace in the midst of the pervasiveness of death and chaos that we are inhabiting. At the heart of the pedagogy of the Western world has been a way of life that ultimately erodes the basis of peace and unity. Whether it be the highly contemptuous judgment of Christianized Stoicism or the rages against perceived injustices among the party of passion, these ways of life have ultimately set our hearts against each other. However, it is people that embrace the love of the cross in their own lives that have the possibility for becoming bridges that create shalom in our world.

The love of the cross, agape love, has two expressions that broaden the range of people that we treat with benevolence and deepens our commitment to those who we have affection for. Agape love calls us to a benevolent love that regards even those who might set themselves against us as people we are called to love, pray for, and bless like our Heavenly Father brings sun and rain on the good and the evil alike. However, agape love also calls us to an affectionate love for those who we share life together with, friends, that culiminates in sacrificing ourselves for them. In learning to both face vulnerability to those who at against us by not fight but loving, praying, and blessing and by being willing to give ourselves for our friends, we broaden the circle of love and we deepen the center of the circle.

These two expressions of love, benevolent love and affectionate love, are both essential to realizing a life-giving, shalom-bestowing way of life. On the one hand, as humans we all need people we can share deep bonds of affection of shared life together with along with being able to live in relative peace with those who we don’t identify with in a deeply personal way. However, the way the West has idealized the passions of romance as the underlying metaphor for how we understand ourselves and our relationships has ultimately cut against benevolent and affectionate love. Passion is ultimately egocentric in that it is attracted and drawn to someone or something because of the various goods we consciously and unconsciously imagine something or someone else to bring to us, whether it be attention, power, sex, wealth, etc., etc. However, like most powerful expressions of emotions, these passions fade with time, making these flimsy foundations for the long-term, and these passions make us defensive towards anyone who might critical of them, setting our hearts against those who we believe set themselves against us. When our passions are taken to the the center of our “love,” it makes us increasingly less benevolent and less likely to be selflessly affectionate towards others. However, when we look at our relationships through the lens of ever-expanding benevolence and ever-deepening affection and concern for the well-being for others, we have the basis to building bridges between people. When we endure the cross that comes with ever-expanding benevolence and ever-deepening affectionate concern, our passions lose control so that we are not being increasingly being set against others and unrelentingly subservient to whatever desires we have for ourselves.

May two different visions of marriage and romance be taken as representative for the contrast with the way of passion and the way of agape.2

In the way of passion, two people may develop a deep desire, if not craving, for each other that may allow for a relationship to blossom. Insofar as they give to each other the dreams of their passion, the relationship will continue to grow and blossom, possibly to even marriage. However, as each other’s interests and desires begin to diverge and change, so will the relationship be shown to be on a shaky foundation. Irritability, defensiveness, and even derision and disgust may increasingly define the relationship as each partner feels the other partner as failed to give them what they think they deserve, which is defined by the egocentric desires that fueled their initial passion. Divorce and potentially even enmity is the pathway that passion leads to. When passion excludes and rejects other teachers of the heart and life, disappointment, despair, and hostility stand at the doorstep.

On the other hand, there may be a woman and a man who find a passion for each other. However, rather than letting the passion control, they focus on the well-being of the other. As their relationship grows and builds, they learn to give to each other the desires of their hearts that started the flames of passion, but the foundation of their relationship is built upon an initial benevolence towards each other that blossoms towards affectionate concern for the other. Their relationship persists and happily so because the foundations of their heart is ultimately grounded in a mutual, agape love that is the foundation for life shared together. However, this can only happen because each has been willing to bear their own cross in their life, which directs them to remain benevolent in the face of relationship conflicts and to deepen their affection through self-giving. Passion has a teacher in the cross that does not ultimately reject the desires that fuel passion, but calls these desires to be pushed into the background so that benevolence and affection for the other may grow.

As much truth as this has to bear for relationships between a man and a woman, may this be taken as a metaphor for how agape can bring shalom in an increasingly hostile culture.

What is a new wineskin?

September 16, 2020

Matthew 9.14-17:

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often,h but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

New wineskins. Jesus teaching on wineskins and the unshrunken cloth has often been taken to contrast the religious traditions of the Pharisees with the new thing that Jesus is teaching and doing. So the theory goes, the Pharisees represent religion and Jesus represents a relationship with God, so a new wineskin is separated and dissected from the religious traditions and starts off fresh and new.

I don’t want to entirely reject this line of reasoning, as there is a sense where the ministry of Jesus is intentionally contrasted with the traditions of the Pharisees in the Gospels. I do have some mild reservations about religion vs. relationship dichotomy, in large part because James talks about true religion (James 1.27). Nevertheless, I think there is a deep truth between the contrast between religious traditions and the newness of what Jesus brings. What I want to put forward is a more nuanced interpretation of Jesus’ words that suggests a different way that we come to the newness in Jesus Christ than what has “traditionally” been put forward by those emphasizing religion, personality spirituality, etc. over and against religious traditions.

Much of the time, usually implicitly and sometimes explicitly, the newness we face by coming to Christ is taken to be from our emotional lives and the changes experienced therein. As an intellectual who doesn’t always show my emotional expressions the ways that many other people of faith do, I have recognized this basic assumption and been subjected to a bit of skepticism because of it. At times, I have been treated as if my faith isn’t of the “heart” and that I didn’t really know and love God, but my faith was simply an intellectual thing. Undergirding this worldview, and it is a worldview that assumes the truthfulness of one’s faith is seen by one’s affectivity and emotional expression, is that the way we live into the newness that Jesus gives us through our emotional experiences of victory through the cross.1 At the heart of having these new wineskins according to this worldview is an emotionally-charged freedom from past traditions and teachings which have held us down, harmed us, and/or mislead us. The new wineskins is taken to be the new experience of God and freedom from the oppressive constraints of religious tradition.

Much of this I want to affirm, but I want to put forward that these feelings of victory, elation, celebration, etc., are all the consequence of rightly discovering the newness that Jesus gives us, but it is not our “relationship” or “spirituality” or “freedom” that is the new thing that Jesus brings. Allow me to use a metaphor: a severely depressed person is prescribed an antidepressant by a psychiatrist as they have regular appointments to discuss their life with them. As they take the antidepressant and participate in therapy for a few months, they slowly begin to emerge from their despair with a new sense of happiness and hopeful expectation. What is new in their life? Many things are new, but their new emotional life has been bequeathed to them because of the therapy and the new medication that helps to alter the neurotransmitters at work in their brain, altogether altering the way they think, interpretation, and feel. Something new from outside of themselves, the medication and the interactions with the therapist, causes them to become changed into a person who experiences a new joy in life.

I want to put forward that many of these things we associate with these sense of freedom, hope, and joy are intimately connected with the new wineskins that Jesus provides, but that the new wineskins are more like the therapeutic process that occurs when one is a disciple who is truly seeking after and following Jesus that allows us to take in the new wine. In other words, emotional victory is part of the new wine, but it isn’t the new wineskin. The new wineskin comes from learning from Jesus.

The metaphor of wineskins was used by Elisha ben Abuyah, a near contemporary of Jesus, to describe the process of studying and learning.2. When Jesus uses this language, he most likely echoes a similar expression: his disciples are in the process of learning, that is obtaining the new wineskin. If this is the meaning, the metaphor may be extended to regard fasting as a type of wine that is put into the wineskin. Jesus says that even though they don’t fast, the days will come when they fast, suggesting that fasting is the new metaphorical wine to be put into to the new wineskin. However, before they can appropriately fast, they will have to have the right “container” to direct their fasting towards.

Why would this be the case? Throughout the Old Testament, fasting was primarily used in a status of fear, mourning, repentance, shame, etc. People fasted to seek after God in their lowly, vulnerable state. However, the purpose of fasting had apparently begun to shift with some people, as it was often done in order to be seen (Matthew 6.16-18). Fasting also became a regular, ascetic practice (Judith 8.6, Luke 2.37). Given that such regular fasting could be taken as a sign of self-control and self-discipline, some people may have taken the regular fasting to be less about seeking God’s protection and help and the purpose of fasting may have also morphed into an ascetic practice of physical endurance. Altogether, the purpose that some Jews fasted seemed to have change from the way fasting was understanding throughout Israel’s Scriptures. Rather than coming before God in a humbled state, it was done falsely. Perhaps Jesus’ criticism of the fasting by the hypocrites in the Sermon on the Mount has in mind Isaiah 58.3-9:

Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

So, if the practice of fasting had been corrupted from the purposes that God found in fasting in Jesus’ time, what would happen if he started having His disciples fast early in His discipline? They would have likely fasted for all the reasons they were accustomed to seeing fasting being done. Our learning from our cultures are often deeply engrained in ways that we are often unaware of. Before they could fast in a faithful way, they would need to unlearn what their religious culture had taught them and learn newly from Christ. Their time with Jesus as the “bridegroom” was a time of preparation that would lead them to mourning and fast when the “bridegroom” was gone, which is perhaps an implicit foreshadowing of the way Jesus will be taken from them and crucified. While Jesus was with them, they would come to acquire new wineskins through learning from Jesus, so that when the time came to fast, they would not fast as the world around them fasted but they would fast because of their feelings of vulnerability and mourning at the injustice done to their Teacher. They are learning a whole new way of life from Jesus that will then direct the way they then engage with the practices of fasting and many of the other traditional markers of Jewish piety. In other words, Jesus did not come to get rid of the traditional markers of Jewish piety, but in teaching His disciples, he would make these practices restored to their true purpose by being radically recentered and reunderstood in relationship to Him.

In other words, we might say that traditional religious practices become powerfully renewed and transformed when they become radically recentered in Christ. When it happens, however, the people engaging in the piety of fasting, prayer, charity, etc., might not look much like what one is accustomed to seeing in the way religion is generally practiced. Religion restored to its true purpose often looks unlike the prevailing forms of the present. It doesn’t throw away the past, however, but like a faithful prophet, it calls judgment against and rejects the distortions and corruptions that have come in the present day practices and in seeking to call people back to faithfulness to what God has made known about Himself, it will lead people to look different from the spiritual drowsiness that they witness surrounding them. However, at the same time, to get to the true form of the old, it will also require a new act of God to open our eyes, unplug our ears, and restore our minds to come close to the the truth of the ancient ways. How can we know the truth of the ancient ways if we were entirely unfamiliar to it in the first place due to the way we learned and were taught in our culture? God must act powerfully to make His everlasting will and purposes known afresh, which He ultimately does through the word and life of His Son.

In our modern day where we see emotional healing that mirrors that of what we witness in therapy, I want to honor those things as deeply faithful to God’s heart as expressed through the Scriptures. However, lest we forget, it is through learning from Jesus that we have the new wineskins that form the new wine of our experience of emotional liberation. It is in learning from Jesus that we begin to see and understand the work and purposes of the Spirit’s work to bring about the new wine of new creation in our lives. Without this radical recentering onto the whole, fullness of Christ, I will continue to express the concerns that I have long held about the triumph of the therapeutic and that we are simply accommodating to what we find from the therapeutic practices of our culture, both the good but also the bad, rather than discovering a new way to learn to experience God’s healing for God’s life-giving purposes, which is really ancient.

Putting to death the deeds of the body

September 14, 2020

Romans 8.13:

for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

In recent months, this verse has taken on a prominent place in my thinking about the Spirit-led life. One reason is that this verse cuts against the common idea that one has eternal life, as in the everlasting experiencing of the gift of life that God gives us, apart from the works one does. John 5.25-29 and Romans 2.6-11 strongly militate against this idea of a works-less eternal life. While the gift of life in Jesus Christ is free, God expects us to make use of this gift to experience a transformed life. Romans 8.13 gets to the heart of this, except looking at it from an opposite angle in terms of putting an end to sin in one’s life. How does this cohere with Paul’s larger statements about the Torah and what exactly does this putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit look like?

On the former, it is important to push back a little bit against the common Protestant dichotomy between faith and works. Certainly, it is by faith that we come to receive God’s gracious gift of Himself in Christ and the Holy Spirit; works do not obligate or force God to draw near to us. However, Paul’s main concern about works in letters like Romans and Galatians is about the specific system of works as derived from the Torah. The way the prevailing Jewish traditions sought to bring about obedience to the Torah was by building a system of principles and types of deeds that if one followed, one would be effective in following the commandments of the Torah. These principles were put into place because of the desire to put all of the commandments into the life of the faithful Jew. Consequently, the works of the Torah wasn’t referring to the commandments of the Torah, but the prescriptions teachers put forward in an attempt to try to obey the Torah. Undergirding this was often the assumption that if one simply did what the Jewish traditions taught, one would attain the righteousness that the Torah speaks to. Put simply, the assumption was that if one directly puts these traditions into practice, one would become faithful in one’s heart. This vision of righteousness may be referred to as a form of direct self-control in which the way one overcomes sin and does what God wants is to simply dedicate oneself to doing all the types of things the commandments of the Torah were understood to apply to. However, Jesus rejects this orientation towards righteousness, as if it proceeds from the outside-in, but instead, it is the heart that gives rise to good or evil from the inside-out. Paul similarly expresses a warning against the type of Jewish traditions that were about restricting consumption so as to directly control self-indulgence (Col 2.20-23).

So, when Paul calls for believers to put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, Paul is describing a different way of how one comes to live righteously before God. One does not directly self-control one’s sins by simply trying to obey a set of commands or principles that speak against them. Moral insight and personal will is not enough to overcome the power of sin in the flesh (cf. Rom. 7.7-25). The Spirit in some way is crucial to putting to death the deeds of the flesh. The concern here thus isn’t about “releasing the shackles of the stifling rules,” but rather recognizing that trying to obey the “law” doesn’t get you to where God is leading His people. There is something the Spirit must do that provides a way to overcome sin in one’s life.

So what exactly is the Spirit doing when it comes to putting to death the deeds of the body? The first clue is to look back at Romans 8.5-6. The work of the Spirit is somehow related to thinking and cognition that is opposed to the way that the flesh causes one to think. The second clue is in Romans 8.4 and 8.14, both of which use language related to the metaphor of a journey in walking and being lead by someone, which points towards discipleship like Jesus taught His disciples. Put these two hints together and we can see the beginnings of an image: there is something the Spirit teaches us to do. We see Paul say something similar in Galatians 5.25. Just as Jesus said in John 14.26, the Spirit works in the role of a teacher; Paul imagines believers being in a disciple-teacher relationship with the Holy Spirit.

At this point, it becomes important to remember something crucial: what we hear from and see in Jesus helps to make known the work of the Spirit. With that in mind, we can look to the Sermon on the Mount in giving a couple examples of what sort of teaching may be given that puts to death the deeds fo the body. In Matthew 5.17-48, Jesus endeavors to communicate the way stay faithful to the Torah but fulfill its true purpose in becoming complete as the Heavenly Father is complete, and in so doing, having a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees and the scribes. Whereas the Pharisees and scribes relied upon the interpretation of the Torah commandments and the oral traditions to provide the specific type of behaviors one should follow to seek righteousness, Jesus employs the Torah differently. For Jesus, the Torah may be better understood as a spotlight, shining into people’s lives areas where sin is present that leads people to obey from their hearts (see Psalm 119). So, when Jesus addresses the various commandments of the Torah and gives a deeper prescription, Jesus is helping people to see the deeper matters of the heart behind the commandments and provide a type of action that can help make people faithful to the commandments of the Torah. For instance, when it comes to not murdering, Jesus also warns against anger and suggests that one should actively seek to reconcile with those who one has offended; in acting in a reconciling manner, one acts against anger, which can itself cause harm and can even lead to murder. Similarily with adultery, Jesus warns against lusting after a married woman, calling for men to get rid of anything that might cause them to sin. When addressing one’s relationship to one’s neighbors and enemies, Jesus calls for people to love even their enemies and, in so doing, they will imitate God who gives sun and rain of the righteous and unrighteous alike. By loving and praying for those who persecute, one is actively working against hatred and actually working towards a way of peacemaking that will continue to treat enemies as one neighbor.

In each of those three instances, Jesus doesn’t just simply give a command to follow in addition to the Torah. Rather, he gives a specific prescriptions for actions to take. In doing these things, one will begin to reflect God’s righteousness in one’s life in a purity of heart instead of trying to achieve righteousness and purity through limiting one’s obedience to the commandments of the Torah and the oral traditions that applied those commandments. Jesus’ teaching provides an alternative set of teachings, which if put into practice, can help to root out the sin that lies in the heart. This form of wisdom is very different in that it doesn’t seek to stop sin by directly stopping the sinful behaviors that the Torah warns against, but rather Jesus’ wisdom targets the deeper dynamics of the human heart that will target the root of sin that the Torah regulates and, in so doing, bring forth the fruit of righteousness and holiness in one’s life. Whether it be overcoming specific sins choosing to the good that is the opposite of sin or preventing sin by taking away from yourself the things that can cause you to sin, Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount provide wisdom about indirect self-control that doesn’t target specific sins directly as much as it gets to behaviors that target the root of the problem.

In a similar way, we can look to the Holy Spirit as the teacher of our hearts, leading us to type actions that when put into action help to put to death the deeds of body. The Spirit does not simply enable us to do the things we know we are supposed to do, but the Spirit gives us insight to target the root of sin in our lives. As the desires of the Spirit become deepened in our life, the antithesis with the desires of the flesh will become increasingly salient. It will go beyond simply a knowledge about the things God speaks against, but it will go deeper into a spiritual awareness about the stirrings in one’s heart. In this place, the Spirit will bring forth insight that calls us to act in a certain way that targets the deeper causes of sin, the desires of the flesh, in a way that direct self-control can not do. Elsewhere, Paul calls this sowing by the Spirit (compare Gal. 6.8 with Romans 8.13), with the agricultural metaphor conveying an image that one creates the fruit of righteousness (and thus by implication gets rid of the deeds of the flesh) by what the Spirit directs one to plant in the ground, an image of transformation through indirect self-control. Ultimately, all that the Spirit points to in the believer’s life can be seen to be reflected and imitating in various ways in the cross of Jesus Christ, by a person having to face their own crosses in their lives in order to put to death the deeds of the flesh.

To that end, it isn’t that much different from how therapists will go beyond the presenting problem that causes distress for their clients and try to address deeper realities of the heart. The biggest difference between the Gospel way of righteousness and therapy is the methods employed and the telos one works towards. In traditional therapy, one usually relies on some combination of talk therapy, introspection, and maybe pharmacological treatment, to get at the deeper places in a person’s life they can target to achieve the telos that is working towards being determined by the wishes and the goals of the client. While this may have many benefits to bear for many problems we face in life, the Gospel way of righteousness is a bit different in that it is through continuing in Jesus’ words and seeking to live out the life the Spirit has given us that we discover the ways to target our struggles with sin with the telos directing us towards gradually embodying God’s righteousness in our lives more and more as we are transformed over time. The differences don’t set them against each other as a faithful Christian may also need traditional therapy, but I highlight the similarities to suggest there is much in common between the two, even as instruction of Jesus and the work of the Spirit are more unique and bit more distinct from traditional therapy.  In this way, the taught wisdom from Jesus Christ and the writings of Paul on the Spirit may be considered to reflect a therapeutic-like practice in seeking to set people free from sin and the fear and oppression that has bound people and bring them to a place realizing and living out the gift of life that God has given to us in Jesus and by the Spirit.

Reconceptualizing the “means of grace”

September 12, 2020

As someone deeply indebted to the Wesleyan tradition and whose theology is profoundly shaped by Wesley I have been deeply influenced by the idea that there are means of grace that we as Christians use and participate in that has a markedly positive impact on our life of service and obedience to Jesus Christ. Prayer, reading the Scriptures, Holy Communion, acts of mercy, etc. are all ways that our life in Christ is made deeper. However, even though one might consider my theology to be practically Wesleyan where the rubber meets the road, my reading of the Scriptures and my usage of theological language has changed enough that I can not be directly identified as Wesleyan in the way I express the Christian faith. One of those changes that has occurred is my issue with the language “the means of grace.”

John Wesley defines the means of grace as follows:

By “means of grace” I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.1

My shift from this definition pertains to the metaphorical language of “channels” and the way we understand grace. It has become my increasing conviction that in the New Testament, and especially Paul, that the language of grace is used to principally referring to God’s loving, life-giving self-giving of Himself in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. While occasionally the language of grace can be used to understand the effect this has on believers, the unmerited gift that God has given to us is principally understood to be Himself, both in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and in the Indwelling of the Spirit. Consequently, we can not readily split up grace into prevenient, justifying, or sanctifiying grace, although we might can think of the way God’s giving of Himself might enable unbeliever to come to know Him, to come to have the word of God “Let there be righteousness” spoken over them, to be dramatically changed and transformed so as to be ready to do the will of God. However, these are more appropriately the effects of grace, we might say. Beyond just this becoming an exegetical conviction of mine, there is also a practical concern with the way that we use grace in Christian circles to refer to various other things, such as power, or forgiveness, or warm fuzzy feelings, or nice words, etc., and so thereby dilute the theocentric emphasis on God’s activity in the Gospel.

Consequently, by defining God’s grace in His self-giving, that means that the freedom of God precludes us from being able to create any channels by which we can make God comes to us. Even if God comes to us faithfully by the means He promised to come to those who love Him, prayer, reading Scriptures, acts of mercy, etc. do not themselves have a power to make God come to and meet us. God’s gracious self-giving is always His own initiative and we have no way to make God comes to us simply in virtue of any specific type of action we take. So, there is no such thing as a means of grace.

Nevertheless, I do think there is something very significant about what Church tradition has historically called the means of grace. They do bear a pronounced effect on our lives, for our well-being and for our obedience to God. However, I have come to think of the benefits of the “means of grace” being categorized in two different ways: (1) pedagogical means of being taught from God and, to use a metaphor, (2) the well-buckets of Spiritual life. For the first one, I use this to refer approximately to what happens before a person genuinely comes to Christ beyond simply believing in His name but to genuinely believe in Him as the one whose words come from the Father and give life. As Jesus says in John 6.44-45, no one comes to the Jesus unless the Father drawns them, which happens through being taught by God. When people read the Scriptures with an eye to knowing who God is, when they pray with what has been known to them about God, when they perform works of mercy, etc. they are coming to being taught by the Father in heaven. Insofar as these are people who have some sense of faith in God but they haven’t transitioned to deeply knowing and loving God, these various ordinances, to use Wesley’s language, allow people ot be instructed from the Father so that they can come to be able to truly recognize and know Jesus as He is. This isn’t quite Wesley’s idea of a converting ordinance, as I don’t consider a person who believes in the name of Christ but does not fully believe in Him to be on the outside of God’s grace or the Church. Nevertheless, the purpose of these ordinances here is to bring people to a truer understanding of God and His will, allowing them to truly understand and come to Jesus as the Incarnate embodiment of God and the full expression of the Father’s will.

The second category is where the real significant difference takes place in my mind. When God gives Himself to us, we don’t simply get God’s presence in our lives, but new creation and a new life emerges within us. The Spirit of grace provides us the gift of life. However, simply because God has given us life doesn’t mean everything automatically changes in the way we live our lives. We must learn to bring this life to bear in the day-to-day activities and thinking. Through prayer, Scripture, works of mercy, Holy Communion, etc., we are taking the springs of living water in our life and we are pulling out from it to bring newness to various areas of our life. It is through these various actions that we splash the whole of our natural lives and other people’s lives with the waters of this new life. The wells of life that have run dry and the wells of life that have been poisoned are filled with this gift of new life through these actions. For instance, when we pray in the Spirit, we are bringing forth the desires of the Spirit into our hearts and minds. It is through these actions that we put to death the deeds of the flesh, that we take captive every thought in our lives, that we experience liberation from the oppression laid within our hearts. Put differently, we might say the well-buckets of Spiritual life are means of spiritual growth and maturity.

The value of seeing it this way is this: we don’t have to try to explain how specific actions convey grace to us. Rather, we recognize that these actions when done by those who believe in Jesus is simply the act of taking what God has graciously given to us through Himself and bringing it to bear fruit throughout our lives. It is through these acts of religious devotion that we sow the fruit that the Spirit desires to reap in, through, and for us. With this in tow, we can have a robust synergism that does not invade or diminish God’s agency and initiative, but takes the gifts from God’s self-gifting and brings to be bear throughout our life. The other value of seeing it this way is that is more readily coheres with the metaphors that Jesus and Paul use in terms of water and agriculture. Rather than trying to create an alternative metaphysical language of “means” that doesn’t readily fit with the Scriptural language, this way of framing these actions can be made to be more readily understood within the thought-world of the Scriptures. While we can employ alternative, metaphysical language like that of cause-and-effect to try to explain these metaphors, by keeping our understanding of the significance of these acts of devotion more closely attuned to wider array of the Scriptures beyond simply the narrow usage of the word “grace,” we keep our understanding of them more firmly rooted.

Finally, and this may ruffle feathers a bit but I do think it is important, the value of this language is that we can stop thinking the means of grace are the way that we “abide” with God. Jesus says that those who abide/remain with/in Him are these who keep His commandments, which is summarized in loving each other as Christ loves us. It is living in love, not the means of grace, that allows us to abide in Jesus. Certainly, prayer, Scripture, acts of mercy, Holy Communion, etc., are instrumental in our spiritual growth so that our love for God and others grows strong, but our remaining in Christ to obey His command. To that end, we might say they can help us to live in such a way as to abide with Christ. Through this way of understanding what has been traditionally referred to as the means of grace, we don’t have to try to insert their significance into Jesus’ language when Jesus explicitly describes the means of abiding to be something else.

I don’t by any means bristle at the phrase “means of grace” and can appreciate what people are trying to get at, but I do think there is a better way to help us to think about our acts of devotion.

If we aren’t all “sinners,” then what would Paul say we all are before Christ?

September 12, 2020

As I made the point earlier today, the Bible does not refer to all people as being “sinners.” At the heart of this was to make the point that the Scriptures do not speak towards a pessimistic, if not misanthropic, worldview that sees all persons mired in wickedness and evil until they find God. That just simply isn’t Scriptural, but it has been a worldview assumption that the Scriptures have been subjected to. However, if I reject saying that everyone is a “sinner,” do I reject the power of sin in life? Absolutley not. Paul is Romans is incredibly clear about the controlling power of sin. However, instead of reading Paul’s metaphorical language about the power of sin against the backdrop of a total depravity that suggests we are all actively engaging in sinning, I want to suggest a different way to make sense of the language: ability.

I have had heard it a few times that the doctrine of total depravity can also be called the doctrine of total inability. However, the words “depravity” and “inability” do not convey the same thing. The former talks about the moral status of people; suggesting total depravity is to say that people are actively wicked in their life, even if they aren’t as wicked as entirely possible. Total inability, however, implies something different: that we do not have within ourselves the strength and power to reach God’s righteousness that is revealed in Jesus Christ, but that we must be redeemed in order to embody that type of righteousness in our own lives. Rather, than characterizing people’s behaviors, total inability refers more so refers to the way we are not capable of perfectly regulating ourselves to always do God’s will on our own power. Whether it is the most depraved individuals we can think of or a decent person who struggles with always keeping their commitments, they are all alike in one way as different as they are: they are not capable on their own of breaking free from all the sins that have bound them.

When we see Paul talk about “slavery” to sin and righteousness in Romans 6.15-23, Paul does characterize “slavery” in terms of how intensely sinful or righteous a person is. Rather, he construes “slavery” in terms of controlling how one uses one’s members, i.e. the body. Slavery is about self-control of oneself and one’s body and whether one uses it for God’s purposes or not. It is not about being entirely wicked or extremely saintly. The inability to control oneself is at the heart of the struggle of an individual trying to live by Torah in Romans 7: try as hard as they might, their mind can not control all their actions, but they find that sin has power over them than his mind that agrees with God’s Torah does. We don’t see Paul characterize this individual as an intensely wicked person. He characterizes them simply as a person who can not help but covet.

This inability to fully control one self explains the significance of Romans 8.1-17. Because Christ has condemned/made powerless sin in the flesh, then those who have the Spirit are capable of overcoming and putting to death the deeds of the flesh and living by the mindset of the Spirit. The cognitive language here is consistent with the way cognitive language was typically used to refer to self-control in Greco-Roman philosophy, particularly among the Stoics. Paul is developing an account of holy self-control through the power of the Spirit given to us by being united with Christ. Elsewhere in Galatians 5.23, Paul refers to self-control as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

So then, rather than reading Paul against the backdrop of total depravity, perhaps we can read him against the backdrop of the lack of total self-control. One of the theological implications of this is entire sanctification: that if in Christ we are given the ability to overcome all sin in our life, that would mean that we can become entirely sanctified in God’s eyes. That doesn’t mean we necessarily known we are entirely sanctified, but it does mean that we can entirely and fully live our lives in devotion to Jesus. It may take much unlearning and repentance. It may take much prayer and diligence to obey the Spirit in putting to death the deeds of the flesh. It may take readily confessing our sins and receiving God’s ongoing forgiveness along the way. Having this Spirit-enabled self-control doesn’t mean there isn’t still have a spiritual struggle to fight in our lives, but it does mean that those who are in Christ are new creation and are going from being diamonds in the rough to becoming bright shining diamonds with the continued polishing and transformation through the work and leading of the Holy Spirit for God to show off them like the stars in the night sky.

Why didn’t Jesus call for women to follow him?

September 12, 2020

One of the staples of a complementarian/patriarchal view of the Christian ministry and ecclesiology is the fact that all of Jesus’ disciples who actively followed Him on Jesus’ journey’s were men. Hence, aside from probably Junia mentioned in Romans (who is readily ignored by some), all the apostles in the New Testament are male. By implication it would seem, the leadership of the Church was to be of men. However, I want to put forward a different explanation for the exclusive male-ness of Jesus’ traveling disciples that is closer to the heart of Jesus’ ministry and does not exclude women from being leaders among God’s People. In summary, I would say this: the reason why Jesus called only men to follow Him on His ministry journeys is that the place of women in society was already such that they experienced regular deaths to themselves, whereas for ambitious men, they would have to bear their crosses before they really grow to be effective disciples.

Let us note, first of all, Jesus was all too willing to teach women and engage in substantial conversation with God. Mary and Martha are one example where Jesus not only tolerates but actively includes women in His teaching. Jesus has an extended conversation with the Samaritan woman that is more direct than His conversation with Nicodemus. The significance of this should not be understated. Jesus did not simply make Himself known to any and everyone who wanted to be taught by Him. Jesus was selective in who He was make Himself known to. When Nicodemus came to him, Jesus refused to entrust Himself to Nicodemus with clear, direct teachings. Yet, he was all too willing to teach women. So, Jesus included many women past his ‘filters.’

However, women had many more obligations to other people to take care of people’s well-being than men do. While Jesus told His disciples that they must ‘hate’ their families to follow Him, which was essentially a call to be loyal to Jesus above everyone else, we never see Jesus refuse would-be followers for saying “I will follow you after I take care of my ailing child,” or something similar. The call to loyalty to Jesus in following Him is never suggested to entail a dropping of one’s responsibilities to care for those who need care. To travel and follow Jesus for women would have been to shirk the acts of service and love, without which other people would be at a great loss and suffer because of. Rather, Jesus’ concern seems to be more connected to one’s social status that comes from one’s relationship to one’s family. For men, particularly more upwardly mobile men, the honor and status of their families would be an important part of establishing themselves in society. Jesus is essentially telling them to abandon this source of honor and status in favor of the honor and status that comes from taking up their cross and following Jesus. Women’s social status, whatever status they had, was primarily derived from the way they took care of matters in the home. For upwardly mobile men who didn’t have to take time caring for other people, they had to take up their cross in follow Jesus. To people permanently entrenched in the lower status who then played the role of servants and helpers to others, they already have their form of a cross.

So allow me to put this a different way: why did Jesus only call men to follow Him? Because it is the men, particularly the upwardly mobile, healthy, ambitious men, who needed to die to themselves and, in so doing, could use their relatively privileged capacities to travel and be mobile to serve the kingdom of God. However, for women whose social circumstances made other people’s well-being dependent upon them, women could serve as Jesus disciples in the location where society essentially forced them at the time.

The point is that this has less to do with the “worthiness” of men to lead, and more to do with the great extent to which these men must go in dying to themselves in order to be salt and light as Jesus’ disciples who then travel around to proclaim the kingdom. God uses the potentially mobile males for the task that they are readily able to fulfill. God uses the life circumstances and positions we have in life and calls us in such a way that we can use it for the glory of God’s Kingdom. It doesn’t mean, however, that men are by nature disposed to leadership. It meant that these men have the capacity to do it in that time that women did not, but precisely because of this capacity they had in their relatively priviledged status, they had to endure the cross in a way that female disciples who were regularly held down, excluded, and oppressed did not have to.

So, perhaps the reason why the apostles were (almost) exclusively male is that it was the men who were freer to take on the requirements and responsibility of position but that they especially needed to learn to die to themselves in a way that women had already learned by their second-class, perpetually one-down social status. Maybe the apostolic men are an example of God taking those who were first (relatively speaking) and had higher status and making them last and servants in the hardships of traveling and proclaiming the kingdom of God (And let us remember that the apostolic Church was not an established institution with massive manpower, wealth, property, etc; being a leader in the apostolic era did not have the perks and privileges that being a leader in more institutional churches and denominations have).