Not all ‘sinners’ are the same: Obeying wickedness vs. enslavement to sin in Romans

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October 23, 2020

Most theological anthropologies work with a basic, implicit assumption: that there are either two categories of people. Firstly, there are people known as sinners. Then, there are also the saints. While the category of sinners is inhabited by people who actually commit sins, the category of the saints can be variously understood between theological anthropologies as forensic, in terms of being regarded as a saint without concern for one’s behaviors in virtue of faith, or as a saint in terms of holy behaviors in one’s life. While any serious acceptance of sanctification in Paul’s letters would necessitate saints are such in virtue of saintly behavior, there exists a problem with theological anthropologies that embrace a qualitative, behavioral difference between sinners and saints. They set up a dualistic anthropology in which people are placed into the binary of one of two opposing categories. This leads to either one of two logical conclusions. Either (a) if one is not a saint, then one is a sinner or (b) one can be simultaneously a saint and a sinner (Luther’s simul justus et peccator).

While such a theological anthropology has a very powerful, persuasive appeal to many Christians as we as humans have a marked preference for parsimonious yet all-encompassing explanations, there is a problem; Paul’s letter to the Romans doesn’t readily fit into a binary system of categorizing people according to their ethical behaviors. On the one hand, Paul does draw a clear contrast between sin and righteousness, such as in Romans 3.20-21. Yet, on the other hand, it is by no means clear that Paul categorizes humans as being either “sinner” or “righteous.” In fact, Paul’s discourse in Romans seems to imply that there are multiple categories that people may be understood with reference to ethical and moral behavior.

Case in point, the example of the Gentile who has no Torah but does the things of the Torah in Romans 2.14-15 highlights the possibility that there are people who exist in between sinner and saint in Paul’s mind. Nothing suggests that this Gentile Paul describes is a Christian believer, because his thoughts alternate between accusing and defending him, whereas a person who has been justified by faith is someone who has a hope that allows them to stand with a confidence boast in God (Romans 5.1-11). This alternation indicates that this Gentile is neither simply a “sinner” nor blameless by being joined to Christ. Thus, it is not appropriate to describe him as the wicked are described in Romans 1.29-32. Paul implies that such a person may stand at God’s judgment as they do the things of the Torah, and thus would not be accurately described as a person who does not obey the truth that God brings wrath upon (Rom. 2.8). What is have in the example of Romans 2.14-15 is an example of a person who jams up any dualistic separating of the world into the righteous and the wicked.

I would put forward that Paul has in mind two different types of sinners. On the one hand, there are those people as described in Romans 1.18-32 whose lives stray in the very opposite direction of God. Such people are fit to be brought to death by God’s judgment because, as Paul describes in Romans 2.8, they are self-seeking and obey principles of wickedness other than the truth that God provides. Most likely, Paul is alluding to a characterization of the ungodly in Wisdom of Solomon 2:6-11:

Come, therefore, and let us enjoy the good things that exist,
and let us use the creatures hastily as in youth.
Let us be satiated with expensive wine and perfumes,
and let no blossom of air pass us by;
let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wilt.
Let none of us be without a share of our revelry;
let us leave everywhere signs of merriment,
because this is our portion and this is our lot.
Let us oppress a poor righteous person;
let us not spare a widow
or respect the ancient grey hairs of an old man;
but let our strength be the law of righteousness,
for what is weak shows itself to be useless.

Wisdom here characterizes the ungodly as engaging in a self-seeking form of reasoning that leads them to a “might makes right” ethical reasoning, the opposite of what God’s Torah commands. They rationalize a false sense of righteousness that makes them reject the truth that the Torah speaks to and instead replace the truth with a wicked form of reasoning.

In contrast to this, there is another type of figure in Romans: those who seek to obey God’s Torah, whether in the actual letter of the Torah or an implicit knowledge of the things of the Torah, but yet are not able to live in full integrity according to it. We have the aforementioned Gentile whose conscience alternates between accusation and defense. Then, we find in Romans 7.14-25 a Torah-observant Jew that is unable to stop doing the things that the Torah forbids. Nothing in Paul’s discourse suggests this figure is totally unable to ever do anything good at any point of time, as if they are entirely incapable of doing good, but rather Paul is impersonating someone who recognizes their moral weakness that leads them to do the very things they know they should not do. The language Paul uses to describe him is suggesting of a person who is enslaved against their will, a metaphor Paul uses in Romans 6, by having been taken captive by sin that inhabits the body (Rom. 7.23).

This highlights the fact that for Paul there are “sinners” of two types. The weak (cf. Rom 5.6) who find themselves enslaved to sin and unable to obey God and those who actively obey principles of wickedness. Of course, Paul does not distinguish between them in terms of being able to receive God’s grace, as even the ungodly can come to be justified by God (Rom 4.6) The importance of the distinction, however, is in terms of judgment. Paul says only the self-serving who obey wickedness will face God’s wrath. Meanwhile, while the one who is justified by faith will have confidence in sharing in God’s glory, the Gentile of Romans 2 who does the things of the Torah may be uncertain about themselves but they can yet be justified *at the eschatological judgment,* standing somewhere in uncertain limbo beforehand.

There are at least four implications when we connect Paul’s moral anthropology that distinguishes between these two types of “sinners” with his description of the apocalyptic judgment. First, there will be people who do not believe in Jesus who will stand as God’s judgment. Their lives will be of such a mixed character that their consciences may alternate between accusation and defense, but God is not going to cast out those who sought to do what is good, even if they were incapable of really giving their lives over to God’s instruction. Secondly, the benefit of following God in faith is that one can have a boast and confidence in God and share in the glory that is to be given. Third, God’s wrath is directed towards those whose lives are lived in diametric opposition to the truth of God, who explicitly live by different law and principles, not those who simply don’t live up to God’s glory. Finally, a great place for liminality is needed in our theological anthropologist that recognizes that that unbelievers as a lot should not be sweepingly labeled according to some broad base theory of human sin such as “total depravity” that focuses on describing the human sinful nature, as if there was a single essence or nature to people and their relation to sin,

Being perfected in love

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October 21, 2020

1 John 4.17-21:

Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sisterd whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisterse also.

Fear is the social currency of modern-day politics and society. We fear those people who seek to tear apart the order of our society, such as “terrorists,” “communists,” “rioters,” etc, and we fear those people who use their power to harm those under them, such as “dictators” and “abusers.” We fear those people who are unproductive and only take up resources and we fear those people who are greedy and hoard from others. We fear those who would take away our freedoms and we fear those who would use their freedom to bring harm to others, such as not following basic health guidelines in the COVID-19 world. If we look at so much of what motivates and drives politics in the present world, it is fear. While different people fear different possibilities with them usually setting them in opposition to those who fear other possibilities, the experience of fear is a pervasive phenomenon that media uses, if not exploits, with the result that we all feel a greater degree of insecurity in our world.

The truth is that fear is an incredibly useful psychological phenomenon that allows the integration, if not conformity, of various people and their behaviors into a larger, socially cohesive force. This isn’t as apparent in our present world because there are opposing social forces of fear that each have power, one force expressing the fears that are consistent with the spectrum of conservativism-nationalism-fascism and the other being consistent with progressivism-socialism-communism, that leads to perpetual gridlock and conflict that bogs down American politics and society, but in world history, there is usually one central source of power that expresses a set of fears that keep most of the people under their authority in line with often brutal effectiveness. This is at the heart of empire, where people, resources, territories, etc. are all “integrated” under a central authority who is believed to have the power to “protect” people from those fears, while also punishing those who would dare cross their authority. This is the situation that we have in the Roman Empire. While the Roman Empire was not brutal in the way that political regimes of the past few centuries have been, it was an effective agent of inculcating a sense of fear, both fear of violent forces that legitimate them being agents of the Pax Romana and a fear of punishment that would keep ost of those who would even harbor a thought of resisting Roman power at bay.

When we read John’s words about fear to the church in 1 John 4.17-21, he speaks of God’s future judgment that those who are perfected in love may face with boldness and confidence. Yet, such a day of judgment would no doubt have brought about fears that the Roman society would have inculcated, with the temptation to think that God’s judgment is likened to Roman power and judgment. Similarly, given the latent fears within the Roman empire, people would have existed in persistent aggression and competition with others as potential threats, such that even fellow Christians would come to have hatred and derision towards their fellow believers. While John is not directly addressing the effects of Roman power on people’s fears of God and their relationship to each other, we can certainly imagine how living in such a time would necessitate the need of a power of love that far exceeds the power of fear that had been given great authority. It is God’s love that forms people who live in such a world so as to live with confidence before God and love for each other.

Speaking personally, over the past couple of months I have experienced what feels like the providential leading of God to perfect my heart in love. Without going into details, I would see regular “coincidences” regarding actions I had taken or thoughts I had for that day on my phone and social media, on the radio, when I was out driving on the road, and when I went to church. Being well-informed in psychology, I am aware of the way our mind can be biased to see coincides and immediately attribute meaning to them, but it was happening with such regularity and consistency on a daily basis that at one point I had become a bit hypervigilant about the idea that someone had hacked my phone. Of course, the odds of such were incredibly low, but I had trouble arriving at other explanations until I recognized that these coincidences were happening even with things going on in my head that I never directly expressed or acted upon. Insofar as it was happening through my connections to the internet, perhaps the data-collection of various companies had become so good that it could indirectly detect things one is thinking about through other behaviors that have been found to be tangentially related in indirect ways. Yet, this was itself an unlikely explanation, which lead me to the third conclusion: that the love of God had providentially arranged things in such a way that I would be able to experience healing from past traumas in a way that no therapist, no pastor, no other person would have known enough to mend.

You see, at the heart of my trauma was a deep, pervasive sense of fear that eluded any clear explanation. In a very difficult time of my life, I was entirely unable to make any clear, coherent sense whatsoever of everything that was going on, to the point of reaching the point of an entire mental breakdown that eventually left with me with the symptoms of PTSD, including hypervigilance. The nature of trauma was such that I struggled in the months and years after the events to ever make any sense of what happened and there were occasional events that occurred that would signal to me that that situation was not resolved and that it could come back to harass me again. While I was able to suppress these fears and traumatic reactions when I needed to throughout the day, the nature of these traumas were so connected to personally significant parts of my life that it left me in perpetual fear about my future life and well-being. Even as I saw therapists and managed my the worst expressions of my anxieties, the damage that had been done was so deeply rooted that I developed a series of very latent, irrational fears that my hopes and dreams for life would never materialize and that people were looking for any excuse to discard me. With such deeply entrenched fears and anxieties, my deepest need in such a place was for clarity, to have some understanding of what was happening, to be treated with honesty and fairness, and to know that people would recognize that my thoughts and feelings actually mattered and should not be ignored. However, I constantly feared that my need for clarity, justice, and agency was not being respected. Even as I managed to control this anxiety in many instances, it was such a strong force in my life that it was impossible to entirely keep it at bay. I lacked the direct experiences of love that are so often pivotal in overcoming such fears. This was increasingly exacerbated by the way modern society peddles in fear, making me even more anxious about the irrationality and callousness of people. I have some training in psychology and even with that, I could not fully understand all that was happening to me. How much less could anyone else, except the God who sees and tests the heart.

It is my experience of these past couple of months that God has done what people did not and could not do, and even undoing some of the harm, intentional or unintentional, people have done, by providing for me a divinely-guided exposure therapy to my irrational fears. God, who knows the heart in a way no person can, has lovingly provided what I needed to heal from the anxiety and fear. God’s love perfects us in ways that can allow us to live more wholly and fully from a place of love. It is God who shows the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn how to find liberation through hunger and thirsting for righteousness that in God’s love leads us to experiences that bring forth mercy, form our hearts to be pure with God’s purposes, and lead us down the pathways towards shalom, particularly in being one who brings shalom. No person could do not. Not even any specific spiritual practice on my own end could accomplish that. It is God’s love that we then recognize, receive, and respond to as He shows it that perfects us in love.

God’s Torah and its true purpose

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October 21, 2020

Romans 3.31:

Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

Matthew 5.17-20:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Psalm 119.9-16:

How can young people keep their way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
do not let me stray from your commandments.
I treasure your word in my heart,
so that I may not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O LORD;
teach me your statutes.
With my lips I declare
all the ordinances of your mouth.
I delight in the way of your decrees
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts,
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.

As important as it was for the focus on salvation by faith to be brought to the forefront by the Protestant Reformation, one of the unfortunate outcomes of the Protestant Reformation was the subtle denigration of “works” as humanity’s effort to make oneself righteous before God. Paul’s discourse about “the works of the law,” or more appropriately “the works of the Torah,” was taken by Luther to be in regards to the futile effort of humanity to be righteous with God. As Luther states in his preface to Romans:

You must get used to the idea that it is one thing to do the works of the law and quite another to fulfill it.The works of the law are every thing that a person does or can do of his own free will and by his own powers to obey the law. But because in doing such works the heart abhors the law and yet is forced to obey it, the works are a total loss and are completely useless.

But to fulfill the law means to do its work eagerly, lovingly and freely, without the constraint of the law; it means to live well and in a manner pleasing to God, as though there were no law or punishment. It is the Holy Spirit, however, who puts such eagerness of unconstained love into the heart, as Paul says in chapter 5.

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For Luther, there are two ways one can “work,” by the law as an act of human free will and power, or without the law through the Holy Spirit. This leads the (stereotyped and false) impression that the Old Testament law and Judaism was all about human efforts to earn one’s salvation and that Jesus comes to provide a way to God that doesn’t require human merit. Consequently, God’s commandments in the law/Torah would be considered to be of relatively little value for the Christian, because we as believers have the Spirit.

There are at least three problems with this reading. Firstly, this reading emerges more so as a consequence of trying to connect specific words and phrases throughout Romans and the rest of Paul’s letters to other uses elsewhere to determine Paul’s meaning, while deprioritizing the flow of Paul’s argument. A read through Luther’s preface will show that he regularly jumps around Romans and makes a few comments on the various passages, without a critical inspection, and then makes a connection to and jumps to another passage. While such comparisons between different sections can certainly bear fruit when one is showing conceptual connections between different words and themes, we can only reliable determining the significance and usage of those words and themes by how they are used in the specific context. As a consequence, Luther’s understanding of the “works of the law” seems to explain Paul’s language, yet not all interpretations are correct because they offer a comprehensible explanation on the surface; something more needs to be discovered and dug into to text to really bring out the meaning of “works of the law/Torah.” Most pertinently, Paul declares that he upholds the Torah in Romans 3.31, which should make any attempt to regard the Torah itself as a hindrance to one’s status before God rendered exegetically and theological dubious.

Secondly, it diverges from the Gospel of Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus, who said that He came not to abolish the Torah but to fulfill it (Mat. 5.17-20). Jesus teaching from the Torah and the oral traditions in Matthew 5.21-48 do not come across as “The Torah says one thing, but you don’t need it anymore.” Rather, Jesus demonstrates a different way of understanding the Torah as a guide towards the complete love of the Heavenly Father by the Torah guiding people deeper into their hearts in a way that the letter of Torah does not directly address, instead of finding the Torah commandments to be the end of one’s ethical responsibility and obligation. Luther’s reading of the law/Torah as a problem of human agency does not comport well with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount who maintains the significance of the Torah.

Thirdly, understand the works of the Torah as human efforts to obey God devalues what the Old Testament testifies to about the purpose of the Torah. Perhaps one of the best explanations for the purpose of the is given in Psalm 119.9-16, where the person who follows God’s commands keeps their way pure. The Torah, far from simply a set of laws that God handed down that one were to follow or else one would be punished, were more like tour guides who showed people the safe pathways to explore life. There are many different ways to live life that our hearts can conceive of, but some of these take one down a path towards destruction. God’s Torah provides instruction in a way of life that protects one’s life when one reflects and mediates on them.

These three problems lead to a different way of understanding what Paul is saying about Torah: that the purpose of the Torah has been fundamentally misunderstood by many within Judaism. As Second Temple Judaism developed a series of halakhic applications of the Torah through various other rules and principles to prevent breaking the Torah, it was thought that diligence to not break God’s Torah would make them righteous people. However, what was not necessary in such a practice was to live by an active trust in God’s promises. A different way of living would be arrived at through using the Torah from a heart of faith. In Romans 3.27, Paul contrasts the Torah of works and the Torah of faith, with the latter being the basis for exclusion of boasting of social superiority. The one who comes to the Torah by faith recognizes their ultimate dependence upon God, much like the Psalmist in Psalm 119 recognizes his dependence upon God through the Torah. The “works of Torah” is better understood as the halakhic applications of the Torah, whereas the rightful use of the Torah recognizes it’s Spiritual origins from God (Rom. 7.14) and hears God’s promises and leading through the Torah. When used with God’s promises in view, the Torah can direct people about the ways of sin to avoid (Rom. 3.20, 7.7), which then points people in faith towards to God’s fulfillment of His promises in the revelation of His righteousness in Jesus Christ (cf. Gal. 3.23-24). Works of the Torah as the halakhic application of the Torah hinders recognizing God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ, as it places the emphasis on the purification of the person through what they do rather than in the sanctification of the person through the One to whom they trust and by whom they are redeemed.

Yet, for Paul, the Torah still retains moral and ethical value for believers and the body of Christ, particularly for Jewish believers (Rom. 8.4, Rom. 13.8-10; cf. 1 Cor. 14.34). As such, we can certainly imagine that the meditation upon God’s Instruction that the Psalms repeatedly extol (Psa. 1.2, 119.15-16) still has a place for believers. Such meditation with an eye towards God digs deeper into the hearts of people, making them attuned to the will and purposes of God that go deeper than the letter of the Torah to the deepest recesses of the heart. What is excluded, however, is using the Torah as the basis for building an ethical program that then gets used to establish one’s ethical superiority. One must make use of the Torah as instruction from God with God’s own righteousness in view, otherwise one is simply building a merely human ethical program (Rom. 10.3).

Thus, we can suggest that the value of the Torah and obedience to it for Paul was that it directs the mind and forms the heart in such a way that one can avoid the pitfalls of sin in one’s life. While ultimately the Torah itself was powerless to eradicate sin, it nevertheless functioned to bring to light those areas of life in need of God’s saving grace and redemption that emerge. While we as Christians don’t have to follow Torah, we can still consider God’s commandments to us to function similarly. God calls us to obedience, but when we find those places in our lives where obedience seems harder and we seem to be far from living according to God’s Word, it is in these places where we can appeal to Christ to bring us grace in our time of need to protect our hearts and minds from the pathways that could lead us off course. God’s commandments, both in the Torah and in the words of the New Testament, provide us one tool for those who seek God with their whole heart to keep one’s way pure. They don’t save and redeem from the power of sin, but through our meditation and attempts at obedience to them, we discover the places where the crucified Christ and the power of the Spirit can bring transformation and sanctification in our lives.

So, let us not look down on human agency to attempt to obey God through His word as somehow being foolish or misguided. Where it gets misguided is where one’s heart is focused solely on the commandments and not the God who promises and commands such that we falsely make the Christian life conditioned upon our own energy and capacity to obey successfully, rather than looking to God who gives strength to all of us who have been weakened by the powers of sin and death.

The Gospel as the sanctifying healing of our moral vision

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October 21, 2020

2 Thessalonians 2:13:

we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation by sanctification from Spirit and faith in the truth

Romans 12.1-2:

Therefore, I am appealing to you, brothers and sisters, through God’s compassion to present your bodies as sacrifices which are living, holy, and pleasing to God. Do not be comforming to this age, but be transforming for the renewal of your mind so that you may examine what the will of God is – good and pleasing and mature.

2 Corinthians 7.1-2:

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God. Make room in your hearts for us; we have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have taken advantage of no one.

1 Thessalonians 4.1-7:

Finally, brothers and sisters,a we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness.

Sanctification. Often treated as the lesser brother in salvation to justification in the Protestant Reformation, in the past couple of weeks, I have made the argument that sanctification is foundational to Paul’s understanding of salvation. In 2 Thessalonians 2.13, we get the most explicit affirmation of this, where salvation is spoken of occurring by salvation, alongside faith. As he portrays it in 2 Thessalonians, there is no salvation without sanctification.

Interestingly, Paul makes no mentioned of justification in that passage in 2 Thessalonians, but instead ‘truth’ (ἀλήθεια) in 2 Thessalonians 2.10-13 semantically functions in an ethical sense in contrast to wickedness and unrighteousness. In a similar fashion, truth functions in an ethical fashion in Romans 1.18 and 2.8 when Paul describes God’s judgment on human wickedness. Yet, for Paul, faith is more than just faith in some ideas or propositions, but it is faith s directed ultimately towards the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If “faith in the truth” is synonymous with how Paul talks about faith elsewhere in his epistles, then this leads to a particular conclusion: faith in the crucified and resurrected Jesus is of serious moral implications. This is strongly implied by Romans 10.10, where faith is said to result in righteousness, if one does not automatically assume righteousness is understood here forensically but that it is rather a quality of the heart with which one believes. However, Paul makes it painstakingly clear in Romans 6, where the union with Christ’s death corresponds to freedom from sin in one’s life. Without going further here, there is no clear reason to think that Paul conceives of justification as something that occurs independently of sanctification. Instead, justification is grounded upon the ethical truth and power that the death and resurrection of Jesus has on a believer.

As I have previously observed, in Romans, Paul connects the death of Jesus Christ with people’s moral status and sanctification, whereas justification is connected to having life and resurrection. This becomes evident in Romans 12.1, where people who offer their bodies as a living sacrifice, which can be understood as participation with Christ’s death, are called holy. The death of Christ sanctifies. This accords with the theology of the preacher of Hebrews, who talks about Christ’s death as enabling Him to purify and sanctify believers:

Hebrews 9.13-14:

For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

Hebrews 9.22:

Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

Hebrews 10.10:

And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

The preacher of Hebrews speaks of the blood and body of Christ as bringing about purification and sanctification. The one time he mentions forgiveness, it is mentioned alongside purification, with the recognition that it is the purification that is the condition for forgiveness, much as the blood of the sacrifices in Old Testament were used to cleanse what it was applied to. The significance of the death of Christ is understood primarily in ethical terms of sanctification. We see it similarly said in 1 John 1.7. The one time we see justification connected to blood in Romans 5.9, we don’t get an expanded explanation of how the blood justifies, but it seems to be a restatement of Romans 3.24-25. Yet, in Romans 6.6-7, the freedom from sin by our crucifixion with Christ is the basis for one’s justification apart from sin. In other words, it is reasonable to suggest that for Paul, the sanctifying power of Christ’s blood is the basis for being justified through His blood.

If, then, Paul and the New Testament’s understood of Christ’s atoning death is primarily understood through the lens of the moral transformation/purification/sanctification, then there is a corresponding shift to how we understand what the purpose of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In Protestant circles, it has been usually understood to be the way God saves sinners from the judgment and hell that people’s sins merit; justification is the solution to the problem of judgment. However, a shift to prioritizing sanctification as what the Gospel brings would alter the way we understood the problem that the Gospel solves. I would put forward that the Gospel of Jesus Christ solves the problem of human blindness and resistance to God’s righteous vision for human life that enables people to see the truly good life and live this out with others. The problem for Paul according to Romans is that the world is mired in sin such that widespread injustice and wickedness is being perpetrated that God is going to stand in judgment. In a sanctification-centric vision of the Gospel, the crucified and resurrected Savior provides the way in which people become free from involuntary enslavement to sin that the world was condemned to through Adam so that they can then live in a newness of life that shuns the evils being witnessed in the Roman world around.

Reading Romans 12.1-2 as a summary statement about the holiness that comes from living a life crucified with Christ, then there is a transformation that allows people to discern God’s good will. Far from Romans 12.1-2 being some ethical implications of the Gospel of justification proposed at the beginning of Paul’s letter, it is a concise exhortation expressing Paul’s vision of what happens to believers when they accept the Gospel he preaches. The holiness that comes with one’s union with Christ enables people to see and know God’s will. Eyes are opened.

What our eyes are opened to isn’t simply to some sterile sense of “morality” about the do’s and dont’s of behaviors. Rather, something much more sweeping and significant is at stake: social holiness. As John Wesley observed, “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.” One can not be holy about from the way one relates to other people, both as individuals, as groups, and as a society. In 2 Corinthians 7.1-2 and 1 Thessalonians 4.1-7, sanctification is spoken of in regards to people’s relations and behaviors with others. As our lives are cleansed from the desires of the flesh so that our bodies and lives are used for holy purposes, people’s relations with each other become transformed. Yet, this transformation is more than just simply “doing what is good” but it is eye-opening; it allows people to comprehend God’s righteous vision for human life that has been brought forward through Jesus Christ. To believe in the truth of the crucified-and-resurrected Savior is to bring light to people’s spiritual eyes, allowing them to see themselves and other people in a new light.

How much is this real Gospel needed in our present day, where many people who parade the name Christ not only disregard other people, but actively justify behaviors and policies that cause harm to others, whether it be resisting basic precautions for Coronavirus or standing against our African-American brothers and sisters who are struggling for justice. Is it because they understood the Gospel to primarily be about their justification that they then feel they can justify living in such a way that risks bringing harm to others and can justify endorsing social practices and political policies that keep others perpetually down? As people are awakened by the sanctifying, moral transforming power of the crucified Savior, they can be raised to live in the newness of life that will stand at the judgment and would become much-needed salt and light in an often spoiling and dark society.

Without sanctification, there is no justification. With sanctification, we can come to comprehend God’s righteous vision and live it out.

Rereading “the wages of sin is death” in Romans 6.23

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October 17, 2020

Romans 6.23:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Hell is the deserved punishment for our sins. Such an idea has been deeply implicit with evangelicalism: there is a future judgment that we will all face that no one will stand at based upon their works that will send them to eternal punishment, therefore they will need to be judged by Christ’s imputed righteousness at the judgment to avoid the punishment. Undergirding this picture of God is a God of the law (not Torah/Instruction) who metes out punishment for infractions, with (spiritual) death being the one penalty for all sin. While many evangelicals may not pragmatically act out this idea, recognizing God’s grace and mercy towards people in their sins, there is still this fundamental theological presupposition of a punitive God that is then conjoined to idea that God is merciful, which leads mercy to be defined by the not meting out what is “deserved” rather than mercy as compassion towards people in their weaknesses and struggles.

One of the passages that has been marshaled in support of this punitive portrayal of God is Romans 6.23. A favorite for use in evangelizing people, the phrase “the wages of sin is death” has often been understand to refer to the just penalty that God gives. Douglas Moo that Paul in this phrase “implies that the penalty sin exacts is merited.”1 The contrast between ὀψώνιον (wages) and χάρισμα (gift) is taken to suggest that the idea of merit is central to Paul’s understanding about God’s response to sin.

However, the weakness of this interpretation is that Paul is not speaking in a forensic tone in Romans 6.15-23. The idea of a judicial judgment against sin is an outsider to Paul’s discourse. Rather, Paul’s language is much more pragmatic and consequentialist. Do the things you used to do and the outcome is death; be sanctified and enslaved to God, you get ongoing life (Rom. 6.21-22). Looking further back to Romans 5.12-21, Paul is contrasting two rival “imperial rules” between the sin ushered in by Adam and righteousness brought for by Christ that continues to be implied with the power language of enslavement in Romans 6. With that interpretive frame, ὀψώνιον is better understood to refer to the way that sin as a ruling power gives to those who live under its reign, much as a king would pay their soldiers. While in Paul’s theology, this outcome ultimately comes down to God’s judgment, the metaphor is not being used with a forensic frame in mind. It isn’t merit that Paul has in mind, but simply the outcome.

Those who give it to the urges of sin as a power are going to receive the outcome of their actions. Paul is not intending this, however, to be any and everyone who commits an individual act of sin. Instead, Paul has already mentioned the type of people who will face death as an outcome in Romans 1.28-32:

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled (πεπληρωμένους) with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full (μεστοὺς) of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice (πράσσοντες) such things are fit (ἄξιοι) to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.

Here, Paul gives a common vice list of behaviors that define some persons in the Gentile world. Paul’s language here does not describe people who once coveting something or one time went against their parents. Paul’s language is direct towards those whose lives are defined by these behaviors. They are filled with, full of, and practicing such sins. It is these people that Paul says are fitting for death. Many translations render ἄξιοι in Rom. 1.32 as either “deserving” or “worthy,” suggesting there is a notion of merit in the background. However, it is more likely that ἄξιοι is used to describe the outcomes of death their lives are being prepared for death based upon the excessive evil that defines their lives, that they are formed by their lifestyle to face death and judgment.2 Their own wickedness had lead them to suppress the truth about God and his creative power (Rom. 1.18,22) the one who gives the gift of life, and so by refusing the truth of the life-giver, their life has become formed in such a way that their outcome will become death.

The reason they will face such an outcome and judgment? Paul doesn’t say it was because they broke God’s laws and rules. Rather, Paul describes God’s universal judgment this way:

Romans 2.5-11:

But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality

Those persons who are being prepared for God’s judgment are not described as disobeying God. It is much more severe than that. They are (1) people who are concerned about themselves and (2) having given themselves into service and obedience to a different principle that God’s truth. They aren’t the people who fall short of God’s standards, but the people who show no regard for what is good. Paul characterizes such figures as being wholly unconcerned about the truth of God.

So, by the time Paul reaches Romans 6.23, he has already described a vision of death and judgment in the letter. What Paul is not saying is that everyone is going to go to hell because of any and every sin they committed until Jesus comes along and gets people out of the jam. Rather, Paul is casting forward the image of two different rulers one can submit oneself to, sin and righteousness, and the one who you let rule you will form you. Suppress the truth and let sin rule, then it will form one to be worthy of death; let righteousness reign, then one is living out from the gift of life that will not be shaken but will remain at the judgment as those who patiently do good. While sin is a power at work in every person such that they are enslaved to prior to freedom in Christ, not every person willingly obeys its dictates (Romans 7.14-25).

With this in mind, the idea of merit is not in the background. Paul’s usage of the language of grace is not a way of describing people’s lack of merit. Grace is, rather, God’s help in people’s need amidst their weakness (Rom. 5.6-8) in order to resist and overcoming this imperializing force that if obeyed will lead one to death. The result of this grace is that Christ makes many people righteous (Rom. 5.19), which in Romans 6 is understood as people’s death to sin, enslavement to God, and sanctification.

With this vision in mind, compassion for the weak is at the heart of God’s revelation of His righteousness in Jesus Christ. God’s grace and mercy is not about giving to people different from what they ‘deserve,’ but it is about seeing people’s struggles in their weaknesses and providing the way out so that they can successfully overcome the ravaging powers of sin and death. God is not having to be restrained from punishing sinners, as if God is incredibly angry at them, but God so deeply loves them and wants them to come into something much better.

The more we move away from a “merit” reading of Romans, the more we will be freed to see the principle concern for PAul’s understanding of God’s revelation of righteousness is that it pertains to sanctification and formation, not punishment and forgiveness of punishment.

The centrality of the body in 1 Corinthians

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October 13, 2020

1 Corinthians 9.24-27:

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I wear down my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

Over the past few months, I have endeavored to lose weight. From starting about three months ago, I lost about 25 pounds, although my weight loss was partly held back by a car wreck and shoulder surgery. My goal to become healthier and come as close to the athletic fitness I had over a decade ago as I can is rooted in a desire to bring a bit more healthy order to my life. As my struggles with PTSD was a partial contributor to an increase in body weight, I progressively lost more and more energy, and with that, motivation. While I could complete the tasks I knew to do, I was regularly devoid of energy and motivation. As I have lost weight, I notice a slowly increasing energy level over the long run. However, as I lost weight, I experienced many of the unpleasantries that come with dieting and exercise, such as hunger pains, cravings for specific goods that go unsatisfied, and aches from working out. Such experience makes salient to me that the physical fitness of one’s body is tightly interconnected with our mental life in a circular fashion. In other words, we really can’t separate the mind from the body as has historically been done in the West in the past few centuries.

When Paul uses the metaphor of athletic exercise to describe his own self-discipline, we may often be inclined to regard Paul’s approach as somehow ‘spiritual’ or ‘mental.’ Yet, Paul is very explicit that he is not simply disciplining himself mentally/spiritually to be in relationship to God, but that he is disciplining the body. His goal is to bring it into subjection to his mind, so that it does what he wishes. By contrast, in Romans 714-19, Paul speaks of the personified, but probably not autobiographical, “I” who experiences his flesh being in control of his actions rather than his mind. In Paul’s mind, one’s relationship and submission to God is irreducibly contingent upon one’s relation to one’s body. Does a person have control of the body and its desires or does the flesh and its desires have control of the person? As Paul goes on to describe in 1 Corinthians 10, the people of Israel were mysteriously partakers in Christ but yet their desires, which the flesh regularly serves as a source for according to Paul, were for evil and lead them to fall under God’s judgment.

To be clear, Paul is not describing the ability of the body to endure contests of physical endurance, speed, and strength as many athletes train for. Yet, there is a relationship between the body and serving the Lord, a relationship that the Corinthians Paul is writing to have seemed to miss in lieu of a focus on a Stoic-like wisdom that prioritizes knowledge and reason lead many of them to regard the body as peripheral to one’s faith. While not yet a form of gnosticism, the Corinthian blend of Stoicism and Christianity likely prefigured early gnosticism through the blending of the Stoic ethical indifference to many bodily matters that is combined with a Christian sense of God’s impending judgment that will destroy the body. So, when Paul speaks of discipline his body in 1 Corinthians 9, this isn’t just some throw-away line of inspiration meant to encourage people to view themselves like they are in an athletic contest. Paul is trying to make a critical point: the Corinthians’ response and faithfulness to God, that is their holiness and sanctification, is crucially connected to the way they relate to their body.

The body is central to understanding 1 Corinthians. When Paul says that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6.19), this is expressing a central, critical idea that dominates almost all of Paul’s letter. This goes beyond simply one’s direct relations to one’s own body, but includes even the way believers treated the bodies of other as part of the body of Christ, failure in which brought duscipline so as not to be condemned with the world (1 Cor 11.27-32)., and perhaps even the Israelites of the Exodus that Paul mentioned in the previous chapter. Such a focus on the body is important to hear the message that Paul has about God’s redemption in the letter.

 

Signs from God and trust

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October 13, 2020

Exodus 17.1-7:

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

Deuteronomy 6.16:

Do not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.

Matthew 4.5-7:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

Judges 6.36-40:

Then Gideon said to God, “In order to see whether you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said, I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing floor; if there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said.” And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. Then Gideon said to God, “Do not let your anger burn against me, let me speak one more time; let me, please, make trial with the fleece just once more; let it be dry only on the fleece, and on all the ground let there be dew.” And God did so that night. It was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew.

Isaiah 7.10-17

Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”

Matthew 12.38-42:

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!

Psalm 34.4-8:

I sought the LORD, and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD,
and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the LORD encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the LORD is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him.

Does God want us to ask for God to demonstrate Himself or not? Does God want people to put him to a test or not? On the one hand, we have Deuteronomy 6.16 which calls against testing God, which Jesus quotes when tempted by the devil. On the other hand, God fulfills the request of the Israelites as Massah, Gideon’s multiple requests for confirmation, and even offers Ahaz any sign he requests. It seems that the Scriptures don’t speak with a simple formula on the nature of seeking God to offers signs and validate His trustworthiness.

Perhaps an explanation can be given by understanding the nature of trust and how it builds. According to Roy J. Lewicki there are two types of trust: calculus-based trust (CBT) and identification-based trust (IBT).1 CBT is usually the first stage in building trust that is based upon rewards and punishment, where doing good is rewarded and violating trust is disciplined. We can broaden this further to incorporate the implicit expectations that needless and unjustified pain and harm is not inflicted a party. In short, CBT is based upon the specific outcomes that come about and how they match our expectations and desires. If things go according to what is established and expected, both in rewards and punishments, trust will grow as people can anticipate that what people say and do can be relied upon. However, eventually, CBT may lead to IBT, where people trust “based on identification with the other’s desires and intentions.” As trust based upon specific outcomes according to explicit and implicit expectations is fostered, trust moves towards a deeper trust based upon the other person. In short, the fulfillment expectations and desires that are uncertain at the early phase are tested by the outcomes. As they are increasingly validated, these expectations and desires become implicitly assumed by the parties, leading to a deeper trust that each person is concerned for the well-being of the other. (There is more that can be said here about the role of clear communication in building the expectations and inviting the outcomes that ground trust, but that spans beyond the focus of this post).

For instance, a dating couple initially builds a trust based upon positive exchanges with each other according to what each person says. At this point, there is a calculus based trust based upon showing interest, arriving at planned dates, treated each other with respect, making each other feel good, etc. As the relation and trust build, they move towards implicitly trusting people’s words, intentions, and desires that allow them to have a trust based upon identifying with each other. For another example, a student newly arrives at a school, but they are uncertain about what to expect while there. As they find a positive educational experience and find what they are told and informed of is generally reliable, their trust with the school often builds to an identification with the school. This is why, for instance, so many colleges have alumni who identify with their college sports teams, as their time as a student built their implicit trust and identification with the school.

Now, often times, some people may be inclined to assume an identification based trust with people, that their words, intentions, and desires are worthy of trust and largely skip the calculus-based phase of trust-building. People who makes friends easily are often these types. Couples who develop their relationships fast may be like this. Sometimes, this is based upon people’s trusting nature and sometimes this is based upon having a common sense of identity and interests. Other people are more reticent to trust and have to work through the calculus-based phase of trust-building before they begin to identify with other parties. Perhaps they have been hurt in the past or they are not sure what another person or party is like due to not sharing a common identity. Then, there are people whose trust is as far as their eyes can see in the moment; their relationships are almost permanently stuck in an “what have you done for me lately” that expects other people to always prove their trustworthiness, even after they have demonstrated it again and again. Permanently stuck in calculus based trust, such people never seem to move to identify with the other party and implicitly trust them. Finally, there are those who are not even open to trusting to any degree, but they will always be skeptical and critical. We can look at these four types of people as quick to trust, cautious to trust, capricious trust, and untrusting.

While we often categorize people in simple, binary categories of trusting and untrusting, the truth is that most people tend to be somewhere in the middle between cautious and capricious, with fewer people being quick to trust and untrusting. Yet, we often pass judgment on people for being untrusting when they are actually in the wait-and-see approach towards the other party. The truth is that trust is a complex attitude that is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, but that in most relationships, there is a need to establish, or repair, the basis of trust before trust deepens.

We can apply these four ways of trusting to God. Some people are quick to trust God. Whether it is one time where God showed up, or even just hearing and accepting the word of God, they trust without needing any demonstration and confirmation. Sometimes, however, there are people who are slower to trust in God but they are willing to trust. Gideon is an example of this, wanting to make sure that the word he has received from the Lord is genuinely from Him. He is reticent to trust, but when God demonstrates His intentions according to the request and expectations of Gideon, Gideon moves forward with the call from God. On the other hand, the Israelites do not develop trust, even as God shows up and demonstrates Himself again and again. The prohibition of testing God in Deuteronomy 6.16 serves as a reminder to not follow the persistently untrusting attitude that the Israelites in the wilderness demonstrated, but they always expect God to act anytime there is the slightest threat, even as God demonstrates time and time again His faithfulness to protect the people He called and lead out of Egypt; their trust in very capricious. Finally, the scribes and Pharisees may be considered the untrusting types, who are utterly skeptical of Jesus and His Messianic claims.

From this perspective, God is all too willing to demonstrate His faithfulness to those who are open to trusting Him. Psalm 34 calls for people to make requests of God and then to discover that God is good, rather than just simply assume it. Sometimes the demonstration requires people to wait upon God, but the Scriptures testify to God’s willingness to demonstrate His faithfulness, particularly when He makes a difficult call upon the person. The problem comes when people’s capriciousness and disdainful skepticism steps in; people who will not trust and people whose trust is like a quickly disappearing mist are spoken of negatively in the Scriptures. Sometimes, people may needlessly go down the path of expecting confirmation from God when they are not in difficult times, which can lead people down the route towards a capricious trust, which may stand at the heart of why Jesus refuses the temptation of the devil. Other times, they will never be satisfied with God and will always find criticism and a reason to be dissatisfied and utterly skeptical. God will leave people who are so deeply hardened to God’s goodness will remain in such a state, leaving only a sign that will require them to believe their own sin to be convinced, such as the resurrection of Jesus demonstrating the sin and hardness of heart of the scribes and Pharisees.

In Christian circles, we are often inclined to categorize people’s trust, or the lack thereof, in God in binary, all-or-nothing categories, where anything short of 100% is unbelief or unfaith. However, the truth is that trust in God is something that grows for most of us because God is a God who loves to show His faithfulness to those who are willing to trust and come to a deeper relationship with Him. Note that Jesus says that faith even the size of mustard seed can lead to the moving of mountains, as it isn’t the strength of faith that is necessary for God to demonstrate His faithfulness, but only that there is an openness to faith.

Of course, we need to distinguish between wanting God to be faithful to our own expectations versus seeking to trust God’s promises, calling, and will. Many people may treat faith in prayer to require anything any type of person may ask of God. However, God’s promises in prayer is directed towards His disciples, who have been learning from Jesus and growing to trust Him, and so their requests are those type of things that would be in line with the will of God; they have delighted themselves in the Lord who gives them the words of life and truth and it is to them that have been formed by the Lord who will receive the desires of their heart (Psa. 37.3-4), which is ultimately geared towards the love that Jesus demonstrates and teaches and the Spirit is cultivating in them. In other words, those who are willing to trust God in His character will see signs of God’s faithfulness. It isn’t those who ‘trust’ God in terms of some personal agenda or expectation that has not been brought to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and transformed by the work of the Spirit. In other words, not everything we label faith/trust towards God is the type of faith and trust that the Scriptures testify to. Furthermore, God’s faithfulness may be demonstrated in ways that may not always accord with the way we want God to demonstrate. Trusting the Lord is about trusting the person of God and not remaining in a calculus-based trust of God giving specific, expected outcomes. While throughout the Scriptures, God will act in response to specific requests and pleas, the goal of the relationship between God and His people is a more general trust in God. So, just because certain things we seek and want to happen don’t occur, at least according to our timelines, is not a sign of people’s lack of faith.

With this distinction in mind, we can look at God’s signs and demonstrations of His faithfulness to be something we who are open to deepening our faith can receive.

Worshipping in spirit and truth

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October 12, 2020

John 4.23-24:

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

A preacher who I have enjoyed listening to these past few months preached from the passage above this Sunday. For many of us, Jesus’ words here can seem unclear and ambiguous, but the preacher gave a helpful quote from William Temple, the archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940s:

Worship is the submission of our entire nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by his holiness; the purifying of imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of the will to his purpose…worship in spirit and truth is the way to the solution of the perplexity and to the liberation from sin.

Whereas the picture of worship for so many people consists in singing pleasant songs that provide inspiration and comfort, Temple’s definition invites us to probe deeper into the change brought about in the worshipper through their relationship to God. Worship engages the entirety of who we are in our moral thinking, our imagination about life, and the nature of our motivations and purposes.

When we look at Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman, we can note that spirit and truth can be connected to previous parts of the conversation with her.

John 4.10-15:

 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus’ words to her invite her to imagine a source of life in water that will never run out. Spoken to a woman who was at the bottom of the social hierarchy, given her status as a Samaritan, a female, and having multiple husbands and living with a man who is not her husband, Jesus’ words were a gift of reversal of fortunes for her life from derision and ostracism to hope and well-being.

While the Gospel of John does not provide commentary here on the meaning of living water, we do get this in John 7.37-39:

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. Ask the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ ” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Here, we get an interpretation of Jesus’ words by the Gospel, taking it to refer to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. However, from the point of time of Jesus’ words, the Spirit as living water was yet to be given. But as Jesus tells his disciples in John 14.17, there seems to be two different “experiences” of the Spirit: one where the Spirit is with a person that the disciples are experiencing and one where the Spirit is in the person, which the disciples were to experience at Pentecost onward.

So, when we return to the conversation with the Samaritan woman, we can make a connection between the living water and worship in the Spirit. This connection is strengthened by the idea that the Scripture Jesus alludes to in John 7.38 is, according to Craig Kenner, a combination of the vision of God’s returning as king in Zechariah 14.8-9 that would be connected together with Ezekiel 47.1-10.1

Zechariah 14.8-9:

On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter. And the LORD will become king over all the earth; on that day the LORD will be one and his name one.

Ezekiel 47.1-10:

Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me around on the outside to the outer gate that faces toward the east; and the water was coming out on the south side.
Going on eastward with a cord in his hand, the man measured one thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the waist. Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed. He said to me, “Mortal, have you seen this?”
Then he led me back along the bank of the river. As I came back, I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on the one side and on the other. He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea.

If these passages are connected and in the background for Jesus’ words about living water, then Jesus’ own presence represents when these living waters are flowing, after he is glorified as King, and with it comes a renewal of the waters of God’s temple. This image of living water casts an image of fertility and well-being. With this in mind, the living waters Jesus speaks of to the Samaritan woman are a promise in the future that she can be brought into the life that comes from the renewal of the temple. Jesus’ words about worshiping in Spirit fit right within His promise to her that she can have waters gushing to eternal life. The emerging reversal of the Samaritan woman’s well-being that comes from the Spirit is an integral part of this worship.

Yet, the connection of water and Spirit in John 7.38 and thus also in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman also recalls back to John 3.5, where Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born of water and Spirit to enter the kingdom of God. As this birth from above gives people a perception to see God’s kingdom (John 3.3) and to recognize one’s relationship to God, worshipping in Spirit is to perceive the emergence of God’s kingdom in the present world, the act of new creation that brings about the vision of Ezekiel 37.

Yet, Jesus’ conversation with her presses further in John 4.16-19:

 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.

This passage is often read with a judgmental eye towards the woman, thinking her to be an immoral person. However, the truth is probably the reverse: she has been the recipient of mistreatment by her past husbands, being abandoned multiple times. Such a deep sense of social shame for her past would have made her deemed unworthy of marriage. However, for a woman to survive in that day, she would have to be attached to a male in some manner, so she now resorts to living with a man she is not married to. Yet, such a status would have made her deemed to be the equivalent of a concubine or prostitute,2 Caught into a double-bind, she would be considered a lowly sinner, unworthy of love and commitment. She has both been discarded and in her desperation, she has deviated from the path of righteousness.

In her desperation, her response to Jesus about not having a husband could be interpreted as a form of expression of marital availability.3  Jesus’ words to her about her status cuts to the point: her words express a truth about her status in life. In so doing, Jesus redirects the conversation from a potential courtship to the truth about her life and who she is. We have here the beginning of what it means to worship in truth. To worship in truth is to come in the recognition of where we are in life. Throughout the Scriptures, the prophets remind Israel of their false self-knowledge. Obadiah 1.3 calls out the self-deception of pride. Isaiah 44.20 speaks of the self-delusion of the idolater. God’s word through the prophets call the people to rightly see themselves, especially in relation to God’s covenant and word. With Jesus acting as the prophet, the woman is called to see her life truthfully.

However, there is not an expression of judgment in Jesus’ words though, as He has already offered her living water. God’s grace and mercy allows us to come to Him in worship so far as we are open to recognizing ourselves for where we are, both in our brokenness and our sin. One thing God does not tolerate in worship is a person who refuses to recognize the truth of their own weaknesses and moral failures. The parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in Luke 18.9-14 expresses the justified status of the morally reprehensible tax collector in God’s eyes because he seeks for God’s mercy for his sins, whereas the Pharisees focuses on his superiority to others, including in his own giving and self-discipline in fasting. To worship God in truth, then, is implicitly an act of grace and mercy: God receives those who come to him humble about their own status.

However, coming to truth is not something one simply gets by learning doctrine, but with the way Jesus means truth, it comes through continuing in Jesus’ word that brings a freedom from sin (John 8.31ff), while Jesus’ words are also Spirit and life (John 6.63). To that end, Spirit and truth are tightly intertwined, as two sides of a coin. Where truth is personally brought forward about the person, they are also invited and ushered into a new life by the Spirit that points forward to the abundant life, to be partially realized in the present time but to be ultimately realized in the eschaton.

So, to worship God in spirit and truth is come before God with a new vision for life, to exchange the rags that we recognize of our lives, both in our brokenness and in our sin, for the expectation of His riches and glory and the way of life that comes with that, by recognizing both the truth about ourselves and a growing vision and emergence of God’s will through us and for us. To that end, Temple’s description of worship fits right in with a heart that is leaves everything behind for the goodness and glory of God.

Sanctification as the foundation for justification

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October 7, 2020

I have long had an ambivalent relationship with the Protestant Reformation. As a Protestant, I find the emphasis on faith to be a crucial distinctive that provides what I feel is, to be straightforward, a better reading of the Apostle Paul (not necessarily the rest of the Bible, though) than Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. However, at the same time, the emphasis on justification by faith alone as a central understanding of the Gospel when it is only an idea that appears in 2-4 of Paul’s letters, depending on how strict one is with requiring the language of justification, and not so much in the rest of the New Testament, sans maybe obliquely in the Gospel of John, merits some real questions about the role justification has taken in understanding the Gospel.

In the end, if you were to survey the whole New Testament, there is much more said about those who do the will of God being Jesus’ family and coming into the kingdom of heaven, that the final, eschatological judgment is based upon works, and warnings given about those who practice unrighteousness. It seems quite odd and peculiar that an idea that is only present in a few places, justification, would take a central, pivotal role in understanding the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as if it is the central foundation for salvation. Yet people do it, leading to readings of the New Testament that seems to contradict themselves, necessitating a lot of gymnastics to explain why what something says isn’t really what it says. Matthew 25.31-46, John 5.28-29, and Romans 2.6-10 all together say that the final judgment is based upon one’s works, and yet it is a regular evangelistic commonplace to say that we can’t be good enough or earn our way into heaven, with the implication being that the final judgment is NOT based upon one’s works.

In my analysis, the underlying problem is people’s picture of God. Many people have a picture of God being a strict, disciplinarian who will discipline and punish anything short of the highest standard. Essentially, anything less than perfection means one is accountable to punishment and disqualifies oneself for heaven based upon one’s works. If that is your picture of God and it is impossible for people to reach the behavioral standards required by God, then the logic goes that Jesus’ death is what makes up what we lack, that Jesus’ righteousness becomes imputed to our account so that we can enter into eternal life. Here, the fundamental problem is human’s inability to PERFECTLY obey the “law,” so Jesus provides a second route towards eternal life that the first one never provided.

What if, however, the problem isn’t human inability to perfectly obey the law, but the inability for humans to even seek after God’s righteousness in the first place. What if, apart from God’s own presence and instruction, humanity is locked away in darkness, incapable of finding the way to God, both because we do not know what God it is that seeks and even when we do, we would be incapable of obeying it in the first place because it is so against who we naturally are? The problem then isn’t that God is expecting perfection we fall short of it, but that He simply desires for people to seek after what is truly good, life-giving, and peace-bringing and it is these people who will live eternally but we are not on our capable on our own of doing that. This problem suggests a different solution: the solution is for God to bring revelation of His righteousness and empower us to live that moral knowledge out in our lives.

With this in mind, I will suggest what is more central to Paul’s soteriology is sanctification, not justification, and that justification is the CONSEQUENCE of sanctification. However, a brief definitional clarify is in order.  Sanctification, that is being made holy, is not about our behaviors as much as it is a person being set apart and distinguished from the world in such a way that they are prepared and open in their heart to seek after and do the will of God. This requires both instruction and knowledge about God’s will and a moral liberation so as to be able to live out God’s will. However, this knowledge and liberation does not automatically equate to perfect results. This change in people’s behaviors emerges over time, as they are freed to live their lives according to God’s will rather than the ways that they had learned. Yet, because one is being set on a new trajectory in their life through revelation and liberation, the course of one’s life is to seek what is good, giving a confident assurance to such people that they will stand at the judgment. Thus, because people are set apart for God’s will being instructed and liberated, God sees them as righteous because of their faith because their relationship to the God who reveals and liberates is determining the course of their life toward what is righteous and good. Thus, sanctification makes God see those who believe in Him to be those who will be vindicated at the judgment.

I would suggest Paul’s understanding works according to the logic of sanctification narratively preceding justification. We see a strong indicator of this in 1 Corinthians 6.9-11:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

Here, the order Paul mentions is baptism, sanctification, and justification. While some commentators have suggested this isn’t intended to be an order, I think this order is central to Paul’s understanding for believers in Christ. We see a similar pattern demonstrated in Romans 6.1-11:

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.


For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is justified apart from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Notice that believers are spoken of as going through a pattern: baptism, baptism into death, then union with Jesus’ resurrection. Then what does Paul say about being united with Jesus’ death: that the body of sin is destroyed so that one is liberated from sin. Given that Paul primarily understands sanctification being connected with how one uses one’s body (Rom. 6.19, 1 Th. 4.3-7), Paul’s language in vs. 6 suggests that union with Christ’s death brings about sanctification. This is then followed in vs. 7 with a statement that to die, that is to be sanctified, is also justified apart from sin. If you note that multiple times in Romans, Paul connects justification with resurrection and life, not death (Rom. 2.13 in the context of 2.6,10; 4.24-25, 5.18). That justification is connected to life helps to make sense of the way that through Rom. 6 Paul connects death and life together. So, we can see the themes of sanctification and justification being fit onto the union of the believer with Christ where baptism leads to sanctifying union with Christ’s death which then leads to one’s justifying union with Christ in the resurrection.

So, then we can proceed a little later in the chapter to Romans 6.20-23:

When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Here, we see Paul call the advantage of being freed from sin is that the person is sanctified, that is set apart to do the will of the God one is ‘enslaved’ to. Notice what Paul says is the end or outcome of this: eternal life. Whereas death is the outcome of the sin they were previously enslaved to, eternal life is the outcome of the freedom from sin that brings about sanctification. If we recall back to Romans 2.7, Paul says that God gives eternal life to those who endure in doing good and later in v. 13 Paul describes those who do the Law/Torah as being justified. This connection of eternal life and justification once against demonstrates for Paul that sanctification precedes justification.

Of course, it needs to be stated at this point that the relationship between sanctification and justification emerges from the union of the believer with Christ’s death and resurrection. That is to state that justification is NARRATIVELY dependent upon sanctification. Paul’s concern is not to address the temporal order in which the fruits of sanctification and justification become apparent in the believer’s life. Paul is not giving an abstract, paradigmatic ordo salutis in Romans 6 or 1 Corinthians 6, but he is rather describing the narrative of redemption. He is connecting the hope of redemption in the revelation of Jesus Christ to the way Christ’s death and resurrection is realized in the believers’ life. One does not, however, become united with Christ’s death first and then sometime later become united with Christ’s life, because Christ has already died and been raised with the dead, so that to be united with Christ is to be temporally nited with His death and resurrection at the same time.

So, for those who wish to look at how this plays out in the Christian experience, we can say that sanctification and justification temporally occur at the same time, whereas people’s awareness and realization of these realities may occur in different orders. Some people might become aware of their new relationship with God prior to noticing the transformation of their heart to do good; for others, it might be the reverse. Also, Paul doesn’t mean to suggest that the sanctified believer’s action are entirely changed immediately: Paul’s exhortation to Romans 6.12 suggests that the freedom from sin is something that is to be realized in the way they no longer let sin control their use of their body. This all the more reinforces the idea that sanctification is about the liberation of the heart to do God’s will, but that this new spiritual freedom must then become realized in the way believer’s use their body.

However, the point is this: for Paul, not only is sanctification necessary for justification for Paul. Sanctification is the very reason people are justified, as it is one’s liberation and instruction in Christ so as to do the will of God that allows one to be able to confidently stand at the judgment as those who endured in doing good. Paul doesn’t say that God demands sinless perfection at the judgment, but only that God considers whether the person’s life was defined by doing good things that God’s will calls us towards. This is why Paul can say in Romans 8.10 that the Spirit brings life because of righteousness: it is the transformation of character and life that sanctification brings that leads to life, which alternative can said to mean that the sanctifying work of the Spirit bears the fruit of eternal life.

In short, perhaps what I have understood to be problem with the Protestant Reformation can be summarized in a simple way: because of its emphasis on justification by faith, the Protestant Reformation flipped Paul’s soteriology upside down, making justification logically, if not temporally, precede sanctification. What if Wesleyan theology’s great contribution is that it provided a greater emphasis upon sanctification in the Christian life. Perhaps Wesley’s belief that [entire sanctification] is the great depositum from God for the Methodists was God’s inspiration to lead the Church closer to correct for some of the excesses of the Protestant Reformation, even as Wesley still treated justification as logically prior to sanctification

In other words, it seems to be that sanctification is really the first half of the Gospel in our union with Christ’s death and justification the second half of the Gospel in our union with Christ’s resurrection.

Why does God call us to depend upon Him?

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October 6, 2020

Deuteronomy 7.6-11:

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and who repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him. Therefore, observe diligently the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that I am commanding you today.

One of the things that I have had to work out in my understanding of faith in God is why God works through our weakness more than our strength. On one level, when I heard this with a psychological lens, it sounded more like a form of consolation for those who are struggling with weakness and suffering to make them feel better about their plight. No doubt, such a positive reframing may at times be a motivation for believing such with people who feel weak. However, throughout the Scriptures, we see God works through the weakness and signs of apparent inferiority. Moses struggle with speech, Gideon’s army whittled down to only 300 men, Paul’s thorn in the flesh, and most centrally, Jesus’ death on the cross. Why is it that God works this way?

I think an answer can be gleaned from the Deuteronomic passage quoted above. In it, God explains to Israel why he chose them to be a treasured possession. It wasn’t because of their strength in numbers, but it was because of God’s love and oath to their ancestors, both of which combined can be summarized as God’s covenant loyalty. Then, God says that He is in relationship to the people of Israel and that he is going to extend a covenant with those who love him that will call for the observance of commandments. What I would suggest is implicit in God’s speech is that it is Israel’s relative weakness that will motivate them to depend upon God, which therefore entails their participation in the way of life that God instructs them in through Moses. Because Israel does not have great power, they are the type of people who will live in a relationship with God and follow God’s teaching. Yet, there is perhaps more to this than just their living in relationship to God.

The story of David’s census in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 serves as an illustrative contrast. Whereas the people of Israel that God had redeemed were a small people who had to rely upon God’s deliverance to make their way out of Egypt and to eventually take the promised land, David’s census works from a different motivation: to assess the military strength of those under his authority. We see throughout the Scriptures a consistent warning against trusting in human power, but that God’s people are reminded that they should instead truth in the Lord. In Jeremiah 17.5-8, the prophet contrasts the desolation that occurs for those who trust in human power and the blessed state of that those who trust in the Lord receive. The calamity that is nearly brought upon Jerusalem in David’s story is illustrative of the problem with trusting in human power.

To that end, it seems that God works through human weakness for more reasons than just to have a relationship with His people, as true as that is, but that there is also something problematic about trusting in human strength. The dependence upon human strength and power regularly has a terrible social consequence: it leads to people setting themselves over and against others in a zero-sum battle for superior strength and control. At the core, the accumulation of power is how empires form and how it is that people who have little power become oppressed. Consequently, the desire for human power and control is at conflict with living in righteous, peaceful relationships with those around you.

By becoming the type of people who trust in God to protect and deliver, we become people who do not seek out strength and power, but rather become focused upon love and peace. When one ultimately and genuinely appeals to God as one’s protector, deliverer, and vindicator, it doesn’t deny all human agency and influence, but it makes it such that being powerful and having authority is not a value we seek after. The desire to increase our stature, to increase our influence, to increase our resources, to increase our authority insulates us from feelings of threat, meaning that we become much more emotionally fragile when it comes to facing situations that are perceived to be some sort of challenge or threat to us.

When we look more closely at Jeremiah 17.5-8, we can make an observation about the fates of those who trust God and trust in human power. Those who trust in human power rather than God move towards a desolate state where their life becomes increasingly fragile. Reliance upon human power has a way of making us fragile and highly reactive to situations where we feel vulnerable. God will make them face their own fragility by putting them in a place of desolation. By contrast, those who trust in the Lord not only become blessed, but grow to become people who are able to face the difficulties of droughts. However, nothing in the prophet’s discourse suggests this is an immediate outcome of faith in human power or in God, but rather that these are the future outcomes of their faith.

Similarly, in his Corinthians correspondence, the apostle Paul twice distinguishes between those who are perishing and those who are being saved (1 Cor. 1.18, 2 Cor. 2.15-16). For those who are perishing, the cross and the people who are an aroma of Christ perceive foolishness and knowledge of death, whereas those who are being saved see God’s power and life. Underlying one’s response to story of Christ’s crucifixion can be an attitude of fragility and anti-fragility. For those who fragility makes them to be the ones who are perishing, even if they have high status and power, they see something that does not accord with glory and power but as a threat to their life: the message of God’s power through the resurrection seems foolish to them, perhaps because their own fragility doesn’t allow them to embrace the risk of trusting in God’s resurrection.

By contrast, anti-fragility, a concept that Nicholas Nassim Taleb popularized, allows one to face and grow from the challenges and stresses in life, We hear such an idea echoes in the words of the Lord to Paul when he faced the thorn in the flesh: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12.9). God’s grace allows people to face the trials of life and not just simply face them, but to grow in the midst of them. In Philippians 3.10, Paul expresses that he wants to know Christ and the power of the resurrection, to which he then pairs with that sharing in Christ’s sufferings to death. Paul understanding of one’s life lived by the grace of Jesus Christ through His cross can be defined as anti-fragility, where human weakness is a place where one is paradoxically strengthened by God’s grace.

So, in human weakness, God isn’t leaving His people mired in powerless and helplessness. Rather, as His people do not seek after human power and strength to enforce their will, they instead trust in God and are free to focus on love and peace. Then, God will strengthen them through their sufferings that emerge as a result of their weakness. Such people may go through the throes of pain and strongly negative emotions in the short run, but emotionality itself is not a sign of fragility; it is not one’s emotionality that indicates whether one is fragile or anti-fragile, but rather how one ultimately faces those things that stress and threaten that determines the long run trajectory of their life. Those who ultimately trust in themselves are emotionally formed in such a way that one’s ability to face challenges and stress depends on the positivity of the outcome, making the experiences of uncontrollable stresses lead to a downward spiral. Meanwhile, those who trust in the Lord rather than in their own strength learn to face challenges as something to be endured, allowing them the place to become anti-fragile and grow from the trials.

Perhaps through depending upon the Lord, God’s people become properly empowered to genuinely love in the way God loves so as to be agents of peace and reconciliation in a world that so often finds such a message threatening. Without trusting in God and relying upon His grace, we can not possibly learn and grow to be agents of shalom that brings well-being when so many people will resist shalom for those they deem unworthy. God’s relationship with His people leads empowers us to live as reflections of His image in the present world where other agendas and purposes other than God’s life-giving purposes so often prevail.