Is marriage a sacrament?

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January 21, 2021

A few weeks ago, my pastor and I were sitting around a coffee shop table, engaged in reflections on various theological questions that directly impinged upon the work of the church and discipleship. We discussed the matter of communion, which then dovetailed briefly into the definition of the sacrament. In the middle of this conversation, the question as brought up, “Is marriage a sacrament?”

The classical Protestant answered was trained into me, thinking “No.” However, both Western Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians hold to the opinion that marriage is a sacrament. That is good reason to consider whether there is something that we as Protestants have missed in our understanding of sacraments and also marriage.

Yet, I want to put forward a yes-no answer to the question, depending on how you define sacraments. If you deem a sacrament to be something that conveys divine grace, then I am inclined to say no, but for the reason that I think this definition of sacrament is a bit flawed from a New Testament perspective. Grace is not an object or a force that is conveyed as much as it is the characteristic of a gift-giving God. For this reason, I am somewhat on the fence on whether there are really sacraments if you use that definition.

Yet, I don’t think Eucharist and Baptism are merely ordinances that Jesus told us to do. There is something formative about those two acts and, as I will suggest, other rites and social arrangements, such as marriage, that merits an understanding that goes beyond ordinances. Additionally, I am circumspect about any explanation for the Christian life that is explained simply due to obedience. While we are called to obedience, God is not seeking our obedience as much as our good that being obedient to God’s work brings about. So to that end, even if one were to want to call Eucharist and Baptism ordinances, I would put forward there must be some good that these actions bring about in us.

My emerging understanding is that we can look at the Eucharist and Baptism as sacramental ordinances: specific rituals that Jesus called us to do that brings about a particular good within our life. The idea of grace intersects with this picture of sacrament, except that grace is not “conveyed” to us as much as we come to more deeply behold and comprehend the grace of God through the sacramental ordinances. Grace is ultimately a characteristic of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While we might figuratively refer to proffered, gifts and benefits as ‘grace,’ literally grace is not an object or force as much as it is a gift-giving, love-bestowing nature of God that we see exemplified in the sacrificial life and death of Jesus Christ.

When we become baptized, we are doing more than simply marking our transition into the Christian faith or, in the case of infant baptism, marking the life of a child to be raised in faith. We are tying our lives to the life of the baptized, crucified, and resurrected Jesus (Rom. 6.1-4). We aren’t simply baptized, but we are baptized in Jesus, who was baptized. Then, when we are baptized, it isn’t just simply participation in a similar baptism, but the death and resurrection of Jesus define our life.

Similarly, when we take the Eucharist, we are not just simply marking and cognitively remembering that Jesus died. Nor are we simply expressing a shared life. More significantly, we are ourselves taking Jesus’ own sacrificial death into our own lives, that we are symbolically participating in the same way of life that Jesus lived. Thus, just as Jesus died and gave Himself for his disciples, so too we symbolically eat Jesus’ body and drink His blood we are taking this very purpose and direction to life to heart.

I would put forward that what is happening in both cases is through the sacramental ordinances we are becoming attuned to God’s grace so that we can in that posture receive the gifts of grace from God and be transformed through them. The gifts and the transformation from the bestowal of the gifts come from the Holy Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead and will do the same for us. The water isn’t a mediator of the Spirit. The water and wine/grape juice don’t contain power from the Spirit. Rather, through the sacramental ordinances, we open ourselves more deeply to the gift of life from the Spirit in our life. Yet, this happens in relation to Jesus’ crucifixion, making the Eucharist and Baptism sacraments of the cross.

With this in tow, I can then approach the question of marriage: is marriage a sacrament? In asking this question, I am not asking if it is a sacramental ordinance, as Jesus does not command us to get married. Marriage is an option for us, but it isn’t something we are called to do. To that end, marriage is distinguished from the sacraments of the Eucharist and baptism.

However, we can note that marriage also engages us in a way of life that opens our hearts and minds to the grace of Jesus in other ways, including in his death. When Paul tells husbands to love their wives, he uses Jesus’ death as the lens through which they should understand their marriage (Ephesians 5.25-33). Yet, Paul treats Jesus’ example more as a prescription for what should happen in marriage rather than as a way to describe what does happen in marriage. In other words, on this grounds alone, we shouldn’t treat the arrangement of a particular marriage as a sacrament pointing us towards the grace of Jesus’ sacrificial death.

What I would suggest marriage does is it points forward towards the second coming of Jesus, preparing our hearts for the Spirit to bring about a way of life that becomes perfected in the Eschaton. In a good, life-giving marriage, there is a sharing of oneself with another where the other person becomes known in a fuller, deeper way than one could otherwise do. In general, relationships involved the exchange of energy and information, packets of energy that have meaning beyond the energy itself.1 When the husband and wife are attentive to and mindful of each other during sexual intimacy, all the features of their body and all their physiological functions becomes readily known by each other in a way that we don’t (or at least shouldn’t) explore with other people. The various tactile sensation of the other’s body, the sounds each other makes, the facial expressions that are seen, etc. are streams of energy and information that the partners share with each other, whereas our usual interactions with other people contain fewer streams of energy and information in more distant, low-definition forms. A high amount of bodily energy and information is transferred between the woman and man in sexual relationships.

When a man and woman already deeply know and care for each other’s well-being, the effect of this shared activity is more than just simply an ephemeral pleasure. The sensations of physical are not just energy experienced for their own sake, but they are also “packets” of information that say something about the beloved. One is coming to understand the other in a deeper way. Sexual activity in such a context leads to the formation of a deeper understanding of their partner and a deeper union of hearts so that begin to become one of mind as they are one of body, discovering each other’s love, mindfulness, care, cherishing, etc. This massive flow of energy turned information allows spouses to comprehend each other in a deeper, more intuitive way, that will impact how they treat each other outside of intercourse. In short, in sexual intimacy between attuned lovers, one comes to more comprehensively know the other person as they are, leading to a transformation of each other.

We can see this transfer of bodily energy that is transformed into information about the person alluded to in the Bible. Genesis refers to the sexual activity as “knowing” another person (Gen. 4.1). However, “knowing” is not a euphemism for the genital stimulation of sex. Nor, is it directly referring to intimacy; intimacy is a form of sharing with another person that we don’t generally share with others. The experience of intimacy is determined by what we don’t customarily and voluntarily share with and see from others. While the sexual “knowing” is certainly intimate, it isn’t directly referring to the experience of being intimate. Rather, it is a more concrete expression of the act of coming to a bodily knowledge of the partner, which had become other covered up due to shame (cf. Gen. 3.7). Given the wall of clothed shame that formed between Adam and Eve, for Adam to know his wife is to return the original relationship design for a woman and a man together. So, when the Bible talks about knowing, it is a concrete description of what happens between partners, as the body of each other becomes know in ways it previously was not. In that way, the Scriptures put forward a description of sex that is consistent with the transfer of bodily energy turned into the knowledge of the person.

Yet, this description of sex is not a universal experience. In fact, it may seem more like the exception than the norm.  When people are more focused on the pleasure of sexual stimulation, people’s hearts and minds focus more on that specific zone of the body, particularly on their own body, and become less concerned about the whole body of their sexual partner. The passionate pursuit of pleasure directs the attention and focus to what brings genital stimulation and pleasure while become less mindful and attentive to the partner, except as a means to a pleasurable end. Thus, when sex is simply sought for the pleasure it brings, then it becomes something different, something less than Biblical knowing. In that case, one does not understand the other in the other body, but one simply seeks to gratify the biological imperatives of one’s own flesh. This stands at the heart of the various sexual harms traumas that become inflicted on others, because of self-gratifying passions that seeks to acquire and use other persons for one’s own benefit. However, when a deep love that already knows and comprehends the other person is present, then one becomes more attuned to the other person and has the cognitive ‘framework’ to unconsciously comprehend the energy and information that comes from their body so as to understand them more deeply. In other words, sex from lust and sex from deep love would dramatically alter the partner’s attention to each other, so that the former doesn’t lead a person to understand the other whereas the latter becomes an epistemic act that leads to a shared heart and mind. To use an analogy, it is like a student who attends a class because they think the teacher is “HOT” and a student who attends a class because they like the teacher and wants to learn from them: the former likely isn’t going to learn about anything, except maybe their own desires and what makes them happy, whereas the latter will grow in knowledge and wisdom.

So, how is this description of sex and knowing to be understood sacramentally? What does 1 John 3.2-3 say? “Dear friends, we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” There is a form of knowing of Jesus that we will be engaged in at the Eschaton. The sexual act between genuinely loving partners forms their hearts to hope to know Jesus as He is in His final coming in a similarly transformative way. Not because loving Jesus is to be understood erotically, but rather that sexual intimacy is one expression of love where people take immense joy in the presence of someone who they discover and know to be loving, caring, powerful, mindful, and protective. A good marriage is sacramental in that our own hearts and lives are made receptive to the deepest character of another’s goodness, kindness, and love that we more deeply look forward to and hope for in the coming of Jesus.

This connection between sex and the Eschaton is not simply based upon mere similarity between these two forms of personal knowing of people, sexually and non-sexually. They are tied together in God’s redemptive purposes to restore humanity from the fall. Not only did the Fall lead to a rupturing of the intended relationship between a husband and wife that sexual intimacy can be a restoration of, but the relationship between God and humanity became ruptured also. So, as we as Christians anticipate the restoration of a deeper knowledge of God, where the layer that creates a separation between us becomes removed and we come to know God as He is, the sexual knowing between a wife and husband as a restoration of the ‘horizontal’ relationship is a preparation of the heart for the restoration of the ‘vertical’ relationship between God and humanity.

In attachment theory, people have different models that determine how they are seen by and are to relate to others. While these models are initially derived from specific, significant relationships in our lives, such as our parents, these models generalize beyond those relationships and influence how we relate to other people. For instance, our relationship with our parents influences our relationship with others. Similarly, our relationships to close friends can do the same. With this in mind, we can look at the sexual knowing of a husband and wife as expanding the models for relationships with others that become much more comfortable and receptive to a deeper understanding of others and to be more deeply understood by others. If love for another’s well being and joy in their happiness and well-being, not simply sexual pleasure, is at the heart of the physical intimacy, then what will generalize to other relationships will be a love that more deeply knows people for who they are. To that end, the sexual love between two partners is sacramental in that it opens up the heart for the eschatological restoration of the full demonstration of God’s love for us and us for God.

With this in view, I would suggest we can think of marriage as a sacrament, but as a sacrament of the eschaton that is distinguished from Baptism and the Eucharist as sacraments of the cross. This distinction is important, as it is through the cross of Jesus that we come to begin to know how to apprehend God and the shape of His love, which necessarily precedes more deeply know God’s love in the eschaton. Consequently, marriage would not function as a sacrament prior our conformity to the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Without the cross, marriage may lead to knowledge of the other person, but it doesn’t open the heart to knowing God when someone doesn’t have the beginning understanding of God in Jesus Christ. The sacraments of the cross are the prerequisites for the sacramentalization of marriage.

So, I would ultimately put forward, yes, marriage can be a sacrament. It doesn’t belong in the same category as the Eucharist and Baptism, but it can prepare the heart of the believer for the eschatological restoration when the cross of Jesus has come to define their life and their relationship to their spouse. In this place, then, we can become more attuned to the work and leading of the Holy Spirit.

How circumstances reveal our values and the God of life

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January 20, 2021

John 7.24: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”

“Circumstances don’t make a person, they reveal them.” Sayings like these seem to be profound and wise on the surface. However, as a person who has studied a lot in psychology, I have always been bothered with this and other similar sayings. If you know anything about the fundamental attribution error, you know that people are often inclined to overstate how much people’s behavior is due to their character traits, thereby diminishing how much the circumstances plays. Furthermore, if you know anything about trauma, you know that such circumstances can dramatically alter who you are. Difficult situations do not show our true character or nature. The truth is, if you want to reliably know who a person is, you want to see how they react to a wide variety of situations and circumstances. Extreme circumstances have a power over the person that doesn’t necessarily define who they were before the events, and they can dramatically alter who a person is. You can not look at what a person said or done in one extreme situation and think you have deep insight into who they are.

Nevertheless, there is perhaps a kernel of truth to this phrase. When we are emotionally overwhelmed and overloaded, our thinking tends to get very simplified and stuck on one-track until the emotions abate. Usually, in the more mundane, day-to-day nature of life, our mind fluidly and artfully moves from one thing to the next. No one thing gets our sustained attention and reflection. But when being lead by powerful emotions, good or bad, our minds begin to develop a fixed, persistent attention or concern about something specific. Find someone who is mad, head over heels in love and you will find someone who is thinking incessantly about the beloved while being largely absent-minded to many of the other things going on in life. If someone has just been terrified by something they witnessed, their thoughts will continue to focus on the event and the potential aftermath from it. So, when people are put in difficult circumstances, their words and actions don’t necessarily reveal who they are, but we can catch a glimpse of what the person is motivated by what they focus upon.

So, for instance, pretend someone just lost their job and they become emotionally overwhelmed soon thereafter. What you see in their words and behaviors in that moment is not something you would usually witness from them in the normal course of their life. Yet, in the midst of that distress, if you pay attention, you can notice what has their attention. What is it that they think about in the moments thereafter? Is it about how they are going to pay their bills? Is it what’s going to happen in their future? Is it what they will tell their family? If you can pick out what the central thing is that they are focused on, you will find one of the deep values of their life that presently intersect with their circumstance. Extreme circumstances can provide others a look into our values.

At that point, the values that are demonstrated in a difficult situation will be a reflection of what was significant to you in your life up to that point, including both in our big life events and the smaller events that occurred day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year. Our values come from our own personal history. Some parts of our personal histories were under our influence and choice, and some of them weren’t, but our values become a reflection of what we found to be significant throughout our personal history. It is these sorts of things that our harder, more difficult circumstances do reveal: what has been significant in your life? How you handled the situation isn’t as telling as what it is that your thinking and actions were motivated by in that situation.

When I faced my personal crisis a few months back, I came face-to-face with my own basic nature. Two thoughts went through my mind. Firstly, have I let God down? Has God rejected me? Is there anything I can do to be restored to God? This first value was a love for God, although with a (mistaken) notion that God did not somehow love me and care for me. Secondly, I thought about whatever problems and harm I might have caused to others, which again was a mistaken notion that reflected my care and concern for others. As the circumstances that lead to my crisis abated, the role the circumstances had on me changed, and likewise, my fears of being abandoned by God or having harmed others were abated. Yet, what I found to be my values in that situation was a love for God and a love for others. Love was my deep value, at the root of my heart. I always felt incompetent when it came to love because I never seem to have the social successes that other people had, but in the end, that was because I was consistently excluded by my peers so that I had fewer opportunities to learn how to show love outside my immediate family. Yet, what I longed for and sought for in my life was to figure out how to love. My crisis revealed what I deeply valued.

We can apply this way of understanding values amidst circumstances to God. Take the story of Cain murdering Abel. God acts in great anger and curses Cain’s life for the innocent blood that he spilled. Yet, even as God raged against Cain and made it so that Cain’s life would become desolate, he didn’t want Cain to be harmed. He put a mark on Cain that offered him protection. In this event, what is truly at God’s heart is revealed as that of life. One might look at the rage and think that is what is reflective of God’s character. This is precisely what a lot of people think when they hear stories of God’s judgment throughout the Bible, overlooking the nature of the circumstances that motivate His wrath. Yet, it isn’t the rage that reveals God’s character, but it was His concern for life, both in the anger over the murder of Abel and in the mark of protection upon Cain. God values life. Even at the heart of God’s wrath and anger is the value of life, which means that God’s anger is momentary towards us (Psalm 30.5), with the notable exception of the hatred for those people who devalue life by loving violence and committing fraud (Psalm 5.6, 11.5). The value of life becomes apparent even in the story of the Golden Calf when taking in context; God’s wrath becomes directed towards Israel because their idol-making is a reflection of the very Egyptian society where they were oppressed as slaves and their babies were murdered.

Unfortunately, the common portrayal of God’s wrath, when it gets presented, is something much different from this. Rather, than understanding wrath as being motivated by life, it is often connected to the values of obedience, as if God gets angry simply because we disobey Him. Hence a single act of sin makes people worthy of hell, so the line of thinking goes, that is until Jesus comes along. Much of the picture of God’s wrath seems to be built upon the often implicit idea that circumstances reveal who a person really is. People generalize a trait of divine wrath and punishment of disobedience from the narratives of God’s wrath towards specific acts of disobedience. It gets to the point that even Jesus’ death is understood to be an expression of God’s wrath, that sin must be punished by God somehow. In the end, this portrayal has even God’s love in the cross of Jesus motivated by the value of punishment for the disobedient.

Yet, it is only with a deeper look that we can pay attention to what God values, moving past the superficial and unreliable thinking that pays attention only to the immediately apparent surface, that we can then observe that God’s wrath is tightly intertwined with His deepest value and longing to give life. This requires us to give up the seemingly profound yet ultimately misguided idea that you can directly know someone by how they respond to difficult situations. Instead, we have to probe deeper to understand why God responds the way He does in extreme circumstances so as to see what is truly persisting in God’s character while also recognizing the more ephemeral and circumstantial nature of God’s wrath. When we arrive at that point, we can see that life, not wrath, is the deepest value of God throughout the Scriptures.

Reason, emotion and the wisdom of God

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January 14, 2021

Reason needs emotions as a man needs a woman. Not because men are rational and women are emotional. Such is an outdated myth. Rather, it is because as two become one together in love in order to live as the image of God, so too do reason and emotion become complete when joined together in love.

Emotions can blind to us the full range of reality, causing us to focus on only those things that are consistent with what we are feeling. On the other hand, reason teaches us to broaden and clarify our sense of what has been and presently is. Yet, the future is not enslaved to the dictates of reason, and it is our emotions that lead us to progress towards a fruitful life. Yet, the connection between the past reality and the future possibilities that retain the dignity of the actual lives that cross the plane of time can only be found in love. All other ways either disconnect reason and emotion, split the past from the future, or deny people.

So, to plumb the depths of the divine wisdom that is rooted in love, reason and emotion must be brought together on the foundation of the love of Jesus Christ. In the cross, reason and emotion can be brought together in a way that is simultaneously closely in accord with the nature of things while also being creative and life-giving towards new, future possibilities, as we ourselves recognize and live within the deathly realities that are being transformed into new life through love.

Christian mindfulness and worship

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January 13, 2021

Hebrews 13.18:

We are sure that we have a good consciousness, desiring to act honorably in all things.

Mindfulness has become increasingly commonplace in our modern world. The fruits of sustained attention to our experience has been discovered to be a treatment for ailment of variety of mental conditions that many of us struggle with. I myself, for instance, have taken to employing the Wheel of Awareness practice as developed by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel that promotes sustained attention to the traditional five senses, to somatosensation, to awareness of the contents of thinking, and our interconnections with other people and the world around us. In seeking for God’s Spirit to be at work in me through this process and praying to God for well-being for myself and others at the end of the practice, I have been able to integrate it into my life that has cultivated marked benefits for me in a relatively quick manner.

Having struggled with PTSD that was thrown on top of a mild ADHD, I was often easily distracted from things I was seeking to focus on, where the pains of the past and the loneliness of the present wet intrude into my attention. Furthermore, having dealt with the PTSD symptom of a foreshortened future that comes with PTSD often made me feel like any real future career and marriage was not a realistic possibility, I was often mired in feelings of the hopelessness of life when I had a down mood, especially when I woke up in the morning. I prayed to God and sought after Him, with much benefits to my life as I freshly rediscovered God’s faithfulness. The occurrence of these symptoms did reduce as I grew in faith, but my faith did not directly empower me to overcome many of these basic, physiological and cognitive symptoms of PTSD when they occurred. On top of that, because of the many struggles that come with loneliness, I often felt many temptations in my heart to address this loneliness that I never gave into, but because I was often in such a negative mood, I would consider myself to be a terrible person for having even thought certain things or said something that could be distally associated with those thoughts as if those thoughts were who I essentially was. Such thinking would often make me feel unworthy of love.

Yet, as I have implemented the Wheel of Awareness practice, I have discovered my attention has become markedly improved in a short time. Additionally, I am more able to create a separation between my feelings about myself and the future and the current ‘mood’ I am in: to be in a ‘bad’ mood is simply to not be joyful, but it doesn’t mean I am steeped in gloominess. Discovering God’s faithfulness lead to an improvement in my life so that PTSD symptoms were reduced, but managing the experiences of those symptoms in the moment became improved with the Wheel of Awareness practice. Additionally, I felt a greater distance from my overactive conscience, recognizing that a thought does not define me, enabling me to feel free to live life as a good, well-intended person.

The point of this post, however, is not to proselytize about the Wheel of Awareness. By itself, it is a useful tool, but it is exactly that: a tool. Not everyone would receive the same benefits from it, and the benefits will be determined by how you use this tool. Nor is there any deep meaning by the practice itself though some might attribute to mindfulness other than it helps facilitate the linking of various parts of experiences together in life. The point, instead, is to put forward something else: what if the early Christian faith was much more concerned about the contents of conscious awareness than we might have been lead to believe? What if my experience with the Wheel of Awareness combined with my faith was actually a closer return to the nature of Christian faith and life as exemplified in the New Testament?

There is a Greek word that is synonymous with our modern idea of awareness and consciousness: συνείδησις. Yet, our translations have often rendered this term with a subtly different sense: conscience. Both consciousness and the conscience as we understand them are related to awareness, but there are notable distinctions between the two. Consciousness relates to the experience of attention itself whereas conscience relates to how we judge our own self-experience. When we talk about the conscience, we think of that voice inside our head that tells us if what we are doing is good or bad. Later represented in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory as the superego, the conscience is a judgmental faculty of the brain that marks. Consciousness refers the experience of awareness whereas the conscience is a particular form of moral judgment.

This distinction might seem subtle, but if you know anything about mindfulness, you know there is a world of difference between mindfulness and judgment. To be mindful entails that we don’t judge our experiences, but that we pay attention to them without a judgmental frame of reference. Judgment alters experience and consciousness. So, how we translate συνείδησις may have potential ramifications for whether we are open to the practice of mindfulness of not.

If we take the term to refer to the moral judgments of the conscience, then it isn’t the same as the practice of mindfulness. There are some good reason for this as we often see συνείδησις linked with a sense of goodness and badness. However, συνείδησις may not be used to refer to the self-judgment of the personal conscience, but rather something that is closer to the consciousness of our intentionality. In other words, a good συνείδησις may be taken to be a type of awareness where one attentively seeks good, kind, life-giving intentions on behalf of others. If that is a more fitting definition, then συνείδησις may be understood as a moral awareness that is a specific type of mindfulness, where the focus on a marked awareness for one’s intentions in relating to others.

The phrase καλὴν συνείδησιν (“good consciousness” or “clear conscience”) in Hebrews 13.18 provides a good case example to consider the two different possibilities. Often translated as clear conscience, this translation runs into a particular problem. If the preacher is referring to how he judges his own actions and intentions, then he switches away from the language of self-judgment to the language of intentionality (θέλοντες). While a good intention can certainly be envisioned as a reasonable basis for having a clear conscience, the switch from self-judgment to intentionality creates a mild discursive discontinuity in the abrupt shift between the two concepts that is not explicitly encoded. Alternatively, if καλὴν συνείδησιν is a description of positive intentionality instead, then the clause that follows is addressing the same conceptual domain of intentionality while giving a more detailed expansion on the nature of this good intentionality to act in an honorable fashion.

συνείδησις as an awareness of one’s intention fits better with how the preacher uses it in Hebrews. Falling within the domain of intentionality, it makes sense of how the blood of Christ purifies the consciousness from dead works to worship the living God (Hebrews 9.14). To “purify” the conscience would be to perhaps absolve ourselves from feeling guilty, either by making us feel forgiven or taking away the sin that would make us feel guilty. That seems to be mildly dissonant with what the preacher describes they are being cleansed of. However, to purify awareness would lead to an alteration of what one intended to do, seeing past actions as worthless (that is, dead) and instead looking to the goodness of God. The awareness and intentionality that impacts behavior, not personal judgment, seems more likely to be in view here.

We can think about the nature of this new conscious awareness and intentionality as follow. An awareness of a new reality emerges from the sacrifice of Christ, where people leave behind all the types of things they used to seek after and instead become much more aware of the goodness of God. When we begin to perceive the goodness and faithfulness of God as demonstrated in Jesus Christ, our sense of what is good and loving and beautiful begins to be transformed, thereby changing the way we think about others, the world, and even ourselves and what we are intending to bring about by our actions. We don’t just simply change what we do, but the very way we think that forms what we do is changed because our sense of what is good, holy, and righteous have been dramatically altered.

While the awareness that turns to worship the preacher of Hebrews talks about may seem to be different from the mindful practices of today, I would suggest they aren’t as different as they might look on the surface. What if worship is itself to be an act of mindfulness, where we are mindful of the love, character, and faithfulness of God that then also permeates our mindful intentionality towards others? What if the true nature of Christian worship is to behold the amazing grace, mercy, and powerful love of God and to then seek to reflect that ourselves in our lives? Worship could then be understood as a particular type of mindful awareness for a particular type of moral consciousness.

However, the present nature of Christian worship seems to be particularly directed towards address the workings of the moral conscience, not consciousness. Looking to Jesus as the sacrificial expiation for our sins, we want to be reminded that God is near and close to us so that we can feel loved. Many of us feel disconnected and alienated from God, and perhaps with others, and worship is where we seek to remember how God has covered the divide that our sins have had on us. However, what if this is simply the power of an overactive, highly judgmental conscience that overestimates God’s judgment and minimizes God’s mercy and love? In this case, Christian worship becomes about coping with our feeling of spiritual and social disconnection.

But with Christian worship as a specific specifies of mindfulness, we change the script. Worship is not about addressing our guilt and feeling of disconnection, but instead a mindfully deepening of awareness of God’s love that then deepens the depth of our loving intentions for others. Instead of trying to address and manage our conscience, we are trying to transform our consciousness.

To be clear in all of this, though, I am not trying to malign the idea of a conscience. My hope and purpose is to see a deeper sense of righteousness and peace, not to diminish it. However, from my own experience, a hyper-active conscience, one that is judgmental of even the most remote of thoughts, can be a detriment to the fullness of life in Christ. To overemphasize our own capacity for moral judgment and to make sure we are don’t right can become a detriment over the long haul. We need a conscience that prevents us from doing great harm, but it isn’t our own inner voice that is going to propel us to super-righteous status. It is instead by beholding God’s grace, by deepening an awareness and appreciation for the depths of love that comes from the Son of God, by seeking the Spirit to guide and strengthen us for a deepened intentionality into our lives that we can plumb the depths of righteousness.

Perhaps there is a place for Christian mindfulness, particularly in the mindfulness of our thinking and relationships with others, not as a special practice for the spiritually super-committed, but that stands at the centered of our worship and life together. Something to ponder and to reflect on in the future.

What does it mean to be spiritual?

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January 12, 2021

Galatians 5.22-26:

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

What does it mean to be “spiritual” in this modern age? A term that is often thrown around and used, often in rejection of something labeled “religion,” one of the prevailing uses of the term is to refer to the individualistic seeking and pursuit of things that defy material, physical, scientific definition. To be “spiritual” is to keep our minds open to the aspects of reality, ranging from God to inner personal transformation, that our society does not have a well-defined, clear understanding of, while not being bound to the religious traditions. It seems that to be ‘spiritual’ is essentially to be open to topics and ideas that religion may seems to address, and so cut against the dominance of Enlightenment rationalism, while not feeling hemmed in by the specificity of religious doctrine.

Often spoken of ambivalently or negatively by people well-entrenched into the social and intellectual systems of religions, I would put forward there is something of value in being ‘spiritual’ in the modern sense, as someone who considers myself an orthodoxy Christian. Yet, at the same time, if we want to define “spirituality” based upon the New Testament’s description of the Spirit and spirits more generally, I want to suggest that we have fundamentally misunderstood what “spirituality” is ultimately about. In the end, I would suggest that a definition of “spirituality” that more readily weaves a connection between the New Testament and *some* of what falls under the label of “spirituality” is to be found in the notion of relational sensation and perception.

Firstly, the positive value of modern construal of “spirituality.” It is important to note that I have an immense appreciation for the collective witness of the Church of Jesus Christ through the course of history. I am a conciliar Christian, with particularly strong commitment to an understanding of God that the Nicene Creed provides.  The Creeds and councils are important because there were alternative teachings about God and Jesus that were put forward that would have undermined the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To me, being an orthodox Christian is about not falling into the same mistakes that were made in the past, with the confidence that the Spirit leads the corporate church, even as I have my qualms about individual persons and all of their theological reflections as a whole, such as Athanasius.

Yet, I would put forward that the orthodox commitments of conciliar, orthodox Christianity is a minor component of Christian faith as expressed in the New Testament. To define the substantive nature of Christian faith by the Creeds is to, in a sense, allow our fear of the errors of the past to become a stranglehold on what we understand it means to be a follower of Jesus. The Gospel is more than orthodoxy, though for those who live out the redemption of Jesus Christ, they will discover with time that it is never less than orthodoxy. There are many elements about Christian life and faith in the shadow of the cross and the wind of the Spirit that the orthodoxy expression has not adequately expressed.

In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that there was a lot that was unfortunately overlooked in the transition from the apostolic era immersed in a Jewish worldview to the systems of thought more influenced by Greco-Roman philosophy that began to prevail. The concern moved away from the central concern of life-giving relations between God and each other to intellectual representations about God and His will. When prominent leaders such as Justin Martyr attempted to represent the Christian faith to the pagan world, they used the language and concepts the surrounding world would be familiar with, most particularly philosophy. Yet, the raison d’être of Greco-Roman philosophy was the pursuit of an accurate description of natures, otherwise labeled as “reason.” While some philosophers like Stoics did have concerns about what lead to personal well-being, the philosophical inquiry was more concerned about describing the state of affairs rather than changing them according to some positive end. Yet, at the heart of the New Testament is that God is doing a dramatic, transformative change in people that is manifested itself towards love for one another. Such was not the prevailing concerns of ancient philosophy, so as the early church shifted more towards a philosophical, intellectual mindset, the more these concerns went underground and were less noticed.

To be “spiritual” in the modern sense is to reverse the stranglehold that “rational” representations of science and reason can have on us. To that end, to be “spiritual” in the modern sense can be consistent with a reversal of the transition from the relational to the representational that early Christianity experienced. While we should retain our links with our spiritual forefathers in retaining orthodoxy, we can also fruitfully recognize that there are some missing links between the Gospel of Jesus Christ as presented in the New Testament and what later defined orthodox faith. If we endeavor to be “spiritual” in the sense that we are seeking to discover realities about faith that the stream of Christian tradition has not consistently brought to the forefront, then a “spiritual” Christian is one who is seeking what was most essential and critical about faith in the crucified, resurrected Savior.

Yet, in the midst of this, we perhaps need a more robust definition of “spirituality” than we currently have in the modern. To be honest, there isn’t a real clear, sense of what “spirituality” is. In some sense, it is more defined by what it is not than what it is. Yet, when we look to the New Testament, there is a strong inclination that we can observe. While it is rare for anyone to about “spirituality” as some abstract concept, when we see talk about the Spirit and spirits, we can recognize a key feature that occurs over and over again: that of relationality and well-being.

When Jesus warns against the blasphemy of the Spirit, the Pharisees had attributed his exorcism of demons to Beelzebub. Such evil thinking denies the gift that was given to the man who was healed. The Spirit was bringing about healing and wholeness from torment, but the Pharisees could only see evil spirits behind it. For them, they thought Jesus was a deceiver. So, on both Jesus’ side and the Pharisees’s side, the work of spirits was intrinsically social, whether to heal or to deceive. When John cautions people to discern the spirits in 1 John 4.1-6, it isn’t said with the concern of simply getting the right confession about Jesus and the Father. Instead, in the context of the whole letter, there is a certain implication: if one receives the Spirit that testifies to Jesus, then they will love one another because they will know the God who loves. The discernment of the spirits was intertwined within social and relational realities.

We see this connection between Spirit and relational realities becoming very apparent in Galatians 5.22-26. The fruit of the Spirit, far from simply being individualistic emotions and feelings had in isolation from others, are more concerned about the makeup of our relationships with each other. Paul then follows his exhortation to be lead by the Spirit with an appeal against having rivalrous and contemptuous attitudes towards one another. In Paul’s mind, to be lead by the Spirit is to live in a distinctive type of relationship with each other that differed dramatically from the often competitive, antagonist social realities that the people were exposed to.

So, if we were to describe “spirituality” in the New Testament, we could perhaps define it as coming under the influence of powers and forces of life that influence, direct, and empower our relationships with others. To be under the influence of a spirit, whether it be the Spirit of God or some other spirit, was to have one’s life directed towards a specific way of engaging and interacting with others.

Yet, in accepting this definition, we need not go into some sort of fanciful speculation about the nature of these powers and forces. The New Testament spends little time describing and explaining these spiritual powers and forces. Even the Spirit of God is assumed to be the source of Christian love and experience more than He is speculated and explicated upon. The nature of spirits is more mysterious than it is science, or in the case of the ancient world, philosophy, but the recognition of spirits in the New Testament is not lifted up as an alternative intellectual zone of explication that we can come to know of life the visible cosmos, for instance. One should not treat “spirituality” to be a field of a readily explicable reality like other things.

With that caveat in mind, perhaps a way forward to defining spirituality in a useful way is to connect it to our sense of relational sensation and perception. Even though science had made leaps and bounds in understanding the nature of human thinking and emotions over the years, there are still a number of experiences of human life that can not be readily observed, quantified, and theorized about. More particularly, we still have a rudimentary understanding of the impact that relationships have on our well-being and life. While there is mounting scientific evidence that relationships are powerful forces for well-being, and unfortunately the loss of health, we don’t have a robust, scientific description of the power of these social realities. It may be assumed that this is simply due to the limitations of our present knowledge-base and the technology to study these social realities, but with more time and sophistication, we will get closer to understanding the fundamental nature of human relationships.

Yet, what if some of the mechanisms that influence how we understand, think, feel, interact with other persons can not be adequately represented through science because of how highly dependent science is upon visual information, and to a lesser degree, auditory information, to explain the world around us. What if there are other channels of sensation and perception that (a) do not produce a high-definition field of attention that we can readily reflect and observe like we do other sensations and (b) can not be readily perceived by the traditional senses which (c) contribute to the way we relate to and connect with others? Scientific knowledge would not be able to develop a robust understanding of this form of energy and information as the stream of information isn’t readily observable and quantifiable, but at best would only be able to indirectly infer the existence of the phenomena, much like many astrophysicists infer the existence of dark matter without any direct observation. Science would never be able to fully give an account of this domain of experience and reality, even if it has a profound impact on us.

To that end, perhaps a way forward in thinking about spirituality within orthodoxy Christianity is to see it as the recovery of the vital, life-giving experiences and realities brought about by the Gospel of Jesus Christ that peers far deeper than what either orthodoxy and modern science can penetrate. Yet, this form of spirituality is not some free-floating, pick-and-choose as you go find what works mentality, but it is a spirituality that is lived under the pedagogical tutelage of the Rabbi Jesus, whose words and life can form us in such a way that makes us more acutely aware and open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. In this way, to be spiritual is to come to Jesus to have our ears and eyes opened and our hearts softened to the deeper realities of the Spirit, who is directing us to love God and love one another in deeper ways than we ever imagined. We learn how to be spiritual from Jesus and as we become spiritual, we discover a new way of living with God and each other that brings life and shalom. To be authentically spiritual as orthodox Christians is to wake up from our dogmatic slumber dominated by dreams of theological representation and to begin to dive deeper into the currents of the experience of love that gives and sustains life.

Rereading Ephesians 2.8-9: God’s pedagogy

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January 11, 2021

Ephesians 2.8-10:

For by grace you are saved through faith. This is not from yourselves, but it is the gift from God. [It is] not from works, so that no one may boast because we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus, because of the good works which God prepared earlier so that we would walk in them.

If there is a part of Paul’s epistles that is more defining of Protestant theology than any other part, it is Ephesians 2.8-9. Without using the seemingly more theologically weighty terms of justification and law/Torah, people see this passage as perhaps the most concise, simple statement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While there are other verses where Paul talks about faith in contrast with works, it may be fitting to suggest the whole course of Protestant history has been determined by how Ephesians 2.8-9 has been read and interpreted.

The underlying Protestant reading of Ephesians 2.8-9 can be summarized as follows: Paul is concerned to contrast human agency to obey God with God’s own agency to bring us to salvation. The two prepositional phrases οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν (“not from yourselves”) and οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων (“not from works”) have been taken as being ultimately synonymous, with the former focusing on human agency and the latter focusing on the fruits of human agency. Then, faith is taken to contrast with the human agency to obey God, looking instead to God’s agency. Even though the concept of agency is not explicit in the surrounding passage, it functions as a basic metaphysical assumption.

Certainly, it is true that there is an emphasis by Paul on divine agency, especially when he says salvation is the gift from God (θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον). However, what if Paul’s discourse has a (mostly) implicit construal of divine agency that can provide further understanding of the contrast of grace and faith with ourselves and works? What if the nature of the agency isn’t that of what we do in obedience to obtain salvation, but a pedagogical agency?

It seems to me that Paul is trying to say something along these lines: “You are saved because God graciously taught you in Christ. You didn’t teach yourself the right sort of things to do, but instead, God created you so that you would do the good things God purposed for you to do.” At first blush, this reading might not seem apparent, but I would suggest it is because it is mostly an implicit sense of understanding that would have been shared between Paul and his audience. Yet, there are a few hints that Paul does have the nature of instruction in mind.

Firstly, the word περιπατέω, as used in 2.2 and 2.10, was commonly used as a pedagogical metaphor among Jewish circles. For instance, in Mark 7.5, the Pharisees asked Jesus “why do your disciples not walk (οὐ περιπατοῦσιν οἱ μαθηταί) according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” We see it used similarly in John 8.12, 11.9-10, 12.35. It is likely used in that way also in 1 Corinthians 3.3.

Secondly, we see plenty of markers of pedagogy and understanding in Ephesians 4.17-24, which parallels Paul’s words in 2.1-4. In talking about their past behavior that the Gentiles still participate in, he describes this behavior as something the Gentiles walked in (v. 17: περιπατεῖ). Additionally, they were said to lack understanding (v.18). Then he clarifies they did not learn Christ in this way (v. 20). Instead, they were taught (ἐδιδάχθητε) in Christ. If we notice the comparison between Ephesians 2.1-10 and 4.17-24, the observation can be made that Paul makes the pedagogical nature of the Ephesians life in Christ explicit in the latter whereas it was mostly implicit in the former, sans the usage of περιπατέω.

So, what is Paul describing in Ephesians 2.8-9? Paul is clarifying the origins of this new life that the Ephesians participate in. It didn’t come from their following of the instruction of the present historical era of the world (v.2 περιεπατήσατε κατὰ τὸν αἰῶνα τοῦ κόσμου τούτου). Nor did it come from Paul’s fellow Jews when they were simply doing whatever their body and minds wanted (v. 3: ποιοῦντες τὰ θελήματα τῆς σαρκὸς καὶ τῶν διανοιῶν). Neither the past learning of the Gentiles nor the former Jewish way of living and thinking had any semblance and understanding of life. So, to say it didn’t come from themselves (οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν) was to say it didn’t come from previous instruction as part of Greco Roman society. Similarly, to say it didn’t come from works (οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων) is an abbreviated reference to Jewish prescriptions that Rabbis gave to get people to obey Torah. God had given them the specific gift (note the article in phrase θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον) of Jesus Christ.

Faith, then, is the means by which believers receive this direction and instruction from God, recognizing in Christ’s death and resurrection a new way to live that God has given them and the whole world. All this was done with the purpose that God would instruct all people as to how to live as humans in one single way, rather than the commandments and ordinances of the Torah that the Rabbis used to distinguish Jews from the Gentiles (Eph. 2.15). Because of Christ, the Torah has become invalidated, not as a faulty method of salvation that relied upon human agency, but as a former gift from God in Israel’s history that got wrongly used to create hostility between Israel and the world. Paul and his fellow Jews had become people who lived in great anger towards their Gentile ‘overlords’ (v. 3: “children of wrath”/τέκνα φύσει ὀργῆς), thereby creating hostility with the Gentiles that God never intended.

Paul’s point, in other words, is this: that God is teaching the world in the cross of Christ rather than from any specific cultural or ethnic ethos. God is creating a new humanity who lives in a dramatically new way from the world, which does not lead those who believe to be living in wrath against the world around them. Grace defines our new human nature; love characterizes the way we are to use our body.

Put simply: God is our teacher, not ourselves.

Poem: Will the wall be broken?

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January 11, 2021

Your face branded
Your voice recorded
On my heart
Yet a wall between us

Was this a wall I built?
Did the torment of demons
Raise a barrier between us
Believing I could not have what I want

My eyes innocently wander
To other beauties
For love and family
Yet they aren’t you

Many passing reminders
Converging together
Bringing hope of you
Is it past fixations?

Or, did God’s instruction
Inscribed on my heart
Tattoo you onto me?
Can the wall be torn down?

Is God packaging me
As a promised gift
Long-awaited
For your love?

If this love is true
God will move
If He tore the curtain
He can break this wall!

The antichrist against a Christocentric anthropology

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January 9, 2021

1 John 2.22-25:

Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also. Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father.b And this is what he has promised us, eternal life.

I remember during my high school days, I have become deathly afraid of anything “apocalyptic.” I remember I first prayed the sinner’s prayer during an evening sermon series on Revelation, in which fear was inculcated in me and others about the sound of a trumpet coming with a rapture. I didn’t want to go to hell. I wanted to go to heaven. Yet, the sound of the trumpet scarred my heart. I began to try to explain Revelation and all the haunting imagery. Fear would mark my initial journey of faith.

Unfortunately, I came upon a book on Revelation that talked about the identity of the figure whose number was 666. While I can’t remember the details and to what degree I misinterpreted what it was saying, I remember it providing a schema of identifying the figure by taking the numbers for each letter and multiplying it by six. So, I did my name, taking the numerical position of each letter in the alphabet as a number, I added up 111 for “Owen A. Weddle.” Then, multiplying by six, I came to the number 666.1 For a year or so, I became haunted by the idea that I was the antichrist. As irrational as I can recognize it in retrospect, the combination of the fear about my sin that was inculcated in me and this chance occurrence brought me to a place where I feared I was somehow in opposition to Jesus. While I intellectually came to recognize the falsehood of such thinking through Scripture and reason, the scar would stay with me for the years following, always being vigilant and fearful that somehow, somewhere I was mistaken and I was really going against Jesus.

The problem is that living in the Bible Belt, I was inundated with imagery and ideas about the apocalypse. I grew up when the Left Behind series was really popular. People’s theology, particularly their eschatology, was determined by when they thought the rapture was to occur: before, during, or after the rapture. The potential identity of the antichrist was a regular topic of speculation, especially in politics, wondering who would bring about the evil opposition to God. Fortunately, with my training in Biblical scholarship and theology, I would gradually come to recognize that such speculation was out in left field and ultimately missing the point.

Yet, after reading the article “The Gospel in a Democracy Under Assault” by Russell Moore, I began to realize that something more was going on than just nonsense that scarred my heart. Such “apocalyptic” nonsense was ultimately fostering a mindset, if not a worldview, that would make it most influenced adherents not just simply in error, but push them towards evil. Put more simply, the focus on the antichrist and apocalyptic predictions ultimately brought about the spirit of the antichrist.

What is the antichrist? As many scholars will tell you, it isn’t a specific figure or leader. Upon a quick view, 1 John 2.22-25 provides a starting point for understanding the antichrist. It somehow “denies the Father and the Son.” Additionally, there is some intrinsic connection between the Father and the Son, such that the way someone regards one, they also regard the other. Yet, the nature of the language of confessing and denial is ambiguous. John’s language has often been taken in terms of orthodoxy belief about the divinity of Jesus, which is based upon 1 John 4.3. This is true insofar as it goes, but it makes the assumption that John is giving a specific definition of the antichrist in 4.3. Instead, what seems more likely is that John teaching believers how to identify the work of the spirit of the antichrist in their community. The fundamental character of the antichrist is more than just a denial of orthodoxy.

Allow me to put forward something more specific in place of the minimalistic definition of the antichrist as a denial of orthodoxy: the spirit of the antichrist is to fundamentally deny the love of Father as demonstrated in the love of Jesus. Ultimately at the center of confessing Jesus is the love of God, as is seen in 1 John 4.15-16:

God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

The truthful confession of Jesus is in service to knowing God’s love which is to then lead to our love for others (1 Jn. 4.19). Corresponding to this, to deny Jesus is to deny this love of God, which is to then cut one off from loving others. John emphasizes throughout the epistle that those who do not love their brother are not genuinely of God (1 Jn. 3.10, 3.15, 4.20). What can be seen in John’s concern about the spirit of the antichrist is not simply a denial of Jesus in some mere matter of confessional orthodoxy, but to deny the love demonstrated in Jesus is indeed God’s love. The spirit of the antichrist tries to work against the fundamental mission of Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed Messiah, who came to destroy the works of the devil (3.8) as exemplified by the hateful murderous intent of people who imitate Cain (3.11-15). The antichrist works against the love of God made known in and imitated from Jesus Christ.

So, when we talk about the spirit of the antichrist, it can manifest itself in a denial of orthodoxy belief. Yet, it can also lead people to deny the Father and the Son in a different way: by overlooking and neglecting the loving character of God. One can maintain a theological orthodoxy while defining and characterizing God by characteristics and traits that are not representative of God’s love. One can even talk bout “love” and “God,” but yet supply some other definition of love than the love that is fully demonstrated in the whole of Jesus’ life. In other words, the spirit of the antichrist can minimize God’s love or change the definition of love and so accomplish the same purpose of denying the Father and the Son by denying their fundamental, relational nature.

This is what so much of the obsession with Revelation and apocalypse fostered in many people. They were so focused on God’s judgment coming against the world, that they put emphasis on a minor part of God’s activity. With that mindset, God’s love was understood as simply the cessation of God’s wrath towards us, rather than a much more pervasive and all-encompassing for human well-being and life. Yes, God will judge wickedness and evil. Yet, God is much more concerned to love than to judge, more concerned to heal than to tear down. The focus on the antichrist actually brought about the spirit of the antichrist.

What enabled such a state of affairs? Where did to go wrong? I will point the finger at the Protestant Reformation, even as I still recognize myself as Protestant. As the doctrine of justification by faith alone became an increasingly dominant emphasis for Protestant, and ultimately evangelical, soteriology, more concern was placed on the nature and character of faith than on love. Faith was the condition of salvation, so the thinking goes, and so more emphasis would be placed on how people could get on the inside by having faith. People were characterized primarily by faith, whether faith was understood cognitively in terms of specific propositional contents, as trust as an affective mentality, etc. Meanwhile, because “works” were considered to be the wrong way of salvation, concerns about living in love, which would amount to works, were at best relegated to a later question of what one should do after being saved. In all of this, the Apostle Paul, whose language inspired the Protestant doctrine of justification, became the patron saint of faith, who was taken to legitimize this picture of soteriology.

Yet, what if faith is about something different? What if faith is not the way that God checkmarks the box that allows us to get to heaven, but rather faith is the way we discover and learn of God’s love and faithfulness? What if to trust God is to be discipled by God’s Word, to receive His promises and instructions to direct us as we seek to live into the future God has designed for us? Along those lines, what if Paul’s discourse about the “works of the law” wasn’t about human effort to obey God, but about the prescriptions that many Rabbinical teachers told people to do so as to obey all the commandments of Torah, thereby setting being instructed by faith in God as the source of Torah over and against the teachings of Rabbis from the Torah? What if Paul is concerned about believers being taught by God through His Spirit as we live by faith, just as Jesus Himself lived by faith to His Father’s work and direction and was thus vindicated in the resurrection? And, what if in the midst of all of this, God’s purposes is to teach people to live in a different way from the world, to live as God’s intended His creation to be in His image? What if faith is the means by which God leads us to live as part of a new humanity, with His Son as the revelation of God’s righteousness to the world? What if at the heart of Paul was a vision of a new humanity inaugurated in the world in Christ? In the midst of all of this, the works of the devil to lie, destroy, and even murder are being destroyed, because this new humanity is defined by God’s own love that He showed to us in His Son.

People who believed and lived as such would not have come anywhere near close to such evil this week. Such people would have a heart that would allow them to recognize that love, not greatness, is close to the heart of God. Such people would not have been an unambivalent, adamant supporter of a boastful, arrogant little horn. Such people would have cried for justice for those people who have been the recipients of disdain, contempt, injustice, and hatred. Such people would have been a living as part of a new humanity that had nothing to do with the filthy, dark, evil that we have seen manifest itself very clearly over these past four years.

Now, these people do exist, even if they still hold to the vestiges of an ultimately weak theological framework in the Protestant foundation, because God’s love is at work in all of us, even as we don’t get the truth of God perfectly correct. God’s love moves us, directs us, forms us, and guides us. We can in faith participate in this work in our lives, to receive God’s grace that is manifest in Jesus’ life in our lives so that we can then live with this same purpose and grace, even if we don’t consciously and theologically recognize this truth. Yet, if we put more emphasis on the theological frameworks than the God the theological frameworks point to, if our theology is more about the alignment of concepts to help us to control and regulate the world than to allow us to understand the living God, then we can put the emphasis on ideas, concepts, and purposes that push us away from God and His love.  Then, in the end, these theological systems simply become vestiges and shells of past relationships with and attempts at understanding God that are then filled with other purposes. In the midst of this, biblical interpretation and theology come to be in the service of other interests, including most prominent and saliently, politics. The spirit of the antichrist has taken the form of godliness and directed it to other purposes that worked against God’s loving purposes for humanity.

To boil this down: the spirit of the antichrist is at work against the love shown in Jesus Christ that defines the new humanity. The spirit of antichrist will teach people to deny, ignore, minimize, and redefine God’s love in order to keep the old humanity in it’s chains. The result: the attempted coup in the name of a deciever by people, many of whom would claim the name of Christ.

My work and studies over these past few years has lead me to this conviction. What I have said above, particularly about Paul, are not some random thoughts thrown around, but the fruits of a disciplined, persistent study of Paul’s letters, along with the rest of the Scriptures. Whether I endeavor to take this down the direction towards Biblical studies where my primary focus will be the academy or in medical school and psychiatry where my primary focus will be in imitating the Great Healer, it is my dream to bring the fruit of these studies and this step towards a new Reformation, even if the Reformation is limited to only my heart, to bear on people’s lives, to invite people to live as part of a new humanity powerfully demonstrated in Jesus Christ and inaugurated in our lives through the Spirit. I want to work against the harm and damage that has been done by the spirit of the antichrist, whether it be in the form I described above or in its other forms, to help people to discover the type of love that God has for us and that brings healing to His creation and people.

I had a friend who told me to dream big when I was dejected and felt desolate; is this a big enough dream?

1 John 3.4-10 and the nature of God’s children

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January 3, 2021

1 John 3.4-10

Everyone who produces sin also produces disregard for (God’s) instruction. Sin is the disregard of (God’s) instruction. You know that He was revealed for this purpose: to take away sin. Sin is not in him. Everyone who remains in him do not sin. Everyone who sins have not seen him or known him. Children, let no one deceive you. The one who produces righteousness is righteous, just as that One is righteous. The one who produces sin is from the devil because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose: to do away with the works of the devil. Everyone who is born from God does not produce sin because His Seed remains in him. He is not able to sin because He is born from God. The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this: everyone who does not produce righteousness is not from God, nor the one who does not love his brothers.

Let me get straight to the point. One of the most deceiving statements to have ever been uttered in the halls of the church is this: “I am just a sinner, saved by grace.”  The statement seems true on the surface because everyone has committed sin, but it’s use of tense is incredibly misleading. Notice the present tense when describing themselves: “am.” Meanwhile, when describing God’s action, it is in the past time. Essentially, God has done something in the past on my behalf, but I am still presently a sinner. Had it been “I was a sinner saved by grace” or “I am a sinner being saved by grace,” the situation would be different, but to describe one’s present state of sinning while talking about a past act of salvation is a deceiving statement.

When we read 1 John 3.4-10, it is hard to really accord with much of the cheap grace that has been passed off as Christian faith. It is so hard, in fact, that there is often a temptation to try to translate this passage as referring to the “practice” of sin based upon the present tense of participles such as ποιῶν (producing) and ἁμαρτάνων (sinning), such as the NET and the ESV. As I mentioned in the previous post on Hebrews 10.26-27, the problem with such a translation is that while it is grammatically possible, grammatical tense is more like a clay that is molded by its context. The function of the present tense conforms to how it fits within the discourse it is presented in. When we look at 1 John 3.3, the language of purity works from the assumption of wholeness and the absence of sin. So, when we approach 3.4-10, the language about manufacturing and sinning need to be understood against this backdrop. The concern here is with those who deviate from purity by their sin, not with those who *practice* sin.

Some clarification is in order here, though. John is not talking about the single act of sinning either. The way he describes them as producing sin and producing disregard for God’s instruction is indicative of this. Ποιέω is a word that relates to manufacturing and creating. While it can be used to describe taking specific actions, it does not take on this meaning in this context. The presence of the article in τὴν ἁμαρτίαν and τὴν ἀνομίαν functions to highlight sin and disregard of instruction as abstract concepts and not specific actions that are taken. As such, John’s discourse functions to characterize a specific type of person rather than give a description of a specific state of action.

It is the equivalent of the phrase “People who lie.” While the literal meaning of the words could be taken to refer to anyone who tells any sort of lie, whether a white lie or a malicious lie, usually such characterizing language functions to designate people who can be identified by the activity of lying, such as people who compulsively lie. Characterizing language does not usually linguistically encode specific details that precisely limits who it applies to; this is where the pragmatic function of language comes in to bring clarity where the written word does not explicitly do so. The context usually determines to whom characterological discourse applies to.

So, it is the case here: the characterizing language of those who produce sin has the opponents of the Johannine group in view. “Antichrists” had left the community, showing that they really did not belong to them (1 Jn. 2.18-19). He goes on to characterize these people as liars that denied Jesus is the Messiah (1 Jn. 2.22). These people have already been identified as the deviant group who probably cause much trouble and pain among the believers such that John had to remind them of the importance of loving one another (1 Jn. 4.20). So, when we come to 1 John 3.4-10, we have these people in view. Having been familiar with their behavior, the people who produce sin are identified with these trouble-makers from their past. The community’s memory of these persons informs who John is referring to.

The point is that John is neither talking about people who commit a single act of sin, nor is he trying to describe a threshold for sin in talking about the practicing of sin. He is drawing a characterization of people whose lives are defined by sin. The emphasis of his argument from that point is to say this: such behavior is entirely incompatible with being children of God. The true children of God are defined by their righteousness, not their sin. While John previously reminds them that a true believer may commit a sin that becomes forgiven (1 Jn. 2.1-2), their lives will not be defined by their sin because in this confession of their sin they will be purified by the blood of Jesus (1 Jn. 1.9). Among the children of God, sin is being minimized.

In other words, if we try to read John’s language to provide some wiggle room in describing a threshold for sin that we call “practicing” or “continuously,” we risk undercutting his point. There is no threshold for sin for the children of God. Sin can be mercifully forgiven and cleansed, but the children of God are being cleansed and purified as they confess sin and put their hope in Jesus. It is not in our nature to sin. The children of God are not presently sinners, even as we may find the principle of sin lurking within us (1 John 1.8). If we do sin, we are acting from the principle that lingers while going against our nature; it isn’t our nature to sin, though.

So, to say “I am just a sinner, saved by grace” is a deception. It is precisely this type of deception that John warns against because of the pain and harm that such people did to the community. Yet, to the degree that this mentality has been tolerated, accepted, and even celebrated is the degree to which those who live as the children of the devil have been giving the space to inflict harm upon the children of God. The spirit of the antichrist might say “You can’t be merciful if you hold people to such a standard,” thereby resisting the ultimately denying the Christ who comes to remain in those who believe. Grace, mercy, and forgiveness can be abundantly offered to people in a response to sin that is not harsh, retributive, exaggerated, or needlessly punitive while at the same time not giving any room for the normalizing of sin in the life of believers. We can lovingly nurture newly adopted children of God as their new nature empowers them to unlearn the bad habits of their past without lowering the bar of what it means to be a child of God.

To call ourselves sinners in the sense that we are acknowledging we have a nature to sin is to deny our heritage. As I wrote in a previous post:

Never deny your heritage if you are a child of God: you are being made into a new creation. Deny your spiritual heritage and you risk making light of and forgetting the powerful transformation that God is bringing about in you, leading you to act from your spiritual poverty rather than from the riches that the Spirit has bestowed.  Don’t let the presence of temptation and sin lead you to deny this reality in your life. You aren’t perfectly redeemed, as none of us will be until the redemption of our bodies, which means we still have to stand against those powers of sin and death that Paul describes. However, when you do what Jesus says by the Spirit who leads us to put to death the deeds of the flesh, you yourself are being changed, you yourself are different, you yourself are becoming an embodiment of God’s righteous vision for human well-being and thriving. Don’t let those who want to lower the bar so that they do not feel some sense of guilt take that from you. You were not perfect in your past, you are not as you will be in Christ in the resurrection, and you will find places where you won’t fully live out God’s righteousness that you will find a renewed need to either repent and/or be restrengthened by continuing in a Spirit-led prayer, worship, and meditation so that when a similar situation faces you will be able to stand like Peter who denied Jesus three times but then became a brave apostle of Jesus Christ. But make no mistake, follower of Christ and recipient of God’s Spirit: if Christ is in you, YOU are a new creation, right here, right now, even with your flaws and your struggles.

Rereading the warning of Hebrews 10.26-29

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January 2, 2021

Hebrews 10.26-29:

For as we deliberately sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins but some fearful expectation of judgment and a flaming jealousy that will consume the opposition [remains]. Anyone who rejected the Torah of Moses died without mercy on the basis of two or three witnesses. How much worse do you think they will be worthy for punishment, having treated the Son of God with disdain, having considered the blood of the covenant in which they were sanctified to be profane, and having insulted the Spirit of grace?

Reading Hebrews 10.26-27 as a college student always lit a fire of fear in my heart. When I came across the phrase “deliberately sin,” I had this fear that somehow that this was referring to my sins of the past that I had made a choice to do, which at that time I had a highly legalistic picture of sin that wasn’t truly based upon the Word of God. I regularly feared that somehow I had committed some sin that would throw me into the fires of hell.

I am not the only one who has read this passage and feared it. Of course, part of the reason for this is that the rhetoric of the preacher of Hebrews is intending to stoke the fear of God into people’s hearts. The problem is that we misinterpret the connection between vs. 26 and vs. 27, leading us to think it is an if-then state: if X happens, then Y will happen. If I deliberately commit a sin, I will go to hell.

As a consequence of this fear and knowing the confession throughout the Scriptures that God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abundantly forgiving, many translations taking the present participle ἁμαρτανόντων as having a progressive or continuous aspect (“continuing to sin”). Similar to what also happens in the exegesis of 1 John 3.9, there is an attempt to try to translate the present tense as specifically referring to the habitual practice of sin.

While technically possible within the scope of the grammar, it violates the principle that context determines the meaning of the tense; tense does not convey specific meanings so much as it like a piece of clay that the surrounding discourse can mold for its purposes. 1 John 3.9 follows a discourse that transitions from vs. 3, which talks about being pure just as Jesus is pure. Being pure, which conveys an image of wholeness, rules out the act of sin. Similarly, Hebrews 10.26-27 falls soon after the conclusion of the preacher’s discussion on the nature of sacrifices, where he brings forth the conclusion that Christ’s sacrifice has perfected sanctified people. So, when the preach talks about sin in v. 26, he isn’t talking about the continuous activity of sin but deliberate deviance from the entire sanctification that Christ’s offering brings about. In short, entire sanctification is the default perspective for the preacher of Hebrews and conscious deviance from that is the problem.

Yet, we fail to grasp the rhetorical device that is being used in Hebrews 10.26-29. The purpose is not to give a conditional statement of what follows if one deliberately sins. Rather, it is a portrayal of the reality one is walking into when one sins in such a manner.

First, he is not talking about a person making a choice to sin. This is not addressing the internal, psychological reality of making a choice to act in a specific way that is deemed sin. It is something deeper than that. It is done once a person has the “recognition of the truth.” Often translated as “knowledge,” ἐπίγνωσιν refers to something more than just having learned a set of true facts or a doctrine. It is knowledge-in-action, it is the active recognition of something. Previously, the preacher has talked about the cleansing from an evil conscience (συνειδήσεως πονηρᾶς), which reflects the way that a person is actively thinking what is evil and harmful (cf. Matthew 9.4). Once the sanctifying work of the cross has its effect, people’s hearts begin to think about and perceive the world differently. So, the choice to deliberately sin is done against the recognition by the person of the truth/reality that their actions have. They recognize the truth about good and evil that their actions can accomplish and yet they decide to act in the direction of evil. It is like a physician who recognizes and understands the best route to heal a patient, but then actively chooses to commit harm. This is more than our sins done in ignorance, the sins we do under mental compulsions and habits, or even sins we choose to do while we have “theoretical” knowledge in our head about the truth, but when a person sins as they concretely and personally understand the consequences their actions can have.

Second, he makes the point there is not an alternative sacrifice for sins. This isn’t saying that the sacrifice of Jesus is no longer available for them. Instead, the point is that in spurning the sanctification that the atonement of Jesus provides, there isn’t another sacrifice that will be available to address their sin (Cf. Hebrews 10.18). For Jews accustomed to the sacrifices of the OT, they might be tempted to think “another sacrifice will address my sin.” Yet, the point of Hebrews is that now there is only one offering for sin and it purifies believers, not simply procures forgiveness. If one deliberately sins, the implication is that that person is actively working against the only offering for sin that is now available. In the end, the sacrifice of Jesus leads to forgiveness only as it sanctifies. As the offering of Christ has freed the mind to recognize good, to deliberately act against this active consciousness of what is good is to actively resist the sanctification.

Third, the preacher casts a picture of what a person should begin to *expect* in the future (ἐκδοχὴ) as they deliberately sin. He doesn’t say it is a foregone conclusion right there that the sinner will come into judgment. Instead, they cast a mental image of what their actions are leading towards in the future. To deliberately sin as one readily comprehends the truth is to go down the route to actively set oneself against God. A single deliberate sin does not itself create this certain future of judgment, but it is more like a person has deliberately chosen to take a step away from God’s will; the preacher is getting the audience to see what they can expect from that pathway they are stepping.

Fourth, the reason for this judgment is not simply as a judgment of their act of sin. Rather, deliberate sin is to take a step down the pathway towards denigrating the atoning work that Christ and the Holy Spirit has done in the believer. God’s judgment is going to come against those who disregard and insulted the atoning work of Christ and the Spirit that has been done in their lives. A deliberate sin doesn’t equate to such apostasy, but it is a step that goes in that direction.

That the preacher does not think judgment is the present reality for the audience is made clear in 10.32-39. Whatever had happened that made him warn them about deliberate sin, he doesn’t think judgment is their certain future or that they have apostatized (compare Hebrews 6.4-8 with 9-12). Instead, he reminds them of their past when they endured the persecution with the expectation of great reward in the future for their faithfulness. In other words, even in the midst of some deliberate sin that may have occurred that points towards an image of a future judgment, he casts an alternate image of future blessing and reward from God. Two different portrayals of God’s actions in the future are put forward, beckoning those who have deliberately sinned to reverse course from the route that will lead them to apostatize and return to their previous faithfulness and confidence.

The implication of the preacher’s rhetoric isn’t to deny the possibility of Christ’s atonement for the deliberate sinner, but to get them to recognize the route they are choosing to walk down has no other alternatives available to them. The preacher is trying to inculcate the fear of God into their hearts, not as an immediate, terrifying prospect of God’s wrath towards them in that moment, but the recognition that the pathway of deliberate, defiant sin is to begin to set their lives against a God who will judge those who stand in opposition and deliberately spurn Him. God’s grace and mercy are still available, but it will entail the deliberate sinner to stop acting against the sanctifying work of Christ in their hearts and minds (that is, repent). Two different futures are put forward by the preacher, inviting the people to return down the pathway of faithfulness amidst their sin.

What is important to understand here is that this is not putting forward a doctrinal view of apostasy, as if people have come to the wrong ideas about God, Jesus, etc. Nor is it simply about people’s struggles with faith. Rather, it is connected with the resistance against the sanctifying atonement of Christ.

What happens when we commit some sin that we know we shouldn’t do is that we begin to resolve the cognitive dissonance between our knowledge and our actions. Our minds actively endeavor to maintain consistency between what we believe and do. At this point, there are two ways the dissonance can be resolved. On the other hand, one can resolve the dissonance by recognizing one’s actions as wrong, thereby retaining the knowledge and beliefs one has. This is part of repentance, where we take on a disregarding attitude towards our actions. In this case, one solidifies one’s faith and belief.

On the other hand, when we are more concerned about self-enhancing ourselves in our own eyes and in the eyes of others, the dissonance will instead be resolved by rationalizing one’s behaviors, especially through diminishing and minimizing personal responsibility. This in turn leads to actively work against the knowledge of the truth that God has brought to us through the sanctifying work of the cross of Christ. Continue down this pathway, the resolution of cognition dissonance will proceed beyond simply rejecting the truth about what is good and evil, but one will come face-to-face with the possibility of spurning Jesus Himself. The continuous cycle of self-enhancement will lead one down the road that will bring them to the edge of the cliff of apostasy. All this occurs because a person more values the enhancement of themselves over the truth that God has brought to their recognition, thereby resolving dissonance by rationalization, minimization, and distraction. By proceeding down that line, a person is becoming hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3.13).

While the process of cognitive dissonance resolution is ALWAYS at work in us, from the most minor, inconsequential of matters to the most serious of concerns, the more deeply rooted our thinking is and the more deliberate and conscious our actions are, the more powerful the effect that cognitive dissonance resolution will have on us. Hence, deliberate sin would be a much more serious matter than compulsive sins where a person feels at times helpless to stop and sins of ignorance.

This is the psychological reality that undergirds the preacher’s rhetoric about the future possibilities of divine judgment or divine reward. It isn’t a statement about the punishment of hell for a single, deliberate sin. The false, one-sin-deserves-hell mentality has caused so many to misread the preacher’s portrayal of future possibilities as a present reality if one sins, which has lead many people to then try to reread the passage to talk about the habit of sins or as a mere hypothetical. Such a degree of fear leading to unwarranted readings are entirely unnecessary, overlooking and ignoring the patient, forgiving love of God.