The Messiah From Isaiah to Revelation

Isaiah has at least eighteen direct messianic references.[1] And by some counts, Isaiah’s prophecy is referred to over four hundred times in the New Testament. J. Alec Motyer says, “The Isaianic literature is built around three messianic portraits: the King (chapters 1-37), the Servant (chapters 38-55) and the Anointed Conqueror (chapters 56-66).”[2]

One example from Isaiah’s portrait of Messiah as king is found in Isaiah 11:1-10.

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.

Notice this figure is a king who judges with equity (vv. 3-4), destroys the wicked who oppose him (vv. 4-5), and will bring knowledge of Yhwh (v. 9). Then in verse 10, the idea of a shoot from the stump is repeated:

In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.

So Isaiah sees this messianic world-savior king as a root of Jesse; Jesse’s true offspring, the greater David. The tree of Israel has been chopped off in judgment so that only a stump remains. But from that stump a tender shoot comes forth. And what was Israel’s hope? “There shall come…”

“There sounds out from the oldest to the latest sources…the mighty ‘he comes’ (cf. Gen 49:10), ‘he appears’ (Num 24:17), ‘he cometh’ (Zech 9:9), ‘he is born’ (Is 7:14; 9:4), ‘he comes forth (11:1), ‘he comes forth (Mic 5:1), ‘he is raised up’ (Jer 23:5), ‘until he comes’ (Ez 21:32), ‘I will raise up’ (34:23), ‘I bring’ (Zech. 12:8), ‘I saw, there come’ (Dan. 7:13).” This continually recurring assurance that the Paradise-prince will come to destroy all enemies and judge even to the ends of the earth, forms the deepest core of the mystery—it is expressed by a single word in Hebrew, in English, “He comes.” It stamps the religion of the Old Testament as specifically a religion of hope.[3]

The ultimate answer to Isaiah 11 comes in Revelation 22:7, “Behold I am coming soon.” And 22:12, “Behold I am coming soon.” And again 22:20, “Surely I am coming soon.” And who is it that is coming? He identifies himself in 22:16,

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright and morning star.”

Christian have a messianic hope still today. Certainly we have an advantage in the fullness of Scripture. We have not only Isaiah but also Revelation. But we can certainly understand the psychology of hope/anticipation that existed in Israel. Our worldview is not so very different from theirs.

We are still looking forward to a future world in which a world-saving king will reign, and will right all the wrongs, and will reverse entropy, and will establish harmony. All the things Isaiah wanted as Israel was on the verge of exile are the same things that we want and foresee as we are in the midst of exile.

And so the Christian ends where Isaiah points and Revelation ends, “Even so, come Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)

 

 

[1] Walter C. Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, 155-156.

[2] J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: Introduction and Commentary, 13.

[3] B. B. Warfield, “The Divine Messiah in the Old Testament,” here he is both quoting and distilling Ernst Sellin.

Celebrating Many-ness: Abraham Kuyper’s “Pluriformity”

Diversity is a beautiful byproduct but an impossible end goal. Diversity must be built upon unity. Aspiration needs foundation. Within the church we should embrace diversity aimed at enjoying God, but reject diversity for it’s own sake. Outside the church, we can affirm the goodness of diversity but must insist that it may only be found by shared vision of the good life, based on a standard of real truth.

One the greatest evangelical thinkers on culture and diversity was Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch pastor, theologian, and politician between 1860 and 1920. In 1869, Kuyper delivered a lecture in Amsterdam titled, “Uniformity: The Curse of Modern Life,” in which he asserts that humanity strives for coherence and unity, though it is a counterfeit unity not oriented toward the Creator. Such was the unified rebellion demonstrated on the planes of Shinar where the tower of Babel was erected.

God’s Unity and “False Uniformity”

Kuyper begins the lecture by pointing to God’s creative work. “Unity is the ultimate goal of all the ways of God…one day by his will all dissonances will dissolve into harmony.”[1] The unity which is God’s ultimate goal is this: that all of his creation should acknowledge its Creator. Everything in the universe has its coherence in the Son of God. “In him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

Kuyper then shows that human history reflects recurring counterfeit efforts to achieve unity apart from God. This he calls “false uniformity.”

But as with counterfeit currency, the similarity is only in name. In God’s plan vital unity develops by internal strength precisely from the diversity of nations and races; but sin, by a reckless leveling and the elimination of all diversity, seeks a false, deceptive unity, the uniformity of death. The unity of God is written in the blueprint of the foundations; the unity of the world is merely painted on the walls. The Lord’s unity is like the organic strength which holds together the fibers of the oak tree; the world’s unity is like the spider web which upholds tenuous tissues in between. Organically one or an aggregate, a natural growth of a synthetic formation, become or made, nature or art—there, in a word, lies the profound difference distinguishing the spurious unity of the world from the life-unity designed by God.[2]

Kuyper’s point is that human aspirations toward unity in the midst of diversity, apart from reference to the divine, are counterfeits that are bound to fail. Kuyper spoke with prescience to millennials.

The cries for brotherhood and love of fellow-man are but a slogan. Not fraternity but a false uniformity is the goal toward which its glittering images drive us.[3]

When diversity becomes an end-goal, then it becomes uniformity. There must be a coherent meta-narrative around which diversity structures itself. Many truths descend into no truth, and finally those who claim real truth are silenced. Those who resist diversity as an end-goal are not allowed to be diverse. They are excluded. This is the “reckless leveling and the elimination of all diversity.” Thus diversity becomes a human idol, the “ism” of multiculturalism, and it cannot sustain itself.

Pluriformity Rather Than Uniformity

What Kuper calls for is pluriformity. Pluriformity is diversity with a foundation. “The unity of the human family may only be looked for in its origin and destiny, never in the developmental phases it passes through on its way.”[4] Diversity needs a foundation for its fullest and freest expression. And the true foundation of diversity is unity toward God, life according to the design of the Creator. Or even if divine revelation is rejected, then the “theater of nature” itself implies the same reality.

The starlit heaven does not show us innumerable identical stars but endless groups of stars all different from each other. Precisely in this multiform distinction the beauty of the firmament shines. So it may not be assumed that God meant to have uniformity in his human world and that pluriformity arose as a result of sin…Moreover, the very fact that God created male and female proves conclusively that uniformity was not part of the creation plan.[5]

As the church seeks to affirm the cultural embrace of diversity, we must be cautious not to over-embrace. The church must never embrace diversity as the end goal. Rather, the end goal is to enjoy God and to worship him.

Outside the church, we see in broader Western culture a top-down push toward multiculturalism. Diversity is nearly a new religion. While we can affirm the rightness of diversity, we must offer the warning that diversity must be enjoyed within common commitments. Otherwise it will lead to fragmentation.For instance, there are places that are no-go areas for police in London because Sharia law is operative in those areas. Other areas are particularly Hindu, and those customs dominate and rule. So rather than the next door neighbor being Muslim or Hindu, instead what has happened is increasing segmentation.

Kuyper suggests a practical policy for the church and for the state. For the church, Kuyper says that in regards to the tension between unity and diversity, “I know of no other solution than to accept—freely and candidly, without any reservations—a free multiformity.” (39) He was speaking in the context of an established state church. Instead he envisioned free and autonomous denominations. For the state, Kuyper suggested strong national identity as opposed to all nations being pressed into the mold of one global form (he would have voted in favor of Brexit).

Further Resources

 

 

[1] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” Kuyper: Centennial Reader, 21

[2] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” 23-24.

[3] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” 24.

[4] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” 35.

[5] Kuyper, “Common Grace in Science,” Kuyper: Centennial Reader, 445.

Vocation: Assessing Desires, Gifts and Opportunities

The question is often asked, “Am I called to vocational ministry?”

The Bible’s teaching about “calling” is primarily about God’s calling people to salvation and to walk in holiness. Romans 8:30 says, “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified.” So there’s the calling to salvation. And then Ephesians 2:10 says, “We were created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Compare that with 1 Thessalonians 4:3, “This is the will of God, even your sanctification.” Those two verses give us the call to good works. So when we talk about being “called,” we have to base our understanding of that term not in contemporary usage, but in Biblical usage. And the Bible fundamentally teaches that our calling is unto salvation and holiness.

It may be worth noting as well that the calling is rooted in God’s will. He predestined those he called. And he prepared the good works for them to walk in. His calling is rooted in his purpose. But that will or purpose is going to play out in some specific arena of life. Every Christian has been called to salvation and holiness. But that holiness is going to be lived in some specific context, a mechanic’s garage or an office desk, with three messy kids or lines of upset customers. And so we must further think about God’s specific calling for each individual. The question we all have in mind is, “What am I called to?” And that question is synonymous with the question, “What is God’s will for my life?”

When I was in college I asked a professor those questions, “Am I called to ministry and how do I know God’s will for my life?” And he gave me three points to consider—three ingredients that when mixed together then comprise a fair assessment of God’s will and calling. Here are those three points with some Scripture and comment on each.

First, consider what desires God has put in your heart. We often shy away from evaluating our own desires as if there is something inherently ungodly about considering what we want. But scripture doesn’t have that same hesitancy. Rather, scripture tells us, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). This led Augustine to say, “Love God and do as you please.” In other words, if our delight is rooted in God, then the desires of our heart will generally be a good launching point from which to begin considering where God may be calling or leading us. The New Testament also confirms this when giving instruction for how to determine pastors-elders in the church, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). Now of course that statement speaks to the dignity and legitimacy of the office of elder. But it also speaks to the legitimacy of a person desiring a certain role and aspiring towards that desire.

So zoom out on this principle and let’s apply it more broadly than just the role of elder. When you’re considering where God may be leading you, what he might be calling you to, what his will for your life is—a good question to start with (after confirming you’re saved and walking in obedience—the fundamental callings) would be this question, “What has God given me a desire to do?” (Note: there are varying levels of desire, but is there something that rises to the surface in your desires, perhaps as the strongest desire you have? Pray that God would give you desires in a specific direction that you might know them and seek to follow the desires he gives). But desires alone don’t determine calling.

Second, consider what gifts God has placed in your hands. God has given gifts to every member of the church in order for each of the members to contribute according to the type of grace they have received so that as every member works together contributing their unique input, the whole body may be built up in love. Does that sound familiar? It’s not my idea; it’s straight from Ephesians 2:7-15. And the point is that members should serve according to their individual gifts with a view towards the benefit of others and the unity of the body (i.e. people aren’t trying to insert themselves in roles that they are not gifted to serve in).

Another text that provides sure-footing for us on this point is 1 Peter 4:10, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” In other words, God’s “grace-gifts” come in various shapes and sizes. Some are wired for public leadership and speaking. Some feel more at home with hospitality. Still others would rather be working and serving behind the scenes. There is a role for each. And the whole body is happiest when gifted people are serving in roles according to their gifts. This process comes by the grace of God, “in order that in everything, God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11).

Some practical advice on this point: don’t decide for yourself what your gifts are. We are prone to misperceive our strengths and weaknesses. Second point of practical advice: don’t rely on a spiritual gifts inventory assessment. Again, we are prone to misperceive ourselves, and most of these tests are just a matter of you answering questions in order to tell yourself what you’re good at. They are a guided self-assessment. Nothing more. And while self-assessment is good (it would be related to assessing your desires), it is also important to draw out and listen to the assessment of others, so that by their input you might more accurately perceive yourself. Ask your pastors and spiritual mentors what they see you doing well at. Ask them where you appear weak. Consider this also: what do people most regularly thank you for and tell you they’ve appreciated about you? The answer to that question will likely be a pointer to your gifting.

Don’t be satisfied with your own opinion on this. If your gifts are intended not primarily for your own fulfillment, but for the edification of the body, which is what Ephesians and Peter point to, then it is the body’s assessment of your gifts that is actually more important than your own assessment of your gifts.

Once you have determined your gifting, then you are in a better position to survey the possibility of God’s calling on your life. Especially if the desires of your heart and the gifting of your hands are strongly related to each other. But there is at least one other important consideration.

Third, consider what opportunities God has laid before you. Let’s say a guy wants to be a preacher, and he thinks he has the gift of preaching, but no churches are willing to offer him that role. Is he called? Well most people would say yes. In our evangelical culture, we regularly hear people talk about how they were “called to preach” at a certain age, like thirteen or even nine. However, it may be more appropriate to say that is when he first sensed the desire to preach, not the call to preach. Then maybe some time later he realized he had the gift of teaching—which would definitely indicate that he is moving in the right direction. But I would say that even then he is still not called—because God’s calling is always set in the context of serving the body.

Consider this example. Paul wrote Titus a brief letter about how to lead the church in Crete, and gave this direction, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained in order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” Now the men Titus appointed, they were called. This is clear because in addition to having the desire of 1 Timothy 3:1 (to be overseers), and the gifting necessary for the role (“able to give instruction in sound doctrine,” Titus 1:9), they also now had a specific context to exercise the desire and gift, that is, the church in Crete. They weren’t “called” until Titus “appointed” them for a specific role.

Again notice how the body functions in regards to opportunities. The individuals weren’t determining their roles and gifting alone, and then forcing themselves into certain realms of service. They were being appointed by the body. Consider how this pattern shows up in Acts 13 as well:

“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the Tetrarch, and Saul. While they [the church] were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”

Do you see how men who were recognized as gifted, were then called to specific opportunity by the body? This is a good principle for us to pursue when trying to evaluate calling, whether to gospel ministry in the church or not. In other words, there is a sense in which this divine wisdom is proverbial and thus applicable to consideration of any role or job. In America, we have great freedom to pursue jobs and careers (specific opportunities) that match our desires and giftedness (remember, this is a historical anomaly). But we would be wise to always seek input from the body in making these decisions.

Finally, it’s important to realize that each of these three considerations are essential to determining a calling. I can’t base my determination of God’s will on any one of these things. Desire alone doesn’t mean I should move in that direction. Giftedness doesn’t mean the timing is right. An available opportunity doesn’t mean you have the skill-set to meet the need. All three must be present, and you would be wise ask for the honest, candid feedback of others to determine if you are perceiving your desires and gifts accurately.

Further Resources: Called to Ministry by Edmund Clowney (concise, 1976); Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen (comprehensive, 1980).

How to Study the Bible: A Ten Step Approach

 Here is the short version of the ten steps, then explained more fully below. This approach is from Grant Osborne. (Other great resources are Kay Arthur’s How to Study Your Bible and How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.)

  1. Outline the book as a whole
  2. Line diagram of a specific passage
  3. Grammatical study based on line diagram
  4. Semantics study: meaning of key words based on context
  5. Syntactical study: what is the relationship between the words, phrases and ideas in the passage?
  6. Historical background: what internal evidence is provided about the original setting?
  7. Genre: OT narratives, poetry, prophetic, apocalyptic, NT narrative, epistle
  8. Historical interpretation: how has this passage been understood throughout church history?
  9. Doctrines: what doctrines are taught in this passage; what other parts of the Bible teach the same doctrine?
  10. Homiletical synthesis: what is the significance of this text for Christian living and for the church?

As I sat at my desk this morning I opened my Bible to Hosea 1 intending to read chapters 1-7. In this process there were two primary entities (though I’m tempted to include my coffee as a third). Those two entities were the text before me (Hosea) and me the reader. The writer Hosea and his mind are no longer present; the only record we have is this text he left behind.

My interaction with this text unfolds in a dynamic that Grant Osborne describes as a hermeneutical spiral, by which he means the movement back and forth between the reader and the text, leading to a probable understanding of the author/Author’s intended meaning. This process culminates in the reader’s understanding of the passage for the current context and significance for the church.

This back and forth between text and context is the essence of the hermeneutical spiral, and assumes the reality that the interpreter approaches the text with “pre-understandings.” The reader comes with his own language, culture, and assumptions to the text. The spiral describes the process by which the text challenges those pre-understandings and reshapes the mind of the interpreter, who then engages the text again with a new point of reference based on the text itself.

Osborne points out that this spiral occurs throughout the interpretive process, a process that he outlines in ten steps. These steps progress from inductive study to deductive study, from the exegetical to the theological.

  1. The first step is for the reader to outline the book as a whole, in order to understand the broad intent of the author in writing. This allows for clarity in understanding any particular portion of the book or letter that has been written.
  2. The second stage then narrows attention to a particular passage, completing a line diagram of that passage. A diagram of the passage allows the interpreter to identify the individual linguistic elements of the passage.
  3. The third stage is then a grammatical study based on the line diagram, in which the relationship between various phrases is explored. Here the interpreter could be looking for transitional words such as “and,” “but,” “yet,” “neither,” “thus,” “therefore,” and other words like these, which signal the nature of the relationship between the concepts before and after the word. The goal of grammatical study is to identity flow of thought. How are the various small thoughts in this passage linked together to fit within the author’s broader purpose?
  4. The fourth stage of the process is a semantics study (“semantics” is the study of word meaning). This zooms in still further to the individual words of the passage. What do the significant words in this passage mean? Here Osborne points to the significance of context, believing the meaning of any word is found in the congruence of two factors: the semantic field (possible meanings of a word) and the immediate context in which the word is used.
  5. The fifth stage is syntactical study, evaluating the order and relationship of words and phrases. This moves beyond grammatical study in terms of precision, based largely on the new understanding gained in studying word meaning.
  6. The sixth stage is to reflect on the background in which the text was produced. What internal evidence does the document give as to its author, purpose, location, and audience? This historical material will often shed further light on the intended meaning of various explanations or exhortations the author provides.

These first six stages comprise “general hermeneutics,” which could be applied in a “scientific” sort of manner toward any text. They are not unique functions of biblical hermeneutics.

  1. The seventh step begins to address the Bible in particular. This step will involve the process of biblical study and theology. Specifically, the interpreter will want to begin by evaluating the genre of the book in which he is working. It has been pointed out that genre establishes the rules for the language game. In order to interpret sensibly, one needs to understand the type of literature he is handling.For instance, when interpreting Hebrew poetry, a student will want to give particular attention to the feature of parallelism, how the lines are linked together and what the relationship between these pairings might be. When reading narratives, it is important to identify the various characters and to evaluate how they are each portrayed. Their actions and outcomes may form the theological lesson that the author has in mind. Apocalyptic and prophetic literature rely heavily on symbolism, imagery, and symbolic use of numbers. Interpretation must allow for symbolism to function as a literary feature without demanding a woodenly literalistic understanding of these symbols.Beyond genre, the student of Scripture will want to evaluate biblical theology, how the Bible develops theology from the Old Testament into the New Testament. How are the testaments related to one another generally? How does a particular New Testament writer employ quotations or observations from the Old Testament?
  2. The eighth step moves into the realm of applied hermeneutics, beginning with an evaluation of the way in which Christians have understood the text historically. Are there key debates the church has had regarding how to interpret this passage? What doctrines has the church historically understood to flow from this passage? An especially helpful tool for this step is the Scripture index in Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine by Gregg R. Allison.
  3. This sets up the interpreter for the ninth step, which is a study of particular doctrines that the text addresses (systematic theology). This sort of evaluation will help the reader place a particular passage within the teaching of the Bible as a whole. How do the concerns of this passage fit with similar or apparently contrasting concerns in another passage?
  4. These nine steps prepare the interpreter of Scripture for the final homiletical synthesis of all the material. The main question in this tenth step regards the significance of the text being studied for the current church context and Christian living. Thus, Osborne describes the spiral as a meaning-significance model, where the meaning of the passage as intended by its author yields the significance of the passage for the church today.

The interpreter has not reached his goal until this tenth step has been finished. This is where the interpretive process culminates. As has been said, the goal of hermeneutics is the sermon, meaning that interpretation is aimed at understanding the way the passage challenges the Christian in a contemporary setting. The sermon is aimed first at the reader and then at the congregation that the reader might address.

The spiral motif is helpful in that it points out the dynamic relationship between the reader and text, encouraging the interpreter to seek the confrontation of the text and to open herself to having reshaped thoughts and attitudes. At the same time, the spiral is limited in its hermeneutical guidance. The real interpretive process lies in the ten-step process that Osborne outlines, whereas the spiral simply describes a reality that should be unfolding throughout every step of the process.

Sola Gratia: Where it came from and what it means

This past week I preached at Christ Church Rolesville as part of a series on the 5 solas. Below is a description of the history and meaning of sola gratis.

The idea that we are saved by “grace alone” has a long history in Christianity. If we were to trace the roots as far down as they’ll go, we find ourselves at a theological conflict between two men, one named Augustine and the other Pelagius.[1]

And it all started with a simple little prayer that Augustine had written around the year 400 AD. “Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will!”[2] When Pelagius read these words, he understood correctly that Augustine was implying that humans are incapable of obeying God’s commands unless God first grants them the ability to do so. Pelagius strongly disagreed. He believed the very fact that God would command something implies that we must have the ability to obey it. We don’t need God’s grace to help us obey; we simply exercise free will and make the decision to do it or not. How does one obey God? This is where they disagreed.

But behind this disagreement, Augustine and Pelagius had another disagreement. They had different opinions about the nature of humanity. Augustine argued that ever since Adam ate the fruit in the garden, that humanity was locked in corruption. It’s not just Adam that fell; we all fell in Adam. So Augustine says, “The sin which they committed was so great that it impaired all human nature—in this sense, that the nature has been transmitted to posterity with a propensity to sin and a necessity to die.”[3] So according to Augustine, Adam doomed humanity. When Adam fell, we all fell.

On the other hand, Pelagius said that when Adam fell, only Adam fell. But after Adam he said we are all still free to make our own decisions, whether we will obey God or not. Augustine and Pelagius had a pamphlet battle. They wrote all sorts of pamphlets back and forth, arguing against the other. Eventually, very early in the fifth century several church councils were called and found Pelagius to be denying the clear teaching of Scripture.[4] But even though the teaching of Pelagius was officially condemned, it never actually disappeared. The church in every generation has suffered from some form of it. In fact, in the thousand years between Augustine and Martin Luther, the official theology of the church had drifted somewhat away from Augustine and toward Pelagius.

Martin Luther came on the scene around 1500, over one thousand years after the Pelagius’ teaching had been rejected. Luther’s theological discussion was with the Roman Catholic Church. The church argued that grace could be infused to people as they performed certain actions like going to mass and participating in the eucharist. In other words people could simply exercise free will to do good and thereby earn the grace of God. But Luther denied that humans are capable of freely choosing any works good enough to earn God’s grace.

So the will is like a beast standing between two riders. If God rides, it wills and goes where God wills….If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it.[5]

 Martin Luther insisted when it comes to salvation, we don’t make the first move. Our will doesn’t choose it’s own rider. Rather, God gives the gift of faith so that we might believe. If anyone does what God commands, it is beccuase his grace and his grace alone has enabled us to do it. So the debate between Augustine and Pelagius was resurrected between Luther and the Roman Catholic Church. Other church Reformers agreed with Luther’s “grace alone” slogan, and John Calvin systematized these classic Reformation insights.[6]

From this history we draw two significant doctrinal truths.

The first of these two truths is called original sin.[7] The doctrine of original sin says the sin of Adam and Eve touched every future member of the human race. Simply put, we are all infected, corrupted and guilty.[8] Sin is a precondition of human life. We’re born this way, with the whole cluster of psychological, relational and spiritual sicknesses that result from the original infection. Original sin means, among other things, that we are spiritually sick: that no one is looking to submit their life to God. You may know people who do a sort of scavenger hunt through world religions, but interpreting that kind of thing through the lens of original sin, we might conclude that even those searchings are aimed at self-improvement rather than self-abandonment to God. No one is seeking to submit to God. Humans are corrupted from conception. That’s original sin.

The second doctrinal truth is called monergism. The word comes from monos- meaning one or alone (as in monogamy) and –ergon, meaning ability or work, somewhat like energy. The meaning of monergism is that God alone initiates with people, he works unilaterally in the hearts of people who aren’t seeking him, and causes them to seek him. Paul reminds the church in Rome that “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). If that’s true, if no one seeks for God, then how is it that some people end up finding him? Only by accidentally bumping into him on a dark path? No. Paul says, for anyone who knows God, the way they came to know him is that God turned the lights on. They were sitting in a dark room and happy to be in the dark, not looking for a light switch. Not seeking God. But God completely of his own initiative turned the lights on. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). And that is monergism—God alone working.

So this idea of “grace alone” says something about God and something about us. About us: that we are dead in sin. About God: that he is full of grace.

 

[1] For more on this see Latourette, History of Christianity, vol. 1, 173-181.

[2] Augustine, Confessions 10, 29 (Penguin Classics), 233. Could be translated, “Give what you command; command what you will” (Latourette, History of Christianity, vol. 1, 180). According to Latourette, it was these words that sparked the reaction from Pelagius, though no source is cited for this assertion.

[3] Augustine, City of God (New York: Image Books, 1958), 279. “No one was to be born of them who was less a sinner than they were. Such was the greatness of the guilt that the punishment so impaired human nature that what was originally a penal condition [punishment] for the first parents who sinned became a natural consequence in all of their descendants,” 252.

[4] The Councils of Carthage, 412 and 418 AD, Latourette, History of Christianity, vol. 1, 180.

[5] Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will. Cited in Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 76.

[6] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 74, 120, 166.

[7] In a portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe, David McCullough says that she “discarded the doctrine of original sin” as part of a move away from her “harsh Calvinist heritage.” She came to believe that “neither man nor nature was necessarily corrupt. Hers was a faith of love and Christian charity” (Brave Companions, 49). This characterization of original sin as a “harsh” doctrine is typical.

[8] Corruption and guilt are the two aspects of original sin. “Corruption and guilt present the problems that the gifts of sanctification and justification graciously address,” Cornelius Platinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, 29. Augustine’s phrase “propensity to sin and necessity to die” corresponds to these two aspects of original sin.

When to Fear Your Sin: Six Symptoms of Soul-Destroying Sin

Of course all sin should be avoided, but some sins are particularly dangerous. In his classic The Mortification of Sin, John Owen gives six marks or symptoms of sins that will require “extraordinary remedies.” The whole book is simply an extended reflection on Romans 8:13, “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of body you will live.” But some deeds of the body don’t die easily. So, what are the marks and symptoms by which we can identify these sins that we should particularly fear?

1. Inveterateness. An inveterate sin is a persistent habit. These lusts may have weathered many a storm and prevailed under the display of a variety of ministries of the Word of God. If this is the case do you think it will prove an easy thing to dislodge such a room-mate, pleading to stay? Old and neglected wounds can prove to be fatal, and are always dangerous. How long has you sin clung so closely (Heb. 12:1)?

2. Secret pleas of the heart for the countenancing of itself. There is a blind optimism that ignores failures and pretends experiences of grace. For a man to gather up his good experiences with God, to call them to mind, to collect them, consider them, and to try to improve them is an excellent thing. To do it, however, to satisfy your conscience when your heart is convicted with sin is a desperate device of the heart that is in love with sin.

3. Frequency of success in sin’s seduction. When the will finds delight in a sin, even though it is not outwardly performed, the temptation is successful. A man may not go along with the sin as to the outward act, yet if he embraces the desire of it in his heart, the temptation has prevailed. If a lust frequently succeeds this way, it is a very bad sign.

4. When a man fights against his sin only because of the consequences or penalty due unto it. A man who only opposes the sin in his heart for fear of shame among men or eternal punishment from God would practice the sin if there were no punishment attending it. On the other hand, those who belong to Christ have the preciousness of communion with God and a deep-rooted hatred of sin as sin to oppose to all the workings of lust in their hearts. Consider Joseph: “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”, my good and gracious God (Gen. 39:9).

5. When it is probable that trouble over a sin is a chastening punishment from God. This one may be harder to discern: how can someone know if there is the chastening hand of God behind his troubled heart? Examine your heart and ways. What was the state of your heart before you fell into the entanglements of the sin now troubling you? Were you negligent in duties or self-discipline? Is there the guilt of any great sin lying upon you that you have not repented of? If any of these are true of you, then you may be like Jonah, fast asleep while the storm of God’s anger surrounds you.

6. When your lust has already withstood particular dealings from God against it. Israel is often described in this condition (Isa. 57:17; 2 Chron. 36:15-16). God had dealt with them about their prevailing lust in several ways, by affliction and desertion; yet they held out against all. This is a sad condition, from which nothing but mere sovereign grace may set a man free, and no one in such a state should presume upon such deliverance.

It looks as if Owen is describing what we might call a habit. A habit is a routine action or thought process that has become so automatic that we often do it without rational premeditation, or sometimes even against rational premeditation. We may say in our heads, “I don’t want to do this. I shouldn’t do this. I will regret doing this.” And yet we proceed. Deeply ingrained habits are powerful, and when they are sinful they must be addressed with great fear and seriousness. They require “extraordinary remedies.”

What Next?
If you identify habits that reflect some or all of the six symptoms above, begin by confessing these sins to God and asking for his help to kill them. Your next step should be to acknowledge these sins to a brother or sister in Christ who is mature enough to help you further diagnose the sin and begin fighting against it to put it to death. Don’t assume you can fight embedded sin patterns alone without help. You can’t. This is why Paul says, “Brothers and sisters, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:2).

Counseling as Friendship: Lines of Help in the Local Church

friendshipcounselingCounseling is listening and responding to people, which seems simple enough. The difficult part is listening well and responding with wisdom. But these two aspects of counseling—listening and responding—are also the basic elements of friendship. You are a counselor for anyone you count as a friend. And likewise any counseling scenario demands the basic elements of friendship.

What does this look like in the local church? Say you’ve just met someone in your church who you quickly identify as being overly emotional, sensitive and co-dependent. Beyond that, it seems like she’s not aware of these things. What should you do? Well first, remember that she probably is aware of her troubles, but she might give them different names. Where you might say she is overly emotional, sensitive and co-dependent, she might instead say that she is traumatized from past experiences, has trouble trusting people’s good intentions, and is desperate to receive affection. We are usually aware of problem spots in our own personalities, but don’t usually diagnose them the same way that others would.

This is partly due to the fact that our lives are timelines not snapshots. The personalities we have are wired into us, but they are shaped in the context of life. This means that the person you think is overly emotional is speaking and acting out of some experiences. While this doesn’t excuse certain behaviors it may explain them, and at the same time may elicit compassion toward the struggler.

But what should you do next? If your first reaction is to recommend a professional counselor, please reconsider. Instead, let’s ask this question: How can you be used by God in helping someone like this with wisdom and love?

Paul writes a long letter to the church in Rome, full of theological and practical insight. Then near the end of the letter, he acknowledges that they likely already understand much of what he has just written.

I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” (Romans 15:14)

Because the church members in Rome were full of goodness and knowledge, they were capable to give counsel to one another. Or consider a similar comment Paul makes to the Colossians.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.” (Colossians 3:16)

When someone needs help and counsel, the local church should be the best place for them. Christ’s body should be full of people who know and love the “word of Christ,” the good news that we are broken people being helped by the Spirit to follow Jesus for the glory of God. People who know this gospel are the best kind of people to compassionately help strugglers find their way forward.

Many Christians have come to think that “serious problems” should only be dealt with by the professionals, by trained counselors or pastors. And while there may be a place for this, perhaps we have come to overly rely on professional counselors with the result that the church has atrophied in its ability to respond well to those in need of help.

When counsel is needed for problematic emotions, persistent sin struggles, relational conflict or complex decision-making, according to Paul, the first line of help is the relationships within the local congregation of believers.

In our church we think of responding to these challenging situations with four lines of help.

First line of help: friendships. Those with closest proximity to the struggler should be the first to help. Friends help first. Of course this can be intimidating for strugglers who would rather mask their struggles in front of friends and reveal them only to a counselor who remains at a safe distance. And it can also be intimidating for the friend, who might not feel equipped or competent to respond to the struggle.

Despite these challenges, every member of the church should take responsibility for the well-being of those around him or her. If your friends are struggling in marriage, don’t just tell them you’ll pray for them and leave it at that. Ask for details. Ask how you can help. Offer to meet consistently to pray together and to ensure that they are not giving up on working toward resolution.

Every Christian should be preparing to be a counselor—not a professional counselor of course, but at least a mature believer who can give wise help to those who are struggling. The author of Hebrews describes the mature as “those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14).

How can you help? Start with those two aspects of counseling: listen and respond. Listen thoughtfully, ask probing questions and think through what you’ve heard. Then respond after reflection and prayer. Respond with the word of Christ, the gospel as it applies to the particular challenge at hand. Of course there is a place for practical tips and insights gained from your own experience, but don’t start building a house until you’ve poured the foundation. Begin with the gospel and never lose sight of it as you go along.

Don’t underestimate the profound help that you may be able to offer to a struggler simply by listening thoroughly and responding with gospel hope.

Second line of help: care group leaders. We encourage all the members of our church to be involved in care groups where they can build spiritually helpful relationships. The leaders of these groups act as under-shepherds looking out for the safety and health of those in their group. So if someone in a care group is struggling, then in addition to the help of friends, the care group leader would be a wonderful next place to turn. Go to the leader and/or his wife to ask for prayer and to seek further counsel.

Third line of help: pastors and elders. Pastors and elders have often spent significant time preparing to counsel (reading and study) as well as actually giving counsel. Their knowledge and experience may be helpful when trying to sort out the complexities of certain struggles.

But members shouldn’t “hand off” their struggling friend to the pastor. Rather a pastor may be “drawn in” to give further counsel and perspective. The goal is that a struggler would not be relegated to finding help in only one office, but rather would have a dense network of relationships where they are finding help in a variety of forms from different people in the church.

Fourth line of help: professional counselors. I’m certainly not against the profession of counseling. Our church has good relationships with several Christian counselors and we occasionally recommend that a member go seek their help. But even then, we try to work together with the counselor to provide a spectrum of help, where friends in the church continue praying and encouraging, care-group leaders stay involved, and pastors and elders keep shepherding.

The professional counselor will play a different role than the person who is strictly a friend. Those who are struggling need a network of people around them who are each playing their role. The professional counselor will listen and respond at a different level than the typical friend, and yet the elements of both relationships are fairly similar. Which is to say that we must approach friends who are struggling not primarily as problems to be solved, but as people and as friends.

The main point here is that when it comes to the local church the bulk of counseling ministry should take place not in a counseling office but in the many relationships within the church. How are you preparing to be a counselor?

Resources for Preparing to be a Friend-Counselor

  • Side by Side: Walking With Others in Wisdom and Love, Ed Welch
  • The Pastor and Counseling: The Basics of Shepherding Members in Need, Jeremy Pierre and Deepak Reju
  • Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, Paul Tripp
  • When People are Big and God Is Small, Ed Welch

Repentance in the Wrong Direction

“They return, but not upward.” Those five words from Hosea 7:16 provide a brief anatomy of sham repentance from the preaching of the Old Testament prophet Hosea. In response to his message, Israel seems to repent of sin, but it turns out they only wanted to escape consequences.

Repentance is the key theme of Hosea’s preaching. He repeatedly delivered God’s message to Israel, that they must “turn” from their sin and “return” to Yahweh (the Hebrew word is used twenty times). Turning and returning are the same Hebrew word—it’s Hosea’s word for repentance. To turn/return describes what it means to repent, to acknowledge a heart that is off-course and then to make course corrections.

Sin Begins With Unbelief

According to Hosea, the sins of Israel were numerous. God, as if a plaintiff, lists his allegations against the nation: swearing, lying, murdering, stealing, committing adultery, general indulgence and drunkenness, prostitution, greed, idolatry and more (4:1-19).

But the most offensive sin is Israel’s worship of a calf-idol (8:4-6; 10:5-8; 13:2). Whatever the historical details about this calf-idol may be, it represents the first principle of Israel’s sin—Yahweh was no longer their god. They were worshipping at other altars. Their list of sins, though despicable, were but the outgrowth of this root. There was “no knowledge of God in the land…My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (4:1, 6).

This is where sin begins, unbelief. Not believing that God is full of grace. Not believing that his promises are true. Not believing that his commands for us are good and will lead to joy. When God’s character, his promises and his commands are unknown or unbelieved, what results is sin.

False Gods Give False Pleasures

Because Israel had turned away from God, and because their sins were ever-expanding, they experienced misery. They had sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind (8:7). Indulgence yields misery; false gods give false pleasures. The insightful author David Foster Wallace describes this.

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

David Foster Wallace saw half the truth. Anything else you worship will eat you alive. That’s true. But demoting Yahweh to equality with the Wiccan mother-goddess is damning with faint praise. A god with no contours—with no definition, or where definition is meaningless—is as parasitical as unconscious gods like sex, power, intelligence, wealth, or calf-idols.

Israel had been eaten alive by their false worship. “You have plowed iniquity; you have reaped injustice; you have eaten the fruit of lies. Because you have trusted in your own way and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed, as Shalman destroyed Beth-arbel on the day of battle; mothers were dashed in pieces with their children. Thus it shall be done to you, O Bethel, because of your great evil” (10:13-15).

Deliverance With No Deliverer

So Israel is left surveying the damage done by their unbelief. And their misery led them to cry out to God. “Come let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord…he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth” (6:1-3). This looks like repentance, like they are about to give up their false gods and regain their former knowledge of the one true God, Yahweh.

But again, God’s evaluation—“They return, but not upward”—clarifies the nature of their regret. Those words of resolve were short-lived. They wanted their prosperity to improve and they wanted peace in their land, but in reality cared little for their relationship to God. They wanted deliverance, but not the Deliverer. Genuine repentance aims at a return to God, not a removal of discomfort.

Why We Repent Falsely

The misery sin brings often leads us to false repentance. An employee determines to stop squandering work hours only because of growing anxiety she may lose her job. A husband doesn’t want to live with the bitterness of his wife, so he apologizes to heal the relationship for his own benefit. Living contrary to God’s design often brings misery, either internal misery (anxiety, guilt, frustration) or circumstantial misery (unfulfilled ambitions, broken relationships, lost jobs). And that internal/external misery pushes us to the edge of repentance.

So there’s the pattern. Unbelief gives birth to sin. Sin blossoms into misery. Misery brings regret. Regret compels initial changes. But regret quickly fades and old habits resurface. As God said of Israel’s initial resolve: “ Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away” (6:4). Repentance for the sake of self-improvement is not repentance, but rather further idolatry. 

Some Marks of True Turning

All the above thoughts are just some observations from Hosea regarding Israel’s false repentance. Much more needs to be said about the ongoing struggle we all have to live up to all that God has called us to, about true repentance, and about the inexhaustible forgiveness of Jesus Christ. So what are the marks of true turning? How can we avoid repenting in the wrong direction? Just jotting down a few suggestions here, maybe I can fill them out later.

  1. Repent before repercussions. Repenting before you are caught in act is evidence of sincerity.
  2. Be specific about the sin. What you did.
  3. Take your sins to the right place. The Christian can see more clearly than Hosea, there is only one place to take our sins: to Christ. He saw this only dimly (Hosea 3:4-5 predicts national repentance in the presence of a second David, an anointed figure, but this vision is ambiguous at best).
  4. Evaluate underlying motivations. Why you did it.
  5. Resolve by God’s help not to repeat. I won’t do it again. “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for God” (12:6).

How to Meditate on the Providence of God (Four directions from John Flavel)

flavel-mystery-providenceCreation was God’s originating work; he brings things into being. Providence is his continuing relationship to creation. “By providence we mean the continuing action of God by which he preserves in existence the creation which he has brought into being, and guides it to his intended purposes for it.” (Millard Erickson, Christians Theology, 387). The Bible teaches that because God created the world, he reigns over it as king. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all he pleases” (Ps. 115:3).

The providence of God is usually explained as having two aspects. First, God preserves the existence of creation (sustaining providence), and second, God is actively guiding and directing the course of human events to fulfill the purposes which he has in mind. “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings” (Dan 2:21).

God is the sovereign king over the lives of individuals. After receiving the child Samuel from the Lord, Hannah gives thanks and says, “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts” (1Sam 2:6-7). And the Lord says to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:5). The Lord is even sovereign over things that seem like accidental occurrences. “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33). Even the sinful actions of humans are part of God’s providential working. Probably the most notable instance of this is the crucifixion of Jesus, which Peter attributed both to God and to sinful men, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).

Knowing what providence is, how can the Christian go about meditating on the providence of God? John Flavel (c. 1627-1691) began his excellent book The Mystery of Providence this way, “It is the duty of saints, especially in time of straits, to reflect upon the performances of Providence for them in all the states and through all the stages of their lives” (based on Psalm 57:2). In the second part of his book, Flavel gives four directions for reflecting on the performances of providence for us.

First, labor to get as full and thorough a recognition as you are able of the providence of God concerning you from first to last.

  • There is not such a pleasant history for you to read in all the world as the history of your own lives.
  • Let your meditation be intensively full. Do not let your thoughts swim like feathers upon the surface of the waters, but sink like lead to the bottom.
  • You may look upon some providences once and again, and see little or nothing in them; but look ‘seven times,’ that is, meditate often on them, and you will see their increasing glory.

Second, in all your observations of providence have special respect to that Word of God which is fulfilled and made good to you by them.

  • The Word tells you that it is your wisdom and interest to keep close to its rules and the duties it prescribes (Deut 4:5-6). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
  • The Word tells you that your departure from the way of integrity and simplicity, to make use of sinful policies, shall never profit you (1 Sam 12:21; Prov 3:5). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
  • The Word prohibits your trust and confidence in the creature (Ps 146:3). It tells us that it is better to trust in the Lord (Ps 118:8). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
  • The Word assures us that sin is the cause and inlet of affliction and sorrow (Num 32:23). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
  • The Word of promise assures us that whatever wants or straits the saints fall into, their God will never leave them nor forsake them (Heb 13:5; Ps 91:15). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
  • The Word of God is the only support and relief to a gracious soul in the dark day of affliction (Ps 119:50, 92, 2 Sam 23:5). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
  • The Word tells us that there is no better way to improve our estates than to lay them out with a cheerful liberality for God, and that our withholding our hands when God and duty calls to distribute will not be for our advantage (Prov 11:24, 25; 19:17; Isa 32:8). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
  • The Word assures us that the best expedience for a man to settle his own interest in the consciences and affections of men is to direct his ways so as to please the Lord (Prov 16:7). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
  • The Word tells us that the best way to gain inward peace and tranquility of mind under puzzling and disturbing troubles is to commit ourselves and our case to the Lord (Ps 37:5-7; Prov 16:3). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?

Third, in all your reviews and observations of providence, be sure that you eye God as the author or orderer of them all.

  • In all the sad and afflictive providences that befall you, eye God as the author and orderer of them also. Set the grace and goodness of God before you in all afflictive providences. Eye the wisdom of God in all your afflictions. Set the faithfulness of the Lord before you under the saddest providences.
  • I see my God will not lose my heart, if a rod can prevent it. He would rather hear me groan here than howl hereafter. His love is judicious, not fond. He consults my good rather than my ease.

Lastly, work up your hearts to those frames, and exercise those affections which the particular providences of God that concern you call for.

  • As there are various affections planted in your souls, so there are various graces planted in those affections, and various providences appointed to draw forth and exercise these graces.
  • Let us suppose the most afflicted and calamitous state a Christian can be in, yet why should sad providences make him lay aside his comforts in God, when those are but for a moment, and these eternal (2 Cor 4:17)?
  • Mortify your inordinate affections to earthly things. This makes providences that deprive and cross us so heavy. Mortify your opinion and affection, and you will lighten your affliction. It is strong affection that makes strong affliction.
  • Under all providences maintain a contented heart with what the Lord allots you, be it more or less of the things of this world. This grace must run parallel with all providences. Learn how to be full, and how to suffer want, and in every state to be content (Phil 4:11, 12).

 

These four directions are taken from John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence, chapter 9.

How God Uses Heresy

heresyHeresy: A History of Defending the Truth by Alister McGrath, challenges the ascendent notion that heresy is the orthodoxy of history’s losers. That thesis, put forward by Walter Bauer and popularized by Bart Ehrman, reflects the postmodern preferences for a destabilized view of truth and opposition to authoritarian structures.

“It seems to have become axiomatic in recent years that heresy is morally and intellectually liberating, to the extent that orthodoxy is stifling. This tells us a lot about the cultural mood of postmodernity, and the agendas of some of those who find heresy to be attractive” (191).

At an even more popular level than Bart Ehrman, this appreciation for heresy as the underdog was seen by the massive appeal of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2009),

What is Heresy?

McGrath defines heresy as “a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of the Christian faith.”

How Does God Use Heresy?

Belief in the essential core of the Christian faith must constantly be reaffirmed in new settings. This often means that in order to be understood correctly, the Christian faith must be expressed in new ways.

“Orthodoxy is thus, in a certain sense, unfinished, in that it represents the mind of the church as to the best manner of formulation of its living faith at any given time.” (221) Orthodoxy is constantly developing, not away from Scripture, but toward it in sharper and clearer articulation. Old truths, retaining original integrity, receiving fresh clarity.

N. T. Wright points out an example of the unintentional benefit of heresy in Jesus and the Victory of God. He explains the history of the quest for the historical Jesus. Those familiar with this “quest” will remember that it began in 1878 with Hermann S. Reimarus (2 years after 1776, at the height of deism, a child of the Enlightenment). Reimarus intended to discount the claims of Christianity on the basis of history. “His aim seems to have been to destroy Christianity (as he knew it) at its root, by showing that it rested on historical distortion or fantasy….The thesis is devastatingly simple. History leads away from theology” (16-17).

But Wright goes on to point out the irony, “Reimarus, or somebody like him, must be seen, not just as a protester against Christianity, but, despite his intentions, as a true reformer of it. This is not to side with Reimarus and other Enlightenment thinkers against Christian orthodoxy; it is to acknowledge that the challenge of the Enlightenment might, despite itself, benefit Christianity as well as threatening it” (17).

“Reimarus pulled back the curtain, thinking to expose the poverty of Christian origins. But the invitation to look more closely, once issued, could not be withdrawn; and within the unpromising historical specificity of the story of Jesus we can now, I believe, discern after all the buried treasure of the gospel” (18).

The benefit of the quest for the historical Jesus? Reimarus dug a deep ditch between the faith of Christianity on the one side and the historical evidence on the other. But the digging of this ditch only forced thoughtful Christians to examine the evidence further and develop clearer articulations about the truth of Jesus and the gospel, thus filling the ditch back in, closing the gap between history and theology.

Many other historical examples could be given like this of heresies that have sharpened the thinking of the church. Heresy forces orthodoxy to develop greater clarity in its articulation of Scripture. In this way God has employed orthodoxy toward his own larger ends. Perhaps what Joseph said of his brothers’ scheme could also be said of heretics through the centuries: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).

Pointing Forward

Back to McGrath and Heresy. He concludes with this challenge to the faithful (a challenge being fulfilled perhaps by N. T. Wright in his trilogy, Christian Origins and the Question of God):

If Christianity is to regain the imaginative ascendency, it must rediscover what G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) termed “the romance of orthodoxy.” It is not sufficient to show that orthodoxy represents the most intellectually and spiritually authentic from of the Christian faith or that it has been tried and tested against its intellectual alternatives. The problem lies deeper, at the level of the imagination and feelings. If Christ is indeed the “Lord of the Imagination,” the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy ought to have significant imaginative implications. The real challenge is for the churches to demonstrate that orthodoxy is imaginatively compelling, emotionally engaging, aesthetically enhancing, and personally liberating. We await this development with eager anticipation. (234)