Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Prodigal God

I'm currently a little over half-way through the book by Timothy Keller called "The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith" in which Keller gives an eye-opening exegesis of the popular parable of the Prodigal Son. As with any Biblical text that we consider "familiar," we can fall into the trap of believing we already understand the meaning. But Keller challenges the most mature Christian and student of Scripture to look at this text anew.

In the popular "Sunday-school" reading of the parable, the focus falls on the father's love even in the face of the younger son's rebellion. The obvious implications fall on God's freely given grace to sinners as wretched as we are. Personally, this is a text and an application that I can identify very easily with. My laundry list of active rebellion and sin piled high during my teenage years, and when I finally came to sense the depth and riches of God's grace I was truly overwhelmed.

But, for many have spent their entire lives in the church, never acting out in rebellion, the story has more of a distant, philosophical meaning. There's little-to-no personal realization of weighty sin and "total depravity" because those traits have never been evident in the morally strict and righteous members of the church. "Oh, that's so nice of God to save all those really nasty people," they may think.

Keller, however, draws the reader's attention to the elder brother. Having obeyed perfectly and slaved all his life for the father, doesn't he, too, deserve a feast and a fatted calf? The reflections that Keller brings out in the book I won't spoil too much here, but I particularly enjoyed his charge to the morally strict in the Church: why do you do what you do? Is it out of love and adoration for God, or a deep-rooted sense that by following His commands you can in fact control your own life? Jesus' original audience, of course, was the Pharisees gathered around Him, angrily watching as Jesus dared to teach sinners about God.

If you've spent a life of chastity and purity out of devotion to God, I applaud you. But, be warned that there are two kinds of lost people for whom Jesus seeks. The first is obvious, the younger son who rebels. The second, less obvious, is the morally upright who do not fully understand why they obey as they do.

I'll leave you with this story from Elizabeth Elliot: for whom do you carry the stone?


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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Who Needs an Atonement Anyway?

As we reach the mid-way point in our series on The Person and Work of Christ, we are at the pinnacle of Christ's past work: Atonement. Sadly, however, the very need for an atonement has been abandoned by some in exchange for a much less offensive picture of God. Without a proper understanding of Why the atonement was required, we can never fully appreciate What the atonement was and is. The seemingly "unfriendly" attributes of God—His wrath and justice—cannot be denied without also defaming His glorious love and mercy.

There are four bases on which the full beauty and praiseworthiness of Christ's work of atonement rests. Ironically, the first two are anything but beautiful. The first basis for an atonement is the existence of sin itself. Even this core principal of the Christian faith has been dismissed of recent by pastors who desire to preach a less offensive gospel. But, my friends, we cannot preach a gospel that is altogether unoffensive to a people who offend God most severely. Without an understanding of sin, who needs an atonement anyway?

Second, I'm afraid, is even far less popular than the first: God's wrath. The Biblical truth that God is wrathful toward sinners is a fundamental basis for the atonement and crucial in understanding the splendor of what Christ did for us. As far back as Genesis 2:17, "when you eat of it you will surely die," we see God's ordained retribution for disobedience. Nahum 1:3 assures us that, "the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished." Elsewhere we read, "the wages of sin is death," (Rom. 6:23) and a host of other verses that I couldn't even begin to count or cite. The fact is, as surely as you and I have sinned, we deserve to have God's wrath executed upon us, causing eternal death and torment in total separation from Him. If there were no wrath—no imminent punishment for sin—then who needs an atonement anyway?

Third, and often overlooked, is God's righteousness. Not only does God possess wrath, but He possesses wrath in tandem with a perfect righteousness that requires His justice be fulfilled. He cannot dismiss the verdict, death. He cannot merely brush off and forget the wrongs we have done. I refer to this as "grandpa in the sky" theology, or GITS, as I've come to call it, somewhat tongue in cheek. God's wrath and His righteousness (i.e. justice, see BSL - Righteous) together exclude any option of an acquittal. He will not simply lighten up in order to help some failing students pass. He will not write pardons just to boost his popularity. God will prove Himself to be a righteous Judge. If He were to abandon strict justice, then who needs an atonement anyway?

But finally, just as it seems all hope is lost, the fourth basis for an atonement is equally as certain as the first three: God's mercy. In His mercy, God determined a plan by which our sin, His wrath, and His righteousness could converge in one act of mercy on His children and provide a means for our salvation. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (Rom. 5:21). After all, without God's mercy, who could be atoned for anyway?

Over the next two weeks, I'll be diving deeper and deeper into the aspects of the atonement. I pray that through a greater appreciation for what Christ did, we may develop a deeper sense of worship for who He is.

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Saturday, November 1, 2008

The book of Job: Suffering and God's Sovereignty

This post comes in response to a question posted on AskScripture.com where anonymous writes: "Why did Job suffer? What examples of suffering were given in the book? Is Job's behavior questionable at times?"

I could spend years studying and writing on the book of Job and never totally unpack all that can be found entwined in it's passages. One of the most insightful studies is to read the seemingly logical observations about God and His righteousness that Job's three friends offer, consider how they are subtly flawed, and realize how commonly we make the same mistakes in our own theological judgements. But, anonymous has asked some very specific questions about the suffering we see in the book, so let's take a look.

Allow me to answer these questions a bit out of sequence. First, what examples do we see? Job lost pretty much everything but his own life, and even that he began to wish would end. In the first test, 1:13-19, raiders from nearby tribes destroyed his farm implements (donkeys and oxen) and his merchant vessels (camels). Meanwhile, it was natural disaster that destroyed his inventory (sheep) and even his own family. Now, I do not wish to downplay the value of human life lost, but I want to make sure we understand the economic meaning that a large family had in Job's day. While we can personally relate to his loss of loved ones, we might not directly relate to what this meant for Job's social status at the time. In essence, the first test was a stripping of all material blessing. The second test, 2:3-8, is where Job loses even his own health, the last shred of status that he could have. In his culture, to suffer skin boils was the curse of people on the lowest rung of the social ladder.

So what kind of suffering is this? It's tangible. It's something we can all comprehend, and some can even empathize. Some argue, however, that this is not related to the suffering of the New Testament, which was religious persecution and warranted endurance for a greater pragmatic significance than just the unfortunate dealings of so-called fate. However, was Job's suffering not a religious persecution? Who instigated it and why? It was Satan (literally the Accuser) who sought to oppose God by accusing a the ultimate character of Godliness in his day, Job, of disingenuous faith. It is clear by the narrative that none of this calamity would have befallen Job had he not been so "blameless and upright" (1:8; 2:3).

So, with that said, let's consider the first question posed by anonymous. Why did Job suffer? If we carry my last statement to the logical conclusion, it can be said that Job suffered as a result of his righteousness. How unjust is that! What an atrocious and wrong outcome of Job's obvious devotion to God. To deepen the mystery, no matter how you slice it we cannot absolve God of the ultimate responsibility for Job's suffering. God permitted Satan to implement the torment, but when he was petitioned "why" by Job, He did not skirt the responsibility by pointing blame on Satan. God, in essence, responded, "Sure I did, and what are you going to say about it. I'm God. Period."

In order to understand the book of Job without becoming inflamed with anger towards God, it is imperative that we accept by faith a truly Biblical view of God. In studying this story, you must understand that the original writer and original readers, monotheistic Hebrews, viewed God as unquestionably righteous. Therefore, Job would have been in utter sin to call the character of God into question. It simply wasn't an option. We look at these accounts through our Westernized lenses to the world and ask "why would God do this" as though we have the right to ask. Job, his friends, and the Israelites that studied this text did not share the same outlook. (See the "BSL - Righteous" download for a deeper understanding).

In fact, the book of Job carried the Hebrew doctrine of God's righteousness into a new level of understanding. Most of Israel's wisdom books (the Pentetuch, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes) presented the theme of blessing from God as a just outcome of one's righteousness, and likewise curses were for those who lived unrighteous lives. This was the crux of Job's friends' advice as they thought surely he must have sinned to deserve this. The book of Job, however, does not allow the Hebrew to predict and influence God's judgements in a pattern of justice that WE as mere humans deem appropriate. The conclusion is that He is God, He will do what He pleases, and we dare not question. God is sovereign.

This is not an easy conclusion. In fact, it is precisely what frustrates most readers of Job. It's so unsatisfactory to us in our Westernized minds that we continue looking and thinking "surely there is more." I am reading "Come Next Spring" by Jim Welter, and while we obviously share differing theological views and hermeneutic methods, his treatise of Job is worth the read for anyone struggling with the unquestionable sovereignty of God.

So, to the third question, was Job out of line in his response? In one subtle way, yes, and God shamed him for it. Job, like his friends, understood God's justice to be tit-for-tat just as many people today demand that He be. In 42:4-6, Job finally understood how incomprehensible God really is, and therefor how incomprehensible His judgements, and therefore repented for presuming that he could comprehend how God should and would honor Job's righteousness.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Courtroom Christianity

Not long ago, I appeared in court over a small claims suit. Lucky for me, I grew up on Matlock and Law & Order... I knew the lingo and walked into the courtroom quite confident. I entered exhibits A, B, and C, just like they do in the movies. I called the judge "Your Honor" and resisted the urge from time to time to scream "Objection" just for good measure. In the end, however, it was not my courtroom savvy that won the case. The truth is, I was RIGHTEOUS already, the Judge merely confirmed it.

The same will be true when we approach the judgement seat of Christ, though my defense will be much different. This Sunday, we'll be discussing the legal jargon that was thrown around in courts that Moses judged. As believers in Christ, we are declared tsaddiyq (righteous), but not as a result of our own tsadaq (justify; to make righteous).

In your understanding and use of the word, what would you say it means to be a righteous person? Is it a state of being, or a state of behavior? A status or a striving?

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