God’s Answer to Our Questions

This article appeared first on theroadtoemmaus.net.

I loved my kids’ Bible. It had these handy Q&A sections on every other page, revealing the Bible’s supposed answer to childhood’s biggest questions. I still remember the cartoon little boy asking big questions in a goofy-looking classroom setting. “To honor my father and mother, do I have to obey them all the time?”, or my personal favorite “If the Bible uses words like ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ does that make them okay for me to say?”

I pored over the answers, soaking them into my young heart. They were a little too helpful though, to the point that I never tried reading the actual biblical text in my kids’ Bible. Maybe you’ve shied away from the biblical storyline in a similar way, looking to other people’s commentary about Scripture. Only years later, after repenting of my sin and trusting Jesus, did I begin to understand the Bible as God’s Word—not merely a book of answers to our deepest questions. It’s not less than that, but it’s so much more.

Instead of a list of answers, rules, advice, or trite sayings—in his Word, God “reveals a person for us to know,” according to Trent Hunter and Stephen Wellum in their recent book Christ from Beginning to End: How the Full Story of Scripture Reveals the Full Glory of Christ (p. 28). In a sense, God’s answer to all of our questions is…Jesus. Hunter’s and Wellum’s book shows how the Bible culminates in the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Lord Jesus Christ (Revelation 22:13).

What Is the Bible?

Let’s start small. What is the Bible? Put simply, it’s God’s Word for us. Hunter and Wellum explain further on p. 38:

God has given us His Word over time and in coordination with his redeeming activity in history…Scripture is best viewed as a “word-act revelation.” God’s Word is his interpretation of his acts in history to redeem.

God’s Word did not come privately, as believed in Islam or Mormonism; God acted publicly. Then he graciously provided an interpretation of these redemptive works. As David Wells describes on p. 271 in his book No Place for Truth, “God himself supplies” the meaning of his actions. Real people like Moses, David, and Paul witnessed God’s work and were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” to write Scripture, all along “serving not themselves but you” (2 Peter 1:211 Peter 1:12). Even if the Bible is not to us, it’s always for us.

How Should We Read the Bible?

How then should we read the Bible? Let’s read every passage of the Bible in light of the rest of the Bible. Like a well-crafted puzzle, every piece of Scripture will fit perfectly with every other piece if we know how to put them together. This will be tough, but I’ll give you a few pointers that I wish were printed at the front of my kids’ Bible.

  1. Look down at the close context
  2. Look back at the continuing context
  3. Look ahead at the complete context

Since the Bible fits together like a puzzle, let’s look down at the close context to learn the shape and color of each individual piece. Looking down will involve some tools your English and History teachers taught you.

To understand the close context of a passage, you need to look at the literary form alongside the historical setting. Is this a letter with clear propositional statements, or wisdom literature with poetic structure? Also, what cultural assumptions shaped the original audience’s hearing? We need to know what a Samaritan is to understand Jesus’ good Samaritan parable (Luke 10:25-37). Free tools such as blueletterbible.org are helpful for both of these pursuits. We’re listening in to divinely inspired words from ancient authors living in different cultures than our own. Though the Bible is sufficient to illuminate itself, literary and historical tools supplement our approach to the text.

Once you know what a puzzle piece looks like, you need to look at what has already been completed, the continuing context (p. 49). When we follow the plot-line of Scripture, God starts to answer some of the most important questions a person can ask: “Where did we come from? What went wrong? What is the solution to our problem?” (p. 52).

The Bible’s narrative presents the answers to these questions in four major movements: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation. Genesis 1-2 explains that God created all things and all people, and all his creation was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Genesis 3, however, recounts the sin of Adam and Eve, and how that sin brought death and condemnation upon all people. “The fall establishes the terrible problem that the rest of Scripture is written to address” (p. 52). Graciously, God’s plan of redemption unfolds over thousands of years. His initial promise in Genesis 3:15 to send one who would crush sin and death is fulfilled in the substitutionary life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “We receive the benefits of the work Christ has done by grace alone through faith alone,” repenting of sin and trusting him (p. 53). In Revelation 21-22, we find “the direction of history is toward a new creation,” where God’s people will dwell with him (p. 53). So, while looking back at the continuing context, always check where you are in the story.

Finishing a puzzle finally requires looking ahead at the finished picture on the box, the complete context of the whole Bible. To look ahead, we need two main tools: typology and promise-fulfillment.

Typology and promise-fulfillment help us anticipate what’s coming around the corner in God’s plan of redemption. Types are biblical people, events, or institutions that “are real, present on the grand stage of human history, but they have a significance beyond themselves” because they point to a greater fulfillment. When John the Baptist points to Jesus and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God” his hearers would understand the connection to the Levitical sacrificial system (John 1:29). Lambs were slaughtered as substitutes for the people, atoning for their sin—a type fulfilled in Jesus. We also need the tool of promise-fulfillment. When God promises David that he would “raise up your offspring after you” and “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” we see this fulfilled in Jesus’ eternal kingly reign at the right hand of the Father (2 Samuel 7:12-13). Through typology and promise-fulfillment we start to see the Bible’s ultimate fulfillment and culmination in Jesus Christ.

Christ Came Through the Covenants

We could stop discussing how to read the Bible right there. But you may have noticed that when we looked at Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation I skipped over roughly 75% of your Bible. Yes, the Bible is about Jesus; he alone is the answer to all of our biggest questions. But how did Jesus come, and what exactly was he fulfilling? Hunter and Wellum explain on p. 39:

The Bible is centrally about what our triune Creator-covenant God has done to redeem us and to make everything new in Jesus Christ.

Did you catch that little word “covenant?” Hunter and Wellum explain that further on pp. 54-55:

The word covenant tells us something about who God is and how he acts. It tells us that God enters into relationships…A covenant is a chosen relationship between two parties ordered according to specific promises.

As you read your Bible, be amazed that the Creator of heaven and earth initiated gracious covenants with his rebellious creatures. Below is a quick reference of those covenants that are ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

  • God’s covenant with creation through Adam and Noah
    • Genesis 3; Genesis 9
  • God’s covenant with Abraham and his children
    • Genesis 12; Genesis 15
  • God’s covenant with Israel through Moses
    • Exodus 4:22; Exodus 19-20
  • God’s covenant with David and his sons
    • 2 Samuel 7
  • God’s new covenant in Christ
    • Jeremiah 31; Luke 22; Hebrews 8-9

For a quick look at each of these covenants check out pp. 56-60 of Christ from Beginning to End, or for a more thorough exposition chs. 5-15. The authors also gave helpful sermons on these covenants at The Gospel Coalition’s 2018 Southwest Regional Conference, available for free on TGC’s website.

Read the passages above and remember them when trying to understand where you are in the narrative of Scripture. Jesus Christ is the true and better Adam and Noah, the seed of Eve, the promised offspring of Abraham, the fulfillment of Israel’s law, and the great Davidic king.

Jesus Is the Answer

You’re never finished reading God’s Word, but you must start. Please don’t settle for other people’s commentary on the Bible, your favorite celebrity pastor’s wisdom, or simply your own opinions about God.

When we come to the Bible with questions, God gives a person to know and worship. God’s answer for us is Christ Jesus.

God Has Spoken

Christ from Beginning to End: How the Full Story of Scripture Reveals the Full Glory of ChristChrist from Beginning to End: How the Full Story of Scripture Reveals the Full Glory of Christ by Trent Hunter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If God has spoken (which he has), then it’s imperative that we understand what he has said.

Hunter’s and Wellum’s new book will help both new believers and older saints understand the Bible afresh. The first four chapters of Christ from Beginning to End provide Bible readers essential tools for reading God’s big story. Many people, myself included, have approached God’s word with intimidation and confusion. Using the tools presented in this book makes the Bible both approachable and clear in its message. After the first four chapters, Hunter and Wellum venture to tell the whole story of Scripture chapter by chapter. As the title reveals, this book shows just how important Christ is to God’s word.

Believers will be encouraged by this volume, and non-believers will be shown:
-How holy and good God is
-How rebellious and sinful man is
-How good Christ and his sacrifice is, and
-How one can be saved by turning from sin and trusting Christ

I fully recommend reading Christ from Beginning to End.

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Let’s rethink faith and politics in this divided age

How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided AgeHow the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age by Jonathan Leeman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Leeman’s book will help any person interested in politics (Christian or not) rethink the foundations of the public square. How the Nations Rage will also help the Christian disenchanted with politics to rethink their basic allegiances (nation, family, work, church, etc.).

Everyone pursuing certain political goals is serving their god or gods: the god of self-expression, the god of tradition, the God of the Bible, the god of privacy, etc. And the sooner we are honest about our foundational gods and values, the sooner we can work together to pursue true justice. Leeman calls Christians to be “principled pragmatists” in the public square—within the bounds of Christ-like morality and biblical principles, putting forth whatever pragmatic arguments work to persuade fellow citizens towards true justice.

Inside the church, however, is where the world should first see heavenly justice on display. The church of Jesus Christ, the gathering of this King’s followers, should be the first place swords are beaten into plowshares, widows and orphans are advocated for, ethnic and class dividing walls are broken down, and the gospel’s justice is made visible. This book helped me see that Christians ought not to speak with political certainty where the Bible leaves room for wisdom. I’ve been guilty of this, and doing so actually divides the church where the Bible does not.

Take these ideas and this personal application. Then explore them further in Leeman’s book.

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Thousands of Time Machines

Reflect on this quote from pp. 136-137 of How the Nations Rage by Jonathan Leeman:

Picture thousands, even tens of thousands, of time machines suddenly showing up all across the land. The nation gasps. News cameras crowd around them. Government officials and police forces quickly engage these strangers as they climb out of their time machines. It feels like a science-fiction movie about an alien invasion. Yet the people say they are from the future. They represent a coming kingdom, they explain. Interestingly, they speak English, dress like us, and otherwise seem pretty normal.

That said, they admit they want to change the way we live. It almost sounds like, well, what’s the word—colonization? For instance, they want to persuade everyone to join them and give primary allegiance to their king. “But no need to worry,” they contest. “We have no intentions of overthrowing the government. In fact, we will encourage people to obey the present government.” What they mean, though, is that they want people to obey the government for the sake of their king. That sounds a little risky. They also explain that each time machine will hold its own weekly meeting, where they will teach everyone who joins to live according to their king’s standards of justice and righteousness. As a result, yes, they expect some of their members will oppose some of our businesses and industries (though not by taking up arms). And they expect some of their members will work to change some of our laws (but mainly by working through the rules of the system). They conclude by telling us to think of their time-machine gatherings as embassies from the future that we are all hurtling toward, and that they are trying to give us a leg up on that future now.

Goodness gracious—what do we make of these strange people? Are they a political threat or not? Some of us feel like they aren’t. After all, they promise not to take up arms against the government. Others of us feel like they clearly are. They want people to identify with their king and to change the way people live.

Perhaps this illustration sounds far-fetched. But it’s exactly what first-century Palestine experienced when the Christians showed up.

This book’s helped me reimagine the rather ordinary weekly gathering of my church as a living, breathing embassy of a coming kingdom—transplanted from the future to the here and now. This changes how I pray, serve others, read God’s word, and generally view the world around me in this age. I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in politics, Christian or non-Christian. Also any believer with a lukewarm interest in politics should read this book to start rethinking their default political allegiances (nation, family, church, work, etc.). I’m grateful for writers like Leeman.

Confessing With Augustine, Part II

This is part of a series; you can find the other parts here. The hosts of a great podcast, Mere Fidelity, are discussing Augustine’s Confessions (Henry Chadwick’s translation). Here I’ll submit some thoughts on each “book” of Confessions after reading and listening to the most recent discussion. No promises on writing pace. Now let’s talk about pears, y’all.

Imitation: Like the Most High

The fourteenth chapter of Isaiah depicts an ominous celebration. We learn of God’s people praising the Lord for their spiritual and physical freedom. What makes this celebration ominous is what comes next. We get to look behind the curtain, into the heart of the Day Star who is “fallen from heaven”–namely, Satan. In his heart, Satan says, “I will make myself like the Most High.” This hellish ambition should make the hearer shudder.

Even in his evil pursuits though, Satan affirms that the one true God is just that: the one and only right Lord of all. His imitators on the earth and under the earth will never measure up. They can only hope to be “like the Most High,” playing God as it were in their own parody kingdoms.

Sin works similarly. It can only make cheap distortions of what God has established in Christ. Yet in its half-baked imitations of good things, sin actually points back to those good creations and characteristics of God. Augustine picks up on this ironic result. Notice how he points the imitating vice back to the original good.

Pride imitates what is lofty; but you alone are God most high above all things. What does ambition seek but honour and glory? Yet you alone are worthy of honour and are glorious for eternity. The cruelty of powerful people aims to arouse fear. Who is to be feared but God alone?

Curiosity appears to be a zeal for knowledge; yet you supremely know all. Ignorance and stupidity are given the names of simplicity and innocence; but there is no greater simplicity than in you. And what greater innocence than yours, whereas to evil men their own works are damaging? Idleness appears as desire for a quiet life; yet can rest be assured apart from the Lord?

Augustine goes on for nearly a whole page listing avarice, envy, anger, and other vices. All of these reveal something of the way the world ought to be. They reveal something of the God they are imitating. Augustine claims these “vices have a flawed reflection of beauty.” Like a carnival mirror’s reflection, vice is an ugly knock-off of good.

These flawed reflections become relevant when we consider the reasons behind our sins. Extending gossip, road rage, even cursing all are distortions of the true and good things they’re reflecting.

Augustine describes a somewhat innocuous–dare we say, small–sin he committed with other teenage boys. This band of “naughty adolescents” approached a nearby pear tree late at night. The pear tree didn’t belong to any of their families, but a neighbor. That didn’t stop them from stealing “a huge load” of pears, not to eat…but “to throw to the pigs.” As Alastair Roberts pointed out in the Mere Fidelity discussion, the similarities to Eden (stealing fruit from a tree, multiple sinners convincing themselves sinning is okay, a small sin having big implications, etc.) are immediate. Later in Book II, Augustine’s repentance is a model for our turn from sin and trust in Christ alone.

Augustine digs deep into his heart for the source of this fruit(less) sin. He goes down the list looking for some rational reason. Were the pears beautiful? Were they delicious? No, they were “attractive in neither colour not taste.” Was Augustine lacking food? No, the pears were “something which [he] had in plenty and of much better quality.” He indeed “had no motive for [his] wickedness except wickedness itself.”

Some sins fall into the “flawed reflection of beauty” category of vice, but still others happen for the love of sin itself. For the pleasure of doing what is not allowed. For the thrill of doing what is wrong. (In Part I of this series, I began by claiming Confessions is a strikingly human work, and here is another example of that raw humanity).

But we need some way of thinking about these unexplainable sins. If they don’t even qualify as imitations of good, then what are they? To help us, Augustine also provides another model of sin—another hole in our nature apart from Christ.

Inversion: Trading the Higher For the Lower

Some sins, like Augustine’s pear thieving escapade, do not even attempt to imitate the character of God. They do not have a “flawed reflection of beauty.” They are altogether ugly and backwards. These sins are backwards in the sense of a scale turned around on itself, inverted.

Yet sin is committed…when, in consequence of an immoderate urge towards those things which are at the bottom end of the scale of good, we abandon the higher and supreme goods, that is you, Lord God, and your truth and your law (Ps. 118: 142). These inferior goods have their delights, but not comparable to my God who has made them all. It is in him that the just person takes delight; he is the joy of those who are true of heart (Ps. 63: 11).

Augustine uses this scale analogy as a framework for humans: desires of the mind (reason, virtue) being higher, desires of the body (cheap thrills, sexual appetites) being lower, and desires of the soul being caught in the middle able to go higher or lower. This juxtaposition of the mind and body is foreign to the Bible, but it is still helpful as an overlaying grid. Like in children’s educational books, if we flip the next clear overlaying page on top of Scripture we can learn more of God’s character and more of our own.

Sometimes we sin because our minds try to “play God” in a sense, like the imitation described above. Yet other times we sin because it feels good. Our bodies like it. It is that simple. We are not fooled into thinking our sin is actually good. We merely feel the thrill of it in the moment, then the moment is gone. When we steal something for no reason, speed while in no real hurry, give in to momentary sexual temptation, or speak an untrue coarse statement—these sins and others are destructive thrills. They excite, they entice, they coax, but they never, never, ever deliver.

Here is where Augustine’s extrabiblical opposition of mind and body can help. When we invert our scale of virtue, when we trade the higher goods for the lower vices it is like a child trading a crinkled-up 100-dollar bill for a particularly shiny quarter. The child’s desires are out of order, and so are ours. Our God-given moral scales are flipped around, and so we trade the higher for the lower. Only Christ’s work and the Holy Spirit’s ministry can flip the scale back, only God can recalibrate our hearts by giving us new ones.

Christ’s work (on His way into the tomb and His way out of the tomb) secured our freedom, and the Holy Spirit shows us how to use that freedom. The freedom we have in Christ is not a base debauchery with simply no limits. It is more like the warm freedom felt by a child wrapped up in her father’s arms. Like the empowering freedom felt by a bride perfectly loved by her man. The freedom we have in Christ is more like the utter dependence the five thousand had on Jesus’ compassion before He satisfied their bellies and their souls.

These ideas of freedom go well beyond Augustine’s writing in Book II, but it is helpful to understand just one or two of the “higher and supreme goods” we so often abandon. Let us not trade the higher goods for the lower evils. Let us not go the way of Esau, trading our birthright for a bowl of stew.

Friendship: Nest or Enemy?

Augustine’s account of pear theft also highlights another dimension of sin: fellow sinners. Friendship is an inherently powerful facet of human life. It is powerful either for good or for bad.

Human friendship is also a nest of love and gentleness because of the unity it brings about between many souls.

And the same man writes just a few hundred words later:

Friendship can be a dangerous enemy, a seduction of the mind lying beyond the reach of investigation.

What high praise, yet what an indictment. In Book II, Augustine understandably focuses more on decrying friendship’s temptations. His friendships were certainly more dangerous enemies than nests of love. While examining some different models of sin–bodily, mental, higher, lower–Augustine makes several asides similar to this concerning what we might call groupthink.

Yet had I been alone I would not have done it…As soon as the words are spoken ‘Let us go and do it’, one is ashamed not to be shameless.

So while examining our hearts for patterns of sin, let us examine one another’s hearts as well. Always restoratively, let us call one another back to Christ who offers true friendship. The friendship of Christ does not ensnare us; it is not a “seduction of the mind.” Indeed the friendship of Christ and His church is a real communion of the freed.

“How does God create a people?”

Conversion: How God Creates a People (Building healthy Churches)Conversion: How God Creates a People by Michael Lawrence
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Conversion is often misunderstood, assumed, or ignored. Yet it is the one and only means by which God makes a people for himself, by which Christ builds his church. Not grasping a biblical understanding of conversion can lead churches to counterintuitive–even harmful–practices.

This book from Michael Lawrence is full of both hard, solid doctrine and soft, messy pastoral application. A wide range of Christians can glean benefits from these 130 pages.

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Confessing With Augustine, Part I

This is part of a series; you can find the other parts here. I found an excuse to read through a Christian literary classic this fall. The hosts of a great podcast, Mere Fidelity, are discussing Augustine’s Confessions (Henry Chadwick’s translation) more or less each week. Here I’ll submit some thoughts on each “book” of Confessions after reading and listening to the most recent discussion. Each part of the series will correspond with a book. Perhaps my brief reflections here will give you an excuse to pick up this 1,600-year-old masterpiece.

Most Merciful

Confessions is a strikingly human work. The very title reveals much of our condition. Confessions of what? Sin? Truth? Guilt? Confessions by who…and confessions to whom exactly? It’s not The Confessions either, as if one man could put down on paper the sum total of his confessions.

It’s only appropriate then that Augustine begins humbly with two quotes from the Psalms: “You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised” (47:2) and “great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable” (146:5). To even start to confess anything to a holy God, one must know the inherent goodness and otherness of Him. We do not have an equal on the other end of our prayers. This is both bewildering and comforting.

Lord, I would seek you, calling upon you—and calling upon you is an act of believing in you. You have been preached to us. My faith, Lord, calls upon you. It is your gift to me.

After referring to even his own faith as God’s gift to him, Augustine moves into some of his most poetic reflections on the nature of God. I’ll quote a large section here because, as Derek Rishmawy pointed out in the Mere Fidelity discussion, this is one of the best passages outside Scripture on the doctrine of God — who He is, His very nature.

Who then are you, my God? What, I ask, but God who is Lord? For ‘who is the Lord but the Lord’, or ‘who is God but our God?’ (Ps. 17:32). Most high, utterly good, utterly powerful, most omnipotent, most merciful and most just, deeply hidden yet most intimately present, perfection of both beauty and strength, stable and incomprehensible, immutable and yet changing all things, never new, never old, making everything new and ‘leading’ the proud ‘to be old without their knowledge’ (Job 9:5, Old Latin version); always active, always in repose, gathering to yourself but not in need, supporting and filling and protecting, creating and nurturing and bringing to maturity, searching even though to you nothing is lacking; you love without burning, you are jealous in a way that is free of anxiety, you ‘repent’ (Gen. 6:6) without the pain of regret, you are wrathful and remain tranquil. You will a change without any change in your design. You recover what you find, yet have never lost. Never in any need, you rejoice in your gains (Luke 15:7); you are never avaricious, yet you require interest (Matt. 25:27). We pay you more than you require so as to make you our debtor, yet who has anything which does not belong to you? (I Cor. 4:7). You pay off debts, though owing nothing to anyone; you cancel debts and incur no loss. But in these words what have I said, my God, my life, my holy sweetness? What has anyone achieved in words when he speaks about you? Yet woe to those who are silent about you because, though loquacious with verbosity, they have nothing to say.

There’s no mistaking it. Augustine writes of the God of the Bible, the God full of mercy in Christ. As other commentators have noted: following this God is free, but it will cost us everything. Reading this passage has a similar effect as reading Isaiah’s firsthand account of the throne room of God in Isaiah 6. Woe are we to speak. Woe are we. And yet, God’s mercy answers.

Later, in a turn of subject towards his own infancy, Augustine describes exactly what or Who he is addressing: “Nevertheless allow me to speak before your mercy, though I am but dust and ashes. Allow me to speak: for I am addressing your mercy, not a man who would laugh at me.”

This humility may sound to our modern ears unhealthily anxious. We may reflexively assume Augustine needs to find some self-worth, some affirmation. But I’d characterize his posture as closer to fear of the Lord than needless self-deprecation. Where on this earth can a man find self-worth, self-esteem? Apart from the dignity of being created in the image of God and apart from the freedom of being redeemed by Christ…from what wellspring does a person’s worth come? Augustine rightly recognizes the goodness of God’s otherness, and his response is fear and trembling. Our modern sentiments don’t immediately empathize, but neither did Augustine’s contemporaries as we’ll see in successive books.

Some describe Confessions as Augustine’s autobiography. That’s fine, but I don’t think the author’s primary aim is to recount his life. The mercy of God from the quote above (“I am addressing your mercy”) is a kind of prism through which Augustine shines the events of his life. From Augustine’s infancy onward, his life reveals God’s great mercy. This is the beginning and response to Augustine’s confessions of sin and belief. God’s mercy is Augustine’s prism or lens, because only through it can he understand life itself. Again, Confessions is a strikingly human work. And its author understands humanity through understanding God in His mercy.

Utterly Good

After refelecting on God Himself, Augustine does turn the subject to his own life. Even still, Augustine addresses God — his “holy sweetness” — while recounting time in the womb, infancy, and later primary school. Augustine addresses the Lord because he sees all good in his life coming from the Lord. There’s a stark contrast between the immense goodness of God and the polluted motivations of the world, and yet God brings His goodness into the world. Describing nursing from his nurses as an infant, Augustine writes:

For the good which came to me from them was a good for them; yet it was not from them but through them. Indeed all good things come from you, O God, and ‘from my God is all my salvation’ (2 Sam. 23:5).

All good things, even milk.

The goodness Augustine describes in the rest of Book I is not simply an attribute ascribed to different things found in the world. It is an insurgent goodness reclaiming what has been corrupted. “You made [man] but did not make sin in him.” The good that Augustine saw and experienced in childhood had its sole origin in God, not in Augustine. God’s otherness, His distinctiveness, is a good thing.

Much of Book I is discussion of education, literature, and what it means to love good things. Children are, actively or passively, taught what to love on their journey to adulthood. Augustine laments over parts of his childhood education. Augustine angrily mourns for being taught to love destructive stories that separated him from the Lord.

The author describes a cruel irony of education better than I could:

I was later forced to learn about the wandering of some legendary fellow named Aeneas (forgetful of my own wanderings) and to weep over the death of a Dido who took her own life from love. In reading this, O God my life, I myself was meanwhile dying by my alienation from you, and my miserable condition in that respect brought no tear to my eyes.

What is more pitiable than a wretch without pity for himself who weeps over the death of Dido dying for love of Aeneas, but not weeping over himself dying for his lack of love for you, my God, light of my heart, bread of the inner mouth of my soul, the power which begets life in my mind and in the innermost recesses of my thinking.

Can we not say the same thing of adult stories of love, wandering, and death? While marching headlong into such worlds of life and loss, we do not watch our own tragedy. Moreover, we neglect our own hero in Christ.

Little boys and girls do not only love distracting, empty stories. They also love play. Adults love play too, but “‘the amusement of adults is called business’”. In both childhood and adulthood, the playing field can be a breeding ground for sin.

The schoolmaster who [disciplined] me was behaving no better than I when, after being refuted by a fellow-teacher in some pedantic question, he was more tormented by jealousy and envy than I when my opponent overcame me in a ball-game.

Stories, play, and education are inherently neutral. They are merely the vessels of either good or bad things.

I bring no charge against the words [taught in literature lessons] which are like exquisite and precious vessels, but the wine of error is poured into them for us by drunken teachers.

(Matthew Anderson rightly laughed at Augustine’s melodramatic tone here in the Mere Fidelity discussion). Envy, altruism, faithfulness to the Lord, anger, deceit, humility. Every combination of these and more are fostered through the means of raising children. And adults, with or without their own children in the home, have a unique responsibility to teach love for good things in younger generations.

Through schools, the church, family devotions, hospitality, play — there’s one thing more important and good to foster love for than anything else: “eternal life promised to us through the humility of our Lord God, coming down to our pride”.

Adults cannot make children Christians any more than adults can make other adults Christians. But children do look to their mentors to learn what to love. We ought not waste opportunities to demonstrate and foster love for the Lord.

My sin consisted in this, that I sought pleasure, sublimity, and truth not in God but in his creatures, in myself and other created beings.

The Lord Himself is the source, perfecter, and end of all that is good. That’s a big statement, and it’s worth saying because of its implications. Augustine’s early years of life reveal how merciful God is and how good those implications are.

 

“Can we all get along?”

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jonathan Haidt answers a seemingly unanswerable question: why are good, morally upstanding people divided by political and religious vitriol? Dr. Haidt’s answer isn’t simple, and it’s not easy to swallow.

1. We make snap judgments in moral dilemmas, and then justify those decisions with reason later.
2. We all have at least 6 moral “taste buds” (Care vs. Harm, Liberty vs. Oppression, Fairness vs. Cheating, Loyalty vs. Betrayal, Authority vs. Subversion, and Sanctity vs. Degradation), and of course conservatives and liberals have completely different flavor palettes–combinations of active moral foundations.
3. Lastly, we all are motivated by our tribe, or “hive”, who we cooperate with to compete morally against other tribes; we are more fiercely loyal to our tribe than we often realize, motivated by addiction-level pleasure from seeing our tribe win.

I said it wasn’t easy to swallow. But Dr. Haidt excels at proving these findings with evidence. He also writes humorously, more like a happy-go-lucky tour guide than a dry professor.

This is a book of moral psychology, not moral philosophy. I was frustrated to read Dr. Haidt backing away from saying certain moral decisions actually were right or wrong. But to be fair, he never claims to explore those questions; Haidt is only interested in how and why people make the choices they do. We, Christian or otherwise, would all do well to understand how and why people make moral decisions.

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Constantine, Controversies, and Councils

Recently I was given the chance to teach some church history to our church’s college students.  Not being even close to a church history expert, I relied heavily on Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s free resources on the topic and Dr. Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language.  Then, taking CHBC’s prepared lesson I attempted to apply it as much as possible to our culture of Christian assumption—where it’s just normal to claim faith in Jesus.

The reign of Constantine and the following ~150 years apply strikingly well to our current environment of assuming the gospel.  The lesson covered Constantine’s rise to power, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Augustine of Hippo, and the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon.  It was a real joy to consider the questions asked by the church at this time (312-451 AD) and to ask similar questions for the 21st century.

Two main themes emerged from our discussion:

  1. God faithfully preserves His people through both persecution and the temptations of power.  Local churches make up God’s “plan A” to put Christ on display.
  2. Church history is family history.  However joyous or embarrassing certain episodes of church history may be, we cannot escape our family lineage.

Give the lesson a listen at the link below.  I welcome any feedback.

Constantine, Controversies, and Councils

A Map and a Field Guide

Understanding the spiritual brokenness of their external culture alone makes a church bitter. Understanding the spiritual brokenness of their internal culture alone makes a church self-loathing. Understanding both makes a church submissive to Jesus as their only hope of reconciliation. (And understanding neither makes no church at all).

Two books written by pastors in the past two years have specifically addressed these two sides of the same coin: original sin. They don't leave readers without hope though, far from it.

Disappearing Church1 by Mark Sayers drafts a sociological blueprint of the current cultural assumptions and aspirations outside the church. Sayers references thought leaders as diverse as Martin Buber, Harold Bloom, James K. A. Smith, Carl Jung, Irenaeus, Andy Crouch, and Hans Urs von Balthasar to map the tectonic shifts under our noses. It’s difficult to aptly summarize these shifts partly because Sayers covers so much to make his case. In 176 pages he sweeps through Philip Rieff’s important depiction of three cultures, ancient Gnosticism versus the West's neo-Gnosticism, the general decline of institutions, and living the “nice life” in a beautiful, lonely world.

It's needless to say these pages pack a punch. Sayers isn't shy about his role as jeremiad here. But it’s not easy to indict a “clean, well-ordered” society with “amazing coffee shops, creative industries, great public transport, and a new civil religion of tolerance and progressive values” (p. 38). Yet Sayers indicts, and the thrust is this: the West has steadily moved from credal, communal Christianity to a self-actualized, radically individualistic, allegedly harmless post-Christianity. He accomplishes this with minimal nostalgia and minimal snarkiness. Sayers's diagnosis isn't unique these days among pastors, but his prescription is.

Whereas many church leaders would look at the West as an exciting new mission field like Pakistan or Laos, Sayers recognizes that “post-Christianity is not pre-Christianity; rather post-Christianity attempts to move beyond Christianity, while simultaneously feasting upon its fruit” (p. 15). We cannot use the tried and tested relevance tactics of the pre-Christian mission field in this altogether new environment. We cannot “pitch” the gospel; we must live it in what Sayers and other commentators have dubbed “creative minorities”.

While speaking specifically about the western church’s external culture, Sayers leaves many matters of its internal culture to other authors. Page 146 crescendos with a broad vision of what could be the church’s finest hour though:

Maybe with the spotlight elsewhere, like the early church that was mostly ignored as the crowd flocked to its bread and circuses, we can get on with the business of being the church. Of preaching the good news, discipling, worshiping, helping the poor, building Christian community. What if being a city on a hill is not about broadcasting with the bright spotlights of the day, but rather allowing the world to be bathed in the gentle magnetic glow of the kingdom?

And how gently magnetic is the glow coming from church life described in The Compelling Community2 by Jamie Dunlop and Mark Dever. If Sayers drew a topological map, Dunlop and Dever have written a field guide. To my knowledge these three pastors were not collaborating, but they have together outlined a precise, wide-ranging, biblical understanding of spiritual brokenness inside and outside the church. Sayers shows how the wider culture needs the gospel, and Dunlop and Dever instructs the church in how to put that same gospel on display through relationships.

While The Compelling Community gets specific down to the daily lives of church members, the broad underlying message is that “building community” on something other than the gospel doesn't differ all that much from a country club, group of friends, or any other association of already similar people. “If this is the sum total of what we call 'church community,' I'm afraid we've built something that would exist even if God didn't” (p. 21). Demographic-based ministries, comfort-based commitment, senior pastors who function more like CEOs; these are each signs of a church resetting its foundations on something other than Christ’s reconciling work. (They also happen to be the designs of frontier missionaries working in pre-Christian cultures as opposed to post-Christian.)

Dunlop and Dever offer a high ecclesiology with simple instructions. “The local church is God's chosen mechanism for protecting an unadulterated gospel” (p. 42). It’s also God’s chosen method for showing off that gospel through what the authors call “gospel-revealing relationships”. What do nonbelievers think when they see retirees vacationing with young married couples? Or when a white family of five loads up the minivan to eat a Ramen dinner in a Jamaican student's dorm room? What could possibly join these disparate peoples—dare we say tribes—together? What could possibly make a people for God? Read 1 Peter, then read The Compelling Community.

The answer touches every aspect of life together. These 213 pages pack less of a punch and more of a shepherd’s guiding hand. The hand leads us to a theology of musical worship, closed communion, when pastors should use the words “trust me”, how to pray as a group, communal evangelism, when pastors should not use the words “trust me”, preaching, and a myriad of other applications. Dunlop and Dever don't cover everything, but like a good field guide their book builds a framework for thinking and deciding. And this framework is strikingly biblical(; intermittently do a search of “one another” in your New Testament while reading the book).

Disappearing Church and The Compelling Community go hand-in-hand, seeming to look two different directions—outward and inward. But indeed they are looking at the same King.


  1. Sayers, Mark. Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience. Chicago, IL, Moody Publishers, 2016. Link 
  2. Dunlop, Jamie, and Mark Dever. The Compelling Community: Where God's Power Makes a Church Attractive. Wheaton, IL, Crossway, 2015. Link