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Author: Henry Neufeld

What Do I Do About Grace?

What Do I Do About Grace?

This question has come up a number of times in my Romans study group, and it’s a good one. I’m not one to call all questions good. In fact, I think if you ask the wrong question, you often end up with an answer that leads you astray.

In this case, however, we’ve gone from Romans 1 through 11, and we’ve been learning about God’s faithfulness and God’s grace. One class member commented that the answer to any question I ever asked should be “God’s grace is sufficient.” That’s not a bad answer. Sometimes, however, we need to go a bit further.

Paul’s going to do just that starting with Romans 12. Now some people write, teach, and preach as though Paul talks about theology and then makes a break with his theology in order to talk about action or ethics. I disagree. Paul makes clear in Romans 12 that he is building on what he has said before, and what he says is very well founded. We should read his “therefore” in 12:1 as tying this together.

Because God is faithful, because God has given us his grace, here is the result.

Using the Word “Law”

One of the critical elements in understanding Romans, which leads up to this point, is Paul’s usage of the word “law.” When I was in my late teens a person I respected greatly told me that the big mistake in reading Romans and Galatians was misunderstanding “law.” This person told me to understand it as “Torah,” i.e., the practice of Judaism. The issue of the law here was one of whether gentiles needed first to be Jews.

This is doubtless one of Paul’s points, but it is far from Paul’s whole point. That definition works better in much of Galatians, where requiring gentiles to practice Judaism, with the entry point of circumcision, is much more central. In Romans, Paul uses “law” in some different senses.

Our tendency here is to try to find out which one sense Paul is using and then apply it throughout, but this may not be the best approach. “Law” can have quite a sizable semantic range, including God’s divine law and purpose for all time, specific bodies of law, such as the Torah as a whole, or the instructions to Noah, or even specific commands. English usage of Law doesn’t quite extend to a body of broad instruction, but that is part of the range of Paul’s usage.

A Diagram

Here’s a diagram I provided to my class. I’m going to write a few notes about it. Obviously, this is abbreviated. We have spent months getting to this point with my Romans class.

I started to put all the notes and the text on the diagram, but that proved a bit too complex and confusing. So herewith a few notes.

God has made no plan ever that was not intended to produce a holy people. God has a glorious purpose for us, and reaching that purpose perfectly is the ultimate goal. We have, however, all fallen well short of that, and we continue to fall short. But God’s grace is sufficient.

There should be no balance between faith and works or grace and works, because these are different things and cannot be balanced. There is no amount of works that I can do that will force God’s hand or earn God’s favor. I like to use navigation by the pole star. Think of yourself orienting your journey by sighting Polaris. You do not believe you’re going to get to Polaris by walking in that direction, but you do believe that you’ll get to another destination. The fact that you cannot reach it doesn’t make it less of a guide for what you can reach. (You can find my calculations on the north star here, along with much other verbage!)

The key here is the invitation of grace, the invitation to be “in Christ,” in which we allow God to work on us and change us, but we cease judging ourselves or others according to the ultimate perfection of a goal we cannot possibly attain.

Idolatry

The short line at the bottom left deals with idolatry. The true problem with idolatry is that it places something less than God in the place of God. That can be our own desire to attain, to be in control. We like to be in control. We feel safer if we can say that God will take us to heaven because we have completed a list of chores. But that’s placing something less than God in God’s place.

Similarly, we can place something less than God’s perfect law in the place of God’s law. (My friend Pat Badstibner has written about this in The Law Is Not Soggy Corn Flakes.) I use Paul Tillich’s terminology to some extent, that idolatry is making something not ultimate your ultimate concern. So we have those who decide that this perfection thing being unattainable, we need to find something attainable and do that.

Doing the attainable with God (see Philippians 2:12-13 and John 15:1-8) is just fine. God knows where he can take you, and through sanctifying grace will guide you there. (Here’s where I depart from Wesley’s plan. I don’t believe in Christian perfection. I believe that is only accomplished with glorification. It should be made clear, however, that the perfection Wesley spoke about was not the attainment of all of God’s glorious purpose for us either.)

We start to step into idolatry when we start to trim God’s standards so that they look better to us. By this, again, I don’t mean looking at attainable goals. In fact, that is precisely what God has done with us. I show this in my diagram by the lines representing God’s commands and laws for times and circumstances.

God’s goal is always the same, but God works this out in many different ways in various times and places.

God’s Grace Is the Context

On the right I put the long red line that represents God’s grace. That is the one and only thing that connects us to an infinite God. Only God can cross that gap.

Let me apply this now to the particular question that came up in class multiple times. What do we do about sin in our midst? Do we forgive, excuse, confront, ignore?

And here is where we need to watch out. Matthew 7:1 is, I think, one of the most misunderstood and simultaneously disobeyed passages of scripture. It’s an important command. We also have Matthew 7:15ff regarding watching out for false prophets and knowing them by their fruit. Is this latter not an act of judgment?

I would say that we have to regularly inspect fruit and make decisions based on that. We might have to choose between one person and another to lead the children’s ministry. We might have to decide whether a pastor or teacher is acting as a false prophet. Those would be acts of judgment in one sense.

Guidance

The guidance I see in my chart is simply this: We also judge and inspect fruit in the light of the law and the laws.

First, we understand ourselves to be the objects of infinite grace. We are, ourselves, sinners, in need of God’s grace and action. I realize many find this hard to accept, but I see it in the context of broader reality. I am so pitiful that without God’s creative power I would not exist at all. Thus saying I need God in order to do good is a minor derivative. From that flows the idea that all depends on God.

Second, as recipients of God’s grace, we know that God is working in us and through us and that we are witnesses to the working of God’s grace. I often tell Christian audiences that there’s no question whether you will witness. The question is whether you will be a good witness or a bad one.

Thus we conduct all our fruit inspection in the context of the knowledge that we are recipients of God’s infinite grace, and not as superior people looking down upon lesser mortals. That position is left to God.

So how does that help one decide whether to confront or remain quiet?

Simply this: It sets the context. What is right becomes the question of what is the right thing to do as a recipient of God’s grace. Proverbs 26:4-5 provides a similar issue. Read it and then ask yourself the question. If I find a fool speaking, which should I do? Listen to the Holy Spirit and decide in the context of grace.

All to God’s Glory

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all things to God’s glory.” So ask, “Am I doing this for God’s glory, or am I doing it to justify myself or even glorify myself?” and “Is this done as an act of grace, or an act of condemnation?”

Substitutionary Atonement: One of Many Perspectives

Substitutionary Atonement: One of Many Perspectives

I have often annoyed people by saying both that I believe in substitutionary atonement, though I prefer not to use “penal substitutionary atonement,” and also do not believe it is the sole reason for, view of, or metaphor to describe what God did in the atonement.

So it’s nice to link to Roger Olson, who may be a bit less critical of substitutionary views than I am, but yet explains both the positive in this theory of the atonement and also some of the misunderstandings. If nothing else, this may help us discuss serious presentations. Well worth reading.

Freedom and Responsibility

Freedom and Responsibility

I posted an extract from Dave Black’s blog on The Jesus Paradigm today. (I do this because you can’t link to a specific post on Dave’s blog, and I have his permission.) Dave is talking about Galatians 5:13-15, and what freedom means.

Rather than commenting on this passage myself, I want to put a quote from one of my other authors alongside Dave’s. I like to do this both in terms of seeing where we disagree, but also to note where we might come from different denominations and/or tradition streams, and nonetheless agree.

This is from Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide by Bruce Epperly:

We are called to freedom, Paul proclaims. Many people believe that freedom means doing exactly what they want without regard to its impact on others. In individualistic North America, we hear the following cries of freedom: “It’s my money and I can do whatever I want with it,” “It’s a woman’s choice,” “It’s my property and I will use it as I please,” “Don’t infringe on my right to gun ownership,” “It’s not hurting anyone, I can do what I want in my private life.” Paul sees Christian freedom from a very different perspective.

Freedom finds its fullest expression in loving relationships that take into consideration the needs of others. Christian freedom is not coercive, it is invitational, and it invites us to let go of our individualistic possessiveness and live in light of God’s grace and generosity, manifest in our willingness to sacrifice some aspects of our freedom for the well-being of others and the communities of which we are a part.

“Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (5:13). Freedom involves responsibilities as well as rights. In fact, in Christian community, Paul asserts that freedom involves sacrifice for the greater good of those around me. Paul’s understanding of freedom within the Christian community is captured in his Letter to the Romans: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:14-15). True freedom goes beyond self-interest to embrace the best interests of those with whom we interact.

Epperly, Galatians, 57-58

I find that a critical element of my Bible study is to consult a variety of sources, not just different theological positions, but also different approaches. In my current study of Romans, for example, I follow a theological commentary, an exegetical commentary (from a different perspective), and a linguistic/technical commentary.

Of Christians and Ayn Rand

Of Christians and Ayn Rand

There have been a number of articles recently discussing Ayn Rand and her Christian supporters and (supposed) followers. One of these is by Sheila Kennedy, who doesn’t do all that bad, though I still see things differently.

Key Questions which I Might not Answer

The key issues I encounter are:

  • How can a Christian enjoy or appreciate Ayn Rand, who is very vigorously atheist?
  • Can Ayn Rand’s philosophy be reconciled with a Christian worldview and way of life?
  • Why do so many young Christians and other conservatives get so excited by Rand’s writing?
  • Is Rand a good writer, enjoyable apart from her philosophy?
  • Rand was not tolerant of any form of disagreement. It was all or nothing. Can one appreciate her writing while rejecting some or even most of her philosophical conclusions?

My Experience

First, for full disclosure, I went through almost all of the views of Rand that I’ve ever heard over the course of some years. I first rejected the very notion of reading her when an undergraduate professor suggested I read The Virtue of Selfishness. After some time, I read her novels, starting with Atlas Shrugged, and as I was searching for a place to be at the time, attempted being a follower. This didn’t work either, though I spent some time at it, so I set her aside. Then I found a different form of appreciation that was not entirely approval, that comes from me as an editor and publisher.

Thus my question becomes why people do like her, and how to understand and discuss the related issues.

I’m not going to structure this according to my list of questions, but I’m going to try to answer these questions in the course of my response.

Is Ayn Rand a Good Writer?

My first issue is with those who say that Ayn Rand is a bad writer. The label “bad writer” is always problematic. As a publisher, I can use it occasionally, such as for the individual who wanted me to publish his novel which he had hand written on lined paper in a scribble I could not read. I think I can safely refer to that as bad writing.

Beyond that, the issue becomes a bit more difficult. I don’t like reading Dostoevsky, but he is very well-liked and read, and in fact produces quite a number of quotable items. My dislike for reading that particular style does not make it bad literature. It just makes it literature I don’t like. I use someone that literati tend to believe must be appreciated in order to emphasize my point.

Then there are elements of popular literature that many of the literary elite, taking elite here in a positive sense, do not appreciate. I’ve encountered this attitude toward science fiction. It’s not really literature. You need to read something serious, like Dostoevsky! So here we have literature which is read by many, but is not as much appreciated in academia. I think graphic novels and superhero literature would qualify as well. The academic says it’s not good, but the public consumes it with delight.

One of my top five favorite authors in science fiction is David Weber. He can illustrate both sides. There are actually things I don’t like about Weber’s writing, such as his tendency to rehash history, rather than allow his readers to either fill in the blanks or go back and read previous books in the series. He can hammer a theme to death, and then beat on it for some time afterward. Each element is, however, good writing in itself, and Weber is popular in science fiction. Does the critic/editor in me win out, or the relaxed reader? Definitely the latter.

I take a non-prescriptivist approach to literature as I do in linguistics. A word’s (or expression’s) meaning is derived from its usage. A book’s value is determined by readers. Not a particular set of readers! Those readers who are influencers of the specific reader. You may argue, even correctly, that one book is of more value than another, but those arguments become part of your effort to influence.

Note that I refer here to fiction. A non-fiction book can be judged on more objective, agreed standards, such as the accuracy and referencing of information, the clarity of the presentation, and so forth. Even here, however, the audience’s appreciation is a key. I’ve seen reviewers criticize a short book for not covering more ground. For example, books in my company’s Topical Line Drives series, in which the authors are limited to 44 pages, or a bit less than 13,000 words. Various reviewers have commented that the author should have covered some aspect of the topic. Well, blame the publisher — me!

So I don’t see the question of whether Ayn Rand is a good writer or not as terribly relevant. The complaint amounts to “I don’t like her style.” There are a number of elements of it that I don’t like. That didn’t prevent me from reading her books, and I doubt it will dent her popularity.

Rand and Her Christian Followers

Let’s look at her Christian followers. Is there a way to reconcile Rand’s philosophy with Christianity? I would say there is not. What one can do is take certain aspects of her philosophy, and her political and economic views, and reconcile them with certain versions of Christianity.

Therein lies the problem. There is no single Christianity to which one can compare Rand’s philosophy. My own view of Christianity and of what it means to follow Jesus is not compatible. But I am not the only person wearing the label “Christian.” It’s worthwhile to note that Rand is not the only person wearing the label “atheist” either. I’d hope that was obvious. I know a few atheists who despise Rand in a way few others can.

It might be better to ask whether one can extract ideas of value from her writing without also accepting her strident atheism; indeed, her strident everything. Yes, one can. I did.

My problem with what I did was simply that I found that the things I extracted were available from other sources. During this same period I read Ludwig von Mises, especially his book Human Action. Pretty much everything I found of value in terms of economic and political ideas in Rand was derived from von Mises, and is much better explained in his works. (Note here the value judgment, in my opinion, von Mises does the better job of presentation.)

A Note on Economics

I can’t leave this subject without noting an issue regarding current economic controversies. Conservatives of my acquaintance are opposed to government efforts at caring for the poor, or of income redistribution (as they see it). Liberals of my acquaintance consider this opposition heartless. As I talk to these two groups, and the wide spectrum of views around them, I rarely hear someone who truly does not care. Doubtless there are some such. The issue for most is how do you accomplish the goal of making life better for people?

What I see is that we have people primarily concerned with production and others primarily concerned with distribution. To truly help the most people and make lives better, we need to bring these two elements together. How can we be more productive, and how can more people benefit? Wealth is not actually static. It can be produced. Distribution doesn’t always occur in an effective manner, despite capitalist claims to the contrary. (This is partially because nobody is immune from seeking control, so capitalists try to arrange the government not according to capitalist principles of supply and demand, success and failure, but rather to make the playing field better for them.)

What’s Left?

So what’s left for me of Rand is the story of the constructive cultural rebel who is not impressed by the standards of those around him, but who makes his or her own choices according to what seems best by his or her own standards. Note here that I like The Fountainhead better than Atlas Shrugged.

But what makes people like these novels, works that deride the values of the faith they claim? If nothing else, one must accept that Ayn Rand’s atheism is contrary to any form of Christianity, and this atheism is pervasive, vigorous, and unyielding.

I believe the core of this liking is the same as the reason people like Star Wars in the modern era and liked apocalyptic literature in ancient times. In the story, you get to be one of the beleaguered good guys clearly differentiated from the bad guys, with extremely clear moral standards. Gray is eliminated. It must choose one side or the other. It’s very easy to identify with the good guys.

In the way this sort of literature progresses, one is constantly pressured to see that there is no good on the other side, and thus any tendency to compromise is suppressed. There will be a battle. Either good or evil will win. In the biblical book of Revelation, either God or Satan will win. One goes in the lake of fire; the other rules forever. There is no thought that there might be a compromise solution.

Many of us are attracted to this. We’re tired of working in gray areas, and we’d like to always know precisely what is right and what is wrong. The more that has gone into a project, the less likely we are to accept that it might not be pristine.

The more people who die in a war, the harder it is to get people to admit that the war might have been ambiguous at the start. People will divide into supporters of one side or the other, or at least into vigorous supporters vs. vigorous opponents of a side. “We presided over the death of thousands for an ambiguous goal,” doesn’t sit that well.

God and Satan

Rand, like Revelation, presents us with a god and satan scenario. She’s an atheist, yet she has “God the producer” as the ultimate good guy, the one to whom undivided loyalty is due. Idolatry is giving anything to the non-producers. On the other hand there is Satan the Moocher, who must die in the death the producer creates by withdrawing his producing power. It’s a powerful metaphor that tends to draw the reader onto the good side, produce hate for the bad side, draw a sharp distinction, and eliminate the grays.

Is this type of literature good or bad? In this question we come full circle. I’m not going to decide whether literature is good or bad. I’m not certain things would be much different of Rand didn’t exist. I think the tendency is there in the human heart, and it’s going to find it’s justification. Certainty attracts, even when wrong. The morally clear and certain is always going to find a following, no matter how flawed the line of division is.

For I too believe that good will win and evil will fail. But for me good encompasses a very broad spectrum, that the good involves the ability to respect and appreciate differences and ambiguity, and to use them to learn and to grow. And that happens, in my view, only with God.

(Featured Image Credit: Openclipart.org.)

A Challenge to See

A Challenge to See

This past Sunday I was invited to preach in my home church, Chumuckla Community Church. It’s a real privilege to speak on the last Sunday of the year, hopefully rounding up where we have been and presenting a challenge for the future.

I was offered the epiphany scriptures, and used Matthew 2:1-12. I’m not going to summarize the sermon. My message was simple: We need to learn to see Jesus in people and respond accordingly. I contrasted the “god made manifest” of an Antiochus Ephiphanes, as opposed to the baby in Bethlehem. Where is it that you see Jesus?

Even further, how to you pursue the mission of Jesus? Is it according to the power-seeking ways of human politics, or is it in the giving ways of the Bethlehem story? Do you see God working when the powerful make power plays, or when servants serve?

I referred to Matthew 25:31-46. There are many debates about this passage. Years ago I read it as a performance based righteousness, and as identifying the specific type of righteous performance required. (I still think it identifies righteousness for a follower of Jesus.) I later realized that nobody who thought they were going to heaven actually were doing so, and those who were, didn’t realize it. (I understand the varying views of just what is involved in this judgment. I’m not concerned with that difference at the moment. The good guys don’t realize they’re good; the bad guys think they’re good.)

In the last couple of weeks, however, I became aware of a tragedy in the story. I’m not in any way presenting this as an interpretation of the parable. The blessing of a story, however, is that it can convey many things. The tragedy I see is that nobody at all was aware of the fact that they were seeing Jesus as they looked into the faces of people they either helped or didn’t. Not one recognized what they were seeing. This isn’t a question of salvation, but rather of the joy of living this life.

We can argue that we should help the homeless, as an example, on the basis that we ought to do good things. We ought to help those less fortunate. Unfortunately, this can result in condescension. We look at the person as a way to punch our “good person” ticket. Or, perhaps, we perform whatever act we do out of a sense of duty. “It sure is annoying, but I suppose Jesus wants me to help this person.” This leads, for example (and I’m guilty!) to looking the other way when we don’t have cash, or don’t intend to give to a particular person.

I’m not arguing that we need to give money to each and every person who asks. There is stewardship. There is the need to actually help. But what we do need to do is treat every person first as a human being, as one Jesus came to save, as bearing God’s image, and as a way in which we can see the face of Jesus. Hopefully, the other person will have the opportunity to see Jesus in us at the same time.

This is not a New Year’s resolution. I expect to fail at it many times. But my challenge to myself, and to you, is to see Jesus much more frequently, and not turn away from the faces in which he is trying to show himself to me.

And yes, you may see Jesus in the face of someone in need, someone that society might consider less than you. But you also might see Jesus in the face of one of the world’s elites. They also have a need to be treated as people.

As I asked the congregation of Chumuckla Community Church: Did you see Him? Will you?

Link: Linguistics and Gospel Origins

Link: Linguistics and Gospel Origins

Dave Black had some interesting notes on this subject today, which I posted to The Jesus Paradigm. There is a constant debate on what is “correct” usage. We have this with regard to modern usage. I’ll have authors cite some manual against their editor, usually on optional items.

So why do we expect all usage to be equal in Koine Greek?

Here’s Dave’s money quote, I think:

Lately it’s become clear to me that the question concerning correctness and incorrectness in language is not so much a linguistic one but a sociolinguistic one. In other words, it is people who determine what is correct and incorrect in language, not textbooks. In a sense, then, if everybody says “It’s me,” then this construction is correct. 

A Moment with Brevard Childs on Exodus

A Moment with Brevard Childs on Exodus

I’ve appreciated the work of Brevard Childs since I first encountered him via his Isaiah volume in the Old Testament Library series.I just finished with the first section in his Exodus volume (see below), and I have to say that I find it even better. Childs takes note of source and redactional issues, but subordinates them to hearing the text as a part of the canon.

Sections view the text in its Old Testament/Hebrew Bible context, its New Testament use, history of exegesis and finally theological reflections.

Admittedly, many pastors would find it difficult to follow all the material, but the time taken to think both broadly and deeply about a passage will produce a reward in understanding and the ability to share one’s reflections with others.

I may review this book when I have read it through, but the start was so rewarding that I wanted to comment immediately.