Saturday, March 29, 2014

Dignity and Depravity

Perhaps I should have begun this whole discussion on imago Dei with the creator-creature distinction that we discussed recently because the chasm between us and God truly is immense—far beyond anything that a contemporary American Evangelical is prone to admit; and recognizing this distinction gives us aim to say with the Psalmist,

What is man that you are mindful of him,
The son of man that you care for him? 
Yet you have created him,
[For a little while] lower than the heaven[ly host], 
And crowned him with glory and honor.

(Psalm 8.1-8)

 Nonetheless the discussion is begun and creator-creature came late into the fray. But today we’re handling a different distinction that must be made: dignity and depravity.

Introductory Thoughts on Interrelationship

We were created with dignity in the image of God.

We were also depraved (those of us who now believe).

Our depravity means that every action and thought, word and deed, activity and passivity was tainted with wickedness, rebellion, and lack of the glory which is due to God. It does not mean that we are as bad as we could be, but that we can never do anything to merit the favor of God. It does not mean that we could do nothing ‘good’ (or ‘better’ is more appropriate), but rather that anything ‘good’ which was done had been done with improper motive. Some Calvinists may be uncomfortable with my last statement, but it is true that good, compassion, care, assistance, responsibility, etc. are always preferable to evil, indifference, neglect, destruction, and irresponsibility—even in the lives of unbelievers.

In other words: just because they aren’t a Christian does not mean that they should be excused from basic morality. They are after all made in the image of God, endued with responsibility, relationship, character—existing as representatives of God to a created heaven and earth.

Stated positively: wisdom can still guide the unregenerate into making a good choice or choosing the better the path, with all consequences and benefits that it entails even though it will not grant them access into heaven’s courts.

A brief application: this means that we can legislate morality in good conscience with God’s revealed will. Hence, Natural Law ethics.

Essence and Economy… not the answer

The apparent starting point for those familiar with discourse on the TriUne relationship of the Godhead is a distinction between essence and economy or ‘Being’ and ‘Acting’. In fact, that’s where my mind first ran to thinking: “We are made imago Dei—that’s essence. But we act in depravity—that’s economy.” Unfortunately it isn’t the answer. We believe that we sin because we are sinners rather than we are sinners because we sin. What’s more the language in Scripture concerning the wickedness of man is often one of essence; think for example of the parable/proverb: Out of the heart the mouth speaks—or—if the source of a fount is sick, then its outpour will be—or—a bad tree bears bad fruit. These are all statements of essence: your being affects your actions. So, you are made to be in the image of God… AND you are depraved. Dignity and Depravity is the being.

Difference of Plane…not the sufficient answer

Next we might think; well maybe they just affect different planes or dimensions. Maybe they are both ‘essential’ but one is the essence of being made and the other is the essence of…what? That’s the problem. Perhaps they do affect different planes so that they do not contradict; the problem is unearthing the categories to which each belongs. We could return to our creator-creature distinction to try to find our answer, but it doesn’t yield much result since that is primarily a discussion of dissimilarity… what is not like God. I suppose our categories might be morality (1) and representation (2), wherein our morality is evil-tainted and our representation is dignified. So we near the answer, but leaving it at difference of plane is insufficient; we must go one step further.

The Yeast is the Answer

Jesus on several occasions explains things with a bread analogy: just a little bit of yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. And I believe this is our answer, both theologically and philosophically. The mixture is the mixture with or without the yeast: in fact the yeast culture is foreign to the batch, it is something that is added, but once added it becomes a part of the whole batch in such a way that you cannot distinguish between the was and the is. In the same way you cannot distinguish between the is and the does. The whole of the batch has been tainted by yeast and colors it, even uniting itself to the very being of the dough. It changes what the dough does, and it changes what the dough is, but it does so, not by removing something that was but by adding something, and by transforming its essence to something ‘same-but-other.’ The falleness and depravity of man is not a matter of losing the dignity which God has placed within humanity, but rather it is a matter of transforming the dignity into something other.

C.S. Lewis explains that the greater a thing is the more capacity it has both for good or for evil. A rock can fulfill good purposes or evil purposes, but we would never fear a rock ruling an empire with an iron fist. Even a tsunami can kill and destroy, but we do not blame a tsunami for doing it maliciously as if it was premeditated, having a mind and moral compass. We can be upset at animal or pleased with it too, but we wouldn’t give it authority to write our obituary. The greater the essence of something, the greater capacity it has for good or for evil.

So when the crown of creation has been transformed with wickedness, it no longer ceases to represent God to the created orders; rather it does so with treacherous effect: the character of God it maligns and construes into grotesque caricatures, the sovereignty it uses to dominate and enslave—subjecting others to its self-gratifying will, the relationship it is intended to picture it rips and destroys—pointing fingers and casting blame, seeking others to disseminate its hatred.

It is only the grace of God the Holy Spirit restraining the yeast of depravity within us that recalls us to remembrance thence from whence we came and draws to mind a reminiscence of the character of God, the rule of justice, and the harmonious self-giving relationship of our Triune God.

Still any action will never merit God’s favor, but any action toward the good source will fight against the active cultures wreaking havoc on our being.

You, unbeliever, are both dignified and depraved.

You, believer, are dignified, were depraved, and have been remade imago Christi.


Friday, March 28, 2014

Put a Face on It

You have heard it said, “If you like it, then you better put a ring on it!”
And “Keep Portland weird. Put a bird on it.”
But I say to you, “Humble yourself; put a face on it.”

What is this—other than a silly Bible joke and a strange expression?

A reminder that theologies you disagree with are formed by a person, and actions that annoy you are committed by people made in the image of God.

My church history professor, Tony Chute, once said, “If you actually knew most of these people we call heretics, you would think they are pretty good guys.” [That’s a paraphrase.] But the thinking is true, and I’m willing to bet that nearly all of these guys thought they were honoring and worshiping God (as my fiancĂ© has pointed out)…they were simply deceived. In fact, Jesus said just that: “There will come a time when people who kill you will think they are offering service to God.” Another professor, Jeff Lewis, said, “Honestly, if we look at it from a human perspective the Arians just lost the argument. Plain and simple.”

We’ve discussed heresy and heterodoxy here before; let me summarize it by stating straight and clear: Thanks be to God that our redemption rests not upon flawless theology, but upon his grace through the righteousness of God the Son. You and I are always an inch away from heretical and blasphemous thought—in fact, every time we sin we are acting upon those thoughts! Even on our mightiest days, we are yet a breath away from divine treason.

Criticism is Easy
As things stand in fallen humanity, criticism is simple, natural, and easy. How quick we are to lounge upon our couches or sulk in our cars lamenting how far gone everyone is. If only they drove as I do, then the highways would never have traffic. Little wonder they don’t drive as you, sir, since you are perfect and they are not. Since our first parents fell, it is easy to point the finger and decry others for their faults. And why not?—at least we aren’t as bad as them. Besides, I’m showing the righteousness of God and pursuing excellence. False: you are showing the self-righteousness of man and pursuing arrogance.

It’s easy to listen to a preacher and to point out the 4 things he said that weren’t quite precise. Of course there were 4 imprecise things, he’s speaking nonstop for 40 minutes! It’s easy to look at a celebrity and showcase their failings as a leader in society. Of course they’ve failed: they’re a sinful human living 24hours/7days a week/52 weeks a year/30 or 40 or 60 years; and much of the time they spend in spotlight. It’s easy to criticize bureaucracy and systems—the so-called service on the other line of the phone or other side of your inbox. It’s easy to criticize the numbers in statistics. Everything is so easy…

Because we live in a world where humanity is constantly thinking about themselves, and only the redeemed of God have any power to truly forget themselves in worshiping him and loving others.

So Take the Hard Road…
If you can. Choose the more difficult—and the better—path. This is not a demand that you don’t offer critiques when valid; this is not a push toward an undiscerning eye; this is not the typical ‘tolerant’ “don’t judge” discourse. This is a reminder that criticism is the labor of tearing down. Criticism works against creation, destroying what has been wrought. This is a reminder that people exist. People actually live. And people have minds. And hearts. Blood pumping through their veins. Emotions. And more weighing upon their mind than your concerns. They have families and relationships. They have values and perspective. And their hours perpetually pass on.

How easy it is to criticize someone and something. But how quickly our response changes when it is done by a face we know. What if it was your mother who accidentally cut you off? What if it was your grandma who interpreted the work on the cross differently? What if it was your father who is not convinced of your understanding creation? What if it was your best friend who can’t answer your question because of legal requirements?

Certainly you would try to correct them (if it was serious enough), but would you spread malice as you did so? Would you proclaim to Facebook their horrible qualities as a person?

Be in the business of constructing. Of edifying. Of building up. I think some guy somewhere said that before.

Sometimes deconstruction is necessary for a proper building site; sometimes you have to demolish a building to reach the foundation and build up. But many times you can simply redirect the previous efforts—remove a piece here and replace it there.

You, Believer, are in the business of Truth. But you are also in the business of Love. They work together, in unison, not in opposition. So take a moment, humble yourself, and put a face on it.

(See in-text links for more)


Friday, March 21, 2014

Creator or Creature

Not too long ago I began writing a series of posts on the image of God (imago Dei). It was good for me to think through, and I hope it was helpful for you as well. This is a bit of an entry back into that discussion (which is not yet over). There are some implications and questions that come from a robust theology of being made imago Dei including its relationship to “total depravity” and the idea of imago Christi (or image of Christ). This post deals with neither of those, however, but focuses on another idea: that of being made.

God is Qualitatively Different
Our Triune God is a qualitatively different being than you and I. If you’re like many who think the ‘quality-quantity’ discussion is more confusing than convincing I’ll put it in different words: Our Triune God is of a different essence than you and I. If ‘essence’ is still confusing we’ll use a bit of an analogy. Air is intangible whereas you can be touched; there is an essential difference. Unless you’re familiar with chemistry—since air is made of elements and your body is made of elements, they actually aren’t ‘essentially’ different. Essential is, after all, a relative synonym to elemental. This is part of the problem with describing God as essentially different: everything that we have experience with is actually essentially similar. The world we inhabit is composed of numerous elements that form the chemical makeup of a table and water and flesh. Perhaps the closest we can come to understanding essential distinction is light.

Light is enigmatic. It is an antinomy—which means a truth of apparently conflicting laws. Perhaps you remember high school science classes wherein you learned that light is sometimes a wave and sometimes a particle. Light also isn’t physical in the sense that we can touch it—yet we do feel its effects. On a cold day we seek the sunlight because we received its benefits. But light mingles with everything it comes into contact with: it isn’t a self-contained, 3-dimensional substance such that we can be in a dark room and contain all light in one voluminous container without letting it alter the surroundings. If light is in a room, you see other things by it—traveling through molecules in the air it illuminates dust and walls and people. There is something strange and different about light. It is not the same as us. BUT it does affect us.

And yet… still light is created. God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. There was a time when light was not. There was a time when you were not. There has never been a time when God was not. In fact, there was a ‘time’ when time was not! But even in timelessness, God is. Time is closer to your existence and mine than the proximity between you and God. Time like light, is essentially different than you and I, affecting us, intermingling with us, but time was created and God simply is. There is a chasm between the essence of God and the essence of creation, and this chasm is greater than the difference between you and light, you and time, you and a dog, you and a weevil. There is more similarity between you and paint than between you and God.

Infused with the Image
How does this fit with the image of God?
I thought that you and I were his representation.
I though you and share in his character…
Share in his sovereignty
Share in his community.

This is true. We have ‘life’ and paint is lifeless. Absolutely true, but the quality of life in God is universes away from the quality of life you and I have. The life of God is essentially (as in ‘truly’ and ‘necessarily’) infinite. God’s life is infinite. Your life is finite. And in reality, a limited/finite life is more akin to no life than unending and unprecedented and unsourced and unyielding and unfading life. It is so different that the words we use to describe it are what it isn’t like! Un-this and un-that because this and that is all that we know, and yet God is not like what we know!

We are parasites, receiving from an external source anything and everything which we are. Yahweh, though, is infinitely and eternally other. The theological word for this idea is ‘transcendent.’ Beyond. God is beyond. The furthest depths of your imagination have not scathed the base of a mountain; have not melted the tip of an iceberg; have not approached the speed of light; have not whispered the sound of an unknown language that is Yahweh—eternal, infinite, uncreated, pure, self-sourcing beauty.

Sit on that. Or better yet, fall forward and worship.

“What is man that you are mindful of him
The son of man that you care for him?”

Psalm 8


Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Nature of the Call and the Sin of Perfectionism

In Christian culture throughout history, we have tended to put men on pedestals. Particularly if they manage well in the ‘secular’ sphere. We champion the few who have ‘made it’ in the world’s estimation, however short lived they are: Tim Tebow, Jeremy Lin, Duck Dynasty, and most recently Matthew McConaughey (despite the reality that the name ‘God’ can refer to countless false gods). It is well known among historians that Christians have lied by claiming that certain political and philosophical figures have ‘accepted Christ’ upon their deathbed—as if to give Christianity more credence in saying, “See! Even ___________ became a Christian!” Christopher Hitchens was sure to mitigate against such rumors prior to his death, declaring that any claim that he had turned to Christ was a lie or else that he was in death’s delusion.

There remains another strain of thought to which I am a proponent, but which can shoot amiss. Namely, that Christians ought to excel in everything they do; they ought to be the best carpenters, or the best teachers, or the best businesswomen. As Justin Taylor has pointed out, Martin Luther did not say, “The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship,” nor would he have considered saying it. Taylor continues and quotes Frederick Gaiser, “The idea that God is pleased with our work because he likes quality work ‘would be the American work-ethic version of vocation, theologically endorsing work as an end in itself. In the hands and mouth of a modern boss, good craftsmanship and clean floors (or a clean desk or a signed contract) to the glory of God could be a potent and tyrannical tool to promote the bottom line…. [W]hat marks Luther’s doctrine of vocation is the insistence that the work is done in service of the neighbor and of the world. God likes shoes (and good ones!) not for their own sake, but because the neighbor needs shoes….’”

The Nature of the Call
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (I Cor.1.26).
So writes Paul to the Corinthians, and by extension both humbles and encourages us. The Christian faith is indeed for the weak and despised. Oftentimes in our championing of Christian’s who’ve done it, we usurp the power of the gospel—it is Good News!... not because it enables us to throw a football but because being weak, Christ has become our strength: “because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (I Cor.1.31). The gospel rescues those who are frail and fallen; toward the gospel, those who think they have it all together are much less concerned—not because they do not need Jesus, but because the gospel appeals to those who recognize their desperate need, who are ‘humble and contrite in spirit’ who are ‘meek of heart’ and ‘poor in spirit,’ who ‘mourn’ over their sin and the state of the world.

Ironically we can also do this through the testimonies we put before the church: we highlight the ones who were so far gone in drugs and sex and poverty, etc. (so much that it becomes like a contest: “Who’s received more grace?!”), and focusing on the uttermost of their rescue they insinuate that they will never struggle with a drink or a needle, a residual emotional scar or lustful glance ever again. In a strange reverse-heroism, the worst become the best in a way quite absent from Scripture. “The last shall be first,” yes, but if the last are made first in this world, they will yet be last in the one to come. Left to the forsaken corners of constant struggle and doubt are the ones who are truly weak—fighting back the shadow of depression every night they return to an empty bed; being cut and scathed by the enemies’ sabers of temptation and vice.

If that be you, then know the Divine Warrior fills your iniquity. You may never be the best in anything, but it is you whom Christ has adopted as his beloved child. Your weakness proves forth his strength. His love is yours to cherish.

The Sin of Perfectionism
Because of the nature of the call, Christians will never be the best in everything. Certainly, there will be few whom God has so graced with ‘worldly’ excellence in voice, art, physique, intelligence, and anything else imaginable—in fact, I believe he reserves some few in every generation that there might always be a testimony against the brilliant: “Yes, the gospel’s designs are such that the weak are attracted, but nonetheless the strong live in need; neither are they beyond its reach. Indeed, those who compare with you can show its reasonableness to you.”

Do what you do, and do it well. “Do everything to the glory of God.” Pursue excellence. True, true, and true. But when well and excellence become an end in themselves, they forget the glory of God—they do not add to it. Surely more glory is to be had in the exercise of his gifts to the extent they have been given, but the glory is exponential when done toward the right end with the right means from the right motive. There are several axes [plural ‘axis’] at play: the task itself, the motive, the end, the means, the beneficiary, the manner, the time, the alternatives. If it sounds a bit like Aristotle or like Augustine’s ethics, you might be right. I’m not even sure these are the only axes or variables at play.

If you’ve heard (or said yourself), “I’m a type-A personality” or “I’m OCD,” you’ll probably remember that it was said with a bit of prudishness or satisfaction because obviously type-A is better than anything else, and wanting everything clean and always organized is better than the slightest disarray. I’ve even known some people to claim they were one or the other, when they absolutely were not—talk about an awkward roommate moment. My point here, however, is that these personality characterizations are not intrinsically better than another because they pertain to only one (sometimes less) of the parts that make an ethical or God-glorifying whole. And they can often devolve into self-justification or legalism or perfectionism… in other words SIN.

By what measure do we determine the God-honor in our actions? By tending to every minutiae until it is flawless? By arriving an hour before necessary? Far from it. Those are good signs that you are attempting to prove your worth to God and others. Perfectionism is sin because it determines your worth and value by judging your efforts, rather than the work of Christ. If you can just be good enough, then you don’t have to confront God and learn of your sin; you don’t have to face Jesus, instead you can face the mirror pleased at your accomplishments. The problem is that even your best efforts are as filthy rags, even once you have believed. The condition of sin is so desperate that even after you have been transformed and sanctified, your efforts fail—Christ himself is the author of faith, and without faith it is impossible to please God.

Even in the new creation, believers will be united to Christ by the work of the Spirit. Your glorified deeds of love are still wrought by your attachment to Christ and his righteousness and work. 

The next time excellence hinders you from loving your neighbor, then you are in sin.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Guest Post: Reflections of a Church Lover without the Local Church

The following post is written by Alexander Hannis, whom I recently quoted. He is currently serving the kingdom of God by doing what many of us cannot (and some in sin, will not). I know that he would appreciate your prayers as he learns his local language and strategizes.

Read, enjoy, and appreciate your local church in spite of its failures and your preferences--it is her for whom Christ was lifted up from death.


I wrote this blog because I am an external processor. Nothing helps me think better than writing and rewriting my thoughts. I have both God and college to blame. Certainly, it is wired within me; but I cannot ignore the fact that for the last four years in a row I was forced to write down almost every theological thought I had. Nor am I complaining. I love my Creator and I loved every minute of my academic career.  A sincere thank you to Manny for giving me an outlet and a sincere thank you for at least reading this paragraph.

I am a language student living abroad. I am also surrounded by God-fearing Westerners. There is no local church for us so we choose to worship together with our families every Sunday. Every week we sing songs, pray, and exegete a passage. Here are my reflections of the past 5-7 months:

1.      The fellowship is deeper here

When I say (write?) “fellowship” I  mean “talking about God and the things of God” (Dr. Donald Whitney), not just two Christians talking about sports, weather, and work (which I believe is a common misconception). “What did you do this week?” or “Who won the game?”—normal questions heard everywhere, and ironically usually in the Fellowship Hall. But what separates a church of 300 and a group of 30 is the intimacy. Prayer requests are taken in public and prayed for immediately. Every Sunday I look around the room and genuinely know how people are doing.  I know what they have to praise God for. And I know what they want my intercession for. I have heard it said, and have no difficulty believing, that those who return to the States struggle to find community in the local church in a way that matched the “life on life” model that naturally occurs overseas. It’s vulnerable out here, and I like it that way, and I believe God does too.

2.      I miss the regular preaching of God’s Word

Discussing certain passages in a small group setting is absolutely beneficial, and I enjoy the different perspectives of interpretation and mutual encouragement that is provided from it. However, in my experience, there is an undeniable depth of richness in preaching that cannot be matched in discussion. A pastor prepares hours on end with his nose buried deep in his Bible, Hebrew and Greek text, and commentaries before delivering his carefully thought out monologue. When a passage is discussed among believers on a Sunday morning the majority of people have not prepared. We come together forgetting where we left off the Sunday before and immediately give our opinion and insight on a text we have never thought deeply about. This does not always result in error, but the probability is much higher. Not to mention the insights given usually produce less depth than a pastor who has spent the week mulling over the text.

3.      I miss elders and deacons

Even without a local church, meeting together regularly and often gives us the opportunity to serve one another. But since being away I have come to love the offices of elders and deacons even more. Who is the shepherd of my soul? Who is given responsibility to see me presented mature on the last day? And where are the Average Joe laymen? The men who can’t define or even spell “eschatology” but love their wives and serve the church in a way almost unmatchable. The group I meet with every Sunday is rich with mature believers. I do not question that at all. I look up to many, if not all of them. But we all must function in part as elders and deacons. Every week we put on a different hat. The role is not reserved for any of us, though we all play the part. I miss the (God-given) structure and offices of the local church.

4.      I miss the mission of the local church

Vaguely speaking, the purpose of the local church is to be a light in the darkness that directly surrounds it. People get saved then worship in that church. Personally, I get nervous when I hear about church growth, but it is a biblical reality. The purpose of us foreigners worshiping overseas together is not to bring locals into our small group. And it shouldn’t be. But meeting together regularly without any intention to expand our own group feels a little awkward sometimes.

5.      I like to worship in my own culture

In college I spent a lot of time thinking through “the gospel in all cultures.” It made me love culture, diversity, and helped me understand God’s love for the nations. I still believe that wholeheartedly. And even now when I hear others worship in their own way and in their own language I get goose bumps.  But what I missed in college is this: I love to worship in my own culture just like I like watching them worship in their culture. I like Western hymns. I like praying in English. I don’t even mind pews. My culture isn’t the best culture, and there are areas in it I believe need to be redeemed. But I imagine the next time I walk into a steeple topped church, a wave of comfort and ease will wash over me as I worship the God of diversity.

For some, I may need to clear the air. Not all five of these holds equal weight. No one with whom I worship on Sunday mornings believes our group is a church. It’s a substitute for the church, and because of varying factors (some much more convincing than others) this is what we choose to do. We believe God is honored in this. I may not be completely content within my own group, but how can I be when we are not the local church? Anything that falls short of that, despite the situation, should make you long for the real thing.

So take this post for what it is. It is not a critique of the local church in the States. It is not a critique of worshiping without the local church overseas. Just simple reflections of an American Christian away from the local Western church.