Wishy Washy Wrathy Wrathy Atonement Atoney

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I’m a Presbyterian Church guy, but I’m of the A kind, not the USA kind (follow me?). Sometimes I look at the PCUSA and think about how great life would be if we PCA folks (there you go slow poke) could be more like them. However, there are times when I look at the PCUSA and thank God for predestining me to the PCA. This week, I felt the latter.

The PCUSA recently made the news for cutting Keith and Kristyn Getty’s, and Stuart Townend’s (cue joke about how many Reformed songwriters does it take to screw in a lightbulb) “In Christ Alone” from their new hymnal. Why? Because “In Christ Alone” includes the lyric,

On that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.

The PCUSA does not (as some would lead us to believe) necessarily object to the idea of God’s wrath, but instead it objects to the idea that God’s wrath was satisfied by Christ’s death on the cross (also known as the Satisfaction theory of Atonement).

First off, let’s deal with some of the more conservative criticisms of the PCUSA. The PCUSA is not necessarily being wishy washy and shrinking away from a wrathful God. Instead, they are shrinking away from a depiction of God as a divine child abuser- a legitimate concern that we all need to be cognizant of. So conservatives, let’s stop with the macho man criticism of “liberal theology.”

But now, why should the PCUSA be willing to accept the Substitutionary atonement view (and specifically Penal substitution)? On the surface, the penal substitutionary view of the cross might actually seem like divine child abuse. C.S. Lewis said this much himself in Mere Christianity. But when the doctrine of the trinity and the incarnation are taken into consideration, any worries of divine child abuse can go out the window (Lewis also hinted towards this). Jesus is not the son of God in the same way as any boy is the son of their father. Jesus is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity who willingly submits to the will of the Father not out of fear but out of love. At the same time, according to Incarnational theology Jesus is God in the flesh. Jesus is not God’s whipping boy. Jesus is God Himself.

In light of these realities, how then can we look at the relationship between the cross and the wrath of God? God is not bitterly taking out His anger on His own Son, abusing Jesus much like a petulant drunk father who has nowhere else to take out his anger. Instead, God is taking the punishment that humans deserve on Himself. He is eating the debt that we owe and offering us the free gift of forgiveness. This is not a picture of a scary, angry God, but of a loving God who would sooner suffer immense pain and difficulty than see His creation fall. The God of love that the PCUSA is trying to portray cannot exist without Substitutionary atonement, for His love is not costly without His self-substitution on the cross.

Before I finish up this short lecture to the PCUSA I just want to issue a warning to the PCUSA and other denominations. Is it really a good idea, in an age when hymn writers produce songs that teach us to worship God like we worshipped our middle school crush or who take perfectly good songs and give them really lame choruses, to ostracize hymn writers like the Getty’s and Townend who actually write theologically robust and musically enjoyable songs? God save us from Now That’s What I Call Music hymns!

I leave you with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr, because he essentially said what I took an entire blog post to say in one succinct paragraph (sorry you had to read to the end for the spark notes version).

A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.

#Blessed: the Great Responsibility

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“Sitting out in the sun today #blessed.” “Got into college #blessed.” These are tweets I have seen as I scroll through my twitter feed. They worry me. They worry me because of how they apply the word “blessed.” I think that this use of blessed blunts the true meaning of blessing and portrays a non-gospel based view of what true blessings actually are. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be thankful for things. A beautiful day is a wonderful act of the Creator God and is certainly a gift (particularly after a long, snowy winter in New England), and getting into college is the rightful reward after a long, hard battle through grade school. But we seemed to have lost the gospel meaning of the word “blessed.” A blessing is not something God is doing for you, or something you are experiencing for yourself. A blessing is something God is doing through you.

Quite often you might see someone say they feel blessed because they have loving parents, or because they have started a new job that makes them happy and feel like it is where God wants them to be. But what does this actually say? What about the orphan? Or the person who does not enjoy their job? When we say we feel blessed because of something we do have we are implicitly saying that those who do not have are not blessed. What did Jesus say about this? In the Ancient World, sons were considered a “blessing.” But Jesus came to set father against son. Property was also seen as a blessing, but Jesus had none. These are just two ways in which Jesus breaks down the conceptions of blessings. (This last paragraph is inspired largely by another blog post I read last night although I don’t remember its name. Sorry mystery blog!)

Moreover, Jesus seems to look at some of the things we consider blessings as a curse. Take money for example. Undoubtedly people will feel blessed when they have a good job with a solid income. But in Matthew 19 Jesus tells the rich young ruler that it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom, then he tells the rich young ruler to give away everything. And Jesus is not speaking about wealth as a metaphor here. He really means wealth. Remember, the Ancients were convinced that wealth was a sign of divine favor. When Jesus revealed it was not, the disciples were astonished. Comfort is another “blessing” upon which Jesus did not look favorably. Often we might see people tweet, “vacation time #blessed.” While a rest might be a good thing, it does not make one blessed. In fact, Jesus said those who followed Him would be uncomfortable and would end up carrying their own crosses. Look at Paul. He considered it a great joy to be suffering. If Romans were Paul’s twitter he undoubtedly would have tweeted “Suffered for the gospel today #blessed.”

This brings me around to what a truly blessed person actually looks like and what the blessing is for. A blessing is not a mysterious thing that we have to define based on theological thinking. Blessings are right there in the gospel and they are not blessings usually found in someone’s tweets:

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

This is so radically different from the list of things that usually get #blessed tagged onto them. This looks more like a #struggle list. But what is Jesus saying here about those who are blessed? He is not saying that God is giving something to them, but doing something through them. And what is He doing? He is putting the world to rights, making things as they should be. He is building the Kingdom through those whom He has blessed. N.T. Wright puts it this way:

For a start, the notion of blessing itself (blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek and so on). Blessing is not primarily about what God promises to do to someone. It is primarily about what God is going to do through someone. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – in other words, when God sets up his sovereign rule on earth as in heaven, it’s the poor in spirit through whom he will do it. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth: in other words, when God wants to sort out the world, to put it to rights once and for all, he doesn’t send in the tanks, as people often think he should. He sends in the meek; and by the time the high and mighty realize what’s happening, the meek, because they are thinking about people other than themselves, have built hospitals, founded leper colonies, looked after the orphans and widows, and, not least, founded schools, colleges and universities, to supply the world with wise leaders. Blessed are those who are hungry and thirsty for justice; because they, unlike the time-serving lawyers who bully witnesses for their own professional kudos, will be a sign of hope in a crooked world. Blessed are the merciful – notice how Jesus balances out justice and mercy – because the vision of a rule of law without exception, needing no divine or royal interventions to establish equity, is a dangerous oversimplification, producing a society without mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers, and if we haven’t learned that after the twentieth century, what hope can there be.

So there we have it. You are not blessed when you are spending a day by the pool, or when your loving parents buy you a new car, or when you find a job that makes you happy (good things no doubt). You are blessed when you are demonstrating and building the Kingdom. When you are mourning that the world is not how it should be, when you are bringing peace to a violent situation, when you respond to humiliation with humility, when you seek justice for the oppressed, and when you seek mercy for the oppressor. You are blessed not because God has given you something but because God is using you for something.

When you are Blessed you have the divine responsibility to go out and do the Kingdom building work Jesus demonstrated and instructed His followers to do in the gospel. So next time you open up Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram to tell everybody how blessed you are, tell them about your suffering, tell them about those with whom you are mourning, or tell them about your struggles. But if you do this you would probably be prideful, which is definitely not #blessed.

Gated Evangelical Communities and Gated Evangelical Theology

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A few days ago I received the unfortunate assignment of the 6am shift at work. When I have to go somewhere this early I like to get up well in advance in order to be truly awake for my various tasks. As a result, I rose at 4am and took my sweet old time eating my breakfast. During my Honey Nut Cheerio feast, I took a gander into a magazine I found sitting on the table; it was the Christian magazine World Magazine. What I found in this magazine was frustrating and in my opinion a vivid example of some of the problems facing the Evangelical Church.

I opened the magazine and went to the religion section in the back. Here, I found an article entitled “Going Pagan.” The article begins by pointing out just how dark and unchurched Britain is by citing some poll figures (proudly lamenting the lack of faith in Europe is a bad habit American Christians seem to have developed, as if America is overflowing with believers itself and we here in the States are doing everything right), insinuates that this is due to the Church of England, and then begins digging into a recent evangelism idea thought up by a small group in the Church of England. The idea, inspired by the growing number of pagans in Britain, was to create pagan style worship services that had the Christian gospel at their center in order to meet the British pagans where they were. The article decries this saying, “the proposal for a pagan church has raised questions about theological compromise.” When I read this quote, I couldn’t help but think that this is just another self-righteous American evangelical article trying to selectively denounce possibly suspect theology.

As if this article wasn’t self-righteous enough, I quickly noticed that World Magazine had completely ignored Jesus’ command about hypocrisy and forgotten to take the log out of its own eye. On the very next page, directly across from the “Going Pagan” article, was an advertisement for a retirement community named Il Villagio. Here is the blurb about Il Villagio:

Retire to Florida’s Gulf Coast. Come enjoy the Florida sunshine at Il Villagio, an active 55+ evangelical gated community in Brandenton, FL. Settle on one of four picturesque fishing lakes. Enjoy a maintenance free lifestyle rich in amenities. Very affordable leases. Close to beaches, shopping, and great golfing opportunities.

I was dumbfounded. One page after World Magazine ran an article lamenting perceived theological compromise in the Church of England, it ran an advertisement that was the definition of Christian compromise with secular culture on comfort and life. There is nothing more contradictory than a gated evangelical community.

First off, the pagan church idea. The article does briefly and with a qualifier, mention that the idea never has and never will really come to realization in the Church of England. Even still, one could possibly make a case for creating a pagan style worship service that still preaches the gospel, not only through Missional thought but also based on Paul’s statement about becoming a Jew for Jews and a Gentile for Gentiles, or even Jesus’ own willingness to meet Peter at the level of friendship after Peter denied Him three times (see the different Greek translations for the word love, their meaning, and their use in John 15. Then, reflect on the discipleship implications of what you just learned). But even if we do grant that this is “theological liberalism,” it is amazing to me that American evangelicals are so quick to lambast the Anglican Church based on supposedly low levels of Christian belief in British culture. The Anglican Church has, after all, given us N.T. Wright, John Stott, JI Packer and C.S. Lewis (a darling of evangelicals despite not being too evangelical himself!) Only John Piper and Tim Keller could claim a position within this group of thinkers, without whom the Evangelical tradition would be greatly diminished.

Second, the idea of a retirement community for evangelicals. This concept is so contradictory to the Christian life that it can’t be considered theological liberalism, but a complete rejection of biblical principles. It fails to emulate Abraham, Moses, David, and so many other Old Testament figures in their lifelong quest for righteousness. It ignores Jesus’ message for his followers to pick up their cross and follow him. And it ignores Paul’s insistence that for a Christian the time to rest is only when the world is renewed and Christ physically reigns. This is true compromise with culture. It is compromise with the belief that the good life is one of a well earned retirement that guarantees good golf, good shopping, and good beach days (three things I love, but would never make the center of my life). The Christian life has become a career, something which you do until you’re 55 and then retire from, maybe taking up some part-time work but mainly just enjoying your time pursuing your own desires (which are really the desires projected onto you by the American dream).

Unfortunately, this kind of self-righteousness is becoming more and more prominent in the evangelical church. In the last 10 years, many theological controversies have popped up in my own denomination, the PCA. Controversies ranging from Peter Enns and the way we interpret Scripture, Peter Leithart and federal vision, and even the Philadelphia presbytery managed to get in a tuffle over whether it is okay to dip the bread in the wine during communion. The PCA is not the only evangelical denomination to experience destructive infighting (see Southern Baptist Convention). At the same time, this evangelical community, who works so hard to maintain high theological walls where it sees fit, is not scared to compromise with culture on things that Jesus would be absolutely disgusted by. Churches fly the American flag front and center sometimes draping it around the cross, evangelical scholars twist history in order to make it seem like the American revolution was a righteous war fought by good Christian men (heaven forbid non-Christians might do something that seems inspired by God- that is if you think war is inspired by God…) and that political tactics are the best way to show people that a Christian lifestyle is key to human flourishing.

My point in lamenting this cognitive dissonance within the Evangelical Church is that it makes us seem unloving to have all these divisions while at the same time chiding other denominations for being too liberal or too compromising. The Evangelical Church has become a Church of schism. This is not something to be proud of. God’s people are unified in Christ. This issue is so important that all of Paul’s letters were written to help churches navigate difficult situations and avoid breaking apart. We need to find a way to go beyond theological battles no matter how important they may seem, and we need to find a way to encourage our fellow Christian denominations in their way of spreading the good news of Christ.

It’s time we stopped selectively putting high walls around theology and started embracing the idea of mystery and a range of interpretation when it comes to the nature of God. It’s time we made sure no Christian ever thinks of their faith as a career that ends when Social Security begins. It’s time that we show the world, in a period when the Middle East is being ripped apart by revolution and tyranny, Europe is being ripped apart by austerity-driven wedges between the classes, South America is being ripped apart by sports tournament budgets, and America is being ripped apart by political extremism and gridlock, that the people of Christ are united, are one body, are abundantly loving, and find the knowledge of Christ crucified and risen as the only knowledge that carries enough significance to be able to draw a boundary marker.

Note: the author of the “Going Pagan” article is Thomas Kidd who is a contributor to the Anxious Bench blog over at Patheos.

Macklemore, Trayvon, Jesus, and Searching the Heart

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If you haven’t listened to “A Wake” by Macklemore you probably should now. Not only does it rip apart our culture’s notions about sex, money, and music, it speaks so deeply about race relations at a time when America is struggling with the problem of “White privilege.” I have had this song on repeat over the last day or two, and I have to admit I walk away feeling like it is a song from God. I love reading theology and religion, but I am not naive enough to believe that only Christians can write things that are right in sync with God’s Kingdom.

The Trayvon Martin shooting brings up a huge problem for White America: how should we deal with the reality that when we see a black person we automatically assume something different (and usually worse) than when we see a white person. To prove my point I’m sure I could dig up studies of the sociological or psychological kind, or I could post a video from YouTube, I could have you read this article or I could even have you read a poem by Langston Hughes. But I won’t do these things. Instead I will ask you to do what Jesus asked Israel to do: look at your heart.

In bringing His Kingdom message to Israel and explaining what He was actually doing, Jesus told the Israeli people to look into their hearts. What did He say they would find there? Nationalism, idolatry, complicity with the ways of the world, and an approval of riches and privilege. How did He show the Israelites what was in their hearts? He told parables about prodigal sons and older brothers, he noted the difference between the rich and poor worshippers, and he rendered on to Caesar the things that were Caesar’s. I’m going to ask you to look at your own hearts here and now.

A few weeks ago I was driving from Boston to Philadelphia. Just before I reached the George Washington Bridge my back right tire went pop and I had to pull over to fix it. While I was fixing my flat, a few black teenagers (16 or 17?) were riding their bikes and they passed by me a few times. I noticed this and kept my tire iron close. Would I have done the same thing if it was white kids riding around near me as I was in a strange place in a vulnerable position? No. How do I know this? Because it has happened to me before. I know that at least I succumb to white privilege and negative assumptions about minorities. So if nobody else will have the conversation, I will.

I’m ashamed I did this. I’m ashamed because I grew up in a school district that prides itself on racial diversity. I’m ashamed because I know that white people commit crimes too and the color of one’s skin does not predestine one to crime. I’m ashamed because I know how pissed off I get when people look at me, a white male, and assume that I objectify women, have it easy, and don’t try to understand what others are going through. If this assumption hurts me, how hurt would those kids have been if they knew what I was thinking.

Moreover, I know I’m not alone in this. My fellow white people, look at your own hearts. When you see a black kid walking down your street in a hoodie do you assume he is just as safe as a white kid walking down your street in a hoodie? White privilege is not a liberal conspiracy, it’s not a case of a whole race making stuff up to cover up their problems. It is a sin that sits at the very fiber of our collective being and jeopardizes our ability to function as a democratic people. It’s hard to see racism when you’re white, but it’s easy to see racism when you look at your heart.

We need to be willing to start a conversation on this issue. We need to be willing to recognize that a Civil Rights Act and a black President, while they are remarkable achievements  are not enough to fix the problems that reside deep within the human heart. We have to show grace, ask for mercy, seek justice, and love our neighbors. All of us; white, black, red, yellow. Because if we don’t, we will never wake up.

I’ll leave you with a quote from two separate sources that I decided to mash together:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus, but I don’t get involved if the cause isn’t mine, white privilege and white guilt at the same damn time, so we just party like it’s nineteen thirty nine, celebrate the ignorance while these kids keep dyin.

As always, comments are welcome and encouraged. Get the conversation started.