Is Racial Justice Essential to the Gospel?

Gospel,+Race,+&+the+Church

Earlier this month I joined Nicholas Piotrowski, Charles Ware, and Gus Pritchard for an event in Indianapolis called “Gospel, Race, and the Church.” Through six short messages and six panel discussions, plus a Q & A we worked through many subjects related to contemporary discussions on race and justice in the church. While this subject is fraught with landmines, the overall tenor of the event was positive, biblical, and prayerfully helpful.

To encourage candidness, the audios were not made public, so I can’t link to those. But what follows is one of my two messages. Lord willing, I can add the other next week.

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“Racial justice is essential to the gospel.”

Have you heard that statement before? Or what about this one, “The gospel must include justification and doing justice.” Or maybe you’ve had the question: “What does the gospel have to do with race and racism?”

In the last few years, there have been many ways the gospel, social justice, and race have been combined, and in this post, I want to talk about that triangle—the gospel, justice, and race.

As I will argue in a second article (out next week), I believe sinful partiality, hostility, and discrimination are better described in terms of ethnicity than race. As Acts 17:26 makes clear, humanity comes from one man (hence one human race) and is composed of many different nations (ethnicities).

For now, however, I will sidestep the question of race versus ethnicity. And I will answer the question: “Is racial justice a gospel essential or a gospel entailment?” I will first highlight the way some have enlarged the message of the gospel by making (racial) justice essential to the gospel message. Then I will try to outline what the gospel says and does not say, does and does not do. Biblical precision is needed in our discussions today and hopefully I can offer a few straight lines in what follows.

Three Voices Who Enlarge the Gospel 

A Golden-Ruled Gospel

For starters, Scott Sauls, a pastor in Nashville, has included the great commandment (“Love your neighbor”) in his definition of gospel in a panel discussion about racism and the gospel. He says, “Last time I checked, love your neighbor is part of the gospel.”

Perhaps this is just sloppy, or maybe this is how Sauls actually thinks of the gospel—adding the Golden Rule to the good news of saving grace. Whatever the case, the result is the same. The content of the gospel is confused and the power of the gospel to forgive sinners and set them on a path to loving their neighbor is missed.

In short, the essential message of the gospel is confused with an essential entailment. And sadly, this confuses both good news and the good works that flow from believing the good news.

A Cosmic Redemption Gospel

Anthony Bradley is another voice who enlarges the gospel. For those unfamiliar with Bradley, he has authored many books and serves as a professor at King’s College in New York City. In a 2019 Fathom Magazine article, Bradley contrasts “Great Commission Christianity” (GCC) with “Cosmic Redemption Christianity” (CRC).

Critiquing GCC as reductionistic and historically complicit with slavery, Bradley argues for CRC which widens God’s purposes of salvation. Citing Tim Keller, Bradley defines the gospel like this:

It is the good news of God’s saving work in Christ and the Spirit by which the powers of sin, death, and judgment are overcome and the life of the new creation is inaugurated, moving towards the glorification of the whole cosmos.

Then he goes further, speaking about the kingdom of God which is “the reign of God dynamically active in human history through Jesus Christ over the entire cosmos. Redemption, then, is God’s work to restore the whole of creation to himself.”

This statement of life in the kingdom of God is good, as far as it goes. But in adding man’s agency to “God’s work of restoring the cosmos” it goes too far. Why? Because it tasks new creatures in Christ with the duty of liberating creation from the stranglehold of the devil. To be sure, the scope of redemption is cosmic, but Bradley’s definition of the gospel changes the finished work of Christ on the cross to the ongoing work of God in the cosmos.

Certainly, God is at work in cosmos, and the gospel is bringing about a new creation, but this cosmic restoration is an effect or entailment of the gospel, not its primary essence. The content of the gospel is directed towards persons estranged from God and the redemption offered in the gospel is equally person-specific. Thereafter, God’s new creatures in Christ will do all kinds of good works, but this remains an effect or entailment of the gospel, not its core message.

Justification and Doing Justice

Finally, Eric Mason is Philadelphia pastor who, in the name of justice, enlarges the message of the gospel to include doing justice. This may appear to secure greater ethical results, but at what expense? Let’s consider.

In Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice, Mason devotes a chapter to defining what the gospel is and what it isn’t. And importantly, he makes “doing justice” a core component of the gospel. He writes,

Justification is a huge greenhouse of truth that extends beyond ‘being declared righteous’! Justified isn’t merely a position, but a practice! Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us by faith leads to our being made right with God as well as our making things right on earth. (45)

Don’t miss the enormity of this point. The Protestant Reformation fought for justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. But here, citing Anglican theologian, Fleming Rutledge, who in turn cites German NT Scholar, Ernst Kaïsemann, Mason redefines justification as an attribute of God and an action of God and man (46).

Recognizing the impact of what he is saying, he defends himself from those who would accuse him of preaching a different gospel (44). He says, “The way we are taught about these aspects of the gospel deeply affects our understanding and the way we process justice. When we have a reductionist understanding of justification, we fail to see the holistic picture of the gospel” (46).

For Mason, this holistic gospel is one that combines justification and doing justice. But is Mason right? Is doing justice part and parcel of the gospel of the kingdom? Consider two responses.

Reigning in the Gospel of King Jesus

First, there is an irony in the fact that Mason cites two white theological liberals, Fleming Routledge and Ernest Kaïsemann. (Bradley also sources Tim Keller). I make this awkward observation to say, that in making their points, Mason and Bradley are not making the black argument, so much as they are making an ideological argument—and one that fits nicely with the social gospel. Sauls too adds a “social dynamic” to his definition of the gospel.

That is to say, when the church’s mission includes making the world a better, more just place, the social gospel is not far away. This is not to frivolously label all champions of justice as advocates of the social gospel, nor do I expect anyone who is preaching a gospel-plus-justice message to agree with me.

That said, I would maintain that whenever the church and its leaders prioritize overturning systems of injustice, the social gospel is waiting in the wings. For those who discount that take, I would encourage you to read Christopher Evans, The Social Gospel in American Religion: A History.

For now, we should simply remember that anyone who speaks for the black church, the white church, the Asian church, or the Hispanic church, cannot speak for the whole. Within every tradition there are different theological beliefs. And this is where we need to focus our conversation—chiefly, on the content of the ideas being debated more than the color of debaters.

Now let me walk that back a bit, and make my second point. If Sauls, Mason, or Bradley did cite a black voice, they would do well to consider Charles Octavius Boothe. Boothe was the founding pastor of Martin Luther King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

In 1890, at the height of Jim Crow, Boothe wrote a short treatise on theology called Plain Theology for Plain People. And what is remarkably absent from his book is anything that approximates the social justice championed today.

Instead, when Boothe speaks of justice, he describes the character of God and God’s judgment on sinners. In other words, Boothe’s doctrine of justice and justification is chiefly vertical, not horizontal. Though enmeshed in the world of Jim Crow, Boothe’s explanation of the gospel and the mission of the church approximates Bradley’s Great Commission Christianity, which Bradley associates with the white church.

Moreover, when he speaks of justification, Boothe speaks of it entirely in terms of what God has done to save sinners by grace. For instance, he lists a number of Pauline passages on justification and concludes, “it appears that justification is the act of God.” To which he explains in full (70):

The ground of justification is found in the work, the whole work, of the Son of God, whom God ‘gave that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” What a ground the Father hath given us for the fullest belief in Christ! What reason for devout thankfulness the redeemed have! What a motive to induce them to live, not unto themselves, but unto him who has brought to them a salvation so helpful and so glorious!

Hallejulah! That is the biblical gospel.

But notice, he distinguishes the work of the Son from our works. He says that the finished work of Christ is the motive to doing good works. In other words, the gospel has entailments. Doing justice is a necessary entailment of the gospel. It is necessary, yes! But it is a necessary entailment—meaning that biblical ethics follow a Spirit-empowered reception of the gospel.

In fact, we can learn from Booth himself. Living in a world of ethnic partiality, hostility, and discrimination, Boothe did much to fight injustice and promote the well-being of blacks in the South. That said, doing justice was not an essential part of the gospel message, for Boothe, it was the work of those who had been justified. And that distinction is what is lost on many today.

In order to champion good works, many pastors—with various hues of melanin—are making justice an essential part of the gospel message. But the effect of this inclusion is to undercut the power of the gospel. Why? Because such an addition—as well intentioned as it may be—changes the message of the gospel, thereby challenging the power of the gospel.

And that’s the problem. If the gospel is a message of justification and doing justice, it ceases to be good news and it becomes instead a chimera of grace and law—which is always a deadly combination. So, with these concerns outlined, let me offer five truths that are essential for keeping the gospel straight.

Keeping the Gospel Straight

1. The Gospel is an indicative, not an imperative.

To say it differently: the gospel is good news, not good advice (Michael Horton). It is the declaration “It is finished,” not the command to go and do likewise.

Many people have made this point, but recently I came across it in Thaddeus Williams’ book Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth. On this point, he says,

The difference between an indicative and an imperative is no small matter for grammar nerds. The good news upon which eternity depends hangs in the balance. . . . A gospel with additional requirements [e.g., feed the hungry, end sex trafficking, oppose injustice] is not good news. For those who know themselves well, if the gospel is not about Christ’s finished saving work alone but about any commandment we must keep, then the good news turns out to be very bad news. If my salvation is 99 percent God’s doing and 1 percent my own doing, I would find a way, in my fallenness and stupidity, to mess up that 1 percent and be damned. (112–13)

This is the problem with the gospel plus justice paradigm. It turns the finished work (the indicative) into the already and not yet work of justification and do justice (the imperative). Yes, the Bible clearly teaches the kingdom is already and not yet. It clearly teaches a biblical way of doing justice and loving our neighbor, but to load these into the gospel is to lose the gospel of grace.

2. The Gospel is fixed, not fluid.

This means that there is a certain content to the gospel which does not have room for more or less. For instance, the gospel is defined in 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul defines the gospel as the death of Christ for sins and the resurrection of Christ on the third day. Moreover, both of these are defined by the Old Testament (i.e., “according to the Scriptures”), and the blessings of Christ’s death and the resurrection must be received by faith, lest someone perish for their own sins.

Similarly, Romans 1:1–7 defines the gospel, as does the rest of Romans 1–11. And after Paul spends 11 chapters explaining how sinners can be justified by grace through faith, only then does he turn around and say: “I appeal to you brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as living sacrifices.”

In short, there is a gospel logic in Paul’s letters that teaches us that doing the law (i.e., the third use of the law) follows believing in Christ who fulfilled the law for us. Here’s an important distinction: Just because something is biblical, or important for Christian living, does not give us permission to add it to the message of the gospel. The good news of Christ’s death and resurrection is the eternal plan of God to redeems sinners in all ages, in all places, and from all conditions of sin by the finished work of Christ.

To make the gospel the solution to every problem, therefore, may blind us to see how the gospel tells us what the problem is. In a word the problem is sin! Moreover, because the gospel defines the problem, it also offers the solution to that problem, and only that problem. Christ died and rose again to justify elect individuals who will repent and believe when God calls them to himself in the gospel. Only after that calling can individuals and the groups they form (i.e., churches) begin to justice with the righteousness God requires.

By contrast, to add justice to justification will only result in a loss of both! So remember, the gospel is fixed, not fluid.

3. The gospel justifies individuals, it does not promise universal justice.

To double down on who benefits from the gospel, it is important to remember how person-specific the message of the gospel is. While the gospel must be carried to the ends of the earth and preached to all peoples, it is not a message that addresses nations as nations, groups as groups, or political clans as clans. No, the gospel confronts sinners in their individual sin, and calls sinners—one-by-one—out from the nations (see Rev. 5:9–10).

In other words, just as John’s Gospel is filled with individuals coming to faith in Christ (see Richard Bauckham, “Individualism,” in Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology),  so the gospel that raises people from the dead is a message that confronts the individual. When individuals are justified by grace this will create households of faith who exist on all parts of the earth. But this does not mean the object of the gospel are groups, the gospel addresses individuals.

Even more, when nations who hear the gospel experience wide-ranging regeneration—what we might call a revival—those nations will be impacted. In the Early church, the proliferation of the gospel in Africa had a marvelous impact on the church. The ecumenical councils, the early creeds, the rise of libraries and colleges, all of these rose in Africa—a fact often missed when thinking about the character of “African Theology” (see Thomas Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind).

Later, in the Reformation, the European church experienced wide spread revival. And the world, especially in America, continued to experience the blessings and benefits of the Reformation. Still, the gospel that reformed Africa and Europe and produced all kinds of good works was a gospel that impacted individuals. Only secondarily did it change families, communities, cultures, and nations. This is how the gospel works. And we should labor to see the gospel change individuals and then we should equally labor to see Christians fulfill their vocational callings to do good works in all realms of life.

Where confusion sets in today, is when those who desire immediate justice can easily become impatient with God’s ways. As a result the gospel can be distorted, in order to see widespread and visible change. When that happens, we should ask: Is this how the gospel really spreads? What does the Bible report? Such an answer is larger than I can provide here, but as I can tell we find a singular report in Scripture: The gospel justifies individuals, it does not promise universal justice.

4. The gospel creates individuals who do good works.

Without denying the place for good works, and affirming the possibility of Christians impacting culture, we must remember how good works are borne. First, we learn from passages like James 2 that faith devoid of works is not genuine faith. Conversely, there are good works that can counterfeit faith. Therefore, in order to maintain the gospel, we must not just content ourselves with behavioral change—personal or systemic. We should trust in God’s power to change individuals and that when individuals are changed and equipped with the whole counsel of God’s Word, their lives will bring about charity, justice, mercy, and righteousness.

In the same vein, God creates people in Christ who will do good works (Eph. 2:10). These good works include loving neighbor, ending injustice, feeding the poor, and making good policies. But lest we neuter the power of the gospel to change individuals, we cannot include doing justice as an essential part of the life-giving, sin-removing gospel. These things are fruits of the gospel, not the gospel itself—a point that brings us to our last.

5. Biblical justice is an entailment of the gospel

To say that justice—in all of its forms—is an entailment of the gospel means that justice is carried forward by men and women who have justified by grace through faith and who have been given grace to do good works.

It is correct to question the faith of someone, as Charles Octavius Boothe did, if their love of neighbor is missing or if ethnic hostility is present. Nevertheless, the ongoing sinfulness of a Christian or the inconsistency of a Christian church should not lead us to change the gospel in order to make it more powerful or more pervasive. Rather, we should simply evaluate all things by the Word of God.

And when it comes to racial justice, we should do all we can to stand against racism, biblically defined. But calls for racial justice should not confuse something that is biblically important with something that is absolutely essential to the gospel message. Something can be biblical and important, even if it is not part of the gospel message.

Making this distinction, which says that racial justice is not essential to the message of the gospel, but is an essential entailment of the gospel, is critical for maintaining the gospel and the health of the church. Truly, if we are going to enjoy and maintain the fellowship of the Spirit in the bond of peace, we must get this right. Because getting this right will go along way to aiding conversations about this matter.

And so, we should continue to build our arguments from the clear teaching of Scripture, in order that we can rightly discern the difference between the essentials of the gospel and essential entailments of the gospel. That may sound like a small difference, but in these contentions days that difference makes all the difference in the world.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo Credit: Indianapolis Theological Seminary

Election and Evangelism: What God Has Joined Together Let Not Man Separate

brown rock formation on sea shore

On Sunday, our church considered one of many passages in John where the Beloved Disciple unites God’s sovereignty in salvation with the responsibility of man to repent and believe. With perfect, Spirit-inspired balance, John records the way God gave a particular people to the Son (i.e., the elect) and how these people will come to faith, as God calls all men and women to repent and believe. Indeed, what God has joined together—his sovereignty and man’s faith—cannot be torn apart without doing damage to the doctrine of election and the duty of evangelism.

For those familiar with the debates surrounding the doctrine of salvation, one of the longstanding charges against the doctrines of grace (Calvinism, if you prefer) is that the doctrine of election undermines evangelism and missions. Sadly, there have been some who have defended the doctrine of election without possessing an equal passion for the lost (i.e., Hyper-Calvinists, which means more than Calvinists with zeal). But biblically, election is one of the greatest motivations for evangelism.

This is evident in John’s Gospel and throughout the rest of the New Testament. And in what follows I want to highlight the connection between evangelism and election. In particular, I will show seven places, starting with John 6, where election is found in the same context as evangelism. Rather than hindering the gospel ministry, these passages teaches that the doctrine of election always spurs on missions and evangelism. Continue reading

‘Then They Will Know That I Am the Lord’: How Seeing the Structure in Ezekiel Shows Us the Gospel

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This post is part of a series of resources for the Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan. This month I am focusing on Ezekiel.

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24 “And for the house of Israel there shall be no more a brier to prick or a thorn to hurt them among all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. Then they will know that I am the Lord God. 25 “Thus says the Lord God: When I gather the house of Israel from the peoples among whom they are scattered, and manifest my holiness in them in the sight of the nations, then they shall dwell in their own land that I gave to my servant Jacob. 26 And they shall dwell securely in it, and they shall build houses and plant vineyards. They shall dwell securely, when I execute judgments upon all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt.Then they will know that I am the Lord their God.”
Ezekiel 28:24–26

Galatians 3:8 says that God preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham. As he promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations, God revealed his gospel purposes for the world. This truth has many implications, but one of them is that the gospel is something that goes back to the beginning—even to the Garden of Eden (see Gen. 3:15). Accordingly, whenever we read the Old Testament we should expect to find gospel promises of salvation and hope. Even in books that focus on the righteous judgments of God, there will be promises of grace and forgiveness.

This is the gospel message—that God will make a way of salvation for those who deserve eternal condemnation.

God gave this promise to Israel first (Rom. 1:16–17), but he always intended for his salvation to go from Israel to all the nations (Gen. 12:1–3; cf. Rom. 9:25–29; 10:18ff.). In the New Testament, we learn how this works. But we also find how this works by reading the Old Testament in light of the New. In the Prophets especially, we find new covenant promises that are given to Israel and the nations.

Over the last two months, I have focused on Isaiah  and Jeremiah and the gospel hope found in each. This month, I turn to Ezekiel. And again the pattern of salvation and judgment remains. The message of the gospel is found scattered throughout Ezekiel, but it is also seen in the book as a whole.

In this blogpost, I want to offer some help on how to read Ezekiel, so that you can see the gospel in Ezekiel. Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel is challenging because it is so large. But it is also challenging because of how Ezekiel speaks and acts. Therefore, to get a better grasp on the book, I am turning to one of my seminary professors and his book on Ezekiel.

Daniel Block taught Old Testament when I went to Southern Seminary, and his collection of essays on Ezekiel (By the River Chebar: Historical, Literary, and Theological Studies in the Book of Ezekiel, 2013) nicely complements his massive, two-volume commentary on Ezekiel. In class, I remember him saying that his kids grew up with Ezekiel in the house, as he spent fourteen years (!!) working on his two commentaries. To such labor, we are indebted. And to those who read his work on Ezekiel, they will find excellent scholarship and great help for reading this prophet.

In what follows, I am summarizing Block’s introductory notes to Ezekiel. Continue reading

Finding Consolation from the Weeping Prophet: Or, Where to Find Springs of Living Water in Jeremiah’s Long, Dark Book

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This post is part of a series of resources for the Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan. This month I am focusing on Jeremiah.

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In Jeremiah 30–33, we find four chapters that are often referred to as “The Book of Consolation.” The reason for this title is the way they promise hope for a battered and bruised people who are, or will soon be, held in bondage by Babylon. In context, these chapters come after the Prophet declares that God is sending Israel to Babylon for seventy years because of their sins. Following this judgment (see Jeremiah 25–29), Jeremiah 30–33 looks to a day in the future when God will restore his people (30:1–3), return a priestly king to the throne (30:21), and establish a new covenant (31:31–34).

These chapters are some of the brightest and best in all the Old Testament, but they are found in a book that is densely populated with oracles of destruction, jeremiads against Jerusalem (yes, jeremiads comes from Jeremiah), judgments against the nations, and other events that lead Jeremiah to be called the weeping prophet. All in all, the Book of Consolation stands in stark contrast to the rest of Jeremiah, and accordingly, I can imagine many who attempt to read Jeremiah will do so, skipping ahead to these chapters, or just cherry-picking a few verses along the way (e.g., Jer. 2:13; 9:23–24; 17:9–10; 23:1–6; 29:11–13; etc.).

Such approaches are understandable, given the length and complexity of the book, but if we really want to understand Jeremiah we need to find a better reading strategy. That’s what this blog post is for—to help give you a map which identifies key passages which as springs of living water for your soul.

In other words, because Jeremiah is meant to pluck up, tear down, destroy, and overthrow the city of Jerusalem and all its inhabitants (Jer. 1:10ab), his book will primarily consist of words of judgment. At the same time, because God calls Jeremiah to build up and plant (see also 1:10c), we should expect to find life-giving words of hope. The question is knowing where they are and how to find such refreshment in a book that is primarily deconstructive—in the prophetic, not the postmodern, sense of the word.

Reading through the book, it will help to know where the words of life are. And that’s what I offer below. In another blog post, I laid out a four-fold outline of the book that can be summarized like this.

  • Jeremiah 1–24: God’s War of Words . . . Against Israel
  • Jeremiah 25–34: God’s War of Words . . . Against the False Prophets
  • Jeremiah 35–44: God’s War of Words . . . Against the King and His Kingdom
  • Jeremiah 45–52: God’s War of Words . . . Against the Nations

This outline follows the illuminating work of Andrew Shead, and I would urge you to read that post and his book. In what follows, I will share the springs of living water that crop up in places like Jeremiah 3:15–18 and Jeremiah 51:48, and everywhere in between. As I have read through Jeremiah, these are the passages and the promises I am looking for as I read.  

As the apostles teach us, all the promises of God are “Yes” and “Amen” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). The gospel itself stands on the promises of God (Acts 13:32–33), and begins with Abraham (Gal. 3:8) not Matthew. For this reason, we should read the Bible as promise-seekers, so that we can become promise-believers. This is what the Bible is for, and in Jeremiah, there are plenty of hope-giving, Christ-centered promises for us to find. The trick is knowing where they are and how they fit into the book.

Without any further preliminaries, let me offer a roadmap to the springs of living water in Jeremiah. I will give a few notes as we go, but primarily what follows is the text of Scripture.[1] Continue reading

A War of Words: How the Structure of Jeremiah Leads to Its Storyline

raphael-schaller-GkinCd2enIY-unsplashThis post is part of a series of resources for the Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan. This month I am focusing on Jeremiah.

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If Jeremiah is structured around the word of the Lord, then it makes sense that the storyline of the book is also tailored to that end. God has called Jeremiah to speak his words to his people. Importantly, that word is not simply a message of comfort; it is a message that tears down and plucks up, a word that destroys and annihilates. Only then, can it build and plant (Jer. 1:10).

In Jeremiah’s call (ch. 1), we have an introduction to the man and his message, and as the visions signal, he will preach a message of judgment that will be rejected by his people. His message will include hope and blessing, but situated in the last decades of Judah’s reign in Jerusalem, his words of hope will all be future, not present. And thus, his words will go to war with his contemporaries. And over the course of his book, he will address the nation (ch. 1–24), the false prophets (ch. 25–34), the king (ch. 35–44), and the nations (ch. 45–52).

As seen yesterday, these four sections are ordered by various literary devices (disjunctive headings and narrative formulas), but they are also forming a storyline of God’s Word. And in his book, A Mouth Full of Fire, Andrew Shead shows how each section takes up the Word of God in order to tear down and pluck up the people of God. In order to understand the message of Jeremiah, therefore, we need to see how the book unfolds. And this is where Shead’s proposal is so helpful. Consider his outline. Continue reading

Can You See What Jeremiah is Saying? Finding the Literary Structure in a Book Where Structure is Often Missed

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This post is part of a series of resources for the Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan. This month I am focusing on Jeremiah.

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Whenever I teach hermeneutics or lead Bible studies, I want to help students of the Bible find the “breaks” in the text. Where does the human author insert literary devices to help the reader follow his message? In John’s Gospel, for instance, he organizes his introduction to Jesus around four days (John 1:19–51), and then he puts the wedding at Cana on the third day (2:1), which in context is the seventh day. In this way, John helps his audience know how he is ordering his material.

Such arrangement does not automatically produced meaning, but ignorance of an author’s literary structure will delimit our understanding. If we cannot see how the biblical author is writing, we won’t get what the author is saying. In any study of Scripture then, we must labor to understand the literary structure of a text. Sometimes this is easy, as in passages like Psalm 136, which repeats the refrain “for his steadfast love endures forever” (ESV) and follows the order of Israel’s history. But in other books, it is more difficult. And it is arguable that the book of Jeremiah is one of the most difficult books in the Bible for ascertaining a literary structure.

The reasons for this difficulty are manifold. First, Jeremiah is, by word count, the longest book of the Old Testament. And as we saw with Isaiah, it is a challenge to see the message of books so large. Second, the chronology of Jeremiah is difficult. The book does not proceed in historical order, and as a result some commentators (e.g., John Bright) have attempted to interpret the book by changing its order to match Israel’s history. This destroys the literary structure, however. As higher-criticism reigned over the last two hundred years, commitment to reading the Bible on its own terms was ignored and the mind of the interpreter trumped the words of the author. This will miss the message of the Bible and so we cannot follow those who rearrange the text.

Size and chronology are challenging in Jeremiah, but the greatest difficulty in finding the meaning of Jeremiah comes from divergent manuscripts. That is, when we compare the Hebrew text to the Septuagint (the Greek translation), we find that significant portions of the book are put in different order. This reminds us that the final form of the Bible came as a result of an editing process (cp. the arrangement of the Psalter), but leaving aside the formation of the final form, different final arrangements make it difficult to affirm a structure with certainty. And then, if meaning is tied to literary structure, then how should we can have confidence in finding a singular message about Jeremiah? Continue reading

What Does Baptism Look Like? Seven Observations from John 3:22–36

baptism_of_st_paul_-_capela_palatina_-_palermo_-_italy_2015-2“Look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him!”
— John 3:26b —

In John 3 a dispute about baptism arose between the disciples of John the Baptist and a Jew. While unnamed, this Jew caused an existential crisis for the followers of John. So great is their concern about purification, baptism, and the rise of Jesus, they run to their teacher and point to his baptism. Verse 26 captures their concern: “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”

In this question about baptism, prompted by a dispute about purification, we find an analogue to modern debates about this biblical ordinance. Today, there are questions related to the mode, the subject, and the place. That is: Does sprinkling or pouring count as baptism? What about sprinkling a believer? Or immersing an infant? (See video below). Does a private baptism between friends qualify? And how should we understand the difference (or similarities) between the initiating rite of the old covenant (circumcision) and the initiating rite of the new covenant (water baptism)? All these questions and more need biblical answers.

[The Greek Orthodox remind us that baptizō means immersion, plunging, dipping].

Over the last few years, I have written multiple articles on baptism in the Bible and its pre-requisite for membership in the church. As an unashamed Baptist, who affirms the historical confessions of London, Philadelphia, New Hampshire, and Nashville, I will continue to write on the subject. Why? Because baptism continues to come up in conversation with visitors and others who are thinking about membership at our church.

With that in mind, I offer another exegetical take on baptism—one that comes from John’s Gospel and the dispute about baptism found therein. Following the imperative to “Look!” we will look at what John says about John’s baptism, Jesus’s baptism, and the conversation in John 3 about the new birth, baptism in the Spirit, and the practice of baptizing repentant believers. So, with this visual approach to John 3, I offer seven things we see about baptism. Here’s the list; explanations will follow.

  1. Baptism is performed in public with a group of witnesses.
  2. Baptism requires biblical discernment.
  3. Baptism is handled by Jesus’s disciples, not Jesus.
  4. Baptism is always by immersion.
  5. Baptism requires people to seek water.
  6. Baptism leads to disputations.
  7. Baptism requires humility.

Continue reading

A Witness Against Wokeness: What Modern Christians Can Learn from an Ex-Communist

moises-gonzalez-e7qDqyaH99I-unsplashIn recent years, interest in socialism has risen and conversations about Marxism, especially cultural Marxism, have permeated public discourse. From the Gallup Poll in 2019 which reported that four in ten Americans saw socialism as a good thing to the rise of Black Lives Matter whose founders openly identify themselves as “trained Marxists,” we are living at a time when Christians in America need to re-learn what past generations knew, and what Christians living in Cuba, China, and Czechoslovakia know, all too well: Communism, and its younger sibling Socialism, are godless ideologies that harm the masses.

As The Black Book of Communism (Harvard University Press) reports, nearly 100 million people died during the twentieth century under Communist regimes. And hence, it was both right and responsible for evangelicals during the Cold War to stand opposed to ideas of Karl Marx and his Communist Manifesto. As Grant Wacker reports in his biography of Billy Graham (America’s Pastor), the late evangelist often included a message against communism in his revivals. And more strategically, many Christians, evangelicals and otherwise, participated in the conservative project known as fusionism, in large part, to stem the tide of communism.

Today, however, with a generation of Americans untouched and untaught about Communism, the ghost of Karl Marx has risen again. In his book, Live Not by LiesRod Dreher addresses this very concern, when he begins by highlighting the concerns many from Eastern Bloc countries have had with modern America. He writes,

What unnerves those who lived under Soviet communism is this similarity: Elites and elite institutions are abandoning old-fashioned liberalism, based in defending the rights of the individual, and replacing it with a progressive creed that regards justice in terms of groups. It encourages people to identify with groups ethnic, sexual, and otherwise and to think of Good and Evil as a matter of power dynamics among the groups. A utopian vision drives these progressives, one that compels them to seek to rewrite history and reinvent language to reflect their ideals of social justice. (6)

What made these men and women flee Europe is now rising in America. The same thing is happening in Canada. Ivan, a trucker from Ukraine, put it like this when asked why he was joining the freedom convoy: “We came to Canada to be free—not slaves,” he said. “We lived under communism, and, in Canada, we’re now fighting for our freedom” (What the Truckers Want).

Importantly, this rise in elite-controlled social justice, woke racism, and identity politics is not something that stands outside the church either. Wokeness is making inroads within the church, too. From calls for social justice (largely undefined) to cries that Christian Nationalism (also undefined) are threatening our country, those in the church are missing something that previous generations did not and could not miss—namely, the evil that comes from a man-centered, God-denying, government-enforced attempt to build back better.

Indeed, while Critical Race Theory has gotten the most attention, one of its underlying promises, a vision of more fair and just society matches up well with Christians who want to do more than talk. In other words, advocates of social justice gain adherents by calling for a better world. And because some of the religious language maps onto Christian concerns, the result is an unholy fusion of Christ and cultural Marxism. 

At the same time, some scholars have defined and denounced evangelicals, especially white conservatives who made a compact with the Republican party during the 1950s and 60s. One example of this is Kristin Kobe Du Mez in her book, Jesus and John Wayne. Expressing concern with the way patriarchal, white males championed the military and stood in the way of civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, she excoriates evangelicals for using their positions of power to prop themselves up and push others down.

Leaving a full evaluation of her book for someone else, I will simply say that she does not adequately consider the role Communism played in the 1950s and 60s. As Proverbs 18:17 reminds us, she who speaks first seems right, until someone else comes and questions her. And while she mentions Communism in her book, she does not consider the way Communist spies were infiltrating the halls of power throughout our country (see more below).

Like most of my generation, Du Mez has forgotten, or not cared to consider, how wicked communism was and is, and because she and others do not share the perspective that our Czechoslovakian neighbors do (see Live Not by Lies), they cannot appreciate the ways that evangelical leaders and conservative politicians worked together during the middle of the twentieth century. Nor, can she appreciate the fact that all the liberating works of the 1960s were suffused with communist ideas (see Roger Kimball, The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America). Even as civil rights were extended, and racial prejudice became illegal and unconscionable, there remained a set of rules for radicals that derived their origins from Cultural Marxists.

Today, the radicals of the 1960s have become our presidents and leading politicians. And in the church, the demands for egalitarianism, social justice, and gay rights are simply leftovers from the 1960s. Likewise, the progressive ideals of Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and those who follow them, have shaped the way evangelicals—progressive and conservative—have approached culture. Indeed, thawed by the heat of Twitter, these old ideas are hatching new consequences. And because so many do not see or care to see the evils of Communism (consider NBC’s reporting of the Olympics) or the moral injustices of socialism, many of the radical ideas are facing little to no opposition. And that matters, because when the ideological offspring of Marx are given space to procreate, death not life results.

So with that long introduction out of the way, let me bring a witness to the stand, a man by the name of Whittaker Chambers. Continue reading

The Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan: February Resources for Exodus, Jeremiah, and Mark

Jesus washing the feet of Saint Peter on Maundy Thursday

This month the Via Emmaus Reading Plan is looking at Exodus, Jeremiah, and/or Mark. (See below for the tracks). If you are following this plan, or looking for a new reading plan, you can find helpful resources on the following pages. 

Track 1: Exodus

Track 2: Jeremiah

Track 3: Mark

If you have other resources on these books, please feel free to share.

May the Lord bless you and keep you and make his face shine upon you as you draw near to him in his Word. Continue reading

Doctrine and Life: Let Us Not Divorce What God Has Joined Together

jonathan-simcoe-pSjwUXBMnlc-unsplashKeep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching [doctrine].
Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
— 1 Timothy 4:16 —

Doctrine and life. Life and doctrine.

In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he calls his pastoral protegé to embrace both and not let go of the other. And for anyone who cares about life or doctrine, we must also care about the other also. For doctrine without life is dead and life without sound doctrine is leading to death.

In truth, when doing theology, if it does not lead someone to the giver of life, it is dead theology. But simultaneously, life that downplays doctrine is equally deadly. This is why Paul repeatedly refers to sound doctrine in his Pastoral Epistles. He knows that sound (lit. healthy) doctrine does not give life; the Spirit of God does. But anyone born of the Spirit needs to know and grow in the life-giving doctrines of God. This is why he says that by paying attention to doctrine, “you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

Simultaneously, because he knows that knowledge by itself can puff up (1 Cor. 8:1), and that not all studies in the Law are lawful (1 Tim. 1:3–11), he calls for Timothy to guard his life and his doctrine. Too many are the knowledgable theologians who did not guard their lives. And too many are the false professors who have general sense of theology but no life. Thus, we must always pursue doctrine for the sake of knowing the life-giving God. To expound this idea further, let me turn to two theologians who knew both doctrine and life. Continue reading