Monday, June 28, 2010

Q&A: substitution

This is a post designed to answer deeper theological questions. I've asked Facebook friends to post questions for discussion. I'll make a humble attempt to explore these questions from a biblical perspective.

Q: I've never understood the "how" behind Jesus' substitutionary sacrifice. How does his righteousness get transferred to us and our sin to Him? Why is a substitution acceptable to God, even in the Mosaic law? --Lewis Crow

A: Lewis, this question of substitution has been on my mind as well. In the Law, God allowed a penal [legal] substitute for human sin. Declaring that the penalty of sin is death [Romans 3:23], He chose to allow one to die for another. Before Christ, an unblemished lamb [aka "scapegoat"] could serve as the substitute for a penitent sinner. In the New Testament, Jesus becomes the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world [John 1:29].

This idea of substitution is known as "imputation." Three imputations are found in the Bible and in our human experience. First, Adam's sin is imputed to us. Sin entered the world through this one representative man and was laid upon everyone who would be descended from him [see Romans 5:12ff].

Second, our sin is imputed to Christ. While some cry "foul!" because we are held responsible for something Adam started, they don't mind letting Jesus bear the punishment for something we did. Isaiah writes that "God laid on Him the iniquity of us all" [53:6].

The last imputation is Christ's righteousness given to us. Paul writes, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" [2 Corinthians 5:21]. As we trust in Jesus Christ, His righteousness replaces our sin. In this great exchange, we become acceptable to God.

These three imputations are mysterious principles of creation ordained by God. I consider them an expression of His grace--making it possible for sin to be justly condemned and sinners to be reconciled to God through the substitutionary work of a perfect God-man.

I hope this helps.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Q&A: age of accountability

This is a post designed to answer deeper theological questions. I've asked Facebook friends to post questions for discussion. I'll make a humble attempt to explore these questions from a biblical perspective.

Q: Another question for when you get around to it: Age of Accountability. It doesn't appear to be very supported biblically (that I can see), yet I really want to believe it. However, if it is true, could you justify abortion as being the loving thing to do since it doesn't allow for the baby to not believe in Jesus. Is it all a mute point because God elects those He will? -- Jennifer Benton
A: Jennifer, I appreciate this question because it's not just about salvation. It's about what we think about God. Is He just and fair? How do we reconcile the exclusivity and necessity of Christ with the inability of some (infants) to exercise conscious faith?
Before we get to the answer, let's talk methodology. When I am confronted with a theological question, I start by asking "What do I know for certain?" As I draw conclusions about what I know to be true, I begin to establish boundaries for which the answer to my larger question will have to fit. Let's try this on your important question.
1. I know for certain that all people are sinners [Romans 3:23, Psalm 51:5]. It's a human condition that is our nature--inside us. That is, I'm not a sinner because I commit sins; I commit sins because my fundamental nature is sinful.
2. I know for certain that sin separates all people from God [Romans 6:23, Psalm 15]. The holiness of God cannot tolerate the contaminating and compromising presence of sin. Only a holy person can enter the presence of a holy God.
3. I know for certain that Jesus Christ is the only way for a person to be saved [John 3:16, Romans 5:8, Acts 4:12].
4. I know for certain that goodness, mercy and justice are part of God's character [Psalm 136]. Everything that God does will correspond to His character.
5. I know for certain that David had expectations of seeing his infant child again [2 Samuel 12:22-23]. When the eight-day old boy died, David remarked, "I will go to him, but he will not return to me." David believed that he would "go" to be with his son. This text is used by some to hint at a special dispensation for children.
So, as I read the Scriptures and declare what I know for certain, I conclude that the right answer must address human need, not dilute the necessity of Jesus, maintain the character of God and allow for David's hope to come true. At this point, I have "staked" the boundaries of a plausible answer.
In the context of these boundaries, I bring two other theological ideas. The first one comes from Romans 1. Paul writes that God's general revelation (knowledge of God through nature, human conscious and providential acts) persuades people of the reality of God and His righteous demands. But all people, having received this revelation, "suppress the truth of God" [Romans 1:18]. This rejection is what makes them guilty. If this is true, we could conclude that an infant does not possess the capacity to "know" God through nature, perceive through their conscious or delight in the providential acts of God. Unable to accommodate this general revelation, they are not personally guilty. This does not mean that they are not born with a sin nature; It simply suggests that perhaps they are not personally culpable.
An age of accountability [the Jews recognized age 13 as a marker] would be the time when a child has the ability to learn, perceive, discern and decide. At that point, the child is morally accountable to God. I have wondered if this is what Paul meant in Romans 7:9, "Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died." At one time, he was alive [safe] because he had not received the requirements of the law [before he could understand good from bad]. But, once he was able to understand, sin was awakened as a force for disobedience in him. So, in regards to this first idea, I believe the Bible does hint at an experience of personal responsibility which leads to our guilt before God.
This, of course, does not relieve a person--no matter how young--of the sin nature that resides in them since birth. While a baby may not be able to comprehend the providential kindness of God enough to reject it, they are nonetheless sinners. For this, a second theological idea is presented. In 1 John 2:2, John writes, "[Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." I personally believe that John  is writing from the perspective that Christ's death is beneficial, not only for his readers, but for many others far beyond the scope of their cities and homes. However, his statement highlights the completeness of Christ's atoning sacrifice. There is power in the cross and the sacrifice of Jesus. So, perhaps, [perhaps!], the substitutionary work of Christ is specially applied to an infant who doesn't have the capacity to understand truth yet. If this were true, we wouldn't say that God just "let's some people off the hook." Rather, we uphold all of what we know to be true: the need, the guilt, the necessary sacrifice of Jesus and the mercy of God.

To your question on abortion: I would never condone abortion as an answer to any theological dilemma. Somehow, the condition of man, the mercy of God and His command not to murder must be able to be supported with a conclusion that validates each. perhaps my answer above helps.
I hope this response, while not definitive, helps us to appreciate the deeper theological issues while considering a response that is plausible given what we know to be true.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Q&A: love is blind

This is the third post designed to answer deeper theological questions. I've asked Facebook friends to post questions for discussion. I'll make a humble attempt to explore these questions from a biblical perspective.

Q: Someone told me that you were answering difficult Bible verses. I know a man who is engaged to a non-believer and uses 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 to justify his decision. What do you think? --Anonymous
A: Anonymous, thanks for taking time to raise a question that is becoming increasingly more challenging in our contemporary culture. There are two issues at stake in your question. One is interpretation and the other is sanctification. Let's look at both.
FIRST, the use of this passage to justify courtship and/or marriage to a non-Believer is an example of self-serving interpretation. To be fair to your colleague, we all tend to read the Bible through our own personal lens and it is a discipline to let the Bible interpret itself rather than us force our own hopes and dreams within the words of Scripture. In the case of this text, the reader has missed two very important interpretive insights. Paul writes,
"To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?"
The first insight is that the text must be read in the context of the overarching argument. This passage actually begins in verse 10 where Paul is raising the topic of divorce. His question is, "When is it right to divorce?" Having raised the question, he is sure that new converts in his audience will raise the question, "What if we have become people of faith and our spouse isn't? Should we divorce?" Paul's answer is, "No. Stay married. Be sure that God will guard your marriage and your children. In fact, your spirituality has potential to become a sanctifying influence on your non-believing spouse." In other words, Paul taught that it is better to keep your marriage covenant than to divorce when it one marriage partner becomes a Christian.
However, Paul is not giving instructions on who to marry! He is not suggesting that Christians marry non-Christians in order to win them to Christ. It would be like me telling my children, "When you find yourself caught in debt, make sure that you adjust your standard of living and cut back on your luxuries." My instruction in no way encourages them to go into debt! I'm simply giving them counsel should they find themselves in this unfortunate situation. So, once again, to read 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 as a guide to courtship and marriage is to misread the passage.
This raises another interpretive issue: The principle of consistency. The Bible does not contradict itself. Verses in Matthew will compliment the writings of Isaiah. The Old and New testaments fit together. The Bible is a unity. So, when I read 2 Corinthians 6:14 [also written by Paul!]--"Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?"--I must discover how to reconcile this verse with his command in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. The right interpretation of both verses is the one that enables one to support the other and both be applied truthfully. I cannot choose to selectively obey one verse, but not the other.
So, the first problem with your colleague's decision is one of interpretation. The SECOND problem is one of sanctification. The word means "to be/make holy." And, in the passage quoted above [2 Corinthians 6:14], Paul highlights the sure conflict that will arise when people from two differing religious backgrounds attempt to become "one flesh" [Genesis 2:24]. Believers should never "yoke" themselves [in farming cultures, young bulls were hitched to more seasoned ox to plow fields] to unbelievers. This relational unity will threaten the spiritual maturity of the man or woman who is seriously pursuing holiness.
Some might argue that this reflects a spirit of intolerance and that genuinely loving people can find a way to get along with one another. However, if our religious perspective reaches down to the core of who we are, it drives everything we say, think and do. To say it differently, the only way that a couple from two different religious perspectives can live in harmony is for both of them to jettison what they believe for the sake of one another. In doing so, they have lost a part of themselves and they both lose.
Let me give you a real example. A Christian woman falls in love with an agnostic man. According to her belief in God and His Kingdom, she disciplines herself to give a portion of her income to ministry. She also values attending corporate worship every Sunday morning. He husband is completely opposed to giving money to charity and wants to golf every Sunday. This couple has 4 alternatives:
1. The wife abandons her religious convictions. Their marriage is "unified" but she loses.
2. The husband abandons his non-religious convictions. Their marriage is "unified" but he loses.
    [NOTE: This doesn't mean he "converts." He just lives a personal lie.]
3. Both husband and wife "give a little" [compromise] and they both lose a little.
4. Neither gives in and they are in constant conflict.
At the end of the day, none of these options express genuine marriage where both people grow according to truth and unity is based on an affirmation and encouragement of each other. Moreover, for a Christian to compromise truth [even for the sake of "love"] is to make Christ the servant of our affections. It is to make God play second chair to someone greater in our life.
In this, the Christian doesn't ever move forward to maturity. They are not sanctified. They are ever-battling with their spiritual priorities and, more often than not, their earthly relationship wins over their heavenly one. After a whole series of compromises, the once-vital Christian finds themselves having given away the farm...for love.
Love is blind. And, for this reason, I encourage people to keep their eyes wide open when it comes to courtship and marriage. Let the Word, not your heart, lead you. And, build a lifelong relationship with a spouse where both of you already have a common, sure foundation.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Q&A: free will?

This is the second post designed to answer deeper theological questions. I've asked Facebook friends to post questions for discussion. I'll make a humble attempt to explore these questions from a biblical perspective.

Q. How free is the will? --Bo Frazier

A. Bo, this question is one of my favorites. I think this question represents an idea that we've all grown comfortable with--one that reflects our human experience and desire--but has no biblical support. I hear people say, "God helps those who help themselves" or "God will not give you any more than you can handle." These popular sayings are also unbiblical. The idea of "free will" seems to fit what we feel in life and, therefore, has uncritically made its way into our theological framework.

But, the Bible doesn't teach free will.

In fact, the Bible teaches quite the opposite. In Romans 6:17, Paul writes that we all "used to be slaves to sin." His point is that, apart from Christ, people are under the control of sin. They're not free. They are mastered by unrighteousness.

To be sure, we feel free. Many people, outside of Christ, feel as if they can do anything they please. Truth is, sin has so contaminated our humanity, that our will is subject to our sin nature and, until God breaks through, we will never be able to do what ultimately pleases God and leads to life.

My seminary professor used a very vivid illustration. He invited a student to stand on a chair, jump...and not fall. Of course, it was impossible because the student was bound by the laws of his physical nature [gravity]. In the same way, we are bound by spiritual laws. We are free to do everything that our nature permits us to do. If our nature is enslaved to sin, we are free to do whatever an enslaved nature can do [i.e., a convict in the prison yard is "free" to do whatever he wants...though his freedom is clearly limited. He is free to do push ups, but he cannot go to the beach.]. But, we are not free to do absolutely anything we want.

In this, there is no such thing as free will before coming to Christ.

However, once a person is set free by Christ [Galatians 5:1, Romans 6], we have a greater capacity to live a life pleasing to God. The sin nature has not been annihilated. But, it has been broken so that it no longer has mastery over the Christian. This is what it means to be free and only in Christ can our wills be liberated to be the people God designed us to be.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Q&A: on suffering

Today, I start a Q&A forum. I've asked Facebook friends to post questions for discussion. I'll make a humble attempt to explore these questions from a biblical perspective.

Q: "Well, my question is not sophisticated or brainy... But I still struggle with why God allows us to be in danger, get hurt, suffer, and die. Why pray for safety and protection? God says he will hem us in behind and before, but sometimes He doesn't. He doesn't guarantee our safety or the protection of the people we love... My only consolation for this insecurity is that He ultimately provides believers with final comfort and wholeness in heaven. But, here? It doesn't seem so (or seems so sometimes, but not others... At His mysterious whim). So is this God causing calamity? Or is He simply allowing sin and Satan to work? Either way, how do we trust Him on earth?" --Cynthia Cobb Oelkers

A: Cynthia, thanks for asking this bold and relevant question. This may be one of the most-asked questions in history. Why does God allow bad things to happen? The answer, I believe, is found in three spiritual realities.

FIRST, evil exists because sin is in the world. From the beginning, at the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden [Genesis 3], sin has contaminated God's created order. In Romans 8:19-22, Paul writes, "The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time."

This lingering principle of sin has so skewed God's perfect design that tornadoes sweep across farm towns, babies are born with defects and oil rigs explode in the ocean. Every part of us and our world is impacted by the contaminating influence of sin.

It's important to keep this in mind. Otherwise, God takes the blame for sin's destruction. By way of illustration: Suppose a man walks into a convenience store and robs the clerk at gunpoint. He shoots the shop owner and flees as customers look on. Someone might argue that the clerk died because no one stopped the criminal. While it's true that the events might have turned out differently if someone had stepped in, the customers aren't culpable for the criminal act. The clerk died at the hands of a robber, not the others in the store that day. Similarly, I believe we must keep in mind that danger, hurt, suffering and death are the work of enemy who introduced sin into the world and it is that principle of sin that is behind every unfortunate event we face.

SECOND, evil is rooted in the hearts of people. While we talk about the contaminating effect of sin in our natural creation, sin is essentially a moral problem. It resides in the hearts of people. This is important to remember because, for God to remove sin, He would have to remove us.

Let's face it, there are only three options:

1. God doesn't overcome any difficulties.
2. God overcomes some difficulties.
3. God overcomes all difficulties.

In the first option, God removes Himself from the world, ignore the problem of sin and turns a blind eye to the suffering of people everywhere. This would be the god of the deists who think that God wound the world up and permits it to "tick" on it's own. But, of course, we do see God at work in the world. So, this option isn't reality.

In the last option, God overcomes all pain, suffering and hardship in life. But, because sin is a moral problem, God would have to drill down to the source of sin and extinguish it there. In the words of CS Lewis, "If we asked God to get rid of all suffering at midnight tonight, who of us would be left at 12:01?" He adds, in Mere Christianity, "I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does....When the author walks on the stage the play is over." There is a day when Christ returns and everything that has been undone will be remade according to God's Divine design. Until then, God will not totally annihilate pain because to do so, He would have to strike at the source leaving too many with no hope at all.

This leaves us with the middle option: God intervenes in some difficulties. And He does. We know He does. We just wish he would intervene in ours...all the time.

This brings me to a THIRD and final spiritual reality: God is good in our suffering. While the source and the suffering of the trauma we face in life is quite "bad," God is at work accomplishing great things in the process [ala Romans 8:28]. God is for our transformation and His exaltation. The two go hand in hand. When we are changed, God is glorified. Second Corinthians expresses these two: "And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." As we are changed by God, we reflect more and more of His glorious image.

Suffering is how God accomplishes that end. Note the Scriptures that speak to this truth:

"[W]e also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." [Romans 5:3-4]

"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." [Romans 8:18]

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." [James 1:2-4]

In the end, suffering accomplishes God's great goal for our lives--to make us more like Jesus [who suffered, by the way] and, in conforming us to the image of His Son, bring great glory to Himself. This is our predestination [cf. Romans 8:29].

So, the principle of sin is at work; it is rooted in the hearts of people; and God permits it to linger because, through the havoc of suffering, God produces holy people for His glory. And our hope is that, one day, sin will be dealt a final blow, all of God's creation will be changed and God will get the glory. In this, we rest.