The Mission of God, Islam, and Beyond

On Sunday mornings we are doing a class entitled The Church, the Gospel, and the Ends of the Earth; these are my notes from those classes.

I. Introduction

One of the things we did overseas was organize various trips where churches would send college students over to various cultural experiences we had planned.  So we had students rooming with Muslim college students engaging in various cultural and academic projects and at one point one of the students, who was also a religious leader at his school, confronted his roommate and said, “I know why you are here.  You are here to convert us.  If you were anyone else I would have you arrested and immediately thrown out of the country.”  This student was a spiritual leader on his campus and he did not turn us in to the authorities.  Why would he do this?  He didn’t turn us in because of their relationship.

We live in America our perspective of Islam is skewed because of events like 9/11 and the recent bombing in Boston.  But we have to step out that American paradigm and view this through the lens of the gospel.  If you remember anything from this morning remember the importance of relationship.  I am not going to break Islam down theologically today; if you want resources on that let me know as I have written much on that topic.  I want us to look at how the gospel speaks to the Islamic worldview as well as several other worldviews.  But if you want to understand Islam theologically make a friend, talk to a Muslim, and find out what they believe.

II. The Challenge of Islam

In a way the challenge of Islam is no different than the challenges we face with any other worldview.  At the same time international politics and the reality of terrorism do present a challenge, not so much for us as followers of Christ, but for us as Americans.  So we must view these issues through the lens of the Gospel.  Albert Mohler addresses this tension in a recent article asking,

Do American Christians really believe that Christianity benefits by being associated with all that America represents to the Muslim world?  To many Muslims, America appears as the great fountain of pornography, debased entertainments, abortion, and sexual revolution.  Does it help our witness to Christ that all this would be associated in the Muslim mind with “Christian” America?  Beyond any historical doubt, the United States was established by founders whose worldview was shaped, in most cases quite self-consciously, by the Christian faith. . .  But America is not, by definition, a Christian nation in any helpful sense.[1]

It is important that we not let our United States citizenship become an obstacle when proclaiming the Gospel.

III. Communicating the Gospel through Culture

A lot of what missions and evangelism is about has been framed in terms of communicating cross-culturally.  The missionary must bridge a cultural gap between themselves and their hearers.  However, in the incarnation Jesus does not bridge a cultural gap.  He becomes a Jewish man and communicates the good news through that Jewish culture.  We too are called to incarnational ministry and I want to look at how we can communicate the gospel through culture.

Robert E. Webber writes, “In a world of competing stories, we call evangelicals to recover the truth of God’s Word as the story of the world, and to make it the centerpiece of evangelical life.”[2]  That is why our current preaching series is entitled “Luke, The Truth: Our Savior, Our Story.”  This story, this gospel that bridges from creation to recreation, shapes the whole of our existence.  And furthermore this story is not simply our story; this is everyone’s story, because it is God’s story.  It is the narrative of God’s gracious redemption set forth before the foundation of the world.  Because this is God’s story we can communicate the Gospel through culture rather than treating the Gospel as if it is a foreign element that must be forced into culture.  As the elements of the Gospel are already imbedded in culture, though we have become experts at suppressing them, we must learn to communicate the story of redemption in a way that undoes all rival stories.

Now let’s break this down into something really simple.  Every rival narrative, every culture can be understood in terms of three tensions.[3]  Does anyone know what two tensions characterize the western worldview?  What about a South American or African animistic worldview?  What about the worldview of a Japanese business man and a Muslim Imam?  So these three tensions of guilt and innocence, power and weakness, and honor and shame explain the worldview of any culture you will come into contact with.

A. Guilt and Innocence

As westerners we are concerned with right and wrong.  We frame the Gospel in terms of penal substitutionary atonement and the central theme of all our evangelistic methods is our guilt, it is about justice and forgiveness in Christ.

But the other themes are there too right?  Can anyone give me an example of honor and shame in western culture?  No matter how many times Pitbull and Ne-yo sing “we might not get tomorrow, let’s do it tonight” and all the freedom brought about by the sexual revolution if you go to any university in America, that still has separate men’s and women’s dormitories, there will likely be a path in between them known as the walk of shame.  So no matter what we do to suppress it these themes are embedded in who we are as humans.

B. Power and Weakness/Fear

Can anyone give me an example of a power and weakness, or power and fear, worldview?  I really tried to bring this theme out when looking at the temptation of Christ.  Jesus overcomes for us and liberates us from our fears; He has triumphed over our enemies at the cross.

C. Honor and Shame

I can distinctly remember pacing near that bus stop for an hour waiting for our friend to arrive so we could go to the market together.  He has promised to meet us there and continued to reassure me via text message that he was on his way.  Unfortunately I was thinking like an American I didn’t understand what was happening.  So I called and informed him that it would be dark soon and we needed to go, basically I was hungry and wanted food, he assured me he was on his way.  I asked him where he was and then I found out that he was working on a school project four hours away.  I brought shame upon my friend, I called him out for breaking his promise.  He would rather maintain his honor, by insisting that he was coming, than endure the shame of admitting that he forgot about his project and would not be going to the market with us.  It didn’t bother me, but I am sure that conversation bothered him a lot.

IV.  A Complete Gospel

The gospel speaks to these three tensions.  Jesus bears the wrath of God so that God can justify the ungodly, He becomes sin for us so that we can become the righteousness of God.  Just as God clothed Adam and Eve in the garden God covers our shame, He will not put those to shame who believe in Him.  He has triumphed over our enemies in the cross and He has been given all power and authority and we will reign with Him.  So at the end of the day my central encouragement to you is not that you go read a book on apologetics and find out all the answers to the really hard questions in life.  No, my encouragement is that you start a conversation and make a friend all the while knowing that not only does the gospel answer those hard questions more importantly it answers the questions that matter.  So get to know someone, know what their questions are, what their struggles are, and then explain how the gospel makes us righteous, covers our shame, and overcomes our enemies.


[1]R. Albert Mohler Jr., “The Challenge of Islam—A Christian Perspective,” Southern Seminary Magazine 81.3 (2013): 28.
[2]Robert E. Webber, Who Gets to Narrate the World? Contending for the Christian Story in an Age of Rivals (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 120.
[3]For a more in-depth discussion of this please see Roland Muller, Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door (n.p.: Xlibris Corporation, 2000).

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Does Morality Matter?

Are the actions of the people of God judged by a different standard than those who are not His people? To ask it another way does it matter if your unbelieving alcoholic neighbor’s live-in girlfriend is pregnant again? Or yet another way what is God’s primary concern for an unbelieving world?

Please respond with arguments from Scripture. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Abortion and the Illusion of Sovereignty: Addressing the Real Issue

This Sunday’s cover story, “The Two-Minus-One Pregnancy”, for The New York Times Magazine is nothing new. I wrote several years ago, in “When the Fertility Clinic Meets the Abortion Clinic: A Modern Paradox,” about a similar article in the Los Angeles Times. In fact the only thing that has changed in these four years are the numbers. The reasons and the response are the same things that have been around since the first abortion and if we were to go back further to the origins of infanticide. When reading these articles, or the responses to them, they are so predictable that they almost appear to be scripted. With that I hope to take a departure from the typical response and argue that the real issue here is not life, it is not choice, and it is not even murder. The real issue is sovereignty.

Let me explain what I mean. In her June article, “Yes, Abortion is Killing. But It’s the Lesser Evil,” Antonia Senior explains how having a child changed her perspective regarding abortion. After explaining the lack of a consensus regarding a scientific or philosophical definition of life she concludes,

What seems increasingly clear to me is that, in the absence of an objective definition, a foetus is a life by any subjective measure. My daughter was formed at conception, and all the barely understood alchemy that turned the happy accident of that particular sperm meeting that particular egg into my darling, personality-packed toddler took place at that moment. She is so unmistakably herself, her own person — forged in my womb, not by my mothering.

Any other conclusion is a convenient lie that we on the pro-choice side of the debate tell ourselves to make us feel better about the action of taking a life. That little seahorse shape floating in a willing womb is a growing miracle of life

She then explains that such conclusions have resulted in a movement aimed at separating feminism from “fertility control.” However, she views this as entirely incompatible with the central aim of feminism exclaiming, “The single biggest factor in women’s liberation was our newly found ability to impose our will on our biology.” The freedom of women then depends upon one thing the unencumbered exercise of the will.

With a shocking candor she concludes,

As ever, when an issue we thought was black and white becomes more nuanced, the answer lies in choosing the lesser evil. The nearly 200,000 aborted babies in the UK each year are the lesser evil, no matter how you define life, or death, for that matter. If you are willing to die for a cause, you must be prepared to kill for it, too.

For Antonia Senior, and I would argue for all of us, the principal issue is sovereignty, a woman’s ultimate right to impose her will upon herself and upon others.

Sovereignty occurs vertically in the form of worship, we could use other words but the concept remains the same. We either rejoice in the sovereignty of the God in whose image we are made or we deny it by worshipping any number of god’s made in our image. Horizontally human interaction exists upon a continuum of two extremes; escape and conflict. Both extremes end in death and both are false exercises of sovereignty. At the extreme end of escape is suicide where the sovereign self claims sovereignty over the self by taking one’s life. At the extreme end of conflict lies murder where the sovereign self claims sovereignty over another by taking another’s life.

The first two articles mentioned, “The Two-Minus-One Pregnancy” and “The abortion debate brought home,” regarding reduction, which let’s be honest is a clever play on words to sanitize something far more grisly and sinister, bring another exercise of sovereignty into the question, namely in vitro fertilization and the creation of life. Imposing one’s will upon one’s own biology may require medical assistance and donated eggs which is where our current discussion often begins. With in vitro fertilization, when multiple embryos are transferred, there is always the possibility of multiple embryos implanting and when multiple babies are not wanted or the mother is unable to give birth to multiple children then one or more of them must be put to death. In 1988 Dr. Mark Evans penned guidelines for this procedure stating that “most reductions below twins violated ethical principles.” Things have changed over the past 23 years; the medical community has rethought its ethics and is now willing and able to reduce your pregnancy to one. “The Two-Minus-One Pregnancy” ends with a counterintuitive conclusion. After choosing to reduce their pregnancy to one child the author asks the women what would happen if they miscarried to which one of them replied, “I’ve come to realize there’s only so much we can control. There’s a point where you just have to let nature take its course.”

After all this talk of a woman’s complete control of her own fertility comes the tragic conclusion that “there’s only so much we can control.” Ultimately you cannot impose your will upon your biology because ultimately you are not sovereign. Your sovereignty is an illusion.

How are we to respond to this? Should we call our senator or state representative? Should we start building picket signs and begin protesting abortion clinics? No, we must respond with the Gospel, in word and deed. We must respond in the same way that God responds to humanity’s first act of false sovereignty in the garden, with grace and the promise that in Christ we will be liberated not unto self but from self and sin and set free to worship the one true Sovereign. Any other response is incalculably inadequate and nearsighted.

Bottoms Up: The Lost Art of Moderation

This is my second post in this series which aims to provide a biblical perspective on alcohol; the first is available here. I am currently planning two more posts in this series, one addressing contextualization and another explaining why I am convinced that this issue is extremely important.

Starting with Scripture

As I was reading several weeks ago I came across the following passage in Scripture which surprised me for several reasons.

22You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. 23And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. 24And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, 25then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses 26and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. 27And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.

28At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. 29And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.

—Deuteronomy 14:22-29

A Surprising Recommendation

This text’s positive mention of wine is not surprising as there are countless texts where it is spoken of in a positive light, although the definition of “wine” has been debated ad nauseam. This text is surprising in that it, without and qualifications, commends “strong drink.” While the various sides of this debate can continue to argue about the alcohol content of wine the meaning of “strong drink” is impeccably clear. This would have been an alcoholic beverage made from wheat or barley in all likelihood it was similar to beer or other grain alcohol. Even more surprising than the commendation of strong drink is the way in which it is commended and to grasp this it is necessary to look at the passage as a whole.

Explanation

The passage begins by commanding a tithe of grain, wine, oil, and livestock (cf. Leviticus 27:30–32) that is to be taken to “the place that he will choose” i.e. the location of the tabernacle and eventually the temple (cf. Deuteronomy 12). Due to the vastness of the Promised Land and the difficulty of making this pilgrimage with one’s entire family in addition to a tenth of all one’s grain, wine, oil, and livestock it was allowed that one could convert the tithe into money and travel to the sanctuary.

Before continuing it is best to return to verse 23 and examine the intent of the tithe. This tithe is carried out so that “that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.” This act is not a means of acquiring personal righteousness rather the act of tithing is a means of instructing the covenant community of their standing before God and the reverence that is always due Him. Whether in times of abundance or drought the tithe stood as a reminder to Israel that their God was sovereign and all they possessed was the result of His grace.

Upon arrival at the sanctuary the money would then be used to purchase various goods. This practice was the history behind the moneychangers during Jesus’ day (cf. Matthew 21:12-13) the difference being that those during the time of Christ were taking advantage of those who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem rather than dealing with them fairly. Interestingly enough after their arrival at the temple they were not required to purchase the same goods which they had originally exchanged for money but they were allowed to purchase whatever they desired and their appetites craved. The inclusion here of the brief list “or sheep or wine or strong drink” is by no means exhaustive rather it includes a brief sampling of what they might desire to purchase; nevertheless two of the included options are alcoholic beverages.

They are to enjoy what they have purchased by feasting and rejoicing before, or in the presence of, the LORD. Those who would argue that the inclusion of “wine and strong drink” suggests that the goods were used as burnt offerings and drink offerings do a great disservice to the clear language of this text as well as its eschatological dimensions. The language of the text suggests God’s participation in a feast symbolizing covenant renewal; however, the feast also points forward to the wedding supper of the Lamb. This is not the language of burnt offerings but a meal of rejoicing at the covenant faithfulness and redeeming grace of Israel’s God. The Levites, who were charged with the care of the tabernacle (Numbers 1:50-53), did not have an inheritance of their own and depended upon the rest of the covenant community for provision (cf. Numbers 18:24) were to be included in the feast.

God’s care for Israel is demonstrated in this and even more in that every third year the tithe is to be converted into a local feast whereby the Levites, sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow may be provided for.

Implications for the Church

There are countless implications that can be drawn from this text concerning one’s attitude in giving and the purpose behind this act. This text also has implications for our understanding of the Lord’s Supper as an eschatological and celebratory act. I would love to hear your thoughts on these topics in the comments section.

The purpose of this post is to focus on the implications that must be drawn for our understanding of the use of alcohol within the covenant community of the church. What we find here, and in many other texts that will be discussed over the course of this series, is that the perception that Scripture places an absolute prohibition on the consumption of alcoholic beverages is wholly false. Not only is that perception false but this text arguably places the consumption of alcoholic beverages at the center of Israel’s celebration of the provision and grace of Yahweh.

Am I going to attempt to argue from this that alcohol should be a centerpiece in the worship of the church? No, I am not. Neither should we come to the polar opposite conclusion that alcohol is always condemned by Scripture. The key to this issue, and many others, is moderation. There are times when it is condemned and times when it is commended and the church must be resolved to rest between these two points of tension. This is a difficult task. Both Scripture and church history reveal numerous occasions where the people of God are unable to hold various points of tension and end up in error. We must avoid this error. It is my prayer that, by the grace of God, we will stand between the deadly polls of legalism and liberalism as we live and proclaim the gospel.

As we approach this issue let us do so with both a wisdom that avoids the deadly dangers of legalism and liberalism. If you choose to discuss please do so with charity.

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

—I Corinthians 10:31

A Family Theology: What are Children for Anyway?

I hope to develop this into a series as time goes on but since baby Walters should be born within the next two weeks I think it best to begin with some thoughts on the Scripture and children.

Psalm 127

1Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
2It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
3Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
4Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
5Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

Introduction

This psalm is part of a larger section known as the Songs of Ascents, or Ascent Psalms (Psalm 120-134), which would be sung as individuals journeyed to Jerusalem for Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. The overarching theme of this particular song is God’s sovereignty and its relation to the family which is important as it would likely be memorized and sung by the family during their pilgrimage.

Explanation

v1. The first verse points us to the futility of human effort severed from God’s provision. As parents laboring to raise Christ-like children we must recognize that our efforts are vanity apart from divine enablement and blessing. Solomon likens this to a watchman who stays awake to guard a city from its enemies. This would have been a vivid reminder to the Jews who would sing this during their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This would remind them of how the Lord’s hand was against them during the time of the judges as He caused foreign armies to invade and destroy Israel (Deuteronomy 28). All of their military efforts were vanity until the Lord provided a deliverer (Judges 2:11-23). In the same way parents must realize that it is the work of God, not their efforts, that saves and sanctifies their children (cf. Ezekiel 11:19-20).

v2. The second verse continues to illustrate the point of the first. The man who lives off of his own strength and diligence does so vainly and even robbing him of the joy of the fruits of his labor as the bread which he strives to provide become burdensome and fraught with anxiety. In contrast the one whose ultimate confidence is in the Lord rests with ease.

v3. Despite the ease of all our modern conveniences and technologies the prevailing view of children is that they are burdensome and we would be kidding ourselves if, in some romanticized vision of history, we think the ancients had it any easier. Scripture directly confronts this mindset with the reminder that children are a gracious gift of God. We do not deserve them and yet God, in His grace, blesses us with them.

v4. Solomon makes what seems to be an abrupt shift in analogy as he moves to describe children as implements of war; however, this is not the case. Children grow and are shaped and molded by their parents in a similar way that the finest craftsmen and blacksmiths would construct an arrow. From finding the straightest shafts, to tight and consistent feathers, to constructing razor sharp tips out of steel and stone this entire process could be likened to the training and raising of children; however, this is not the focus of this passage. He is actually comparing children born, while their parents are still young, to weaponry in the hand of a skilled warrior. The meaning of this becomes clearer as the text continues.

v5. The man with a quiver full of arrows, referring to his numerous offspring, will not be put to shame when called to the gate to meet with his enemies. The gate is where the elders and wise men of the city would sit and conduct business, it is where judgments were made, and it was often the place where armies would meet. The aging father can speak justly and boldly with his enemies as the children of his youth, whom he has carefully raised, are now grown and his sons are now mighty men who present a dangerous force, much like many arrows in the hands of a warrior, to those who would deal unjustly with their father.

Application

What are we supposed to take away from this text? Clearly we do not live during a time of tribal warfare where it is important for our children to be skilled warriors should a rival clan attack. There are certainly points of application to be made concerning the care for the elderly and the aging. However, I would like to offer three overarching thoughts on the purpose of children.

First, God is sovereign and not man. This has countless implications for the following points but it must be examined on its own first. Against the counter temptations of living through our children to realize our unattained dreams by ruling over them and allowing our children to be the final authority thus allowing them to rule over us Scripture boldly asserts that God is the final authority. As parents we must seek to parent in such a way that God’s will be done. Our aim in childrearing is the glory of God and children who seek to glorify God above all else. This is countercultural. With this we also recognize that while we are held accountable for parenting biblically it is God who controls the outcome. When our children do good it is fundamentally a work of God purchased on the cross. When our children repent and follow Christ it is solely the result of God’s sovereign grace and not our good parenting. We approach the task of parenting humbly because we will be required to give an account and yet our only boast is in Christ.

Second, children are an undeserved gift from God. There are certainly biological processes and countless decisions which lead to children nevertheless we must recognize the behind it all is the grace of God. Furthermore, our lives as families and as a church must demonstrate this reality. Our age is no different from ages past people have always viewed children as a burdensome and have sacrificed them to placate various gods or left them to die in the desert. Human history is plagued with accounts of infanticide and the glory of modernity is that such burdens, as many would view children, can be removed in ways which seem far more human and civilized than the brutality of ages past. I am thankful for Stanley Hauerwas’ reminder “that abortion is not a question about the law, but about what kind of people we are to be as the church and as Christians.” Our lives demonstrate this reality not when we protest those who do not value their unborn children and/or the children of others nor do we demonstrate this reality by merely voting for pro-life candidates. Our lives demonstrate this reality when we cherish our children for the grace-gift that they are, especially when they are burdensome. Even more we demonstrate this well when we as families and as a church gladly receive the children which the rest of society does not want. What clearer presentation of the gospel could we make than that of adoption? There are few metaphors which so clearly express our new reality in Christ than that of adoption and the church has an unprecedented opportunity to live this out.

Third, children are given for the expansion of the kingdom. Children are implements of war not “against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The hopes and dreams of our children must not be shaped surrounding culture but by the word of God and as parents we must cultivate children who think first and foremost about His kingdom. I think this requires us to put to death the idea that safety matters above all else. We must kill all of our dreams that place the safety of our children and our families above the glory of God. I have not heard it openly articulated, maybe you have, but there seems to be this unwritten rule within in the church that once you have children God’s will for your life is finding Mayberry because our kids need to be safe. I think this passage paints a far different reality, a reality where children are spent for the kingdom because that is what you do with arrows you release them. In the meantime we should be spending ourselves for the kingdom by living the gospel.

Reader Response

How else would you see this text being applied within the church and within our families?