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Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

Why Is There Winter In Narnia?

Narnia-winter*A shorter version of this essay appeared in The Harvard Ichthus:

The central thrust of Stephen Prothero’s provocative book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World, is that the various major religions of the world are all manifestly not saying the same thing in different ways.  This thesis runs directly contrary, of course, to the contemporary zeitgeist that could wish such a basic unity to be discovered, in the name of relativistic pluralism.  As Prothero expertly demonstrates, however, there are incommensurate differences that separate most religious belief systems from each other that chasten those who attempt a naive harmonization.  Claiming that Buddhists, Muslims and Christians (or whoever) all adhere to the same religious worldview and set of practices is not only deeply reductionistic, but in fact as dishonest and blatantly fallacious as saying that Democrats and Republicans actually embody the same political perspective, or that Capitalists and Marxists are pursuing an identical economic agenda, but simply communicating it with different vocabulary.  Such ideologically disparate visions as these cannot be swept under the rug by appeal to a generic umbrella called “politics” or “economics” under which each viewpoint is exhaustively explained by and reduced to.  In exactly the same way, the category of “religion” is wrongly employed if the intention is to caricature what is distinctive in each religion’s particular vision of the world.

Yet Prothero opens his study by acknowledging that there is, in fact, a single isolated point of common ground that connects every religious tradition:

“What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point.  And where they begin is (more…)

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This article was recently published in The Harvard Ichthus:

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This is the true King of Narnia we’ve got here: a true King, coming back to true Narnia.  And we beasts remember, even if Dwarfs forget, that Narnia was never right except when a Son of Adam was King.”[1]

Approaching the Psalms: Private Piety or Public Story?

The Psalms are ardently loved by many Christians, treasured for their blunt, captivating depiction of the full-range of human emotion and experience within a framework of total religious devotion to God.  The New Testament writers share this enthusiasm—the Psalms are cited there more often than any other Old Testament document.  Yet my contention is that the intended function of this beautiful collection of 150 poetic hymns and prayers is consistently misunderstood.  Instead of approaching the Psalms as individualistic, a-historical descriptions of private piety vaguely disconnected from Israel’s traditions and the ebb and flow of God’s involvement in redemptive history, I seek to persuade you that the Psalms are—above all else—a story.[2]  The religious fervor and passion of the Psalter is story-shaped through and through, not sentimental or abstract.  And this makes all the difference in the world.

Nothing could be more counter-intuitive, of course. (more…)

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Few biblical doctrines have as contentious and biting a history within the church as predestination.  Even among communities of believers who are passionately seeking to know God it often feels manifestly awkward to broach the issue in conversation.  Perhaps this is due in part to a genuine desire for peace and a reluctance to enter hastily into old, worn out controversies, in light of the havoc this doctrine has wreaked at times in the life of the church.  Our hesitation may also arise from a faulty perception of the supposed lack of practical importance this truth holds for our spirituality.

As I read the New Testament, however,  I have become increasingly convinced that neither potential rationale held much sway for Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or John (or…).  The most striking difference between our theological dialogue and the Bible (with respect to this single issue of God’s election of His people) is the sheer frequency with which it is discussed in God’s Word.  Ought we not feel that something is seriously amiss if such a radical chasm exists between us and the early Christians here?  We need to lay aside our mistaken intuitions and begin talking again–with grace and patience–about what it means to be chosen by God.  It is there for a reason.  We ignore it to our peril and to our very great spiritual detriment.

With the aim of stirring up such discussion, I want to offer a perspective on predestination that is, I think, ordinarily overlooked.   Most treatments of divine election focus on what this doctrine is.  I propose that we start not with what divine election is, but rather what it does in the biblical narrative.  I hope that in postponing an early, rushed decision on the meaning of predestination, we may glimpse aspects of reality here we would have otherwise missed as we ponder the function of being chosen by God.  Of course, given the close, necessary relationship between what a thing is and what a thing does, we should fully expect that signifcant insight on the nature of divine election will be attained if we can come to grips with what role it performs in the life of the people of God.

1.) Divine Election reveals the unbreakable, sovereign and entirely free love of God.  Whenever the biblical writers talk about being chosen by God, they are never far from gushing over the uncaused, eternal love of God for His people.  In Deuteronomy 7, God informs Israel of the reason behind His choice of them, and it is stunning:

“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 7:6-8; see here and here for more on the intimate connection with love.)

Do you hear that?  The Lord says that it is not for anything I see in you that I have set my love upon you (i.e. it was not because you were more in number, or smarter, or better, or more religious than the other peoples, etc.).  Rather, I loved you…because I loved you.  No reason can be given for God’s election of a people for Himself other than–God.  The sole cause lay in Him, not in us.  In other words, divine election (surprise) is about grace.  It reveals the depths and wonders of God’s love for His people.  Is it really such a terrible shock that the Gospel of John–the book most Christians think of first when they think of God’s love–is also the biblical document that most incessantly focuses on being chosen by God?  See here for one particularly memorable instance.

2.) Divine Election aims at humility and boasting only in God, never in ourselves.  To be the object of divine election is to have any and all potential grounds for pride ripped from beneath your feet.  God alone is to receive glory in this matter.  To be chosen by grace and to yet remain arrogant is the worst contradiction conceivable.  If we forget these realites and begin to grow conceited, Paul urges us to remember the way in which God has chosen us:

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  And it is of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”” (I Corinthians 1:26-31)

3.) Divine Election is unto holiness, not because of holiness.  What I mean by this is set forth in an illustration of Jonathan Edwards, highlighting the difference between how the world chooses and how God chooses:

“God has chosen the godly out of the rest of the world to be nearly related to him, to stand in the relation of children, to have a property in him, that they might not only be his people, but that he might be their God. He has chosen these to bestow himself upon them. He has chosen them from among others to be gracious to them, to show them his favor. He has chosen them to enjoy him, to see his glory, and to dwell with him forever. He has chosen them as his treasure, as a man chooses out gems from a heap of stones, with this difference: the man finds gems very different from other stones, and therefore chooses, but God chooses them, and therefore they become gems, and very different from others.” (Jonathan Edwards, “Christians A Chosen Generation”)

To be the last kid perennially picked for the kickball game on the playground in elementary school can, of course, be a psychologically devastating experience.  Yet predestination reminds us that we are not chosen because God first finds us beautiful or alluring in ourselves (the opposite holds true because of sin).  Rather, we are made beautiful because God sets His favor freely upon our broken existence.  Could anything be more freeing?  Could there be a greater incentive to putting off the old and walking in newness of life? Consider Genesis 18:19, Ephesians 1:4-5, II Thessalonians 2:13-14 and I Peter 2:9-12 for the aim of election issuing forth in (not from) holiness of life.

It bears repeating that every Christian necessarily believes in predestination (i.e. it can’t be disputed that it is in the Bible).  They just differ over what this doctrine means!  One helpful litmus test with respect to the validity of our understanding of divine election is to ask ourselves the simple question: is this doctrine performing these functions in my life?  If not, perhaps we have misunderstood what divine election is.

The really surprising thing about divine election in the Bible is that it is consistently spoken of as if it were practical.  In our endlessly heated and stuffy academic debates about predestination, we easily forget that this doctrine is supposed to be useful–in a rugged, bottom-line kind of way–to those who are feebly trying to follow Jesus more authentically and faithfully.

Yet most Christians I have conversed with do not, admittedly, possess this sort of nitty-gritty, beneficial experience with election.  Hence my aim is to explore the function of being chosen by God (rather than its meaning) in the Scriptures, in the hope that this might win us a new angle of fresh insight into this ignored theme.  Leaving to the side, for the time being, what election is, I now follow up on last week’s initial three observations with three more things election does (or at least ought to do) in the Christian life:

4.) Divine Election is meant to provide deep-rooted assurance of salvation for individual Christians.  To know myself to be chosen by God is to realize that I have been loved from everlasting to everlasting.  Just as this love had no beginning, neither will it have an end.  Before the foundation of the world I belonged to God, and I will be His forever, world without end.  I may say truly that God loves me, but I can never say that God loves me because…for there is no reason other than His own good pleasure and mercy.  Thus, nothing will ever separate me from His love, nor will anyone be able to bring any charge against God’s elect (see Romans 8:28-39).  Compare also Ephesians 1:3-14.

This assurance stands in marked contrast to the empty philosophical speculation and frivolous, soul-numbing doubt that twisted, sub-biblical understandings of election have sometimes produced in God’s people.  If election produces mental or spiritual instability in a believer, they simply do not understand election.  To such at these the advice of M’Cheyne is apropos:

“‘If I knew I were one of God’s elect, I would come to Christ; but I fear I am not.’  To you I answer: nobody ever came to Christ because he knew himself to be one of the elect. It is quite true that God has of His mere good pleasure elected some to everlasting life, but they never knew it until they believed in Christ. Christ nowhere commands the elect to come to him. He commands all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel. The question for you is not, ‘Am I one of the elect?’ but ‘Am I a sinner?’ Christ came to save sinners.” (Robert Murray M’Cheyne)

The tricky question here, of course, is how one comes to know his or her elect status.  Do we find this lofty, esoteric information in the hidden, mysterious, eternal counsels and decrees of God?  Do we find it through morbid, ruthless introspection?  Me genoito.  Instead, election is personally recognized and known in two corresponding ways in the New Testament, both of which are focused upon Jesus.  Election, we must never fail to insist, bears the indelible mark of a Christ-centered stamp in any truly Christian theology.

a.) Election is known and acknowledged retrospectively after we come to faith in Christ.    In other words, the believer’s election is known indirectly and derivatively in Christian theology—not directly, intuitively, or mystically.  We see our election in Christ.  As Paul writes:

“For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” (I Thessalonians 1:4-5)

If you ask who the chosen people are in the world, the New Testament is crystal clear: look for those who adore Jesus and follow him.  If you are drawn to Jesus, it is because God has first wooed you.  When you ponder if you are one of the elect, simply look to Jesus.  Do you love what you see in him?  Then you are chosen.  Calvin puts it this way, highlighting Jesus as the “mirror” of election:

“But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to ingraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life.” (John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.24.5)

b.) Election is confirmed and validated prospectively as we continue to walk by faith with perserverance, living in obedience to our crucified and risen Savior and seeking His glory and will in all things.  As Peter puts it:

“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.  For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.  For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.  Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.  For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (II Peter 1:3-11)

Election assures us that we are loved by God in Christ.

5.) Divine Election functions as a confident foundation for evangelism of unbelievers.  This aspect, no doubt, is completely unexpected and utterly counter-intuitive to modern sentiments.  Yet listen to this:

“Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” (2 Timothy 2:8-10)

Arguably a similar function (i.e. the invincibility of God’s saving purposes in the world giving rise to bold, risk-taking mission) is ascribed to divine election in John 10:16, 27-30 and Acts 18:9-11.  Think about it: if we are saved completely by grace, then neither our good qualities nor our bad deeds serve to either attract or repel God’s favor to us.  On the one hand, therefore, let no one presume anything apart from Christ.  For who sees anything different in us?  Yet on the other hand, let no one ever despair that they are beyond redemption or outside of hope.  Such dark ruminations too quickly forget the logic of divine election.  Election frees us to proclaim the gospel confidently to those who are still in darkness, knowing that their faith rests ultimately not in our wisdom but in God’s power.

6.) Divine Election is not an end in itself, but is for the sake of the world.  God does not choose a people for Himself, out of all the nations of the earth, so that they can contentedly pat themselves on the back and enjoy cheap, selfish comforts at home as the rest of the world suffers tragically under the curse of Adam.  The first human God called and chose in the biblical narrative is the archetype of all  the elect who come after him.  Abraham was called out of futile idolatry and chosen by God, in order that the world might be blessed through him.  So are Christians.  In John 17, we see both aspects of this dual reality: particularlity for the sake of universality.  Jesus expressly refuses to pray for the world, but only for “those the Father has given him.”  Yet he prays for them (i.e. the elect), in order that they might be one and that the entire world might know that the Father has sent the Son through their unified witness.  Election, therefore, is always the beginning of mission.

“We cannot know for what reason one was chosen, [but] we most certainly can known for what purpose he was chosen: he was chosen in order to be a fruit-bearing branch of the one true vine (John 15:16), a witness through whom others might be saved.  He is chosen in order that through him God’s saving purpose may reach to others, and they too be reconciled to God in and through his reconciled and reconciling people.  And while the ultimate mystery of election remains, one can see that the principle of election is the only principle congruous with the nature of God’s redemptive purpose.” (Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God, p. 101)

Does election perform these functions in our lives?  If not, why not?

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That the moral vision of the apostle Paul is despised by moderns of a typically secular mindset should come as no surprise.  This rampant hostility is entirely consistent and predictable—Paul’s various writings are severely out of step with current Western sensibilities, given his supreme commitment to the lordship of Jesus in all spheres of life.  An encounter between these jarringly antithetical worldviews was never likely to produce warm, fuzzy feelings.  However, this ideological clash is also not the whole story.  Ethical dissonance does not account, on its own, for every despised glance Paul habitually receives from his contemporary readers.  Amateurishly bad interpretation also plays a role, and at least some of the serial dislike of Paul in the present environment arises through nothing more than a misunderstanding of what he was actually trying to say.  The contention set forth here is that 1 Corinthians 7 is just such a passage.

It is generally recognized that wide swaths of the early church, subsequent to the initial apostolic era, suffered under the influence of a kind of asceticism which is foreign to the Jewish background of nascent Christianity.  This abiding suspicion of the spiritual value of sex was unwittingly smuggled in through the back door by influential Gentile converts who had backgrounds in Greek philosophical traditions.  Dennis Hollinger, in an astute recent work, helpfully defines sexual asceticism this way: (more…)

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Few things are more paralyzing to believers than that particularly dread gloom which inevitably dawns whenever a vague, gnawing sense of the unreality and irrelevance of the claims of Christian faith begins to crystallize in experience.  Leo Tolstoy, after publishing War and Peace and Anna Karenina and receiving world-wide fame and accolade, experienced a jolting mid-life crisis of faith in his early 50′s in which he questioned the significance of everything he had accomplished and lived for up until that point.  Frantically seeking out what the meaning of life might be, he recorded the initial findings of his desperate quest in his short work Confession.  One passage in particular struck me as poignantly giving voice to an experience many Christians stumble upon in their own seasons of disillusionment, but probably struggle to express concretely:

“[The people around me in my youth] led me to the conclusion that I had to learn my catechism and go to church but that it was not necessary to take it all too seriously…My break with faith occurred in me as it did and still does among people of our social and cultural type [i.e. the intellectual elite].  As I see it, in most cases it happens like this: people live as everyone lives, but they all live according to principles that not only have nothing to do with the teachings of faith but for the most part are contrary to them.  The teachings of faith have no place in life and never come into play in the relations among people; they simply play no role in living life itself.  The teachings of faith are left to some other realm, separated from life and independent of it.  If one should encounter them, then it is only as some superficial phenomenon that has no connection with life…[A person] can live dozens of years without once being reminded that he lives among Christians, while he himself is regarded as a follower of the Orthodox Christian faith.  Thus today, as in days past, the teachings of faith, accepted on trust and sustained by external pressure, gradually fade under the influence of the knowledge and experience of life, which stand in opposition to those teachings.  Quite often a man goes on for years imagining that the religious teaching that had been imparted to him since childhood is still intact, while all the time there is not a trace of it left in him.

A certain intelligent and honest man named S. once told me the story of how he ceased to be a believer.  At the age of twenty-six, while taking shelter for the night during a hunting trip, he knelt to pray in the evening, as had been his custom since childhood.  His older brother, who had accompanied him on the trip, was lying down on some straw and watching him.  When S. had finished and was getting ready to lie down, his brother said to him, ‘So you still do that.’  And they said nothing more to each other.  From that day S. gave up praying and going to church.  And for thirty years he has not prayed, he has not taken holy communion, and he has not gone to church.  Not because he shared his brother’s convictions and went along with them; nor was it because he had decided on something or other in his own soul.  It was simply that the remark his brother had made was like the nudge of a finger against a wall that was about to fall over from its own weight.  His brother’s remark showed him that the place where he thought faith to be had long since been empty; subsequently the words he spoke, the signs of the cross he made, and the bowing of his head in prayer were in essence completely meaningless actions.  Once having admitted the meaninglessness of these gestures, he could no longer continue them.

Thus it has happened and continues to happen, I believe, with the great majority of the people.”

This passage haunts me.  I find it terribly accurate, possessing a vivid ring of truth possible only to those who have firsthand knowledege of such internal events.  I have myself felt nauseatingly near to this situation in seasons when certain vague moods were present, brought on by the seeming unreality of faith in antithetical dissonance with my experience of the world.  I have also witnessed many fellow believers slowly, unremarkably walk away from Jesus as a result of such perpetual disenchantment, barely even aware of what was happening to them at the time.

Tolstoy reminds me of several important insights here.  First, nominal Christianity, for all of its seemingly unthreatening ordinariness, is the most spiritually destructive dynamic in the world.  Nominal Christianity receives its birth in the pits of hell, and tends to produce offspring in accordance with its own ghastly origins.  It breeds despair in those who are aware of the complexities, difficulties and moral darkness of the world.  It encourages the abstracting of faith from “real life” and thus prepares the way for apostasy when suffering or internal angst arise.  Those who confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord over all, but who deny him by their actions, are the greatest hindrance to the kingdom of God in the universe.  Nietzche is not nearly the obstacle to the gospel that Joel Osteen is to most people, nor Richard Dawkins in comparison to the health-and-wealth “gospel” of the modern suburban church.  You know the breed of which I speak–the kind of church which enthusiastically proclaims a sort of emotional well-being which can avoid the nasty dark nights of the soul, promising instead the pyschological dimensions of the American dream, if not the financial ones.  The already/not yet tension of the apostolic testimony becomes simply “already,” “now.”

One of the most important lessons I have ever learned is that the gospel simply doesn’t “work” if you don’t take it seriously, on its own terms, submitting to its demands within its own narrative framework and construal of life’s meaning.  Christianity will not do anything to alter our existence in the least,  if we limit it to the realm of mental ideas alone, or subordinate its exclusive claims for loyalty to more important aspects of life such as politics, marriage, economics, the desire to be safe and comfortable, or personal ambition.  While horrifying to experience, the seasons in which faith seems full of unreality and fantasy ought not to surprise us.  God is not mocked; we reap what we sow.

Second, Tolstoy reminds me that doubt and apostasy are rarely only, or primarily, matters of intellectual coherence and argumentation.  When the paradigm shift (to use Thomas Kuhn’s marvelously helpful terminology) takes place in which the permanent transition from faith to unbelief becomes real, it is not usually a single idea or new insight that causes such jarring movement in a person’s life.  Rather, it is the quite obvious result of the comprehensiv, long-term internal pressure of a thousand experiences of unreality, irrelevance, and disquietude finally boiling over to the point where it is no longer tolerable to the human spirit to say that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.  Faith simply does not explain or help to manage my perceptions and experiences of the world any longer.  It is not tenable.  “So you still do that” is now a compelling existential argument over against the unconsciously discredited vision of Paul in his letter to the Romans.

Lastly, Tolstoy demonstrates that what we need most in the Christian life is an ongoing, tangible, Spirit-produced sense of the reality of the gospel’s beauty and power as we follow Jesus together in community with others.  Just as doubt can be encouraged and provoked by seeing that faith is just as unreal and nominal for others as it is for me, so the life-giving power of faith can be nurtured not only by my own experience and knowledge and seeking after God, but also by experiencing God through others who are legitimately sharing in and actively connected to His divine life.  Tolstoy motivates me to pray Paul’s request on behalf of the Ephesians with new zeal and intensity:

For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 1:15-20)

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“Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!  Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.  The saying is trustworthy, for:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.” (II Timothy 2:8-13)

I am generally of the opinion that most novel interpretations of Scripture which cut against the grain of the received wisdom of the ages are simply mistaken.  The majority voice in biblical scholarship over time carries tremendous weight with me, and I think it ought to with most Christians (especially with individualistic Protestants such as myself).  I believe that 98% of the Bible has been fantastically understood throughout church history by the teachers and theologians of the church, and our greatest need is almost never brand new interpretative insight into God’s Word.  Rather, it is the grace and faith to obey it, live it out, and apply it faithfully and creatively in each successive generation through the Spirit.  I deeply resonate with C. S. Lewis’ frustration with the “chronological snobbery” that seems to be a peculiar ailment of the snobbish Western academy of late.

Nonetheless, I present here a dissenting voice on the standard scholary consensus–as well as the widespread popular understanding–concerning 2 Timothy 2:13, in which Paul writes that “if we are faithless, he [God] remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.”  The mainstream explanation of this passage, as represented both in the critical commentaries and in the “common sense” construal of most English readers today, is that Paul is encouraging young Timothy in his ministry by assuring him of God’s constant mercy (“He remains faithful”), even in the face of the anguished struggles and occasional failures in the life of believers (“even if we are faithless”).

Allow me to state right from the outset that such a sentiment is not only orthodox and consistent with the entire tenor of the gospel of grace as found in the New Testament, but it is beautiful and compelling and worth reminding ourselves of daily as we continue to wrestle with the effects of the sin that remains in our hearts.  Yet I am also convinced that inferring such a perspective from 2 Timothy 2:13 is a classic example of drawing out the right doctrine from the wrong text, for such a construal simply is not anywhere close to Paul’s intended meaning here.  I offer five reasons in defense of my exegetical unbelief:

1.)    It breaks the parallelism of the four stanzas in 2:11-13, the first two of which are indisputably positive statements of reassurance for believers.  The third (“if we deny him, he also will deny us”, echoing Matthew 10:33 and other similar utterances of Jesus) is surely a negative warning directed to confessing Christians.  It makes a whole lot of sense, a priori, if the fourth stanza completes the pattern by repeating or elaborating upon such a warning.  I am convinced that this is exactly what it does.

2.)   The use of “unfaithful” (apistos/apisteo) language in Paul is much more definitive and unyieldingly negative than the positive interpretation of 2:13 allows for.  To be “faithful” or “unfaithful” in Paul’s use of this vocabulary always draws a tight, clean distinction between believers and unbelievers.  To interpret it here as referring to authentic Christians who are merely struggling with old sinful habits would be utterly out of step with every other Pauline usage and waters down Paul’s typical employment of the word.  “Unfaithful” consistently refers either to outright unbelievers or to fallen, lapsed confessors who have decisively turned away from the Lord and are no longer walking with Him.

3.)   The positive interpretation of 2:13 does not fit the context of the immediately surrounding flow of thought.  Paul, as he has been wont to do structurally throughout the letter, is exhorting Timothy to not be ashamed of the gospel but instead to join with him in suffering for it.  As in several other places in 2 Timothy (see 1:15-18, 3:8-11, and 4:6-10), Paul expounds upon his call for faith-filled obedience in Timothy’s life by appealing to both positive and negative personal examples that illustrate the consequences of our potential responses to such weighty injunctions.  Here, both Jesus and Paul serve as models who first suffered in weakness, but who were later vindicated in their missions by God’s power–a pattern that the first two couplets in 2:11-12 expound upon.

And immediately after this ancient hymn, Paul goes on to mention Hymenaeus and Philetus in 2:14-19.  Apparently these two men were formerly teachers and leaders in the church, but have turned away from the faith (that is, they are “faithless”) and are even denying the future resurrection from the dead of believers.  Notice the eerily similar and intentional parallel to the latter two (negative) couplets of 2:12-13 in 2:18-19: “They have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.  BUT God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”  Verse 18 highlights a recent example of those who have denied the Lord and been faithless to Him.  Verse 19 illustrates that in spite of this faithlessness, the Lord yet remains faithful–that is, He knows who truly belongs to Him, and imposters who arise within the people of God are not a just cause for our trust in the Lord to be shaken.  Instead, they will be denied in turn.

The allusion to Numbers 16:5 (LXX) strengthens the likelihood of this interpretation.  In the story of Korah’s rebellion, a comparable historical situation is described.  An influential leader within Israel has turned away from the Lord, bringing judgment upon himself.  In spite of the panic this brings about for God’s people, the confident answer from Moses calms their fears: “In the morning the Lord will show who is His.”  Korah’s faithlessness has not nullified the faithfulness of God.  He actually does not belong to Him, and his apostasy has manifested this state of affairs.  Even here, the Lord’s act of judgment is not a denial of His holiness and promises, but instead their fulfillment.

4.)  The word “deny” (arneomai) is found both before and after the statement “if we are faithless, he remains faithful”, grounding these statements with the assurance that the Lord cannot “deny” Himself.  While not conclusive as an argument, this leads me to think that Paul’s thought remains in the same conceptual category in these latter two couplets that are linked by the word “deny”–that is, they both function as warnings.

5.)   There is a striking and almost completely overlooked parallel to 2 Timothy 2:13 in Romans 3:3-4: “What if some were unfaithful (apisteo)? Does their faithlessness [apistia] nullify the faithfulness [pistis] of God?  By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar.”  Not only is the language incredibly resonant with that of 2 Timothy 2:13, but the context is as well.  In Romans 3:1-8, Paul briefly introduces a heartbreaking theme that he will later develop in Romans 9-11: namely, that ethnic Israel’s unexpected and tragic rejection of the Davidic Messiah does not invalidate God’s faithfulness to His promises and His people; the word of God has not fallen to the ground empty (9:1-6).  All this in spite of the tremendous turmoil and erosion of confidence in God’s faithfulness that it apparently caused for many in the early church.

Years later, having learned this lesson well and at enormous personal cost to himself, Paul sorrowfully yet boldly reminds Timothy that God’s demonstration of His own goodness and righteousness are not thwarted by even the most shocking and heartbreaking defections from the faith within the confessing people of God.  The Lord knows who belongs to Him, and He will remain faithful regardless of those who turn away from Him.  This is the meaning of 2 Timothy 2:13.

I know that in my own life some of the most faith-testing and gut-wrenching experiences I have endured as a Christian have come through the Hymenaeus’s and Philetus’s (2:18), the Phygelus’s and Hermogenes’s (1:15), and the Demas’s (4:10) in my own life, those who have consciously turned away from Jesus after what seemed to be genuinely good beginnings in their spiritual devotion to the Savior.  2 Timothy, as even a casual glance at the letter demonstrates, is filled with such bitter disappointments in Paul and Timothy’s Christian relationships.  The leadership in the Ephesian church has apparently crumbled from within, abandoning the orthodox faith and thus fulfilling Paul’s earlier warning to the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:28-32).  Yet Paul’s faith is still solid, for the Lord remains faithful in spite of it all.  He cannot deny Himself.  This is the ultimate basis of Paul’s confidence.  And this divinely-constructed foundation possesses a permanent stability, whatever personal betrayals or rejections we meet with from those who formerly sang and worshiped and prayed with us among God’s people.  It is a good, albeit harsh lesson to learn before such times arrive for us.  Even now, may we all begin to lay down deep roots into the faithfulness of God, a faithfulness which remains even in the face of the worst, most unexpected human faithlessness.

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God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.  In this love has been perfected with us, in order that we might have confidence in the day of judgment, because just as he is so also are we in this world.  There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment, and the one who fears has not been perfected in love.”   (1 John 4:16-18)

The promise of 1 John 4:18 is a perpetual favorite of many Christians, and for good reason.  Few things are more terrifying or unpleasant in life than the foreboding sense of remaining under God’s displeasure, or the prospect of one day being judged and excluded from His presence.  This is the stuff of ultimate nightmare for human beings.  Yet John holds out the possibility of Christians, in the here and now, receiving assurance of God’s pardoning love and favor to them.  What could hold more potential attraction or value than attaining this profound peace–assuming that such a subjective sense is in accord with objective reality?

Of course, that is the real rub: is our subjective assurance before God in accord with objective reality?  I cannot imagine that most clear-minded people would covet any perception of being in the right before God, if in fact that perspective did not line up with the way things actually are and will be in the universe.  Yet it is my contention that the most popular interpretations of John’s meaning in this passage tend to perpetrate that very danger. (more…)

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