Having a “Grace-Receiving” Mentality

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF words and phrases we toss around during our lives. Grace is one of those words. Those who have trusted in Jesus for salvation were never meant to live defeated, despairing, boxed-in, unhappy lives; rather to live in victory through grace. In Romans 5, Paul writes of the “abundance of grace” we receive everyday, along with the gift of righteousness, which helps us to reign in life through Jesus. He says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:1-2, ESV). God’s grace is bestowed on us without merit. Further, it sets in stone the infrastructure on which we are to live our lives. It is erroneous to imagine that this sacrament—or any other means of grace—operates automatically, as though mere reception were a guarantee (1).

A Proper State of Mind

Paul tells us to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit (see Phil. 2:2-4). What is comparison if not the means by which we decide we are better or worse than others? Paul said, “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise (2 Cor. 10:12). He also said, “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom.10:3). Comparing ourselves to others limits our potential. When we compare our performance and actions to others we allow them to set our standard of achievement. Paul reminds us that “everything is possible” for the person who believes (see Rom. 9:23). Nowhere in Scripture does it say one’s success is dictated by his or her stature in the community. Moreover, we are not to compare ourselves to ourselves, or we run the risk of stunting further growth by looking back and saying, “I’ve come a long way. I am nothing like I was before.” This is a recipe for complacency. Rather, we are to compare ourselves to Jesus Christ, aiming every day to emulate Him in all that we do. Grace should propel us to grow in holiness after the pattern of Jesus Christ.

Our path in life can be likened to a tightrope. Consider how tightrope walkers never look back after they take their first step. Seldom do they look up or they would become concerned about how much of their walk remains, making it seem as though they have made little progress. But they do look down, watching their feet, making sure to take measured and accurate steps. Each step, at the moment it is taken, is what is present. It represents what the tightrope walker must do “at that moment.” As Christians, we are not to regret the past, nor should we worry about the future, for in doing so we squander today. Isaiah wrote, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19). Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).

God’s Continuing Grace

God’s grace continues to bless us and keep us after conversion. Jesus is the true human being (wholly man and wholly God) in whom we are to be able to participate by grace. Grace propels believers to grow in holiness after the pattern of Jesus Christ. Peter tells us, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity” (2 Pet. 3:18). Johnson believes God’s grace comes to us more like a power, bonding us to Christ so that we may live with Him in accord with our status as God’s beloved children (2). He believes prevenient grace comes to sinners before salvation to convict them of their unrighteousness, call them to repentance, and enable them to freely cooperate with God’s grace by ceasing to resist its work. Other theologians argue that God’s irresistible grace enlightens the minds of sinners, changes their hearts, and draws them to salvation. They’re being led to the living water. Although the condition of beginning the covenant of grace is by faith alone (per fidem), the condition of continuing in grace rests in obedience to God’s commands (3). James said, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).

It is critical for us to admit how undeserving we are of God’s grace and mercy. When faced with the consequences of bad or illegal behavior, justice is rendered when people “receive their due” according to violation of the law. In fact, justice is “what the accused deserves,” whereas mercy applies kindness and forgiveness to our lives without merit. We receive God’s grace and mercy through Christ, receiving the free and unmerited gift of His righteousness, then begins the practice of recognizing and receiving God’s ongoing grace. There is a often grave misunderstanding that Jesus had one sole mission: to suffer and die for our sins. To be the scapegoat for mankind. The crucifixion of Christ redeems us, but it also must serve to sanctify us as we step out in faith to live as Christ would have us live. Christ is all things to us. He has been made to be our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. All glory belongs to the Lord. Our part is to receive Christ as LORD and Savior. He is grace, mercy, forgiveness, direction, righteousness, sanctification, redemption. We cannot complete ourselves any more than we can save ourselves because He is both our redemption and our sanctification. He is all and in all. There is nothing left for us to do or earn. A missionary friend of mine puts it this way: justice is getting what we have coming to us (our just punishment) and mercy is receiving what we do not deserve.

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you. He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt (Matthew 18:21-35).

In this parable we learn that God forgives on request without restitution being required. We also learn something important about unforgiveness. The man’s refusal to forward the grace he received resulted in a series of divine consequences. If we remain unforgiving of the unforgiveness of others, we turn back toward legalism. We are being as exacting and demanding as the law; like we are keeping a precise balance sheet on debts owed to us. We selfishly hold everyone to payment in full. This, of course, is an example of justice rather than grace. Unforgiveness is grounded in “debtors-mentality,” a merciless mindset that refuses to release others until they pay all that is due, rather than a “grace-receiving” mentality. When God forgives, He frees the forgiven from all obligation to repay. We have been forgiven and set free as a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Despite this divine explanation of God’s grace, too often we demand forgiveness from those we have wronged as if we can change their heart. Nothing could be more contradictory to the example of Jesus. God didn’t send Jesus into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:17). He didn’t come to browbeat sinners, but to set the captives free. The whole of Christianity is about forgiveness, not about holding a “balance sheet” on others.

A Prime Example

A prime example of grace-receiving mentality can be found in John 4. Jesus and the disciples were headed for Galilee. Jesus decided to take a shorter route, which involved going through Samaria despite Jews and Samaritans being sworn enemies. While Jesus rested at Jacob’s well, a Samaritan woman approached to draw water from the well. Jesus asked her for a drink. She responded, “How is it that you, a Jew, asks for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (see John 4:9). Jesus said, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Jesus continued: “Everyone who drinks of this [well] water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:13-14). The woman asked for a drink of this everlasting water. The Hebrew word hallomai (to “well up”) occurs only here in John’s gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles. The water that Jesus gives is vibrant and cleansing, and produces the abundant life Jesus was promising to the woman.

Jesus told her to go home and bring her husband, to which she announced that she had no husband. Jesus replied, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’ for you have had five husbands, and the [man] you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” She immediately decided this man must be a prophet. In the Greek and Roman world, for Jesus to possess such knowledge of the woman’s marital history would certify him as a miracle worker, but in the religious world of Israel it would be recognized as the distinguishing mark of a prophet. When she expressed the longing she had for the coming Messiah, Jesus said, “I who speak to you am he” (4:26). It is at this point the woman grasps the magnitude of what Jesus has said to her. It’s as if the very atmosphere changed. Nevertheless, she asked Jesus to “explain everything.” What is this living water? Who is this man, Jesus, that he dares to use the “I AM” remark? Is this man Yeshua? I have no doubt that Jesus chose to travel through Samaria because He knew of the Samaritan woman he would encounter at the well. As she sped off down the hill, spreading the good news through the streets of her village, Jesus told the disciples it was time to go forth and preach the gospel (see Luke 9:1-6).

How to Get It

God’s grace is seen throughout all of creation; in our daily living as well as our salvation. Some believe grace and mercy are synonymous. However, grace is defined as unmerited divine favor or assistance given to us for regeneration or sanctification. Mercy is compassion or forbearance shown, especially to an offender or to one subject to the power of another; leniency or compassionate treatment. It is through grace that God presented His Son Jesus for sacrifice; there is literally nothing we could ever do to earn God’s grace, or to obey the letter of the Law, in order to be saved from eternal damnation. Martin Luther struggled with this concept, becoming increasingly anxious over how he could be clothed in righteousness. Luther initially failed to grasp the meaning behind Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (ESV). This conflict drove Luther to extremes, such as self-flagellation, remaining outdoors in the winter without a coat or shoes, solitary meditation for days, asking incessantly for God’s forgiveness. He feared he would die in his sleep without having confessed everything. His understanding regarding God’s grace had roots in Roman Catholic teaching: man is justified by God’s grace plus some merit of our own. This, of course, is against Christian doctrine.

Grudem writes, “Justification comes to us entirely by God’s grace, not on account of any merit in ourselves” (4). God’s grace forms believers into the image of Christ in anticipation of their eternal life as God’s beloved children (see Rom. 8:29-30). Because we cannot hope to earn sanctification by obedience to the Law (i.e., through our works), it was necessary for God to provide a means by which we can be redeemed from our sin. God established a covenant with man, setting only one condition: faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (sola Christus). God’s grace means His goodness toward those who deserve only punishment. God’s mercy means His goodness toward those who are in misery or distress; God’s patience is manifest in His willingness to withhold punishment toward those who have sinned (5). Because of God’s grace, mercy, and patience cannot be earned, it is reasonable that we provide our bodies (as a living sacrifice), living a life of worship and faith. Regardless of our circumstances, we can have a quiet heart, but this requires total confidence in God. Luther wrote, “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times” (6).

Specific to Luther’s trouble with righteousness, he said Romans 1:16 presents the gospel as a power which saves all who believe it. Luther came to believe that Romans 1:17 speaks of God’s righteousness. When we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior, we are clothed in righteousness. When the Father looks upon us, He sees the righteousness of Christ. He separates us from our sins as far as the east is from the west. Luther said, “The righteousness of God is the cause of our salvation… it is called the righteousness of God in contradistinction to man’s righteousness which comes from works” (7). The phrase “from faith to faith” is meant to establish that the righteousness of God comes through, but without ignoring the “works” of our faith as an outward sign to others that we have become a new creation. It is the adage, “We are not saved by good works; we are saved unto good works.” Luther added, “The words ‘from faith to faith’ therefore signify that the believer grows in faith more and more, so that he who is justified becomes more and more righteous” (8). Augustine defined from faith to faith as, “From the faith of those who confess it with the mouth to the faith of those who actually obey it” (9).

In order to receive God’s grace we need first to admit that there is nothing in us that can merit it. We need to honestly admit, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18). Jesus didn’t come to justify the godly, but the ungodly. When the Pharisees confronted Jesus about eating with sinners, Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Unfortunately, many Christians forget the importance of God’s grace in their daily walk. The heart of this deception is the belief that after being redeemed by the sole merit of Christ’s finished work, we must then sanctify ourselves. Though seemingly responsible, this denies the grace of Christ. Not only was our redemption purchased by Christ, but also our sanctification. When God places us in Christ, He makes Christ to be all things to us.

According to Peter, grace and peace are multiplied in us through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, and that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness to the end that we may become partakers of the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:2-3). Peter went on to exhort us to add to our faith moral excellence and to moral excellence, knowledge, and to knowledge self-control, and to self-control, perseverance, and to perseverance, godliness, and to godliness, brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness, love. Many of these things are listed in Galatians 5 as fruits of the Spirit. Paul was who he was by the grace of God. He labored abundantly, but not by his own might or capabilities. He said, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). This is what is meant by having a “grace-receiving” mentality.

References

(1) K.L. Johnson, “Means of Grace” in the Evangelical Dictionary, 3rd. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: 2017), 358.
(2) K.L. Johnson, Ibid., 358.
(3) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: 1994), 519.
(4) Ibid., 729.
(5) Ibid., 200.
(6) Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954), xvii.
(7) Ibid., 40-41.

History of the Church: Part Two

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

I was excited for my undergraduate class History of Christianity, and my two graduate-level courses: Church History I and II. These studies provided a working knowledge of ecclesiology, including church organization and governance, doctrine, “marks” of the church (“one,” “holy,” “catholic,” and “apostolic”), heresies, worship, teaching, sacraments, and mission. Apologetics emerged as a powerful tool for “defending” Christianity. Many changes, edicts, and accusations impacted the church in the centuries to come, such as Gnosticism, numerous “Just Wars,” the Crusades, Donatism, syncretism, apostasy, and the mighty Roman Empire. As persecution rose, Christians began renouncing their faith. Many Christian leaders were tortured and murdered under the Roman Empire, including Stephen, James, Peter, Paul, Polycarp, and others.

In Part One of this series we learned that early Christians did not consider themselves followers of a new religion. Jewish leaders regarded Christianity a heretical sect within Judaism. The sentiment was simple: One must avoid Christians at all cost. If that does not work, then move ahead with harassment, persecution, torture, and murder. We looked at Constantine’s dubious conversion, and we learned about the four solas: sola Christus (Christ alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), and sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). The first part of this lesson touched on Christianity’s early troubles with Islam. Each of these factors began to detraction from the story of redemption. Accordingly, the church needed to “defend” itself against rumors and lofty criticism. Justin Martyr set out to provide clarification, remarking, “We do not seek to flatter you… but request that you judge on the basis of a proper and thorough investigation” (1).

Part Two

There seems to be a natural inclination to monasticism in the early church. It was hoped that monasteries would provide a quiet and secluded space for prayer, devotion, worship, exegetical studies, and a modified approach to interacting with culture. A secluded life would provide safe haven from heresies and distractions which had become prevalent. The “narrow gate” Jesus spoke of had become quite wide. Ministry had become for some a pursuit of privilege and position, without caring too much about learning the deeper meaning. Bishops competed for prestigious posts; the rich and powerful began to dominate and impact the church. Gonzalez writes, “When the church joins the powers of the world, when luxury and ostentation take hold of Christian alters, when the whole of society is intent on turning the narrow path into a wide avenue, how is one to resist the enormous temptations of the times”(2)? Origen, following the Platonic ideal of leading a wise existence, chose to live at a bare-bones subsistence and extreme asceticism.

Monasteries Galore

Christian monasticism began in AD 318. Several years later, Marcarius, a Coptic Christian, monk, and hermit in Egypt, retired to the desert of Scete, where for 60 years he lived as a hermit among the scattered settlements of other solitaries. As of 345, eight monasteries had been founded. Stoic doctrine held that passions are the great enemy of true wisdom: traditions such as sacred virgins, celibate priests, eunuchs, and others whose lifestyle set them apart for service to God. There was an incidental belief that sexual activity was somehow evil or improper for those devoted to holiness. The Council of Nicea, however, rejected castration as part of service to the church. Gonzalez notes that monasticism was not the invention of one person, but rather “a mass exodus, a contagion, which seems to have suddenly affected thousands of people” (3). Paul writes in Galatians, “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ… nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus… Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days” (Gal. 1:11-12, 17-18, NRSV).

A growing number of people were withdrawing to the desert desiring to learn from an experienced teacher. One of the earliest monasteries opened in Mosul, Iraq in 340. The first French monastery was founded in 360. Jerome started a monastery in Bethlehem in 386. Solitary monasticism gave way to a communal setting. They still referred to themselves as “monks” (solitary), but by this they meant living in solitude from the world but not living completely alone. This cenobitic lifestyle cropped up throughout many regions as a reaction to the pressures of daily living. Monks were required to obey their superiors, which necessitated a hierarchical order that was clearly delineated. Those in top positions were called abbots. Augustine of Hippo partly owed his conversion to reading Athanasius’s Life of Saint Anthony, and lived as a monk until he was called to assume a more active role in the church. Monasticism featured the common thread of Christian living: personal poverty and sharing of goods with the community. A monastic feudal system spread across Europe beginning in 1039. Knights Templar (warrior monks) were founded in AD 1118. Ultimately, the “Black Death” bubonic plague pandemic broke out across Afro-Eurasia in AD 1346, causing a drastic decline in monasticism.

Muhammad and Islam

One of the great challenges to Christianity was Islam, a monotheistic religion founded by Muhammad. Muhammad was born in Mecca, Arabia, in AD 570. Prior to becoming the prophet of Allah, he served as a business manager for Lady Khadija, the daughter of Khuwaylid ibn Asad (a leader of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca) and a successful businesswoman in her own right. She became Muhammad’s first wife and the earliest follower of Islam. Muhammad is said to have received revelations from the angel Gabriel on Mount Hira from AD 609 to 632, which became the basis for the Qur’an. The word “Qur’an” comes from the arabic qaraa, which means “to read.” According to Islamic doctrine, Muhammad was called by Allah to preach and confirm the monotheistic teachings of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets.

Prior to the advent of Islam, Muslims practiced a form of paganism called Jahiliyya. It taught that Allah was the creator god and the supreme god of pre-Islamic Arabs. Intermediaries were set below Allah, such as his daughters Allat, Al-Uzza, and Manat, who would intercede on behalf of their worshipers. Over time, more Gods were added, ultimately representing most of the gods of other tribes in Arabia. Muhammad is never portrayed as indulging in this religion; he preached against polytheism in all forms. He claimed to be the “last prophet” of God whose mission was to correct the heresy that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, the Son of God. There has never been a period since the beginning of Islam that was characterized by large-scale peaceful existence between Muslims and non-Muslims. There was no time when mainstream and dominant Islamic authorities taught the equality of non-Muslims. There has always been, with virtually no interruption, jihad against infidels. Muslims conquered Jerusalem in AD 636. Alexandria, Egypt and Spain were next to fall. Persecution of Christians began in 717 under Caliph Umar II.

Many of the newer Christian churches were destroyed. In AD 850 Caliph Mutawakkil forced Christians to wear yellow patches (a sad and accurate foreshadowing of Jews forced to wear arm bands of the Star of David by the Nazis). When Vladimir of Kiev adopted Christianity in AD 988, this halted the advance of Islam in Eastern Europe. Thankfully, Charles Martel had been able to defeat the Muslim invasion of France in 732 at the Battle of Tours. Trouble with Islam continued, however. In 1009 Caliph Hakim destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and Seljuk Turks drove Christian priests out of Jerusalem in 1091. In 1291 the fall of Acre ended Christian power in the Holy Land.

Timeline of Temple in Jerusalem

Nehemiah told Artaxerxes he was sad, saying “Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire” (Neh. 2:3).

David conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites in 1010 BC and established the capital of his kingdom there. Solomon, David’s son, expanded the city northward to include what came to be known as the Temple Mount, where he built the First Temple in 960 BC. In 721, Jerusalem expanded into the Western Hill as refugees sought protection from the conquering Assyrians. Sennacherib, king of Assyria, lay siege to Jerusalem in 701 BC. Babylonian forces destroyed Jerusalem and demolish the first temple in 586. Persian leader Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonian Empire (including Jerusalem) in 539 BC. He allowed Jews in Babylonian exile to return to the city in 516. The second temple was rebuilt during this period. Artaxerxes allowed Nehemiah to begin rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Judea and Jerusalem were conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. King Herod restructured the temple in 37 BC, adding retaining walls. Jerusalem fell to the Roman Empire in AD 70 and the second temple was destroyed. Jerusalem was rebuilt in AD 135 as a Roman city, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built.

In Part Three we will examine the rumblings that began in the Christian church regarding its need for a profound reformation. The decline and corruption of the papacy was well known. Popes began amassing property and wealth, and intended to rival the Roman Empire. The papacy was moved by the the glories of the Renaissance, neglecting the gospel message. Reformers issued anathemas and decrees against absenteeism, pluralism, and simony (the practice of buying and selling ecclesiastical positions). Gonzalez wrote, “…even the many priests and monastics who wished to be faithful to their calling found this to be exceedingly difficult. How could one practice asceticism and contemplation in a monastery that had become a house of leisure and a meeting place for fashionable soireées” (4). We will find that Martin Luther was not the only Christian driven to a great reformation.

References

(1) Justin Martyr, in Justo L. Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, Vol. I: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 59.
(2) Gonzalez, Ibid., 157.
(3) Ibid., 161.
(4) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Early Church , Vol. 2, The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010), 8.

The Prodigal Son (God’s Reckless Love)

“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet… for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry” (Luke 15:21-22, 24, NRSV).

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.T.S.

The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most well-known stories of Jesus. Although many pastors, teachers, and biblical scholars refer to it as the story of the prodigal son, the word prodigal does not appear in the Bible. The son is best characterized as lost, emphasizing that all sinners are lost or alienated from God. To characterize him as “prodigal” casts too much emphasis on wayward lifestyle. If we limit our analysis of the prodigal son to his wanton worldly behavior, we will miss the point of the story. It is in fact more akin to the tale of the lost sheep. This story is meant to demonstrate that we  do not have to stay in our hopeless state. Moreover, it is an example of Scripture imitating life, in that it shows us what repentance means: turning away from sin and back toward the Father; doing a 180 as they call it.

Eugene Peterson puts the story of the prodigal son under the heading The Story of the Lost Son in his translation The Message. This parable shows the nature of repentance, and, more importantly, the joy and the willingness of God to welcome and restore all who return to Him. It shows us the riches of the gospel and its efficacy to overcome any form of sin. Matthew Henry draws a unique parallel between our heavenly Father and the prodigal’s earthy father. He says, “It is bad, and the beginning of worse, when men look upon God’s gifts as debts due to them” (1). Scripture tells us to not seek the wealth of this world. Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).

Matthew Henry draws a parallel between the prodigal son and our First Parents. Their foolish ambition to be independent from the Father is at the bottom of every sinner persisting in sin and autonomy. The First Sin relates to man’s departure from God, toward a willful reliance on his own thoughts and valuations rather than ascribing to God’s. We see from the prodigal son that his desire to be free from his father led to a vile, hedonistic, slavish state of being. When we walk in the flesh (fulfilling its every desire) we become the devil’s servant. Walking according to fleshly desires and instincts invariably leads to a state of constant discontent. This is what it means to be a lost sheep, wandering the face of the earth in search of constant gratification, separated from God.

Exegetical Analysis

The parable of the prodigal son reveals two distinct issues: one literary, the other theological. From a literary perspective, the story revolves around two brothers: one younger, the other older. This does not indicate two separate stories, but two parts that compliment one another. Because of this focus on two brothers, it is helpful to analyze this parable from both an existential and historical/sociopolitical perspective. Historically, the “share of the estate” that the younger son would receive on the death of his father would be one-third. Culture during those times dictated that the older son would receive two-thirds, often referred to as a “double portion,” and the second son would receive the remaining one-third (see Deut. 21:17). When the property “was divided” in the story of the prodigal son, the older son was made aware of his share of the father’s assets prior to his father’s death. This was unusual in the prevailing society.

From a sociopolitical perspective, when the prodigal son asked for his portion of the inheritance, it’s as if he wished his father dead! New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey (2), who spent over 15 years in the Middle East, asked a number of people there what it meant for a son to request his inheritance while the father was still alive and well. The answer was always the same: the son wanted his father dead. In that culture, a father was expected to have complete control over his property during his lifetime, so the request of the prodigal son was quite offensive. The father’s willingness to comply with his son’s request was generous beyond all expectations. In addition, the older son in such cases was typically expected to step in and help the father save face with anyone attacking his estate. This does not happen in the parable of the prodigal son; neither son lived up to what was expected.

The wasting of all the son had while “in a foreign land” is culturally understood as acting against the family, whose inheritance can be traced back to the promises of God to Abraham. The famine made employment and food quite hard to get. The “distant country” was likely outside strictly Jewish territory. It is no coincidence that the son also ended up with the demeaning job of feeding pigs—these are unclean animals for the Jews. He had fallen so low that “no one gave him anything,” which indicates a state of complete destitution and neglect.

From a theological perspective, it is important to note there were 100 sheep (15:4), 10 coins (15:8), and 2 sons. One is lost from each number. The sheep and coin were sought after diligently until they were recovered. However, the lost son was not sought after. He was personally responsible for his coming back home. His rebellion was deliberate and “of the heart,” meaning only a change of heart would suffice for his restoration. This is extremely important from a theological perspective. It is one thing to “know” in your head what is right and what is wrong, but it is a different matter to make a heart-felt decision to change one’s behavior, one’s path—to “do a 180” as I said earlier. This was quite true regarding my wandering in the wilderness for decades in active addiction, making choices that belied morality. I never considered this crucial element in the prodigal son’s restoration before now.

The lost son’s behavior is deemed “riotous living” (15:13). The Greek word is asotos, which translates “living ruinously.” It is properly interpreted as meaning “unsavedness” or, by implication, profligacy, suggesting excess or riot. It is from the root asôtia, referring to being “not savable; incorrigible, dissolute, beyond hope.” It also implies debauchery or drunkenness (see Eph. 5:18). Of course, theologically speaking, the lost son “came to himself” (Luke 15:17). His condition brought him to his senses and he realized how his riotous life would end. Further, he considered his current predicament as being worse than his father’s hired servants, who had bread enough to spare (15:17). He decided he would return to his father’s house and ask his forgiveness.

The prodigal son showed true repentance—confession of sin, genuine sorrow, and humility. The Greek word for repentance in this verse is metanoeo, meaning “to change one’s mind for the better” (see Luke 13:3). This is more than forsaking sin; it involves a complete change in one’s attitude and orientation toward all sinful behavior. In fact, it is this degree of repentance God expects from us as a condition for receiving His forgiveness and grace. The prodigal son demonstrated complete humility. He said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son” (15:21). 

The motivation for the son’s return was hunger, but theologically it was to his “father” that he wanted to return; not to the dinner table. The words “against heaven” (15:21) can mean “to heaven,” indicating he believed his sins were so many as to reach the Heavenly Father—perhaps he believed his sins were ultimately against God. The Jews were aware of Yahweh’s “fatherly” love. Psalm 103:13 says, “As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear him.” The son knew he had no right to return “as a son.” He imagined saying to his father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants” (15:19). In other words, he planned to earn his room and board when he returned home.

The Lost Has Been Found!

“When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I have sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’ But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found! And they began to have a wonderful time” (15:20-24, MSG).

What does this parable tell us? We’ve looked at several specific words and phrases (lexical items), such as “loose living” (15:13), “came to himself” (15:17), and repentance (15:21; 13:3). Looking at these words and phrases as they appear in utterances, verses, stanzas, and the text as a whole, we see the “completeness” of this story. This great parable speaks of true repentance and the complete joy a father has for a penitent son. Jesus addressed the “murmurings” of the Pharisees early in the story, saying “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (15:4-5). He then drove the point home: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (15:7).

The details in this story are vivid and moving. Further, they accurately reflect actual customs and legal procedures of the relevant time period. The older son is much like the Pharisees. He could not comprehend the meaning of true forgiveness. In fact, the viewpoints of the two sons are diametrically opposed. The lost son rises and returns; the older son turns and walks away from his father in disgust, falling in moral stature. The central figure, the father, remains constant in his unconditional love for both sons regardless of their behavior or their attitude. Jesus identifies himself with God in his loving attitude toward the lost. He represents God’s perspective during his entire ministry on earth. This parable is one of the greatest examples of God’s willingness to forgive and to accept the return of every lost son or daughter. 

Concluding Remarks

Who are you in this parable? Are you the lost son, a Pharisee, a servant? Are you the older son who was bitter and jealous over the father’s forgiveness and blessing of the younger son who repented and returned home? Are you able to rejoice when a lost sheep is found, or are you taken captive by a righteous indignation, saying, “Why do you lavish him so? He disrespected and disowned you! I’ve been here all along. Where is my adoration?”

Family dynamics is rather fascinating. Even in the family of an addict or alcoholic we can see various roles played out: the Scapegoat (the one blamed for every wrong and ill within the family, sometimes the addict); the Punisher (often a sibling who has “always been there” for the family, and who doles out “consequences” on the addict or protects the family from the addict); the Enabler (usually a member who covers for the addict, trying to smooth things over or restore peace and order in the family, giving him or her enough rope to maybe change one day); the Hero (usually a Type-A personality who is hard-working, overachieving, a perfectionist, who is trying to create a degree of normalcy in the family); the Masot (often the funny, outgoing, class clown of the family always trying to quell the stress of the situation by supplying humor); and the Lost Child (often the middle or youngest child, shy, withdrawn, usually hates confrontation, and has difficulty with establishing outside relationships).

The parable of the prodigal son provides a wealth of theological meaning and puts an historical and sociopolitical spin on the nature of family dynamics during the era when this story was told. It can serve as an in-depth analysis of dysfunctional families today, showing us how easily we can resent the success of others; acceptance of a rebellious, riotous son or daughter who is welcomed back into the fold; righteous indignation by others in the family when a wayward son or daughter returns. It is not easy to forgive others who have harmed us or our loved ones. Thankfully, the parable of the prodigal son can serve to broaden our horizons regarding true repentance, unconditional love, and forgiveness. This is, after all, the point of the gospel itself.

Footnotes
(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 962.
(2) Jirair Tashjian, “Inheritance Practices in the First Century,” The Voice, Christian Resource Institute (2018). URL: http://www.crivoice.org/inheritance.html

Integrating Christian Theology and Psychology: Part Two

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.T.S.

A NUMBER OF PHILOSOPHERS of the Enlightenment began publishing their thoughts in the late 1600s to early 1700s, and detractors almost immediately took on the task of stating their objections. Public debate began in Europe and Western Civilization whose echoes can be heard today. Enlightenment was characterized by skepticism toward religious dogma and other forms of traditional authority. Consensus was that principles governing the universe were discoverable, and could be applied to the betterment of mankind. Some of the Enlightenment’s key philosophers include Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes; key natural philosophers of the Scientific Revolution include Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

In contrast, Isaiah Berlin established a movement called Counter-Enlightenment. His theory became a movement in the late 18th- and early 19th-century. This school of thought stood against rationalism, universalism, and empiricism (typically associated with the Enlightenment). Berlin’s essay “The Counter-Enlightenment” was first published in 1973, and later reprinted in a collection of his works, Against the Current, in 1981. Much of Berlin’s thought was linked to his philosophy of “value pluralism” which holds that moral values can be equally valid and yet mutually incompatible, creating conflicts that can only be reconciled pragmatically. He is noted for stating, “Those who have ever valued liberty for its own sake believed that to be free to choose, and not to be chosen for, is an inalienable ingredient in what makes human beings human.”

Isaiah Berlin wrote, “Opposition to the central ideas of the French Enlightenment, and of its allies and disciples in other European countries, is as old as the movement itself. The proclamation of the autonomy of reason and the methods of the natural sciences, based on observation as the sole reliable method of knowledge, and the consequent rejection of the authority of revelation, sacred writings and their accepted interpreters, tradition, prescription, and every form of non-rational and transcendent source of knowledge, was naturally opposed by the churches and religious thinkers of many persuasions” (1).

Philosophies inherent in the Enlightenment (empiricism, sensationalism, and rationalism) depicted humans as complex machines; products of experience; highly rational beings operating in accordance with abstract principles. Leaders in romanticism emphasized inner experience, and distrusted both science and the philosophy which pictured humans as products of experience, as machines, or as totally rational beings. Obviously, no one can be 100 percent “rational.” Rational beings are capable of logical thought with the ability to reason toward sound conclusions based on facts and evidence, draw inferences from situations and circumstances, and make sound well-reasoned judgements based on factual information. Read that again, and notice it is missing a reference to man’s emotions. I do not know a single human who is capable of Spock-like reasoning: logical, not emotional (2).

Early Approaches to Psychology

Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) opened the Institute for Experimental Psychology at the University of Leipzig in Germany in 1879. This was the first laboratory dedicated to psychology, and its opening is usually thought of as the beginning of modern psychology. Accordingly, Wundt is often regarded as the father of psychology. He believed that experimental psychology could be used to grasp an understanding of immediate consciousness, but said it was useless in attempting to understand higher cognitive function. Wundt stood in bold contradiction to Galileo, Comte, and Kant who claimed that psychology could never be a science. Wundt identified sensations (which occur whenever a sense organ is stimulated and the impulses reach the brain), adding that they are are always accompanied by feelings. He also developed the principle of contrasts. For example, if we taste something that is very bitter or sour, something sweet tastes even sweeter.

Early German psychology led to establishment of various clinics and experimental psychology labs. This era included the study of judging, recalling, expecting, inferring, doubting, loving, hating, and hoping. Looking at the previous listing, it is clear that experimental psychology was chasing mental abilities and processes at the same time it was seeking to explain emotion. Persistent questions in psychology over the centuries have included mind/body, mechanism versus vitalism, nativism versus empiricism, rationalism versus irrationalism, objective versus subjective reality, universalism versus relativism. Traditionally, “science” involves empirical observation, but the issues usually start with a problem that needs solving.

Not surprising, some aspects of psychology are scientific, and some are not. Nondeterminists assume that human behavior is “freely chosen,” and therefore not amendable to traditional scientific method. The indeterminist believes human behavior is determined, but say determinants of behavior cannot always be known. To what extent are humans free, and to what extent is their behavior determined by knowable causes? What is the nature of human nature? How are the mind and body related? And what of the spiritual element of human behavior? What is the origin of human knowledge? Is there a difference between what exists physically and what is experienced mentally? Are there knowable universal truths about the world in general, or just about people in particular? This is where psychology, philosophy, and theology began to ask similar questions.

I had intended to move on to David Entwistle (Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity), and the concept of worldview (David Sire, John Stonestreet, Nancy Pearcey, Lee Strobel). Instead, in Part Two I have presented an introduction to the history of psychology, and the many tough questions that come with exploring philosophy, psychology, and theology. Integration of these grand schemes is of vital importance. Naturally, some schools of thought overlap. Of course, others are diametrically opposed. In Part Three, we will explore the underpinnings of worldview from a secular and Christian perspective and show the overall importance of integrating psychology and Christian theology.

References
(1) “Archived Copy” (PDF). Archived from the original on Sept. 3, 2013. Retrieved 2013-08-03. URL
http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/ac/counter-enlightenment.pdfi
(2) The character Spock is a character in television and movies as science officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise on Star Trek and related spinoffs.

Integrating Christian Theology and Psychology: Part One

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.T.S.

I have heard it said that since the cultural revolution of the 1960s the emotional and mental needs of the American people have increased dramatically. When psychiatric epidemiology emerged in the early 20th century, social scientists rather than psychiatrists determined its basic character. This practice eventually led to the unfortunate trend today in addressing mental illness: psychiatrists schedule 15 minute exams for their patients, usually a mere 4 times a year (every three months). “Talk therapy” has been bifurcated from psychiatrists and placed under the umbrella of psychologists and social workers. Because most social scientists are not trained in medicine, they had little concern for the formidable problems posed by a nosology (scientific study and classification of diseases and disorders, both mental and physical) based on symptoms rather than etiology.

Psychiatry was defined and promulgated by a group of statistically oriented social scientists concerned with problems relating to poverty, dependency, and welfare. Certainly, this is an impetus for what is now called “social science.” But it also led to the advent of social justice issues, especially along the lines of “identity politics.” Psychologists and social workers realized that institutional populations were notoriously poor sources for epidemiological inquiry. Socioeconomic and environmental factors are key components of personality formation. At a more fundamental level, psychiatric nosologies (with few exceptions) rested on symptoms (“descriptive”) rather than cause (etiological) evaluation of the mental illness.

Additionally, philosophy and theology have found their way into medical and psychological diagnosis and treatment. St. Anselm (AD 1033-1109) argued in Faith Seeking Understanding that perception and reason can and should supplement Christian faith. This represents one of the earliest major departures from Christian tradition, which emphasized faith in God as the source of salvation, wisdom, knowledge, and physical and mental illness. St. Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God promoted using reason within theology. Simply stated, if we think of something then something must be causing that thought. In a sense, faith preceded efforts to understand. Frankly, the believer has nothing to fear from logic, reason, or even the direct study of nature. All truth is God’s truth. William of Occam (1285-1349) believed extraneous assumptions should always be kept as simple as possible. He said, “It is futile to do with many what can be done with fewer,” and “Plurality should not be assumed without necessity.” He said all miscellaneous details must be “shaved” from explanations or arguments. This has been affectionately labeled as Occam’s Razor.

Interestingly, William of Occam changed the question concerning the nature of knowledge (epistemology) from a metaphysical to a psychological problem. He rejected sole reliance on abstract reasoning or intense “introspection.” Instead, he placed emphasis on how the mind classifies experience; he said we habitually respond to similar objects in a similar way. Sensory experience provided information about the physical world only. Occam’s views are said to be the beginning of empiricism. Turning to St. Thomas of Aquinas (1225-1274), we find a man of God furiously dedicated to Christian theology. He turned his back on family (and a life of wealth and power) to focus on theology. Aquinas, in the same vein as Aristotle, said that the senses would provide information only about particulars, not about so-called “universals.” His work in this regard made it possible to bifurcate reason and faith, making it possible to study the two separately. Plato’s Theory of Forms asserted that the physical realm is only a shadow, or image, of the true reality. Plato’s Forms are abstract, perfect, unchanging concepts or ideals that transcend time and space.

Rene Descartes’ (1596-1650) search for ultimate truth showed him that nothing in philosophy is beyond doubt. He was, of course, an empiricist, who invented analytic geometry. In fact, he concluded that the only thing of which he could be certain was the fact that he was doubting; but we know doubting is thinking, and thinking necessitates a thinker. This is how Descartes arrived at his much-celebrated conclusion, “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). He included among the innate ideas those of unity, infinity, perfection, the axioms of geometry, and God. His methodology consisted of intuition and deduction. Intuition is the process by which observation leads to analysis, before becoming a “theory.” Observation should be from an unbiased and attentive mind arriving at a clear and distinct idea; an idea whose validity cannot be doubted. Deduction starts with an idea, then observation is made before it is given the identity of theory or idea. Decartes’ psychology heralded a mechanistic explanation of bodily functions and of much behavior. His mechanistic analysis of reflexive behavior can be seen as the beginning of both stimulus-response and behavioristic theories.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) also supported empiricism, suggesting “evidence of the senses” as the primary data of all knowledge; that knowledge cannot exist unless evidence has first been gathered; and that all subsequent intellectual processes must use this evidence and only this evidence in framing valid propositions about the real world. After visiting with Galileo in 1635, Hobbes became convinced that the universe consisted only of matter and motion and that both could be understood in terms of mechanistic principles. He saw humans as machines functioning within a larger machine (the universe). Hobbes also believed humans were naturally aggressive, selfish, and greedy. Incidentally, Hobbes thought democracy was dangerous because it gives too much latitude to man’s negative natural tendencies. He said fear of death is what motivates humans to create social order. Civilization is created as a matter of self-defense; each of us must be discouraged from committing crimes against the other.

Alexander Bain (1818-1903) has been referred to at the first true psychologist. He published two seminal works: The Senses and the Intellect (1855) and Emotions and the Will (1859). These books are heralded by some as the first systematic textbooks on psychology. He followed with Mind and Body (1873). Bain was the first in his field to attempt relating real psychological processes to psychological phenomena. For Bain, the mind had three components (or “functions”): feeling, volition, and intellect. Many Christian theologians and pastors believe man is made of three components: body, soul, and spirit. The soul is said to be comprised of mind, will, and emotions. Yet, to say that humans are morally superior to non-human animals is to overlook (at least to some degree) the seamier human activities like cannibalism, infanticide, and wars. The mere aspect of “religion” has certainly not improved the human condition. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) rejected Descartes’ contention that God, matter, and mind were separate entities. Instead, Spinoza proposed that all three were simply aspects of the same substance, which formed the basis of his theory on life that was both ethically correct and personally satisfying. He believed God, nature, and the mind were inseparable. Spinoza said God was not relegated to the realm of monotheists; rather, He was in everything. This is pantheism.

The practice of establishing categories of thought was proffered by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He disagreed with Hume by demonstrating that some truths were certain, not based on subjective experience alone. He did not deny the importance of sensory data, but he believed the mind must add something to that data before knowledge could be attained. He said that “something” was provided by a priori (innate) categories of thought. He listed the following in his breakdown of pure concepts or categories of thought: unity, totality, time, space, cause and effect, reality, quantity, quality, negation, possibility/impossibility, and existence/nonexistence. For Kant, a mind without concepts would have no real capacity to think; however, it can also be said that a mind loaded with concepts, but with no sensory data to which they could be applied, would have nothing to think about!

Philosophers began to argue that humans consist of more than an intellect and ideas derived from experience. We possess a wide variety of irrational feelings (emotions) that cloud meaning and tantalize or betray us. We also operate on an intuitive and instinctual platform. Romanticism was a predictable challenge to empiricism. After all, empiricism reduced people to unfeeling machines. Theologians talk of us possessing the imago Dei (the image of God). This seems to be contrary to the believe that emotions are found on the pleasure/pain continuum. Spinoza taught that emotional experience is often destructive if not controlled by rational processes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) said, “Man is born free and yet we see him everywhere in chains.” Christian theology benefited, however, from Rousseau’s feelings vs. reason tenet because it supported the idea that God’s existence could be defended on the basis of individual feeling and did not depend on the dictates of the church.

I have decided to break this topic into a series. There is simply too much to cover in one blog post. Part One is designed to give you fairly deep background on how Christian theology interacted with philosophy. A great deal of psychology is built on the shoulders of early philosophers. Part Two will move a little faster, starting with David Entwistle’s thoughts on integrative approaches to Psychology and Christianity. Also, I will present the theology, philosophy, and worldview of David Sire, John Stonestreet, Nancy Pearcey, and Lee Strobel.

History of the Christian Church: Part One

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

Jose Ottega y Gasset once said, “Each generation stands on the shoulders of its predecessors” (1). This applies even to promulgation of church doctrine, establishment of proper church administration, and systematic theological studies. Today’s Christian church must rest firmly on the theology of its patristic fathers. From its onset, Christianity has impacted culture and society; however, culture and society have impacted Christianity as well. Culture is known to push back with force, often in an oppressive and violent manner. Today’s militant atheists are intent on eradicating Christianity from public discourse, and often file lawsuits to that end.

The early Christians did not consider themselves followers of a new religion. Gonzalez writes, “All of their lives they had been Jews and they still were” (2). Their main difference with the rest of Judaism was that they were convinced the Messiah had come, whereas other Jews continued to await His advent. Jewish leaders considered Christianity a heretical sect within Judaism. Christians were “…going from town to town tempting good Jews to become heretics” (3). Nationalistic and patriotic sentiment was aroused by the fear that these new heretics could once more bring the wrath of God upon them. As we will discover in this series, Jews routinely looked for someone else to blame for their woes. This resulted in protracted generations of exile from God.

From its very beginning, the Christian message was grafted onto human history. Through generation after generation, Christians have taught that Jesus Christ is the complete embodiment of God, and He is salvation for all who believe in His sacrificial death on the cross. Much history, lineage, and geography is presented throughout the Synoptic Gospels. Identity and lifestyle were especially important to the largely Jewish audience for whom the Gospel of Matthew was initially written. It attests to considerable hostility toward synagogues (6:2-18; 10:17-18), and utter rejection of Jewish leaders, especially Pharisees (12:14; 15:12-14; 21:45-46; 23). Matthew describes doctrinal infighting, the sacking of Jerusalem (AD 70), and destruction of the Temple. He notes how the early church would question God’s faithfulness (as they waited on Him), and he references apologetic debates.

John’s gospel is instrumental in establishing significant events discussed in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John rightly commences with in the beginning, which refers to the first chapter of Genesis. Paul said, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Gal. 4:4. NRSV). John describes his experience when he baptized Jesus. The distinctiveness of John’s writing style is easily recognizable: Jesus’ teaching moved beyond parables that are featured in Matthew, Mark, and Luke; instead, Jesus taught in much longer speeches. The “I am” sayings we see in the Gospel of John are not found in the other three Gospels. Further, John spends much time on the incarnation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).

The Jewish Diaspora (the scattering of Jews far and wide), had a critical impact on the history of Christianity. Gonzalez writes, “…for it was one of the main avenues through which the new faith expanded throughout the Roman Empire” (4). In addition, the Diaspora played a large role in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Diaspora has also been used to characterize the flourishing Jewish community that lived in Alexandria shortly before the rise of Christianity. Trade flourished during the early centuries of the Christian church. This factor brought the story of redemption to new regions; but through traveling traders, slaves, and others, more than through missionaries or preachers. With this wide dispersal, syncretism crept into the Christian church, beginning with Constantine (AD 280-337) and others like him who practiced pagan rites while also attending Christian services.

Constantine’s dubious claim of conversion to Christianity notwithstanding, he provided the church with his “legal blessing,” while continuing to embrace paganism. Jews and Christians stood firm in their faith, which garnered the reputation of unbending fanatics. When the early Christians refused to light incense to the Roman gods, or to the emperor, they did so as a testament to their faith in Christ alone. Because Christians throughout the Roman Empire stayed home rather than participate in “societal” activities and street fairs which typically involved in festivals honoring the gods, Roman authorities condemned Christians as disloyal and seditious. This is one of the many reasons that Christians were persecuted, tortured, and executed by Roman authorities.

Other key factors impacted the early Christian church during the first three centuries. For example, as soon as the Christian message started reaching the Gentiles, it came under attack from individuals who wanted to alter or nullify it. Gnosticism began to infiltrate the Christian church: a prominent heretical movement of the 2nd-century Christian Church, partly of pre-Christian origin, which believed the world was created and ruled by a lesser divinity, the demiurge, and that Christ was an emissary of the remote supreme divine being, esoteric knowledge (gnosis). It would take the church nearly 100 years to rid itself of Gnosticism. These developments led to emergence of early Christian apologists, such as Justin the Martyr and Augustine of Hippo. Apologetics has survived into the twenty-first century. The church responded specifically to heresy and accusations by establishing canon, creed, and apostolic succession. At times, it was necessary to convene a synod to decide issues of doctrine and administration.

Christianity was established as an official religion at the Edict of Milan in AD 313. This was an important step in securing the civil rights of Christians throughout the Roman Empire. For nearly 300 years, Christianity was functionally illegal in the Roman Empire, often subjecting Christians to persecution. This proclamation protected full rights for Christian citizens of the Empire, restoring their property, releasing them from prisons, and effectively banning government persecution of their faith. It also declared a general state of religious tolerance, allowing for the expression of virtually any spiritual belief. Unfortunately, the bad came with the good in the form of heresies, such as Donatism: the belief that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid. This led to schism in the Church of Carthage from the fourth to the sixth centuries AD. Arianism – the ideology that Jesus was merely human and not divine – arose practically overnight. The Roman Empire banned Arianism in 379. Shortly thereafter, the church instituted the death penalty for heresy.

In AD 425, Augustine of Hippo proclaimed salvation through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (sola Christus). This was an apologetic answer to the claim of Pelagius that salvation could be earned by good works. Augustine wrestled, however, with the origin of evil. He ultimately settled on evil being “…a looking away from God and turning one’s gaze to the inferior realm.” It was believed that a single being, of infinite goodness, was the source of all things. He said evil is real, but it is not a real or created “thing.” Rather, Augustine taught the concept that evil is a direction away from the goodness of the One. I am familiar with the suggestion that we are either walking toward or walking away from Christ. Walk is discussed throughout the New Testament. The 4th Ecumenical Council (AD 451) reestablished the two natures of Jesus (human and divine). The birth of monasticism furthered the teachings of the Church and led to the promulgation of the Gospel.

Christianity’s next great challenge was Islam. Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims in AD 636. Alexandria, Egypt and Spain were next to fall to the Muslims. Persecution of Christians by Muslims began AD 717 under Caliph Umar II. Many of the newer Christian churches were destroyed. In AD 850 Caliph Mutawakkil forced Christians to wear yellow patches. (This is a sad but accurate foreshadowing of Nazis forcing Jews to wear Star of David arm bands during the reign of Adolf Hitler.) When Vladimir of Kiev adopted Christianity in AD 988, this halted the advance of Islam in Eastern Europe. Thankfully, Charles “The Hammer” Martel defeated the Muslim invasion of France in AD 732. It was the caliph’s intention to conquer Europe in the name of Muhammad.

Trouble with Islam continued. In AD 1009 Caliph Hakim destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and the Seljuk Turks drove Christian priests out of Jerusalem in AD 1091. In May 1291, the world entered a new era. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the world left an era behind, because this was the month that saw the end of Crusader power in the Middle East. The decisive event was the Siege of Acre, which culminated in the bloody defeat of the Knights Templar and their Crusader brethren. Acre was their last major stronghold – after this, it was only a matter of time before the Christian presence in the Holy Land was extinguished.

Please join me next time when I discuss the historical importance of monasticism in the early Christian church. As always, please consider replying to these posts to help foster dialog.

Footnotes
(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Vol. 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010), xiii.
(2) Gonzalez, Ibid., 27.
(3) Ibid., 42.
(4) Ibid., 18.

Why Must We Suffer?

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

MANY FACTORS TODAY IMPACT how we feel about ourselves and life. We wonder why bad things happen to good people. We question the existence of an all-powerful, benevolent God in the face of seemingly insurmountable evil and social unrest. America is embroiled in doubt and fear, depression and anxiety, hopelessness and a loss of meaning; caught in a national angst we have not seen since the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Great Depression. Some of us turn to psychology and psychiatry, hoping medication and talk therapy will cure our misery. Others turn to “religion.” Tragically, many Americans try booze and illicit drugs, and some choose to end their life. What is the answer?

How Could You?

I sat, alone, quietly, wondering what was about to happen. Misery had brought me to this place. I was so sick and tired of myself, yet I had no idea how to change me. And what if I cannot change? Would I be able to live, period? Perhaps you or someone you are close to has been at this point. My complaint, for lack of a better word, was simple: God, how could you? Why did you give me this life, this complete mess. I felt impotent and alone. Nothing thrilled me anymore. Not. One. Thing. I decided to find out why, or die. Why am I lost and alone, confused and burdened? I am so tired of hearing my own voice―especially the one in my head that never seemed to stop making excuses for my circumstances. It is quite unsettling to give one’s self an ultimatum. What happened to the hour I first believed? I saw the face of Jesus at age 13, and asked Him into my heart and my life. There was an unambiguous call on my life to serve as a pastor or teacher of the Word. Finally, my raison d être.

But things did not go “according to plan.” Life got complicated. I got lost on the way to my calling. I’d never really been happy in life, but at least I wasn’t a nihilist. My belief that something matters, no matter what that something is, seemed to propel me toward hope. A chance to see the horizon. Light. There has to be light, right? And doesn’t that light illuminate, reveal? Like that new GE light bulb, giving the best light, filtering dull yellow light to give incredible color contrast and whiter whites for exceptional clarity. That’s what I needed. Exceptional clarity. Let’s get real here. My life did not seem to be “exceptional” and I had absolutely no “clarity.” Instead, I was kneeling in my bedroom, alone, broke and broken, asking God, “How could you do this to me?” How could a Christian lose hope. Lose the horizon? Give up the reigns to a task master like substance abuse?

I didn’t stop there. I wanted to know why my grandmother and father got cancer. Why my father lost his dad when he was only 13 years old. Why he contracted COPD, emphysema, and chronic hypoxemia? When he eventually needed supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day, he said to me, “Well, this is the beginning of the end.” Shortness of breath robbed him of his many favorite activities: woodworking, painting, gardening, landscaping. No longer could he ride his lawn tractor without suffering compression fractures of lumbosacral vertebrae. He had stopped smoking after his heart attack at age 55, yet he still suffered the horrific medical consequences. He passed away in 2014 from pneumonia. Why God? He’d quit smoking decades ago. Why is he gone now that I finally have a life worth living? Why isn’t he here to see the amazing turnaround I’ve finally made? He’s not here to see me preparing for ministry. God, how could you? Thankfully, I am not prone to thinking this way any longer, but it took some exegetical research for me to determine the best way to address these issues without blaming God, my father, or others.

If God Loves Us, Why Must There Be Pain and Suffering?

If God loves us and is an omnipotent and benevolent God, why does He allows pain and suffering. These questions are not limited to skeptics and nonbelievers; they haunt many Christians as well. Surely, He can rid His creation of wars, murders, torture, sickness, tsunamis, earthquakes; He must be capable of arresting evil, right? This issue has stymied believers and non-believers for centuries. Richard Dawkins sees universal suffering as an indictment against the existence of a loving God. Further, he writes, “There is no good case to be made for our possession of a sense of right and wrong having any clear connection with the existence of a supernatural deity” (1). Dawkins believes theodicy (the “vindication” of divine providence in the face of the existence of evil) must keep theologians up at night. However, he provides no further evidence of this claim. Second, I and many other theologians and biblical scholars I know, are not suffering from insomnia over the conundrum of evil in the face of a “good” God.

Dawkins says it is “…childishly easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god – such as the one who stalks every page of the Old Testament. Or, if you don’t like that, invent a separate evil god, call him Satan, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. Dawkins’ detractors see the foregoing comment as a straw man fallacy, especially because Christian theologians and biblical scholars do not claim that the issue of evil is easily overcome, nor do they believe Satan is “a separate evil god,” responsible for the existence of evil in God’s creation. Designating one cosmic power “good” and the other “evil” presupposes a third element for making the evaluation, namely an objective standard (or “measuring stick”) of good and evil. For the terms of “good” and “evil” to be meaningful, they must be linked to some objective standard, but “…then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and He will be the real God” (2).

C.S. Lewis writes, “Each [entity] presumably thinks it is good and thinks the other bad. One of them likes hatred and cruelty, the other likes love and mercy… Now what do we mean when we call one of them the Good Power and the other the Bad Power? Either we are merely saying that we happen to prefer the one to the other, or else we are saying that one of them is actually wrong, actually mistaken, in regarding itself good” (3). Lewis argues that no created being can be intrinsically evil or love evil for evil’s sake. He contends that there is no way that an evil being can stand in the same relation to its evil that an ultimate good being can stand to its goodness. He adds, “Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. There must be something good first before it can be spoiled” (4). Augustine of Hippo postulated that evil has no existence of its own; instead, evil is the absence of good.

I understand this conclusion sounds a bit counterintuitive. So, let us take an exegetical approach to the origin of evil. When God created the heaven and the earth, He paused and saw that it was good (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). On the sixth day, after surveying all He made, God said it was very good (1:31). When we read the account of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, we see no mention of God creating anything bad, corrupt, malevolent, ugly, or wicked. Yet, in Genesis 3 we are introduced to the serpent tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The serpent, which had not been previously mentioned, suddenly comes on the scene and becomes a major player in the fall of man and introduction of original sin. So, good is morally “prior to” evil such that evil is damaged goodness and love of evil is desiring evil as though it were good. Natural laws and libertarian free will are necessary conditions for a variety of valuable relational situations (within humanity and with God).

Lewis believed pain is “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” emphasizing pain’s capacity to shatter our illusions of self-sufficiency. But this is not a dyed-in-the-wool formula; pain only sometimes shatters our false sense of self-sufficiency and at other times drives us farther from God, depending on our response. Further, Lewis did not make sweeping generalizations about the purpose of all pain, although some interpreters mistakenly represent him as doing so. Moreover, Lewis did not address “evils” such as natural catastrophes that wipe out hundreds of people without giving them a chance to reorient toward God; nor did he engage human wrongful acts like the torture and murder of children who cannot respond productively to the pain. To be sure, however, God can work redemptively with pain when it does occur. There is simply no guarantee that all persons, even when pain exposes their insufficiency, will choose relationship with God.

If the universe is as scientists say it is, then what scope remains for statements about good or bad, right or wrong? What are we to conclude about evil and wickedness? If moral statements are about something, then the universe is not quite as science suggests it is, since physical theories, having said nothing about God, say nothing about right or wrong. To admit this would force philosophers to admit that the physical sciences offer a grossly inadequate view of reality.

Created Selves and Reality

As a created self, a finite personal being possessing intelligence, will, and agency, Satan’s true good would have been realized by accepting his place (as Lucifer) in creation, which he refused to do. We human beings are also created selves who must either accept our nature and ultimate destiny in God or craft for ourselves a destiny apart from God, which Lewis sees as “a free choice.” Essentially, a series of accumulative moral choices in which “good and evil both increase at compound interest” (5). It is inevitable that left unchecked, bad temper, jealousy, narcissism, selfishness, and other spiritual or character defects, gradually get exponentially worse and become Hell when projected out over an eternal future. Finding our true selves, then, is a matter of letting God heal and transform us spiritually. But God will never force himself upon us. He will not ravish, He can only woo. As perfect love, God can do nothing less than will our true good. Lewis said, “He cannot bless us unless He has us” (6).

Concluding remarks

We all hear the question so many typically ask, “Why would a loving God send someone to hell?” Yet, the truth is, people send themselves there. If you see someone walking toward a cliff and you yell to them, “Wrong way! There is a cliff ahead. You’re going to fall off and die if you don’t go the other way.” But if the person foolishly responds with “I’ll take my chances”, “I don’t believe you”, or “All roads lead to safety,” then he or she ends up falling off the cliff and into the abyss, who sent them there? They did! I wrote a poem during my active addiction that looked at the excitement and the peril of living my life right up to the edge of the abyss. Certainly, God did not want me to push myself away from Him, coming closer and closer to the cliff. He wanted to rescue me from myself, but I had to make the first move.

Lewis said a “Cosmic Sadist” might hurt us, but he could not do positive things such as invent or create or govern a universe. To hurt us, the Cosmic Sadist might bait traps, “…but he’d never have thought of baits like love, or laughter, or daffodils, or a frosty sunset. He make a universe? He couldn’t make a joke, or a bow, or an apology, or a friend” (7). It is goodness that is original and fundamental and evil that is derivative and parasitic. I, as Lewis, remain confident that the Christian worldview explains evil and suffering better than other worldviews explain it. Evil occurs within a total world context that includes other important phenomena that cannot be adequately explained by an evil source. The problem of evil itself, as Lewis indicated, can be credibly formulated only if these other realities are assumed. In the final analysis, when Lewis lost his wife Joy, he did not waiver one bit in his faith in God. His theory that pain is a catalyst for spiritual reorientation (a belief he articulated frequently and that many of his readers took as categorical) encountered the hard fact that sometimes we just have to endure pain that seems to serve no particular purpose.

Footnotes

(1) Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: First Mariner Books, 2008), 135.
(2) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1952), 43.
(3) Ibid, 42-43.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid., 132.
(6) Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (London, UK: SCM Press, 2000).
(7) C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1961), 65.

Systematic Treatment of Theologies

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy, M.T.S.

After digesting the theological methods of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Karl Rahner, I am partial to Barth. Barth grew up in Germany, and was in country when Hitler’s Third Reich and extermination of the Jews was rampant. This left Barth quite dismayed. He saw the policies of the Nazi party as evidence of a fundamentally bankrupt theology (1). Both the church and German society were smashed against the rock of imperialism. Wayne Grudem defines systematic theology any study that answers the questionWhat does the whole Bible teach us today?” about any given topic (2). Further, it allows us to focus on summarizing each doctrine as it should be understood by Christians in the twenty-first century. The adjective systematic in systematic theology should be understood to mean “carefully organized by topics,” with the understanding that the topics studied will be seen to fit together in a consistent manner.

My strong endorsement of Karl Barth rests in his call for a theology that starts with God (in the beginning) and focuses on the Word of God. Paul wrote, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thes. 2:13, NRSV). Regarding the primacy of Scripture, we are told, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Luke 4:4). God’s Word is truth (John 17:17); it is powerful and does not return to Him void (Isa. 55:11); it will never pass away (Matt. 24:35). Moreover, the Word of God is “…inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). 

Barth’s theology reminds me of Martin Luther’s sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”). In fact, consider the milieu of both these theological giants. Luther stood up against the corruption, abuse of power, and lack of primacy of Scripture regarding Roman Catholicism, and Barth spoke out against the atrocities of Hitler’s eugenics and his grab for world power. Barth staunchly opposed any approach to theology that featured human-centeredness. Systematic theology is impossible without the core Doctrine of the Word of God, for it is there that we learn of His attributes and character. Without Holy Scripture, there is no thread of redemption for us to follow, refer to, or teach. 

Barth took on Protestant liberalism, stating that the Word of God must be primary in theology. For me, this is the only means by which we can live our theology, otherwise our faith is mere philosophy. In addition, without a systematic model of theology and an official canon of biblical texts, we cannot hope to discover the Truth that is in Jesus Christ. We would miss the opportunity to satisfy our innate hunger for God. We also lack sufficient wisdom and knowledge to know God without His wisdom, His grace, and His Word.

Without the foregoing, true theology is not possible. The heart of Barth’s theology rests upon the sovereignty of God, the importance of the resurrection, the light of Christ, and the primacy of Holy Scripture. Barth said man’s “religion” is more akin to unbelief. It is a construct of the human mind. He adds, “It is a concern, indeed. We must say that it is the one great concern of godless man. From the standpoint of revelation, religion is clearly seen to be a human attempt to anticipate what God in his revelation wills to do and does do. It is the attempted replacement of the divine work by a human factor” (2).

Footnotes

(1) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 24.
(2) Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2 (Edinburg: T&T Clark, 1956), 299-300.

Never Lose Your Desire to be Sanctified

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

GOD’S ULTIMATE AIM FOR believers is to be sanctified and grow in holiness. The Hebrew (qdš) and Greek (hagias-) roots are applied to any person, place, occasion, or object “set apart from” common, secular use onto some divine power. Under the Old Covenant, persons and things devoted to God’s use had to be ritually cleaned, not merely set apart by taboo, decree, or tribal caste. “Fitness” for use becomes increasingly moral. Consider, “You shall be holy to me; for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev. 20:26, NRSV). Peter wrote, “But as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Pet. 1:15-16). Israel is inherently holy, separated by God from “the peoples” to be His own. Yet Israel had to become holy, by obedience, fit for the privilege allotted them” (1).

I have wondered whether God uses exile to set His people apart for further sanctification. The Jews were set free from slavery under Pharaoh only to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Leviticus tells of two ideas of sanctification. The first is that which relates to ceremonial laws (purification). The other is sanctification itself. In this idea, two factors are important: sanctification is called “the way” if it is related to ceremonial laws (e.g., blood sacrifice as a type of purification); and, sanctification is a “progressive work” as it is related to obedience to God’s commands.

Christians are set apart for God’s use. The community of believers is called by Paul as “…those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). The true church of God is comprised of all who are sanctified in Christ, called to be saints, and who call upon Him as God incarnate; who acknowledge Him as their Lord (2). It is through this relationship that believers obtain pardoning mercy, sanctifying grace, and the comforting peace of God. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). This use of “peace” refers to the Hebrew shalom, a rich blessing that includes peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. The Greek eirēnēn means peace, prosperity, rest, quietness. Christ was saying “peace I let go [aphiēmi] to you,” signifying to leave with, send out, or permit.

Sanctify Me Lord!

To be sanctified by the Lord requires a desire to be set apart for His purpose. This is not synonymous with salvation or redemption; rather, it is an inevitable consequence of the same. Sanctification is a critical part of Christian doctrine, the roots of which began when God sanctified the sabbath as a day of rest and continued with the priesthood as outlined in Leviticus. The Hebrew word for sanctification is qâdash, meaning to separate from a profane to a sacred use. Sanctification in the New Testament is from the word hagiazo as used in John 17:16-17, where Jesus said to the Father, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth” (emphasis mine). Progressive revelation of sanctification throughout Scripture allows for a clearer understanding of God’s desire for believers under the Old and the New Covenants to come out from the world and be set apart for His glory.

Under the Old Covenant, God consecrated the places where He dwelt. God was unable to occupy any space or dwell among His people without first setting the place apart as holy. This concept is easier to grasp when holy or sanctified is compared to its opposite: profane or defiled. This is evident in Exodus 3:4-5 where God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush. He summoned Moses to Him, instructing Moses to remove his sandals because he was standing on ground that had been sanctified and declared holy. Similarly, God cannot come and dwell in us until we have been sanctified. God is holy and separate from nature and from people. He can only be approached through mediation and sacrifice. It is through Christ that both have been established. Although Israel was corporately holy (set apart from other nations and peoples for a divine task), in order for them to be fit for what they had been called to do (provide the bloodline through which the Messiah would come) they had to deepen their holiness through obedience.

R.E.O. White compares sanctification and justification, stating sanctification means “…keeping oneself unspotted,” but he adds that this is not simply self-discipline. Attempting to obtain complete obedience through self-discipline is an impossible task. It is impossible to perform the will of God without being led, called, or sanctified by God. White believes sanctification is “chiefly the outflow of overflowing life within the soul, the ‘fruit’ of the Spirit in all manner of Christian graces” (Eph. 5:22-23). Justification, however, which White calls the privileged status of acceptance, is acquired by only one means: the cross (3). Sanctification under the New Covenant is not a matter of once-and-done; rather, it is an ongoing process of conformity to Christ, which is achieved through the Holy Spirit. Although New Testament Christians cannot hope to achieve sinless perfection, we are instructed to cleanse (remove) ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness (2 Cor. 7:1). This is considered repentance (“turning away from”), which is the first step in sanctification (setting one’s self apart from the world) under the New Covenant. Our “fitness” for God’s purpose becomes increasingly moral.

The Difference

Justification, on the other hand, is a one-time act performed by God which declares the believer “not guilty,” and is based solely on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ at Calvary. Sanctification occurs on a continuum and includes past, present, and future. Isaiah 50:8 confirms the vindicating aspect of justification (“he who vindicates me is near”). On closer examination, one finds that justification through faith is the foundation upon which Christianity is established as a religion of grace and forgiveness through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone. Paul informs us of this truth: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live(Rom. 1:17).

The changes God expects in us can only take place in the inner man, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The term “perfecting holiness” used in 2 Corinthians 7:1 is derived from the Greek epiteleô, which indicates further fulfilling or completion – bringing through to an end, finishing (see Gal. 3:3). Jesus Christ is the author and finisher of our faith (see Hebrews 12:1). Paul said, “Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint, until faith should be revealed (Gal. 3:23). Second Corinthians 7:1 refers to these promises. This correlates with Paul’s remark, “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty'” (2 Cor. 6:16-18).

Concluding Remarks

Christians are set apart for God’s use. They are chosen, destined, and sanctified. The writer of Hebrews urges, “Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Paul wants us to understand that we are washed, sanctified, and justified (1 Cor. 6:11). White writes, “Sanctification is not merely justification’s completion (correlate or implicate); it is justifying faith at work. In the faith counted for righteousness, actual righteousness is born” (4). A believer is justified (deemed “acquitted”) when he or she accepts Christ as the Messiah; the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Sanctification, on the other hand, is the method by which God brings a believer into alignment with His will. Justification is the single act of God’s grace, whereby he pardons the believer’s sins and counts him or her righteous by assigning to them the righteousness of Christ without regard to works.

Romans 3:24 says we are justified freely by the grace of God made possible by the redemption that came through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Paul notes in verse 25 that this is accomplished with the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross. This is mirrored in Hebrews 9:14-15. Jesus died as a ransom for the sins of mankind. Verse 22 reminds the reader that under the Law nearly everything had to be cleansed with blood, adding that there is no forgiveness without a blood sacrifice. It is therefore appropriate to conclude that God justifies the new believer at conversion, declaring him or her “acquitted.” Regarding sanctification, however, God calls the Christian to be “set aside,” no longer of this world, holy, sanctified, and called according to His purpose. Certainly, this is the very heart of the Gospel. It is through justification that the believer is considered righteous in God’s eyes. This imputing of the righteousness of Christ comes in an instant, at conversion.

Sanctification occurs over time, and includes past, present, and future. As God is holy and set apart from Creation, so too is the believer to be separate from the secular world. Because as Christians we are incapable of self-sanctification (unable to keep ourselves “unspotted”), it is imperative that we yield to the Holy Spirit and begin the work of maturing in the faith.


Footnotes
(1) R.O.E. White, “Sanctification,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd. ed., Daniel J. Treier, ed. (Grand Rapids, IL: Baker Academic, 2017), 770-71.

(2) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1095.
(3) White, Ibid., 771.
(4) Ibid.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Literature and Theology

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy, M.T.S.

This blog post is the last discussion in Topics in Theology at Colorado Christian University in pursuit of my Master’s in Theological Studies (M.T.S.) I will be starting a Master’s in Divinity (MDiv) at Denver Seminary in April 2021.

***

“I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” (C.S. Lewis)

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12, ESV).

One of my classmates made a statement this week that was more reminder than eureka! He said we are afforded “partial” vision in this physical world. Systematic theology, exegesis, and hermenuetics lead down the proverbial path of intersection between what we see and what exists. We presently have a somewhat cloudy and restricted understanding of love. The incarnation of Jesus Christ allows us to enter into a conversation about the story of redemption. God’s grace allows us to see and hear what we need to see and hear, when we need to see and hear it.

Specific to this process, Jesus helps us die to ourselves so that we can begin to live in agape love. It is amazing how opens the opportunity to become like Him; to emulate him in our actions and words. As an apologist, I must engage people “relationally,” which helps make them “spiritually” accessible. I am preparing for a relational-incarnational approach to apologetics. I must know Holy Scripture through a valid perspective, a sound rationale, and a fulfilling mode of being. So, how can we best present the Christian worldview in a manner that reaches beyond “canned” answers. Through relationship.

A Muslim acquaintance told me that Muslims will not listen to our thoughts on Chrisianity unless we first begin a relationship. Further, Nabeel Qureshi said in one of his lectures that Muslims come to America and are flooded with images of American’s overeating, touring the towns in expensive cars, attending movies and watching Rap videos that feature sex and partially-clad women, beaches filled with half-naked sunbathers. Muslim immigrants associate America’s behavior with Christianity.

I agree with C.S. Lewis’s perspective on the pitfalls of reductionist materialism. This term is generally an “identity theory” that says there is no independent, universal level of phenomena in the world, especially regarding morality. Reality is seen by many experts as mere neurochemical function; nothing exists over and above cognition. It is through reductionist materalism that we encounter the deficiency of our relational experiences. And it just might be the root cause of man’s failure to hold a consistent, universal sense of spirituality throughout his life.

The relational-incarnational model of apologetics is necessarily built from the personal repentance, vulnerability, self-sacrifice and shared humanity of the apologist (evangelist). I cannot help but wonder if identity theory is at least a stepchild of identity politics—the strange twenty-first century political theory that has been consistently convincing individuals away from responsibility and care (agape love) for the “community,” and pushes stark individualism and relativism on us through any number of media. Identity politics tends to create the sense that we are, each of us, an island. Certainly, universal morality gets sacrificed in the name of autonomy.

Our failure to recognize personal biases, misconceptions, and presuppositions is alarming. The definition of “worldview” is “… a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic make-up of the world” (1). My classmate said, “This is for me a central Christian theme about special revelation, the subjective nature of visions, and the intimacy of a God that leaves footprints in his wake for our discovery and salvation.”

C.S. Lewis was a gifted Christian author whose skills were extremely useful in sharing his conversion from theism to a relationship with Jesus Christ. Lewis shared his path to Christianity with the world in such a fashion that it was no mere incoherent mystery. Indeed, he expressed (in several of his works) that divine love is the ultimate life-giving mystery—God gives His Son over to sacrificial death to save the world. Many theologians tend to insist on having “the last word.” We need to forego imposing lables or categories on those with whom we speak about Christ. If not, we risk dismissing those who think and believe differently than we do.

Notes

(1) David N. Entwistle, Integrative Approach to Psychology and Christianity, 3rd ed. (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2015), 61.