Everything I’ve Learned…Almost

I’m starting a list of everything I’ve learned. Granted, there are things which I intuit, presuppose, and confess to knowing. However, there are those things which I’ve come to learn through experience which have in someway have become touchstones to which I’ve returned again and again. Here are a few:

  1. I don’t know much of anything.
  2. My wife told me this about my preaching, “Don’t sex up the gospel; you can’t make it gooder news.”
  3. Men and women are basically different.
  4. When suffering with a kidney stone and the nurse is late in coming to give you your morphine shot, be nice to her. People with kidney stones aren’t in any position to speak to their care providers in any tone of voice other than one of grateful respect.
  5. Never attempt to replace a disconnected sparkplug wire when the engine is running. The result is shocking.

A Response to “Jesus is the Gospel!” Part 2


4. And then there’s that word “immutability.”
“To Aristotle, and to many Christians still today, God is the Unmoved Mover. God can’t change, God can’t become human, God can’t suffer, God can’t become sin, God can’t crucified and numbered among the transgressors. God can’t go to hell. So when Jesus does those things he can’t really be God – but he is! The gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified was foolishness to the Greeks because they couldn’t get past their revered law of non-contradiction.” (p.6)
In an overflow of McSwain’s confusion of the two natures of Christ, he states that God is not “unchangeable in his being.” Rather, God cannot change – for he is not like man that he should change his mind and who does everything according the counsel of his own will. God is independent and he is unchanging. Though the Father invites us to interact with him personally, it doesn’t mean that his personality is equivocally the same as ours. For God is not contingent, but rather all things are contingent upon the godhead.
It is also worth noting that what the “Greeks couldn’t get past” was not their revered law of non-contradiction but their pride and disdain for weakness. The epistles of Paul leak – especially 1 and 2 Corinthians — the foolishness of the gospel made manifest in the one who became the servant of all. Non-contradiction is not the problem Paul faces, but rather pride and boasting in self, achievement, and reputation.
5. Universalism and Particular Redemption
“Paul doesn’t tell us that Christ died so we wouldn’t have to, he says when Christ died we died, every single human being died with Christ (2Cor5:14).” (p.10) and
“If the cross covers all sins for all times, past, present, and future, how can their still be leftovers? Was the work of Christ impotent or ineffective? Is there still justice to be meted out?” (p.13) and
“For instance, surely it is better to live with the question – How can one who belongs to God end up in Hell? — than to live with the dangerous idea that some belong to Jesus and some do not (even the goats of Matthew 25 belong to the shepherd!). Did Jesus die for some but not for others? Did Jesus decide from all eternity that he would create some folks and then send them to hell without a chance?” (p.14)
At times McSwain sounds Reformed, at times he sounds Arminian, and at others, universalists. Take the above three quotes.
The first quote sounds as if every person is united with Christ, and it certainly follows that union with Christ means redemption and salvation in him. If this is true, all are safe regardless of whether they have believed in their heart and confessed with their mouth.
Secondly, the powerful effect of what Christ has accomplished is secure. He is able to save completely those who are being saved. I like this. Christ died. He bore all of God’s wrath so that non is left to be expended on me.
Thirdly, I don’t think he’d like the Reformed position of particular redemption. The trouble with those who espouse a universal sacrifice of Christ for “whosoever” means that at least for some, the redemption of Christ is not enough – you’re not safe. I don’t expect many to be able to swallow particular redemption easily, but in response to his question, “Did Jesus decide from all eternity that he would create some folds and then send them to hell without a chance…” Why not? Jesus told the goats, “Depart from me. I never knew you.”
That McSwain posits the question as to whether Jesus decided from all eternity exposes his pervasive inability to navigate the subtle distinctions of theological discourse. Though he claims he is Trinitarian in his position, his discourse reflects a bi-tarian position (God-Jesus) which fails to honor and recognize the Father’s work in redemption. Repeatedly he speaks of the trinity as God, Son, Holy Spirit. In so doing, he linguistically and even pragmatically negates the economic work of the Trinity: the Father ordains and predestines, the Son obeys and secures salvation through his obedience, and the Holy Spirit empowers and applies that salvation.
6. A conditional submission.
“A person cannot truly confess until he is given a safe place.” (p.12)
McSwain rightly speaks against the manipulation behind a lot of what is gospel presentation. However, he implies in this quote that confession is impossible without “safety.” A person’s confession is not dependent upon whether they are given a safe place. Confession is squeezed out of a heart which apprehends the truth. One day every tongue will confess – some of those confessions will not be because individuals are safe, but rather because the weighty glory of God Almighty is crushing it out of them. The Holy God of the universe does not except or welcome his creatures on their terms.
Final Thoughts.
I don’t believe that McSwain is out to present a plausible heterodoxy. Rather, I think he rightly apprehends the increasing irrelevance of the gospel as forgiveness approach for this younger generation. I do think his passion in ministry is commendable and inspiring. However, as one who leads others, his communication of the subtleties reflects a lack of circumspection and wisdom, and as such he appears a maverick charging ahead and doing his own thing because he likes his way of doing it more then other’s way of not doing it. Is this unjust? The children will tell.
“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”‘ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”
Luke 7:34-35

A Response to “Jesus is the Gospel!”, Part 1

Recently, Christianity Today included an article on the recent controversy within Young Life regarding a paper written by Jeff McSwain and the ministry’s formulation of gospel non-negotiables. It seems that the area director and a good many of the staff in Durham/Chapel Hill resigned because of the disagreement. You can read the CT article here. You can read Jeff McSwain’s paper here, and you can read the Young Life Statement here.

After reading the paper, here are my thoughts. If I’m wacked or my church history isn’t what it should be, would somebody tell me?

1. Not a bad place to start.
“Is it possible that we could clearly and faithfully preach a Christ-centered gospel without the penal/legal formula and the bridge illustration paradigm?” (ref. p.2)

What seems to be behind some of McSwain’s thinking is all the debate in the Emergent Church circles on penal substitutionary atonement. Though I am not sympathetic with arguments against the centrality of justification by faith in the propitiation which Jesus Christ has worked in his own’s behalf, McSwain’s concern about the manner in which the gospel is being presented and the subsequent confusion has some merit. In particular, I believe Dr. Timothy Keller and others have done great work on critiquing gospel presentation models.

Keller notes two current models of gospel presentation: gospel is forgiveness and gospel is freedom. Our increasingly secular and irreligious culture finds the gospel as forgiveness increasingly irrelevant because the starting presupposition: “there’s a God and he has rules” is not believed. To try and convince people who don’t believe they’ve done anything wrong that there’s forgiveness offered for their sins is incredibly difficult. However, there is another means to communicate our sin and Christ’s provision.

Keller suggests that our gospel approach should follow a “gospel is freedom” model. The gospel is freedom says that sin is slavery. (Slavery is naturally repulsive to a culture who values freedom, autonomy, and choice and is consumeristic and independent), Keller writes, “…the way to show more deeply secularized persons their need for the gospel is by saying, “your sin makes you a slave! You are actually being religious, though you don’t know it — trying to be righteous in a destructive way.” (Slavery is the biggest nightmare of the “choice–worshipper”. We say, “you are not really in control” so they are threatened). This approach creates anxiety and relieves it by showing how Christ redeems us (lit. “ransoms us from slavery”), liberates us.

2. Nomenclature.
McSwain uses labeling which inclines the reader to prejudice. The labels he gives the model he espouses: the “Trinitarian/Incarnational Model” allows him to take the generous orthodox position while the term “Legal/Separation Model” implies a litigious, restrictive and ungracious position. Whether intentional or not it’s an old straw-man’s trick.

3. Bad historical exposition with heterodox conclusions.
In his paper, McSwain writes the following,
“It stands in drastic conflict with orthodox Christology regarding the two natures of Christ. “The Church Fathers who formulated the creeds were adamant in insisting that God the Son assumed a sinful human nature in the incarnation. To them, the incarnation itself exploded any so called separation of divinity and impurity. Against Nestorian heresy, the Church in the year 451 came down squarely on Biblical testimony that Jesus Christ is two natures but one person. The one person aspect is in critical view here, because it keeps us from saying Christ’s divine nature and sinful nature were just two hermetically sealed natures pasted together. Nestorianism was an effort to protect the purity of the divine nature of Christ by separating it out from the human nature. Instead of saying “the human nature of Christ became sin, or “the human nature of Christ died,” we can say with more orthodox correctness that God became sin, and God died. We must recognize that when we say Jesus Christ is 100% God and 100% man, we do not mean that he is made up of two 100%’s glued together we mean that he is wholly man “like us in every way” and at the same time wholly God. “Amazing Love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, wouldst die for me?” (p. 6)
Problematically for McSwain is that he appears to be purporting heterodoxy rather than orthodoxy. The council he notes in 451 AD took place in Chaledon in response to the monophysite heresy and sought to formulate a position on the relationship in Christ’s person between his humanity and divinity. The creed which contains the sign of Chalcedon is attested to by all orthodox churches. Chalcedon states that we confess, “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence….” What this means is that the attributes of each nature may be attributed to the person, however, one does not confuse the attributes with the two natures. So, though I appreciate what Charles Wesley wrote, when he exclaimed in wonder and praise of the gospel that “my God wouldst die for me.” He was in error in the use of his language. God cannot die. Though it is true that Jesus can die, that Jesus is God, and that Jesus did die. God die? No, he cannot die. And so the assertion “that God became sin and God died” falls outside of orthodoxy and is exactly the opposite of the intent of the formers of Chalcedon who insisted that the two natures were without confusion, change, division, or separation. God did not become sin, nor did he die. Jesus, however, did and this is what we proclaim.
Prior to his misunderstanding of the creedal formula, McSwain states that the church fathers asserted “that God the Son assumed a sinful human nature.” Roundly, let it be said, they did not and he did not. Christ took on our humanity and came in the flesh but he knew no sin. That “Jesus became sin for us” is not in an ontological sense but in a positional sense in that he bore its consequential condemnation upon the cross and so removed it. Additionally, the language “sinful human nature” which (aside from being an unbelievably careless statement and heretical) sounds ironically Gnostic as if all flesh (that is physical bodies) is sinful rather than the nature which has been corrupted by our having been born in Adam.

To be continued…

Taking Care of the Stone

What’s all this talk of taking care of stones? Is that like a pet rock?

Well, actually, no.

While in seminary I had read that Charles Simeon (minister of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge) exhorted his students to “mind the three-mile marker.” I lost the exact quote years ago. However, “minding the three-mile marker” became a rallying cry of sorts to not neglect exercise. Simeon, an exercise enthusiast himself, often swam in the Cam River (which could not have been very clean) and was regularly seen walking the countryside of Cambridgeshire — in particular the three-mile walk to the stone and back. For the Christian and the “reading man,” one must remember that we are embodied souls. To neglect the care of the body and to deny one’s physicality (that the physical world is real) is to fall into pseudo-Gnostic error.

Thinking of stones and weighty matters moved me to locate the quote of Charles Simeon which has provided such help over the last 15 years. I am please to provide it in its entirety here.

“It is your duty to God to work hard at the studies which belong to the University. Hard regular study is the best discipline which your minds can have, and the most likely to fit your characters to usefulness in the ministry, if you are called to that office. But act wisely. Remember to give your hearts to God in the way of this duty. Use common wisdom also. Your success in the Senate House [picture to the left] depends much on the care you take of the three mile stone out of Cambridge. If you go every day and see no one has taken it away, and go quite round it to watch lest any one has damaged its farthest side, you will be best able to read steadily all the time you are at Cambridge. If you neglect it, woe betide your degree. Exercise, constant, regular, and ample, is absolutely essential to a reading man’s success.”

May 15, 1829
Charles Simeon