September 26, 2013 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
D. A. Carson’s enriching book is more than a manifesto for revival. It is a searching meditation on the imperative, the power, and the generative attitudes of prayer. First published in 1992, the book may be an even more sobering read today, more than twenty years later. The decline of the American church has continued without interruption, and the contributing factors and cultural symptoms of our decline are now worse. Carson’s exegetical depth, however, gives me fresh hope.
Carson opens with an analysis of the American church’s prayerlessness (Introduction), the conclusion of which is that we do not know God well enough. He opens the nature and focus of prayer in a series of chapters drawing on the example of other Christians (Chapter 1), the model of 2 Thessalonians 1 (Chapters 2 and 3), the overall burden for people in Paul’s prayers (Chapters 4-5), and the model of Colossians 1 (Chapter 6). Carson pauses to examine various excuses for prayerlessness and to expound the motivations for overcoming them (Chapters 7-8). He then develops much-needed theological rationales for prayer, dealing with the nature of God (Chapters 9-10), the nature of spiritual power (Chapter 11), and vision for ministry (Chapter 12).
In order to find fault with any of Carson’s exegesis, one would have to marshal detailed technical objections. Even where that might be possible, his devotion to expounding the Scriptures accurately is displayed on every page. Carson’s examination of 2 Thessalonians 1 is rich with applications derived meticulously from context (Chapter 3). On page after page, Carson gives appropriate details about Paul’s inferential and referential particles to clarify why Paul prays and what he prays for. In fact, one of the most edifying features of Carson’s book is his frequent reproduction of lengthy passages that the reader can mull over without any commentary.
Many books are filled with solid exegetical details that nevertheless clutter big themes. Carson’s book is not one of them. He shows the Bible’s big picture of prayer.
In particular, the book corrects the overly individualistic concept of prayer many evangelicals have. Carson doesn’t belabor the inadequacy of a prayer life that is exclusively private, or attack individualism outright. Instead, he shows the communal prayer life of Paul in high definition. And that is rebuke enough. In chapter 4, Carson reproduces prayers from all of Paul’s letters to show how immersed he was in the lives of his fellow believers. Chapter 5 is devoted to an even more detailed treatment of this theme, unpacking 2 Thessalonians 3:9-13. Also, Carson demonstrates that this relational aspect of prayer, taught so exhaustively in the New Testament, was a feature of God’s people more recently. He tells many stories of how the people in his life influenced his praying in chapter 1, and he consistently draws on the history of revivals throughout the book.
This emphasis on human relationships in prayer continues to be neglected, and Carson’s faithfulness to the biblical model remains urgently needed.
There are issues about which I would like to learn more from Carson. For example, he addresses spiritual warfare briefly in chapter 12, which focuses on Romans 15. Prayer in this connection is almost exclusively the preserve of charismatic believers, as it was when Carson first wrote the book. The role of angels and demons in the life of Christ and the growth of the church is a prominent theme of the New Testament. I would like to have seen more about such issues in relation to prayer, especially in light of the mainstreaming of New Age spirituality that has occurred in the last twenty years.
Still, Carson’s book is a powerful antidote to the prayerlessness that has poisoned our spirits.
October 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
by Matthew Raley
The name “Jesus” has been a blank screen in America for a long time. If I embrace the name, I acknowledge that “Jesus” is the epitome of goodness. But, in a neat trick, I can project onto the name whatever righteous shape I hold dear.
Evangelicals, among whom I count myself, are some of the most skilled projectionists, and many people are now wary of our “Jesus.”
We evangelicals are quick to deplore the progressive “Jesus” who thought up socialism before there was even a proletariat, or the Buddhist “Jesus” who did a semester in India. We rejected the self-doubting “Jesus” of “Godspell,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” molded to match faddish ideals of personal authenticity. More recently, we’ve inveighed against the gnostic “Jesus” who had a child with Mary Magdalene — a savior for conspiracy theorists.
Our culture only accepts gods it has re-imagined in its own image. We’re right to dismiss all these Jesus-projections. But we can’t seem to reject the blank screen itself. We’ve profited too heavily from it. If we were to set the bar at intellectual honesty, we’d undermine our salesmanship.
For the last forty years at least the evangelical “Jesus” has looked as close to the American consumer as possible. Consider the Jesus-projection you are most likely to watch in an evangelical church.
In appearance, he is an Anglo-German woodsman with great hair. In attitude, he’s way non-threatening. In manner, he uses open gestures. He doesn’t lecture or argue. He uses sports analogies when talking to men and tear-jerking stories with women. He says, “Dude!”
This “Jesus” can be narrated like a sitcom in 18 minutes (minus commercials). Each week, the live studio audience laughs at the right times, but there comes a moment when they feel really bad for “Jesus,” maybe shed a tear. They realize how nice “Jesus” is to us, and how mean we are to him, and this hushed epiphany motivates them to try harder at being positive.
The Jesus of the New Testament is nothing like this.
The real Jesus is ancient. He cannot be understood, much less received, without a basic knowledge of his culture and history, and that is why pastors used to think of themselves as teachers. Many Christians see that Jesus is not the Now Guy evangelicals project, and the good news for them is that he can still be known. We know him through the ancient method by which our minds labor in the Bible’s words and in prayer, interacting with the real one who rose from the dead.
Furthermore, the real Jesus had a message about the outworking of history. He did not give inspirational chats about living positively, like some huckster from Houston. The classic distillation of his teaching is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” God is driving events toward his goals, and those events can sweep an individual away no matter how positively she thinks. That word repent is almost illegal in churches today, probably because it contains the one message contemporary people can’t abide: “God’s plan isn’t all about you.”
But there is more good news for the people who already know this. Though the projection of the hyper-compassionate woodsman who is on call for you 24/7 is bowlderized, there is still the real Jesus. He is our Sovereign, whose power has swept us into his plan. The injustice and violence of our world will dissolve in the heat of his stare, and the new city we hope for will be built.
Ultimately, the real Jesus defied those in his own time who wanted to use him as a blank screen. Many people followed Jesus, John reports, but had agendas for him to fulfill. Jesus “did not entrust himself to them.” (John 2.24) When many wanted him to overthrow the Romans, for example, “Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (John 6.15)
So there is still more good news. In the swirl of efforts to re-imagine Jesus after our likeness, the real Savior has a mind of his own. And he’s still commanding, “Follow me.”
June 23, 2011 § 5 Comments
by Matthew Raley
Rob Bell starts to make an excellent case for the justice of hell in Love Wins. But he doesn’t finish it. Bell’s inadequate concept of justice is the next feature of this book I think evangelicals should watch. (First two features here and here.)
Hell is hard to defend if the people who populate it are the ignorant, needy, and wounded who weren’t able to check the right theological boxes. But the charge depends on sympathy. Switch perspectives on the population, and hell starts to look like the only appropriate punishment.
That’s what Bell does in the middle of his chapter on hell (pp 70-73). There are kids all over Kigali, Rwanda with missing limbs, he says. “Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs.” A rape victim, a 5-year-old boy whose father committed suicide, the surviving relatives of a man whose cruelty extended beyond the grave: all of these show the ongoing cost of sin.
Bell is aggressive in making this case.
So when people say they don’t believe in hell and they don’t like the word “sin,” my first response is to ask, “Have you ever sat and talked with a family who just found out that their child has been molested? Repeatedly? Over a number of years? By a relative?” (p 72)
I found myself cheering him on as I read this passage. I am a pastor, like Bell. Few have the daily, ongoing experience of evil quite like those on life’s clean-up crew — law enforcement, social workers, doctors and nurses, and pastors. The cost of sin is born day after day in family after family. And the cost mounts. True love demands payment for the sake of those who bear that cost.
But, having adjusted our perspective in this way, having raised the issue of sin’s cost, and having asserted our need for this horrible word hell, Bell switches back to the perspective of the ignorant, needy, and wounded who failed to check the right boxes. Isn’t it monstrous to punish them eternally? Bell asks (p 102), “Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth?”
Suffering infinitely for finite sins, committed in the few years of life. Our sins, Bell assumes repeatedly in this book, are limited in scope.
Our sins are finite?
We have confirmation of this?
Somebody knows this?
Without a doubt?
I am nowhere near granting that assumption, and I have three reasons.
1. The Bible reiterates that our sins are primarily against God, secondarily against one another (e.g. Genesis 39.7-10; Romans 1.18-32). How does Bell propose to limit the cost of sins committed against an infinite being?
2. Human beings live in community. At what point does the impact of a single sin come to rest? A slanderous tweet, let’s say? It’s true that I can lose sight of a sin’s impact, but that doesn’t mean I really know where the impact stops.
3. Human beings are linked generationally. A sin committed at one time can live on. That’s a key part of the problem of racism in the United States. How can we say that Thomas Jefferson’s attitude toward his slaves had a finite impact because it was committed in the few years of his own life?
Bell doesn’t follow his own correct reasoning about the cost of sin to its conclusion: The cost goes on to such an extent that no human being knows the full impact of his own actions. And the real problem of justice, as the Bible lays it out, is that all have sinned.
June 16, 2011 § 1 Comment
by Matthew Raley
I am surveying features of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins that evangelicals should watch over the coming years. A second feature is Bell’s description of the nature of God.
According to Bell, the evangelical God is impossible for people to trust. This God has put a time-limit on repentance: death is the end of people’s opportunity to have a relationship with him, and hell awaits people who do not believe. Bell says that this sort of God is “violent” and “destructive.” If this account of God were true, he says,
A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with [people] would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.
If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately. (pp 173-174)
He goes on, calling this God “devastating,” “psychologically crushing,” “terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable.”
Bell counters that God is love, and that God’s invitation into his love never ends. Hell is not God tormenting people, but people choosing to reject God’s love and creating their own torment. Even when they reject God, he always brings them back because redemption is part of his very nature.
Yet Bell’s story about how God redemptive nature displays the same divine volatility Bell finds in the doctrine of eternal hell.
For example, Bell uses the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to make the argument that hell is temporary. He calls them “the poster cities for deviant sinfulness run amok,” recounting how God rained sulfur on the cities, destroying everything. “But this isn’t the last we read of Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Bell cites Ezekiel 16, where God says he will return the cities to what they were before, then asks rhetorically, “What appeared to be a final, forever, smoldering, smoking verdict regarding their destiny … wasn’t? What appeared to be over, isn’t. Ezekiel says that where there was destruction there will be restoration.” (p 83, emphasis original)
So God sometimes destroys people to make a point. Then he restores. Bell calls this a “movement from judgment to restoration, from punishment to new life.” (p 85)
Using Bell’s standard of a loving God, his account of what he calls God’s redeeming nature shows the same violence he condemns when discussing eternal torment in hell. The God who destroyed Sodom is the child abuser about whom Bell would call the authorities. The people of Sodom did not choose sulfurous rain; God inflicted it upon them.
The only difference Bell shows between the God who destroyed Sodom and the God who punishes souls eternally is the amount of time involved.
So let’s imagine Rob Bell preaching love and hope to Sodom: “This fire isn’t forever. Your father loves you! He’s inviting you to participate in his love! Just wait: you’ll have another opportunity to love God!”
Or we could ask this question: Would it matter to the people destroyed in the fire of Sodom that their punishment was only temporary? Would they trust God any more, or hate God any less because they have another opportunity later?
Or we could make up a scenario about pain. Suppose I promised you that the Soviet guard in the gulag would only beat you every day for 10 years. Would the temporary nature of the torment make it tolerable? What if he only beats you daily for a week? Okay, okay: your beating will only last 5 minutes.
Bell’s proposal that hell is temporary in no way makes his account of God’s nature coherent.
Celebrity status will not exempt Bell’s arguments from the precision of, say, Richard Dawkins. Evangelicals should watch what happens when Bell’s distinctions without differences fail to make God any more loveable.
Love Wins accepts generalized standards of love and justice — standards that are, to be sure, accepted by most people without examination. But the received wisdom of generalizations about “a loving God” or “a just God” fall apart once we delve into specific cases. “Loving” toward whom? “Just” in whose cause?
I think Bell will have to discard every biblical account of God’s punishing a sinner in order to preserve his view of redemption. That is where I think his “better story” about God will lead. Bell has failed to put human pain in the context of any serious look at the requirements of justice.
June 8, 2011 § 3 Comments
by Matthew Raley
The publication of Rob Bell’s Love Wins marks the acceptance of emergent Christianity by the American mainstream. Bell has been featured in a Time cover story, and is now a reference point for all sorts of popular spiritual writing. The pantheon of the American empire now includes Bell’s Jesus.
Over several posts, I’ll discuss some features of this book that I think will be most important for evangelicals in the coming years.
The first feature: Bell denies that biblical doctrine has significance in human salvation. The Bible contains teachings, sure. But knowing them is problematic, both interpretively, in finding what they mean, and morally, in maintaining humility.
Bell’s denial that doctrinal belief is essential to salvation is explicit, coming in his discussion of Jesus’ claim in John 14.6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Bell does not deny the exclusivity inherent in that statement. But Bell argues,
What [Jesus] doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him. (p 154)
Love wins, Bells argues (pp 144-157), because Jesus is the sustaining power of all creation, and he saves people no matter what they do or believe, wooing them through recurring opportunities to embrace him.
The denial of doctrine’s significance is also implicit, a denial through method. Bell is a deconstructionist.
Bell’s claim that Jesus never specifies how people are saved illustrates neatly. It is exegetically preposterous on its face. In the very document Bell discusses, Jesus repeatedly links salvation with belief, as in John 12.44-50, where Jesus makes “the word I have spoken” a person’s judge on the last day, and where he declares that the Father has given him “a commandment — what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life.”
(Indeed, Bell quotes a fragment of that paragraph [p 159], in which Jesus says he came to save the world, not to judge. But Jesus said that in order to set up his word as judge, and belief in his word as the “mechanism” that saves.)
Such bits of trivia don’t matter to Bell. The Bible for him is not a revelation of God’s truth. Rather, it is full of the raw materials for God’s story: poems, riddles, metaphors, hints, dribs and drabs of ancient cultural perspectives. We are supposed to find God’s story in those materials. Bell complains that historic Christianity has told a story that’s bad, having hardened all the raw material into absolutes. There’s “a better story” (pp 110-111).
This view of the Bible creates a new role for exegesis.
We expound the Bible not so much to learn what is true, as to deconstruct our own preconceptions. So, Bell offers long passages studying such words as hades, gehenna, aeon, et al., not to build up our understanding of what these words mean, but to tear it down. By the time Bell is done with text after text, we no longer know what the words mean. And with traditional concepts safely deconstructed, Bell is free to pick from those materials and tell his better story.
Many conservative theologians are saying that Bell is a theological liberal. To be sure, many of his conclusions are indistinguishable from the old liberalism. But I want to register one qualification that puts Bell and many emergents in a different category.
Modernist liberals 150 years ago believed that the Bible’s teachings were knowable, and that our reasoning about texts added to our knowledge. It is not clear to me at all that Bell believes this. Bell seems to believe that knowledge itself is a kind of arrogance, and that doctrinal knowledge, in terms of the fate of every person who ever lived, is of no significance.
Evangelicals should watch this feature of Love Wins to see whether Bell is merely being fashionable, or whether he is flirting with nihilism.
January 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
We evangelicals tend to blame others for the sexual immorality flooding our culture. But as we await the ruling of the 9th Circuit on Proposition 8, we need both to recover the biblical vision of marriage and to repent of our part in the institution’s decline. In this sermon, we examine both responsibilities.
January 14, 2011 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
Americans, pragmatic as they are about everything, tend to evaluate God the same way they evaluate their congressman: What have you done for me lately?
There shouldn’t be any question on God’s part about whether to keep our blessings coming: the financial windfall, the narrow escape from an accident, robust health, and above all, fun. He knows we’re not perfect. He knows we try — at least when we feel like it. And he ought to know that, despite our limitations, we’re doing a pretty darn good job with life.
So, when we put a prayer in the heavenly slot, we have a right to hear some clicking, a whir, and a final clop as the item we requested appears. Fair is fair.
The biblical word holy intrudes on this fantasy.
When Isaiah sees God enthroned in the temple (Isaiah 6), some of the more threatening aspects of the vision are the seraphim. These creatures have six wings apiece: two pairs to pay deference to the Lord by covering face and feet, and one pair to fly. The verb stem of fly is intensive, meaning not merely that they hover, but that they dart around the high throne.
All the while, they call warnings to each other: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” These calls are loud and deep enough to shake the foundations of the temple.
The root idea of holy is separate, or unmixed. To say that God is holy is to call him Other.
But that is not all the seraphim are saying. The Hebrew language is built on repetition; to repeat a word is to compound its force. “Holy, holy” would be the maximum imaginable Otherness. The seraphim are calling, “Holy, holy, holy”: the Otherness beyond your ability to imagine.
No wonder Isaiah says, “I’m dead!” He and his people are unclean — that is, mixed and corrupt, unable to survive the presence of utter holiness.
America pragmatism doesn’t work well. We resent that the cosmic vending machine won’t deliver on demand, and that heaven is silent when we pound it. If Isaiah’s vision is true, then we are operating on a theory of God that is disastrously wrong.
Pragmatists have no category for holiness. This omission means that we not only can’t understand God’s judgment but, even worse, we can’t understand his grace. The Lord says the same thing to us that he said to Isaiah: “I will make you clean.”
God’s holiness means that every single blessing we receive has crossed the infinite chasm between us and the purity of his being. It means that his extension of cleansing to us is life itself.
January 6, 2011 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
For many American evangelicals, “fearing God” has come to mean respecting Him a bunch. God is a coach. He knows what he’s doing, and you should keep that in mind if he makes a decision you don’t like. You should also keep in mind that Coach’s blustering is just drama to keep you on your toes.
So when Solomon says (Proverbs 1.7) that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” he’s not talking about fear-fear; he’s just saying, “Show some respect! You might learn a thing or two.”
The problem is that, both in the Old and New Testaments, human behavior in the presence of God is consistently desperate. When Isaiah saw the Lord (Isaiah 6.5), he exclaimed literally, “I am annihilated!” Ezekiel’s vision of God’s glory put him in a stupor for a week (Ezekiel 3.15). John saw the resurrected Jesus (Revelation 1.17), on whose bosom he had once reclined, and “fell at [Jesus'] feet as though dead.”
Respect isn’t a believable reaction to the awesome nature of God’s presence. Fear is.
Solomon is saying that fear — real fear — is the beginning of knowledge because it’s the right emotional response to the power and holiness of God. It’s the starting-point for measuring life, the foundation of safety and health.
But how can you relate to God without being paralyzed?
When my dad taught me to use a lawn mower, the first thing he did was start it, turn it on its side, and show me the blade. He wanted me to be afraid of it, and I was. Then he showed me how to be safe: never pull the mower toward my feet, etc. Once I knew how to use the mower, I pushed it confidently — even though my fear of the blade remained vivid.
Think of this kind of fear more personally.
When a man is abusive, you fear him because you never know what he’s going to do. You try to judge what mood he’s in, to discover early warnings that he’s about to go off, because his anger could flare instantly.
The fear of God is not like that.
I feared my dad, and still do, not because he was unpredictable and abusive, but because he had integrity and consistency. His reaction toward wrong was nothing to trifle with.
We fear God not because he is abusive — because we never know what he’ll do — but because we know exactly what he will do. The scriptures reveal his nature for just that reason. So for me, there is no contradiction between fearing God and having an intimate confidence in him. In fact, the right kind of fear is the foundation of confidence.
March 10, 2010 § 14 Comments
by Matthew Raley
After I criticized Michael Pearl’s teaching on parenting last week (here and here), I’ve heard a recurring question. Should we throw out a teaching that has helped so many struggling parents just because some points of doctrine are wrong?
Christian parents today are indeed struggling, often desperate to prevent their children’s falling away from Christ. Especially in the last twenty years, many have heeded the claims that righteousness is a matter of training. They want a system that yields results.
Please read this opening sentence from A. W. Tozer’s The Root of the Righteous with care:
One marked difference between the faith of our fathers as conceived by the fathers and the same faith as understood and lived by their children is that the fathers were concerned with the root of the matter, while their present-day descendants seem concerned only with the fruit.
In the criticism of Pearl’s teaching over the last several weeks, there has been a focus on the fruits of his system. But there has been a dearth of pastoral leadership calling believers back to the root of the matter.
I want to appeal to those parents who say they’ve seen fruit in applying Pearl’s teaching. I understand that you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath. But you can’t ignore the connection between Pearl’s doctrine and practice.
A child cannot relate to God, he says. Before the “age of accountability,” a child is “too young to fathom God,” and needs a “surrogate god” in the form of a parent “until he is old enough to submit himself to The Eternal God.”
The parent, as God’s “surrogate,” purifies a child’s guilt through spanking. Pearl teaches this point in detail under the heading, “The rod purges the soul of guilt,” in his “Defense of Biblical Chastisement, Part 1.” Pearl states, “The properly administered rod is restorative as nothing else can be. It is indispensable to the removal of guilt in your child. His very conscience (nature) demands punishment, and the rod supplies the needs of his soul, releasing him from his guilt and self-condemnation.”
In this section specifically devoted to the nature of guilt and its remedy, Pearl does not mention anything about the cross of Jesus Christ. Not a single word. He says nothing about Christ purging our sin and cleansing our conscience, finally and eternally.
If you admire Pearl’s fruit, I need to ask you, “How do you believe your child is saved from sin? Can your child, right now, approach the Eternal God’s throne blameless by faith in Jesus Christ, the high priest? Or are you responsible before that throne for driving sin out of your child and making him or her righteous through training?”
To spank rightly in practice, you have to reject this teaching. If there is a baby in Pearl’s bath, she has drowned.
I also feel the need to appeal to other parents — a growing chorus — who are shocked by Pearl’s fruit.
Some of the fruit is indeed shocking. The killing of a child by people who apparently took the teaching to a logical extreme is a horror.
But what if Pearl’s fruit did not appear so vile? What if Pearl’s adherents all stayed perfectly within his stated limits for spanking? What if their fruit consisted solely of compliant, pleasant children who were helpful and never got in anyone’s way? What would we say then?
I would say this.
Those most resistant to the gospel of forgiveness by faith alone in Christ alone are the compliant people whose childhood guilt was purged by many spankings, and who never depart in adulthood from the way in which they were trained up. As Pearl himself says (in the same section cited above), a child relates “to his parents in the same manner that he will later relate to God.” Just try convincing a man trained this way that he needs, or could ever have, a Savior.
I urge my fellow critics of Pearl’s teaching to talk about the Gospel. This is the moment to contrast Pharisaical legalism with the power of Jesus Christ.
I waited too long to research Michael Pearl. I’m grieved that I reacted to fruit instead of studying more deeply. Pastors, it’s time for us to declare ourselves on the root of the matter. Our numbers are too small today (cf. this list). Join us!
Here is the root question I believe we have to raise with our congregations: “Is there any training that replaces Christ’s all-sufficient righteousness?”
Our people need to see the great price of following Pearl.