Fifteen Reasons to Pay Attention to God’s Word

The more I read, study, memorize, and meditate on it, the more I realize that God’s Word is what I need. All the time.

It is the power that brought the universe into existence (Genesis 1:3).

It is the seed that brings you to life (1 Peter 1:23; James 1:21).

It is the truth that sanctifies and sets you free you (John 17:17; 8:31-32)

It is the light that guides you (Psalm 119:105).

It is the mirror that shows you who you are (James 1:23).

It is the joy and delight of the heart (Jeremiah 15:16; Psalm 1:2).

It is the river that makes you flourish (Psalm 1:3).

It is the water that washes you (Ephesians 5:26).

It is the course that educates you (Psalm 119:130).

It is the gold that enriches you (Psalm 19:10).

It is the bread that nourishes you (Matthew 4:4; Job 23:12).

It is the courage that emboldens you (Psalm 56:4).

It is the song that you sing (Colossians 3:16).

It is the sword that arms you for battle (Ephesians 6:17).

It is the breath of God (2 Timothy 3:16).

For these and many more reasons, “see that you do not refuse him who is speaking” (Hebrews 12:25).

How Important Is a Theological Belief?

Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

Every believer is assigned at least one guardian angel.

Both statements above express a theological belief. But clearly, they are different in importance. The first statement I would stake my soul on. The second I wouldn’t stake a sandwich on (of course, I believe angels exist, but I can’t find anything in the Bible that says that each believer is assigned at least one guardian angel).

Here’s the question: how do I know to stake my soul on the first statement, but not on the second? In other words, if not all theological statements are equally important, how do I determine which ones are more important than others?

This excerpt from the ESV Study Bible provides a concise and helpful way to answer this question:

Essential vs. Peripheral Doctrine

The ability to discern the relative importance of theological beliefs is vital for effective Christian life and ministry. Both the purity and unity of the church are at stake in this matter. The relative importance of theological issues can fall within four categories: (1) absolutes define the core beliefs of the Christian faith; (2) convictions, while not core beliefs, may have significant impact on the health and effectiveness of the church; (3) opinions are less-clear issues that generally are not worth dividing over; and (4) questions are currently unsettled issues. These categories can be best visualized as concentric circles, similar to those on a dart board, with the absolutes as the “bull’s-eye.”

Essential vs. Peripheral Doctrine

Where an issue falls within these categories should be determined by weighing the cumulative force of at least seven considerations: (1) biblical clarity; (2) relevance to the character of God; (3) relevance to the essence of the gospel; (4) biblical frequency and significance (how often in Scripture it is taught, and what weight Scripture places upon it); (5) effect on other doctrines; (6) consensus among Christians (past and present); and (7) effect on personal and church life. These criteria for determining the importance of particular beliefs must be considered in light of their cumulative weight regarding the doctrine being considered. For instance, just the fact that a doctrine may go against the general consensus among believers (see item 6) does not necessarily mean it is wrong, although that might add some weight to the argument against it. All the categories should be considered collectively in determining how important an issue is to the Christian faith. The ability to rightly discern the difference between core doctrines and legitimately disputable matters will keep the church from either compromising important truth or needlessly dividing over peripheral issues.


How Is God Beautiful? An Answer from Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards emphasizes an aspect of God’s nature that most systematic theologies barely mention: the beauty of God. But what exactly does it mean that God is beautiful? This is a question that Edwards explores in his work The Nature of True Virtue.

Edwards realized that there was a kind of beauty in virtue, yet a beauty of such a particular kind that he wanted to designate it true beauty. This kind of beauty, Edwards explains, is essentially harmony at the highest level of reality; in his words, it is “a general beauty” or beauty “in a comprehensive view, as it is in itself, and as related to everything with which it stands connected.” This highest-order harmony takes the particular shape of “benevolence to being in general”—that is a “union of heart” to the highest and most comprehensive scope of what exists. With this understanding of true beauty, Edwards believed that his quest for the nature of virtue was identical with the quest for what “renders any . . . exercise of the heart truly beautiful.”

Put concisely, true virtue and true beauty are the same thing: harmony (shown in benevolence) with the highest order of reality.

With this understanding of beauty and virtue, it becomes clear why God is beautiful. As the highest order—indeed, the very source—of all reality, God is at perfect harmony with himself, and this harmony is exhibited in boundless love and benevolence to himself: “Divine virtue,” Edwards explains, “Must consist primarily in love to himself, or in the mutual love and friendship which subsists eternally and necessarily between the several persons in the Godhead.” Edwards also draws the inference that “God’s goodness and love to created things, is derived from and subordinate to his love to himself.”

It can truly be said, then, that God’s love springs from his beauty, since “beauty” describes the boundless benevolence he exhibits within his Triune nature.

As moral agents, we humans can also possess this true beauty, but only insofar as we are at harmony with God. Unlike God’s beauty, ours is limited by our finite capacity as created beings, and it is merely derivative of God’s beauty. In other words, what makes us also truly beautiful is our sharing in this harmony with the highest order of reality—God himself. As Edwards puts it, “True virtue [and by extension, true beauty] must chiefly consist in love to God; the Being of beings, infinitely the greatest and best.” Thus every truly beautiful person “seeks the glory of God, and makes that his supreme, governing, and ultimate end.”

Obviously, as fallen creatures, this beauty does not come automatically. Because of our sin, we have decentered our lives away from God, rendering us mangled in every respect. We need someone who actually lived a perfectly beautiful life–in perfect harmony with God–to stand in our place. This is where our craving for moral beauty meets the beauty of the gospel: “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Quotations are from The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 1, ed. Patrick H. Alexander (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Pub, 1998).

God’s Omnibenevolence and the Problem of Evil

The doctrine of God’s omnibenevolence (God’s complete goodness) raises the problem of evil.

The classic formulation of this problem is the apparent incompatibility of the three propositions: 1) God is wholly God, 2) God is all-powerful, and 3) evil exists. If God is wholly good, he would want to prevent gratuitous evil; and if he were all-powerful, he would be able to prevent gratuitous evil (evil with no justifying cause). Yet evil still exists. Therefore, the Christian idea of an all-powerful, omnibenevolent God appears to be incoherent in a world in which evil exists.

On a philosophical level, this problem is fairly simple to explain. The objector has failed to make explicit a proposition that is unprovable, yet essential to the success of the argument: that is, that there is at least one instance of evil that is gratuitous. In other words, for any instance of evil that appears to be gratuitous, God might have a reason leading to a greater good of which we are currently unaware. Yet to have this knowledge, the objector must have omniscience.

The person who wishes to demonstrate the incoherence of the idea of God based on the existence of evil also faces the problem how where he or she got the idea of evil in the first place. Objectors to Christian theism would like to say that the existence of evil makes the concept of God incoherent. Upon further analysis, however, it becomes apparent that if God did not exist, the concept of evil itself would become incoherent. Therefore, by making his or her argument from evil, the atheist or skeptic has secretly imported some idea of absolute good.

Without God, you can’t have absolute good. And without absolute good, you have no right to speak of evil.

Michael Hill on Educating the Conscience

In the concluding chapter of his book The How and Why of Love: an Introduction to Evangelical Ethics, Michael Hill offers practical steps to living a Scripturally moral life. He divides these steps into the two major categories that comprise morality: decision-making and character-development.[1] For moral decision-making, Hill suggests that we (1) start with the big picture, (2) draw out the principles and values involved and (3) find a place for rules. For developing Christian character, Hill examines several important moral virtues listed in the New Testament and then emphasizes the importance of “educating your conscience.”

I am particularly interested in this idea of educating one’s conscience partially because I hear so little about the role of the conscience in moral decision-making. Hill argues that the conscience is not legislative. That is, its function is not to give a person “the principles and rules of morality.”[2] This view of the conscience would see Scripture and a person’s conscience saying essentially the same thing. Someone trying to be as moral as possible, listening careful to the dictates of his conscience, would inevitably come to the same conclusion about the morality or an action as would a person who was studying Scripture to find out the same thing. In this case, “there is no need to have a knowledge of Scripture if one desires to be moral. Scripture is merely a moral reminder.”[3] Of course, this is the view of the conscience that Hill argues against. In reality, Scripture presents a different view of the conscience: not as a legislator, telling a person what to do, but as a judge, telling a person that what he did is wrong.

The Apostle Paul’s perspective seems to concur with the judicial view of the conscience: “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”[4] The actions of the conscience (if the “conflicting thoughts” are an extension or result of the conscience’s activity) are like the actions of a judge—accusing (condemning) or excusing (pardoning).

Hill’s conclusion here is that the conscience must be educated. It is not an infallible guide to morality, for it can be seared (1 Timothy 4:2). It seems that Hill has struck on a point that all Christians would do well to heed carefully. Running a “conscience check” on a particular action is not sufficient to gauge that action’s morality if our consciences are not educated by the Word of God. In a culture saturated by the media, we might be more in danger of conscience-searing than Christians before us. When we engage in excessive eating, trivial spending, lustful lingering, profane humoring, and blasphemous amusing without a shudder of the conscience, perhaps we are well on our way to desensitizing it. Only by restricting the volume of the world’s voice, and amplifying the volume of God’s voice in our lives can we hope to restore our consciences to their proper degree of sensitivity.

[1] Michael Hill, The How and Why of Love: an Introduction to Evangelical Ethics (Kingsford, Australia: Matthias Media, 2002), 247-60.

[2] Hill, 259.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Romans 2:15.

The Centrality of Authorial Intent in Expository Preaching

P52Because of my preparation for some classwork and upcoming preaching responsibilities, I’ve been thinking a lot about expository preaching, particularly the importance of authorial intent. The priority of authorial intent is something every preacher must come to grips with, particularly because of the strong temptation to skew a passage to make it fit the message.

Ignoring authorial intent in interpreting Scripture is not only a temptation for busy pastors; it is also a deliberate philosophical decision made by many modern scholars. Impatient with the irrelevant findings of exegesis, and swayed by a postmodern epistemology,[3] these scholars have decided that it makes little difference what the author actually meant, so long as the reader can derive from it personal significance. When it comes to the task of preaching, the impact of these divergent hermeneutical approaches is enormous.[4] From the perspective of an existential hermeneutic, expository preaching (which seeks to make plain the meaning of a text) is an exercise in irrelevance, if not pure presumption. If, however, Scripture is seen ultimately as the product of a single Author who spoke through a variety of human authors, preaching that honors authorial intent is seen, not as irrelevant or presumptuous, but as the only kind of preaching that matters at all. Thus a commitment to a hermeneutic that keeps authorial intent central is necessary for expository preaching.

A preacher’s commitment to authorial intent drives three main aspects of expository preaching, two of which I discuss here, and the third which I plan to discuss in a follow-up post. These two aspects are the content of expository preaching and the application of expository preaching.

First, this commitment to authorial intent drives the content of expository preaching. Operating from this conviction, Haddon Robinson insists that “first and above all, the thought of the biblical writer determines the substance of an expository sermon.”[5] Bryan Chapell clarifies the negative implications of the expositor’s task: “When preachers approach the Bible as God’s very Word, questions about what we have a right to say vanish. . . . We have no biblical authority to say anything else.”[6] This commitment to authorial intent is the reason that texts on expository preaching stress the importance of painstakingly observing exactly what the text says.[7] Clearly, the meaning of the text as the author meant it forms the essence of expository sermon’s content.

Second, a hermeneutic that keeps authorial intent central requires the application of expository preaching. While the content of the expository sermon is the text’s meaning, the purpose of the expository sermon is the text’s application—bringing the text to bear on the contemporary audience.[8] Application is not merely one component of the whole expository sermon. Rather, it is the end which every component serves to leverage.[9] Neither does the importance given to application conflict with a hermeneutic that honors authorial intent, as if the preacher is only allowed to report the facts of the text and say no more. On the contrary, since such a hermeneutic includes both the divine and human elements of authorship, contemporary application is absolutely necessary for expository preaching.[10] Hershael W. York and Bert Decker reflect this conviction when they explain that “the preacher will experience the greatest anointing of the Holy Spirit and the greatest effectiveness possible when he places himself squarely within the confines of the biblical author’s content.”[11] When the expositor appropriately applies to his hearers the truth of a text, he demonstrates sensitivity not only to the intent of that text’s human author, but also to the intent of the Holy Spirit as the author of every biblical text.[12]

The third aspect of expository preaching driven by a commitment to authorial intent is the benefit to the congregation, which I plan to discuss in the next post.

[1] Walter A Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Baker Academic; Paternoster Press, 2001), 614.

[2] Walter C Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998), 149-50.

[3] Millard J Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1998), 54.

[4] Scott A. Blue Reynolds, “The Hermeneutic of E. D. Hirsch, Jr. and Its Impact on Expository Preaching: Friend or Foe?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June 2001): 269.

[5] Haddon W Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001), 21-22, emphasis mine.

[6] Bryan Chapell, Christ-centered Preaching Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005), 32.

[7] John MacArthur, Rediscovering Expository Preaching (Dallas: Word Pub., 1992), 211-15.

[8] Robinson, 51.

[9] Chapell, 211.

[10] Hershael W. York and Scott A. Blue, “Is Application Necessary in Expository Preaching?” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (Summer 1999): 80.

[11] Hershael W. York and Decker, Preaching with Bold Assurance: A Solid and Enduring Approach to Engaging Exposition (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 29.

[12] Robinson, 21. Robinson’s definition of expository preaching rightly emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit, stating that “the Holy Spirit first applies [the biblical concept] to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies [it] to the hearers.”

Divine Sovereignty in John’s Gospel

John stresses the theme of divine sovereignty along three distinguishable, but closely related themes: divine sovereignty in salvation, divine sovereignty granted to the Son, and divine sovereignty in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Each theme carries a special significance. To summarize,

  1. The theme of divine sovereignty in salvation puts salvation completely out of the realm of human effort and locates it in God’s gracious initiative from conception to completion.

  2. The theme of divine sovereignty granted to the Son signifies the Son’s coequality with the Father in both honor and essence.

  3. The theme of divine sovereignty in connection with Christ’s atoning work signifies that Christ’s crucifixion was no accident, but an eternally-conceived plan of God to bring salvation to humans. As such, it demands from us a response to believe in the Son for eternal life.

John’s emphasis on divine sovereignty occurs in connection with three related themes: man’s salvation, Jesus’ authority, and Jesus’ death and resurrection. Concerning the first theme—man’s salvation—John makes it clear that the right to be a child of God originates exclusively from God’s sovereign will. He states this both positively (“[God] gave the right to become children of God,” 1:12) and negatively (“who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God,” 1:13). This list of three negatives is intended to rule out any human contribution to salvation. No one becomes a child of God by his or her biological heritage (“not of blood,” a polemic against the ethno-exclusivity of the Jews). Neither can one become a child of God by sheer determination or coercion (“nor of the will of man”). God’s sovereign determination alone can bring about a person’s spiritual birth.

The very metaphor of salvation as rebirth (or birth from above) also speaks to the sovereignty of God in salvation. Jesus was making a statement of fact, not issuing a command, when he told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (3:7). This statement can be rendered literally, “It is necessary (dei) for you [plural] to be born again/from above.” By its very meaning, birth does not imply any origination or even participation with the person being born.

John emphasizes in chapter six even more explicitly that God is sovereign to save. He quotes Christ as saying, “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (6:37). Negatively, but even more striking, Jesus states, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (6:44). Echoing words and ideas from 1:13, Christ says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (6:63). And again he stresses that “no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (6:65). Thus the metaphor of the new birth and explicit statements regarding God’s divine initiative in salvation bolster this theme of God’s sovereignty in originating man’s salvation.

Besides emphasizing God’s sovereignty with regard to the origin of salvation, John also emphasizes God’s sovereignty with regard to the perpetuation of salvation: God is sovereign to keep those whom he saves. Christ says, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (6:37). Linking God’s sovereign will with a believer’s future resurrection he says, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (6:39). In the very next verse he emphasizes the same thing: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (6:40). In words that have spoken great assurance to believers of every generation, Christ says, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (10:28-29). God’s sovereignty in securing a believer’s salvation is also highlighted in Christ’s high priestly prayer: “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction” (17:12). If that last phrase, “except the son of destruction,” seems to weaken the point of God’s sovereignty in securing salvation, the reader needs only to continue reading: “that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” The “loss” of Judas as part of God’s sovereign plan was stated earlier in chapter six: “Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.’ He spoke of Judas . . . for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him.” Thus John emphasizes God’s sovereignty in securing believers in salvation.

John’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty in salvation serves a twofold purpose. First, it puts salvation completely out of the realm of human effort or inheritance. As a sovereign decision of God, salvation cannot be earned. A salvation that is earned or inherited is no salvation at all. Second, it locates salvation, from beginning to end, in the gracious initiative of God John. Salvation was never sourced in man to begin with. Someone who thinks of salvation as something that he or she can “lose” fails to understand salvation from God’s perspective. Believers cannot lose their salvation because salvation was never theirs to lose (in the Johannine sense). Rather, God holds believers in an eternal grasp that will not be loosened (John 10:27-30). These two truths are pregnant with practical application. We see that works-reliant faiths are fraudulent, man-centered philosophies. We also see that faith groups claiming that salvation can be lost falsely understand salvation to be a work, based on man’s efforts, rather than rightly understanding salvation to be a work of God’s sovereign initiative. Further, a person who has believed in Jesus (and is bearing the kind of fruit Jesus said would be true of believers) need not fret about whether he or she has “lost” salvation. Neither should we fear that such assurance will lead to careless, presumptuous living. Someone who is truly born of God will bear God’s likeness (1 John 2:29; 3:9). Someone who consistently fails to show God’s likeness demonstrates rather that he or she never trusted in Christ, not that salvation was “lost.”

John emphasizes God’s sovereignty also in connection with the authority of Jesus Christ. The sovereign initiative to save originates with the Father, but is given to the Son. Jesus explains that the Father “has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (5:26). Having been granted this authority, the Son has the sovereignty to call the dead to life (5:25). The Father ordains who will come to the Son, and “gives” these to him (6:39). The Father also ordains the Son as the way a person comes to salvation: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (6:40). We see that sovereignty in salvation has been given to the Son because Jesus clearly claims that he himself will raise up believers in the last day (6:39, 40, 44, 54). That the phrase “raise it/him up on the last day,” occurs four times within fifteen verses signifies its importance. Also, Christ’s claim that “he will live because of me” stresses this same idea (6:57), as well as Christ’s sovereign statement to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (11:25-26). Again in John 10, the Son’s sovereignty to grant salvation blazes into view: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Perhaps the most remarkable statement concerning the Son’s sovereignty in salvation is found in 5:21: “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” John could not be any clearer about the divine prerogative of the Son to save.

John emphasizes the sovereignty of the Son to signify that the Son deserves honor equal with the Father, indeed, that he is one with the Father. Jesus has full authority to grant life to whomever he wishes (John 5:21). Therefore, he should be honored just as much as the Father is honored (5:23). In fact, the actions and honor of the Father and the Son are so inextricably tied that to failure to honor the Son is failure to honor the Father (5:24). Jesus takes this even a step further in explicating his sovereignty in the security of salvation (John 10:27-30). He says that no one can snatch a believer out of his hand, and in the next sentence he says that no one can snatch a believer out of his Father’s hand. Whose hand is it, then? It is both the Father and the Son’s, for, as Jesus shockingly claimed, “I and my Father are one.” The neuter gender of the word “one” implies that the Father and the Son are a single entity. The Jews’ response demonstrated that they understood Jesus to be making full claim to deity (10:31). Thus, John’s emphasis on the Son’s sovereignty in salvation signifies the Son’s coequality with the Father in both honor and essence.

Finally, John traces the theme of divine sovereignty in Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is helpful here to note John’s use of the verb dei (“it is necessary”) in connection with divine necessity. Jesus alludes to his atoning death in 3:14 by saying, “So must (dei) the Son of Man be lifted up.” In 10:16, Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must (dei) bring them also.” We find this language of divine necessity even on the lips of Christ’s opponents who queried, “How can you say that the Son of Man must be (dei) lifted up?” (12:34). Finally, John uses this verb in connection with Christ’s resurrection from the dead: “For as yet [the disciples] did not understand the Scripture, that he must (dei) rise from the dead.” Thus John’s use of dei emphasizes divine sovereignty, especially with regard to Christ’s atoning work.

Besides this verbal clue, we find explicit statements of divine sovereignty in connection with Christ’s death and resurrection. John is careful to point out the many prophetic fulfillments concerning Christ’s death. In so doing, it is clear that the crucifixion was in accord with God’s sovereign plan, and only superficially the result of an angry mob and compliant Roman rulers. Further, Jesus emphasizes his sovereign control over his death and resurrection when he says, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (10:17-18). No clearer statement about Christ’s intentionality in his atoning death could be made. The crucifixion would not be an event coerced by the Jews or hijacked by the Roman government. Rather, it was an exercise of Jesus’ sovereign will, veiled in the fury of his opponents. When on trial before Pilate, Jesus was intent on stating that Pilate’s authority to crucify him was only derived from God: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (19:11). Thus, John stresses divine sovereignty in connection with Christ’s work of atonement.

By stressing divine sovereignty in connection with Christ’s atoning work, John signifies that the crucifixion was no accident (John 10:17-18)t. It was the eternally-conceived plan of God to bring salvation to humans (3:14). Jesus’ death and resurrection are far more than historical events. We should not think of Christ’s crucifixion as what was done to Jesus, but as what Jesus did. In love he laid down his life as a ransom for the sins of the human race (John 3:16). No one can see the cross and resurrection as anything less than the pivotal moment in history. In fact, because Jesus’ death and resurrection was his sovereign decision, it demands more from us than mere observation. It demands from us a response to believe in him for eternal life (John 11:25).

Keller: Gospel Complexity Demands Gospel Contextualization

This post continues my “digesting” of Keller’s book Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City.

Is the Gospel a simple thing? Yes and no. If by “simple” you mean “understandable,” then the Gospel certainly is simple. It was simple enough for me to understand when I was a preschooler. But there’s another sense in which we can say that the Gospel is not simple. It is complex and multifaceted. You can’t stuff it into a “one-size-fits-all” presentation. Where in Scripture do we find an ultimate paradigm for presenting the Gospel? Matthew, Mark and Luke conceive of salvation in terms of the “kingdom of heaven” or the “kingdom of God.” In contrast, John frames the Gospel in the words “eternal life.” Paul’s precise theological terminology–reconciliation, propitiation, redemption, adoption, etc.–reveals even deeper nuances of the Gospel.

So we see that the Gospel is complex in that the human authors of Scripture present it in different ways. But this does not mean we cannot identify its irreducible components. Indeed, this is what Keller does. He sees that “at the heart of all of the biblical writers’ theology is redemption through substitution.” A systematic theologian sees the Gospel essentially as God, sin, Christ and faith. Someone reading Scripture as grand narrative (the redemptive-historical method) sees the Gospel essentially as a story of God’s restoring fallen humanity to a right relationship with himself. In what sense, then, is the Gospel “complex”? It is complex in that you can’t see the whole thing from only one angle. Or, as Keller puts it, “A person can explain the gospel from beginning to end through any of these themes, but no single theme gives the full picture” (41).

How is the Gospel’s complexity an advantage to us? It is an advantage to us because we are complex creatures. The multi-dimensional quality of the Gospel speaks to the multi-dimensional make-up of human beings. The Gospel meets us on every front of our nature. We are broken in every way. The Gospel restores us in every way. Beyond this, different human cultures (and different people within those cultures) grasp truths in different ways. In the complexity of the Gospel, then, we see God’s grace and wisdom.

Keller argues that the Gospel’s complexity demands Gospel contextualization. There is no stock formula for presenting the Gospel. The bearers of the Gospel have the privilege and responsibility to choose which face of the diamond to display to their hearers. Keller cites Paul’s “contextualization” of the Gospel. To the Greeks, Paul “confronted their culture’s idol of speculation and philosophy with the ‘foolishness’ of the cross” (44). To the Jews, Paul “confronted their culture’s idol of power and accomplishment with the ‘weakness’ of the cross” (44).

Although Keller gives no formal definition of Gospel contextualization at this point in the book, it appears that contextualization is merely the choice each Christian must make about how to present the unchanging truth of the Gospel in a way that most directly speaks to the hearts of the listeners. What are their idols? What is their conception of salvation, and how have they been pursuing it? Contextualization is not tampering with the Gospel. Contextualization is not tickling the ears of the listeners. It is waking them up to the jolting reality that they are in desperate need of what Christ has done. If Keller is right, then we have no choice about whether or not we will contextualize the Gospel. Rather, it is a matter of whether we will do it intentionally. It is a matter of whether we will do it well.

Digesting “Theological Vision” in Keller’s Book, Center Church

Timothy Keller

Center Church, Timothy Keller’s recently published book, deals with a topic that is close to my heart. I love the church of Christ, and I am constantly interested in what the church should be and do. Because there is much to digest in Center Church, I have been working through it slowly.

Keller’s first chapter introduces the concept of theological vision, which Keller believes has been ignored or misunderstood in many books about the church. In this respect, Keller has been heavily influenced by Richard Lints (professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and author of Fabric of Theology). According to Lints, “the modern theological vision must seek to bring the entire counsel of God into the world of its time in order that its time might be transformed.” Theological vision, explains Keller, is the “middleware” between doctrine and methodologies (17). He defines theological vision as “a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history” (19).

While I understand completely Keller’s intent, I couldn’t help but squirm a bit at the way he put it here, specifically the words “restatement of the gospel.” Perhaps it would be less confusing to say that theological vision is a setting forth of the gospel’s implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history.

That clarification aside, I like what Keller is doing here. He is neither writing another book on ecclesiology, nor advocating a set of methods that has worked for Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Rather, what he suggests might mean even more work for pastors and church leaders. To develop theological vision for his own ministry, a pastor must reflect deeply and decisively on the gospel, his city’s culture, and his own theological tradition (denomination or movement). No church growth guru can do this work for him.

As I continue to read this book, I looking forward to Keller’s answers to some of these questions that begin to surface in my mind:

  1. Is it practical to expect that the average pastor with college or seminary level training will have the time and expertise to study (in addition to theology) his city’s culture, and formulate a theological vision for ministry that is both accurate and comprehensive enough to drive his methods?
  2. How can a pastor be a student of his culture?
  3. What is the right approach to “Christ and the culture?”
  4. Where does Keller find Scriptural justification for his emphasis on understanding the culture?

Jesus the Divine Servant: Suffering, Substitution, Exaltation

Before taking Theology of the New Testament with Dr. Thomas Schreiner, I was familiar with the concept of the servant of the Lord. But my understanding was sketchy: it lacked cohesive structure. After I heard Dr. Schreiner’s lecture on this topic and studied the section in his book that deals with it, I grasped the overall framework, thoroughly enough, at least, to give a summary here. As part of Christology, the study of Jesus as the servant of the Lord compels me to stand in awe–and worship. I’ve framed this topic in answer to three key questions: (1) What does Isaiah mean by “servant of the Lord?” (2) Do the Gospel writers identify Jesus as the Isaiah’s servant of the Lord? (3) What does it mean for us that Jesus is the servant of the Lord?

(1) What does Isaiah mean by “servant of the Lord?”

In order to understand Jesus as the servant of the Lord, we must investigate this term in Old Testament context, specifically Isaiah’s prophecy. In some passages, Isaiah clearly uses “servant” as a referent for the nation of Israel (41:8-9; 44:1-2; 45:4). But in other passages, Isaiah uses “servant” to refer to something distinct from Israel: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:5-6). In this passage the servant must be distinct from Israel becomes he redeems Israel and brings salvation to other nations. We see this distinction also in Isaiah 42 where the servant is commissioned to be “a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon” (Isaiah 42:7). Thus, this “servant” in Isaiah cannot refer to Israel exclusively.

As we read Isaiah’s famous passage on the suffering servant (52:13-53:12), we see even more clearly the features of this servant. He will be exalted (52:13) yet marred beyond recognition (14). He will bear Israel’s sorrows and stand as substitute for the punishment of their sins (53:4-5). Somehow his life will extend beyond the “grave,” for he will “see his offspring” and “prolong his days” (53:9-10). Thus, we see not only that this distinct servant redeems Israel, but also how he redeems Israel—by vicarious suffering.

We find it clear that by “servant,” Isaiah could mean either the nation of Israel or a person who is distinct from Israel. But this question lingers: “If this individual is not the nation of Israel, how are the two related?” Isaiah 53:12 provides a clue when it says that the servant “was numbered with the transgressors.” If we understand “the transgressors” to mean individual Israelites, then the servant is a part of Israel, yet distinct from it. Dr. Schreiner suggests that the servant (distinct from Israel) serves as a representative of Israel. As Israel’s representative, the servant “is both Israel and transcends Israel” (New Testament Theology, 264).

(2) Do the Gospel writers identify Jesus as Isaiah’s servant of the Lord?

Matthew, Mark and Luke do not explicitly link Jesus to Isaiah’s suffering servant. But they drop enough clues to lead us to this conclusion. In Luke’s gospel, for example, Jesus claims that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12: “And he was numbered with the transgressors.” In Mark’s gospel, Jesus alludes to Isaiah 53 when he states his mission for coming into the world: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The words “serve,” “ransom” and “many” provide links to Isaiah 52:12 (“servant”), 53:5 (“the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”), and 10-11 (“many”).

John’s gospel forges an even stronger connection between Jesus of Nazareth and Isaiah’s servant. His theme of Jesus being “lifted up”(John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34) hearkens back to Isaiah 52:13: “He shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” We sense that John was immersed in the words and ideas of Isaiah, with his theme of people’s failure to believe and hardening their hearts (John 12:40, cf. Isaiah 52:15, 53:1).

(3) What does it mean for us that Jesus is the servant of the Lord?

From Isaiah and the gospel writers, we understand that Jesus’ identity as the divine servant points to his role of sacrificial substitute for humankind (Mark 10:45; Isaiah 53:5). Whereas Israel failed to perfectly serve the Lord, Jesus steps in as Israel’s perfect representative and bears the punishment for her failures (Isaiah 53:6). Jesus’s vicarious service and suffering becomes the pathway to his exaltation (John 12:32-36). Consistent with God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:3), the benefits of the servant’s (Jesus’) exaltation extend beyond the borders of Israel, bringing the offer of salvation to all nations of the earth (Isaiah 49:5-7; John 12:20-23).