Category Archives: Biblical Theology
Idols of the Heart and “Vanity Fair”
A Classic Article by Dr. David Powlison
One of the great questions facing Christians in the social sciences and helping professions is this one: How do we legitimately and meaningfully connect the conceptual stock of the Bible and Christian tradition with the technical terminologies and observational riches of the behavioral sciences? Within this perennial question, two particular sub-questions have long intrigued and perplexed me.
One sort of question is a Bible relevancy question. Why is idolatry so important in the Bible? Idolatry is by far the most frequently discussed problem in the Scriptures.1 So what? Is the problem of idolatry even relevant today, except on certain mission fields where worshipers still bow to images?
The second kind of question is a counseling question, a “psychology” question. How do we make sense of the myriad significant factors that shape and determine human behavior? In particular, can we ever make satisfying sense of the fact that people are simultaneously inner-directed and socially-shaped?
These questions-and their answers-eventually intertwined. That intertwining has been fruitful both in my personal life and in my counseling of troubled people.
THE RELATIONSHIP OF INDIVIDUAL MOTIVATION TO SOCIOLOGICAL CONDITIONING
The relevance of massive chunks of Scripture hangs on our understanding of idolatry. But let me focus the question through a particular verse in the New Testament which long troubled me. The last line of 1 John woos, then commands us: “Beloved children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). In a 105-verse treatise on living in vital fellowship with Jesus, the Son of God, how on earth does that unexpected command merit being the final word? Is it perhaps a scribal emendation? Is it an awkwardfaux pas by a writer who typically weaves dense and orderly tapestries of meaning with simple, repetitive language? Is it a culture-bound, practical application tacked onto the end of one of the most timeless and heaven-dwelling epistles? Each of these alternatives misses the integrity and power of John’s final words.
Instead, John’s last line properly leaves us with that most basic question which God continually poses to each human heart. Has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight? It is a question bearing on the immediate motivation for one’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings. In the Bible’s conceptualization, the motivation question is the lordship question. Who or what “rules” my behavior, the Lord or a substitute? The undesirable answers to this question—answers which inform our understanding of the “idolatry” we are to avoid—are most graphically presented in 1 John 2:15-17, 3:7-10, 4:1-6, and 5:19. It is striking how these verses portray a confluence of the “sociological,” the “psychological,” and the “demonological” perspectives on idolatrous motivation.2
The inwardness of motivation is captured by the inordinate and proud “desires of the flesh” (1 John 2:16), our inertial self-centeredness, the wants, hopes, fears, expectations, “needs” that crowd our hearts. The externality of motivation is captured by “the world” (1 John 2:15-17,4:1-6), all that invites, models, reinforces, and conditions us into such inertia, teaching us lies. The “demonological” dimension of motivation is the Devil’s behavior-determining lordship (1 John 3:7-10,5:19), standing as a ruler over his kingdom of flesh and world. In contrast, to “keep yourself from idols” is to live with a whole heart of faith in Jesus. It is to be controlled by all that lies behind the address “beloved children” (see especially 1 John 3:1-3,4:7-5:12). The alternative to Jesus, the swarm of alternatives, whether approached through the lens of flesh, world, or the Evil One, is idolatry.
An Internal Problem
The notion of idolatry most often emerges in discussions of the worship of actual physical images, the creation of false gods. But the Scriptures develop the idolatry theme in at least two major directions pertinent to my discussion here. First, the Bible internalizes the problem. “Idols of the heart” are graphically portrayed in Ezekiel 14:1-8. The worship of tangible idols is, ominously, an expression of a prior heart defection from YHWH your God.3 “Idols of the heart” is only one of many metaphors which move the locus of God’s concerns into the human heart, establishing an unbreakable bond between specifics of heart and specifics of behavior: hands, tongue, and all the other members. The First Great Commandment, to “love God heart, soul, mind, and might,” also demonstrates the essential “inwardness” of the law regarding idolatry. The language of love, trust, fear, hope, seeking, serving—terms describing a relationship to the true God—is continually utilized in the Bible to describe our false loves, false trusts, false fears, false hopes, false pursuits, false masters.
If “idolatry” is the characteristic and summary Old Testament word for our drift from God, then “desires” (epithumiai) is the characteristic and summary New Testament word for the same drift.4 Both are shorthand for the problem of human beings. The New Testament language of problematic “desires” is a dramatic expansion of the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting (epithumia). The tenth commandment is also a command that internalizes the problem of sin, making sin “psychodynamic.” It lays bare the grasping and demanding nature of the human heart, as Paul powerfully describes it in Romans 7. Interestingly (and unsurprisingly) the New Testament merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires. Idolatry becomes a problem of the heart, a metaphor for human lust, craving, yearning, and greedy demand.5
A Social Problem
Second, the Bible treats idolatry as a central feature of the social context, “the world,” which shapes and molds us. The world is a “Vanity Fair,” as John Bunyan strikingly phrased it in Pilgrim’s Progress.6Bunyan’s entire book, and the Vanity Fair section in particular, can be seen as portraying the interaction of powerful, enticing, and intimidating social shapers of behavior with the self-determining tendencies of Christian’s own heart. Will Christian serve the Living God or any of a fluid multitude of idols crafted by his wife, neighbors, acquaintances, enemies, fellow members of idolatrous human society…and, ultimately, his own heart?7
That idolatries are both generated from within and insinuated from without has provocative implications for contemporary counseling questions. Of course, the Bible does not tackle our contemporary issues in psychological jargon or using our observational data.8 Yet, for example, the Bible lacks the rich particulars of what psychologists today might describe as a “dysfunctional family or marital system” only because it does not put those particular pieces of human behavior and mutual influence under the microscope. The “lack” is only in specific application. The biblical categories do comprehend how individuals in a family system—or any other size or kind of social grouping—work and influence one another for good or ill. For example, the life patterns often labeled “codependency” are more precisely and penetratingly understood as instances of “co-idolatry.” In the case of a “co-idolatrous relationship,” then, two people’s typical idol patterns reinforce and compete with each other. They fit together in an uncanny way, creating massively destructive feedback loops.
The classic alcoholic husband and rescuing wife are enslaved within an idol system whose components complement each other all too well. There are many possible configurations to this common pattern of false gods. In one typical configuration, the idol constellation in the husband’s use of alcohol might combine a ruling and enslaving love of pleasure, the escapist pursuit of a false savior from the pains and frustrations in his life, playing the angry and self-righteous judge of his wife’s clinging and dependent ways, the self-crucifying of his periodic remorse, a trust in man which seeks personal validation through acceptance by his bar companions, and so forth.
The idol pattern in the wife’s rescuing behavior might combine playing the martyred savior of her husband and family, playing the proud and self-righteous judge of her husband’s iniquity, a trust in man which overvalues the opinions of her friends, a fear of man which generates an inordinate desire for a male’s love and affection as crucial to her survival, and so forth. Each of their idols (and consequent behavior, thoughts, and emotions) is “logical” within the idol system, the miniature Vanity Fair of allurements and threats within which both live. Their idols sometimes are modeled, taught, and encouraged by the other person(s) involved: her nagging and his anger mirror and magnify each other; his bar buddies and her girl friends reinforce their respective self-righteousness and self-pity. The idols sometimes are reactive and compensatory to the other person: he reacts to her nagging with drinking, and she reacts to his drinking by trying to rescue and to change him. Vanity Fair is an ever so tempting…hell on earth.
Idols counterfeit aspects of God’s identity and character, as can be seen in the vignette above: Judge, savior, source of blessing, sin-bearer, object of trust, author of a will which must be obeyed, and so forth. Each idol that clusters in the system makes false promises and gives false warnings: “if only…then….” For example, the wife’s “enabling” behavior expresses an idolatrous playing of the savior. This idol promises and warns her, “If only you can give the right thing and can make it all better, then your husband will change. But if you don’t cover for him, then disaster will occur.” Because both the promises and warnings are lies, service to each idol results in a hangover of misery and accursedness. Idols lie, enslave, and murder. They are continually insinuated by the one who was a liar, slave master and murderer from the beginning. They are under the immediate wrath of God who frequently does not allow such things to work well in His world.9
The simple picture of idolatry—a worshiper prostrated before a figure of wood, metal or stone—is powerfully extended by the Bible. Idolatry becomes a concept with which to comprehend the intricacies of both individual motivation and social conditioning. The idols of the heart lead us to defect from God in many ways. They manifest and express themselves everywhere, down to the minute details of both inner and outer life. Such idols of the heart fit hand in glove with the wares offered in the Vanity Fair of social life. The invitations and the threats of our social existence beguile us towards defection into idolatries. These themes provide a foundational perspective on the “bad news” that pervades the Bible.
In sum, behavioral sins are always portrayed in the Bible as “motivated” or ruled by a “god” or “gods.” The problem in human motivation—the question of practical covenantal allegiance, God or any of the substitutes—is frequently and usefully portrayed as the problem of idolatry. Idolatry is a problem both rooted deeply in the human heart and powerfully impinging on us from our social environment.
This brings us squarely to the second kind of question mentioned at the outset. This second question is a counseling question. How on earth do we put together the following three things? First, people are responsible for their behavioral sins. Whether called sin, personal problems, or dysfunctional living, people are responsible for the destructive things which they think, feel and do.10 If I am violent or fearful, that is my problem.
Second, people with problems come from families or marriages or sub-cultures where the other people involved also have problems. People suffer and are victimized and misguided by the destructive things other people think, want, fear, value, feel, and do. These may be subtle environmental influences: social shaping via modeling of attitudes and the like. These may be acutely traumatic influences: loss or victimization. My problems are often embedded in a tight feedback loop with your problems. If you attack me, I tend to strike back or withdraw in fear. Your problem shapes my problems.
Third, behavior is motivated from the inside by complex, life-driving patterns of thoughts, desires, fears, views of the world, and the like, of which a person may be almost wholly unaware. We may be quite profoundly self-deceived about what pilots and propels us. My behavioral violence or avoidance manifests patterns of expectation that own me. “You might hurt me…so I’d better keep my distance or attack first.” My behavior is a strategy which expresses my motives: my trusts, my wants, my fears, my “felt needs.” Such motives range along a spectrum from the consciously calculating to the blindly compulsive.
How are we—and those we counsel—simultaneously socially conditioned, self-deceived, and responsible for our behavior without any factor cancelling out the others?! That is the question of the social and behavioral sciences (and it is the place they all fail when they excise God). It is also the question that any Christian counselor must attempt to answer both in theory and practice in a way that reflects Christ’s mind. The Bible’s view of man—both individual and social life—alone holds these things together.
A Three-Way Tension
Motives are simply what move us, the causes of or inducements to action, both the causal “spring” of life and the telic “goal” of life.11 The notion of motivation captures the inward-drivenness and goal-oriented nature of human life in its most important and troublesome features. All psychologies grapple with these issues. But no psychology has conceptual resources adequate to make sense of the interface between responsible behavior, a shaping social milieu, and a heart which is both self-deceived and life-determining.
Here are some examples. Moralism—the working psychology of the proverbial man on the street—sticks with responsible behavior. Complex causalities are muted in toto. Behavioral psychologies see both drives and rewards but cast their lot with the milieu, taking drives as untransformable givens. Both responsible behavior and a semi-conscious but renewable heart are muted. Humanistic psychologies see the interplay of inner desire/need with external fulfillment or frustration but cast their final vote for human self-determination. Both responsible behavior and the power of extrinsic forces are muted. Ego psychologies see the twisted conflict between heart’s desire and well-internalized social contingencies. But the present milieu and responsible behavior are muted. It is hard to keep three seemingly simple elements together.
Unity ‘with Respect to God’
The Bible—the voice of the Maker of humankind, in other words!—speaks to the same set of issues with a uniquely unified vision. There is no question that we are morally responsible: our works or fruit count. There is no question that fruit comes from an inner root to which we are often blind. “Idols of the heart,” “desires of the flesh,” “fear of man,” “love of money,” “chasing after…,” “earthly-minded,” “pride,” and a host of other word pictures capture well the biblical view of inner drives experienced as deceptively self-evident needs or goals. There is also no question that we are powerfully constrained by social forces around us. The “world,” “Vanity Fair,” “the counsel of the wicked,” “false prophets,” “temptation and trial,” and the like capture something of the influences upon us. Other people model and purvey false laws or false standards, things which misdefine value and stigma, blessedness and accursedness, the way of life, and the way of death. They sin against us. God quite comfortably juxtaposes these three simple things which tend to fly apart in human formulations. I am responsible for my sins: “Johnny is a bad boy.” My will is in bondage: “Johnny can’t help it.” I am deceived and led about by others: “Johnny got in with a bad crowd.” How can these be simultaneously true?
The answer, which all the psychologies and sociologies miss, is actually quite simple. Human motivation is always “with respect to God.” The social and behavioral sciences miss this “intentionality,” because they themselves are idolatrously motivated. In a massive irony, they build into their charter and methodology a blindness to the essential nature of their subject matter.
Human motivation is intrinsic neither to the individual nor to human society. Human motivation is never strictly psychological or psycho-social or psycho-social-somatic. It is not strictly either psychodynamic or sociological or biological or any combination of these. These terms are at best metaphors for components in a unitary phenomenon which is essentially religious or covenantal. Motivation is always God-relational. Thus human motivation is not essentially the sort of unitary species-wide phenomenon that the human sciences pursue. It is encountered and observed in actual life as an intrinsically binary phenomenon: faith or idolatry. The only unitary point in human motives is the old theological construct: human beings are worshiping creatures, willy-nilly. Seeing this, the Bible’s view alone can unify the seemingly contradictory elements in the explanation of behavior.
The deep question of motivation is not “What is motivating me?” The final question is,“Who is the master of this pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior?” In the biblical view, we are religious, inevitably bound to one god or another. People do not have needs. We have masters, lords, gods, be they oneself, other people, valued objects, Satan. The metaphor of an idolatrous heart and society capture the fact that human motivation bears an automatic relationship to God: Who, other than the true God, is my god? Let me give two examples, one dear to the heart of behaviorists and the other dear to the heart of humanistic psychologists.
Hunger as Idolatry
When a “hunger drive” propels my life or a segment of my life, I am actually engaging in religious behavior. I—”the flesh”—have become my own god, and food has become the object of my will, desires, and fears. The Bible observes the same mass of motives which the behavioral sciences see as a “primary drive.” Something biological is certainly going on. Something psychological, and even sociological, is going on. But the Bible’s conceptualization differs radically. I am not “hunger¬driven.” I am “hunger-driven-rather-than-God-driven.”
We are meant to relate to food by thankfully eating what we know we have received and by sharing generously. I am an active idolater when normal hunger pangs are the wellspring of problem behavior and attitudes. Normal desires tend to become inordinate and enslaving. The various visible sins which can attend such an idolatry—gluttony, anxiety, thanklessness, food obsessions and “eating disorders,” irritability when dinner is delayed, angling to get the bigger piece of pie, miserliness, eating to feel good, and the like—make perfect sense as outworkings of the idol that constrains my heart.12 Problem behavior roots in the heart and has to do with God.
The idolatries inhabiting our relations with food, however, are as social as they are biological or psychological. Perhaps my father modeled identical attitudes. Perhaps my mother used food to get love and to quell anxiety. Perhaps they went through the Great Depression and experienced severe privation, which has left its mark on them and made food a particular object of anxiety. Perhaps food has always been my family’s drug of choice. Perhaps food is the medium through which love, happiness, anger and power are expressed. Perhaps I am bombarded with provocative food advertisements. The variations and permutations are endless.
Membership in the society of the fallen sons and daughters of Adam ensures that we will each be a food idolater in one way or another.13 Membership in American consumer society shapes that idolatry into typical forms. A complex system of idolatrous values can be attached to food. For example, we characteristically lust for a great variety of foodstuffs. Food plays a role in the images of beauty and strength which we serve, in desires for health and fears of death. Food—the quantities and types prepared, the modes of preparation and consumption—is a register of social status. Membership in a famished Ethiopian society would have shaped the generic idolatry into different typical forms. Membership in the micro-society of my family further particularizes the style of food idolatry: for example, perhaps in our family system hunger legitimized irritability, and eating was salvific, delivering us from destroying our family with anger. Yet in all these levels of social participation, my individuality is not lost. I put my own idiosyncratic stamp on food idolatry. For example, perhaps I am peculiarly enslaved to Fritos when tense and peculiarly nervous about whether red food dyes are carcinogenic!
Security as Idolatry
Behaviorists speak of “drives” and tend to “lower” the focus to the ways we are most similar to animals. Humanists and existentialists, on the other hand, speak of “needs” and tend to “raise” the focus to uniquely human social and existential goals. But the same critique applies. When a “need for security” propels my life or a segment of my life, I am again engaging in religious behavior. Rather than serving the true God, the god I serve is the approval and respect of people, either myself or others. I am an idolater. I am not “motivated by a need for security.” I am “motivated by a lust for security rather than ruled by God.” Or, since desire and fear are complementary perspectives on human motivation, “I fear man” instead of “I fear and trust God.” Need theories, like drive theories, can never comprehend the “rather than God,” which is always built into the issue of human motivation. They can never comprehend the fundamental idolatry issue, which sees that the things which typically drive us really exist as inordinate desires of the flesh that are direct alternatives to submitting to the desires of the Spirit.
Our lusts for security, of course, are tutored as well as spontaneous. “Vanity Fair” operates as effectively here as it does with our hunger. Powerful and persuasive people woo and intimidate us that we might trust or fear them. In convicting us of our false trusts and acknowledging the potency of the pressures on us, the Scriptures again offer us the liberating alternative of knowing the Lord.14
Idols: A Secondary Development?
When the conceptual structures of humanistic psychology are “baptized” by Christians, the fundamental “rather than God” at the bottom of human motivation continues to be missed. For example, many Christian counselors absolutize a need or yearning for love. As observant human beings, they accurately see that fallen and cursed people are driven to seek stability, love, acceptance, and affirmation, and that we look for such blessings in empty idols. As committed Christians they often want to lead people to trust Jesus Christ rather than their idols. But they improperly insert an a priori and unitary relational need, an in-built yearning or empty love tank as underpinning the heart’s subsequent divide between faith and idolatry.
They baptize this “need,” describing it as God-created. Idolatry becomes an improper way to meet a legitimate need, and our failure to love others becomes a product of unmet needs. The Gospel of Christ is redefined as the proper way to meet this need. In this theory then, idolatry is only a secondary development: our idols are wrong ways to meet legitimate needs. Repentance from idolatry is thus also secondary, being instrumental to the satisfaction of needs. Such satisfaction is construed to be the primary content of God’s good news in Christ. Biblically, however, idolatry is the primary motivational factor. We fail to love people because we are idolaters who love neither God nor neighbor. We become objectively insecure because we abide under God’s curse and because other people are just as self-centered as we are. We create and experience estrangement from both God and other people. The love of God teaches us to repent of our “need for love,” seeing it as a lust, receiving merciful real love, and beginning to learn how to love rather than being consumed with getting love.
Humans lust after all sorts of good things and false gods—including love—in attempting to escape the rule of God. The love-need psychologies do not dethrone the inner sanctum of our heart’s idolatry. Structurally, the logic of love-need systems is analogous to the “health and wealth” false gospels. Jesus gives you what you deeply yearn for without challenging those yearnings.
It is no surprise that, for good or ill, love-need psychology only rings the bells of certain kinds of counselees, who are particularly attuned to the wavelength of what we might call the intimacy idols. Such theories lack appeal and effectiveness “cross-culturally” to people and places where the reigning idols are not intimacy idols but, for example, power, status, sensual pleasure, success, or money. A love-need system must interpret such idols reductionistically, as displacements or compensatory versions of the “real need” which motivates people.
The Bible is simpler. Any one of the idols may have an independent hold on the human heart. Idols may reduce to one another in part: for example, a man with an intractable pornography and lust problem may be significantly helped by repentantly realizing that his lust expresses a tantrum over a frustrated desire to be married, a desire which he has never recognized as idolatrous. Idols can be compounded on top of idols. But sexual lust has its own valid primary existence as an idol as well. A biblical understanding of the idolatry motif explains why need models seem plausible and also thoroughly remakes the model. In biblical reality— in reality, in other words!—there is no such thing as that neutral, normal and a priori love need at the root of human motivation.
The biblical theme of idolatry provides a penetrating tool for understanding both the springs of and the inducements to sinful behavior. The causes of particular sins, whether “biological drives,” “psychodynamic forces from within,” “socio-cultural conditioning from without,” or “demonic temptation and attack” can be truly comprehended through the lens of idolatry. Such comprehension plows the field for Christian counseling to become Christian in deed as well as name, to become ministry of the many-faceted good news of Jesus Christ.
CASE STUDY AND ANALYSIS
Using a case study of a hurt-angry-fearful person, this article will now explore in greater detail the relationship between “world” and “heart” in the production of complex and dysfunctional behaviors, emotional responses, cognitive processes, and attitudes.
Wally is a 33-year-old man.15 He has been married to Ellen for eight years. They have two children. He is a highly committed Christian. He works for his church half time as an administrator and building overseer and half time in a diaconal ministry of mercy among inner city poor. He and his wife sought counseling after an explosion in their often-simmering marriage. He became enraged and beat her up. Then he ran away, threatening never to come back. He reappeared three days later, full of guilt, remorse, and a global sense of failure.
The current marital problems are exacerbated versions of long-standing problems: anger, inability to deeply reconcile, threats of violence alternating with threats of suicide, depression, workaholism alternating with escapism, a pattern of moderate drinking when under stress, generally poor communication, use of pornography, and loneliness. Wally has no close friends.
Several years ago Wally became involved sexually with a woman he was working with diaconally: “I know it was wrong, but I just felt so bad for her and how rough she’d had it that I found myself trying to comfort her physically.” He broke it off, and Ellen forgave him; but both acknowledge there has been a residue of guilt and mistrust.
He oscillates between “the flame-thrower and the deep freeze.” On the one hand he can be abrasive, manipulative, angry, and unforgiving. On the other hand he withdraws, feels hurt, anxious, guilty, and afraid of people. He oscillates between anger at Ellen’s “bossiness, nagging, controlling me, not supporting me or listening to me” and depression at his own sins. Her patterns and his create a feedback system in which each tends to bring out and reinforce the worst in the other.
Wally grew up in a secular, Jewish, working class family. He was born when his father was 52 years old and his mother, 42. By dint of hard work, long hours, and scraping by, they bought a house in a relatively affluent WASP suburb shortly after Wally was born. Wally’s father was a critical man, impossible to please. “If I got all A’s with one B, it was ‘What’s this?’ If I mowed and raked the lawn, it was ‘You missed a spot behind the garage.’”
After his retirement at age 70, Wally’s father became “much more mellow; and, with my having become a Christian and trying to forgive him, our relationship wasn’t half bad the last five years of his life.” His mother was “well-meaning, nice, but ineffective, totally intimidated by my Dad.” Wally had been a bit of a “weirdo” in high school: “I never matched up to the bourgeois values. I was too smart, too uncoordinated, too ugly, too shy, too awkward, and too poor to cut it in school.”
Wally became a Christian during his first year in college and immediately gravitated towards work with the poor and downcast. “I have little sympathy for rich, suburban Christians; but I love the poor, the single parents, the ex-addicts, the psychiatric patients, the ex-cons, the orphans and widows, the handicapped, the losers.” His Christian commitment is intense and life-dominating. He loves Jesus Christ. He believes the Gospel. He desires to share Christ with others. He knows what his behavioral sins are, but he feels trapped. “I just react instinctively. Then I feel guilty. You know the pattern!”
Financially, Wally and Ellen are not well off. They are not extravagant spenders, but they face continual financial decisions: Dental work for the children? Should we buy a house? Should we take a vacation or work side jobs to earn a little extra money? How many hours a week should Ellen try to work outside the home? Can we really afford to tithe? Should we accede to the kids’ desire for a VCR? They live month to month, and the bill cycle periodically creates quite a bit of stress.
How are Christian counselors to understand Wally in order to help him?
“Vanity Fair”: The Sociology of Idolatry
Idols define good and evil in ways contrary to God’s definitions. They establish a locus of control that is earth-bound: either in objects (e.g., lust for money), other people (“I need to please my critical father”), or myself (e.g., self-trusting pursuit of my personal agenda). Such false gods create false laws, false definitions of success and failure, of value and stigma. Idols promise blessing and warn of curses for those who succeed or fail against the law: “If you get a large enough IRA, you will be secure. If I can get certain people to like and respect me, then my life is valid.” There are numerous idolatrous values which influenced Wally and continue to pressure him: beguiling him, frightening him, controlling him, constraining him, enslaving him.
His father’s perfectionistic demands were one of the prominent idols impressed into Wally’s personal history: “You must please me in whatever way I determine.” Wally believed his father’s sinful, lying demand. “Fear of man” describes the phenomenon from the psychological side of the equation, a particular “idol of the heart.” “Oppression” and “injustice” describe his father’s powerful demands on the sociological side. We see the dominion of a father whose leadership style was that of a tyrant-king, not that of a servant-king promoting the well-being of his son.16 In essence, he lied, bullied, enslaved, and condemned. “I can remember lying on my bed while my Dad went on and on lecturing me, ranting and raving.” Wally was conditioned to be very concerned with what significant people thought of him. At the same time Wally bought the idol. He is simultaneously a victim and guilty. He was abused by powerful idols operative within his family system. He also instinctively both bought into those idols and produced his own competitive idols.
Relationships are rarely static. There were various sides and various phases to Wally’s relationship with his father’s critical opinion. At times Wally temporarily succeeded in pleasing his father and felt good about himself. At other times he failed in his father’s eyes, earning only scorn for being “a spaz, girlishly emotional.” At other times he obsessively, almost maniacally, strived to please his father. He once spent a summer, with dismal results, trying to learn to dribble a basketball in a way that did not “look like a six-year-old girl.” Some of the classic “low self-esteem” symptom patterns were established in this crucible.
At other times Wally rebelled against his father and his father’s implacable demands. He pitted his will against his father. Being highly intelligent, he was formidable and creative as a rebel. In his teens he succeeded in driving his father half crazy by setting up contrary value systems (serving contrary idols): rock music, bizarre dress and hairstyle, left-wing politics, marijuana use. One idol—”I need to please my father”—led into another—”I’ll do what I want and set myself in opposition to my father.”17
There are even elements in Wally’s conversion to Christianity which might be construed as part of this tendency to define himself in opposition to his father’s secular, ethnic Jewish, upwardly mobile culture. His Christianity could be used at times to torment his father. Idols are fluid. The rebellious stance ultimately became Wally’s predominant long-term commitment and undergirds a certain low-grade resentment he still feels at the memory of his father, now five years dead. But rebellion is not unmixed. It can be tinctured with regrets, a sense of failure, or even with merciful and gentle tendencies. “Sometimes I think I have really come to peace with my father—an honest, merciful peace that Christ has painstakingly wrought in me. At other times I know I lose it and react like the wounded and proud animal I once was.”
Wally’s father was not static either. In his later years he mellowed considerably. Wally’s Christian faith and his father’s evolution into a gentler man combined to bring a fair measure of kindness and forgiveness into the relationship. It became peaceable but never warm. Idols have a history, a “shelf life.”18 Vanity Fair evolves. A demanding father became a less demanding father who eventually promulgated a friendlier idol: he wanted to bask in the warmth of “family” and retirement. Our hearts also evolve. A youth with a compulsion to please became a young man who half wanted to please and half rebelled. The young man became a middle-aged man driven and haunted by some of the same patterns of contradictory compulsions, even after his earthly father’s death. Wally both lusts after the approval and respect of people and yet rebels and isolates himself in his pride.
We become infested with idols. The idolatrous patterns in Wally’s relationship with his father manifest in other relationships. Wally has had ongoing problems with authority figures in school, the military, work, and the church. He has had the same sorts of problems with his wife, friends, and even his children. Naturally, he brings this same pattern into the counseling relationship, with all the challenges that creates for building trust and a working relationship. He continues to manifest a typical stew of associated problems: a slavish desire to be approved, a deep suspicion that he won’t be approved, a stubborn independency.
We have attended in some detail to the way in which his father’s demandingness constituted an idol system which staked out a claim in Wally’s affections. We will give less detail to other influences, though each might be explored in equal detail. His mother’s passivity in the face of conflict set a model for him which still frequently colors his relationship to Ellen. The “bourgeois values” of his high school peer culture—dating, athletics, scoring sexually, looks, clothes, money, “cool”—also marked him out as a failure and fueled both his rebellion and his sense of shameful inadequacy. He bought the bourgeois values and failed against them. He rebelled against those values and bought the alternative values of the drug culture, in which he succeeded. He rebelled against both straights and druggies and isolated himself as a world of one, which sometimes worked and sometimes failed. All these things happened, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes successively.
Even the counterculture values of his “radical Christian” subculture can be understood in part as an idolatrous narrowing of the Christian life in reaction to the opposite idolatrous equation of Christianity with the American Dream. Certain biblical goods are magnified to the exclusion of other biblical goods. In various ways Wally continues to play out a three-fold theme. First, he typically rebels against certain dominant “successful people” cultures. Second, he finds his validity in the affirmation of a “down-and-out” subculture. Third, all the while he acts in idiosyncratic pride to create his own culture-of-one in which he plays king, and his opinions on anything from the dinner to eschatology are self-evident truth.
“Who can understand the heart of man?!” And who can understand the world that negotiates with that heart?! Wally and the myriad forces which impinge on him elude exhaustive, rational analysis. Yet we can describe enough of what goes on in his complex heart and complex world to minister helpfully to him. And the Wally we meet today is only today’s Wally, not the Wally of some prior point in his personal history. Biblical counsel, the mind of Christ about Wally’s life, can be given. Wisdom, the nourishing and honeyed tongue, can make satisfying and convicting sense of things, and Wally can learn to live, think, and act with such wisdom.
Many other idol systems and sub-systems impinge on Wally. Some are the same players Bunyan described in his Vanity Fair: cultural attitudes, values, fears, and opportunities which circle around money, sex, food, power, success, or comfort. Certain gentle-faced idols—the mass media, professional sports, and the alcohol industry—woo him with temporary compensations and false, escapist saviors from the pressures generated by his slavery to the harsh, terrifying idols which enslave and whip him along at other times: “I must perform. I must prove myself. Everyone I respect must like me. What if I fail?”
Some of the other idol systems which daily impact on Wally are found within the marital system and the family system. Ellen’s and the children’s values and desires provoke and persuade Wally in various ways. If Ellen worries about money, if the children get swept up with complaining when they do not get what they want, if Ellen nags Wally with expectations of moralistic behavioral change, Wally is variously worried, angry, compliant, depressed, defensive, full of denial, or whatever else, depending on how he interfaces with the particular micro-society that is constraining him.19
This way of exploring “What rules me?” is “sociological.” False gods are highly catching! With good reason both Old and New Testaments abound with warnings against participating in pagan cultures and associating with idolaters, fools, false teachers, angry people, and the like. Our enemies not only hurt us, they also tempt us to be like them. False voices are not figments which the individual soul hallucinates. “World” complements “flesh” to constitute monolithic evil: the manufacture of idols instead of worship of the true God.
If we would help people have eyes and ears for God, we must know well which alternative gods clamor for their attention. These forces and shaping influences neither determine nor excuse our sins. But they do nurture, channel, and exacerbate our sinfulness in particular directions. They are often atmospheric, invisible, unconscious influences. Conscious repentance begins to thrive where I see both my own distortions and the distortions impinging upon me from others. Both tempt me, and I must battle both.
Scripture is sensitive to sociological forces without compromising human responsibility. But, of course, idols are also “in here” in our hearts, determining the course of our lives. In the discussion above, Wally’s heart response to his environment—idols of the heart—continually intruded. The two are impossible to disentangle absolutely. But in the next section I will look in greater detail at the more psychological dimension of idolatry.
Idols of the Heart: the Psychology of Idolatry
At the simplest level Wally both imbibed the idols to which he was exposed and creatively fabricated his own. He has variously succeeded, failed, or rebelled against various value systems. But in each case he nurtures and serves numerous unbiblical values. His life implicitly validates many lies. His heart is deeply divided between the true God and idols. Is he a Christian? Yes. But the ongoing work of renewal must engage him genuinely over the particular patterns of idolatry that functionally substitute for faith in Christ. There has been a measure of genuine fruit in his life. But there has been a measure of bending the true God to the agenda of the flesh.
Idols are rarely solitary. Our lives become infested with them. Wally is psychologically controlled by a lush variety of false gods. For example, he typically oscillates between “pride” and the “fear of man.”20Pride or “playing god” generates one set of sins: anger, manipulation, compulsions to control people and circumstances, a “Type A personality,” rebellion against parents and the bourgeois. The fear of man or “making others into god” generates another set: self-consciousness, fears, depression, failure, anxiety, withdrawal, a gnawing sense of inferiority, chameleon behavior. They work hand in hand to produce his “perfectionism,” both in its anxious and its demanding aspects: “My performance in your eyes. Your performance in my eyes.”
Many other gods wait in the wings, playing occasional bit parts in the drama of Wally’s life. At times Wally’s god is a lust for escapist comfort from the pressure cooker he creates. Alcohol abuse, TV watching, video games and pornography provide fleeting escape. At times he is owned by a desire to “help” people. He becomes obsessed with his ministry, angry at any who hinder it, prone to become messianic (and even adulterous), justifying any doubtful actions on his part by reference to the supreme value of “my ministry.” Of course, this is only a sampler. Any of scores of particular lesser gods can appear in the temple of his heart depending on traffic conditions, the weather, how his wife treats him, how his children do in school, etc.
The real Wally is irreducibly complex! Even as I portray Wally in broad strokes, it is clear that his life emerges from an ever-shifting mosaic of false loyalties. This noted, are there hierarchies of idols or prepotent idols of unusual significance in Wally’s case? Yes, there are. Wally’s life may well play out typical, oft-repeated themes. He is a “type” in a loose sense, though he can never be reduced to a rigid diagnostic type because of the myriads of fluid idols which constrain him. Certain idols strike me as predominant in Wally. “Pride” (I play god) and “fear of man” (I install you as god) are crucial. One finds variations on the themes of “I want my way” and “How do I perform in your eyes?” endlessly repeated in Wally’s life. Demand and fear take turns in the spotlight. Other typically dominant idols—sexual pleasure, money, etc.—certainly have their say in Wally’s life but have a more low-grade, nagging quality, which in a different counselee might be greatly intensified.
It is striking how biblical categories—the idol motif, in this case—stay close to the concrete details of life and do not speculate abstract typologies. The bedrock similarities between people tend to be brought into view. In our psychologized culture we are used to definitive analyses of Wally and others according to a typology. He is a type-A person. He is a Pleaser. He is a Controller. He is a combination of melancholic and choleric temperaments. He is a typical ACOA or member of a dysfunctional family. His root sin is anger. His problem is low self-esteem. In DSM-III categories he is a…, and so forth. Such statements tend to pass for significant knowledge. In fact, they are not explanations for anything but are simply ways of describing common clusters of symptoms.
Given the prevalence of this mode of typing people, it might be expected that we could say something like, “His root idol is….” But the data on idolatry does not generally support such reductionistic understandings of the human heart.21 At best we can make the softer claim, “His most characteristic idol is…usually…but at other times…!” For purely heuristic purposes it may be useful to notice that one person is particularly attuned to the intimacy idols, another to avoidance idols, another to power idols, another to comfort idols, another to pleasure idols, another to religiosity idols, and so forth. A person’s style of sin—”characteristic flesh” in Richard Lovelace’s graphic term22—may tend to cluster habitually around particular predominant idols.
But sin is creative as well as habitual! We should not forget that the reductionism the Bible consistently offers is not a typology that distinguishes people from each other but is a summary comment that highlights our commonalities: all have turned aside from God, “each to his own way,” “doing what was right in his own eyes.”23 Under this master categorization the temple teems with potential shapes for idols and false gods. The rampant and proliferating desires (plural) of the flesh contend with the Spirit and clamor for our faith and obedience. Typologies are pseudo-explanations. They are descriptive, not analytical, though as conceptual tools for various psychologies and psychotherapies they pretend to explanatory power. At best, typologies describe “syndromes,” patterns of fruit and life experience that commonly occur together.24 Current typologies are not helpful for exposing the real issues in the lives of real people. At best they are redundant of good description and intimate knowledge of a particular individual. At worst, they are bearers of misleading conceptual freight, for they duck the idolatry issues.
How do we explain the fact that all of us are not exactly like Wally though we share the same generic set of idolatrous tendencies?: the numerous forms of pride and the fear of man; obsession with sensual pleasures; preoccupation with money; tendencies towards self-trust regarding our opinions, agendas, abilities; the creation of false views of God based on our life experience and desires; desire to be intrinsically righteous, worthy, and esteemable; and the like. Jay Adams has perceptively commented on the commonality inhering within individual styles of sin:
Sin, then, in all of its dimensions, clearly is the problem with which the Christian counselor must grapple. It is the secondary dimensions—the variations on the common themes—that make counseling so difficult. While all men are born sinners and engage in the same sinful practices and dodges, each develops his own styles of sinning. The styles (combinations of sins and dodges) are peculiar to each individual; but beneath them are the common themes. It is the counselor’s work to discover these commonalities beneath the individualities.25
‘Neighborhoods’ in Vanity Fair
How do individual styles develop? Certainly particular “neighborhoods” in Vanity Fair can empower different idols. It doesn’t surprise us that Wally’s demanding and unpleasable father can be correlated with a particular form of the “fear of man” as a significant idol in Wally’s heart. Yet because of the continual interplay of idol-making heart with idol-offering milieu, another child might grow up with very accepting parents, and the “fear of man” would be similarly empowered as a lust never to be rejected or fail. Our idols both covet what we do not have and hold on for dear life to what we do have.
Many of the nuances of our idolatries are socially shaped by the opportunities and values that surround us. For example, it is unsurprising that more people will become homosexuals (or adulterers, or pornographers, or whatever) in a culture that makes certain forms of sexual sin available, legitimate, or normal. For example, Wally grew up in a family moderately obsessed with academic and professional achievement. His next door neighbor might have grown up in a family obsessed with escapist pleasure, and he might have been nurtured to live for “Miller Time” and televised sports. The generic idols in every heart may bear different fruit in different people. For example, Baal is no threat to produce “religious” forms of idolatry today, but Mormonism is such a threat.
Much of the variation among us is simply empowered by the “accidents” of life experience: tragedies or smooth sailing, handicaps or health, riches or poverty, New York City or Iowa or Uganda, a high school or a graduate school education, first-born or eighth-born, male or female, born in 1500 B.C. or 1720 or 1920 or 1960, and the like. Much individual variation is due to hereditary and temperamental differences: kinds of intelligence, physical coordination and capabilities, variation in talents and abilities, metabolic and hormonal differences, and so forth. In the last analysis, idiosyncratic choice from among the opportunities and options one encounters accounts for the nearly infinite range for individuality within the “commonalities” that biblical categories discern in us.
The diagnostic categories which pierce to the commonalities are categories such as “idolatry versus faith,” which we are using here. These alone can embrace both the fluidities and relative stabilities of Wally’s world, flesh, and devil—and can embrace the true God who has saved Wally. They apply toevery person in a way which is simple, but never simplistic, accounting for all the complexities. For all our differences, the Bible speaks to every one of us.
OTHER DIAGNOSTIC PERSPECTIVES AND THE GOSPEL: MULTIPERSPECTIVAL INTERPRETATION
As we have indicated, Wally’s mass of behaviors, attitudes, cognitions, value judgments, emotions, influences, et al. can be understood right down to the details utilizing the biblical notion of idolatry. The disorder in Wally’s life is produced by the interplay between particular idols of his heart and particular idols of his social environment. Sins occur at the confluence of disoriented heart motives and disoriented socio-cultural systems of all sizes. The intention of this essay has been to explore some of the dense connections between flesh and world. But there are other ways of approaching these things which are important to recognize.
Notably absent has been attention to the equally dense connecting links between the Devil and both world and flesh in the production of Wally’s dysfunctional and sinful living. “Who rules me?” invites awareness of spiritual powers. Idols and demons go hand in hand in literal worship of false gods. Not surprisingly, the functional lordship of Satan is equally evident in the more subtle idolatries that enslave Wally. Does this mean that Wally is “demon-possessed” and the treatment of choice is exorcism? Decidedly not. But wherever we are problematically afraid or angry—to isolate two particular bad fruits—we are being formed into Satan’s image rather than Christ’s. The same modalities that fight world and flesh also fight the Devil. Intelligent faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is ultimately the answer. But awareness of the spiritual warfare occurring emphasizes the fact that Christian counseling is a ministry of prayer.26 Awareness of spiritual warfare also helps shake us out of the behavioral science mindset which tempts us to think about people psycho-socially, rather than with respect to God.
The Dark Lord’s stratagems are all intended to establish his lordship over people. Satan methodically disintegrates Wally’s relationships, leads him into gross sins, deceives his mind into highly distorted and selective perceptions, accuses him into despair, discourages him, ties his life into knots in every imaginable way, fans normal desires into inordinate and addictive desires and “needs,” and the like. This article has primarily attended to “world and flesh.” “Devil” completes the monolithic triad of biblical perspectives on the motivation of problem behavior.
Also notably absent has been detailed attention to the somatic influences on Wally. His problems are exacerbated by allergies, overtiredness, a diet with too much “junk food,” sexual frustration and a sedentary lifestyle. Close attention to patterns of irritability, marital tension, sexual lust, and depression would consistently reveal a plausible somatic component. The fact that monitoring caffeine and sugar intake, and getting more regular rest, sexual intercourse, and exercise moderates Wally’s symptoms also points to somatic influences. Somatic factors, at minimum, influence the “quantity” of Wally’s problems, though they do not create the “quality” of his problems. A tense irritability can flare into rage and cursing. A case of “the blues” can spiral into bleak despair. A tendency to ogle women can break out into purchasing Penthouse. Wally’s body variously exacerbates or moderates the intensity of his sins. It does not create new kinds of sins.
The Role of the Will
Also notably absent has been a discussion of the degree to which Wally’s behavior is willed and, hence, immediately controllable. As was stressed earlier, paying biblical attention to motives of heart and world is no ploy for cutting the force out of the Bible’s view of human responsibility. Wally chooses, even when he plunges down well-worn ruts where a fork in the road seems experientially nonexistent. Wally has made headway in self-discipline at various times in his life. He knows what is wrong and what is right. He is able to describe many times when he “bull-headedly chose wrong.” He can also tell of many times when he acted out of conscious faith in Christ to choose right.
Recognizing choice does not negate the power of world, flesh, and Devil. The more Wally grows to know himself and his environment, the more he consciously knows and experiences that he has always been making choices. One of the purposes of working with the idol motif (or with its more culturally accessible equivalents: the idolatrous desires, hopes, fears, expectations and goals which own people) is to expand the arena in which Wally is aware of the choices he has been making implicitly. Sanctification expands the arena of conscious choice and biblical self-control.
Also notably absent has been a discussion of the providence of God in bringing intense, transforming experiences. Wally’s conversion “dropped out of the sky” and gave him months of freedom from sins, joy in Christ, and growing love for people. He has had other “high times” as a Christian: times of greater vision, love, and liberty produced by a good sermon, at a retreat, or by some inexplicable opening of his heart to God in a moment of daily life.
But changes in Wally’s life—whether the product of victories in conscious spiritual warfare, of physiological alterations, of volitional commitment or of mountaintop experiences—seemingly “happen” at random. These four paradigms often provide the stuff with which Wally thinks about problems and change in his life. Wally has little sense of confidence that his life is moving in the direction of consistent, intelligent, desirable, whole-souled change. His life in general seems to be an unhappy chaos, with occasional and temporary moments of symptomatic relief. One of the goals of this essay is to describe several elements which can make change more consistent, internalized, self-conscious and genuinely transformative. In my experience the Wallys, both inside and outside the church, tend to be very blind to the things that move them. It is a curious but not uncommon phenomenon that a biblically literate person like Wally has no effective grasp on the idols of his own heart and the temptations of the particular Vanity Fair which surrounds him.27 Wally is all action, impulse, and emotion. He knows relatively little about what God sees going on in his heart and his world. The question, “What is God’s agenda in my life?” can often be answered with some confidence when I start to grasp the themes which play out in my life.
My analysis has been predominantly “psycho-social” (covenantally psycho-social!). A full biblical analysis of Wally’s problems would be a “psycho-social-spiritual-somatic-volitional-experiential” analysis.28 To understand the exact weight of each variable is, obviously, to quest after something which is—from a human point of view, the intentions of social scientists notwithstanding!—ultimately elusive. But the Bible’s answer is always powerfully applicable: turning from idols to the living God, renewal of mind and heart in the truth, activities captured in shorthand by the phrase “repentance and faith.”
The Lordship Question
There is some utility to teasing out these two strands of human motivation, while never forgetting that we are focusing only on several perspectives within a unified whole. The two I have concentrated on in this article— the heart and the social milieu—without question receive the bulk of the Bible’s attention. But the question of human motivation is ultimately the multiperspectival question of lordship, of faith in idols and false gods in tension with vital faith in the true God. This can be looked at through numerous lenses:
Lordship through the lens of our hearts: The grace-filled, “strait and narrow” will of the Spirit versus the rampant, idolatrous desires of my flesh.
Lordship through the lens of social influences: Social shaping by the Kingdom of God and the body of Christ versus imbibing the models and values of the kingdoms of our world (various micro-kingdoms of marital and family systems; on up through progressively larger kingdoms of peer relations; of neighborhood, school, and work place cultures; of ethnic group, socio-economic class, nationality, etc.).
Lordship through the lens of spiritual masters: The good King Jesus versus the tyrant Satan.
Lordship through the lens of somatic influences: living through bodily pains and frustrations in the hope of the resurrection versus immediate service to and preoccupation with my belly’s and body’s pains, pleasures, deprivations, and wants.
Lordship through the lens of volitional choices: Conscious faith in God’s promises and obedience to God’s will versus believing and choosing according to my spontaneous will, desires, and opinions, “the way that seems right to a man.”
Lordship through the lens of experiential providence: Learning to rejoice in God amid blessings and to repent and trust God amid sufferings versus growing presumptuous, proud, or self-satisfied when things go our way and depressed, angry, or afraid when life is painful, frustrating, or unsure.
Though this article has commented particularly on the interplay between the first two lenses, my intent throughout has been to expand our view of Wally, not to constrict it. Within the biblical conceptual framework we can bring into view all of Wally and his world. The notion of behavior as ruled lets us hold together seeming paradoxes. Wally is fully responsible for what he does. Wally’s inner life is full of kinks, distortions, and blind compulsions. Wally is continually being conditioned from without, tempted, tried, and deceived. Wally is also a Christian. The Spirit and the Word can work powerfully both to reorient him from the inside and to set him free from the control of what impinges on him.
Idolatry and the Ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ
In this article my attention has been heavily weighted towards the issue of diagnosis: How do we biblically understand people? But biblical diagnosis bridges immediately into biblical treatment. The understanding of people presented here enables the message of the Gospel to apply relevantly to the problems of troubled people.
One of the major challenges facing Christian counselors is how to apply the Gospel of the love of God incisively. There are many faulty, distorted, or inadequate ways to go about this. The Gospel is easily truncated and weakened when idols of the heart and Vanity Fair are unperceived or misperceived. But if we accurately comprehend the interweaving of responsible behavior, deceptive inner motives, and powerful external forces, then the riches of Christ become immediately relevant to people. What was once “head knowledge” and “dry doctrine” becomes filled with wisdom, rel-evancy, appeal, hope, delight, and life. People see that the Gospel is far richer than a ticket to heaven and rote forgiveness for oft-repeated behavioral sins.
How many Wallys—and Ellens—are stuck with a vague guilt over seemingly unshakable, destructive patterns? But when Wally sees his heart’s true need and his need for deliverance from enslaving powers-that-be, he then sees how exactly he really needs Christ. Christ powerfully meets people who are aware of their real need for help.29 We Christian counselors, both in our own lives and in our counseling, frequently do not get the Gospel straight, pointed, and applicable. I will consider two broad tendencies among Christians who seek to help their fellows: psychologizing and moralizing.
Christian counselors with a psychologizing drift typically have a genuine interest in the motivation that underlies problem behavior. Psychologically-oriented Christians attempt to deal with both the internal and external forces that prompt and structure behavior. The heart issues are typically misread, however. “Need” categories tend to replace biblical categories—idolatry, desires of the flesh, fear of man, etc.—which relate the heart immediately to God. Also, environmental issues such as a history of abuse, poor role models, and dysfunctional family patterns tend to be given more deterministic status than they have in the biblical view.
These views of inner and outer motivation fit hand-in-glove as an explanation for behavioral and emotional problems. “You feel horrible and act badly because your needs aren’t met because your family didn’t meet them.” The logic of therapy coheres with the logic of the diagnosis: “I accept you, and God really accepts you. Your needs can be met, and you can start to change how you feel and act.” Behavioral responsibility is muted, and the process of change becomes more a matter of need-meeting than conscious repentance/metanoia and renewal of mind unto Christ.
What is the Gospel?
What happens to the Gospel when idolatry themes are not grasped? “God loves you” typically becomes a tool to meet a need for self-esteem in people who feel like failures. The particular content of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—”grace for sinners and deliverance for the sinned against”—is down-played or even twisted into “unconditional acceptance for the victims of others’ lack of acceptance.” Where “the Gospel” is shared, it comes across something like this: “God accepts you just as you are. God has unconditional love for you.” That is not the biblical Gospel, however. God’s love is not Rogerian unconditional positive regard writ large. A need theory of motivation—rather than an idolatry theory—bends the Gospel solution into “another gospel” which is essentially false.
The Gospel is better than unconditional love. The Gospel says, “God accepts you just as Christ is. God has ‘contraconditional’ love for you.” Christ bears the curse you deserve. Christ is fully pleasing to the Father and gives you His own perfect goodness. Christ reigns in power, making you the Father’s child and coming close to you to begin to change what is unacceptable to God about you. God never accepts me “as I am.” He accepts me “as I am in Jesus Christ.” The center of gravity is different. The true Gospel does not allow God’s love to be sucked into the vortex of the soul’s lust for acceptability and worth in and of itself. Rather, it radically decenters people—what the Bible calls “fear of the Lord” and “faith”—to look outside themselves.
Christian counselors with a psychologizing drift typically are very concerned with ministering God’s love to people who view God as the latest and greatest critic whom they can never please. But their failure to conceptualize people’s problems in the terms this article has been exploring inevitably creates a tendency towards teaching a Liberal Gospel. The cross becomes simply a demonstration that God loves me. It loses its force as the substitutionary atonement by the perfect Lamb in my place, who invites my repentance for heart-pervading sin. “The wound of my people is healed lightly.”30
Christian counselors with moralistic tendencies face a different sort of problem. Where there is a moralizing drift to Christian counseling, Christ’s forgiveness is typically applied simply to behavioral sins. The content of the Gospel is usually more orthodox than the content of the psychologized Gospel, but the scope of application may be truncated. Those with psychologizing tendencies at least notice our inner complexities and outer sufferings, though they distort both systematically. In some ways the moralizing tendency represents an inadequate grip on the kinds of “bad news” this article has been exploring.
Moralistic Christianity does not usually evidence much interest in the pressures and sufferings of our social milieu. Counselors fear that such interest would necessarily feed those varieties of blame-shifting and accusation which spring up so readily in our hearts. Human responsibility would be compromised. But they do not see that understanding the evil that happens to me—the Vanity Fair that is swirling around my life—is a crucial part of my widening and deepening appreciation of Christ. Attendance to the forces that have pressured and shaped me—and are shaping me—for ill allows me to respond intelligently, responsibly, and mercifully. As psalm after psalm demonstrates, our sufferings are the context in which we experience the love of God, both to comfort us and to change us. We are comforted in our afflictions as we learn of God’s promises and power. We are changed in our afflictions as we learn to take refuge in God rather than in vain idols.
Moralizers are also weak on the inward side of motivation. Heart motives may be attended to in part via an awareness of “self” or “flesh.” But the solution is typically construed in all-or-nothing terms. Conversion, “Let go and let God,” and “total yieldedness” attempt to deal with motive problems through a single act of first-blessing or second-blessing housecleaning. The Gospel is for the beginning of the Christian life or a dramatic act of consecration. There is little sense of the patient process of inner renewal which someone like Wally—and each of us!—needs. Jesus says to take up our cross daily, dying to the false gods we fabricate, and learning to walk in fellowship with Him who is full of grace to help us. Receptivity to God’s love—”The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want”—is the absolutely necessary prerequisite for any sort of active obedience to God.31
I have looked at two common truncations of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Both evidence an inadequate grasp of the deviance of our hearts and our corresponding vulnerability to external influences. People are idol-makers, idol-buyers and idol-sellers.32 We wander through a busy town filled with other idol-makers, idol-buyers, and idol-sellers. We variously buy and sell, woo, agree, intimidate, manipulate, borrow, impose, attack, or flee. But there is a bigger Gospel. At the gates of Vanity Fair, Christian met a man who entreated him and his companion:
Let the Kingdom be always before you; and believe steadfastly concerning things that are invisible. Let nothing that is on this side of the other world get within you; and, above all, look well to your own hearts, and to the lusts thereof, for they are deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Set your faces like a flint; you have all power in heaven and earth on your side.33
Christian passed through Vanity Fair bloodied but purer in heart. He remembered, amid hard combat with world, flesh, and Devil, the Celestial City which was his destination, and the Lord Jesus who beckoned him to life.
The biblical Gospel delivers from both personal sin and situational tyrannies. The biblical notion of inner idolatries allows people to see their need for Christ as a merciful savior from large sins of both heart and behavior. The notion of socio-cultural-familial-ethnic idolatries allows people to see Christ as a powerful deliverer from false masters and false value systems which we tend to absorb automatically. Christ-ian counseling is counseling which exposes our motives—our hearts and our world—in such a way that the authentic Gospel is the only possible answer.
Article published on October 9, 2009 @ http://www.ccef.org/idols-heart-and-vanity-fair
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D. worked for four years in psychiatric hospitals, during which time he came to faith in Christ. He teaches at CCEF and edits The Journal of Biblical Counseling (soon to be re-launched online). He received a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in the history of science and medicine, focusing on the history of psychiatry. He has a Master of Divinity degree from Westminster Theological Seminary, and has been doing biblical counseling for over 30 years. He has written numerous articles on counseling and on the relationship between faith and psychology. His books include Speaking Truth in Love, Seeing with New Eyes, Power Encounters, and The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context. – See more at: http://www.ccef.org/biography/david-powlison#sthash.BgnGUHsy.dpuf
1 The “First Great Commandment,” like the first two or three commandments from the decalogue, contrasts fidelity to the Lord with infidelities. The open battle with idolatry appears vividly with the golden calf and reappears throughout Judges, Samuel, Kings, the prophets, and Psalms.
2 This confluence of the world, the flesh, and the devil is unsurprising, as it recurs throughout the Scriptures: see Ephesians 2:1-3 and James 4:1-7 for particularly condensed examples.
3 “Heart” is the most comprehensive biblical term for what determines our life direction, behavior, thoughts, etc. See Proverbs 4:23, Mark 7:21-23, Hebrews 4:12f, etc. The metaphor of “circumcision or uncircumcision of heart” is similar to “idols of the heart,” in that an external religious activity is employed to portray the inward motivational dynamics which the outward act reflects.
4 See such summary statements by Paul, Peter, John, and James as Galatians 5:16ff; Ephesians 2:3 & 4:22; 1 Peter 2:11 & 4:2; 1 John 2:16; James 1:14f, where epithumiai is the catch-all for what is wrong with us.
5 Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5.
6 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967), pages 84-93.
7 I’m commenting here only on the impact of “negative” social influences, which both communicate their idols to us and provoke our hearts to produce idols. If you rage at me, I tend to learn from you something about the supreme importance of getting my own way, as well as a few tricks and techniques for accomplishing that. I also instinctively tend to generate compensatory idols in order to retaliate, to defend, or to escape. We tend to return evil for evil.
I could equally comment on the impact of “positive” social influences—both in Bunyan and in life—which communicate faith to us and tend to encourage faith in our hearts and repentance from idolatry. The biblical way to deal with “enemies,” returning good for evil, is both learned from others and a product of the heart.
8 Sociologists, anthropologists, and historians of psychiatry have described how most symptoms and all diagnostic labels are culture-bound. This is especially true with regard to functional problems (as opposed to the distinctly organic problems) which comprise the vast bulk of human misery and bad behavior. This relativizing observation means that diagnostic labels are not “scientific” and “objectively true.” Labels are occasionally useful heuristically if we recognize them for what they are: crude taxonomic orderings of observations. But labels are elements within schemas of value and interpretation. Because diagnostic categories are philosophically and theologically “loaded,” a Christian who seeks to be true to the Bible’s system of value and interpretation must generate biblical categories and must approach secular categories with extreme skepticism.
9 It is obvious that if idolatry is the problem of the “co-dependent,” then repentant faith in Christ is the solution. This stands in marked contrast to the solutions proffered in the co-dependency literature, whether secular or glossed with Christian phrases. That literature often perceptively describes the patterns of dysfunctional idols—addictions and dependencies— which curse and enslave people. The idols which enslave the rescuer or the compulsive drinker do not work very well for them.
The literature may even use “idolatry” as a metaphor, without meaning “idolatry against God, therefore repentance.” The solution, without exception, is to offer different and presumably more workable idols, rather than repentance unto the Bible’s Christ! Secularistic therapies teach people eufunctional idols, idols which do “work” for people and “bless” them with temporarily happy lives (Psalm 73).
So, for example, self-esteem is nurtured as the replacement for trying to please unpleasable others, rather than esteem for the Lamb who was slain for me, a sinner. Acceptance and love from new significant others, starting with the therapist, create successful versions of the fear of man and trust in man rather than teaching essential trust in God. Self-trust and self-confidence are boosted as I am taught to set expectations for myself to which I can attain. The fruit looks good but is fundamentally counterfeit. Believers in false gospels are sometimes allowed to flourish temporarily.
Therapy systems without repentance at their core leave the idol system intact. They simply rehabilitate and rebuild fundamental godlessness to function more successfully.
The Bible’s idolatry motif diagnoses the ultimately self-destructive basis on which happy, healthy, and confident people build their lives (eufunctional idols), just as perceptively as it diagnoses unhappy people, who are more obviously and immediately self-destructive (dysfunctional idols).
10 Terminology is, of course, not indifferent. “Personal problems” and “dysfunctional living” imply a primary responsibility only to oneself, family, and society. “Sin” implies a primary responsibility to God the Judge, with personal and social responsibilities entailed as secondary consequences.
11 The Bible’s mode of everyday observation is comfortable describing both the push and the pull of human motivation as complementary perspectives. Psychologies tend to throw their weight either towards drives or towards goals. Idolatry is a fertile and flexible conceptual category which stays close to the data of life, unlike the speculative abstractions of alternative and unbiblical explanations.
12 Matthew 4:1-4, 6:25-34, John 6, and Deuteronomy 8 are four passages, among many, which work out these themes in greater practical detail. Notice how the language of relating to God—love, trust, fear, hope, seek, serve, take refuge, etc.—can be applied to relating to food.
13 Matthew 6:32: “The nations run after these things.”
14 Proverbs 29:25; Jeremiah 17:5-8.
15 Resemblances between “Wally” and any actual human being are purely coincidental products of the essential similarities among all of us. The external details of this case study are fabricated of snippets and patterns from many different lives, altered in all the particulars of behavior, gender, age, background, etc.
Similarly, the analysis of idolatries derives from a biblical analysis of the generic human heart—my own heart included— rather than from any particular individuals. Wally is Everyman, idiosyncratically manifesting idolatrous human nature.
16 Mark 10:42-45.
17 John Calvin, in his remarkable discussion of the nature of man in the opening section of hisInstitutes, comments on the way that idols “boil up from within us.” It could equally be said that they boil up around us. There is always some object at hand for us to put our faith in.
18 I am indebted to Dick Keyes of L’Abri Fellowship for this felicitous phrase.
19 Where do we begin in counseling? Are there hierarchies of influence or “key” influential relationships to tackle? There may well be. In particular, is Wally’s relationship with his parents the key to effective counseling? Not necessarily, although psychodynamic psychology is strongly biased towards parent-child relationships. The Bible is not similarly biased (either for or against looking at relationships with parents).
I do not believe that in this case, as presented, Wally’s relationships with his father and mother are the most important ones to tackle now in counseling. Theoretically, we could tackle any troubled relationship in Wally’s life, and we would end up grappling with generically similar issues, the same idols and sins. My instincts in counseling would be to tackle vignettes involving Wally and Ellen or his children. That is where most of the hot patterns are being played out. His relationship with his father could come up as could other significant relationships where there are live issues. But for Wally to grow and be renewed, to repent intelligently, to be transformed both in heart and behavior, he does not necessarily need to look at the parental relationship.
20 And “there is no temptation which is not common to all men” (1 Corinthians 10:13). This pride/fear of man oscillation is run-of-the-mill human nature. It plays itself out in an endless variety of forms.
21 Of course, at specific points in time specific idols will need to be named and faced. Wise biblical counseling grapples with specifics. Jesus faces the rich, young ruler with his mammon worship. The parable of the sower faces people with their unbelief, their social conformity, their preoccupying riches, pleasure, and cares (all of which can be rephrased as expressions of the idol motif). In the Old Testament Elijah directly confronts Baal worship. For example, Wally will need to deal with his drive to perform in people’s eyes as the issue unfolds in counseling.
22 Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of the Spiritual Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), page 110.
23 Isaiah 53:6 and Judges 21:25.
24 The word “syndrome” ought to be stripped of its clinical pretensions to significant explanatory power. It is purely descriptive. It literally means, “things that tend to all run along together.”
25 Jay Adams, Christian Counselor’s Manual (U.S.A.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973), Page 124f.
26 Acts 6:4 is a classic text defining ministry in terms of both truth and prayer. Ephesians 6:10-20 is a classic text on the mode of warfare: faith in all its elements and ways of expression defeats demonic powers. James 3:13-4:12 adds the note that repentance is crucial to the defeat of Satan.
27 The Bible indicates the reason for this by frequently describing our inordinate desires as “deceptive.” Satan is the arch-deceiver. We tend to conform to the atmospheric deceptions of our socio-cultural milieu. Our idols are so plausible and instinctive that a person can even describe them, without really seeing them as the crucial problem in his or her life.
28 There are doubtless any number of other ways of slicing the pie of human motivation. See Tim Keller’s “Puritan Resources for Biblical Counseling” (The Journal of Pastoral Practice, 9:3 (1988), pages 11-44) for a stimulating portrayal of the multi-perspectival subtlety of a previous generation of Christian counselors.
29 Hebrews 4:12-16; Matthew 5:3-6; Luke 11:1-13; Matthew 11:28-30; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10; indeed, the entire Bible! Christ’s forte is our acknowledged need in the face of compulsions from within and pressures from without.
30 Jeremiah 8:11(cf.23:16f).
31 Active love is the fruit of receptive faith. Psalm 23—like many portions of Scripture—is a pure promise to be drunk in. Other passages detail the transition from gift to gratitude, from root to fruit, from abiding to fruit-bearing, from faith to works (Galatians 5 and 1 John 4:7-5:12 are two of the most sustained expositions). Performance-oriented people like Wally, idol-driven people, rarely drink and eat of the life-giving bread of heaven.
32 We have not mentioned how Wally’s distorted system of interpretation and valuation affects—is “sold” to—his children, wife, friends, and parents. There is obviously a feedback loop of mutual effects, a vicious circle.
Conversely, as Wally is able to change both heart and behavior, he will create a gracious circle of positive effects in his family and church. We have emphasized the negative side of social shaping, but faith is just as catching as idolatry.
33 Bunyan, ibid., page 83.
On the basis of my less-than-scientific survey of Christians’ Bible reading habits, I would estimate that the Old Testament forms less than 10 percent of most Christians’ Bible reading. Remove the Psalms and Proverbs, and we’re probably down to less than 5 percent.
“So what?” many say.
“No great loss, is there?” others shrug.
Let me suggest seven reasons to stop shrugging and start studying the other 60 percent of our Bibles.
1. The Old Testament reveals Christ.
The Old Testament doesn’t just “point forward” to Christ; it reveals him. It isn’t merely a series of signposts to Christ; his revealing shadow falls on every page, exciting faith and love in believing hearts.
But why linger in the Old Testament shadows when we have New Testament sunlight?
Have you never found it easier to read and be refreshed in shade? Have you never admired the unique and wondrous beauty of the dawn?
Consider the unparalleled revelation of Christ’s substitutionary atonement in Isaiah 53. And although the Gospels describe Christ’s outer life, the messianic psalms disclose his mysterious inner life, the unfathomably deep emotional and mental struggles of his earthly suffering.
2. The Old Testament is a dictionary of Christian vocabulary.
How do we understand the theological words, phrases, and concepts of the New Testament? If we turn to a modern dictionary, we will import 21st-century Western meaning into ancient Eastern words. Greek lexicons will usually get us closer to the original meaning, but that still assumes the biblical authors were influenced exclusively by Greek culture.
Rather, when we come to a word, phrase, or concept in the New Testament, our first question should be, “What does the Old Testament say?” Remember, the New Testament was originally written by Jews, and much of it was written to Jews. It assumes knowledge of the Old Testament and builds upon it.
3. The Old Testament is a manual for Christian living.
While there is understandable debate over the continuing validity of a small percentage of Old Testament laws, there are 10 clear and unchanging moral principles that God applies in different ways in different contexts: to Israel in the wilderness (Exod. 20), to Israel about to enter the promised land (Deut. 5), and to Israel settled in the land (Proverbs). Jesus and the apostles continue this varied cultural application of these same 10 moral principles for their own generation (e.g. Matt. 5; Eph. 5). All these examples provide models for how to think about and apply these moral principles in our own day.
4. The Old Testament presents doctrine in story form.
God has not only given us laws; he’s given us lives. He’s incarnated his 10 moral principles in the lives of Old Testament characters, providing us with fascinating biographies to inspire and warn (1 Cor. 10:11; Luke 17:32).
We also see New Testament doctrines worked out in Old Testament believers’ lives: through typology we learn most about Christ’s priesthood from Aaron, kingship from David, and prophetic office from Moses. Abraham demonstrates justifying faith, Elijah portrays effectual and fervent prayer, Ruth and Naomi display the communion of saints, Job perseveres through the Lord’s preservation, and David exhibits how forgiveness and chastisement often go together. And it’s all in the vivid Technicolor and Dolby of flesh-and-blood humanity.
5. The Old Testament comforts and encourages us.
As we read the Old Testament narratives, we experience the beautiful comfort and hope that Paul promised would accompany such study (Rom. 15:4). We are comforted with God’s sovereign love, majestic power, and covenant faithfulness in his relationship with Israel.
When we know the Old Testament backgrounds of the “Hall of Faithers” in Hebrews 11, we’re encouraged to follow their Christ-focused faith and spirituality.
In the Psalms, we’re given songs that have comforted and encouraged believers throughout the world and throughout the centuries.
And when we see the way that hundreds of Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled in Christ, our faith in God and his Word is strengthened.
6. The Old Testament saves souls.
The apostle Paul had the highest regard for the Old Testament’s origin, nature, power, and purpose (2 Tim. 3:16-17). But the Old Testament wasn’t only helpful for Christian living; it gave Christian life. When Paul assured Timothy that “the Holy Scriptures [are] able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus,” he was speaking of the Old Testament (2 Tim. 3:15). Like the New Testament, the Old Testament also saved (and still saves) souls through faith in the Messiah.
7. The Old Testament makes you appreciate the New Testament more.
For all the Old Testament reveals of Jesus, and of Christian doctrine and experience, we must concede that it also conceals, that there’s a lot of frustrating shadow, that there’s unfulfilled longing and desire, that there’s often something—or rather someone—missing. The more we read it, the more we long for and love the incarnate Christ of the New Testament. The dawn is beautiful, but the sunrise is stunning.
About the Author:
David P. Murray is professor of Old Testament and practical theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Murray blogs regularly at Head, Heart, Hand: Leadership for Servants. Learn more about reading and applying the Old Testament from David Murray’s new book, Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament (Thomas Nelson, 2013). The article above was adapted from http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2013/08/27/jesus-on-every-page-7-reasons-to-study-your-old-testament/
“THE GOSPEL IS NOT EVERYTHING”
(Adapted from Tim Keller’s fantastic Gospel saturated book Center Church: Doing Balanced Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012, Chapter One [I have written out many of the Scripture references in BOLD ITALIC print for ease of reference from the ESV – DPC])
What do we mean by “the gospel”? Answering this question is a bit more complex than we often assume. Not everything the Bible teaches can be considered “the gospel” (although it can be argued that all biblical doctrine is necessary background for understanding the gospel). The gospel is a message about how we have been rescued from peril. The very word gospel has as its background a news report about some life-altering event that has already happened:
Mark 1:1, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Luke 2:10, And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
1 Corinthians 1:16-17 & 15:1-11, (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power…Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 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. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
(1) The gospel is good news, not good advice.
The gospel is not primarily a way of life. It is not something we do, but something that has been done for us and something that we must respond to. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament — the Septuagint — the word euangelizo (proclaim good news) occurs twenty-three times. As we see in Psalm 40: 9 (ESV) — “I have told the glad news of [your] deliverance in the great congregation” — the term is generally used to declare the news of something that has happened to rescue and deliver people from peril. In the New Testament, the word group euangelion (good news), euangelizo (proclaim good news), and euangelistes (one who proclaims good news) occurs at least 133 times.
D. A. Carson draws this conclusion from a thorough study of gospel words:
Because the gospel is news, good news… it is to be announced; that is what one does with news. The essential heraldic element in preaching is bound up with the fact that the core message is not a code of ethics to be debated, still less a list of aphorisms to be admired and pondered, and certainly not a systematic theology to be outlined and schematized. Though it properly grounds ethics, aphorisms, and systematics, it is none of these three: it is news, good news, and therefore must be publicly announced (D.A. Carson, “What Is the Gospel? –Revisited,” in For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper, ed. Sam Storms and Justin Taylor. Wheaton, ILL.: Crossway, 2010, 158.
(2) The gospel is good news announcing that we have been rescued or saved.
And what are we rescued from? What peril are we saved from? A look at the gospel words in the New Testament shows that we are rescued from the “coming wrath” at the end of history (1 Thessalonians 1:10, “and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come”).
But this wrath is not an impersonal force — it is God’s wrath. We are out of fellowship with God; our relationship with him is broken. In perhaps the most thoroughgoing exposition of the gospel in the Bible, Paul identifies God’s wrath as the great problem of the human condition (Rom 1:18–32).
Romans 1:18-32, For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Genesis 3:1-19, Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ”
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Here we see that the wrath of God has many ramifications. The background text is Genesis 3:17–19 (Genesis 3 passage above), in which God’s curse lies on the entire created order because of human sin. Because we are alienated from God, we are psychologically alienated within ourselves — we experience shame and fear (Gen 3:10). Because we are alienated from God, we are also socially alienated from one another (v. 7 describes how Adam and Eve must put on clothing, and v. 16 speaks of alienation between the genders; also notice the blame shifting in their dialogue with God in vv. 11–13). Because we are alienated from God, we are also physically alienated from nature itself. We now experience sorrow, painful toil, physical degeneration, and death (vv. 16–19). In fact, the ground itself is “cursed” (v. 17; see Rom 8:18–25 below).
Romans 8:18-25, For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Since the garden, we live in a world filled with suffering, disease, poverty, racism, natural disasters, war, aging, and death — and it all stems from the wrath and curse of God on the world. The world is out of joint, and we need to be rescued. But the root of our problem is not these “horizontal” relationships, though they are often the most obvious; it is our “vertical” relationship with God.
All human problems are ultimately symptoms, and our separation from God is the cause. The reason for all the misery — all the effects of the curse — is that we are not reconciled to God. We see this in such texts as Romans 5:8 and 2 Corinthians 5:20 (below).
Romans 5:8, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
2 Corinthians 5:20, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
Therefore, the first and primary focus of any real rescue of the human race — the main thing that will save us — is to have our relationship with God put right again.
(3) The gospel is news about what has been done by Jesus Christ to put right our relationship with God.
Becoming a Christian is about a change of status. First John 3:14 (emphasis added) states that “we have passed from death to life,” not we are passing from death to life ((The verb translated “passed” in 1 John 3:14 is metabaino, which means to “cross over.” In John 5:24, Jesus states, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who went me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over [metabaino] from death to life.” A parallel passage is Colosssians 1:13, where it is said that Christ-followers have been transferred from the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of the Son). You are either in Christ or you are not; you are either pardoned and accepted or you are not; you either have eternal life or you don’t. This is why Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones often used a diagnostic question to determine a person’s spiritual understanding and condition. He would ask, “Are you now ready to say that you are a Christian?” He recounts that over the years, whenever he would ask the question, people would often hesitate and then say, “I do no feel that I am good enough.” To that, he gives this response:
At once I know that… they are still thinking in terms of themselves; their idea still is that they have to make themselves good enough to be a Christian… It sounds very modest but it is the lie of the devil, it is a denial of the faith… you will never be good enough; nobody has ever been good enough. The essence of the Christian salvation is to say that He is good enough and that I am in Him! (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965, 34).
Lloyd-Jones’s point is that becoming a Christian is a change in our relationship with God. Jesus’ work, when it is believed and rested in, instantly changes our standing before God. We are “in him.”
Ever since reading J. I. Packer’s famous essay introducing John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ, I have liked “God saves sinners” as a good summary of gospel: God saves sinners. God — the Triune Jehovah, Father, Son and Spirit; three Persons working together in sovereign wisdom, power and love to achieve the salvation of a chosen people, the Father electing, the Son fulfilling the Father’s will by redeeming, the Spirit executing the purpose of Father and Son by renewing. Saves — does everything, first to last, that is involved in bringing man from death in sin to life in glory: plans, achieves and communicates redemption, calls and keeps, justifies, sanctifies, glorifies. Sinners— men as God finds them, guilty, vile, helpless, powerless, unable to lift a finger to do God’s will or better their spiritual lot (J.I. Packer, “Introductory Essay to John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ” – see this website [verticallivingministries.com] under the category “Soteriology” or “J.I. Packer”).
THE GOSPEL IS NOT THE RESULTS OF THE GOSPEL
The gospel is not about something we do but about what has been done for us, and yet the gospel results in a whole new way of life. This grace and the good deeds that result must be both distinguished and connected. The gospel, its results, and its implications must be carefully related to each other— neither confused nor separated. One of Martin Luther’s dicta was that we are saved by faith alone but not by a faith that remains alone. His point is that true gospel belief will always and necessarily lead to good works, but salvation in no way comes through or because of good works. Faith and works must never be confused for one another, nor may they be separated.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:14, 17-18, 20-26).
I am convinced that belief in the gospel leads us to care for the poor and participate actively in our culture, as surely as Luther said true faith leads to good works. But just as faith and works must not be separated or confused, so the results of the gospel must never be separated from or confused with the gospel itself. I have often heard people preach this way: “The good news is that God is healing and will heal the world of all its hurts; therefore, the work of the gospel is to work for justice and peace in the world.” The danger in this line of thought is not that the particulars are untrue (they are not) but that it mistakes effects for causes. It confuses what the gospel is with what the gospel does. When Paul speaks of the renewed material creation, he states that the new heavens and new earth are guaranteed to us because on the cross Jesus restored our relationship with God as his true sons and daughters. Romans 8:1–25 teaches, remarkably, that the redemption of our bodies and of the entire physical world occurs when we receive “our adoption.” As his children, we are guaranteed our future inheritance, and because of that inheritance, the world is renewed. The future is ours because of Christ’s work finished in the past.
“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory…having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:13-14,18).
“giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light… knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 1:12; 3:24).
“Therefore he [Jesus] is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Hebrews 9:15).
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5).
We must not, then, give the impression that the gospel is simply a divine rehabilitation program for the world, but rather that it is an accomplished substitutionary work. We must not depict the gospel as primarily joining something (Christ’s kingdom program) but rather as receiving something (Christ’s finished work). If we make this error, the gospel becomes another kind of a salvation by works instead of a salvation by faith.
As J. I. Packer writes:
The gospel does bring us solutions to these problems [of suffering and injustice], but it does so by first solving… the deepest of all human problems, the problem of man’s relation with his Maker; and unless we make it plain that the solution of these former problems depends on the settling of this latter one, we are misrepresenting the message and becoming false witnesses of God (J.I. Packer. Knowing God. Downers Grove, ILL.: InterVarsity, 1973, p. 171).
A related question has to do with whether the gospel is spread by the doing of justice. Not only does the Bible say over and over that the gospel is spread by preaching, but common sense tells us that loving deeds, as important as they are as an accompaniment of preaching, cannot by themselves bring people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Francis Schaeffer argued rightly that Christians’ relationships with each other constitute the criterion the world uses to judge whether their message is truthful — so Christian community is the “final apologetic” (Francis Schaeffer. The Mark of the Christian. Downers Grove, ILL.: InterVarsity, 1977, p. 25; cf. Timothy George and John Woodbridge. The Mark of Jesus: Loving in a Way the World Can See. Chicago: Moody, 2005).
Notice again, however, the relationship between faith and works. Jesus said that a loving community is necessary for the world to know that God sent him (John 17:23, “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” And John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”).
Sharing our goods with each other and with the needy is a powerful sign to nonbelievers (see the relationship between witness and sharing in Acts 4:31– 37 and Acts 6). But loving deeds — even though they embody the truths of the gospel and cannot be separated from preaching the gospel — should not be conflated with it. The gospel, then, is preeminently a report about the work of Christ on our behalf — that is why and how the gospel is salvation by grace. The gospel is news because it is about a salvation accomplished for us. It is news that creates a life of love, but the life of love is not itself the gospel (See D.A. Carson, “What Is the Gospel? —Revisited,” in For the Fame of God’s Name, 158).
THE GOSPEL HAS TWO EQUAL AND OPPOSITE ENEMIES
The ancient church father Tertullian is reputed to have said, “Just as Jesus was crucified between two thieves, so the gospel is ever crucified between these two errors” (Having heard and read this in the words of other preachers, I have never been able to track down an actual place in Tertullian’s writings where he says it. I think it may be apocryphal, but the principle is right).
What are these errors to which Tertullian was referring? I often call them religion and irreligion; the theological terms are legalism and antinomianism. Another way to describe them could be moralism and relativism (or pragmatism).
These two errors constantly seek to corrupt the message and steal away from us the power of the gospel. Legalism says that we have to live a holy, good life in order to be saved. Antinomianism says that because we are saved, we don’t have to live a holy, good life.
This is the location of the “tip of the spear” of the gospel. A very clear and sharp distinction between legalism, antinomianism, and the gospel is often crucial for the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit to work. If our gospel message even slightly resembles “you must believe and live right to be saved” or “God loves and accepts everyone just as they are,” we will find our communication is not doing the identity-changing, heart-shaping transformative work described in the next part of this book. If we just preach general doctrine and ethics from Scripture, we are not preaching the gospel. The gospel is the good news that God has accomplished our salvation for us through Christ in order to bring us into a right relationship with him and eventually to destroy all the results of sin in the world.
Still, it can be rightly argued that in order to understand all this — who God is, why we need salvation, what he has done to save us — we must have knowledge of the basic teachings of the entire Bible. J. Gresham Machen, for example, speaks of the biblical doctrines of God and of man to be the “presuppositions of the gospel” ((J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001, 99).
This means that an understanding of the Trinity, of Christ’s incarnation, of original sin and sin in general — are all necessary. If we don’t understand, for example, that Jesus was not just a good man but the second person of the Trinity, or if we don’t understand what the “wrath of God” means, it is impossible to understand what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Not only that, but the New Testament constantly explains the work of Christ in Old Testament terms — in the language of priesthood, sacrifice, and covenant.
In other words, we must not just preach the Bible in general; we must preach the gospel. Yet unless those listening to the message understand the Bible in general, they won’t grasp the gospel. The more we understand the whole corpus of biblical doctrine, the more we will understand the gospel itself — and the more we understand the gospel, the more we will come to see that this is, in the end, what the Bible is really about. Biblical knowledge is necessary for the gospel and distinct from the gospel, yet it so often stands in when the gospel is not actually present that people have come to mistake its identity.
THE GOSPEL HAS CHAPTERS
So, the gospel is good news — it is not something we do but something that has been done for us. Simple enough. But when we ask questions like “Good news about what?” or “Why is it good news?” the richness and complexity of the gospel begin to emerge.
There are two basic ways to answer the question “What is the gospel?” One is to offer the biblical good news of how you can get right with God. This is to understand the question to mean, “What must I do to be saved?” The second is to offer the biblical good news of what God will fully accomplish in history through the salvation of Jesus. This is to understand the question as “What hope is there for the world?”
If we conceive the question in the first, more individualistic way, we explain how a sinful human being can be reconciled to a holy God and how his or her life can be changed as a result. It is a message about individuals. The answer can be outlined: Who God is, what sin is, who Christ is and what he did, and what faith is. These are basically propositions.
If we conceive of the question in the second way, to ask all that God is going to accomplish in history, we explain where the world came from, what went wrong with it, and what must happen for it to be mended. This is a message about the world. The answer can be outlined: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. These are chapters in a plotline, a story. There is no single way to present the biblical gospel. Yet I urge you to try to be as thoughtful as possible in your gospel presentations. The danger in answering only the first question (“What must I do to be saved?”) without the second (“What hope is there for the world?”) is that, standing alone, the first can play into the Western idea that religion exists to provide spiritual goods that meet individual spiritual needs for freedom from guilt and bondage. It does not speak much about the goodness of the original creation or of God’s concern for the material world, and so this conception may set up the listener to see Christianity as sheer escape from the world. But the danger in conceiving the gospel too strictly as a story line of the renewal of the world is even greater. It tells listeners about God’s program to save the world, but it does not tell them how to actually get right with God and become part of that program. In fact, I’ll say that without the first message, the second message is not the gospel. J. I. Packer writes these words:
In recent years, great strides in biblical theology and contemporary canonical exegesis have brought new precision to our grasp of the Bible’s overall story of how God’s plan to bless Israel, and through Israel the world, came to its climax in and through Christ. But I do not see how it can be denied that each New Testament book, whatever other job it may be doing, has in view, one way or another, Luther’s primary question: how may a weak, perverse, and guilty sinner find a gracious God? Nor can it be denied that real Christianity only really starts when that discovery is made. And to the extent that modern developments, by filling our horizon with the great metanarrative, distract us from pursuing Luther’s question in personal terms, they hinder as well as help in our appreciation of the gospel (J. I. Packer, In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2007, 26 – 27).
Still, the Bible’s grand narrative of cosmic redemption is critical background to help an individual get right with God. One way to proceed is to interleave the two answers to the “What is the gospel?” question so that gospel truths are laid into a story with chapters rather than just presented as a set of propositions. The narrative approach poses the questions, and the propositional approach supplies the answers.
How would we relate the gospel to someone in this way? What follows is a “conversational pathway” for presenting the gospel to someone as the chapters in a story. In the Bible, the term gospel is the declaration of what Jesus Christ has done to save us. In light of the biblical usage, then, we should observe that chapters 1 (God and Creation), 2 (Fall and Sin), and 4 (Faith) are not, strictly speaking, “the gospel.” They are prologue and epilogue. Simon Gathercole argues that both Paul and the Gospel writers considered the good news to have three basic elements: the identity of Jesus as Son of God and Messiah, the death of Jesus for sin and justification, and the establishment of the reign of God and the new creation (Simon Gathercole, “The Gospel of Paul and the Gospel of the Kingdom,” in God’s Power to Save, ed. Chris Green. Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity, 2006, 138 – 54).
The gospel, then, is packed into chapter 3, with its three headings — incarnation, substitution, and restoration. Chapter 1 on God and chapter 2 on sin constitute absolutely critical background information for understanding the meaning of the person and work of Jesus, and chapter 4 helps us understand how we must respond to Jesus’ salvation. Nevertheless, it is reasonable and natural to refer to the entire set of four chapters as “the gospel.”
WHERE DID WE COME FROM?
Answer: God. There is one God. He is infinite in power, goodness, and holiness and yet also personal and loving, a God who speaks to us in the Bible. The world is not an accident, but the creation of the one God (Genesis 1). God created all things, but why did he do that? Why did he create the world and us? The answer is what makes the Christian understanding of God profound and unique. While there is only one God, within God’s being there are three persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit —who are all equally God and who have loved, adored, served, and enjoyed one another from all eternity. If God were unipersonal, then he would have not known love until he created other beings. In that case, love and community would not have been essential to his character; it would have emerged later. But God is triune, and therefore love, friendship, and community are intrinsic to him and at the heart of all reality. So a triune God created us (John 1: 1 – 4), but he would not have created us to get the joy of mutual love and service, because he already had that. Rather, he created us to share in his love and service. As we know from John 17: 20– 24, the persons of the Trinity love and serve one another — they are “other-oriented” (D. A. Carson in The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2000, pp. 39 & 43 writes, “What we have, then, is a picture of God whose love, even in eternity past, even before the creation of anything, is other-oriented. This cannot be said [for instance] of Allah. Yet because the God of the Bible is one, this plurality-in-unity does not destroy his entirely appropriate self-focus as God… There has always been an other-orientation to the love of God… We are the friends of God by virtue of the intra-Trinitarian love of God that so worked out in the fullness of time that the plan of redemption, conceived in the mind of God in eternity past, has exploded into our space-time history at exactly the right moment.”).
And thus God created us to live in the same way. In order to share the joy and love that God knew within himself, he created a good world that he cares for, a world full of human beings who were called to worship, know, and serve him, not themselves (See “The Dance of Creation,” in Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008, pp. 225– 26; “The Dance,” in Tim Keller, King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus. New York: Dutton, 2011, 3– 13).
WHY DID THINGS GO SO WRONG?
Answer: Sin. God created us to adore and serve him and to love others. By living this way, we would have been completely happy and enjoyed a perfect world. But instead, the whole human race turned away from God, rebelling against his authority. Instead of living for God and our neighbors, we live lives of self-centeredness. Because our relationship with God has been broken, all other relationships — with other human beings, with our very selves, and with the created world — are also ruptured. The result is spiritual, psychological, social, and physical decay and breakdown. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” — the world now lies under the power of sin (Quote from the poem “The Second Coming,” 1920 by William Butler Yeats).
Sin reaps two terrible consequences. One consequence is spiritual bondage (Rom 6: 15–18). We may believe in God or we may not believe, but either way, we never make him our greatest hope, good, or love. We try to maintain control of our lives by living for other things — for money, career, family, fame, romance, sex, power, comfort, social and political causes, or something else. But the result is always a loss of control, a form of slavery. Everyone has to live for something, and if that something is not God, then we are driven by that thing we live for — by overwork to achieve it, by inordinate fear if it is threatened, deep anger if it is being blocked, and inconsolable despair if it is lost. So the novelist David Foster Wallace, not long before his suicide, spoke these words to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College:
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough… Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you… Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is… they’re unconscious. They are default settings (Emily Bobrow, “David Foster Wallace, in His Own Words,” taken from his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, http:// moreintelligentlife.com/ story/ david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words; accessed January 4, 2012).
The second basic consequence of sin is condemnation (Rom 6: 23). We are not just suffering because of sin; we are guilty because of sin. Often we say, “Well, I’m not very religious, but I’m a good person — and that is what is most important.” But is it? Imagine a woman —a poor widow —with an only son. She teaches him how she wants him to live — to always tell the truth, to work hard, and to help the poor. She makes very little money, but with her meager savings she is able to put him through college. Imagine that when he graduates, he hardly ever speaks to her again. He occasionally sends a Christmas card, but he doesn’t visit her; he won’t answer her phone calls or letters; he doesn’t speak to her. But he lives just like she taught him — honestly, industriously, and charitably. Would we say this was acceptable? Of course not! Wouldn’t we say that by living a “good life” but neglecting a relationship with the one to whom he owed everything he was doing something condemnable? In the same way, if God created us and we owe him everything and we do not live for him but we “live a good life,” it is not enough. We all owe a debt that must be paid.
WHAT WILL PUT THINGS RIGHT?
Answer: Christ. First, Jesus Christ puts things right through his incarnation. C. S. Lewis wrote that if there is a God, we certainly don’t relate to him as people on the first floor of a building relate to people on the second floor. We relate to him the way Hamlet relates to Shakespeare. We (characters) might be able to know quite a lot about the playwright, but only to the degree that the author chooses to put information about himself in the play (See C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967, pp. 167– 76).
In the Christian view, however, we believe that God did even more than simply give us information. Many fans of Dorothy Sayers’s detective stories and mystery novels point out that Sayers was one of the first women to attend Oxford University. The main character in her stories — Lord Peter Wimsey — is an aristocratic sleuth and a single man. At one point in the novels, though, a new character appears, Harriet Vane. She is described as one of the first women who graduated from Oxford — and as a writer of mystery novels. Eventually she and Peter fall in love and marry. Who was she? Many believe Sayers looked into the world she had created, fell in love with her lonely hero, and wrote herself into the story to save him. Very touching! But that is not nearly as moving or amazing as the reality of the incarnation (John 1: 14). God, as it were, looked into the world he had made and saw our lostness and had pity on his people. And so he wrote himself into human history as its main character (John 3: 16). The second person in the Trinity, the Son of God, came into the world as a man, Jesus Christ.
The second way Jesus puts things right is through substitution. Because of the guilt and condemnation on us, a just God can’t simply shrug off our sins. Being sorry is not enough. We would never allow an earthly judge to let a wrongdoer off, just because he was contrite — how much less should we expect a perfect heavenly Judge to do so? And even when we forgive personal wrongs against us, we cannot simply forgive without cost. If someone harms us and takes money or happiness or reputation from us, we can either make them pay us back or forgive them— which means we absorb the cost ourselves without remuneration.
Jesus Christ lived a perfect life — the only human being to ever do so. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
At the end of his life, he deserved blessing and acceptance; at the end of our lives, because every one of us lives in sin, we deserve rejection and condemnation. “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks [Gentiles], are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:9–12).
Yet when the time had fully come, Jesus received in our place, on the cross, the rejection and condemnation we deserve (“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” – 1 Peter 3:18), so that, when we believe in him, we can receive the blessing and acceptance he deserves (“For our sake he made him to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” – 2 Corinthians 5: 21).
There is no more moving thought than that of someone giving his life to save another. In Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, two men — Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton — both love the same woman, Lucie Manette, but Lucie chooses to marry Charles. Later, during the French Revolution, Charles is thrown in prison and awaits execution on the guillotine. Sydney visits Charles in prison, drugs him, and has him carried out. When a young seamstress (also on death row) realizes that Sydney is taking Charles’s place, she is amazed and asks him to hold her hand for strength. She is deeply moved by his substitutionary sacrifice — and it wasn’t even for her! When we realize that Jesus did the very same thing for us, it changes everything — the way we regard God, ourselves, and the world.
The third way Jesus will put things right is through the eventual restoration of all that has gone wrong with the world. The first time Jesus came from heaven to earth, he came in weakness to suffer for our sins. But the second time he comes, he will judge the world, putting a final end to all evil, suffering, decay, and death. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God…But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (Romans 8:19–21; 2 Peter 3:13).
This means that Christ’s salvation does not merely save our souls so we can escape the pain of the curse on the physical world. Rather, the final goal is the renewal and restoration of the material world, and the redemption of both our souls and our bodies. Vinoth Ramachandra notes how unique this view is among the religions of the world:
So our salvation lies not in an escape from this world but in the transformation of this world… You will not find hope for the world in any religious systems or philosophies of humankind. The biblical vision is unique. That is why when some say that there is salvation in other faiths I ask them, “What salvation are you talking about?” No faith holds out a promise of eternal salvation for the world the way the cross and resurrection of Jesus do (Vinoth Ramachandra, The Scandal of Jesus. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001, 24).
HOW CAN I BE PUT RIGHT?
Answer: Faith. Jesus died for our sins and rose again from the grave. By faith in him, our sins can be forgiven and we can be assured of living forever with God and one day being raised from the dead like Christ. So what does it mean to believe, to have faith? First, it means to grasp what salvation “by faith” means. Believing in Christ does not mean that we are forgiven for our past, get a new start on life, and must simply try harder to live better than we did in the past. If this is your mind-set, you are still putting your faith in yourself. You are your own Savior. You are looking to your moral efforts and abilities to make yourself right with God. But this will never work. No one lives a perfect life. Even your best deeds are tainted by selfish and impure motives.
The gospel is that when we believe in Christ, there is now “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Putting our faith in Christ is not about trying harder; it means transferring our trust away from ourselves and resting in him. It means asking, “Father, accept me not because of what I have done or ever will do but because of what Jesus has done in my place.” When we do that, we are adopted into God’s family and given the right to his eternal, fatherly love (John 1:12–13).
The second thing to keep in mind is that it is not the quality of the faith itself that saves us; it is what Jesus has done for us. It is easy to assume that being “saved by faith” means that God will now love us because of the depth of our repentance and faith. But that is to once again subtly make ourselves our own Savior rather than Jesus. It is not the amount of our faith but the object of our faith that saves us. Imagine two people boarding an airplane. One person has almost no faith in the plane or the crew and is filled with fears and doubts. The other has great confidence in the plane and the crew. They both enter the plane, fly to a destination, and get off the plane safely. One person had a hundred times more faith in the plane than the other did, but they were equally safe. It wasn’t the amount of their faith but the object of their faith (the plane and crew) that kept them from suffering harm and arriving safely at their destination. Saving faith isn’t a level of psychological certainty; it is an act of the will in which we rest in Jesus. We give ourselves wholly to him because he gave himself wholly for us (“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me… Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me”- Mark 8:34; Revelation 3:20).
THE RIGHT RELATIONSHIP OF THE GOSPEL TO ALL OF MINISTRY
There is always a danger that church leaders and ministers will conceive of the gospel as merely the minimum standard of doctrinal content for being a Christian believer. As a result, many preachers and leaders are energized by thoughts of teaching more advanced doctrine, or of deeper forms of spirituality, or of intentional community and the sacraments, or of “deeper discipleship,” or of psychological healing, or of social justice and cultural engagement. One of the reasons is the natural emergence of specialization as a church grows and ages. People naturally want to go deeper into various topics and ministry disciplines. But this tendency can cause us to lose sight of the whole. Though we may have an area or a ministry that we tend to focus on, the gospel is what brings unity to all that we do. Every form of ministry is empowered by the gospel, based on the gospel, and is a result of the gospel.
Perhaps an illustration here will help. Imagine you’re in an orchestra and you begin to play, but the sound is horrific because the instruments are out of tune. The problem can’t be fixed by simply tuning them to each other. It won’t help for each person to get in tune to the person next to her because each person will be tuning to something different. No, they will all need to be tuned properly to one source of pitch. Often we go about trying to tune ourselves to the sound of everything else in our lives. We often hear this described as “getting balance.” But the questions that need to be asked are these: “Balanced to what?” “Tuned to what?” The gospel does not begin by tuning us in relation to our particular problems and surroundings; it first re-tunes us to God (Thanks to Michael Thate for this illustration).
If an element of ministry is not recognized as a result of the gospel, it may sometimes be mistaken for the gospel and eventually supplant the gospel in the church’s preaching and teaching. Counseling, spiritual direction, doing justice, engaging culture, doctrinal instruction, and even evangelism itself may become the main thing instead of the gospel. In such cases, the gospel as outlined above is no longer understood as the fountainhead, the central dynamic, from which all other things proceed. It is no longer the center of the preaching, the thinking, or the life of the church; some other good thing has replaced it. As a consequence, conversions will begin to dwindle in number because the gospel is not preached with a kind of convicting sharpness that lays bare the secrets of the heart and gives believers and nonbelievers a sense of God’s reality, even against their wills (“But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” – 1 Corinthians 14:24–25).
Because the gospel is endlessly rich, it can handle the burden of being the one “main thing” of a church. First Peter 1:12 and its context indicate that the angels never tire of looking into and exploring the wonders of the gospel. It can be preached from innumerable stories, themes, and principles from all over the Bible. But when the preaching of the gospel is either confused with or separated from the other endeavors of the church, preaching becomes mere exhortation (to get with the church’s program or a biblical standard of ethics) or informational instruction (to inculcate the church’s values and beliefs). When the proper connection between the gospel and any aspect of ministry is severed, both are shortchanged.
The gospel is “heraldic proclamation” before it is anything else (D.A. Carson, “What Is the Gospel? —Revisited,” in For the Fame of God’s Name, 158). It is news that creates a life of love, but the life of love is not itself the gospel. The gospel is not everything that we believe, do, or say. The gospel must primarily be understood as good news, and the news is not as much about what we must do as about what has been done. The gospel is preeminently a report about the work of Christ on our behalf — salvation accomplished for us. That’s how it is a gospel of grace. Yet, as we will see in the next chapter, the fact that the gospel is news does not mean it is a simple message. There is no such thing as a “one size fits all” understanding of the gospel.
USE WORDS IF NECESSARY
[*This insert was an interesting aside by Keller, and not in the text: The
popular saying “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary” is helpful but also misleading. If the gospel were primarily about what we must do to be saved, it could be communicated as well by actions (to be imitated) as by words. But it the gospel is primarily about what God has done to save us, and how we can receive it through faith, it can only be expressed through words. Faith cannot come without hearing. This is why we read in Galatians 2:5 that heresy endangers the truth of the gospel, and why Philippians 1:16 declares that a person’s mind must be persuaded of the truth of the gospel. Ephesians 1:13 also asserts that the gospel is the word of truth. Ephesians 6:19 and Colossians 1:23 teach that we advance the gospel through verbal communication, particular preaching.]
The article above was adapted from Keller, Timothy J. (Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Kindle Locations 761-771). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
About the Author:
Dr. Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York, and the author of numerous books including The Reason for God: Belief in an age of Skepticism (In my opinion the best book to date on apologetics for a postmodern culture—I think this book will do for post moderns what Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis did for moderns); and The Prodigal God (in my opinion the most clear presentation of the gospel for a post modern culture based on Luke 15).
The Girl Nobody Wanted by Tim Keller (Genesis 29:15-35)
 Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman [relative], should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?”  Now Laban had two daughters. The name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.  Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance.  Jacob loved Rachel. And he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”  Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.”  So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.
 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.”  So Laban gathered together all the people of the place and made a feast.  But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he went in to her.  (Laban gave his female servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her servant.)  And in the morning, behold, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?”  Laban said, “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn.  Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.”  Jacob did so, and completed her week. Then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife.  (Laban gave his female servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her servant.)  So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years.  When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.  And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.”  She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.” And she called his name Simeon.  Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore his name was called Levi.  And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the LORD.” Therefore she called his name Judah. Then she ceased bearing. Gen. 29:15-35
There is no book, I believe, less sentimental about marriage and the family then the Bible. It is utterly realistic about how hard it is not to be married; and it is utterly realistic about how hard it is to be married. Out in the world, especially in the culture outside the church, there are a lot of people who are cynical about marriage. They don’t trust marriage, so they avoid it altogether or give themselves an easy escape by living together. Then there are people inside the church who are very much the opposite. They think, “Marriage, family, white picket fences—that is what family values are all about. That’s how you find fulfillment. That is what human life is all about.”
The Bible shows us marriage and the family, with all of its joys and all of its difficulties, and points us to Jesus and says, “This is who you need, this is what you need, to have a fulfilled life.” What the Bible says is so nuanced, so different, so off the spectrum. One of the places you see this is in this fascinating story—the account of Jacob’s search for his one true love. I would like you to notice three things in the story:
First, this overpowering human drive to find one true love [Key Theme – a hope];
Secondly, the devastation and disillusionment that ordinarily accompanies the search for true love;
[Third], and finally, what we can do about this longing – what will fulfill it.
1) THE HUMAN DRIVE TO FIND ONE TRUE LOVE
At the beginning of the passage, Laban says to Jacob, “Just because you are a kinsmen [relative] of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be” (v. 15). Before continuing, let me give you the back-story.
Two generations earlier, God had come to Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather, and said, “Abraham, look at the misery, the death, and the brokenness. I am going to do something about it. I am going to redeem this world, and I am going to do it through your family, through one of your descendents. And therefore, in every generation of your descendents, one child will bear the Messianic line. That child will walk before me and be the head of the clan and pass the true faith on to the next generation. Then there will be another child that bears the Messianic line [seed] and another, until one day, one of your descendents will be the Messiah himself, the King of kings.”
Abraham fathered Isaac, the first in the line Messianic forebears, and when Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, became pregnant with twins, God spoke to Rebekah through and said, “The elder will serve the younger.” That was God’s way of saying that the second twin born would be the chosen one, to carry on the Messianic hope. Esau is born first and then Jacob, but in spite of the prophecy, Isaac set his heart on the oldest son. He set his heart on Esau and favored him all through his life. As a result, he distorted his entire family. Esau grew up proud, spoiled, willful, and impulsive; Jacob grew up rejected and resentful and turned into a schemer; Rebekah favored her younger son and became alienated from her husband Isaac.
Finally, the time came for the aged Isaac to give the blessing to the head of the clan, which was to be Esau; but Jacob dressed up as Esau, went in, and got the blessing. When Esau found out about it, he became determined to kill Jacob, and Jacob had to flee into the wilderness. Now everything was ruined. Jacob’s life was ruined. Not only did he no longer have a family to be the head of; he no longer had a family or an inheritance at all, and he had to flee for his life. Jacob did not know whether Esau messed up or he messed up or Isaac or maybe even God, but now his life was in ruins and he would never fulfill his destiny. Just to survive, he was forced to flee to the other side of the Fertile Crescent.
Jacob escaped to his mother’s family, and they took him in as a kind of charity case. Laban, his uncle, allowed him to be a shepherd. Laban realized that Jacob had tremendous ability as a shepherd and a manager. He figured out that he could make a lot of money if Jacob were in charge of his flocks. That is how we get to this question: “How much can I pay you to be in charge of my flocks?”
Jacob’s answer [vv. 16-18] is basically one word: Rachel. He wanted Rachel as his bride, and was willing to work seven years for her. What do we know about Rachel? The text comes right out and says that Rachel was lovely in form and beautiful. The Hebrew word translated “form” is quite literal it means exactly what you think. It is talking about her figure. Rachel had a great figure. She had a beautiful face and was absolutely gorgeous. I want to give credit where credit is due and say that Robert Alter, the great Hebrew literature scholar at Berkeley, has helped me understand this text a lot. Alter says there are all sorts of signals in the text about how over-the-top, intensely lovesick and overwhelmed Jacob is with Rachel. There is the poignant but telling statement where the text says, “Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her (v.20).”
More interesting is the next verse: “Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” Of course that means he wants to have sex with her. Alter says that this statement is so blunt, so graphic, so sexual, so over-the-top and inappropriate and non-customary that, over the centuries, Jewish commentators have had to do all kinds of backpedaling to explain it. But he says it is not that hard to explain the meaning. He says that the narrator is showing us a man driven by and overwhelmed with emotional and sexual longing for one woman.
What is going on here? Jacob’s life was empty. He never had his father’s love. Now he didn’t even have his mother’s love, and he certainly had no sense of God’s love. He had lost everything—no family, no inheritance, no nothing. And then he saw Rachel, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, the most beautiful woman for miles around, and he said to himself, “If I had her, finally, something would be right in my lousy life. If I had her, life would have meaning. If I had her, it would fix things.” If he found his one true love, life would finally be okay.
All the longings of the human heart for significance, for security, and for meaning—he had no other object for them—they were all fixed on Rachel.
Jacob was somewhat unusual for his time. Cultural historians will tell you that in ancient times people didn’t generally marry for love (that is actually a relatively recent phenomenon). They married for status. Nevertheless, he is not rare today.
Ernest Becker was a secular man, an atheist, who won the Pulitzer Prize in the 1970’s for his book The Denial of Death. In the book, he talks about how secular people deal with the fact that they don’t believe in God. He says that one of the main ways secular culture has dealt with the God vacuum is through apocalyptic sex and romance. Our secular culture has loaded its desire for transcendence into romance and love. Talking about the modern secular person, he says:
He still needed to feel heroic, to know that his life mattered in the scheme of things…He still had to merge himself with some higher, self-absorbing meaning, in trust and gratitude…If he no longer had God, how was he to do this? One of the first ways that occurred to him, as [Otto] Rank saw, was the “romantic solution.” …The self-glorification that he needed in the innermost nature he now looked for in the love partner. The love partner becomes the divine ideal within which to fulfill one’s life…
After all, what is it that we want when we elevate the love partner to the position of God? We want redemption—nothing less. We want to be rid of our faults, of our feelings of nothingness. We want to be justified, to know that our creation has not been in vain. … That is exactly what Jacob did. And that is what people are doing all over the place. That is what our culture is begging us to do—to load all of the deepest needs of our hearts for significance, security, and transcendence into romance and love, into finding that one true love. That will fix my lousy life!
Let me tell you something you notice when you live in New York City. It is a tough town; everybody looks so cool and pulled together. But the amount of money people spend on their appearance shows they are desperate. They cannot imagine living without apocalyptic romance and love. The human longing for one true love has always been around, but in our culture now, it has been magnified to an astounding degree. But where does it lead?
2) The Disillusionment That Comes
Secondly, let’s look at the disillusionment and devastation that almost always accompanies a search for that one true love. We begin with Laban’s plot. Laban knew that Jacob offered to serve seven years for Rachel. He knew what that meant. At that time, when you wanted to marry someone, you paid the father a bride price, and it was somewhere around thirty to forty-five shekels. Robert Alter says that a month’s wages was equal to one and a half shekels, and therefore, you can see that Jacob, right out of the box is absolutely lovesick. He is a horrible bargainer; he is immediately offered three to four times the normal bride price. Laban knew he had him. He knew this man was vulnerable.
Commentators say there are indicators in the text that Laban immediately came up with a plan, realizing he could get even more out of this deal. Notice the conversation between Jacob and Laban. The text says, “Jacob loved Rachel. And he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” (v.18). Look at how Laban responds. He never says, “Yes”! He does not say, “Yes, seven years. It is a deal.” No! Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me” (v.19).
Jacob wants it to be a yes, so he hears a yes. But it is not a yes. Laban is just saying, “Yea, okay, if you want to marry Rachel, it is a good idea.”
Seven years pass; now Jacob says, “Give me my wife.” As customary, there is a great feast. In the middle of the feast, the bride is brought heavily veiled to the groom. She was given to him, and he took her into the tent. He was inebriated, as was also the custom; and in that dark tent, Jacob lay with her. The text tells us, “When morning came, there was Leah!” (v. 25). Jacob looked and discovered that he had married Leah, and had had sex with Leah, and he had consummated the marriage with Leah. Jacob, rightfully angry, goes to Laban and says, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me? (v. 25). Laban replies that it is customary for the older girl to be married before the younger girl.
I must say I have read this text for thirty years or more and I have never understood why Jacob basically says, “Oh, okay.” I have never figured it out. He is obviously angry and the situation is absolutely ridiculous. Why doesn’t Jacob kill him? Why doesn’t he throttle him? Again, Robert Alter is very helpful here. He suggests something that I think is rather profound.
First of all, what Laban literally says is: “It is not the custom here to put the younger before the older.”
Second, Alter points out that when Jacob said, “Why have you deceived me?” the word translated “deceived” is the same Hebrew word that was used in chapter 27 to describe what Jacob did to Isaac. [What goes around comes around; sowing…and reaping]
Alter says (this is surmise, but what surmise!) that it must have occurred to Jacob that Laban had only done to him what he had done to his father. In the dark, he thought he was touching Rachel, as his father in the dark of his blindness had thought he was touching Esau. Alter then quotes an ancient rabbinical commentator who imagines the conversation the next day between Jacob and Leah. Jacob says to Leah: “I called out ‘Rachel’ in the dark and you answered. Why did you do that to me?” And Leah says to him, “Your father called out ‘Esau’ in the dark and you answered. Why did you do that to him?” Fury dies on his lips. Cut to the quick. Suddenly the evil he has done has come to Jacob. And he sees what it is like to be manipulated and deceived, and meekly he picks up and works another seven years.
We leave Jacob in his devastation (I don’t have a better word for it), and then we see what it has done to Leah. Now, who is Leah? We are told that Leah is the older daughter, but the only detail we are given about her is that she has weak eyes. Nobody quite knows what “weak eyes” means; some commentators have assumed it means she has bad eyesight. But the text does not say that Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel could see a long way. Weakness probably means cross-eyed; it could mean something unsightly. But here is the point: Leah was particularly unattractive, and she had to live all of her life in the shadow of her sister who was absolutely stunning.
As a result, Laban knew no one was ever going to marry her or offer any money for her. He wondered how he was going to get rid of her, how was he going to unload her. And then he saw his chance, he saw an opening and he did it. And now the girl that Laban, her father, did not want has been given to a husband who doesn’t want her either. She is the girl nobody wants. Leah has a hollow in her heart every bit as the hollow in Jacob’s heart. Now she begins to do to Jacob what Jacob had done to Rachel and what Isaac had done to Esau. She set her heart on Jacob. You see the evil and the pathology in these families just ricocheting around again and again from generation to generation.
The last verses here are some of the most plaintive [sad] I have ever read in the Bible (most English translations tell you a little about what the words actually mean). [she uses Hebrew words that express her longing for Jacob] Leah gave birth to her first child, a boy and she named him Reuben. Reuben means, “to see” and she thought, “Now maybe my husband will see me; maybe I won’t be invisible anymore.” But she had a second son, and she named him Simeon, which has to do with hearing: “Now maybe my husband will finally listen to me.” But he didn’t. She had a third son and named him Levi, which means “to be attached,” and she said, “Maybe finally my husband’s heart will be attached to me.”
What was she doing? She was trying to get an identity through traditional family values. Having sons, especially in those days, was the best way to do that; but it was not working. She had set her heart, all of her hopes and dreams, on her husband. She thought, “If I have babies and if I have sons and my husband loves me, then finally something will be fixed in my lousy life.” Instead, she was just going down into hell. And the text says—it is sort of like the summary statement—Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. That meant she was condemned every single day. This is what I mean by hell—every single day she was condemned to see the man she most longed for in the arms of the one in whose shadow she had lived all her life. Every day was like another knife in the heart.
All we see here is devastation, right? No, that is actually not the way the text ends. But before we look at how the text ends, let me field two objections and draw two lessons.
The first objection has to do with all these ancient practices. Some people who read the text or listen to a sermon on it are thinking, Why are you telling me this story—men buying and selling women, primogeniture [pry-mo-gen-i-turr], sexual slavery—what is this about? I am offended by this kind of old primitive culture. I know they existed, but thank goodness we don’t live in a culture like that anymore. Why do we have to know about it?
First, it is important to see (and this comes from what Robert Alter says), if you read the book of Genesis, and you think it is condoning primogeniture [the right of succession belonging to the firstborn child], polygamy, and bride purchase—if you think it is condoning these things, you have not yet learned how to read. Because in absolutely every single place where you see polygamy or primogeniture, it always wreaks devastation. It never works out. All you ever see is the misery these patriarchal institutions cause in families. Alter says if you think the book of Genesis is promoting those things, you have no idea what is being said. He says these stories are subversive [seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution] to all those ancient patriarchal institutions. Just read!
You might also be thinking, Thank goodness we don’t live in a culture in which a woman’s value is based on her looks. Thank goodness we don’t live in a culture where a woman looks in a mirror and says, “Look at me I am a size 4, I can get a rich husband.” Hundreds of years ago, people used to do that but nobody does that anymore. Really?
I am sorry, I shouldn’t be sarcastic, but what in the world makes you think that we are in a less brutal culture? We are and we aren’t. Besides that, what the Bible says about the human heart is always true, it is always abiding. If anything, what we are saying is truer today than it was before.
The second objection people have has to do with the moral of the story. They ask, “Where are all the spiritual heroes in this text? Who am I supposed to be emulating? Who is the good guy? What is the moral of the story? I don’t see any! What is going on here?
The answer is: That is absolutely correct. You are starting to get it. You are starting to get the point of the Bible. What do I mean? The Bible doesn’t give us a god at the top of a moral ladder saying, “Look at the people who have found God through their great performance and their moral record. Be like them!” Of course not! Instead, over and over again, the Bible gives us absolutely weak people who don’t seek the grace they need and who don’t deserve the grace they get.
They don’t appreciate it after they get it, and continue to screw up and abuse it even after they have it. And yet, the grace keeps coming! The Bible is not about a god who gives us accounts or moral heroes. It is about grace, and that is what this story is about. So what do we learn from this story? Is there any moral? I wouldn’t put it that way, but here are two things I would want you to see?
First, we learn that through all of life there runs a ground note of cosmic disappointment. You are never going to lead a wise life, no matter who you are, unless you understand that. Here is Jacob, and he says, “If I can just get Rachel, everything will be okay.” And he goes to bed with someone whom he thinks is Rachel, and then, literally, the Hebrew says, “But in the morning, behold, it was Leah.” What does this show us? Listen, I love Leah; I really do. I have been thinking about this text for a long time, and I love her and I want to protect her, so I hope you don’t think I am being mean to her in what I am trying to say. But I want you to know that— when you get married, no matter how great you think that marriage is going to be; when you get a career, no matter how great you think your career is going to be; when you go off to seminary, no matter how much you think it is going to make you into a man or a woman of God—in the morning, it is always Leah!You think you are going to bed with Rachel, and it in the morning, it is always Leah. Nobody has ever said this better than C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:
Most people, if they have really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we have grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The souse may be a good spouse, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.
You have got to understand that it is always Leah! Why? Because if you get married, if you have families, if you go into the ministry, and say that “finally this is going to fix my life” (you don’t really think you are doing it until you do it)—those things will never do what you think they will do. In the morning, it is always Leah.
If you get married, and in any way do as Jacob does and put that kind of weight on the person you are marrying, you are going to crush him or her. You are going to kill each other. You are going to think you have gone to bed with Rachel, but you get up and it is Leah. As time goes on, eventually you are going to know that this is the case; that everything disappoints, that there is a note of cosmic disappointment and disillusionment in everything, in all things into which we most put our hopes. When you finally find that out, there are four things you can do.
One, you can blame the things and drop them and go try new ones, better ones. That is the fool’s way.
The second thing you can do is blame yourself and beat yourself up and say, “I have been a failure. I see everybody else happy. I don’t know why I’m not happy. There is something wrong with me.” So you blame yourself and you become a self-hater.
Third, you can blame the world and get cynical and hard. You say, “Curses on the entire opposite sex” or whatever, in which case you dehumanize yourself.
Lastly, you can, as C. S. Lewis says at the end of his great chapter on hope, change the entire focus of your life. He concludes, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world [something supernatural and eternal].
We see that both the liberal mindset and the conservative mindset are wrong when it comes to romance, sex, and love.
Neither serves us well. In fact, you can almost see it in Jacob and Leah. Jacob, with a liberal mindset, is after an apocalyptic hookup. He says, “Give me my wife! I want sex!” he actually says that. On the other hand, here is Leah, and what is she doing? She is the conservative. She is having babies. She is not out having a career. She is trying to find her identity in being a wife—“Now my husband will love me.”
Guess what? They are both wrong. They are not going anywhere. Their lives are a mess. That is the reason why Ernest Becker says so beautifully, “No human relationship can bear the burden of godhood… However much we idolize him [the love partner], he inevitably reflects earthly decay and imperfection. And as he is our ideal measure of value, this imperfection falls back upon us. If your partner is you “All’ then any shortcoming in him becomes a major threat to you.” – Becker, Denial of Death, 166. As Becker said, what we want when we elevate the love partner to the position of God is to be rid of our faults, to be justified to know our existence has not been in vain. We are after redemption. He then adds, “Needless to say, human partners can’t do this.” You might think that is pretty obvious; but we done believe it. We thought the Bible was a source of family values. Well, it is, in a sense, but how realistic it is! So what are we going to do? We are all creatures of our culture. We have this drive in us for one true love. What are we going to do with it? Here is the answer.
3) What We Can Do about This Longing
I want you to see what God does in Leah and for Leah. Leah is the first person to get it; she does begin to see what you are supposed to do.
Look first at what God does in her. As we have said, every time she has a child, she puts all of her hopes in her husband now loving her. And yet, one of the things scholars notice that is very curious is that even though she is clearly making a functional idol out of her husband and her family, she is calling on the Lord. She doesn’t talk about God in some general way or invoke the name of Elohim. She uses the name Yahweh. In verse 32, it says, “And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD [Yahweh] has looked upon my affliction.” How does she know about Yahweh?
Elohim was the generic word for God back then. All creatures at that time had some general idea of God or gods; they were gods at the top of a ladder, and you had to get up to the top through rituals or through transformations of consciousness or moral performance. Everyone understood God in that sense, but Yahweh was different. Yahweh was the God who came down the ladder, the one who entered into a personal covenantal relationship and intervened to save. Certainly they didn’t know all he was going to do, but Abraham and Isaac knew something about it, and Jacob would have known about it as well. It is interesting that Leah must have learned about Yahweh from Jacob. Even though she is still in the grip of her functional idolatry, somehow she is trying, she is calling out, she is reaching out to a God of grace. She has grasped the concept.
You might say that she has got a theology of sorts, as advanced as it was at the time, but she is having trouble connecting it. She is calling him the Lord, and yet she is treating him like a “god.” Do you follow me?
She is saying, “God can help me save myself through childbearing. God can help me save myself by getting my husband’s love. So she is using God, and yet she not call him God [Elohim]; she calls him Lord [Yahweh]. She is beginning to get it, and what is intriguing is that, at the very end, something happens. The first time she gives birth she says, ‘Now maybe my husband will see me. Now maybe my husband will love me.” And when she gives birth to her third son, she says, “Now maybe my husband will be attached to me.”
Finally, it says that she conceived for the fourth time, and when she gave birth to Judah, she said, “This time!” Isn’t that defiant? It is totally different; no mention of husband, no mention of child. There is some kind of breakthrough. She says, “This time I will praise the LORD.”
At that point, she has finally taken her heart’s deepest hopes off of the old way, off of her husband and her children, and she has put them in the Lord.
Here is what I believe is going on. Jacob and Laban had stolen Leah’s life, but when she stopped giving her heart to a good thing that she had turned into an ultimate thing and gave it to the Lord, she got her life back.
May I respectfully ask you: What good thing in your life are you treating as an ultimate thing?
What do you need to stop giving your heart to if you are going to get your life back?
There are a lot of things I am certain about, but I am absolutely certain that everybody in this room has got something.
Do you know what it is?
If you have no idea, you need to think about it. Something happened to Leah; God did something in her. There was a breakthrough. She began to understand what you are supposed to do with your desire for one true love. She turned her heart toward the only real beauty, the only real lover who can satisfy those cosmic needs.
But we shouldn’t just look at what God did in her. We have to also look for what God has done for her—because God has done something for her. I believe that she had some consciousness, although it might have been semi-consciousness or just intuition, that there was something special about this last child. It would probably be reading too much into the text to say she understood, but I believe she sensed that God had done something for her. And he had.
The writer of Genesis knows what God has done. This child is Judah, and who is Judah? The writer of Genesis tells us in chapter 49 that it is through Judah that Shiloh will come, and it is through Shiloh that the King will come. This is the line! This is the Messianic line! God has come to the girl that nobody wanted, the unloved, and made her the mother of Jesus—not beautiful Rachel, but the homely one, the unwanted one, the unloved one.
Why did God do that? Does he just like the underdog? He did it because of his person and because of his work.
First, because of his person. It says that when the Lord saw Leah was not loved, he loved her. God is saying, “I am the real bridegroom. I am the husband of the husbandless. I am the father of the fatherless.” What does that mean?
He is attracted to the people that the world is not attracted to. He loves the unwanted. He loves the unattractive. He loves the weak, the ones the world doesn’t want to be like. God says, “If nobody else is going to be the spouse of Leah, I will be her spouse.”
Guess what? It is not just those of you without spouses who need to see God as your ultimate spouse, but those of us with spouses have got to see God as our ultimate spouse as well. You have to demote the person you are married to out of first place in your heart to second place behind God or you will end up killing each other. You will put all of your freight, all the weight of all your hopes, on that person. And of course, they are human beings, they are sinners, just like you are. God says you must see him as what he is: the great bridegroom, the spouse for the spouseless. He is not just a king and we are the subjects; he is not just a shepherd and we are the sheep. He is a husband and we are his lovers. He loves us! He is ravished with us—even those of us whom no one else is ravished with; especially those of us whom no one else is ravished with. That is his person. But that is not all.
The second reason why he goes after Leah and not Rachel, why he makes the girl who nobody wanted into the mother of Jesus, the bearer of the Messianic line, the bearer of salvation to the world, is not just that he likes the underdog, but because that it the gospel.
When God came to earth in Jesus Christ, he was the son of Leah. Oh yes, he was! He became the man nobody wanted. He was born in a manger. He had no beauty that we should desire him. He came to his own and his own received him not. And at the end, nobody wanted him. Everybody abandoned him. Even his Father in heaven didn’t want him. Jesus cried out on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Why did he become Leah’s son? Why did he become the man nobody wanted? For you and for me! Here is the gospel: God did not save us in spite of the weakness that he experienced as a human being but through it. And you don’t actually get that salvation into your life through strength; it is only for those who admit they are weak. And if you cannot admit that you are a hopeless moral failure and a sinner and that you are absolutely lost and have no hope apart from the sheer grace of God, then you are not weak enough for Leah and her son and the great salvation that God has brought into the world.
God chose Leah because he is saying, “This is how salvation works. This is the upside-down way that my people will live, at least in relationship to the world, when they receive my salvation.”
Now the way up is down. The way to become rich is to give your money away. The way to become rich is to give your money away. The way to power is to serve God, when he came to earth, as the son of Leah. God made Leah, the girl nobody wanted into the mother of Jesus. Why?
Because he chooses the foolish things to shame the wise; he chooses the weak things to shame the strong; he chooses even the things that are not to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no one will boast in his presence (1 Cor. 1:27-29).
In conclusion, let me give you a few practical applications.
First, if there is anyone with a Laban in their life right now, don’t be bitter and don’t beat them up. Don’t let them take advantage of you either if you can; but remember, God can use that person in your life to make you a better person in your life if you don’t become bitter.
Second, are you somebody who has been rejected, betrayed, maybe recently divorced, and you didn’t want to be? Are you a Leah? Remember, God knows what it is like to be rejected. He didn’t just love Leah, but he actually became Leah. He became the son of Leah. He came to his own and his own received him not.
He understands rejection, and if anything, he is, from what we can tell in the Scripture, attracted to people in your condition. It is his nature, so don’t worry. He knows and he cares.
Third, please don’t let marriage throw you. I have been saying this all along: in the morning, it will always be Leah. And if you understand that, it will make some of you less desperate in your marriage-seeking, and it will make some of you less angry at your spouse for his imperfections.
Last, you may believe you have messed up your life; that your life is on plan B. You should have done this or that, and now it is too late. Think about it:
Should Jacob have deceived Isaac and Esau? No.
Should Isaac have shown the favoritism that turned Jacob into a liar? No.
Everybody sinned. There are no excuses. They shouldn’t have done what they did. They blew up their lives. But if those things hadn’t happened, would Jacob have met the love of his life, Rachel?
Jesus Christ, who is a result of Jacob’s having to flee to the other side of the Fertile Crescent, isn’t plan B! You can’t mess up your life. You can’t mess up God’s plan for you. You will find that no matter how much you do to mess it up, all you are doing is fulfilling his destiny for you.
That does not mean what they did was okay. The devastation and the unhappiness and the misery that happens in your life because of your sins are your fault. You are responsible, you shouldn’t do them; and yet, God is going to work through you. Those two things are together. It is an antinomy, a paradox.
Remember, it is never too late for God to work in your life! Never! You can’t put yourself on plan B. Go to him. Start over now. Say it: “This time, no matter what else I have done, I will praise the Lord!”
*[Delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart – Psalm 37:4]
The sermon manuscript by Dr. Timothy Keller above was adapted and excerpted in parts from the original sermon and from the printed manuscript that can be found in the excellent book of sermons edited by Dr. Dennis E. Johnson entitled: Heralds of the King: Christ-Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.
About The Author/Preacher:
In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting. Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.
Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal books including:
Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.
Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.
The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.
Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.
The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.
The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.
The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2011.
King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus. New York, Dutton, 2011.
Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2011.
The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.
Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.
There Is Only One Gospel – But Several Ways of Expressing It
There is one gospel that we can outline; but it exists in several forms.
Colossians 1:11-17, “11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. 12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
There is a gospel outline that you see in John, Synoptics, & in Paul.
1 Corinthians 15:1ff – Paul is emphatic that the gospel he presents is the same as the one preached by the Jerusalem apostles. “Whether it was I or they,” Paul says, referring to Peter and the others, “so we preached and so you believed” (1 Cor. 15:10-11). This statement assumes a single body of gospel content.
1) There is one gospel – Galatians 1:8; compare Mark 10:17, 23-34 with Matthew 25 and John 3:5, 6, 17 identical language is used for entering the kingdom of God – you have to be born again to see the kingdom; also Matthew 18:3 with Mark 10:13-16 and compare it with John 3 it’s the same language.
2) There are several forms of the gospel – There are different perspectives on the one gospel. After insisting there is only one gospel (Gal. 1:8), he then speaks of being entrusted with “the gospel of the uncircumcised” as opposed to the “gospel of the circumcised” (Gal. 2:7). When Paul spoke to Greeks, he confronted their culture’s idol of speculation and philosophy with the “foolishness” of the cross, and then presented Christ’s salvation as true wisdom. When he spoke to Jews, he confronted their culture’s idol of power and accomplishment with the “weakness” of the cross, and then presented the gospel as true power (1 Cor. 1:22-25).
Paul’s good news was:
First, that Jesus was the promised Messianic King and Son of God come to earth as a servant, in human form. (Rom. 1:3-4; Phil. 2:4ff.)
Second, by his death and resurrection, Jesus atoned for our sin and secured our justification by grace, not by our works (1 Cor. 15:3ff.)
Third, on the cross Jesus broke the dominion of sin and evil over us (Col. 2:13-15) and at his return he will complete what he began by the renewal of the entire material creation and the resurrection of our bodies (Rom 8:18ff.)
In the Synoptic Gospels:
First, Jesus, the Messiah, is the divine Son of God (Mark 1:1)
Second, who died as a substitutionary ransom for the many (Mark 10:45),
Third, who has conquered the demonic present age with its sin and evil (Mark 1:14-2:10) and will return to regenerate the material world (Matt. 19:28.)
If I had to put this outline in a single statement, I might do it like this:
Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.
What is the Gospel?
3 Key Points: Manger/Cross/Crown
1) God emptied Himself (incarnation)
2) God substituted Himself (cross, atonement, propitiation, justification)
3) God is returning to restore this world (restoration)
Kingdom – the administration or order of how things work:
The upside down kingdom – God emptied Himself of His glory and came down (a reversal of the way of thinking – a church that works this part will put a great emphasis on justice and servanthood and avoiding class superiority and generosity and giving). He saves us not be taking power but by giving away power.
The inside out kingdom – salvation is a regenerated heart – the inner nature/ (legalism is outside in not inside out); the gospel is inside out.
Forward back kingdom – the idea of the already and not yet of the kingdom (John Stott talks about this in his book on the Contemporary Christian – and the dangers of an over realized or underealized eschatology).
How does this influence preaching?
People with religious backgrounds (Catholic, Jewish, Islamic) need the form of the gospel for the circumcised (they have a concept of sin, righteousness, and moral absolutes)
People with non-religious backgrounds who are the uncircumcised (draw on the texts that deal with idolatry; they are moral relativists – you have to treat them as idolater’s and address this idolatry – what they want is typically good, but they put it before God and make an idol out of it)
Kingdom and Eternal Life Gospel – Younger listeners are struggling with identity – speak in terms of the overarching biblical gospel in terms of creation, fall, redemption, resurrection and restoration.
About the Author: Dr. Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York, and the author of numerous books including The Reason for God: Belief in an age of Skepticism (In my opinion the best book to date on apologetics for a postmodern culture—I think this book will do for post moderns what Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis did for moderns); and The Prodigal God (in my opinion the most clear presentation of the gospel for a post modern culture based on Luke 15).
55 Resurrection Theses for the Third Millennium
We (Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson in The Cross Is Not Enough – pictured above) have traversed a lot of material about the resurrection in this book. We began by alluding to Luther’s famous ninety-five theses, and although we do not presume to put ourselves on the same level as Luther, in the spirit of his call for church renewal and reform we conclude this book with our 55 “theses.”
(1) The resurrection is the lynchpin of Christianity. No other dogma provides the glue that holds faith, life, and practice altogether.
(2) The church must recover a balanced understanding of both the cross and the resurrection.
(3) The resurrection does not exist just to validate the cross.
(4) The resurrection defense is about the truth of the Easter event, but the traditional defense must extend into showing its relevance to all areas of life.
(5) Without the resurrection of Christ there can be no future resurrection of the dead.
(6) Christian hope without the resurrection of the dead is an everlasting pie-in-the-sky existence.
(7) Resurrection is holistic and therefore more empowering than reincarnation.
(8) To deny the resurrection of Jesus is to deny the resurrection of the dead and to deny hope.
(9) The resurrection is not a New Testament “surprise.” It is found in the Law, Prophets, and Writings of the Old Testament.
(10) The risen Jesus gives confidence about the authenticity of the Bible; he affirms the Old Testament and the Spirit guiding the writers of the New Testament.
(11) The answer to the question, what does God look like? can be found in the resurrection of Jesus.
(12) The resurrection confirms the hope that Jesus is indeed coming again.
(13) The first Easter showed that the women were the most faithful followers of Jesus through his death, burial, and resurrection. They are rewarded with the first-day-of-the-week appearances.
(14) The resurrection brings divine meaning to the total agony and suffering of Christ on the cross.
(15) Without the resurrection the call to mission in Acts would be empty nonsense.
(16) Mission that focuses only on the death of Christ is not the good news.
(17) It is the resurrected Christ who empowers, guides, and gives strength to the church in mission.
(18) The resurrection is not hidden from humankind. We are without excuse. It is found in both special revelation and the modes of general revelation in nature, culture, and history.
(19) Those who proclaim the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the dead should expect to be mocked and rejected in parts of the church and by scoffers in the marketplace.
(20) The resurrection speaks to the post-Christendom seeker, the modernist follower, and those who are both/and in worldview.
(21) Jesus’s resurrection is the lynchpin and the glue of every authentic evangelistic utterance.
(22) Jesus’s resurrection is about evangelizing and ministering to whole people; it is not about rescuing disembodied souls to float on ethereal clouds in heaven.
(23) Jesus’s resurrection and the resurrection of the dead show that we must care for the whole person.
(24) When the resurrection is upheld as the lynchpin, the binary view of evangelism versus social justice evaporates.
(25) Looking for Aslan and Gandalf in myth and fairy tale can help point us toward the fulfillment of resurrection in Jesus.
(26) Preaching that does not at least make the cross and resurrection equal is counter to the true gospel.
(27) The resurrection brings us to our knees before the one who is both judge and king.
(28) The resurrection is countercultural because it goes against the grain and transforms our way of life. It overturns all idolatrous and disempowering paradigms.
(29) Jesus’s resurrection is the critical sign of the coming kingdom.
(30) Without the resurrection that brings divine judgment there will be no justice, leaving all the atrocities of history unanswered.
(31) Ethics needs the fulcrum of the resurrection: it validates the message and shows the cosmic dimension of God’s ethical concern for the world, for the environment, and for us.
(32) The resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead do not involve planet earth ending up in a cosmic dustbin. The resurrection, to the contrary, shows that there is to be both a new heaven and a new earth that are our eternal home.
(33) The resurrection of Jesus means that God loves all creation.
(34) The resurrection is radical discipleship as it claims to empower, equip, and strengthen us to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is about living by the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.
(35) Radical discipleship is taking up my cross and following the risen Christ.
(36) The way of Jesus is only complete by way of there being a resurrection.
(37) The resurrection asks: If you claim to be a resurrectionist would there be enough evidence to convict you?
(38) Anyone who believes in the resurrected Christ will, like doubting Thomas, confess of Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”
(39) The resurrection declares that God cares for the whole of me.
(40) The resurrection is as essential for the justification of the sinner as is the cross.
(41) Jesus’s resurrection is God’s divine yes: I am forgiven.
(42) When life falls apart and God seems utterly remote, the resurrection makes it clear that God is indeed with us.
(43) It is because of the resurrection of Jesus that we can truly have a powerful prayer life that connects us to the one who has already walked in our journey.
(44) In the resurrection of Christ I can become an effective self.
(45) The resurrection of Christ must lead to a transformed personality.
(46) The resurrection of Christ enables me to operate within a godly framework of a boundless self.
(47) The resurrection shows Jesus as the firstborn of a new community that commenced on the first day of the week.
(48) A dead, nonresurrected Messiah is as useful to the church as was Samson after his haircut.
(49) If the church truly believes in the resurrection, why then are there only Stations of the Cross? This anomaly is true of much of both the evangelical and Roman Catholic worlds.
(50) The resurrection declares there is neither Jew nor Greek and neither male or female, and there are no class distinctions.
(51) Jesus’s resurrection speaks against all nonperson abuse and, in particular, sexual abuse in the church.
(52) The resurrection of Christ calls the whole church to repent.
(53) In different eras the resurrection has been the heartbeat for the church’s theology and mission. To our great shame the resurrection’s importance and influence in church history has become a forgotten truth.
(54) Wholehearted worship is a passionate way of resurrection living.
(55) The resurrection is true and it works!
The “Theses for the Third Millennium” has been adapted from the Outstanding book by Aussies – Clifford, Ross; Johnson, Philip. The Cross Is Not Enough, The: Living as Witnesses to the Resurrection. Grand Rapids: Baker. Kindle Edition, 2011 (Kindle Locations 6561-6580).
The Biblical Drama of Redemption
Starting with the Gospel
In this paper I would like to address the issue of reading the Bible as one story. It would be tempting to begin with the idea of story and then argue that the Bible conforms to this idea. I think one could proceed this way, although it would run the risk of starting with a category alien to Scripture and then fitting the gospel to that category. Perhaps it would be better to begin where all our thinking should start, i.e. with the gospel.
Jesus announced good news: ‘The kingdom of God is breaking into history.’ This is not the kind of announcement that could be relegated to the religion page of a newspaper. This is world news—front page stuff! This is headline news on CNN. It was an announcement that God’s healing power was invading history in Jesus and by the Spirit to restore the whole creation to again live under the gracious rule of God.
His proclamation of good news stood as the climactic moment of a story of God’s redemptive work told in the Old Testament that stretched back to God’s promise to Adam and Eve. Jesus announced that the power of God to renew the entire creation was now present in Jesus by the Spirit. This liberating power was demonstrated in Jesus’ life and deeds, and explained by his words. At the cross he battled the power of evil and gained the decisive victory. In his resurrection he entered as the firstborn into the resurrection life of the new creation. Before his ascension he commissioned his followers to continue his mission of making the gospel known until he returned. He now reigns in power at the right hand of God over all creation and by His Spirit is making known his restoring and comprehensive rule through His people as they embody and proclaim the good news. One day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Creator, Redeemer, and Lord. But until then the church has been taken up into the Spirit’s work of making the good news of the kingdom known.
From this brief summary of the gospel, the following observations are important for our subject.
First, the gospel is a redirecting power. It is not first of all doctrine or theology, nor is it worldview, but the renewing power of God unto salvation. The gospel is the instrument of God’s Spirit to restore all of creation.
Second, the gospel is restorative, that is, Jesus announces the restoration of the creation from sin. The most basic categories present in the gospel are creation, fall, and redemption. Jesus’ announcement declares a resounding ‘yes’ to his good creation and at the same time a definitive ‘no’ to the sin that has defiled it. The gospel is about the restoration and renewal of the creation from sin. In the history of the Western church redemption has often been misunderstood to be salvation from the creation rather than salvation of the creation. In the proclamation of the gospel Jesus announces that he is liberating the good creation from the power of sin.
Third, the gospel is comprehensive in its scope. The gospel Jesus announced was a gospel of the kingdom. Surprisingly even though this was the central category of Jesus’ proclamation and ministry it has often disappeared into obscurity. The result has been a greatly reduced scope of salvation, limited to humanity, even human souls. Scripturally, the kingdom is about God’s reign over his entire creation; the kingdom stresses the all- encompassing nature of the salvation Jesus embodied, announced, and accomplished. The gospel which forms the lens through which we look at the world is the power of God through which the exalted Christ, on the basis of his death and resurrection, restores all of life by His Spirit to again live under His authority and Word.
The fourth observation is central to our topic: Jesus and the good news that he announces is the fulfillment of a long story that unfolds in the Old Testament. Jesus’ arrival into history is into a Jewish community who was looking for the ending and climax of a long story of God’s redemptive acts. All Jews knew that this story was leading up to the grand culmination when God would act decisively and finally to redeem the world. They disagreed on who would do it, how it would be done, when it would happen, and how they were to live until it did. But they all recognized that the story of God’s redemptive acts was moving toward a consummation. Jesus announces that he is the goal of this redemptive story. So, on the one hand, if we are to understand the gospel of Jesus we must see Jesus in the context of the Old Testament story (cf. Luke 24:25-27). On the other hand, if we are to properly understand the Biblical story, we must see it through the lens of Jesus and the gospel (cf. John 5:36-57; Luke 24:44-45). But not only is Jesus the climactic moment in the story, he points forward to the end. The end has not yet come (Acts 1:6-7). Thus attending to Jesus points us back to a story told in the Old Testament, and forward to the end of the story.
There is a final observation: the church is essential to the gospel. That is, Jesus did not make provision for the communication of the good news through history and in every culture until the end of the story by writing a book as did Mohammed. Rather he formed a community to be the bearer of this good news. Their identity is bound up in their being sent by Jesus to make known the good news of the kingdom. The story of the Bible is their life.
Human Life is Shaped by Some Story
All of human life is shaped by some story. Consider the following event: A fox compliments a crow and tells it that it has a lovely voice. He asks it to sing a song. What is the meaning of this event? It is not too difficult to see that the meaning of this event can only be understood in terms of some story. Perhaps the fox wants to eat the crow and this compliment is a ploy to get the crow to drop its guard. Perhaps the fox is a kind- hearted fox that simply wants to encourage the poor crow. Perhaps the fox is a tone-deaf choir director seeking to begin a choir among the forest animals. Clearly these three stories would give the event different meanings. In fact, this event is part of an Aesop’s fable. There is a famine in the forest and the crow sits perched in a tree with a piece of cheese in its mouth. The various animals try to get the cheese with different methods. The fox compliments the crow and the foolish bird opens its mouth to sing. The cheese falls out and the fox runs away with it. The moral of the story is don’t be deceived by flattery.
This little exercise illustrates that an event can only be understood in the context of a narrative framework. So it is with our lives. Lesslie Newbigin puts it this way: “The way we understand human life depends on what conception we have of the human story. What is the real story of which my life story is a part?” (Leslie Newbigin. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 15). What Newbigin is referring to here is not a linguistically constructed narrative world that we choose to live in. Rather it is to speak of story as the essential shape of a worldview, as an interpretation of cosmic history that gives meaning to human life. Story provides the deepest structural framework in which human life is to be understood. There is no more fundamental way in which human beings interpret their lives than through a story. N. T. Wright says that “a story . . . is . . . the best way of talking about the way the world actually is” (N.T. Wright. The New Testament and the People of God. London: SPCK, 40. Italics added). It is because the world has been created by God in a temporal way that story can help us understand the way the world is. Brian Walsh says that ‘because the world is temporal, in process, a worldview always entails a story, a myth which provides its adherents with an understanding of their own role in the global history of good and evil. Such a story tells us who we are in history and why we are here’ (Walsh, Worldviews, Modernity, and the Task of Christian College Education, in Faculty Dialogue 18, Fall 1992, 6).
If one lives in a culture shaped by the Western story there are two stories that are on offer: the Biblical and the humanist. Newbigin points out that
In our contemporary culture . . . two quite different stories are told. One is the story of evolution, of the development of species through the survival of the strong, and the story of the rise of civilization, our type of civilization, and its success in giving humankind mastery of nature. The other story is the one embodied in the Bible, the story of creation and fall, of God’s election of a people to be the bearers of his purpose for humankind, and of the coming of the one in whom that purpose is to be fulfilled. These are two different and incompatible stories (Newbigin, Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 15-16).
There are a number of things that can be said about both of these stories.
(1) Both of these stories claim to tell the true story of the world. They are in the language of postmodernism ‘metanarratives’ or in the language of Hegel, claims to be ‘universal history.’
(2) Consequently both of these stories are comprehensive. That is, they claim the whole of our lives—social, cultural, political, and individual.
(3) Both of these stories are embodied by a community. They are not simply the fruit of individual experience and insight but stories that shape whole communities. The Western cultural community is shaped by the humanist story. The church is the new humankind that is shaped by the Biblical story.
(4) Both of these stories are religious; they are rooted in faith commitments or ultimate assumptions. Contrary to the claim that the humanist story is ‘neutral’ or ‘secular’ while the Biblical story is ‘religious’, both stories are rooted in ultimate commitments or beliefs.
(5) As both stories claim to tell the true story of the world, they issue an invitation to all hearers to come live in the story, and pursue its goals.
The humanist and Biblical stories are to some degree incompatible; they tell two different stories. It will be evident that if the church is faithful to its story there will be to some degree a clash of stories.
The Bible Tells One Story
The Bible tells one unfolding story of redemption against the backdrop of creation and humanity’s fall into sin. As N.T. Wright has put it, the divine drama told in Scripture ‘offers a story which is the story of the whole world. It is public truth’ (Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 41-42).
When we speak of the biblical story as a narrative we are making an ontological claim. It is a claim that this is the way God created the world; the story of the Bible tells us the way the world really is. There is no more fundamental way to speak about the nature of God’s world than to speak of it in terms of a story. Nor is the biblical story to be understood simply as a local tale about a certain ethnic group or religion. It makes a comprehensive claim about the world: it is public truth. The biblical story encompasses all of reality—north, south, east, west, past, present, and future. It begins with the creation of all things and ends with the renewal of all things. In between it offers an interpretation of the meaning of cosmic history. It, therefore, makes a comprehensive claim; our stories, our reality must find a place in this story. As Loughlin has put it: The Biblical story is ‘omnivorous: it seeks to overcome our reality’ (Loughlin, G., Telling God’s Story: Bible, Church, and Narrative Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 37).
Hans Frei makes the same point when he quotes Auerbach’s striking contrast between Homer’s Odyssey and the Old Testament story. Speaking of the Biblical story he says: ‘Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history . . . Everything else that happens in the world can only be conceived as an element in this sequence; into it everything that is known about the world . . . must be fitted as an ingredient of the divine plan’ (Frei, Hans. The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974, 3).
This insight has been gaining ground in various areas of philosophy and theology. In philosophical ethics Alasdaire MacIntyre states that I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what story do I find myself a part?” (MacIntyre, Alasdaire. After Virtue. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1981, 216) In practical theology, for example, C. V. Gerkin says ‘This sense in which practical theological thinking is grounded in narrative is, of course, rooted in the faith that the Bible provides us with an overarching narrative in which all other narratives of the world are nested. The Bible is the story of God. The story of the world is first and foremost the story of God’s activity in creating, sustaining, and redeeming the world to fulfill God’s purposes for it’ (Gerkin, C.V. 1986. Widening the Horizons: Pastoral Responses to a Fragmented Society, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 49). In theological ethics Stanley Hauerwas contends that ‘the narrative character of Christian convictions is neither incidental nor accidental to Christian belief. There is no more fundamental way to talk of God than in a story. The fact that we come to know God through the recounting of the story of Israel and the life of Jesus is decisive for our truthful understanding of the kind of God we worship as well as the world in which we exist’ (Hauerwas, Stanley. 1983. The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983, 25).
Sidney Greidanus believes it is important for preaching to hold that ‘Scripture teaches one universal kingdom history that encompasses all of created reality: past, present, and future. . . . its vision of history extends backward all the way to the beginning of time and forward all the way to the last day. . . . the biblical vision of history spans time from the first creation to the new creation, encompassing all of created reality’ (Sidney Greidanus.1988. The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 95). Newbigin states further the importance of story for preaching: ‘Preaching is the announcing of news, the telling of a narrative. In a society that has a different story to tell about itself, preaching has to be firmly and unapologetically rooted in the real story’ (In another place, Newbigin – A Word In Season, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994, 204-205 – speaks of his personal Bible reading, but his words could as easily be applied to his understanding of preaching: ‘I more and more find the precious part of each day to be the thirty or forty minutes I spend each morning before breakfast with the Bible. All the rest of the day I am bombarded with the stories that the world is telling about itself. I am more and more skeptical about these stories. As I take time to immerse myself in the story that the Bible tells, my vision is cleared and I see things in another way. I see the day that lies ahead in its place in God’s story.’).
And finally, in Biblical studies N. T. Wright wants to proceed with a method that joins ‘together the three enterprises of literary, historical and theological study of the New Testament and to do so in particular by the use of the category of “story”’ (Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 139).
And yet it is the case that often Christians do not see the Bible as one story. A Hindu scholar of the world’s religions once said to Lesslie Newbigin:
I can’t understand why you missionaries present the Bible to us in India as a book of religion. It is not a book of religion–and anyway we have plenty of books of religion in India. We don’t need any more! I find in your Bible a unique interpretation of universal history, the history of the whole of creation and the history of the human race. And therefore a unique interpretation of the human person as a responsible actor in history. That is unique. There is nothing else in the whole religious literature of the world to put alongside it (Newbigin, 1999, A Walk Through the Bible, Louisville, KY: John Knox Westminster Press, 4. See also Lesslie Newbigin, 1989, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 89).
We have fragmented the Bible into bits—moral bits, systematic-theological bits, devotional bits, historical-critical bits, narrative bits, and homiletical bits. When the Bible is broken up in this way there is no comprehensive grand narrative to withstand the power of the comprehensive humanist narrative that shapes our culture. The Bible bits are accommodated to the more comprehensive cultural story, and it becomes that story—i.e. the cultural story—that shapes our lives.
The Bible as a Six Act Play
In The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Story of the Bible we have attempted to tell the story of the Bible in six acts [Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Story of the Bible, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004. We are dependant on N. T. Wright for the metaphor of a drama. He explicates the Biblical story in five acts (‘How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?’, Vox Evangelica 21 (1991) 7-32; and The New Testament and the People of God. London: SPCK, 1992, 139- 143). Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton add a sixth act (Truth is Stranger Than It Used To Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1995, 182). We follow Walsh and Middleton, and use the latter structure. See our website http://www.biblicaltheology.ca for resources on using the book including a seven page summary of the Biblical story].
In Act One God calls into being a marvellous creation. He creates human beings in his image to live in fellowship with him and to explore and care for the riches of his creation.
In Act Two humanity refuses to live under the Creator’s word, and chooses to seek life apart from Him. It results in disaster; the whole creation is brought into the train of human rebellion.
In Act Three God chooses a people, Israel, to embody his creational and redemptive purposes for the world. Israel is formed into a people and placed on the land to shine as a light. They fail in their calling. Yet God promises through the prophets that Israel’s failure will not derail His plan.
In Act Four God sends Jesus. Jesus carries out Israel’s calling is a faithful light to the world. But he does more: He defeats the power of sin at the cross, rises from the dead inaugurating the new creation, and pours out His Spirit that his people might taste of this coming salvation. Before he takes His position of authority over the creation he gathers his disciples together and tells them: ‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’
Act Five tells us the story of the church’s mission from Jerusalem to Rome in the first hundred or so years. But the story ends on an incomplete note. The story is to continue; the church’s mission is to continue in all places until Jesus returns. We are invited into this story to witness to the comprehensive rule of God in Jesus coming at the goal of history.
Act Six is a yet future act. Jesus will return and complete his restoration work.
We might ask how this story might be authoritative for our lives. N. T. Wright believes that the authority of the biblical story is tied up with its overarching narrative form. He offers a rich metaphor to explicate this authority (Wright, ‘How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?’ and The New Testament and the People of God, 139- 143).
Imagine that a Shakespearian play is discovered for the first time but most of the fifth act is missing. The decision to stage the play is made. The first four acts and the remnant of the fifth act are given to well-trained and experienced Shakespearian actors who immerse themselves both in the first part of the play and in the culture and time of Shakespeare. They are told to work out the concluding fifth act for themselves.
This conclusion must be both consistent and innovative. It must be consistent with the first part of the play. The actors must immerse themselves in full sympathy in the unfinished drama. The first four acts would contain its own cumulative forward movement that would demand that the play be concluded in a way consistent and fitting with that impetus. Yet an appropriate conclusion would not mean a simple repetition or imitation of the earlier acts. The actors would carry forward the logic of the play in a creative improvisation. Such an improvisation would be an authentic conclusion if it were coherent with the earlier acts.
This metaphor provides a specific analogy for how the biblical story might function authoritatively to shape the life of the believing community. Wright sees the biblical story as consisting of four acts – creation, fall, Israel, Jesus – plus the first scene of the fifth act that narrates the beginning of the church’s mission. Furthermore this fifth act offers hints at how the play is to end. Thus the church’s life is lived out consistent with the forward impetus of the first acts and moving toward and anticipating the intended conclusion. The first scene of act five, the church’s story, begins to draw out and implement the significance of the first four acts, especially act four. The church continues today to do the same in fresh and creative ways in new cultural situations. This requires a patient examination and thorough immersion in what act four is all about, how act four is to be understood in light of acts one through three, and how the first scene of act five faithfully carries forward act four.
This view of the authority of the Biblical story assumes a clear understanding of our place in the story. It is important not only to understand that the Bible is one cosmic story of the world but also where we are at in the story. The Old Testament looked to a time when the kingdom of God would be ushered in in fullness. This was the goal of God’s redemptive work. When Jesus emerged he announced the arrival of the kingdom yet it did not come as expected. Examining the gospels and listening to Jesus we hear that the kingdom of God is already here but not yet arrived. What can this mean? If my wife tells me that our guests from out of town are already here but not yet arrived I would wonder what on earth she is saying. How can the kingdom be already here but not yet arrived? And what is the significance of the ‘already-not yet’ time period of the coming kingdom?
First we have been given a foretaste of the kingdom. The gospels often compare the kingdom to a feast, a banquet. When the end comes we will enjoy the full banquet of the kingdom. However, the church has been given a foretaste of that kingdom banquet. A foretaste of the kingdom constitutes us as witnesses. The reason we have been offered a foretaste of the salvation of the end is so that we can witness to that salvation. Let me offer another illustration. The people of God are like a movie preview or trailer. A movie trailer gives actual footage of the movie that is coming in the future so that people will want to watch it. The people of God are a kingdom preview. We embody the salvation of the kingdom which is coming in the future so that people will see it and want it. That is what the witness is all about. We are a sign that points to the coming of the fullness of the kingdom in the future. We witness to its presence and its future consummation. A biblical witness is a witness to the kingdom, to God’s rule over all of human life.
The worldview significance of our place in the story can be illustrated by N. T. Wright’s reflection on worldview. In their popular book on worldview, Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh argue that the Bible provides a worldview by answering foundational questions that shape our lives. Those questions are: Who are we? Where are we? What’s wrong? What’s the remedy? (Walsh and Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View, Downers Grove: IVP, 1984, 35). Wright follows Walsh and Middleton in his masterly discussion of the importance of worldview for New Testament studies (Wright, N. T., The New Testament and the People of God, 29-144). Four years later in his second volume he writes that there is a fifth question that needs to be added to the other four, a question that is fundamental for human life. That question is ‘what time is it?’ He says: ‘Since writing The New Testament and the People of God I have realized that ‘what time is it?’ needs adding to the four questions I started with (though at what point in the order could be discussed further). Without it, the structure collapses into timelessness which characterizes some non-Judaeo-Christian worldviews.
Heading Off Misunderstandings
Saying that the Bible is one unfolding story could lead to misunderstandings. So it would be good to say a few words to head off some of those misconceptions. First by saying that the Bible is one unfolding story I am not saying that the Bible is a nice neat novel. It is not a single volume but a ‘sprawling, capacious narrative’ (Peterson, Eugene. ‘Living into God’s Story.’ This article originally appeared on the website ‘The Ooze: Conversation for a Journey’ (www.theooze.com). It can be accessed at http://www,churchcrossing.com/articles.cfm?fuseaction=articledetail&122).
In his discussion on the Bible as a metanarrative Richard Bauckham states that the ‘Bible does not have a carefully plotted single story-line, like, for example a conventional novel. It is a sprawling collection of narratives along with much non-narrative material that stands in a variety of relationships to the narratives’ (Bauckham, Richard. Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003, 92).
He continues that major stretches of the main story are told more than once in divergent ways; there are a plurality of angles on the same subject matter (for example, the gospels). He points further to many ways in which there is a ‘profusion and sheer untidiness of the narrative materials’ (Ibid). He concludes that all this ‘makes any sort of finality in summarizing the biblical story inconceivable’ (Ibid, 93).
Secondly, the Bible is not only a narrative document. There are many other genres of literature in the Bible as well. Newbigin states that while the ‘Bible is essentially narrative in form’ that ‘it contains, indeed, much else: prayer, poetry, legislation, ethical teaching and so on.’ Yet, he maintains, ‘essentially it is a story’ (Lesslie Newbigin. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995, 81).
James Barr differs radically with Newbigin (and me, i.e., Michael Goheen) on what exactly story means. Yet he too sees the overall shape of Scripture as a narrative within which other genres of Scripture fit. Here is how he puts it:
. . . in my conception all of the Bible counts as ‘story.’ A people’s story is not necessarily purely narrative: materials of many kinds may be slotted into a narrative structure, and this is done in the Hebrew Bible. Thus legal materials are inserted and appear, almost entirely, as part of the Moses story. In this case they are incorporated into the narrative. Others are more loosely attached: songs and hymns of the temple and of individuals, mostly collected in the Book of Psalms but some slotted into the narratives as in Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. . . . Wisdom books: whether . . . they came from Solomon, or because they were general lore of Israel, they are part of the story also.
In the New Testament the letters of great leaders, and an apocalyptic book like Revelation, form part of the story, along with the more strictly narrative writings. Thus in general, although not all parts of the Bible are narrative, the narrative character of the story elements provides a better framework into which the non-narrative parts may be fitted than any framework based on the non-narrative parts into which the story elements could be fitted (James Barr. The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999, 356).
A third misunderstanding is tied up with the notion of story. In some approaches to narrative theology—in fact, in Barr’s understanding above—the notion of story enables the reader to ignore questions of historicity. Story may be only a linguistically constructed narrative by a religious community, and no more than that. Yet I use story to speak of an interpretation of history. It is important that these events really happened. The Bible requires ‘a reality that corresponds to it’ (Gabriel Fackre. Narrative Theology from an Evangelical Perspective, in Yandell, K.E., ed., Faith and Narrative, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, 197). The historicity of the narrative matters: ‘. . .it is of the very essence of the matter that the events and places which you read in your Bible are part of the real world and the real history–the same world in which you live . . .’ (Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 68).
The Importance of Understanding the Bible as One Story
The importance of understanding the Bible as one story can be seen by noting Newbigin’s notion of a missionary encounter. A missionary encounter is the normal position the church assumes in its culture if it is faithful. It assumes two comprehensive yet incompatible stories. The Bible tells one story about the world and human life while another equally all-embracive story shapes out culture. Christian discipleship always takes cultural shape. So in the life of the Christian community there will be an encounter between two equally comprehensive stories. When the church really believes that its story is true and shapes their whole lives by it, the foundational idolatrous faith, assumed in the cultural story, will be challenged. As the church challenges that story it offers a credible alternative; it calls for conversion. It is an invitation to see and live in the world in the light of another story. Our place in the story is to embody the end and invite others into that true story.
If the church is to be faithful to its missionary calling, it must recover the Bible as one true story according to Newbigin: ‘I do not believe that we can speak effectively of the Gospel as a word addressed to our culture unless we recover a sense of the Scriptures as a canonical whole, as the story which provides the true context for our understanding of the meaning of our lives – both personal and public’ (Lesslie Newbigin. ‘Response to “Word of God?”’, John Coventry SJ, The Gospel and our Culture Newsletter 8, 1991, 2).
If the story of the Bible is fragmented into bits it can easily be absorbed into the reigning story of culture rather than challenging it. Newbigin’s recognition of this, and thus his passion for the importance of seeing the Bible as one story, comes from his missionary experience. In India he saw how easy it was for the Bible to be absorbed into a more comprehensive and alien worldview. The Bible as one comprehensive story in contrast to the comprehensive worldview of Hinduism was a matter of life and death in India. In the West it is equally serious. A fragmented Bible, then, can lead to a church that is unfaithful, syncretistically accommodated to the idolatry of its cultural story. Or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, a church without a comprehensive story to withstand the power of the cultural story will be ‘conformed to the world’ (Romans 12:1-2).
This article is essentially the substance of two keynote addresses given at the ‘Inhabiting the Biblical Story’ conference at the Victorian University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand, 16 July 2005.
About the Author: Dr. Michael W. Goheen teaches at Trinity Western University, Langley, B.C., Canada. He is the author of The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story; Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview; and A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story.