GETTING DOWN TO EARTH – STRATEGIES FOR CHRIST CENTERED APPLICATION
BY TIMOTHY KELLER
How do we ‘get down to earth’—bringing a text into direct contact with the hearts and lives practices of the listeners? And how do we do this in such a way that really changes the heart through the gospel rather through general moral exhortation? I will lay down three broad strategies for application that flow out of a redemptive-Historical approach.
Indeed, the second strategy (Aiming at Heart-Motives) flows directly out of the “Law Completion” way of Redemptive-Historical exposition.
A. CRITIQUE RELIGION AS WELL AS IRRELIGION
One of the most important ways to get a hearing from post-modern people and to wake up nominal or sleepy Christians is to preach the gospel as a “third” distinct way from both irreligion and religion.
Religion is ‘outside in’: “if I work hard according to biblical principles, then God will accept/bless me”. The gospel is ‘inside out’: “because God has accepted/blessed me, I work hard to live according to biblical principles”. Religion (explicitly in other faiths and implicitly in legalistic Christianity) makes moral/religious observance a means of salvation. Even people who believe in the Christian God can functionally ‘base their sanctification. Even people who believe in the Christian God can functionally ‘base their sanctification on their justification’ (Lovelace). Thus a prime need is to distinguish between general ‘religion’ and gospel Christianity as well overt irreligion. Why? (1) Many professed Christians aren’t believers—they are pure ‘elder brothers’ (Luke 15:11ff.) and only making this distinction can convert them. (2) Many, many real Christians are elder-brotherish—angry, mechanical, superior, insecure—and only making this distinction can renew them. (3) Modern and post-modern people have rejected religion for good reasons and will only listen to Christianity if they see it is different.
1. The two “thieves” of the gospel
Tertullian said, “Just as Christ was crucified between two thieves, so this doctrine of justification is ever crucified between two opposite errors.” Tertullian meant that there were two basic false ways of thinking, each of which “steals” the power and the distinctiveness of the gospel from us by pulling us “off the gospel line” to one side or the other. These two errors are very powerful, because they represent the natural tendency of the human heart and mind. These “thieves” can be called moralism on the one hand, and relativism on the other hand. (Note: Thinking in terms of the RHM, we can say that ‘legalism’ is an under-realized’ eschatology in which the presence of God’s future acceptance and vindication is not grasped, and anti-nomianism is an ‘over-realized’ eschatology in which the law and striving is not necessary).
Another way to put it is: the gospel opposes both religion and irreligion. On the one hand, “moralism/religion” stresses truth over grace, for it says that we must obey the truth in order to be saved. On the other hand, “relativists/irreligion” stresses grace over the truth, for they say that we are all accepted by God (if there is a God) and we have to decide what is true for us. But “truth” without grace is not really truth, and “grace” without truth is not really grace. Jesus was “full of grace and truth”. Any religion or philosophy of life that de-emphasizes or loses one or the other of these truths, falls into legalism or into license and either way, the joy and power and “release” of the gospel is stolen by one thief or the other. The real gospel gives us a God far more holy than a moralist can bear (since your morality is only a filthy rag before him) and far more loving than a relativist can imagine (since his love cost him dearly).
Since Paul uses a metaphor for being “in line” with the gospel, we can picture gospel renewal failing when we keep from walking “off-line” either to the right or to the left. However, before we start we must realize that gospel is not a half-way compromise between the two poles—it does not produce “something in the middle”, but something different from both. The gospel critiques both religion and irreligion (Matt. 21:31; 22:10).
In Galatians 2:14, Paul lays down a powerful principle. He deals with Peter’s racial pride and cowardice by declaring that he was not living “not in line with the truth of the gospel”. From this we see that the Christian life is a process of renewing every dimension of our life—spiritual, psychological, corporate, social—by thinking, hoping, and living out the “lines” or ramifications of the gospel. The gospel is to be applied to every area of thinking, feeling, relating, working, and behaving. Notice, Paul did not say, “you are breaking the no-racism law!” though that is perfectly true. However, it is not the best way to think. Paul asks neither “what is the moral way to act?” nor does he say “we don’t need to order our steps at all!” but rather asks: “what is the way to live that is in-line with the gospel?” The gospel must continually be “thought out” to keep us from moving into our habitual moralistic or individualistic directions. We must bring everything into line with the gospel.
The main problem, then, in the Christian life is that we have not thought out the deep implications of the gospel, we have not “used” the gospel in and on all parts of our life. Richard Lovelace says that most people’s problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel—a failure to grasp and believe it through and through. Luther says, “The truth of the Gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine…Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.” (on Galatians 2:14f).
2. ‘Two Thieves’ application.
So we see that we must move away from the typical ‘conservative evangelical’ preaching which basically says: “irreligion and immorality is bad; moral living is very good; Christianity is best.” Of course it is better to not rob and kill, whether you are a Christian or not! But gospel preaching is careful to show the ‘dark side’ of morality, so that non-Christians (who see the dangers of religiosity and self-righteousness) will realize the gospel is something else, and so that Christians will not be trapped in the lifelessness of moral self-effort. The following are some examples of how to treat subjects contrasted with both irreligion and religion.
a. Approach to discouragement. When a person is depressed, the moralist says, “you are breaking the rules—repent.” On the other hand, the relativist says, “you just need to love and accept yourself”. But (assuming there is no physiological base of the depression!) the gospel leads us to examine ourselves and say: “something in my life has become more important than Christ, a pseudo-savior, a form of works-righteousness”. The gospel leads us to repentance, but not to merely setting our will against superficialities. It is without the gospel that superficialities will be addressed instead of the heart. The moralist will work on behavior and the relativist will work on the emotions themselves.
b. Approach to love and relationships. Moralism often uses the procuring of love as the way to “earn our salvation” and convince ourselves we are worthy persons. That often creates what is called ‘co-dependency’—a form of self-salvation through needing people or needing people to save you (i.e. saving yourself by saving others). On the other hand, much relativism/liberalism reduces love to a negotiated partnership for mutual benefit. You only relate as long as it is not costing you anything. So the choice (without the gospel) is to selfishly use others or to selfishly let yourself be used by others. But in Christ we see a man who unconditionally sacrificed for us out of love for us (not need for us). When we get both the emotional-humility (who do I think I am?) and the emotional-wealth (he loves me like that!) we are moved to also humbly serve others, but not out of inappropriate need. We do sacrifice and commit, but not out of a need to convince ourselves or others we are acceptable. So we can love the person enough to confront, yet stay with the person when it does not benefit us.
c. Approach to suffering. Moralists believe that God owes them. The whole point of moralism is to put God in one’s debt. So when a moralist suffers, he must either fell mad at God (because I have been performing well) or mad at self (because I have not been performing well) on both. On the other hand, relativism/pragmatism feels always angry, claiming that God must be either unjust or impotent. But the cross shows us that we had a suffering God. But the gospel on the one hand takes away our surprise and pique over suffering. On the one hand, we see him suffering—without complaint—for us. So we know that we deserve to be eternally lost but by mercy we will never get what we deserve. This eliminates self-pity. On the other hand, we know God could not be punishing us for our sin—since Jesus paid for our sins, and God cannot receive two payments. That means whatever suffering we are receiving is not retribution, but instruction. If you face suffering with a clear grasp of justification by grace alone, your joy in that grace will deepen, but if you face suffering with a mindset of justification by works, the suffering will break you, not make you. “He suffered not that we might not suffer, but that in our suffering we could become like him.” Since both the moralist and the pragmatist ignore the cross in different ways, they will both be confused and devastated by suffering.
d. Approach to sexuality. The secularist/pragmatist sees sex an merely biological and physical appetite. The moralist tends to see sex as dirty or at least a dangerous impulse that leads constantly to sin. But the gospel shows us that sexuality is to reflect the self-giving of Christ. He gave himself completely without conditions. So we are not to seek intimacy but hold back control of our lives. If we give ourselves sexually we are to give ourselves legally, socially, personally—utterly. Sex only is to happen in a totally committed, permanent relationship of marriage.
e. Approach to one’s family. Moralism can make you a slave to parental expectations, while pragmatism sees no need for family loyalty or the keeping of promises and covenants if they do not “meet my needs”. The gospel frees you from making parental approval an absolute or psychological salvation, pointing how God becomes the ultimate father. Then you will neither be too dependent or too hostile to your parents.
f. Approach to other races and cultures. The liberal approach is to relativize all cultures. (“We can all get along because there is no truth”). The conservatives believe there is truth for evaluation of cultures, and so they choose some culture as superior and then they idolize it, feeling superior to others in the impulse of slef-justifying pride. The gospel leads us to be: a) on the one hand, somewhat critical of all cultures, including our own (since there is truth), but b) on the other hand, we are morally superior to no one. After all, we are saved by grace alone. Christians will exhibit both moral conviction yet compassion and flexibility. For example, gays are used to being “bashed” and hated or completely accepted.
g. Approach to witness to non-Christians. The liberal/pragmatic approach is to deny the legitimacy of evangelism altogether. The conservative/moralist person does believe in proselytizing, because “we are right and they are wrong”. Such proselytizing is almost always offensive. But the gospel produces a constellation of traits is us.
(1) First, we are compelled to share the gospel out of generosity and love, not guilt.
(2) Second, we are freed from fear of being ridiculed or hurt by others, since we already have the favor of God by grace.
(3) Third, there is a humility in our dealings with others, because we know we are saved only by grace alone, not because of our superior insight or character.
(4) Fourth, we are hopeful about anyone, even the “hard cases”, because we were saved only because of grace, not because we were likely people to be Christians.
(5) Fifth, we are courteous and careful with people. We don’t have to push or coerce them, for it is only God’s grace that opens hearts, not our eloquence or persistence or even their openness. All these traits not only create a winsome evangelist but an excellent neighbor in a multi-cultural society.
h. Approach to human authority. Moralists will tend to obey human authorities (family, tribe, government, cultural customs) too much, since they rely so heavily on their self-image of being moral and decent. Pragmatists will either obey human authority too much (since they have no higher authority by which they can judge their culture) or else too little (since they may only obey when they know they won’t get caught). That means either authoritarianism or anarchy. But the gospel gives you both a standard by which to oppose human authority (if it contradicts the gospel), but on the other hand, gives you incentive to obey the civil authorities from the heart, even when you could get away with disobedience.
i. Approach to guilt. When someone says, “I can’t forgive myself”, it means there is some standard or condition or person that is more central to your identity than the grace of God. God is the only God who forgives—no other “god” will. If you cannot forgive yourself, it is because you have failed your real God, your real righteousness, and it is holding you captive. The moralist’s false god is usually a God of their imagination which is holy and demanding but not gracious. The pragmatist’s false god is usually some achievement or relationship.
j. Approach to self-image. Without the gospel, your self-image is based upon living up to some standards—whether yours or someone’s imposed on you. If you live up to those standards, you will be confident but not humble. If you don’t live up to them, you will be humble but not confident. Only in the gospel can you be both enormously bold and utterly sensitive and humble. For you are both perfect and a sinner!
k. Approach to “right living.” Jonathan Edwards points out that “true virtue” is only possible for those who have experienced the grace of the gospel. Any person who is trying to earn their salvation does “the right thing” in order to get into heaven, or in order to better their self-esteem. In other words, the ultimate motive is self-interest. But persons who know they are totally accepted already do “the right thing” out of sheer delight in righteousness for its own sake. Only in the gospel do you obey God for God’s sake, and not for what God will give you. Only in the gospel do you love people for their sake (not yours), do good for its own sake (not yours), and obey God for his sake (not yours). Only the gospel makes “doing the right thing” a joy and delight, not a burden or a means to an end.
l. Approach to the poor. The liberal/pragmatist tend to scorn the religion of the poor and see them as helpless victims needing expertise. This is born out of disbelief in God’s common grace or special grace to all. Ironically, the secular mindset also disbelieves in sin, and thus anyone who is poor must be oppressed, a helpless victim. The conservative/moralists on the other hand tend to scorn the poor as failures and weaklings. They see them as somehow to blame for the situation. But the gospel leads us to be: a) humble, without moral superiority knowing you were “spiritually bankrupt” but saved by Christ’s free generosity, and b) gracious, not worried too much about “deservingness”, since you didn’t deserve Christ’s grace, c) respectful of believing poor Christians as brothers and sisters from whom to learn. Jesus himself came as a poor man. The gospel alone can bring “knowledge workers” into a sense of humble respect for and solidarity with the poor.
B. AIM AT HEART-MOTIVES UNDER (AS WELL AS) BEHAVIOR
We saw Martin Luther believed that self-justification (rather than Lord-justification) is the root of all sin. This means that there is a particular heart-motive ‘barrier’ under every sin, which is some form of unbelief in the gospel of Lord-justification. This means that we must ‘use the gospel’ each time we do application. We must show that some form of gospel-unbelief is at the root of why we do not live as we ought. We must renew the heart-motives with the gospel, not just with exhortation that focuses directly on the will.
1. Principles for Renewing the Heart with the Gospel.
a. The gospel offers not just forgiveness for our bad record, but also complete acceptance through Christ’s perfect record. Christ did not only die in our place but lived a perfect life in our place. Therefore we do not simply get forgiveness for sins from Christ, but also complete acceptance. His perfect past record now (in God’s sight) becomes ours.
b. There is no alternative to the gospel but works-righteousness. Both religion and irreligion are forms of it. Un-religious persons are struggling to achieve a “righteousness” through their own efforts, and religious persons are struggling to achieve a “righteousness” through their own efforts. So fundamentally, they are no different.
c. All sin is therefore ultimately rooted in ‘idolatry”, pseudo-salvation, false trusts or ‘lords’ caused by works-righteousness. The ultimate reason for any sin is that something besides Christ is functioning as an alternative “righteousness” or source of confidence—and is thus an “idol”, a pseudo-savior, which creates inordinate desires.
d. All of life is repentance—not just for sins, but also for our false “righteousness(es)”. Any failure of actual righteousness is always a failure to live in accordance with our imputed righteousness. We make something besides Jesus our real hope and life. So believing the gospel means to repent, not just for our sins, but the particular (self) righteousness(es) underlying our behavior. That is the secret of change.
e. Gospel repentance creates a whole new motivation in our relationship to God, to others, to ourselves, and to our life in the world. Only through the gospel is there a new sense of delight in and service to God for the beauty of who he is in himself, not for what he gives you. That frees us to love others and do good deeds for their own sake, and not for how they profit us.
f. Therefore, the gospel is not only the way to enter the kingdom, but also the way to advance (in) the kingdom.
2. A Basic Outline for Aiming at the Heart as well as Behavior.
The following may actually be four points in a presentation, or they may be treated very quickly as the last point of a sermon. But more generally, this is a foundational outline for the basic moral reasoning and argument that lies at the heart of the application.
a. The Plot winds up: WHAT YOU MUST DO.
“This is what you have to do! Here is what the text/narrative/story tells us that we must do or what we must be.”
b. The Plot thickens: WHY YOU CAN’T DO IT.
“But you can’t do it! Here are all the reasons that you will never become like this just by trying very hard.”
c. The Plot resolves: HOW HE DID IT.
“But there’s one who did. Perfectly. Wholly. Jesus the–. He has done this for us, in our place.”
d. The Plot winds down: HOW, THROUGH HIM, YOU CAN DO IT.
“Our failure to do it is due to our functional rejection of what he did. Remembering him frees our heart so we can change like this…”
a) In every text of the Scripture there is somehow a moral principle. It may grow out of because of what it shows us about the character of God or Christ, or out of either the good or bad examples of characters in the text, or because of explicit commands, promises, and warnings. This moral principle must be distilled clearly.
b) But then a crisis is created in the hearers as the preacher shows that his moral principle creates insurmountable problems. The sermon shows how this practical and moral obligation is impossible to meet. The hearers are led to a seemingly dead end.
c) Then a hidden door opens and light comes in. The sermon moves both into worship and into Christ-application when it shows how only Jesus Christ has fulfilled this. If the text is narrative, you can show how Christ is the ultimate example of a particular character. If the text is didactic, you can show how Christ is the ultimate example of the principle.
d) finally, we show how our inability to live as we ought stems from our rejection of Christ as the Way, Truth, and Life (or whatever the theme is). The sermon points out how to repent and rejoice in Christ in such a way that we can live as we ought.
CASE STUDY #1
If I preached a sermon on “honesty”, I could show the forms of dishonesty and how harmful it is, and how we need to ask God to help us be honest. But it I stopped there (and merely called people to ask forgiveness for lying and try harder to be honest), I would only be playing to the heart’s natural self-righteousness. I would be essentially supporting the growth of ‘common morality’ in the people. Those who would be convicted by the sermon would feel guilty and burdened. Those who had not lied lately would be smug. I should admit that nearly every sermon I ever preached on honesty/lying up to my first 15 years in the ministry was like this! Even though I knew (via Ed Clowney) that I had to preach Christ and not moralism from every text, I really just made Jesus an “add-on”. I didn’t apply him as Savior to the actual sin of lying, but to the aftermath only. My sermon would go like this:
I. Here are all the ways we lie, and why they are forbidden.
II. We should not lie, because Jesus told the truth and kept his promises (Jesus as Example).
III. If we do lie, Jesus will forgive us and help us do better (Jesus as God-of-gaps).
In other words, I used Jesus as an example, and then as someone who forgives us when, though we try very hard, we sometimes fail. This essentially tells people to sanctify themselves. It implicitly appeals to fear and/or pride as motives for honesty.
But in gospel analysis we ask the question: “why do you lie in a particular situation?” The usual reason we lie is because there is something we feel that we simply must have (besides Jesus) to survive and be truly happy, and so we lie. It is usually a good reputation, or saving face, or approval, or some other thing. I first came to understand this when I realized that my wife and I tend to ‘fudge’ the truth in very different circumstances. I realized that the underlying reason that I lied/deceived was a fear of people’s disapproval.
Using “Luther-ist” analysis, I was trusting in the approval of people rather than in Christ as my functional trust, as my main hope. But anything you add to Jesus Christ as a requirement for a happy life is a functional salvation, a pseudo-lord, and it is controlling you, whether it be power, approval, comfort or control. So the only way to change your habit of lying is to (not just try harder) but to apply the gospel—to repent of your failure to believe the gospel, and see that you are not saved by pursuing this thing (which you are lying to get), but through the grace of Jesus Christ.
Alternatives – What are the alternatives? Type #1 – On the one hand, there is a “Christ as Example” or ‘moralistic’ sermon that says—“please try harder or God will be very unhappy!” Type #2 – On the other hand, there is a “Christ as God-of-Gaps” or ‘relativistic’ sermon that says—“we all fall down but God loves us anyway!” (Many people today in the Reformed camp smell that ‘church growth’ theory has led us to more ‘relativistic’ sermons in the evangelical world. But are we just to go back to the moralistic ones?).
Instead we must do “Christ-as-Savior” or “gospel” sermons. Unlike “Type #2” sermons, they begin with deep, below the surface repentance, not a superficial application of “Jesus loves you anyway”. Unlike “Type #1” sermons, they end with rejoicing, since the thing we must repent of is always a failure to enjoy, delight in, and relish the grace and provision of Christ’s work. So this is how I learned to preach sermons on lying—or anything else. No matter what the issue, if we call people to “try harder”, we actually push them deeper into slavery, but when we always solve the problem by applying the gospel, then both a) non-Christians get to hear it every week in multiple perspectives, and b) Christians get to see how it really works in every aspect of life.
Sum: Only “Christo-centric” preaching can really lead the hearers to true virtue, gospel holiness. Typical preaching only distills “biblical principles” which do not see the text in its redemptive-historical context. Thus it is only natural that the application part of such a sermon will tend to merely exhort people to conform to the principles. Only Christo-centric preaching can produce gospel holiness.
Case Study #2
A Sermon on the power of sexual/beauty’s attraction in our culture.
I. What you must do: The power of physical beauty over us must be broken. Look at the devastation in our society and in our lives. 1) It distorts women’s view of themselves (add eating disorders); 2) It demoralizes aging people; 3) It distorts men’s lives, by making them reject great spouse-prospects for superficial reasons (add pornography). What must we do? Don’t judge a book by its cover. Be deep. Don’t be controlled.
II. But you can’t: You know quite well we won’t be able to. Why? 1) First, we desire physical beauty to cover our own sense of shame and inadequacy. Genesis 3. “When you look good you feel good about yourself” really = …”you feel yourself to be good.” 2) Second, we are afraid of our mortality and death. Evolutionary biologists and Christians together agree that the drive to have physical beauty is a desire for youth. We’ll never overcome our problem by just “trying”.
III. But there was one who did. There was one who was beautiful beyond bearing yet willingly gave it up (Philippians 2). He became ugly that we might become beautiful (Isaiah 53).
IV. Only now we can change. Only as we see what Jesus did for us will our hearts be melted and freed from the belief that we can judge a book by its cover. Only when we can be in Him will be freed from our sense of shame and fear of mortality (You want the non-Christians to wish it were true even if they don’t believe it yet).
LOOK AT THE TEXT THROUGH THREE APPLICATION PERSPECTIVES
What the “Three Perspectives” are.
Vern Poythress in God-centered Interpretation takes John Frame’s 3 perspectives of normative (prophetic), existential (priestly), and situational (kingly) and works this out for hermeneutics. He says that when interpreting the text, you do not know the meaning of a text unless you understand its author’s original historic sense (normative), its application to the hearers (existential), and its place in the history of redemption (situational). If you use one of these three aspects, you make it an idol and it leads to distortions.
However, once you ‘go into’ the application to the hearers, you again have the three perspectives. Again, if you only use one the aspects, you make it an idol and it leads to distortions. He calls these distortions—the “Doctrinalist’ (mainly normative), ‘Pietist’ (mainly existential), and ‘Cultural-transformationalist’ (mainly kingly).
a. A ‘Doctrinalist’ looks to a text to see how it supports sound doctrine. This person makes the Enlightenment mistake that you can have objective knowledge without it being personal. The Reformed way to put this – is that all knowledge is ‘covenantal’. (See Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority and Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God). Their basic gist is this: no part of revelation is given simply to be known. Everything that is revealed is revealed for covenant service (Deut. 29:29). There is no neutrality—you are either in covenant service to God as you look at the world or in covenant service to some other Lord. Thus Frame in “God in our Studies” in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, pp. 81-84 is able to say that the way the Lord has structured knowledge so that you can understand God’s truth if know yourself, and your world, as well as the biblical text. The three perspectives “co-inhere’. You can’t really know what a biblical text means unless you also know how it is to affect the world and you. In short, if I don’t know how to use a text, I don’t know it’s meaning—so the difference between ‘meaning’ and ‘application’ is meaningless.
Many evangelicals, especially in the Reformed camps are afraid of subjectivism and of being ‘man-centered’. They want to simply “expound what the divine biblical text says, without regard to ‘felt needs’ or human concerns.” But that is impossible. The minute the doctrinalist starts reading a text, he is doing so with particular questions on his heart—the last Presbytery debate he was at, the last books he read, a particular cultural problem—and thus the reader finds in the Scripture the answers to the questions on his heart. If the Bible is a covenantal revelation—if, in fact, if all knowledge is covenantal—done in moral commitment to some ‘lord’ so that no such thing as neutral, value-free ‘fact’—then application to felt needs is happening in every interpretation and preaching. So you better do it consciously, to the people in front of you, or you will only be pleasing your self or even solving your own problems in the pulpit and starving everyone else.
b. A ‘Pietist” tends to look at every text as it relates to people psychologically and devotionally. The text is applied to answer the questions: How does this help us relate to the Lord? How does it help our prayer life? How does it show us how to live in the world? How does this help the non-believer find Christ? How does this help me handle my personal problems? The pietist is the best of the three at looking for ways to preach a text evangelistically and bring it to bear on the individual’s heart and conscience in order to get a ‘decision’. Also, the pietist is constantly aware of how Christians are loosing their internal spiritual grip on the doctrine of free justification and may be ‘returning to the bondage’ (Galatians 5:1) to false savior-gods (Galatians 4:8).
c. A Cultural-transformationist tends to look at the text as it relates to corporate and cultural issues, such as social justice and econmic fairness and Christian community building. The ‘Great Reversal’ of the cross means that the gospel proclaims a complete reversal of the values of the world—power, recognition, status, wealth. For example, the gospel is especially welcomed by the poor and for the poor (Luke 4:18 – He anointed me…to preach the gospel to the poor.” Cf. also Luke 7:22). Preaching the gospel and healing people’s bodies are closely associated (Luke 9:6). Jesus points to the coming kingdom of God that will renew all of creation. The gospel creates a people with a whole alternate way of being human. Racial and class superiority, accrual of money and power at the expense of others, yearning for popularity and recognition—all these things are marks of living in the world, and are the opposite of the mindset of the kingdom (Luke 6:20-26). The cultural-transformationist looks at all things with this perspective.
So the doctrinalist reads Luke 4:31-37 and says: “This passage teaches the deity of Christ and demonstrates his sovereignty over evil spirits and also shows the grace of God toward people in bondage to sin.” The pietist looks at the same passage and says: “this passage teaches that Jesus can solve my problems if I let him and also that once I am delivered I have to tell my friends.” The cultural-transformationist reads the passage and says: “this passage shows Christ as an active power in the world, transforming the world, liberating people from oppressive structures” (See Poythress, pp. 1-4).
We need all three perspectives when thinking about writing application. Orthodox people are sensitive to ‘therapeutic’ and ‘liberationist’ idolatries. But they tend to cling to old Enlightenment idolatries themselves into a ‘doctrinalist’ idolatry. Since by temperament, we all have our ‘bent’, we should force ourselves to look at a text through all three application ‘perspectives’. When we do so, we will often see many rich possible uses of a text that otherwise we would miss.
2. The Three Perspectives and the question of ‘What is the Gospel’?
a. The Discussion. There is a rather significant and growing controversy going on about ‘what is the gospel?’ in evangelical circles today. Many people are saying that the traditional evangelical gospel is too ‘individualistic’ because it left out the ‘kingdom of God’. More and more are saying, “the gospel is the good news of the reign of God, not the good news that you can have personal forgiveness and peace with God.” (Much of this sort of language is inspired by the writings of Lesslie Newbigin, N.T. Wright, and the ‘Gospel and Our Culture Network’).
This kind of talk is both helpful and misleading. It is quite true that traditional evangelicalism has been individualistic, largely because of a lack of orientation to the redemptive-Historical perspective. It is quite true that ‘the kingdom’ is essential to the gospel. For example, the very concept of simul Justus et peccator—simultaneously legally ‘just’ and yet actually ‘sinful’, the very heart of Luther’s gospel—is based largely on the ‘already but not yet’ of the kingdom of God.
Justification by faith is possible because of the presence now of the future verdict upon God’s people on judgment day. When we are ‘born again’, we are born into the kingdom (John 3:1ff). So if you leave the kingdom of God out of the gospel preaching, you are being misleading. However, it may also be quite misleading for a preacher to simply say, “the good news is that the reign of God is here!” That can become a new moralism (a socially activistic moralism) that tells people “God’s program of creation renewal is going on, and you can join it.” But how does a person join it? By ‘getting with the program’ in some general way? By getting baptized and beginning to live according to kingdom values? This may end up being a new kind of self-effort. I doubt that preaching simply “the good news is the reign of God” is going to lead people to respond, “My chains fell off; my heart was free. I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”
b. Three Perspectives on the Gospel. I think it is important to see that the gospel itself (just like the Tri-une God) should be understood through three perspectives as well. Each perspective is true in that it eventually comprises the whole, but each approach begins with a particular ‘door’ or aspect.
The ‘normative’ aspect I’ll call “the gospel of Christ” – stresses the objective, historic work of Christ that Jesus really came in time-space and history to accomplish all for us. It will talk much about the real, historicity of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection (John Stott). This view thinks that the problem addressed by Paul in Galatians was a doctrinal heresy.
The ‘existential’ aspect I’ll call “the gospel of sonship” stresses our new identity in Christ as adopted children, liberated from the law. It will talk much of the power of the spirit to renew broken hearts and psyches (Jack Miller). This view thinks that the problem addressed by Paul in Galatians was a pastoral one of Christians falling back into legalism.
The ‘situational’ aspect I’ll call “the gospel of the kingdom” – stresses the reversal of values in the new creation. It will talk about healed community, cultural transformation, ministry of deed and justice (Harvie Conn). This view thinks that the problems addressed by Paul in Galatians was the lack of ‘table fellowship’ between Jew and Gentile.
We need all three perspectives, though each perspective is not simply a ‘part’ of the gospel. For example, the ‘kingdom’ perspective contains the other two. If God is king, then salvation must be by grace, for if we are saved by works, something else will be our Lord and Savior. Or, if we have a new identity in Christ by sheer grace, then we must not look down at anyone else, and self-justification is the basis of racism and injustice. If you go deep enough into any one perspective, you will find the other two.
What is ‘the Problem’? There is a great danger of getting locked into only one perspective because we get obsessed with some too-sweeping analysis of what the main problem “in our world today”. (1) If you think that subjectivism in society is the problem you will do the gospel of X and fear that sonship-gospel and the kingdom-gospel sound too much like the ‘liberal’ ideas. (2) If think that Pharisaical objectivism is the problem, you will do the sonship-gospel with more emphasis on personal individual emotional freedom. (3) If you think the main problem we face is old Enlightenment individualism, you will do the gospel of the kingdom with more emphasis on working together sacrificially to transform through the power of the gospel. But aren’t we facing all these problems?
Remember also that different groups and classes of people are in different conditions. With traditional cultures, the traditional evangelical gospel good, as it builds on a desire for historical evidence and a sense of ‘truth’. Traditional cultures (with their share of ‘failed Pharisees’) often respond well to the sonship-gospel, as may ‘post-modern’ people who have a desire for freedom. Many groups with a high ‘people-consciousness’ such as minorities will respond better to the kingdom-gospel, as will many post-modern people who think more so in terms of ‘sociology’ than psychology (identity politics).
So we should be careful. Most of us are ‘in reaction’ to some approach to the gospel we think is unbalanced. We must not over-react by getting ‘stuck’ in one perspective.
3. Case Study: Application for the Story of Esther
a. God calls us to serve Him in intensely secular settings (Cultural Transformationist). This message is similar (but stronger!) as that of the accounts of Joseph and Daniel. We learn here how a believer can be effectively used by God in the heart of secular and pluralistic culture, even in the centers of its power. In all three accounts, we learn of Jewish figures who rise to power in an unbelieving society through their skills and talents—and then use their places to save their people.
This is a threatening message to many Christians today. There has always been a strong tendency among orthodox believers toward separation from the polluted, unclean, and morally/spiritually ‘messy’ arenas of politics, business, government, and so on. But Esther is a concubine, a member of a harem!
“Let Esther’s harem represent every unclean political or commercial institution or structure where evil reigns and must be confronted. Believers are needed there…Our cities are full of dens of iniquity. Our culture is described as essentially post-Christian, secular, and often antithetical to biblical values and hostile to biblical virtues…[But] Esther gives us permission to reflect on our call to serve God within the matrix of a modern secular…system…How could God call Esther to be the interracial replacement spouse of a polygamous, pagan Persian king? …This book is off the screen for many evangelicals…We urban people need Esther now more than ever. Never allow it to be trivialized or spiritualized away, as it has been so often…” (Ray Bakke, A Theology as Big as the City, IVP, 1997).
b. God calls us not only to change individuals, but change society and culture (Cultural-transformationist). In each case we’ve looked at in this course—Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—God called someone to work for just laws and policies in a secular society. It is common for modern Christians to insist that the only way to change society is to convert and disciple individuals. If that is all there is to be done, then the ‘higher’ calling would be to go into Christian ministry. But the Bible shows us people who God also calls to work for social and “systemic” justice and peace in society. Esther used her position to have an unjust law repealed.
Ray Bakke reminds us that we must read Esther ‘synoptically’ with Ezra and Nehemiah (A Theology as Big as the City, p. 106). These three Jewish ‘heroes’ had three very different callings. Ezra was a clergyman, who taught the Bible to the restored community in Jerusalem. Nehemiah was a lay person who used his skill to literally rebuild the wall and infra-structure of Jerusalem to insure safe streets and a decent economy. Esther, meanwhile, used her position to work for just laws in the secular realm. Only all three people, working together, were able to rebuild Jerusalem into a viable city. One did evangelism/discipleship (working on spiritual welfare), one did community development (working on the social and economic welfare), one did social justice (creating laws that were just and allowed the community to grow). This was not only a lay-clergy leadership team, but a male-female leadership team.
This means that we will never see God’s kingdom move forward with only evangelism and discipleship. We must also do ‘wholistic’ ministry that works on behalf of the poor and at-risk neighborhoods, and we must also have Christians in ‘secular’ jobs working with excellence, integrity, and distinctiveness. We need Ezra ministry, Nehemiah ministry, and Esther ministry—all together—if we are going to ‘win’ our society for Christ.
c. God is the only real King (Doctrinalist).
We have noted that God’s name is never directly mentioned, why? The teaching is: God is sovereignly in control, even when he appears to be completely absent. The dramatic tension in the book revolves around a threat to the very existence of the Jews. If we put the book in its total biblical context, we know that this is really a threat to the whole plan of God to redeem the world by grace. Genesis 12:1-3 tells us that God planned to bring salvation into the world through a family and a people, descended from Abraham. Abraham’s people were to be guardians of both the true faith and the “Messianic seed” which would one day produce a savior who would redeem the world. A threat to the Jewish nation was, therefore, an attack by the world on God’s redemptive plan. However, largely through a set of “coincidences”, the Jews are saved. God’s plan to save the world through grace is intact.
“What the writer of Esther has done is to give us a story in which the main actor is not so much as mentioned—the presence of God is implied and understood throughout the story, so that these mounting coincidences are but the by-product of his rule over history and his providential care for his people. It is an extraordinary piece of literary genius that this author wrote a book about the actions and rule of God from beginning to end, and yet that God is not named on a single page of the story” (Dillard, p. 196).
What a vivid way to teach us that God is always present, even when he seems most absent and his purposes most ‘opaque’! The message of the book is that God’s plan of grace/salvation cannot fail, and though he may appear to be completely absent, he is really behind everything, working out His plan.
Because of this theme, the writer contrasts two conflicting world-views—that of Haman and that of Mordecai. Haman believes in chance-fate. He casts lots to determine the best time to annihilate the Jews (3:7-11). He thinks he can control history by the exercise of his power. The other world-view is that of Mordecai. He believes that there is a divine presence over-ruling history (4:14) who can use us if we make ourselves available to him, but whose plan is not dependent on nor thwarted by human power. “The book sets the two world-views in contrast and shows by the outcome which is to be preferred” (Baldwin, p. 38).
Nevertheless, we are taught that God’s sovereignty is not determinism. When the story is over, it will be possible to look back and see that so much of what happened was due to a divine power behind even the most mundane ‘accidents’. Yet the narrator does not depict a kind of fatalistic determinism. Our choices are not determined apart from the responsible exercise of our will. Esther will have to risk her life and act courageously if the salvation of her people will be realized. We are not just passive pawns in God’s plan.
d. Human strength is weakness and weakness can be strength (Pietist).
Recent commentators have noticed the weakness of men and the power of women in the book. In contrast to the huge show of power in his great feast, the drunken Xerxes tries to humiliate his wife who in turn humiliates him. In response, he decrees that all men should control their wives when he can’t control his own. The decree, evidently made when he was still drunk, only makes him look foolish. Later he appears to regret it on several fronts.
Not only is he ‘bested’ by his first queen, the rest of the book shows him being ‘bested’ by his next queen. While the king is revealed to be ill-informed, forgetful, impulsive, unjust, and unwise, his queen Esther is seen to be a brave, take-charge, focused, wise, and just person. Not only Vashti and Esther, but Haman’s wife Zaresh appear as ‘strong and shrewd’ while all the men (except Mordecai) appear vain and foolish.
Esther, of course, is the person who most of all stands the world’s expectations on their head. First, she was an orphan, without father or mother (2:7). Orphans are one of the most oppressed, powerless groups (cf. James 1:27). Second, she was a woman, and not a powerful or wealthy woman, but a concubine, the member of a harem. In the process of the narrative, however, she ascends from being an orphan and Mordecai’s protégé to being a queen of a great power, who makes plans and takes decisive leadership and who in the end is her uncle’s guardian. Originally, her physical beauty won the king’s heart, but 2:15 indicates that her character and behavior had won the attraction of the rest of the court as well. Esther comes from the outside margins of society and is used by God to do redemption. So again we see a very prominent theme in the Bible. God does not work through the channels that the world considers strong and powerful. Instead, He works through groups (women, racial minorities) who seem powerless. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
In a related theme, we learn that ‘the one who would lose himself will find himself’. We learn that evil sets up strains in the fabric of life and backfires on the perpetrator, while faithfulness to God is also wise. Haman, who intends to destroy Mordecai and his kin, ultimately destroys only himself and his kin. This theme is especially achieved through the literary device of irony. The gallows that Haman builds for Mordecai becomes his own place of execution. Haman seeks to plunder the wealth of the Jews, but it is his wealth that falls into their hands. The reversal of role and fortune that occurs so often in the Bible eventually finds its fullest expression in Jesus, who was exalted because He stooped so low. At the same time Satan is brought low because he sought exaltation.
Sum—Do what you can to penetrate the culture. Don’t live in a ghetto!—and when there, serve the Lord. Serve your people. Serve the interest of justice! Don’t be afraid to lose your power, even your life, for God is the real king! Don’t be seduced by human power, beauty, and acclaim!
‘WHY YOU CAN’T DO IT”
Now how can you do it all? You can’t! if we end the sermon right here, we’ll all be in despair. You don’t have the courage to do this. You may get excited today about doing this, but your courage will evaporate quickly. And you may decide you are going to make all the risks that Esther made, but when it comes down to it, you aren’t going to risk your influence and money and status to help people in needs. You just won’t have the ability to do so.
“BUT THERE IS ONE WHO DID DO THIS”
You have to often go into the palace—but not be tempted by the palace! You’ve got to be willing to leave the palace in order to serve your Lord! Ah, but why can’t we? We are enthralled by the acclaim and glory of the palace! How to free ourselves? Esther’s great temptation, once she comes into a place of luxury, comfort, and privilege, is to hold on to that position to the detriment of her people. When by God’s grace we come into such a standing, we may be seduced by it. Mordecai had to challenge Esther and force her to see her choices. Salvation comes through Esther only when she is willing to give up her place in the palace and take her life into her own hands and risk it all in order to intercede before the throne of power. Again we see that redemption comes not by gaining but by losing, not by filling oneself, but by emptying oneself.
We also see, over and over, that we need a deliverer who identifies with us and that stands as our representative—as in the career of Joseph in Egypt, David before Goliath. So in this story we are led to see Jesus, who did not need a challenge to leave his place of power, who saved us not at the risk of his glory but at the cost of his glory, who did not say, “if I perish, I perish” but “when I perish, I perish”, who had to die in order to stand before the throne as our intercessor (Heb. 7:24-25). But the “rest” that Jesus brings is not one that gives us rest from enemies by killing them, but by winning them. After the cross, we pray for our enemies. Jesus has brought the barrier down between Jew and Gentile, Saul and Amalek. We learn—Salvation “rest” comes by the sacrifice and intercession of another. We have one who was in the greatest palace of all, but who did not just serve his God at the risk of losing the palace, but at the cost His own life.
Source: Tim Keller – Personal Notes taken from Lecture at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando in the early 2000’s