The church is dead?

In a post on Out of Ur Skye Jethani discusses reports of the decline of the Southern Baptist Convention and of the evangelical church in North America more generally: “50 churches are closing every week, church attendance is not keeping pace with population growth, and the average age of church members is going up”. He thinks that the evidence cannot be gainsaid, but he is reassured by the words of Dallas Willard: “I am not discouraged, because I believe that Christ is in charge of his church, with all of its warts, and moles, and hairs. He knows what he is doing and he is marching on.”

Jethani is also reassured by the evidence from his trip to the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization that “the global church is more than surviving… it’s thriving!” He concludes: ‘So, while many both inside and outside the family of God take some perverse pleasure in declaring “The church is dead,” we can with full faith and confidence shout in response, “Long live the Church!”’ I am delighted that the global church is thriving, but I have some questions.

The Gentiles are saved by the salvation of Israel

It is a basic error of modern evangelicalism that it has over-compressed the biblical narrative in order to provide a simple, user-friendly “gospel” for the practical purposes of personal evangelism, pastoral instruction, and the highly subjective forms of worship that prevail in our churches. My concern here is much less with the simple gospel—“Jesus died for my sins” is a good enough post-biblical shorthand—than with the horrible deformation of biblical thought.

The doctrine of atonement is a good example. Evangelicalism has taken the three-dimensional political narrative of atonement that we find in the New Testament and reduced it to a two-dimensional theory of personal salvation.

Paul’s argument about the atonement of Israel in Romans 3-4

This is a close examination of the place of Romans 3:24-25 in Paul’s argument about the fate of the Jews in chapter 3 as a whole. It is a response to objections made to my post on atonement that when Paul speaks here of a redemption in Christ Jesus, etc., he does not discriminate between Jews and Gentiles, that the atonement referenced by the word hilastērion is directly for all humanity. My view is that this traditional reading of these verses can be sustained only if we remove them from their context in Romans and make use of them as a prooftext for salvation in Christ, which of course we do all the time.

Atonement, without the theoretical nonsense

At the simplest level what we mean by “atonement” is that Jesus died for my sins in order to reconcile me to a holy God. But when the church attempts to explain how Jesus’ death on the cross does this, we quickly find ourselves entangled in a number of competing theories: the moral influence theory (popular with liberals), the Christus Victor theory (currently popular with emerging types), Anselm’s satisfaction theory (popular with Anselm), the notorious penal substitution theory (popular with the neo-Reformed), the sacrificial theory (popular with the writers of the New Testament, but see below), the governmental theory of Hugo Grotius, and no doubt many others.

I came to cast a fire on the earth

There is no question that Pentecost is a “wondrous and challenging feast”, which should put “to the lie a lazy, sleepy, hidden, and tepid Christian life”. I quote from a Meditation on the Feast of Pentecost by Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington. But the Monsignor then sharpens the stick with which he means to prod the lazy, sleepy Christian by invoking Jesus’ dramatic statement in Luke 12:49: “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!” Pope comments: “This is a feast about fire, about a transformative, refining, and purifying fire that the Lord wants to kindle in us and in this world.” In general post-biblical terms that may be right, but it gains its contemporary relevance at the expense of a narrative-historical understanding of the passage.

More questions about the kingdom of God

My very good friends Rogier and Christine have responded to my post Kingdom of God: who, what, when, and how? with a number of pertinent questions. I have tried to answer all of them thoroughly, but the result is a rather long post. So if your name is not Rogier or Christine, you may want to skip it. In fact, when you see how long and abstruse it is, you may want to skip it even if your name is Rogier or Christine.

The Kingdom of God: who, what, when, and how?

At the heart of Jesus’ preaching is the simple statement that “the kingdom of God is at hand”, to which an equally simple exhortation is attached: repent and believe this good news (Mk. 1:15). Simple? Perhaps not. We appear still to be remarkably confused about what Jesus meant. Is the kingdom present or future? Is it the same as the church? Is it bigger than the church? Is it all about miracles? Is this the social justice dimension that somehow fell out of evangelical theology? It’s not unusual to hear preachers say that they don’t really understand what the kingdom of God is, but they’re going to preach on it anyway…. That’s odd, surely?

Rob Bell and the day of fire

I’m picking my way slowly through the beguiling, breezy woodland of Rob Bell’s Love Wins. But to be honest, so far I have been more interested in the trees than the wood. If you look at some of them close up, with the slightly obsessive eye of a botanist rather than the casual glance of a happy-go-lucky rambler, they don’t quite make sense. Push them, and they seem not to be securely rooted. Push hard enough and they sometimes fall over. To give an example….

Jesus, in a small closed box

The biblical story of Jesus is a very long one. It reaches back to the creation of all things; it concludes with the re-creation of all things and the symbolic presence of the Lamb in the glorious city of the creator God. If we superimpose on this already complicated biblical story the church’s highly theological account of who Jesus was, is and will be, then we have a biography of massive mythical and metaphysical proportions. But in order to understand the story of Jesus we have to start not with this glorious meta-biography but with the much more modest and limited historical narrative that we find in the Gospels—in Matthew, Mark and Luke in particular.

Confidence on the day of judgment—a matter of perspective (and works)

This verse was mentioned in a sermon on grace yesterday. Given our perspective on things we naturally read it as a statement either about a final judgment at the end of human history or about a personal judgment after we die. Because we have received grace through faith in Jesus Christ—and only because we have received grace through faith in Jesus Christ—we may have confidence when we stand before the throne of God’s judgment. Strictly speaking, what we’ve actually done does not enter into the equation. That is core evangelical teaching. Given John’s perspective on things, however, there may be a couple of flaws in this reading of the verse.

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