Living in a story bigger than justification by faith: theological worlds

My friend and former student, Wayne Beason, asked a good question in response to the last blog post. I made the observation that if you proclaim the Kingdom of God’s nearness prior to eating and healing, you have nothing, other than yourself, to point to. Wayne observed that most of the coaching he’s received on evangelism has emphasized the personal testimony of the evangelist. In other words, the transformed life of a believer is the best evidence we have of God’s saving work. So, how how does my comment relate to this?

First, of all, I want to say that these kinds of stories are still important, but may not be the clearest evidence we have of the Kingdom of God, which is social by nature. The reign of God orders not just individual lives, but the relations we have with others. I’ve often said that the life of the individual is not a broad enough canvas for the saving purposes of God to be displayed. (Note that in Ephesians, the church is offered as the place where God’s good ordering is put on display for the sake of all creation). Placing the focus of evangelistic testimony on the individual invites a problem that Wayne noted when he asked his question. We’re tempted to overstate the before/after picture to make the story adequately dramatic. I was a ruined sinner, but now my life is free from all of that. As Wayne points out, for good boys like him this is a hard story to tell. He wasn’t a ruined sinner, having grown up in the church and having always loved God. And few of us really can point to our current lives as a consistent product.

When thinking about Wayne’s question, I also recalled the work of W. Paul Jones in his book, Theological Worlds. Jones’ theory, backed up with some research, is that each of tends to resonate with a certain life issue that frames the way we see the world. Each  frame, which Jones calls a “world,” has a state to overcome: guilt, abandonment, injustice, emptiness, suffering. Each world has a rhythm: condemnation-forgiveness, emptiness-fulfillment, separation-reunion, suffering-endurance, conflict-vindication. Jones also has an inventory you can take to determine which world is yours, and I have found this to be a helpful tool.

Here’s the deal. Percentage wise, very few people seem to resonate in the condemnation-forgiveness world. Separation-reunion, emptiness-fulfillment, and suffering-endurace are far more prevalent. I’ve also gone through the Psalms to see which worlds are represented there and condemnation-forgiveness frames very few of them. Suffering-endurance and conflict-vindication are far better represented.

The ruined sinner to transformed saint story tends to live principally in the condemnation-forgiveness world. Penal substitutionary atonement certainly does and this tends to stand in for the gospel for many of our members. So, we have the unhappy circumstance of focusing our evangelistic message almost exclusively in relation to a world that doesn’t resonate with many individuals and is a minority theme in Scripture.

I used to use Jones to help congregations shape evangelistic witness, but I’ve moved away from that. Jones’ focus is still on the inner life of the individual, and I’m convinced that a thorough understanding of the Kingdom of God would touch on all of these worlds, so I begin there and let the individual chips fall where they may. But Jones is helpful in showing how limited our evangelistic message, focused on the guilt of the individual, has been. Jones’ work also suggests a broad range of unexplored themes that still might fit under the term “salvation.”


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Living in a story bigger than justification by faith: hospitality and witness

In my last few posts, I’ve talked about the possible differences it might make to shift away from seeing justification by faith as the center of the Paul’s understanding of the gospel (ala N.T. Wright and many others). Similarly, in my series just before this one on the baptism of Jesus, I argued that the driving question of Scripture is not, “how can an individual sinner be forgiven?”, but, instead, “how can God’s shalom, or good order, be see in all of creation?” The second question has to do with the Kingdom of God, which I argued are at the heart of both Jesus’ and Paul’s gospel (and subsequently their views of baptism).

I have a sense that some readers might consider a shift away from justification by faith (individual salvation) and toward the Kingdom of God as a return to the “social gospel” of the 20th century, a feint to theological liberalism. The fear here is that such a shift will turn the church into the United Way (worse things could happen, like being a legalistic den of intolerance, for instance), or some other social agency, and that the church’s evangelistic ministry would fall by the wayside.   

I get it. And I’m certainly concerned that the church continue to have a strong evangelical witness. In fact, I would say that one way the church serves the coming reign of God is as a herald and witness, and that the call of the Kingdom creates a crisis of allegiance in every life. So, I don’t think that the potential loss of an evangelistic witness can be laid at the feet of the gospel of the coming Kingdom of God.

The problem is, if the old evangelistic formulas no longer work, we haven’t yet figured out how to speak of the gospel in other ways. We don’t yet have enough experience in a new paradigm (for us) to know how this is saving news.

In Luke 10, Jesus sends out the 70 in pairs to every place he himself intends to go. He tells them to eat what is set before them, cure the sick who are there, and then say, the Kingdom of God has come near to you. I think this order is important. Eating and healing are ways of being with people that require openness, mutual vulnerability, and care. More than that, the result of such activity is that new human bonds of care and belonging are created. These are acts of hospitality, of giving and receiving. It makes sense in the light of these activities to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God. Apart from these realities, what could you possibly be pointing to when  you proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God?

Put another way, if you proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God before eating and healing, you can only be pointing to yourself as the sign of the Kingdom, not to the new realities being created by the hospitality of God which happens between people. Note here, that the hospitality of God occurs on someone else’s turf. It doesn’t happen only on the terms of those being sent, lest the gospel be confused as something they own or do or perform. Rather, the movement of the gospel occurs in the giving and receiving between people, as something which both the sent and the receiving help to create. And I am convinced that the space of the in-between, where both are needed for good news, leaves room for the Spirit. 

This way of seeing the work of God in the world, as happening between people, holds out the possibility that not only those who are receiving are being saved, but also those who are being sent. And this is the heart of the testimony of the Kingdom of God.

One way of witnessing, the typical way, is to define the other as a sinner in an abstract kind of way. “All have sinned…,” which means you. But notice the massive asymmetry in the relationship when this is how it is formed. All the good stuff is on the side of the evangelist. The “prospect” is the problem to be solved with nothing to offer in the encounter. In the Luke 10 encounter, others already potentially possess ingredients necessary for the Kingdom of God to become visible, namely, they are “people of peace.” People of peace are no longer “prospects” or representatives of an abstract definition–”sinner.” They are not instrumentalized in the encounter, like buyers on a car lot. Rather, they bear the possibility of being participants in the surprising, unfolding, drama of the Kingdom of God.

It is this thing that God is doing between people that forms the heart of the testimony of the Kingdom of God.

OK, but what about sin and sinners? The fundamental problem of sin, is that it creates environments where people are neurotic, isolated, divided into groups. We are separated from each other. But more to the point, we are separated from God. The move toward God and the move to the other are mutually implicating. The love of God enables the love of neighbor, and vice versa. So, the kind of thriving, flourishing, human belonging pictured in the Kingdom of God requires that sin be dealt with, that people be freed from everything that threatens God’s good order among people. Sins have to be forgiven, both by God and between neighbors, for God’s shalom to be realized.

Ok, but back to my bigger point: witness about the coming Kingdom is a product of the hospitality of God that happens between people. This becomes the opportunity for Christian witness to emerge. I know people and churches that have leaned heavily into these practices of hospitality, but are still stumped by how this produces a testimony. At the heart of their dilemma is how do they keep from turning “people of peace” into “prospects.” I have some ideas about that.

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Living in a bigger story than justification by faith: it doesn’t matter if you didn’t like the songs

Last blog, I pursued the question of one of my students. If N.T. Wright is correct that justification by faith is not the heart of Paul’s gospel, what does that look like in church life. I began my response by suggesting that it fundamentally changes the way we think about evangelism. And this, in turn, changes pretty much everything else. Evangelism is the clearest place where a church’s theology becomes visible. A change here is a change everywhere. My working proposal is that congregations enact whatever they think salvation is (this is the focus of my dissertation). 

So, if you think salvation is centered in the experience of the individual, the experience of the individual becomes the focus of the congregation. And I think this one single fact explains most of evangelical Christianity for the past 200 years or so.

You don’t think so? Ask an elder or a minister if they have anything in their bag of tricks that trumps personal dissatisfaction at church. I don’t like the preaching. I don’t like the worship. I’m just not being fed by this style of preaching. There aren’t programs here for me or my kids. I don’t like the songs we sing. Now, I’m not saying that elders and ministers don’t have good responses to these complaints (though my hunch is that the answer most often given is some version of, “give us time, we can make you happy”). I’m saying they don’t work. Personal dissatisfaction always wins.

OK, need another? How many churches do you drive past on Sunday morning to get to “your” church? What does that say about what you think church is? It used to be that we drove to the church that was our denomination. The denomination expressed a particular theological understanding. As many have told us, denominational loyalty is a thing of the past. Now, I’m no fan of denominations per se, but I don’t think this is the unmitigated positive many of my friends think it is. It says to me that now not even denominational stances can trump personal preference. This could very well be the final triumph of the personal. We call this consumerism and I think its pretty much the opposite of the gospel.

Need another? Next time you go to church, ask yourself what constitutes the bullseye this church is aiming at? (I know horrible grammar, but it sounds so stuffy to say it with good grammar). I think about three things when I ask this question: is the church aiming at the interior life of the individual? the communal life of the congregation?or the conditions of the world that God loves? I think all three should be present, but if one predominates, you may have trouble. And our trouble is around the interior life of the individual. The songs? Definitely the interior of the individual. As several have noted, much of contemporary worship music sounds like “Jesus is my boyfriend.” The sermon? Most sermons I think are aimed at inspiring the inner life of the individual. Communion? Individual portions, private meditation. Children’s worship? Theater seating? Youth groups? 

Now, I’m not saying that any of these things are bad in and of themselves. Well, maybe a few of them. What I am saying is that taken together they say that our congregations are built primarily around the experience of the inner life of the individual.

One last example. Because of all of this, the congregation’s life is nearly totally self-referential. It exists to serve the needs of its members and to make the number of members higher. The neighborhood in which it exists is secondary at best, totally inconsequential at worst. And because Sunday worship is the raison d’être of the consumer church (I think of Craig Van Gelder’s quip that in North America worship has replaced Christianity), the congregation too easily can distinguish between its inner life and “outreach.” The same kind of compartmentalization that happens in Christians who think their inner life is one thing and their business practice another, happens in the congregation where what happens within the congregation is church and what happens outside is benevolence or outreach. What happens inside is being (primary), what happens outside is doing (secondary). So, periodically we go to a poor neighborhood and clean things up or serve a meal. This is something we do, but its not our way of life. (Don’t get me started).

I think all of this is the fruit of seeing the gospel as being primarily about the eternal happiness of the individual.

But if we see the gospel as the announcement of the nearness of the Kingdom of God, then many of these things change. As George Hunsberger has put it, the church exists not as a vendor of religious goods and services, but as a sign and foretaste of the Kingdom of God. So, what would this kind of church look like? In other words, it exists fundamentally to “picture” what the realities of the eschaton will be. And while this has certain intrinsic benefits for individual well-being, the Kingdom of God is fundamentally a new social, or even ecological, set of affairs under God’s rule or reign. As Mary sang, “he has exalted the lowly and sent the rich away empty.” As Jesus says, “who are my brother and mother and sisters? Those who hear the word of God and do it.” As his enemies said of Jesus, “he eats with tax collectors and sinners.” As Paul said, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.” Or in another place, “all creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and experience the glorious liberty of the children of God.” Or in another place, “welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God.” Or as John saw it, a slain lamb conquers every imperial power, a victory that brings with it a new heaven and a new earth. The church lives to point to these coming realities.

And I have little idea what that church looks like completely, because I have never been a part of one. But I have some clues.

It will not be an aggregate of individuals who drive past other churches to find the church of their preference. Rather, the church will consist of people belonging to specific neighborhoods, overcoming the powers of sin and death and working for human flourishing among their neighbors. The church will not be built around the interior life of the individual, but around the work of the Holy Spirit in creating new social realities among people in actual neighborhoods. I’ve long said that these new Christian communities will not be asking as their primary question, “how can we get people to belong to us?” Rather, their orienting question will be, “how in Jesus’ name do we belong to these people?”

There are groups living this way. I think of the new monastic movements, or the important networks forming around The Parish Collective. These are important harbingers, I think, of congregations that are living in a story larger than justification by faith. Living with and among people is not “outreach,” but a way of life. The raison d’être for these communities is not the Sunday assembly, but the loving of God and neighbor every day.

These groups are going all in, now. They are living in ways that subvert contemporary congregational life and offer a clear alternative. Most of us, however, won’t choose the radical option. Nor, do I think, should we. I think that incremental steps can be taken that allow our existing congregations to lean into a different future. And I think that congregations can learn to give their lives away over time to experiments like these, and find that this doesn’t threaten the church’s life, but makes it more vibrant. Steps in a different direction. I’ve got a million of these.

Write new music where salvation isn’t just about me and my boyfriend, Jesus.

In calls to worship, take notice of all of creation which longs to glorify God, and someday will. Build windows into your sanctuary. Recognize the world.

Stop talking about ministering “to” others, which reinforces the inside-outside distinctions, but find people “with” whom you are partnering to serve the coming Kingdom of God.

Spend as much time preparing members to love and engage their neighborhoods and workplaces as you do to participate in the “ministries” of the church. And not simply as a means to make individual converts, but as a way for God’s shalom to be more present in everything.

Find ways to receive communion that demonstrate that God is overcoming human distinctions to create a new family around the table of the Lord. Gathering around a table might be the way to do that.

Nail a sign above the door on the way out of the sanctuary that says, “servant’s entrance” (this is a George Hunsberger story).

Take to heart this little bit of pastoral wisdom: spiritual discontent is seldom the result of your needs not being served. It’s more likely the result of living a life that requires no power outside of the self. Pastoral care and customer service are not the same thing, and often they are exactly the opposite.

Stay on message: the gospel is not that we can be self-realized, but that we can belong to something bigger than ourselves.

I could go on and on, but the shift that Wright and others are describing theologically will change nearly all of our patterns. We’ll know we’re closer when people complain less about not liking the style of the songs.



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Living in a story bigger than justification by faith

One of my grad students recently attended lectures by NT Wright at Oklahoma Christian University. (Kudos to OCU for getting Wright). These presentations hit my student after a course he took from me this semester, “Gospel and Cultures.” This course is a sea change for most students due to the fact that the default definition of gospel for most people is some view of substitutionary atonement. It’s a little jarring for some to realize that this is not the way Scripture talks about gospel. Instead of the gospel being a theory about how an individual has their sins forgiven, Scripture pretty consistently refers to gospel as an announcement (news) that the coming of Jesus (notably his death and resurrection) marks a dramatic turn of the ages in which the future reign of God is breaking into the present–the Kingdom of God.

Now, again, as I’ve had to caution often in posts like these, this doesn’t mean that the salvation of the individual isn’t important to God. Nor does it mean that the coming of Jesus doesn’t bring forgiveness of sins. It simply means that these are subsumed under a much bigger understanding of salvation–an understanding that is more in keeping with the biblical testimonies. Salvation means ultimately that God is all-in-all, that his glory is restored to all God has created, or as Ephesians says it, “all things, whether in heaven or on earth, will be gathered up into Christ.” It means that there is the possibility of one new human family “in Christ.” It means that creation will be “set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” It means that human lives can live free from the powers that impinge and distort our lives, and live instead by powers that will endure into the eschaton.

So, salvation is not so much a status that we own, but a realm that God owns in which we participate.

Now, I share with my students what I in turn received from others, including NT Wright. I was relieved that my student recognized in Wright’s lectures things that he had read for our class. In an email about his experience, he made the following statement:

So after our gospel discussions in class, hearing NT Wright say that Paul’s central message is not “justification by faith,” and reading your baptism posts on your blog, I have a question that is constantly on my mind.  One of the reviewers of Wright’s new Paul book (Dr. Thompson from ACU) asked a great question.  Now that we have this new view of Paul and his writings, what does this look like “on the ground” for the church?   

So, let me see if I can spend some time on this question. And let me begin with a caveat. We’ve been organizing church around a more individualistic notion of gospel and salvation for quite some time now. It will take us some time to figure out where this impulse will lead. I understand the need for the question, but I’m always a little struck that when encountered with something new we feel the need for a certain mastery over it before we lean into it, i.e. “What does this look like?” Not, “How will we learn to trust God in this time of transition?”

Let me start, though, with a scene from last night at Starbucks. I was sitting uncomfortably close (within my introvert perimeter) to a young couple having a very passionate conversation about God. She was a winsome evangelical. He was a skeptical something-or-other. She was giving this her all, because it seemed to me, they were serious about each other, but she could only marry a Christian. This was an all-or-nothing moment for her and she was pulling out all the stops. And she was getting creamed.

She was not getting creamed because she lacked the intellectual ability or because he was a better debater. She was getting creamed because she had a story that’s tough to defend. It wasn’t just that he disagreed with her. He was offended by her view of God.

Her story was predictable. All of us are sinners, and it takes only one to make us unacceptable to God. And there’s hell to pay, literally. God can’t simply forgive us our mistakes. He has to have a victim before he can forgive, a blood sacrifice. So, he sends his own son to die for us, to appease his otherwise unappeasable wrath.

For the young man, this made God a monster. It failed for him precisely at the level of being moral. God really can’t forgive me for a mistake unless someone dies? With all that’s wrong with the world–disease, war, hunger, slaver–God is obsessed with who I sleep with? He kept telling her that he was a good person who cared for others and took care of the earth and cared about global issues of justice. God was going to send him to hell for pre-marital sex? (He did seem a little pre-occupied with sex).

Now, I won’t take time to dissect the particulars of her story or the problems with his critiques. I want to look at the starting place in her story. Her story had as its center the problem of individual sin. Everything flowed from that premise. As a result, her rhetorical strategy began with isolating him in his sin and warning him of the grave dangers to him personally.

Now let’s try on a story that doesn’t begin with the individual as the issue. What if she had started this way: we live in a world that is totally screwed up. Sex-trafficking, poverty, disease, environmental disasters. We’ve made a hash of it. (He agrees). And being a really good person isn’t the answer. We’re both really good people and know a lot of other really good people and we fix some things and some don’t get any better and some get worse (He agrees). Even science, which makes our lives better in so many ways, also threatens to wipe us from the face of the earth (He agrees). And my question is, where is God in all of this? (And he agrees and hopes you have a satisfying answer). The Christian story says that God has revealed his power in a story of selfless love, which is the opposite of what the Bible calls sin and identifies as the root of this whole mess. God’s solution to the problem is not power as “control over” the contingencies of this life. Rather, the Christian view of the world is that God suffers with us, joins us, endures with us, and works for justice through paths of faithful love. Love, not as an emotion, but love as a way of always acting for us. And ultimately, this is the power through which all things will be made whole. The death of Jesus on a Roman cross is a demonstration that there is no power or circumstance that places us outside of his love. And his resurrection from the dead says to us that the powers of sin and death don’t have the final word. And the church is a group of people who live by the power of this selfless love, which the Holy Spirit gives to us, and who live in resistance to all other powers that would shape life in distorting or unjust ways, who live as a sign of God’s future where all things will be made whole. This takes more than just good people or moral people. Christians hardly have that market cornered, but it takes people who share a commitment to this way of being in the world. And when you live this way with others, you learn to recognize the unmistakable ways that God shows up, like those moments of power when we learn to forgive each other the way God lavishly forgives us. And when I live in this story, I find myself being transformed by the love God. The way this world gets on you and in you and contaminates you and weighs you down with shame and guilt and condemnation is defeated. And this transformed way of life survives everything, even death. (There’s lots more, but this is a blog).

Maybe he buys it, maybe he doesn’t. But the point is a different starting place makes a huge difference. By moving the primary issue from the individual to creation and history, the story unfolds in a different way. And you might tell it differently than I did. For instance, Paul doesn’t tell it precisely this way. But he’s starting with a different audience. I was starting with the young man at the Starbucks. This variety of audiences is one reason the Bible doesn’t tell the story only in one way. If the Bible doesn’t, why should we? And I’m convinced that if we place ourselves inside of a different story, it will change the ways we do things as well. More on that.

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The surprise of preaching texts

I preach texts. Almost always. By that, I mean that my sermon is governed by the selection of one text. In fact, I think of my sermon as a performance of the text, not as a way of talking about a text or making points about it or pointing to its lessons. Rather, I think of the sermon as a faithful enactment of those things in the text that want to perform. 

As I go from place-to-place and listen to sermons, I realize that my approach is not really very common. More and more, I hear sermons on topics. I note this as an observation, not a judgment. These sermons are good. Very often, these sermons hit the main criteria I use to evaluate a sermon: is it gospel? I think its just as likely that you could take a text and miss the gospel than it would be taking a topic. So, I have no criticism for preachers who take topics as their main way of preaching. In fact, to be good at it, you have to be a pretty good theologian.

As with any approach, there are strengths and weaknesses, and I’m a big believer you should preach to your strengths. The strengths of preaching topics is the way they provide clarity and settle things for the listener. There are often more immediate take-aways in a topical sermon.

I’ve had more than one person say to me at the end of a sermon, “that was beautiful, what does it mean?” Fail. Sometimes I wish I was good at topical preaching.

I always had trouble sketching out a topical series. It requires in advance a good idea of what you are going to say from sermon-to-sermon. I’m not clever enough to do that, I guess. For instance, I blogged a few weeks ago about a topical series I did on the” five-finger exercise” a few years ago. I already knew what I was going to say about each and what verses I would anchor my sermons to. But in this series, the topics were obvious, handed to me by Church of Christ tradition, and I’m not good at stitching other broad themes together. And I’m horrible with titles, which a topical series kind of thrives on. My titles are like, “Mark 1:1-18.” Yeah, I need help. So, I’m envious (hopefully, in a grateful, thankful kind of way) of preachers who can line all that stuff out.

And I think I prefer topical preaching to a certain way of preaching texts. Often I hear sermons from texts where the most boring part of the sermon is the reading and “explanation” of the text. This is typically the result of the “stance” the preacher takes vis-a-vis the text. When the text is in view, their stance is often outside of the text. They stand in the contemporary world making observations about a distant text. They point to it, more than they inhabit it. “Paul told the Corinthians…the greek word here means…in context this verse means… .” Yawn. So the text often loses the emotional valence contest with the illustrations or stories or jokes that take place outside the text. If this is how texts are preached, give me a topical sermon by someone who knows what they are doing.

But, here’s the magic for me of preaching texts the way I do. I’m nearly alway surprised. And I’m a fan of surprise for theological reasons.

Now, I’ve done this enough by now that I’ve preached on a lot of texts. So, sometimes I have a sense beforehand of the direction the sermon will go. But I don’t keep sermons or outlines, precisely to keep the possibility of a new hearing of the text alive. And a text never performs in a vacuum. It is always performing in the world in front of the text, that is in the world of the readers, which is always moving and changing. It is always a live question, “what is this text saying today, to these listeners?”

In my experience with topical sermons, that question is sometimes decided beforehand. There’s less opportunity for surprise. But in the struggle to hear simultaneously text and context, I’m nearly always surprised by the shape or direction the sermon takes.

Let me say it another way. There’s the possibility that a topic in a series represents something I already have or think. It travels on more settled terrain. But a text is always “other” than me. And while some texts are familiar friends, many of them are strangers that I would never mention in a sermon where I already have the conclusion in view. Like Jacob and the heavenly stranger, taking a text is a wrestling, hoping that there will be a blessing in the end.  And I think as a general principle, wrestling with the other leaves room for surprise and surprise is sometimes is where the Holy Spirit resides.

Preaching a textual series, then, often has this feature: you take texts that you would otherwise never visit. In fact, it’s less that you take the text than the text takes you. The same could be true for topics. You might decide to preach on a topic that you would ordinarily not visit, but I think it’s less likely that if you preach texts in a series, and in this case, it’s still the preacher who decided to take on the topic. (Now, I realize that if you only take texts, it won’t be clear what a contemporary Christian imagination might have to say about topics or ideas that don’t appear in biblical texts. You should absolutely preach topics from time-to-time).

One last advantage to taking texts. I think if your main preaching diet consists in topics, its tougher to avoid the charge of preaching an agenda. Now, I know that taking a text can be a thin disguise for working an agenda. But I think I’ve avoided that charge, even in congregations more conservative than me, because they sense that my sermons are governed by a disciplined approach to texts over time. This may be a case where perception becomes reality. That is, I might be quite deluded in thinking that preaching texts keeps me from soapboxes. But, I know congregations would rather believe they’re being worked on by the text than the preacher.

So, I take texts most often when preaching, partly because of my weaknesses with other approaches, but partly for the ways that this kind of preaching surprises me, and its the surprise that often makes preaching satisfying. 

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Jesus’ baptism and ours: the Jordan River runs through Romans

Before my baptism, I memorized Romans 6:1-14. A seminal text for sure. “What shall we say then, shall we persist in sin that grace may abound? By no means! … Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Clearly baptism and sin are talked about together here. As are baptism and the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, it was natural to conclude that the death of Jesus was a sacrifice for my personal sins and that baptism was for the forgiveness of those sins. And this, in my mind, created space between my baptism and the baptism of Jesus. The Jordan River didn’t run through Romans 6 even if it ran through the baptistry of my church.

Funny thing. Romans 6 never mentions the forgiveness of sins. The word forgiveness doesn’t appear once. Now, don’t have a stroke (I see the vein in your forehead popping). I think forgiveness of sins is in the deal. It’s just not how sin is talked about in Romans 6.

A few posts ago, I proposed that understanding Jesus’ baptism depended on what question you think the Bible is answering. One view sees the Bible as a response to an individual’s sin so that the pressing question becomes, “how can a sinner be forgiven?” Another view sees the Bible as a response to the loss of God’s shalom, or even glory, in creation. The question here is “how can God work in history to bring all things back under his sovereign love and care?”

Since Luther, most of us have read Romans around the first question. This, in turn, influences our reading of Romans 6. This text, we think, is explaining how an individual sinner has sins forgiven. But that reading of Romans has been seriously challenged in the last 30 years or so. The issue in Romans is now seen by most scholars of Romans more related to the second question, “how can God work in history to bring all things back under his sovereign care and love?” The driving concern of Romans is not how an individual can be forgiven, but how is God being faithful to his covenant promises if the Gentiles are accorded a place in the covenant without becoming Jews? The issue at stake is the righteousness of God within history.

Consider the theme verse at the beginning of Romans, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for in it the righteousness of God is revealed…” Under the older, Luther-influenced, reading of Romans, chapter five was the theological highpoint, justification by faith, or perhaps Romans 8. Romans 9-11, which discusses Jews and Gentiles and the covenants of promise, was thought to be a diversion from the main argument, an aside where Paul wrote things that none of us understand.

But, in fact, Romans 9-11 is the high point of Paul’s theology. It is at the end of chapter 11 that we find Paul praising God for what he has done in bringing Jew and Gentile together, “Oh, the depths of the riches of the glory of God…” And the big “therefore,” which marks a decisive move in the letter from talking about what God has done to talking about our response, follows immediately in 12:1. More, the high point of the “practical” section in Romans, (after the long section on the strong and weak which has to do with eating meat sacrificed to idols) is found in 15:7, “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Paul then makes the theme explicit in the following verse, “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness (righteousness?), in order to confirm the promise given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” This faithfulness to the promises made to Israel and the inclusion of the Gentiles is for Paul a picture of the Kingdom of God, or as he puts it elsewhere, the new creation.

Paul doesn’t mention the forgiveness of individual sins in Romans 6, because it’s not central to his gospel. What he talks about in Romans 6 is central to his gospel–being transferred into the goodness of God’s kingdom.

Need proof? Notice how Paul talks about sin in Romans 5. Sin, and its henchman, death, “reigned from Adam to Moses.” As Paul sees it, there is one human story emanating from Adam in which sin and death constitute a reign or kingdom (the word used is actually a form of basileia, which is the word the gospels use for “Kingdom of God”). But now, in Christ, a new human story is possible under the dominion or kingdom of grace. “As sin reigned in death, so grace might reign in righteousness.” Grace is more than just God overlooking our sins. Grace describes a dominion, literally a kingdom (baslieia), that allows a new kind of life to flourish.

The argument in Romans 6 is that baptism moves you from one basileia to another. “For one who has died is set free from sin…We know that Christ, being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him… Let not sin reign in your mortal body…for sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law, but under grace.” Baptism in Romans 6 is about which kingdom you belong to.

And in this new Kingdom, there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. We have a new humanity, not given to the old distinctions of the age that is passing away, but given to life imperishable, “newness of life,” that will survive into the eschaton.

This acceptance of a new kingdom is what Jesus was baptized into by John, and what we are according to Romans 6. When we are baptized we are welcoming and representing the coming reign of God. We have turned our lives (repentance) to show that our allegiance is not to the reign of sin and death which divides people according to human standards, but instead we belong to the reign of grace, and of life, which overcomes human distinctions in the cruciform way of Jesus.

The question driving Paul’s discussion of baptism in Romans 6 is not “how does an individual get sins forgiven?” but “how can we escape the dominion of sin and death and belong to the coming dominion in which the righteousness of God is revealed?” The problem with sin is not principally our individual guilt, but, rather, the way that sin, in league with death, has ruled human life in ways that are not in keeping with the shalom of God.

The Jordan River runs smack dab through the middle of Romans.


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Jesus’ Baptism and Ours: I should be baptized by you

In both Matthew and Luke, John the Baptist protests Jesus’ request to be baptized. “I need to be baptized by you. And do you come to me?” We understand John’s reluctance. Jesus seems to us an unlikely candidate for a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. For John, though, Jesus’ desire to be baptized seems to be more tied to their relative status regarding the restoration of Israel. John is the forerunner, the path straightener, the warm-up act. As Luke records John’s response, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, whose sandals I am unworthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Jesus is greater than John and his baptism is greater. The roles here are reversed.

The one who is greater is making himself the least. And this is the shape of the coming Kingdom of God.

In the movie, The Apostle, Robert Duvall plays a pentecostal preacher who commits a murder and escapes Texas for Louisiana to avoid the law. Duval’s character has done a terrible thing and needs forgiveness from God to be restored to his calling. So, in an amazing scene, he baptizes himself–three times–and emerges from the river, not only forgiven, but promoted. He is now an apostle. I’m not sure which is more audacious, calling yourself an apostle or baptizing yourself.

Baptism requires someone besides you. It’s a mediated act. Our way to God passes through another’s life. This is the way salvation would have to be if our besetting sin is self-centeredness. It’s different than saying a prayer or some other act that is only internal to us. Jesus can’t be only in our hearts, but must be external to us as well, calling us out of our selves and into life with and through others. In this sense, baptism is not something we do, but something we receive. In fact, in baptism we completely rely and trust another to bring us up from the watery grave. We are vulnerable and submissive (in the easiest baptisms, at least. I’ve had a few fighters). We are not the active agents in the act of baptism. Someone else is. 

When my father baptized me, he represented both Christ and the community of Christ. I did not originate this story and it’s truth doesn’t depend on me. In baptism, I am being claimed by realities greater than myself.

And this is the way of the Kingdom of God. As I argued in the last post, John’s summons to repentance and forgiveness of sins would have been heard as an end to Israel’s long exile and the coming nearness of the Kingdom of God. Israel will be restored to a central place in God’s covenantal purposes for all of creation. But the nature and shape of participating in the Kingdom of God will be surprising and require repentance. Namely, it will require God’s chosen one to submit to God in everything, including death on a cross. This is not just so that God can get God’s way. This is because loving submission and covenantal trust are God’s way. This is what the world looks like when God’s rule and reign are operative.

So, it is not surprising to see Jesus come to John for baptism. First, he is aligning himself with a movement that anticipates the coming Kingdom of God. Second, the very nature and shape of that movement is based on those who are great becoming the least. The baptism of Jesus echoes throughout the rest of the gospel story. “If you want to find your life, you must lose it… The greatest will be the least, the servant of all…the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve… not my will, but yours be done.”

When we are baptized, hopefully we are saying the same things. We are aligning our lives with the good news of God’s coming kingdom and are recognizing that power in this kingdom is expressed as submission and service. 


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Jesus’ baptism and ours: the importance of asking the right question

In my last post, I suggested that Jesus’ baptism is a model for our own. We are baptized for the same reasons he was. This is not an obvious statement for most of us, since we think baptism is primarily about the forgiveness of an individual’s sins and Jesus had none. Making this case seemingly more difficult is the fact that John the Baptist was baptizing for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. So, to make my case, I have to expand both our understandings of Jesus’ baptism and our own. So, here goes.

My case hinges on which question you think the Bible is most interested in. One view sees the Bible as a response to an individual’s sin so that the pressing question becomes, “how can a sinner be forgiven?” Another view sees the Bible as a response to the loss of God’s shalom, or even glory, in creation. The question here is “how can God work in history to bring all things back under his sovereign love and care?” These two questions are not unrelated, especially if you ask the second one first. The Bible is interested in both, but they aren’t the same and it matters which one you lead with. The issue in the first is the individual. In the second, history. The object of salvation in the first is the individual. In the second, all of creation. In the first, Israel’s story is unessential, even perhaps one big false step. In the second, it is essential and the story hinges on the outcome of the promise made to Abraham.

So here’s my thesis, restated. The baptism of Jesus is related primarily to the second set of questions, not the first. And so ours should be.

Ready for another bold proposal? If I were to divide the Bible, I wouldn’t divide it between the Old and New Testaments. I would divide it before Israel’s exile and after. The first part of the Bible would end with Lamentations and the second part would begin with Isaiah 40:1, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” (I have yet to get much traction with this, but I’m sure its just an economic decision on the part of Bible sellers). I am convinced that the reality of exile falls like a shadow over most of Scripture. Because of the exile, the question of God’s identity in relation to Israel is called into question. Has God forgotten the promises he made that placed Israel at the center of his redemptive purposes for all creation? Is Israel’s sin so great that there is no hope for a future with God? Or worse, is Yahweh not sovereign over history, therefore, incapable of bringing his purposes about?

These questions linger in the New Testament. Even though many of God’s people have returned from exile and the temple has been rebuilt in Jerusalem, Israel’s place in the covenant promises of God has not been restored. So, for instance, in the opening pages of Luke’s gospel we find the aged prophet Simeon looking for the “consolation of Israel,” and his counterpart Anna praying for the “redemption of Jerusalem.” They’re looking for an end to exile.

They, like many of Israel’s theologians before them, imagined that God’s purpose for Israel existed not in an ideal past to be restored, but in a perfect future whose existence would break into the present in sudden and surprising ways–the Kingdom of God. This future age would bring with it a renewing of Israel according to the promises of God. And as NT Wright points out, forgiveness of sins would be a sign of this new age and evidence that the exile was finally coming to an end. Wright says it bluntly, “Forgiveness of sins is another way of saying ‘return from exile.’” (He lines up an impressive array of biblical texts that support this statement in Jesus and the Victory of God, 269-274).

Wright further makes the point that the baptism offered by John was not primarily for the forgiveness of individual sins. Provision was already available for the forgiveness of individual sins. Moreover, he writes, “forgiveness of sins could never simply be a private blessing, though to be sure it was that as well… Overarching the situation of the individual was the state of the nation as a whole; and, as long as Israel remained under the rule of pagans, as long as Torah was not observed perfectly, as long as the temple was not properly restored, so Israel longed for forgiveness of sins as the great, unrepeatable, eschatological and national blessing promised by her god. In light of this, the meaning which Mark and Luke both give to John’s baptism ought to be clear. It was for ‘the forgiveness of sins,’ in other words, to bring about the redemption for which Israel was longing.” (Victory of God, 271)

Getting back to our original questions, those who received John’s baptism were more concerned with “how can God work in history to bring creation back under his sovereign care?” than “what must I do to be saved?” They were responding to a summons to be a part of God’s coming kingdom. 

But John’s baptism was not only about forgiveness of sins. It was also about repentance. What would become clear in Jesus’ ministry is that the coming Kingdom of God would call for a new Israel. Many of the expectations others held about the consolation of Israel or the redemption of Jerusalem would be frustrated by Jesus’ ministry. Again, as Wright puts it, Jesus was in effect saying, “give up your way of being Israel, your following of particular national and political aims and goals, and trust me for mine instead.” (Vict of God, 254).

There’s much to say about this, but for now let me say that Jesus was baptized to show that he both represented and belonged to the coming Kingdom of God. His presence announced the end of Israel’s exile and demonstrated the possibility of a renewed Israel that would serve the eschatological purposes of God. His baptism, in particular, demonstrated the shape that repentance must take in light of the coming Kingdom of God. More on that in my next post.


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The Baptism of Jesus and Ours

ImageIt’s been awhile since I’ve seen one, but in the days of my youth it was not uncommon to see behind the pulpit a baptistry with a painted scene of the Jordan River. I had no need of such a scene. I was baptized in a real river. The Yamhill River at Camp Yamhill’s Inspiration Point. And the water was cold. And I liked it!

But if you had to do an indoor baptism, I could see the appeal of pretending that the water was living water. And what better river to be baptized in than the one in which Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

In our imaginations, we have always connected our baptism to Jesus’. Which, when you think of it is kind of odd. The words spoken over me at baptism were, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I now baptize you for the forgiveness of sins that you might receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” These words hardly apply to Jesus, the one without sin. My baptism is not like Jesus’ baptism.

Well, even though he didn’t need it, I was told, Jesus submitted to it to provide an example for us. If it was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for me.

The upshot of all of this is that Pentecost and Peter’s call to “repent and be baptized” became the paradigmatic scene for me and many like me. Or, the language of Romans 6. Lydia, Cornelius, or the Philippian jailer were my predecessors, not Jesus. So, why the Jordan River scenes?

I’ve been looking again at the various accounts of the baptism of Jesus in the gospels, and I am convinced that Jesus was baptized for the same reasons we should be. I’m also convinced that Jesus’ baptism is more than just an example. I’m convinced as well that even though he was sinless and I’m not, his baptism should be the model for my own. And I’m convinced that Acts 2 and Romans 6 should be read in light of that baptism and not the other way around.

So, for that to be the case, two things have to happen. We have to understand Jesus’ baptism differently. And we have to understand our own in new and fresh ways as well.

So, here’s the big point I want to make which I will support in subsequent posts. Jesus was baptized to demonstrate his solidarity with the coming Kingdom of God. Not only that, but his baptism was a demonstration of the nature of that coming kingdom. These are the same reasons we are baptized.

What about forgiveness of sins? Forgiveness of sins is part and parcel of the new age, of the coming Kingdom. Of course it would be associated with an act like baptism. But as we’ll see, this is less about the forgiveness of individual sinners and more about establishing the conditions necessary for the restoration of all things.

Clearly, this view of things will challenge the predominant way the gospel has been understood the past few hundred years. But take a deep breath. What I hope to demonstrate will not throw out what you currently believe about salvation or baptism, but enlarge it and put it more squarely within the overall scope of the biblical narratives. I promise, you won’t feel the need to be re-baptized as a result of these posts (if you do, I’d suggest that the problem is on your end).

And I think we’re on better theological footing when we model our participation in faith on Jesus rather than Cornelius or Lydia. Maybe we will see a rebirth of Jordan River scenes in our new church buildings.

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Richard Beck Coming to Streaming, Oct 9-11

Unknown-8It’s a great deal in life when one of your favorite people turns out to be someone you get to work with from time-to-time. Richard Beck is one of those guys for me. We were colleagues at Abilene Christian University for eight years and were a part of a group that met every Friday for refreshments and conversation. We became great friends. At that point, Richard didn’t have a blog, he hadn’t written books, and he was still figuring out what the theological options were. Now, he’s got the most interesting blog around, has written a few books, and has turned into a more than respectable theologian. His stuff is insightful, creative, and usable.

We’ve had him at Streaming before, and as his students will affirm, he is an outstanding presenter. He will be bringing material related to his new book, The Slavery of Death. He just sent me titles and descriptions for his presentations. You need to be at Streaming.

“The Power of the Devil and the Shame-Based Fear of Being Ordinary”
In Hebrews 2.14-15 fear, our fear of death in particular, is described as “the power of the devil.” The talk will trace this fear to our worries about what Brene Brown has called “the shame-based fear of being ordinary” and how this fear and shame cripples our ability to love each other fully, authentically, and sacrificially.
“Perfect Love and the Exorcism of Fear”
“Perfect love casts out fear.” But how is this “exorcism.” this “casting out” accomplished? The talk will argue that a critical aspect of this process involves confronting the ways in which our identities have been idolatrously constructed, making us vulnerable to the shaming we experience in weakness, need and failure. However, in the practices of worship, prayer and thanksgiving our identities can be “hidden in Christ.” Now found in Christ, and outside the dominion of death and the devil, we are set free from fear and shame creating the capacity to step into lives of love and servanthood.
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