Category Archives: Theology

Presumed Grace

Probably my all-time favorite cartoon is “The Emperor’s New Groove.” The epically audacious Emperor Kuzco has been given everything in life. Really, he has no room to complain about anything. But this all ends one day when a peasant doesn’t want to give up his humble abode in order for Kuzco to build a personal resort. Shortly thereafter, Kuzco gets turned into a llama and loses any frame of reference for what he’s experiencing. What should be an overcomable obstacle becomes an end of the world scenario. Because he’s always been given whatever he wanted, a season of limitation results in a personal chaos and a (literally) meandering path back to comfort.Grooveposter

We all struggle to sympathize with characters like Kuzco, Richie Rich, Cinderella’s step-sisters, and so on, who presume that they should always receive the best things in life. Those of us who are used to receiving very little in terms of preferential treatment or monetary freedom have a different floor of expectation. For us, a life of moderation is what we expect. We anticipate that our basic needs will be met and know that everything else is gravy. But there’s another perspective that we’re often reminded of. Many in the third world don’t even take for granted that they’ll have a meal or two each day. That we should expect meals and clothes and housing is scandalous in their minds. To them, the daily provision you anticipate is a glorious blessing.

I’m not interested in shaming you if you’ve received a lot in your life. All I’m saying is that if you’re reading this article, you probably have received a gracious plenty in your life. Many who read this article have experienced heaps of blessings that others haven’t. Theologians tell us that the Bible teaches that every little blessing that we get, whether you’re a Christian or not, comes from the hand of God. It’s not something you earn because you’re good or because you’re from a certain part of the globe. God dispenses his “common grace” on the planet to sustain every human being that exists and to hold back the swell of evil in the world. This seems to be what Jesus was getting at when he said:

“For [your Father] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” – Matthew 5.45

From Jesus’ perspective, God’s care for the day-to-day blessings we enjoy is the only reason why we exist today. God’s common grace is the only reason why all of humanity isn’t starving and sick, hammered daily by earthquakes and hurricanes, and suffering from the devastation of mass despotism. So in a sense, we’ve come to anticipate common grace. And that’s why I think theologians should adopt a new term for this teaching: “presumed grace.” Kuzco-like, we tend to presume that God’s restraint of darkness is the norm and that calamity is the rare exception. We feel like every pack of Pokemon cards (yes, I’m showing my age here) should be full of rare holographic cards. When we come up with a single common card, we flip out. We start to feel that we deserve God for to keep the chaos of a rebellious world at bay and to be provided with all of the things we feel we need.

Let’s test our outlook with the following chaotic experiences: Tomorrow an earthquake kills hundreds. A relative is killed in a car accident with a drunk driver. You lose your retirement money in a stock crash. You get slandered in front of your friends and they buy it. Your adult child doesn’t want anything to do with you. A close friend is raped.

Some of you don’t have to think very hard in order to envision one of these scenarios. I’ve recently experienced a measure of hurt in my life too. And what do we tell ourselves when we’re in the middle of a situation like this? We tell ourselves that we don’t deserve this hurt. We feel devastated that we have been given this pain. We see the event in isolation from the blessings that God has so richly given us. In that moment, we’ve presumed upon grace. Instead of presuming that we will receive pain and hurt and chaos in life, we’ve come to anticipate the opposite.

Two conclusions seem plausible based on my consideration of presumed grace. First, I think that Christians should frame a better response to the academic pondering: “How can there be so much evil in the world and there still be a God?” Perhaps a better question is: “How can there be so much goodness in the world apart from a God?” We all see how the world turns to chaos and that the very possibility of life on planet earth seems but a fluke of flukes. So even our very existence and the stability of civilizations full of broken people like ourselves seems to be evidence of a good and gracious care of a Sovereign God.

The second conclusion is closer to home. Believers who are enduring a season of chaos should let this circumstance reorient them to God’s grace. Instead of presuming upon God’s grace, we should let the dark times remind us of so much of the brightness of mercy we’ve received. Every day that we draw breath, experience the joy of friends and family, enjoy food and drink, or see another disaster-free day is a gift of God. I suppose that we suddenly experience this reorientation when God gives us a win after a season of darkness. We look around and find ourselves momentarily out of the mud of the last few months and look around; the freedom from the chaos is what I’ve enjoyed far too often. No more do we presume upon grace.

Reformed Heritage: 5 Truths Worth Fighting For

There’s something attractive about the Reformed heritage of my faith. For me it’s even more than a series of confessions or a list of doctrines, but also includes the rabble-rousing, steady-handed, hard-hitting, faithful-serving way of life embodied in this background. These men fact-checked their leaders and recognized that the line they were being fed had been cluttered by a lot of tradition.

In my own efforts to fact-check my faith, I’ve seen time and again where my beliefs have been cluttered by traditions of men. And there have certainly been times where I may have taken my rabble-rousing a little too far, but these guys remind me that there are some things in life worth fighting for. The Reformers pointed to 5 guiding principles that shaped what fit this category. I wanted to take a moment to overview these principles.

The Basis of Salvation: Faith Alone

There is nothing I can do that will ever earn salvation for me. Only on the basis of faith can Christ’s righteousness stand in my place. The consistent command of Scripture is that of simple trust. All of my righteous works are as filthy rags.

The Object of Faith: Christ Alone

Ultimately, I don’t trust in my faith to save me. I don’t trust in a prayer, a baptism, a priest, or a pattern of life as the source of my salvation. Christ and Christ alone stands as my righteousness. In him I approach the throne of God with boldness.

The Source of Authority: Scripture Alone

Scripture serves as our only rule of faith and practice. Christian movements have a way of gathering up cultural and traditional baggage along the way. But the appeal to sola scriptura is an attempt to strip away that baggage and return to the core of what Christianity is all about.

The Ground of Salvation: Grace Alone

Unearned and unlimited, God in his grace chose and saved a people unto himself. There wasn’t a thing I did that earned that gift of salvation. Grace is God chasing me while I was running from him.

The Purpose of Salvation: For the Glory of God Alone

Many Christians, if asked about the purpose for their existence or the purpose of the Church would tell you that these things are for the glory of God. The method by which God the Father gets glory is by the Church lifting up the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

3 Legs of the Christian Faith

Recently I’ve given some thought to several facets of the Christian faith that not only serve to make it unique, but are important for adherents to understand and claim as their own. I see these three aspects as legs of a stool: without any one of them, the stool becomes useless.

I would suggest that the Christian faith must be historically-rooted, doctrinally-grounded, and practically-oriented.

Historically-Rooted

The historical roots of Christianity are twofold. First, Christianity is rooted in the authenticity of the historical claims of the Bible. The Scriptures record a series of events which are the roots of our faith. Our faith is rooted in the reality of Creation, the Fall of Man, and God’s redemptive work in the patriarchs, for Israel, and among the nations. The historical fact of the resurrection is the cornerstone of Christian belief (1 Cor. 15.17). Pull up the historic roots of Christianity, and you have no Christianity at all.

Second, Christianity is rooted in the history of the church. In other words, the struggles of the church to clarify doctrine and to combat heresy are our own. The martyrs, the pastors, the translators, the reformers, we stand on their shoulders every day that we crack the Bible or consider our beliefs. Pull up the roots of our church history, and, at best, you’re simply reinventing the wheel, at worst, you’re headed away from the broad outline of true Christianity provided by our history.

In an era where the past is seen as irrelevant as the technology and innovation of the present grows by leaps and bounds, we must not forget our history. Don’t bemoan the cumbersome details of Biblical background or reject the study of church history for fear of those that you don’t agree with. Embrace the historical roots of your Christian faith!

Doctrinally-Grounded

There’s something essential about the belief-statements of Christianity. The early church confessed their “credo” (“I believe”) time and again when they met, but many believers today express their concerns about creeds and confessions. We often see statements of faith as too liturgical, too formal, and a little restrictive. But there are dangers when we divorce our Christianity from propositional belief-statements.

I recently read a story about a Christian musician who claimed that because his life reflected Christ, there was little consequence in the doctrines that he believed. In other words, to some, practical expression outweighs doctrinal confession. But I think the biblical model is that neither one outweighs the other. Both are important. Here are a few reasons why the doctrinal leg of Christianity is essential:

  1. Doctrinal grounding keeps us from error (Gal. 1.6-9; Eph. 4.13-15; Tit. 1.9).
  2. Doctrinal grounding is a precious treasure (1 Tim. 6.20; 2 Tim. 1.14).
  3. Doctrinal grounding shapes our practice (Rom. 12.1-2).
  4. Doctrinal grounding is the mark of a Christian (2 John 9-10).

Beware of fuzzy movements that can’t offer a definitive “credo.” Those who say “no creed but Christ” have offered you a creed — a woefully deficient creed, but a creed nonetheless. The stricture and formality of archaic statements of faith shouldn’t scare you away from articulating your own faith similarly. Embrace a doctrinally-grounded Christian faith!

Practically-Oriented

This third leg of the stool is equally essential. True faith is demonstrated in conjunction with works. Take a look at James 2.18:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works and I will show you my faith by my works.

In this verse, James gives us a glimpse into the mindset of someone who would bifurcate faith and works. James warns of those who claim to follow Christ, but merely hold to a set of unpracticed beliefs. Instead, James argues that practiced faith is the only kind of faith that matters. His assumption, though, is that works proceed from faith (“faith by…works”) and not that faith exists in a hermetically-sealed confessional vacuum (“faith apart from..works”). It would be erroneous to suppose that James’ argument says that beliefs don’t matter (I suggested otherwise in the prior point), but rather we should see that James wants his readers to equally emphasize their beliefs and their practices that flow from those beliefs.

Let me also take a minute to say that the practical orientation of the Christian faith is the practice of scriptural truth. Propping up Christianity on moralism (I’ve got a more comprehensive list of rules!), comparative success (at least I’m not like that guy!), and favorable subculture (we all do these things in order to make us different) won’t do. It’s like improvising the third leg of the stool out of chopsticks. The result is a certain failure! Sometimes by attempting to create a more substantial practical outworking of our faith, we actually make a more deficient product. Manmade tradition will never replace biblical practice. Christian practice is a serious emotional, intellectual, and volitional engagement with the commands (both positive and negative) of Scripture. It can only come as the result of the fruit of a Spirit-filled, Gospel-changed life.

Don’t buy into the religion of the head, which exclusively focuses on content of belief. Don’t buy into the religion of the hand, which only examines what people do. Don’t accept the religion of history, which dwells only in the past. True Christianity is a faith that equally rests on a rich and accurate history, fixed propositional truth-claims, and the ethical and practical outflow in the lives of those who claim it.

On Beards

Sometimes it frustrates me that I cannot grow a decent beard.  I can get a little scruffy and aggravate my wife with my 48 hour shadow, but that’s about it.  Genetics have conspired against me so that I cannot fully achieve that primeval mark of manhood.  I suppose that this frustrating aspect of my physiology is not the worst defect, but I suppose it to be a defect nonetheless.  It seems unfortunate that I will never be able to experience the delight of finding yesterday’s food lodged somewhere around my chin or being able to look 10 years older.  All of these experiences and more will never be mine.  As I meditated on these thoughts, I realized that there was a larger and deeper issue in play.  This issue is beyond physiological, or experiential import.  This issue is a theological issue.

Yesterday I realized that I could never be a very good Calvinist.