Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Would St. Paul be an evangelical?

Considering several things that Paul never mentions, would we dismiss him as "irrelevant" because he didn't preach "our gospel"?

1. He never tells his converts to evangelize or "share their faith" with outsiders.
2. He never mentions hell.
3. He never mentions the virgin birth of Jesus.
4. He never mentions heaven as a reward for believers.
5. He never tells pagans they must "repent."

Even though we got our "four spiritual laws" and the "Roman Road" from Paul, given these lacunae could we still call him an evangelical?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How many gospels are there?

Paul couldn't countenance a gospel different from the one he preached/lived. You can see his frustration in Galatians 1 as he takes on the problems that "another gospel" has created for his converts, "which is really not another" gospel--for he believed there was only one gospel, his.

I wonder what St. Paul would say today, what with all the different versions of the gospel we see and hear every day. Some of these gospels are familiar to us because of the labels we use to categorize them, e.g., the "health and wealth" gospel or the "social gospel." But, for all the labels, I think there are only three gospels in America:

1. the spiritual gospel, i.e., the essence of what Jesus came to do was save us from eternal death. The down side of this gospel is that Jesus is Lord only in heaven and not on earth.
2. the political gospel, i.e., the essence of what Jesus came to do was make the world a better place. The down side of this gospel is that it ignores the problem of hell.
3. the therapeutic gospel, i.e., the essence of what Jesus came to do was make me a better person. The down side of this gospel is that it is anthropocentric.

Can you think of "another gospel" other than these? And, considering the question we all assume has already been answered, what is the "real" gospel, in this case, the gospel St. Paul would recognize as the one he preached/lived?

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Messy Thing

When pride and impatience collide, it can get pretty ugly. For example, when I'm arguing over what I think is right and my "opponent" doesn't understand, I rush to the conclusion that they were being stubborn.

But then I sleep on it.

And the next day I realize that, just maybe, they weren't being stubborn. It could be that I was being impatient. Or, even worse, that my pride got in the way ("Why can't everyone think like me?").

When will I learn that listening requires patience and humility?

God help my arrogant soul.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Black-letter Christians

Sometime ago, it became rather fashionable to identify oneself as a "red-letter" Christian. The implication was that the words of Jesus should give us the clearest direction when it comes to being his disciple. (Often times the designation was used as a foil against those who mindlessly follow Paul's instructions, ["I am of Christ, You are of Paul,"] as if Paul and Jesus were not on the same page--which is another topic altogether.)

To be sure, Jesus said some amazingly challenging, provocative, and transformational things (the parables!). But, merely parroting what he said (we eventually discover) seems to do more harm than good. We can argue over the Sermon on the Mount (did he really teach that we shouldn't defend ourselves?), quoting the "red-letter words" back to one another like weapons, as if the war of words will settle the matter. Fighting over "what Jesus really meant" seems to be our holy occupation, especially in the blogsphere.

But, the more I think about it, the more I want to become a "black-letter" Christian, known by what I do more than what I say. Indeed, the way Mark saw it, the black letters (works of Jesus) were more important to his gospel story. And, I hope the "black letters" of my life are more important to the gospel story too.

In other words, pay no attention to these words.

Monday, August 22, 2011


I've been thinking a lot about the power of nonverbal communication (see? Being a speech major has helped!)--especially the way we interpret a sigh. Nonverbal communication often trumps verbal. Yet, some nonverbal responses are difficult to make sense of. When someone sighs, what does it mean? Exasperation? Weariness? Impatience?

In her debut CD, Audrey Assad lets out this big sigh at the end of one of her songs, "Everything is Yours." Every time I hear it, my heart leaps, my throat tightens, and I nearly get all choked up. In the song, she's talking about the struggle of how we claim God is the source of all things, and yet we have this propensity to act like possessors. The song also reminds me of two poignant moments in Mark's gospel when Jesus sighs: just before he heals the deaf man (7:34) and after the Pharisees ask him for a sign (8:11).

I've always wondered why Mark included (uniquely!) these nonverbal cues and why Jesus sighed. Both instances certainly are filled with drama; the fact that Jesus sighs speaks volumes. And yet, I don't know what they mean (*sigh*). Nevertheless, the fact that Jesus sighed inspires me somehow.

What do you think? Why did Jesus sigh? What does his nonverbal response indicate? And, why did Mark include this detail in two stories that nearly butt up against each other?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Corporate Temptations/Tests

In my new book on Paul's Spirituality (published by IVP, coming out soon), I was struck by Paul's application of his theology of the cross, especially when it came to the things Paul sacrificed as a demonstration of his faith. For example, Paul sacrificed his ethnicity/nationality for the sake of following Christ. Now, at this point I don't want to get into why Paul felt it necessary to do so (I cover that in the book--it can be a rather lengthy topic to banter about). Rather, for the purposes of this blog, I'd like to ask us the simple question: have we sacrificed our ethnicity/nationality for the sake of knowing Christ, especially as it relates to being "crucified with Christ"? What American privileges have you given up in order to share in the "sufferings of Christ."

Or, to turn the question the other way around, to what extent have we given into American obsessions (what I would call a corporate temptation/test) rather than discover the loss that comes by Jesus' cross?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What happens when we fail the test/temptation?

The temptation/test of Christ by Satan in the wilderness gives us great insight into how to overcome the enemy. Countless lessons can be learned by his example. Indeed, especially according to Luke's version, Jesus (the second Adam) succeeded where the first Adam failed every test: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Many times I have tried to learn from the Master, refusing to give in to my fleshly desires (life is more than eating!), to the delight of my eyes ("can't buy me love, no"), and to the pride of life (God plays no favorites).

But, here's the strange part: when I say "not my will but thine" and refuse to give into temptation, nothing sensational happens. I don't have a sense of accomplishment, I don't feel proud of myself. There's no euphoria, "Wow. I showed the enemy!" In fact, oftentimes these "victories" are accompanied by a sense of loss, of emptiness, indeed, as if God is not present at all--like I've missed out on something.

And yet, what happens when I fail the test, give into temptation, let God down, is an altogether different experience.

First, I beat myself up. "Come on, Rodney, you know better than this. How many times are you going to go down the same path?"

Next, I turn to God in frustration, "What's wrong with me, God?"

Sometimes I make the futile promise, "I'll never sin again!"

Then, I confess (one more time; really? One more time?) that I have sinned, that I need God's forgiveness, that I need the Spirit's power, that I'm tired of this, that I need healing.

Sometimes I remember that Jesus overcame Satan--not only in the desert, but also in the Garden. And, because he overcame the test/temptation, we have the cleansing, the forgiveness, the hope, the power, the salvation of our Lord.

Then, I sense the presence of the Lord, what I've gained through Christ (He's saved me!), that God won't give up on me, or any one of us.

In other words, I'm beginning to see more and more that God loves to "show up" in the midst of our failures. The cross of Jesus Christ proves it. So, how can Satan win, when the cross was supposed to be his final blow against humanity, the ultimate test, the last temptation of Christ?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Lead us not into testing

This always surprises Greek students. A word often translated as "temptation" can also be translated as "test." The word is peirosmos, and it shows up in some famous passages (Lord's Prayer, James' teaching about "pure joy," promise to the Philadelphia church). The difficulty, of course, is sorting out the difference. When does peirosmos mean "temptation" and when does it mean "testing"?

Imagine how strange some familiar verses would sound if we inverted the conventional translations:

"Lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the evil one." "Count it all joy when you fall into various temptations." "Let no one say, 'I am being tested by God,' for God cannot be tested by evil and he himself tests no one." "No testing has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength."

How can these things be? How could one word carry both connotations? Perhaps the answer is found in the role of Satan. He started out as a divine servant, charged with the job of testing the faithfulness of humanity. But, Adam couldn't handle the challenge; testing resulted in temptation. Maybe Satan went too far in his zeal for "proof." (After all, the "bad cop" always lies to catch the accused in their guilt.) Indeed, this is Satan's modus operandi: The father of lies tries to turn every test into a temptation--the opportunity for sin.

So, this is our lot. Embedded in every test is a temptation; and every temptation is a test. But, sorting out who's to blame (is this a test from God or a temptation from Satan?) is a difficult as translating peirosmos. Maybe it's our response that reveals the difference.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Devil is in the details

One of the shocking discoveries for biblical studies majors is the ever-changing role of Satan in the Bible. In Job, he appears as one of God's helpers. In the royal histories, he convinces king David to levy taxes against Israel. In Zechariah he stands ready to do his work, accusing the priest of his sins before God. Then, by the time we get to the New Testament, he appears as God's opponent, ready to "tempt/test" Jesus in the desert, eventually "falling from heaven" as Jesus expands the kingdom of God on earth via the exorcising work of the twelve.

To what extent do you think our view of evil and suffering is informed by our demonology?

I think most Christians operate with a rather static view of Satan--what he is now is what he has always been. But, a more careful reading of the biblical narrative reveals that is not the case. Satan has changed over the years. At first, he did God's work (Job); now he's out to spoil God's work (Jesus). Could that dialectic help us make sense of the problem of evil?

What do you think?

Monday, August 08, 2011

Does God test us with bad things?

Too often we'll hear someone say (after going through a horrific ordeal): "Well, I guess the Lord was testing me." The more sensitive types will respond, "There's no way God would want you to go through (fill in the blank: bankruptcy, rape, divorce, disease). Doesn't James say God doesn't tempt anyone with evil?" Then the God-is-sovereign types will speak of Job and the Akedah (Gen. 22) and then say, "God doesn't cause evil. But He certainly allows it."

Of course, I'm not expecting us to solve the problem of evil and suffering, but I would like to change the way we talk about it. Shouldn't our theology of the cross help us make sense of this dilemma? Should we blame God for "allowing" evil things to happen to us? How do you talk about God's role in the testing of our faith?

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Does God get Angry?

Okay, so I'll try this again. The reason Ro. 2:2 leaped out at me (and I winced) was the surprising thought, "Wait. Did Paul mean that?" In other words, in light of his comments about the wrath of God in Rom. 1 as well as his propitiatory language in Rom. 3:25, did Paul believe that God actively punishes sinners in this life (setting aside the implications for hell).

Do you believe that God actively punishes sinners in this life? And, if you do, how does that square with the death of Jesus as a "wrath averting" (one meaning of "propitiation") sacrifice?

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Did Paul say this?

"We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things" (Ro. 2:2).

According to the NASB, it looks like Paul said it. According to the NRSV, it looks like Paul's imaginary opponent said it.

What do you think? Does this represent Paul's position on the "righteousness/justification" of God?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011


All of us are snobs about something. Coffee. Art. Theology. Cars. Philosophy. Animals. Wine. Fashion. Music. Fitness. Film.

Of course, what makes us a snob is insider information. We know more about this or that, join forces with the like-minded, and sneer at the ignorance of the masses. These exclusive clubs claim members but no membership, barriers without walls, an identity without prejudice, a cause but no agenda.

The pretense of our snobbery sanctions ridicule--yet holds in contempt any who would disagree. I see this as self-help therapy; acting like snobs makes us feel better ourselves--at least we are right about something.

I can't help but wonder if the ever-rising need to be a snob is partly due to the lack of moorings--what, for lack of a better word, is commonly called "tradition." If I know who I am (and whose I am), then I've got very little to prove.

So, here I go: I drink canned coffee. We have one picture of Thomas Kincade's "art" in our home. I listen to pop music. And, wait for it . . . (here's my cardinal sin) I don't care for most indy films.

I'm ready to take your abuse, you snobs.

Monday, August 01, 2011


Many of us brainy types enjoy sarcasm. In fact, it could be said it comes easy to our tribe. Indeed, it comes so easy many of us see it as a gift; but, I'm beginning to think sarcasm is another form of laziness. Rather than work hard at dealing with an issue--trying to be clearer, more patient--we flippantly throw out a sarcastic zinger and call it a victory. It may make us feel better, but does little good.

Sarcasm comes from a Greek word, sarx. NT students immediately recognize the danger. "Sarx" is a loaded term used by Paul; literally it means "flesh," but Paul also used sarx to characterize a way of life that works against the Spirit. So, sarcasm is of the flesh. Literally, "sarcasm" is a saying that tears the flesh, bites the victim, rips at the meat of a wo/man. In Paul's day, sarcasm wouldn't be seen as something desirable, especially for a Christ believer.

Contrast our culture, where sarcasm is a virtue. Our "pop" philosophers (a.k.a. comedians) use these fleshly sayings with great skill. But, I'm beginning to think sarcasm works against my desire to "walk in the Spirit." A sarcastic word may be funny, but I wonder whether it helps at all.

This is going to be a hard habit to break. I love sarcasm--maybe too much. And, that should be a warning too.

"This I say: walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh."