Heresies, Heretics, & Heterodox: My Interview with Justin Holcomb

Below is an interview with my friend and colleague via Docent Research Group, Justin Holcomb, on his forthcoming book Know Your Heretics (April 28th). Justin is an Episcopal priest, (serving as the Canon for Vocations in the Diocese of Central Florida) and teaches theology, philosophy, and Christian thought at Gordon-Conwell-Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He is married to Lindsey and has two daughters. He and Lindsey wrote Rid of My Disgrace, a book on gospel hope and healing for sexual assault victims, which I highly recommend and have reviewed here. Recently they co-authored a similar book on domestic violence titled Is it My Fault?: Hope and Healing for those Suffering Domestic ViolenceYou can follow him on Twitter here

If you share this interview on some sort of social networking site and let me know in the comments I’ll draw your name out of the others who do the same and send the winner a copy of the book. 

A heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine and lost sight of who God really is, usually by oversimplification.

1. First off, what makes someone a heretic?

A heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine and lost sight of who God really is, usually by oversimplification. Literally, heresy means “choice”—that is, a choice to deviate from traditional teaching in favor of one’s own insights. The Nicene Creed is a historic, globally accepted ecumenical creed that encapsulates the good news of the gospel into a short and rich summary. It covers the basic essentials of 1) who God is, 2) what God is like, and 3) how God saves. If a believer authentically holds to the Nicene Creed, we should not call them a heretic, no matter how strongly we believe they are gravely in error on the details or on other doctrines. A good shorthand for heresy, then, is to ask, “Can they say the Nicene Creed and mean it without their fingers crossed?” If the answer is yes, they may still be wrong, and they may be heterodox, but we cannot call them heretics, because they fit within the bounds of historic Christianity.

2. Why is it important for Christians to know about heresies?

There are two major reasons. The first is that while there is certainly ambiguity in the Bible, the Creator of the world has decided to reveal himself to us and even to live with us. It is important to honor that revelation. When we find this revelation distasteful and try to reshape God according to our preferences, we are beginning to drift away from God as he really is. Imagine a friend who ignores the parts of you that he or she doesn’t like. Is that a deep relationship? Ambiguity or not, uncomfortable or not, it is vital that we are obedient to what we can know about God.

The second reason is related to the first. When we have a flawed image of God, we no longer relate to him in the same way. Think of the way that you might have related to your parents when you were growing up. Even if you didn’t necessarily understand the reasons behind boundaries they set for you in childhood, they look a lot different when you are confident in your parents’ love than when you fear or resent your parents. It is surprising how much our beliefs about God impact our daily lives, which is partly what makes theology such a rewarding (although difficult and dangerous) discipline.

As is clear from the New Testament, the apostles were not afraid to call out heresy when they saw it.

3. If you believe a heresy, say that Jesus isn’t God, does this mean you are going to hell?

The Bible seems to presuppose a right and a wrong interpretation of Jesus’ coming and the nature and character of God, as it uses strong language against false teachers who promote doctrines that undermine the gospel.

As historical theologian Bruce Demarest notes, “the NT expresses serious concern for ‘false doctrines’ (1 Tim. 1:3; 6:3) and places the highest priority on maintaining ‘the pattern of sound teaching’ (2 Tim. 1:13; cf. 1 Tim. 6:3). Scripture urges Christians to be alert to doctrinal deception (Mt. 24:4) and to avoid heresy by carefully guarding the pure content of the gospel (1 Cor. 11:2; Gal. 1:8).” [Bruce Demarest, “Heresy,” New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1988), 293.]

In Galatians 1:9, Paul uses the strongest words possible against those who distort the gospel, writing, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” And the apostle Peter warns against “false teachers among you [who] will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Peter 2:1).

As is clear from the New Testament, the apostles were not afraid to call out heresy when they saw it. If a teaching or practice threatened the integrity of the gospel, it was strongly condemned (as in the case of Peter and the circumcision party described in Galatians 2). However, heresy was a weighty charge that was not made lightly, nor was it used whenever there was theological inaccuracy or imprecision. (Think of the response to Apollos in Acts 18:24 – 28.)

4. What’s the difference between a heresy and a bad doctrine? For instance, between believing that Jesus was not God compared to believing that the initial evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues.

Historically both the Roman Catholic tradition and the Reformed tradition have understood that not all theological errors are equally serious. There is a difference between heterodoxy (Christian belief which differs from orthodoxy) and heresy (belief that diverges from orthodoxy beyond a certain point).

When everything is central, nothing is.

There are those who think that heresy is anything that does not agree with their own interpretation of Holy Scripture. These people fail to differentiate between the primary and secondary elements of the Christian faith and make every belief they have into a pillar of Christianity. So, on this view, if someone disagrees with them about the millennium, about infant baptism, about the role of women in ministry, or about the nature of the atonement, they are quickly labeled a heretic. While such impulses can be well intentioned, the church of the New Testament walked the line between holding fast to some convictions and being flexible about others.

Though this group of heresy-hunters often say they’re motivated by concern for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, their practice of labeling every diverging belief as heresy has the opposite effect. Rather than making much of right belief, they minimize its importance by making, for example, the mode of baptism to be as important as the divinity of Christ. When everything is central, nothing is.

5. What two or three ancient heresies do you think are challenging the church right now?

I think the repackaged heresies from Pelagius and Socinus challenge the church the most now.

My summary of Pelagius’ heresy is “God has already given us the tools we need.” Pelagius developed an ascetic form of Christianity with an overly optimistic theology of human nature. My summary of Socinus’ heresy is “The Trinity is irrelevant and Jesus’ death is only an example.”

Pelagius correctly saw human nature as something good created by God. It is the result of the fall upon humanity (original sin), however, that Pelagius ignores, causing his theology to fall into error. First, Pelagius argued that there is no such thing as original sin. In no way were humans after Adam guilty of or implicated in his first sin. Adam’s sin in no way makes humans guilty or corrupt. Instead, as Pelagius claims, “over the years [our own sin] gradually corrupts us, building an addiction and then holding us bound with what seems like the force of nature itself.” Humans by nature have a clean slate — a state of neutrality — according to Pelagius, and it is only through voluntary sin through the exercise of an unhampered human free will that humans are made wicked. Potentially, then, one could live a sinless life and merit heaven, for there is nothing intrinsically sinful about humans even after Adam and Eve’s sin. Pelagius didn’t consider humans to be intrinsically damnable after the fall.

I think the repackaged heresies from Pelagius and Socinus challenge the church the most now.

In short, Pelagius rejected the doctrines of original sin, substitutionary atonement (the idea that Christ’s death in our place is a supernatural intervention to save us), and justification by faith (the idea that believing and trusting in Christ is the way to salvation).

Socinus held a unitarian view of God: only God the Father is truly and fully divine. Jesus, “the Son of God,” received a unique divinely appointed office as the Logos, an office which deserves respect and even worship. However, for Jesus, that respect and worship were limited to his office and did not extend to his person, which Socinus argued was not divine. Socinus argued that the ecumenically accepted doctrine of the Trinity could not be defended.

Given his understanding of the radical unity of God and, consequently, Jesus’ merely human existence, Socinus’s view of the atonement logically differed from commonly accepted views. Socinus argued that because Jesus was not divine, his death could not have been intended to make satisfaction (as Anselm argued) or to pay a penalty on behalf of other humans (as the Calvinists argued). Instead, Socinus understood Christ’s death to serve as a way for God to model true love and devotion and to demonstrate the way of salvation. Jesus, then, provided the unique and divinely anointed model for humans to imitate.

6. Is it important to call out present-day heretics? Aside from bloggers (just kidding), who in the church has the responsibility to do this?

It is very important. I think just bloggers and people who write books on heresy (and orthodoxy) should have such authority. Let’s make a committee.

Seriously, because the line between heterodoxy and heresy is blurry, we need lots of wisdom, discernment, and humility before we declare that someone has departed into full-blown heresy. In addition, we must remember that the entirety of what we think Christians should believe is not identical to what a person must believe to be saved. We believe in justification by faith in Christ, not justification by accuracy of doctrine. We are saved by the grace of Jesus, not our intellectual precision.

 

Job’s Daughters & The Inheritance of Sons

You know those period pictures where a daughter in a poor family with no brothers needs to go marry some wealthy lord because she has no inheritance? In most cases, the wealthy dude starts off like a real jerk and makes faces like this…

Image

But eventually, so the story goes, he falls madly in love with the poor man’s beautiful daughter, sweeps her off her feet, and they live happily ever after and she shares in his vast inheritance.

The Bible, from the very beginning, has a lot to say about sonship and inheritance. Isaac, Abraham’s son, inherits the blessing of his father. Jacob, Isaac’s son, through deceit, gains the birthright and blessing of the firstborn Esau. It is the sons who get the property of the family, and it is the firstborn who inherits a “double-portion” of the father’s house (Deut. 21:17).

However, one of the earliest books in the Old Testament canon, tells the story of another wealthy man named Job who follows a different pattern. At the end of the story Job shares the inheritance of his house with both his sons and daughters.

“And he also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 The first daughter he named Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-Happuch. 15 Nowhere in all the land could women be found who were as beautiful as Job’s daughters, and their father granted them an inheritance alongside their brothers.” (Job 42:13-15)

Toby Sumpter elaborates on this,

Job’s sons remain nameless, but his daughters are named and we are told that they are the most beautiful daughters in all the land (42:14-15). Not only this, but Job gives his three daughters an inheritance among their brothers. In other words, Job gives them an inheritance of sons. In Job’s family, there is neither male nor female. (Job Through New Eyes: A Son for Glory, 196)

Beautiful.

Here, as far back as the book of Job, we see a father giving all of his estate to his sons and daughters. This is a startling picture of the eternal purpose of the heavenly Father in granting the abundance of his kingdom to his sons and daughters. Now God doesn’t switch-up the pattern entirely. After all, it his Son, Jesus, the firstborn of all creation, to whom belongs all of his Father’s estate. And it is this Son whom we–male and female–are united to by faith in him.

Therefore there is no difference between the wealth of the kingdom, salvation, and eternal life that men and women who have trusted the firstborn Son inherit. All who are in the son–both genders–inherit the entirety of the Son’s estate. Furthermore, the sons and daughters share in the very glory of the Son (Ro. 8:17).

Jesus is better than Mr. Darcy.

The book of Ephesians reveals this at another glorious angle. Not only do men and women share in the whole portion of Jesus’ inheritance and share in his glory, the chosen sons and daughters are the inheritance of God himself.

We inherit God and his cosmic victory in Christ, and God inherits us (Eph. 1:18). We possess the possessions of God and God possesses us. We are his personal possession. The beloved of the Triune God. His chosen. And this from all eternity.

Whether you are a poor single mom or the unsuccessful brother surrounded by successful brothers, if you are trusting Jesus, “all things are yours…and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3:21-23).

7 Characteristics of False Teachers

Seven characteristics of false teachers from the ole’ Puritan Thomas Brooks:

False teachers make merchandise of their followers.

1. False teachers are men-pleasers.
2. False teachers are notable in casting dirt, scorn, and reproach upon the persons, names, and credits of Christ’s most faithful ambassadors.
3. False teachers are venters of the devices and visions of their own head and hearts.
4. False teachers easily pass over the great and weighty things both of law and gospel, and stand most upon those things that are of the least moment an concernment to the souls of men.
5. False teachers cover and colour their dangerous principles and soul-impostures with very fair speeches and plausible pretences, with high notions and golden expressions.
6. False teachers strive more to win over men to their opinions, than to better them in their conversations.
7. False teachers make merchandise of their followers.

Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices
, 230-233

Hate, A Neglected Christian Virtue & Prayer

Hate doesn’t normally come up in the list of Christian virtues. But it should.

We are to hate what is evil. This is a command, and a neglected one at that. God through the prophet Amos called his people to: “Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts” (Amos 5:15). Notice how hating evil relates to justice. Justice requires hating injustice. There is no passivity here. Evil is not to be tolerated. It is to be hated. So much for tolerance.

We must pray our hate.

Now, this is Old Testament stuff, right? No. It is for the Christian. In fact, hate follows love. Paul knew this connection well. He could speak of love in one sentence and in the very next one mention hate: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9).

Christians are not to take the sword. Jesus told Peter to put his away. However, Christians are still called to hate. If you are like me, you’ve experienced a desensitizing of evil. We can blame TV or video games. Or we can blame it on overly optimistic, smiley-faced, sentimental Christianity. But fundamentally we can blame a low view of God.

We don’t hate like we should because we don’t love like we should. To love God, as he is revealed in Scripture, is to love a God of justice and a God who will one day punish his enemies and banish the curse from the new heavens and earth wherever it may lay. Hatred of evil requires delight in the justice of God—both his restorative justice and his retributive justice. Evangelicals are giddy on the restorative justice of God—and we should be—but we tend to ignore his retributive justice. We love little and hate little because we ignore God in his fullness, especially his holiness.

We don’t hate like we should because we don’t love like we should.

I started thinking about this in reading Psalm 139 and how David prays his hate. This Psalm is usually taught in Sunday School, but we make sure to edit out all that slaying and hating enemies stuff near the end of the Psalm. We like the very end. The just me and God part, but not the speaking out on matters of public injustice part.

We are to hate all that God hates, not just what the world wants us to hate. Our society hates environmental injustice and hates racial injustice, and we should do the same. But we must go further and not remain silent on other things that God hates. We tend to want justice for giraffes more than we do unborn human embryos–which this Psalm says, God himself spends time carefully knitting together (119:15-16). So we must acquire a hatred given by God and not just by culture. We must pray for the hate we do not feel.

We must pray for the hate we do not feel.

In some ways, though it must be said with proper nuance, we hate too little and demonstrate that we do not love enough. The Psalms don’t let us do this. Psalmists like David cry out regularly for evildoers to be brought to justice. Complacency is far removed from the songs of these worshippers. They hate that there are victims in the world and that injustice seems to reign. Eugene Peterson, in Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, writes,

Just as hurt is the usual human experience that brings us to our knees praying for help, provoking the realization that we need God, so hate is frequently the human experience that brings us to our feet praying for justice, catalyzing our concern for the terrible violations against life all around us. Hate is often the first sign that we care. If we are far gone in complacency, it is often the only emotion with enough velocity to penetrate our protective smugness and draw red blood…

Hate, prayed, takes our lives to bedrock where the foundations of justice are being laid. (99-100, 101).

We must pray our hate. What else are you going to do with it? One of the reasons prayer is impotent is because we sanitize what we say to God. But he can handle it. We think a high view of the sovereignty of God, means a passive, emotionless, stoic prayer. It doesn’t. Psalm 139 demonstrates this: David knows all his days were planned by God before they happened in verse 16 and yet he channels his hate in prayer in verses 19-22.

Now, you pray yours. Pray your hate.

We can talk theodicy, but do we pray it? Enough of philosophizing and theologizing alone.

Don’t vent it on other people, but vent it on God. We can theologize about the problem of evil, but we should also pray about this problem. Part of the prayer of the kingdom is praying our hate. Asking for the Father’s kingdom to come, implies the demolishing of the kingdoms of this world.

Anger at the state of the world, even anger at God, is expressed in the Psalms (and Prophets). There is a wrestling with God that needs to characterize more of Christian prayer. We can talk theodicy, but do we pray it? Enough of philosophizing and theologizing alone. True prayer does more than think. It emotes and feels. The Psalms liberate us to be human and teach us to pray the way we should. They show us what the relationship of God with believers who have gone before us looked like.

Finally, our hate must also be gospel-shaped. One thing we learn is that God came as a man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to die for his enemies. Jesus was slain in the place of the wicked. Therefore we love victims by hating what victimized them–naming and identifying evil personally and publicly–but we also pray for the salvation of perpetrators. Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of the perpetrators that crucified him, and we should pray for those who have victimized us and ones we love. We love our neighbors and we love God in his holy justice by telling the ungodly the good news of the cross—where divine love and justice kiss—and abhorring the evil that creates victims of all kinds and crucified our sinless Savior. Christians hate evil and like their Savior love their enemies even in the face of their own death.

So Christian, pray your hatred and remember genuine Christian love hates.

Saints and/or Sinners: The Desiring God Conference for Pastors 2014

It appears that I wasn’t the only one thinking about the identity of the Christian believer at the recent Desiring God Pastor’s Conference on union with Christ in terms of whether believers are simultaneously saints and sinners or simply saints who sin. My question (one of my sentences blended with others) was one of many fielded by the conferences plenary speakers John Piper, Michael Horton and Sinclair Ferguson [Audio here: 3:30-14:25]. I asked,

“If we are definitively “in Christ” and no longer in Adam (Ro 5-6), are we not definitively saints and not sinners?”

The answers were a bit mixed and appeared combined with some uncertainty and I wish I could have pushed back a little more to clarify what I was intending. My basic reason for asking the question is, to use Sinclair Ferguson’s phrase later in the panel, I think we live far under our privileges as Christian believers. And I wonder if one of the reasons we do this is that in trying to keep us from the errors of Christian perfectionism we undercut our glorious gospel identity. In no way was my question an attempt to minimize the radical nature of sin or the struggle of indwelling sin that resides within every believer.

Dr. Piper got at what I was after in speaking of his friend that came out of a homosexual lifestyle and became a Christian. This man would not let Piper use homosexual as a noun for him because this is not who he was. At conversion this dear man knew that his identity had fundamentally switched no matter what his struggle with a particular sin might be. The sin did not define him anymore. His name had changed.

And I am not certain that we should use “sinner” as a noun for any Christian. Dr. Ferguson, in his earlier talk at the conference, discussed baptism as a “naming event” and the fact that Jesus was baptized into sinners in Adam so that we might be baptized into him. Romans 5 and 6, which Ferguson beautifully unpacked, is clear that Christians have been taken out of Adam completely and placed into Christ. It is not a one-foot in and one-foot out deal.

In fact, many Reformed types don’t seem to bat an eye at speaking of those “in Christ” having undergone a fundamental identity switch in several categories, but we seem hesitant on the sinner/saint category. (I think primarily because of Martin Luther’s maxim simultaneously saint and sinner, Simul iustus et peccator, that Dr. Horton mentioned.)

We are not children of wrath and sons of God. We are not in the dark and in the light. We are not dead in sin and alive to God. We are not servants of the prince of the power of the air and servants of King Jesus. We are not slaves of sin and slaves of righteousness. The transfer is fundamentally complete in all of these categories even though our experience varies. So are we doing a disservice to our gospel identity when we don’t make the transfer from sinner to saint definitive?

To get back to Piper in the Q&A, Christian evangelicalism is indeed infected with those who minimize sin. The Osteenization of Christianity makes those with a high view of sin want to do all they can to preserve the seriousness of sin and to keep us from a chipper view of sinful men and women apart from Christ or a passive attitude toward making war on indwelling sin. Those in revivalistic parts of the charismatic movement who speak of walking weeks at a time without sinning cause the same reaction from those who will not deny the lingering tentacles of sin on the best of days. These super-rarely-ever-sinning-Christians are walking on the precipice of breaking the Apostle John’s warning in 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” These are aberrations. However, it is also the charismatic movement that seems to have a focus upon the identity of the Christian believer that the Reformed camp could use a bunch more of.

Nowhere can I find New Testament writers calling God’s people sinners.

That is except possibly one place.

Paul called the people of God, even at their worst, saints (see those Corinthians in 1 Cor. 1:2), but he did speak of himself as the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). I wonder though if this was more of a reference to all that Christ saved him from than a reference to his self-consciousness as a Christian believer? This appears intended more to demonstrate the radical lengths God’s vastly gracious gospel goes in saving sinners no matter what their sins than in defining the fundamental identity marker for the Christian believer. Paul was deeply conscious of what God had saved him from and what God had saved him to.

It is good for us to remember who we were apart from Christ and who we are in Christ. The structure of Paul’s letters demonstrate that it is imperative we remember both. There are those in charismatic circles who seem to want us to forget entirely who we were and those in Reformed circles who seem to minimize who we are. Rehearsing the fact that you were a child of wrath reminds us of all that we have been saved from, and remembering that we are sons of God reminds us of what we have been saved to. Both are critical. Otherwise Paul wouldn’t structure his letters to remind us of these realities in the way he does. Nor should Christians only do one at the exclusion of the other. Depressive defeatism and overly optimistic triumphalism are both errors.

Piper thought this question might be contextually dependent: if you are a pastor surrounded by those who are continuously walking around defeated you need to emphasize saint, and if you are a pastor surrounded by those who walk around treating their sin lightly you need to emphasize sinner. I understand what he is getting at, but I’m not certain this is correct. I don’t know that Paul thought that this was a contextual issue.

Paul may go a little more Romans 1 and Ephesians 2:1-3 and jump into warning mode on those who minimize their sin, but I’m not certain he would—at the identity level—call true saints sinners. Would he name them presently in categories that belong both to their sinful past and their eternal inheritance? Wouldn’t this obstruct the privileges of the believer as God’s beloved sons in the family with big brother Jesus? Paul didn’t keep his beloved churches from sin by labeling them as simultaneously inside the realm of sin and inside the realm of righteousness. I don’t see him calling believers simultaneously saints and sinners, but I do see him reminding believers of who they were and who they are now.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones summed Paul’s appeal to the people of God in his use of indicatives and imperatives in the phrase: “Be who are!” And from what I’ve been seeing lately, this does not mean, be a sinner and a saint. Rather it means, be a saint, and put sin to death and put righteousness on accordingly.

You have a new name. You are new creation. Act like it.

But I admit: I’m still working through this. Thoughts?

Don’t Believe for a Better 2014

We are eight days into 2014, which means that you should be successfully moving along with all your resolutions and have already met half your goals for the year. I’m sure you’re down as many pounds in as many days.

Just kidding.

Jesus is better than the hopes and dreams, fulfilled or unfulfilled, of a new year.

What every Christian needs to be reminded of eight days into the year, is that you have been united with Jesus and God sees you as in him. This means that you are completely accepted by God, you have been delivered from the penalty of sin, you are in-dwelt by the Holy Spirit, and you are empowered to overcome the assaults of the enemy (see Christmas: The Celebration of the Destruction of the Devil and his Works for more on that last one) in 2014 . These four realities are a riff of of a section in Richard Lovelace’s book Dynamics of Spiritual Life. He calls Christian ministers to encourage their congregations in the following daily practice,

The aim of the minister should be to encourage in every parishioner an intelligent response of faith laying claim to the provisions of Christ’s redemptive work, a daily standing on the four platforms discussed in chapter four: You are accepted, you are delivered,  you are not alone, you have authority. [p. 210, Emphasis in original]

This last sentence could easily become a mantra or just another self-improvement motto. However, Lovelace is not saying we should have faith in our claims, as if our proclamations were magical. They are not.

The promises of a better year is one of the great false gospels we are tempted to believe every year at this time.

We are not laying claim to our claims, but laying claim to Christ.

Remembering who God in Christ is and who you are in light of what he has done is critical to your spiritual health. As I’ve written before, it should be a regular spiritual discipline because all of us have spiritual Alzheimer’s. Families and friends get together and go from story to story saying “remember when…”, and each day you should do the same thing rehearsing all that Jesus is and what he has won for you.

Believing for a better 2014 is empty apart from Jesus. Don’t do that. Because if 2014 turns out to not be what you think it should have been and you do things you wish you hadn’t (which you will) discouragement and even depression can set in. On the other hand, if it turns out to the best year of your life with less body weight, a happier marriage, goals met, and a finished Bible-reading plan, you may be tempted to self-righteousness. But if 2014 is built on Jesus instead of the hopes and dreams and possibilities of 2014, it can be the best year ever no matter how the year ends.

Jesus is better than the hopes and dreams, fulfilled or unfulfilled, of a new year.

Enter this year believing that God is for you (Ro. 8:31), God has rescued you (Ro. 8:1), God is with you (Heb. 13:5), and God is in you (Ro. 8:9-11)

The promises of a better year is one of the great false gospels we are tempted to believe every year at this time. Of course it is good to plan and to dream and to hope for the future, but it is best to enjoy all that God is for you in Jesus. The promises of Jesus, who he is and what he has done and who you are in him, is the only thing–the only person–worth banking the year on.

You are completely accepted, you are delivered, you are in-dwelt, and you are empowered in 2014. To put it another way, enter this year believing that God is for you (Ro. 8:31), God has rescued you (Ro. 8:1), God is with you (Heb. 13:5), and God is in you (Ro. 8:9-11). Why? All because of the person and work of Jesus.

Now with him in mind, forget the success or failures of the last eight days, and go get 2014.

Christmas: The Celebration of the Destruction of the Devil and his Works

Christmas time for many is a time for Santa Claus, passing out presents, figgy puddy, and overall holiday cheer. There are also those for whom Christmas is a painful reminder of what has been lost: broken relationships and marriages and the death of family or friends. For others, it’s a time to get sentimental about adorable baby Jesus all swaddled up in his manger with a halo on his head. Apparently, this baby Jesus doesn’t cry when he wakes up either (“no crying he makes”).  The apostle John, one of Jesus of Nazareth’s best friends, gave us a different reason behind–and needed reminder of–the meaning of Christmas. He wrote,

“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).

When John considered the entrance of the Son of God on planet earth, the first thing that came to his mind was not how cute baby Jesus must have been, but the obliteration of the devil’s works. This is not surprising when one takes into account the whole story the Scripture’s tell. God’s gospel design did not begin on day one of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, but was planned in eternity past by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and was promised later to the devil himself in the third chapter of Genesis:

 “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).

The appearance of Jesus on Christmas morning was the beginning of the crushing of the serpent’s head.

The context of John’s statement suggests that he wants his hearers to see how their sins connect to Satan: “He who sins is of the devil, for the devil sinned from the beginning” (1 Jn. 3:8). According to John, sin is not just about something you do, but who you belong to. This is far from a Hallmark Christmas Card’s view of human nature. Anyone who sins is of the devil. Period. The idea behind the Greek word here is one of ongoing continuous action (Colin Kruse, The Letters of John, 122). Therefore anyone who continues to sin demonstrates that they are following Satan not followers of the sinless Son of God.

Sin, according to John, is not harmless. It is homicidal. The first temptation of Satan that led to first sin of Eve plunged all of humankind into an endless stream of death. And death came quickly, as one of Adam and Eve’s sons was a murderer guilty of fratricide. Cain was not the only murderer around though. Jesus called Satan “a murderer from the beginning” (Jn. 8:44). The gospel writers even attribute the arrangement of the murder of Jesus, the only perfect human, to Satan entering the heart of Judas Iscariot (Jn. 13:27).

And this devil is a deceiver. He makes us believe that sin is either non-existent or not that a big deal. But that’s the lie, and humanity has been buying that lie since the beginning. We like the lie of the murderer even as it kills us.

Satan came to steal, kill, and destroy. Therefore every dead family member missing from the Christmas table and every broken home through divorce is the result of sin and Satan. Yes, God is sovereign over all, but God the Son put on flesh to undo Satan and his works and make him fall from heaven like a lighting bolt (Luke 10:18). This “undoing” is exactly what John is getting at when he says the appearance of Jesus “destroys” the works of Satan. NT scholar I. Howard Marshall writes, “The actual word used here, however, “to destroy’ is somewhat unusual: the task of Jesus was to undo whatever the devil had achieved, to thwart whatever he tries to do” (The Epistles of John, 185).

While the devil is a murderer, Jesus is the resurrection and the life. While the devil is a liar and a deceiver, Jesus is the truth. While the one who sins is of the devil and is a willing participant in the devil’s works, Jesus never sinned, and, as the sinless son of God, died in the place of any sinner that trusts him. His shed blood secures the forgiveness of those who confess their sins (1:9) and believe in him (5:1), so that those who were previously “of the devil” are now “born of God”  (5:1).

But there is even more. The good news of the gospel is that the reason Jesus appeared was to reverse sin’s effects and to conquer the devil and his strategies. Jesus destroys all of the devil’s works not just some of them. Christmas time should be a time of reflecting on all of the works of the devil that Jesus was born to undo. Here are a bit more:

  • The devil is an accuser who reminds believers of their sins in order to have them live in a state of condemnation. Demonic accusations and charges that prick a Christian’s conscience cannot stand because the accuser of the brethren has been thrown down by the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 12:10). No one—not a demon or the devil himself—can successfully bring a charge against God’s elect, because God alone is the Judge and in the business of justifying sinners (Ro. 8:33).
  • The devil is an oppressor who torments body, mind, soul, and spirit. There is no mental or physical torment whatsoever if the Liar’s lie was not embraced at the beginning. Not every affliction in a particular person’s body is directly correlated to satanic activity, but some is. And, of course, there are many biological and neurological factors in mental illness, but some mental illness is the result of demonic torment.We must be nuanced here so that one doesn’t risk a kind of unscientific fundamentalism, but we must also be Christian here and realize that we Western believers have a tendency to nuance the devil out of everything. I’m convinced that one of Satan’s favorite things in the church is constant nuance. Over-nuancing everything de-supernaturalizes the spiritual realm and softens the prophetic edge and neuters the missional impulse of the church. The healing of the sick and the delivery of the oppressed in Jesus’s ministry was all connected to the fall of Satan through presence of the kingdom of God. In view of this, we should do all we can to pray for healing in the name of Jesus and work for healing through the medical and psychiatric fields all in the name of Jesus, knowing that he has ultimately secured this at the cross and will finally annihilate it when the devil is cast in to the lack of fire and curse is removed from the new heavens and new earth.
  • The devil is a hinderer who disrupts the purposes of God on the earth. Jesus said Satan steals the seed of God’s word from people’s hearts so that they will not be saved (Luke 8:12), and Paul said after the victory of Christ in the resurrection that Satan had still hindered him from going to Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:18). The devil’s hidering power, however, is not ultimate and is broken because the kingdom is advancing and cannot be stopped. Jesus builds his church. Hell itself will not prevent his Bride from being gathered from every nation and people of the earth.
  • The devil is an inciter who motivates people to sin. Sorry, no, you don’t get to blame the devil for your sin, but we know that there are times that the devil does a bit more than tempt (1 Chr. 21:1; Acts 5:3). But we also know that “everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him” (1 Jn. 5:18).
  • The devil is a blinder who blinds people to see the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). Satan loves to keep people from seeing Jesus and hold them in the greatest of all sins, namely, unbelief. But God is sovereign and speaks his universe-creating and eye-opening word to shine “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” in the hearts of his people.

Clearly the devil still destroys. He prowls like a roaring lion seeking to devour. The fragments of his works are scattered all over our Christmas celebrations. Nevertheless, the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the events that secure the triumphing and conquering defeat of the devil and his works. Satan and his strategies can have no ultimate power over those who trust Jesus. The devil has been disarmed by the Lamb who is making everything new.

There is something that brings greater joy than eggnog with a splash of holiday cheer and there is good news that can mend all the bad news you’ve received this past year(s): the baby lying in a manger is the conquering King Jesus. The kingdom has come because the King is here. Therefore the devil and his works has been, is being, and will finally and forever be destroyed and undone.