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.

 

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?

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.

The Christian’s Relationship with God is Better than Sinless Adam.

Abraham Kuyper, in The Work of the Holy Spirit, shows how the position of a Christian now is far better than the position of Adam before he fell. He writes,

“Therefore, the ungodly, when justified by grace, has nothing to do with Adam’s state before the fall, but occupies the position of Jesus after the resurrection. He possesses a good that can not be lost. He works no more for wages, but the inheritance is his own. His works, zeal, love, and praise flow not from his own poverty, but from the overflowing fulness of life that was obtained for him…

The work of re-creation has this peculiarity, that it places the elect at once at the end of the road. They are not like the traveler still half way from home, but like one who has finished his journey; the long, dreary, and dangerous road is entirely behind him. Of course, he did not run that road; he could never have reached his goal. His Mediator and Daysman traveled it for him and in his stead. And by mystic union with his Savior it is as tho [sic] he had traveled the whole distance; not as we reckon, but as God reckons. (49, 50)

The relationship of the Christian with God is less like the relationship of sinless Adam with God in the garden, and more like the relationship of Jesus with God. By grace, we have been unified with Christ not with sinful or even sinless Adam.

Dr. Reza Aslan’s Jesus: Safe & Subjective

Dr. Reza Aslan’s version of Jesus of Nazareth has been getting a bit of press lately, and the viral Fox News interview with him discussing his recent book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth sure didn’t hurt the sales any. I haven’t read the book, but from the sounds of it (see paragraph 3 in the following interview) Dr. Aslan, like other scholars before him, are attempting to extract the Jesus of history from the Jesus of the four gospels. In another interview with The Atlantic author Joe Fassler, Dr. Aslan presents Jesus as a revolutionary who confronted the powerful religious establishment for the sake of the powerless and offered a salvation to people that comes from within:

In Dr. Aslan’s portrayal of Jesus you get to be your own Yahweh or at least make God whatever you want him to be, while in the gospels Jesus reserves the sacred divine name for himself.

I think that, obviously, is an enormous threat to the power-holders whose authority came from—precisely as Dostoevsky says—from their ability to appease a man’s conscience. Pay us your dues, your tithes, bring us your sacrifices, submit to our authority, and in return, we will give you salvation. And Jesus’ challenge to that idea was based on the notion that the power for salvation does not rest in any outsider’s hand: that it rests within the individual. I think that’s an idea that a lot of Christians need to remember. Those who state that salvation comes solely through the Church or belief in a set of doctrines that a bunch of men wrote many years ago are forgetting what Jesus himself said: that salvation is purely an internal matter. That you are the only one qualified to define what God is for you. No one else is qualified to make that decision for you.

This version of Jesus isn’t unique or new. In fact, he’s quite popular. He’s got a message of empowerment and self-salvation, which is eaten up by spiritual but not religious Americans. His Nazarene upsets the safety of the establishment through confrontation, while offering the safest of religious sensibilities. This Jesus grants justice for the weak and marginalized in the here-and-now and then basically gives us what we naturally want out of religion anyway–God and salvation on our own terms. He’s out to revolutionize the injustice of the world, but not to revolutionize the human hearts propensity to subjective idolatry.

The kind of radical revolution of religion that Jesus is promoting is not an internal, relativistic theism, but he’s calling the ones in power and the powerless to worship him and find salvation in him alone.

This is quite the opposite of Jesus, the Jewish man of the New Testament (I recognize that Aslan isn’t after that Jesus anyway), who was steeped in Israel’s identity and embodied Israel’s story in himself. According to this story, Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, had quite a different understanding of God than Dr. Aslan. In the book of Exodus Yahweh called himself rather simply and almost curtly, “I AM WHO I AM” (3:14). In other words, “I am and there is nothing you can do about it. I’m the definer. You are not. I exist independently of you, and you exist dependently upon me.” And the crazy-if-it-isn’t-true thing about the man Jesus of Nazareth is that he called Yahweh his Father, and not only that, he identified himself with Yahweh himself.

Dr. Aslan, as Fassler’s interview showed, doesn’t like this kind of Jesus. He’s distrustful of “anyone who presents themselves as a gatekeeper to truth, or a gatekeeper to salvation”. But this is exactly what Jesus did. Jesus, according to his own words, was the exclusive gatekeeper of the truth because he was the gate (Jn. 10:9) and the truth (Jn. 14:6).

In Dr. Aslan’s portrayal of Jesus you get to be your own Yahweh or at least make God whatever you want him to be, while in the gospels Jesus reserves the sacred divine name for himself. According to the gospel writer’s Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t put to death because he simply upset the religious establishment by breaking tradition and coming alongside the lowly, he upset the religious establishment most of all because he blasphemed by making himself out to be God.

These claims are found in many places in the gospels, yet there is one particular place in chapter five of John’s gospel that seems particularly revealing over against Dr. Aslan’s differing representation of Jesus. Here in a moment where Jesus is operating as a kind of revolutionary, doing good and overturning the religious establishment by healing on the Sabbath, at the same time, he is claiming to be God. Not only is he doing justice by restoring a paraplegic man to wholeness, in spite of the rules of the religious system, he is claiming to being doing the very “work” (a big no-no on the Sabbath) of his Father: “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (5:17). In the next verse, the narrator of this gospel, fills out the results of Jesus’ words and actions,

“This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (5:18)

Jesus goes on to say this very same thing by identifying himself with his Father, Yahweh, and comes up with different claims than Dr. Aslan’s Jesus. John’s Jesus says,

The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (5:22-24)

Key word here: honor. Key phrase: just as. Jesus is claiming to deserve the same honor–the same worship–as Yahweh. Furthermore, he is saying that eternal life, salvation, is found in him. The kind of radical revolution of religion that Jesus is promoting is not an internal, relativistic theism, but he’s calling the ones in power and the powerless to worship him and find salvation in him alone.

I’ll leave it to New Testament scholars like NT Wright (in places like this) and Richard Bauckham (see Michael Kruger’s recent post on the historicity of John’s gospel) to demonstrate the historicity of the Jesus of the gospels, but Dr. Aslan’s Jesus is not the Jesus of history or the gospels. The Jesus of the gospels is more like CS Lewis’s Jesus-figure, Aslan, the King of the mythic world Narnia who is a simultaneously unsafe, untamed and entirely good lion, while Dr. Aslan’s Jesus is more like a chameleon who changes the colors of the divine to whatever you want him/her/it to be.

The Father’s Extravagant and Compassionate Love

Michael Knowles, describing the father, who represents the Father, in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), writes,

“The extravagance of the father’s gestures is as outrageous as the scandalous selfishness of the son’s previous conduct.”

According to Jesus, God’s compassion amounts to an offer more profligate than any wayward child, for it is the longing of a parent who cannot forget the children to whom he or she has given life. Although the younger son has done everything in his power to break his father’s heart, in the end he fails to do so, for he discovers that his father is willing to bear more shame, sorrow, and loss than the son is able to inflict.

Michael P. Knowles. The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name: The God of Sinai in Our Midst (Kindle Locations 942-944). Kindle Edition.

Knowles gives seven ways the father of the parable shows how God’s grace is outrageously more abundant than our sin (Romans 5:20),

First, he runs to meet his wayward son. Second, the father embraces and, third, kisses him, public gestures not only of greeting but also (in this case) of forgiveness. Fourth, the father orders that his son be honored with the best garment in the house; fifth, he orders a ring for the son’s finger, and, sixth, he provides sandals for his feet. Seventh and finally, the father orders a celebratory feast. A “fattened calf” cannot remain in that state for long; it quickly grows to maturity, all the more so for having been fed so well. It can only be that for as long as his younger son has been absent the father has fattened each calf to which his cows have given birth, each time hoping against hope to make a joyful banquet of it.

The extravagance of the father’s gestures is as outrageous as the scandalous selfishness of the son’s previous conduct.

(Kindle Locations 933-938). Kindle Edition.