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.

 

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.

5 Encouragements from Predestination

I preached on predestination recently at our local church (audio here) because Pastor Bob Hapgood has been scaling the Kilimanjaro that is Romans 9, and one of the things I tried to do was show how encouraging this doctrine is to those who trust Jesus. Often predestination and election get treated as something meant for controversy and debate or as a mystery to be pretty much left alone and avoided. This is a sad, and, in my opinion, weakens the church because of the tendency to either dodge or debate this glorious aspect of its identity.

Predestination should enhance your joy not disturb it.

I’m convinced that if you ignore or just argue about the doctrine of predestination you will miss out on one of God’s ways of blessing you (Eph. 1:3). The first several verses of Ephesians 1 unpack predestination in order to show that it is a part of the multifaceted ways that God has blessed you in Jesus Christ. Therefore predestination should enhance your joy not disturb it. What follows are a few of the many encouragements for Christians to draw from the reality that God predestines:

1. God chose you because he loved you. Ephesians 1:4-5, in the ESV translation, says, “in love God predestined”. Therefore predestination is motivated by love. This means that God’s choice of you derives from his love for you. Sovereign choice doesn’t detract from God’s love it is the fountainhead of God’s love. We don’t go deeper into love by sidestepping predestination. We go deeper into love by diving into its deeps. We are familiar with the fact that God so loved the world that he gave his Beloved Son, but need to become more familiar with the fact that God so loved the world that he predestined adopted sons in the Beloved from all eternity (Eph. 1:5).

2. You are a gift of love from the Father to the Son. John 17 reveals that your salvation was planned in the heart and mind of the Triune God before there ever was a you (17:2, 24). This means that God’s love for you is bigger than you. It is tied to the love for which the Father has for his Son. And the reason this is encouraging is because the size of God’s love for you is not to be gauged by his love for you but by his love for Jesus. From his very own mouth, Jesus said, “[Father] you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (17:23). The astonishment that we should feel at being loved by God becomes even more mind-blowing because God’s love for us flows in the same stream as God’s love for God.

3. Your present sins may be many but your future sinlessness is certain. Romans 8:29 tells us that we have been “predestined to be conformed to the image of [Jesus].” As a son of God, you are guaranteed one day to look like the Son of God. Therefore you fight sin in hope not in defeated depression. Your Christlikeness is not dependent upon your performance but upon God’s predestination.

Your Christlikeness is not dependent upon your performance but upon God’s predestination.

4. Your very identity is “elect” because God has named you that. The apostle Peter begins his letter to those in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, and Bithynia by calling them “God’s elect” (1 Pe. 1:1). Contemporary Christians don’t normally go around calling each other “predestined” or “elect” or “chosen” or “called”, but there is no reason why we shouldn’t. In fact, if we were named this by God, what stops us from calling each other that? What kind of massive encouragement would it bring to believers to have spoken over their lives the fact that God has picked them? Psychologically we see in various social situations that many times a person lives up to what they are called to. If you are called “loser”, “failure”, even “sinner”, and the like over and over again you will probably live up to it. If you trust Jesus, you can be confident that God has given you a new name. You have been chosen. God has called you something that you are not in and of yourself to make you something that you are in him. So act like it. Be who you are. Be what you have been called to be. Live up to your name.

The little phrase “to the praise of the glory of God’s grace” helps us see that one of the best ways to do everything to the glory of God is to do everything celebrating and enjoying God’s grace.

5. God’s predestination of you enables you to live life to the highest purpose of your existence, namely, “to praise of the glory of [God’s] grace” (1:6). All of us have heard the phrase “do everything to the glory of God” and too often it becomes a cliché that means nothing in practice. The little phrase “to the praise of the glory of God’s grace” helps us see that one of the best ways to do everything to the glory of God is to do everything celebrating and enjoying God’s grace. Predestination has a unique way of drawing this out of us because it drowns out our propensity toward boasting and relying upon works and establishes the fact that it flows from the sovereign heart of God uninfluenced by human decision and work. Election strips us from taking one ounce of salvation and putting it in our portfolio and propels us into praising God exclusively for everything. Predestination is exceptional at displaying that every piece of salvation is gift, and one’s who have been given such a great gift will joyfully praise and glorify the Giver. We live “to the praise of the glory of the grace of God” when we recognize that predestination is all of grace and for God’s glory.

Be encouraged! Predestination is meant to bedazzle your heart not just boggle your mind.

Rachel Held Evans, Wilson & Wilson, 50 Shades of Grey, God, & Gender Roles

I don’t normally dive into the fray of blog wars, and the blog title I chose to do it with is more complicated than a law firm’s signage, but I found the recent post of Jared Wilson in which he responded to the sexual perversions of 50 Shades of Grey from a complementarian perspective by quoting Douglas Wilson and the strongly negative response to it by commenters and the later egalitarian response to it by Rachel Held Evans worth my two cents.

All egalitarian and complementarian Christians hate rape, but not all of us affirm a husband’s headship and wife’s submission. That is the real issue here.

This has turned into more than your average complementarian and egalitarian exchange, as not only has Evans charged each of them with misogyny (a hatred of women), but, for some, Doug’s quotation has brought images of rape and sexual violence into the discussion. The main issue surrounds two of Doug’s sentences regarding sexual intercourse:

 A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.

I have misgivings about some of these words because of the negative overtones associated with them. “Conquer” particularly stands out to me as where the charge of rape comes from, and the word “colonize” too seems to carry echoes of enslavement. There is a legitimate reason why people cringe at “conquer” (especially women) and “colonize” (especially African Americans), and we shouldn’t be surprised at why they do. When these words are used in reference to sex further nuance is required, and to their credit both Doug and Jared have done so and shown that they are not using those terms in a coercive, violent, or dominating way and the context of Doug’s book and Jared’s post confirms this.

The whole point of Jared’s post is to show how the biblical view of sexuality is antithetical to rape and any sort of masochism in the bedroom (or anywhere else for that matter) like what I am told is depicted in 50 Shades of Grey. In his follow-up post Jared writes,

I thought it a deft point; perhaps what we see in this sort of BDSM fantasy garbage is a perverted overreaction to God’s good design of authority and submission.

That’s how I read the excerpt, and thanks to Douglas Wilson’s clarifications, I am content that I am reading it correctly

Jared and Doug are not misogynists nor are they endorsing rape of any kind. Doug settles this in his post-Evans response here and Jared did so after the commenting onslaught of his initial post here. If you need outside validation for Jared, you can read Jared’s wife’s comment in the comment section of Rachel’s post. You can also read his interview with our mutual friend Justin Holcomb on the horrendous effects of sexual assault and how the gospel brings healing to it. On a personal note, I have had the pleasure of interviewing Jared, following his feed on Facebook, and have read his material off and on for quite some time and he has never endorsed any of the above and in fact has taken his stand against some of those very things.

Feel free to disagree with their complementarianism and feel free to correct Doug for using particularly loaded words, but lets immediately drop the charge of women-hating and associating these men with rape. What Jared and Doug are describing is how sin pollutes God’s design of appropriate male headship and female submission, and how this is corrupted and abused in any act of sexual violence. No biblical complementarian would ever endorse such a heinous thing. All egalitarian and complementarian Christians hate rape, but not all of us affirm a husband’s headship and wife’s submission. That is the real issue here.

While Evans thinks most all this comes down to a complementarian infatuation with power, I think most of this comes down to a disagreement between complementarians and egalitarians about how love itself functions. Egalitarians seem to struggle with how love can be truly and fully loving within a relationship of headship and authority. They believe that headship and authority diminish equality. On the other hand, complementarians believe that loving mutuality and reciprocity can occur within a relationship of headship and submission without diminishing equality or reciprocal love. In fact, complementarians believe that love thrives and relationships are nourished in these very kinds of relationships.

I think we get gender roles wrong because we get the nature of God wrong.

I think we get gender roles wrong because we get the nature of God wrong. God is Triune and because of this love comes first not power. Three of the Gospel Coalition-ers themselves discuss this point in their little talk on the Trinity: listen to the 7ish minute mark to the 11ish minute mark.  The reality of a tri-personal God assumes that love existed between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit throughout all eternity. God didn’t start loving when he made men and women in his image. He loved himself with inter-Trinitarian love from all eternity. But this love does not cancel out headship and submission in the Trinity. For instance the Father loves and is well pleased with the Son (Mt. 3:17), and remains his head (1 Cor. 11:3).  Furthermore, the Son cannot do anything but the will of the Father (Jn. 5:19), seeks the will of the Father above his own (Jn. 5:20, 6:38), and is happy to do so all the way to the cross (Heb. 12:2). The Son gladly submits to the Father who is his head in a mutually reciprocating relationship of divine love of which we cannot plumb its depths.

Similarly, in the relationship of husbands and wives, Paul makes clear that husbands are to love their wives, are the head of their wives, and that wives are to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:21-33). He does not say that husbands are to wield power over their wives but to live in a relationship of self-sacrificial, self-giving love with them. These two themes of submission and headship meet in covenantal love. This should not be surprising because God himself in a much greater way shows how the God who is love demonstrates headship and submission in perfect equality. Love simply works this way.

With this in mind, I don’t believe that complementarians are just on a power trip. Biblical complementarity affirms headship but the kind of headship that doesn’t say to husbands “Go exercise your headship”, but that says “Go die for your wives. Go, nourish and care for them.” Godly authority nurtures growth and self-sacrifices for growth it doesn’t stunt it (or rape it.) The Holy Spirit through the Scriptures calls for men to exercise the kind of authority that Jesus took—one that went straight to the cross.

This goes for the bedroom too. Husbands should give themselves up for their wives with sexual intimacy that is nourishing and caring (Eph. 5:25, 29). This kind of self-giving nourishment and care should characterize the husband’s role in the marriage bed itself. In fact, I much prefer those terms (self-giving, nourishment, care) when it comes to marital sexual intercourse than some of the terms used by Doug.

Sex is not about husbands exercising their authority and wives receiving it by submitting to it. Sex was given by God as a gift for both to enjoy, to have pleasure in, and to fulfill the task of multiplying and filling the earth. Evans is correct in pointing out that the apostle Paul taught mutuality and even showed how each spouse has “authority” over the other spouses body (1 Cor. 7:3-4), as well as, accurately showing how in the Song of Songs the Shulamite lady initiates and does not just receive. But Doug or Jared do not disagree with either of these points as their later posts (and other writings) indicate. What they disagree with are her wider conclusions on the matter and the egalitarian categories that are informing them.

This issue here is not about power. It is about love. Love that is reciprocal and mutual and also has headship and submissiveness embedded into the very fabric of the love relationship. This kind of love honors, respects, and is full of joy.

Psalm 63, Finding Nemo, and the Worshipping Heart

King David is nothing if not a worshipper, and Psalm 63 is nothing if not stirring. It drips with incessant desire for God, because David was a man who could not get enough of God. The verbs that David chooses when expressing his desire for nearness with his God contain both intensity and intimacy.

God is not a math-problem to David. He is not a theory. He is not just a God to be explained but a God to be known. This Psalm is saturated with the relational–eminently personal–state of what the worshipping heart looks like. It seeks, longs, thirsts, and faints for God.

Therefore the Christian life is a life of not only believing in someone, namely, God, but longing for and taking satisfaction in him also. The normal Christian life believes in, earnestly seeks out, thirsts for, longs for, and faints for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Let’s look at the first verse of the Psalm a bit closer:

“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;”

You remember those crazy seagulls in Finding Nemo that chase after Nemo’s Dad and keep repeating “Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine….”? That’s what David is getting at here. Let me remind you:

This is the kind of emotion David is trying to comunicate. David is saying, “He’s MY God. Yes, I know he’s your God too. But for now, in this moment, he’s all mine. Mine. Mine. Mine. And I will chase after him till I find him. Earnestly. Wholeheartedly.”

Lest one think that I am making David’s worshipping heart far too individualistic, it is clear that David is reflecting and remembering his time in the sanctuary of God with the people of God (Ps. 63:2, 6). Yes, his chief desire is to be near his Maker but not to do so apart from his people. David’s worship isn’t an it’s just-me-and-Jesus kind of worship. It’s an it’s me-and-Jesus-with-his-people kind of worship.

“my soul thirsts for you”

I’ve been thirsty, but not wilderness-thirsty. David here is wilderness-thirsty. He may have written this in the time when he was fleeing crazy King Saul hiding in caves or when he was brokenhearted fleeing his son Absalom and his rightful kingdom. Either way, he’s on the run and would have known what it was to be homeless and truly thirsty. But here his thirst is tied not to physical lack but a sense of spiritual lack. The throat of his soul is parched for God.

He is in desperation to drink in God’s presence and draw near to him. He knows without the presence of God his heart is as desolate as the wilderness he is in. He also knows that when one is surrounded by barrenness one can still be filled with God. His circumstances may be “dry and weary” (63:1) but his heart can be alive and alert in God. Therefore he will not let his surroundings and circumstances become the center of his life and the dictator of his emotions. To the contrary, he will “rejoice in God” (63:11).

“my flesh faints for you”

Allright, this seems dramatic. Faint? Like a teenage girl passing out backstage after a Justin Bieber concert kind of faint. Well, not exactly. Remember we are talking about the guy who cut off Goliath of Gath’s head with the giants own sword–that guy. This Philistine-killer faints for God. His flesh boldly stands up to God’s enemies, but will lose all its strength without closeness with Jesus.

The NIV puts it this way: “my whole being longs for you.” Again we are struck with the intimacy of a worshipping heart. David is saying, “Everything within me wants to be with you. My intellect, my emotions, my will, my body itself is all devoted to you. I am yours. You are mine.”

David is not a calm, cool, and collected worshipper. He is a man restlessly devoted to chasing after God’s heart. He desires God so much so that he even clings to him (63:8). Like Paul the apostle David knows that all that is worth living for and makes all of life worth living is the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:8).

Do you have this kind of a worshipping heart? The kind that worships with emotions proportionate to the worth of the object of worship.

God, do it in your heart, and, mostly, in MINE.

The Connection Between Relational Christianity and the Trinity

God is relational because God is God. God is not relational because he creates human beings. You were not created for relationship because God needed a relationship with someone. He has always been in relationship. He is–by nature of his very God-ness–relational because he is Triune–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This means that God is intensely personal. Therefore the Trinity should not be reduced to merely doctrinal matters. God is not a math problem or simply a logical, linear arrangement of theologizing.

In the Triune God the relational aspect of existence is given infinite weight and meaning.

Eugene Peterson writes,

So we don’t understand Trinity by working with numbers, puzzling over how one equals three or three equals one. Trinity has nothing to do with arithmetic. Trinity is the church’s way of learning to think and respond relationally to God as he reveals himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is triply personal, emphatically personal, unrelentingly personal. Growing up in the practice of resurrection must also be unrelentingly and emphatically personal. [Practice Resurrection, 198.]

However, this works the other way round also. Those who prize the practical and the relational nature of Christianity should not get frustrated with those who discuss and debate the complexities of Trinitarian theology. Without the Trinity the personal and relational nature of Christianity is reduced to a finite size. In the Triune God the relational aspect of existence is given infinite weight and meaning. 

Getting personal matters because theology matters.  Relationships matter because God matters.

The affirmation of the Trinity on the statement of faith at your church that you probably have never even looked at means something. It’s important. It’s worth defending. It’s worth celebrating. It’s a statement about the nature of reality, and, not only theological reality, but everyday–communicating with your wife and kids and neighbor–reality. Therefore value relationship and getting personal not for its own sake, but for God’s sake and unto his Triune glory.

Susanna Wesley & the Triune God of Grace

Sadly, many find the doctrine of the Trinity far too metaphysical and impractical. Some think the ins and outs of who God is don’t really matter that much. What’s really important, they may say, is what God has done! In fact, some may even find the reality of a Triune God peripheral to the gospel itself–the Trinity being a seemingly secondary matter.

God does not give us grace because he needed to or grace would no longer be grace and even more importantly–God would no longer be God.

John and Charles Wesley’s mom, Susanna, did not. Her thoughts on the Trinity show how gratuitous grace flows from the reality of the mind-boggling self-sufficiency of the three-in-one Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:

He is the great God, ‘the God of the spirits of all flesh,’ ‘the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity,’ and created not angels and men because he wanted them, for he is being itself, and as such must necessarily be infinitely happy in the glorious perfections of his nature from everlasting to everlasting; and as he did not create, so neither did he redeem because he needed us; but he loved us because he loved us, he would have mercy because he would have mercy, he would show compassion because he would show compassion. (Quoted in The Deep Things of God, Kindle Edition)

God does not give us grace because he needed to or grace would no longer be grace and even more importantly–God would no longer be God. God by his very nature is utterly free to do whatever he wants without compulsion from any outside source whatsoever. And the gospel–good news–of the Triune God is: He graces because he graces. He loves because he loves. He mercies because he mercies. He does what he does because of who He is.

There is no greater news, and there is no other God.