Can You Truly Tell Right from Wrong?

In reading again through Francis Schaeffer’s great book “The God Who Is There”, I’ve been struck afresh with this thought: 

Atheists have no true and consistent basis upon which to distinguish between right and wrong.  Though they might argue tooth-and-nail to the contrary,  the reality is that they cannot make truly reasonable decisions concerning that which is ethical or non-ethical. At best, a basis is found by mutual agreement for the betterment of society. But as soon as one society disagrees with another about what is ethical, an unavoidable contradiction emerges. Moreover, history has shown that a ‘survival of the species’ approach does not give society a sufficient base for determining that which is ethical and that which is not.

This in contrast to the reality of a theistic worldview: Ethics flow from the basis of God’s revealed law. God’s law, in turn flows from His unchanging, constituent being–the very bedrock of reality, truth and holiness.


Seeking God: A Quick Look at Paul’s Rhetoric to the Athenians.

Can we feel our way toward the unknown God? Paul’s rhetoric to the Athenians at Areopagus (Acts 17:15-34) is very interesting.

The logic of his argument is clear. During his time among the Athenians, he observed the many objects of their worship. The reality of the religious nature of the people was undeniable. And yet, along with the many objects of worship in the city, there was also an altar to ‘the unknown God’ (Acts 17:23).

This is where it gets interesting. Paul explained that this limit to their knowledge was by God’s own design. God had sovereignly placed them within the “boundaries of their dwelling place” so that “they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:27). What is interesting, then, is that the language that Paul uses here. It seems to convey that there is indeed some ability for men to feel their way toward God. But, is that really what he is saying?

Though the Athenians might well  “perhaps feel their way” (Acts 17:27, emphasis added), the point he is making is that that they would never actually be able to arrive at any degree of certainly (as attested by the ‘mystery’ alter), unless God came to them and further revealed himself. Paul’s words are not intended to theologise man’s ability to seek God. Quite the opposite. They are part of his rhetoric, powerfully highlighting the relevance of his message. God had indeed revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and had proven so by the reality of the resurrection. This was the very reason that his message had implications for all men (not Jews only). God now commanded “all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).

The realities that are evidenced in the religious activity of the Athenians, serve as a microcosm for humanity at large. Certainly Paul believed that humanity does have an innate sense spirituality. And indeed this spirituality does allow him, in some way, to seek for God. This seeking, however, is part of man’s dilemma, not his hope.  He can seek only as a blind man seeks. He gropes in the darkness while looking for something that he cannot see, feel or touch. The reality of this kind of seeking does not show man’s ability to get to God, but rather his total dependence on God’s revelation in and through the Christ.

A Sacred Grip

In the last post I summarised a New Testament missional philosophy as ‘Closed-hand, Opened-hand, Go”. This is a truly important paradigm, and it presents many different facets of application. To begin with then, I’ll highlight one of these as it relates to the idea of ‘closed-hand’.

Remember that in talking about our ‘closed hand’ we are speaking about all things relating to the sphere of the sacred (and yes, contra to all that popular folk-theology out there, there is a very real distinction between sacred and secular in the Christian life). One of the main things in this ‘sacred’ hand, then, is our doctrine. We have an ironclad grip on our theology. No negotiating.

But just as surely, this means a willingness to swim against the stream. Missional philosophy these days will typically argue that in order to do mission well, we need to dumb everything down and restrict our theology to the basic essentials. If it’s not both absolutely vital and easy to understand at the same time, it has to go. Put another way, this approach asks the church to relax its ‘sacred’ grip, and like sand running through loosened fingers, let all the richness of biblical teaching fall to the earth. Only the pebbles remain, and even among these the sharp ones are jettisoned. This is the idea behind everything from liberalism to seeker-sensitivism: the sacred hand is opened for the sake of mission. But it never goes well.

Here then is a better way. Despite this constant pressure upon churches and ministers (the pressure of true wordiness), we must move in the opposite direction. Rather than open our ‘sacred’ hand, we close it — and tightly.  Moreover, we must work daily to strengthen this grip. We study our Bibles. We want more doctrine, not less. We want all of our theology, and we’ll even contend for it. We want the big, historic confessions–not the small, stupid DIY ones. We want deep Bible exposition on Sundays, not moralistic, therapeutic ‘Christian’ TED talks.  We want the whole Bible and all of its teaching, not a post-modern form of resurrected fundamentalism.




Closed-Hand, Opened-Hand, Go.

The goal of the survey thus far has been to show how the biblical story informs our missional philosophy of cultural engagement. By distinguishing between times of theocracy and pilgrimage we find differing principles for life and mission among the people of God.

In this regard, hopefully the point has been sufficiently made that as a New Covenant people we are no longer under a land-principle, but instead under a pilgrim-principle. This means that our philosophy of cultural engagement stands in stark contrast to that of the Old Covenant community as they dwelt in the land of Canaan.

Israel, under a time of theocracy, were called to be physically separate from the world.  While this period would indeed serve the purposes of mission, it did so in such a manner that anticipated further and final fulfilment of the Abrahamic Promise. I.e., Israel’s theocratic rule would show forth the glory of God’s foreshadowed kingdom to all the surrounding peoples, bringing them to marvel in awe at its splendour (e.g., those such as the Queen of Sheba, who would stand amazed, and give glory to God).

Israel’s missional philosophy, then,  was ‘come and see’, rather than a ‘go and tell’. To have the required effect, they were not to allow any devision between sacred and secular. They were not to participate in any common grace interactions. They were to picture a time that both echoed the garden paradise, and looked forward to the final consummated kingdom.

Of course, all of this would change at the end of this theocracy and at the inauguration of New Covenant. If we summarise Israel’s missional model as: “Closed hand. Closed hand. Stay”. Then the church’s model is this: “Closed hand. Opened Hand. Go!“.  That is to say, on the one hand, we stand in complete alignment with Israel in terms of our ironclad grip upon all that God requires in the realm of the sacred (keeping watch over our life and doctrine). But on the other hand, where the Old Covenant people were restricted from participation in common grace activity, this is no longer the case for us in the New Covenant. No longer do we have a closed hand on cultural engagement. If anything, as per my previous post, the very idea behind mission now requires that we open this hand as widely as possible, and that we go into the world (not merely the Christian ghettos).

This point, I believe,  has two massive implications for the mission of the church. We’ll talk about those in the next post.



Go Into All the Christian Ghetto

In the last post, I spoke about the way that the Pharisees were guilty of misrepresenting God and His mission.  Unfortunately this misrepresentation did not end after the coming of Christ. Soon it would infiltrate the church as well.

We read in history of the monastic movements that started to emerge after the time of the apostles. They would withdraw from the world for reasons similar to that of the Pharisees–they did not want to be compromised. They did not want to be ‘worldly’. This idea has repeated itself throughout, in a host of different forms.

Fundamentalism might be said to be the latest culprit. But that’s probably too easy. The reality is that this repeats in all of us, no matter the denomination or movement. And although we might not as easily be tempted to the old ways of ceremonial strictness or monastic retreat, we are quite content to live our whole lives in sub-cultural ‘Christian’ ghettos. We don’t even think twice about it.

Make no mistake, Christianity has its ghettos. Christian sub-culture is a beast, and there’s a hungry market out there. We don’t want pop. Oh no of course not, that’s too ‘worldly’. It’s got to be ‘Christian’ pop (!). We don’t want rock-concerts. Nope, too worldly; but we’ll definitely take Christian bands, and we love worship-concert services with strobe lights. We don’t want movies. No, no, no. Not the worldly kind anyway. But of course, movies are perfectly acceptable as long as they’re the super-corny, B-grade, ‘Christian’-movie kind. We don’t want malls and coffee shops, but we love those mega-churches, with their big mugs of only slightly cheaper ‘Christian’ coffee. And on and on we go. You get the picture–it reduces to absurdity.

Although this might well succeed in creating bad taste and weird people, it does not in any way move forward with the mission; it does not understand the nature of the church; and it is not what Jesus commanded.

Not Of and Not Out Of the World

We’ve argued that Jesus, during his earthly ministry, set forth a pilgrim-principle (rather than a theocratic principle) for the church and its mission. This is only confirmed and reinforced throughout the New Testament.

While not the head of the church, Peter was indeed a leader of the apostles, and what he thought about the mission mattered.  Although true that as a Jewish man of his time, he struggled to understand the nature of Kingdom commencement (it was Peter, after all, who drew his sword in defence of Jesus); this all changed at Pentecost. At that point, not only was Peter empowered for the task, but he was illumined with right understanding. He knew his mission and he understood the time. It is not to be overlooked then, that  Peter relates the church to a fusion of the type of covenant community that existed during the patriarchal period, along with the time of the Jews who were later exiled in Babylon. For instance, we read

. . . conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile (1 Peter 1:17–19, ESV).

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles . . . (1 Peter 2:11–12, ESV)

As we know, Paul was another key player. And after a vision or two, he was in total harmony with Peter. They both understood that Israel’s sojourn and exile where prototypical of the church’s status prior to the final coming of Christ. It is no surprise then that Paul taught us to engage with the city in the same way that Jeremiah instructed the exiles living in Babylon:

. . . we urge you, brothers, . . . to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs . . . (1 Thessalonians 4:10–12, ESV)

Paul expands upon Jesus’ own commandments concerning our current pilgrim status.

. . . Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:5–7, ESV)

Interaction with authorities was one thing, but surely this didn’t mean that Christians were to mingle with sinners? Au contraire! If anything, this was the major non-negotiable! Today, so many in the church want to quote 1 Cor 5:9, where Paul writes: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—”. But this stops short of the very next part — verse 10!

“–not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.

Contra the monastic movements following Paul’s time, ‘going out of the world’ was never the mission! If anything, Jesus commanded the opposite. Even as He was sent into the world for us, He commands us to go into the world for others.

If Jesus’ commission won’t convince us, then maybe his prayer will. Addressing the Father, he cries out:

I do not ask that you take them out of the world . . . (John 17:15, ESV)

While we are not to take part in the sin of the world, we are never to withdraw from sinners. Jesus himself modelled this in unbelievably provocative ways, even eating with tax collectors and sinners (in the eyes of the religious community of his day, this was seen as the very height of taboo). But though the Pharisees scoffed, they are the ones who are condemned. Jesus’ corrective message was constant and clear: while holiness is not negotiable, interaction with the world is legitimate and necessary.




Making a Mess of Mission

The King has come! But as we pointed out in the last post, there is neither the command to withdraw from the world, nor the command to pick up a sword and fight. Jesus makes clear that the Kingdom, though already inaugurated, must first commence spiritually before the final return of Jesus–the ushering in of that eternal theocracy (a time where His enemies are finally banished, and kingdom citizens will occupy the new creation). But once again, during this current stage of spiritual commencement we are not a theocracy, but instead a pilgrim people who wait for our land. Once again, we need to hear these vital words from our King:

 . . . If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world. (John 18:36, ESV) 

To speak about this current stage of Kingdom-commencement, then, is to think about the mission of the church. And the first thing to understand is that we will make a total mess of things if we get don’t this right. Nay, we have made a mess already. Even the quickest survey of church history from the time of Christendom through the Reformation will show this. How far could we possibly stray from the Master’s commission? The medieval crusades, as but one illustration of this, should send shivers down our spine.

How could those events ever have happened? The answer is this: they confused a time of theocracy with a time of pilgrimage. As Michael Horton says:

[during this period] “In both the medieval Christian and Muslim versions, the basic assumption is the same . . . the kingdom of God is a geopolitical empire, a revival of the old-covenant theocracy . . . It is interesting to look through their calls to war . . . they both invoke Passages from Joshua for “holy war”.

 Once again, if we get this theology wrong, we make a mess of mission – history plays out as the plumb-line of theology. So, as we move forward in our survey of the New Testament, I want to reinforce the correct theology of the epistles, showing that the apostles offer a consistent message on the issue. In anticipation of this, however, here’s the big idea stated up-front:

Christ is Lord over both the kingdom of grace and the kingdoms of this age, but in saving grace (through Word and sacrament) and in common grace (through government and culture). The church is neither to rule over secular kingdoms nor to separate from them, but to live in Babylon in the active expectation of Christ’s return. (Horton)

Listen Carefully to the King

Having surveyed the Old Testament, all the while observing the differences between theocracy and pilgrimage, we can now begin to think about the way that this is all applied in the New Testament.  In this regard, of course, we should start with the arrival of the Messiah.

As so powerfully taught in the book of Hebrews, Christ fulfilled all in the Old Testament, bringing about the very apex of redemptive history. Jesus showed that everything from the sacrifices, to the temple, to the theocratic kingdom of Israel itself, all pointed to Him. He arrived as the last Adam, the True Israel, and the inaugurated locus of the kingdom of God.  He came to fulfil the promise of Genesis 3:15, a promise that had been covenantally expanded upon throughout the entire Old Testament. He came as our substitute, to endure the fiery sword of God’s judgement and give us entrance to His eternal kingdom.

But while a very difficult concept for the once-theocratic Jewish disciple to grasp, he had also come to show that although this kingdom would indeed (eventually) encompass all of renewed creation, it must first advance in spiritual terms through the preaching of the Gospel. But then, the million dollar question — how were these disciples to interact with their cultural surroundings as they went about this gospel-preaching mission? Were they to see themselves as pilgrims; or a newly revived theocratic nation?

Well, if our hermeneutic thus far bears out, we simply need to ask whether or not Christ gave them any particular geographical territory to take possession of.  If so, the answer is clear: they were under the principles of theocracy. If not, however, they were to whole-heartedly embrace the principles of pilgrimage.

Of course, Christ did give a clear commission to his disciples, but it had nothing to do with real estate. And, as already alluded to, this is exactly why he did not teach us to pray that God would smash the teeth of our enemies. Quite the opposite, instead of calling upon God’s judgment, and driving out the surrounding nations, Jesus commands us to pray for our enemies and love those who persecute us. Exactly as we might anticipate then, God’s common grace is held high, and we are expected to imitate his kindness.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43–45, ESV)

But what about our money, and our taxes? Surely now that we know who our true King is, this all belongs to God and God only? Not so. Yet again the pilgrim principle applies. We read very clearly in the teaching of Jesus:

21 . . . render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21, ESV)

Ok fine. But what if the . . . unimaginable . . . happens? What if they take our Lord, and they want to . . . crucify Him?! Surely then, like Peter, we grab our sword and fight? Surely then we do as Joshua and Caleb would have done? No. We don’t. Listen carefully to the King:

36 . . . “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36, ESV, emphasis added)


Land or No Land — That is the Question.

In the last post, we considered the importance of a pilgrim hermeneutic, and we saw an example of the way that this significantly affects our understanding of certain passages, and their application (e.g., the imprecatory Psalms).

Perhaps the most important reason to understand this idea is so that we are able to track along with the metanarrative of Scripture itself. Without understanding this principle, not only would we feel that the prayers of the Psalms contradict the teachings of Jesus, but that the biblical story itself seems to chop and change and constantly contradict itself.

First, we read of the command to withdraw from neighbouring pagan nations, but then later we read of another command to settle and dwell in Babylon. Then, during the time of Nehemiah, a command to withdraw again! Which is it, withdraw or engage? Are the people of God supposed to withdraw from unbelievers, and have no dealings with them at all, or are we supposed to follow Jesus as he eats with sinners and tax collectors? Ezra is pulling his hair out with frustration, but so is the biblical reader who does not see what is going on.

Well, the problem goes away entirely as we come to understand the pilgrim principle. What is this principle?

 When God’s people are a holy theocracy (and only then), they are commanded to withdraw from …pagan culture, but when they are exiles and pilgrims, they are called to separate themselves only religiously, not culturally (Stellman).

But what determines whether God’s people are a theocracy or a band of pilgrims? It is principally to do with the land. Viz., The people of God are only under a theocratic principle of cultural engagement when they have been given a distinct geographical land to live in. If they have no land, they are pilgrims. And if they are pilgrims, then they are most certainly under a pilgrim principle. With this then, we are ready to move on to see how it all comes together in the New Testament.


Pilgrim Hermeneutics

The principle that we have been highlighting throughout (and especially in the last post) is something vital to the sound interpretation of scripture. A correct understanding of the imprecatory Psalms, for example, are a great illustration of this. On the one hand, the psalmist calls curse after curse upon God’s enemies. On the other hand, Jesus himself later tells us to bless God’s enemies. Which is it? Should we pray for those who persecute us, or should we try and smash their teeth in?

A pilgrim hermeneutic helps us to make sense of this. For instance, as we read through these sorts of Psalms, we must remember that they are being written by a none other than the theocratic king of Israel (in possession of the land). That is to say, these are the records of kingly prayers, and those that have been prayed under a land/theocratic principle. The king of God’s people always uniquely foreshadows the Great Theocratic King who will ultimately execute God’s vengeance, and do away with his enemies in hell.

For Christians under the New Covenant, however, we must follow the steps of our Master. We must first endure a time suffering and humility, before entering into that final promised-land glory. As was the case with our Master, our kingdom is now not of this world. The pilgrim prayer is therefore to be directed by the earthly (exilic) pilgrim ministry of Jesus, teaching us to love our enemies. Yet at the same time, as those who know that Jesus is indeed the Great King who will once again return in glory, our hearts are not at all disconnected from the prayers of the Psalmist. Quite the opposite. As we read the imprecatory Psalms, our hearts wait for our King to return and for the wicked to be dealt with finally and completely.