Newton: Christian life easier said than done

The Christian calling, like many others, is easy and clear in theory, but not without much care and difficulty to be reduced to practice. Things appear quite otherwise, when felt experimentally, to what they do, when only read in a book. . . . So, to renounce self, to live upon Jesus, to walk with God, to overcome the world, to hope against hope, to trust the Lord when we cannot trace him, and to know that our duty and privilege consist in these things, may be readily acknowledged or quickly learned; but, upon repeated trial, we find that saying and doing are two things. We think at setting out that we sit down and count the cost; but alas! our views are so superficial at first, that we have occasion to correct our estimate daily. For every day shows us some new thing in the heart, or some new turn in the management of the war against us which we are not aware of; and upon these accounts, discouragements may arise so high as to bring us (I speak for myself) to the very point of throwing down our arms, and making either a tame surrender or a shameful flight. Thus it would be with us at last if the Lord of hosts were not on our side. . . But if He is the Captain of our salvation, if his eye is upon us, his arm stretched out around us, and his ear open to our cry, and if He has engaged to teach our hands to war and our fingers to fight, and to cover our heads in the day of battle, then we need not fear, though a host rise up against us; but lifting up our banner in his name, let us go forth conquering and to conquer (Rom 16:20).

–John Newton, “To William Cowper,” Letter I. 30 July 1767. Letters of John Newton.

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When slavery is freedom

Either we must live our lives in the clutches of soul-destroying Powers or we are delivered into the “obedience of faith.”

No one is capable of being captain of his own soul, master of her own fate. Each of us is worked upon by unconscious impulses of which we are not even aware and over which we have little control. Paul, unlike the typical American, does not think in terms of autonomous human beings. Paul proudly identifies himself as a “slave of Christ” (Gal 1:10). If the apocalyptic scenario is a picture of true reality, then no one is “free” in the domain of this world as it is. Either we must live our lives in the clutches of soul-destroying Powers or we are delivered into the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26). Paradoxically, the new life in Christ can be called both slavery (the service of God) and freedom. This seeming contradiction of slavery and true freedom, which lies at the heart of the gospel, is beautifully invoked in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer in words addressed to Christ, “whose service is perfect freedom”. . .

Being a “slave of righteousness” and a “slave of obedience” will sound intolerable to most modern ears. It takes hard mental work to enter Paul’s thought-world and understand that these phrases do not describe a bondage to a harsh puritanical code imposed upon us by a tyrannical outside force. He means the opposite. The gospel of Christ means precisely deliverance from tyrannical outside forces into a realm of light and life where “the obedience of faith” is the only natural and joyful way to be.

–Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, 368-369.

Our appetite for sex

The relational good and physical pleasure we derive from sex aren’t mutually exclusive benefits but two sides of the same coin.

Russell Moore is always worth a read and his latest article, Will a Happy Marriage Prevent an Affair?, is no exception. However, I think he overstates a point in his conclusion when he writes:

That’s why the Scripture calls us to beware our own vulnerability. That’s why the Scripture tells husbands and wives to maintain sexual union with one another. It’s not because sex is an appetite that must be filled but because sex can connect us to one another, reminding us who it is that we are called to love and to serve.

If by this statement Moore merely intends to prioritize selflessness over personal pleasure but not deny the biblical imperative to (righteously) satisfy our sexual appetite, all is well. But we ought to prioritize wisely as we consider the whole counsel of God. The relational good and physical pleasure we derive from sex aren’t mutually exclusive benefits but two sides of the same coin. As Christians we affirm God’s intention to create us as sexual beings complete with sexual appetites although sin has disrupted the design and function of our sexuality on multiple levels. Even outside of Song of Solomon the Scriptures speak to our appetite for sex and the need to sate it. Consider just two passages where we are commanded to maintain our sexual union for the sake of our appetite:

Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love. Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress? (Prov 5:18-20)

Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1Cor 7:5)

In one sense it’s precisely because we hunger for sex that sex creates so strong a connection–it is the one pleasure we desire that only one person may fulfill. And let’s not forget that the appetite for sexual pleasure is a type of that hunger for even greater pleasures that only One can (and will!) fulfill in a marriage still to come.

Newton: the Lord only afflicts for our good

We could do much worse than start the week off with some wisdom from John Newton.

…be not discouraged; the Lord only afflicts for our good. It is necessary that our sharpest trials should sometimes spring from our dearest comforts, else we should be in danger of forgetting ourselves, and setting up our rest here. In such a world, and with such hearts as we have, we shall often need something to prevent our cleaving to the dust, to quicken us to prayer, and to make us feel that our dependence for one hour’s peace is upon the Lord alone.

–John Newton, “To the Rev. William Rose,” Letter II. 21 December 1776. Letters of John Newton.

The new Jerk Store?

WARNING: The following is an egregious display of dispassionate thinking that some may find highly offensive. Assumptions made within the post do not reflect the position of any church, denomination, or Christian entity. --The Administrator

One storm gives way to another and so, having survived Irma, I turn my thoughts back to the web storm that was the Nashville Statement (NS). If you’re wondering whether or not you should continue reading here’s a simple test:

The Nashville Statement is:
(a) an evangelical statement on human sexuality
(b) a press release on Troy Gentry’s death.

If you answered ‘b’ you probably won’t care to read any further.

For the remnant who answered ‘a’ (and are willing to persevere to the end) you should read the NS if you haven’t already. The responses have been all over the map so trying to group people in pro and con camps is futile. But amidst the cacophony is a variegated faction who agree with the NS but refuse to endorse it because they believe the document is incomplete and/or cold. I find their position curious and unpersuasive.

On the whole, I like what Samuel James has to say in his article over at First Things, especially when he says:

I suspect that what has turned off many people to the Nashville Statement is its clarity.

I think James is right on this point even though it’s impossible to prove the relative sincerity of a given critic, so while some may withhold their endorsement with integrity I have a few suspicions of my own.

{pause to adjust soapbox}

I suspect many people are letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. Perusing my Documents of the Christian Church (2nd edition) I search in vain to find a creedal statement that is both exhaustive in scope and sensitive in tone. The Nicene Creed? Good on the Trinity but weak on the hypostatic union. The Westminster Confession? Exhaustive but as warm as January in Maine. The Baptist Faith & Message? Pick your poison. Then there’s The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and the Manhattan Declaration but you get the point. Christians have never claimed nor expected perfection from their doctrinal statements–what’s changed?

I suspect that many critics conflate sexual orientation with personal identity and, as a result, no longer consider same-sex desires inherently sinful. As long as this remains true I don’t think any orthodox statement will pass the sensitivity test. Everything will be interpreted as a personal attack.

I suspect that some of those who balk at the NS would be encouraged by taking a quick look at the initial signatories. J. I. Packer, D. A. Carson, Russell Moore, Sam Allberry, and Rosario Butterfield aren’t exactly short-sighted, insensitive clods. That has to count for something, right?

I get that some Christians have genuine concerns when a select group addresses a complicated issue with far-reaching consequences, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we distribute our dogma in Costanza’s Jerk Store. But orthodoxy will  always have sharp edges and we’re fooling ourselves if we think we can smooth them out with a little more craftsmanship.

A wretch like me

Only those whose “eyes have been opened” to the light of Christ rejoice to have their deeds exposed. It is baffling that our whole society knows and apparently loves the hymn “Amazing Grace.” What are people thinking of when they sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me”? The man who wrote the hymn was a slave trader who came to see the wickedness of his activities. Most of those who sing the hymn today know nothing of this background. It is startling to hear it robustly sung by people who are so imbued with today’s talk of self-esteem that one can’t imagine them identifying themselves as wretches. A chasm of incomprehension has opened up between the awe of the old slave trader who knew that he had been redeemed by Christ in spite of himself and the contemporary notion of a generalized sort of spiritual self-improvement. The joy of the hymn writer is specifically that of being released from the burden of sin. His gratitude is “for the means of grace and for the hope of glory.” The link between the confession of sin and a prevenient state of blessedness, however poorly understood today, remains indissoluble.

–Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion, 170.

The Crucifixion

I recently began reading The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ and have been very appreciative of what I’ve read so far. If Part 1 is any indication this may be the first of many passages I share from the book.

[Note to the Haters: the author, Fleming Rutledge, is an Episcopal priest and {gulp} a woman! How do ya like me now???]

On the significance of Christ’s crucifixion to the Christian faith Rutledge incisively observes:

In the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, the only word used in connection with the entire span of Jesus’ life is “suffered.” “Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” Who, today, notices how extraordinary this is? What a way to describe the life and ministry of a man so famous for his teachings, parables, healings, exorcisms, and other works! None of these things are even mentioned in the creeds, and very little is said of them in the various New Testament epistles. The wording of the creeds is a vivid demonstration of the early Christians’ conviction that the passion was the culmination and consummation of everything that Jesus accomplished, so as to subsume everything else in the magnitude of its significance. Yet various versions of Christianity stripped of suffering and devoid of crucifixion are more common than ever in affluent America.

GoT holiness?

Note to self: There are some things in life you simply cannot question–the supremacy of SEC football, the vile depravity of the NE Patriots, and the suitability of a Christian’s entertainment.

Enter Kevin DeYoung’s  seemingly innocuous admission that he didn’t understand why so many conservative Christians devote themselves to Game of Thrones (GoT) when the series has so much explicit sexual content:

It seems to me sensuality–of a very graphic nature–is a major part of the series. And still, a good number of conservative Christians treat the series as must-see TV.

I don’t get it.

Tweeting the link to that post brought on a small flurry of comments on Facebook, most of them critical . . . of DeYoung. I must admit to being a little stunned and that was before I was directed to the comments section for the original post. I thought I had stumbled into bizarro world.

Having recovered from my stupefaction I’d like to offer a measured response to critics of the article. My modest objective is to show that DeYoung’s implied question (i.e. Why would a conservative Christian watch GoT?) is not pharisaical sin-sniffing but well within the bounds of what should be normal self-examination. I’ll proceed in two stages. First, I’ll volunteer some clarification on what the article did/didn’t say. Second, I’d like to address some of the early responses to the article.

One more thing and this is crucial. I’m going to assume that any Christian reading this post would at least agree that the graphic sexual content in GoT is sinful even if we don’t agree on the appropriate response. So if, as a Christian, you don’t believe this kind of material stands against the biblical imperatives concerning holiness and immorality, then we’ll just be talking past each other.

What the article didn’t say

(1) Real Christians don’t watch GoT. Some of the reactions to the post made it seem as if DeYoung had taken it upon himself to separate the sheep from the GoaTs.™ Far from it. As he stated from the outset: “I’m always amazed that a number of people I respect–smart people, serious Christians, good conservative thinkers–are obviously watching (and loving) the series” [emphasis added]. If DeYoung’s position were that no real Christian would watch GoT he wouldn’t be so perplexed.

(2) It is forbidden for real Christians to watch GoT. No doubt DeYoung would advise Christians to steer clear of the series but that’s a far cry from anathematizing the series and all who would watch it.

A rejoinder to the early responses

(1) What about holiness? Strange that with so many readers dismissing DeYoung’s concerns I never saw anyone deny his basic premise that “sensuality–of a very graphic nature–is a major part of [GoT].” I actually find the whole thing a bit discouraging–not the criticisms so much as the belligerent indifference.

Where is the longing for purity and its reward (Mat 5:8)? Who considers that we’re in a war for our souls (1Pet 2:11)? What does the pursuit of sanctification look like when I’m parked in front of a TV (Heb 12:14)? Responding to these questions with charges of legalism sounds more like deflection than reflection.

(2) Sin is deceitful and never satisfied. I don’t know that I could improve on this classic statement from John Owen. I’m a fool to think that I can safely manage my lusts as I indulge them.

(3) ‘Live and let live’ isn’t a Christian mantra. Christian community is in a state of disrepair when mutual accountability is held in suspicion. No doubt the Christian life holds some truths in tension. On the one hand, I am not the judge of a fellow servant (Rom 14:4; James 4:12); on the other hand, I’m not to passively watch my brother drift away (Heb 3:13; Jam 5:19-20; Jude 23). No man is an island, least of all the man in Christ.

(4) On the power of the remote. An experienced remote manager can save himself a lot of trouble so long as he remains alert and conscientious. Our remote has been used as a censoring device on numerous occasions while streaming TV shows and movies so I’m well aware that a simple flick of the finger can negate the baring of much flesh. Self-filtering is obviously better than taking it all in.

But two caveats are in order. First, as my wife & I were recently reminded when we tried to watch the first season of Homeland, sexual content often appears without warning. We simply can’t anticipate every sexcapade an episode has in store and, considering the amount of sexually explicit content in GoT, we’re practically guaranteed to see the baring of flesh despite our best efforts. Second, even if we could eliminate every objectionable scene, no one assumes that that’s what all Christians are doing while they’re watching the show–as it airs.

(5) On criticizing a show you haven’t watched. Living in the information age means we don’t always have to watch something to know what’s in it. Yes, if I want to critique the cinematography or the acting or the story I need to watch the show. But it should go without saying that I don’t need to watch soft porn in order to find it objectionable, so it’s hard to understand how not watching GoT due to the sexual content diminishes a man’s concern over said content–especially when we all agree it’s there.

All of that to simply say this: Watch what you will knowing that we all must give an account, but please don’t act as if it doesn’t matter what you watch.

The results of our rebelliousness

But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities… {Isa 53:5, NAS}

As I was studying Isaiah 53 for a men’s Bible study I came across this poignant passage from Oswalt. Referring to the “piercing” and “crushing” of the Servant in v5 he states:

This effect in the Servant is the measure of how seriously God takes our rebellion and crookedness. We typically wish to make light of our “shortcomings,” to explain away our “mistakes.” But God will have none of it. The refusal of humanity to bow to the Creator’s rule, and our insistence on drawing up our own moral codes that pander to our lusts, are not shortcomings or mistakes. They are the stuff of death and corruption, and unless someone can be found to stand in our place, they will see us impaled on the swords of our own making and broken on the racks of our own design. But someone has been found. Someone has taken on himself the results of our rebelliousness, and we have been given the keys of the kingdom (2 Cor 5:21; 8:9; 1 Pet 2:24).

–John Oswalt, Isaiah (NICOT)

‘Christianity And’

What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call ‘Christianity And’, You know–Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Physical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian coloring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing.

The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart–an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship.

–C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters