Monday, October 26, 2015

Fundamentals of Christian Culture and Education - A Very Useful Overview

I was delighted to see this very helpful and simple breakdown of how Christian truth interacts with the world. The way that Christians see the relationship of a Christian to things that are not strictly Christian, such as culture, arts, education, politics, law, society, etc., has a tremendous effect on how we display Christ to others and interact. And here is a magnificent tool to quickly and simply figure out what that means for you, your kids, and your church. If you look over the following outline, you will see that the category you fall into has a tremendous influence upon whether you participate in the culture of your community or focus on establishing a separate, Christian culture in a private circle of fellow Christians. It affects the way you act when you engage each sphere of life mentioned above, and also how you think those spheres of life ought to look. In other words, it affects both how you treat people and the kind of community you try to persuade those people to build.

In addition to the short summaries below, Justin Taylor has (once again) posted a brilliantly organized outline and breakdown of these ideas drawn from a lecture by Bruce Ashford. If you have time, you should read Taylor's whole post (which incorporates a chart and notes created by others from the lecture; the outline below is from Taylor's post). For the best impact, you can listen to the audio from Ashford's lecture. But Taylor's compilation is enough to ground anyone so you can start thinking through how this affects your approach to homeschooling, or public or private education, or Bible studies, or church community.

Ashford surveys five competing visions of the relationships between “grace” (God’s saving works and word) and “nature” (not only the created order but also the cultural order). Ashford identifies the following relationships with application toward education:
  1. Grace above nature (“bottom-floor education”). Often associated with manualist Thomists. God’s gracious salvation is something that adds to, and fulfills, the natural realm.
  2. Grace against nature (“a plague on the educational house”). Often associated with certain Anabaptists and Pietists. The Fall corrupted the natural world ontologically in such a manner that God’s salvation causes Christians to withdraw from the world and live a Christian life separate from it.
  3. Grace in tension with nature (“pastors and educators as dual ministers of God”). Associated with Luther and some Reformed evangelicals. The natural realm and the realm of grace each have their own integrity, existing alongside of one another.
  4. Nature without grace (“a naked public quad”). Atheistic view.
  5. Grace renews or restores nature (“an educational preview of a coming kingdom”). Associated with Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck and the best way to describe the views of Irenaeus and Augustine. Sin does not have the power to corrupt the natural realm structurally. Instead, it corrupts the natural realm directionally. God’s still-good-structurally creation is misdirected toward false gods and idols. When Christians receive God’s grace in salvation, they are liberated from their idolatry, liberated to shape their cultural activities toward Christ rather than toward false gods and idols. Their cultural activity is redirective.
Ashford explains that all of the options—sans number four (nature without grace)—are advocated by various Christian traditions.
He goes on to argues for the fifth view (grace renews nature).
[It is important to note that various Christian traditions and teachers have argued for several of these views. But I believe Ashford is correct that the fifth view is the ideal Christian mission. It pursues a redemptive and transformational impact on the natural world and human culture through engaging it with the message of the Gospel and a life that demonstrates the superior benefit and goodness of embracing God's design. -Anthony]
Fifth View...
After the fall, the world remains structurally good but directionally bad. . . . The world the way it is ordered remains good. The fact that we have sun and moon and stars and dry land and water and human beings and animals— that’s good. And the fact that we have a certain cultural order is also good. Things like the arts and the sciences and politics and economics. . . . All of these sorts of things we do in this realm remain good in their what-ness. The fact that they exist is good.
These creational and cultural things are not corrupted ontologically; we don’t have to separate from them. But they are bad directionally. Because sin is essentially a redirecting of the heart away from God . . . and because it is religiously rooted and located in the heart, it radiates outward into everything we do. And so we continue to be cultural beings and social beings, but all of our social and cultural doings are corrupted by sin and idolatry. . . .
Grace and nature belong together . . . Christ Jesus’ redemption should transform us in the entirety of our being, and as it redirects our heart from idols toward the one, true living God, it should then change the way we operate in culture. . . . His lordship is as wide creation, and therefore it is as wide as our cultural eyes. . . . Our mission, therefore, the Christian mission is as wide as the entirety of our cultural and social lives, involving both our words and our deeds and our teaching and learning.
Ashford goes on to suggest three questions that should be asked (and answered) when we find ourselves in any sphere of culture:
  1. What is God’s creational design for this realm of culture?
  2. How has it been corrupted and misdirected by sin and idolatry?
  3. In what ways can I help bring redirection to this realm by shaping my activities in light of Christ’s Lordship rather than in submission to idols?
That ends my excerpt from Taylor's post. One reason I agree with Ashford on embracing the fifth view is that this view looks at the natural world and human culture as things flawed by the Fall: polluted and misshapen, but not utterly destroyed or beyond value. The same sort of warping and tainting has happened to our hearts (desires and affections) and our minds (beliefs and ideas) due to sin. If the impact of the Holy Spirit within our hearts and minds redeems us gradually from that corruption, then why shouldn't the impact of the Gospel and Christians in both culture and the natural world have a similar effect? On this view, Christians have the privilege when they interact with culture of showing people what a renewed mind and heart look like in work, art, music, writing, friendship, justice, and works of mercy. We give tangible and visible demonstrations of the kind of world God is preparing for those who embrace Him. That is the essence of being an ambassador for Christ: inviting people to see the goodness and worth of the One who sent you.

However, there is a danger in thinking too comfortably and favorably of the natural world and human culture, or expecting too much from the process of restoration and redemption, and the fifth view takes this into account. We can have a transformational and redemptive influence on culture and the world, but we must still be alert to the fact that they will be flawed and, in many ways, in tension and conflict with the Gospel and Christian truth. They are not going to become harmonious with Christianity on this side of heaven; they groan with longing to be set free from sin and decay, and it will only happen at long last when Christ returns. (Rom. 8:19-23). The first view Ashford charts out can easily slip into an actual practice of the fourth view (forgetting that the culture and nature are flawed and corrupted at all, and embracing them as wholly good); the first view tends to treat the natural world and the sciences, arts, and non-religious studies as if they are not tainted or corrupted by sin, but are simply naturally the way God made them. So, for instance, studying geology is simply studying the way God made the earth; there is little or no acknowledgement that the corruption of sin affects our thinking about geology or the conclusions we draw from it. On this view, we have to take the corruption of sin and how it affects our beliefs, desires, and understanding into account when we study the Bible or Christian doctrine, but not when we study Plato or Marx or Jane Austen or the periodic table. Ashford calls this the two-level approach: God's supernatural work of restoration and sanctification is not needed on the bottom floor of non-religious work and study, but is always needed on the top floor of Christian thinking and preaching and Bible study.

The third view does something similar, in that it divides Christian scholarship and non-religious studies into two separate, side by side spheres of life. One of the things that attract people to this view is the appearance that non-Christians and Christians alike use the same intellectual tools in secular fields like mathematics, science, and architecture. They believe that what we call general or natural revelation (what God has revealed to all people through nature, without Scripture or faith) and common grace (the blessings and gifts God has given to everyone through nature, regardless of faith, like the ability to think and the ability to use moral reasoning) are completely sufficient for doing all the non-religious work and study in these secular fields. There is no "Christian" math and secular math, for instance. But this view fails to recognize the many ways a Christian mind and Spirit-filled heart transform what we do in mathematics, science, or architecture: the purpose of our work and the methods we use to complete it may be drastically different for a Christian with a redeemed mind.

An atheist may use science to try to prove his belief that there is no God; a Christian can use science to prove that the existence of God is far more likely and plausible than the atheist's belief in a universe made out of nothing but mindless material. An agnostic philosophy professor may spend her whole career teaching students to compare various systems of belief and ideas without ever really giving them an ultimate answer - or finding one herself. A Christian philosophy professor can help students discover how the ideas of philosophy and the greatest thinkers ultimately point the way back to the God who Himself defines reason and logic, revealing how Aristotle or Locke deduced things about nature and humanity that confirm what God reveals of Himself in the Bible. Likewise, the third view often overlooks how the corruption of sin in the mind and heart lead non-Christians away from truth, blinding them to what God reveals of Himself even in philosophy or art. The Christian still uses general revelation and common grace, just like the non-Christian, but the redeemed knowledge and biblical understanding of the Christian allows her to see further and deeper into the meaning of things and connect them to their ultimate, God-intended beauty and perfection. They both start with the same tools, but the Christian is more informed about how and why to use them.

Finally, the two-level approach (first view) and side-by-side approach (third view) can also lead into an inconsistent, unstable dual life where the Christian thinks different rules apply in "Christian" things than in "secular" things. This can become a practice of being "Christian" when at church and in Christian circles, but doing work or politics as if the rules that apply to them are simply the rules the world uses: doing things in the secular world by secular rules. The danger is that we cease to be any different from the world in how we act, and in fact begin to act inconsistent with Christian character and virtue when we're at the office or in the classroom. These same concerns are addressed in H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture, which I first encountered 15 years ago. I summarize in the next post how Niebuhr compared each of these problems, because his insights are very similar to Ashford's categories yet go much deeper and add more definition. That post also addresses the problems and weaknesses of the second view Ashford described, Grace Against Nature.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Speaking of Community: Dever's New Book on Gospel-Shaped Community

I just happened to see that Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and one of his co-pastors Jamie Dunlop have a new book called The Compelling CommunityThey shared a chapter excerpt from their book on World Magazine's website, and I hope you find it useful. I included a shorter section of it below. It makes some other good points about why the Gospel should make a Christian community different from any other type of gathering or community.

(And Tim Challies has a review of the book if you're curious.)
In gospel-revealing community, many relationships would never exist but for the truth and power of the gospel—either because of the depth of care for each other or because two people in relationship have little in common but Christ. 
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be with people of similar life experience. It’s entirely natural and can be spiritually beneficial. But if this is the sum total of what we call “church community,” I’m afraid we’ve built something that would exist even if God didn’t.

My goal in writing this book is not for us to feel guilty whenever we enjoy a friendship that would probably exist even if the gospel wasn’t true. My goal is not to encourage churches to aim at some entirely unrealistic model of relationship where we never share anything in common but Christ. Rather, my goal is twofold:
  1. To recognize that building community purely through natural bonds has a cost as well as a benefit. Often, we look at tools like the single moms small group and see only positive. But there is a cost as well: if groups like this come to characterize community in our churches, then our community ceases to be remarkable to the world around us.
  2. To adjust our aspiration. Many relationships that naturally form in our churches would exist even if the gospel weren’t true. That’s good, right, and helpful. But in addition, we should aspire for many relationships that exist only because of the gospel. So often, we aim at nothing more than community built on similarity; I want us to aim at community characterized by relationships that are obviously supernatural. And by supernatural I don’t imply the mystical, vaguely spiritual sense in which pop culture uses the term. I mean the very biblical idea of a sovereign God working in space and time to do what confounds the natural laws of our world.

Two Types of Community

In this book, I’ll contrast two types of community that exist in gospel-preaching, evangelical churches. Let’s call one “gospel-plus” community. In gospel-plus community, nearly every relationship is founded on the gospel plus something else. Sam and Joe are both Christians, but the real reason they’re friends is that they’re both singles in their 40s, or share a passion to combat illiteracy, or work as doctors. In gospel-plus community, church leaders enthusiastically use similarity to build community. But as a whole, this community says little about the power of the gospel.

Contrast this with “gospel-revealing” community. In gospel-revealing community, many relationships would never exist but for the truth and power of the gospel—either because of the depth of care for each other or because two people in relationship have little in common but Christ. While affinity-based relationships also thrive in this church, they’re not the focus. Instead, church leaders focus on helping people out of their comfort zones to cultivate relationships that would not be possible apart from the supernatural. And so this community reveals the power of the gospel.
You can’t physically see the gospel; it’s simply truth. But when we encourage community that is obviously supernatural, it makes the gospel visible. Think of a kid rubbing a balloon against his shirt to charge it with static electricity. When he holds it over someone’s head with thin, wispy hair, what happens? The hair reaches for the balloon. You can’t see the static electricity. But its effect—the unnatural reaction of the hair—is unmistakable. The same goes for gospel-revealing community.

Here's why Dever and his co-author Jamie Dunlop  believe this is crucial:
"It does matter. When Christians unite around something other than the gospel, they create community that would likely exist even if God didn’t. As a modern-day tower of Babel, that community glorifies their strength instead of God’s. And the very earnest things they do to create this type of community actually undermine God’s purposes for it. Gospel-plus community may result in the inclusive relationships we’re looking for. But it says little about the truth and power of the gospel." 

The chapter excerpt on World Magazine's site goes much further and provides a lot to reflect upon. Just one example is the point that the Gospel compels us to be united and live in harmony regardless of how vast our differences in personality, tradition, taste, style, social circles, hobbies, or priorities. Gospel-revealing community shows that what unites us is Christ, not some common human interests or social circles. Which means that as long as we have Christ in common, we should be holding to unity even if we differ on a lot of other things.

The implications of that are powerful: it means that whether we stay together and whether we care about each other should not depend on whether we're getting along at the moment or whether we enjoy spending time together. We come together because Christ purchased our souls from the condemnation of sin, and therefore we minister to one another out of love for Christ - not because we started by liking each other so much. When we practice that, the extraordinary result is that we often develop very deep love and affection with people who are so different from us that we would never try to get to know them in other social circles. That's the transformative power of the Gospel to produce love. That's what our churches are supposed to demonstrate. Let's welcome it.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

How Can I Change the Fact that I Desire the Wrong Things?

The Church is founded on the Gospel of God's love for us, displayed through Jesus Christ giving Himself to remove our guilt and shame. The Christian community is together because we were all forgiven and rescued from guilt and judgment. This unites us into one people, and our lifelong goal is to help each other continue in the freedom and joy of this new life. The power to change your old habits and desires for the wrong things is embodied in the Gospel. One of the most important truths about Christianity is that the Gospel is not just the information that we can believe in the work of Jesus Christ, God's Son, and have forgiveness and salvation by accepting Him as our Lord. The Gospel is also the means by which we live every day as a Christian and overcome everything that wars against our souls. We begin with the Gospel, but we continue every day as individuals and as a community by living in the Gospel.

This is crucial, because it is not uncommon for Christians to find real discouragement and weariness as the years of life go on and they fight some of the same struggles with sin, doubt, fear, and temptation year after year. Many Christians have not been taught that the Gospel is the power that is meant to sustain them and refresh them day after day. They try to change themselves by force of will, or through guilting themselves and punishing themselves with shame when they make mistakes. God has a much better plan and solution for us than this. Milton Vincent gives a very illuminating but simple and accessible overview of this in his short book A Gospel Primer for Christians.

He wrote his book "as a correction to a costly mistake made by Christians who view the gospel as something that has fully served out its purpose the moment they believed in Jesus for salvation. Not knowing what to do with the gospel once they are saved, they lay it aside soon after conversion so they can move on to 'bigger and better' things (even Scriptural things). Of course, they don't think this is what they are doing at the time, yet after many years of floundering in defeat they can look back and see that this is exactly what they have done."

Instead, Christians need to see that "God did not give us His gospel just so we could embrace it and be converted. Actually, He offers it to us every day as a gift that keeps on giving to us everything we need for life and godliness." (A Gospel Primer, Milton Vincent, p. 5).

That sounds appealing, but the question most people have is "How?" How do we get daily benefits and refreshment out of the Gospel? How does it give us strength to live the Christian life as a liberating path of hope instead of an overwhelming list of rules to follow?

Vincent's book is precious because he spends the whole book answering this, and he ties everything he says to the Scriptures so we know this isn't just his creative idea, but God's genuine wisdom. He details how to keep your mind fixed on the joys of all that Christ has done for us and the unlimited blessings He has made our own through the Gospel, and how to keep your heart full of hope and encouragement instead of looking always at the size of your problems. Here is his description of how living in the Gospel changes our desires so that we truly want and enjoy what is good instead of being drawn to sin:
"On the most basic of levels, I desire fullness[.]"
Though saved, I am daily beset by a sinful flesh that always craves those things that are contrary to the Spirit. These fleshly lusts are vicious enemies, constantly waging war against the good of my soul. Yet they promise me fullness, and their promises are so deliciously sweet that I often find myself giving into them as if they were friends that have my best interests at heart.

On the most basic of levels, I desire fullness, and fleshly lusts seduce me by attaching themselves to this basic desire. They exploit the empty spaces in me, and they promise that fullness will be mine if I give in to their demands. When my soul sits empty and is aching for something to fill it, such deceptive promises are extremely difficult to resist.

Consequently, the key to mortifying fleshly lusts [killing them] is to eliminate the emptiness within me and replace it with fullness; and I accomplish this by feasting on the gospel. Indeed, it is in the gospel that I experience a God who glorifies Himself by filling me with His fullness. He is the One, Paul says, "who fills all in all." He is the One who "fill[s] all things" with the gifts He gives. And He lavishes gospel blessings upon me with the goal that I "be filled up to all the fullness of God." This is the God of the gospel, a God who is satisfied with nothing less than my experience of fullness in Him! The first command God spoke in the Garden was, "eat freely." And with similar insistence He says to me now, "be filled."

What happens to my appetites for sin when I am filled with the fullness of God in Christ? Jesus provides this answer: "He who continually comes to Me will never hunger or thirst again." Indeed, as I perpetually feast on Christ and all of His blessings found in the gospel, I find that my hunger for sin diminishes and the lies of lust simply lose their appeal. Hence, to the degree that I am full, I am free.

...Preaching the gospel to myself each day keeps before me the startling advocacy of God for my fullness, and it also serves as a means by which I feast anew on the fullness of provision that God has given to me in Christ. "Eat[ing] freely" of such provision keeps me occupied with God's blessings and also leaves me with a profoundly enjoyable sense of satisfaction in Jesus. And nothing so mortifies fleshly lusts like satisfaction in Him. (Gospel, pp. 45-47).

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Point of Confessing Sins - That You May Be Healed

I don't mean to imply by any previous posts that confessing sin in a loving community is easy. A loving Christian community must carefully strive for a delicate balance: making their fellowship a safe and supportive place to admit to sins and weaknesses, but also a fellowship that is committed to overcoming those weaknesses instead of just patting people on the back and saying: "It's okay." Bonhoeffer gave a tremendously encouraging picture of a supportive, loving community in his book Life Together. But Bonhoeffer was also quite clear: we don’t simply get sin out in the open so we can shed our guilt and say: “Whew, I’m glad I got that off my chest.” Confessing the sin and bringing it into the light is meant to remove the guilt, but it removes it by embracing the connection to God that we have through the Gospel – the glorious truth that Jesus bore our sins and already took the punishment, purchasing forgiveness and acceptance for us instead.

This connection, however, requires that we not only confess sin but repent of it. We can't settle for the same old habits. The freedom of forgiveness necessarily involves agreeing with the one we have wronged that what we did was wrong, and we don't want to do the same thing again. We want to be restored into a trusting relationship with whomever we had to seek forgiveness from, and not jeopardize that intimacy and trust again with another offense. This is just as true about our relationship to God as it is of our human relationships. Bonhoeffer's explanation of the loving Christian community's role in confronting sin is all about being restored to right relationship together, living in harmony and openness with no insincerity or deceit.

The great joy that we are promised upon confessing our sins is that we will be healed. Not just unburdened, but fixed. Mended. Restored. "Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working." (James 5:16 ESV). Sin brings sorrow. Being aware of sin and unable to confess it brings shame and grief. Confessing sin liberates the soul; but unless the patterns of thought and desire and habit that led to the sin are corrected and changed, more sorrow and shame are on the way. A loving community will do its best to help everyone escape that cycle of shame.

The searching of our own hearts for the crooked ideas, selfish thoughts, pride, and old habits that lead us into sin is often called "heart work" because what needs fixing is not our behavior, but our hearts. As Jesus said, out of the heart come all the evil desires and immoral things of mankind. (Mark 7:17-23). Examining our weaknesses is a very uncomfortable activity. Charles Spurgeon describes our reluctance very well:

Humankind will attend to the most multiplied and minute ceremonial regulations – for such things are pleasing to the flesh - but true religion is too humbling, too heart-searching, too thorough for the tastes of carnal men; they prefer something more ostentatious, flimsy, and worldly. Outward observances are temporarily comfortable; the eye and ear are pleased; self-conceit is fed, and self-righteousness is puffed up; but they are ultimately delusive, for in the article of death, and at the day of judgment, the soul needs something more substantial than ceremonies and rituals to lean upon. Apart from vital godliness all religion is utterly vain; offered without a sincere heart, every form of worship is a solemn sham and an impudent mockery of the majesty of heaven.  Charles Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, p. 706 (Dec. 18).
The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power. - Bonhoeffer
Heart work is hard. The important thing is that it is worth it. More than that, it is necessary. What makes a thing desirable is not that it is easy or painless, but that it is worth the sacrifice. But it is nearly impossible without community, without the support of Christian fellowship and encouragement. When the Christian community embraces each other in gentleness and forgiveness, we are free to relate to each other sincerely and genuinely. Our ability to be in close friendship with each other and to feel the joy of worshiping God together is restored. This is a truly beautiful picture:

Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother. The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin. It can no longer tear the fellowship asunder. Now the fellowship bears the sin of the brother. He is no longer along with his evil for he has cast off his sin in confession and handed it over to God. It has been taken away from him. Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ. Now he can be a sinner and still enjoy the grace of God. He can confess his sins and in this very act find fellowship for the first time. The sin concealed separated him from the fellowship, made all his apparent fellowship a sham; the sin confessed has helped him to find true fellowship with the brethren in Jesus Christ. - Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 112-13 (HarperOne edition, 1954).