He is worthy. . .

I saw that there was a scroll in the right hand of the one sitting on the throne. The scroll was written on the inside and the outside, and it was sealed with seven seals. I saw a strong angel announcing in a loud voice, “Does anybody deserve to open the scroll, to undo its seals?” And nobody in heaven or on the earth or under the earth could open the scroll or look at it. I burst into tears because it seemed that there was nobody who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside it. One of the elders, however, spoke to me. “Don’t cry,” he said. “Look! The lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has won the victory! He can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

~ Revelation 5:1-5, TKNT

Then, in between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain. It had seven horns and seven eyes, which are God’s seven spirits, sent out into the whole earth. He came forward and took the scroll from the right hand of the one seated on the throne. When he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each held a harp and gold bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They took up a new song, saying,

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and open its seals,
because you were slain,
and by your blood
you purchased for God
persons from every tribe, language,
people, and nation.

You made them a kingdom and priests
to our God,
and they will rule on earth.”

~ Revelation 5:6-10, CEB

I think we’ve all said (or heard it said) at some point in our lives, “I worship Jesus because he’s worthy.” It’s a nice sentiment, but I sometimes find myself asking, “Why is he worthy of my worship?”

Is it simply because he is God, and that’s how it should be? We’re supposed to worship God, right? That’s just the way things are. We’re finite, and God is infinite. He’s infinitely powerful, infinitely just, and infinitely holy, so that in itself is motivation for worshiping him.

The book of Revelation is admittedly a very difficult book. And that’s okay. Apocalyptic literature is never easy to figure out, but I don’t think that means we shouldn’t wrestle with it. Here’s what I (and by “I,” I mean, “theologians and scholars that I currently agree with”) think is going on here.

First question: What’s the deal with this scroll? What is it and why is it so important?

Answer: There are a ton of ideas about what this scroll could be, and many of them contradict each other, but here’s where I land currently. All of Scripture is the story of God’s interaction with the world. He created a home in which to dwell and placed his children into the world to be its overseers. But these children decided to move in their own direction apart from the Creator’s design and sent this world—themselves included—into a tailspin. God set into motion a plan through which he would restore everything to its rightful relationship with him. The scroll in Revelation 5 appears to be God’s plan to redeem and restore his creation to its rightful state of perfection, even unbroken relationship with him.

Second question: Why can’t God the Father open the scroll and unveil this plan of restoration?

Answer: Each of the seals that hold the scroll shut appear to be part of a series of judgments that will purify the earth and eliminate the wickedness that runs rampant upon it. No one in the throne room seems to be capable or qualified to break the seals and purify the earth. No one, that is, except the Lamb (Jesus). Why is the Lamb qualified? The text says, “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain” (emphasis added). We can infer a few things from this qualifier. First, the Lamb entered the human condition. He suffered and died. That means that he can identify with us, and the judgments he pours out don’t come from someone who is detached from humanity, but someone who can sympathize and empathize with us in our plight. His purification of the earth is not arbitrary or unfeeling.

Second, he was motivated by love. John wrote that God is love, and what better way to show love than to give your life up for the object of your love? Jesus did that, and when he judges the earth, he is motivated by a self-giving love, the depths of which we cannot possibly fathom.

Third, death—and by extension, resurrection, particularly the resurrection of Jesus—is incredibly important. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: the very thing that qualifies Christ is his self-sacrificing action on the cross. In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul writes the following:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

There’s a lot here, but we can infer that the operative principle when considering the Messiah’s worthiness is his incredibly humble attitude. Paul tells his audience that this attitude—this humility—is the attitude to adopt. This is why the Lamb is worthy to break the seals of the scroll and begin the process of purifying the earth and eliminating wickedness. This is why the Lamb is worthy to open the scrolls and set in motion the restoration of all things.

Because he is uniquely humble.

Third question: How does any of this change how I worship God?

Answer: Maybe it doesn’t. But I would submit that the reason we worship God should be brought into examination. The Greek word translated in 5:9 as “to take” (“You are worthy to take the scroll”) is the same word translated in 5:12 as “to receive” (“Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb to receive power, wealth, wisdom, and might, and honor, glory, and blessing”): λαβεῖν. The parallel shouldn’t be missed. The Lamb is worthy to take the scroll and open the seals in the same way that he is worthy to receive honor and glory. His humble, self-sacrificing death qualifies him.

This realization should change things. Think of the following exchange:

“Why do you worship Jesus?”

“I worship him because he is worthy.”

Where do you think it could go from there? I think we need to be cautious of an answer like this because it can quickly and subtly turn into something to the effect of, “I worship him for no reason that I am truly aware of or can accurately and/or succinctly articulate right now.” That can lead us to an artificial or unsustainable worship of Jesus that may last for a season, but that will falter because we can’t find a good reason to worship him.

Or consider this possible ensuing exchange:

“Why is he worthy?”

“Jesus is worthy because he is all-powerful, completely just, perfectly holy, and infinitely wise.”

Fair enough, but for starters, I think Scripture is far more explicit about why Jesus is worthy of our worship, and while those attributes are given in Scripture, I don’t think they’re used as motivation for worship (though I could be wrong about that; this is, after all, a blog and not a dissertation).

We become like that which we worship, and I believe that can be also be stated as this: we take on the attributes we hold most dear of that which we worship.

That’s why when we see people who obsess over God’s power, justice, and wrath, over and against God’s love, we often find people who are arrogant, dogmatic, and unloving. (Though ironically they often say things like, “I’m only saying this because I love you like Jesus loves you.” If you truly loved like Jesus loved, you’d be setting your agenda aside and laying your life down for the sake of that other person. . . but I digress.)

But when we see people who obsess over God’s love, we find people who always set aside their own comforts and ideologies for the sake of those around them. It’s almost as if they’ve taken ownership of the Messiah’s words: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”

So why is Jesus worthy of my worship?

He is worthy because he was slain. He is worthy because he emptied himself. He is worthy because without his death on the cross, the scroll would remain closed, and the restoration of creation would be unattainable.

“But thanks be to God, who in the Messiah constantly leads us in a triumphal procession and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of what it means to know him!”

An Essay on My Rejection of Calvinism. . .

An Irenic Rebuttal of the TULIP Soteriological Schema
or
Why I’m No Longer a Calvinist

by Nate Nakao

I initially set out to write an essay simply on my soteriology. However, as I began forming my thoughts I discovered that it wasn’t quite so easy to do without a basis for my arguments. It could be due to any number of things, but I think I can fairly clearly attribute it to the fact that I spent several of my theologically formative years deeply entrenched within the soteriological belief system of high Calvinism (also known as TULIP), so my soteriological beliefs currently seem to categorize most neatly as a set of responses to the TULIP schema.

As I formed my beliefs I found myself using the points within said schema as a way for me to wrap my mind around exactly what I believe about humanity’s salvation. Thus, I’ve outlined this essay using the five points of high Calvinism’s soteriological schema.

I’ve often heard it said that if I find something I disagree with, I’ll have plenty to write about. This statement is quite true (as you’ll see in this essay), but given that I have many strong friendships with Calvinists, I have to—and strongly desire to—find the most irenic way possible to state my disagreements.

So, with what do I disagree? My contention lies with the application of the TULIP schema to evangelical soteriology. I firmly believe it doesn’t fit. However, I don’t believe that my evangelical Calvinist brothers and sisters are insincere in their adherence to TULIP; I just think that they’re likely misinformed. I also believe that they haven’t quite taken their soteriology down to its logical conclusions or else they are unwilling to acknowledge the logical fallacies inherent in their system.

As a former evangelical Calvinist, I’m quite familiar with the mentality of the “young, restless, Reformed” movement that surged to popularity during the first decade of the 21st century. I even labeled myself one for a few years, adhering rather tightly to their theology (even to all five points of the TULIP schema).

Recently, however, I’ve become wholly unconvinced of this particular system of understanding our salvation. I realize that much about our salvation is in fact a mystery kept shrouded from humanity by God, so there may never be a strong system that answers all questions regarding soteriology. However, I believe that the TULIP schema leaves the believer in a theologically tenuous—even untenable—position.

Before I dive into my disagreements, I’d like to address the following question: where did this rise in Calvinism among evangelicals come from? Christian journalist Collin Hansen published a book in 2008 entitled Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. In it he describes the primary influences of these new Calvinists and how the movement came to fruition.

According to Hansen, this movement is a reaction to what many young evangelicals see as a decline in solid, biblically founded theology. They appear to be reacting to a kind of “feel-good theology” of many evangelical churches of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Having grown up deep within the Christian subculture, I’ve certainly witnessed the decline to which they’re referring (and, as I mentioned above, I took part in this reaction).

In his book Against Calvinism: Rescuing God’s Reputation from Radical Reformed Theology, seminary professor Roger Olson observed that “so many of the brightest and best become vaguely aware that something is missing in their spiritual upbringing, and when they hear the message of Calvinism, they latch onto it as their lifeboat from watery, culturally accommodated spirituality.”

I would agree that the climate of Christian spirituality has fallen into a weak version more concerned with finding spiritual meaning in the latest YouTube video that garners a billion hits than with discovering the depths of God’s wisdom and mercy.

Olson continues: “Who can blame them? However, Calvinism isn’t the only alternative; most of them know little to nothing about either its weaknesses or historically rich, biblically faithful, and more reasonable alternative theologies.”

And so we see that this new Calvinist movement is a reaction to the oftentimes weak theology found in movements like the 1970s Jesus People movement, the popular charismatic movement, and the Third Wave movement. Additionally, many of their contemporaries found in the churches that follow an attractional model of church methodology fall short of the standard of rich, biblically sound theology that these young Christians (myself included) began to crave. And so they (we) turned to Calvinism thanks, in large part, to the boisterous voices of men like John Piper and Mark Driscoll, as well as their theological forebears: men like R. C. Sproul, James Montgomery Boice, Lorainne Boettner, and Jonathan Edwards.

(To further explore the development of this movement, I would suggest reading Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless, Reformed and Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism.)

Now that we’ve taken a quick look at the roots of this new movement, I’d like to consider its soteriology. I’ve mentioned the TULIP schema several times already. This schema is the definitive statement for Calvinism’s soteriology. TULIP is an acronym for the five tenets of their soteriological beliefs: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. It has little or nothing to do with the flower. At least, I don’t think it does.

Total Depravity

The first point in the Calvinist soteriology is total depravity. According to Olson, the concept of total depravity is widely misunderstood. “It does not mean that human beings are as evil as they can possibly be…. Rather, typically, it means that every part of every

human person (except Jesus Christ, of course) is infected and so affected by sin that he or she is utterly helpless to please God before being regenerated (born again) by the Spirit of God.”

I would agree with total depravity insofar as it means what I quoted Olson as stating in the above paragraph. However, many Calvinists often take it a step further. Using Ephesians 2 as the basis for their assertions, they explain that humans are literally spiritually dead. I don’t really see that as being consistent with most analogies given in Scripture. When Paul describes us as being “dead in our trespasses,” I don’t think he’s equating spiritual death to physical death in the way Calvinist Abraham Kuyper did when he stated that a sinner “has all the passive properties belonging to a corpse.” James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken wrote in their book The Doctrines of Grace, “Like a spiritual corpse, he is unable to make a single move toward God, think a right thought about God, or even respond to God – unless God first brings this spiritually dead corpse to life.”

I don’t think that’s what Paul is getting at. Rather than saying that spiritual death is analogous to physical death, it seems as though Paul is making a distinction between communion with God (life) and separation from God (death). Furthermore, in the sentence prior to his mention of spiritual “deadness,” Paul states clearly that “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (emphasis mine). Hardly an apt description for a corpse.

Rather, I believe that death in general and spiritual death in particular mean “separation or departure.” Physical death is separation/departure from the body, and spiritual death is separation/departure from God. Isaiah 59:2 says that “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” Norman Geisler, in his book Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of Divine Election, writes, “In brief, [spiritual death] does not mean a total destruction of all ability to hear and respond to God but a complete separation of the whole person from God.”

While the lost are certainly described as “dead” in Ephesians 2, Paul doesn’t stop at that description. He calls them “separated from Christ,” “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel,” “strangers to the covenants of promise,” (v. 12) “far off,” (v. 13) and “strangers and aliens” (v. 19). Additionally, he claims that when we were “dead in our trespasses,” we “walked,” “followed,” (v. 2) and even “lived” (v. 3). Again, these aren’t common descriptions for a corpse.

Our depravity is total in that our sin totally separates us from God so that apart from the atoning death of His Son, we are completely unable to be restored to communion with God. It does not mean that we are spiritual corpses.

Unconditional Election

According to Calvinism, God chooses whomever He will to be saved, not based upon anything that the individual does or is, but simply because He is God and reserves that

right. It follows suit from their interpretation of total depravity. Since there is no way a human being can respond to God, God must elect the human being to salvation.

The Bible clearly teaches that those whom God elected are predestined to receive eternal life. However, the question still stands: is God’s election of individuals unconditional (viz. based upon nothing but God’s choice) or is it conditional (viz. based upon faith in Christ)?

Calvinists often cite Romans 9 as support for their view that God’s election of individuals to salvation is based solely on God’s sovereign will, but I would submit that Romans 9 is part of a larger discourse on the condition of Israel and the Gentile nations with respect to God’s covenants, particularly those within the Gentile nations who believe in Jesus. (I won’t go into greater detail than this regarding Romans 9 because I suspect it might lead into a discussion about my eschatology, which is an area of theology that I have chosen to leave unformed for at least this stage of my life.)

A common caricature of the non-Calvinist argument against unconditional election goes something like this: “How is it fair that God chooses some to salvation and others to damnation?” to which the Calvinist responds thus: “God would be perfectly fair sending everyone to eternal damnation; however, in His divine mercy, He chose to save some.” My appeal has little to do with fairness and more to do with love. My question would be this: “How does it not impugn God’s character (particularly if He describes Himself as ‘love’) to say that He chooses some to salvation and others to damnation?”

I’ve heard quite often (and even said myself on many occasions) that God’s love is wholly different from our love. While there is certainly truth to that statement, it’s used all too often by Calvinists. In Against Calvinism, Olson avers that “if God’s love is absolutely different from the highest and best notions of love as we derive them from Scripture itself (especially from Jesus Christ), then the term is simply meaningless when attached to God. One might as well say ‘God is creech-creech’— a meaningless assertion.” Even Paul Helm, a leading Calvinist, asserts that God’s goodness and love can’t be completely qualitatively different from our own understanding of goodness and love if these concepts of goodness and love are to carry any meaning whatsoever.

What if instead God’s election of individuals to salvation were based on their trust in Christ as Lord and Savior? Wouldn’t it fit more within God’s character—and with Scriptural assertions about God’s will and desire (see 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9)— to say that if we “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ… [we] will be saved”? The Calvinist still residing in me would object to this sentiment, saying that I am making salvation contingent on a human work or human ability to trust in Jesus. I disagree, and I’ll explain in a later section.

Limited Atonement

This is a difficult point, even for many Calvinists. I don’t think that most Calvinists who hold to this point have any strong Scriptural backing for it; rather, it is a logical conclusion that Calvinists must come to given their adherence to unconditional election

and irresistible grace. Now, I’m not saying that logical conclusions are necessarily wrong, in fact, this particular conclusion (viz. limited atonement) is necessary in order for Calvinists to avoid the heresy of universalism (i. e. universal salvation, not universal atonement, a belief that is clearly not a heresy). Why is limited atonement necessary? Without this point, Calvinists would have to conclude that everyone will come to salvation—and as we see in Scripture, that is simply not true (see Matthew 7:13-14 and 22:14)—if they adhere closely to unconditional election. Why would they have to come to this conclusion? Two verses I mentioned above, 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9, state, respectively: “God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” and “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”

Because of this, the heresy of universalism has shown up in the theology of some strict adherents to high Calvinism, namely Karl Barth (who very likely was a universalist). Why would I make such a strong assertion? How could a strict adherent to high Calvinism make the leap to universalism? Without adherence to limited atonement, one can logically infer that everyone can—and will—be saved based on unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the two verses mentioned above: 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9. Without believing limited atonement, the believer is left with no logical conclusion than that everyone will be saved. (Any conclusion that does not yield an end in which all people are saved and that takes unconditional election and irresistible grace seriously along with the two previously referenced verses is logically incoherent, regardless of any assertions one might make to the contrary. A so-called “four-point Calvinist” cannot logically have his cake and eat it too.)

The two aforementioned verses (1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9) is where the Calvinist and Arminian “battle of the wills” takes place. According to Paul Helm in his book The Providence of God, God has two wills: “what happens” (what He decrees and renders certain) and “what ought to happen” (what He commands that often goes against what He decrees). Many Calvinists call these wills His decretive and preceptive wills.

Arminians believe that God has a different set of wills: His antecedent will and His consequent will. “Perhaps we should make a distinction between God’s antecedent will and God’s consequent will. Before and apart from humanity’s fall into sin no such distinction was necessary. Since sin entered the world, everything that happens is according to God’s consequent will in that He allows it” (Roger Olson, Questions to All Your Answers: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith). In other words, God’s antecedent will is that which He had said was good. God’s consequent will is that which He allows to take place given the choice humanity made to act apart from God’s antecedent will.

Calvinists say that God’s preceptive will is that no one should perish or be separated from God for eternity, but that His decretive will is that some will perish, and some will be saved (this also falls within unconditional election).

In order to avoid hot water by saying that everyone will be saved because God’s preceptive will is that everyone should come to repentance, Christ’s atonement must be limited to only the elect. In other words, Christ died for the sins of the elect, not for everyone’s sins. If He did, (according to the TULIP system) everyone would be saved.

The problem with limited atonement is that Scripture refutes it over and over again. 1 John 2:2 states plainly, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

1 John 4:14 says, “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.”

Hebrews 2:9 says, “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering and death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

1 Timothy 2:5-6 says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

John 1:29 says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (all emphases mine)

Need I continue?

It seems to me that Scripture teaches universal atonement, that is, Christ’s atoning death is sufficient to cover the sins of the world. If that’s the case, why does Scripture speak of the many who will not come to repentance? Simply put, Christ’s death makes the gift of salvation available to all, but only those who receive this gift by accepting and trusting in Christ will receive eternal life.

Christ’s atonement was universal, even though salvation is not.

Irresistible Grace

According to Calvinists, God’s grace, when it moves in an individual’s life, is irresistible. Because God is the one who arbitrarily chooses who will come to salvation and who will not, and because humans are effectual corpses spiritually, the only way for someone to come to know Christ is if God’s grace moves in his life. And God’s grace is not resistible. Why? Can a corpse reject life? Was Frankenstein’s creation able to reject the life that Dr. Frankenstein imbued him with? Thus, when God presents His love to us, is it possible to say “no”?

I would say, “Absolutely!” God’s grace can certainly be rejected! As I’ve already established, spiritual death does not mean “like a corpse”; rather, it means “separated/ departed.” Since I also assert that election is not “unconditional” but instead is

conditional on our acceptance of God’s gift of grace, then we should certainly be able to reject it.

Calvinists turn to John 6:44 as support for their claim: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” referring to the word “draws” as proof of irresistible grace. But this passage doesn’t necessarily affirm their point. It affirms the negative side of their point, that no one can come to Christ unless he is drawn to Him by the Father, but it doesn’t say that no one can resist the Father’s drawing him to Christ.

Additionally, Calvinists define “draws” in this context as “compels,” “but without the connotation of external force against the person’s will. In other words, God bends the elect person’s will so that he or she wants to come to Jesus with repentance and
faith” (Roger Olson, Against Calvinism). However, quite a few Greek lexicons translate this particular word not only as “compels,” but also as “woos” or “attracts.”

Calvinist R. C. Sproul stated in Chosen by God that the Greek word translated “draws” in John 6:44 always and only means “compels,” excluding the possibility that it could mean “attracts.” However, Christ, in John 12:32, states, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The Greek word for “draw” here is the same Greek word used in John 6:44. Unless we want to concede universal salvation, it must be possible that the Greek word for “draw” in these verses cannot always and only mean “compel.”

Calvinists ask, “If God’s grace can be resisted, wouldn’t that give man the ability to come to God, thus making salvation a work in which someone could boast, claiming that he or she earned salvation, something clearly refuted in Ephesians 2:8-9?”

Let’s imagine that there’s a college student who does not have enough money to pay for room and board. A benevolent professor hears of this student’s plight and offers him $1,000 to cover his expenses. If the student receives it, he has to accept the check, go to the bank, and deposit the funds into his account. But does that constitute earning the money? Of course not! Could the student go around campus boasting that he had earned $1,000? If he did, he wouldn’t be taken very seriously.

We can take this example even further. If this professor made the same offer to a number of students in the same plight, and some students refused the offer while others accepted it, could the students who accepted the offer boast that they earned the money? Only if they’re willing to lose their credibility.

Saying that God’s salvific grace can be resisted doesn’t mean that we are turning it into a work in which we can boast. There’s still no way we can say that we earned our salvation simply because we believe that the gift must be accepted. This doesn’t make man’s choice the “determining factor” in salvation, though many Calvinists would accuse non-Calvinists of doing so.

In any case, none of it is a human work. I have chosen to believe that God’s grace is precedent (Arminians refer to this as prevenient grace). It is only by God’s grace that we

have been given any choice at all to begin with. God’s grace precedes any action we take here on earth. Our ability to accept this offer of salvation in Jesus is given to us by God’s grace alone. Our ability to reject the offer of salvation in Jesus is also given to us by God’s grace alone.

God, in His grace, has given mankind the ability to freely accept or reject Him.

Steve Lemke, in the book Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, in reference to Christ’s sadness over Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37-39, states that if Calvinism is correct, “Jesus’ lament would have been over God’s hardness of heart.” If Jerusalem’s rebellion was foreordained by God, and if they were unable to turn to Him without God first regenerating them, and if God’s grace to them were completely irresistible, what was Jesus weeping about?

His sadness seems pointless given the conditions that Calvinism would posit. Lemke continues,

“If Jesus believed in irresistible grace, with both the outward and inward calls, His apparent lament over Jerusalem would have been just a disingenuous act, a cynical show because He knew that God had not and would not give these lost persons the necessary conditions for their salvation.”

I believe this to be one of the most important aspects of Christianity. Why? Because it’s what ultimately sets our faith apart from other religions. Our relationship with God is just that, a relationship. And in order for a relationship to be a relationship, there has to be some modicum of mutuality. That said, humans don’t have anything in themselves that should cause God to turn His favor towards us, but He does so anyway. However, in order for a relationship to make sense as such, the party receiving the invitation into the relationship must have the ability to say “no.”

At the time that I was initially writing this, I was dating someone. We were in a relationship, not simply because I declared that we were in a relationship, but also because she chose to accept my pursuit of her. Scripture often likens the relationship between Christ and the collective of believers—the Church—to a relationship between a man and his bride.

If I were to tell you that I had coerced this woman into a relationship with me, would you consider our relationship legitimate? What if I had manipulated circumstances to the extent of rendering it certain that she would end up in a relationship with me? What if I had planted into her mind the desire to be in a relationship with me (e. g. the Christopher Nolan film Inception)? Would any of these circumstances allow you to believe that our relationship is legitimate?

No matter how the scene plays out, unless I had allowed her the ability to say “no,” there is absolutely no way that our relationship could have been seen as a true relationship in any sense of the word.

The same can be said for God in His relationship with us. Here’s how Vincent Brümmer, a Dutch philosopher-theologian, puts it in Speaking of a Personal God,

“For the realization of a personal relationship the initiative of both partners in the relationship is necessary. Given that both partners in such a relationship are persons, both have by definition the freedom of will, by which it must be factually possible for both of them to say ‘no’ to the other and so to prevent the relationship from coming into existence. It is only by means of the ‘yes’ of one partner that the other receives the freedom of ability to realize the relationship. In this respect personal relationships are symmetrical and differ from purely causal relationships which are asymmetrical, because only one partner (the cause) can be the initiator. The other partner in a purely causal relationship is an object of causal manipulation and therefore lacks the freedom of will to be able to say ‘no’ with respect to what happens to him or her.”

Perseverance/Preservation of the Saints

On a personal level, I have very few quarrels with this particular doctrine. The idea of “once saved, always saved” is a very nice sentiment, but its scriptural basis isn’t easy to find. Again, it is almost entirely dependent upon a particular view of God’s sovereignty (which I will go into shortly).

Scripture does provide us with assurance of our security in Christ, but I’m hard-pressed to find anything that really gives a clear indication of the veracity of this doctrine. Yes, there are passages such as John 6:37 and 10:28 that indicate that we cannot lose our salvation (which I believe to be true), but these passages emphasize Christ’s identity as the true Son of God and aren’t necessarily discussing our standing with him.

Essentially, Calvinists believe that those who are truly saved will persevere to the end and cannot lose their salvation. In other words, God preserves them from the moment they are reborn (which could take place prior to the moment of belief, as many Calvinists believe—whether explicitly or otherwise—that regeneration precedes acceptance of Christ) to the time they die.

I don’t necessarily disbelieve this doctrine, but I find more evidence in the Bible that we can have assurance of salvation based on the fruit of our lives. For instance, passages that discuss our position with/in Christ such as Romans 11:19-22, 2 Corinthians 13:5, and 1 John 3:9 and 14 seem to point towards the fact that our lives will tell the story of our salvation. In other words, I believe we can have assurance of our salvation.

God’s Sovereignty

At the core of this debate is the question of God’s sovereignty. Everything that I have said here would appear to limit God’s sovereignty in the eyes of a Calvinist. Why? According to Calvinists, God’s sovereignty is His ability to exercise complete control over every single minute aspect of the universe and over every detail of history—past, present, and future. In his book Chosen by God, R. C. Sproul states, “If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled…. Maybe that one molecule will be the thing that prevents Christ from returning.”

But is that really what sovereignty means? I would submit that it does not. Couldn’t it be said that God’s sovereignty, much like the sovereignty of an earthly king in his earthly kingdom, simply means that He is in charge? I don’t believe that this view lessens His sovereignty in any way because I also believe that if God wanted to exert absolute control over every minute detail in the universe He certainly could. But I also believe that, for the sake of being a God characterized by love, He places that type of power on hold. He is perfectly capable of being that type of Ruler; He simply chooses to not be. Why? So that His creation, humanity, could be free to love Him without His interference. Because, according to 1 John 4:8, “God is love.” I wish it didn’t require stating, but I think it does: love is not truly love, according to our highest and best notions of love, if the object loved is manipulated, coerced, or forced into the “loving relationship.”

A. W. Tozer puts it this way in The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God:

“God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, ‘What doest thou?’ Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so” (emphasis mine).

God’s Glory

Calvinists often claim that these assertions are robbing God of His glory. I won’t comment on the irony of that statement given their particular belief about His sovereignty, but I’ll instead respond thus: from what does God derive His glory? Is it from His power, especially His assertion of that power as seen in the Calvinists’ claims that God’s sovereignty is defined by absolute power exerted over every minute detail? Setting aside the fact that this paints God as a tyrant rather than a wise, all-powerful, all- loving King, is it really necessary for God to exert that much control over the universe in order for Him to receive glory?

Scripture seems to paint a different picture. In the first chapter of the book of Hebrews, the One receiving all the glory and praise is the second Person of the Trinity: God the Son, made manifest in Jesus Christ. Why is this significant? I believe that it showcases God’s most glorious attribute.

In Philippians 2, Christ is described as having “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Why did God so highly exalt Christ? According to this passage it’s because He set aside His absolute power, His deity, and took on the form of human flesh, humbling Himself for the sake of love.

Calvinism would have you believe that God’s absolute power and control (His “sovereignty” as Calvinists define it) are his most glorious attributes and that He limits His other attributes in order to display this “sovereignty.” I believe that Scripture teaches us something entirely different. From what I see in the Bible, God sovereignly limits His other attributes (viz., His absolute power and control) in order to display that which is most glorious about Him: His love.

I believe that God derives His glory from love. It’s why He characterizes Himself by it. It’s why He commands His followers to love. It’s His most glorious trait, and I believe that anything that minimizes God’s love, or tries to paint it in such a way so as to be indistinguishable from hate, robs God of His due glory.

John Wesley, in his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, wrote the following concerning the phrase found in 1 John 4:8, “God is love”: “God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.”

Another Way

Don Thorsen, in his book Calvin Vs. Wesley, posits an Arminian acronym through which to articulate the tenets of Arminian soteriology. The challenge in this is that Arminianism tends to be difficult to describe as it is more a practice of faith than it is a systematic set of beliefs the way Calvinism is. That said, Arminian soteriology can be described fairly easily when set against Calvinist soteriology.

If Calvinism has TULIP, Arminianism has ACURA.

Calvinism emphasizes Total depravity, whereas Arminianism emphasizes that
All are sinful.

Calvinism emphasizes Unconditional election, whereas Arminianism emphasizes
Conditional election.

Calvinism emphasizes Limited atonement, whereas Arminianism emphasizes
Universal atonement.

Calvinism emphasizes Irresistible grace, whereas Arminianism emphasizes
Resistible grace.

Calvinism emphasizes Perseverance of the saints, whereas Arminianism emphasizes
Assurance of salvation.

Conclusion

I didn’t write this to attack Calvinists. Many of my closest friends, colleagues, and partners in ministry are Calvinists, and I love them dearly. I wrote this in order to articulate my own soteriological beliefs in the hopes that many of my “young, restless, Reformed” friends (a group, if you remember from the beginning of this essay, is one that I readily joined) will see an alternative to this high Calvinism that I believe paints God as morally ambiguous at best and morally culpable (and monstrous) at worst.

I avoided diving deeply into the concept of God’s sovereignty because that discussion would take far too many pages than I have time to cover right now. But let me ask this: if God exerts such minute, deterministic control over every aspect of His creation (including the thoughts and intentions of Adam’s heart leading up to humanity’s first sin), how is this God not just as guilty as humanity is for the sin that ravages this world?

Please don’t misinterpret me. I’m not doubting or questioning God Himself. I’m questioning Calvinism’s rendition of God. I take very seriously John’s assertion that “God is love,” and I cannot see how the God of Calvinism comes even remotely close to fitting that description. I do believe that if we examine our interpretations of various truths found in Scripture, we might be surprised by just how biblically accurate our conclusions are while being miles removed from our previous conclusions. I know I was when I began to examine my own soteriology.

I also agree with my “young, restless, Reformed” brothers and sisters in their sadness over the weakness in the presented theology of evangelical Christianity these days. I’m just as bothered by so many pastors’ unwillingness to discuss the finer points of God’s wisdom and character and the richness that can be found by simply digging a little deeper into the Scriptures than they do.

However, Calvinism isn’t the only answer. There is a wealth of biblically sound, intellectually stimulating theological viewpoints that all have a rich history in traditional, orthodox Christianity as well as historical evangelicalism. Simply because much of the watery spirituality that characterized modern evangelicalism stemmed from a particular theological standpoint (viz., Arminianism), that doesn’t necessitate abandoning that standpoint altogether. If that were the case, I could state that Calvinism should be abandoned altogether simply because, without its most controversial point, it logically leads to universalism.

I implore any reader of this essay to examine his/her own theology in light of Scripture and maintain an open mind as he/she discovers ideas that may challenge any preconceived ideas about God and salvation.

Celebration. . .

Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song;
sing God’s praise in the assembly of the faithful!
Let Israel celebrate its maker;
let Zion’s children rejoice in their king!
Let them praise God’s name with dance;
let them sing God’s praise with the drum and lyre!

I often feel more worshipful at a wedding than I do at a church gathering.

The dancing, the laughter, the sheer joy that exists in that environment. There’s almost the sense of God’s celebratory joy overwhelming the place when everyone hits the dance floor.

I’m not a big Chris Tomlin fan, but I can’t help but think of these words from his song:

I feel alive
I come alive
I am alive on God’s great dance floor

And then for some reason, when I’m at my church gathering, I don’t celebrate. I look around me, and I see few people celebrating. It’s as though people have been lulled into near mundanity.

I almost want to stand up and shout, “The universe’s Creator and King LOVES US. He died for us, but now he LIVES AND REIGNS VICTORIOUSLY! Let’s sing! Let’s dance! We have LIFE!

And I wonder if that’s on us. Maybe, as leaders, we need to change the culture a little.

I live and work in New Jersey. We wear our cynicism like a badge of honor and proudly display it wherever we go. But as Christians, we have an incredible joy that should spill out into everything that we do—especially our corporate worship response!

In many cases I think we’ve allowed our cynicism to infiltrate our worship. It could be our cynicism, it could be our pride, or it could be our unwillingness to be vulnerable. It could even be a combination of all three. I used to think (read: come up with the excuse) that this lack of expressiveness in worship response is an attempt at contextualization, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I was closing off a part of my heart when I sing words like, “Jesus Christ, you are my one desire. Lord, hear my only cry—to know you all my life,” and keep my hands in my pockets.

Yes, the area to the left of the Hudson River is known for its disenchantment, but I believe that as Christians, we shouldn’t be giving in to any of that. God himself rejoices over his people.

The LORD your God is with you. He is a hero who saves you. He happily rejoices over you, renews you with his love, and celebrates over you with shouts of joy.
~ Zephaniah 3:17 GWT

The Hebrew phrase translated “he happily rejoices over you. . . and celebrates” looks like this: יָגִ֥יל The word celebrate here literally means, “to spin around under the influence of violent emotion.” God is dancing over us!

So if that’s how God feels about us, shouldn’t we at least try to respond to him similarly?

I went to visit my brother’s church, and—say what you will about churches with 10,000+ attendees—there’s a celebratory atmosphere there that is pretty rare in churches. Here’s a video of my brother leading his congregation in one of my favorite new celebration worship songs.

Who am I? . . .

For years, he crafted an identity. His parents’ deaths gave him the identity of orphan. Hunger gave him the identity of thief by necessity. Repeated escape attempts from prison hardened him, and he earned the identity of criminal. Nearly twenty years as a prisoner transformed him into a desperate and broken man.

Then a chance encounter with grace introduced a new story, and following the guilt and shame he experienced after spitting in the face of the gift he’d been given, he began to work on a new identity.

No longer the thief, no longer the criminal, no longer the escaped convict known as Jean Valjean, he took on a new name. Monsieur Madeleine, he called himself. A new name, a new life, and a new city to call home.

But it wouldn’t be long before his previous life caught up with him. His former jailor, now an inspector with the police, sees something familiar in M. Madeleine and decides to investigate further.

When it seemed inevitable that he would be exposed for the thief and criminal he once was, a man bearing his face emerges as an escape from the ghosts of his past.

He soon faces the question of his own identity. Is he the criminal of so many years ago? Is he M. Madeleine, the benevolent mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer? Or is he someone completely different?

At some point in life we face the same questions Jean Valjean faced. Am I [insert sin here]? Or am I [insert accomplishments here]? Or is there something else that defines me?

Valjean’s conundrum in Les Misérables represents the problem that the world imposes upon each of us: what you do defines who you are. At work, you arrive at your position based on how much effort you put into your job. On your career path, you often receive your title based on the degree or certification program you completed before entering the workforce.

If you constantly make mistakes, you’re a failure. If you fight a losing battle with sexual immorality, you’re filthy and lustful. If you give in to your vices over and over again, you’re an addict.

How you live dictates who you are.

But for God, the complete opposite is true. Scripture tells us that who we are dictates how we live.

We are daughters and sons of God (Romans 8:14-15), so we can be joyful and grateful.

We are Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), so we share the incredible news that our King has come.

We are hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3), so we can live freely because we have nothing to fear.

Suddenly we don’t have the pressure of living for something. Instead we can live from something—joy, peace, freedom.

Suddenly finding our identity is as simple as looking at our King.

Just know that even though it’s simple, it’s far from easy. This world is screaming other identities at us so loud that it can drown out the voice of the King. But if you listen, not for another deafening scream, but for a whisper, a “still, small voice,” if you will, you’ll hear him.

“You’re mine. Your identity is in me. You are my child, and I love you.”

Love and glory. . .

“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

from the Westminster Shorter Catechism

Lately I’ve been thinking about what glorifying God looks like. How do we do this? What does it mean?

Perhaps one of the reasons I’ve been pulled into these musings is that it’s been a recurring theme coming from those in the neo-reformed camp.

Glory.

“Give God the glory.”
“Don’t rob God of his glory.”
“God gets all the glory.”

There was a nagging thought in the back of my mind that wouldn’t go away when I considered the idea of glorifying God: God is self-serving, and interested only in his own glory. At some level, I suppose, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, if you’re the most powerful, magnificent, and other being in the universe, who else would you glorify?

But the deeper I dug into this thought, the more uncomfortable I became with it. Questions started to arise in my mind that I was afraid to address. Was God so insecure that he would demand (read: dictate, determine) the praise of his creatures? What exactly was it about him that needed to be glorified or magnified? Power? Holiness? Distinctness? Sovereignty?

Is that what set him apart from all other deities?

I began to grow weary of the pat answers that did little more than create an image of a god who was after nothing more than his own glory.

Then again, why shouldn’t he be? He is God after all.

But isn’t there something inside you that balks at the thought? Isn’t there something in all of this talk of glory that, despite all the logical consistencies of something like TULIP, makes God frightening? Or worse yet, unloving?

What if we took a step back and looked at what God is trying to communicate to us through the whole of Scripture? There seems to be a story unfolding that reveals a most unusual central character.

As he reflected on the story, St. John wrote, “The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love” (emphasis added). So this is who God is.

Obsession with one’s own glory hardly looks like love, and if love is how God defines himself, shouldn’t that be how we see him?

I turn at this point to N. T. Wright, who said it far better than I could have said it myself.

“[John Piper] sees [God's righteousness] as God’s concern for God’s own glory, which implies that God’s primary concern returns, as it were, to himself. There is always of course a sense in which that is true. But the great story of Scripture, from creation and covenant right on through to the New Jerusalem, is constantly about God’s overflowing, generous, creative love—God’s concern, if you like, for the flourishing and well-being of everything else. Of course, this too will redound to God’s glory because God, as the Creator, is glorified when creation is flourishing and able to praise him gladly and freely. And of course there are plenty of passages where God does what he does precisely not because anybody deserves it but simply ‘for the sake of his own name.’ But ‘God’s righteousness’ is regularly invoked in Scripture, not when God is acting thus, but when his concern is going out to those in need, particularly to his covenant people. The tsedaqah elohim, the dikaiosynē theou, is an outward-looking characteristic of God, linked of course to the concern for God’s own glory but essentially going, as it were, in the opposite direction, that of God’s creative, healing, restorative love. God’s concern for God’s glory is precisely rescued from the appearance of divine narcissism because God, not least God as Trinity, is always giving out, pouring, out, lavishing generous love on undeserving people, undeserving Israel and an undeserving world. That is the sort of God he is, and ‘God’s righteousness’ is a way of saying, ‘Yes, and God will be true to that character.’”

This truth cannot be overstated.

God is, by definition, love. All other attributes and actions that God possesses and commits must conform to this standard. It is who he is, and that is what remains unchanged and unchangeable about him.

John Wesley, in his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament wrote the following concerning 1 John 4:8: “‘God is love.’—This little sentence brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, than the whole world can bring. God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.”

What then does this say of God’s glory?

John Piper famously said that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Not necessarily untrue, but if I understand John 13:34-35, 1 Corinthians 13:13, and Philippians 2:5-11 correctly, then this statement would be far truer if styled, “God is most glorified in us when we most explicitly model his self-giving love to those around us.”

God’s glory is found in his love.

Just trust. . .

I’ve been thinking lately about the concept of “God’s will for my life,” and what makes me a bit sad is when I see people around me (and often, I confess, myself) agonizing over what God’s will is in one circumstance or another, particularly with regards to decisions that we make in life.

Should I pursue a relationship with this girl or that one? Should I take this job offer or the other one? Should I stay in this town or relocate somewhere else?

I suppose one could take comfort in believing that God has it all mapped out and planned anyway, so we can just trust that whatever decision we make will be the one God decided for us ahead of time. Frankly, that belief leads me down the path towards determinism and eventually fatalism (If I make a destructive decision, was that God’s will for me? How can God be loving, or even good, if he determined that I would make a self-destructive choice?), but if that brings you comfort, hold tightly to that.

But if you’re like me, and you don’t believe that about God, how can you feel safe making decisions? How will you know what God’s will is for you? There’s an old adage I heard often when I was in school: “If you follow God’s daily will for your life, he’ll reveal to you his long-term will.” It’s a nice sentiment, but is it always true? What if I’m doing justice, embracing faithful love, and walking humbly with my God everyday, but when I face that life-altering decision, I still don’t know the answer?

Here’s where I find comfort. God asks us to trust him. He loves us, and he has our best interests at heart. The more we get to know him, the more we’ll discover what he desires for us. It may never be specific, but here’s the cool thing. No matter what we choose, God is there.

Maybe that’s what it means to believe. Maybe it’s knowing that God has given us the freedom to use our minds and hearts to make good decisions, and that in whatever decision we make, God is there. So trust him.

Pull the trigger and trust him.

Because we could easily think ourselves into paralysis, killing our effectiveness.

So when you come to that fork in the road (I know, I’m tossing in unexpected metaphors that weren’t alluded to at the beginning of this post, but I’m just thinking on the fly here), go left or go right. Don’t just stand there and wonder which one is God’s will.

Because God’s will is that you trust him whether you go left or right. He’ll be there if you turn left, and he’ll be there if you turn right.

Trust the Lord and do good;
live in the land, and farm faithfulness.
Enjoy the Lord,
and he will give what your heart asks.
Commit your way to the Lord!
Trust him! He will act
and will make your righteousness shine like the dawn,
your justice like high noon.

Some thoughts on Noah. . .

PHqmdhBN3MUetx_1_mIt’s one of the season’s (if not the year’s) biggest blockbusters, and I took a few hours out of my busy schedule to sit down with this film. (I have to admit that as my friend Ken and I were walking into the theater, I came pretty close to changing my mind and standing in line for the midnight opening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but for the sake of conversation, I stuck with Noah.)

This blog post was originally going to be a review of the film, but given the controversy surrounding the movie, I decided to do some research and instead write more of a commentary on the film. I may write a full review at some point, but for now here’s my quickie review: Russell Crowe did a good job being Russell Crowe. He’s his usual emotionless self in this movie, but thankfully the cast around him was incredible. Of particular interest are Jennifer Connelly as Naameh, Noah’s wife, and Emma Watson as Ila, Noah’s daughter-in-law. Theirs were some of the most disarming and jaw-dropping performances I’ve ever seen. We’ve all known Connelly is a talented actress, but she stood out in a big way this time. The surprise to me was Watson’s performance. I’m a Harry Potter fan, and I found it a bit difficult at first to divorce her from Hermione Granger, but it didn’t take long for her to show off just how good an actress she is. Even without the mind-blowing special effects, this film would be worth it simply for those two performances.

Okay, now that my review is over, let’s dive into the meat of this post.

There are several streams of thought regarding this movie. One is the traditional evangelical approach which falls just short of boycotting this film for no reason other than that they “heard” the movie is very “unbiblical.” My problem with this approach is multifaceted. First, I’m never a fan of boycotting. It sends a terrible message, and in many cases it gives off an air of ignorance. Second, I think it would be wise to gain firsthand knowledge of the material you’re attacking before making your assault. You may find yourself laying down friendly fire if you don’t. Third, I think we should ask ourselves, “How well do I actually know the biblical account of ‘Noah and the Flood’?” After watching the movie, I found myself returning to the Scriptures to do some fact-checking, and I was quite surprised at what I found (and didn’t find) in the text.

Another stream of thought coming from some of the “liberal” camps essentially views this movie as a kind of midrash aggada—a form of rabbinical storytelling that involves interpreting Scripture passages by “filling in the blanks,” as it were—from the director Darren Aronofsky (who, by the way, is not an atheist as many believed that he claimed to be) given his Jewish heritage. Aronofsky is a master storyteller who is just as much a preacher as he is a filmmaker. Just look at some of his previous films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream.

The third stream of thought that I see emerging is that Aronofsky’s Noah is not based on the story found in the Judaic Torah or the Christian Pentateuch. Rather, this stream of thought sees the Gnostic Noah account being displayed in this film. Theologian Brian Mattson wrote, “This was a thoroughly pagan retelling of the Noah story direct from Kabbalist and Gnostic sources.” There are a number of Christians who read his posts and found his interpretation compelling, especially given his knowledge of the subject matter. He claims that because Aronofsky’s Noah is a Gnostic retelling, the movie flips the roles of God and Satan, and, using the snakeskin shed by the Serpent in Eden as a vehicle for this characterization, claims that the “Creator” is really the evil deity in Gnosticism and that the Serpent is really God in disguise (that was a paraphrase of Mattson’s conclusion on the matter, but it’s essentially what he’s getting at). The problem with his argumentation is that while Kabbalah and Gnostics agree in a number of ways, there are some crucial inconsistencies that render his interpretation invalid.

The argument makes sense on some level when you think about it. Aronofsky’s first full-length feature, Pi, betrayed a fascination with Kabbalah. But while he may have drawn from Kabbalah’s understanding of the story of Noah, it’s pretty clear that his primary source material was the ancient Judaic retelling of the story (the one accepted by most Christians). Also, Aronofsky doesn’t appear to exhibit much interest in Gnosticism or even the Gnostics.

To be sure, there are likely many key elements of Kabbalist tradition found throughout the film (references to Zohar, Adam and Eve’s luminescence, humanity’s division into the evil descendants of Cain and the righteous descendants of Seth, fallen angels who can be redeemed, etc.), but these elements aren’t exclusively Kabbalistic. In fact, (with the exception of the Zohar reference) these supposedly “exclusively Kabbalist” elements are found in Judeo-Christian history as well.

But let me try to address some of the more basic concerns Christians might have with the movie, apart from any Gnostic or Kabbalist references.

First, the character of Noah. In this movie, Noah is depicted as a deeply conflicted man. As the story progresses, he becomes even more extreme and zealous to the point of betraying his own family. I was at first uncomfortable with this, but when I went back to the story as found in the Bible, I found no descriptions of Noah’s personality at all. The Bible describes him as a righteous man, but “righteous” in this context doesn’t mean “good.” It simply means that he practiced justice and mercy. This description leaves much to the imagination, and seems to have been placed there simply to set Noah apart from the morally corrupt around him. The Noah character found in this movie is completely human—flawed, broken, and stubborn. He clings to what he believes God’s message is, even when confronted with evidence that he might have misinterpreted God’s will. Sound familiar? Russell Crowe’s Noah reminded me a little bit of myself in some very disturbing ways (minus the notable lack of emotional expression).

Second, the Watchers. Some have said they’re loosely based on the Nephilim found in Genesis 6:1-4. Unfortunately, that doesn’t go very far in explaining these bizarre creatures. What’s more likely is that Aronofsky took from the Book of Enoch (an ancient Jewish text that was considered part of the canon of Scripture by some early church fathers like Clement, Irenaeus, and Tertullian), which goes into greater detail about the Watchers. According to the Book of Enoch, the Watchers were angels that had been sent to earth to look after humanity after Adam’s fall, but after being around humans for a while, they began to have sexual relations with human women. The result of these unions were the Nephilim.

Aronofsky mercifully leaves out the details about fallen angels having sex with humans, but he portrays these angels as having the ability to return to righteousness and glory. Some Christians would take issue with that, as nowhere in Scripture does it say that fallen angels can be redeemed. But even within Christianity, a debate raged on regarding the permanence of these angels’ fall from God’s mercy. St. Gregory of Nyssa (one of the earliest promoters of the doctrine of a triune God) expressed a belief that even Satan himself would repent and be reconciled to God!

I think it’s worth noting here that Aronofsky appears to be less interested in mainline and evangelical interpretations of Genesis than he is in ancient-Hebrew and first-through-third-century Christian interpretations. There are a lot of things about this movie that seem strange, but upon further investigation, actually make sense in that historical context. More recent historical discoveries and theological musings refute many of these ideas, but in the rich, diverse histories of Judaism and Christianity, the ideas Aronofsky purports may be odd (and in some cases, just plain wrong), but they aren’t foreign to these religions’ histories.

(I don’t know where Aronofsky got the idea to depict the Watchers as rock giants, but I couldn’t help but think of the Gorignak from Galaxy Quest whenever the Watchers were on screen.)

Third, Adam and Eve’s luminescence. I hesitate to even mention this one because it seems trite that Christians would be bothered by it, but someone in another blog used it as fodder for for his argument that this movie is “unbiblical,” so I decided to bring it up. It’s an argument easily refuted by reminding ourselves that luminescence is a theme that’s seen throughout Scripture, from Moses’ encounters with God (he’s described as radiating in Exodus 34) to Christ’s transfiguration in Matthew 17. Jesus even says in Matthew 13 that “the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom.” Given that information, it’s not such a stretch to think that Adam and Eve radiated light prior to eating the fruit.

Fourth, environmentalism as the primary theme of the movie. Much has been said about how this movie depicts the Creator as wanting to destroy mankind because of how they mistreat creation. While that’s an element of why the Creator sends the flood, it’s pretty clear in the film that mankind’s wickedness overall, not just their poor stewardship of the earth, is the reason the flood is on its way. In a scene where Noah is walking among the descendants of Cain, people are trading girls for food, killing for fun, and exhibit nothing but an overt willingness to satiate their own basest desires.

Additionally, Noah’s own error involves environmentalism. He misinterprets God’s message thinking that humanity has no place in the world. In fact, when he recounts the story of creation to his family, he leaves out (or minimizes, I can’t remember which) the fact that humanity was created in God’s image. [SPOILERS AHEAD. Highlight the text to reveal.] Tubal-Cain, on the other hand, when he tells Ham the story of creation, makes a point to emphasize the fact that humanity was made in God’s image. He concludes that that means humans should dominate the earth and possess the right to exploit all of its resources with no regard to good stewardship. But at the end of the movie, when Noah comes to terms with his mistakes, he retells the creation story. This time he doesn’t leave out the point about being made in God’s image, but unlike Tubal-Cain’s rendition of the story, Noah concludes that as image-bearers we don’t have a right so much as a responsibility to properly care for the earth. Admittedly, environmentalism is a fairly heavy-handed theme throughout the movie, particularly at the end, but it doesn’t go so far as to run contrary to what Scripture teaches us about stewardship. My primary concern here is that the film fails to acknowledge humanity as the pinnacle of God’s creation. It appears that the best notion isn’t Noah’s idea that the earth is better off without humanity, nor is it Tubal-Cain’s belief that creation exists to serve man. Instead, the film presents a sort of peaceful coexistence between humans and the earth as being the best option. It’s almost as if the film were trying to portray God as a Master Gardener with humans as his gardening tools rather than God as a Father with the earth as a gift to his children. Both ideas are better options than the movie’s two “bad” options, but only the latter works as a theme seen in Scripture.

Fifth, the snakeskin. I’ll admit, I was pretty confused by the snakeskin metaphor in the film. Movie blogger Ryan Holt shed some light (pun not intended) on the snakeskin motif in his post about the movie:

When the film gives us glimpses of the Garden of Eden, the snake originally glows like Adam and Eve, only to shed its luminous skin and become a dark black. The visual metaphor seems clear; the serpent abandons the glory of creation to become a creature of evil, and humanity soon follows after it. So the snakeskin reminds Noah and his family of the Eden that was lost, a testament to creation’s original perfection.

Similarly, in his review of the movie in the National Catholic Register (a review that I highly recommend, by the way), Steven D. Greydanus wrote the following:

The serpent is connected with one of the film’s odder bits: a snakeskin, shed in Eden by the serpent, preserved as a family heirloom by the righteous line of Seth and passed down to Noah by his father. Doesn’t the snakeskin represent evil? Not necessarily. The serpent was created good and then shed that goodness to become the tempter. The skin it wore when God created it is not a token of evil, but of original goodness — and thus a true relic of paradise and a token that evil is always a corruption of goodness, never a thing unto itself.

* * * * * *

If you’re looking for “biblical accuracy,” you don’t have to look very far. Aronofsky claimed that Noah is the “least biblical biblical film ever made,” but I think that really depends on your understanding of the term biblical. Aronofsky made that statement in response to scores the film received after different versions of the film were presented to test audiences. I’m not sure where the following story came from, but I heard a rumor that a predominantly Christian test audience had asked for the removal of the scene wherein Noah was depicted as a drunkard because they believed the Bible didn’t portray Noah in such a way. I hope that’s not a true story, but if it is, it only goes to show how biblically illiterate many Christians are.

I understand people’s hesitance in seeing this movie. It’s puzzling in a number of ways. It forces you to think and question your preconceived notions about the beginning of Genesis. But it’s probably the most “biblically accurate biblical movie” I’ve ever seen. Yes, it takes some liberties, but all movies do. You may not believe this, but I’ll say it anyway, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah contains fewer extra-biblical artistic liberties than Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (did you know that Gibson’s primary source material wasn’t the writings of the four Evangelists, but those of Anne Catherine Emmerich?).

A few weeks ago I overheard a conservative talk radio show wherein the host exhibited anger over the fact that Noah would replace the Bible (referencing the adage, “[A movie] is the only Bible some people will ever read”). I heartily disagree with him. Does anyone recall the sudden boost in readership of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings when those movies hit theaters? While I don’t think we’re going to see massive sales of the movie edition of the book of Genesis, this movie will likely prompt its viewers to read the account of the flood in Scripture (which is a mere four chapters in the Bible), and that’s not such a bad thing.

The movie is full of incredible special effects and great action sequences, has some of the best acting from Connelly and Watson that I’ve ever seen, is well written and directed, and is incredibly exciting to watch. I think Noah is the perfect film to introduce people to the Bible.

* * * * * *

Please be aware that while I would recommend that people check this movie out, it’s not for kids. The tone is very dark, the sin that causes the Creator to send the flood is presented pretty graphically, and there are themes throughout that could be difficult for children to grasp. It pushes the limits of its PG-13 rating.

The Seven Pillars of Family Ministry. . .

I’ve been reading the book Dreaming of More for the Next Generation by Michelle Anthony, and in the book she describes what she refers to as the “seven pillars of family ministry.” I wanted to share them with you here because they serve as “Aha” moments in my ministry journey.

1. Family is Primary. The purpose of the church ministry is to walk alongside and equip families to disciple their children. If I’m taking seriously the charge that Paul gave in Ephesians 4:11-13, and I believe that the message to parents in Deuteronomy 6 is a call for them to be the primary disciplers of their children, this ministry should be equipping and training our parents with the same intentionality that we train and equip our teachers, mentors, and leaders.

2. Spiritual Formation is our Goal. Paul’s desire for the church in Galatia was that Christ be “formed in” them. What did he mean by this? His desire for this church wasn’t that they learn the facts of their faith—however important those facts may be. Rather, his goal was that they look more and more like Jesus. He wrote that “all the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.

It’s tempting to substitute spiritual formation with communicating information. We can very easily fall into the trap of making our ministry about facts, head knowledge, and measurables. I’m guilty of this all the time. “If children and families learn information, we may be tempted to pat ourselves on the back. But maybe we shouldn’t. Children may memorize Bible verses. They may know how many stones David used to kill Goliath. It’s good, but it’s not enough.”

It’s also tempting to make ministry about moral training. We can fall into the trap of trying to teach kids what it looks like to be a good Christian. Good behavior looks so much like faith in action. What if instead, we focused on training families on allowing the Holy Spirit to transform their lives?

Jesus doesn’t want people who are well behaved. He wants people of faith (see Luke 17). That’s much more difficult, but it’s more lasting, and it’s what will end up storming the gates of hell.

3. The Holy Spirit is the Teacher. Francis Chan wrote in his book Forgotten God that “the Holy Spirit of God will mold you into the person you were made to be.” There’s nothing wrong with the term “Sunday School Teacher,” but something can be taken away with that title. I wonder if instead, we gave God the role of “teacher,” and took on the roles of leaders, mentors, and storytellers? After all, in John’s account of the Gospel, he wrote that the Spirit of God is our Counselor, our Comforter, and our Teacher.

Imagine with me for a moment: what if we had students and children who worshiped God “from the inside out” (I love that song, by the way; it’s one of my favorites) “compelled by the Spirit—not through behaving in expected or mandated ways, but through seeing worship as a lifestyle instead of as a moment or event”? What if they fully realized their Spirit-given abilities to herald and exhibit the Kingdom attributes of love, grace, justice, forgiveness? What if they were able to discern God’s voice speaking to them and learn to obey that voice, relying on the Spirit’s power alone for their strength?

4. Scripture is our Authority. Our culture denies the idea that there can be concrete truths. My lead pastor often points out that truth is necessarily exclusive. If something is true, it automatically denounces anything that contradicts it as false. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s a natural and obvious thing. If the truth is that I’m traveling north, then by saying I’m traveling south when I’m doing the exact opposite means that my statement is false.

Without truth, people are lost. Truth acts as a compass—morally, experientially, emotionally. As Christians, our compass is Scripture, and it needs to permeate our being otherwise we’re lost. Our task isn’t simply to teach kids about God’s Word, but rather show them how to investigate it for themselves.

Michelle Anthony shares this story in her book:

“Several years ago I was leading a group of elementary students through the book of James. At the conclusion of our eight-week study together, I was compelled by this idea of wanting them to flex their faith muscles. I didn’t plan a new study right away. I wanted to take our next time together to explore what could be next. The kids arrived and sat down as usual to hear the next Bible study, but this time there was none.

“Instead I asked them, ‘Children, how can you put your faith into action? You’ve heard these things from God’s Word for the past eight weeks. You’ve learned that God wants us to not just be ‘hearers’ of His Word, but ‘doers’ also. So what are you going to do about what you’ve heard?’. . . .”

Dr. Anthony then describes the awkward silence and her desire to validate her teaching by offering suggestions that the kids could just say “yes” to. She continues her story.

I didn’t give in. At this point, my faith was hanging in the balance as much as theirs was. ‘What are you going to do now that you have heard the words of God and how He wants us to live?’ It felt like an eternity in waiting. I was uncomfortable. My leaders were uncomfortable. The kids were. . . well, bored.

“But then one courageous hand rose in the back. The young girl said, ‘We could help the homeless people.’ My heat leapt! ‘Yes, we could do that! What else could we do to put our faith into action?’ I asked. Soon more children began to chime in with ideas that ranged from eliminating global hunger to knitting sweaters for cold dogs.”

Where do you think this faith that manifested in action ideas and steps came from? It was rooted in the truth of God’s Word.

John Wesley posited that there are four ways that God reveals Himself to us. Experience: “One thing I know; I was blind, but now I see.” Reason: Wesley often stated that without Spirit-given reason we cannot understand the essential truths of Scripture. Tradition: While he recognized the weaknesses inherent in tradition, he stated “Do not undervalue traditional evidence. Let it have its place and its due honour.” Scripture: “Wesley insisted that scripture is the first authority and contains the only measure whereby all other truth is tested. It was delivered by authors who were divinely inspired. It is a rule sufficient of itself. It neither needs, nor is capable of, any further addition.”

Scripture is of utmost importance to us and its truth is that which guides, yea distills all other evidences of God’s revelation to us. Our goal is to train children to see all of life through the lens of Scripture, knowing that while our interpretation may inform our approach, God always speaks first and foremost to us through His Word.

5. The Big God Story. This pillar is connected to the previous pillar in that to know the Big God Story we need to know Scripture.

Anthony writes:

“Because we’ve heard the story so many times, we might be tempted to gloss over the amazement that it’s all really true. God really did promise to send the Redeemer, He really kept the promise alive throughout history, He really sent His Son to die for us, and He really redeemed us from our sin because He really loves us that much! The Big God Story is amazing—and true! and sometimes it takes a new believer—a child—to remind us how shocking it truly is.”

It’s tempting to teach the Bible in isolated “stories” with little or no context to the whole. It goes back to the second pillar. Randy Frazee calls this “the Lower Story”—the biblical information found in the smaller stories, and we often teach “the Lower Story” at the expense of “the Upper Story”—the story of redemption, restoration, and relationship. This story is the one that transforms, rather than simply informing.

While the Bible isn’t all about Jesus, all of the Bible points to Jesus, and the narrative—much like a serialized TV show—beckons us to its climax—the arrival of the Messiah. When approached episodically, the Bible loses its fervor. But when we tell the Big God Story serially (the “to-be-continued” approach), children want to know what happens next and wait with baited breath to discover the all-important climax—Messiah has come!

The Big God Story, while all about God and His desire to be in a relationship with His image-bearing creation, draws us into its narrative. We are characters in this story, and it’s important to share that truth with children. They need to know that they are born because God wants them and made them to look like Him, and that life is all about knowing Him and loving Him because He loves them.

Sadly, culture (and the Church, to many degrees) teaches children that life is “all about me.” God exists to meet my needs and save me because the story centers on me. We need to help children understand that their part in the story is to know and love the Main Character.

Which leads me to Pillar Six.

6. God is Central. Worship is about growing closer to Him, experiencing His presence, getting to know Him. When we spend time remembering and celebrating what God has done through responding, worshiping, even just living, we are reminded that He is at the center of everything. Austin Fischer wrote that we are all “little black holes” trying to use our gravity to suck life into ourselves. Instead, we should revolve around the gravity of God; therein lies our sole satisfaction. As children discover this truth, their lives can be centered and they have a more compelling story to tell—and to be a part of.

7. Ministry Support. If you know me at all, you know that I love ice hockey. It’s an incredible sport that moves at frightening speeds, requiring an insane amount of coordination, not just on the part of the individual player, but on the part of the whole team. All five skaters need to be in sync and on the same page at every moment. The wingers need to instinctively know where the centerman is and vice-versa. The defensemen need to “feel” each other on the ice. The forwards and defensemen need to see each other, even without seeing each other.

Ministry should be the same. Parents and leaders should support each other. After all, they’re on the same team. They have the same goal: to train children to become aggressive followers of Jesus who are heralding His love for the world. Why shouldn’t we all work together?

Admittedly, I don’t know what that looks like practically, but I’ve got some ideas.

One of the beautiful things about ice hockey is that, unlike any other sport, after someone scores a goal, all five skaters huddle up and celebrate the goal together, acknowledging that every skater on the ice played an integral part in that goal.

Falling. . .

Ice-Skating-StopFor those of you who don’t know me, I love ice skating. It’s one of those things that helps me clear my mind, gets my blood pumping, and provides an escape from the tumult of life.

I don’t really remember a time when I couldn’t skate fairly proficiently; I learned to skate when I was really young, and continued skating all through middle school and high school. When I go skating, I like to watch people of varying proficiencies, and I notice something: not everyone has what it takes to become a competent ice skater. It’s not that I doubt people’s ability to grasp the necessary skills for skating, it’s that there’s one thing good ice skaters know almost instinctively that others don’t: everyone falls.

Two things manifest when someone learning to skate stumbles on this truth. The first is that they overcome their fear of falling. Fear of falling stems from a fear of being embarrassed and from a fear of the pain, but when you realize that everyone falls, you realize that no one’s laughing at you for falling and that most people aren’t severely injured when they fall.

The second is that they begin to give themselves grace for each fall. Each fall is an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t. Whenever I’m teaching someone how to skate, I almost always tell them to not be afraid to fall. It will happen, and the sooner a skater learns that it’s okay to fall, the faster they’ll progress. And as they get better, they fall less and less.

Not too long ago I had the opportunity to meet Megan Fate Marshman and hear her speak at a conference. During one of her talks she had everyone in the room turn to their neighbor and say, “I’m so glad. . . you’re as messed up as I am.” We all fall. Some fall less than others, but seem unable to progress in life. I think that’s because they haven’t learned that falling is okay; everyone falls. Some seem to fall pretty often, but they’re learning, and eventually they’ll fall less often.

Some have seemingly stopped falling altogether and they’re helping pick others up when they fall. We’ll all get there someday, but I really believe that in order to get there, we have to get over our fear of falling and understand that everyone falls. That doesn’t mean we’re supposed to fall; falling is indeed painful, and if we don’t get to the point where we stop falling every time we try to move, we’ll end up a bruise-covered mess. But falling is a necessary part of learning.

I’ve found myself falling on the ice again. I’m working towards learning to play hockey, and in order to do that I need to pick up a few more skills on my skates. As I try to learn these new skills I’m again on my butt pretty often. But that’s part of learning.

I pray that we can all give ourselves some grace as we walk through life making mistakes and by extension give each other grace as well. That’s what community in Jesus should be about.

Born to die?. . .

C. J. Mahaney wrote the following statement a few years ago:

“During this time of year, it may be easy to forget that the bigger purpose behind Bethlehem was Calvary. But the purpose of the manger was realized in the horrors of the cross. The purpose of his birth was his death.”

While I understand his sentiment (as it’s often all too easy to forget that we celebrate the birth of a child whose fate was sealed from the moment he took his first breath—Jesus was certainly going to die a horrible, bloody death), I find it difficult now to accept that the Advent must needs be inexorably linked to the Atonement.

It’s absolutely true that all four Evangelists crafted their stories in such a way as to aim at Golgotha, but it’s equally as true that they didn’t write exclusively about the crucifixion. In other words, the Evangelists (well, Matthew and Luke, at least) wrote about Christ’s birth and his death as two unrelated events offset by several years of ministry (though I won’t be using the ministry and teaching years as support for my argumentation). Yes, Christ’s death was certainly foreshadowed at his birth, but it was not the bigger purpose behind it, as Pastor Mahaney avers.

Some might say that the manger was a stepping stone to the cross. I’m not comfortable with that statement. I’m much more comfortable saying that the manger paints a particular picture while the cross paints a distinct (yet deeply related) picture.

For support, I turn to Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi. In that letter, he writes these words:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul starts this entreatment with the phrase, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” He certainly ends his description of Christ’s condescension with a statement about his death, but that’s not the point of this passage. He’s likely not saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who died.”

In this passage we find Paul’s mention of Christ’s humility in regards to his entering human form having just as much emphasis as Christ’s humility in his death. Paul continues by saying that “God also highly exalted him.” But why did God exalt Christ? Was it because he died on the cross? I’d venture to say that’s not entirely true.

Someone once said something to the effect of, “The Father’s exaltation of Christ isn’t a ‘Purple Heart,’ that is, he’s not exalting him because he died. Rather, this is more of a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ for a mindset characterized by ‘other-centric’ humility.”

Think of it this way. The mindset that’s all too common in humanity is one that looks like this: imagine a Stanford graduate who’s looking for a job, and there’s an opening as a member of the Geek Squad at Best Buy. He doesn’t apply for the position because it’s beneath him.

I think at some level we all have this mindset. There is always something that we’re too good for. But that wasn’t the case with Christ. He “emptied himself,” and he became a slave. That’s the important thing to note here.

Leading up to this description of Christ’s mindset, Paul wrote, “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Paul wants his followers to look at Christ’s example of humility as our model.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Which mind is that exactly?

It’s the mind that says, Though I am Creator, I am willing to become created for the sake of my creation. It’s the mind that says, I am the Son of God, but for the sake of mankind I will become a son of man. It’s the mind that says, I am immortal, but for the sake of mortals I will submit to mortality—even death itself.

When all is said and done, it’s the Atonement, not the Advent, that secures our salvation. But let us not forget that the love that moved the Son of God to enter our lives and spend his first night of life in an animal feeding trough is the same love that moved the Son of God to allow those he loved to brutally murder him.

The death of Jesus is not the greater purpose behind his birth. His love is the greater purpose behind his death, and his love is the greater purpose behind his birth.

That is what I hope we can remember as we celebrate the birth of our Lord.