Election Day Fear


Credit: CNN

Last week, I was driving back to my office after teaching a Bible study at a local business.  I happened to be listening to a radio talk show when a lady called who took my breath away.  She was nearly in tears.  She had just seen a movie forecasting what would happen if a particular candidate was elected President of the United States.  She told the talk show host:

I am scared to death.  I don’t sleep. I’m an absolute basket case. I want what’s good for my children, my grandchildren, my family.  It’s all going down the tubes because, after watching that movie last night, all I saw was what’s coming down, what’s next, what they have planned.

Wow.  What palpable fear.  What genuine terror.  What a heartbreaking phone call.  Fear can wreak a lot of havoc in a person’s heart and life.

I know this caller is not the only one frightened right now.  It seems as though every time a presidential election comes around, people’s fear becomes more and more acute.  So here’s a gentle reminder:  fear is not helpful.  There is a reason why the most common command in the Bible is, “Do not be afraid.”  There is a reason Jesus says, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matthew 6:34).  Fear is like an infection.  Left unchecked, it can destroy people spiritually, emotionally, and relationally.  So if you’re tempted toward fear, especially as it pertains to this upcoming election, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Fear tends toward hyperbole.

Every four years, I hear the same refrain from candidates and political pundits alike: “This is the most important election of our lifetimes.”  Of course it is.  That is, until the next election comes along.  This claim, of course, is usually accompanied with dire predictions of what will happen if the wrong candidates get into political office.  Of course factually, this claim cannot stand up under scrutiny because logically, this claim cannot be true more than once in a generation.  And yet, it is assumed as true every four years.  How can we believe a claim that is so logically ludicrous?  Because we are afraid.  And fear tends to look toward a certain point in time, such as an election, and wonder with worry:  Is this the moment that will serve as the linchpin for the rest of history?  Is this the moment when everything changes?

Christians have a confident answer to these questions.  And our answer is “no.”  We know that history’s linchpin moment has already come with Christ.  No moment or election can even come close to comparing with Him.  Indeed, I find it interesting that the primary way we know about political figures from the first century such as Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, and even Caesar Augustus is through Scripture.  But all of these men serve as paltry footnotes to the story of Jesus.  It turns out they weren’t as important as everyone thought they were back then.  Perhaps our leaders won’t be as important as we think they are right now.  So why are we afraid?

Fear fosters self-righteousness.

It was Reinhold Niebuhr who wrote:

Political controversies are always conflicts between sinners and not between righteous men and sinners.  It ought to mitigate the self-righteousness which is an inevitable concomitant of all human conflict.[1]

Niebuhr notes that, in politics, no party is completely right because no person is completely righteous.  So we ought to be humbly honest about our sins rather arrogantly defensive in a smug self-righteousness.  The problem with fear is that it tempts us to overlook the sins of ourselves and our party while gleefully pointing out the sins of the other party. Or worse, fear will justify the sins of our party by pointing to the purportedly worse sins of the other party.  In this way, fear surrenders moral credibility because it puts itself through all sorts of intellectual and ethical contortions to make that which is self-evidentially wrong look right.  This, by definition, is self-righteousness – something that Jesus unequivocally condemns.  If Jesus condemns it, we should stay away from it.  So do not let fear lead you into it. 

Fear clouds decision-making.

Psychologists have long noted that fear is a great motivator.  But fear has a funny way of impairing judgment.  Just ask any deer who has been paralyzed by the two big lights that are barrelling toward him at a rapid rate of speed.  Fear may promise to lead to rescue and safety, but, in the end, it leads to death.  So why would we settle for election cycles that are continuously driven by fear?

Decisions made out of fear tend to be Consequentialist in nature.  Consequentialism is a theory of ethics that says an act is good if it brings the least harm to the most people.  The problem with Consequentialism, however, is twofold.  First, because no one can fully predict the future, decisions based on future predictions, including the future predictions fueled by fear, usually have unintended – and often undesirable – consequences.  Second, Consequentialism tends to degenerate into deep sinfulness as people become willing to excuse increasingly terrible acts to achieve some desired result.  Consequentialism, then, may go after one good thing, but, in the process, it surrenders to and sanctions a bunch of bad things.

Decisions are much better made on principle rather than out of fear.  Decisions made on principle allow the one making them to look at all facets of a decision rather than just an end result.  They also place a high value on integrity rather than wantonly sacrificing that which is right for that which is expedient.  Decisions made on principle are, ultimately, better decisions.

I know that eschewing fearfulness is much easier said than done.  But fear must be fought – especially as it pertains to this upcoming election.  Fear about this election and about the future solves nothing.  It only manages to make the present miserable.  So take heart and remember:

The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?  (Psalm 118:6)

Mortals cannot do nearly as much as we sometimes think they can, even if one of them becomes President of the United States.  Things really will be okay, even if sinfulness does its worst.

Do not be afraid.


[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, Reinhold Niebuhr:  Theologian of Public Life, Larry Rasmussen, ed. (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1991), 248.

October 17, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Comfort in Stormy Times: Reflections on Hurricane Matthew


The people of Florida are picking up the pieces.  Along with the people of Georgia.  And the people of the Carolinas.  And the people of Cuba.  And the people of Haiti.  As Hurricane Matthew churned its way through the Caribbean and up the east coast, it left a path of destruction in its wake.  In Florida, mandatory evacuations were issued before the storm.  Grocery store shelves were stripped bare.  Gas stations were pumped dry.

It could have been worse.  They eye of Hurricane Matthew skirted much of the eastern seaboard, sparing these regions from what could have been even greater damage.  But even if things were not as bad as they could have been, this storm was still a whopper.  For a brief time, Hurricane Matthew reached Category 5 status, making it the first storm to reach a hurricane’s most powerful potential since Hurricane Felix in 2007.

Whenever a natural disaster of this magnitude strikes, it presents a unique set of struggles and questions.  When we suffer a man-made disaster in a shooting or in an accident or even in a terrorist attack, we can point to the source of the calamity and explain that the person who created the catastrophe is unstable or incompetent or even evil.  When a hurricane strikes however, there is no one from whom we can demand a mea culpa, save nature and nature’s God.  And such a mea culpa is tough to come by.

So how are we to process this disaster?  Here are a few things to keep in mind.

We cannot control everything.

In an election year such as this one, it is easy to live under the illusion that we wield a great amount of power and authority.  We do, after all, have a say – even if it is a small one – in who the leader of the free world should be.  But for every bit of control we think we have, there are so many things that simply fall outside our hands.  Hurricanes are one of these things.  We can forecast them, but we cannot steer them.  They strike where they may.  They strike with the energy that water temperatures give to them.  The smallness of our power when compared to the scope of something like the weather should lead us to marvel at the bigness of God’s creation.  There is still so much we cannot tame.

We can help others.

Though we do not have power over all things, this does not mean that we can help in some things – like in hurricane relief.   My congregation, Concordia Lutheran in San Antonio, has set up a relief fund to help those in Haiti.  We are exploring opportunities to help those in other areas as well.  You can donate by clicking here.  Part of our calling as Christians is to be a neighbor to those in need.  Being neighborly need not be constrained by proximity, nationality, economy, or any other earthly barrier.  To help others is to love Christ!  Rolling up our sleeves by opening up our pocketbooks is a great way to get involved.

There is someone who is in control.

In a world that seems shaky, it is important that we remind ourselves that just because we are not in control does not mean that everything is out of control.  Christian theologians will often describe God as omnipotent, a word that means “all power.”  In other words, God has all control.  When a storm like Matthew strikes, it serves us well to consider the many instances in Scripture that remind us that God, quite literally, guides the weather.  In the case of His disciples, Jesus saves them from a storm on the Sea of Galilee by calming it with just a word.  In the case of Jonah, God saves him with a storm that forces some sailors he is with to toss him overboard so God can send a giant fish to take the prophet where he needs to be.  In the words of the Psalmist, God can also save people through storms as they seek refuge in Him:  “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea” (Psalm 46:1-2).  God, then, does not use storms in the same way in every instance.  Sometimes, He saves us from storms as weather patterns change.  Other times, he saves us with storms as these trials turn us toward Him.  Still other times, He gives us strength to make it through storms, even if they hit us straight on.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that no matter what storms – whether they be literal or figurative – this world may bring, we have assurance in them because of Christ.  When Christ was on the cross, the Gospel writers tell us that “darkness came over all the land” (Matthew 27:45).  In other words, it stormed.  But what looked like a storm of death became a storm that gave way to life three days later.   Jesus overcame the storm of the cross so that we would never be lost to the storms caused by sin.  For even if a storm takes lives, as did Hurricane Matthew, we can be assured that those who die in Christ go to a place where there is “a sea of glass, clear as crystal” (Revelation 4:6).  In other words, in heaven, the weather is a flat calm.  There, every storm has been conquered by Christ.

With the extent of the damage from Hurricane Matthew just now becoming clear, there is still a lot – economically, emotionally, and theologically – to sort through.  But this much is clear:  God does not abandon us in storms like these.  He is there.  And He cares.

October 10, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Politics, Power, and Sacrifice


Originally, I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to watch last Monday’s presidential debate.  But my curiosity got the best of me, so I turned on the TV.  I have seen many on social media bemoan the state of our politics in this presidential election and, I suppose, I would sympathize with their chorus.  The tone of this election is grating.  The discussion about this election often borders on and even ventures into the banal.  And the goal of this election appears to be little more than an undisguised race for power.  People across all points on our political spectrum are desperate to see their person in power so their interests can be furthered while others’ interests are overlooked, or, in some instances, even crushed.

Power is a funny thing, in part because it is such a dangerous thing.  In the famous dictum of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”  Power ought to come with a warning label: “Handle with care.”

Power, of course, isn’t always bad.  God has plenty of power – indeed, He ultimately has all power – and is quite adept at using it.  But it is also important to point out that God’s power always comes with a purpose.  He uses His power in order to sustain the world.  He uses His power in order to constrain evil.  He uses His power in order to rescue us from hell.  Power, for God, is a means to some very good ends.

The concern I have with so many in our political system is that power has become the means and the end.  Politicians want power because, well, they want power!  And this means that when they get power, they often use it in a most detrimental way – not to help others, but to help themselves.

Yoni Appelbaum discusses this reality in an article for The Atlantic titled, “America’s First Post-Christian Debate.”  The way he describes America’s situation is jarring:

Civil religion died on Monday night.

For more than 90 minutes, two presidential candidates traded charges on stage. The bitterness and solipsism of their debate offered an unnerving glimpse of American politics in a post-Christian age, devoid of the framework that has long bound the nation together.[1]

He goes on to describe how traditionally Christian-esque values were not only not extolled in the first of our presidential debates, they were proudly repudiated.  Virtues, Appelbaum says, were reframed as vices.  Altruism was painted as a sucker’s game and sacrifice was left for those who are losers.  “The Clinton-Trump debate,” he concludes, “was decidedly Marxian in its assumptions – all about material concerns, with little regard for higher purpose.”  Yikes.  I hope he’s wrong.  But I couldn’t help but notice that not one transcendent concern made an appearance during the debate.  We, as a nation, have become so obsessed with the exercise of power in the material realm that we pay little regard to the transcendent One who gives power as a gift to be stewarded rather than as a weapon to be wielded.

When the high priest of political pragmatism sirens us into trading cherished values like altruism and sacrifice for the formidable forces of power and control, something has gone terribly wrong.  Such a trade fundamentally undermines the very purpose of power – at least in any Christian or morally traditional sense – in the first place.  Power is to be used for the sake of altruism, not to dispense with it.  Power is to be used in concert with sacrifice, not to insulate oneself from sacrifice.  Any of the men and women in our nation’s Armed Forces can tell you that. Jesus certainly expressed His power in sacrifice.  The cross was a place of no power and great power all at the same time.  On the cross, Jesus gave up all power, even power over His very life, as “He gave up His spirit” (John 19:30).  But through the cross, Jesus exercised great power, conquering sin, death, and the devil.  Jesus’ power, to borrow a concept from the apostle Paul, came through weakness (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:10).

Political power might not involve dying on a cross, but it sure would be nice if it involved taking one up.  It sure would be nice if politicians used their power to do the right thing, even if it involved some measure of sacrifice.  It sure would be nice if politicians fashioned themselves more as public servants and less as demiurge saviors.  It sure would be nice if voters stopped cynically leveraging the power-obsessed sins of an opposing candidate to minimize and rationalize the power-obsessed sins of their own candidate.  A willingness to see sin as sin, even if it’s sin in the politician you happen to be voting for, is a first step to an honest and healthy analysis of our problems politically.

I understand that politicians are not always Christian, and I understand that non-Christians can be competent politicians.  I am also not so naïve as to think that every politician will see his or her elected office as a cross to bear rather than as a career to manage, even if they should.  I furthermore understand that the civil religion of which Appelbaum speaks in his article is not coterminous with – and in many ways is not compatible with – Christianity.  But the virtues of Christianity it promotes – charity, selflessness, and humility, among others – are good for our world even as they are good in the Church.  We need them.  We need them because, to quote another proverb from Lord Acton, “Despotic power is always accompanied by corruption of morality.”  The curbing of despotic power may not be the ultimate reason to foster and preserve Christian virtue in our political system, but it sure is a good reason.

We the people should expect of our politicians – and of ourselves – something more than a blunt exercise of power, even if that power happens to promote our interests.  We the people should expect real virtue, both in the people we elect as well as in ourselves.  Do we?  If we don’t, there’s no better time than the present to change our expectations.  Remember, the people we elect to public office are not just products of a corrupt political system, they are reflections of the values we celebrate and the vices we tolerate.

Perhaps it’s time for us to take a good, long look in the mirror.


[1] Yoni Appelbaum, “America’s First Post-Christian Debate,” The Atlantic (9.27.2016).

October 3, 2016 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Thoughts on Baptism


The Baptism of Augustine

Yesterday, I got to preach on an encounter that a disciple of Jesus named Philip had with an Ethiopian eunuch on a desert road.  Through Philip’s witness, this eunuch was moved to faith and to baptism.  In my message, I answered some common questions people have about baptism, but there was much I wanted to say about baptism that I didn’t get a chance to.  So, in the interest of further exploring the richness of what baptism offers, I figured I’d repost some thoughts on baptism that I wrote several years ago.  I hope you enjoy!

What is baptism?

Baptism is a divine ordinance, instituted by Christ Himself, whereby He makes disciples through water combined with God’s name.  Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).  The participle “baptizing” can be translated as a participle of means.  Baptism, therefore, can be seen as a means by which disciples are made.

It is important to recognize that baptism is something God does for us and not something we do for God.  This is why Paul says of baptism, “We were therefore buried with Christ through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).  Notice the passive voice of the verbs:  “buried,” “raised.”  These are divine passives, indicating that God is the One burying our old, sinful natures and raising us to new life in Christ.  We are passive in the matter.  This runs contrary to the teaching of some who describe baptism merely as an act of obedience while denying its divine power.  Consider this quote from a large denomination’s confessional statement: “Baptism is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus.”[1]  Two things are especially notable about this statement.  First, while obedience is emphasized, the blessings of baptism are not mentioned.  Second, this statement references Romans 6:4, but relegates Paul’s language concerning burial and resurrection to that of symbolism, emphasizing the believer’s faith rather than God’s action.  Paul, however, nowhere indicates that he is speaking symbolically in this verse.  Rather, his language indicates that he has a lively confidence in an actual new life, offered by God through baptism.

Does baptism save?

Yes, baptism does save.  Peter writes, “Baptism now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to Him” (1 Peter 3:21-22).  Peter could not be clearer:  Baptism saves you.  However, it is important to note not only that baptism saves you, but how baptism saves you.  It saves you “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  Without the resurrected Christ, baptism is emptied of its power and promise.

There are some who object to the teaching that baptism saves, saying, “Faith in Christ alone saves you!”  They often quote Scripture passages such as Romans 10:9:  “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  They then argue:  “Paul says that faith in Christ saves you and nowhere mentions baptism in Romans 10:9.  Therefore, faith in Christ, and not baptism, saves you.”  This type of argument engages in what I call “Bible Verse Battleship.”  In this game, people line up their favorite Bible verses to support their favorite pet positions and then, when shown Scriptural testimony which calls into question their position, rather than seeking to reconcile the verses and take into account the whole counsel of God’s Word, they simply declare, “Because my pet Bible verse is true, you must be incorrect!  My Bible verse sunk your Bible verse!”  We should never use Bible verses to “sink” other Bible verses.  Rather, we should assume that all Scripture speaks with one, harmonious, voice concerning the one, true Christian faith.  Thus, when Peter says, “Baptism now saves you” in 1 Peter 3:21, we ought to take his words as complimentary, and not contradictory, to what Paul says in Romans 10:9.

So then, how do we understand Romans 10:9 and 1 Peter 3:21 harmoniously?  Like this:  baptism does not save simply because it’s baptism, but because it has the promise of Jesus’ presence attached to it (cf. Matthew 28:19-20).  This is why baptism is regularly referred to as a “means of grace.”  God works through simple things such as water in baptism, bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, and words on a page in Holy Scripture to speak to, meet with, and provide gifts for His people.  Martin Luther explains wonderfully:  “Without God’s word the water [of baptism] is plain water and no baptism.  But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”[2]  Thus, to say that baptism saves you is simply to say that Jesus saves you because Jesus is doing His work in and through baptism!

Why do Lutherans baptize infants?

Lutherans are not so interested in baptizing infants as we are interested in baptizing all people in accordance with Christ’s commands to baptize “all nations” (Matthew 28:19).  The Bible teaches that all are born into sin and deserve God’s condemnation (cf. Psalm 51:5).  Therefore, babies need the salvation Jesus gives in baptism just as much as adults do.  The Bible nowhere prohibits baptizing babies.  In fact, we are told specifically that the promise of baptism is indeed for children: “The promise [of baptism] is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39).

There are some who maintain that a profession of faith must precede baptism.  And because a baby cannot profess his faith in Christ, he should not be baptized until he is old enough to make such a profession.  In response to this objection, I would point out three things.  First, I would question the assumption that a profession of faith is a necessary prerequisite of baptism.  It often happens that that a person in Scripture confesses his faith before he is baptized, but common occurrence doesn’t always necessarily indicate a divine mandate.  Just because the Bible offers a description of certain things and events (e.g., a person offering a profession of faith before baptism) does not necessarily mean that the Bible is mandating a universal prescription.  Second, I would question the assumption that children cannot confess their faith.  The Psalmist reminds us, “From the lips of children and infants You have ordained praise” (Psalm 8:2, cf. Matthew 21:16).  Children can and do praise God, even if it is with broken grammar and babble.  Finally, from a historical perspective, from the early days of the Christian Church, it was common practice to have parents or sponsors confess the Christian faith on behalf of their children.  The Roman theologian Hippolytus writes this concerning baptism in AD 215:  “The children shall be  baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family.”[3]

Baptism is a joyous gift from God.  For through it, God meets us with His gifts.  Luther sums up the joy and promise of baptism nicely when he writes:  “We see what a very splendid thing baptism is. It snatches us from the jaws of the devil, makes us God’s own, restrains and removes sin, and then daily strengthens the new man within us.”[4]  Thus is the blessing and gift of baptism!

[1]The Baptist Faith and Message,” VII.

[2] Luther’s Small Catechism, “Baptism,” 3.

[3] Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 21.4.

[4] What Luther Says, Ewald M. Plass, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959) 61.

September 26, 2016 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Back To The Beginning


A couple of weeks ago, a scientific discovery significant enough to merit coverage in The New York Times was revealed.  Geologists have discovered the world’s oldest fossils in Greenland.  According to these researchers, the fossils are around 3.7 billion years old and are thought to be stromatolites, which are formed by the growth of layers of cyanobacteria, a single-celled microbe that lives in shallow water.  But the discovery has posed a problem for scientists.  Nicholas Wade explains:

The great age of the fossils complicates the task of reconstructing the evolution of life from the chemicals naturally present on the early Earth. It leaves comparatively little time for evolution to have occurred and puts the process close to a time when Earth was being bombarded by destructive asteroids.[1]

For years, scientists have struggled to date the age of and construct a prehistory of the earth.  Just when a consensus about the earth’s age seems to emerge, new evidence surfaces that forces scientists to rethink the prevailing wisdom.  Theories of the earth’s origins and the origins of life are constantly being modified.

Part of the trouble with the discovery of this fossil is that it forces the origins of life, from an evolutionary perspective, back to more than 4 billion years ago. This timeframe coincides with cataclysmic meteor events on the earth, including a hit by a meteor so big that it tore out a chunk of our planet that spun into orbit and become our moon.  As Mr. Wade notes in his article, “It is difficult to see how life could have begun under such circumstances.”  It is difficult, indeed.  That is, unless there’s more to life than evolutionary chance.

Whenever a discovery like this is made, it points not only to the wonder of the earth, but to the problems that emerge with what appears to be a designer planet when one denies any sort of a Designer.  This is why the Bible opens its pages with a declaration of one Designer: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).  Whatever one might think of fossils that are purported to be billions of years old, this much the Bible says we can know:  the fossils, and the life they represent, did not happen by accident.  Someone formed life and, through whatever this planet has endured, has sustained life.  This is why some researchers struggle so mightily to reconstruct earth’s origins.  They work out of a worldview that will simply not allow an author and sustainer of life.  They may study fossils to date them, but they do not take the time to marvel at the very existence of them.

The question each of us must answer is this:  am I wedded – philosophically and academically – to a universe that is constrained by naturalism?  Do I believe that there is no cause of anything save what we can see and measure?  Or, as Christianity claims, am I open – philosophically and academically – to a universe that bears the marks of supernaturalism?  Do I believe that what we see is simply too fantastic to be described in merely mechanical terms?  Do I believe that things can also be described in theological terms?

Christians should by no means be closed off to scientific study and discovery.  Curiosity, after all, is hardwired into the human spirit.  But scientists also should not close themselves off to God. For if one is subscribes to sheer naturalism, he may be able to accumulate lots of information about what he sees, but he will still be left with little meaning as to why it’s all here.

Christianity tells us that everything is here because, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  He is why everything exists.  He is why we exist.  And that means He is worth at least considering in any theory of origins.

The fossils got here somehow.


[1] Nicholas Wade, “World’s Oldest Fossils Found in Greenland,” The New York Times (8.31.2016).

September 19, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Believing and Acting


Last week in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof penned a column calling on his readers to rethink Christianity.  His thoughts are based on a new book by famed former Evangelical, professional provocateur, and author Brian McLaren.  Mr. Kristof summarizes the thrust of Mr. McLaren’s book by quoting a few lines:

“What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?” McLaren asks in “The Great Spiritual Migration.” “Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?”[1]

What is being argued for here is a wresting away of Christianity from a prescribed set of beliefs and a reinventing or a recapturing (depending on your perspective) of Christianity as a call to action.

Except, that’s not what’s really being argued for at all.

The reader is clued into this fact by the way in which Mr. McLaren describes traditional Christian beliefs.  He asks, “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs?”  It turns out that the trouble with traditional Christianity is not that it espouses beliefs, but that it espouses beliefs that are, in Mr. McLaren’s words, “problematic.”  Mr. Kristof notes a couple of these “problematic” beliefs in the opening of his column:

Jesus never mentioned gays or abortion but focused on the sick and the poor, yet some Christian leaders have prospered by demonizing gays.

This is only the second sentence of his article, but Christian beliefs concerning human sexuality and abortion have already made an appearance.  I should note that it is indisputably a problem – both theologically and humanitarianly – to, as Mr. Kristof puts it, “demonize gays.”  But I can’t help but wonder what he means by “demonizing gays.”  Does he mean treating a whole group of people as sub-human?  Or does he mean calling sexual activity outside of a marriage between a husband and a wife sin?  To do the first is to be vicious and wrong.  The do the second is to tell the truth.

Ultimately, any attempt to portray Christianity as a series of actions as opposed to a set of beliefs is bound to fail because such an attempt simply does not reflect the way of Jesus.  Jesus was committed both to doing and to doctrine. This is why Jesus taught on a whole host of doctrinal issues such as moneyworshipthe nature and character of Scripturethe end times, His divinity, and yes, even human sexuality.

There is an old phrase, coined by Prosper of Aquitaine in the fifth century, that has long been used to describe much of the worship life of the Church: Lex orandi, lex credendi.  “The law of praying is the law of believing.”  The idea behind this phrase is that a person learns how and what to believe in worship.  In other words, the worship life of the Church is meant to form and inform the faith life of Christians.

But there is a second part to this slogan: Lex credendi, lex vivendi.  “The law of believing is the law of living.”  That is, what a person believes necessarily forms and informs what a person does.  This is why the apostle Paul can exhort a young pastor named Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16).  Paul knows that doctrine and doing go hand in hand.

Mr. Kristof and Mr. McLaren know that doctrine and doing are, in reality, inseparable. This is why, even as they issue a call to action while wryly downplaying the value of doctrinal standards, they cannot help but point to and act on their own theological commitments.  Their beef, even if it is presented otherwise, is not with the fact that Christians believe, but with what Christians believe.  I would simply remind them that, eventually, if we act on what we believe as Christians, people will want to know why we do what we do.  And we should have an answer to give to them even as Scripture has given an answer to us.  And for that, doctrine still matters.


[1] Nicholas Kristof, “What Religion Would Jesus Belong To?The New York Times (9.3.2016).

September 12, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

At God’s Core: Service


Credit: Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles by Meister des Hausbuches, 1475

A while back, I was having a conversation with a friend who was going through a difficult time.  He was struggling relationally, vocationally, and financially.  And yet, throughout his struggles, he had managed to keep a remarkably clear head about what was most important.  “No matter how bad things may get,” he told me, “I still want to find ways to help and serve others.  It helps me take the focus off my own pain and remember just how important other people really are.”

I could not agree more.  This is wise insight from a good friend.  Serving others is a surprisingly great salve for a troubled soul.

In Philippians 2, the apostle Paul writes about the difficult times Jesus endured – specifically, His most difficult time of dying on a cross.  Paul also explains that as Jesus endured these times, He did so with the heart of a servant:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  (Philippians 2:5-7)

The Greek behind this passage is interesting and worth a moment of our reflection.  The passage above is taken from the ESV, which notes that though Jesus was God, He became a servant.  The ESV translates Jesus’ servanthood concessively.  That is, the ESV makes it sound like Jesus’ divinity and His servanthood are somehow logically antithetical to each other, or, at the very least, in tension with each other.  Jesus is God and has all the power, perks, and privileges that go along with being God, and even though He could have retained all those power, perks, and privileges when He came to this earth, He conceded them to become a servant.

The actual grammar behind this passage, however, is more ambiguous.  The word for “though” in Greek is hyparkon, a participial form of the verb “to be,” which, at the same time it can be translated concessively as the word “though” as the ESV does, it can just as easily and legitimately be translated causally as the word “because”:  “Jesus, because He was in the form of God…emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant.”

If I had to choose between a concessive or a causal translation of hyparkon, I would opt for the causal translation.  Here’s why.

To translate hyparkon concessively makes it sound like somehow the nature of God and the nature of a servant are at odds with each other.  But what if God is, in His very nature, a servant?  What if, as John Ortberg says, “When Jesus came in the form of a servant, He was not disguising who God is, He was revealing who God is”?[1]  What if the grandeur of God and the servanthood of Christ don’t conflict with each other, but correspond to each other?  What if Jesus not only explaining His mission, but revealing God’s nature when he said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28)?

Sometimes, we can be tempted to treat service as a bother, a burden, or, worse yet, as something that is beneath us.  But being a servant should never conflict with who we are.  It should reveal who we are.  Jesus was a servant not in spite of who He was as God, but because of who He was as God.  God is a servant at heart and so it only makes sense that Jesus would comes as a servant!  Likewise, we should be servants not in spite of who we are as business people, managers, or people who can command respect, but because of who we are as God’s children.

This is what my friend understood when he talked to me.  He wanted his service not to be incidental to his life, but core in his life.  May we want the same.


[1] John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 115.

September 5, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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