Revitalize: A Book for Every Church Leader

While I was working on my MDiv, I was regularly surprised by the lack of men who were eager to become pastors in the local church. Even in my seminary classes, most of my fellow students were more eager to lead worship, work in parachurch ministries, or lead a youth group than to be the senior pastor of a church. Among those that actively desired to be pastors, most either wanted to get called by a healthy, growing church or plant their own.

The one job no one ever expressed any interest in was taking a position at a dying church and attempting to revitalize it. Much better, most argued, to let the sick churches die and plant new ones. This idea was supported by the real statistic that church plants tend to be more effective at reaching the lost. On the other hand, other statistics argue in favor of revitalization: billions of dollars in buildings and other assets simply waiting to be sold off when the last member of a dying church kicks the bucket and millions of people, many spiritually dead, sitting in the pews of those buildings thinking their meager giving and occasional participation in church life count for something with God.

Had it not been for the time I spent at FBC Durham under the supervision of Andy Davis, I might have ended up in the same boat. However, instead of rejecting the idea of church revitalization, I heard his story of God’s renewal of FBC Durham and met many who had walked with Davis through the process. It is that experience and vision for the renewal of a once-healthy local church that invigorates this recent volume from Baker Books.

Summary

Revitalize is divided into seventeen chapters. Each brief chapter focuses on a particular element of a holistic vision of church revitalization with bulleted points of practical advice related to the contents of the chapter. The first chapter emphasizes Christ’s zeal for revitalizing his church; this is not simply a quixotic mission of a man on a reclamation effort. Davis opens up with an overview of the book, which introduces each of the remaining chapters. Chapter Two continues on the introductory vein, outlining the nature of a healthy church, justification for revitalization, and the signs a church needs revitalized.

Chapter Three begins the practical portion of the volume. Davis exhorts his readers to embrace Christ’s ownership of the church; the church does not belong to the pastor or the congregation.  This attitude makes the rest of the volume possible. In the fourth chapter, Davis emphasizes the need for personal holiness and a proper view of the holiness of God. Chapter Five calls the pastor to find strength in God, not to attempt to win a victory through self-effort. The sixth chapter underscores the need to depend on Scripture for church renewal rather than a mysterious cocktail of programs.

In Chapter Seven Davis highlights the centrality of personal and congregational prayer to turn a church around. The eighth chapter explains the need for a clear vision of what a revitalized church should look like. Chapter Nine makes a case for personal humility in dealing with opponents of revitalization; Davis is clear that a proud pastor may win the battle, but miss the point in reclaiming a church. The tenth chapter calls the pastor to be courageous, even as he is humble. Patience is also a necessary virtue, as Davis notes in Chapter Eleven, so that significant capital is not spend making minor changes to the detriment of the greater revitalization project.

In the twelfth chapter Davis provides some advice on how to discern between big issues and little issues, which is essential if patience is to avoid becoming tolerance of evil. Chapter Thirteen exhorts the reader to fight discouragement, which is a real possibility in the face of human and satanic resistance.  The fourteenth chapter surveys the need to raise up additional men as leaders in the church to assist in the revitalization process and move the church forward in the future. Chapter Fifteen encourages the revitalizing pastor to be flexible with worship, but also to help keep the church up to date. In the sixteenth chapter, Davis hits one of his favorite topics, the two infinite journeys, which refers to inward holiness and outward obedience, both being markers of spiritual maturity. Chapter Seventeen is a brief conclusion pointing to the eventual renewal of all things, of which local church revitalization is a part.

Analysis and Conclusion

Every church needs revitalization, so this is a book for every pastor and church leader. The steps Davis outlines to help bring back a church to health are the ones every local congregation needs to do to stay healthy. This is the sort of well-reasoned, thoughtful volume that every aspiring pastor ought to read.

Davis strikes the right balance between recounting his own experience, drawing out important truths from Scripture, and providing practical steps. Church revitalization is not method-driven, it is Scripture driven. However, there are certain methods that will lend themselves to a higher probability of success.

Above all, this volume is an encouragement for the pastor or leadership team of the local church. Over and over Davis reminds his readers that a church that rejects Scripture is not rejecting the pastor, but God himself. None of this work can be done apart from the special work of God. These refrains run through the pages of Revitalize, exhorting the reader to continue striving in Christ and trusting in the work God is doing without becoming discouraged. Davis himself stands as evidence there is hope on the other side.

Note: I was provided a gratis copy of this volume by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is

You can’t go far on the internet without bumping into someone talking about social justice. For some, social justice is a positive term that indicates their desire to see the world become better. For others, social justice is an epithet for those who seek absolute domination of private lives through government and personal tyranny.

The trouble is that both definitions are accurate in some circumstances.

A bigger problem is that people nearly always use the term “social justice” without explaining what they mean by it. As a result, the blogger writing about social justice in terms of eliminating overt racism, the anarchist calling for the end of credit ratings, and the socialist calling for massive hikes in personal income taxes to create a utopian nanny state all use the term, but mean radically different things. Social justice with one definition can be a moral imperative that Christians should support. By another definition is may be a debatable concept on which good people can disagree. And, used in another way, it may be a morally reprehensible concept that actually enforces injustice under an Orwellian label.

The ambiguity of the definition of social justice is only enhanced in Christian conversations because the term originated in Catholic social teachings. Due to ignorance about the fundamental lack of authority of the Roman Catholic magisterium and anachronistic readings of contemporary uses of “social justice,” the idea of social justice is often used as a club by Christians who claim that socialism is a necessary corollary to biblical Christianity or that affirming immorality is a moral duty.

In his most recent book, Michael Novak seeks to define social justice, reveal the confusion in the popular use of the term, and show why Catholic social teaching does not actually require supporting socialist economics and whatever the latest version of identity theory happens to be. This book relies on essays Novak had previously written with some additional framing to make it cogent. The book has a co-author, Paul Adams, and an additional contributor, which reflects the efforts to get some of this helpful teaching into the public square by friends of Novak.

Summary

The aptly titled book, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, has two distinct parts. Part One was written by Novak and includes seven chapters that define social justice, six chapters on Catholic Social Teaching on social justice, and two chapters that critique the theological difficulties with misapplication of Catholic Social Teaching. Part Two consists of five chapters of practical application by co-author, Paul Adams.

The contributions of this book to the ongoing conversation are significant. Novak’s systematic outline of six common uses of the term “social justice” help reveal and explain the confusion of contemporary public dialog. As a careful thinker, Novak shows why demanding a definition is so very important. Novak also outlines a better and helpful meaning for the term social justice that is consistent with actual Catholic Social Teaching. At the same time, Novak offers a cogent response to socialists that try to claim Catholic Social Teaching as providing authoritative support for their position. There is sometimes resonance, but his exposition reveals that many the claims made by anti-market crusaders are built on misrepresentations of what popes actually wrote.

Paul Adam’s section of this book is helpful, as well, as he shows how social justice, properly defined, can be applied to real situations to bring about real justice. As a professor emeritus of social work, he offers historical case studies and theoretical examples of positive outcomes based on applying a rational concept of social justice to real world problems.

Analysis and Conclusion

This volume offers an important entry in the conversation on social justice. The first chapters are universally applicable and instructive in understanding the contemporary debate. For non-Catholics, the remainder of the Part One is instructive and helpful, but limited since it relies on the assumed authority of the Roman Catholic church. There are, however, valuable principles that can be evaluated against Scripture, many of which are directly applicable beyond the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic denomination. The inclusion of Adams’ applications is helpful, since a common and valid criticism of much of the conservative rebuttal of various versions of social justice is that there is too little evidence of application of conservative principles of social justice.

The most significant benefit of this volume is that it clears the way for legitimate discussions about the nature of social justice. I’m not convinced that attempting to redeem the term that has been so successfully coopted and confused is the best way forward, but Novak and Adams make it at least possible. That is an important contribution that makes this book an important entry into a vital conversation.

Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is
$16.81
By Michael Novak, Paul Adams

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

There Is Life After College - A Review

College is one of the biggest lifetime expenses and longest commitments of dedicated time many people ever make. The cost of college continues to rise and news outlets regularly report the high rates of underemployment and unemployment among recent college graduates. As a result, some families question whether a college education offers sufficient return on investment. Others are plowing ahead without thought and collecting six-digit debt burdens.

Jeffrey Selingo’s recent book, There is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know about Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow, tackles the topic of the value of college, particularly with respect to employability. Selingo covers a lot of ground in the book, but together he paints a fair picture, warns of some common pitfalls, and offers some recommendations for current and future college students.

Summary

In Chapter One, Selingo describes three categories of young people: Sprinters, Wanderers, and Stragglers. Sprinters are those who have launched careers and have some financial stability by the time they are thirty. Wanderers often graduate but have difficulty finding a career-type job, which retards their progress. Stragglers stumble through their twenties, often failing to finish school or find stable employment with long-term growth potential. Much of the rest of the book is built around helping people find their way into one of the top group.

The second chapter analyzes what employers are looking for. According to Selingo, some of the most common attributes in job descriptions are “baseline skills.” The book lists five of the most significant skills, which are far from academic: (1) Intellectual curiosity; (2) Depth of expertise, even in a non-degree area; (3) Awareness of and adaptability to tech; (4) Dealing with ambiguity; (5) Teachable humility. The careful reader will notice that specific skills in a major are not in this list. In other words, a key way to gain an advantage in the marketplace is by going beyond academic expertise and being a valuable part of the team.

After these important opening chapters, Selingo covers a variety of topics in rapid fire fashion. In Chapter Three, he explains the potential benefits of a gap year—as long as it is purposeful gap. The fourth chapter describes the value of going to a college that is near a center of interest for the student’s proposed first career; internships and other experiences are much more possible. Chapter Five emphasizes the value of internships, co-ops and other hands-on learning; many employers use such opportunities as an extended interview for future employees. In the sixth chapter, Selingo describes habits that are necessary for success after college and some programs that can help enhance them.

Chapter Seven offers some ideas about rethinking the bachelor’s degree, considering the value of two year degrees and other vocational learning. In the eighth chapter, Selingo surveys one potential shift in future education: just in time training, boot camps, and other modular programs. Then, in Chapter Nine, he sketches some of the common hiring practices among firms, which is key information for those seeking jobs. Finally, in the tenth chapter, Selingo highlights the importance of being able to tell your story. It isn’t enough to graduate, but employers want to know why you chose a particular major and what you have done to get there.

Analysis and Conclusion

The most significant value of this volume is that it answers questions vital to student success, efficient investment of tuition money and time, and successful navigation of the sometimes-confusing marketplace of colleges and universities. This is an accessible book that has important information for our time.

Surprisingly, Selingo’s book points to the enduring value of a liberal arts degree. There is certainly a need for technical specialization in certain fields, but being a well-developed human is just as important, and perhaps more so, than purely technical proficiency. At worst, a strong liberal arts core, which is at the heart of a lot of Christian higher education, appears to be an asset rather than a liability in the marketplace.

Certainly, this book is not a guaranteed method to be successful in life. In fact, Selingo simply assumes that success is being well-placed, well-compensated, and reasonably happy in one’s job. Whether the reader agrees with his end or not, he provides some helpful guidelines to get there. Even for those more interested in other careers, Selingo’s assurances of the value of liberal arts and meaningful experiences before and during college make this an engaging and valuable read.

NOTE: I was given a gratis copy of this volume by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

A Book for Our Times

Trevin Wax is among the most astute cultural commentators of our day. It is not uncommon for a thorny question to arise in the public square only to find he has dealt with it concisely and clearly on his blog the next day. He reads the culture well, understands a biblical worldview well, and writes very well.

This is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel is no exception to Wax’s normal standard of clarity and excellence. In this volume, Wax considers eight significant myths that are especially significant to the present milieu, unpacks them and their significance in our world, and shows how a biblical worldview undermines them. In each case, Wax seeks to show how authentic Christianity has a better answer to offer than the cultural myth.

SUMMARY

Wax dissects eight myths that are cultural flashpoints. In the first chapter, he shows how the smartphone functions to alter our perception of reality. Smart phones tie us in to the world around us, make us feel smart because we find information quickly, and allow us to expose every moment of our lives (really just the good ones) to the world in an instant. In Chapter Two, Wax tackles the storytelling of power of Hollywood. He avoids the typical moralistic finger-wagging about too much sex and focuses on the power of story and the greater imaginative scope available to those with a regenerate mind.

Next Wax examines the faulty pursuit of happiness, which is often based more clearly on a goal destined to fail us. Instead, Wax notes that the Christian gospel offers us hope apart from the usual trappings of happiness our culture advertises. Chapter Four wrestles with the myth that consumerism will make people happy. This is the cause of so much heartache and misery in our world, but Wax reveals how it pales in comparison to our hope in Christ.

In the fifth chapter, This is Our Time, deals with the sense of dis-ease Christians often have in the world. The myth is that we should feel at home in this present world, but Wax shows how we should always long for a perfect future not to try to make our world like a supposedly great past. Chapter Six tackles the modern myth that marriage is fundamentally about human happiness. Instead, Wax demonstrates that, as God intended it, marriage is about sanctification and giving glory to God.

Chapter Seven offers a reflection on the changing standards for sex in our culture, noting that self-control and chastity have become insults rather than virtues for society. Wax argues that sex cannot be both everything and nothing as culture claims, but that it must serve the purpose ordained by the Creator if it is to satisfy. In the eighth chapter, the author takes on the pervasive myths of eternal progress and constant decline. Both narratives are compelling for different reasons, but they often distract from our true hope in Christ.

ANALYSIS

Books that provide cultural critique are a dime a dozen. They have been standard fare for theologically conservative Christians for decades. When I inherited my grandfather’s library, I got dozens of books that had scathing critiques of the culture of previous decades.

In most cases, those critiques were just and warranted, but This is Our Time does something many cultural critiques fail to do: it explains why the gospel is better. That is what makes Wax’s book so helpful; it exposes the myth as a fraud and tells the true story in a deeper, more powerful way.

By telling the gospel truth instead of simply condemning, Wax equips his reader to share the good news. He fills out the necessary understanding of repentance, which is turning away from wrong doing and pursuing the good.

By writing such pointed cultural commentary, Wax has produced a volume that is a treasure for our time. The downside is that This is Our Time is distinctly time-bound. In twenty years, the volume will provide an excellent example of how to write cultural critique for the benefit of the church, but its shelf life as an antidote for the ills of our age is limited.

Therefore, people should snap up This is Our Time in the near term. Read this book. Talk about it in your small groups and consider not just the content, but the way Wax has put together his critique. This volume is a gift to the church, but it needs to be read in our day if it is to have its best impact.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

What is an Evangelical?

The furor around Hillbilly Elegy has largely died away. Much to nearly everyone’s surprise, a populist won the election. Many of his votes came from people who claim the title evangelical.

The exit poll results that indicate 81% of so-called evangelicals voted for Trump have been used as a cudgel against theologically conservative Protestants, many of whom identify as evangelical.

As Robert Wuthnow notes in his recent book, Inventing American Religion, however, there are significant differences between theological belief and political identity. The pollsters have tried to cross that boundary, but there are indications that the political label evangelical may not provide a strong theological indicator.

In J. D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, he demonstrates why using the term "evangelical" as if it means deep conviction and meaningful participation in a certain brand of Protestant religion is faulty:

Despite its reputation, Appalachia—especially northern Alabama and Georgia to southern Ohio—has far lower church attendance than the Midwest, parts of the Mountain West, and much of the space between Michigan and Montana. Oddly enough, we think we attend church more than we actually do. In a recent Gallup poll, Southerners and Midwesterners reported the highest rates of church attendance in the country. Yet actual church attendance is much lower in the South.

This pattern of deception has to do with the cultural pressure. In southwestern Ohio, where I was born, both the Cincinnati and Dayton metropolitan regions have very low rates of church attendance, about the same as ultra-liberal San Francisco. No one I know in San Francisco would feel ashamed to admit that they don’t go to church. (In fact, some of them might feel ashamed to admit that they do.) Ohio is the polar opposite. Even as a kid, I’d lie when people asked if I attended church regularly. According to Gallup, I wasn’t alone in feeling that pressure. (Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance, 93)

This is one of the reasons Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, penned his February 2016 Washington Post article arguing this election made him hate the term evangelical.

He notes:

The word “evangelical” has become almost meaningless this year, and in many ways the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Part of the problem is that more secular people have for a long time misunderstood the meaning of “evangelical,” seeing us almost exclusively in terms of election-year voting blocs or our most buffoonish television personalities. That’s especially true when media don’t distinguish in election exit polls between churchgoers and those who merely self-identify as “born again” or “evangelical.”

Many of those who tell pollsters they are “evangelical” may well be drunk right now, and haven’t been into a church since someone invited them to Vacation Bible School sometime back when Seinfeld was in first-run episodes.
Used by CC license: http://ow.ly/8G0x30aM4e7

Used by CC license: http://ow.ly/8G0x30aM4e7

Despite the consistently demonstrable unreliability of the label as any serious indicator of religious belief, the word continues to be used without definition and qualification. Careful readers and writers should be aware of this.

Much as when using any term, we must be discerning when we interpret information and express it so that we clearly understand or communicate those who we are speaking to.

Those of who are legitimate Gospel Christians should not stop when someone says they belong to a church or regularly attend. We should seek to know their conversion story and if they don’t have one to help them get one.

It may also be time for us to look for another way to describe ourselves. Since evangelical has become associated with political bloc voting, perhaps we need another term.

At the very least, we need to be careful when we communicate to define our terms. We should also be careful not to allow a bare profession of belief made once upon a time to substitute for authentic, action-inspiring faith.

The Value of Empathy in the Workplace

I’m amazed how many years it took me to become aware of it. Even as a leader, I didn’t recognize the nature and significance of the difficulties in the daily lives of other people at work. Fifteen years into my working career and I think I’m finally starting to figure out what empathy is and why it matters.

I now work for a Christian organization with fewer than a thousand employees. Because we are a distinctively Christian community, our Human Resources department, when requested, shares prayer needs with all the employees through email. I’m amazed because nearly every week we are notified that someone’s family member is seriously ill or dying. These are major life events that sap people’s creative energies, distract from their work, and could even give them a sense of hopelessness.

Even more significantly, I am becoming increasingly aware as I get older of the profound struggles in the lives of many co-workers. When I was younger I assumed everything was alright unless someone told me otherwise. However, as I work in a community of Christians, I find out that apart from the big events that get broadcast through e-mail, there are dozens more “little” crises in people’s lives. For the most part, I was oblivious to these concerns when I worked outside of Christian higher education.

Some people are struggling with anxiety, some with the effects of ongoing cancer treatment, some with children that seem intent on getting into trouble at school. That stress sends ripples through a person’s whole life, including their work. There are a million of needs and struggles. If we’re not careful, we’ll miss them and never take the opportunity to be an encouragement to the people around us.

In organizations with a mission built upon Christian principles, it is easier (sometimes) to stop and pray and to use Scripture to encourage one another. It is also more likely, based on my experience, for people to be willing to discuss their struggles with others at work. However, looking back to the years that I worked in secular environments, I can think of a number of opportunities that I missed to be a better leader and a better friend. In reality, taking a few steps to be more empathetic would have made a big difference in my ability to exemplify the gospel to my coworkers.

Be Aware of the Hurting

The most significant step in becoming a better coworker is to simply be aware of the struggles in people’s lives. This starts by recognizing the humanity of the people that we work with.

Even theologians with a solid understanding of the doctrine of humanity need to be intentional to see the uniqueness of each person at work. My coworker isn’t just a line item on my budget with a productivity quota, she is a human with a family, medical needs, and hopes for the future. If I focus on whether she’s accomplished the proper number of tasks on the to-do list instead of whether she’s flourishing as a human, I’ve missed the mark as a leader.

There were many instances I can recall when I was very critical of peers who didn’t make deadlines or weren’t as successful at their work. I had a critical spirit that exalted myself because I stayed at work late or achieved a better result. Looking back, based on conversations I had at the time, many of those people were struggling with concerns at home with their families. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to do well at their work, it was simply that their work wasn’t as important as the other issues they were wrestling with.

I would have been more Christ-like had I been consistently concerned for their wellbeing as a person. Being effective at work is important, but it isn’t the only thing. It also may have helped people to be more productive had they known that others at work cared and were concerned about more than just the bottom line.

Be Compassionate Toward the Hurting

Simply recognizing that the world around is hurting is insufficient. It’s roughly the equivalent of telling the hungry, poorly clothed person and telling them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled.” (James 2:16).

US Government work used by CC License: http://ow.ly/bJWK309wYOv

US Government work used by CC License: http://ow.ly/bJWK309wYOv

In the workplace, most often the problem will not be a lack of food or clothing. The contemporary equivalent of brushing off physical needs is to address someone’s medical condition or concerns for their family by saying, “I’m sorry about that. Do you think you can get this report done on time?”

Obviously, sometimes there is work that just needs to get done. However, it may be that sharing another person’s assignment or covering a shift for them is exactly the sort of relief they need. Going beyond acknowledgment that someone has a problem and seeking to relieve it is a step in the right direction. Even if they don’t accept the offer, the willingness to help means more than simply offering your “thoughts and prayers” and “oohing” at the right moments in conversation.

Be Concerned with the Flourishing of Others

There are many people more aware and compassionate that I am. Many of them are not Christians. This is something that I’ve come to expect because common grace is real and, frankly, I’m naturally a selfish person.

However, as a Christian, I bring a vision of holistic flourishing to my workplace that others will lack. If I can beat down my introversion and task-oriented, deadline-focused nature, I can actually apply the knowledge of the good news about a savior who came to redeem and restore all of creation for the good of humankind and for his own glory. There’s a deeper message of hope and wellbeing in the gospel that only Christians can share.

We know the end of the story. We know that creation is groaning with birth pangs in anticipation of being set free from the bondage of sin and decay. (cf. Rom 8:18-23) We have a hope that should enliven us and cause us to desire to meet the needs of those we work in their daily struggles, pointing them toward redemption in Christ.

Conclusion

 Our workplaces are awash with a flood of private distress. As we do our work, we can serve others by doing our jobs excellently. We can also serve those we work with by demonstrating empathy for their concerns. Christians ought to pursue the good of people, not simply the metric that bolsters the bottom line.

As we move from simply recognizing the needs of others to offering to provide help, we open up opportunities for demonstrating what redemption looks like. Many people are carrying the weight of heavy burdens today. They need to know what redemption looks like more than they need a lesson in productivity. Christians can provide that, which is a key part of how we live out our faith through our work.

We Need the Substitutionary Atonement

Not too long ago someone told me in an off-hand manner that the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention should have never happened.

The Cross by Michael Craven. Used by CC License. http://ow.ly/RDIe30aJ2tm

The Cross by Michael Craven. Used by CC License. http://ow.ly/RDIe30aJ2tm

I tend to agree, but for different reasons. I’ve heard the Conservative Resurgence objected to based on it being divisive. Inasmuch as it was divisive (and for some it certainly was just a power play), it is a shame that the split happened.

However, most of the people I’ve heard object to the Conservative Resurgence do so because they don’t think that the doctrines in question were worth dividing over. Typically, these are individuals who are sympathetic with revising gender roles in the church and who want to undermine belief in the reliability of Scripture.

Those two issues were certainly the most discussed issues during the controversy in the SBC, which has become known as the Conservative Resurgence. In reality, though, they were simply the tip of the iceberg for a deeper theological debate. There were legitimate heresies that were being tolerated in the seminaries and churches of the SBC and the denomination needed to be called back to doctrinal faithfulness.

One of the major outcomes of the Conservative Resurgence was the formation of another association of Baptist churches. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) formed to support those churches who disagreed with the SBC on key doctrinal disputes. The CBF became a home for theological liberals and moderates.

The moderates were those who were willing to tolerate the erosion of traditional Christian doctrines, as long as they didn’t go too far. At least, that was the general idea. In truth, many moderates ended up tolerating outright theological liberalism, which eats at orthodoxy and the essentials of Christianity like a canker.

A Recent Example

A case in point is a recent opinion article by a Kentucky-based CBF pastor, who is a regular contributor to Baptist News Global, a partner organization to the CBF. The author, Chuck Queen, argues against the substitutionary atonement:

Popular Baptist preachers and evangelists over the years have emphasized trust in Jesus’ substitutionary death as essential for salvation. It is such a staple in many Baptist churches that pastors, even though they don’t believe it themselves, refuse to touch it.

He goes on:

Many Christians believe this to be the gospel truth. To deny this truth is to deny Christ. But this theory of the redemptive significance of Jesus’ death is seriously flawed. The major problem with substitutionary atonement is the way it imagines God. This interpretation of Jesus’ death makes God the source of redemptive violence. God required/demanded a violent death for atonement to be made. God required the death of an innocent victim in order to satisfy God’s offended sense of honor or pay off a penalty that God imposed. What kind of justice or God is this? Would a loving parent make forgiveness for the child conditioned upon a violent act?

His argument against the substitutionary atonement is actually a portion of a known heresy called Socinianism. It has huge theological and Christological problems. Sam Storms has helpfully posted a summary of this doctrine previously, in which he notes that the Socinian rejection of the substitutionary atonement requires a rejection of the essential justice of God. That is, Socinians must reject the idea that God must be just; instead he can simply ignore sin. Here is Socinus in his own words:

“If we could but get rid of this justice, even if we had no other proof, that fiction of Christ’s satisfaction would be thoroughly exposed, and would vanish” (De Servatore, III, i).
“There is no such justice in God as requires absolutely and inexorably that sin be punished, and such as God himself cannot repudiate. There is, indeed, a perpetual and constant justice in God; but this is nothing but his moral equity and rectitude, by virtue of which there is no depravity or iniquity in any of his works. . . . Hence, they greatly err who, deceived by the popular use of the word justice, suppose that justice in this sense is a perpetual quality in God, and affirm that it is infinite. . . . Hence it might with much greater truth be affirmed that that compassion which stands opposed to justice is the appropriate characteristic of God” (Praelectiones Theologicae, Caput xvi; Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum, I, 566).

The Problem of Justice

The CBF pastor contends that God does not have to be consistent in his justice in order to be just. He argues,

If God is sovereign, as advocates of substitutionary atonement contend, then God is the source of all justice. God is not subject to some sort of cosmic principle of justice outside of God’s own nature. If God chooses to simply forgive sin the way a loving parent would forgive sin, without requiring some sort of pay off or sacrifice, there is no one to tell God that God is violating the demands of justice. God sets the standards of justice.

This sounds good to some, but what Queen has essentially done is simply picked one of the two wrong choices in the Euthyphro Dilemma. He is right to note that moral justice is not an absolute imposed on God, but he is 100% wrong to assert that God simply makes up what is just. This is a huge theological problem.

If God can simply change the rules at any point, then your sin today could be tomorrow’s self-sacrifice. There are many within the ranks of the sexual revolution that hope this is true: they hope that earlier condemnations of sexual immorality have been revised by God to say that more sex is good as long as it is “loving.” Or, they might hope that despite the clear prohibition of killing innocents as a private individual in the Ten Commandments, it is now a good thing to commit an abortion. This would be convenient.

The proper answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma is “none of the above.” God isn’t bound by a moral law that existed prior to him. Neither can the moral law—and the just application of that law—change. Instead, the moral law is a reflection of God’s character. There is a reason that many times during the giving of the law, God commands the Israelites, “Be holy as I am holy.” (e.g., Leviticus 11:44) Since God does not change (cf. James 1:17), the moral law that reflects his character does not change.

But apart from the logical problems that Queen faces in trying to create a God that changes, he has many scriptural problems. The most obvious is Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

In contrast, let us compare Queen’s comments:

Jesus didn’t have to die in order to make atonement to God for sin.

And,

Jesus didn’t die because God needed a sacrifice. Jesus died because the powers that be had him killed.

Paul claims that the atonement is of first importance. Queen claims that the real issues is that “the sacrificial images employed by Paul and other New Testament writers carry a lot of baggage.”

This should not be overlooked. Queen is arguing that Paul got the core of Christianity wrong and that he has misled the vast majority of Christians since his time. 

In other words, what Queen is saying is that Scripture is wrong. He is also saying that orthodox Christianity for millennia have been wrong.  And they are wrong not about something that resides on the edge of Christian conviction, but the very heart of the message of Christianity.

Queen is arguing that the definition of the gospel—that Christ died for our sins—is wrong.

This is why I am thankful for the Conservative Resurgence. We may spend time fighting about politics, but at least we can all agree on the gospel. As for Queen, we should pray that he repents and places his faith in Christ for the propitiation of his sins. I'm not sure what he places his hope in otherwise.

No Legitimate Support is Offered

The strongest part of Queen’s defense is that he has struck first and anticipated the logical response of orthodox Christians. He anticipates that those of us foolish enough to accept Scripture and traditional Christian doctrines will argue that the atonement that is at the center of the gospel is at the center of the gospel. By anticipating the argument, he is inoculating some of his readers against the response. But careful readers won’t fall for his trap.

Queen never explains why his capricious, ever changing god is consistent with the God of the Bible. Instead, he simply asserts that “the God of Jesus, however, does not need to be propitiated.”

He also inserts an ahistorical fact with no evidence that the so-called Constantinian shift pushed substitutionary language to the forefront of the Church’s discussions of God. This is a theory in search of support, which Queen can’t provide because it doesn’t exist.

The reason the Eucharist has been a part of the Church’s liturgy since the beginning is because it remembers the significance of Christ’s death on the cross. It isn’t just a nice way to remember a nice guy that died because of injustice. If that were the case, there are a lot of Christian martyrs we should remember with meals.

Similarly, baptism, when properly performed, recalls the significance of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.

It’s almost as if Jesus Christ himself and the authors of the New Testament anticipated the false gospel Queen and others like him present. In fact, they did.

Instead of making an argument, Queen makes some assertions based on a twisted, anemic idea of a false god that provides no justice. He makes no effort to deal with significant texts of Scripture, like the letter to the Hebrews, which makes it clear that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” and that Christ is the sacrifice that enabled our sins to be forgiven. (Heb 9:15-28)

Conclusion

The cross is absolutely necessary for the forgiveness of our sins. If you lose the substitutionary atonement, you lose the gospel. There are certainly other aspects and significances of the atonement, but if we miss Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, then we’ve missed a central truth of Christianity. I'm thankful for the SBC where, despite our warts, we aren't arguing about gospel basics.

As we celebrate Christ’s death on the cross, his burial, and his resurrection, ponder the truth of the substitutionary atonement. It is bloody and horrid. It’s meant to be. He took our place. We deserved that fate. However, it’s also joyful, because God used Christ’s sacrifice to make a way for our redemption.

Hallelujah, what a savior.

Getting Jesus Wrong - A Review

Getting Jesus Wrong: Giving Up Spiritual Vitamins and Checklist Christianity is a well-meant attempt to correct common but improper understandings of the nature of Christ. Matt Johnson is attempting to communicate to a young audience his own mistakes in understanding the gospel, which he characterizes as getting Jesus wrong.

He first tackles “life coach Jesus” which is the Christological model in which Jesus’ ethical demands take the form of the contemporary culture so that the gospel leads one to become a good husband, hard worker, etc. Often this version of Jesus results from sermons that emphasize steps to a better marriage and how to exceed for Christ in the workplace.

The next chapter critiques what Johnson calls “checklist Jesus.” This version of Christ sees the Christian life as an extensive to do list. Read your Bible, pray, attend church. According to Johnson, this version of Christianity leads people to believe that these basic activities are necessary to make God happy.

In Chapter Three, Johnson wrestles with “movement leader Jesus.” This is the sort of Christianity that values leaders that are trying to get bigger faster, often in the name of mission. Often churches in this version of Christianity rely on a strong leader to further their expansion.

The fourth chapter deals with a similar version of Christianity, which Johnson calls “visionary Jesus.” It’s not entirely clear what the difference between this category and the previous one is. Though he mentions no names, here he is clearly thinking of his former pastor, Mark Driscoll, and men like former pastor Perry Noble and Steven Furtick. Similarly, the prosperity preachers would generally fall in this category.

In the next chapter Johnson explains how following one of these several false versions of Christianity lead one to pride and eventually despair. His point here is valid. When the gospel is redefined or human effort in pleasing God over-emphasized, it can lead to a sense of pride in “my church” or “my denomination.” When leaders fail or churches fail to prosper, this can lead to disappointment leading to despair. Not surprisingly, this is part of Johnson’s own story that looms heavily over the entire volume.

Chapter Six begins a separate section of the book that Johnson entitles, “The Antidote to Pride and Despair.” In Chapter Six, Johnson outlines the problem with seeking justification through the law. In this chapter Johnson briefly references the three uses of the law (judge, bridle, and lamp), but camps out on the law as judge. He attempts to show that human efforts to live a holy life leads to spiritual deadness and pride.

In chapter seven, Johnson summarizes the gospel as Christ’s work on behalf that fulfills the law, since we are unable. He rightly emphasizes that forgiveness is freely available and that salvation is not a result of human works. However, the chapter on the gospel tends to emphasize a rebuttal of the law rather than a positive presentation of the glory of the gospel.

The final chapter presents Johnson’s vision of hope in Christ’s work. In this chapter Johnson spends as much time, however, talking about his own depression and struggles, which actually overshadow the entire book. His hope seems more like a vague sense of light than a glorious joy in the gospel.

Johnson should be commended for his efforts to debunk false gospels. For some, this may be exactly the message that needs to be received. If someone is tempted to believe a works-based salvation, then Johnson’s account of his spiritual journey may jostle them out of their beliefs.

The Christianity Johnson presents is anemic, however. He is so focused on debunking the versions of false gospel he journeyed through that he leaves out any implications of the gospel. In fact, one of the tragedies of this volume is that Johnson provides no mention of sanctification and, to some readers, gives the impression that the necessary human efforts toward sanctification are exactly the sort of false gospel that he is critiquing.

In fact, this volume seems to advocate a sort of antinomianism. Johnson is so concerned to present a gospel by grace alone through faith alone that he effectively demeans the very means of grace that facilitate the process of sanctification. This is a serious deficiency of this volume. The biblical gospel is one of salvation, followed by sanctification, followed by glorification. The gospel presented here is simply salvation, with apparent effort to minimize the importance of spiritual growth in life.

This is particularly apparent when Johnson avoids talking about the role of the law as a bridle and as a lamp. He is correct to note that the law condemns us because of our sin. At the same time, it also reveals God’s character and helps us understand what it means to try to be holy as God as holy, just as God commanded. The law also functions to restrain our sinful impulses by reminding us of God’s justice. Leaving out these aspects of the law impoverishes Johnson’s vision.

Johnson does not call out Driscoll or his former church, Mars Hill in Seattle, by name. However, this volume is marked heavily by Johnson’s experience as a lay elder in that church. It is clear that the well-known problems in Driscoll’s leadership and the subsequent collapse of the network of churches has scarred Johnson. He notes that while writing this volume he has been unemployed, undergoing marital difficulties, and, by the tone of the book, struggling with some form of a mid-life crisis. Johnson has a lot of the pieces of a good book here, but the effort is marred by his joyless tone throughout the book. I walked away from the volume feeling much like the Christian life is about enduring prison camp, where release is unlikely and hope is mainly for a painless death at the end leading to eventual resurrection. That’s a bleak vision and inconsistent with the hope we have in this life as a result of the gospel.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Alive in Him - A Review

Ephesians is, perhaps, my favorite book of the New Testament. I’ve probably read it more often than any of Paul’s letters and I’ve tried to memorize it more than once. Ephesians is something like a brief summary of Christianity. It’s got the gospel, it’s got the central doctrines of Christianity, it has a lot of ethics spilled out in application of the theology it proclaims.

Alive in Him is a companion volume to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It is a tool that can enhance someone’s personal study of the important epistle. It functions well as an individual study, but would serve as a good guide to an individual study to the book of Ephesians.

This is not a verse by verse commentary, but Gloria Furman walks through the text in discernible chunks and in order. After her introduction, where she deals with some of the basic questions of provenance and relation to other books of the Bible, the book is divided into eight chapters.

Chapter One focuses on Ephesians 1:1-14. Here Furman digs into the gospel, which is the powerful theme of Paul’s entire letter. The second chapter outlines Paul’s prayer and God’s power evidenced through Christ. Chapter Three covers all of Ephesians 2, exploring our status as redeemed people, called to life and unity in Christ Jesus. Furman’s fourth chapter surveys Ephesians 3, where Paul lays out the difficult truth that the gospel is for all people regardless of nationality or background.

In Chapter Five, Furman follows Paul’s turn from doctrine to its application in ethics. She dives into Paul’s call for his readers to live in unity as one body of Christ. The sixth chapter closes out Ephesians 4 and hits the first half of Ephesians 5 with an inspiring call to be the new creation God made Christians to be. Furman deals with the so-called household codes in Chapter Seven. In the eighth chapter the reader is treated to Furman’s lively discussion of the armor of God.

This book is a prize for the church. Furman combines biblical consistency with fervent faith and engaging prose to draw the readers along and through a key text in the church. If you read this book without being interested, then the problem is not with the book.

Perhaps the chief strength of Alive in Him is that it points the reader beyond itself and to Scripture. In her introduction, Furman specifically calls her readers not to replace God’s word with her book. This is a volume that is designed to enhance a Christian’s study of Scripture, not distract from it.

Furman does an outstanding job at finding textual relationships between Ephesians and the rest of the canon. Her study of Ephesians is a small part of a larger biblical theology. This book points to the metanarrative of Scripture through Paul’s brief epistle.

The most enjoyable aspect of this book is that Furman so clearly delights in the text of Scripture and the God who is revealed by it. The secret to some of the most powerful teaching and writing is not someone’s grasp of original languages or their mastery of minutia, but the degree of interest of the teacher. Furman’s joy lights up this volume. It is refreshing and exciting for the reader.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy that could befall this book is that it be consigned to a ladies’ Bible study. If I ever preach through Ephesians I will reference this book. This deserves to be read and widely. It deserves to be on the shelves of pastors, deacons, and professors. This is an example of how to do Bible study well and how to love Christ more through doing rigorous study. May the church be blessed by this volume for years to come.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.