Horizontal Christian Ethics

 Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil is probably my favorite church history (or historical theology) book of all time.  I highly recommend it – although it is an intermediate resource (probably college/university level reading).  Here are a few paragraphs I highlighted when I first read it ten years ago:

“Luther horizontalized Christian ethics: he transferred its goal from Heaven to earth.  Good works are not required for salvation but crucial for surviving in a threatened world.”

“Luther’s proclamation of the reformation-to-come, as well as his call to reform and betterment, are presented in a medieval vocabulary and can only be understood against the background of the Middle Ages.  Yet it is exactly this background which allows us also to discern the uniqueness of his vision.  This entails above all the rejection of any attempt to transform the world, whether it be advanced by the disciples of Joachim, by Pope Innocent III, or b the sixteenth-century peasants rebelling for their God-given rights.”

“Luther can be seen as a follower of Bernard of Clairvaux – but then a radical follower, because the situation since the days of St. Bernard had so deteriorated that the crusade now to be launched is no longer aimed at the liberation of the Holy Land but of the Holy People, the Church itself.  Because of the advanced time of world history, these crusades can no longer be waged by armies.  Only one weapon is left: the preaching of a powerless Christ, and Him crucified.”

“…In his [Luther’s] ability to show how to live a Christian life between-the-times, he was centuries ahead of today’s most advanced theological scholarship.”

Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, p. 80-81.

rev shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond wi

Christians Struggling With Same-Sex Attraction

Last week I did a brief review of this helpful book, Is God Anti-Gay? by Sam Allberry (LINK). Here is one section of that book worth mentioning.  The following counsel is also applicable for Christians struggling with any sexual sin; Allberry notes that since we live in a fallen world, it will happen that Christians struggle with various sexual sins.  But that doesn’t mean we have to give up!  So what does a Christian do if he/she is struggling with same-sex attraction (SSA)?

1) Pray.  It is important to know that SSA is an issue we can talk to our heavenly Father about.  The subject is not off-limits in prayer.  This means a) We can talk to God about any confusion and distress we might be feeling, b) We can talk to God about our temptations since Christ has been tempted in every way just as we are, though he didn’t sin (Heb. 4:15), c) We can talk to God about our sins.  It is right for such sins to weigh heavily on our hearts, but we must rejoice that they are not unforgivable.  Christ died no less for sins such as these (1 John 1:9).

2) Think about SSA in the right way.  Some Christians who struggle with SSA feel deeply and spiritually unclean; some feel as if they are ‘damaged goods’ who are beyond repair and very displeasing to God.  This brings us to the gospel.  We could never be acceptable to God on the basis of our own merits.  It has never been about us having intrinsic worth or natural spiritual cleanliness.  Quite the opposite.  It is only ‘in Christ’ that anyone is righteous in God’s sight (2 Cor. 5:21).  In Christ we are presented holy and blameless in God’s sight (Col. 1:22).  Therefore, SSA does not disqualify people from being loved by God and washed by Jesus’ blood.

SSA feelings should not define you.  It’s easy to let these feelings take over and begin to think they represent the sum total of your identity.  We live in a culture where sexuality is virtually equated with identity: ‘You are your sexuality.’  However, we should not let SSA define our lives; we should not let it become the lens through which we view our whole life.  Christ has given us new life; we once were defined by our sin (1 Cor. 6:11) but now we find identity in Christ.  Furthermore, SSA feelings wax and wane, so we need not think SSA is a life long orientation.

3) Seek the support of others.  This is very difficult because SSA makes us feel guilty and full of shame.  Sometimes we think we will let our Christian friends down if we share this struggle. But we are never letting anyone down when we share a struggle.  All of us are weak!  No Christian is designed to struggle alone – and we all have sins with which we struggle.  We should bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 5:2).  Find a mature Christian and seek his or her help.

Note: I’ve edited and summarized the three points above to keep the discussion brief.  However, I do recommend the entire section – and book: Is God Anti-Gay? by Sam Allberry.

shane lems

The World of Joseph, Moses and Joshua

This is a peculiar post title, I know, but I was trying to find a way to associate the contents of this newly published book with matters about which readers of this blog may be most interested.  In this interesting study, the author – a prominent historian and archaeologist – does a wonderful job painting the picture of the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds in both the middle bronze age (MBA) and late bronze age (LBA).  Though its goal is to synthesize the data relevant to understanding the collapse of the bronze age, it does so only after first explaining the international storyline of the 15th-13th centuries.  Thus readers get a much broader understanding of the ancient world from this engaging and informative story.

On another front, I liked that the author did not limit his study to Egypt or Mesopotamia.  He also discussed Anatolia (Hatti), the Aegean, Mycenae, and other civilizations engaged in commerce and diplomacy in the MBA and LBA.  What was evident from this book was the global economy that existed in the ancient world and an interaction between empires that parallels what we have today.  I was especially interested in the emphasis he placed upon the Mediterranean, and found his utilization of the Uluburun and Cape Geladonya shipwrecks to be some of the clearest and most well integrated I’ve read.

When reading about biblical figures who lived in this period, I have often found it difficult to fully appreciate the setting in which they found themselves.  Apart from some general references made to the Hyksos when speaking of Joseph, discussions about the identity of the Pharaoh of the Exodus, and analysis of destruction layers of southern Levantine tells mentioned in Joshua, there are only a few other topics that books in the orbit of Old Testament students tend to cover.  Yet the ancient world with its wars and allegiances, its diplomacy and royal marriage, its letter writing and gifting, and its trade and sharing of cultural expressions is a rich tapestry within which God’s redemptive plan was played out.

This was really a wonderful book.  The author says some things about ancient Israel that will be disputed by those of us more maximalist in our view of the historical value of the Old Testament, but the general tenor of the book was very calm.  Though the books by Amelie Kuhrt and Mark Van De Mieroop (here and here) are thorough histories of the ancient world surrounding Israel and Judah, E.H. Cline’s new book is a thrilling and readable overview of this part of history.

(Note: I found the book as exciting as this trailer! Although, since when do they make trailers for books?!)

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

Young, Restless, and Culturally Arrogant? (Part 2)

Edited by Dave, circa 2011-?? Here’s part two of this post:

“Christians must become more adept at reaching the younger generations, but are those of us in those younger generations willing and able to reciprocate and bridge the cultural lines of our elders?  Are we striving to understand the struggles of those in their mid-forties rearing teenagers?  Are we making strides to relate to the loneliness of empty-nest divorcees?  Are we able to express genuine interest in the news programs and game shows that feature in the living rooms of our grandparents?  Are we willing to venture out into the cultural realm of retirees or learn from that diminishing number of WWII veterans?”

“It is noted at times that younger Christians are more in tune with culture and more familiar with society’s technological innovations.  But maybe culture-savvy twenty-seven-year-olds are really only savvy about their own particular subset of society.  Or maybe they are only so culture-savvy because they have more time to watch TV and surf the Internet than a forty-seven-year old with teenagers and aging parents.”

Andrew Byers, Faith Without Illusions, p. 109.

shane lems

Young, Restless, and Culturally Arrogant? (Part 1)

Edited by Dave, circa 2011-??Some younger Christians poke fun of the traditions and habits of older Christians and churches.  They say that the older Christians/churches are totally out of touch with society and therefore are neither “missional” nor “relevant” (to use evangelical buzzwords).  I appreciate how Andrew Byers discusses this.  Since this quote is a bit long I’ve put it into two back-to-back posts.  Here’s part one.

“Disappointment in the cultural irrelevance of the church is justifiable.  But much of the disappointment may stem as much from a culturally conditioned arrogance as from a sincere commitment to missional, crosscultural living.  When we younger adults rail against the Christian subculture of primarily older generations for their narrow-minded cultural illiteracy, we often fail to notice that we are ourselves part of a subculture with its own narrowness and cultural ignorance.  We seem to suppose that anyone who can’t quote lines from ‘The Office’ or lyrics from Wilco is out of touch.”

“But maybe Aunt Gertrude [i.e. older Christians] is not so out of touch.  To be out of touch with that particular slice of society to whom Michael Scott’s awkward antics on ‘The Office’ have such appeal is not to be out of touch with everyone.  There are other slices of American culture made up of folks who have never heard Arcade Fire playing on a coffee bar’s satellite radio station while sipping a latte.”

“It is important for those of us in the younger generations to step far enough back from our own cultural milieu to observe that the marketing power directed our way is staggering and quite disproportionate to the size of our subculture. …Is it possible that all this attention from Hollywood, Apple, the music industry and online networking companies has spoiled us to the point that we have now become rather high maintenance, demanding lavish catering from the wider church?  (If I can download multiple apps to my smartphone, then why can’t the local church give me what I want?)

Andrew Byers, Faith Without Illusions, p. 108-9.

shane lems

The Church is Never Closed

S-ANF-Set In Cyprian’s day (3rd Century AD) the Christian church in the West was grappling with heretics on the one hand and with persecution on the other hand.  Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage (North Africa), typically handled these difficulties with a biblical and pastoral mindset.  Below is one example of Cyprian’s forgiving spirit in light of church discipline and restoration.  It is from a letter he wrote about excommunication, repentance, and re-admission into the fellowship of the saints.

“The Church is neither closed here to any one, nor is the bishop denied to any.  Our patience, and facility, and humanity are ready for those who come.  I entreat all to return into the Church.  I beg all our fellow-soldiers to be included within the camp of Christ, and the dwelling place of God the Father.  I remit everything.  I shut my eyes to many things, with the desire and the wish to gather together the brotherhood.  Even those things which are committed against God I do not investigate with the full judgment of religion.  I almost sin myself, in remitting sins more than I ought.  I embrace with prompt and full love those who return with repentance, confessing their sin with lowly and unaffected atonement [amends].”

And so we say today that Christian discipline is “unto repentance.”  Our goal in loving discipline and church censure is restoration.  The Westminster Confession says that the kingdom of heaven is opened unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel and by absolution from censures (WCF 30.2).   Where there is true repentance, there is liberal forgiveness (Matt. 18:22).

The above quote can be found in “Epistle LIV” from Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5 (p. 345).

shane lems

Not Eliminating Grief

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering How did the early Christian church differ from Greek philosophers when it came to dealing with suffering and grief?

“For Christians, suffering was not to be dealt with primarily through the control and suppression of negative emotions with the use of reason or willpower.  Ultimate reality was known not primarily through reason and contemplation but through relationship.  Salvation was through humility, faith, and love rather than reason and control of emotions.  And therefore, Christians don’t face adversity by stoically decreasing our love for the people and things of this world so much as by increasing our love and joy in God.  [Luc] Ferry says, ‘Augustine, having conducted a radical critique of love-as-attachment in general, does not banish it when its object is divine.’”

“What he means is that, while Christianity was able to agree with pagan writers that inordinate attachment to earthly goods can lead to unnecessary pain and grief, it also taught that the answer to this was not to love things less but to love God more than anything else.  Only when our greatest love is God, a love that we cannot lose even in death, can we face all things with peace.  Grief was not to be eliminated but seasoned and buoyed up with love and hope.”

Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, p. 44.

shane lems