Love and Manipulation

I have been contemplating some things from the 17th-century theologian and founder of Rhode Island Roger Williams, contemporary Christians and co-hosts of The God Journey podcast Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings, and author of "The Shack" William Paul Young... lots of things. Things like liberty of conscience, love, relationships, and control. I'm not spending the time right now to write out a full exposition, but I'll leave you with a few quotes that will get you started on a train of thought, a brief discussion of control in relationships, and a couple of additional quotes to prompt you to continue the train of thought past where I've taken you.

How Then Shall We Vote?

It's just passed 3:30am on the 5th of November, 2008, and the U.S. presidential election is nearly at a wrap. And if by some divinely-orchestrated miracle of ignorance you haven't already heard: Mr. Barack Obama is the 44th President of the United States of America.

But this isn't about that. Well, okay. Sort of it is.

Although this comes a little late for you to apply to your decision-making process for the 2008 election, my hope is that you will perhaps give it some thought for the next general election or the 2012 presidential election. Here it is:

...Alright, so I don't have anything to say that hasn't already been said, but that's actually my point. I wanted to forward you to an article written by Derek Webb. Derek said all the things I would have said here, only better. Sure, that's not much of a complement... but, well, just trust me. Read the article.

Conscience is the issue in "How Then Shall We Vote?".

Seeking Significance in Realized Dreams

These past six months have been almost unbelievably transformational for me. Lots of things have happened in my heart and in my life. Recent stories of faith, prayer and community hang in the air. There is much to talk about. That's for sure. And I may get to some of it eventually on this blog, but I wanted first to share with you a bit of the path God has taken me down in these last two months especially.

The thing is that I've really been working through issues of validation lately. To be honest, I feel like I have to produce in order to be significant, like I have to be doing something in order to justify my existence. It's the "do to be" disease.

My particular drug is dreams.

I'm a "visionary advocate" personality type (MBTI), and true to form, I have these dreams that I want to pursue ("visionary"), and I badly wish to help other people catch those dreams ("advocate"). But there's the rub. It is such a struggle for me not to draw my identity and sense of worth from my dreams, but rather from the who God has proclaimed me to be in His love, and to allow the motivation for whatever serving I do for Him to come out of the overflow of my heart, rather than out of my seeking self-validation through any personal standard of "success."

My identity has issued from my dreams and my power (or lack thereof) to "micromanage" the Kingdom to conform to the idea I have in my mind of the way it ought to be. And if things are going poorly by my estimation, then I get depressed because my security rests in my ability to meet some performance-based criteria. If things are going well, by my estimation, then I feel temporarily fulfilled. But the satisfaction is empty, like trying to pull water from a dry well.

It's the same misstep God spoke of by Jeremiah. Jeremiah recorded these words:

For my people have done two evil things:
They have abandoned me—
the fountain of living water.
And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns
that can hold no water at all! (Jeremiah 2:13 NLT)

Father said something similar in Isaiah's prophecy:

Come, all of you who are thirsty.
Come and drink the water I offer to you.
You who do not have any money, come.
Buy and eat the grain I give you.
Come and buy wine and milk.
You will not have to pay anything for it.
Why spend money on what is not food?
Why work for what does not satisfy you?
Listen carefully to me.
Then you will eat what is good.
You will enjoy the richest food there is. (Isaiah 55:1-2 NIrV)

I'm talking about a shifting of my heart's pursuit. From pursuing validation (and security, identity, satisfaction...) through a realized dream, to pursuing a persistent nearness to the God who doesn't care whether I accomplish my dreams if I never learn to live in the overwhelming acceptance I have in His grace. After all, "Grace is God's acceptance of us. Faith is our acceptance of God's acceptance of us" (Adrian Rogers, from Freedom from the Performance Trap).

One of the most freeing things someone ever told me was something I heard in one of The God Journey podcasts with Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings. Wayne said, if I may recite it from my poor memory, "I don't care if you don't do anything for a year, if you learn to walk in Father's affection."

When I heard that, it really sank deep in my soul: God isn't looking for me to produce for Him; He is looking for me to rest in Him.

Now, let me tell you: that's hard to swallow for someone who has done almost everything for twenty-five years with performance-based, works-righteous motives! That's difficult to step out of. That's a deep mire of ingrained religious caca. And I'm sick of it. I've felt like an employee in God's production plant for all my life. And all I want is a real-life relationship!

But now—wouldn't you know—I'm finding that I'm relationally-challenged, having worked with machines for so long. But thank you, Papa! You are showing me the ropes of this relationship with You!

And my reader friend, whoever you are, I want you to know that there is rest in our Father. There is complete rest. He is our eternal Sabbath (Hebrews 4). He is our permanent Vacation. And when you are all caught up in the DOs, know that as far as He is concerned, there is only DONE. "You are trying to earn points with someone who is no longer keeping score" (Wayne Jacobsen).

It is finished. (John 19:30)
What the law could not do... God did. (Romans 8:3 CSB)

Posted on Friday, October 31, 2008 by David Gregg | 1 comments | Links to this post
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Winter Months

Every oak
Holds tightly
To the last moment
'Til it can hold no longer
To its beauty

Faith and Prejudice

Last week, I participated in a Bible study on James 2:1-13. I enjoyed the discussion and the progression of James' argument, so I thought I'd reproduce my perspective on the passage here.

James passionately implores us to refrain from any sort of partiality. His reasons may strike you.

He begins,

My brothers and sisters, favoritism is not consistent with faith in our Lord Jesus Christ—the Glory of God. (James 2:1)

The New Living Translation has it: "How can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?" I think that James' implication is pretty clear: something doesn't jibe with having both faith in Christ and prejudice.

James follows with an example of favoritism, and then a brief explanation—for the sake of this particular example—of why it makes no sense to honor the rich above the poor:

For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, "You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor"—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?
Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? But you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? (2:2-7 NLT)

He explains how favoritism and prejudice break the Old Covenant Law. He reminds us that God despises any form of partiality. It's not just a trifle. He continues:

If you really carry out the royal law prescribed in Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing well. But if you show favoritism, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
For whoever keeps the entire law, yet fails in one point, is guilty of breaking it all. For He who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." So if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you are a lawbreaker. (2:8-11 CSB)

But then, he returns to his original point to resolve the issue he left us with in verse 1: How is it that partiality and faith in Christ are mutually exclusive of each other? It's interesting to see the direction James takes with his reasoning. He lifts the weight of his argument off of the Old Covenant Law onto the New Covenant "law":

Speak and act as those who will be judged by the law of freedom. For judgment is without mercy to the one who hasn't shown mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (2:12-13 CSB)

So, James compares the Torah Law with this "law of freedom." James has already mentioned a "law of freedom" in his epistle—at James 1:25, where he exhorts us to always keep at the forefront of our minds our identity—the reality of the freedom we have in Christ—and to live according to that reality of freedom and grace. But what is this talk of a New Covenant "law"?

Paul uses similar terminology in his open letter to the Christians at Rome. We pick up his argument in Romans at 3:1-30:

Then what advantage has the Jew [over the Gentile]? Or what is the value of circumcision?... Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.... Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. (ESV)

Well, what is a law? It's as the NIV has it here, a "principle"... a principle that is followed, a rule of action. So, when Paul says that there is no room for the Jews to boast in their nationality as though it made them any closer to God than other nations, he explains that this is because there is a principle of faith that needs to be considered. That principle of faith is "that a man is justified [made right with God] by faith apart from observing the law [of works]" (NIV). The "law of faith" is the principle of relationship that allows people like you and me to be reconciled with our Father, God. It is, in other terminology, "the Gospel." It is "Grace."

So, when James says, "favoritism is not consistent with faith in our Lord Jesus Christ" and "speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom" (TNIV) what does he mean? What's the connection?

He means that "the law of freedom" motivates us to love, greatly and equally, all people. Why? Because "the law of freedom" is the truth of freedom from condemnation. How do we know this? Because Paul said,

No condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus, because the Spirit's law of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (Romans 8:1-2 CSB)

By faith in Christ, by having confidence in the power of God and His love for us, we are set free from the chains of sin and death, because there is no longer any condemnation over us. A condemnation is "a sentence of judgment which condemns some one to do, to give or to pay something." We are no longer criminals being judged. We are no longer condemned to attempt to pay the penalty from crimes too numerous to count. We are free. Rather than condemned, we have been forgiven.

A condemnation is also "an expression of strong disapproval," which is also something that does not exist for us in Christ. We are—you are—totally approved of God. He accepts you. He loves you. He validates you. He considers you valuable to Him. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to change that.

But how then can we, who have been forgiven of our incalculable debts, go on with unforgiveness in our hearts? How then can we, who have been accepted despite ourselves, go on rejecting others based upon our formulated criteria? How then can we, who are loved unconditionally, go on distributing love to others according to how they meet our standards?

Do you favor one person above another, because the one is "cool" and the other is decidedly "not"? Do you love and approve of one friend who is mature, thoughtful, and loving, but look down upon another in condescension who is immature, whiny, and selfish? Do you hang out only with people you find pleasant and avoid people who are annoying, are irritable, or have poor personal hygiene? Do you find yourself surrounded with people who hide well their sins on the inside, but wouldn't dream of befriending people who wear their sins on the outside? Do you stick close to your comfort zone when your comfort zone tells you to socialize only with people of your own ethnicity? Do you give the best seats to the rich?

It is with all this in mind that James continues his thought with, "What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don't show it by your actions?" (James 2:14 NLT)

Jesus taught the same thing:

Then Peter came to him and asked, "Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?"
"No, not seven times," Jesus replied, "but seventy times seven!
"Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn't pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.
"But the man fell down before his master and begged him, 'Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.' Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
"But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.
"His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. 'Be patient with me, and I will pay it,' he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn't wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.
"When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, 'You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?' Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.
"That's what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart." (Matthew 18:21-35 NLT)

Do you see then why "favoritism is not consistent with faith in our Lord Jesus Christ"?


If someone merely listens to the message and does not live it out, he is like someone who gazes at his own face in a mirror. For he gazes at himself and then goes out and immediately forgets what sort of person he was.

Ah! "But," he says!

But the one who peers into the perfect law of liberty and fixes his attention there, and does not become a forgetful listener but one who lives it out—he will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:23-25 NET)

I'd like you to read that again, in the Contemporary English Version, to make sure you get the point:

But you must never stop looking at the perfect law that sets you free. God will bless you in everything you do, if you listen and obey, and don't just hear and forget. (1:25)

You are free. You are forgiven. You are accepted. And you must hold onto that truth with a deathgrip. There is no room for shame or guilt or any other form of self-condemnation. Because "there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." There is only love. There is only grace. And when you fix your eyes on that—that is faith. It is confidence in God's love and promise: stubborn faith in stubborn promises.

Grace is God's acceptance of us. Faith is our acceptance of God's acceptance of us. (Adrian Rogers)

This freedom will change the way you look at others. It will change the way you act. Eugene Peterson sums it up pretty well with his paraphrase of James 2:14-17:

Dear friends, do you think you'll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, "Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!" and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn't it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?

Posted on Thursday, October 23, 2008 by David Gregg | 1 comments | Links to this post
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Tolstoy's "Where Love Is, There God Is Also"

A few days ago I picked up an old book—a collection of Christian short stories—called "The Seas of God," edited by Whit Burnett. After perusing the table of contents, I turned to a 12-page story, by the famous author Leo Tolstoy, first translated into English in 1885. I really enjoyed the story. It's a little lengthy for a blog, but it's worth the read. Consider it a parable for missional-incarnational living.

Reading the Bible Without All Those Numbers 3

So, here we are again, talking about those numbers. I wanted to share with you a few remaining thoughts that may be a bit more practical.

The fact is, with only a few exceptions, every Bible you are likely to own or buy will have the familiar chapter and verse divisions. So, here are some things for you to remember as you approach these editions of the Bible. They will help you to break the chapter and verse divisions in your mind, even if they can do nothing about the page.

Remember that the Bible really has no true verses. A "verse" is defined as "1) a piece of poetry; 2) a line of metrical text; 3) literature in metrical form." The only English translation I have seen to actually attempt to translate the Bible's poetry into true verse is the International Standard Version. We might say that some of the Bible's poetry has stanzas, especially with all the parallelisms in Proverbs. And it would be appropriate to say that each of the Psalms has an unmetered verse, but only one, unless there is a musical division (such as a "selah"), or an acrostic format (such as Psalm 119). Other than those and similar exceptions, there are no real verses in the Bible.

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Instead, what we have in the Bible is sentences, and the "verses" by no means always coincide with the sentences. All you have to do is read through the letters of Paul to discover that. So—and this is the practical part—think of the Bible's "verses" only as addresses to the location of a sentence or clause within the text. If you don't, the "verses" and "chapters" chop up the Bible into tiny, disembodied pieces. This mentality is the big reason why Christians can often tell you what their "favorite verse" is and be totally unable to articulate how that "verse" has anything to do with the larger flow of thought within the book they quoted.

With that in mind, remember that the Bible was given to us in it's ideal format—books. God gave us this holy Volume as He intended it to be understood. Chapter and verse numbers were not a part of that original intention. They are the invention of men and were added in the 1500s. That doesn't make them evil. It just makes them unnecessary. If they are strictly understood as locators within the text, then they are helpful, but if they go any wit beyond that, then they become destructive to God's people's understanding of His Word. So, don't read "verses." Read books. Don't read "chapters." Read epistles. How does your favorite verse fit into the discussion of the book it's in? How is that book similar and different from other books in the Bible? How do the teachings of Paul compare to the teachings of James? God gave us the books of the Bible, so this is the primary way He intends for us to understand it.

So, how can you begin to study books of the Bible and to break out of the versified mentality? For one, I would suggest reading a book backward, as Maggie and I discussed in the comments of one of the other posts in this series. A book like Hebrews, Romans, Ephesians, or Isaiah, where there is a logical progression of thought throughout the book, is an excellent place to start. This does one very important thing: it forces you to be intentional about watching and understanding how everything fits together. You will have to begin to notice critical words like "therefore," "so," "for," "that," "and," "but," "to," "unto" (which often means something like "for the purpose of"), and "nevertheless." This exercise will help to train your mind, and I think you'll find, the more you focus on understanding books and the whole progressions of thought within them, the easier it will become to ignore the false-chapters and verses, except for locating a part of the text. As you focus on the context and how what you've just read fits into that context, it will become natural to see past the numbers and margins, right through to the parchment and scroll.

And I know I've already mentioned it in a previous post, but I would again like to suggest that you send off for a copy of "The Books of the Bible" edition available through IBS. It's a totally de-versified edition of the Bible, with great book introductions and an interesting and helpful re-ordering of the Books. You can pick one up for about $9 from the IBS website. I can't wait until it comes out in hardback and leather! I'm also looking forward to other publishers running with the concept. If you want to keep up with developments, join the active community on the De-versify Facebook group.

As always, I encourage you to comment, contribute, critique. Join the discussion. Jump on in, the water is fine!

Approval Ratings

I just read the following article, written by Neil Cole (author of "Organic Church," "Cultivating a Life for God," and the new "Search & Rescue: Becoming a Disciple Who Makes a Difference") in this month's "Tools & Trainings for Organic Church Movements" e-newsletter from CMA Resources. I thought I'd pass it on to you. Good thoughts, Neil.

As the world looks at our churches, particularly in the West, it sees only what people have done or what programs they are doing. The world is not impressed. In response, we scheme and plot and plan, "What can we do to make our church more appealing to the people in our community?" This is, once again, the wrong question. It's as if we we're trying to boost God's approval ratings. It is God's name that is at risk, not ours, and we are not responsible for protecting His reputation. He can handle that, by Himself, just fine.

A better question is, "Where is Jesus seen at work in our midst?" Where do we see lives changing, and communities transforming simply by the power of the Gospel? Where do we see fathers restored to a life of holiness and responsibility? Where do we see daughters reconciling with fathers? Where do we see addicts who no longer live under the bondage of chemical dependency? Where are wealthy businessmen making restitution for past crimes that went unnoticed? These are the questions that lead people to recognize the living presence of Jesus, loving and governing people's lives as their King. When people encounter Jesus, alive and present as King, they get a taste of God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

If Jesus is missing in our understanding of church, He will likely be missing in our expression of church as well.

I have come to understand church as this: the presence of Jesus among His people called out as a spiritual family to pursue His mission on this planet. That's what a church is....simply Jesus Followed.

Pressing on,

Neil Cole

Reading the Bible Without All Those Numbers 2

Let me offer a few examples of this disassociation of verses and chapters from the surrounding, relevant material, which is an unfortunate (but ever-present) byproduct of versification.

Example One: "Hebrews 11" is a famous passage of Scripture known for its clear and passionate explanation of faith. It is often known as "The Faith Chapter" of the New Testament, much like 1 Corinthians 13 is known as "The Love Chapter." However, Christians usually approach the section as a stand-alone discussion of faith—something like an individual article that contributes to the overall conception of the subject of faith in the larger volume of the New Testament. We start in chapter 11 verse 1 and read up to the last verse (don't hear what I'm not saying), but give little thought to the sentence right before verse 1 or the sentence right after verse 40. Let me ask you, answer for yourself: Do you know how this discussion of faith relates directly and logically to all of the rest of the book of Hebrews?

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Example Two: "1 Corinthians 13" provides a beautiful description of true love right from God's dictionary. Sure, it is a beneficial discussion in itself, but why did God inspire Paul to write this literary and spiritual treasure exactly where it is in the Bible? Do you just think of it as "The Love Chapter," or do you think of it as a convincing argument that love is the most desirable of all God's wonderful gifts—to be sought before all talents and virtues and means?

I say to you, we frequently have a tendency to see a passage in the context of the whole Bible and how it relates with ideas over in some other book or how it harmonizes with the overall Biblical narrative before we see a passage in the context most immediate to it.

A parable: A certain man began reading Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" series of books. Each time he sat to read, he would choose a random page and read a selection. Sometimes he would read a sentence, sometimes a paragraph, and sometimes a whole chapter. However, after a time, the man found that no matter how frequently he read like this, he could scarcely find any enjoyment in the reading, and no matter how hard he tried to understand the story, he found that the process was so slow and confusing as to be an almost prohibitively monumental task.

The only sensible way to seek to understand the whole Volume of God's Word is to seek to understand the individual books that make it up. But how often we look over the grains of sand, expecting to see a beach! And that just makes no sense at all.

Posted on Wednesday, August 20, 2008 by David Gregg | 6 comments | Links to this post
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Reading the Bible Without All Those Numbers 1

I've been gorging myself on the books of Matthew and Isaiah lately. Both are absolutely phenomenal. One of the things I've been noticing in my studies is that, especially in the Gospels, there is, in our contemporary Christianity, a tremendous lack of contextualization when we go to understand the life and the words of Jesus. We think of the four Gospels as repositories of fragmentized selections of Jesus' ministry. Rather than approaching Matthew, for example, as a historical literary narrative on the teachings and life of Jesus with consistent flow, character, and internal harmony, we approach it almost as if it were a chronologically-arranged newspaper in which each event is not readily expected to correlate with the next. Regrettably, we have learned to comprehend the Bible as a compendium of individual verses or passages. With the exception of portions of Proverbs, none of the books of the Bible were written or intended to be understood this way.

So, in short, here is my suggestion for you: start reading whole books of the Bible, totally ignore chapter and verse divisions (which are not original to the Biblical writings and were added in the 1500s), read for natural literary divisions instead, and perhaps purchase a copy of The Books of the Bible edition to assist you in reading a book of the Bible more objectively.

Posted on Monday, August 18, 2008 by David Gregg | 5 comments | Links to this post
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What Makes a Church Organic?

Last week, I posted an article entitled "Organic Community in Hebrews 10:25," which was a continuation of a discussion I have been a part of that began on Maggie's blog, Alternative Church, and has centered around Jeff Rhodes blog, Chaordic Journey. (Maggie has since commented on the discussion via "Striking a Chord.")

My article last week was largely a direct quotation of my comments on Jeff's first post in the discussion, and what follows is a revised version of my comments from his second post.

Jeff said,

I feel that much of what is done in institutional churches is shrouded in so much tradition and formalism that Jesus can and has often been snuffed out. This may not be the case in all situations, but I feel that it IS so in MOST cases. Quite often, many of the activities, programs, systems, structures, etc. only serve as a distraction from intimacy in our "one another" relationships and our relationship with Jesus....

This does not mean the same thing can’t or doesn’t happen in "house" churches. In fact, it does. The location of the gathering is quite irrelevant to me. What defines an "organic" church is not the location or even the size of the gathering, but rather what happens in the gathering and in the lives of those who gather every other moment they live.

In other words, "organic" church is not so much about meetings as it is a way of living everyday as a part of a dynamic community of believers who seek to passionately follow the Way of Jesus in all that they do.... It is about the life and vitality of Jesus breaking into our reality everyday. It is about God’s will and activity in heaven coming into our world through us and in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. I think maybe the best place in Scripture which captivates the idea of "organic" church is Hebrews 10:23-25.

All of this gets us thinking about two questions: "What makes a particular community of believers organic?" and "How can an organization or group of people become an organic community?" I choose to answer those questions by reflecting on what I call "the Central Formative Principle1 of an organization."

Posted on Friday, August 01, 2008 by David Gregg | 1 comments | Links to this post
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Organic Community in Hebrews 10:25

I've recently been following an interesting discussion (here, here, and here) on organic church and community over at my friend Jeff Rhodes' blog: Chaordic Journey.

It all started with a couple of posts (here and here) on Hebrews 10:25 by Maggie (a.k.a. "Mudsy") over at Alternate Church. [UPDATE: Maggie has also since mused over the discussion thus-far with her article "Striking a Chord."]

Maggie said,

I began to study Hebrews 10:25 with passion. What first hit me was what it did not say:
  • It didn’t say be sure to go to church every Sunday
  • It didn’t say be sure that you gather in a specially designed building
  • It didn’t say be sure you join an institution
  • It didn’t say gather in one place around one primary leader
  • It didn’t say make sure you hear a 1-hour sermon every week (or a 40-minute one, or a 30-minute one)
  • It didn’t even say how often to meet.

Posted on Friday, July 25, 2008 by David Gregg | 0 comments | Links to this post
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Wounded in the House of Friends

What follows is an article written in the April 2001 issue of Virtue magazine by musician, writer, and theologian Michael Card. This article was introduced to me by John Piper. Enjoy.

One day Joseph, who was walking along one of these hot, dirty African roads, met someone who shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with him. Then and there he accepted Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. The power of the Spirit began transforming his life; he was filled with such excitement and joy that the first thing he wanted to do was return to his own village and share that same Good News with the members of his local tribe.
Joseph began going from door-to-door, telling everyone he met about the Cross of Jesus and the salvation it offered, expecting to see their faces light up the way his had. To his amazement the villagers not only didn’t care, they became violent. The men of the village seized him and held him to the ground while the women beat him with strands of barbed wire. He was dragged from the village and left to die alone in the bush.
Joseph somehow managed to crawl to a waterhole, and there, after days of passing in and out of consciousness, found the strength to get up. He wondered about the hostile reception he had received from people he had known all his life. He decided he must have left something out or told the story of Jesus incorrectly. After rehearsing the message he had first heard, he decided to go back and share his faith once more.
Joseph limped into the circle of huts and began to proclaim Jesus. 'He died for you, so that you might find forgiveness and come to know the living God,' he pleaded. Again he was grabbed by the men of the village and held while the women beat him reopening wounds that had just begun to heal. Once more they dragged him unconscious from the village and left him to die.
To have survived the first beating was truly remarkable. To live through the second was a miracle. Again, days later, Joseph awoke in the wilderness, bruised, scarred—and determined to go back.
He returned to the small village and this time, they attacked him before he had a chance to open his mouth. As they flogged him for the third and probably the last time, he again spoke to them of Jesus Christ, the Lord. Before he passed out, the last thing he saw was that the women who were beating him began to weep.
This time he awoke in his own bed. The ones who had so severely beaten him were now trying to save his life and nurse him back to health. The entire village had come to Christ.
(Michael Card, "Wounded in the House of Friends," Virtue [March/April 1991], pp. 28-29, 69.)

There are some people in this world who will not turn to Christ until they witness a believer suffering—suffering without regret or malice, for the Gospel of our matchless Jesus. Our suffering for him is a parable of love that tells of the love of God for poor humanity, the "monsters of iniquity" that we are. So, don't waste your suffering.

And even when we don't suffer for the Gospel explicitly, our times of pain and trouble are the best opportunities we have in this life to show what Jesus means to us. That's when people will stand up and notice that we maintain patient, stability and even joy due to something that can only be called hope. It is then they will ask "of the hope that lies within us" (1 Peter 3:15). What hope is there to hope when you are full and clothed and comfortable and know exactly where the money for this month's rent will come from? You have no reason to hope for anything — at least, that's what the world thinks.

But when you're vomiting from the chemo or giving your mother's eulogy or being beaten for your faith, you have an amazing opportunity to show just how precious and valuable and sufficient Jesus is to you.

Think back on those early days when you first learned about Christ. Remember how you remained faithful even though it meant terrible suffering. Sometimes you were exposed to public ridicule and were beaten, and sometimes you helped others who were suffering the same things. You suffered along with those who were thrown into jail, and when all you owned was taken from you, you accepted it with joy. You knew there were better things waiting for you that will last forever. So do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord.
(Hebrews 10:32-35a)

Posted on Sunday, July 20, 2008 by David Gregg | 0 comments | Links to this post
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Faith in Javascript

WARNING:  If you understand the following, then you are at least as much of a nerd as I am. But fear not, oh geeky one! I have discovered how to discuss theology in computer languages! What follows is a JavaScript devotional on the subject of faith:

Posted on Sunday, April 06, 2008 by David Gregg | 2 comments | Links to this post
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What Kind of Dictionary is THAT? (part 2)

While doing some reading on Five-Point Calvinism for a possible future series of articles, I read the following on the subject of Total Depravity. On the first read, I didn't catch the problem, but there was something that just didn't seem right to me. I went back and perused the context of Romans 14. Here is what the article said:

  • Romans 14:23 says, "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." This is a radical indictment of all natural "virtue" that does not flow from a heart humbly relying on God's grace.
    The terrible condition of man's heart will never be recognized by people who assess it only in relation to other men. Romans 14:23 makes plain that depravity is our condition in relation to God primarily, and only secondarily in relation to man. Unless we start here we will never grasp the totality of our natural depravity.

    (John Piper & Bethlehem Baptist Church Staff, "What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism", revised March 1998, source)*

Let's not look at whether Piper's points are correct yet. Let's just decide whether the passage he cites does in fact teach these points. Don't think I'm nitpicking. The points Piper is trying to make are very critical ones. Whether they stand or fall will make a significant impact on our theology one way or another. So, ensuring that these points have a Biblical basis is very important no matter where you stand on the issue.

...Read More!

Upon reading Romans 14, one will discover that Paul is not using the term "faith" in the sense of "saving faith" in this passage at all. He is discussing sins of the conscience and referring to personal convictions. Verse 23 and the two preceding verses read as follows:

  • It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
    (Romans 14:21-23 ESV)

The New Living Translation, Second Edition, renders the same passage in this way:

  • It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything else if it might cause another believer to stumble. You may believe there's nothing wrong with what you are doing, but keep it between yourself and God. Blessed are those who don't feel guilty for doing something they have decided is right. But if you have doubts about whether or not you should eat something, you are sinning if you go ahead and do it. For you are not following your convictions. If you do anything you believe is not right, you are sinning.
    (Romans 14:21-23)

Remember that "faith" (pistis) in the New Testament can refer to intellectual belief, moral conviction, reliance, trust, or a system of belief (only with the direct article "the"). Ouk ek pisteos (οὐκ ἐκ πίστεως) is often rendered "not from faith" and is functionally equivalent to "from doubt." Therefore, pan de ho ouk ek pisteos hamartia estin (πᾶν δὲ ὃ οὐκ ἐκ πίστεως ἁμαρτία ἐστίν) can be translated, "furthermore, all which is from doubt is sin." The phrase ouk ek (οὐκ ἐκ) ("not from" or "not out of") can also mean "against." The Greek word pistis can be translated any one of the following English words, depending on the context: faith, reliance, assurance, belief, or conviction, among others. In other words, Paul is saying, "everything that is done against moral conviction is sin" or "everything you do that is against what you believe is sin."

Robertson agrees: "Faith (pistis) here is subjective, one's strong conviction in the light of his relation to Christ and his enlightened conscience." The Contemporary English Version (CEV) has it, "anything you do against your beliefs is sin." And Eugene Peterson paraphrases it, "If the way you live isn't consistent with what you believe, then it's wrong."

John Calvin even commented on Romans 14:23:

  • The word faith is to be taken here for a fixed persuasion of the mind, or, so to speak, for a firm assurance, and not that of any kind, but what is derived from the truth of God.
    (John Calvin, "Commentary on Romans", source)

A good summary of what Paul is saying might be: "In these morally-ambiguous sort of issues, follow your conscience. If you believe it is wrong according to God to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols, then don't, because though it may not actually be sin, you are sinning by your intention to commit what you do believe is sin."

While Bethlehem Baptist's statement indicates that "faith" in Romans 14:23 is referring to "a heart humbly relying on God's grace," the context doesn't support that interpretation. The points Piper and Bethlehem Baptist are trying to make could be true, but we would never know from this passage. Interpreting Romans 14:23 in this way is going beyond Paul's authorial intent—something of which we've all been guilty with one scripture or another.

Another man attempted to take Piper's first point using this text and take it to a logical conclusion. He wrote,

  • Romans 14:23 says, "Whatever is not from faith is sin." If you are not a believer in Christ, everything you do is sin. Going to church is sin, being kind to your room mate is sin, being honest is sin, coming to Campus Crusade for Christ is sin, its all sin! Everything is sin!
    (Dustin Shramek, "The Supremacy of God in the Depravity of Man", source)

Is that true? Is everything sin? Is being honest sin? No. That statement is exactly the opposite of the Ninth Commandment. Isn't that silly? Now, you can have a motive that is wrong while telling the truth (such as, hoping for another's unjust downfall), but the honesty itself is not wrong, your heart is. Jesus settled this in the Gospels. The heart is indeed deceitfully wicked. But there are worlds separating the idea that every deed is a sin for the unconverted and the idea that any action could be done with a sinful motive.

I tell you, it takes just one sin to garner the full and just wrath of Almighty God! Every sin is "exceedingly sinful," and an everything-is-sin theology of sin is unnecessary to a complete theology of salvation and unsubstantiated.

Honesty doesn't have to be sin in order for everyone to deserve Hell—"all men are liars" (Romans 3:4) and "all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone" (Revelation 21:8). That's both succinct and complete. If you are a liar, you are bound for Hell. And everyone is a liar. (It's just that Jesus has provided a way for them to be rescued from their "part.")

I'm not saying that there aren't often unrighteous motives underlying good actions. I'm not even saying that it's not likely that most good deeds are in fact done out of impure motives. I wouldn't argue with that. I'm saying, let's not call the actions sins if they aren't sins. That's not sending the right message. It's not pointing out the deeper problem.

Blame the marionetter. The heart pulls the strings.

*  I agree with John's point that "depravity is our condition in relation to God primarily, and only secondarily in relation to man," but Romans 14:23 doesn't speak to this point.

What Kind of Dictionary is THAT? (part 1)

Until recently, whenever I have read Romans 14 and reached verse 23, I have tended to stop and think, “That verse doesn’t sound like it fits here.” In particular, I am talking about the phrase “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (KJV).

The problem, I’ve decided, is the ever-present problem of assumptions. When I read the word “faith” in the New Testament, I often either think of “saving faith” or “the faith” (as in the orthodox Christian belief system). But there is a problem with that, and it's a common problem I would think. It is a problem that needs to be addressed. That is, we very narrowly assume certain words always mean certain things. We sometimes narrow the meaning of words unnecessarily. We come to the Bible with a twenty-first-century theological mental dictionary (that’s a mouthful, I know). Truth is, when first-century Greek speakers heard the New Testament, they did not bring a theological dictionary along, but a secular one—the one they used everyday in the markets and workplaces.

I’ll come back to Romans 14:23 in part 2. For now, let’s look at a few other examples of this.

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When Greek-speaking people heard the word “baptizo,” they didn’t think immediately of “a religious water ceremony.” They thought of “an envelopment or immersion.” You could “baptizo” your hands into a washbasin. You could be “baptizo-ed” (swallowed up) by death—which is one way they really did use the word. You could be “baptizo-ed” into a culture. You could “baptizo” a spoon into a dish of Jell-O. It was a regular word—one that they could, in turn, use in a theological context if they wanted. So, when they heard the word, it didn’t always refer to the same event, only the same type of event. The context and the intention of the speaker indicated what they understood the word to mean in each occurrence. So, when they heard that John “baptizo-ed” people in the Jordan River, they knew basically what that meant (even if they didn't yet understand the religious significance) before anyone gave them a Strong’s Concordance, a Life Application Study Bible, or a Sunday School lesson on flannelgraph.

The same goes for many other terms. “To save” is an example.

  • And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, 'Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.' (Acts 11:13-14 ESV)
  • By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. (Hebrews 11:7)

Does the writer of Hebrews mean to tell us that Noah was able to barter with God for the eternal salvation of his family by consenting to accomplish this construction project for Him? No. But it sure sounds like it if you assume “to save” always means “to save spiritually.”

“To justify” is another example. Just as we use the term today, Greek speakers sometimes meant “to make righteous” and other times meant “to show to be righteous.” That really is a big difference, and the context is the clue.

Read the following three passages very carefully:

  • What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.... Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 4:1-5, 5:1-2)
  • Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? (James 2:21-25)
  • We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:15-16)

Remember that Sesame Street song: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn't belong. Can you tell which thing is not like the others by the time I finish my song?”

What’s the problem with these three verses? If you read those chapters in assumption-mode, one of them seems to contradict the others. Certainly this is not true. So, what is the problem? There isn't one. Two different writers are trying to make two different points, using similar terminology but meaning different things by them. Just because I use a term in one way doesn’t mean that my friend who believes just as I do necessarily uses the term in the exact sense. Read Romans 4. Paul leaves no room for justification by works at all. Read Galatians 2. Paul again leaves no room for it. Read James 2. Read it like you’ve never heard the term “to justify” used in any theological sense.

What do you suppose I would mean if I were to say, “Quit justifying yourself!” In a normal conversation you would never assume I’m telling you to quit trying to make yourself innocent! You would assume I’m telling you to quit trying to prove that you are already innocent. When you are justified in a court of law, the judge weighs the evidence and declares that you were innocent the entire time.

Greek scholar A.T. Robertson, commenting on James 2:24 concurs: “Present passive indicative of dikaioō, here not ‘is made righteous,’ but ‘is shown to be righteous.’ James is discussing the proof of faith, not the initial act of being set right with God.”

This is why Paul can say “a person is not justified by works” and James can say “a person is justified by works” and they both be right. These two phrases sound contradictory when we cut them out of their books and paste them next to each other, but they’re not meant to be treated that way. It's like quoting "he said, 'I love pintos'" and "he told them, 'I can't stand pintos,'" when not only is one quoted from a book on the life of George Washington (the president) and the other from a book on the life of George Washington Carver (the botanist), but "pintos" is referring to a breed of horse in the first quote and a kind of bean in the second. Paul and James are not even talking about the same thing. They didn’t hold a conference to discuss which words they would use for what purposes . They aren’t coauthoring a book or even writing to the same group of believers. Paul and James are trying to make two very different points with everyday words. Their vocabularies overlap, but their usages do not. Paul is trying to explain how a person is made righteous in the first place (by grace through faith). James is trying to explain how a person is shown to be righteous in daily life (by obedience out of faith).

But more than that, remember that the word “faith” is also used in different ways in the New Testament? When Paul says “a person is... justified by faith in Christ” and James says “a person is justified... not by faith alone,” they are not using the term “faith” synonymously either. Paul is talking about “saving faith”—genuine, complete, and humble trust in Christ. James is talking about mere “belief”—intellectual assent. The Believer’s Bible Commentary remarks, “Faith apart from works is head belief, and therefore dead belief” (italics mine).

We can get ourselves in trouble when we approach the Bible like it’s not written by—get this—forty different authors... in sixty-six different books... with their own purposes... and messages... in multiple genres... and various literary styles... over the span of more than 1,500 years. And we can get ourselves in trouble when we approach the Bible assuming certain too-rigid terminologies. There is no substitute for the application of logical Bible study methods.

Part 2 will finish up this article by explaining Romans 14:23 and questioning a popular interpretation. What was John Piper thinking? All this and more after the commercial break.

Posted on Tuesday, January 08, 2008 by David Gregg | 0 comments | Links to this post
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My 13 Favorite Translations

I have to confess that I love the insights the use of different translations can offer to a student of the Bible. All good translations offer their own strengths to the English-reading world. Some translations make reading the Bible easier. Some translations make studying the Bible easier. Some are better at helping you understand the meaning of individual words, while others are better at helping you understand the meaning of paragraphs. Some have unique features that help you understand grammar or definitions. Some offer a unique perspective from the translator(s). Some are more traditional and familiar in the way they translate passages, while others are willing to diverge from traditional renderings occasionally to present insightful perspectives on perhaps-confusing passages.

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Below is a list of my favorite translations and a brief description of why I think they are handy for "training in righteousness." (in random order):

      Analytical-Literal Translation (ALT)

attention to word-for-word literalness; Majority Text base; in-text notes for clarification, alternate translations, and figurative expressions (which are frequently insightful); in-text elements to denote the plural "you" (asterix), the strong "but" (underline), emphasized pronouns (underline); individual translator (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); evangelical translator.

      Complete Apostles' Bible (CAB)

attention to word-for-word literalness; Majority Text base; Septuagint base; individual translator (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); evangelical translator.

      King James Version (KJV)

attention to word-for-word literalness; Received Text base; useful grammatical clues (such as "ye" and "you" to show plurality, rather than "thee" and "thou" to show singularity, and "will" to show future intention or conditionality, rather than "shall" to show future certainty or obligation); beauty; committee translation (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); familiarity; tradition; reliable.

      Wuest's Expanded Translation of the Greek New Testament(WET)

attention to word-by-word explanation; verbose; accompanied by excellent translational and exegetical commentary; frequently insightful; individual translator (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); scholarly evangelical translator; paragraph formatting.

      Today's New International Version (TNIV)

healthy balance between word-for-word literalness and thought-for-thought literalness; not quite as bound to popular renderings because of tradition as most popular translations; frequently insightful; literal treatment of Greek neuters; case-by-case treatment of gender neutrality; very natural reading for contemporary vernacular; committee translation (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); evangelical; reliable.

      Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

healthy balance between word-for-word literalness and thought-for-thought literalness; frequently insightful; not quite as bound to popular renderings because of tradition as most popular translations; individual original translator; committee review and revision; evangelical; reliable.

      Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)

healthy balance between word-for-word literalness and thought-for-thought literalness; frequently insightful; not bound to popular renderings because of tradition; some terms presented as Hebraisms; Old Testament especially dynamic; unique Messianic Jewish perspective; accompanied by translational, exegetical, and historical commentary Hebraic, rather than Englishized names; Jewish feel; individual translator (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); evangelical translator.

      English Standard Version (ESV)

word-for-word literalness without becoming wooden; familiar feel due to traditional renderings and style; trusted history (from Tyndale's Bible and the Great Bible, to the KJV; then the RV, the ASV, the RSV, and to the ESV now) of committee review and revision; evangelical; reliable.

      New Living Translation Second Edition (NLTse)

attention to thought-for-thought literalness without becoming paraphrastic; frequently insightful; very natural reading for contemporary vernacular; reliable.

      J.B. Philipps' New Testament in Modern English (JBP)

paraphrastic; frequently insightful; unique renderings; individual translator (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); often refreshing reading; paragraph formatting.

      Richmond Lattimore's New Testament (RLNT)

attention to the literary style of each book; individual translation (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); unique translational approach, accentuating the writing styles of the various New Testament writers (when Mark writes, you can really tell it's Mark; when Peter writes, you can really tell it's Peter—the translation doesn't read like it was written by the same guy from book to book); unique perspective—a secular Greek expert and literary scholar without an agenda or a theological axe to grind; paragraph formatting;

      New English Translation (NET)

healthy balance between word-for-word literalness and thought-for-thought literalness; committee translation (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); reliability due to unprecedented accountability in translation; accompanied by copious, lengthy translational commentary and textual notes; evangelical; reliable.

      International Standard Version (ISV)

healthy balance between word-for-word literalness and thought-for-thought literalness; committee translation (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); attention to literary elements, style, and genre; evangelical; reliable.


My favorite translations for devotional reading:

  • TNIV — especially when my College Devotional Bible is handy. It contains lots of stirring personal testimonies and real life stories for illustration and application. That aside, the TNIV is currently my favorite translation for devotional reading. The TNIV reads so naturally and comfortably to me that my brain sighs with surprise whenever I read at length. (This is the best way I have discovered to express the feeling.) I find myself understanding more of what I'm reading with much less mental effort. In technical terms, I suffer from significantly less cognitive dissonance when I read the TNIV. The fact that I can't stand the NIV, but love the TNIV goes to show that the latter is much more than just an edition of the NIV.
  • NLTse — for the same reasons as for the TNIV. There are particular portions of Scripture in which the NLT is much more enjoyable to read devotionally. I often find myself going to the NLT when I need something explained a little more.
  • HCSB — especially when reading through a New Testament book. I like the introductions in my Holman Student Bible. Plus, the HCSB often gets things right where other translations drop the ball, and it is often fun to read it to see this happen, especially in passages that are more familiar to you in other translations than the HCSB. I also can't deny my bias, that it gives me some assurance to know that the proprietors of the translation committee (the Southern Baptist Convention and Broadman & Holman Publishers) were solidly evangelical and Baptist, even though only a third of the translators were.
  • JBP — on a case-by-case basis in the NT. Frequently, just plain fun and insightful to read. Other times, I don't like the way ol' J.B. renders some passages, but that's the nature of a paraphrase anyway.
  • CJB — on a case-by-case basis in the OT. Stern makes the Old Testament cool again just by bringing out that wonderful Jewish perspective which is so needed in English translations. And let's face it: it just doesn't make sense that Greek minds like ours can convey the Hebrew sense as well as a scholarly Hebrew mind can. The Bible is a Jewish book for all ethnicities. So, it's logical for all ethnicities to get a Jewish read on a Jewish book.


The saying is true: The best translation is the one you'll read. So, even if you aren't a translation junkie like me, pick up a Bible, read it, believe it, and you'll be the better for it, because "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right." ... "The scriptures are the comprehensive equipment of the man of God and fit him fully for all branches of his work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NLT and JBP respectively).

Posted on Friday, January 04, 2008 by David Gregg | 0 comments | Links to this post
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Favorite Deviants