Lessons Learned from My Work on Christian Theology

I am close to finishing my book on Christian theology that I have been writing for the past several months. I would like to share with you some of the lessons I have learned from my research:

1. To Be Ignorant of the Old Testament Is to Be Ignorant of God.

The vast majority of biblical references to who God is are in the Old Testament, not the New. If the essence of eternal life is knowing God (John 17:3), then to avoid preaching on the Old Testament is to neglect preaching on who God is and how one comes to know God. The authors of the New Testament assume you know something about the storyline of the Torah. It is impossible to fully grasp the meaning of the New Testament until we understand the Old.

2. The Old Testament Is Just as Important for the Study of Christian Theology as the New.

A theology which neglects the Old Testament and builds doctrine primarily based on the books of John and Romans is going to be extremely unbalanced. Antinomianism in all its forms functionally decanonizes the Old Testament and makes it irrelevant for the study of Christian ethics. If we do not take into consideration the entire canon of Scripture, we will have an incomplete picture of who God is.

3. The Bible Has as Much to Say on the Wrath of God as the Love of God.

After compiling and examining all the passages in Scripture which speak on God’s wrath or hell, I literally felt sick to my stomach. God’s hatred of sin and the evil people who commit it is a dominant theme in Scripture. We must emphasize equally God’s just wrath against sinners and his love for the lost.

4. Exegesis Is Really Hard Work.

I always knew that biblical interpretation takes time and effort. But some passages of Scripture require intense examination and cross-referencing to fully understand. Systematic theology must never be separated from biblical studies. A theology divorced from exegesis is not a theology based on the Bible.

5. Concordance Theology Is Christian Theology.

Since all Christian theology is derived from Scripture, we must take all of Scripture into consideration when summarizing the doctrines of the Bible. I never would have been able to write this book without Bibleworks or another concordance program like it. Each of us has a finite memory that cannot simultaneously meditate on every verse related to the area we are studying. You can’t even remember where you parked your car last week. If you don’t believe concordance theology is essential to arriving at the truth of Scripture, then you need a thicker concordance to take more of Scripture into consideration.

6. A Great Portion of the American Church Is Biblically Illiterate Based on How Much of the Bible They Do Not Believe in or Put into Practice.

When people believe in doctrines not taught in the Bible, it is more often the case that they do so because they are not familiar enough with the Bible’s teaching on the subject than willful self-deception. Hosea writes, “My people perish for lack of knowledge” (4:6). Mocking the idea that all we have to do to arrive at the truth is open a concordance and study all the verses related to the subject we are investigating as an amateur way of doing theology keeps you and others from embracing the truth.

7. The Influence of Human Tradition Is More Powerful than I Thought.

What we really believe is based on the hermeneutical grid we inherit from our parents and teachers with which we interpret the Bible. As Richard Wurmbrand once said, “We are put in a mold from earliest youth and taught only the arguments that favor our parents’ religion. Yet we are convinced that we have thought it all out for ourselves.”

8. It Takes Hard Work to Come to a Wrong Conclusion in Christian Theology.

You have to overlook a large number of different passages of Scripture throughout the Bible to believe in something that is contrary to it. Every doctrine of Scripture is taught in at least more than one place. That means in order to come to an incorrect conclusion in matters of Christian theology, you must misinterpret multiple passages of Scripture which teach the correct doctrine you do not believe in. And you must also misinterpret Scripture to find proof texts for what you believe in to support the opposite doctrine which is not actually taught in Scripture.

9. What You Really Believe Is Demonstrated by Your Actions.

A man believes no more than he does. A person who believes in hell and does not share the gospel is functionally equivalent to someone who does not believe in hell and lives consistently with his disbelief in it. The end result is the same regardless of what a person claims to believe. The person who says he is pro-life personally but believes the decision about abortion should be left up to the mother instead of the government votes the same way a person does who says he is pro-choice. There is no practical difference either way when it comes to the living out of our lives which is the basis upon which we are judged in Matthew 25. That is one of the reasons why Christian doctrine is taught through narrative passages of Scripture so that we can see how the truth is to be lived out.

10. The Truth Is Often More Nuanced than We Are Comfortable With.

We want everything to be in categories of black or white. But the truth is often complex and requires us to take into consideration passages of Scripture which may at first seem to contradict one another. It is only when we view things from God’s perspective and allow him to define the boundaries of right and wrong that we are able to see clearly. See my articles on lying and self-defense for an illustration of this principle.

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Sunday Meditation – Exchanging the Visible for Invisible

“Sense is the light of beasts, reason the light of men, faith the light of saints, and vision the light of glory. The important issues of life can only be discerned by faith. In our immediate experience we cannot see beyond death. Faith must step in and believe in heaven though it is yet unseen. Graceless souls may be sharp concerning their temporal interests, but concerning things of the next world they are stark blind. The whole business of Christianity contradicts sense. We give up the visible for invisible rewards. We do not look at the things that are seen, but unseen.”

“Faith helps unfold the riddles of divine providence and mysteries. Divine providence has two faces: that which is visible and seems to be against us; aye, but there is that which is not seen, and there is love, sweetness and kindness. Sense judges only the outside of God’s dispensations, but faith looks within the veil. There are secret and invisible things that God makes known to waiting souls. True faith can pick love out of God’s angry speeches and draw gracious conclusions from the darkest events.”

Thomas Manton

The Biblical Basis for Self-Defense

In light of John Piper’s recent comments on whether Christians should ever use force to defend themselves or others, I would like to add my own thoughts regarding the Scriptures on this matter. When Jesus said, “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matt 5:39), he was speaking with respect to our actions as individual Christians when mistreated for our faith. We are not to take revenge on those who persecute us because God will avenge us (Rom 12:19). He is not speaking with regard to the role of the government in punishing those who do evil or the obligation of a man to protect his family or the duty of God’s people to protect those who are helpless (Exod 2:17-19; 22:2; Deut 22:27; Neh 4:13-14; Esth 8:11; Job 29:17; Ps 82:4; 94:16; Prov 24:11; Eze 33:6; Matt 24:43; Luke 11:21; Acts 7:24; Rom 13:4; 1 Tim 5:8; 1 Pet 2:14).

Peter’s use of the sword against the Romans was sinful because he was using force against a legitimate authority (Rom 13:1-2). The church, of which Peter would be a cornerstone, advances the kingdom with spiritual weapons, not physical ones (2 Cor 10:4). In contrast, a person who is trying to murder your family is not a legitimate authority and should be repelled by force. Dying by the sword in Matthew 26:52 is a reference to the death penalty which those Peter had just attacked were capable of using and one day would use against him (Rom 13:4). Jesus himself used force to drive out the money changers from the temple because they were breaking God’s law (Matt 21:12; Mark 11:15-16; Luke 19:45; John 2:15). Therefore, it is not always sinful to use force or else Jesus would have been a sinner.

Jesus commanded his disciples to be armed with a sword in Luke 22:36 to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 that he would be numbered with the transgressors. But the act of being armed to defend oneself is not sinful or else Jesus would be commanding his disciples to sin. It was the use of the sword against a legitimate authority by Peter that was sinful, not owning a sword for self-defense. Some interpreters argue that the sword of Luke 22:36 is figurative rather than literal. But in that case, how would a figurative sword fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 and number Jesus among transgressors? Why would a person need to sell their cloak to buy a metaphorical sword?

We must be neighbors to those closest to us before those who are evil. Refusing to protect helpless people in distress is not being a neighbor to them, it is being a coward. Loving our neighbor requires us to protect them from those who would harm them. Men are called to provide for their families (1 Tim 5:8). That includes providing for their protection against those who would try to harm them. A husband who will not protect his family is even worse than one who will not provide for their financial needs.

It is the false shepherd who runs away and flees when confronted with danger. Jesus says in John 10:10-13: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” If a shepherd would use force to repel a wolf from attacking his sheep, how much more should husbands use force to protect their families. The reality is pacifism is often cowardice in disguise under a cloak of righteousness.

All human fighting, violence, and crime flow from man’s sinful craving to satisfy his appetite for power, money, pleasure, food, and significance. Christians turn from sinful lust by finding their identity in Christ instead of trying to build their own kingdom on earth. Because it is God who is our lasting satisfaction, we do not need to wage war to create heaven on earth. Crime will not cease until the second coming because violence is a problem of the heart. That requires constant vigilance by society to protect the innocent against those who are evil.

Pacifism in a fallen world invites violent men to take advantage of those they know will not fight back. In this sense, pacifism is a form of over-realized eschatology that does not take into account the reality of fallen man’s propensity to engage in violence even when there are strong deterrents. There will be no need for guns in the new heavens and new earth, but that day has not yet come. Other examples of over-realized eschatology include persecution of religious minorities, taking vengeance on others, the prosperity gospel, antinomianism, perfectionism, hyper-dispensationalism, hyper-Calvinism, hyper-preterism, never allowing any exceptions for divorce even in cases of unrepentant sexual immorality, and never allowing deception for the purpose of protecting the innocent (Exod 1:16-21).

Should Christians Get Tattoos?

God commanded the Israelites in Leviticus 19:28 to not make any cuts on their body for the dead or tattoo themselves. But he also told them in verse 19 not to wear clothing made of two different kinds of fabric. On what basis can we say that the command to not get tattoos or make cuts on our body for the dead is binding on Christians today while the command to not wear clothing made of different kinds of fabric is not? How we answer the question of whether Christians can tattoo themselves depends on how we answer the following questions: “What is the basis upon which we determine what Old Testament laws are still binding on Christians today?” and “What was the reason for the original command forbidding Israelites from tattooing themselves?” To answer these questions, we need to explore the relationship between the Old Testament and the New and the historical context in which Leviticus 19:28 was given.

The short answer to the question is no. The principle of ownership, the purpose of avoiding the pagan practices of the nations around Israel, and the reality that tattoos normally flow from the selfish motivation of expressing oneself to attract the attention of others are all reasons why this command is still binding on Christians today. On the other hand, the command to not wear clothing made up different fabrics was to be a reminder to the people of Israel that they are to be a people wholly sanctified to the Lord and are not to mix the holy with the profane.

Tattoos were common in the ancient Near East as a form of branding for slaves, to demonstrate one’s devotion to the god he or she serves, or for erotic enhancement. The land of Egypt from which the Israelites had come practiced tattooing for all these reasons. Some pagans would tattoo the image or name of the god they worship as a sign of their ownership by the god as a slave would be branded to show who they were owned by. The prohibition of Leviticus 19:28 also forbids making cuts on one’s body as a form of mourning for the dead. The association of tattooing with the pagan practice of cutting oneself reinforces that the motivation for this prohibition is so that the Israelites would not practice the religious customs of the nations around them, but instead derive their religion solely from God’s revelation in the Torah. The conclusion we should draw from this is not, “Tattoos are fine as long as they are not being done the same way pagans tattoo themselves,” but “Tattoos are an expression of pagan religion in the same category as cutting oneself for the dead.”

The word translated as “tattoo” in Leviticus 19:28 only occurs one time in the Hebrew Bible. But scholars are confident that the word is describing the act of tattooing based on the consistent translation of the word into other languages. Verse 27 gives further confirmation that the prohibitions of verse 28 are connected with pagan religious practices. Pagans would trim their hair in such a way as to signify their devotion to the god they worship as a form of distinguishing themselves from those who do not. In a similar way, tattoos serve as a visible sign of membership in a family, team, or cult. It is a perpetual outward reminder of one’s identity in a group (a hidden tattoo that no one can see defeats the entire purpose of having a tattoo). But for Christians, our identity is in Christ, not in any earthly fraternity.

The Israelites were forbidden to tattoo themselves because they were owned by God, not by any false god or any man. Would Moses approve of an Israelite getting a tattoo as long as the tattoo was of the name YHWH instead of a pagan deity? To tattoo oneself with the name of God would be taking God’s name in vain and worshiping God contrary to the way he has ordained in Scripture (Deut 12:4, 32). Because we are owned by Christ, we are called to glorify God with our bodies (1 Cor 6:20). Because we do not belong to ourselves, we are not free to do with our bodies whatever we want. We are forbidden to engage in gluttony, addictive behaviors which enslave us (1 Cor 6:12), or do anything which would disfigure or bring harm to the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16-17). Because our bodies are God’s temple, he has the right to tell us what to do with them, how to dress modestly, and how to worship with them.

Israel was given the command to not wear clothing with mixed fibers and to wear tassels on their garments to serve as a reminder that they belong to God rather than through the form of a tattoo. The parallel to Deuteronomy 22:11-12 demonstrates that the command not to wear clothing of mixed fibers is in the same category as the command to wear tassels on clothing as a reminder that one is a member of Israel because the commands occur next to each other. Since I am not an Israelite but a Christian living under the new covenant, the command to not wear clothing of mixed fibers is not binding on me (Eph 2:15). But since I am bought by Christ and am not free to do whatever I want with my body, I still have an obligation to not imitate pagan forms of self-expression rooted in false religions. Unlike tattoos, wearing clothing of mixed fibers was never an expression of pagan religion. That is what distinguishes the two commands from each other. One is the prohibition of an established religious practice while the other introduces a unique form of distinction for Israelites.

But what if I want to get a tattoo of a Bible verse? Many people believe that having a distinctly Christian tattoo will help them fight against sin by having a constant reminder on their body of God’s love for them. But the problem with this strategy of fighting sin is that it doesn’t work. Tullian Tchividjian had a tattoo of “Tetelesti” or “It is finished!” on his arm and he still fell into great sin. There are numerous people who have fallen into sin despite having Christian tattoos. Disregard for the lesser commands of God eventually results in disregard for the weightier matters of the law. The biblical remedies against Satan’s devices are many, but tattoos are not one of them. We fight against sin by hiding God’s Word in our hearts, not by hiding ink under our skin.

Sunday Meditation – Warfare Against Sin

“When a man sees his lust as a trivial thing, it is an indication that he is not mortified. We cannot go forward unless we recognize the danger of our own hearts. We need to be intimately acquainted with the ways, wiles, methods, advantages, and occasions in which lust has the victory. This is the way that men deal with their enemies. They search out their plans, ponder their goals, and consider how and by what means they have prevailed in the past. Then, they can be defeated. This is a most important strategy. If you do not utilize this great strategy, your warfare is very primitive. We need to know how sin uses occasions, opportunities, and temptations to gain advantage. Search its pleas, pretences, reasonings, strategies, colours and excuses. We need to trace this serpent in all its windings, and to recognize its most secret tricks: ‘This is your usual way and course; I know what you aim at.’ Even when one thinks that a lust is dead because it is quiet, we must labor to give it new wounds and blows every day. The soul in this condition has the upper hand. Sin is under the sword and is dying. Frequent success against any lust strengthens us. When the heart recognizes at any time sin and temptation at work, seducing and forming sinful imaginations to get you to fulfill its lusts, the heart must immediately see it for what it is, bring it to the law of God and love of Christ, condemn it, and follow it to execute it to the uttermost. These weapons will lead to a great degree of success.”

John Owen

What Will Heaven Be Like?

C. S. Lewis once said, “The Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next” (Mere Christianity, 134). Those who are most heavenly minded are the ones who will be of the most earthly good. That is because they are convinced that the greatest good of this present life which is passing away is to lay up treasure in heaven by working for that which will not pass away (Matt 6:19-20). They are sending their treasures forward rather than keeping them here in a world that is perishing. That means those who live for eternity invest themselves in that which will last for eternity: people who will live forever in either heaven or hell. But once we get to heaven, what will it be like?

There is a great deal of misunderstanding about this question because heaven in the Bible is divided into two stages: the intermediate state where we go after we die to be with Christ until the resurrection (Rev 6:9-11) and the New Heavens and the New Earth (Rev 21-22) which come afterward. While I have written on the question of what happens when we die, this article will focus on eternity future. The New Heavens and New Earth is the eternal home of the people of God after the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment. There will be no more sin, crying, or pain, but all things will be made new (Rev 21:4). The saints will never hunger or thirst again because Christ will be their shepherd who is altogether satisfying (Rev 7:17). Marriage will be no more because all of Christ’s bride will be married to him (Rev 19:7). The Lord’s supper will be no more because we will feast and celebrate with one another and our risen savior (Matt 26:29). There will no longer be a weekly day of rest because heaven will be a never-ending Sabbath (Heb 4:9-11). God the Father will display his love and kindness to us for all eternity (Eph 2:7). Heaven is beyond anything we can ask or imagine (1 Cor 2:9). We will always be in the presence of God perfectly and without sin (Eze 48:35).

But what will we do in the New Heavens and New Earth? Heaven will be filled with worship (Rev 5:9-14), service (Rev 7:15), reigning with Christ (Rev 5:10), rejoicing (Rev 19:7), and fellowship with one another (1 Thess 4:17). We will see the face of God, the one who was crucified for us (Rev 22:4). The Christian view of heaven is one that is God-centered, not man-centered. In contrast, the heavens of Islam and Mormonism are centered around fulfilling carnal fleshly desires. God is not big enough in their religions to be satisfying. He needs to be supplemented with all these other pleasures because he is not enough in himself. But we believe that our God is big enough to fully satisfy the deepest longings of our heart (Psa 16:11). We must not fall into the trap of inventing a kind of folklore heaven that is based on what we want heaven to look like instead of how the Bible describes it. Anyone who claims to have been to heaven and back is either lying or delusional (2 Cor 12:4). Not even the apostle Paul was given permission to talk about the things he saw. But even if he had, he could not describe them.

For those who are lost, this world is the closest they will ever get to heaven. For those who are saved, this world is the closest they will ever get to hell. That should motivate us to go to hell on earth to reach those who are perishing in their sin. For more on heaven, see the sermon “Heaven is a World of Love” by Jonathan Edwards.

Sunday Meditation – Unmortified Lust

“An unmortified lust will drink up the spirit, and all the vigour of the soul, and weaken it for all duties. Sin untunes the heart from the spiritual frame that is required for communion with God. Sin fills the thoughts with its enticements. It captures the thoughts, and if unmortified it seeks to make provision to fulfill the lusts of the flesh. Sin breaks out and hinders duty. Sin will darken the soul, and deprive it of its comfort and peace. Sin is a cloud that spreads itself over the face of the soul, and intercepts the beams of God’s love and favour. It takes away all sense of the privilege of our adoption. If the soul begins to gather up thoughts of consolation, sin quickly scatters them. But now, let the heart be cleansed by mortification, and let the weeds of lust be daily rooted up, and there will be room for grace to thrive and flourish, and be ready for every use and purpose.”

John Owen