Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Monday, March 30, 2009


Here's an update for those who have been following the progress of my son's medical condition:

On Friday he took a fever and the lump in his neck swelled very quickly over the weekend. It is now sensitive and enlarged. It is not as protrusive as it was back in December, but it is no longer a harmless pea-sized lump.

My wife is very good with natural remedies. She has put him on her best infection-fighting regimen. I've seen this work to fight off smaller infections before, but never anything this severe.

We're praying, and considering having the surgery to remove the lump. However, we approach this with a great deal of caution. We're not too excited about the idea of putting him under general anasthesia, which would be required, and we're obviously not thrilled about the idea of cutting into his neck. Both are high risk procedures, no matter how routine the doctors make them sound. If the surgery truly has to be done, we will trust God and proceed with caution. If it can still be avoided without risk, we will trust God and proceed with caution. Either way, we need His wisdom desperately.

Oh, the heart-wrenching decisions a parent has to make! We're torn betwixt the two, wishing the Lord would make this easy for us by simply taking away the problem. We're attracted to the convenience of that solution, and it may indeed happen, but in the meantime there is the trial of having to choose.

These types of situations remind us that we are not in control, that we are dependent beings, that we are living in an uncertain world, and that God is sovereign over all. Fears can arise in an instant, nearly toppling us over - but sooner or later we find His hand nearby, and His grace sufficient. We find the God of all comfort doing His great work. Revealing His great mercy. Breaking into our terrifying world and pushing back the fright. Loving us and reassuring our hearts. We wish for the easy path through these times of struggle, but we could never experience the power of grace if we lived forever in the Garden of Eden. And so we pray, "Your kingdom come, Your will be done."

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Paradox in Christian Theology, Part 1

I've been working on the next post in the "That's Impossible!" series, currently exploring the Sermon on the Mount. I'm also in the middle of buying a house, which is eating up a lot of time and messing up my blogging schedule. In the meantime, I ordered a copy of a book I've been looking forward to reading for quite some time. It arrived in the mail today.

The book is Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of Its Presence, Character, and Epistemic Status, by James Anderson.

Anderson holds two PhD's from the University of Edinburgh, one in Computer Simulation and the other in Philosophical Theology. His book is an in-depth, scholarly defense of the paradox concept in Christianity. Anderson believes that philosophical paradox is not only present in Christian theology, but also to be expected - and nothing to be embarrassed about.

More information about James Anderson can be found here (

Over the next weeks or months (depending on how fast I can read and digest the material), I'll be reviewing and quoting from the book. Paul Manata has already written a thorough discussion of the book here (Triablogue).

Manata's review is about 1/10 the length of the 320-page book! Mine will be decidedly shorter, and divided into several parts.

Anderson opens the introduction with this quote from Soren Kierkegaard:

"One should not think slightingly of the paradoxical; for the paradox is the source of the thinker's passion, and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling: a paltry mediocrity."

Anderson quickly acknowledges the fact that many within and outside of the faith find the very idea of logical paradox to be totally unacceptable. He also notes that many others find it acceptable and even essential. He offers this definition of paradox:

"As I will be using the term, it is synonymous with apparent contradiction. A 'paradox' thus amounts to a set of claims which taken in conjunction appear to be logically inconsistent. Note that according to this definition, paradoxicality does not entail logical inconsistency per se, but merely the appearance of logical inconsistency. (pp. 5-6)

This is a great definition. I would only add that the appearance of logical inconsistency is owing to our creaturehood, our fallen nature, and the fact that God's self-revelation is not exhaustive. Therefore, some of the paradoxes will never be solved in the present age. We embrace them because we believe the Bible is the Word of God.

I'm looking forward to Anderson's defense of paradox in Christian theology from an apologetical and philosophical standpoint. I'll keep you posted as I read.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Three Dollars Worth of Gospel

I ran across this very convicting quote from D.A. Carson today . . .

“I would like to buy about three dollars worth of gospel, please. Not too much – just enough to make me happy, but not so much that I get addicted. I don’t want so much gospel that I learn to really hate covetousness and lust. I certainly don’t want so much that I start to love my enemies, cherish self-denial, and contemplate missionary service in some alien culture. I want ecstasy, not repentance; I want transcendence, not transformation. I would like to be cherished by some nice, forgiving, broad-minded people, but I myself don’t want to love those from different races – especially if they smell. I would like enough gospel to make my family secure and my children well behaved, but not so much that I find my ambitions redirected or my giving too greatly enlarged. I would like about three dollars worth of gospel, please."

Carson's satire implies what we too easily forget: the Gospel cannot be quantified, packaged and marketed. It cannot be taken buffet style, a la carte or piecemeal. It can never be reduced, diluted, enhanced, or altered without immediately becoming something else. The potency of the Gospel is in its purity. Its power is in its simplicity.

What is this pure and simple Gospel? It is nothing less than the message that God gave Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ to die for our sins, to die in our place, to die physically and spiritually in the experience of that eternal misery which we rightfully deserve. It is nothing less than the message that He took our place in death, and brought us back from destruction by His resurrected, eternal and indestructible life. It is nothing less than the message that God accepts us poor and wretched sinners based solely on the atoning death of Christ, Who as a man bore the holy wrath of God in our stead. It is nothing less than the message that we receive the benefits of His sacrifice by grace alone, through faith alone. It is nothing less than the message that in Him we died to sin, and in Him we live to God.

Our flesh is afraid of the Gospel taken straight, and rightly so. The Gospel means death to the self-centered, God-hating pride, the selfish ambition, and the idolatrous desires that infest our souls. For the natural man, it is unthinkable to lose these things. But to a heart awakened by grace, they are the vilest plague, and the thought of losing them is a delight. They are replaced by something (and someone) far greater. He becomes our joy in the midst of trouble, our comfort in sorrow, our hope in conflict. Once we have come to Him empty-handed and been embraced by His Gospel, we can't spend three dollars on a distortion of it. And we wouldn't trade it for a trillion.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Was God Invented?

"We invented god out of our inability to understand the complexity of the universe."
~James Lynne, in a written debate over the question, "Is God an invention of man's mind or a true being?"
This is a contemporary restatement of the classic "God of the gaps" argument. I have two responses:
1. Doesn't a universe so complex as to warrant "invented" explanations point to an intelligent Creator? This argument against God would seem to lead us right back to God.
2. This argument may work well if God is containable, fully definable, and ultimately controllable. But that's not the Biblical vision of God - a God Who is beyond our understanding, shrouded in mystery and yet self-revealing. Far from solving the mysteries of the universe, belief in this God introduces us to an entirely new set of mysteries. Finite man in search of answers would never arrive at a belief in a transcendent, all-knowing, perfectly righteous, totally sovereign, absolutely just, terrifyingly good, relentlessly kind, inexplicably merciful, unfathomably wise and unknowably pure deity if he wasn't made to.
I use the term, "made to" in three senses:
"made to" - meaning God surrounds us with so much evidence that His existence is self-attesting.
"made to" - meaning God is the active cause of our belief in Him.
"made to" - meaning God created us for this very purpose.
Later in his article, Mr. Lynne makes this statement:
"Since the beginning of history most cultures have conceived gods for themselves. We are a creative lot, we humans. Our ability to scheme, devise, and create is apparently boundless."
Several questions come to mind. Where did we get such amazing creativity? Doesn't the existence of vastly creative beings living in a complex universe lead us back again to the conclusion that we have been created by an intelligent Being? If one posits that we use this creativity for the purpose of self-deception (and I would strongly affirm that we do), doesn't that imply a core moral problem within us (i.e. total depravity)? Does the possibility of self-deception exist because there is no divine source of truth, as the atheist would argue - or because there is a Source, and we are disconnected from Him?
We can agree with Mr. Lynne that man is in the habit of self-deception. However, our belief in the Biblical God is not a result of this habit. Rather, it is the effect of God's merciful decision to lead us back into truth and rescue us from the lies we have told ourselves about the world, about others, about ourselves, and about Him.

We didn't invent God - He invented us!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Quote of the Day

Children are always listening to the conversations of adults. I was reminded of this tonight at dinner, when my 4 year old son looked up from his plate and said:

"If the economy collapses and I have more money than I need, I'll give you some."

I didn't know he even knew the word, "economy." What else is going on in that little brain?

IMPOSSIBLE: The Sermon on the Mount, Part 3

Let's continue our look at how the theme of “the righteousness of God” is woven into the text of the Sermon on the Mount. In the previous post we looked at the beatitudes. There are three other key texts where the theme of God's righteousness is mentioned.

It is in the sermon’s thesis statement:

Matthew 5:20 “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The thesis is simple: to enter God's Kingdom, one must have the highest possible kind of righteousness. God’s righteousness is a surpassing righteousness. It abounds beyond the very best of human virtue. The Lord goes on to give examples of how the outward, Pharisaic ethic falls short of the real standard:

It condemns murder, but inwardly burns with the anger that leads to murder.
God’s righteousness condemns anger (the root of murder), and murder (the fruit of anger).
It brings sacrifices to God, but leaves relationships in a damaged condition.
God’s righteousness values relationships above religious rituals.
It seeks legal victories, but ignores the possibility of reconciliation
God’s righteousness seeks reconciliation and brings peace.
It carefully avoids adultery, but cannot avoid the adulterous desires of the heart.
God’s righteousness deals with sin at the heart level.
It justifies divorce as a legal option, and ignores the consequences brought on others.
God’s righteousness considers how our actions affect others..
It multiplies religious promises, but doesn’t bring integrity to everyday speech.
God’s righteousness produces words of truth that are backed up with action.
It commands a love that extends to friends only.
God’s righteousness employs boundless love to make friends out of enemies.

Note that every single example deals directly with relationships in everyday life. We may be able to put on a facade of moralistic spirituality when we are isolated, but in close proximity to other human beings we quickly find we have sinful hearts.

God’s righteousness can be seen again in the sermon’s hinge point of Matthew 5:48-6:1
“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”

Here Jesus identifies the problem with Pharisaic righteousness: impressive as it may be in the eyes and opinions of men, it falls short of the glory of God. The righteous standard is GOD HIMSELF, not the Pharisees (Mt. 5:20), not the tax collectors (Mt. 5:46), not the Gentiles (Mt. 5:47, 6:7-8, 6:32), not the hypocrites (Mt. 6:2, 5, 16), not the masses (Mt. 7:13-14), not the false prophets (Mt. 7:15-20). Two things are clear from this: first, righteousness is something to be practiced; second, it is to be practiced for God's sake and not for the approval of other people.

The theme gets a final mention at the sermon’s summary call to action found in Matthew 6:33

“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness . . .”

Our Lord has been speaking about righteousness throughout the message, but here He defines the source of the righteousness He has been describing. It is from God; it is HIS righteousness. And how do we get it? By making it our first and primary pursuit, above our daily necessities, trusting God to provide the righteousness we need.
In essence, the sermon's opening thesis says, "Abandon your own righteousness - it's not good enough." The hinge point says, "Stop putting on a show - God is not impressed." The call to action says, "Seek the righteousness only God can give you - it's what you need most of all."

True righteousness is something we hunger and thirst for (Mt. 5:6). We don't come to God already possessing it. Instead we come with a need for it, and God fills us (Mt. 5:6). True righteousness is in Christ (Mt. 5:10-11), it is something that exceeds outward moral perfection (Mt. 5:20), it is something that imitates God and is practiced for His sake (Mt. 5:48-6:1), it is something that we must seek after and obtain from God (Mt. 6:33). This all sounds rather similar to the themes found in Romans, the Corinthian letters, Galatians, Philippians, Hebrews, etc. - really, it's laced through the entire New Testament, and even the Old (though less prominently). Do you see it? Far from a mere ethical teaching, the Sermon on the Mount is ultimately a denunciation of self-righteousness and an admonition to seek the higher, better, true righteousness of God – not merely as an active approach to life, but as that which we EAT, and DRINK, and as that which gives us life and FILLS US! The righteous ethic is a heart-level application of God’s Law. It’s an ethic that is tailor made to bash the living daylights out of the self-confident belief in our own ability to do good apart from the One Who IS our only righteousness. The phrase, “HIS righteousness,” summarizes both the ethic and the message of the Sermon on the Mount – and of the Gospel itself. It implies that there is a higher righteousness, that it isn't from us, and that we can get it only from Him Who is its origin and source.

Perhaps someone will ask, "where is faith in all of this? Where is regeneration? You've made a case for imputed righteousness, but what about the other pieces of the Gospel you preach? Are they in this sermon, too? And aren't there other important themes to talk about???" Stay tuned, the next post in this series will address some of these issues. Parts of the Sermon on the Mount which are virtually ignored by many of its most vocal "followers" are directly tied to the Gospel of God's sovereign grace, a Gospel which they have ironically rejected. What a joy to discover the true glory of God in this foundational text - a text which has been abused and misinterpreted to teach man-centered ideas of universalism, liberalism, political socialism and liberation theology! All of these are a result of overlooking (or ignoring) the obvious, as fallen men continue to suppress the truth in UNrighteousness . . . but may our Father reveal Himelf to our hearts as we study on.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

IMPOSSIBLE: The Sermon on the Mount, Part 2


What was Jesus’ motive in preaching the Sermon on the Mount? What was He aiming for? Was He giving us a set of rules to live by? Or was He trying to prove that we are sinners who can’t follow God’s rules? Or, was He trying to show us what our behavior can be when He changes our hearts?

What if He is doing all three - giving us a set of rules that will prove we are sinners, and will subsequently lead us to life-changing faith and spiritual conversion?

I would submit that the theme of the Sermon on the Mount is the righteousness of God. It is a righteousness that is from God, to God, and through God. It is above man's righteousness, and actually presupposes that our best righteousness is false and invalid. Read through Matthew 5-7 and you will see it plain as day.


This theme can be seen throughout the sermon, beginning with the beatitudes, which are at once a description of God’s own righteous character and the path by which we enter into that character.

For us, the beatitudes open with a bankruptcy called “poverty of spirit.” We come to God with nothing but our sins. We come empty of virtue, full of filth. We come depraved, and in desperate need of a goodness we do not possess. Here, in the very first verse, we’ve already departed miles away from the Gandhian ideal of a noble humanity full of divine potential.

Add mourning over sin and a meekness that willingly complies with God’s instructions, and you have a perfect formula for total spiritual surrender. We ACKNOWLEDGE our sin (spiritual poverty), BREAK UNDER THE WEIGHT of our sin (mourning), and WILLINGLY DO ANYTHING GOD SAYS to overcome our sin (meekness).

Central to the beatitudes is the “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” The first three beatitudes are a description of this spiritual hunger and thirst, while the fifth through seventh beatitudes are a description of what it means to be filled with God’s righteousness. To hunger and thirst is to be poor, broken-hearted and meek. To be filled with God’s righteousness is to be merciful, pure-hearted and peaceable (what a shock this definition must have been to the Pharisees!).

Blessed are the poor in spirit …
Blessed are those who mourn …
Blessed are the meek …
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness

For they shall be filled
Blessed are the merciful …
Blessed are the pure in heart …
Blessed are the peacemakers …

The eighth beatitude describes the result: persecution from a world which rejects God’s righteousness. Note the parallel structure of verses 10 and 11, in which Jesus equates Himself with righteousness:

Matt. 5:10
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness
Matt. 5:11
Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me

“For the sake of righteousness” = “because of Me”. Do you see what Jesus Christ is saying here? HE HIMSELF IS OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. He is the only righteousness that can save us from sin, change our hearts and make us merciful, pure, and peaceable. Can I get an “amen” from Gandhi? How about those Emergent folks who adhere to the Sermon on the Mount? Somehow this sermon's mere introduction has led us right back to the Gospel preached by Paul and the other apostles. Should we be surprised by this?

In the next post, we’ll examine some other places where the Lord weaves in this theme of God’s righteousness . . .

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

IMPOSSIBLE: The Sermon on the Mount, Part 1

Gandhi once said, “The message of Jesus as I understand it, is contained in the Sermon on the Mount unadulterated and taken as a whole... If then I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, 'Oh, yes, I am a Christian.'”

This seems to me the quintessential statement of man-made religion. It is raw self-righteousness. You see, as I face the Sermon on the Mount I find myself reaching the exact opposite conclusion. I say, “If this is what it means to be a Christian, I’m in big trouble.”

Liberal Christians from Tolstoy to MacLaren to Obama have persistently affirmed their allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount. For them, the sermon’s morality is inspirational, its ideals grand, its effects potentially utopian. For me, it’s the other way. The morality is impossible, the ideals unattainable, the effects demolishing to everything I am - apart from Christ and grace and the Gospel. We’re not supposed to read the words of Jesus and say, “Oh, that’s nice.” His words are intended to devastate us. Anything short of that is evidence of a hardened heart.

In the view of Gandhi and many of today’s Christians, Jesus gives the world an ethical teaching that will help mankind to become better. But this is nothing more than an expanded re-packaging of the same old legalism that Jesus is preaching against. It is an error that confuses the ethic of the Gospel with the message of the Gospel. Christ’s teaching contains both ethic and message. The ethic He prescribes shocks us and prepares us to receive the message; and the message, once received, works in us to produce the ethic. In other words, the sermon contains both Law and Gospel in perfect balance.

Please join me as I examine the Sermon on the Mount in this series of posts. Let’s study it “unadulterated and taken as a whole” as Gandhi recommends– and see what we find . . .

Sunday, March 01, 2009

What a Good Pastor Does

I had an interesting conversation with my pastor recently. We met for lunch, and I had a very pressing matter to discuss. It concerned my struggle with another person, in which it seemed quite clear to me that the other person was in the wrong. After I related my horrific tale of how I have been abused and mistreated by this person, my pastor asked me a few simple questions. I walked away from those questions very troubled. I walked away unsettled. I walked away more humbled and confronted than I have been in a long time. I suddenly found myself begging God to show me the ways I have sinned in the matter. Without being presumptuous or overbearing, my pastor had asked me if I was willing to take the big fat log out of my own eye.

It seems that we often need to be gently confronted with the reality of our sinfulness in specific situations - something we are oddly blind to, no matter how much we practice spiritual disciplines and try to serve God. I'm fairly good at developing the theology of my general depravity. But when it comes to the truly humbling aspect of this truth applied directly to myself on a daily basis, I am woefully inadequate. I can't self-pastor. This is one of the reasons God has established the Church. It's one of the reasons He has commanded us to exhort, encourage, rebuke, restore and forgive one another. In essence, He tells us to "be Jesus" to one another. And that's what a good pastor does. I wouldn't trade it for a thousand purpose-driven sermons. I'm convinced that God is much more pleased with a servant who preaches the Gospel and authentically disciples others than He is with a CEO-pastor building a mega-"church" for the masses or leading a social movement. I know I'm helped more by the servant.