Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Horton Hears a Gospel

Last night I attended an outstanding lecture by Dr. Michael Horton, Westminster Seminary California professor of systematic theology and apologetics. His topic was "The Gospel: Good News or Good Advice?" He discussed the trend in our culture to relativise the gospel message to our felt needs, and in particular, how this relativistic gospel is vastly different from the true gospel message that was recaptured by the reformers. This is a much-needed message a culture that glorifies the gospel of self-help, life-improvement, and happy feelings. Our culture is drifting closer and closer towards the empty-self, infantile, sensate narcissism depicted so marvelously in Aldous Huxley's vision of A Brave New World. Sadly, this drifting culture has resulted in a drifting church that is creeping towards a false Christianity that is more concerned with having your best life now than it is with being restored to right relationship with God through the cross. Our drifting church desperately needs the anchor of the true Gospel, which was basic thesis of Horton's message.

Horton began by discussing various false relativised gospels, such as the gospel of "personal relationship with Jesus," and the gospel of "make Jesus the Lord of your life." Horton then proceeded from discussing these relativistic gospels to a discussion of what the true gospel is. He moved throughout the book of Romans, explaining the gospel from a reformed perspective, with a particular emphasis on our need to understand and recognize our personal sinful state before God. He argued we must comprehend our sinfulness so that we can rightly see our need, and therefore understand the good news of the atoning victory that Jesus accomplished on our behalf. He did an excellent job of explaining the doctrine of justification by faith from a reformed perspective, as well as challenging the audience to stand (or maybe "fall" is a better word) in Christ's grace alone.

I did have few minor qualms with Horton's presentation. Most of these problems do not have to do with what he said, but rather with what he did not say:
(1) Horton equated the gospel with justification by faith. For Horton, it seems that the gospel is the message that by grace through faith alone in the atoning work of Christ on the cross sinners can be made right before God. I would never want to detract from the centrality and importance of this message, but if I am trying to be faithful to the Bible, I cannot be satisfied that this is the whole of the gospel. An examination of Paul's usage of the word gospel (euangelion) reveals that "gospel" is used much more broadly than just referring to Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection. Rather, it seems that when Paul uses the word "gospel," he is referring to God's entire plan/program of salvation thoughout history, the core and center of which is Jesus' substitutionary death, burial, and resurrection (see Gal 3:8, Rom 1:9, 1 Cor 15:3-8; see also Mark 1:14-15). For example, in Galatians 3:8 we are told that the gospel was preached to Abraham as "In you shall all the nations be blessed." The gospel is not simply the message of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection. Rather it is the movement of God throughout history that reaches it's climax in Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection. This is why Paul can say in Romans 1:9 that he serves God "in the gospel of his Son." Paul recognized that he was now part of the movement of God that has been occuring throughout history to bless all nations. The goal of this "gospel" is the creation of a single people for God from both Jews and Gentiles (see Gal 3:8 and Eph 2:14-18). It seemed strange that Horton did not mention this broad definition of the gospel after he asked the question, "Is God a supporting actor in the movie of your life, or have you taken a supporting role in God's drama of redemption?" (This was my favorite quote of the night by the way). The gospel is God's drama of redemption, which we are called to be part of, and of which the core and center is Jesus' death and resurrection.
(2) Horton did not address the political dimension of the gospel. This is something that I've been particularly interested in partly because I'm currently reading Seyoon Kim's new book, Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke. Many scholars argue that Paul's proclamation that "Jesus is Lord" necessarily implied that "Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not." Paul lived during a time when the Caesar was elevated to the status of a god, and pax romana (peace of Rome) was hailed as Caesar's gift to the world. It is undisputed that certain portions of Paul's letters (and indeed the reason he was imprisoned on occassion) were influenced by this context. I am currently undecided on the way(s) and extent that this should influence our understanding of the gospel. (I certainly disagree with those who would say that this means we should be against American military actions and American multi-national corporations). But whether or not Paul was using the gospel as a polemic against the Roman imperial cult, we should certainly understand Jesus' resurrection as a victory over sin, death, AND the evil powers/rulers of this age--and this should be understood as part of the gospel.
(3) Horton did not address the new creational aspect of the gospel. Something I've noticed is that people who tend to emphasize the substitutionary death of Jesus tend to recognize their forgiveness before God, but sometimes neglect the new life they have in Christ. In the same way, people who tend to emphasize the resurrection of Christ tend to focus on the new life they have in Christ, but sometimes neglect the fact that they are forgiven. (Someday I'm going to blog on this topic). Both Jesus' death and Jesus' resurrection are certainly part of Paul's definition of the gospel, but Horton emphasized Jesus' substitutionary death. As such, it seems that he neglected Jesus' resurrection and therefore the new life that we have in Christ that certainly should be understood as part of the gospel. Part of the good news is that we are given new lives in Christ and God's Spirit is placed within us to help us live a radically different kind of life (see Gal 5:22). When Jesus was preaching the gospel of the kingdom, He was inviting people to a radically different kind of life--the kind of life that one can only have by being forgiven and made a new creation. This is why in Romans 8 Paul can say that "...the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us..." (8:4). This is not talking about justification, but sanctification--the context mandates this. We are given God's Spirit, and we are thereby given the ability to live as God intends us to live. And this is part of what makes the good news good! We are not just forgiven--we're forgiven, made new, and born to a radically different kind of life in which we are not condemned to fail in our sins (as the person does in Romans 7). Do not misunderstand me to be saying that we can attain some sort of perfection. Rather I'm saying that part of the gospel is that we are given a new Source of life, and are able to make substantial progress in personal holiness. Righteousness is not only imputed to us--it is also imparted to us in our daily experience. And this is part of Paul's gospel and indeed, Jesus' gospel.

These criticisms should not be understood as indicating that I substantially disagreed with Horton. On the contrary, I found myself "Amening" to 99.9% of what he said. I just would have liked the explanation of the gospel to be a bit more well-rounded. But let's be honest... He had limited time, and maybe I'm asking too much! So let me sum up by saying that Horton did an outstanding job. He's a sharp guy and very engaging to listen to. In any case, Horton's message is much-needed at the present time, and I would commend it to anyone who is interested (and to those not interested). If anyone is aware of a recording of the event that is available for download, I'd appreciate it if you commented below on where it could be found. Thanks!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Thank You, President Bush

Yesterday, the torch passed from President George W. Bush to President Barack H. Obama. It seems that many Americans believe that Bush is the worst president this nation has ever had, and that Obama will be the best president that this nation has ever had (or at least that's what you'd believe from listening to the media). However, I am thankful for George W. Bush's presidency, and believe him to be a great man.

George W. Bush embodies what the Bible tells us is important for those in positions of leadership. The Bible states that the qualifications for those in positions of leadership in the church are primarily character attributes--not functional skills. Shepherding a church is, in some very important ways, a much greater responsibility than governing a nation, but nevertheless it remains that when the Bible gives qualifications for leaders, these qualifications primarily deal with a person's character (1 Tim. 3:2-7, Tit. 1:6-9, 1 Pet. 5:1-3).

I believe that in his presidency, George W. Bush demonstrated a tremendous amount of character. Even his critics often admit that he is sincere, honest, and a man of integrity. It's apparent from watching him that he is genuine and does not take himself too seriously. At the same time, he took his responsibility as the President with the utmost seriousness. This is a difficult balance for anyone to maintain. The only way to maintain this balance is to have the humility that comes from trusting God on a daily basis. George Bush made it known that he depended on His Savior for strength. The story of his addiction to alcohol, and the dramatic transformation that occurred when he trusted in Christ is no secret. And it was his relationship with Jesus Christ that gave him the strength to lead our nation through some of the most trying times in our nation's history.

George W. Bush made difficult decisions in hard times and did what he believed was right--not what was popular. He led us through 9/11 with courage and leadership. He established the department of Homeland Security, and prevented any further terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. He passed the Patriot Act, and vastly improved our nations intelligence gathering capabilities. He led us through Katrina. He removed an evil tyrant (who was guilty of genocide) from power. He transformed Iraq from a dictatorship led by fear to a democracy with real hope. He gave the courts conservative judges who take the constitution seriously. He did more for AIDS in Africa than any other president or nation in recent history (though this is not well known). For the vast majority of his presidency, the economy flourished due to his tax reductions. And he even saw through the beginnings of a recovery to the economic woes caused by the mortgage crisis (which I attribute mostly to the irresponsibility of people/banks who took/gave bad loans). Sure, there were bumps and hiccups along the way. Sure, there were mistakes; all presidents make mistakes, especially wartime presidents. But I despise the arrogant cynical attitude that focuses only on the bumps and hiccups rather than the big picture. It's easy to criticize someone in a position of tremendous responsibility.

George Bush's presidency was far more successful than not. And there's a key element to his presidency that deserves to be recognized: his courage. Time and again, Bush did what others would not have done, and for that very thing he was vilified: he defiantly did the right thing. He did the right thing though it was unpopular and difficult. And in the end, this is what will distinguish his presidency. He is a man of courage and integrity.

I will pray for President Obama: that God give him wisdom, courage, and integrity throughout his presidency. And that he too will have the humility that stems from a deep dependence upon the Only True God. But for now, I'd like to say thank you, President Bush, for your service to our country over the past several years. Thank you for leading our nation through some of the most difficult crises that any president in recent history has seen. Thank you for doing the right thing when it wasn't popular, and for being a man of courage and integrity. I will miss your leadership.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Profound Effect of Caring

Check out this video. This is a clip of the the magician and outspoken atheist Penn from the act, "Penn and Teller." He has a TV show on Showtime called "B.S." (only spelled-out) where he criticizes various things including Christianity and theism. It's amazing how one act of humble, sincere, loving obedience can have a profound effect on even the most vehement atheists.

1 Peter 2:12 "Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation."
1 Peter 3:15-16 "But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. "

Thanks to Dan for telling me about this.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Christians and Video Games

I have a confession to make: I am a gamer. I've been a gamer ever since I got my first Nintendo Entertainment System, pushed the "A" button, and was amazed to see Mario jump across the TV screen. Since then I've progressed across various systems including the original Nintendo, Atari, Super Nintendo, Gameboy, Nintendo 64, Playstation, Playstation 2, Wii, and my two current favorites: the PC and the Playstation 3.

So now it's out in the open: I am a gamer. But I am also a Christian, and as a Christian, I need to evaluate whether it is okay for me to play video games, and if so, what types of video games are acceptable. Let's start with the question of whether or not it is okay to play video games.

What is the justification for playing video games? The easy answer: "It's fun." Fun is a good reason to do a thing, but not good enough. Christianity teaches that joy is a great good, so fun is a good sign that there is something worthwhile about a thing. But many things mix worthwhile parts with enough worthless harms to ruin them. Some good does not justify even more bad. I loathe the attitude of some that being fun is a good reason to worry about the goodness of a thing, but I equally worry that in our consumerist culture, we might justify too much in the name of fun. So what further justification is there beyond fun? I can think of four:

(1) Video games can promote high-order thinking skills. These skills include components such as reading, strategic thinking, creative problem solving, dependency-based logic, interpretive analysis, plan formulation and execution, and adaptation to rapid change. Nearly every video game teaches one or more of these skills.
(2) Video games can promote creativity and art. Many games invite players to design their own levels, customize characters, create their own add-on content, and even modify the game in drastic ways.
(3) Video games can promote community and interpersonal skills. This community promotion includes both online community and local community. Community can be created by sharing online experiences with people from around the world (especially with the advent of Bluetooth headsets and video chats becoming available in games). Video games can also be a venue for personal fellowship locally. It's a ton of fun to sit next to a friend challenging them at your favorite game. I've personally known people who established relationships with others over a video game, and then invited that person to church and seen a dramatic transformation occur. Because video games can promote community, they necessarily can teach interpersonal skills, especially teamwork.
(4) Video games can teach moral lessons. This is a somewhat controversial point because video games can teach either positive or negative moral lessons, depending on the game. However, I would submit that there are many positive lessons to be had from video games.

Of course, these positive factors need to be tempered by the fact that all video games can be harmful in excess. The same is true with nearly everything God created to be enjoyed by us. Sex is a good thing (within marriage), but if someone becomes preoccupied with sex, this desire can become destructive. In the same way, we must be careful that we do not become preoccupied with video games so that they consume our souls and our time. We are given a limited amount of time on this earth, and we need to make sure we use this time wisely. We must pray with the Psalmist, "Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom" (Ps. 90:12). Often our time can be better spent than playing video games. But it would be wrong to say that all time spent on video games (or personal entertainment in general) is wrong. God knows we need times of rest and relaxation, and these are not sinful. So is it okay for Christians to play video games? I conclude that it is okay for Christians to play video games in moderation. This brings us to our second question.

What types of games are acceptable for Christians to play? It doesn't cut it just to say "a game that is well made" since such a statement is as irrelevant to the morality of the game as the efficiency of a murder plan is to its moral status.

The essential question players ought to ask is whether playing a game hurts us... and by hurting us hurts those who love us. Does playing a game make us less loving, more apt to spew hateful crudities, decrease intimacy, make us more likely to objectify men and women, more prone to detach our emotions from our experiences? Does playing this game harm my soul? This is the central question we must be ask. There are a number of ways that games can do this. I will briefly discuss six such ways:

(1) The depiction of evil. Many games depict unspeakable evils. However, this does not necessarily make them wrong. Not all presentations of evil are evil themselves. We can all agree that showing the raw side of life does not make a thing bad. The Bible itself quite often depicts the raw side of life. It seems that the relevant question is how that evil is presented. A film that presented genocide in a favorable manner would not be good for the culture. A film that showed the ugliness of genocide would be very, very hard to watch, but might be good for me. The book of Judges in the Bible has horrific things in it, but they are presented as the hard truth about evil. Some games present evil things as evil. For example, the Call of Duty series presents the atrocities of the Nazis in World War II as evil acts that warranted a war. However, other games present evil as the norm or even cool. In Grand Theft Auto, the goal of the game is to work your way up in an organized crime network by stealing cars, visiting prostitutes, going to strip clubs, avoiding the police, and robbing people. This game depicts evil as cool, and thus cannot be considered morally right. Therefore in evaluating whether we ought to play a game or not, we must consider how evil is presented in the game. Is it evil depicted as evil, or is it depicted as exciting, normal, cool, or good?

(2) Participation in virtual violence. Psychologists have said that participation in virtual violence can have harmful effects on one's disposition (see this article). Gamers like to respond that the Old Testament contains violent themes and images. This is a valid point that ought to be considered. Not all violence is evil or harmful to one's soul. Some violence is heroic and good for one's soul. For example, consider watching the violence that occurs in the film The Passion of the Christ. Although the violence in this film is perhaps the most horrific violence ever depicted in film, it is nonetheless arguably good for one's soul. Therefore we must ask ourselves in what sort of virtual violence are we participating? Is the violence heroic or senseless? Pretending for hours at a time to be an allied fighter pilot in World War II (as in Blazing Angels) is not morally the same as pretending to be a street thug who beats up an elderly woman for fun (as in Grand Theft Auto). Killing in combat seems morally different from killing in a robbery. Thus in assessing whether we ought to play a game, we should assess the type of virtual violence within the game.

(3) Encouragement of false beliefs about reality. Many games encourage false and anti-biblical beliefs about reality. This occurs mainly through stereotypes and the depiction of false worldviews. In playing a video game, we must be aware of the stereotypes and worldviews found within, and be able to separate these from reality. If we cannot do so, then a game may be harmful to our souls. However, if we are able to distinguish the truth from the lie, then this can become an exercise in critical thinking and help one to develop a more holistic Christian worldview. Of course, a game that encourages false beliefs would still be harmful to the general culture even if Christians were able to rightly discern the truth.

(4) Exposure to pornography and crudity.
The pornography and crudity in a video game is real and not virtual. As someone who wants (however difficult it is) to have a great love and share intimacy with just one person, I cannot expose myself to a video game that includes pornography. (And for those of you who are unaware, there are plenty of games that feature pornographic material of some sort). By crudity I mean the foul language and ugliness involved in many video games. Does this impact me? Of course, it does. If innocence and gentleness of spirit are good, then we ought to consider that games with crudity make such attitudes hard. To avoid becoming jaded, we ought to avoid games with pornography and crudity. As Paul said, "I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil" (Rom 16:19).

(5) Detachment from reality. One of the greatest dangers of video games is that they encourage distancing oneself from one's own experience. Gamers frequently say that highly realistic games do not make them killers or thieves. This is true. It does, however, encourage (like the consumption of all media) distancing oneself from what one sees and hears. Do we really want to make ourselves distant from our experiences? Do we want to become detached from our own emotions? What if we cannot "turn off" this distancing mechanism? If we cannot do so, then we may end up treating people as "means to an end" rather than "ends" themselves. It may even become difficult for us to experience appropriate emotional responses to people and events in our everyday lives. We must be careful that we do not become detached from reality by playing video games. It's for this reason that I recommend that people who do play video games fast from the games they play every once in a while to keep themselves in check.

(6) Addiction to adrenaline. It's easy to get in the habit of constantly seeking another thrill--seeking the next adrenaline rush. Often video games are like action scenes in a movie that never let up. This constant excitement can become addictive. In a world of elevator music where we almost never have time to hear ourselves think, it's important to be able to quiet and compose our souls before the Lord so that we are able to hear from Him and walk with Him (see Ps. 131). Sometimes playing video games can foster an adrenaline addiction that makes this almost impossible. Video games are not the only thing that do this. The sensate, consumerist, media-driven nature of our culture makes this a real danger for anyone who experiences the normal media that someone sees in a day. It's for this reason that we must be careful to play video games in moderation and to make silence and solitude regular spiritual disciplines.

So while all video games are not bad, some video games certainly are. In evaluating whether a video game is acceptable for a Christian to play, the above six criteria are helpful in evaluating a game. To conclude this post, my hope is that this has served as a model of how to thoughtfully integrate the Christian worldview with a normal, everyday issue. As Christians, we ought to be in the habit of thinking about how our behavior effects our souls. In order to have a holistic Christian worldview, this should extend to every area of life, including the video games we play. If anyone has a PS3 and wants to play with me online, my PSN ID is "eRaCer001" (without the quotation marks). Happy gaming!

Note: My thoughts on this subject are based partially and in some cases verbatim on a couple of blog posts by John Mark Reynolds, which can be found here and here.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Praise God for the Furnace

Below is an excerpt from A.W. Tozer's book, The Root of the Righteous. The "Rutherford" Tozer refers to is the great Scottish Presbyterian theologian and author, Samuel Rutherford. Of his Letters, Spurgeon once said, "let the world know that Spurgeon held Rutherfurd's Letters to be the nearest thing to inspiration which can be found in all the writings of men... none penetrated further into the innermost heart of holy fellowship with Jesus." Enjoy!

It was the enraptured Rutherford who could shout in the midst of serious and painful trials, “Praise God for the hammer, the file and the furnace.”

The hammer is a useful tool, but the nail, if it had feeling and intelligence, could present another side of the story. For the nail knows the hammer only as an opponent, a brutal, merciless enemy who lives to pound it into submission, to beat it down out of sight and clinch it into place. That is the nail’s view of the hammer, and it is accurate except for one thing: The nail forgets that both it and the hammer are servants of the same workman. Let the nail but remember that the hammer is held by the workman and all resentment toward it will disappear. The carpenter decides whose head shall be beaten next and what hammer shall be used in the beating. That is his sovereign right. When the nail has surrendered to the will of the workman and has gotten a little glimpse of his benign plans for its future it will yield to the hammer without complaint.

The file is more painful still, for its business is to bite into the soft metal, scraping and eating away the edges till it has shaped the metal to its will. Yet the file has, in truth, no real will in the matter but serves another master as the metal does also. It is the master and not the file that decides how much shall be eaten away, what shape the metal shall take, and how long the painful filing shall continue. Let the metal accept the will of the master and it will not try to dictate when or how it shall be filed.

As for the furnace, it is the worst of all. Ruthless and savage, it leaps at every combustible thing that enters it and never relaxes its fury till it has reduced it all to shapeless ashes. All that refuses to burn is melted to a mass of helpless matter, without will or purpose of its own. When everything is melted that will melt and all is burned that will burn, then and not till then the furnace calms down and rests from its destructive fury.

With all this known to him, how could Rutherford find it in his heart to praise God for the hammer, the file and the furnace? The answer is simply that he loved the Master of the hammer, he adored the Workman who wielded the file, he worshiped the Lord who heated the furnace for the everlasting blessing of His children. He had felt the hammer till its rough beatings no longer hurt; he had endured the file till he had come actually to enjoy its bitings; he had walked with God in the furnace so long that it had become as his natural habitat. That does not overstate the facts. His letters reveal as much.

Such doctrine as this does not find much sympathy among Christians in these soft and carnal days. We tend to think of Christianity as a painless system by which we can escape the penalty of past sins and attain to heaven at last. The flaming desire to be rid of every unholy thing and to put on the likeness of Christ at any cost is not to be found among us. We expect to enter the everlasting kingdom of our Father and to sit down around the table with sages, saints and martyrs; and through the grace of God, maybe we shall; yes, maybe we shall. But for most of us it could prove at first an embarrassing experience. Ours might be the silence of the untried soldier in the presence of the battle-hardened heroes who have fought the fight and won the victory and who have scars to prove that they were present when the battle was joined.

The devil, things and people being what they are, it is necessary for God to use the hammer, the file and the furnace in His holy work of preparing a saint for true sainthood. It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply.

Without doubt we of this generation have become too soft to scale great spiritual heights. Salvation has come to mean deliverance from unpleasant things. Our hymns and sermons create for us a religion of consolation and pleasantness. We overlook the place of the thorns, the cross and the blood. We ignore the function of the hammer and the file.

Strange as it may sound, it is yet true that much of the suffering we are called upon to endure on the highway of holiness is an inward suffering for which scarcely an external cause can be found. For our journey is an inward journey, and our real foes are invisible to the eyes of men. Attacks of darkness, of despondency, of acute self-depreciation may be endured without any change in our outward circumstances. Only the enemy and God and the hard-pressed Christian know what has taken place. The inward suffering has been great and a mighty work of purification has been accomplished, but the heart knoweth its own sorrow and no one else can share it. God has cleansed His child in the only way He can, circumstances being what they are. Thank God for the furnace.