How do we present the gospel to a skeptical world? Let’s consider a few common approaches.
Arguing is one option: God’s existence is affirmed by proofs such as Christ’s miraculous resurrection. The premise is that undeniable evidence for the supernatural—with the moral implications of the supernatural God in view—will stir a decision to believe. This is the evidence-that-demands-a-verdict approach.
Others may prefer pragmatism. Bill Bright’s Four Spiritual Laws set out the benefits of God’s wonderful plan to all who follow a simple problem-solution progression. Or Pascal’s wager is a similar logic-defined and benefit-based option: if God actually exists and calls for a response then a bet in his direction, expressed by faith, will have infinite rewards. Betting against him, on the other hand, will have eternal consequences—so why not make the safer bet?
Another popular option is evangelism by socialization. The aim here is to expose nonbelievers to attractive and socially adept Christians in community activities. Community based friendships allow Christians to share their faith in natural social settings. Even the more structured forms of community evangelism call newcomers to faith through group talks and individual conversations. Personal formation is the key, with the believers offering a social template for faith.
One observation stands out. Each model relies on human initiative: the reason-based models press for informed choice while the social models sell community benefits. God is ultimately and mysteriously credited with conversions once they occur but the duty to get the process moving is strictly human. And each approach, if done well, seems to bear good fruit.
Now let’s shift gears and consider God’s initiative in evangelism with John’s gospel as a guide. And, with that, let’s dismiss human agency as our first focus.
A text that sets a proper starting point is John 1:12-13. Here John elevates belief in Jesus—the “true light”—as if receiving him is a human choice. Yet the caveat is added that all who become the children of God “were born, not of blood nor of the will of man, but of God.” God’s role is crucial. Jesus affirmed the point, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).
Yet this God-centered starting point seems like a contradiction to other texts in John that promote human choice. Just a few verses prior to the text just cited Jesus answered a question about faith: “‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’” (John 6:28-29).
So the call to believe is clear. But Jesus didn’t treat all believing as equal. Nicodemus was an example in chapter 3. Nicodemus initiated the exchange by approaching Jesus with a form of faith: he believed Jesus to be a divinely enabled miracle-worker. This repeated what some men believed about him in the preceding context—John 2:23-25—and which Jesus dismissed. So Nicodemus exemplified a flawed faith.
What was missing? Jesus pointed to the divine role in conversion: the Spirit brings God’s life to a soul. Let’s call this a faith-by-participation: a union with God by his Spirit is necessary.
Two later exchanges in John add to this picture of participatory faith.
In John 8:30 another group of professing believers tripped over Christ’s call to an authentic faith. The dispute began when Jesus called on them to embrace his words in full. But they didn’t buy what Jesus was saying and eventually tried to kill him.
The problem? By rejecting what Jesus taught they showed they couldn’t “bear to hear” his word because they were actually children and slaves of the devil and not of God—“If God were your Father, you would love me” (verse 42). So the family issue was critical: “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever” (verse 35).
The next example comes after Jesus healed the man born blind (John 9). In that episode Jesus asked the man if he believed. The man responded, “‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him” (verse 38). What comes next, in chapter 10, is a continuation of that event as Jesus compared the leaders—who claimed to have spiritual insight but were actually blind—to bad shepherds, “a hired hand,” rather than the “good shepherd” who is Jesus.
Jesus then offered the punch line for true faith: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me” (verse 27).
What do we do with this? As a starter let’s shift from a human-centered version of conversion to a response-based faith. And the key here is to invite people to hear the Father’s heart “who so loved the world” that he gave us his beloved Son and sent the Spirit to whisper that love into the hearts of all who are sheep longing to be led. It’s an invitation guaranteed to work.
Is God sensitive? And if he is, what difference does it make?
But first, what do we mean by sensitive? Is it another way of saying “very alert” or “acutely aware”? God, as Psalm 139 promises, knows all our thoughts and our every word even before we speak. And in Matthew 7 we read that he has every hair on our heads counted.
That’s reassuring, of course, as it reveals God’s full awareness. But it doesn’t answer the affective question: does he care for us? As in a wife whispering to her husband after a difficult exchange, “Thanks, dear, for listening so well.” Or a friend who knows just what to say to his or her companion about a crushing loss.
In asking about God’s sensitivity we also need to consider the reciprocal: does he desire to be cared for? Can we hurt him? We ask this because in our human experience sensitivity is mutual. We love and are loved; and we offer love and are grieved if our love isn’t received and returned.
But do these emotions represent an exception: a realm of incommensurability where God is wholly unlike his creatures?
Not if the Bible speaks clearly. Scriptures regularly present him as like us; this because we are made in his image and share his prior relational qualities. God’s tender mercies are seen, for instance, in Hosea 11 where God’s heart is torn by his chosen people: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim.” Elsewhere we find Jesus grieving over Jerusalem; and in separate settings the Spirit is said to have been grieved and quenched.
Our understanding here has implications for faith. We guard or hide our emotions around emotionally distant figures. So when we read of “faith working through love” in Galatians 5:6 our view of God is in play. Can real faith exist apart from our having a felt assurance of God’s love?
By now many readers may by wondering why I’m exploring the prospect of a disaffected God. The Bible, after all, is thick with the language of God’s love, loving kindness, mercy, tenderness, and more. And we regularly sing songs, hymns, and choruses that celebrate God’s love. So why this question?
Here’s why. If we assume that power sustains authority—and God is the ultimate authority—then God’s power must be his defining quality. Aristotle, among the classic Greek theologians, made this a starting point for deity and many Christian thinkers have since assimilated his view. God is seen as the ultimate cause of causes: the unmoved mover. So to think that he can be moved—as in responding to human emotions or actions—is to deny his status as God.
This, in turn, leads these theologians to reinterpret the biblical language of God’s love. A face-value reading—in which the affective mutuality of love is a given—proves to be incoherent. So they quietly shift away from the language of human love in favor of a divine version of love as disaffected choice. This, in turn, means that God is eternally insensitive.
Yet—because most young Christians presume that God’s love is affective—the shift isn’t widely advertised. That, in turn, creates a conflicted middle ground in Christian education. Teachers who embrace this anthropopathic reversal—and who write our theology textbooks—have a major chore on hand: almost everything the Bible says about God calls for an intellectual revision and theological training features a shift to this more ‘mature’ understanding.
So this information is only for the stout of heart and not for young believers. And it accounts for the cooling of affections that regularly occurs as vibrant students enter theological training and shift from their early confidence in God’s love to a growing focus on God’s power.
Our question about God’s sensitivity, then, has a new weight in this light: is the portrayal of God as the unmoved mover accurate?
No. Let me suggest that it comes from the wrong source—from a disaffected, selfish, and unholy spirit who wants to mar the image of the truly relational God. This spirit turns the triune God—who “is love”—into a self-concerned and disaffected Power (i.e. into what Satan himself represents!).
This calls for serious chutzpa in the face of John 3:16 and the broad thrust of revelation. The biblical God features an eternal, giving relationship—with power and authority only present in the background—in which the Father has always loved the Son and the Son has always loved the Father in a reciprocal bond.
God now invites us back into this love that Adam abandoned. This love sent the Son to the cross and released God’s love to all who die with him and are raised with him. At the heart of this message is a triune God who has a heart—and whose stability and authority are not at all threatened by love. Instead we find that God has anticipated us—knowing us intimately even before we were created—with an ambition to call out a bride for the Son.
How? By drawing us with his love.
And what is the affective quality of this eternal relationship? An exploration of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. The Spirit—no longer grieved or quenched—will pour that love out in our hearts and we will live with the joy we’ve always longed for.
God, in turn, will be delighted.
Who are we?
This is a question about ultimate identity rather than constructed identity—about a defining bond rather than behaviors or circumstances. Our national identity, our socio-economic standing, our employment, our marital status—and all other circumstances in life—are only background items for this deeper question.
Deeper in this sense: the answer shapes all else and is eternal.
Eternity is the clue, of course: it’s the question of God-to-us. I first bumped into it in reading A. W. Tozer as a young believer. He claimed—and I paraphrase—that the greatest matter in anyone’s life is what he or she conceives God to be. He was right.
I’ve seen, for instance, how Hindus live in India with their plurality of deities and a caste cycle of life. I’ve been around Buddhism in Japan and India. I’ve been with Muslims in London. I’ve crossed paths with some animists, watched a few Shinto processions, and have known a number of secular naturalists. It’s not that these varied exposures set me up to say much about their quality of life. I just know they operate with a view of God that shapes them.
From a distance most people seem to be busy and engaged with life. There are, of course, certain to be variations in the quality of life within particular belief systems: some under a given divinity are poor, struggling and desperate. Others are affluent, powerful, and arrogant. Some are affluent and happy while others are poor and happy. Others are poor and angry while still others are wealthy and angry.
So the quality of person’s life isn’t the point of our question. It is, again: who or what is God to us, no matter what our varied settings and circumstances might be?
Our perception of God, then, is the lens through which we all engage life. Is God an ultimate power to be obeyed? Is he—or, perhaps, she or it—a lover to be enjoyed? Is God a moralist to be feared? Is it an impersonal force that gives vitality to life but is otherwise disengaged? Or is he a myth who leaves one with the role of creating a personal vision of life and meaning? The options are myriad!
And even among Christians the options are innumerable. Some Christians see God as a power figure: whose defining ambition is to apply his sovereignty. Others see him as a moralist: defined mainly by his holiness. Others see him as focused on glory. Still others see him as a planner who anticipated everything that now exists—picture a vast domino-tipping scheme—and then launched it. So now he’s free to sit back and watch the chain of events he once decreed come about.
None of these options is to be completely dismissed. God is wholly in charge; he knows and guides everything from the beginning to the end. And he is also holy. His glory is wonderful and invites praise. But which of these, if any, defines what he does? What motivates God?
A proper perception of God is that he is triune: a Father, Son, and Spirit God. And with that comes God’s intrinsic, eternal communion. The Father has always communed with the Son and the Spirit facilitates this bond of mutual delight. The label for this bond is love.
Why this view? Because of the cross. God gave up the Son to give us eternal life in an exchange of Life for life. The eternal Son swallowed death for us as promised in Isaiah 25:7. Death, when he entered it, wasn’t able to consume him; he, instead, consumed it. It couldn’t hold the infinite, holy Son. So he now offers freedom from death to his bride: to all those who love him.
The cross offers a picture of a holy God—the Father—whose love for the Son motivated him to create a realm by which he would extend this Triune love. His ambition is to have a people who would respond to the Son—or, in Psalm 2, those who “kiss the Son”—to be his bride for all eternity.
The means of sharing this love came in the sharing of life. The bonding presence of the Spirit—who eternally unites the Father and the Son in mutual love—was also shared with God’s newly created Adam. But the call to become the Son’s bride allowed space for alternative loves to exist. God doesn’t impose love on anyone: it’s always a heartfelt response to a pursuer’s love. And Adam’s heart turned away from God’s selfless love in favor of a selfish love: an ambition to “be like God” as a free agent.
The moral quality of God’s shared mutual love is holiness. That is, there aren’t any competing loves to be found in this eternal divine love—no discordant notes of discontent or disaffection. So Adam became unholy because of his self-love: no longer living in the communion of God’s mutual love.
The Son came, then, to gather those whose hearts were won—drawn by the Father’s mercies and the Son’s love. As God poured out his love in their hearts by his Spirit with words of self-sacrificial devotion the hearts of some, but not all, are won over.
This, then, is only a snapshot of God’s Triune love, yet it corrects the manmade distortions of God as a selfish being. Instead of delighting in his plentitude of power, the Son emptied himself to be made a man—as he and the Father had purposed from before the creation—in order to allow his beloved ones to partake in his divinity. Instead of being captivated by his own glory the Son delights to bring his beloved ones to share the glory he had with the Father before the creation came about.
What, then, is an identity that overwhelms all other false or superficial identities? Just this: God love us and we who respond to this love have a new basis for life. And it changes everything—both now and forever.
In the past year I’ve had two friends fail in ministry. I’m grieving and praying for them. I’m also learning some lessons. A church collapse also fits our focus.
Let’s begin by noticing an obvious challenge: failures bring shame. Yet we are wise to carry on despite shame. Some souls have even dismissed their shame to embrace the benefits of failure.
A tangible instance of learning from mishaps is the recent crash of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft. The co-pilot died and the pilot suffered serious injuries. The loss of life was tragic yet lessons are sure to be gained that will lead to greater safety in years ahead.
A crash is also a metaphor for what it feels like when failure impacts close relationships or a person’s identity and ministry. The church collapse I mentioned feels like an airplane crash to many of us in my region. The finale was announced yesterday as a front-page headline in Seattle area newspapers: leaders of the Mars Hill Church are dissolving that ministry.
Mars Hill—a mega-church with many outlying campuses—featured an energetic, articulate, and self-assured pastor, Mark, whose sermons at the headquarters church were distributed by video feed to the other settings. A few weeks ago he resigned under pressure. According to newspapers others on the church staff had confronted him for his overbearing and demeaning leadership. The news and television coverage noted other issues but Mark’s perceived arrogance was central.
Who knows what actually happened at Mars Hill but the outcome is clear: a church where the Bible was once well taught is now in tatters. Something went badly wrong and the ministry failed.
My two friends had very different failures. Each story was unique yet both grew out of long-term and complex underlying issues. To all outward appearances the men were morally sound when they crashed; and doors are still open for restoration. But they seemed to share a crippling fixation on life circumstances.
But that’s enough of the problems. Now let’s consider success. What, for instance, do we have in mind when we think of success in ministry? Was Jesus a success or a failure when he alienated the ruling religious and political elites of his day? Was his crucifixion a sign of success or did it signal a failed ministry strategy? And how did his followers measure ministry success in the decades after he departed?
Was the early church crushed when James was martyred? Did Stephen’s death lead to despair? Did restrictions on the early church growth in Jerusalem—as the church became less visible and started to move outward after Stephen’s death—cause a sense of failure? Wasn’t it true, instead, that the church was energized by these challenges?
Here, then, is a New Testament era measure for success. It always begins with our gaze at the cross as the place where Jesus swallowed death. It wasn’t a defeat but a victory. Paul said as much to King Agrippa and Festus, “[the Scriptures tell us that] the Christ must suffer . . . and rise from the dead” (Acts 26:22-23).
So our success as believers grows as we embrace the cross. And in a coming day God will measure us by our devotion to the crucified Jesus rather than by today’s measures of success: numbers, buildings, and finances.
What, then, does a ministry failure offer us in light of the cross? It might be God’s effort to draw us back to a proper focus. It might be a way for Mars Hill survivors to rebuild churches with the cross more clearly in view than ever before—and where love is so lively that local newspapers marvel at the humility of both pastors and members.
And what is the potential of the cross for my two friends? Can it redirect their heart-gaze?
We think, for instance, of the immoral woman who was “forgiven much” and who then “loved much.” Or of Peter whose failures on Friday paved the way for his bold assertions of Christ’s mercies in Jerusalem after Christ ascended. Paul also viewed all his early ministry efforts as “dung” after he came to see Christ as crucified for his sake.
The biggest lesson is that it’s only when we realize that failure by the standards of this world are part of coming to Christ on the cross: we die to the world and begin to live in light of eternity. And with that vision everything else grows strangely dim.
So let’s thank God for any failures that lead us to real success!
This post repeats an entry offered at the Cor Deo site: please offer any response there. Thanks!
Sound hermeneutics—the principles of interpretation—are crucial to effective Bible study. Good interpretation offers a reliable grasp of the meaning of a given text and a proper sense of how to apply it.
This interpretive work comes as part of a Bible college education. Graduates ideally go on to coach church members in sound Bible study. It all starts with impressive texts on Bible Exegesis and Bible Interpretation to help students build their expertise.
Given this level of support we should be secure in the benefits of formal hermeneutics. But that’s not the case: instead we find many Bible texts—especially those that address morally sensitive issues—being read differently by various ministers. A survey, for instance, of current discussions in gender issues and sexual preferences makes the case; or, in earlier days, issues of church polity, baptism, or the certainty of salvation.
So what’s wrong?
One crucial interpretive principle offered by Jesus during his ministry is being overlooked.
But before turning to Jesus let’s consider what a standard Bible study methods text offers. There will be discussions of the Bible documents: how they were first composed, including the literary, grammatical, and historical features that carry their content. Then the job of analyzing the texts is explored. This includes rules of context, of poetry, of narrative elements and literary devices. Each element is weighed and applied.
While this brief list may not represent all the contents of a given text it still illustrates a silence shared by virtually all hermeneutics texts. They remain quiet about the reader’s subjectivity; especially about the biasing effect of the reader’s morality.
This first dawned on me as I had a front row seat for a fascinating slow-motion event. I arrived in Chicago as a theology student in 1978—in time for The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy that met there in 1978, 1982, and 1986. These meetings eventually produced The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics.
I came to see this event as a disappointment. The Council began in 1978 with a keen sense of purpose as inerrancy was loudly affirmed. Next came a less-ringing affirmation of key hermeneutical principles in 1982. Then it ended in muted tones with a host of disagreements as the conferees tried to apply their principles to particular ethical issues in debate. In the end it seemed that all the applied issues remained as contested as they had been in the beginning.
How does this speak to the subjective element of interpretation? Let me risk using a broad brush. Those who came to the Council as infant-baptists remained infant-baptists; and those who were adult-baptizers held their ground as well. All the hermeneutics in the world didn’t change their views because their views, from the beginning, were all heartfelt and community based. The same was true of the feminists and the anti-feminists; the gay-receptive and the gay-opposers; the covenant theologians and the dispensationalist theologians. And so on.
Now to the point Jesus made. He viewed all humans as essentially subjective: as heart-driven. In Mark 7:21-23, for instance, he made this clear: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder . . . All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” In effect he identified thinking and choosing as instruments of the heart, and the heart as the location of motivations; and never the other way round.
So any notion that rationally derived interpretive principles will reshape a heart disposition is naïve. In New Testament terms we are always responders, either to the Spirit of God, or to the spirit of the world. There are just two masters of the world: God or his foe. So our hearts are ruled either by a love for the one or the desires of the other. Jesus made this clear in John 8:31-44.
That’s not to dismiss the rules of interpretation. But they only work properly when the interpreter’s heart is aligned with God’s heart. We see this in John 5 where a group of Bible scholars were ready to kill Jesus even in the face of compelling evidence that he was the Messiah. Their problem, according to Jesus? “But I know that you do not have the love of God within you” (verse 42).
Their problem was compounded by the mutual “glory” they received as a community of scholars: they operated on the basis of mutual approval—a point reaffirmed in John 12:43, “for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.”
So the only proper starting point for sound Bible interpretation—for reading the Bible rightly—is a love for God. Then all the other rules have a proper subjective grounding.
Here, then, is the first rule for heart-defined Bible students: hermeneutics must begin with the prayer of Psalm 139:23, “Search me, O God, and know my heart!”
Let’s think a bit more about the Spirit’s ministry in salvation.
Here are some basics. Paul wrote of our “having begun by the Spirit” as we meet God in faith (Galatians 3:3). The need for this ministry began with Adam’s death—a death that left him still walking and talking. Paul said more about this in Ephesians 2:1, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked [while following the devil]”.
So a key but surprising feature of God’s warning in Genesis 2:17—“for in the day you eat [the forbidden fruit] you shall surely die”—is that death is something other than flat brain waves and meeting a mortician. Adam ate and he died, but his physical life still continued for many more years.
God confronted this side of Adam’s existence by cursing the physical creation with death; and by disallowing Adam’s access to the Tree of Life. So the condition of physical death still hovers over all of human history and is only resolved in Revelation 22:2-3 when the Tree is once again available and the Curse ends.
In John 3 Jesus took up the seeming paradox of being alive-but-dead when he told Nicodemus that life in the “flesh” differs from having life “of the Spirit.” His point was that real life—speaking of eternal life—comes by our union with God’s Spirit.
Adam, by implication, had despised that union in Eden; and now the Spirit’s absence is a continuing void for all Adam’s offspring. So after the Fall God is external to human souls at birth, awaiting a possible return by his mercies. It was this reality that Nicodemus had missed: though he was walking and talking, he was dead.
Another basic truth that helps explain this is that the Spirit is fully God along with the Father and the Son. So to know one is to know all; and to despise one is to despise all because this one God always exists as the Father-Son-and-Spirit God. And each Person of the Godhead has a unique role in the divine economy as he reveals himself to the world.
The Spirit supports the communion of the Godhead as he fills the relational space between the Father and the Son—carrying the Father’s heart to the Son and vice versa. We catch a glimpse of this in 1 Corinthians 2:10-11.
What invites special attention is how the Spirit shares this divine relationship with the creation. I’ll return to this below.
Another basic is an oft-ignored distinction between the Father and the Son. The Father is the “unseen” God; so that the visible God is always the Son. We first find this in Exodus, comparing 24:10 and 33:20, and have it affirmed in John 1:18—“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” So in looking back to the Old Testament we realize that the pre-incarnate Son is the God who walks in Eden in Genesis 3; and who meets and speaks with Abram in Genesis 18; and who is seen in all the other Theophanies.
In the New Testament we learn more: the Son always reveals the Father’s heart, as in John 5:30, “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” Later, in John 12:10, Jesus pressed his full identity and union with the Father: “The word that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.”
Now let’s turn to the Spirit’s role in sharing God’s communion with God’s people. Jesus promised his disciples that the “Helper” who, in the Triune oneness is God, “dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:17). And his role is Christ-centered—sent in Christ’s “name” (15:26)—so that “he will bear witness about me.” Furthermore, “whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he [the Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:13-15).
What do we make of this? This much is clear: after Jesus lived out his life on earth God, the Spirit, took up a new job. While he has always communicated God’s life to saints in the Old Testament—with his focus on the “gospel” or “promise” offered in Genesis (see Psalm 51 and Galatians 3 on this)—we discover that after Christ’s ascension the Spirit is at work in making the now-invisible Jesus visible.
This follows from the text we just noted in John 16:15. The Spirit extends the Son’s revealing ministry to a new stage. While Jesus made the Father visible during his earthly ministry, the Spirit now makes the Son visible by his Church ministry: revealing the Son through his activities in Christ’s Spirit-guided followers. Where Jesus was a perfect communicator, we in our flawed churches need to “mature” into the job!
It’s important to understand, then, that the Spirit has always been the agent of eternal life. But his new role—after the Son’s incarnation and ascension—is to communicate Christ’s life to the world. So that when Jesus told Philip, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” he set up a pathway to Paul’s insight that, by the Spirit, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).
So with the Spirit’s “new job” we learn that the era of the New Testament is continuous with his Old Testament work of sharing God’s Life; and that his New Testament role is to focus on the Son just as the Son’s role was to focus on the Father.
So let’s enjoy what—or, better, who—he offers as we now walk and talk by the Spirit!
Let me come back once more to the late Heiko Oberman’s outstanding biography, Luther: Man between God and the Devil. In this work Oberman saw Luther’s reformation ambition for what it really was: an effort to correct the misportrayal of God that dominated the church in his era.
Oberman summarized a representative question on Luther’s behalf: “What kind of a God can it be who has to do battle against the Devil, who suffers and is crucified?” [p. 170]
Oberman then answers for Luther.
“The reproach is plainly directed at far more than just ‘Aristotle’ or ‘scholasticism.’ Since the Fall every man has been a philosopher, for he has taken his experience of the world and his knowledge of reality—which he has succeeded in describing scientifically—as a standard by which to measure God. But the intellect does not suffice to grasp the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; He must be apprehended through the Scriptures. The ‘God’ created by man is a false god of his own making.”
Let’s consider Luther’s main point: God is known only “through the Scriptures.” He set a tension that still applies. Are professing believers all in agreement with Luther? Or are many actually informal philosophers, busy creating separate gods to suit personal needs and desires?
The most telling measure of any believer—and where Luther starts—is how one sees the cross. Is it a starting point of faith? Or is it a salvation sidebar—the basis for justification but not a defining portrayal of God? The apostle Paul portrayed the cross as Christ’s dismissal of human pride and independence in Philippians 2:8—“And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
For Luther a cross-focused life violates common sense and intellect as it gives birth to faith. Faith responds to the compassionate God in the Bible: he was humiliated in death for our sake. By despising the shame of the cross God undermines pride and confronts the Devil who is a proud Spirit. With this in mind at the Heidelberg Debate of 1518 Luther pitted a “theology of the cross” over against “a theology of glory.” The cross, he insisted, is incomprehensible to the glory-driven intellect. Not because it has to be intellect-boggling, but because the intellect rejects the underlying values of the cross.
Luther’s insight—recognizing Aristotle and scholastic theologians as mere mirrors of Adam’s fallen perspective rather than guides—accentuates the role of Scriptures. The problem of sin is inclusive for all of humanity so that without the corrective lens of God’s revelation and the humility of Christ’s Spirit in a soul, people will always see life as an upside-down image: right is wrong and good is evil.
Even a quick scan of Scriptures—one of the gospels, for instance—will offer any number of these reverse-image spiritual contrasts: the call to seek Christ first; to serve rather than to be served; to count others as more important than ourselves; and many more.
So Oberman’s quip about every man needing to serve as a philosopher from Adam onward actually makes sense in this light: philosophy—the love of wisdom—is the exercise of making life work on the basis of a given set of values. If self-concerns are central, the structure of wisdom is built on that ambition. But if a person’s deep delight is to please God through love, another type of wisdom takes shape.
Scriptures, of course, don’t endorse a human-centered world and, not surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t attract a following from the self-concerned philosophers. Yet for those who have the true God in view no other resource carries much weight: only the Scriptures are full and coherent in presenting us the God who died on the cross, was raised from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of his Father.
So feel free to chase creative philosophies if you like; but the only way to approach life with a proper lens is to abide in the Scriptures. God will be waiting at the cross, just as he was for Martin Luther. And only then will the Bible make sense and become captivating; and life will begin to be all God means it to be.
Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) and Martin Luther (1483-1546) were marking figures in their day, an era when some of the biggest questions of life were being debated. Their views did much to shape the world we now experience. That’s a bold claim so let’s take a brief look in their direction in case you’re curious to hear more.
The two men shared a number of values; yet they were profoundly opposed in others. Heiko Oberman’s outstanding study, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, traces some of these in chapter 7.
Oberman—on an issue I’ll follow here—pointed to a key feature of Humanist studies shared by Erasmus and Luther: the original languages of the Bible. Both men believed the underlying texts of the Bible needed to be available to church teachers. But the two men differed in how Bible knowledge was to be applied in life.
Bible exegesis—the technical examination of Greek or Hebrew texts by trained readers—offered the prospect of clearer interpretive insights. But in practice exegetical studies often led to conflicting conclusions. So was something wrong with the approach?
Not necessarily. Some parts of the Scriptures are harder to sort out than others. This may be attributed to loosely linked texts on a given theme; or to cryptic texts that can be read in different ways. So the reader reaches conclusions by drawing interpretive lines between elements of related content. This calls for creativity and a keen sense of the author’s purposes. But—using the analogy of a child’s draw-by-numbers book—there are no numbers to guide the reader so there’s proper room for disagreement among readers who draw lines between different points.
Over against that challenge is a balancing reality that Bible authors are, for the most part, very clear in what they’ve written. Any entry-level reader will able to follow, understand, and apply most of what they’ve read.
But there’s more to it. The task of sifting out the relatively few uncertainties in Bible reading from the widespread sections of wholly understandable Scripture is multiplied by elevating church traditions—or dogmatic theology—that require texts to be read in a certain way even if that reading violates a clear or common sense reading. Jesus confronted this as a problem in his own day with the “Corban” controversy of Mark 7:9-12.
This touches a point where Luther and Erasmus differed. Erasmus approached the Bible with a programmatic skepticism that Oberman wryly labeled as an elevation of the Bible into “Holy Scriptures” that were then “locked away with seven papal seals that could only be broken by the ‘Holy Church.’”  Erasmus was like other churchmen of his day who held Scriptures to be so complex that only select scholars could interpret and apply them. He was, in effect, a liberal conservative: liberal in chasing the underlying texts; but conservative in engaging them.
Luther, on the other hand, believed the Bible had been burdened with a host of pre-judgments shaped by Church traditions that were, in turn, loaded with philosophical assumptions that either denied or obscured the common sense meaning of the Bible. The Bible, in other words, was being suppressed by systematic scholarship. Luther held that even a layman who read the Bible with an open heart could begin to see Christ with faith-producing clarity.
Oberman pressed the contrast. For Erasmus and his modern followers today, “that would mean the systematic theologians above all . . . so complicate the Scriptures that the ‘uninitiated’ Christian can no longer find any solid ground in which to root his faith. [But, by contrast] ‘the Holy Ghost is not a skeptic,’ says Luther; He does not lead us into the semi-obscurity of conflicting views on the basic questions that, true to the spirit of scholarly detachment, should be left unanswered.” 
The point is, Christ’s revelation of the Father is clear and captivating—and He is the one the Bible offers any reader who comes without wearing the blinders of “scholarly detachment” and foggy dogmatic overlays.
Yet the debate continues. The modern theological offspring of Erasmus will tell us to read their systems of theology—with the Bible held to be a storehouse of proof-texts that is not to be read as a whole by any but the experts. And, on the other hand, the offspring of Luther will be calling any who are spiritually hungry to start reading their Bibles and never stop!
So for any and all Erasmian Christians who still prefer reading Systematics as their main course of spiritual feeding, I’ll remind you that there’s an alternative to be considered.
As you may have guessed by now, I’m on Luther’s side of the debate. Come, taste and see what he promoted for yourself.
This post repeats one posted on our Cor Deo site: please offer any responses there. Thanks!
My life-changing response to God’s love—my conversion—came through a conversation with Christ. I was a young skeptic—ready to dismiss my Sunday-School charade of faith—when a chain of unlikely events caught my attention. Was God at work? Did he actually exist? Or, more to the point, if he did exist was he trying to catch my attention?
What came next can be compressed to this: I picked up a Bible and began reading the Gospel of Matthew. When I reached the Sermon on the Mount the reading turned into a conversation. What Jesus said had personal impact: as if the writing was meant for me.
What were the key features? When Jesus spoke about sin in chapter five I recognized myself as a sinner. Then I asked—inwardly but in fully formed thoughts—what he expected of me. He answered in what I read next: perfection! This back-and-forth was repeated as I raised follow-up questions, each of which was addressed just a verse or two later.
When I reached Matthew 6:33 he said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” I took it as a personal invitation and responded with an unconditioned, “Yes, Lord, I’m yours!” That exchange continues to define my life.
One impact is that I still come to Bible reading for my ongoing conversation with God. I bring my questions and concerns to Bible reading and I find his presence there, still answering and stirring new questions.
My experience raises a question: do all true conversions come by way of a conversation with God? Did my personal encounter reflect a necessary feature of salvation, or was it one option among many—or, perhaps, an exception to the rule?
If it depends on what I hear from others it seems to be exceptional—but should it be? We usually hear of two other approaches to conversion. One has been called “decisionism”: as people are invited to make a “decision for Christ.”
The assumption here is that a person’s mind and will are engaged by the speaker’s reasonable and compelling case for the gospel. Faith, then, is the listener’s agreement with gospel claims that includes a practical embrace of those claims—the “trust and obey for there’s no other way” portrayal of faith.
A second widespread approach to faith is the educational—“catechetical”—model. It usually starts with infant-baptism in the believing community. God is understood to be present both in extending needed grace to the infant through baptism, and then in supporting the child’s progression to adult faith with Christian education as his means of grace.
It’s worth noticing that both the decision and catechetical forms of faith are cooperative: divine and human actions are required. The decision model focuses on the adult choice to believe the gospel; and the catechism model relies on church training and the student’s eventual expression of agreement in order to be confirmed in the faith.
Yet something may be missing in both models. In each case the symmetry between God’s efforts and the person’s efforts are based on knowing and choosing: God informs and we choose.
What isn’t addressed is a changed heart—something only accomplished by the Spirit’s ministry. We can think of John 3 here. And the first fruit of the Spirit is a transforming love. That’s not to say that decision-based or training-based models of faith preclude an encounter with God’s Spirit and his love poured out in our hearts. Yet in many settings that love isn’t portrayed as God’s basis for awakening faith.
In James 2:19 we’re reminded that simple knowledge isn’t the sole basis of faith: even demons believe in God. And the Jewish religious leaders in the New Testament were premier representatives of an educational and decision-defined—behavioral—form of faith. What was missing? Jesus told them in John 5:42, “you do not have the love of God within you.” In other words, the calling of Matthew 22:37 to love God isn’t a passing thought. And we’re aware of 1 Corinthians 13—of faith, hope, and love—as well.
It might be argued, of course, that love is equated with obedience in John 14:21 so that love is just another word for self-determined obedience. But even a cursory reading of the context tells us otherwise. The metaphor Jesus uses in the next chapter—the vine-branch-fruit imagery—presents love and obedience as borne out of our abiding in his love, so our love is a fruit of his love and not the other way round.
So what of the conversion-as-a-conversation model of faith? The central premise is that a once-deaf—or a once-blind—heart is now able to hear and see. In Paul’s expression of Ephesians 1:18, “the eyes of our hearts” are enlightened by the grace of God. The former “hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18) that once supported alienation and ignorance of God is now undone.
All we do is listen and respond.
“Respond to what?” some might ask.
To his self-giving—as the Word of God—and to his Spirit-generated Scriptures that tell us of himself. In effect he invites us into a conversation he’s had with the Father and the Spirit from eternity past and that will continue into the eternal future for all who know him.
How do we respond when we’re served? Do we treat the service as a nice benefit that deserves a tip if it’s done well? Or is it something we expect—a benefit appropriate to our status? Or do we receive service as a kindness that delights us?
Answers may vary, of course, depending on the context. A meal at a restaurant, for one, is a service ceremony needed to get food to the customers. Some servers may offer more polish and glow than others but it’s all prescribed. Even the tip is an expected feature of the system.
A non-prescribed service, on the other hand, often reveals special kindness. Recently a dear couple picked me up from the airport as I returned from a long trip. It was an unexpected and deeply appreciated service! Or think of someone who offers help to a lost stranger or assists with a flat tire. Such kindnesses are exceptional and always draw heartfelt thanks and appreciation.
So what about the “benefit appropriate to our status” kind of service?
Years ago I visited Senator Mark Hatfield in his Washington DC office with a friend. The Senator was called away from our visit for a major vote and was kind enough to let us escort him from his office to the Senate Chamber. The special services provided during our brief transit were eye opening—most of which our host dismissed—such as unseating all other passengers on the shuttle for his sake. These were prescribed services, of course, but only Senators had the status to qualify them for such special attention. The message was clear: these are VIPs, unlike the rest of us, and they deserve unique care.
So here’s a related question. Given this range of services and responses how do we receive the services of a spouse, or a colleague at work? Does a nicely prepared meal, an hour of overdue garage cleaning, or a special effort in a tedious work project draw a pleased “thank you”? Or is the kindness seen as a prescribed activity—an expected effort—to be received with quiet indifference or a “thanks” that equates to a small restaurant tip?
In cases of close relationships our responses are a signal of our self-perceived standing with others. Friends and spouses, for instance, can sniff out self-importance if it’s present. And a perpetual “senator-at-heart” can expect the bonds of love to be stretched if not completely torn. Honest delight, on the other hand, reveals a reciprocity of love.
Now let’s shift to another category: to our relationship with Christ. Do we who are Christians see his service of dying in our place on the cross as a prescribed measure? Or is it personal to us and deeply appreciated? Does it touch us and change us?
Our answer is certain to be linked to our view of why he died for us. We may appreciate it if we see the cross as a grand “ceremony of service” that fulfills God’s appetite for epic altruism and also saves us, but we’re not likely to be excited. If, on the other hand, we see the Father and Son as the God who knows us intimately—having created us with unique and loving devotion—and has given us new life as a personal service then we’re certain to be delighted!
Jesus, in fact, does treat his love for his followers as a service of absolute love. In John 15 he expressed his deep ambition: “love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (verses 12-13). And that’s what he did at the cross for us.
I’m still growing in all this means—to have the ultimate Servant lay down his life for me—and it’s making a difference. I love him. And by that love I’m growing in my love for others.
This, by the way, is the best of all services!