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!
Anger remains a puzzle for many Christians. We all wrestle with it in daily life but it still holds some mystery. Is it ever okay to be angry? The puzzle is that the Bible affirms God’s anger—and sometimes allows for it in believers—but then confronts it as evil in most cases.
Why? Is there an inconsistency in God? Or are there different types of anger? Or does the basis of anger make a difference?
Let’s start by noticing two broad categories of anger in the Bible. One is reactive—a response to evil. The other expresses evil. One carries the energy to oppose evil and correct wrong; the other produces the wrong that needs to be corrected. One builds up; the other tears down.
For instance, the “nations rage” against God in Psalm 2—an evil—while Jesus was properly angry when he knocked over the illicit trading tables in the Temple. Jesus was also righteous when he pronounced his angry “woe to you” charges against the spiritual leaders of his day.
Paul, then, was following Christ’s example when he counseled believers: “Be angry and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26).
Yet Paul added a corollary—“do not let the sun go down on your anger”—to guard against giving an “opportunity to the devil.” In other words, proper anger, once aroused, should help reform the wrong it confronts but if the anger is prolonged something is broken.
Paul’s corollary, by the way, is part of our puzzle about the seeming inconsistency of Bible responses to anger. Let’s ask a question, then: how does prolonged anger—going to bed and waking up angry—relate to Satan’s efforts? Does time somehow transform anger into a satanic device?
Let’s also draw on something Paul said about anger in Galatians 5. There “fits of anger” are included in a sin list tied to the “flesh.” Juxtaposed to this list is Paul’s summary of the fruit of the Spirit, a list that doesn’t include anger but does include love, joy, peace, and more. So we’re reminded that the Spirit is active in the one but not in the other.
In thinking of Paul’s call to resolve anger before bedtime, two things come to mind. First, we can be angry as long as our anger reflects God’s view of evil. He hates evil and the sins it breeds, and so should we. The Spirit’s active presence in a person’s heart uses Scriptures to guide believers in discriminating good and evil.
Second, in speaking of evil we need to get below the presenting features of sin and consider the source. What motives form the particular behaviors? For Paul the countless features of sinful behaviors narrow to one underlying evil: misdirected love. He, as elsewhere in the Bible, presumes that God made us to know and to love him—to taste and see that he is good.
Satan, against this, captured humanity in Eden by promising a greater “good”. What was this good? Absolute freedom. And with this false promise—false in the sense that we were created as heartfelt responders—he implanted an insatiable appetite for independence and, with that, a complete distaste for God.
With this heart-based context we soon notice the widespread language of spiritual promiscuity in the Bible. The Old Testament prophets, for instance, regularly portray God’s jealous anger: his spiritually amorous bride betrayed him so he both confronts and woos her. Jeremiah 16 and Hosea are particularly vivid examples of this theme.
So—as humans with our own spiritual carelessness—the greatest challenge we face may be looking back at us in the mirror each morning. A devotion to self-protection and self-advancement is pervasive when the Spirit isn’t active. And when we look at self rather than at God, anger is near at hand because we never get the treatment we think we deserve.
From the start Satan’s main ploy has been to distract our gaze from God and his goodness—as he did in tempting Eve in Eden by calling her to self-concerns. He continues to do this by blinding us to God’s loving purpose for creation—a love that promises intimate care for each of us.
Anger, then, is a litmus of our response to God’s love. If, for instance, we share his grief and anger because we share his heart of loving kindness, justice, and righteousness in the face of evil, then anger will be spontaneous and proper. But if we’re angry because our own agenda or circumstances are upset, then another motivation is in play. Our own divinity has been ruffled.
But, again, why did Paul include the “not overnight” provision?
Here’s my best answer in light of what we’ve considered so far. God’s gracious care and greatness will ultimately overcome evil. So we aren’t to be distracted by evil. God himself wants to be our sole focus and source of confidence.
We are right, then, to warn the world that sin is present when we express spontaneous anger in a given moment. But after such moments the Spirit will quickly draw our gaze away from a given evil to the broader confidence that God, in his providence, is working everything for good to those who love him.
Joseph’s account in Genesis captures this. What his brothers did to Joseph in his early years was evil but, as Joseph reminded his worried brothers, “God meant [their actions] for good.” It also explains Paul’s call in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, and elsewhere, to “give thanks” in everything. So a short transition from anger—reflecting God’s heart—to thanksgiving in light of God’s rule, even over sin, is always the sequence of sound faith.
So anger may be fine for a moment—as long as it’s a proper anger—but it’s not something we embrace. We may be victims for a moment but, because of the cross, we are not truly victims. God knows how to manage evil. That alone allows for truly spiritual anger management.
In effect we’re told by Christ’s Spirit, “Go in peace.”
This post repeats my Cor Deo entry. Please post any responses there. Thanks!
Through the centuries the Church’s perception of the Holy Spirit has often been overstated or understated.
The Montanists, for instance, stirred a strong reaction by their claims of immediate Spirit-direction. And centuries later Joachim of Fiore mistakenly posited a new Age of the Spirit to displace the presumed passing of the ages of the Father and the Son. Many followed his lead, to the growing concern of church leaders.
The 17th century Puritans were then equally errant—in the face of cultic Spirit groups like the Familists—by reducing the Spirit’s role to the invisible “doctrine of means”: holding that he only works indirectly, through “means of grace” such as preaching, praying, Bible reading, and the like.
So what is the proper place of the Spirit in the Church for today?
The answer, of course, is: Whatever God wants it to be. And he gives us some clear indications in the Bible. The book of Acts, for instance, tells us how the Spirit was the overt director of early Church growth. His activism was powerful and pervasive.
Yet there are arguable hesitations in treating all the descriptions in Acts of the Spirit’s activism as normative for today. So in asking how the Spirit means to minister today, especially given the historic cycle of abuses-and-suppressive reactions, we look for guidance from the Bible.
And the New Testament epistles offer as much as we need to know about the Spirit’s work. In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, for instance, we have crucial coaching on the Spirit’s role in forming faith. Paul’s Spirit-rich ministry was described in Acts; then in Romans Paul presents the Spirit’s work with special care. So let’s go there.
In an overview reading of Romans we find what might be called Spirit-bursts among longer stretches of relative silence. The epistle starts with a reference to the Spirit in Paul’s introductory remarks. Following that are one-off references in 2:29, 5:5, and 7:6. Chapter 8 then explodes with 21 references—the greatest concentration in the Bible—followed by notices in 9:1, 11:8, 12:11, and 14:17. And, finally, there Paul ends with a micro-burst of 4 references in chapter 15.
References to the Father and the Son, by comparison, are much more common and evenly distributed. And that raises a question: is the Spirit’s role diminished by Paul’s relatively localized references?
No. The same pattern is found in the Gospels and elsewhere in Scripture. John, for one, has his own major Spirit discussions in chapters 3 and 14-16. Even the Old Testament has concentrations as in Isaiah 63 and Ezekiel 36-37.
Reasons for this pattern grow out of the Spirit’s unique role—his ministry in the “economy” of the Trinity. The Spirit, in very simple terms, has the role of facilitating fellowship or communion both within the Godhead and in our union with Christ. The Father, for instance, planned our salvation; the Son accomplished it; and the Spirit applies it. Each role is crucial but the narrative discussion of the planning and the accomplishing has the most print.
With that in mind, let’s trace the Spirit-in-Romans in a very brief overview. We’ll need to read between the lines at points and I invite each reader to take a look for himself or herself.
Paul launches the epistle with a Trinitarian reference to the Son’s human heritage in King David and to the Holy Spirit in his deity—the latter being witnessed to by the power evidenced in Christ’s resurrection (1:4). The text is cryptic—reflecting some assumptions we need to chase elsewhere.
Paul’s concern in writing to the Romans features a disturbing tension between one or more of the Jewish Christian house-churches—a group still devoted to Jewish practices—and the Gentile-Christian (with some Jews involved) house-church. The former presumably saw Jesus as the Messiah who came in a Jewish context—with Gentile Christians then expected to take up Judaism in expressing their faith. In chapter 2 Paul dismisses this vision and, with that, he reminds these Jews that their own spirituality lacks moral credibility.
The Gentile-Christian house church—certainly the community led by Aquila with his wife Priscilla (16:3-4)—offered a healthy contrast to the unhappy Jews. The Gentile Christians had an exemplary spirituality (2:14-16). Paul attributed the success of their genuine spirituality to the Spirit’s work of circumcising the heart—of aligning the heart to God’s ways by inner reformation (2:29).
The key text in Romans for understanding this inside-out change of heart was then offered in Paul’s call for hope in the face of external persecutions: “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (5:5).
Love, then, is God’s power for change. The sin of self-love or pride can only be dissolved by a greater love. And the Spirit—the Trinity’s agent of fellowship—carries God’s love to the soul. Paul—without losing sight of this truth—then called on Romans to embrace this grace of love—“that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (5:8)—with a new sense of freedom and power.
Then when we reach chapter 8 we find that, despite Paul’s silence about the Spirit’s presence and fellowship in chapters 6-7, his presence was still seen as the basis for transformation. Once again this is accomplished by the Spirit sharing God’s love with his chosen ones: “[Nothing of any sort] in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39). In other words the Spirit is forever pouring that love out in our hearts and that sets up the security we need!
There’s much more to be said but I’m out of space. Let me just say that later texts like chapter 12:1-3 call for rethinking everything in life on the basis of this love. We see this link to love in later references—“Let love be genuine” and “love is the fulfilling of the law” (12:9 & 13:10)—and in the summary of 15:13 we return to the Spirit’s work of producing hope: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
So how does the Spirit change us? By dramatic signs and wonders on the one hand? Or by disappearing and leaving the task of faith to us, on the other? Or—as in Romans—by living in us, and forever speaking into our hearts: “The Father loves you and he wants you to call him Daddy! Come with me and let’s enjoy him as much as the Son does!” Read Romans and see for yourself.
Paul’s epistle to the Romans is well known for presenting the nature of faith. One commentator claimed, more broadly, that knowing Romans well will keep readers from heresy. Amen! Yet there are some interpretive shoals to navigate.
Let’s consider one, in chapter 2:14-15. Competing views of this text have produced very different and competing versions of faith.
To remind you of the text—and please pick up a Bible to see for yourself—Paul spoke of “Gentiles, who do not have the law” but who “by nature do what the law requires” and “show that the work of the law is written on their hearts”.
Paul set these Gentiles over against Jews who felt superior because they had grown up in Synagogue-School and knew God’s commandments by rote.
The prospect Paul seems to raise is here is that every human has an innate moral capacity to be righteous: that every person in the world retains a basic moral capacity for good by having “the law [of God] written on their hearts”. And if that’s the case this capacity is the logical basis for God deciding who deserves divine aid in achieving salvation. In effect God helps those who are inclined by this natural law to ask for his help.
In this view all humanity is damaged by sin from Adam onward but we still retain enough moral capacity to be guilty if we don’t use this innate moral law. And God gets the credit for providing this capacity if and when we do use it. It’s a neat and simple solution to the question of who does and who doesn’t get saved.
But there’s another reading to be had and, with it, a version of faith that doesn’t feature innate human morality as the basis for salvation.
It comes by our asking, who are these “Gentiles”?
The label, Gentiles—or its synonym, “the Greeks”—is sometimes used for all non-Jews who are separated from God because of their individual and collective unbelief. Paul, for instance, used this sense in 2:24—“The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
Yet there is another type of Gentile in Romans: those who are not Jewish by birth yet who have come to faith in Christ. And, in the alternate reading of the text, it is this group Paul has in mind in 2:14 as he spoke of Gentiles who obey God’s laws as “written on their hearts”.
What’s the basis for this distinction?
It begins in Romans 1:13 where Paul spoke of his apostolic calling to “harvest” those from “among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.” This suggests at least some Gentiles are among the believers in Rome.
And later, in 9:30, Paul spoke again about these Gentile believers or converts who have “a righteousness that is by faith.” And, again, in chapter 15, Paul repeatedly spoke of his ministry in bringing about such conversions—pointing to his aim in the epistle to resolve a divide between some of the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers in Rome.
With this crucial discrimination in mind—between unbelieving and believing Gentiles—Paul is clearly telling a group of the Jews in Rome to quit insisting that Gentile converts must keep up with the demands of Jewish law-keeping (something the Jews themselves weren’t even doing!) because, in fact, these Gentiles were already devoted to God’s laws “from the heart.”
As he makes clear at the end of the chapter (in 2:29) a person’s heritage is not the key to being a proper “Jew” but the inward change “of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” is the basis for salvation. And, by logical extension, this inward change is never a feature of non-believing Gentiles.
This reading is reinforced by Paul’s next point, in 3:9-11, “that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” and that “no one seeks for God”. He goes on to say that the only practical benefit of the Jewish moral laws is that they make people aware of their innate lawlessness, “since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (verse 20).
So, given this tracing of Paul’s actual distinctions in Romans, how is anyone saved if “no one seeks for God”? His answer is what we read in 2:29—it “is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit”—and as we read later in the epistle, in 5:5, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” The “us” refers to active sinners who now believe: “God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us” (verse 8).
So is faith based on our own innate morality?
Paul is similarly blunt about this in another epistle, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked,” but God—rich in mercy and grace—saves all who believe from among those who were “dead” (Ephesians 2:1-8). Is this faith a product of our effort? Listen to Paul once again: “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
So what is our role in salvation? Nothing more than our response to the Spirit telling us, “God loves you!” Faith, in other words, is our response to the Spirit’s wooing love and not a responsibility based on our innate morality. So our only boast is in what Christ has done in and for us.
I’ve experienced many of the services offered by service industries. Airports, hotels, trains, car rentals, restaurants, and the like, are regular features of life lately. So here are some thoughts on how to find the best service possible.
First, services are reliable: companies remain consistent in being either strong or weak. So I always pay attention to reviews on the Internet. TripAdvisor, for instance, offers great scuttlebutt on most major travel services. Before I book a hotel room I always check their site to see the applicable service scores. If a hotel review averages a 3 or lower out of the top mark of 5 I know it’s time to look elsewhere. And any hotel with at least a 4 is a winner.
Second, I know I have to pay for good service. The more expensive servers generally have good management and good management expects its staff to serve well and will pay them accordingly. This, in turn, sets up a reputation that allows good service providers to charge more. So while I love a good value I also hate miserable travel experiences that masquerade as values.
As a negative example I recently flew on an airline that was both cheap and had poor reviews. I used them despite the growling reviews because their city connections were convenient. The trip came off as planned but only with a number of cringes along the way.
To start, their equipment was shabby and dirty; flights were late; communications poor; and standard safety rules were violated. Two gate staff for one flight were more interested in mutual flirting than in checking us in. On the flight itself two passengers were still searching for seats even as the aircraft was backing away from the gate—the flight attendants hadn’t enforced seat assignments so they were left to negotiate on their own. Then a couple of the attendants were still fiddling in the galley when the take-off roll started. Cheap service and weak service are common partners.
Third, there can always be diamonds among ordinary service providers. I remember a staffer from a service-weak airline from a few years ago. An Icelandic volcano had me parked in Estonia for most of a week. As flights were restored I needed some serious rebooking help, and soon. But the airline contact systems were virtually shut down. After many hours of dead ends I thought to call an airline center outside Europe: it was a desperate reach. Happily I finally connected with a staff member in Los Angeles who gave me all the time needed to solve things. She was a gem of wisdom and care when it was most needed.
Finally, the very best service is the product of selfless devotion. And it’s here that the best service differs from merely good service: authentic care always trumps imitations. Merely good service is pragmatic. It restricts selfish interests while still applying them. Those who care for others, on the other hand, offer the best services. They serve others in ways they would want to be cared for—with such judgments always shaped by love.
Now let’s shift categories but not topics.
How do we see God? Have we recognized him as the ultimate servant? He is. And those who know him are able to offer the very best services, services stimulated by the best source.
Behind this claim is God’s love: a love characterized by humble, selfless giving. We can think of John 3:16, of course, as the Father gave up his Son to death to provide for salvation. We also think of the Son’s example of humbling himself on the cross—Philippians 2:1-11 on this—along with the Hebrews 12 insight that Jesus despised the shame of the cross for the joy of gaining a people for himself.
God’s service also reveals what we were made to be: lovers of God and others. We were made to be like him and, with that, to discover there is more joy in giving than in receiving. Even when the cost of such service is dramatic, calling for everything we are and have.
Alternative types of service still operate in the grip of self-concern and can’t be trusted once pragmatic issues reach the bottom line. Selfishness, if present at the heart of a person or a company, eventually distorts every relationship and service.
Let me wrap up, then, with the best service statement we’ll ever hear, from Mark 10:45—“ For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Amen, and thank God for the real thing!