Monthly Archives: August 2012

Faith and Reason, part 2

Photo: Synagogues such as this one in Chorazin on the Sea of Galilee functioned as places of faith and learning for the Jews.

Faith should be enriched through learning, and reason should be chastened by faith. We looked at the first half of this statement in the last blog post. Today, we’ll look at the second half.

Reason should be chastened by faith. Higher institutions of learning often miss the mark on this one, which becomes obvious when we take note of the many universities that began with a Christian mission but have long since drifted from those moorings. In an academic environment, there is always a danger of allowing reason to run roughshod over faith.

Proverbs 9:10 (and 1:7) reminds us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

Jeremiah 9:23-24: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom . . . but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice, and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.”

1 Corinthians 1:25: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”

Throughout church history, theologians such as Augustine and Anselm have reiterated the commitment to “faith seeking understanding.”

All of the above excerpts communicate the idea that reason operates best when it is solidly within the context of a robust devotion to God. We integrate all other learning into a worshipful life with God and a commitment to following Christ over the course of our entire lives. We make sure reason is chastened by faith because when reason functions independently, it can lead us astray, especially in our conclusions about God and his workings (theologians talk about the noetic effects of sin, or the negative influence of sin on our minds and thinking).

We begin a new semester with the desire to finish with a stronger, more enriched faith than before. This requires intentional preparation and ongoing focus. Regular involvement in a healthy local church is essential along the way, since a church by design places its priorities of worship and faith at the front and center. As faith leads the way and learning is done with excellence and humility, may we reach the goal of greater intimacy with God and greater confidence in him.


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Faith and Reason, part 1

A new semester is about to begin. Students are settling into dorms, professors are preparing syllabi, and all of us are about to embark on a journey of faith and reason. How should we think about this relationship between faith and reason? Here’s an attempt:

Faith should be enriched through learning, and reason should be chastened by faith.

First, faith is enriched through learning. We tend to assume this as a given in Christian higher education, and rightly so. From the creation mandate of Genesis 1:26-28 to the creation wisdom of Proverbs to the new creation vision of Isaiah, Revelation, and elsewhere, believers are invited to make creative and productive use of the resources of this world and the learning available to us.

Consider this new creation vision of work in Isaiah 65:21-23:

“They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit . . . My chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not toil in vain.”

The new creation will be characterized by creative, fruitful work, in fulfillment of the original creation mandate of Genesis 1. Beneficial work in this world connects us back to what we were created for and points us forward to the ultimate new creation that God is preparing.

Preparing for meaningful work requires thinking, creating, observing, learning, experimenting – things we do in higher education. For those who prepare well, there can be great opportunity: “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings” (Proverbs 22:29).  A commitment to learning, curiosity, persistence, and excellence in our schooling equips us to bless people and make a difference in our world.

The book of Proverbs beckons us to gain insight both from knowledge shared by others (Prov 1:1-6) and from observations about the natural world (Prov 30:24-33). Attentiveness to the world around us enriches our appreciation for the order, beauty, and complexity of God’s creation and our place in it (Psalm 8:3-8).

Reason should be seen as one of God’s good gifts to us (1 Timothy 4:4, James 1:17), leading us to lives of wisdom, fruitfulness, and worship (Romans 11:33-36; James 3:13). This brings us to the second half of the equation – that reason should be chastened by faith. We will look at this second point later this week.

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Spiritual Fruit: What Does It Look Like?

In the previous post I wrote about the role of “spiritual fruit” in the believer’s life. Fruit is a result of new life in Christ, by the Spirit, not a means of earning that new life.

This time, we’ll see that spiritual fruit comes in all shapes and sizes:

1) Spiritual fruit consists of moral virtues such as righteousness, love, joy, peace, etc. (Gal 5:22; Phil 1:11; Heb 12:11, James 3:17). Our lives are fruitful when they are saturated with Christlike attitudes and postures towards others.

2) Spiritual fruit is aligned with “light” and contrasted with “the unfruitful deeds of darkness,” which is behavior that characterizes “pagans,” or those who have no knowledge of the true and living God (Eph 5:8-11). The idea here is that spiritual fruit looks like lifestyle habits that reflect the holiness of God and our identity as his holy people.

3) Spiritual fruit is expressed through specific acts of “good works” (Col 1:10, Titus 3:14), such as acts of service, hospitality, or generosity.

4) Spiritual fruit is observed when we promote social justice and righteousness rather than bloodshed and oppression (Isaiah 5:4, 7). This involves protecting the rights and meeting the needs of the overlooked and powerless.

5) Spiritual fruit is associated with making disciples. This is the best interpretation of John 15:16, where Jesus tells his disciples that he appointed them to bear fruit that will last (see the related idea of the gospel “bearing fruit and growing in all the world” in Col 1:6).

6) Ultimately, any productive or constructive endeavor can fall under the umbrella of spiritual fruit, as suggested by the creation mandate of Genesis 1:26-28 (“Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish . . . the birds. . . the animals” – NLT). When Christians are united with Christ and are empowered by the Spirit, we can help fulfill this original vision of implementing God’s creative and benevolent reign in the earth through both our church ministries and our vocational callings.

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Grace, works, and fruitfulness

Many Christians are familiar with the distinction between grace and works as the entryway into a relationship with God. Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV) presents this contrast quite memorably: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Likewise, Titus 3:4-5 says, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we have done, but because of his mercy.” The clear teaching in these passages is that our salvation is given by God as a gift, not in response to our impressive religious résumés.

But these verses and others do not simply discard good works from the life of a Christian. Loving, God-pleasing actions are still meant to characterize the Christian life. Throughout the New Testament, the imagery of “fruit” communicates that God expects loving and productive lives to blossom as a natural outgrowth of our relationship with God in Christ.

Even in the Old Testament, and continued in the New Testament, God talks about his people as a vineyard that is lovingly planted and cultivated by God himself. Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-43 both display the shocking incongruity between such a carefully planted and tended field and the lack of fruit that results (as a result of the people’s hard hearts and resistance to God’s work).

The famous parable of the four soils identifies fruitfulness as the mark of the person who hears and truly receives God’s message of his kingdom (Matt 13:22-23). John 15 develops the imagery of Christ as the vine and believers as the branches, with the desired outcome of “bearing much fruit” (John 15:5, 8) and bearing long-lasting fruit (John 15:16) as we draw life from Christ.

Paul talks about the “fruit of the Spirit” produced in a believer’s life (Gal 5:22) and prays that believers would “please God in every way, bearing fruit in every good work” (Col 1:10) and that we would be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:11). In fact, the very reason that we are united in relationship to God through the resurrected Christ is so that “we might bear fruit for God” (Rom 7:4).

On the flip side, biblical authors warn against a life of unfruitfulness, devoid of good works: “Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order to provide for urgent needs and not live unproductive (literally, unfruitful) lives” (Titus 3:14); and, “For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive (unfruitful) in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:8). Jesus himself makes it clear that “every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit; a good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit” (Matt 7:17-18).

The imagery of fruitfulness is so appropriate for the Christian life. Trees or vines become fruitful because they have life flowing through them. The Christian is made alive with Christ by the life-giving Holy Spirit. Our union with Christ and empowerment by the Spirit make fruitful living possible.

As a new semester is about to begin for many of us, let’s pray for and aim for a year of fruitfulness – productivity in our studies and service, along with relationships and actions that bless others. Deep down, this is the life we all want, and it is what God has designed us for since the beginning of time.


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Broadening Our Horizons

(View from the top of the famous Yellow Mountains – Huangshan, China)

We can easily succumb to tunnel vision in our Christian outlook. We are so immersed in our own time and place that it is easy to develop blind spots in our faith. In any given circle of believers certain aspects of Christianity are emphasized while others are neglected, leaving us unbalanced in our Christian faith and practice.

Here are two tried and true ways of broadening our horizons as believers:

1) Broaden them geographically. There are probably Christians from different cultures in your church, dorm, or neighborhood. Ask them what stands out to them about the Christianity they have observed in your culture. For instance, a friend from England once shared with me that he was struck by how openly material wealth seemed to be embraced among Christians in churches he visited in America.  You can also travel to another culture and watch how Christians in that culture live, pray, and worship. Ask them about how they became Christians or the obstacles they face as Christians in their culture. I have found that Christians from other cultures can teach me a lot about topics such as suffering, prayer, simplicity, and reverence.

2) Broaden them chronologically. Read church history! There are few things more beneficial to understanding the Bible and the Christian life than becoming conversant with influential figures in church history. Note how Christians from earlier eras talked about God and their faith. The contrast between their faith and ours is often striking. Were they misguided at times? Absolutely. Are we misguided at times? Why would we think otherwise? Reading church history and looking for points of disconnect can expose both their blind spots (which are easier to identify) and ours (which require humility and open-mindedness to detect). Here are some recommended places to start with church history:

– the Apostolic Fathers who lived shortly after the age of the apostles (especially 1 Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, the Didache, and the Epistle to Diognetus)

– 2nd and 3rd century church leaders Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian

Augustine (start with Confessions, from the late 4th century)

Luther, Calvin, and Wesley from the Reformation and beyond

– Missionaries from previous generations (Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, and Jim Elliot) or those who followed Christ during extraordinary times (Corrie ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer). These believers often possess a refreshing clarity about God that I lack.

Travel the world (including your own neighborhood), or travel through history. Both practices can challenge and enrich our vision for the Christian life.


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The Gospel in One Sentence

Christians talk about the “gospel” as a summary term for the message of the good news about Jesus (gospel means “good news” in the original Greek language) that was proclaimed in the early church. This past school year as part of a panel I was asked to define the gospel in one sentence.

This is more than just an academic exercise. Grasping the gospel shapes our sense of who we are in Christ and brings clarity to our ministry to others. The gospel gives meaning to this world and shows how the unfolding plan of God comes to fruition.

There are several tensions to address when defining the gospel:

1) The tension between faithfulness (to Scripture) and effectiveness (to the audience one has in mind). A good gospel definition needs to be strong in faithfulness for sure, but some fresh wording doesn’t hurt, either. Also, since the gospel is expressed with considerable variety in Scripture (and not just as a repeated formula), there can be some creativity about how we articulate the gospel, as long as fidelity to the Scriptures is not neglected.

2) The tension between breadth and focus. The good news proclaimed in the Bible is often expansive in scope (especially with references to the “kingdom,” or God’s comprehensive and life-giving reign over the earth – see “gospel of the kingdom” in Matt 4:23; Matt 9:35; Luke 16:16). There are hints that all of creation will be transformed by God’s power (Rom 8:18-23; Eph 1:9-10; Col 1:20). But there is also a repeated focus on Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1), his sacrificial death and resurrection (1 Cor 15:1-5; Rom 1:1-4; 2 Tim 2:8), and the salvation, blessing, and resurrected life that arises from that work (Rom 1:16; Gal 3:8; Eph 3:6; 2 Tim 1:10). The work of Christ impacts individual lives as part of a creation-wide plan.

3) The tension between God’s work and our response. The gospel is assuredly first and foremost about the good news of what God has done for this world in Christ. The accent is on his work, not ours (see Rom 8:28-39 for a beautiful overview of God’s work). But the proclaimed gospel of God’s gracious work is often linked to an expected human response, whether it is “repent and believe” (Mark 1:15), “believe” (Eph 1:13), or even “obey the gospel” (1 Pet 4:17).

4) The tension between the good news of the gospel and the bad news that necessitates God’s good intervention in the first place. My inclination is that the gospel ought to sound like good news – as something to be joyfully announced to the world (see Isa 40:9-11; 52:7). But since the gospel arrives as part of a story – a story of a broken world filled with helpless and ungodly people (Rom 5:6) who are under God’s judgment (Gen 2:16-17, Gen 3, for starters), it does make sense to give some background to the story before explaining the climactic good news intervention.

Without further ado, here’s my definition: “The gospel is the good news that Jesus is bringing God’s abundant and restorative kingdom to this world, and that through his sacrificial death for our sins and his resurrection, all who trust in him can participate in his kingdom forever.”

Final unanswered questions about my definition:

1) Should “kingdom” be defined (since many people have different ideas about what “kingdom” means)?

2) Should God’s motivation for action – his love, mercy, and grace – be emphasized somewhere?

3) Should God’s holiness, our sin, and judgment be more explicit in the definition, and not just part of the back story?

4) Is the wording “Jesus is bringing the kingdom” too vague? Should we specify instead the “already” and “not yet” of Christ’s kingdom work?

5) Is the wording “participate in the kingdom” too vague? Should we highlight both enjoying kingdom blessings and serving the King here?

6) Should the Holy Spirit be mentioned somewhere?

7) Should the particular blessing of entering into relationship with God (Eph 2:17-18) be stressed?

So much to say, so little space. What needs to be placed front and center?

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Robot Cars and Discipleship

Our family recently watched a documentary about the DARPA challenge, in which robot vehicles attempt to be the first to complete a rugged race course of more than 7 miles. The catch is that once the race begins, the robots cannot be controlled or given input commands from humans. Furthermore, the teams are given a detailed map of the course only hours before the race begins.

(No, these are not two of the cars in the race; these are my son’s remote control cars!)

In 2004, the first year of the race, no car successfully completed the course, so the competitors went all out in preparation for 2005. There were two teams that were pegged as favorites in the competition. One team, from Carnegie Mellon, relied on a strategy of extensive and detailed data entry for its two cars. Once the large team obtained maps for the race, team members quickly entered as much data as they could about each turn, bump, and bend in the course so that their cars would be programmed to make the correct turns at each point of the course.

The other favorite, a small team from Stanford, chose a markedly different strategy. Instead of giving specific instructions to help the car navigate each part of the course, the team programmed the car (nicknamed “Stanley”) to be able to improvise by using advanced sensors that sized up the terrain on the fly. The information from the sensors then directed the car to make the required adjustments. In a hard fought race, Stanley emerged as the victor.

Christians run the race similarly to Stanley. The course is marked out for us in a clear way, in line with the revealed character and will of God. We know the overall contours of the terrain, shaped by values such as  love, holiness, unity, and service. God also gives us a number of general commands for our lives: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44); “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor 6:18); “Don’t show favoritism” (James 2:1). And the ultimate goal for our lives is certain: conformity to the image of God in Christ (Col 3:10; Rom 8:29).

But the way that we run the race stands out.  As Christians we are not given detailed instructions in the Bible about what to do in every specific situation we confront in life. Instead, God gives us the tools we need to make the right, biblical decisions about how to live in any circumstance we encounter. He gives us his Spirit to direct us and empower us for obedience (Gal 5:16; 5:25; Rom 8:26-27). He gives us wisdom to know how to apply God’s truth (James 1:5; Col 1:9). He gives us the believers around us to provide encouragement and input (Heb 10:24-25). Christians are not governed by an exhaustive list of do’s and don’t’s for every circumstance. In the daily experience of our lives, in decisions big and small, we improvise, walking in dependence, wisdom, and community.

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