Monday, May 23, 2016

The Wrath of God - Nuanced as Divine Consent - Brad Jersak

A pastor-friend of mine from America was telling me about how one of his pristine elderly congregants was lamenting news of the latest death of their troops in the Middle East. This precious Christian lady said, “Our boys are over there getting killed by the people they are trying to help. Maybe we need another Hiroshima.”

Why do we go there? My best answer: the language of wrath is an expression of our felt-need for God to straighten out the ‘bent-ness’ of injustice in our world. Even those who don’t profess faith find themselves looking over their shoulder when tragedy strikes. “What did I do to deserve this?” We find ourselves looking up and asking, “Why am I being punished?” Why is that?

Three points on the language of wrath

1. The wrath of God as metaphor: 

French philosopher, Simone Weil, once said that God never interferes with secondary causes. That is, God doesn’t micromanage consequences. Thus, when the Bible speaks of the ‘wrath of God,’ this is simply a metaphor for the fact that God consents to our willful defiance and the destructive trajectories of our selfish choices. In Bible language, “God gives us over” to having it our own way (Job. 8:4; Ps. 81:12; Isa. 64:5-7; Ezek. 20:25; Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). So God doesn’t smite us – we smite ourselves by wandering away into the violent darkness.

Yet, she says, God’s love does interact in the world wherever a willing partner consents to be a vessel and mediator of God’s self-giving love. When Jesus prays, ‘Not my will, but yours be done,’ he becomes the prototype of this theology of consent, as described in my book, A More Christlike God.

Weil’s take has been my stock answer to the language of wrath. ‘Wrath’ is simply a for the cause-effect relationship of sin-destruction. ‘Wrath’ describes the laws of the universe that Hinduism refers to as karma or Jesus describes as the law of sowing and reaping. For example, that ‘bad guy’ is dead. Why is he dead? He used drugs, developed an addiction, overdosed and now he's dead. Observers—even biblical observers—might metaphorically call that 'wrath', but only in the indirect sense of God allowing consequences. But there's a problem...

2. When wrath is massively underplayed:  

Whether we understand wrath as God’s direct intervention against sin or a metaphor for natural / supernatural consequences, then we must testify: wrath is not very good at what it’s supposed to do. It is not timely (in the case of Hitler or Anders Breivik) and not sufficiently severe to satisfy the victim. Worse, the wicked often prosper deliciously with no just consequence in this world—direct or not—and the wrath we would want for them does not seem forthcoming. They get away with it, sometimes to the end.

In our example, ‘bad guy’ doesn’t do drugs. He sells drugs and the only consequence seems to be that he’s getting fabulously wealthy and powerful, while his victims are the ones perishing. Here, the victims begin to question whether wrath as intervention or consequence is just at all, because frankly, the golden scales don't balance. The psalmists (Ps. 73) and prophets (Jer. 12) see this, and in the genre of lament ask, 'Why do the wicked prosper? 

We quote the Bible to suggest two answers to this aching desire for justice (or rather, for revenge). One is the retribution Miller wrote about: We preach, ‘Don’t worry, their day of judgment is coming. They can run, but they can’t hide. Hell will catch them in due time. Vengeance and retribution belong to God.’ (Nahum, Habakkuk, Rom. 12:19). The other response is a warning: ‘Don’t fret over evildoers; it only leads to evil.’ The bullied and oppressed become bullies and oppressors (Ps. 37:8). Yes. Seen it—been it. But vigilante justice, or fantasies thereof, is tempting when wrath against the tyrant is obviously underplayed.

3. When wrath is massively overblown: 

Conversely, wrath as judgment or consequences for may seem reasonable at first. For example, when the Jewish prophets announce the destruction of Jerusalem and exile into bondage as punishment for national rebellion. “We’re suffering! What did we do wrong? Oh that … okay. That makes sense.” But then after a while, when the exile lengthens to generations and the suffering intensifies into slavery, torture and massacre, we start wondering. The suffering experienced was supposed to be just punishment or natural consequences. But eventually the afflictions become such an obvious, brutal case of overkill that they cannot possibly be just. Not by God's standards of justice nor any norms of causality.

In our example, the ‘bad guy’ high on drugs has driven while stoned, he’s fleeing the cops, and t-bones a young family in their mini-van on the way home from Chick-fil-A, killing them all. Or the tornadoes and famine that have plagued the US this year seem to be devastating the Bible Belt faithful along with the evil Other. The book of Lamentations or the martyrs under the altar (Rev. 6) know this isn't quite fair. When fair wrath crumbles under the imprecision or overkill of its random judgments, I am frustrated because if not wrath, 'Why?'

In the end, our constructs of wrath as divine judgment or karmic consequence are failed attempts at theodicy. We try to resolve the problem of evil and suffering by creating a just solution involving an equalizing wrath. We look initially at suffering simply as a result of sin which will then come into balance as the wicked have to pay for what they did. BUT that theology also corners us into blaming the victim (or victim’s parents – John 9) ... are they paying for something they did?

Once we discover the painful truth—when we see how the just balance of wrath virtually never happens in this life—we resort to an afterlife judgment for the wicked. ‘Bad guy’ won’t ultimately get away with violence and debauchery. And for the victim, we either need a backstory to explain why they're being punished now (reincarnation, generational curses, original sin)… OR a future life where rewards far outweigh the suffering (Rom. 8:18).

All of this shoves my own theology of consent a difficult step forward. That is, I have said that biblical wrath is a metaphor to describe natural and supernatural consequences for our sins. And Romans 1 appears to make that case. But when it comes to how life and death actually work, so conceiving wrath might also happen to be wrong. In reality, Job notes that disasters happen to the righteous and the wicked alike. Jesus says that grace rains and shines on both the righteous and wicked. In the end, a theodicy founded on theories of wrath to cope with suffering or demand punishment are just not how life or justice or God work in practice. And in fact, that might be what Paul is arguing in Romans 1. Perhaps Paul isn't mistaken in saying that God gives the wicked over to the just consequences of sin; rather, in context Paul may be refuting this as our mistaken longing for wrath, in view of God's mercy.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Did God Give Me Cancer? - Zack Hunt

You know, if I had known just how terrible chemotherapy would be, I never would have gotten cancer in in the first place.
(It’s ok to laugh. That was a joke.)
But the amount of love and support, encouragement and prayers from friends and loved ones, long lost acquaintances and complete strangers has made life more than bearable.
It’s made life worth living, worth fighting for.
I am grateful beyond words for the myriad of ways kindness has been poured into my family’s life over the past few weeks. It’s a debt I doubt I will ever be able to fully repay, but will most certainly try.
I’m also grateful for what hasn’t been said.
In moments like this when someone we know is diagnosed with a horrible disease or when someone we love is taken from us tragically, we often and understandably find ourselves at a loss for words. We know there’s nothing we can say that will offer the sort of deep peace and healing that is needed and yet we feel compelled to speak anyway because silence can be so terrifying and, unfortunately, as we fumble for what to say we sometimes end up compounding the pain instead of bringing the peace we hoped to give.
Whether it is through the inherent wisdom of my friends and family or some sort of prevenient grace, I was never told even once over the past few weeks that my cancer diagnosis happened for a reason or that it was somehow part of God’s plan, some sort of cruel plot device the divine decided to hurl my way for some mysterious purpose.
As I’ve said so many times already, I’m one of the lucky ones.
No one told me that God gave me cancer.
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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

What is Gospel - Part 1 - Greg Albrecht

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, "The righteous will live by faith."—Romans 1:16-17
Paul 1) categorically states that he is not ashamed of the gospel, 2) defines the gospel as the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, and 3) asserts that the gospel inherently includes a righteousness from God—a righteousness by faith—precluding any sort of righteousness which may come, or seem to come, by some other source.
Let's pause and consider Paul's bold, imperative and dogmatic statement—
I am not ashamed of the gospel.
Are you ashamed of the gospel? Of course in order to fully answer that question we must address what the gospel is. So let's do that first. Let's take our helicopter of biblical understanding and hover over this passage. Let's hover over not only the ink and paper of our Bibles, but let's take some time to ponder and assimilate the revelation of Jesus Christ that is a part of this written message.

What is the gospel? The gospel is the power of God. It saves us from ourselves, if we believe.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The War of the Lamb - Brian Zahnd

26293332514_9c6baa06fa_zThose who want to hold onto a primitive vision of a violent and retributive God often cite the white horse rider passage from Revelation. They will say something like this: “Jesus came the first time as a lamb, but he’s coming back the second time as a lion.” (Despite the fact that no lion is ever seen in Revelation — the lion is the Lamb!) By this they mean the nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels is going to mutate into what they fantasize is the hyper-violent Jesus of Revelation.

Sadly, the proponents of this flawed interpretation seem to prefer their imagined violent Jesus of the future over the nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels. At a basic level they essentially see the Bible like this: After a long trajectory away from the divine violence of the Old Testament culminating in Jesus renouncing violence and calling his followers to love their enemies, the Bible in its final pages abandons a vision of peace and nonviolence as ultimately unworkable and closes with the most vicious portrayal of divine violence in all of Scripture.

In this reading of Revelation, the way of peace and love which Jesus preached during his life and endorsed in his death, is rejected for the worn-out way of war and violence. When we literalize the militant images of Revelation we arrive at this conclusion: In the end even Jesus gives up on love and resorts to violence. Tragically, those who refuse to embrace the way of peace taught by Jesus use the symbolic war of Revelation 19 to silence the Sermon on the Mount.
This kind of hermeneutic has disastrous implications; it mutes Jesus’ message of peace and forgiveness. When we literalize the ironic and symbolic images employed by John of Patmos, we illegitimately use Revelation to give license for our own hellish violence. We reason, if Jesus is going to kill two hundred million people upon his return, what does it matter if we kill one hundred thousand people at Hiroshima?

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Monday, May 9, 2016

10 percent grace and 90 percent law? - Greg Albrecht

 Recently I was asked about a church pastor who preaches 10 percent grace and 90 percent law. Apparently this church has a clock counter on its website to show how fast people are getting to hell. This church believes that one of the methods of "saving" people is to expose their sins, and (by embarrassing them) guilt them into obeying God. 

This church is but one of many which believes that the Ten Commandments (and at times other portions of the old covenant) must be preached to sinners to prepare them to accept Christ.  

The idea is taught in several different ways:
 1) People must be convinced that they have a problem (that they are sinners) before they are given the Answer.
 2) Before people can appreciate the gospel (good news) they must first understand the bad news—their own predicament.
 3) Before people are motivated to be rescued and saved they must realize  that they are lost. 

The New Testament tells us that people are brought to Jesus for their salvation. It does not indicate that people are saved by shaming them first through condemnation.

This kind of preaching is based on guilt and shame—it is religious legalism, not the gospel! The idea of such preaching is to send listeners or readers on a guilt trip—then rescue them from the artificially imposed manipulation of guilt.

Gospel or Caricature? by Martin Scott

Editor's note: The following post first appeared at Martin Scott's Perspectives blog.

In many ways, the caricature / gospel contrast mirrors what we see in the Gospel in Chairs (below). Agreeing with Scott, we would also tweak the atonement line. But if 'bearing our punishment' is not  'bearing God's just punishment for our sins,' but rather, 'bearing the unjust punishment we inflicted,' it works.

Gospel or caricature? by Martin Scott

Scot McKnight recently referred to Josh Butler’s second book: The Pursuing God: A Reckless, Irrational, Obsessed Love That’s Dying to Bring Us Home and summarises the (caricature / gospel) themes in the book, saying it is an ‘atonement theology for a postmodern world’:

Caricature: Jesus stays at a distance and tells us how to get clean.
Gospel: Jesus gets dirty, in order to make us clean.

Caricature: God can’t stand to be in the presence of sin.
Gospel: Sin can’t stand to be in the presence of God.

Caricature: Lost means you need to go find God.
Gospel: Lost means God’s coming to find you.

Caricature: Jesus emphasizes how to be good.
Gospel: Jesus emphasizes the goodness of God.

Caricature: Jesus bearing our punishment is an act of divine child abuse.
Gospel: Jesus bearing our punishment is an act of divine love.

Caricature: The Father is cold, distant, and unengaged at the cross.
Gospel: The Father endures the greatest sacrifice of all the death of the Son.

Caricature: Sacrifice is how you clean yourself up so God can stand to be with you.
Gospel: Sacrifice is how God cleans you so you can stand to be with God.

Caricature: Wrath contradicts God’s love and is inappropriate for his character.
Gospel: Wrath arises from God’s love and deals honestly with our world.

Caricature: The Trinity is an abstract doctrine with no relevance for today.
Gospel: The Trinity changes everything—the Father, Son, and Spirit are a holy communion of love who invite us to participate in their eternal life.

Caricature: Jesus is the one and only way we go out to find God.
Gospel: Jesus is the unique and decisive way God has come to us.

Caricature: God prefers the polished, pretty, and put together.
Gospel: God goes after Nazis and whores, victims and oppressors, to make them his people and his bride.

Caricature: The church is a collection of individuals pursuing God together.
Gospel: The church is a body of people through whom God pursues the world.

Not a bad set of contrasts!! Maybe the atonement I would like to tweak?

Gospel in Chairs with Brian Zahnd

Monday, May 2, 2016

Escaping The Dysfunctional Charismatic Cycle Of Desperation & Euphoria - Jacob McMillen

I think my least favorite part about growing up charismatic was the desperation.
My entire existence boiled down to this perpetual standard of “hunger”.  How desperate was I for God?
Sometimes, I felt genuinely desperate, and ironically, those were the “good” times, because I could tell I was being genuine. Other times, I couldn’t quite muster up that emotional longing, but I sure would try, all the while berating myself for not being genuinely “hungry for more of God.”
I remember one time, I even came up with this surprisingly wise philosophy, where I reasoned that if I wasn’t longing for God, I could at least long to be longing for Him. And maybe… if that didn’t work, I could long to long to be longing for Him.
Deep stuff.
Why so intent on this hunger/longing/desperation?
Well… because that’s the only way God was going to move… to bring this thing called “revival” to a world that was on it’s way to Hell.
The word on the pulpit was that if I didn’t want our loving God to perpetually roast everyone for infinity and beyond, we needed to get millions of people SO desperate for God to move, that He would oblige.
But even more than that, I think the answer was that I really wanted to be God’s best friend. I wanted to be the one He picked to release His supernatural power and reconcile the world to Himself.
And I hated myself for not wanting that even more than I already did.

I Have Cancer ... For Now - by Zack Hunt

Editor's note: Zack Hunt is a friend and columnist of CWR magazine. We reposting his blog with a call for our readers to offer a prayer for strength and healing on his behalf.

It started with a jar of pickles.
Claussen, of course.
None of that inferior pickle garbage that unnecessarily clogs up grocery store shelves. I’m looking at you, Vlassic. Shudder. And they were dill, obviously. Bread and butter pickles are just a waste of cucumbers.
The first time it happened I didn’t think anything of it.
Like any other normal human being, strong flavors occasionally catch me off guard and make me cough. Sure, a jar full of pickle juice had never done the job before, but I was too concerned with getting my hangry (that’s hungry + angry) 2 year old something to eat to give any thought to a random cough.
But then coughing when I opened up a jar of pickles became a regular and incredibly annoying little quirk. I mean, who does that? It’s just weird. Honestly, it was probably nothing, at least not a real diagnosable symptom, but strong flavored things of all sorts started catching me off guard, causing me to cough for seemingly no reason other than my weak constitution. It was probably in my head, but either way, eventually the coughs starting coming whenever I took a deep breath.
Again, I figured it was nothing.
Maybe just a lingering cold.
But then the random coughing quirks turned into coughing fits and a few weeks ago on the Saturday before me and my girls were scheduled to go out of town and hang out with the grandmothers while my wife attended a conference, I sucked it up and went to a walk-in clinic because the coughing fits had gone from annoying to painful.
I assumed I would go in, get a prescription for some antibiotics, and go home.
My first hint that that might not be the case came when the doctor told me he wanted to take a chest x-ray. Probably just being overly cautious, I assumed. But a few minutes later when he opened the door, popped his head in, and told me to follow him. At that point I knew something wasn’t quite right.
I followed him out to a bank of computers in the middle of the office and sat down in front the computer he had my x-ray pulled up on.
And there it was.
A huge mass on the right side of my chest, just below my clavicle.
Turned out it wasn’t pickles that were making me cough. sorry for me.
Yes, I do have cancer…for now.
Yes, things are more stressful than they used to be…for now.
Yes, there are going to be days when I feel terrible….for now
And, yes, overall life in general is going to be hard….for now.
But it won’t stay that way forever.
I may need to wear a prosthetic beard for a while, but things are going to get better.
Life is going to get better.
Cancer will not be the end of my story.
It’s a chapter in my life I wish I had never been written, but pen has been put to paper and there’s nothing I can do about it now but go on living, go on hoping, go on enjoying every moment I have and look forward to the day when I can finally declare, “I’m cancer free.”

Please continue reading at:

"Those mean, nasty, hateful Christians ..." Q & A (& more Q) - Greg Albrecht

Stuff Jesus Never Said -
Q:  It seems that our society is becoming tolerant of almost everything except Christianity. Why is this? Could it be that the love Christians are to show is offset by fire and brimstone preaching condemning to hell those who do not comply?

A:  Has Christianity been so marred by inaccurate representations of God that many have determined that Christians at large are bigots, fear-mongers, hateful, and nasty people? One survey determined that the least desired potential next-door neighbor in the United States is a fundamentalist Christian. Some might say that’s because many people don’t want Christians next door making them feel guilty. Perhaps. But it’s also true that most people can get by without a relentless diet of criticism and condemnation.

Has Christendom missed the primary emphasis of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Is the gospel really more about hell than it is about heaven? Is it more about doing stuff, following rules, regulations and rituals—or is it more about God’s love, mercy, and grace? If Jesus showed up today in our towns and cities, in our schools and courtrooms, in our cafes and malls, and yes, in our churches—would we recognize Him? Would He resemble what our churches have taught us? Would religion welcome Him? How closely would He echo the outspoken and reactive Christianity that is accepted as the norm by many?

* * * * *
This is an excerpt from Greg Albrecht's book, BETWEEN RELIGIOUS ROCKS AND LIFE’S HARD PLACES: 101 Answers to Tough Questions about What You Believe (available through The book documents questions from real readers along with Greg's pastoral responses. PTM has now made a pdf file available free here: 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Question & Response: How should we understand God's 'Sovereignty'? - with Brad Jersak


Bradley, my wife and I met you recently at the Grace Conference. I asked a question about sovereignty, and your response addressed misunderstandings of what sovereignty means. Would you please elaborate and give some additional sources for me to look into. We enjoyed the conference and the material you presented. MUCH food for thought and reflection. 

 -- David   


 I cover the topic of sovereignty quite thoroughly in A More Christlike God: a More Beautiful Gospel.

I would summarize that work like this: 'Sovereignty' is a biblical synonym for governance or rulership or kingdom.
That is, sovereignty denotes the function of a king. I believe that God has established his kingdom in Christ, who is sovereign over the whole universe. Over our whole world. He reigns over all. The Bible says he is the king of kings and the king of glory.

So the extent of Christ's sovereignty is infinite and all-inclusive. It's all his, from the big bang to the whole shebang. 

The next question is how Christ came to rule--how his kingdom or sovereignty was established. The Gospels present us with a startling surprise. Christ established his kingdom rule -- showed himself to be sovereign -- not by violent conquest, military or miraculous coercion. He did not use overwhelming force to make people believe or behave.