Archive for the ‘gospel’ Category

In this series of posts (Part 1), guest writer Dan Miller reflects on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables from a distinctly Christian perspective.

Les Misrables

Aching for God

Saint Augustine famously argued that every human heart aches for God, whether the person knows it or not. In Confessions he writes, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (1.1).  While not everyone satisfies this longing through a relationship with God, the longing itself exists universally. Separation from God—in all its senses, and with all the misery that attends it—is the result of God’s curse because of sin. Nevertheless, a longing for God persists in each of us, manifesting itself in different ways. This is true of many of the world’s greatest writers, whose literary works betray their need to write some version of the curse and the biblical gospel into their stories. When this is done well, discerning readers will apprehend echoes of the misery of sin and the universal longing for ultimate salvation. When a story has these elements, we call it great.

Illustrating the Curse

Note: In writing about Les Miserables, I will reveal parts of its plot. So take this as a SPOILER ALERT.

As one would expect given the title, every character in Les Miserables in some way serves to illustrate the misery of our lives under the curse. But many characters also depict the joy of grace in relief from the curse. In the story, Jean Valjean, one of the central characters, is sentenced to 5 years of hard labor for stealing bread to feed his starving sister and nephew. After 19 years, he is finally released, leaving prison an embittered man.  Eventually, Jean Valjean’s hatred for his fellow man leads him to rob a local bishop. Upon getting caught, Jean Valjean is amazed by the bishop’s willingness to forgive him and even cover for him with the police. Jean leaves the bishop’s house in a daze, totally baffled by the man’s kindness and grace. For 19 years, Jean had been treated like a thief with no hope of redemption.  But in the words of the bishop Jean heard something new: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”  The narrator continues:

[Jean Valjean] was indistinctly conscious that the pardon of this priest was the greatest assault and the most formidable attack which had moved him yet; that his obduracy was finally settled if he resisted this clemency; that if he yielded, he should be obliged to renounce that hatred with which the actions of other men had filled his soul through so many years, and which pleased him; that this time it was necessary to conquer or to be conquered; and that a struggle, a colossal and final struggle, had been begun between his viciousness and the goodness of that man.

Here we see the hardness of Jean’s heart. Filled with hate and bitterness, Jean’s pride held him back from accepting the bishop’s kindness. His pride told him to reject the forgiveness graciously offered to him, a forgiveness that would require that he yield to God and “renounce that hatred … which pleased him.”  Anyone who has felt bitterness and the temptation to hold on to hatred will understand why Hugo calls this a “colossal and final struggle.” What incites bitterness and hatred within us will likely seem trivial compared with being condemned to 19 years of hard labors for the theft of bread to feed a starving family.  Yet, our struggle is essentially the same.

Forever Changed

In a stupor, Jean goes on to commit another crime: stealing 40 cents from a little boy.  The narrator recounts what immediately follows:

When intelligence re-awakened and beheld that action of the brute, Jean Valjean recoiled with anguish and uttered a cry of terror. It was because—strange phenomenon, and one which was possible only in the situation in which he found himself—in stealing the money from that child, he had done a thing of which he was no longer capable.

In that moment, Jean was transformed. He was now aware “that everything about him was changed, that it was no longer in his power to make it as though the Bishop had not spoken to him and had not touched him.”

One might struggle with the question of whether or not Hugo presents the real gospel to Jean and, secondarily, to his readers. Did Hugo believe in crucial elements of the biblical “good news,” like, for example, penal substitution? Perhaps not. What is important, however, is how Jean’s conversion illustrates the crisis of our depravity and our desperate need for a savior. The salvation Hugo depicts (and which affects us so strongly) is this type of salvation. Jean is forced to face the crucial question, “Who am I?”  The answer, which he has no choice but to accept, is that he is a wretch, a vile thief, and a beast who is even willing to steal from helpless children. He comes to see that the salvation he needs is not a salvation from others, but from the hatred, bitterness, and pride rooted deep within his own soul.

Jean Valjean wept for a long time.  He wept burning tears, he sobbed with more weakness than a woman, with more fright than a child. As he wept, daylight penetrated more and more clearly into his soul; an extraordinary light; a light at once ravishing and terrible. His past life, his first fault, his long [punishment], his external brutishness, his internal hardness, his dismissal to liberty, rejoicing in manifold plans of vengeance, what had happened to him at the Bishop’s, the last thing that he had done, that theft of forty sous from a child, a crime all the more cowardly, and all the more monstrous since it had come after the Bishop’s pardon,—all this recurred to his mind and appeared clearly to him, but with a clearness which he had never hitherto witnessed.  He examined his life, and it seemed horrible to him; his soul, and it seemed frightful to him. In the meantime a gentle light rested over this life and this soul. It seemed to him that he beheld Satan by the light of Paradise.

Did Jean Valjean make a choice in his awakening? Yes, and he struggled mightily with that choice. But in another, more important sense, he was converted by means of the kindness and gospel-charge of the bishop. Light was shown into his heart, freeing him from the hatred and bitterness within his own soul. Upon receiving this light, Jean began to think and act according to his new nature. This is the salvation that we crave.  As the Apostle Paul writes,

For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6)

In salvation, God, who created all things, performs another creative act in our hearts. Contrary to what we may assume, we don’t simply need the option to choose between good and evil; that choice is before us each and every day. Rather, we need to have the light turned on in our souls, enabling us to finally love what is good and hate what is evil.

Dan Miller is an ophthalmologist and active member of Cedar Heights Baptist Church in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

J. I. Packer:

Paul teaches that the gift of justification (i.e., present acceptance by God as the world’s Judge) brings with it the status of sonship by adoption (i.e., permanent intimacy with God as one’s heavenly Father, Gal. 3:26; 4:4-7). In Paul’s world, adoption was ordinarily of young adult males of good character to become heirs and maintain the family name of the childless rich. Paul, however, proclaims God’s gracious adoption of persons of bad character to become “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17).

Justification is the basic blessing, on which adoption is founded; adoption is the crowning blessing, to which justification clears the way. Adopted status belongs to all who receive Christ (John 1:12). The adopted status of believers means that in and through Christ God loves them as he loves his only-begotten Son and will share with them all the glory that is Christ’s now (Rom. 8:17, 38-39). Here and now, believers are under God’s fatherly care and discipline (Matt. 6:26; Heb. 12:5-11) and are directed, especially by Jesus, to live their whole lives in light of the knowledge that God is their Father in heaven. They are to pray to him as such (Matt. 6:5-13), imitate him as such (Matt. 5:44-48; 6:12, 14-15; 18:21-35; Eph. 4:32-5:2), and trust him as such (Matt. 6:25-34), thus expressing the filial instinct that the Holy Spirit has implanted in them (Rom. 8:15-17; Gal. 4:6).

Adoption and regeneration accompany each other as two aspects of the salvation that Christ brings (John 1:12-13), but they are to be distinguished. Adoption is the bestowal of a relationship, while regeneration is the transformation of our moral nature. Yet the link is evident; God wants his children, whom he loves, to bear his character, and takes action accordingly.

—J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), 167-168.

HT: Justin Taylor

For more on the importance of adoption in salvation see “Adoption: The Highest Privilege of the Gospel.

The end of Cain’s history, and so the end of all history, is Christ on the cross, the murdered Son of God.  That is the last desperate assault on the gate of paradise.  And under the whirling sword, under the cross, the human race dies.  But Christ lives.  The trunk of the cross becomes the wood of life, and now in the midst of the world, on the accursed ground itself, life is raised up anew. …

What a strange paradise is this hill of Golgotha, this cross, this blood, this broken body.  What a strange tree of life, this trunk on which the very God had to suffer and die.  Yet it is the very kingdom of life and of the resurrection, which by grace God grants us again.  It is the gate of imperishable hope now opened, the gate of waiting and of patience.  The tree of life, the cross of Christ, the center of God’s world that is fallen but upheld and preserved – that is what the end of the story about paradise is for us.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 146.

It is highly likely that most Evangelical Christians have, at some time or another, heard this famous quote (often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi):

Preach the Gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words.

The sentiment behind such statements generally goes something like this: the church too often focuses too much on talking at people (even if it’s about the Gospel) rather than practically loving them, first and foremost.  The underlying conviction is (broadly speaking) that the most important/powerful “witness” Christians have is a lived-life abounding in generous, self-sacrificing love like that exhibited by Jesus during his life on earth.  Furthermore, our role as “verbal” proclaimers of the Gospel is usually relegated to a secondary position, lest our lives not first provide the foundation – indeed, substantiate – the cognitive message we preach.

Helping to bring fresh light to this important issue, Duane Litfin (former president of Wheaton College) has just written a new book, Word versus Deed: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance (excerpt).

Eat Like A Christian!

Posted: March 31, 2012 in evangelism, gospel, humility, Jesus, love

From To Jerusalem:

Truly, my experience serving food has uncovered a side of Christianity that is appalling and disheartening. Nowhere have I seen Christians be more un-Christian than when sitting down to eat. In their attitudes and actions I have seen many, many Christians completely ruin their witness toward servers, waiters, and cooks. And I have stories; my word do I have stories.

When I worked catering in college I served the faculty, staff, and students. This was a Christian college—it taught and preached and lived the Bible. Except when it came to food.

When we set up breakfasts for meetings, we would often catch secretaries in the act of dumping whole basketfuls of coffee supplies into their purses, who would then hastily explain their actions by saying they didn’t know the supplies weren’t free for the taking.

I’ve seen professors (on more than one occasion) steal trays of donuts, danishes, and muffins out of meeting rooms for use in their own classes—always with the excuse that the food “wasn’t labeled” and was thus up for grabs.

I have been verbally criticized and belittled by pastors, professors, and Christian leaders for late food, early food, cold food, warm food, too little food, too much food, or food they simply don’t like.

And worst of them all? Christian women’s conferences. In those, if food and drink is not available at all times, in all forms, and modifiable for every preference, we servers became villains. I have seen more hate, anger, selfishness, greed, and jealousy at Christian women’s conferences than all other food service events combined. …

What’s my point, you may be asking?

Simply this: How you behave when you eat in public can be one of the most powerful witnesses you have for your King Jesus. Believe me when I say, you will be a witness. Whether you are a good witness is up to you.

So when you walk into a restaurant after church dressed in your Sunday best, please be polite and smile. Please be gracious and forgiving, and never ask to see the manager with a complaint. When it comes time to pay, always be generous—because a server’s estimation of your character will be based entirely on the tip you leave. The biggest impact you can make for Jesus is simply tipping well.

As I’m sure everyone who has Facebook knows, Jefferson Bethke’s “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” video is lighting up the internet.  Currently, his video has over 6.5 million views on YouTube.  Clearly, something about his message is appealing to many people (it also helps to get a shout-out from The Resurgence).

In light of the way it has gone viral, I thought I might offer a brief response.  Below are four reasons why I love (pure) religion, but hate false dichotomies.

  1. Jesus was highly religious.  He was a devout, Torah-observing Jew, profoundly concerned about living a pure, God-honoring life.  When Jesus criticized the Pharisees and teachers of the Law – the self-proclaimed “religious people” of his day – he was not criticizing their “religion” but rather their lack thereof (cf. Jam. 1:27)!  It’s not that the Pharisees were too careful or strict in their observance of the Law.  Rather, they felt the freedom to pick and choose what they would follow, preferring to puff up their self-righteous hearts by (rightly) tithing out of their spice racks while (wrongly) neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness (“the weightier matters of the Law“).  Pitting Jesus against “religion” is inconsistent.
  2. Religion isn’t the problem.  Prideful works-righteousness is.  Do we really want to give up the word “religion” to a few self-righteous legalists who don’t understand the glories of grace?  I don’t.  The real issue is the way we all (not just the grumpy Baptist fundamentalists down the road) tend to confuse God’s grace with our merit.  You don’t have to be wearing a suit and tie to be brimming with self-righteousness.  The contrast isn’t “religion” vs. Jesus.  Rather, it’s mandated obedience in order to please a heavenly Dictator vs. a vital, Spirit-formed relationship with our benevolent Father. Christianity is fundamentally about the latter, not the former.  Pitting Jesus against “religion” just isn’t helpful.
  3. Christianity is a religion.  From a historical perspective, to abstract Jesus from the religion that he started is kind of silly.  By any normal definition, Christianity is a religion.  We can repudiate religion based on works-righteousness without disparaging religion based on Jesus.  Additionally, your “I follow Jesus, not a particular religion” line will only go so far.  Sooner or later, your unbelieving friends will realize that you’re simply a Christian who loves Jesus, and your false dichotomy will just end up making you look dumb and/or insincere.  Pitting Jesus against “religion” is simply silly.
  4. Jesus loves His church.  I worry about the conclusions that many will draw from rhetoric like this.  Many who dislike “religion” also dislike “the church,” thinking it’s full of disingenuous, self-righteous people.  And they’re right – the church is full of disingenuous, self-righteous people because the church is full of sinners!  But Christ loves His church.  He created it, sustains it, and is Lord over it.  And He desires that His people live, worship, and evangelize the world in community.  There’s no such thing as a “lone ranger” Christian.  We were (re)created for Christian community (aka, the church).  Additionally, the New Testament clearly outlines a certain organization, structure, and authority for the church.  Yes, it can be abused, but that doesn’t mean we have the right to throw it out.  Pitting Jesus against “religion” is potentially dangerous.

All that being said, I understand the “heart” of the video’s message and agree with it. Christianity is first and foremost about the God who, in love, sovereignly reached out to wayward men and women for their salvation and joy. It’s not about what we need to do for God, but what He has already done for us.  Amen and amen.

I just think there are more helpful ways to go about accomplishing what Bethke and millions of other Christians really want: the faithful proclamation of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.

For more good thoughts on this, check out Jared Wilson’s blog.

Trevin Wax recently posted an extremely insightful “critique” (softened through the use of questions) of Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s new book, What is the Mission of the Church.  I think all of his comments are spot on and are an important counter-balance to a Gospel-only missional mindset.

Here are his most compelling questions:

1. Can we reduce “making disciples” and “teaching Christ’s commands” to the delivery of information?

It seems to me that DeYoung and Gilbert tend to reduce “disciple-making” to teaching and then reduce “teaching” to the transferring of information. I agree that teaching is a central part of discipleship (which is one reason I am dedicating the next few years to the development of solid biblical curriculum). At the same time, we need to recognize that teaching also takes place in mentoring, in modeling, and in collaboration with others…

3. Isn’t there a sense in which worship is expressed through our life in the world, not just our corporate worship services?

At the corporate level, it’s clear that worship takes place within the church’s gathering. Yet the biblical story line begins with Adam and Eve worshiping God by obeying His commands in the gardenIt was their cultivation of the garden that reflected their love and praise for their Maker. So when DeYoung and Gilbert claim that worship is integral to the mission of the church and yet want to separate worship from our deeds of justice, I worry that we are failing to remember that our good work in the world is part of our obedient worship to God…

5. Is our representation of Christ not part of the mission?

DeYoung and Gilbert believe we must represent Christ, but it seems like they connect this representation so tightly to verbal proclamation of the gospel that little room is left for representing Christ through love and good deeds…

It is too easy to oversimplify and be reductionistic in our approach to theology.  The Bible is a complex book with a lot of nuanced teaching.  Our calling – as Christians – is multifaceted and can take many shapes.  That’s not to say that the proclamation of the good news about Jesus the Messiah is only one among many “good” objectives the church is called to pursue.

Rather, we need to be reminded to read the Bible carefully, allowing it to speak its message with the force and clarity it seeks to convey.  It is not sufficient for us to proof-text our way into cut-and-dry, black-and-white theological positions.  Clever, quippy theological phrases can be powerful communicators, but they often strip out the nuance of the Bible’s teaching leading to misunderstanding and misapplication.  In relation to the mission of the church, it seems that fear of losing what is central (the Gospel) leads some to deny what is peripheral (good deeds).  Yet, this is not the way the biblical writers talk – you don’t see the stark contrast.

We must remain faithful to the Bible, despite the (very real) danger of losing the center.