The Underwhelming Bible

Underwhelmed

It’s Good Friday, 2015. I’ve just been bombarded by trends in digital Christendom through feeds from popular Christian thinkers and posts from famous Christian bloggers. And there is a staunch, crispy realization bubbling underneath the rhetoric of the dozens of one-liners, clever graphics, and sentimental tweets overflowing my conscious: I don’t know if the church has ever been so underwhelmed by the Bible.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

In Luke 16:19-31, you’ll find one of my favorite parables, often called “The Rich Man and Lazarus.” Jesus essentially lays out a scene where an unnamed rich man goes to hell and a named beggar goes to heaven (parenthetical point: this is the only time Jesus has ever given a name to a character in a parable, so it’s critical that we, as the audience, do not identify with Lazarus but find ourselves first in the shoes of the condemned rich man).

In the climax of the story, realizing how horrendous hell is, the rich man asks Abraham, who he sees in heaven from hell, to send someone to his father’s house and to warn them, convinced that if they saw Abraham resurrected, they’d surely believe. But in a climactic kicker and heavy conclusion, Abraham says to the rich man, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them… If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (16:29, 31).

In other words, the rich man (perhaps like many of us today) isn’t convinced that the Bible is enough. He is convinced that they need some kind of a sign, a lot like the crowds in Luke 11:29 (whom Jesus called an evil generation). For the rich man, there needed to be something more substantial, something more powerful, or something more significant than simply God’s eternal decrees and the story of His powerful, redemptive history. But Abraham essentially tells the rich man, “There’s actually nothing more substantial, nothing more powerful, and nothing more significant than God’s Word.”

But I don’t know if many Christians really believe in that anymore.

Sola Scriptura: “By God’s Word Alone”

Throughout the Bible, over and over again, writers follow in the footsteps of James and repeat the same commission: “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (Ja. 1:21). Much like Abraham told the rich man, James is saying that there is only one thing that can save: receiving God’s Word.

This is why the Apostle Paul makes such extreme claims like, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17) while saying “…since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). Saving faith—you know, that thing that makes everything in Christianity possible—simply comes from receiving God’s Word. Nothing else.

Likewise, Paul elsewhere says, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). He goes on to emphasize the point by saying, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling [or meekness], and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” So in case you missed it, Paul just said that we should rest our faith in the power of God, demonstrated by the Spirit—and the Spirit demonstrated God’s power by Paul’s speech and message, which eventually, as we now see it, becomes part of the Bible (or, God’s Word).

Discovering the Overwhelming Word

For some, God’s Word is insufficient in light of music, glamour, and lights. For others, God’s Word is insufficient in light of dogmatic tradition and cultural routine. And for others, God’s Word is insufficient in light of service, miracles, or ministry. In any case and in any church, there is a level by which people—both before and behind the pulpit—are no longer impressed by God’s Word, no longer desperate for every letter and every word spoken by God through it, no longer starving for the Bread of Life, who Himself says that Moses and all the Prophets concern and point to Him (Luke 24:25-27). Instead, like the condemned rich man or like the slow disciples on the road to Emmaus, the church finds God’s Word utterly underwhelming, needing things attached to it, music and majesty surrounding it, stipulations and requirements following it.

Friends, where is our meekness? How proud of a culture are we to assume God’s Word is not enough—and in light of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, how condemned are we as a result?

Eventually, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus found a burning in their heart—a phrase that captures the glorious and powerful work of the Spirit; however, it wasn’t found through music, art, service projects, programming, tradition, liturgy, or fellowship. Their hearts were overwhelmed and burned in their core like Jeremiah’s bones (20:9) as Jesus opened up Scripture to them.

Today is Good Friday—but you’ll never know why this day is so overwhelming good without God’s overwhelming Word.

Written by Phillip Lee

Millennial Deism

The Extraordinary Individual

Elbert Hubbard once said, “One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men but no machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” The late 18th century American novelist penned these words in the midst of a technological boom that would inaugurate the famous “Roaring 20’s,” when the American economy and morale reached record heights—a period of time that would have been challenged by the notion that one, extraordinary individual could catalyze society to even greater extents than the phenomenon of technological advancement and efficient machinery.

Today, however, this sentiment does little to challenge the average young American. Instead, quotes likes these confirm something that we arguably already know—that we already are extraordinary, that the self is certainly supreme, and that we are far more capable of advancement when we are unaided, unsuppressed, and liberated by our own capacities for achievement.

In other words, perhaps more than ever before in history, we consider ourselves far more extraordinary than our predecessors and even our successors, convinced that we are the catalytic hinge between past and present and, simultaneously, the everlasting precedent for the future generations that will require our expert contributions.

A Generation of Gods

The ultimate product of such coddling and curating of the supreme self is a generation of young Americans who find even the slightest notion of limit and inability as a stifling agent against the infinite measure of our grand abilities. Told that we are special by default, intrinsically deserving, and naturally qualified, young Americans are in hard pursuit of not merely cultural innovation or social progress—they are in pursuit of personal catharsis through the means of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement.

We have essentially become gods, convinced we are smarter and faster than every generation passed and pivotal to every generation to come—and for this reason, young Americans today are arguably the hardest demographic to receive and accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Default Depravity

At its very origin, the Gospel of Jesus Christ begins with an infinite and eternal need: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The natural nature of mankind is not a state of deserving worthiness or infinite capability; it is depraved worthlessness and eternal condemnation resulting from the guilt of original and unavoidable sin. The goodness of the Good News of Jesus Christ is a product of one’s genuine understanding of this concept—the great Reformer John Calvin explained it as so:

But should we once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and reflect what kind of Being he is, and how absolute the perfection of that righteousness, and wisdom, and virtue, to which, as a standard, we are bound to be conformed, what formerly delighted us by its false show of righteousness will become polluted with the greatest iniquity; what strangely imposed upon us under the name of wisdom will disgust by its extreme folly; and what presented the appearance of virtuous energy will be condemned as the most miserable impotence. So far are those qualities in us, which seem most perfect, from corresponding to the divine purity… And, as Augustine expresses it (in Psalm 144), since we are unable to comprehend Him, and are, as it were, overpowered by his greatness, our proper course is to contemplate his works, and so refresh ourselves with his goodness. (Institutes, 1.2; 5.9)

How then, can anyone come to understand how good the Good News of Jesus Christ is if he or she fails to understand the need that makes the news itself so good? Simply put—a shimmering oasis is only good to those who recognize their thirst, and our current culture is trending towards a horizon where we are far from dehydrated and no longer thirsty; rather, we are stuffed to the brim with ourselves, having filled our internal longings with our own achievements and the entitlements gifted to us in childhood.

A New Age of Evangelism

Some years ago, Dr. Michael Horton expressed in an article in Modern Reformation that true, Biblical evangelism ought to be centered on the historicity of Christ, trusting that the news of Jesus’ life and love will soften the hardest of hearts and turn even the most stubborn of tides towards belief. Meanwhile, other scholars countered Horton’s views by arguing for a scientific and cosmological emphasis in evangelism, supported by proponents like Dr. William Lane Craig. Today, however, I would argue that modern evangelism needs to return to one simple, Biblical, and logically profound concept: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”

To a logically illiterate generation of young Americans, the basic principle that we are not extraordinary is perhaps one of the most difficult concepts to defend—and yet, this is the first concept that needs to register in the hearts and minds of millennials, as the push to preserve one’s incredible value and one’s sufficient knowledge immediately encourages the disbelief of any deity that would rob the individual of his or her infinite capacities or stifle his or her natural goodness.

No longer is science the cause for our disbelief; no longer is the validity of Jesus the cause for our disbelief; today, we are the cause of our own disbelief, as we trust none other than the deistic nature of ourselves.

Repentance and Kingdom

If we were to return, however, to a simple method of evangelism based on the concept of “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near,” what immediately surfaces are two fundamentally undeniable truths:

First, if Heaven is true, what is the measure for goodness to enter into it? If we define our own measure for who enters into it, then how can Heaven truly be good as it would be subject to our limited understanding of goodness. Heaven, in other words, can only exist in a universe where an absolute and objective goodness defines what is good for the individual—not the other way around. Anything short of this would mean that Heaven is a place of preference—not of goodness—and, therefore, does not require good to get there (which means criminals and the objectively evil could easily be permitted).

Second, if Heaven is objectively good, then the only possible response is to readjust one’s value from deistic to depraved as the objective goodness of Heaven will always trump the subjective goodness of the self since Heaven always has to be and remain to be good while we, as individuals crafted by culture and society, shift in both our understanding and grasp of goodness.

Thus, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” is far less of a religious notion and much more of a logical commission for individuals to recognize an ethical dilemma that can only be solved in absolute, eternal terms, motivating the necessity for a God who requires a readjustment of the individual.

Redeemer and King

Jesus Christ, on the cross, provides a means for the individual to encounter absolute readjustment, regardless of culture or context. His love and grace, shed upon the cross in crimson, readjusts our individual values as both infinitely depraved and yet eternally saved.

This news, however, will never be received as good so long as we enable logical illiteracy and encourage natural capacity—to assume we are good simply because we are born is to rob the King of Kings of His infinitely painful and destructively devastating work on the cross. Instead, let us return to a sober understanding of ourselves—and, therein, a desperate need for Christ our Redeemer and King, ascribing all goodness to Him and discovering our own goodness as His.

Written by Phillip Lee

Egalitarian Complementarianism

Resurgent Complementarianism

I want to begin this post with gratitude: I am deeply and devoutly grateful for the Lord’s resurgence of both Reformed theology and complementarianism in the modern, evangelical church. It is not only an incredible encouragement to see men herald the Good News and its commission for men and women to uniquely pursue a Christ-like, Christ-centered, and Christ-driven masculinity and femininity—but it is an even greater encouragement to see this commission presented through a central and supreme view of Scripture, returning to its necessity and holding fast to its authority through texts like Ephesians 5:25-28…

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.

While texts like these have recently prompted and promoted a very high view of God’s calling towards men to humbly, faithfully, and courageously love their wives and lead their families, rising out of boyish adolescence into masculine maturity, I cannot help—prior to jumping on this growing and resurgent ideology—but resist and rest in an even more central, even more necessary, and even more essential call:

Simple Christianity

While there are treasures of truth in Ephesians 5:25-28 for men to return to bold masculinity (and for women, likewise in Ephesians 5:22-24, to return to humble femininity), God’s Word calls both men and women to first simple Christianity: in Ephesians 5:1-2, long before 5:22-28, Paul says, “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

In other words, Paul’s theology first calls the individual to his or her spiritual identity versus sexual responsibility. Before answering the question, “What does it mean to be a man?” or “What does it look like to be a woman?” Paul answers the question, “What does it mean to be children?” rooting the complementarian identity of both men and women deep into the foundational and egalitarian work of Christ as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God for the salvation and sanctification of His people.

Dangers of Modern Complementarianism

While I cannot stress how grateful I am for the orthodox teaching of complementarianism to make such a come back, I am thoroughly convinced that Christians ought to discern the dangers of dissecting Christ’s work between genders, immediately identifying one’s self through the scope of sexuality prior to identifying one’s self through the scope of Christianity: as a Christian, you are first a Christian—discover, therefore, full and well what that means as a child of God before you try to learn what that means as a man of God or as a woman of God.

This means taking modern, complementarian trends with caution and care, receiving the convictions and concerns that stem out of them with a forward look towards sanctification, not an immediate look down or backward towards identity and justification. Biblically, this means Ephesians 5:1-2 comes before 5:22-28 while Genesis 1:26 comes before 2:4-25. Therefore, root your salvation and everything to follow first in the work, in the will, and in the wonders of Christ crucified, considering first, “How do I simply live as a God-glorifying child?”

The Incapability of Practicality

Recently delivering a workshop on the Biblical and complementarian roles of men and women, I was asked multiple times, “What does a Christian man or a Christian woman, in light of God’s call and commission to each, look like in reality?” While I attempted to articulate an answer by using a husband and wife I deeply respect and know, I ultimately could not provide a more substantial answer than, “he behaves like this, she behaves like that, and it seems good for you to either act like him or act like her.” But what I failed to communicate was that both the Christian man and Christian woman should first and foremost act like Christ:

To our dearest sisters in Christ: may you not hold so highly the requirements and expectations of men as a result of a sermon or study, for they are but depraved, dehydrated, and dilapidated sinners. Instead, before expecting a man to behave as a Biblical man, consider first: does he act like a Biblical Christian? Hold him to the standard you should and need to be holding for yourself—that of God-centered imitation—and be less concerned about how he (as well as you) pursues Christ as a man (and as a woman) and more concerned about whether or not Christ is humbly, diligently, and faithfully pursued, period.

Likewise, to our dearest brothers in Christ: may you not hold yourselves to such stringent and supreme expectations as a result of someone’s stardom preaching. Before considering how much of a “man” you are, consider how much of a “Christian” you are because I absolutely guarantee that your failures to achieve the latter utterly disqualify you from even attempting the former. In Christ and by faith, imitate God—not a relevant preacher, a powerful pastor, or a charismatic leader—and humbly long, with devout desperation, for all that He is.

For both sisters and brothers in Christ: consider how audacious and yet how crucial Paul’s imperatives are in Ephesians 5:1-21—the verses leading up to 5:22-33—as they are commissioned to everyone, regardless of gender, age, or background. It is to our great detriment that we would skip the incredible necessities of these first 21 verses and focus so microscopically on the last 11 verses, depriving ourselves of receiving this powerful and refining chapter as a complete, interwoven, and egalitarian-complementarian whole.

Egalitarian Complementarianism

While the debate between the two ideologies has surfaced time and time again throughout the course of redemptive-history, I am humbly convinced that the two views are not exclusive to one another but ultimately enhance and beautify each other. When a Christian first recognizes, as a deeply foundational realization, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, he or she cannot help but to receive and recognize others as utterly no different than him or herself: we are eternally crippled by our sin—and the magnitude of that sin does not take into account whether one is a man or a woman but utterly disregards gender, age, experience, culture, race, and intent. Sin is ultimately genderless because hell is egalitarian.

That said, however, the beauty of Christ’s redemption is that while it begins as an egalitarian seed, it flourishes into a complementarian grove wherein battered men and broken women discover their genderless, ageless, and race-less redemption in Christ—and, soon enough, along with this discovery, these redeemed men and rescued women receive a commission and call to uniquely promote one another’s flourishing in specialized and complementary ways.

Written by Phillip Lee