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Three Popular Misconceptions of God

On Sunday we began a new class at my congregation on the most important subject any person could study – God. Toward the end of class we discussed three very popular misconceptions of who God is. Here they are:

The Absent Landlord

Some of you may live in an apartment or a rental house that does not have a very responsive owner. He owns the property, but rarely checks on its condition, and if you reach out to ask for maintenance, he responds rarely – if at all. That’s the way many people look at God. They believe he created the universe, but having made the world, God basically takes a hands-off approach. There’s actually a technical term for this belief – deism, which was widely accepted in the 18th century.

On such a view, after the initial work of creation, God doesn’t really do very much. He certainly doesn’t respond to prayers. And according to this deistic outlook, we should only ascribe to divine intervention that which cannot be explained by science and the “laws of nature.” In this view, God is merely the “God of the gaps,” the gaps in our current scientific knowledge of the world.

But as that knowledge expands, the “gaps” get smaller, and so does the deistic picture of God. That’s why from a historical point of view deism was merely a milepost to atheism. It is a very short set of steps from “God is the landlord” to “God is the absent landlord” to “God is absent.”

The problem with this view of God is that it completely misses the point of what it means to say that God is the creator. According to Scripture, God is not simply the initiator of creation; he is also its sustainer. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Every moment of the continued existence of the universe is radically dependent on God. “In him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). And what we call on our end the “laws of nature” are just descriptions of this ongoing work of God.

The deistic view of God gets God wrong from the very beginning. If you’ve ever made a wrong turn at the start of a long trip, you know that such a mistake leads you far from your destination. And deism’s wrong-headed concept of God as creator steers its adherents far from the true knowledge of God. And this fundamentally inadequate view of God is the basis of an even more insidious misconception…

The Doting Grandfather

I was raised by my mom and her parents. My granddad – “Pop” – was my buddy. One time when I was a child, I did something wrong, and Mom sent me to bed without supper (a form of punishment she obviously chose very rarely!). Not long after I was sent to the bedroom, I heard the door open and looked up to see Pop sneaking in with a plate of food!

This is how a lot of people conceive of God. He is like a grandpa who dotes on his grandchildren. The last thing he would ever do is discipline us for any mistakes we make. In his eyes, we can do no wrong!

This view of God is widespread. In  Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, two social scientists surveyed the religious beliefs of American teens. The authors coined a term to encapsulate what they found to be the predominant religious outlook – Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Deism because it assumes that God isn’t really interested in how we live. Moralistic because it holds that people should try to be nice to each other. And therapeutic because it affirms that what God wants us for us to feel good about ourselves.

You may have never heard the phrase Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, but I bet you have heard someone say – in an effort to justify something they want to do that is flatly contradicted by Scripture – “but God wants me to be happy!” THAT is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The problem with this dogma is not that it declares that God wants us to be happy. The problem is how it defines happiness. Scripture promises us “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8) – but that joy is found through self-denying devotion to God, not through self-indulgent disregard for God.

This sort of joy is only possible if we have a a view of God that is compelling. But there is third inadequate view of God that undermines this gripping vision.

The Cosmic Superhero

Have you ever heard someone refer to God as “the man upstairs”? I have. And while this phrase is usually spoken out of recognition of the need for God’s help, it suggests a view of God that is far too much like us. This sort of anthropomorphic picture of God, in which he is depicted as a bigger/stronger/smarter version of human beings, turns God into a super-hero character like Thor or Spider-Man. Now, I happen to love Spider-Man. But there’s nothing about him that inspires me to life-long self-denial in order to be with him forever!

The God described in the Bible is not merely a powerful human being, or even an amazing angel. No, God is the ultimate ground of all created reality,  “who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6). His ways and thoughts are infinitely greater than ours, “as the heavens are higher than the earth” (Isaiah 55:9). God is beyond all comparison.

To whom then will you compare me,
    that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
    who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
    calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might
    and because he is strong in power,
    not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob,
    and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
    and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
    his understanding is unsearchable. (Isaiah 40:25-28)

God is not Superman. Superman came from somewhere and can be contained by kryptonite. God did not come to be – he IS, and nothing can contain him. He is incomparable!

In his classic book The Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer wrote:

“I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.” (p. 2)

I believe Tozer was exactly right. The most urgent need of modern Christianity is a recovery of the true knowledge of God.

Who Caused Job’s Suffering?

Job’s Despair, by William Blake

This week we wrapped up a study of the Book of Job where I preach. Toward the end of the book there is a passage that presents a bracing view of God’s role in Job’s suffering:


Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him. And each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold. (Job 42:11)

“All the evil that the LORD had brought upon him.”

Wait – I thought Job’s suffering was caused by the nebulous figure described in the opening chapters as The Accuser. Why does this text claim that it was the LORD who caused Job’s disasters?

This is not the only time in the book that responsibility for Job’s adversity is ascribed to God. In the second chapter, after Job’s initial set of catastrophic losses, the LORD asks The Accuser:

“Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” (Job 2:3)

Here, God says that he is the one who destroyed Job.

What are we to make of this language? After all, the straightforward reading of the text indicates that the immediate and direct cause of Job’s suffering was The Accuser. Notice the interplay that takes place in these exchanges between God and the evil one:

“But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord. (1:11-12)

And again-

“But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.” (Job 2:5-6)

In each case, The Accuser challenges God to stretch his hand against Job, and the LORD replies by telling The Accuser that Job is in his hand – within certain parameters.

This interaction between God and The Accuser gives us a glimpse into the interplay between two profound truths in Scripture: the sovereignty of God and the freedom of creatures. On the one hand, God permits The Accuser to do harm to Job, even as he sets out clear boundaries that constrain what The Accuser can do. On the other hand, The Accuser has the freedom to do harm to Job, within the limits carefully defined by God.

So, who is responsible for Job’s suffering – God or The Accuser? The answer is…both, but in different senses. The Accuser is immediately and directly responsible for Job’s catastrophes, but God is ultimately and finally responsible since The Accuser could only do what he did by God’s permission.

This is true not only of The Accuser’s actions, but of all evil choices made by creatures. The Bible teaches that all of us live, move, and have our being in God (Acts 17:28). Every moment of every creature’s existence is dependent on God. But obviously, what we as his creatures actually do with this gift of existence is not always in keeping with God’s expressed preferences. Just as God permitted The Accuser to do evil, God also permits us to do evil as well.

Really, then, the questions raised about God, The Accuser, and Job are merely reflective of the deeper questions that believers have pondered since time immemorial – why did God make the sovereign decision to grant human beings (and angels) freedom,  even when we could do evil things with that freedom? Why does God permit us to rebel against him and do harm to others?

So far as I’m aware, Scripture never systematically answers this question in the way that we’d probably like, but I do think there are some basic points we can set forth that help us grapple with the question.

First, the decision to grant creatures the gift of freedom was God’s sovereign choice. No one made him do this. God freely chose to create human beings and angels with free will.

Second, the freedom that God has given to creatures is not absolute. God remains sovereign, and in that sovereignty maintains control over his creatures. Just as The Accuser could do only so much to Job and no more, all of God’s creatures remain “on the leash” of his permissive will.

Third, since we know that God is love (1 John 4:8) and that the greatest commands are to love God and man (Deuteronomy 6:4; Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:34-40), we can surmise that an important reason – maybe the reason – God gave his creatures free will is so that they can love him and others. It is difficult to imagine any meaningful definition of “love” that does not involve freedom of the will, after all.

Fourth, because God is sovereign, even though he permits his creatures to make evil choices, he also has the power to make good things happen in the face of that evil. Job is one of the paramount examples of this in all of Scripture. Through Job’s suffering God brought Job to a clearer vision of God (and discredited the baseless slander of The Accuser in the process).

Fifth, since God is sovereign, he has the power to bring all evil and all suffering to an end. We get a glimpse of this at the end of the Book of Job, when the LORD restores Job’s health, prosperity, and family. We get an even grander vision of this at the end of the Bible, with its promise of a new creation.

God is willing to “take responsibility” for Job’s suffering, and for ours, for all of these reasons. It is not always easy to work out the dynamic give and take of divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom. But God doesn’t expect us to do that, anyway. What he does call us to do is to trust him, to look forward to the day he makes all things new, and to care for each other in the meantime.

In other words, God calls us to faith, hope, and love.


Putting Smarter “Resolve” into Your New Year’s Resolutions

SO, how are those New Year’s resolutions going? One study suggests that 92% of us will fail to keep the resolutions we made. And if you are hanging in there so far, don’t assume you will be in the 8% of successful “resolvers”. Check back at Valentine’s Day, because this study found that 80% of resolutions falter by the second week of February.

This is especially frustrating for Christians who set spiritually oriented resolutions, like a more consistent daily prayer habit or reading through the Bible in a year. It is bad enough to stumble in an effort to lose weight or stop binge-watching TV, but when you feel like you have failed drawing closer to God, that is deeply disheartening. And those who are demoralized find it even more difficult to be motivated.

If you are already disappointed in yourself because a resolution has come to a screeching halt, I have some advice for you. Actually, it’s not my advice – it is something I picked up from a great little book called Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, by Jon Acuff. Acuff suggests that the root of such failures is the lie of perfectionism.

So for instance, let’s say you started a daily Bible reading plan, but Wednesday your kids were hit by a stomach bug, and you completely forgot to do the reading. What often happens is that this thought creeps in – “I’ve already blown it, so I might as well just forget doing a daily reading this year.” Real life has a way of interrupting our sincerely conceived resolutions, preventing us to flawlessly execute them each and every day.

The lie here is that merely because you weren’t able to carry out the resolution perfectly, you might as well quit (Acuff says that might as well is “one of the most dangerous phrases in the English language” – p. 11). But think about it – suppose you missed the entire first week of daily Bible reading, but the next week you picked up where you should have been and worked through the rest of the year. This would mean that at the end of the year you will have read 98% of the Bible. Would you be closer to your spiritual goals as a result of that? Of course!

This is why Acuff says that “the day after perfect” is crucial. How do you respond the day after your streak of reading or praying ends? Do you succumb to the lie of perfectionism, or do you resume reading or praying, knowing that an imperfect habit of spiritual renewal is far more valuable than no habit at all?

In the next few weeks I’ll share some more pointers from this book on how to finish what you start. But for now, take heart my faltering friends! The Christian life is a marathon, not a 100 yard dash, and any step forward is better than no step at all.

Thinking Through Faith and…What Interested You in 2017


As I wrap up the first year of the blog, I thought I would share the Top Ten most viewed posts. It always interests me what interests you, and this is quite a diverse list of posts. Thanks again for dropping by so often! Here’s wishing you every good blessing from God this coming year.


10. Giving Thanks for Cancer? As my wife battles cancer, I’ve often wrestled with the biblical admonition to “give thanks for everything.” Here is my best take on that admonition.

9. A Second Look at Mike Pence’s “Rule” In light of the numerous stories about sexual misconduct that emerged this year, Pence’s rule against socializing in private with women other than his wife looks pretty good.

8. Christ Is All, and In All Back in May I preached for a remarkable congregation in Chillicothe, OH, and I just had to share what I saw there.

7. How Do You Define “Marriage”? I argued for the organic definition of marriage as the union of a man and woman in contrast to the incoherent approach that defines marriage synthetically.

6. In Sickness and In Health Many of you commented at how moved you were by the simple act of kindness I witnessed between a husband and his ailing wife. I was, too!

5. “The Dangers of Sophistication” in Barbershop Music and Worship Music My primary hobby is singing barbershop-style music, so I thought I would discuss an issue that affects that world and also the world of hymnody. Music that is inaccessible to the average singer is not healthy for churches, or for barbershop.

4. The Degrading Plague of Pornography The great modern menace of purity.

3. Eulogy for the Obama Presidency I shared this link with CBS sports writer Seth Davis on Twitter, and he re-tweeted it to his followers, garnering lots of feedback.

2. Hugh Hefner, the Vegas Shooter, and the Meaning of “Judge Not” Jesus’ instruction to “judge not” is the most misunderstood command in the gospels. And really, everyone believes in judging immoral behavior – the only real issue is what constitutes immorality.

And, the most viewed post of 2017 was…

  1. Speaking Up for Tamar I was completely caught off guard by the reaction to this post. The fact that it was viewed so widely must mean that the problem of sexual abuse is FAR more common than I ever imagined. It was heartbreaking to read private message after private message from people whose lives have been forever changed by sexual abuse. Perhaps one good thing to come from the rash of stories about sexual misconduct is the willingness of victims to speak out, and the compassion of those around them to show support at such a vulnerable time in their life.




Thinking Through Faith and…Civil Society

As the year of 2017 comes to a close I am relinking some of the posts that matter most to me from the previous year. Yesterday I linked all of my posts about marriage. Today, I’m rounding up all of the posts that might be broadly categorized as having to do with civil society. What I mean by this term is the fundamental set of beliefs that enable us as Americans to forge a cohesive society in the midst of real differences. Several posts this year touched on various threats to this cohesion – the effort to undermine religious liberty, the growing emphasis on identity politics, the stain of racism – just to name a few. I’m not very optimistic about the future of civil society in America, but I am very hopeful about the opportunity this growing darkness presents Christians to show the world what God’s society – the church – really looks like.

A Message to Exiles – building off of Jeremiah’s instructions to the exiles of Judah in Jeremiah 29, I offer some applications for Christians living as “strangers and exiles” in the world.

The Intolerant Future of Post-Christian America – reflections on a Peter Beinart article in The Atlantic showing that the growing secularism of those on the Left and the Right does not bode well for the values on which civil society depends.

You Don’t Have to Agree With Your Neighbor to Love Him – in a civil society we can disagree with one another profoundly yet care for one another deeply.

Bernie Sanders Jumps the Shark – the troubling effort of Senator Sanders to impose a religious test on a public official.

“The Dogma Lives Loudly Within You” – Senator Diane Feinstein’s similar effort to impose a religious test on a judicial nominee.

Assimilate or Pay the Price – a brief defense of religious liberty. Sadly, there seem to be very few old-fashioned liberals (“I disagree with you but I’ll defend your rights”) left in our culture.

The Catastrophe of Identity Politics – this is my effort to explain why identity politics is an acid that destroys everything it touches. The bottom line is this: our commonly shared humanity allows us to understand those who are of a different race, ethnicity, or social status.

The Inevitable Self-Destruction of Identity Politics – focus on external identities inevitably leads to internal rivalries.

The Greatest Campaign Speech Ever – a look at Robert Kennedy’s famous speech the night of MLK’s murder, and what it teaches us about the ability to empathize across racial barriers.

Reflections on the Events of the Weekend – the Nazi/alt right movement’s protests in Charlottesville reveal that identity politics is not limited to the Left.


Thinking Through Faith and…Marriage

As 2017 draws to a close, I want to thank those of you who took time this year to read the blog. I started this primarily to force myself to be a more disciplined and consistent writer, but your feedback has been enormously helpful. As of today there have been over 36,000 views of the blog this year – exceeding my wildest dreams! By the way, if you haven’t do so, subscribe to the blog by entering your email in the box you see on the left so that you can get these posts delivered to your virtual mailbox.

Over the next couple of days I want to pull together links to the articles from the past year that mean the most to me personally. First up: various posts about marriage.

The “Mystery” of Marriage – a look at Paul’s understanding of marriage as a model of the eternal plan of redemption.

Love, Marriage, and Commitment – a survey of love songs over the years and what they tell us about the changing understanding of “love”.

The Degrading Plague of Pornography – one of the gravest threats to marriage in our culture.

Marriage, “From Here to Eternity” – placing marriage in the context of eternal realities.

Put on the New Self…In Marriage – applying the description of a transformed life in Ephesians 4 to marriage in particular.

“To Have and to Hold…Until Death Do We Part” – a tribute to two heroic examples of sacrificial love in marriage.

In Sickness and in Health – a personal story about love in the midst of illness.

A Second Look at Mike Pence’s “Rule” – those who believe marriage is a sacred covenant with God take special care to protect it.


Why the Abortion Issue Matters So Much to Many of Us

A fetus at 12 weeks (

Last week I made the following post on Facebook directed to my pro-life Christian friends in Alabama in connection with the special election for the U.S. Senate:


To my pro-life Christian friends in Alabama, I am heartsick for you today. Like many of you did, if I lived in AL I would have stayed home or written someone else in. Just remember, in politics you often have to lose battles to win wars. More significantly, remember that through the gospel you will help the cause of life more than you ever can through the ballot box. “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Based on many comments I had read from friends in Alabama, I sensed that many of them were truly heartbroken by that election – especially those who felt, as I did, that Roy Moore was morally disqualified from holding office. By voting for a write-in candidate (or by staying home), odds were that a pro-choice candidate would win the election, a prospect that was painful for those who treasure the cause of life. I grieved along with my friends who made this painful decision, and I wanted to encourage them.

Social media being what it is, many friends who were not addressed in the post (that is to say, who are not Christians/pro-life/heartbroken), felt compelled to jump in and comment. Since the point of the post was emotional rather than polemical, the last thing I wanted was a re-hash of all the issues of the campaign. Some pilloried the notion of “single-issue voters” who let a candidate’s views on abortion be the determining factor in an election. Others argued that candidates who do not support government aid like the CHIP program were not really pro-life. And so on.

In this post, I want to explain why the life issue means so much to so many of us – why it is such a determinative factor in how (or whether) we vote.

Let me begin with a historical analogy. Let’s suppose you lived in Illinois in 1858, during the Senate campaign that pitted Abraham Lincoln against Stephen A. Douglas. Undoubtedly there were many issues on the table in that campaign, like tariff policy. But the predominant issue was the expansion of slavery into new territories. And at the heart of that issue was what it means to be a person – a person with rights under the protection of the Constitution. Douglas argued that blacks were not persons. Lincoln argued that – as the Declaration declared – “all men are created equal,” and endowed with the inalienable rights of life and liberty.

If you lived at that time and place, who would you have supported? What if you actually agreed with Douglas on all the other issues but slavery – would you have supported him anyway? Or, would you have decided that while other issues are important, the issue of slavery – with its implications about human personhood – was of paramount importance?

Those of us who are pro-life do not see the issue as merely one of several issues. Just like the question of slavery, it strikes at the heart of what it means to be a person. How is personhood decided?  Is it based on extrinsic features (like color, or age, or “viability”)? Or is it based on intrinsic rights given by God to human beings, period?

It is certainly undeniable that at conception we are dealing with a human being. That is basic biology, as this educational video explains. As the narrator comments:

“Fertilization is the epic story of a single sperm facing incredible odds to unite with an egg and form a new human life. It is the story of all of us.”

The issue then is whether this human being has the rights of a person under the protection of the Constitution. In the Roe Vs. Wade decision, the Court decided that the right to life afforded to persons did not include fetuses until they were “viable,” until they could live on their own outside of the mother’s womb.

With respect to the State’s important and legitimate interest in potential life, the “compelling” point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb.

The Court determined that viability is “usually placed at about seven months (28 weeks) but may occur earlier, even at 24 weeks.” And so the Court ruled that states may prohibit abortions in the third trimester.

In other words, according to the Court there is no intrinsic right to personhood for a human being. This was a purely arbitrary decision, since the point of viability is – as the Court acknowledged – not a hard and fast matter for medical science. Indeed, since the early 1970s, medical technology has made it possible for babies born much earlier than the third trimeter to survive.

By grounding the Roe decision in an extrinsic feature like viability, the Court made the same mistake as did those who denied the rights of personhood to slaves on the basis of another extrinsic feature (race). Those of us who are pro-life believe that human beings as such are persons under the Constitution, and deserving of the right to life. And since that is the case, the abortion issue could hardly be just one issue among many – any more than the slavery issue could have been in 1858.

I recognize there are other issues in any campaign. Take the case of the CHIP program. Providing health care for poor children is a serious issue. But here’s the thing – there are genuine policy debates to be had as to how best to accomplish that objective. I’m not a doctrinaire conservative on such matters, and would be open to lots of ideas. But debating policy is one thing – debating personhood itself is a vastly different kind of issue. And on that issue, there isn’t a wide set of options. Either a fetus is a person or she isn’t.

In the case of the Alabama election, the choice was between a pro-life candidate who was morally compromised (in the view of many of us) and a pro-choice candidate. In fact, Doug Jones is radically pro-choice. Far beyond the Roe decision which defined personhood at viability, Jones expressed support in an interview with Chuck Todd for choice throughout the entire nine months of a pregnancy:

Todd: You wouldn’t be in favor of legislation that said “ban abortion after 20 weeks,” or something like that?

Jones: No, I’m not in favor of anything that is going to infringe on a woman’s right and her freedom to choose. That’s just the position that I’ve had for many years, it’s the position I continue to have…But I want to make sure people understand that once a baby is born, I’m going to be there for that child, that’s where I become a right-to-lifer.”

In a later interview, Jones tried to walk back this extreme view and express support for some restrictions to late-term abortions:

“Having said that, the law for decades has been that late-term procedures are generally restricted except in the case of medical necessity. That’s what I support. I don’t see any changes in that. It is a personal decision.”

I personally find this as unconvincing as Roy Moore’s defenses of his conduct.

And thus the broken heart for my fellow pro-life friends in Alabama who were confronted with these candidates in light of the central human rights issue of our generation. And also the encouragement. The encouragement to remember that politics is a long game in which you sometimes lose battles (as Lincoln lost that Senate race) to win wars, and consolation of knowing that whatever happens politically, the loving spread of the gospel will always be the most pro-life thing we can ever do spiritually.

Reflection on the Reformation (Part 3) – The Issue of Justification

This is the third of three posts reflecting on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In these reflections I’ve benefited tremendously from a book called Was the Reformation a Mistake?. In this book, Catholic scholar Matthew Levering and Protestant scholar Kevin Vanhoozer exchange ideas on a full array of issues. I have picked three that separate Catholics and Protestants, with the desire to – as much as is possible – dispassionately analyze what I think each side gets right and wrong. In the first post I looked at the matter of authority, and in the second post I examined the subject of baptism. In this third post I want to look at the topic of justification. Continue reading

Reflections on the Reformation (Part 2) – The Issue of Baptism

Yesterday I began a brief little series on the issues raised in the Protestant Reformation, inspired in part by a thought provoking booked entitled Was the Reformation a Mistake?  In that work, Catholic scholar Matthew Levering and Protestant scholar Kenneth Vanhoozer exchange thoughts regarding the central issues that separate them. I’m chiming in with my own reflections, beginning with yesterday’s post on the issue of authority. In this post, I want to address another topic – baptism.

The Catholic View of Baptism

In his explanation of the seven sacraments of Catholicism, Levering refers to the following passages in his comments on baptism:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4)

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:26-27)

From these passages, Levering concludes:

Baptism unites us with Christ’s death, but in a way that involves not only the sacrament – water baptism – but also faith. (p. 101)

When Levering says that faith is also involved in the sacrament of baptism, he does not necessarily mean that the one being baptized has faith at that moment. Indeed, in Catholic teaching, infants should be baptized, and then later catechized as they develop personal faith:

…children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called. The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1250)

In Catholic teaching, the faith that is exercised at baptism is that of the entire community:

Baptism is the sacrament of faith. But faith needs the community of believers. It is only within the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe. The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop. The catechumen or the godparent is asked: “What do you ask of God’s Church?” The response is: “Faith!” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1253)

So if I could summarize the Catholic view of baptism, I would say that it holds that salvation is by baptism but without the personal faith of the one being baptized.

The Protestant View of Baptism

What is the Protestant view of baptism? That’s a difficult question to answer since Protestantism doesn’t have a centralized source of authority to speak for all Protestants. Those in the Reformed tradition tend to see baptism as a “sign and seal” of God’s covenant with the elect, including infants. Those from a Baptist background see baptism as a public identification with Christ and the church reserved for adults who have already been saved by faith.

Vanhoozer combines these views in his critique of Levering’s position:

Nor is it the baptismal alone that unites us with Christ’s saving death, but the Holy Spirit through faith in the word (cf. Gal 2:20). Scripture presents baptism and the Lord’s Supper as signs and seals – not the effective (or even instrumental) causes – of salvation. That epithet is reserved for Christ’s death and resurrection alone. What is at stake in saying this, of course, is the gospel. (p. 218)

In contrast to the Catholic view of salvation by baptism without personal faith, Vanhoozer argues for salvation by personal faith without baptism. This is also the approach taken by popular Protestant blogger Tim Challies:

The Roman Catholic view of baptismal regeneration must be rejected outright. It teaches that God’s salvation and grace are conferred through baptism, so that “through Baptism we are free from sin and reborn as sons of God.” This is a rejection of the New Testament emphasis that, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9) and, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

So which is it – salvation by baptism without personal faith, or salvation by faith without baptism?

Faith, Baptism, and Salvation

I believe this is a false choice. In Scripture, the basis of salvation is the death of Christ, the means of salvation is personal faith, and the time of salvation is baptism. Consider this text from Paul:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12)

Here Paul describes baptism as a “circumcision made without hands,” the removal of sinfulness (“the body of the flesh”). And he says that this happens “in him” – in Christ – “by the circumcision of Christ.” So Christ’s death is the basis of our salvation.

But Paul also says that we receive this spiritual circumcision “having been buried with him in baptism.” In baptism, in other words, we are united with Christ, sharing in his death and resurrection. That is the time when we receive the saving effects of Jesus’ death.

This is not at all inconsistent with faith, however. In fact, Paul says that our resurrection to life in baptism takes place “through faith in the powerful working of God.” Faith is the means by which we grasp the promise of God to save us in baptism by Christ’s death.

If we confuse the basis, means, and time of salvation, the biblical data will never make any sense to us, since at different times Scripture ascribes salvation to the death of Christ (Romans 5:9), to faith (Ephesians 2:8), and to baptism (1 Peter 3:21). We don’t have to choose between these, though, if we recognize the role of each in redemption.

Let me close with an illustration. As a lot of you know, my wife is undergoing treatment for cancer. Every other week we have an appointment go to a clinic where she receives an infusion of chemo. So far, that treatment has held the cancer at bay. Now, would it make sense to say that Kristi is saved by the chemo but not the infusion? Or by the chemo but not the appointment? Of course not. The chemo is the basis of her treatment, the infusion is the means of her treatment, and the appointment is the time of her treatment.

In the same way, the basis of our salvation is the redemptive work of Christ on the cross. Just as Kristi adds nothing to her chemo, we can add nothing to the accomplishment of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Faith is the way we grasp this work, just as the infusion is the means by which Kristi’s chemo is administered. And baptism is the time that God has designated that this happens, as the time when our faith in God’s powerful work has its effect (just as Kristi’s appointment is the time when the life-saving chemo is infused).

In my judgment, Catholic teaching is right on target in identifying the connection between baptism and salvation. Where it goes amiss in my view is in its understanding of whether the one being baptized must have personal faith. Protestants (again, broadly speaking) are right in seeing the need for personal faith as the means of salvation, but overreact to Catholic teaching in the devaluing of baptism. I think Martin Luther captured the harmony of biblical teaching very nicely:

Thus you see plainly that Baptism is not a work which we do but is a treasure which God gives us and faith grasps, just as the Lord Christ upon the cross is not a work but a treasure comprehended and offered to us in the Word and received by faith. (Luther’s Large Catechism 37)




Reflections on the Reformation (Part 1) – The Issue of Authority

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In conjunction with that anniversary, I read an interesting book called Was the Reformation a Mistake? by Matthew Levering and Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Levering’s portion of the book consisted of a defense of the Catholic position on various issues raised by the Reformation, to which Vanhoozer offered a response. It was an interesting read, and prompted me to think more about some of these matters. Over the next three days I want to look at three issues which divide Catholics and Protestants. First on the list – the issue of authority. What is the final and infallible authority for Christian faith and practice?

My Catholic friends hold that this authority is found in three sources: sacred Scripture, sacred Tradition, and the teaching authority of the Church, known as the Magisterium.

It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls. (Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 95)

We Protestants, on the other hand, contend that Scripture alone is the final and infallible arbiter of faith. This is not to say that we don’t use resources to help us grasp what Scripture teaches, or that there aren’t human authorities (like elders) in local churches. But it does mean that once we have discerned what Scripture actually teaches, that and that alone is the bottom line, the “norming norm” of faith and practice.

I appreciate the argument that my Catholic friends make to the effect that without the additional authority of the Magisterium, Protestants have no anchor, and that we are susceptible to a myriad of interpretations of and endless deviations from the apostolic teaching.A quick glance around the Protestant landscape seems to validate this criticism! This is why Catholicism places such emphasis on apostolic succession, the notion that the deposit of faith has been “entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome” (Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 85).

However, I don’t find this argument ultimately persuasive, for a couple of reasons. First, there are competing claims to apostolic succession between Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and some forms of high Anglicanism. In order to determine which view is valid, I have to analyze the claims of each and decide which one is correct. But the need for that sort of individual, independent evaluation of competing interpretations is precisely what apostolic succession is supposed to alleviate when it comes to competing interpretations of Scripture. So it doesn’t seem to me that apostolic succession really solves anything.

Second, on a practical level, I am unpersuaded that a consolidating authority like the Magisterium really helps keep Christians united. Right now the Catholic Church is embroiled in a tremendous controversy regarding doctrinal statements by Pope Francis regarding divorce. One Catholic author that I’ve benefited from, Thomas Weinandy, has criticized Pope Francis for fostering confusion, division, and uncertainty because of his various public statements on these matters. The way I look at it, we Protestants have enough confusion, division, and uncertainty of our own without adding more! So I don’t see a practical advantage to an institutional authority like the Magisterium.

Third, the absence of any sort of apostolic succession (as it is conceived of by Catholicism) in the Bible is glaring. There are many places in the New Testament where such an institutional concept of authority would have made sense to mention, such as Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesians elders in Acts 20:17-38, or John’s first letter regarding the “antichrists” who were denying the truth about Jesus. Yet in neither instance did the apostles mention a specific successor who would help the church navigate difficult circumstances. Both Paul and John pointed to the truth which was previously taught as the safeguard against doctrinal error (Acts 20:32; 1 John 2:24).

For these reasons, I do not find the Catholic understanding of authority to be compelling. But in the spirit of the Reformation, I think it is also important to reevaluate Protestantism as well. Many Protestants confuse sola scriptura with solo scriptura, the assumption that “all I need is the Bible.” I believe that all I need as the sole infallible source of authority is Scripture, but that’s a different proposition entirely from the notion that I don’t need to consider other resources in order to grasp what Scripture says.

In the first place, unless you read Hebrew and Greek, you need something more than the Bible to understand it – translations. And unless you are an expert in ancient cultures, you need resources like dictionaries and encyclopedias to understand the terminology of the Bible. Don’t misunderstand – these resources are helps to understanding Scripture, not replacements for or supplements to Scripture. And they are certainly not infallible. But they do provide crucial help in understanding what the sole infallible source of authority, Scripture, actually says.

Second, the easiest way to subvert the authority of Scripture is by ignoring its context and downloading your own definitions of terms onto the Scriptures. This is an insidious path to substituting your will for God’s. The antidote to this is using resources that are designed to aid your understanding of the context of the Bible – again, not in place of Scripture or as an authority comparable to Scripture, but as a means of knowing what the authoritative word of God says.

Third, the notion that “all I need is the Bible” ignores the value of listening to what others have to say. Years ago I heard of a preacher who claimed that he never read any commentaries. I appreciate the sentiment that places devotion to the Bible above all else, but what that sort of claim basically says is, “I don’t have anything to learn from anyone else.” God did not give us the Bible in a vacuum. He “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers to equip the saints” (Ephesians 4:11-12). Throughout my life I have benefited from many teachers, whether in classes or in commentaries, who have helped me see the Bible more clearly. Are they infallible? No. Are they invaluable? Yes.

The confession that “Jesus is Lord” is ultimately about authority, about living in submission to the Lord of Lords. I hope this post will spark greater interest in living out that confession. For my Catholic friends, I think the current climate under Pope Francis provides an occasion to reconsider the ramifications of papal authority and extra-biblical tradition. For my Protestant friends, I suggest that we remind ourselves that sola scriptura can easily become a rationalization for lazy or arrogant individualism.