Book Review: Carson's Call for Spiritual Reformation

by Matthew Raley D. A. Carson. A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and his PrayersGrand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.

D. A. Carson’s enriching book is more than a manifesto for revival. It is a searching meditation on the imperative, the power, and the generative attitudes of prayer. First published in 1992, the book may be an even more sobering read today, more than twenty years later. The decline of the American church has continued without interruption, and the contributing factors and cultural symptoms of our decline are now worse. Carson’s exegetical depth, however, gives me fresh hope.

Carson opens with an analysis of the American church’s prayerlessness (Introduction), the conclusion of which is that we do not know God well enough. He opens the nature and focus of prayer in a series of chapters drawing on the example of other Christians (Chapter 1), the model of 2 Thessalonians 1 (Chapters 2 and 3), the overall burden for people in Paul’s prayers (Chapters 4-5), and the model of Colossians 1 (Chapter 6). Carson pauses to examine various excuses for prayerlessness and to expound the motivations for overcoming them (Chapters 7-8). He then develops much-needed theological rationales for prayer, dealing with the nature of God (Chapters 9-10), the nature of spiritual power (Chapter 11), and vision for ministry (Chapter 12).

In order to find fault with any of Carson’s exegesis, one would have to marshal detailed technical objections. Even where that might be possible, his devotion to expounding the Scriptures accurately is displayed on every page. Carson’s examination of 2 Thessalonians 1 is rich with applications derived meticulously from context (Chapter 3). On page after page, Carson gives appropriate details about Paul’s inferential and referential particles to clarify why Paul prays and what he prays for. In fact, one of the most edifying features of Carson’s book is his frequent reproduction of lengthy passages that the reader can mull over without any commentary.

Many books are filled with solid exegetical details that nevertheless clutter big themes. Carson’s book is not one of them. He shows the Bible’s big picture of prayer.

In particular, the book corrects the overly individualistic concept of prayer many evangelicals have. Carson doesn’t belabor the inadequacy of a prayer life that is exclusively private, or attack individualism outright. Instead, he shows the communal prayer life of Paul in high definition. And that is rebuke enough. In chapter 4, Carson reproduces prayers from all of Paul’s letters to show how immersed he was in the lives of his fellow believers. Chapter 5 is devoted to an even more detailed treatment of this theme, unpacking 2 Thessalonians 3:9-13. Also, Carson demonstrates that this relational aspect of prayer, taught so exhaustively in the New Testament, was a feature of God’s people more recently. He tells many stories of how the people in his life influenced his praying in chapter 1, and he consistently draws on the history of revivals throughout the book.

This emphasis on human relationships in prayer continues to be neglected, and Carson’s faithfulness to the biblical model remains urgently needed.

There are issues about which I would like to learn more from Carson. For example, he addresses spiritual warfare briefly in chapter 12, which focuses on Romans 15. Prayer in this connection is almost exclusively the preserve of charismatic believers, as it was when Carson first wrote the book. The role of angels and demons in the life of Christ and the growth of the church is a prominent theme of the New Testament. I would like to have seen more about such issues in relation to prayer, especially in light of the mainstreaming of New Age spirituality that has occurred in the last twenty years.

Still, Carson’s book is a powerful antidote to the prayerlessness that has poisoned our spirits.

Jesus Projection

by Matthew Raley The name "Jesus" has been a blank screen in America for a long time. If I embrace the name, I acknowledge that "Jesus" is the epitome of goodness. But, in a neat trick, I can project onto the name whatever righteous shape I hold dear.

Evangelicals, among whom I count myself, are some of the most skilled projectionists, and many people are now wary of our "Jesus."

We evangelicals are quick to deplore the progressive "Jesus" who thought up socialism before there was even a proletariat, or the Buddhist "Jesus" who did a semester in India. We rejected the self-doubting "Jesus" of "Godspell," "Jesus Christ Superstar," and "The Last Temptation of Christ," molded to match faddish ideals of personal authenticity. More recently, we've inveighed against the gnostic "Jesus" who had a child with Mary Magdalene -- a savior for conspiracy theorists.

Our culture only accepts gods it has re-imagined in its own image. We're right to dismiss all these Jesus-projections. But we can't seem to reject the blank screen itself. We've profited too heavily from it. If we were to set the bar at intellectual honesty, we'd undermine our salesmanship.

For the last forty years at least the evangelical "Jesus" has looked as close to the American consumer as possible. Consider the Jesus-projection you are most likely to watch in an evangelical church.

In appearance, he is an Anglo-German woodsman with great hair. In attitude, he's way non-threatening. In manner, he uses open gestures. He doesn't lecture or argue. He uses sports analogies when talking to men and tear-jerking stories with women. He says, "Dude!"

This "Jesus" can be narrated like a sitcom in 18 minutes (minus commercials). Each week, the live studio audience laughs at the right times, but there comes a moment when they feel really bad for "Jesus," maybe shed a tear. They realize how nice "Jesus" is to us, and how mean we are to him, and this hushed epiphany motivates them to try harder at being positive.

The Jesus of the New Testament is nothing like this.

The real Jesus is ancient. He cannot be understood, much less received, without a basic knowledge of his culture and history, and that is why pastors used to think of themselves as teachers. Many Christians see that Jesus is not the Now Guy evangelicals project, and the good news for them is that he can still be known. We know him through the ancient method by which our minds labor in the Bible's words and in prayer, interacting with the real one who rose from the dead.

Furthermore, the real Jesus had a message about the outworking of history. He did not give inspirational chats about living positively, like some huckster from Houston. The classic distillation of his teaching is, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." God is driving events toward his goals, and those events can sweep an individual away no matter how positively she thinks. That word repent is almost illegal in churches today, probably because it contains the one message contemporary people can't abide: "God's plan isn't all about you."

But there is more good news for the people who already know this. Though the projection of the hyper-compassionate woodsman who is on call for you 24/7 is bowlderized, there is still the real Jesus. He is our Sovereign, whose power has swept us into his plan. The injustice and violence of our world will dissolve in the heat of his stare, and the new city we hope for will be built.

Ultimately, the real Jesus defied those in his own time who wanted to use him as a blank screen. Many people followed Jesus, John reports, but had agendas for him to fulfill. Jesus "did not entrust himself to them." (John 2.24) When many wanted him to overthrow the Romans, for example, "Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself." (John 6.15)

So there is still more good news. In the swirl of efforts to re-imagine Jesus after our likeness, the real Savior has a mind of his own. And he's still commanding, "Follow me."

Rob Bell On Justice

by Matthew Raley Rob Bell starts to make an excellent case for the justice of hell in Love Wins. But he doesn't finish it. Bell's inadequate concept of justice is the next feature of this book I think evangelicals should watch. (First two features here and here.)

Hell is hard to defend if the people who populate it are the ignorant, needy, and wounded who weren't able to check the right theological boxes. But the charge depends on sympathy. Switch perspectives on the population, and hell starts to look like the only appropriate punishment.

That's what Bell does in the middle of his chapter on hell (pp 70-73). There are kids all over Kigali, Rwanda with missing limbs, he says. "Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren't metaphorical missing arms and legs." A rape victim, a 5-year-old boy whose father committed suicide, the surviving relatives of a man whose cruelty extended beyond the grave: all of these show the ongoing cost of sin.

Bell is aggressive in making this case.

So when people say they don't believe in hell and they don't like the word "sin," my first response is to ask, "Have you ever sat and talked with a family who just found out that their child has been molested? Repeatedly? Over a number of years? By a relative?" (p 72)

I found myself cheering him on as I read this passage. I am a pastor, like Bell. Few have the daily, ongoing experience of evil quite like those on life's clean-up crew -- law enforcement, social workers, doctors and nurses, and pastors. The cost of sin is born day after day in family after family. And the cost mounts. True love demands payment for the sake of those who bear that cost.

But, having adjusted our perspective in this way, having raised the issue of sin's cost, and having asserted our need for this horrible word hell, Bell switches back to the perspective of the ignorant, needy, and wounded who failed to check the right boxes. Isn't it monstrous to punish them eternally? Bell asks (p 102), "Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth?"

Suffering infinitely for finite sins, committed in the few years of life. Our sins, Bell assumes repeatedly in this book, are limited in scope.

Really? Our sins are finite? They are? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt?

I am nowhere near granting that assumption, and I have three reasons.

1. The Bible reiterates that our sins are primarily against God, secondarily against one another (e.g. Genesis 39.7-10; Romans 1.18-32). How does Bell propose to limit the cost of sins committed against an infinite being?

2. Human beings live in community. At what point does the impact of a single sin come to rest? A slanderous tweet, let's say? It's true that I can lose sight of a sin's impact, but that doesn't mean I really know where the impact stops.

3. Human beings are linked generationally. A sin committed at one time can live on. That's a key part of the problem of racism in the United States. How can we say that Thomas Jefferson's attitude toward his slaves had a finite impact because it was committed in the few years of his own life?

Bell doesn't follow his own correct reasoning about the cost of sin to its conclusion: The cost goes on to such an extent that no human being knows the full impact of his own actions. And the real problem of justice, as the Bible lays it out, is that all have sinned.

Bell's Redeeming Deity

by Matthew Raley I am surveying features of Rob Bell's book Love Wins that evangelicals should watch over the coming years. A second feature is Bell's description of the nature of God.

According to Bell, the evangelical God is impossible for people to trust. This God has put a time-limit on repentance: death is the end of people's opportunity to have a relationship with him, and hell awaits people who do not believe. Bell says that this sort of God is "violent" and "destructive." If this account of God were true, he says,

A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with [people] would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.

If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately. (pp 173-174)

He goes on, calling this God "devastating," "psychologically crushing," "terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable."

Bell counters that God is love, and that God's invitation into his love never ends. Hell is not God tormenting people, but people choosing to reject God's love and creating their own torment. Even when they reject God, he always brings them back because redemption is part of his very nature.

Yet Bell's story about how God redemptive nature displays the same divine volatility Bell finds in the doctrine of eternal hell.

For example, Bell uses the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to make the argument that hell is temporary. He calls them "the poster cities for deviant sinfulness run amok," recounting how God rained sulfur on the cities, destroying everything. "But this isn't the last we read of Sodom and Gomorrah."

Bell cites Ezekiel 16, where God says he will return the cities to what they were before, then asks rhetorically, "What appeared to be a final, forever, smoldering, smoking verdict regarding their destiny ... wasn't? What appeared to be over, isn't. Ezekiel says that where there was destruction there will be restoration." (p 83, emphasis original)

So God sometimes destroys people to make a point. Then he restores. Bell calls this a "movement from judgment to restoration, from punishment to new life." (p 85)

Using Bell's standard of a loving God, his account of what he calls God's redeeming nature shows the same violence he condemns when discussing eternal torment in hell. The God who destroyed Sodom is the child abuser about whom Bell would call the authorities. The people of Sodom did not choose sulfurous rain; God inflicted it upon them.

The only difference Bell shows between the God who destroyed Sodom and the God who punishes souls eternally is the amount of time involved.

So let's imagine Rob Bell preaching love and hope to Sodom: "This fire isn't forever. Your father loves you! He's inviting you to participate in his love! Just wait: you'll have another opportunity to love God!"

Or we could ask this question: Would it matter to the people destroyed in the fire of Sodom that their punishment was only temporary? Would they trust God any more, or hate God any less because they have another opportunity later?

Or we could make up a scenario about pain. Suppose I promised you that the Soviet guard in the gulag would only beat you every day for 10 years. Would the temporary nature of the torment make it tolerable? What if he only beats you daily for a week? Okay, okay: your beating will only last 5 minutes.

Bell's proposal that hell is temporary in no way makes his account of God's nature coherent.

Celebrity status will not exempt Bell's arguments from the precision of, say, Richard Dawkins. Evangelicals should watch what happens when Bell's distinctions without differences fail to make God any more loveable.

Love Wins accepts generalized standards of love and justice -- standards that are, to be sure, accepted by most people without examination. But the received wisdom of generalizations about "a loving God" or "a just God" fall apart once we delve into specific cases. "Loving" toward whom? "Just" in whose cause?

I think Bell will have to discard every biblical account of God's punishing a sinner in order to preserve his view of redemption. That is where I think his "better story" about God will lead. Bell has failed to put human pain in the context of any serious look at the requirements of justice.

Interacting With "Love Wins"

by Matthew Raley The publication of Rob Bell's Love Wins marks the acceptance of emergent Christianity by the American mainstream. Bell has been featured in a Time cover story, and is now a reference point for all sorts of popular spiritual writing. The pantheon of the American empire now includes Bell's Jesus.

Over several posts, I'll discuss some features of this book that I think will be most important for evangelicals in the coming years.

The first feature: Bell denies that biblical doctrine has significance in human salvation. The Bible contains teachings, sure. But knowing them is problematic, both interpretively, in finding what they mean, and morally, in maintaining humility.

Bell's denial that doctrinal belief is essential to salvation is explicit, coming in his discussion of Jesus' claim in John 14.6: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Bell does not deny the exclusivity inherent in that statement. But Bell argues,

What [Jesus] doesn't say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn't even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him. (p 154)

Love wins, Bells argues (pp 144-157), because Jesus is the sustaining power of all creation, and he saves people no matter what they do or believe, wooing them through recurring opportunities to embrace him.

The denial of doctrine's significance is also implicit, a denial through method. Bell is a deconstructionist.

Bell's claim that Jesus never specifies how people are saved illustrates neatly. It is exegetically preposterous on its face. In the very document Bell discusses, Jesus repeatedly links salvation with belief, as in John 12.44-50, where Jesus makes "the word I have spoken" a person's judge on the last day, and where he declares that the Father has given him "a commandment -- what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life."

(Indeed, Bell quotes a fragment of that paragraph [p 159], in which Jesus says he came to save the world, not to judge. But Jesus said that in order to set up his word as judge, and belief in his word as the "mechanism" that saves.)

Such bits of trivia don't matter to Bell. The Bible for him is not a revelation of God's truth. Rather, it is full of the raw materials for God's story: poems, riddles, metaphors, hints, dribs and drabs of ancient cultural perspectives. We are supposed to find God's story in those materials. Bell complains that historic Christianity has told a story that's bad, having hardened all the raw material into absolutes. There's "a better story" (pp 110-111).

This view of the Bible creates a new role for exegesis.

We expound the Bible not so much to learn what is true, as to deconstruct our own preconceptions. So, Bell offers long passages studying such words as hades, gehenna, aeon, et al., not to build up our understanding of what these words mean, but to tear it down. By the time Bell is done with text after text, we no longer know what the words mean. And with traditional concepts safely deconstructed, Bell is free to pick from those materials and tell his better story.

Many conservative theologians are saying that Bell is a theological liberal. To be sure, many of his conclusions are indistinguishable from the old liberalism. But I want to register one qualification that puts Bell and many emergents in a different category.

Modernist liberals 150 years ago believed that the Bible's teachings were knowable, and that our reasoning about texts added to our knowledge. It is not clear to me at all that Bell believes this. Bell seems to believe that knowledge itself is a kind of arrogance, and that doctrinal knowledge, in terms of the fate of every person who ever lived, is of no significance.

Evangelicals should watch this feature of Love Wins to see whether Bell is merely being fashionable, or whether he is flirting with nihilism.

Chico News & Review Reports on Churches and Gays

by Matthew Raley Jerry Olenyn did a service for Chico in his story for CN&R on how local churches view homosexuality. Writing such a piece is a thankless task, the only guarantee being that some on all sides will see Olenyn as biased. Conservative evangelicals should notice that Olenyn's language is even-handed, that his use of quotations presents a well-rounded picture of what conservative pastors believe and feel, and that his objective in the piece is right: to deepen our civic culture on this issue.

The article is solid reporting, an essential tool for keeping leaders honest and their discourse civil.

Olenyn only made one characterization in the story: "There's a definite evasiveness that seeps through this discussion. Conservative churches fear being labeled homophobic and intolerant, while gay-affirming churches worry that their pro-gay stance could cost them members." The characterization is fair.

Olenyn identifies the roots of this evasiveness. He responds to one pastor's assertion that "there are bigger issues" than homosexuality, "such as reaching out to the lost, feeding the hungry, and fulfilling Christ's mission." Olenyn asks, "But does part of fulfilling Christ’s mission include defining sin? And what exactly is sin?"

Perceptive. A pastor cannot speak clearly about whether homosexuality is a sin until he defines what sin is.

Throughout the article, as in the debate nationally, the word sin is used without definition. Today sin connotes a "really bad" thing, something that makes you feel guilty. With the term apparently used this way, we seem to be debating whether churches have a right to shame people.

To understand the Bible's definition of sin, we should start with the more basic issue of what it means to be human.

According to the Bible, human beings can only understand themselves fully in relation to God (e.g. Psalm 139). We are creatures. We do not govern our own lives. Rather, we serve something larger than ourselves -- either God or the things we put in place of God.

Sin, in this worldview, is primarily an identity of servitude to false gods, whatever form they take, and only secondarily a specific action or choice (Romans 1.18-32). Paul's teaching in Romans 6.15-23 is that human beings are sin's slaves. Jesus himself teaches (John 8.34), "Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin."

The implication is clear: to be human is to be the property either of sin or of God. All specific acts of sin express the same identity of sin-slavery in different ways. The issue in reconciling with God is not the individual acts, but the identity that those acts express.

The contrast between the biblical view and that of Western modernity is stark. The modern individual assumes -- more precisely, he believes as a matter of doctrine -- that he owns himself. He is the property of no one, having the autonomy to construct his life as he chooses. His dignity as a human being consists in asserting himself.

Conservative evangelicals know that a genuinely biblical definition of sin calls people to reject their most basic beliefs about who they are. For many decades now, evangelicals have been trying to finesse this point. They have cast sin in terms of "choices," "addictions," "values," or "lifestyles," as if behavior were the primary issue. Jesus, in this cautious gospel, is less Savior than Coach. He helps you make better choices about your life.

But in addressing homosexuals -- without a social consensus on sexual morality -- evangelicals are trapped by their evasiveness about sin. They can't confront homosexuality without asserting God's right to determine human identity. At the same time, they can't assert God's right over our identity without offending many of their own converts. The evangelical pew holds many who believe that their lives remain their own property, and who've been assured that God would never be so Godlike as to require their very selves.

Several conservative pastors quoted in Olenyn's article showed a wise mix of clarity about the Bible's teaching on homosexuality and humility as forgiven sinners. I'm grateful that Olenyn showed this.

But I am also grateful that he identified the core question, which humbles everyone equally: What exactly is sin?

Blood-Thirsty Thoughts On Bin Laden and Justice

by Matthew Raley The killing of Osama bin Laden is being hailed as a thrilling feat of heroism. We are witnessing a rare outburst of vindictive jubilation that has swept young and old, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat -- that, indeed, has revived talk of national unity. Justice, we feel, has concretely been done.

This is a good moment to consider the pressure of God's justice.

To see why so many are jubilant, it might be helpful to peruse this piece from New York Magazine, "September 11 by Numbers." It makes jarring reading even 10 years after bin Laden's crime.

The total number of people killed in the twin towers was 2,819. I vividly remember an admonition from Walter Cronkite the next day, that journalists should cite the exact number and not use round figures. "Those are people."

The estimated number of children who lost a parent in the attack was 3,051. Fully one-fifth of all Americans knew someone hurt or killed.

This magnitude of loss on a single morning, graphically recorded second by second, painstakingly studied by government commissions, and endured day after day ever since by the bereaved, cries out for recompense. No one should expect detached objectivity about justice from one of those 3,051 people who spent the last decade grieving a parent. We shouldn't expect them to feel mercy toward bin Laden because the expectation is, among other things, inhumane.

Payback is their due.

But the fury of 3,051 children cannot actually be appeased by bin Laden's death, much less the fury of an entire nation.

The man who took  2,819 lives at the World Trade Center only had one life to yield up in payment. And he took many more lives besides, including that of the wife he used as a shield in his last moments. His instant experience in death cannot balance the experiences in grief over lifetimes. Most tragically, his death does not restore life to those he killed.

So the imbalance remains. Even after all bin Laden had is taken from him, the losses his caused are still on the books.

Let's add another complication.

Is there any basis upon which bin Laden could have repented? What could he have done to gain enough mercy to keep his life?

Perhaps a public apology, combined with a life of social work. Maybe a religious conversion. Or he might have liquidated his wealth to fund the education of all 3,051 children through graduate school.

Nauseated yet?

Assuming you could get 1,512 of those children the sign off on bin Laden's repentance, you still wouldn't be able to look the other 1,539 in the eyes.

The simple reason is that repentance without payment is worthless. That's clear enough when the enormity of the crime is too ugly to whitewash.

Bottom line: one man's payment is never enough to compensate for his sins, and no repentance will restore him if he cannot pay.

The pressure of divine justice is that the tabulation our sins is ongoing at God's throne. If we admit today that justice demanded satisfaction in bin Laden's case, will we also admit that it demands satisfaction in our own?

Such are the problems that lead to the cross.

God's Redemptive Justice

by Matthew Raley Ross Douthat made a trenchant observation in his New York Times column on Easter Sunday. "The doctrine of hell . . . assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murder can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so."

The idea of divine justice, that God renders a verdict on our choices and that a guilty verdict demands punishment, is being revised.

Many evangelicals are now saying that we must discard such old notions. They argue that God's every action is redemptive. Because the doctrine of eternal, conscious punishment in hell assumes a punitive wrath in God that has no redemptive motivation, the doctrine is inconsistent with God's nature.

Gregory Boyd (discussing annihilationism) says, "Consider that in the traditional view, the wicked are not being punished to learn something. There’s nothing remedial about their torment. Rather, God keeps them in existence for the sole purpose of having them experience pain."

Modernists made similar arguments more than a century ago. Old notions of justice as payback are barbaric, and Western civilization has outgrown such primitive ideas. Hell thus belongs to the lower rungs of humanity's evolution.

Is it the case that redemptive mercy is central to God's character, and does this characteristic invalidate the idea of hell?

Let's probe the word redemption. The Greek word is lutron, which refers to the ransom price for slaves or captives. There will be no release until the price is paid. Jesus, speaking about the key to his Lordship, says that he came to serve by giving his life as the redemption price for many (Mark 10.35-45).

Another word that expresses a similar idea is propitiation. Paul teaches that God made Christ's blood to be the "propitiation," the appeasement of God's justice, that sinners receive by faith (Romans 3.21-26). Paul also states the reason God made this appeasement in blood: "It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." That is, God's justice is demonstrated by his paying the price incurred by sin.

Redemptive mercy is indeed central to God's nature. But to call God's nature redemptive without reference to the purchase price is to talk nonsense. God does not do "remedial" sentences as a way to satisfy his justice. When he shows mercy to a sinner, he purchases the individual out of death into life.

In other words, Christ's death on the cross was redemptive because the death was entirely punitive. In God's plan the cross was not a sympathy-generating symbol or an attention-getting drama. It was the final propitiation of God's wrath. It paid the ransom.

No payment, no mercy. Full payment, full pardon.

The argument from God's mercy that many evangelicals are now using against the traditional doctrine of hell can also be used -- indeed, has been used -- to attack Christ's atonement for sin. Modernist theological liberals have long preached that the cross couldn't have been about something so primitive as payment. The cross is tragic blood-poetry to them.

I have never been impressed with modernism's treasured fantasy of cultural progress. Today's notion of remedial justice is founded on the lie that sin is not truly destructive of human life. Believing lies like this is not a sign of evolutionary refinement, but of degradation. Sin is destructive, and its deadly consequences cry out for recompense. The fact that we are all under sentence only makes the urgency of the cross more intense.

Douthat cites a contemporary story of sin, the fictional life of Tony Soprano, who rejects one opportunity after another to turn from his life of violence. "'The Sopranos' never suggested that Tony was beyond forgiveness. But, by the end, it suggested that he was beyond ever genuinely asking for it."

Rob Bell's notorious question about whether Gandhi is in hell is fair enough, says Douthat. "But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?"

The Cosmic Vending Machine

by Matthew Raley Americans, pragmatic as they are about everything, tend to evaluate God the same way they evaluate their congressman: What have you done for me lately?

There shouldn't be any question on God's part about whether to keep our blessings coming: the financial windfall, the narrow escape from an accident, robust health, and above all, fun. He knows we're not perfect. He knows we try -- at least when we feel like it. And he ought to know that, despite our limitations, we're doing a pretty darn good job with life.

So, when we put a prayer in the heavenly slot, we have a right to hear some clicking, a whir, and a final clop as the item we requested appears. Fair is fair.

The biblical word holy intrudes on this fantasy.

When Isaiah sees God enthroned in the temple (Isaiah 6), some of the more threatening aspects of the vision are the seraphim. These creatures have six wings apiece: two pairs to pay deference to the Lord by covering face and feet, and one pair to fly. The verb stem of fly is intensive, meaning not merely that they hover, but that they dart around the high throne.

All the while, they call warnings to each other: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" These calls are loud and deep enough to shake the foundations of the temple.

The root idea of holy is separate, or unmixed. To say that God is holy is to call him Other.

But that is not all the seraphim are saying. The Hebrew language is built on repetition; to repeat a word is to compound its force. "Holy, holy" would be the maximum imaginable Otherness. The seraphim are calling, "Holy, holy, holy": the Otherness beyond your ability to imagine.

No wonder Isaiah says, "I'm dead!" He and his people are unclean -- that is, mixed and corrupt, unable to survive the presence of utter holiness.

America pragmatism doesn't work well. We resent that the cosmic vending machine won't deliver on demand, and that heaven is silent when we pound it. If Isaiah's vision is true, then we are operating on a theory of God that is disastrously wrong.

Pragmatists have no category for holiness. This omission means that we not only can't understand God's judgment but, even worse, we can't understand his grace. The Lord says the same thing to us that he said to Isaiah: "I will make you clean."

God's holiness means that every single blessing we receive has crossed the infinite chasm between us and the purity of his being. It means that his extension of cleansing to us is life itself.

"Fear of the Lord" Means "Fear"

by Matthew Raley For many American evangelicals, "fearing God" has come to mean respecting Him a bunch. God is a coach. He knows what he's doing, and you should keep that in mind if he makes a decision you don't like. You should also keep in mind that Coach's blustering is just drama to keep you on your toes.

So when Solomon says (Proverbs 1.7) that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge," he's not talking about fear-fear; he's just saying, "Show some respect! You might learn a thing or two."

The problem is that, both in the Old and New Testaments, human behavior in the presence of God is consistently desperate. When Isaiah saw the Lord (Isaiah 6.5), he exclaimed literally, "I am annihilated!" Ezekiel's vision of God's glory put him in a stupor for a week (Ezekiel 3.15). John saw the resurrected Jesus (Revelation 1.17), on whose bosom he had once reclined, and "fell at [Jesus'] feet as though dead."

Respect isn't a believable reaction to the awesome nature of God's presence. Fear is.

Solomon is saying that fear -- real fear -- is the beginning of knowledge because it's the right emotional response to the power and holiness of God. It's the starting-point for measuring life, the foundation of safety and health.

But how can you relate to God without being paralyzed?

When my dad taught me to use a lawn mower, the first thing he did was start it, turn it on its side, and show me the blade. He wanted me to be afraid of it, and I was. Then he showed me how to be safe: never pull the mower toward my feet, etc. Once I knew how to use the mower, I pushed it confidently -- even though my fear of the blade remained vivid.

Think of this kind of fear more personally.

When a man is abusive, you fear him because you never know what he's going to do. You try to judge what mood he's in, to discover early warnings that he's about to go off, because his anger could flare instantly.

The fear of God is not like that.

I feared my dad, and still do, not because he was unpredictable and abusive, but because he had integrity and consistency. His reaction toward wrong was nothing to trifle with.

We fear God not because he is abusive -- because we never know what he'll do -- but because we know exactly what he will do. The scriptures reveal his nature for just that reason. So for me, there is no contradiction between fearing God and having an intimate confidence in him. In fact, the right kind of fear is the foundation of confidence.

Forgiveness and Repentance

by Matthew Raley I got a question over Twitter following my recent post on forgiveness. How do you forgive someone who won't acknowledge doing wrong, or who never repents?

Three issues here.

1. We have a duty to forgive even those who will not acknowledge doing wrong. Jesus forgave those who crucified him while they were in the act of doing so (Luke 23.34). His death for sinners occurred when we were ungodly, not in response to our repentance (Romans 5.6-11). Jesus commands us to forgive as we have been forgiven (Matthew 6.14-15), extending the same release to others that we've gained ourselves.

2. Forgiveness is not a free pass for a sin without payment. Remember the transaction of release: upon payment, the debt no longer adheres to the debtor. The Scriptures tell us to release people from their sins on the strongest possible basis, Christ's payment for sin. Because of his death on the cross, Jesus Christ is now the judge (John 5.22-29).

So when I forgive someone who has wronged me, I am saying that Christ bought me out of my debts. Therefore I have no right to hold debts over another person (Matthew 18.23-35).

In this sense, my release of someone who has wronged me is a change of custody. "Whatever claim I have against this person I surrender to Christ. He is judge; I am not. He may do as He will."

3. Forgiveness is different from trust. Jesus forgives Peter for his betrayals, along with the other disciples (John 20.19-23). But he still goes through a process with Peter to reestablish the relationship (John 21.1-19).

There are times when we are called to forgive without the possibility of restoration. Those who will not turn from the sins that have harmed us may never be restored to the relationships we once had. In particular, this is true of those who have died without acknowledging their wrongs. In such cases, the matter is a transaction between my soul and Christ. "Lord, it is your right to deal with this person. For my part, I renounce whatever rights I may have because of your mercy to me."

The Fearsome Nature of Forgiveness

by Matthew Raley The word forgive has fallen into disuse, and we've substituted the phrase move on. But the two actions we describe are different.

The object of my "moving on" or "forgiving" is a wrong someone has committed against me.

To move on is to leave that wrong behind on life's road. I strive to put my relationship with the wrong-doer on a new course. I also strive to prevent my emotions returning to the wrong, so that I stop feeling angry, resentful, or grieved. And I strive to think of myself as no longer defined by the wrong: I am not a victim.

The wrong is still there. I am choosing to ignore it.

To forgive is more radical. The New Testament word aphiemi does have the idea of "letting go," but with a greater specificity. It came to be used as a legal term for debt cancellation and divorce. A creditor's claim no longer adhered to the debtor; a husband's claim no longer adhered to the wife. In forgiveness, what is owed is zero.

This is the word Jesus uses when a paralytic is brought to him (Mark 2.1-12). He says to the paralytic, "My son, your sins are forgiven." He is not saying, "God has moved on from all of the wrongs you have committed." He is saying, "The claims against you are canceled."

The enormity of Jesus' statement is obvious to the religious leaders listening. "He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" To zero-out the moral debts we owe is an action only God can take. Jesus heals the paralytic to verify that he does indeed have the authority to forgive. And in doing so he is claiming to be God.

The basis of Jesus' authority is that he "gives his life as a ransom for many," a payment to redeem sinners from their debts (Mark 10.45).

Our "move on" method of repairing personal harm doesn't work.

For starters, it doesn't deal with the nature of wrong-doing. Harm leaves a debt. Unpaid debt is loss. Every time I hear someone say he has "moved on," the very next words out of his mouth reassert the loss he bears. At one moment he  pretends the loss is negligible, and at the next he proves how heavy the loss remains.

Deeper, "moving on" never discharges the wrong-doer. His wrong is still back there on the road. Let two people's road cover ten years, and let the road be covered with harm's wreckage, and then see how free and honest the two are after all their moving on.

We've probably stopped forgiving not because we don't know what it means, but because we do know. We have no real basis for canceling debts, and we refuse to lie. We move on instead.

What would happen in our relationships if our own debts were canceled, and if we canceled each other's debts on the basis of Christ's payment? Christianity would happen.

An Open Letter To the Black Robe Regiment

Dear Evangelical Black Robe Members, You captured my attention through Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally, and you've attracted a devoted following. In an effort to understand what you're doing and why, I've been looking at your website, and I have a number of questions.

Here is the first sentence on your home page:

The Black Robe Regiment is a resource and networking entity where church leaders and laypeople can network and educate themselves as to our biblical responsibility to stand up for our Lord and Savior and to protect the freedoms and liberties granted to a moral people in the divinely inspired US Constitution [my italics].

The last clause raised many issues for me.

1. Upon what do you base your claim that America was ever "a moral people?" By moral, I assume you mean ethically good. How do you propose to demonstrate that morals in 1776 were good by God's standards for behavior, equity, and love? Quotations from the founders about the importance of morality will not suffice, since goodness is not in the professing but in the doing.

2. Do you believe that God gave us liberty because we were moral?

I ask because, since you are evangelicals and believe that no form of God's grace is merited by us, then you must know how suspect that teaching would be.

3. Do you actually believe that the U. S. Constitution is "divinely inspired?" You must be aware that this is Mormon doctrine, and has never been part of the Protestant tradition, founded as it is upon sola scriptura. Why are you, as evangelicals, promoting Mormon mythology?

As a corollary, if you don't believe the Constitution is divinely inspired, why did you permit the claim in the first sentence of your home page? Who wrote that sentence, and what is his/her theological tradition?

4. Elsewhere, you assert, "The Constitution (Part 1--the Declaration of Independence, and part 2), was and is a covenant between the people of America and their Heavenly Father."

Let's leave aside the enormity of asserting that the Declaration is part of the U. S. Constitution. Just answer this: on what possible basis in the Bible do you make the claim that God made a national covenant with Americans?

And again, why are you evangelicals signing on to Mormon myths?

5. In the same paragraph, you also claim,

A people who were honed by thousands of years before Christ walked the Earth by way of the Israelites who had been scattered and dispersed many times in their history.  These folks who now inhabited this New Jerusalem (this New Eden that Christopher Columbus saw), were living out what they saw as a life and a country that was fashioned entirely by their Creator.

Are you agreeing with the Mormon tale that native Americans are Israelites?

6. On the same page, you say that "Liberty and Freedom has [sic] been graciously bestowed by our Heavenly Father to each of us.  It [sic] has been freely offered, freely sacrificed for by Christ Jesus, and it is the duty of each of us to acknowledge that precious gift and to not give it away lightly."

Do you believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross to give us political liberty? As evangelicals, surely you must believe that it is liberty from sin and death that Christ purchased. If you want to say that the liberty was also political, you will have to point to some biblical text that not only uses the words liberty and freedom but teaches that these words signify political rights.

7. Why is there no doctrinal statement on your website? How do you propose to advance spiritual revival without stating clearly what the spiritual principles of that revival are, and upon what scriptures those principles are founded?

8. Why is your "networking entity" by invitation only? You say that your site "is an invitation only closed social network for church leaders to freely communicate in a safe environment.  We will vet all prospective members to ensure that they are in fact an active church leader."

It may be that this site does not represent your views of the Gospel or of the Black Robe Regiment. If so, then I invite any evangelical member of the Regiment to disavow the site. State clearly that you do not believe that our Constitution is inspired by God, that it is a covenant with God, or that Americans are a "moral" people descended from the Israelites, but that all Americans are sinners, unable to govern themselves, deserving no favor from God, and who are only freed from their sins by the blood of Christ.

Without straight talk of this kind, I have to conclude that members of the Regiment are fighting to establish a civic deity for Americans -- which is to say, an idol.

Sincerely,

Matthew Raley

Excellent Resource For Questions About the Pearls

by Matthew Raley I just found this post by Rey Reynoso on Theologica. It is a thorough treatment of what Michael and Debi Pearl teach from a theological and exegetical perspective. Reynoso's discussion of the Pearls' use of Proverbs is particularly insightful.

For those who accept at face value the Pearls' claims to be biblical, this is a post to spend time on.

Pearl Of Too Great a Price

by Matthew Raley

After I criticized Michael Pearl's teaching on parenting last week (here and here), I've heard a recurring question. Should we throw out a teaching that has helped so many struggling parents just because some points of doctrine are wrong?

Christian parents today are indeed struggling, often desperate to prevent their children's falling away from Christ. Especially in the last twenty years, many have heeded the claims that righteousness is a matter of training. They want a system that yields results.

Please read this opening sentence from A. W. Tozer's The Root of the Righteous with care:

One marked difference between the faith of our fathers as conceived by the fathers and the same faith as understood and lived by their children is that the fathers were concerned with the root of the matter, while their present-day descendants seem concerned only with the fruit.

In the criticism of Pearl's teaching over the last several weeks, there has been a focus on the fruits of his system. But there has been a dearth of pastoral leadership calling believers back to the root of the matter.

I want to appeal to those parents who say they've seen fruit in applying Pearl's teaching. I understand that you don't want to throw the baby out with the bath. But you can't ignore the connection between Pearl's doctrine and practice.

A child cannot relate to God, he says. Before the "age of accountability," a child is "too young to fathom God," and needs a "surrogate god" in the form of a parent "until he is old enough to submit himself to The Eternal God."

The parent, as God's "surrogate," purifies a child's guilt through spanking. Pearl teaches this point in detail under the heading, "The rod purges the soul of guilt," in his "Defense of Biblical Chastisement, Part 1." Pearl states, "The properly administered rod is restorative as nothing else can be. It is indispensable to the removal of guilt in your child. His very conscience (nature) demands punishment, and the rod supplies the needs of his soul, releasing him from his guilt and self-condemnation."

In this section specifically devoted to the nature of guilt and its remedy, Pearl does not mention anything about the cross of Jesus Christ. Not a single word. He says nothing about Christ purging our sin and cleansing our conscience, finally and eternally.

If you admire Pearl's fruit, I need to ask you, "How do you believe your child is saved from sin? Can your child, right now, approach the Eternal God's throne blameless by faith in Jesus Christ, the high priest? Or are you responsible before that throne for driving sin out of your child and making him or her righteous through training?"

To spank rightly in practice, you have to reject this teaching. If there is a baby in Pearl's bath, she has drowned.

I also feel the need to appeal to other parents -- a growing chorus -- who are shocked by Pearl's fruit.

Some of the fruit is indeed shocking. The killing of a child by people who apparently took the teaching to a logical extreme is a horror.

But what if Pearl's fruit did not appear so vile? What if Pearl's adherents all stayed perfectly within his stated limits for spanking? What if their fruit consisted solely of compliant, pleasant children who were helpful and never got in anyone's way? What would we say then?

I would say this.

Those most resistant to the gospel of forgiveness by faith alone in Christ alone are the compliant people whose childhood guilt was purged by many spankings, and who never depart in adulthood from the way in which they were trained up. As Pearl himself says (in the same section cited above), a child relates "to his parents in the same manner that he will later relate to God." Just try convincing a man trained this way that he needs, or could ever have, a Savior.

I urge my fellow critics of Pearl's teaching to talk about the Gospel. This is the moment to contrast Pharisaical legalism with the power of Jesus Christ.

I waited too long to research Michael Pearl. I'm grieved that I reacted to fruit instead of studying more deeply. Pastors, it's time for us to declare ourselves on the root of the matter. Our numbers are too small today (cf. this list). Join us!

Here is the root question I believe we have to raise with our congregations: "Is there any training that replaces Christ's all-sufficient righteousness?"

Our people need to see the great price of following Pearl.

Honor Your Father, Unless You're At Church

by Matthew Raley The ten commandments get plenty of evangelical attention if they are engraved on courthouses. But tucked away in Exodus 20, not so much. The reason, I think, has to do with evangelicals' informal hermeneutic: the parts of the Bible that are "culturally specific" do not apply today because "culture has changed." Like other people with the issue of ethics, evangelicals preserve their wiggle-room.

So, some parts of the Decalogue fare better than others. The command against murder is still cited, as is the command against bearing false witness. The commands against coveting or breaking the Sabbath are usually ignored. The other commands receive lip-service, like the command against making idols, but only scant consideration.

The command to honor your father and your mother is in this last category. Groups of children are guaranteed to hear that they should obey their parents, and they will also hear Paul's comment about an attached promise in Ephesians 6. But there's a little detail you've probably never heard -- just a bit of trivia, I suppose, but I find such arcane matters entertaining. The original audience for this command was composed chiefly of adults.

The idea was that every grown-up would honor his father, and not just while his father lived, but also in memory. In this way, children would be taught by example, not just homily, that an elder is to be treated with reverence, deference, and attention.

I bring this up because I'm thinking through the political alliance evangelicals have maintained with the conservative movement. I've noted that there are three strains that constitute the movement, and that each one needs fresh biblical evaluation so that evangelicals can reform their view of citizenship. We've looked at the Bible's broad teaching about the state, and about the concern of the libertarian strain of conservatism for property, work, and profit.

A second strain of conservatism is traditionalist. As I've already written, these conservatives are primarily concerned with the preservation of inherited ways of life, and of the union of generations.

This kind of conservatism grew out of biblical soil.

Consider what it meant practically for an Israelite man to honor his parents. In the first place, the God his father and mother worshiped would remain his God. The fidelity his parents maintained -- fidelity to God, to each other sexually, to truthfulness and the rights of others to their lives and property -- he would continue to foster in his own heart and in the hearts of his children. Doing so, he would ensure "that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you."

In other words, the command to honor father and mother is the command to pass on the Decalogue itself, and to reform practices that have departed from it, as an expression of familial loyalty. It is a command to guard the comprehensive inheritance you have received, materially and spiritually. It creates a society that measures itself from the past forward, not from the future backward.

There is no way to keep this command on the surface of your life. It can't be done with postmodern irony. It can only be kept from the depths of your heart.

Further, this is not a "culturally specific" item that can be discarded. It is essential to the ethical world of the Bible. A society that has "outgrown" this command is a society we must defy.

Here's what bothers me.

Evangelicals have devoted vast resources to political battles for conservative policies. They have poured money into state referenda, gaining majorities on councils, and electing candidates for national office, all with a rhetoric that calls for "traditional values."

But if you look at the local churches evangelicals have built, you find no emphasis on honoring your father and your mother -- the molten core of  biblical civics.

Indeed, evangelical churches have transformed into youth-oriented, age-denigrating activity centers. Bill Hybels and his ilk have spent the last three decades railing against "dead traditions" and effacing the inheritance of symbols, songs, and doctrine from public worship. Most churches will not consider pastoral candidates over 50 anymore. I know a man in his 60s who has led international organizations, whose churches have grown, and who is wiser than ever, but whose resume cannot attract attention. The Christian psychology industry, when it is not busy advising divorce, is telling adults to cut off their parents.

In politics, traditional rhetoric. At church, wisdom-deleting practice. I am not denying the many complexities of staying flexible in a changing society, but the degree of evangelical refusal to pay honor to elders is hypocrisy -- or lunacy.

For churches truly to advance traditionalism, they would have to teach and practice the 5th commandment. And that would turn their operations upside down. Instead of age-segregation, they would mix generations. Instead of dumbing down their preaching, they would restore accurate measures of greatness -- the measures of biblical history, not youthful fantasy.

The Bible teaches that the ethics of the people rule the nation. And the fruits of evangelical rule are . . . ?

The Bible, the Market, and the Meltdown

by Matthew Raley When I started this series on the evangelical alliance with political conservatism, I noted three questions to explore biblically. Evangelicals should act as citizens from a biblical framework, not an ideological one. So, does the Bible teach a worldview of citizenship that coheres with conservatism?

Last week, we surveyed the Bible's view of the state in general, finding that government is set up by God for a nation's justice and security, and that government must not control worship. The real governor of a nation is the ethic of the people, the way citizens live day-to-day.

In this context, the first of my questions is, "What does the Bible teach about work, property, and profit -- the preoccupations of contemporary libertarianism?"

The Bible teaches that work is one of the most basic ways human beings glorify God. Proverbs 22.29 is typical: "Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men." Working skillfully to generate a return of abundance is at the heart of the mandate God gave human beings in the beginning (Genesis 1.28; 2.5-15).

Laziness is condemned, sometimes in comical terms, as in Proverbs 26.13-16. "As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed. The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth." In Proverbs 24.30-34 the wise man passes by the field of a sluggard, "and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down."

The Bible teaches at length about caring for the poor, but it always calls for work as an expression of their dignity. For instance, farmers were to leave the corners of their field unharvested so that the poor could glean what they needed (e.g. Ruth 2). This perspective continues in the New Testament, as in 2 Thessalonians 3.6-12, where Paul commands, "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat."

I was struck by PBS's American Experience this week, which told the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Franklin Roosevelt envisioned building up a generation of young men through hard work, a vision that came from a biblically formed worldview. Anything like the CCC today would be viewed as heinous cruelty because our concept of work is messed-up.

The Bible's teaching on property is summed up in the 8th commandment (Exodus 20.15): "You shall not steal." The words of Proverbs 22.28 are frequently repeated: "Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set." (Note the cross-references.) The act of taking property is, in biblical terms, one of the lowest forms of wickedness. A key proof of King Ahab's villainy, for instance, is his seizure of a vineyard (1 Kings 21).

Indeed, it's not too much to say that the entire law of Moses is founded on the distinction between Mine and Not-Mine.

We have a society today in which we call things Mine when they are purchased with unsecured debt, and in which asset-backed notes can back other notes (which the Bible would call fraud, since the same surety backs two debts). We have a messed-up concept of property.

One of the best places to see the Bible's teaching on profit is Proverbs 31.10-31, a description of the wise woman. She works hard, directs laborers, trades goods, manages and expands the family's properties, and makes a clear profit. Her life is ennobling, both for herself and her community.

The Bible puts limits on the profit motive by making a distinction between work and exploitation. The 4th commandment about the Sabbath, or ceasing, applied to all servants and animals, not just masters, on the seventh day of every week (Exodus 20.8-11). Every seventh year there was a Sabbath for the land (Leviticus 25.1-22). There were also strong protections against the exploitation of the powerless in the law, comprehended in Proverbs 28.8.

Two observations about all of this.

First, the Bible's concept of civil rights is strong, but is not founded on abstractions. It is tied tangibly to work, property, and profit. This is the most fundamental problem between the Bible and the political left, which abstracts a growing list of entitlements based on nothing but egalitarian rhetoric. This is great for the lawyers, and promises to get even better. But it has nothing to do with the biblical concept of justice.

Second, the tendency of libertarianism to see the profit motive as the cure for all social problems often produces exploitation, which the Bible calls sin. No state can overlook exploitation without destroying civil society.

What does all this have to do with last year's financial meltdown?

Just this: no legislature passed a law saying American households had to run up unsecured debts, deplete what little equity they had by refinancing their mortgages, and bet on ever-escalating home prices to make them rich in retirement. The American people themselves did this because their degraded ethics of work and property left them with an exploitative view of profit.

The Bible's view of national life is accurate: the ethics of the people rule.

A Biblical View of the State

by Matthew Raley The question we opened last week is whether evangelicals should continue to identify with conservatives.

This is first a theological question, not a political or social one. Evangelicals should not answer it from their cultural reflexes, but from what the Bible teaches. We need to integrate our loyalties as Americans and as followers of Christ by a renewed theology of citizenship.

I think an inquiry along this line starts with what the Bible teaches about the state.

The Bible does not prescribe a particular form for the state, treating the state in whatever earthly form as a God-ordained institution with stewardship over the civic affairs. God holds officers of state accountable for conduct in justice (including the punishment of violence, theft, and economic fraud and abuse) and warfare.

In the Mosaic law, human functions of state are divided amongst tribes and cities, going back to the system Moses implemented in Exodus 18.13-27. The tribes were assigned territories and governed themselves separately (Joshua 13-21). Thus the nation of Israel from its founding was a confederation, not a centralized human kingdom. Politically, it was a literal theocracy, formalized by a suzerain-vassal treaty (the Sinai covenant, says Deuteronomy 33.1-5).

The law is particularly strong in dividing the state from the priesthood. The Levites had charge of everything related to the worship of the Lord, as well as the enforcement of the ritual laws. The strongest indication of this division is Lord's choice to take the tribe of Levi as his priestly possession, rather than all first-born sons spread through the tribes (Numbers 3.40-51). Worship was assigned to an group independent of all other loyalties.

The law prepares for but does not mandate a human king, sharply limiting his powers (Deuteronomy 17.14-20). The law and the judge Samuel are explicit that tyranny in the taking of property and in state aggrandizement is a form of evil (1 Samuel 8.10-22).

When a king is appointed by God, he is first from Benjamin (Saul), then from Judah (David), prohibiting the king from the priestly functions that belonged to Levi. Saul crossed this boundary, offering a sacrifice on his own authority, and the Lord's verdict was that Saul would have no dynasty (1 Samuel 13.8-14).

David understood this separation thoroughly, and the reasoning of statecraft behind it. If worship is strengthened and preserved outside the state's power, it becomes a source of moral and spiritual nourishment for the people. As such, the institutions of worship bring health to the culture, and serve to reform the state when it becomes tyrannical. So David devoted his reign to the reform, organization, and institutional longevity of the Levitical priesthood (1 Chronicles 22-26). As a result, the priesthood was a source of strength for the reforming kings in Judah throughout the rest of its history.

I draw two principles from these texts. First, authority over civil affairs is best divided among many institutions. This serves to check the evil of tyranny. Second, the state has the duty to preserve the separation of worship institutions. The state must not take over the sphere of worship.

Such was the design of the theocracy for Israel, which had specific purposes in redemption history. The biblical flexibility on forms of state more generally can be seen in a couple of ways.

God's people showed that they could serve in pagan states. They did this by showing administrative prowess, just decisions, and refusal to yield points of worship to the pagan kings.  Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 41) and Daniel in Babylon (Daniel 1-2) are preeminent examples.

In the New Testament, the most prized aspect of the Roman state was the freedom and peace it gave, so that Christians could bear witness and grow without persecution (1 Timothy 2.1-7). The church saw the restraint of the Roman state in matters of spirituality as an advantage.

So the role of the state in the Bible is primarily negative: to preserve order against crime (Romans 13.1-7). This is because the Bible sees the actual rule of a nation in the conduct of the people themselves. The ethics of the people set the destiny of the nation.

One thing seems clear to me. The vision of the American religious right that government can be a source of righteousness for the people is not in agreement with biblical teaching. I don't think anyone can plausibly deny that this is their vision. They have leaped too quickly and too often from the "If my people" verse to a call to elect this or that Republican. Further, the vision of the religious left that national righteousness is dependent on passage of the latest welfare scheme ("Budgets are moral documents," etc, etc) is the same exact error in the opposite political direction.

In the context of biblical teaching, the actions of local churches are far more important in promoting ethics and justice in America than the actions of the state.

People Sing Certainties, Not Questions

by Matthew Raley In recovering the folk singing dynamic, you can have all three of the fundamentals we've discussed so far without the people actually singing. A congregation can meet in a resonant space that permits them to create sounds together. The people can share a memory of songs from the past, and they can gain new songs that retain the stripped-down style of folk melodies.

But without the fourth fundamental, they won't sing.

Maybe I should describe what I think singing is. The murmuring of today's congregations does not qualify as singing -- the shifty-eyed, slouching, hands-in-pockets, worthless droning that advertises in the flashing neon of body language a desire to be elsewhere.

Singing is done standing straight, with the chest up, the throat relaxed, and the lungs filled not from the top but from the bottom. Singing is loud -- less in the sense that someone turned a knob clockwise, than that someone next to you spoke with sudden intensity. Singing is loud emotionality.

So, I repeat, believers can have every fundamental of the folk singing dynamic and still not sing. They have to want to sing. You can't cajole them into singing, manipulate them, or in any way circumvent their lack of desire to sing. If they don't want to, they won't.

The fourth fundamental is the thing that supplies motivation for singing -- a prejudicial belief system. People sing what is beyond question. You sing what you know.

Prejudice now refers almost exclusively to irrational hostility, especially racial bias, and has become popularly synonymous with a quite different word, bigotry. Where bigotry has always referred to hatred or intolerance, prejudice can be used in a more neutral way.

Prejudice is literally pre-judgment, a decision made prior to reason, debate, or fact-gathering. There are morally important human resources in this word. To take just one example, my father drove into me a prejudice against lying. I don't question whether lying might be an effective tool, or might be justified in a certain instance. My pre-judged position, my reflex, is, "Never lie."

The Enlightenment taught us that prejudice of any kind is wrong, and must be debunked as so much superstition. Human beings have the power to transcend their experiences, to know truth with metaphysical certainty, and to unshackle their minds from old notions and subjective perceptions. Through questioning every certitude, human beings can gain control over their environment.

The Enlightenment was full of crap.

The educational project of rationalism has not ended prejudice at all. It has merely created people who are prejudiced and pretentious, prejudiced and cynical, prejudiced and credulous, prejudiced and deluded. The atomic bomb comes to mind.

No amount of reasoning eradicates prejudice, though it may put different prejudices in circulation.

Here's the point: people don't sing from purely rational motivations. They don't sing what they debate or question. They don't sing to prove a point. There are no songs about the impact of the federal fiscal stimulus on consumer demand, the effectiveness of flu vaccines, or the potential of the new season of House. People sing their certainties, and their certainties are largely unconscious. To be sure, they sing about their emotional struggles, but they do so because they know what they feel.

When you get right down to it, evangelicals don't sing because they don't know much. Their faith is painfully conscious. Their prejudices have been leveled -- and by their own teachers. They have been taught that the solutions to their relational problems are therapeutic, not supernatural. The Bible is no longer an authority in churches, merely a source of quotations. And, most devastatingly of all, God himself is called high but held low.

Evangelical music has degenerated into "At Last, I Know My Issues!" because evangelicals are now a deeply self-conscious people. And this has to be laid at the door of preachers. "Five Steps to a Better Marriage" is not a theme that will ever burst into song. But as a theme, it will appeal to that rational, calculating demon who constantly asks, "How can I get what I want?" Evangelicals now refuse to know anything about God until they're sure that their selves will remain intact.

With such a troubled belief system, why would evangelicals truly sing?

C. S. Lewis didn't like what he called "the lusty roar of the congregation." I'd love to have it back. The return of the primitive, unselfconscious certitude of singing would demonstrate that people once again knew God, that their questions had been driven from them by direct experience of his grace, and that they had yielded control to his sovereign power.

They would sing again about the true faith: the coming of Jesus Christ, his death, his resurrection, his ascension and pending return, his abolition of wars, lies, betrayals, and loss, the delivery of justice for his martyrs, and the reunion we will have with him. Believers would sing with longing that Jesus Christ be their vision, that they reach that beautiful shore, gathered at the river that flows by the throne of God.

But as they've stopped, we listen for the rocks.