If Romans 7 Is About Christians, Why Did Paul Delight In the Law?

I used to believe that in Romans 7, Paul was describing the struggle of the Christian against sin. I don’t believe that anymore, for reasons I’ve detailed here (Romans 7 Is Not About Christians), and here (Romans 7 Is Not About Christians (Part Deux)), and here (So What’s Really Up With Romans 7?). Now, just to be clear, I have lots of good friends who are way more godly than me who believe Romans 7 IS about Christians, and this isn’t a hill I’m going to die on.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about Romans 7 again, particularly the most common objection to my position, which is this: If Paul was not a Christian, how could he say he “delighted” in the law of God? After all, doesn’t Paul say in the beginning of Romans that every non-Christian is an enemy of God?

However, the more I’ve thought about the question, the more I’ve wondered if we shouldn’t be asking the opposite question: If Paul WAS a Christian, how could he say he delighted in the law of the Lord?

In Romans 7, it is clear that when Paul uses the word “law”, he is referring to the Mosaic law. He is not referring to the law of Christ, or the more general moral law of God revealed to unbelievers through creation. He is using “law” in the technical sense, the Mosaic sense. Throughout his epistles, Paul makes it abundantly clear that Christians are not under the Mosaic Law, that the Mosaic law has been eclipsed by the new, wonderful covenant we have in Christ, and that anyone who tries to be justified by the law is under a curse.

Some scriptures to consider in which Paul talks about the relationship between Christians and the Mosaic law:

Romans 4:14-15 - For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

Romans 6:14 – For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Romans 7:6 - But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

Romans 8:2 - For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

Romans 10:4 - For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Galatians 2:19 - For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.

Galatians 5:18 - But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Ephesians 2:14-15 - For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.

Paul’s consistent, repeated point, is that Christians are in no way under the Mosaic law. We are not obligated to obey the commandments of the Mosaic law, we are not required to observe the ordinances of the Mosaic law, and we are totally justified apart from the law.

If these things are true, how could Paul possibly say in Romans 7 that he “delights” in the Mosaic law? As a Christian, how could Paul say that he delights in the Old Covenant, along with all it’s ordinances and sacrifices? Contrary to what many writers have said, Paul doesn’t distinguish between the moral, civil, and ceremonial aspects of the law. He simply states that Christians are not under any part of the Mosaic law.

Paul’s statement about delighting in the law does make sense, however, if he is writing from the perspective of a pious, unregenerate Jew. In Phillipians 3:4-6, Paul shows just how much he did delight in the law prior to his wonderful conversion:

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

If anyone delighted in the law, it was pre-conversion Paul. He did everything in his power to keep the law. The more I consider Paul’s statements about the relationship between the Christian and the law, the more I am convinced he is describing his pre-conversion experience in Romans 7.

As Christians we are not under the Mosaic law. Period. We are not obligated to keep any of the commands of the Mosaic law, because those things passed away when Christ instituted the New Covenant.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? IF PAUL WAS DESCRIBING THE EXPERIENCE OF THE CHRISTIAN, HOW DO YOU MAKE SENSE OF PAUL’S DELIGHT IN THE LAW?

Is The Bible A Love Letter From God?

photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

I’ve heard it said that the Bible is a love letter from God to us.

And while I understand the sentiment behind that statement, I don’t think it’s particularly accurate. Here’s why.

A love letter is written by a guy (or girl) who is smitten. He can’t get enough of the girl he is in love with. He can’t see her enough, can’t think about her enough, can’t say enough wonderful things about her. His love spills over from his heart onto paper. He must tell the girl how he feels, must express the intense love and affection that are threatening to completely take him over. The love letter is the guy telling the girl how amazing and wonderful and delightful she is. The love letter is all about the girl.

The Bible is not a love letter.

Does the Bible tell us about God’s incredible love for us? Of course. But the Bible is not primarily about us, the Bible is primarily about God. The Bible is not primarily a subjective account of God’s feelings for us; it is an objective record of God’s magnificent, glorious plan of redemption. The Bible doesn’t exist in order to make us feel good about ourselves. The Bible exists in order to stir our affections for our glorious God.

God is not most impressed with us, he is most impressed with himself. The Bible is not God telling us how wonderful we are; the Bible is God telling us how wonderful he is.

Maybe we should stop calling the Bible a love letter from God.

The Right-Side Up Power of Scripture

Has the Bible ever turned your world upside down? You know the expression. An event that turns the world upside down changes everything. Up is down and down is up and nothing is the same. Does the Bible ever do that for you?

For most Christians, I bet the answer is “sometimes.” There probably have been moments where a passage, a verse, or even a word in Scripture spoke directly to you and changed your life. But those moments aren’t the norm. Sometimes Bible reading is…well, hard. Even (dare we say it) dull.

What should we expect from our daily devotions? Are we to aim for those light bulb, “ah ha!” moments? Or should we just resign ourselves to a sort of spiritual daily grind? Actually, neither. If Scripture is God’s word to us, it should never be dull. But that doesn’t mean every morning will be a mountain top experience, either. Something different is going on, a work that is simultaneously slower and deeper than we can imagine – something that actually turns our world right side up. To understand what I mean, I need to introduce you to Ivo Rohler and his friend Theodor Erismann.

In 1950, Rohler was an assistant to Erismann, an Austrian professor. Erismann convinced Rohler to be the subject of an experiment involving vision and the human perception of reality. Here’s what happened, as reported in The Guardian:

The professor made Kohler wear a pair of hand-engineered goggles. Inside those goggles, specially arranged mirrors flipped the light that would reach Kohler’s eyes, top becoming bottom, and bottom top.

At first, Kohler stumbled wildly when trying to grasp an object held out to him, navigate around a chair, or walk down stairs…

Holding a teacup out to be filled, he would turn the cup upside down the instant he saw the water apparently pouring upward. The sight of smoke rising from a match, or a helium balloon bobbing on a string, could trigger an instant change in his sense of which direction was up, and which down.

But over the next week, Kohler found himself adapting, in fits and starts, then more consistently, to such sights.

After 10 days, he had grown so accustomed to the invariably upside-down world that, paradoxically and happily, everything seemed to him normal, rightside-up. Kohler could do everyday activities in public perfectly well: walk along a crowded sidewalk, even ride a bicycle…

Erismann and Kohler did further experiments. So did other scientists. Their impression is that many, perhaps most, maybe just about all, people are able to make these kinds of adjustment. Images reach the eye in some peculiar fashion, and if that peculiar fashion is consistent, a person’s visual system eventually, somehow, adjusts to interpret it — to perceive it, to see it — as being no different from normal.

Read that last line again. “Images reach the eye in some peculiar fashion, and if that peculiar fashion is consistent, a person’s visual system eventually, somehow, adjusts to interpret it — to perceive it, to see it — as being no different from normal.” That is a perfect description of the human condition ever since sin entered our hearts. We see reality in a peculiar fashion – a twisted, upside down mirage – and yet we think it is normal. And Scripture is God’s gift to turn our world right-side up.

Sin distorts the way we see God. We know God exists (Romans 1:19), but our knowledge of him is gross caricature. We do not understand his holiness, so we think our sin is trivial. We do not understand his mercy and grace, so we think our efforts are needed to earn our way back into his favor. We have a carnival mirror understanding of God – but Scripture gives us a clear picture of God in his true glory.

Sin distorts the way we see ourselves. We imagine ourselves beyond the need of grace, greatly underestimating the scope of our cosmic rebellion. Or we see ourselves as beyond the reach of grace, damaged goods too far gone for God to restore. Both are errors – but Scripture gives us a clear picture of ourselves: sinners and saints, guilty and forgiven.

Like Kohler’s slow adaption to an upside down world, this reorienting work of Scripture takes time. At times there are mountain-top moments, foretastes of heaven, when we get a sudden panoramic view of reality. Other times the adaptation is slower, more subtle. And it’s not magic – instead, this restoration is the work of the Spirit through the written word. But make no mistake: Scripture is turning your world right-side up.

Photo by Liberalmind1012.

Jesus Makes Sense of My Complicated Relationship With the Psalms

Lately I’ve been loving me some Psalms. The Psalms are so personal, so intimate, so passionate, so full of emotion and intensity. They soothe and encourage and uplift the soul. Man, when I read about my Shepherd walking with me through the Valley of Death that is some seriously good, seriously sacred stuff. When I read about finding fullness of joy in God’s presence forevermore that is right in my wheelhouse. When I read about God being my portion I am treading on holy ground.

But there are certain things which make my relationship with the Psalms…complicated. For example, Psalm 10:15 reads, “Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; call his wickedness to account till you find none.” Awww man. What am I supposed to do with this verse? Am I supposed to pray God would break the arms of wicked people? What about all the stuff Jesus says in the New Testament about loving your enemies and doing good to those who mistreat you? How do arm breaking and loving your enemies fit together?

Then there are verses like Psalm 15:1-2, which read:

O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart…

How can I possibly embrace this Psalm? Only the blameless can dwell with God on his holy hill. Only the one who does what is right and speaks the truth in his heart can sojourn with God. Am I blameless? Do I always do what is right and speak truth in my heart? Uhh, hardly. And David, who wrote this Psalm, wasn’t exactly blameless either. He had murder and adultery on his rap sheet.

So what are we supposed to do with the violent prayers scattered throughout the Psalms? And how should we interpret the Psalms in which the author proclaims his righteousness?

In Sunday School the answer to every question is “Jesus” or “The Bible”. In this case the Sunday School answer is the correct answer.

Jesus is the key to unlocking all the Psalms.

Almost all the Psalms were written by David, God’s appointed king over Israel. When the wicked threatened and attacked David they weren’t only attacking David, they were also attacking God himself. As God’s appointed king David represented God’s rule and reign on the earth. To rebel against God’s appointed king was to rebel against God himself. Therefore it was just and right for David to pray God’s punishment upon the wicked. David was praying that God would destroy those who sought to destroy God.

Of course, David participated in his fair share of wickedness. Ultimately he failed to represent the rule and reign of God upon the earth. But Jesus succeeded in every area David failed. Jesus is God’s ultimate appointed king. While he was on the earth he walked in perfect righteousness and obedience. He didn’t steal anyone’s wife, didn’t orchestrate any black ops murder plots. He perfectly represented God’s righteousness.

Now he has been exalted to the highest place in heaven. He is the true, reigning king, and those who commit wicked deeds are waging war against Jesus himself. People who create porn are waging war against Jesus. People who cheat on their spouses are waging war against Jesus. People who promote impurity and unrighteousness wage war against Jesus. People who love money more than Jesus are actually waging war against Jesus. People who teach heresy wage war against Jesus. People who abuse their children are waging war against Jesus.

It is absolutely right for us to pray that God’s justice will be done to the wicked. When God’s justice is done it upholds the dignity and righteousness of King Jesus.

God’s justice will be done to the wicked in one of two ways. Either they will repent of their sins and allow Jesus to bear justice for them or they will bear God’s justice themselves. Either way the justice of God is executed and the righteousness of the King is upheld. We pray the wicked will repent and turn to Jesus for forgiveness. We also pray God will bring justice down upon them if they refuse to repent. We pray God will destroy those who refuse to repent and continue to traffic young girls, corrupt political systems, abuse their children, live for money, relish porn, cuss out their coworkers, and spread rumors.

And when it comes to the “righteousness” Psalms our approach is the same. Only one person is sufficiently righteous to dwell upon God’s holy hill: Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t hoard his righteousness! Rather, he gives us all his righteousness and holiness when we place our trust in him. I can ascend the holy hill of the Lord because Jesus has ascended the hill ahead of me. He has cleared a path for me to follow. I can fully embrace the Psalms of righteousness because I am clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

If the Psalms begin to feel confusing read them through the lens of Christ. Read them as if Christ himself were speaking them. Jesus is the key to unlocking the Psalms. He shines light upon all the dark and confusing places. He is the reigning king who shares his righteousness with those who don’t deserve it.

I’m A Calvinistic, Arminian-ish, Totally Reformed, Fully Charismatic Kinda Guy

I’m a pretty logical guy. I have a minor in computer science, which means I spent a lot of time writing “if this, then this” type statements in college. If you click the mouse then the entire computer shuts down and you lose all your work. That kind of thing.

I like it when TV shows and movies are logical. Jen and I recently watched four seasons of the television show Fringe. For the first two seasons everything was pretty logical – at least in a paranormal, “Oh hey look at that mutant freak,” kind of way. But during season three the writers must have gotten bored because all sorts of weird stuff started happening. Stuff that didn’t fit within the world they had created during the first two seasons. That bugged the heck out of me. I like logic. Straight lines. A to B. If to then. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

But the Bible doesn’t always work according to my logic. A doesn’t always lead to B. Two plus two doesn’t always equal four. Sometimes water flows uphill.

Let me give an example. I believe in the doctrine of election. In other words, I believe God chooses some men and women to be saved. Apart from God choosing us we would never choose God. I believe in election because it runs throughout the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation. I believe in election because of scriptures like Ephesians 1:4-6, which says:

In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

The doctrine of election is clearly taught in scripture and I fully embrace it.

The logical extension of the doctrine of election is that we don’t need to choose God. After all, if God chooses some to be saved and not others how can we be held responsible? And how can it be fair? When my human logic tackles the doctrine of election I end up with something that looks a lot like fatalism. Maybe I’m chosen, maybe I’m not, I don’t make a difference either way. Let’s eat and drink and be merry because maybe we’re chosen.

But God doesn’t play by my logic. He doesn’t join in my reindeer games. His thoughts are not like my thoughts and his ways are not like my ways.

In scripture the reality of human responsibility jogs right alongside the doctrine of election. When Peter preached at Pentecost and many fell under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, Peter didn’t say, “Now ya’ll better go home and hope you’re chosen. If you’re not, tough luck.” No, he said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receivethe gift of the Holy Spirit.” Boom. Repent. Turn. Choose God!

God chooses us for salvation. We must repent and choose God. These two truths run in parallel streams throughout all of scripture. I can’t quite figure out how they work together. My logical brain can’t put them together into a nice, neat equation. If I try to reconcile these two truths I’ll inevitably end up falling off on side or the other. At the risk of great oversimplification, I would venture to say that Arminian theology is the result of trying to force these two truths to play nice together.

Let me give another example. I believe in the sufficiency of scripture. In other words, I believe the Bible contains all we need to know about God and his ways. The canon of scripture is closed. Jesus Christ was the greatest and fullest revelation of God and his ways. Once the apostolic writings were completed the Bible was finished. We don’t get any more revelations about God or his ways. Anyone who claims to have new revelation about God’s character is a heretic. Sianora Joseph Smith. Farewell, Rob Bell. Sola scriptura baby.

But I also believe in the ongoing, continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit. I actually believe in prophesy and miraculous healing and speaking in tongues. Why? Because of passages like Joel 2:28-29:

And it shall come to pass afterward,that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams,and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.

This is clearly a new covenant promise. This is not an apostolic era promise. This promise did not expire when the canon was completed. Despite the best arguments from cessasionists (and I really do respect guys like John MacArthur), I can’t see this as anything other than a promise for the entirety of the New Covenant era.

So I embrace the beautiful, mysterious, perplexing logic of the Bible. I believe prophecy is a real thing. I believe God can give someone specific, prophetic insight into circumstances that they could not have known otherwise. But I also believe these prophecies must be submitted to the clear revelation of scripture. Prophecy must be orderly. It must build up the church. It must must be carefully tested against the word of God.

The logical extension of the sufficiency of scripture is the cessation of gifts of the Spirit. But Joel 2, along with numerous other passages, molds and bends and shapes my logic. The Bible presses upon me and stamps me with its image.

Logic is a good gift from God. But if we rely on logic alone we can end up with half formed doctrine. And the reality is, God usually doesn’t play by our logic. After all, the cross was totally illogical by all human wisdom. But God makes fools out of the wise and buffoons out of the bombastic.

Let’s embrace God’s beautiful, mysterious, biblical logic. His ways are not our ways, and that’s a really good thing.

Six Ways To Kickstart Your Devotional Life

There are times when, for whatever reason, our devotional life goes stale. Bible reading seems like a colossal chore, our prayers feel tepid and weak, and our love for God ebbs. We feel like we are stuck in a spiritual rut, like we don’t have any soul traction, like we’re just spinning our spiritual wheels. These times of staleness can be incredible frustrating and discouraging.

Are you in a spiritual rut? Here are a few practical tips to breath new life and vigor back into your devotional life.

PRAY! PRAY! PRAY!

All the practical tips in the world won’t make a lick of difference unless God moves mightily on your heart. God cannot be controlled. He is not a personal genie who can be summoned on command. He cannot be summarized or contained in a neat formula. But, he promises to respond to our humble requests. He is a good father who loves to give good gifts to his children. In Luke 11:13 Jesus said:

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

God loves to give the Holy Spirit to us, but we have to ask! If your devotional life is in a rut, humbly confess your cold heart to God and ask him to breathe white hot affection back into you.

READ A BOOK

Seeing the splendors of God through the undimmed eyes of another person can be tremendously helpful. One of the ways to see God through the eyes of someone else is to read a book. Often times our view of God is cluttered and clogged by the circumstances of life. Reading a book allows us to stand on the shoulders of someone else and see over all the clutter. If your devotional life is dim and blurry, take a short break from your regular Bible reading and spend some time savoring a good book. I recommend any of the books on my list of thirty books every Christian should read. 

READ THE PSALMS

The Psalms are an intensely devotional section of scripture. The authors of the Psalms experienced the highs and lows of life, and they met God in the midst of those highs and lows. They experienced the faithfulness of God in the dry times and in the seasons of fruitfulness. If your devotional life is lacking oomph try spending some time in the Psalms.

START A BIBLE READING PLAN

Many times our devotions lack substance because we don’t appropriately plan them out. We meander from verse to verse, reading a bit here, a snatch there, yet never making any real progress through God’s word. If this describes your devotions, maybe you need a Bible reading plan to get you on track. The ESV Bible website has a bunch of different Bible reading plans to get you started. If your devotional life is lacking direction trying starting a Bible reading plan.

ABANDON YOUR PLAN

Some of us like plans a little bit too much. We like to make lists and then cross things off those lists. We like the feeling of progress, of moving forward, of gettin’ her done. We apply our love for plans to our Bible reading and thus read through the Bible every year like clockwork. This is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But there are times when we need to abandon our plan and simply slow down our Bible reading. To delight in and savor a chapter, or a section, or just one verse. If your devotional life is feeling too rigid and stiff try abandoning your plan for a while.

CHANGE UP YOUR METHODS

Most of us read the Bible. After all, the Bible is a book and books are meant to be read. No argument from me. But remember, significant portions of the scriptures were originally intended to be heard. The apostolic letters were read aloud in the churches. The Psalms were read aloud in the synagogues. Scripture was meant to be both and read and heard. The ESV Bible site allows you to listen to the Bible instead of reading it. If your devotional life is feeling repetitive try listening to God’s word. Take notes as you listen.

Out of all these tips, the first is the most important. You can do all the right things and yet if God doesn’t work powerfully in your life nothing will happen. However, I know that God wants your devotions to be meaningful. He wants you to have a vibrant, joyful devotional life. In light of that truth I would encourage you to prayerfully try these different suggestions.

Don’t be content with a mediocre spiritual life. Press into God. He wants to meet you.

Are You REALLY Interpreting the Bible Literally?

Interpreting the Bible literally can be a good thing. It probably means that you want to know exactly what God says and obey his words. It means you don’t want to play Bible roulette with which verses you obey. It means you’re willing to obey all the commands of the Bible, even the painful ones.

But, interpreting the Bible literally can also get you into a lot of trouble. Harold Camping thought he was interpreting the Bible literally, which in turn led him to mispredict the end of the world…twice. Pinstripe wearing prosperity preachers think they are interpreting the Bible literally, which leads them to teach that God never wills illness. Heck, the hellfire, hate-throwing folks at Westboro Baptist Church probably think they are interpreting the Bible literally.

So what does it mean to truly interpet the Bible literally? How can we be sure that our “literal” interpretation of the Bible isn’t actually a theological hack job? Here are some simple questions to help you truly interpret the Bible literally.

What did the original author intend to convey to the original audience? 

The first question to ask when reading the Bible should not be, “What does this mean to me?” The first question always must be, “What was the original author trying to say to the original audience?” Ask questions like:

  • Was the author seeking to encourage the exiled people of Israel?
  • Was the author seeking to convince the Jewish people that Jesus was the Messiah?
  • Was the author seeking to correct theological error in the church?
  • Was the author seeking to encourage Christians in the midst of persecution?

Understanding the original intent of the passage guards us from reading a modern meaning back into scripture. Does it take work and study and thinking to wrestle the original meaning from the text? You bet. But it’s valuable, necessary work.

What writing style is used for this section of scripture?

The Psalms are primarily poetry, which means we should expect word pictures, similes, and metaphors. The epistles of Paul are letters, which means we should expect a relatively straightforward, logical progression. The gospels are narratives, which means we should expect all the elements of an eyewitness story to be in place. Revelation is apocalyptic in nature, which means we should expect highly symbolic language. We can’t interpret the Psalms in the same way we interpret the espistles of Paul. We can’t interpret the gospels in the same way we interpret Proverbs. Each scripture must interpreted in light of its literary genre. We get into trouble when we start mixing up our genres.

Where does this section of scripture fall in light of salvation history?

All of scripture must be interpreted through the lens of God’s plan of salvation. When reading the Old Testament, ask yourself, “How do these stories, commands, or prophecies point to Jesus, and how are they fulfilled by Jesus?” After all, Jesus said that all of the law and the prophets spoke about him. We get into theological trouble when we start applying Old Testament commands, stories, and prophecies without first looking at them through the lens of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return.

What is God’s intended outcome for this section of scripture?

In other words, how does God want me to respond to this command, promise, warning, or rebuke? Should I worship? Should I repent? Should I take courage? Should I marvel? God’s word is not meant to be read and dissected like a chemistry textbook. It is living and active. God speaks to us when we read his word. He wants us to respond to his word, to obey his word, to live by his word. We are to be doers of the word, not hearers only.

How does this passage line up with the rest of the Bible?

A general rule of thumb for Bible interpretation is that clear passages always interpret unclear passages. So, when James says that we are justified by our works, we interpret that passage in light of all the Bible says about justification by faith. When Paul says that women must stay silent in church, we interpret that in light of Paul’s teaching that both men and women can publicly prophecy in church. We get into trouble when we isolate passages of scriptures.

Massive books have been written on the subject of scripture interpretation. Obviously I can’t cover all my bases in one short blog post. These are general rules of thumb, and need to be applied with wisdom. If you’re looking for a good book on the subject, I recommend How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth by Gordon Fee.

Don’t Let Systematic Theology Mess With Your Head

Sometimes our systematic theology kills us. 

Now, before you pick up your massive, “don’t carry it in a backpack cuz’ it will throw you out of alignment”, copy of Systematic Theology, and prepare to give me a systematic, theologically corrective beatdown, let me explain.

Systematic theology is the process of bringing together all the Bible says about a certain subject. To do a systematic theology study of prayer is to take all the scriptures in the Old Testament and New Testament that relate to prayer, study them, interweave them with one another, and come to a solid, well-balanced conclusion regarding biblical prayer. I’m all for systematic theology. The Bible should always interpret the Bible. Clear passages should interpret unclear passages. Etcetera and so on. Huzzah for systematic theology.

But…sometimes we can be too quick to pull the trigger on systematic theology. We become Bible gun slingers. We let our knowledge of the whole Bible mess with our heads. I know I sound like a semi-heretical lunatic, but trust me, I’m going somewhere with this.

For example, in Matthew 7:7-11, Jesus tells his disciples:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

This passage has wonderfully sharp edges. Jesus doesn’t give any qualifiers. He simply says ask, seek, knock, and you WILL receive. We are evil and we know how to give good gifts, how much more does God know how to give good gifts? This is a big, powerful, faith-fueling passage. Jesus intends us to pray big, hairy, audacious prayers. He wants us to pray them again and again, without giving up and with increasing earnestness.

The problem is, I often let my systematic theology rub the sharp edges off Jesus’ words. When I read this passage I think, Jesus doesn’t really mean what he says. Our prayers have to be in line with God’s will. And we can’t ask out of selfishness. And sometimes God’s answer is ‘no’. I don’t always know what’s best for me, but God does. 

Yes, yes, all those things are true. But do you see what happens when I move too quickly from the single passage to all that the Bible says about prayer? Jesus’ words lose their power and punch. The sharp, soul-cutting edges get worn down into harmless nubs. Jesus spoke these words in order to inspire me to ask great, earth-changing things of God. Jesus was well aware of the fact that there will be times when my prayers won’t line up with God’s will. He knew that there will be times when I ask out of selfishness. But he doesn’t qualify his words. He simply tells me to ask, seek, and knock until the door is opened. He tells me to beat on the door of heaven until my knuckles are bloody.

Should we study systematic theology? Of course! It’s invaluable. But when reading God’s word, let each passage speak for itself first. Let it cut you and heal you, bind you and break you. Each word of scripture is sacred, and was written for a very specific reason. Don’t let your overall knowledge of God’s word dull the power of specific passages.

When you read a passage, ask yourself, why did God say these specific words? What is he trying to accomplish in my life through this specific passage? Why is this passage here and not somewhere else? What would the original audience have thought when they heard these words? 

Systematic theology is a fantastic thing. But God’s word is a like an intricate story. There is an overarching theme, but there are also individual scenes. Each individual scene matters just as much as the overarching story line. Pay attention to the scenes first, then remember the overall story line.

What Does It Mean For Something to Be Biblical?

Question – is it wrong for you to boil a goat in its mother’s milk?

After all, Exodus 23:19 says, “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.” So is it unbiblical to boil a goat in its mother’s milk? I know you’ve all been itching to boil a young goat, but you’ve been hesitant because of this command.

Or how about this one: is it biblical to have all male babies circumcised on the eighth day after their birth? Because in Genesis 17:12 it says, “He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring…” You had your son circumcised on the ninth day after his birth? Oh boy, looks like you might be in trouble.

The question of whether or not something is “biblical” came up last week in my review of Rachel Held Evans soon to be released book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. It’s a great question. Does simply being in the Bible make something biblical? The answer to that question depends on how you define “biblical”. If by “biblical” you simply mean “in the Bible”, then yes, all of the above commands are biblical. But that’s not usually what we mean when we loudly say, “It’s biblical!” Usually we mean, “I must obey this command as a Christian, come heck or high water.”

So let’s lay out some terminology. When I say that a command is biblical, I mean that it applies to me, a New Testament Christian who has been bought with the blood of Christ. I’m sure if I had more time I could come up with a better definition, but I’ve got other stuff to do today, like catch up on the latest cat pictures posted on the Internet.

When trying to determine whether or not we must obey a particular command, we gotta ask at least two questions. The first question is: was this command a universal command given to all the people of God for all time? The commands given under the Mosaic Covenant were only for the people of Israel. They were given to a particular people, at a particular time in history, in a particular geographical location. When Christ came and established the New Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant passed away. As Christians, we are not obligated to obey any of the Mosaic commands unless they are explicitly restated in the New Testament.

However, there are certain commands in the Old Testament that are not associated with the Mosaic Covenant, and are still applicable to us today. For example, in Genesis 1, God commanded Adam (and all humans) to be fruitful and multiply throughout the earth. That command is rooted in God’s plan for creation, not a particular covenant or people.

The second question to ask is: what is the immediate context of the passage? This is where things can get a little bit tricky, and we need to be careful. So, for example, in James 2:24 James says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Well now. That seems confusing. Doesn’t Paul say over and over again that we are justified by faith alone?

Context is key here. As you read the verses before and after James 2:24, you can tell that James is using the word “justified” in a way that is different from Paul. He is not saying that a person is saved by their good works. He is saying that someone who is truly saved will demonstrate their justification by their good works. In a sense, their good works “justify” their assertion that they are truly saved. Context baby. It’s all about context.

We need to be careful when we say something is “biblical”. God cares about carefulness. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some funny cat videos to watch.

+photo by *saipal

14 Questions to Ask Your Bible

On Thursday I posted an article entitled “Glory In the Details”, encouraging us to search out the little details of every passage of scripture. Here are fourteen questions to help you find the glory in the details.

1.    Who is the author of the passage?

2.    Who were the recipients?

3.    What is the historical background of the passage?

4.    What is the outline/structure of the passage?

5.    Are any words repeated? Any significance to the repetition?

6.    Are there any unusual words in the passage that call for more exploration?

7.    How does the passage fit into the surrounding paragraph? Chapter? Book?

8.    Why did the author place the passage here and not somewhere else?

9.    In one sentence, what is the main point of the passage?

10.  How would the original audience have been affected by the passage?

11.  How does this passage connect to the overall storyline of the Bible?

12.  How does this passage reveal Jesus as savior?

13.  How does God want this passage to function in my life?

14.  What kind of response does this passage call for?

Now that we’re all comfortable with comments, what would you add to the list?

Note: These questions are not my own. They were taken from a very helpful class on hermeneutics (interpreting the Bible).

+photo by liber