A Wrong and Right Way to Read the Bible

holding-biblePreachers are under enormous pressure from their congregations to emphasize the contemporary relevance of any given Biblical text. The Bible certainly is relevant: it is the story of our redemption in Jesus Christ, brimming with dramatic interest, and filled with both promises and commands. But very often this is not the sort of application that itching ears want to hear. The temptation for preachers is to apply the text immediately to the individual hearer by bypassing any real exegesis of the text. In this way they “apply” the Bible to their hearers in ways that God never intended.

In 1 Samuel 18:3 we read, “Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.” In my life I have heard numerous sermons on this verse. The preachers waxed eloquently on the value of friendship. They illustrated their message with examples of great men who had close confidants and contrasted them with loner villains, such as High school assassins and Hitler. They gave practical advice on how to better cultivate such friendship and how to avoid common relationship pitfalls.

The problem with all this is that the text is not about the importance of friendship. The good news for the preacher, however, is that a little exegesis reveals an application that is much richer than the rather generic (and not specifically Christian) truth that friendship is good.

God promised Israel that he would set his own king over them in his own timing (Deut 17). Impatiently, Israel demanded of God a King like all the nations, and chose Saul of the tribe of Benjamin (ch 8-9). God, in his wrath, gave them Saul, and in his wrath he took him away (10, 15). The Lord then chose David, of the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:10), as the man after his own heart, and anointed him to inherit the Kingdom of God (16).

Jonathan was the son of King Saul and heir to his throne. David is poised as his only rival. Here is the real drama in the text: will Jonathan side with the Lord’s Anointed or will he maintain his own right to the throne? His father leaves no doubt where he stands on the matter: “for as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established” (1 Sam 20:31). History is saturated with stories where a prince or newly established king assassinates all of his siblings in order to secure his claim to the throne. Herod the Great even killed his own children whom he feared might rival his regal authority. But Jonathan chooses David.

The drama is heightened when we recognize the place of David in redemptive history. The Lord promised David that he would establish his house and the throne of his kingdom forever (2 Sam 7:12-16) and that in the last days he would raise up a king like David to shepherd his people (Ezek 34:23; 37:24). Ultimately, God’s promises to David find their fulfillment in his greater Son, Jesus Christ. As the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary, “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32-33). David, as a prophet, and “knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption” (cf. Acts 2:31; Ps 110).

As a forerunner of the Messiah who was to come, allegiance to David is as allegiance to Jesus Christ. Saul emerges as a foil for the Lord’s Anointed and becomes an Antichrist figure bent on murdering David. For Jonathan there is no question whom he will choose. He gladly lays down his claim to the throne at great personal cost (his own father tries to kill him!).

We are faced with the same choice – friendship with God or with the world? Will we maintain our pretended autonomy or will we become servants of the true King? As Jesus Christ our King has said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Lk 9:23-24).

Cinevangelism is not helpful

cinevangelism21I remember looking through college applications (half heartedly – but that’s another story) and noting a particular Christian University that required students to sign a pledge to never attend the movies. To be sure, this University bi-law represents a throwback to an earlier Fundamentalist piety (presumably insisted upon by wealthy, older donors to the College), but it highlights how far popular Evangelical piety has swung in the opposite direction.

Today, young Evangelicals do not merely argue that movie-going is permissible, but that it is a moral imperative. We may call this trend Cinevangelism. Christians, they argue, must be involved in culture to reach the culture for Christ. They believe that if they engage culture with a critical eye, then nothing unwholesome can touch them. Profanity, violence and explicit sexuality are no longer problems if viewed with an eye to God’s glory. Nor are Christians viewing such movies to critique the values of “this passing evil age.” The goal is to mine them for Gospel truth.

If the old Fundamentalists bent over backward to avoid non-sacred culture, the emerging Evangelicals are bending over backward in an attempt to sacralize all culture. This trend is very evident in the “Gospel According to” book series published by Westminster John Knox. Installments include “The Gospel According to Harry Potter,” Star Wars, the Matrix, the Simpsons, Disney and probably others. Movieministry.com offers small group studies and sermon illustrations on many of the current films in theaters right now. Current studies include Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Public Enemies, My Sister’s Keeper, Terminator: Salvation, and Angels and Demons. Ted Baehr of movieguide.org comments that, “a church group can highlight biblical teachings by using anything from Dodgeball to Saved! to Kill Bill.”

This was the method of the Apostle Paul, they say. At the Areopagus in Athens Paul connects culturally with his audience by quoting the philosophers Epimenides and Aratus (Acts 17:28). Moreover, he quoted them in affirmation rather than critique. True. But Paul did not find “Gospel truth” in these poets. Some knowledge of God and his law can be found in nature, and these truths are impressed upon the human conscience, despite the best efforts of sinful man to repress that knowledge (Rom 1:19-20), but the Gospel is not revealed in nature (Rom 16:25). On Mars Hill the apostle offered a critique of the hedonism of the Epicureans and challenged the pantheism of the Stoics. For whatever positive themes might be present in modern stories, we are not following the apostle’s example if we suggest that Lucas, Rowling or the Wachowskies unwittingly wrote Christian allegory when their intent was quite otherwise.

The misstep of our Christian cultural aficionados is a failure to challenge the underlying assumption of the Fundamentalists: that only sacred culture is legitimate, and therefore cultural pursuits need evangelistic justification. They have simply broadened the category of what they consider evangelistically useful. I believe that we should live our entire lives to the glory of God. I believe also that Christians should be involved in the arts as a legitimate vocation. But does this mean that we need a Christian theory of movie-making or movie-going? Sometimes, when I come home from a long day of work, I just want to unwind. Popular entertainment can serve this purpose well, and it is useful in itself, but we can never check our Christian morality at the door of the theater.

I think contextualization is important. We need to understand the language and idioms of our culture to communicate the Gospel effectively. But you are deceiving yourself if you think that it is helpful to watch Saw I-IV and distill “the Gospel According to Jigsaw” in order to effectively witness to your unsaved friend. Also, there is nothing wrong with a pastor occasionally dropping a well known movie reference to illustrate a point. But I suggest that it is illegitimate to preach a sermon series on “Cat woman: finding your true identity.”

Ultimately such an approach is counter productive. Culture is about particulars. It is about trivia. The Gospel deals with transcendent, eternal truth. But it is more than that. The Gospel is also its own story rooted in its own particularities. “The Word became flesh.” God has revealed himself to us in his story – a redemptive plot full of dramatic interest. The Biblical drama is neither foundationalist nor post-foundationalist; it is neither modern nor postmodern. All other stories are ultimately fables of “this present evil age” while our script belongs to “the age to come.”

Such an unrelenting focus on pop-culture forces the center to the periphery and holds what is periphery as the center. Carl Truman has a barn-burning post on the modern infatuation with “culture”, which is spot on. In it he notes that,

“On every corner, huckster theologians who have made their careers out of creating this mess are selling you the problem as if it is the solution, and theology now abounds with Orwellian newspeak: chaos is order; contradiction is consistency; valueless trivia is vital truth.

And let’s face it, no-one ever loses in today’s evangelical market by backing the peripheral rather than the central, or by overestimating the triviality of the tastes of the Western Christian consumer. Is a Christian bookstore going to make money selling a book on the Incarnation or on prayer, or one on Christian approaches to body image, or The Simpsons, or how to improve your sex life?”

This past week Joel Stein wrote a piece in TIME where he tells of his experience sitting in on the Saddleback Church improv team. The director Brian Barns explains that their goal is to give “people a way to get friends to the church who have turned down an invitation to a service.” Stein comments, “This made sense to me until I thought about the kind of person who would say, ‘I’m not interested in eternal salvation, but I’d love to spend a Saturday night in a small conference room watching Christian improvisational comedy!’”

There is nothing wrong with a Christian pursuing a vocation as a stand-up comic. I am concerned with the official ministry of the Christian Church. Our lives are saturated with pop-entertainment. The Church’s goal is to offer something that transcends our vapid “culture of marketing and the marketing of culture.” If we fail in this then we really haven’t challenged our American identity as mere consumers.

Finally, the emerging emphasis on pop-culture is not really working. Michael Horton notes that,

“A host of recent studies confirms that the ecclesiastical ideology of ‘mission to postmodern culture’ works least among the people who are supposed to be the most impressed: the so-called Gen-Xers and younger. Even aside from the all-important challenge of biblical fidelity, not even the demographics support the hype that almost tyrannically controls contemporary approaches to mission and worship” (Give Praise to God, p. 443).

Double Jeopardy

broken-chains1The Christian Fundamentalist movement sought to define the minimum of what a Christian must believe to still be considered a Christian. They typically recognized five doctrinal pillars that comprise the essence of true Christianity. One of these pillars was the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. We are redeemed when Christ set our sin aside by “nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:14). “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree… By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). In his death Jesus accomplished the great exchange: his righteousness for our sin. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21). “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18).

Modernist theologians called substitution “one theory among others.” The Fundamentalists stood up and said, “No. Substitution is the heartbeat of the Gospel! Without it there is no Christianity.”

Like most Evangelicals today, the Fundamentalists were largely Arminian. That is, they believed the death that Jesus died was general: Jesus died for every individual who ever lived or who ever will live. The Arminian therefore denies that the atonement secured anyone’s redemption. It simply made salvation possible for those who choose to accept it. But is the view of a general Atonement consistent with the substitutionary theory?

A substitutionary atonement requires that Jesus suffered the penalty for sins that his people deserve. As a result they stand acquitted before God. God cannot accuse them for their crimes. An illustration may help. Citizens of the United States have the constitutional right of Double Jeopardy, whereby a defendant cannot stand trial twice for the same crime. This was the premise for a movie a while back by the same name. A man fakes his death and frames his wife for the murder so that he can run off and begin a new life. She is convicted and serves her time. Later she learns that he is still living and begins to plot her revenge. According to the law, she can assassinate him in broad daylight because she has already paid the price for his murder. This is a sordid example, but it makes the point. The hymn writer Augustus Toplady understood substitution correctly when he penned these words: “Payment God cannot twice demand; once at my bleeding surety’s hand, and then again at mine.”

Because of this difficulty many Arminian theologians opt for the Moral Governmental theory of the atonement. According to the Governmental theory Jesus didn’t die for anybody. He was an example. God punished Jesus as a sinner merely to show us the sinfulness of sin. Therefore, Clark Pinnock argues that the death of Jesus was not necessary for God to forgive sin; it is an aid to our accepting forgiveness (Unbounded Love, 103). Charles Finney ridiculed the substitutionary atonement calling it a “theological fiction” (Memoirs, 58-61). The death of Christ is not the grounds of our Justification, Finney argued. We are acquitted before God only on the “ground of universal, perfect, and uninterrupted obedience to law (Systematic Theology, 362).

I want to clarify that the question is not, “for whom is the death of Christ sufficient?” We all agree that the blood of Christ is sufficient to cover the sins of the entire world. The question is rather, “for whom was Jesus’ death a substitute?” Logically there are only thee possible ways to understand substitution. Either Jesus died for all of the sins for all of the people (everyone is saved regardless of faith = universalism), or he died for some of the sins of all of the people, or he died for all of the sins for some of the people – his elect (Eph. 1:4).

It is the latter view that the Bible teaches. Jesus said plainly, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15) and warned the Pharisees “you are not part of my flock” (v. 26). The design and purpose of the atonement was always to redeem God’s elect. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). Romans 8 stresses that the grounds of our justification before God is secured solely in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This alone places his people beyond condemnation (vv 31-35). For this reason before the crucifixion Jesus prayed for those whom he was going to die to redeem saying, “I pray not for the world but for those whom you have given me” (John 17:9).

The Apostles preached frequently on the death and resurrection of Jesus. They called sinners to repentance and faith. But they never preached in their evangelistic sermons, “Jesus died for you.” Never once!

The reason is that Jesus’ atoning death was not for the purpose of making the salvation of all men possible. Rather, by his death he secured the salvation of all whom God ordained to eternal life (John 6:38-39; 1 Cor 15:3; 1 Thess 5:10; Tit 2:14; Heb 1:3, 9:5; Rev 5:9). The uniform testimony of Scripture is that those for whom Christ died have themselves also died (and been raised!) in Christ (Cf. 2 Cor 5:14-15; see also Rom 6:3-11; Eph 2:4-7; Col 3:3). For Paul writes plainly, “one died for all: therefore all died” (2 Cor 5:14).

In the preceding verse we also have an answer to those who allege Biblical support for universal atonement. For Paul continues, “for he died for all in order that those who live should no longer live to themselves…” (v. 15). The “all” that died to sin and “live” to God constitute the same class as the “all” for whom Christ died. The Bible illustrates this point in many places (e.g. John 1:29; Rom 5:18; 11:12; 2 Cor 5:19; Heb 2:9-13). Moreover, “all” and “the world” are frequently taken as general terms and clearly not interpreted as “inclusive of every individual” (e.g. Luke 2:1; Acts 11:28; John12:19; Rom 1:8, 1 Cor 1:21). This is how we ought to understand passages such as John 3:16, 1 John 2:2 and others. The meaning is that Jesus died for all classes of persons: Jew/Gentile, past, present and future.

This teaching is not new or novel. It is the teaching of the Protestant Reformation – particularly the Reformed (Calvinist) branch. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) says, “The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience, and sacrifice of himself, which he, through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him” (8.5).

If you find this teaching strange or abhorrent, I encourage you to read the Puritan John Owen’s work, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, which deals with this subject exhaustively and is, frankly, the final word on the issue.

I trust that most Arminian Christians are evangelical and affirm the substitutionary atonement of Christ. But this they can only affirm inconsistently. The wave of Arminianism crashes upon the shore of Pelagianism and the Moral Governmental theory, and those who ride this wave all the way in (Like Finney or Pinnock) wind up denying the Gospel.