Emulating The Grace of The Martyrs

The church’s praise of the martyrs causes an uneasy tension for the honest Christian. Most, on principle, can honor their courage from afar, but how can one begin to consider emulation? How does one rejoice in the beatitude, “blessed are the persecuted” in anything more than by mere cognitive assent? For cognitive assent is never sufficient means for courage. The Christian virtues must be embodied to be executed, and they must be delighted in to be embodied.

The question remains, how does one delight in the idea of potential martyrdom (a notion any Christian should at least seriously contemplate)?
The early church had crucial insight. The opening section of the Martyrdom of Polycarp (Chapter 2) tells of countless deaths under persecution leading to the death of Polycarp:

And truly, who can fail to admire their nobleness of mind, and their patience, with that love towards their Lord which they displayed?—who, when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood by pitied and bewailed them.

How could they endure such torments? The next line tells us:

But they reached such a pitch of magnanimity, that not one of them let a sigh or a groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with them. And, looking to the grace of Christ, they despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by [the suffering of] a single hour. For this reason the fire of their savage executioners appeared cool to them. For they kept before their view escape from that fire which is eternal and never shall be quenched, and looked forward with the eyes of their heart to those good things which are laid up for such as endure; things “which ear hath not heard, nor eye seen, neither have entered into the heart of man,” but were revealed by the Lord to them, inasmuch as they were no longer men, but had already become angels.

They looked not to their torments, but to their Lord. The key to the martyrs’ courage is not in their suffering, but in the grace bestowed to them. So it was also with the first recorded martyr, Stephen (Acts 7). Right before his death “he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). As he was being stoned, he cried, “Lord Jesus, recieve my spirit” (Acts. 7:59).

The opposite was said of Christ than of the martyrs. The cry of dereliction reveals a forsaken Savior.

The martyrs understood this trade-off; Christ was forsaken so that we never would be.

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Where the Ideal Meets the Real: Some Reflections about My Abstract Life

From the start, my life experience has always been one of nagging incongruity. The ideal, the imaginative, and the theoretical have always seems more real to me than the sensory world in which I have to remind myself that I live.

 

I find myself floating in a world of the ideal until ideal and real meet. When my world most find its meaning is where the ideal touches down with the real. When that happens, I latch on with my whole being. There have been four areas in my life where I have tangibly experienced this “latching on” to reality: God, Amanda, learning, and running. (I should also say that my parents are certainly a profoundly positive role in my development, but one that has been so consistent that it is hard to quantify. What I have primarily highlighted here are paradigm-shifting life events).

 

God: I always believed in God by way of affirmation, and never thought myself at odds with Him. Most of my experience as a child has been, however, one of what I would call “floatiness,” a sense of being in my own world apart, and not quite sure what to do with it. I learn to “blend in” to a degree, but it always comes up unsatisfying and embarrassingly false. Then God got ahold of me. He is the point at my life in which the Ideal became Real, and the ideal paradigm through which my foggy world of imagination found tangibility. In Him, also, I found that this True Ideal contacted the world in which I lived so potently that I have since found it irreversibly intoxicating.

 

Amanda: I’ve found this connection with my relationship with Amanda. She will be the first to tell you about my spaciness and how it is often uncertain whether I am actually where I am. But, I know for sure that, through her, and my relationship with her, the ideal lens that God gave me has found its most tangible point of application. Christ; God imaged; the Beginning, Middle, and End of all that there is, gave us a tangible illustration of His relationship to us: marriage. This covenant bond with Amanda, played out in daily scenes, is the most human lens that I have and have ever had of this redemptive congruity of the ideal and real. Here, I am the most alive and connected.

 

Learning: I was not a reader, but the summer of my senior year, when I sat on my parent’s back porch trying to read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, my life changed. For the first time, I was reading someone who discussed the faith in a way that I found gripping. This has formed a lasting friendship with C. S. Lewis that has opened up the doors for me to meet other thinkers as well. I’m not a great reader, but in the past years the Apostle Paul, the Gospel writers, Moses, Isaiah, David, Solomon, Qoheleth, (and, less great) John Piper, R. C. Sproul, Dallas Willard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Meredith Kline, Soren Kierkegaard, and others have been conversation partners as I’ve tried to find continual congruity in the world I find myself. They are friends and mentors that I have found are asking and answering questions that I thought I was alone in asking.

 

Running: Least importantly, but not without meaning, running has served that role in a minor sense. Growing up, I never thought myself athletic. But, especially from my grandfather (Pop pop) and my mom, running has been in my genes. The first time that I knew I had athletic potential was in 8th grade soccer practice, on distance runs and sprints, that I realized that running came much easier to me than my peers (it was the only thing that came easier). Then, I found out about about cross country, and was spurred on by our very inspiring coach, Joe Feeley (Sr.). I wasn’t the best runner, and, even up until the end of our running “career,” my good friend Joe Feeley (Jr.) (who has since gone to be with the Lord, where I’m sure he is now much faster and is probably more frequently playing baseball, which he always preferred anyway) almost always out-ran me. But, for once, that didn’t matter. I enjoyed it. And, in it, I found something that I could tell that I was made to do well. Since I heard it, I have resonated with the quote from olympic champion and missionary Eric Lidel: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast! And when I run I feel his pleasure.”

 

I have continually met others who are more pious than me, better husbands than me, smarter than me, and better runners. The point is that, in these areas, that has not mattered. As my aforementioned friend C. S. Lewis has pointed out, joy is best experienced when it just is, and slips away when it is over-analyzed or compared.

The Timing of Spring

IMG_1295The first Spring morning greets the world with glory. The birds understand it better than I. My chest longs for the rapture they embody. The air is not wet, but not dry. What was ice dissipates into cool mist, as if the winters cold could not withstand the sun’s joy. As I walk along the path, the optimistic sun flickers through the tree as he rises, a pleasant intrusion upon my vision. If only I could be guided by the joyfully inconsistent pattern, ticking my skin and lighting the my eyelids, I could walk with no direction. Today, destination and intrusion do not exist. The birds know better than I that winter serves to store up Bliss until, on its own accord, Spring decides to bound forth, not a moment too soon.

Christian Baptism, Part 2 – Baptism and the Visible Church

The Great Commission: Make disciples of the nations and douse them with water.

Why, in an era where God’s people worship “in spirit and in truth,” would Jesus require such an ritualistic practice?

Perhaps a better question would be, why does our understanding the Christian faith make one of Jesus’ clear teachings difficult to understand?

I believe that the Protestant Reformation was a good thing (or at least a huge step in the right direction). I also believe that the need to reform has not stopped. In reaction to Roman Catholic sacramentalism, Protestants have emphasized that a person’s relationship with God is measured by the person’s heart, which is the biblical way to describe a person’s inner being, mind, and emotions. No one can read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and miss this truth. One thing that Rome seems to have understood, however, is that God often uses tangible means to minister to his people. There are many reasons why I think that this reality has particular relevance for baptism, even for Protestants.

The Aseity of God and Baptism

First of all, an outright rejection of the importance of the external realities of the faith seems not to take seriously the aseity of God, a theological term for his unchangeable and self-derived nature. We do learn from the book of Hebrew that the ceremonial practices in the Old Testament were but a shadow of what was to come in Christ. But to say that God does not take ceremonies seriously is to devalue the real redemptive work that God was doing throughout all of Israel’s history before Christ. It seems perhaps possible that there is something about external observance that matters to God. Therefore, it seems consistent that a doctrine like baptism was fit into God’s continual redemptive work.

The Visible Church and Baptism

A crucial point of distinction between baptists and presbyterians is their different views of the visible church. Christians throughout the centuries have acknowledged there is a difference between the church that finite humans can observe (the visible church) and those who are actually regenerate (the invisible church). A baptist distinctive is that they feel responsible for a completely pure visible church. In other words, baptists generally believe that the visible church should accurately represent the invisible church. If baptism then is a sign of the a person’s faith, only those who seem to belong to the invisible church should be baptized (I will deal with this further in a later post). Presbyterianism generally believes that the God calls us to stewardship over the visible church in particular. There are many reasons why I think this is a more biblical view.

Although I haven’t done the statistical work on this, my general observation has been that the New Testament epistles seem to be addressed to what we would consider the visible church. The most strong evidence for this seems to be in the various warning passages in the New Testament (Mat. 7:21-23; 1 Cor. 10:1-12; 11:19; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; Heb. 6:4-8; 10:29; 2 Pet. 2:1-22; Rev. 1:4-3:22). These are passages in which people who seem to be currently considered members of the church, are warned that they could be cut off from Christ and his church.

There seem to be a few ways to interpret these various passages. A purely Wesleyan reading may view these passages as addressing the potential loss of one’s salvation. The new testament, however, seems equally ademant about a person eternal security (see esp. Eph. 1:1-2:10; Rom. 8:28-30). Therefore, an interpretation of the warning passages needs to be compatible with passages about eternal security.

Many Reformed Baptists view these passages as hypothetical. In other words, no one who is truly saved would actually fall into the fate described in these passages. On the other hand, those who are cut off as these passages describe were never actually saved (1 Jn. 2:19). As I have heard Thomas Schreiner put it, the warning passages are always effective for the elect.

I agree with this latter view soteriologically (as it pertains to a persons salvation), but think that it still falls short of taking seriously the fate that these passages warn. I would hold to a third view, that these passages are a warning to those who may be cut off from the visible church. The traditional word for this is excommunication. This would refer to a person who is baptized (belonging to the visible church), but who is tentatively banned from fellowship with the church because of an unrepentant sin. Such a situation seems to take place in the church of Corinth (1 Cor. 5:5) and is consistent with Jesus teachings on dealing with sin amongst Christians (Mat. 18:15-20). Therefore, like the Reformed baptist view, I believe that this person would be one who was never saved, but that they were broken off from the a covenant from which they had previously benefited.

Application

On this side of the coming of Christ, the church is an imperfect example of what it is meant to be. Yet, we are called to be stewards over what is before us. God did not call those in leadership over the church to govern invisible realities, but a tangible church. One of the ways that the visible church is distinguished is through the practice of baptism.

In the example of new converts to the faith, they are to be baptized upon a confession of faith, so long as that confession seems to be one of biblical understanding and consistency with the kind of outward behavior as is biblically mandated. As Charle’s Hodges has pointed out, “The common Protestant doctrine is that nothing authorizes us to refuse a man admission to the Church, which would not justify his exclusion if already a member of it” (Systematic Theology, XX.9.Common Protestant Theory).

Children of believers are to be much like children of Abraham. One did not wait to see whether a boy’s faith in YHWH was genuine before circumcision. Rather, they were considered a member of the covenant unless they acted contrary to God’s law (Sproul, “In Jesus Name, Amen”).

Christian Baptism, Part 1: Reformed Baptism

Before a youth pastor taught me about baptism, my attitude toward the doctrine teetered between ignorance and apathy. I was finally baptized at about the age of 17. It was a monumental and spiritually empowering moment in my life. I was as fresh in my faith as a new convert. My immersion was a sign for me and to the world around me that I was “all in.”

As I have grown more in the faith and knowledge, I have only gained a more reverent appreciation for this ancient practice. My perspective has developed and changed in ways. As I have shared my developing thoughts with other believers, I have noticed that feelings on the doctrine range from complete apathy (“why is it even important to get baptized?”) to divisiveness (if you are not baptized in a certain way, you cannot be part of this church).

My hope is to write a series of blogs to build more interest where there is apathy and more understanding where there is division. I will be writing about baptism from a Reformed perspective. In these posts, I will also be defending Covenant Theology and infant baptism. In this first post, I thought it would be helpful to set the Reformed view beside other predominate views:

Roman Catholic (ex opere operato): For Protestants, salvation through Christ is accomplished at the moment of true faith. As Luther put it, Christians are simul justus et peccator– still sinners, yet justified. For Roman Catholics, a person is justified when they are actually righteous. Which means a person is not saved until they are perfected. This is why the doctrine of purgatory is necessary. A person’s process of salvation is by means of the 7 sacraments, one of those being baptism. Baptism has effective power. It makes the soul more holy and cleanses the person from original sin. This includes infants who are baptized. Therefore, baptism may begin to save a person before that person has any faith of their own.

Lutheran: Lutherans seem to hold a more mild view than Roman Catholics regarding the effectiveness of baptism. I don’t fully understand the nuances of their view. My understanding is that most Lutherans hold a balance between the view that faith must precede salvation and that baptism indicates regeneration (Rom. 6). Thus, they believe that, in some way, an infant’s baptism indicates a real faith within the infant (Erickson, 1019-1020).

Baptist (outward sign of an inward reality): The Baptist view is that baptism is meant to indicate the reality of an inward regeneration. Therefore, the only people who should be baptized are those who already posses saving faith. This is why baptists do not baptize infants. Infants cannot express saving faith. This view is called believer’s baptism or credobaptism.

Covenantal (Reformed): The common way to speak of this is to say that baptism is a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace. But, that is theological gobledigook to most people outside of the Reformed community (and most within). The basic claim is that God, throughout history, has sought to save his people by means of covenants, binding agreements between two parties. These covenants are marked by signs, such as circumcision and baptism. New Testament believers find themselves in basically the same covenant plan that began with Noah and Abraham (with some distinctions). Baptism then is not essentially an indication of a person’s salvation, but of an inclusion into a covenant relationship with God. The covenant does not guarantee salvation, but promises it. It demonstrates the visible church, the people of God on earth. These people include believers and their children.

It’s this last view that I will make a case for in following posts.

[While I have held to both the Baptist and Reformed views, I know very little about the the baptismal tradition of the Roman Catholic or Lutheran churches. I am relying mostly on Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology 3rd ed. (1018-1020) and the chapter titled “‘Confessor Baptism’: The Baptismal Doctrine of the Early Anabaptists” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. I know even less about the Eastern Orthodox tradition, so I haven’t included it at all. Roman Catholics, Lurtherans, and Eastern Orthodox, your insights and corrections are welcome!]

A Review of ‘Calvary’: Absurdism Meets Dogma

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is a clash of postmodern cynicism and Catholic dogma. It confronts the distrust that has arisen from the child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. In many ways, this film deserves credit for dealing quite seriously with religious issues, and for portraying a very admirable Christian character (a clergyman non-the-less!). This predominately Catholic film merits the attention of Catholics and Protestants alike.

A review from Glenn Kenny seems on point in categorizing this film as an absurdist allegory. He draws our attention to the opening quote of the movie, “Despair not, one of the thieves was spared; presume not, one of the thieves was not.” I’m thankful for Kenny for pointing out that this quote also found in Beckett’s playwright, Waiting for Godot.

Beckett’s play (which has also been adapted into more than one film rendition) is one of brilliant meaninglessness. It captures the current of postmodern distress that is characteristic of our time. For those unfamiliar with Postmodernism, its name indicates its meaning: it post-dates Modernism. Modernism was a time of philosophical optimism. Modernist thinkers had great hopes in man’s ability to rise to utopian heights through rationalistic excellence. We live in the wake of a cynicism toward such hopes. It is a cynicism that sees the unsearchable complexities of truth, one that embraces plurality. Calvary is an excellent case of such Postmodernism colliding with Roman Catholic doctrine.

Why this film is important:

This film makes some important strides. For one, it is grappling with the complexity of human nature. While each character does almost reaches the level of caricature, human nature is treated with purposeful complexity. Redemption confronts blatant sinners, and the films saint has his share of demons. Such complexity is certainly in line with any serious reading of the Apostle Paul. Romans 6-8 draws a line between those in the flesh and those in the Spirit, not by the presence or absence of sin, but by the essential nature of the person, found in union with Christ, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Human nature is multilayered, and the battle with sin does not stop with belief.

This brings about another strength of this film; it demonstrates the radical tension of the gospel. While the film never captures Father James absolving anyone of there sins (a tension the film seems to purposefully maintain), the closest thing to a genuine confession comes from a serial killer that Father James visits in prison. Later, the police chief mockingly asks Father James whether the man’s actions don’t matter because Jesus forgives him. Father James frankly replies, “Something like that.” In another scene, Father James tells his daughter that he thinks we focus too much on sin and not enough on virtue, especially the virtue of forgiveness.

Why it is Troublesome:

As a Protestant, it is probably predictable that I see part of the problem to be that the themes are conterminous with Roman Catholic dogma. I think that Abraham Kuyper’s critic of Roman Catholicism still has some relevance for today, and is indicative of what the church still suffer from. I will quote him in full:

Under the hierarchy of Rome the Church and the World were placed over against each other, the one as being sanctified and the other as being still under the curse. Everything outside the Church was under the influence of demons, and exorcism banished the this demoniacal power from everything that came under the protection, influence and inspiration of the Church. Hence in a Christian country the entire social life was to be covered by the wings of the Church…As a natural result the world corrupted the Church, and by its dominion over the world the Church proved an obstacle to every free development of its life. (Lectures on Calvinism, 29)

The Roman Church has attempted such dominion over the world that it still seems to suffer from the lack of distinction between church and world that Protestantism has consistently maintained. The great distinction seems to be the doctrine of regeneration. A primary distinction between Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrine is that Protestantism has consistently recognized that the Church, as least in principle, consists of regenerate individuals, new creations in Christ. Such regeneration is both positional and effectual on the persons nature, not the product of participation in the sacraments. In contrast, Calvary portrays a situation in which sacraments and pastoral care are administered to people who have no desire to serve the Lord. In Protestant thought, these people would not be included in the Church. Pastoral ministry to such would be evangelism.

The other problem with this film is that its absurdism is absolute. There is a way to portray sin as a foil, in order to place it in a redemptive context. This film finds little obvious redemption. The redemption is left to the viewer, who is dangling in existential tension. Such a tension is common in contemporary thought about religion. In my experience, religious conversations these days typically conclude with something either like

“None of us can really know though”

or

“to each his own.”

This film ends with such tension. Its a plunge into darkness with only whispers of light. It has no answers, only questions. This is common of art nowadays. Questions are noble, answers are simplistic.

It doesn’t help that most Christian art nowadays does limit itself to simplistic, and often cliche, answers.

It seems that the burden of Christian art nowadays is to boldly address these existential tension of Postmodern thought, with intelligent, artistic, and redemptive responses.

Caveat: This film is quite dark. I was excited to watch it, but now I’m not sure I’m glad that I did. I probably wont watch it again. Viewers should consider its content before watching it. This includes graphic sexual language, frequent profanity, weighty religious issues, drug use, and one scene of gratuitous violence.

Should Christians Judge Others?

To say that another person is wrong, in our age of ‘tolerance,’ has become taboo. This is especially so in regard to sexual ethics, but it is also reflective of a larger thought process; one that is thoughtfully proposed by the cultural elites, and mostly thoughtlessly assumed by the culturally relevant.

For the elites, the philosophers of the cultural left (who make up most of the faculty in America’s Ivy League schools), it comes in a form of ethical relativism. Without a standard adherence to a Scripture (on which most of the Ivy League schools once stood), there is no basis on which one can claim what is right and what is wrong. Few deny that universal inclination that certain things are clearly wrong (the ‘new atheists’ claim this as eagerly as most Christians), but they attempt to explain the inevitable on naturalistic grounds. Through becoming the sole interpreters of ethics, they become their own lawgivers, and, unbeknown to us, they have become our lawgivers.

My primary concern, however, is not the cultural elites. For most US citizens claim some degree of belief in God (Froese, 26), but fit into the crowd that we could call the nominally religious. My observation is that most Americans think that much of what Jesus said was good, and that other parts of his teachings are outdated (This is an internally impossible stance, but I will not deal with that here). I want to look at one particular teaching that most Americans seem to like, but not always understand.

Jesus said “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Mat. 7:1).

Well, there you have it! All Christian discernment has been trumped by the Bible itself!

Not necessarily.

First, let it be clear that other portions of Scripture do call Christians to recognize the sins of others. In the same sermon, Jesus tells his disciples to dismiss false teachers based on their works (Mat. 7:15-20). Paul points out the sexual sins of some of his contemporaries and says that they will incur the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18-32). Paul commands that another man in sexual sin be dismissed from the congregation (1 Cor. 5:1-5). Jesus and Paul both give prescriptions for Christians as to how they should confront one another in sin (Mat. 18:15-20; Gal. 6:1). This is just to name a few.

On a commonsense basis, the alternative is absurd. A world in which no judgment exists is impossible to imagine. Teaching, parenting, institutions, and governments could not exist without corrective judgment. This is clearly not what Jesus intended to communicate.

How do we reconcile this with what Jesus said?

Many will say that the Bible just contradicts itself. Skeptics will say that it is merely inconsistent. It’s authors were fallible humans with an agenda. We should expect nothing else from them.

Time and space do not allow me to address why I don’t accept that stance, so I will suffice it to address those who are at least somewhat concerned with the authority of Scripture. The Reformation axiom has been that Scripture interprets Scripture, and I will assume such canonical consistency.

Other interpretations would say that the Old Testament was concerned with judgment, but Jesus was only concerned with grace. I dismiss that view. Jesus came to fulfill and uphold the Law (Mat. 5:17-20), not to contradict it.

So, how do we interpret Jesus’ command to ‘judge not?’

First, we need to consider the purpose and nature of the Sermon on the Mount (in which this statement arises). One of the prefatory remarks is “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 5:20). So, underlying this whole sermon is a confrontation of religious hypocrisy; the kind of hypocrisy that cares about the ‘speck’ in another’s eyes, while ignoring the ‘log’ in one’s own (Mat. 7:3-5). Jesus has specific offenders in view.

Also, the Sermon is filled with hyperbole. Jesus makes purposefully striking remarks to draw out the moral implications. He is not speaking as a systematic theologian (Carson, 115), he is speaking with the confrontational language of a (The) Prophet. The language is directly addressing such a tendency toward hypocrisy. The sermon is not so much dealing with hard rules, as it is dealing with the heart behind the Law (Willard, 154-155). It is pointedly striking language (Carson, 40), designed to strike at the heart of those guilty of ‘lawlessness’ (Mat. 7:23).

Jesus’ solution is that we should take the metaphorical log out of our own eye before taking the metaphorical speck out of another person’s. This is an attitude issue. The whole sermon deals consistently with the kind of heart that a true disciple of his should have. In this case, a Christian should be far more concerned with their own sin than with the sins of others (Bonhoeffer, 96-97). In light of understanding their own sin, one such person is not incapable of confronting another, but, when it is necessary, does so with humility, grace, and sorrow.

Secondly, this teaching is a small part of the large message about the heart behind the whole Law: love. Jesus brackets the first section of the sermon with two statements about his fulfillment of the law (Mat. 5:17-20; 7:12). In the second, he says “So, whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” This teaching has often been referred to as ‘The Golden Rule.’ Its design is love, and it is the goal of all of the Scriptures.

The problem with one who looks down their nose at another is that they are missing the mission of love; hence they are missing the whole point of all the Scriptures. Only when one is most disappointed in their own sins (the “poor in Spirit” of whom Jesus spoke) and has a desire to love others, are they in a position to confront another in sin.

As Paul says in Galatians 6:1, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”

In conclusion, followers of Christ should be more concerned with their own sins than the sins of other, and, if they do confront another, it is to be done in a spirit of love.