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Five Reasons Why the Ascension of Jesus Matters

Today the church celebrates the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ into his glory in heaven, to sit at the right hand of God the Father and rule as King over the entire universe.

Why is that Christmas and Easter are such big deals in our culture, but Ascension and Pentecost are largely ignored? Have you ever thought about that? I think that the reason for this is that Christmas and Easter do not confront people with the lordship of Christ the way that his ascension does. Christmas is the easiest to accept for our culture. It’s just a sweet little baby born on a manger. Nothing there to confront me. Nothing there to make me take stock in my life. Even if we come to terms with the fact that this baby in the manger is actually God incarnate, it is still easy to sentimentalize and ignore. Baby Jesus. Sweet little Jesus. Tame Jesus.

Easter is a little harder to deal with, but we can manage it OK. Easter confronts us with the unmistakable fact that Jesus is who he said he is, the Son of the living God. Easter means we have to believe in Jesus, we have to believe that he is real and that he rose from the dead. This is why Easter has been made into cute bunnies, eggs, and pastel colors. These are not wrong, but they make Easter more palatable. Still, for those of us who embrace the real Easter, all it does it make us come to terms with the reality of Jesus. We must believe in him.

Yet when we come to the Ascension we are asked to do much more. We are asked not only to believe, but to take stock of our lives and to do what is right. The Ascension of Jesus means that Jesus is Lord. You are not lord. Your feelings are not lord. The government, the wealthy, the powerful, they are not lord. Jesus is Lord. This is the first of the Christian feasts that requires us to take stock of our lives and respond to the ever present reality of the lordship of Christ in our lives and over our world.

So what does the Ascension mean for us? Why does it matter? I want to look at five reasons why the ascension of Jesus Christ really matters to all of us in our daily lives.

1. The Dignity of Humanity
First, Jesus’ ascension into heaven means that all human life has great worth and dignity. This was so at the creation, where we read in Genesis 1 and 2 that men and women are created in the image and the likeness of God. That we are all created in the image of God means that we all have inherent worth. Look at the following from the 8th Psalm:

1 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. 2 Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger. 3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 4 what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?

The Psalmist begins by declaring the glory of God and wondering how man compares to God. Man is an insignificant ant compared to God. Right? This is the typical view of most cold, reformed types. Yet David does not stop there:

5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. 6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, 7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. 9 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:1-9 ESV)

We have great dignity because of our created humanity. We bear the image of God and have been given dominion over the entire earth. Each and every one of you has great worth because God has made it that way.

And the ascension of Christ means that this dignity and worth is fulfilled, cemented, and magnified. Jesus Christ is fully human and fully God. That means that a human being, a man, is now sitting in heaven and ruling the entire cosmos. Our humanity is raised and ascended with him! This magnifies the dignity and worth of all human beings. Our flesh is not something to be detested! Your bodies are not something to hate or abhor! Other races and nations of human beings are not in any way lesser than you or worthy of your subjugation! We all share a common humanity and that humanity has been raised up in Jesus Christ. Your bodies are beautiful. They are of great worth, because Jesus Christ has ascended. A human being with a real human body is the King of all. That means that all our flesh has been raised to this dignity. We are not to hate ourselves or hate other people. You have been raised up with Christ!

2. Access to God
Secondly, the ascension of Jesus Christ means we have access to God. The apostle Paul writes in Romans 5:

1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:1-2 ESV)

He also tells us in Ephesians 3:

8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. (Ephesians 3:8-12 ESV)

So we see that we have access through Jesus to God the Father. We are told that we have bold access, that we are to go boldly to the throne of grace. But would that have been so if Christ had not ascended to heaven? NO! The reason we have access to God is because Christ Jesus ascended to heaven and he now sits at the right hand of the Father acting as an advocate for us. It is through Christ that we have access to the father. It is through the ascended Christ that we have bold access to him!

Furthermore, we don’t just have this flimsy ephemeral access to the Father. According to Paul in the letter to the Hebrews in chapter 4, WE ascend to heaven with Christ to enjoy access with the Father. It is through our worship each week that we are able to ascend to the Father and make our requests know of him:

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. 14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:11-16 ESV)

How is it that we draw near to God? How is it that we draw near with confidence to the throne of grace? It is through our worship! It is by being consecrated by the living and active double edged sword of the word of God and by being raised up by the Spirit of Christ into the presence of the almighty. But we would not be able to do it without Christ,  without the ascended Christ. It is he who gives us access to the Father. It is because of the ascension of Jesus Christ that we can, each week, ascend into God’s presence to worship Him, petition Him, and feast on and be nourished by the body and blood of his Son Jesus Christ. If Christ had not ascended into heaven, we would have nothing.

Protestant Reformer John Calvin wrote:

“The Ascension means that heaven is not merely a hope, but a present possession for the Church in [Jesus Christ].”

Or as Paul writes in Ephesians 2:4-7:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7 ESV)

You are raised up with Christ and seated in the heavenly places. You do this every week when we all gather together to worship God. Heaven is not merely a future hope, but a present possession for you, the Church, through Christ the ascended Lord.

3. The Ascendency of the Church
Thirdly we see that the ascension of Jesus Christ results in the ascendency of the Church. In Acts 1 we read of two men in white robes who address the disciples after they witnessed the ascension of Jesus:

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?.” (Acts 1:11 ESV)

Why do you stare up into heaven? Jesus has ascended so that his Church can take up his work. So go, get to work! Jesus left them with these words:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV)

Which is Luke’s version of the great commission of Matthew 28:18-20:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)

The ascension of Jesus therefore means that the work of the kingdom has been left for the church to accomplish. Have you ever thought about the fact that Jesus actually amassed very few devoted followers during his earthly ministry? In fact, as we from the ending of the gospel of Mark, Mark leaves no one left to boldly share the good news! Yet the ascension of Jesus means that Jesus himself is not going to take up that task. If Jesus had not ascended, if he had remained on earth as a king or religious leader, things would be drastically different. Have you ever wondered why he didn’t just stay? Why didn’t he stay? He tells us exactly why he didn’t stay. He went up because by doing so he enabled the church to become what it is today, a billion Holy Spirit filled Elishas who will be able to do far more than one earthly Jesus. Is that blasphemous to say? No, Jesus says, “You will do greater works than I.” The church is able to do more being empowered and filled with the Holy Spirit than one earthly Jesus could do. He left so that the church could also ascend. And our ascension means that we have work to do. We have his commission to fulfill. We, the church, are the hand of God in this world.

Paul says in Ephesians 4:8 (quoting Psalm 68): “Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” The gift that the Lord Jesus gives to men as he ascends on high is his church. The apostles and prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers are all gifts to the church, which in turn is a gift to all men. So let us go out and be a gift. Let’s live in a way as the church like we truly confess an ascended Lord and let’s be about his business in this world!

4. The Completion of the Atonement
Fourthly, the ascension of Jesus Christ is the completion of the atonement. We tend to think that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is the only necessary event of the atonement. Yet the Apostle Paul clearly says in 1 Corinthians 15:

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. (1 Corinthians 15:17-18 ESV)

Thus, according to Paul, the atonement, the accomplishment of the forgiveness of your sins to make you right with God, was not completed on the cross, but that the resurrection of Christ was a necessary element of the atonement. Now, for certain, the sacrifice for sins was completed on the cross. The penalty that Jesus paid to God the Father was completed on the cross. Yet the complete atonement which makes you right with God was not complete. Jesus had to be raised. Paul says so. If Jesus had not been raised, you would still be dead in your sins.

Furthermore, the atonement was not complete until the ascension. The Apostle John wrote some verses that we repeat a lot here at Christ Our King. 1 John 1:8-10. Maybe you can say them by heart:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10 ESV)

We confess this because it says that if we confess our sins, the Lord forgives us. We claim that precious promise each week for the forgiveness of our sins. Yet do you know what the next verse is?

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2 ESV)

The REASON why you can have forgiveness of sins, the reason why you can be right with God is because Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of the father, and can constantly act as an advocate on our behalf. He has paid the penalty for our sins, he has been vindicated by God by being raised from the dead, and now he sits at his right hand constantly advocating on our behalf. There is no atonement, there is no forgiveness of sins without the ascension of Jesus Christ!

5. The Victory of Jesus
Finally, the ascension of Jesus Christ completes the Victory of Jesus Christ as the King of the entire Universe. Psalm 110:1 says:

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” (Psalm 110:1 ESV)

Peter uses this as his sermon text on the day of Pentecost, where he proclaimed:

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. 33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. 34 For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, 35 until I make your enemies your footstool.’ 36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:32-36 ESV)

Jesus Christ is King of the entire universe. He is Lord of all. The US Government is not Lord. Jesus is Lord. The most powerful corporations are not Lord. Jesus is Lord. YOU are not Lord. Your feelings are not Lord. Your doubts and fears are not Lord. Jesus is Lord. This is why we can rejoice in our own weaknesses. This is why we can cast our cares on him. This is why we can boast in the Lord. This is why we are not to worry. This is why you can place your complete trust, in all areas of your life, in Jesus Christ, because HE IS LORD OF EVERYTHING.

Dutch Reformed theologian and leader Abraham Kuyper once said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!”

Jesus Christ is the victorious King, and he is Lord of all. He is Lord over your circumstances. He is Lord over your hurts. He is lord over your pain. He is lord over your uncertainties. He is lord over your fears. He is lord over your doubts. He is lord over your depression. He is lord over your families. He is lord over our city. He is Lord not just of the Church, but of every human institution. JESUS IS LORD!

He has defeated death. Death hath no more dominion over you. He has defeated hell. Hell no more be a worry for you. He has defeated the grave. The grave will not hold you. He has defeated the devil. The devil can do nothing to harm you. Jesus Christ has ascended into the highest heaven in the fullness of his humanity and his deity. He is a human man and he rules and reigns over all things.

Believe in him. Put your trust in him. And let him be Lord over your entire life and being. Hold nothing from him. Hide nothing from him. Keep nothing from him. He is Lord.

Visit our website@ www.christourkingcolumbia.org

Just So We’re Clear, Mary Did Know

This is silly. I can’t believe I’m doing this. (So don’t do it, LeCroy.) Sigh. I’m gonna do it.

There’s this song. It’s schmaltzy and sentimental, like many of the contemporary Christian songs I grew up with. If you like this song, I advise you to stop reading. Because I’m going to trash it.

I grew up in the glorious heyday of CCM, and I loved every minute of it. I went to their concerts. I sang their songs in church services and in youth talent competitions. I bought their tapes, read their books, and had their posters on my bedroom wall. Like most Evangelical teen boys growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s I had a crush on Amy Grant. Later I had one on Rebecca St. James. I listened to the local CCM station non-stop, even as a kid sending in some of my meager dollars for their pledge drive. I’m not really cynical or bitter about it. I am mostly appreciative of such a wholesome upbringing in a non-ironic way. The point is, I’m an insider offering insider critique.

Here’s my critique: “Mary Did You Know?” is a terrible song.

I mean, the tune is catchy enough. It sticks in your head like many of CCM’s greatest hits. There’s nothing like a good spirit-filled musical climax or key change to grease the skids on a flagging worship service (I grew up Pentecostal. Key changes were a means of grace for us. The Spirit seemed to always coincide with the high notes.). Aesthetically, it fits in with the era in which it was written. It’s in the Bill Gaither milieu, so it’s melodically rangy and adeptly uses musical climax to stir the emotions. The original recording was by Michael English in 1991. Michael English is an incredible singer. I saw him live once, because of course I did. You have to give that original a listen. Hoo, boy. It’s fantastic (now I’m being nostalgic and a little bit ironic, but in a good way). The music is Phil Collins and the vocals are Michael McDonald. There’s even a third verse drum entrance crescendo à la “In the Air Tonight.” So, as far as that goes, it’s not bad. In fact if you love 80’s music it’s glorious, if about a decade late as most CCM is.

But the lyrics. Ugh.

The author, Mark Lowry, is a great guy. He’s a comedian and singer who tours with Bill Gaither. But he’s not a biblical scholar or theologian, bless his heart.

I mean, the song is fine. If you like it, listen to it. Like the old adage about wine, if you enjoy it drink it. If you like Boone’s Farm, slurp it up, my friend. No judgment here.

But just so you know: Mary knew.

This is my biggest problem with the song. It’s inaccurate and unhelpful. (But, pastor, I just listen to it because I like the beat). We can go line by line through the song to illustrate this (and don’t worry, I will), but in general it presents a version of femininity in Mary that is not true to her or the other heroines of the Bible. It presents her as a clueless passenger in this journey instead of one of the key players. It woefully downplays the importance of her role. Not only did Mary have the perilous job of carrying the God-Man in her body to full term, consider this: the infant mortality in the Roman Empire was about 30%, and an additional 30% of children did not reach adulthood. That’s only a 40% chance of Jesus living to the age of 20. And that’s not even taking to account the fact that people were out there actively trying to kill him. Powerful people. With armies.

Mary’s job was to feed him, clothe him, and keep him safe. She also taught the young boy manners and took him to church. He learned to speak by imitating her. He had her accent. The Eternal Word of God learned human speech from this marvelous woman by watching her lips and imitating her sounds. And all indications are that she did it for the latter half of his life as a single mother.
She did all of this while remaining faithful. She did not take the apple, as her mother Eve did. She was graced by God and did not waiver. She wept at the foot of the cross when the Apostles fled in fear. She was in the upper room on Easter evening and on Pentecost. She helped Luke write his Gospel. This was a strong woman, who stands at the pinnacle of all the heroines of the Old Testament. Higher than Deborah. Higher than Jael. She may not have crushed heads with her hands, but she raised the head-crusher par excellence. She was a Miriam (that’s her name, by the way) seeing her baby boy down the Nile to safety and then raising him to be the deliverer of her people. She is a leaping, dancing prophetess, singing on the shore of the Red Sea with the drowned army of the enemy lying submerged within. Only that beachhead was not in Arabia but in the hill country of Judea in response to a leaping, dancing fetus and a blessed declaration by her auntie. Yet the song is just as victorious and prophetic as the song of her namesake centuries before.

She knew.

Let’s put this to rest. The image of Mary as a passive, quiet bystander who just happened to be the human incubator of the most high, praised for her purity and her quiet virtue, is a product of wrongheaded ideas about sex, purity, and the human body which sadly dominated the early church and the middle ages. Mary was not virtuous because she was a virgin. She was a virgin because she was virtuous. And she didn’t stop being virtuous the moment she was no longer a virgin. I almost typed when she lost her virginity, as if virginity is a thing that can be lost and when you lose it you are damaged goods. There are some purity preachers who go about the country giving Christian teen girls shiny brand new pennies and telling them not to lose their virginity because then they will become tarnished. They need to keep their pennies shiny and bright so that they can give that gift to their husbands. What a load of hot steaming garbage! If a girl falls into sexual sin she hasn’t become any more tarnished than she already was, for heaven’s sake. She needs to repent of that sin and endeavor towards chastity in the future, but she isn’t damaged goods. The gift that she will eventually give her husband is not her virginity, but her very self and her promise to be his faithful wedded wife. We need to put this thing to bed for good. By the way, those same preachers don’t give the teen boys shiny pennies. What sexist nonsense!

I digress. The image of Mary as meek and mild does come from that same purity culture, though. I could give you an in-depth history of the development of sexual purity culture, how it began as a result of the cessation of martyrdom and the rise of the monastic class in the early Middle Ages, but I’ll spare you that. The high-point of this insanity is demonstrated in the medieval idea that when Jesus was born he did not pass through Mary’s vagina, but miraculously passed through her belly, leaving her maidenhead intact. I’m not joking. Here’s the point: Mary’s virginity was not a virtue in and of itself. It was important that she be a virgin in order to serve as a symbol of the new creation and to prove that she conceived by the Holy Spirit. To further demonstrate this, Rahab is a mother of Jesus and she was decidedly not a virgin. Her former life of prostitution did not make her unworthy of mothering Messiah.

Mary was not a hapless damsel in distress, the prototypical medieval maiden cloistered in her embroidery with her ladies-in-waiting. She was a warrior princess. She was Eowyn of Rohan singing and slaying. Her Magnificat, sung on that Judean hillside, was a response to the devil whispering to her, tempting her to the apple saying, “No man can kill me.” That song and her courageous life afterward is her reply, “I am no man.”

She knew. Frankly it is insulting to ask her the question.

Let us analyze the lyrics of this song.

Read the rest over at Semper Ref.

Image: Virgin Mary and Eve, Crayon and pencil drawing by Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO, © 2005, Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey. Printed versions of this incredible image can be purchased here.

Work and Pray

Ora et labora: pray and work.

This was the motto of the medieval monk. This simple phrase moved the life of prayer from the realm of the ascetical heroism of the few to a life that was both accessible to normal Christians and helpful for society. Monks were called to a life of prayer, and pray they did.

But they also worked. They built. They planted. They copied texts by hand. They pastored churches. But in all that work their rhythm of life was set to the meter of daily prayer. Seven times a day, the monks would pray. Their life was one of meditation on God’s wondrous works. Their work flowed out from their prayers and enabled their work to be a vocation, a calling, that was defined by God’s goodness and love for the world, not one motivated by greed, success, pride, or jealousy.

It was not always this way for monks. The ancient monks of the Egyptian desert did not place work as a priority. Their goal was an ascetical ascent to God. Yet the goal of 6th century monastic father Benedict of Nursia was to set prayer and work in harmony. In order to do this he lessened the monastic requirements on prayer to make them more reasonable. He increased the provision for sleep, food, and drink so that the monks could be productive. His goal was not to ascetically bludgeon evil out of the monk, but to set the monk into an ordered life that valued work as an objective good and recognized the necessity of prayer in the life of the worker.

In essence, the daily prayer patterns that Benedict developed for his rule were designed to be a pattern of prayer that the worker could manage. It was intended to be reasonable and doable. It was intended to uplift and encourage, not berate and punish.  

The monk’s life was, as one commentator on The Rule of St. Benedict put it, “an intensely lived Christianity.” Their life was more intense in prayer and in the denial of some worldly goods. Yet the monastic call to prayer was never just for monks, it was for all, even if monks were the only ones ever to fully attain to it. St. Francis, after visiting the Sultan of Egypt remarked at the devotion of Muslim peoples and their commitment to prayer. In a letter to Christian rulers he suggested that cities emulate the Muslim public calls to prayer with a bell or a trumpet or some sort of public audible sign so that Christians everywhere would be called to pray. In the early Church, Hippolytus of Rome encouraged all Christians to pray, at least some kind of prayer, seven times a day according to the Psalmist who wrote, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules,” (Psalm 119:164).

The Protestant Reformation, one might say, was not an effort to do away with all the emphases of monasticism entirely, but to return the positive aspects of monastic spirituality to all the people. This was in effect to turn the entire Christian church into a monastery, a “School for Christ,” as Benedict of Nursia himself put it, and as Knox notably called Calvin’s Geneva a thousand years later. The Reformation was about returning the spirituality of the Church back to the people. It did not intend to remove anything from the richness of the faith.

The phrase ora et labora, pray and work, shows us the goodness of work. It also communicates the need for prayer. All of us work. We work and work and work. There is no end to our work. But is our work good?  Do we have this notion that work is secular and prayer is sacred? Do we drive a hard division in between our work during the week and our prayers on Sunday? The scriptures tell us that our work is good. The Christian faith has not driven such a hard wedge between the sacred and the secular. While prayer is not needed to sanctify work, (work is a created good), returning prayer to work reinforces work’s goodness and helps to push against the forces of this world which seek to turn our work toward evil and unhelpful and unhealthy paths.

Ora et labora also shows us the need for prayer in our lives. We need to pray. Paul says, “Pray without ceasing.” Yet do any of us really know how to go about doing that? Daily prayer on the pattern of the divine hours gives us a pattern for prayer that we can keep.

Work needs prayer. Prayer needs work. We cannot continue to do our best work unless we stop to fill our tanks with the spiritual fuel of word and prayer. The best work is done from a tank that is filled to the top, a goblet of goodly wine that is full to the brim and overflowing, as David wrote. This is a kind of prayer, you see, not just for the various prayer needs of our lives, but a formative prayer: a prayer that forms, shapes, molds; a prayer that fills us and renews us and restores us. There is room in that prayer for petitioning God according to our needs. But the main force of the daily office is to fill our tanks, to nourish and strengthen us, to make us better Christians out in the working world.

Ora et labora. Pray and work.

This essay originally appeared at Mere Orthodoxy. Please visit their great website.

The Promise of His Appearing: The Historical Development of Christmas and Advent

Advent Is Not Christmas, Part II

This is part two of a two part series. To read part one click here.

“I hate Christmas.”

I recently read an article in the Washington Post whose title was, “I hate Christmas.” It wasn’t entirely what I expected: an atheist curmudgeon annoyed by the ubiquitous seasonal Christian messaging, wishing that everyone would get off his god-free lawn. While there was a little bit of that in the piece, it was mostly centered around the fact that because the author grew up poor, he could never experience Christmas the way movies, tv shows, pop songs, commercials, catalogs, and even friends and family taught him he was supposed to experience it. His family could never afford the lavish feast, the tree surrounded with all the items on his Christmas wish list, or even a very nice tree. He now shuns Christmas along with its gatherings, festivities, gifts, and cheer, instead spending all the money he can afford buying toys for poor children so they can have the Christmas he never had.

I finished the article thinking that the author hadn’t rejected Christmas, he had rejected what Christmas has become: a commercialized cornucopia of instant gratification. What he had actually offered was a valid critique of Christmas and a call to recenter on its true meaning. After all, what more pure symbol of the Christmas spirit is there than sacrificing financially to provide gifts to poor children? St. Nicholas, anyone?

Afterward, I perused a bit of the comment section (yes, I know you are not supposed to read the comments). Many commenters agreed with the author. Some agreed because they were of other religions or were atheists (what I thought the article was going to be about). Others, though, didn’t reject Christmas but rather the spectacle that it has become. One commenter replied, “Only 2-ish weeks before the schizophrenia is behind us. My favorite day of the year is January 1, when it’s all over.”

Christmas isn’t the problem

Now don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. If there was a hidden camera in my house it would catch me randomly singing, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” My wife and I have curated the biggest (and best) Christmas display in a three or four block radius (in our estimation… opinions may vary). I love the feasting. I love the gift-giving. I love the Christmas liturgies, hymns, and candlelight services. I love all that because I love the message of Christ born to set his people free. I love the message of Immanuel, God-with-us, that the God of the Universe took on every bit of our broken humanity so that he could redeem it all. I love it because the incarnation is the only sufficient answer to the problem of evil in this world, as the best philosophers have realized, St. Augustine at the head. I love it because he became sin, who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God. That’s the reason I’m singing, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” That’s the reason why I’ve lit my yard up in multicolored c-9 ceramic bulb nostalgic glory. That’s also the reason why I’m ecstatic that the whole world pauses once a year to celebrate the fact that God was born into the world.

And yet, I resonate with what that Washington Post author wrote. Because he’s right. The Christmas message is not what Hallmark, Home Depot, Honda, Hanes, Harley-Davidson, Hurley, and Hasbro are selling us. We have gotten off the rails, or jumped the shark, or whatever metaphor you want to use, in our overindulgence of the Coca-Cola commercialized version of Christmas. The songs, ads, and store displays start before Halloween now. That’s three full months on a peppermint Red Bull IV drip of wall-to-wall Christmas experience. There’s no expectation. There’s no preparation. There’s no self-denial. It’s just CHRISTMAS!!!!!, full-bore, full-tilt for three full months until December 26 when they turn off the spigot and we collapse into full-on exhaustion. No wonder some people hate it.

But that’s not the way Christmas was designed by those that developed the church year centuries ago. Yes, there was feasting. Yes, there was decorating and singing and gift-giving. But preceding it was a period of longing, expectation, and self-denial focused on something entirely un-Christmassy: the second coming of Christ. In other words, there was the season of Advent. And Advent was not Christmas.

Perhaps refocusing on the wisdom of those that created the autumnal portion of the Church calendar could help us in our current predicament. What can we learn by sitting at their feet?

Click here to read the rest of the article over at Semper Ref.

Gregory of Nazianzus on the Incarnation

Gregory of Nazianzus was a 4th century bishop from Cappadocia who eventually became the Archbishop of Constantinople. Together with the brothers Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa they were known as the Cappodocian Fathers. Basil, Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom are known collectively as the Three Holy Heirarchs, the Eastern Church’s version of the Four Great Doctors (Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory the Great, and Jerome). Gregory briefly presided over the Council of Constantinople (which gave us the Nicene Creed) and is responsible for the Trinitarian language we use about the Holy Spirit, the language of “three persons” (hypostases) of the Trinity, and in articulating Christology in the face of Apollinarianism. In other words, he was kind of a big deal.

It is to Gregory’s defense of the full humanity of Christ against the heresy of Apollinaris that I now turn. Apollinarianism was a heresy that taught that while Jesus had a human body, he did not possess a human mind. What’s the big deal, you ask? He’s still divine. Well, Gregory of Nazianzus would have none of that. In his Epistle 101 he eloquently articulates why it is important that Jesus Christ possesses a human mind. In this section he bequeaths to the church this important theological maxim that you should commit to memory: what has not been assumed has not been healed. Here’s the conclusion to his letter.

If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole. Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation, or clothe the Saviour only with bones and nerves and the portraiture of humanity.

Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 101, 4th c. A.D.

Three things stick out from this quote. First of all is the Eastern notion that the incarnation itself, God uniting with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, is the source of our salvation. Of course, the atoning work of the cross to gain the forgiveness of our sins was necessary, but this notion of the hypostatic union- that humanity and divinity are inseparably united together in Christ and by the very force of that union we find the source of the righting of our broken humanity- this is key aspect of our salvation as well. Thus, Gregory reasoned, if Christ was not fully human, we are not fully saved. If he did not have a human mind, as Apollinaris taught, then our minds are not healed. But if our minds are fallen, then we need our minds to be redeemed. Who among us who has suffered from depression, anxiety, or other disabilities that with modern science we know are afflictions of the mind would not agree that our minds are fallen and in need of healing? Since our minds are fallen we need a Jesus with a human mind, to heal our minds by the union of broken humanity with the divine.

Further, if our wills are fallen or our emotions, or any other non-tangible aspect of our inner-selves, then Jesus had to have a human one of those too. Otherwise we are not fully redeemed.

Secondly, we have in this quote something that looks an awful lot like the Calvinistic idea of radical depravity. Gregory’s syllogism requires belief in the notion that every aspect of humanity is fallen and in need of redemption. He writes, “If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole.” The whole of his nature fell, including the parts that make decisions, the will, and enable a person to respond to the gospel call by faith. That looks like radical depravity to me.

And that leads to the third notion in the quote that so powerfully resonates: the idea that we are saved to the uttermost. It’s not just that our souls are rescued to escape eternal punishment. No, all of who we are, every aspect of who we are as humans is saved because every aspect of our fallen humanity was united to the Godhead in the person of Jesus Christ. In that humanity he perfectly obeyed and pleased the father, was crucified to pay the debt we could never repay, was raised again as the first-fruits of our resurrection, was glorified into a new incorruptible, impeccable humanity that we will all one day possess, and was raised into the heavens where a fully human person sits at the right hand of the Father ruling over all things and sustaining all things with his powerful word.

That is salvation. Do not begrudge us any little bit of it. For if any part of Jesus’ humanity wasn’t really human, if he wasn’t truly consubstantial with us in his humanity, then we aren’t completely saved. What has not been assumed has not been healed. Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation, or clothe the Savior only with bones and nerves and the portraiture of humanity.

The Biblical and Patristic Roots of the Church Calendar

Advent is Not Christmas, Part I

This is part one of a two part series. To read part two click here.

I have a pet peeve. Actually, I have several. This one has to do with the way that many churches do Advent, that is, as an extended time of Christmas. Their focus is on the first Advent of Christ, and the time is spent covering the biblical material leading up to his birth. Christmas carols and hymns are sung from the first Sunday of Advent onward and there is no distinctive Christmas season. In other words, Advent is Christmas.

There is just one problem. Advent is not Christmas.

Before I get any further I need to make several disclaimers. First, the purpose of this essay is not to shame anyone or call anyone out. I’ve observed this practice enough to not have any one particular church in mind. In fact, the church I attended this week on the First Sunday of Advent did it correctly. So, I’m not calling anyone out in particular and neither do I have any recent experience in mind. Second, my goal is not to cause anyone to feel ashamed or to cause any immediate, drastic changes in your church. My purpose is to educate and train. The church year is a secondary (or even tertiary) matter, and there’s no reason to go to war over how anyone does the church year (or doesn’t).

That said, if we are going to do the church year, I think that it ought to be grounded in what the Scripture teaches and what the church has observed over the centuries, and that as Reformed Christians we ought to have a good rationale and purpose for doing it.

In this essay, part one of two, I will cover the broader biblical and historical aspects and then in part two I will get into the nitty gritty of why Advent is not Christmas (and why that matters).

The Church Year is Grounded in God’s Word

The church year is not just a cool thing that trendy churches are now doing. While I think it’s good that all kinds of churches are getting in touch with the roots of historic Christianity, as we do that we need to understand what we are doing and why. Ancient does not necessarily equate to good and helpful, and we need to understand what unhelpful aspects may have developed in ancient practices so we can avoid them. When it comes to the church year, we are not just appropriating church tradition. It turns out that, as in many other things, the church’s tradition is grounded in God’s Word.

Please continue reading over at SemperRef.

What Church Leaders Should Know About Responding to Abuse

I was recently interviewed by the Hagerstown, MD Harald-Mail as a part of a series of articles covering an abuse coverup at a prominent Christian school there. I spent quite a bit of time with the reporter on the phone, and she did an excellent job putting this together. The newspaper article is largely just reporting her interview with me.

In the interview, I say some things that I think all church leaders should know about responding to abuse. If you are a church leader, I encourage you to read the article and leave a comment if you would like more resources.

Thanks so much to Tamela Baker for her excellent work on this story, and to her colleague Alexis Fitzpatrick who teamed up with her on this project to break the story of abuse and coverup at the school there. In the process, they show the important role that journalists play in shining light on the truth when institutions fail to do that. The greatest recent example of this was the Boston Globe’s reporting in the Spotlight project, which blew the lid off of the clergy abuse scandal in this country. A fantastic movie was made about this that every Christian should watch. While this set of reporting will not likely end up on the silver screen, it demonstrates the vital role that local journalists play. Remember, it was the journalists at the Indianapolis Star, who were willing to run with the story that Rachael Denhollander was pitching them, that exposed and eventually took down Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics.

Here is the article. I hope it both informs and challenges you.

Misconceptions About Homosexuality in the PCA

Some have argued the PCA is on a slippery slope toward sexual perversion. I hope that this article will demonstrate that this is not the case. The main reasons for this are three-fold: 1: We have confessional standards that are up to the task and are being adhered to; 2: We have an excellent AIC report on human sexuality that I heartily commend to you; and 3: We have robust church courts that are doing their job.

Next week the Presbyterian Church in America gathers in St. Louis, Missouri for its 48th General Assembly. This is after a year of COVID and a postponed GA in 2020, so there is a lot on tap. One of the main items of concern within the PCA is the perceived threat of homosexuality encroaching on the PCA. Many things have been said about this threat, both in terms of what currently exists within the PCA and what might exist if we slide down a slippery slope.

The PCA stands for biblical morality. Those biblical positions are spelled out clearly in the Westminster Standards and our Book of Church Order. Westminster Confession of Faith 24:1 states, “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband at the same time.” Additionally, Larger Catechism 139 forbids gay sex in any form. In 2019, BCO 59-3 was made constitutionally binding and was amended to state the following, “Marriage is only to be between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24,25; Matt. 19:4-6, 1 Cor. 7:2), in accordance with the Word of God. Therefore, ministers in the Presbyterian Church in America who solemnize marriages shall only solemnize marriages between one man and one woman.” Further, our Westminster Standards give us an excellent theological foundation for considering the issues of temptation, desire, indwelling sin, and sanctification.[1]

In 2019, the 47th General Assembly commissioned an Ad interim Committee to study and report on the issues of human sexuality (hereafter AIC). The resulting report is excellent, giving us a thoroughly confessional report that is informative and pastorally sensitive. I heartily commend this report as the answer that the PCA needs in order to remain faithful in this challenging time.

Given our strong confessional and constitutional foundation and the excellent AIC report, the PCA is on solid footing regarding the issue of homosexuality. Nevertheless, there are many within our denomination and without who are raising the alarm about “homosexual pastors” in our midst. I have personally seen several allegations about certain PCA pastors and elders that I believe to be untrue. As a confessionalist and as an ordained pastor, I am bound by vow to preserve and promote the truth and the good name of my neighbor, as well as to defend the innocence of those falsely accused and to discourage tale-bearers and slanderers (WLC 144). Indeed I would be sinning if I were silent in a just cause and held my peace when correction of untruths was called for (WLC 145). In this article I am seeking to keep my vow by laying out what I know to be true against some of the misstatements and rumors that have been circulating. I would remind my readers that the Larger Catechism likewise calls all of us to not stop our ears against a just defense (WLC 145) and to readily receive a good report regarding the innocence of our neighbor (WLC 144).

I will address the most important of these misconceptions section by section. In doing so, my earnest desire is to preserve and promote the purity, peace, and unity of the PCA. I have dialogued both in public and in private with several individuals and groups on the issues I am about to report on. The purpose of this article is to inform those who have not been as intimately involved in these discussions as I have so that they can judge rightly as we come to the General Assembly next week.

Gay Christian – Some have articulated that there are Pastors and Elders in the PCA who call themselves Gay Christians, or otherwise claim a Gay identity, and teach others to do the same. I am acquainted with quite a few pastors and elders in the PCA who experience unwanted homoerotic temptations, and yet I am aware of no pastor or elder in the PCA that identifies this way. There is a reasonable misunderstanding on this point because of a Christianity Today testimony in which the author uses the word “gay” 12 times.[2] However, a careful analysis reveals that he only refers to himself as such in the past tense. The opening line of the article is, “Bill, I’m gay.” Rather than being a declaration of his present identity, this is a testimony of how as a newly converted Christian he confessed his struggle for the first time to his campus minister. This is supported by the same pastor’s repeated clarification that he does not presently, and has not over the past 20+ years, used the term Gay or Gay Christian to identify himself.[3] His preferred term is “same-sex attracted,” though he realizes that term comes with some baggage from the ex-gay movement.[4] There are some PCA pastors and elders who will use the term “gay” as a descriptor in certain situations, specifically when talking with non-believers, but they emphatically reject that it is a core aspect of their identity. They claim their core identity to be in union with Christ.

Similarly, there are no PCA pastors or elders who embrace “Gay Christianity” as an alternate culture or community in the church. Those who do so are outside the bounds of the PCA and not adherents to our theological system or polity.

There may be members of the PCA, including seminarians, candidates under care, and staff members of PCA churches, who stray into some of these problematic areas. The AIC report advises the following pastoral response in those cases:

“Given this conclusion, how should we respond to fellow believers in our churches who may use such language? First, we ought not start from the assumption that they are being unfaithful or living in active rebellion to God. Rather, in the context of established relationships, pastors and leaders in the church ought to ask questions and seek to understand each individual’s story. Why do they use that language? Have they thought through the relative benefits and dangers? Noting the range of possible meanings of terms like gay and gay Christian, we would do well to seek understanding before imparting advice. In practical and plain terms, the issue of terminology is more likely a matter for shepherding in wisdom, and not in and of itself grounds for discipline.”[5]

Homoerotic Attraction and Sin – There is also a similar misunderstanding that there are PCA pastors and elders who teach that homoerotic attraction is not in itself sinful.[6] This is also not the case. There are no PCA pastors or elders that I am aware of who teach this. Specifically, in a recent presbytery investigation, one pastor stated, “I agreed that same-sex sexual attraction—even resisted—is of sin, is sinful, and is a movement of indwelling sin.”[7] He later stated:

“I don’t recall saying that same-sex attraction is a morally neutral condition. I have repeatedly stated otherwise. Any time I sense an internal sexual or romantic pull toward anyone God has not given me—including any male by definition—I have to recognize that pull for what it is. It is an effect of the fall, yes, but more precisely it is the pull of what St. Paul terms the flesh. It’s a motion of the internal corruption that remains in the believer throughout this life. “This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated” (see WCF 6.4-6). This temptation is “original corruption” and is “properly called sin,” even when it does not lead to “actual sin.” Apart from Christ, I would carry the guilt of original corruption.”[8]

All PCA pastors and elders that I am aware of affirm the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter six on sin and of statements 3-6 on sin in the AIC.

On the subject of sin, PCA pastors and elders affirm that homoerotic orientation is sinful and therefore is the subject of repentance and mortification. PCA elders and pastors also affirm that temptation to sin is itself sin. Again, I am aware of no pastors or elders in the PCA who would deny these doctrines.

Furthermore there is a misunderstanding among some that some PCA pastors and elders teach that there is an aspect of being gay that is not of sin or that should be celebrated. In the report cited above that same minister stated, “Owning your sin does not equal celebrating your sin…. If a believer were celebrating their fallen sexuality, then there’s obviously a problem with that.”[9]

Sanctification – There are also reports that there are ministers in the PCA who teach that there can be no growth in sanctification for those who experience homoerotic temptation. This is largely a misunderstanding related to the possibility of orientation change. There are pastors in the PCA who teach that orientation change is rare. However this does not mean that no change whatsoever is possible for a Christian who experiences unwanted homoerotic temptations. When someone asserts that orientation change is extremely rare, he is referring to a change where someone moves from having only attraction towards the same sex to only having attraction to the opposite sex; in other words, from being 100% gay to being 100% straight.

This shift is very rare, according to those who have been ministering in these areas for decades. “In January 2012, Alan Chambers, the last president of Exodus International, an organization representing over 270 ex-gay ministries, stated, ‘The majority of people that I have met—and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them—have not experienced a change in their orientation.’ He later clarified that the 0.1% represented a woman who later told him she was bisexual. Mike Rosebush, former vice president of Focus on the Family and director of Exodus International’s Professional Counselors’ Network—himself a psychologist working exclusively with same-sex-attracted men—has said that he has yet to identify a single instance in which same-sex attraction disappeared. Longtime HarvestUSA director Tim Geiger has stated that he has also never seen same-sex attraction go away—in himself or anyone else.”[10]

On the subject of orientation change the AIC has stated:

The error of some Christian approaches to same-sex sexual desire has been to tie faithfulness to the elimination of homosexual temptation (or even the development of heterosexual desire) as though if Christians really did enough therapy, had enough faith, or repented sufficiently, God would deliver them in some final and complete way, changing their orientation. This perspective reflects a sort of over-realized eschatology—a view that what we will be finally and fully in the new creation will be realized in that way in the present life. Against such a view, our Confession reminds us that even in the regenerate, the corruption of sin remains in this life (WCF 6.5). The task for believers is to pursue faithfulness and obedience in this life, holding in view our new creation selves into which we are progressively, though often with many fits and starts, being conformed.”[11]

However, this does not mean that those who experience unwanted homoerotic temptation do not change at all. In the presbytery investigation mentioned above, the pastor stated that some who experience unwanted homoerotic temptations are, by God’s grace, able to see their desires change to the point that they can marry a member of the opposite sex and have children. For those who aren’t able to experience this kind of change, the expectation and reality for the believer is that those unwanted sinful desires would diminish over time both in frequency and intensity. Thus, it is not true that PCA pastors are teaching that believers who have experienced homoerotic temptation should not expect to change.

This is in agreement with Statement Seven from the AIC report on Human Sexuality:

We affirm that Christians should flee immoral behavior and not yield to temptation. By the power of the Holy Spirit working through the ordinary means of grace, Christians should seek to wither, weaken, and put to death the underlying idolatries and sinful desires that lead to sinful behavior. The goal is not just consistent fleeing from, and regular resistance to, temptation, but the diminishment and even the end of the occurrences of sinful desires through the reordering of the loves of one’s heart toward Christ. Through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, we can make substantial progress in the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord (Rom. 6:14-19; Heb. 12:14; 1 John 4:4; WCF 13.1).

Nevertheless, this process of sanctification—even when the Christian is diligent and fervent in the application of the means of grace—will always be accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF 16.5, 6), with the Spirit and the flesh warring against one another until final glorification (WCF 13.2). The believer who struggles with same-sex attraction should expect to see the regenerate nature increasingly overcome the remaining corruption of the flesh, but this progress will often be slow and uneven. Moreover, the process of mortification and vivification involves the whole person, not simply unwanted sexual desires. The aim of sanctification in one’s sexual life cannot be reduced to attraction to persons of the opposite sex (though some persons may experience movement in this direction), but rather involves growing in grace and perfecting holiness in the fear of God (WCF 13.3).”[12]

Lastly, on sanctification, there are are a minority of voices in the PCA who insist that true repentance and regeneration should result in the total elimination of homoerotic desires. Frankly, this position is out of accord with our system of doctrine in what it teaches on sanctification (WCF 13.2-13.3). This view seems much closer to Wesleyan Perfectionism than the Reformed view of progressive sanctification.

Orientation – There are some in the PCA who have argued that no Christian should say that they have a “homosexual orientation.” However this is contrary to the AIC report, which states:

How then should we think of the language of sexual orientation? Insofar as the term orientation is used descriptively to articulate a particular set of experiences, namely the persistent and predominant sexual attractions of an individual, it can remain useful as a way of classifying those experiences in contrast to the experiences of the majority of other people. However, insofar as the term orientation carries with it a set of assumptions about the nature of that experience that is unbiblical (e.g., overemphasized rigidity, its normativity, etc.), then the terminology may require qualification or even rejection in some circumstances.”[13]

Given what I have stated above regarding PCA pastors’ teaching on the possibility and expectation of real change for believers who experience homoerotic temptation, we should assume that those leaders in the PCA who describe themselves as having a homosexual orientation are doing so in the first sense mentioned by the AIC.

The Above Reproach Qualification – Some in the PCA have argued that anyone who states that they experience unwanted homoerotic temptation is automatically disqualified from being an ordained officer in the PCA. This is stated on the basis of BCO 8-2 and BCO 21.c.1.1, which cite 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. These two biblical passages state that elders must be “above reproach.” The Greek word used in both instances is ἀνέγκλητος, which denotes being guiltless or blameless. Moreover, 1 Timothy 3:7 states that an elder must have a good reputation with unbelievers. The Greek word in that case is μαρτυρία, which means to have a good witness or testimony. In both these instances it seems that these refer to outward instances where a person would incur guilt or a bad reputation because of their actions. Given what we have seen in the AIC report regarding the issues of sin, sanctification, right use of terminology, and orientation, which we have all covered above, it would seem that some other act or aberrant teaching would need to be in play to make someone fail to be “above reproach.” As we have stated above, I am not aware of any pastor or elder in the PCA who would hold unacceptable positions on these matters.

Furthermore, the AIC states, regarding whether a man who experiences homoerotic temptation is ordainable, “Insofar as such persons display the requisite Christian maturity, we do not consider this sin struggle automatically to disqualify someone for leadership in the church (1 Cor. 6:9-11, 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9; 2 Pet. 1:3-11).”[14]

In citing 1 Corinthians 6:9, the committee is presumably referring to Paul’s injunction that those who “practice homosexuality” will not inherit the kingdom of God. In verse 11 Paul states, “such were some of you.” Some in the PCA have argued that anyone who experiences unwanted homoerotic temptation is not a subject for ordination because the verse says “such were some of you,” and those men still experience the temptation. However, 1 Corinthians 6:9 does not say “those who experience homoerotic temptation,” but, “those who practice homosexuality.” The confusion may lie in that both the NASB and the NKJV translate the verse as saying “homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of God.” However, as the ESV footnote points out, “The two Greek terms translated by this phrase refer to the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts.” The AIC report concurs with this in saying:

Paul coined the term arsenokoitai (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10) from the use of two related terms in the Septuagint version of Leviticus 18 and 20. The basic meaning is “man-bedders” or men who have sex with other men. The word malakoi can mean “soft” as in soft clothing (Matt. 11:8; Luke 7:25), or when used pejoratively of men it can mean “effeminate.” In the ancient Roman world, “The ‘soft’ man lack[ed] masculine posture, courage, authority, and self-restraint; he is like a woman.” Fredrik Ivarrson, “Vice Lists and Deviant Masculinity,” in Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses, eds. Todd Penner and Caroline Vander Stichele (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 180. Sexual passivity or penetrability is not the definition of malakos, but it is one possible connotation. Ivarrson, “Vice Lists,” 180-81. The combination of arsenokoitai and malakoi, uniquely used in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 6:9, likely refers most directly—as per the ESV footnote—to the active and passive partners in consensual homosexual activity. For more extended discussion, see Chapter 5 in Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Say About Homosexuality? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).”[15]

Thus, Scripture does not say that those who experience homoerotic attraction will not inherit the kingdom of God, but those who act on those attractions by engaging in gay sex. Again, there is no PCA pastor or elder who teaches that any form of gay sex is lawful (whether in marriage or not) or engages in same-sex sexual activity. It is also very clear in our recent history that those pastors and elders who have come to that position have left the PCA for denominations who allow those views and practices.

Further, some in the PCA argue that homoerotic temptation itself disqualifies because the temptation is “unnatural.” This is argued on the basis of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which call gay sex an “abomination.” I agree that gay sex is an abomination. But I would point out that the scriptures in their original languages do not say “those who experience sexual attraction towards the same sex are an abomination.” The scriptures uniformly say, “those who engage in gay sex are an abomination.” Leviticus 18:22 states, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” This is the act of gay sex. Leviticus 20:13 states, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” Again, it is the sex act that is an abomination.

Now some may argue that being tempted to engage in something that is an abomination makes one not above reproach. I would counter that there are other abominations in the scriptures. The conclusion of Leviticus 18 says this:

But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you 27 (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), 28 lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. 29 For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people. 30 So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs that were practiced before you, and never to make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God.”[16]

The list of sexual sins in Leviticus 18 is long. Are we going to say that if anyone is tempted towards any of these things it makes them not above reproach? Who will be left who is above reproach? Again, the end of Leviticus 18 calls all of them abominations, even the heterosexual sins. If someone has unbidden temptations of lust towards his neighbor’s wife, is he disqualified from ministry?

Deuteronomy 25 lists several sins related to the eighth commandment. “You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, a large and a small. 14 You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, a large and a small. 15 A full and fair weight you shall have, a full and fair measure you shall have, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 16 For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the LORD your God.”[17] Are we saying that anyone who is tempted to be dishonest in business is disqualified for ministry? These are abominations too.

Proverbs six lists seven abominations, “There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: 17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, 19 a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.”[18] In Hebrew poetry, the last item in a list like this is the most important, in this case the most heinous. Are we saying that those who are tempted to be argumentative and sow discord, who struggle with this sin and even occasionally commit it are disqualified from ministry? Sowing discord is an abomination too. Is the temptation to sow discord also disqualifying?

All of this presents a purity test that none of us can pass. All of us are tempted to do things that the Scriptures call abomination. When we say that homoerotic temptation itself is disqualifying we are singling out that temptation to one sin against others. If we are consistent, then we are all disqualified.

Revoice – Many concerns have been expressed about the teachings of an interdenominational parachurch ministry called Revoice. Revoice is a conference that first met in St. Louis in 2018 in a PCA church. It was a new ministry that sought to be a place of encouragement, exhortation, and accountability for Christian believers who experience unwanted homoerotic temptation. A conference like it was needed due to the fact that a previous similar gathering called the Gay Christian Network (now called Q Christian Fellowship) had increasingly taken a stance that affirmed the goodness of same-sex relationships and ostracized Christians who still believed that homoerotic sex acts are sinful.[19] Revoice itself is a broad-tent organization that welcomes all Side B Christians regardless of denomination.[20] As such not everyone who attends or even speaks holds our Reformed views on sin and sanctification (or even anthropology).

As a broad-tent organization, and one that was in its infancy and trying to figure things out, mistakes were inevitably made. Due to the fact that the first conference was held at one of its member churches, Missouri Presbytery performed an investigation of Revoice and the PCA church that hosted it. In that investigation, some of the erroneous teachings were repudiated and warnings and admonitions were given to the conference and to the PCA church that hosted it. But on the whole, the Presbytery found that for an organization that was in its infancy, the conference did a lot of good, while it needed to be shepherded and guided by the Presbytery’s recommendations. In other words, the court of original jurisdiction, Missouri Presbytery, did its job in investigating and issuing repudiations, corrections, and admonitions. It is not the case that Missouri Presbytery has given cover for Revoice or the PCA church that hosted it, or any of its pastors or elders.[21]

There has been some discussion in PCA circles warning us about “Revoice Theology.” What is Revoice Theology? It’s hard to know what is meant by the label in absence of a systematic description by those who employ it. Revoice Theology is not a term that Revoice itself uses, instead it is a label that is intended to warn us of Revoice’s teachings. What does Revoice officially teach? You can read it for yourself (link provided below). We have to be careful not to take talks given at the first Revoice conference when the organization was still getting its legs underneath it as standing in for what the ministry definitively believes always and forever. This was one of the main points of the Missouri Presbytery report: Revoice needs to grow and mature.

Now to be clear, the statement of theology provided below is not right in line with the Westminster Confession. As I said above, Revoice is broadly Christian, welcoming in all sorts of folks who want to be committed to the Biblical sexual ethic. Not everyone in Revoice believes that orientation itself is sinful. They believe that it is a result of the fall and any conscious lusts or actions that flow out of it are sinful. But, let me be clear, PCA ministers and elders do hold the teachings of the Westminster Standards on sin, sanctification, and repentance. PCA ministers and elders who may attend or speak at Revoice do believe that homoerotic orientation is sinful, as I’ve already quoted above.

Revoice statement of theological conviction

In conclusion: Some have argued the PCA is on a slippery slope toward sexual perversion. I hope that this article has demonstrated that this is not the case. The main reasons for this are three-fold:

1: We have confessional standards that are up to the task and are being adhered to;

2: We have an excellent AIC report on human sexuality that I heartily commend to you; and

3: We have robust church courts that are doing their job.

We should be proud of our denomination and its steadfast commitment to biblical truth. We should be thankful for those men and women who have experienced unwanted same-sex attraction and who have heroically stood for Christ and his teachings in the midst of a world that calls them traitors and self-haters for daring to believe in Jesus and do what he says. I, for one, am proud to call them friends.

If you found this article helpful, you might also consider visiting A Faithful PCA.


[1] See WCF 6 on sin, 13 on sanctification, and 15 on repentance.

[2] See https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/may-web-only/greg-johnson-hide-shame-shelter-gospel-gay-teenager.html

[3] See Missouri Committee to Respond to Memorial (Hereafter CRM), p. 63, lines 41-45, “Personally, I have never referred to myself as a “gay Christian” or “homosexual Christian.” And I have not described myself as “gay” in the present tense since the 1990s. It’s always past tense as part of the arc of my personal testimony. I don’t mind when others use the term of me, but I myself have always stated that “I was a gay atheist, became a Christian, and my sexual orientation never changed. I am still same-sex attracted.”” This report is public and can be found here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/18_vvpZg2PwRFwBjwAg4fGp-bhJXh8Mhm/view 

[4] See PCA GA AIC on Human Sexuality (Hereafter AIC),p. 29, lines 35-38 and note 57, “Others find the term gay to be an important part of being honest about the reality of their sexual attractions, especially given that other terms like same-sex attraction are perceived by some to be associated with “ex-gay” or orientation change approaches,” and “See for instance Greg Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books), 61, 63, where he says, “By talking in terms of attraction instead of sexual orientation, ex-gay advocates were better equipped to treat homosexuality as a passing phase…Because of this linguistic history, I couldn’t help cringing when people referred to my sexual orientation as ‘same-sex attraction.’”” This report can be found here:  https://pcaga.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/AIC-Report-to-48th-GA-5-28-20-1.pdf

[5] AIC, p. 30, lines 31-39. Emphasis added.

[6] I use the term homoerotic attraction to make clear that there is a sexual aspect to the attraction being described. The AIC report uses the term same-sex attraction, and I intend this to be synonymous with that.

[7] Missouri CRM, p. 16, lines 22-24.

[8] Missouri CRM, p. 18, lines 7-14. Emphasis added.

[9] Missouri CRM, p. 27, line 1 and lines 6-7.

[10] This section is quoted from a trusted source off the record.

[11] AIC, p. 25, lines 11-20.

[12] AIC, p. 10.

[13] AIC, pp. 30 line 42 – 32 line 4.

[14] AIC, p. 31 lines 29-31.

[15] AIC, p. 6, footnote 4.

[16] Lev. 18:26-30

[17] Deut. 25:13-16

[18] Prov. 6:16-19

[19] These two stances were given a short hand of Side A and Side B, with Side A believing that same sex unions were blessed by God and Side B believing that same-sex sexual acts are sinful. Note that Side B is a very broad-tent with some believing that the orientation itself and temptations are not sinful while others believe that they are. All PCA Side B proponents would profess our Reformed teaching that both homoerotic orientation and temptations are inherently sinful. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q_Christian_Fellowship

[20] See the above footnote for a definition of Side B.

[21] The text of that investigation can be found here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1XyxAwY-ACZsVS-pe_barvg2_wI9BBJsB/view

Re-Blog – Five Misconceptions about Reformation Day

Today is Halloween, better known as Reformation Day. I jest. Kidding aside, this is an important day in the history of Christianity. But just how important is it, and why?

I wrote this post three years ago at the 500th anniversary of the event. I think the points I draw out still have some relevance.

I would like to point out that my logging of these misconceptions is not simply an exercise in pedantry. These things matter because those misconceptions not only shift the way we think about that day itself, but the medieval church and the conditions in which the reformation started. By clearing away those weeds we can discover fruit that both the medieval church and the Reformation have to offer. This project allows us to see the Reformation more fully and richly as we perhaps discover and glean from the medieval church for the first time.

Take up and read: https://theopolisinstitute.com/five-misconceptions-of-reformation-day/

Re-blog – 5 Reasons Why the Ascension of Jesus Matters

I had a bit of a family day yesterday, so I neglected to post, but yesterday was the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus, commemorating his ascension into heaven 40 days after his resurrection. We are now in the novena (nine days) of the Spirit, a time to pray for the Spirit to come and fall fresh on us.
Ascension is one of the more overlooked holidays on the Christian calendar, so I share this old post with you.

Today the church celebrates the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ into his glory in heaven, to sit at the right hand of God the Father and rule as King over the entire universe.

Why is that Christmas and Easter are such big deals in our culture, but Ascension and Pentecost are largely ignored? Have you ever thought about that? I think that the reason for this is that Christmas and Easter do not confront people with the lordship of Christ the way that his ascension does. Christmas is the easiest to accept for our culture. It’s just a sweet little baby born on a manger. Nothing there to confront me. Nothing there to make me take stock in my life. Even if we come to terms with the fact that this baby in the manger is actually God incarnate, it is still easy to sentimentalize and ignore. Baby Jesus. Sweet little Jesus. Tame Jesus.

Read more….

Image credit: Rembrandt, The Ascension of Jesus, 1636

Did Augustine really say, “The Church is a whore.”?

I hear this quite frequently, “As St. Augustine said, ‘The Church is a whore, but she’s my Mother.”

The problem is that St. Augustine never said that.

If you try to run down the source of the quote, the trail ends in a book written by Tony Campolo. In Letters to a Young Evangelical, chapter 6 he writes, “I would urge you to consider this carefully, and to think about the words of St. Augustine, ‘The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.’ That statement brilliantly conveys how I feel about the church.” He goes on to argue that despite all the failures and sins of the church, she is still our mother, and thus we should be a part of her. Where Campolo got that quote is a mystery because he gives no citation. But if you look further back you will not find it, because it does not exist.

How do I know? Well first off, as someone who has read an awful lot of Augustine and an awful lot about Augustine, I have never come across that quote, and that quote just doesn’t seem like something he would say. A few years back after I heard it yet again I decided to try and find the source. That’s when I discovered that the trail went dead at Campolo. Luckily, as an academic I have access to better search engines than Google.

I went to two of the best search databases for Christian Latin texts, the Patrologia Latina and the Brepols Library of Latin Texts. Between the two of them they contain pretty much everything written by ancient Christian writers in the Latin language. I searched for church (ecclesia) and mother (mater) using several different synonyms for whore (meretrix and prostituta being the main ones) and nothing came up exactly like the quote. That leaves me 99% sure that Augustine never said that.

The closest I was able to find is from Sermon 213 on the Creed. What he says there is significant so I’ve translated it for you:

Let us honor the Catholic Church, our true Mother, the true Bride of her Husband, because she is the wife of so great a Lord. And what shall I say? How great is that Husband and of singular rank, that he discovered a prostitute and made her a virgin. Because she should not deny that she was a prostitute, lest she forget the mercy of her liberator. How can it be said that she was not a prostitute when she fornicated with demons and idols? Fornication was in the heart of everyone; a few have fornicated in the flesh, but everyone has fornicated in his heart. And He came and made her a virgin; he made the church a virgin.*

Here we find the concepts mother, church, and whore, but we do not find that direct quote we are seeking. In fact there is a significant difference between the quote Campolo gave us and what Augustine actually said. Augustine here is saying that the Church was a whore because she formerly lusted after demons and idols. She is no longer a whore because her great husband, Jesus Christ, has liberated her from her thraldom, forgiven her sins, and made her his virgin bride.

Campolo is trying to make the point that although the church fails she is still the church. That is right and good. However, that is not Augustine’s point. Augustine is preaching about the glorious redemption that the great Husband of the church has accomplished. She is praised because of what He has done in and for her. She is our Mother because He is her Husband and because He has sanctified her. To make Campolo’s point resonate with what Augustine actually said, we should love and cherish the church, in spite of her failures, because she is Christ’s bride. Because she is his only bride. He found her, liberated her, sanctified her, and married her. That’s why we love her even when she is imperfect, because she is the only bride Christ has. He makes her great.

It is then grossly wrong to say that the Church is a whore. In fact that is blasphemous to say. Augustine himself says so in Sermon 10, which I found when searching for this supposed quotation:

I read in the Psalm, “The one who disparages his neighbor in private, I will destroy,” (Psalm 101:5).  If it is right for [God] to destroy the one who disparages his neighbor in private, then how much more right is it for Him to destroy the one who publicly blasphemes the church of God? When he says “She is not who she is!” When he says, “What is ours is partial.” When he says, “She is a whore.”**

 

UPDATE: Cyprian wrote concerning this concept in his treatise On the Unity of the Church. Since Augustine cites Cyprian extensively, even from this treatise, it is likely that he learned this concept from the African great himself.

The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure. She knows one home; she guards with chaste modesty the sanctity of one couch. She keeps us for God. She appoints the sons whom she has born for the kingdom. Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. If any one could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church.

*My translation from the Latin text edited by G. Morin: Sancti Augustini Sermones post Maurinos reperti in Miscellanea Agostiniana, vol. 1, 1930, p. 447.

**My translation from the Latin text edited by Michael Petschenig, CSEL 53, p.177, available here: https://archive.org/stream/CSEL53#page/n269/mode/2up