Category Archives: Theology

Jonathan Edwards on the Garden of Gethsemane

I have the privilege of teaching our church community this coming Sunday. We are working through a series called The Glory of the Cross and we’re studying Jesus’ last days on earth. My teaching will be centered on Jesus’ prayers to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. Matthew has the most detailed account in 26:36-42. Ever wondered what’s happening there? How can the Incarnate God be in such agony? Why does Jesus appear to want to bail on his mission, the very thing he knew he came to do? I am eager to answer that question for my church on Sunday night. I am convinced that what we see happening at Gethsemane gives us one of the most astounding portraits of our Savior. To grasp his agony is to behold his glory. And to grasp his agony is to be led to worship Him.

In my preparation, I have been blessed to read Jonathan Edwards’ sermon on the topic, titled Christ’s Agony (you can find it online through a Google search… beware it’s a little dense). Here are some quotes that have really helped me to understand what’s going on in Gethsemane.

The agony was caused by a vivid, bright, full, immediate view of the wrath of God. The Father, as it were, set the cup down before him… he now had a near view of that furnace into which he was about to be cast. He stood and viewed its raging flames and the glowing of its heat, that he might know where he was going and what he was about to suffer.

Christ was going to be cast into a dreadful furnace of wrath, and it was not proper that he should plunge himself into it blindfold, as not knowing how dreadful the furnace was. Therefore, that he might not do so, God first brought him and set him at the mouth of the furnace, that he might look in, and stand and view its fierce and raging flames, and might see where he was going, and might voluntarily enter into it and bear it for sinners, as knowing what it was. This view Christ had in his agony… Then he acted as knowing what he did; then his taking that cup, and bearing such dreadful sufferings, was properly his own act by an explicit choice; and so his love to sinners was the more wonderful, as also his obedience to God in it.

If just the taste and glimpse of these sufferings were enough to throw the eternal Son of God into shock, and to nearly kill him in the anticipation of them, what was the actual, full experience of those sufferings on the cross really like?

Powerful and humbling stuff. If you’re a Kent person, I hope to see you on Sunday night at 5:00 in Bowman Hall 133.

The _____ of the gospel

For the past few years, my reading and thinking has focused on the nature of the gospel. Almost five years ago, I led a seminar for our soon-to-be church plant team on the topic “What is the Gospel?” My thought then was this: if we are moving to a new city to start a new church, we had better know the gospel. If we were to going to invest time and energy in any area, I said, it ought to be a robust understanding of a robust gospel. Too often church plants rely upon marketing strategies or cutting-edge ministry technique. Maybe because we knew we simply were not that cool or talented, we decided instead to get good at knowing and applying the gospel to the needs of our neighbors and our world.

For that seminar, I regurgitated D.A. Carson’s lecture also titled “What is the Gospel?” he delivered at the 2007 Gospel Coalition Conference. I typed 12 pages (single-spaced!) of notes as I listened to Carson exegete 1 Corinthians 15, drawing out 8 characteristics of the gospel and 5 accompanying truths of the gospel. My mind was blown by the depth and profundity of the “basic” message of Christianity. Many, but not all, of my lingering questions had been answered. I had struggled with how a neatly-packaged “here’s how you get to heaven” message held broader application to bigger issues in the world. What did “my gospel,” the message that gave me eternal life, have to do with child-soldiering in Uganda or human trafficking in Cambodia? What did “my gospel” have to do with the people of the Old Testament or the grand narrative of Scripture? Carson’s lecture launched me into a study into the nature of the gospel that is still going today.

In case you haven’t noticed, a spate of new literature has emerged on the topic. Big-name Christians are pumping out books with their rendition of the good news. Matt Chandler wrote The Explicit Gospel. JD Greear wrote The Gospel. Greg Gilbert wrote What is the Gospel? Scot McKnight wrote (my favorite) The King Jesus Gospel. And most recently Tim Keller and a group of leaders from the Gospel Coalition wrote The Gospel as Center. Christianity Today magazine just launched a five-year venture called The Global Gospel Project. Lifeway just rolled out their own The Gospel Project. That’s a lot of gospel, isn’t it?

Not shockingly, not everyone agrees on everything. The discussion is one I believe we must enter into. But it’s not what I am going to do here. What all of these authors agree upon is the fact that the gospel is bigger than our attempts to abbreviate it and more far-reaching than our attempts to package it. What I plan to do in the next few blog posts is highlight a few characteristics of the gospel. Truth be told, I recently had the privilege of teaching at a collegiate summer leadership program and my posts here will summarize my messages there. These teachings will become a sermon series our church will use in the fall titled “The _____ of the Gospel.” So, if nothing else, these blogs will help me to further develop the material. Stay tuned for the first in this series!

Foolishness to the Greeks, Part III

Today I finish my series on Lesslie Newbigin’s book Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Eerdmans, 1986). I introduced the series with this post and covered the first three essentials here. I will cover here the final four of Newbigin’s “seven essentials” for a gospel engagement with Western culture.

  • A critique of the theory and practice of denominationalism: Newbigin was a ecumenist; he worked to bring together people from varying theological dispositions for the sake of mission. He was not one to bash denominations wholesale. What he does here, then, is critique a type of denominationalism that does little more than reveal a privatized faith with no ability to impact on the larger culture. Here is what he means: we tend to treat denominations as the means by which we choose what beliefs best suit us as individuals. We shop around, looking for a group that holds tight to what we deem most critical. Not all bad. But it’s subtly consumeristic. The unintentional result is a Christianity that is highly privatized. It’s what is best for me. It’s what I like best. it’s what most connects with me. Denominations house those who’ve come to the same decisions by themselves. Newbigin says, “Denominations cannot confront our culture with the witness of the truth since even for themselves they do not claim to be more than associations of individuals who share the same private opinions.” While still retaining denominational affiliation, Newbigin argues for a truly ecumenical movement that brings together the array of denominations “in one place in order to create a more coherent and credible Christian witness to the whole community in that place.”
  • An understanding of and respect for non-Western Christianity: One of the saddest realities of church history is the fact that Christian mission was not able to shake off Western hegemony. Missionaries heralded not only the gospel but Western culture as they spread the world. We made converts not only Christians but also Westerners. What happened in the process was catastrophic: we robbed the gospel of its inherent capacity to inhabit (and transform) a culture, any culture. Yale Divinity professor Lamin Sanneh, a convert from Islam, has written about the “infinite translatability of the gospel”- that the proclamation of Christ as Lord can and should be expressed distinctly in the mosaic of world cultures. The gospel does not create one world culture- it redeems and brings to fullness every culture. I recommend Sanneh’s book Whose Religion is Christianity?: The Gospel Beyond the West (beware- he is not easy to read, but who from Yale is?). Back to Newbigin now: “The fact that Jesus is much more than, much greater than our culture-bound vision of him can only come home to us through the witness of those who see him with other eyes […] We need their witness to correct ours, as indeed they need ours to correct theirs.” If Western Christianity is to impact post-Christian Western culture, it must recognize its place within the broader scope of God’s work within the world, and it must seek to listen to the voices of Christian leaders from other places.
  • A humble boldness to proclaim the truth of Christ as Lord: here I must simply quote Newbigin:
The gospel is not a set of beliefs that arise, or could arise, from empirical observation. It is the announcement of a name and a fact that offer the starting point for a new and life-long enterprise of understanding and coping with experience. To accept it means a new beginning, a radical conversion. It has always been the case that to believe means to be turned around to face in a different direction, to be a dissenter, to go against the stream. The church needs to be very humble in acknowledging that it is itself only a learner, and it needs to pay heed to all the variety of human experience in order to learn in practice what it means that Jesus is the King and Head of every human race. But the church also needs to be very bold in bearing witness to him as the One who alone is that King and Head.”
  • Praise: I love how Newbigin beautifully ends his reflection with a call for praise. How are we to have this humble boldness to speak truth to our culture? Newbigin says it is not the product of human heroism but rather the “spontaneous overflow of a community of praise.” Reflecting on his own experience of being involved in two very different churches- Orthodox and Pentecostal- Newbigin says, “they have this in common: their life is centered in the action of praise- praise that is literally “out of this world” and is by that very fact able to speak to this world. Where this is present, the radiance of that supernatural reality is enough to draw men and women into its circle.” A missionary encounter with our post-Christian culture will always begin with praise. Our witness to our world is at the heart the overflow of a gift, says Newbigin. If we are not repeatedly astounded by the magnitude, reality, and cost of that gift, our missionary work will not endure.

Foolishness to the Greeks, Part II

This post is a follow-up to my previous post, which you can read here. You’ll need to read it in order to make sense of this one. Here are the first three of Newbigin’s “seven essentials” for the church engaging culture and bearing witness to Christ and His inbreaking Kingdom in a modern/postmodern world.

  • A recovery of the doctrine of eschatology: The “eschaton” means “the last things,” so eschatology is the study of the “last things”or the “last days”- themes prophesied about in the Old Testament and discussed directly in the New Testament. Most people mistakingly believe eschatology refers only to the events surrounding Christ’s second coming. However, since the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we have been living in last days. All the NT authors believed this, and so should we. Christ’s Kingdom on earth is both a present and a future reality. Theologians call this the ‘already but not yet’ nature of the Kingdom. What Newbigin is saying here is this: As Christians, we must resist the temptation to travel to the extremes. The first extreme so rejects the ‘already’ of the Kingdom that it causes people to “opt out of the struggle for a measure of justice and freedom in public life” and instead only focuses on personal piety in preparation for final judgment. In other words, people say things like, “This world is going to hell and I’m just holding on until Jesus comes back.” Here there is no passion to see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. This perspective is entirely unbiblical and Newbigin is alerting us to its danger. The other extreme so embraces the ‘already’ of the Kingdom that it mistakingly equates all political and social advance as God’s reign, grossly de-emphasizing the uniqueness and fullness of the Kingdom that is reserved only for Christ’s second coming. This has been the classic belief (and mistake) of mainline Protestant denominations. Newbigin reminds us that “even the best social order is- in God’s sight- an organization of sinful men and women and therefore always prone to corruption.” No amount of social advance can remedy or reverse the disease of the soul- sinful nature. We must live in the tension between these two extremes. A proper eschatology will propel us into a type of work for justice and compassion that is not an end in itself but rather a sign and foretaste of what is to come when Christ returns. We do not engage in social justice because it’s “the right thing to do;” we do it because we are called to enact today what someday will be the only reality. In a sentence, we must embrace an eschatology that thrusts us into God’s redemptive work now rather than sitting on our hands awaiting our own personal redemption later.
  • A biblical view of freedom: Newbigin argues here for a freedom that simultaneously upholds the truth of the Gospel while reserving the right for others to dissent. We’ve all been nurtured in an Enlightenment understanding of freedom that defines it as the ability to make our own decisions about what is good and true. Newbigin points out that is is precisely the opposite of biblical freedom. That type of “freedom” leads to destruction. Newbigin concludes, “True freedom is a gift of grace  given by the one who is in fact Lord; that gift, freely given, can only be received in freedom. It follows that the church cannot bear witness to that gift unless there is freedom to refuse it. Yet the church must still bear witness that this is the only true freedom: to belong wholly to the One by whom the space of freedom is created, and whose service is perfect freedom.” If the church is to engage our culture, we must do so without an arrogance that belittles or a forcefulness that manipulates.
  • A de-clericalized theology: I think Newbigin’s pastoral brilliance emerges here. Though a scholar with a robust academic pedigree, he refuses to disconnect theology from real life. He laments the relegation of theology to scholars without input from the laity (everyone other than the pastors/leaders). Newbigin boldly states, “We are in a situation analogous to one about which the great Reformers complained. The Bible has been taken out of the hands of the layperson; it has now become the professional property not of the priesthood but of the scholars.” To engage in a world that is increasingly secularized, Newbigin reminds us that we must foster conversations where “real-world” people wrestle with the meaning and application of the Gospel. What I love and find insightful is his realization that the Gospel is not a “toy” for academic play but the pronouncement Christ’s Lordship in every human realm and place. It can and must speak to every person where they live, work, and play. Church leaders need to be instructed by those who are speaking and embodying Christ on the ground, in the midst of the messiness and darkness of a lost world. When this happens, Newbigin says, the fatal divide of the public and private will be brought back together.

Did Jesus preach the gospel?

Ever wonder if what we call the gospel is what Jesus and the New Testament authors believed was the gospel? What is the gospel? Is it the plan of salvation we share with someone who doesn’t know Christ as Lord? Is it the biblical narrative beginning at creation and ending with new creation? Is it the news that in Jesus we personally can be moved from estranged and lost to rescued and redeemed? Is it the good news of the Kingdom come to earth in Jesus? Does the gospel need to include the Old Testament, or can we take it or leave it?

Scot McKnight is a scholar I appreciate. He is scripturally sound and evangelical and (most impressively, in my opinion) not easily pinned down into a category within evangelicalism. He both wins over and offends Christians of all backgrounds and theological leanings. In this 17-minute video, he introduces us to the discussion going on right now concerning the gospel. As you watch it, you will most likely be bothered by some of what he says. And that’s a good thing. If there is anything we ought to wrestle with and be certain of, it is the meaning of the gospel- “for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

Check out the video here and leave a comment.