By / Jul 28

Brandon Ambrosino has discovered a novel way to harmonize Christianity and homosexuality. The typical approach is to register Jesus’ silence on homosexuality and to claim this indicates tacit approval on Jesus’ part. But this is a mistake, according to Ambrosino, who says that Jesus would “almost certainly have held . . . [that] same-sex relations . . . [are] sinful.” Instead, Ambrosino offers Christians the opportunity to accede to the rightness of gay marriage, and all it takes is giving up one of those theologically insignificant doctrines of ours: the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Ambrosino gives us two instances of Jesus being in error. If we accept these, Ambrosino hopes we will also conclude Jesus was wrong about homosexuality. The first is that Jesus did not seem to know who touched the hem of his garment; the second is that Jesus held eschatological beliefs that seem to have been disproven. The former represents a lack of knowledge; the latter represents the possession of a false belief.

What if Jesus didn’t know who touched the hem of his garment?

The first instance — the one in which Jesus questioned who touched him — does not indicate epistemic failure. This is because not knowing something is different from believing a falsehood. Put differently, omniscience and infallibility are not the same — even if Ambrosino is right, this does not mean Jesus is fallible, it only means he is not omniscient. But actually it doesn’t mean either. As a theanthropic person, Jesus has two natures: human and divine. One of the divine characteristics is omniscience, which Jesus, as a divine person, fully possesses. In becoming human, God the Son doesn’t lose his claim on divine features but does gain the ability to restrict their operations. In other words, he possesses the power of intentional self-limitation.

To think otherwise is to deny the very possibility of an incarnation. As a person with two natures, Jesus experiences the communication of attributes. He is divine, which means that even as a human he is worthy of worship. Ordinary humans are not worthy of worship, so it is Jesus’ divine nature that is carrying this feature over. But the communication works in the other direction, too: he is human, which means he is divine yet able to represent humanity as a substitutionary sacrifice. As St. Anselm explained long ago, a purely divine being could not stand for us as our genuine representative. In each case, something true of Jesus-as-human, or Jesus-as-divine, becomes true of the other.

But not all attributes are like this. If they were, it would call into question the very possibility of an incarnation. Consider: Jesus is omnipotent in virtue of being divine, yet he has not allowed this attribute to overwhelm his humanity. His intensely human moments of weakness testify to this, which of course would fail to be praiseworthy were he simply feigning difficulty and all along just effortlessly conquering every obstacle before him. There is thus no complication between Jesus’ omniscience and his lack of knowledge. There is only a complication if we believe the divine attributes must always smother their human counterparts. But Jesus willingly accepts the self-containment of some of his divine attributes — this is the glory of Philippians 2:5-8.

Did Jesus hold eschatological beliefs that were disproven?

The second instance — the one in which Jesus held false eschatological beliefs — would, if true, represent epistemic failure. Ambrosino quotes C. S. Lewis, who calls Matthew 24:34 “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.” That verse has Jesus capping a lengthy apocalyptic discourse in this way: “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” It’s not hard to see why Lewis would be so disturbed: if Jesus did in fact believe the end of the world would occur within the lifetime of his apostles, then the unavoidable conclusion is that Jesus was wrong. The problem is it’s highly unlikely Jesus thought this.

Eschatological statements, such as this one from Jesus, are notoriously difficult to interpret. They are not impenetrable, but the reality is that since they are projections, rather than descriptions, there is a level of complexity to them that disallows them from being used in the simplistic way that Ambrosino is intending. Ambrosino has engineered his argument to work in this way: if Jesus was wrong about other things, such as eschatology, then he is wrong about homosexuality, too. But the logic of this mode of argumentation requires that the initial datum — that Jesus was wrong about eschatology — be uncontroversial.

The problem is Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, specifically the verse that Lewis finds so troubling, is deeply contested by theologians (consider the multiplicity of eschatological models that exist out there that have a different take on these verses: from partial preterism to historic premillennialism to amillennialism, etc.). There is nothing close to a consensus on this, but Ambrosino would make you think there is unanimity that Jesus was wrong.

Here’s why I don’t think he was. This verse, Matthew 24:34, comes right before another of Jesus’ statements: that no one knows the day or the hour of the second coming (verse 36). Keeping in mind that “day and hour” did not, in a phrase such as this, necessarily refer to twenty-four-hour and sixty minute units of time, respectively, but was another way of saying “no one knows when,” it’s highly unlikely that Jesus is going to make a statement implying definitive knowledge of when right before denying possessing knowledge of when. It would be uncharitable in the extreme to read Jesus as being so thick-headed that he managed to contradict himself within the span of two verses.

Another interpretation, far likelier than Ambrosino’s in my estimation, is that Jesus did not intend to suggest the end of the world would happen immediately after those signs that he delineates. Rather, he intended to communicate to his followers that they are a part of a new eschatological trajectory: the new post-resurrection advent which will culminate in the coming of the Kingdom of God. This does not begin thousands of years from now, he wants to tell them, but it begins shortly after the Son of Man has carried out his work and returns to heaven. His own followers will be a part of the commencement of that age.

Consider: if Jesus wanted his followers to be vigilant and to give their all to proclaiming his gospel, is the right approach to speak of God’s kingdom as though it will materialize thousands of years in the future? There is a didactic element to Jesus framing his statement this way. The gospel writers certainly didn’t seem to see this statement as showcasing a falsehood; that only seems like the “plain reading” to interpreters such as Ambrosino, who have a clear agenda to promote.

The reality is that certain parts of Scripture, most notably the parts having to do with end-time predictions, generate far more controversy than other parts. Ambrosino suggests his interpretation is a fait accompli, but this ignores the hermeneutical difficulties endemic to the apocalyptic literature of the Bible. His argumentative strategy requires that we all agree that Matthew 24:34 is a case of Jesus getting it wrong, but I’m sorry to say that this is by no means established, and in fact there are far better interpretations than Ambrosino’s, none of them tarnishing Jesus with erroneous beliefs.

The difference between being factually wrong and morally right

But let’s grant each and every one of Ambrosino’s assumptions, including his claim that Jesus’ end-times views were factually incorrect. Still, there is a huge conceptual gulf between getting something factually wrong and getting something morally wrong. Producing a failed theory is a favorite pastime of scientists: if a graveyard of hypotheses existed, it would likely be the size of ten solar systems. To make a failed prediction just comes with the territory of not knowing everything there is to know.

But morality is not time-bound in this way. Aristotle, who lived over two millennia ago, is just as likely to get something ethically correct as is a philosopher from our own time. In other words, even granting all of Ambrosino’s tendentious assumptions, it still isn’t clear that Jesus would get anything wrong about ethical matters. If ethical judgment is not burdened by the historical factors that plague ordinary factual predictions, then even granting Ambrosino’s arguments, it’s not certain that Jesus would have made a mistake in his assessment of homosexuality.

While it’s true that cultural identification can sometimes obscure from us ethical realities we would otherwise detect, this does not apply to Jesus, who proved time and again a thoroughgoing willingness to challenge the ethical establishment and to resist ethical conformism. To the Jewish religious powers, Jesus was a theological dissident. This means that just as he challenged rabbinic theologies of marriage, the Sabbath, the afterlife, to name just a few, he could just as easily have challenged the prevailing position on homosexuality. That he didn’t is not an indication of his inability to escape his contextual milieu, but rather evidence of studied solidarity with the prevailing Jewish understanding.

But of course we don’t need to grant any of Ambrosino’s claims, since they’re either facile theological mistakes or highly questionable assumptions. Jesus’ divinity is a non-negotiable. The church has always understood this. To jettison Christ’s divinity — of which omniscience is certainly a part — in order to accommodate a justification for homosexuality is to give up Christianity itself. After all, why should we follow a guy who may have gotten it all wrong?

By / Jul 22

A controversy is brewing over the proposed construction of a muslim cemetery, mosque and training center in my town of Farmersville, Texas. Many local residents have expressed opposition to the project and have called upon our city government to block the construction of the facility. The relevant meetings took place while I was out of town, so I do not have first-hand knowledge of the situation.

However, I understand from others that some of those who have voiced their opposition have been Christians. And perhaps there are many more Christians who aren't sure what position to take. As a pastor, I have something to say to the members of my church and the Christians in the area regarding how Jesus expects us to respond to the religious nature of this controversy. When Christians say that the city of Farmersville should block the construction of an Islamic facility in our town, we're saying a lot more than we think we are saying.

1. We are saying that we have very little confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul wrote in Romans 1 that he is not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ because it is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. I preached from this text just a few weeks ago. I believe that this sentence in the book of Romans is an important and timely message for us. I don't believe that I have to supplement the power of the gospel with the authority of the Farmersville City Council because I am confident in the power of God in the gospel. The god who needs Mayor Helmberger to come to his rescue is not a very big god (and I mean no offense to the mayor by saying so).

Those who want the power of the government to block the construction of Islamic facilities in Farmersville are doing things the muslim way, not the Christian way. They're doing things the Iranian way, not the American way. Muslims co-opt the apparatus of the state and use it to stack the governmental deck in favor of their faith and against competing faiths with which they disagree and which they perceive as dangerous to their muslim way of life.

Personally, I think the reason why there is no religious liberty in North Africa and the Middle East is because Islam is a weak faith. The personal allegiance of the followers of Islam in those nations is not strong enough to keep them in the fold; therefore, the government must threaten them with death if they convert and must force out all other influences. They have no confidence in their faith. It is too weak to stand a fair hearing in an open marketplace of ideas.

I think better things of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and so should you if you are a Christian. City ordinances are not the power of God unto salvation. Planning and zoning recommendations are not the power of God unto salvation. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. It has survived for two thousand years without the coercive arm of government to sustain it. C. H. Spurgeon said this about the word of God:

The Word of God can take care of itself, and will do so if we preach it and cease defending it. See you that lion. They have caged him for his preservation; shut him up behind iron bars to secure him from his foes! See how a band of armed men have gathered together to protect the lion. What a clatter they make with their swords and spears! These mighty men are intent upon defending a lion. O fools, and slow of heart! Open that door! Let the lord of the forest come forth free. Who will dare to encounter him? What does he want with your guardian care? Let the pure gospel go forth in all its lion-like majesty, and it will soon clear its own way and ease itself of its adversaries.

Jesus lived in an Israel occupied by the Romans. The Roman Empire was not disposed well toward Christianity. It deliberately promoted Roman mythology in Israel. Some Jews were trying to organize to force the Roman presence out of the Holy Land. Jesus pointedly, deliberately and explicitly rejected that approach. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said. He placed His confidence in the spiritual work of the gospel, which is more powerful than any political movement, to throw off the yoke of Roman occupation.

I believe that Jesus' actions and statements regarding the Roman presence in Israel give us the pattern for our response to situations such as the one that we face today. If I am wrong, then I ask you this question: Which story or teaching from the New Testament supports your approach? For my part, I only find that kind of action in the gospels and the book of Acts being carried out by the heathen. The mob in Nazareth tried to kill Jesus. The mob in Ephesus fomented a riot to try to defeat Paul. The mob in the Jerusalem temple tried to kill Paul. So, who is our model—Jesus and the Apostles or the heathen in the New Testament?

2. We are saying that we don't care about the spiritual lostness of people as long as they aren't too visibly active in our neighborhood.

Show me a way to eliminate all mosques everywhere by convincing everyone in the world that Islam is a false religion, and you'll have my support. What does it mean if I object to the construction of a mosque in Farmersville but make no protest against the construction of a mosque in Plano? What does it mean if I harshly object to having an Islamic training center in town but it doesn’t bother me that my next door neighbor is an atheist?

If we have constructed a comfortable bubble in our cities that isolates us from the world around us and prevents us from being grieved over the fact that people all over the world live next to Islamic training centers, then I say let God do whatever is necessary to tear that bubble down. The victory doesn’t matter if we achieve the relocation of a muslim center with the same number of adherents who are just as committed as they were before. The only result is that we don't have to look at them.

“Out of sight, out of mind” is not actually a proverb from the Bible. It is certainly no way for Christians to feel about the presence of false religions in the world. But if we decide that lost people everywhere are our business, then we can be thankful when God brings those lost people to our doorsteps. We just broadened the opportunity for how many of our local Christians can participate in cross-cultural evangelism! Winning the lost to Christ is our mission, right? How does it advance that mission for us to make sure that they are farther away from us? It seems to me that it only makes sense to keep them away if we actually have no intention whatsoever of sharing the gospel with them.

3. We are telling the government that we think they ought to choose between religions they like and don't like and then use city government to make life impossible for the religions they don't like.

This is a particularly foolish time for us to be articulating that point of view so persuasively. We're less than a month past a Supreme Court decision in which four justices warned us about serious threats to religious liberty that are coming our way. How can we argue at the national level that we believe in religious liberty for all people while at the local level we're running Muslims out of town? Christians are going to City Hall seeking to become religious oppressors. I tell you, my friends, whatever the city government does against an Islamic training center today, they'll be doing it against Bible-believing, Bible-preaching churches in twenty years.

The First Amendment is a good thing. I'm in favor of religious liberty for all Americans. This means that anywhere I can build a church, Muslims can build a mosque. Anywhere I can put a Baptist campground, Muslims can build an Islamic training center. If I didn't affirm that, I'd be saying, “I want religious liberty for me but not for anyone else.” Fair-minded judges are not going to be disposed favorably to that self-centered bit of doctrine. Like our spiritual and national forefathers did, we need to take a stand for everyone’s religious liberty. Doing so will tell a watching world that we're not just looking out for our own interests, but that we really do believe in the First Amendment's guarantee of religious liberty for all Americans.

4. We are telling the world that we do not trust God to take care of us.

Some of what drives the opposition is a fear that Muslims will stream out of the training center with dynamite strapped to their chests so they can blow us up. There are elements of that point of view that don't make much sense to me. Last year, drunk drivers killed more Americans than have died in all the phases of the global war on terror combined. But when Farmersville legalized alcohol sales a few years ago, there was no organized protest that I recall. This opposition lacks lacks logical sense. But, then, fears often do.

Why are we so fearful? Why are the followers of the God of David, the shepherd-boy who stared down Goliath of Gath, so fearful? Why are the followers of the God of Elijah, the prophet who called down fire from heaven and shamed the prophets of Baal, so fearful? Why are the followers of the God of Peter, the apostle whom an angel released from prison the night before his execution, so fearful? What does fear say about our faith? Is that the message we want our community to receive?

Rather than react in fear and hostility, the Christians of Farmersville need to be asking ourselves, “What are the best things I can be doing today to pave the way for me to share the gospel with Muslims in Farmersville?” Make no mistake about it: That is our mission. When Jesus gave it to us, it came with a promise: “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” We have a promise from Jesus, and we do not need to be afraid. Let's tell people about that, and let's act in such a way that the message doesn't get lost in the midst of all the bad things we are saying through our actions.

By / Mar 2

A well-meaning person in our church once openly questioned why my husband and I would choose to put our children in school rather than homeschooling them. This question came at a time when we were the only non-homeschooling family in our small group, and I had been privately wrestling with our choices as compared to theirs. I was wrestling, not because I felt convicted by the Lord, but because I longed for validation from people that I greatly respected.

Choosing man-made regulations

Admitting that we desire validation from others is difficult, but recognizing it in ourselves is even more difficult because it is a subtle, ever-lurking temptation. It tends to package itself together with pride, self-condemnation, or a desire for encouragement and approval. But when we attach things like our education choices to the gospel, that’s when it gets ugly, divisive and dysfunctional.

Don’t we do this? Whether we voice them or not, we choose man-made regulations according to what we value most—sometimes personal convictions that are right and good—and evaluate ourselves and other people according to them: appearance, education, food, parenting, work choices, giftings, behaviors. We’d never say it out loud, but in our minds we categorize ourselves and others according to our standards: “She is a good Christian because . . .” or “She is not a good Christian because . . .” Worse, we turn it around on ourselves: “I’m a good Christian because . . .” or “I’m not a good Christian because . . .”

The goodness gospel

When we seek validation, we evaluate ourselves and others based upon external behaviors and choices, not on what Christ has done. And the Holy Spirit—God within us who counsels, leads, and personally convicts us—is completely removed from the equation. We stand as our own counselor, leader, judge, and convict-er, thank you very much. And we’re happy to take on that role for everyone else too, offering validation to those who choose what we choose and quietly dividing from those who don’t.

This isn’t the gospel, and this isn’t the Christian life. I call this different gospel the “goodness gospel”: my goodness, my life, my spiritual growth is up to me, and I’ll know how I’m doing based upon the specific things that I value or think make me a good Christian. Aside from living in a self-selected huddle, living by the goodness gospel doesn’t bother us much.

The rub comes when we start questioning ourselves, like I did about our education choices. Of course, we must take into account that God may be leading us to make a change, but what I’m referring to is when we feel not “good enough” in comparison to others and desire their validation. The goodness gospel tells me that I must earn that validation, make up for my weaknesses or cover them over, and do better next time. I vow to try harder. And sometimes I do actually do better next time, but then I fail and the cycle begins again. The Bible says the goodness gospel is a ministry of condemnation, always reminding me that I am weak and unable to be perfect but never providing a solution other than “try harder”.

This only results in cycles of pride and self-condemnation toward ourselves and in relation to others, those two fraternal twin sins that invite us to seek validation from others and grow depressed or angry when we can’t seem to get it.

The only validation we need

Where is the true gospel in all this, and what does it say about validation? Second Corinthians tell us, “For the love of Christ compels us . . . and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again” (5:14-15). We are loved by Christ, as shown in His death and resurrection, therefore we have been given the ultimate validation. This is the only true validation we need, and we have it.

God’s validation teaches us how to relate to our fellow believers. Paul continues the previous thought in 2 Corinthians 5:16-17: “Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. . . if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” We regard no believer according to their spiritual gift, their personality, their likeability factor, their racial or cultural background, or, yes, even their choices on open-ended issues. We regard them according to Christ’s validation.

When we regard each other according to Christ’s validation, then we are able to see the beauty of a diverse Church and different gifts, different ministries and different choices. We are able to champion one another and pray for one another, precisely because we aren’t looking for validation from one another.

Christine has a burden for believers to know the gospel’s reach into both salvation and sanctification and, by living according to the true gospel, to experience the abundant life both personally and collectively that Jesus promised. From Good to Grace: Letting Go of the Goodness Gospel asks readers to consider these very things: to learn to receive the Christian life and then respond with their lives.

Purchase your copy today on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Christianbook.com, or iTunes and discover the gospel’s reach in your own life.