Tag Archives: salvation

“Are you saved?”

edwardsI can still remember reading Jonathan Edward’s (1703 – 1758) sermon – “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” – in an American literature anthology when I was in high school, and being absolutely horrified by it.

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you… God’s wrath towards you burns like fire; God looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire…”

 When I was in the 11th grade, I didn’t think that I was nearly as bad a person as that sermon said I was, and I didn’t think that God was nearly as mean and awful as that sermon made Him out to be.  And if this is what I, someone who actually believed in God and regularly went to church thought about what Jonathan Edwards said in his sermon, then, I wondered, what would an unchurched unbeliever think? I’ve since found it.  If getting “saved” involves the view of God and self that Jonathan Edwards described in his sermon, then they’re just not having it.  But what if getting “saved” doesn’t involve Jonathan Edward’s view of God or self at all?

Back in the day, when students at Yale University would tell Dr. George Buttrick (1892 – 1980), Dean of the Chapel, that they weren’t coming to his services “because they didn’t believe in God anymore,” his standard response was always to say -“Tell me more about this God you don’t believe in anymore because I probably don’t believe in that God either!” And this makes me think that before rejecting “saved” talk because of the spiritual offense of what Jonathan Edwards famously did with it, maybe it should first be wrenched from his grip so that we might look at it from another vantage point.

The New Testament word for “saved” means to be “rescued,” “delivered,” “kept from harm.” It was a word that assumed that there was something or someone powerful out there that’s threatening people; someone or something that’s trying really hard to destroy them.  And the New Testament word for “Savior” was the title given in the ancient world to anyone who was able to keep people from that something or someone actually harming them.  Generals who won great military victories were called “saviors” in the ancient world.  So were ship captains who navigated terrible storms and brought their passengers and cargo safely to port, as were wealthy benefactors who rebuilt cites after natural disasters, as were rulers who brought stability and prosperity to their states.  We do the same thing.  A “Savior” is someone who “saves” people from something horrible that’s happening to them.

When he was just a little boy the preacher David Pratte says that he and some of his neighborhood friends built some rickety rafts to float down the drainage ditch in front of their homes after a big storm (https://www.gospelway.com).  A neighbor warned them that the ditch was deep, that the current was fast, and that the water was muddy. “It’s dangerous boys” he told them. “You could drown if you fall in,” and David almost did.

raftWhen his raft predictably capsized, David struggled to get to the shore, but he couldn’t get a good grip on the slippery bank and he kept being pulled away and under by the swift current. When he finally slipped exhausted beneath the dark water for what he thought was the last time, that neighbor heard the commotion from his house, ran just as fast as he could to the ditch and jumped in fully clothed.  He couldn’t see where David was in the muddy swirling water, but he just happened to kick him when he jumped in, and so he was able to reach down and pull David up and out to safety. You saved my life,” David kept repeating to that man that day, “you saved my life.” And to this day David will tell you that he thinks of that man as his “savior,” and the story that the Bible tells us is the story of how God does this for us as human beings.  He jumps into our lives, and into our world, to pull us out of the trouble we’re in.

The Gospel is not as complicated as we sometimes make it out to be. We’re made for fellowship with God, but that intimacy got shattered when we chose to cut God out of our lives, and then everything else in our world began spinning out of control because God was no longer at its center holding everything in good balance and proper orbit.  Seeing the damage we’d done, and understanding the trouble we were in, God began the slow and deliberate process of making His way back into our lives.

Now, when we talk about getting “saved,” I believe that what we’re talking about is God doing this hard work of fixing what’s broken, of repairing what’s gone awry, of restoring us to a right relationship with Himself.  Some Christians, like Jonathan Edwards, when talking about salvation put the emphasis on the negative impact that all of the bad things we do have on God.  What we do wrong makes God mad, and so getting “saved” means escaping His punishment. But there are other Christians who, when talking about salvation, put the emphasis instead on the negative impact that all of the bad things we do have on us.  It makes God sad to see the way we struggle and suffer, and so getting “saved” means that God steps in to help make things better.

LouiseI like to read mysteries, and one of my favorite series are the books that the Canadian author Louise Penney writes about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the provincial police force of Quebec, and the quirky little village where he lives with his wife and friends – Three Pines. Armand Gamache is one of the wisest literary characters that I have the pleasure of knowing, and he is forever saying that there are four sentences that we all need to learn how to say as human beings — “I don’t know.” “I need help.” “I’m sorry.”  And “I was wrong.” It’s gotten so that now when people ask me why I think they need to be “saved,” I think in Inspector Gamache’s terms –

  • People need to be “saved” because we need help. As the folks in recovery know all too well – we are powerless over so many things, and our lives are unmanageable in so many ways, and only a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity and stability. Unlike Jonathan Edwards, my emphasis when thinking and talking about salvation is not that we’re bad and that God is mad, but that we’re in trouble and need God’s help.
  • We also need “saving” because there’s just so much that we don’t know. We don’t really know who we are, or what it is that we finally want. And we aren’t really sure about who God is, or what it is that He finally wants. Thus is why the book of Proverbs begins with the declaration that “reverence for God is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7). Jesus meant the same thing when He said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and then everything else in your life will start to sort out for you” (Matthew 6:33). When the fact of God’s existence and the truth God’s being gets fully reestablished in our lives, then we have a firm place to stand, and a sure foundation from which operate.
  • And finally, we need “saving” because we’re frequently wrong and we’re often sorry. I know I’m guilty about some of the things that I’ve done in my life, and I’m deeply ashamed of the kind of person that I know I can be at times. You may have seen that bumper sticker that says – “I want to be the person my dog thinks I am.” Well, I’ve got cats and I’m not sure that they even give me a thought except when they want to be fed. So, for me, it’s different.   I want to be the kind of person that I know God created me to be, that Jesus Christ has made possible for me to become again by dying and rising for me, and that the Holy Spirit is right now empowering me – bit by bit and day by day – to actually become.

When I hear the word “salvation” these days, I don’t primarily think about a God who needs to be appeased because He’s mad at us for being sinners, but rather, I think about a God who’s steadily, relentlessly making His way towards us, at great personal cost to Himself, because He knows we’re in trouble, in desperate need to help, and He loves us.

Practically speaking, believing this has some very real consequences for me –

  • First of all, I know that every single person I meet every day, all day, is in some kind of trouble. The fact is, we all need “saving.” As Dr. Charles Kemp, my professor of Pastoral Care at Brite Divinity School 40 years ago constantly told us – “Always be gentle and kind to people because everyone is carrying a heavy burden of some sort.”
  • And second, I know that every single person I meet is someone for whom Christ died (I Corinthians 8:11). Jesus Christ is the way God makes His approach to us in our need, and it’s what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross and then by getting up out of that borrowed tomb that is how God deals with all of those forces in our lives and this world that seek to work us woe. Jesus Christ is how God jumps into the deep, dark, swirling waters that are pulling us under to pull us up and out.

It was hard for me to see the face, and heart, of the God I knew in Jesus Christ in the things that Jonathan Edwards said about Him in his famous sermon. But rather than throwing the theological baby out of the homiletical bathwater that he was using, I discovered that there are other, better ways of Biblically thinking and talking about the saving work of God in Jesus Christ than the one Jonathan Edwards chose to develop.

Christianity is a religion of salvation. Jesus Christ is the Savior.  Christians are people who have been saved.  And it matters, it really matters, that we who know this firsthand in our own experience of it by faith to then think and talk about it in ways that emphasize God’s goodness and grace in a world where suffering, struggling people are desperately seeking help and hope. DBS+



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“Well Done Thou Good & Faithful Servant” (Part 4)

William Franklin Graham Jr.
(November 7, 1918 – February 21, 2018)


“The Next Billy Graham”

Now that Billy is gone, a question that is being actively, and even urgently, discussed by many Evangelicals is – “Who’s next?” Who is going to step up now to take his place as the great unifying voice and public spokesperson for this diverse “conversionist” (Lives need to be transformed through being “born-again” and undertaking a lifelong process of following Jesus), “activist” (The Gospel needs to be actively demonstrated through lives of witness and service), “Biblicist” (The Bible is our highest authority in matters of Christian faith and practice), and “Crucicentric” (a focus on the cross of Christ as the basis of our redemption and reconciliation) community called “Evangelicals”?

My favorite answer is the one that Russell Moore, the President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, offers.  He writes –

Whenever I start to get discouraged about the future of the church, I remember the last conversation I had with the Evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry… Several of us were lamenting the miserable shape of the church… We asked Dr. Henry if he saw any hope in the coming generation of evangelicals, and I will never forget his reply.

“Of course, there is hope for the next generation of evangelicals,” he said. “But the leaders of the next generation might not be coming from the current evangelical establishment. They are probably still pagans… Who knew that Saul of Tarsus was going to be the great apostle to the Gentiles?” he asked us. “Who knew that God would raise up a C.S. Lewis or a Charles Colson? They were both unbelievers who, once saved by the grace of God, were mighty warriors for the faith…” And then he said, “The next Billy Graham might very well be passed out drunk in a fraternity house right now.”

I actually hope he or she is, because this is the truth to which Billy Graham devoted his entire life, that – “The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16), and that – “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). What would be more fitting than for the next Billy Graham to be someone whose life gets suddenly and powerfully transformed in this way by the Gospel that Billy himself preached and trusted so faithfully for so many years?  DBS+

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“Building the Kingdom?”


If you are true to Scripture, following the contours of its teachings past the neat and tidy doctrinal and moral packages that have become convenient substitutes for actually having to look at the Bible for ourselves, then you will eventually bump into what the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther called the Bible’s “furious opposites.” The Bible teaches all of its most important truths by way of paradox: God is one and three; Christ is fully God and fully Human; we are saved by faith without works, but saving faith always includes works; the Bible is the Word of God and the words of human beings.  A paradox is a statement that consists of ideas which on the surface appear to be logical contradictions but which are nevertheless mutually true, and the Bible is chock full of them, which is why no single Biblical verse is ever sufficient to establish a moral or theological position.  The word “canon” refers to standard measurement or collection.  The “canon” of Scripture says that the value of any Biblical book, Biblical text, or Biblical idea is not in what it says all by itself alone, but by what it contributes to the larger conversation of faith.

baseballI once heard the “canon” of Scripture compared to the lines on a baseball field. Balls that fall within those lines are “fair” and in play, while balls that fall outside those lines are “foul” and out of play, and it is only by knowing everything that’s in the Bible on any given topic that we will know where those lines are. And the fact is that the Bible’s “furious opposites” creates an enormous playing field.  There’s lots of room to roam between its lines.

I was reminded of this last week as I was preparing to preach on “Thy Kingdom Come” as part of a summer sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer.  The paradoxical ways of the Bible hit me full force once again as I thought about all of the “furious opposites” that are at work in what the Bible has to say about the Kingdom of God.

It’s “already” and “not yet.”
It’s spiritual and social.
It’s got something to do with the church,
and something to do with the world.
It’s personal and political.
It’s God’s doing and our responsibility.

As I was chasing after the complexity of the Biblical witness about the Kingdom of God this week for my sermon, I came across a letter that the Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote to one of his students –

karlDear N.N., Many thanks for your kind letter. But what an obstinate fellow you are! You write that you were very impressed with what I told you last week in the Theological School. And now you manage to put down on paper all that nonsense about the kingdom of God that we must build. Dear N.N., in so doing you do not contradict merely one ‘insight’ but the whole message of the Bible. If you persist in this idea I can only advise you to take up any other career than that of a pastor.

Karl Barth, from a letter to a theological student in Basel
Karl Barth: Letters: 1961-1968 (1981), p. 283.


That would certainly have left a mark, but in all fairness, this was an idea that cut pretty close to Dr. Barth’s theological quick. He was a well-known critic of the overly optimistic view of human nature and potential that was so characteristic of the church in his day, and that made him, in turn, thoroughly skeptical of the widespread belief about the inevitable progress of human society. The World Wars in Europe had disabused Karl Barth of any lingering illusions that he might have been harboring from his classically liberal theological training about the perfectibility of this world by human strength and ingenuity alone. He saw precious little evidence of things getting better and better every day and in every way. His reading of the Scriptures – and especially Paul’s Epistle to the Romans – convinced him that humanity was completely incapable of saving itself. He understood that it was going to take nothing less than God Himself breaking in from the outside to rescue us. And so we do not “build the Kingdom” Karl Barth insisted, the Kingdom can only come to us, and clearly this is part of the Biblical witness about the Kingdom. In fact, I would argue that it is the part of the Biblical witness that is most noticeably absent from most of the conversations that I hearing in my part of the church these days. Karl Barth’s perspective is certainly not all that there is to the Biblical witness about the Kingdom, but it is nevertheless an important part of it. And as such, we should expect it to have its own “furious opposite,” and it was John Killinger who gave the most eloquent voice to its paradoxical Biblical counter-point in my experience –

breadThere is something about prayer, about letting the mind be still and waiting upon God, that sensitizes us to the world around us – to the glory of sunsets and the beauty of tears. …As Isaiah in the Temple (6:1-7) became aware of the need for a spokesperson for God, and said, “Here I am, send me,” [when you pray] you find yourself ready to help with the kingdom. …You want to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You want the hungry to be fed and the infirm to walk. You want the blind to see and the deaf to hear.   You want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things. You yourself become committed to the kingdom that human beings have always dreamed of. (Bread for the Wilderness 115)

In my own life of faith, it was Karl Barth who drew the line on one side of the field where the meaning of the Kingdom of God was in play, while it was John Killinger who drew the line on its other side. To be sure, I’m more comfortable on Karl Barth’s side of the field, this is my more natural position spiritually. And so, just like Barth in that rather mean letter that he wrote to a student of his, my initial reflex is to kick, and to kick hard, when I hear somebody glibly talking about what it is that we must do as Christians to bring about or to build the Kingdom of God as if this was something that we are capable of doing as human beings! And then John Killinger yells a sharp “head up” at me from the other side of the field as he fires a fast ball straight at my head… and heart.

Even if building the Kingdom of God is well above my pay grade, John Killinger reminds me, in no uncertain terms, this doesn’t excuse me from doing whatever it is that I can do to personally and socially inhabit the coming Kingdom’s values that have been previewed for us so clearly in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

  • When Christ fed the hungry it was to foreshadow that coming day when there will be no more hunger, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to feed hungry people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.
  • When Christ healed the sick it was to foreshadow the coming day when there will be no more sickness, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to heal sick people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.
  • When Christ set the captives free it was to foreshadow the coming day when there will be no more bondage, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to liberate people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.

francisIt was something that Francis Schaeffer wrote about in his book Pollution and the Death of Man (Tyndale House – 1970) that put in place for me the category that I have operated with ever since about what it is that Christians can reasonably be expected to do about the world’s wounds even though they know that they will not be finally and fully healed short of the in-breaking of the Kingdom at the close of the age when Christ returns.

pollSo there are these multiple divisions (Theological – our division from God; Psychological – our division from ourselves; Sociological – our division from others; Ecological – our division from nature), and one day, when Christ comes back, there is going to be a complete healing of all of them, on the basis of the “blood of the lamb.” But Christians who believe the Bible are not simply called to say that “one day” there will be healing, but that by God’s grace substantially, upon the basis of the work of Christ, substantial healing can be a reality here and now… In all of the areas of our division (Theological, Psychological, Sociological, Ecological) we should expect to see substantial healing. I took a long time to settle on that word “substantial,” but it is, I think, the right word. It conveys the idea of a healing that is not perfect, but that is real, evident, and substantial. (67-68)

Karl Barth said that God is not just humanity speaking “with a loud voice.” What he meant by this was that it’s going to take more than just smart people, and more than just strong people, and more than just sincere people, and more than just busy people to save the world. It’s going to take God. But God goes missing pretty quickly in many of the most urgent appeals to build the Kingdom that I hear sounded. It all gets put on us – on our efforts, on our ingenuity, and on our abilities alone as human beings to fix things.

Karl Barth’s critique of the theology of his day was that it left God out of the equation as the active agent of the world’s salvation. In an essay for First Things on Karl Barth (Confusion of Humanity, Reign of God” https://www.firstthings.com – 9/22/16) Peter Leithart said that when the world spins out of control our first instincts are to rush to cockpit to take over the controls before we crash,” forgetting that this plane already has a pilot. And because of who that pilot is, we know that “confusion is not the final word… confusion will itself be confused and dispelled.” God’s got this.  This is what Karl Barth wants us to know.

But this doesn’t mean that we are just to sit on our hands as God moves history towards His own final redemptive purposes. And this is what John Killinger wants us to know. We are not reduced to just being passive spectators because the Kingdom that’s coming is God’s doing.  No, the way that we show our confidence in what it is that we believe that God is doing is by working for what Francis Schaeffer called those “substantial healings” in every area of human brokenness and division that we face in our lives and in the world today.

We don’t bring the Kingdom by doing these things, but we do bear witness to its reality, and to our certainty that it is coming, and the “furious opposites” combine.   DBS +

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“Something More”


I actually have a certificate signed by the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles that says I received the Holy Spirit together with His Sevenfold Gifts (Isaiah 11:1-2) when he laid his hands on me at my Confirmation in 1965 when I was 12 years old. But up to that point, and for a number of years afterwards, my experience of the Holy Spirit was just about as flat as that piece of paper.

In 1974 Catherine Marshall wrote her book Something More in which she explained that there is “a big difference between being indwelt by the Spirit and being ‘filled’ with His presence.” She explained that “for years (and sometimes for a lifetime) a Christian can keep the Spirit at a sub-basement level by the insistence on running one’s own life. Then through teaching or need – or both – that person recognizes his divine Guest’s presence, opens hitherto closed doors into crayon rooms in his being so that the Spirit can enter there too… It is not God’s attitude toward us that needs to be changed, but our attitude toward Him.  He will not give us anything new; rather we are to receive in a new and far fuller sense that which He has already given us at Pentecost… Sunlight can be kept out only by erecting barriers against it.  All we need do then, is take down our shutters and barriers and walk out into the sunlight already given” (276).  Until and unless this happens, she said, we will operate at a level well below what God intends for us spiritually, and we will experience this deficit as “an aching void in our hearts.”

It was a feeling of this kind of emptiness that brought J. Rodman Williams, a well-known and highly respected Presbyterian theologian, to the place of seeking “something more.”  In his 1972 book The Pentecostal Reality he wrote –

At the heart of much of our life and activity a deep spiritual crisis exists. Despite multiple attempts by the church at reassessment and relevance, there remains the haunting sense of something lacking or unfulfilled and a feeling of spiritual impotence… Where, many are asking, is the dynamic reality of God’s presence? In an article appearing in “The Christian Century” (May 13, 1979) entitled “The Power of Pentecost: We Need it More Now Than Ever,” the author asks, “Why in every sector of Christianity today… [is] there so little evidence of spiritual power…?” “I am haunted,” he continues, “by the memory of Pentecost and its power surging into the hearts of the disciples long, long ago.  Where is that power today?  Can it come among us again?”  Then, finally, he adds, “It is time we took Pentecost seriously and eagerly received a new infusion of the Holy Spirit.”

I believe that it is this awareness of “something missing” that prepares us for the “something more” that the experience of the fullness of the Holy Spirit brings into our spiritual lives.  It’s when we hunger and thirst for the reality of the things that we believe are true that we will start to ask, and knock, and seek, and that’s when Jesus said that the fullness of the Holy Spirit will be given to us (Luke 11:13).

My spiritual awakening happened in 1965.  That’s when I was “born again,” and I believe that it was at that time that I was forgiven and given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is just “part of the package” of Christian conversion Biblically.  You can’t be a Christian and not have the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38; Romans 8:9; I Corinthians 12:3; Galatians 3:1-5). But in my experience it wouldn’t be for another six years that I would “receive” or “make welcome” the Holy Spirit who indwelt me when I first believed.  For six long years the Holy Spirit had been living in the house of my life, but I wasn’t aware of His presence or consciously plugged into His power.  This happens because, as the Reformed Biblical Theologian Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) explained –

In (the) great redeeming process two stages are to be distinguished. First come those acts of God which have a universal and objective significance, being aimed at the production of an organic center for the new order of things. After this had been accomplished, there follows a second stage during which this objective redemption is subjectively applied to individuals.

I’d believed the objective work of God in Christ to save me, but I’d not had a conscious experience of this saving work of God in Christ subjectively applied to me. I see this dynamic at work in the great “Apostolic Benediction” of 2 Corinthians 13:14 –

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”

Salvation is the work of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It originates in the love of the Father.  It is accomplished by the grace of the Son in the finished work of His atoning death, burial and resurrection.   And it is applied by the communion of the Holy Spirit, by the way that the Holy Spirit communicates God’s grace in Christ to us and facilitates our sharing in it.  When we resist (Acts 7:51), quench (1 Thessalonians 5:19), and grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), we close the door on the Spirit’s indwelling and empowering presence in our lives, and miss the conscious experience of the adequate spiritual dynamic for the living of the Christian life that God in Christ intends for us.

Jeffrey Simmons was an Episcopal Priest who was irritated when some members of his parish kept urging him to go to a certain conference where he could “get the Spirit.”   He finally wound up going, but resolved that he wasn’t going to let anybody pray for him while he was there.  Dodging offers to be prayed over at every turn, and becoming increasingly irritated by the whole idea, he finally retreated to a quiet garden where he could hide.

Sitting with my back against the trunk of a tree, I tried to sort out my feelings. I felt trapped (someone else had driven and I didn’t have a car.)  I felt pressured and manipulated… But as the sunlight sparkling through the cool green leaves started to calm me, I became aware that I (also) felt curious and a little ashamed of myself for not being more adventurous.  The theme of the conference, boiled down to the essentials, was nothing more than, “God wants to have a closer and more productive relationship with you, if you will just open yourself to receive it.”  I couldn’t argue with that… so I sat under that tree fir an hour and a half praying the hardest I had ever prayed in my life, “Dear God, if you have something for me that I don’t have, I’ll take it.”

Several decades later, I still look back at that time of prayer with gratitude. I was not aware, when I emerged from under the tree, that anything had changed.  It was not an emotional experience at all.  The changes happened gradually over the next six months.  Prayer became a hunger, and the sense of God’s presence far more intense.  The amount of money I spent on Christian books increased dramatically. The biggest change, however, was what happened when I read the Bible.  Passages I had read fifty times took on a vividness and urgency that were almost disorienting.  All I had said was, “God, if you have something for me that I don’t have, I’ll take it.” …It simply says, as I think Christians should always say, that God always has more for me, and I am standing before him with empty, receptive hands.

Biblically, I believe that the normal Christian life consists of both being “born again” (John 3:3) and of being “Spirit-filled” (Ephesians 5:18). Jesus Christ as the Savior came to do both.  He is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and He is the “One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).  But my spiritual life had been artificially truncated because nobody ever told me this, or showed me in Scripture how this was so.  As the disciples of John the Baptist told Paul outside of Ephesus in Acts 19:2 – I hadn’t even been told “that there was a Holy Spirit!”  And then, everything changed for me when at a prayer meeting when I was encouraged to “receive” or “make welcome” the Holy Spirit.  I did, and what I had known for a long long time was true suddenly became just as real to me, in me, and that’s the promise that Pentecost holds for each one of us.  “Come Holy Spirit, Come!DBS +





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O Root of Jesse…

O Root of Jesse, you stand for a sign to the peoples;
before you kings are silent, and Gentiles pray with longing:


Come now and set us free!


The third “O” Antiphon that the church prays as part of her spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmastime is rooted in the Messianic Promise that God made in His Covenant with David found in 2 Samuel chapter 7 –

Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth… 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom… 16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”

In the days of the Prophet Isaiah when the Davidic Kingdom faltered during the Babylonian Conquest, and the continuing validity of this Divine promise that David’s “house and kingdom shall be made sure forever before the Lord,” and that David’s “throne shall be established forever” seemed in doubt, the Covenantal promise of 2 Samuel 7 was prophetically reasserted in what we as Christians now read as a Messianic Prophecy (Isaiah 11) fulfilled in Jesus –

roots1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,     the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.  His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.   He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The Gospel of Matthew – the “gateway” from the Hebrew Scriptures into the Christian Scriptures – comes right out of the chute making the argument that Jesus is the fulfillment of these promises made to David.  The Gospel of Matthew opens with a genealogy that establishes Jesus to be the Christ, the “Son of David” traced through the royal line. After His birth, Matthew tells us about the Magi who came from the east seeking the One who had been born “the King of the Jews,” setting in motion a tale of brutal violence committed by the reigning King of the Jews – Herod (Matthew 2).  Large swaths of Christ’s teachings in the Gospel of Matthew concern the “Kingdom of heaven.”  He rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday at the start of Holy Week triumphantly welcomed as a king (Matthew 21).  When Jesus was crucified it was with a placard nailed to the cross above His head that read: “This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (27:37). And the very last thing that Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, the “Great Commission,” begins, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth…” (Matthew 28:18).  It is very clear that the Gospel of Matthew wants us to view Jesus Christ as the promised King from the house of David who has come to inaugurate his eternal reign.  In fact, the Gospel of Matthew teaches us to pray for it.


Every Sunday morning we pray the Lord’s Prayer together in worship at church, and one of its petitions is for the Kingdom to Come. In fact, we pray for the Kingdom to come as the very first petition of the prayer and then we turn around and close the prayer with its affirmation in the words – “For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory forever.” So, what are you praying for and affirming when you say these words?  When I pray them I am praying for something existential, something evangelistic, something ethical, and something eschatological.

“Thy Kingdom Come” – Something Existential

When I pray “Thy Kingdom Come” its first reference is to my heart where Jesus Christ has promised to come and set up shop as Lord (John 14:23).  I think that this is what Jesus meant when He said the Kingdom is “within” us (John 17:21 KJV).  This existential experience of Christ’s indwelling presence is instrumental to my whole understanding of Christianity.

“Thy Kingdom Come” – Something Evangelistic

I believe that the Gospel invitation that we have been commissioned to extend to others consists of this existential experience of Christ’s indwelling and empowering presence. And so when I pray “Thy Kingdom Come” I also understand it to be an expression of the church’s evangelistic mandate to preach the Gospel and make disciples.

“Thy Kingdom Come” – Something Ethical

And when I pray “Thy Kingdom Come” an equally compelling dimension of its meaning for me is ethical.   I believe that by the Word and the Spirit we who are Christians have access to the Mind of Christ.  Not comprehensively, mind you, but substantially nonetheless.  We know what it is that Christ wants, and what it is that He is moving all creation towards.  He wants a world of justice, peace, freedom, dignity, wholeness, sufficiency and righteousness for all.  He wants human beings to flourish and thrive, and He calls us to cooperate with Him in bringing this about.

“Thy Kingdom Come” – Something Eschatological.

The Kingdom that we pray to come is personal and social. It’s spiritual and material. And it’s already here, and it has not yet fully arrived.  And so when I pray “Thy Kingdom Come” it is always with the final consummation in mind.   The Gospel promises will forever be unfulfilled and the work of Christ’s salvation will forever be incomplete apart from Christ’s personal, visible, glorious return at the close of the age. Maranatha… Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.

And all of this is involved in the annual spiritual run-up to Christmas when I pray with the whole church the third “O” Antiphon –

O Root of Jesse, you stand for a sign to the peoples;
before you kings are silent, and Gentiles pray with longing:
Come now and set us free!


                                                                                                                  DBS +


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“What is lost by Letting Go of the “Happenedness” of the Gospel?”

A Conversation across Time with Marcus Borg – Part 3


The Bottom Line:  “The Power of God for Salvation”


bwA man cannot pray to Dr. Alfred North Whitehead’s “Principle of Concretion” or to Dr. Henry Nelson Wieman’s “Integrating Factor in Experience.”  The fact does not impugn the value of these philosophies.  They give light and leading, and serve particularly well our present age.  But the fact remains that we can hold no comradeship with an abstract noun.  We cannot talk to “The Life Essence” or “The Power Not Ourselves That Makes for Righteousness,” or even to “The Good, the Beautiful, and the True.”  Some may claim that they pray in vaguest understanding to “The All” or to the “World-Ground,” and the claim is sincere.  But, since it is not in human nature to discuss life with a wall, or to plead earnestly with a fog, these agnostic souls must assume, however dimly, a “Spirit” in “The All” – a “Spirit” which however unlike their own, has some kinship with them.

George Arthur Buttrick – Prayer (Abingdon – 1942) [65-66]


I have sometimes said, half-jokingly, that Mary Lynn, my wife of 40 years now, loves the thought of me; it’s my reality that proves challenging to her from time to time.  And Hanan Schlesinger, our Rabbi friend, more than once in our Faiths in Conversation programs through the years has explained that he doesn’t love his wife in abstraction; he loves his wife concretely by “taking out the garbage.”  All of which is to say that we don’t live our lives in the world of ideas.

We are not beings of pure spirit who exist by entertaining big thoughts and inhabiting the realm of noble ideals.  We are people of flesh and blood who need to eat and sleep, who feel pleasure and pain, who get hungry, cold and sick.  As the late F. Forrester Church, the insightful Unitarian Universalist Minister, in an essay for Phillip Berman’s the book The Search for Meaning (Ballantine – 1990), explained –

I’m not sure I became a minister until I presided over my first funeral.  My own definition of religion comes out of those experiences, with people who are dying, with families who are struggling.  My own definition of religion is that it’s our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.  And following that definition, I believe each of us is a religious being.  We probably are the religious animal.  We are the one animal who knows that we are going to die and therefore have to make some sense of who we are, why we live, what the purpose of life is, where we come from, and where we are going.  Birth and death are the two hinges upon which life turns. (388)

And this brings me to the bottom line in this series of “Borg Blogs” that I have been posting in recent weeks about what I think gets lost when we let go of the “Happenedness” of the Gospel.   You see, my fundamental problem as a human being is not primarily that I am ignorant.  Oh, ignorant I certainly am, it’s just that this is not my core issue.  More and better information, while obviously useful, is never going to be the solution to what ails me most deeply, spiritually and morally.

My very first professor of theology in seminary startled us one day when he said that Jesus Christ was not a particularly “novel” teacher.  In fact, he told us that virtually everything Jesus Christ ever said as reported in the Gospels had been taught by the Hebrew prophets and sages long before Him.  As Paul put it, the Law is “holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12).  In other words, long before Jesus came we already had a more than adequate expression of what it was that God expected of us as human beings morally and spiritually.  The Law has been written on both tablets of stone and on the contours of our hearts.  If all it takes for us to get “right” and then to stay “right” with God is information, then by Exodus 20 we should have been set.  We got all the content we ever needed on Sinai.  But my core issue is not intellectual.  Salvation is not a sudden flash of insight, or the discovery of some cosmic truth that organizes my thinking and forever clarifies my understanding.  I’ve got bigger problems than that, much bigger.

I’ve never forgotten how Nathaniel Hawthorne began his “great American novel,” The Scarlet Letter

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.

And that gets us much closer to my core issue as a human being – I’m a sinner and I’m going to die.  That jail house and grave yard is for me.  As the prayer of confession that I cut my spiritual teeth on in church growing up put it –

We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.  We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.  We have offended against thy holy laws.  We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.

My problem is not that I don’t know what God expects of me or wants for the world.  My problem is not with my definitions of justice or mercy, or with my conceptions of righteousness and peace.  No, my problem is with being consistently just and merciful, with conscientiously pursuing righteousness and peace with all of my heart, mind, soul and strength.  Oh, I know what I’m supposed to do and how I’m supposed to be.  And frankly, that’s what condemns me.  The gap between what I ought to be and do and what I actually am and do is painfully wide.  Romans 7:14-24 is the near perfect description of my spiritual dilemma. I know what’s good and right. I even want to do what’s good and right, honestly I do!  But somehow, I always wind up not doing the good quite as completely as goodness demands or the right quite as thoroughly as rightness deserves.  Fortunately for me, and for people like me, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), for it was while we were “yet sinners,” that God “proved” His love for us in the death of Christ on the cross (Romans 5:8).  And this is where my faith finally comes down with its full weight – not on the nobility of the things that Jesus Christ said, but on the sufficiency of the things that Jesus Christ did.

cupI don’t go the Lord’s Table every Sunday morning and read the Sermon on the Mount to my gathered congregation, or direct their attention to some other “red letter” teaching of Jesus Christ from the Gospels, important and true as I believe it all to be.  Unlike Buddhism, Christianity doesn’t have “Four Noble Truths” that constitute the essence of what it is that we believe.  What Christianity has is a cross and a Savior.  The bread is broken in remembrance of His body broken for us on the cross.  The cup is shared in remembrance of His blood shed for us on the cross.  Jesus didn’t die as a martyr for His teachings.  Jesus died as a sacrifice for our sins. I am not saved by ideas, no matter how true and noble those ideas may be.   I am saved by what God did for me, and for you, and for all, in Jesus Christ.

What saves me is what happened on Christmas morning when Christ was born, on Good Friday afternoon when Christ died, on Easter Sunday morning when Christ was raised, on Ascension Thursday when Christ was glorified, on Pentecost Sunday when the indwelling and empowering Spirit was poured out and on what will happen on that day in the future when Christ will come again in glory to finally and fully establish His kingdom that will have no end.  These are what British theologian Alister McGrath calls the Gospel’s “hard historical facts” (What was God Doing on the Cross – Zondervan – 1992 – p. 37), explaining that “If these events did not happen, then the credentials of Christianity are destroyed.”

ManchenIn his “Introduction” to the reprint J. Gresham Machen’s classic defense of the claims of historic Christianity – Christianity & Liberalism (1923) – Carl Trueman explained that the issue that was at stake in the Modernist/Fundamentalist controversy in the first few decades of the 20th century from Machen’s perspective was the way that the “scientific objections” of his day to “the particularities of the Christian Religion,” namely “the doctrines of the person of Christ (Fully Human/Fully Divine) and of redemption through His death and resurrection,” had led some to conclude that such ideas were no longer acceptable to the modern mind and that if Christianity didn’t change then it would die.   In their minds, in order to salvage Christianity, the Gospel’s particularities (the Incarnation, Christ’s Atoning death and His Resurrection from the dead on the third day) all had to be reworked from being the actual events of salvation history as the New Testament reports and the church had proclaimed and believed them to be into “general principles of religion” of which these “particularities” were but the “symbols” (5).  Machen saw this shift as seismic.  He regarded it as the beginning of an entirely different religion from the Christianity that had been believed and taught by previous generations of Christians.  And while that might have been an overstatement born more of the heat than the light of the moment, this is the watershed that still separates people of faith like Marcus Borg, now of blessed memory, from people of faith like me.

The “happenedness” of the Christ event is assumed by all of the New Testament documents.  The New Testament reads as the eyewitness reports of people who had “a historical experience of the great event of salvation” (Rudolf Schnackenburg).  And while these claims have been challenged by critical scholarship, other equally capable scholars have credibly defended the New Testament’s claims about the “happenedness” of the Christ event.  At best, scholarship winds up in a draw.  Probability and not certainty is the most that either side can claim, and the fact is that they both claim it.  And so, the tipping point for what one finally believes is going to have to be lodged somewhere else.

In his book Humble Apologetics (Oxford University Press – 2002), theologian John Stackhouse concluded with a story about a lunch that he was having one day with a friend who was involved in campus ministry.  Knowing that any claim he made for Christ would always be challenged by the brightest students and the best professors at the Universities he visited, this guy wanted John to give him the “silver bullet” arguments that would decisively and definitively seal the deal for Christian faith.  And what John told him was that there were no such arguments apart from knowing the difference that having Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior has made in your own life and for your world.   Quoting Rodney Clapp, John told his friend that all we can do is “propose rather than impose Christ” (166).  With genuine conviction we can offer what we have, “what we know from what we have experienced, thought about and lived” because it has changed our lives and seems to us to be “overwhelmingly true, good and beautiful” (166).

This is the difference between “knowing Christianity to be true” and “showing Christianity to be true” that William Lane Craig makes in his book Reasonable Faith (Crossway – 2008 – p.43).  Only the heart “knows” that Christianity is true.  This is the assurance that only the Holy Spirit can give. But Christianity can nevertheless be “shown” to be true in ways that are credible to the head.  There are good and sufficient grounds for believing what the New Testament tells us about who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ has done.  But faith cannot be compelled by these arguments or by that evidence.  Finally it is the experience of the Gospel in my life and the world that persuades me to have confidence in what the New Testament says.

For all that was excessive, conditioned and limited in J. Gresham Machen’s argument of 100 years ago (Christianity & Liberalism – 1923), as far as I am concerned this much still stands –

The basis of salvation [is] the redeeming work of Christ… Jesus is our Savior, not because He has inspired us to live the same kind of life that He lived, but because He took upon Himself the dreadful guilt of our sins and bore it instead of us on the cross (99).… [And this means] that Christianity does depend on something that happened… for “gospel” means “good news,” tidings, information about something that has happened.  A gospel independent of history is a contradiction of terms (102).… The reality of an atonement for sin depends altogether upon the New Testament presentation of the Person of Christ (107).… Where shall true Christian experience be found if not in the blessed peace which comes from Calvary? (109)

For a Christian whose whole life and faith centers on the Lord’s Supper and the saving work of God in Jesus Christ to which the broken bread and poured cup unswervingly points, the “happenedness” of the Gospel looms large in importance.  I believe that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16), and that the Gospel that saves us if we believe it consists of three facts that the New Testament reports as having actually happened – “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3-4).  If these things didn’t happen as the New Testament says that they did, then what the New Testament says that they mean begins to unravel and we are left trapped in our sins and dead in our graves (I Corinthians 15:17-18).  And every time I set the Lord’s Table and invite people to the feast of God’s grace made known to us in what Jesus Christ did on Calvary’s cross, I am guilty of misrepresenting God and of being willfully stupid (I Corinthians 15:14-15; 19). No, all things considered, I choose instead to be unashamed of the Gospel as the New Testament tells us it happened and confident about what the New Testament tells us it means because I know its power in my heart and I see its power in the world.  DBS+

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“What is lost by letting go of the ‘Happenedness’ of the Gospel?”

A Conversation across Time with Marcus Borg

marcusMarcus Borg died on Wednesday, January 21, 2015.  Since his death, the social media postings of many of my cyber-friends and acquaintances, both people I know “in the flesh,” as well as people I only know electronically, have written heartfelt tributes about how Marcus Borg was the scholar who saved their Christianity.   And while I certainly honor their journeys and the cherished role that Dr. Borg played in them, this has not been my journey and this was certainly not the role that Dr. Borg  played in mine.  As I explained last week in my blog, Dr. Borg was one of the “house” critics whom I intentionally invited into my faith to help keep things honest.  He didn’t “save” my faith.  If anything, he challenged it. And while he helped me to see a number of things in the Gospels that I might have otherwise overlooked, where I found myself most at odds with him was at the point of our presuppositions.  I directed folks in my blog last week to take a good look at Dr. Borg’s essay: “Has Christmas Been Swallowed by the Miraculous?” – December 11, 2014 – http://www.patheos.com to better understand his basic point of view.  He didn’t think that the miraculous details of the Gospel narratives actually happened, but that they nevertheless mattered as symbols of significance – not “factual” but still “true.”  And then he challenged people like myself who believe that they actually happened, and that it matters that they did, to explain ourselves.  He ended that essay with a string of questions – “What is lost by letting go of that?” “Is anything gained by thinking of these elements in the stories as affirmations of the significance of Jesus?” “Does the truth of Christmas (and Christianity for that matter) depend upon the ‘happenedness’ of the miraculous?”  “Is its truth more-than-factual?” 

Although my relationship with Marcus Borg was very different from that of so many of my colleagues and peers, he was nevertheless a highly valued and deeply respected conversation partner in my faith’s formation and expression. My “festschrift” of him is therefore going to be an attempt to answer his questions just as clearly and honestly as I can.  Because there is, at least to my way of thinking, way too much theological “taunting” these days  – progressives mocking the imagined stupidity of people of traditional faith like me, and people of traditional faith like mine making the room reservations and bunk assignments for progressives in hell – I will not write argumentatively but confessionally.  I will tell you what I think and believe in these postings, and try to explain why.  I kept Marcus Borg around my faith as I did because he was always such a respectful guest.  He challenged me, but I never felt demeaned by him.  He pushed me, and at times he pushed me hard, but I never felt abused by him.  Despite our disagreements, at several points “foundational” differences, I nevertheless felt like Marcus Borg always treated me with spiritual and intellectual respect as a fellow member of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10; Ephesians 2:19).  And the best way for me to honor his memory and value his contributions to my faith is to take up the challenge of his questions in that same spirit. 

Theologian Karl Barth thought that the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher was an example of everything that had gone wrong with Christianity in his day.   And yet, in his introduction to the German edition to his volume on Protestant Thought (1959), Karl Barth wrote –

“I believe one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”  And if I seriously intend to listen to a theologian of the past – whether it be Schleiermacher or Ritschl or anyone else – then I must mean this “I believe” seriously, unless I have been released from this obligation by private inspiration!   That is, regardless of my myriad opinions I must include these people in the Christian Church.  And in view of the fact that I myself, together with my theological work, belong to the Christian Church solely on the basis of forgiveness, I have no right to deny or even to doubt that they were as fundamentally concerned as I am about the Christian faith.

I strongly disagreed with Marcus Borg about the “happenedness” of the Gospel narratives.  I think that some important things are lost when this is given away.  But I never doubted that Marcus Borg was as “fundamentally concerned as I am about the Christian faith.”  And when this series is finished, my deepest hope is that even though you might very well disagree with me, that at least you will acknowledge that it is a considered position and admit that we who hold it, or something like it, are as “fundamentally concerned about the Christian faith” as you are.  I think this approach would please and best honors Dr. Borg whose faith has now become sight (2 Corinthians 5:7) and who “knows just as fully as he is known” (I Corinthians 13:12).  DBS+


 First Things First:  Establishing the Claim of the “Happenedness” of the Gospel
“What we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled…”


Every Wednesday at noon at the church I serve we have a Bible study.  Thirty to forty folks gather each week with a sack lunch and their Bibles in hand, and we take an hour to work through a New Testament book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse.  After more than 2 years in Romans, last week we started I John.  We took the first three verses in a single bite –

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–  this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us–  we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

The people in the room for this Bible Study are all smart and sophisticated people. They are doctors and accountants, businesspeople and attorneys, bankers and financial managers, real estate agents and retired teachers.  And after reading these first few verses of I John, had you asked any of them what they thought the author was telling them, to a person they would have told you that what they thought they were looking at was an eyewitness account of something that had really happened.

Robert W. Yarbrough in his Commentary on I, 2 & 3 John (Baker Academic 2008) summarizes the argument of these verses under the heading of “Eyewitness Privilege and Proclamation,” and develops the argument in five points (32) –

1. The fact of the Incarnation (1:1)
2. The validity of eyewitness testimony (1:1-3)
3. What the Incarnation manifested (1:1-2)
4. The truth and import of the Incarnation (1:1-3)
5. The goal of the proclamation (1:3)

Quoting the conclusion of the Catholic New Testament scholar Rudolf Schnackenburg about these verses at the beginning of I John, Yarbrough wrote: “the wording of the verses backs the claim that the viewpoint is one of ‘people who have had a historical experience of the great event of salvation’” (35). In other words, these trained New Testament scholars read I John 1:1-3 in pretty much the same way that the people in my noon Bible Study on Wednesdays read them.

Of course, we could all be wrong.

This claim by the author of I John to have been an eyewitness to the historical happenings of the Christ Event could have all been made up, a complete fabrication with either innocent or malevolent intent.  Somebody might have just been trying to be creative, you know, trying to gild the rose, or deceptive, deliberately trying to lead us astray.  Or it could have been an illusion, the ravings of a madman who thought that he saw something when nothing was actually there.  We will have to think and talk about these possibilities later in this blog series.  But for right now, all I want to point out is that on the surface, the author of I John purports to be an eyewitness reporter of the Christ event.  I John begins with its author telling us that he had really seen something, or, in this case, somebody, with his own two eyes, and heard Him with his own two ears, and touched Him with his own two hands, and that he wanted us to know all about what he had seen, heard and touched in order that we might enter into his experience with Him as well.  And this claim is not unique to I John.

In Acts 26, in his appearance before King Agrippa, after telling the story of his arrest for preaching the Gospel of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, Paul, when accused of being crazy for believing and teaching such things (26:24), responded: “I am not out of mind… but I utter words of sober truth… for the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner” (26:25-26).  In other words, Paul believed that the Christianity he preached was based on something that really happened, on something that happened outwardly on the stage of public history where people could see it, touch it and hear it.  In other words, he was not making this stuff up; it had been observed, it could be checked out, verified.

Carl Trueman in his foreword to the new edition of J. Gresham Machen’s 1923 Christianity & Liberalism (Eerdmans) observed-

If any simple Christian of one hundred years ago, or even today, were asked what would become of his religion if history should prove indubitably that no man called Jesus ever lived and died in the first century of our era, he would undoubtedly answer that his religion would fall away. (4)

And this sounds to me like an echo of Paul’s own conclusion in I Corinthians 15 that if Christ had not been not been raised from the dead, which he had just taken great pains to establish as being both the heart of the Gospel message (15:1-4) and an actual event   that people had seen and could verify (15:5-11), then both our preaching and our faith are “vain” (15:14), we are “false witnesses” of God (15:15), we are dead in our sins and our graves (15:17-18), and we are gullible fools (15:19).

Machen’s argument back in 1923 was that our spiritual experience as Christians today, what he described as the Gospel’s subjective “effects” in our hearts, were rooted and grounded in something that actually happened in history.   It’s the baptismal argument of Romans 6 all over again.  We have been raised to walk in newness of life – our present spiritual experience (6:4) through our personal identification with and participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ by faith – the saving act of God in Jesus Christ that played out on the stage of history (6:3-5).

Dr. Borg was representative of many who have separated these two things in their minds and heart.  Finding the “happenedness” of the saving act of God in Jesus Christ on the stage of history to be historically improbable and scientifically incredible, they have cast the claims made by the New Testament authors about Jesus Christ to be creative inventions that were designed to convey spiritual truths and foster spiritual experiences without being in any sense a reliable account of history, a trustworthy report of anything that ever actually happened anywhere outside the human heart and in the religious imagination.  Again, we will have to come back around to this divide, to this “ugly ditch” between the claim of the “happenedness” of the Gospel and the validity of its spiritual effects in the lives of believers.  We will have to explore further the reasons why some find it impossible to take the New Testament’s claims of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ (Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, and Ascension) to be historical, and why others of us find it credible, but for now, the only point I am trying to make is that it is a completely natural and reasonable way to read the New Testament documents as the accounts of “people who have had a historical experience of the great event of salvation.”  They purport to be the eyewitness accounts of people who think that they saw something that really happened, and that they want us to know about because if it did, it changes everything.

In closing, I want to share something that Stephen T. Davis, a professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, wrote in the introduction of his book Risen Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection (Eerdmans 1993).  He speaks for all of us who hold the event of the Gospel, its “happenedness,” together with the effects of the Gospel, its spiritual impact on our lives and in our world.

…Let me separate two questions about the resurrection of Jesus.  The first is: “Did it really happen? (or “What really happened?).  The second is: “What does it or should it mean to us?”  A surprising number of Christian scholars believe that the second question is more important than the first.  Some argue that the first question is a modern question quite alien to the New Testament texts.   Hans Kung says, “All questions about the historicity of the empty tomb and the Easter experience cease to count beside the question of the significance of the resurrection message.   After discussing what he takes to be the theological significance of the resurrection of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels, Norman Perrin says, “These are the meanings of the resurrection so far as the evangelists are concerned, and as such they are more important than the question of “What actually happened” in terms of appearance stories and empty tomb traditions.

For myself, I would not know how to judge which of the two question is more important.  I am not even sure that such a judgment would mean anything that could be coherently expressed.  But I am convinced that the resurrection means little unless it really happened.  If the resurrection of Jesus turns out to have been a fraud or a pious myth or even somehow an honest mistake, then there is little reason (for me) to think about it or find meaning in it.   Perhaps it would provide some lessons about courageously facing death, but that would be about all.  Furthermore, it is not true that the first question is unbiblical.   I agree that the New Testament authors were interested in proclaiming the resurrection faith and that their writings ought not primarily to be classified as examples of scientific history or philosophical theology. But I am quite sure that they were deeply interested in convincing people that Jesus really rose from the dead.   And I am not sure how you go about convincing people that “X” rise from the dead without having to talk about “what really happened to “X” after “X’s” death. (viii-ix)

And to be perfectly honest, neither am I. DBS+



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