H is for Hamartiology

Hamartiology is a topic that is not exactly favorable. It is a topic in theology that makes people somewhat uncomfortable, and rightly so. It affects, has affected, and will affect every person that walks on the earth. Hamartiology points out the faults in a person and attempts to study those faults and their place in the world of theology. Simply put, hamartiology is the study of sin.

The study of hamartiology begins with the question, “What is sin?” It then attempts to address what the implications of such a definition of sin is. In this post, I will attempt a short hamartiology, addressing the topic of sin and developing my thoughts on the matter.

What is sin?

At first glance, this question might be easily answered by the suggestion that sin is any action that is morally corrupt. This definition is true, but it only highlights one facet of the whole topic of sin. There are many systems in the world that affirm that moral evils are negative and that one must live an upright life, so the definition above does not encapsulate the Christian distinctive of sin.

Some might suggest that sin is disobedience of God’s command. That’s a bit better, but I think that this definition still does not get to the root of what sin is. Yes one can point to Genesis 3 and see that Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating of the tree that they were commanded not to. However, Jesus redefines this idea of sin when he suggests that one must go further. He suggests that although one might not commit adultery physically, one can still commit adultery within their heart through lust. One might not commit murder physically, but one can still commit murder within their heart through anger. Sin, then, is not necessarily disobedience itself, but rather the disposition toward something contrary to what God commands. It is not just the violation of law, but it is one’s negative attitude toward God.

Corruption and Freedom

In historical theological circles, there is an understanding of sin called “Total Depravity”. This term carries some baggage and has been interpreted different ways, but I will attempt to break down the simplest meaning of this term that can be agreed on by both sides of the contention over this term. In essence, Total Depravity means that human beings are wholly corrupted by sin. This is dreadful news.

But there is hope. The good news is that sin, although it has corrupted us and separated us from communion with God, although our hearts’ desire has been fixed on something other than God himself, God bridges the gap through Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection human beings may be freed from the profound effects of sin, we can be freed from Total Depravity through God’s grace. This not just good news, this is great news.

And so, for the Christian, the life of sin no longer holds sway. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, one becomes capable of saying “no” to the sin that diseased their life. For the Christian, there is a freedom that can be found, a freedom to pursue Christ. Some may argue that we are still, somehow, enslaved to sin because that is the human nature fighting back, but I would suggest that when Christ sets a person free, they are free indeed. Don’t get me wrong, this is a process. But Christ’s gift to us is a freedom to a heart disposition that is pleasing to God.

As a Christian, then, one no longer needs to ask “Who can rescue me from this body of death?” and can instead answer, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24b-25) Christians are freed from sin to obedience because Christ has brought them into the realm of the Spirit and out of the realm of the flesh (Romans 8:9).

Thanks to the Lord indeed!

Next Post: I is for Immutability and Impassibility

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G is for Grace

Grace: it is one of the favorite words of the Christian. It brings comfort, joy, security, hope, and an affirmation of love to the person who rests in it. Though it is an important word in the Christian faith, what does it mean? and what does it mean for us today?

To give you one of the textbook Christian definitions, grace is “God bestowing upon us something that we do not deserve.” This definition is usually distinguished from its counterpart, mercy, which is “God withholding from us something that we deserve.” These definitions are, for the most part, correct (although grace and mercy should not be pit against each other as opposites, but as harmonious realities).

I would like to take the definition of grace a tad bit further, if I may. The definition above does not provide any examples, any distinctions, about what God grants. Some might suggest that the very thing that God grants is grace. However, I wonder if grace is something deeper than that.

And so I propose that grace is actually God’s love. Grace is simply an outpouring of God’s love upon us, his beloved creation. It is an overflow of the love that has eternally been present between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And this takes multiple forms, namely as “common grace” and “special grace”.

Common Grace: This is grace that is very broad and general. It is grace that is experienced by all people in all places at all times. It is the love that God shows to people, just because he is good. Common grace can be anything: from a sunrise to a starlit night, from the air that we breathe to a lover’s kiss, from a baby’s giggling joy to an intricate orchestral piece. All of this is grace because God has given it to us out of his love, regardless of their standing before him.

Special (Saving) Grace: This grace is a bit trickier to describe because it carries so much historical-theological baggage. But, those debates aside, special grace is grace that God bestows on persons for salvation. When a person is “saved”, this is the grace that God gives to a person so that they may spend eternity in constant communion with him, basking in the warmth of his love.

The phrase, “all is grace”, applies here. As you can see, these two graces cover all of the bases, showing us that God’s love is constantly surrounding us, whether you believe in him or not. God is constantly loving on us simply by granting us the air that we breathe. This is the result of God’s most basic characteristic, that he is love.

Next Post: H is for Hamartiology

F is “For the Beauty of the Earth”

If you have never heard the hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth”, I highly recommend you do so (I particularly like the version that is done by a group called The New Liturgy). Here is the first verse:

For the beauty of the earth,
for the glory of the skies,
for the love which from our birth
over and around us lies;
Lord of all, to thee we raise
this our hymn of grateful praise.

This song gets at a few different ideas throughout its length. It touches on love, joy, the church, and more. But more importantly than all of those things it touches on how they are all part of God’s good creation.

The fact is when God made the world he said that it was good. He made a beautiful creation that was stamped with the artistry, the creativity of its Creator. Our world is so beautiful! Look at these pictures below:

And imagine this: this our world after it has been corrupted by sin! Imagine if we could see the world as it was intended to be, how beautiful it would be.

Here is how I understand the flow of Scripture: God made a good creation, but that God wants to restore it back to the way it was. And, no, this is not some “green” agenda that I’m trying to push (although I do think that we need to be conscious of how we treat God’s creation), but I am attempting to articulate the “new heaven, and a new earth” that Isaiah and Revelation talk about.

You see, creation is more than just something for God to look at. I even would go as far as to say that it is more than simply to glorify himself. Instead, I might suggest that the world, as we know it, is God’s intended home. He intends to dwell with his people, his church universal (John 1 shows this). I think to affirm that creation is bad and that God is just going to wipe it out in the end is to affirm Gnosticism and other historical heresies that suggest that God’s creation is evil and that we must escape it.

God created a good creation and I believe he intended it to be a good creation. And when you look about yourself at God’s beautiful creation, remember that God loves it and that he will restore it to its original beauty someday. We will live here with God, in due time, and  we will live in a more beautiful creation, free of death, sin, and decay. That’s a promise I can get behind! May it be so, Lord Jesus!

Next Post: G is for Grace

E is for Eschatology

“Team by team, reporters baffled, trumped, tethered, cropped
Look at that low plane, fine, then
Uh-oh, overflow, population, common group
But it’ll do, save yourself, serve yourself”

December 21, 2012: the most recent day that the world was supposed to come to an end. I remember this particular day because I remember posting on social media the song quoted above, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” by R.E.M.

Eschatology is a theological term that simply refers to the end times and the events that accompany Christ’s return. Christian culture is completely infatuated with the end of the world. Whether it is driven by an unnatural fear and death or by religious fanaticism, the end times, particularly end times prophecies, is a major discussion in Christian circles. Bookstores are flooded with people attempting to tell the average, pious, Christian consumer what the end of the world is going to look like and when exactly it will take place.

To be completely honest, this is an unhealthy obsession that is all too common in the Christian church. In my experience, many people will think more about the end than about some of the things that matter more, the things that matter for the here and now. I have seen people so worried about whether or not there will be a literal dragon when Jesus comes back that they ignore the task of loving our neighbor. When Jesus gave the “Great Commission”, he did not say “spend your time creating charts and graphs, predicting when I will come back”! Instead, he said to go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing and teaching them.

This is one of the greatest frustrations I have with this topic of eschatology. Authors write books, pretending that they know what’s going to happen at Christ’s return. They use fear-filled imagery to help sell their books and so people are consumed by the fear of what will happen. And when they begin to see the world through this lens, they begin to neglect the commands of Christ to live in the present moment by loving and serving others. Christ himself, the fully divine and fully human one, said that no one knows the day or the hour, but Christians run around as if they know what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen. It’s silly, really.

So What?

You may be asking yourself, “Ryan, why are you telling me all of this?” This is a fair question.

I am telling you all of this for a few different reasons:

  1. God has not given us a spirit of fear. If fear is your primary motivation, or your primary motivator, for learning about end times theology, please know that it is an unhealthy one. God has given us a more important thing to focus on at the end of time. If you read the Bible, you will see that God promises that he has already won. We do not need to worry about the outcome because the Triune God has already prevailed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  2. Dwelling on the end times promotes selfishness. As I have stated above, when we are worried about what will happen at the end, we will tend toward focusing ourselves inward rather than outward. We will look for ways to build up our “apocalypse shelters” rather than our brothers and sisters in Christ.
  3. It promotes an unhealthy view of God’s creation. Most literature about the end times focuses on how we need to get off this planet and how we can do whatever we want with creation because it’s “just going to be burned up anyway.” This is not how the Bible portrays the end, however. Creation is good and the book of Revelation states that there will be a “new heaven and a new earth”. There will be a restored creation and, in the mean time, we are to take care of it as God commanded us to in the beginning. I have written more on this topic in the post entitled “This is Home: A Vision of a Renewed Creation”.

My purpose in writing this post is not to change your mind about what is going to happen in the end times. It’s not even to discourage you from thinking about it (because it is fun stuff to discuss). My hope is that it will push you to look beyond the end times, since we can’t know all the details anyway, and to look to Christ, his commands, and his example instead.

Next Post: F is “For the Beauty of the Earth”

D is for Denominations (and the Church)

The existence of denominations is one of the “sore thumbs” of the Christian faith. The simple fact that denominations exist cause some nonbelievers to question the validity and the truth of the Christian faith. The fact that there are so many different denominations that claim to hold the truth lends itself to the idea that Christians really don’t know what is true at all, especially considering that most denominations are caused due to differences in beliefs, and that all Christians know how to do is bicker and argue.

Denominations, I will admit, are one of the unfortunate things about Christianity. In an ideal world, there would be no splits, there would be no need for splits, and Christianity would be a unified body of people who affirm Christ as the Lord.

But this is not the world we live in. We live in a world that is broken. We live in a world in which the tendency is to elevate ourselves and our need before the needs of another. We live in a world that has unfortunate blemishes, disunity in the Body of Christ being just one of them. And so the challenge is learning how to navigate the church in a world where denominations exist.

I propose that Christian unity is indeed possible, even with the existence of denominations.

The Case for the Denomination

It’s okay; no need to panic. I did just suggest that I will be defending the existence of denominations. I know that popular belief says that denominations are bad, but hear me out.

Denominations have their advantages. Some denominations were started as a way to call the original denomination that it split from back to the Gospel that we find in the Bible. Perhaps the most famous example would be Martin Luther’s split from the Catholic church because he disagreed with some of their theologies as well as disapproved of their sale of indulgences (purchased agreements freeing or lessening someone’s sentence in Purgatory). He attempted to call the church of the time back to the grace-filled Gospel.

Other times denominations have split over differences in theology. The “Great Schism” between the Catholic and Orthodox church, for example, was mostly due to a different understanding of the Trinity. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact this is okay, in my mind.

Think about this for a moment: God is infinite whereas humans are finite. We are but a speck in the grand scope of things. And although there are truths about God that we can know, through God’s self-revelation to us, it would be impossible for us to know everything about God. There is one true picture of who God is, but we cannot comprehend it wholly because we are not God ourselves. And so different theologies simply finite humans’ different attempts at trying to speak about who God is.

This is not a bad thing. It is okay to believe different things about God. Yes, there are some things that we need to make concrete (such as God’s identity as Father, Son, and Spirit or Christ’s divinity), but we don’t get to know everything (nor can we know everything). And so, differences in thinking are okay!

The Non-Denom Problem

In this blog writer’s humble opinion, denominations are not the enemy like many portray them to be, as I have stated above. However, it is a recent phenomenon that people are sick and tired of all of the denominations and so what they do is they leave denominational churches in search of the “alternative”: the non-denominational church.

The non-denominational church is a nice concept: in theory. It is a bunch of people seeking unity for the church. However, when non-denominational churches decide that they are sick of denominations and that they want unity, they flock to churches that don’t have a label on them. Ultimately this really just creates a new denomination: the non-denomination. For the sake of unity people leave their churches and start or attend another church rather than trying to work with the one they’ve got.

Thus they are starting another denomination, all for the sake of unity. Instead of there being 250,000 denominations (a made up number), there are now 250,001 denominations. Therefore, I don’t believe that leaving denominations and attending non-denominational churches is the answer.

A Proposed Solution

As I mentioned above, we live in a world where denominations are the reality. We do not get to live out this ideal of a one-hundred percent unified church (in the denominational sense). However, I believe that there is hope for the future going forward.

I think that in our fallen world, denominations will always exist. But this does not mean that we cannot live unified together under the name of Christ. In fact, I believe we can! This can only happen when we are willing to accept that we don’t have to be right all the time, that we cannot know all that there is to know about God, and that we are only human.

And so my proposal is that we live, work, and worship inter-denominationally rather than non-denominationally. Rather than denying our differences and pretending like we all are clones, programmed to look and act exactly alike, we should embrace our differences and strive to see how we can all work together for the sake of Christ and the Gospel.

I believe that Christ’s prayer for unity in John 17 can become a reality if we are willing to look past ourselves to embrace each other, across denominational lines, for the selfless service of another.

Next Post: E is for Eschatology

C is for Calvinism

I should say something about Calvinism at the outset: I am not particularly fond of this brand of theology. I wanted to mention this as a “disclaimer” of sorts because I have biases toward the “opposing” view (known as Arminianism, though that distinction is problematic by itself). With that said, I believe that “Calvinists” are Christians too and I will not attempt to split the church of Christ simply because I have a different understanding of theology. I will attempt to provide a fair representation of this system of theology and, if you think that I have misrepresented this position, please leave a respectful comment and we can have a dialogue about this theology.

Calvinism is a misnomer. It is named after John Calvin and his system of thought, but the idea, popularly referred to as Calvinism, was present long before the 16th century when Calvin came on the scene. Really this system of thought traces back to popular thinkers such as Augustine that came along prior to John Calvin. However, for ease of reference, I will continue to call this system of theology Calvinism.

Calvinism is an important theology, because of its wide range of influence, that emphasizes, primarily, the sovereignty of God. It suggests that God is all-powerful, even to the point of possessing and exercising complete and total control. This sovereignty is present in many aspects: from the salvation of person, to the creation of the world, to the security of one’s salvation, etc.

Though it may not be complete, one of the most helpful “tools” in describing Calvinism is the acronym “TULIP”. I will explain what each letter stands for as well as provide a brief description of what each tenet of theology implies:

  • Total Depravity – The idea of Total Depravity suggests that humans are corrupted totally by sin and that, on our own, we can do no good deed that pleases God.
  • Unconditional Election – Because humans are corrupted so totally by sin, they cannot save themselves. Therefore, God takes the initiative and he chooses that some will be saved (these are called the “elect”) and that some will not (these are called the “reprobate”). God chooses who will be saved based on his own purposes and not based on anything that the person has done.
  • Limited Atonement – Because God chooses some to be saved and not others, the effects of Jesus death only saves those who are part of the elect.
  • Irresistible Grace – And, because of God’s perfect power and sovereign decree, those who are part of the elect will come to salvation and it cannot be denied or resisted.
  • Perseverance of the Saints – Because the elect will come to salvation, due to God’s election of them, the elect cannot fall away from this state of salvation. One then cannot “lose their salvation”, as it were.

Calvinism is often contrasted with Arminianism which, although they share the same basic, creedal affirmations of a Triune God, Jesus’ divinity, etc., they are different in their outlook of salvation. On the website for the Society of Evangelical Arminians, they provide a counter acronym, “FACTS”, that is helpful in comparing the two views:

  • Freed to Believe by God’s Grace – God frees the human will so that the human can believe upon God for salvation.
  • Atonement for All – Salvation, through Christ alone, by grace, is offered to all people. However, only those who freely choose Christ will be saved.
  • Conditional Election – One’s participation in election, the saved people of God, is dependent upon the person’s choosing of Christ. Arminians do not believe this to be a good work that saves them, but, rather, it is a willing submission to the grace of God for their salvation.
  • Total Depravity – See above.
  • Security in Christ – So long as one continually believes upon Christ for their salvation and continually walks with him, that person is considered to be part of the elect and, therefore, saved.

These systems have “butt heads” for many years. Oftentimes this causes denominations who follow these different theologies to attend different churches (Calvinists often attend Presbyterian, Reformed, Reformed Baptist, and some Baptist churches and Arminians attend Methodist, Pentecostal, and some Baptist churches, though these are generalizations, of course) and get into heated online debates.

The important thing to recognize in this brief discussion about these two theologies is that they both have their merits. They are both influential and have had great impacts upon the Christian community. They both seem to have their views supported by Scripture. And they both represent humanity’s struggle to wrap their minds around the majesty and immensity of the deity that we call God.

I do not have the time to explore the issues that I take with Calvinism or the issues that Calvinism has with Arminianism, but I hope that I have provided a survey of these two theologies that helps you to understand, or at least inquire into, what you believe for yourself. Calvinists are, indeed, my brothers and sisters in Christ and I love them dearly.

Next Post: D is for Denominations (and the Church)

B is for Baptism

I remember it quite well. As I stepped up into the baptistry at the church that I was attending, I recall that I was a bit nervous. I was probably more nervous about being held under water by my jokester of a pastor than I was about being the center of attention. I remember hearing my pastor speaking over me, with an emotional quiver in his voice, about how he had enjoyed watching me grow in the Lord. After being submerged, I arose from the water to the roar of applause and to my crying friend who was handing me my towel.

All I could remember thinking prior to this amazing experience was, “What is so special about baptism? Why do we perform baptisms? Why should I be baptized?”

Baptism, historically, was not something that happened immediately after one affirmed the gospel of Christ. Initially it was preceded by a time of instruction called the “catechumenate”. This was a time in which “catechumens received instruction on Christian doctrine, and were to give signs in their daily lives of the depth of their conviction” and “they were taught the meaning of the creed or baptismal formula that they would be asked to affirm at their baptism.” (Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity vol. 1, 112) In the days of the early church, baptism was usually performed by immersion, with the water being poured over the person’s head, especially when water was scarce. (Gonzalez 113).

Baptism is a quite contested issue. For the sake of space I will mention a few of the issues surrounding baptism, but will not spend too much energy trying to flesh out the issues. One issue is that it is believed to be an act in which a person is saved once they are baptized (this view is often called baptismal regeneration). Others, however, believe that a person should be baptized only after they are saved. In either case, baptism plays an important role in the church. Another issue is about how baptism is supposed to be performed, whether through submersion, sprinkling, etc. And another major issue is over whether or not infants should be baptized.

Beyond the issues that have been argued, however, baptism is a special event. It is an event in which the converted declared that they identified with Christ in his death, particularly identifying in the death to one’s own self and the sinful life, and resurrection, identifying with the newness of life found in Christ. In this way, it is a public declaration that the baptized are Christ’s, that they are made new, and that they no longer live for themselves but for Christ.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)

It is unfortunate to see baptism simply as a recognition of one’s newness of life because it is, in fact, much more than that. Though it is debated whether saving grace is channeled through the act of baptism, grace is still communicated. It is not simply an act in which we affirm God, but it is also an act in which God affirms us, calling us by name and reminding us of our truest identity: as the Beloved of the Lord.

And so I have realized that being baptized in the name of the Lord on April 22, 2012, identifying with Christ in his death and resurrection, I am affirmed by God and that through this ceremonial act I am continually blessed to be known as one of his own.

Next Post: C is for Calvinism