Engaging the Society Narrative: Absolute Negative Freedom | Tim Keller

I recently read Tim Keller’s latest book, Preaching, for a seminary class, and it was simply incredible. Yes, while the general thrust of the book is certainly angled for preachers, it is without a doubt a book for all Christians. (In fact, had I been the author, I would have renamed the title in order to broaden the target audience. And I’m kind of upset the title is “Preaching” because it’s highly likely most Christians won’t dare to pick it up.)

The main thing I appreciated about this book is its commentary on how the gospel intersects all cultural narratives and affirms/challenges their relative, foundational premises. Below is an entire section of chapter 5 where Keller addresses the holes in the Absolute Negative Freedom worldview, which is by far the most pervasive worldview in America today. Check out what he has to say, for I couldn’t possibly express the complications behind the sentiment of this worldview any better than he did.

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Freedom of choice without limits has become almost sacred. (Philosophers call this “negative freedom”—freedom from constraints—which they contrast with “positive freedom,” the freedom to pursue some good aim.) Absolute negative freedom becomes the chief moral good, so that “the [only] sin which is not tolerated is intolerance.” This poses many problems both philosophical and practical.

One is that this narrative’s sacralizing of personal choice erodes community and fragments society. Remember Taylor’s quote that “to have any kind of livable society some choices have to be restricted, some authorities have to be respected, and some individual responsibility has to be assumed.” Sociologists have documented the growing civic and political disengagement of younger adults. The more people are invested in the late-modern understanding of the sovereign self and in its younger brother, absolute negative freedom, the less they feel a loyal part of the greater body politic.

Another problem with this freedom narrative is the unworkability of what has been called the “harm principle.” Taylor summarizes it as “no one has a right to interfere with me for my own good, but only to prevent harm to others.”36 The harm principle seems to make freedom of choice into a self-correcting absolute. In this view, a society does not need to lay down any moral principles at all—it can be “value free.” Everyone is free to live in any way she chooses, as long as it doesn’t curtail someone else’s freedom. However, the Achilles’ heel of this theory is the assumption that we all know what “harm” is or that it can be defined without recourse to deep beliefs about right and wrong.

One person says that it harms no one for a man to consume pornography privately in his own home. Others counter, however, that pornography will shape how he talks and acts with others, especially with women. Beneath these different conclusions about harm lie different understandings of the right and wrong way for individuals to relate to community. In other words, any decision about what harms others is rooted in specific views of human nature, happiness, and right and wrong—each of which is a matter of faith. So even if we all agree that freedom should be curtailed if it harms people, since we can’t agree on what harm is, the principle is useless in practice.

The freedom narrative also thins out the pursuit of meaning in life. Harvard scientist Stephen Jay Gould once was asked “What is the meaning of life?” and responded, “We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures. . . . We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer—but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, is ultimately liberating. . . . We must construct these answers for ourselves.”37 If there is no God and we have not been put here for some purpose, then there is no “discovered” meaning in life—no purpose that is there, existing before us, for which we were built, and with which we are obligated to align ourselves. This absence frees us, Gould says, to decide what things are meaningful for us. We may find that building homes or painting pictures or raising a family gives us purpose. So those are the meanings we choose for ourselves.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel, however, says that created meanings are less rational in principle than discovered meanings. Most of us would agree, Nagel argues, that we only have meaning if we feel we are making a difference, that what we do matters. But, he argues, if there is no God and you write a “great work of literature that continues to be read thousands of years from now,” nevertheless “eventually the solar system will cool or the universe will wind down and collapse and all trace of your effort will vanish. . . . If you think about the whole thing . . . it wouldn’t matter if you had never existed.” In other words, if there is no God or anything beyond this material world, then whether you’ve been good or cruel or murderous will make no final difference. No one will be around to remember anything. That means you can live a meaningful life only if you are careful to not think out the implications of your view of the universe. That’s not a very rational way to live. Religious believers, however, draw greater meaning in life the more they think out the implications of their view of the universe. In their view, right actions now count literally forever.

Luc Ferry, another atheist, makes a related argument—that these created meanings are not just less rational but more selfish. We may decide to give our lives to serve the medical needs of poor people; but why, within a secular framework, is that significant? The proper answer according to the freedom narrative is that we are doing it not because we are obligated to do it but because we freely choose to find this activity significant for us. However, Ferry argues, that means we are actually helping sick people for our sake, not theirs. We are doing it because it makes us feel worthy and significant. Self-created meanings come terribly close to simply living for oneself.

The final reason that this narrative does not ultimately work is that the modern idea of freedom itself is an illusion. Remember that the modern concept of freedom is absolute negative freedom, the absence of any constraint. The fewer limits or boundaries I have on my desires, choices, and actions, it would seem that the freer I am. However, this does not do justice to the complexity of the dimensions of freedom and the realities of incarnate and communal life.

A sixty-year-old man may have a strong desire to eat fatty foods, but if he regularly exercises his freedom to give in to that desire, his life will be curtailed in some way. He must choose to lose a lesser freedom (to eat these foods he enjoys) for a greater freedom (health and long life). If you want the freedoms that come with being a great musician—the ability to move people with your music and to make a good living for your family—you will have to give up your freedom to do other things in order to practice eight hours a day for years. Freedom is not, then, simply the absence of restrictions, but rather consists of finding the right, liberating restrictions. Put another way, we must actively take tactical freedom losses in order to receive strategic freedom gains. You grow only as you lose some lower kinds of freedom to gain higher kinds. So there is no absolute negative freedom.

The ultimate proof that the freedom narrative does not work—is love. No love relationship can grow unless each person sacrifices some freedom in order to serve the other, yet these restrictions, if accepted mutually, lead to the various liberations of mind and heart that only love can bring. Most people will say they feel most like “themselves” when they are truly loved and loving another—but that requires the surrender of complete self-determining freedom. As we have seen, the late-modern freedom narrative undermines human community in general. But it is especially corrosive of marriage. A late-modern person, controlled by both the freedom and identity narratives, wants a spouse who “accepts me as I am” and neither demands that you change nor requires you to sacrifice any of your own substantial desires, interests, and dreams. This kind of marriage is a fiction—it doesn’t exist.

The very theme of the kingdom of God, when preached properly and fully, directly challenges yet fulfills the late-modern desire for freedom. We can see in daily life how the disciplines—freedom “losses” like practice and dieting—lead to other kinds of freedom gains. We also see how when employees submit to the leadership of a great CEO or team members to that of a great coach, everyone on the team realizes his potential and everyone thrives. Submitting to the right rules and the right leader can bring all sorts of great freedoms. If we see this to be the case, then how much more liberating will it be to submit to the true king of our souls? When the Bible talks about God’s returning to judge the earth, even the created order is liberated from decay (Psalm 96:11–13; Romans 8:20–23).

All of this supports the famous claim by Jesus that knowing him sets you “free” (John 8:31–36), meaning “The ultimate bondage is . . . rebellion against the God who has made us. The despotic master is not Caesar, but shameful self-centeredness, an evil and enslaving devotion to created things at the expense of worship of the Creator.”

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Tim Keller, Preaching, Chapter 5: “Engaging the Society Narrative: Absolute Negative Freedom”

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Why Fiction Stories Resonate | J.R.R. Tolkien

The following blog is an excerpt from Tim Keller’s latest book, concerning the natural desires of mankind and the gospel of Christ:

Tolkien’s famous essay “On Fairy Stories” argues that there are indelible, deep longings in the human heart that realistic fiction cannot satisfy. Fantasy fiction—fairy tales and science fiction and similar literature—depict characters who…

  • get outside of time altogether;
  • escape death;
  • hold communion with nonhuman beings;
  • find a perfect love from which they never part;
  • triumph finally over evil.

Of course readers and viewers know that fairy stories are fiction, but when the story is well told and these things are depicted vividly, it provides a peculiar kind of comfort and satisfaction. What we call “fantasy fiction” is massively popular and continues to be consumed by audiences numbering in the billions. The enduring appeal of stories that represent these conditions is unquestionable. But why? As a Christian, Tolkien believed that these stories resonate so deeply because they bear witness to an underlying reality.

Even if we do not intellectually believe that there is a God or life after death, our hearts (in the Christian view) sense somehow that these things characterize life as it was and should be and eventually will be again. We are so deeply interested in these stories because we have intuitions of the creation/fall/redemption/restoration plotline of the Bible. Even if we repress the knowledge of that plotline intellectually, we can’t not know it imaginatively, and our hearts are stirred by any stories that evoke it.

The English word “gospel” comes from the Middle English word Godspell which derives from two Old English words: good and spell (story). In Old English “to tell a story” was “to cast a spell.” Stories capture the heart and imagination and give us deep joy. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Goodspell. It is the story that all other joy-bringing, spell-casting, heart-shaping stories only point to. What’s special about this one? It is the one story that satisfies all these longings—yet is historically true.

If Jesus Christ was really raised from the dead—if he is really the Son of God and you believe in him—all those things that you long for most desperately are real and will come true. We will escape time and death. We will know love without parting, we will even communicate with nonhuman beings, and we will see evil defeated forever. In fairy stories, especially the best and most well-told ones, we get a temporary reprieve from a life in which our deepest desires are all violently rebuffed. However, if the gospel is true—and it is—all those longings will be fulfilled.

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Timothy Keller, Preaching, Chapter 5.

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Tolerance, Or Is It?

If I learned any one particular cultural philosophy during my four years in college, it was without a doubt the notion of ‘tolerance.’ I am not exaggerating when I say that this concept pervaded almost every lecture of my two humanity majors, Interpersonal and Organizational Communication and Religious Studies (and I even heard it mentioned in several of my pre-dental prerequisites before too, like Anatomy and Chemistry, believe it or not).

Assuming you don’t live under a rock, you understand that this philosophy of tolerance exists not only as a hot topic among thriving college campuses, but also is increasingly becoming the lifeblood of popular culture, politics, and societal frameworks.

Of course, recent develops this year suggest just that, as Hobby Lobby vs. Obamacare, Caitlyn Jenner, and the legalization of homosexual marriage all fundamentally point to this paradigmatic shift in culture away from absolutism and towards relativism, which crowns the concept ‘tolerance’ as the ultimate, ruling authority.

However, while I do think the cultural philosophy of tolerance finds its origins in our foundational philosophy of American rights and liberties, it seems like our culture is nevertheless tipping towards the extreme end of the ‘tolerance’ spectrum in such a way that it actually—and quite ironically—debunks its own stance all along.

To get at what I mean, let’s first re-assess the definition of tolerance, just to make sure we are all on the same page. Webster defines ‘tolerance’ as, “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.”

So, inherent to the meaning of ‘tolerance’ is two fundamental things: 1) the existence of disagreeing ideas, 2) acting in an agreeable manner despite such disagreement.

Personally, I think the issue of definition is the fundamental point of contention where this philosophy starts to sour. Meaning, while culture constantly promulgates the philosophy of tolerance, it appears that its functional definition does not always match its formal definition.

In other words, culture is not functionally preaching a true of tolerance when it forces a universal acceptance of a cultural norm (which is, ironically, functionally intolerant of other cultural values and expressions).

Going back to Webster, we can clearly see that ‘tolerance,’ on its own terms, emphasizes the nature of how people should disagree; tolerance never emphasizes that everyone should agree.

If I’m not mistaken, the very climate of tolerance necessitates the very existence disagreement after all. Truly, if there were no disagreement, then there would be nothing to tolerate. Tolerance does not mean agreeing on everything; it means being gracious and kind in our disagreements. Tolerance is a disposition of one’s position, not a ‘Spanish inquisition’ of one position.

Besides, how is one to accept the veracity of every worldview, especially when worldviews are in direct contradiction at some points? It’s impossible to say that a circle and a rectangle are the same.

The irony of a view of ‘tolerance’ that says ‘everyone must be like this’ is that it immediately becomes intolerant of other cultures that have views different to it. In other words, this view of ‘tolerance’ implicitly communicates that it is completely acceptable to be intolerant to intolerance in other cultures. But quite ironically, right at that moment, this view of ‘tolerance’ has become entirely like other cultural views of intolerance. But thinking it has the right to do so, it grants itself the high privilege of intolerance that it does not allow to other cultures—which ironically, is a greater degree of intolerance all along.

Are you tracking here? It’s kind of a cerebral conversation. I’m trying my best to explain the philosophical implications of twisting the definition of ‘tolerance’ to mean ‘agree on everything.’

An extreme view of ‘tolerance’ that advocates fights intolerance with intolerance is simply blind to the reality that they are just like other cultural frameworks. For example, if popular culture insists that homosexual marriage is acceptable, yet Islam’s and Christianity’s ethics state otherwise, then true tolerance of popular culture should say that while there are disagreements, we can do so in a gracious, respectable manner without emphasizing that every culture adopt our worldview. Similarly, Muslims and Christians, according to their worldview should disagree with the political climate, but should do so with gentleness and respect, without compromising their unique values, either. However, if popular culture were to discriminate against Islam and Christianity for their ethics, popular culture would not be tolerant, but intolerant.

If popular culture were follow ‘tolerance’ in the truest sense of the word, it would look something like this: when popular culture tells another culture to ‘tolerate’ this-or-that, that would mean an exhortation for agreeableness (warm and considerate), not agreement (accept or endorse). This distinction is extremely important, and I believe it is one that is often overlooked or underappreciated.

Some cultures, like Islam and Christianity, cannot inherently agree with or endorse homosexual marriage because it fundamentally violates their view of how the world and humanity has been designed and purposed.

To conclude, and on a semi-related note, I just want to emphasize the point that Christianity, especially, can never enforce spirituality through politics. Christians must stop depending on political climates to seemingly accomplish spiritual agendas. God has never and will never be confined to political climates, and the various political climates throughout Scripture and the early church and now prove that. Christianity’s salvation lies not in a political mold, but in a cross and open grave. The former does not have the power to change our hearts, but only the latter can. Therefore, at the end of the day, Christ is the hope for the world, not the political situation of the day.

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How Do I Figure Out My Calling?

What is my calling? This is something I have struggled with my entire life. And I still struggle with it today. If anything, I have struggled with it more since I graduated college than any other time in life. Though, there have been two verses in particular that have profoundly shaped the way that I think about a life ‘calling’ as of recent.

Here they are:

The first verse is 2 Timothy 4:5, which reads, “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (emphasis mine). Upon my emphasis of the last phrase, there exists a cross-reference to Colossians 4:17, which says, “see that you fulfill the ministry that you have received from the Lord.” These two verses work together to say something very important about the nature of what it means be ‘called.’

Paul told Timothy to fulfill your ministry. This is pretty significant. Note that Paul did not say, fulfill my or even fulfill the ministry. Paul said, “fulfill your ministry, [Timothy].” The sentiment behind this statement seems to communicate that God has given each of us a special type of ministry to perform based on the giftings, passions, and opportunities that he has uniquely given us, and no one else can really do this type of ministry quite like we can. Thus, this ‘calling’ is something that God has created us to do all along; it’s something that is found in our spiritual gifts, our heart of hearts, our open doors, and even our DNA.

But before we get too introspective, I think it is important for us to realize that God gives us two different callings, yet the callings fundamentally exists together much like two concentric circles (one smaller circle that is situated inside one bigger circle).

Initially, the ‘bigger, outside circle of calling’ represents that God’s call is first objective, broad, and general for every Christian: you have been commissioned to live for the glory and mission of God. This is all about the Great Commission. Every Christian is called to go and make disciples, expanding the quality and quantity of kingdom across the globe.

Next, the ‘smaller, inside circle of calling’ represents that God’s call is secondarily subjective, personal, and specific for every Christian: you have been wired to fulfill a certain angle of ministry for the glory and mission of God. This is all about your spiritual gifts, desires, passions, and abilities. Every Christian is called to make disciples, but there is no such clear-cut formulaic way that the Bible commands us to do so. It essentially gives us freedom with how we are to be on mission and to go about making disciples, beckoning us to be as creative as possible.

Thus, in other words, every Christian is called to join God in his ultimate mission to bring the gospel to all peoples, yet we are called to participate in this mission in differing ways. Indeed, at the end of the day, it’s not a matter of if you have been called; it’s a matter of where and how you will fulfill that calling.

You could even think of the mission of God like a big corporation. The goal of a corporation remains the same from top to bottom, yet each department of the corporation accomplishes the goal through their different, yet, complementary work. The marketing and administrative and human resources and product design and customer service each perform different roles, but there exists a fundamental, laser-beam focus of one goal at the forefront of each separate department. And indeed, different departments accomplish the goal better by working together, each with their own strengths and focuses. Similarly, the Christian ‘calling’ remains the same whoever you are, but you are to work towards its accomplishment in different ways based on who you are.

Ok, well. What is my ‘role’ or ‘office’ per se for how I am to specifically participate in this grand mission of God?

Many of us just wish God that would write it out in the sky for us, plain and clear in terms of what he wants us to do. But that’s the thing—this ‘calling’ doesn’t ever seem so plain and clear. So we lean especially upon dependence and prayer in this grueling time of uncertainty.

Dependence is great, but what about answers? Ok, yes, dependency is a great answer, in and of itself. But questions like these constantly raid us nevertheless: What else do I have to do to get certainty about God’s will for my life? Lay a fleece? Ask for the sun to stand still? Eh. Yeah, I feel the same way. So, now what?

While looking upwards to God in prayer and dependence is absolutely crucial in this gaining a sense of spiritual or vocational direction, I think the question of vocation is one of those rare times when Scripture actually permits us to look ‘inwards’ in ourselves as much as we are reminded to look ‘upwards’ to God. What do I mean?

Meaning, when trying to figure out our calling, don’t wait for a voice to tell you ‘here or there’ or ‘this or that.’ Let’s be honest and confess that it may never come. Instead, look in yourself and see how God has wired you, designed you, and created you. When God created you, he pre-packaged your life-purpose inside of you. Therefore, what you are looking for is not so much a question of ‘calling’ so much as it is a question of ‘wiring.’

What makes you burn? What makes you passionate? What makes you angry or excited or burdened? The answers to these questions likely indicate what God created you to do.

To be honest, working with and caring for children does not exactly cross my mind or make me passionate or make me burdened. Being a 3rd grade teacher is something that I have never before considered. But thank God for those of you who are deeply affected by this. This is a need. Personally, things like reading, writing, connecting, media, creating, and church ministry is what gets me hyped. It constantly heats me up. Reaching people is what gets my gears spinning. I don’t try to be impassioned by those things. No, those things impassion me because its what God has wired me to do.

So in a way, God has already answered this question of ‘calling’ for you—he’s placed it in your wiring. He’s given you those passions and abilities and skills for a reason. He’s calling you to be a steward of them, too.

Like in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), don’t sit on these gifts and passions. Use them in a responsible and shrewd way, banking on God to see your efforts through. Use them to bless others and to expand the kingdom. Take risks with them. See what happens. Trial and error is good.

But fearful paralysis to use and risk these gifts of God is the same as to bury money in a hole instead of to invest it in a future. Money and your calling functionally work in the same way: they can only multiply in a climate of risk, not in a cave of regret. If there is no risk, then there will be no reward. Sure, you could lose them, but then again, God is not calling us to be safe and inactive with our talents; he is calling us to be shrewd and active with our talents, banking on his sovereignty and love in the process of anticipation.

And God totally delights in our taking risks upon his sovereignty and grace. Our risks for him prove that we actually trust in him.

And in response to us making risks for the kingdom, I think God just kicks back and cracks a wide, fatherly smile, saying, “Try me. Your risks won’t be anything less than totally exhilarating for you, and nothing short of utterly glorifying to me.”

His glory and our joy are not separate. Just like his calling on us and his wiring of us are not separate. Indeed, they are one. Who you are—and what your calling is—is a unique, irreplaceable piece that fits into the grand, glorious panorama of redemptive history.

Look upwards to God for grand purpose. Look inwards to self for specific purpose. And then look outwards to see how your wiring fulfills a need for the overarching purpose of the Great Commission.

Upwards. Inwards. Outwards.

That’s your calling.

Now do it.

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Whatever You Do, Wherever You Go: Missions

A common crime in Christianity is to assume hard-and-fast categories for Christians based on their default personality, gifts, experience, and passions. Such categories that we often create for ourselves and others in the church could entail some of the following: Servant. Leader. Missionary. Teacher. Learner.

Sure, people will always default more naturally to one type or another, and our specific tendencies are a result of our spiritual gifts, experiences, situation, and passions. However, the problem with making individual categories is that it undercuts the basic make-up of what all Christians are called to be at the same time: servants, leaders, missionaries, teachers, and learners. Categorizing someone as a leader but not a missionary, or a teacher but not a servant, or a learner but not a teacher, does a great disservice to the Christian church, both individual and corporately.

All Christians are called to be all of these things. Thus, we should think of these types (servants, leaders, missionaries, teachers, learners, etc.) not as predominant categories of different Christians, but rather as overarching characteristics of all Christians.

Unfortunately, this crime of ‘categorization’ becomes especially pronounced when the topic centers on mission work. When the subject of missions comes up, it is not uncommon to hear, “I’m not called to be a missionary, like Such-and-Such. God bless ‘em, though.”

However, I’m not innocent of making such a claim, myself. And I’m sure we all have categorized, marginalized, or dismissed missions at one point or another, too (but you haven’t, then here’s a genuine golf clap of admiration). Yet, while categorizing missions is something we do instinctively, it is something the Bible does not do dismissively.

What a lot of us do not realize is that our title of Christian actually implies the job description of missionary. Many of us naturally associate ‘missionary’ with full-time vocational ministry overseas. But that’s simply not the case. A quick look through Scripture will show that ‘missionary’ is not simply a type of Christian, but is the type of DNA in every Christian.

Here’s what I mean: If the meaning of ‘Christian’ means ‘Christ-follower,’ and if Christ was the greatest, ultimate missionary who came to earth from heaven to save a lost people, then following Jesus implies taking on the same trajectory, purpose, and perspective of life as Jesus, leveraging every aspect of our lives for the same ultimate cause that Jesus leveraged every aspect of his life for.

To be sure, however, Scripture does not command everyone to uproot their lives and go overseas. In fact, in Matthew 28:19, the famous Great Commission text, the terminology “Go and make disciples” in Greek actually renders a more accurate interpretation of “as you go, make disciples.” This is significant because the emphasis of Jesus’ command actually stresses on the ‘make disciples’ part—not the ‘go’ part. Contrary to what we assume, the word ‘go’ is actually the soft command while the ‘make disciples’ is the hard emphasis.

My seminary professor described the soft nature of the command to ‘go’ like this: “It’s like me asking you to go get me a cup of water. The emphasis is on ‘cup of water’ part; the ‘go’ part just explains the process. Similarly, when Jesus asks us to make disciples, he is saying this: ‘because making disciples is what you’re supposed to do, it’s obvious that you’ll go in the process of doing it.’” I thought that was a great explanation.

Therefore, the sentiment of the Great Commission text, all along, communicates the following: As you are going through life, make disciples. In other words, wherever you are in life inherently presents itself as a mission field that is just as ripe as some place overseas. That’s certainly not to discount missions overseas, but it certainly is to emphasize disciple-making wherever you are.

Unfortunately, we flip-flop the emphasis of Jesus’ Great Commission command by placing the stress on ‘go’ instead of ‘make disciples.’ The implication of such a skewed hermeneutic is actually quite disastrous. In fact, it might be why many Christians think it’s acceptable to pat themselves on the back for going on a short-term mission trip overseas, but never actually share Christ with that lost friend at home whom they see every day.

Indeed, the life trajectory of every Christian should be characterized as that of a missionary. Whether you are home side or overseas, it’s the trajectory of life that matters. Therefore, a Christian in any vocation is a missionary. A doctor is a missionary. A teacher is a missionary. A stockbroker is a missionary. A lawyer is a missionary. A pastor is a missionary. A marketing rep is a missionary. And a vocational missionary is a missionary. All are missionaries who use their vocation as a means and presence for unique missions. None is more important than the other. We each have our own unique mission fields. Do what you do best for the glory of God and do it in a place that is strategic for the mission of God. Maybe that’s at home. Maybe that’s overseas. But the call is still there.

A life that has a clear trajectory of mission—of God-ward and people-ward purposes—is much better than one that ‘does a mission trip’ for a week and then slumps right back into the trajectory of self-ward living. Does everything you do—whoever you are, and whatever you do, and wherever you are—ultimately funnel into the laser-beam of purpose that is glorifying Christ, enjoying him, and as a result, sharing him with others?

As Christians, our trajectory of life is not inward, but outward. That’s the difference. Like Spurgeon once said, “Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.” If our trajectory of life does not have at its aim the mission of God, then we are simply estranged from what our alleged Savior is all about.

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men… (Colossians 3:17, 23)

Whatever you do: THAT is ripe with mission and ripe with harvest.

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On the Trinity

One of the most difficult perplexities of the Christian religion is its doctrine of the Trinity—the triune nature of God. This doctrine is utterly unique from other religions, which are monotheistic (one god), pluralistic (many gods), or pantheistic (everything is divine). It even seems like concepts of monotheism, pluralism, and pantheism would completely cover all areas of the spectrum for the nature of the divine. But Christianity’s belief of God’s nature actually exists on an entirely different theological spectrum altogether: a God who is three in nature but one in essence. The very thought of such a concept is simply mind boggling and transcendent to human logic, imagination, or comprehension. Not only do non-Christians struggle with this ideology, but Christians struggle to make sense of it, too. Nevertheless, the importance of such a doctrine cannot be overstated or exaggerated: it is truly the foundation of the Christian religion, and if it were to be removed, the entire construct of Christianity would instantly topple over into shambles of illogic and uselessness. Therefore, in the following blog, I want to highlight the biblical basis for this doctrine, and then conclude by conveying some important truths it warrants.

Scripture

Initially, although the Bible does not explicitly use the terms ‘trinity’ or ‘trinitarian’ or ‘triune’ to describe the nature of God, it nonetheless describes this God as existing in one essence, yet in three separate beings: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. There are several texts in both the Old Testament and New Testament that speak to this triune nature of God, thereby, serving to establish a theological framework of his nature from start to finish. Of course, while Jesus explicitly comes on the scene in the New Testament, the Old Testament mentions this coming Savior all throughout the books of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets, too. Let’s take a quick look to see what Scripture says about the nature of God.

One text that alludes to such a three-in-one description of the nature of God includes Genesis 1:1-2 and 1:26, which implies quite clearly that God’s nature exists as more than one being. For instance, Genesis 1:1-2—the first two verses of the Bible—reveal that God and the Spirit of God are separate beings, both preexisting and causing the origins of creation. Additionally, in Genesis 1:26, God says, ‘let us make man in our own image,’ thereby indicating that God’s nature is not just inherently singular.

Moreover, another group of texts that suggests the triune nature of God is John 1, Hebrews 1, and Colossians 1, which specifically argue for the divinity of Jesus, God the Son. First, John 1:1-3 says,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”

Second, Hebrews 1:1-4 says,

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”

And thirdly, Colossians 1:15-17 says,

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Each of these texts undeniably exults Jesus as divine, existing as one part of the three-ness of God. These passages unequivocally communicate Jesus’ diety because they particularly highlight his preexistence of and involvement in creation, which are thought to be true marks of the divine.

Furthermore, other New Testament texts that also particularly imply the triune nature of God are John 16-17, Matthew 28:19, and 2 Corinthians 13:14. First, chapters 16 and 17 in the gospel of John document Jesus’ words to his disciples about how the Holy Spirit will come to them after Jesus ascends into heaven, leading them into all truth and comfort. Jesus tells his disciples that him leaving them and the Holy Spirit coming for them will actually be to their advantage. Is Jesus saying that the Holy Spirit is better than him, or more valuable? No, but he is communicating the sentiment that missions is impossible without the Holy Spirit because it will accomplish kingdom work all over the globe geographically, as opposed to Jesus, who is limited by geographic time and space upon entering into human form. In other words, while Jesus cannot be everywhere at the same time because of the limits of humanity that he assumed, the Spirit, on the other hand, can accomplish ministry everywhere through the commissioning and embodiment of many human vessels. Overall, in John 16-17, Jesus’ statement that the Spirit would be to their advantage communicates the Spirit’s deity, and the Spirit’s aim to glorify Jesus communicates Jesus’ deity (John 16:13-15). Additionally, John 17 includes Jesus praying to God the Father, revealing the oneness of the Father and the Son in essence and also the separateness of them as beings, too. These two chapters both serve to show direct, divine relationships between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—proving their divinity in essence, but also their individuality in being.

Moreover, Matthew 28:19, what is famously known as the Great Commission text, is another text that shows the triune nature of God. Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus’ inclusion of all three beings of God seems to further drive home the reality of God’s triune nature. And lastly, another text that seems to highlight the reality of the Trinity is 2 Corinthians 13:14, where Paul concludes his letter saying, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Paul’s inclusion of these three in his doxology seems to strongly suggest his belief in the triune nature of God as well. Overall, each of these texts speaks to the reality that God is not singular in being, but singular in essence, yet triune in being.

History

Historically, the church has grappled with these difficult, counterintuitive, and allegedly contradictory truths about God’s nature. In fact, the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD convened in order to organizationally and systematically reach a conclusion about this somewhat confusing and enigmatic nature of God. However, at the Council of Nicaea, one of the most significant terms emerged to describe the nature of Christ as a part of the divine Godhead—homoousia, meaning, of the same substance. Agreeing that Jesus was completely divine while also completely man categorically meant that he was still God since he never sinned and maintained perfect fellowship with God the Father. At these conventions is where the doctrines of the trinity became formally recognized and systematically enforced as what the Scripture clearly and significantly teaches. Truly, these doctrines were not invented at these councils, but were formally recognized and ratified as the pure, biblical teachings from of old—all the way back to Genesis. Recognizing these truths, therefore, functions to guard the purity of these doctrines from the corrupting dangers of heresy.

Objections

Objections to this doctrine, however, are certainly not unwarranted. Indeed, the doctrine of the Trinity obfuscates logic and complicates comprehension. Indeed, this doctrine transcends conventional frameworks for religious concepts. As a result, the popular objection rings out, “It doesn’t make sense, therefore, it cannot be true.” Aha! But upon deeper reflection, this common objection actually serves to debunk itself. What do I mean? Track with me here: How could humans invent a concept that they themselves can barely comprehend? How could Jesus’ disciples develop an entirely new paradigm for the nature of God, unique from all of humanity’s religious history, especially as Jews who were deeply entrenched in monotheism? The logical line of deduction, then, is that Christianity’s doctrine of God’s nature wasn’t invented by human logic, but was revealed by God in his Word.

Applications

Besides, why would these disciples concoct such a doctrine after all? Why ‘up the ante’ so to speak, for purposes of evangelism and conversion? If they were making this doctrine up, then why would they make it so difficult and complicated? The logical line of deduction, then, is to conclude that they thought this triune doctrine was and is the truth—regardless of whether or not it makes sense or regardless of whether or not it facilitates the effectiveness of conversion. If it’s true, then it deserves communication and explanation—and this mentality represents the exact sentiment of the disciples. Ultimately, many people use the counterintuitive nature of the Trinity as an objection, but its inherent counterintuitive-ness actually serves to accomplish just the opposite: it suggests this doctrine could not have been invented by the logic of humans, but revealed by the Word of God.

Lastly, it is important to note that vast and endless implications shoot forth from the doctrinal stem of the Trinity, warranting much fruit upon appropriate and proper application. Meaning, the implications of such a trinitarian doctrine provide and demand related applications from our lives. For instance, since God is triune and since we were made in his image, this means that we are inherently wired for community and relationships. Moreover, since God is triune, this means that friendship and community existed before time, which means friendship holds a type of value that truly outlasts and supersedes the boundaries and toll of time; friendship is always timely, always timeless, and always desired. Furthermore, since God is triune, this means that the Great Commission is a community endeavor. Indeed, if God plans to accomplish his redemptive purposes for humanity through the community of himself, why should we ever think that our purposes for mission do not directly demand the involvement of the church community, too? Truly, because there are endless implications of such a divine truth, that means there are also equally endless applications for our lives in light of this doctrine, too.

Conclusion

The Trinity, indeed, foundationally influences the grid of our entire theological framework, as individual believers and as a corporate church. Without the pure doctrine of the Trinity, everything else in Christianity therefore exists without foundation as a structure that awaits its demise into the shambles of illogic and uselessness.

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True vs. False = How You Respond to Grace

Many non-Christian lash out at the idea of Christianity’s grace-based (not works-based) salvation. They object that if salvation is given as a gift of grace, and not earned as a reward, then the result will only give Christians radical license to sin. They say that if salvation is just received as a gift, and you don’t have to earn it, then why not just keep indulging in your sinful pleasures? A real salvation should cause you to live a life of righteousness, not sin, right?

In my last blog post, I argued that Christianity’s unique grace-based salvation—as opposed to any other religion’s works-based salvation—actually is the only religion that can truly cause you to live righteously all along. If that interests you by chance, you can check that out here.

But I realized that my last blog post requires a follow-up blog because I can hear more, but less significant, objections in line, too.

The main objection I wanted to answer here is this classic response:

“I know many so-called Christians who live terribly immoral lives. Are you telling me that a devout, religious, moral individual like me who does not happen to be a Christian is going to hell while they of all people go to heaven, simply because of what they believe? How is it fair that I’m a much more moral person than these so-called Christians, yet, according to Christianity, they get heaven instead of me?”

That is a great point. So let me try to make an important distinction, of which there are really only two options.

Option 1: I say I am a Christian, yet I willfully live a life of sin. If that is true, then that means I have failed to grasp the concept of grace completely, which is the very basis of Christian salvation. If my life is marked by a trajectory of selfish, sinful living, then my sin means I have failed to grasp the concept of grace altogether.

Option 2: I say I am a Christian, and I strive to live for Christ, though I do have moments of lapsing into sin. If that is true, then that means when I sin, (which will happen more often than not) I have failed to grasp the concept of grace in that particular moment of my moral failing. If my life is marked by a trajectory of repentance and loving Christ, then my sin means I have failed to grasp the concept of grace in that moment.

Option 3(?): I say I am a Christian, but claim to never sin. I just need a reality check.

In other words, if you claim to be a Christian yet your life is marked by habitual, ongoing engagement in sin with no hint of repentance or desire to love Christ, then it is likely that you are not a Christian after all. However, if you claim to be a Christian yet your life is marked by shortcomings, but nonetheless is marked by an overarching sense of repentance and a love for Christ, then that means one is indeed a Christian.

Truly, the mark of a true Christian is not perfection, but a new direction. You can spot a true Christian by whether or not one has experienced the grace of Christ, which will compel him/her to a life repentance of sin and loving Christ.

Even though Option 1 claimed Christendom, it did not represent a trajectory of life that loved righteousness, which simply indicates that its claim was really just that: a mere claim. Option 2, however, demonstrated a new direction of life upon claiming Christendom, which indicates that it is simply more than just a mere claim.

Think about it this way: I can wear an NBA #23 Bulls jersey. And so can Michael Jordan. But even though we’re both wearing the same thing, it’s obvious who the real NBA player is. When MJ and I both step onto the court to play some 1-on-1, the superficiality of the #23 jersey becomes incredibly stark. Because at this point, what’s behind the jersey is what matters most–not the jersey.

Similarly, you can tell the difference between a true Christian from a false one not by their jerseys’ claim of Christendom, but by their reaction to God’s grace with the same jersey on.

 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.  (Matthew 7:16-20)

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