Monday, November 26, 2012

The Trinity, Part 2: Authority, The Shack, and Resources

We just finished a 3-week series on The Trinity at Life Bible Fellowship Church. The goal of the series was not to solve a puzzle (good luck with that), but to draw near to the relational, 3-in-1 God who has drawn near to us. Here is a link the second week of the series. The third week should be posted soon on vimeo and on our webpage.
As a follow up, I wanted to address a few follow-up matters that can be helpful in digging deeper into this foundational truth about God.

Is there a Hierarchy in the Trinity?
After church yesterday, I had a good conversation with a couple of people who asked about this. It is a great question, and is one of consistent debate in the Christian community right now. In the debate, here are the two views:
Position 1: Within the Trinity, there is authority and submission. The Father initiates, the Son and Spirit respond. The authority does not mean inequality, but this dynamic has eternally been true.
Position 2: The Son took a submissive role during his time on earth, but this is not a dynamic in the eternal relationship of the Triune God.
The debate here is not a debate over Christian orthodoxy, but I don't think it is a throw-away debate either.
Everyone seems to agree that the Son submitted to the Father during his time on earth. So, was his submission temporary or eternal? Well, we consistently see passages that say that the Father sent the Son. That was before the incarnation, and it certainly seems to imply some kind of authority.
For some, the term hierarchy means that one is better than the other. In the Trinity, the Father is not better or more divine than the Son. But there is distinction. The Father is distinctly the Father, and the Son is distinctly the Son, and the Spirit is distinctly the Spirit. There is equality and yet distinction.
Is it possible that this is not an eternal distinction, but only a temporary one? It is possible, but it seems like a really hard sell to me. All indications point to the idea that this authority-submission dynamic predates the incarnation. And if God is going to present himself to us in a certain way, it seems like that is how he intends for us to understand him.
Also, if we decide that there can't possibly be authority in the Trinity, then do we believe that we can have authority and equality in relationships here on earth? Further than this, the New Testament talks about certain people having positions of authority on the New Earth.
Authority is not evil. Abuse of authority certainly is. But we should have no reason to reject the biblical presentation of authority and submission in the Triune God.

Is "The Shack" a Good Presentation of the Trinity?
I have had several people talk to me about William P. Young's book The Shack, which was published in 2007. Many of you have read it, and many probably have not. Here are some comments.
On the positive side, I think the book really dives into the love relationship of the Triune God. There are some beautiful statements about God's relationality, and some beautiful images of grief and loss and forgiveness and healing.
On the negative side, there is a lot in the book that misses the mark. Most significantly, Young's view of God's love does not seem to have room for judgment. He says that God never punishes sin, but sin is its own punishment. While sin tends to carry with it its own consequences, it is flatly wrong to say that God never judges sin. You have to ignore significant stretches of the Bible to draw this conclusion.
Young also makes statements that tend to lean toward universalism (the teaching that all people will ultimately be saved). The book does not teach universalism overtly. At the same time, I lived in the same town as William P. Young when the book hit the bestseller lists. From a number of personal conversations with those who know him and run in his circles, there are major universalist tendencies. This is a concern.
On top of this, Young also allows no room for the above point about equality and authority. He flatly rejects the idea of a "chain of command" in the Trinity. Now, the bond of the Triune God is not a flow chart; it is the bond of love. But Young seems to think that love necessitates the elimination of authority. This is not biblical.
There are many beautiful things in this book. If my review seems mostly negative, this is for 3 reasons:
1. The positive things in the book are things that you can get without reading it.
2. The false teachings in the book can be really harmful, and they feed right into the cultural mainstream. We need to be warned.
3. When the book first came out, I really underplayed the negative elements and I personally witnessed friends buy into the book at its core. After this, I saw their understanding of God, Scripture, and heaven and hell go in directions that I believer are unbiblical.
So, there you go. All books should be read with discernment. I biblically discerning person could probably read the book, sift through the wrong things in it, and enjoy it a lot. That said, I personally choose not to recommend the book to people because of the potentially harmful elements.

What are some good resources for diving deeper into the Trinity?
Here are 3 recommendations:
1. Experiencing the Trinity by Darrell Johnson. This is a short book. If you are a reader, you could consume it in one or two sittings. It is a great book if you are looking to get your feet wet. It will also help to expose you to other helpful resources.
2. The Holy Trinity in Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship by Robert Letham. This has been the single most helpful resource to me. It is a thick book, but it walks through all the major theologians who have contributed to our understanding on the Trinity. It is a faith-building, worship-inspiring, wonderful book.
3. Wayne Grudem's podcasts on the Trinity. Wayne Grudem wrote a huge Systematic Theology book, and he has taught through it at the church he attends. He did four messages on the Trinity, and they are available for free. Just go to the iTunes store and search "Wayne Grudem." You will find his podcast for Systematic Theology. The Trinity messages are 18-21 on the list. Four great downloads!

If you have follow-up thoughts of questions, feel free to comment or hit me up on facebook.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Trinity, Part 1

This past Sunday, we began a new series at Life Bible Fellowship Church on the Trinity. The goal of the series is not to solve the puzzle of the Trinity, but rather to draw near to the relational God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If you want to check out the first sermon in the series, here is the link to it.
There were a lot of good conversations after the services, and a lot of people were excited to seek to know God in a deeper way.
Because the Trinity is the most profound mystery in all of Christianity, I recognize that our three-week series will be no means cover everything that can be said. So I thought it would be good to accompany the series with some posts in order to answer some questions and go a bit deeper. In this post I will address three questions that, in some way came up after the message.

Is the Water Illustration Helpful?
In the sermon, I was fairly dismissive of a couple of Trinity illustrations that sometimes make an appearance.
Some people say that the Trinity is like an egg. An egg has a shell, a white, and a yolk. There are three, but there is only one egg. This illustration is bad, to be blunt. It pictures God as either three gods, or a God with three parts. While each of those parts make up a full egg, none are fully an egg. The shell by itself is not "fully egg," while the Son by himself is fully God. The egg illustration is not one that is helpful.
But more people asked me if the water illustration is not helpful. The analogy is that H20 was be liquid, can be solid, and can be gas. Once again, I was pretty dismissive of this analogy. Just so that you can know that I am not simply off on my own in thinking the analogy is faulty, here is a quotation from Wayne Grudem in his book Bible Doctrine:
"The analogy of the three forms of water (steam, water, and ice) is also inadequate because (a) no quantity of water is ever all three of these at the same time, (b) they have different properties or characteristics, (c) the analogy has nothing that corresponds to the fact that there is only one God (there is no such thing as 'one water' or 'all the water in the universe'), and (d) the element of intelligent personality is lacking."
On top of this, the water analogy is, for all intents and purposes, modalism, a heresy condemned by the church. Modalism is the teaching that there is one God who wears three different masks. Sometimes he appears to us as the Father, sometimes as the Son, and sometimes as the Spirit. This is biblically inaccurate for several different reasons (just check out Matthew 3:16-17 to see how the baptism of Jesus shows that modalism is nonsense).
Trinitarian theologian Collin Hansen writes in a Christianity Today article, "One common but mistaken analogy of the orthodox Trinity depicts modalism. The same bucket of water may appear as ice, liquid, or steam. But that water cannot simultaneously exist in every mode. God, on the other hand, exists simultaneously as Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
Many analogies of the Trinity are helpful in illustrating one point of truth. But both the water and the egg analogy lead us in very wrong directions.

Is the Holy Spirit a Person or a Force?
In the sermon, I focused on the fact that the persons of the Trinity are presented in relational terms. There is an eternal relationship at the heart of the Godhead. Scripturally, it can be easy to see the relationship between the Father and the Son, but a bit more difficult to see the Spirit interacting in that relationship. This causes some to wonder if the Spirit is really personal, as opposed to being a force.
The Holy Spirit is a person, not simply a force or a power. He relates to us personally, just as the Father and the Son do. This is why it is so amazing and significant that the Spirit himself dwells within us. In the Bible, we learn that the Spirit can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30). Forces are not grieved; persons are grieved. On top of this, the Spirit prays for us (Romans 8:26-27). On top of this, Peter rebukes Ananias for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3-4). You don't lie to a force, but to a person. The Spirit empowers, sanctifies, reminds, and teaches us. He is fully personal, just like the Father and the Son!
Quick note on the Spirit. Some people remark that he is often the forgotten member of the Trinity. In many ways this is tragic because of his prominent role in our lives (2 Corinthians 3). At the same time, it is worth remembering that the Spirit is not clawing for attention. He brings glory to the Son and reminds of us of the words of the Son (John 14-16). If we are focused on Jesus, we are listening to the voice of the Spirit. The Trinity exists in perfect harmony, not jockeying for position, but rather honoring and glorifying one another.

Is a Right Understanding of the Trinity a Salvation Issue?
The doctrine of the Trinity is not a small matter. It is not like end-times beliefs or positions on sign-gifts. As a Christian, you cannot take or leave the Trinity. Over the history of the church, it has been considered a test for orthodoxy. Part of this is because it is so directly tied to the deity of Jesus. Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons are not Christian denominations. They are cults. The reason for this is that they do not believe that Jesus, the Son, is fully God, and therefore they also do not believe in the Trinity.
None of this should cause us to take on an attitude of superiority, but it is important so that we recognize that if people have embraced these cults, we need to tell them to truth and urge them to embrace the true gospel of Jesus and not the cheap substitute that they have embraced.
Now, a person could read this and ask, "So, I must believe accurately about the Trinity in order to be a Christian? Does this mean that I was not a Christian if I just found out that my understanding of the Trinity for the past ten years was in fact incorrect?" It is a fair question.
If you had embraced the water analogy or thought that the Trinity means that God wears different masks at different times, this does not mean that you have not been a Christian. It means that you have had a faulty understanding of something really important. You now have an opportunity to be corrected by God's Word, and to embrace a more accurate (and, frankly, much more exciting and beautiful) picture of the Godhead. We all need to be careful about what we believe, but we also need to recognize that we all fall into error. This even happens with significant doctrines. Those who really embrace Jesus allow themselves to be corrected by his Word. Those who willingly embrace false doctrines do so to their own peril.
Frankly, there are probably many true believers in our churches who have a wildly misdirected understanding of the Trinity. This is partly the fault of many of us who are pastors and teachers and have not more faithfully and pro-actively taught these core doctrines.
So, if you find out that your understanding has been wrong, don't panic. Simply embrace the truth with which you have been presented. Joyfully embrace the truth about God, and draw near to the Trinitarian God who has drawn near to you.

More to come on this. If you can follow-up questions or comments, feel free to comment on this post, send me an email, or hit me up on facebook.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

What Is Still True

In my previous post, I quoted Donald Miller, who made the point that we have a limited ability to change the world through politics or other means. His point was not that our actions are meaningless, but simply that we make a mistake when we think that a candidate can lead us to utopia.
Every time that I have quoted this (including this last time), many people have found hope in it, but others have said that this makes it seem that our actions or our votes are not meaningful. This is not what the quote means, and this is certainly not what I believe. The point is simply that many key things remain the same regardless of the outcome of any election.
That said, now is the time that we put this into practice on both sides. President Obama has been re-elected. Some celebrate this victory as something that will pave the way for better days. Other bemoan his victory, believing that this will block the good path and lead us down a destructive path.
In light of such a big event, I thought I would just take a moment to list seven things that were true before the election, are true after the election, and will be true before and after all future elections.

1.  The world is still broken. It will still experience famine, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes. No person can stop these.
2. Humanity is still broken and sinful. No amount of freedom can solve this problem, and no extra laws and regulations can solve this problem.
3. There will be an eventual end to all the problems we face. This will only be when Jesus returns, but when he does return it will come in full.
4. All people need to be saved from their sins. Remember that the enemy is not a candidate, not the Republicans or Democrats, not the liberals or conservatives. The enemy is the devil, who lies to us in order to keep us under the power and blindness of sin. We still need to pray for the salvation of all people, and reach out to them with the gospel of Jesus.
5. God directs the affairs of the world. Romans 13:1 says, "Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God." While human beings may choose to live as practical atheists, no election truly dethrones God.
6. God calls us to care for the needy. Sometimes the government upholds justice for the marginalized. Sometimes the government exploits the marginalized. This applies to the poor, the minorities, the unborn, the diseased, and many other vulnerable groups. Whatever the case, God's people are called to care for those in need. We don't need a liberal or a conservative in the White House in order to fulfill this calling. In our churches we have the opportunity to shine the light of Jesus in this compelling way.

7. We should pray for our leaders with genuine hearts. First Timothy 2 exhorts us to pray for those in authority. This is not just true when we happen to like our leaders; it is true at all times. Anyone in authority covets the prayers of people.

And, remember, all of these things will be true in 2016.
Some of these truths bring us to a sobering reality and drive away false and shallow optimism. Others give us hope and drive away false and shallow pessimism.
The election that just took place was not insignificant. But it did not move heaven and earth and it did not change any of the seven facts listed above. Let's embrace God's truth, pray fervently, and fulfill our calling in the power and grace of God.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Looking for Utopia

Yesterday at Life Bible Fellowship Church, our Lead Pastor Gary Keith preached on Revelation 21:1-5. His key question was, "Where is our true hope?"
It was a great message and very timely, since sometime tomorrow night we should know who will be our president for the next four years. A lot of people's hopes are riding on this election. And a lot of the hope manifests itself in panic if the other guy wins.
If we believe the candidates, we seem doomed either way. Governor Romney tells us that if the President is re-elected, then we will continue on this historically slow path to economic recovery. President Obama tells us that if Governor Romney is elected, we will go back to the economic policies that got us into this mess in the first place.
In essence, both candidates are saying this: The other candidate will keep us from the wonders that await us, and I can lead us there!
If we believe the candidates, then we believe that they can bring us money, health, safety, and freedom. If a person is truly able to bring you money, health, safety, and freedom, then it might be appropriate for you to consider worshiping him. I am not trying to be sarcastic. That would be an amazing feat! That person would probably be worthy of some pretty heavy devotion if he could accomplish all of those things.
The fact is, no person can guarantee that we will have wealth and financial security. At any point we could have a personal or national economic collapse. We could get fired, have investments go south, or get robbed. No person can guarantee our health and safety. We will all ultimately get sick and die, and as secure as we can become, evil people can always find ways to get into airplanes and movie theaters and cause pain. And no one is strong enough to guarantee our freedom. Stronger nations than ours have fallen. We are no immune.
Ultimately, I still think that Donald Miller put it well when he said, "The truth is, we can make things a little better or a little worse, but utopia doesn't hang in the balance of our vote or of what products we buy." Neither of these candidates is going to save the world. Neither of them is going to fulfill our hopes.
The good news is that the Bible tells us that our hopes will be fulfilled at some point. Revelation 21:3-5 says, "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Look! God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." He who was seated on the throne said, 'I am making everything new!'"
God himself will be with his people. It will be God who provides an end to fear by removing death. It will be God who provides an end to pain and suffering and grief. And at the end of the passage he makes it clear that he, and he alone, is the one who makes everything new.
After this election, some things might get better. Some things might get worse. But utopia does not hang in the balance. Thank God! Our problems will continue, but our ultimate hope will still be just as secure as when it was first promised.
There is only one who will make all things new. He alone deserves our worship and attention.