Tag Archives: faith

Succeeding at Success

A few weeks ago I spoke about the “little voice” in the back of our minds that never lets us rest carefree. As soon as we feel ourselves relaxing that very feeling triggers the thought that we ought to be doing something. What keeps the “little voice” awake? What drives the back and forth process between relaxation and anxiety? Is there a state of mind in which our emotions are blended together in a stable harmony? And what unifying force can order the mind toward such peace?

I suspect that the “little voice” means well. Perhaps it is trying to help us toward that perfect balance. But its guidance is only as good as its knowledge and its prodding is only as healthy as its habits. And its ability to succeed depends on its image of success. So, today let’s examine the concept of success.

What is Success?

In general, success is the state of having achieved a goal. Human beings are future-oriented, goal-setting beings. We act to achieve goals. But there are many things we could do and many good things that clamor for our attention. As beings with reason and knowledge, we are able to ignore this myriad of alternative possibilities by selecting and ranking goals. Otherwise, we would become paralyzed into inaction or driven to exhaustion by fear of missing out. Since life demands that we work toward many goals, some serially and others simultaneously, we need a unifying principle to order our goals into a harmonious whole. Some goals seem much more important than others. Some can be achieved quickly and easily while others take longer to reach and require much effort and patience. Some goals are specific, and success is easily measured. Digging up a small stump in my front yard, which I did this morning, took about 10 minutes. Mission accomplished! Training to enter a profession takes longer, but when you graduate and are granted a license, you have succeeded. But why spend 10 minutes working in my yard, and why spend 10 years working toward a professional credential? These goals must be ordered as means toward some even more comprehensive end or they would not seem worthwhile. Achieving them would seem empty and meaningless.

Success at What?

The logic of ends and means leads ultimately to the necessity setting a whole-life goal aimed at the greatest good we can imagine. This one goal becomes the unifying principle that enables us to rank and order all other goals in a meaningful way. The worth of every other goal is measured by its usefulness as a means toward achieving our whole-life goal. But the two-fold problem with most whole-life goals is that (1) they are stated so generally that it’s difficult to imagine actually achieving them, and (2), given their generality, they don’t give us much guidance for what to do on a daily basis. If your whole-life goal is happiness or pleasure or fame or respect or independence, you can never arrive at the destination. And how do these goals impart the wisdom you need to keep on track toward the ultimate destination? This is the soil in which the “little voice” thrives. It sprouts up in the fertile plane between our whole-life goal and our daily lives. It whispers, “Are you sure that what you are doing today is the best way to achieve your whole-life goal? Don’t get too excited about removing that stump and earning that professional credential, because you’re no closer to achieving your whole-life goal.”

God and the “Little Voice”

Is there a whole-life goal that is comprehensive, important, and compelling enough to order all our goal-seeking activity into a harmonious whole but is also specific, achievable, and effective in guiding our daily activity? Is there a supreme end that closes the space where the “little voice” rules? Yes, I believe there is. And you won’t be surprised when I echo the Bible and the entire Christian tradition by saying that God is the greatest good and the chief end of human life. I am sure many will say, “Amen!” to this. But sometimes we’re a bit unclear about how making God our whole-life goal deals with the two-fold problem and the little voice. Unlike other whole-life goals, such as happiness, respect, and fame, God is not a general principle or subjective condition. God is a living reality who knows himself perfectly; God knows exactly what he wills and what he does. God knows exactly what he wants us to do and become. Hence doing God’s will, pleasing God, and living with God forever are specific goals—as specific as removing a tree stump or graduating from graduate school—not vague, unmeasurable generalities. And God knows what he wants us to do each step of the way toward achieving our final goal. The “little voice” thrives on generalities and uncertainties. God does not struggle with the “little voice.”

Succeeding at Success

But is our chief end of pleasing God and living with him forever achievable? If “God” were a general principle like happiness or fame or respect, the answer would be no. Achieving subjective states like happiness—even if that were possible—depends on our own power, and it can be thwarted by unfortunate circumstances. But God is not an abstraction. God is alive, and the achievability of our chief end is grounded in his power and love, not in our power and wisdom. In setting our whole-life goal as becoming and doing what God wills and living with him forever, we are merely accepting his grace and affirming what God has promised to give us. Our success is not in doubt because God’s success is not in doubt. The “little voice” cannot convincingly argue that God might not succeed.

Guideposts Along Road to Success

What about specific guidance for our daily lives, in the big and little decisions we must make? Even if the “little voice” cannot threaten us with ultimate failure, perhaps it can still annoy us with questions about the wisdom of the daily decisions we make. “Is it really best to spend your time reading a book? Perhaps you should have spent more time in prayer this morning? Do you really think you need that new computer?” And on and on it goes. As I said above, achieving our final goal is possible and certain only with God’s power and love. In the same way, God’s power and love alone—not our wisdom—grounds our hope of making the decisions and accomplishing the goals that will lead us to eternal success. If the end is not in doubt, neither are the means. Once again, the “little voice” is robbed of its plausibility. It cannot threaten us with the possibility that our lack of wisdom or the likelihood of making mistakes may lead us irretrievably astray. Trusting in our own power and wisdom, gives the “little voice” its power and plausibility. Trusting in God silences the voice, because then its only option is to question God, and that is not plausible.

Ron Highfield

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God, Time, and 2 x 3 x 11

It’s my birthday, my 2 x 3 x 11 birthday! June 1 has always been a special day to me. It symbolizes the gifts of life, time, opportunity, and responsibility. Of all the days of the year, it’s the time when I reflect most on my life, what I owe, what I have accomplished, where I have failed, and what I should do with the time remaining. I remember that I owe more than I can repay, have accomplished less than I could have, and have failed more often than I wish to recall. And I still wonder what I should do with my life.

We don’t exist in time. Time is the way we exist. To ask, “What should I do with my time?” is the same as asking, “What should I do with my existence, with myself?” How can I know when I am wasting it? Should I continue to do what I have been doing or should I make a change? Is it best to act boldly or cautiously?

How can we enjoy peace while reflecting honestly on our lives? Such small successes! Such immense failures! A burdened present borders an uncertain future! Come to think of it, how can we achieve a perspective from which to assess our lives? We either exaggerate our strengths and minimize our weaknesses or inflate our failures and shrink our successes. And can I really know what I should do with my time until the moment arrives when I must act?

I find no comfort, no joy, and no hope other than in this thought: God gives me life, time, opportunity, and responsibility. God’s eternity spans and encompasses my time from beginning to end. God knows why he gave me time; for my life was his project long before it was mine. My project will unfold as a mixture of success and failure. I stumble into the future not knowing where I am going or what to do when I arrive. But God’s project will not fail. God works through our “failures” as efficiently as through our “successes,” and for God, our staggering steps make a straight line to glory.

So, on this 2 x 3 x 11 birthday, I will not allow the weight of past failures, or the pride of past successes, or the darkness of a future unknown keep me from thanking God for his gifts of life and time, or placing my life at his disposal, or looking ahead to glory. And I pray that this day will find you in the same frame of mind.

Christian Baptism Before Controversies, Speculations, and Hypotheticals

In continuation of the theme of our appropriation of the salvation Jesus brings, today we address the question of how baptism is related to the Spirit’s act of uniting us to Christ and the act of faith? I want to acknowledge at the beginning that the subject of the “sacraments” in general and in particular baptism has occasioned much controversy in Christian history. I am aware that it is not possible for me to state the meaning of baptism in a way that escapes this history completely. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to urge believers of all backgrounds to read the New Testament in as unbiased way as possible. After all, theology is the church’s self-examination in light of the Word of God that we receive through the apostolic teaching. It should be motivated by the desire to be faithful to the original teaching of Jesus and his apostles. No theologian should treat a denominational confession or a private theological opinion as the ultimate norm of Christian truth. So, the first thing to do is to document the NT statements about baptism. Next, we will document what some influential creeds and confessions of faith say about it. Finally, I will attempt to state a modest theology of baptism, a theology that leaves many interesting but speculative and “what if” questions unanswered.

Jesus’ Baptism and Ministry

Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and he commanded his disciples to baptize those who accepted their message. The first three Gospels record Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist (Mt. 3:13-17; Mk. 1:9-11; Luke 3: 21, 22). The Gospel of John records the Baptist’s testimony about the Spirit falling on Jesus on the occasion of his baptism (John 1:32-34). Jesus’ earthly ministry included calling on people to repent and be baptized (John 4:1-2) And Jesus said to Nicodemus, “…no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit”(John 3:5). In the Great Commission, Mt. 28:18-20 (cf. Mk. 16:16), Jesus commanded his disciples to baptize believers and then begin the process of further teaching:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.…”

Acts of Apostles

Acts of Apostles tells the story of the origin of the church and the spread of the Christian gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. At the conclusion of Peter’s Pentecost sermon in response to the audience’s question about what they should do, Peter said,

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

In response to Phillip’s powerful preaching, the Samaritan believers were baptized (8:12,13). Phillip preached “Jesus” to the Ethiopian official who then requested baptism. After Phillip baptized him, the official “went on his way rejoicing.”(8:36-39). Acts 9:17-19 and 22:12-16 tell the story of Saul’s conversion and baptism. The centurion Cornelius, the first gentile convert, and everyone in his household were baptized after Peter preached the gospel to them and the Holy Spirit had filled them:

“Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (10:47,48).

Lydia and her household (16:14-15), the Philippian Jailer (16:33), Crispus, the synagogue ruler (18:8), and those disciples who had received only John’s baptism were also baptized (19:2-6).


Paul never makes an argument that believers ought to be baptized. He assumes it and uses the universal practice to make further theological points. In Romans 6:1-10, Paul assumes without question that all the Roman Christians, whom he had not met, had been baptized. In these verses Paul refutes the ridiculous slander that accused him of teaching that we should sin all the more because the more we sin the more grace we get. He asks the Roman believers to call to mind their baptism as the demarcation between the old life of sin and the new life of righteousness. Their baptism should teach them the absurdity of sinning to get grace:

“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4).

In Galatians 3:23-29, Paul uses the universal practice of baptism to make another point. We are not under the obligation to obey the law to attain right standing with God. We have a right relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ. Notice the seamless and natural relationship between faith and baptism in this text:

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27).

In 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, Paul makes a very interesting connection between baptism and the Spirit. He reminds the Corinthians that the basis for the harmony of the unity and diversity of the body of Christ is that “we were all baptized by[or “in”] one Spirit” (12:13). Apparently, some early Christians were even having themselves baptized again “for the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:29). In Ephesians, Paul lists baptism among the seven ones that all Christians share. Again we find baptism assumed as a universal practice.

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

In another very interesting text in Ephesians, Paul speaks of baptism as something Christ does for us, a washing that purifies and makes holy:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (5:25-27).

In Colossians, Paul argues for the supremacy of Christ over all other powers and supposed saviors. Christ embodies and makes available to us the fullness of the divine nature and all wisdom. And we have been joined with him through baptism:

“For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:9-12).

In these words, Baptism is compared to the Jewish covenant practice of circumcision. Christ is the one who cuts away the old, sinful flesh. Hence God in Christ is the true actor in baptism. If we also consider the other texts quoted above, we can say that the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are the true actors in baptism, though it is a practice to which we submit and the church administers through its duly appointed representatives.

These texts and others (e.g., 1 Peter 3:21) were written before the controversies, speculations, and hypothetical cases that arose in the two millennia since that time. When you listen to them without these distractions, you hear resounding joy and hope. They speak of the promises of God and work of Jesus Christ for our salvation. They draw for us a clear line between the dead past and the living hope of the present and future. They speak of assurance and confidence and certainty. I hope that we will not let any controversy, speculation, or hypothetical case rob us of the mood in which these texts are written. Whatever our speculations, we can receive baptism as a gift administered by the church’s human hands but performed by the Spirit acting in union with the Father and Son. What a wonderful gift! Don’t reject it, delay it, or demean it. Enjoy it.

Next Week: creeds, denominational confessions and a modest theology of baptism.

The Holy Spirit and Salvation

Last week we examined the nature of faith in Jesus, which is on the human side of our salvation. Faith’s goal is access to the power for salvation that resides in Jesus Christ. It is knowledge, acknowledgment, affirmation, trust, certainty, and union with Christ. Our appropriation of salvation also possesses a divine side, and that is our topic for this essay.

God is the primary actor in every aspect of our salvation. Apart from God’s initiative in creating, preserving, and empowering the world we would not exist and could do nothing. Likewise, apart from God’s action for our salvation we could do nothing to participate in that salvation. God’s action is the objective side of our being united to Christ; faith is the subjective side.

The New Testament speaks about God’s work of uniting us to Christ as the action of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works internally with our individual spirit or inner person or heart—whatever term you prefer to use—giving us a new kind of life. Just as God’s Spirit gives life and being to all creatures at the very root of their being, the Spirit joins us to Christ in an action as mysterious as creation from nothing. The Spirit through whom Christ is present is able to indwell, encompass, and contain things without displacing or distorting them in any way. Hence the Spirit can change us, revive us, strengthen us or recreate us from within according to the will of God. And through the Spirit, Christ can dwell in us and transform us into his image without violence to our wills or minds.

Can we say more about the nature of our union with Christ? What kind of union is this? Two possibilities come to mind. (1) Is it a union of wills? Considered in this way, our union with Christ would be constituted by our always and fully willing everything he wills. Perhaps this is the simplest way to conceive it. We experience this type of union with friends and fellow believers when we discover that we share love for Jesus Christ and desire his glory in all things. We understand each other and feel the bond created by the One we love. The one Holy Spirit indwells the many members of the body and the many find themselves made one in mind, heart, and will by the unifying power of one and the same Spirit. We meet each other in the sphere of the Spirit.

(2) Or could our union with Christ be even more intimate? Our union with the wills of other members of Christ is a union in something else, the Spirit. It is not a direct union. But our union with Christ can be direct and intimate because Christ can be directly present to our spirits whereas another human being cannot. How can we describe such intimacy of union? Perhaps we can call it a union of being and action. Christ comes so close to us that his life-giving Spirit constantly imparts spiritual life to us so that we are empowered for actions like his.

According to the New Testament, Christ is the one through whom God created all things. He gives all things being and form. In this sense Christ is already and always connected to every creature as its cause and its Lord. All creatures are already touched by Christ and connected to him. But our being united with Christ through faith, baptism, and the work of the Holy Spirit is a new creation and brings to perfection the work begun in the first creation. The final perfection of our being united with Christ is to become like him in body and soul, mind and heart, and being and action.

Paul places special emphasis on being united with Christ:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2Corinthians 3: 17-18)

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Next week: Paul speaks of baptism as the act by which we become united with Christ. What part does baptism play in our appropriation of salvation?

What Has FAITH Got to Do With Salvation?

In recent essays we considered how God deals with three aspects of the sinful human condition through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Jesus enacts God’s forgiveness in his dying on the cross, and in the resurrection of Jesus by the power of the Spirit, God heals the damage and death sin causes. The power by which God raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us to a new life free from the power of sin. But how does God’s work in Jesus Christ affect us here and now?

In addressing these questions we must keep two things in mind. (1) The New Testament sees Jesus Christ not only as the Savior but as the first truly saved human being. His action is not only divine but also human. His acts of obedience were not only righteous as divine but also as human. Jesus Christ was one of us as well as one of the Trinity. Hence we can say that one of us, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, lived a righteous life completely pleasing to God. With God all things are possible! What God did for Jesus he can do for us through Jesus! (2) The New Testament sees the salvation that God enacted in and through Jesus as the realization of God’s eternal plan for creation. Jesus’ human salvation, that is, his deliverance from the deadly consequences of sin (other people’s sin) and his glorification, happened to him alone. And it happened to Jesus before the end, before it happens to the rest of creation. Jesus is the first of a future, new humanity.

How, then, does what God did in Jesus affect us? How do I begin to experience the salvation that Jesus experienced? First, consider that the salvation described in the New Testament involves objective and subjective elements. Salvation involves the whole person, and our existence is comprised of conscious and unconscious dimensions. God could forgive (that is, not take revenge for sin’s insult) and prevent the worst consequences of sin from running their course even if you were unaware of it. But you cannot stop sinning and come to love God and your neighbor without consciously willing to do so. Salvation involves liberation of the will, so that we truly will God’s will above our own private interests. Or, let me put it another way: no one can be saved apart from their own knowledge and will, without their own active participation. You cannot unwillingly or unconsciously love God or become holy or experience glorification.

The New Testament message proclaims that we can enjoy the salvation that has appeared in Jesus Christ. It is not meant for him alone. God unites us to Christ and we join ourselves to Christ so that his qualities become ours and we enjoy the salvation he experienced. (Note: God’s grace always precedes and empowers our action, but our act is really ours.) God has demonstrated in Christ that he does not want to take revenge on us. Instead he wants to heal and liberate us. And the power for this healing and liberation is at work in the sphere of Christ and the Holy Spirit. And we need access to that power and presence.

The most basic act by which we join ourselves to Christ is faith. It’s not love or obedience or repentance or any other subjective act of our wills. Of course, faith implies all of these virtues, but the New Testament places the priority on faith. Faith is such a rich concept that I can only begin the plumb its depths. There is a mysterious side to the act of faith because, apart from the preaching of the gospel and work of the Spirit, faith in Christ as Savior and Lord would be impossible. But I want to concentrate in this essay on the visible, human side of faith.

For many reasons, faith is a fitting human response to God’s work in Jesus Christ. (1) Faith is an act of knowing. It embraces the apostolic testimony to Jesus Christ as the truth. By believing the apostolic witnesses, it gains access to the knowledge that God raised Jesus from the dead and to other aspects of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. This knowledge enables us to think of God, pray to God, obey God, and direct our love to God as we see him in the face of Jesus Christ. The act of believing is already the beginning of our transformation. It changes what we think of God and allows us to direct all our energies toward the true God. God is always near, the risen Jesus Christ fills the universe, and the Spirit is closer to us than our own spirit whether we know it or not. But in faith we come to know his true identity and the true depth of his love for us.

(2) The act of faith is acknowledgment. Faith acknowledges its poverty, its total dependence on God for everything good. Faith is not an adventurous act of human discovery, a brilliant insight into the nature of things, or an exceptional act of righteousness. It is a humble admission that God is God and we are not and that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord; we cannot save or rule ourselves. (3) Faith is affirmation. The act of faith not only admits that God is God, it joyously affirms this and celebrates it. Faith affirms that the distinction between the Creator and the creature is good and right. The believer finds his/her joy in being a creature given existence by the Creator and a sinner saved by the Savior.

(4) Faith is an act of trust. It takes the promise of the gospel as certain. In faith, we embrace the word of Jesus Christ as completely reliable. We believe he will forgive us, heal us, and purify us. He will deliver us from death. (5) Faith is an act of certainty. Faith embraces Jesus Christ wholeheartedly and confidently as the truth about God and human destiny. Hence it inspires bold action. It gives rise to courageous acts of love, forgiveness, repentance, obedience, grace, and holiness.

(6) Faith is an act of uniting ourselves to Jesus Christ. In saying this I am returning to the theme of the first half of this essay. If we are to benefit from Christ’s salvation, we must be united to him and receive the divine power at work in him. Jesus Christ is not merely a historical figure about whom we have some information. He is alive. In the power of the Spirit, he is present and active everywhere. But Jesus speaks to us today through his words and deeds that are remembered and preached by his apostles. By believing, we know he is alive and available to us. We know who he is, what he is like, how much he loves us, and what he has promised us. When faith listens to the words of the gospel, it hears the voice of One alive and present.

By the time you read these words of mine, my act of saying them will be past. Nevertheless by reading them you will be joining your mind to my mind, your heart to my heart. Even when we read the words of someone long dead we have a feeling of understanding and knowing them. But Jesus is not dead; he is alive. His words remain his living voice. They are not echoes from the past but trumpet blasts in the present. And through his living voice we have fellowship with him, mind to mind and heart to heart. In this conversation we find ourselves united to him through faith. In view of these thoughts perhaps the words of John may take on a meaning we had not perceived before:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).

“Why Hasn’t Jesus Returned?” And Other Objections to Christian Belief

Today I want to address another set of objections to Christian belief: “If Jesus really was raised from the dead, why didn’t he appear to everyone? Why didn’t he remain visibly present in the world instead of ascending to heaven (Acts 1:9-11)? Why didn’t the kingdom come in its fullness (Mark 9:1)? Why hasn’t he returned yet? Why do we have to “believe” instead of seeing?”

It seems to me that these questions arise from a sense of tension between the idea that Jesus’ resurrection is of universal significance and importance and two facts: (1) that it can be known today only indirectly, that is, by believing the written word of apostles and (2) that its impact on the world is much less obvious and universal than one would expect from such a dramatic divine act.

Of course these questions do not have to be taken as objections. They could be serious enquiries from people of faith seeking further understanding of the significance of what they believe. But the questioner could be implying that there are no answers and that the lack of answers disproves the fact-claim of the resurrection or at least that we must doubt the fact until we find satisfactory answers. Let’s deal with the challenger first and then we will address the serious enquirer.

We need to take the form of these objections seriously. They don’t make direct fact-denying assertions. They don’t ask “How?” or “Whether?” They ask “why?” When we ask why we are asking for the purpose or end for which someone has done something. If I ask you “Why did you do that?” I could be simply expressing my curiosity, or I could be making an accusation of wrongdoing.  If I see you digging in your back yard or climbing a ladder toward your roof or writing a letter, the question of why or to what end immediately arises in my mind. If you suddenly shove me to the ground, unless the reason for your aggression becomes immediately obvious, you won’t be surprised when I ask you why you did it. The act provokes the question because we assume that people don’t do things without an end in mind.

But suppose I never discover why you were climbing a ladder or why you pushed me to the ground. I do not conclude from my lack of knowledge of the purpose for your action that you didn’t do it. Indeed acts are always done for purposes, but we can know that an act was done without knowing why the actor did it. My knowledge of a fact rests on the evidence of my having experienced it or on believing the report of someone else who experienced it. Hence knowing the purpose of an act and knowing the fact of the act can be separated. With this distinction in mind, let’s return to the objections to faith with which I began.

As the New Testament recounts and reflects on the course of events after the resurrection of Jesus, it addresses the most pressing and essential questions. Why did Jesus die, and why did God raise him from the dead (See Acts 2:22-36)? Much of the theology of the New Testament is concerned to answer these questions. Of course these answers do not fully satisfy and leave us longing for deeper understanding. But the New Testament rarely addresses questions like those in our first paragraph. (2 Peter 3:3-13 is the most direct instance.) Such questions could be multiplied endlessly, for we can always speculate about why events didn’t happen in a different way or didn’t produce different results.

Many questions about Jesus won’t be answered fully until the end of history, because the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection concerns the whole human situation and all of human history. But our inability to find satisfactory answers to all of our why questions about the resurrection does not defeat belief in the resurrection itself any more than my ignorance of why you climbed a ladder yesterday defeats the fact of your climb. As long we keep our focus on the testimony of Paul, Peter, James, and the rest of those to whom Jesus appeared alive after his death, we need not let our many unanswered questions rob us of assurance of the fact of the resurrection.

Despite our inability to answer definitively the “why” questions in the first paragraph, I do not believe we are forced to remain completely silent in response to them. Some speculation, even if it is finally unconvincing, may increase our confidence that there are answers to these questions, even if we don’t know them. For nearly all human beings who have ever lived, God has been mysterious and hidden, unknown by clear sight or unambiguous demonstration.  But God has always been somewhat knowable by faith and reason through creation and conscience. We know that we are not our own creators and lawgivers (See Rom 1:18-32). Divine hiddenness creates an opportunity for faith, free decision, moral courage, and virtue—and their opposites.

In Jesus Christ, God becomes a factor inside human history in a new way, as a human character in the story. Critical questions about why Jesus didn’t show himself to everyone and didn’t end history fail to understand that Jesus Christ didn’t enter history to end it.  He came, rather, to save it, redeem it, and redirect it to its divinely appointed end. Even as God becomes in Christ a new factor in history, God remains hidden under the sign of the cross and in the foolishness of preaching (1 Cor 1:21). He does so for the same reason that God has always remained hidden, for the sake of faith, freedom, and virtue.

It would be strange to argue that God’s work of salvation and redemption contradicts or undoes God’s work in creation and providence. Apparently, God wants to accomplish his purpose for creation through its history and through human action. After all, creation is saved and perfected by the work of Jesus Christ whose action is both divine and human. And consistent with the mysterious ways of the Creator, Jesus’ divine action as Lord of All is hidden in his humanity and the humanity of his people.

Jesus is Risen—History’s Probability and Love’s Certainty!

It is a huge mistake to think of the questions of the resurrection of Christ and the truth of Christianity merely as philosophical or historical problems. Approaching them as if they could be limited in this way will lead to interminable debates and wild speculation. Today I want to place the question of the resurrection in larger framework that better models how a person actually comes to believe reasonably and responsibly.

First: Of course philosophical and historical reason plays a role. Christianity does not ask us to believe contradictions or impossibilities. Nor does it ask us to believe that an event happened that we know did not happen. We’ve already looked at some New Testament statements about the resurrection from a historical perspective. Paul’s testimony in 1 Corinthians and Galatians possesses the strongest historical warrant in the New Testament because it is direct, firsthand. The number of ways we can respond to Paul’s claim is limited. We can believe that he is telling the truth about his experience and interpreting it correctly or that he is lying or mistaken. Paul also tells us in his own words that Jesus appeared alive after his death and burial to Peter, James, John and many others (1 Cor 15). We know that a few years after his conversion—more than three but not more than 5 or 6—Paul met Peter and James the Lord’s brother in person. He stayed 15 days with Peter (Gal 1:18-19). Hence Paul was in a position to hear about Peter’s and James’ (and others’) resurrection appearances from their own mouths. We must either believe or disbelieve Paul’s claim to have met with Peter and James, and through Paul we are placed in the position of having to believe or disbelieve Peter’s and James’ testimony about the resurrection. Now add to this most direct historical connection, the accounts in Acts and the Four Gospels. (I place them second in historical weight because we can’t say how much is direct and how much is indirect testimony.) In Acts, we have accounts of Peter’s and Paul’s preaching and Paul’s Damascus Road experience. In the Gospels, we have very detailed accounts of the crucifixion, and we hear the story of Jesus’ burial, the empty tomb, and some resurrection appearances. Some facts mentioned in Acts and the Gospels are also supported in Paul: the empty tomb, the dramatic conversion of Paul, the appearances to Peter and the others. Hence we have a historical warrant to fill in the gaps in Paul testimony by using Acts and the Gospels.

There is no doubt that if we possessed this level of historical support for an “ordinary” historical event, no one would doubt that it really happened. Supposed we substitute for Paul’s claim to have experienced an appearance of Jesus Christ, the claim of having visiting the Temple in Jerusalem after his visit to Arabia. Suppose further that this fact is mentioned in the Four Gospels and Acts and serves as an assumption for the rest of the New Testament documents. No historian would doubt it. Indeed no historian would even think of doubting it. It would be historically certain. But because it is a miracle, and not simply a miracle but a miracle with revolutionary, world historical, religious, moral, and metaphysical significance…some people are willing to entertain the most outlandish conspiracy theories and speculative alternatives to the resurrection. Paul, the Pharisee and persecutor of Christians, changed from persecutor to persecuted preacher because of a deception? Peter, James the Lord’s brother, and all the rest conspired to deceive the world? The disciples saw Jesus die but lost track of his body after his death? Historically speaking—leaving out the bias against miracles and the epic implications of the resurrection—any event as directly and widely documented as the resurrection appearances would be accepted as historically established without question. Hence no one can be warranted historically for rejecting the resurrection. There must be another reason.

Second: To think reasonably about the resurrection event in historical terms, one cannot apply the presupposition that miracles cannot happen. To do so would make historical argument a waste of time. I have already dealt with the issue of rejecting the resurrection because of a belief that miracles cannot happen. Last week, I pointed out that believers should not take seriously historical objections to the resurrection based on atheism or deism. The discussion must be focused elsewhere, that is, on one of the first three decision points in the move from atheism/materialism to full Christian faith.

Third: Belief in the event of the resurrection from a historical perspective is just like belief in any other event. But from an existential, moral, and religious perspective, belief in the resurrection is dramatically different. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ demands from us what it demanded from Paul and the first disciples, a complete change of life direction! To say believingly “Jesus is risen!” is to say “Jesus is my Teacher, Lord, and Savior.” It is to reject ordinary, prudential, worldly life and risk everything! From this perspective, to believe Paul, Peter, James the Lord’s brother, the women at the tomb, and all the rest appears as a very scary proposition. Even if historical science tells us the resurrection really happened and even if rejecting the resurrection requires us to consider outlandish conspiracy theories, we still hesitate.

At this point in the argument, apologists often attempt to construct an argument for the trustworthiness of the New Testament witnesses, centering perhaps on the fact that they gave their lives for their testimony. And I have no strong objection to these arguments. But arguments create incentives to rebut and think of reasons to doubt. Arguments always create their dialectical opposites. Hence I want to take another approach. In his Confessions, book 10, Augustine of Hippo expresses confidence that his readers will believe him when they read his confessions to God, which they cannot check out for themselves, because their “ears are opened by love.” He says, with reference with 1 Corinthians 13:7 “love believes all things, at least among those love has bonded to itself and made one.” In his reflections on faith, Gabriel Marcel speaks of the certainty of faith as an intersubjective bond that not only credits but “rallies to” the one in whom it believes (The Mystery of Being, Vol. 2). The certainty of faith in the resurrection arises when we get to know the New Testament witnesses, enter into their minds and hearts and see through their eyes. In other words, we believe them because we love them. If we don’t love them, we will not believe them.

Fourth: How can we get over the scariness of the revolution called for by the resurrection faith? Augustine famously said, “For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.” Believing in the resurrection is not merely a matter of examining the credibility of some 2,000 year old documents. You have to love the people who bore and bear testimony to Jesus. You have to see that the resurrection faith and all that flows from it produces good people, people whose virtue and love you admire. The church should be, and sometimes actually is, the living reality that embodies the revolution implied in the resurrection of Jesus. How can a nonbeliever, one who understands practically nothing about the New Testament, come to love Jesus and those who loved him first, Paul, Peter, and the others? Only if they get to know a living human being who loves Jesus, Paul, Peter and the others! Only if they are loved by someone who has been transformed by their faith and love for Jesus, and for Paul, Peter and the others! The church—I mean the living body of believers under Christ their head—helps people believe by helping them love, and it helps them to love by loving them.

The Resurrection of Jesus: The Event that Changed Everything for the First Christians

In this 20th installment of our series “Is Christianity True” we finally get to the decisive event in Christian history, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. If this event really happened as the first Christians believed, everything changes. If they were wrong and it did not happen, Christianity as it originally came to exist and developed through the centuries is false. In the next few essays, we will pursue the question of whether or not we can reasonably hold to the resurrection faith.

We hear the Christian message from within our wider and narrower context. We bring our own beliefs, thoughts, experiences, and expectations to this encounter. In this series we are asking how a contemporary person can make a rational judgment and responsible decision to believe the Christian message. I think a good place to begin is to reflect on how the very first Christians made their transition into Christian faith. Surely, our coming to responsible faith cannot be wholly different from theirs.

Our knowledge of the careers of the first Christians comes from the documents of the New Testament, especially from the gospels, Acts, and the letters of Paul. Let’s delay the question of the historical reliability of these sources and concentrate on the story. The first Christians were Jews and came from among the original disciples of Jesus. They believed in the God of Israel and looked to the Law and the Prophets for guidance in their religion and life. After Jesus began to preach about the coming kingdom of God, these people and many others flocked to hear his message and witness his actions. Because of his radical teaching, his bold actions, and the miracles he performed, people speculated about who he was and how to fit him into their categories. Was he a prophet? Was he the Messiah-King? Was he an apocalyptic fanatic? They speculated about his aims. Did he aim to liberate the Jews from Roman rule? Did he aim to bring the age to an end with divine judgment and renewal? Jesus did not seem into fit any preconceived category.

Jesus called twelve of his disciples into his inner circle, but there was also a larger circle of above a hundred close disciples. Apparently, even these inner circles of disciples were not much clearer than others about who Jesus was and what his intentions were. But they were loyal to Jesus and were certain that the God of Israel was doing something new in the person and ministry of Jesus. According to the Gospel of Mark, Peter believed Jesus was “the Messiah” (8:29). But it’s hard to tell exactly what Peter meant by the title.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, debated with the Pharisees, entered the Temple and drove out the money changers, the religious and political leaders of Jerusalem were alarmed. They captured Jesus, tried him in at night, and convinced the Roman governor Pilate to crucify him. Jesus was crucified in public in the presence of solders, enemies, the curious crowd, and friends. His disciples saw him die. Some of them were able to secure his body and bury it in a nearby tomb.

What must his disciples have thought about this end to the story? Did God abandon Jesus? Was Jesus self-deceived? Or did Jesus simply suffer a martyr’s death as did many of the ancient prophets? According the gospel accounts, the disciples were stunned, afraid, and disappointed. But then something happened they had not expected. Less than 48 hours after they had seen Jesus die and be buried, on Sunday morning some women visited the tomb where Jesus had been buried and found it open and empty. Peter ran to the tomb to see for himself, and seeing the empty tomb, he wondered what had happened (Luke 24:12). Shortly thereafter, Jesus appeared to Peter and the other disciples and spoke with them. Jesus, contrary to all expectations, had been raised from the dead. This experience of the risen Jesus changed everything. Everything had to be rethought and reoriented.

The writings of Paul are the earliest preserved witness by someone who experienced a resurrection appearance. According to his own words Paul persecuted the first Christians but was confronted by Jesus himself and called to preach the gospel—a most unlikely convert! (In Acts, we have three extensive accounts of the conversion of Saul. But I am concentrating here on Paul’s words from his own pen.) In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues for the general, end-time resurrection of the dead from the complete consensus of the first Christians that Jesus was raised from the dead: to deny the general resurrection is to deny the resurrection of Christ. But the resurrection of Christ was a foundational belief in Corinth and all other churches. Paul lists, apparently in order, those to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection: Peter, the Twelve, James, the 500 (many of who were still alive), all the apostles, and finally Jesus appeared to Paul himself. According to Galatians 1:18-20, Paul spent two weeks with Peter in Jerusalem and while there visited with James the Lord’s brother. Hence we have in the words of Paul a direct witness from one who experienced an appearance of the resurrected Lord. Not only so, Paul was personally acquainted with many others who also independently experienced the risen Jesus.

Two conclusions follow from these considerations: (1) there can be no doubt that the event that caused the disciples to believe that God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead marks the decisive beginning of Christianity. Without it, Christianity would not exist. Christian faith is more than belief in the resurrection, but belief in the resurrection is essential and it changes dramatically how the teachings, miracles, and the death of Jesus must be understood. (2) There can be no doubt that Paul, Peter, James the Lord’s brother, the twelve, and many others experienced an appearance of Jesus, which for them unambiguously demonstrated that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Many questions remain for us to address, but I think these conclusions are sound historical judgments.


Moving into Faith: Rational and Responsible or Gullible and Rash?

In the last two posts I clarified the idea of history, located the source of information decisive to the transition from nonbelief into Christian faith, and clarified the distinction between an outsider and an insider view of this source. Today I want to move us closer imagining an outsider’s actual encounter with the core Christian message and clarifying the status of the judgment demanded in this situation.

Moving from nonbelief into Christian belief requires us to believe reports of events to which we have no direct access on the word of those who claim to have had direct access. This encounter is exceedingly complex, way beyond our ability to describe fully. The following are some general categories that affect the outcome of this encounter: (1) the background beliefs, experiences, questions, and interests of the nonbeliever; (2) the relationship between the witnesses reporting the events and the nonbeliever listening to the story; (3) the nature of the events reported; and (4) the perceived advantages or disadvantages of accepting the report. Obviously, we cannot create a description of the event of hearing and believing the gospel that anticipates the details of every encounter.

Perhaps some analogies will help. Suppose I am visiting an unfamiliar city and need a prescription filled. I ask the hotel concierge for directions to the local Walgreens. I listen to the directions carefully, accept them fully without consciously examining them critically, and follow them trustingly. Or, in another analogy, when I was a child my father told me that he served in United States Navy in the Pacific during World War II. I believed him immediately and without reservation. Or again, suppose that shortly after I return home from work my neighbor rings my door bell and warns me that in my absence today she saw an unfamiliar man step into my yard and peer into my dining room window. Will I believe her or not? Will I take appropriate measures in response to my belief that these events happened? In one final analogy, suppose a stranger approaches me on a street corner as I wait for the “Walk” sign to illuminate. He tells the story of how a few years ago on a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains he spotted a group of men burying piles of cash. Sadly, they placed a huge rock over the spot so big that he could not move it. After returning from his hike the stranger drew a map to the hidden treasure, which he will happily sell to me for $100. The sign across the street flashes “Walk”. I continue on my way without any reservations about having walked away from the buried treasure and a secure retirement.

In each of these four analogies we can see at work the four general factors mentioned above. I bring to each of these encounters the whole package of my beliefs and expectations, I have some kind of relationship to the witness, the events presented for belief possess a certain character, and I have a feel for the cost of believing or not believing the reports. Each of these factors plays a part in my decision. Most of the time, we are not even aware of the processes by which we perceive and weigh these factors and come to believe.

At this point I want to return to an idea I discussed in the first few posts of this series, applying it in the present context. I believe there is more to the belief-forming process than perceiving and weighing evidences. In much modern thought about belief formation, it is presumed that being a responsible and rational person requires us to consider doubt as the initial attitude toward testimony. Only the measurable weight of testimony, the demonstrable credibility of the witnesses, and other articulable evidences can propel the mind from its initial doubt into belief. I object to this account of the transition from not believing to believing for two reasons. (1) As my analogies show, in many cases we are able to evaluate the complex factors in a rational decision to belief very rapidly. We need not and cannot articulate a detailed assessment of our processing of these factors. And attempting to do so would be as foolish as impossible. Only neurotics spend enormous time and energy attempting to articulate and weigh every factor in their decisions. To live we must take risks. (2) I think it is more descriptive of what we actually do to assume that we possess a natural tendency to believe unless there is a reason not to believe. In other words, our first inclination is to believe what other people tell us rather than doubt them. We do not have an obligation as rational persons to doubt what others say unless there is a reason to doubt.

Getting clear that we do not have an obligation to begin with doubt will help us clear our minds of unreasonable rules that bias us against the testimony of the apostles before we even hear it. It will allow us simply to listen to the witnesses’ stories with openness to being persuaded. All the four factors for belief formation will still play their part but without the extra burden of a false description of what it means to be a rational person. Of course, as my example of the treasure map shows, we can sometimes have good reasons to doubt what people say. But simply that we are being asked to trust the word of another person is not good reason to doubt.

In future posts we need to examine the reports of how the first Christians came to believe and how their testimony was received.

Programing Note: For the next month I may need to post less than once a week. My publisher InterVarsity Press wants the final edition of my book on creation and providence by January 15, 2015. That effort will require my full energies. We just settled on the title: The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence For An Age of Anxiety.

The Limits of Reason and Divine Revelation

Reason has limits. We can reason only from what is given to the senses or the mind. We can extend our knowledge of the empirical world by tracing the causal connections among the data given to the senses. Our knowledge of the mental world can be expanded by tracing the connections among the ideas and concepts given with the mind. But reason cannot reach beyond what is given to it except, perhaps, in its sense of not being able to grasp its own existence. When we reason about any natural object given to us, we feel in control of our power to understand it. We feel even more in control when we construct an artificial object. But when we turn our minds to the question of the origin and existence of the mind itself, we find no object given to reason that could be subjected to reason’s power. Reason confronts its limits in its experience of not being able to grasp the ground of its own existence and powers. Reason operates powerfully within the limits of natural given objects, but when confronted with the question of its own origin, it faces a mystery beyond its comprehension.

Unless this Mystery freely itself reveals itself to reason, our thinking about it will be limited to speculation based on decisions about which analogies to press into the unknown. In previous essays in this series, I labeled these decisions about analogies “decision points.” At the first decision point we had to decide whether to conceive of the unknown ground of our existence as matter or mind. We chose mind. The second decision point forced us to choose between an impersonal and a personal God. We chose a personal God. The third decision point now confronts us with the choice between a personal God who is interdependent with the natural world and a personal God who is completely independent and transcendent to the natural world.

Why would any modern western person think of God as part of the world, just as dependent on the world as the world is on God? As far as I can tell, thinkers who view God this way share the presupposition that everything that is real in any sense falls within the sphere of reason’s natural space. We can reason our way into the divine nature from what is naturally given to the mind and the senses. Hence nature’s most fundamental laws apply equally to God and nature, and the concepts, propositions, and words used to understand nature apply to God in a literal sense. Allow me to depart from my usual practice and quote two twentieth-century thinkers who express this view quite clearly. Alfred North Whitehead stated his central axiom in these words: “God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification” [Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: Macmillan, 1929), p. 521]. Charles Hartshorne asserts that “theology (so far as it is the theory of the essence of the deity) is the most literal of all sciences of existence…the pure theory of divinity is literal , or it is a scandal, neither poetry nor science, neither well reasoned nor honestly dispensing with reasoning” (Divine Relativity, pp. 36-37). Hence God is continuous with nature.

But when we follow the logic of those who think God must be continuous with nature, the resulting picture of God differs dramatically from the traditional Jewish and Christian view of God: God evolves, learns, and grows along with the rest of nature. God is not eternal but bound to time and space. God does not know the future and knows the past only by remembering it. Although God is infinite in potential, he is finite in actual existence. God did not create the world from nothing and is not all-powerful. God acts only by persuasion and never (ever!) gets all he wills. Miracles make no sense because the laws of nature bind God as well as us.

I think it is fair to ask whether the word God should be used of such a being. Before the rise of Christianity, in the ancient near east or Greece and Rome, the word “god” could be used of such a limited being. But most people under the influence of Christian theology would reserve the word God, to quote Augustine, for the being than “which nothing more excellent or exalted exists.” Even more definitively, Anselm of Canterbury urged, “God is that, than which nothing greater can be conceived.” How can we think of God as a being that could in reality or in thought be surpassed in excellence and perfection—even by himself?

Now we return to the thought with which we began this essay: reason has limits. Given reason’s  lack of self-comprehension and experience of its inability to comprehend the mystery of its origin and ground, it is reasonable for reason to look beyond nature and its laws for their divine origin. Though such an act cannot be deduced or predicted by natural reason, it makes sense to maintain openness for the divine mystery to reveal itself within our sphere. And Christianity claims that this revelation really happened, and its view of God is definitively determined by its understanding of this revelation.

Next Time: We are now ready to pose the fourth decision point at which we will be confronted with the decision to enter the sphere of Christian faith or remain in the realm of theism, where God is not named and identified.