All posts by Derek Vreeland

  • Forward by Derwin Gray

    My discipleship book, By the Way: Getting Serious About Following Jesus releases in two weeks! I was honored to have my friend Derwin Gray write the forward.

    Derwin is the pastor of Transformation Church in the Charlotte, NC area. He was raised by a grandmother in San Antonio, Texas and was a compulsive stutterer. He played football at BYU and 6 years in the NFL. He travels and speaks all over the US, teaching often about multi-cultural church life. He has written a couple of books including The High Definition Leader: Building Multiethnic Churches in a Multiethnic World.

    He recently completed his Doctor of Ministry degree from Northern Seminary where he studied under Scot McKnight. He has a real kingdom vision and we have both been deeply influenced by some of the same theologians like N.T. Wright. I have been listening to his sermon podcast for about two years. He is a good dude and a great preacher!

    Here is what he wrote in his forward:

    “Jesus saves us so that through us he can save the world.” My friend Derek wrote these beautiful words in Chapter one. These words are beautiful because they are true. My heart was gripped when I first laid eyes on them, just as I know that this book will grip your heart too. You are going to fall deeper in love with Jesus, his Church, his mission for his church, and for people who have yet to taste and see that the Lord is so good.

    How amazing is it that Jesus shares his eternal-kind-of-life, ministry, and mission with his disciples? It’s mind blowing to contemplate that Jesus right now is seated at the right hand of his Father, in a realm that the New Testament calls heaven, yet Jesus expresses himself on earth through his disciples, called the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27). Jesus loves, forgives, and transforms, and brings glimpses of heaven to earth through his people. Through the pages of this book, Derek is going to help you reimagine what it means to follow Jesus.  

    Like a  skilled guide, he will reveal to you how consumerism and western individualism has negatively shaped your faith. Consumerism tells a story that Jesus and his church is a product that exist to meet your needs.  It’s like Jesus is a wonderfully trained Chick-fil-A employee whose pleasure it is to make sure your order is to your liking.  

    Western individualism, instead of placing Jesus and his church as the focus of your faith, you the individual becomes the focus.  Often, the Church in North America has transformed the gospel from a corporate, communal understanding to an individualistic, private faith. The gospel becomes a story of how Jesus came to save me from the wrath of God and to help me reach heaven when I die, instead of a story of God in Christ rescuing, reconciling, and redeeming a people who exist for the glory and mission of God, displaying a foretaste of God’s kingdom on earth as conduits of love (1 Peter 2:9).

    Marinate on this for a moment: The New Testament authors use the word disciple 269 times and the word Christian only 3 times to describe Jesus’ followers. Unfortunately, the term Christian has lost its meaning. The term Christian describes how Jews and Gentiles became a new, multi-ethnic family. In the early church, Jews began to worshiped Jesus of Nazareth as YHWH (or Yahweh) and Gentiles stopped worship idols and starting worshiping Jesus. It’s as though they became a new ethnicity on earth comprised of all ethnicities united in and by the blood of Jesus in fulfillment with God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 12:1-3; Eph 2:8-16). The scripture says, “The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch (Ac 11:26 CSB). Unfortunately, the term Christian has lost its meaning.

    A disciple is an apprentice of Jesus, in the community (church) of Jesus, who relies on the life of Jesus through the Holy Spirit’s presence and power, to reproduce Jesus’ life, ministry, and mission.  God is calling you to so much more. He’s calling you to a new way to be human, to be enlightened by his gospel-truth, and to live by the power of Jesus’ very life. 

    —Dr. Derwin L. Gray
    Lead Pastor Transformation Church

  • Some Thoughts on Writing

    As most of you know by now, I announced Tuesday (October 2) that I have signed my first publishing contract. I have been working on a discipleship book since summer 2018 and after a number of rejections from other publishers, I received an enthusiastic yes from Herald Press! My book entitled By The Way: Getting Serious About Following Jesus will be released summer 2019.

    Writing this book and securing this publishing contract has been a long time coming. I have dreamed of the day when a publisher would say  “yes” and extend a contract offer. But it takes more than just daydreams to get to this point. In one sense this has been a 22-year work in progress for me.

    Let me back up the story…

    My College & Seminary Years

    I graduated with an undergraduate degree in Writing from Missouri Western State University in 1996. I began college as a philosophy and religion major, but I changed schools and Missouri Western didn’t offer a philosophy degree back in the 90s. (They do now!) I choose English/Writing because I thought it would be easy and it was. Writing came naturally to me, but I learned a lot about writing while in college. I learned to write for an audience. I learned to “show” and not “tell.” I learned to avoid the passive voice (most of the time). I learned to write simply, to use a smaller word in place of a big word when I could. I appreciate the foundation I received at Missouri Western.

    From 1996-1999 I was a seminary student at Oral Roberts University. Reading and writing seemed like a full time job. I learned to think and write theologically at ORU. My seminary professors commented on my writing ability and encouraged me to continue to write after graduation. I recall a note one of my professors wrote on one of my book reviews that I submitted as a part of his class. He wrote, “Give me the opportunity to write an endorsement for your first book!” I appreciate the encouragement I received at ORU.

    Writing as a Pastor

    In the mid-2000 I began to figure out that writing was a part of my call as a pastor. Much like my hero Eugene Peterson, I saw myself as a teacher, not just in the pulpit on Sundays or behind a lectern on Wednesday nights, but in the delicate art of writing. In 2006 while working on my doctorate degree at Asbury Theology Seminary, I received real clarity on my call as a pastor. I wasn’t called to start a new church as I previously assumed. I was called to “teach, write, and be a voice.”

    I self-published my first book in 2008, ten years ago, a book on spiritual transformation. I received my first rejection from a major publisher too. I didn’t want to self publish, but I had no other options. I ended up using a “author-subsidized” publisher. I paid too much and received too little. I went on to self publish three other books and I received more rejection emails from publishers who decided to pass on me. I also wrote countless online articles mostly as a part of the Missio Alliance writing team.

    In 2014 when I turned 40 while hiking on the Appalachian Trail I determined to remain focused on writing and publishing. I received an offer to write for Missio Alliance soon after that trip. I appreciate writing on this team of talented and thoughtful writers. Writing approximately once a month for over four years helped me form the discipline necessary to grow as a writer.

    Educators have something to teach regarding the art of writing, but good writing comes from writing and writing and writing. To set a good writing pace requires the discipline to keep writing. I started writing my discipleship book last year, but found myself floundering. I found much encouragement from Scot McKnight’s piece: Writing In Your Life where he described the discipline to write every day. Discussing this article with my friend Doug Main spurred me on to stop making excuses and develop a plan to write every day…or at least try to!

    I also found inspiration from Anne Lamott’s instructions on how to write.

    #ButtInChair has become a mantra for me. And it is so true! All writers face the temptation of distraction…sports, Twitter, news, texts, snacks, and on and on it goes. When I sit to write I think of 10,000 other things I could be doing, but alas, I firmly fix my butt in the chair and write.

    Now I have a contract and, more urgently, a deadline. My manuscript is due December 1. I have less than two months to finish writing the book (I have three more chapters to go!) and edit and edit and edit until I am sick of looking at it.

    I’m so grateful to so many of you who have encouraged me over the years. I appreciate it so much. Thank you. I’m also grateful to Valerie Weaver-Zercher at Herald Press for her enthusiasm for this writing project. I am humbled and grateful to have the opportunity to write this book. I can’t want to share it with you.

    I have much more to say, but I have a book to finish! I better get writing.


  • This is America: My Thoughts

    If you haven’t taken the time to watch the music video to Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” you need to.

    It isn’t just another music video dreamed up by a marketing team to sell records. This video is an art piece. As with any good piece of art it will mess with you. It works on you. It doesn’t leave your memory. It will stick with you.

    Over the last week I have watched it more than a dozen times and I cannot stop thinking about the images, the lyrics, and I how I feel every time I watch it. I can’t get the lyrics out of my head.

    This is America
    Don’t catch you slippin’ up

    Every time I watch it, I want to write something…my thoughts…my feelings…my reactions…my anger…my hope. It seems like I have a different reaction every time I watch it, but one thought continues to remain consistent: this song is important.

    In some ways this is the “The Times They Are A-Changin'” for a new generation. Bob Dylan wrote that song in 1963 and was later called the voice of a generation. I don’t know if generations have a single voice anymore. We are so polarized and tribal and live in such a pluralistic world that maybe there isn’t one song that will speak to and for an entire generation.

    But then again, maybe this is the song and voice and message for this generation.

    So watch and listen with an open mind and heart. Be prepared to be moved. If you have already watched it once or twice, watch it again…and again. Listen and watch. The video is just as important as the song.

    Be warned. Some lyrics are explicit and some images are graphic, but still…you need to watch this.

    Whoa. This is America.

    America are you listening?

    There is more in this song and video than I will take time to comment on. Others have written about all the symbolism here, but let me start with the obvious: This is America and America we have a problem.

    We have a revolving door of violence and it seems like after we all offer “thoughts and prayers,” we go back to life as normal. Particularly people like me. I am a middle class white dude. When I watch “This Is America,” I do so with white eyes. I make no apology for my ethnicity and socioeconomic status. I just acknowledge that it exists and I am aware of it. I’m aware that because of my place in life, I see things with certain biases and assumptions. I do not know what it is like to live in fear. I do not know what it is like to be a black man in America. I see Glover running at the end of this video with fear in his eyes and I cannot imagine a situation where I will ever know a moment of terror like that. One thing I do know: #BlackLivesMatter.

    America we have a problem and guns are a part of that problem.

    In the opening scene when the guitar player (minus his guitar) is executed, the man’s body is dragged off only after the gun used in his murder is carefully handed off in a red cloth. In America guns have become sacred and any talk of ending the proliferation of guns is met by outrage and resistance. (I have written about that here.) I know we have second amendment rights. I know we need armed law enforcement. Nobody is saying we have to eliminate all guns but what can we do to end the spread of guns and gun violence?

    How long will we rant on social media over escalating violence in America and then go back to:

    Look how I’m geekin’ out
    I’m so fitted
    I’m on Gucci
    I’m so pretty

    How long? How long until we say enough is enough?

    How long until we as a people can say innocent black men gunned down in the streets of America is not OK?

    How long until we say people being killed in our schools, churches, and movie theaters is not OK?

    How long until we say violence on the “other” side of town is my problem too?

    How long until we learn to put down our guns and love one another?

    As a pastor I have the opportunity to serve communion week after week. Very often as I serve the wine with the words “the blood of Christ shed for you,” I think this is the way: we don’t need to shed blood anymore, Jesus shed his blood for us. The only way to peace is to confess our sin, abandon our ways, and follow the Jesus way empowered by the Spirit. This is the hope I have for America. My hope is for baptized followers of Jesus Christ to shed their political affiliations and ideological covers and wrap themselves with the other-worldly, enemy-loving, counterintuitive ways of Jesus.

    This is the way. Jesus is the way. Peace is the way. There is no way to peace…peace is the way. If we will embrace Jesus, he can save us, not to take us to a distant world, but so he can save this world.

    Childish Gambino has awaken something. Let’s not grow comfortable with violence. Let’s stay awake and aware. Let’s stay woke.

    America are you listening?

  • Why is There a Black Smudge on My Forehead?

    It isn’t a smudge. It is ashes in the shape of a cross. Today is Ash Wednesday.

    Like many of us who were nurtured in a Southern Baptist and/or charismatic nondenominational context, I didn’t grow up with Ash Wednesday or Lent as a part of my practice of the Christian faith. I am deeply appreciative for my Southern Baptist upbringing. They taught me the centrality of following Jesus and they gave me a love for the Scripture. I equally appreciate the years I spent in the charismatic renewal. The Pentecostal/charismatic tradition taught me to love Jesus with all my heart and remain open to the surprising work of the Holy Spirit.

    As much as I love these expressions of the Christian family, neither of these traditions gave me the Christian calendar.

    The Liturgical Calendar

    For so long I thought the church’s liturgical calendar was dead tradition, man-made religion practiced by Roman Catholics and liberal Protestant Christians. I was wrong. I was arrogant and ignorant. I was blinded by my own sense of spiritual superiority. I know better now.

    Today I observe the church calendar with a growing number of post-Evangelicals and post-charismatics who desire a rich, substantive faith rooted in the ancient traditions of the Christian faith. (Quick commercial: We are hosting a gathering at Word of Life Church June 28-30, 2018 for people who are on this journey of discovering the great tradition and looking to do church in a way that is both contextual to our present time and reaching back into the great tradition. Lean more here:

    Nearly all Christians recognize Christmas and Easter, but what I, and so many others have discovered, is that there is an entire calendar with seasons and celebrations throughout the year. To be honest, most Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter not because they are ancient traditions, but because they are some of the final remaining relics of a Christianized-culture. In other words, non-liturgical churches typically recognize Christmas and Easter, because they are listed on the same calendar that marks Mother’s Day and Independence Day.

    To observe the liturgical calendar with its seasons like Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost is to resist the growing secularism that is the air we breathe in North America. The cultural tide has turned. The Christian faith no longer has a dominate voice in our culture and we aren’t getting that voice back. We certainly will never expand our gospel witness by engaging in never-ending culture wars. We don’t fight and clamor for the kingdom of God in order to attack secularism. Instead we resist it. Observing the Christian calendar is one of the ways we resist the ways of the world and the rising flood waters of secularism.

    Today, for the first time since World War II, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday have collided. Today is a test to see which calendar has primary influence over us. I am not saying we forsake Valentine’s Day. I bought flowers for my wife. But I bought them yesterday, hid them in my truck, and left them for her before I headed out for our 7AM Ash Wednesday Service.

    So Why Ash Wednesday?

    Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent and Lent is all about Jesus.

    In fact the entire Christian calendar tells the story of Jesus. Today marks the beginning of a 40-day journey with Jesus to the cross and ultimately to the resurrection. Every Sunday on this journey is a mini-celebration of the resurrection, so everything is not doom and gloom, but today, on Ash Wednesday, we are intentional about identifying with the sorrows of the cross so we can prepare ourselves for the joy of the resurrection. If we do nothing to prepare for the Easter celebration, then Easter becomes about Easter bunnies, Easter eggs, and Easter candy. And I am all for it! In fact, I am giving up candy and sweets for Lent so bring on on Cadbury eggs on Easter Sunday!

    Giving up something for Lent or fasting a meal or day during Lent is a way to remind us of the sufferings of Jesus, so we create a little contrast in our lives, so that when Easter comes, watch out, the joy and excitement will be palpable!

    Ash Wednesday along with the entire Lenten season is a well-worn spiritual pathway walked by millions of Christians before us. Today it is practiced not only by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians but by ordinary Protestants like me and you who want to reach back into the great tradition of the Church that we might walk more faithfully with Jesus today.

    Here on Ash Wednesday we are reminded of two things:
    1. Jesus died for our sins according to the Scripture, according to the long and winding story the Scripture tells.
    2. We will at some time also cross the threshold of death.

    We welcome the first reminder, but we recoil when anyone talks about death. To admit that yes we will all die is not to morbidly fixate on death or long for death, because as Christians we believe death is an enemy, an unwelcomed invader into God’s good creation.

    Death is indeed unwelcomed, but death is a present reminder that humanity is fragile, life is like a mist that appears for a little bit and then vanishes. Yes we are going to die, but we do not fear death, because we believe Jesus has defeated death by his death through the resurrection.

    Our response on Ash Wednesday is the same response we offer to the gospel and that is confession and repentance. For ancient Israel ashes were a sign of mourning and repentance. The ashen cross we received on our foreheads today is a similar sign. We receive the sign of repentance as a reflection of our desire to turn from sin and turn to Jesus. Sure it is weird to have someone smudge ashes on your forehead and walk around all day with what looks like dirt on our foreheads, but this mark is a part of being God’s peculiar people.

    So today I wear ashes on my forehead. Yes it is strange, but in some strange way it helps me grow closer to Jesus.

    To help you on this Lenten journey, we have created a Lent Devotion Guide with Scriptures, a question, and a prayer for every day during this season of Lent. You can download it at

    Join us on this journey.

    Join us in this resistance movement.

    Join us in what Jesus is doing in and through his church today.

  • The Last Jedi: Luke Speaks to the Church

    I’m a Star Wars fan.

    I’m a fan because Star Wars has been with me my entire life. I remember watching The Empire Strikes Back in a drive-in with my parents when I was six years-old. I remember standing in line to get tickets for Return of the Jedi. I collected Star Wars action figures and turned my pre-adolescent  bedroom into a galaxy of it own. I read the books based on the screenplays of Episodes 1-3 before the movies came out in the early 2000s. As I became a father of three boys, I was happy to see them gravitate towards this story that took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

    When I played with my Star Wars toys as a child, it was not to replay fight scenes or lightsaber duels from the movies; I told stories, new stories that went deeper into the narrative world created by the Star Wars universe. Storytelling is the magic of Star Wars. It really isn’t the special effects, CGI, or epic battles. It is the story. The enduring appeal of Star Wars is a testimony to the power of myth.

    [Warning: There are spoilers below! If you have not seen the movie stop reading now.]

    Star Wars: The Last Jedi

    Star Wars fans were nervous about The Force Awakens when it came out in 2015, but nothing could have prepared us for the polarization that came with The Last Jedi. While the critics love it, fans are divided. To date is has a 92% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but an audience score of 53%. I saw The Last Jedi a week after the release which gave me time to read some online reviews and comments from friends on social media. I could tell people either loved it or hated it. It seemed to me that among the Star Wars faithful, most were disappointed with the movie.

    When I walked out of the theater, I was completely elated. But I was shaking my head. I couldn’t understand why so many fans didn’t like The Last Jedi. I absolutely loved it. It brought back all the nostalgia from my childhood. I laughed. I didn’t cry, but I did feel a lump in my throat. What I loved so much was the story. The Last Jedi is a great story. It seems to me that those who didn’t like it had expectations that the movie did not fulfill, questions that that movie did not answer.

    Great stories don’t bow down to the demands of the crowd. Great stories aren’t mastered or controlled by the audience. Great stories invite us in to explore another world and, if we are open, a well-told story can shape and reshape our imaginations.

    The Last Jedi is the conclusion to Luke’s story. He is the main character. At the end of The Force Awakens we were all left wondering how Luke would respond to Rei’s offer of a lightsaber. His response was to flippantly toss that lightsaber over his shoulder and walk away. Luke Skywalker on Ahch-To, 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, isn’t the same Luke Skywalker we saw celebrating with his friends in the Ewok village on Endor. This Luke was broken and despondent. He was living in near seclusion with his guilt and shame, waiting to die.

    Maybe fans didn’t like this version of Luke. Mark Hamill himself didn’t like how Luke Skywalker was portrayed in this film, calling him “Jake Skywalker” and saying “this is not my Luke Skywalker.” Setting aside our expectations for this movie, I thought this was a masterful move in the telling of the story of Luke Skywalker. He was the hero of the galaxy, indeed a legend, but now he was a flawed, jaded, bitter man. He is a fallen hero, still on a quest. A hero who, by the end of the movie, finds redemption and peace. 

    Three Things Master Luke Has to Say to the Church

    The power of myth and well-told stories are their ability to be translated into various cultural forms. As a Christian peeking into the Star Wars universe I can seem archetypes and themes that speak well to the church on mission today in our current cultural context. So let’s allow Luke Skywalker speak to us today. He is still a Jedi Master. He had three lessons for Rey. Here are the three things he has to say to us.

    #1 Grace is Given to the Humble

    As Luke explains to Rey the events surrounding Ben Solo’s metamorphosis into Kylo Ren, he is quick to take the blame. It was his arrogance. He was a hero, but he allowed the acclaim to inflate his ego. He had become “Luke Skywalker the Legend” and he had subtly begun to trust in himself, slowly closing himself to the Force. He saw the darkness growing in Ben and at the height of his own arrogance, Luke contemplated killing his own nephew.

    Luke opted for isolation on Ahch-To to hide in shame and eventually die. He was humiliated but for Luke this experience was necessary. Rey’s arrival didn’t instantly relieve him of his shame, but it opened the door for hope. Like so many flawed heroes in the Bible, Luke Skywalker’s life testifies to this simple truth: God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Luke’s grace appeared in the form of Rey who will carry on the Jedi’s legacy. Luke’s pride gave way to humility and in the end of the movie he shows up to be a hero once again. 

    #2 Failure Can Be the Greatest Teacher

    My inner nine-year old started jumping up and down when Yoda, as a force ghost, appeared on the screen. Luke was about ready to burn down the ancient tree and Jedi books (which Rey somehow snuck aboard the Millennium Falcon) when Yoda appears. And wisdom he came to bring.

    Yoda offers this sage advice: “The greatest teacher, failure is.”

    Many of the characters in The Last Jedi are wrestling with their past: Rey with her parents, Kylo Ren with his turn to the dark side, and Finn with his previous life as a stormtrooper. But no character is haunted by the past more than Luke. He ran from his failure. He needed something like Pete & Geri Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. He needed a way to process his painful past. Luckily Yoda shows up with a literal lightning bolt to help Luke reckon with his past.

    Failure is a great teacher, but only if we take the time to reflect upon it, wrestle with it, and allow God to heal us of past mistakes, so we can go forward with God’s mission. Failure left unattended is no teacher at all.       

    #3 There is Power in Contemplation

    I suppose many Star Wars fans were disappointed with how the movie ended. One YouTuber with a large Star Wars fan channel said he wanted to see Luke as a powerful Jedi take on Kylo Ren in an epic lightsaber battle. However what we saw from Luke was a few swings of his lightsaber and a Matrix-style back bend to dodge a striking Kylo Ren. I understand people’s disappointment. They wanted a Jedi warrior who would do some epic damage with that lightsaber! Instead we were given a quiet Luke who through meditation projected himself onto the salt-covered planet of Crait. In doing so he gave time for the remaining resistance fighters to escape. In the end he finds the peace he needs to pass on and become one with the Force.            

    So many Christians want a kick-butt Messiah. They struggle to come to grips with a God who saves not by killing his enemies, but by being killed. Star Wars fans wanted a kick-butt Luke. Instead they are given a Luke who ultimately engages his enemy through solitude and meditation.

    Christians for centuries have practiced contemplation, sitting quietly with Jesus in prayer. Contemplation has the power to transform our heart and mind and our  outlook on the world. In a world of hostility and antagonism, we need less warriors and more contemplatives. After all, Yoda told Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, that wars do not make one great.

    The greatest legacy of Luke Skywalker is throwing down his lightsaber and not killing Darth Vader, an act of nonviolence, and then saving the rebels through an act of contemplation. Perhaps we who follow the Prince of Peace could follow his lead.  

  • The Logic of Jewish Election

    At the heart of the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism over the doctrine of election is the understanding of God’s act of predestination.

    Within Calvinism, God predestines the elect for salvation and and the “reprobate” are elected for damnation. In other words, God chooses some for salvation and the rest he turns over to the rebellion of their sinful ways. For John Calvin, “By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation.” [1] Election from this perspective is unconditional.

    Within Arminianism, God predestines those whom he foreknew. In other words, God knows in advance who will accept Christ and who will reject him. According to John Wesley, “Who are predestinated? None but those whom God foreknew as believers.” [2] Election from this perspective is conditional upon the individuals’ faith.

    Taking a Step Back

    This debate has been recycled over and over again for centuries with people taking sides. What we need to do in our generation is to take a step back from the theological debate and take a fresh look at Scripture, starting with Paul, to see how Paul uses the word election. For example in Romans 9 Paul writes:

    And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

    Paul uses the terms “election” and “elect,” but what are we to make of it? Does God love some people and thus elects them for salvation and hate others whom he chooses for damnation? Or does God know in advance who will love him and who will hate him? And more importantly, what is “God’s purpose of election” anyway?

    Paul was a Jewish thinker who wrote using Jewish language and metaphor. In order to understand how he uses the term election we have to peak into the Jewish context of what it meant for Israel to be the elect, the chosen people of God.

    N.T. Wright on Election

    One of the top takeaways for me from Tom Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God was on this very issue of election and what it means for followers of Jesus to be justified and thus members of the elect people of God. The key in understanding election is in understanding the logic of Jewish election.

    For Wright, Jewish election is not about salvation but about a vocation.

    In other words, Israel was not chosen for election so they could have BFF status with the God of creation. They were chosen by God so they could fulfill humanity’s primary vocation of being God’s image-bearers in God’s world, shining the goodness, truth, and beauty of the Creator into all creation. God did not choose Israel so that they could merely occupy a strip of land in the Middle East with a capital in Jerusalem.

    The logic of Israel’s election was not God choosing one ethnic group in order to condemn the rest of the world or allow them to remain in pagan darkness. The logic of the election of Israel was God choosing a certain people through whom he would rescue the world with the light of his love. For Wright, the logic of Jewish election is tied to how Paul understood justification.

    To be justified is to be put right as the people of God for the purposes of God. In order to see the logic of election within the overarching purposes of God, Wright sketches seven movements which capture the logical context behind his interpretation of Paul’s theology of justification in Paul and the Faithfulness of God pages 942-961:

    1. “God the creator intends at the last to remake the creation, righting all wrongs and filling the world with his own presence.” We begin where the Christian narrative begins; we start with the actions of the one true God making the world as a place to be shared with human beings.

    2. “For this to happen, humans themselves have to be ‘put right’.” Humanity is intricately connected to God’s world, so they must be put right. God’s way of putting people right is God’s act of justification.

    3. “God’s way of accomplishing this is through the covenant.” Even though it may seem like a strange way of setting things right, covenant was, and is, God’s way of redeeming his good creation. God intended all along to remain faithful to Israel.

    4. “(The covenant) is how the creator God will put humans to rights.” God is responsible for setting right a world gone wrong and he has the power and authority to do so. He will not only set the world right through covenant, but his covenant with Israel was his particular way of setting all of humanity right.

    5. “All these themes point forward to the decisive divine judgment on the last day, in other words, to ‘final eschatology.’” All language regarding justification points to God’s future and final act of judgment, where he will sort out the things gone wrong in his good world. Present justification experienced by those in Jesus the Messiah is a foretaste of the justification to come at the final judgment.

    6. “The events concerning Jesus the Messiah are the revelation, in unique and decisive action, of the divine righteousness.” In the death of Jesus, sin—the source of humanity’s wrongdoing—is condemned, and in the resurrection of Jesus, God’s new creation, the very place where the world is being put right, has begun. Through the Messiah we see God’s righteousness displayed both in terms of his covenant faithfulness and his restorative justice.

    7. “When Paul speaks about people being ‘justified’ in the present, he is (arguing)…that in the present time the covenant God declares ‘in the right,’ ‘within the covenant,’ all those who hear, believe and obey ‘the gospel’ of Jesus the Messiah.” This declaration creates a new situation, a new status for those who are justified and thus welcomed in as the people of God. Justification is not a description of a person’s moral character but a declaration of a person’s social identity. Wright adds: “Those who are declared or accounted ‘righteous’ on the basis of Messiah-faith constitute the single covenant family which the one God has faithfully given to Abraham.” [3]

    As the justified, we are God’s elect, members of God’s chosen people so that through us God can rescue the world. We are the justified justice-bringers, the chosen healers for the broken and wounded, the elect people for the sake of the world.


    [1] Institutes 3.21.7

    [2] Sermon 58: On Predestination

    [3] The summary of this list is taken from Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright my reader’s guide to Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

  • My New Book is Here

    Releasing a new a book is what I imagine giving birth is like minus the excruciating pain. 

    The idea was conceived pretty quickly and now for “nine months” I have been laboring and struggling to write and edit and rewrite and edit and rewrite and rewrite and edit and..well, you understand. Writing is a slow and often uncomfortable process. But then the moment happens when the book enters into the world with applause and smiles, and even a tear or two.

    I am so happy to announce my new baby, er…book, is here! N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross is a reader’s guide to N.T. “Tom” Wright’s 2016 book on the cross, The Day the Revolution Began. This is the second reader’s guide I have written for a N.T. Wright book. The first one, Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright, was released in 2015. I’m surprised at how well-received that book has become. I continue to hear from people (two years after its release) who have found it helpful. This new book will give you access to exploring the meaning of the cross.

    Click here to download Chapter 1 of N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross for free.

    A Peek Inside the Book

    This reader’s guide to Tom’s book on the cross is like my previous reader’s guide with a few upgrades. In the introduction, I write:

    While in my previous reader’s guide I did less interpretive work, I do more in this one. As I have become more familiar with Tom’s work and as it has affected my own, I have grown more comfortable with blending my own interpretation of Tom with his key concepts. Another difference between this reader’s guide and the last is I have included reflection questions at the end of each chapter to be used for personal or small group study.

    The reflection questions at the end of each of the six chapters will be a great way for individuals or groups to use this book to dig deeper into Tom’s world. I believe his book is a real game changer. He wrote The Day the Revolution Began on a “popular level,” leaving out long footnotes and references to other works, but his book still ended up over 400 pages in length. My reader’s guide will help you understand most of Tom’s primary points which I hope opens up new vistas of the love of God revealed in the cross.

    What Does Tom Think About This Book?

    One question I’m often asked is, “What does N.T. Wright think of your summary work?”

    The answer is as complex as Tom himself.

    Professor Wright has been my primary theological mentor for years now and there is no denying my man crush (#bromance). I am a Tom Wright super fan! I talked to him briefly at Missio Alliance’s Awakenings gathering earlier this year and I asked him if it was ok if I continued my summary work. He said he understood why I am doing what I’m doing and expressed his appreciation. In previous emails to me, he was clear that he really didn’t like being summarized because of what is left out in a summary of his books. When I finished the manuscript for N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross and began the editing process, I sent it to him.

    Two weeks later I got a response.

    He again thanked me for my work, but felt that there seemed to be a better way of doing this. Time limitations and work demands prevent us from working together on some other way of disseminating his ideas, so for now a reader’s guide is all I have to offer. He did read the manuscript and offer over 30 comments. This was such a gift! There were no major corrections. Rather he offered subtle critiques here and there. He did in the end say that he felt like I got some things right and in other places I said some things in my own words, things he was not saying in the book.

    As a reader’s guide this is both summary and interpretation. If you want to know whether what I have written in N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross is my words or Tom’s, you will have to read my book along side his. Reading them together is the best way to get the most out of my book.

    The Revolutionary Cross

    What N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross will do, in less than 100 pages, is present to you, in stunning clarity, the power and beauty of the cross. Those of us who have grown up in an evangelical context have one or more ways of seeing the cross that have obstructed our view of the revolutionary nature of the cross. We have debated and argued about “atonement,” the precise meaning of how the cross saves us, but I fear we get lost in the trees, not seeing the expanse of the forest.

    I don’t want to dismiss the theological work going on around the topic of the atonement. It is important for us to work with Scripture and the Christian tradition to understand what it means when we say: Christ died for our sins. (With some trepidation I have entered into the atonement debate here and here.)

    My reader’s guide to Tom’s book on the cross will give you a new lens in which you can see that God’s saving work on the cross is nothing short of a revolution. This world-changing revolution is found in the story Scripture is telling. While evangelicals have emphasized the cross as the means by which believers can go to heaven when they die, the Scripture tells the story of new creation breaking into our broken down world with the cross as the pivotal moment of that story. The cross is the climax of the story the Bible tells, the clearest moment of the revelation of who God is. According to Tom,

    The Messiah’s crucifixion unveiled the very nature of God himself at work in generous self-giving love to overthrow all power structures by dealing with the sin that had given them their power, that same divine nature would now be at work through the ministry of the gospel not only through what was said, but through the character and the circumstances of the people who were saying it.

    I would love for you to get a copy of my book. It is available NOW in paperback and as a Kindle download from It will be available at Word of Life Church/Solomon’s Porch in St. Joe beginning Sunday, September 9.

    If you do get the book could you do a couple other things to help get the word out?

    1. Mention the book on social media using this link:
    2. Write an Amazon review
    3. Tell your friends
    4. Form a small group to read and discuss the book
    5. Write your congressman and senator (ok, well maybe not)

    Tom Wright says a revolution has begun, a revolution initiated by the death of Jesus on the cross.

    This revolution beckons us to join. I am in. How about you?

  • A Tribute to Barry Reynolds (March 9 1948 – June 20, 2017)

    Coach Reynolds reading to me as I visited him in his basement in December 2012.

    My friend Barry Reynolds died this week.

    He was my high school English teacher, mentor, and track coach. One of the joys I have experienced in moving back to St. Joe as an adult is reconnecting with people from the past.

    We met a number of times over the last six years to discuss literature, faith, life, politics, Wendell Berry, philosophy, the church, and a myriad of other topics.

    Coach Reynolds was given to me by God at a time in my life as a high school student when I need someone like him. He encouraged me and challenged me in the classroom, on the track, and in the life of faith.

    He was able to draw things out of me that I did not know were there.

    He was the first person to tell me I had a “voice,” that is, I had something  to say. He encouraged me to write from the perspective of the Christian faith. I later went on to be an English major at Missouri Western.

    I was never a great student, but he encouraged me to take the test to see if I qualified for the TAG program. (TAG was an advanced literature and humanities class that he co-taught.) I never thought I’d have the test score to enter into the program. But I did.

    I was never a great athlete, but he challenged me and pushed me to become a better hurdler. I never made it to State, but I qualified for sectionals once and attracted some college recruitment offers.

    I cannot express how deeply he impacted me and how much he will be missed.

    Over the past six years we had countless conversations. A couple of years ago we read Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter together and then met to discuss it. We both love Wendell Berry. He called Berry the sanest man in America. He is right. I will always remember those conversations about Wendell Berry and that novel in particular.

    Coach Reynolds was kind, thoughtful, intelligent, and a man who embodies everything I want to be. He once told me that God put him on earth to coach hurdlers. He did that over a 35 year career, even coaching some state champions, but he did so much more than that.

    He taught us to think, to dream, to read, to ask big questions, to be present to the other, to be humble, and to be focused. He taught us to love, to run, to reject the status quo, to look for beauty and allow beauty to work its magic. He was a wise one, a sage, a contemplative. He was a rare combination of intelligence and charisma.

    Tonight I hugged his wife Barb and told her how much I loved him.

    Tomorrow I am humbled and honored to be a pallbearer as we lay him to rest.

    He will be missed by many. I for one will never forget him.

    1992 Central High School Hurdlers: Back row: Seth Wheat, me, Andre Crittendon, Kelly Brandt, Coach Reynolds. Front row: Jenni Lowrance (Vreeland), Patty Schuele, Melanie Mares



  • N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross: Week 6

    I am blogging my way through N.T. Wright’s book The Day the Revolution Began, creating an outline of the book as a small group study I am leading at our church. This is the last of six blogs in this series. All quotations followed by a number in parenthesis are quotes from the book. Click here for previous weeks [Week 1] [Week 2] [Week 3] [Week 4] [Week 5]

    A Revolutionary Mission
    The Day the Revolution Began (Chapters 14-15)

    Chapter 14: Passover People

    The earliest Christians, led by the Apostles, understood that with the death of Jesus something had happened; the rumblings of revolution had begun. The first sign that the world was now a very different place was the resurrection of Jesus. The death of Jesus was a decisive victory over the powers of darkness, sin, and death. The kingdom of God had been launched. Since the followers of Jesus believed a revolution had begun, they went forth proclaiming the gospel in the power of suffering love. The question for us modern-day Christians is: If we believe this revolution continues, then how do we join this kingdom mission?

    Our mission is not simply to tell people about Jesus so they can go to heaven when they die. As we have seen, this becomes a very shrunken view of what the Bible has to say about the goal of salvation. Our mission comes directly out of the triumph and revolution of the cross itself. According to Wright, “Christian mission means implementing the victory that Jesus won on the cross” (358). Jesus died certainly as our substitute, but the substitutionary nature of the cross does not take away from the victorious aspects of the cross. Jesus died in triumph over the powers of evil, and Jesus died as Israel’s representative and our substitute in taking our sins into death so we could go free. Our mission is both to proclaim and embody the dual meanings of the death of Jesus.
    Churches and denominations with an evangelical thrust have, over the last couple hundred years, drifted from an emphasis on cultural and social reform to a mission of “saving souls for heaven.” This shift was concurrent with the Enlightenment’s secular experiment where all talk of God and religion was slowly, but deliberately, removed from the public square. Whereas social concerns for public education, care for the poor, and medicine were once a part of the life of the church, in these modern days these social needs grew to become a function of the State. Religion and the work of the church has been, in a secular world, relegated to the work of “spiritual” matters and private moral codes. The way we read Scripture today has been shaped by these cultural influences. In order to see the revolutionary nature of the cross, and thus the revolutionary nature of our mission, we need a fresh reading of the Bible in light of its historical context. Wright has worked hard to do this in the book.

    Our mission, in part, is to declare the victory of God over the powers of evil, sin, and death, a victory that has the forgiveness of sins at the heart of it. This victory includes a revolutionary message that challenges how the powers rule the world. The proclamation of the forgiveness of sins from the perspective of the Jewish Passover is the proclamation of the end of exile, a liberation from sin that once held us captive. Now freed from sin and the power of evil, we discover a new way of being human in the world.

    Our personal sins need to be pardoned so we can reflect God’s image into the world, so that the world can be transformed. To be truly human as God created is to be a “royal priesthood” where we are tending to and caring for the world God loves. We carry out this vocation through our worship, demonstrations of love, and work for justice. We stand, as followers of Jesus, between heaven and earth. For Wright, “The revolution of the cross sets us free to be in-between people, caught up in the rhythm of worship and mission” (363). We also stand at the overlap of ages as people of the age to come, where the victory is already won. But, we are still living in the present evil age where we fight and struggle. We cannot become overly confident in the victory that is won. We cannot live with fear in the face of our present distress. We need rhythm and balance to stay on mission.

    Jesus died to save us from the present evil age, so that we are free to be the “justified justice-bringers, the reconciled reconcilers, the Passover People” (365). Sometimes Christians are met with resistance when working for justice or peace, because we have not always been consistent with our message of love. Nevertheless, we should not let the resistance we may face deter us from our mission. If we remain faithful to pray through and live out the Sermon on the Mount, we will continue the revolution of the kingdom of God and make the world a better place. Our response to the love we see on display at the cross is love of our own, love for God and love for neighbor. Jesus loved us and gave himself up for us and therefore we must be willing to love and give of ourselves. The world was changed by suffering and dying and the world will continued to be changed that way.

    We are heirs of God and fellow heirs with Jesus if “we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). Jesus won a great victory by his suffering and we implement Jesus’ victory through suffering. This kind of mission finds its rootedness in prayer. We confess our willingness to suffer, but we must be careful how we talk about suffering. In some situations, calling the weak or oppressed or marginalized among us to be willing to suffer can come across as unloving or at times unjust. For example, throughout church history women have been made to suffer unnecessarily. At times their voice and leadership has been silenced by those in authority in the name of “necessary suffering.” We must do better and tread lightly.

    The death of Jesus helps us to redefine power from coercion to suffering love. Jesus’ victory over the power of domination came through a kind of power rooted in covenant love. We live as people of that love demonstrating a new way of being human. This life of love is sustained by the sacramental life of the church, whereby through baptism and the celebration of communion we connect with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We die to sin through baptism, dying with Jesus to the old ways of sin and death, and we are raised with Jesus into newness of life. At the table of communion we declare the Lord’s death until he comes and share in his broken body and shed blood. The practice of communion declares Jesus’ victory over sin, breaking the chains of bondage that had once held us captive. These sacramental acts of worship are at the heart of the church’s mission.

    Chapter 15: The Powers and the Power of Love

    Jesus called his disciples with a simple command, “Follow me.” After his resurrection, Jesus sent them on a worldwide mission saying, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). This mission included the proclamation of the revolution that had taken place, that is a proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:46). The chains of sin that had once enslaved humanity have been broken and something new has broken into our old worn-out world. We need to rethink everything in light of the birth of God’s new creation. Forgiveness certainly has personal implications for individuals who repent and believe the good news, but the mission of the early followers of Jesus was bigger than announcing forgiveness to individuals. Forgiveness and liberation have now become the new reality for those, who through faith and repentance, enter the kingdom of God.

    Faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection is a way to say yes to this new reality. While the resurrection of Jesus was the first sign that things are now different after the death of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins continues to be the sign that God’s new creation has taken root. In this new reality, God is restoring human beings to their primary vocation, a new way to be human for those who have only known humanity from the vantage point of sin and idolatry. Forgiveness empowers God’s new creation with a revolution that turns hate into love, bitterness into hope, and sorrow into dancing. Forgiveness and resurrection belong together, because forgiveness flows from the defeat of sin, and resurrection flows from the defeat of death. Jesus defeated both at the cross.

    Jesus sent his disciples to go make disciples of all the nations, because the revolution that began with Jesus’ death was through Israel but for the world, freeing the world to worship its Creator. The world’s system driven by pride and power, domination and war, has been broken and utterly condemned by Jesus’ death. The world’s system has been judged and the world’s ruler, the satan, has been driven out (John 12:31-32). Within this freedom, the nations of the earth are able to turn away from idolatry and look to King Jesus for the power that gives life.

    While the message of the cross was foolishness to many, it was found to carry power by those who believed (1 Corinthians 1:18). The power of the age to come with it’s life and light had broken into the darkness of the present evil age. With the death of Jesus the powers ruling the world were stripped of their power and power itself has to be reimagined. According to Wright, “A revolution has begun, in which power itself is redefined as the power of love” (391). The world has a new ruler and he rules not by conventional means of power; Jesus rules by the power of love. We do not invite people to confess faith in Jesus simply so they can go to heaven when they die, but so they can follow Jesus into this revolution of love which shatters the idols of Western culture, the “familiar trio of money, sex, and power” (393).

    The economic inequality between the global rich and global poor gives us ample evidence that the idol of money is still enslaving people. With militant groups around the world willing to kill in the name of the marginalized and oppressed, we see the seriousness of this form of idolatry. As followers of Jesus we need the gift of discernment to see how the revolutionary truth of Jesus can speak to the economic power brokers of the world. How can the forgiveness of sins be preached in such a way that the enslaving power of this idol could be broken? Moreover, those of us who are rich in this present age will need to be honest with what it will cost us to be willing to share with the poor (1 Timothy 6:17-18).

    The idol of sex is all around us from global human trafficking to the limitless pursuit of sexual pleasure. As the boundaries of sexual norms continue to flex and expand in a growing post-Christian culture, Christians formed by the sexual ethics of Jesus continue to be ridiculed, ignored, and dismissed. It has become nearly impossible to entertain the idea publically that consenting adults may need to resist acting on certain sexual desires. Aphrodite was the goddess of sexual love in the ancient world. What would it look like for the power of love to confront the power of lust, dethroning Aphrodite? We followers of Jesus first have to model fidelity to Christian marriage and the historic teachings of the church regarding sexual ethics. From this position of authenticity and faithfulness we can both offer forgiveness and a call for repentance.

    In addition to confronting Mammon, the god of money, and Aphrodite, we are also faced with Mars, the god of war. Power in our modern world continues to be expressed through violence. The power of love at the heart of the revolutionary cross challenges the uncritical, unquestioning devotion to military solutions to global evil. The victory of Jesus on the cross has broken the forces of evil, dethroning the worship of war, offering the world a radically new way of addressing conflict. Jesus declares a blessing upon peacemakers, as they are in the family business, proclaiming a message of forgiveness and reconciliation.

    Rejecting the works contract view of rule-keeping does not mean we jettison all practices of morality and Jesus-centered ethics. Certainly not! However, the “keeping of the rules” in the way of revolution is seen as part of the bigger mission to be God’s image-bearers on the earth. We willingly share with the poor. We remain faithful to the covenant of marriage. We work for peace. We do so from hearts that have been liberated and formed into the image of Jesus, the perfect image of the Father. In this way, character-based ethics will increasingly look revolutionary in a world where people define themselves by every longing, inclination, and desire of the heart. For Wright, “The gospel Jesus announced was not about getting in touch with your deepest feelings or accepting yourself as you really are. It was about taking up your cross and following him” (398).

    The power of the cross reveals the emptiness of earthly power, but power itself is not to be discarded in the Jesus revolution. The story told in Scripture does not encourage anarchy or a world without civil law. Modern democracies have done away with tyrants of the past, but power has shifted to lobby organizations, media outlets, and the wealthy aristocracy. As followers of Jesus in this new creation revolution we do not merely shrug off political corruption or lobby for a certain candidate who has one or two “Christian” policies as a part of their platform. Our role is to “speak truth to power” (400). We are like Jesus before Pilate where we bear witness to another kingdom, a different way to express power.

    The revolutionary nature of the cross does not lead us into a non-political pietism. A victory has been won. The powers have been defeated. We are led, with the cross before us, into a way of loving that embodies the politics of Jesus. One way we embody Jesus’ politics is by our holiness, not according to the works contract, but according to our covenant of vocation. Our holiness is how Jesus is changing the world. Sin keeps the powers in power. We need to each work towards personal holiness, but we must go further. We have a vocation intrinsic to our creation as human beings that goes beyond moral behavior and the assurance of heaven. We have a mission to work with God in God’s new creation project, working in the areas of justice and beauty. In this way “holiness and mission are two sides of the same coin” (406). They work together in the kingdom of God and the kingdom’s work of redeeming the world.

    Our mission is not to build the kingdom on earth, but to build for the kingdom. Our mission is not about “saving souls for heaven,” but about participating with the life of the Spirit in worship and justice as the cruciform people of God on earth. We can say with the Apostle Paul “Christ loved me and gave himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20), but as we have seen, “Christ dying for our sins” is much more than that. We have been forgiven to be co-heirs and co-laborers with Jesus reflecting God’s love into God’s world.

    In our devotional lives of loving God with all our minds, we continue to wrestle with how early Christians understood the death of Jesus. It is in this theological work that we worship God with all of our minds, rejecting a Platonized eschatology, moralized anthropology, and a paganized soteriology. These unfortunate theological positions have been replaced with a renewed vision of new creation, our covenant of vocation, and a salvation of love. We embrace them by denying ourselves and taking up the cross, rejecting the temptation to turn our pursuit of the kingdom of God into the pursuit of comfort and “self-realization.” We do seek success in following Jesus, but success has been redefined by the revolutionary cross. Indeed, the revolution itself is being carried out by us. As Jesus continually demonstrated his love for his disciples, he now commissions us as disciples to be a people of love, loving God, loving neighbors, even loving our enemies.

    Our new creation work of love has been made possible through the death of Jesus in that it has broken the power of the satan and empire. Love is how we tell the story of Jesus and love is how we embody the story of Jesus, a love that triumphs over sin and idolatry. We reenact this story in our acts of worship, particularly in sharing the bread and wine of communion. The cross stands at the center of our faith, the definitive point where the story of God and creation, humanity and Israel, come together into a single tragic point. Through the resurrection we see the revolution that began that day, the day Jesus died. Wright invites us to join Jesus in his new creation, kingdom of God revolution: “Celebrate the revolution that happened once for all when the power of love overcame the love of power. And, in the power of that same love, join in the revolution here and now” (416). I am in. How about you?

    Discussion Questions

    1. If our mission is not to build the kingdom or save souls for heaven, then how would you define the mission of the church?
    2. What does it look like for you to be on mission for God?
    3. What does it means to work for peace and justice?
    4. Why do so many Christians reject the idea of suffering as a follower of Jesus?
    5. Why is the message of forgiveness central to our mission?
    6. Which idol is the hardest to critique – money, sex, or power?
    7. How does the cross dethrone the god of money (comfort), the god of sex (pleasure), and the god of war (violence)?
    8. What steps do you need to take to grow in the “power of love”?
  • N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross: Week 5

    I am blogging my way through N.T. Wright’s book The Day the Revolution Began, creating an outline of the book as a small group study I am leading at our church. This is the fifth of six blogs in this series. All quotations followed by a number in parenthesis are quotes from the book. Click here for previous weeks [Week 1] [Week 2] [Week 3] [Week 4]

    The Death of Jesus in Romans
    The Day the Revolution Began (Chapters 12-13)

    Chapter 12: Romans (Part 1)

    Romans is a wonderfully challenging and complex letter. In reading it we are, at times, standing on our feet applauding the poetic brilliance of Paul and at other times we are sitting, scratching our heads trying to make sense of where Paul is going with certain arguments. Nevertheless, in various places Paul says explicitly what the first Christians believed about the cross such as “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, see also Romans 3:25-26, 4:24-25, 7:4, 8:3-4).Too often the first four chapters of Romans have been read from the mistaken perspective of the works contract. Worse yet the entire letter has been wrongly summed up in the popular “Romans Road,” which skips through Romans completely missing Paul’s point.

    Three important things to keep in mind before we begin to see how Paul describes the death of Jesus, and its effects, in Romans. First, Romans is a tightly woven, orderly, sophisticated letter with four identifiable sections connected together in a subtle but cohesive way. Second, Romans is not a collection of theological doctrines for us to pull out and examine in isolation. Often, people have gone to Romans looking to understand the doctrine of justification for example, missing both the context and the other important themes in the letter. Third, the letter underscores the goal of salvation is not going to heaven but new creation and the restoration of God’s image-bearing creatures to their intended role in God’s good creation.

    According to Romans 1:18, the problem with humanity is not just sin, but ungodliness, Greek word asebeia, best translated as a “lack of proper respect for God.” In other words, human beings do not simply have a problem with behavior but with worship. We have routinely worshipped the creation rather than the Creator. This expression of idolatry has led us into sinful behavior (Romans 1:22-23). Paul uses homosexual activity as an example of the root problem of ungodliness (Romans 1:26). “Sin” is regularly how Paul describes the brokenness of humanity, but it is more than just acts of willful disobedience. Free from sin, humanity in Christ is now enabled to share in Jesus’ ministry “in the priestly service of the gospel of God” (Romans 15:16). So how has the death of Jesus responded to this problem of sin, ungodliness, and idolatry?

    Often, people turn to Romans 3:21-26 for answers, but this passage is a part of a different argument Paul is making about God’s righteousness, that is God’s covenant faithfulness. Some have argued Romans 1-4 describes sin and what God did about it, while Romans 5-8 is about other associated topics. Romans 5-8 is the second section of the four sections of Romans, and in this section we find more references to the the death of Jesus than in any other section in Romans. Paul’s recurring theme in this section, and throughout Romans, is the New Exodus, the freedom from slavery to sin and the journey to renewed creation.

    Romans 5:1-5 sums up Romans 3:21-4:25, the long passage about justification by faith, a subject we will return to momentarily. The experience of justification produces a hope rooted in God’s love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5), a love Paul celebrates in Romans 8:31-39 right at the climax of the letter.

    While Paul does not explicitly explain how, he writes “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10). This reconciliation for those “justified by his blood” includes being “saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9). “Wrath” is that which is revealed from heaven against ungodliness (Romans 1:18) and is being stored up by those with stubborn unrepentant hearts (Romans 2:5). Wrath here is picture of God’s eschatology judgment. Most English translations include the words “of God,” but the Greek text only says “the wrath.”

    With hope secured in Christ, “those who receive the abundance of grace” will “reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). This “reign in life” refers to sharing in the reign of God, that is the kingdom of God. Through the death of Christ, the covenant of vocation is back on track. The free gift of “righteousness” whereby “many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19), speaks not of our moral standing before God, but about our standing within God’s covenant family. The gift of righteousness for Wright is the “gift of covenant membership,” where we are declared “in the right” and thus members of the one people of God. The Mosaic law increased sin, which produced the kingdom of death. Grace as a summation of the work of Jesus through his life, death, and resurrection produces the Kingdom of God’s covenant faithfulness and justice.

    Romans 6-8 with its description of the struggle with sin in Romans 7 and the new life in the Spirit in Romans 8 is not a picture of the “normal Christian life.” Rather these chapters fully expand what Paul wrote in Romans 3:24-26 about the redemption found in Christ Jesus. “Redemption” is a word drawn from the Exodus, indicating that what Paul wrote in these chapters is a picture of the New Exodus in Jesus.

    Romans 6:2-11 pictures baptism as the means by which we identify with the death of Jesus in order that we may “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Sin becomes personified as the slave-master, and baptism becomes a picture of the cross of the Red Sea, where the people of God leave behind the slavery of Egypt for a new life in God’s Promised Land. Jesus has died and through his resurrection “death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). We were enslaved to sin. “You are slaves of the one whom you obey” (Romans 6:16), but Jesus has died to sin, freeing us from the dominion of sin and death. With these words Paul draws upon the Passover theme and theme of the end of exile through the forgiveness of sins.

    In Romans 7:4, Paul reemphasized this point. We have died to the law through Jesus’ death “in order that we may bear fruit for God,” a reference back to Jesus’ words in John 15:5 and the words of Isaiah 4:7, 32:16, 45:8. Our covenant of vocation to be image-bearers of God is the fruit God is looking for. What Paul described is a New Exodus movement, a kingdom of God movement, and it works because Jesus represents his people; what happened to him, happened to us. He died and was raised. In Christ, we die to sin and are raised to newness of life. Jesus is both our representative and our substitute. Sin with its enslaving power has been defeated. None of this can be reduced to simple formulas or quick and easy summaries outside of “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”

    What makes our pursuit of the meaning of the death of Christ complex is that it means what it means in connection to the Scriptures and story of Israel. For Wright, “Every step away from the Jewish narrative, in this case the Jewish narrative as reaching its focal point in Israel’s Messiah, is a step towards paganism” (281). Within the works contract view, Israel is just an example of people not keeping God’s rules and Abraham is nothing more than an example of how individuals develop a relationship with God by being justified by faith.
    Much of what Paul is wrestling with in Romans is the role of the Jewish Law. In Romans 7, Paul makes the argument that the law pulled together sin into a single point so that sin could be condemned once and for all. The struggle with sin, described by Paul in Romans 7, is in the first person (“I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” – Romans 7:15). This use of the first person is a “rhetorical I,” Paul is speaking of “himself” as a representative of all of Israel under the law.

    Romans 7 tells the story Israel which on a large scale of the story of Adam and Eve. Sin personified as a force of evil “seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me,” according to Paul (Romans 7:11). Sin did this through the giving of the law which is itself good and holy. God gave the law, not for sin to have its opportunity, but so that God could do what God did next. Through the law, and in Israel, sin was gathered together into a single point so God could condemn it in the flesh of Jesus who is Israel-in-person.

    If we see any kind of “penal” aspect in Paul’s letter, it is in Romans 8:3: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” God did not punish Jesus. Rather God “punished” sin in the body of Jesus. God declares that those in Christ are in the right, in the covenant family (Romans 5:19) and God declares sin condemned. In this way Jesus’ death is substitutionary. Sin has been condemned and now there is no condemnation for those in Christ.

    Sin has now finally been dealt with, rescuing people from its enslaving power in the cross, which is the New Passover event, the New Exodus, leading people into new creation. Within the stories of ancient Israel and in Jesus as the conclusion of that story, we find the true meaning of the death of Jesus. In sending the Son, God was sending himself. God initiated a covenant with Abraham and remained faithful to the covenant in and through Jesus. Those who have been justified in Jesus are now justice bringers with Jesus as expressions of God’s love. Wright asks, “What if the Creator, all along; had made the world out of overflowing, generous love, so that the overflowing, self-sacrificial love of the Son going to the cross was indeed the accurate and precise self-expression of the love of God for a world radically out of joint?” (293).

    Chapter 13: Romans (Part 2)

    We now turn our attention back to Romans 3:21-26, this very important, very densely packed, and very hotly debated passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Wright quotes this passage from the NRSV, which he calls “the least problematic” (295). I am working with the ESV which has some issues we will address below. Here is the text in its entirety:

    But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

    Two things to keep in mind before diving into this text. First, early Christians saw Jesus’ death as connected to Passover, the exodus event, and thus, the great forgiveness-of-sins event. Second, Romans 1-4 should be read as a whole with Romans 3:21-26 as the center of the argument Paul is making. If we remove this text from its connection to the Jewish Passover and the entire context of Paul’s thought process in Romans 1-4, we will misunderstand Paul’s point. We will end up defaulting to the works contract perspective and wrongly assume Paul in Romans 3:21-26 is describing how (1) humans in general sin, breaking God’s rules, (2) Jesus keeps the rules and (3) Jesus is punished by God, so humans are now forgiven.

    The proper context for understanding Romans 3 is the covenant of vocation, particularly the covenantal understanding of God’s work to set right a world gone wrong. Israel’s vocation is to be a “light to those who are in darkness” (Romans 2:19) and the promises given to Abraham included that he would “be heir of the world” (Romans 4:13). These two came together in Israel’s Messiah. In Jesus, God’s faithfulness to Israel and Israel’s faithfulness to God has been revealed. The key term underscoring faithfulness to the covenant is the Greek word dikaiosune most often translated in English as “righteousness,” but is best understood as “covenant faithfulness” or “covenant justice.”

    Not only is the covenant theme necessary to keep in our minds as we look at Romans 3:21-26, but so is the idea of worship. In Romans 1, the problem Paul describes is the issue of exchanging the worship of Creator for the worship of creation. At the root of sin is a worship problem. Furthermore the primary object to Jewish sacrificial worship was the ark of the covenant, the lid of which is called in Greek hilasterion best translated as “the seat of mercy,” “mercy seat,” or the “place of atonement.” With the themes of covenant and worship from the perspective of the story of Israel fresh in our minds, we are almost ready to dive into this thick text, but first we have to deal with some of the problems we encounter with the average reading of Romans 3:21-26.

    First, some readings of Romans jump over large portions of the text to individual verses they piece together to form the “Romans Road,” which is straight out of the works contract. “Righteousness” from this perspective is the moral quality of goodness which is given to us. This definition of righteousness fails to see the connection to the covenant and worship themes. Second, the word hilasterion is regrettably translated in the ESV as “propitiation,” meaning “that which averts to anger of a god.” A further problem is when Romans 4 is read with Abraham as merely an example of how individuals who are justified by faith, ignoring the promises made to Abraham.

    The key problem with these readings is they miss both the immediate context established by Romans 2:27-31, namely raising the questions: Who is a Jew? Who are to be included in the covenant people of God? What marks people as covenant people? Paul’s argument about who are God’s people is built upon Romans 2:17-20 where he reminds the Jews of their vocation to be the light of the world. Paul is not accusing Israel of bigotry. Rather, Israel as the light of the world is supposed to be the answer to the problem, which is not just sinful behavior, but idolatry which has enslaved humanity, hardening people’s hearts, causing them to store up wrath “on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). Nowhere in Romans does Paul talk about the assumed themes of “going to heaven,” “getting right with God,” or “having a right relationship with God.”

    The description of divine wrath in Romans 1:18, 2:5-8, 3:5, 4:15, and 5:9 have caused some to wrongly assume hilasterion, one of the key words in Romans 3:21-26, is how divine wrath is dealt with, an assumption made by the ESV in using the word “propitiation.” First, the context of covenant and worship leads us to see hilasterion refers not to wrath, but to the “mercy seat,” the lid to the Ark of the Covenant where blood was sprinkled once a year on the Jewish Day of Atonement. Second, the Jewish sacrificial system makes provision for animal sacrifice, but nowhere in the law is the animal offered in place of the worshiper. Third, Paul could not have implied that “justified in his blood” in Romans 3:21-26 meant “saved by wrath,” because then his statement in Romans 5:9 would not make sense. It would be the logical fallacy of tautology, “being saved by wrath, we shall be saved from wrath.” Fourth, Paul mentions that God did not punish sins, but “passed over former sins” (Romans 3:25).

    One interpretive key to Romans 3:21 is how we translate the Greek word dikaiosune most often translated in English as “righteousness.” While it has often been understood as a status or quality of moral rightness, it is best understood in relation to God in the context of covenant as “God’s faithfulness to the covenant—the covenant not only with Abraham and Israel, but through Israel to the wider world” (303). In the Old Testament the word righteousness refers to right things God does, but always it is connecting to God doing right things in the light of his fidelity to the covenant with Israel. God did punish Israel as a part of his faithfulness in order to draw Israel back to obedience and faithfulness to the covenant on their part.

    The problem with Israel’s faithlessness is that it challenges the faithfulness of God. How is God going to keep his promises to Abraham if the children of Abraham do not keep up their end of the covenant? Paul asks the question this way: “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?” (Romans 3:3). Paul answers, “No way!” God remains faithful. God shows his righteousness, his covenant faithfulness, in the face of Israel’s unrighteousness, that is their unfaithfulness. Paul then asks, “Is God unfaithful to inflict wrath on us?” (Romans 3:5). Paul admits he is writing in a “human way.” In other words, he is using a human description and attributing it to God as a metaphor. God does not literally inflict wrath, but God does punish his covenant people by “giving them up” to do what they want and experiencing the consequences of their actions (Romans 1:28). So God’s righteousness is not God’s moral integrity in a general sense, but a very specific faithfulness to the covenant demonstrated in Jesus for bringing justice to the world, that is, setting the world right.

    Some fear that an interpretation of Romans 3:21-26 from the perspective of covenant will imply people take sin, punishment, and salvation less seriously, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The reality is the “Roman Road” shortcut is “like a cocktail without the all-important shot of bourbon” (307). It has some of the flavors of sin and salvation in it, but it is missing the real kick of Paul’s primary argument. The “Roman’s Road” misses the story of Israel altogether. When Paul writes that we have “sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), he is using temple-language. The Jewish expectation and longing was for the glory of God to return to the Temple. Ignoring the story of Israel gives people the wrong impression that God has somehow given up on Israel. Paul’s point is that Jews and Gentiles are on equal footing. Israel has shared in the ungodliness of the Gentile pagan world and remain in exile away from the presence of God.

    Jesus is the light of the world as Israel’s Messiah. According to Wright, “Incarnation does not cancel election; it brings it to its climax” (312). In other words, Jesus does not eliminate the calling of Israel, but rather brings the mission of Israel across the finish line. The very definition of God’s covenant faithfulness is that God has not abandoned Israel. Romans 3:21-26 deals with the problems of sin and idolatry, as well as establishing the ongoing faithfulness of God.

    Romans 3:27-31 further grounds the discussion of justification in the context of Jews and Gentiles coming together to worship the one, true living God. God’s purposes for Israel are filled in that God welcomes the Gentiles in order to rescue the whole world. God offers Jesus as the hilasterion, the “mercy seat,” as the place where God washed Israel clean of their sins. The goal was to restore worship for Israel and for the world and the means by which worship was to be restored was the covenant.

    When we return to look at Romans 3:21-26, we focus on the righteousness of God, the covenant faithfulness of God on display. God’s own faithfulness has been made known through the “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:22). While most English translations render verse 22 “faith in Jesus Christ,” the context requires a better translation. If we understand God’s righteousness as God’s covenant faithfulness, then we also need look at how we translate “faith in Jesus.” Is God’s covenant faithfulness revealed in our act of believing in Jesus? It seems like Paul’s entire point is leading us to see that God’s covenant faithfulness is revealed in Jesus’ death. We do experience the benefits of the faithfulness of Jesus, which is why Paul adds “for all who believe” (Romans 3:22).

    God’s covenant faithfulness and the covenant membership God offers is a gift of grace. Those who believe and thus put their trust in the faithfulness of Jesus, wear faith as a “badge of membership in the new covenant family” (320). The death of Jesus does for Israel what Israel could not do, that is, responding to God’s faithfulness with faithfulness.

    To be “justified by his grace” (Romans 3:24) is to be declared members of Abraham’s family and thus “in the right.” Paul has established that the people of God are no longer marked by circumcision (Romans 2:28-29) and that people will no longer be justified by observing the law (Romans 2:20). A new thing is happening through the death of Jesus. The purposes of Israel will be fulfillment but the meaning of “Israel” as the covenant people of God will have to be rethought in order to make room for the Gentiles. This justification reveals God’s faithfulness, because God is dealing with sin through the death of Jesus. If sin would have been ignored, then God would not have been faithful to the covenant.

    Something new has broken in on the earth through the death of Jesus. A revolution has begun and the resurrection of Jesus is the first sign of both the newness and the revolution. The renewed people of God with faith in Jesus have received a present verdict that they are in the right (justified), in anticipation of a final judgment that is to come. Those in Christ are no longer under condemnation (Romans 8:1) as sin has already been condemned in Jesus through his death (Romans 8:3).

    In Romans 3:24, Paul calls the death of Jesus the apolytrosis, or “redemption.” The Greek word here is used of redeeming or purchasing a slave from the slave market. This is exodus-language. Israel was enslaved in Egypt and God redeemed them, by freeing them from slavery and leading them to the Promised Land. Exodus is the heart of redemption in the story of Israel; the death of Jesus can be viewed as a New Exodus for the new people of God.

    In taking a deeper look at hilasterion, we turn to look at the instructions to construct the Ark in Exodus 25:10-22. The lid or covering for the Ark was called “the mercy seat,” Hebrew word kapporeth. This covering was not the place where sinners were punished. It was a place of meeting. “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony…” (Exodus 25:22). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Greek word used for mercy seat is hilasterion. When Paul writes of Jesus offering his blood, Paul uses the word hilasterion, which has nothing to do with punishment and wrath, but of worship and cleansing. In Leviticus where an animal, the scapegoat, has sins confessed over it, that animal is not killed as a symbolic act of punishment. Rather, it is sent away (Leviticus 16:21). Hilasterion is a word drawn from Temple theology and not pagan religions with sacrifice offered to the gods to avert their anger.

    God has put forth Jesus not a propitiatory sacrifice to satisfy God’s wrath or honor God’s justice. Far from it! For God so loved the world that he gave his Son. God put forth Jesus as the meeting place between God and humanity, where humanity could be cleansed of sin by the taking away of sin. In this way, the death of Jesus shows forth God’s covenant faithfulness (Romans 3:25) and demonstrates God’s love (Romans 5:8). These themes echo back to the vocation of Israel’s servant in Isaiah 40-55. The servant of Isaiah takes upon himself the punishment of Israel, releasing Israel from exile that they would be free to carry on with their image-bearing, fruit-producing life. Punishment in this context is a metaphor for the consequences of the nation in disobedience to God. Punishment has a part in the story of redemption, but it cannot out-maneuver what Paul has made central in Romans 3, that is the never-ending love and covenant faithfulness of God.

    Noting the temple-language and temple theology in Romans 3, we can see that Jesus in his humanity and divinity is the meeting place where God and God’s people come together. Indeed heaven and earth have come together in the very place God has chosen to meet with God’s people. Jesus’ death as described in Romans 3:21-26 further connects with what we have seen in the gospels. Jesus’ death is both a New Exodus and a New Passover. According to Wright, “The death of Jesus was the moment when the great gate of human history, bolted with iron bars and overgrown with toxic weeds, burst open so that the Creator’s project of reconciliation between heaven and earth could at last be set in powerful motion” (349).

    Discussion Questions

    1. Where do you see “ungodliness,” that is, a lack of proper respect for God, in your world?
    2. Why is the story of Israel important for understanding what Paul wrote in Romans about the death of Jesus?
    3. In the past how have you understood “righteousness”? What does the righteousness of God as “God’s covenant faithfulness” mean to you?
    4. Why do Christians often assume that someone has to be punished in order for others to be forgiven?
    5. Below is one version of the “Roman Road.” What is missing from this summary?
      + All have sinned. (Romans 3:23)
      + The wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23)
      + Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
      + Confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord and you shall be saved. (Romans 10:9)
    6. In what ways is Jesus our substitute?