N. T. Wright on the Ancient Modern Secular Worldview

How “modern” is our modern and prevalent secular worldview? In The Case for the Psalms, N. T. Wright says it’s not very modern at all:

The main difference between the worldview of the first Christians and the worldview of most modern Western persons has nothing to do with “ancient” and “modern.” It has almost nothing to do, except at a tangent, with the development of modern science. The main difference is that the first Christians, being first-century Jews who believed that Israel’s God had fulfilled his ancient promises in Jesus of Nazareth, were what I and others call “creational monotheists”….The ancient Jews who shaped this belief in creational monotheism, and the early Christians who developed it in this startling new way, were doing so in a world of many philosophies and worldviews (17).

What kinds of ancient worldviews is Wright referring to? Ones like Epicureanism. The philosophy…proposed that the world was not created by a god or the gods and that if such beings existed, they were remote from the world of humans. Our world and our own lives were simply part of an ongoing self-developing cosmos in which change, development, decay, and death itself operated entirely under their own steam. At a stroke, this philosophy offered liberation from any fear of the gods or of what terrors might be in store for people after their deaths. But by the same stroke, it cut off any long-term or ultimate hope. At a popular level, the message was this: shrug your shoulders and enjoy life as best you can. Sounds familiar? This is the philosophy that our modern Western world has largely adopted as the norm (17-18).

The problem with twenty-first century secularists, then, is not their rejection of the Bible’s ancient worldview for an embrace of a new and fresh and enlightened way of seeing reality. Epicureanism is an ancient worldview as well, but it has been retrieved in Western modernity as though it were a new thing (19).

There’s nothing new under the sun.

The important news in all this? Creational and covenantal monotheism is likewise both ancient and modern, rooted in God’s covenant with Abraham as described in the book of Genesis, elaborated in the great covenantal writings of the first five books of the Bible, developed in the traditions we find throughout the Old Testament, and still thriving where the followers of Jesus learn to pray and live his Psalm-soaked gospel….The biblical worldview, I will suggest, is both far more ancient than Epicureanism and also far more up-to-date (19-20).

What if God Saved the Living Boston Bomber?

I wonder what Jonah would’ve thought of the Boston bombers. More on that in a moment.

Here were two men who committed heinous acts against image-bearers. One of them died and the other is in custody. According to the apostle Paul, governments do not bear the sword in vain (Rom 13:4b) and actually manifest God’s earthly wrath on wrongdoers (13:4c). Since one bomber still lives, he should answer for his crimes–for the blood of the dead and the plight of the wounded.

But what about his spiritual state? He is an idolater, because worship of anyone/anything other than the One True God (who is revealed by Jesus) is idolatry. God is worthy of worship from everyone bearing his image, even those currently pursuing falsehood and having hearts dead in sin.

Does it seem like a strange notion that Christians should pray for this bomber to be saved? Would it make you angry if someone in prison shared the Good News with him and God showed him mercy? Of course he should answer for his earthly crimes, but what about the sins against God for which he stood condemned before the events of this week even occurred? He stood condemned already.

Jonah had a certain heart toward those who were enemies of his nation, and it was a heart of stone. No mercy for them; only destruction. God told him to preach to the Ninevites because of their great evil (Jon 1:2), and the prophet said “no.” Well, he didn’t actually say “no,” but he fled in the opposite direction, and actions speak louder than words. God heard it loud and clear.

Even after Jonah experienced God’s deliverance (Jon 1:17; 2:2, 6), he still didn’t want God to deliver the Ninevites. When he finally preached in that city, the Ninevites converted, and God showed mercy instead of judgment (3:2-5, 10). God’s mercy on the Ninevites made Jonah want to die (4:3). He thought it was wrong for God to spare them from wrath (4:1).

I wonder if Christians have Jonah’s heart toward this living Boston bomber. It isn’t wrong–in fact, it is altogether right–to think that this man should answer for his crimes under our laws. Even if he became a Christian, that doesn’t undo the consequences and damage of what he and his brother did. But Jonah’s hardness was against something else. He hated the enemies of his nation so much that the thought of God saving them made him want to die.

Should Christians feel anger at what the bombers did? Of course. Should the one who lived answer for the crimes he committed in that city? Absolutely. But should Christians still pray that he will find mercy and forgiveness from God so that on Judgment Day he can point to Jesus as the only reason why sins like his are atoned for? Most certainly.

Keep several things in mind. Jesus bore the cross reserved for Barabbas, who was a political insurrectionist. And on either side of the cross were two others, criminals receiving earthly punishment for their deeds (Lk 23:40-41). One of them, the Famous Thief, said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42), and that statement of faith changed everything.

Back to my opening thought. I wonder what Jonah would have thought of the Boston bombers–and I don’t think we’re completely in the dark on this one. He wouldn’t want God to show mercy or the grace of conversion.

But a main point in the book of Jonah is this: don’t let your heart be like Jonah’s! That arrogant prophet was wrong in presuming he knew who should receive mercy and who shouldn’t. He himself had received mercy but wanted it denied to others. Jonah received mercy but wasn’t humbled by it; that’s a dangerous place to be. 

Let’s pray for God to save Dzhokar Tsarnaev and reveal the majesty of the Risen Lord Jesus to his heart. There is pow’r in the blood. This blood of Christ can cover and forgive the most inconceivable of sins and wash a sinner white as snow.

Such deliverance, such salvation, results in the kind of words that Paul wrote, a man once steeped in darkness and violence and religious devotion against Jesus: “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim 1:16). 

The vilest offender who truly believes
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives

50 Million Murdered in the Wilderness

We have a death problem because we have a sin problem. In the early chapters of Genesis the garden paradise becomes vacant as God expels the image-bearers outside where they will surely die. No matter how hard they work, how much dominion they exercise, or how long their years last, one day the dust would overcome them. And die they did.

But Adam and Eve weren’t the first to die. Their older son Cain killed his younger brother Abel, meaning the first death was a murder. This act sounded an ominous tone for the stories that followed because we see that life outside the garden is characterized by sin, and the sins we are capable of are heinous.

Fast-forward to the Israelites. After generations of death and the spread of sin, the generation freed by the exodus from Egypt heads toward the Promised Land. Then, due to their disbelief in God’s promises and power, he forbids the exodus generation to enter the land. The next generation will still inherit it, but not before a forty-year detour that will bring about the death of their unbelieving ancestors. And die they did.

The wilderness wandering was a period when millions returned to the dust under the judgment of God. His judgment on them lasted not just a week or a month or a year or even a decade. For forty years the Lord kept his word, and then the descendants of the exodus generation inherited the Promised Land.

Now think about another forty-year period. Today, January 22, 2013, is forty years since January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court rendered its ruling on Roe vs. Wade. These four decades have been a wilderness of our own making, a time when many doctors and patients have usurped the role of God and administered judgment without warrant against innocent life through abortion.

The wilderness wandering in Exodus may have been on the way to the Promised Land, but that’s not where the years of 1973-2013 have been taking us. When the first murder was committed in Genesis 4, God told Cain that Abel’s blood cried out from the ground–a cry for judgment, for vindication.

In forty years the deaths by abortion exceed 50 million babies. We can’t fully imagine the combined cry of 50 million voices. But God is not deaf, and their cries are heard. The murder of God’s image-bearers graphically displays the heinous potentialities of sin.

How long will this wilderness of our own making last? The answer is unknown. How many more deaths will be added to the 50 million slain? We don’t know, but any number is unacceptable.

May God grant Christians courage and wisdom to speak the truth about the injustices committed against unborn image-bearers. The seed of the serpent, like Cain or Pharaoh or Herod, has always shown a blatant disregard for the dignity of tiny lives, so God help the seed of the woman–the Church–to have biblical resolve and a prophetic voice.

My Review of Albert Mohler’s Book “The Conviction to Lead”

Starting the new year off with a great read is the right way to begin. First up this year was Albert Mohler’s latest, The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters (Bethany House, 2012).

I’m a doctoral student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where Mohler serves as president, so I was especially interested in what our leader would say about leadership.

I opened the book with high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

The Format

The book is organized into 25 chapters that convey the same number of leadership principles. The chapters are designed to be 7 or 8 pages long, and each one is focused to unpack, illustrate, and apply the principle in view.

Momentum builds throughout the book as it opens with the importance of conviction and ends with the aim to leave a legacy. Can a leadership book be a page-turner? Mohler has proven it can!

Importance of Conviction

It’s no secret that leadership books are a dime a dozen, but Mohler’s aim isn’t to add to the noise. He warns you in the first chapter “my goal is to change the way you think about leadership” (p. 15), and I deem his goal achieved.

The central theme of the book is summarized in a number of places, but this sentence is as clear as any: “The leadership that really matters is all about conviction” (p. 24).

Mohler’s approach to convictional leadership is flavored with personal anecdotes that enliven the material even more. He is a president of a large institution, yes, but he’s a husband, a father, and most importantly a disciple of Christ.

From the Christian worldview, he makes his case that convictional leadership is what lasts and is what followers must embrace for the organization to continue.

What Is Addressed

Helpful subjects that Mohler tackles include the importance of thinking, the “story” that frames the organization, the art of communication, the task of reading, the moral virtues of leadership, and even the inescapable minefield of media relations.

A common denominator appears early in the book and underlies the overall tone and argument: stewardship. Mohler wants leaders to steward their position well because they will answer to God. Leadership is a temporary stewardship and is exercised in light of the final judgment.

The chapters are concise, substantive, helpful, and well-written.  The book is also populated with autobiographical elements that show what so many already know about Mohler: he is an astute leader with relentless energy and remarkable intellect, a man driven by conviction and the pursuit of truth. More than that, he is a man who loves the Lord and gleans his convictions from Holy Writ.

Who Will This Book Help?

First, this book is for leaders in any capacity. Good leadership sense matters both in the secular world and in Christian organizations, and leaders will be helped by what they find herein. Do you lead five people or five hundred? Do you preside over a denominational agency or a school? Do you teach a class or mentor a group? Then get this book.

Second, this book is for pastors. Every pastor should get this book and learn. Have a pen ready to take notes. You will pastor your church with greater clarity and conviction after reading it. Mohler unashamedly argues his points from his biblical worldview, and thus his words can strengthen your hand in the ministry as you lead those in your charge.

Third, this book is for people who aren’t sure whether they’re leaders. Mohler doesn’t mince words and is honest about the cost leaders often pay. He tells you what a leader must have and what to avoid. He sobers the delusional and speaks frankly about how people risk shipwrecking their stewardship of responsibility. Do you wonder if you’re a leader? Let Mohler’s book be a mirror. Let it inspire you and compel you to lead better, with greater faithfulness and, yes, with greater conviction.

A Final Commendation

I loved this book and plan to visit it again. Mohler says his friends C. J. Mahaney, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, and others all pushed him to write it (p. 13), and I’m so glad they did. The Conviction to Lead is the best book on leadership I’ve read, and its breadth of topics will surely prove helpful to just about anyone.

Christian leadership in the 21st century calls for courageous conviction, and I’m thankful to God for men like Al Mohler who help equip us to meet the challenge.

Next to the Gospel, Santa is Dull

The glory of the Incarnation, the scandal of a Virgin Birth, the eruption of heavenly angels in chorus, the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, messianic hopes swelling to the peak of expectation, Good News bursting with great joy, the arrival of the Seed of the woman who would crush the Serpent and turn back sin’s curse–all of this is infinitely more exciting than Santa Claus.

Next to the Gospel, Santa is dull.

Next to the greatest and most thrilling announcement the universe has ever heard, Santa is boring.

Next to the Savior, Saint Nicholas is a sinner in desperate need of the Miracle lying in a manger.

Despite what the preceding sentences might sound like, I’m actually not anti-Santa. But I’m really, really, really pro-Gospel, because Jesus is better. It’s a matter of emphasis, of keeping the main thing the main thing.

Parents, your kids will be excited about what you’re excited about. The best news for children isn’t, “Santa is coming” but “Jesus has come.”

The Word became flesh and changed the world.

Christians Don’t Have Freedom of Speech

The first amendment secures Americans the right to speak their minds, but the mind (and mouth) of the believer must be guided by more than the first amendment.

The Bible warns us about the unbridled tongue, set on fire by hell and dripping with deadly poison (Jam 3:6, 8).  The tongue is small yet its destruction can be widespread, like a forest ablaze from a thoughtless spark (3:5).

Do Christians give much thought to what we say in society?  Now, sure, the argument can be made that Christian convictions are often opposed by persons with public platforms, and sharing biblical positions can provoke the consternation of the media and secular elites (see, for a recent example, the Chick-Fil-A imbroglio).

But I’m not talking about that.  I’m aware that in 2012 it seems Christians can’t utter “unpalatable” parts of our biblical worldview without backlash.  What concerns me here, instead, is how some Christians vent their frustration and outrage.

If you’re a Christian with conservative political views, there are like-minded figures who don’t always express themselves with words honoring Christ.  One minute they may be praising the Lord, and then they get on Facebook, Twitter, or their blogs and curse people made in the image of God (Jam 3:9).

I’m thinking in particular of how conservative Christians sometimes speak of their governing authorities.  The issue isn’t policy disagreements.  The issue isn’t the role of satire.  The issue isn’t exposure of injustices, broken political promises, or constitutional violations.

The issue here is whether we’re still obeying commands like 1 Peter 2:13 and 2:17, which call for obeying and honoring even the highest office in the land.  The issue is whether we realize such submission and honor is God’s will for us (2:15).

Christians are the people who must “rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation,” and “be constant in prayer” (Rom 12:12).  The issue is whether our political concerns become prayer concerns, for Christians should intercede for those wielding political authority (1 Tim 2:1-2).

In our society we have the privilege of voting our conscience and electing our officials, and we have the protection of voicing our opinions.  But shouldn’t it concern us that the mouths of some believers sound more like political attack ads than exhortations to trust in Christ alone for salvation?

With an election coming up, I’m seeing a lot of posts and tweets full of anger, and not the righteous kind.  In a culture where rage can be packaged in a small amount of characters and then published for all to read, Christians should be more cautious.  Corrupt talk has no place in our mouths or our social media (Eph 4:29).  We’re new creations, so bitterness and wrath and slander don’t fit with the life we’ve been called to live.

On judgment day we will give account for every idle word spoken or written (Matt 12:36), and this eschatological reality should give us pause.  All Americans–Democrats, Republicans, and Independents–will gather before the world’s true Lord, and “by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (12:37).

Since believers are free in Christ, we should be more (not less!) careful about what we say and how we say it.  James 3 trumps the first amendment, always.  I think it’s wonderful that Americans have freedom of speech, but that is never a justification to sin with our speech.

So, in what we say and how we say it, let’s consider whether it honors the Lord and is in keeping with our Christian confession.  Engaging the political realm on any level is an important endeavor, so let’s make compelling arguments and advance the public discourse without compromising our convictions or dishonoring the governing authorities established by God (Rom 13; 1 Pet 2).

We can speak from a biblical worldview without being hateful, we can express our political disagreements without being hostile, and we can speak openly without speaking sinfully.

No matter who’s your president, governor, or mayor, let’s honor the Lord and the authorities he’s established.  Whatever culture you’re in, the way of wisdom is always best: “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin” (Prov 13:3).