Baseball, Politics, Race, and the Church

My friend John loves the New York Yankees. He often wears a Yankees’ ball cap, and he enjoys reminding me about the number of championships the franchise has won. I love him in spite of his idolatry.

I jest.

But what if John’s love for the Yankees were in fact idolatrous? What if John identified himself first as a Yankees’ fan and only second as a Christian? How would he listen to, behave toward, or value a Red Sox’ fan who was also a brother in Christ? If John’s primary allegiance were directed toward the Yankees, then what would happen if he met a brother or sister in Christ who hated his beloved Bronx Bombers?

It may sound silly, but this happens in churches every day. Joe Parishioner is a Christian—a genuinely regenerate, Christ-loving man—but political affiliation has become an idol to him. He is a Republican, and cannot imagine that any Christian could be otherwise. When Bob Congregant expresses support for a Democratic candidate, Joe does not merely question his intelligence; he questions his salvation.

Mary Churchgoer is a true believer—but race has become an idol to her—and she views herself as white first and a Christian second. She may be entirely unaware of this until her primary identity is challenged. It goes like this: Her black sister in Christ, Angela Pewsitter, decries what she perceives to be the systemic racism of a predominately white legal system. Mary reacts defensively, for her identity—her whiteness—has been attacked.

But imagine that each brother or sister in Christ, regardless of his or her skin color or political affiliation or baseball team, identified first and foremost as a Christian. If each were a Christian first and all else second, then peace and grace would follow. Joe Parishioner and Bob Congregant could disagree on political matters because these are secondary—their identity resides in Christ, not in political parties. Mary Churchgoer and Angela Pewsitter could disagree about the fairness of the legal system in peace, for neither of them vests their identity in the color of their skin.

This matters because Christians say stupid things. White Christians say and do stupid and insensitive things. So do black Christians. So do Republican Christians and Democratic Christians, and especially Christians who love the Yankees. This side of Glory we will never stop giving each other reasons to be offended. Our only hope is Christ, and in the identity we mutually draw from being His.

If I primarily identify as white and someone questions the character and integrity of white judges, white lawyers, and white police officers, then I will necessarily take it personally. They have attacked my identity, and the people with whom I identify. But if I identify as a Christian, then I can hear those accusations dispassionately, not feeling the need to defend every white person, but instead identifying myself more with my black brother in Christ who shares my faith than with a nameless attorney who happens to share my skin color but knows not my Lord.

In the same way, if I primarily identify as black and someone defends the character and integrity of white public officials over against black accusations of racial injustice, then I will necessarily take it personally. They have attacked my identity, and the people with whom I identify. But if identity as a Christian first—if being black is only a descriptor of my skin and not a definition of my person—then I can listen calmly, not feeling the need to defend every black man against every white man. Many white men share Christ with me; many black men do not.

While the world buzzes with racial antagonism, the Church has the opportunity to demonstrate peace and charity, but only if each of us identifies as a Christian first—only if my allegiance, and thus my identity, is established explicitly in Christ Jesus. Simply put, is your heart more closely knit together with those who share your politics or with those who share your Lord? Does it bond more tightly with those who share your skin color or with those who share your Savior? Examine your own heart, and ask yourself why it reacts defensively when it reacts defensively, and the answer will reveal the idol that has captured your primary allegiance, which must belong to Jesus Christ alone.

I love my brother John because he is my brother in Christ. We share one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, which is a good thing because I can’t stand the Yankees.

Football, and Meaning

Life without God has no inherent meaning.

The universe is a result of chance and time, not Divine design. Life is an accident, not a premeditated miracle. The human species is an oddly upgraded ape, not the very Image of God. Neither life nor death possesses meaning—unless a Darwinian struggle for reproductive success qualifies as meaningful.

People nevertheless create meaning for themselves; we cannot do otherwise.

A man often forges meaning from his work, identifying with his profession. When men in America meet, they shake hands, and inevitably one will ask the other, “So, what do you do?” Sometimes women craft meaning from motherhood, identifying with their maternal role and actions. Others of us identify with and take meaning from our country of origin or ethnicity, our favorite football team—whether it be soccer or American style—our educational institution(s), or our hobbies.

If God is not, then none of these possess meaning. If mankind has no meaning, then certainly nothing that mankind does, builds, or enjoys has meaning either. And yet, sensing that meaning matters, we cobble it together from the shattered fragments of modernity, sadly ascribing value to our activities and associations while at the same time denying it to the very human beings who participate in the activities and comprise the associations. The work the man does matters. The man? Not so much.

A man whose sense of purpose—whose meaning—comes from his work loses himself when he loses his job or retires. A woman whose purpose is wrapped up in her children loses herself when they grow up and move away. When meaning is culturally derived, grounded in a profession or an activity or any other association, then it is unstable. It cannot but fail.

And yet, God is. He has created mankind in His image, investing us with inherent dignity, value, and yes, meaning. We mean to His glory.

A man may legitimately labor in any number of professions, but his meaning is to glorify God. A woman may raise many children or none, but her meaning is to glorify God. I might love football—the American kind—and suffer no love for soccer, but my meaning is to glorify God. It is the one purpose that cannot fail. When I retire, my meaning remains. When my children move, my meaning remains, and when my team loses, my meaning remains. I exist for the glory of God, and will continue to exist for His glory forevermore.

I have been created to glorify God, and not only does that truth grant to my life meaning, it also indicates that I will be most satisfied in life when I tie my identity and sense of meaning not to my work or to my children to my hobbies, but to my Creator.

He has created me for Himself, and that means everything.

Bumbling Hands and Wounded Saints

Recently a friend of mine was talking with seminary students about the realities of pastoral ministry. In explaining the many ways in which the most sincere pastor can unwittingly offend his congregants, he related a story in which he apologized to a parishioner, saying, “I am not a righteous man. Jesus is the only righteous man.” Each pastor must remember that truth; each congregant already knows it—or should. It was not an excuse. It is a fact.

Hearing that truth as it played out in another man’s life, I nodded in agreement. “Yes, yes these things happen. No, God’s people are not always gracious to pastors. The pedestal is all too real, and we’re not perfect.” So went my inner monologue. But then, not much later, a person in my own congregation pointed out my very real failings and the very real pain my failings had caused.

I wish I could say that the conversation ended with me pointing us both to Jesus, the Righteous One, but we never really got that far. And so I pray, hoping to begin repairing a bridge that I did not know I had burned, trusting that the Good Shepherd has been better to this dear saint than have I.

When contemplating the mystery of ministry—that God uses broken human instruments to spread the fragrance of Christ—the Apostle Paul asked, “Who is sufficient for these things?” and he did not need to answer. We are all insufficient, but God reveals His might in and through our insufficiencies to demonstrate that “the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”

I rest in this truth: “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” The dear saint whom I have wounded has Jesus. And His shepherding never goes awry; His ministry is perfect, and He can and will care for the very hearts that my bumbling hands have wounded.

That is not an excuse. It is a fact, and a blessed comfort indeed.

An Impotent Grace for All

Thomas Erskine once wrote, “In the New Testament, religion is grace and ethics is gratitude.” Since salvation is a gift, each Christian ought to express his gratitude in the form of an ethical, Christ-honoring life.

Erskine was wrong.

Not because of what he said—it is true that salvation comes through the grace of God, and equally true that each believer should respond accordingly—but because Erskine was a universalist. In his view, everyone was saved; faith in Christ was not strictly necessary. Eternal life with God was, for Erskine, something of a human birthright. Such “grace” is not, however, the grace of the Bible, and it is thus incapable of producing biblical gratitude.

Biblical grace does not consist merely of a pardon for sin that guarantees that the recipient of such grace is saved. It is also a transformative power, which renews men and women in the image of Christ. Without that supernatural renewal, the gratitude of which Erskine speaks cannot and will not materialize in a human heart. Those who reject Jesus remain mired in sin—as such they have no interest in spiritual things, and no desire for the very heavenly glories that Erskine falsely promises.

After all, what will heaven be like? It will be filled with people who love Jesus. Those who reject Him do not love Him. It will be filled with the very worship that those who reject Jesus in this life do not and will not offer Him. All those who dwell in heaven will have been fully redeemed, and as such they will love holiness and hate sin—the very sins to which those who reject Jesus cling. In short, those who are not transformed by the true grace of God in Christ would not enjoy heaven even if it were given to them!

Nothing short of the transformative grace of God, which always proves itself in a living faith in Jesus Christ, can produce an ethic of gratitude. Empty promises of a universal salvation simply leave rebellious people in their rebellion, while offering false confidence that God grants everything but requires nothing.

A biblical ethic strives to do that which most glorifies Jesus Christ, not because of a broad grace that possesses no power to transform the human heart and its desires, but because of biblical grace, which is received by faith, and which transforms those who receive it from glory to glory.

An impotent grace for all is a saving grace for none.

Saved for Something More

Contemporary Christians rightly stress salvation from sin and the necessity of faith in Jesus in order to avoid God’s righteous judgment. The Apostle Paul did the same, writing, “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.” Salvation from sin is a big deal.

But what are we saved for? Christians have done a poorer job offering to the world a vision of salvation that is not simply avoidance of hell. We need to do better.

It begins with Creation. Adam and Eve stand as the crowning achievement of God’s Creation—the Creation account climaxes with God’s declaration that mankind bears His image. Created “in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures,” Adam and Eve were given stewardship over God’s Creation and the promise of everlasting life upon condition of their obedience.

That means that you were created to glorify God and to enjoy close fellowship with Him eternally. That purpose still stands. Salvation from sin is important because each of us must be sinless in order to enjoy the personal presence of a sinless and holy God. We are therefore saved from sin for restored knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, and for a dominion over God’s Creation, enjoying intimate eternal fellowship with Him. We are saved to be all that we were originally created to be and to do and to enjoy.

And it will never go bad again, for Creation and redemption differ in this—whereas in Creation Adam and Eve possessed the ability to obey or to disobey, in redemption we who are saved will be unable to sin, eternally fixed in our perfected, incorruptible character and purpose. No temptation will ever seize you again; no sin or pain or suffering will mar the work of God’s hands, and nothing will separate you from your Heavenly Father.

Christ holds out to helpless, lost, and suffering sinners not just a pardon from sin, but also a better gift by far. He saves us for the full restoration of our Creation privileges and purpose, and guarantees that we will never lose them again.

We are saved for this—to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.

From Disaster to Life Everlasting

We tend to personify weather, speaking of Harvey’s fury or Irma’s wrath. These, however, are traits of personal beings, not impersonal weather phenomena. And that matters, for when we ascribe wrath to a storm we may deny wrath to the storm’s Creator.

In Luke 13 Jesus used a natural disaster—an earthquake that caused a tower to fall—in order to call men and women to repent. Jesus asked, “Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” and He answered, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

That doesn’t sound very compassionate, does it? Certainly Jesus protected those whom the tower crushed from character assassination; He made clear that the tower did not fall on them to punish their sin. Those who died were not morally worse than those who lived. But Jesus did use their tragic deaths in a way that we find uncomfortable—to encourage those who lived to repent, promising them that unless they did so, they too would perish.

Jesus was not teaching that death by natural disaster will inevitably fall upon you in this life as a punishment for your sin. That wasn’t the case for those killed by the tower, and it likely won’t be the case for you either. He was teaching, however, that death will find us all, frequently in unlikely ways, and more often than not at a time when we do not expect it. Most of us plan for tomorrow, and we expect to wake in the morning, drink our coffee, navigate the day, and return home safely in the evening. Death nevertheless finds his prey each day.

Had the people of Jerusalem chosen to name earthquakes as we name hurricanes, they may have spoken of Reuben’s fury or Caleb’s wrath when the earth rattled and the tower fell. But Jesus gave no such credit to the earthquake itself. Instead, He ascribed wrath to His Father, urging those who heard Him to repent—that is, to turn away from a life of sin and self and toward a life of following and serving God—lest they too succumb to death unprepared.

Nobody on whom the Tower of Siloam fell woke that morning and said, “I think I’ll be crushed by a falling tower today.” And you likely will not wake knowing the day and hour of your death. That is why Jesus spoke as He did. He used this tragedy, not in order to exhort us to speculate about the relative holiness or sinfulness of the men and women who had died, but instead to exhort us to address our own sinfulness before a Holy God.

Falling towers and hurricanes tend to garner our attention, but people die every day, and none of them wake thinking, “I think I’ll die in a car accident this morning,” or “I think I’ll have a massive heart attack after lunch,” or “I think I’ll choke to death on a piece of hotdog on my deck tonight.”

Nevertheless, you also will die, and you cannot know when or where or how. Therefore, repent today, not because you fear the wrath of a hurricane, but because you fear Him who is its Creator and yours.

Jesus told you to repent, for He who has the power to exercise wrath also has the power—and the eager desire—to grant you life everlasting when you do so.

Wind, Waves, and Him Who is Not Afraid

Peter and Andrew, James and John, and possibly Thomas and Bartholomew (who was also called Nathaniel), were fishermen.

In Mark 4:37-41 the Bible records that Jesus and His disciples entered a boat in order to cross the Sea of Galilee, but that their crossing was imperiled.

A great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Men who had fished these waters since childhood were terrified. It must have been an incredible storm.

Jesus, however, was not afraid. He was, in fact, enjoying a much-needed rest, and His disciples had to rouse Him to action. When they did so, He spoke. At His word the wind ceased, the waves calmed, and the fear that had gripped the hearts of His disciples shifted. Whereas before they had feared wind and waves, now they feared Jesus, asking, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Too often preachers succumb to the temptation to ask congregants, “What is the storm in your life that Jesus can overcome?” Meaning well, they suggest that marital difficulty may be your storm, parenting may be your storm, or financial want may be your storm. But Jesus did not rebuke an empty bank account; He rebuked winds and waves that were so strong that veteran fishermen were overwhelmed and feared for their lives. Those who have suffered the brunt of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and those who are braced for the coming destruction in Florida, are not facing a metaphorical storm; they are facing winds and waves that carry the power to level homes and end lives.

As much as we might wish, Jesus did not calm the winds and waves in order to promise every future generation that in every future storm He would calm every future wind if only you would pray to Him. He displayed His power over the storm so that you would see clearly that the wind knows its Creator and the sea knows its Lord. They obeyed Him when He spoke them into existence; they obey Him still.

More than that, Jesus rebuked the wind so that His disciples would ask, “Who is this man?” He spoke peace to the sea so that they would eventually answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”

And He is.

Houston, Prosperity, and our Suffering Savior

Recently I read a brief homily written by a Roman Catholic deacon who was questioning the validity of prosperity preaching in the wake of the Houston flooding. After describing the theology of Joel Osteen, Paula White, Kenneth Copeland and others, which amounts to “God wants you to be happy, healthy, and wealthy,” he offered Theresa of Avila as a foil, teaching that God sanctifies His people—often by means of hardship and affliction—and suggested that the Catholic practice of venerating the suffering saints guarded against the prosperity lie.

I am so thankful for this man’s effort to inoculate his flock against prosperity deceptions, but I fear that mere veneration of saints is inadequate to equip God’s people to understand and to reject this “health and wealth” lie. Why are prosperity teachings deceptive? Moreover, how can we state positively the truth of what God does desire for His people?

Negatively, the Deception

Our answer begins in the Pentateuch. Moses described how life will work for the people of Old Testament Israel in Deuteronomy 28:1-6. He explained,

If you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.

Moses continued in verse 10, affirming, “The Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give you.”

Unfortunately, the opposite was also true. In Deuteronomy 28:15-19, he warned,

But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.

What does this all mean? In the Old Testament, among the people of Israel, prosperity and poverty were linked to national obedience or disobedience. The Book of Judges provides a continuing illustration of this truth. When Israel followed the Lord under the leadership of a faithful Judge, the nation prospered; when Israel fell into idolatry, the nation suffered. When they repented and cried out to Him, the Lord sent another Judge to lead and deliver Israel and her prosperity returned. Rinse and repeat.

Prosperity preachers use this Old Testament pattern to say to contemporary people, “If you are faithful, God will grant to you material prosperity and physical health.” If you are not thriving, it is thus your fault, for God desires to bless you materially.

Our theological instincts tell us that this is not the whole truth, but many Christians struggle to articulate why their spiritual Spidey-sense tells them that prosperity preaching is wrong.

Positively, the Truth

Our answer begins in the Gospels. The New Testament presents a different pattern than the Old Testament. In John 9:1-3, John reveals that Jesus’ disciples viewed the link between physical hardship and sin according to the pattern of Deuteronomy 28. John writes,

As he [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

In other words, this man’s physical poverty was not a result of disobedience. Why the change from the Old to the New Testament?

The simple answer is this: On the Cross Jesus took upon Himself all the curses that our faithlessness earned. The physical blessings and curses promised to obedience and disobedience in the Old Testament were supposed to point God’s people to their need for His spiritual blessings—namely, salvation—and to caution them about His spiritual curses—namely, damnation. Israel’s inability to obey the Lord faithfully or consistently, which was evidenced in every foreign invasion, every famine, every drought, every lost crop, and every period of suffering, was supposed to point God’s people to their need for the very Savior that God had promised to Adam and Eve in Eden, whom He had confirmed to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and whom He had foretold through Moses.

When our Savior finally came, He took on Himself all the curses of our faithlessness, and gave to us all the blessings of His perfect obedience. We receive these by faith. Right now each Christian possesses “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” and when Jesus returns, we will inherit every physical blessing as well, for we are co-heirs with Christ of the renewed Creation (Ephesians 1:3). Meanwhile, Jesus already has taken every physical and spiritual curse for our sins on the Cross.

If these curses have been taken, then why must we still suffer? The Bible offers two complementary answers. The first is that this world is still a world of sin. Injuries happen; illnesses spread; earthquakes shake the ground; floods deluge the earth; men wage war. Rape, pestilence, disease, and death shall reign until Jesus returns to lift the curse from the Creation and put sin itself to death. Just as the man in John 9 was not blind due to any fault of his own, so also the victims of the recent flooding in Houston did not do anything in particular to deserve it. Those who lost everything did not lose it because they lacked the faith to “name and claim” their blessings. They suffered because this world is fallen, and bad things happen and will continue to happen until Jesus returns to renew all things.

The second answer pertains specifically to Christians. We who will enjoy glory with Jesus must first participate in His sufferings. Our Catholic brother had it right in that regard—God does sanctify His people, and it usually happens through trials, suffering, hardship, and want. These burn away the dross as God forms in us the image of His Son. Not only will faith in Jesus fail to make you wealthy and materially prosperous and happy—it will often mean that you, like your Lord, will bear a cross, as Jesus transforms you from one degree of glory to another, using one degree of hardship or another to accomplish the transformation.

The Sum of the Matter

What then does God desire for you? “This is the will of God, your sanctification,” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). That means that God is far more concerned for your eternal holiness than He is for your worldly happiness. It means also that prosperity and poverty are no longer tied to obedience and disobedience. Prosperity preachers are simply lying to you, and they are asking you to trade eternal blessings for earthly blessings, an eternal mansion for an earthly house, and a resurrection body for earthly health. In short, these men and women promise that you will avoid the very suffering that your sanctification requires, while at the same time blinding you to the true blessings that your Savior offers. Do not forfeit your spiritual birthright.

Instead, trust Jesus, not for mere earthly prosperity, but for eternal blessings, for He will grant to you all the wealth of His Father’s house, and the health of an eternal, incorruptible, sinless soul and body with which to enjoy it—and Him—forevermore.

I, Reactionary

I tend to react. When I read bad theology, I react. When I hear falsehood promoted within the Church, I react. When I hear someone suggest that it is appropriate for a Christian to support the Yankees, I react. Reacting against error is a good thing, but it cannot be the only thing.

Throughout Church history, theology has been defined over against error—the Church has reacted. When theologians recognize error they counter it, set the record straight, and help God’s people to think and act biblically. Error has often served in the providence of God to sharpen the Church’s understanding and explanation of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

At the same time, the Church and her pastors must also strive to offer positive truth. In 2 Corinthians 4:2 the Apostle Paul taught that he and his fellow missionaries ministered “by the open statement of the truth.” The Church cannot content itself simply to oppose error; such a posture has the effect of making Christians sound shrill, reactionary, and negative. Throwing darts at everything that is wrong, we become theological naysayers, pointing out specks and straining gnats, while failing to state the beauty of biblical Christianity in positive terms.

I find that I am better at analyzing faults than offering Christ. It is a tendency I hope to remedy, and I have begun a self-imposed course of study and prayer to ground myself in a biblical, historic, and confessional understanding of the Church, her mission among the nations, and the distinction between her primary calling and her secondary duties.

In short, I want to react less and lead more, making an “open statement of the truth” more than I make a critique of perceived errors.

Will you join me?