Monday, May 24, 2010

Application: Pressing the Text upon the Heart (Part 2)

Today's post deals with a fundamental biblical truth that is essential for application. That truth can be summarized as follows:
We resemble what we worship, whether for ruin or restoration.
Think about it for a minute. Every kid growing up imitates someone they look up to. My kids love sports, so I constantly hear them say things like "Rondo goes behind the back, lays it up and in! What a shot by Rondo!" or "Pryor, sidesteps the rush, throws downfield to Posey, TOUCHDOWN!" The impulse to imitate does not stop once we reach adulthood. Have you ever noticed we tend to speak and act like the people we admire? People spend large sums of money to even dress like those whom they admire.

The reason for this pattern is that God has made us this way. By creating Adam and Eve in his image, God intended mankind to reflect his character in thought, word and deed (Gen 1:26-31). By beholding God in submissive worship they would reflect his glory. But when Adam and Eve rebelled against God, they usurped the rightful place of God as the sovereign King and placed themselves at the center of the universe (Gen 3:1-24). In other words, they committed idolatry (cp. Romans 1:21-23). This act of rebellion, however, did not change the fact that man resembles what we worship. Notice, for example, what Psalm 115:3-8 (ESV) says:
Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. 4 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. 5 They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. 6 They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. 7 They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. 8 Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.
The psalmist warns against the worship of idols because inevitably those who worship them become like them. Because idols are spiritually blind, deaf and dumb, so those who worship them become spiritually blind, deaf and dumb. (See additionally passages like Psalm 135:15-18; Isaiah 6:1-13; 44:1-20).

But there is a flipside to this reality. As we worship the one true God in Jesus Christ, we become like him. Although there are many texts that point in this direction, we will focus on just two. The first is 2 Corinthians 3:18 (ESV):
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Notice the progression. We as believers behold the glory of God himself in the face of Jesus Christ (see 2 Cor 4:6), and as we behold that glory we are transformed so that we more fully reflect the very glory of Christ himself. The apostle John says something very similar in 1 John 3:2-3 (ESV):
Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
Notice the progression here. When Christ appears, we as his people will be like him, because we will see him as he truly he is. In other words, the vision of Christ is what will complete the transformation to complete Christlikeness. In light of this eschatological hope, in the present believers purify themselves just as Jesus is pure.

Thus at the heart of application is the fundamental truth that we resemble what we worship. As a result, application is first and foremost a reorientation of our whole lives to Christ, a commitment to see him for all his beauty and experience the transformation that comes from seeing his glory. It is not first and foremost a list of things to do or not do.

In the next post we will look at the necessity of recognizing "fallen condition" in the biblical text and identifying how that fallen condition shows up in our own lives.

POSTCRIPT: I wanted to point out two books that have been very helpful in my own thinking on this particular subject. While at Wheaton I had the privilege of learning from G.K. Beale, whose work in the area of the use of the OT in the NT is superb. As part of my Ph.D. program I was first exposed to this concept that we resemble what we worship. In fact, the wording of the quote at the beginning of this post is taken straight from him. A couple of years after I finished my degree at Wheaton, Beale published the book pictured to the left, entitled We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Worship. In this book, Beale walks through in extensive detail this biblical-theological thread from Genesis to Revelation and all points in between. To make this case Beale does detailed work in the Hebrew Old Testament, Greek Septuagint, Second Temple Jewish literature and the Greek New Testament. As a result, it is not something that is easily readable, although those who make the effort are richly rewarded with a firm biblical foundation.

For those who want a much more accessible and readable book that deals with this same subject, the place to look is the book by Tim Keller entitled Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. As the title makes clear, Keller singles out three particular forms of idolatry that are prevalent in our culture. With his characteristically clear and engaging writing style, Keller sheds light on how these forms of idolatry surface in our lives and offers Christ as the one who will truly satisfy. This is a book that I would not hesitate to hand to just about anybody, even those who are not naturally drawn to reading.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Application: Pressing The Text Upon the Heart (Part 1)

Application should be the ultimate goal of studying the Bible. Howard Hendricks is correct when he claims "Interpretation without application is spiritual abortion." The goal of application is life transformation--becoming progressively more conformed to the image of Christ. Yet despite this, most believers receive very little instruction on how to apply Scripture to their lives. The assumption seems to be that we will somehow just "pick it up along the way" as we grow spiritually.

In light of this, I have decided to write a series of posts on application. Today's post will attempt to briefly sketch a basic theological framework for application. Our starting point is a familiar text:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13 ESV)
Paul commands us to work out our own salvation, while at the same time emphasizing that it is God who is at work in us for his good pleasure. Thus application is the work of God and it is the work of the believer. So as a starting point let's look at each of these.

God's Work. Not surprisingly, all three persons of the Trinity are involved in the work of application. According to 1 Peter 1:14-17, it is the Father who calls his children to be holy as he is holy. Paul makes a similar point in Romans 8:29, when he asserts that the Father "predestined [us] to be conformed to the image of his Son." Thus the Son is the ultimate pattern of God's work in our lives. Of course, it also the Son's work on the cross that makes conformity to him even possible, as our union with him enables us to share in his death and resurrection (Rom 6:1-11). The Spirit is the one who applies the benefits of Christ's work to us, and this is true in application as well. He is the one who enables believers to put to death the deeds of the body (Rom 8:13).

The Work of the Believer. Growth in holiness does not come by waiting for God to zap us. As a starting point we can begin with Paul's paradigmatic claim in Romans 10:17 that "faith comes by hearing and hearing through the word of Christ." We are responsible to believe the good news about Jesus Christ and his work on our behalf. All proper application flows out of the gospel. Thus it is imperative that we expose ourselves to the word of God and believe what it says. It is also crucial that we pray for God to do his work in our lives; without prayer our efforts to apply Scripture quickly devolve into self-effort that is rooted in self-righteousness. We must also prioritize the role that other believers play in our lives to assist us in application. Other believers identify our blind spots and confront and/or encourage us when necessary. As we live in fellowship with other believers we are able to grow together in godliness.

Much more could be said, but this is a sufficient foundation for us to build upon. The next post will deal with what I regard as the single most important principle of application.

Monday, May 03, 2010

A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America by John A. D'Elia

This past weekend I finished reading A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America by John D'Elia. For those who do not know him, George Eldon Ladd was one of the most significant evangelical scholars of the 20th century. In this biography, D'Elia sketches the life of this fascinating man in a readable and engaging manner. It was hard to put the book down, and at a mere 182 pages of text (plus another 50 pages of endnotes) it is a fast read.

Central to the book is Ladd efforts to gain a "place at the table" for evangelical biblical scholarship at a time (1940s-1960s) when very few in the academy paid any attention to it. Ladd recognized that this was in part due to a failure by evangelicals to actually engage liberal scholarship rather than dismiss it outright. As a result Ladd was among a small group of evangelicals who pursued doctoral work in elite level Ph.D. programs such as Harvard as a means of establishing scholarly credentials that would enable them later to produce scholarship from an evangelical perspective that could gain a hearing in the broader academy. The fact that many evangelicals today have a seat at the table in the larger academy is due at least in part to Ladd.

Ladd's efforts to produce evangelical scholarship that would be received within the larger academy culminated in 1964 with the publication of Jesus and the Kingdom: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (later renamed The Presence of the Future). Ladd hoped the book would a definitive study of the Kingdom of God in the New Testament, and the fact it was published by Harper and Row gave it a hearing in the broader academy. Ladd thought he had accomplished his goal of gaining a place at the table.

All of that changed when he read NT scholar Norman Perrin's review, which thoroughly trashed the book. Although Ladd's work was well-received by others, the prominence of Perrin within the academy meant that his review was devastating. Ladd was crushed, and as a result he spiraled downward into a depression that he never fully recovered from. The rest of his life he considered himself a failure, despite continuing to publish and teach for another ten years or so.

Before reading this book, I knew almost nothing about Ladd other than his groundbreaking work on the Kingdom of God. His New Testament Theology book remains a classic contribution to the field even 35 years later (a revised edition was produced in 1993 with some additional essays; I still use the text in my own NT Theology course). As I read the book, however, I was saddened to learn of the mess that was Ladd's personal life. D'Elia does a nice job of describing Ladd's upbringing and the effect it would have on him for the rest of his life (though I think this is overplayed at times). In his quest to gain a hearing for evangelical scholarship, he largely sacrificed his family, resulting in very strained relationships with his wife and two children. Because he set his hope on academic recognition, Ladd fell apart when he failed to received what he believed he deserved. He increasingly turned to alcohol and strongly considered divorcing his wife. The irony is that although Ladd considered himself a failure, he left behind a legacy of students who did go on to successful academic careers and gained a place at the table within the broader academy. Ladd simply did not live long enough to see this, dying in 1982.

Reading this book was a healthy reminder to me not to set my hope on academic achievement or recognition within the broader academy. I am grateful for my wife and kids who help keep me grounded and are a great source of joy in my life. I also am grateful for my local church an how it allows me to contribute to the growth of fellow believers in the gospel and how it applies to all of life.