Brokenness: How We Reframe Sin

Broken WorldPastors and service leaders often tell stories or make reference to a sporting event or news item to connect with the congregation. Recently, however, I have noticed these techniques give way to the sure-fire connection that is made when the person upfront talks about brokenness. At a prayer meeting someone lamented,

We are broken people
Living in a broken world
Breaking things

And on reflection, I wouldn’t argue with it.

I also didn’t argue with it when it was said because we were talking about plenty of truly broken things in people’s lives. Things over which they had no control and that introduced seemingly senseless pain. Brokenness is a word that captures this idea really well and yet, I remember a time when I would have said, “We are fallen people living in a fallen world.” So I’ve been wondering about the difference.

My church did a series on Joel – the minor prophet who spends three chapters finding synonyms for “swarm of locusts.” The locusts come as God’s judgement on Israel. “Why are you telling me this?” you ask. Because somehow we did not talk about judgement in the series: week one: “the power of stories,” week two: “the possibility that pain is for our good,” week three: “the hope for restoration” (my titles). Each week the worship leader would welcome us and talk about how we probably all had rough weeks and that we come together as broken people to be refreshed by the Word and I was being my usual (non-critical) self thinking, “what happened to sin?”

Broken JarThen it dawned on me. Brokenness is something that happens to us. Jars get dropped, balls hit windows, iphones fall out of pockets – they all get broken and they are broken through no fault of their own. Broken things are victims. We are victims.

On the other hand, sin is something that we do. We are the perpetrators: we pull the trigger, we bend the truth, two options are presented and we choose the morally inferior one. Sinners are blameworthy and we haven’t wanted to take the blame since back in the garden.

I’m still not sure what the difference between fallenness and brokenness is but I am pretty confident about the difference between brokenness and sin. And the reason that the worship leader keeps talking about brokenness at the beginning of the service and we keep praying about it in prayer meetings is the same reason that the sermon series on Joel never accused me of being a sinner. I don’t like taking the blame.

Brokenness reframes sin turning us into victims
rather than perpetrators

Don’t misunderstand me. There are broken things and we are broken people. Not every bad thing that happened to you is the result of your own sin. And yet, the reason that I live in a sinful world is as much about me as it is about anyone else. Maybe in a generation that has such apathy to obedience and holiness, it’s time to own up to the part we play in breaking our world.

A Note on Analogies

After the publication of my previous post critiquing Andrew Heard’s lifeboat analogy for the church, it was suggested to me that I develop some of my thoughts on analogies, or illustrations, in general. However I cannot pretend to have mastered the use of analogies; in my own preaching, I use them very sparingly. Briefly, in writing, I have explored an abused illustration from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (“He’s not safe but He’s good”) and Jesus’ parable of the field, but those are not detailed studies in the praxis. So in this short post I will merely summarise some thoughts on illustrations I have borrowed from the appendix to Pierced for Our Transgressions.

Their purpose

AnalogyThe authors of Pierced write, “An illustration works well when it corresponds closely to the biblical idea it seeks to explain. Translating an unfamiliar concept into everyday terms can bring clarity and perhaps also a certain vividness and immediacy. It brings our world and the Bible’s world together, and puts us and our lives into the picture.” Illustrations function as useful bridges helping us understand something strange or peculiar by something familiar or easily understood.

The dangers

As we read above, illustrations are useful, but they can also be misleading. The thrust of my previous post is well summarised in Pierced, “Illustrations never correspond to reality at every point, and it is at the points of difference that they may mislead.” However, the authors continue, “The fact that an illustration does not correspond with reality at every point does not mean it will always mislead; merely that it ought to be used to illustrate only those aspects of reality with which it does correspond.” Therefore we must be aware of an illustrations deficiencies, which can confuse and obscure, the opposite of their intended purpose.

Though they are addressing the atonement, Pierced reads insightfully for any illustration, “Even if we choose (wisely) to illustrate just one aspect…we must take care we do not inadvertently distort other closely related themes…To avoid being misunderstood, we need to consider the specific strengths and weaknesses of any given illustration: what it captures well, and where it might fail.” On the topic of church, since that was my concern with Heard’s illustration, the lifeboat analogy distorts other aspects of the church’s mission by overemphasising evangelism at the expense of maturity. Obviously, those are closely related but – in my opinion – the lifeboat overlooks or redefines the importance of godliness and service by conflating maturity with evangelism. While the lifeboat illustrates the desperate urgency of the church’s mission it places far too little emphasis on the biblical emphasis and zeal we should have for maturing, tested, and transforming faith in Christ.

The authors of Pierced then call preachers to take care that their analogies are not pushed too far so that they inadvertently illustrate the wrong thing. As I said previously: there are better illustrations that inform us about the mission and shape of the local church as well as our place in it, so we should be cautious when an illustration not found in Scripture dominates our understanding. “To repeat: it is the points at which they fail to correspond to reality that are liable to mislead.” Should every Christian’s primary concern be the lost, hauling them up from the deadly waters, rescuing them from a Christless eternity? Yes, we should zealously long to see as many as possible saved. But, no, it is not the primary point of the church’s existence; it is one of them.

The careful approach

PreachingI think Pierced ties all of the mentioned dangers up well, “The risk of [overstretching an analogy] is increased when we are attempting to explain something complicated, for no single analogy will be up to the job.” I acknowledge that Andrew Heard was speaking at a conference on church growth, allowing for a selective approach. However, the church and Christian life is complicated, even when honing in on a single component, such as evangelism. As for most things, one analogy can only successfully illustrate part of the truth. I think that is why we are given such an abundance of them in Scripture. It is not enough to merely be aware of our analogies’ shortcomings; we must temper and supplement them with others.

In conclusion, and to stave off despair, “We may be tempted to throw up our hands in frustration and concede defeat…no illustration is perfect, if by ‘perfect’ we mean it corresponds with reality at every point.” But that does not mean every illustration is invalid; we are not doomed to mislead with every analogy. We must recognise where they fall short, and ask if those deficiencies are unhelpful; make sure closely related concepts are not obscured; and resist overextending this great God-given tool.

Some Misgivings about Andrew Heard’s Lifeboat Analogy

In a recent conversation about the latest Generate Conference, a friend shared his reservations about an analogy Andrew Heard deployed in almost every session. If you are unfamiliar with it, the idea is this: an unprecedented maritime disaster has struck and you are the captain of a rescue vessel sent to the affected area. The bottom line for measuring the lifeboat’s success is the number of people on-board, souls saved. As Heard repeatedly emphasised: you should never reach a point when you are satisfied with how many have been rescued. And if people are dying you cannot be too concerned about the comfort of those already in the lifeboat. Rather, each person brought up from the waters needs to join in the task of rescuing others.

Texas Sept 2013There are undoubtedly many positive uses of this analogy, and Heard utilises it fluidly, from challenging Christians in the church who grumble when evangelism is persistently urged, to pastors who have become heroically pessimistic and satisfied with underperformance, stagnant ministries whose battle hymn is: ‘We are being faithful.’ The analogy provides a much-needed reminder of what is at stake: those who have not come to Christ will die without him. We must be more concerned for those still in the water than those who have already been rescued. Perhaps its most valuable application is its stress on the activity, read ministry, of those on-board. We should not rely on an exhausted team of workers, inches from burning out, when we can join in the operation, making it further reaching and far more successful. But I worry that an overdependence on this analogy in articulating the identity and purpose of Christ’s church could be harmful.

My friend expressed hesitation toward the analogy on the basis that despite the litany of analogies found in the New Testament that describe the church – body, temple, household, and family, to name a few – we do not find one remotely similar to the lifeboat. Therefore, as a preliminary point, it cannot be our primary analogy for describing the church or understanding its mission. Yet, for Heard, the analogy seems to influence and express his thinking at a number of points. While everyone knows that metaphors are pliable, I think we would do better in understanding and employing the numerous biblical metaphors about the church. Metaphors are also admittedly imperfect, meaning their use can be unhelpful, even misleading. So below I want to highlight a few of my misgivings.

Rescued souls need care

As I argued in another post, Can Satan Grow the Church?, exploring Jesus’ analogy of the field and the weeds: the size of a church can be very misleading. A church can be bursting at the seams, yet full of those who do not actually belong to Christ. What Heard’s analogy subtly implies is that we simply need to get people on-board, into the church and committed to reaching others. Yet this overlooks the fact that many who have been brought in will be in desperate need of further resuscitation, attention and care. It is no use having a boat full of: spiritual corpses; barely living and bedraggled souls crawling back towards the waters of sin and death; and others whose only appearance of life is their zeal for those not yet in the boat. To add to the analogy, the deck needs to be packed full of paramedics checking the vitals of those rescued, issuing care, and strengthening them for the task.

Rashly appointing the ill-equipped

Building on my previous concern, fixing our focus on those not yet in the boat will mean viewing those in the boat as little more than tools for that task. But tools need to be fashioned, after they have been cared for. In fact, people are more than mere tools or pragmatic partners in reaching the dying. Though Paul’s restriction in 1 Timothy 3:6 against appointing new converts concerns elders, I believe that it can function as a more general caution against hastily placing people into ministry roles, since even those who are being assessed to serve as deacons must be tested (3:10). If we overemphasise the need for reaching outsiders we will fail to prepare our people for that task or – and this might be worse – we will cease seeing our people as partners and begin to treat them like tools.

Real danger of unbiblical measurements

This last point is one that I hope to develop at another time. Fruitfulness in the Christian life, from my reading of the New Testament, is rarely tied to conversions but is almost always about character and Christlikeness. My fear for the lifeboat analogy is the unbiblical evaluation of Christians: pragmatism over personal growth. If we believe that the church is first and foremost a means for saving souls then that will be how we evaluate souls on board, by their usefulness in the mission. While maturity results in making the gospel attractive, it cannot be reduced to service and must certainly not be restricted to a Christian’s evangelistic zeal or efforts. We should desire transformation, godliness, opposition to sin, and lives of worship.

Church underwaterThis post is written generally as a caution against making any metaphor a controlling one, especially when it is not explicitly found in Scripture. But, more specifically, I am writing this post as a call for discernment. Is the church primarily a lifeboat with the mission to rescue as many people from death as possible? I am not sure that it is. Especially not when the result is an emphasis on those outside of the boat at the expense of those within. I do not have an analogy to offer in place of the lifeboat, but we would do well to start with those provided for us in the New Testament. Nor do I think we need to throw this analogy overboard. It is useful, especially to illustrate some of those things mentioned at the opening of this post. But, in my opinion, it is not the best or most helpful analogy for understanding the identity and purpose of Christ’s church.

Book Review: What the Bible Teaches About the Trinity

Considering the present theological maelstrom about the Trinity punctuating most timelines and newsfeeds, I chalked it up to providence when I was given this short book to review. While the intricacies of the Son’s eternal submission to the Father will be dismissed as a superfluous conversation by many, studying what God has revealed about himself as both three and one – Father, Son, and Spirit, yet one God and not three gods – is not a subject (if we can call it that) that any Christian should pass over. Indeed, every Christian should be familiar with what the Bible teaches about the Trinity. In this helpful and mercifully short book Stuart Olyott sets out to do just that.

Stuart OlyottIn the introduction, Olyott offers his work as a primer, both concise and accessible. Without assuming to settle minor and infinitely complicated details about our doctrine of the Trinity, throughout the book the reader is presented with the major tenets and a few key passages. He acknowledges disagreements, mostly those of the past, and modestly owns that there is much as creatures we will never comprehend. Instead his modest aim for the work is that, “It will remove that sense of strangeness that you may feel as you first approach this deep subject and make it possible for you to progress where once you thought you would never begin” (p7). Olyott achieves this, providing his reader with a very useful and far from insignificant first step in their lifelong study of the living and true God, the Trinity.

Even though Olyott overstates the point when he writes that no question about God containing the word ‘how’ can be answered (p15), I appreciate that he makes humility and adoration key components to his work. As the author says, “We come as humble learners, searching the Scriptures…humbled that we cannot enter anywhere, except where he has permitted. We are not as God. We are creatures. We can never discover what he has not revealed” (p16). This is such an important and often overlooked point when it comes to the Trinity, specifically, and Christian doctrine, generally. We come to God as fallen and finite creatures, meaning it is appropriate we do not view the subject of God’s nature, or any theological matter, as one we might master. Rather, as Olyott insists from the beginning of his book and concludes in his final chapter, we should walk away from theological study as reverent worshippers. Olyott’s book captures these twin attitudes, as the author refuses to venture far beyond what we can know from Scipture and he brings the book to a close exploring how the truth of God as Trinity shapes worship and prayer.

TrinityWith this attitude of teachable humility and reverence, Olyott approaches the deep truths of God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. You can read other reviews to learn how the book is laid out; here I want to briefly comment on the general flow and aims of the book. Olyott identifies three Trinitarian heresies that have almost always existed in the church: polytheism, Unitarianism or Monarchianism, and modalism (p51; expanded on p81-86). The first overstates God’s plurality or threeness, resulting in three gods as opposed to the God who is one. The second favours God’s oneness and generally– for example in Arianism – denies the full divinity of the Son or the Spirit. The third suggests that God has at different points in history worn different masks, meaning there is no Son for God simply took another form or mode. But identifying the common heresies that ignore and twist the witness of Scripture does not get us where we need to be. Olyott then unpacks the mystery of the Trinity, affirming threeness and oneness, distinction and unity, the full divinity of each person of the Trinity with the repeated scriptural insistence that there is one God. This forms the bulk of the work and is worth reflective reading, critical engagement, and serious study. Olyott carefully guides the reader through the turbulent waters of Trinitarian theology, making all the necessary stops, and only a few that would have been better left out of a primer. The author works hard throughout his work to make plain what has been revealed to us but also warning against that which has not. I appreciated his simplicity, especially considering that God’s Triune being is perhaps the greatest mystery we will ever encounter (p16); and I thought the strict dismissal of all analogies for the Trinity was an important challenge to teachers and students alike (p78, 86). Though he covers immense ground in a short space, Olyott does well to avoid reductionism and shows that when it comes to the Trinity responsible simplicity can only go so far.

Before concluding this review, it must be said that while Olyott demonstrates the appropriate instinct to turn his abridged theology into doxology, I found his application to be shallow. This shallowness also extends to Olyott’s theological corrections, which are dated. On the first criticism, my want for application, to limit the practical value of the doctrine of the Trinity to worship, prayer, and salvation feels like a sermon where the application is: read your Bible, pray, and evangelise. To pick just a few examples, the biblical doctrine of the Trinity is immensely important for our understanding of the cross, progressive holiness or sanctification, God’s comforting and powerful presence, being transformed by God’s Word, and properly grasping human nature since we are made in the image of God. Secondly, the book possesses too few timely corrections that the proper understanding of the nature and work of God results in. Obviously this is not a work exclusively on the Holy Spirit, but pneumatology is an area where modern misunderstandings must be challenged. And I am not only talking disagreements about spiritual gifts or growing Pentecostalism; we desperately need work to be done around the role of the Spirit in empowering and making Christians fruitful, illuminating Scripture, and convicting us of sin. These were my two major criticisms of the book: it lacked rich, practical application and did not adequately challenge the significant errors that result from an incomplete view of God as he has revealed himself. But the brief work more than makes up for these shortcomings elsewhere.

Scotum FideiIn closing, let me reiterate the outstanding positives of Olyott’s work: accessibility, humility in approaching this study, application of the truth that God is Trinity, careful treatment what Scripture teaches, and the correction of common Trinitarian heresies, unwitting and deliberate. I have other further questions that I would like to raise but this review is already far too long. Therefore I highlighted just two concerns about the book, chosen because of the nature and intended audience of book: application and challenging prevalent misunderstandings. Having said that, my copy is well marked and I plan on returning to it in the future as both a teaching resource and invaluably concise reminder of the God whom we worship.

I received this book for free from Evangelical Press in exchange for this honest review. I was not required to write a positive review of the book. If you enjoyed this then you might enjoy other reviews I have written, here and here, covering some theological works, Christian living, and a few novels.

Brexit: Turns Out We’re Adolescents

I wish I could claim to understand something of international politics but I can’t. There are a few striking features of the UK’s vote to part ways with the EU though. The first is what a hair’s breadth of a margin the leave voters won by: 51.9% to 48.1%. The second is that Scotland’s “32 council areas” unanimously voted to remain. The third is that politics is our new idol.

A Hair’s Breadth Majority

Democracy clearly has problems – you give the decision about how a country should be run to a population that doesn’t understand much about anything needed to run a country. To be honest, that’s why the ANC is still in power in South Africa, it’s why Donald Trump is the republican nominee in the USA and, as far as I can tell, it’s the reason for Brexit. Don’t get me wrong, democracy is not all bad but it’s interesting to see that such a small majority alters the course of a nation with a decision that will, no doubt, have lasting significance beyond the UK.

What’s interesting to me about this is that my generation likes to doubt its parents. The heroes in our stories are people whose parents didn’t understand/appreciate them but who triumph with their unconventional wisdom which their parents come to see is not so bad after all. Well, it turns out that we are adolescents when it comes to politics because the 67% majority that supported the UK’s membership in the EU in 1973 – in our parents generation – was wrong.

The same thing happens in our churches and in theology. In church life, it’s one of the reasons (thankfully not the only one) church planting is popular among younger pastors: our parents churches all have deep rooted systemic problems. The only solution is to start from scratch with our new ideas and then we’ll have the perfect church. In theological circles everyone is flocking to narrative analysis of texts because whatever our parents were doing clearly didn’t get us anywhere in terms of understanding the Bible. Whether its the rejection of our parents’ taste in music or the switch to lectio divina style devotions, one thing is clear our parents didn’t have a clue.

This makes me wonder what our successors will be saying 50 years from now because it seems to me we aren’t paying very much attention to what anyone before us did right. Hopefully those who follow us will be more generous.

So What About Scotland

Recently Scotland was on the receiving end of a lot pressure to stay a part of the UK (which I think was a good thing anyway). Ironically Scotland’s say when it came to the EU was swallowed up by its big brother. So, in spite of the fact that “A majority of voters in all 32 council areas in Scotland voted Remain,” (source) Scotland will need to leave the UK to make that happen. I am reminded that this generation that is so preoccupied with minority voices is also really only interested in those little voices if it is not affected by them.

We are pretty good about listening to minority voices when we have no vested interest in their concerns. When we have competing interests, however, it’s harder to hide how self-serving we really are beneath our normal veneer of social concern.

As Christians I think we need a bit more cross and a bit less comfort in our idea about what our lives are about – and I’ll be the first to admit I’m a comfort idolater.

There’s a New God in Town

Apparently this generation is excited about political engagement. It seems as though politics is where stuff is going wrong. It also seems as though if we were more involved we could fix it and make the world a better place. A few decades ago people were thinking the same thing about science (and then we made an atomic bomb and blew up a couple of cities which remain uninhabitable). Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, our salvation is not going to come from politics – Americans are learning that the hard way as Christians who have dominated the political arena for a long time are forced to realise that the Christian face in politics is a farce.

“Stay” or “Remain,” neither one will fulfil what it promises and even if it did you would find that what it promised was not what you wanted or needed. Just as well the gospel doesn’t offer us whatever the popular vote decides we need – instead we are offered things that seem like the opposite of what we need: instead of democracy we are told that Jesus is lord and we have no rights. Instead of comfort we are offered a cross. Like practised adolescents though, we know better than God and so it will take a miracle for us to lay down our demands for freedom and rights and comfort. It’s fortunate that miracles are not foreign to the One who is still calling us, “Come, follow me.”

Galatians: Faith in Christ or the Faithfulness of Christ

Nestled in the tightly argued and exegetically demanding section of Galatians 2:15-21 we read this: “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16, ESV; similarly NIV). But if you use another translation, such as the NET, you would have read this: “No one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”

Codex Sinaiticus - Comma JohanneumThe first translates the Greek to mean that we are made right with God through placing our faith in Jesus Christ. However the latter renders the verse to mean that we are justified, declared righteous, by the faithfulness of Christ. There is a technical linguistic term for each of these, respectively: the objective genitive and the subjective genitive. For example, the phase ‘the love of God’ can mean: our love for God (objective genitive) or God’s love (subjective genitive). Usually context would inform our reading of the phrase. The same is true in Greek. Only in this instance translators are divided, with most admitting that the Greek cannot be argued definitively in favour of one or the other. So which is it?

I would be foolhardy to harbour any notions of settling a debate in which both sides boast the support of formidable scholars. But we must do business with the text and its context. Before offering my trifling opinion, it is worth stating that we would lose nothing theologically if we translated every instance solely one way or the other. For there are passages that unambiguously develop the significance of Christ’s obedience (Romans 5:19; Philippians 2:8) and that emphasise our faith in Christ (Galatians 3:1-5; Ephesians 2:8-9). I would also add, a point made by Carson, in his superb essay Approaching the Bible, we misconstrue how language works if we attempt to read a text while entertaining the whole semantic range of words or phrases (which is what the Amplified Bible sets out to do). In our reading of Galatians we must settle on a translation.

Mihaly MunkacsyWorking through the first half of Galatians I have became convinced that the subjective genitive fits more naturally with its surrounds. At first I thought it was simply a matter of avoiding repetition, since the next phrase in 2:16 straightforwardly reads: “We also have believed in Christ Jesus.” But as Schreiner rightly responds, ‘Instead of thinking these verses are redundant, we can read them as emphatic, stressing the necessity of faith.’ The reason I am more in favour of reading 2:16 as “the faithfulness of Christ” is tied to my understanding of an issue central to the letter: the works of the law. Paul is tackling readers who were confusing faith alone with a faith augmented by obedience. As I have written elsewhere, 1st century Jews did not view religion as either grace or works; so it follows that the Jewish believers at Galatia struggled to distinguish between sola fidei and faithful obedience. Therefore it is not unlikely that Paul’s emphasis extends beyond faith in Christ alone to the faithfulness of Christ alone.

These posts are meant to be short, so let me conclude. The wonder of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone is that the quality of my faith depends less on my grip and far more on the object: Christ. This challenges us to shift confidence away from ourselves and solely onto Jesus Christ, the one with whom the Father was pleased. I need that reminder, as the Galatians did, because my own faithfulness, obedience, and even my faith in Christ can subtly become the reason for my confidence, when it should never be anything other than his obedience and death on my behalf.