Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When All is not All

Questions regarding the extent of salvation, the effect of the atonement and other things that bring up frequently nasty debates about Calvinism often revolve around "all" passages of Scripture. One advocate cites the Limited Atonement prong of the TULIP acrostic, the other refers to God desiring "all" to be saved. (I, like many, prefer the term "Definite Atonement," because it conveys the idea that Christ actually accomplished atonement, rather than simply making it possible).

While extended exegesis of biblical terms is not on the horizon for this article (all you Greek geeks check back the way, the term "Greek geeks" throws college stereotypes on their collective head: in college, the "Greeks" were the cool dudes and chicks, whose knowledge of Greek probably ended with the ability to recognize jerseys and determine who the opponent was on the intramural field -- I know, but I was one, too) -- what a parenthetical! -- sometimes simple comparison with other passages of Scripture prevent colloquial and dogmatic interpretation of pet verses.

For example, in Genesis 6:17 God informs Noah, in explaining his marine construction project, that "everything that is on earth shall die." That's pretty close to an "all" statement: in fact, most of us would admit that apart from some spurious quibbling over what "everything" is, or what "earth" is, or what "die" means (yes, a few would), that this is about as absolute and inclusive as a statement can get.

Yet just after this, God instructs Noah to prepare a boat not only for him to pilot (steer? drive? ok...ride), but one big enough to handle his family and two of every kind of animal, plus some. As we know from the rest of the story, those on the boat did NOT die.

"Wait a minute, God!" some will say. "You said everything that is on earth will die. What gives?"

What gives is common speech between sentient beings. Noah, his family and maybe even the animals knew that everything on earth would die, everything, that is, except for those God chose. Our speech with each other today confirms the use to which Scripture put these terms yesterday: "all" and "every" as they occur in Scripture -- or in everyday language -- cannot be reduced to mathematical precision in the same way that "1+1=2" or the area of a circle can, nor do we expect that they would.

In Noah's time, everything died except those God chose. The same is true now: all die except those God chooses to save. All will live except those God does not choose to save.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Is Conformity to the World a Benefit?

A recent sermon I heard attempted to treat the text of Romans 12:1-2. The theme or point of the sermon was represented in two questions asked of the congregation: What is commitment? and What does it cost?

The first two verses of Romans 12 speak of presenting our bodies a living sacrifice to God, and of being transformed by the renewing of our mind instead of being conformed to the world. According to the preacher, the commitment of Romans 12:1-2 involved presenting ourselves as living sacrifices. This sacrificial presentation required ‘total commitment’ involved in a ‘once-for-all’ sacrifice. Accordingly, no ‘rededication’ is necessary for the believer who presents himself a living sacrifice.

The transformation that comes from mind renewal involves 1) submission to the Holy Spirit; 2) adherence to the word of God; 3) prayer; and 4) a pursuit of God. I’m not quite certain that I agree with all of the preacher’s applications, or the method that he arrived at them (ok – I don’t agree), but those things were minor compared to what I considered a crucial error.

The preacher considered the ‘cost’ of commitment, the adverse effect of presenting ourselves as sacrifices and being transformed, as avoiding conformity to the world! That is, if we are transformed by the renewing of our mind – which is posed by the text as the opposite of conformity to the world – the ‘cost’ to us is no longer being conformed to the world. Perhaps, to give the benefit of the doubt, the preacher meant ‘cost’ in terms of ‘counting the cost’ – being aware of what we must ‘give up’ in order to follow Christ.

But I don’t believe this is the tenor of Romans 12. Here, the reader has been instructed for 11 prior chapters about how great is God’s grace to choose his people despite their wretchedness, and chapter 12 constitutes instruction about what great things that means for the believer! Instead of being a ‘cost’ of renewal, of sacrifice to God, nonconformity to the world is a tremendous benefit. Because it is in nonconformity to the world (the age) that we ‘prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.’

Those who have their minds renewed by the grace of God no longer view the world’s things or thoughts as benefits lost by joining God’s kingdom. Instead, we view conformity to the world as part of the old man, gladly left behind so that we can put on the new man through Christ. Avoiding conformity to the world is a benefit to the believer who has been transformed and renewed.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Dirt Is Dirt

Or Not.

With four kids, one quickly realizes that there are many different kinds of dirty. There’s the sandy dirt that falls off kid shoes and collects in the floorboard of the mini-van. Then there’s the cakey, earthy dirt that coats hands and faces after a round of making mud holes and mud pies. Then there’s the red clay ubiquitous on sporting fields throughout the Southeast, the stains of which won’t come out of anything, no matter how many gallons of bleach is applied.

Gardeners and farmers have known this for, well, forever. Some soil is good for planting certain crops and plants, some not, and some requires rehab in order to be productive.

My green thumb has long ago proven to be black, and I kill more plants than I tend well. We were sprucing up the greenery around the house, and discovered that the dirt there was the hard clay variety. I had to use an assortment of pickaxes, shovels, and sticks of dynamite to produce a hole big enough for a geranium. I mixed the clay with good soil from other parts of the yard in a big pile in the driveway, and while doing so I noticed something very strange.
When mixed, a very small proportion of good soil would quickly turn a much larger pile of red clay into good, brown dirt that could go directly into the hole with the new plant. The small amount of rich, life-sustaining material rehabilitates a large amount of sterile, life-snuffing material.

’The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ He told them another parable. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.’” Matthew 13:31-33.