Abraham’s Faith

One of my students brought this dilemma to my attention today: how can Paul say that Abraham “did not weaken in faith” (Romans 4:19) in considering his age and Sarah’s barrenness; that “no unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God” (Romans 4:20); and that he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:21), given Abraham’s record of faithlessness in the Genesis account? God makes a promise to Abraham concerning his offspring in Genesis 15. In chapter 16, he sleeps with Hagar—how is that not an instance of weakening in faith concerning “the barrenness of Sarah’s womb”? Then in chapter 17, he laughs at God’s promise of a son, citing his and Sarah’s advanced age as grounds for his doubt. In what way is this an expression of being “fully convinced” that God would keep his promises?

I see only a few options in understanding this apparent inconsistency. One, we could throw inerrancy out the window. Paul was either deceived, or he was lying, or his desire to make an example from Abraham made him whitewash history. In any case, it’s some kind of historical revisionism, and Paul was just wrong. Two, we can try to reinterpret the actions of Abraham in the Old Testament so it looks like he has faith. I’m not sure how some of these narratives could be interpreted to make Abraham look good, but it’s an option. Three, we could play the wild card of biblical interpretation and say that Paul had access to a greater knowledge of Abraham, somehow revealed to him by God. Paul says it, so whatever we think or see in Genesis, Abraham was a man of faith.

I’d rather look through door #4. I think understanding Paul’s evaluation of Abraham’s life of faith and not faith is a tremendous comfort for us in doubt. We have a clear picture of Abraham as a man who trusted God enough to leave his home, who believed God’s promise of a son, and who allowed his faith in God’s word and ways to shape his life profoundly. And yet, Abraham was a doubter. His doubt led him to lie repeatedly about his relationship with his wife, to seek to fulfill God’s promise his own way, and to laugh with disbelief when God made a clear promise about his near future. I don’t think Paul was ignorant of this, or sought to cover it up. And I don’t think he was flat-out wrong about his evaluation of Abraham.

So what are we to make of this, that Paul and other New Testament authors use Abraham as the quintessential example of Christian faith? I think, as I said, that this grounds for incredible comfort. God knows that we are sinful, doubting little creatures. We are not strong in faith. He directs us to trust him, and is worthy of our faith, and is patient with us in our lack of faith. In fact, Sarah’s journey of faith is, I think, the same that we all make. First, we laugh (read: scoff) when God makes promises. It is hard to believe that God gives life and joy in the face of so much seeming evidence to the contrary. And when God makes good on his promises, we laugh again, but this time in relief and humility and joy. 

Abraham and Sarah were not perfectly faithful, but even in their unbelief, they were directed toward God. They struggled with God in belief and in unbelief. How often, I wonder, do we turn from God in shame or indifference because of unbelief, rather than use that doubt to turn to God as the One with whom we have to do in faith and in doubt? I think it is when we adopt the posture of the possessed boy’s father in the Gospel that we will be “children of faithful Abraham.”

Creaturely Calling

Common to our evangelical vernacular is the language of call. We talk about what vocation God is calling us to or how we feel called to act in a certain way frequently. It’s just become a part of the shared conventions of our speech.

For a few years now I’ve been uncomfortable with that kind of language, because it seems to rely on a subjective inner experience of leading paired with a sort of ‘confirmation bias’ approach to interpreting circumstances, rather than on the objective revelation of God’s will in Scripture.

The question, by the way, isn’t whether or not the language of calling is legitimate; it’s what calling language refers to in the Scripture, and how we experience a sense of call (whatever it refers to) in our lives. Generally, though not always, the Scripture speaks of calling in terms of salvation, where we speak of it in terms of vocation.

So John Webster, as usual, has been so helpful in this point. In a Q&A session after a lecture he gave a few years ago at Covenant College, he said this: “God has already given me the shape of my life—that’s my calling. I don’t have to invent that for myself. I don’t have to make myself out of nothing, because God has already given me who I am. And so, what I have to do is enact the person that I’ve already been created to be. So that what I’m responsible for is the fulfilling of the calling that God has given me. I’m not responsible, however, to sort of generate the call out of my own resources, and to think that I must make myself. And that, it seems to me, is a very freeing thing, because it means I’m not in the business of inventing myself, which is a desperately hard and troubling business, to have to be your own creator. And it’s not very humane, to think of ourselves in those ways… God has graciously given us the gift of ourselves.”

In other words, Webster locates vocational calling within the context of creation, not revelation. God does not call us to certain vocations by hiding clues in our circumstances, or whispering in our hearts; he calls us to do what we do by creating within us certain creaturely capacities, and giving us the desire and the will to pursue the enactment of those capacities. He gives gifts, and the creaturely means to use those gifts. To discern your calling, therefore, is not to embark on a process of investigation or discovery, but to act in accordance with your (sanctified) nature.

I agree with John Webster, that this seems to be a freeing thing. I talk to a lot of young people who are trying to figure out what they should do, and it seems that they have some grasp of what they enjoy and are good at, but they think those realities have no bearing on their calling. So they try hard to pierce the dark veil of God’s secret will for their lives, guilting themselves into reading the Bible to look for that one ray of insight into the divine plan. Bleagh. I prefer Webster’s view of God (which is to say, the Scripture’s view of God): The God who, loving us and pouring out grace on us, bestows us with life in the giving us the gift of ourselves.

The Wisdom of Deacons

The appointment of deacons in Acts and the subsequent story of Stephen is an interesting bit of Scripture.

In Acts chapter 6, Greek believers in the church found that their widows were not being looked after with the same care and frequency as Jewish widows. The twelve apostles thought that the task of looking after the needs of the church, while not being so important as to take them away from their task of preaching and prayer, was nevertheless so important it necessitated the creation of a new office in the church. You may think that the only thing needed in men who were supposed to hand out food would be a sense of honesty and the ability to count. But here is the job description the apostles give: “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty (Acts 6:3). So let it be said, so let it be done. Seven deacons.

Then the story shifts to follow Stephen, who will be martyred in the next chapter. He’s described as being full of faith and the Spirit, full of grace and power. He speaks with wisdom and the Spirit, and he performs signs and wonders among the people. Naturally, therefore, the religious leaders snatch him.

When Stephen is falsely accused and stands before the religious leaders to make his defense, we see the wisdom that make him a candidate for deaconry in the first place. I see eight facets of Stephen’s wisdom in Acts 7:

  1. His respect. Stephen has just been falsely accused by some of the most notorious rats in history. I mean, the religious leaders were bad in the Gospels, but in Acts they’re downright skeevy. And when called upon to make a defense, Stephen addresses them as “brothers and fathers.” We know he has some choice things to say about them, and he gets there by the end of his speech, but he doesn’t insult where he doesn’t have to. That’s wise.
  2. His calm. Similarly, Stephen is calm and collected. I’m not sure what is meant by “his face was like the face of an angel,” at the end of chapter 6, but Stephen is certainly collected and in possession of himself in chapter 7. He doesn’t jump to his defense, or to counterattack. He respectfully begins to construct an argument, taking the time to develop a common understanding of the redemptive-historical narrative of which the present has become a part.
  3. His knowledge of the Bible’s facts. Wisdom isn’t limited to Bible facts, but it certainly is wise to have that knowledge to hand, just as it is wise to go camping with matches and a flashlight. Stephen has spent time learning the Bible, so that now, when he is called upon to speak, he can do so in an informed manner.
  4. His knowledge of the Bible’s meaning. More than facts, Stephen has an understanding of what the Bible means—what its major episodes are, and the salient features of those episodes for the point he’s trying to make.
  5. His knowledge of the Bible’s purpose. Going even further, Stephen that the Scriptures events and patterns point beyond themselves to Jesus Christ. He sees that Israel’s story points towards and is ultimately caught up in something far greater than Israel, and he is able to communicate that to his audience.
  6. His ability to interpret present events. Stephen is able to read the times and to see that what is happening now is downstream of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, which is what the entire Old Testament was pointing toward. He sees correlations between events in the Old Testament and his present and makes correct judgments about those correlations.
  7. His moral discernment. Having made his case from history, Stephen shows discernment in seeing through the veil of moral rectitude and superiority that the religious leaders have put up to the moral bankruptcy and hypocrisy that characterizes them.
  8. His courageous and prophetic stand. Wisdom is right understanding wedded to right action, and Stephen’s wisdom goes beyond an ability to read people and the Bible. Having made his case, Stephen ends his speech by calling the religious leaders to account for their sin and their failure to accept Jesus as the promised Messiah. He sticks it to them, not because he is angry or afraid or defensive, but because that’s what prophets do—they take God’s word and hold the world up to its standard.

Stephen was quite a man, and shows an incredible heart of wisdom, and he was a deacon. We still have deacons today in our churches, often, it seems, chosen because they’re good with a hammer or have a strong back. What would it look like if we sought deacons who not only had the ability to care for the congregation, but the wisdom to know when and how to best carry out that care?

Art as Discipleship Pt. 2

I tried to make the case last month that art, because it tells a story, has the ability to tell the Christian story. Christian art can, and should, tell the story of good creation, ruinous fall, gracious redemption, and anticipated consummation. By creating along this narrative arc, I argued, artists follow Christ, and lead others to follow Christ as well. I should offer some clarification on that point.

Art, unless it abandons all subtlety and, not to put too fine a point on it, artistry, doesn’t tell the gospel message. Art which attempts to do this (i.e. seemingly all Christian movies) usually ends up being laughably bad, for the simple reason that art isn’t supposed to be propositional. It doesn’t fill; it shapes.

So the way in which Christian art functions as a form of discipleship isn’t be reinforcing the truths of the Christian faith, but it’s patterns and textures. Christian art stands and looks. Where it stands and where it looks are incredibly important, as well as how it feels about where it is standing and looking. Art is commentary; Christian art should comment so as to make us feel the way we should about Christian realities. A Christian landscape should make us grateful to God for his gifts. A Christian break-up song (and why shouldn’t Christian’s write break-up songs? What else should Christians listen to when they’re going through a break-up?) should envision the new heaven and the new earth, where righteousness dwells. A Christian film should create an imaginative space for reconciliation and redemption. In doing so, Christian art creates the patterns which are filled by the propositional content of our faith.

Honestly, I think that when non-Christian art is honest, it can express a longing for redemption which is almost Christian (like this song and this song). As good as non-Christian art can be, however, it can only communicate the longing, never the finding. Only Christian art, having been through the door, can return to show us the shape of the world beyond.


Last month I wrote about creaturely reception, and how the right embrace of our creatureliness can help us to act in accordance with our created nature, which is to say, in a godly manner.

Forget about the Fall for just a second. Adam wasn’t created as a tabula rasa. He had a nature, and concomitant with that nature was a set of ordered desires, an ordo amoris. His response to Eve, for example, was ordered, non-arbitrary, part of his design. Adam and Eve were, in the words of the Confession, “good, righteous, and holy, capable in all things to will agreeably to the will of God.” This was a part of their essential makeup, their nature. In the Fall, that nature was injured, impaired, damaged, but not entirely changed. Adam’s desires changed, became disordered; what did not change was that he was made for holiness.

What I’m getting at is that this is still part of our makeup. Here’s what I said in that earlier post:

We have a nature, and we have ends. By embracing our creatureliness, we thrive, grow, flourish. By rejecting it, we betray our nature, and we will wither and die. To exist well is to exist as a creature.

If it is true that we have a nature, that human happiness and thriving depend on embracing that nature, and that holiness is attendant with that nature, then it must also be true that pursuing holiness is the way to human happiness and thriving. The flip side of this is that sin is necessarily contrary to our nature, and that sin can never make us happy or fulfilled. This probably sounds like I’m saying something simple and saying it in the most complex way possible, but I think there’s some benefit to this train of thought.

Remember the last time you sinned deliberately, because you really wanted what you thought sin would get you? Happiness, fulfillment, justice, significance? Can’t happen. Sin is an unmaking. It’s only ever destructive and ruinous. Sin is faerie gold, promising everything and giving nothing, and by the time you escape its lies (if ever), you’ve given the best of your years to the cruel.

If all this is true, then God is not arbitrarily demanding and callous in his forbidding certain actions and requiring others; just the opposite. Here’s how John Webster puts it:

The unholy is that which lies beyond the will of God. The unholy is the absurd affair in which the creature seeks to be creature in a way other than that which is purposed by God; it is, therefore, a way in which the creature– precisely by trying to cease to be a creature and to make itself– seeks to destroy itself. To this unholiness the holiness of God is implacably opposed.

John Webster, Holiness

When creatures sin, they attempt to enact their own unmaking. In redemption, we are not being torn away from our nature, and stripped of anything that gives us significance; we are being remade.

Five Reasons to Sing Somber Songs in Worship

I like sad songs. I don’t mean sappy love songs or My Chemical Romance or anything like that, but more somber forms of instrumental or sacred music—take the Agnus Dei sung after Samuel Barber’s Adagio, for example. I know that makes me a minority, but I think there’s good reason for the evangelical church to depart from its quest to happify everything it touches and reclaim some of the more somber, minor, reflective songs in its worship. Here are five reasons:

Continue reading “Five Reasons to Sing Somber Songs in Worship”