Atonement Fully Made for Us

The sermon I preached at King of Grace Church (Haverhill, MA) on July 9th, 2015.

Christ made full atonement for the sins of His people.LISTEN

Ephesians 2:4-10

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

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Islam and Christianity, = or ≠?

At the National Prayer Breakfast last week, President Obama denounced the barbaric acts of terror perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In this context, he warned against blaming Islam and Muslims in general:

“Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

This statement ignited a firestorm of criticism from Christian leaders and conservative politicians. In hindsight, it was probably unwise to use a complex and divisive example like the Crusade in a short speech that precludes historical and theological nuance.

I agree with Ross Douthat, “The deep problem with [President Obama’s] Niebuhrian style isn’t that it’s too disenchanted or insufficiently pro-American. It’s that too often it offers ‘self’-criticism in which the president’s own party and worldview slip away untouched.” For this reason, his exhortation “not to think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought, but rather [to] think of [ourselves] with sober judgment” (Rom. 12:3), instead comes across as a self-righteous criticism of the “rest” of America.

This fact does not, however, justify the harsh reactions of many conservative Christians. President Obama’s illustration was infelicitous, but what he said was, nonetheless, true. Christianity is not immune to radicalization, nor is Islam incapable of civility.

Admitting this is not the same thing as conceding that Christianity and Islam are morally equivalent or equally valid. I believe wholeheartedly that Christianity is true and that Islam is false. Nevertheless, I recognize, as Obama said, that “there is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.” Sin is the real issue here.

The fact that the Bible, rightly interpreted, does not endorse violence is not the point. It does not matter whether the Qur’an, rightly interpreted, promotes violence or not (I address this issue in another post). We know from the very beginning of human history that Satan is capable of distorting even God’s Word for his depraved purposes (Genesis 3:1-5). He can incite Muslims to violence even if the word “jihad” never appears in the Qur’an.

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Islam is not the enemy, sin is, Satan is, and he is an equal opportunity offender.

If we single out and categorically denounce Muslims as our adversaries, we will be fundamentally impaired from loving them. We will become fearful of Muslims and feel threatened by them. We will harden ourselves against them and relinquish our ability to love and bless them.

We must not let that happen. Muslims are the Samaritans of our generation (Luke 10:25-37). We must love them, pray for them, and share the good news of Jesus Christ with them.

Precisely because the real battle is spiritual, precisely because the real battle ground is the sinful human heart, Christ crucified for our redemption is the only ultimate solution to our universal, human problem.

From Death to Life

The sermon I preached at King of Grace Church (Haverhill, MA) on August 4th, 2013.

“We were once dead, but God, by his grace, makes us alive in Christ.” LISTEN

Ephesians 2:1-10

1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

The Prude and Prurience: An Essay About Christian Modesty

There has been a fascinating dialogue on the Q-Ideas forum between Jessica Rey and Rachel Held Evans about female modesty in clothing.

Objectification of Women
Jessica Rey is an entrepreneur who started a popular line of Audrey Hepburn-inspired swimsuits that tries to steer past the Scylla and Charybdis of skimpy bikinis and frumpy one-pieces. In her viral video, she cites studies by scholars from Princeton and Stanford, which used fMRI scans to determine:

  1. that heterosexual men associated scantily-clad, or “sexualized,” women with first-person action verbs (e.g. “I handle”), while associating fully-clad women with third-person action verbs (e.g. “She handles”),” and
  2. that visual stimuli of sexualized women sometimes deactivated regions of the male brain associated with perceiving human agency (e.g. thoughts and feelings) and only activated regions of the male brain associated with tools (e.g. screwdrivers and hammers).

The lead researcher Susan Fiske commented that this “lack of activation in this social cognition area is really odd, because it hardly ever happens,” and concluded that men are prone to see sexualized women as objects to use rather than as agents to relate to. For this reason, Rey promotes her fashionably modest swimwear by arguing that skimpy bikinis lead not to the empowerment of women but to their objectification.

Prudery = Prurience?
Rachel Held Evans, a popular blogger and Christian feminist, responded to Rey by arguing that prudery and prurience are different sides of the same coin. In her post, Evans claims that both the sexualized popular culture and the Christian modesty culture disempower women by telling them to dress a certain way (i.e. provocatively or modestly) in order to please men.

Modesty and Materialism
As intriguing as that sounds, the arguments she adduces to support her claim are flimsy at best. First, Evans argues that Biblical injunctions about modest clothing refers not to immodest adornments but to materialism.

“I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” -1 Timothy 2:9-10 (NIV)

Evans correctly notes that this passage, like its parallel in 1 Peter 3:3, is emphasizing that a woman’s “beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes.” “Outward adornment” is clearly contrasted with “inward beauty,” “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). These passages are clearly a polemic against the materialistic focus on physical beauty.

However, to argue that these passages refer only to materialism and not to modesty is an unwarranted restriction of its range of meaning. While Evans is right that the word “modestly” does not mean “bashful” or “unassuming” as we might imagine, but rather “orderly,” “appropriate,” or “respectable” in this context, the descriptor that immediately follows the word “modestly” is “decency,” which refers to a “sense of shame” and a “sense of honor” in contrast to shamelessness (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament).

In Greco-Roman culture, outward adornments were often perceived as instruments of seduction (see Philo, On the Virtues 7.39; Plutarch, Advice 30), and women’s hairstyles were becoming increasingly elaborate, with curls, braids, wigs, and ornaments. In fact, historians can date the representations of women by the relative complexity of their hairstyle. Archaeologists have discovered coins minted throughout the Roman Empire that depict empresses as well as numerous prominent statutes of empresses, and their fancy fashions were quickly emulated by the well-to-do. To illustrate, Messalina, the empress and wife of Roman Emperor Claudius, as well as Poppaea, the Empress and wife of Emperor Nero, were notorious for their promiscuity, and for using their sexual allure to gain power. In this context, where elaborate adornments were associated with licentiousness, one can understand the apostle’s warning against external adornments.
Thus, the Bible condemns both materialism and immodesty. After all, what is the point of immodest adornments? Isn’t it to enhance or highlight physical beauty? Isn’t it to bring attention to one’s outward, physical features as opposed to one’s inward, spiritual qualities? Immodesty is rooted in materialism, and to say that Apostle Paul is addressing materialism and not immodesty is a false dichotomy.
A Biblical Theology of Clothing

The “sense of shame” that comes with physical exposure attests to the innocence that we have lost due to sin. In the beginning, Adam and Eve, created in the image of God, were naked yet without shame (Gen. 2:25). Then, after sinning against God, they suddenly realized that they were naked and attempted to cover themselves with fig leaves (Gen. 3:7). After seeing their woeful attempt at a covering, God himself clothed them with garments of skin (Gen. 3:21).

The loss of humanity’s spiritual innocence was reflected in their shame in physical nakedness. This is why wearing clothes is an exclusively human phenomenon. This is why the language of “covering” is used to describe forgiveness of sin (Rom. 4:7; Ps. 32:1). This is why God tells the Church in Laodicea to buy “white garments so that [they] may clothe [themselves] and the shame of [their] nakedness may not be seen” (Rev. 3:18).

Therefore, when God took animal skins to make leather garments for Adam and Eve, his act foreshadowed Christ who would be sacrificed to become the garment of righteousness for God’s people (Gal. 3:27). Christians are those who have clothed themselves with Christ (Rom. 13:14).

Physical clothing, then, serves to remind us of the glory we have lost, and immodest exposure, as well as other increasingly popular forms of public nudity, are defiant acts of rebellion against this moral reality. To encourage men and women to dress modestly, then, is not to make them ashamed of their bodies, but to help them put their hope in the future glorious bodies that they will have through Christ (Phil. 3:21).

Modesty and the Gospel
Evans is absolutely right that Jesus places the blame squarely on the men for lusting over women, and not on the women for dressing immodestly (Mt. 5:27-30), but does it follow that is it wise or loving for Christian women to dress provocatively since it’s not their problem or responsibility after all?

Our culture of individual entitlement says, “dress however wish, since it’s for yourself and nobody else,” but Christianity is all about surrendering our “rights” for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9). Didn’t Apostle Paul say that he would even forego such basic rights as eating meat or drinking wine if doing so would cause a fellow Christian brother or sister to stumble (Rom. 14:13-23)? Should we not, then, exercise Christian charity in the way we dress?

As Martin Luther once said, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” As Christians we are to “look not only to [our] own interest, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4), because this is precisely what Jesus did for us. Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).

So to put it bluntly: we don’t dress just for ourselves. In fact, we don’t do anything just for ourselves. We do everything for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), which includes the way we dress. Christian women who dress modestly don’t do it to please men, they do it ultimately to honor God!

What About Men?
“Well, then, shouldn’t men dress modestly too?” Yes, of course! Women shouldn’t show too much cleavage, and men should use belts so that they can wear their pants on their waists, where they belong, and not on their knees.

There is empirical evidence that men, in general, respond more to visual sexual stimuli than women do. (Just consider the fact that out of the 40 million adults who view pornography annually, only 28% are female, while the rest are male.) This is why the focus is usually on women when it comes to modesty, but men are certainly not exempt. I would totally wear a t-shirt at beaches if my abs made women stumble, but I have not found this to be the case in the U.S.

Isn’t Modesty Culturally Relative?
It is true that modesty is culturally-defined, but every culture covers something. In some cultures, showing one’s shoulders or bare arms is considered immodest. In others, showing one’s buttocks or the upper thigh is considered immodest. The questions that should guide us are: (1) Does the article of clothing in question cause shame? (2) Does it bring attention to outward, rather than inward, beauty? And finally, (3) Is it loving? Will it tempt others? Because, in all things, we ought to be constrained, not by our rights, but by our love for God and one another.

Three Ukrainian men, wearing trunks and briefs, attract attention for immodesty relative to the local norm in Bangladesh.
Three Ukrainian men, wearing trunks and briefs, attract attention for immodesty relative to the local norm in Bangladesh.

The Offensiveness of Not Proselytizing

Christians often cower from evangelism because they believe that it may offend non-Christians, but they should also consider the fact that they may offend non-Christians by not evangelizing. (Of course, I am not speaking here of the intrusive, harassing variety of proselytization.)

The Christian non-profit organization, Fixed Point Foundation, recently concluded a nationwide survey to find out how and why college atheists abandoned their Christian faith. The findings are remarkable, and among the most surprising is the fact that young atheists were disillusioned by Christians who did not take their faith seriously enough to evangelize.

The study quotes Penn Jillette, an illusionist, comedian, and an outspoken atheist, who said:

I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward. … How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?

Jillette’s full vlog is worth seeing, as it is evident that he was quite taken by the Christian man who proselytized him after one of his shows:

As Christians, do we really believe that Jesus Christ is “the way … the truth, and the life,” and that “no one comes to the Father except through [him]” (Jn. 14:6)? If Christ is who he says he is, he can be anything but an afterthought.

Christian faith is not a matter of opinion, but of conviction. An opinion is your personal preference with which others are entitled to differ; a conviction is what you hold to be the truth for everyone regardless of their beliefs.

Too many Christians live as functional atheists who rarely stop to ponder their missional imperative. Let us heed these young atheist voices and consider the offensiveness of not proselytizing!

Not the Way It’s Supposed To Be

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Plantinga Jr., Cornelius. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.
BUY

One is hard-pressed to find a more polarizing and misunderstood word than “sin.” A slightest insinuation that something is a “sin” provokes angry accusations of intolerant moralism.

This indignance is indicative of the moral subjectivism among today’s regnant intellectuals. What is remarkable, however, is that “people who take a casual attitude toward, say, pornography, tax evasion, or mockery of religion can at the same time show a fierce (even legalist) opposition to sexism, racism, self-righteousness, and air pollution” (103).

But how can an attitude that seems “right” to one person (e.g. a racist or sexist) be called “wrong” by another person in the absence of objective moral standards? Even the most avant garde subjectivists draw the line somewhere.

Defining “sin”
In short, we are profoundly confused about “sin,” and this is what Cornelius Plantinga Jr. sets out to correct with his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be. As the subtitle of the book indicates, this is “a breviary,” or a brief summary, of “sin,” but it would be a mistake to think that this relative brevity (202 pages) implies a shallow treatment.

Plantinga begins by defining sin as “any act [or disposition]–any thought, desire, emotion, word, or deed–or its particular absence, that displeases God and deserves blame” (13). Yet divine displeasure is not arbitrary, for God hates sin because it violates shalom, which refers to “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight,” or simply, “the way things ought to be” (10).

What sin is not…
This definition, of course, is offhandedly dismissed by a culture that does not recognize vertical accountability to God. In such a culture, morality is merely a function of horizontal accountability to fellow humans.

Thus, immorality merely designates a breech of conventional behaviors, attitudes, rights, and obligations concerning other persons. Each ethical and legal system determines for itself who decides right and wrong and what is the law that ought to be obeyed.

For this reason, Plantinga distinguishes sin from immorality, which is culturally relative. Similarly, he distinguishes sin from crime, since crime is statute-relative while sin is not. Many sins, including unbelief, pride, and sloth, are perfectly legal.

There is, nevertheless, a subjective dimension to sin, but it is subjective with regard to one’s faith, not with regard to one’s environment. Even an objectively innocent act can be subjectively sinful if the agent thinks that it is objectively sinful and does it anyway, for that is a willful violation of the perceived will of God. “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).

Scottish minister Oswald Chambers once said that “the holiest person is … one who is most conscious of what sin is.” In Chapters 2-10, Plantinga canvasses the Biblical and historical Christian witness to describe sin in its various complexions as disorder, contagion, parasite, masquerade, folly, addiction, attack, and flight:

Sin as Disorder (Ch 2)
In the beginning, the universe is a “formless void” (Gen. 1:2), but at creation, God forms and fills. In the first three days, he forms kingdoms, separating light from darkness, sea from sky, and water from land, respectively.

Then, in the latter three days, he fills these kingdoms with kings, creating the sun, moon, and stars, the fish and birds, and the land creatures, respectively. At the end of the six days, as the crown jewel of his creation, God creates man and woman as perfect complements, together to rule over all creation under God’s sovereign lordship.

In light of God’s creative ordering of the universe, sin is an act of uncreation that subverts this divine order and transgresses boundaries. So in the Fall, man infringes upon God’s authority, woman upon man’s, and the serpent upon the woman’s (Gen. 3).

Consequently, the Fall culminates in the Flood, where the creational distinctions are blurred as sky falls upon sea and the waters cover the earth (Gen. 7) (30). If sin is a violation of God’s creational design, holiness, then, “is the wholeness of resources, motive, purpose, and character typical of someone who fits snugly into God’s broad design for shalom” (34).

Sin as Contagion (Ch 3-4)
Leviticus 19 describes both ceremonial uncleanness and moral decay as instances of contamination. Sin is a contagion, a pollutant, that defiles that which is pure. It contaminates a marriage by introducing a third lover. It contaminates worship by introducing an idol (45-46). A “pure” heart, then, is an unadulterated, undivided one (Ps. 24:4).

As a contagion, sin spreads “like the drought that prompts a maple tree to announce its distress by producing hundreds of emergency seed pods, or like a man with AIDS who infects and impregnates a woman, so sin tends both to kill and to reproduce” (54). Parental dysfunction, racism, as well as drug addiction are often passed on from generation to generation.

So, then, sin begets sin. It has a corporate, intergenerational dimension. This fact, however, does not exclude human culpability. The context of sin must not be confused with its cause (64). While “involuntariness may mitigate… it doesn’t necessarily excuse” (22).

An environmental determinism is untenable because it can never conclusively rule out human agency. To not hold people responsible for their sins is to dehumanize them, because those whom we regard as helpless, whether due to immaturity, insanity, addiction, etc., we do not treat as fully human (67).

Sin as Parasite (Ch 5)
Sin also functions more specifically as a parasite, which drains vitality from its host. Like a virus, sin subverts good gifts toward evil ends. So “the same gift that enables a scientist to conquer a disease also enables her to manufacture one and to sell it to terrorists. Using the same thoughtful expressions of praise and caring, a man may inspire a woman he wants to marry or seduce one he wants to conquer” (77).

As C.S. Lewis says, “Goodness is, so to speak, itself; badness is only spoiled goodness” (Mere Christianity, p. 49). Sin is attractive only insofar as it imitates good. “Nothing about sin is its own; all its power, persistence, and plausibility are stolen goods. … Good is original, independent, and constructive; evil is derivative, dependent, and destructive” (89).

For example, anger comes in two forms: 1) “righteous indignation, a virtue of the just” or 2) “smoldering resentment of competitors, the vice of the envious.” Likewise, pride comes in two forms: 1) “proper satisfaction in the achievement of excellence, the virtue of the diligent” or 2) “inordinate self-congratulation, the vice of the pompous” (81).

Some counter that our lives would be drab without sin. Ian Fleming, for one, argues that “the depiction of… sins and their consequences [has] been the yeast in most great fiction and drama” (“Introduction,” The Seven Deadly Sins, p. x), but this is only half true. As Plantinga notes:

Daring thieves, dashing rogues, renegade police detectives, disobedient angels, charming psychopaths–these figures attract us because they are bold, urbane, witty, energetic, or imaginative. … Their sin interests us because it leeches the color, wit, and energy out of normal life and presents these things to us in a novel, risky, and therefore dramatic form (94).

Sin as Masquerade (Ch 6)
Similarly, vice also frequently masquerades as virtue–intemperance as liberty, subversion of relational order as equality, “lust as love, thinly veiled sadism as military discipline, envy as righteous indignation, domestic tyranny as parental concern” (98). Even Satan must masquerade “as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:13) for credibility.

“Self-deception, like a skillful computer fraud, doubles back to cover its own trail” (107). As Lewis Smedes observes, “First we deceive ourselves, and then we convince ourselves that we are not deceiving ourselves” (A Pretty Good Person, p. 74). This is the nature of sin.

Sin as Folly (Ch 7)
Sin is not only wrong, it is also foolish, because it is ultimately futile. The Bible often refers to sin as folly, contrasted with the wisdom of staying within God’s order (Prov. 9). Sin involves missing the mark and straying from the path that God intends for us.

It is fascinating, then, that even “people who prefer not to judge or confess sin nonetheless concede that some objectionable act was stupid, tragic, shortsighted, mistaken, unfortunate, miscalculated, erring, regrettable, or out of line” (114) They recognize that something was amiss.

For example, public figures embroiled in a scandal often confess to a “lapse in judgment” or “inappropriate behavior.” As Plantinga observes, this is a cowardly and ridiculous euphemism, but it is nonetheless an important admission. Though they might not concede that they are sinners, they are in effect conceding that they have been fools (114).

Sin as Addiction (Ch 8)
Sin also functions like an addiction on many levels. Its desire is to master us (Gen. 4:7), so it tends to become progressively obsessive (can’t stop thinking about it), impulsive (do it without thinking), and compulsive (can’t help but do it). It refuses to be contained, works itself into the habits of the hearts, and burrows itself under self-deception (147).

Sin as Attack and Flight (Ch 9-10)
Finally, sin takes the form of an attack against God and a flight from God. As Henry Stob argues, hell is depicted in the Scripture as either very hot or very cold. As Jesus taught, it is “the outer darkness” (Mt. 25:30) and “the eternal fire” (Mt. 25:41). That is because:

Hell is made by those who climb the holy mountain and try to unseat the Holy One who, ablaze with glory, dwells in the light unapproachable. Those who mount an attack on God and cross the barrier of this exclusive divinity die like moths in the flame of him who will not and cannot be displaced. And hell is made by those who, turning their backs on God, flee the light and move toward the eternal blackness that marks God’s absence. Hell, then, is unarrested sin’s natural and programmatic end. Sin is either rebellion or flight, and, when persisted in, leads either to the fiery furnace or to the cold and desolate night. (Henry Stob, “Sin, Salvation, Service,” p. 16)

Plantinga’s account of the various ways in which people flee from God is particularly illuminating. We do so by conforming to, conniving with, and condoning evil, and by compartmentalizing our lives and cocooning into our little worlds where we are oblivious to the needs of our neighbors (182-189).

For this reason, perhaps the most dangerous kind of sin is not the grave offense that alarms all, but the seeming trifle that escapes our detection. As C.S. Lewis wisely notes, “Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (The Screwtape Letters, p. 56).

To illustrate, the premium value we place on entertainment in the U.S. suggests that “it has become a diversion not only in the sense of a playful relief from the main business of life but also in the sense of a distraction from it, an evasion of it, a sometimes grim, big-business alternative to it” (190).

Human Sin and Divine Grace (Epilogue)
Thankfully, sin is not the end of the story. As Plantinga writes, “Human sin is stubborn, but not as stubborn as the grace of God and not half so persistent, not half so ready to suffer to win its way” (199).

To speak of sin without grace is incomplete, but to speak of grace without sin is imprudent, for to do so is “to trivialize the cross of Jesus Christ…[and] cheapen the grace of God that always comes to us with blood on it” (199).

This is the express purpose of Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: to remind the church that “to ignore, euphemize, or otherwise mute the lethal reality of sin is to cut the nerve of the gospel. For the sober truth is that without full disclosure on sin, the gospel of grace becomes impertinent, unnecessary, and finally uninteresting” (199).

By leveraging his perceptive insight into culture, Plantinga delivers a compelling exposé of sin. The fluidity of his writing belies the compelling force of his words. His description of the cogency, simplicity, and beauty of divine shalom and the chicanery, vapidity, and depravity of sin inspires deep wonder for God and compassion for the world.

In my estimation, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be is the most penetrating foray into the doctrine of sin since C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. 

Buy Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be HERE.

Random Access Memories

Random Access Memories, Daft Punk, Daft Life/Columbia, 2013.

Buy CD

After a 7-year hiatus from releasing a studio album, the French duo, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, released their fourth studio album, Random Access Memories, today.

In an interview about the album on NPR’s program “All Things Considered,” Bangalter lamented that electronic music nowadays, produced primarily from laptops, is forgetting the craft of the previous generation of electronic music producers who had to build their own “creative ecosystem” using hardware components of guitar pedals, synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines.

In order to recapture this lost art and restore the soul of the musician to electronic music, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo refrained from using computers as musical instruments, and instead used them merely “to handle assets and pieces of audio…to edit the music and put it together.” Without relying on samples and sound banks, they opted for real guitars, analog synthesizers, pianos, trombones, clarinets, basses, a live drum kit, an orchestra, and a choir, etc. to capture the magic of human performance and expression.

Right from the first track, the layers of funky rhythm guitar and jazzy electric riffs played by the Chic frontman Nile Rodgers and Paul Jackson Jr. signal a deviation from the electronic dance music (EDM) that Daft Punk has come to be identified with. As the name of the song indicates, the whole album is this attempt to recover humanity in EDM and “Give Life Back to Music.”

Fittingly, then, Daft Punk returns to the past to pay tribute to “Giorgio by Moroder,” the legendary Italian producer, songwriter, and composer, to whom they are indebted for the “life” in their music. The song starts with Moroder’s autobiographical monologue about how he wanted to find the “sound of the future.” He soon realized that the synthesizer was the sound of the future, and then “put a click on the 24 track which was then synced to the Moog modular.”

Normally, a monologue in the beginning of any album would have been too heavy-handed, but Daft Punk intuitively knows when to shift gears on a track to keep it interesting. Right when one begins to wonder how much longer the talking would last (0:34), a relaxed, loping bass, groovy electric, and light drums enter to create a wonderfully understated backing track.

Just as Moroder starts talking about syncing the “click” to the Moog modular, the music fades out, leaving only the clicks of the modular synthesizer (1:33). Then, the end of Moroder’s monologue (1:54) ushers in a throbbing beat with perhaps the most compelling synth line in the whole album, as if to say, “See where we have gone with the sound of the future that you discovered!” At the end, the splendid synchronization of the drums with the successive bass (7:01-7:37) and electric (8:10-8:47) solos top off the epic track until it all dials back down to the “click” that started it all.

The album resumes the motif of robots longing to be human in the song “Touch.” The tender vulnerability of Paul Williams’s vocals, the trilling ondes martenot, the soaring orchestra, and the ethereal children’s choir weave together to convey this robotic longing for the human “Touch / Sweet touch / You’ve given me too much to feel… / You’ve almost convinced me I’m real. … / If love is the answer you’re home / Hold on.” In fact, the robot seems to perk up with life as the sprightly, jazzy piano sequence begins at 3:24.

Similarly, in the instrumental “Motherboard,” there seems to be an alien giving birth from 3:07 to 4:10 with the life-blood flowing and the heart pulsating. Continuing the theme of robots seeking humanity, the motherboard actually becomes a mother of sorts.

So what does it mean for a robot to become “human?” What does it mean to “give life back to music?” For Daft Punk, it’s all about love. The melancholic “The Game of Love” deals with the heartbreak of rejection, and “Get Lucky,” the anthemic single off the album, depicts a couple who stay “up all night ‘til the sun” to share their love.

The verse of the song adds that “What keeps the planet spinning / The force from the beginning [is] (love).” Once again, the most powerful and fundamental force in the world is love. “We’ve come too far to give up who we are.” Love is what makes us truly human.

“Get Lucky” features syncopated electric guitar sequences by Paul Jackson Jr. and Nile Rodgers that add polish to the luxuriant synth, and includes an arousing vocal performance by the N.E.R.D. frontman and The Neptunes producer Pharrell Williams. It is the most melodic track on the whole album and will likely continue to be played on repeat on many iPods throughout the summer.

The theme of dancing, playing music, making love into the night until the dawning of light are all recurring themes. “Doin’ It Right,” a collaborative output with Noah Lennox, aka. Panda Bear of Animal Collective, is a hypnotic song about dancing into the night, “If you do it right / Let it go all night / Shadows on you break / Out into the light… / If you lose your way tonight / That’s how you know the magic’s right.” “Lose Yourself to Dance” gets at the same idea.

The reason for Daft Punk’s preoccupation with losing oneself to dance, music, or love until night becomes day is that all these things push one to the edge of one’s existence and touch upon something transcendent. They remind us that our everyday mundane existence is not all there is. As the first line of “Get Lucky” says, “Like the legend of the Phoenix / All ends with beginnings.”

However, the transience of it all is not lost on Daft Punk. They understand that it’s not possible to linger in these moments of glory or hold onto the glimpses of eternity. The song “Fragments of Time” encapsulates this sense of futility, “Driving this road down to paradise / Letting the sunlight into my eyes… / Keep holding these random memories / Turning our days into melodies / But since I can’t stay… / I’ll just keep playing back / These fragments of time / Everywhere I go, this moment’ll shine.”

This is why the theme of memory is so significant. The album title, Random Access Memories, compares the computer RAM (Random Access Memory) to the human brain, but by changing the singular “memory,” which is technical and impersonal, to the plural “memories,” which has a distinctly human, sentimental feel, Daft Punk evokes a completely different emotional response.

In other words, Random Access Memories is about sehnsucht, a German word that connotes the universal “longing” for a “home” elsewhere, an ideal “far-off country.” It captures the unexplainable sense that this world is not all there is and that things are not the way they ought to be. It is not a chimera, however, it is more real than the reality we know. Walt Whitman articulates it well in the closing lines of his poem “Song to the Universal:”

Is it a dream?
Nay but the lack of it the dream,
And failing it life’s lore and wealth a dream
And all the world a dream.

This nostalgia, however, can never be fulfilled on earth. Human memories of love, beauty, and glory are ever elusive. They awaken a “spiritual homesickness,” which cannot be satisfied in this life. Even if we could travel back in time to these happy moments of the past, we would not find the thing itself, but only memories of it. As C.S. Lewis writes:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things–the beauty, the memory of our own past–are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. … [O]ur life-long nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. (Weight of Glory, p. 3-8)

That’s why the track “Beyond,” amidst the spacey orchestral backdrop, exhorts us to “Dream / Beyond dream / Beyond life / You will find / Your / Song / Before sound / To be found / Close your eyes / And / Rise / Higher still / Endless thrill / To the land of / Love / Beyond love / Come alive / Angel eye / Forever watching you and I… / To find our way we lose control / Remember love’s our only mission / This is a journey of the soul / The perfect song is framed with silence / It speaks of places never seen / Your home’s a promise long forgotten / It is the birthplace of your dreams.”

The hauntingly beautiful ballad, “Within”–courtesy of Chilly Gonzales’s solo piano, the shimmering keyboard and percussive work, and the lush, mournful vocoder–expresses this nostalgia perfectly: “There are so many things / That I don’t understand / There’s a world within me / That I cannot explain / Many rooms to explore / But the doors look the same / I am lost I can’t even remember my name / I’ve been for sometime / Looking for someone / I need to know now / Please tell me who I am.”

The final track on the album, “Contact” (6:21), is about making contact with “something out there.” The whole song is a crecendo, driven by racing synth loops and charged drums rolls. At 3:18, a low static hum begins to grows like a radio signal reaching for contact with the alien entity. The pitch elevates higher and higher until it comes to a feverish clash at 4:51, when the static changes to a low-pitch hum again with only the bass and the bass drum maintaining the base rhythm. The contact seems ever closer, but of course, when one seems to be on the verge of establishing communication with the alien party, the contact breaks off and the song ends. It’s a fitting end to this album about soul-searching and sehnsucht.

Apart from the couple songs that plod (“The Game of Love” and “Doin’ It Right”), every track on Random Access Memories contains indelible hooks and irresistible grooves. All in all, it is superbly mixed, with literally hundreds of musical units arranged seamlessly in a series of progressions and regressions and crescendos and decrescendoes that beckon again and again.

Daft Punk has brilliantly captured our human yearning for eternity. They are right that “to find a way we [must] lose control” (“Beyond”), but losing control in dance or music is not the goal. As Bach once said, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”

The truth is that we are alienated from God, our creator. We are exiles from our heavenly home. We were made for glory and immortality, yet we live in the squalor of sin and are subject to the tyranny of death. But on the cross, at the end of his life, Jesus Christ offers us new, eternal life. In Mark 8:35, Jesus teaches that “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” We must let go and take hold of his hand in faith.

In Random Access Memories, the robots of Daft Punk have found their souls. Here’s to hoping that their souls will find a home in God, the only place where we can find true rest.

Buy Random Access Memories HERE.

Part 5 of 5: Practical Tips for Improving Your Prayer Life

In 1 Samuel 12:23, Samuel says to the people of Israel, “far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you.” Prayerlessness is a sin. Yet so many of us struggle to pray. Why is that?

Why We Don’t Pray
The most often cited reason is busyness, but this is least likely. As Richard Foster writes, “Of course we are busy with work and family obligations, but that is only a smoke screen. Our busyness seldom keeps us from eating or sleeping or making love” (Prayer, p. 7). We’ll never have time for prayer. We must make time. So what are the real reasons?

  1. Underappreciation of the Gospel. A vibrant prayer life requires a robust appreciation of the gospel, because it’s the reality that we have Christ as our mediator that gives us the “confidence [to] draw near to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:14-16). A prayer life motivated by guilt is legalistic and lifeless; a prayer life motivated by the gospel is joyful and Spirit-empowered. The gospel fills us with love for God and his people, and this love inspires prayer.
  2. Unrealistic Expectations. Generally speaking, if you do not have a regular prayer life, you are not going to be able to simply will yourself into praying for an hour everyday. Such unrealistic expectations set you up for failure and discourage you from trying at all. Try 10 minutes first. Also, don’t feel like everything has to be “just right” for prayer. Your prayers do not have to be elegant poetry, your surrounding does not have to be completely still, you don’t even have to be in a good mood. Don’t wait until you feel like praying. Just pray as you are, from your heart. Complain and implore as Moses (Num. 11:11-12) and David did (Ps. 88:13-14; 137:9). God will work on your heart as you pray. Our attempts to get prayer “right” put us “on top” of the equation, but prayer is about yielding to God and “coming under.”
  3. Unbelief & Pride. Subconsciously, we don’t feel that we need God and lack confidence that prayer actually gets anything done. And since we have so many things to actually get done, prayer gets sidelined. But if we really believed that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12),” we would know that our strivings are futile unless guided and sustained by prayer.

How We Can Pray
In addition to addressing the fundamental issues above, there are tangible things we can do to improve our prayer lives:

  1. Develop Habits: Regularity is key. Using Richard Baxter’s lingo, we must find the “fittest time,” “fittest place,” and “fittest temper” for prayer (The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, Ch 13). Regularity reminds us that we are not in charge, God is. It could be three times a day at 9AM, 12PM, and 3PM as was the Jewish custom (Dan. 6:10; Acts 3:1), early morning (Mk. 1:35; Ps. 5:3), and/or late at night (Lk. 6:12). I’ve personally found that it works best to make prayer my first business of the day. Also, designate a personal sanctuary for prayer away from distractions (Mk. 1:35), whether it be a closet, an attic, a bathtub, a garden, or even a particular chair with noise-canceling headphones on. Your phone will ring and you will suddenly have the urge to do the chore that you had put off, but you must resolve to guard your sacred hour and space. Praying at a particular time and place is not opposed to praying without ceasing (1 Th 5:17). As John Dalrymple notes, “The truth is that we only learn to pray all the time everywhere after we have resolutely set about praying some of the time somewhere” (Simple Prayer, p. 47).
  2. Keep a List: Often, people simply don’t know what to pray for or quickly run out of things to pray about. Keeping a list of prayer requests can guide us and help us pray specifically. I use the application Pocket Prayer Pro on my phone to keep a list. A preliminary list from Scripture should include prayers for the lost (Rom. 10:1), our governing authorities (1 Tim. 2:2), the sick (Jas. 5:13-15), our enemies (Lk. 6:27-28), our Christian brothers and sisters (Eph. 6:18), and gospel laborers (Mt. 9:36-38; Col. 4:2-4). We can also use the Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer) as a model, or follow the popular A.C.T.S. outline (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication). Don’t feel obligated to run through a list everyday (that can be a drudgery), but use it to guide and prompt you while being attentive to the Spirit’s lead. There are also tremendous benefits to written, liturgical prayers like those contained in The Book of Common Prayer. The breadth of topics covered by liturgical prayers, their theological depth, and wonderful eloquence can cultivate reverence for God, instill a sense of continuity and community with the saints throughout history and across the world, and help us express yearnings that we may have been unable to articulate. It’s also a great practice to pray through sections of Scripture. The Psalter is a great place to start!
  3. Add Variety: Feel free to experiment with different modes of prayer. If you’re prone to get distracted, try writing down your prayers and/or praying out loud. Verbalizing your prayers can increase your concentration and add coherence to your prayers. If your prayers are an endless profusion of words, including a time of listening silence can add depth and intimacy to your prayers (Ecc. 5:1-7). Employ different postures that mirror your heart’s attitude. Scripture records praying prostrate with face to the floor (Mt. 26:39), while lifting up hands (1 Tim. 2:8), kneeling down (2 Ch. 6:13; Lk. 22:41; Acts 9:40; 20:36), standing (Mk. 11:25), and sitting (2 Sam. 7:18). Try lifting up your hands high in prayers of adoration, lying prostrate in prayers of confession and repentance, kneeling with your hands out and palms up in prayers of thanksgiving and supplication, and/or walking through your neighborhood in prayers of intercession for your neighbors. You can also pray in song accompanied by musical instruments (Ps. 72:20)!
  4. Find Accountability: Seek out those who are more experienced in prayer and ask them to pray with you regularly. I have found this to be very helpful in improving my prayer life!

What are some other practices that have enhanced your prayer life?

This is Part 5 of 5 posts in my series on prayer. See Part 4 of 5: Coping with Unanswered Prayer.
or Part 1 of 5: Does Prayer Change God? Or Does It Change Us?

Patriots’ Day Bombing and the City of Boston

Patriots’ Day 

Patriots’ Day is a widely-observed Massachusetts holiday that celebrates the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord (the first battles of the American Revolutionary War) on April 19, 1775. It is observed on the third Monday in April. The Boston Marathon, one of the best-known races in the world and the oldest annual marathon in the world, takes place on Patriots’ Day.

This past Monday, during the 117th Boston Marathon, two bombs were detonated by terrorists near the finish line, leading to 3 deaths and over 180 injuries. The home games of the Red Sox, Celtics, and the Bruins, all part of the Patriots’ Day festivities, were cancelled. Hanna and I were not in the city at the time, but we had over a dozen friends running the Boston Marathon (thankfully, all of them are safe).

This tragedy inspired many people to heroic acts. The police, firefighters, and EMT’s of Boston saved many through their prompt response. Some of the marathoners ran straight past the finish line toward Massachusetts General hospital to donate blood for the victims of the bombings. Many ordinary citizens were seen assisting the injured, and many more opened up their homes and offered rides to those who were stranded in Boston due to the incident.

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City of God & City of Man
As Christians in the Greater Boston area, how should we relate to and care for our city? Is it appropriate for Christians to be patriotic?

It is true that we belong to the City of God and not to the City of Man. We are exiles here on earth (Jas. 1:1; 1 Pt. 2:11). We lead lives that are, in many ways, countercultural. Our primary allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, not to the Kingdom of Man.

Resident Aliens
Nevertheless, we do not, as some extreme fundamentalists are wont to do, separate ourselves and label this tragedy as a just punishment for the moral decay of the city. Instead, as the Jewish exiles in Babylon were commanded, we are to “seek the welfare of the city where [God has] sent [us] into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare [we] will find [our] welfare” (Jer. 29:4-7).

We do not belong to this world, yet we have been sent into this world (Jn. 17:15-18). Serving our city is not only the loving, and therefore the right, thing to do; it’s also the strategic thing to do because it bolsters the credibility of our gospel witness in the city. In Boston’s welfare, we will find our welfare.

The short answer, then, is this: We should be the very best citizens of the city of Boston and do everything in our power to ensure the healing and flourishing of our city.

In addition to praying for our city, here’s a list of things that you can do to help.

Repent and Believe

The sermon I preached at King of Grace Church on April 14th, 2013.

“Repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ.” LISTEN

MARK 1:1-15

John the Baptist Prepares the Way

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The Baptism of Jesus

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

The Temptation of Jesus

12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

Jesus Begins His Ministry

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”