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April 20, 2006


Glenn, this is a vital issue and I think it connects to the state of a person's conversion. In my experience, I recall my extreme reluctance to witness to my identity as a Christian, and in fact to other aspects of who I am, during the time before my fall from grace and eventual retrieval via God's love. The nature of metanoia might be (I speculate, based on some reading) that it's a growth enterprise, full of falls and ascents. The power of witness is also odd in this respect: a person can be used by God as witness without knowing or trying, and that thought helps me as I struggle amid what you once termed the scrum of daily life. The person who helped with my retrieval, for instance, was in a state of confusion and yet her witness was by God's grace powerful enough to help me. So I pray that, despite my fear and confusion in witness at times, I can be used by grace, somehow.

I hope to read more about this in your next book, perhaps, and on this blog, if you have more thinking to share--


Thank you for your thoughtful reply. As you say, God in His magnificent grace can and does use us in our frailties and failings. That is a beautiful thing about Him, and your reminder draws me to thank and praise Him.

A question comes to mind as I think about your reply. I imagined us being able to converse in person and how the conversation *might* go. So in this comment I'm skipping ahead to a point in this imagined conversation. I'm not asking the following questions as though you don't believe in these things, but rather wanting to dialogue about them. Also, because I'm about to ask several questions in a row, it will probably *feel* like staccato bursts of interrogation. I don't mean it that way..merely a list of questions I'd like to discuss with you in an easy, unfolding conversation.

The Q's:

What do you make of the ethical imperatives of the gospel?
What do you make of biblical shoulds and oughts? What is the place of laying out imperatives?
What is the place for church discipline?
What is the place for criticism?

Having put the questions, may I also hasten to say: grace, grace, we all need grace every moment. I fail every moment and have no stand except the Cross and Jesus' righteousness. I'm committed to heralding the merciful message that God loves us because of Jesus, if we'll come to Him.

But none of that stands opposed, in my mind, to what I'm getting at with those questions. And, again, those questions arise from my IMAGINED conversation with you, well down the road of the conversation. I'm just skipping ahead. :)

Glenn, you have hit the nail on the head. I think we need a book on this. I believe it is the #1 problem with the church today. We are wimps. Me first of all. How many times have I sat with Christians in public, and when we say "Jesus" our voices drop to a whisper in contrast to our previous loud tones. We don't want that stigma. I believe this to be my number one problem spiritually. It is total fear of man. Truth be told, if we do stand up we *will* suffer. Lord have mercy on me and help me.

On a tangential note, regarding being one person:

Do you think that emphasizing or emphasizing certain things we believe in front of one group as opposed to another is wrong?

Here's an example. If you and I were talking, I'd have no problem speaking with the assumption that for an unmarried couple to live together is a sin. However, when speaking with guys who live with their girlfriends, I'm strongly disinclined to refer to the practice as sinful. If asked point blank, I'd say where I stand. And I assume people who know me know where I stand, but I'd say I deemphasize this conviction in front of such people. I could think multiple other examples, where I don't deny anything I believe, but rather emphasize of deemphasize a certain belief to look better in context. I try to catch myself doing it, but sometimes it seems so second-nature.

Typo; I meant to ask: "Do you think that emphasizing or deemphasizing certain things we believe in front of one group as opposed to another is wrong?"

I sometimes have trouble deciphering when it's sensible to avoid seemingly unbeneficial benefit awkwardness vs. when it is cowardly to avoid speaking the truth. I recognize my question is outside the scope of Glenn's post, as it is completely unrelated to academics. So perhaps it's a question better suited in response to a later post.

I think these are matters of wisdom and discernment regarding what is appropriate in particular situations. To put this in an absurd light, it would be crazy to think that we'd be obligated (or physically able in time) to express all truth that we believe at each moment.

In answer to your question about emphasizing vs. de-emphaszing, I would say, "Not necessariy wrong and many times such a decision is wise. Likewise, one can make such a decision for poor reasons. It depends."

A similar wisdom/discernment matter-- to what degree should we privilege "relationship" with others in matters of us either eliding our following of Jesus when asked or in speaking up on our own initiative? It depends. In some circumstances, it is wise to go the extra mile, to defer, to endure, to love through a lot of crap, to refuse to foreclose on the conversation.

At other times, if Jesus is an acceptable model, we say tough, truthful things though we say them in love. It's Law and Gospel, not Gospel only or Law only.

Glenn, wish we could have that conversation in person--the give-and-take is much easier verbally than in the blogosphere. However, for now I'll try to respond to your questions, in the interest of blog dialogue.
1. What do you make of the ethical imperatives of the gospel? My response is that I see those ethical imperatives as essential guidelines for my Christian practice, spoken by Jesus, and possible for me to attain and live by, if I ask the spirit's help. You used the phrase "what do you make" and I wonder what else you meant by that--did I answer your question?

2. What do you make of biblical shoulds and oughts? What is the place of laying out imperatives? My response: sometimes in the Bible there are commandments of different kinds (is that what you meant by shoulds and oughts?)--and I think that some of those commandments were given for specific times, as detailed culturally specific interpretations of spiritual laws. In Leviticus, commandments are provided for planting and handling hides and having slaves; if modern equivalents were given, they might be about driving in traffic and working with colleagues and so forth. It seems to me that some or all of those culturally-specific commandments are subject to change over time in terms of their specific details, while spiritual laws remain unchanging, reiterated throughout scripture, and followed by Christians nowadays also. So, as a result, I try to discern what I ought to do in following God and scripture, and this takes alot of thought and prayer. I also think that I have to refrain from telling my neighbors and fellow-believers what they should and ought to do. If I think someone needs to hear that they are doing something hurtful, I have to give my response lots of prayer and thought. When does a rebuke become a negative witness? when can I help with my words, and when can I help by example?

3. What is the place for church discipline?
My response: this is one of the most difficult questions vexing Christians, I think. Paul wrote so much about this, so we know the problem isn't new. Sometimes the church's response seems obvious: if a minister or staffperson or congregation member is (for example) stealing from the collection plate, committing adultery, speaking meanspiritedly, lying, or otherwise hurting the church, it is obvious that action (reproof, and maybe other kinds of discipline) needs to be taken. But what about the grey areas? What are they, and how do Christians constructively cope? This calls for prayerful thought. And, what if I belong to one church and you belong to another, and one of us does something that the other deems wrong or hurtful? What is our responsibility to one another? what is the charitable response?

4. What is the place for criticism? My response: I look to Jesus' words and the epistles for guidance in thinking about how I should criticise, and about what kind of criticism I find profitable when someone is addressing me. What can people hear? what makes hearers stop listening? how to be gentle yet honest? When to be blunt? I don't have easy answers for this. Often, when a critic speaks out, people will respond with What right have you to judge me? and then they stop listening, so dialogue ends. This might make the critic feel a visceral satisfaction, but was that their purpose? Deft criticism is clearly a rare art, or craft.

What are your answers to these questions, Glenn?


This passage just came to mind…

1 Corinthians 9:19-23
"Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings."

Though I think I understand the fine line between altering myself in order to win someone over and relinquishing my integrity in order to fit in, this passage continues to make me wonder. These grad students you speak of seem to have caved in when they entered the university setting; are there some of us, though, who are conversely too strong willed? Those of us who drive others away because we don't have the ability to bend and gain the trust of those outside our friend group? I know that Paul was doing this "for the sake of the gospel," but what a challenge to honestly and authentically imitate! How are we to blend in enough to win over and “save some” but not so much as to give up our “set apart-ness” in Christ? I am constantly challenged by this tension.

One thought on criticism: I heard a Christian marriage psychologist say once that you should you use the 5:1 rule when criticizing others. He says that for every 5 positive statements a person hears from his or her partner, the person can accept 1 critical statement with grace – this is apparently the compliment to complaint ratio needed to maintain a level of trust and security in a healthy relationship. I know this is not a biblical concept, but it gets to the heart of correction in a church. It establishes relationship before to discipline. I think love is taking time to know someone as completely as possible and to care for them more than they may even care about themselves. Only love and care can produce fruitful correction and criticism. And Vicky, I agree - deft criticism that moves me to see my own fault is amazingly effective!

You were generous with your time in giving a long (for the blog realm) and thoughtful response. Thank you. And I agree that this would be far better in person!

I like your answers a lot. I see deference to the Lord and His Word, sensitivity and love for His creatures- redeemed or not-, and a commitment to seeking His wisdom through Word, prayer and reflection.

You ask me to address the same questions, which I need to do having asked them of you.

I see the gospel's ethical imperatives bound up in submission to the King, and they are for our good and His glory. When we fail to keep the ethical imperatives of the gospel, we don't lose His love and acceptance. This cannot be heralded enough to lost and found.

However, when we fail to keep the imperatives we incur in our beings the opposite of our good and we give the glory that is due Him to a false god instead. I don't know of contemporary vocabulary that describes this state of affairs well. An older word seems to describe this better- wicked.

I love the Reformed tradition's commitment to press with unmitigated force both the Law and the Gospel. I want to think my ethical failings are trivial because I've done so many wicked things so many, many times and yet survive. I often mistake God's kindness in the face of my cherished whoring for indifference. When the Gospel only is heralded, without due heralding of the Law, sometimes I think my wicked commissions and omissions are mere peccadillos. I take that undiminished acceptance and love from God and treat it shabbily as what is due me.

The heralding of the Law reminds me that I am a creature, not the Creator; that I am wicked and not righteous, not even okay, on my own; and that my many miseries are the fruit of careful, skilled cultivation of evil abiding in me (Romans 7:17). The confrontation with the Law breaks me, sometimes in a sigh, an "Oh yeah...time to repent" and other times in tears and aching remorse.

You know the cycle-- the brokenness drives me again to Jesus, to confess and repent, to be nourished by the means of grace, to receive grace that seemingly brings physical, emotional, and cognitive healing. I find joy when I approach the Throne boldly and leave a bizarre mix of abased joy.

Of course the Law can be articulated in grotesque ways, as happens with vitriolic criticism, with truth spoken divested of love. I think we want to be merciful and patient with sinners, even as He is merciful and patient with us, but we also don't want to coddle sin as He does not coddle sin.

You are correct about being wise and sensitive about how we criticize and we should give attention to communicating in such as will most likely be heard and received by the person.


But this is not absolute. We dare not think we are the Holy Spirit and that our wisest, gentlest, most loving words and understanding will do the work for the Spirit. There are times, probably infrequent, when speaking the truth in love though we know it won't be received is what we should do because bearing witness to the holiness of God requires it. I've not done this much, and I've not had it done to me much (though some). In some of these instances, much later a guy has returned saying, "I could never get your words out of my head. God used that." The few others...perhaps I did damage or maybe not..I just don't know.

Back to you. If we were in person I'd be overdue to close my mouth and listen to you respond.

Nice long conversation on this one, Glenn. It's obviously a topic that resonates. I think the 'post-evangelical' terminology arises out of a desire to dissassociate from the Falwell brand of 'evangelical'. Evangelicals in the UK are leading intellectuals (Stott, McGrath, etc). What the media in the US calls 'evangelicals' are the anti-intellectuals who demand subscription to a set of principles. There needs to be room for the evangelical intellectual, ready to struggle with the mysteries and engage the difficult issues of the day with sincere interest while not leaving the historical/orthodox faith behind. I am happy to be called an 'evangelical' in any setting. Nevertheless I feel blue when I see TV heads presenting Falwell's theory of direct divine punishment as the evangelical explanation for Hurricane Katrina!

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