The Fire of Jesus and Patience of Paul

Apr 27, 2015 | Trevin Wax

st-markOne of the most tired ideas that persists in popular Christian circles (and, unfortunately, in more than a few scholarly works) is that Paul and Jesus were at odds. Paul corrupted the simple, uniting message of Jesus’ love by enforcing rigid dogma that divides.

According to this line of thinking, Paul distorted Jesus’ inclusive and tolerant message of acceptance by taking the hard line against sin and mixing in warnings against wrath, judgment, and hell. Within a generation, the gentle parables of Jesus gave way to the hellfire sermonizing of Paul. Now, this is most certainly a caricature of the Bible’s witness, which is why I’m especially surprised when it comes from ”red letter Christians.” Frankly, I expect them to know better, especially if they’re truly familiar with the red letters.

If you were to pick someone in the New Testament who most resembles a ”hellfire and brimstone” preacher, it would probably be John the Baptist, the prophet who baptized Jesus, and about whom Jesus said no one greater had been born. We like to caricature offensive evangelists as if they are weirdos holding up signs saying, “Turn or burn!” But the testimony we receive about John isn’t far from that. His words are pointed; his call to repentance is clear; his clothing is strange. The way John prepared the way for the Lord was by denouncing all kinds of sin: personal, social, and sexual. He called out the immorality of the king and lost his head for it.

Aside from John, Jesus best fits the description of a “hellfire and brimstone” preacher, even more than Paul. Just read the New Testament and you’ll often find the red letters to be more fiery than the letters of Paul.

It’s Jesus who promised to send out His angels to exclude from His kingdom everything that causes sin, throwing them into “the blazing furnace” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:41-42). It’s Paul who assured his congregation that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers… nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Rom. 8:38-39).

It’s Jesus who said the prerequisite for being His disciple is to “hate” one’s own “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters” before adding “even his own life” (Luke 14:26). It’s Paul who gave us the marvelous description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 (patient, kind, does not envy or boast, etc.), a passage often read at weddings all over the world.

It’s Jesus who so opposed sexual lust that he called for radical measures: cutting off one’s hand or gouging out one’s eye is better than going to the “unquenchable fire of hell.” It’s Paul who spoke of our duty to “owe no one anything, except to love each other.”

Jesus ramped up the demands of the law in His Sermon on the Mount: on vengeance, on vows, on sexuality, on marriage. Paul said “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

Sometimes I hear people talking about Jesus’ compassion for the weak and His outreach to the marginalized in order to justify a watered-down inclusiveness that has little to do with repentance and faith. But this vision of ministry doesn’t make sense of the red letters either. Yes, we see Jesus reaching out to the prostitutes and tax collectors. But we also see Jesus publicly denouncing and excluding entire towns and villages where His message was not received with repentance and faith. Meanwhile, Paul — much more than Jesus — emphasizes the unity of Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free in Jesus Christ.

Now, it would be foolish of me to criticize people for pitting the loving Jesus against the rigid Paul by doing the same thing, only the other way around. My point is: we shouldn’t pit Jesus against Paul, period. Instead, the closer we study the Scriptures the more we see a unity between Jesus and Paul, in that both are all about Jesus and His messiahship. This is why we find amazing expressions of God’s love and mercy in both the Gospels and Paul’s letters. It’s why we also find scary warnings of judgment and wrath poured out on all who will not repent of sin and trust in the good news of God’s kingdom, a kingdom so beautifully displayed as Christ became our substitute on the cross.

The love of God is fiercer than what the “I’m with Jesus, not Paul” people describe. It’s a holy love, as beautiful and consuming as a raging fire.

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Worth a Look 4.27.15

Apr 27, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Worth4Kindle Deal of the Day: The Wonder-Working God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Miracles by Jared Wilson. $2.99.

From the humble wonder of the incarnation to the blinding glory of the transfiguration, this book shows how Jesus’s miracles reveal his divinity, authority, and ultimate mission: restoring us and this world to a right relationship with God.

A good reflection from Wesley Parker on the Samaritan woman, Jairus, and Jesus’ command to “just believe:”

We see Jesus pursuing people in their doubts, and expecting them to trust Him even in the face of impossibility. But He’s not doing that to build up His ego or His street cred. He’s doing it to build the faith of all who come to Him.  He’s demonstrating again and again, that He is a Foundation that we can trust in and lean all our weight into, even when what He’s offering seems impossible for anyone to achieve.

Jonathan Merritt, reporting from the Q Conference in Boston and the ongoing debate over sexuality:

The conversations at Q—both on stage and off—did not mirror the raging debates common on cable news networks, but they more closely resemble the national conversation as it occurs in many homes, workplaces, and churches. And in this way, it may be a model for other Christian organizations who are seeking to engage same-sex debates.

What happens when a Baptist reviews a book by an Eastern Orthodox man writing about a medieval Catholic poet? It looks like Alan Cross reviewing Rod Dreher’s book on Dante:

There is so much in Western literature, art, and tradition that speaks to the existence and glory of God. Part of speaking to this culture, I think, is digging down into the depths of history and recovering both the good and the bad and showing how God spoke to us in the past so we can hear Him again today. Diving into Dante might be a way to do that for those who think that they are not interested in what the Bible has to say about the meaning of life. As Dante ascends, we just might find ourselves ascending with him.

Here is a lengthy and informative medical assessment of gender reassignment surgery. My heart breaks over this.

May God honor our efforts to think biblically and critically about the issue of gender reassignment surgery. May he give us gospel-fueled grace to love the trans community in the name of Christ. And may he glorify himself by saving many in Christ who are now pursuing salvation in the flesh.

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Invigorate My Love

Apr 26, 2015 | Trevin Wax

7_2_pillar_fireLord of the cloud and fire,
I am a stranger, with a stranger’s indifference;
My hands hold a pilgrim’s staff,
My march is Zionward,
My eyes are toward the coming of the Lord,
My heart is in Your hands without reserve.
You have created it,
redeemed it,
renewed it,
captured it,
conquered it.
I love You with soul, mind, body, strength,
might, spirit, affection, will,
desire, intellect, understanding.
Invigorate my love that it may rise worthily to You,
tightly entwine itself around You,
be allured by You.
Then shall my walk be endless praise.

- a Puritan Prayer

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Thank God for Life, and Ask for More

Apr 25, 2015 | Trevin Wax


One of my favorite quotes from N. D. Wilson:

How many cars have you ever passed on the road? How many headlights have snapped by you going the opposite direction? Millions.

How many potential fatalities exist on every drive that you have ever taken? Hundreds (even on the short ones).

  • We paint a line (sometimes) and agree to stay on opposite sides as we hurtle along in tons of metal flung by explosions.
  • We fly through the sky strapped to turbines screaming with power and expect to coast down safely on the air.
  • We live on a ball of molten rock hurtling through outer space, invisibly leashed to a massive orb of flame. It is steered by Whom?

How many super-volcanoes have wiped us all out? None.

How many earthquakes have killed us all? I’m still here. You? How many could have?

As the earth screams through space, balanced exactly on the edge of everyone burning alive and everyone freezing solid, as we shriek through deadly obstacle courses of meteor showers and find them picturesque, as the nearest fiery star vomits eruptions hundreds of times bigger that our wee planet (giving chipper local weathermen northern lights to chatter about), as a giant reflective rock glides around us slopping the seas (and never falls down), and as we ride in our machines, darting past fools and drunks and texting teenagers, how many times do we thank God?

We are always in His hands, but we often feel like we are in our own. We can’t thank Him for every breath and every heartbeat, but we can thank Him every day for not splatting us with the moon or letting us drop into the sun.

When a drunk crushes some family, some mother, some friend; when a story ends, then we wake up. Then we turn to God with confused expressions, wanting to know why He was sleeping in the boat. He brought us here from nothing; is He ever allowed to take us to an exit? His own Son died young; do you think He doesn’t understand?

Moses didn’t see the Promised Land.

Samson died blind in the rubble.

Stephen beneath stones.

Paul without a head.

Peter upside down.

In a bed or on the battlefield or on asphalt in shattered glass beneath a flashing light, we are God’s stories to end.

How many drunks has He spared you from? Thank Him before you ask to be spared from another.

How many breaths have you drawn? How many winter winds have tightened your skin? How many Christmases have you seen? How many times has the sky swirled glory above your head like a benediction?

See it. Hear Him. Thank Him. Ask for more. Search for moments in your story for which you can be grateful.

Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent

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A Preview of the Free “Gospel. Life. Ministry” Conference on May 11

Apr 24, 2015 | Trevin Wax

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Why You Should (Literally) Look at the World Upside Down

Apr 23, 2015 | Trevin Wax


It’s a figure of speech to look at things “upside down” in order to get some perspective. But what if there’s more here than just a clever turn of phrase? What if we can’t actually see our world in proper perspective unless we’ve seen it upside down?

Assisi Upside Down

This is precisely the point that G. K. Chesterton makes in his biography of Francis of Assisi. Seeing the world upside down means seeing its utter dependence on God, and with that sense of dependence comes a greater love for this world because of the adventure of its own existence. He writes:

If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence. There is a Latin and literal connection; for the very word dependence only means hanging. It would make vivid the Scriptural text which says that God has hanged the world upon nothing.

If St. Francis saw in one of his strange dreams, the town of Assisi upside down, it need not have differed in a single detail from itself except in being entirely the other way round. But the point is this: that whereas to the normal eye the large masonry of its walls or the massive foundations of its watchtowers and its high citadel would make it seem safer and more permanent, the moment it was turned over the very same weight would make it seem more helpless and more in peril. It is but a symbol; but it happens to fit the psychological fact.

St. Francis might love his little town as much as before, or more than before; but the nature of the love would be altered even in being increased. He might see and love every tile on the steep roofs or every bird on the battlements; but he would see them all in a new and divine light of eternal danger and dependence. Instead of being merely proud of his strong city because it could not be moved, he would be thankful to God Almighty that it had not been dropped; he would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars. Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head-downwards.

Gratitude and Dependence

What happens when our love for God and the world increases in proportion to our realization of utter dependence on God? We are filled with gratitude. Chesterton goes on:

It is commonly in a somewhat cynical sense that men have said, “Blessed is he that expects nothing, for he shall not be disappointed”. It was in a wholly happy and enthusiastic sense that St. Francis said. “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall enjoy everything”.

It was by this deliberate idea of starting from zero, from the dark nothingness of his own deserts, that he did come to enjoy even earthly things as few people have enjoyed them; and they are in themselves the best working example of the idea. For there is no way in which a man can earn a star or deserve a sunset. But there is more than this involved, and more indeed than is easily to be expressed in words. It is not only true that the less a man thinks of himself, the more he thinks of his good luck and of all the gifts of God. It is also true that he sees more of the things themselves when he sees more of their origin; for their origin is a part of them and indeed the most important part of them.

The Truth about Our World

Seeing the world upside down is not a trick. It is not an illusion or the result of an overactive imagination. Recognizing the world’s awesomeness and fragility — this grandeur held together by the breath of the Creator — is seeing reality. Ordinariness is the delusion of self-sufficiency; when we look at the world upside down, we actually see it right side up.

That we all depend in every detail, at every instant, as a Christian would say upon God, as even an agnostic would say upon existence and the nature of things, is not an illusion of imagination; on the contrary, it is the fundamental fact which we cover up, as with curtains, with the illusion of ordinary life. That ordinary life is an admirable thing in itself, just as imagination is an admirable thing in itself. But it is much more the ordinary life that is made of imagination than the contemplative life. He who has seen the whole world hanging on a hair of the mercy of God has seen the truth; we might almost say the cold truth. He who has seen the vision of his city upside-down has seen it the right way up.

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Worth a Look 4.23.15

Apr 23, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Worth a Look MagnifyingKindle Deal of the Day: The Pastor’s Family: Shepherding Your Family through the Challenges of Pastoral Ministry$3.99.

Pastoral ministry is more challenging than ever with unique, complicated burdens and expectations some have not experienced in previous generations. Because of this, the number of pastors who start with a great zeal for the work, quickly crash and burn and are left with a battered faith and family. This book seeks to identify those unique challenges, diagnose the problem, propose a biblical solution, and then guide the pastor and his family to embrace these challenges while shepherding the family through them.

Oliver O’Donovan challenges the tendency of people to lament the decadence of our times as if the trajectory of history is always one of decline:

If on looking back we fail to see the order and history of the world presented to us normatively, we shall fall into a historicist despair of world-time. “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Eccles. 7:10).

Good reflection from S. D. Kelly on hoarders, possessions, and the appeal of minimalism:

In this sense — and much to my relief — living in a tiny house isn’t even an option. Not for me, not for any of us. Because when we are actually in the world, when we fully inhabit it, we have the run of the whole place — the material goodness of the entire world belongs to us. And this remains true, whether or not we own a single thing.

As one who devoured multiple Choose Your Own Adventure Books in the 1990’s, I found this article about the author’s spiritual and religious vision to be fascinating:

As he described the mission of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, they brought readers face to face with their own choices. “Implicit in the choice is an ethical or moral approach or decision,” Montgomery said. “But that’s never spelled out and it’s never told. Whatever you decide is what you decide.”

This is a lengthy analysis in The Atlantic by Ross Douthat of Pope Francis and how conservatives and progressives view him. Will Pope Francis Break the Church?

The new pope’s choices stir high hopes among liberal Catholics and intense uncertainty among conservatives. Deep divisions may lie ahead.

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4 Things I Learned at Dinner with Church Leaders from Denmark

Apr 22, 2015 | Trevin Wax

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASomething is rotten in the state of Denmark, Shakespeare wrote. But nothing was rotten about my delightful dinner with nine church leaders from this Scandinavian country in northern Europe.

One of the highlights of attending The Gospel Coalition national conference was enjoying a couple hours with nine Danish brothers. Over the course of our meal, they peppered me with questions, and then I returned the favor, anxious to learn about how evangelicals are witnessing to the gospel in a country that is much further down the road of secularization than the United States.

Here are a few takeaways from our conversation.

1. Internet access has increased the influence of American evangelicalism in the rest of the world.

Our initial conversation wasn’t about philosophical and sociological trends affecting the church in Western Europe or North America. Instead, these leaders had questions about recent developments within American evangelical circles. How is it possible that Mars Hill churches were so closely tied to Mark Driscoll that his departure led to their structural demise? What is the future of the mega-church, and how does it impact ministry in a country where a “big” church consists of a hundred people? When will the Gospel Project be available in Danish?

With the prevalence of online sermons and conferences available to a generation that knows English as a second language, evangelicals in Denmark are well aware of what is taking place in North America. It may be true that the center of Christianity is shifting from the Northern hemisphere to South America and Africa, but when it comes to influence and ministry formation, many Christians in other parts of the world still look to the United States.

Our country’s leadership in other matters opens the door for Americans to have an outsized influence in spiritual concerns. This should be a cause for celebration (consider the number of good resources now available in English!) as well as concern (are we fully aware of the global ramifications of movements we are involved in?). For good and bad, evangelicals in other parts of the world are watching, listening, and learning.

2. Some of the political positions espoused by conservative American evangelicals baffle Christians from other parts of the world.

Like it or not, North American evangelicalism is closely tied to political positions, many of which are shared by evangelicals across the world, and some of which are not. There was no question that these brothers in Denmark were staunchly pro-life in their view of the unborn. There was also an unquestionable commitment to the reality of marriage and the sinfulness of homosexual practice, no matter how unpopular that view may be in Denmark, where same-sex unions have been recognized since 1989. On issues of life and marriage and family, evangelicals in Denmark resemble the global and historic witness of the church, and they are thankful for the faithfulness of their brothers and sisters across the pond.

But some evangelical political causes make them scratch their heads. Why do so many Christians dismiss the Affordable Care Act? Shouldn’t universal health care be a Christian concern? They are also puzzled by evangelical leaders who differentiate between acts of compassion and the true mission of the church (evangelism). I responded to these questions by offering various views of the economy and capitalism, explaining why charitable giving is higher among evangelicals who take fiscally conservative positions, and offering some historical perspective to show why evangelicals fear the “social gospel.”

The biggest surprise, for these Danish brothers, was seeing evangelicals be so outspoken on immigration, both legal and illegal. “I don’t see how the Christian position can be anything other than welcome and hospitality,” one told me. As the United States continues to debate immigration, evangelicals in other parts of the world wonder why so many white evangelicals take the “anti” side. They see this posture as a betrayal of a core Christian conviction.

3. The greatest challenge in a radically secularized society is not hostility to the gospel but indifference.

One might think that people in a secularized society would be overly hostile to the message of Christianity. Instead, with the state church still there to marry and bury people and tacitly bless the idea that personal pleasure is the goal of life, the biggest challenge is articulating the gospel in a way that shows how much better Jesus is than the life of hedonism offered to so many people.

People are indifferent, not hostile, to the gospel. They are willing to befriend evangelicals, but are quick to close down conversations that deal with religious issues or the big questions of life. “What works for me isn’t what works for everyone” is the unspoken assumption of a secular society.

4. Secondary issues become less divisive when evangelicals make up only a tiny sliver of society.

I was curious to see what these church leaders, who had left the state church over the years but remained Lutheran, thought about the evangelicals who remain in the state churches. To my surprise, there was no animosity toward brothers and sisters who want to hold on to their church buildings and their churches’ history. They understand the desire to be a gospel witness in a church that has abandoned the gospel — both in terms of the miraculous events we confess in our creeds and the distinctive morality we exhibit in our lives.

Furthermore, when evangelicals are so distinct a minority, it seems silly to spend time and energy debating or denouncing others who have different tactical strategies or differ on finer points of theology. “I’d rather spend my time denouncing apostasy and promoting truth than striving against brothers who haven’t come to the same conclusions I have,” another one told me. Theological disputes over secondary issues and methodological choices are a luxury of being in a large group.


I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from a rowdy group of Danes who love Jesus, love His church, and are unashamedly proclaiming the gospel in a secular society of indifference. May their passion be true of us as well!

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Worth a Look 4.22.15

Apr 22, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Worth5Kindle Deal of the Day: The Complete Works of Saint John Chrysostom (33 Books)$2.99.

Summarizing some of the recent work of Richard Hays, Brandon Smith lays out 10 ways to understand Scripture in light of Jesus:

In his short, punchy book, Reading Backwards, Richard Hays looks at how each of the four Gospels interpret the Old Testament in light of Jesus. In the last chapter, “Retrospective Reading,” he offers ten ways the Gospels teach us “how to receive and retell the scriptural story” (pp. 104-109). Here’s a summary of each.

I like how Chris Martin explains the obvious, always in memorable ways. 3 Reasons Why You Aren’t Allowed to Be Theologically Dumb:

When you love God with your heart but not your mind, you end up loving the god of your imagination, not the God of the universe.

Last week, I wrote about why some are frustrated with President Obama for downplaying the religious and Islamic nature of today’s terrorist threat. Kirsten Powers, in USA Today, has an article that brings out the other side to that complaint — the president’s downplaying or neglecting the atrocities committed against Christians in the Middle East today:

Religious persecution of Christians is rampant worldwide, as Pew has noted, but nowhere is it more prevalent than in the Middle East and Northern Africa, where followers of Jesus are the targets of religious cleansing. Pope Francis has repeatedly decried the persecution and begged the world for help, but it has had little impact. Western leaders — including Obama — will be remembered for their near silence as this human rights tragedy unfolded.

When you read the Bible (or any text for that matter), you really ought to love the author as you love yourself:

Loving God with all our minds and hearts means “loving the author as ourselves,” and surely this means that we should agree that, as we would want others to understand our meaning and not to impose their own interpretation contrary to evidence upon our words, we should afford the same charity to an author in seeking to understand his or hers.

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