Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Sex, Lies, and Star Trek

I confess, I’m something of a Trekkie. I’ve been looking forward to the release of Star Trek Into Darkness more than any other movie this year. While reading a few content reviews, though, I came across a snag. The film contains a scene in which a woman changes clothes after asking her male companion to turn his back to her—obviously for the sake of decency. After feigning compliance, the man sneaks a peek. So does the camera, giving the audience an unobstructed view of this woman in a state of undress.

Here’s what I have decided: I cannot financially support this movie. Why? Because I want to grow in my ability to honor God and love that actress.

In James 1:27, which I recently wrote about, we are told, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James gives the two distinctive fruits that grow from the root of genuine Christianity: love and holiness. Followers of Christ should exemplify these traits when interacting with the world—including the realm of entertainment.

Let’s talk about holiness first. Believers have grown to ignore, accept, or even endorse tantalizing sexuality in films. Based on the lax standards of Christian moviegoers, an unbeliever might conclude that the Bible takes no clear stance on immodesty and nudity. But God is far from silent on these issues.

Scripture associates public nudity with shame (Gen. 3:7; Isa. 47:3; Nah. 3:5; Rev. 3:18). Because of this, God Himself provided clothes for Adam and Eve after the Fall (Gen. 3:21). Job made a covenant with his eyes so that he would not look lustfully at women (Job 31:1). David fell into adultery by seeing a naked woman, even though it was in a “nonsexual” situation (2 Sam. 11:2-4). Jesus refers to a wandering eye as adultery worthy of hell (Matt. 5:27-30). In using the human body as a metaphor for the church, Paul describes it as having “unpresentable parts” that require “greater modesty” (1 Cor. 12:23). Whether sexual or nonsexual, nakedness outside of marriage is shameful.

Countless Christians deny that movies with nudity and/or sex scenes affect them. But as Doug Wilson has pointed out in Reforming Marriage, such denials come from two types of men. The first man is a liar; he is either attempting to fool himself or someone else—and probably both. The second kind of man is telling the truth, but only because he “is so deadened in his conscience that it would take a lot more than that to get him going.”

When Noah became naked in a drunken stupor (Gen. 9:20-27), his son Ham took the situation lightly and told his two brothers about it. Shem and Japheth, on the other hand, treated their father with respect and covered his nakedness without looking at him themselves. This story shows that, even if it is possible to encounter nudity without being aroused, it still cannot be considered a legitimate form of entertainment.

In chapter seven of Worldly Amusements (which I have blogged about before), Wayne A. Wilson describes the “law of love.” As Christian moviegoers, we are responsible not only for our personal holiness but also for treating actors with dignity—not merely as vehicles for our own amusement. Wilson documents seven different interviews with actresses who express their discomfort with exposing their bodies or at least make some reference to the pressure placed upon them to undress for the camera. We need to see that even the “mild” sexuality in Star Trek’s undressing scene is emblematic of how actors—and especially women—are objectified in our culture, often against their preferences.

God did not design the actress in the above scene to be eye candy for the masses. We are to view and treat her as a real person. She has a name (Alice Eve). She is the oldest of three children. (Are her two younger brothers going to see her half naked by watching this film?) She has a condition known as heterochromia (one eye is blue and the other is green). A self-proclaimed “girly girl,” Alice is currently single, which means her future husband is inadvertently sharing much of her body with the world at large. Heck, even Damon Lindelof, one of the writers and producers of Into Darkness, has admitted that Alice’s undressing scene was gratuitous.

Now, what if Alice was fully willing to undress in front of the camera? Just because someone is fine with something does not make it fine. A woman wanting to be ogled by men doesn’t give us the freedom to support her. Such support would be unloving. Potiphar’s wife was willing to engage in naked immorality, but Joseph called it a “great wickedness” and a “sin against God” (Gen. 39:9). Our society may esteem all acts that are consensual, but it’s possible to adore what God abhors (Luke 16:15).

Making a Difference
I could go to the theater and enjoy Star Trek Into Darkness by simply looking down or closing my eyes when the undressing scene takes place. I might possibly meet the requirement of holiness in that regard. Whatever the case, there is no way around the law of love. My patronage would equal financially advocating the objectification of women.

You see, Hollywood doesn’t care how many people avert their eyes during nudity and sex scenes; it cares about how much money it makes. A prude and a pervert give equal support for a film when they buy a ticket. I prefer the practicality of financially investing in more worthy endeavors.

So, a saddened Trekkie, I cannot and I will not pay to see this movie. I desire to cultivate a love for my neighbor (Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2:8) and a denial of the lusts that war against my soul (1 Pet. 2:11). The preservation of love and holiness in my own heart are more valuable—and, ultimately, more enjoyable—than two hours of entertainment.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Does Jesus Have a Double Standard?

Did Jesus use a double standard when dealing with people? It almost seems that way. Generally speaking, He reacted harshly to the scribes and Pharisees while showing tenderness to the promiscuous and delinquent. It isn’t because only one of the groups was in the wrong—they both were. Hypocrisy and debauchery are both sins, so why treat some sinners with force and others with gentleness?

The answer is the distinction between law and gospel. To quote an article in the Lutheran Study Bible, “One of the principles of Law and Gospel is that the Law is used with unrepentant sinners and the Gospel is used with repentant sinners.” Or, to use the words of Martin Luther, “For this also must be noted: that as the voice of the law is brought to bear only upon those who neither feel nor know their sins…so the word of grace [i.e., the gospel] comes only to those who are distressed by a sense of sin and tempted to despair” (Bondage of the Will).

The law’s purpose is to awaken a dead—or, at least, a hard—conscience; the gospel’s purpose is to soothe a convicted conscience. The Pharisees often displayed the former, whereas the more blatant sinners often demonstrated the latter.

In order to wrap some meat of practicality around these bones of theory, let’s look at three different examples from Scripture.

The Law
When the rich young ruler asks Jesus what a person needs to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus answers by listing several commandments. The ruler confidently—and mistakenly—states that he has kept all of them from his youth. Such obedience, however, is impossible. Instead of arguing with the ruler, though, Jesus ups the ante: “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me” (v. 21).

Jesus is still speaking with the voice of the law. The young man’s misguided notion of his own goodness means he is not ready to hear the gospel. The law still hasn’t done its work; indeed, the man has misinterpreted God’s standard as being attainable. Thus, Jesus zeroes in on the root of the man’s problem (the idolatry of his wealth) with a proclamation of the law. Christ is showing this young man, who thinks he is near salvation, just how far from salvation he actually is.

Law and Gospel
In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan approaches King David with a story of a rich man who violently mistreats his neighbor. When David expresses anger over the misdeed, Nathan reveals that the criminal is actually David himself. He then rehearses how David has specifically broken God’s law, adding that there will be future repercussions of these sins, including that members of his own family would rise up against him (v. 11).

With the light of the law shining down on his now exposed sin, David’s hardened conscience is softened. In sorrow, he confesses the evil of his transgression. Nathan responds by speaking with the voice of the gospel: “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die” (v. 13). This gospel promise strengthens David’s heart, giving him hope even when he later faces the consequences Nathan prophesied. (Read Psalm 3 as an example, where David proclaims confidence in God’s favor, even while experiencing the Lord’s discipline.)

The Gospel
We find a beautiful gospel promise in Ezekiel 33:

As I live,” says the Lord GOD, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?” (v. 11)

These words have often been mistaken as a statement of law, where God is pleading with hardened sinners in an attempt to win them over. In reality, this verse is a cry of the gospel, aimed at sinners whose consciences have already been pierced. Luther says about this passage,

None receive it with joy and gratitude but those who are distressed and troubled at death, those in whom the law has already completed its work, that is, given knowledge of sin [Rom. 3:20]. Those that have not yet experienced the work of the law, who do not recognize their sin and have no sense of death, scorn the mercy promised by [this] word.

Depending on the circumstance, the law or the gospel—or both—may be necessary to sway a sinner’s heart. To be clear, we all need to hear both eventually, but the self-righteous often require a healthy dose of the law, whereas delinquents with guilty consciences often need a healthy dose of the gospel. Whatever the case, it takes great wisdom to use the law and gospel rightly. Thanks be to God, the master craftsman, who can teach us how to use these tools well!

The Litmus Test of Genuine Christianity

Late last week, The Gospel Coalition was kind enough to publish an article I wrote about the test of pure and undefiled religion. You can check it out here.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Gospel We (Don’t) Believe

If you’re a Christian, you’ve been saved by the gospel. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that you sufficiently understand the gospel. Just as it is easy to mistake the essence, purpose, and function of the law, so it is possible—and dangerously easy—to misinterpret the gospel itself. Yes, even believers can have a faulty view of the gospel—to the detriment of their Christian walk.

Here’s a short quiz. Look at Genesis 12:2-3 and see if you can discern where the gospel is located.

I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

We can see that this is a promise, not a command. Therefore, God is speaking here with the voice of the gospel, not the law. We can be even more explicit than that, though. These verses are, in effect, the very gospel of Jesus Christ—on par with Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 1:5: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

How can I say that? Because Paul says that. In Galatians 3:8 he writes, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed.’” Paul labels God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 12 as “the gospel”—even though it doesn’t specifically mention Christ. This is because the essence of the gospel is God promising to do something on our behalf without any help or assistance from us.

But isn’t Genesis 12 simply foreshadowing the coming of Christ, through which God’s promise will be fulfilled? Isn’t that why Paul can refer to it as the gospel? Well, yes—and that is exactly the point. Every promise—that is, every gospel proclamation in the Bible—is ultimately fulfilled through Christ. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor. 1:20, ESV). When God makes a promise, it can never be fulfilled through the law (i.e., our works)—only through the gospel (i.e., Christ’s atonement).

At this point, some may say, “That’s all fine and dandy, Cap, but it’s old hat. I already believe that. All Christians believe that.” Okay, let’s put some legs on this doctrine of ours and see if it actually walks.

First, let’s ask where our emphasis lies—on the law or the gospel? Do we spend most of our time thinking and talking about our responsibility or Christ’s sufficiency? As Internet Monk has pointed out, much of our teaching and talking exhorts people this way: “if they would take their talent and use it for the Lord, they’d be blessed. Or if they surrender their all to Jesus, they’ll be happy no matter what happens. Or if they will stop making excuses and get serious about following Jesus, they can please God.” Law, law, law. Law for breakfast, second breakfast, and elevenses—and that’s only what we eat in the morning. Too many of us roll around in the law like mud-stained pigs—and we like it. It makes us feel good about ourselves and how we relate to God. But we were meant to feel good about God based on how He has chosen to relate to us.

Second, let’s ask what we believe about saving faith. Is it ultimately God’s gift, or is it ultimately our choice? Do we contribute to salvation, or is it, as Romans 5 says, a “free gift” (vv. 15, 16, 18)? It can’t be both. The entirety of salvation—grace, faith, and everything else involved—is either a gift (Eph. 2:8), or the result of an act of our will, giving us a right to boast (Eph. 2:9). If I think the ultimate determining factor in my salvation was something that originated in me, then I am ultimately claiming salvation on the basis of law, not gospel.

Scripture sometimes refers to the promise of the gospel as an inheritance (Eph. 1:14, 18; Heb. 9:15). We all know what an inheritance is: something you receive from the work (and death) of a next of kin. Christ’s perfect life and substitutionary atonement act as the work and the death that secure our salvation. An inheritance that comes through the law is, as Paul says, “no longer of promise; but God gave [the inheritance] to Abraham by promise” (Gal. 3:18). If we hope to be saved like Abraham was, we need only trust in the promise of God’s saving work through Christ—through the gospel.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Using the Law Unlawfully

Have you ever sought to defend a cause only to end up proving something you didn’t mean to—like attempting to prove the existence of God only to find yourself backed into a corner? It’s a humbling, and evening a frightening, experience. Since I don’t think quickly on my feet, I have argued myself into a corner on more than one occasion.

One such occasion (or a period of time, rather) involved the realization that I had misinterpreted more than half the Bible. Up until that point, I was convinced that the prominent use of Scriptural commands—“Choose this day,” “If you are willing to obey,” etc.—proved that those commands could be obeyed. But as last week’s post pointed out, such a conclusion is faulty.

The conclusion is more than just faulty, though. It undermines the very faith on which we stand. You see, when we use the law to prove mankind’s ability, it ends up proving much more than we bargain for. It proves not just that we have some ability to follow after God; it proves that man can do all that God requires, without any aid from God.

We need to remember that God requires that we obey all of His law, not just a part of it. “You shall therefore keep all My statutes and all My judgments, and perform them” (Lev. 20:22); “keep all His statutes…all the days of your life” (Deut. 6:2); “walk always in His ways” (Deut. 19:9). That is the condition on which God’s promises rest: full and complete obedience.

Consider what Christ described as the greatest commandment of all: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind [Deut. 6:5]” (Matt. 22:37). This command is the sum of how we are to relate to God. The command exists, so does that mean it is within man’s power to love God totally and completely, without God working in his heart at all?

The answer should be obvious. Just take a look at Matthew 5, where Christ expounds on several Old Testament laws, and evaluate how you have measured up to that standard in the last few weeks—let alone, in the last several years. Obedience that truly gives God His due is just as far from our grasp as the stars in the heavens.

Saving faith entails an acknowledgement that our obligation to the law exceeds our ability. We cannot obey it—not partially, not completely, not even to save our own lives. We are like a man who files for bankruptcy, declaring that he cannot pay off what he owes. Because his obligation exceeds his ability, he pleads for mercy in the form of the elimination of his debts.

But maybe you only want to prove that man can love God to a certain extent, to at least make a strong effort to pursue God. Even if that were so, where does that leave us? James says, “whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jas. 2:10). When it comes to being justified in God’s sight, partial obedience isn’t any better than no obedience.

If God’s commands are within our grasp, if mankind is able to obey and love God of his own accord, then there is no need for grace. There is no need for Christ. We may argue to the contrary, but that is the logical conclusion of using the law to prove mankind’s ability.

Either we have the power to fulfill the entire law or we cannot fulfill any of it. There is no middle ground. And Scripture tells us that Christ came to call not the righteous (i.e., law keepers), but sinners (i.e., law breakers) to Himself (Luke 5:32). Righteous, God-fearing, law-abiding people don’t need to repent; only sinners do.

If we fail to grasp that the law exists to show us our inability, we will end up using the law illegally. That’s right; we will take a good thing—the law of God—and use it contrary to God’s purposes. That is what Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:8-9: “But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless.” The law was made not to prove our righteousness but our unrighteousness. It was never made for those with the power to keep it—only for those who cannot. And those who find themselves powerless are perfectly situated to receive the amazingly good news of the gospel.