Systematics and the system

I was thinking this morning, sitting in church as Andrew preached a topical sermon, that the fruit of a generation of people faithfully preaching expositionally with sound exegesis is a generation of people who have had some of the hard work of exegesis done for them – at which point it’s much easier to systematise. Provided you trust the people who have taught you. It’s much easier to draw connections between different books and doctrines if people have done the hard work on those books and taught you from that platform already. Sometimes it can even feel intuitive when it seems to have been so hard won by that previous generation.

So my generation has to maintain the balance of faithfully working through the Bible and doing the systematics stuff too. It’s a luxury of not having to function as a corrective.

So. Thanks oldies.

Ten thoughts on the subject of sin

Simone wrote about a post church conversation last night (in real life) that was a continuation of a couple of posts from Simone and Kutz (part one), (part two). I’ve spent today trying to articulate my position on sin. It’s not like Simone’s (looking to the new creation to resolve sinful desires) nor is it like Kutz’s (looking to the original created order to salvage the good thing that sin twists). I don’t tend to analyse my sin. I find that can be pretty crippling.

Here are some of my thoughts about sin in list form…

  1. I think sin, by definition, is our expression of autonomy. It’s our rejection of God’s rule. It’s disobedience. It’s not meeting God’s standards. I think the last one is the key – if we do something that doesn’t meet God’s perfect and holy standards – as he as described them to us – then we have “sinned”.
  2. I think there are different values to different sins – I know some have interpreted passages to suggest that all sins are equal. I think all sins are equally deserving of condemnation – but I don’t think all sins are equal in badness. There are sins with external victims – these sins require an extra level of repentance because you should, I think, repent to the victim as well as to God, and there are sins that are essentially internal matters for you and God to deal with. Let me give an example, when you commit some form of idolatry, putting something else in God’s position – you are wronging God, but no necessarily other people. But when you murder someone you not only commit an act of disobedience to God, you not only commit an act that effects the victim, you commit an act that has multiple effects for the victims family – you cause them to sin as well – they will no doubt feel malice, they will probably curse God for letting you take their father, husband, or son (or mother, wife, or daughter). You rob these people of a significant other. Some actions carry with them many sins, others do not. All sin is worthy of death and judgment when God, the holy, holy, holy God sits in judgment and judges by his holy, holy, holy standards. The accumulated sin of a lifetime is a pretty massive barrier between us and God.
  3. I think the language of conflict between our new nature and our sinful nature, our flesh and the spirit, our slavery to sin and slavery to righteousness, are all Biblical analogies for the same internal struggle that occurs, and will continue to occur, until the new creation. We’ll never – no matter how mature we become – rid ourselves fully of the taint of sin. Which I think even spreads to our good, righteous and obedient actions.
  4. I think trying to determine whether an action is “sinful” or “Godly” in and of itself is almost a complete waste of time. A conversation sprang up about whether being drunk is a sin the other day. I think it is. I think eating fatty food is probably a sin. I think drinking instant coffee is a sin. I pretty much think that everything we do, stemming from our sinful nature, is a sin. We can eat fatty food for God’s glory, but I tend to think if we’re not eating it specifically for his glory, but rather for our own purposes, then that’s an expression of our autonomy. I’d pretty much say that I think everything we do is tainted by sin. Even the good stuff… even the God stuff. I think this is part of the battle between our sinful natures and our new spirit enhanced natures.
  5. I think it is more helpful to think of sin in terms of nature than actions. Sinful actions are those things we do that are born out of our sinful nature. The Bible certainly spells out that certain actions are sins. Both sins of comission and omission.
  6. Almost all “Godly” actions can be sinful. I’m thinking of the way Jesus talks to the rich young ruler – even keeping the rules isn’t enough. We’re sinful by nature, and we never meet God’s holy standards. We can not possibly do so. We’re wired to sin. I think sinful actions are actions born out of our sinful nature – and I think Godly actions are actions born out of the spirit working within us (and those “good” actions performed by non-Christians are as a result of God’s spirit working throughout humanity in the guise of common grace).
  7. I think even when we are obedient to God we are obedient in an incomplete way – I think this is the picture we see with Israel and its inability to ever meet God’s standards completely. It’s important that we, as God’s people, seek to be obedient. Even if we know we’ll do it generally, but not specifically.
  8. When confronted with a decision our job is to try to discern the obedient, or most obedient option. Some decisions will in fact be decisions between two equally tainted options. An extreme example would be a choice between lying to save the life of one’s child (or an innocent) or giving them up and becoming complicit to whatever happens as a result of your taking the moral high ground. Life is full of impossible decisions, because everything is tainted by sin.
  9. Sin sucks. I hate its effect on the world, on relationships between people, and on myself. I don’t wallow in my sin because I realise it has been paid for in full. I realise it’s inevitable. And I realise we’ve got a job to do. So I’d rather just get on with that job. Without distractions. Without paralysis by analysis. My job is to try to be obedient to God wherever possible – and I think the point at which this obedience is most important is the Great Commission. I think any Godly living is Godly living for the purpose of winning the lost, more than for the sake of redeeming myself (either bringing myself closer to the pre-fall or new creation versions of me).
  10. Because I see sin as an inevitable product of our sinful nature I’m not keeping score as though God is Santa Claus. I’m not wracked with guilt. My debt has been paid. While I am pursuing holy living, maturity and ongoing “sanctification” (though I think technically sanctification is part of the package with justification that occurs at salvation) I don’t do this by dwelling so much on the times I miss the mark, I do this by getting on with the job. I love Luther’s “sin boldly” quote from a letter to a guy named Melanchthon (included below). This translation is slightly different to the one I’d originally heard.

If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.

Elasticity of Scripture

Only at this blog will you find a post like this coming right after a post like this. One of the things I’ve been thinking about while arguing about UFC, studying at college, and grappling with the social context of the early church, is the idea of how far you can stretch a particular passage of scripture as you grapple with a particular issue. While the “context is king” hermeneutic is really useful for figuring out the “impossible application” of a passage – there are lots of circumstances that it seems we can pull a verse out of the ether (or the Bible) to address – without looking too hard at the context of the verse. Sometimes we call this ethics, other times its doctrine.

I have always hated the concept of “memory verses” as some sort of bandaid solution to every personal calamity, I get suspicious when I walk into houses that have verses stripped of context strewn all over the walls. I reckon putting big slabs of text all over your walls is much more Godly. Well, not really. As Carson famously argued “a text without a context becomes a pre text for a proof text” or something… but I think we can actually legitimately “proof text” without completely paying attention to the full “original audience” context. We don’t need every historical nuance to come up with a sound systematic understanding of an issue. The Bible doesn’t consider Climate Change – but says lots about our responsibility for the planet, its brokenness, and our new gospel priorities (and expectation of a new creation)…

I’ve been thinking about this since giving a presentation on Question One of the Westminster Shorter Catechism at church a couple of weeks ago.

The proof texts for the “chief end of man” are, in my opinion, pretty weak. If you consider the context of those passages it’s almost impossible to argue that this is the “big idea” of any of the specific passages, but it’s a “big idea” from the Bible, and we seem to feel like we need a good proof text for every position – we can’t just argue on the basis of “the vibe”… you can stretch a fair bit of Bible over the idea that one of our chief purposes being to glorify God. We have this correct concept that we get to by doing our systematics properly, but no great proof text, so we pull all the little bits of Bible into a paper mache type shape to build our idea, or we have an idea and we stretch (like a balloon) passages over it to give it a Biblical flavour.

Pacifism is not specifically mandated in the Bible, but I can see how one might reach that end by stringing together the teachings of Jesus, the fruits of the Spirit, and also our understanding of church history (how the early church acted based on the teachings of the Apostles) – but I think you can equally look at the Bible and come to a just war/justifiable violence position. Depending on what passages you want to string together. I can see why systematic sermons are hard – but they’re also, as forms of communication, heaps more compelling and much better for application.

But just how far can we stretch “scripture” when building a systematic framework? And where does context fit into this picture of systematising? If we’re Mark Driscoll we just talk about the idea without bothering using the Bible – which may, in the end, be preferable (and possibly prophetic).

What do you reckon? How far is too far when it comes to proof texting?