David Platt’s book, Follow Me, is a Reformed, missional catechesis with the goal of moving consumer “Christians” into full discipleship. The problem Platt sets out to address is the masses of “unconverted believers” that attend, worship, and serve in church every Sunday. His diagnosis is stark: “Multitudes of men and women at this moment think that they are saved from their sins when they are not.” (7) American Churches are full of people who claim to be Christians, believe that they are Christians, and may even be told by their pastors that they are Christians, but they are not, in fact, Christians at all. “Only those who are obedient to the words of Christ will enter the Kingdom of Christ. If our lives do not reflect the fruit of following Jesus, then we are foolish to think that we are actually followers of Jesus in the first place.” (16) Put simply, “People who claim to be Christians while their lives look no different from the rest of the world are clearly not Christians.” (18)

Platt puts his finger squarely on the biggest problem facing the American Church today–Consumer Christianity. Not only is there little distinction, morally, between the lives of self-identified Christians and self-identified nonChristians, there is also little difference between the way churchgoers approach Church and the way they approach grocery shopping. Consumerism, not discipleship, has become the world-defining belief of American Christianity. For Platt, this is most evident in the self-centeredness with which many Christians understand salvation.

373287_1_ftcDavid Platt begins his catechesis with a study of total depravity, particularly in the light of conversion to Christ. Many Christians will talk about their salvation moment like this: “I invited Jesus into my heart…,” or, “I found Jesus at….” This, Platt argues, is backwards at best. We do not invite or find Jesus; rather, he argues, Jesus invites and finds us. “The reality of the gospel is that we do not become God’s children ultimately because of initiative in us, and he does not provide salvation primarily because of an invitation from us. Instead, before we were ever born, God was working to adopt us.” (29) God initiates and enacts salvation because, left to our own devices, we would never choose God. We are totally depraved, i.e., sinful through and through with no desire for God in our hearts. We are, as Ephesians says, “dead in [our] transgressions and sins.” As Platt aptly puts it: “Inviting Jesus to come into your heart is impossible when you’re dead in sin.” (34)

From his discussion of depravity and salvation, Platt moves to the distinction of Christianity among the world’s religions. Christianity’s distinction, he argues, lies in it’s adherence, not to a list of rules, but to a person–Jesus Christ. “We are not called to simply believe certain points or observe certain practices, but ultimately to cling to the person of Christ as life itself.” (54) Because Christianity is a relationship with the Creator God, it is fundamentally transformative, or as Platt puts it, “supernaturally regenerative” as opposed to “superficially religious.”

Superficial religion involves a counterfeit “Christian” life that consists of nothing more than truths to believe and things to do, and it misses the essence of what it means to follow Jesus. Supernatural regeneration, on the other hand, involves an authentic Christian life that has been awakened by the Spirit, truth, love, passion, power, and purpose of Jesus. (66)

If I were to sum up the core of Platt’s book, I would say it like this: Follow Jesus into his mission to save lost souls. As we saw in his best-seller Radical, David Platt’s heart is directed toward taking the Gospel to all nations. The antidote to Consumer Christianity is Missional Discipleship, i.e., participating in the fulfillment of the Great Commission. This, in my opinion, is where the book excels because it is the way in which it most clearly reflects the calling of its author. David Platt has an apostolic heart, and the Church would do well to heed his call to move from lazy, superficial religion to missional, supernatural regeneration by proclaiming the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

My Criticism

If you love and adore David Platt and are thoroughly Reformed in your theology with no possibility of ever changing your mind, I encourage you to stop reading this post now, for I would like to address the content of the second chapter, which I have already touched on briefly. In this chapter, Platt makes a thorough, if accessible, presentation of the doctrine of total depravity. He cites many Scriptures, and uses several illustrations, the most moving of which is the story of the adoption of his son. In short, he makes a compelling case that:

  • God is solely responsible for the initiation of salvation.
  • Human beings are completely sinful, so much so that we are characterized as being “dead” in our sins.
  • God hates, even abhors, sinners.

In principle, I agree with the first statement. God is solely responsible for the initiation of salvation, though I would say that happened on the cross and in the empty tomb of Jesus. Only God could do that! From there, God has charged his followers with the proclamation of this news, this Gospel, to everybody else on the face of the earth. In other words, God has placed the message of salvation into human hands. While God did everything to make salvation possible, he has commissioned us to make that salvation available.

Furthermore, Jesus tells parables in the Gospels that seem to give another side to the story. For example, in Matthew 13:44, Jesus says this, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” The active agent in this story is not God or his kingdom, but the human being who found salvation, then gave up everything he had to gain it.

This leads me to the second point of disagreement, which is about the idea of being “dead” in our sins. Here is what Platt says:

Our problem is not simply that we have made some bad decisions. Our problem is not just that we’ve messed up. Our problem is that we are–at the very core of our being–rebels against God, and we are utterly unable to turn to him. This is what the Bible means when it says we are dead in sin. When Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians and said, “You were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live,” he meant that they were completely dead. Not partially dead. Not almost dead. Not halfway dead. Not kind of dead. Completely dead. (34)

It’s important to point out that they were not, in fact, completely dead, for if they were, it would have been too late for them, and they would not have been alive to hear the proclamation of the Gospel or respond to it in faith. I’m not trying to be a smart aleck, I just want to point out that Paul’s use of “dead” is metaphorical, not literal. Nor was Paul saying that the Ephesians were “spiritually dead.” Paul would not have separated the spiritual life from the physical life, saying that one could be dead while the other was alive; this was an invention of the Gnostics.

The view of humanity painted here by Platt, and elsewhere by other Reformed writers, is simply inaccurate. It assumes that the truest thing about humans is Genesis 3. Platt sums up this view well with this statement: “As we have already seen all the way back in Genesis, our sin is not something that exists outside of us. Sin is ingrained into the core of our being. We don’t just sin; we exist as sinners.” (42-3) The trouble with this statement is that Platt doesn’t go back far enough into Genesis. Before there was a Genesis 3, there was a Genesis 1 and 2, in which humanity is called, by God, good. To be sure, Genesis 3 is all-too-true now–we are sinful creatures–but there will come a day when that will not be true no longer. Genesis 3 is temporary. Genesis 1 and 2 are eternal. The creative act of God is more powerful and more enduring than the destructive acts of Satan and human beings.

In order to understand humanity, we must seek to grasp the tension of the present situation–not simply that Genesis 1, 2, and 3 are all true right now, but also that the Gospels, and particularly the Gospel, are also true right now. We were made by God in the image of God. We were not created sinful. That came through our choice to worship ourselves and disobey God. So we became broken. Then God did the impossible–without becoming sinful, he, too, became broken so that we might be put back together again. Why did he do this? Because he loves us.

Which brings me to my final, and most vehement point of disagreement with Platt: God does not hate sinners. Everything about Jesus should drive this thought away from our hearts and minds. If Jesus is the perfect image of the invisible God, if Jesus is the logos of God, if Jesus does only what he sees his Father doing, then there should be no doubt in our minds, even if we only consider the cross, that God does not hate us, but that he loves so lavishly that he would withhold nothing from us! If you need biblical proof that God does not hate sinners, this is it: Jesus!

Imagine this fictitious scenario: Mark Driscoll walks to the stage this Sunday morning, looks straight into the camera as he lets out a wry smile. “This whole Jesus thing is nothing but a bunch of *bleep*. You pansies that believe this stuff are ignorant fools, more equipped to knit your grandma a pair of socks than do anything useful to society.” He goes on for 45 minutes mocking Christians, berating Scripture, and blaspheming God. For the rest of his life he writes books and gives lectures for the sole purpose of destroying Christianity.

This, of course, if it actually happened, would raise all kinds of issues for people who know and love Mark, but one of the most important ones is this: What is Mark’s eternal destiny? In the face of such a fall, it would be difficult to say that Mark will still enjoy eternity with God. He has, after all, abandoned Jesus. If, then, his eternity will be spent apart from God, in hell, what are we to make of his fruitful years of ministry–years in which he prayed, worshipped, preached, and evangelized? What are we to make of his faith during this time? Was it genuine? Or was it a farce? In other words, can someone move from genuine, saving faith in Jesus to genuine, damning rejection of Jesus?

A Long FaithfulnessThis is, essentially, the question Scot McKnight poses in his new ebook A Long Faithfulness, where he exegetes the five warning passages of Hebrews. The book of Hebrews sternly warns its readers about falling away: “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallenaway, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” (6:4-6) This is just part of one of five major passages that warn about the dire consequences of leaving the faith.

One of the core tenets of Reformed theology, what McKnight calls “resurgent Calvinism,” is “meticulous sovereignty,” which means that God determines everything, whether good or evil. The recent tornado that destroyed Moore, OK, for instance, was, in this view, sent from God. He even determined which elementary school would be destroyed, which children would perish, and which would be spared. In terms of salvation, meticulous sovereignty logically leads to a doctrine called double predestination, which means that God determines, beforehand, which people will receive salvation and which will receive damnation.

If God determines all things, including salvation, then it is impossible for any human to choose or un-choose God. If meticulous sovereignty is true, then nobody has any say in their eternal destiny–each one is subject to the choosing (or not) of God. If God determines all things, then it is impossible for someone to move from genuine, saving faith to genuine, damning unbelief because God either chooses you or he doesn’t. You do not choose God. You do not choose to believe or disbelieve. There is no room for the human to switch positions.

The question then arises: Is this view consistent with biblical teaching? This is an important question to explore and answer. Does the Bible teach that God is the sole determiner of all things? Through his exegesis of the five warning passages of the book of Hebrews, Scot McKnight sees that God is not the sole determiner of all things, but that he has sovereignly given human beings the freedom to choose, and to un-choose, him. The author of Hebrews, McKnight observes, is addressing true Christians with genuine faith who face the very real threat of becoming apostate–that is, of walking away from Jesus and forfeiting their salvation.

The text calls the audience believers, and it warns them that they must obey or they will not enter the rest. It does not say, as so many have claimed, that if they don’t obey it proves they did not have faith. Instead, it calls those who have believed to continue in obedience or they will not enter the rest. If the argument works like this, the case is all but finished. The author thinks believers can disobey in such a way that they do not enter the rest.

Going back to our fictitious example of a potentially-apostate Mark Driscoll (the sad reality is that many pastors have followed the path laid out above), it would be intellectually lazy and biblically unsound to say that, because he renounced Christ, that he never in his entire life actually believed in Jesus. To say that those who fall away never truly believed conflicts with the testimony of the author of Hebrews. Those to whom the unknown author wrote were baptized believers, full-participants in the local churches. They were operating in the gifts of the Spirit. They were living the full Christian life.

If [the original audience of Hebrews] are not Christians, then no one is. If they are Christians, then the nerve of meticulous sovereignty has been severed, for the author conceives of the audience as Christians who not only can, but, in some instances apparently have, apostatized from the faith. That means they are damned. They have un-chosen God.

Scot’s exegesis is sound, and his conclusion is devastating to the doctrine of meticulous sovereignty. According to the book of Hebrews, human beings have the freedom to choose or un-choose God. If a couple gets divorced, does that then mean that they never loved each other? Of course not. In the same way, the act of apostasy does not mean that the apostate was never a true believer. We are free creatures. We have been granted this freedom because God loves us, and desires an agape-love-based relationship with us. Agape love is only possible where there is freedom.

This is an important essay, and a relatively quick and easy read. If you have questions about eternal security, human freedom, and God’s sovereignty, I highly recommend you download this ebook (it’s only available electronically) and give it a careful read.

Antony Flew was a leading philosopher and atheist of the mid to late twentieth century. He taught at several distinguished schools, including Oxford, Aberdeen, and Reading. He also taught at Bowling Green State Universtiy, near my hometown of Toledo, Ohio. He passed away in April of this year.

In There is a God, Flew lays out his journey from atheism to deism, briefly sketching each of the arguments that influenced the evolution of his thought. Because I am not a philosopher, I will not attempt to summarize those arguments here. The book itself is short enough (less than 220 pages) and colloquial enough to not be overwhelming. Many of us may need a Philosophical Dictionary nearby to understand some of the terms, but most folks can easily follow the arc of the story.

antony_flewThe book is a narrative rather than a philosophical treatise, and it tells the story of Flew’s life as it pertains to the issue of the question of God. He tells tales of his many interactions with Christian and Theist philosophers in debates and dialogues. While there was no singular moment of illumination, it was the cumulative effect of these interactions which brought him to his “conversion.” (I put conversion in quotes because he did not become a Christian, so far as I know. He simply came to believe in a “divine Mind”.)

The “conversion” sent a shockwave through the philosophical and atheistic communities. Flew was a pillar of atheism, one of the greatest minds and most ardent defenders of the “faith”. His admission of the existence of a divine Mind was too much for some to bear. There were accusations that the co-author, Roy Abraham Varghese, manipulated Flew, by then an old man, into publishing this book. While Flew admitted that Varghese did the actual writing, he asserted that the thoughts were his. In the years leading up to his death, Flew publicly declared, again and again, that he had become a deist (and denied becoming a Christian or a Theist).

The guiding principle of Flew’s life, and the through line of this book, is the Aristotelian line, “follow the argument wherever it leads.” It was his commitment to this ideal that ultimately led him out of atheism and into belief in a divine Mind. The primary evidence, as laid out in his book, is the complexity of DNA and the lack of a naturalistic explanation for the evolution of reproductive capability. These issues led him to belief in a divine Mind, which of course is not all the way to the Christian Creator God, but is a large leap of faith for an atheist of his stature.

The book includes two appendices, one by Varghese and the other by N.T. Wright. While Flew was “converted” to the concept of a divine Mind, he did not believe in divine revelation, though he was open to being convinced. Of all the religions claiming divine revelation, he thought Christianity to be the only one worth noting.

“I think that the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected whether or not its claim to be a divine revelation is true. There is nothing like the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like St. Paul. …If you’re wanting Omnipotence to set up a religion, this is the one to beat.” (185-6)

Wright’s contribution is a brief but potent sketch of his defense for the existence of Jesus, his divinity, and the historicity of the resurrection. This alone is worth the price of the book, and if you’ve never read Wright (what are you waiting for?!), will give you a solid introduction to his three large volumes on Jesus.

I don’t know where Antony Flew stood on the issues Wright raised when he died in April. There’s something oddly refreshing, for me at least, that his book was about his conversion to deism and not to evangelical Christianity. It seems more honest that way, I guess. But of course I hope that he came to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, and to receive the forgiveness offered him from the cross.

Questions: How does the “conversion” of a notorious atheist strengthen your faith? What are the most important philosophical questions regarding the existence of God? What are the most important pieces of scientific evidence in this debate?

In the olden days (when I was an intolerant fundamentalist) I would never have read Bernhard Anderson’s book, The Unfolding Drama of the Bible. I would have dropped the book against a wall (funny how certain books are capable of defying gravity that way) at the first mention of Second Isaiah. But I’ve mellowed…a bit.

9780800635602What I appreciated about Anderson’s book is the brief, yet thorough, sketch of the Bible. I did this a while ago with my post on Metanarrative, so I appreciate Anderson’s approach of using biblical highlights as case studies to unfold the plot of the Bible. Each chapter has discussion questions at the end which are excellent conversation starters. It is a short read and would be profitable for small groups.

Reading this book has opened my eyes to the way that I can fundamentally agree with someone who comes from a more liberal perspective. Everything he writes about the Bible I agree with, but I don’t share his views on issues of authorship and dating. I’m learning to be more charitable with these issues, and reading this book was an exercise in growth as much as in learning about the Bible.

There is one little bit, however, that I can’t not mention. On several occasions, Anderson makes a comment along the lines of, “Don’t let the literal details of the passage trip you up.” I think what he means by this is, “Don’t let the silly or offensive parts of the story cause you to disregard the passage.” While I understand why he would write this, there seems to be a subtle undercurrent of condescension toward the text, as though we stand over it and judge it against our modern knowledge and sensibilities. What worries me is that this subtle condescension feeds our pride in our own particular historical moment, and that great beast of pride, when fully grown, will seek to conquer the text rather than be conquered by it. In my opinion, it’s far better to approach Scripture with a humble heart and a submissive spirit. The Bible is, after all, our authority, and not the other way around.

Full disclosure: I’ve never believed in the rapture. It’s nowhere to be found in the Scriptures, and the very idea of all true believers being snatched away doesn’t make any sense. How does that gel with the rest of the Bible? When the going gets tough, God just pulls you out of the world. Huh?

Barbara Rossing’s book “The Rapture Exposed” is a passionate and well-informed refutation of the dispensational, rapture-oriented theology of popular American fundamentalism as seen in the Left Behind fictional adventure series. Dr. Rossing begins her book by artfully laying out the case for the destructive nature of rapture/escapist theology. The unbiblical axiom “It doesn’t matter since it will all burn someday” is the grounds for committing deep sin against the world, and Dr. Rossing rails against the escapist worldview that fosters this thinking.

rapture-exposedPerhaps the most useful chapter of the book is the second, in which Dr. Rossing recounts the development of the Rapture from the vision of Margaret MacDonald in 1830, to its popularization by John Darby, and its cementation in the American theological landscape by Cyrus Scofield in the Scofield Reference Bible. She goes on to simultaneously delinieate and debunk the foundations of rapture theology through the proof-texting of various passages in Daniel, Revelation, and other New Testament books.

After the first two chapters, Dr. Rossing presents her own interpretation of the book of Revelation, the cornerstone of which is Lamb Power—that is, the victory of the nonviolence of the Lamb Who Stands But Was Slain over the conquesting and Nike-worshipping violence of the power of Rome. The book of Revelation, she says, is not about the violence of a vengeful Lion Messiah coating the world in the blood of the heathens, but rather about the hope found in the resurrection of the Lamb from the dead. “Lamb theology is the whole message of Revelation. Evil is defeated not by overwhelming force or violence but by the Lamb’s suffering love on the cross. The victim becomes the victor.” (111)

Dr. Rossing goes on to issue a stern warning against the Christianist Zionism she sees embedded with rapture and dispensational theology. She warns against the blind support by many fundamentalist Christians of the secular nation of Israel, especially in regards to the occupation and settlement of traditionally Palestinian lands. Because dispensationalists see the re-establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 as a “super-sign” that the end is nigh, these fundamentalist Christians will (and have) sought to shape American foreign policy in a way that fully supports Israel and, in their minds, speeds the timeline of events that must occur before Jesus returns. But, Rossing warns, there are real people who are real casualties of the pursuit of this policy, namely Palestinians, and Palestinian Christians in particular. “Whenever people invoke biblical prophets to support a program of violence or injustice,” she writes, “this is a misuse of the Bible. This is extremism.” (73)

This extremism is manifested through a strange, violent obsession with and pursuit of Armagaddon, which dispensationalists see as absolutely central to the prophecies of Revelation. But instead of Armageddon, Rossing posits that Christians should see the Tree of Life and the healing it offers as the central image of the Apocalypse.

Rossing’s book does more than just challenge the unbiblical and heretical rapture theology, it offers an alternative vision and interpretation of the book of Revelation. She debunks the myth of the Rapture, and provides a sound exegesis for those “rapture-passages” that form the backbone of the escapist theology. She goes on to offer an alternative story, not one dripping in the blood and vengeful violence of the Left Behind series, but rooted in the healing and hopeful reality of the Tree of Life which flows from the throne of the Lamb. There is hope for the nations because the Lamb Who Stands But Was Slain, not the Wrathful Lion, wields the power of the throne of heaven. Lamb Power, not Tribulation Force, will have the final say, and all true believers will be right here, with feet firmly planted on the ground, to see it happen.

What do you think of this alternative vision of the Apocalypse? Will there be a Rapture? Will things be as peaceful and healing as Rossing hopes and writes that they will be? Perhaps more importantly, what role should eschatology play in the formation of public policy?

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