{Edit: If you would like to download the sermon audio from which this post is taken, please click here. The sermon is from Ember’s first series, Run with Horses, on the book of Jeremiah. It is called Letter to the Exiles.}

One of the hardest words I’ve ever had to preach came from the passage that most Christians memorize for the comfort and hope it brings them. You know the verse I’m talking about: Jeremiah 29:11. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Go ahead and admit it. This is your life verse. It’s the desktop wallpaper on your computer–superimposed over a kitten in a basket. It has brought you comfort in times of trouble. It has helped you to hold out for God’s best when you just wanted to give in or give up. This verse has been a sparkling promise of God, like the North Star on a dark night.

I get it. Really, I do.

But here’s the thing. This verse doesn’t mean what we think it means. When we look at the rest of Jeremiah 29, we get a very different sense of what God is saying here. We get the sense, even, that he’s saying the opposite of what we thought. You see, this verse comes within a much larger prophecy to people in exile. They had been ripped away from their homeland, the Promised Land, the holy land. They were living in Babylon, a strange country where the customs, people, and language were foreign to them. Engulfed by the unfamiliar, they longed desperately to taste, to see, to touch what they had always known. They longed to be home.

Most of the prophets living with them in exile saw this and had compassion on the people. They prophesied compassionately. “Just two more years,” they proclaimed, “and God will bring us back to Jerusalem. Just two years longer and he will crush the head of our oppressors.” But compassionate prophecy is often false prophecy. The term of exile would not be two years, Jeremiah declared, but seventy.

For grown men and women, seventy years is a death sentence. For all but the youngest of the exiles, this meant they would never see their homeland again. They would die in this foreign land. They would be buried by unclean hands in unholy soil. Exile is a fate worse than death.

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.” In other words, live in Babylon as though you were living in Jerusalem. Engage with your new reality. Embrace your exile.

We hear a lot of talk these days about finding God’s best life for ourselves. We talk a lot about destiny and calling, always with the thought in mind that we are meant for something great. “God has a great plan for your life that will exceed all your wildest expectations!” It sounds so breathtaking and exhilarating–the spiritual equivalent of climbing El Capitan every day for the rest of your life. How many Christian brochures have you seen with a guy standing on the top of a mountain with his arms spread wide? The message behind the message is, “This should be your typical spiritual experience. This is what God destined you for!”

We hear this message again and again about personal greatness, about achieving your destiny, about realizing your dreams and actualizing the genius within you. And so images of personal significance and professional greatness dance in our heads as the false prophets of Christianity tickle our ears with the repackaged nonsense of Tony Robbins and the positivist promoters of a self-help philosophy that is nothing more than a theology of self where you have replaced God at the center of creation. “I’m going to do great things! …for God. I’m going to take this city! …for Jesus. I’m going to make my life count! …for the Lord.” False dreams interfere with honest living, as Eugene Peterson has said.

Jesus talked a lot about losing your life, and how losing your life for his sake is the only way to really find it. Did he mean that, or was he just joking? Is that how we’re being encouraged to live these days? To lose our lives for the sake of Jesus? To surrender our dreams? To relinquish our genius? To forsake personal greatness? Are any of Christianity’s prophets talking about how to live well in Babylon, or are they all selling us roadmaps back to Jerusalem?

You and I are being seduced by a Christianity that has nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth, who grew up, lived, and died under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire; no, we are being seduced by a Christianity that has everything to do with the cult of the self and the drive for power. We are taught that Jesus is most supremely interested in me, and making me a very important person, helping me to actualize my potential and realize my dreams. In Christian America, Jesus isn’t a Savior who died to free you from the curse of sin and reconcile you back to God; he’s a life coach that shows you how to be the best you you can be.

Embrace your exile. God has never promised to make all of your dreams come true. He has never told you to follow your heart. He has not guaranteed your best life now. The truth is, most of us are born for Babylon, and we need to embrace our exile or we will be miserable our entire lives, chasing false hopes and kicking on escape hatches that will never open. Can you live with Jesus if living with him means living in Babylon? Can you follow Jesus if it means you may never see all your wildest dreams come true?

The only place you have to be human is where you are right now. The only opportunity you will ever have to live by faith is in the circumstances you are provided this very day: this house you live in, this family you find yourself in, this job you have been given, the weather conditions that prevail at this moment. …The aim of the person of faith is not to be as comfortable as possible but to live as deeply and thoroughly as possible—to deal with the reality of life, discover truth, create beauty, act out love. -Eugene Peterson

You cannot live God’s life for you, you cannot live life with God, if you are always trying to get out of the life you have been given. You cannot live with God if you are constantly trying to get out of your circumstances, dreaming of being somewhere else, someone else. Escape from exile is not the answer. Escape from this world, this life, these problems, is not God’s way. Every day you face the choice between comfort and depth, between escape and engagement. Every day the unredeemed desires of your heart will allure you away from the reality in which you live, to daydreams of a so-called better life. But there is no other life out there. The life you’ve been given is the only life you have in which to live deeply and thoroughly for and with God.

Embracing our exile allows us to live in the reality in which God lives, the reality that he has given us, and the only place we can find him. As we embrace our exile we learn to embrace God, and trust him no matter the circumstances. God is the God of the good times and the bad. He is the God over Jerusalem and the God over Babylon. Embracing our exile means being content with God’s presence within, and oftentimes despite, the circumstances of our lives.

Only by embracing our exile will we learn to live with hope, real hope that transcends our circumstances and rests not in the actualization of our potential or realization of our dreams, but in the resurrection of our bodies and life forever in the full presence of God. We look forward to a future where the victorious Jesus rules and reigns over all creation, where God’s dream has been fully realized, and where we have become fully and perfectly human, ruling and reigning with Jesus the king on this throne.

And so we come back to everybody’s favorite verse: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  So what is God’s plan? What is this prospering he promises? What does the future look like?

We think that God’s primary agenda is to pull us out of exile, to lead us out of Babylon and into Jerusalem. We think his plan is to make our lives better. But the plan has always been, and will always be, simply this: Jesus Christ. Jesus is your prosperity. Jesus is your hope. Jesus is your future. And we will always find Jesus in the midst of our exile. Jesus walks through the deserts of Babylon, not to lead a mass exodus to Jerusalem—not yet. No, he walks through Babylon to find you, to sit with you, to say, “I am with you. I am here. I am your God, and you are mine. Worship me, only. Follow me, only. And in doing that, become like me.”

We have hope, not because Steve Jobs rose from rags to riches and we can too, but because Jesus Christ rose from the dead and we will too. And on that day he will welcome in all who put their trust in him and not their own potential, who put their faith in him and not their own power, whose hope was in him and not in their own dreams. If you are in exile, embrace your exile. That is where you will find Jesus. There are no shortcuts to realized hope. Only by embracing your exile will you learn to live with the true and lasting hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Postscript.

In many ways, my life is not what I wanted. My son’s health has forsaken him, leaving him a shell of the boy he was and could be. My dream of Ember Church died. Six months ago, I was fired. I am not in pastoral ministry–the vocation to which I sense that I am so strongly called, and toward which I have directed my entire life–and I don’t know when or if I will ever be again. Like many others I know, I live in an existential exile. Embracing this is hard. Daydreaming is easy. So is bitterness. My sense of entitlement drives me to dark places. But if I am to find God in this life–the only life I have–I must embrace the circumstances of the hours I wake and the ground on which I walk. I must embrace my exile in order to find God’s presence, and it’s when I find God here, in Babylon, that I am reminded that the only hope worth having will never be fully realized in a fallen world, but it awaits us as sheer grace, utter gift, on the other side of faithfulness. God’s plan for the world, and for me, is Jesus. There is no harm in Jesus. There is everlasting prosperity in Jesus. The only future worth having is found only in Jesus. That helps me. A lot. And I hope it helps you, too.

This morning, my old friend Nate left an insightful comment on the Facebook post of my review of David Platt’s book, Follow Me. I think he raises many valid points, and I would like to take the time to address them. I’ve chosen to do that here, on the blog, rather than on the Facebook thread so that I can better interact with his comments. To see what he is commenting on, please click here, and scroll down to the section titled, My Criticism. Nate’s comments will appear in the gray boxes, with my responses to each immediately following.

My first contention is with your statement that basically God initiated our salvation at the Cross and now he’s waiting for us to “make that salvation available.” What does the Holy Spirit do? Isn’t he the one who convicts and convinces of sin (John 16:7-8) and also the one who initiates our spiritual birth (John 3:5-8), or are these verses “metaphorical” as well? What is his mission? To wait around until we build up the gumption to surrender to Christ and then he moves in? That’s not Biblical in the slightest.

In my attempt to be brief, I left out a lot of important information, as you have pointed out. Certainly, the Holy Spirit is actively wooing nonChristians to Jesus through a variety of means, particularly convicting of sin. God is not sitting back in his heavenly arm chair waiting for us to accomplish his mission. But here’s the point I wanted to make–neither are we sitting back in our sinful arm chairs waiting for God to save us and everyone else. We are active agents in the Great Commission. We were told by Jesus, “Go. Make Disciples. Teach. Baptize.” (And surely he is with us, always.) God did what only he could do–pay the price for the sin of humanity on the cross, then destroy death through his resurrection. Then, as Matthew 28 makes explicit, he told his first disciples to tell the rest of the world about what has happened, and in that telling they would bring the message through which all could be saved. (Acts 11:14) God has partnered with his people to bring about salvation for all who will believe. Paul makes the point most clearly, I think:

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:9-15)

To sum it up:

  • We are saved by calling on the name of the Lord;
  • We call on the name of the Lord because we believe in him;
  • We believe in him because we have heard of him [and the Gospel];
  • We have heard because someone has preached to us.

I’m not saying that you or I can save anybody. Nor am I saying that God has nothing whatsoever to do with our salvation, now that the crucifixion and resurrection have happened. What I am saying is what I think both Jesus and Paul are saying, which is that God has sovereignly chosen to make his disciples active agents in his plan of salvation. Isn’t that what missions is all about? I think Platt would agree with me on that, at least.

Regarding your statement about the parable of the treasure; I think you’re missing an important component. Namely, how does this man know the treasure has value? I know that seems simplistic, but seriously, what tells this man “this is worth my life savings”? If you say it’s obvious that it’s valuable, then why don’t some people see this value? Why do many people who are saturated with the Gospel never see its worth? Are they not as smart as us? Not as spiritually sensitive? Are they simply more in love with their sin than we are? If you say the difference between them and us is anything but the grace of God (and the work of the Holy Spirit), then you have just added works/merit to our salvation and stepped into potential heresy (I’m not accusing you of intentional heresy, simply that you are treading on thin ice).

I thought this was a great point, and I thought about it for a long time. Then it struck me that Jesus may have had something to say about this.

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred,sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

[Jesus then goes on to explain the parable.] “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matthew 13)

It seems to me that Jesus is describing four types of people that characterize four different responses to the Gospel. Jesus says that there are three reasons for why people reject the Gospel: 1) They don’t understand it, and so Satan has snatched away the message that was sown in their heart; 2) Trouble and/or persecution comes upon a new believer who has no root, and so they give up; and 3) The worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke out the Gospel, so that it fails to bring forth fruit. The fourth soil–the only one in which the Gospel bears fruit–produces a thriving crop because, as Jesus says, someone heard the word and understood it. Jesus did not say that this was because of the grace of God or the work of the Holy Spirit. He says that the Gospel took root in them and was fertile because they heard and understood it. So I will say what Jesus said: The difference between those who receive the Gospel and those who reject it is that the ones who receive it understand it.

At this point, it may be tempting to ask, “Why did they understand it?”, and then to answer, “Because of the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit.” But that’s not what Jesus said. He left it at “someone who hears the word and understands it.” To explain the mechanism of understanding is to eisegete the text. You said, “If you say the difference between them and us is anything but the grace of God (and the work of the Holy Spirit), then you have just added works/merit to our salvation and stepped into potential heresy.” But this is precisely what Jesus has said. I would argue that if your theological system puts you in the position of accusing Jesus of “potential heresy,” then it is time to abandon your theological system.

Your treatment of Ephesians 2 is confusing. If Paul didn’t mean that we are spiritually dead, then what exactly did he mean? Paul used the word nekros there, and while I don’t know Greek perfectly, that means dead. A corpse. Without life. You mentioned that it may be metaphorical. Honestly, if he were referring to our physical bodies, you would be correct because obviously the reader was alive and able to read. But our physical life isn’t what he had in mind, he was referring to our spiritual self. This isn’t Gnosticism, this is Biblical. Gnosticism is that the spiritual and the physical are unrelated so what happens to one is independent of the other. That’s not what he was teaching.

Also, I don’t think I need to go into detail that the Bible considers unsaved people to be dead. That is clear. To think that when I was unsaved I was ALMOST totally dead, but I had a spark of divinity that could choose God is semi-Pelagian at best. I don’t want to get aggressive here, but it concerns me that every time a passage is presented that contradicts your theological view, instead of trying to reason it out within Scripture, your default response is that it must be metaphorical. You’ve done it with both creation and prophecy in the past. I don’t argue those because they are not critical to the faith. But to say that the clear Biblical teaching that we are helpless corpses in our sin is simply metaphorical is untenable. If we start throwing this word around then we run into problems such as was the virgin birth simply metaphor? What about the miracles? What about the nature of the atonement? Was the resurrection metaphorical or literal? The Second Coming? I’m not trying to be belligerent, and I’m not questioning your fidelity on these issues, I’m simply saying you enter a slippery slope whenever you throw the word “metaphor” around loosely when the Bible doesn’t intend to be taken metaphorically.

You’re correct in identifying the basic teaching of Gnosticism. John saw this Gnostic storm brewing in his church at Ephesus, and so we got the incredible book of 1 John, which just so happens to be my favorite book in the Bible. But if Paul is saying that the spiritual can be dead while the physical is alive, isn’t he saying the same thing (though with the opposite side being dead or useless) as the Gnostics? Isn’t this kind of division of the spiritual and physical Gnostic, in and of itself?

As for Ephesians 2, perhaps I ought to go back to Ephesians 1 to help explain why I think Paul is using a metaphor. Ephesians 1:12-13 says this: “…we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit…” (I’ve italicized the portions I think are relevant to this discussion.) Can dead people put their hope in Christ? Can dead people believe? Platt argues that dead people can’t invite Jesus into their hearts. In fact, dead people can’t do anything! But Paul says that these people, whom he calls “dead in your transgressions and sins” in chapter 2, believed in Christ. Paul does not say, in chapter 1, that they were infused with belief by God. Rather, he plainly states: When you believed. They were dead in their sins, and then they heard the Gospel and believed. (This sounds quite similar to the parable of Jesus I quoted above.) This, as well as the contrasting vocabulary Paul chooses in chapter 2 (You were dead in your…sins in which you used to live), leads me to believe that Paul is using the term dead metaphorically.

As for your concerns about interpreting Scripture, I try to remain as faithful as possible to the text, which, for me, means understanding the text within its original context, however much a thing is possible. I’ve used this quote from Fee & Stuart again and again, and I live by it: The Bible cannot mean what it never meant. What it meant when it was written is what it means today, though obviously we apply the text in a vastly different context. I’m not afraid of becoming liberal anymore. Many people believe that I’ve already arrived there. No, my greater fear is being unfaithful to Jesus and the Scriptures. The reason that I rail, at times, against certain Calvinistic doctrines is because I believe that they are, in fact, unfaithful to Jesus and the Scriptures.

Finally, (and this is turning out to be longer than I expected) while I agree with you that Genesis 1&2 are eternal and will return someday, the fact is that Genesis 3 distorted that image, like it did everything else. Certainly, Christ began the reversal of the curse on the Cross, and someday he will reverse it completely when he returns, but until then, sin rules this world and blinds the eyes of the lost. Before I was saved, I was dead, blind, and useless. When God gave me life and raised me from the dead spiritually, I was able to enter a relationship with him again. Not because I’m better than anyone else, but because God is gracious.

I agree with so much of what you write here, but I would say this: sin does not rule this world, Jesus does. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Jesus, not sin, is Lord. Jesus is presently reigning from the right hand of the Father, that glorious place of cosmic authority from which he is presently putting all his enemies under his feet.

The core of our disagreement, I think, is that, in my opinion, you give sin too much credit. The creative act of God is more powerful and more enduring the destructive acts of Satan or humans. If Jesus is Lord, then sin, death, hell, Satan, or anyone or anything else is not. The Genesis 3 world is passing away, and the Revelation 21-22 world (which is really just the mirror image of the Genesis 1-2 world) is coming. Jesus has already defeated sin, evil, and death. He is defeating them. And he will defeat them.

I hope that I have sufficiently answered your concerns, and I look forward to continuing this discussion.

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.

One of my seminary professors, a systematic theologian named Dr. Richard Lints, told me that all good theology begins in Genesis 1. If this is true, which I believe that it is, then we must think about Genesis 1 correctly if we are going to think appropriately about God. This first chapter of Scripture lays the foundation for the way in which we understand God. It’s no wonder, then, that this is one of the most contentious and hotly-debated texts in all of Scripture. Coupled with the trajectory of modern science since the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, the interpretation of Genesis 1 has served for many as a litmus test for true belief. Yet even within evangelicalism, there is a vast spectrum of belief on this text, ranging from Biologos to Answers in Genesis, and many in between.

There are many different ways to interpret Genesis 1, just as there are many different ways to interpret, for example, the book of Revelation, or Daniel, or the Psalms. It is worth noting, though it should go without saying, that people who love Jesus very much can come into sharp disagreement over the interpretation of biblical passages–especially Genesis 1. The litmus test for true belief, however, is not what one believes about Genesis 1, but whether or not one believes the Gospel–that Jesus died for our sins and rose again. With that said, I’d like to lay out what I take to be the meaning of Genesis 1.

What God Wanted to Say

The first and most important question we must ask with any biblical text is this: What did God intend to communicate through the original author to the text’s intended audience? We ask this question because the meaning of a text cannot change. As Fee & Stuart have written in their excellent work, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, “The Bible cannot mean what it never meant.” While personal and communal applications of a text may change across time and culture, the meaning of a text does not change.

So when it comes to Genesis 1, we must ask the question: What did God intend to communicate through Moses (or Abraham, or Ezra, or whoever actually wrote the passage) to the Hebrew people in the hymn that is Genesis 1? Approaching the question this way, one thing should come immediately to mind: Moses did not write Genesis 1 as a polemic against Darwinian evolution. Darwin’s book was published roughly 3,000 years after Genesis 1, so to assume that this text is about evolution/creation is to commit an historical anachronism of the first order. It’s simply not possible. 


The litmus test for true belief is not what one believes about Genesis 1, but whether or not one believes the Gospel–that Jesus died for our sins and rose again.

When we step into the culture of the Ancient Near East (which you can’t physically do, but two books, The Lost World of Genesis One and The Bible Among the Myths, can help you understand a great deal more about it) we see that Genesis 1 is not a polemic against Darwinian Evolutionary Theory or naturalistic materialism; it is, however, a polemic against pagan pantheism. The real problem that Genesis 1 sets out to address is not the mechanism by which God created the universe, but rather which god is the true creator.

In fact, the unique genius of Genesis 1 is that it presents a monotheistic theology of creation that holds humanity in high esteem. Typically, the creation myths of Israel’s neighbors presented a pantheistic (many gods) view of creation with the heavens and the earth being the byproduct of some cosmic war. In this pagan scenario, humanity is an unwelcome addition to this world of chaos, thereby establishing their bottom-rung value in the universe, useful for little more than serving the needs of the gods.

But in Genesis 1 we get something radically different. We see a singular God speaking the heavens and the earth into being by himself and on purpose. What is more, in this story humanity is the pinnacle of creation, bearing the very image of this all-powerful, speaking Creator God, who called humans “very good.” Even more radical than this, the text declares that God created humanity male and female, meaning that women have as much inherent, created dignity, worth, and purpose as men. You might say that Genesis 1 erases and rewrites everything–EVERYTHING–that Hebrews, inundated by Ancient Near Eastern cultural values, knew about creation, divinity, and themselves. It may just be the most powerful, worldview-deconstructing and -reconstructing text ever written.

Imagine that you are a Hittite, or an Egyptian, or a Babylonian living around 1400 BC. You believe in many gods, and they are all powerful, vengeful, angry, and often possess little or no moral character. They are strong, but they are not good. You also believe that humanity exists to be, in essence, the slaves of the gods, and are completely subject to the whims of the members of the divine pantheon. Furthermore, whatever dignity exists within humanity is entirely invested in males, especially firstborn males. Women are good for child bearing and little else. This is your worldview. These beliefs, more than anything else, form the way you look at the world. And then you find the text of Genesis 1. What happens to you? No one has ever even conceived of these things before! You have no category for what you read here. Creation comes into being, not through divine warfare, but through divine proclamation. All creation is called “good.” Human beings, both men and women, are called “very good.” This changes everything.

The Pattern in the Days

I had been reading Genesis 1 for a long, long time before someone pointed out to me the pattern in the days. Have you ever noticed it before? The first three days line up with the second three days. In other words, day 1 is associated with day 4, day 2 with day 5, and day 3 with day 6. Check out the tabbed table below for more info on the days.

[tabs] [tab title=”Day 1″] On the first day of Creation God made light, separating it from the darkness. He called the light “day” and the darkness “night.” Notice that he hasn’t yet created any celestial bodies to shine or reflect any light, much less anything for the light to shine upon. No light-producers–no sun, moon, or stars. He has simply created light. It’s as though light exists as an empty field or canvas, unpopulated and unmarked. [/tab] [tab title=”Day 4″] Three days later, God created the celestial bodies–the sun, moon, and stars–to govern the passage of days. In other words, God filled or populated the empty field called “light” he made on the first day. Now, light does not simply exist, but serves the function of the passage of time. [/tab] [tab title=”Day 2″] The second day is really interesting because it is the separation of the waters. This concept comes from Ancient Near Eastern cosmology, in which it was understood that there was water behind an “expanse” or “vault” in the sky. This was how they understood the process of rainfall, which, given the scientific understanding of the time, is perfectly reasonable. What happened on this day, though, was that God separated two realms–the sea and the sky. Like on the first day, there are not yet any inhabitants of these realms. They are empty. [/tab] [tab title=”Day 5″] On the fifth day, God created the fish and the birds–the inhabitants of the sea and the sky! He painted an empty canvas on the second day, and then, just as with day four, he filled it up, though this time with beautiful, powerful, awe-inspiring creatures. [/tab] [tab title=”Day 3″] The third day was when God pulled back the waters of the sea and created dry ground. An interesting note about this day is that, unlike with days 1 and 2, the land produced something on day 3–vegetation! This points to the Hebrew understanding that vegetation and land are one and the same, and that the land exists to produce vegetation for… [/tab] [tab title=”Day 6″] Animals and humans! Day 6 is connected with day 3 just like the other two pairs in that God first created an empty field, and then filled that field with his creatures. God created spaces, and then he filled those spaces with creatures. [/tab] [/tabs]

There is an unmistakeable, and, I believe, a God-breathed pattern in the first six days of Creation. God creates a space, and then God fills that space with creatures who give it purpose and life. The order of the Creation text is no accident, and is, in fact, meant to lead us to an understanding of the order of Creation itself. But it leaves us with a question, doesn’t it? What about that seventh day? Why no pair for that day? What does it mean?

Divine Enthronement

The design of Genesis 1 is meant to point us to a profound cosmic reality, one that gets lost in the modern debate over the age of the earth and the origins of the universe. The three pairs of days are meant to point our attention toward the final, unpaired day, and make us ask the question, “What is so special about this day?”

Of course we all know that the seventh day is the Sabbath, the day that God rested. We imagine that this is the day God kicked up his feet, drank some lemonade, and maybe read a good book. Or took a nap. Whatever he did, we think of it as God taking a break from work. But there’s a crucial question that we haven’t been trained to ask, and that is this: “What did it mean, in the Ancient Near East (the culture in which Genesis 1 was written), for a god to take his rest?” In his excellent book The Lost World of Genesis One, John Walton writes that an ancient god always takes his rest in his temple.

So what happens on the seventh day is not so much a prolonged divine lunch break as it is a moving day. God takes his rest in his creation. Creation is God’s temple. God moves into creation. God is present within, while at the same time distinct from, the cosmos he has just created. All creation is God’s holy place. The creation myths of Israel’s neighbors begin, so to speak, with a world already thrust into chaos, sin, and death. But the Hebrew creation story begins with a good creation inhabited by a good and beautiful God–a holy world functioning in perfect harmony because of the presence of its Creator.

It is vital, I believe, for us to understand the world, and ourselves, primarily in the light of God’s original creation. Too many Christians functionally believe that Genesis and 1 and 2 are nothing more than happy myths, faerie tales, and that the Bible doesn’t really start telling the truth of creation until Genesis 3, the fall. Too many Christians think of themselves, the world, and even God, as though Genesis 3 were more true than Genesis 1. But Genesis 1 describes reality as it was and will be again, while Genesis 3 describes reality as it is now but will someday no longer be.

The Living God

Genesis 1 isn’t about geology or biology; it’s about a good Creator creating a good world, a home suitable for creatures that are more like he is than the angels are. On that sixth day, God made human beings, and he made them in his image. This is significant.

In the Ancient Near East, every god’s temple had to have an image–a statue, an inscription–to signify whose temple this was. For example, Dagon’s temple would have an image of Dagon in it. Baal’s would have an image of Baal, and so forth. So what did God choose to put as his image in his temple? Us. Humans. We are the inscriptions, the living statues on earth that testify to every living creature to whom this temple belongs, what sort of God he is, and how we might know him.


Genesis 1 tells us that God is alive because you are alive.

If you understand human beings from a Genesis 3 perspective, you would naturally conclude that the God in whose image they were created is a foul, nasty, cowardly, shallow deity bent on sex, food, and power. But if you understand human beings from a Genesis 1 perspective, you would see the Creator God as a good, wise, benevolent deity who sought the best for his creatures. (It’s important to note that Jesus was a Genesis 1 kind of human.) But here’s the most important part: all the images of all the other gods were made of wood, stone, or metal. In other words, they were dead. The breath of life was not in them. But the image of the Hebrew God is made of flesh and blood. It breathes. It moves. It is alive. And if God’s image is alive, how much more alive is that God? Genesis 1 tells us that God is alive because you are alive. You are a living apologetic to the existence of God.

God is not like the other gods. He does not need anyone to make him a house or a temple. He made his own temple and came to dwell within it, setting up his own living images to govern and care for it. His intention was and is for his living images to spread over the earth, subduing it, caring for it, ruling over it in the same way he rules over the cosmos–with wisdom, strength, and mercy. These living images, however, were not merely his minions, created solely to do his bidding. They were and are individual lives, minds, and personalities, meant to know and be known by one another and, most importantly, by God himself. God’s intention has been, from the very beginning, to dwell with humanity within his creation–within the beauty and holiness of his temple. This is the way it was, and to the praise of his glory and grace, the way it will be again.