Archives For reformed theology

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One of the most puzzling articles in the Apostles’ Creed is the sentence “he descended into hell, the third day rose again from the dead.” As our congregation has started to study the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the reformed tradition I’ve started to receive questions about what some of our confessions mean. What does this line of the Creed mean?

For most people the problematic word is “hell.” In popular theology hell is a literal place designed to punish people. It seems problematic the God’s Son should “descend” into a place designed for punishment. And it raises the question, why is Jesus going there? Is he being punished? Is he being purified? Just what exactly is he doing?

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Reformed Christians are deferential to the creeds and confessions. I like to say that we assume the veracity of our confessional standards unless and until a clear, compelling, and widely-received counter argument is produced. And since the Reformed tradition teaches that confessions are subordinate standards–that is they rank below God himself and God’s revelation of himself in Scripture–we should seek to understand the Creed in light of the Bible.

The gospel accounts of Jesus’ words to the thief who believed him seem to call the Creed into question. Christians who affirm Jesus’ descent into hell often argue that it took place after his death and before his resurrection (i.e., on Holy Saturday). What do the Gospels recount. One contains a promise that Jesus and a criminal crucified would be in paradise “today.” The others barely mention the event or ignore it completely.

Luke is unique in recounting that one of the two criminals crucified with Jesus petitioned Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42). Jesus’ replies, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (43).

The Gospel of Mark doesn’t record Jesus’ encounter his two fellow convicts and Matthew simply states that the robbers insulted Jesus (Matt. 27:38, 44).

John records that two men were crucified with Jesus, but not that they were robbers or that they interacted with Jesus at all (19:32).

If we are to interpret passages of Scripture that appear to be unclear or ambiguous in light of those that are clear then we have to find some other biblical evidence that supports the Creeds’ assertion and clarifies what Jesus is recorded to have said from the cross.

A passage that seems to meet that description may be found in the first letter of Peter. In 1 Peter 3:18-19ff.:

For Christ dies for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison….”

Of course, Peter isn’t entirely clear as to who these “spirits in prison” are and he doesn’t make clear precisely what Jesus preached, why he preached it, or what the outcome was. Nevertheless, it is clear that Jesus didn’t descend to hell to suffer. He had already declared that his work of atonement was finished.

In all likelihood his purpose was as R. C. Sproul puts it, “He goes to hell to liberate those spirits who, from antiquity, have been held in prison. His task in hell then is one of triumph, liberating Old Testament saints.” the Old Testament saints being those, who like Abraham, believed in God before Christ’s advent and their belief was credited to them as righteousness (see Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:22).

So, yes Jesus descends into hell. However, the English word “hell” isn’t a particularly accurate or helpful translation of the original Greek and Latin versions of the Creed. The hell referred to in the Apostles’ Creed isn’t a place of suffering, but more about that in our next post.

Imagine sitting down with a financial planner and in addition to totaling your bank accounts and mapping your investments, you also mapped your significant relationships and explored your relationship to your home.

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The way I was going about doing the work of God was destroying the work of God in me.  -Anonymous Pastor

I love pastors. Really. Yes, I know that in our current moment it is more hip to be cynical of religious institutions and to reject the notion of religious authority. I get it. And I admit that there have been people and events and trends that perhaps give some justification to this cynicism. At the same time, I know too many pastors.

Many people only know a succession of ministers who serve their church as pastors over the years–they come and then they go. Some linger longer than others, but eventually they move on. There’s a tradition in presbyterian pastoral ministry of virtually renouncing all contact with members of a prior congregation once a pastor leaves. In some ways it makes sense, but it also means that few parishioners retain any contact with ministers who aren’t their pastor.

It’s easy to misunderstand people we don’t really know and whose lives we really don’t get. Of course, it gets complicated when we’re talking about pastors–especially, your pastor. It would be weird to ask her, “So…what’s it really like serving us?”

What seems a weird question for an individual to pose is actually a very appropriate question for a session and personnel committee to ask. Here’s the bottom line: the work of ministry is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it is so easy to use “god” to run from God. We can easily employ busyness in god-work and god-talk as a substitute for an on-going transformative relationship with God in Christ.

Ministers need the support of their congregations to really flourish in their work, and the session has to be an ally and advocate in creating a culture of appropriate clergy care.

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Ironically, churches sometimes believe that they’ll “get more for their money” if they drive their pastors harder. Preach more sundays. Do more visits. Be available in the office during business hours. Attend meetings on week nights, do funerals and weddings on saturday, and get to the church building at 6am Sunday morning to lead an exciting and life-changing encounter with the living God at 8:30 and 11:00.

None of these is a bad thing. In fact, one or two weeks as above is probably okay. What’s not okay, however, is expecting the above schedule to be the normal routine. It’s not healthy. It’s not sustainable. In the end, both the church and the pastor will pay a steep price.

Last week I joined staff and area directors from sixteen campuses, along with our executive coaches, for training in ministry building. It was the best training of my ministry career. One of the things that made it powerful was the synergy that emerged from sharing the experience with one of my direct reports and our coach. All told, we spent more than 40 hours together face to face, which is more than we’d normally get in an academic year.

Key to the training is a tool—we received more than thirty tools over the week—called the “discipleship cycle.” It’s illustrated below. The discipleship cycle is the most effective way to both guide Christians in maturing as followers of Christ, but at the same to move them along a continuum of leadership development as well.

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“Hear the Word” – Through prayer, scripture, and in shared discernment, we come to agreement on what God is asking us to do. It may be agreeing to reach out to three people whom God has brought to mind. It may be taking the risk to approach another graduate student and encourage him in his faith. It could be any number of things.

“Respond actively” – When God leads us to do something—regardless of what it is—we respond actively. Hopefully out active response is also a full response rather than a marginal effort.

“Debrief and interpret” – This is critical to growth both as a leader and as a disciple. In community with another, we consider what God asked us to do and how we responded to his invitation. How did we feel? What was the outcome? What did we like about the experience? What was uncomfortable? What held us back from full obedience? You get the idea.

 

Asking questions is an incredibly fruitful way of coming to understand another. Answering questions is also an incredibly rich way to come to understand ourselves. Put these together with a trusted guide or coach who can, in reliance on God, attempt to bring some degree of interpretation to the experience and the combination is dynamite.

What’s so beautiful about this approach is that it can be deployed quite easily and naturally throughout the day and even a brief five minute encounter can become a micro-seminar with a very concrete, very particular lesson.

During the week, we used this tool and I found that it forced me to stop, consider the action or goal I had undertaken, evaluate my response to it, and then connect the two in the company of a coach who could help by clarifying, observing, and interpreting.

What tools do you use to help train followers of Christ as leaders?

 

 

 

The evangelical church must make significant progress in valuing and embracing the arts. This is the case both because the arts are inherently valuable (they’re valuable because of what they are as well as what they do) and because the arts play a critical role in the formation of culture.

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