Yes, Virginia, there really is a line

See my previous post for thoughts on books that needn’t bother to be books. Nevertheless, I agree wholeheartedly with Tim Challies’ review of Sex, Dating, and Relationships: A Fresh Approach. There is no Biblical category for “girlfriend.” A girlfriend is a practice wife, and the only reason to practice being married without actually getting married is so you can practice getting divorced.

BUT (wanting to justify himself, he said) is there a Biblical category for betrothed? I’m looking at you, Song of Solomon.

Mystic, Desist!

I was getting all set to do battle with this article, until I read it and discovered it doesn’t say anything interesting. To wit:

1. Everything he says here would be affirmed by even the most wild-eyed pentecostal I know of.
2. He identifies no particular practice under the heading of “mysticism” that he considers biblically inappropriate.

I am therefore left with the conclusion that it is the actual word “mysticism” with which he has his beef. And this I will grant: the word itself is found nowhere in scripture, though some of it’s more distant cognates are present (i.e., mystery). If Tim Challies wishes, I am fully prepared to abandon the word.

There is something to Whitney’s definition of mysticism: “those forms of Christian spirituality which attempt direct or unmediated access to God.” And if, by “unmediated access” he means “apart from the cross,” I agree. There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ.

However, there are multiple accounts in scripture of people receiving “special revelation” without recourse to reading scripture. This is, of course, how the bible was written in the first place, but even with a closed canon, there are numerous examples of people receiving special revelation, which special revelation was never included in scripture. For example, Philip the Evangelist had 4 daughters who prophesied, and yet not one word of theirs was entered in the Bible. It was apparently normative in the early church for people to receive various kinds of extra-biblical special revelation.

So I will throw out my standard trope: If your theology disallows a practice that is normative in scripture, stop. You’re doing something wrong.

Now, what is it, exactly, that Mr. Challies wants the wicked mystics to cease and desist?

Like model chemicals, maybe.

In a book review, Tim Challies says “God Performs Miracles Today!” And I’m still not satisfied.

There’s a bit of a feeling of bait and switch in the post, but that’s not really it. Here’s my problem with his review: technically I agree with everything that it says. God still does miracles. The greatest miracle is regeneration, even though it’s harder to discern. Compared to healing miracles, regeneration doesn’t get nearly enough fanfare. All true. But stated wrong.

It’s not as though there were some competition between miracles and regeneration. They aren’t rivals. They’re buddies. God intended them to work together. And if the wrong one gets all the attention, we should be used to that, and be ready for it. Healing writes large, and plain to see, what regeneration does on a tiny, more fundamental scale. So the naysayers deny healing, and ignore salvation, and having been denied, people go off to prove it, without teaching anybody what healing is a sign of.

Biblically, there’s a solid connection between miracles, specifically healing miracles, and regeneration. A touchstone verse would be Isaiah 53:5:

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.

There have been all kinds of doctrines built on this connection between healing and salvation, and these have only been complicated by generations of unbelief, who were willing to let slide an invisible salvation, but not a healing that could be verified or disproved.

Here’s the whole connection that I see between regeneration and miracles: Salvation is “by grace… through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Similarly, healing is by grace, through faith, the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Healing miracles are a visible demonstration of what invisible salvation looks like.

Just as healing is a miraculous gift from God, salvation is a miraculous gift from God. Just as no amount of effort to drum up the appropriate amount of faith for healing will guarantee healing, no amount of effort to drum up the appropriate amount of faith for salvation will grant salvation. And just as some people mysteriously don’t get healed, some people mysteriously don’t get saved. They both come as gifts, so that no one can boast. And yet both come through the mechanism of faith. Sometimes God heals people who never get saved. Sometimes God saves people who never get healed.

There shouldn’t be any rivalry between the healing party and the salvation party. We should pray for both, and thank God for both, and use every occasion of the lesser miracle, healing, to teach about the greater miracle, salvation. And the first step is demonstrating that regeneration is the greater miracle.

Everyone sees the wonder of a miracle. Broken limb to whole limb. Got it. Blind to seeing; deaf to hearing; dumb to singing. Everyone agrees on what the problem is, and everyone can identify when a person is well. Not so with sin, and so we underrate the value of salvation.

Repentance is not turning over a new leaf. Regeneration is not a decision. You were dead in your trespasses. Lazarus didn’t decide to stand up and walk. When a person is born again, the first thing they do is to truly see their sin for the first time and be horrified by the very thing they used to love. And repenting, they repent.

That doesn’t just… happen. I know – we see something like it in raising children: My 10 month old likes dropping things in the toilet and fishing them out again. I’m pretty sure my 4 year old would never (but then again, he might). There is a process of learning right from wrong that children go through, but it’s a mistake to think that regeneration is nothing more than a part of this, like the hit man who just wasn’t raised right.

The fact that it goes deeper is what makes it so difficult to discern. It’s also what makes regeneration in fact a greater miracle than any healing. It’s more subtle than “the kind of change that would make an Eskimo renounce fur, that would make a vegetarian barbecue hamster.” It’s the sort of thing that can fundamentally change a person’s character without budging their personality. It’s so difficult to discern that some people can fake it for years, with no one the wiser. At the same time, it’s the sort of thing that can make a person drop their entire system of right and wrong on a single proof from scripture, or a single word from Jesus’ mouth. In other words, it’s unnoticeable, impossible, undeniable, and extreme.

It’s a lot easier to talk about removing cancer.

I’m going to go with the majority on this one: the greatest miracle still happens in the human heart. But I’m not sure I’ve ever been a witness to that transformation. Not right there, on the spot. I can see evidences, when I hear about a life that’s been renewed. I think of my wife’s cousin, who is showing every sign of a complete transformation, and for whom I have a great deal of hope. I think of my oldest son, who displays a rebellious nature nearly every chance he gets, and prays un-prompted for a new heart most mornings at breakfast. Sometimes I’m not sure I can see all that much evidence of a new heart in myself, so I’m a little jealous of David, who dropped everything last night to pray that the dog would get a new heart and stop biting.

The trick, I think is to take regeneration as seriously as healing, even though it’s hard to discern. Taking regeneration seriously means taking fallen nature seriously, which is harder than it sounds. We want so badly to hack at the symptoms. But that is why God gave us miracles: so that we could see our spiritual problems, in reverse scale.


Here’s Tim Challies on birth control. As usual, it’s a pretty clear and concise summary of the standard Evangelical view on birth control. I’m with him about 98% of the way. But I had to smirk at his footnote on the sin of Onan:

A word about Onan: The story of Onan is recorded in Genesis 38 and it goes like this: “Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.’ But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother.” God did not kill Onan because he used coitus interruptus as a method of birth control, but because he refused to fulfill his duty toward his brother and his brother’s family. He made a mockery of the commands of God, being willing to take pleasure in his brother’s wife but being unwilling to accept the responsibility of raising a child in his brother’s name. While this story may not be entirely irrelevant to our discussion, it is not the place to begin.

In other words, God killed Onan, because he short-changed his brother, and not his brother’s wife. She would be the character in the story who was entering into sexual relations with the expectation of getting children, which was the longing of every decent woman in her era. Onan, on the other hand was “willing to take pleasure” in the activities, but “unwilling to accept the responsibility of raising a child…” It was less about the actual actions, and more about the heart attitudes involved, which heart attitudes mirror exactly those of people who use birth control today.

The more I hear people explain how the sin of Onan wasn’t about birth control, the more I get the impression that birth control is a really bad idea, and the the more I’m impressed with the human ability to argue themselves in circles.

Book Rotation

I am trying a new campaign of reading (we’ll see how well it goes) where I cycle through the kinds of books I read. The problem is that there are so many books I think I ought to read, but they keep getting pushed out by books that are actually readable.

Non-fiction is the culprit. So many non-fiction writers seem to be operating under the misguided notion that, because what they have to say is true and important, people ought to read it out of a pure regard for the content of the book. They hold to this concept with a firm conviction that allows them to thereby insult the reader with a style that is so blindingly dull, the only way you can get through all that True and Important stuff is by a sheer act of will. And the more seriously the author takes his work, the more likely it is to be devoid of the kind of rhetorical sway that pulls you from one concept to the next. Nobody cares about the reader anymore.

The importance of non-fiction reading resembles nothing to me so much as the importance of bran in the diet. And I’m the kind of guy who likes to start his day with grape nuts.

The fact that there are voracious readers out there who never touch a page of fiction truly disturbs me. Tim Challies really disturbs me. Iain Murray, who may be one of the greatest Christian historians alive, wrote a book in 2009 called The Undercover Revolution, in which he argues that novels revolutionized the English speaking world in the 19th century (unfortunately, in his opinion, for the worse). In an interview with Mark Dever, when he was asked “how should we be thinking about novels today,” Murray responded, “I’m not sure we should be thinking about them all; we’ve got so much better things to do. And it amazes me that Christians who are called to redeem the time have got time to read novels.” Fiction changes the world, but we haven’t got time to read any. Astounding.

Maybe a better metaphor is those people whose diet consists of steak and protein shakes, as though they’ve never heard of fruit and bread and candy.

Anyway, I have to force myself to read non-fiction, especially the really important stuff that’s clogging up all the space on my shelves. So here’s the system: I read a fiction book, and then a non-fiction. Hopefully, the future joy of fiction will spur me on through the slough of brute facts. The jury’s still out.

So far, I finished up 9 Marks of a Healthy Church by M. Dever, and then tossed back (quickly quaffed?) a cheap paperback by R.A. Heinlein. Now I’m stuck in The Death of Socrates.”