About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

What are You Prepared to Do?

The so-called “conservative” responses to the Senate torture report are now making their rounds, and they tell us quite a bit about what really matters to certain people. Thus far no one has denied that the most morally repugnant alleged practices actually took place. No one has said, “That’s crazy! We would never use rape as a weapon! We could never forcibly insert food into someone’s rectum! No way!” No. They have not said that. They have attempted to justify the practices by arguing that the practices produced important information, that the proper authorities knew about them, and that our enemies do much worse. But they are not denying those practices.

Tellingly, Dick Cheney declined to refute the charge of rectal re-hydration. He sidestepped the gravity of the question entirely by saying he had “no knowledge” of that specific practice, but then he went straight to a defense of its hypothetical use on the grounds that it would have been necessary: “What are you prepared to do to get the truth against future attacks against the United States?” It’s a good question. What are you prepared to do? Are you prepared to threaten to rape someone’s mother? Are you prepared to make that threat within a context where it is credible? Are you prepared to carry through with that threat? If the answer is NO!, which it should be, then Mr. Cheney’s justification fails. Continue reading

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Jesus Died For Torture Apologists

Discussions of torture and the United States’s use of it in the “War on Terror” are not new. Many thinkers, including Christian theologians, have considered the matter before, and there are some legitimate qualifications and discussions to be had. However, in the wake of the recent Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, there are no longer relevant reasons to prevent us from concluding that the United States did participate in torture and that many of the specific forms were unjust and abhorrent. They were evil.

Writing for The New Yorker, Amy Davidson summarizes the report explaining:

The interrogators didn’t know the languages that would have been useful for real intelligence, but they did come up with a lexicon of their own: “walling,” which meant slamming a person against a wall; “rough takedown,” in which a group would rush into a cell yelling, then drag a detainee down the hall while punching him, perhaps after having “cut off his clothes and secured him with Mylar tape”; “confinement box,” an instrument to make a prisoner feel he was closed in a coffin (the box came in large or small sizes); “sleep deprivation,” which might mean being kept awake for a hundred and eighty hours before succumbing to “disturbing hallucinations”; the ability to, as the report put it, “earn a bucket,” the bucket being what a prisoner might get to relieve himself in, rather than having to soil himself or being chained to a wall with a diaper (an “image” that President Bush was said to have found disturbing); “waterboarding,” which often itself seems to have been a euphemism for near, rather than simulated, drowning; “rectal rehydration as a means of behavioral control”; “lunch tray,” the assembly of foods that were puréed and used to rectally force-feed prisoners.

This is what the talk of family could look like: “CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families—to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to ‘cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat.’ ” The interrogation of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri included “implying that his mother would be brought before him and sexually abused.”

These ought to be shocking and disgusting revelations. The use of sexual assault and threats of sexual assault (and murder!) against family members are the kind of enormities which make rational men go mute in shock and moral disbelief. Yet sadly, many of these very practices were not surprises just revealed this week. Taxi to the Dark Side documented several of them 7 years ago. The new revelation is that they were not episodic offenses carried out by individuals but were rather intentional parts of official strategy.

Americans ought to be upset. Americans ought to be sad. Americans ought to be driven to introspection.

And this should be especially true for Christians. Continue reading

Wilderness Baptism and the End of the World

Text: Mark 1:1-8

The gospels begin in a time of anticipation. Things are not quite as they should be, and we are told that something big is on the way. In Mark’s gospel, this point is made through the strange imagery of a new sort of wilderness prophet. John the Baptist calls Israel to repentance for their sins, but he also says that his ministry is not the main attraction. The baptism for repentance is not the last word. Something else is coming, something bigger. In fact, someone else was coming. That person, the messiah, would bring in the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies. He would reverse the way things were, straightening what was crooked and raising up what was low, and he would finally reveal the glory of God on earth.

Wilderness

We shouldn’t miss the fact that John the Baptist is in the wilderness. Mark 1:4 says that “John came baptizing in the wilderness,” and in Matthew’s gospel we are told, “John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea” (Matthew 3:1). This is especially significant when we remember that John’s parents were temple servants who lived in a city in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39). That means that John chose to go to the wilderness. It was a conscious decision for his special ministry of prophecy. Continue reading

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Advent

Text: Isaiah 64:1-4

My wife hates it when folks play Christmas music before Thanksgiving. And so you can imagine how it has been to learn that people here in Central Florida begin celebrating Christmas on the second week of November. Lights are up and trees and wreaths are hung all over town well before Thanksgiving. And the really remarkable thing is that nobody feels at all bad about it. You people are totally unapologetic in your Christmas creep. And you know what, I’m kind of ok with that. That’s right, I’ll come out into the open with my secret. I’ve been quietly singing Christmas carols to myself for weeks now. One of my favorites is “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” You know how it goes:

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go. Take a look in the five and ten, glistening once again with candy canes and silver lanes aglow. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, toys in every store. But the prettiest sight to see is the holly that will be on your own front door.

The song goes on to mention “A pair of hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots” as well as “Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk.” It concludes by saying “Soon the bells will start, and the thing that will make them ring is the carol that you sing right within your heart.” That imagery reflects the classic Americana Christmas. It’s all about shopping, sweets, and feeling that warm spirit down in your heart. And I don’t mind this sort of American Christmas too much. It’s a lot of fun, and it reminds me of my childhood. But you know, none of those things have much to do with the Biblical picture of Christmas. Now, I’m not talking about the problem of consumerism or greed. I’m sure we could talk about those things some other time. I’m just talking about the general picture. What I’m talking about is Advent. Continue reading

The Law of Faith

Text: Romans 3:27-28

We come to the conclusion of our survey of justification in Romans 3. We’ve talked about the guilt of the law and the propitiation found in Christ, and now we come to the conclusion of it all, that “a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” But what we need to notice is that this conclusion is itself supported by the observation that boasting is excluded. That means Paul’s argument runs like this: No one can boast because everyone’s guilt was atoned for in the same way and by the same person, by the death of Jesus the messiah. That can only then mean that we are justified by faith alone. In short, penal substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone are two sides of the same coin. They both imply the other, and they both mean that we must be humble and dependent upon God. The shorthand which Paul comes up with to explain this relationship is what he calls “the law of faith.”

The Law of Faith is Established

Now this expression, “the law of faith,” is a sort of play on words. Paul is using it to trump the other law, the law of works. He’s basically saying, “If you want a law, here’s one for you, the law of faith.” This is the same “law” that he says is “established” in vs. 31. So there are two laws, a law of works and a low of faith, and the law of faith overrules and disproves the law of works. And the law of faith excludes, it prohibits, boasting on the part of any human. So, the law of faith is “Thou shalt not boast.” Continue reading

God Demonstrates His Righteousness

Text: Romans 3:21-26

We’ve been discussing justification by faith these last few weeks, with a special emphasis on Romans chapter 3. Last week we set up the “problem” with a discussion of sin and the role of the law in revealing sin. This week we move to the next component, which is really the central component, the justice of God. As we will see, the righteousness of God which is revealed in justification is both His righteousness and the righteousness by which we are declared righteous. The two are the same in Christ so that God may be righteous in declaring His people righteous, the just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Our justification is also God’s justification, as in it He demonstrates His righteousness.

Righteousness(es)

This word righteousness is very important in the book of Romans, and right in the first chapter we read that “in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:17). But as obviously important and central as this word “righteousness” is, its meaning has been the source of considerable controversy. To begin, you should know that the English words “righteous” and “justice” are the same word in both Hebrew and Greek. Furthermore, the term “justification” shares this same root, and so “justification” can also be translated “vindication” or “rectification.” While each of these terms has slightly different connotations and emphases, they all come together in the biblical word for righteousness. Continue reading

Stopping the Mouth of the World

Text: Romans 3:19-20

 

This sermon took me about three drafts to write. I filled up about ten pages with words, and I thought I was almost done for a minute, before I decided to throw it all away and start yet again. This text kept stopping me in my tracks. There’s a lot that you could say about it, and part of my problem was that I kept trying to say it all. So instead I decided to say just one thing. Shut your mouth.

This is Paul’s argument here in a nutshell. You cannot find justification in the law because the law will not even let you speak. You cannot defend yourself. You are a sinner, and when you call upon justice the first thing that is exposed is yourself. The law shuts your mouth, and you are left with nothing to say. All you can do is ask for mercy. And that’s exactly where God wants you.

The Law

“Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19). In this text, the Apostle Paul is essentially telling the Jews and Jewish Christians alike to shut up. They have no ground for boasting in their standing before God, and they cannot appeal to their law-keeping as proof that they are somehow better than Gentiles. This is because the law which they are appealing to actually condemns them. It does not support their case at all but instead shows that God is righteous in judging both Jews and Gentiles to be sinners and under the curse of death. Continue reading

Why Justification by Faith Alone?

Text: Romans 3:19-28

This past Friday was the 497th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Saturday was All Saints Day, and so we celebrate both today. You might ask why we celebrate one, the other, or both. Well, the two days are historically united. They go together. Martin Luther chose the eve of All Saints Day to begin his public dispute. The date had symbolic relevance. He wanted to talk about what it means to be a saint and, really, how one is saved. Because of the power and success of the Reformation, the two days continue to be united in their theme. We are today celebrating the work of those Christians who have gone before us to proclaim the gospel and to bear witness to the power of Christ unto salvation to all who believe, including the Reformers. We celebrate both days because we believe that both days, rightly understood, proclaim the power of that gospel and the glory of God as He has been at work in history.

The Protestant Reformation dealt with lots of issues, but the main one, the only real bottom line, was the doctrine of justification. How a man is made right with God, and subsequently how he becomes a saint, are both answered by this doctrine. Protestants make their stand on this issue because the Bible makes its stand there too. “We have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law” (Galatians 2:16). Justification by faith alone is a central and essential teaching of our faith because it points us back to Jesus, the cross of Christ as the exclusive ground for our acceptance by God. This truth underlies all other teachings on salvation, the church, and Christian living. John Calvin called it a lynchpin upon which all else turned. Martin Luther said it was the article of a standing or falling church. This is true, as we said, because it directly informs our understanding of God in Christ— not only Who He is, but How He works. It tells us how we can know Him.

But I wonder, do we still believe this doctrine is all that important or interesting or does it strike us as a little passé? It is probably true that some pastors have overcooked this topic. They parse every question and sub-question in order to show how their tradition has a unique and essential interpretation. Others spend all their time arguing that their opponents cannot be Christians. All in all, what ought to be a dynamic and powerful teaching on God’s power and grace turns into a graduate school course in abstract theology. The prime rib becomes beef jerky. And this is a great tragedy.

You see, justification by faith alone is not an end in itself. No it is a means to explaining several other things, the problem of evil, the sovereignty of God, the redemption of sinners, the doctrine of the church, the role of the moral law in the life of believers, and even the end times. The point is not to dot all our I’s and cross our T’s, but to see that God is here, really here, and that He works directly and immediately in order to bring about His purposes. Justification by faith alone is a call to believe. Continue reading

Why Celebrate Reformation Day?

In addition to being Halloween, today marks the 497th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther chose the date intentionally. He was challenging the medieval teaching on indulgences, purgatory, and what it is that constitutes a saint. Thus there was a symbolic value in doing this on the eve of All Saints Day. Before he completed his theological project, however, Luther came to see that the central issue at debate was not a single errant practice, but an overarching theological and salvific confession: justification by faith alone, the article of the standing or falling church and, ultimately, the difference between salvation and despair. All Protestants, but especially Lutherans, Anglicans, and Reformed Christians look back to the Reformation as a definitive establishment of their confession of faith and as a mighty act of God through His Spirit. Traditionally, they have taken the occasion to celebrate.

But why celebrate the Reformation now? There are various reasons to ask this question and various ways to answer it, but instead of trying to say everything (my typical flaw), I want to get right to the bottom line because the Reformation is all about the bottom line. We celebrate Reformation Day because we believe in and celebrate justification by faith alone and the immediate work of God in the act of saving sinners. This means that God does the saving, He does it for free, and He does it on His terms. (See here if you want an extended discussion of mediation and all its ins and outs.)

This doctrine relativizes everything else in life. Continue reading

Communion in Giving

Text: Philippians 4:10-23

As we come to the end of our study of Philippians, it is interesting to note that we come back to where we started. In these final verses, Paul returns to his very first point—communion and real unity in the Spirit. All Christians share their lives together, including ministers, laypersons, and missionaries. This doctrine of communion sits before and after the letter’s central point of submitting to others and the mind of Christ, and there’s something to learn just from that. We can only properly submit to one another when we understand our unity. But here we also see a particular expression of Christian partnership, and it is a very important one. We share even in our finances. Our money is an extension of ourselves and our service, and that means it is involved in Christian communion. Paul is calling us to communion in giving. Continue reading