Michael J. Kruger

Michael J. Kruger

Dr. Michael J. Kruger is President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC. In addition, he is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serve as an Associate Pastor (part-time, of course) at my home church, Uptown PCA.

• Ph.D., University of Edinburgh(advisor Larry W. Hurtado)
• M.Div.  Westminster Theological Seminary in California
• B.S.  The University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill

Visit Dr. Kruger’s website: Canon Fodder. Follow Dr. Kruger on Twitter: @michaeljkruger

The Arrogance of the Urban

One of the perennial dangers of Christian ministry is to begin thinking that our particular ministry is the most important ministry and that everyone ought to be doing what we are doing. Much of this is understandable.  After all, if we are passionate about the ministry to which God has called us, then we naturally begin to promote that ministry and place it at the forefront of our thinking. But we too often forget that God’s plan for the Kingdom is much bigger than our little worlds. There are other ministries that matter too.

I have seen a particular example of this phenomenon in my denomination (the PCA) over the last ten years or so. The hot area of ministry during this time frame has been urban church planting. The cities, we are told, have been abandoned and neglected by evangelicals as they have fled to the suburbs to raise their families. The result is that the inner cities are left unreached and untouched. The best way to recapture the city is to plant churches there—right in the heart of the urban centers.

Now let me say that much of this trend has been wonderful. It should warm our hearts to see Christians going into all areas of our world with the light of the gospel. And I’ve seen much fruit in our denomination from churches planted in urban areas, designed to expand Christ’s Kingdom into the neglected and forgotten regions. Indeed, my own church, Uptown PCA, which I love dearly, was an urban church plant. And I have seen how God has used it to impact the city of Charlotte in a number of incredible ways. No doubt cities are strategic battlegrounds—and we should take this into account as we seek ways to grow the church.

But, occasionally, what we might call the “arrogance of the urban” can begin to manifest itself. Those who are a part of urban churches can sometimes project an attitude, even unwittingly, that urban centers are where “real” ministry happens. The city is where everyone should be focusing their attention. And slowly this can create a critical sentiment that suburban churches—usually bigger, wealthier, and demographically older—don’t really get it and probably more concerned with comfort than with sacrificial ministry. Moreover, the suburban churches are often viewed as out of date and out of touch with cultural and social trends.

Now, we should acknowledge that some of these critiques of suburban churches may be exactly right. Sometimes they may be cordoned off (in an unhealthy way) from the surrounding culture and not willing enough to break out of their comfort zone. And in as much as this is the case, they should be called to repentance and reformation. Nevertheless, the “arrogance of the urban” issue still needs to be addressed. A few considerations:

  1. Suburbia needs the gospel too. Granted, the suburbs may be more affluent than most urban areas (though below I will challenge this a bit), but they also need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Do not bankers, lawyers, doctors, business men and women, housewives, also need redemption from their sins? Are their marriages not also in need of God’s grace? Do their kids not also need to trust Christ?
  1. Suburbia is also strategic. No doubt urban areas are strategic, but so are suburban ones. While traditional suburban neighborhoods (think 2-car garage, white picket fence, etc.) are often mocked in popular culture, this is where many, many people actually live. And there are neighborhood strategies that can really work to reach these people. Moreover, suburban moms and their children are a very important demographic for spreading the gospel. One of the most successful evangelistic outreaches in our church has been to suburban moms with kids, who are eager for relationships with other mothers and often quite open to hearing the gospel.
  1. Suburbia is not as rich and racially monolithic as you think. People’s impression of the suburbs is that everyone is wealthy and white. Although there is a lot of truth in that impression, it is not as accurate as you might think. Samuel Atchison has written a helpful article that highlights the recent trend in the past few years where young professionals are moving into the city centers, while the poor are fleeing to the suburbs! In fact, I see this in my own city. One of the most racially diverse areas I see regularly is the suburban parks where I take my kids to play. There, all playing together, are folks who are Asians, Indians, African Americans, Hispanics, and more.
  1. Don’t forget the rural areas. Jared Wilson has written a helpful piece, Rural Ministry is Not Second Rate, where he exposes the common “disdain” that even Christians have for rural areas and reminds us that they need the gospel too.

In short, the gospel is for all people. Urban, suburban, and rural. Or, as the Scripture puts it, every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Revelation 7:9). If Christ ministered to all kinds of people, then so should we.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

Why Does Jesus Use the Phrase “I Am”?

One of the most stunning scenes in the Gospel of John is when Jesus debates the Jewish leadership at the end of chapter eight and declares, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (8:58). There is little doubt that this constituted a claim of divinity because in the very next verse we read, “So they picked up stones to throw at him” (8:59).

While there is little doubt that the Jews understood Jesus to be claiming a divine identity, there is some doubt regarding why they believed this. What is the background of Jesus’ “I am” declaration? Most of the time, it is assumed that Jesus is alluding to Ex 3:14 when Yahweh expresses his own name as “I am who I am.”

This is certainly a possibility. But the Greek constructions are not precisely the same. There is another possibility that is more likely the background of Jesus’ “I am” declarations, namely the book of Isaiah, particularly chapters 40-55. Not only are these chapters formative for early Christian theology (e.g., Is 40:3/Mark 1:3), but they contain some of the most direct declarations of God’s identity as the only true God. And many of these declarations use precisely the same “I am” construction (ego eimi).

A few examples:

Isaiah 41:4 Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am he (ego eimi).

Isaiah 43:10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he (ego eimi). Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.

Isaiah 48:12 “Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called! I am he (ego eimi); I am the first, and I am the last.

These instances show that Isaiah uses the “I am” language to emphasize God’s exclusive status as the one true God. The phrase, in essence, means “I am [He]” or “I am [the One]” or “I am [the LORD].”

If so, then this brings insight into how John uses the “I am” language outside of John 8:58. For instance, when Jesus is arrested in the garden, he declares in 18:6: “I am he (ego eimi).” While most readers would miss the connection here, the response of the soldiers gives us a clue to what is meant: “When Jesus said to them, ‘I am he (ego eimi)’ they drew back and fell to the ground” (18:6).

The falling back is a contextual clue that Jesus is speaking like God speaks in Isaiah. Thus, there is likely a double entendre here in 18:6. On the one hand Jesus is simply answering the soldiers’ question by saying, “I am he [the one you are looking for].” But, on the other hand, he is saying, “I am he [the one true God].”

In the end, the “I am” language in John is a likely reference to God’s self-declarations in Isaiah, and thus a dramatic claim by Jesus to be the one true God of Israel. By appealing to Isaiah, Jesus is not portraying himself as another God, but the one and the same God of the Jews.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

Were Early Churches Ruled by Elders or a Single Bishop?

There is a (seemingly) never-ending debate amongst theologians and pastors about the proper form of government for the church. For generations, Christians have disagreed about what leadership structure the church ought to use. From the bishop-led Anglicans to the informal Brethren churches, there is great diversity.

And one of the fundamental flash points in this debate is the practice of the early church. What form of government did the earliest Christians have? Of course, early Christian polity is a vast and complex subject with many different issues in play. But I want to focus in upon a narrow one: Were the earliest churches ruled by a plurality of elders or a single bishop?

Now, it needs to be noted from the outset that by the end of the second century, most churches were ruled by a single bishop. For whatever set of reasons, monepiscopacy had won the day. Many scholars attribute this development to Ignatius.

But what about earlier? Was there a single-bishop structure in the first and early second century?

The New Testament evidence itself seems to favor a plurality of elders as the standard model. The book of Acts tells us that as the apostles planted churches, they appointed “elders” (from the Greek term πρεσβυτέρος) to oversee them (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2; 20:17). Likewise, Titus is told to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5).

A very similar word, ἐπισκoπος (“bishop” or “overseer”), is used in other contexts to describe what appears to be the same ruling office (Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1–7). The overlap between these two terms is evident in Acts 20:28 when Paul, while addressing the Ephesian “elders” (πρεσβυτέρους), declares that “The Holy Spirit has made you overseers (ἐπισκόπους).” Thus, the New Testament writings indicate that the office of elder/bishop is functionally one and the same.

But what about the church after the New Testament? Did they maintain the model of multiple elders? Three quick examples suggest they maintained this structure at least for a little while:

1. At one point, the Didache addresses the issue of church government directly, “And so, elect for yourselves bishops (ἐπισκόπους) and deacons who are worthy of the Lord, gentle men who are not fond of money, who are true and approved” (15.1). It is noteworthy that the author mentions plural bishops—not a single ruling bishop—and that he places these bishops alongside the office of deacon, as Paul himself does (e.g., Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1–13). Thus, as noted above, it appears that the bishops described here are essentially equivalent to the office of “elder.”

2. A letter known as 1 Clement (c. 96) also has much to say about early church governance. This letter is attributed to a “Clement”—whose identity remains uncertain—who represents the church in Rome and writes to the church at Corinth to deal with the fallout of a recent turnover in leadership. The author is writing to convince (not command) the Corinthians to reinstate its bishops (elders) who were wrongly deposed. The letter affirms the testimony of the book of Acts when it tells us that the apostles initially appointed “bishops (ἐπισκόπους) and deacons” in the various churches they visited (42.4). After the time of the apostles, bishops were appointed “by other reputable men with the entire church giving its approval” (44.3). This is an echo of the Didache which indicated that bishops were elected by the church.

3. The Shepherd of Hermas (c.150) provides another confirmation of this governance structure in the second century. After Hermas writes down the angelic vision in a book, he is told, “you will read yours in this city, with the presbyters who lead the church” (Vis. 8.3). Here we are told that the church leadership structure is a plurality of “presbyters” (πρεσβυτέρων) or elders. The author also uses the term “bishop,” but always in the plural and often alongside the office of deacon (Vis. 13.1; Sim. 104.2).

In sum, the NT texts and texts from the early second century indicate that a plurality of elders was the standard structure in the earliest stages. But, as noted above, the idea of a singular bishop began to dominate by the end of the second century.

What led to this transition? Most scholars argue that it was the heretical battles fought by the church in the second century that led them to turn to key leaders to defend and represent the church.

This transition is described remarkably well by Jerome himself:

The presbyter is the same as the bishop, and before parties had been raised up in religion by the provocations of Satan, the churches were governed by the Senate of the presbyters. But as each one sought to appropriate to himself those whom he had baptized, instead of leading them to Christ, it was appointed that one of the presbyters, elected by his colleagues, should be set over all the others, and have chief supervision over the general well-being of the community.... Without doubt it is the duty of the presbyters to bear in mind that by the discipline of the Church they are subordinated to him who has been given them as their head, but it is fitting that the bishops, on their side, do not forget that if they are set over the presbyters, it is the result of tradition, and not by the fact of a particular institution by the Lord (Comm. Tit. 1.7).

Jerome’s comments provide a great summary of this debate. While the single-bishop model might have developed for practical reasons, the plurality of elders model seems to go back to the very beginning.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

Lessons from the Life of Eric Liddell: #4: Truth Is More Important than Popularity

The complete series on Eric Liddell can be found here.

Whether we realize it or not, and whether we are willing to admit it or not, there is a core value that has been ingrained in us from our very earliest days which teaches us that the most important thing in life is that we are well liked. If we are honest, we have to admit that a substantial portion (if not most) of our energies and our strivings and our efforts are designed to procure a “well done” from our friends, family, and co-workers.

This desire for approval is so ingrained in us (and our culture), that it largely goes unnoticed. And when it is noticed, it is quickly dismissed as harmless or irrelevant. After all, we think, this is just part of life. What’s the harm?

The problem, of course, is that a deep-seated desire to please men is incompatible with a life devoted to pleasing God. For what pleases God and what pleases men are often at odds with one another. And what will a person do when that inevitable day arises when he is forced to choose between the two? A person cannot serve two masters.

That day arrived for the Scottish Olympic sprinter, Eric Liddell, in the most unexpected of ways. Liddell was favored to win the gold in the 1924 Olympics in his best event, the 100 meters. But when the heats were announced, Liddell noticed that they fell on a Sunday.

For most of us, that seems hardly worth noticing. After all, if we were picking a day to run, we might actually choose a Sunday. For those in the modern world, Sunday is one of the most free and convenient days.

But Liddell was not like most people. As a Scottish Presbyterian, he took the Sabbath day, the Lord’s day, very seriously. And so, he immediately withdrew from the 100 meter event.

When we look back at this story it is easy to be impressed by Liddell’s convictions, and to express our profound respect and appreciation for his commitment to truth. But in 1924 this decision was not met with support. On the contrary, Liddell was ripped apart by the press. He was criticized as being selfish, dogmatic, narrow-minded, and petty. He was a fool, the newspapers said, for throwing away his athletic career along with the honor of Great Britain.

At one point, a group of reporters, students, and concerned citizens even gathered outside his door in Edinburgh, banging on it and declaring, “He’s a traitor to his country.” Liddell quickly became “the most unpopular man in Britain.”

Liddell’s willingness to stand for truth is a much-needed lesson in our modern day. Just as Liddell’s beliefs were mocked as narrow and dogmatic and traditionalistic, so today Christian beliefs about marriage or sexuality are mocked as narrow and dogmatic and traditionalistic. If we stand up for what God has to say about marriage, we may quickly find a mob outside our door as well.

The lesson of Eric Liddell’s life is that the world is not changed by people whose number one goal is popularity. The world is not changed by people who only desire to please men. The world is changed by those who desire, more than anything, to please God. Even if it costs them everything.

In sum, Eric Liddell’s life reminds us that the “well done” we desire to hear from the world is not really the one that matters. The only one that matters is when Jesus, on that final day, says, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21).

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

Lessons from the Life of Eric Liddell: #1: Christian Character Really Does Matter

This is the first installment of a blog series announced here.

For those who knew the Olympic sprinter Eric Liddell personally, it was not his exceptional speed that was his most outstanding quality. It was his exceptional Christian character. Liddell took very seriously a verse that is largely dismissed by Christians today: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Dr. George Dorling, former flat mate of Liddell’s, recalled that this verse “was the standard by which he judged his actions… whenever he had not attained that perfection which Jesus commanded, then he recognized it as sin and took appropriate steps to put it right.”[1]

To be sure, Liddell did not believe in perfectionism—the idea that one can attain a sinless state in this lifetime. Nor was he a legalist, thinking that he could earn his salvation by living a holy life. Instead, he simply recognized that Christians were renewed and empowered by God’s grace for a clear purpose, namely that they would earnestly follow their Lord.

In this way, Liddell avoided a pitfall that is so common amongst Christians today. He did not use his own sin and failure as a reason not to strive towards holiness. Liddell recognized that he often fell short of God’s perfect law—and was willing to repent when he did so. But he did not use his falling short to thrown his hands up in the air and say “why bother.” He was willing to run the race even if he fell down along the way.

Of all the aspects of Liddell’s Christian character, his kindness to others was perhaps his most exceptional quality. Even in the midst of the intense competition of the sporting world, Liddell was known to have a warm and gracious disposition to his competitors. Right before a race, he would often greet each of the other runners, wishing them the best of luck. He would also offer the use of his trowel so that they could dig out their starting block. During an especially cold day (not uncommon in Scotland), Liddell draped his own Edinburgh blue blazer around the shoulders of one of his opponents who was clearly chilled between matches.

On another occasion, during a meet at Craiglockhart, Liddell noticed that there was a black runner to whom no one was speaking. Liddell quickly went to the young man and engaged him in warm conversation until his event was called.

No doubt some will say that these are little things, tiny gestures, small matters. After all, Liddell is not curing cancer, or building a homeless shelter, or saving the world. But that is exactly where we miss the point. Some of our most influential moments as believers are during the small and mundane things of life.

We underestimate the impact of one life faithfully lived for Christ. It’s like a small mustard seed that seem inconsequential. But it can grow into a large tree so that even the birds can nest in its branches.

Christian character really does matter.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

Lessons from the Life of Eric Liddell: #3: God Can Use Anyone to Advance His Kingdom

This is the third installment of a blog series announced here.

Even though Eric Liddell was a natural talent on the track or rugby pitch, he was not a natural talent when it came to public ministry. He was a shy person, naturally quiet, and not inclined to speak in public. In fact, it was a nerve-wracking experience for him.

And his fears, at least on a human level, proved to be somewhat justified. Eric did not have the polish, skill, or eloquence of most modern preachers. In fact, when Eric’s widow Florence first saw the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, and the eloquence with which the actor Ian Charleson gave public speeches, she was quick to acknowledge that this was not the way Eric really was. “Eric wasn’t a good speaker,” she said. “He had a real problem with crowds.”

Now, in our modern day most Christians would take such fears, and such lack of giftedness, as a reason not to engage in certain kinds of ministry. “It’s just not my gift,” they might say. Or they may doubt or wonder how God could use them to accomplish much of anything.

One thinks of Moses’ litany of excuses when God called him to deliver his people from Egypt: “Who am I?” (Ex 3:11), “What shall I say to them?” (3:13), “They will not believe me” (4:1), and finally “I am not eloquent… but I am slow of speech and of tongue” (4:10).

But when we offer such excuses we forget that God has a habit of using the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He enjoys using ordinary people—like tax collectors and fisherman—to change the world. Why? So, that he will get the glory.

Eric Liddell understood these biblical truths. He understood that God could use him to accomplish things far beyond his own ability. And so, despite his fears and apprehensions, he made a remarkable promise. He promised that he would never turn down an opportunity to preach the gospel unless it was literally impossible to fit into his schedule. As a result, Eric would often find himself speaking at four or five services on any given Sunday, traveling to numerous churches throughout the day.

And God blessed his faithfulness. Despite his quiet, no-frills delivery style, Eric drew large crowds. People were drawn not by gimmicks, or high powered oratory, or by slick presentations. They were drawn by the character of the speaker and the content of his message.

Liddell’s life provides a tremendous challenge to those in ministry today. Some refuse to do ministry out of fear that they are not gifted enough, not trusting in the Lord. And others do ministry relying too much on their giftedness and slick presentations, also not trusting in the Lord. Both paths fail to trust in the Lord. And both are to be avoided.

We need to be reminded that the power of preaching is not in the presentation, but in the power of the message. And so Paul can declare, “And when I came to you, brothers, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1-2).

And if the power is in the message, then God can use anyone to advance his Kingdom.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

Lessons from the Life of Eric Liddell: #2: Determination Is Not Contrary to the Gospel of Grace

This is the second installment of a blog series announced here.

When it came to athletics, especially running, there were few people more determined than Eric Liddell. To put it simply, he would never give up. Never.

The most famous example of Liddell’s determination was at a 1923 championship meet at Stoke where he was competing against runners from Scotland, England, and Ireland. After competing in the 100 and the 200, an exhausted Liddell was set to run the 400—and event for which he had hardly trained.

Soon after the race had begun, Liddell’s chances grew even worse when at the first turn he was tripped up by another one of the runners and found himself lying on the infield grass. Thinking he was disqualified, Liddell stayed there for moment until one of the judges urged him to get back up and run. And run he did.

Despite being behind by almost 20 yards, Liddell began to do the unthinkable. He started to catch the other runners one by one. By this point the crowd was electrified and cheering loudly.  Around the final turn, Liddell tossed his head back in his classical style and surged past the lead runner, winning the race by two yards.

But Liddell’s determination did not stop at athletics. He recognized, according to the words of Paul, that the Christian life also required the determination of a runner:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Paul uses a word here that many would balk at today: discipline. Let’s be honest; when we discover a Christian who exercises personal discipline (to read Scripture, or pray, or have a quiet time), we tend to be suspicious that we have a legalist on our hands. Maybe they don’t understand grace, we think.

But Liddell did not make this mistake. He recognized that discipline and determination are not necessarily contrary to the gospel of grace. Just like a runner, we can exert effort in our pursuit of Christ—effort fueled not by legalism or perfectionism but by grace.

The Westminster Confession itself, which Liddell grew up learning, affirms this balance between grace and effort:

 Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ... yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them (16.3).

Notice here that the Confession clearly affirms that all our good works are due to gracious work of the Spirit. But then it uses the key word “yet” to indicate that we must be careful not to misunderstand the implications of this. Even though our good works are by grace, we still have a “duty” to be “diligent” in pursuing those good works. These two truths are paradoxical to be sure. But not contradictory.

The life of Eric Liddell reminds us that we are all called to be runners in the Christian life. We run with earnestness not so that we might become Christians, we run with earnestness because we are Christians.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

The Flying Scotsman: Lessons from the Life of Eric Liddell

The Bible makes it clear that one of the greatest helps to running the Christian race is to look at the lives of the many saints that have gone before us. The author of Hebrews reminds us that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” such as Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Sampson, David, and that therefore we should “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). In other words, the examples of the saints inspire us. And we should follow those examples.

Now, the word “example” has fallen on rough times in some quarters of the evangelical church. Some suggest that if we put forth biblical characters as examples that we are in danger of “moralizing” the Bible. However, the problem with such an idea is that the Bible itself puts forth the saints of old as examples. In addition to the passage above from Hebrews, Paul does something similar in 1 Corinthians. But instead of positive examples, Paul appeals to negative ones: “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6).

But it is not just to biblical characters that we can look as examples (positively or negatively). We can also look at the lives of the saints throughout modern history and be inspired, encouraged, and motivated by their faithfulness.

One particular example of such a saint is the Scottish Olympic sprinter, Eric Liddell (1902-1945). I have recently read several biographies of Eric Liddell as I have prepared to teach on his life at my home church. Made famous by the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, Eric’s life was an example of what faithful devotion to Christ can accomplish. Refusing to run on Sunday, he withdrew from the 100 meters in the 1924 Paris Olympics—his very best event and the one for which he had trained. Instead he ran in the 400 meters, an event in which he was decidedly not favored. And he won the gold.

His legacy, however, was not being an Olympic champion. His legacy was that he stood for truth even when his own well-being (and popularity) was bound to suffer. In short, Eric Liddell valued God’s glory more than his own glory.

I also have a personal interest in Eric Liddell’s life simply because I have walked and lived in many of the same places he did.   He studied at the University of Edinburgh (as did I) and lived there for many years of his life.  In the 1981 film there is even a brief shot of Eric Liddell running up the steps at New College, where the Edinburgh divinity faculty resides. This is the view here:

Over the next several months, I plan to offer a number of blog posts on lessons learned from the life of Eric Liddell. Why? Because he is a modern example of the man in Psalms 1: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked... but his delight is in the Law of the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalms 1:1-2).

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

God Does Not View Your Labors as “Filthy Rags”

When it comes to our justification–our legal standing before God–our own good works are in no way the grounds of God’s declaration that we are “righteous.” Indeed, that is the very thing that makes the gospel good news. We are saved not by what we have done, but by what Christ has done. We are accepted by God not because of our works, but in spite of them.

But what does God think of our good works after we are saved? Here is where, unfortunately, Christians often receive mixed messages. Somewhere along the way we have begun to believe that our pride is best held in check, and God’s grace is most magnified, when we denigrate all our efforts and all our labors as merely “filthy rags” in the sight of God (Is 64:6) .

But does God really view the Spirit-wrought works of his own children in such a fashion? Is God pleased with only Christ’s work, and always displeased with our own?

Not at all. Time and time again, the Scriptures show that God is pleased with the righteousness deeds of the saints. God was pleased with Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God” (Gen 6:9). God was pleased with Zechariah and Elizabeth: “And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). Christ was pleased with Mary’s gift of perfume (Mark 14:6), a deed he called “beautiful.” Christ was pleased with the widows offering: “She put in more than all of them” (Luke 21:3).

Indeed, one could say that the entire “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11 is a catalog of the great deeds of the saints that are held up by the Scriptures as noteworthy. Think of all that was done by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, David, Samuel, and others. Are all their deeds “filthy rags” in God’s sight?

Of course, we should not be surprised that God is pleased with the good works of his people. As Hebrews 11:1–2 tells us, God is pleased with these works precisely because they were done out of faith. They are good works that are generated from the work of God’s own Spirit in the hearts of the saints (Eph 2:10). Sure, they are not perfect works—they are always tainted by sin to some degree. And, yes, we cannot think for a moment that they merit salvation. They do not. But they are the works of God’s own sons and daughters, and he delights in them.

This larger biblical context can provide the proper framework for understanding the intent of passages like Is 64:6. The “filthy rags” in this passage is not a reference to the Spirit-wrought works of the regenerate, but the outward religious grandstanding of the wicked (see Isaiah 58). This understanding allows John Piper to say the following:

It is terribly confusing when people say that the only righteousness that has any value is the imputed righteousness of Christ. I agree that justification is not grounded on any of our righteousness, but only the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. But sometimes people are careless and speak disparagingly of all human righteousness, as if there were no such thing that pleased God. They often cite Isaiah 64:6 which says our righteousness is as filthy rags…. [But] when my sons do what I tell them to do—I do not call their obedience “filthy rags” even if it is not perfect. Neither does God. All the more because he himself is “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” (Hebrews 13:21). He does not call his own, Spirit-wrought fruit, “rags” (Future Grace, 151–152).

In a similar fashion, the Westminster Confession offers a wonderfully balanced perspective on how God views the good works of his own people:

Yet notwithstanding, the person of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works are also accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreproveable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward  that which is sincere, although accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF 16.6).

This recognition that God’s delight in the works of his people is not, as some might think, a recipe for pride, but rather a tremendous (and much needed) encouragement to those of us who are laboring in ministry. Truth be told, ministry can be difficult. Our efforts can seem futile. We often find ourselves spent and exhausted.

What a refreshment to our souls to know that our Father in heaven actually delights in these labors. It is like salve on our blisters, and a balm to our aching muscles to know that he is pleased with the faith-driven works of his children.

He is like a Father who sees the painting his five-year-old brought home from school. He doesn’t pour scorn on the effort because it is not a Rembrandt. Instead, he takes the painting, with all its flaws, and sticks it on the refrigerator for all to see.

Indeed, it is this very hope—that God might be pleased with our labors—that Jesus lays out as a motive for us in our ministries. For our hope is that one day we might hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:23).

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

5 Things You Should be Doing with God’s Word

Psalm 119 is an amazing Psalm. Not only is it the longest Psalm (176 verses!), but it is also the Psalm that deals the most directly with the topic of Scripture. Virtually every verse, in one way or another, refers to God’s Word.

David (who is most likely the author) uses a variety of terminology to describe God’s Word: commandments, law, statutes, precepts, ordinances, rules, words, testimonies, etc. These all refer to the Scriptures as they existed in David’s day (essentially the Pentateuch).

Thus, Psalm 119 is one of the best examples of Scripture speaking about Scripture. It is the Word about the Word.

And in it, we find David interacting with the Word of God in five ways that should be paradigmatic for all believers:

1. Trusting the Word of God. Time and time again, David expresses his belief that the Scriptures are true (v.151). He believes in them (v.66). He trusts in their reliability (v.42). He states: “The sum of your word is truth” (v.160).

This first step is key. If a believer doesn’t really regard the Word of God as being fully and entirely trustworthy, then none of the other steps below will follow. This is why the church needs to be quick to deal with the repeated criticisms of the Bible that so often permeate our culture.

2. Studying the Word of God. David doesn’t just believe the Word; he is a student of the Word. He learns it (v.73), he seeks it (v.155), he has memorized it (v.153), and regularly meditates on it.

This step ought to naturally for the follow the first one. If God’s Word really is true, then we ought to commit ourselves to being diligent studiers of the Word. We need to embrace it with our minds, as well as our hearts.

3. Using the Word of God. It’s one thing to believe and know the Word. It is another thing to rely on it. To look to it as a guide during the difficulties and challenges of life. To lean on it for encouragement and hope.

David repeatedly affirms that he uses the Word of God as a “counselor” (v.24), to give “strength” (v.28), and to bring “comfort in affliction” (v.50). He states, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (v.105). In short, the Word of God is the very source of life for David (v.156).

This reminds us a very important attribute of God’s Word: it is alive. It is powerful and active. When we talk about the attributes of Scripture, we must remember that it is more than just a true book (encyclopedias can be true). It is also a living book. It is the place where the God of the universe meets us and manifests himself.

4. Delighting in the Word of God. What is amazing is that David takes things one step further than we might expect. It’s not just that he trusts, studies, and uses the Word of God. He actually has affection for it. He has a deep emotional affinity towards it.

He “loves” God’s Word (v.159), he “rejoices” at his Word (v.162), the Word is “wondrous” (v.18), it is “better than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (v.72), and “sweeter than honey to my mouth” (v.103).

I am convinced that this is the missing piece for most believers today.  For many, the Bible is viewed almost in a utilitarian fashion—it is a mechanical, sterile tool that Christians are supposed to use. It’s like taking your medicine.

In contrast, David has passion, zeal, and excitement for the law and commandments of God. And the reason for this is not hard to find. David loves God’s law not because he is a closet legalist. He loves God’s law because the law reflects God’s own nature and character. He loves God’s law because he loves God—and who God is and what he is like.

Any Christian who says they love God but then despises God’s law is living a life of contradiction. Indeed, they are living a life that is the opposite of Psalm 119. To love God is to love his law.

5. Obeying the Word of God. Not surprisingly, the prior four characteristics naturally lead to this last one. David repeatedly expresses his desire to actually obey God’s law. He wants to follow it, keep it, and fulfill it.

In our world today, the concept of “obeying the law” is not a popular one. Many see this as contrary to grace. However, two things should be kept in mind. One, David is not keeping the law in order to earn salvation—he is obeying out of love for God. He is obeying out of a heart of faith.

Second, we should remember that Jesus himself was very much about “obeying the law.”  Before we too quickly despise the concept of law-keeping, we should remember that Jesus delighted in keeping his Father’s law. And he kept it absolutely perfectly—for us. He obeyed on our behalf, and his righteous status is imputed to us by faith.

Indeed, Jesus embodies all five of these characteristics. He trusted, studied, used, delighted in, and obeyed God’s Word. In fact, he did all these things even more than the first David. While David certainly serves as an example of what to do with God’s word, Jesus is the ultimate example. One greater than David has come. And he loved God’s Word.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

Why Christians Can Be Both Humble and Certain

One of the most common objections made to the absolute claims of Christianity is that Christians are arrogant. Christians are arrogant to claim that they are right; arrogant to claim others are wrong; arrogant to claim that truth can be known. Unfortunately, in the midst of such accusations, no one bothers to ask which definition of humility is being used. Over the years, the definition of humility has undergone a gradual but nonetheless profound change. Especially in the intellectual community. In the modern day, humility has basically become synonymous with another word: uncertainty. To be uncertain is to be humble. To be certain is to be arrogant. Thus, the cardinal sin in the intellectual world is to claim to know anything for sure.

Of course, this shift presents a real problem for Christianity. Christians believe that God has revealed himself clearly in his Word. Thus, when it comes to key historical questions (Who was Jesus? What did he say? What did he do?) or key theological questions (Who is God? What is Heaven? How does one get there?), Christians believe they have a basis on which they can claim certainty: God’s revelation. Indeed, to claim we don’t know the truth about such matters would be to deny God, and to deny his Word. (This doesn’t mean, of course, that Christians are certain about everything; but there can be certainty about these basic Christian truths).

Thus, for Christians, humility and uncertainty are not synonymous. One can be certain and humble at the same time. How? For this simple reason: Christians believe that they understand truth only because God has revealed it to them (1 Corinthians 1:26-30).  In other words, Christians are humble because their understanding of truth is not based on their own intelligence, their own research, their own acumen. Rather, it is 100% dependent on the grace of God. Christian knowledge is a dependent knowledge. And that leads to humility (1 Corinthians 1:31). This obviously doesn’t mean all Christians are personally humble. But, it does mean they should be, and have adequate grounds to be.

Although Christians have a basis on which they can be humble and certain at the same time, that is not necessarily the case with other worldviews. Take the atheist for instance. He is quite certain of a great many things (contrary to his claim that one cannot be certain of anything). He is certain either that God does not exist (hard atheism), or certain that one cannot know whether God exists (soft atheism). And, in his critique of Christianity, he is quite certain that Christians are mistaken in their claims to be certain. In essence, the atheist is claiming, “I know enough about the world to know that a person cannot possibly have a basis for certainty.” That in itself is a pretty dogmatic claim.

But, on what is the atheist basing these far reaching claims about the universe? His own finite, fallen, human mind. He has access only to his own limited, knowledge. So, now we should ask the question again: Who is being arrogant? The Christian or the atheist? Both claim certainty on a great many transcendental issues. But one does so while claiming to be dependent on the one who would know such things (God), and the other does so dependent on only themselves. If either position is a posture of arrogance, it would not be the Christian one.

No doubt, the atheist would object to this line of reasoning on the grounds that he rejects the Bible as divine revelation. But, this misses the point entirely. The issue is not whether he is convinced of the Bible’s truth, but rather the question is which worldview, the Christian’s or the atheist’s, has a rational basis for claiming certainty about transcendental matters. Only the Christian has such a basis. And since his knowledge of such things is dependent on divine grace, he can be humble and certain at the same time.

For more on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 and the issue of Christian knowledge, see my recent sermon.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

Did the Early Church Fathers Think that They Were Inspired Like the Apostles?

A number of years ago, Albert Sundberg wrote a well-known article arguing that the early church fathers did not see inspiration as something that was uniquely true of canonical books.[1] Why? Because, according to Sundberg, the early Church Fathers saw their own writings as inspired. Ever since Sundberg, a number of scholars have repeated this claim, insisting that the early fathers saw nothing distinctive about the NT writings as compared to writings being produced in their own time period.

However, upon closer examination, this claim proves to be highly problematic. Let us consider several factors.

First, the early church fathers repeatedly express that the apostles had a distinctive authority that was higher and separate from their own. So, regardless of whether they viewed themselves as “inspired” in some sense, we have to acknowledge that they still viewed the inspiration/authority of the apostles as somehow different.

A few examples should help. The book of 1 Clement not only encourages its readers to “Take up the epistle of that blessed apostle, Paul,”[2] but also offers a clear reason why: “The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ, Jesus the Christ was sent from God. The Christ therefore is from God and the Apostles from the Christ.”[3] In addition the letter refers to the apostles as “the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church.”[4]

Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, also recognizes the unique role of the apostles as the mouthpiece of Christ, “The Lord did nothing apart from the Father… neither on his own nor through the apostles.”[5] Here Ignatius indicates that the apostles were a distinct historical group and the agents through which Christ worked. Thus, Ignatius goes out of his way to distinguish own authority as a bishop from the authority of the apostles, “I am not enjoining [commanding] you as Peter and Paul did. They were apostles, I am condemned.”[6]

Justin Martyr displays the same appreciation for the distinct authority of the apostles, “For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number… by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God.”[7] Moreover, he views the gospels as the written embodiment of apostolic tradition, “For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them.”[8]

Likewise, Irenaeus views all the New Testament Scriptures as the embodiment of apostolic teaching: “We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.”[9] Although this is only a sampling of patristic writers (and more could be added), the point is clear. The authoritative role of the apostles was woven into the fabric of Christianity from its very earliest stages.

Second, there is no indication that the early church fathers, as a whole, believed that writings produced in their own time were of the same authority as the apostolic writings and thus could genuinely be contenders for a spot in the NT canon. On the contrary, books were regarded as authoritative precisely because they were deemed to have originated fom the apostolic time period.

A couple of examples should help. The canonical status of the Shepherd of Hermas was rejected by the Muratorian fragment (c.180) on the grounds that was produced “very recently, in our own times.”[10] This is a clear indication that early Christians did not see recently produced works as viable canonical books.

Dionysius of Corinth (c.170) goes to great lengths to distinguish his own letters from the “Scriptures of the Lord” lest anyone get the impression he is composing new canonical books (Hist. eccl. 4.23.12). But why would this concern him if Christians in his own day (presumably including himself) were equally inspired as the apostles and could produce new Scriptures?

The anonymous critic of Montanism (c.196), recorded by Eusebius, shares this same sentiment when he expresses his hesitancy to produce new written documents out of fear that “I might seem to some to be adding to the writings or injunctions of the word of the new covenant” (Hist. eccl. 5.16.3). It is hard to avoid the sense that he thinks newly published books are not equally authoritative as those written by apostles.

Third, and finally, Sundberg does not seem to recognize that inspiration-like language can be used to describe ecclesiastical authority—which is real and should be followed—even though that authority is subordinate to the apostles. For instance, the writer of 1 Clement refers to his own letters to the churches as being written “through the Holy Spirit.”[11] While such language certainly could be referring to inspiration like the apostles, such language could also be referring to ecclesiastical authority which Christians believe is also guided by the Holy Spirit (though in a different manner).

How do we know which is meant by Clement? When we look to the overall context of his writings (some of which we quoted above), it is unmistakenly clear that he puts the apostles in distinct (and higher) category than his own. We must use this larger context to interpret his words about his own authority.  Either Clement is contradicting himself, or he sees his own office as somehow distinct from the apostles.

In sum, we have very little patristic evidence that the early church fathers saw their own “inspiration” or authority as on par with that of the apostles. When they wanted definitive teaching about Jesus their approach was always retrospective—they looked back to that teaching which was delivered by the apostles.

[1] A.C. Sundberg, “The Biblical Canon and the Christian Doctrine of Inspiration,” Int 29 (1975): 352–371.

[2] 1 Clem. 47.1-3.

[3] 1 Clem. 42.1-2.

[4] 1 Clem 5.2.

[5] Magn. 7.

[6] Rom. 4.4.

[7] 1 Apol. 39.

[8] Apol. 66.3.

[9] Haer. 3.1.1.

[10] Muratorian Fragment, 74.

[11] 63.2.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.