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Is it ever okay for Christians to use vulgar language?

Charis front cover_w:tullianThis question is particularly pertinent to me, since my book Charis takes liberties that might offend some people. While the response to my book so far has been good, I’ve received not a few reactions that go something like… “I don’t think my grandma will like this book” or “some people will be offended at your language.” One friend of mine was having his wife read the book out loud while they were driving, but he told her to skip chapter 6 (titled “Whore”) because he couldn’t hear her say those words out loud.

Just to be clear, I don’t use any four-letter words in the book. Only five-letter ones. And I never say anything that, in my mind, goes beyond what the Bible (in its original language) actually says.

The plain and undeniable fact is: The Bible at times uses vulgar and offensive language. In fact, there isn’t a single literal translation of Ezekiel 16 on the market. You have to know Hebrew to fully understand that chapter in the Bible, because the Hebrew is just too graphic (The Message comes closest). The same goes for Song of Songs and other portions of the Bible.

But let me share my heart. I want you to know where I’m coming from. I know that the use of crass and vulgar language has become trendy in some Christian circles, and some Christian preachers seem to enjoy shocking their audience simply because they…enjoy shocking their audience. But that’s not me. There is nothing in me, and nothing in my book, that is designed to say things in a shocking way simply to get a rise out of some people. Shock for the sake of shock is immature and unchristian. I have no desire to push some undefined envelope just to thumb my nose at people more conservative than I.

However, I also have no desire to censor the Bible where it was designed to offend, stir up, or shake the overly religious out of spiritual complacency.

As I said, the Bible uses offensive, vulgar, and sometimes quite pornographic (that is: “graphic sexual imagery”) language. Our English translations will dim down the language, and there may be times when unleashing the original language is inappropriate. But my book Charis is written for adults, not children.

So I deal with Genesis 38 and Ezekiel 16 and Hosea. I don’t pass over what Zipporah did to her son in Exodus 4 or Abraham’s past life in Ur. Gomer was not a prostitute but a sexually promiscuous woman, and I explain why this matters. The best English equivalent to zoneh, in certain contexts, is whore (that five-letter word). Hosea would have shocked his audience; if our preaching of Hosea doesn’t shock ours, then perhaps we’re not being as faithful to the text as we should. I’m not trying to be edgy just to be edgy, and I asked my many editors to tell me if they thought I went beyond the actual text (sometimes I did, and those bits didn’t make it into the final draft). I put much thought into every word that I said, and every word I wrote I wrote for a reason. Again, my motivation is not to sound hip or crass or vulgar. It’s to be biblical.

My motivation is and will always be the same: To proclaim and celebrate the word of God in all its grit and grime. Because the scandal of grace is often buried in a pile of religious bumper stickers trying to keep the gospel strapped in a pew. And if that’s how God talks about grace, then so be it. But he doesn’t. He talks about all kinds of sin—the deep, dark stuff—that he rescues us from. Because this impresses on our soul the magnitude of his grace.

My motivation with every word in Charis is to be most faithful to the word of God in its original language, and I want to impact my audience with the message of grace in the same way that the Bible would have impacted (perhaps offended) its own audience. That’s my motivation. Not to be edgy, not to be cool. But to be faithful to God’s word, which I’m determined to teach faithfully.

In any case, I still give this warning in the Preface:

Grace is a dangerous topic. We often want to domesticate it, calm it down, stuff it into a blue blazer and a pair of khakis. But biblical grace—or charis, as you’ll see—doesn’t like to settle down. It doesn’t drive a minivan and it sometimes misses church. To prove this, we’re going to venture on a journey across the land of Israel, and I’m not bringing a pacifier. If you need to scream, I’ll roll down the window. If you want to get off in the next town, sorry, doors are locked. Grace is a dangerous topic because the Bible is a dangerous book. It wrecks people, it offends people, and it’s tough to read from the suburbs. If you’re under eighteen, you might want to find another book on grace. There are plenty out there.

The following is an excerpt from Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us.

The relationship between grace and obedience is a gnarly issue, and too often you have to hack your way through a theological jungle to sort out the problem. In general, there are three different explanations Christians give to how grace relates to obedience.

Some Christians say that obedience is good but not necessary. What Christians do or don’t do is icing on the cake. It would be good for you to respond to Jesus with obedience, but either way, we’re still saved by grace through faith. If we smuggle God vinedresserobedience in the back door of salvation, then grace is no longer grace. We’ll call this the “free grace” view.

Others say that God has done His part and that now it’s our turn to do our part. God saves, but we are responsible for obedience. God is certainly available to counsel us when we need Him, and He has call-waiting. But ultimately, it’s up to us to work out our salvation.

I don’t think either of these views accurately captures the relationship between grace and obedience. Because neither of them talks about energism. Energism is the third view, and to my mind, it’s the most accurate way to understand the relationship between grace and obedience.

The word energism was coined by New Testament scholar John Barclay. He came up with it after studying Galatians 2:8, where Paul said that the same God who “worked [energesas] through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked [energesen] also through me for mine to the Gentiles.” The word worked translates the Greek word energeo, from which we get the word energy. Here, Paul talked about God working in and through Peter and Paul in their ministries. And in the very next verse, Paul described these same ministries in terms of “the grace that was given” to both Peter and himself.

God, in His grace, worked in Peter and Paul—two sinners unworthy of favor and incapable of doing anything on their own—to take the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth. Energism, therefore, refers to God working in and through us to do his will. If we talk about obedience as our response to God—God does His part; now we do ours—this places too big of a wedge between God’s work and ours. When we get saved, we become united with Christ and indwelt by the Spirit, so that it’s impossible to untangle Christ’s empowering presence, the Spirit’s transformative work, and our own regenerated response to God.

That is: Our union with Christ drives us to obey. Our will, emotions, and desires are meshed with His. The Spirit who indwells us empowers us to obey. We have been clothed with the risen Christ, so we cannot understand ourselves apart from Him. With such cosmic artillery, it’s impossible that a genuine Christ follower—clothed with the righteousness of Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit—will not render obedience to God. We say with Paul, “Not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).

This is why I love to emphasize the scandal and radicality of grace, and yet I can also say that our obedience is vital for our Christian existence. Our obedience doesn’t determine God’s love toward us, any more than grapes force the sun to pour out its heat upon the vine. It’s the sun’s heat (God’s love), the rich soil (Jesus’s death and resurrection), and the abundant water (the Spirit) that produce grapes. Or winepresswe can switch it around a bit. The Vinedresser enjoys the vine. He cares for it. Nurtures it. Thinks about it often. He prunes it. And apart from the Vinedresser, there would be no grapes. But what about that bad year? There was a drought. A fire. A big rig lost control on the nearby highway and careened into the vineyard. And there’s no fruit that year. Maybe a grape here and there, but they’re small, shriveled—hardly noticeable. It’s been a bad year, and the Vinedresser is working extra hard to make next year’s crop more fruitful. Maybe some extra pruning will do the trick. The Vinedresser is grieved, and He’s certainly not thrilled over the shriveled grapes. But He still loves being a Vinedresser, and He’s still passionate about His vine. The number of grapes—some years there are none—doesn’t determine, sustain, or elevate the Vinedresser’s enjoyment of making wine.

 

 

Grace Has No Leash

Preston Sprinkle —  June 11, 2014 — 1 Comment
This entry is part 22 of 22 in the seriesBook of the Month

Here’s an excerpt from my new book on grace titled, Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace Toward Us (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2014)Charis front cover_w:tullian, pp. 25-28. The book will be released July 1, 2014.

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Grace has no leash. It’s untamed, unbound, and runs wild and free. Some Christians believe that we’ve got to have some sort of balance—we need to keep grace under control. When it snaps our leash and runs loose around our gated community, we get nervous.

In many ways, the word grace has lost its stunning beauty, and perhaps through overuse, it’s become just another Christianese buzzword. We use the word grace in flat ways. My students ask for “grace” when they turn in assignments late. “Come on, Professor. Give me grace.” But divine grace is more than leniency, more than allowing exceptions to a rule.

Others say that grace means “unconditional acceptance.” God accepts people even though they have not met his standard. This is true. Sort of. But it’s still a decaffeinated definition. It fails to capture the divine aggression that invigorates grace and causes it to lurch upon the unworthy.

Grace is more than just leniency and unconditional acceptance. Divine grace is God’s relentless and loving pursuit of His enemies, who are unthankful, unworthy, and unlovable. Grace is not just God’s ability to save sinners, but God’s stubborn delight in His enemies—yes, even the creepy ones. Grace means that despite our filth, despite the sewage running through our veins, despite our odd addiction to food, drink, sex, porn, pride, self, money, comfort, and success, God
desires to transform us into real ingredients of divine happiness.

We demean grace by reducing it to another Christianese buzzword. The original Greek word for grace is charis (with a hard “ch,” like karis). Charis was not invented by Christians. Charis didn’t originate with Jesus, Peter, or Paul. The word charis, in fact, was used widely in the ancient world where Jesus grew up. When Jesus walked through Palestine talking about God’s charis, His hearers knew what the word meant. When Paul traversed the Mediterranean world heralding a message of charis, he would have been readily understood by anyone who spoke Greek. If Paul talked about charis in the marketplace, the vendors would have understood him. If he got into a debate with Greek philosophers, they, too, would have grasped the meaning of charis.

That’s because charis simply means “gift.” When we say “gift,” the ancients would have said “charis.” It means the same thing. Rich people in the ancient world often gave charises, or gifts, to other people. They would donate charises to their hometown: a fountain in the city square, a statue of Zeus next to the courthouse. They would give a charis to someone in need of food or shelter. The wealthy were eager to give gifts to people. Why? Because the ability to give a charis showed (or showed off) that they had the means to give.

When rich people gave a charis to this person and a charis to that person—“here’s a shekel to buy some food”—they didn’t give it indiscriminately. The ancients gave charises only to those who were worthy to receive it. Charis was given to people CharisSocMed_01who were worthy of charis: those who had a high status or who were morally upright, intellectually astute, or physically impressive. After all, we wouldn’t want to squander our charis on some bum in the gutter who’s unworthy of our gift. A rich person wouldn’t waste charises on outcasts, the unappreciative, or thugs who had nothing to offer in return.

But Jesus did.

Jesus and His followers gutted the word charis and infused it with fresh meaning, with life-giving power. Jesus did more than give charis to the unworthy dregs of society. He made it His mission to seek them out. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He didn’t just give charis to the beggars who crossed His path. Jesus hunted them down and showered them with gifts. The same Jesus who overturned tables in the temple overturned the social norms for dispensing charis. Naturally, Jesus would be especially drawn to cannibalistic fornicators with a sick attraction to dead people, like Jeffrey Dahmer—the man who killed, had sex with, and then ate (in that order) 17 young men before Jesus rescued his soul from hell in 1994.

That’s the stuff I’m talking about. That’s grace. That’s charis.

 

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the seriesHomosexuality, the Bible, and the Church

I wanted to say thanks to the 90+ students who attended my class, “Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church” this last semester at Eternity Bible College. I loved our interactions, discussions, and the very helpful feedback you’ve given me throughout the semester. As a brief recap, we spent most of our time in the text, working through direct and indirect passages relevant to the issue. We also listened to a few (former and current) LGBT people, who helped us put flesh on the topic. During the last few classes we discussed all the “what about…” questions that surround homosexuality. “Can I attend a gay wedding if I think homosexual behavior is a sin?” “What do I do when my child comes out?” “Should I vote against gay marriage?” and many others.

Silo Blog AdFor those who weren’t part of the class but wanted to be, I will soon release two online courses on homosexuality through The Silo Project, so stay tuned.

I often get asked, have you changed your views after studying the topic and teaching the class? Sometimes the question is genuine; other times the questioner has a sharpened pitch-fork ready to address the wrong answer. In any case, my answer is always the same: “yes and no.”

No, I have not changed my view about what the Bible says about homosexual behavior. The Bible says homosexual behavior is sin. I’ve tried to read the text from the affirming side—”monogamous, consensual homosexual behavior is blessed by God”—but I’ve found their arguments to be unconvincing. No doubt, there are several good points made by James Brownson, Matthew Vines, and others, and I may agree with some of their exegetical conclusions about some passages (e.g. Gen 19), but at the end of the day, there are too many interpretive problems with their view, so I can’t buy it.

So, I (still) believe homosexual behavior is sin. The difference, though, is that now I know why. I’ve worked through the passages, thought about the theological questions, and listened to countless testimonies from LGBT people. I’ve heard, weighed, and considered the main arguments for the affirming position and still remain traditional in my views not because I’m addicted to tradition, but because the traditional view rightly captures what the Bible says about homosexuality. Hopefully, now, my view is based on the Bible and not my upbringing or assumptions.

So I haven’t changed my view. However, I have changed my posture. I used to think that standing for the traditional view of marriage meant that I need to wear it on my sleeve and front my conclusion at the beginning of every conversation. But Jesus didn’t, and so neither will I. Jesus, of course, never mentioned homosexuality. However, he did take a conservative stance on various sins while dishing out grace quite liberally on those steeped in those sins.

Jesus stood against extortion, yet didn’t mention extortion when he encountered extortionists (Matt 9:9-13; Luke 19:1-10).

Jesus stood against violence, but didn’t mention violence when he befriended a leader of a violent superpower (Matt 8:5-13).

Jesus opposed adultery and even took a hyper-conservative view on sexual ethics (Matt 5:27-32), but he didn’t front sexual sin when he encountered people engaged in it (Luke 7:36-50).

Jesus didn’t often lead with law; instead, he led with love and he loved people into holiness.

I often wonder what made Jesus so compelling to sinners. Why were they “drawn to him” as Luke 15:1-2 tells us? I think it’s because his cosmic love for people seeped deep down into the bones of people who were broken and battered by a sin-tarnished world. In a round about way, my traditional view of homosexual behavior compels me—if I want to be like Jesus—to love LGBT people even more. jesus and sinnersNot, love the sinner and hate the sin, but love the sinner and hate my own sin. Because we’re all sinners. I should have more LGBT friends, and not less, if I’m true to my non-affirming view. Jesus had few friends who were conservative religious people, but he had a whole slew friends who were thugs, fornicators, extortionists, gangsters—or people who were simply rejected and unloved by the religious elite.

Therefore, I want to be known for hanging out in the gay district in town, for donating time and money for people suffering from AIDS, and for attending parties that are filled with gays, lesbians, and transvestites. Why? Because Jesus was known for attending such parties (Matt 9:10-13), so much so that it tarnished His reputation (Matt 11:19). But Jesus didn’t care about His reputation. He cared about grace. He cared about love. He cared about fulfilling the mission entrusted to him by His Father and energized by the Spirit.

So have I changed? Ya, I guess I have. Hopefully I’ve changed toward, not away from, Jesus. Such a shift will always be dangerous and invite criticism from religious people.

My understanding of the issue of homosexuality has also changed. That is, I no longer can see same sex attraction and orientation as some abstract ethical debate that I banter around with among all my heterosexual friends. Homosexuality is not an issue. It’s people. It’s Matt and Leslie and Dan and Jeff and Jeremy and Maddie and many other beautiful souls trying to find hope and peace in a broken world. Loving people doesn’t mean affirming whatever behavior they desire; such an approach has never resonated with historic Christianity. But loving people the way Jesus did involves deep and radical commitment, sacrificial generosity, and a burning passion to discover and delight in the humanity of God’s image bearers. If we construct walls of conditions and prerequisites—“I’ll love greedy people, but not gay people…I can tolerate gluttons at my work on doughnut day but I despise my lesbian boss”—we fail to mediate the healing love of Christ. And we fail to uphold the biblical gospel we claim to promote.

In any case, I’ll be blogging less about homosexuality. Why? Because I need some space to reflect, read, and have non-social-media conversations about this vital topic. Plus, there are many other beautifully complex truths that I’m passionate about.

So, my next few blogs will be about grace (or charis): that ever so familiar and ever so watered down truth that binds us to our crucified King.

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the seriesReview of God & the Gay Christian

Matthew Vines has written a very thought-provoking book, one which exemplifies sound thinking and humble research. In reading his book, I often found myself rubbing my eyes vinesthinking, “I can’t believe this guy hasn’t even graduated from college!”

Matthew, you’re a diligent student of God’s word and I appreciate the work you put into this.

In any case, while I love to eat catfish and wear poly-cotton blends, I still believe that the prohibitions of male homosexual intercourse in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are still valid today.

To argue that the laws regarding male homosexual intercourse are no longer binding on Christians, Vines cites a few outdated laws in Leviticus: sowing fields with different seeds (Lev 19:19), wearing clothes made of mixed fabric (19:19), getting tattoos (19:28), and shaving the edges of your beard (19:27). Vines also points out that laws regarding circumcision and dietary laws—bye, bye Shrimp Cocktail—are no longer binding on Christians.

So, since all of these laws are done away with in Christ, it’s probable, argues Vines, that the sexual laws about male-male intercourse are no longer binding as well.

Once again, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate Matthew’s tone. It’s gracious. Cordial. Humble. And he actually addresses the “what about…” questions that conservatives will have. I often found myself thinking, “Ah ha, but what about…oh…you actually address that. But, have you considered…oh…um…you actually have.”

In any case, there are problems with Matthew’s treatment of Leviticus 18 and 20.

While Matthew highlights the laws of Leviticus that are no longer valid for Christians, he fails to make mention of all the laws that are clearly still binding. In fact, as I’m sure Matthew knows, Leviticus 18-20 is a distinct literary unit. These three chapters are like one long chapter in the book. And this section lists tons of laws that the Israelites were supposed to obey if they were to get along with each other. Now here’s the thing: while some of these laws are clearly overturned (or fulfilled) in the New Testament, most of them are not.

Most of the laws in Leviticus 18-20 are binding on believers. Matthew only cites a few that aren’t; but here are the rest: incest (Lev 18:6-18; 20:11-14, 17, 19-21), adultery (Lev 18:20; 20:10), child sacrifice (Lev 18:21; 20:1-5), bestiality (Lev 18:23; 20:15-16), theft (Lev 19:11), lying (Lev 19:11), taking the Lord’s name in vain (Lev 19:20), oppressing your neighbor (Lev 19:13), cursing the deaf (19:14), showing partiality in the court of law (Lev 19:15), slander (Lev 19:16), hating your brother (19:17), making your daughter a prostitute (Lev 19:29), turning to witches or necromancers (Lev 19:31), not taking vengeance (Lev 19:17), and loving your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18).

While Matthew correctly points out a few laws that are most probably done away with in Christ, he doesn’t even mention the large pile of commands that are clearly binding on Christians—commands that surround the prohibition of male-male intercourse.

Now, to be fair, adding up the valid and invalid laws that surround the homosexual prohibitions polycotton blendsdoesn’t seal the deal—even if the homosexual prohibitions are drowning in a sea of valid laws. (I do think it puts the burden of proof on affirming scholars, however.) Vines ends up bringing in another argument: the moral logic of homosexual prohibitions.

Discerning the “moral logic” of a command means that we dig deep underneath the actual command to find out the reason for the command. Take tattoos, for instance. The question isn’t so much if tattoos are forbidden, but why they are forbidden. And if you look closely at Leviticus 19:28, you’ll see that tattoos were forbidden because they had to do with some sort of cult of the dead. The tattoos that were forbidden for the Israelites were cultic and pagan; they symbolized allegiance to other gods. And that’s the “moral logic” for the prohibition.

But what about gay sex? What’s the moral logic underlying the prohibitions? Gay sex is clearly forbidden—but why? And are the reasons for the prohibition still valid today?

Vines argues extensively that the reason—the moral logic—for the homosexual prohibitions in Lev 18:22 and 20:13 is because of an assumed male hierarchy. That is, men were valued above women, and when men have sex with other men, they treat the passive partner as a mere woman.

One problem: Nowhere in the context of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 does the text assume some sort of gender hierarchy—that females were inferior to males and that’s why men shouldn’t assume the female role in sex. Nothing. (The phrase “as with a female” only speaks of gender boundaries, not gender hierarchy.) The two prohibitions are “unqualified and absolute” (Gagnon); that is, they simply say that men shouldn’t have sex with men. Period. There is no “moral logic” revealed in the command (just as there is no clear moral logic revealed in the incest laws, though I suspect God gave the commands for similar reasons.) The only hint of moral logic is that men shouldn’t violate their God-given gender roles in sexual intercourse; that is, men should have sex with women, and women sex with men. The command tells men not to have sex with men “as with women.” In any case, assuming some sort of hidden gender hierarchy as the reason for the prohibition is…well…an assumption. An assumption that’s not in the text.

Moreover, every single other sexual prohibition in Leviticus 18 and 20 are still valid for Christians today: adultery, incest, bestiality, etc. They are all valid. Now, Vines points out, or assumes, that the prohibition of sex during a woman’s menstrual period (Lev 19:19) is no longer valid; apparently, men can have all the sex they want during a woman’s period. But my question is: where in the New Testament is this command overturned? Is there any biblical basis—biblical basis—for assuming that men can have sex while their wives are on their period? I’m having troubling recalling a verse, and I can’t explain theologically how it is that Jesus “fulfilled” (yikes!) this prohibition.

So, the point stands: all the prohibitions surrounding sexual immorality in Leviticus 18 and 20 including incest, adultery, sex during menstruation, and male homosexual intercourse—along with a whole host of over commands in Lev 18-20—are still binding on Christians. There’s simply nothing in the context of Leviticus 18 and 20, or in the New Testament, that suggests otherwise.

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