The Major Flaw in Kevin’s Book (Legalism, Part 5 of 14)

In my last post I gave an overview of Kevin Pendergrass’ arguments about legalism as he presents them in his book “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace”. You can go back and read that post (as well as the earlier posts in this series) by clicking here:

In this post I want to discuss what I see as being the most fundamental disagreement I have with Kevin’s book. My biggest critique by far is that “legalism” as it is defined and discussed in Kevin’s book is a different kind of legalism from that which is described in scripture. As a result, Kevin views several scriptures and concepts through a difference lens from that with which the first century church would have viewed those same scriptures. In other words, Kevin’s way of discussing the problem of and solution to legalism is quite different from the way the problem is identified and discussed in scripture.

I have no doubt that this book will make a lot of sense to readers in the church today. If I had a time machine, and I could take Kevin’s book back to the 15th or 16th century, I believe that Kevin’s way of talking about concepts like “the gospel” and “faith” and “works” and “grace” would have made a lot of sense to them too. But if I were to take that time machine all the way back to the first century, I think most early Christians would have been left scratching their heads. I don’t know that they would necessarily disagree with the book as a whole, but I think they would describe it as a really strange way of talking about the gospel.

In chapter 2 Kevin defines what he means when he speaks of legalism:

The meaning of legalism is simply “the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.”… Paul used the root word for legalism when teaching against salvation by works. When Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia who were caught up in attempting to be justified by the law, he said:

“know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law now one will be justified.” (Gal. 2.16)

Like many others for the last few hundred years have done, Kevin reads this passage as confronting “salvation by works” by teaching that we are justified through faith apart from our own moral efforts. While this is true, if we are to rightly understand Galatians 2:16 we need to recognize confronting “salvation by works” is not the main point of the passage. When we read Galatians 2.19 in context, the verse takes on a different flavor.

The passage is in the context about Paul confronting Peter for withdrawing from eating with the gentile Christians.

For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. (Gal. 2.12)

When Paul witnessed this hypocrisy in Peter, he confronted him by saying,

If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the gentiles to live like Jews? (Gal. 2.14b)

This statement about Jew/Gentile relations sets the immediate context of Paul’s statement about faith and works in verse 16. This is not to suggest that Kevin is wrong when he points out that Christianity is not a “points system”. But it should be noted that when Paul says “a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” he is not making that statement to confront Christians who were trying to earn their way to heaven by doing good works. Peter was not being corrected for teaching that Christians must earn their way to heaven. That statement was made in direct  reference to Jewish Christians who were excluding Gentile Christians from full Christian fellowship.

In other words, these “works of the law” are not referencing any generic action we may do in obedience to God. Paul used the phrase to refer to the specific “works of the law” that the Jewish Christians were using to distinguish themselves from Gentile Christians, namely circumcision, eating pork, and observing the Sabbath. So when Paul says “a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus”, he’s saying that we are among the justified people of God (i.e. the church) because of our faithfulness to Christ and not because of any practice or belief that people might add to the gospel. We are acceptable to God because of our loyalty to Christ, not because we adopt the special markers of any particular group.

“Legalism” as it is defined by Kevin is a different kind of legalism from that which was addressed by Paul. This observation has several implications which I plan to address in later posts. But since Kevin’s mistake is a very common one, I think it will be helpful to develop this point further in the next post.

An Overview of Kevin’s Argument (Legalism, Part 4 of 14)

This is the fourth part of a 14 part series in which I converse with Kevin Pendergrass’s book: “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace.” Here I will attempt to provide a brief overview of his arguments, but I am confident that my overview fails to do him justice. For that reason, I encourage you to read his arguments in his own words by buying his book here.

You can read the earlier parts of this series here:
The Fascinating Story of Kevin Pendergrass (Legalism, Part 1 of 14)
Admitting My Bias (Legalism, Part 2 of 14)
What I Appreciated the Most About Kevin Pendergrass’s Book on Legalism (Legalism, Part 3 of 14)

Kevin’s Definition of Legalism

Kevin understands legalism as the mistake Christians make when they “view Christianity through the framework of a legal system and attempt to earn their salvation through works”. Kevin understands legalism to be a “poison” because of how it “impairs, injures, and can even destroy us in different ways.” He believes legalism is a “different kind of poison” because it is often a silent killer, worn by “Christians with good hearts and the best of intentions” without them even recognizing their own legalistic tendencies. (p. 10-12)

The Problem With Legalism

Kevin argues that Christians will often misapply various verses to teach that “unity demands perfect agreement in all things”, while common sense and scripture together teach that no two Christians will ever agree on every biblical matter (p. 101-105). Kevin therefore suggests that we should draw a distinction between having an incorrect view and being a false teacher, and points out that it is okay for Christians to disagree on spiritual matters (p. 113-116; cf. Rom. 14.1-23; 1 Cor. 8.1-13).

Kevin points out that Scripture teaches that Christians should be confident in their salvation, and when we demand perfect understanding of all biblical issues, the fear of being wrong destroys our confidence in God’s grace (p. 123-128; cf. 1 Jn 4.17-19; 1 Jn. 5.13; Rom. 8.1; Heb. 2.14-15).

We can only achieve this biblical confidence by understanding that “Christianity is not about my righteousness before God. Christianity is about Christ’s righteousness before me” (p. 141). The gospel should be understood as the good news that Jesus died for our sins rather than “frivolous issues that have nothing to do with Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection” (p. 148).

Kevin is quick to point out that law isn’t inherently bad.

“The problem with legalism is not with the law itself, but in a misplaced trust and application of the law. Therefore, law in Christianity is not bad. Law is a good thing if we use it correctly and understand its proper place. The problem is that it is very easy to misuse the law and begin to trust in the law itself for salvation.” (p. 153-154; cf. 1 Tim. 1.8).

In other words, the problem isn’t the emphasis on obedience and truth. The problem is approaching Christianity as if it is a “points system”, where we have to do enough right in order to get to heaven (and if we don’t do enough right, we go to hell).

The Solution to Legalism

The solution put forth by Kevin is to stop approaching Christianity as a cold, ritualistic system, and instead to focus on developing a genuine loving relationship with God.

The major problem in legalism has always been with people knowing about God, but never knowing Him deeply and intimately. We can’t know Jesus through the law; we can only truly know Him through relationship. (p. 205)

Again, Kevin is quick to emphasize that this idea does not mean that we can do whatever we want to do (cf. Rom. 6.15).

Viewing Christianity through the framework of relationship isn’t a license to sin. On the contrary, it gives us even more reason to love God and be obedient to Him. (p. 209)

Practical Applications

Kevin wraps up the book by discussing how our approach towards Christianity should drastically change when we approach it as a relationship instead of a ritualistic system. When we truly love God, “it isn’t just about finding loopholes. Instead, its about doing everything I can to please Jesus Christ in my daily life.

With this framework, we can stop approaching the New Testament as a legal document full of rules to keep, and instead we can begin to grasp the true purpose of scripture, that is, to love God and our neighbors more deeply (p. 219-223). When it comes to questions of unity and fellowship, instead of “looking for any and every opportunity to wage warfare when we disagree with a brother or sister in Christ”, we will begin to “err on the side of mercy instead of judgment” (p. 225-231; cf. Ja. 2.13; Mt. 7.1-2).

If the whole argument of the book could be summed up in one sentence, it might be this one:

In order to overcome legalism in all areas of your life, your framework must change. It must become relational and not legal. (p. 250).

Kevin makes lots of good points. Later in the series I want to discuss some of the excellent questions raised in this book. But first, I want to dedicate the next several posts in this series to a major flaw in Kevin’s book as well as some of its implications.

Continue reading part 5 here:

The Major Flaw in Kevin’s Book (Legalism, Part 5 of 14)

What I Appreciated the Most About Kevin Pendergrass’s Book on Legalism (Legalism, Part 3 of 14)

In this, the third part of a 14 part series, I want to point out three things that I greatly appreciated about Kevin Pedergrass’s book entitled, “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace”.

You can read the earlier parts here:
The Fascinating Story of Kevin Pendergrass (Legalism, Part 1 of 14)
Admitting My Bias (Legalism, Part 2 of 14)

First of all, this book was a wonderfully written book. This is one of those books that you don’t want to put down. After a brief introduction (chapters 1-4), Kevin tells his personal story (chapters 5-33). Kevin begins with his upbringing, and describes how he grew to becoming legalistic without realizing it, questions he wrestled with, mistakes he made, relationships he struggled with, and how he finally came to develop a deeper appreciation for God’s grace. I have always respected Kevin, but after reading his story, I grew to develop a deep appreciation of his courage and his sincere desire to stand for the truth. There were times where I struggled to hold back tears, felt his frustrations, and felt his excitement as he grew closer to God.

Beginning with chapter 34, the tone shifts as Kevin systematically walks the reader through how and why his thinking shifted. This section reflects the depth of Kevin’s thinking, and yet it is communicated in a very simple and easy to follow style. Kevin has an incredible talent as a writer, a storyteller, and a teacher. In this respect, the book was thoroughly enjoyable.

Secondly, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book on legalism was not written to discourage our commitment to obedience and teaching the truth. As I stated in part 1, this was one of my biggest concerns going into the book. But right off the bat in chapter two Kevin writes:

Please understand that obedience to God is not legalism (Heb. 5.8-9; 1 Jn. 5.3). Teaching that the Bible is the objective standard of right and wrong is not legalism (2 Tim. 3.16-17; Jn. 8.32). Teaching against sin is not legalism (2 Tim. 4.3). Holding other Christians accountable is not legalism (Heb. 3.12-13). Emphasizing the whole counsel of God is not legalism (Acts 20.20, 27). (p.8)

And he doesn’t stop there. At multiple points throughout the book, Kevin pauses to make sure that his readers understand that he is not suggesting that obedience doesn’t matter. Kevin recognizes that “a true faith is a trust in Jesus that will produce works” (p. 168; cf. Ja. 2.19). Now perhaps Kevin is lying, or perhaps he’s a lunatic, but I really think we should give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he really isn’t trying to downplay the important of teaching and obeying the truth.

Thirdly, this is not a “church bashing” book. Yes, the book offers some critiques for the church, but critique can be healthy.  Paul warned Christians never to think of themselves above self-examination. “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13.5). But there can sometimes be a very fine line between self-examination and bitter church-bashing. There are far too many self-appointed “church critics” out there, eager to vomit bitter accusations against the church every chance they get. But Kevin chose a different path.

Kevin does an excellent job offering his critiques in a loving way. In fact, Kevin seems to go out of way not to name any specific churches with which he has been associated. He has obviously taken great care to avoid painting the church in a negative light. The worst villain of the book is none other than Kevin himself.

In chapter 52, Kevin writes a passionate appeal to those who, like him, have grown frustrated and discouraged with legalism, in which he urges them to “show mercy and grace to those around you” (p. 240). But even more importantly, Kevin practices what he preaches. It seems evident to me that Kevin loves the church, even those within the church who have mistreated him.

If other Christians desire to write a book which critiques the church, I highly recommend Kevin’s book as a model and an example of how this should be done. I am deeply appreciative to Kevin for this aspect of the book.

In short, I respected Kevin Pendergrass before reading this book (that’s part of the reason I was excited to read it). But after reading this book, I’ve grown to appreciate and respect Kevin even more. If every Christians shared Kevin’s passion, Kevin’s willingness to grow, Kevin’s courage to follow what he understands to be true regardless of the consequences, the church would be much stronger in knowledge. If every Christians learned to navigate differences of opinion with the kindness, mercy, and love that Kevin has worked to develop, the church would quickly grow in their reputation of graciousness. Yes, I have disagreements with Kevin, several of them significant. But these disagreements have nothing to do with a lack of respect, admiration, or love for Kevin Pendergrass.

Continue reading Part 4 here:
An Overview of Kevin’s Argument (Legalism, Part 4 of 14)

Admitting My Bias (Legalism, Part 2 of 14)

In this series I will be in conversation with a book written by Kevin Pendergrass entitled “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace.” If you would like to purchase his book or read some of Kevin’s articles, you can do so here.

You can go back and read part 1 here:

The Fascinating Story of Kevin Pendergrass (Legalism, Part 1 of 14)

There is an excellent chapter in the book entitled “Confirmation Bias.” Confirmation bias is the tendency to process and analyze information in such a way that it reaffirms one’s preexisting ideas and convictions. Kevin observes:

The truth of the matter is we are all guilty of confirmation bias to an extent. Let me demonstrate this point.

When we study something that we already disagree with, we usually approach it from the perspective of why it is wrong. When we study something we already agree with, we usually approach it from the perspective of why it is right. (P. 76)

Kevin is exactly right on this point. To be fair, it needs to be recognized that I was reading Kevin’s book from the perspective of figuring out where he was wrong.

Kevin describes confirmation bias as a “subconscious disadvantage”. And while this might be true at times, I believe that more often than not confirmation bias is actually a subconscious advantage. I believe that God designed us to have confirmation bias. That’s just how we think. It’s how we identify falsehoods. We process information through a paradigm built upon other supposed truths. When we hear an idea that doesn’t seem to fit within our paradigm, our first response is to examine the new idea extra critically to find it’s error. In other words, confirmation bias encourages us to be critical thinkers and to examine ideas very closely.

In Scripture we are encouraged to examine scripture to “see if these things are so” (Acts 17.11), “be wise in what is good and innocent and in what is evil” (Rom 16.19), “pass judgment” when we listen to teachers (1 Cor. 14.29); “examine everything carefully” (1 Thess. 5.21); and “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 Jn. 4.1). Confirmation bias makes “red flags” go off in our minds when we come across an idea we suspect to be wrong. We are self-aware of our need to examine the new idea critically. In this sense, confirmation bias is a subconscious advantage.

This doesn’t mean we should automatically dismiss any new teaching that doesn’t fit neatly into our paradigm as being wrong. After “searching to scriptures to see if these things are so” we must have the humility to reexamine our preconceived understandings in light of our study and reflection. It is possible, after all, that we are the ones who were wrong. Kevin rightly observes,

Humility is the best friend of objectiveness. On the other hand, the more arrogant someone is, the more they tend to be subjective and closed-minded…

The road of pride leads to destruction and the road of humility leads to God (Prov. 16.18; Ja. 4.10). The arrogant are closed off to listening to others (Prov. 18.13; 15.22). Instead, they only wish to express their own hearts and beliefs (Prov. 18.22; 28.26). It doesn’t take any humility to admit when we are right, but it does take humility to admit when we are wrong. (p. 77)

It should be noted, however, that our natural tendency towards confirmation bias is not a subconscious disadvantage. The real subconscious disadvantage is pride, which refuses to admit when we are wrong.

With this in mind, there is a sense in which confirmation bias can be a disadvantage, but it’s not found when we critically examine the uninspired words of those we suspect to be wrong. The real disadvantage of confirmation bias is found when, we pridefully and uncritically accept the uninspired words of those we suspect to be right.

We are at a subconscious disadvantage when we are listening to preachers we trust and when we are reading books and articles (and book reviews) which argue a position we believe to be true. The very best preachers and authors among us are still uninspired people with the capacity to be wrong. We must not stop critically examining the teachings simply because we believe someone is probably right.

For this reason, I believe that those who are already frustrated with the church or already suspect the church is “too legalistic” are the ones with a subconscious disadvantage as they read Kevin’s book. It would be too easy for them to get entangled in the idea that neither they nor Kevin could be wrong, pull arguments out of Kevin’s book that they can use against “legalistic churches”, while failing to critically examine those arguments.

Whatever your bias might be towards Kevin as you approach his book, it is important to approach Kevin’s book with humility. We should strive to understand the real reasons why Kevin takes the position he does, and be careful not to misrepresent his arguments. For those who are bias against Kevin (like myself), I believe that if you approach Kevin’s book with humility, you will find that he raises some really important questions and makes some really important points; points which the church needs to carefully consider. For those who are bias in Kevin’s favor, I believe that if you will approach Kevin’s book critically, closely examining his arguments in light of scripture, you will find that his perspective has a few big flaws as well.

Continue reading part 3 here:
What I Appreciated the Most About Kevin Pendergrass’s Book on Legalism (Legalism, Part 3 of 14)

The Fascinating Story of Kevin Pendergrass (Legalism, Part 1 of 14)

I’ve only had a few interactions with Kevin Pendergrass over the years, but I’ve been intrigued by his story. Just a few short years ago, Kevin had a reputation among many as a “sound” gospel preacher, or, if you ask others, they might say he had a reputation as an “ultra-conservative”.  Yet over a relatively short time, Kevin changed drastically. According to some, he “left the faith” and joined the ranks of liberalism. According to others, “he came to understand his own shortcomings and his desperate need for God’s grace.” Regardless of your opinion of Kevin Pendergrass, the fact that someone could change so drastically in such a short period of time is intriguing. (If you want to get a feel for yourself, you can read some of Kevin’s recent articles here).

Kevin grew up running in many of the same circles I did. He graduated from the East Tennessee School of Preaching (now the Southeast Institute of Biblical Studies), and spent over six years living in Oklahoma working as preacher, debater, and co-host for “The Gospel of Christ”, a television show that has been supported by several congregations I’ve been associated with.

I first had interactions with Kevin back when he was at preaching school and I was in college. Although there were some points of doctrine where he and I disagreed, I’ve always respected Kevin. Even in our disagreements, I have been impressed by Kevin’s knowledge of scripture, his logic, and his ability to skillfully combine the two when he makes his arguments. More than anything, Kevin has always struck me as someone who loves the truth and is willing to follow the truth wherever it leads.

After college I lost contact with Kevin for several years. Then a few months ago I noticed an article on Facebook which he had written, and I was shocked. Kevin had changed his position, drastically, on several points of doctrine. Kevin had apparently swung from one extreme to another. Yes, I had several disagreements with him in the past, but now I found myself disagreeing with him on a number of issues – issues that I think are important.

Shortly thereafter I learned that Kevin was working on a book on legalism. This was a book I definitely wanted to read for multiple reasons.

For one, I have had it “up to here” with the accusation of “legalism” being thrown out against churches simply because they emphasize Scripture as an authoritative standard for right and wrong, teach against sin, emphasize obedience, or hold other Christians accountable to the whole counsel of God. And more than that, I’ve had it “up to here” with church bashing books, written by bitter souls who seem to look for every possible shortcoming of Christians to tear down the church which Jesus loves.  In part, I wanted to read this book so I could be better prepared to make counter arguments against such false accusations.

But secondly, I wanted to read this book because of the respect I have for Kevin. Whatever can be said about Kevin, nobody can accuse Kevin of being ignorant of scripture, insincere in his pursuit of truth, or illogical in his thinking. That’s why I was so curious. Why would Kevin, of all people, write a book to bash the church for being too legalistic? What had happened with Kevin? Why had he changed? I couldn’t wait to read this book.

The book is entitled “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace”. If you are interested, I encourage you to purchase the book here.

After I received Kevin’s book and started reading it, I’ve had several ask me to “share my thoughts” on his book. So I planned on writing a book review. But once I got started, I quickly realized that the depth and the importance of the topic of “legalism” demands much more than a quick book review. So what started as a book review has quickly developed into a multi-part series on legalism.

Even if you aren’t familiar with Kevin Pendergrass or his story, there is a good chance that you know of stories similar to his. Kevin is certainly not the only Christian to leave “conservative” churches behind. This story happens often. Why is this? Why do so many accuse the church of being too legalistic? Could they be right? Does the church need to make changes to avoid legalism?

Throughout this series I plan on conversing with several of the ideas discussed in Kevin’s book. From the start I want to say that I greatly enjoyed reading Kevin’s book, and I recommend that you read it. After a couple of introductory posts, I want to share some specific things that I really appreciated about this book. After that I plan on giving an overview of Kevin’s argument as it is presented in the book. Then I plan on spending several posts addressing what I see as the book’s major flaw and flushing out some of the implications of this flaw. Finally, once we have developed a biblical understanding of legalism, I want to discuss how our understanding of legalism can help the church to navigate some tricky issues.

Continue reading part 2 here: Admitting My Bias (Legalism, Part 2 of 14)

Breaking the Pagan Paradigm

Do Christians Have a Responsibility to Influence Our Culture for Good?

In recent years, I have written several articles to discourage Christians from getting involved in the pursuit of political power. (For example, read here, here, or find a full list of articles here).

In response to these articles, one objection is continually raised: Christians have a responsibility to be salt and light to influence our world for good. Therefore, when it comes to social and/or moral issues, Christians have an obligation to be politically involved.

In response to this objection, let us first consider the question, “Do Christians have a moral obligation to be salt and light, influencing culture for good?” I believe scripture makes the answer clear.

  • Disciples of Jesus have a responsibility to be the “salt of the earth“, and to be the ‘light of the world” (Mt. 5.13-14)
  • The church has the responsibility to “expose” the “unfruitful deeds of darkness” (Eph. 5.11)
  • Christians should encourage the surrounding culture to glorify God (1 Pet. 2.12)
  • Peter instructs the church to “silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Pet. 2.15)

Other scriptures could be cited to this same end. I’ve never questioned whether or not Christians should strive to influence our culture for good. Although I have tried to discourage Christians being politically active, I’ve never believed that Christians should do nothing.

So why does the objection continue to come up? I don’t think anybody is intentionally trying to misrepresent my position. Why is the objection so common? Why do so many Christians feel they have a moral obligation to be involved politically?

The answer is found when we realize that many Christians continue to be trapped in a pagan paradigm. Once we recognize this pagan paradigm, these objections begin to make a lot of sense.

Trapped In a Pagan Paradigm

For a vast majority of people in our world “influencing culture for good” is basically equated with “using political power for good.” This shouldn’t surprise us. If someone doesn’t believe in the power of the gospel, they will naturally believe that power lies elsewhere. From a worldly perspective, nobody has more power, more influence, or more capacity to do more good than those who wield political power. Therefore, according to this paradigm, if we have an opportunity to influence political powers for good, and we refuse that opportunity, we have forsaken the opportunity to influence our society for good.

Unfortunately many Christians struggle to break free from this paradigm. For them, whenever they read someone suggesting that Christians should not be politically active, it is assumed that they are suggesting that Christians should not influence culture for good. For those trapped in this paradigm, to withdraw from political involvement is to withdraw from being “salt” and “light”.

The problem with this paradigm is that it does not recognize the conceptual possibility that Christians could be socially active, engage moral issues in society, and influence society for good while at the same time separating the gospel from political involvement. Yet this is precisely what I understand that Christians should do.

At this point I anticipate another objection to be raised. “You’ve over simplified the matter. I don’t ‘equate’ being salt and light with being politically active. I recognize that there are other non-political ways a person could positively impact culture. But still, political influence is one of several methods a person may use to confront social and/or moral issues.”

Perhaps this is true. But if we really believe this counter-objection is true, why continue to raise the initial objection to Christians who withdraw from political powers? If we recognize that Christians can be “salt” and “light” in non-political ways, then why suggest that someone is forsaking their Christian responsibility by not being politically active? Either we don’t actually believe that Christians have a responsibility to be politically active or we don’t actually believe that Christians can influence culture for good while not being politically active. We can’t consistently hold to both at the same time.

I suspect the reality is that these Christians recognize that we can influence culture for good without being politically active, but view non-political methods as less influential than political methods. In other words, they don’t believe in the effectiveness of non-political methods in comparison to political methods. Thus they continue to essentially equate the responsibility to “influence culture for good” with the responsibility to “be politically involved.” They continue to be trapped in a pagan paradigm.

Where Does This Pagan Paradigm Come From?

It is important to recognize that this way of viewing the world did not originate with Jesus. Jesus never so much as commented on the hot political issues of his day. Whenever Jesus was asked directly about sensitive political issues, he used these questions as opportunities to point people to the kingdom of God (Mt. 22.15-22; Lk 12.13-15). On multiple occasions, Jesus had the opportunity to gain political power (power He most certainly would have used for good) yet He continually refused that power (Jn. 6.15). This was precisely the kind of power Jesus rejected as a temptation from Satan (Lk. 4.5-7).

Would we suggest that Jesus was failing to be salt of the earth? Was Jesus forsaking an opportunity to be the light of the world? Does this mean that Jesus had forsaken the opportunity to be socially active? Does this mean Jesus didn’t care about the moral issues in His society? Did Jesus thereby fail to influence His culture for good? Of course not!

(For more on Jesus, read here.)

We should also recognize that this paradigm did not originate with the New Testament church. The only things the New Testament commands Christians to do in relation to political powers is to submit to them (Rom. 13.1-4; 1 Pet. 2.13-14), to strive to obey them (Tit. 3.1), to pay taxes (Rom. 13.7), to honor them (Rom. 13.7; 1 Pet. 2.17), and to pray for them (1 Tim. 2.1-2). More significantly, Christians are commanded not to act as judges over non-Christians (1 Cor. 5.12-13; 1 Pet. 4.17; Mt. 7.1-5). And yet, the early church was credited with “turning the world upside down” (NKJV), not because of the way they influenced Caesar for good, but rather because they claimed “there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17.6-7).

(For more on how the early church approached politics, read here, here, and here.)

So where does this paradigm come from? The answer can be seen in Matthew 20.25-28:

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your salve; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

According to Jesus, the pagan world is characterized by their quest for power and ruling authority. The quest to influence the world for good by the means of political power is a pagan strategy resulting from a pagan paradigm. And it is precisely at this point that Jesus challenges His disciples to differentiate themselves from the world. The greatest in the kingdom of Christ do not rule; they serve. If Christians are to be “salt” and “light” in the world, we must be “salt” and “light” in the same way Jesus was salt and light; through self-sacrificial love. Christians should have absolutely no desire to take part in the pursuit of ruling power.

Jesus reinforced this point in John 18.36-37:

Jesus answer, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then my servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”

The way Jesus’ disciples are differentiated from the world is in their refusal to fight for power the way that kingdoms of this world fight for power.

Christians aren’t distinguished from pagans simply in that we want to influence the world for good (Christians and non-Christians both want to influence the world for good, though they may disagree what “good” should look like). Christians are to be “salt” and “light” by being poor in spirit; by being gentle; by being peacemakers; by allowing themselves to be persecuted by their enemies (Mt. 5.1-12). We must not lose this key distinction.

But if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to the thrown out and trampled under foot by men. – Matthew 5.13

 “But the Church Doesn’t Have Enough Resources”

“But the church doesn’t have enough resources. We can do far more good by influencing political powers than we could ever achieve by ourselves.”

I disagree.

If only a small fraction of Christians worked together and sacrificed to help the poor, to support adoption, to support struggling mothers who might otherwise consider abortion, or to lead the fight against racism, they could make an incredible difference.

Can the church do more? Absolutely. But the reason the church is not currently having a bigger influence in the world is because we’re too busy fighting over what Caesar should do about social and moral issues instead of actually doing what Jesus has called us to do. Too many Christians feel like they are doing their part by simply visiting the voting booth once every couple of years. “I voted against abortion, so I did my part” or “I voted to help the poor, so I did my part”. I’m not suggesting that Christians cannot vote, or that every voter fits this description, but we must never be deceived into thinking that political involvement excuses us from sacrificially serving.

The Power of the Gospel

Ultimately, hope for our society (and for our world) doesn’t depend on which party gets in power or which bills get passed into law. Hope for the world depends on Christians using the power God has given us. Hope for the world depends on Christians being distinctive from the world as salt and light.

The power to influence the world for good isn’t a power that gets released when we wrestle ruling authority away from our opponents. The power of the gospel is the power of the cross; the power we have even when our enemies are the ones sitting as rulers, as judges, and as executioners; the power we have when we are nailed into a completely “powerless” position.

The pagan paradigm was put to the ultimate test when Jesus was nailed to the cross. And the pagan paradigm was shattered when Jesus rose from the dead.

It’s time to break free from the pagan paradigm.

Will We Have “Physical” Bodies In The Resurrection?

The Body Will Be Incorruptible

Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on the immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up” in victory. -1 Corinthians 15.50-54

As I pointed out in my preceding article, when we speak of the resurrection, we must be careful to emphasize that we will not have the same old corruptible bodies we have now. This is a continual emphasis of Paul’s, especially in the context of 1 Corinthians 15.  This parallels what Paul said in Philippians 3:20-21.

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has given to subject all things to Himself.

But when it comes to “flesh and blood” not inheriting the kingdom of God, this cannot mean that we won’t have bodies. This verse is in a section where Paul is specifically answering the question of “what kind of bodies” we will have.

But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come? – 1 Corinthians 15.35

Once again, we need to let Paul define his own terms. Paul has already described what he means by “fleshly” people.

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are still not able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealously and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? – 1 Corinthians 3.1-3

Here Paul uses the word “fleshly” to describe the same people he described as “natural” in 2.14-16 (referenced in the preceding article). The “natural” and “fleshly” people are those who walk as “mere men”, as opposed to the “spiritual” people who live in harmony with the Spirit. For Paul, the primary meaning of “flesh” is not “made out of matter” or “material” or “skin” or bodily”.  For Paul, “flesh” primarily referred to people who live in sinful rebellion (Rom. 7.5, 14, 18; 8.3-13; Gal. 5.16-19) and for our current bodies which are destined for decay, destruction and death (see also 1 Cor. 5.5; Rom. 7.5; 8.6, 13; 2 Cor. 4.11; Col. 1.22).

Therefore, when Paul says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”, he is not claiming that material “bodies” cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Rather, as he explains himself in the 2nd half of verse 50, “nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” Unless the nature of our bodies are changed from “corruptible”, “merely human” bodies, into “incorruptible” “spiritual bodies”, we cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Or as he says in verse 53, “this perishable must put on the imperishable”.

Is Jesus Still In A Body?

One further note should be made here. I have on multiple occasions heard preachers claim that when Jesus was raised, he had not yet received his transformed, spiritual body. Since “flesh and blood” cannot inherit the kingdom of God, and since Jesus was clearly raised with a material, tangible body, they conclude that he must have undergone yet another transformation upon his ascension into heaven.

First of all, there is nothing in Scripture that would indicate that Jesus underwent further transformation upon his ascension. Such a conclusion is drawn as an effort to reconcile what appears to be a contradiction between 1 Corinthians 15.50 with what we know about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body. If, however, we simply accept Paul’s own definition of “flesh and blood” instead of assuming a different definition, the apparent contradiction resolves itself easily.

Secondly, it should be noted that Scripture is clear that Jesus is still in bodily form, even after his ascension. We get a glimpse of this in Acts 1.9-11

And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”

Jesus went up in His resurrected body. And He will return “in just the same way” – in his resurrected body.

Also, notice in Philippians 3.20-21, where Paul writes,

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.

Jesus didn’t shed his human skin. He still has a body – a glorious body, a perfected body, a transformed body, a body like we haven’t experienced yet but will one day experience when He returns and transforms us.

Will We Be Raised with Physical Bodies?

Occasionally debates over the nature of the resurrection body revolve around whether or not we will be raised with “physical” bodies. Rarely do I contribute to such discussions without great hesitation. In fact, you may have noticed that I have described the resurrection body as “material” and “tangible” (since it will be made out of the same “stuff” that was once in our graves, and since Jesus was clearly visible and touchable, unlike bodiless spirits (Lk. 24.39)) , but I have avoided describing the resurrection body as “physical”.

This is not because I wish to be evasive, but rather because a simple “yes” or “no” would almost certainly leave the wrong impression. The difficulty revolves around the meaning of the word “physical”. The word “physical” seems to mean different things to different people, and unless we understand the word alike, we are almost certain to misunderstand one another.

For some, the word “physical” simply means “having material existence” or things which can be perceived through bodily senses. For them, “physical” is virtually synonymous with words like “bodily”, “tangible”, or “material”.

For others, the word “physical” refers to things which are defined by and subject to the physical laws of nature. This would include the tendency for matter and energy to deteriorate over time. Thus for them, the word “physical” includes the idea of “corruptibility”. To describe a body as “physical” is to say that the body is subject to the physical laws of the universe, and therefore is mortal. For them, the word “physical” is very similar to what Paul meant by the word “fleshly”.

So will we be raised with physical bodies? If by “physical”, we simply mean “bodily”, then yes, we will be raised with material, “physical” bodies. But if by “physical” we mean “corruptible” or “mortal”, no, our bodies will not be physical.

For most, I believe the word “physical” includes a little bit of both definitions. This makes sense. In our current world, we don’t have a category for a material “body” that is not subject to decay. The idea of an “incorruptible, physical body” stretches the bounds of our imaginations and language. For this reason, I generally avoid describing the resurrection body as “physical.” Our bodies will be transformed, and I don’t want anybody to miss that point due confusion about terminology.

We must not make the mistake of assuming that all types of material bodies are necessarily corruptible. And likewise, we must not make the mistake of assuming that if we are going to be incorruptible this necessitates a non-bodily “spiritual” existence. Paul wants us to recognize that there are different types of bodies (1 Cor. 15.39-42). When we are raised, we will be raised with bodies. We will be raised with spiritual, incorruptible, material, tangible bodies.

Both Continuity and Discontinuity

In one sense, our resurrection bodies will be the “same” bodies we have now. But in another very important sense, they will be transformed into something radically different. Earlier in the same chapter (1 Cor. 15.37-38) Paul uses the illustration of a seed compared with a full grown plant. There is “continuity” (both are the same organism), and they there is “discontinuity” (the full grown plant is radically different from what was first planted in the ground.)

Yes, we will be raised with bodies, but we must not neglect the great transformation, lest we reduce the resurrection into little more than a “resuscitation” of the same old corruptible body.

Yes, our bodies will be radically different “spiritual”, “incorruptible” bodies, but we will not be bodiless spirits. The dead will actually be raised.

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. – 1 Corinthians 15.16-17

You can read more on the resurrection here: