Friday, July 8, 2022

The Power of Suggestion

A few years ago, I came across the results of The State of Theology doctrinal survey, put out by Ligonier, which had apparently found that an alarming percentage of professing evangelicals actually believe Jesus was a created being. When I looked at the survey itself, I found that this statistic was based on a question that went like this: “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God. True or false?” A whopping 70% of participants either agreed with the statement or were unsure.

First off, it could very well be the case, and even seems pretty likely to me, that many evangelicals are fuzzy on their doctrine of Christ. I’m not disputing that. And the survey responses to this question in particular demonstrate that a lot of evangelicals don’t know what sort of errors to be on guard against.

Yet it also seems to me that the question is essentially a trick, or at least demonstrates the power of suggestion. The notion of Jesus being created sneaks in at the end of the sentence, making it feel secondary to what the question is primarily asking, and thus rendering it likely that many will overlook it and instead focus on Jesus being the “first and greatest being,” which of course sounds like something that should be affirmed.

It reminds me of the old joke I heard as a kid: “How many of each animal did Moses take on the ark?” Of course I confidently answered, “Two!” To which the other kid triumphantly declared, “It was Noah, not Moses!” This joke is effective at tricking people because the primary question being asked has to do with the number of animals taken on the ark. The person who took them on the ark is not being asked about, but assumed, which is what makes it easy to replace Noah with Moses without people realizing it.

Another example comes to mind. A teenager once asked me if Rome was still a country, by which I understood him to essentially be asking if Rome still existed today. So I answered yes. Someone else spoke up and said, “No, Rome’s a city!” Honest to goodness, I did know that Rome was a city and not a country. But the teen’s misidentification of Rome as a country simply fell out of my mind, as it wasn’t pertinent to the heart of his question as I understood it.

Similarly, in the theology survey’s true/false question, the primary concern of the question appears to be Jesus’s supremacy and greatness, not his status as a created or uncreated being. The notion of Jesus being created is assumed at the end of the sentence, and so people are naturally inclined to gloss over those last few words in the same way many gloss over Moses replacing Noah in the old joke.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Is the book of Jonah a literary masterpiece?

The ESV Study Bible states, “The book of Jonah is a literary masterpiece.” Is it really? Are we really culturally close enough, or linguistically steeped in Hebrew enough, to judge a book like Jonah as a literary masterpiece? What’s the basis for claims like this? By what standard can we judge an ancient Hebrew text to be a literary masterpiece? (The same questions could be asked of New Testament texts also—gospels, epistles, etc.)

My theory is that claims like these come from a starting point of revering the text as God’s word, which perhaps makes people feel compelled to laud the text from a literary standpoint as well. That’s just a theory—I don’t presume to know how people’s minds operate. And to be clear, I’m not trying to denigrate the text or make the counter-claim that Jonah’s actually bad literature. But would I be confident to say that it’s good literature? Not really. I’m happy to be agnostic on that. (In all honesty, I’m not exactly sure how to judge any literature as objectively good or bad, although I would at least feel significantly more comfortable doing so with literature of my own native tongue.)

Even though I’m not willing to say whether Jonah is good or bad literature, I would argue that neither assessment is inappropriate or problematic. I don’t mind saying, the book is exceedingly odd from a modern literary standpoint. Its pacing is unusual and it ends very abruptly, without any kind of conclusion one would expect by today’s standards. And this at least makes me less likely to think “literary masterpiece” when I read it. But again, who am I to say?

It seems possible to me that some bookish people put such a premium on literary quality that they couldn’t bring themselves to revere a text that was not “good” literature? But maybe there’s actually an important theological truth on display in the fact that the Bible may sometimes contain “bad” literature. The power of Scripture is not tied to literary eloquence or beauty. It’s the simple fact that it’s the word of the living God, even if it’s sometimes literarily warty from our perspective. Paul himself said, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1).

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Believer’s Baptism: A Short Explanation

If someone were to ask me why our church practices believer’s baptism instead of infant baptism, this is a short explanation I would give them.

1. There is no clear example in the Bible of anyone being baptized as an infant. The consistent pattern seen in the New Testament is the baptism of believers.

2. Beyond that, there are multiple statements in the New Testament which strongly imply that baptism should only be undergone by a believer in Christ. I’ll just talk about one of them here.

“Baptism . . . now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:21).

This is an intriguing verse in some ways, but one simple conclusion we can draw from it is that baptism pertains to salvation. Peter actually says “baptism saves you.” That’s obviously a pretty strong statement, and if we’re honest it probably makes a lot of us uncomfortable. As evangelical Christians, we’re far more likely to emphasize that baptism doesn’t save you, and yet here’s Peter apparently telling us that it does.

But I’m convinced Peter’s not against us here, and we’re not against him. He does say “baptism saves you,” but the way he follows up that statement is very important: “not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.” So he immediately clarifies that he’s not speaking in reference to the watery baptismal act itself. That is not what saves you. Instead, he’s speaking in reference to the appeal that is made in baptism, which is an appeal for a “good conscience.”

I believe this is basically another way of expressing the act of calling on the name of the Lord: “whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13). A person’s conscience is burdened by the weight of sin, and thus they recognize their need for a Savior and ask God for forgiveness based on the work of Christ. That is the “appeal” for a good conscience that Peter speaks of, and it’s essential to what baptism is all about. Peter can say “baptism saves you” because he’s speaking of baptism as a representation of this appeal that someone is making to God.

So in summary, baptism closely pertains to salvation and also represents our appeal to God for a good conscience. I don’t believe anyone can reasonably expect an infant to experience a burdened conscience due to sin, much less to then make an appeal to God for forgiveness based on the work of Christ. And for those reasons, infant baptism would seem to be out of place.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Devotion: Jesus Is Better (Hebrews 1:1-2)

The letter to the Hebrews has a very memorable introduction. The writer begins the letter in this way: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”

So the writer is making a contrast the past with the present. He says at various times in the past, and in all different kinds of ways, God spoke to his people through the prophets. The first person to be called a prophet in the Bible was actually Abraham. God spoke to Abraham through visions, and even in the form of a physical person in one instance, which is pretty intriguing. Moses was also a prophet. God spoke to Moses through the burning bush, and Moses in turn spoke on behalf of God to the Egyptians and to the Israelites.

Similar things could be said about Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and all of the minor prophets. This was God’s pattern in the Old Testament, to make his will known to his people through the mouths of prophets. And this is what the writer of Hebrews is talking about in verse 1.

But then in verse 2, he makes a very important contrast. He says, “but in these last days, [God] has spoken to us by his Son.” This is being presented to us as something that far surpasses any kind of communication or revelation that God had given in the past. Because the writer is then quick to point out that God’s Son is the “heir of all things,” and it was through him that the world itself was created. As great as the prophets of old were, these are things that simply could never be said about them. God didn’t send us just another prophet; he sent his own Son.

And right here at the beginning of Hebrews, we’re seeing what is arguably the most important theme of the entire book, and it’s the simple truth that Jesus is better. He’s better than the Old Testament prophets. Later on in this same chapter, he’s better than the angels. In chapter 8, his New Covenant is better than the Old Covenant. In chapter 9, his perfect atoning sacrifice is better than all animal sacrifice. Repeatedly throughout Hebrews, the writer is telling us that Jesus is better, and also warning us against putting our hope and our trust in anything else.

Hebrews was originally written to Jewish converts to Christianity. And their big temptation was to go back to the old religious rituals and ceremonies that were so familiar to them in the Old Covenant. That’s why they needed to hear the truth that Jesus is better. But the reality is, you and I need to hear this truth too. Our temptation may take a different form, but we’re all prone to look to other things besides Christ to give us peace or fulfillment or value, whether it be a relationship, or a career, or a social status. So we need to hear the truth that Jesus is better.

More than anything, we need a heart like the apostle Paul displayed, in Philippians chapter 3, where even in light of all of Paul’s achievements, he would still say, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Sometimes we might be tempted to think that the time period of the Old Testament was when God was really moving. Because obviously, it’s in the Old Testament that we read about spectacular events like the flood, or the parting of the Red Sea, or Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. And if we’re honest we might even admit that sometimes we wish we had lived in those days. But the writer of Hebrews helps us to recognize that, as Christians, we actually live in a greater era of the history of redemption. When we consider the revelation that God has now given his people through the person and work of Jesus, alongside of the outpouring of his Holy Spirit who indwells us as believers, it should actually make us thrilled and thankful to live in this era of redemption.

Because Jesus is better.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Podcast: Musings Under the Sun 003 | Providence, Part 1: Introduction

Today on Musings Under the Sun, I begin a series of thoughts and reflections on John Piper’s new book Providence.


John Piper, Providence (free PDF of the book) -

John Piper, “Boasting Only in the Cross” (sermon from Passion 2000) -

Subscribe to the podcast via Apple, SpotifyGoogle, or YouTube.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

"The Bible Recap" Podcast Links | The Gospel of John

March 14th, John 1

March 15th-17th, John 2-4

March 18th, John 5

March 19th, John 6

March 20th-21st, John 7-8

March 22nd-23rd, John 9-10

March 24th, John 11

March 25th, John 12

March 26th, John 13

March 27th-30th, John 14-17

March 31st-April 1st, John 18-19

April 2nd-3rd, John 20-21

April 4th, Resurrection Day

Thursday, January 28, 2021

What Makes A Hymn?

It’s a question that I’ve often been asked, but also one that I’ve often asked myself. In the context of Christian worship, the term hymn gets tossed around fairly regularly. But what exactly is a hymn? Is there something that makes a hymn different from your average worship song?

The dictionary defines a hymn as “a religious song or poem of praise to God.” That definition seems generally accurate, and is probably in line with the origin of the word “hymn” (Greek humnos, meaning song of praise). However, by that definition, virtually every Christian worship song in existence could be called a hymn. But in terms of modern usage, most Christians probably sense that some distinction should be made. Not every worship song is a hymn. After all, the apostle Paul exhorted the church to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19), which seems to imply a distinction between “hymns” on the one hand, and general “spiritual songs” on the other.

Granted, understanding exactly what Paul means by those words would require a detailed look at what the specific Greek terms meant in the ancient world. Which would be interesting and worthwhile, but it’s not what I intend to do here. Maybe another time. Here I’m mainly interested in explaining, at least in terms of English usage, what I believe musically distinguishes the concept of a hymn from worship songs in general.

One common perception is that a hymn is basically an old worship song. So according to this thinking, if it was written over 100 years ago, then it’s probably a hymn. But while it’s true that many hymns are old (i.e. Amazing Grace), I don’t think that’s what makes them hymns. There are modern hymns like “In Christ Alone,” which was written in 2001. And there are still hymns being written today.

Some people distinguish hymns as having a unique emphasis on doctrine and theology. I think that’s generally true, but I don’t think that’s what makes them hymns. For one thing, general worship songs can be just as theological as any hymn. And conversely, there are some hymns out there that I wouldn’t describe as greatly theological, like “Softly and Tenderly” for example. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad song. I’m just making the point that hymns are not necessarily “deep” or “rich” in theology.

Another take I’ve heard is that a hymn is basically any song that would qualify for printing in a hymnal. In other words, whenever a worship song becomes such a well-known standard in the Christian world that hymnal publishers see it as worthy of printing in their publication, then that song effectively becomes a hymn. For example, Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God” is printed in some hymnals, which is understandable because it’s been a well-loved song in Christian worship for years now.

Nevertheless, I don’t think being printed in a hymnal makes a song automatically a hymn. I think there can be more of a definitive musical standard undergirding what we classify as hymns. And here goes my best effort at spelling one out. In my view, a worship song is a hymn whenever its melodies are specifically written in a way that carries the timing of the song, making it naturally singable by a large group of people with or without musical accompaniment. This is the reason why hymns work very well a capella—with no instrumentation. (Fun fact: The term a capella literally means “in the manner of the chapel.”) Of course, hymns are great with accompanying music too, but they’re also not held back without it. This is part of their beauty and appeal in congregational worship.

The rest of this post is going to show some specific examples of what I’m talking about. People who are non-musical may lose interest beyond this point (if they haven’t already). I don’t read traditional musical notation, at least not very well, but I do have some understanding of time signatures, beats, etc. I visualize songs more from the mindset of a drummer than a piano player. I’m just going to display things visually in a way that makes sense to me. The simple goal here is to show where each syllable of the melody occurs in relation to the beats.

First let’s look at a few classic hymns that are written in 4/4 time, meaning each measure in the song has four beats in it. Syllables in blue occur directly on the beats, which are indicated by the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4. Syllables in red occur on off-beats, which are indicated by the “and” symbols.

As you can see, the movements of the melody consistently follow the beats of the song. This is what gives the melody an audible rhythm. In fact, there are not even any off-beat syllables in this portion of the song.

Also, notice that there is never more than one beat of empty space. (In this example, all of the 1-beat syllables are being sustained melodically through the 2-beat.) This is because in order for a melody to effectively carry the timing of a song, it has to keep moving. We have to keep singing. You can’t have significant stretches of empty space in the measures, like other worship songs sometimes do.

Let’s look at another classic hymn.

Again we see a regular pattern of on-beat syllables, and this time we see several off-beat syllables as well. But the off-beat syllables always, without exception, immediately lead into on-beat syllables. They’re consistently “tethered” to the on-beat syllables in this way. They do not occur “by themselves.” They melodically support the on-beat syllables.

Whenever a significant number of off-beat syllables do occur “by themselves,” it’s referred to as syncopation. According to one technical definition, “syncopation occurs when a temporary displacement of the regular metrical accent occurs.” So the simple presence of off-beat syllables does not automatically indicate syncopation. It’s only when off-beat syllables are present in a way that disrupts “the regular metrical accent.” In other words, I would say, when the off-beat syllables are not tethered to and supporting on-beat syllables.

In the example from “There Is A Fountain” above, the off-beat syllables are always supporting on-beat syllables. And this causes a natural “metrical accent” to be maintained (similar to how some poems have a da-DA-da-DA rhythm). There’s a consistent rhythmic cadence that can be heard in the melody, even without musical accompaniment. And that, in my judgment, is the hallmark of a hymn: melodies that carry the timing of the song, which generally requires there to be little or no syncopation. In a video discussing song-writing, Keith Getty, a prominent figure in the modern hymns movement, says this: “Generally speaking it’s easier to teach a mass of people to sing a melody that doesn’t have syncopation.”

More of the same here. The melody is consistently oriented on the beats, and the off-beat syllables support that pattern, rather than disrupt it.

Now let’s switch gears and look at some popular worship songs that I would not classify as hymns. I think you’ll be able to see a clear difference.

Now we’re actually seeing a prominence of off-beat syllables, many of which are not tethered melodically to any on-beat syllables, but occur “by themselves.” In other words, syncopation. And notice how, between the first and second line, there are almost two entire measures of empty space, which are simply carried by the music. For these reasons, a song like Glorious Day does not work well without instrumentation; the song heavily relies on it. This does not make it a bad song. It just makes it not a hymn, in my view.

These next two may be more difficult to see, since I had to expand them to include 16th notes, which is just a further sub-division of off-beats between the beats and the “ands.” But as you can see, this chorus melody is heavily syncopated. If someone were hearing Revelation Song for the first time, but without any instrumentation, it would be very difficult to discern the time signature of the song by only listening to the melody.

Again, lots of syncopation.

But the point is not that syncopation is bad. Songs that are not hymns are not therefore bad songs. They’re just not hymns. But all three of these non-hymn examples I’ve shown are songs that we sing at our church and enjoy. I’m in the middle of writing a worship song myself, and the melody is quite syncopated throughout. So it’s not a song I would consider a hymn.

Anyway, there you have it. My best attempt to explain what a hymn is, and what makes it different from general worship songs. A hymn is a song composed of melodies that inherently carry the timing, making them ideal for singing by a large group of people without the need for instrumentation.

I do think the term hymn should be reserved for songs that are actually spiritual and worship-oriented. For example, the traditional New Year’s song “Auld Lang Syne” is melodically structured very much like a hymn in the way I’ve described here. Its melodies carry the timing of the song. But since it’s not a song that’s spiritual or worship-oriented in its content, I would not call it a hymn. (Although Dustine Kensrue used the “Auld Lang Syne” melody to write a great hymn called “All Glory Be To Christ,” popularized by Kings Kaleidoscope.)