We All Need Protection…from Ourselves

Galatians 1:6-12 (ESV)
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Last week’s theological roller coaster ride with highly-acclaimed biblical scholar, author, and poet Eugene Peterson is precisely the sort of experience that sets off a spiritually-invigorating terror in me. I have many times, as a first response to similar stories, run quickly to pray in a manner I picked up from pastor, author and popular radio personality Erwin Lutzer: “Lord, please let me die before I do anything to dishonor the ministry You have given me or otherwise deny You.”

he Message: The Bible in Contemporary LanguageOnce you pass up half a century of life on planet Earth, you tend to become all-too-aware of the ephemeral nature of your body, mind and spirit. This difficult-to-accept truth can readily be brought to light simply by counting the number of times one walks into a room with no immediate recollection of the reason for the journey: “Wait…what am I doing here? I don’t remember why I left the kitchen…”

The current brouhaha surrounding the highly-respected Peterson’s (apparent) late-in-life rejection of Christian orthodoxy regarding the institution of marriage – followed quickly by a retraction – will undoubtedly continue to play itself out in evangelical circles and on social media for some time to come. As you read this, Peterson is 84 years old, previously won a Gold Medallion Book Award for The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language and, by all accounts, has lived a life of unimpeachable integrity. Even as he voiced his strong disagreement, Russell Moore – current president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention – referred to Peterson as “a wise, gentle Christian.” Clearly, the overall witness of this man’s life speaks for itself.

So I’ll gladly leave it other, wiser Christians to figure out just what might have been behind Peterson’s apparent softening of his stance on biblical marriage. I am actually more worried about you and me…especially me.

I’ve always found it fascinating (and more than a little terrifying) that Paul kick-starts the book of Galatians by flat-out admitting that he himself might one day turn his back on the authentic message of God and begin pursuing “a different gospel.” After all, if the Apostle Paul, who wrote roughly a third of the New Testament, is concerned that he might one day drift into error, why would anyone ever rule this out as a possibility for his or her own walk of faith?

The Denial of St. Peter by Gerard van Honthorst (1622-24)

The Denial of St. Peter by Gerard van Honthorst (1622-24)

It’s worth noting – and, in our day, recalling often – that Paul immediately follows up the possibility of his own theological lapse with a clear renunciation of seeking after the approval of other people: “Look, I myself might drift into error one day and, if I do, it’s probably because I just got tired of the day-in, day-out disapproval of others.” We can all connect the dots immediately; who among us cannot relate to finding the clear witness of Scripture to be inconvenient as we seek to win friends and influence people?

Anyone who has been called upon to proclaim and defend a biblical ethic of human sexuality at any point after, say, 1950 knows very well what it feels like to be the dead-last kid picked for kickball teams at recess. You don’t tend to win a lot of friends playing for Team Jesus whenever the topic of God’s good plan for human sexuality comes up; the pressure to relent or at least ease up on historical confessions of faith and an orthodox position on controversial issues is relentless. Whenever relational pain is brought to bear, especially within families, we tend to forget that Jesus clearly warned us of the opposition that we would face (John 15:18-25); we also have revealed yet another area where we have been “passively disobedient” simply by failing to count the cost of walking closely with Christ (Luke 14:25-34).

Paul, for his part, wisely hedges his bets on his own lifelong obedience simply by admitting that he too, like his former colleague Demas, might one day wander into serious error as a result of falling “in love with this present world” (2 Timothy 4:9-11). Confident in the fact that the message he first gave to the Galatians was authored not by Paul, but by the Holy Spirit, he pushes all his chips to the center of the table and instructs his hearers to kick him to the curb should he later choose to revisit (and revise) the authentic message of the gospel.

St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt (1627)

St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt (1627)

Trying to make sense of the whole Peterson see-saw last week, a good friend of mine helpfully brought the conversation around to the idea that we all need to be protected from ourselves, another thoroughly-biblical notion (Jeremiah 17:9Ecclesiastes 4:9-12) that doesn’t draw much water in these days of smart phones, social media and over-emoting. Social media, in particular, has largely robbed us of the ability (or even desire) to self-edit; our collective responsibility has been bastardized down to something resembling, “If I think something, then 1) it must be true, and 2) it must be shared immediately with millions.” Hardly a wise approach to our sound-bite-craving culture; the very best writers I have ever encountered are those who are quick to admit that they very much need a good editor, indeed will assert that no one – literally, no one – is above an edit.

Keeping in mind that Eugene Peterson has been advocating for Jesus longer than many of us have been alive, we would do well to suspend summary judgment for the time being. That said, it’s somewhat telling that his retraction on the Gospel Coalition blog contained the sentence, “When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, I said yes in the moment.” While I really appreciated Peterson’s desire to mitigate the damage done, openly confess error and answer back with transparency, this statement made me squirm uncomfortably. Peterson’s confession hit a bit too close to my own weaknesses and sounds a whole lot like Peter waiting by the campfire to find out how things would go for Jesus at His trial. Maybe there’s a really good reason that all four gospel accounts include a prediction by Jesus of Peter’s failure? (Matthew 26:33-35; Mark 14:29-31; Luke 22:33-34; John 13:36-38)

Jesus is far more forgiving and patient with us than anybody deserves. That’s good news for me, for you and for Eugene Peterson.

We all stumble in what we say (James 3:1-12) and our mouths get us into unnecessary trouble all the time. Peter stumbled in a big way, and at a very critical moment, but Jesus was quick to restore him after His resurrection (John 21:15-19). The grace given to Peter fueled the remainder of his life and ministry; it gave him precisely what he needed to become “The Rock” foretold earlier by Jesus (Matthew 16:18). Two keys to finishing well, it seems, are 1) to remain open to your own fallen nature and, 2) maintain a willingness to have other Christians rebuke and correct bad theology…and the unbiblical behavior that tends to come along for the ride. Galatians 2:11-14 clearly demonstrates that Peter didn’t get everything right even after Jesus had restored him, and neither will any of us. As we all age and our capacities diminish, may we all cling to Christ and graciously ignore all temptations to wander away from Truth. May He be merciful to answer our collective prayer to live (and die) as His beloved children.

Philippians 1:21-25 (ESV)
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.

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