Essential truths for ministry

The image of God in humanity should be the starting point for how we approach ministry to others. It is the shared reality of all people, in all places, at all times. This makes God himself the standard for ministry.

God singled out humans when He said,  “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” ”So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27).

  • At the beginning, God “saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).
  • Humans (by God’s original intent) had a very good and noble beginning (and we know it – intuitively).
  • As a result of the fall of humanity, those who were intended to be whole are broken, partial and fractured.
  • Human beings are now a combination of dignity and depravity. We find in each person a mix of good and bad – but even the good is tainted with the bad.

A sad set of terms are now fitting to us. We are lost, wayward, drifting, restless, fallen, broken, fractured, alienated, separated, partial, incomplete, sinful and dying.

A vocabulary of salvation is what we need. We need nothing short of intervention, rescue, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration — salvation! This is exactly what our Maker provided for us in our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. 

Ministry should always keep four truths in view

  1. A glory we had at the beginning (Genesis 1:26-27).
  2. A glory we fell from in our sin (Romans 3:23; 5:12; James 3:9)
  3. A glory being restored by the Spirit (through God’s gift of salvation and indwelling Spirit, Romans 6:23: II Corinthians 3:18)
  4. A glory fully restored when Christ returns (Philippians 3:20-21; Colossians 3:1-4;I John 3:1-2; despite our present suffering, Romans 8:18).

The starting and ending point for understanding ministry must be shaped by the theme of glory.

Most Christians need a better vision of the greatness of their salvation — a panoramic view! We must learn to think of salvation as a return to full and final glory — a return to the Imago Dei (image of God). 

Steve Cornell 

 

 

Two versions of reality

I. Reality without God

If there is no personal Creator, our existence is most certainly a cosmic accident. We exist by chance, not by design or purpose. If this is an accurate accounting for our existence, several facts follow:

  1. All our notions of ultimate meaning and purpose are based on wishful thinking and irrational fantasy.
  2. There is no final morality; no right or wrong; no transcendent morality. Morals are simply matters of personal or societal opinion or preference. The so-called problem of evil cannot be addressed and cannot (on rational grounds) really be called a problem.
  3. Death is both the irreversible cessation of organismic functioning and the irreversible loss of personhood. There is no hope of anything outside of this life. Apart from the existence of a Creator, we exist by chance in a deterministic universe governed by raw natural selection.

If this is the true version of reality, I guess we just need to get on with it until it’s over — doing our best to reduce the misery and increase the pleasure. But why then do humans everywhere throughout all of history intuitively sense that this is not the case? Why do we have this pervasive longing for meaning, morality and destiny?

II. Reality with God

If, on the other hand, there is a Creator, a personal God who made us male and female in His image, then at least three truths follow:

  1. Life has value, meaning and dignity beyond the limitation of human opinion.
  2. Personal identity, human freedom and responsibility become genuine markers of our daily existence. We have been endowed by our Creator with these qualities.
  3. The transcendent (which we intuitively sense) elevates us out of the despair of human relativism and the limitations of human inquiry.

“Where is there a hope large enough truly to overcome death? Where is there hope sufficiently encompassing to enable us to know that all our pain and suffering has not been in vain? How do we bring together the contrary oracles (raised in Ecclesiastes) concerning both the vanity of everything and the eternity that God has placed in our hearts?”

“Human beings need to orient their lives by means of some sort of comprehensive perspective that helps them comprehend life’s particulars. Our profound yearning can be met only by a spacious narrative, personal enough to help us find our particular place in it and enduring enough to make that place significant.”

“The Biblical chronicle of the Triune God is the perfect narrative to empower us to envision the meaning of our lives. The Scriptures enable us to discern our most profound longings expressed or not, to name who human beings are and what we want to do, to fathom even more clearly who God is, and to perceive how all these things connect. It is a meta-narrative large enough, thorough enough, and promising enough to give us the hope we need to live courageously in the midst of an unbalanced, technologically driven, co-modification-distorted world.”

“The Bible offers a grandly sweeping meta-narrative. That is one of the thrills of reading Scriptures, for they paint an account of God’s action on our behalf from the beginning of the world to the culmination of God’s purposes in the recapitulation of the cosmos.” (Marva J. Dawn, Unfettered Hope: A Call to Faithful Living in an affluent Society)

See: Why I follow a Christian worldview

Steve Cornell

5 links to see (and a fun video)

How (and why) to be the meanest mom in the world

When your kids tell you you’re mean, take it as a compliment. The rising generation has been called the laziest, rudest, most entitled kids in history. The news stories scare the best of moms. It’s easy to want to throw in the towel with your own kids. After all, don’t we all want to be the cool mom? Don’t give up. They may think you’re mean now, but they’ll thank you later.

The Irony of Despair (David Brooks, NYT)

“According to the World Health Organization, global suicide rates have increased by 60 percent over the past 45 years. The increase in this country is nothing like that, but between 1999 and 2010, the suicide rate among Americans between 35 and 64 rose by 28 percent. More people die by suicide than by auto accidents.”

“Suicide is delayed homicide.” Suicides happen in clusters, with one person’s suicide influencing the other’s. If a parent commits suicide, his or her children are three times as likely to do so at some point in their lives. In the month after Marilyn Monroe’s overdose, there was a 12 percent increase in suicides across America. People in the act of committing suicide may feel isolated, but, in fact, they are deeply connected to those around. As Hecht put it, if you want your niece to make it through her dark nights, you have to make it through yours.

Diagnosis: Human (Ted Gup, NYT)

Challenge and hardship have become pathologized and monetized. Instead of enhancing our coping skills, we undermine them and seek shortcuts where there are none, eroding the resilience upon which each of us, at some point in our lives, must rely. Diagnosing grief as a part of depression runs the very real risk of delegitimizing that which is most human — the bonds of our love and attachment to one another. The new entry in the D.S.M. cannot tame grief by giving it a name or a subsection, nor render it less frightening or more manageable.

The 5 Gossips You Will Meet (Tim Challies)

Gossip is a serious problem. It is a problem in the home, in the workplace, in the local church and in broader evangelicalism. It is a problem in the blogosphere, in social media, and beyond. In his book Resisting Gossip, Matthew Mitchell defines gossip as “bearing bad news behind someone’s back out of a bad heart” and shows…”

The Hole in the Gospel (D. A. Carson)

What is the gospel? In recent years that question has been answered in numerous books, essays, and blogs. Like the word “sin,” the word “gospel” can be accurately but rather fuzzily defined in a few words, or it can be unpacked at many levels…

A needed word on Christian counseling

 

In a conversation with a medical doctor about anxiety and depression, he expressed frustration to me over the number of times he will diagnose significant levels of anxiety or depression only to be told that a patient’s pastor or friend warned against medicine and suggested a spiritual solution.

“This kind of five Bible verses and you’ll be better approach,” he said, “is far more common than many realize.”

Sadly, the doctor is right. Yet he acknowledged the common and misguided tendency among doctors to reduce these challenges to medicinal solutions. Over-prescription is a serious problem, but Christians should not react by choosing another extreme. Those who take the “five Bible verses and you’ll be better” approach risk discrediting the very Scriptures they offer. They also fail to leverage a great advantage available to Christian counselors.

We need more teaching on this subject because far too many Christians are quick to sound like an authority on a subject simply because they know a Bible verse or two about it. This approach is causing Christians to lose credibility in an area where they actually have far more to offer.



I told the doctor that when I counsel people I start with an assumption that they have a full line of moral credit. I treat them as individuals who can accept and pay for their debts. Out of respect for their dignity as beings made in the image of God, I view them as capable, responsible and accountable.



Yet I remain aware that life is not always easily reduced to raw choosing. We need to guard against a tendency within the Church to make all of life a matter of choice — of obedience or disobedience. We should counsel others with compassionate consideration toward the complexities that so often shape life.

This means (among other things) that we must take seriously the multidimensional nature of life in a fallen world. Christians must resist the tendency to approach people one-dimensionally — as if they were only spiritual beings in need of spiritual solutions. God created us as more than spiritual beings. Scripture itself reveals four dimensions of human life. We are…

  1. Physical beings with bodily needs.
  2. Social beings with relationship needs.
  3. Psychological beings with cognitive and emotional needs.
  4. Spiritual beings with a need for God.

Christian counselors have a unique advantage of being able to approach people holistically based on these dimensions. I say advantage because many other disciplines will not consider the spiritual dimension of life.

If I consider it inadequate when counselors or doctors leave out the spiritual dimension, why would I do the same with other dimensions? It is disrespectful to the truths revealed in Scripture to approach people one-dimensionally.

Scripture also reveals (what is empirically verifiable) that humans are fallen or sinful beings and that each dimension has been corrupted by our fallenness. This is why Christian counselors cannot accept idealized views of human potential apart from God’s grace and power. But it is also why the human body fails.

We should be grateful for the medical discoveries that help us with our physical needs. The most complicated human organ is the brain and it too can benefit from medicines that have been discovered.

A thorough Biblical understanding of humanity ought to protect us from simplistic reductions of life’s challenges. God has made us physical, social, psychological and spiritual beings and each dimension should be considered when counseling others.

We also must understand the dimensions of growth in spiritual maturity. While approaching people holistically, our ultimate aim should be to assist them in a life-process of bringing their lives into conformity to the will of their Creator. This involves our intellect (as we use our minds to explore God’s truth), our will (as we increasingly yield to God’s authority), and our emotions (as we cultivate godly affections).

Christian counselors do not treat people as products of impersonal chance. Since we know that there is a personal Creator, we call people to more than horizontal perspectives about life in a temporal world. Scripture reveals this amazing truth about Jesus Christ that, “all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17). Our counseling must always point people to the Lord and sustainer of life.

The Church of Jesus Christ is called to show neighbor-love and true care for one another (Romans 12:10; 13:9-10; Galatians 6:1). Yet we must resist an all too common tendency to be overly zealous in offering quick and easy answers for the issues that trouble others. I realize that we’ve been told that the Bible speaks to every issue of life. And Scripture is a treasure of truth to guide us in a broken world.

Is it adequate, therefore, to share a verse or two of Scripture with a person who tells you about his struggle? This might be just what a person needs to hear — in some cases. Yet it is rarely all that is needed.

The approach that troubled the doctor is often guilty of careless listening that is more focused on answers than understanding a person’s problem. We need to practice patience and grow in mercy.

The virtues of gentleness and wisdom should be on full display among us when counseling others. Let us treat people respectfully and compassionately based on the four dimensions of life. This is a great advantage of Christian counseling.

Steve Cornell

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Leading our children to faith in Christ

When a couple brings a new-born home, they’re relatively clueless about the challenges ahead. Sleep deprivation and fear over what’s normal and expected versus cause for concern are common.

It’s one thing, however, to lose sleep over a crying baby; another to lose sleep over a wayward teenager. And when our children become tens, the areas of normal and expected vs. cause for concern often intensify.

Most new parents, of course, don’t plan to have wayward teens because they intend to do things right from the start. And who can argue with such a noble goal? Reality can!  

One of my brothers was recently in a store with his three-year-old daughter. She wasn’t following his instructions so he snatched her up and put her in the cart. She quickly pointed her little finger at him and said, “Daddy, this is my life not yours.” Hearing this, I thought, “What will she say when she’s fourteen?”

It doesn’t take very long for the blissful naïveté of young parents to convert to the hard reality of life in a fallen world! Parenting is one of the most challenging assignments given to humans. When I asked my mother how she was able to have eleven children, she said, “Having them wasn’t the challenge; raising them was!”

After raising four children to adulthood, I understand some of what she means. But I can’t imagine raising seven more!

I am a firm believer in the importance of parenting. And it’s possible to be a good parent or a bad one. Most of us mix some good parenting with some bad but no parent gets it all “right.” Yet it’s also possible to expect too much from parenting?

Many parents mistakenly think that they’ll spare themselves and their children from future trouble if they just find the right formula for parenting. Christian parents tend believe this based on the biblical proverb that says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6, ESV). Yet we must understand that proverbs are mostly generalized statements of wisdom, not ironclad promises. (see: “Does Proverbs promise too much?”)

While parenting matters greatly, there’s no method of parenting that will ensure unblemished futures for our children. If you don’t get this, it’s possible that you’ll expect more from parenting than it can deliver. You also might risk making parenting about you and how you appear than what is best for your children.

We don’t be like the parents who are broken-hearted over a wayward son because they thought they did everything “right” in raising him. Is it possible to do a good job parenting and end up with a wayward son? Yes. Does God have any wayward sons or daughters? Yes. Have you ever been one of them?

I approach this subject very differently from when we had small children. Raising four children to adulthood has given my wife and me much wider perspective. The goal of parenting is to raise our children to release them. This requires parents to move from parental control to parental influence. As our children grow older, we need to gradually release them by giving them increased responsibility. If we fail to do this, we’ll likely lose influence by trying to maintain control.

But the hard part comes when they believe they’re ready for freedoms earlier than we’re ready to give them. And they’re typically not hesitant to let us know or to go behind our backs if we try to stop them.  We must teach them that freedom is directly related to responsibility and trust.

The terrain of parenting is even more challenging when you have more than one child. When you’re dealing with different ages, temperaments and issues, your formula will require adjustments for each one. There’s rarely a “one-size-fits-all approach. And your children will quickly notice what appears to them to be inequities in your parenting. You might need to remind them that each of you are different and at different stages of life.

Children and faith

Most Christian parents want their children to experience God’s grace in Jesus Christ. They also know that they can’t “parent” them into this experience. Entering the grace-story of God’s salvation happens when one truly owns the back-story of human sinfulness. But how do our children come to know that they’re sinners in need of salvation?

Parenting is our effort to teach them to be good. How can we lead them away from bad behavior and commend them for good behavior while teaching them how desperately they need God’s grace as sinners? We want them to do what is right and make wise choices without believing that any of this gives them salvation credit with God.

It might help for you as a parent to remind yourself of how we’re all born anchored to our heritage of sin. This doesn’t mean we always act as badly as possible but that (apart from God’s grace), we are as bad off as we can be no matter how good we think we’ve been. Teach this also to your children. Teach it often! When you discipline them for the wrongs they’ve done, point them to God’s ultimate solution. In all character training, we must help them see that only God can change their hearts.

Tell them your story in the context of the story of God’s grace in Christ. Start with God’s good creation. Tell them how and why it went bad. Be transparent about our common share in the back-story of sin. Lead them to understand the grace of God in Christ. They will take believing steps toward Christ but don’t overly rely on the idea of them accepting Jesus into their hearts at a young age. Be patient and teach your children to continue to respond to God as they grow up.

When our children do sinful things, we must never say, “I can’t believe you did that!” We could ask, “What were you thinking?” or say, “That was very wrong and unwise of you!” But to say, “I can’t believe you did that” minimizes what Scripture emphasizes about the depravity of our hearts (Jeremiah 17:9).

Never forget that the gospel is such good news because of the bad news of our sin. We all have the capacity to do very evil things. We all need God’s grace. Believe firmly in this gospel and teach it to your children (see: Seven daily reminders of the gospel).

Steve Cornell

The advantage of Christian counseling

In conversation with a medical doctor, he expressed frustration about the number of times he diagnosed significant levels of anxiety or depression only to be told by a patient that her pastor or friend warned against medicine and suggested that her problem was spiritual.

“This kind of five Bible verses and you’ll be better approach is far more common than many realize.” The doctor said.

He’s right. And Christians lose credibility in this area when they actually have far more too offer. In my conversation with the doctor, I suggested the following perspective:

Perspective on Christian counseling


When I counsel others, I usually begin with an assumption that they have a full line of moral credit. I treat them as individuals who can accept and pay for their debts. Out of basic respect for their dignity as beings made in the image of God, I relate to them as responsible, capable, culpable and accountable.

Yet I realize that life is not so easily reduced to raw choosing. We must guard against a tendency within the Church to make all of life a matter of choice; of obedience or disobedience. We must apply compassionate consideration to how complex life can be. Far too often believers approach people one dimensionally, as if humans were only spiritual beings in need of salvation.

Yet, according to Scripture, there are four dimensions of human life. We are…

  1. physical beings with bodily needs.
  2. social beings with relationship needs.
  3. psychological beings with cognitive needs.
  4. spiritual beings with a need for God.



Christian counselors have a unique advantage of being able to approach issues holistically based on these dimensions. I use the word “advantage” because many other disciplines will not consider that spiritual dimension. If we find it inadequate to leave out this dimension (as we should), why do we do the same thing with the other dimensions?

A thorough biblical understanding of humanity protects us from simplistic reductions because we know that God has made humans as physical, social, psychological and spiritual beings. Each of these dimensions must be considered when understanding and counseling behavior.

Unlike other disciplines, Christian counselors do not treat people as products of impersonal chance. Since we know that there is a personal creator, we call people to more than human perspectives about life.

The mistake Christians often make is being overly zealous to offer quick answers for the issues that trouble people. “After all,” we’re told, “the Bible speaks to every issue of life.” “So,” it seems to many believers, “all I have to do is find a verse or two of Scripture that applies and share them with the person who asks for advice.”

This approach is typically based on careless listening. When we’re more interested in our answer than in understanding a person’s problem, we need to learn patience by listening more compassionately. We don’t want to be the fool who answers a matter before hearing it. And we should always try to ways that the four dimensions might relate.


Some clarification

I am not suggesting that we encourage people to avoid responsibility for their actions. Playing the victim only binds people to more destructive life-patterns. But superficial diagnoses typically lead to inadequate remedies.

When counseling others, for example, it would be horribly simplistic to overlook or  minimize the effects of a deeply troubled upbringing. When children (who are intended by God to be lovingly nurtured and brought to maturity under the responsible oversight of parents) are neglected, poorly guided or abused, it profoundly affects their personal lives and relationships.

In many cases, one must look back to better understand the influences that shaped their current approaches to life. Our story is not meant to be one formed in isolation but in a social context — for better or for worse. Each persons story has been significantly shaped by others.

We shouldn’t look back to blame, excuse or justify, but to understand and find a clearer plan for change.

What we’re saying is that one’s sociology (relationships and life circumstances) plays a significant role (by divine intent) in shaping one’s overall life. This must be considered by those who counsel the whole person holistically (based on a full biblical perspective of humanity).

Wisdom then calls us to consider a wider perspective of life as we help individuals address their deepest needs. When counseling deeper life issues that hold people in patterns that are not flourishing in God’s will, very often a person’s social history and context must be explored as part of the diagnosis. This is validated by the fact that a key component to flourishing in a blessed life is our associations or those we are in company with (Psalm 1:1-3).

Another example is the use of medicinal aids for behavior or moods. Many medicines are helpful for addressing actual physical needs but use of them should not preclude responsibility and accountability in seeking resolution to negative behaviors and moods. The need for medicines should temper our approach to people with large doses of compassion and mercy, but only in a context that preserves the dignity of an individual exercising as much responsibility as possible — in a context of truth.

I suggest that counselors and doctors should never view medicinal aids as a solution for neurologically based needs. We are more than bodies and brains with physical needs. Other dimensions of our being (spiritual, emotional, social) must receive thoughtful consideration in our battle for health.

There is a tendency among some Christian counselors to react with suspicion toward medicinal aids. This is sometimes a reaction to a common negative posture found in secular psychiatry and bio-psychiatry toward spiritual dimensions of personhood. But we must not allow misguided assumptions (no matter how condescending) to cause knee-jerk reactions among Christian counselors. Nor should we carelessly dismiss research and findings in these fields.

A biblically-based holistic approach to counseling respects all dimensions of personhood created by God in the full context of a narrative of creation, fall, redemption, sanctification and final restoration.

Christian counselors should use the widest possible lens for understanding and addressing human behavior. This provides counselors with a unique advantage for being holistically honest in dealing with human problems.

Christian counselors have a unique advantage of being holistically honest in dealing with human problems. A theologically grounded vision of humanity protects counselors from simplistic reductions. Each dimension of life must be considered when understanding human behavior. And we also take seriously the profound affects of sin on each dimension. Diagnosis and solution that does not take seriously this painful truth will be superficial at best and ultimately harmful.

Steve Cornell


Our only hope and those who receive it

Watching and reading the daily news gives the feeling that things are not getting better on the planet we call home. 

Current conditions make me want to offer a simple prayer,

“Dear God, things are not so good down here. I am sure I am not telling you anything you don’t know but this world is really messed up. I usually tend to be optimistic, but lately it’s been tough. Even when I feel that things are going well, I can’t escape a sense that more bad news might be right around the corner. God could you please tell us what your answer is for this mess? I know you didn’t originally plan for things to be this way and I realize that we chose to rebel against your good plan for us. But where can we find hope in such a dark world?” 

Take a few moments and consider God’s answer to the human problem from an Old Testament text. In Ezekiel 11, God revealed his answer for our deepest need. 

What will help us with our personal and relational crises?

The answer to our waywardness and our departure from our Maker is not more laws; it’s not better education; it’s not even civil rights. Though none of these things are necessarily wrong, they too often prove to be mere external adjustments. They give you the feel of rearranging the deck chairs while the ship is sinking.

What we learn from Scripture is that our real need is for nothing short of Divine intervention.

Listen to these words of action from God. 

“I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20).

God says that He will take on the needed work.

  • “I will give them…”
  • “I will put a new spirit in them.”
  • “I will remove from them… and give them…”

In the order of God’s work, divine intervention proceeds inner transformation. We need far more than a few external adjustments. Only God can give someone an undivided heart and a new spirit. Only God can remove a heart of stone (a hardened and stubborn heart) replacing it with a heart of flesh (a humble and teachable heart).

The pattern of God’s work looks like this:

  1. Divine intervention: “I will give, put, remove, give…”
  2. Life transformation: “Then they will follow.. and be careful to keep…”
  3. Personal relationship: “They will be my people….I will be their God”

But does Scripture provide insight about the kind of person who receives this gracious intervention of God? Yes. And it might surprise some people.

The answer is found in a story Jesus gave in Luke 18:9-14, When you read it below, look closely at the contrast between two types of people.

One man has a heart that is hardened in prideful self-righteousness; the other, a heart overwhelmed with unworthiness and in desperate need of mercy.

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

The self-righteous person sees no need for intervention. Rescue? Salvation? These things are for the degenerate ones! The self-righteous person is doing quite well in his own estimation.

But to make matters worse, the self-righteous use others to leverage their deluded sense of superiority. They boast about their deeds and fill their proud hearts with contempt toward those whom they consider unworthy.

By contrast, Jesus pictured this chest-beating, mercy-pleading, self-confessed sinner. Here is a man who is not even sure he should be in a place where God dwells. He keeps to a distance and feels the weight of his wretchedness. He knows his need for divine intervention. He finds nothing about himself to boast of and only appeals to God based on mercy.

While the first man builds a case for justification before God, the second pleads with God to withhold the judgment he knows he deserves. This second man, rather than the other, receives the gift of divine intervention, this chest-beating, mercy-pleading self-confessed sinner goes home justified before God.

Steve Cornell

A closer look at the effects of Adam’s sin

There has been a good bit of recent focus on the historical personhood of Adam. Interestingly, after Genesis 5, the Old Testament does not mention Adam. He doesn’t reappear in Scripture until the genealogy of Jesus.

There is a kind of strange silence in most of the Bible on the specifics of the narrative of the fall of humanity in Genesis 3. 

It is not until we come to Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15 that we encounter vigorous consideration of the way the actions of Adam affected humanity. This discussion is placed in the context of the redemptive work of the one identified as the second Adam. Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15 answer the question:

How did the actions of Adam and Christ affect humanity? 

Romans 5:12, 17-19

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—(12) For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (17-19).

I Corinthians 15:22, 45-49

“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (22). “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we  bear the image of the heavenly man” (45-49).

One of the deepest areas of discussion among biblical scholars concerns the way in which Adam’s sin affected humanity. Several observations  are apparent but each one raises challenging questions.

  1. Sin entered the world through one man
  2. Death came as a result of sin
  3. Death spread to all people
  4. All people sin

How then did Adam’s sin affect us? 

There is clearly some kind of solidarity with Adam and the rest of humanity in both sin and death.  The exact nature of this union is what has been debated 

    • Are we guilty because Adam sinned?
    • Are we born as sinners by nature because of Adam’s sin.
    • Do we sin because we are sinners or are we sinners because (and when) we sin?
    • What does it mean that “by the trespass of the one man, death reigned” and “one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people” and  “through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners”?
    • Did we sin in or with Adam?  
    • Did we inherit a corrupt nature from him? 
    • Is there corporate condemnation based on biological descent?
    • What was Adam’s instrumental role in unleashing sin and death in the world? 
    • Does it involve judicial consequences as well as natural consequences? 
    • Am I guilty of all of Adam’s sin or only his first sin?  

The questions seem endless and some of them are very important. We can at least say that Scripture is clear about the universal sinfulness and condemnation of all people, resulting in death.

Those who feel slighted for being affected by Adam’s sin are not likely to respond the same way when affected by the sacrificial death of Jesus. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22) and “one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (Romans 5:18).

What about Cain?

What is particularly curious to me is the absence of focus on the first children of Adam in ascertaining the effects of Adam’s sin on humanity. Examine the major works of theology on this theme and you’ll discover references to Cain are either completely absent or exceptionally rare. Why is this?

If (as most theologians believe) all humans are born with a sin nature and as spiritually dead, the first human to be born this way should be Exhibit A for discerning the effects of sin. It seems reasonable to look closely at what we know about Cain before reaching too many conclusions about what it means to be born with a sin nature and spiritually dead in our sins.

The first use of the word “sin” is found in God’s confrontation of Cain. God said, “You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master” (Genesis 4:7). 

Many teach that sin separates us from God and that spiritual death means we are unable to hear God. How does such teaching align with what we know about the first person to inherit Adam’s sin nature? Later we learn that Cain was “was of the evil one” (I John 3:12). The NIV translates it, “belonged to the evil one.” The language is related to being “begotten of” or “born of.” There is no doubt about Cain’s spiritual condition. 

Yet Cain approached God to worship Him. Cain’s wrongful approach to worship is exposed by God and Cain is graciously invited to make a choice to do things as God had evidently previously instructed him. As a sinner by nature and one spiritually dead, it seems strange that Cain is given this kind of access to God and invited to respond obediently. Of Course, God must graciously confront Cain’s darkness but God allows him an opportunity to do what is right.

Genesis 4:3-7

“In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.’”

Evidently Cain is not so deeply entrenched in his sin (inherited or actual) that further sinning (at least, in this case) is inevitable. The emphasis here does not appear to be on Cain as a sinner by nature, one totally depraved, but on Cain as one who has a freedom to make choices regarding sin’s control.

Sin is pictured as temporarily at bay and subject to the choice of the one who is facing it. Yet Cain must take it seriously. He must act quickly. Sin is ready to pounce Cain if he opens a door of opportunity to it. Cain cannot claim ignorance or helplessness regarding sin’s power. He doesn’t have to be mastered by sin but if he doesn’t repent he will be consumed.

    • How should this passage influence our understanding of the effects of Adam’s sin on human beings?
    • Why do theologians neglect this account when offering insight on inherited sin and spiritual death?
    • Would this account challenge some theological assumptions in what is called reformed theology? 

In a follow-up to this post, we must look more closely at the way God described sin and the possibility of understanding Cain’s anger as depression. We should also ask important questions about the unusual lack of gender correspondence in the Hebrew between the word “sin” (feminine) and the surrounding terms in masculine “crouching” (lurking at the door), “it’s desire, in it” (masculine).

 Go to  my audio sermon on this topicA Closer Look at the First Family
Steve Cornell

Complex and Corrupted beings

 

Evangelicals have a significant stake in the volitional nature of human beings.

Terms like belief and unbelief; obedience and disobedience, are part of our grammar of responsibility. Accountability and culpability are essential concepts in relation to sin and the expectation of final judgment. The good news of God’s gift of salvation is a message for those called to repent and turn to the Lord. Only extreme cases of mental disability find exemption from willful human agency and accountability.

With this longstanding view of human responsibility, it should not be too surprising that evangelicals — particularly in the fields of counseling — have been reticent to accept relatively recent findings of medical research that attribute moods and behaviors to neuro-physiological deficencies.

As neuro-chemical deficiencies have become an explanation for a host of personal challenges ranging from depression and anxiety to learning deficiencies, suspicion of these findings has grown among many. Some evangelicals worry that the findings of neuroscience possibly contradict theological conclusions about humanity, sin, and even salvation.

Yet we should all acknowledge with humility that sometimes life is not so easily reduced to choosing. If we treat people only as volitional beings, we fail to relate to them based on the full theological narrative of the imago Dei and our shared fall from the glory of our Maker. We must consider matters related to nurture and nature when addressing complex issues of life in this world.

Sociology – the Context of Nurture

I think about these factors often when I read our local newspaper. Almost daily I learn about what seems like an endless stream of young people convicted and sentenced for crimes. In many cases, I sense there are important stories behind their stories that never reach the paper. Long before these young people landed in the legal system, irresponsible adults carved the path that lead them toward their moment in the court of law. I don’t say this to excuse them from taking responsibility for their actions, but to recognize a reality that caring people cannot ignore.

I realize that we must take responsibility for our lives and that playing the victim (even when there is truth to the claim) only binds us to destructive patterns of life. Yet when counseling others, it would be naively simplistic to overlook or to minimize the effects of a troubled upbringing. There is guilt to be shared when those intended (by God’s plan) to be lovingly nurtured and brought to maturity under the responsible oversight of committed parents are instead abused and neglected. How do we talk about the outcomes in the lives of such children? How do we teach them to process the culpability of negligent parents? Does the behavior from children who come from such neglect and abuse always warrant the label of sin?

The intended design for individuals in community was clearly stated when God said that it was not good for the first man to be alone. Our story is not meant to be one formed, for better or worse, in isolation but in a social context. Those who refuse to acknowledge how one’s sociology (relationships and life circumstances) plays a major role in shaping one’s life disrespect the Creator’s design. Compassionate counselors must consider the whole person holistically when guiding people into truth.

Physiology – the Context of Nature

Similar consideration must be given to the effects of physiology. Just as we are social beings formed in community, we are also physical beings with bodily needs. We are complex, and our fall from God’s will only complicated our existence with brokenness on every level of life. Our original fall from God’s will corrupted both our social and physical existence in powerful and painful ways. This is where spiritual considerations must enter the picture for those who counsel the whole person based on truth. We are equally spiritual beings with a God-directed need for living in and under the will of our Creator.

Part of human complexity involves the brokenness of our bodies and minds. The brain is the most complicated organ in the body, and it is marred with dysfunctions to varying degrees in the same way as other human organs. Medicines that treat neurological conditions should be understood along similar lines as medicinal aids for dysfunctions of hearts, lungs, and other bodily organs. Consequently, those who benefit from depression medications should never be made to feel embarrassed about their need. Our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made but woefully and tragically fallen.

Yet we need to exercise special caution in assigning moods and behaviors to neurologically based deficiencies. When counseling the whole person holistically, we should not allow counselees or patients to reduce their problems to medically based solutions. Perhaps the medicines are essential to their health, but other considerations are just as important. People must look at their social context and their spiritual needs along with bodily deficiencies.

I’ve worked with counselees who have benefited from depression or anxiety medication while working through circumstances and relationships to bring more stability to their lives. Once their lives reached greater levels of health and stability, they were able to progressively move away from the medicinal supports.

We must understand that our brains can become physically altered by our circumstances. These changes are typically chemical in nature. This should not be too surprising, as the same truth applies to other organs of the human body. Stress, for example, is proven to be bad for the heart.

But this is not to say that everyone can expect physical changes with changes in their circumstances. Some people must accept medicinal aids as a permanent part of their lives. But even in more severe cases, we must guard against simplistic reductions of persons to a single dimension of personhood.

Avoid misguided reduction

It is naive and potentially harmful to treat people as one-dimensional beings. It disrespects the way God made humans and the pervasive effects of our fallen condition.

But the need for medicinal aids for behavior or moods should not preclude responsibility and accountability. It should temper our approach with compassion and mercy, but only in a context that preserves the dignity of exercising as much responsibility as possible.

Counselors and doctors should never view medicinal aids as a total solution for neurologically based needs. We are more than bodies with physical needs. Other dimensions of our being (spiritual, emotional, social) must receive thoughtful consideration in our battle for health.

A biblically based holistic approach to counseling respects all dimensions of personhood created by God in the full context of creation, fall, redemption, and final restoration.

Steve Cornell

True freedom

 

Are we dangerous to ourselves when we pursue freedom without truth and without limits? 

“We live in an age whose chief moral value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the absolute liberty of personal volition, the power of each of us to choose what he or she believes, wants, needs, or must possess…” (David B. Hart) 

A lesson from human history

Humans were created with an ability to choose between right and wrong. But humans were also created as dependent beings meant to flourish within creaturely limits. From the beginning, God set boundaries for life. When our original parents chose to live outside of those boundaries, they experienced the ultimate kind of limitation – death. This explains much of the sad side of the human story (see: Romans 5:12). 

In our delusional effort to escape life under authority, we’ve rejected limitations and boundaries – preferring self-rule over submission to divine authority. Our irrational bid for autonomy produced a form of bondage to corruption and the destruction of our very existence. 

“The account of Creation resounds with the establishment of boundaries. Almost all human cultures have pursued the task of defining and governing boundaries in human behavior. Every culture survives by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs.”

“The story of modern Western culture, however—a culture built around the ideal of the sovereign self—is a story of the abandonment of restrictions and restraints in the name of human freedom. Our institutions have increasingly been defined in terms of encouraging liberation from limits rather than cultivating a conscientious honoring of limits.”

“Wendell Berry argues that, ‘we have founded our present society upon delusional assumptions of limitlessness,’ that ‘the commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt.’”

“The minimization of neighborliness, respect, reverence, responsibility, accountability, and self-subordination—this is the culture of which our present leaders and heroes are the spoiled children.”

“In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define ‘freedom’ as an escape from all restraint.” (Ken Myers, Mars Hill).

Humans were created as dependent creatures meant to flourish within divinely established limits. Life within these limits is true freedom. Life outside of them is bondage. 

“We are free not merely because we can choose, but only when we choose well. For to choose poorly, through folly or malice, in a way that thwarts our nature and distorts our proper form, is to enslave ourselves to the transitory, the irrational, the purposeless, the (to be precise) subhuman” (David B. Hart, Atheist Delusions).

Reflection:

“Jesus said, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” (John 8:31-36)

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free.” (Galatians 5:1)

 Steve Cornell