Like a Bird in a Cage

"We live in a world that does not carry within itself the reason for its own existence." -Ivan Illich

The Sacrament of Baptism

The Nature of Baptism:

In Matthew 3:11, we find the nature of John’s baptism qualitatively distinct from that of the baptism Christians now receive. The water with which John baptizes is for repentance, that is, it is a preparatory rite for the One who is to come, namely, Christ, as well as the kingdom he inaugurates. Here John is telling those who have gathered to him that baptism, in the current dispensation, is mainly to prepare the hearts of worshippers to receive the full blessings to come in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

But John knows and expects that, unlike him, the Messiah who comes after will baptize with “Spirit and fire” – which is something only Christ can do – in order to bring repentant sinners into the kingdom of God, as it takes on its form through the [catholic] church. There are, of course, many interpretations as to what that might mean, but we know that it cannot mean that water’s substance is therefore made irrelevant, less significant, or even merely symbolic. Reading it in context, “Spirit and fire,” within this passage, speaks to the consecration of baptismal waters, not its dismissal, so as to give it new meaning and purpose. How do we know this?

The Effect and Command of Baptism: 

We read further. In vv.13-17, we see that Jesus subjected himself to baptism. Thus, Christ’s submersion beneath the waters is the very act of its consecration for future believers. It reveals through the direction of Christ’s humanity to Christ’s divinity that the Spirit and grace of God are mediated to repentant sinners through baptism, that is, for the forgiveness of sins, by which they are joined to Christ’s life and thereby the communion of saints. To put it differently, baptism is the initial rite [after which comes the Lord’s Supper] through which we not only obtain forgiveness of sins but also become members of the church-community itself, and thus to Christ himself.[1]

And for those who have received Christ in faith, the command to become baptized primarily comes by way of Christ’s own example. The early church fathers and Reformers took this very seriously. Christ is demonstrating that for those who would be his disciples they too must become baptized because their Lord and Master was also baptized. Christ did not dismiss it, nor did he consider himself above it. Because the sinless Savior saw it fit that he should be baptized with water, how much more so for mere sinful mortals who would follow after him?

The Meaning of Baptism:

So, baptism is no longer a rite of repentance per se, since God’s kingdom has now come in Christ. We discussed before how Christ consecrates baptismal waters. Its signification, on the other hand, is brought about through Christ’s death and resurrection. That is, baptism illustrates through dramatization the deeper spiritual realities of what Christ has already accomplished for us on the cross. In obedience to the Father, Christ humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross, for the sake of our salvation [Philippians 2:8], and then on the third day he rose again, conquering sin and death forever. The benefits we receive through this are unmerited, for they are freely given to and received by those who profess faith in him. Therefore, baptism is not a human accomplishment. It is not something we achieve for ourselves.

This leads me to the caveat of my pastoral concern. A lot of today’s Christians think that if I can reach a certain level of spiritual maturity, and demonstrate that maturity through my manner of speech or outward acts of service, then I know I’ll be ready for baptism. But this is categorically false, since it is not what the baptism of Christ is about. This mindset is premised on law, as opposed to the life-giving grace and freedom of the gospel. Covenantal baptism is first and foremost about the promise of God for sinners, and how it is secured and obtained only through what Christ has done. Baptism is divine gift.

Which is why baptism, having been reconstituted through Christ, portrays sinners dying to themselves by being submerged beneath the waters. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” [Romans 6:1-3]. Thus, we die a death like his in denying a life of sin, to which we are then raised to a new life like his. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” [2 Corinthians 5:17].

In short, Christ consecrates, recreates, and commands baptism; Christ mediates the promise of God’s covenantal grace to believers through baptism, in and through which they are joined to him and the church-community; and baptism is the dramatic, embodied declaration of God’s invisible grace at work within believers as they die and rise again with Christ.[2]

Pastoral-Ministerial Application:

That is why I hesitate to say “he/she is ‘ready’ to be baptized” because that insinuates that that person has accomplished a spiritual status for him or herself, and thus reduces baptism to a hollow, grandiose gesture of how good I am as opposed to how good and gracious God is. No one is ever “ready” to be baptized, insofar as our understanding of readiness means how much I know, how much I’ve accomplished, how moral I am, etc. The only readiness there is is the one where sinners have genuinely experienced the grace of God’s word in Christ. Read Acts 2:41. As soon as the apostle Peter finished preaching God’s word at Pentecost, those who encountered the grace of Christ were immediately baptized. Or, perhaps take a look at Acts 8:36-38, where the Ethiopian eunuch is struggling to understand the mysteries of God, veiled in the prophetic writings of Isaiah. God charges Philip to preach the good news, and the eunuch responds, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” The response is always initiated by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Many of my current students at the Calvary Baptist Church of New Haven have this dangerous notion that they have to be more than what they are – spiritually and otherwise – in order to become baptized. But apart from trying to convey why baptism is significant for believers, I want them to understand that baptism is about entrusting ourselves to Christ because he has shown himself to be faithful first. He alone is worthy of all our lives. So, we die to sin and are resurrected to the newness of life in imitating the patterns of Christ through the divine gift of baptism.

This is why it is improper/inappropriate to manipulate/coerce people who have not experienced – or, have not received the assurance of – God’s grace in their lives towards baptism, since this is something only God and God alone can do. With that said, Christian forerunners and spiritual advisors ought to help believers discern whether they should be baptized, and appropriately and gently encourage them to do so, especially when the church-community finds that they are unnecessarily delaying it.

[1]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 210-211.

[2]See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 4.15.1-6.

Advertisements

That They May Be One

Denominationalism is one of the most pressing issues facing the church today.[1]Of course, it isn’t a recent phenomenon as much of today’s major denominations are the direct result of Christian contentions drawn out over the course of history. Since the Protestant Reformation, however, church divisions have occurred at precipitous rates, normalizing these patterns at the site of conflict. We’ve now reached the point where many people understand denominationalism as something worth celebrating because of its testament to the diversity within Christ’s body.

This divisive spirit, though, long predates the Reformation as we observe its inchoate form even among the early Christians. Specifically, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians betrays the formation of divisions within that community. But instead of applauding this, Paul immediately reacts against it. Why? For Paul, division is none other than the disintegration of the fabric of true Christian community, and so does not find that sort of diversity, that is, diversity outside the context of unity, as cause for celebration. Rather, Paul would find it as cause for deep lament.

Because denominationalism is largely taken for granted, it is difficult for modern Protestants to grasp just what is at stake. Thus, it will be helpful for us to hear from Paul, and what he has to say on this matter. To do so, we will consider what the church ought to be in Paul’s conception, and why church division poses a serious threat to Christian life.

According to Paul, the church is the body of Christ, constituted by the fellowship of believers.[2]But how does this come about? By virtue of the cross, Christ offers wayward sinners the gift of redemption, which they receive in faith. They then become baptized, the sacramental means by which believers are incorporated into the life of the church. And since only Christ can effect this, he is the Lord of the church, or the head of the body. By his grace, Christ brings together a diverse group of people, and acts as their common bond. The efficacy of his grace is such that those in Christ are now able to transcend social and ethnic boundaries once thought to be impenetrable.[3]Thus, they are united to one another because they are united to Christ.

When Paul writes to the church in Corinth, we should not confuse his call for unity as a call for uniformity.[4]That divisions exist within the church presupposes diversity, and still Paul calls them to be united. Diversity, for Paul, is a great gift to the church because it is the site in which they get to actively take on the form of Christ. Conflicts, for example, that arise due to differences of opinion should be seized as opportunities for believers to submit to one another in humility and love. In doing so, they live in the way Christ taught them to live whereby they are reworked into his image.

Paul also finds diversity to be a blessing since it means believers bring a variety of gifts to the church. That is, every individual by virtue of who they are and the gifts they possess has something unique to contribute to the church’s corporate life. This, too, allows Christians to live out of their distinct capacities in order to bless others, and become more like Christ in the process. Moreover, diversity entails Christians being in different places in their faith journeys, which is why Paul commends the strong to bear with those who are weak.[5]Paul leads by example as he talks about giving up his rights so that he would not be a hindrance to the reception of the gospel. This resembles the servant form of Christ, who came to serve and not be served.

Thus, diversity, in all these forms, is to be kept within the body of Christ for the mutual edification of believers as well as the outward advancement of the gospel by way of the church’s united existence. Despite the world’s pre-established dividing lines, in Christ Christians are able to transcend these barriers and live in a manner set apart for the gospel by loving one another. In this, the church realizes its function of gospel witness.

This should help us better understand what’s at stake when Christians split from one another. In 1 Corinthians 1:13, Paul asks the rhetorical question, “Is Christ divided?” Because Christ cannot be divided, so too the church cannot be divided. Anything else would be an inherent contradiction to the life of the church since it tears apart what Christ has put together. That is, if the church’s existence is fundamentally constituted by its unity in Christ, then division is ultimately spurning Christ’s Lordship over it, which makes the church what it is.

One of the reasons why the challenge of church division, or denominationalism, seems so insurmountable today is because Protestants are so engulfed by this notion of a pseudo, individualistic spirituality where their minds are no longer able to move past the egotistical horizon. So, it becomes difficult to imagine a grace beyond one’s own personal feelings, which leads to the false assumption that grace is meant to be experienced in an unmediated fashion. As a result, the church is rendered a secondary reality, and is no longer central for what it means to be Christian. These things, of course, mutually feed off each other; that is, denominationalism perpetuates this sort of individualistic spirituality, which in turn encourages church division. Thus, it is imperative for Christians to understand how they are rejecting Christ in rejecting one another, and thereby break out of this schismatic cycle.

For it is easy to celebrate diversity from a distance so long as it doesn’t infringe upon one’s own preferences. But as we’ve seen, the sort of diversity Paul envisions is one within unity because that is where Christian bonds are refined and fortified. For Paul, schism is nothing but spiritual cowardice, for its sole aim is to be understood.[6]So, what you end up with is a congregation where people look like each other, think like each other, act like each other, and speak like each other because they cannot live without the constant affirmation of their like-minded peers. They may be willing to acknowledge diversity, but so long as it doesn’t disrupt homogeneity in whatever form that may take.

When the church splits, crucial members are being excised from the body of Christ, members that are irreplaceable by virtue of their unique gifts and capacities. The loss of such gifts is detrimental to the life of the church because the church is no longer being edified in the way it once was when its former members were there. At the same time, its harmful to said members because it robs them of the opportunity to be conduits of grace for others. Furthermore, divisions over who is worthy to join the body attempts to usurp a role that is strictly Christ’s. For Christ has joined together both the weak and the strong so that they would learn to care for one another by being Christ for one another. Division takes away the encouragement the weak need from the strong as well as the humility the strong need from the weak.

In all of this, the fundamental error is when Christian factions claim Christ for themselves while denying him to others. Churches split for a variety of reasons, but make faithfulness to God their pretext. Paul notices this to be the case particularly with one group more so than the others in 1 Corinthians 1:12. They are the ones who say, “I follow Christ.” The issue is not with following Christ per se, for that is what Christians should do. Rather, the issue is with the exclusive nature of this claim, namely, that they have special access to Christ in a way others do not. Recall, all members within the body have access to Christ in that they are redeemed by him and are baptized in his name; thus, the absurdity of such exclusive claims is highlighted by this fact.

By its very nature, denominationalism sets groups up to believe that theirs is a more privileged communion than others. It is founded on hubris, and covered over in the veneer of faithfulness. Because diversity is flattened out in schism, the church forfeits its identity and power. Opportunities to celebrate one another at the site of difference, or to love one another at the site of conflict, are lost, and thereby Christians miss the effective opportunity to pattern themselves after Christ. Thus, the church loses its power for gospel proclamation as they live according to the standards of this world rather than the ones set out by Christ. For Christ commands his disciples to love their enemies, especially those within the church.[7]To remove ourselves from people we don’t like or disagree with is something non-believers do; however, to love each other even in the midst of strife is something only Christians can do because of their shared commitment to Christ. How will the world know where the presence of Christ resides if the church just blends right in?

In 1 Corinthians, Paul provides us with a compelling portrait of the church. The church is Christ’s body, made up of a diverse group of members. They are united to one another in Christ, and their diversity affords them the possibility to experience Christ’s grace in receiving and sharing it with others by way of their unique gifts and capacities. In this, the church is built up, and the gospel is displayed for all the world to see. This is why denominationalism is no celebratory matter since it is the mutilation of Christ’s body. Schism is the refusal to love others by withholding grace from them. It compromises the identity of the church because it places human beings at the level of Christ. The church is called to submit to Christ in being united to one another, but go against his command in splitting off from one another. Since denominationalism is now so much a part of our ecclesial fiber, Protestants have grown hopelessly numb to it.

The purpose here, however, was to help us understand why we can no longer afford to remain in this state of disobedience. For Paul, visible church unity actually matters, contrary to most Protestants who aver mere spiritual unity, since it is only within the graced messiness of life together that Christians take on the shape of Christ, and thereby become the sort of church Christ envisaged from the beginning. In that regard, Paul is simply echoing Christ, who prays that “they may be one.”[8]

[1]By denominationalism, I mean the existence of ecclesial factions specifically within Protestantism as well as its disposition towards schism whether it be over theological disagreements or any other kinds of conflict that may arise within the church.

[2]1 Corinthians 1:13

[3]Galatians 3:28

[4]That is, Paul is not an advocate for ecclesial homogeneity.

[5]1 Corinthians 8-10; Romans 15:1

[6]1 Corinthians 1:12

[7]Matthew 5:44-46

[8]John 17:22

On Being a Korean American Christian

Today I came into membership at Trinity Baptist Church in New Haven, CT. I’ve been attending Trinity for almost a year now while studying at Yale, and have been serving in the youth and worship ministries. Whenever I have the chance to catch up with friends from back home, they ask me about how my first year of graduate studies went. Among other things, I always tell them about how uncanny it seems to me that I was able to find a solid church within such a short span of time since I knew virtually nothing about New Haven before coming here (and can also be very indecisive when it comes to those kinds of decisions).

But I am grateful. It’s a genuine blessing to be a part of such a vibrant Christian community that is multi-ethnic and multi-generational, not to mention the wealth of gifts and knowledge that people bring to the church from their vocations as medical doctors, lawyers, theologians, philosophers, writers, political scientists, ethicists, laborers, poets, gardeners, politicians, musicians, physicists, chemists, biologists, neurologists, professors, teachers, architects, artists, economists, businessmen/businesswomen, etc. Since Trinity is placed right next to Yale University, it pools in some of the world’s most brilliant minds, and, for me, it’s been amazing to witness the gospel in action within the diversity of said fields. I can’t help but think that Jesus also had this form of witness in mind when he spoke the great commission. To be a part of Christ’s body where its members seek God with their whole heart, strength, and mind is a deep joy and wonderful gift.

So, to formalize my commitment to this local church, I was asked to give a testimony. Throughout my life, I’ve been asked several times to deliver my testimony, and I’ve noticed that the one after always sounds slightly different from the one before. I suspect this has something to do with the fact that the Christian is always becoming rather than being. This time was no exception. I often don’t know what I think until I have to write about and reflect on it; thus, I don’t begrudge the opportunity to give my testimony since it’s something we are called to continuously reflect upon (1 Pet. 3:15). Why? Because there’s always more of God’s grace to discover in our lives – not only within the present but also within hindsight.

Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is how my upbringing as a Korean American has distinctly shaped my theological understanding of the world and God. I seized this opportunity to ponder that question, and briefly share about it with my church. Usually, I talk about friends and mentors that have been a vital part of my Christian upbringing, tying that in with major life events. But I took a different approach this time to consider the linguistic and cultural patterns that have shaped my understanding of reality, and how I found clarity only through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After I delivered this testimony, several people came up to me and thanked me. I asked why. “Because I never would have thought about how those things affect my faith.” It was encouraging to hear that my testimony could also be sermonic and didactic.

This is why I share it. I am incredibly blessed to have the opportunities that I do, and I don’t take them for granted. However, a lot of people who have a similar cultural background and don’t have the time to reflect or put into words the precariousness of what it means to be a minority and a Christian can easily slip into despair, cynicism, and/or idolatry. It’s a difficult thing to understand, process, and articulate. So, I share this only with the prayer that it may encourage and bless those who are struggling in that regard – as I still am. I share this with the prayer that they may find supernatural peace in God, not because he will immediately put an end to all struggles but because he promises to be with those who struggle. My life is worth nothing. If it is worth anything, it’s only because of what I have received in Christ.

I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois; however, my parents immigrated to the United States from South Korea. These two components of my life are important because it says a lot about the unique situation I found myself in while growing up, i.e., the crossroads of Korean and American cultures. Going to school with mostly white kids, it was made known to me from an early age that I wasn’t like the others. For instance, English, not being my first language, was tricky for me. Classmates often made fun of my word pronunciations and inability to grasp certain linguistic and American cultural concepts. While at home, my parents taught me traditional Korean values like what my responsibilities are as the first-born son; how I ought to show proper deference to my elders; the value of an education; and the importance of a good work ethic. I was to do these things to honor their sacrifices, and to have a life they never could.

I tried my best to meet these social and cultural demands at home and at school primarily because I wanted to feel accepted by my peers and loved by my family. I would measure my success by assessing the severity of the kids at school and by discerning the level of satisfaction my parents had regarding my academic and social performances. To what extent these pressures were self-produced is hard to gauge accurately, although I am sure a lot of it had to do with my own personality also. So, what does this have to do with my spiritual formation and how it brought me here?

Everything about the gospel was so counterintuitive for me. I could not imagine a God who loved me as I am. Validation, acceptance, recognition were all things that needed to be earned in my world, and I could not comprehend that God would give me these things apart from merit. So, whatever relationship I had with God back then, I treated it like my earthly relationships, based on reciprocity and merit. And it became more complicated once I started to lose my hold on the Korean language. Since I could no longer fully communicate with my parents, the only thing I really could do to show them my gratitude and respect was by way of achievements. This too somehow translated into my relationship with God: I tried to be the best Christian at church by saying and doing all the “right things,” hoping that would not only earn God’s favor but also express to God my gratitude for salvation. I think by this point I was a staunch legalist.

Something we don’t often think about is the signification of language to reality. As I briefly illustrated, I was given Korean, American, and even Christian linguistic heritages that confounded my early perceptions of reality: I didn’t know how one should relate to the other. This is part and parcel why I took to the task of studying theology in an academic setting as an act of discipleship. I wanted to understand what bearing my Christian faith might have on my enervating world and social relationships. And through this, along with the spiritual support of friends and mentors, God began to slowly chip away at my preconceived notions of what he must be like.

As I began to experience and learn more about God’s grace, my eyes became opened, and I realized I had it backwards this whole time. For so long, I had allowed earthly relationships to dictate my relationship with God. But, through the cross, God revealed that he is the one who defines not only how I relate to him but to other sinful human beings as well. Through the cross, God displayed the new reality that I had been grafted into. Through the cross, he showed me that I didn’t need to win his love because it was freely given in Jesus Christ. Through the cross, God spoke words of truth that though my family and friends may reject me he never will. Through the cross, God spoke his divine Yes when my whole life all I’ve been hearing was the world’s No. Through the cross, I found God telling me that I am good enough when my whole life has been a striving to prove my worth to others. In Christ, God freed me from the place where I once felt immense and debilitating social pressures. That isn’t to say that these confusions and pressures no longer exist, only that I now know I’m better off with God.  

This is what brought me to pursue graduate studies at Yale and to Trinity Baptist Church – almost a year ago now, viz., to continue in that act of discipleship by seeking after the Lord in theological engagement within the body of Christ.

Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal || Alister E. McGrath

During a time of great political and social unrest, a theological movement swept across twentieth century Europe to protect the integrity of the Christian faith, to offer the hope of the gospel to believers [and nonbelievers], and to discern God’s plan in the midst of profound turmoil.

The participating theologians whose works are still widely read are Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. However, a participant whose name is rarely heard of these days in the academic study of theology is Emil Brunner. Who is he? What are some of his theological and jkt_9780470670552.inddecclesiological contributions? And why is he important?

In Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal, Alister E. McGrath (Oxford University) resurfaces the neglected theology of Emil Brunner and offers an unadulterated account of his life and theology [that is often unfairly read and critiqued through a Barthian lens]. This work is “both the exploration of the emergence of his theological vision, set against its cultural context, and an assessment of its continuing relevance.”

Here are some points from the book that I found interesting and worth noting…

Brunner and Barth:

One of the things that McGrath expounds upon is the interesting relationship between Brunner and Barth. For one, Brunner had an inferiority complex because he was constantly being overshadowed by Barth and could not compete with his theological ingenuity and prowess. As a result, Brunner felt like he needed to prove himself, and at times, perceived Barth as a threat to his reputation and career. But that does not mean that Brunner did not have anything unique to say.

Nein!:

Brunner and BarthOn the rare occasion that someone has heard of Brunner, it is likely as ‘the one who was utterly humiliated and defeated by Barth’ in his Nein! Antwort an Emil Brunner from the 1934 debate concerning the viability of natural theology. On this exchange, McGrath provides a raw portrayal of the typical German-Swiss theologian hubris, noting the defining mark of the debate to be polemical instead of theological or intellectual [or respectful for that matter]. A lot of Barth’s disdainful critiques stemmed from his failure to understand the finer nuances of Brunner’s position; Brunner too rejected the popular notion of natural theology! For some reason, Barth could not see that.

Culture: 

Brunner was a major contributor to the dialectical movement as he vigorously advocated for theology’s engagement with culture via eristic to offer an approach that allowed critical evaluation and appropriation of cultural trends [as opposed to Barth’s categorical ‘No’ to culture]. On other related topics, he wrote extensively on theological anthropology, political theory, and personalism.

Theology’s Relationship to Natural Science:

Brunner saw natural science and theology as beneficial to one another. “Brunner was emphatic that a proper knowledge of God results only from self-disclosure, a self-manifestation of God – that is, when there is revelation.” But his doctrine of creation mandated the natural sciences for Christians: “The world is only knowable as something created by God through divine revelation; but, as created by God, it is the subject of legitimate scientific investigation.” Thus, “Brunner’s theological framework creates conceptual space for dialogue between theology and the natural sciences.” Here, I found myself to be more sympathetic to Brunner’s approach over Barth’s.

Doctrine of Trinity:

Brunner maintains an anti-speculative approach on the Trinity. Wary of post-enlightenment tendencies to rationalize God, Brunner reminds his readers of the theological function of the doctrine of the Trinity, and how it serves to show Christians the “historical revelation of God in Christ” and does not invite for musings of God’s nature apart from that. In so doing, Brunner displays the doctrine of the Trinity as the outcome rather than the presupposition of faith.

There are so many things in his theology, which I found beautiful spiritually and intellectually. There are also many practical things that Christians can take away from his works at the devotional/catechetical level. It’s a shame that Brunner isn’t talked about more especially since he lends much needed perspective for the Church today. Let us reengage with Brunner once more for the edification of theological dialogue!

Life Update (I have made my decision)

SterlingYale2

Friends,

I am pleased to officially announce that I will be continuing my studies this fall at Yale University where I will be working towards an M.A. in theology.

There are so many people that I am indebted to who have helped me get this far. Thank you…

To my parents, Steve and Joyce Choi. When I decided to follow God’s call on my life to pursue a career in academia as a theologian, you were worried for so many reasons – but always with parental, loving concern. I know by my going further in this direction, I will continue to be immersed in a world you cannot always understand. Yet I am grateful for your intentionality in asking me questions and conversing with me to understand the world in which I live. And I am grateful for your marriage and for your lives. It was in these last few years that you truly had to live out the “I trust you, Lord.” I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for you to say specifically, “We trust you, Lord, with our son.”

To my professors at Wheaton College, IL. There’s not a day that goes by where I am not thankful to have developed spiritually and intellectually under the guidance of your tutelage. Three of the most important things you have taught me is to love Jesus, know Jesus, and serve Jesus – these three things being inextricably intertwined – in my life and in my scholarship. If I can be half the theologians and scholars that you are, then I suppose it would have been worth it all.

To my mentors. Thank you for exemplifying what it means to follow Jesus in the way of the cross. You have prayed for me and have counseled me from my adolescence to this day. While there are so many things I am embarrassed by, I know that you continue to love me because you yourselves continually experience the renewal of God’s love in Christ’s death and resurrection by the power of the Holy Spirit. I have learned more from you by the manner in which you live – although I have done my best to retain some of the things you have said also. You carry deep convictions for the gospel of Jesus Christ and love for people. This grounds me.

To my friends. Your encouragement, support, and prayers in these anxiety-filled times has not been taken for granted. It is only by the strong community of friends that I have gotten this far. I’m not always the easiest person to be around since my personality, according to some of you, can be intense (esp. in theological discussions). But I am grateful that you continue to challenge me in my faith and in my love for others. I am grateful that my struggles can be your struggles and that my victories can be your victories. Thank you for the countless rides to and from the airport; thank you for the meals and coffee; thank you for the congratulatory remarks as we pass each other by on campus; thank you for your kindness.

If you told me four years ago that this is where I’d be, I would have laughed at you. But I tell you, it’s by the grace of God. I am not my own: I am who I am because somebody loved me.

Bridging the Divide: The Pastor as Public Theologian and Theology as Discipleship

Today, many Christians of the laity disregard theology as pertinent to the life of the church. It is merely the academic discipline, reserved for the erudite theologians who sit in their ivory towers of academia. Beyond the university, it has no pragmatic value. On the other hand, many theological students gradually inch away from ecclesial life out of their frustration with the laity. Hubris takes them over, and they believe their knowledge is better spent elsewhere than within church walls. In other words, churches have no time to waste in abstract theological concepts/jargon when there are real-life issues to deal with while the academy has no time to waste with the pragmatic church because theology is for the intellectual titillation of the learned.

Unfortunately, modernity has strengthened this dichotomizing fallacy. Yet, in recent times, evangelical scholars have resurged the inquiry on the relationship between church and academy, pastor and theologian. Looking to the example of the early church, there was no such thing as being a pastor without being a theologian and no such thing as being a theologian without being a pastor. For the pastor’s life gave shape to his theological thoughts, and the theologian’s life gave direction to his pastoral ministry. The church was closely connected to theology as well since no issue was resolved apart from it. Thus, the church today must reclaim what is rightfully hers, theology. For without it, it is not the church. And the academy must rediscover what it means to do theology as a means of discipleship – in service to God for the spiritual and intellectual growth of the church.23317489

Two of the evangelical scholars mentioned above are Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan who have recently co-authored The Pastor as Public Theologian. In this book, Vanhoozer and Strachan endeavor to reclaim the theological vision that is lost within the church and particularly within the pastorate. Vanhoozer begins with an introduction, which speaks to this lost vision and offers his diagnosis of today’s pastor. Part one then follows with a biblical and historical theology and then part two with a systematic and practical theology of pastor as theologian.

Vanhoozer writes, “Pastor-theologians must have confidence that the ministry of the gospel is more than another helping profession.” In this, he means that pastors must rediscover the unique and God-given aspect of their role as public-theologian who offers people what no one else can, namely, an understanding of what God is doing in Christ through and for his people. This book argues for the rediscovery of the theological vision in terms of the pastor and laity.

A theological dullness has swept across the evangelical churches of America where pastors are more concerned with being eloquent orators and efficient administrators and business-people. American pastors have become so concerned with vision and growth that they have lost sight of what it means to be faithful with what God has given for today. Pastor as Public Theologian beckons pastors to reevaluate the purpose of their calling as first and foremost theological in helping their flock discover what it means to be participants within God’s grand narrative, wrought by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, members of Christ body are called to support their pastors in love and prayer while holding them accountable to the unique tasks of the pastorate. Thus, the church overall must re9780830840342gain the theological vision.

Keith L. Johnson writes from the other side on what it means to be a theologian in service to the church in Theology as Discipleship. This book offers a Christological argument of reclaiming the task of theology as a means for discipleship rather than a means in itself. He writes, “If we attempt to practice the discipline of theology in distinction from the life and work of the church, then the presuppositions governing the modern university likely will govern our theological method.”

Theology, for Johnson, is the humble, prayerful submission of oneself to Christ in the posture of bended knee. Christ is the beginning and end of all our theological inquiry. If this is true, then our knowledge begins and ends with this God-man. However, Christ does not impart knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It is always for the sake of discipleship, learning what it means to live a cruciform life.

Johnson, a reformed theologian and Barthian, is constantly warning his readers through the book [implicitly and explicitly] of idolatry. Human beings are constantly prone to produce idols for themselves by trying to conjure a God made in their own image. Solution? Jesus. He is the revelation of God the Father and apart from him there is no warrant for speculation. He is the source of true knowledge whereby the knowledge of God in Christ leads theologians to see their knowledge in service to the church to help the church understand its function within the theo-drama. This comes about as theologians take on the mind of Christ.

Today, there is a dichotomy where it once did not exist. The Pastor as Public Theologian and Theology as Discipleship are just two of many great works written by evangelical pastors and theologians to help the church and the academy bridge the theological and ecclesial divide. Pastors must reclaim their God-given role as the generalist-shepard, charged with the task of doing theology, because the church must learn from their pastors the theological shape of their corporate lives. Theologians can no longer afford to remain idle in the life of the church; after all, to be a theologian is to be a doctor of the church, in the quite literal sense, by teaching orthodoxy, clarifying truth, and correcting falsehood. Theologians use their academic privilege to help the church to know who this man, Jesus, really is and see more of his glory and magnificence. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great pastor and theologian, once said, “Only the believing obey, only the obedient believe.” Where, in this sense, I think he means that orthodox theology produces orthopraxy, and orthopraxy shapes how we understand what is orthodox theology.

A Pre-Baptismal Reflection on an Airplane

I know this is a bit overdue, but many of you know that I went to California a little over a week ago. While I was there, I (finally) got baptized. And I must say, it was a bit unconventional as I was baptized at a beach in a non-ecclesial setting. So, I wasn’t really able to share my testimony and thoughts with you all prior. In any case, I journaled my testimony and my thoughts on the plane-ride there, and I just wanted to share it with those who would take the time to read it. Not because I am anything significant, but because it displays how Christ has changed and is continuing to change me – a broken sinner.

“I am headed to Los Angeles and I have about thirty-five minutes of this flight remaining. I am eager to see my mentor and friend, Justin Bailey. Accompanying me is Mikey Chang. I am thankful for his friendship; he is a blessing simply by his presence. I am glad he is going with me to California – there is no one else I’d rather go with.

I am getting baptized today at Santa Monica beach. I am publicly declaring and displaying my death to sin and life to Christ. You know, I often ask myself why I did not get baptized sooner. People ask me this too. And I think I give partial reasons. But the truth is, I really do not know why I held it off. I reflect and I think on this once more. And it is simply this: I did not want to be baptized because I did not want to live for Christ. I enjoyed living for myself. However, I believe God kept it meaningful for me. Had I been baptized earlier, I would not understand the weight of it as I do now. In this past year alone, I have learned so much about who I am in relation to God. I have seen how fallen and how broken I am in contrast to Christ. I see that I am in desperate need for God’s mercy and grace.

I am scared because I do not know if I will faithfully be able to uphold obedience to Jesus after I am baptized. I probably will not. And I am scared because this vow and commitment to Christ is not one I take lightly. But I am ready. I am ready because I realize so much about our walk with God is not about what we do, but what He does for us. He is faithful even when I am faithless and disobedient. Christ’s grace cleanses my heart from all transgressions.

Today, I submerge beneath the waters of baptism. I am to God. If only I could love God as intensely as He loves me. I know Christ has waited long in eternity for this day when I would finally say, ‘Jesus, I love you, and I long for your return. Till then, I live for you, my God, my King, my Father, my Savior, my Redeemer, my Healer, my Peace, my Life, my Love, my Sustainer, my Joy, my Light. You are worthy.’ Amen.”

Bonhoeffer on Leadership

“Whereas earlier leadership was expressed in the form of the teacher, the statesman, the father…now the Leader has become an independent figure (the Fuhrer). The leader is completely divorced from any office; he is essentially and only ‘the Leader’. 

[A true leader must know the limitations of his authority]. If he understands his function in any other way than as it rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the limited nature of his task and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol — then the image of the Leader will pass over into the image of the mis-leader, and he will be acting in a criminal way not only towards those he leads, but also towards himself. The true Leader must always be able to disillusion. It is just this that is his responsibility and his real object. He must lead his following away from the authority of his person to the recognition of the real authority or orders and offices…He must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those whom he leads…He serves the order of the state, of the community, and his service can be of incomparable value. But only so long as he keeps strictly in his place…He has to lead the individual into his own maturity. Now a feature of man’s maturity is responsibility towards other people, towards existing orders. He must let himself be controlled, ordered, restricted. 

Only when a man sees that office is a penultimate authority in the face of an ultimate, indescribable authority, in the face of the authority of God, has the real situation been reached. And before this Authority the individual knows himself to be completely alone. The individual is responsible before God. And this solitude of man’s position before God, this subjection to an ultimate authority, is destroyed when the authority of the Leader or of the office is seen as ultimate authority…Alone before God, man becomes what he is, free and committed in responsibility at the same time. 

The fearful danger of the present time is that above the cry for authority, be it of a Leader or of an office, we forget that man stands alone before the ultimate authority and that anyone who lays violent hands on man here is infringing eternal laws and taking upon himself superhuman authority which will eventually crush him. The eternal law that the individual stands alone before God, God takes fearful vengeance where it is attacked and distorted. Thus the Leader points to the office, but Leader and office together point to the final authority itself [Christ], before which Reich or state are penultimate authorities. Leaders or offices which set themselves up as gods mock God and the individual who stands alone before him, and must perish.”

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Summer Reflection: Internship

It is the start of a new academic year, and I am confident that where I am and who I am right now is where God wants me to be according to his sovereign plan. So in the moment, I rest in bliss for all that God has done and for all that God is doing in me, through me, and around me. But I know I would not be in this place of peace and assurance if not for this stressful, busy, blessing-filled, empowering, restful summer.

I began my entrance into Wheaton College in 2012 on a cynical, negative note. I had a hard time adjusting to the unique Christian culture and atmosphere. I have never been exposed to so many different theological viewpoints and denominations all at once. It was a lot to take in. Moreover, it was a surprise that not everyone carried the same idea of Christianity that I did. Because of my ignorance, it led to intolerance, which led to cynicism, which then led to me judging others and closing myself off. And in the struggle of the last academic year, I know that there was something “off” inside me, and that God wanted me to change and to grow. Not only was I negative, but I was surrounded by the negativity of other classmates and roommate as well who were just as ignorant as I was. It was negativity layered over with more pessimism and doubt. I could not believe that this is where I was suppose to be.

I ended my freshmen year with lots of regrets: I wish I could have been a better brother, a better friend, a better roommate. I wish I would have gone to church more than I did. I wish I prayed more than I did. I wish I could have been more open. I wish I got more involved. I wish I spent less time judging others, and more time loving others. Toward the end of second semester, something radical happened. God called me to switch my major from chemistry to theology. I was hesitant at first, knowing my crooked heart, but through much prayer and counsel from my youth pastor, mentors, and trusted professors, I felt confident even in my uncertainty in making the big jump from “M.D. to M.Div”, so to speak. So I switched.

I was initially excited because I’m not a huge risk-taker; so taking this risk was out of my comfort zone. And I was also excited because I would be studying something I deeply enjoy. Yet I wanted to affirm God’s call through a summer of intense ministry. “I can only know for sure if I experience it firsthand.” So I did just that. A few months before summer hit, I talked to my youth pastor, Justin Bailey (who is now in California pursuing a PhD), about the idea of me interning at Antioch Bible Church in Wheeling, Illinois for the summer. By God’s grace and his kindness, Justin extended me an invitation and I was given the opportunity over the summer for a pastoral internship.

Right off the bat, it was an amazing internship and I am so thankful that I got to intern at my home church under my spiritual mentor. For about six weeks, I lived in the church parsonage with Justin and his family, observing and experiencing the pastoral side of ministry. My responsibilities included praying for students, organizing Friday night youth group games/activities, meeting and discipling students, preaching sermons, crossfit, reading assigned books, writing a philosophy of ministry, teaching an Old Testament seminar, leading Bible studies, and helping out in other ways. These six weeks of my internship were ones that really stretched me and grew me like never before.

I joked around a lot, telling Pastor Justin how much I hated coming up with Friday night youth group games-but I was serious for a few reasons. One, I am not creative in the realm of developing group games. Two, there was always some sort of complaint about a game I’d come up with. Three, I just did not think I was fun in general. So this one task alone really pushed me out of my comfort zone. And I can honestly say, just this one thing of having to come up with youth groups made me question whether ministry was something God was actually calling me to or if I just heard him wrong.

Not only that, I quickly learned I needed to be intentional about everything. Pastor Justin says all the time, “The hardest thing about ministry is that you have to mean things.” I figured that out quick. I had to be intentional about listening to people and caring. I had to be intentional about writing up youth group games. I had to be intentional about calling students and meeting with them. I had to keep my heart in tune with God in my sermon writing, preaching, and teaching. Everything I did, I had to mean it. And it was hard because there were times when I just wanted to go through the motions because I was tired or distracted.

There were moments of my internship where I wondered, “Why?” When I wrote my sermons I wondered, “Why bother? It’s not like people will remember what I say.” When I taught Old Testament I wondered, “Why? It’s not like people will care after it’s over.” When I met with students and tried to give counsel I wondered, “Why? It’s not like I am anyone significant in their lives.”

I went into this internship trying to see if ministry is something I wanted to do. But God brought me into this internship because he wanted to change my heart. “It’s always about your character.” I am driven, motivated, and goal-orientated. When I do not see results, I get frustrated and discouraged immediately. It was difficult for me in that I did not see immediate fruits throughout my internship. I tried to be faithful. How come no one was responding? Of course, change and growth takes time, but I still wanted to see people grow, to know that what I did actually mattered. Yet in this God was telling me to slow down. Enjoy and love people as they are, and hope for what they could be. We so often try to mold people into who we are, and we forget that we ought to embrace other’s uniqueness and help them grow in who they are. God was opening my eyes to the immensity of my pride. And I needed to remind myself that painful verse from John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Ministering this summer, God was calling me to be everything I’m not. He was calling me to be patient, loving, kind, gentle, understanding, forgiving, humble. I can say that I did not accomplish these things with perfection, but I can say that I did try and that God has been working in me to be more like Jesus. There are so many things about my internship that pushed me out of my element, but that is why I loved it. You will not know the kind of person you can be if you don’t take a risk and take a leap of faith. And I think it’s through this that I gained a deeper understanding of variations in spiritual walks; a deeper respect of people as they are; a deeper appreciation and thankfulness for church; and a deeper love for Jesus.

So I enter this next year at Wheaton not necessarily on a spiritual high, but with a spiritual readiness. This summer has been a character-forming summer. I am confident in the salvation I have in Jesus that no matter how much I fail and no matter how much I sin, I can always come back and be renewed. The best part of the summer was that I not only got to hear the gospel, but I got to live the gospel. When you live the gospel, you are becoming more and more like Jesus. Wretched sinner that I am, I look to Christ who is my righteousness. This summer has opened my eyes to see more of the sins deep within my heart. Thankfully, it does not end on the reflection of my sins, but it ends with me looking to Christ who conquered sin and death.

I am thankful to God for his infinite grace and for the blessing of the church. I am still not a hundred percent certain if ministry is what I am being called to. But I realize that the question I asked going into this summer was not the question God wanted to answer; he was doing something better – he was giving me himself. With a renewed mind and spirit, I am eager to take my experience into the new school year.