Totally Free At A High Cost

Common sense would seem to tell us that a thing cannot be both costly and free at the same time. If I must pay a high price for something, then it is not free; if it is free, then I am not required to pay for it. This commonsensical observation, however, leads to a theological puzzle: do the promises of the gospel come to us for free or at great cost? The Bible uses both kinds of language. Costly and free—the gospel is both.

Salvation is totally free in one sense and highly costly in another, and we must understand both senses in order to understand the Christian life. Salvation is free in that we can do nothing—we can pay nothing—to earn our acceptance from God. We are evil, but God accepts us anyway, without reservation. We are guilty before the court of God’s justice, yet He frees us from paying what we owe. God is not waiting to accept us until we meet some standard; we do not meet the standard, and yet He blesses us now. If we do not understand how freely and graciously God is acting toward us, then we can fall into self-righteousness and/or despair: self-righteousness because we have forgotten that we do not deserve God’s kindness; despair because we have forgotten how freely willing God is to overlook our guilt.

Yet, salvation is also costly, and we must understand that as well. By its very nature, to believe the gospel is a huge shift in our lives. To believe that Jesus died for our sins costs us our self-satisfied belief that we are good people. To believe that God is willing to forgive us costs us our bitter unwillingness to forgive others. To believe that the true riches are found in the kingdom of God costs us our delusion that money matters. To ask Jesus to be on our side may cost us the approval of others. If our faith is genuine, then it cannot help but confront us with some hard truths and hard choices. This confrontation is not optional; what Jesus offers is not what the world offers, and to have them both is impossible. To deny this is to distort our picture of faith itself.

[This edited excerpt is from “Costly and Free” by Ron Julian. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]


The Fundamental Purpose of Life

Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life (PDL) is  a publishing phenomenon by anyone’s standards. Publishers Weekly called it “the bestselling hardback in American History.” I have a mixed reaction, however, to its popularity. Some of the ideas in PDL are very good. However, in my mind the book’s serious flaws outweigh the good things; when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong.


PDL throws a blizzard of verses at its readers, mostly drawn from a variety of broad paraphrases like the Message Bible and the Living Bible. The cumulative effect of this proof-texting approach is ultimately misleading and harmful. Let me illustrate how this approach can go terribly wrong. Imagine that a verse in the Bible speaks of a “great battle.” A modern paraphrase wants to jazz it up and make it more powerful, so it translates the phrase “great battle” as “the mother of all battles.” Now imagine an author comes along and quotes the translation: “The Bible often uses the imagery of motherhood, as for example in the verse which speaks of ‘the mother of all battles.’” Do you see the problem? This fictional author quotes “the Bible” by quoting this paraphrase and then makes his argument based on the part the translator added for effect.

PDL, through the use of misleading proof-texting, does a great disservice to the millions of Christians reading the book. Even worse, though, is the theological confusion that permeates the book. PDL often shifts the emphasis from choosing eternal life to improving my experience here and now—not “I will find eternal life” but “I will find my true self and how to really live”; not “I will be justified before God and be saved” but “I will make God happy.” The Purpose-Driven Life has some good things to say, but it has not said the most important thing: that the fundamental purpose of my life in this world is to choose life over death. At stake in how I live my life is not whether I have a more or less fulfilling experience as a Christian but whether, in spite of my weaknesses and sin, I persevere in being a disciple of Jesus and so find eternal life.

[This edited excerpt is from “Examining the Purpose-Driven Life” by Ron Julian. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]


Five Spiritual Films

I’ve been thinking about movies again. I have to, really, since the spring Film Seminar at Gutenberg College is starting in a few weeks. Christians have often had an uneasy relationship with film. The Christian worldview is in short supply in many of the world’s movies. Most good films are not explicitly Christian, and most explicitly Christian films are not good.

Occasionally, however, I find a film that resonates with me deeply, that speaks–however obliquely–to the spiritual issues we face as human beings before God. The following list contains several of those films. This list is very personal; I don’t for a minute claim that these are the only or the greatest spiritual films ever made. I could propose many more. And I don’t see them as any substitute for the more specific truths of the gospel. But for whatever reason, these films speak to me.

Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)

To tell the truth, any list of spiritual films would do well to start with all of Tarkovsky’s films. Tarkovsky saw his job as a filmmaker in this way: “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” All seven of his films reflect this conviction. Right now, however, the one that speaks to me the most is Stalker. Like all of Tarkovsky’s films, it is slow, artful, mystical, and demanding. It is not escapist fare. Instead, it speaks powerfully about the choices confronting the human soul.

Watching a few minutes of this collection of images from the film will give you a taste of its unique feel.


A Man for all Seasons (Fred Zinnemann, 1966)

Perhaps this movie about St. Thomas More is an obvious choice as a “spiritual” film. I don’t care; this movie has stuck with me since I first saw it at the age of 13. It is based on a play by Robert Bolt, who himself raised the question of why he chose More as his subject: “I am not a Catholic, nor even in the meaningful sense of the word a Christian. So by what right do I appropriate a Christian saint to my purposes?” Bolt saw in More an existentialist hero, a man who would not choose against the values that defined his life. And although I do believe in the God that Bolt does not, I think he was exactly right.

This is a famous scene:


Get Low (Aaron Schneider, 2009)

I have a taste for movies that are quiet, soft-spoken, and a little quirky, so I was probably bound to love the recent movie Get Low. (How can you beat a movie with Robert Duvall and Bill Murray?) What I was not prepared for was how it left me thinking about self-knowledge, confession, and grace long after the movie ended.

Here is the trailer:


Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen, 1989)

Woody Allen is a confirmed atheist, and his personal life is no model for anyone. I don’t know of any popular filmmaker, however, that asks the right questions as often and in such an interesting way as he does. Crimes and Misdemeanors is one of his most thoughtful explorations of the problems of life without God.

In this scene, the main character (played by Martin Landau) has a vision:


Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987)

I am the most Protestant and non-sacramentalist Christian imaginable; Babette’s Feast, however, makes a powerful artistic and emotional case for a sacramentalist mindset. Based on a story by Isak Dinesen (the heroine of Out of Africa), this is a beautiful and quietly moving film.

Here is the trailer (I like the fact that the trailer is in the original Danish; it gives the feel of the movie without telling you too much):

Should We Test God?

Years ago I wrote an article called “Testing God,” and today on Gutenberg’s Facebook page this question came in:

On your website, there was an interesting article about not testing God, but how does this relate to for example Malachi in the OT and Paul in the NT who tell us that we should put God to the test?

This is a great question. Let me give a general answer first, and then take a quick look at Malachi.

What does it mean to test?

The idea of testing something, as the Bible speaks of it, means examining how someone or something reacts in a certain situation. For example, God tests us, tries us, by putting us through “trials” and observing how we respond. In the same way, we can test God; that is, we can examine how God responds in certain situations. In and of itself, testing is neither good nor bad; it is just a process of learning about something by observing what it does.

To test or not to test?

As the question from Facebook points out, the Bible sometimes says that we should not test God and sometimes says that we should test God. How can this be? Consider these two scenarios:

Scenario #1: Jill has an impressive record as a music teacher. She tells Jack, “Take lessons from me, and watch how well you will be playing in a year.” Jack takes her up on that, and sure enough, in a year’s time he is playing some of his favorite songs.

Scenario #2: Jill, Jack’s wife, has been faithful and trustworthy for many years. However, after Jack hears a vague rumor that she was seen talking to another man, he goes ballistic. He says to Jill, “I will never trust you again until you prove to me that you have not been unfaithful.”

In both scenarios, Jack puts Jill to the test. But Jack’s situation and moral state is very different in both. In the first, Jack is “testing” Jill by observing whether her teaching truly does lead to good results. But why does he do this? He does it because he believes her to be a good teacher, and he has a confident expectation that the future will turn out just as she promised. His test is not motivated by suspicion; in fact, just the opposite. He pays her and follows her teaching for good motives, expecting the results of the test to be positive. But in the second example, Jack’s test is motivated by unworthy suspicion. He has every reason to believe his wife, but he refuses to do so and demands more proof.

One way to think about the difference between these two tests is to think about the order of events. In both cases Jack is testing Jill; that is, he is evaluating what she does. But in the first case, the order is first trust, then examination. He trusts her reputation as a teacher and becomes her student now, expecting to examine her work and find it good later. But in the second example, Jack starts with no trust at all, in spite of the fact that his wife is very trustworthy. He demands that she pass his test now, and only then will he trust her later (if she passes).

This is exactly our situation with God. It is right and good to say, “I will trust Your promises now, God, and I expect to see you keep those promises later.” This is a good kind of testing; expectantly watching to see God do what He promised. However, there is something very wrong with saying, “In spite of the many reasons I should trust You, God, I refuse to do so; I will only trust you later if you prove to me now that you will give me what I want.” This is not trust but presumption.


In Malachi 3:10 God says to the Jews:

“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven, and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.”

This seems to me very clearly to be the first kind of “testing” described above. God had promised to the Jewish people that He would bless them in the land if they would keep His law. And yet they had stopped paying the tithe that the law demanded. God is in essence saying to them: “I have given you many reasons to believe that I keep my promises; trust me now, pay me the tithe now, and watch later as I keep my promises.” Trust comes first, examination comes later. That kind of examination, that kind of testing, is appropriate.

This is in contrast to Israel in the wilderness as seen in Exodus 17, when they grumbled about the lack of water. They too were testing God, but in a bad way. Their message to God was in essence: “We refuse to trust you now. We will trust you later if you prove to us now that you will give us what we want. Pass the test now, God, and only then will we trust you later.” That kind of examination, that kind of testing, is faithless. (Interestingly, we also see this wrong kind of testing in Malachi. In 3:15, five verses after the tithe passage quoted above, a charge is made that “the doers of wickedness” unrighteously “test God” and yet they escape.)

To sum up, then, testing God is good when it means trusting NOW that His actions will pass the test LATER. Testing God is bad when it means demanding that He pass the test NOW so I can grudgingly agree to trust Him LATER.


The Love and Hate of Social Media

Gutenberg College visual on facebooktwitter

Although I have worked with computers and the internet since their early days, I have had little involvement with social media–until now. But Gutenberg College needs to find ways to reach interested students, so we have been thrust kicking and screaming into the world of “like” buttons and tweets. (Look at the row of buttons at the bottom of this post on our blog.) We are a strange enough little school that we sincerely want to discover ways to find those students who can appreciate what we offer. But for me, this necessary embrace of social media is becoming a strictly love/hate relationship.


The idea of social media marketing is tremendously appealing, because (in theory) it is based on a profound respect for human freedom. Don’t manipulate others and don’t sell yourself; just let the people who find you interesting tell their friends, who may tell their friends, and so on. As people like Seth Godin have pointed out, in the old days everybody watched the same three networks, and advertisers paid to thrust their ads in your unwilling face while you were trying to watch I Love Lucy. In this new world, however, the best advocates are those who like something and are willing to talk about it. If there is one thing that has united the teaching staff at Gutenberg College, it is a dislike of hype. A system where your friends spread the word for you sounds just about perfect to me.


So what’s the problem? Well, I’m new enough to this that I can’t speak with any expertise, but there are times when the new “lack of hype” seems like the old hype in new clothing. For example, let’s talk about freedom. Yes, anyone is free to click the “like” button or tell their friends about you. Since, however, those “likes” are so valuable, the temptation is very strong to manipulate people into clicking that button. (Today’s marketers count “likes” on Facebook the way yesterday’s advertisers used the Nielsen rating to count households watching TV.) I myself have felt the appeal when hearing a story about how some video went viral and turned someone into an overnight success. All it takes is one time! And so the pressure is on to paint yourself a little better than you are, to fudge here and distort there, and to put subtle pressure on your audience to join your advertising team–in short, to fall back into the old hype that we supposedly left behind.


I am in fact in favor of the changes that Gutenberg is making to its website and its way of reaching people on the internet. I still like very much the idea that someone who is perfect for our program may stumble across us by accident, perhaps by reading some comment a friend makes on his blog. I’m on board. But as Christians, we ought to value ruthless honesty and self-sacrificing love. May it never be that we become “like” button whores.

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