Posted by: Jonathan Stepp | January 4, 2009

Turn or Burn

The old “turn or burn” message isn’t as popular as it used to be. I’m talking about the gospel preaching that says “turn to Jesus or you will burn forever in hell after you die.”

Actually, we shouldn’t even call that message “gospel”, we should call it what my friend John Stonecypher labels the “baspel”. If “gospel” is good news then “baspel” is bad news and, as John would say, baspel is like hog manure – even a little bit in your ice cream is too much.

Why is “turn or burn” no longer a commonly used approach among preachers and evangelists? It’s not because they no longer believe it. Most Christians, at least evangelical Christians, believe that those who die without turning to Jesus will burn in hell – irrevocably, eternally, without any further chance for repentance.

No, the old “turn or burn” message hasn’t fallen on hard times for like of adherents, it’s fallen on hard times because it doesn’t work.

That’s right, most Christians have realized they can’t scare their family, friends, and neighbors into loving Jesus. So most Christians have stopped using fear as a tactic. Now we’re mostly trying to place nice – free car washes, soup kitchens, trash clean up, and that sort of thing.

Perhaps we ought to stop the crazy merry-go-round called Christianity for just a moment and ask why “turn or burn” doesn’t work. Consider this:

If it is true that an inescapable hell awaits all who fail to repent before death,

And if it is true that the Father desires that none should perish,

Then wouldn’t the Holy Spirit back us up when we preach hellfire and brimstone by scaring the be-jeezus out of people to prevent them from dying without repenting?

And yet we find the opposite is true. As soon as we start preaching an angry, human-barbecuing God who loves to roast the unrepentant we are abandoned by not only our audience but the Holy Spirit himself!

Here’s the bottom line as I see it: the gospel is the good news of humanity’s adoption into the life of the Trinity through the incarnation of the Son as the man Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:5, Rom. 5:18, Col. 1:20, Eph. 2:15). And that’s why “turn or burn” doesn’t work. While we’re telling people that God is angry at them and ready to fry them for their sins the Holy Spirit is going around telling them that they are liked, loved, and included in Jesus. They don’t always understand exactly what the Spirit is saying but they know that God must be more loving than we are or we wouldn’t even exist!

One final caveat, just to head off the angry comments from everyone who loves hell so much: I do believe in hell. I believe hell is what we experience when we beleive a lie about God – for example, when we believe that he is an angry legalist who loves to roast sinners over an open pit.

We all have to repent of beleiving lies about the Father and believe the truth: that he is our loving Daddy who has adopted us in Jesus. Like the Father in the parable of the prodigal, our Dad in heaven never closes the door to that repentance, even after we have died.

Posted by: Jonathan Stepp | December 29, 2008


What does it mean to say that Jesus is Immanuel, “God with Us”? There are lots of ways you can be “with” someone.

A mobster might be with me once a week, when he comes by my store to demand I pay him protection money. I pay up or he breaks my knee caps. Some people have this image of God, so they come to church each week and pay their protection money.

Sometimes we say that someone is with us in “spirit”. Which generally means we feel a strong connection to them and maybe keep up with each other on Facebook. I heard recently that some jokester set up an account on Facebook and called himself “God”.

There are also a lot of people who have this second image of God. They seem him as our friend in the sky, his Facebook profile is called the Bible and if you’re really lucky someday he’ll answer one of the thousands of email messages you’ve sent him – we call them prayers.

Neither of these images of “God with Us” is what the Bible means when it talks about Immanuel. The Bible says that the Word (i.e. the Son), the second person of the Triune God, has become a real flesh and blood human being and taken up residence with us, alongside us, and in us. (John 1:14).

Jesus is the union of the Divine nature with human nature. He is fully the Son of God and fully Human and he will never stop being either one of those. He will always be fully God, just like the Father and the Holy Spirit, and he will always be fully human just like us.

This means that when we say he is Immanuel, “God with Us”, we mean it literally. In Jesus, humanity is adopted into the Divine Life and the Divine Life in-fleshes (incarnates) himself in us.

Because Jesus is Immanuel humanity will always be seated right beside the Father, humanity will always be his children, and God the Father, Son, and Spirit will never leave us or forsake us.

That’s the good news of Christmas!

Posted by: Jonathan Stepp | December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Before the world existed, before the stars, planets, and matter itself – before even time and space had been created – God the Son made a decision.

He decided to become a man. He decided to exist as himself, the Son of God, and as a human being forever. He made this decision in his freedom. No one compelled him. Nothing demanded it. Simply out of his gracious, loving freedom he decided to limit himself and change his manner of existence so that he might live as fully God and fully Man forever.


Because God the Father had a plan to adopt new people into his life, to bring many sons and daughters into the glory of his life with his Son and the Holy Spirit. There was no way these new people could be participants in the life of God unless God shared his life with them.

They could never be God – there is only one God – and they would always be merely creatures unless some way was found to bring them into the Divine Circle of Love which is the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

So, the Son freely chose to become what we are in order to accomplish the Father’s plan. He chose to become human in order to make us into children of the Father. He shares in our humanity and we share in his Divinity. He shares in our mortality and we share in his immortality.

Because God the Son decided to become Jesus, you and I – and everyone we know and love – will live forever as children of the Father in the Divine Life of joy, peace, hope, and love.

Merry Christmas!

Posted by: Jonathan Stepp | December 21, 2008

Am I Napoleon?

If I believe that I’m Napoleon does that really make me Napoleon? Of couse not! If I go around telling people I’m Napoleon everyone knows I’m deluded and that I believe a lie about myself.

The truth is the truth whether we believe it or not. I’m Jonathan Stepp, if something goes wrong with my mind and I believe something else about myself it doesn’t change the reality of who I am.

The same thing is true of the gospel. When the Son became flesh and blood as the man Jesus Christ he made humanity new, adopting us all into the life he shares with our Dad and their Spirit (Eph. 2:14-18).

This is the truth whether we believe it or not. But, like any delusion, our believing a lie about ourselves has profound consequences.

If I am mentally ill and really believe that I’m Napoleon, that delusion will eventually impair and destory every relationship in my life. Likewise, if I am spiritually ill and believe the lie that I am not included in Jesus and that I am not a child of the Father, that delusion will also impair and destroy my relationships.

The good news we celebrate at Christmas is the good news of humanity’s adoption into the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit. To believe this truth about who we are in Christ, as children of the Father, transforms our lives.

No, I am not Napoleon. I am Jonathan, beloved child of my Daddy in heaven and brother of Jesus.

Posted by: Jonathan Stepp | December 16, 2008

Teaching Children the Gospel

The Father has adopted humanity as his children through his Son Jesus Christ and we all need to know this truth about ourselves – kids included!

It’s always a challenge to find good, Christ-centered children’s curricula for youth ministry and Sunday school, but it’s especially challenging when trying to teach kids the truth of how Jesus is the union of the Divine Trinity with humanity.

Over at The Adopted Life we’ve started posting some children’s curriculum material that I’ve used in my congregations in Nashville and Murfreesboro, TN. We’re hoping to add new material each month.

If you’re interested in children’s ministry from a Christ-centered, Trinitarian perspective you should check it out.

Posted by: Jonathan Stepp | December 12, 2008

Adoption Includes Everyone

Through Jesus the Father has adopted all of humanity as his children.

This is the most difficult of the three key points of the Neo-Reformation which I wrote about last week. Point one (The Trinity is the Gospel) and point two (The Plan of God is Adoption) are relatively easy for most Christians to wrap their minds around since they aren’t as challenging to our firmly established worldview. But when I say that adoption includes everyone, a lot of Christians start heading for the exits. Interestingly, many non-Christians actually perk up and start to listen a little more closely.

Here’s the fundamental issue as I see it:

We 21st century Christians have adopted a non-Biblical worldview that sees each individual as an isolated entity, who is disconnected from Christ unless he connects himself to Christ.

This is the exact opposite of the Biblical description of creation and humanity. The Bible says that all things, including all people, exist in Christ (Jhn. 1:3, Col. 1:17, Heb. 1:3) and that Christ has filled all things everywhere with himself (Eph. 4:10). In Christ we all live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

We are not isolated entities. We each have existence and life because we are in Christ and Christ is in us. Therefore, wherever Christ goes, and whatever happens to him, humanity must also go and must also experience what happens to Christ.

Since we are all in Christ, the Bible says that all have been made right with God in him – Rom. 5:18 – and all have been reconciled to the Father in him (Col. 1:19-20).

Here’s how Atahanasius of Alexandria phrased it:

The solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all. (On the Incarnation, 2.9).

Notice what this Church Father, who was so instrumental in assembling the Bible, understood that we do not: the solidarity of mankind. Because we are all sustained in Christ and have our being in him, we are all included in Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.

In fact, this is exactly what the Bible says: when Christ died, everyone died (2 Cor. 5:14) and when Christ was raised from the dead and ascended to the Father’s right hand we were raised in him and ascended in him (Eph. 2:6).

So, what’s our problem? The problem is not that we are excluded from the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The problem is not that humanity is not adopted and reconciled – in Christ, we are all included, adopted, and reconciled.

The problem is that we do not believe this truth about Christ and ourselves.

That’s why the Bible puts so much emphasis on belief. The Father of Jesus is your Father! You are adopted and included! To not believe this truth about your real identity is hell and to believe it is heaven.

I think this third of the three key points of the Neo-Reformation has the greatest potential to change the Church and the World because it represents the full goodness of the good news of the Father who loves his creation in the Son and with the Spirit.

But this third point is dependent on the first two. First, we must repent and correct our image of God. We must see him as Jesus has revealed him, fully relational as the Father, Son, and Spirit who live not only with each other but in each other.

Secondly, when we have this relational understanding of God, we can understand that we were created not only to live with the Trinity but in the Trinity (Jhn. 14:20). The Father’s purpose for us is adoption into his life in the Son and the Spirit.

Then we can finally see the full goodness of the good news of Jesus. It is the good news that we have always existed in Jesus and always will exist in him because there is no other place to exist. There is no God but the Father, Son, and Spirit, and there is no Jesus except the Jesus who is the union of Divinity and humanity, and there is no person who is not included in this everlasting Triune Life.

If there is, indeed, a Neo-Reformation beginning in the Church along the lines that I have outlined in these four blog posts then the world really is about to change.

Posted by: Jonathan Stepp | December 8, 2008

The Plan of God is Adoption

The Father created humanity in the Son, by the Spirit, so that he could adopt us as his children.

That’s the message of Ephesians 1:5, where Paul tells us that this was God’s plan from the beginning of the world. He predistined humanity in Christ to become his children.

I’m continuing today to expand on the thoughts I expressed last week in my post on the Key Points of the Neo-Reformation.

This second point (click here for point one) is vital, I believe. As long as we keep talking about God’s plan for humanity primarily, and even exclusively, in terms of sin and salvation we are missing the big picture of what the Father, Son, and Spirit are doing with creation and humanity.

The Father did not create us so that he would have some people to save from sin. He created us so that he could share with us, forever, the life of joy, love, and peace that he has always enjoyed together with his Son in their Spirit. We were created for participation in the Divine Life of the Trinity (2 Peter 1:4).

Now that the Son has become the man Jesus, and remains the human being Jesus forever (glorified and ascended to the right hand of the Father), God’s plan of adoption has been accomplished. This is what we are preparing to celebrate this Christmas: in Jesus, fully God and fully human, Divinity and humanity have been joined together forever. We have been adopted and included in the Triune Life.

The plan of God is adoption and the forgiveness of sin is one component of that plan. Since Adam had plunged us all into sin it was necessary, for the plan of adoption to be fulfilled, that the Second Adam (Jesus) should destroy sin and set us all free from death (Rom. 5:18).

The fall of Adam meant that the Son’s incarnation would become a crucifixory experience, but the incarnation was going to happen – as the means of accomplishing the plan of adoption – whether humanity ever fell or not.

As St. Irenaeus said: He became what we are so that we might become like him, i.e. that we also might be children of the Father.

This Friday: Adoption includes everyone

Posted by: Jonathan Stepp | December 4, 2008

The Trinity is the Gospel

It is good news for humanity that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In fact, this is the gospel that Jesus reveals to us.

In my post on Sunday I suggested three ideas that are at the heart of the neo-reformation I see taking place in 21st century Christianity:

  1. The Trinity is the Gospel.
  2. The plan of God is adoption.
  3. Adoption includes everyone.

In the comments on that post one reader suggested I unpack these ideas further, so I intend to do so in the next three posts.

Today I want to expand on the idea that the Trinity is the gospel. Generally we have been trained in Western Christianity to think of the gospel as the good news that Jesus died for our sins, taking our punishment for us, and that if we will believe in him we will be forgiven and get to live forever.

Inherent in this version of the gospel is the image of God as a great librarian in the sky, cataloging human beings into various categories: lost, saved, good, bad – and then shelving us in the appropriate storage place, either heaven or hell.

That’s why Jesus’ revelation of God is such good news (gospel). Jesus tells us that he and his Father live in each other, together with the Holy Spirit, in an intimate relationship of joy and love. The very heart of God’s nature is a relational, inclusive, loving embrace.

Therefore, when God relates to humanity in Jesus it means that the Father, Son, and Spirit are relating to us in a relational, inclusive, loving, and embracing way. As the Son of God, who is fully God, Jesus cannot be anything or anyone other than who he truly is with the Father and the Spirit.

When the Son became human as the man Jesus, while never ceasing to be God the Son, he opened the circle of the Trinitarian life and extended the inclusive, loving embrace of God’s nature to include humanity.

The good news (gospel) for us is that God is not a forensic categorizer who is obsessively checking to see what we have done to earn his love. He is love. His very nature as the Father who embraces and loves the Son in the Spirit means that he will never relate to humanity in any other way than who he really is: the God who includes, embraces and accepts others into his life.

This coming Monday: The Plan of God is Adoption.

Posted by: Jonathan Stepp | November 30, 2008

Key Points of the Neo-Reformation

I believe that we are living at a theological turning point, a time of change that will be comparable to the reforms of the 4th, 11th, and 16th centuries in its significance for the world and the Church. I’ve taken to calling it the neo-reformation, and thus the name of this blog.

Of course there’s no way to know if I’m right. Every generation probably feels that it is living through momentous, world changing events, and to some degree every generation is.

As I look around modern, American Christianity I think I see a revolution taking place. It began in the academy in the 20th century, with Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance, and others. It has spread to the clergy in the last few decades, and now the whole Church is beginning to be engaged.

Here are three theological issues that I believe are characteristic of this neo-reformation:

1. The Trinity is the Gospel. We are coming to see that the heart of the good news that Jesus brings us is the good news that God is not a distant, unitarian being primarily defined by his “omni’s” (e.g. omnipotence). Instead he is loving and joyful relationship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This relationality is the most important description we can offer of him. It is good news for us because it means we are made in the image, and included in, loving relationship. Which leads to point two:

2. The plan of God is Adoption. The Father created humanity in the Son, by the Spirit, in order to adopt us into the perfect loving relationship he shares with the Son and the Spirit. When the Son became flesh, as the man Jesus, this plan of adoption was accomplished.

3. Adoption includes everyone. Since the whole human race, and the whole creation, exists in and through the Son (John 1:3-4, Col. 1:17, Heb. 1:3) it means that all humanity, and the whole creation, has been reconciled to the Father in Jesus (Rom. 5:18, Col. 1:20). When Jesus died, humanity died (2 Cor. 5:14) and when Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven humanity rose with him (Eph. 2:6).

To me, these three points go the heart of what it is that the Holy Spirit is changing and reforming in the Church of the 21st century. The Spirit is calling us back to the Biblical and Patristic understanding of Christ as the central definition of all reality.

Posted by: Jonathan Stepp | November 26, 2008

Must Read for Thanksgiving

Here’s a great blog post for you to check out over the Thanksgiving holiday:

Athanasius Contra Mundi

Martin Davis’s blog is fantastic, I am really enjoying his lessons in historical theology. He has a great way of bringing history to life and explaining complex – but important – issues in a way that is easy to understand and helps you see why these ancient theological debates were so vital to the development of the Church.

You’ll be thankful you read his work! Happy Thanksgiving!

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