10 Accomplishments of Christ at the Cross

I want to make a list of some of the different things that Christ accomplished on the cross. It seems to be the tendency of different denominations and time periods to focus more on one, and extol the magnitude of the accomplishment and its implications. However, I believe that great adoration and glory is found not just in the depth of what He did, but in recognition of the breadth of Christ’s accomplishments as well. I attempted to think of distinct achievements, not just different implications of the same achievement. I think if we are to relate these together to a single overarching accomplishment, it would be to glorify God. This is not an exclusive list, just 10 things I thought of, in no particular order, that perhaps you might not have considered before:

  • He took our place for our sins, as a substitutionary atonement, providing legal justification before the Father, satisfying His wrath so that we might be forgiven. This is a major focus of modern protestantism, and for good reasons, the implications of this accomplishment are indeed truly life changing for us.
  • He ransomed us. Matthew 20:28 (and Mark 10:45, 1 Tit 2:6) says he gave his life as a ransom. It is important to note that a ransom is very different than the act of appeasing God’s wrath, as a ransom is paid not to the rescuer (God), but to the captor, which is Satan. Christ’s act of ransoming us was the focus of CS Lewis’s Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where Aslan offered himself as a ransom directly to the White Witch.
  • He defeated Satan, triumphed over the powers (Col 2:15, Heb 2:14, 1 John 3:8). Jesus triumphed over Satan on the cross. As Hebrews says, He ‘destroy[ed] the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil’. This is often known as “Christus Victor” (Christ is victorious). It is believed that this (or ransom) was the primary focus of the early church.
  • He perfected obedience, sacrificially submitting to the Father (Luke 22:42), pleasing and glorifying the Father (Isaiah 53:10). It is worth noting that this accomplishment has nothing (directly anyway) to do with us, it is purely an act of love and honor directly between the Son and the Father. While we naturally tend to be most interested in what Jesus did that affects us, this act stands above us, demonstrating that not everything God does is for our sake.
  • He satisfied and redefined justice. The natural idea of justice, that someone should be punished for their own crimes, was certainly not demonstrated at the cross, where an innocent man was crucified for the crimes of others. At the cross, Christ revolutionized how we view and understand justice, defining justice, the foundation of His throne (Psalms 89:14), being a justice focused on bringing restoration and freedom, rather than retribution.
  • He became the scapegoat, thus undermining the legitimacy of scapegoating in society. Leviticus 16 talks about the Azazel sacrifice, and Christ fulfilled the sacrificial system with His death. However, scapegoating represents a unique sacrificial act. Rene Girard has explored the implications that this has on society, showing how we grow in conflict, and eventually content ourselves by finding individual(s) that can be blamed for the evils that permeate our society (without actually dealing with the real problems). Christ took on the role of the scapegoat, bringing peace, but also subverted the practice, as the ultimate antithesis of a deserving scapegoat, forcing us to face the real issues (and in doing so, this actually led modern societies to be far more peaceful than ancient societies).
  • He reconciled all things to himself (Col 1:20, 2 Cor 5:18), at the cross, to make peace between God and us, between different peoples (Eph 2:14), for the redemption of His creation. He tore the veil (Matt 27:51), giving us direct access to the throne of God.
  • He made manifestly visible the impact of our sins (1 Pet 2:24). Our transgressions are not evil just by some random arbitrary decree of God, but because they have a real, painful impact on others. Christ took these sins upon himself, visibly demonstrated the pain and consequence that our sins have had on others.
  • He fulfilled the prophecies and covenants (Luke 24:44-46). He fulfilled the prophecies, demonstrating the faithfulness of God, and fulfilled the covenants, satisfying both the people’s requirement, when they couldn’t, and His response.
  • He identified with and become one of the poor and oppressed. Jesus clearly expressed his identity with the poor and oppressed (Matt 25:31-46), but he not only declared solidarity, he actually became poor (2 Cor 8:9) and oppressed (Isaiah 53:7), experiencing the full reality and suffering of the disadvantaged on the cross.

Any that you would add to the list?

Levels of Glorifying God

The Bible makes it clear that our ultimate purpose is to glorify God (1 Pet 4:11, among many others). The Westminster Catechism summarizes the chief end of man as to glorify God and enjoy Him. I want to suggest there are several levels or layers of glorifying God that we can pursue or enjoy. In many ways, God is like an artist, crafting His creation, writing His story, I think it is a helpful analogy to consider the fame and reputation of artist (like a writer, painter, or even engineer) as a way to think about His glory. In this list, I will draw from this analogy to describe different levels of glory.

  • The most basic and shallow level of glory is simply knowledge that a subject, an artist exists. We can come to know of the existence of an artist, just like we can come to know of the existence of God, but this says little of whether they are good or bad. This is weakest form of glory, although proclaiming the existence of God is an important and foundational step towards the greater levels, particularly for those who have not been introduced to our God.
  • The next level is information about the artist. We can share information about the attributes of an artist (or God), for example their purpose and focus in their art, and how they wish to interact with their audience. Some of this information may be favorable (he is popular), but this is still not sufficient to show how the artist is really good, or great, it is just informative, although it is an important foundation for establishing praise-worthiness.
  • Moving on, a deeper declaration of glory, is the declaration of the goodness of the subject. Here the glory goes beyond just declaration of existence, but declaring that he is good, great, or better than others. For an artist this equates to receiving acclaim or adoration for the works of art.
  • Next, we can give great praise by showing, with the explanations, reasonings, or stores, why the art is superior, how it is more lucid, evocative, or compelling than other works.
  • Going deeper is the manifestation of the goodness of the subject. This is the actual individual works of art of an artist. This is a deeper glory, as declarations are only commentaries on the actual works of art. The works of art are the substance that is being commented on. Occasionally God supernaturally interjects some event or creation, but God’s most common visible works of art, are on display in his central creation, people, and their behavior, attitudes, kindness, perspectives, and the work of their hands, visible demonstrations of God’s work, redemption, and creativity in their lives. Most real artists invest the majority of their effort into their art, and rather than marketing.
    It is worth noting that the 4th level’s foundation on the 5th can be comparative. Seeing lesser works of art or absence of art allows us to talk about the superiority of the great artist. In the case of contrasting with God, seeing evil is a critical contrast that demonstrates God’s goodness.
  • The penultimate level of glory of an artist is the collective set of all his works. The collection of all works demonstrates not only his skill in single piece, but the range and diversity of his skills. Leonardo da Vinci is famed not just for the Mona Lisa, but for his remarkable mastery across various mediums and arts, including painting, sculpting, music, engineering, and mathematics. The collective works can also speak to how they relate to each other, and perhaps even forming a coherent narrative. J.R.R. Tolkiens writings are adored partly because many of his greatest works come together to form an epic narrative, greater than the sum of its parts. Likewise, with God, His kingdom, His church, and how they relate to each other and weave together the great narrative that He has composed is the greatest demonstration of His artistry. It is also worth noting that this is the deepest level of glory that we can participate in.
  • The final and ultimate level of glory is the subject himself. The works of art, and all other lower forms of glory flow from the artist himself. Even before an artist has even began to paint or sculpt, the talents, creativity, and potential exist. All else flows from that. The ultimate substance of God’s glory is Himself, and we can neither add nor subtract from it.

There are implications to this perspective on the levels of the glory of God. The act of communicating to people and introduction to who God is and why He is good (often the focus of preaching the gospel), points towards a lower glory of God, but it is a critical foundation towards the higher levels of glory. To those who no know nothing about God, it is difficult to move on towards a deeper appreciation of God, and skipping this step can result in misattribution and misunderstanding of God.

However, once introduced, the main focus should turn towards greater levels of glory, towards participation, as a reflective piece of art of God. The Great Commission makes this goal clear, pointing past simple evangelism, towards the explicit goal of disciples who obey God (the manifested art of God, his obedient people), and towards the diversity of disciples in every nation, together shaping the mission around the image of his God’s collective artwork, made visible.

What do you think, is this a helpful perspective on how we participate in glorifying God?

Ending Slavery

Last week, many came together to “Shine a Light on Slavery”, and raise awareness of the need to end slavery. It was encouraging to see how much support there was for the #enditmovement, echoing the call fight against slavery. A key part of awareness is going beyond just knowing that an issue exists, but understanding the causes and impacts. I know I am little late, but I thought I would try participate by doing a short post about slavery, and the causes and effects of slavery.

Causes

Modern day slavery is a particularly symptomatic issue. You can’t cure an illness with a fever by taking a cold bath, you have to determine what is actually causing the illness. Likewise, it is easy to think that we just need to go in free people from slavery, without understanding how they get caught up in slavery and stay there.

While precise numbers of slaves over time is difficult to obtain, most researches believe that there are more slaves now than any point in history. This is an anomaly among world maladies. We live in world with declining poverty rates, declining crime rates, and declining war and conflicts. Why has slavery grown at the same time? This question gives us a clue to the causes. In fact there are some growing global concerns that are clear causes of modern slavery.

First, modern slavery has been heavily driven by the sex industry. Now it would be difficult to make any verifiable claim that we have become more sexually driven than in the past; throughout history men have always been driven to depravity by their sexual desires. However, the sex industry has grown tremendously through the modern accessibility of transportation and the visual exploitation of women through internet pornography. The objectification of women has pervaded our societies, but it vastly easier now.

Second, unlike the slaves of centuries past, the majority of modern slaves are in debt bondage. This means that rather than being caught and held in slavery by physical force, modern slaves are often caught, enticed, and trapped through economic means. Poverty is widely understood to be the one of the biggest factors leading to slavery. Poverty alone doesn’t provide a complete economic explanation, though. Poverty makes people vulnerable to slavery, but large inequality means that the wealth and power exists to easily enslave those in poverty (rather than help them). And indeed, while global poverty has been gradually declining, inequality, probably a more correlated factor behind slavery, has been steadily increasing by most measures.

Together these two forces make a very simple formula for devastating consequences. Simple put, when there are women in poverty who are desperately trying to feed themselves and their family, and there are men who view them as inferiors, as objects and have the wealth to satisfy their desires, preying on them, the result is inevitable. Any society that objectifies and treats women as inferior and accepts extreme economic inequality is almost guaranteed to have a thriving slavery or sex trade.

As we seek to battle slavery, let us work to both provide direct, rescuing and protecting, as well as to fight more against the causes of slavery, pursuing more egalitarian societies that will not breed slavery.

Purchasing

The issue of slavery has also increased awareness of buying decisions. Certainly this has been valuable movement, encouraging and putting pressure on companies to use more ethical supply chains is helping to reduce slavery. However, this can be easily go wrong as well. Avoiding products can actually have negative consequences as well. Because many are enslaved due to economic shortfalls, decreased economic activity only worsens the situation. Slavery may deny people the full benefit of their productivity, but zero economic interchange can be even worse. While ethical supply chains are ideal, and some organizations are even specifically employing those rescued from slavery. But, simply choosing to prefer international products from developing countries over domestic products is the single simplest decision we can make between different products that benefit those prone to slavery. Or even more productive is to forgo spending, to give to organizations working to fight slavery.

End It

There are numerous causes of slavery that abound in our world, and many of them are complex and difficult to battle. However, for now, I will echo the voices of the #enditmovement, shining a light on slavery, and hopefully raising a little bit of awareness of how we should and can work to battle this oppression.

Welcoming the Nations

There are a number of passages in Old Testament that point to God’s concern for caring for those from other cultures and immigrants, like Exo 22:21a (and emphasized again Exo 23:9):

You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners

However, other OT passages like this (including Lev 23:22, Num 15:15, Lev 25:6, etc.) are not just isolated, but represent a mere foretaste of the grand theme of the mission of the in-gathering of the nations in the New Testament. The famous passage known as the Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20, sets forth this mission in clear terms, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”. The Greek here for “nations”, is “ethnos”, which is more precisely translated as ethnic groups or cultures.

This is more than just a call to evangelize, but reveals God’s aim to glorify Himself through the manifold praise and diverse adoration of every nation. The focus on the nations/ethnic groups, the “ethnos” is repeated numerous times in the New Testament, and is climatically central to God’s final vision of His bride, the Church, in Rev 7:9-10:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!

We can’t compartmentalize this commission, this vision, to just inviting some friends to church sometime, it must redefine every facet of our interaction with our community and society. A singular commitment to this mission means rejecting a zenophobic cocoon, and instead embracing a whole-hearted pursuit of showing God, His Kingdom, His love to every ethnic group both near and far.

This affects both our local activities and broader public policies. We all have refugees and immigrants among us that we can reach out to. But we can’t honestly claim to be committed to teaching and calling the nations to obedience by building fences to keep them out. We undermine the efforts of those that are preaching the gospel when we bomb the very ones God called us to reach out to and love. Welcoming immigrants is not only integral to mission of in-gathering, but many believe migration is one of the powerful opportunities for many to escape poverty, which fulfills another strong Biblical theme of caring for the poor. Our allegiance to God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom of all the nations, even to those that are considered our enemy (Matt 5:43), or that we fear might affect us, or alter our land, must usurp any allegiance to our country or our culture (Matt 6:24). Seek first the Kingdom of God.

Lord, please forgive us for our hypocrisy and lack of commitment to your glory among the nations. May we demonstrate your ways, your welcoming love, your invitation, you forgiveness, your generosity, to every culture both close and distant, friend or foe.

I may try to write about these topics a little more later. Some of these deserve more depth, if I get a chance. But we will see.

2013 Book Reviews

Here is a summary of my take on the different books I read this year:

Pursuing Justice – This was an excellent examination of what justice really means and is pursued from Biblical perspective. Our world, even our churches, have dramatically varying ideas of what justice is, and Ken Wytsma does a fantastic job of calling us to cast aside apathy and distorted ideas to pursue God’s vision of justice.

Unfinished – This is Richard Stearn’s 2nd book, after the Hole in Our Gospel. This book gives a solid Biblical and moral explanation of why we need to engage in every global dimension of redemption and fighting poverty and how we can pursue that. If you have not read his first book, I think the Hole in Our Gospel is a better book, delightfully candid in telling how God worked in his life, and generally more engaging. However, Unfinished, while more serious, is a good follow-up book, adding more Biblical support and details.

Orthodoxy – I read some of G.K Chesterton’s classic. His brilliant writing is certainly on display here, with great quotes abounding. This book is kind of meandering, as Chesterton takes up various different lines of thought, and I had a difficult time staying focused.

Poverty of the Nations – This takes up the incredibly valuable task of looking at how we can effectively help fight global poverty. Unfortunately, this book often seems to be shaped more by American neoliberalism ideology, than thorough Biblical theology. They provide numerous suggestions for just and fair government structures that will give citizens maximum opportunity to freely pursue economic opportunities. However, when it comes to issues including taxation, welfare, aid, and debt forgiveness, a distorted theological foundation and sloppy economic analysis lead to poorly supported claims. There are some good suggestions for developing countries, but it provides little solid direction for us in developed countries in helping those in developing countries. I wrote a much more detailed response/review here.

Discipleshift – This book looks at how to make disciples and challenges churches to make discipleship central to every ministry of the church, evaluating ministries based on their propensity to lead to new disciples. The authors premise for this book is that the church should be primarily focused on discipleship and training. This book made me think a lot about the relationship between the church and the Kingdom of God, and if the church should actually be a relatively small subset of the Kingdom (surely one should only spend a fraction of the time on training compared to the time spent on what you have actually trained for).

Toxic Charity – This book delves into the critical topic of how Christians can fight poverty effectively. The author has some valuable experience from urban ministry and makes some good points, but unfortunately this book is too ideological, and not very well researched. I have more detailed review here.

Loving Your Kids on Purpose – This book gave us some interesting perspectives on raising children, and raised some good points about leading your children to make decisions, in freedom, based on relational motivations, instead of just pursuing conformity out of fear of punishment. From what I understand many of the ideas came from Love and Logic (which I have not read). However, I found this book to be quite poorly written, relying far too heavily on sarcasm and contrived examples.

Justice and Its Different Forms

Tonight we along with a small group of friends are hosting a fundraising dinner for the International Justice Mission. It is our goal to raise enough money through this one evening to fully fund at least one rescue operation, providing freedom, skills training and education to an individual or family caught in slavery. In honor of our event we have some thoughts on justice to share.
PS If you would like to donate to our cause, you can do so here

The Bible makes it clear that God deeply values justice and calls us to pursue justice (and not just charity). For example, Isaiah 58 calls us to
“to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke”
And of course this is not limited to this passage. We treasure and praise God for whom,
And Psalms 89:14:
“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne”

However, the topic of justice can be vague and confusing because there are multiple types and motivations of justice. Virtually everyone wants justice, but they can mean radically different things when using the word “justice”. In this post, I wanted to consider the different definitions of justice, and what God says about these and how and which He has called us to pursue. As we consider the types of justice to pursue, we want to consider what types of justice the God of the Bible treasures and how. The Bible leads to trust in God’s justice, yet also calls to do justly. This has important implications in each understanding the different types of justice. Further confusion can arise, because the Bible also has several key concepts that are often translated into different words, justice, righteousness, and judgment, that have a poor correlation with English words of precisely the same meaning.

First, we will consider “punitive” justice, the punishment of wrongdoers. The most foundational and rudimentary concept of punitive justice is “retributive”. In this form, justice is action against a perpetrator for a past crime, giving a criminal what they are “due” for their wrongdoing, on the basis of “deserving” punishment. In regards to this form of justice, the Bible is clear, God states in no uncertain terms says “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay”, both early in the OT (Deut 32:35), and reiterated again in the NT (Rom 12:19). When it comes to the natural instinct to desire harm to those who have harmed us, our role is clearly to trust in God, and not to act. We are not to seek recrimination, but actually bless our enemies, and feeding and giving them water.

This is more than an isolated message in the Bible, this is a central concept to the core message of the Bible, the gospel. While we were yet sinners, enemies of God, deserving punishment, God forgave us, made peace with us, and even blessed us, immeasurably. he then calls us to do the same. The heart of the Bible, the gospel, must be our foundation for justice. Without a gospel-centered justice, our concept of justice is fundamentally no different than the world’s idea of justice, perhaps only differing by a few goals.

Saying that vengeance belongs to God precludes retributive justice may sound like a claim that we should never punish criminals. However, that is not the case. With a gospel foundation, let’s now consider “deterrent” justice. Deterrent justice does is the effort of creating an negative incentive for crimes. Here we do punish crimes, but the motivation is key (which can have important implications for how it is pursued). The goal is not to get back at, or revenge the crime, but rather to protect future potential victims. With this pursuit in mind, we begin to move our focus away from negative punishment, and instead focus on how we can positively help the victims, protecting them through prevention.

In our culture, we often hear the phrase that “justice was served” after hearing that a criminal was apprehended and/or sentenced. The interested aspect of this is that the implied object is always the perpetrator, and not the victim. Our concept of justice clearly seems far more focused (or mis-focused) towards the criminal than the victim.

The next form of justice is restorative justice. One part of restorative justice is reparative justice, in which the offender “repairs” the damage they have done, returning stolen money or goods, for example. Like deterrent justice, our focus should be on the protection of victims (not vengeance), the difference being deterrent justice protects future victims, whereas reparative justice protects and restores past victims.

But restorative justice doesn’t stop at restoring the victims. Like the grace of God, who sought to restore us, the offender, the goal of restorative justice isn’t to harm the offender, but rather to heal and redirect them in a positive direction.

When Isaiah 58 talks about loosing “the chains of injustice”, we can participate in carrying this out as we seek to protect those who might be oppressed and past, present, and future, from harm and offenses, while still trusting in God to be the ultimate and final judge and executor of retribution.

These forms of justice we have looked at primarily responses to offenses, they represent only the negative actions of justice. However, justice, both in historic and Biblical meaning, goes much broader. We must also consider “distributive” justice, which considers how to fairly distribute goods and services in society. This represents the positive, proactive side of justice. While there are many crimes in this world, the majority of people spend far more time in productive work, and buying goods and services than they do in committing crimes. Therefore understanding what the Bible teaches about distributive justice is tremendously important, it affects our entire economic structures. Everyday we are frequently interacting with our economy, the effects of distributive justice are impacting us all the time, and how we pursue distributive justice affects virtually everyone on the planet.

Also distinct from the earlier forms of justice, is that injustice, in the distributive sense, may not be directly linked to any certain human perpetrator. Injustice may be the result structures that are unfair, or even lack of structures that permit or promote activity that leads to poverty, inequity and other maladies. The Bible has numerous examples of justice requiring that such structures be removed, modified, or added to promote justice. And Jesus demonstrated proactive justice, there doesn’t necessary to be a villain, Jesus points us towards a vision of positive proactive justice that is more just and beautiful than simply an absence of evil. Distributive justice, therefore, can be confusing to some who think of justice only in terms of punishing bad guys.

Once again, let’s look to what Bible says about this form of justice. And again God has given some critical principles to shape our understanding of the pursuit of distributive justice. First, we should consider that Hebrew word that the Bible frequently uses to describe the goal of right human living: tsedek. Historically, in the King James, this word was translated to “justice” in the English, and the meaning of this word is best described as doing the right and equitable actions. As the colloquial meaning of justice in English has shifted towards the negative punitive form, modern translations have accordingly shifted to translating tsedek to “righteousness”, although the connotations of this English word are still not a perfect fit for the concept associated with this Hebrew word.

Next, we have numerous verses that can shape our understanding of Biblical justice by what God defines as the injustice. Several verses establish a theme of injustice being defined in terms of the forces of society binding or holding people back. God has given every person gifts and talents that can be used to be productive. Isaiah 58 itself describes injustice and wickedness in terms of a yoke and oppression. We give (positive, distributive) justice to people when we give the freedom and opportunity. Freedom is highly prized value in America, but like justice, it is can mean very different things to different people. And like justice, freedom can misalign with the Biblical justice if misunderstood. Freedom means that justice is more than just meeting needs, it is about empowering people to be use their God given gifts. However, the pursuit of freedom and justice, as defined by the Bible is also limitless. Sometime the pursuit of freedom is be limited to preserving negative freedom (only specific proactive actions of others that physically bind us), but Jesus’ Kingdom stretches to every aspect of society. As Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, “Mine!”  Likewise, any aspect of society that stands in the way people reaching their full potential needs to be challenged, whether it be cultural, racial, gender-based, economic, generational, or otherwise.

The next theme of distributive justice that the Bible communicates is that the special attention needs to be given to the weakest, poorest, and neediest. And those that have the greatest responsibility to meet these needs belong to those that have the most capability to help them, the richest, strongest, and most powerful. Several key examples of this include:
Ezekiel 16:49: Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.
1Jn 3:17  But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?
2 Cor 8:14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality
And Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) also clearly condemns those that who had the opportunity to help the beaten man and passed by. Poverty itself is never described as injustice, but when poverty exists alongside wealth and power that could alleviate it, God’s condemnation is clear. High levels of inequality are clearly contrary to God’s vision of a just society, as indicated by the Biblical definition of justice, as well as Jesus’ parables and Paul’s goal quoted above.

This type of justice gives us far clearer direction in how we are to love and offer mercy. To simply be merciful to some one at some time, doesn’t require much consideration, and we often easily do love those near and dear to us, which according to Matt 5:47, Jesus isn’t all that impressed by. To pursue this concept of Biblical justice is to go beyond random acts of kindness, and purposely and intently look to see who is in need, and even evaluate who is in greatest need and who we have the greatest capacity to help. This love coupled with justice leads deeper into the heart of God and his ways of righteousness.

Paul often appeals to the analogy of a body. We naturally are driven to take care of our own body, and when we have an injury we try to remedy it. However, our focus on our body’s needs is not just random. If we have a paper cut and open wound with a severed aorta would we ever choose to find a band-aid for the paper cut first and deal with blood gushing out of our neck later? Of course not, we naturally focus on our greatest need first. Likewise, we may pat ourselves on the back for loving those in our family,  but a true concern for all those that God loves, seeks to love those in the greatest need as priority, even if they are not close to us.

This discussion of justice intentionally flows from the basic form of retributive justice, the elementary and instinctual foundation, towards the proactive and positive forms of justice focused on freeing and empowering the weak and the oppressed, and even restoring the guilty. This path of discussion, I believe, follows the trajectory of the Bible, where God begins by setting forth the principles of retributive justice, and how we are deserving of punishment. The Bible then slowly moves towards the climax of the cross where God satisfies this justice with His Son and points us towards a deeper, grace-oriented perspective of justice. Often the cross is only viewed as a satisfaction of justice, as if the cross was just getting justice out of the way, diminishing the affect of justice, but to the contrary, the cross leads us deeper into God’s beautiful justice, giving us a wonderful new justice, empowering us, restoring us, and setting us free! This is gospel-centered, Christ-led, Kingdom-oriented justice. It makes our love and mercy meaningful, it seeks first the Kingdom, and brings glory to our God!

And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8b

Car Ownership & Purchasing

One of our theme goals of this blog is improving the impact of our giving. One obvious way that we can making a bigger impact, is simply by saving more money so we can give more. We were recently in the market to buy a car, and I did a lot of research on the various costs of car ownership and the different ways we could reduce our expenses. Here are some of my findings, in case it might be helpful to you down the road. This research and the suggestions are focused on how to reduce costs of car ownership; I certainly recognize that people find value in cars beyond just getting from point A to point B as cheaply as they can, and so you can consider these suggestions in light of your own priorities. However, I believe that making an effort to reduce our expenditures, in this very costly portion of our lives, and giving the saved money to a good cause can truly have an tremendous impact, and literally save numerous lives.

The cost of car ownership is the second largest household expense for the average American family ($7,677 or 12.29%), according to the Department of Labor. The largest monthly expense is housing, and for home owners some or much of this expense is actually an investment, going towards equity, and creating tax deductions. Consequently, for many if not most, American households, car ownership is the single largest cost in terms of real loss of equity, more than clothing, entertainment, or food. If we want to pursue living simple, low-cost lives so can we be free to be more generous, reducing car ownership costs is one of the greatest opportunities we have to free our finances.

The Costs

The economics of car ownership are not necessarily all that simple. Most of us know that buying a new car is very expensive, and obviously a less expensive used car will cost us less up front, but most of us also understand that simply buying the cheapest, old clunker car is probably not a good investment; the repair and maintenance costs of a very old car might be higher in the long run. But what is the optimal best choice for a vehicle, that minimizes our cost of ownership?

First, it is helpful to understand the major costs that make up the total cost of ownership. For most vehicles the number one cost is depreciation. In terms of ownership, it is helpful to talk about depreciation instead of purchasing cost, because your car has equity that can be converted back to cash when sold, but depreciation lets us see the rate that the equity is being lost. Depreciation also allows us to compare with other yearly costs. As a general rule, depreciation is about 15-20% of a car’s value per year, but this can vary. A brand new car experiences far more depreciation initially (closer to 30% for the first year), and older cars tend to slow down somewhat. Also cars that have a good reputation for reliability tend to depreciate slower, like Honda and Toyota. But in general depreciation is proportionate to the value of vehicle, so the cheaper a car is, the lower the depreciation.

There are a number of other expenses that are also related to the value of a vehicle, including interest, insurance (at least comprehensive), and taxes.

The second biggest expense is gas. Obviously the best way to reduce this expense is get a fuel efficient car. For most cars, particularly newer ones, fuel cost is several times more expensive than maintenance and repair. Generally this is pretty constant over the life of a vehicle, but often newer, more advanced vehicles can squeeze out better mileage.

While these other expenses tend to decrease or remain constant as a vehicle ages, one expense definitely does increase with age, and that is the repair costs. So at what point does the repair costs start to outweigh the other expenses (or more precisely, when does the marginal increase in repair exceed the marginal decrease in value related expenses)? I wanted to try to estimate this, so to calculate this I put together a spreadsheet of the various different costs of a vehicle and the rate they change over time (as a disclaimer these are certainly rough estimates, most of my data came from Consumer Reports, but different vehicles undoubtedly vary in their expenses). I then totaled the expenses and charted it here:

cost-of-car-ownership

There are a number of lessons from this chart. First, the initial year of car ownership is literally off the chart (it was about $13,400). Buying a new car simply does not make good financial sense.

As you can see from this chart, the low point of car ownership doesn’t occur until about 14 years, after the car is less 10% of it’s original value (in this chart the car, is approximated to have initial new sale value of $25,000, and at this point has depreciated to being worth $1800).

Of course you probably aren’t going to keep every vehicle for only one year, and sell it. In fact transaction costs of buying a vehicle are also significant, particularly if you live in a state with a sales tax and/or you are not very shrewd when it comes to haggling and finding the best deal. In fact these transactions cost are usually high enough that, in general, it is best to keep a vehicle as long as possible. Upgrading is seldom economically beneficial, unless you are doing so to improve mileage or get out of a car with known expensive upcoming repair needs.

And if you are going to own a vehicle for a number of years it makes sense to buy before the bottom of the curve, probably an 9-10 year old vehicle is optimal, but as you can see even a 7-8 year old car, which may be nicer, is still quite near the optimal cost level.

There are other intelligent ways to reduce the cost of ownership besides buying an older, but not too old car. Again, the second biggest expense is fuel costs; a fuel efficient vehicle should be a top priority for the economically-minded buyer. Certainly the biggest determinant in fuel expense is the size of the vehicle and the size of the engine. Large SUVs almost always get much worse mileage than smaller sedans. SUVs also have higher depreciation costs, repair costs, and insurance costs. The cost of ownership of an SUV is usually at least 50% greater than a sedan, which can easily translate to over $2000 a year in ownership costs. Picking the smallest car that can accommodate you or your family’s needs is a key way of reducing your fuel costs.  Also, smaller engines simply do better with fuel mileage. A bigger engine may be more fun to drive, but it inevitably costs you at the pump.

Hybrids

The most significant innovation of the modern era for improving fuel mileage is the hybrid. Hybrid drive-trains produce tremendous improvements in fuel mileage, often providing over a 50% improvement in MPGs. Paying several thousand dollars more for a hybrid can usually be very reasonably recovered in reduced fuel costs. However, some classes of cars, particularly SUVs have not had hybrid versions long enough that older, cost-effective models are available yet.

As a personal aside, we recently purchased a Toyota Prius. Admittedly, we bought a newer than optimal car for lowest cost based on the chart (it was a eight years old, but low miles). However, with the dramatic fuel cost reduction, and using the estimate from the spreadsheet, our annual cost of ownership is about $4,500, which is close to even the lowest point of ownership cost for an older conventionally powered car, and after several years our annual cost may actually drop below the low point in this mean chart. And the Prius is fantastic vehicle; it is high-quality and solid, it has great reputation for reliability and resale value, and it is fun to drive. Not only does it have a relatively low cost of ownership, my wife and I both really enjoy the car.

Four wheel or All wheel drive

Four wheel or all wheel capabilities can be necessity in many snowy climates. But these definitely have a cost. The extra equipment involved adds cost to the vehicle (both depreciation and repair) and usually decreases mileage by about 5-10%. Often all wheel drive is pitched as a safety feature, but this doesn’t really make sense. The key safety features for avoiding dangerous accidents are those that help you to turn and stop quickly. Anti-lock brakes and good winter tires are by far the most important safety features for winter driving. Four-wheel drives helps you to go forward in poor conditions, which arguably can get you in more trouble. Still four-wheel drive can be incredibly useful if you are frequently in adverse conditions, and you don’t want to have to constantly chain-up. But, avoid four-wheel drive unless you are in a climate that really requires it.

Buying on Credit

Many financial advisers, like Dave Ramsey, have advised against buying on credit, and I agree with this suggestion. Often times the cost of compound interest is cited as a reason. However, this reason often fails to consider the alternate investment opportunity available. With a low interest car loan, it is actually feasible to invest the money that would otherwise have been given to the dealer, and achieve the same type of positive compound interest that the loan is costing. However, avoiding buying on credit has a far more important implication: when paying with cash we are far more likely to purchase a car at a good economic level. It is far too easy to buy a high-priced vehicle with a high cost of ownership when we look at the monthly payments instead of the real price tag, and we don’t usually have a large amount of money available in our bank account to buy an over-priced vehicle that will tax with large depreciation costs. Consequently, I agree with the advice of avoiding buying on credit, unless you happen to be unusually cunning at being able to leverage credit for better investment opportunities.

But I Need More Room

Indeed, for many, a compact or even standard sized sedan or hatchback isn’t sufficient. But it is worth noting that often times we actually can use a much smaller car than we think we can. Buying a roof rack, car top carrier, bike racks, and other accessories are vastly cheaper ways to carry extra bulky items than carrying around a bulky vehicle everywhere.

But again, for many, a bigger vehicle is necessary, or at least not worth the inconvenience of dealing with a smaller car. This is particularly true for families with more than four kids. I don’t recommend strapping your fourth child to the roof rack! If extra capacity is really all that is needed, you simply can’t beat minivans, as unpopular as that may be. There are a huge selection of minivans in the used market at great prices, and they are usually equipped with engines that generally get better mileage than their similarly sized SUV counterparts.

But of course SUVs do have their place. If you will be towing, going off-road, and need AWD, as well as needing a lot of internal room and capacity, an SUV can accomplish a lot in a single vehicle. And again, engine size matters. Try to find a V6 instead of V8 if possible for your needs. Some mid-size SUVs, like the Toyota Rav 4, Kia Rondo, even have 4 cylinder options, achieving nearly sedan-level fuel efficiency while still offering three row options, although these can be limited to newer, more expensive models.

Constant Cost vs Per Mile Costs

So far we just considered costs on an annual basis. However, much of these costs are not fixed per year, but based on how many miles you drive. Costs like fuel, repair, and to some extent depreciation are based on your usage, and are not just a constant per-year cost. The number of miles you drive can affect the optimal car as well. If you drive a high number of miles, fuel-efficiency should become a higher concern, and a little higher-priced vehicle is more reasonably justified. For a vehicle that will be driven less miles, fuel efficiency is less important, but one should be more hesitant to spend a lot for a low-use car.

Families with multiple cars can also save money by simply being judicious in doing more of their driving with their car that has the lowest cost of ownership. Families with a sedan and SUV can drive the sedan as much as possible, and just use the SUV when the extra space is needed.

Negotiation

Getting the best value in car purchase almost always requires some negotiation of price. This can be intimidating, and many mistakenly think that negotiation requires special oratory skills or the cunning poker skills of bluffs and misdirection. In reality, good negotiation comes down to one basic strategy: make an offer for what would be a great deal, and be willing and ready to walk away if the seller won’t give you what you consider to be a good deal. There are a few important things to do to make sure you are in position to do this. First, research the true value of the any car you are interested in, so you know what is a good price. Second, be prepared to evaluate the condition of the car. If you can’t do this yourself, you can arrange for a mechanic to evaluate it. And third, find multiple cars that you would be interested in buying. If you only have a single car that you want, you are in a terrible position for negotiation, whereas having good backup options makes it much easier to walk away if you can’t get a good deal. When you know what you want to pay, you have multiple cars as possible options, and you are ready and willing to walk away from any one car to look at another, you automatically have the upper hand in negotiation, regardless of how shy you are or how slick of salesmen you are dealing with.

Broader Considerations

There are plenty of other ways to minimize car costs. Make sure you maintain your car properly, regularly changing your oil. Car pool when possible. Using public transportation or a bike can also help.

You can consider shopping around for the best insurance rates. Liability insurance is required, of course, but collision or comprehensive is not. These types of insurance can provide real value in terms of providing financial stability, but if you can financially absorb the potential cost of an accident, avoiding these insurances can save you some money as well (even with factoring in claims; remember, insurance companies, on average, are making money off of you).

Again, in this post I have specifically focused on how to achieve the lowest possible cost of car ownership, and I recognize that a vehicle is more than just a means to get from point A to point B. There are many other things that you may consider besides just price, including comfort, safety, enjoy-ability, and aesthetics. I certainly understand that you may not want to drive around a 14 year old car because that is very lowest point in the ownership cost curve. And again remember my charts are estimates. Precise data on historical repair costs is tough to come by, and so there is lot of extrapolation that might not be completely accurate. But hopefully, this post can give you some direction on possible ways to reduce your costs, if you are interested in that.

But with these considerations, as a final suggestion, I would challenge you, next time you are considering a car purchase, to either hold off for a while, or try to keep your total investment in your vehicles less than or near 15% of your total income for a year (or 20% if you can get a hybrid). And again, these suggestions are not just for the pursuit of more wealth, but so we can be more generous towards others. By forgoing the purchase of a newer or bigger vehicle, and choosing an older and more fuel efficient model, it is very reasonable for an individual or family to save several thousand dollars a year, money free for other things. As an example, one can give that money to something like malaria-preventing bed nets, and realistically save a child’s life every year with the savings. And that’s better than any safety feature I have ever seen on any car.