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Sunday, January 31, 2010

What Makes You Happy?

We are assured, in our Declaration of Independence, that we have a God-given right to the pursuit of happiness. While I'm not sure I agree, it still begs the question, "What makes you happy?"

All humans are motivated by happiness. All humans want to do that which makes them happy. It is a fundamental drive, and I'm not suggesting in the least that it's necessarily wrong. It's just part of our construction, part of that which makes us human. We are concerned about our best interests. Even someone who commits suicide does so because they believe that would be best for them. We inherently love our selves and want to be happy.

While there are a lot of possibilities -- seemingly endless -- of what makes people happy, I wonder how bizarre my version really is. Perhaps it's not so far out there. What really makes me happy is the joy of others. That seems to be a primary motivation for me in so many areas of my life. I dearly want my wife to be happy and will go great distances to accomplish it. It sounds like self-sacrifice, I suppose, but that entirely misses the point because it is her happiness that makes me happy. So if I surrender something to make her happy, I am simply doing what makes me happy. This works itself out in so many other ways, too. I feel the need to engage people I know who appear unhappy to see if I can help them out. Their happiness makes me happy. I want to hear from people the good news they are sharing because their happiness makes me happy. The other day I paid for lunch for a friend of mine. He was a little low on cash and I thought he'd enjoy a lunch if he didn't have to pay for it. Now, the motivation might have been to make him indebted to me or to encourage him to like me or ... well, lots of things, but it wasn't. If buying him lunch made him happy, it made me happy.

Happiness is a fleeting and fitful thing. Sometimes we can find happiness in the wrong thing. Reveling in other people's misfortune is probably the wrong thing. Sometimes we can find happiness in cheap things when we ought not be satisfied with them. The thrill of a sexual encounter outside of marriage is nothing like the deeper satisfaction of the union of sexual relations within marriage, for instance. We might go to church and enjoy the singing when we could have been enjoying the presence of God. Happiness, then, can be elusive and misguided. On the other hand, humans are built to pursue it. Do we find our happiness in the things we ought to? What makes you happy?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Wartime Living

Lifestyles in the first half of the 1940's in America were not something that we here in the 21st century would likely recognize. They were coming out of the Great Depression where unemployment was pushing 25%. Enter a world at war. According to, "In 1941 as many as 40 percent of all American families lived below poverty level. Nearly eight million workers earned less than the legal minimum wage. Another eight million Americans were unemployed, and the median income was only $2,000 per year." But there was a new outlook in America. While 10 million men went off to war, women went to work to support the family and the war effort. Goods necessary for living such as gasoline, rubber, and sugar were rationed so the boys overseas could get what they needed to fight. Price controls and taxes controlled much of life. I didn't know this before I started the research for this, but during the war there was a national speed limit imposed of 35 miles per hour. Standard drivers were limited to 3-4 gallons of gas a week. People were allowed to own up to 5 car tires; anything above that was confiscated for the war effort. According to wikipedia, by the end of 1943, "automobiles, typewriters, sugar, gasoline, bicycles, footwear, fuel oil, coffee, stoves, meat, lard, shortening and oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods (canned, bottled, and frozen), dried fruits, canned milk, firewood and coal, jams, jellies, and fruit butter were rationed." All of this and more was considered reasonable and right because America was at war and everyone needed to do their part to defeat evil and defend the right.

Imagine that today. Imagine Americans today being asked to pay higher taxes to support war. Imagine the uproar that would occur if Americans were told that they would have to limit their gasoline usage, their sugar, their speed. Imagine the outrage that would explode from Americans if they were told they couldn't do whatever they pleased whenever they pleased with as much as they pleased. Americans today aren't quite as sacrificial as they were back then, are they?

My point, however, is not to demean American greed or self-centeredness today. My point is to lead your attention to something else. Americans are humans and humans are sinful. Don't expect anything different. But I'm writing here to Christians. According to the Bible, we are at war. "We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm" (Eph 6:12-13). So why are we American Christians tending to live like we're not? While the population of the '40's gladly sacrificed comfort and income and personal rights to defend what is good, we're barely willing to give the growing needs around us acknowledgment. We ought to be living life aware of the spiritual war around us. We ought to be laying up treasures in heaven rather than building earthly treasures. Don't we know there's a war on?

I'm not the guy to tell you what to sacrifice. That's between you and God. But if we are to be Christians -- followers of Christ -- and if we take the Word of God seriously, it would seem to me that we cannot continue at the materialistic pace we are at and still call ourselves disciples of Jesus. I am not one who believes that when Jesus said, "Sell all your possessions," He actually meant sell everything you own. Still, I have to ask (myself more than you) "If it doesn't mean sell everything, what does it mean?" and I can't bring myself to conclude that He actually meant, "Live it up! Gather all the worldly goods you can for your own personal pleasure!" We're at war. We ought to be living more like it.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Double Predestination

Just the phrase alone can inspire wrath. "Predestination" by itself stirs up all sorts of resistance in a lot of folks, but step on over to "double predestination" and you've stepped into a pit of vipers (so to speak).

Defining terms is important, especially on a hot-button topic like this. What is "predestination"? Well, to be clear, it is not what most people think it is. The first thought is "election" or the like. The biblical version (and it is indisputably a biblical term) is actually referencing ... everything. Romans 8:29-30 uses the term to cover the entire process from "foreknow" to "called" to "justified" to "glorified". Paul there says that we are predestined "to be conformed to the image of His Son". Ephesians 1:11 says we were predestined to adoption and to obtain an inheritance. In Acts 4, the people of Jesus's day did "whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place" to accomplish the crucifixion of Christ. And so it goes. It's only reasonable. If God works all things after the counsel of His will, then all things are predestined. Note that "predestined" means "determined in advance" without requiring direct causation. Thus, if God is omniscient and simply and accurately knows all that will occur, it will occur and is, therefore, already determined. Thus, given God's Sovereignty and Omniscience, not only is predestination biblical, it's mandatorily logical.

Of course, since "predestination" entails all things, then it would necessarily include "election". And since the concept of whether or not God chooses some for salvation is a hotly debated topic, it is that aspect of predestination that is contested the most. So when we roll around to double predestination, we've rolled into a fight. So let's see if we can take some of the teeth out of this squabble.

Assuming predestination means that God predestines some to eternal salvation, is there any reason to think that double predestination is true? Double predestination would say that, just as some are predestined to salvation, the rest are predestined to damnation. And that whole idea that some might be predestined (predetermined, foreordained) to damnation is what really gets people fired up. But I don't really know why. If we can establish that God chooses some for salvation and that God does not choose all for salvation, then haven't we already established double predestination? Look at it this way. If God chooses some (not all), then by definition we have double predestination.

Now, first let's agree on something. We all agree that God does not force people to be damned. This is the image conjured up in a lot of people's minds when we say "double predestination". They say, "So, you're saying that there are people who might want to be saved, but since they were predestined for damnation, they cannot be?" No, this is not in mind when we speak of double predestination. "But, if you argue that God brings people to salvation (election), then aren't you arguing that He also keeps people from salvation?" No, no, a thousand times, no. We will all agree that God does not force anyone to be damned, nor does God cause anyone to be damned. There is no biblical nor logical reason to think so. We're all agreed on that, okay?

Having tossed out together that horrendous concept that God authors sin and forces damnation, we are still not done with the concept. The real question, logic aside, must be "Does the Bible teach it?" That's the one we need to examine.

In Romans 9 Paul is talking about genuine Israel, "the children of the promise". How does one get to be one of these? Paul says:
It depends not on human will or work, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed in all the earth." So then He has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills" (Rom 9:16-18).
Paul has no problem at all making the claim that God both has mercy on whom He wills and hardens whom He wills. So stunning is this claim that Paul immediately answers the next obvious objection: "You will say to me then, 'Why does He still find fault? For who can resist his will?'" (Rom 9:19) and so on. Regardless of what you'd like to think, this clearly speaks of both election ("Has mercy on whom He wills") and reprobation ("Hardens whom He wills"). ("Reprobation" is the opposite side of election. While election means "to foreordain to salvation", reprobation means "to foreordain to damnation".) And making such a large concept on a single verse is questionable, so, of course, there's more. Peter writes of Jesus as a cornerstone. Some find Him "chosen and precious", but others find Him a "stumblingblock". "They stumble," Peter says, "because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do" (1 Peter 2:8). This isn't the only place Peter speaks of double predestination. In chapter two of his second epistle he talks about false prophets and says, "Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep" (2 Peter 2:3). That phrase, "from long ago", is an interesting phrase. The King James uses "of old". The same phrase is used in the next chapter where Peter speaks of mockers who "deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God" (2 Peter 3:5). Same concept ... before time. Jude uses the very same phrase in verse 4 of his epistle. "For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation" (Jude 1:4). So both Peter and Jude affirm that condemnation was "long ago" and the language most likely points at "before time" -- from the beginning.

Predestination is biblical. The only way to deny that is to cut out Bible passages. Election is also biblical, even if we wish to debate the mechanism. Further, God's Sovereignty and Omniscience make predestination a logical necessity. If we admit that predestination is in the Bible and that God chooses by some means or another who is saved, logic would require that those who are not chosen would be predestined to condemnation. The concept isn't merely logical -- it's biblical. I'd say that we should set aside the hostility and come to an agreement here.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Marriage and Me

"If gay marriage was legalized, what difference would it make to you?" That's considered a popular argument today for changing the definition of marriage to allow for two people of the same sex to get married. Never mind that it isn't an actual argument for a position. Truth be told, it's a difficult question to answer. The idea is if it makes no difference to your marriage, what difference should it make to you if they do something else?

The problem, unfortunately, is much larger than we realize. The assault on marriage has been going on for a lot longer than we imagine. Now we are being told (not asked) that we need to redefine marriage in what looks like a small step. So small is the step, it seems, that the majority of people don't even see it.

What is marriage? Part of the difficulty of this seemingly simple question is the mixing of definition and application. You will commonly get answers like "It has changed over time" with "proofs" like polygamy, arranged marriages, and bans on interracial marriage. The problem with this is that they are not definitions of marriage, but applications of marriage. They are ways that marriage was carried out, not defined. Consider this example. A popular argument is that marriage used to be defined as a condition where the woman was the property of the man. And it seems rational ... except it isn't a definition. It would be like defining an automobile by where you drove it. But if you break it down, in all cases you'll find a constant thread, a commonality that clearly makes the definition of marriage rather than how marriages were carried out. Marriage for all time has been the union of a man and a woman, the key component of human society that produces a family with two opposite-gendered parents to raise children. That is the bottom-line version.

Not so today. Marriage to most is a social contract. It is a union of lives emotionally, legally, economically, socially, and so on. Marriage is the fundamental core of a society, serving a variety of integral purposes. Biblical marriage differs from the social contract concept because a contract says, "If you meet your obligations, then I will meet my obligations." The biblical version doesn't allow for failure to meet obligations; it is a covenant that is not to be broken. The obligation, then, is that I will always love my wife regardless of whether or not she meets my expectations.

That's a long way from today's view. While marriage has for most of time been viewed as a life-long commitment to another with the aim of bearing and raising children and meeting other generational and societal obligations, we've worked hard in the last century to liberate marriage from these traditional views. Marriage in the latter half of the 20th century was viewed as some sort of prison camp for women. Think, for instance, at the outrage some expressed over that "horrible" wedding ceremony where the minister pronounced them "man and wife". "See?" the left raged, "It isn't a union of equals! He's still a 'man', but she's not a woman -- she's a 'wife'!" So we threw it out. We acquiesced. And that whole "life-long commitment" thing had to go. So in 1980 for every woman who divorced her husband there were 12 men who divorced their wives and in 1990 the ratio had changed. For every man who divorced his wife there were 600 wives who divorced their husbands. Ah, equality! And that whole thing about children ... that had to go. It was pushed out in the 1970's with the overpopulation scare and almost completely demolished in the following decades when we assured women that their primary function in life was to do whatever they wanted to do. Having children would just have to wait ... perhaps indefinitely. As a result, birthrates in America have dropped to a low of 2.03 births per woman ... by choice. (The birthrate required to maintain replacement is 2.1.) And that whole "opposite-gendered parents" thing as the optimum for raising kids ... well ... you know how it is. It's not true ... right? Well, to be clear, yes, it's still true. (Throwing out "Good same-gendered parents are better than rotten opposite-gendered parents" is a red herring -- apples to oranges.)

So, starting with a covenant -- an agreement to meet my obligations regardless of your response -- in which two people of opposite gender become a united entity called "a family" with the expectation of bearing children and so on, we've certainly come a long way, baby. Now we're at a "contract of equals" in which discomfort is grounds for termination and children are possible at best and, too likely, problematic. In other words, a life-long relationship forming a union founded on commitment, selflessness, and family has "progressed" to a tenuous relationship with shaky commitment and self as the primary focus. Now ... all you have to do is change "he and she" to "whatever" and we're at "gay marriage".

What difference will it make to my marriage? I will still be committed to my wife for life. I will still be committed to my children for life. I will still honor "marriage" in its original sense. Passing that on to the next generation has become more difficult, and with each passing decline it gets worse. What will my grandchildren think marriage is? At this rate, a casual friendship between ... oh, who knows? But it will be warm and friendly, I'm sure. Meaningless, but warm and friendly. And my definition -- the definition of the ages -- will be an archaic, hard-to-find concept. Yeah ... that's too costly for me to support.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

You Get 'Em When They're Not Looking

So I'm not really paying attention with the evening news on and I hear out of the corner of my ear a story about how Doctors perform transfusions on Valley woman’s unborn baby. What a concept! The mother has a rare blood condition that attacks her baby's red cells in the womb. So they're giving this little child transfusions every two to three weeks to save her life. (Her name is already Sharon before she's born.)

Then there's this fascinating quote from one of the doctors involved in the procedure:

"I always think it's a really, really fantastic thing that we have this technology available to us. It always is mind-blowing to me that we're about to operate on a life that's not born," said Dr. Lam.
"Operate on a life that's not born." Not a fetus. Life.

It seems like, when the issue of abortion is not on the table, everyone is well aware that the little one in the womb is a life, a child, a baby, worthy of the best possible care that we can offer. When abortion isn't the question, most will readily admit it's a life. Just don't ask them to repeat it when you're asking about abortion.

Another prime example. A woman went to the hospital with premature labor. She admitted that she had been smoking for the first 6 months of her pregnancy (which is stupid but not illegal). For the sake of the baby, the court ordered her not to leave the hospital. The state attorney who filed the suit to confine the woman said, "This is good people trying to do things in a right fashion to save lives -- whether some people want them saved or not." Lives? I thought they were merely tissue blobs.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

God and Natural Disasters

In a helpful little article on a website called "" there is a little piece on the question, "Why does God allow natural disasters, i.e. earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis?" The question nags at believers and often surfaces as ammunition for skeptics. "If your God is so good, why do bad things happen?"

The article has some good things in it. They point out, for instance, that the phrase, "acts of God", always references bad things, while God rarely gets credited with the good things. The years of good weather, good crops, missed disasters, that sort of thing, are all ignored. God gets the blame for the bad things, but He doesn't get the credit for the good. Why is that? (Rhetorical question.) The article suggests positives from bad events. They force us to think beyond the everyday and on to eternity. They shake our confidence in ourselves. They make us reevaluate our priorities. That is, God can bring good out of tragedy.

Ultimately, of course, it is vain (as in "useless") and vain (as in "conceited") to try to answer why God allows natural disasters. God does what God will do without deigning to fill us in on His plan. He doesn't check with us before He plans an earthquake or a hurricane. Something we'll never hear from God is "Here's what I have in mind. Is that okay with you?" It is extremely rare that we are told why God does what He does in specific instances. What we are required to do, then, is to trust that God is good even when we can't figure out how He is good. And that is not something you'll get out of a skeptic.

There is a serious problem, however, with the article. "Does God sometimes influence the weather? Yes, as we see in Deuteronomy 11:17 and James 5:17. Numbers 16:30-34 shows us that God sometimes causes natural disasters as a judgment against sin." This is theistic deism. As the article rightly points out, "The Bible proclaims that Jesus Christ holds all of nature together (Colossians 1:16-17)." So while we tend to think of the universe as a lifeless entity organized by laws of nature, the Bible speaks of a universe that is held together by God. It's not that sometimes God intervenes; it's that God at all times is in charge of all that happens. No hurricane blows without God originating and guiding it. No earthquake trembles without God's specific command.

You see, we're doing our best here as believers to try to absolve God of any wrongdoing. We see and rightly grieve over the loss of life in Haiti, for instance. I wouldn't even try to suggest it was an act of judgment by God. The Bible gives God too many options to limit it to an act of judgment. But we start with two false premises. First, God doesn't do things that we consider "bad". Second, we deserve "good". God, on the other hand, isn't fooled. It is He who claims, "I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides Me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know Me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides Me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things" (Isa 45:5-7).

Since we know that God works all things after the counsel of His will, and since God Himself claims to "create calamity", why would be wish to minimize it? Instead, we should answer like Paul did. "Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?" Without assuming judgment, we should use these things to question ourselves as Jesus did when asked about other disasters. "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:5). And we should never forget that we were vessels of wrath prepared for destruction on whom God has shown mercy. We must avoid thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought. If you want to challenge God on why He had an earthquake in Haiti, feel free. I think I'll just be quiet here. Like Job, I'll lay my hand over my mouth and seek instead to know the God of all the universe better rather than question His character and wisdom.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Am I Making It?

I don't know about you, but I really want to be a good Christian. I want to be a good follower of Christ. Further, I'm not convinced that I am. I am always asking myself questions about me, and some of them are quite difficult to answer.

One is the problem of wealth. By American standards, I'm middle class. By societal standards, I'm not greedy. There isn't a lot of "stuff" I want. I'm not always looking for "the next big thing", trying to get "toys", hoping for more than I have. I'm pretty content with what I have. I just want to maintain it.

And therein lies the question. Am I trying to maintain too much? The Bible talks a lot about the rich, and generally it's not good. By the world's standards, I can be defined as no other than rich. Am I being greedy by simply wanting to maintain, or is that okay?

I wonder what a more ascetic life would look like for me. Eat less? Give up television entirely? How about computers? Are they a luxury? We have enough to be comfortable. Is it too much? Maybe I'd need to sell the house and live in a small apartment? How would it redefine my use of my time? Obviously less time in front of the television, even though I spend far less time there than the average American. Less time in front of the computer? Probably. More time ... doing what? Or how about talents? Am I using my skills and abilities as they should be used, or am I wasting them on myself? Is it merely an excuse to say I want to make my wife happy?

I'm not convinced I have "arrived" at being a good Christian. No, I'd even admit that I have not. But, to tell you the truth, I'm not sure what "a good Christian" would look like and I wonder how far off I really am. Sometimes I think it's not so far. Sometimes I think it's a very, very long way off. Am I making it as a Christian? No, I don't think so. I'm just not sure where that is.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Defining Good

I have for many years defined "good" different from the standard definition. The "good" I'm defining is, therefore, not from the standard viewpoint, but the "good" that, according to God, no natural man does ... at all (Rom 3:12). You see, if we read that passage using our standard definition of "good", we can only come to one possible conclusion: It doesn't mean what it says. Since I find nothing in it that suggests that, I had to conclude that this "good" that no one does is not likely the same "good" that we think of. So what is the "good" that no one does?

I have defined it this way: Good is that which is done by God for God. Fairly simple. And I've had no problem with demonstrating that "good" must be done for God to be classified as "good" by God's definition. We are commanded, for instance, "whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor 10:31). That pretty much includes everything, right? And I was pretty confident about the "by God" part based on Philippians 2:13 and things like "Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him" (Col 3:17). But today I came across this verse that sealed it for me.
Whoever serves, [let him serve] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies -- in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To Him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:11).
The Philippians verse above assures us that the only way we are able to do what God wants is that God is working in us to enable and empower us. This verse says that we serve "by the strength that God supplies". Thus, "good" would be defined as that which is done by God (either directly or through His people) for God. And in all situations doing this "good" would result in glory to God.

Consider, then, how things we do may look the same but may or may not be good. If we serve by our own strength, for instance, it may look the same as those who serve by God's strength, but one of these two would not be good. If we give on our own rather than by God's work in us, it would not be classified as "good" by God even though it looked externally identical to giving by God's power. If we worship under our own power rather than in the Spirit ... well, you can see where I'm going. Something to think about.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Cindy McCain, prominent wife of Senator John McCain, caused a stir the other day when she came out in California against Prop 8 with the No H8 Campaign. Alongside Meghan McCain, the senator's well-known daughter, a picture of her was posted that shows her mouth taped shut and a "NOH8" painted on her face to declare to the world that homosexuals should be allowed to redefine marriage to suit their desires against the will of Californian voters and against what the California Supreme Court acknowledged was "the longstanding traditional definition of marriage".

Okay, that's not quite accurate. The senator's wife and daughter, after careful consideration of all the issues at hand, have wisely determined that the issue at hand is hate for homosexuals. Thus, they've stepped forward to speak out against hate by taping their mouths shut ... no, wait ... okay, hold on a minute ...

Let's try this again. Cindy McCain, wife of Senator McCain, has demonstrated with a whole host of other people, including the senator's daughter, a complete failure to comprehend the issues at hand. The assumption on their part is that the only possible reason for Prop 8 (and the myriad of similar bills passed in other states) is hate for homosexuals. There can be no other reason. Any other reason is simply a derivative of hate. (Oddly enough, in all the reports I've read and seen, I've never found anyone from the "pro-Prop 8" side speak or act hatefully. When the California Supreme Court struck down the voters' choice to define marriage as it had always been defined and then, by judicial fiat, commanded a redefinition of marriage, I didn't hear of violence or threats. That only occurred, from what I saw, when it went the other way, and it was the homosexual side that was acting hatefully. But, hey, who can trust the media, right?)

Let me state clearly and carefully here that I do not hate people who are sexually attracted to others of the same gender. That would be stupid. It would be like hating people who commit adultery or people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol or people who look at porn. Everyone has desires for things that they ought not. Hating them for it serves no purpose and makes no sense. In fact, I agree with "no hate". I'm opposed to hate as well. I favor keeping marriage defined as marriage because I favor marriage, not because I oppose others who do not agree with me. Of course, that won't be showing up on the NOH8 campaign anytime soon, will it?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Serving God

The call of all Christians is well known. We are called to serve God. Easy. Short. Not in question. Or ... is it? No, no, not really in question. The command to serve God is everywhere. But I suspect that we can get a little confused about what that means, and the confusion can be quite large.

If you read through the book of Job, you will come across this startling statement:
"Is there any pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous, or profit if you make your ways perfect?" (Job 22:3).
The topic? Pleasing God. And Eliphaz here is pointing out the obvious -- God is already perfect. He does not need our help to be pleased. It is only our confusion that makes the statement startling. You see, we think in terms of "pleasing God" as if God has some sort of lack in satisfaction that we need to fill. Of course, when I say it you see the problem, but we don't typically think about it clearly enough and miss it.

We are commanded to serve God. Clearly Jesus said, "You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only" (Luke 4:8). We know that "No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money" (Luke 16:13). Clearly that tells us we are to serve God and not money. Yes, we are to serve God. But Jesus also said something very interesting: "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matt 20:28). Think about that. Jesus, God Incarnate, came ... to serve. Now that is startling.

It is my suspicion that, if you chase down all the rabbit trails, you'll keep coming to the same place. We are commanded, for instance, to "pray without ceasing". Prayer is a request for help from God, and unceasing prayer is a constant expression of need. It is ... a service request. "Dear God, could you please help me out here?" Or how about this? We are told that we are to be "casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7). God is expected to take care of our worries. We are, in fact, supposed to worry about nothing because we're giving those things to God. Then there's Jesus's command, "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matt 5:16). Now think about that. If I do good works, why would the Father get the glory?

I'm building an alternative perspective here. If we are to pray and to rest in God and to count on God, who is it that is doing the serving? Is it us, or is it God? The answer, of course, is "Yes". "Oh, thanks, Stan, that's clear as mud." No, think about it. We are commanded to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" and then told why: "It is God who is at work in you both to will and to do His good pleasure." Are we to serve God? Yes! How are we to do that? How are we able to do that? The only way we can possibly do that is if God is working in us to give us the willingness and ability to do it.

It seems to me, when the whole story is examined, that, while we are indeed commanded to serve God, we will find that we serve a God who serves. Like Jesus washing the feet of His disciples, God works in us to clean us up, to enable our service, to obey, to worship. He gets the glory (Matt 5:16) because our good works are because of His work in us. While we are serving God, then, it turns out that we have a serving God. (Now ... try to find something like that in some other religion.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Called Christians

There are a variety of terms in the New Testament for what we routinely refer to as "a Christian". That is our common term for it. Interestingly, that term occurs only three times in the New Testament, and all in the book of Acts. What are some of the other terms?

One very common term we use, of course, is believer. That one occurs in the Bible as well, but only twice. To be fair, there is a whole lot more when we include "those who believe" or something like it. So that's a fairly common biblical nomenclature. Another one we're quite familiar with is "brother". That one is a little harder to count because the term is used to reference either blood relations or spiritual relations. Still, there are a lot of them. Very popular biblical term. Another one that tends to confuse is the term "saints". The Roman Catholics have corralled that term to reference a special, extremely limited group of people who achieve a higher status of godliness than anyone else. The Bible doesn't use the term that way. It simply references anyone who has been made holy by God, set apart, declared righteous. You know, anyone who is a genuine Christian. One of the other most common terms in the Bible is "called" or "chosen". This term shows up in a variety of forms. It might be "the elect" which is simply a reference to "the chosen". It might be "called". It might be "chosen". It might even be a combination, as in Rev. 17:14 where we are referred to as "called and chosen and faithful". In fact, this term, "elect", and its variations seems to be one of the most popular biblical terms for "Christian".

Oddly, it isn't one of our favorite biblical terms? Why is that? Well, first there is the problem of favoritism. The root meaning of the Greek word for "the elect" is actually "the favorite". If God is choosing people, it implies that He likes them better than the ones He is not choosing. Clearly it's favoritism, and when it comes to eternal outcomes, that's not nice nor is it fair ... right? The corollary to favoritism is the problem of superiority. I mean, if I am one of the chosen, I'm somehow better than those who are not ... right? And, of course, the whole mechanism of choice comes into question here. How does God choose? Does He choose capriciously, just on a whim, without any reasons at all? Or maybe He wisely chooses the best? No, no, surely He chooses the ones He knows will choose Him, right? But isn't that the same as choosing the best? And what of those not chosen? Was it their fault? Did some of them want to be chosen and just got left out because God decided not to choose them? Of course not! That would just be mean! But the question still hangs there.

Here's the problem. If the Bible refers to us as "the elect", and does so with gusto, what does it say about us when we balk at it? If we are clearly called "the chosen" and we refuse the term, is it the term that is in question or is it our attitudes and perceptions? If God's Word likes to refer to God's people as "the elect", it would seem to me to be arrogance on our part to refuse the term.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

More Abundantly

I recently wrote an entry on Virtue and Reward where I disagreed with the old notion that "Virtue is its own reward" and suggested that it's okay to be happy about doing good. I need to amend that.

I don't think it's okay to be happy about doing good. I think it's mandatory. I think, in fact, that it completes the good. Think about it. If you do good because it's duty without any enjoyment, who is glorified? Certainly not God. God, if you recall, "loves a cheerful giver." Jesus told us to keep His commandments "that your joy may be full" (John 15:10-11). He promised to answer our prayers "that your joy may be full" (John 16:24). Compare that with what Jesus said earlier about prayer: "Whatever you ask in My name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son" (John 14:13). It appears, then, that obedience is good, but joy in obedience is not only better, it's the intent. In fact, do you know why Jesus endured the cross? It wasn't mere duty. "... Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb 12:2). Jesus died for us because it would bring Him joy.

Consider it from another direction. We are told over and over to rejoice, to have joy -- over and over. We, being much wiser than that, understand that virtue is its own reward and understand that doing things because we enjoy them (reward) and not doing things because we would not enjoy them (punishment) are poor excuses for genuine good. Much smarter are we. Except that in our "wisdom" we ignore the multiple commands for joy, the hope of joy, the promise of rewards and so on. In other words, we're telling God, "Your idea is a good one, perhaps, but we know better." Or consider this. Is genuine worship when we have no accompanying emotion, or is it the outpouring of the expected emotion that completes worship?

We are accused of doing things for reward and avoiding things to avoid punishment. I have to ask, "So?" Why is it better to do things out of duty rather than out of the joy that God promises? I believe that our emotional response completes what's right, not detracts from it. Don't buy that lie. (Don't believe me? Try this sometime. Tell your spouse, "I love you, dear ... because it's my duty. I don't enjoy it at all." Yeah, that'll tell him or her how good you are, eh?)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Managing Expectations

The buxom young lady favors V-necks. Nothing too risque, you understand. Just stylish. Between that and the push-up bra, there is sufficient cleavage to be "in". And the crucifix necklace dangles at just the right place, serving more as a pointer than an identification with her Christianity. If it's not a V-neck, she'll often where t-shirts with messages emblazoned across the chest. You know, snappy sayings that catch the eye. She complains to her girlfriend, "Why is it that guys are always looking at my chest instead of my eyes?" What did you expect?

He's an individual. He's one of the cool crowd with his tats and piercings. You know ... girls like boys who are a little bad. So he decorates himself with metal protruding from various body parts and with colorful images stitched into his skin. His hair is multicolored, cut at varying lengths, and spiky. It's ... him. You know, an individual. "Why is it," he muses, "I can't get more than a minimum wage job?" What did you expect?

He's a dedicated Christian. Well, mostly dedicated. I mean, who is perfectly dedicated? But he's confident of his faith and eager to defend it. Nothing irritates him more than those skeptics that attack Christianity, and he uses just about any tool he can dredge up to fight them off. He calls it "righteous indignation". Yes, it is loving, he's quite sure, because when someone has a strong opposition to the truth it takes a strong response, kind of like slapping a hysterical female. It gets their attention. So if he has to fudge the facts or doesn't have time to examine the arguments at hand or finds it necessary to use less-than-wholesome language, it's not a big deal. These are high stakes and he will do what it takes. "Why is it that people don't seem to want to talk to me about Christianity?" he wonders to a friend. What did you expect?

Just examples. If you take the time to think about it, it's a little frightening, actually, how much of the time we spend doing things counter to our own goals. We fail to love and wonder why we can't find love. We are unkind to folks and wonder why people aren't more kind. We live as poor examples of Christ and wonder why people aren't interested in Christ. We do it over and over and over again. What do we expect?

Monday, January 18, 2010


I've been robbed. I am a person who uses words and phrases, and I've been robbed. Further, the theft is still in progress.

Ever hear of "the Gay '90's"? It was a merry time in the U.S., the last decade of the 19th century. It referenced the joy, the cheer, oh, and the bright and showy clothing. Back then "merry and gay" was a repetitive statement because they were synonyms. Back in the 17th century, in fact, a gay man was a womanizer. The term represented the abundance of pleasure. Of course, if I reference "the Gay '90's" now, very few will know to what I'm referring. While "gaiety", then, is the noun form of "gay", referencing "merry", "gay" no longer means merry and is now ... a "sexual orientation". I can't have a "gay ol' time" anymore. I haven't been given a word in its place that quite expresses what "gay" used to express. I've been robbed.

"Dating" was a term that essentially described people who would go on dates together. These dates were simply the times that people would use to get to know each other. There were "double dates" where two couples went places together and "group dates" where lots of people did things together and any of them, if they did it more than once, would be considered "dating". Today, of course, it has radically changed. When my kids were in high school the topic came up and my son, who had had a few dates, told me he wasn't dating anyone. "What are you talking about? Didn't you date Jessica?" "Oh, no, it wasn't that serious. We were just hanging out." You see, "dating" at this point meant something serious, committed, exclusive. When you were "dating" in this sense, you didn't have dates with other people. That would be cheating. And I've been robbed. Where is that word that describes the process of spending time together getting to know people without actually having some commitment?

Any fan of old movies has likely been surprised from time to time when some woman in one of these movies says to some man, "Make love to me!" "Making love", you see, has changed. Love was a term used to speak of warm affection, sure, but most often it was intended to convey much more. It included a personal commitment to the loved one. It included self-sacrifice. So "making love" was the process used to engender those things. When a man "made love" to a woman in those terms, he gave himself to her, tried to please her, expressed his affection and commitment and self-sacrifice. It wasn't a tawdry sex act between two people who may or may not have genuine affection (as opposed to sexual passion) for each other. So what do I have now to express that process? I've been robbed.

"Marriage" used to be a word with some real content. It referenced the joining of a man and a woman. It was the process by which a male and a female ceased to be two and became a new entity, a family. This joining wasn't trivial. It included the certainty of children. Those families without children were considered unfortunate. It was a joining for life. Dismembering this entity called "marriage" was a grave, serious problem and something not to be approached lightly. It was the primary building block of all societies, this thing called "marriage" that was for life and made "family". Today it has moved on. We eroded the meaning when we embraced "free love", an oxymoron that encouraged sex outside of any commitment or joining. We eroded the meaning further when we introduced "no-fault divorce". The meaning has so eroded that today the concept of "marriage" doesn't include "male and female", family, children, unity, or permanence. We've left a hollow shell with the casing marked "marriage" and no genuine meaning. So, where do I go now to express to people this thing called "marriage"? What word do I use? I've been robbed.

Today, "gay" and "dating" and "making love" and "marriage" are simple examples of lost words and phrases. Two people separated by a common language. The ideas and concepts that these things once expressed are no longer easy to express. They are, apparently, no longer ... meaning-full. We've been robbed.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Church and Culture

The church in America has divided largely along two lines. On one side is the liberal, concerned about things like the environment, racial equality, sexism, etc. The other is the conservative side, more involved in matters like abortion, prayer in school, and family values. The problem with these two is that, while each considers themselves the high ground, each is culturally driven, not scripturally driven. They are civil religion. The problem with civil religion is that it tends to be civil, that is, inoffensive. It has no edge because it is politically oriented, not theologically oriented.

Today's church has begun gravitating toward its surrounding culture. Sin and hell are no longer issues. Our culture treats sin as a disease and looks for a cure among the therapists and counselors. Just as our society thrives on consumerism, our churches strive to "give the customer what he wants". We look for worship to be entertaining, for preaching to be interesting, for ministries to be fun. Instead of orienting our lives around a pursuit of God, we fit God in when we can, which is not often. Instead of giving God the serious thought, attention, study, and practice he deserves, we trivialize Him, relegating Him primarily to Sunday mornings. Instead of seeking God's will in our lives, we have become consumers of experiences, looking for that next big thing.

We have turned from a God we must obey to a God we can use. We have turned from a moral emphasis to a relational emphasis. We have no problem believing in a loving God, but avoid the God whose wrath is incurred by sin. We see God as our marketplace, put there for our pleasure.

We have compromised with our society. It's okay to believe as long as it doesn't interfere with life. Being a Christian is acceptable as long as we're not fanatics about it. Religion is a good thing - everyone ought to have it, whatever it might be. So we absorb the lies from television and radio without examining them. We approve divorce and understand "affairs". (From a TV movie, The Anatomy of an Affair: "Single people have affairs. Married people commit adultery.") The biblical standards are mobile, dependent on the circumstances. We have departed from absolute Truth and absolute Right and Wrong and have adhered to relativism. We look to the church for psychological wholeness, not personal holiness. We have committed spiritual adultery, marrying our world while calling ourselves the Bride of Christ. About that, James says, "Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God." (James 4:4) In God's eyes, there is no room for compromise. David Wells puts it this way:
The fact is, of course, that the New Testament never promises anyone a life of psychological wholeness or offers a guarantee of the consumer's satisfaction with Christ. To the contrary, it offers the prospect of indignities, loss, damage, disease, and pain. The faithful in Scripture were scorned, beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, and executed. The gospel offers no promises that contemporary believers will be spared these experiences, that they will be able to settle down to the sanitized comfort of an inner life freed of stresses, pains, and ambiguities; it simply promises that through Christ, God will walk with us in all the dark places of life, that he has the power and the will to invest his promises with reality, and that even the shadows are made to serve his glory and our best interests. A therapeutic culture will be inclined to view such promises as something of a disappointment; those who understand that reality is at heart moral because God is centrally holy will be satisfied that this is all they need to know. (David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland, pp. 114-115. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994))

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Share the Pain

The river trail near our house was a nice path for walking, biking, that sort of thing. It ran along the river (thus the name, "river trail") with pleasant spots of trees and grass and water provisions spaced along down the middle of the urban sprawl. Inevitably there would be sections dutifully marked up with random and rude graffiti from folk who thought it was their duty, like wild dogs, to mark their territory. I wondered to myself, "Would it be okay with them if I wandered into their bedrooms and marked up their walls?" Of course not. So why was it okay for them to do it here?

Basic training in the Air Force was designed to be rigorous. It was aimed at breaking the wills of all who came through to teach them to work as a team rather than as individuals. It wasn't designed to be pleasant ... and it wasn't. Still, it was no small number of guys who I heard say, "I can't wait to get out of basic training so I can come back here and do this to others."

What is up with that? It's a common, every day occurrence. People who would potentially cause you harm for cutting them off in traffic will routinely cut you off in traffic. People who wouldn't tolerate you being rude to them are rude to you. Not only do we routinely fail to do the good to others that we would like them to do to us, but we also routinely do the unpleasant things to others that we would never tolerate being done to us.

What's up with that? Is it not possible for the common folk to consider, "Would I appreciate it if that was done to me?" before they do it to someone else? Are they really of the mind that they are the center of the universe and no one else matters as much as they do? Is it actually true that humans, by nature, are self-centered ... their own gods? And what about you? Is that the way you operate in your every day world, causing others discomfort that you'd never tolerate yourself? Brethren, these things ought not be.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Defending the Constitution

The elderly gentleman wore a jacket with a military patch and a hat with the insignia from his last unit. He was unabashedly a veteran. "Did you serve in the military?" he asked me more or less out of the blue. "Yes, I did." So he handed me a slip of paper with a web address on it. The address was for an organization called Oath Keepers. On their "about" page it says, "Oath Keepers is a non-partisan association of currently serving military, veterans, peace officers, and firefighters who will fulfill the oath we swore to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, so help us God."

I have to admit ... I am baffled. I did take an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. It didn't occur to me that the oath went beyond my tour of duty, so to speak. But when I think about it, I don't remember any addendum like "while I'm serving in the military." So now I have to ask myself "Am I still obligated by that oath to defend the Constitution?" and, if so, how do I do that?

The question seems significant right now because, well, there are serious questions about whether or not the government today is violating our Constitution. The primary function of the Constitution, when it was written, was to establish a Federal government and to give that government certain, limited (and enumerated) powers. In other words, the Constitution is designed to limit what the government can do by delineating what powers the government has ... and no more. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments, in fact, were designed for that purpose. The assumption was that we, the people, have "inalienable rights". They're not conferred by the government; they're ours. Those not mentioned in the Constitution are still ours (Amendment IX). And those not specifically given to the Federal Government do not belong to the Federal Government (Amendment X). So ... when did the government obtain the right to, say, require that all citizens have health insurance? When did the government obtain the right to fire a CEO? How is it in the purview of the federal government to dictate minimum wage? And the questions keep coming.

I would be quite naive if I suggested that this was a "President Obama problem". The federal government has been assuming powers for a long time that the Constitution never assigned ... which is a violation of the Constitution. I'm not pointing political fingers here. My question is about the oath that every member of the military, the police, and the firefighters have taken to defend the Constitution. My question is about me. What am I to do to defend the Constitution against what appears to be domestic enemies? That's what I want to know.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Contend for What Faith?

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).
Anyone involved in Christian Apologetics knows this verse. "Contend for the faith." Yeah, we like that. (And we ought to; it's a biblical command.) Did you notice, however, what faith is to be defended? "The faith that was once for all delivered to the saints."

Progressive Christianity or Liberal Christianity are two terms used today to indicate those who call themselves Christians and are willing to question Scripture, tradition, the Church and so on. The movement as a movement started up in the late 19th century, and "Evangelicalism" was the response -- primarily a call to stand on Scripture. Progressives tend to have a few points in common. First, they will deny that the Bible is not the literal Word of God. It may contain the Word of God or it might point to the Word of God, but, let's face it, it's a man-written book with problems, inconsistencies, and ... well ... mistakes. I mean, surely, from a 21st century perspective, we can be quite sure that the Bible was wrong in its stance on slavery, just as an easy example. Progressives tend to deny that Christianity is the only way to God. And while the primary focus of traditional Christianity seems to be more about personal conversion, Progressives have moved on to more pressing issues like social justice and environmental issues.

When the Reformers stood against the Roman Catholic Church in their day and started what is called "the Reformation", it was not their goal to make the Church better like we normally think of the word "reform". They weren't trying to send the Church to reform school, so to speak. The goal, instead, was more of a return. The goal wasn't progress, but actually regress. They argued that the Church had moved away from original, biblical Christianity, and the goal was to go back. This illustrates Jude 1:3.

Generally speaking it is often a very good thing to progress. To make improvements in science, agriculture, economics, all sorts of things is a good idea. I mean, surely it's clear that the progress that has been made in, say, computers in the last 20 years is a pretty good thing. In most areas progress is fine. But Jude says that "the faith" -- Christianity -- is a "once for all" thing. It doesn't progress. The Bible is not a living document. We don't have progressive revelation. The truth of our faith was delivered to the saints of Jude's day. It was delivered once and that was for all and that was the end of it. The only improvements we can make in Christianity is if we find areas where we've deviated from biblical Christianity and then return to it. Lots of things are improved by progress, but Christianity, according to the Bible, was once for all delivered to the saints and we don't have the right or responsibility to add to it or correct it. To suggest otherwise is an arrogance I cannot fathom.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

No-Say Zone

They're all up in arms now. It's horrible, awful, nonsensical. How can anyone think such a thing, let alone say it???!!! To what am I referring? According to 60 Minutes, when Sarah Palin was told that Senator McCain had selected her to be his running mate, she replied with unusual calm, "It's God's will." Oh, the horror! The audacity! The ... wait ... what's the big deal here? I think I missed something.

If there is a God, and if that God is sovereign (you know, like the Bible portrays Him), then of one thing we can be sure. If it happened it is, in some sense, God's will. He allowed it. He caused it. Whatever. But if He is sovereign and it happens then it is part of His divine will. Or, here, let me put it in biblical terms: "God works all things after the counsel of His will."

Now, if I'm allowed the freedom of religion in this country, and if my Bible clearly says that all things that happen are after the counsel of His will, then I am not arrogant in saying, "It's God's will." This doesn't suggest anything special about me. It doesn't even suggest, "What a pleasant thing!" It simply says, "God is sovereign and everything that occurs, from having a Downs Syndrome baby to being asked to run for Vice President, is God's will."

So, which is the problem? Is it wrong to believe, or is it wrong to express it? I'm not clear.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On Atonement

I wrote recently about the uniqueness of Christianity that is found in the forgiveness of sins. No other religion offers this. You either need to be good enough or you don't make it. Simple as that. And this has the potential to make Christianity attractive over other religions. After all, most humans experience guilt for their failings, and Christianity offers a genuine solution. There is a problem, however. How is God able to forgive sins?

The answer from the Bible is Atonement. Now, this can be a tricky word. You see, we've used it so casually for so long that we don't even know what it means anymore. Beyond that -- and this may come as a surprise to many -- there are actually multiple theories about the Atonement. I have been able to find six distinct theories. So, when we talk about "Atonement", what are we talking about?

Before we talk about the theories, we need to remember the point. Without remembering the point, we can end up far astray of anything of value. First, the problem: All have sinned, and the wages of sin is death. The problem, then, is that a debt is owed. That debt is owed to justice. We routinely hear this terminology in the justice system. If a person is convicted of a crime and serves his or her sentence, we will say, "He paid his debt to society." Now, I might say, like Julia Roberts in Ocean's Eleven, "I never got the check." That's missing the point. The debt was to justice. Justice demanded a payment, and it was made. So we have a payment due -- death -- and if God is just (God defines justice), then that payment must be made. Sinners owe a payment of death. The solution? Well, that would be "Atonement". The word is very simply defined as "satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury". The question, then, is in what sense did Jesus's death and resurrection provide satisfaction for the wrong we committed against God?

There are a variety of theories. One of the earliest was the Ransom Theory. It goes like this. Satan owns all humans because they sinned. God makes a deal with Satan. "I'll give you My Son in exchange." Satan makes the deal, then God raises Jesus from the dead, tricking Satan out of the souls he owned. God paid a ransom of His Son to Satan. Never mind that it was deceitful of God to do it. That was one of the earliest ideas. The next one, chronologically, is called the Recapitulation Theory. In this one, Jesus is the New Adam and starts a New Race of people who are sin-free of which believers can become a part. It's an interesting theory, but it doesn't actually answer "In what sense did Jesus's death and resurrection provide satisfaction for the wrong we committed against God?" Instead, He just changed the game. Anselm came up with the theory that is the Roman Catholic theory to this day. It is the Satisfaction Theory in which God's honor was offended by sin. Thus, the death of the God/Man Jesus was satisfaction to God's honor. It was a debt paid by God to Himself. In response to Anselm's theory, the Moral-Example Theory was formulated. In this one, there is, again, no payment, no penalty, no satisfaction for wrong. No, in this case Jesus died to influence humans toward being moral. Christ didn't die to satisfy the demands of divine justice, but to persuade Man to do what is right. He died as an example, not as a payment. The Reformers also disagreed with the Satisfaction Theory, holding that it didn't go far enough, so they offered the Penal-Substitution Theory which said that it wasn't just God's honor that was offended, but His justice as well. It wasn't, then, merely a price paid by God to Himself, but it was the price required by justice -- death for sin. In this view, Christ took the punishment due to sinners (thus "penal-substitution") on their behalf, freeing them from the penalty of sin. Perhaps the most recent (although it was back in the 17th century) is the Governmental Theory. In this one, Christ served as an example to mankind to tell us that sin displeases God. Again as an example, Christ's death served to show that God hates sin and that was sufficient to God.

Whew! All that for Atonement. First, let's recognize that the Bible doesn't explicitly say any of these things. We find the language of payment, sure, but there isn't any reference to whom the payment is made. Debate over that is pointless. I'd also like to point out that all of these theories have some merit. As an example, the hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, is written entirely from a Moral Example viewpoint. That is not to say that it argues for this theory, but that the hymn tells us that looking at the cross produces a response. Nothing about payment. Having said that, it is important to return to 1) the definition of Atonement and 2) the problem at hand. Atonement, remember, is satisfaction or reparation for a wrong. And the problem is that we, by virtue of our sin, owe death as payment. If Atonement is Atonement, it must provide satisfaction and that payment must be made. If we argue, along with the Recapitulation, Moral-Example, or Governmental theories that no actual payment is made, then we come to one of two conclusions. Either we are still required to pay or God is not just. Atonement requires that payment be made on our behalf or no reparation has been made for wrong incurred.

Now, you can argue all day about to whom the payment was made, what form the payment took, or other such things, but if you are going to set aside that payment as some theories of Atonement do, you are either eliminating Atonement entirely or making our situation worse (by mitigating God or placing us under judgment still). So, you see, it's no small deal. And given the language of Scripture about redemption, ransom, and payment, I don't think that there's any question that Atonement requires more than a good example.

Monday, January 11, 2010

1 John 3 Revisited

The other day I wrote about Sinless Perfection from the standpoint of 1 John 3. It was more of a question, actually. The question was this: Is 1 John 3 demanding that all who are born of God be completely without sin? That's the way it appears to stand, and I'm not one who is willing to have my version of reality define Scripture, so if that's what it says, that's what I'll believe. On the other hand, if there is reason to believe otherwise, then it is only wise to look for it.

The only reason that I can think of to say that Scripture does not mean what it appears to say is if it defies Scripture. Most people will be glad to mitigate a passage if it defies science or personal experience or personal opinion. I'm not willing to do that. Context determines meaning. All of Scripture is within the context of all of Scripture. So without too much rigamarole, I prefer to take it at what it seems to be saying rather than what I'd prefer it to say. Of course there's room for figures of speech. Scripture makes exaggerations to make a point, sure. There is poetic language to take into account. You need to see the difference between a proverbial truth (true most of the time) and an absolute truth. There is phenomenological language, language that expresses something as it appears, such as "sunrise" even though we know the sun doesn't actually rise. A narrative is a narrative, not a myth. Wisdom writings tell us how to live, not necessarily direct doctrine. That sort of thing. So what about 1 John 3?

This epistle isn't written as a poem or a narrative. John appears to be expressing absolute truth. So there aren't any mitigating factors there. What I do see is a problem of contradiction. As an example, within the epistle itself, John writes, "If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:8-9). It would appear from this that John is saying that we do sin and denial of that fact is a lie. Further, he says, "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world" (1 John 2:1-2). "If anyone sins, we have an Advocate." If 1 John 3 was intended to say that it is impossible for those who are born of God to sin, then it is a direct contradiction here. And at the end of the letter, John writes, "If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death" (1 John 5:16). As Ruth pointed out, the reference isn't to just anyone; it's to a "brother" ... a believer. Factor in the fact that no biblical character except Christ ever achieved sinless perfection. Paul says quite clearly in multiple places that he struggled with sin. And remember when Peter fell into the trap of pride, siding with the legalists rather than with the truth that we are saved apart from works? No, there is not one single example of a sinless person with the exception of Christ.

Assuming, then, that Scripture is God's Word and cannot contradict itself, how can we correlate 1 John 3 with the rest of 1 John and the rest of Scripture? Well, the King James doesn't help much at this, but more modern, literal translations all pick up on the fact that the verb in every verse regarding the topic uses a tense that we don't actually have in English, a present, ongoing verb tense. Thus, while the King James says "committeth sin" and things like that, more careful modern translations say things like "practices sin". This makes all the difference. If we accept that other portions of 1 John agree that genuine believers can sin, then this must be saying that the distinction is in the ongoing practice of sin. True believers, John is saying, are incapable of sinning with impunity. They don't like sin. When they commit it, they hate it and repent. They don't defend it, but try to find ways to stop. Sin in the true believer's life is troubling, not casual.

This interpretation takes into account the language and the context. It eliminates contradictions without falling back on personal opinion, preference, or even experience. Are you comfortable with your sin? That, John is saying, is cause for worry. It is impossible for those born of God to be comfortable sinning. Do you find that you're happy explaining why sin is not sin? You need to check yourself. This is a biblical test from John. Are you capable of maintaining ongoing sin without a personal problem? You need to be concerned. This is a biblical test from John. Something to think about.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Virtue and Reward

Somehow, somewhere along the way we got the idea that true virtue, genuine excellence, can only be achieved if the doer gains nothing by doing it. Okay, okay, maybe the one doing the good thing can gain, but that couldn't have been part of the motivation. You see, genuine virtue is only genuine if it is without reward.

Contrast that with Scripture. Paul speaks of the crown of righteousness, James and John both of a crown of life, and Peter a crown of glory. Jesus tells the disciples that those who are persecuted should "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven." Jesus told His disciples that those who were persecuted to "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven." He urges them to give, pray, and fast in secret "and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." Paul tells us, "If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward" (1 Cor 3:14). God Himself tells His people that He will bless those who obey and curse those who do not. I'm sorry to disagree with the concept, but it appears that the Bible teaches that there are rewards for doing good ... and that's a good thing.

As it turns out, this belief -- that genuine virtue is only genuine if it is without reward -- will only result in damnation if you're not careful. The author of Hebrews writes, "Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him" (Heb 11:6). You see, according to this passage, for faith to be valid it requires that we believe two things: That God exists, and that He rewards. Did you get that? Without these two beliefs it is impossible to please God.

Somehow we got turned around. Someone sold us a lie. We've been told "Virtue is its own reward." Immanuel Kant wrote, " A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition." You see, if you have an end in mind such as good results or good feelings or reward, well, then, it's not good. The only time that good is purely good is when it is performed by volition without end. Yeah ... we bought that. And no less than God Himself disagrees.

So, go ahead. Do good. Duty is a poor motivation, but better, I suppose, than nothing. Joy, on the other hand, is good. Doing what God wants you to do is better than not, but delighting in God is genuine good. Faith, if it is to be effective, must conclude that God is and that He rewards. So go ahead and enjoy the rewards of good. God intended it that way.

Saturday, January 09, 2010


If you haven't heard by now, Brit Hume has really upset the liberal media by suggesting that Buddhism (the apparent religion of Tiger Woods) offers no forgiveness of sins and that Tiger should become a Christian. What evil! How wrong! That someone would have a belief and express it ... what is this world coming to? Of course, the truth of the statement isn't in question. Buddhism offers no forgiveness of sins. It's just not in there. And the core of Christianity is forgiveness of sins. So it's hard to support the claim that Mr. Hume "dissed" Buddhism by rightly representing it.

Still, the primary complaint is simply the fact that Mr. Hume was proselytizing on the air. He shouldn't be suggesting Christianity for anyone. They certainly believe that no one in the media should use that platform for that purpose. But to be fair, any proselytizing is considered "extremist" and suggests something similar to the radical fundamentalist Moslems who want to kill you. (See the parallel? Neither do I.) No one is objecting to (nor, it seems, recognizing) Brit's apparent genuine concern for Tiger (unlike so many others who seem to only wish to condemn him). No, no, it's just wrong to suggest that Christianity is true and others ought to try it. Thus the firestorm.

I got to thinking about this. I have to say that in my entire life I've never had a Buddhist come to my door and suggest I switch over. I ran into Hare Krishna folk in the airport before, but they were asking for donations, not conversions. No missionaries from Islam have ever sat down with me to explain to me why I should convert or die. I've never met a missionary from Judaism. Isn't that ... odd?

Here's what I'm thinking. I believe that what I believe is right. If that's a stunning statement, you're likely not paying attention. Everyone believes that what they believe is right or they wouldn't believe it. So most followers of most religions believe that their religion is true and the rest are (by logical necessity) not. So ... why is it that other people of other religions are not spending time encouraging people to join their religion? Why is it that proselytizing is considered bad? If all (or nearly all) religions claim exclusivity, only those within the one true religion will end up in good standing in the final analysis. Why is it that those who believe theirs is the one true religion should not say so and should not encourage others to agree? I'm trying to figure out why it is so "wrong" in today's world to proselytize. It seems the most natural, caring thing to do given the idea that my religion is the true one and you need to be part of it. I understand that the idea of relative truth is rampant, but it is not possible for everyone to be right. Have we lost our minds?

Friday, January 08, 2010

No Other Name

In the famous story of Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail, the jailer cries out, "What must I do to be saved?" It is this fundamental question that draws the line between Christianity and every other religion on the planet. There is a common thread in world religions. Salvation, if it is to be obtained, is accomplished by being good. Various religions have various versions. In some you get multiple lives to arrive at perfection. In others you just have to be more good than bad. Still, all religions are morality plays to which you must conform to get to that better place beyond this life. All religions, that is, except Christianity.

What is interesting to me is the lack of an answer in other religions to the fundamental question we all face in life -- What do I do with this mess? You know. We're all human. We all make mistakes. We all make a mess of things. What do I do with this mess? The best answer is "Ignore it" because, well, you just need to be less of a mess than others. The worst answer is "You'll grow out of it" as if someone has ever seen this in anyone at all. Christianity alone has an answer to the question.

I recently read a conversation online (if I could find it, I'd reference it) about whether or not Christ died for our sins. One well-meaning believer said that God could save on a whim if He wanted to, but He didn't. This completely ignores the problem of justice. The question, "What do I do with this mess?" begs that question of justice. We intrinsically know that there is a debt to pay. Just forgetting the debt on a whim doesn't satisfy the problem.

Most religions have prophets and preachers, morals and martyrs, saviors and saints. Most have a way of salvation that falls within the realm of Man to accomplish if he so desires. But only one can answer the problem of justice. Where do we go to get this debt problem settled? What must I do to be saved? There is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved. There is no other religion available today that provides for a God who is both just and justifier. There is forgiveness in none other. Kind of makes Christianity unique.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Fact, Faith, and Feelings

Back in 1952 Bill Bright wrote a booklet entitled, "The Four Spiritual Laws." Most everyone from my era was familiar with the tract. In fact, the phrase "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" is one we all know and comes straight from Law 1. Nice. Included in the booklet was a famous train illustration. The engine was marked "Fact", the coal car was "Faith", and the caboose was "Feelings". The point was to tell new believers not to rely on feelings ("Do I feel saved?"), but to trust God's promises. And I have remembered that little train all my life.

You see, we are commanded to do things in the Bible that are, by standard usage, feelings. We are commanded to rejoice, to be thankful, to love, all these kinds of things. We recognize these things as feelings. So how do you command feelings? Well, clearly, the Bible isn't telling us "Feel this way." It isn't rational. So clearly there is a choice element to things like gratitude and love. Conversely, if we limit these terms to their emotional content, we are missing out on the biblical sense of these kinds of commands.

There is, however, a reverse problem. It is a problem that plagues me, so I'm well aware of it. In the train illustration, the booklet says, "The train will run with or without a caboose. However, it would be useless to attempt to pull the train by the caboose." The tendency, if we admit that these types of commands that are generally seen as feelings are actually choices, is to seek a divorce. It goes something like this. "Fine. Love is not a warm feeling of affection, but a choice I make to treat someone well. I am commanded to love my wife. Therefore, I will choose to treat my wife well even though I have no feelings towards my wife." The feelings-based believer would cry "Foul!", but the choice-based believer would have to admit that it makes sense. The feelings-based believer, on the other hand, would be at a loss to help the poor fellow who has no feelings toward his wife. So it would seem to have merit.

Here's the problem. Given the train illustration, you cannot eliminate any component of that train and make it viable. No engine and it goes nowhere. No coal car and it has no fuel. No caboose and it's a meaningless train. It's true that "The train will run with or without a caboose", but what's the point of such a train? It needs all three components. Thus we read Jesus saying, "These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me" (Matt 15:8). It is possible to choose to do what is right without feeling anything and it doesn't work. What God demands is a "whole heart". "I give thanks to You, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify Your name forever" (Psa 86:12). We are designed to long for God, not merely obey Him. "As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for You, O God" (Psa 42:1). He is to be our true affection. "One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in His temple" (Psa 27:4).

It is true that our faith is based on fact. It is true that the truth is the "engine" that motivates us. It is true that biblically-commanded emotions have a component of choice. What is not true is that emotion plays no significant part in Christianity. We are commanded to feel certain ways towards God and others. That happens by choice. But choice based on fact via faith necessarily produces emotional response. You see, if you can spend time in the presence of God and not feel anything, you didn't spend time in the presence of God. If you can truly love your spouse and not feel anything, you haven't truly loved your spouse. If you don't have an emotional response to the truth of God, you haven't yet apprehended the truth of God. Feelings don't determine facts, but faith based on the truth must produce feelings or you haven't been there yet.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Sinless Perfectionism

One of the most disturbing passages of Scripture to me is not where God orders the deaths of the Ammonites or where a bear attacks some youth for insulting the prophet. To me, one of the most disturbing passages of Scripture is over in 1 John 3.

John lays out some terms on which his basic argument is built. He uses the concept of "children of God" not in the frivolous "we're all God's children", but in the sense of John 1:12 -- a select group of people given special privilege to be called the children of God. This, he says, is the the amazing kind of love the Father has shown to us. He moves on from there by defining sin: "Sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3:4). Then he defines for us "lawlessness" in a very simple way: "This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as He has commanded us" (1 John 3:23). That's it ... two simple commands. Everything else falls into place with these two basic commands much like Jesus's "Greatest Commandment" and "the second is like unto it" in Matthew 22 or Paul's "the one who loves has fulfilled the law" (Rom 13:8). (How about that? We have consistency!) All well and good. We have "children of God" and we have "sin" which is defined as a failure to either believe or to love.

The sticky part is in John's application of these concepts. Verse 6 says, "No one who sins has either seen Him or known Him." Um ... wait ... really? The King James version of verse 9 only makes this worse: "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin." Why is that? "He cannot sin, because he is born of God." This passage, then, forms the primary foundation of the argument for perfectionism.

What is perfectionism? The concept to which I'm referring here is the doctrine that holds that a state of complete freedom from sin is not only attainable on earth, but required. The standard Christian, of course, rejects this out of hand. The primary reason that we reject it out of hand is, well, we know no one who meets it. If we are careful, we can even point to Scripture where the Apostle Paul cries, "Who will set me free from this body of death?" (Rom 7:24) and claims that he had not arrived at perfection (Phil 3:12-13). See? We cannot find a biblical example of anyone who arrived at sinless perfection.

So, experience and the absence of a biblical example proves ... or does it? You see, if you admit that experience may be misleading and understand that a lack of biblical example doesn't prove a point, and if you're one who is willing to allow Scripture to form your view of reality, you, like me, will find yourself in a quandary. Is it possible that John's epistle is actually intending to say that sinless perfection is the mark of a true believer? Does John actually say that those who commit sin has no relationship with God? And, if so, what conclusions do we draw? If not, on what basis do we say it's not the case?

I'll leave it to you. Does 1 John 3 demand that all true believers be sinless? If so, what do you conclude ... about yourself and all the other Christians you know? If not, why not? (I'd like to think I have answers, but let's see if we can talk about it first.)

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Enemies of God

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life (Rom 5:10).
Reconciled by the death of His Son, saved by the life of His Son. Good stuff. But did you catch the description of our original condition? "Enemies."

Paul says "the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God" (Rom 8:7). The basic condition of sinful humans is not ambivalence or apathy toward God. The Bible describes us as enemies of God. We are hostile to God. There is a war going on here, people, a war between God and the forces of evil. Frankly, if you look around you, it doesn't look so good for the forces of God. Christianity, they say, is on the decline. Much of what passes today for "Christianity" is nothing more than feel-good social gospel with nothing at all of genuine faith or a real relationship with God. Paul says that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12), and, let's face it folks, the struggle looks one-sided far too often.

Imagine, then, a war. No, let's make it something we'd recognize. Hitler's armies are on the move. He is taking over Europe country by country without, it seems, anyone to stop him. He has seized everything from Norway to Italy and pushed the British out of France. There is nothing, it seems, that anyone can do. So the Allies send an emissary to General Rommel with a message. "General Rommel, we have good news for you. The Allies would like you to join our team! All you have to do is surrender all allegiance to the Axis and come on over to our side in London. How's that for good news?!" On the surface, Rommel would be an idiot to agree even with the idea that it is "good news" let alone a wise move. Germany hated the Allies. They were enemies. And Germany seemed unstoppable. So ... tell me again, what exactly was "good news" about that?

That's exactly what we are offering when we share the Gospel with unbelievers. We aren't sharing with people who have no persuasion either way. We're dealing with enemies of God. They aren't on the defensive because they appear to have the position of strength. And our offer, to the rational mind in these conditions, sounds foolish. "We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1:23-24). So we are commanded to preach Christ crucified as foolish as it sounds because those who are called will see the power and wisdom of God in it. It is Good News -- just don't expect people to see it that way.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Pascal's Wager

A lot of Christians like Pascal's Wager, whether or not they know it. It sounds so ... reasonable. Here's the idea (in case you haven't heard it). I may not be able to prove the existence of God and the truth of Christianity, but a wise person should live as though it is true because if it is true you have everything to gain by agreeing and everything to lose by disagreeing and if it is not true ... you've lost nothing by agreeing. Ah, that seems so reasonable. How could anyone disagree? Of course, that doesn't tend to move anyone to agree ... and I happen to disagree myself. I have two basic problems with Pascal's Wager.

Since it is my position that a Christian should derive his or her reality from Scripture, I'll first give the biblical reason that I disagree, and then I'll offer the logical problem. You see, I'm not the first to disagree with Pascal. The first person to clearly disagree with Pascal is Paul. Okay, okay, Paul precedes Pascal, but it is still Paul's words that pull me up short of Pascal. In Paul's first epistle to the church at Corinth, he engages in a little logical exercise. The question: Is there such a thing as the resurrection of the dead? Premise: No. Going from there, Paul demonstrates that if there is no such thing as resurrection, then Christ wasn't raised, and if Christ wasn't raised, then "your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins" (1 Cor 15:17). Here's Paul's conclusion: "If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied" (1 Cor 15:19). That, dear readers, is in direct contradiction to Pascal's thinking, who figures "If you hope in Christ in this life only, you've lost nothing." So the Bible disagrees with Pascal's Wager.

There is another problem, however. The premise of Pascal's Wager is that the listener is sitting there deciding whether or not to agree with God. Given a sufficient argument (like this wager), the listener can decide to agree with God. The motivation behind this recommended agreement is "What have I got to lose?" Does that seem like ... faith? You see, the requirement isn't "agree with God", but to believe and repent. Agreeing with God is simply mental acquiescence, not faith. In fact, it doesn't arise out of repentance (need), but out of pragmatism (desire). "Yeah, yeah, I guess that makes sense. Fine, I'll go along with it." There is no call for "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner!" Thus, even the person who agrees to go along with Pascal doesn't arrive at genuine faith, but simple pragmatism. And nowhere in Scripture do we find that we can be saved by pragmatism.

The whole thing sounds reasonable on the surface. I have to say that I can't go along with it, however, because it violates Scripture and it violates the basic demands of Christianity. It relies on logic -- something of which Christianity is not devoid, but not the basic premise -- rather than an act of God, the fundamental requirement of salvation. If you like Pascal's Wager, feel free to keep it. I won't be using it.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Good News

Do you struggle with sin? Do you go to church on Sunday recognizing that you are a sinful human being, feeling like you're not one millimeter more sanctified today than you were last year? Do you suffer from sins that beset you, that seem to recur over and over? Paul has something to say to you.
Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:16-18).
If you are truly born of God, Paul says that you've been "freed from sin" and "slaves of righteousness". That's not to suggest you never sin. Look at Paul's own self-evaluation in Romans 7:13-25. His own cry was "Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?"

Believers struggle with sin. If you don't struggle with sin, you may not be saved. The good news, however, is that the outcome is certain. We will be in the process of sanctification -- more and more conformed to the holiness of God -- in this life until the ultimate removal of the flesh, death. Then ... we shall be glorified! Good news indeed. The question is who are you going to trust? Your feelings or God? Your choice.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Another Year

Another year over, another year begun. Oh, not just for the world, but for my wife and I. We celebrate our 17th anniversary today -- seventeen good years. I'm one of the rare folk, a living oxymoron, so to speak. I'm "happily married" -- actually happy that I'm married and happy with the one I married. No regrets.

We've had quite a year, this last one. My wife quit her job in July so 1) she could go to Minnesota with her father and her siblings for a one-of-a-kind family reunion -- see family she has never met, visit the origins of her father and mother, that sort of thing, and 2) to help our neighbor with her new baby due at the end of August. We moved to Arizona so my wife could work if she wanted and not work if she didn't, and God has been very good to us in that regard. So it was fine that she quit. Besides, she could enjoy an Arizona summer.

But the "help our neighbor" didn't quite work out. Shortly after our new neighbor arrived, healthy, so did her daughter and grandkids. Suddenly she wasn't helping the neighbor, but managing a troupe of little kids without controls. We housed and fed them and provided them with something new in their lives -- limits. That didn't work out too well, of course. What children want limits? So they moved to their own apartment and my wife finished out the year babysitting while their mother went school. Still, a grandmother caring for even rotten kids is a labor of love, and, while it is trying at times, she wouldn't have it any other way.

My year was interesting. I got a raise when they weren't handing out raises, got a promotion when promotions were banned, refinanced the house to pay off all the debts (credit cards, car, etc.) when financing was hard to come by, changed employers when jobs were scarce and even got a raise, the second in one year, during an economic crisis. None of this was due to my brilliance. All of it was a gift from God.

So, it seems, I am blessed in many ways. As we celebrate this new anniversary on this new year, I thank my God for all of His many blessings in my life. You know, He tends, despite the complaints of many, to be a very good God.