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Friday, April 30, 2010

Objection Answered

Wintery Knight wrote, "My own reservation about Calvinism is that it requires that God create people who go to Hell. They go to Hell only because God chooses not to draw them to him. So there are people pre-destined to Hell for eternity who are not responsible since it’s God’s choice where they are saved or not."

This, I suppose, is one of the most common objections. I know it was mine for awhile and I remember lengthy conversations with my mother over this very same objection. Does God create people who are destined for hell?

First, I need to address the extremely inaccurate representations offered here (and in so many other cases). One is here: "They go to Hell only because God chooses not to draw them to him." First, they go to hell because they choose to reject Him. They go to hell justly condemned for their sins. As a matter of fact, the real question of justice is not "Why would God allow so many go to hell?" but "Why would God allow one not to?" It is neither a failure nor a refusal on God's part. Second, the Gospel is offered to all. Salvation is offered to all. Redemption is available to all.

There is another problem here that is so often missed. Most of the people who object to Calvinism on these grounds do admit that there is a group of people called "the elect", people chosen by God for salvation. The objection isn't that God doesn't choose. The objection is that God doesn't ordain people to hell. Now, I'm not chasing this objection for a rabbit trail. It becomes important. You see, if you admit that God chooses some for salvation by whatever means you care to allow, then you also have to admit that those who are not chosen ... are not chosen. Now, your means of choice may be that God chooses them on the basis of their choice of Him or that He chooses without their input, but it doesn't change the fact that a choice for the salvation of one group of people means that the other group are not chosen.

What is the difference between the chosen and the not chosen? In this case, the difference is that in one case God chose and in the other He didn't. The problem is one of symmetry. The perception of that original objection is that God takes definite steps to save one group and takes definite steps to damn the other. This isn't suggested anywhere in Scripture and Calvinism doesn't claim it. The idea is asymmetrical action. God acts to save some and allows the rest their own way. He intrudes in the lives of some and doesn't bother the others. But however you want to view it, if you admit to the very biblical category of "the elect", then there is the necessary conclusion of the "non-elect".

Still, the objection comes down to this: "It's God choice of whether or not they are saved." (Note that they are responsible for their own sin and so it is not God's responsibility that they go to hell -- it's their choice.) This is where the objection rubber meets the road. Is it God's choice or theirs?

We could examine it from various approaches. What does the Bible say? In discussing why Jacob was chosen over Esau, Paul says that it was "in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls" (Rom 9:11). Is that fair (the objection in Rom 9:14)? Of course it is because God says, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion" (Rom 9:15). The demand seems to be that God is obligated to have mercy and compassion on all. God appears to disagree. Further, Paul says that God's choice of whom to save "depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy" (Rom 9:16). Even more shocking is this allegation: "He has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills" (Rom 9:18). Not my words. Not Calvin's words. Paul's words. What is the next objection? The next objection is exactly the objection above: "Why does he still find fault?" (Rom 9:19). If God sovereignly chooses whom to save and does so without their will or effort and He even chooses to harden some, how can He hold anyone responsible? Paul's answer to that is a bit ominous. "Are you sure you want to ask that?" Okay, my version. He says, "Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?" (Rom 9:21). Paul comes to the same conclusion I did above. (Okay, I came to that conclusion because I read what Paul wrote.) The question isn't "Why would He save some and not others? Why would He make people He knows will go to Hell?" (And that conclusion is unavoidable, remember?) The question is "Why would He save even one?" Why do I say that? Because Paul characterizes the entire race of humans as "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction" and tells us that it is God's will to "show his wrath and to make known his power" (Rom 9:22). On that basis no one should be saved. This simply makes it all the more stunning when He "endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory" (Rom 9:22-23). So from a biblical perspective, is it God's choice or is it theirs? Well, if His choice does not depend on human will, then it is His choice.

Or we could examine the logical perspective. The aim of this objection is to say that we all have the opportunity to choose Christ. To which I say, "Yes! We all do." And that's as far as I go. The suggestion is "We all can", to which the Bible says, "Nay!" There are too many "cannots", too many "no man can's" to conclude this. There are too many conditions of natural man that prevent this. Look, what is the essence of free will? Free will is, essentially, doing what you please. If it's not what you want to do, it's not a free choice, right? If we are dead in sin, hostile to God, by nature children of wrath, inclined only to evil, not righteous, not good, not seeking God, not capable of understanding the things of God (shall I go on?), by what stretch of the imagination would the principle of "free will" include "I freely choose God"? No amount of wooing, no wise argument, no drawing will make a person described this way to, of their own free will, choose God. No! This vast bulk of hindrances that make up the sin nature have to be removed before any such free will choice can occur. And that is the act of God toward the elect. Logically, to call sinful humans to choose Christ is to call them against their wills, and to expect a positive outcome of such a venture would be to demand a violation of their wills.

What prevents them from coming to Christ? Nothing. Their own natures. Their own ... free choice. Their own culpable choice. What would it take to overcome such a problem? It would take new life, a new character. That new character would be able to make a new choice not previously available, would be able to exercise faith not previously operable, would be willing to come to Christ. Without it this new life, this new character, do you really expect a natural man to make the right choice? Only if you violate his will. Oh, and that's what we're trying to avoid, isn't it? See the problem?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Here's Your Bill

Years ago I bought a van to transport our family of 6. It cost more than I had on hand, so I financed it. But making payments could get tedious, so I made a couple of special arrangements. I arranged it at work so that the automatic deposit of my paycheck would include $100 in a special account at the credit union that financed me, and then I arranged it so that the credit union automatically took the payment out of that account. Bingo! The entire transaction essentially became invisible to me. We got used to living off of $100 less than before and we never missed a payment because we never had to think about it. Nice.

It sounds simple, but when you think about it there is a certain insidious side effect. I never really felt the sting of paying for that vehicle. I never had to intentionally save up half the payment from one paycheck and the other half from the other paycheck. I never received a bill. I never had to write a check to cover that bill. So while it made it easy for me, I also never felt the weight. That missed "sensation" made it easier to obligate myself again because, "Hey, that was relatively painless! What's the big deal?!" Older and wiser now, I'm not entirely sure that making indebtedness and the sting of payment "comfortable" is a good thing. In fact, the more painful it is, the less likely I am to do it. And, in all honesty, being out of debt is a far better thing than being in deep, "painless" debt.

The government has figured out this principle as well. From all I've read, if you added up all the taxes, withholdings, fees, penalties, and the like that the government takes from the average American, for every $100 you earn, you only get to keep $50. (Actually, the calculations I saw said something like $51.) That is, between Federal income taxes and state income taxes and sales taxes and social security taxes and Medicare taxes and property taxes and fuel taxes and marriage license taxes and real estate taxes and school taxes and unemployment taxes and telephone access taxes and Workers Compensation taxes and vehicle registration taxes and ... well, you get the idea ... we don't get to take home anything remotely close to what we earned. Now, I've talked to those who say, "I don't mind taxes. It's the price of civilization." (I suspect they're loosely quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who said, "Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.") Maybe, but at what point does civilization become too expensive to afford? Well, we don't get to ask that question because the government doesn't let us see the bill. Like my "painless" exercise with the van, they make the payments invisible. Take out some here. Take out some there. "Hey, you got a paycheck! What's the problem? The price of gas too high? Well, it's the oil companies' fault! Nothing at all to do with the something like 42 cents per gallon you're paying us! Blame it on big oil!" And they calmly and coolly take half your paycheck behind hidden taxes and fees so you never really see it go.

I wonder what would happen if they stopped that process? I wonder what would happen if, instead of deductions and hidden taxes and fees, they simply sent us a bill every month? I wonder how long we would tolerate it if we actually received an itemized list of taxes and fees due this month (and next month ad infinitum)? How soon would the tax revolt begin then? I remember years ago a joke was going around about how the IRS planned to simplify the tax forms. "Line 1: Enter the amount you made. Line 2: Send it in." Yeah, funny. Except that the reality is too close to the punchline for me to laugh.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Prisoner of Knowledge

In my mind it seems patently obvious that God's foreknowledge and God's predestination are basically the same thing. That is, if God knows what will happen in the future and God is not wrong, then it will happen. Since He knows it perfectly, it is predestined to occur. Seems obvious to me. Not so obvious to others, I guess.

There are those who argue that God's foreknowing is not the same as foreordaining. Now, if my explanation above is not accurate, I can only come to one of two possible conclusions and both end up in the same place. One possibility is that things are going to happen outside of God's will. He knows it (foreknowledge), but cannot do anything about it. He is, in essence, a prisoner of His own knowledge. He doesn't want it to happen. He doesn't will it to happen. He just can't do anything about it. The other possibility is that He sees what will happen and could do something about it, but chooses not to. In this case, He's a victim of His own knowledge once again. He didn't want it to happen, but wasn't willing to do anything about it. He could, but simply chose not to.

In either case, God is a prisoner of His foreknowledge. He knows perfectly what will occur but either cannot or will not do something about it. In one case He is not quite omniscient. In the other case He is not quite good. In neither case is He the God that we all know and love.

Or ... God knows all contingencies, but knows nothing contingently. He knows what will happen because He either causes it directly or ordains it to be. All that happens (yes, including sin) is part of His divine plan that will bring about, in the end, what He intends. He may cause it or He may allow it, but it is His will. We may not see it and we surely don't understand it, but it is working out exactly as He knew it would because He foreknew it and foreordained it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tentative Theology

Okay, I'm going to tell you from the very start that this is tentative. I'm not making a doctrinal statement for the Church to follow. This isn't a hill on which I'd be willing to die. Agreeing or disagreeing with me will not make you a heretic or not in my eyes. It's just a thought, an idea, a possibility. Still, I've never really voiced it, so I thought I'd give it a shot here.

First, the origin of the question, so to speak. I believe that human beings are sinners from birth. I see it in Scripture. I see it in life. I read in the Psalms as David writes, "I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Psa 51:5), suggesting that he was "in sin" at conception. I read elsewhere "The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies" (Psa 58:3). God Himself says, "The intention of Man's heart is evil from his youth" (Gen 8:21) (where "youth" is actually "anything prior to adulthood"). Paul quotes the Psalms and assures us "None is righteous, no, not one; ... no one does good, not even one" (Rom 3:10, 12). So if we have genuinely innocent children, it would seem to me that these are false statements which, of course, is a problem. Therefore, I can only conclude that human beings are born spiritually dead, separated from God, and justly condemned from birth.

This, of course, raises the nasty specter, "What about all those children who die before being able to receive Christ?" The core of that question, of course, is based on Jesus's assertion, "No man comes to the Father but by Me." So if my premise is correct and all humans are born sinners, justly condemned for being separated from God before they even make a choice, then am I not also claiming that all children who die without receiving Christ automatically go to Hell? It is this very thought that spawned two lines of thinking. One was infant baptism. To this day the Roman Catholic Church as well as the conservative side of the Lutheran Church practice infant baptism as a means of spiritual regeneration for infants so that they are at least temporarily safe from that condemnation. They're still stuck, I suppose, with the awful idea that every aborted baby goes to Hell, but what can they do about that? The other line of thinking is "the age of accountability". In this line of thought (which has shifted and migrated over time), children may (or may not) be born guilty, but they are not culpable for that guilt until they are mature enough to be accountable. This is a pleasant thought and very popular. I can't find it in my Bible, but it is a nice thought. It keeps children off God's radar of condemnation. It even keeps safe those who are impaired. It does beg the question, "If people are not held accountable until they are aware of their accountability, wouldn't it be best to put off as long as possible any information about their accountability?" I mean, if you never tell them the rules for which they would be accountable, they'll be free and clear, right? On the other hand, if you buy this argument, then wouldn't Christians be fairly pleased about 2 million babies aborted every year? Oh, sure, it's sad, but, hey, when was the last time we had 2 million people automatically sent to heaven in a year? That's 2 million people who never had to choose Christ, never even faced the possibility of rejecting Him. No revival ever spawned 2 million decisions for Christ, did it? That's safe, isn't it?

Well, as you can tell, I'm having difficulty with both the concept of baptismal regeneration from infant baptism and the age-of-accountability theory. I'm not finding either in my Bible, and it seems like they cause other theological and practical problems. So what am I to do? Some in my position would surrender. "Yep! I admit it! I believe that all children who die before receiving Christ go to Hell. It's justice. That's all there is to it." Frankly, I don't like that response either. In fact, biblically I know it isn't true. Remember when David's son, born of adultery with Bathsheba, died? He told his people, "Now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me" (2 Sam 12:23). David believed that his son went to Heaven without ever having a chance to "receive Christ" or any such thing. It would appear that it is not true that all children who die before having the opportunity to receive Christ go to Hell. So how do I respond to the question, "What about all those children who die before being able to receive Christ?"

Well, here's where I get to my tentative position. I note that when Jesus said, "No man comes to the Father but by Me", He did not specify how that was to occur. Further, if we consider the history prior to Jesus's arrival on Earth, we have a lot of people whom we believe or are quite sure have gone to heaven without, apparently, receiving Christ as their personal Savior. I don't find any account where David prayed the Sinner's Prayer. I don't see anything that tells me that Elisha responded to the altar call at church. Yet I'm quite sure that the term "the saints" includes a bunch of Old Testament folk. So if Christ is the only way to the Father and these people seem to have gotten there without a confession of faith, how is that possible? I am of the opinion that when Jesus said, "No man comes to the Father but by Me", He was simply saying, "I decide who will and won't be forgiven." Take, for instance, the thief on the cross. You don't find the Sinner's Prayer there, either. His "confession of faith" was quite odd in our eyes: "Remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42). That's it? That's a "Sinner's Prayer"? That's repentance and confession and faith and all that? Well, maybe, but it looks quite odd to me. So what if Jesus's claim to exclusivity was simply His claim to being the authority who determines who does and who does not go to Heaven?

Jesus defined eternal life in a manner different than most of us do. While we tend to think of it as "living forever", He defined it as knowing God (John 17:3). Further, we can be quite certain that Jesus's propitiation for our sins was certainly sufficient to cover the sins of the entire world (1 John 2:2). He would, then, be within His rights (in terms of authority) to forgive whom He pleases and He would be capable of conferring eternal life on whom He pleases and the means by which He accomplishes this are His to determine. It is my belief, then, that Jesus chooses to save children however He pleases. I think this also carries over to Old Testament saints as well as that sticky "native in the jungle who never gets to hear" question. I believe that, by virtue of His sacrifice and His ultimate authority, He is free to save whomever He pleases by whatever means He chooses, and that would include whatever children He chooses to forgive and save.

But, like I said, it's not a hill on which I choose to die. If you are of a different opinion, that's fine. You're wrong, of course, but that's fine. (No, just kidding.) It's my belief and (until talked out of it) I'm going to stand by it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Against Middle Knowledge

Back in the 16th century (it is believed) a Jesuit theologian named Luis de Molina suggested an idea on how to correlate God's Sovereignty with Man's Free Will. His idea is called Molinism or "Middle Knowledge". Here's how it works. Molina argued that there are three kinds of knowledge. The first is necessary truths, things that are simply true. Things like the definition of a square or the fact that 2 + 2 will always equal 4 would fall under this category because they are true outside of some sort of will of God. God knows all necessary truths. The other category of knowledge is what he termed free truths. These are the things that didn't have to be except that God willed them to be. The sun rises and plants grow and Jesus died; these are free truths. God knows all free truths. Molina argued for a third category, something in between necessary and free truths. Thus the term "middle knowledge". These would be contingent truths. They may not actually occur. They are contingent on human choices. Middle Knowledge would hold that God knows all the "what ifs" and determined what would be based on these "what ifs". The idea, then, in terms of your salvation or, more specifically, your election, would be that God looked down the corridors of time and examined all the possibilities in your life. What would you do in circumstance A and B and C and so on? Oh, look! In circumstance W you choose to receive Christ. Therefore, God chose you from the beginning and saw to it that circumstance W occurred. Then He looked down the corridors of time at, say, Hitler's life. He looked at all the possible circumstances in his life and determined that under no possible circumstances would Hitler choose Christ. So Hitler wasn't chosen.

The view is a popular one, especially among Arminians but even among the Reformed side. The best known proponent today is William Lane Craig, a professor at Biola University. He is a well-known apologist, debating folks like atheist Christopher Hitchens on the existence of God or John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar on the reality of the Resurrection. He is also credited with reviving the Kalam Cosmological Argument for the existence of God. He's a smart guy, a true believer. That's a "big gun". Another is Alvin Platinga of the University of Notre Dame. He is also well known for his defense of orthodoxy. He is another "big gun". Now, I hate to go up against such well known, well respected guys, but I have to say that I can't buy into this notion of Middle Knowledge.

There are multiple problems in my mind. There is what is known as the grounding objection. This argument sees a problem with what are called "counterfactuals", that whole list of contingencies that God sees. If they never happen, on what basis can they be considered true? If they never occur, how are they real? In fact, if they're based on the freedom of the creature, how can they be true without limiting the freedom of the creature? Yeah, yeah, whatever. The thing that disturbs me the most is that it undermines God's Sovereignty. The Bible claims that God is the only Sovereign. In Middle Knowledge we have a contingent God. All of Middle Knowledge is based on what the creature will or won't choose and what God can do with it. God, then, is limited to what His creatures will or won't do. Let's say, for instance, that God would like to save Ted. Going further, let's say that there could be one circumstance that would cause Ted to choose Christ (all big assumptions, but just follow along). However, that one circumstance required that Bob would make a free will choice ... that Bob won't make. Poor Ted. God had it all figured out how to save him, but Bob wouldn't make the right choice, so Ted is doomed.

Of course, I have other big problems with Middle Knowledge. There is the fundamental assumption that God cannot under any circumstances interfere in Man's Free Will. Where this notion comes from is completely beyond me. There is the further fundamental belief that if God does certain things, some humans will choose Him. The Bible depicts humans as dead in sin (just for starters). Under what possible set of circumstances would God be able to get this dead person to properly respond to Him? If "The Natural Man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned", what possible scenario could God scare up to make him accept the things of the Spirit of God?

I appreciate the work of such giants as Craig and Platinga. I'm afraid, on this point, I'm going to have to disagree. In the attempt to achieve Man's Free Will -- something that God cannot/will not violate -- this view ends up violating too much of Scripture for me. It makes God's will contingent on His creation. It makes Man only mostly dead. Or, to put it another way, it belittles God and magnifies Man. Now ... whose idea would that be?

Sunday, April 25, 2010


I'm pretty sure that we (Christians) have a pretty light view of miracles. Oh, we affirm them, alright. It's just that we affirm them too easily. Having a baby is a miracle. Living through an accident is a miracle. Or so we say.

I don't know about all that. The Bible seems to reserve "miracle" for a special purpose. It seems that the Bible uses the concept for one use and one only. The biblical concept of a miracle is a sign performed by someone acting as God's messenger that validates their claim as God's messenger. The prophets did them to show they were God's spokespersons. John's Gospel repeatedly uses the concept of "signs" as proof that Jesus was who He said He was. Peter spoke to the crowd about "Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know" (Acts 2:22). There are warnings that false signs will accompany false prophets. Miracles, you see, are intended to constitute evidence for God's messengers.

I admit, though, that it's difficult to avoid calling some things "miracles". Earlier this year my sister-in-law's fiancé was in a horrible wreck. The doctors told the family that he would likely never wake up and, if he did, he would be a vegetable. So imagine their surprise when, just a day or two later, he woke up. He is now in rehabilitation and coming along nicely -- not vegetatively -- despite their medical certainty. And the family gives all the credit to prayer. Just this last week a family friend went into surgery. This lovely young lady got -- get this -- a complete lung transplant. She had been waiting for years. She had stayed alive when doctors said she couldn't. She had been functioning on oxygen levels they said were not survivable. But today she has a pair of replacement lungs and is on the road to recovery thanks largely to the prayers of friends and family.

Miracles? No, not really. I'm not suggesting that he or she is a messenger of God. But they are certainly amazing testaments to the grace of God. Science might explain it away. It was the skill of the doctors and the magnificence of modern medicine. And I wouldn't want to take away from that. What I do know, however, is that "Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights" (James 1:17). And in a world where so much suffering takes place, it is very heartwarming to see God's gracious good gifts, whether they are by purely supernatural means or by secondary human skills. It all comes down "to the praise of the glory of His grace".

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Doin' What Comes Natur'ly

Someone once told me, "If you want to know the right thing to do in any given situation, just think about what you would naturally do ... and do the opposite." The idea, humorously put, is relatively simple. Humans are sinful. The "natural" thing for humans to do, then, is to sin. Want to avoid sin? Do something different.

I can see the wisdom in the basic concept. It is, in fact, that wisdom that gives me pause. You see, it seems to me that there is some of our own theology that is much more comfortable as "natural" than, well, supernatural. While it isn't necessarily a genuine test of doctrine that it violates my natural inclinations, it does make me a little nervous when the Natural Man is quite comfortable with it.

Take, for instance, the very popular notion of the supremacy of Man's Free Will. The most prevalent view these days is that God would never interfere with Man's Free Will. And most of us don't bat an eye at the suggestion. Why? Well ... it feels right. Oh, you know how it goes. "God doesn't want robots." Or maybe you prefer "Love isn't real if it isn't freely exercised. God wants us to really love Him." So for the most part the notion of Man's Free Will as inviolable is just taken for granted ... because it is so natural. Of course, some recognize that it may be challenged, so they develop a structure to support it. "Oh, yes, it's true, because if God violated our Free Will He couldn't hold us morally culpable." Ah, there, see? All settled. And if I raise the question of God's Sovereignty, you'll likely hear, "Well, God in His sovereignty has chosen to surrender some of His sovereignty to Man's Free Will." That ought to clear things up ... right?

Here's the problem. You don't find this in Scripture. Nowhere in the Bible do you find "free will". You find the implication that humans are (obviously) capable of making choices and you find the certainty that God doesn't tempt anyone with evil, but that's about it. This entire notion of the supreme, inviolable Free Will of Man cannot be found anywhere. On the other hand, there are a lot of references (some, in fact, can be disturbing) to God making choices for people. There are multiple passages that reference both God's predestination of events and Man's culpability for his choices in those events. In other words, the biblical vision of God's Sovereignty seems to be at odds with the popular version of the sovereignty of Man's Free Will.

But this is just one example. If you look around long enough, you'll start to find that 1) there are lots of notions that are popular in the church today that have little or no biblical backing, and 2) they are very comfortable because they appear so natural. Unfortunately, when you compare these with Scripture (and evident reason), you start running into real problems. I've found "Christian" groups that defend homosexual behavior, adultery, fornication, and just about any sort of sexual sin. On what basis? Well, you start with "it feels natural" and then you go to work rearranging Scripture to match and -- voilĂ ! -- you have a natural doctrine. Why is it that the Church in America is looking more and more like the world? Because it comes naturally. So we modify our standards to what feels more natural rather than what the Word says. Why is it that the doctrine of Original Sin and the suggestion that there is no such thing as a "good person" is so abhorrent to so many Christians? Because it doesn't come naturally and we are more and more inclined to go with our natural intentions rather than the biblical version.

As I said, "natural" is not a genuine test of good doctrine. Still, if Natural Man is unable to understand the things of God (1 Cor 2:14) and humans are inclined naturally to evil from birth (Gen 8:21), perhaps it would be wise to keep an eye on it. Doing what comes naturally may sound right ... but it doesn't work out that way if the Bible is correct. Something to think about in my view.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Losers' Club

The Bible is full of losers. It is, in fact, one of the reasons given to confirm its authenticity. If you wanted to write a story about your heroes, it is likely that you would leave out their foibles and failures. No, no, just exhibit them as heroes! But we have Adam who fell at the first opportunity and Noah who got drunk and Abraham who lied about his wife and ... on and on it goes.

At some point the number of losers in the Bible starts to become an encouragement. I mean, if someone as shaky as Abraham can be God's chosen man, then things don't look as questionable for me. If King David, an admitted adulterer and murderer, can be called "a man after God's own heart", then there is hope for me. If Peter who promised to give his life for Christ and ended up denying even knowing Him can be one of the lead Apostles, maybe things could work out for me as well. If the author of most of the New Testament calls himself "chief among sinners", maybe God could have a use for me as well.

That's on a good day. There are other days that I begin to feel like a prime example. I begin to feel like people could look at me and say, "Well, if God could pull him out of the fire, I suppose there's hope for me." I suspect that's a more accurate self-evaluation. No, no, not better than Peter or David. No, a fortunate fellow given unmerited favor despite every possible reason not to be. If there's hope for me, there's hope for you.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

When did grown-ups get so stupid?

When I was young I was taught that I had to respect my elders. They were the ones with the authority. More importantly, they held the wisdom of the ages. It only made sense that we should respect our elders. They were worthy of our respect.

Not so any more, apparently. Someplace between my childhood and today adults became foolish oafs. Doubt me? Look at any movie or television show today that involves children as main characters. You'll find in every case that these young little tots possess the wisdom of the ages. While foolish adults get caught up in foolish behavior, forgetting what is right or important, they are always set right by the sage advice of these astute ankle biters. It doesn't really seem to matter how old the adults are or how young the children are. Teenagers always know more than their parents. Young children are always more savvy than their babysitters. It never seems to fail.

You see, adults seem to have forgotten "the magic". Some stories hold that explicitly, of course, but it seems to be the theme. Adults think in terms of practicalities and logic and reason. Children, much more sagacious due, I suppose, to their vast life experience and higher learning capacities, are more in touch with their feelings. They will enlighten the adults that life ought not be lived rationally, but emotionally. You don't choose the right mate by thinking it through, for instance. No, no! You follow your heart. Duty and honor are far overrated. Living free is what is important. And rules are made to be broken, not followed. Where do foolish adults get silly notions like that? Follow rules ... sheesh! What nonsense! And children should be given what they want. It's only right. How could you think otherwise?

Other cultures still revere the older generation. Oriental societies think that older people have wisdom and younger people would do well to learn from them. Jewish homes used to teach their children "Honor your father and mother." Those silly Jewish people. They actually thought that "The glory of young men is their strength, And the honor of old men is their gray hair" (Prov 20:29). My, how fortunate we are to have evolved beyond that nonsense! Now we know that a lack of life experience and training serves much better. How lucky we are to have figured out the wisdom of children and the foolishness of adults. Such a shame that God was so confused about it, eh?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

God would never ordain suffering

My wise mother once told me, "Never use 'never'." She was, of course, joking, but making a point at the same time. Use of superlatives like "always" and "never" are overrated and often wrong. In fact, in terms of arguments, generally the easiest arguments to disprove include "always" and "never". You see, all I have to do to disprove them is to demonstrate a contrary example and the argument is done. Often the whole idea collapses around itself.

So when I hear "God would never ordain suffering," I'm almost forced to disprove it. Never? Jude 1:4 says, "Certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were ordained for this condemnation ..." Now, without arguing about what "long ago" or "certain people" means, there is no doubt about what this verse says. Condemnation of some was ordained in advance. When and why may be questions to ask, but it is unavoidable that God has ordained suffering in this case.

"No, no," the protest rises. "It's not that God never ordains suffering. Of course sinners are ordained to suffer. It's the innocent. It is those who are His. He never ordains their suffering."

Well, there are a variety of ways to go here. How do you define "innocent"? We know that "all have sinned". But you probably (I say "probably" because I've seen too many Christians who mean that nearly everyone is innocent.) mean those who are saved. We could go through Paul's letters and see that God has granted us suffering or Peter's epistles to see that it is God's will that we suffer. But I don't need to go anywhere like that. Too much room for dispute. What is "innocent"? Who are "His"? Let's avoid all that.

How about the Son of God? I think we could all agree that He was thoroughly innocent. I think we could also agree that He belonged to God. We know that God said, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." We have both, then -- He was innocent and was His. Peter claimed this: "Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know -- this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:22-23). It wasn't merely Peter's idea. The disciples prayed, "'The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against His Anointed' -- for truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and your plan had predestined to take place (Acts 4:26-28)." Well, you remember Jesus, the Lamb. John called Him the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world. Even in the midst of the events, Jesus told His disciples, "The Son of Man goes as it has been determined" (Luke 22:22). From these passages to the copious prophecies before His arrival, there can be no biblical doubt that Jesus's suffering on our behalf was God's primary plan ... from the beginning.

If God ordained the suffering of His sinless Son, then on what possible grounds can the argument be made, "God would never ordain suffering", even of the innocent? If Jesus embraced suffering under God's will (Phil 2:6-8), ought not we do the same? If we wish to identify ourselves as followers of Christ ("Christians"), ought not we do the same? Given the number of texts that assure us that suffering is for our benefit, can we do anything but embrace suffering? Does complaining about it make sense? I don't think so.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Secular Government

In a recent ruling, a federal judge in Madison WI declared the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. Judge Barbara Crabb responded to a suit filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation by saying it violates the 1st Amendment's ban on establishing religion. The ACLJ plans to appeal.

I'm baffled by the argument. No, not this one. The bigger one. The Freedom from Religion Foundation wants at the bottom line to exclude religion from government. The idea, it seems, is that religion should be in its venue and government should be purely secular. But how does this work?

Being secular is simply being separate from religion. Government, they assure us, must be completely separate from religion. Now, given that some 14% of Americans are either agnostic or atheist, that would suggest that something around 85% of us have religious beliefs. Religious beliefs have ramifications for life. Voting in anyone with religious beliefs would also suggest that they will carry those beliefs into their political arena. Of course, voting in only those of non-religious beliefs is an equally religious problem. It is the establishment of non-religion and will carry its own implications to religion. In other words, no matter who you vote in, it will have implications for government and religion.

Further, the vast majority of government has religious connections. No, I'm not talking about "In God We Trust" on our coins or "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. I'm talking about things like the crime of murder which has been labeled a crime because of the Judeo-Christian ethic that Man was made in God's image. Other cultures don't share the same criminal code. But because of religious perceptions, many of our laws are crafted to reflect those perceptions. Our rights, in fact, were defended by the Bill of Rights because of the belief in a Creator who endowed them.

Eliminate religion from government and things will need to change if we are going to be consistent. Obviously "Under God" and "In God We Trust" have to go. All trappings of religion would need to follow. No congressional prayer. Holidays are gone, at least as far as the ones that have religious links. Many government entities close for Christmas, Thanksgiving, Good Friday, and more. Martin Luther King Day celebrates a man whose vision of racial equality was formed by his understanding of Christianity. That had better go. No member of the government would be allowed to vote his conscience if it was informed by religion. That, I suppose, would require thought police of some sort. Of course, some things would get easier. Defending human life would become a far lower priority. That's a religious value completely without basis in an irreligious government. Aiding others in crisis would stop. I mean, clearly it hasn't gotten us any allies for our generosity around the world, so what secular reason would there be to keep it up? Health care could go. Medicare and social security could be terminated. Taking care of people is primarily a religious notion. Oh, sure, some misguided anti-religious people care for others as well, but on what basis? Probably some leftover religious influence. Churches would lose their tax-free status. The concept of personal freedom would become harder to defend. (After all, we just eliminated our lawmakers' rights to vote their conscience, right?) The military could eliminate chaplains. Well, all chaplains related to anything government could go. Judges would stop sentencing alcoholics to AA. And on it goes. You see, religion has its fingers in everything. They would take quite a bit of prying to get out.

The First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." (For those sad Americans who don't understand that "respecting" in that sentence is not about "no law showing respect to", it actually means "no law in relation to".) The goal, as it turns out, of a genuinely secular government, is to outlaw religion. If, for instance, I was in government work and my beliefs mandate that I live my life by certain principles (as they do), this secularization would not allow me to freely exercise my religion. It would mandate that no one in government could freely exercise their religion. The positive values that religion offers would be erased from government, and government would become a frightening thing -- more than it is today. And what it is today is a product of some 50 years of the secularization of government. Are we sure we want to go that way?

Monday, April 19, 2010


CBS Sunday Morning did a piece on endangered species. They told about the sad story of the Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit who recently went extinct. They listed various fish, flies, and other flora and fauna in danger of disappearing entirely. Why is this an issue? Well, because all animals have the right to exist. (They didn't say where that right came from.)

According to the official listings, there are something like 2,250 plants and animals on the list of endangered species maintained by the United States. This list includes everything from the 'Ahakea, a plant in Hawaii, to the Zerene Fritillary, a California insect. What is going on here? What is causing this horrible condition?

Well, according to, the primary problem is habitat destruction. Normal destruction of habitat is typically slow and species have time to compensate, but humans, especially in the last century, have managed to impact every habitat. We are the problem. "Man was in the forest!"

We are ingenious in our destruction, it seems. Some of it is by greenhouse gases or by pollution or by overuse. But we're also to blame for introducing new species to areas in which they didn't originally live. Sometimes it was recreational and sometimes it was planned, but it seems to have always been wrong. We are, then, to blame for all these woes.

What are we to do? Well, there are certainly small things that could be accomplished. You could plant trees and bushes in your yard to create habitat for animals. Of course, they had better be native or you're in danger of introducing foreign plants that could cause their own set of problems. Recycling is a good idea, although the impact on the Earth's wildlife would be small. They recommend you eat organic food to avoid afflicting the planet with pesticides and the like. But it's hard to imagine how my family's consumption could cause any effect, so it must be that it needs to be far bigger than me.

Sadly, it seems as if there is no real hope. The only chance the world has is if we humans were to go extinct. As it turns out, this is exactly the call of some on the far liberal side. One commentary out of Berkeley says,"The only real, long term hope for the eco-sphere is a massive human population collapse, hopefully leading to the voluntary extinction of the human race." No, seriously. That is the call. Edna Spector begs the citizens of Berkeley to implement a No Child policy for all residents. She hopes they will set up euthanasia clinics with people "lined up for many blocks" to die.

"Nonsense!" you say? "Extremist!" you cry? Well, of course, for anyone who believes the Bible it is, but if you are convinced of Evolution as a purely natural, unguided process that made us, it is likely the only rational conclusion. Why should we be any better than the other animals? No, no, if we are going to secularize our world, the next logical step is to exit it with dignity since we, it seems, are the problem.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Before Time

In the question about God's Omniscience, the question arises, "What does God know about the future?" The classical, orthodox view would answer, "Everything." The standard view of Omniscience (capital "O") holds that God knows all things perfectly. He knows all contingencies, but knows nothing contingently. Of course, those who would argue for omniscience (lowercase "o") would argue that God cannot know the future because the future doesn't exist and, therefore, cannot be known.

When I run across passages like these, it makes me sit up and take notice:
He (God) chose us in Him (Christ) before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4).

And all who dwell on earth will worship (the Beast), everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain (Rev 13:8).

For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation ... (Jude 1:4)

... who (God) saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of His own purpose and grace, which He gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began (2 Tim 1:9).

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God's elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior (Titus 1:1-3)
Perhaps you didn't catch the recurring theme. The repeated concept is about what God did before the foundation of the world. (Okay, it's not as easy to see in the Jude passage, but the text gets garbled because the literal translation is "before of time past". Same concept.)

Before there was anything but God, what did He do? He chose us in Christ. No, we didn't exist yet, but He chose us. He had a book -- a book titled "The Book of Life of the Lamb who was Slain". Note the implications. First, He already had the names of those whom He chose. Second, the Lamb was slain before He made Creation. It wasn't Plan B. It was the original plan from eternity. What else? He ordained some to condemnation. To us He gave grace. Got that? Before the ages began He gave us grace in Christ Jesus. Before we even failed to merit it, He gave us unmerited favor. And the Titus passage says that He promised before anything started eternal life for the elect.

Look, predestination and election and all that aside, this is really huge. He chose us. You can think of it as "He knew in advance who would believe in Him" or "He chose without respect to who would believe in Him", but it was all written down ... before He even started. It was all for His own purpose. It was all His initial plan. And it was all before any one of us existed.

When I read these passages of Scripture through the lense of an omniscient God, I find them odd, but when I see them in light of an Omniscient God, I'm awed.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

That Doesn't Belong To You

Okay, the weekend is my least traffic, so maybe I can get away with this topic with a minimum amount of interaction. Well, I'll give it a shot.

The Bible has several places that talk about marital relations -- how marriage is supposed to work. One of the better known passages is in Paul's letter to the church at Corinth.
1 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman." 2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control (1 Cor 7:1-5).
I am not writing this on the topic of "same-sex marriage", but it's clear that Paul defines marriage as not only "man and woman", but "one man and woman". "Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband." No polygamy. Fine and dandy. But not the topic. And apparently the tension between husband and wife as it regards sexual relations has always been the case. It is interesting that Paul terms it "conjugal rights" (in the ESV). The Old Testament calls it "marital rights" or "the duty of marriage". And all the commentators are pretty clear that this is talking about sharing the bed -- sexual relations. Funny thing. Why is it that I've never heard it from the pulpit that husbands and wives owe their spouses "conjugal rights"? But, again, I'm not writing this to comment on how men and women sometimes don't give their spouses their "conjugal rights" as they should.

One of the things that always amused me about this passage was verse 4. Paul says that "the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does." I have joked about it. "So, there I was, laying on the bed. I patted the spot beside me and told my wife, 'Hey, your body belongs to me, so get it over here ... nekkid!' And she says, 'And your body belongs to me, so put that nasty old thing in the closet.'" I mean, if you take it at face value, we could play at this forever!

So I imagine that my humorous perspective was not likely what was meant. What, then, was? Well, the statement about whose body it is can be aimed in two possible directions. One is the funny way I did it. "See that, honey? Paul says that you do not have authority over your own body; I do." The other is the opposite: "I didn't realize that I don't own my own body; it belongs to my spouse." One angle tells her for me. The other tells me for her.

If the statement is intended as the latter, it changes things. One of my commenters mentioned (more than once) that marital sex is mostly just self-gratification. He meant it in a good way (I was never really sure how), but that was the basic concept. And I suspect, voiced or not, that this is the most common view. "My spouse owes it to me to please me." I mean, isn't that one of the big problems in marriages? "She/he is just not giving me the sexual satisfaction I need." But if the intent is to tell me that my body doesn't belong to me, then marital sex suddenly becomes not about me. It becomes all about my spouse. The aim shifts. The focus moves. Now my job becomes to provide all the possible satisfaction that my spouse might want. You see, my body doesn't belong to me, so how much I get out of it is irrelevant. It becomes a case of seeing my spouse in the bedroom as more significant than me, of not looking out for my interests, but for the interests of my spouse. You know ... kind of like it says in Philippians 2. In other words, if you are approaching sexual relations with your spouse with the idea of what you can get out of it ... you're not following Paul's marriage instructions.

Love is a funny thing. Done properly, it puts you in a very vulnerable place. Love, for instance, does not insist on its own way, believes the best of the loved one, is patient and kind, and so on. So ... who is insisting on my way while I'm not? Doesn't that kind of believing in someone mean that I can be taken advantage of? Doesn't that kind of patience and kindness set me up to take the brunt of others' selfishness? And the answer is that love indeed puts you in an incredibly vulnerable place. That kind of love would also require of you that you take the position I have suggested above. My sexual "needs" and desires are irrelevant; I need to look out for hers. So ... who is looking out for mine? Very vulnerable. The rewards of such a love, however, are phenomenal, reciprocated or not. And the rewards for that kind of obedience (because it is, after all, a command) are also a good thing. Vulnerable or not, it's the right thing. Now the only question is will you do it? Will I?

Friday, April 16, 2010


Some definitions are in order to start this thought:
Dogma: n.
- a system of principles or tenets, especially for a church.

Dogmatic: adj.
1. of, pertaining to, or of the nature of a dogma or dogmas; doctrinal.
2. asserting opinions in a doctrinaire or arrogant manner; opinionated.
-Synonyms: arbitrary, imperious, dictatorial.
Dogma today is largely considered a joke in the popular vernacular. People who subscribe to a system of doctrines are, well, just stupid people who deserve ridicule. You have to think for yourself, you see, and if you agree with dogma, you're not a thinker.

Never mind the failure of logic in the position. How did we get here from there? When did it become a bad thing to agree with a set of principles? Well, of course, it's not. It's only when you agree with religious dogma that you're being foolish. Everyone operates on some set of principles. Unfortunately, this idea that people who subscribe to religious dogma are foolish isn't limited to the world (which Christ promised would hate His followers). It is also a common position of a large part of Christianity. You know ... "no creed but Christ". "Experience unites; doctrine divides." That sort of thing. Very popular even among Christians. Never mind that the Bible uses the term in a positive sense (e.g., Rom 16:7; Eph 4:14; 1 Tim 4:6; Titus 1:9; Titus 2:1 ... point made). Never mind that the Bible itself is a set of dogma, a system of principles and tenets for Christianity. We need to avoid that stuff at all costs. We need to make Christianity more experiential than theological, more emotional than mental. Everyone knows that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship. Yeah ... right.

I suppose that kind of thinking is what got us from definition #1 for "dogmatic" to definition #2. If doctrine is good -- if dogma is right -- then dogmatic would not only be good for a Christian; it would be mandatory. But we've moved away from that to "arrogant and opinionated". We've moved from using "dogmatic" as a good term to using it as an insult. One thing no one ought to be today is dogmatic. That's bad. Don't do it!

Unfortunately, the ramifications aren't pretty. Since Christians have largely decided it's unwise to stand firmly on principle (be dogmatic), doctrine has been sliding. Although we are commanded to "stand firm", we don't want to be labeled "dogmatic", so we stand ... softly. We have been warned "to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught" and to "avoid them" (Rom 16:7), but we make them our friends. We don't, at almost all costs, don't want to be considered dogmatic, so we don't stand and we don't defend and we don't give a reason ... and we find ourselves wondering why teenage pregnancy within the church seems just as high as without and why we are having to fight so hard to defend marriage against same-gender unions and why it is that we aren't taken seriously much at all anymore. Oh, we feel just as warmly toward God as those who went before us; we just don't know the truth as well as they did. You see, that would be dogmatic. And "dogmatic" is an insult we just don't want to bear.

Me personally? I suppose I'd rather be dogmatic and wrong than wishy-washy and right. "No, no, you believe whatever you want. Don't want to offend, you know. It's just that, well, I think you might be wrong ... but, hey! That's not what I mean to say. Wouldn't want to be dogmatic, now, would I?" Am I helping anyone that way? No, I'll remain dogmatic -- standing on doctrine -- at the risk of being perceived at times as dogmatic -- opinionated. I didn't arrive here by accident or by some brainwashing. I've thought it through. Anything else, then, would be a lie. Anything else wouldn't be very helpful to those around me, would it?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Lines are our friends

I know ... the title line there is generally used as a joke. America loves the "free spirit", those who do whatever they please, the rebel without a clue. Oh, no, wait, that probably wasn't fair ... you know ... that I said it out loud. True, but not acceptable. The fact is, however, that lines so very often are our friends. We want to know how far we can go and where we must stop. We want to know what is and is not acceptable. We want a 12-step program to fix our problems. We want to know the top 10 answers to everything. Despite our love of the rebel in all of us, we like our lines.

Today is tax day, so I thought I'd use taxes as an illustration. Over at Blog and Mablog (clever name, that), Doug Wilson has done a series on taxation as thievery. Interesting series. (It starts with Ten Principles on Redistributive Taxation as Theft followed by More on Government Thievery and finally coming to Meum and Tuum.) He goes to great lengths to explain that on one hand taxation is not, by definition, theft and, on the other hand, taxation can be theft. He does this over a whole series of entries because, well, exactly where taxation crosses the line to theft is hard to draw.

As it turns out, I don't think that this is the only difficult line to draw. We all know, for instance, that Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery,' but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt 5:27-28). How is that for a line? Too tough? Yeah, I know. Someone responded, "It's the second look that counts." In other words, now we start to muddle around with "look" and "lust" and what really constitutes "adultery" in this case?

My aim here is not to explain that line. My intent is to point out the difficulty of lines. You see, Jesus drew a very clear "line in the sand" and we're not clear on it. What constitutes "to lust after"? Where is the line between "looks at" and "lusts"? How do I know when you have done it (you know ... so I can point it out)? So careful were the Jews on this topic that they considered it wrong to look at another man's wife's little finger or to even admire his own wife's beauty. The Talmud references a "foolish saint" who refuses to save a drowning woman because he shouldn't look on her. Lines, you see, were their friends. But they drew the lines in all the wrong places. Jesus was drawing the line in your head or, more accurately, in your heart.

More often than not the sins in which we engage are not sins because of the action but because of the heart. As Wilson points out, for instance, "Murder is not taking a life. Murder is taking a life contrary to the revealed will of God." Intent is the problem. Thus, in Num 35:11, manslaughter was defined as killing someone "without intent". Solomon tells how God hates the sacrifices of the wicked. "The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination; how much more when he brings it with evil intent" (Pro 21:27). When Simon the magician asked to pay Peter to receive the ability to bestow the Holy Spirit, Peter berated him. The real problem, according to Peter, was "the intent of your heart" (Acts 8:22). The problem with mankind is that "the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Gen 8:21). In fact, the Word of God is said to be so sharp that it can divide between soul and spirit, between "thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb 4:12).

Suddenly lines become quite difficult. If the problem is the intent of the heart, the externals become harder to figure. We can know, for instance, that murder is a sin, but when is it murder or manslaughter? If sexual activity outside of the will of God is sexual immorality, is it possible to have sexual activity within a marriage that is immoral because of the intentions of the heart? I think the answer would obviously be "Yes". Jesus said we should pray in private because showing off in prayer was wrong, that we should give in private because showing off in giving was wrong, that we should fast in private because showing off in fasting was wrong. You see, it is possible to pray, give, and fast wrong.

Lines are indeed our friends. It's just that sometimes they get a lot harder to draw than we realize. I would think that in many cases they're clearer to us in our own heads, but far too often we find ourselves deceived by the world and confused about those lines and someplace along the way we realize we long since crossed lines we shouldn't have crossed. Our world may adore the free-spirited rebel. God isn't quite so amused with that approach. So we're left with examining ourselves to see if we're in the faith, with testing everything, with judging ourselves not for our actions so much as our intentions. It's a hard line to draw ... but not impossible.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Now what?

This little meme is floating around Facebook.
23K teachers were given pink slips in CA and 17K in IL. NJ and FL are cutting teacher jobs and reducing salaries. We need to get our priorities in order. Athletes are paid millions, but teachers, with whom we entrust to help raise our kids, are not valued. In honor of ALL teachers, copy and paste this into your status.
Poor grammar aside (is that a commentary on teachers?), I think that our priorities are indeed askew when we pay non-producing members of society exorbitant amounts of money to ... what ... entertain us? And we neglect the more important people -- like teachers. On the other hand, I don't believe the solution to educational problems is more money. I'm quite certain our educational woes lie elsewhere. Still, I wish we did pay teachers better than we do. It would 1) give them better recompense for their very important jobs and 2) give us a bit more leverage to control things. (It's really difficult these days to try to fire a bad teacher, for instance.)

Still, I'm at a complete loss about what this thing is supposed to accomplish or even say. Teachers are paid out of taxes. Athletes are paid out of ticket purchases. We should tax athletes to pay teachers? No, that's not it. We should charge admission to schools so we can pay teachers more? No, no, that's not right either. Clearly our values in our society are skewed. But what am I or you or even a group of us supposed to do about this particular situation? Our tax money doesn't pay for athletes, so the correlation to their wages doesn't fit. Is it a call for higher taxes? Agreeing that teachers are underpaid, what do I do now?

Or is this just another "Here's a problem" without a solution offered?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Everyone has the right to my opinion.

It is a commonly held belief today. "The Right" (whatever that may designate) is an arrogant group of opinionated people who have no regard for others and their beliefs. They are intolerant and judgmental. Oh ... and they are wrong.

Have you ever noticed that it always seems to go one way and not the other? "You guys are wrong and I'm right." Next, "If you disagree with me, you're just an idiot. (See statement 1.)" What most people never seem to realize is that everyone thinks they're right. No one would hold any opinion at all if they didn't think it was right. And most of us would agree that having no opinion at all would be a bad thing.

People draw conclusions based on what they believe to be true. Changing those views is quite often a difficult and time-consuming task. However, it is a basic truth that each of us believes what we believe is the truth. So why is it that, for instance, the Right is arrogant and opinionated and not anyone else? In fact, the truth is that everyone is opinionated. We all have our own firm opinions. Even if your own opinion is that "all opinions have equal value", it is likely that you are dogmatic about that opinion. I would go on to argue that most people have little regard for the beliefs of others. Why? Because of how many times I've been told, "You Christians are judgmental and intolerant", a very judgmental and intolerant statement. Because I've heard the very same thing from "the Right" about "the Left" ... and from the middle about both ends.

The fear, it seems, is division. Truth claims are divisive. I can offer you a question -- "What is 2 + 2?" -- and the answers are extremely limited. You may answer "4" or "addition" or even "math" and that's fine. You may not answer any other number, any other mathematical function, or the nearly infinite number of other possible answers and be correct. It is not "zoology" or "green" or "pig". Truth claims limit the answers in every case. So if you think that you are "open-minded" and "tolerant", there are only two possibilities. Either you are so open-minded that your brains leaked out, or you're lying to yourself.

Perhaps we ought to learn to be more careful when we approach people of differing opinion. It is mandatory that you differ (or it wouldn't be a "differing opinion"), but it is not required that you belittle the one who holds the opinion or accuse them of being what you are if you do -- intolerant. By all means discuss differences of opinions. (I really dislike "agree to disagree".) Share your view, defend it, explain it, examine it. Absolutely. There's just no need to get nasty about it, is there? Because for every view you have, someone else has an equally strong view and when you turn ugly in a discussion, it is more likely to reflect badly on you (and, it follows, your view) than to settle anything at all.

Monday, April 12, 2010

When Christians Speak

Back in September, 2005, the South endured Hurricane Katrina's onslaught. It caused the expected round of "Where is God?" questions from various quarters. One of the responses was the well-known Tony Campolo. Dr. Campolo identifies himself as an Evangelical Christian. He is an author and a professor and respected by many. He took on the question, "Why didn't God do something?"

I kind of liked Dr. Campolo's conclusion. "I contend that the best thing for us to do in the aftermath of Katrina is to remain silent, and not try to explain this tragedy. Instead of asking 'Why?' we should be asking, 'What does God want us to do now?'" I agree that answering for God as to why He does what He does without specific revelation is unwise at best. I wish that was all he wrote. But his largest response was remarkably predictable and, at times, horribly wrong. He assured his readers that Katrina was not God's judgment on America. Any preacher who said so would be wrong. "Certainly, God would not create suffering for innocent people, who were -- for the most part -- Katrina's victims." Well, it may or may not be God's judgment, but what Bible was he reading when he 1) labeled most of the victims of Katrina as "innocent" and 2) what Bible was he reading when he suggested that God wouldn't judge people? He went on to inform his readers that suffering is not part of God's great plan. To ascribe that to God is, in his view, to dishonor God. "When the floods swept into the Gulf Coast, God was the first one who wept." When the question of "Where is God when there is suffering?" comes up, there are typically two possible answers offered. Either God is not loving enough to do anything about it or He is not powerful enough to do anything about it. Okay, maybe both. Campolo's answer? "God is not really as powerful as we have claimed." He confidently asserts that "omnipotence is a Greek philosophical concept, but it is not in his Bible."

Sometimes, when Christians speak, I cringe. When Anne Graham Lotz was asked about 9/11 -- "How could God let this happen?" -- she responded, "God, who is a gentleman, has just quietly backed out of our national and political life, our public life." What a painful concept! God acquiesces to His creation? When Pat Robertson claimed that the earthquake in Haiti was due to their national "pact with the devil", it hurt to hear. When prominent Christians lined up at the microphones to tell us how Katrina was God's judgment for everything from rampant gambling on the Gulf coast to legalized abortion in America, it was painful to endure. And then there are those who speak for "Christianity" with no connection to Christianity. (The Westboro Baptist Church comes to mind.) Sometimes, when Christians speak, I cringe.

I wonder how often that happens here. I have no doubt that some people don't like what I say. I believe what I write, so I believe I am right, but I am pretty sure that other genuine Christians might cringe when they read what I write. I know that Tony Campolo would label me as one who dishonors God. Of course, I'd have to return the favor, but I can see that he might not like it. When Steve Saint, son of murdered missionary Nate Saint, told an audience that he believed that his father's murder wasn't an accident, but was actually a plan of God, one of his listeners told him, "Don't ever say that again about my God." I would have wanted to tell that listener, "Stop maligning my God." Okay, well, I suppose I'll need to tolerate their foolishness if I expect them to tolerate mine, eh?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Truth

Local Christian talk show host, Andrew Tallman, had an interesting post on his Thought of the Day blog recently. He talked about how the Bible was not "a book about truth", like some helpful guide to morality and living, but about Christ, the truth. I thought it was a good thought. But he got me to thinking ... always dangerous as anyone who knows me can attest.

We are quite familiar with Jesus's famous claim, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man comes to the Father but by Me" (John 14:6). Any genuine Christ follower (AKA, Christian) understands this to reference the exclusivity of Christ for salvation. Lots of people complain, "You Christians are so exclusive", but we're kind of stuck with it if we are going to be followers of Christ. We didn't make the claim; He did. He is "the Way" and there is no other.

Perhaps it's because of the second sentence in that verse -- "No man comes to the Father but by Me" -- but it seems to me that we are missing something if we stop at the exclusive claim of Christ as the only means of salvation. Yes, indeed, that is undeniably there. Yes, indeed, we need to hold to that. All the calls to being less restrictive are simply calls to deny what Christ said and we can't. Fine and good. But if (or rather since) we see the claim of being "the Way" as being a claim to exclusivity for salvation, what about the other two? We seem to skip those.

What am I talking about? Well, if "the Way" says that He is the only way, wouldn't "the Truth" say that He is the only Truth and "the Life" say that He is the only life? If we are going to affirm (as we do) that Jesus is the only way to God, then we must also affirm that He is the only Truth and the only Life. Of course, that may get a bit sticky, so let's see if I can make sense out of it.

When I say that Jesus is the Truth (as in "the only Truth"), I'm not suggesting that there is no truth outside of what the Bible says about Jesus. The Bible never touches on 2 + 2, but we know the right answer. The Bible doesn't talk about the Law of Gravity, but we know it is there. So in what way would I say that Jesus is the only Truth? Well, it is a common saying, "All truth is God's truth." All truth that exists is created and upheld by God. We err when we think that the physical laws in which we operate bound God, too. No, He is the one who made them. In a similar sense, John 1 says about Christ, "All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made" (John 1:3). He is the Creator. Beyond that, "He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together" (Col 1:17). He is the one who sustains all things. If all that was made was made by Him and all that exists is held together in Him, it would have to also be true that all that is true is contained in Him. While that may seem like a pointless conclusion, I would have to disagree. The point of that conclusion is that if "all things were created through Him and for Him" (Col 1:16), then the discovery of all truth would best be pursued by starting with Him. From that vantage point, we can see how all truth works together for Him rather than the concept that truth is true outside of Him. John Piper puts it this way:
"If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God." (1 Corinthians 8:2-3). Which I take to mean that until we know in such a way that we love God more because of it, we do not yet know as we ought to know.
If Jesus is the Truth, then whatever truth we may learn is only valuable as it relates to Him and our relationship with Him.

The other concept is similar. If He is the Creator and Sustainer of all things, then He is the Life, as in "the only life". We do know that Jesus defines life in a different way than we do. He says, "This is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (John 17:3). We also know that outside of Christ humans are dead in sins (Eph 2:1). So in a very real sense the only genuine life that exists is in Him.

Religions in general and Christianity in particular are often attacked for being exclusive. We need to understand two points. First, when religions claim to be exclusive, it is possible that the claim is valid. If it is valid, then only one can be actually correct. Thus, merely claiming to be exclusive shouldn't be a surprise. The question should be "Which one is right?" Second, if we are to be followers of Christ, it means that we have to, well, follow Him. If He claims exclusivity, then for us to deny it would be to deny the one we claim to be following. Others may not like it, but if we are to be Christians, we are without options here. On the other hand, assuming Christ was who He said He was and assuming His claim was valid, being a follower of the Way, the Truth, and the Life is a really good thing.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Socinian Heresy

Meet Laelius Socinus. He was one of the founders of a secret religious sect operating under the banner of "Christian". In the late 1500's, this sect, called "Socinians", referred to themselves as Unitarians. The primary doctrinal difference between them and the rest of the existing Christian Church was on the nature of God. Most obviously, they denied the Trinity. They argued, instead, for ... well, a unitarian view. There was one God. The "Holy Spirit" wasn't a person, but was simply the power of God. And Jesus? Well, He was a nice fellow, but certainly no God. They saw "Christianity" as the religion of Jesus, not a religion about Jesus. Jesus lived an exemplary life and we ought to follow it. Oh, they had other differences as well. They affirmed human Free Will and rejected doctrines like Original Sin and the existence of Hell. They believed that there were many ways to heaven and held that, while the Bible may have been inspired by God, it was written by humans and subject to error. In other words, the Socinians had a serious problem with heresy. Today, Unitarians have achieved a new version of Christianity ... one without Christ. On their website they actually assert, "Belief in God is welcomed but not required within Unitarian Universalism." They claim, "We welcome people who identify with and draw inspiration from Atheism and Agnosticism, Buddhism, Christianity, Humanism, Judaism, Paganism, and other religious or philosophical traditions." So the heresy has gone as one might expect. Reject God and you end up rejecting God. Embrace the supremacy of Man and you reject God. It's hard, once out that far, to call such a belief system "heresy" since it has lost nearly all connection with Christianity except for the occasional tacking on of the word "Christian".

But the Socinian heresy is not dead. There are various anti-trinitarian groups today including large ones like the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons. There are others who share their annihilation of the doctrine of eternal damnation and substitute ... annihilation. (Yes, I was playing with words there.) A large number of people calling themselves "Christians" would agree that the Bible was inspired but contains error. But the one I am concerned about is this one. Among their key beliefs, the Socinians were very concerned about the Free Will of Man. The article in wikipedia includes this paragraph:
The Socinians believed that God's omniscience was limited to what was a necessary truth in the future (what would definitely happen), and did not apply to what was a contingent truth (what might happen). They believed that, if God knew every possible future, human free will was impossible; and as such rejected the "hard" view of omniscience. (Italics in the original)
Does that sound familiar? It should. I referenced it back in my Absolving God recently. It is one of the key tenets of Open Theism: God is not Omniscient.

There is a problem with that, of course. I mean, if it was no big deal, I'd keep quiet about it. But it is a big deal. It speaks to the character of God and the reliability of Scripture. The Bible repeatedly claims for God that He knows all things. I won't belabor the point about knowing what we've done or what we think. They don't deny that. But there are repeated references over and over to God knowing more than what simply is or has been. Peter argued that Jesus knew all things (John 21:17). God claims for Himself, "I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all My purpose'" (Isa 46:9-10). The very existence of a prophet (including Christ) says that God knows the future. And how many references are there to either God's foreknowledge or His predestination? (Oh, oh! I know! I found 5 references to some form of "predestine", 7 references to "determine" in the sense of determing in advance, and 3 references to God's foreknowledge. That, of course, is without reference to prophecies and statements about the future. An example would be 1 Sam 23:10-12.) (There is also a phrase, used in various places, about "long ago" or "of old" or the like. Acts 15:18 says that God declared what would be "from long ago". Jude 1:4 references people who were ordained to condemnation "from of old". So the number increases.) God's Omniscience with a capital "O" -- knowing all things including the future -- is supported over and over in Scripture, starting with prophecies as early as Genesis 3 and ending with the certainties of Revelation, the end declared from the beginning.

If Omniscience were alone here, perhaps it would be negotiable. Maybe we could discuss an alternative meaning. But it's not. If God is not Omniscient -- knowing everything -- then other characteristics change. God would necessarily be constantly learning as new things happen ... and we have eliminated the certainty of His claim, "I am the Lord, I do not change" (Immutability). He changes continuously! God claims to have no regrets (1 Sam 15:29), but if He is constantly seeing new things, it is inevitable, isn't it? Of course, if God is incapable of knowing the future and unwilling to do anything about it, the concepts of both His Omnipotence and, more importantly, His Sovereignty are moot. He cannot alter the future. He cannot control His creation. All He can do is muddle about after the fact and hope to fix the messes we make.

Heresies come and heresies go. Generally, after they go they resurface. The Socinians were eliminated some time ago, but they're not gone. Their heresies are alive and well. Painfully, some of them reside in groups that consider themselves "Christian" and even "orthodox". It is clear to me, however, that the god of Open Theism is not the God of orthodoxy.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Freedom from Religion?

Perhaps you've heard of them. They are an organization called Freedom From Religion, and their goal is to eliminate religion from the public arena. Similar to the NAACP LDF, which exists to provide legal assistance to poor African Americans and civil rights and voting rights activists, and brings lawsuits against violators of civil rights or the ACLU which (ostensibly) exists to advocate individual rights, by litigating, legislating, and educating the public on a broad array of issues affecting individual, the FFF group aims to "educate the public on matters relating to nontheism, and to promote the constitutional principle of separation between church and state." Now, perhaps I'm overstating when I say that they want to eliminate religion from the public arena. In the case of the New Atheists, however, it would not be an exaggeration. At the top of their website they declare their own aims: "Intolerance of ignorance, myth and superstition; disregard for the tolerance of religion. Indoctrination of logic, reason and the advancement of a naturalistic worldview."

Right or wrong, what would it be like if the New Atheists had their way? They would like the whole "religion" thing to go away. It's a myth, fairy tales told by ignorant people to ignorant children. It serves no purpose. Replace it with "the truth". So ... what if we did as they demanded? How would that alter life as we know it?

I'll leave off obvious things like "no more churches everywhere you go". Sure, we'd eliminate the dominant beliefs of 95% of Americans, but that's their problem, right? No, I'm thinking of broader matters. I mean, if you disagree with a religion, just ignore their church on the corner. Big deal. If you believe that the dominant beliefs of 95% of Americans are wrong, you're doing them a favor, right? But what about other matters? What about, say, holidays? If we were to be consistent with "no religion", it would mandate the end of everything from St. Valentine's Day and Halloween to Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. (Don't forget Hanukkah and the like.) (I don't actually understand how a conscientious atheist can take off holidays that are religious in nature. Indeed, the word "holiday" is religious in nature. Taking a day off work that is offered for the celebration of things they deny exist would seem blatantly deceitful. But maybe that's just me.) The impact of removing these would be much larger than simply adding days of work (and school) to the calendar. Take, for instance, the obvious affect these types of events have on human interaction. Grouse all you want, but there is an undeniable sense at Christmas time, for instance, of "good cheer", of optimism and better relations between people. Thanksgiving gives a definite moment to recall "blessings" which would otherwise be ignored. We whine about how these things are no longer related to their origins, but there is still enough of a carryover to have a positive effect. Throw that effect out. The positive sense that religion gives at holidays would be gone. In a much more measurable sense, businesses count on these holidays for a large part of their income. According to the National Retail Federation, "the holiday season can represent anywhere between 25-40% of annual sales." So expect retail businesses to lose up to 40% of their annual revenue. I'll let the New Atheists make that offer to retail businesses everywhere.

How about the effects on health care? "Health care?" you ask. Yes. About 12% of community hospitals in the United States are Catholic hospitals. Something like 18% of hospital beds in America are provided by religious-based hospitals. If we eliminated religion, we would impact health care from the perspective of hospital beds at least. Beyond that, however, the medical profession has done studies as well on the effects of prayer and faith on health. For whatever reason you care to assign it, it turns out that prayer and faith have a measurable effect on health. Dr. Brick Johnstone declared, "Prayer isn't related to health per se, but if you have real strong beliefs in a loving, caring God, and if you have real strong support from your congregation, those things lead to better health." Or consider Alcoholics Anonymous as an example. They (and their relatives) base their approach on a "higher power" -- a religious belief. Remove that higher support and you remove their success. In many ways, removing religion from society would impact health care.

How about charity? From the American Jewish Committee to the YWCA, there are long lists of faith-based charitable organizations. In fact, in one article back in 2003, "Five of the nation's largest faith-based charities were ranked as part of Worth magazine's 100 most efficient charitable groups." According to government figures, more than one third of all volunteers donate their time to religious-based organizations. "Volunteers across all racial and ethnic groups are more likely to donate their time through religious organizations than through any other type of organization." Some 43% of youth mentors work through faith-based organizations. These organizations, from church congregations through major charitable organizations, work in areas like housing development, economic development, and community development. It is not possible to conclude that ripping away faith-based charities would have minimal impact on the charitable contributions (time, money, etc.) to society.

From there, the questions get more personal. For instance, The Heritage Foundation has reported on various aspects of the effects of religion on life. Studies have found things like this:
* The strength of the family unit is intertwined with the practice of religion. Churchgoers are more likely to be married, less likely to be divorced or single, and more likely to manifest high levels of satisfaction in marriage.
* Church attendance is the most important predictor of marital stability and happiness.
* The regular practice of religion helps poor persons move out of poverty. Regular church attendance, for example, is particularly instrumental in helping young people to escape the poverty of inner-city life.
* Religious belief and practice contribute substantially to the formation of personal moral criteria and sound moral judgment.
* Regular religious practice generally inoculates individuals against a host of social problems, including suicide, drug abuse, out-of-wedlock births, crime, and divorce.
* The regular practice of religion also encourages such beneficial effects on mental health as less depression (a modern epidemic), more self-esteem, and greater family and marital happiness.
* In repairing damage caused by alcoholism, drug addiction, and marital breakdown, religious belief and practice are a major source of strength and recovery.
* Regular practice of religion is good for personal physical health: It increases longevity, improves one's chances of recovery from illness, and lessens the incidence of many killer diseases.
Remove religion, and you impact several aspects of individual lives. For instance, without religion there is no rational basis for a moral system. This isn't a merely religious argument. The rational atheist admits it. Bertrand Russell wrote, "Outside human desires there is no moral standard." This is not to suggest that atheists are immoral or have no basis for their morality. It simply says that without a Lawgiver there is no source of moral values that must be applied to all people. Morality shifts to pragmatism. As Bertrand Russell said, morality is simply based on human desire. One person may argue that it's wrong to kill people and another may argue that it's perfectly acceptable and there is no basis on which to call one right and the other wrong. All morality is based on "What's right for me." Remove religion and you remove several fundamental human beliefs. The basis of the American Revolution was the premise that a Creator had endowed humans with rights. If, on the other hand, the Creator is disallowed, humans have no more rights than any other creature. Judaism and Christianity have always held that Man has the highest value among living beings because we were made in the image of God. Remove God and you have, as Peter Singer has worked so hard to argue, mere speciesism, the pernicious belief in the superior value of the human being that needs to be removed with God. All calls to a "higher power" need to be eliminated, along with their effects. Some are provided a sense of purpose in life from that call. Some are provided comfort in sorrow and death from that call. Some experience extra strength to go through difficult situations from that call. Away with all that.

None of this is an apologetic for theism. I hope you understand that. Nor is any of it some sort of argument against atheism. None of this argues for either as a truth claim. I'm simply offering a view of the alternative to the present. Would we be better off by eliminating God? Would we be better off economically, socially, physically, mentally? Would our lives be better? Our marriages? Our families? Our care for others? Our morality? Our personal outlooks? If it is true that there is no God, it would paint a much different, much bleaker picture of our existence. I haven't argued that there is a God, but I'm pretty sure that the argument against God isn't offering us something better than what we have.

Thursday, April 08, 2010


Compare Romans 6 with Romans 7, and you end up with a difficult tension. (Skeptics would like to call it a contradiction.) In chapter 6 Paul writes, "We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin" (Rom 6:6). He assures us, "One who has died has been set free from sin" (Rom 6:7). He encourages us "Consider yourselves dead to sin" (Rom 6:11). In fact, he commands, "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions" (Rom 6:12). And he gives the reason:
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:16-18).
Now, this is all good news. "All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus" have an entirely new condition. The "old man" is dead. We are "free from sin" and, better, "dead to sin". We have the option to no longer let sin reign. All good stuff. And then we come to Romans 7.

In Romans 7 Paul starts out talking about the Law. He tells us how, similar to being released from sin, "we are released from the law" (Rom 7:6). We no longer live by the written code, but by the Spirit. He steps back for a moment, however, to assure us that there is a difference. Sin is bad, but the Law is good (Rom 7:7). Reading on, we come across what is believed to be a problem. We just saw in chapter 6 that we are free from sin. Now in chapter 7 we read that Paul claims "I am of the flesh, sold under sin" (Rom 7:14). Now wait! Didn't he just say he was free from sin? So how is he under sin? Aha! There it is! A contradiction in the Bible!

It is, in fact, a hotly debated passage of Scripture. Many have reconciled the two chapters by suggesting that chapter 7 is Paul talking as an unregenerate man. He is talking about not being a Christian. Others have argued that this cannot be. For instance, Paul argued in Romans 3 that "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one" (Rom 3:10-12). If this is true, then no unregenerate person would "delight in the law of God, in my inner being" (Rom 7:22). But if this is about Paul (which is suggested by all the first-person pronouns used) as a believer, then in what sense is he both "free from sin" and "sold under sin"? If the "old self" is dead, what is this "sin that dwells within me" (Rom 7:20)? If he is no longer a slave of sin, how can he say, "I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out" (Rom 7:18)? All very confusing. The Roman Catholics sought to make sense of it by separating Original Sin from "Concupiscence". In Roman Catholic theology, concupiscence is desire, either good or bad. The Reformers disagreed. They considered it to be "lust", a desire for evil. Martin Luther offered the famous "simul iustus et peccator" -- "At the same time righteous and a sinner". In this view, we are declared just by faith in Christ ("righteous") and then are sanctified over time -- the process of becoming more holy. Thus, although we are declared just, we spend the rest of our lives decreasing in sin.

I personally don't have as much of a problem with the passage. Let's see if I can spell it out clearly. In Romans 6 Paul assures us that we are "free from sin", but if he intended by that to say that we no longer sin, he wouldn't have told us to not to let sin reign. At that very point in Scripture, apparently there is a tension between the "old self" being dead and our continuing ability to pursue our sinful passions. So the first passage tells us that, while we are dead to sin, it doesn't mean we are no longer capable of sinning. What, then, is the sin to which we are dead? I would assume it to be this condition described in Romans 3 -- the total inability to do good. The unregenerate man is incapable of not sinning. The regenerate man is "dead to sin" -- capable of not committing sin. The old man is capable of only sin while the new man is capable of choosing. The "sin" in view, then, would be Original Sin. We're free from that condition while still living in the flesh.

Then look at the second passage. The topic is the Law. Paul says we are free from the Law. So when he writes that he was "sold under sin", it was while he was under the Law. Being free from the Law, he (we) is no longer a slave of sin. In fact, he exults in holiness. No longer under the Law, he delights in the Law. It points to what is good. The problem, then, is the left over "flesh". We carry around a "dead man", this body of flesh. It is the residual self-centeredness, the left-over sinful desires. We seek happiness in the wrong places and look for joy in the wrong ways. We have a mind, rotted and twisted by sin, that needs renewing. How is this accomplished?
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death (Rom 7:24-8:2).
We are not left alone to muddle through this. We have "no condemnation" in Christ and we have the Spirit of life to free us.

Oh, and we don't have a contradiction anymore.