The US National Day Of Prayer—A Reprise


This coming Thursday is the National Day Of Prayer here in the US. In a country with the freedom to worship when and how and who we please, it seems a little odd that we have a designated National Day of Prayer. I’m glad we do because it makes me think more about the subject, but part of my thinking is that, for most of us, the National Day of Prayer means very little.

For one thing, prayer, as an activity in and of itself, has no efficacious value. Isaiah illustrated that most clearly in the passage about idols that I included in Friday’s article. Here it is again, with a couple additional verses.

Surely he cuts cedars for himself, and takes a cypress or an oak and raises it for himself among the trees of the forest. He plants a fir, and the rain makes it grow. Then it becomes something for a man to burn, so he takes one of them and warms himself; he also makes a fire to bake bread. He also makes a god and worships it; he makes it a graven image and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he eats meat as he roasts a roast and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Aha! I am warm, I have seen the fire.” But the rest of it he makes into a god, his graven image. He falls down before it and worships; he also prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god.” They do not know, nor do they understand, for He has smeared over their eyes so that they cannot see and their hearts so that they cannot comprehend. No one recalls, nor is there knowledge or understanding to say, “I have burned half of it in the fire and also have baked bread over its coals. I roast meat and eat it. Then I make the rest of it into an abomination, I fall down before a block of wood!” (Isaiah 44:14-19; emphasis mine)

Praying to a block of wood, Isaiah is saying, has no value. Clearly, then, value is not in the act of praying.

Consequently, in a country with people of many faiths, telling us all to pray on a certain day, accomplishes nothing. The only prayer that matters is the one offered to a Person interested enough to listen and powerful enough to do something about what He hears.

But should we limit ourselves to pray to such a Person on one day out of the year? Surely, if we knew President Trump would take our phone call every morning and would do all within his power to fulfill our requests, we wouldn’t limit ourselves to a phone call one day a year. Why then would we make prayer a one-day event?

Clearly it should be a regular part of our relationship with God—the One who commands us to pray, who promises to hear us, and who delights in giving us what we ask. Anything, that is, which we ask in His name, according to His will.

No, that isn’t a formula for getting what we want. The specifics God laid down about prayer are relational doors. We are to ask “in Jesus’s name” not as a cool way to bring a prayer to an end or as a magic mantra to insure that God has to come through and deliver on His promises. We ask in Jesus’s name in the same way that we might go to an exclusive “by invitation only” dinner. We reach the door and give our name. Oh, but we’re not on the list. Rather, the guest of honor invited us to be in his party, so we give his name. Because of his name we are ushered into the banquet hall and seated at the head table. In the same way, we ask God for things, not because of who we are but because of who Jesus is.

Consequently, we can’t ask Him for things that would contradict who Jesus is. Well, we can ask, but God isn’t going to hear us if we ask for selfish things in His Son’s name. Jesus is not in the business of rubber stamping all the selfish requests people make of the Father.

Which brings us to praying according to God’s will. Jesus Himself before He went to the cross asked for something He didn’t get–to bypass the sacrifice set before Him. But God actually did answer Jesus’s prayer because He stipulated that He wanted God’s will more than He wanted what He wanted. It was Jesus’s way of prioritizing. He wanted A and if God wanted A for Him, then Yay! But if He wanted A and God wanted B, then Yay! Jesus would change His mind and want B also. Because God’s will mattered more to Jesus than His own will did.

In praying according to God’s will, essentially we are stepping back and agreeing that God knows more than we do, is good, loves us, and won’t make any mistakes. It’s as if we’re looking at our lives and our circumstances through a straw, but God sees the entire picture. From our straw perspective we ask God for what looks like the thing we need or want. God answers from his entire-picture perspective, however, which means we don’t always get what we thought we wanted.

Joni Eareckson Tada is a good example of this principle. When she broke her neck as a seventeen year old, she prayed to be healed. She was an active, athletic teenager who couldn’t imagine how God could possibly want her to spend her life in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic. Eventually, however, she bowed before His will, and today, fifty years later, she gives testimony of her willingness to do whatever He asks of her, no matter how hard it seems. That has included living with chronic pain and the onset of cancer.

So Joni is an example of answered prayer? She is, because she testifies of God’s love and goodness and mercy for her as she has gone through suffering. He has given her according to His will, and as a result, Joni has reached thousands upon thousands of hurting people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Her impact for eternity is far beyond anything she could have imagined as a teen.

So, a day of prayer? Sure, it’s good to be public about our thoughts on prayer. But it’s much better to make prayer a key ingredient in our relationship with God. We wouldn’t think of limiting conversation with our spouse to one day a year. So, too, a strong relationship with God is built by talking to Him each and every day, not just once in a public forum because it’s the US National Day of Prayer.

This article is an edited version of one that first appeared here in May 2013, then resurfaced in May 2015.

Idol Worship


As I read from the Old Testament prophets, one topic is repeated over and over, no matter which people group is the subject of the prophetic message or what era the prophets wrote. Over and over, from Isaiah to Jeremiah to Hosea to Amos and all the others, the topic of idol worship comes up.

None of them makes light of the subject. In fact, idol worship is most often named as the cause for coming judgment regardless of the nation. Sure, prophecies also pronounced judgment for things like violence against God’s people and taking His name in vain, for profaning His temple and living in immorality.

But by far the most repeated affront to God seems to be the worship of false gods.

Isaiah makes repeated statements that these gods that the various nations worshiped were no gods at all. Here’s perhaps the most scathing:

He plants a fir, and the rain makes it grow. Then it becomes something for a man to burn, so he takes one of them and warms himself; he also makes a fire to bake bread. He also makes a god and worships it; he makes it a graven image and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he eats meat as he roasts a roast and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Aha! I am warm, I have seen the fire.” But the rest of it he makes into a god, his graven image. He falls down before it and worships; he also prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god.” (44:14b-17)

Today we read this kind of passage and think, Well, duh! How could they not figure out that if they made the thing, of course it was no god.

I suspect the people of that day knew the piece of wood wasn’t a god, but they perhaps thought what they had created represented the god of their choice.

In our sophisticated society today there aren’t as many visible idols as there likely were in the prophets’ day. But we still have idols. Take freedom for example, or as I recently learned from Abdu Murray in his book Saving Truth, the correct term is autonomy. But even the good kind of freedom can become an idol in our hearts.

My point here is not to thresh out the idols we are currently holding. Rather, what I learn from the Old Testament prophets is how seriously God takes idol worship. Today I think we are more or less OK with idol worship. I mean, yes, we should give God our undivided love, but, you know, there’s a football game on. Or we’re just so busy we don’t have time for, you know, reading the Bible or praying every day! Because work is so important or my schedule is so important or working out is so important or watching my shows is so important.

Funny how we as Christians can become quite clear about how heinous sins are that we don’t commit. But when it comes to worshiping our pleasure, our wealth, our power, our use of time, our family, our country, our, our, our . . . well, idol worship isn’t really number one on our list of sins to avoid.

But I don’t think God has removed it from His list. I think it’s still the heinous act that He coupled over and over with forsaking Him.

The thing is, the people of Judah didn’t see themselves as forsaking God. They did worship Yahweh. They just added the gods they brought from Egypt, too. Later it was the gods of the Canaanites they included with their Redeemer.

Yet He had said, No other gods. None.

He took their partial obedience as disobedience, their dabbling with foreign women as the precursor to following foreign deities (an illustration of the power of women, but that’s another story).

He even referred to Himself as jealous. Here’s one example, but there are others:

—for you shall not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God— (Exodus 34:14)

Some have likened this jealousy to that of a husband who wants to protect his wife from lecherous predators who want to hit on her. Perhaps. Certainly it’s clear that God wants His people to be His and not ones who scatter their favors hither and yon.

Hosea uses the strong example of adultery and prostitution in regard to those who look to other gods beside the LORD.

Clearly God does not consider idolatry as some sort of lesser sin. How could He? Jesus repeated in the Gospels that the number one commandment above all else is to love God.

I suspect that since we have done way with little wooden statues that we bow before, we think our form of idolatry is not like theirs and therefore not as bad. Or perhaps we think, as Christians, forgive and justified by faith, we don’t have to pay attention to sins of the heart because they’re forgiven.

But like Paul asks in Romans, just because we are covered by grace, does that mean we are to continue living in sin? May it never be, he says. May it never be!

Published in: on April 27, 2018 at 6:21 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Call Of God


Paul_the_Apostle_conversionThe apostle Paul received the call of God. So did any number of other people in Scripture—Abraham, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Elijah, Samuel. The thing about Paul’s call was that it was so public.

He saw a light so bright it blinded him for days. In fact, he needed a man sent by God to restore his sight. In the midst of that light, Paul heard a voice and what this Person said was a distinct message for him. First a question: Why are you persecuting Me?

Paul’s answer was natural: “Who are you, Lord?”

Then, The Call: “And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” (Acts 9:5b-6)

I suppose Paul could have said no. After all, Jonah did. Balaam and an unnamed prophet also resisted God’s directions. But the fact is, Paul obeyed. He did exactly what he’d been told.

And though the men with him saw the light (not in the way Paul did—they weren’t blinded by it), and though they heard the voice (not the way Paul did—they didn’t understand what the Speaker said), this call was for Paul alone.

It was dramatic. It was personal. It was convincing. We don’t have any record that Paul ever looked back from that moment on. He had been pursuing Christians to arrest them and bring them to judgment which would lead to their executions. Now he was a Christian who other zealous Jews were trying to put to death.

Despite his calling, others questioned what he was doing. Ananias, the man God sent to heal Paul, was the first one. God told him who he was to go to, and Ananias answered, Really, Lord? This man has been actively seeking to KILL Christians.

How like so many of us. We act as if we need to remind God of the dire circumstances we’re in or the offense against us or the plans we’d made, as if God had forgotten or maybe wasn’t aware. In reality it was Ananias who wasn’t aware:

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15).

I still marvel that the “before the Gentiles” part didn’t throw Ananias, but to his great credit, he obeyed God.

He wouldn’t be the last person to doubt Paul’s calling, though. When this new, enthusiastic convert arrived in Jerusalem, “he was trying to associate with the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.” (Acts 9:26b)

Can’t blame them really, but I think that’s typical. We don’t know what the calling is that others have received. Really? we say; you’re going to be part of a prison ministry? or an unwed mother’s Bible study? or a medical ministry to Russia? or a missionary to … shhh . . . a Muslim country.

Even more, we might say, What? You’re giving up your writing to take care of your disabled sister-in-law? Or, you’re giving up your stable job to become a writer? Or, you’re turning your back on that great guy who loves you because you feel called to the mission field?

The part that’s inexplicable is the calling. Paul knew he was called, though no one else heard what he heard, and he acted accordingly. Eventually others realized he was serious, though they may not have understood. And certainly his old Pharisee buddies did not get it.

In fact, later in Paul’s ministry when he was called to Jerusalem, a number of his Christian friends and disciples, including a prophet, tried to dissuade him. Don’t go, they said. If you go to Jerusalem, you’ll be arrested.

Paul had listened to those warnings before. After his conversion, in Damascus, when the staunch Jews were planning to kill him, his disciples lowered him in a basket outside the city wall so he could escape. Another time, when there was a near riot because of his preaching, he wanted to enter the arena to speak to the crowd, but the other Christians told him no. He left Philippi because of death threats and traveled by himself to Athens to wait for his companions. So Paul was not a stranger to heeding the warnings of others.

But he’d been called to Jerusalem, so to Jerusalem he went, regardless that this calling didn’t insure a happy end or many converts—at least not in the short term.

That’s also true about following God’s call. There is no guarantee that there will be fruit from your labor. Jeremiah, in fact, knew going in that no one would listen to him. Yet God called him to warn the people of God’s judgment.

In other words, the veracity of God’s call can’t be confirmed by results that people here and now can see. The widows of the men martyred with Jim Elliott may well have thought initially that their calling had ended in fruitlessness. It hadn’t, but they couldn’t know that at the time.

But it can be “confirmed,” I guess you’d say, by Scripture in the sense that God isn’t going to call a person to do something contrary to His written word. He isn’t going to “call” someone to have an affair, for instance, or to preach a different gospel from the one Scripture teaches.

I’ll be honest—I don’t like this notion of God’s call. I know it’s easy to act on our own, to be deluded by our own desires, to want something so much we talk ourselves into believing God wants it for us too. I feel on shaky ground when someone else says they’ve been called. But the few times I’ve known God’s call in my life, it’s been clear—convincingly clear. But maybe not necessarily to everyone else around me. Undoubtedly there are some still saying, Really? I get that. I wish I had a bright light to point to.

Or not. Some scholars think that perhaps the thorn Paul wanted removed was his poor eyesight which, though restored, was never as good as it had been. Of course his poor eyesight could just as easily have come from one of the beatings he took or the times he was stoned and left for dead.

Either way, it’s clear callings come with a cost—people not always “getting it,” some even opposing it, and lots of people doubting you ever got such a calling in the first place. That’s OK.

Like Lucy in Prince Caspian, we can respond to the call of Aslan, even though others don’t see or hear, or we can fall in line and go the way everyone else is going. It’s a matter of trust.

“Yes, wasn’t it a shame?” said Lucy. I saw you all right. They wouldn’t believe me. They’re all so—”

From somewhere deep inside Aslan’s body there came the faintest suggestion of a growl.

“I’m sorry,” said Lucy, who understood some of his moods. “I didn’t mean to start slanging the others. But it wasn’t my fault anyway, was it?”

The Lion looked straight into her eyes.

“Oh, Aslan,” said Lucy. “You don’t mean it was? How could I—I couldn’t have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don’t look at me like that . . . oh, well, I suppose I could. Yes, and it wouldn’t have been alone, I know, not if I was with you.” (pp 135-136)

This post first appeared here in June, 2014.

Published in: on April 26, 2018 at 5:24 pm  Comments (1)  
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A Gentle Answer


I’m not a gentle person. I’m aggressive. As a young person I was an athlete. I guess I still think of myself as an athlete. I played on a co-ed volleyball team for as long as I could. And I coached nearly all of my years while I was a teacher.

When you have to make fast decisions and quick corrections, gentleness doesn’t always get served.

On top of that, I grew up with an older brother and an older sister, so I guess I was always trying to prove myself, trying to hold my own. At any rate, either one of them can tell you that gentle is not part of my natural make up.

And yet Scripture says a soft [or gentle] answer turns away wrath.

That verse used to trouble me. What does a person do who is not gentle? What if it’s my wrath that needs to be turned away?

My usual response to anger was anger, and I was good at it. I could raise my voice with the best of them.

But God works even when we don’t realize He is. He makes changes when we aren’t looking.

So today, when a poor girl at the atheist/theist FB group page called me an idiot and later an a$$, I knew I had a choice. I could react from the me that is quick to correct or I could respond in a gentle way that she might hear.

I say she was a “poor girl” because she was so angry. I don’t know her story. I don’t know if she is young or old. I just know she was seething with anger . . . at God. And anyone who believes in and trusts Him was apparently a target as well.

Of course I have no idea if a soft answer will turn away her anger from me, because I am not going to stop speaking the truth about God. But I think there’s a great need in this woman’s life to do so in love, not throwing anger of like kind back at her.

She actually didn’t answer my last comment to her, but I suspect when she does, it will be more of the same—no real content and more name calling.

That’s OK. After all, she isn’t mad at me. She doesn’t know me. She doesn’t know that once upon a time I would have aimed to eviscerate her with words. She can’t see that the Holy Spirit has done something in my heart that fills me with sorrow that she hates the very Person who can best comfort and care for her.

I just read today a verse in Hosea that speaks to this very point:

It is your destruction, O Israel,
That you are against Me, against your help. (13:9)

I like the way the New International Version translates it:

“You are destroyed, Israel, because you are against me, against your helper.”

That statement was true about ancient Israel, but it’s also true about a contemporary atheist or Christian or whoever rages against God. He’s the very Person who can and who wants to help.

I think of how children sometimes rage against their parents, when, in fact, the parents are the ones who want what’s best for the children and know a lot more what that looks like than they do. In fact I just read a piece for a contest that involved a child responding to a parent in anger though the parent intended to do what was best. No matter the setting, it’s a familiar scene.

That’s a picture of what we so often do in our relationship with God. And I am including Christians, because the accepted idea by so many is, it’s OK to let God have our anger, with both barrels, right between the eyes. After all, the reasoning goes, He’s big enough; He can take it.

Sure He can. But are we able to deal with our circumstances without the comfort, the help He wants to give us if we weren’t so foolish to push Him away by hurling our anger at Him? I remember a woman who’s son was diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer and responded with anger toward the very God she could pray to for healing, who she had prayed to and who had answered when the doctor first discovered the boy’s cancer. Why would you do that, I wanted to say to her.

But back to the point of this post.

Does a gentle answer take away the anger? Maybe not right away, but it’s a step in that direction. It’s a safe bet that anger answering anger is not going to make a difference. But a gentle answer—that’s not expected and it just might arrest the anger enough for the person to actually hear.

The cool thing about my interaction with the person on FB, the gentle answer is clearly not from me. So she’s hearing from God from the Holy Spirit who is changing the way I normally respond. Because “gentle answer” is so not me.

Published in: on April 25, 2018 at 5:55 pm  Comments (2)  
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What Creation Tells Us About God


I had a conversation once with an atheist woman who proclaimed that everything in the universe is random and any patterning we think we see is actually a trick of the mind that determines disorder must be placed in some understandable pattern.

That in itself sounds very ordered to me. I mean, do all humans do this?

I bring up order because one of the things creation teaches us about God is that He is an ordered, and ordering, God. He does not subscribe to chaos.

Take, for example just one procedure that occurs within our cells: Protein Synthesis. Here’s the short explanation of what this is:

Protein synthesis is one of the most fundamental biological processes by which individual cells build their specific proteins. Within the process are involved both DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and different in their function ribonucleic acids (RNA). The process is initiated in the cell’s nucleus, where specific enzymes unwind the needed section of DNA, which makes the DNA in this region accessible and a RNA copy can be made. This RNA molecule then moves from the nucleus to the cell cytoplasm, where the actual the process of protein synthesis take place. (“What Is Protein Synthesis?”; emphasis mine)

Here’s one short animation of what this process looks like (only a 2:15 video in length).

I’m not a scientist, but one thing strikes me as I read about protein synthesis: this process occurs within the cells, every one of the cells, in the human body. And not just in some human bodies. In every human body.

To explain the process, scientists use words like code and sequence and engineered and rules and translated. None of those elements sounds anything like “random” or “by chance” to me. There is order and purpose and achievement, even at the microscopic level of the cell.

Which makes me aware of something else that creation teaches about God: He cares for the details. God didn’t throw spaghetti on the wall to see if something stuck. He cared and cares for the particulars, down to the microscopic and beyond. Because one story I saw said that we aren’t finished with the discovery of what makes up a cell. As our microscopes become more sophisticated and capable, we most likely will see even smaller “machines” that simply, with all practicality, couldn’t randomly come into being.

Something else that I learn about God from creation: He loves beauty. Places that no one has gone to for thousands of years, are nevertheless beautiful. We might be talking about the remotest part of the sea or out in deep space. The beauty which we uncover has existed since creation, even though no human until recent times had any idea of the existence of such rich colors and shapes and textures and interplay between light and shadow.

Another thing I see in creation, and therefore in God, is purpose. Atheists are fond of saying that creation is very inefficient, that there are extra organs or unnecessary appendages, for this species or that. And yet, humans are just beginning to understand the ecosystem and the delicate interplay of one element with another. I suspect the same is true within a particular species—each is simply a confined ecosystem with each member functioning for the benefit of the whole, even though we humans don’t yet know what all those functions are.

Take for example, the human appendix. For years people have believed it to be a do-nothing organ, something that can be removed or left in at the will of the individual. But not so fast. Some medical professionals now believe the appendix might do something important:

The function of the appendix is unknown. One theory is that the appendix acts as a storehouse for good bacteria, “rebooting” the digestive system after diarrheal illnesses.

Essentially, the jury’s still out, but tonsils, also once thought to be superfluous, have proved to have a significant job:

As part of the immune system, the tonsils fight infection; they are first line of defense in the throat (“What do tonsils do and why would we take them out“)

The point is simple: though we can live without these organs, they still have a purpose. After all, we can live without a leg or without our eyes or without a finger, but that fact does not prove that a leg, eyes, or finger has no purpose.

Another thing I learn about God by looking at creation is His might. I’ve seen the might of nature when I was hiking in the mountains in the winter. Well, hiking isn’t quite right. We were on cross country skies or on snowshoes. But the point is, navigating the snowy hillsides was hard work. We got tired and wet, and then the afternoon gloom started to set in. Suddenly I realized how frail we were, how vulnerable, how easy it would be for the simple elements of snow and cold to conquer us.

I learned the same thing when I, who don’t swim well, went body surfing at a place that had giant sets of waves. They weren’t breaking close to shore though, and I was quickly out further than I was comfortable with. And then the big waves came. They would break right on top of me, and crush me if I didn’t dive down and let the water absorb the power. So I did. I’d done it at other times. But this time I could feel the wave shake me as it rumbled over top. When it was over, I resurfaced, only to see another wave coming. Down I went. This took place countless times, and the last time, I thought, I’m out of energy. I can’t fight this water any more. I realized how frail, how fragile I am as a human up against . . . water. Just water. The power of the waves that God has created.

I could go on about God’s grandeur clearly visible in the mountains or His kindness to make a world where we humans have all we need to live in comfort. And even in the places where the climate is one extreme or the other, there are still polar bears or camels, fish or oases. By God’s grace and kindness we still have what we need to live.

And what about the infinity of God we see in space? Or His unsearchable nature? It’s hard for me to stop, but I wonder what others see of God by looking at creation. After all, Romans tells us His imprint is there.

Published in: on April 24, 2018 at 5:56 pm  Comments Off on What Creation Tells Us About God  
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Are Catholics Christians?


Who is a Christian?

In our western, post-truth culture we tend to let people self-identify without calling into question the truth of their distinct personhood. So according to Saving Truth by Abdu Murray, “At the University of Washington students affirmed a white man’s self-identification as a young Chinese girl.” (p 53)

I mention this because the media, and consequently the public at large, thinks nothing of lumping anyone who self-identifies as a Christian all into one gigantic group.

The problem, of course, is that some identify as Christian because they live in a country that has been known as a Christian nation and where more Christians live than do Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus. But are they actually Christian?

Some people think being a Christian is holding to a certain list of do-this-and-not-thats. Others think that if they go to church once in a while, then they are Christians. Still others think that doing what their church leader says to do qualifies them as Christian. For Catholics that person might be their parish priest or a bishop or the pope.

None of those things define who is a Christian, however. Instead, a Christian is simply a follower of Jesus Christ. A disciple, if you will.

In the early years when the Church was just beginning, the disciples were known as those who followed The Way. Then in Antioch someone started calling them Christians.

They were Christians during those years of persecution, when Paul traveled from one city to another and declared, to the Jews first, and then to the Gentiles, that Jesus was God’s Son, crucified for the sins of the world, resurrected and ascended on high.

Tradition has it that Mark traveled to Egypt in the middle of the first century and began the group of believers that has come to be known as Coptic Christians, while Thomas traveled to India and brought the gospel to the southernmost part of the country.

During those years, there was no “catholic” church or protestant denomination. There were no “approved” list of doctrines. What defined a Christian? Simply one who believed what Jesus said and did. They were still nothing more than disciples, learning from the teaching of the Master.

But the Master had ascended into heaven. So how could they follow Him? By following what those who had been with Him said and wrote. By believing the testimony of the Holy Spirit within their hearts.

The problem was, almost at once people who claimed to be followers of Jesus started teaching things that Jesus had never said, things like, you have to be circumcised, and things like, since we have grace, we can commit whatever sin we want and it is forgiven.

To correct those errors, leaders like James and Peter and John and Paul wrote letters to individuals or churches to change their thinking and teach them what Jesus actually said and what He actually meant.

Some of these letters were at once recognized as God-breathed and were considered to be of equal value with the law of Moses, the psalms and proverbs, the prophetic writings, Eventually a Council of believers was held and Church leaders determined the canon or list of works that would be considered Scripture.

For about 250 years Christians endured persecution in the Roman Empire, sometimes severely so. In 64 the Emperor Nero scapedgoated Christians for the fire in Rome. The Emperor Domitian outlawed Christianity, making it a capital offense. In 303 the co-emperors Diocletian and Galerius instigated what came to be known as the Great Persecution.

Finally, in 313 Emperor Constantine lifted the ban on Christianity.

Nearly 70 years later Emperor Theodosius I declared Catholicism the state religion of the Roman Empire, and thus began the Roman Catholic Church, which soon spread and dominated Europe, most often by force. Were those converts actually Christians? Some undoubtedly were, but some were not, as literature shows.

The Catholic Church itself became entwined in politics and the economics of the day. The priests could be Godly spiritual counselors but they could just as easily be selfish and corrupt. In other words, they were just like every other person—some believing in God and some living for self.

In 1517 the first of the reformers started a movement to bring the Roman Catholic Church back into line with what the Bible taught, and the Protestant Reformation was born.

Not much has changed over these five hundred years. People still either believe God or they live for themselves. That includes Protestants and Catholics.

So the short answer: Are Catholics Christians? Some are, some are not.

Of course there are groups of Christians who point at Catholics and decry them as heretics. But I personally know Catholics who believe that Jesus Christ died for their sins. Their faith is in His shed blood.

But they worship Mary, some say, and the saints. They deify the Pope and believe they have certain things they must do in order to be saved.

Maybe.

Some do not “worship” Mary or the saints but they revere them. Some see the things they do as evidence of faith, not acts to earn salvation.

The actual doctrine of the Catholic Church contains things I don’t believe and I don’t think the Bible teaches, but not everyone who says they’re a Catholic even knows what their own doctrine is. Some believe what they themselves read in the Bible and some believe what they want to believe. So who among the Catholics is a Christian?

Well, the answer is the same as to the question, Who among the Lutherans is a Christian? Or, Who among the Presbyterians is a Christian? Or, Who among the Baptists is a Christian?

Only the person who puts his faith, hope, trust, belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a means of salvation that brings him into the family of God.

Yes, family. We are one family, some worshiping with Catholics, some with Lutherans, some with Methodists, some with Evangelical Free. Some worshiping in Brazil, some in South Africa, some in Korea, some in France, some in Mexico, some in Nigeria.

Are Catholics Christians? Maybe. They can be Christians if they respond to the good news that Christ died for their sins, that He rose the third day, that He is now seated on high working as their Advocate with the Father.

It really is not a yes or no question because some self-identify as Christian when they aren’t. They want the approval of their community, perhaps, or of their family. They, in fact, don’t know enough about Christianity to say they don’t believe it, so they go along with everyone else they know.

Nowhere is “Christian” the default position. A person doesn’t get born a Christian. It’s actually an informed, thought-out, consciously chosen position. And it’s a life-changing decision because it marks the beginning of a life of discipleship, of following Jesus by paying attention to what He taught and what He explained to the very first disciples.

I guess the real question is not, are Catholics Christians, but am I a Christian.

What’s The Bible All About? — A Reprise


I think a lot of people have misunderstood the Bible—Christians and non-Christians alike. Some see it as a rule book, others as the Christian version of Confucius’s sayings. Many people use the Bible to prove whatever point they want to get across—sort of a handy debater’s list of proof texts. A number of folks believe the Bible shows people the way to God. Some say it is a record of God’s dealing with humankind and others call it “His Story,” referring to Jesus.

These last two views are true as far as they go. The Bible does indeed record God’s dealing with humankind, but what are those dealings? And the Bible does, from cover to cover, either explicitly or implicitly, point to Jesus Christ. But what particularly does it say about Him?

As I have said in this space from time to time, the Bible is one book and needs to be understood as a whole. Any use of its individual parts—verses, passages, chapters, books, or even testaments—needs to be measured against the whole message of the Bible.

For example, there’s a verse that contains this: “There is no God.” Someone might point to that statement and say, the Bible claims that there is no God. In reality, that line needs to be understood in relation to the entire Bible as well as to the specific context in which it exists.

A quick scan of the Bible shows that God appears throughout; consequently the statement “there is no God” is not an accurate reflection of the Bible’s teaching. In addition, the specific context of the phrase is this: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’ ” (Psalm 14:1).

Occasionally I’ve seen a number of people quote from the book of Ecclesiastes to prove various points of debate. Again, that approach is suspect since much of Ecclesiastes is Solomon’s thinking apart from God’s direction—his view of the world “under the sun,” as opposed to his view informed by God’s wisdom.

The question should always be, Do these thoughts align with the rest of Scripture?

But that brings me back to the central question—what particularly is the rest of Scripture all about? A former pastor gave an insightful and simple answer to this question, starting in Genesis.

When Adam and Eve sinned, they did two specific things—they hid their bodies from one another (covered their nakedness) and hid themselves from God.

In the cool of the day, God walked in the garden and asked Adam where he was. Of course, omniscient God wasn’t seeking information. He wanted to give Adam a chance to give up his feeble effort to cover his sin and to confess. In other words, He was seeking Adam in a much deeper way than to see where Adam’s GPS showed him to be.

A quick scan of Scripture shows that God continued to seek people in this same way. He said in Ezekiel, “For thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out.’ ”

He took up Enoch and saved Noah. He chose Abraham and sought out David. He chastised Jonah and rescued Daniel.

Jesus graphically illustrated God’s relentless pursuit of us when He gave the parable of the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep to find the one lost lamb. He followed that story with the illustration of the woman who looked throughout her house for her lost coin.

And therein is the message of the Bible—not that we seek God, but that He pursues us, giving up all that is precious to Him, even His own beloved Son, in order to bring us back to Himself.

The great, glad news, of course, is that Jesus bore our sins in His body, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. And because of His resurrection, we also have Christ, through His Spirit, living within each believer. As Romans 5 says, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This post is a revised version of one that appeared here in April, 2013,

Published in: on April 20, 2018 at 5:06 pm  Comments Off on What’s The Bible All About? — A Reprise  
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Autonomy VS Freedom


I’m reading a thought-provoking book called Saving Truth by Abdu Murray, a member of the RZIM apologetics team. He introduces his topic by discussing post-truth and the effects on society of this mindset.

The greatest effect, Mr. Murray says, is that people now believe in autonomy, not freedom. Thankfully, he took time to explain what he means. Autonomy comes from two Greek roots, one meaning self and the other meaning rule. Thus, autonomy means self-rule, or without external control.

The problem with autonomy, of course, is that my autonomy and your autonomy may collide. And then, as Mr. Murray points out, might makes right. The stronger of the two dictates to the weaker. In other words, autonomy is actually the gateway to tyranny, with anarchy a stop along the way.

Mr. Murray likened autonomy to what Israel experienced in the era of the Judges. Scripture records this statement: “In those days, there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6).

The result was chaos and all kinds of immoral action. People abused others and reacted in violent ways. And no one was willing to take responsibility until civil war broke out.

Freedom is very different. It’s akin to liberty or the ability to stand on your own, and “implies the power to choose among alternatives rather than merely being unrestrained” (Oxford-American Dictionary). In truth, true freedom occurs when a person is guided by moral law.

I think of the example I heard years ago when I was teaching. Some experiment was done in which children were given an open field in which to play during their recess breaks. There were no walls, no fences, but the children concentrated their play near the building. Some time later, the children were provided with a fenced area in which to play, and this time they scattered to the distant parts of the designated field.

In reality the “restriction” gave the children a sense of safety that allowed them to take off their self-restraint and enjoy the area where they’d been allowed to go. Without the boundaries, however, they created self-imposed restrictions that hampered their movement.

Of course, the experiment could have taken a different direction. The children without the boundaries could have left the school grounds. They could have run into the street. They might have vandalized homes in the vicinity. They could have harassed neighbors. They might have stayed away instead of returning to school. They could have been abducted.

The point is, their autonomy didn’t have to result in self-restraint. It could just as easily have resulted in their impinging on someone else’s rights and misusing their property, even as they put themselves at risk to be harmed, accidentally or on purpose.

Freedom is something we can all enjoy. Autonomy leads only to chaos and ultimately tyranny.

Again looking to the era of the judges in Israel’s history, when society descended into chaos, the people cried for a king. They wanted someone to impose on them the rules of law that would bring order. Of course, the result was that the entire nation was then under the rule of one man who subjected them to the laws he decided to establish or follow.

As a result the southern nation was a bit of a yo-yo. When they had a king that followed God, they returned to the sacrifices and temple worship established at their beginning. When they had a king that forsook God and worshiped idols, then they built high places and indulged in child sacrifice and temple prostitution. At one point, the Mosaic Law was not just forgotten, the scrolls that contained it were buried in the temple so that the people didn’t even know what God’s standard was.

Post-truth. They lived at the whim of whoever was on the throne.

The northern kingdom fared worse. They actually went from one coup to another as particular military men vied for control of the nation. At one point in history, one man assassinated the sitting king, but the army followed a different leader. So the one who had connived to take the throne was himself ousted.

Chaos. Tyranny. By ignoring God’s law, by choosing autocracy, they actually forfeited their freedom.

Jesus says, The Truth will set you free. Of course, He also says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” So Jesus is the truth. The truth sets you free. Consequently, Jesus sets you free.

Daniel’s Prophecies—Evidence That The Bible Is True


Prophecy in general provides evidence that the Bible is true, and that God exists, for that matter. Perhaps this fact is more clearly evident in the book of Daniel.

For one thing, the book is anchored in known history. Evidence for the rule of specific Babylonian kings, kings of the Media-Persian empire, even Jewish kings, exists outside the Bible. No one can say Daniel is dealing with pretend individuals in a pretend place.

In addition, Daniel gave much of his prophecy to pagan kings—Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius, Cyrus—who started out worshiping their own gods. Because Daniel’s prophecies came true, he gained their favor and was promoted as a key figure in the various governments.

History records the outcome of some of his prophecies, the Bible records others, but in each case they happened as Daniel said they would.

Take one of Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, for example. What he saw was prophetic, but he needed Daniel to interpret it. In short, the dream prophesied that the Babylonian empire would give way to the empire of the Medes and the Persians. That empire would give way to the Greek rule, and the Romans would take over from them, though that empire would fracture into four not-so-powerful regions. No surprise that these things took place, except that Daniel’s prophecy foretold them accurately.

On a personal note, Daniel interpreted another of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams:

‘My lord, if only the dream applied to those who hate you and its interpretation to your adversaries! The tree that you saw, which became large and grew strong, whose height reached to the sky and was visible to all the earth and whose foliage was beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in which was food for all, under which the beasts of the field dwelt and in whose branches the birds of the sky lodged—–it is you, O king; for you have become great and grown strong, and your majesty has become great and reached to the sky and your dominion to the end of the earth. In that the king saw an angelic watcher, a holy one, descending from heaven and saying, “Chop down the tree and destroy it; yet leave the stump with its roots in the ground, but with a band of iron and bronze around it in the new grass of the field, and let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him share with the beasts of the field until seven periods of time pass over him,” this is the interpretation, O king, and this is the decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king’ (from Daniel 4)

A year later, just as Daniel prophesied, Nebuchadnezzar had a psychotic break that left him behaving like an animal. But he recovered, and he reported himself that God brought him from the brink of madness:

“At that time my reason returned to me. And my majesty and splendor were restored to me for the glory of my kingdom, and my counselors and my nobles began seeking me out; so I was reestablished in my sovereignty, and surpassing greatness was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, exalt and honor the King of heaven, for all His works are true and His ways just, and He is able to humble those who walk in pride.” (Ibid.)

Another personal prophecy Daniel delivered was to King Belshazzar. In this instance he interpreted a supernatural writing on the wall which declared the end of this particular king’s rule. The result?

That same night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was slain. So Darius the Mede received the kingdom at about the age of sixty-two. (see Daniel 5)

More evidence of the truth of these prophecies, on top of their fulfillment, is the fact that the different kings listened to Daniel, believed him, promoted him, and rewarded him. If what he said was not verified, these kings would no more have kept Daniel around than American Presidents keep their cabinet members around.

In addition, Daniel incurred the wrath of other key people in King Darius’s administration, so much so that they manipulated the king into creating a law directed at Daniel. They wanted to accuse him of wrong doing, but they couldn’t find any corruption in anything he’d done. They resorted to the only thing they knew they could catch him doing: praying.

God, after all, was Daniel’s source of knowledge, as he repeatedly said. He couldn’t interpret dreams or prophecy. But God could reveal what He willed through Daniel.

The only argument against this evidence of fulfilled prophecy that I’m aware of is the alteration of the date of writing for the book.

Internal evidence clearly marks all these prophecies as occurring during the 70 years of Jewish exile, before any of the political events took place. But those who do not believe that prophecy can and does exist, immediately give a late date to the book of Daniel, reasoning that the events must have happened before some writer inscribed them.

It’s an old trick: dismiss evidence because of the supernatural elements, then claim no evidence for the supernatural exists.

The truth is, the prophecies of Daniel bear witness to the fact that God who is sovereign over the affairs of men, has revealed Himself, His work, His plan, His purpose within the pages of the Bible.

Published in: on April 18, 2018 at 6:19 pm  Comments (1)  
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Christian Forgiveness: Conditional Or Unconditional?


The_Crucifixion001Some years ago I read a new thing about forgiveness—well, new to me. The idea popped up on a post at Spec Faith by Stephen Burnett, then expanded as I followed a link to a post by Kevin DeYoung. I respect both of these men, but I have to admit, I think they’re missing something important about Christian forgiveness.

As I understand the principle they’re presenting, they believe there are two ideas about forgiveness: one, a therapeutic forgiveness that is popular today even in the secular world, and two, a Biblical forgiveness that is dependent upon the repentance of the offender.

In his article about these two types of forgiveness, Mr. DeYoung goes to pains to explain that the second type of forgiveness in no way condones an attitude of bitterness or revenge:

We should always love our enemies. We should always fight against bitterness. We should cast all our cares on the Lord. We should learn to trust God’s providence. We should be eager to forgive those who hurt us and be reconciled to them.

The foundational thought to this idea that a Christian only forgives those who repent, is that we are to forgive like God forgives and He forgives conditionally—that condition being repentance.

Let me back up and explain “therapeutic forgiveness.” I’d not heard the term before, but I think it does describe a humanistic co-oping of a Biblical principle. The idea here is that giving forgiveness makes the person doing the forgiving feel better. There is no intent to reconcile, however. It’s just a way of escaping negative feelings like anger and bitterness.

Many Christians, influenced by Lewis Smedes and a lot of pop psychology, have a therapeutic understanding of forgiveness. They think of forgiveness as a unilateral, internal effort to get our emotions under control. (“What Is Forgiveness?”)

The Biblical view, according to Mr. DeYoung, is that forgiveness is the means to reconciliation. Hence, the Christian should always be ready to forgive, but true forgiveness only comes when both parties move toward one another, repenting and receiving or offering forgiveness as necessary.

Again the rationale behind this concept is the Scriptural statement that we are to forgive as Christ forgave us.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (ESV, Eph. 4:32)

I’ll admit, I have problems with this approach. First, I don’t think there has to be two choices: either therapeutic or Biblical conditional forgiveness. I think there can easily be a third option: Biblical unconditional forgiveness.

Part of my thinking is that some Bible scholars get tied up trying to think the way God thinks. Mr. DeYoung, then, says God’s forgiveness is conditional and therefore ours should be too, as if it’s possible for us to understand the conditional nature of God’s forgiveness.

Ah, but doesn’t Ephesians 4:32 say that’s how we are to forgive? I don’t think necessarily it does. I don’t read the verse as saying we are to forgive in the same manner that God forgives, but that we are to forgive because we received forgiveness.

Paul says essentially the same thing in Col. 3:13:

bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

The intent does not seem focused on forgiving in like manner but extending to others the forgiveness we received.

In other words, I see these verses mirroring Jesus’s instructions to forgive in response to the forgiveness we received. See, for example, the parable He told about the slave who received forgiveness for his debt only to turn around and withhold forgiveness from his fellow slave:

Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ (Matt. 18:32-33; see the entire parable in vv. 23-35)

It seems apparent to me that this “in the same way” is not talking about manner or even condition. In reality neither slave asked that their debt would be forgiven. They asked for more time to pay it off themselves. The act of forgiveness was an extension of mercy—the undeserved offer to cancel the debt.

This is what Christ did on the cross

When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Col. 2:13-14)

As I read those verses, I’m convinced that God didn’t forgive us when we had put ourselves in a position to deserve it by repenting. He went to the cross while we were yet sinners.

Consequently, I don’t believe as Mr. DeYoung does that God’s forgiveness was conditional. He gave His forgiveness to anyone and everyone, but not everyone has accepted it. When Scripture says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16), I think the words “world” and “whoever” remove conditions from God’s side of the equation.

When Paul instructed Timothy to pray for all men, he explained his reasoning this way:

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.

There are literally dozens of verses throughout the Bible that carry this same idea. But one of the most telling, for me, is 2 Thess. 2:10ff which looks at salvation and forgiveness from the side of those who do not accept it:

[the lawless one will come with all power and signs and false wonders] 10 and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. 11 For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, 12 in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. (Emphasis added.)

These who perish did not receive, implying that they could have received. They took pleasure in wickedness, implying that they could have refrained from taking pleasure in wickedness. They did not believe the truth, implying they could have believed the truth.

All this to say, the third reason I don’t believe forgiveness for the Christian is conditional, based on the repentance of the offender, is because I don’t believe God’s forgiveness is conditional.

I understand there are believers of a different doctrinal persuasion from mine who will disagree, but maybe two out of three reasons will be enough to make the case against this idea that forgiveness needs to be earned by repentance.

This post is a revised version of one that originally appeared here in July, 2014.

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