Warnings Or Threats


Jesus Christ came to seek and to save. That cost Him His life. But Scripture also says He gave us an example to follow. Peter said it clearly in his first letter.

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. (1 Peter 2:22-24)

So Christ is our model. When he was condemned, censured, abused, attacked, He didn’t sling invectives back. While he was beaten bloody, while he hung dying, He didn’t curse those who were responsible. He didn’t threaten them with Hell, and surely He could have.

I started thinking about threats in the context of warning sinners about their eternal destiny if they don’t repent.

I’ve said before that part of a Christian’s responsibility is to tell people the truth about what their headed towards. How else can they turn from the error of their ways if they haven’t heard that their ways are leading to destruction?

I’ve likened the Christian’s role to that of an emergency worker warning traffic that up ahead the bridge is out. They can’t slow down and carefully easy their way forward. No, the bridge is gone! If they continue down the road, they will crash. No other option. They must either turn around or die.

Is that a threat?

I know some atheists think so. They look at Christians as gleeful in their pronouncements of doom.

The truth is, there’s a difference between warning someone of impending disaster and threatening someone with it. In the first case, the person is trying to prevent harm and in the second, he is calling it down on another’s head.

Sadly, I believe the Christian’s job to proclaim the truth about God’s justice is much harder as a result of a misguided group of people professing Christ but listening to false teaching—five years ago it was the Westboro Baptist folks and now it’s many in the alt-right.

Five years ago the Westboro Baptist group was in the news here in SoCal as they made plans to come and picket the funeral of a soldier killed in combat. As it turned out, they didn’t show up, but the local community was up in arms and ready to spring a counter-protest.

These wrong-headed people are in no way following in Jesus’s steps. This from a news release sent out days before the funeral and still available on their web site:

GOD HATES AMERICA & IS KILLING
YOUR TROOPS IN HIS WRATH.
Military funerals have become pagan orgies of
idolatrous blasphemy, where they pray to the
dunghill gods of Sodom & play taps to a fallen fool.

The last line is the worst: “THANK GOD FOR IEDs.” That would be the weapon used to kill this soldier.

So how is it that people like this think they are walking in obedience to God’s will? Christ was suffering but He made no threats. Do they think that because they’re not the ones suffering, it’s OK to issue threats and recrimination?

In the end, all they accomplish is to confuse society so that when someone wants to issue a warning, it’s taken as a threat. But that’s what false teaching does—it plays right into the hands of Satan, the father of lies.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in June 2012.

Published in: on June 19, 2017 at 5:57 pm  Comments (1)  
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No Thank You, Mr. Buffett


Suppose I decide I want to talk to Warren Buffett, the American business magnate. I hunt up a number, call, and wonderfully am answered on the first ring by one of his many assistants.

I explain I want to talk to Mr. Buffett himself. The assistant tells me he just happens to be on site and available. In seconds I hear Mr. Buffett’s energetic voice.

I eagerly identify myself, then move on to the reason for my call. “Thank you,” I say, “but Mr. Buffett I’ll have to say no. I just can’t accept a million dollars from you.”

He pauses, clears his voice, then says, “There must be some mistake. I never offered you a million dollars.”

As you know, this scenario is completely fictitious, but I think there are parts that are analogous to our perception of humankind’s relationship with God.

Jesus clearly said that

he who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:18; emphasis mine)

As I understand this passage, there are only two camps—he who believes and he who has not believed. In other words, no one is in the state of my fictitious scenario in which no offer has been made.

We frequently talk about accepting Christ, yet we don’t take much time thinking about what rejecting the Son means. Instead, we assume that first a person hears about Jesus, then he “makes a decision.” That way of looking at things suggests the third category—those who have not heard.

I want to postulate that the decision to reject the Son of God has more to do with our heart attitude than it does with hearing the name of Jesus.

I realize I am walking a dangerous line here, one I think some of the universalists traverse. However, I hope I am coming at it from a Biblical perspective.

More and more, people claiming to be Christians speak of the “innocent” people who haven’t heard the gospel (as Rob Bell did some years ago in his ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos). At best that position is tapping into the “blank slate” theory, that man is born neutral and can decide to be good or evil. At worst, it aligns with the belief that man is good and something from the outside—society or government or Satan or an evil parent or traditional religion—drags him into sin.

The truth is, none is innocent. None is righteous. We are all in “reject” mode, dethroning God and enthroning ourselves.

Let me turn the page for a minute. When Jesus was teaching in the temple one day, He began a discussion with the Pharisees about who their father was. They claimed God was their father, but Jesus said no. Their father was the devil (see John 8:18-59).

Whether Jesus stood in front of them or not, their father would still have been the devil. He did not become their father because they rejected Jesus as their Messiah. The devil already was their father.

Jesus, of course, knew this about them because He is omniscient. He knew they were slaves to sin. The only thing that could free them would be His shed blood.

But today so many are coming to the issue of salvation as if it is a matter of imparting information—giving everyone a chance to hear the truth, and if they haven’t had that chance, then God is either unfair or He’ll give them that chance later or the information we thought they needed, they didn’t really need because their own belief system is a good substitute.

All of this rejects the idea that an omniscient, all powerful, good God who forms us in our mothers’ wombs can know our hearts and that He calls those who are His. It’s an uncomfortable idea.

We don’t know, can’t understand why God put us in America where we could so easily hear the gospel.

But we must marvel just as much about Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, who was kidnapped with the intent to be sold into slavery. As a result, he had the opportunity to learn about Jesus and escaped the plague that wiped out the rest of his people group.

Or how about Mincayani, one of the Huaorani tribesmen that killed Jim Eliot and the others martyred with him. His act of violence did not stop the truth of God from coming to his people and specifically to Mincayani himself.

The stories of people coming to Christ are many, varied, and no less miraculous if the miracle is about being born where the gospel is readily heard or if it is about one hearing the unexpected and unsought truth of God’s Son.

My point is this. I don’t believe anyone will be judged for rejecting an unoffered gift. God is not Warren Buffett.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in March 2011.

Jesus And Jerusalem


Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for one final Passover. Christians refer to the commemoration of this as Palm Sunday, and it marks the beginning of Holy Week.

The thing most noteworthy about this arrival—and thus the name—is that His followers preceded Him with palm branches and shouts of praise. They believed they were ushering in the promised Messiah. And they were. But they understood the Messiah to be a king who would free Israel from their enemies (Rome) and establish a new kingdom without end.

Jesus’s expectations were entirely different. He came to Jerusalem knowing full well that the people He had come to save would turn their backs on Him, would falsely accuse Him, try and convict Him, beat Him, and finally crucify Him.

Oh, sure, at the end of His life people would still identify Him as king of the Jews, but the words would be inscribed on a board at the head of the cross where He would be nailed—the place where a criminal’s accusation would typically be placed.

His expectation was not that of a triumphal king. He was coming to Jerusalem to fulfill His role as suffering servant.

Ironically, after the people stopped cheering, after they began to be swayed by the Pharisees who regarded Jesus as a danger to them, to their way of life, Jesus accomplished the very thing they had hoped for. Just not in the way they expected.

In those first moments on His way up to the City, despite the palm branches and the cries of Hosanna, Jesus expected to die in Jerusalem. In dying, He would fulfill the very role His followers had wanted for Him. He would defeat their enemy and free them from the shackles they had been held by. But the enemy was death and the shackles were sin.

Jesus’s brief stay in Jerusalem and the nearby villages was marked by controversy. He would say things that put the Pharisees in their place. He would weep over the city because of their rejection of Him.

He would face betrayal and denial and desertion. He’d be lied about and misunderstood. Romans, who hated the Jews, would spit on Him and mock Him as the king of that backwater Roman province.

And Jesus walked into it all, headlong. He knew what was coming. He expected every insulting, cruel action and word directed His way.

The praises showered on Him that first day as He rode the donkey into the City, were a result of His miracles, according to Luke. The people knew Him to be the person who performed wondrous deeds, including the resurrection of Lazarus. Perhaps they’d witnessed one of the healings. After all, just outside of Jericho He gave sight to the blind beggar Bartimaeus. Perhaps word of this miracle had traveled ahead of him. Or certainly with the group of followers who accompanied Him.

But Jesus hadn’t come to Jerusalem to do more for those people’s physical condition. What they really needed, they didn’t realize. So they came looking for one thing, and Jesus came intending to give them something far greater.

That they missed it, grieved His heart, and He cried over the city.

What must the people have thought, this figure they wanted to crown as their king, pausing on the ride into the city . . . to cry? Maybe that’s when the seeds of disaffection were first planted. But Jesus crying for the lost was the truest picture of His heart and the motivation for what He intended.

He went to the cross—He wasn’t dragged there against His will—to be the ultimate Passover Lamb for Israel and for us Gentiles, too. We who didn’t even know we needed a Passover Lamb. Jesus knew what we needed above all else—peace with God, victory over sin and death—and that’s what He intended to give us, no matter what it cost.

Groaning


This world is groaning. It’s the weight of sin that causes it, and it’s been going on for … well, since Eve believed Satan over God.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if we as human beings aren’t more aware of the groaning than at any point in history.

Terrorism has people across the globe on heightened alert. War and rebellion are tearing nations apart. Famine is on the increase, and the economy of the rich countries vacillates beyond our control. Add to all this earthquakes in places like Haiti, Chile, and Japan; the tornadoes and flooding in the US; hurricanes on the East coast.

We’re groaning.

Professing Christians are leaving the church. Government—democratic government that was supposed to have the necessary checks and balances–is self-serving if not corrupt. Marriage is being redefined. In other words, civilized institutions are crumbling.

We’re groaning.

The weight of sin is too big. Drug addiction isn’t lessening. Anxiety isn’t disappearing no matter how much we medicate. Neither is depression. Interpersonal conflicts haven’t ceased. In fact divorce is still a growing problem no matter that so many people now practice at marriage before making “lifetime” vows. Abuse continues or perhaps is on the increase. Child slavery and sex trafficking are problems that seem without end.

We’re groaning.

Worst of all, who can we trust? The person we love the most is the person who shatters our hopes and betrays us by their unfaithfulness.

We are indeed groaning.

Should I go on to mention cancer or AIDS or fears of a worldwide pandemic? I suspect it’s not necessary.

At every turn, we’re groaning.

Like any number of crises recorded in the Bible, God is standing with open arms saying, Your way leads to destruction. My way leads to life.

Over and over stiff-necked people ignored Him or shook their fists in His face, denying His right to rule. So it seems, we’re doing today.

We think if we just get the right person in the White House, if we only raise taxes or cut spending, if we only marry the right guy or girl, pass this piece of legislation or that, solve one key problem then another, use this green technology or drill that oil well, then, at last, the world will come round aright.

In that foolish thinking, we are ignoring the One who wants us to fix our eyes on His Son.

“See to it,” Paul said to the Colossians, “that no one takes you captive through philosophy or empty deception according to the traditions of men, according to the elementary principles of this world, rather than according to Christ.”

The philosophy and empty deception of our day says we can solve our own problems, that we don’t need anything outside ourselves. We have the power within us.

And yet, with all this great power within ( 🙄 ), we don’t seem any closer to bringing the groaning to an end. We’re looking in the wrong places.

There isn’t a chemical high or an alcohol-induced haze that will mask the pain long enough, there isn’t a movie or video game or concert or ballgame that will distract us sufficiently, there isn’t a better relationship that will heal our shattered heart.

Except the one God offers through Christ Jesus. He is our Hope, and He is our Salvation.

In Him the groaning will one day come to an end. And even while we wait for that day, we find comfort and peace and joy in the presence of the only One who can see us through. The Psalmist says, “He Himself knows our frame.” And Moses in Deuteronomy says, “The Lord your God is the One who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.” God through Isaiah says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.”

Paul tells us in Romans that the Spirit groans, too. For us. “The Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

The world groans under the weight of sin, but God through Jesus Christ has conquered sin. Praise His Name.

Easter, which is coming up later this month, is all about commemorating what Jesus Christ did to free us from the slavery to sin. But unless we acknowledge the weight of sin, we won’t appreciate what God accomplished through His Son.

Sometimes I think people have to be blind not to see the effects of sin. But we are so used to the things that break God’s heart and that harm humankind, we take them as “normal.” They aren’t. What God created was good. What we’ll enjoy in the new heaven and the new earth will be free from the “slavery to corruption.” And even now we can enter into the “freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

This post is a revised and expanded version of one that first appeared here in September 2011.

Published in: on April 7, 2017 at 6:49 pm  Comments (28)  
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Children Believe


427707_boy_and_his_grandpaChristians believe Jesus was completely God and Jesus was completely a man. I realized how such an apparent impossibility must sound to a rational mind. Or perhaps to a grown-up mind stripped of its creative wonder.

Children have that creative wonder and believe easily. I remember believing that the earth is round long before I saw a photograph of our round earth taken from space. I remember believing that one day my daddy would be President, and I remember believing that my brother could score a touchdown by dragging me across the goal line while I had the football.

When I learned that my dad had no interest in being President, I was disillusioned, I have to admit. And when I learned that my brother had figuratively, as well as literally, pulled my leg, I was disillusioned in another way. But the point for this post in recalling these childhood memories is to illustrate that I believed without requiring proof or explanation.

I believed the teacher who said the earth was round because she was the teacher! I believed my dad would be President because he was Dad. And I believed my brother’s version of the rules of football because he was my brother. Children believe easily.

Jesus said as much when His disciples tried to get people to stop bringing their children to Him.

“Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” (Mark 10:14b-15; emphasis mine)

Jesus was not saying we need to be childish, but childlike. Trusting. Not skeptical. That isn’t to say that skeptics can’t come to Christ.

Of His twelve chosen disciples, one was a skeptic. Thomas determined that he wouldn’t believe Jesus had risen from the dead unless he personally verified the fact with his own eyes. Can you blame him? I mean, he saw Jesus die. Most likely he saw them wrap his body for burial, put him in the tomb, and roll the stone in front of the entrance. Who wouldn’t be skeptical about this “He is risen” message?

Well, little children wouldn’t—not when they hear it from someone they trust. And adults wouldn’t if they are willing to hear what God says in the same way children hear—with wide-eyed wonder, with hope and expectation, with confident dependence.

The thing is, this kind of childlike faith does not replace reason. I believed my dad would become President up until the day when he told me why that wouldn’t happen. I didn’t keep believing in the face of contrary evidence. But here’s the important point—I learned from the very father I believed in. I went to him and asked him. The answer he gave me wasn’t the one I wanted to hear, but I knew he was telling me the truth. I knew I could still trust him.

Interestingly, God deals with us in a similar way. When we trust Him, we can ask Him all kinds of questions. We may not hear the answer we wanted, but we can be sure He won’t lie to us. We can be sure He’ll give us what we need when we need it.

I’m reminded of the story Corrie ten Boom told. She was struggling about whether or not she could handle some difficulty in the future. Her father helped her understand, by comparing the circumstance to when he gave her the train ticket she needed–not too soon but right when she needed it—that God would give her what she needed when she needed it.

Children are great question askers. They believe easily, but they also want to understand why. When Jesus said we are to become like little children, I’m confident He knew precisely what that entails, including their curious minds that want to know why. The great thing about God is that He satisfies the curious minds. In fact He authoritatively states that He is the Truth–the source for the answers to all our questions.

For people who want to make up their own truth, that’s not a satisfying statement. But like my brother who was quite inventive in coming up with his own football rules to benefit himself, there will come a day when those who live by their own truth will meet Truth. There will be no way to escape the fact that all those points they said they were scoring by using their own made up rules, count for nothing.

This post is a revised and edited version of one that first appeared here in April 2013.

Published in: on April 3, 2017 at 6:14 pm  Comments (2)  
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God’s Indictment Of His People


Old_Testament sacrificesThe books of prophecy are filled with warnings–some against the nations surrounding Israel and Judah, but most directed at God’s chosen people themselves. Micah is no exception, but the things he points up seem a little different.

Others, like Isaiah and Hosea and Jeremiah seem to focus most on God’s people forsaking Him by worshiping idols or by not keeping His Sabbath or by mistreating the orphans and widows and strangers.

Micah, on the other hand, focuses more on the restoration. Israel, God’s chosen people, will face a day of reckoning, but redemption will follow. Nevertheless, God indicts them for some pointed things: cheating in business, bribery, lying to one another, and violence.

Here’s a sample:

Now hear this, heads of the house of Jacob
And rulers of the house of Israel,
Who abhor justice
And twist everything that is straight,
Who build Zion with bloodshed
And Jerusalem with violent injustice.
Her leaders pronounce judgment for a bribe,
Her priests instruct for a price
And her prophets divine for money.
Yet they lean on the Lord saying,
“Is not the Lord in our midst?
Calamity will not come upon us.”
Therefore, on account of you
Zion will be plowed as a field,
Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins,
And the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest. (3:9-12 – emphasis mine)

A few chapters later Micah points out to the people that they can’t bring enough offering to make right what they’ve done.

With what shall I come to the Lord
And bow myself before the God on high?
Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings,
With yearling calves?
Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams,
In ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts,
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (6:6-7)

Rather God has made plain what He expects:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God? (6:8)

We can’t earn a place with God by doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with Him, but we can live up to our relationship with Him by practicing those things.

The relationship, interestingly enough, comes because God did what was needed—He paid that insurmountable price which thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of oil couldn’t satisfy. He presented His Son for my rebellious acts, for the sin of my soul.

With my certificate of debt canceled, nailed to the cross, I can “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects” (Colossians 1:10).

What does that look like? Well, Micah said it, didn’t he. God has told us what is good, what He requires of us: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with our God.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in May 2013. The YouTube music video below is a new addition.

Abiding In Christ


My church has a candidate for senior pastor, Darin McWatters, and it turns out he was a guest speaker at our church last July. I even wrote a blog article based on one of the three sermons he preached that month.

In his first message Pastor McWatters spoke from John 15, particularly these verses:

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me (vv 1-4).

I’m not going to go into everything he said (I just watched the video last week, so it’s fresh in my mind), but he gave one illustration that I think will stay with me for a long time. He came to the point where Jesus said we are to “abide” in Christ, which he said means essentially to stay. But the original carries the idea of actively staying. It’s not a passive, do-nothing role.

In other words, we aren’t to stay in the “hands off the wheel” sense of the word. But what does actively staying look like?

Pastor McWatters said it can be likened to aerial refueling of fighter planes which both the US Navy and the US Air Force use. I did a little checking and learned that there are two types of aerial refueling processes: the probe-and-drogue system used by the Navy, and the flying-boom system used by the Air Force.

It is the latter that our speaker referenced, and it certainly seems like an apropos illustration of actively staying.

With the flying-boom system, the fuel tanker goes on autopilot at the appropriate speed and altitude, but the plane receiving the fuel remains hand-flown. In other words, it’s the job of the pilot of the plane receiving fuel to match the speed and altitude of the tanker, and to stay in the proper alignment while the boom is attached and the fuel dispensed.

An article describing the process said it’s essentially the same skill needed when pilots fly their planes in formation.

In either case, the job is anything but kicking back and letting come what may. There has to be a great deal of work involved to stay at the proper distance and to maintain proper air speed and control, especially if unexpected turbulence should buffet the aircraft.

In the same way, believers are to abide in Christ. He is the constant. We are the ones tasked to “stand firm” as Paul phrased it. We are to be in proper alignment, which certainly is the work of Jesus at the cross. He spilled His blood for the forgiveness of sins. He made it possible for us to be born again, to have new life, to be adopted as children of God.

But fruit-bearing, which is what Jesus was talking to His disciples about the night before He went to the cross, requires us to abide. To actively stay.

I think about the Jewish Christians the book of Hebrews was written to. They had certain expectations about this Messiah they had put their faith in—one being that He would return soon. When that didn’t happen, some considered turning back, leaving their new faith, and returning to their old way of working to fulfill the Law.

The writer of Hebrews is encouraging them to stay the course, to keep going in the Way. One way they were to accomplish this was to take heed to God’s word:

For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. (2:1)

Another way that we believers can “hold fast” is by encouraging each other. The writer of Hebrews says we are to do so day after day so that we won’t be “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” I take this kind of encouragement to be more than sideline cheerleading. I think it’s a constant, continual reminder of why Jesus Christ is trustworthy. The fact that we are to counter the “deceitfulness” of sin implies that we are to offer the truth of righteousness: we have it because of Jesus Christ and would have none of it apart from Him.

In terms of the aerial refueling illustration, if we don’t abide, don’t stay aligned with the tanker, we might be able to keep going on our own for a little while, but eventually we’ll run out of fuel. Our brothers and sisters in the faith can help us by reminding us that we need fuel, that the source of fuel is within reach, that it’s worth staying where we’ll get the fuel we need.

Third, we are to “hold fast our confession.” I take this to mean we are to refuse to go back on our word. Our confession of faith is our decision to trust Jesus to forgive us our sins and to put us in right relationship with God.

For years I questioned my confession of faith. Did I really mean it when I repented of my sins? I didn’t feel any different. I didn’t sense the Holy Spirit in my life. Nothing seemed all that different. So did my confession of faith “take”? Just to be sure, I made several more confessions of faith. I was where a lot of those Jews were that the the writer of Hebrews was talking to:

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.

That brings me to the final point for today: discerning good and evil. We can abide in Christ when we discern which way we need to go when turbulence buffets us. Do we need to correct to the right so we won’t be carried off line? Do we need more speed because we’re headed into the wind? We need discernment. What is evil and what is good.

That could be a blog post all on its own, and maybe it will be someday. At any rate, the concept of abiding in Christ has a lot more to it than “just staying.” For starters it means to pay attention to God’s word, to encourage (and be encouraged by) other believers, to keep to the confession of my faith, and to discern evil and good.

Published in: on March 29, 2017 at 5:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lovingkindness And Truth


Psalm 115 opens in verse one by ascribing glory to God because of His lovingkindness, because of His truth. I’ll admit, I was a little caught off guard by the marriage of those two nouns. Lovingkindness and compassion appear together quite often in the Bible. So do truth and righteousness.

But lovingkindness and truth? Not so very common. Or so I thought until I searched a little more.

It seems a number of Psalms couple these two qualities of God. Here’s a sampling:

All the paths of the LORD are lovingkindness and truth
To those who keep His covenant and His testimonies. (25:10)

You, O LORD, will not withhold Your compassion from me;
Your lovingkindness and Your truth will continually preserve me. (40:11)

I will give thanks to You, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to You among the nations.
For Your lovingkindness is great to the heavens
And Your truth to the clouds. (57:9-10)

But You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth. (86:15)

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne;
Lovingkindness and truth go before You. (89:14)

Clearly lovingkindness and truth are not, as I first thought, an unusual combination when describing God.

What caught my attention, however, was the way these two traits reflect God’s role as a judge.

So many people, including some believers, don’t want to talk about God judging anyone. He’s loving and kind and good.

All true. All. True. ALL. TRUE.

Nothing can take away or diminish God’s love or His kindness or His goodness. Nothing.

Not even His wrath. Not even His justice which requires punishment for sin.

In God is the perfect marriage of truth and mercy, or as the NASB states it, lovingkindness. God is Truth; His works are true and His ways just (Daniel 4:37). But God is also love, and His mercy endures forever.

Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting. (107:1)

For the LORD is good;
His lovingkindness is everlasting
And His faithfulness to all generations. (100:5)

Because God is Truth and there is no lie in Him, He is the perfect judge. No one can sway His understanding of the truth. There’s no slanting actions or thoughts so that they can be seen in a more favorable light. There are no excuses that will satisfy. There’s no bribe that would change His mind.

With God as the judge, all the facts will come out. The guilty will be condemned; the oppressed will find satisfaction and relief from the misdeeds of those who oppressed them.

But God is also merciful: “He Himself knows our frame. / He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14). So He does what we cannot do for ourselves. He doesn’t ignore our sin. He doesn’t dismiss the charges. He pays for our sins.

Romans 8 says it so beautifully:

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (vv 3-4; emphasis mine)

So here’s the way things are, in a nutshell:
We humans are sinful and have no way to get out of our sin or escape punishment for it.
God sent His Son to pay what we owed.

That’s it. We needed to be rescued and God sent us a Rescuer. We needed to pay our debt, and God paid it for us.

Some people get hung up on several points of this simple plan of salvation.

  • Some do not admit they sin or are sinful.
  • Some think God is cruel to judge according to laws He established.
  • Some think God doesn’t have the right to judge.

Essentially the argument against salvation takes one of two angles: Either humankind is fine just as it is, thank you very much. We can either do for ourselves or we’re good as is and don’t need any doing on our behalf, from God or from any one else. Or God can’t judge because He’s either cruel or He doesn’t have the right to rule over humankind.

In other words, humans are better than God says we are, or God is not in a position to rule as He says He is.

Both positions question God’s word. God says, but a person with a rebellious heart refuses to take God at His Word.

So God tells us straight up: He is truth and He is lovingkindness. Then He demonstrates those qualities over and over, finally culminating by giving us His Son.

Like a good teacher, He presents the truth, then illustrates it over and over, then demonstrates it, and finally reinforces it. In this case, God sent His Holy Spirit as evidence of the new life His followers have.

Atheists would have us believe that humankind is good and God is cruel.

They would have us believe that humankind is capable of rescuing ourselves from the mess of our own making; and that God is why things are so bad.

The problem is, we humans can’t even agree about the nature of truth, let alone what is true and what is deception. Why would anyone want to believe that humans and truth are in sync?

Then there is lovingkindness. Should I list off the wars in just the last fifty years? I mean, Man’s inhumanity to Man is clearly documented. We as a group of people care more for revenge and getting our own way and power and greed than we do for justice and mercy. If that weren’t true, we, the so enlightened twenty-first century humans would not allow a single incident of slavery—child slavery, sex slavery, whatever. We know it’s wrong. We admit it and have signed laws to prevent it. And yet . . . we toss truth and mercy out the window when they don’t serve our purposes.

Not so with God. He is constant. He is trustworthy. He does what He says. “God is not a man that He should lie, / Or the son of man that He should repent. / Has He said and will He not do it? / Or has He spoken and will He not make it good?” (Numbers 23:19)

Published in: on March 27, 2017 at 6:34 pm  Comments (6)  
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Guilt/Innocence Or Shame/Honor


Just last week, a man here in the LA area who served 32 years in prison was released from custody because of a wrongful conviction. How will this man be perceived in society? The answer to that question can be easily determined by the kind of society from which he comes.

Anthropologists study humankind, including the way culture works. One such scientist, Franz Boas, and his student Ruth Benedict, first identified differences in cultural patterns, claiming that Eastern cultures follow an honor/shame arrangement and Western cultures, a guilt/innocence mode.

Benedict endorsed and popularized what some called “Boasian conceptual kernel” of US anthropology:

Human behavior is patterned. There exist within historically specific populations recurrences in both thought and behavior that are not contingent but structurally conditioned and that are, in turn, structuring.

Those patterns are learned. Recurrences cannot be tied to a natural world within or outside the human body, but rather to constant interaction within specific populations. Structuration occurs through social transmission and symbolic coding with some degree of human consciousness.

If I understand the first point correctly, the idea is that people groups behave and think in identifiably similar ways, because the people have been conditioned to do so. In turn they teach others to also be structured in the same way.

The structure of those in Eastern cultures is based on honor/shame, which largely identifies the way a culture “manages” its citizens. Individuals care a great deal about their standing in the community, so they don’t want to do something that would cost them respect or high standing.

What the community deems deplorable, then, takes presidency over individual desires or beliefs of right and wrong. I assume the community values are also somewhat fluid. If a society softens its position against a certain behavior, presumably an individual would no longer bear shame for engaging in it.

A guilt/innocence society follows a different paradigm. Rather than conforming to the community based on their praise or condemnation, a guilt/innocence outlook is more concerned about the individual’s adherence to law. The idea of innocent until proven guilty emphasizes the difference in the two approaches.

In the shame/honor culture, an accusation brings shame. In a guilt/innocence culture, an accusation needs to be proved.

A third cultural outlook is the fear/power model. Tribal cultures and totalitarian regimes and perhaps gangs operate on the fear of a group and their desire for power to counter it.

The general knowledge about these ways of grouping cultures, has simplified them as Eastern or Western. Little mention is made of fear/power, and Eastern cultures are believed to be shame/honor driven, while Western societies operate according to the guilt/innocence model.

One aspect of cultures adhering to the guilt/innocence model is that they are more concerned with the individual, whereas shame/honor groups care more for the community. As a result, some clear differences have emerged:

Individualistic cultures, primarily located in the West, appeal more to legal notions of right and wrong to govern social behavior. Morality is internalized, so people experience guilt for misdeeds. Guilty persons become innocent when they are forgiven or justice is served. (“Honor and Shame Societies,” the Zwemer Center)

Consequently, the man I mentioned at the outset, who was wrongly convicted of murder, has no shame because he spent half his life in prison. He was innocent.

What I find fascinating about the study of these cultural differences, is that I can see elements of both in the Bible. The Old Testament deals primarily with Hebrew culture, and there is much of the shame/honor culture apparent in the story of the Jewish nation, but at the same time God is the one who departs from the norm and tells the people that a man’s family is no longer to be considered guilty just because the man is guilty. In other words, no more guilt by association. A guilty person was to die for his own crimes, but his sons were to go free.

The New Testament with its teaching about sin and the forgiveness bought by the blood of Christ further built the guilt/innocence culture that took hold in the Greek and Roman societies where Paul ministered.

As I view Christianity, I see the perfect marriage of both shame/honor and guilt/innocence. What I don’t see is fear/power, unless it involves Satan and what he wants to accomplish.

All this to say, I wonder if through globalization and perhaps through the devaluation of Christianity, Western culture is sliding more and more into the shame/honor camp. I mean, all the politically correct approach to life is little more than putting pressure on an individual by the group to get people to conform to a societal norm, regardless of Law.

What’s particularly interesting is that bullying is taboo, but group bullying is the means by which we attempt to put an end to individual bullying.

In this climate, everyone is easily offended, every position expresses hate or abuse, no one is innocent any more as long as they hold beliefs that contradict the “group.” As yet, the “group” is not society at large, but certainly it’s growing in numbers.

As I see it, this kind of shame/honor approach is divorced from reality. Someone who gets away with a crime has no shame because he has not reflected badly on his community. Never mind that he might be hurting the less fortunate. Never mind that he makes his money on the backs of the weak.

The real problem with the shame/honor approach is the loss of the sense of personal sin. In light of the fact that Christianity alone offers mercy and forgiveness, I wonder if the concept of a Savior might be lost if our culture slides more and more toward shame/honor.

Of course, there is great emphasis in the Old Testament about God’s people upholding the honor of His name. One reason that God didn’t do away with the complaining people of Israel after the Exodus was precisely because of what the people around them would think about God. In fact, the point of a nation entering into a covenant relationship with God was to show the other nations the blessings God wanted to shower upon them as well.

Israel as a community was to be God’s ambassador to the world. Today we believers have that role. Individually, but collectively as the Church. We are to love one another in such a way that the world notices.

But we receive forgiveness for sins, not as a collective community, but as individuals, foreknown, predestined, called, justified, glorified by God because we as individuals believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world, that He was raised on the third day, that He is now at God’s right hand interceding for us.

Shame. Guilt. Fear. Jesus Christ dealt with all of it. He is the most cross-cultural person who ever lived. But that is what I’d expect from the Savior of the world. No wonder the gospel penetrates the Amazon jungle and the Russian steppes equally.

Remembering


Lord's_cup_and_BreadAt my church we take communion every fourth Sunday of the month. Communion is one of the religious rituals Christians adhere to, since Jesus Himself instituted it. “Take, eat; this is My body,” He said. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Same with the wine, which He said was His blood. Then the command, recorded in 1 Corinthians: “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”

So I’ve been thinking about Psalm 103 ever since one of our guests preached from the first three verses. The key verse is, “Bless the Lord, O my soul / And forget none of His benefits” (v 2; emphasis mine, here and below).

That verse is the flip side of Psalm 77 in which the author, a musician named Asaph, said, “I shall remember the deeds of the LORD; / Surely I will remember Your wonders of old.” Then he began to recount things that God did to bring Israel across the wilderness to the Promised Land.

Don’t forget, do remember.

In Psalm 78, also written by Asaph, he said

They did not remember His power,
The day when He redeemed them from the adversary,
When He performed His signs in Egypt
And His marvels in the field of Zoan

The rest of the Psalm recounts the things that God did for Israel, but also features their callous response:

Yet they tempted and rebelled against the Most High God
And did not keep His testimonies,
But turned back and acted treacherously like their fathers;
They turned aside like a treacherous bow.
For they provoked Him with their high places
And aroused His jealousy with their graven images. (vv 56-58)

In light of Jesus telling believers to remember, Israel’s not remembering stands out in stark contrast. They had symbols and rituals to remind them, too. God instituted a system of sacrifices and the celebration of Passover and the Sabbath day of rest. And still Israel forgot.

Christians have baptism and communion, the latter being the only one that Jesus ordained specifically as a remembrance.

I recall thinking some time ago that the need for this continual remembrance seemed odd. How could a believer ever forget Christ’s body broken for us or blood spilled for the cleansing of our sins?

And yet, how many people today identify as Christian but speak only of Jesus as a good role model, a great moral teacher, even a way to God. But they leave out the concept of Him dying to buy forgiveness for sins. So, yes, it seems there are people who remember Jesus but forget His broken body, His shed blood.

Remembrance, then, needs to take a high place for the Christian. If we forget what God has done for us, we lose the purpose of His coming, we lose the way of reconciliation with God which He provided.

Another thing Asaph paired with remembrance was telling—specifically telling the next generation.

I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings of old,
Which we have heard and known,
And our fathers have told us.
We will not conceal them from their children,
But tell to the generation to come the praises of the LORD
,
And His strength and His wondrous works that He has done. (Ps. 78:2-4, emphasis mine.)

Of course a person can’t tell something he doesn’t remember, so the telling starts with the remembering.

How often the prophets admonished the people of Israel for forgetting God, His covenant, His law, His Sabbaths. No wonder Jesus instituted Communion as a way to remember. We are a forgetful people, more mindful of what’s happening today than what Jesus accomplished all those years ago.

So to help us remember, God gave us His word, written down so we could know for sure what He said and what He meant. He gave us the symbols of bread and wine and the rituals of eating and drinking. How easy, how common, how routine.

And I think that’s the point. Jesus didn’t demand we go on some long, hard pilgrimage or pay some enormous portion of our income in order to connect with Him. For one thing, he doesn’t want a part of our time or product. He wants our whole lives. All of us. Each moment, not just Sunday. Every dime, not just a tithe.

So in the simple acts of eating bread and drinking wine, everyday kinds of things, Jesus says, Remember. And in the remembering resides praise!

This post is a revised version of one that first appeared here in January 2014.