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.

Christians And Battle


The Bible sets up the Christian’s life as as one of confrontation. The Apostle Paul says things like, Put on the full armor of God. And compete to win the prize, discipline your body, box as if you are not pretending. The writer of Hebrews even says

You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin (Heb. 12:4).

So there’s striving and there’s bleeding.

Of course the great mark against Christians is also battle—the bloody and futile crusades of the Middle Ages. Add to that the hymns of old, like “Onward Christian Soldier” and “Am I A Soldier Of The Cross,” and we Christians have been pegged as a contentious bunch.

I think in some ways, we play into that stereotype. Protestant denominations, for example, have experienced splits and splits of splits. Of course, Catholics have their own cross to bear because of their doctrine of excommunication. Some protestant churches also practice church discipline in such a way that the battle very much seems like one between believers.

Paul clearly stated in the spiritual armor passage that our battle is a spiritual one and our enemies are not other people.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:12)

The opposition Christians face necessitate the spiritual armor. No one would walk into a physical battle with nothing but truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the word of God. Those provide spiritual protection against spiritual confrontation from spiritual foes.

Too often in the history of the Church, it seems we have become entangled in physical struggles. Most people today recoil at the “holy wars” intended to win Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslims. There really wasn’t anything holy about the attempted extension of power and influence by those aligned in the Crusades.

The same might be said about a number of other instances in which religious struggle was merely a cover for physical dominance and had nothing to do with the spiritual conflict the Bible points us toward.

I have to wonder if today we aren’t still missing who we are to be fighting. Let me put it bluntly. The LGBTQ community is not the enemy. Sin and Satan and the temptations to pride and rebellion are the enemy.

Disney is not the enemy. The media is not the enemy. Liberals of any stripe are not the enemy. The enemy is not flesh and blood. Our enemy is spiritual. World forces of darkness. Spiritual forces of wickedness.

People, humans with sin natures just like yours and mine, are not the front line soldiers in the battle. Rather, each of us is in need of rescue. We’re trapped by the world forces of darkness unless our God redeems us and transfers us to the kingdom of His Son (see Col. 1:10).

The child game of capture the flag comes to mind. As I recall, each team had something to protect and something to gain. In the process, team members might be captured and thrown into “prison” where they awaited rescue from someone on their side. The enemy at that point was the “system” that held them in “prison” awaiting rescue.

Of course the metaphor breaks down at that point because the game was played against other children and obviously had a physical component. But the image of being held captive and awaiting rescue is helpful, I think, in understanding mankind’s condition.

At various times in this game, players can become so intent on capturing other opponents that they take their eye off the flag they are supposed to be guarding. At that moment, they are most vulnerable to attack.

In the Christian life, we are told repeatedly to stand firm, to be alert, to guard against. In other words, our role in the battle seems so . . . defensive.

The work we’ve been given that is not battle oriented is to be ambassadors for Christ, to be ministers of reconciliation. to love our neighbors and our enemies.

I think too often we get our tasks mixed up. We don’t protect against the spiritual forces because we are too busy going after those we are to love and serve.

I’ll be honest. I don’t know how loving LGBTQ members is suppose to look. I mean, as soon as the word sin comes out of our mouths, someone is accusing us of hate speech. But the truth is, if we hate a sinner, we’re actually hating all of humankind because there is none righteous, no, not one. If in doubt, take a look at the end results—Scripture says the wages of sin is death, and people are still dying, one out of every one.

But here’s the thing. LGBTQ members or drug addicts or prostitutes or porn queens or any other person involved in a sinful lifestyle will not face judgment because of their lifestyle. They will face judgment because they have rejected God’s answer to their need: the Savior He sent to rescue them.

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 3:18b)

I suggest, then, that to do our work as defenders of the faith against spiritual forces of wickedness and to be ministers of reconciliation, we need to point to Jesus Christ. He is the one who came to save, and He is the one who stands in the gap against the evil one.

Published in: on March 9, 2017 at 4:45 pm  Comments (6)  
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Mercy And Justice


top_signIn one sermon which George MacDonald is purported to have authored, he addressed God and His justice. The only Biblical text I can find is that from which he seems to have wandered—Psalm 62:12, which states, “And lovingkindness is Yours, O Lord, For You recompense a man according to his work.

In the King James, which the sermon quotes, lovingkindness is rendered mercy. The writer then makes a case for his interpretation of justice, leading into a denial of justice resulting in punishment.

How odd this discussion seems to me, but perhaps that’s because I’ve had good Bible teaching all my life.

The cultures around Israel during King David’s time (Psalm 62 is one of his) did not practice justice. They practiced vengeance. Consequently, the declaration that God would recompense a man according to his work was a statement of mercy. He would not punish a man for something his father did or punish the brothers or the children. God’s mercy was demonstrated in His justice, set in opposition to their vengeance.

How simple and straightforward. How righteous.

We are accountable before a Holy God for what we do. He does not pile on more than we deserve.

But here’s the thing. We are required by law to stop at stop signs. If I run a stop sign and get pulled over by a cop, I am guilty of breaking that law. No matter that I’ve not run a stop sign the prior 2000 times, or 200 million times before that. Stopping at the stop sign is what I am required by law to do. Fulfilling my obligation does not earn me points against a future time when I might slip up and run the stop sign.

In other words, there is nothing I can do to make up for my situation. I can only recognize my condition—I am a lawbreaker deserving of the just (and merciful) penalty for my actions.

What great news, then, that Jesus, who was not a lawbreaker, and therefore, faced no penalty, stepped in.

The amazing love of God is beyond comprehension here, because God did not wave His hand and dismiss my sin. He bore it Himself. He transferred my sin in the same way that the sins of Israel were transferred to scapegoats. It’s a mystical process, if you will, something that sounds too incredible, too hard to fathom. The Holy God, unstained in His being, complete in His purity, piled my sin on His shoulders. He bore my sin and carried my sorrow.

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. (I Peter 2:24)

And in more detail from Isaiah

But the LORD was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.
As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,
And He will divide the booty with the strong;
Because He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors. (Isa 53:10-12; emphasis mine)

Paid in full. The blood of Jesus Christ blots out my sin. I receive God’s mercy when I understand that my work is insufficient to pay what I owe, that Christ alone could afford to bear my sin because He bore none of His own. The angel of death passes over me as surely as he once passed over the Jewish homes that bore the blood of the spotless Passover lamb slain on their behalf.

What a clear picture of God’s redemptive work—the marriage of His Justice and Mercy—prompted by His infinite Love.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in December 2010).

Published in: on March 3, 2017 at 5:16 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Addiction Of Freedom


Hell is, as Lewis says, “the greatest monument to human freedom.”

the-great-divorce-cover

So noted Pastor Tim Keller in a 1997 article in Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal, “Preaching Hell in a Tolerant Age.”

Interestingly, Pastor Keller identified a shift in attitude regarding freedom in the postmodern era akin to the attitude C. S. Lewis ascribed to those destined for hell in his classic work The Great Divorce.

The attitude is one that puts freedom above all else.

Perhaps the greatest paradox of all is that the people on Lewis’s bus from hell are enslaved because they freely choose to be. They would rather have their freedom (as they define it) than salvation. Their relentless delusion is that if they glorified God, they would lose their human greatness (Gen. 3:4-5), but their choice has really ruined their human greatness.

I couldn’t help but think of atheist Christopher Hitchens and his dread of “celestial tyranny.” How sad that he did not realize the tyranny of his own desires. Unfortunately, he was not so different from the majority of people in western culture.

Freedom, we cry, let us voice our opinions, choose our own path, chart our own life. So we legalize abortion and a good deal of pornography. We outlaw spanking and prayer from school and tell parents Johnny needs medication, not discipline.

And then we wonder why children no longer respect authority, why tolerance is the end-all of our society, why child abuse is on the rise, and human trafficking is rampant, why greed runs Wall Street and corruption keeps cropping up in Washington, or City Hall.

Somehow we’ve missed the connection points. Freedom, when it becomes more important than salvation, enslaves just like any other idol. Freedom to pursue sex without consequences makes a person addicted to lust. Freedom to pursue wealth without restrain makes a person addicted to greed. Freedom to pursue unbridled power over others makes a person addicted to bullying and manipulation.

If we would open our eyes, we would see the trap to which the pursuit of freedom can lead. It held Christopher Hitchens tightly in its jaws. No one, most certainly not God, was going to tell him what to do with his life, not even in the last hours of his life. Why?

Because he wanted to enjoy humanity.

Sadly, he’s chained himself to the ephemeral rather than to the eternal. For, yes, the option to unbridled freedom is also slavery.

But what a difference. Rather than slavery to that which would destroy, becoming a bond-slave of Jesus Christ is freeing. Ironic, isn’t it. Freedom that leads to slavery, and slavery that leads to freedom.

What a contradiction, but that’s in line with what we learn from Jesus. If we lose our lives, we’ll find them. If we are last, then we’ll be first. If we become His slaves, He’ll set us free. Then, and only then, will we be free indeed.

This post is a revised and edited version of one that first appeared here in October 2010.

Certificates Of Debt


Debt is not a popular topic. The US government continues to bow under the massive debt we’ve accrued in the past few decades.

The state of California is no better. And then there is the debt of individual Americans!

The one good thing about all this insurmountable debt, I guess, is that we can more completely understand the parable Jesus told in Matthew 18 about the servant who owed so much money, his king was going to foreclose. The plan was to sell him, his family, and all of his stuff.

Jesus explained that the guy had no way of repaying his debt, implying that what he owed was far greater than what his king would receive from the sale.

A bad investment, some would conclude. The servant cost more than he was worth. Better to cut the losses and get out. And that’s precisely what the king intended to do.

Except the servant pleaded for more time.

As if!

More time was not going to change things. Five years or fifty years, the servant was not going to make enough money to pay what he owed. His situation was hopeless.

Enter the Christ of Colossians:

When you were dead in your transgressions … 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. (2:13-14; emphasis mine)

This passage reminds me of Romans 8:1—“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Those certificates of debt Paul referenced in Colossians, those “decrees against us,” are the things of which I stood condemned.

And yeah, they were hostile to us—they condemned us to death. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

But now they’ve been removed—taken out of the way, nailed to Christ’s cross. So it’s easy to see why there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ.

He didn’t forgive the debt in the same way that the king in the parable did, simply by saying the word and wiping the slate clean. Instead, Jesus Christ paid the debt.

It’s a great picture because it shows God’s justice—the debt needed to be paid—coupled with His mercy that freed us from the debt.

It also shows the impossibility of the debt coming back on us. How do you un-pay something? How do you un-remove it from where it’s been or un-nail it from the cross, the place of death?

Paul explained about the cross in more detail in the first chapter of Colossians:

For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard (vv 19-23; emphasis mine).

I love the “in order to” part of that passage. Christ has done the work, paid the debt, in order to present me blameless, beyond reproach—or specifically, beyond Satan’s reach. Simply put, all my certificates of debt are marked PAID.

This post is a a revised edition of one that first appeared here in September 2011.

Published in: on January 24, 2017 at 6:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Clay Is Talking Back


But now, O LORD, You are our Father, We are the clay, and You our potter

But now, O LORD, You are our Father,
We are the clay, and You our potter


“God did not make us.”

I hear atheists reject God’s work of creation all the time, but more recently I’ve heard people claiming the name of Christ reciting a companion falsehood.

Isaiah prophesied about the twisted thinking that creates these untruths:

You turn things around!
Shall the potter be considered as equal with the clay,
That what is made would say to its maker, “He did not make me”;
Or what is formed say to him who formed it, “He has no understanding”(Isaiah 29:16; emphasis added)

Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens popularized the first part of that prophecy: He did not make me.

And “progressive Christians,” who believe in universal salvation, are saying in essence, He has no understanding.

Their belief system questions God’s plan of salvation by implying that sending “billions and billions” of people to hell for eternity is beneath Him. Judgment of sinners doesn’t measure up to the progressive Christian’s idea of what God should be like. In essence, they are saying God must not judge and punish as He sees fit. If he does so, he’s a “monster” as one supporter of author and former pastor Rob Bell called it.

“We do these somersaults to justify the monster god we believe in,” [Chad Holtz, former pastor of a rural United Methodist church in North Carolina] said. “But confronting my own sinfulness, that’s when things started to topple for me. Am I really going to be saved just because I believe something, when all these good people in the world aren’t?” (from “Pastor loses job after questioning hell’s existence”)

In other words, if that’s the way God is, then he’s wrong. Their answer is to ignore the clear statements of Jesus about His children, His followers, His sheep, in favor of a few isolated passages taken out of context and made to say things they were never intended to say.

In addition, the fundamental error in the thinking of those who indict God comes out loud and clear. Man is good. It is God who is suspect.

The thinking seems to be, Since we know Man is good, and we want God to be good, then hell can’t possibly exist, at least in the form that the “traditional church” has taught.

The answer, then, is to re-image God. And hell. And even heaven. But our idea that Man is good? In spite of evidence to the contrary, we’ll keep that belief intact.

The truth is, Man is not good.

A just God warned Man away from the tree that would bring death and a curse. Man ignored God and succumbed to temptation. He has not been “good” at his core ever since.

As Man went his own way, God chose an individual to be His, from whom He would build a nation that would be an example to all the nations of what it meant to be God’s people.

When the chosen nation went its own way, God sent prophets to warn them not to forsake Him. When they ignored the warnings, He sent more prophets, and finally He sent His Son in the form of man:

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was in 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 (Romans 8:3)

God’s Son didn’t come to judge—He will take that role later, when the just penalty for turning from God will be handed out to sinful (not good) Man, condemned by his own choice to go his own way.

Though Jesus came to save when He first entered the world, He created a dividing line.

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)

In summary, Man sinned, Man went his own way, Man rebelled, Man rejected God, his Maker. Clearly, by our nature we are not good.

The problem is ours, not God’s. God certainly does not need a make-over. He does not need progressive Christians to frame Him in a better light. Rather, we all need to stop going our own way, stop acting independently of God. We are but clay. Beloved by God, yes—not because we’ve earned His special consideration, not because we deserve His kindness and patience and love—but because of God’s own nature.

He is the potter. The clay really is not in a position to improve the potter, nor should it be talking back.

This post is a revised, updated version of one that first appeared here in May 2011.

New Beginnings


road-sign_u-s-_1_beginI suspect one of the reasons we like New Year’s Day is that we like new beginnings. In that, we’re not alone. God likes new beginnings, too, apparently.

For example, He established a thing called the Jubilee for Israel. Among the various aspects of this year-long celebration that occurred every fifty years was the opportunity for debts to be forgiven, slaves set free, and those who had sold their homes to once again take possession of them. These provisions allowed many people to have a new beginning.

God showed His love for new beginnings when He brought Israel out of slavery and led them into the land He had promised Abraham. He showed it again when He brought a remnant of the nation back to their land after their exile.

Most obviously, however, God showed His love for new beginnings by His plan of salvation. His forgiveness of sins gives each person who believes in and puts his trust in what Jesus did at the cross a new beginning with God.

No longer does He look at us as aliens and strangers but as friends and sons or daughters. No longer do our iniquities—the stuff we know we shouldn’t do, but we end up doing anyway—separate us from God. We have a new beginning, a record that says the guilt we incurred has been taken care of and we aren’t in debt after all.

We have a new beginning, a spotless record, one that stays that way because God’s idea of a new beginning isn’t one that becomes old after five minutes. He renews our new beginning as often as we need it—which if we’re honest, is pretty often.

God shows His love for new beginnings also in His promise to give us new resurrected bodies in our life after life.

Of course His Grand New Beginning is His plan for a new Heaven and a new earth.

So as the New Year approaches, may the horns and fireworks and champagne bubbles and Auld Lang Syne and the New York Time Square Ball all remind us of God’s love for new beginnings. As a result, may He give us hope for 2017, no matter what the personal or political or economic or social circumstances we may encounter.

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

Published in: on December 28, 2016 at 6:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Opportunities Of Christmas


mary_and_baby_jesus017On Sunday, our fill-in speaker at church, Dr. Tim Muehlhoff, delivered an unusual Christmas sermon. His key points were anchored by John 12:31-32.

“Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”

Jesus was speaking about His own death. He declared that two things would occur: 1) judgment upon this world and the ruler of this world would be cast out, and 2) He, Jesus, would be lifted up.

First, “this world” refers to the world system that opposes God, His will, and His way. It’s one of the three sources of temptation: the world, the flesh, and the devil. The one who is the mastermind of all the world systems that oppose God is Satan, but it is the system or systems he’s behind that entice us to sin.

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis was masterful in showing that what particular system the tempter used was not the issue. Whatever pulls a person’s eyes off God, works just fine. So someone with the wealth of the world, like Solomon, is vulnerable, as is the poorest of the poor such as the beggar Lazarus.

So Jesus’s coming initiated judgment upon the world system that tries to squeeze God from our consciousness.

Christmas affords the believer the opportunity to ask ourselves if we are siding with Jesus when it comes to casting out the ruler of the world, when it comes to standing against the world system. Oh, someone may say, you’re talking about keeping Christ in Christmas, about refusing to replace Him with Santa.

Well, no, I’m not. The world system isn’t about Santa.

It’s actually about ME.

It’s about looking at the world with the idea of seeing what I can get out of every situation, every circumstance. What’s in it for me? Am I getting what I deserve?

Trying to discern our own motives is hard. Do I want to postpone the meeting because I have something else I want to do that day or because I think it will fit everyone else’s needs more? Do I want to sign up for the prayer team instead of serving in the homeless shelter because it means less travel for me or because I think I’m more fitted for that ministry? You see, even in doing “good things” we can have our eyes firmly fixed on ourselves because the world system tells us it’s all about us.

It’s all about us, and it’s all up to us. We simply have to look within. We have to find our inner strength, because whatever we put our minds to, we can do. Whatever we want to make of ourselves, we can make it happen.

Not really.

But that’s what our world system says over and over and over.

It also says that a person is more valuable if they have all the right bells and whistles. Do you have the newest car, the latest technology, the most up-to-date software? Are your clothes in style? Did you get a really cool gift for Christmas? Dr. Muehlhoff touched a nerve when he mentioned that one.

When I was growing up, we were very middle class. Perhaps low middle class, but I never felt poor. Still, my parents were frugal, because we had been poor. So I generally wore hand-me-downs, and our parents never gave us extravagant gifts for Christmas. We often got practical things—socks, pajamas, that sort of thing.

So going back to school after Christmas vacation was always a challenge because kids would always ask, What did you get for Christmas? I wanted to be able to answer without making my Christmas sound lame.

The thing is, I really didn’t feel deprived for not getting some hot new fad item. I generally didn’t ask for things that I knew were beyond the price my parents usually spent on us at Christmas. But I dreaded telling my classmates what I thought they would look down on.

That’s the world system—gifts have to be of a certain caliber to be considered worth. Really?

That’s the world system that attacks our contentment, that judges according to monetary value, not according to heart intention or thoughtfulness or sacrifice.

Of course all these years later, our culture has become exponentially more hedonistic. Is it fun, is it entertaining—these questions override, can we afford it. Because we can afford anything simply by putting “it” on the credit card. One statistic Dr. Muehlhoff gave was that what the average person spends for Christmas this year via credit card, will take four years to pay off. Of course, they’re still paying off last year’s Christmas, and the one before that, and the one before that, so it is an ever increasing problem.

This consumerism, this hedonism, this ME-ism are reflective of the world system—Satan’s schemes to keep us away from what God wants, and Jesus came, in part, to bring the world and the ruler of this world, under judgment.

As Christmas, ought we who follow Jesus not stand against the world, at least a little?

The second thing Jesus said was that He would be lifted up, with the end result that He would draw all men to Himself.

The next question seems obvious: we who follow Christ are lifting up Jesus in what way?

To be honest, I didn’t like Dr. Muehlhoff’s ideas on this one. Everything he mentioned, someone who was an atheist or a Buddhist could do. On the other hand, at the Atheist/theist Facebook group, someone posted a video of an obnoxious pastor (self-identified) who went into a mall where kids and their parents were waiting to get their pictures taken with Santa, and became shouting that Santa was a lie, that the parents were lying to their children, that Christmas was really about Jesus, not Santa.

Is that what lifting up Jesus looks like?

I don’t think so.

I keep thinking of the disciples who confronted the beggar by saying, I don’t have any gold or silver, but in the name of Jesus, get up and walk.

I wish I could lift up Jesus’s name like that!! I mean, I can’t imagine someone who just received the ability to walk not wanting to know about this person named Jesus whose name made his healing possible.

So I can’t heal. Does that mean I can’t lift up Jesus’s name?

I think the key is the first part of the answer those disciples gave: I don’t have what you’re asking for, but I’ll give you what I can. I’ve always looked at it like, you want this thing you think you need, but I’ll give you something better. But why not accept it at face value. What if they had silver and gold, would they have given that instead of the healing?

I don’t think the key is in trying to give people the greatest thing they need. I think it’s in putting them before God and asking Him how I can lift up Christ before them.

So no one answer. But an awareness that lifting up Christ is the goal, and the greatest gift possible for Christmas.