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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Atheist Accusations Against God: He’s A Tyrant


I think the first time I heard an atheist say that God was a tyrant was at a debate between atheist Christopher Hitchens and professor of theology and apologetics William Lane Craig. Hitchens, who has since died of cancer, claimed his great concern was for freedom, and God doesn’t allow for freedom. Rather God is Hitler on steroids. If He existed. From one of my posts discussing the debate:

[Hitchens said]

It’s degrading to say that morality comes from on high. It’s servile. A kind of heavenly North Korea.

He added that he believed in free will, though he didn’t know why. But a bossy god would seem to reduce free will because then we would be accountable.

Then towards the end of the debate he said:

Emancipate yourself from a celestial dictatorship and you’ve taken the first step to being free.

. . . Above all else, it seems he wants his autonomy, even though he believes his life serves no lasting purpose and will end in oblivion.

Since that debate, I’ve encountered any number of other atheists who throw out this accusation—God is an insufferable dictator. The claim is leveled at God because He’s “bossy,” but also because of the heinous things He allows others to do.

King David, for example, committed adultery and contracted a murder, so God is heinous.

In truth, God is forgiving, though David still had to suffer the four-fold consequence for his sins which the prophet Nathan explained.

But if God had not forgiven David, if He had judged him and required his death, I feel fairly certain atheists would have used such action against God as well to prove how cruel He supposedly is. Whenever God brought judgment on people, atheists cry foul. God isn’t loving because He drowned the people for their wickedness in the Great Flood. God is hateful because He ordered the Amalekites “exterminated,” and so on.

If God does not punish sin, He is weak or wish-washy, or not sovereign. If God does punish sin, He is cruel and monstrous and genocidal.

The point is clear. No matter what God does, atheists will accuse Him of wrong doing. They don’t want a sovereign who sets down the rules and tells them to live according to His moral laws. They want the autonomy Christopher Hitchens sought.

The sad thing is, God gives them exactly what they want. Take Israel, for instance. Over and over Scripture records that God told the prophets the people who would suffer His judgment would get exactly what they earned by their actions. Here’s one such declaration:

The people of the land have practiced oppression and committed robbery, and they have wronged the poor and needy and have oppressed the sojourner without justice. I searched for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand in the gap before Me for the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one. Thus I have poured out My indignation on them; I have consumed them with the fire of My wrath; their way I have brought upon their heads,” declares the Lord GOD. (Ez. 22:29-31, emphasis added)

Instead of rushing to judgment, God shows time and again His patience. He searched for someone to stand in the gap. If He’d found someone, I have no doubt that the results would have been different. But because there was no one, He brought their way on their own heads.

Their oppression of the sojourner, their robbery, the wrong they committed against the poor—all of it resulted in a collapse of their society, a breakdown of their alliances, and the ruin of their security as a nation.

Other prophecies spell out that the leaders let the people down. The prophets spoke words that God did not tell them to speak. The priests sacrificed to gods they’d been commanded to forsake. The kings lived willful, compromised lives. And the people went so far as to give their children up for sacrifice to idols.

But to listen to atheists, God is a horrific megalomaniac, acting against people for no reason whatsoever.

The corollary to “God is a tyrant” is “Humans are good and innocent and not deserving of judgment.”

So the “good” Amalekites who hounded the people of Israel as they made their way to the promised land, attacking their stragglers—the weak, the elderly, the children—were horribly mistreated by God for bringing judgment on their heads.

Mind you, this judgment that God ordered came some two hundred years later, when the people of Amalek had had several generations to repent, to make peace with Israel, and to seek God. Clearly, they remained as brutal and hostile and idolatrous as they had been.

And here’s the thing: an omniscient God knows exactly what is in each person’s heart. He doesn’t make mistakes. It’s not as if a “good Amalekite” slipped His notice. Just as He later searched for someone to stand in the gap for Israel, God exercised His patient restraint toward Amalek.

Further, God says He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11), that it is not His will that even one should perish (Matt. 18:14), and that He desires all men to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4).

In light of such statements, are the atheists right that God is not actually sovereign? Not at all. Rather, He made humans in His image, with the freedom to choose. Because of the very fact that He is not a tyrant, He does not force anyone to believe in Him or to love Him.

The fact is, some people simply want the kind of autonomy Christopher Hitchens craved. The sad thing is, Scripture informs us that we are going to be slaves one way or the other:

Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? (Romans 6:16)

So we can be freed from sin and enslaved to God, which results in sanctification and eternal life. Or we can be slaves of sin and free in regard to righteousness—slaves to our addictions, or lusts, our fears, our words and deeds that hurt and degrade, both others and ourselves.

Simply put, “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23)

God is not the tyrant. Sin is. God is our rescuer, redeeming us from the kingdom of darkness and transferring us to the kingdom of His Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:13).

What Does “Believe In Jesus” Mean?


woman-praying-840879-mI’m glad I didn’t sit under some of the Bible teaching as a young person that I’ve heard as an adult. Don’t get me wrong. I respect the preachers and I believe what they say, but it’s not what I needed to hear as a young, immature Christian who often doubted my salvation.

The message these pastors are giving is undoubtedly intended to counter “easy believe-ism.” This false teaching wasn’t familiar to me, but apparently some people claim that as long as you say “the sinner’s prayer” you’re going to heaven no matter what you do thereafter. It sounds sort of like a “works” salvation, with “works” reduced to one—saying a prayer “accepting Jesus into your heart.”

I understand why pastors are standing against this approach to salvation. There’s so much it leaves out. Where’s the part about repentance, about taking up our cross and following Christ, about entering into a relationship with Him, about obeying God, loving Him first and loving our neighbor more than we do ourselves?

The truth is, though, I became a Christian by asking Jesus into my heart.

I was young, a small child. I don’t remember the specific time I first prayed to receive Christ (yes, first—I’ll get to that in a bit), but I do remember asking a Sunday school teacher how Jesus, pictured as a man on a flannel graph, could fit into my heart.

Chuckle if you must, but I think that’s a good question. It’s not normal to invite a person “into your heart.” Anyone who does so without understanding what he’s doing, very well might not actually be doing it.

That poor, dear, wonderful teacher did her best to explain that it wasn’t Jesus’s body that would come live inside me but His Spirit. So, I wondered, why don’t we say we’re accepting the Holy Spirit, but I don’t think I actually asked that question, possibly because the teacher explained that it was Jesus who died for me, Jesus who paid for my sins.

I got it. But I had another question. Again, I don’t have a clear recollection of the sequence of these events, but at some point when I was six or seven, I wasn’t so sure if I agreed that all had sinned and come short of God’s standard. I knew a few Bible stories by this time, so I figured if I could just think of one person in the Bible who hadn’t sinned, then maybe I could be like him. (I shared a little more about this incident in this post: “My Deceitful Heart.”) I mean, what evil had I done at six? Obviously I hadn’t yet learned about pride and self-righteousness.

I was probably in fifth grade, maybe fourth, when I came across John 3:18. I was playing alone in my room, pretending to be a preacher (I hadn’t learned yet what the Bible says about women and teaching in the church, either 😉 ). I opened my Bible to about the only passage I knew by heart, John 3:16, and started in explaining what it all meant to my pretend congregation. But when I got through that verse, I had more sermon I wanted to preach, so I went on to verse 17, then verse 18. And when I explained the part about Jesus not coming to condemn but that those who didn’t believe in Him were condemned already because they didn’t believe, I got it.

Salvation wasn’t about toeing the line, because none of us could. We were all condemned. Believing in Jesus gave us a pardon.

I was still confused about a lot of things—most particularly why I continued to sin. It gave me no end of doubt about my salvation and contributed to my “accepting Jesus” any number of times because I just didn’t know if it was enough that I meant it when I said it but later acted like I didn’t.

What was it I meant? That I knew I was a sinner, that I knew Jesus had died in my place, that He would forgive me if I believed in Him, and that I would have everlasting life, which meant I’d go to heaven.

I didn’t want to go to heaven particularly. Everything I heard about it made it sound kind of boring, but I knew I didn’t want to go to hell, so I pretty much just wanted to keep living on earth.

That changed, many years later when I read C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and came to understand that eternal life is Real Life.

I could go on and tell how one by one God added to my understanding and corrected my misunderstanding. But the point is, my “faith journey”—actually my walk with Christ—started because someone asked me if I wanted to pray to accept Jesus into my heart.

Are there false conversions, people who prayed “the prayer” and who have not continued with Christ? I’m sure there are. That’s what Jesus said in the parable about the sower and the seed. Some seed sprang up, but weeds choked it. Some seed fell on the side of the road and was trampled or the birds snatched it away (Luke 8:5-7). Jesus explained it this way:

Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. (Luke 8:12-14)

So who, then, believes in Jesus? I’m convinced I was “born again” when I first put my trust in Him as a small child. My faith wasn’t grounded in theology and it wasn’t mature. It didn’t need to be. It only need to be, because the work wasn’t mine. It was and is Christ’s.

After all, that’s what Scripture says:

but these [signs] have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20:31)

And after [the jailer] brought [Paul and Silas] out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved (Act 16:30-31a).

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in February 20011.

Christian Fiction Must Be . . . You Know, Christian; Or, The Shack Is Back


This past week, I saw the TV add for the upcoming The Shack movie. I’d seen the trailer some time ago, but was dismayed that the promotion was reaching a TV audience. And in LA. We don’t often hear about “Christian” projects here.

There’s no doubt that The Shack positions itself as Christian. After all, Jesus shows up, albeit in imaginary form. But is it Christian?

What constitutes “Christian fiction”? That’s a question we at Spec Faith have answered and revisited since our inception some ten years ago (see for example this early post by one of the founding members of Spec Faith).

Not only have writers and readers debated what constitutes Christian fiction, and particularly Christian speculative fiction, we’ve debated the rightness of and the need for good doctrine in our fiction (see for example “Reading Choices: Realism, Truth, And The Bible“). “Doctrine” encompasses both theology and beliefs concerning morality, and we’ve discussed those too (see for example “Marcher Lord Press and the Hinterlands Imprint“).

On top of these generalized discussions, we’ve also posted articles and comments specifically about The Shack. But that was eight years ago, when the book was still on the top of best-selling lists and Christians and non-Christians alike were passing it around from one person to another and discussing it over coffee.

Now the movie version of Paul Young’s book is about to come to a theater near you, and the question no one could answer back then is bound to resurface: Is The Shack truly Christian?

There are some specific issues that came under scrutiny concerning the book.

Some people stumbled over the most glaring issue right from the gate. I mean, isn’t it blasphemous to depict God the Father as anything but a Father?

I understand how portraying God as other than how He portrays Himself, can be troublesome. At the same time, I can see how others accept “God’s” explanation: that He needed to reveal Himself to the main character in a way he could receive Him.

That being said, I suggest one of the central problems of the story surfaces within the discussion of this rather peripheral issue. The Shack has little use for the Bible. Hence, God the Father is easily replaced by the needs of the character.

There are other major issues—the attitude toward the Church and universal salvation and an understanding of the Trinity.

Yet more than one Christian has reported how life changing The Shack was for them, how they wept as they read it, how they understood God’s forgiveness in a way they never had before.

So . . . is it Christian?

Can it be Christian if it shows God in ways He does not show Himself? If it does not point people to His word or His body, the Church? If it falsely claims universal salvation?

On the other hand, how can it not be Christian if it gave many believers renewed faith and deeper love for God and a deeper understanding of forgiveness?

On one hand, The Shack may not tick all the intellectual, theological boxes, but on the other, it more than makes up for that lack by the emotional, spiritual juice it provides.

In thinking about the “what makes something Christian” question, I have to look at the object itself, not the results that may come from it.

The Apostle Paul did just the opposite when he was imprisoned in Philippi and a bunch of so-called Christian brethren started preaching. Paul identified their motives as envy and strife and selfish ambition (Phil. 1:15, 17), but he basically said, so what? As long as they preached Christ, who cared that they had bad motives?

the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. (vv 17-18a)

Paul was only concerned with the bottom line: the result. These “brethren,” false or true, were telling people about Jesus.

So, isn’t that the best test? Shouldn’t we be applauding The Shack, if the movie is successful, because it is bringing people to Christ?

I said above that I have to look at the object itself, because my question is, Is The Shack truly Christian? Lots of things can bring people to Christ. War has been known to do so. A friend of mine came to Christ by reading a novel. Others look at the heavens and know they need to find the One who made them. After 9/11, here in the US any number of people turned to God in the midst of their fear and uncertainty.

Would we say war is “Christian” because some soldiers reported coming to Christ when faced with their own mortality? No, certainly not. God can and does use whatever means He wishes, but His use of the thing does not baptize it as emblematic of His Good News.

So I reject the idea that The Shack must be Christian because people report a deeper relationship with God after having read it.

When Paul talked about those so-called brethren in Philippi, he gave no indication that they were preaching anything but what was true about Christ. Elsewhere, however, he addressed those who were not preaching the truth.

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds. (2 Cor. 11:13-15)

In writing to the Galatians he also brought up the matter:

But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. (Gal 2:4)

Clearly, Paul was not hesitant to call out those who were not preaching the gospel but who were masquerading as if they were fellow believers. The same is true throughout the Bible about false teachers and false prophets. Jesus Himself made some of the strongest statements about “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” about false prophets misleading many, even about false Christs.

So determining who is and who isn’t a Christian, what is and what isn’t true Christian teaching, seems like an important aptitude.

Yet I know people will hold back for fear of judging. We aren’t supposed to judge each other, are we?

We’re not.

But that doesn’t mean we’re to put our brains on hold, either. We can still think. We can still look at the story on the screen and compare it with what the Bible says. Which is, after all, the unchanging, authoritative Truth by which we know what “Christian” means.

This article is a re-post of the one I published today at Speculative Faith.

Published in: on February 20, 2017 at 5:45 pm  Comments (11)  
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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.

God’s Great Story In Esther


pagankingA few years ago there was great consternation over the story of Esther. A pastor who has since fallen into disrepute preached a series of sermons from the book of Esther, and apparently pointed a finger at Esther and accused her of . . . wait for it . . . (gasp) sin! And feminists had a field day! Oh, how they stood up to defend Esther and how they accused this pastor of condoning rape and abuse and sex trafficking.

I have to say, ever since I heard the story of Esther, I’ve had problems with it. Yes, Esther was one of the exiles from Judah, and therefore, not free. But was she forced into a relationship with the king? Not really.

But my intention isn’t to rehash the debate over Esther’s choices—or whether she had any. Rather, I was struck by something about the opening scene, before Esther has been introduced.

The book is ostensibly about the salvation of the Jewish people from annihilation because of God’s intervention through Esther and her role as queen in King Ahasuerus’s (Xerxes) reign in Medo-Persia. But as a number of Bible teachers will tell us, every book of the Bible is about Jesus Christ.

The pastor I mentioned above certainly preached his series from that perspective. His sermons had titles such as “Jesus Is A Better King,” “Jesus Has A Better Kingdom,” “Jesus Is A Better Savior,” and “Jesus Is A Better Mediator.”

But of course Jesus isn’t mentioned in the book of Esther. Neither is God, though His fingerprints are all over the place. The writer alluded to God most clearly in 4:13-14 when he wrote,

Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?”

So what about the opening struck me as so significant?

We’re introduced to King Ahasuerus who inherited his position as ruler of the greatest empire then known to man. It stretched from India to Ethiopia. He was the greatest sovereign of that time.

With his position came power and wealth—so much so that in year three of his reign, he declared a six-month-long party for all the nobles, leaders, soldiers of his empire. Anyone who was anyone was invited to this bash. He capped the lengthy celebration off with a seven-day feast for those who served him in his palace.

Seven days his men drank and feasted. And elsewhere in the palace, his queen also held a banquet. King Ahasuerus used the occasion to brag about all his power and wealth. At some point, when he was drunk, he also started bragging about how beautiful his wife was. He decided to show her off, so he summoned her to leave her feast and her guests and to parade in front of his men.

Some commentators suggest this had sexual ramifications—making his party to be like a stag party or using her as live porn. Scripture doesn’t say that, but it’s not too hard to imagine that he wasn’t telling her to model the latest evening gown and then return to her own feast.

It’s all very unsavory.

His queen, for whatever reason, refused to come to him. He was furious. As punishment, he removed her from her place as his queen. On the advice of one of his princes, he determined to replace her with someone more worthy.

So here’s the opening of the story:

  • an all powerful king summons his chosen wife to his banquet
  • she refuses to come
  • he removes her and gives her favored position to someone else

Here’s the key verse:

If it pleases the king, let a royal edict be issued by him and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media so that it cannot be repealed, that Vashti may no longer come into the presence of King Ahasuerus, and let the king give her royal position to another who is more worthy than she. (Esther 1:19)

This opening, I suggest, is a metaphor for God’s dealing with humankind.

I know some people will object because King Ahasuerus is an unsavory character who did selfish, godless, unwise things. Some will call him a misogynist.

But throughout Scripture metaphors gave a picture of God’s work in the world and His plan of salvation, and they used sinful people to do so. Jesus even used a godless King in one of His parables to illustrate a point about God. The nature of this king should not blind us to the similarities.

  • God, the all powerful sovereign, calls His people to Himself.
  • His chosen nation refused Him, and finally rejected His Messiah.
  • In response, God chose a people from those who had not been a people—the Church—which has become His bride.

In other words, God’s plan of redemption is right there in the opening chapters of Esther.

Yes, the book is full of other great truths. Esther did have to make a life or death kind of decision, which she did on the strength of the prayers of the Jews she would intercede for. God did orchestrate a set of circumstances that we can only think of as providential because the chances of them all happening when they happened is just too coincidental to be believed . . . unless Someone was in charge.

How sad that in the cultural context of our day we can’t seem to see past the issues we’ve put on our human-centric pedestal.

Ahasuerus was an ungodly king, no doubt about it. He had a harem of untold number of wives and concubines. He made bad decisions and trusted the wrong advisors. He gave away his authority to a man who was prideful and wicked. What’s more, the king was unaware of the effect of his rule on the people in his empire. He wasn’t a good king, he wasn’t a good man, he wasn’t a good husband.

Scripture does not condone any of his behavior. It records it. And by doing so, a picture of God comes out of it all, like the phoenix rising from the ashes: God who is sovereign, calls His people to Himself. When they rejected Him, He created a new people for His own.

Published in: on January 5, 2017 at 6:55 pm  Comments (4)  
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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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Advent


Advent_candle_1I grew up in a church that didn’t talk about Advent. We were as far from liturgical as you could get. Later, when my family attended a non-denominational church, I suspect the thinking there was to steer clear of anything that would seem identifiably one denomination over another, so again, no incorporation of “Advent” into the celebration of Christmas.

Of course, Advent really means the coming of Christ. In its generic form, the word means the coming of any notable person, thing, or event. In it’s proper noun form, however, it’s specifically used in conjunction with Christianity.

Some years ago on the radio broadcast Family Life Today, the hosts and guests discussed some of the more notable Christmas traditions. Among those was Advent, referring specifically to the lighting of advent candles and the reading of particular scriptures.

The thing I learned was that the focus of Advent in an earlier age was threefold: the first coming of Christ, as a baby, the coming of Christ to individuals who accept Him as Messiah, and the second coming of Christ which we await.

I really like this focus. It takes Jesus out of the manger and declares Him to be a living and risen Savior who is coming again.

This threefold aspect of Jesus’s coming mirrors the Christian life. We have fulfillment, appropriation, and anticipation. Christ died once for all the just for the unjust (fulfillment), but those who believe will be saved (appropriation), and one day we will receive the reward of the inheritance (anticipation).

One of the hymns now associated with Advent is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” I have to admit, I’ve paid little attention to the words of this hymn, though I could go on automatic pilot and sing the first verse.

As I looked for the rest of the words, I found a number of diverse listings. One gave five verses, another seven, and the one below, eight. None seem quite the same. Besides the obvious extra, or missing, stanzas, however you wish to look at it, their order is different and some of the lines are dissimilar. Yet more than one site claims the English is a translation from the 12th century Latin original.

Looking at the various versions, I can see the threefold meaning of Advent shining through. I’m not sure I’d like to sing all these verses–the music, after all, originated as a funeral dirge, and honestly gets on my nerves after a bit, with it’s heavy, repetitive monotony, all except the “Rejoice, rejoice” notes.

But the lyrics are equally heavy. This is no “Away in a Manger” or “Silent Night.” This is a song about captives in need of ransom, about exile and Satan’s tyranny and the salvation from the depths of hell.

Merry Christmas!

But really, it is a merry Christmas for those who believe. We celebrate Christ’s birth, not because He was a cute baby. We celebrate because at long last, after centuries of waiting, the promised Son and Savior came and comes and will come again.

Perhaps “Merry Christmas” isn’t quite right after all. Maybe a better greeting would be Joyous Advent. (I wonder what secularists would do with that one! 😉 )

And now the lyrics which you might want to compare with those that appear in Wikipedia.

O come, O come Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Refrain:
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
who orderest all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go. Refrain

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them victory over the grave. Refrain

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Refrain

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery. Refrain

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times once gave the law
in cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain

O come, thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
an ensign of thy people be;
before thee rulers silent fall;
all peoples on thy mercy call. Refrain

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace. Refrain

This post is a revised version of one that first appeared here in December 2013.

By Grace Alone, Through Faith Alone


martin_luther_lucas_cranach_1526I admit, I’ve been spoiled. I’ve grown up with so many great gifts—loving parents and siblings, an opportunity for a sound education, attendance in church from infancy on, a middle class existence that ensured I had three square meals a day and a warm place to live and many changes of clothes in my closet. I had a secure and happy childhood, though we moved many times.

Part of my growing up included my spiritual education, so I understood early on that I was a sinner in need of a Savior. I understood that I could not do enough good things to make up for the bad. And I understood that no one could help me because they had their own sin problem. No one, except Jesus. His being the only sinless person who ever lived qualified Him to be the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world for those who believed.

So nothing I did or could do would merit me to be acceptable to God. Only Jesus, standing in my place, taking the punishment I deserved, solved my sin issue.

Because I understood the basics of salvation at an early age, I have never grasped what it would be like to live any other way.

I’ve heard Jews and Catholics and Greek Orthodox joke in a knowing way about the guilt instilled in them by their religion, or more specifically, by someone who was holding them to a strict adherence to their religion—a parent, a priest, a teacher. I’ve also heard people refer to Christians as bound by guilt.

Those seem odd to me. I don’t recall a time in my life when I’ve felt guilt-driven.

So I’ve been spoiled because I’ve believed from my youth that I’m forgiven because of God’s grace.

Christians haven’t always had this understanding. There was a period of time when grace took a back seat to doing good works as the Church defined them. No doubt those who were saved, gained that standing with God because of His grace, but they were perhaps less aware of it.

All that changed four hundred and ninety-nine years ago when Martin Luther went public with the results of his own doubts, questions, and struggles to understand God. On October 31, 1517, Luther sent a paper he’d written to his bishop: “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” This document became known simply as the Ninety-five Theses. Whether Luther ever attached a copy of the document to the door of the church at Wittenberg is a matter of contention, as was the document itself, when it first appeared.

But from the thoughts, question, and issues Luther looked at, grew the bedrock of Protestantism and a reformation (though more slowly, it would seem) of the Catholic Church. Luther challenged the practice of selling indulgences, by which the priests grew richer because of the desire of the poor to do what they could to insure the salvation of their loved ones.

Luther contended that salvation depended on God, not on humans:

The most important [truth of Christianity] for Luther was the doctrine of justification – God’s act of declaring a sinner righteous – by faith alone through God’s grace. He began to teach that salvation or redemption is a gift of God’s grace, attainable only through faith in Jesus as the Messiah.[43] “This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification,” he wrote, “is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness.”[44] (see “Theology of Martin Luther,” Wikipedia)

Luther had much Scripture to support his position, not the least of which is Ephesians 2:8-9—“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The work is God’s, Luther proclaimed. A worker giving his copper to the church would not save the soul of his dead brother.

When I was growing up, I’d never heard about indulgences or even doing something to help a dead person reach heaven. The works I knew about were the kinds of things people did to make themselves acceptable to God. And these works included good things: going to church, reading the Bible, giving money to the poor, going on a short term mission trip, and so on. Good things.

But just like Paul’s list of good Jewish things recorded in Philippians, this Christian list of good things amounts to rubbish if its considered the means to a relationship with God. Paul’s birth status, circumcision, religious affiliation, and even his personal righteousness, were nothing in view of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ (Phil. 3).

Essentially Martin Luther discovered and proclaimed what Paul had learned through his own quest. The two men were similar. They both wanted to please God, and they both went about it by trying to be good enough for Him based on the good things they did. Both eventually realized that there weren’t enough good things in the entire earth to make them good enough, but that God had given right standing with Him as a free gift through Christ Jesus.

That’s grace.

Nothing earned here.

A free gift.

Undeserved.

I know that rankles American minds—perhaps the minds of others, too. But here we have two competing philosophies—an independent, “earn your own way” mentality and an entitlement, “you deserve it” belief. God’s free gift is an affront to both of those positions. We humans don’t get to take credit for salvation, no matter how you look at it. We didn’t earn it, and we aren’t so wonderful that it ought to have been handed to us based on our incredible merit.

Luther did the hard work of sussing out from Scripture this truth, and I’m incredibly grateful.

Thanks be to God for His free gift of salvation, and thanks be to Him for teaching this truth to Martin Luther so that he could make it widely known.

The Problem With Salvation


In the previous three posts (Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday), I addressed the reality of sin and the need each of us has for the good news, that God has rescued us from the mess of our own making. But that’s only part of the story. More than what God has saved us from is the reality of what God has saved us to.

I addressed this in a post a number of years ago, and I want to reprise that article today.

– – – – –

When I was a kid, growing up in a Christian home, I attended Sunday school regularly. My first recollection of an explanation about sin and salvation is tied to heaven and hell.

Later I attended a Bible club and received a Wordless Book that reinforced the concepts.

Clearly, I did not want to go to Hell. If Heaven was the only alternative, then that’s where I wanted to go, and if Jesus could get me there, then I wanted to accept Him “into my heart.”

I had to get past the idea of a shrunken version of Jesus fitting into my heart, and one Sunday school teacher was able to explain, the Holy Spirit was actually the One who would live in my heart.

Why didn’t they just say so, I thought. I had a vague understanding of the Holy Spirit because a lot of hymns called Him the Holy Ghost. Ghosts didn’t sound holy to me, so I had already asked my parents about that one. I don’t remember what they told me, but it must have been adequate for a child’s understanding because I wasn’t troubled by further questions until much later.

But I digress. From my own experience, from listening to others tell their testimony and to some venting about unhappy religious backgrounds, I see confusion when it comes to the issue of salvation.

In part I think this is because some of us never grow up in our understanding of God. But another contributing factor, I think, is that I had an experience of being saved from Hell rather than an experience of being saved to God.

Any teacher, coach, and most parents will tell you that part of training involves laying out consequences. God deals with us the same way. He tells us what the wages of sin is, just as He warned Adam what would happen if he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

So Sunday school teachers who spoke of Hell were not inventing something or using scare tactics. They were telling the truth.

However, escape from Hell isn’t all that great in and of itself. For years I worried about boredom sitting on those clouds, playing a miniature harp for all of eternity.

Eventually my understanding began to grow and my relationship with God began to develop, but it took years.

I had one friend in college who had serious questions about God, in part because she had questions about eternity. My answers were woeful and unbiblical, and she dismissed Christianity in the face of them.

That experience drove me to ask more questions.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

  1. Salvation seems to be less important to some people than their efforts to earn it.
  2. Salvation is much more about being in God’s company than anything else. The real terror isn’t Hell. It’s separation from God. Conversely, Heaven is only great because God makes it great.
  3. Christ provides the only access to God.
  4. Because salvation is really a relationship, it is dynamic.
  5. I don’t have to wait for “later” to experience the joy of my salvation.
  6. The relationship I now have with God grows like any other relationship. If I spend time with Him, I am close to Him. If I don’t, I’m not.
  7. Right now, my relationship with God is more like an Internet friendship. I know Him in part, in the ways He’s revealed Himself to me. Someday, I’ll know Him in person.

This article originally appeared here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction in August, 2009.

Published in: on June 27, 2016 at 4:33 pm  Comments Off on The Problem With Salvation  
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