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 (8)  
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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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What Makes Good News Good?


reading_newspaper_276396976Since I’m a fiction writer, let’s pretend.

You’re rich. Not just comfortably middle class, but within reach of Bill Gates. We’re talking loaded, filthy rich, a billionaire. One day, you get an email notification that you have won a new car, the latest low-end Nissan—a stripped down car with no radio, anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, or automatic transmission. Did you receive good news?

But let’s pretend you’re a twenty-year-old college student with mounting loans, and the only way you can get to work from school is public transportation — if the professor lets class out five minutes early, and then you have to make a dash for the bus stop. One day, you get an email notification that you have won a new car, the latest low-end Nissan—-a stripped down car with no radio, anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, or automatic transmission. Did you receive good news?

I suspect someone in scenario number two would be ecstatic with such wonderful news, but why? It’s the same news the person in scenario number one received. In all likelihood, that individual would either look at the prize as just one more thing to have to deal with or more probably, as something to hand off to an assistant to dispose of. He might not give the matter a second thought.

Clearly the different reactions are based upon the differing circumstances.

In the spiritual realm, while we all have identical circumstances to deal with, our perception might be that we don’t.

All mankind labors under the weight of our selfish, prideful, self-righteous hearts that want to see us enthroned, not God; that want to see us first, not our neighbor. Our condition leaves us separated from our Creator and at odds with the people around us.

Some of us have learned to mask our disappointment at our isolation and some have learned to numb it by activity or some destructive behavior. Some try to overcome it, thinking it is possible to do enough good things to crawl out of the abyss. None of it works, but we keep trying because we think perhaps we just haven’t found the right key.

On the other hand, some seem to have it all figured out. They are successful, on the way to fulfilling all their dreams, happy in the truest sense of the word. They are the spiritual billionaires.

But the truth is, they are no less dead in their sins, destined for destruction. They just don’t know it. Their perception is, All is well. Their reality is, The wages of sin is death.

If I were to come up to one of these spiritual billionaires and say, God loves you; His grace is available for you; His forgiveness is free—that individual would most likely think I was offering him the equivalent of a cheap car he doesn’t want, a burden he’ll have to get rid of as soon as possible.

It takes thirsty people to want water, hungry people to want bread. It takes lost people to want to be found.

Enter God’s law. Scripture calls it a tutor. Without the law I wouldn’t know that my covetousness or lust or hatred is not OK.

Jesus Himself expanded the Ten Commandments. In fact one of His first public discourses was all about how the Law was not only external but internal—lust was the same as committing adultery, hatred the same as committing murder. In the end He said, Be perfect as My Father is perfect.

As if!

When you put it in the terms Jesus did, we all know we aren’t perfect, can’t be perfect. And therefore, that we stand in need of a Savior.

We—all of us—need the good news, but it will only seem good if we know we need it.

This post, a reprint of an article that first appeared here in February 2011, is a follow up to Who Believes In Sin These Days? and Sin Is Not The Problem.

Published in: on May 26, 2016 at 5:55 pm  Comments (1)  
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Where Are We Going?


I_love_my_trans_child_I have serious concerns for America, for the human race, and even for the Church. Where are we headed?

In the western world we’ve discovered eastern thought, and in the East, Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds. That gives me hope, it really does. But what I see in my own country, not so much.

There’s the political mess we’re in this election cycle. Please God, by His mercy, we might still have a candidate who will not make the mess worse, but if things continue to go as they are, the likelihood is that we’ll have either a fascist, a socialist or a possible felon for President. Happy days.

Of course, what’s dominating our thought—other than music and TV and movies and movie stars and sports, is bathrooms! Behind the issue is the acceptance of the transgender community which is a niche in the whole LGBT coalition.

The really troubling aspect, to me, is not that men will be in women’s bathrooms or women in men’s (though I tend to think not so many women-changed-to men will actually be a problem in the men’s bathrooms since they aren’t going to be shoulder to shoulder with guys at the urinal). Rather it’s the randomness of our rational for these “I feel like a woman, therefore I am a woman” identity issues.

Some of the same people who cry loudly that a person’s gender identity is how they feel inside will also cry loudly that evolution is real science and that supporting creation is “junk science.” They’ll also cry loudly that global warming is a Real Thing, with Scientific Proof! And that God does not exist (because we can’t see him).

The randomness comes from the selective use of physical evidence. Is not a person’s genitalia scientific evidence of gender? Why do some people trust in science when it comes to an unprovable theory like evolution but completely ignore it when it comes to gender identity?

The gender identity issue is not a small thing. It attacks the fundamentals of humanity. Scripture tells us that God created humans, male and female. But we, in our superior, I’m-better-than-god mindset think we can improve on what he made, if we don’t like it. Instead of teaching young people that God “don’t make no junk,” we have been sending out the word that girls have to be skinnier, men more muscular, white people tanner, nobody with gray hair (unless you’re eighty, and then only if you want to stop the hassle and expense of coloring your hair) or bald, and on and on. In other words, accepting who we are as we came out of the womb is pretty much unheard of.

That same kind of thinking has simply expanded. First, we did plastic surgery to fix the features we didn’t like, and now it’s hormone therapy and sex-transformation surgery.

This is not solving a problem. It’s creating a bigger one. Kids don’t know who they are, to the point that they no longer know what bathroom to use. And we give them the answer that we’ll simply let them choose or we’ll make a neutral bathroom for those who don’t feel like they fit in the silly binary bathrooms we have now.

My heart breaks for kids today who don’t know who they are. Their gender identity search is simply a symptom of their larger confusion. They don’t know where they belong or if they belong.

Kids—people—have always needed to belong, needed to feel secure and loved, needed to have purpose. Parents ought to be the first place where children have those needs met, but because parents aren’t perfect, they won’t be met perfectly. Friends meet those needs to a lesser degree, and spouses perhaps more so. But none can do so perfectly, and many a marriage goes through rocky times simply because one spouse or the other had expectations that their needs would be perfectly met, only to wake up to reality.

As a result of all the confusion, kids today seem to be growing up like weeds. Well, honey, what do you want to wear today to preschool? Well, honey, what gender do you want to be when you go to middle school?

Really, parents?

Where are you?

Parents don’t parent any more because they’ve been brainwashed into believing that there are no absolutes. So if Johnny doesn’t want to share his toys, well, they are his and we can’t violate what he wants to do (because apparently one of the few absolutes is that we are to allow everyone to do what they want, unless they’re bent on harming others physically; emotionally has yet to be determined).

So instead of Johnny learning to think of others and not just himself, he has parents who validate his selfishness. He never learns impulse control or empathy for others. He simply buys into the philosophy of bullies everywhere: if I want it, I take it.

We are a confused people because we have lost our moral compass. God said, do this one thing I’m telling you to do, and we can’t even manage that. Why? Because we want to be the boss. We don’t want to be second, even to God. We want what we want when we want it, and God isn’t going to stop us. We’ll simply believe him out of existence.

If things were left up to us, it would be hopeless. But praise God, He has come to rescue us from the dominion of darkness.

But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7, emphasis mine)

So where are we going? God has made the way for us through Jesus Christ our Savior to have eternal life. But to claim the gift of salvation we have to be clear about our identity: we are sinners coming to God, not on the basis of anything we’ve done but completely dependent upon what Christ has done for us. When we get that part of our identity cleared up, the rest will start to fall into place.