Perfect People Aren’t Saved


No Perfect People

Yesterday I re-posted an article about morally flawed people, and the irony that many who accept their flaws without blinking still think they “deserve” heaven. Today, I want to address the opposite problem: people who think heaven is for good people. This article originally appeared here in May, 2013.

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Along with an erroneous view of the Bible, some people also have misconceptions about salvation. One of the most common is that it’s the good people that come to Christ—the people who like church and gospel music, who think a good time means going to a prayer meeting. Those are the people that become Christians.

Wrong.

For one thing, there are no “good people.” If someone is devoted to religious expression but has not believed the claims of Jesus Christ, he’s using his religion to get something he wants. In other words, religious expression can be an evidence of our selfishness, our desire to manipulate—either other people or even God Himself.

Good people aren’t saved. Sinners are saved. The lost are found, the broken are healed, those at the bottom of the pit are rescued. Jesus Himself said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt 9:12b). In context it’s clear he was referring to messed up people—“tax collectors and sinners.”

Even today, I think some Christians have the idea that a person needs to clean up a bit before coming to Christ. Jesus seems to say the opposite. He first encountered people where they were at, and knowing Him then brought about change. In some instances, such as His conversation with the woman caught in adultery, He told her to sin no more. In other instances, such as with Zaccheus, the sinner himself volunteered to clean up his act after his encounter with Jesus.

Either way, Jesus saves sinners, not because they get rid of sin but because they can’t get rid of sin and they know it. They repent but it is Jesus who takes away the sin of the world. It is His Spirit that gives each sinner the desire to live in newness of life.

By our nature, none of us wants to worship God and serve Him [atheists call this our “default position,” not realizing that they are defining the sin nature]. We want to worship ourselves and serve ourselves. We do unto others so that they will do unto us. In other words, we largely look at relationships as trade-offs. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. And woe to the person who doesn’t follow through on his promise. Revenge awaits! Justified revenge, because people are supposed to come through for me (even though I don’t always come through for them).

The interesting thing is, those who think they are good don’t see any need for God. Why would they? They don’t think they need saving.

So it’s ironic that people falsely think good people come to Christ. People good in their own eyes are too busy with their perfectionistic ways to pay attention to what Christ is all about. They are making sure that they recycle, give to the charity of the month, teach their children to be tolerant of all lifestyles, and do their fifty percent of what it takes to have a good marriage.

Don’t get me wrong. When a person comes to Christ, he changes. A thief like Zaccheus doesn’t want to keep stealing. Just the opposite. He has a passion for making right the wrongs he’s done. But his new life is a result of his relationship with Christ, not a cause of it.

He didn’t come to Christ because he stopped stealing. He stopped stealing because he came to Christ.

Too many Christians don’t really understand this new life we experience. We’d like all the old desires to be gone and for some people, they are. For others, it’s a fight to the death, or so it seems. The old desires seem to raise their ugly heads at the least opportune times. Some people experience gradual and constant improvement. What they used to do, they hardly do any more. What they want to do to please Jesus, they find delights them now, too.

The process, we’re told, is sanctification—growing up into our salvation, becoming like Jesus through the supernatural transformation of His Spirit. Most of us think it’s a long process that doesn’t show a lot of results to most of those who are close enough to us to see our warts.

And because we fall down so often, because lots of people think only the good come to Jesus, we give Christ’s name a bad reputation—because clearly, Christians sin. When we think about it, it grieves our hearts because we’re dragging Jesus’s name into the mud. We’re letting people think poorly of our Savior because we wallow in the sins we say He saved us from.

Christians aren’t good people. We’re saved people, and it’s important that we let others see who we are: a people who have received mercy, who have been pardoned, redeemed, cleansed, forgiven, and who one day, when we see Jesus face to face, will be like Him. It’s just that we’re not there yet.

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A Closer Look At Faith And Prayer


1397392_mount_rainier
Here’s another in the series of Evangelical Myths

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I’ve thought a lot about the Pharisees and the traditions that they allowed to take over their belief system—to the point that their religious practice served their greed and their lust for power. Can the same thing happen today? In evangelical churches? Why not? It happened in Christianity before there ever was a Protestant/Catholic divide.

So what are some of the evangelical myths that could potentially start professing Christians on the road away from God and toward religious traditions that serve our greed and lust for power?

This position, included in an article by another blogger, seems common: “if I have enough faith, God will do it.” I’d even suggest we’ve taken this idea a step farther: if I have enough faith, God will HAVE to do it.

Certainly this idea of faith has its seeds in Scripture. In fact Jesus Himself said this to His disciples when they could not cast out a demon from a boy brought to them for that purpose:

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not drive it out?” And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” (Matt. 17:19-20)

Later Jesus said much the same to His disciples:

And Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree [curse it so that it withered], but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” (Matt. 21:21-22)

Certainly, from those passages, the issue seems to be the faith the disciples had. It was all up to them. If they believed, they could have sent the demon away or cursed the fig tree, but they didn’t have enough faith—not even the size of the smallest seed, or else they could move mountains.

The problem is, this passage is not the only one that addresses faith or asking things of God. So here’s an important principle: one way that myths become established is when believers take passages of Scripture in isolation and believe them “literally.” While I believe the Bible to be true—each word and in total—I do not believe each word alone communicates the intent of the whole.

My favorite example is the passage in Psalm 14: “There is no God.” Yes, that’s what verse one says . . . in part. The intro is, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” What a difference putting the line in context makes.

So too the teaching of Scripture about faith and prayer. What we need to do is look at the various passages on these subjects together—things like God promising to give good gifts to His children (necessitating an understanding of what He means by “good”); saying if we “abide in Him,” and His words abide in us, we can ask whatever we wish and it will be done (necessitating an understanding of this “abiding”); and promising if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us (necessitating an understanding of “His will”).
Vending Machine 2

In other words, these passages can’t be taken in isolation from their context or from one another. Prayer is NOT a vending machine—put in the appropriate amount of faith and out comes the answer; too little faith and the prayer machine gets stuck with nothing shooting into the retrieval slot.

In fact, one of the greatest passages about asking God for something comes from the man whose son had the demon the disciples couldn’t cast out:

But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” And Jesus said to him, ” ‘If You can?’ All things are possible to him who believes. “Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” (Mar 9:22b-24)

His great confession was that even belief comes from God—it’s not something he could generate on his own.

James adds a couple different pieces to the faith puzzle. First he said it was great for someone to say he believes in God, but the reality is, the demons also believe. So there’s obviously more to “belief” than a mental ascent.

Secondly, he addresses the issue of asking God for what we need: “You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive because you ask with wrong motives so that you may spend it on your pleasures” (see James 4:2b-3).

Certainly this look at faith and prayer is not exhaustive, but by reviewing the various promises, commands, and instruction in Scripture, I draw these conclusions:

  • there is no prayer formula;
  • God wishes to give His people good gifts, but we mistake what we think is good for what He thinks is good;
  • believing God for the things we know to be His will should be our default prayer position.

Here’s my own personal conclusion: I don’t ask God for enough stuff or for big enough stuff—the things consistent with His will. I get wrapped up in “small ball,” the stuff that would make my life easier or more pleasant. So often God graciously gives me what I ask for, but I wonder—if I asked for more, for bigger, wouldn’t He be pleased to give that, too?

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

Published in: on February 1, 2018 at 4:54 pm  Comments (1)  
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Purpose—A Reprise


What is the purpose of life? Not just any life, but the life of a human being. Christians schooled in the Westminster Shorter Catechism will immediately answer that “the chief end of Man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

It’s hard to refute that statement, for surely all of creation is to glorify God and at some point in the future “every knee will bow of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-10).

The problem I’m having with this concept is this: why didn’t God tell Adam and Eve their purpose was to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever? And when Jesus came, why didn’t He correct any wrong thinking and state what His followers’ purpose should be? Then when Jesus left earth, why didn’t the Holy Spirit set them on the right path and give them their ultimate purpose?

In other words, this idea that Humankind has been given the central purpose of glorifying God and enjoying Him forever seems to me to be something humans have cobbled together from various scriptures. By the way, the purpose the Westminster Catechism gives humans seems to me to be fulfilled by the angelic host. Are we to duplicate what they have been given to do?

According to Genesis, God gave Adam and Eve a completely different directive:

God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)

First, God made humans His image bearers. Second, He told them to multiply. And third, He gave them dominion over the earth and the rest of life on the earth. God never rescinded his commands to Adam. Therefore, I submit, these are the purposes of Humankind.

Because Humankind introduced sin into the world, Adam’s original purpose was subverted, but not eliminated. Humans are still to multiply. I don’t think that command was ever about filling the world with more bodies, however. Without a sin nature, a child born before sin would have had the same relationship with God that Adam and Eve had. They could have communed with Him in transparent intimacy. They could have represented God to the rest of creation by administering just and merciful dominion over all of life. In other words, God wanted more people carrying out His work in the world, and it was up to Adam and Eve to multiply.

In many respects, the Church, God’s redeemed and reconciled people, have been recommissioned to accomplish what Adam and Eve failed to do.

We are to represent Christ to the world. Paul terms this as being ambassadors:

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us (2 Cor. 5:20a)

We are also to multiply.

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you (Matt. 28:18-20a).

I recently read that Christians are not primarily to engage in a “pyramid scheme” of evangelism. That term, of course, has negative connotations because those participating had to put in money with the hope of getting a greater return in the end. This goal can only be accomplished by bringing as many other members into the scheme as possible.

Of course Christians aren’t to be engaged in disciple-making with some ulterior goal or with some sort of works-based reward system in mind. We shouldn’t be trying to notch our belt to signify another redeemed scalp.

But trumpeting the good news, playing the part of ambassadors, teaching others who can then turn around a teach others, is precisely what Christians are called to do.

The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2)

As I see it, because of sin, we are now on a rescue mission. Our chief end, just as it was Adam’s chief end, is to obey God–which Jesus says we’ll do if we love Him–and His primary commands haven’t change, though the scope of them has. Now we are to be image bearers to the rest of creation, including people who do not know the Son. In the process, we are participating in the multiplication of His people:

For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren (Rom. 8:29 – emphasis mine).

Throughout the New Testament there’s a discussion of “bearing fruit.” Primarily those references deal with one of two things–good works or people. In one parable, for example, Jesus admonishes His disciples to go out into the harvest because the fields are ripe. Then in the epistles, Paul talks about obtaining fruit among the Gentiles. Elsewhere he talks about some Christians planting, others watering, but God giving the increase–or bringing to fruition their work.

I suggest God receives glory when what He made works the way He intended it to work. The heavens, for example, declare His glory. How so? By the fact of their existence because what He made originally was good.

Because of the sin nature in Humankind, however, we do not glorify Him merely by our existence. We are not the perfect image bearers He originally made. We are flawed, which is the very thing Christ came to take care of. His work allows us to return to our work.

Yes, I happen to believe God will receive glory because of our doing what He made us to do. In other words, I believe that when we fulfill our chief end we will glorify Him. I also believe that when we fulfill our chief end, we will enjoy Him and that enjoyment will be without end.

Consequently, when we fulfill our purpose, we will bring about the things the Westminster Catechism declares to be the chief end of man. I just happen to think the men who put that doctrinal statement together put the wrong question to the answer. They should have asked, “What will result when Man fulfills his chief end?” Then the answer, “They will glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” works very well.

This post first appeared here in September 2013.

Job’s Problem


I think sometimes we Christians idolize Job. After all, the Bible dedicates a whole book to his story, and later James, in the New Testament, commends him: “We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful” (5:11). Clearly he’s saying Job is one who is blessed since he’s one who endured.

Further, early in Job’s story, he’s such a great example of righteousness that the Bible states, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10b).

Why, then, at the end of the book does Job say, “Therefore I retract, / And I repent in dust and ashes” (42:6).

What’s he repenting of?

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that he had any reason to repent. After all, he was the one who suffered all the loss. He was the one who his friends accused unjustly. He was innocent and yet he stood condemned in their eyes.

Reminds me of Jesus who was truly innocent, not just of the crimes His accusers leveled at Him, but of any crimes of any kind—ones with His mouth, with His actions, with His thoughts, with His will. And Peter (who was in a great position to know) tells us, “While being reviled, He did not revile in return, while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23).

Unfortunately, in the end, Job couldn’t say the same thing. He started out well, but a week into the mournful, silent visit from his friends, he was no longer praising God as he had initially when his kids died and his servants were captured or killed and when he lost his flocks. Back then he’d said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, / And naked I shall return there. / The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. / Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).

But now? He was depressed. He wished he hadn’t been born. Even more, he accused God of wronging him.

The thing that Job understood that his friends didn’t was that God is sovereign. The friends thought God was more like a programmed machine, obligated to respond to humankind’s behavior. So sin had to be punished. Since Job was obviously being punished (suffering), he must have sinned.

Job knew he hadn’t sinned. He knew his own heart. There weren’t any secret sins such as his friends were accusing him of:

“My foot has held fast to His path;
I have kept His way and not turned aside.
I have not departed from the command of His lips;
I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food. (23:11-12)

So in Job’s mind, God had to be treating him unjustly. He attacks the idea that the wicked are always punished. No they aren’t he says. They flourish right along side the righteous. And in the end, everybody dies.

But he also says God has wronged him. He’s silent and won’t tell him why He’s unjustly causing Job such pain.

In the end, God sets Job straight. He thought he knew God as sovereign, but God took his understanding one step further, from knowledge to trust.

And so Job repented.

Is he a hero of the faith? I think so. Is he a perfect model for believers to follow in times of suffering? Not really. Not until the end when he grasped that God is transcendent and all powerful and understands more than we can ever imagine, that He can be trusted.

The interesting thing to me is that Job, although serving as a type for Christ—a person symbolizing or exemplifying the suffering of the Messiah—had the opportunity to take it all the way home. He could have “entrusted himself to Him who judges righteously.”

I guess that makes him more like us so we relate to him. Thankfully he got there in the end: he learned to trust God because He is God.

Published in: on December 29, 2017 at 6:23 pm  Comments (1)  
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Christmas And The Hope Of Heaven – Reprise


christmas-family-07-674069-mChristmas can be hard for some people because of who they so recently lost. A husband died of brain cancer this year. This will be his wife’s first Christmas without him. Another wife lost her husband of 62 years right when she thought he was on the mend and would be home soon. A sister’s older brother died. A friend’s aunt passed away.

I remember facing Christmas for the first time after my dad died. The holiday just didn’t seem right without him. Would Christmas ever be merry again, I wondered.

The thing is, too often the merry-making associated with Christmas is of a superficial nature. We’re merry because we have a party to look forward to or presents to buy and wrap and another whole set to get. We have once-a-year music that brings back fond memories. We have food to prepare and stockings to stuff, trees to decorate, lights to string.

There’s lots to do, places to go, people to see. It’s a bit of a whirlwind, but a merry whirlwind that comes only once a year, so we love it and embrace it and enjoy Christmas because it’s so special.

And it is.

But if that’s all it is, then it’s easy for the loss of a loved one to shatter the fictive Christmas dream. This special holiday will never again be perfect because this dear person or that, is no longer here.

Of course, the reality is that the “perfect Christmas” is an ideal few of us ever live. But a greater reality is, there’s a more perfect Christmas waiting for us.

The reality is that Christmas is abundantly more than presents and decorations and food and family. Yes, it’s about Jesus coming in the flesh, stooping to take the form of Man, but it’s even more than that.

If Jesus only came and then went away, what would we have? An example to follow, perhaps, though who can live a sinless life the way God in the flesh did? In truth, Jesus came to earth as a baby in order that He might come to each one of us as Savior.

The whole Christmas story includes God descending in order that He might ascend again and take us with Him.

The loss of a loved one runs deep, there’s no doubt. And it’s right and appropriate to mourn. Christmas trappings may lose their glitter in the process, but the significance of Christmas can actually grow. What other holiday is more hopeful than Christmas? Only Easter and the two really are different sides of the same celebration.

Christmas celebrates God sending His Son. Easter celebrates God receiving His Son. What Jesus accomplished in the between space makes all the difference.

Now we have the hope of heaven to go along with the hope for a merry Christmas. We can hope to get along with our family on December 25, but we can also hope to spend eternity with them. We can enjoy the Christmas parties and feasts, but we can look forward to the banquet supper of the Lamb. We can bask in the music of the season, but we can anticipate the praises of God’s people as they worship at His throne.

In other words, what we have at Christmas is a foretaste of what we will enjoy in Heaven, without limit. The beauty, the love, the laughter, the generosity, the creativity, the activity–none of the elements of Christmas we love so much can hold a candle to what awaits us when we join Christ.

Paul himself said it in Philippians: to be with Christ is gain. It’s not an abandonment of what we love here; it’s what we love and more.

One piece of that “more” is an end to the losses, to the goodbyes. And that is great good news in its own right and definitely a cause for hope. Yes, some may mourn at Christmas time, but for those who embrace Christ as more than a baby born in a manger, for those who cling to Him as Savior and Lord, our mourning is turned to gladness at the promise of Christmas.

We of all people have the joy of looking forward, beyond the temporary merryness of the season, to an eternity of God’s peace and good will.

This article first appeared here in December 2013.

Published in: on December 6, 2017 at 3:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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What Does It Mean To Be A Christian?


I know it’s getting close to Christmas, so this post should be more traditionally about things like shepherds and wisemen or bells and Christmas trees. Those will come. But Christ’s birth began what we now call Christianity, so I thought it might be important to answer the question: what is a Christian?

In the early days after Jesus rose from the dead, after Peter preached his first sermon, Christianity was not considered a new world religion. Some of the Jews called it a cult. Christians themselves referred to it as “The Way,” and many continued keeping the Jewish Law. In fact many thought all Christians should keep the Law, even those Gentiles who joined hands with them in fellowship.

Because Gentiles were included in Christianity. The book of Acts details how God’s Spirit convinced the church leadership that just like Jews came to faith by God’s grace, not by works which they did, so Gentiles too were coming to faith by God’s grace and not their good deeds done in righteousness.

Women became Christians too, not just men. And some poor, some rich. In other words, Christians didn’t look a certain way. There was the Greek woman Lydia and the unnamed Ethiopian man who Phillip baptized. There was the educated Jew, Paul, and his half Greek/half Jewish disciple, Timothy. There were believers in Rome and believers in Ephesus. There were kings and there were slaves.

Christians didn’t have to be from a certain background or come out of a similar belief system. What they needed was belief in the Lord Jesus Christ. That was the necessary ingredient.

Nothing has changed.

Well, one thing has.

In those early days nobody was professing to be a Christian if they weren’t really believers. Because persecution set in fairly soon. Stephen, one of the early Christian leaders in Jerusalem, was killed for his faith in Jesus. His death sparked a wave of persecution that caused many to flee.

The “many” were not all locals. Some were. But many had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish feast of Passover and were still there at Pentecost when Peter got up and told them who Jesus is. They believed and stayed so they could learn more and so they could enjoy the strength they received by being in the company of others who also believed.

When they scattered to their homes or to places they felt would be safer, they took their new-found faith with them. They received instruction from traveling preachers like Paul and Silas and Barnabas and John Mark and Apollos and Aquila and Priscilla. And they studied the scriptures which gave them deeper understanding about Jesus. Because belief in Jesus set them apart.

Interestingly, as Peter noted, those scriptures included letters from Paul. And, as it turned out, from Peter himself, from James and Titus and John.

These letters were read aloud in the various churches, not just the ones to which they were originally written, and from them the new believers came to understand more about Jesus and what was required of them.

For example, James made it clear that a person couldn’t just mouth words of faith without actually exhibiting the actions that faith produced. John spelled out how a person couldn’t just say he loved God and then turn around and hate his brother. From Paul they learned the importance of unity, the purpose of the Church, the way Christians were to respond to government leaders and to each other, and so on.

The main thing to note here is that Christians believed and followed the teaching of the Apostles who had walked and talked with Jesus, and they followed the Scriptures. They were, at their core, disciples of Jesus Christ, though they now understood He came to set up a spiritual kingdom, though He would one day return as reigning Lord.

The Apostles actually warned them against following false teachers. In one of his letters, John said, “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh.” Deceivers. There were also some who preached that Jesus had already come back—when clearly He hadn’t. Still others preached the need to keep the Jewish Law. Then there were those like Simon the magician who simply wanted to tap into the power that made it possible for the Apostles to do miracles. He wanted to use Christ, not worship Him,

The Way was not confusing or complicated: believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved. But false teachers preached different gospels in the name of The Way.

Until persecution poured down upon Christians from Rome. I think the suffering caused by the executions of Christians in the Colosseum and through other heinous means may have stopped a lot of people from simply getting on the bandwagon. After all, who would want to associate with people doomed to die painful deaths because of what they believed?

Today things are different here in the US. Not so different in other parts of the world where being a Christian may not be easy or popular. But here, Christians have enjoyed a great deal of peace and prosperity over the decades. Only until the last thirty years or so has being a Christian become a position that fewer people admit to and fewer people mean.

There are some of the same false teacher types in our society as existed in the first century. We have some people who have added “later revelations” which are simply the “different gospel” which Paul warned against. There are people who want the power of God instead of a relationship with Him, as Simon the magician wanted. There are some who think they are Christians because they were born in America, because they’ve gone to church all their life. In other words, they think their good deeds done in righteousness or their cultural heritage or some other thing makes them a Christian.

It doesn’t.

What makes a person a Christian has not changed. Someone who believes on the name of God’s only begotten Son for salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and who lives that faith—who doesn’t just say he loves God, but who shows he loves God—that person is a Christian.

Published in: on December 5, 2017 at 5:49 pm  Comments (3)  
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More About Jesus


Nativity_Scenes015As I’ve said, at Christmas time it’s appropriate to ask who Jesus is since the day set aside to commemorate His birth has become such a big deal.

Some undoubtedly don’t think past the manger scene. To them Jesus was, is, and always will be that infant wrapped up and lying amid a bunch of animals. The thing is, the baby didn’t stay in the manger any more than the man stayed on the cross or the resurrected Christ stayed in the tomb.

Others have re-imaged Jesus to be a good teacher. Sort of a Hebrew Gandhi, I think, one of the gurus who gave us quotables and an example to follow. This view is similar to the one held by a certain rich member of the Jewish ruling class who sought Jesus out.

In his exchange with Jesus, the young guy addressed Him as “good teacher.” In Jesus’s response, He separated Himself from all other teachers or examples. It defines who He is: “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.”

The young ruler immediately dropped the “good.”

Quite apparently he did not think Jesus was God. Otherwise he might have answered something like, “I understand completely that no one is good except God alone. Good teacher, what must I do to be saved?”

Instead he said, “Teacher, I have kept all these things [the Law] from my youth up.” In other words, he did not acknowledge Jesus as God. In addition, he did not acknowledge his need. I’m not sure what he expected … an “atta boy,” maybe, a “keep on keeping on.” I don’t know.

In so many ways that Jewish law-keeper is like people today who identify with Jesus but who don’t realize He is God. Some have “re-imaged” him, describing all the things he did and said that fit in with 21st century sensibilities of love and brotherhood and tolerance.

What they do not look at or acknowledge are the “God things” Jesus did and said. And here I’m not referring to the many kind and seemingly miraculous interventions Christians experience today. (A good number of people have come to call such occurrences, “God things.”)

I’m actually thinking of something quite different. I’m thinking of the things Jesus said that ticked off the Jewish establishment. The things He did that made them ask, Who does he think he is?

Things like healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, or telling the paralytic his sins were forgiven, then to pick up his bed and walk–also on the Sabbath. Or how about the time when His disciples picked grain on the Sabbath because they were hungry. When the Pharisees confronted Jesus, He gave them a Bible lesson, ending with this:

“Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matt 12:5-8; emphasis is mine)

The big one that got the Jews worked up, of course, was His God claims. John records one of these:

“I and the Father are one.” The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?” The Jews answered Him, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God.” (John 10:30-33)

Then, too, they didn’t like it much when He told them that they were of their father the devil. In that conversation, Jesus ended with another statement identifying Himself as God, and sure enough, they tried to kill Him on the spot.

Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple. (John 8:58-59)

I don’t know how people today who imagine this metro-sexual Jesus with the cool sandals and trendy long hair have missed the controversy the real Jesus brought. To His family. To the Jewish people. To the world.

He said there will be a day of sorting–sheep on one side, goats on the other. He said there is a narrow road leading to life and a wide road heading to destruction. He said guests at the bridegroom’s feast will be turned away if they’re not wearing the proper wedding garments.

And in the end, He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” That’s who Jesus is.

A version of this article originally appeared here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction December, 2010, then again December, 2013.

Published in: on December 4, 2017 at 5:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Name Above All Names – Reprise


christmas-star-1430243-mIt’s Christmas season, and I want to take some time to think about the person at the center of it all. Of course I can hardly think of Christmas without thinking of Christmas music. One song, not particularly known as a Christmas carol, came to mind immediately:

Jesus, name above all names
Beautiful Savior, glorious Lord.
Emmanuel, God is with us.
Blessed Redeemer, Living word.

But then the question: Why is Jesus’s name above all names?

The quick and easy answer is that Jesus is above all others—both in the heavens and on earth. This, of course, is true. But what precisely does “above all others” mean?

Clearly Jesus is not “#1” the way sports teams are or hit songs or bestselling books or box office hits. MVPs or highest grossing movies are at the top only until another MVP is chosen or another movie earns more money. Their rating is tenuous at best.

There’s nothing tenuous about Jesus being the name above all names. His position at the top is for all time. He will not be supplanted by another, by someone greater who will take away His title. His greatness is permanent.

Another thing that puts Jesus’s name above all other names is that at the name of our soon and coming King, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that He is Lord (Phil. 2:10). Those in the heavens and on earth and under the earth will recognize His authority, even those who have denied Him, hated Him, or rebelled against Him in the past. That’s not to say they will change their tune and embrace Him with love and acceptance, but they will not be able to ignore His place as ruler of all. So He holds a role that sets Him above all others.

Thirdly, He cares like no other. Some might die to save a friend or risk their life to save a stranger, but Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, while we were walking away from Him, even while we were spitting in His face. He, the just, died so that He might bring the unjust to God (1 Peter 3:18).

This relationship Jesus makes possible brings up another way in which He is above all others: Jesus forgives. All other gods or world systems are built upon Humankind’s striving to do good, to be better. Only Jesus takes us as we are. We don’t need to clean up for Him. He’ll take care of the clean-up in time, just as He takes care of the welcome as we run into His open arms (Col. 2:6). It is by Jesus’s grace, not my efforts, that I am His child (Eph. 2:8-9).

“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” (Titus 3:4-5a).

Jesus is also like no other because He is God, come down, and He is Man, resurrected and ascended. He is not a hybrid but is a miraculous one-of-a-kind.

Which reminds me. Some claim Jesus is the first of His “spirit brothers,” as if He is just like us, only better. There’s some truth to this idea, but a lot of untruth. Jesus is eternal. He didn’t have a beginning. He’s not created. He is the Creator because uniquely He and His Father and the Holy Spirit are One. Not simply one in purpose or some spiritualized meaning. God is One, not three. He is a Tri-unity. Jesus is a Person of this Triune God. Not “part” of God. There is no “part.” Jesus is God. The exact representation, Deity in bodily form.

Some also use Jesus’s name as if it were magic. They want to speak His name and get whatever they want just as surely as if they’d waved a magic wand or made the thing appear with some incantation. It’s a travesty at best. The idea of reducing Jesus to wait staff is despicable as well as misguided.

Jesus loves to give good gifts to His children. James tells us that all good gifts are from above (1:17). And Jesus has told us to ask whatever we will, in His name. But that doesn’t mean He is therefore forced to give us whatever we decide we want.

Like any good father would, He will not hand us something dangerous—spiritually dangerous—just because we ask. He disciplines us and sometimes ignores our requests because, as James explains, we ask with wrong motives (4:3).

One last point. Jesus is above all others because He has triumphed over the grave, and over sin which brought death into being. No other person or god or world system can offer us newness of life. Newness. Not the reincarnationist’s belief in a recycling of life here on this dying planet. Not some spirit existence in the great Other in which we lose our personhood.

Jesus has conquered and will conquer, and in doing so, He has made us new creatures. He sees us as righteous and will clothe us with His righteousness. He is preparing a place for us and will raise us up in newness of life to live with Him there. Not to live and die once again. To live.

His promises are unique and sure—because He’s gone before to show us how it’s done.

Jesus, name above all names, because the baby who bore that name is in fact the Person who is above all others.

Apart from some revision, this article first appeared here in December 2013.

I’m Thankful For God’s Grace


Because I want to focus more on God this Thanksgiving, I considered which of His innumerable traits I could feature the day before the actually holiday. I settled on His grace and found an appropriate post in the archives which says a good deal about this quality.

I’ve edited and revised the article a bit. After all, this is an old one I wrote in the early days of this blog. I also added song lyrics and a video, which include God’s grace.

– – – –

In fiction, I think Christians often depict God as a God of grace, too often at the expense of His other attributes.

However, one Sunday, I realized that grace itself is not a “simple” trait, any more than God is a simple person. And certainly God’s display of grace is as deep as He is.

The sermon that Sunday was from John 21 (the story of the resurrected Christ cooking breakfast for His disciples while they fished) and highlighted some ways that God extended grace to Jesus’s disciples, especial to Peter.

First, God extended grace to them by humbling them. The account begins with a miracle—implied rather than stated—of closing the disciples’ nets to fish.

The context is this: after seeing the resurrected Christ and waiting around for a week or more, Peter had declared he was going back to work. As if that was something he didn’t need God for. As if that was what would give him purpose. Instead, these professional fishermen worked all night in a place of abundant fish and came up empty. By humbling them, God showed them their need.

God’s grace also sought Peter out—Jesus first went to the bank of the sea where the disciples were fishing, and later He pulled him aside for a private talk. Peter, much like Adam in the Garden after he sinned, seemed to be in “stealth mode.” After all, the last exchange before Jesus went to the cross was a look shared between them, right after Peter swore he didn’t know the Man. How much Peter needed to talk to Jesus! But he went fishing—went back to His pre-Christ life, back to making a living using a skill he was good at.

Having put the disciples in a situation to face their need, God’s grace guided them. It helped them with what they were trying to accomplish. Jesus told there where to let down their nets, and the result was a catch of large fish. Not just a few, not some large and some small. Large fish so numerous their nets started to break. This is the aspect of grace we see most often, but clearly not the only facet of it.

Jesus nwxt extended Himself to the disciples as a friend, as a servant. He cooked breakfast for them. So like Him—the Master who was willing to wash His men’s feet, the Messiah who sacrificed His life, Incarnate God who dressed Himself in the form of Man.

God’s grace then called Peter beyond earthly success to eternal significance. No more catching fish for Peter. His new job was to feed God’s sheep.

I’ve often wondered what happened to that incredible catch. They ate some for breakfast, but what about the rest? Did they leave them for the poor? Give them to the guys in the next boat? Stop by Peter’s house and tell cousin Daniel their were all his if he but cleaned them and hauled them away? Or did the fish stay on the bank and rot or become bird feed? Today’s fictionalized account would probably have Jesus release the unused fish back in the water. Whaterver.

The point is, the fish no longer mattered. Jesus was giving Peter something much more important to do. His grace lead Peter beyond “having it all.”

Once again, I find myself challenged to show God’s character—not merely by increasing the angles from which I look at Him, but by peering through the magnifying glass of Biblical study so that I can see more than the surface of His traits. His grace, like His love, is greater far than tongue or pen can tell.

1
The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell.
It goes beyond the highest star
And reaches to the lowest hell.
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled
And pardoned from his sin.
O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—
The saints’ and angels’ song.
2
When hoary time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall;
When men who here refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call;
God’s love, so sure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race—
The saints’ and angels’ song.
3
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

Why Did God Give Us Free Will?


One of the best questions I’ve heard from those who don’t believe in God is this one: If God really existed, why did He give us free will?

Usually the argument goes something like this:

Atheist: The mess the world is is God’s fault
Christian: No, what God created is good. The mess is a result of sin.
Atheist: But why didn’t God create people who wouldn’t sin?
Christian: He gave us free will. We aren’t puppets on a string.
Atheist: But if God knew we’d sin, why did He supposedly give us the free will that led to sin? He could have prevented the whole thing.

The fact is, there’s nothing wrong with that line of thinking. God could have made little robots which He programmed to say they loved Him. No one would have used a weapon against someone else. No one would give in to addiction. No one would love money or power or sex more than they loved God. All the behavior of God’s people would be as perfect as He planned for it to be. Nothing would violate His wishes. No one would rebel against Him.

There are two problems with that picture.

First, a third of the angels had already rebelled against Him. So the world of humans could never be perfect. Not as long as Satan continued to show up. The only way to achieve “perfect” was to deal with the rebellion.

The second major problem is that God had determined to make humankind in His image, His likeness. He Himself has a will, so for humans to be like Him, we also would need to have our own will.

There’s probably something bigger here. Would loving God if you had no choice but to love Him, actually be love? Isn’t part of love connected with freely doing so? I mean, God already had trees and birds and reptiles and the like. They could act in an instinctual way if that’s what God wanted. In making humans, He made more. He stamped us with His likeness and He breathed into us the thing that makes us unique.

Ironically, as I looked on the internet at some of the unsolved mysteries of science, I discovered that human consciousness is one of those things nobody understands or can explain.

5 What is consciousness?

We’re still not really sure. We do know that it’s to do with different brain regions networked together rather than a single part of the brain. The thinking goes that if we figure out which bits of the brain are involved and how the neural circuitry works, we’ll figure out how consciousness emerges (“The 20 big questions in science”)

For that matter, science has yet to answer what actually makes us humans since “the human genome is 99% identical to a chimpanzee’s” (same source). Why can we talk and reason and do science? Why can we think philosophically, and above all, why do we worship?

The Christian knows the answer to that question.

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Gen. 2:7, KJV)

Unique. Different. With the capacity to relate to God as no other being could, not even the angels. Such a person could relate to the Person who created him by loving Him freely. And likewise, being freely loved.

No relationship could be more.

But creating humans in the image of God, you might say, was “high risk, high reward.” When it works, it’s the best. That’s why Joni Eareckson Tada could say that she, a quadriplegic, would rather know Jesus as she does and be in her wheelchair, than not know Him and be out.

The flip side is the possibility of people choosing NOT to love God. For them the result would be disaster. But of course, God would make Himself clearly known. He’d walk with His people and talk with them. He’d give them signs and wonders. He’d display His glory in a physical, tangible way known as the Shekinah. He’d send messengers to give His words to the people. He’d have some write those words down so they’d be widely disseminated. Ultimately, He reversed the process and came in the likeness of humans so that He again walked and talked with the people He’d made.

Oh, yeah, there was one other thing that He said was even better—He’d send His Spirit to be in us. So that we’d never be alone. Never be without His presence.

Why did God give us free will? I guess the short answer is, He wanted to. That’s what would please Him and complete us. Plus, our relationship freely given, glorifies His name.

Published in: on November 15, 2017 at 5:53 pm  Comments (10)  
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