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.

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Published in: on November 15, 2017 at 5:53 pm  Comments (7)  
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So Who Is Jesus?


Recently someone commented on Facebook that the Jews, Muslims, and Christians all worship the same God.

It sounds true. After all, the Jewish Scriptures form the bases of the Old Testament, and Muslims believe that God gave his promise to Abraham—just through Ishmael, not through Isaac. They refer to God as Allah, which is the Arabic word for God, and he, they say, is the creator, the one who is to be worshiped.

But if Christians worship the same God as do Jews and Muslims, who is Jesus?

As Muslims say, there is no one worthy anywhere in the universe who is to be praised other than Allah. I think Jews would probably say the same about the God of their Scripture. But Christians can only say this with the understanding that Jesus Himself is God.

The conclusion some could draw is that Christians believe in multiple gods—at least three. But that’s not the case. Rather, Christians believe in the mystery of the Trinity that reveals God as three persons in One. No, God is not three separate individuals. He is One. No, God does not have subordinates working for Him.

Rather He Himself manifests as Father, Son, and Spirit. All three in unit of purpose, unit of existence, unit of character. God did not create Jesus and the Spirit. They are not separate entities. One of the mysteries of our transcendent God is that He is like no other. Nothing can really illustrate His triune nature.

I’ve heard a few examples. One is water, which manifests as ice, liquid, and steam. The analogy breaks down because water is never all three simultaneously.

Another comparison is with an egg—shell, yolk, white. The problem there is that each is part of the egg, not the whole of it. Someone following this line of thinking could assume that Jesus is part of God, but not actually God Himself.

A third analogy I’ve heard is popcorn, though I don’t remember how it all works. I can see the unpopped kernel and the popped kernel, but what was the third of the trinity?

There are others. An apple came up in an internet search, for example. The sun was another. But with each of these there is some sort of problem. The fact is, God is like nothing in the created order. Not really. He’s only understood a little better by looking at these items that have some similarities.

The truth is that Jesus is God, that the Father is God, that the Spirit is God. But there are not three Gods. There’s only one God and He reveals Himself as a Triune being—having three persons, though His nature is One, His essence is One.

So, Jesus.

Why do Christians believe such a difficult doctrine as the Trinity? Well, simply, the Bible presents this truth in many places and in many ways.

For example Jesus made some bold statements about His existence, such as “I and the Father are One” (John 10:30).

Or there was the discussion with His disciples when He said,

“Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14:9)

Then there are the times that He referred to Himself by the name which God used in His encounter with Moses: I AM.

Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.”

By the way, the Jewish leaders of Jesus’s day understood very well that He was claiming to be God. That’s why they accused Him of blasphemy and why they tried to stone Him.

John began his gospel by stating clearly, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Of course another book of the Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning . . .” That would be Genesis, and in the beginning was God.

Other New Testament writers understood that Jesus is God and they proclaimed it clearly. Paul said, “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9) and earlier he explained:

[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him

To another church, Paul wrote, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil 2:6, emphasis mine).

The writer to the Hebrews made a clear statement also:

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. (emphasis mine)

All this to say, Jesus is not merely a prophet or a teacher or a healer. He did speak words of prophecy. He was a teacher. And, yes, He healed. But those were things that were actions He took, that stemmed from His personhood as God. They do not encompass Him.

Why am I making such a point about Jesus as God? Because only God qualifies as the Perfect Substitute to pay for the sins of those who believe on His name. No human being could accomplish what Jesus accomplished. No human is capable or qualifies. Only God.

And that’s who Jesus is.

Published in: on November 9, 2017 at 4:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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It’s Not About US


This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image reveals the iridescent interior of one of the most active galaxies in our local neighbourhood

I’ve written another post which I titled “It’s Not About Us,” so maybe I should fish around and come up with something different for this one. But it seems like the most fitting summation of the fifth “Sola”: soli deo gloria or God’s glory alone.

So many people miss the fact that creation and salvation alike point to God as excellent. That’s what giving glory means. It’s a way of shining a spotlight on the star of the show. It’s a way of saying, without Him, this wouldn’t work, it wouldn’t be good. It’s a way of saying, Here’s the one who gets the credit.

And what should God get credit for? All that He’s done, because all His works are good. So God deserves glory for creation—everything we can see with the naked eye and all that we can only see with a microscope or a telescope. In other words, all that we have only recently discovered, is cause for us to glorify God. All of creation reflects who He is, though sin has even had an effect on the natural world. How so? I’ll save that discussion for another time because it deserves a much more complete answer than I can give in passing.

Besides creation, God deserves glory for what He does personally and individually. Psalm 139 tells us that God “formed my inward parts,” that He “wove me in my mother’s womb.” So we can start with the very life He gives.

Of course He sustains that life. He provides, protects, sustains.

He also cares for each of us emotionally. His Spirit comforts, for instance, and gives peace. He Himself is cause for joy. He makes our spirits glad.

Which takes us to God’s work which involves the spiritual. of most importance, He provides salvation for all who believe. Salvation is far more than the hope of heaven, though there certainly is that. But in the here and now, those who believe in Jesus Christ have His Spirit within.

This might be one of the most confusing truths for those who don’t believe. At the same time, for those who do believe, it’s one of the best aspects of salvation. We simply are no longer alone. We have God with us and available to us—to give us strength or wisdom or counsel or any number of things.

I have an author friend who keyed in on this concept in his first series of books. Ever since he signs his notes “Never alone.” Because we aren’t.

God deserves glory for His presence in our lives.

Even more, He deserves glory for His character. He reveals who He is through what He has made, what He did for the nation Israel, what His prophets said, the words His spirit inspired, and most especially in His Son who shows us the Father. So even though we have not seen God, we know about Him and we can know Him personally because He made a relationship possible.

When He reveals through Scripture that He is merciful, we don’t have to scratch our heads and wonder if God is merciful. He said He is. What grounds do we have to say otherwise?

Some people, to be sure, look at the sin-ravaged world and blame God. But all the wickedness and “inhumanity to man” that fill the world, are results of mankind going our own way—not something we can accuse God of doing. Just the opposite. He warned us not to go our own way, that to do so would lead to death.

God’s love and mercy often get a lot of attention, but He is just as deserving of praise for His righteous judgments. He doesn’t make mistakes. And for His sovereignty. For His omniscience. Psalm 139 again: He is “intimately acquainted with all my ways.”

That’s both comforting and frightening. How awesome that He knows me so well. But that also means there’s nothing I can hide from Him.

There are so many qualities that God has revealed about Himself, I know I could never present them all or do them justice. One that seems particularly significant to me is His transcendence. Another way to say that is that He is Other. He is above us, beyond us, better, able to do and be what we can never do or be.

Actually, God’s transcendence makes His Incarnation that more meaningful. In order to reconcile us to Himself He left heaven, yes, but He also became like us. He was greater in every respect, yet He became like the creature He had made.

So faith and grace and Scripture and even Christ Himself all give us cause to give God alone glory.

Published in: on October 27, 2017 at 4:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Nobody’s Perfect—Except One


When Martin Luther make his declarations that served as the catalyst to the Reformation, one of the key points focused on Christ—not His person. Not even His work. Luther didn’t disagree with the Church on those doctrines. Rather, his statement had to do with the sufficiency of Christ.

Evangelical Protestantism embraces that point while also declaring Christ’s person and work. Because, sadly, in our world many who claim the name of Christ, don’t hold fast to what the Bible says about who He is or what He has done.

Some say He was a good example, and we simply need to live the same kind of selfless life that He did. Some think He was created by God to carry out His plans. Some think “exercising faith in Jesus is vital to salvation” but they don’t see Him as God.

These positions are outside the teaching of the Bible. These false teachings use Scripture, pulled from its context, to explain what they believe, yet the essence of all these approaches is that Jesus is not God.

While the Bible doesn’t contain the words “Jesus is God,” in a thousand other ways it proclaims the divinity of Christ. The Church of old came to a settle view of Christ’s person—He is fully human and fully divine.

Any faith community that denies the divinity of Jesus Christ is simply not Christian no matter how they identify themselves. These false groups might recognize Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. They might even speak of His playing a part in salvation. But if they don’t accept that He is in fact God, they are teaching a different gospel than the one that the disciples preached.

But what was Luther on about, if not the person of Christ or His work? He was declaring that what Jesus did on the cross, needs nothing else. His work, and His work alone, paid the debt of sin. His work, and His work alone, satisfies the Father’s righteous wrath against sinners.

For centuries the Israelites took animals to the temple to make sacrifice for their sins. There were sacrifices when they knew they had sins, others when they didn’t know. There were peace offerings and thank offerings, offerings when they needed to be cleansed, others when they were celebrating. But all these sacrifices had one thing in common. They required a perfect animal, one without blemish and spotless.

In his first letter to the early Christians, the apostle Peter tied together the old sacrificial requirements with what Jesus accomplished:

you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. (1:18-19)

We could just as easily fit in other things from today’s culture: you were not redeemed with good works, with going to church regularly, with taking communion, with saying certain prayers, with ceremonial washings, with a word from a pastor or priest, with the laying on of hands. In short, we are not redeemed by anything we give or do or say.

Redemption comes from Christ alone.

There it is—the sola that Martin Luther preached. Through his extensive study of the Bible, he realized the truth that salvation comes through the shed blood of Jesus on the cross, plus nothing.

The apostle Paul spelled out Christ’s work a number of times in his letters. To the church in Colossae he wrote

When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (2:13-14)

In short, spiritual life comes from Christ’s work at the cross.

Because the new life has such a powerful and transforming effect on the believer, people can easily mistake the outer results with the inner cause. But what a person does because He’s received the gift of salvation, has nothing to do with how he received the gift.

Simply put, we can add nothing to the work that Christ already accomplished.

How could we? Like the sacrifices of old, only a perfect offering is sufficient. Nothing about us qualifies.

In conclusion, this fourth sola gives us this picture of salvation: “According to the authority of Scripture alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone . . .”

That leaves one more piece to the puzzle which we’ll look at next time.

Being Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough


When I was a teenager, I went through a period of time during which I questioned whether or not I was a Christian. I figured, if I was saved, I’d want to obey Christ. After all, that’s what the Bible says. But I continued to sin. Oh, nothing big and horrific. But I knew I wasn’t honoring my parents. I knew I was selfish and angry with my siblings. I was under no illusion that I was perfect. But why not? I considered that, just possibly, I didn’t really “mean” it when I “accepted Jesus into my heart.” So to be sure, I accepted Him again. And again. I even raised my hand and went forward in church. Just to be sure.

At one point, though, I realized that I had to take God at His word. So when He said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31a) He actually meant it.

I now understand that what I experienced then, and continue to experience now, is God’s grace. I did not, do not, and will not measure up to God’s standards—His righteous and perfect standards. In short, I sin. I do so because I am a sinner.

I’m always a bit mystified when someone claims he doesn’t sin. I’ve been in discussion with a number of atheists who don’t think sin is a real thing. But so far, not one of them refutes the fact that nobody’s perfect. They have no answer to the fact that the Bible says, The wages of sin is death, and the correlative fact that one out of one persons dies. Conclusion: all must therefore be sinners.

Either all are sinners or death has a different cause, which, of course, is their position, though one I don’t understand. I mean, we are evolving . . . until we die? How does that work? But that’s a different discussion. Except that grace doesn’t really make sense if you don’t see the sin problem which leaves all of us stranded, separated from God with no possibility of reaching Him.

Grace simply means that since we can’t do anything about the gap between us and God, He did the work for us. He didn’t help us. He didn’t start the process. He did what we could not do for ourselves. He came to us. He died for us. He gives new life to us. It’s all God. And He extends His hand to us, so to speak, for no other reason than that He loves us. He didn’t pick out the best looking or the tallest or the smartest or the thinnest or the kindest among us. He picked those who believe in Him. That’s it.

I’m pretty convinced that we’re all a mixed bag of belief and unbelief. There’s a man in the Bible who approached Jesus and said, I believe, help my unbelief. I think he illustrates where we all are. God does not withhold faith from some people. In fact, Scripture says that He does not want any to perish.

Furthermore, I see people who don’t believe in God, exercising belief is something else. Many believe in evolution. Or the goodness of humankind. Some believe in a mystic religion or in some other god. What I have never encountered is someone with no belief in anything.

Oh, sure, some atheists insist that they don’t believe because they have science. But what they miss is that they are choosing to believe particular scientists, since they themselves have not conducted the experiments or done the observation from which the conclusions they espouse have been drawn. They believe in their source of information and in the conclusion that certain people in a particular field of study have reached.

So the real issue is not, do you believe, but in whom do you believe? Because we all believe. Just like we all sin.

Back to grace. Not only did God cross the gulf that separated us from Him, He paved the way for us to follow Him. In other words, He crossed once so that we all can cross in His steps.

One thing grace does not do: it does not force anyone to join God. Sadly, there are some who choose to be His enemy. They don’t see His love and forgiveness. They don’t want Him telling them what to do. So they pull away from Him instead of following Him. They spurn His grace.

Because grace is extended to us, not forced upon us.

Published in: on October 25, 2017 at 4:00 pm  Comments (15)  
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The Reformation And The Five Solas


I may be one of the most ignorant Christians about Church history. It simply wasn’t something I learned in my growing up years, and I actually counted Church history as one of my least favorite subjects when I was in college.

But since those days I’ve had an increasing interest in What Went On Before. Consequently I dug out my old college Church history text book and even bought (a used) copy of a book about the development of Protestantism. What have I learned?

For one thing, I learned that the Church as it went from a group of persecuted followers of Jesus to an institutional organization of power became corrupt. Enter the reformers.

Men like Martin Luther had no intention originally of doing anything but bringing much needed reform to the Church. The problems were systemic. Not only had the Church lost its first love, but it had allowed false teaching to become embedded in the fabric of the institution.

As the power of the Church expanded along with the Roman Empire, “converts” were little more than conquered people. Salvation became little more than a requirement of Rome, achieved by doing the right things or paying the right price.

In the Medieval church, salvation was seen to be dependent upon a person’s participation in the Sacraments, obedience to church law, and the accumulation of “merit,” either through good works, spiritual disciplines (such as Pilgrimage), or borrowing merit from someone with far greater merit, such as a saint. (The Five Solas Of Our Faith)

Martin Luther, a priest, knew Scripture, and he wrestled with the concept of salvation in light of what the Church required, as well as a practice started by Pope Leo in 1517 that allowed people to buy “indulgences”—essentially the “forgiveness of sins” as granted by the Church. In October, Luther wrote a paper entitled “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” which was really a point by point discussion of the practice. Here’s one example, translated into English: “Christians are to be taught that the buying of indulgences is a matter of free choice, not commanded.” And another: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”

Woven throughout Luther’s ninety-five points were five themes which have come to be known as the five solas, taken from the Latin meaning only or alone:

Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King.
Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.

These points of emphasis have become the backbone of Evangelical Protestantism. I suspect, though I don’t know for sure, that the Catholic Church would agree with three of these. The first two would likely be disputed. The third would probably be understood somewhat differently by Catholics than Protestants.

In light of the fact that this year marks the 500 year anniversary of Luther making his objections public, I thought a closer study of these points might be in order. The plan is to take one a day next week.

To wrap up this introduction, let me say that one thing is certain: what resulted from Luther’s study of Scripture and public criticism of the Church changed the religious landscape of Europe and, it could be argued, of the entire world.

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.

Revelation


The Left Behind books by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye attracted attention to eschatology—the “part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind” (Oxford English Dictionary). They are by no means the first writers to depict the events cataloged in the book of Revelation and other passages of prophecy. Back in 1972 A Thief in the Night, the first of a series of four feature-length films, made it’s way into theaters.

There was also a badly written novel—the title escapes me—that encapsulated the entire story of The End . . . in about 250 pages. I’m sure there were others. Certainly there have been since Left Behind. In 2010 Scars: An amazing end-time prophecy novel came out. In 2011 an author announced he was beginning work on The Revelation: a new end-times novel as part of NaNoWriMo.

Years ago, before Revelation became a subject of fiction, churches favoring a dispensational view of Biblical history, held prophecy conferences, complete with charts and time lines.

All this to say, there has been a fascination with Revelation and what it says about the future. But of late, perhaps in reaction to the so popular Left Behind books, there’s been a bit of a backlash against end-time fiction. Some publishers, for example, state in their guidelines they do not want end-time stories. Some bloggers make repeated references to the “bad theology” of the Left Behind books.

I suppose the main struggle with the book of Revelation is to know what is symbolic and what is literal. In some instances, an angel tells John, and therefore us, what the visionary language means.

As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. (Rev. 1:20)

These passages are not nearly as common as the pictorial, symbolic language filling most of the book.

That we struggle today to know what John saw that was figurative and what, literal, should be no surprise. The disciples struggled to understand Jesus, too. Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, He told them. Oh, no, the disciples said, we forgot to bring bread. I’m going up to Jerusalem to die, Jesus said. Who gets to sit on Your right hand and left hand when You take over, the disciples asked.

When was He talking in parables, when was He speaking plainly? If they couldn’t tell, it should be no shock that we struggle a bit with the same issues when it comes to the revelation Jesus gave to John.

But there are some things we can know. So what is good theology when it comes to the book of Revelation? What is this book recording John’s vision of angels and trumpets and bowls of wrath and seals and beasts and the harlot Babylon, all about?

As my former pastor said as part of his introduction to a sermon series over the book, the one clear truth is that Christ wins. That being said, I think there are some additional key themes that run through Revelation which, I believe, Christians on either side of the theological divide, agree upon.

First, Jesus Christ is the Lamb that was slain, making Him the only one qualified to open that which God has held secret from past ages and generations.

In addition, He will return as the Conqueror and the King, defeating Satan and assigning him eternal punishment.

Revelation also portrays divine judgment on those who follow Satan, who do not repent and give God glory.

Throughout, the book shows God as righteous in His acts, even those that come directly from His wrath. Here’s an example:

And I heard the angel of the waters saying, “Righteous are You, who are and who were, O Holy One, because You judged these things; for they poured out the blood of saints and prophets, and You have given them blood to drink. They deserve it.” And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments.” (Rev 16:5-7)

Another key theme is God’s provision of a new home—a new heaven and a new earth—for those whose names are written in the book of life.

One more, though undoubtedly there are others: there’s a clear warning to the churches to hold fast to the truth, to love God and obey Him, to resist false teaching or the lure of riches or complacency.

Revelation is a rich book because it shows us more about who God is than it does about what will happen someday. It shows us what He cares about and what His wrath looks like. It shows that He is worthy to be praised for His justice as well as for His redemption, for His majesty as well as for His righteousness. It shows that He is the Lamb who is Worthy.

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

The Third Person


Christians agree—God is a triune person. The problem is, we often act as if He’s two in one, not three.

In some groups which claim the name of Christ, the Holy Spirit is elevated so much that you’d hardly think the Father was part of the Godhead, but in other groups, the very thought that the Holy Spirit has some part in giving the Christian guidance today, has them shouting, “Heresy.”

OK, both those sketches are somewhat exaggerated, but not by much. On one hand are those who believe the ecstatic gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially speaking in tongues, are the true evidence that a person is a Christian. On the other are Christians who believe that those particular gifts—speaking and interpreting tongues, prophecy, healing—have ceased. They were existent in the early church, but now that we have the Bible, no more.

There is even a segment of Christendom that apparently believes any inner leading of the Holy Spirit that can’t be confirmed by Scripture is evidence of Gnosticism.

In other words, if I pray and ask God for direction regarding a career change or for leading in ministry choices, the leading that I then might claim would be considered as some kind of esoteric knowledge that we can’t actually obtain. What, then, I ask, does the Holy Spirit do?

If we strip Him of His gifts and of His function to guide us, is His work as our Comforter next? Or as the Person who convicts of sin?

Ah, someone may well say, the Spirit does guide us—into Truth. He brings Scripture to mind, but He doesn’t tell us what toothpaste to buy. Fair enough. I believe that too. But I also believe when we pray something akin to the lines Jesus modeled for us—lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil—that the Holy Spirit answers quite specifically.

Why wouldn’t He? Jesus demonstrated great concern for the details of people’s lives—if they had enough food or wine, if they had a sick mother-in-law or daughter, if they had money for taxes or gave their last coin as an offering, if they were married or blind, if they had dirty feet, or an inappropriate desire to be first in His kingdom. He cared for the most marginalized members of society—lepers, women, children, the disabled, the demon possessed. He touched, cleansed, raised up, healed, and taught. And He told His disciples it would be better for them after He left.

Better?

But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. (John 16:7 — emphasis mine).

Honestly, I’m really ignorant about the Holy Spirit. But one thing I learned early on in my Christian life—that the presence of the Holy Spirit is one way we can be assured of our salvation: “We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us” (1 John 3:24b).

Of equal importance, John went on to say in the next chapter that we need to test the spirits: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

So there’s the dilemma with which the Christian lives—the Spirit might be guiding us, but what we think is of God might be false. The fact is, we need discernment.

We are told not to quench the Spirit. How do we not quench the Spirit if we don’t recognize His voice? And if we say He only speaks what He’s already spoken in Scripture, isn’t that already a form of quenching Him?

Jesus said something amazing to His disciples: If you want that mountain tossed into the sea, pray believing and it will happen (Mark 11:22-24). Except . . . how do I know if I should pray for the mountain to be tossed into the sea? Isn’t that sort of a Big Deal, one that could affect countless other people? Shouldn’t I be sure that moving the mountain is what God wants? Or do I just willy-nilly pray for whatever I think might be a solution to the things I’m concerned for and then see what sticks—the old spaghetti-against-the-wall trick. (When I was a kid, I did pray for a mountain to be moved, except I knew I didn’t really believe it would, so figured that was a failed experiment since I didn’t meet the condition 🙄 ).

My point here is this. Jesus gave a very specific something to pray, something we can’t know is His will by looking into Scripture. We can find principles that can guide us, but from that point is it up to us to make the decision what specifically we should pray, or ought we not expect the Holy Spirit to guide us, nudge us, disquiet us, urge us, focus us, wake us, stir us? Ultimately, do we not experience the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives more often because we’ve become so skeptical we aren’t looking for Him to be active?

This post is a reprint of an article that first appeared here November 2011.

Published in: on July 22, 2016 at 6:40 pm  Comments (2)  
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Using The Bible Instead Of Believing It


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“Sarah, what are you doing?” Carmen stared at her friend as if she were looking at an ET look-alike.

Sarah slid into the front seat of her SUV. “I thought you said you wanted to go to the beach?”

“I do, but you forgot to lock your door. That’s not like you.”

“It is now. I found this cool Bible verse in 2 Timothy that says, ‘He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him.’ I’ve entrusted my house to Him, and this verse promises He will guard it, so I don’t have to lock up any more.”

That little fictitious scenario is an illustration of what I call “using the Bible.” In some cases, there is a grain of truth. God certainly can guard and protect our stuff, for instance. But the particular verse this character quoted has nothing whatsoever to do with God keeping thieves from stealing a TV.

A friend of mine related another fictitious tale, used most often to steer people toward Bible study rather than Bible pick-and-choosing:

A young man decided his life was aimless. He needed help knowing what he should do, so he turned to the Bible. He decided that he’d fan the Bible open and point to a verse. This then would become his life verse. Turning his head, he released a good two-thirds of the pages and stabbed a finger onto the open page. “And Judas hanged himself,” the verse read. The young man gulped. There had to be some mistake. What could God possibly be saying to him? He decided to try again. Once more he closed the Bible, released pages, and pointed to a verse. This time he read, “Go and do thou likewise.”

So what am I saying with these illustrations? Simply this: not only is it possible, but some people actually do, take verses out of context and make them say something other than their clear meaning.

The key here is taking the verses out of context, for surely Sarah correctly quoted a part of 2 Tim. 1:12. Those words alone do say that God will guard what I entrust to Him. However, the context—the rest of the verse, chapter, book, and BOOK, show that God is promising something about our souls and for eternity, not our stuff for the here and now.

Notice, the context of a scripture is the book of the Bible in which it is found but also the Bible itself. The latter is the greater context, the totality of which gives meaning to individual verses, even those that are in apparent contradiction with each other.

2 Timothy indicates that false teaching—the result of taking Scripture out of context and ignoring parts of the Bible—will only increase:

But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them; and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
– 2 Timothy 3:13-17 (NASB)

And here I am, quoting verses of Scripture to prove a point. Is this not the very “using” of the Bible I decried above?

Understand, I was not saying a person can’t extrapolate principles from the Bible and apply that propositional truth to daily life. But there are some guidelines in so doing:

    1) The principle should not contradict any clear statement of Scripture.

For example, if some man took the principle, I can do all things through Christ, and used it to justify sleeping with a married woman, he would violate a clear Scriptural injunction.

    2) The principle should be an outgrowth of what the original intended.

This is where things get sticky, I think. How can we know the original intent? Only by studying the context. First the context of the book itself. Who was the author, why was he writing, what was he saying? Although the Holy Spirit inspired Scripture, this did not happen in a vacuum, but in a specific place and in a particular period of time. The words had meaning to the person who wrote them and to the original target audience. It is that meaning that creates a backdrop of understanding by which we may make present-day application.

    3) The principle should not become an exclusive doctrine if scriptures also exist that point to a paradoxical principle.

Here’s where a lot of denominational differences have been created. One denomination finds verses about Topic X that seem to indicate Doctrine A should guide our beliefs. Another denomination finds verses about Topic X that seem to indicate Doctrine B, in opposition to Doctrine A. Which denomination is right? Are some of the verses to be ignored or explained away?
Is the Bible contradictory?

If the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is to be believed as inspired by God, then even the apparently contradictory parts are there for a reason. I reject the either/or arguments and adopt a both/and approach. God put both positions in the Bible, to the point that scholars steeped in the Word can make credible cases for opposing views. I conclude, God is saying both things, though they appear to be contradictory.

This may appear to be illogical, but I don’t think it is, not if we remember who God is. He is three, but one. Came to earth as a man though he did not cease to be God. Is merciful AND just. You get the picture. Not only does paradox exist in God, but He transcends our limitations. If I know Him to be so, then I don’t have to tie up Scripture in a neat doctrinal bow at the expense of some of what He has to say.

Now don’t misunderstand. I think there are doctrines that are clear, without any contradiction, the chief being who Jesus is and why He came and what He accomplished. Those clear statements are the ones that define being a Christian.

The others—the ones that seem paradoxical—still need to be believed. It is in dismissing the ones we don’t like or that clash with others we believe that creates problems. If nothing else, it divides Christians.

This post is a combination of two articles that first appeared here in April 2007.

Published in: on June 30, 2015 at 6:29 pm  Comments Off on Using The Bible Instead Of Believing It  
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