Who’s God Mad At?


Atheists criticize God (who they say they don’t believe in) because He’s angry and violent and even because He’s a “child abuser,” by which they mean, He sent His own Son to the cross.

Apparently there has been a movement among Christians that sort of agrees that the way Christians talk about salvation, paints God in these unflattering terms. Better if we drop the idea that Christ took our place on the cross to satisfy God’s justice, with something more noble: victory over sin, death, Satan, the Law. This way of understanding what happened at the cross is called Christus Victor.

I just ran across someone on the internet today who embraces the Christus Victor view of salvation as opposed to the “penal substitution” view. I guess this debate goes back to the “early Church fathers.” According to some, the Church at its inception understood salvation as Christ’s victory over sin and death, over Satan and the Law. Until Anselm. This eleventh century Benedictine monk and theologian apparently introduced the idea of Christ’s substitutionary death.

All this is interesting to me. I really was unaware there was such a “debate” over the meaning of the cross and what God in Christ did to save us.

Well, I guess I knew not everyone sees the wrath of God as a good thing. Some years ago I read an article about some denomination choosing not to include the Keith and Kristyn Getty song “In Christ Alone” in their hymnal because they would not change the line that says, “The wrath of God was satisfied.”

The problem I have is that I think both ideas are clear in Scripture. In fact, the Apostle Paul embraces both. Certainly he talks very plainly about slavery to sin and to the Law in Romans. Here’s a sample from chapter 6:

But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (vv22-23; emphasis mine)

A couple chapters later, he gives another clear statement of Christ’s victory:

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh (8:2-3)

So what is God angry at (so much so that He condemned it)? Sin, it would seem.

What about the penal substitutionary idea? What does that doctrine hold to, besides God’s wrath? The idea is that Jesus took the place of sinners and died instead of us, that the wrath of God was expended on Christ instead of on us guilty sinners.

The Apostle Paul certainly was clear that we are guilty sinners. And that our identification with Christ changes things for us. Romans 6 again:

Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection (vv 3-5)

Perhaps Paul’s clearest expression of this doctrine is in chapter 5:

Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (vv 9-10; emphasis mine)

It’s pretty hard to read that passage and see anything but God’s wrath—against Christ instead of against us guilty sinners who should have received God’s wrath.

The Psalms reinforces the idea that some will face God’s anger:

The LORD keeps all who love Him,
But all the wicked He will destroy. (145:20)

There’s more to this discussion, obviously, but I think Scripture is clear: God is the victor, through Jesus Christ, and He poured out His love on us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

God’s wrath is toward sin. Christ saves us from facing that wrath as the sinners we are. In other words, Christ is Victor and He is our substitution, freeing us from sin and Satan, and death and the Law. The one grows out of the other, I think. To have one, we must have the other.

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When Christ Shall Come — A Reprise


No, this is not a reprise of last Friday’s post. This one is just on the same topic. Actually there’s a lot more that I could say, but I think this is a good place to focus our attention for now.
– – – – – –
The position of the Christian today is not so different from that of the Old Testament saints. They waited for the coming of Messiah and we wait for the return of Messiah.

They had God’s promises, given to His prophets, assuring them that their Redeemer King and that their Suffering Servant would come. We have God’s sure written word telling us of the arrival of our Suffering Servant Savior and the promise of His return as King eternal.

So we wait today, much as Daniel and Micah and Joel did.

The cool thing is, as the people of Israel looked back to how God rescued them from Egypt, we now look back to how Christ rescued us from sin and death. They looked forward to Messiah coming to establish His kingdom, and we look forward to His coming again in power and glory to reign supreme.

One of the best loved hymns, certainly of the twentieth century, “How Great Thou Art,” captures the jubilation of Christ’s return in the fourth stanza.

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home—what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow in humble adoration
And there proclaim, my God, how great thou art!

I wonder if Christ’s return will be similar to the really big earthquakes which you hear at the same time you feel them. Maybe those shouts of acclimation will rend the heavens as we see Christ with His entourage of angels.

As an aside, this particular hymn, was written by Stuart K. Hine, an English missionary to Ukraine. From time to time something would occur which inspired him to write another stanza. Here’s the story behind the third stanza:

It was typical of the Hines to inquire as to the existence of any Christians in the villages they visited. In one case, they found out that the only Christians that their host knew about were a man named Dmitri and his wife Lyudmila. Dmitri’s wife knew how to read — evidently a fairly rare thing at that time and in that place. She taught herself how to read because a Russian soldier had left a Bible behind several years earlier, and she started slowly learning by reading that Bible. When the Hines arrived in the village and approached Dmitri’s house, they heard a strange and wonderful sound: Dmitri’s wife was reading from the gospel of John about the crucifixion of Christ to a houseful of guests, and those visitors were in the very act of repenting. In Ukraine (as I know first hand!), this act of repenting is done very much out loud. So the Hines heard people calling out to God, saying how unbelievable it was that Christ would die for their own sins, and praising Him for His love and mercy. They just couldn’t barge in and disrupt this obvious work of the Holy Spirit, so they stayed outside and listened. Stuart wrote down the phrases he heard the Repenters use, and (even though this was all in Russian), it became the third verse that we know today: “And when I think that God, His Son not sparing, Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in.” (“How Great Thou Art”)

Back to Christ’s return, of course we don’t know the day or hour, but we do know a few things about it. For one, He’ll come to rule. That’s the great and ultimate fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies and the New Testament promise.

But there’s more:

Behold, the Lord GOD will come with might,
With His arm ruling for Him.
Behold, His reward is with Him
And His recompense before Him. (Isaiah 40:10)

He’s coming to give His reward. Hard to imagine what that will be like. Jesus used the analogy of a banquet. David also talked about our Shepherd preparing a table for us. The idea here is lavish abundance, provision beyond our means. This is fare fit for the King of Kings, yet He seats us at His table.

Without a doubt, Christ’s return is going to be the pivotal moment in all of history. Again from Isaiah 40:

Let every valley be lifted up,
And every mountain and hill be made low;
And let the rough ground become a plain,
And the rugged terrain a broad valley;
Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
And all flesh will see it together;
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

The event will be worldwide, it will be dramatic, even cataclysmic, but mostly it will reveal God’s glory. This is the Shekinah glory which Moses experienced in a secondary way at the giving of the Ten Commandments and which the people of Israel experienced as a pillar of fire at night. This is the glory Paul likely saw and wrote of in 2 Corinthians that outshines what those in the Old Testament experienced:

But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how will the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory. For indeed what had glory, in this case has no glory because of the glory that surpasses it. For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory. (3:7-11, emphasis added)

OK, here’s the real shock, at least to me. I don’t know what this will look like:

When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. (Col. 3:4)

It just dawned on me that this may be why God wants to involve us in His work. I’ve wondered why He bothers giving us fallible, weak humans the important task of preaching His word and proclaiming His truth and even of loving our neighbor when obviously God could miraculously care for each one in a far better way than we can. But repeatedly He has given us work to do. Maybe that’s because, in His love for us, He wants to shower us in glory. What a concept! What a God!

Maranatha, Lord Jesus. Come quickly!

This post originally appeared here July 2014.

Jesus Is Coming Again


After Jesus rose from the dead, He stayed on earth for some 40 days. Lots of people saw Him. He spent time explaining the Scriptures—at the time, that meant what we now know as the Old Testament—to his disciples. He wanted them to see how the prophets, the poetry, and even Israel’s history, pointed to Him.

Then He left. But right after His ascension, angels informed the witnesses of this dramatic event, that He would return in the exact same way.

Seems like from that moment on, people have been asking, when’s He coming back?

A long list of people have come up with schemes and systems to figure out the day Christ will return. Clearly these predictions are not Biblical. Jesus Himself said that no one knows the day or hour of His return. He said He didn’t even know, which has scholars scrambling to understand how Jesus, who is God, doesn’t know something that God the Father knows. Try explaining that one. But I digress.

With Jesus telling us nobody has this piece of information about the future, I can’t help but wonder, why do people keep trying to figure it out? It seems like spitting in the wind.

In fact, I think it does far more damage, and who gets the black eye is the name of Christ and all of Christendom. Every time some misguided person, or false teacher, announces that he knows the date of Christ’s return, the jokes start to fly. And they get uglier with each false prediction. I pretty much want to say, if someone claims that Jesus is coming back March 10, 2020 (or whatever), we know for sure when He is NOT coming back, because nobody knows.

The sad thing is, with every failed prediction, not only do those who reject Jesus become entrenched in their unbelief, many others begin to question. Is He ever coming back? I mean, things have been going on the same as always for the last 2000 years. Why is He waiting so long?

Well, for one, He’s waiting for what the Bible refers to as “the fullness of time.” What that means, I’m not altogether sure. I don’t know what cosmic things have to align, what political powers have to fall or rise. One thing I know, God is waiting for the Church to be made complete. In other words, one reason for the delay was so that you and I, fellow Christians, would be born and would be saved. There might be decades or centuries of others who God will add to His family. We simply don’t know.

But we do know for certain that Jesus is coming again.

He said He is. The angels said He is. Scripture says He is.

There’s another strange belief that Jesus already has returned, and we’re in the era leading up to the end. I admit I don’t understand all that the proponents of this idea say. I think it’s not true. We know from Scripture that His return will be cosmic and universal and public. He will not come back in the manner He first came. Sure, there were angels then, but their announcement of His birth was localized. Everything else about His arrival was more in keeping with His role as the Suffering Savior. When He cones back it will be as the Conquering King.

The important aspects of Jesus’s return for us to know and remember are these: His return is sure. He will give the dead in Christ their new bodies. Our part is simply to be ready. Focusing on the “when” is not the way to get ready.

We’ve been given a mission, and the only way to be ready for Christ’s return is to be doing the job He gave us to do.

Imagine a military unit sent abroad to rescue a village trapped by a volcanic lava flow. Instead of carrying out their orders, though, they stop to take pictures and work feverishly to determine how long the villagers have before the lava overtakes their homes.

We Christians are a rescue unit. We have orders to bring out of dangers all who will come. So why would we spend one minute trying to calculate how long we have before tragedy strikes those who have yet to turn to Christ?

I understand that God will make a way of escape for any who want to come to Him. But what about any of us not doing our job?

In the story Jesus told about the ten virgins who awaited the coming of the bridegroom. Only five were prepared. The other five were turned away. Was Jesus telling us that doing the work He has set before us, is evidence that we do, in fact, believe in Him?

Jesus told other stories about His return. One had a servant taking what he was supposed to invest and burying it in the ground. The master in the story threw him out too. Sitting on what we’ve been given is not what “be ready” entails.

Good servants, I learned from Downtown Abbey, anticipate what their master wants. Well, we know what our Master wants: disciples. He wants us sharing the gospel; facilitating others who are going places we can’t go, to share the gospel; praying for those who are in strategic places to share the gospel. After all, we’re on a rescue mission. We need to bring in as many to safety as will come.

False Ideas About God


I think perhaps the most harmful idea about God is that He’s sort of like a kindly, somewhat doddering, grandfather with a long white beard, waiting to give out presents to people who ask.

This false image is not only damaging as it is, it opens up a lot of people to anger who expect God to be this way but instead find Him to say no to their requests and to be quite engaged, in control, and not at all doddering.

I’m not sure where the idea of “grandfather god” came from, how it got started. I think it’s a fairly recent concept, though I don’t think Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting of God in the act of creating did anything to dissuade people from seeing God in this benevolent, passive, aged way.

I find it hard to imagine, though, that the people in the 1700s listening to preachers like Jonathan Edwards who preached “fire and brimstone” sermons such as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” would conceive of God as a kindly grandfather. They understood from the sermons they heard on Sunday and those they listened to during revival meetings, that God’s judgment of sinners was anything but kindly.

In reaction to this focus on God’s judgment, I believe Christendom began to focus on God’s love rather than on His wrath. Hence, the script flipped to this kinder, gentler God who loves the world. The natural outgrowth of this emphasis was a redefining of God’s image. He was not angry; He was loving. He was not eager to judge; He was eager to save. He was not a kill-joy; He was willing, even desirous, of showering His people with good gifts.

The problem actually is the focus, the over-emphasis of one of God’s traits to the exclusion of the others. And to be honest, grandfather god, while accurately identifying some of God’s attributes, neglects others so that the overall concept of God is drastically distorted.

As you would expect the preachers of Jonathan Edwards’s day knew nothing of “grandfather god.” Here’s a flavor of Edwards’s famous sermon:

II. They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God’s using his power at any moment to destroy them. Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins. Divine justice says of the tree that brings forth such grapes of Sodom, “Cut it down; why cumbreth it the ground” (Luke 13:7). The sword of divine justice is every moment brandished over their heads, and ’tis nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy, and God’s mere will, that holds it back.

III. They are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell. They don’t only justly deserve to be cast down thither; but the sentence of the law of God, that eternal and immutable rule of righteousness that God has fixed between him and mankind, is gone out against them, and stands against them; so that they are bound over already to hell. John 3:18, “He that believeth not is condemned already.” So that every unconverted man properly belongs to hell; that is his place; from thence he is.” (excerpt from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” as posed by Yale.edu)

What I find interesting—though I haven’t read much of the sermon at all—is that I see nothing so far that doesn’t square with Scripture.

So which is true about God? Is He angry or is He a kindly grandfather?

Again, I’ll say, the problem is that both these perspectives are incomplete. God is kind, loving, merciful but He is also just and uncompromising and angry at sin.

The thing is, in this era of grandfather god, we don’t like to hear those things about God that contradict our image of universal benevolence.

But actually God is universally benevolent. He sends rain on the just and the unjust. He mercifully withholds His wrath from deserving sinners so that we have a chance to accept His free gift of grace. And it is His kindness and love for mankind that prompts His offer of salvation.

The mistake we make today, I believe, is speaking only of the traits that we like, that we’re happy about, and sort of mumbling under our breath that yes, God hates sin. Honestly? It’s even hard for me to write these truths. If feels a little foreign and I’m afraid someone will misunderstand. After all, we humans don’t have the holiness that God does which mitigates His traits we can only understand as negative.

In truth, God’s wrath is no more negative than His love is. His wrath is directed at rebellion and the cause of death which haunts the human race, and in fact all of creation. God hates death. He hates the sin that caused it. His plan is to bring it to an end. But the truth is, some will resist His love, His kindness, His mercy, His grace. As a result, they align themselves with that which God hates.

The best analogy is not a new one. Sin is like a cancer that will take a person’s life unless it is attacked aggressively, excised, dealt with ruthlessly. Should a doctor be benevolent toward the cancer? Or toward his patient?

To be benevolent toward the one is to be wrathful toward the other.

In short, God is both, kindly and angry. But grandfather? No. That doesn’t fit. God dwells in inexpressible light.

Time we retired the idea of grandfather god and look at Almighty God as He has revealed Himself—and that means we need to look at more than the qualities we find easy to talk about.

The Holiness Of Jesus


I’ve written about God’s holiness before. I’ve written about the fact that we humans miss the mark when we try to attain His standard of purity. I’ve discussed the need for Christians to take seriously the Scriptural admonition to “be holy for I [the LORD] am holy.” But I think I may have overlooked the holiness of Jesus.

I was stunned a week or so ago (stunned, I tell you!) when in the atheist/theist Facebook group I belong to, a member identifying himself as a Progressive Christian said, more than once, he believe Jesus sinned.

At the time I didn’t ask him why he thought that. The current discussion was centered on something else and he made the comment more in passing than in anything else, as a response to something one of the atheists had said.

I’ve thought about it a lot since. I don’t know why this person would come up with such a notion. Clearly he is either unaware of what Scripture says about Jesus and sin or he doesn’t believe what it says. I’m not sure which. Either way, the fact is, the Bible is very clear about the holiness of Jesus. Take 1 Peter 2 as an example:

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; (vv 21-23; emphases here and in the following verses are mine)

Of course there is also the testimony of people who observed Jesus, such as the thief who turned to Him for salvation:

And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong. (Luke 23:41)

The centurion—a Roman, who would typically have hated the Jews—came to the same conclusion:

Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he began praising God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent” [the word literally means righteous]. (Luke 23:47)

The Apostle Paul stated Jesus’s relation to sin in the clearest language:

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Cor. 5:21)

The writer to the Hebrews had the same understanding:

For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. (Heb. 4:15)

In fact, the writer to the Hebrews built one of his main points on the reality that Jesus was without sin:

For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; (Hebrews 7:26)

Because Jesus did not have His own sin to deal with, He could serve as our perfect High Priest.

As if these witnesses are not enough, the Apostle John gives voice to the same truth in his first letter:

You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. (1 John 3:5)

All this to say, anyone claiming that Jesus sinned must not know what the Bible says about Him, or has decided not to believe the Bible.

The question I have for someone who makes this claim is, Why would you call yourself a Christian? I don’t understand the point of adopting the name of a religion while rejecting its main tenets.

Actual Christians believe the Bible. We hold to it as the source of authoritative truth. We also believe that Jesus died to atone for the sins of the world. But as the writer to the Hebrews said, He couldn’t do that if He had his own sins to die for. The only Person qualified to stand in for someone else is a Person who would not have to forfeit His life for His own sins. Everyone else, living under the clear truth that the wages of sin is death, would have to die for his own sins.

So if Jesus sinned, there would be no redemption in Him. No one would be saved. So why would those people claiming this false idea call themselves Christians? They can’t believe in the substitutionary atonement. That means they are still living in their sins, they haven’t accepted the free gift of grace provided through Jesus.

In short, Jesus was holy or there is no salvation and no Christianity. Such a nonsensical idea that we could have a sinful savior. Such a fallacious idea that someone could claim to be a Christian and not believe in Jesus’s saving power.

And atheists wonder why I say that not everyone who names the name of Christ actually knows Him and believes in Him.

The Christian Distinctive—A Reprise


When I read Kay Marshall Strom‘s Blessings of India books (The Faith of Ashish and The Hope of Shridula—see review here), what struck me so forcefully was the legalism of Hinduism. India of the 1940s was a society centered on the caste system and karma. Every social strata bowed to or benefited from the laws and traditions. They commanded attitudes toward children, gender, work, neighbors, food, and these all played out in prescribed actions.

Legalism, of course, was (and for those who are Orthodox, still is) endemic in the Jewish religion. Jesus constantly chastised the Pharisees for “straining at gnats but swallowing camels”–that is, they paid such close attention to the minutia of Jewish law and tradition that they missed the main things God asked of them–their commitment to Him and compassion for one another.

Consequently, when Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, the Pharisees criticized Him for breaking the Sabbath.

Jesus answered the charge by turning it back on them: To keep the Law, you all bypass compassion. He went to the Law itself to illustrate what He was saying, then pointed out how they treated their animals with more regard than they did hapless people who suffered from severe maladies for years and years.

Hindus and Jews aren’t the only ones who place a premium on obeying religious laws. Systemic to Buddhism is its path to liberation which includes following ethical precepts–not just by doing good deeds, but by doing them with pure intention.

Confucianism is another religious teaching that puts its followers on a path of doing:

Confucianism focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics, the most basic of which are ren, yi, and li. Ren is an obligation of altruism and humaneness for other individuals within a community, yi is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good, and li is a system of norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act within a community. (from “Confucianism”emphasis mine)

Islam is another religion based on law.

Religious concepts and practices include the five pillars of Islam, which are basic concepts and obligatory acts of worship, and following Islamic law, which touches on virtually every aspect of life and society, providing guidance on multifarious topics from banking and welfare, to warfare and the environment. (from “Islam”)

All this law! No wonder a good number of people opt out of religion. They see the lists of do, do, do and decide that it’s too much to ask or that the rewards are too far off or that the requirements are too unattainable.

And then there is Christianity.

In a sense, Christianity agrees with all those other religions. Yes, there is a right way to behave. There are ethical ways of treating other people, and there are corrupt, nefarious, selfish ways of doing so. So Christianity’s distinction is not in doing away with a required standard of how to live.

Christianity also agrees with the secularist who says the standard is too unbearably high for anyone to reach. Rather than prodding Man to be better, to reach higher, to do more, Christianity says, no matter how much he might try to achieve the required ethical standard, he can’t make it.

It’s at this point that Christianity separates itself from all other systems of thought. Because of God’s great mercy, He mitigated the penalty for failure to live ethically and morally by taking it upon Himself.

Christian doctrine refers to this as grace.

What a huge difference to live under grace rather than under law. Rather than hoisting the burden of righteous living, a believer in Jesus Christ experiences God’s forgiveness, cleansing, redemption, and pardon.

The distinction, then, is grace—God’s free gift which He provided “while we were yet sinners.”

This post first appeared here in June 2012.

Are Catholics Christians?


Who is a Christian?

In our western, post-truth culture we tend to let people self-identify without calling into question the truth of their distinct personhood. So according to Saving Truth by Abdu Murray, “At the University of Washington students affirmed a white man’s self-identification as a young Chinese girl.” (p 53)

I mention this because the media, and consequently the public at large, thinks nothing of lumping anyone who self-identifies as a Christian all into one gigantic group.

The problem, of course, is that some identify as Christian because they live in a country that has been known as a Christian nation and where more Christians live than do Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus. But are they actually Christian?

Some people think being a Christian is holding to a certain list of do-this-and-not-thats. Others think that if they go to church once in a while, then they are Christians. Still others think that doing what their church leader says to do qualifies them as Christian. For Catholics that person might be their parish priest or a bishop or the pope.

None of those things define who is a Christian, however. Instead, a Christian is simply a follower of Jesus Christ. A disciple, if you will.

In the early years when the Church was just beginning, the disciples were known as those who followed The Way. Then in Antioch someone started calling them Christians.

They were Christians during those years of persecution, when Paul traveled from one city to another and declared, to the Jews first, and then to the Gentiles, that Jesus was God’s Son, crucified for the sins of the world, resurrected and ascended on high.

Tradition has it that Mark traveled to Egypt in the middle of the first century and began the group of believers that has come to be known as Coptic Christians, while Thomas traveled to India and brought the gospel to the southernmost part of the country.

During those years, there was no “catholic” church or protestant denomination. There were no “approved” list of doctrines. What defined a Christian? Simply one who believed what Jesus said and did. They were still nothing more than disciples, learning from the teaching of the Master.

But the Master had ascended into heaven. So how could they follow Him? By following what those who had been with Him said and wrote. By believing the testimony of the Holy Spirit within their hearts.

The problem was, almost at once people who claimed to be followers of Jesus started teaching things that Jesus had never said, things like, you have to be circumcised, and things like, since we have grace, we can commit whatever sin we want and it is forgiven.

To correct those errors, leaders like James and Peter and John and Paul wrote letters to individuals or churches to change their thinking and teach them what Jesus actually said and what He actually meant.

Some of these letters were at once recognized as God-breathed and were considered to be of equal value with the law of Moses, the psalms and proverbs, the prophetic writings, Eventually a Council of believers was held and Church leaders determined the canon or list of works that would be considered Scripture.

For about 250 years Christians endured persecution in the Roman Empire, sometimes severely so. In 64 the Emperor Nero scapedgoated Christians for the fire in Rome. The Emperor Domitian outlawed Christianity, making it a capital offense. In 303 the co-emperors Diocletian and Galerius instigated what came to be known as the Great Persecution.

Finally, in 313 Emperor Constantine lifted the ban on Christianity.

Nearly 70 years later Emperor Theodosius I declared Catholicism the state religion of the Roman Empire, and thus began the Roman Catholic Church, which soon spread and dominated Europe, most often by force. Were those converts actually Christians? Some undoubtedly were, but some were not, as literature shows.

The Catholic Church itself became entwined in politics and the economics of the day. The priests could be Godly spiritual counselors but they could just as easily be selfish and corrupt. In other words, they were just like every other person—some believing in God and some living for self.

In 1517 the first of the reformers started a movement to bring the Roman Catholic Church back into line with what the Bible taught, and the Protestant Reformation was born.

Not much has changed over these five hundred years. People still either believe God or they live for themselves. That includes Protestants and Catholics.

So the short answer: Are Catholics Christians? Some are, some are not.

Of course there are groups of Christians who point at Catholics and decry them as heretics. But I personally know Catholics who believe that Jesus Christ died for their sins. Their faith is in His shed blood.

But they worship Mary, some say, and the saints. They deify the Pope and believe they have certain things they must do in order to be saved.

Maybe.

Some do not “worship” Mary or the saints but they revere them. Some see the things they do as evidence of faith, not acts to earn salvation.

The actual doctrine of the Catholic Church contains things I don’t believe and I don’t think the Bible teaches, but not everyone who says they’re a Catholic even knows what their own doctrine is. Some believe what they themselves read in the Bible and some believe what they want to believe. So who among the Catholics is a Christian?

Well, the answer is the same as to the question, Who among the Lutherans is a Christian? Or, Who among the Presbyterians is a Christian? Or, Who among the Baptists is a Christian?

Only the person who puts his faith, hope, trust, belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a means of salvation that brings him into the family of God.

Yes, family. We are one family, some worshiping with Catholics, some with Lutherans, some with Methodists, some with Evangelical Free. Some worshiping in Brazil, some in South Africa, some in Korea, some in France, some in Mexico, some in Nigeria.

Are Catholics Christians? Maybe. They can be Christians if they respond to the good news that Christ died for their sins, that He rose the third day, that He is now seated on high working as their Advocate with the Father.

It really is not a yes or no question because some self-identify as Christian when they aren’t. They want the approval of their community, perhaps, or of their family. They, in fact, don’t know enough about Christianity to say they don’t believe it, so they go along with everyone else they know.

Nowhere is “Christian” the default position. A person doesn’t get born a Christian. It’s actually an informed, thought-out, consciously chosen position. And it’s a life-changing decision because it marks the beginning of a life of discipleship, of following Jesus by paying attention to what He taught and what He explained to the very first disciples.

I guess the real question is not, are Catholics Christians, but am I a Christian.

What’s The Bible All About? — A Reprise


I think a lot of people have misunderstood the Bible—Christians and non-Christians alike. Some see it as a rule book, others as the Christian version of Confucius’s sayings. Many people use the Bible to prove whatever point they want to get across—sort of a handy debater’s list of proof texts. A number of folks believe the Bible shows people the way to God. Some say it is a record of God’s dealing with humankind and others call it “His Story,” referring to Jesus.

These last two views are true as far as they go. The Bible does indeed record God’s dealing with humankind, but what are those dealings? And the Bible does, from cover to cover, either explicitly or implicitly, point to Jesus Christ. But what particularly does it say about Him?

As I have said in this space from time to time, the Bible is one book and needs to be understood as a whole. Any use of its individual parts—verses, passages, chapters, books, or even testaments—needs to be measured against the whole message of the Bible.

For example, there’s a verse that contains this: “There is no God.” Someone might point to that statement and say, the Bible claims that there is no God. In reality, that line needs to be understood in relation to the entire Bible as well as to the specific context in which it exists.

A quick scan of the Bible shows that God appears throughout; consequently the statement “there is no God” is not an accurate reflection of the Bible’s teaching. In addition, the specific context of the phrase is this: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’ ” (Psalm 14:1).

Occasionally I’ve seen a number of people quote from the book of Ecclesiastes to prove various points of debate. Again, that approach is suspect since much of Ecclesiastes is Solomon’s thinking apart from God’s direction—his view of the world “under the sun,” as opposed to his view informed by God’s wisdom.

The question should always be, Do these thoughts align with the rest of Scripture?

But that brings me back to the central question—what particularly is the rest of Scripture all about? A former pastor gave an insightful and simple answer to this question, starting in Genesis.

When Adam and Eve sinned, they did two specific things—they hid their bodies from one another (covered their nakedness) and hid themselves from God.

In the cool of the day, God walked in the garden and asked Adam where he was. Of course, omniscient God wasn’t seeking information. He wanted to give Adam a chance to give up his feeble effort to cover his sin and to confess. In other words, He was seeking Adam in a much deeper way than to see where Adam’s GPS showed him to be.

A quick scan of Scripture shows that God continued to seek people in this same way. He said in Ezekiel, “For thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out.’ ”

He took up Enoch and saved Noah. He chose Abraham and sought out David. He chastised Jonah and rescued Daniel.

Jesus graphically illustrated God’s relentless pursuit of us when He gave the parable of the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep to find the one lost lamb. He followed that story with the illustration of the woman who looked throughout her house for her lost coin.

And therein is the message of the Bible—not that we seek God, but that He pursues us, giving up all that is precious to Him, even His own beloved Son, in order to bring us back to Himself.

The great, glad news, of course, is that Jesus bore our sins in His body, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. And because of His resurrection, we also have Christ, through His Spirit, living within each believer. As Romans 5 says, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This post is a revised version of one that appeared here in April, 2013,

Published in: on April 20, 2018 at 5:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Christian Forgiveness: Conditional Or Unconditional?


The_Crucifixion001Some years ago I read a new thing about forgiveness—well, new to me. The idea popped up on a post at Spec Faith by Stephen Burnett, then expanded as I followed a link to a post by Kevin DeYoung. I respect both of these men, but I have to admit, I think they’re missing something important about Christian forgiveness.

As I understand the principle they’re presenting, they believe there are two ideas about forgiveness: one, a therapeutic forgiveness that is popular today even in the secular world, and two, a Biblical forgiveness that is dependent upon the repentance of the offender.

In his article about these two types of forgiveness, Mr. DeYoung goes to pains to explain that the second type of forgiveness in no way condones an attitude of bitterness or revenge:

We should always love our enemies. We should always fight against bitterness. We should cast all our cares on the Lord. We should learn to trust God’s providence. We should be eager to forgive those who hurt us and be reconciled to them.

The foundational thought to this idea that a Christian only forgives those who repent, is that we are to forgive like God forgives and He forgives conditionally—that condition being repentance.

Let me back up and explain “therapeutic forgiveness.” I’d not heard the term before, but I think it does describe a humanistic co-oping of a Biblical principle. The idea here is that giving forgiveness makes the person doing the forgiving feel better. There is no intent to reconcile, however. It’s just a way of escaping negative feelings like anger and bitterness.

Many Christians, influenced by Lewis Smedes and a lot of pop psychology, have a therapeutic understanding of forgiveness. They think of forgiveness as a unilateral, internal effort to get our emotions under control. (“What Is Forgiveness?”)

The Biblical view, according to Mr. DeYoung, is that forgiveness is the means to reconciliation. Hence, the Christian should always be ready to forgive, but true forgiveness only comes when both parties move toward one another, repenting and receiving or offering forgiveness as necessary.

Again the rationale behind this concept is the Scriptural statement that we are to forgive as Christ forgave us.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (ESV, Eph. 4:32)

I’ll admit, I have problems with this approach. First, I don’t think there has to be two choices: either therapeutic or Biblical conditional forgiveness. I think there can easily be a third option: Biblical unconditional forgiveness.

Part of my thinking is that some Bible scholars get tied up trying to think the way God thinks. Mr. DeYoung, then, says God’s forgiveness is conditional and therefore ours should be too, as if it’s possible for us to understand the conditional nature of God’s forgiveness.

Ah, but doesn’t Ephesians 4:32 say that’s how we are to forgive? I don’t think necessarily it does. I don’t read the verse as saying we are to forgive in the same manner that God forgives, but that we are to forgive because we received forgiveness.

Paul says essentially the same thing in Col. 3:13:

bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

The intent does not seem focused on forgiving in like manner but extending to others the forgiveness we received.

In other words, I see these verses mirroring Jesus’s instructions to forgive in response to the forgiveness we received. See, for example, the parable He told about the slave who received forgiveness for his debt only to turn around and withhold forgiveness from his fellow slave:

Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ (Matt. 18:32-33; see the entire parable in vv. 23-35)

It seems apparent to me that this “in the same way” is not talking about manner or even condition. In reality neither slave asked that their debt would be forgiven. They asked for more time to pay it off themselves. The act of forgiveness was an extension of mercy—the undeserved offer to cancel the debt.

This is what Christ did on the cross

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. (Col. 2:13-14)

As I read those verses, I’m convinced that God didn’t forgive us when we had put ourselves in a position to deserve it by repenting. He went to the cross while we were yet sinners.

Consequently, I don’t believe as Mr. DeYoung does that God’s forgiveness was conditional. He gave His forgiveness to anyone and everyone, but not everyone has accepted it. When Scripture says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16), I think the words “world” and “whoever” remove conditions from God’s side of the equation.

When Paul instructed Timothy to pray for all men, he explained his reasoning this way:

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.

There are literally dozens of verses throughout the Bible that carry this same idea. But one of the most telling, for me, is 2 Thess. 2:10ff which looks at salvation and forgiveness from the side of those who do not accept it:

[the lawless one will come with all power and signs and false wonders] 10 and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. 11 For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, 12 in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. (Emphasis added.)

These who perish did not receive, implying that they could have received. They took pleasure in wickedness, implying that they could have refrained from taking pleasure in wickedness. They did not believe the truth, implying they could have believed the truth.

All this to say, the third reason I don’t believe forgiveness for the Christian is conditional, based on the repentance of the offender, is because I don’t believe God’s forgiveness is conditional.

I understand there are believers of a different doctrinal persuasion from mine who will disagree, but maybe two out of three reasons will be enough to make the case against this idea that forgiveness needs to be earned by repentance.

This post is a revised version of one that originally appeared here in July, 2014.

Misunderstanding Scripture


Interpreting God’s word incorrectly is not a new thing. In fact it’s a very old thing and the number one method Satan uses to confound people so that we do not follow God. Remember his question to Eve in the Garden—Has God really said . . . ?

From then on, people have been in conflict about God’s word.

The same was true in the last years of Judah’s existence as a nation. Babylon had already defeated them and carried away the wealthiest, most influential people into exile, while installing a puppet-king in place of the boy-king they dethroned.

While Jeremiah continued to prophesy to the people in his homeland, Ezekiel proclaimed God’s word to the first-wave exiles in Babylon. Not surprisingly, their messages were the same: Judah will fall to the Babylonians.

The people in Jerusalem didn’t believe Jeremiah, and the people in Babylon didn’t believe Ezekiel. At one point when he proclaimed God’s word, the people said, He’s speaking in parables. But he wasn’t. He was delivering the message God gave him, but at one point he stopped God and said, ‘Then I said, “Ah Lord GOD! They are saying of me, ‘Is he not just speaking parables?’” ‘

That incident reminds me of the disciples’ confusion when Jesus told them he was going to Jerusalem where He’d be put to death, but that He would rise again on the third day. His men simply thought He was speaking metaphorically. They didn’t understand He meant He would literally die and literally rise again.

Too often that same confusion reigns today. People say the Bible doesn’t actually mean what it says. They say some passages don’t apply to our culture or that people have been misinterpreting them for centuries or that these five verses nullify the hundred or so that seem contradictory.

What is God actually telling us?

Of course Satan is still active in this process. He wants us to be uncertain about Scripture, and particularly how Scripture applies to us. I mean, he actually used Scripture against Jesus, trying to trap Him and trick Him by God’s words in Scripture.

I find it interesting that Jesus simply dismissed Satan’s bait. He didn’t explain what the verses actually meant or when the statements would be fulfilled. But He took the opposite approach with His disciples after His resurrection. Then He carefully explained the Law and the Prophets to them so that they could see how He was, in fact, the promised Messiah.

The fact that Jesus unfolded Scripture for them is encouraging, I think. It means that the truth is within the pages of the Bible, waiting for us to understand. And the cool thing is that God sent the Holy Spirit to us when Jesus left.

One of the “functions” of the Holy Spirit is to guide us in all truth, to bring to our remembrance what God has said. He doesn’t invent new truth. He doesn’t send golden tablets written in King James English. Rather, He clarifies the Bible. He brings the various points of history together. He shows how Scripture interprets Scripture.

The Bible, of course, is under attack by those who don’t believe in God. It’s full of errors, they say, and contradictions.

Well, it’s not. What it is, is the God-breathed writings of men of God. They wrote using their own style, to a contemporary audience, for a specific purpose. So of course the Bible doesn’t read like a textbook or a story book or a history book. It’s really like no other book every put together.

The main point is that the Bible as a unit is about God—His plan, His purpose, His person, and His work. Of course, Jesus stands at the center, along with the Father, and it was this truth that Jesus explained to His disciples.

Since Jesus rose from the grave, we’ve had over 2000 years of scholastic investigation of the Scriptures, analyzing, comparing, contrasting. Unless someone adds to the Bible (as the Mormons do by introducing a supposed later revelation known as the Book of Mormon) or subtracts from the Bible (as the higher critics do by nullifying the parts that contain miracles or other supernatural elements), it’s hard to miss what God has done and is doing in human history. The Old Testament foreshadows and promises and prophecies that God would send a Savior; the gospels recount the life, death, and resurrection of that Savior; the remainder of the Bible relates how the Savior affects our life, now and in the future.

There’s no longer any mystery. What God is doing has been fully disclosed. He’s even disclosed Himself by showing up in the likeness of us humans. We can see what God is like by seeing what Jesus was like.

Of course, doubters don’t want to listen to the accounts of Christ’s life. How can we possible know those are true?

Anyone interested in evidence might want to take a look at some of the work done by J. Warner Wallace. He is a cold-case detective who has used the skill set acquired on the job to look at Christianity. His latest book is called Forensic Faith.

Here’s one five-and-a-half minute video in which he addresses what some consider the contradictions of the gospel writers.

This is just one man adding his knowledge to the mountains of evidence that already exist for the truth of the Bible.

The Bible doesn’t really need to be defended, of course, because reading it brings verification of its veracity, but other fields of study agreeing, only makes the case stronger.

If the evidence is so strong, why don’t people believe it?

For the same reason the Jewish people in Babylon and in Jerusalem didn’t believe Ezekiel and Jeremiah: other voices spoke contradictory messages. People claiming to be prophets were telling those first wave exiles that they’d be back in Jerusalem in a few short years, that the exile would not last for any length of time. They were making stuff up. They were not speaking God’s word.

So too people today can listen to the wrong source and get the wrong worldview that will lead them to error, not truth. It’s all a matter of who you trust.

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