Enjoyable Sin


Jimmy Dean—actor, singer, entrepreneur who died at 81

Years ago I read this line on Facebook, credited to Jimmy Dean: “Being a Baptist won’t keep you from sinning, but it’ll sure as hell keep you from enjoying it.”

Very funny. Several people laughed and more hit the “Like” button.

But what’s to like about the idea that sin is enjoyable? What’s to like about the idea that the enjoyment of sin is spoiled by a religion that calls it sin?

The Jimmy Dean conclusion would seem to be, Better not to be a Baptist so you can enjoy your sin. How sad! Really. There are so many things wrong with this way of thinking, I’m not sure where to begin.

First, I suppose it’s essential to recognized the part of the statement that’s true: sin is enjoyable. If sin was only hurtful, heinous, disgusting, and it separated us from God, why would it hold a lure? It wouldn’t. But just like the Tempter who appears as an angel of light, sin is dressed up as something pleasurable—something good to look at or to experience or to own or by which to be empowered.

That pleasurable something, however, is temporary (Heb. 11:25-26). No matter how wise or wonderful or sexy or rich or strong sin makes a person, the end of is still destruction.

For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction (Phil. 3:18-19a)

Furthermore, the consequences of sin are here and now.

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short
That it cannot save,
Nor is His ear so dull
That it cannot hear,
But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God
And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear. (Isaiah 59:1-2)

The third thing that makes this statement so not funny is the fact that personal enjoyment is held up as a higher good than obeying God or pleasing Him.

If you’re going to disobey God, you might as well enjoy it, which is another way of saying human enjoyment supersedes the conviction of the Holy Spirit. So the real thing that is bad isn’t the sin, but the guilt that spoils the fun of sin. I think that’s pretty much the way the world looks at sin.

Note, the answer isn’t to stop sinning—that’s apparently something we humans must concede, according to Jimmy Dean. The answer is to quench the Holy Spirit so we don’t feel His displeasure.

After all, life is all about pleasing ourselves, isn’t it?

Well, actually, no, it’s not. Which brings me to the next point that makes this quote anything but humorous. According to Paul in Colossians, we are to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (v. 10).

Our goal as Christians should be to live in obedience to God, not in submission to our fleshly lusts. When we sin, it’s something to grieve, not celebrate. James says our laughter should turn to mourning and our joy to gloom.

Of course there’s the chance that the Jimmy Dean quote was poking fun at Baptists who believe certain behaviors to be sin that others think are perfectly fine—not sins at all.

Well, that’s perhaps the saddest of all the others. To think that one Christian would be so arrogant as to think another’s convictions are laughable.

If he’s a weaker brother, the stronger Christian is expressly instructed in Scripture not to act in a way that would tear down his faith.

For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. (1 Cor. 8:11-12)

If a person is in error, then he should be lovingly won to the truth. If he’s a false teacher, then he needs to be prayed for and perhaps rebuked.

But made fun of?

I know a little enclave of professing Christians that think mocking other people’s beliefs is the way to turn them from the error of their ways. The problem is, these arrogant self-appointed judges get those ideas from some place other than the Bible.

Scripture directs us to love—our neighbor, fellow believer, enemy, all men. There’s no room for mocking someone for their convictions.

Here’s the bottom line—sin might be enjoyable, but it’s no laughing matter. When Christians don’t see this, we’re playing right into Satan’s hands.

This article is an edited version of one that first appeared here in October, 2011.

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Published in: on October 8, 2018 at 5:36 pm  Comments (1)  
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Spiritual Disciplines


Sunday we had a guest speaker, a pastor from the Seattle area. And yes, he spoke on spiritual disciplines, though he didn’t call them that. This term goes way back to the 1970s and maybe was recycled from an even earlier time. I first heard it when I was a young adult, and the disciplines were ways in which we can grow spiritually.

Our speaker Sunday said essentially the same thing, but instead of “grow spiritually,” he referred to intimacy with Christ and sanctification and building habits.

He even provided a handout so we could pull together his general comments and apply them personally. On the handout the habits that will help us cultivate a closer relationship with Christ are of two types, those we “inhale” and those we “exhale.”

As you would expect, the things on the “inhale” list are things we take in such as Bible study, meditation, church attendance, fasting (not necessarily from food), and so on.

On the “exhale” list are things we give out: service, generosity, hospitality, and the like.

I have to say, I’m excited to see this kind of emphasis, and I’m happy to know that other churches are emphasizing these things. For some time there was so much confusion among Christians.

There were divisions but by far the most serious aspect of what affected the Church was the willingness to have our ears tickled by those who said what was culturally pleasing and not necessarily Biblically true.

I’m thinking of two extremes. On the one hand there were the people who followed “America’s pastor”—and even that silly title says a lot about the error slipping into his teaching. These are people who wanted to have their best life now, who wanted to hear that their fondest dreams would come true, that they too could become free from sickness, that they could have all the technological toys and still be debt free.

In a camp that seems quite the opposite are those who wanted to re-image Jesus, though they pretty much liked what he did about social justice. In many ways this “progressive” view is nothing but a reiteration of the social gospel of the early twentieth century. They’d likely say that a Christian can reach heaven by doing good deeds. Except many don’t believe in heaven. Of course whatever heaven might be, all of humanity is going there. Here’s what one “progressive Christian” site says:

The Christian faith is our way of being faithful to God. But it is not the only way.

Christianity is the truth for us. But it is not the only truth.

This principle stems from the reality of the 21st century. We share our lives with people who are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist. We experience these people as loving and caring by following their religious traditions.

So, yes, speak about the environment and gender issues and social justice in terms that the culture at large will like. Or speak about becoming rich and self-satisfied in your own cocoon. Both those positions will garner followers, but neither is presenting the gospel.

I think a return to the habits that will bring us into an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ is needed. Of course, I also think reading the Bible and studying it and memorizing it should be first on the list of habits believers should cultivate. The bottom line is this: we first need to know who God is, what His plan for humankind is. Without that in place, we’re simply operating from our own thoughts and desires and judgments a la the groups that have drifted from the truth.

Here’s what Bart Campolo, son of the evangelist Tony Campolo, said about his own experience:

Campolo admitted that changing his view of God’s sovereignty was “the beginning of the end” of his faith. Why?“Because once you start adjusting your theology to match up to the reality you see in front of you, it’s an infinite progression. So over the course of the next 30 years…my ability to believe in a supernatural narrative or a God who intervenes and does anything died a death of a thousand unanswered prayers”.

Campolo continued: “I passed through every stage of heresy. It starts out with sovereignty goes, then biblical authority goes, then I’m a universalist, now I’m marrying gay people. Pretty soon I don’t actually believe Jesus actually rose from the dead in a bodily way.”
How Christians become atheists

Campolo doesn’t think he’s a special case. On the contrary, he believes the current world of ‘progressive Christianity’ (what he calls “the ragged edge” of Christianity) is heading towards full-blown unbelief . . .

Campolo is predicting that as many as 40% of progressive Christians will become atheists over the next decade. In his view, the process of abandoning Christian doctrines is almost addictive. Once you start, you don’t know where to stop. It might begin with “dialing down” your view of God’s sovereignty, but it could easily end with unbelief.

“When you get to this ragged edge of Christianity when people say ‘God’ they sort of mean ‘the universe’ and when they say ‘Jesus’ they sort of mean ‘redemption’ – they’re so progressive they don’t actually count on any supernatural stuff to happen, they’ve dialed it down in the same way I did.” (Premier Christianity, “Bart Campolo says progressive Christians turn into atheists. Maybe he’s right”)

Hebrews was written to first century Christians who were questioning their faith, wondering if they shouldn’t return to Judaism. The writer gives a number of reasons they should stand firm, the first being that Jesus is the only one God ever identified as 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.”

Since Jesus is who He is, the writer concludes, “For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” (Heb. 2:1)

Yes, we do need to pay much closer attention! That’s a good habit to form, a good discipline to cultivate.

Social Justice And The Gospel


There’s a bit of a kerfuffle in the cyberworld because of a statement Pastor John MacArthur made, and thousands of other evangelical Christians signed, about Social Justice and the Gospel.

In essence MacArthur’s statement is a call for Christians to hold fast to the teaching of God’s word and not get swept up in the rabbit trails the world would lead us down.

I’ve been listening to MacArthur most mornings for about the last six months or so. Maybe longer. I have to say, I often disagree with him. Not substantively, but in places where he is so absolute, so dogmatic, that he doesn’t leave room for honest disagreement by others who are just as serious and knowledgeable about God’s word as he is.

From my perspective, I think he comes across a little arrogantly. I say this with love, mind you. Because I do think he cares deeply for God’s word and makes a great effort to help people grasp the truths of Scripture. And hold on to them. Without error. But still, at times he can be abrasive and seemingly, callous. But he’s right more than not.

As anyone who is paying attention knows, error does and has and is creeping into some bodies of the Church. Hence, in a recent blog post, MacArthur states

The besetting sin of pragmatic, style-conscious evangelicals has always been that they shamelessly borrow fads and talking points from the unbelieving world.

I don’t disagree with him.

Our sin is no different from the people of Israel worshiping Yahweh and some Egyptian idol or Canaanite god. Sadly, we are just as prone to look around, see what people in the world are doing, and say, “Let’s do that!” Because, you know, people will like us better. People will come to Jesus more, and isn’t that our goal?

That actually puts in the best light the desire to do what the world is doing, but some groups have motives that aren’t that noble. Yet even the most upright of motive misses the point that we don’t save anyone. The Holy Spirit does. We are to do the works of righteousness, to be ambassadors for Christ, telling the world near and far that we have a Savior who will rescue us from the kingdom of darkness.

But recently we’ve headed down some of those cultural rabbit trails that MacArthur is warning us about. We’ve set the gospel aside to proclaim social justice instead.

The confusing thing is that the gospel is all about social justice, so by proclaiming it we are simultaneously, and more effectively, dealing with the glaring ills of society.

In some ways you could think of social justice as a subset of the gospel. I think it’s sort of like the Pharisees who locked on to the command to keep the Sabbath. After all, some of the prophets reamed the nation of Israel for not keeping the Sabbath—a contributing cause of God turning them over to Babylon and Assyria.

I suppose the Pharisees were determined that would never happen again, so they came up with an elaborate system of laws to make sure that someone didn’t work on the Sabbath. Their motive seems like it was good, but they were not dealing with a person’s heart. They were simply concerned about the outward appearance.

Social justice is like that in many respects. There are needs—homelessness, crises pregnancies, homosexual lifestyles, gender confusion, race relations, and more. So let’s clean up these problems, social justice seems to say.

But the real problem is in the heart. Cleaning the outside of the cup will only give a cup that looks clean, but all the germs are still on the inside and that’s what can cause real problems.

The Bible takes on the heart first, but also requires believers to take on the things that create confusion in our culture. Not by creating a Moral Majority or an evangelical voting block or some other system that copies the world. We already have our “system.” It’s called the Church.

And the Church is designed to equip the saints to go out into the highways and the byways and preach the gospel and love our neighbors and tell the world about Jesus.

Sadly, the poor we will always have with us. And yet we are to create a Church environment that makes room for the poor. We are to care for widows and orphans in their distress. We are to share Christ with the tax collectors and the Samaritan woman equally.

But we aren’t simply to clean the outside of the cup. That’s inadequate and doesn’t address eternal needs.

Back to the internet controversy about MacArthur’s statement, I think there is some disingenuous opposition and some genuine concern. Some people say, a lot of his statements give those who are racist a reason to hate and claim that they are doing so according to the Bible.

That’s a sad misreading of the text, of both Scripture and MacArhur’s. One can only reach that conclusion by ignoring the clear statements that present what the Bible actually says about Christian unity. Of course, there very well might be some people who want an excuse to hate. I don’t know that the Church can do anything to change that, apart from proclaiming the truth to them, too.

On the other hand, there are people who believe what the world is saying about feminism and homosexuality and gender, and they simply hate what the Bible says about those issues. Their criticism of MacArthur and his statement is disingenuous. They don’t really have a quarrel with him. Their quarrel is with the Bible because they don’t want women to accept roles that aren’t identical to men’s roles. They don’t want to bow to the authority of Scripture when it comes to sex.

They are like the children of Israel who made alliances with the nations they were to steer clear of, who later wanted a king rather than God to lead them, who drifted from worship until the temple was in a ruined state and the Law had been forgotten.

This is what John MacArthur is warning the Church about. When we follow in the footsteps of the people of Israel, we are jeopardizing our witness in the West.

No fear. The Church will flourish. The gates of hell won’t prevail against it. But maybe in the West, the lamp will go out. Like it did for a time in Ephesus and Laodecia and the other churches in Revelation. It just might depend on what this generation does.

Overzealous Faith?


smokestack-1402448-mA number of years ago I read a book that had me a bit steamed. There are lots of reasons, but not the least is the subtitle: “Avoiding . . . dangers of overzealous faith.”

Certainly we are to avoid the things listed where I typed an ellipsis—pride and exclusivity—but why would those be associated with “overzealous faith”? Why would any “danger” be linked to overzealous faith? For that matter, is it possible to be overzealous in our faith?

If you think about it, God’s word tells us the first command, the one that’s most important, is to love God “WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH” (Mark 12:30; the all caps indicate a quotation from the Old Testament). If this is what God commands of His followers, I don’t see much room for over-the-top zeal. Already what God asks is . . . well, everything.

He wants us to take up our cross, to die to ourselves, to lay down our lives, to be living sacrifices. I don’t see how this clear teaching of Scripture, that we as believers in Christ are to be all in, lends itself to zeal that goes beyond those requirements.

Rather, I expect this “plea for balance,” as many of the positive reviews of the book labeled it, is looking for wiggle room for comfortable American Christians who want to stay comfortable and still be “good Christians.”

Thankfully there is a counter thrust among evangelical pastors to the health-and-wealth message which distorts Scripture. But a look at the values which the Bible teaches in the areas of physical health and finances calls into question a lot of what Americans do and even preach as “best practices” or “good stewardship.”

Along comes this book, Accidental Pharisees, and most probably others like it, and we have an intentional reining in of concepts calling for a radical or crazy or counter-cultural approach to doing church.

The message I got from this book is, let’s be content with the status quo. After all, Paul said we should learn to live quiet lives, and that’s good, because then I can have my big house and my fancy cars and not feel like I’m a lesser Christian than brothers who have moved to the inner city or are giving away 90% of their income.

Honestly, the premise of this book makes me a little crazy. The idea is that Christians who “get out in front of the following-Jesus line” start to look around and compare where they’re at with where other Christians are at and then they start looking down on believers who aren’t up with them at the head of the line. So their “overzealous faith” has led them into pride.

I submit that anyone who is looking around and comparing his spiritual progress with others has already succumbed to pride.

I submit that someone afraid of crazy love or radical faith or sold-out evangelism or whatever else is the latest call for Christian devotion, is really afraid of the Bible. It’s more comfortable to be content with the status quo—the American Christianity that doesn’t demand too much, that lets us alone to do what we want, except for an hour or so on Sunday.

Scripture does call Christians to be content and to live quiet lives, but it’s in the context of sometimes going hungry or serving someone by going the extra mile or by thinking more highly of a fellow Christian than of myself.

The thing is, I understand it is possible to be overly zealous about all kinds of things, some dangerous, some merely silly. But faith? Genuine faith in Jesus Christ? I don’t think so.

Genuine faith in Jesus Christ is built on the Word of God. Consequently, a zealous Christian will know what Jesus thinks about looking down on others or about holding people to high standards for salvation (as if we set standards for salvation in the first place!) or any of the other “dangers” supposedly inherent in “overzealous faith.”

I suppose the best conclusion about this book is this: since Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites (7 or 8 times in Matt. 23), any “faith” of “Pharisees” isn’t real faith at all, so being overzealous for a hypocritical “see how spiritual I am” substitute for faith is definitely something to avoid.

OK, in that light, it’s a good book. 😉

This post is an edited version of one that appeared here in September, 2014.

A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing


From time to time in discussions I have with atheists they will claim some false idea as if it represents Christian thought. They usually back this up with a Bible verse, taken out of context.

This kind of thinking distresses me because ultimately it defames the name of Jesus Christ.

The other day I ran across someone in the FB atheist/theist group who took the atheist stand one step farther. He actually knows a lot about the Bible. His main point was not, the Bible is a myth. He still reached a position of disbelief, however, and he did it by twisting Scriptures.

What’s really sad is that he parroted the line of thinking typical of those I categorize as “health-and-wealthers.” Others call them word of faith and still others, proponents of the Prosperity Gospel. With the backing of Scripture the line goes something like this: God promises to defend, protect and heal. Jesus said, by His stripes we are healed. People who think God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, will depend on God to do for us today what He did for people in the Bible.

He concludes these beliefs lead them to choose God instead of medical science. As a result, bad things happen. Consequently, people should not fall for the idea that God actually can be trusted and depended upon.

What’s so off here is that this atheist, someone who identifies as a former pastor, is examining a false teaching, finding it in error, and concluding that Christianity is unreliable, that God is untrue.

I have to admit, this is a new one for me. But it fits with all other error. It comes from A LITTLE knowledge. This Atheist Pastor (or AP) has more Bible knowledge than do most atheists, but he is still far from the truth. He apparently has gone no deeper into Scripture than have the false teachers he echoes.

Otherwise he would know that Job’s friends who spent days with him, essentially accusing him of wrong doing because he was suffering, were the ones who were wrong. Surely, God would not allow suffering if you haven’t sinned, they said. Well, surprise. Not true. And when God showed up in person, He accepted Job because he repented. The friends needed Job to intercede for them. I’ve wondered if that didn’t come with a bit of instruction on his part, explaining what he’d learned about God: that He is sovereign, that He won’t be manipulated, that He isn’t dependent upon us in the tiniest way.

Of course the AP and the false teachers he was critiquing also ignore what Peter says about suffering:

Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. AND DO NOT FEAR THEIR INTIMIDATION, AND DO NOT BE TROUBLED, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.(1 Peter 3:13-17; emphases here and in the following passages, mine)

But there’s more:

For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God (v 2:20).

Peter’s not done yet:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. (4:12-16)

Of course these are by no means the only passages that deal with suffering in a way that demonstrates the falsehood of the health-and-wealth position.

The point is, this AP and the false teachers he critiqued have some knowledge. Yes, the verses they quote are in Scripture. But instead of wrestling with how they can exist side by side with verses such as Peter wrote, or with what James said when he told believers to call suffering, joy, they ignore the parts of the Bible that don’t fit in with the paradigm they have created. The one ignores them as a way to manipulate God. The other ignores them as a way to accuse God. Both are wrong because they depend only on the little knowledge they have.

I’ve believed for a very long time that Christians need to read the Bible. But this encounter has left me more fully convinced than ever.

People can disbelieve the Bible completely and leave it alone. They can believe what someone has told them about the Bible and discount it, distort it, or accept it, based on who they actually are trusting. Lots of Christians do this latter. They listen to a pastor or a family member or a teacher who tells them what the Bible says. And they believe what they’ve been told. But what happens when those tenets are challenged? What happens when someone with compelling arguments against their beliefs comes along?

No, the way to handle the Bible is not second hand. We ought all to be reading it for ourselves, from cover to cover, taking the whole counsel of God and wrestling with what we find there.

Christ Died for … ?


When I was young, I thought it was clear who Jesus Christ died for. In fact, most of my adult life, it never crossed my mind that this was a controversial subject. Rather, it was fact … that some believed and others did not.

But the world of the internet has put me in touch with lots more people, and suddenly the things I thought were clear, plain, easily understood from Scripture, I now realize don’t appear the same to everyone. Some professing Christians believe one thing and others believe a quite different thing, all based on the Bible. 😕

When it comes to some topics, I don’t think it’s all that surprising that Christians hold differing positions, simply because the Bible isn’t all that clear. End times comes to mind as a topic that can stir debate. Some have studied prophesies in the Old and New Testaments and believe they can create a time line, with the only missing piece the actual date of Christ’s return to rapture His church. Others don’t even think there will be a rapture. And among those who do, there is disagreement as to whether this will occur before, during, or after the Great Tribulation.

And so it goes. Other topics that generate similar disagreements are creation, the ecstatic gifts of the Spirit, church government, baptism … on and on.

But to the question at hand, Who did Christ die for? Isn’t that sort of … the foundation of what it means to be a Christian? So how can there be debate about this question? But there is.

Here are the positions I’m aware of (doesn’t mean there aren’t more):
1. Christ died for the whole world—literally, which means that no one will go to Hell (the view espoused by The Shack and Rob Bell’s Love Wins and the like).

2. Christ died for the whole world—literally, which means that Man’s sin nature has been forgiven, but he will be judged for the specific sins he commits. The sins of believers are covered by the blood of Christ, and the sins of unbelievers bring judgment upon them.

3. Christ died for the elect, those He predestined to be His from the foundations of the world.

4. Christ died for the whole world, but only those who believe in Him appropriate forgiveness.

5. Christ died for the whole world, but only those who believe in Him, chosen from the foundations of the world, appropriate forgiveness.

The latter is my view, and the more I study Scripture, the more I believe it to be true. This position, as I see it, takes into account all of Scripture, not just a handful of proof texts. But I did come across a verse, one of a number, that shows this tension between God’s work—through His predestination and redemption—and Man’s faith.

I’m referring to a verse in I Peter 2, in which the writer declares Jesus Christ to be the cornerstone, who also is a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and then says “for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed” (v 8b). There it is, in one verse: men’s response to God (in this case, rejection of Him) and God’s appointment of men to their destination. The conjunction and gives the two equal weight.

Philippians 3 has a verse like this, but from the side of faith. “Not that I have already obtained [resurrection life] or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus” (v12).

Again, both sides. God lays hold of us and we lay hold of Him.

Too many people want to make salvation a chicken-or-egg discussion (which came first, God’s foreknowledge or God’s predestination? God’s sovereign decision or Man’s free choice). Does a person have faith because he’s predestined or did God predestine those He knew would have faith?

Those are unanswerable questions, though people seem quick to pull out Scriptures to support their view. The fact is, the Bible clearly says God foreknew. And it just as clearly says He predestined. So can we know which He did first? Many will look at Romans 8:29 (“for those He foreknew, He also predestined …”), and conclude, Yes, foreknowledge first. But those from the predestination camp can just as easily point to election verses.

Which is why I say the entire Bible needs to be taken en toto which teaches both God’s sovereignty and humankind’s unfettered responsibility to choose Him.

In the end, I think only the first view in this debate skews God’s nature and distorts His work (and therefore is false teaching). Views 2 through 4 are reasonable and could be true. They do not alter a Biblical view of God. However, as I see it, the last position best accounts for the varied statements throughout Scripture as well as passages like I Peter 2 and Philippians 3. When the Bible seems to say two different things, it’s wise to accept them both. Just because we don’t see how they mesh, does not mean they don’t. After all, God’s thoughts and ways are not limited like ours are.

This article is an updated and expanded version of one that appeared here in August 2009.

What Is Cultural Christianity?


I heard a pastor on the radio talk about cultural Christianity, but I thought his answer was fairly incomplete. Basically he said that in the US many years ago most people knew about Jesus, and a lot of people were saved, even people you thought maybe you could share the gospel with.

Well, that was only partly right, I think. I think Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus explained cultural Christianity more correctly.

Growing up as a Muslim and as a second generation American, Nabeel understood Christianity more from what he learned at home than he did from any personal encounter with Christians.

Eastern teachers have taught the Muslims that the West is Christian, that its culture is promiscuous, and that the people oppose Islam… I remember pointing out to [my parents] that the people dressed provocatively on television might not be Christian, and their response was, “What do you mean? Don’t they call themselves ‘Christian’? Don’t you see them wearing crosses?” If I argued that some of them may be Christian in name only and might not even believe in God, they responded that this simply meant they were Christians who don’t believe in God. They did not categorize religion with belief but with cultural identity. (pp 80-81, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus)

Those who are culturally Christian do things that Christians do such as celebrate Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving. They might even go to church from time to time. They might pray at meals, like the Reagan family does in the TV program Blue Bloods. They might wear crosses and even send their children to a parochial school. These are traditions they keep because they’ve been raised in tradition, but they have no personal understanding or belief in Jesus and His saving power over sin. Their “Christianity” is only culturally deep. It doesn’t reach their heart or change their life.

The radio pastor is an evangelist and I respect him a lot, but he was talking about cultural Christianity as if those who have the Christian tradition were in a better place than people who have no familiarity with who Jesus is.

I think the opposite is true. People who think they know about Jesus, who picture Him perpetually as a baby in a manger or as a bloody figure on a cross, don’t understand the gospel. But they think they do. So they don’t have a grasp of the fact that they need to listen to someone who teaches what the Bible really says.

Many cultural Christians actually deny Christ and turn their back on Him. Oh, I’ve tried that, they’ll say, and it doesn’t work.

Doesn’t work? What did they think a relationship with God was supposed to “do for them”? They are behaving like consumers. They went out shopping for religion, bought the one that seemed to promise the most, then found it wanting.

Christianity isn’t like that, but cultural Christianity is.

That’s the problem. Too many people, and not just Muslims, but atheists, too, think they know what Christianity is when they only have a nodding acquaintance with cultural Christianity. I like to refer to cultural Christianity as pretend Christianity, though the latter term also includes false teachers and cults and “progressives” who say they believe, but who deny Jesus in one way or another.

Christianity has become a kind of catch-all term and it breaks my heart that one aspect of it is culture that is permissive, greedy, immoral. Those things have nothing to do with God’s holiness and goodness and righteousness. It’s as Nabeel said: a great travesty that Muslims—and I would not be surprised if other people groups made the same mistake—associate Christianity with the American culture they see on TV.

The thing is, I think we in the Church need to make an effort to “come out from among them.” We need to be different, not by being weird, but by being more like Christ. No one should be surprised to learn that someone is a Christian. By our good works, by our speech, by our love, people should recognize that we not only have been with Jesus but that He lives in us.

FYI, you can pre-order Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, 3rd edition, from now until Aug. 20 and receive some bonus material at the website set up for Nabeel, who died of cancer a year or so ago.

Doubt And Uncertainty


More and more I’ve encountered people who elevate uncertainty and doubt to the level of virtue—at least when it comes to God. I suspect those same people don’t want any uncertainty or doubt when it comes to the planes they fly in. They want assurance that they have a fully trained pilot and crew, that the vehicle has been properly maintained and inspected. Doubt and uncertainty about the plane aren’t virtues. They are red flags.

The same is true about the money in their bank account. When they deposit funds, they want to know with certainty money will be available to them when they write checks or make withdrawals.

Or how about doctors? Not many people stand out on the street with a sign: “Doctor wanted, anyone willing to try will be hired.” Quite the opposite. When it comes to medical care, we want some assurance—doctors who have attended medical school, for instance–because we want doctors who oversee our treatment to know what they’re doing.

Few people are up to the task of building their own homes. They know they don’t have the expertise in electricity, plumbing, and basic architecture. When it comes to a house, they want something they have reasonable assurance will not collapse, or leak, or blow up—and that isn’t going to be a structure of their own concoction.

So why is it we are willing to accept the murky, the questionable, the uncertain, or the self-made when it comes to spiritual things? I can think of three possible reasons.

  • 1. People who embrace uncertainty don’t believe certainty exists.
  • 2. People who embrace uncertainty don’t believe certainty matters.
  • 3. People who embrace uncertainty believe there’s freedom in it.

Undoubtedly some people who find virtue in doubting and questioning when it comes to spiritual matters, do so with the idea that they are being intellectually honest, not uncertain. After all, are we really supposed to take the word of some musty book written thousands of years ago?

The thing is, true intellectual honesty will dive into that “musty book” and study it to see if there’s truth within its pages.

Once I read a comment online that gave this advice: question everything, “and I mean everything. Make a note of your question and Google each and every one. Read Richard Carrier and the early works by Bart Ehrman, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox, Jerry Coyne, Neil Shubin.”

I find that pronouncement to be odd. Why would someone who wanted to know about democracy dig into Hitler’s writing or Stalin’s philosophy or look at China’s Cultural Revolution? I mean, I suppose a person could come to the idea of democracy by rejecting opposing systems, but wouldn’t it make more sense to study the thinkers and writers who played a part in establishing democratic societies, and beyond that, the actual tenets of democracy itself?

Intellectual honesty will also embrace the possibility of finding answers. Doubt and questioning won’t be virtues for someone who is honestly looking for answers. Why would you look for what you don’t believe you’ll find?

A second group embraces uncertainty because they don’t believe certainty matters. These people, I suspect, haven’t thought deeply. They don’t want to think about what happens to a person when they die or whether or not people have souls. They would rather feel good.

They want pleasure, not pain, and thinking about death and dying is painful, or scary, at least. Thinking about God is scary, too, especially the idea that He can be a judge who ensures people receive just consequences for their actions. So, frankly, it’s easier not to think about God, and one way to dismiss Him is to say He can’t possibly be known. So why try?

Which dovetails to the third position. Some think there’s freedom in uncertainty. If I don’t know for sure that God is and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him, then I can fashion a god who will reward me for my doubts instead of for my belief, for my pursuit of my own pleasures instead of his glory. I can sound spiritual without having to deal with any unpleasant repentance business, without any “denying self” stuff.

So, yes, for some, uncertainty sounds like the preferred path when it comes to spiritual things. In the same way, some people “invested” their life savings with Bernie Madoff and his fraudulent Ponzi scheme. Others “bought” homes they couldn’t afford when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were greasing their credit wheels.

We can look back and say, why didn’t those people pay attention to what Madoff was doing with their money? Or why did those people not pay attention to the details of their loans? They could have known. They should have known.

And so should each one of us know with certainty what God has made apparent about spiritual things. He is not hiding. Quite the opposite.

He announced ahead of time, what He was doing. He painted pictures with the lives of any number of people—Joseph as a savior of his family during a time of famine, Moses as a redeemer leading an enslaved people to freedom, David as a king freeing his people from oppression.

In addition, God sent spokesmen to prepare people for what He had in mind. Throughout generations He announced His plan, and when His Son fulfilled His work at the cross, He broadcast the fact that God completed what He’d foretold. And now He has a people who once were not a people, all commissioned to be His ambassadors, repeating the announcement—God is; His Son Jesus shows Him; and by His death and resurrection, believers can know Him.

Doubt and uncertainty? Those are not virtues when it comes to choosing someone to baby-sit your children. Why would they be virtues when it comes to thinking about God?

This post is a revised and updated version of one that appeared here in October, 2013.

Blowing Leads


The LA Dodgers, which is the first sports team I supported and cheered for, the baseball team I still follow and get behind, are going through a bad patch just now. They were ahead in a game against Colorado a couple nights ago, and lost. Then the following night, the Rockies earned a walk-off win when one of their players hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning. It gets worse. The Dodgers came home to face the Giants last night, only to lose another lead in the ninth inning and once again lose the game.

These were all winnable contests. LA had the lead. The starting pitchers had put the team in position to win. But the offense stopped scoring runs and left runners on base, and the bull pen didn’t get the job done. In one instance there were two outs and the opposition onslaught started with a walk. In my way of thinking, the manager made some bad decisions, too.

My poor Dodgers.

But in truth, they remind me of America, and before it, Europe. And the Middle East. They remind me of the churches singled out in the book of Revelation. Those all started well, but there was this problem—not necessarily the same one for each. The warning was that they wouldn’t survive if they didn’t take care of their issue: “repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place” (Rev. 2:5b).

As it happens, the seven churches are located in the region we now know as Turkey. Though Christianity took root and flourished in what was then Pontus and Galatia and Cappadocia and Bynithinia, the warning of Revelation proved to be prophetic.

For more than a 1000 years the region was a bastion of Christianity . . . Even as late as 1900, Turkey was still 22% Christian. But by the end of that century the number of Christians had declined to 0.21%. Today Turkey is estimated to be about 97% Muslim.

Scholars have studied this change from one religion to another, but the bottom line is the warning of the angel to the churches: repent or your lamp will go out. Do what you did before.

I’m not one who thinks we should go back to “the good ol’ days,” but I was a coach and I did play sports and I do follow sports. There’s one thing that’s true of all sports teams: their players practice. They don’t practice fancy new trick shots in basketball, or new ways to field a baseball or creative concepts connected with throwing the football. No, actually even at the pro level, they practice the basics, the fundamentals, the right way of doing things, so that in a game they will instinctively do the right thing.

The fundamentals are important. When we’re talking about Christianity, we’re talking about the things those churches in Revelation were warned about. Things like not leaving their first love or being faithful unto death or not tolerating false teachers or holding fast to the truth until Christ comes. And most of all, repent.

How do we hold fast, avoid false teachers, remain faithful? I think it all starts by embracing God’s word and keeping it close. Reading it regularly. Memorizing it. Thinking about it, Talking about it. And mostly, doing it. I don’t know of one other thing that will return us to our first love faster than steeping ourselves in God’s word. Everything we need for life and godliness is there.

Be Holy Because God Is Holy


One of the early surprises I received when I first stepped into the world of the Internet was that not all people who identified themselves as Christians believed what I believed. Oh, I knew there were differences, one denomination to another. I knew there were liberals and there were conservatives. But I thought people who believed the Bible would have a shared understanding, more or less.

I suppose that’s true. The Bible does seem to be a line of demarcation. But apparently so is holiness.

As I’ve shared here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction in a previous discussion about holiness, before I started blogging, I joined a writing discussion board. At one point I brought up the topic of holiness, with the intent of discussing how a writer can show the holiness side of edgy. Instead I got an inordinate amount of discussion about legalism. Legalism!

Color me still surprised. Legalism has as much to do with holiness as prostitution does.

How is it that a Christian can mistake a works theology for holiness?

Judaism is based on works. Keep the law, observe the holy days, offer the sacrifices. Do, do, do.

Hinduism is based on works. Everything is geared toward doing better in order to move up the reincarnation chain into a better life.

Islam is based on works. Much like Judaism, Islamic law is the guide for daily living, and failure has consequences here and in the after life.

Buddhism is based on works. Walking the path of ethical conduct, wisdom, and discipline is the way to freedom from suffering—nirvana.

Christianity on the other hand declares rather boldly, all our works get us nothing. We can’t do enough or be enough. We can’t be the kind of person we should, we can’t think pure enough thoughts or purge our desires of self. In short, we aren‘t holy and we can’t be holy by our human efforts.

Legalism, then, is antithetical to Christianity.

And yet 1 Peter 1:15-16 says,

Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves in all your behavior because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

A couple things stand out to me. In the same way that God is love, He is holy. How have we lost sight of that, I wonder. So often we hear pastors giving as the rationale for a person to love the unlovely, the fact that God is love and we are to be like Him. But where do we hear the sermons about not lying to our kids or not stealing from our employer?

Enough, we say. That borders on works and we are all about grace.

Salvation is by grace, certainly. Except we are to grow up in respect to salvation (see 1 Peter 2:1-5).

Life in Christ is life—it starts with a new birth but does not end there. We are then to grow, and we do so by feeding on the word of God.

Ironically, there are some people who believe holiness is conferred instantaneously upon a Christian and that the sure sign a person is in the family of God is that he no longer sins. I say “ironically” because this belief seems to bring us right back to legalism.

A person can proudly congratulate himself that he has not sinned for years and years, missing the fact that his prideful attitude is in fact a sin.

Such a “holiness” doctrine seems to stifle all chance for growth as completely as someone who thinks all holiness is tantamount to legalism.

The bottom line is that we are commanded to be holy. That’s the second thing that stands out to me in the passage from 1 Peter 1. It’s not just an Old Testament thing that Christians can ignore.

At the same time, reality and Scripture tell us we cannot be holy. Only Christ lived a holy life. So what we who have newness of life are to do is to be imitators of Him, submit to God’s work of remolding us into the image of His Son, feed on the pure milk of the Word. And grow.

This post is an edited version of one that appeared here in April, 2012.

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