Living With Guilt


Convict_Chain_GangThere’s a perception among many that Christians are the most tortured, guilt-ridden people on the planet. After all, our God has all these rules, and He judges everyone and is probably just waiting to zap whoever he catches breaking one of his commandments.

That picture is a sad caricature of what a true Christian is like. Don’t get me wrong. I know there are people in a number of arms of the Church that have the perception that their salvation rests on the works they do. But that’s a misconception of the truth.

In reality, Christians are wonderfully freed from guilt, sin, the law. We freely acknowledge that we’re failures. No matter how we might like to live in obedience to God’s mandates, we admit we can’t—not a hundred percent of the time. We’re supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves, but we become so engrossed in our own lives and projects and comfort and well-being, we sometimes don’t even know who our neighbors are.

We know we’re supposed to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but sometimes it’s just so hard to get out of bed in the morning to have that time reading the Bible and praying that we know will bring us closer to Him. And doesn’t the church already have enough Sunday School teachers?

I could go on about pride and grumbling and judging and greed and gossip and selfishness and hatred in our hearts—you know, the kind Jesus says is as bad as murder. We Christians are a bunch of sinners, like all the rest of the world. But there’s this important distinction. We don’t bear the burden of our sin any longer.

No guilt.

No shame.

No secret desire to sneak into a tiny monastery cell and engage in self-flagellation.

We’re also not boasting about the sins we’re chalking up. We aren’t bragging about getting out of a speeding ticket by lying to the cop or planning how we can cheat the IRS when we file our taxes.

The truth about Christians and sin is this: Jesus Christ paid the debt we owe for all our sins—past, present, and future. The guilt that we were rightly bearing is off our shoulders.

yokeWhat we know now is God’s love and mercy and grace and forgiveness. Out of hearts filled with gratitude, we want to love God better, obey Him more perfectly, follow Him where He takes us. We simply owe Him our lives and we don’t want to let Him out of our sight.

Happily, we don’t have to!

And that’s such great news, we don’t want to keep it to ourselves. We want to let other people know how Jesus will also take the burden of guilt they’re lugging around off their shoulders.

I can hear people now: What guilt? I don’t have any guilt. That only comes from crazy religious people with their lists of do’s and don’ts. That whole sin thing is a religious construct to force people into their churches.

Well, actually, it’s not. First we have these natures in us bent to glorify ourselves instead of glorifying God and serving ourselves instead of serving others. In other words, our bent is to reject God’s authority and to live for ourselves. Some people deal with this by saying God doesn’t exist and we have to learn empathy. But the fact is, we never learn it perfectly. So even if we set aside our rejection of God and just looked at how we treat others, we can see that bent nature in us all.

Most people are quite aware they aren’t perfect. However, they have allowed society to talk them out of recognizing that not-perfect state as sin. It’s kind of like these criminals caught on security cameras in the act of stealing the packages or dog-napping the puppy or passing the note to the bank teller, then standing up in court after they’ve been arrested and pleading not guilty.

Well, of course they’re guilty! What they’re hoping for is to escape punishment by some technicality.

I don’t know if people who say they don’t sin are angling for the same escape or not. But I will say, if they don’t own their guilt now, they will one day.

The ONLY people who are living without guilt are those who have accepted the grace of God poured out on us as His gift through His Son Jesus who took our sins on Himself and paid the penalty we deserved.

Simply put, we’ve been forgiven.

I’ll add that we also have a virulent enemy who tries to make us feel guilty even though we’ve been forgiven. He throws our past in our faces and tries to shame us by our failures. He loves to discourage us so we don’t face each day remembering how accepted and loved we are by God.

We’re in a battle, but not against people who don’t believe like us or against a certain political slant or law. The battle we are waging is “against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12b).

These are the forces that hate God and don’t want us to lift up His name, who want to see us stumbling under guilt we’ve imagined still belongs to us. These forces would love to see us fall into sin and besmirch the name of Christ by which we are known.

Sometimes we fall, but God is the One Who holds our hand. He won’t let us pitch headlong out of His loving care. He’ll bring us back into His arms and carry us if that’s what it takes.

It’s God’s amazing love that drives us forward. Now, instead of hating on God, we want to do His will. We don’t have a list we need to check off because it’s in our heart to pay attention to what pleases Him.

So for the Christian, living with guilt has been changed into living for the delight of pleasing God. The Chris Tomlin song “Amazing Love” says it well:

Amazing love,
How can it be
That You, my King, should die for me?
Amazing love,
I know it’s true.
It’s my joy to honor You,
In all I do, I honor You.

This post is a re-print of one that appeared here in February, 2015.

The Internal Witness Of The Holy Spirit


The Holy Spirit doesn’t get a lot of press. From what I’ve understood, He doesn’t want a lot of press, either. His job is to throw the light of revelation on Jesus Christ. Of course, I can’t tell you where the Holy Spirit ends and Jesus begins, because God is One. We refer to the three persons of the trinity, but They are really a He. So the internal witness of the Holy Spirit is actually the internal witness of God.

But what is an “internal witness?”

When I was a kid I didn’t even know what the Holy Spirit was or if I had anything to do with Him. But the longer I live as a Christian, the more sensitive I become to the Holy Spirit.

I know some people attribute all kinds of wild things to the Holy Spirit—being “slain in the spirit,” “laughing in the spirit,” “being drunk in the spirit,” and the like. I simply don’t see those things in Scripture.

Rather, I see things like the Spirit will guide us in all truth; He will teach and bring to a believer’s memory what Jesus said; He will comfort; He prays on our behalf when we don’t know ourselves how to pray; He speaks through the prophets; He resides with every believer. And more.

The point for this post is this: the Holy Spirit communicates to believers, giving assurance, peace, joy, and the various other gifts we refer to as the gifts of the Spirit. These are inside things. In our heart. In our soul. They are not tangible or physical apart from the actions or the words which they promote.

But they are real.

When I was in college years ago, one of the popular things for Christians to talk about was “practicing the presence” of God. I honestly didn’t get it. I didn’t know or understand what that could possibly mean.

The fact is, the more time you spend with God, the more you can recognize His voice. After college I had a few experiences that were awesome. I felt as loved by God as I could possibly feel. I felt as if I’d sat with Him and enjoyed . . . yep, you guessed it . . . His presence. And definitely, I wanted more.

But that was just it, I wanted the spiritual high more than I actually wanted to be with God. I went through a time when my spiritual life was a bit of a roller coaster—when I felt close to God and then when I felt distant. Finally things leveled out when I realized wanting what God gives instead of wanting God Himself is a twisted kind of relationship.

It’s like a story I recently heard about a bride wanting a perfect wedding. When the day comes she can’t take her eyes off the flowers, the beautiful bridesmaid dresses that came out perfectly, her own beautiful dress, the cake and streamers in the reception hall. It all turned out just as she imagined. “And what about the groom?” someone asks. “The groom?” Maybe he was there, maybe he wasn’t. She couldn’t be sure because she was looking at all the trappings instead.

My point is, wanting to feel the love of God, isn’t the same thing as wanting God.

In some way which I don’t understand, God does make Himself known. It’s between the pages of the Bible, in a still inner voice, in a soul-prick that says to stop, or to speak, or to listen. Sometimes it’s an inner response to a song or to something a friend says or to something in a book. It’s right and true and from God, as surely as if He’d said it out loud. And a few times it even seems as if it’s just Him whispering in my soul. It’s not something low lights and soft music produce, though sometimes the words to a song can be the words He says.

I’ve finally decided that God, the Holy Spirit, is simply doing what He wants to do most: He’s witnessing in my inner being to who Jesus is. That’s actually what the Bible says:

If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for the testimony of God is this, that He has testified concerning His Son. The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son. And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. (1 John 5:9-12; emphasis mine)

Jesus told the Pharisees this same thing—that there were those that witnessed of Him, that He is the Christ, the Son of God, One with the Father. In the Jewish culture, a single witness to anything was not adequate. They needed two or three witnesses. Jesus gave four.

First was John the Baptist who identified Jesus as Messiah. Then there were the works that Jesus did—healing the lame and such, as He’d just done right before that conversation. A third witness is Scripture—the prophets spoke of Jesus, and so did the Mosaic Law. Before Jesus mentioned the Scriptures, He listed God’s own testimony. The Father did declare Jesus as His Son at Jesus’s baptism. But the Holy Spirit did as well, alighting on Him in the form of a dove. And then we read in John’s letter that line that we who believe in God have His testimony within us.

It’s strong and irrefutable, but also not easy to explain.

Pascal, I think, said we have a God-shaped vacuum in our hearts. Well, the Holy Spirit fills it.

Published in: on February 18, 2019 at 5:57 pm  Comments (3)  
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What’s The Take-Home


Writers of non-fiction generally are advised to answer the question, What’s the take-home value of your article or book? Behind this question is the belief that readers come to non-fiction to gain something—knowledge, insight, inspiration, instruction.

The fact is, the question fits Western culture. Generally speaking, we are a people asking, What’s in it for me? What can I get out of it?

Interestingly, John F. Kennedy moved a generation when he turned the question on its head: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” That may have been the last time any leader has challenged those of us in western society to altruistic behavior.

Most appeals come with a list of benefits: do this because you will gain x, y, and z.

No wonder, then, that this mindset has spilled into the Church. Come to Jesus, the appeal goes, and receive health and wealth. Or come to Jesus and your marital problems will be answered or your addictions will vanish or your fears will dissolve.

The truth is, God is a benefit-giving God. Throughout the Bible, He laid down choices—do this and you’ll be blessed, but do that and you’ll suffer the consequences of your sin.

The problem is, too many of us are missing the grand prize for coming to Jesus: Jesus. We’re like the man in the parable who found a treasure, then went and sold all he had so he could buy the field where it was hidden.

Except, once we have the field, instead of claiming the treasure, we’re busy collecting rocks. The rocks might be good and helpful, but they aren’t the treasure. They aren’t the reason we took up our cross.

Obeying Jesus and following Him does so often bring peace and joy; His ways are right and good. But those aren’t the Christian’s “take-home.” Jesus is. Peter, in a line that reminds me of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, said

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. (1 Peter 3:13-14a – emphasis mine)

Hundreds of years earlier, Daniel’s three friends were faced with death if they didn’t worship an idol. They responded by saying

“If it be so [that we are sentenced to die], our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Dan. 3:17-18; emphasis mine)

He will, He is able, but even if He doesn’t, He’s still God. And in they went, only to find Jesus, the pre-incarnate Christ, there in the furnace with them. Their reward wasn’t status or protection or even deliverance from the furnace, though they eventually had those things too. But while they did not have them, they still had their relationship with God.

He is the treasure. Worshiping Him, enjoying fellowship with Him, walking with Him day by day—those are the delights that are ours no matter what our circumstances.

Paul said the same thing (in more words) in Colossians:

attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself (2:2b).

Christ Himself—the treasure, the reward, the take-home value of the Christian life.

This article is an edited version of one that first appeared here in September, 2012.

Published in: on August 27, 2018 at 5:26 pm  Comments Off on What’s The Take-Home  
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Who Is the Christian to Love?


A few years ago I had the embarrassing experience of getting kicked off someone’s blog. The irony was, I was trying to make the case that a Christian is to behave the way Christ called us to behave.

Sadly this was not my first experience of getting kicked off a blog for trying to convince the proprietor it was wrong to malign others. My error was to react by speaking the truth without love.

And yet the main thrust of my argument became this: God’s guiding principle for our relationships is love.

Yep, I who wanted to be faithful to Scripture did not follow Scripture in defending it.

I hope I don’t have to get kicked off any more blogs or withstand rancorous name-calling mockery before this lesson stays home.

Who is the Christian to love?

I’ll answer with another question. Who did Christ love?

  • “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son …” (Jn 3:16a)
  • “Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end (Jn 13:1).
  • “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Jn 13:34-35).
  • “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him” (Jn 14:21).
  • “but so that the world may know that I love the Father, I do exactly as the Father commanded Me” (Jn14:31a).
  • “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love” (Jn 15:9)
  • “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:12-13).

If I did the same kind of study in the other gospels, I’d find Jesus’s instructions about loving our neighbor and loving our enemies, even those who persecute and mistreat us. I’d find stories that illustrate loving the lost, the wayward, the prodigal. I’d find Jesus’s own example of forgiving those who crucified Him.

Some people point to Jesus’s harsh words to the Pharisees as evidence that we are therefore allowed to speak harshly to false teachers. However, Jesus was concerned about the Pharisees’ spiritual state. He never spoke harshly to them because he didn’t like the color of their robes. He didn’t speak harshly to them because they had leprosy or were short or gave taxes to Caesar.

He reserved His wrathful actions and statements for their open disobedience to the Law (buying and selling in the temple), their blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Jesus cast out demons by Satan’s power), and their hypocrisy (coming to be baptized without “bear[ing] fruit in keeping with repentance”).

I’m sure that’s not an exhaustive list, but here’s the point. Jesus was bold in calling sin, sin when it came to the people who thought they were without sin. But He lived a life of servanthood.

He gave the time of day to people who were pushed aside and disrespected by most of society. He also sought out the rich and powerful whose hearts were hungry for the Bread of Life. He wasn’t a respecter of persons.

He didn’t hesitate to tell Peter off when he was blowing it (Get behind me, Satan), but He didn’t stop loving him, didn’t stop serving him.

Who, then, is the Christian to love? I’m pretty convinced I’m to love whoever God brings across my path—in my physical world and in cyberspace. In real life the consensus seems to be that it is harder to love those we know best. In cyberspace it might be harder to love those faceless strangers with whom we disagree.

This post is an updated version of one that appeared here in August, 2010.

Published in: on August 7, 2018 at 5:23 pm  Comments Off on Who Is the Christian to Love?  
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Faith In Christ Is Falsifiable


“Falsifiable” seems to be a scientific argumentation tool to sort out what is or isn’t true, what does or doesn’t exist. One definition states it this way:

Unfalsifiability (also known as: untestability) Description: Confidently asserting that a theory or hypothesis is true or false even though the theory or hypothesis cannot possibly be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of any physical experiment, usually without strong evidence or good reasons.

The way it works is like this:

A statement, hypothesis, or theory has falsifiability (or is said to be falsifiable) if one can conceive an empirical observation or experiment which could refute it, that is, show it to be false. For example, the claim “all swans are white” is falsifiable since it could be refuted by observing a single swan that is not white. (Wikipedia)

I’ve encountered a number of atheists who use this tool against Christian arguments in support of the existence of God. In truth, the supernatural does not pretend to be “scientific,” so it ought not be held to the standard of scientific investigation, but that fact seems to escape those who pull the “falsifiable” card every now and them.

However, it dawned on me the other day that falsifiability can serve Christianity as much as it can the atheist position.

The first thing I noted was that this claim of Scripture—the wages of sin is death—is clearly falsifiable. If someone could be identified as without sin who also did not die, then the Biblical principle would be proved to be false. But the opposite is true. While the statement is falsifiable, all people sin and all people die.

So Christianity is true in its assessment of humankind’s problem.

In addition, we know that Christ’s resurrection was falsifiable: all anyone every, at any point in history, had to do to disprove the resurrection was to reveal a body or a tomb containing a body. Since that never happened, the truth of Christ’s resurrection must be affirmed.

In a quirky sort of reversal, falsifiability can also prove what saving faith looks like, I think.

Any number of current atheists claim that they were once Christians. But the claim of Christianity is that saving faith continues:

yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel (Col. 1:22-23a)

That statement would be false if one example of a person who continued in the hope of the gospel and was not saved, could be found.

Of course who does or doesn’t have saving faith isn’t for us to determine, so maybe the idea breaks down there, but it seems to me that the possibility exists and yet has no evidence to support it, which should prove the statement to be true: only those who continue in the faith are saved.

Of course there’s always the question about the prodigal. Since Jesus told the story of the son leaving his father, making a royal hash of his life, coming to his senses and returning home with the intention of taking a servant’s position, only to be met by his father and treated like the son he was—since Jesus told that story, it seems pretty clear that prodigals are real, and welcome.

Since Jesus also told the thief dying on the cross beside Him that the man would be with Him in paradise, the idea of “continuing” doesn’t seem to include any kind of time limit, like, you need to be at this for at least XXX number of days or years.

If fact, Jesus told a story about that too. An employer went out to hire day laborers, came back at various times, including the last hour of work. When he paid them, he gave all the same amount, the last as much as the first.

I have to admit, that used to bug me. I mean I was raised with the good old capitalist mindset that you got paid for your work. But God’s ways are higher than our ways. As it turns out, He’s not grading on our efforts. Rather, we who come to the cross of Christ, be it early or late, can claim reconciliation with God through His blood and our faith in what He’s done, not through our efforts.

If a person has that faith, he or she has that faith. It’s not a “I used to, but now I don’t” proposition. How could it be? God either accepted Christ’s sacrifice for sin, or He didn’t. We either believe the sacrifice paid for our sins, or we don’t.

The question is, I guess, can you change your mind? Well, that’s not falsifiable. Did you have saving faith and then give it up? There’s simply no evidence to verify that claim.

Published in: on May 17, 2018 at 6:20 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Difference Between Being Religious And Being Christian


On my way home from church yesterday, I decided to stop for gas. I didn’t want to, but given that the station near my church is cheaper than just about anywhere and that I likely couldn’t go the whole week without gas, I though the responsible thing would be to fill the tank.

The problem was, when I got out to pump the gas, I locked my car, with my keys inside. And my cell phone. And my AAA card. Now that last is very significant. I hate to admit it, but I’ve had some experience locking my keys in my car before, and boy, AAA is invaluable, and the third-party service person they send is quick and efficient.

But you need to call the AAA Roadside Service representative first.

I wasn’t too worried; just annoyed with myself for doing such a dumb thing. I mean, I was at a gas station, in broad daylight. My car, sadly, was blocking one of their pumps, but I thought that would encourage the attendant to help me so I’d free up the area.

This, that, and the other happened—I won’t bore you with the particulars. The short of it is, we couldn’t find the number for AAA. It’s printed right there on the card, but remember, mine was locked in the car with my keys. And cell phone. Finally I started asking customers in the little mini-mart, and then those getting gas, if they had a AAA card. I just needed the number!

One older guy said he didn’t have one but he could ask his friend Anne. He pulled out his cell phone, so I thought he was going to put the request to the computer. No, he actually called someone. Said he needed her to stop what she was doing and get the number. She did, he wrote it down, programmed his phone, then let me use it to talk to the person I needed to. In less than half an hour, a service guy showed up and had my car open in under a minute.

Meanwhile, I had a chance to talk with the stranger who had lent me his phone. While we were still trying to hunt for the number to AAA, he said some very disparaging remarks about people of other ethnicities.

You need to know, I live in a multiracial area of interlocking communities. When I gave the AAA person my info, I wasn’t even sure what city I was in. All that to say, on any given day, you might interact with people from three or four different ethnicities who live in various nearby pockets dominated by Koreans, Tai, Hispanics, Chinese, Vietnamese, and more. So some of the people I asked if they owned a AAA card, didn’t speak English. No big deal and no surprise. They kindly allowed me to ask my question to one of their party sitting in the back seat of the car who did speak English.

But the man who was contacting Anne had nothing good to say about anyone from another race, and he had some really bad things to say. Imagine my horror when he said something about going to church! Really! I thought I was going to be sick.

And then, as the conversation continued, it came out that he belonged to the Christian Scientists. He went to his car and brought back some literature (like a used Sunday school quarterly for those of you who have been around long enough to know what those are) he wanted to give me. It had his writing in the blanks and I didn’t know what might be there. I declined as politely as I could. But he went on to tell me about the founder, Mary Baker Eddy, who really wanted a religion of love, so she started Christian Science and it was all about being good.

Two things that initially seem incongruous. First this man said some really nasty things about other people groups. The entire group of people several times, and then about an individual in a different people group at another time.

Second, he was kind to me. He even waited in his parked car until the service person was about to drive up. He came over to where I was waiting to say that AAA had called (since I had done so from his phone, he got the message) to confirm that the service guy was just moments away. The man left before I even thought to say more than thank you.

Why, I wondered? How could he be so awful and yet so kind?

And then it hit me. Religions that teach you are to be good, actually accomplish that. The man did a good deed, and I suspect he did it thinking this was his religious duty. But he didn’t have Christ who transforms lives and changes people.

I couldn’t help but compare his religion with what my pastor taught just that morning—all about community and how all are welcome at Christ’s table because Jesus came for the sick, not the well. The people who think they’re well, didn’t want to come to Him. But all who knew they were broken and in need, came gladly.

The question the Pharisees asked the disciples was, “Why does your Master eat with sinners?” They wanted religion to be an exclusive, us-not-them club. They wanted to use their religion to feel superior, to divide, to put others down.

Jesus does just the opposite. He invites the Matthews and the Nicodemuses and the women caught in adultery and the ones too ashamed to go to the well with the “good” women. He wants them to come and follow Him so that he can heal their brokenness. He wants to give them new life, living water, the bread of heaven. He wants to bring transformation to their lives.

Being religious might mean that a person does good things once in a while. Being a Christian means a person has begun the transforming process to become like Jesus Christ.

Published in: on March 12, 2018 at 5:00 pm  Comments (6)  
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Becoming A Christian—What About The Repentance Part?


In my post yesterday I defined a Christian as someone who believes and continues to believe. But believes in what?

The Bible is quite clear. A Christian believes in three separate things. First he recognizes that he is a sinner and that his sin is the problem. His sin keeps him from God. Second he recognizes that the penalty for his sin is death—the physical death we all will experience, but also a spiritual death brought about by God’s judgment. Third, he recognizes that God took the initiative and sent His Son to die in our place, to bear our sins, and to attribute His righteousness to us.

In short, we admit our condition—we are essentially dead men walking. We acknowledge that Jesus did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves—namely that we couldn’t remedy our own condition, so He did it for us.

But what about repentance?

The first part of becoming a Christian is recognizing that sin is the problem. That no matter what we might desire, we simply can’t and don’t love as we should. We don’t love God as we should, we don’t love our friends and family as we should, we don’t love our neighbors as we should, and we certainly don’t love our enemies as we should.

We can do all kinds of things to get rid of sin. We can study self-help books, go to 12-step programs, see a counselor, attend church or even confession, and in some cultures still, perform sacrifices. No matter. Our sin remains.

But even if we do learn a thing or two, if we change our habits and patterns of behavior, if we “clean up our act,” we’re still guilty for what we have done in the past. We face the consequences and we face the penalty.

Unless we accept what Jesus did for us, paying our debt when He went to the cross.

So does that mean we’re then free to return to our sinful ways? Paul says in Romans, may it never be.

The thing about confronting the sin in our life is that we do more than acknowledge it—yep, that’s me, I’m a liar. I’ll just buy into the forgiveness thing and then I can keep on lying.

Or yep, that’s me, an angry person who lashes out at anyone who ticks me off. But I’ll buy into the forgiveness thing and then I can continue allowing my anger full rein.

No, no, no. That kind of admission of sin is more nearly condoning of sin. The only way sin can be properly dealt with is with repentance—a full recognition that the sin is short of God’s mark and deserving of His judgment. And the only way that this kind of repentance is actual, verifiable, real, is if there’s also a turning from that sin.

This discussion reminds me of a conversation that aired on the radio last week. Pastor Greg Laurie was interviewing Bart Millard, lead singer of MercyMe about the upcoming movie entitled I Can Only Imagine, and the book by the same name.

Both tell the true story behind the song “I Can Only Imagine,” which Bart wrote and which became a big crossover hit. As it happens, Bart’s dad was abusive, both physically and emotionally. To top things off, his mom left, but didn’t take Bart with her. He described his dad during that time as a monster.

And then He found Christ. His whole life changed.

Bart described his last years as his dad being the man Bart would like to be.

That’s more than repentance, however, that’s believing in the power of God to change a life. But repentance is certainly part of the equation. Bart’s dad was not thinking, OK, I’m saved now so it doesn’t matter how I treat people. Quite the opposite.

Paul says in Romans that we now walk “in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” It’s the difference between having to do something and wanting to do it. Instead of plodding along in our failure and guilt and shame, we can confess and forsake, with God providing the power through His Spirit to not only become new creatures in Christ but to live as new creatures.

Does such a transformation happen over night? Sometimes, but not usually. Romans 7 gives a good picture of the struggle between our new spiritual nature and the sin that controls our flesh: “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.”

The great thing is that the end of chapter 7, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” leads to the beginning of chapter 8: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Repentance, then, is actually the means to and the proof of our new relationship with God. Paul explains: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”

This dying to sin occurs as we identify with Christ: “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.”

Do you think I understood any of that when I became a Christian? Not at all. But I’ve come to understand more and more. I hear stories such as the transformation of Bart’s dad, and I know in a new way that what the Bible says is true.

Christ saves us from the penalty of sin and starts us on the process of living free from sin.

Define Your Terms


I ran across another atheist the other day who apparently is “an ex-Christian.” In another discussion months ago, a different individual told me she had once been “just as you are now.”

Well, how in the world would she know what kind of a spiritual life I have? Did she think that all Christians have exactly the same walk with the Lord? Or was she under the impression that because she did Christian things, that made her a Christian?

It’s hard to know what any of these individuals who no longer claim the name of Christ once thought. They certainly believed at the time that they were Christians. But why did they?

Some people think they’re Christians because they go to church. Once when I was on jury duty, I met a woman who asked me about that when I identified myself as a Christian. Her daughters had asked her, and she didn’t know how to answer. They were under the impression that they were Christians because they were Americans, but they weren’t sure if they needed to go to church in order to be counted as Christians.

Some people think they become Christians by praying a prayer or by being baptized or by taking a class and learning answers to questions about God and the Bible. None of that is undesirable. In fact all those things are good and helpful, but they don’t make a person a Christian.

Becoming a Christian is quite easy, but it’s more than saying magic words or doing a list of right things, or even giving all the right answers to specific questions.

I know former students who raised their hands pretty much every year their teacher at the Christian school where I taught, asked them if they wanted to accept Jesus as their Savior. They got A’s on memory verse tests, attended good Bible-teaching churches, and today want nothing to do with God.

So what makes a person a Christian? Not a temporary assent that I’m a sinner, that I want “Jesus in my heart.” Not memorizing Bible verses, going to church, helping in homeless shelters, giving gifts to needy children, taking communion, being baptized.

Those things can all be true about a Christian, but they don’t make a person a Christian. I’d say, it’s actually pretty easy to mimic someone who is a Christian. After all, if you go to a Christian school and you go to church, the friends you make may all do those same things. Why wouldn’t you do them too? It’s part of kids wanting to fit in. If all your friends are raising their hands, you want to raise your hand, too.

Adults do the same thing. A bunch of people jump to their feet clapping at the end of a concert, and pretty soon more and more people join them. Maybe everyone, though there could be a few who don’t think the performance deserved a standing ovation. Still, they join the crowd rather than being the lone hold out who stays seated.

But that’s beside the point.

The question is, if none of those things I’ve mentioned, make a person a Christian, then what does?

When I was a kid, I was under the impression that Christians didn’t sin. But I sinned. Which was why I went for so long questioning whether or not I was a Christian.

Finally I decided to take God at His word. He said, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). So if I confessed with my mouth, and I had, if I believed in my heart, and I did, then I was just going to assume God meant what He said—I was in fact saved, whether I “felt like it” or not.

So then I tried to figure out when I became a Christian. Was it the first time I asked Him into my heart? The time I went forward in a church service? When I realized on my own what John 3:18 really meant? (“He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”)

Much later, as an adult, I can look back and see how God worked in my life all those growing up years, even when I was struggling and doubting and unsure. I’ve concluded that I became a Christian when I first asked Jesus into my heart, though I didn’t really understand much about what that meant. As I gained more understanding, however, I continued to believe.

It’s continuing to believe that makes a person a Christian.

And lo and behold, that’s precisely what the Bible says. Hebrews 3:14 says it clearly: “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.”

The Apostle John used the word “abide” which simply means “stay”: “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 1:9; emphasis mine).

The writer to the Hebrews again: “but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house—whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end.” (Hebrews 3;6; emphasis mine).

Then there is Matthew’s clear statement: ““But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).

I could go on. There are many more verses about abiding, holding fast, persevering until the end, than I ever realized.

So who is a Christian? One who believes and keeps on believing.

The pretenders, who said they believed, obviously didn’t believe at the level that you could call abiding, or holding fast, or persevering.

All this reminds me of the parable of the sower and the seed that started to grow and then got choked out by thorns. Were those beginnings of a plant ever “Christians”? Not by the definition that the Bible gives.

Published in: on February 28, 2018 at 6:18 pm  Comments (6)  
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Christian Fiction Must Be . . . You Know, Christian; Or, The Shack Is Back


This past week, I saw the TV add for the upcoming The Shack movie. I’d seen the trailer some time ago, but was dismayed that the promotion was reaching a TV audience. And in LA. We don’t often hear about “Christian” projects here.

There’s no doubt that The Shack positions itself as Christian. After all, Jesus shows up, albeit in imaginary form. But is it Christian?

What constitutes “Christian fiction”? That’s a question we at Spec Faith have answered and revisited since our inception some ten years ago (see for example this early post by one of the founding members of Spec Faith).

Not only have writers and readers debated what constitutes Christian fiction, and particularly Christian speculative fiction, we’ve debated the rightness of and the need for good doctrine in our fiction (see for example “Reading Choices: Realism, Truth, And The Bible“). “Doctrine” encompasses both theology and beliefs concerning morality, and we’ve discussed those too (see for example “Marcher Lord Press and the Hinterlands Imprint“).

On top of these generalized discussions, we’ve also posted articles and comments specifically about The Shack. But that was eight years ago, when the book was still on the top of best-selling lists and Christians and non-Christians alike were passing it around from one person to another and discussing it over coffee.

Now the movie version of Paul Young’s book is about to come to a theater near you, and the question no one could answer back then is bound to resurface: Is The Shack truly Christian?

There are some specific issues that came under scrutiny concerning the book.

Some people stumbled over the most glaring issue right from the gate. I mean, isn’t it blasphemous to depict God the Father as anything but a Father?

I understand how portraying God as other than how He portrays Himself, can be troublesome. At the same time, I can see how others accept “God’s” explanation: that He needed to reveal Himself to the main character in a way he could receive Him.

That being said, I suggest one of the central problems of the story surfaces within the discussion of this rather peripheral issue. The Shack has little use for the Bible. Hence, God the Father is easily replaced by the needs of the character.

There are other major issues—the attitude toward the Church and universal salvation and an understanding of the Trinity.

Yet more than one Christian has reported how life changing The Shack was for them, how they wept as they read it, how they understood God’s forgiveness in a way they never had before.

So . . . is it Christian?

Can it be Christian if it shows God in ways He does not show Himself? If it does not point people to His word or His body, the Church? If it falsely claims universal salvation?

On the other hand, how can it not be Christian if it gave many believers renewed faith and deeper love for God and a deeper understanding of forgiveness?

On one hand, The Shack may not tick all the intellectual, theological boxes, but on the other, it more than makes up for that lack by the emotional, spiritual juice it provides.

In thinking about the “what makes something Christian” question, I have to look at the object itself, not the results that may come from it.

The Apostle Paul did just the opposite when he was imprisoned in Philippi and a bunch of so-called Christian brethren started preaching. Paul identified their motives as envy and strife and selfish ambition (Phil. 1:15, 17), but he basically said, so what? As long as they preached Christ, who cared that they had bad motives?

the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. (vv 17-18a)

Paul was only concerned with the bottom line: the result. These “brethren,” false or true, were telling people about Jesus.

So, isn’t that the best test? Shouldn’t we be applauding The Shack, if the movie is successful, because it is bringing people to Christ?

I said above that I have to look at the object itself, because my question is, Is The Shack truly Christian? Lots of things can bring people to Christ. War has been known to do so. A friend of mine came to Christ by reading a novel. Others look at the heavens and know they need to find the One who made them. After 9/11, here in the US any number of people turned to God in the midst of their fear and uncertainty.

Would we say war is “Christian” because some soldiers reported coming to Christ when faced with their own mortality? No, certainly not. God can and does use whatever means He wishes, but His use of the thing does not baptize it as emblematic of His Good News.

So I reject the idea that The Shack must be Christian because people report a deeper relationship with God after having read it.

When Paul talked about those so-called brethren in Philippi, he gave no indication that they were preaching anything but what was true about Christ. Elsewhere, however, he addressed those who were not preaching the truth.

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds. (2 Cor. 11:13-15)

In writing to the Galatians he also brought up the matter:

But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. (Gal 2:4)

Clearly, Paul was not hesitant to call out those who were not preaching the gospel but who were masquerading as if they were fellow believers. The same is true throughout the Bible about false teachers and false prophets. Jesus Himself made some of the strongest statements about “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” about false prophets misleading many, even about false Christs.

So determining who is and who isn’t a Christian, what is and what isn’t true Christian teaching, seems like an important aptitude.

Yet I know people will hold back for fear of judging. We aren’t supposed to judge each other, are we?

We’re not.

But that doesn’t mean we’re to put our brains on hold, either. We can still think. We can still look at the story on the screen and compare it with what the Bible says. Which is, after all, the unchanging, authoritative Truth by which we know what “Christian” means.

This article is a re-post of the one I published today at Speculative Faith.

Published in: on February 20, 2017 at 5:45 pm  Comments (11)  
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The Difference Between Religious People And Christians


horse_and_carriageThis is not rocket science. In fact, I’ve written about the difference between people of other religions and Christians on other occasions, but I’ve generally left the door open when someone professes to be a Christian. I mean, I can’t look into their hearts. I don’t know what their relationship with God is. If they say they have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, then who am I to say they haven’t been?

Some time ago on the radio broadcast Truth for Life, Pastor Alistair Begg gave the clearest, simplest way of identifying the difference between religious people and Christians.

Someone who is religious believes and obeys in order to be accepted by God. A Christian, on the other hand, believes in order to be accepted by God, and obeys as a result. Put in slightly different terms, a religious person works to be justified with God, whereas a Christian works because he is justified with God.

The differences seem small and even hard to tell apart, but the two positions actually are diametrically opposed to one another. It’s the cart before the horse idea. One man has a cart and a horse, the other man has a horse and a cart. What’s the difference? Everything. The first man goes nowhere. The second has a wonderful conveyance that takes him wherever he wishes to go.

So too the religious person is stuck with his own inadequate efforts trying to make himself acceptable to God. It will never happen, in the same way that a cart will never pull a horse. The Christian, on the other hand, confessing his inability to measure up to God’s standard, and accepting the completed, redemptive work of Jesus Christ, receives a full measure of God’s grace and is accepted by the Father. As a result, he obeys God in the strength and through the power of that grace.

So who’s a Christian? Not the person who believes his work is in any way meritorious in bringing reconciliation between him and God. It really is that simple.