Talking To Atheists


“Black holes are cosmic objects that harbour a gravitational field so powerful that nothing, not even light or radiation can escape.”

Atheists and Christians look at life and the world from diametrically opposed views, so having a conversation between those who hold to those divergent opinions is not easy. On one hand, atheists, believing only in scientifically verifiable substance, are convinced that God does not exist. Some even question the historicity of Jesus. These fundamental positions lead them to dismiss the Bible as more myth than an accurate historical source.

In contrast, Christians know that God and an entire supernatural realm beyond the scope of science, exist. This fundamental position leads us to accept the Bible not only as accurate but authoritative since the words and thoughts are God’s, written by humans through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Most of that last paragraph would be nearly unintelligible to atheists. After all, from their perspective there is no God, therefore no Holy Spirit, no inspiration, leaving the Bible to be a book of made-up stories and rules.

Generally conversation between those holding the two opposing positions means one side creates a “convincing” argument dismantling the position of the other, only to have the reverse occur during rebuttal.

So does that mean there is no way the two can discuss the big issues of life? There certainly is a barrier. From my perspective as a Christian, I feel as if I’m trying to convince someone who is colorblind that the sky is blue. It’s an obvious fact to me, but he has no knowledge of blue and therefore considers everything I say to be nonsense.

From his perspective I imagine he has what seems to be the most obvious, basic, clear, tangible standards by which reality can be determined, but Christians claim truth on the basis of those standards plus something intangible, unclear, obscure, and convoluted.

If I’m right, both sides shake their heads at the other and say, how can they be so ignorant?

In reality, I as a Christian would like to learn to talk to atheists, but to do that means bridging this worldview divide. Oh, sure, we can talk at each other—I can quote Scripture, which they don’t believe, and they can quote “Bible scholars” who don’t believe the Bible. I can throw out names of Christian scientists and they can list three times as many atheist scientists. I can present archeological data supportive of the Bible, and they can point to detail after detail in the Bible for which no historical evidence exists. I can discuss cosmology and the need for an intelligent designer to explain intelligent complexity, and they can discuss evolution and the natural development of all life.

The point is, we aren’t actually talking to one another. Rather, I’d like to find out, beyond theory, why atheists believe as they do.

Some, of course, believe they have come to the only rational, intelligent conclusion possible, but that presupposes that the human mind can know all that is or is not in the vast cosmos, including the multiverse and the possible different dimensions, should string theory prove to be true.

Ah, but there lies the problem. We humans don’t know if string theory is true. We don’t know if there are other dimensions. And if there are? Why would those dimensions have to be like ours? Might not there be a spiritual dimension filled with the supernatural?

Humankind is still looking for evidence of life in space though we don’t know for sure if it exists or if it will be intelligent should it exist. Despite that uncertainty, atheists are certain God is not there. Life maybe; God absolutely not.

All the above to point out that claims to “the only rational, intelligent conclusion possible” are hardly sufficient to answer the question why someone is an atheist.

On the other hand, if someone asks a Christian why they believe as they do, I think the answer might also be categorical—something along the lines of, I’m convinced Jesus is who He said He is: Son of God, Savior, Lord.

And where’s the evidence, atheists will answer.

Where indeed? Within the pages of the Bible the atheist doesn’t believe in; by the witness of the Holy Spirit living in each Christian, which the atheist doesn’t believe in; through the power of a changed life which the atheist has no way to measure or to ascribe cause.

It seems we’ve returned to the impasse. But I keep coming back to the question why the atheist can’t accept what he can’t see for himself—at least when it comes to God. He can’t see gravity, but believes in it; can’t see black holes, but (most) would agree they exist.

When it comes to God, however, inferring His existence from the effect He has on life (which is how we know about gravity and black holes) is insufficient evidence. So “a cosmic accident” is a better explanation for the existence of life than is an intelligent designer.

Why?

Maybe if I understood that, I’d understand atheists better.

This article is a re-post of one that first appeared here in October 2014.

Faith Vs. Wishful Thinking


Sometimes I feel like I’m beating a dead horse, but when an atheist friend tells me in a comment, as happened a few days ago, that he understands faith better than I do, I need to set the record straight.

How can someone who says he has no faith understand faith better than someone who claims to live by faith?

When I first joined the atheist/theist Facebook group I’ve mentioned from time to time, our first discussion was about the definition of faith. It was then that I learned, when atheists say “faith” they mean what Christians refer to as “blind faith,” which is nothing more than wishful thinking. I wish I didn’t have to go to work—maybe tomorrow will be some holiday I didn’t know about, or a snow day, or (here in SoCal) a fire day. (I seriously doubt if anyone ever wishes for that!)

Yesderday I saw the clash between meanings arise again, this time on a video of John Lennox debating Richard Dawkins. The two men each saw faith as different entities: Dawkins as little more than wishful thinking and Lennox as a reasoned position that is trustworthy.

The two meanings can’t get further apart, I don’t think.

I know the difference. As I’ve recounted before, when I was a child, I prayed for a bicycle. That was actually wishful thinking. I wanted a bike and asked God for one. I had no reason to ask Him. I had no idea if He wanted me to have a bike. Though I thought He had the power to give me a bike, I didn’t know if He would give me a bike. I wanted one, and that’s all that mattered.

But that’s not faith.

Faith is actually a reasoned position that is reliable and can be trusted.

Atheists have faith just as much as Christians do, though I have no doubt they will deny it. The point is, they have a reasoned position that they find reliable and trustworthy. They arrive at their position by believing the various scientists and the conclusions they reach, without considering other disciplines.

Christians don’t all have the same reasonings. Some look to the Bible, some to what a church leader or parent has taught, some to their own personal experience, some to the natural world, some to philosophy, and some to a mixture of all these. Maybe more. The bottom line, however, is that Christians have some reason they find belief in God and His Son Jesus to be reliable and trustworthy.

There is no wishful thinking involved in Christianity. Unless in error, like my prayer for a bike. Which explains why a lot of people claim they were Christians but no longer are. They had no reasoned position that they found to be reliable and trustworthy. They did what they thought was expected of them or what they hoped would bring them something—acceptance, maybe, or peace and happiness. But it was never a reasoned position they found reliable and trustworthy.

Christians aren’t fervently wishing heaven was a true place. On the contrary, we have reason to believe Heaven exists and is in our future. Christians aren’t desperately wishing for a Savior. Rather, we have reasons to believe we have a Savior, One who is reliable and trustworthy.

In fact, however a Christian reaches the conclusion that Jesus is reliable and trustworthy, we discover, as we walk with Him day in and day out, that He gives us more and more reasons to count Him worthy of our trust. Not because He heals our cancer or that of our loved ones. Because Christians die of cancer. Not because He spares us from suffering and persecution or abuse. Christians get tortured, beheaded, persecuted today even as they were in the first century.

So what’s reliable and trustworthy about a God that won’t stop all the bad things from happening?

First and foremost is His promise that He will go with us in the midst of all the trouble. God said through Isaiah: “Though you pass through the river, I will be with you.” And even more convincingly, Jesus came and lived right here with us. Truly, He did what He said: I will be with you.

Then, when Jesus left, He sent the Holy Spirit who not only lives with us but in us. Think about it. The people of God’s choosing, the descendants of Abraham, had God in their midst as they traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land in the form of a pillar of cloud and of fire. Then He showed His glory in the tabernacle and eventually in the temple. He sent prophets to relay His words, to demonstrate that, yes, He was still faithful, even though some didn’t believe.

Christians don’t have God in a temple made with hands. Or a church building. We don’t have God walking beside us or making an occasional appearance. We have Him with us every second of every day. We are the temple.

We are the living stones. Sure, we can ignore Him or we can rely on Him. We can go our own way or go His way. But the presence of the Holy Spirit is a powerful evidence of our relationship with God, our trustworthy and reliable position upon which our faith rests.

I certainly don’t “wish” I had the Holy Spirit. To be honest, His conviction can be decidedly uncomfortable. But having the Holy Spirit also means I have access to His gifts and His fruit and His intercession in prayer and His guidance and more. I don’t pretend to understand all about the Holy Spirit, or the Triune God, for that matter, but I do know believing Him, counting Him trustworthy and reliable, is nothing like wishful thinking.

But I don’t know if people who rely on something else can see the difference.

Published in: on October 29, 2019 at 5:49 pm  Comments (17)  
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By Grace Alone, Through Faith Alone


A significant anniversary for Christians is approaching. On October 31, five hundred and two years ago, the grace of God once again took its rightful, prominent place in Christianity. Consequently, I’m re-posting this article from three years ago, with revisions, in commemoration of what God has done.

Part of my growing up included a spiritual education, so I learned early on that I was a sinner in need of a Savior. I understood that I could not do enough good things to make up for the bad. And I understood that no one could help me because they had their own sin problem. No one, except Jesus. His being the only sinless person who ever lived, qualified Him to be the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world for those who believed.

So nothing I did or could do would merit me to be acceptable to God. Only Jesus, standing in my place, taking the punishment I deserved, solved my sin issue.

Because I understood the basics of salvation at an early age, I have never grasped what it would be like to live any other way.

I’ve heard Jews and Catholics and Greek Orthodox joke in a knowing way about the guilt instilled in them by their religion, or more specifically, by someone who was holding them to a strict adherence to their religion—a parent, a priest, a teacher. I’ve also heard people refer to Christians as bound by guilt.

That thought seems odd to me. I don’t recall a time in my life when I’ve felt guilt-driven.

So I’ve been spoiled because I’ve believed from my youth that I’m forgiven because of God’s grace.

Christians haven’t always had this understanding. There was a period of time when grace took a back seat to doing good works, as the Church defined them. No doubt some people who were saved, gained that right standing with God because of His grace, but they were perhaps less aware of His free gift.

All that changed when Martin Luther went public with the results of his own doubts, questions, and struggles to understand God. On October 31, 1517, Luther sent a paper he’d written to his bishop: “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” This document became known simply as the Ninety-five Theses. Whether Luther ever attached a copy of the document to the door of the church at Wittenberg is a matter of contention, as was the document itself, when it first appeared.

But from the thoughts, question, and issues Luther looked at, grew the bedrock of Protestantism and a reformation (though more slowly, it would seem) of the Catholic Church, which is what he intended. Luther challenged the practice of selling indulgences, by which the priests grew richer because of the desire of the poor to do what they could to insure the salvation of their loved ones.

Luther contended that salvation depended on God, not on humans:

The most important [truth of Christianity] for Luther was the doctrine of justification—God’s act of declaring a sinner righteous—by faith alone through God’s grace. He began to teach that salvation or redemption is a gift of God’s grace, attainable only through faith in Jesus as the Messiah. “This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification,” he wrote, “is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness.” (see “Theology of Martin Luther,” Wikipedia)

Luther had much Scripture to support his position, not the least of which is Ephesians 2:8-9—“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The work is God’s, Luther proclaimed. A worker giving his copper to the church would not save the soul of his dead brother.

When I was growing up, I’d never heard of indulgences or even doing something to help a dead person reach heaven. The works I knew about were the kinds of things people did to make themselves acceptable to God. And these works included good things: going to church, reading the Bible, giving money to the poor, going on a short term mission trip, and so on. Good things.

But just like Paul’s list of good Jewish things recorded in Philippians, this Christian list of good things amounts to rubbish if its considered the means to a relationship with God. Paul’s birth status, circumcision, religious affiliation, and even his personal righteousness, were nothing in view of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ (Phil. 3).

Essentially Martin Luther discovered and proclaimed what Paul had learned through his own quest. The two men were similar. They both wanted to please God, and they both went about it by trying to be good enough for Him based on the good things they did. Both eventually realized that there weren’t enough good things in the entire earth to make them good enough, but that God had given right standing with Himself as a free gift through Christ Jesus.

That’s grace.

Nothing earned here.

A free gift.

Undeserved.

I know that rankles American minds—perhaps the minds of others, too. But in this culture today we have two competing philosophies—an independent, “earn your own way” mentality, and an entitlement, “you deserve it” belief. God’s free gift is an affront to both of those positions. We humans don’t get to take credit for salvation, no matter how you look at it. We didn’t earn it, and we aren’t so wonderful that it ought to have been handed to us based on our incredible merit.

Luther did the hard work of sussing out from Scripture this truth, and I’m incredibly grateful.

Thanks be to God for His free gift of salvation, and thanks be to Him for teaching this truth to Martin Luther so that he could make it widely known.

Why Should I Praise God?


I think too often when Christians talk about praising God, there’s a group of people who say, why should I? What’s He done for me? Sadly, that group includes other Christians along with a lot of people who kinda think there’s a god, but they sure don’t know him.

But more and more, it seems, God is showing me believers who are genuinely hurting—my friend Brandon who died of cancer, leaving his three young children and wonderful wife behind; a former student who had fertility issues, lost her brother in a car accident, and is now in the hospital with her own cancer issues; one of my pastors who’s son-in-law just died, leaving his daughter a widow; and today my blogging friend Insanitybytes. There are others, too, some well-known, others obscure and quiet in their hurting—but these believers clung with their last breath or the breath they have in them now, to the goodness of God.

Sure, there are the why-is-god-so-disappointing crowd. There have been books written about that subject, so it’s not like the praise people stand alone, triumphant, in the ring of suffering.

So what’s the difference? I think it’s knowing God.

Some of us know God in a casual way, sort of like an acquaintance or a good boss we rarely see. We know he’s there because we keep getting paychecks, but it’s hard to think that he had any more to do with those than signing his name, and if we have our wages automatically deposited, we might just have money showing up in our account, with no tangible evidence the boss is involved. That’s how a lot of people treat God.

Others—and chances are, these are members of the disappointment crowd—relate to God as a kindly, generous grandfather who is so, so willing to give us whatever we want. Consequently, when we ask him for something, especially the really serious stuff, and he says no, we are so shocked, so disappointed, so thrown off the solid rock of faith we thought was firmly under our feet, that we can’t begin to muster any praise.

Praise for what? My husband just lost his job. Praise for what? The rent just went up, again, along with the gas prices and the groceries. Praise for what? My best friend just moved.

Of course some even say, Praise for what? I don’t have a thing to wear to the office bash this week.

Yes, some of the issues are our perspective, but a lot are real issues.

For a long time I was very critical of the newly freed Hebrew slaves as they traveled across the wilderness toward the Promised Land. I mean, they were always complaining, and this, right after God had shown His power in so many miraculous ways. Couldn’t they trust Him for a few short months at least?

Well, the truth was, their concerns were real. First, they really did not have any water. Not for them, their children, their cows, their sheep. And they were in a near desert. I’m pretty sure I’d have been in the crowd of complainers.

Then there was no food; and later, the same food; danger; and real giants in the land where they were supposed to go in and reside. Giants they were supposed to conquer. This was, of course, much earlier than David, so they didn’t know the story about this youth, not really an adult yet, facing down a God-cursing giant and demolishing him.

I’m not sure my criticism of these complaining Hebrews is really founded. Except. They had told God, on more than one occasion, that there would obey Him and worship Him alone and follow Moses, the leader God had given them. They went back on those things. When they were faced with stuff they couldn’t see around, when there was something they didn’t understand (why does Moses get to be the leader all the time? Shouldn’t someone else get a turn?)

In other words, they really did not trust God. And how does praise fit in with all this?

First, praise is an offering to God. It’s the sacrifice of our lips. Second, it’s really, really, really hard impossible to praise God without thinking about why He is praiseworthy.

For Christians, the bottom line ought to be, I know God is faithful and loving and true, because He sent His Son to die for me. So, He didn’t save my friend from cancer, but He is still good. So I lost my job. He is still faithful. So I don’t see how I can make all the payments that will come due this month, He’s still loving.

Our circumstances don’t change who God is.

The problem is, our circumstances are blinding us to God’s character, because we’re looking at them instead of Him. Like Peter when he was actually walking to Jesus on the water, but got distracted by the wind and the waves.

Praise adjusts our sights. Instead of looking down or around or in, we are again looking up, and we can see God the way He deserves to be seen, the way He actually is.

Like so many things with God, praise is a win-win. We can offer Him something when we feel like we have nothing to give, but He turns it around and makes our giving of it, a blessing to us. That’s God for you.

Published in: on October 25, 2019 at 5:28 pm  Comments (6)  
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Jonah And Racism


I know. The title of this article is supposed to be “Jonah and the Whale,” right? I mean, that’s what everyone know about Jonah. But I’ve recently heard a couple different pastors on the radio, and to a man they cut to the heart of the story.

Jonah is not about some miraculous rescue from the sea, though that’s a part of the story. It’s not even about a disobedient prophet who finally, when given a second chance, repented and relented and did what God told him to do. Though that also is part of the story.

The real issue for the prophet Jonah was his hatred of the Assyrians. You know, the people who lived in Nineveh, where God told him to go and preach. If God had said, Go to Bethlehem or Bethel or Jericho or Dan, I imagine Jonah would have been happy to obey, because we know from 2 Kings that Jonah did in fact prophesy certain things about Israel.

But Nineveh? Jonah didn’t want to go to the enemy. He told God why: he knew that when he preached the message of judgment, those violent idolaters who had fought against Israel on more than one occasion, would repent, and then God would forgive them. Yep, that’s why he didn’t want to go. He didn’t want them to repent. He didn’t want them to receive God’s mercy.

Again, that’s right there in the book of Jonah—in the chapter that doesn’t make it into the nice little picture Bible story books we so often see. After God saw the Ninevites change their ways and turn from their wicked deeds, after God relented of the destruction he had planned to send against them, what did Jonah do? He went up on a hill outside the city to watch, hoping that perhaps God would stay with the judgment He had planned.

Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city. (Jonah 4:5)

While he sat there, God prepared another object lesson for Jonah. He gave him a plant that provided additional shade from the heat, but just as miraculously He sent a worm that destroyed the plant. And Jonah was angry. Why? He had liked that plant. He wanted the plant to live. He hadn’t actually planted it or cultivated it or done anything to give it life. But he wanted that plant to live.

God made the comparison: Jonah and his attitude toward the plant in juxtaposition to God and His attitude toward Nineveh.

Then the LORD said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

Jonah had no compassion for the thousands of people who God was warning about the coming judgment. His actions—going the opposite direction in order to avoid giving God’s message, becoming angry when God relented and determined that He would not destroy them after all, sitting outside the city in hopes that God would still judge them—followed by God’s confrontation of him, show us Jonah’s heart.

He wasn’t thinking along with God, here. He wasn’t rejoicing with the angels that sinners had turned from the errors of their ways. He wasn’t thinking about mercy or forgiveness. Instead, he was thinking about revenge.

My guess is that Jonah would have been happy to deliver God’s message of judgment: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4b). If, that is, he hadn’t figured out that God, being merciful, would give them a second chance.

He didn’t want them to have a second chance. One way to keep them from repenting, was simply keep them in the dark about their coming judgment. So, one ticket to Tarshish, please.

The whole story is so ironic, because Jonah himself experienced God’s second chance when he was plucked from the sea by a God-appointed fish. When Jonah repented, God appointed the fish to hurl, then gave Jonah a second chance:

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time (Jonah 3:1a)

Jonah reminds me of the man in one of Jesus’s parables who had been forgiven much but who would not forgive those who owed him even a small amount.

The story also reminds me that God loves the world. He loved the people of Israel and He loved their enemies. He wasn’t playing favorites or picking sides. He sent Joseph to Egypt, Daniel to Babylon, and Jonah to Assyria.

In essence He’s sent Christians to those places, too, as well as to many other places. That’s our “marching orders,” our perpetual assignment. And never has it been easier to “go” without really even having to go. We can preach the gospel—the good news that has to start first with the same kind of warning Jonah was to deliver—by supporting those who leave their homes and go in person. We can tell others through the internet, radio, print, podcasts, videos, so many, many ways. We can even go to our homeless or unchurched neighbors right where we live.

Our choice is simple: we can behave like Jonah or we can show the compassion of Christ, the love of the Father for those thousands who are confused and don’t know what is right.

Published in: on September 27, 2019 at 5:00 pm  Comments (9)  
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False Teaching And The Signs That Help Detect It


Photo by Jens Johnsson from Pexels

I finished reading the book of Galatians this morning. I used to think that it was sort of a mini-Romans. I suppose there’s some truth to that, but as I read Galatians more closely this week, I realized it’s really about false teaching and false teachers and the lies that the churches in the Galatian region were apparently beginning to believe.

Paul handled the problem by drawing their attention to it and by laying out the truth.

As I see it, the Church in today’s western culture is wide open to false teaching. In fact a radio preacher recently said that’s kind of normal—that the Church is prone to take on some of what the culture believes, even things that are false.

I’d say, among the many problems western culture has—things like selfishness and pride and greed and placing a high value on personal pleasure over serving, either God or our fellow humans—is one that might color pretty much all of life. It is the idea that humans are good, not sinful, not in need of a heart change.

People bristle at this idea and many churches no longer preach this truth because they no longer believe it.

Paul was dealing with legalism in Galatia, and that’s something that the Church has faced from time to time. I’d go so far as to say, it’s been an issue in my lifetime, and many preachers teach against it. It’s a works kind of belief, valuing human effort more than the grace God has given us. So it’s sadly alive and well and something the Church must continue to guard against. But so are these other postmodern, post-truth issues. Not that contemporary society invented them, but we have given a new voice to them.

The rest of this article is a re-post, with some revision, of one that appeared here in March, 2010.

I’ve come to believe Christians should uncover false teaching in the church. A believer’s silence in the face of instruction contrary to Scripture can be tacit agreement. By and large, I feel the majority of Bible-believing Christians have been silent longer than we should have been.

I understand why—we are all too aware of what the Bible says about judging. Who am I, then, to say that this person or that ministry is engaged in false teaching?

Well, I don’t think we need to do any finger pointing or heresy hunting. Instead, I think we can see what the Bible has to say about the subject.

I used to think that deciphering false teaching was easy. Not after I read comments to a statement I made: Christians have a set of essential beliefs we hold in common—that’s what defines us as Christians. The push-back shocked me. In essence, the response was, “Who says?” In other words, those who don’t hold to those core beliefs still say they are Christians. Who are you to say they aren’t?

To me that’s comparable to saying, I live in Cuba which is near the US, so I’m a US citizen. Who are you to say I’m not?

Clearly, if we do not agree on an authoritative source or a set of core beliefs comprising Christianity, then anyone can claim to be a “Christian” teacher, even those with a different message, a false message that contradicts what Christian orthodoxy has held to be true.

But who’s to say?

I’d have to give this one to God. He gets to say, and He’s addressed the subject in His Word.

In a sermon at Truth for Life on Nehemiah, Alistair Begg dealt with false teaching. He referenced a passage in Jeremiah about false prophecy:

But, “Ah, Lord GOD!” I said, “Look, the prophets are telling them, ‘You will not see the sword nor will you have famine, but I will give you lasting peace in this place.’ ”

Then the LORD said to me, “The prophets are prophesying falsehood in My name. I have neither sent them nor commanded them nor spoken to them; they are prophesying to you a false vision, divination, futility and the deception of their own minds.

“Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who are prophesying in My name, although it was not I who sent them—yet they keep saying, ‘There will be no sword or famine in this land’—by sword and famine those prophets shall meet their end! (Jer 14:13-15)

It struck me that these statements are similar to some of the teaching that passes as “Christian” today. I’m thinking in particular of any “universalist” teaching and any “Christianity will make you healthy and wealthy” teaching.

The first promises peace with God. All will go to heaven no matter what faith they embrace here on earth. In fact, there isn’t a hell to even worry about. This is nothing more than the spiritualized version of what the false prophets were saying in Jeremiah’s day.

The second is a peace-in-your-own-personal-world promise. Real believers, this false teaching says, will be rich and healthy. One particular TV false teacher scoffs at Christians who think God might be teaching them through affliction.

Jeremiah’s message to the people of Israel was that God was in fact teaching and punishing them through the drought they were experiencing and the war that threatened them, even though the false prophets said otherwise.

Which leads to the real sign of false teaching, according to Pastor Begg and his exposition of Nehemiah 9: God’s word—teaching that is true—will call His people to repentance. Here are two key verses in the passage:

While they stood in their place, they read from the book of the law of the LORD their God for a fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped the LORD their God …

However, You are just in all that has come upon us; For You have dealt faithfully, but we have acted wickedly. (Neh 9:3, 33)

In contrast, look at what Jeremiah says in Lamentations:

Your prophets have seen for you
False and foolish visions;
And they have not exposed your iniquity
So as to restore you from captivity,
But they have seen for you false and misleading oracles. (Lam 2:14; emphasis mine)

God’s word read—the people confessed.

False teachers spoke—iniquity remained unexposed.

Does universalism prompt confession? Does the health-and-wealth teaching expose iniquity? Does any false teaching do so?

Restoring The Soul


I heard a message recently concerning Christians who are “down in the dumps.” I think it was originally preached as part of a conference for pastors. The speaker, using one of David’s Psalms as a point of instruction, named several other people in Scripture who experienced a point of discouragement: Elijah, Jonah, a couple others. And he could have mentioned the Apostle Paul, too, because he faced discouragement in the face of ministry that was constantly under fire.

This message seemed timely because I recently heard from a friend about an individual dealing with discouragement. I’m not immune myself (as witnessed by my spotty blogging of late).

How great, then, to know that God has already provided for times when a person is disheartened or demoralized or disappointed. The bottom-line answer is in Psalm 19:

The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul.

When David (who authored this Psalm) refers to the “law of the Lord” here, he is speaking of God’s word. The passage continues, using a variety of other synonyms that add some clarity to what exactly God’s word is: testimony (or covenant promise), precepts, commandment, judgments.

The key for this post is that God’s word restores the soul. God’s word. Essentially it gives us a window to clarity. Our circumstances might be troubling. Our discouragement might come from the way the world is trending—away from God and what is morally right—we might feel alone in whatever we’re facing. The word of God reminds us that what we see when we look around is not the whole story.

It isn’t really the true story. For one, Christians are never alone because we have the Holy Spirit with us. Jesus said, He’s better than Jesus Himself remaining on earth, the most obvious reason being that Jesus, as a man, was limited in space and time so that He could never have physically been with all believers, everywhere. The Holy Spirit can, and does, reside in each believer’s heart, making available to us all His power and comfort and guidance.

Christians also don’t have to worry about the moral mess that seems to be our culture’s choice of living. This lack of righteousness will pass. It’s not a part of the end game. Heaven is. And for us personally, because Christ has defeated sin and death, we can live by His grace, not by the law of sin and of death (see Romans 8).

As for our troubling circumstances, those also will pass. They are not part of anything permanent. Rather, they are like a vapor that passes away, like a flower of the field that fades and falls to the ground. Those metaphors are actually descriptions of the human condition. We are here for a short time when we measure our lifetime with eternity. Paul calls the suffering of this world “light affliction” and “momentary” because there is no permanence in what seems hard now.

Football players right currently are gearing up for the NFL 2019 season. They are dealing with long, hot, hard practices in training camps throughout the US. They don’t love the difficulties as they compete for a roster spot. In truth, they can hardly wait for the games they know are coming soon. They’re willing to go through the “momentary, light affliction” of training camp because they understand 1) their coach wants them to become the best players they can be; and 2) they want to improve their game.

For us, the things that might discourage us are the very things that God can use to make us stronger, better, more like His Son Jesus.

All this we learn in God’s word. All this has the potential of restoring our souls as we dive into His word and let it abide in our hearts.

Christian Behavior



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How are Christians to behave toward other people?

The answer is not complicated, Jesus spells it out with some frequency, both by words and by actions: we are to love others.

First we are to love other Christians—as Christ does, which means sacrificially.

Second, we are to love our enemies, even do good to those who misuse and abuse us.

Third, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, which is, as a radio pastor pointed out today, something we don’t need to learn to do. By nature we protect ourselves and care for ourselves, unless a person has experienced great mistreatment and/or is mentally ill. One of the ways people cope with horrific circumstances is to pull within themselves and protect themselves. Of course we can be taught to hate ourselves, but even when that’s the case, we see people hiding this self-loathing under a cloak of pride and arrogance or in mistreatment of others. In truth, we by nature love ourselves, though there is a great group of believers who are chiming in, along with the world, saying that we need to learn to love ourselves. In fact, Jesus said we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves because loving ourselves is a given.

To illustrate loving a neighbor, Jesus told the story of the man who others assumed to be a racist. When a “good” priest and a “good” Levite, encountering a situation that had the potential of being dangerous or of rendering them unclean in the eyes of the Mosaic Law, they took detours to escape the possibility of jeopardy.

The man who had every reason to hate the Jews and avoid all contact, did the opposite. He went out of his way to help the stranger. Jesus called him a true neighbor.

Using that story, we’d have to define neighbor as someone with the means to help (time, resources, connections) who sees another in need. We’re a neighbor if we help.

I live in an area populated (if you can use that word here) by a number of homeless people. One day on my morning walk, I came across a women who was lying flat on her stomach at the edge of a (church) parking lot. Just lying there. I stepped closer to her, not sure initially if she was even alive. She moved, so I asked her if she needed anything. A blanket, she said. Not money or help or food. A blanket.

Yes, I had a blanket I could give her. I’m not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but I had more than one blanket, and an old one I wasn’t using. Did I turn around and go home to get it? No, I told her I’d pick it up after I finished my walk. That’s kind of the equivalent of the man in Jesus’s story telling the injured guy he’d be back for him later after he’d taken care of his business.

I’m ashamed that my reaction was first to look out for my own personal needs, but there it is.

It gets worse. Another day a fairly young guy with earbuds and flip flops, shorts and a tank top passed me and my friend on our walk. He stopped, came back, and asked if we had some money to give him. Uh, no, neither of us carry any money. But the thing that’s important for this post, is what was going on in my heart. A young, healthy guy, by all appearances, begging money off a couple women clearly his senior. I wanted to give him a swift kick. I immediately concluded he wanted money for his addiction, because obviously he could get a job and earn a living if he wanted to. Mind you, I don’t know this guy and have no idea what his story was. Sort of like the man in Jesus’s story who didn’t know the guy lying in the road. I’m not saying I should have given this stranger in front of me any money (which I didn’t have and couldn’t have done), but I could have prayed for him instead of making assumptions about him, ugly assumptions. Peter said to the beggar at the Beautiful Gate, I don’t have any silver and gold, but what I have I’ll gladly give you. I have Jesus Christ in my life. Why didn’t I offer the stranger what I did have?

Well, I get tongue-tied, feel awkward, don’t know how to bring up the subject. I mean, he didn’t ask for the gospel. He asked for money. In response I simply told him I couldn’t give him what he wanted. But I could have given him what he needed.

OK, but I’m much better at writing than off-the-cuff conversations.

But how many times have I written comments and had to delete them because they were snide or snippy or rude or snarkish? Way more than I can count. I have to pray over comments and let the Holy Spirit guide my thoughts because my nature is to walk on by, or worse—to give a swift kick as I pass.

I’m pretty sure that God wants His followers to approach others with a heart of compassion. Instead of asking, “What’s in your wallet,” we should be asking ourselves, What’s in your heart?

Published in: on July 29, 2019 at 5:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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Holiness: An Unpopular Topic


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I think it’s understandable that people who don’t believe in God or who have a theism based on some false religion or false teaching, don’t value holiness. After all, they don’t have a true model for what holiness looks like. Further, so many are focused on doing in order to gain: gain the highest heaven, gain happiness, gain salvation, gain Nirvana, gain acceptance—you name it.

But God calls Christians to be holy because He is holy. No other reason than that we are to be like Him. Reminds me of who God created us to be. Primarily God put Adam into the garden He prepared to act as His agent—to superintend what God had made. He was, after all, created in His image.

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

In essence, our holiness is the way God wants us to live out this agency today, given that we now have a fallen nature and live in a world far from God. But is that possible?

Yes, and no. Clearly, when we come to God by embracing His Son and His work at the cross on our behalf, we receive new life, though we still grapple with an old nature (see Romans 7). The process of becoming like Christ is just that—a process, one theology calls sanctification. What it practically means is believers walking in obedience.

Romans 7 is helpful:

But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.

We’re not bound by Law. But we still serve. We still do what God wants us to do, but only in the “newness of the Spirit.” Essentially, learning to say no to the old self with its sinful and selfish ways, and to say yes to the indwelling Holy Spirit, is a process. A life-long process.

The Bible says a lot about how we are to live. In fact, that last day Jesus spent with His men, He said, If you love Me, you will keep My commandments (John 17). God wants us to obey Him, though our salvation doesn’t depend on our working to earn His favor.

He wants us to obey, I submit, the same way a parent wants a child to obey: it’s good for the little rug rat. 😉 Seriously, God’s commands are good for us, and not only for us as individuals but for the church and for our witness in the world.

Take this ONE command, for example, something probably most of us blow off as insignificant:

Do all things without grumbling or disputing (Phil 2:14).

Imagine living without grumbling. Imagine life without disputes. Yes, obedience to that one simple command would have a profound impact. Paul doesn’t leave it to our imagination. He tells us what would result:

[Don’t argue or complain] so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world (Phil. 2:15)

Imagine! Blameless and innocent, shining as lights in the world. Well, isn’t that what Christ said we were to be, back in His Sermon on the Mount? Lights shining before men so that they see our good works and glorify our Father.

The point is, our heart attitude can’t stay inside. It can’t be our little secret. We can’t be undercover Christians. At some point, our relationship with God through Christ must spill out of our lives and splash onto our neighbors.

That’s pretty much what the whole book of James is about. Our faith—our inner spiritual life, our relationship with God—is real only if it gets up and walks.

Writers talk about cardboard characters versus the desirable kind—three dimensional ones that seem alive. Faith is like that, without the “seem.” Real faith is alive and therefore will show signs of life. James names three chief areas.

First we’ll be doers of the word, not merely hearers. In short, we’ll be obedient to God’s word. Second, we’ll bridle our tongues rather than deceiving our hearts. And third, we’ll be slow to anger, which means we won’t judge, quarrel with or complain about our “brother”—a term he uses consistently to refer to fellow Christians.

The first point alone can be overwhelming. If I read the Bible asking one thing—what in this passage must I obey—I can become paralyzed into inactivity because there’s too much. I’m not selfless enough to handle the one command from Philippians about not grumbling or complaining, let alone the ones about being a cheerful giver or being anxious for nothing or dwelling on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely and of good repute.

When I realize this, I am pressed back into God where I must learn to stay. It is His strength that makes it possible for me to obey. It is the prompting of His Holy Spirit that makes me want to.

In short, obedience which leads to holiness is not a thing I can achieve apart from God, but if I love Him, I’m heading for the heights, one shaky step at a time, holding onto Him as tight as if my life depended on Him. Which it does.

This post includes a large, revised and edited, portion of a 2011 article entitled Holiness In Practice. Others in series are
“Holiness Is Not A Dirty Word”
“Holiness Means What Again?”
“Inside Out – The Way Of Holiness”

Published in: on July 25, 2019 at 5:34 pm  Comments (48)  
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A Common Heresy Of Our Day


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In an insidious way the “emergent church,” which took the spotlight a decade or so ago, only to morph into “progressives,” has given impetus to one of the saddest heresies that could ever be. People like Paul Young (The Shack) and Rob Bell (Love Wins) reduced God to one quality: love.

But isn’t God, love? Yes, absolutely. But He is so much more. He is also merciful and kind, gracious and forgiving, creative and communicative, powerful and all knowing. But He is also some things we in western society seem to ignore or deny: He is jealous, the way a husband is about the purity of His wife; He is wrathful, the way a father might react to the rape of His daughter; He is just, the way a judge is who faces a mass murderer.

The truth is, God’s jealousy and wrath and justice are not contradictory to His love; the are extensions of it. A loving God cares for the oppressed and the needy, so what does that mean for the oppressor and for the one who is stingy or selfish? How does God manifest love to both sides of robbery or rape or scam?

By extending His forgiveness to both. Yes, even those who have received harsh treatment, unfair treatment, have committed sin. None of us is perfect. All of us need God’s great grace. And God offers it freely.

But not everyone accepts it.

The heresy of the day says that God simply waves off the part of Scripture that says someone must believe in order to receive life eternal. Apparently, in the thinking of those who fall into this wrong thinking, God is simply too loving to be just. He cares so much for the perpetrator of evil, He will not punish him. After all, the thinking goes, Jesus already paid the price for all our sins.

There’s truth there, which is, of course, how all error presents itself: it shows some truth before it twists it into abject falsehood.

I realize some Christians believe that, no, Christ died only for the elect, whoever they might be. We just don’t know.

As clearly as Scripture portrays the existence of an “elect” and believers who are “predestined,” it just as clearly portrays God’s gift of salvation as available to the world and free for all.

But there’s a huge gulf between those two positions—salvation for the elect on one hand and salvation for everyone on the other. Scripture makes a very clear case that salvation is given to all, but received by some.

Romans 5 is one of the best passages, but certainly not the only one, that walks the tightrope between the two extremes. Here are the pertinent verses:

For while we were still helpless [all of us], at the right time Christ died for the ungodly [all of us]. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die [but there is none righteous, none good]. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners [all of us], Christ died for us [all of us]. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. [all of us?] For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. [sounds like all of us] And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. [only some—emphasis mine]

Clearly, receiving the necessary reconciliation—becoming restored to a relationship with God—is dependent upon receiving what has been offered. So God’s saving work is available to all, but only efficacious for some—those who believe and receive.

The sad heresy of our day would have people believe that whatever their path of spirituality, or no path at all, they will nevertheless be accepted into eternal life with God.

It’s sad and not loving because it withholds the truth about the eternal condition of the lost. They can go through life and hear from Rob Bell or any of these other universalists that they’re just fine, not lost, not perishing, not in need.

The loving thing is to let people know that we’re all in the same boat, all right there together in a boat headed for spiritual death. But there is hope, there is rescue, there is a Savior.

Problem is, no one will look for a Savior if they don’t know there’s something from which they must be saved.

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