Mercy And Justice


top_signIn one sermon which George MacDonald is purported to have authored, he addressed God and His justice. The only Biblical text I can find is that from which he seems to have wandered—Psalm 62:12, which states, “And lovingkindness is Yours, O Lord, For You recompense a man according to his work.

In the King James, which the sermon quotes, lovingkindness is rendered mercy. The writer then makes a case for his interpretation of justice, leading into a denial of justice resulting in punishment.

How odd this discussion seems to me, but perhaps that’s because I’ve had good Bible teaching all my life.

The cultures around Israel during King David’s time (Psalm 62 is one of his) did not practice justice. They practiced vengeance. Consequently, the declaration that God would recompense a man according to his work was a statement of mercy. He would not punish a man for something his father did or punish the brothers or the children. God’s mercy was demonstrated in His justice, set in opposition to their vengeance.

How simple and straightforward. How righteous.

We are accountable before a Holy God for what we do. He does not pile on more than we deserve.

But here’s the thing. We are required by law to stop at stop signs. If I run a stop sign and get pulled over by a cop, I am guilty of breaking that law. No matter that I’ve not run a stop sign the prior 2000 times, or 200 million times before that. Stopping at the stop sign is what I am required by law to do. Fulfilling my obligation does not earn me points against a future time when I might slip up and run the stop sign.

In other words, there is nothing I can do to make up for my situation. I can only recognize my condition—I am a lawbreaker deserving of the just (and merciful) penalty for my actions.

What great news, then, that Jesus, who was not a lawbreaker, and therefore, faced no penalty, stepped in.

The amazing love of God is beyond comprehension here, because God did not wave His hand and dismiss my sin. He bore it Himself. He transferred my sin in the same way that the sins of Israel were transferred to scapegoats. It’s a mystical process, if you will, something that sounds too incredible, too hard to fathom. The Holy God, unstained in His being, complete in His purity, piled my sin on His shoulders. He bore my sin and carried my sorrow.

He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. (I Peter 2:24)

And in more detail from Isaiah

But the LORD was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.
As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,
And He will divide the booty with the strong;
Because He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors. (Isa 53:10-12; emphasis mine)

Paid in full. The blood of Jesus Christ blots out my sin. I receive God’s mercy when I understand that my work is insufficient to pay what I owe, that Christ alone could afford to bear my sin because He bore none of His own. The angel of death passes over me as surely as he once passed over the Jewish homes that bore the blood of the spotless Passover lamb slain on their behalf.

What a clear picture of God’s redemptive work—the marriage of His Justice and Mercy—prompted by His infinite Love.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in December 2010).

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Published in: on March 3, 2017 at 5:16 pm  Comments (4)  
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Voting As A Christian


The_Good_Samaritan008I recently read a thought-provoking opinion piece in the Christian Research Journal (Vol. 39, No. 4) by Andrew Bullard entitled “Social Movements and God’s Kingdom: Which Cause Matters Most?” I couldn’t help but apply what Bullard said to the upcoming US Presidential elections, especially after watching the Monday debate.

Actually a lot has gone into my thinking: what I read in Eric Metasax’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a biography written by Elisabeth Elliot on Amy Carmichael, any number of Facebook posts and comments, things I’ve read in Scripture, and conversations I’ve had with friends.

But honestly, I felt Bullard gave some clarity to my thinking, except I don’t really know how to apply what he said, though I agree whole-heartedly.

His basic premise is that Christians belong to God’s kingdom and as such we should be about Kingdom business. Here’s the core of his position:

Consider this question: is it right for a Christian to be completely devoted to a cause at the risk of alienating those who need to hear the message of Christ? This question is applicable to any social movement and ideology. How you answer this tells others where your true values lie. (This quote and those that follow come from the article mentioned above, unless otherwise indicated).

In other words, as followers of Jesus, our chief assignment is to tell people about the Messiah. But if we are sold out to a social movement, of any kind, such that we offend those on the opposite side of the question, how can we expect to represent Jesus to them?

So, if Jesus is your King, then you’re expected to take on the character and conduct of a citizen in His kingdom. It means you now serve Him. It means you allow this King to dominate every aspect of your life. You have voluntarily given up your personal freedoms for a better life under King Jesus.

I understand the principle, and I even agree with it, as I mentioned above. I think the Bible teaches this truth unequivocally. The problem I have is translating the principle to everyday life.

Take this example, for instance. Scripture teaches us to care for the needy: specifically the orphan and widow and stranger. We’re to love our neighbor as our self, as the Samaritan did when he helped the traveler who had been mugged. Today, however, there are people who masquerade as homeless people, who beg for handouts when they don’t really need money, who lie about their circumstances. There are also people who beg so they can feed their chemical addiction. What is the “Christian” thing to do, then, when someone confronts you in a grocery store parking lot and asks for a handout?

I think if I asked twenty people that question, I might get twenty different answers, and I don’t know which one would be the “right” one. There might not be a right one, but I do think there’s a wrong one: if we say or do something offensive that would close the door to the opportunity to represent Christ to that person, I think that would be a wrong choice.

All this ties in with the upcoming national election because I think the principle—Christians behaving like members of Christ’s kingdom—should guide us. I know a lot of believers want to follow this tenet, though they may not have articulated it as clearly as Bullard.

The problem, as I see it, is knowing how to apply this truth.

Bullard closed his article with this:

None of this is to say it is inherently wrong to advocate for a social movement or political ideology. However, we must keep eternity and the Kingdom of God in mind when choosing which social movement and ideologies to align ourselves with and how devoted to them we become. It is possible to advance God’s kingdom and support a social movement or be active in a political campaign. Yet, we must be wary our devotion to movements and candidates does not replace our mission—advancing the Kingdom of God.

What does a Christian do when neither of the two major party candidates would qualify as leaders who would enhance our mission?

Sec. Clinton talks a great deal about social justice, and Mr. Trump has indicated he would bring conservative judges to the Supreme Court. As near as I can tell, these are the two most positive things about both candidates.

Both candidates apparently have no compunction against stretching the truth:

In the first debate between presidential contenders Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Trump repeatedly relied on troublesome and false facts that have been debunked throughout the campaign. Clinton stretched the truth on occasion, such as when she tried to wiggle out of her 2012 praise of the Trans Pacific Partnership as a “gold standard.” (“Fact-checking the first Clinton-Trump presidential debate,” By Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee, Washington Post

Mr. Trump has said egregious things about women, about illegal immigrants, about politicians who ran against him. Sec. Clinton has barely avoided indictment for her handling of her email correspondence when she was Secretary of State. Both hold policies that seem contrary to Scripture.

In other words, neither seems to be a candidate that would make America a place where Christians can pursue our true kingdom work without bumping into government policy that conflicts in some way.

Are we to weigh one idea over against another: it’s more important to advocate for the unborn than to treat the immigrant fairly?

Honestly, I have more questions than anything, especially in light of the Bonhoeffer biography which brought out the struggle and conflict segments of the German church went through as Adolf Hitler put into place his anti-Jewish policies. They waited too long to act; by the time they woke up to the danger, the Final Solution which cost six million Jews their lives, was in place.

Is our situation in America anywhere close to that of Germany in the mid 20th century.

It might be.

Revelation


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, Justice, And Punishment For Women Who Abort


March_for_Life_in_Washington,_D.C._(2013)_01

Donald Trump stepped in it last week. He was pushed into a corner, it’s true, but he made the worst of the situation by saying what he thought his new constituents—far right politicos—wanted to hear. He had adopted the pro-life position though he’d been in the abortionist camp “for many, many years” (to quote something he might say). I suspect he’d heard from his old friends that his new friends were all about punishing women, so when pressed on the issue, The Donald gave his “candid” answer, though you could tell he was sort of appalled by his own words.

Yep, he said if Roe v. Wade were overturned, a woman should be punished if she had an abortion.

Less than twenty-four hours later, his campaign issued a “clarification” which was actually a retraction. Mr. Trump, it turns out, doesn’t really believe a woman should be punished if she had an abortion.

Which actually demonstrates what a loose cannon Mr. Trump is, and therefore what a horrible President he would make. But that’s a different subject than the one in front of me.

Mr. Trump’s outlandish statement has stirred the pot, at least in some circles. There are people saying, but wait a minute: is Trump really so wrong? I mean, if these women are really killing, why should they be given a pass?

There’s a Biblical backdrop that I think sheds some light on this topic. At different times, God gave His law some teeth by bringing immediate and ultimate judgment. Two of Aaron’s sons died because they burned the wrong incense in the tabernacle. Another 450 people died—burned by fire from heaven and then swallowed by the earth—because they challenged Moses’s authority to speak for God. During King David’s rule, a man died on the spot because he touched the ark of the covenant. And in the New Testament, Ananias and Sapphira were separately struck down for lying to God about how much money they made when they sold their house.

God acted with immediate judgment. And yet years later people were doing all kinds of things against His law—worshiping Baal in the temple, building high places all over Israel and Judah, handling the sacred temple vessels, and in Jesus’s day, priests cheating the people who wanted to bring a sacrifice. Yet, for all intents and purposes, God was silent.

Until He wasn’t.

It’s true He didn’t bring fire from heaven against those people. Yes, Jesus tossed out the priests making money at the expense of the worshipers, but some time later He had to get in that temple again and toss out all the crooks once more. It wasn’t like He blasted them off the planet. Just chased them away. You’d hardly say that measure up to those early judgments of God against the people of Israel who rebelled.

The point is, there came a time when God’s judgment changed from immediate to something different. Now He lets people dig their own graves. That process might take some time, but in the end, their way He will “have brought upon their heads” (Ezekiel 22:31).

In other words, none of the people who didn’t receive immediate punishment were getting away with breaking God’s law.

In fact we all will face a day of judgment. God’s servants will separate the wheat from the weeds, the sheep from the goats. And He will mete out to each what is fair and just. To the wheat, the sheep, He will give His welcome to His banquet table because of His Son Jesus, whose robe of righteousness we wear.

That welcome is for liars and prideful people, for idol worshipers and women who have had an abortion or two or three, for gossips and prostitutes, for the greedy and the envious—really for any sinner who confesses, repents, and walks in the newness of life provided by Christ’s shed blood.

The question, then, isn’t whether woman should be punished for having an abortion. That matter is in God’s hands. The only thing we have to ask is whether we as a society that propagated the lie that abortion is not wrong, can avoid God’s wrath. We might also ask if we should do more than Jesus did when He faced an adulterous woman and said, “Go and sin no more.”

It seems to me, we stand with no defense before God for allowing abortion in our land and worse, for importing it to other places. We are guilty as a society. But what hypocrisy if we were to scapegoat the women we have convinced by our lies—if we were to suddenly tell them that they are the guilty ones for believing what our leaders have been telling us for decades.

Make no mistake, those women will one day face the judgment. I know of any number of women who had abortions who will be at the banquet table, their sins, including their abortions, cast into the sea of God’s forgetfulness. Others, however, will stand guilty, not of having had an abortion, but of refusing to accept God’s Son.

For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 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. (John 3:17-18)

Published in: on April 4, 2016 at 6:48 pm  Comments Off on God, Justice, And Punishment For Women Who Abort  
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Reprise: The Way Of Escape


PikiWiki_Israel_18483_desert_viewFrom our perspective, complaining may not seem like a big deal, but it’s the forerunner to rebellion. The people of Israel learned this somewhere in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.

Though they were newly freed slaves, they seemed to have forgotten the hatefulness of that condition. They had cried out to God because of their affliction. He sent a leader to rescue them, but now they wanted out of the deal. They wanted to go back to Egypt.

The desert was no land of Goshen. They had little water and less meat. And they’d come to hate their daily ration of manna, the food of angels. After all, they’d had a steady diet of it for forty years. They’d had it, and they let Moses know. They let God know.

What’s a loving God to do?

What if He had given them what they asked for? I wonder how the people of Israel would have been received back in Egypt, after the death of all those first-born sons and the annihilation of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, not to mention the animosity they may have faced because they had walked off the job, leaving a huge gap in Egypt’s work force.

God of course did love His people so He didn’t give them what they wanted but what they needed — His justice and mercy.

First he sent fiery serpents among them. Deadly serpents that killed the people they bit. There’s God’s justice responding to their rebellion. He loved them too much to look the other way as they ruined their lives and the opportunity He was providing them to be His people.

As the serpents bit people and many died, Israel cried out to God, admitted their sin, and asked for deliverance. God instructed Moses to make a replica snake and put it on the end of a pole. Whenever someone was bit by a snake, all they had to do was look to the bronze replica, and they would live.

As Moses lifted up the serpent

Moses did what he was instructed to do. “And it came about…” I love that line. Just what God said, happened. The people bitten by a snake lived if they looked at the bronze statue lifted high above the camp.

That’s God’s mercy.

Then this amazing passage in the New Testament gospel of John. Jesus is speaking:

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.

Jesus knowingly connected the mercy God showed Israel in the wilderness with the mercy He would show to the world. Yes, the world because the next verse says this:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

Ironic that some use this verse as a proof text for belief in universal salvation. The thing is, Jesus, by connecting His impending crucifixion with the serpent lifted up above Israel’s camp made it clear: salvation is available to all just as the bronze serpent was out in plain sight for any suffering from the deadly bite of justice; those who believe, receive, just like those who looked at the serpent were healed.

God’s love involves His justice and His mercy. He is the same today as He showed Himself to be in the desert or on a hill called Golgotha. His love means He wants us out of Egypt; His justice means He would punish disobedience; His mercy means He bore that punishment that we would have a way of escape.

This article first appeared here March 2011

Published in: on October 14, 2015 at 7:18 pm  Comments Off on Reprise: The Way Of Escape  
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Mercy, Justice, And Abortion


Anti-Christian_sign_in_Federal_Plaza_ChicagoChristians are often accused of being judgmental. I tend to think the people making the charge are reacting to a lack of compassion. It’s not that others think judging is so very wrong. They themselves are actually making a judgment when they say being judgmental is wrong.

Rather, it seems to me, people see Christians as unwilling to give a guy a break. Come on, they say, wait to have sex until you’re married? Give a guy a break! Or, You mean a guy can be faithful, a good father and provider, but you say he’s a sinner because he’s married to another guy? Come on, give him a break!

There are multiple problems here, the first being the notion that Christians are making the rules. Believers are not the ones inventing the no-sex-before-marriage standard. Or the no-homosexuality standard. Just like we didn’t come up with the no lying, gossiping, murdering, dishonoring of parents standards, either.

The second issue is that we can’t give a guy a break. We aren’t his judge. We get accused of being the judge because we report what the Judge has said about the matter of sin, but just like we don’t invent the rules, we don’t invent the punishment.

Third, we ourselves are under the same standards and don’t come out triumphant. We are no different when it comes to sin than anyone else. James says this clearly:

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For He who said, “DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY,” also said, “DO NOT COMMIT MURDER.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. (2:10-11)

In short, there isn’t a single person who doesn’t fall into the category of “guilty of all” because we have all stumbled in one point, or more. If it’s more, we aren’t any more guilty of all than if we stumbled only once. Either way, we’re guilty of all.

So Christians are not better than abortion providers or those in the business of selling fetal tissue. At various times, when listing different sins, the Apostle Paul would add, And such were some of you.

This is true of women who have had abortions. I know women, and have heard about women, who have had abortions, only to embrace Christ and renounce their past actions. Take Norma McCorvey, for example, the “Jane Roe” in the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the US. She is now a Christian who stands for life.

Norma McCorvey is just like the people Paul addressed: “such were some of you.” But so am I and so are we all. If we haven’t committed the particular sins in Paul’s list, we’ve committed others. There simply is no one out from under the burden of sin.

Is that admission hateful or judgmental? Hardly! It’s the first step toward escape. When we admit our sin, we can embrace our Savior.

Then as people who have been forgiven, we can extend forgiveness and compassion to others.

I can’t forgive someone’s sin against God, however. I don’t have that power. I can’t acquit someone who has committed murder though he seeks forgiveness in the blood of Christ. God alone can forgive sins against Him. And He does.

He gave a great picture of the way this works when He ordained a religious ceremony with the Jews which required the release of a scapegoat. One goat would be sacrificed as a sin offering, depicting the fact that sin requires the shedding of blood which Christ freely gave, but another goat was released into the wilderness after the priest had laid hands on it, transferring to it the sins of the people and depicting Christ as the sin bearer who takes away the sins of the world.

God in Jesus Christ has made forgiveness available to all who believe.

But to those who don’t believe? They aren’t forgiven and we shouldn’t pretend they are. At the same time, they aren’t enemies. They may come to a realization of their sin later in life the way Norma McCorvey did. They are people for whom we should feel compassion. And empathy. Because we were such as they before we met Christ.

The difference, simply put, is Jesus. Without Him, deserved justice. With Him, unqualified mercy.

We who have received such mercy, how can we not extend mercy to others? No, we can’t wipe away their sins, but we can love them the way Jesus loves. We can forgive them their offenses against us, we can serve them and pray for them and refuse to write them off as a lost cause. No one is a lost cause. God alone gets to separate the wheat from the tares, the sheep from the goats. And He is perfectly just as well as perfectly merciful.

Published in: on September 2, 2015 at 5:33 pm  Comments (14)  
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Myths About Evangelicals – They’re All A Bunch Of Pharisees


512px-House_on_the_rock,_island_of_St_MarkoFrom time to time I get out my soapbox and pull myself to the top in order to decry some of the fantastical things people—even some professing Christians—say about those of us who believe the Bible to be true.

One I find particularly egregious is this notion that Evangelicals, or Bible-believing Christians—you know, those who think Adam and Eve were real people and the Garden of Eden was an actual place—are Pharisees. Some might even add, Pharisees of the worst kind!

This statement shows a lack of understanding, both about Pharisees and about Christians.

I’ve addressed the misconception about Pharisees and Christians before (see “Who Are The Pharisees?” and “Christians Are Not Pharisees”). But as I read through Matthew’s record of Jesus’s encounters with the Pharisees, a couple thoughts ran through my head.

1) “Religious” was not the problem Jesus had with the Pharisees. The main problem He had with them was that they rejected Him as Messiah. Long before the Pharisees conspired to arrest Jesus, try Him, and execute Him, Jesus knew they opposed Him. After all, they did things like demand He prove He was who He said He was and throw out trick questions to get Him to a) blaspheme, b) break the Mosaic Law, or c) denounce Roman rule.

2) The only religious activity Jesus hated was false religious activity. The Pharisees went around praying in public so people could see how pious they were. When they fasted, they made a show of it by neglecting their appearance so people would know they were going without.

3) The Pharisees focused on the external and the trivial, not the internal and the “weightier provisions of the law,” justice, mercy, and faithfulness. [And who today thinks of the law as teaching mercy and faithfulness?]

4) The Pharisees were crooks. They not only ripped off the people buying animals from them in the temple, they falsified their weights and shrank their measuring standard, all so they could get rich at the expense of others.

5) They twisted the law and added their own traditions to it so they could duck out from under the things they didn’t like, so they could stack other things in their favor.

6) They also misled many. The rabbis taught their disciples to do as they were doing and more so. They also “shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (Matt. 23:13b).

7 On the outside the Pharisees looked as if they were keeping the law, but inwardly they were “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:28b). Lawlessness! Who ever associates the Pharisees with lawlessness? The typical, or stereotypical, view of the Pharisee is someone parsing each tiny aspect of the law and bending over backwards to adhere to it. Legalistic might be a good way of describing the traditional view of Pharisees. And certainly some of what they did or said—tithing the smallest spices, insisting Jesus’s disciples ceremonially wash their hands, criticizing Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, and so on—would fall in the category of legalism.

But Jesus didn’t accuse them of being too picky about their adherence to the Law. Rather, He said inwardly they were without the Law. Can you imagine what these men who had grown up studying the Law must have thought when Jesus told them they were full of lawlessness?

In the end, I do think Christians should learn from the Pharisees (after all, all Scripture is for doctrine, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness – 2 Tim. 3:16). We are not insulated from their sins.

In a nutshell, the “woes” Jesus pronounced against the Pharisees stemmed from their pride, their false teaching which mislead others, their misuse of the Law, their neglect of justice and mercy and faithfulness, and their focus on the external rather than their heart attitudes.

The book of James ties what a person does with the reality, or “aliveness,” of his faith. The Pharisees showed their profession of faith was empty and meaningless because of what they did—flaunting their supposed spirituality, taking advantage of widows, cheating worshipers, holding others to a standard they themselves didn’t keep. They were religious phonies.

Anyone professing Christ can be just as much a phony as any of those Pharisees were. And even when we want to put our beliefs in practice, we can be seduced by pride or greed or selfishness. Our Christian walk can become so self-centric we forget that God’s heart is first and foremost for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.

Too often the American Christian follows our culture into me-ism, into looking out for number one—which can manifest as me, my family, my nation. We forget that God so loved the world. Not just our little corner of the world.

So, no, Evangelical Christians are not Pharisees. That’s a myth!

But that doesn’t mean we can’t fall into Pharisaical behavior. It doesn’t mean we can let down our guard when it comes to the sins the Pharisees were guilty of.

It also means that there may be people professing Christ, in the same way the Pharisees professed a special relationship with God, when in fact they don’t know Him. Jesus said so Himself:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’ ” (Matt. 7:21-23)

There’s that word “lawlessness” again. Isn’t it ironic that the Pharisees, so proficient in the Law, were guilty of lawlessness? But apparently the same will be true of some who profess Christ.

And how can we know the difference between Christians who are the real deal and those just pretending? Jesus turned around and told a parable about two guys who built houses, one on rock, one on sand. He prefaced the story by saying, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them . . . ” (Matt. 7:24a)

Kind of the same thing James said about works proving that faith is alive.

Yep! It’s God


A_courtroom_scene_with_a_judge,_a_pregnant_woman,_a_guilty_l_Wellcome_V0039186

At the end of “The Great Divide,” I asked

Is Man righteous or is God? We can’t have it both ways because God has said Man is not righteous. So if God lies, He’s not righteous. It’s one or the other, Man or God. And there is the great divide.

So the answer is, God is righteous.

Of course, the great complaint against God—by atheists and Progressives alike—is that God is not righteous. In fact, I’ve heard from people in both camps say that God is a tyrant. Some claim He orders genocide and that His wrath, if it were true about Him, would be in direct contradiction to His love.

The atheist uses these charges as evidence that the God of those who claim to believe the Bible simply does not exist. The Progressives use these charges as an excuse to dump the Old Testament and the wrathful God it reveals in favor of the New Testament and the loving God they see in Jesus.

In truth, I believe atheists have more intellectual honesty here than do the Progressives, though they are unfortunately just as incorrect in their conclusions.

Because the atheist starts from a Man-is-good position, it is logical to conclude that a god who would order the destruction of a race of people (the Amalekites) or nearly an entire generation (Noah’s contemporaries), must be evil—who else would destroy so many good people?

That position is intellectually honest but wrong because of the starting place.

Progressives make the mistake of hanging their belief about God on an erroneous view of Jesus. Apparently they also start with a Man-is-good view and dismiss the wrathful god of the Old Testament for similar reasons as atheists do. However, they choose to embrace Jesus as the god of love.

This is not intellectually honest. Rather, it demonstrates a shameful lack of knowledge about the one they claim to worship—both what he did and what he said.

Jesus was no pushover, acting as a pacifist who would simply love, love, love and never correct anyone. His decision—twice—to cleanse the temple by chasing out the people who didn’t belong and who were conducting business which they shouldn’t have done, involved turning over tables and chasing people out and taking a whip to move them along.

Time and again Jesus, knowing full well what He was doing, healed people on the Sabbath—almost as if He were baiting the Pharisees who He knew wouldn’t approve.

In His direct confrontations with the sect, He called them names—vipers, whitewashed tombs, hypocrites—and used scathing language in accusing them of breaking God’s law. At one point He even told them Satan was their father.

I doubt very much if a single Pharisee would have thought “loving” when they looked at Jesus.

In addition, no one talked more above hell than did Jesus. He told parables in which the ungodly were thrown out into outer darkness, or into eternal fire or unquenchable fire or a furnace of fire. He also talked about praise for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, about choosing a narrow gate versus a broad gate, about separating goats and sheep. In other words, Jesus was not an advocate for some kind of universal happily ever after which His love would provide.

Both these two camps—atheists and Progressives—are mistaken. God is righteous.

First, God’s nature puts things into perspective. He is, among other traits, holy. Think of a surgeon who is masked, gowned, scrubbed, and gloved. He must not pick up any instrument that has not also been sterilized and made pure. To do so would contaminate him. In a similar way, God’s purity does not allow for relationship with those stained by sin. All of humanity, in other words.

The only hope for relationship, humans with God, is for us to become pure—something we have no way of accomplishing. Enter God into the world in human flesh to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

In addition, God is omniscient. He knows the heart of each person—the hidden thoughts of selfishness or hatred or lust or greed or jealousy or pride or covetousness or whatever other sin resides inside us. We can clean up on the outside and we can pretend, even to ourselves, but God knows the truth about us.

Then, too, God will judge between the afflicted and the oppressor. Granted, He provides a refuge in time of trouble. He hides and helps and delivers. But the oppressor isn’t the one receiving God’s protection and care. The oppressor is receiving God’s judgment.

This passage from Psalm 11 spells out God’s role as judge:

The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked,
And the one who loves violence His soul hates.
Upon the wicked He will rain snares;
Fire and brimstone and burning wind will be the portion of their cup.
For the LORD is righteous, He loves righteousness;
The upright will behold His face. (vv 5-7)

Clearly His authority to test the righteous and the wicked is connected to His righteousness. No profit comes from pleading before a corrupt judge or one who disregards truth or loves evil instead of good. Judgment only brings justice if the judge is unbiased and adheres to the law.

That’s God. He is righteous. We, on the other hand, are not.

Published in: on December 30, 2014 at 6:27 pm  Comments (2)  
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Christians And Ferguson


Riot_Police_tear_gasRioting and looting broke out in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, last week, and calm has only just been restored in the last day or two.

The issue that incited the unrest was the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed eighteen-year-old who’d been caught on a surveillance camera walking out of a story carrying some merchandise. As he left, he thrust an arm against the throat of an older man who seemed to be confronting him.

At some point he and a police officer came into conflict. Witnesses reported that the unarmed young man had his hands up and was in compliance with the officer, who nevertheless opened fire and killed him.

The officer, Darren Wilson, who received a broken eye socket and other facial injuries, reportedly shot because he feared for his life. One report says he was beaten almost unconscious, another that Mr. Brown tried to take his gun from him.

Soon after the shooting, sides were being drawn. Any number of people jumped in to make a political statement of some kind—about racist America (since only a small percentage of the Ferguson police force is African-American), police brutality (since the man who died didn’t have a weapon), gun violence, the undermining of American society.

The media carefully framed the story by introducing it, nearly without exception, as about an unarmed teen shot and killed by police. The exception I heard was “an unarmed black man shot and killed by police.”

The problem, of course, is that those sparse details, while sounding factual, are actually painting a one-sided picture. Buried in the story was why the officer confronted the young man or where he was coming from and what he’d just done.

On the other hand, the small number of African-American officers on the Ferguson police force made its way into the story about one officer and one alleged robber (though he was confronted for walking in the street, not for robbing the store)—somewhere near the lead.

Evidence has surfaced that indicates Mr. Brown may have been moving toward Officer Wilson, as he reported and in contradiction to the witnesses who claimed he was backing away with his hands up.

The media reports generated a burst of anger from around the country. Soon Ferguson was the poster town for racial violence as rioting and looting, military-style police presence with tear gas and curfews brought an escalation of the tension.

In that mix, outsiders arrived—those who simply wanted an excuse to steal and those who wanted to exploit the situation for their own political or social agenda. Still others wanted to perpetrate hatred. According to one source, outside agitators who joined the protest began calling for the death of the officer:

Just prior to Saturday’s governor-ordered curfew in Ferguson, Missouri, New Black Panthers leader Malik Zulu Shabazz led a crowd in a chant, calling for the death of Darren Wilson, the officer identified in the shooting death of Michael Brown:

“What do we want?” “Darren Wilson.”
“How do we want him?” “Dead.” (“New Black Panthers Lead Death Chant Against Officer Involved in Ferguson Shooting“)

My first thought is that this kind of behavior reminds me of the old stories about the Wild West when mobs formed their own opinion and went after the person they determined to be guilty with the intent to lynch him.

The French Revolution also comes to mind, with their nominal trials of those who had once held a place of influence in society, which always led to the guillotine.

Of course there are also the recent beheadings that have taken place in Iraq.

If nothing else, the latter should cause Americans to pause and think. Is this the kind of “justice” we want?

But more importantly, what should we as Christians think? It’s hard not to form an opinion, certainly. I mean, when an eighteen-year-old dies, no matter what the circumstances, it’s a sad story. Someone who drives drunk and dies isn’t “deserving” of death any more than a looter would be or someone committing adultery and caught by an enraged husband.

Understandably parents, friends, and loved ones will be grieved. How media people think it’s OK to shove a microphone in the face of someone who’s just lost a person they care about and say, “How do you feel?” is beyond me.

So the first thing I think that should frame a Christian response is compassion. Someone died—and people are rightly devastated.

The second thing I think that should guide a Christian response is a desire for truth. Consequently we should avoid forming a definitive opinion until the facts are known.

Often times, the side which gets to tell their story first is the one many people believe, but “first” doesn’t count in a court of law. According to our judicial system, a person is innocent until proven guilty, and that applies to police officers as much as to a home owner who shoots someone because he says he thought his life was in danger.

Christians should refrain from repeating as fact a statement, even if it comes from the press, about the guilt or innocence of individuals until such time as both sides have had their say and the experts have weighed in with their evidence. Anything else is gossip. It serves no constructive purpose.

Third, Christians should be advocates for changing the culture that creates antagonism between police and citizens and that tolerates looting and violence as a way to protest. What can we do differently to bring communities together?

Ferguson has come up with some creative ideas in the last few days. But what if Christians around the country or the world, did what we could to bring our own communities together without waiting for a crisis such as Ferguson has experienced? What if we did random acts of kindness? What if we showed the love of Jesus to our neighbors? What if we made a lifestyle of serving others?

One more thing. We Christians can turn the heat down on the debate. For one, we can point out how media slants articles (watch for loaded words, either particularly negative or positive, and watch for what details get into the beginning of the story), and we can determine not to be bandwagon jumpers—on either side. We can be more concerned about speaking kindly to others and discussing rather than debating.

Christians should not be silent about events like the shooting death of Michael Brown or its aftermath, but we should have kingdom purposes for what and how we enter into the conversation. Let’s put away political agendas and think long term—about people and their need for a Savior—and may that guide what we say.

Published in: on August 21, 2014 at 6:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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Understanding Unconditional Forgiveness


tangled-pathway-in-the-woodsWith all due respect to Christians like Kevin DeYoung and Stephen Burnett, I’ve taken the position that the Bible teaches Christians to forgive unconditionally. Jesus seems quite clear in His teaching: our experience of forgiveness made possible by Christ’s death on the cross is to be mirrored in our treatment of other people.

In reality, we have to look no farther than the Lord’s pray, and Christ’s follow up instruction, which connects our forgiveness of others with God’s forgiveness of us.

‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors . . .

For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. (Matt. 6:12, 14-15)

What would a person’s life look like if he couldn’t be party to forgiveness unless the person who offended him repented? Would the Father’s forgiveness of him then be contingent upon the offender’s repentance as well?

I’m confident that isn’t what Jesus taught.

In fact, though He gave clear instructions for His followers to forgive as an outgrowth of the forgiveness we have received, Scripture makes it clear that God is the one who forgives sins.

The Pharisees understood that God alone forgives sins, and Jesus capitalized on their knowledge of right doctrine to present them with the truth that He is God. First He told the paralytic man that his sins were forgiven.

But some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:6-7)

Jesus then proceed to heal the man “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” (Mark 2:10) I find it interesting that Jesus forgave the man’s sins though we have no record of him repenting.

However, my point here is that God’s forgiveness and that extended by people are not the same things. Except, Jesus did tell His disciples that whoever they forgave on earth, would be forgiven:

“If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” (John 20:23)

Of course some people believe this was a special provision for the Apostles alone.

And yet, God makes clear throughout the New Testament that we are to forgive.

Jesus, in answer to Peter’s question about how many times we are to forgive, indicated by His answer that our forgiveness is to extend beyond anything we humans would consider doable.

And yet, though forgiveness is a clear command, there seems to be more text in the New Testament dealing with unity. Paul didn’t tell the two women in Philippi who were not seeing eye to eye that they needed to forgive each other. Rather, the instruction was that they were to live in harmony in the Lord (Phil. 4:2).

I tend to think the following verses were Paul’s formula for harmony: Rejoice in the Lord; show a gentle spirit; be anxious for nothing; let God’s peace rule; think on things that are true, right, honorable, pure, lovely, of good repute (Phil. 4:4-8). That latter point seems to be saying, have a charitable focus; give people the benefit of the doubt (I know—not the way we normally read Phil. 4:8).

All this to say, along with forgiveness Scripture also teaches reconciliation. We are to forgive and we are to work for peace with all men. All men. That’s a bit shocking, but that’s what God’s word says: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18).

Of course, reconciliation is not only up to us. It takes two to reconcile. Some people refuse to make peace. Nevertheless, our stance is to be open-handed—for one basic reason: we are not the Judge. God is.

The third aspect of relationships between offender and offended is that vengeance is God’s. We are commanded to get out of God’s way, essentially. We are not to take our pound of flesh because God might count that as the punishment the offender is to bear. Rather, we are to yield the floor to God who judges righteously.

Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:19-21)

I think that’s a clear statement that God will not let the wicked escape. We don’t have to “fret because of evildoers” (Psalm 37:1a).

We actually know on a personal level that there are consequences for sin even though God provides forgiveness. After all, unless Christ comes back to take us with Him, we will die—a consequence of the sin endemic to our nature.

So we are to forgive, we are to work for reconciliation (peace with all men), and we are to let God work His justice.

But what about putting ourselves in the line of fire. Do we keep forgiving the abuser who is sorry, so very sorry—until the next time he becomes angry?

Scripture doesn’t speak to that exact situation, so I can only look for principles that would address the issue. First, working for peace seems contradictory to putting yourself in a situation where you know peace will not come about. So if we are to work for peace, there may be times when to achieve peace, we withdraw.

Second, Paul clearly instructed the church in Corinth to withdraw fellowship from the man living in open sin. Anyone who steals and doesn’t make it right, who treats another person with cruelty, or a variety of other sins, may need to experience a break in fellowship in order to bring about repentance and eventual restoration.

Sadly, churches today do little church discipline. I don’t think an individual was ever intended to figure out when withdrawal from fellowship is the answer. At one point, Paul said he’d given a certain person over to Satan! Now that’s a pastor taking a hard line against sin. Of course, today some people would accuse such a pastor of abuse himself, so there’s no wonder that we’ve moved away from the Biblical principle of church discipline.

Nevertheless, I think a believer needs to be plugged in with a group of mature brothers and sisters who know God’s word and can offer Biblical counsel, not emotional counsel. Above all we should resist the temptation to follow the advice of the world simply because it sounds easier or somehow more “user friendly.”

Sometimes God calls us to walk a hard road, a lonely road, a thankless road. And we should be willing to walk wherever He sends us—whether that’s to reconciliation or to a break in fellowship.

And as I see it, we are to offer forgiveness along either path.

Published in: on July 18, 2014 at 6:20 pm  Comments (5)  
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