Systematizing A Relationship


The nugget my missions pastor passed on to us on Sunday referred to “high theology.” I know what he was talking about. The previous sermons in the book of Ephesians looked at what Paul was telling the believers about their faith, or more accurately, the result of it.

In chapter one, for instance Paul gives a number of “in Him” statements: He chose us, redeemed us, sealed us. Of course he elaborates some on each of those, so that we can understand them and the great gifts we have.

In chapter two Paul gives several “you once were … but now” statements, tied together with a couple “remember” passages. Again he is clarifying who the believer is: what he was saved from, how he was saved, and what he now enjoys as a result of salvation

This is theology.

As Pastor Mike Erre, our soon to be new senior pastor, said when he preached from Ephesians, the first half is full of indicatives–expressions of simple statements of fact.

Theology.

Paul undergirded a number of his letters in this way. First the indicatives, then the imperatives.

In other words, before he addressed what instruction he needed to give the church, what things they should do to live up to their calling, he first wanted to be sure they understood that calling, especially God’s provisions and promises attached to it.

What struck me today, though, as I was reading a book about the Church, is that today we seem to be systematizing our theology to the point that it would be easy to forget we as believers in Jesus Christ primarily have a relationship.

The particular chapter I was reading followed a discussion of what the kingdom of God meant and whether the kingdom of God is synonymous with the Church (no), whether it has come as Jesus said from time to time or if it is still to come.

The discussion reminded me of the interviews I heard with Rob Bell when his book Love Wins first released (see “If Love Wins, How Come Earthquakes Happen?”). He made much of the fact that Jesus said the kingdom was near, was within, and he ignored any statements that indicate the kingdom is something yet to come.

As I’m thinking about this, I suddenly thought, maybe these scholars are being too scholarly. Maybe they’re trying too hard to understand something, to systematize something that is really easy to understand if you get the fact that it is relational more than it is rational.

Rational things can be analyzed and categorized. Relational things are harder to do so. But to a great degree, relational things are easier to figure out.

Jesus made it quite clear: “If you love me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). He expanded on that moments later:

He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him…If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me. (John 14:21-24)

Interestingly, John also records a conversation the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ had with Peter. His repeated question was, Do you love Me? (see John 21:15-17)

I don’t think it requires some kind of understanding of primary languages or a degree in theology to get what Jesus is saying.

If you’ve ever loved someone, you know that you want very much to make them happy. You want to do things they will appreciate, give them things you hope they like. Even if it means giving up what you want. The desire to please them is greater than the desire to go to the movie you want to see or whatever else might be at issue.

Our relationship with God is much the same, Jesus is saying. If I love Him, I’ll want to please Him. It’s not really an academic study, not something we need to understand as much as commit to.

If you’ve been by A Christian Worldview of Fiction before, you probably know that I really like theology. I love studying the Bible and understanding what it says. But I think sometimes we can get so caught up in our study we forget we are dealing with a Person, that we are in a relationship, and that it’s not an overly complicated one–unless we make it so.

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God’s Best-Kept Secret


I suppose it’s inaccurate to call it God’s secret since He put it in the Bible. I mean, if God wants to keep something about Himself secret, no one is going to pry it out of Him and no one is going to sneak behind His back and discover it.

But you’d think it was a secret, seeing as how few people seem to know and understand this basic fact — God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.

People think He does. Some say He’s blood-thirsty and tyrannical. Others say He repented of His Old Testament violent streak which is why He sent Jesus. Some think He rightly takes pleasure in killing off the wicked and so they gleefully announce the doom awaiting those who scorn God’s Son.

What all these people are missing is the difference between announcing something that is true and announcing it with gladness.

I don’t suppose parents say it any more, but when I was growing up, it became quite a standard joke. Before a parent spanked his child, he’d say, This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you. Ha! all the kids thought.

My dad said that line to me once, and I asked him how he could say such a thing. He explained how he did not want to spank me, how sad it made him, but how necessary it was for me to learn to obey. So my dad was willing to take the hurt of going against his true nature, inflicting temporary pain on the children he loved and only wanted to protect.

I have no way of measuring the degree of anguish spanking caused my father, or of comparing that to the physical discomfort I felt because of the swats he gave. But I certainly understood, my dad did not delight in punishing me. Yet he gave me spankings.

Undoubtedly my parents’ approach to discipline has helped me understand God’s judgment. I don’t think it ever crossed my mind that He delighted in destroying the wicked. If He did, He would never have promised Noah that He would refrain from wiping out all living beings with another flood. Instead He would have been more apt to say, That was fun; let’s do it again!

He would never have gone to such an extent to send Jonah to Nineveh or Jeremiah to Jerusalem or Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar if He wasn’t more interested in repentance than in judgment.

If He took delight in the death of the wicked, why would He have sent His Son to provide a way of escape from the consequences of sin?

It’s a silly thing, really, to accuse God of delighting in killing off the wicked. But apparently the people of Ezekiel’s day were saying the same thing. God gave a clear answer to the charge:

“But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die. All his transgressions which he has committed will not be remembered against him; because of his righteousness which he has practiced, he will live. Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,” declares the Lord GOD, “rather than that he should turn from his ways and live? . . .

“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,” declares the Lord GOD. “Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” declares the Lord GOD. “Therefore, repent and live.” (Ezekiel 18:21-32, emphases mine)

I can only imagine that God has been maligned by those who think He shouldn’t punish people at all — or that He shouldn’t offer grace and mercy to those people.

In other words, some judge Him to be cruel because He holds people accountable for their actions, so they deny that He does. A different group judges Him to be sentimental in offering forgiveness to the most heinous sinners, so they deny that He does.

The former pass out copies of Love Wins and the latter waves signs along with the Westboro Baptist crowd. Both obscure the truth about God: He loves the world and He will not allow sin to go unpunished. That doesn’t mean He delights in the death of those who reject Him. Instead, He wants them to repent and live. That’s the secret so many are missing.

Published in: on April 18, 2012 at 5:45 pm  Comments (1)  
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“Love” Does Not Mean “Tolerance”


With all the communication in today’s western society, you’d think we would understand that words have meaning, yet I see blog visitors and hosts alike reminding each other of this fact with some frequency.

The message, however, doesn’t seem to be getting through to everyone.

Take, for example, a lengthy interaction regarding a recent article looking at our view of God in light of our view of hell, generated by Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. In a particular exchange, one commenter declared that he saw the holiness of God as love. The person with whom he was interacting say, no that God’s holiness means justice.

Stop, I wanted to shout. God’s holiness means holiness! Holiness is different from love, as it is different from justice.

In like kind, I’ve seen in a number of discussions on universal salvation, Rob Bell, and Love Wins, either an implication or an accusation that those who disagree with Mr. Bell’s views are intolerant.

What Pastor Bell’s opponents need is a lot more love and a lot less hypocrisy, they say. After all, his critics are exclusivists, happy to see billions and billions of people marching off to an unending fiery ordeal (at this point, some insert graphic details, after which they loudly declare that they could never worship a god who would do such a thing).

In one post I even read that some consider the reaction to Mr. Bell’s book “persecution,” and they likened the treatment he’s received to that meted out to Christ.

It’s time for us to get out the dictionary, I guess. Last time I checked, love does not mean tolerance. Someone who loves may be tolerant, much as God is tolerant of us. Some who claim His Son’s name accuse Him in the same way Satan did — “Has God really said …” and yet God in His loving kindness does not strike down every false teacher. That’s tolerance.

He’s also tolerant, which works itself out as patience, in that He doesn’t judge the world prematurely:

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
– 2 Peter 3:9

However, I can think of instances when tolerance is not prompted by love but by greed or selfishness. Take for example the current game of Survivor. There is one individual who has made himself odious to his alliance because of his personality quirks. However, for various reasons — his physical strength, the fact that his personality makes him no threat to win — his group has kept him in the game. He serves a purpose, so they put up with him. But clearly their tolerance has nothing to do with love.

On the other hand, love is not always tolerant. Sometimes it requires a short leash or a rod of correction. Every parent knows this to be true. A loving parent is not going to tolerate a toddler running into the street. Doubtful that we’d ever hear, I love him too much to tell him he’s headed for danger.

Clearly, love is separate from tolerance. Sometimes love may express itself as tolerance, but other times it will not. And sometimes tolerance is motivated by love and sometimes it is not.

So, no matter what else takes place during the discussions about Rob Bell and Love Wins, can we please put to bed the idea that people who disagree with him are unloving because they aren’t tolerant of his views? Love and tolerance simply do not mean the same thing.

Published in: on April 12, 2011 at 6:06 pm  Comments (6)  
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Improving God


When false teachers surface, they usually do so from within. In some regards, that’s why the priests and Levites opposed Jesus. In thinking themselves to be the purveyors of God’s truth, they saw Jesus as spreading dangerous ideas even as He sat in their temple and synagogues reading and teaching from Scripture.

The unique thing about Christianity is that our truth claims stem from one authoritative source — the Bible. Hence, a cult like Mormonism can spring up from within the ranks, but their falsehood is easy to spot because they have altered the source of truth.

In many ways, the false teachers gaining followers today are doing nothing more than false teachers of the past. They are substituting or adding some other source to the one sure source we have.

The surprising thing is what this new source is — man’s own sense of right and wrong.

How ironic.

God created Man as a moral being, and now Man turns around and wants to improve God.

Men have ignored God in the past, and chosen to worship false gods, they tinkered with His commandments and added a helping of their own. But I wonder if it isn’t a sign of the hubris of our times that the false teaching of today actually thinks God should be a little nicer, a lot gentler, and a considerable amount more loving than how He reveals Himself to be in the Bible.

Some false teachers justify their nicer God by discounting the parts of the Bible that teach about His justice. Others take a more insidious approach. They claim the Bible as their source, then declare that its truth has been distorted — that in the vast Christian tradition, in the conversation that has been going on for thousands of years, some early thinkers embraced a kinder, gentler God than the one the literalists have dogmatically clung to.

Now suddenly, the issue is, What do you believe? not What did God say?

My question for them is this: if God is the loving God people like Rob Bell, author of Love Wins, says, why did He let people for thousands of years misunderstand His love? If the early church thinkers such as Origen who believed in universal salvation were right, why didn’t the loving God they believe in, correct those who declared such thinking to be heretical?

Couldn’t He have alleviated centuries of worry and fear about hell and damnation simply by informing the early church fathers through the Holy Spirit that the literal reading of Jesus’s words about a narrow gate and no one coming to the Father but through Him, were wrong?

As I see it, in their efforts to portray a kinder, more loving God by questioning the clear and plain reading of Scripture, they are actually undermining the authority of the Bible and putting God in a bad light by implying that He did nothing all these years to correct such a grievous error about His character.

The thing is, I’ve understood from Scripture that God is perfect. To suggest that He is other than what we understand Him to be from the Bible is to say that He is not perfect. He has some flaw or weakness that prevented Him from correcting His followers all these years.

When they were holding councils to codify their beliefs and writing creeds and confessions to teach lay people, somehow God couldn’t manage to communicate that they were in error in their understanding, that the things they were writing about hell and His judging the living and dead weren’t true. Only a weak God or an uncaring God or one who hadn’t really revealed Himself in the first place would have let such wrong thinking go on and on for hundreds of years.

Of course the alternative is that God is perfect, answered prayer and guided the leaders as they came together and delineated the tenets of the faith based on the Bible; that they fairly represented His character and truthfully identified Him as the Judge “most just and terrible in his judgments” (from The Westminster Confession of Faith).

Is God only “just and terrible”? Well, no, certainly not. He is, in fact, infinitely loving. That’s why the idea that anyone could improve on His love by contradicting His justice and undermining an understanding of His power is … foolish.

If Love Wins, How Come Earthquakes Happen?


Rob Bell, author of the controversial book Love Wins, is doing the news show/talk show circuit. I saw him on ABC yesterday, only to find out that he also appeared on MSNBC, and apparently the video of that latter interview has gone viral.

I can understand why. Martin Bashir, the MSNBC interviewer, asked pointed theological questions Mr. Bell struggled to answer. His talking points on the ABC appearance had to do with the kingdom of God being here and now, while people can create a hell for themselves because of their hateful attitudes and actions.

All of which does not address Man’s eternal destiny or God’s role as a judge or where He is in the midst of the suffering so poignantly playing before the world in Japan.

Tell the father who watched helplessly as his family washed out to sea that Love wins. Tell that to the nine-year-old who watches the bodies of his parents unearthed from the rubble that had been his home. Tell the people fleeing the radiation cloud that Love wins.

God wins, that is a fact. But the idea that in the here and now, love conquers all, seems naive.

The fact is, ever since sin entered the world, God never promised that love would win here on earth. Rather the opposite. He said the ground would be cursed and Man would survive by the sweat of his brow. What’s more, Man would die because the wages of sin is death. And in the here and now Man must grapple with this knowledge of good and evil, deal with Satan, and live with gender conflict. (See Genesis 3.)

Love wins?

Indeed.

Love wins because this world is not all there is.

Love wins because God didn’t abandon or forsake fallen Man.

Love wins because God so love the world.

Love wins because Jesus bore the sins of the world.

Yet, just as surely as Love wins, God will not be mocked.

Sadly, Rob Bell wants to make a case for love winning because Man can make a better world for himself here and now rather than the hell of hatred so many have locked themselves in.

This way of looking at heaven and hell sounds so good, but is so incomplete. And hurtful to the people who had no control over the shaking earth or surging water.

Their hope, according to Mr. Bell, is his speculation that after death they will confront Love and be won to Him. Never mind what the Bible says.

How can we not shout out to the watching world that God gives a greater hope because His Son took on the suffering due sinners, if only we believe? How can we cry peace, peace unless we make it clear that Jesus is the only source of peace?

Undoubtedly, the conversation about Love and heaven and hell is just getting started. It’s important and relevant and necessary. But if the hard-hitting MSNBC interview is any indication what is coming, I hope we all find a good Solid Rock on which to stand. 😀

Published in: on March 16, 2011 at 7:14 pm  Comments (13)  
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Hell And The Postmodern Generation


When I was growing up in the middle of the twentieth century, at times I felt out of step with my culture. After all, I and my Christian college classmates helped rescue books from our school library, when across town students in the secular university were burning a nearby bank and sending bomb threats to their library.

As I see it, those beginnings of a cultural divide are nothing compared to what Bible-believing Christians growing up in today’s postmodern culture are going to face. Think about it. Spanking, even among Christian parents, is nearly a thing of the past. School is to be tolerated or, for the bright students, to be used as a means to a good job. It is definitely not a place to develop your ability to think and reason. Fewer and fewer of the postmodern generation attend church, though some are experiencing centering prayer and participating in conversations.

Consequently, a teen growing up with parents who spank, homeschool, and take him to a Bible-believing church, will be an anomaly. More and more, he can expect “the world” to believe differently than he does.

The discussion over Love Wins, Rob Bell’s book that apparently calls into question the doctrine of hell is, I suspect, indicative of how great the divide has become.

There are a number of root issues. For starters, postmodern philosophy does not believe in absolute truth. What’s right for you might not be what’s right for me.

That leads to tolerance, the word of the day. All people and their lifestyles are as acceptable as all others. It’s only OK to hate hateful people. Of course, by hateful people we actually mean people who disagree.

The biggest issue, though, is that postmoderns believe ardently in Man’s goodness. Society, nations, corporations, religion, of course, are all evil, but Man is good.

How then, could this generation possibly believe in hell? They have not experienced just and loving punishment. They have no belief in absolute truth. They discount sin.

As a result, they do not believe anyone (except maybe mass murderers, as long as that doesn’t include abortion doctors) deserves to be shut out of heaven, let alone suffer for eternity. And any God, should he actually exist, who would do such a thing, would be too cruel to have as a god.

Fortunately, they think, since spirituality is something personal and individual, anyone can re-image god according to his own conscience, which by the way, is bound to be a lot nicer than the God of the Old Testament. Jesus, now he’s another story. He’s alright. All those cool myths about him walking on water and stuff — it’s almost like he’s a superhero. And love! That guy had it figured out — love, love, love, and stick it to the religious bunch! We like Jesus!

You see the divide. The Bible contradicts each of these points.

Man is not good, he is sinful.

God is a real person, sovereign and infinite, loving, righteous, just, good, merciful, and true. (And His Son is exactly the same).

Man’s sin is an offense to God because it is rebellion.

The payment for rebellion is death, first physically, then a second “death” that is eternal punishment in a real place we know as hell.

Despite what postmodern thinkers say or believe, these absolutes don’t go away with a wave of the mantra, It might be true for you, but it’s not true for me. True is true. What’s more, God “has granted everything to us pertaining to life and godliness through the true knowledge of Him.”

Peter wrote that at the beginning of his second letter, but he went on in the next chapter to explain some of that “everything :

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; and if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter; and if He rescued righteous Lot … then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority … But these, like unreasoning animals, born as creatures of instinct to be captured and killed, reviling where they have no knowledge, will in the destruction of those creatures also be destroyed, suffering wrong as the wages of doing wrong.
– 2 Peter 2:4-13a (emphases added)

What does a long passage about coming judgment have to do with life and godliness? For one thing, it reveals God’s nature. He is a just judge. No one is going to suffer wrong as the wages of doing right.

He also has spelled out as a warning, replete with examples, what the unrighteous will face.

And He has made it clear that there is a way of escape.

Published in: on March 9, 2011 at 7:43 pm  Comments (6)  
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