Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Existence of God 2/3: The Design Argument

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).
The cosmological argument is basically the answer to the question “why is there anything at all?” The next question is “why is the universe such that life can exist?”

Some claim science has removed any need for God as an explanation of the universe. The truth is actually the opposite: The more we learn about the universe, the more science points toward God.

There is no reason that the universe should be a hospitable place. In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking wrote, “The laws of science ... contain many fundamental numbers.... The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”

Dart in bullseye
The list of parameters that must be “finely adjusted” only seems to grow with time. One example is the cosmological constant which must be the same within 1 in 10120* (1). How do we even make sense of a number like that? “Let’s say you were way out in space and were going to throw a dart at random toward the Earth. It would be like successfully hitting a bull’s eye that’s one trillionth of a trillionth of an inch in diameter” (2).

The expansion rate of the universe must be tuned within 1 in 1055 (3) out of an infinite possible range (4). The energy of the excited state of a carbon-12 nucleus must be pretty much exactly what it is (5).

Some other examples include:

  • The gravitational coupling constant
  • The strong, weak, and electromagnetic force coupling constants
  • The ratio of electrons to protons
  • The ratio of the electron’s mass to the proton’s
  • The mass of the universe
  • The stability of protons
  • The velocity of light (6)
  • The ratio of the EM force relative to gravity (7)

There are dozens more. Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose gives the odds that the initial conditions of the universe might produce a universe in which we can live as 1 in 1010123. “Just to speak aloud those billions would require more time than the universe has existed” (8).

But it’s all just coincidence, right? Maybe there are countless universes in some kind of multiverse, and we’re just in the lucky one that can sustain life. Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin boiled it down to just the possibility of a universe in which stars can form. The odds of such a universe are 1 in 10229. “If every proton in the universe represented a universe, ... none of those universes would contain a star” (9). In other words, invoking a “multiverse” doesn’t get us a livable universe.

That’s why Stephen Hawking admitted, “It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us” (10).

Sir Arthur Eddington, who frankly found a beginning to the universe philosophically “repugnant,” said, “If we put a kettle of water on the fire there is a [1 in 1020] chance that the water will freeze. ... But it will not happen to me. ... I would much sooner believe in interference by a demon than in a coincidence of that kind coming off; and in doing so I shall be acting as a rational scientist” (11).

If the supernatural is the appropriate explanation for Eddington’s kettle freezing, what else can be the explanation for the mind boggling odds against our just-right universe?

And this is just the laws of physics as they apply to the universe at large. The design that goes into having a habitable planet and living organisms, as well as the origin of information, is equally staggering. When stacked together, it’s not surprising that this argument has convinced many scientists and philosophers that God must exist. God has left his fingerprints on the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. Whether it’s King David 3000 years ago or astronomers today, people who look at nature with an open mind can see that it declares the glory of God.

For more information, I recommend There Is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind by Anthony Flew.

* Click here for a quick refresher on scientific notation

(1) Steven Weinberg, “Life in the Universe,” Scientific American (Oct 94), p 44-49
(2) Robin Collins in Lee Strobel, The Case for a Creator (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), p133-4
(3) Alan Guth, “Inflationary Universe,” Physical Review D 23 (1981), p 348
(4) George Gale, “The Anthropic Principle,” Scientific American (Dec 81), p154-71
(5) Weinberg, ibid
(6) Hugh Ross, The Fingerprint of God (Orange, Ca: Promise Publishing Co., 1991), p 119-128
(7) Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1995), p 111-121
(8) quoted in Gerald L. Schroeder, The Science of God (New York: Broadway Books, 1997), p 186
(9) quoted in Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017), p lxviii
(10) Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1988), p 125-127
(11) Sir Arthur Eddington, “The End of the World: from the Standpoint of Mathematical Physics,” Nature 127 (1931), p 447-53

Image credit: On Target by Vizzzual, used under Creative Commons

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Existence of God 1/3: The Cosmological Argument

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1).
Before we get into the theology, it’s best to stop and answer one of the biggest questions of our age: How can you believe in a deity? Over the centuries, Christians have formulated dozens of arguments to prove the existence of God. One of the oldest, and my favorite, has had a revival in modern times due to advancing scientific knowledge.

It’s called the cosmological argument. Written as a syllogism, it goes like this:

  1. Everything that began to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist. 
  3. Therefore the universe has a cause.
For centuries the second statement was attacked. Many scientists took it as an object of faith that the universe was eternal. Then the 20th Century happened. Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity seemed to require that the universe was expanding. Then Hubble discovered that all the galaxies in the universe are moving apart from each other as if they were all the product of a massive explosion. The Big Bang theory was born. General Relativity and Big Bang cosmology have been bolstered by several discoveries since. Today, it is very difficult to deny that the universe began to exist, though there are scientists who try because of the religious implications. Even if someone doesn't believe in Big Bang cosmology, the second law of thermodynamics also requires the universe to have a finite beginning.

Since statement #2 is hard to deny,* people today will do something no one ever dreamed of before and attack statement #1. But that’s simply absurd. Nothing has ever been observed to come into existence without a cause, and there’s no reason to believe that there could be one massive exception in the universe itself.

It is important to get the first statement right. It is not “everything has a cause.” This is how atheists usually misrepresent the argument, and in that form the obvious rejoinder is “who created God?” But if only that which began to exist has a cause, there is room for something to be uncreated, eternal.

In fact, something must be eternal. If not, then something created the universe, and something else created that, and something else created that, and on forever. But an infinite progression like that is mathematically and logically impossible. So something has to be eternal, and the universe is not it.

But why does that eternal thing have to be God? Can’t it just be some kind of creative force? No. It must be a mind, a personal being.

Philosopher William Lane Craig, the man who revived the cosmological argument in the 20th Century, explains:

Ice cube
“If a cause is sufficient to produce its effect, then if the cause is there, the effect must be there, too. For example, water freezes when the temperature is below 0 degrees centigrade; the cause of the freezing is the temperature’s falling to 0 degrees. If the temperature has always been below 0 degrees, then any water around would be frozen from eternity. It would be impossible for the water to begin to freeze just a finite time ago. Now the cause of the universe is permanently there, since it is timeless. So why isn’t the universe permanently there as well? Why did the universe come into being only 13.7 billion years ago? ... The answer to this problem must be that the cause is a personal being with freedom of the will. His act of creating the universe is a free act that is independent of any prior conditions. ... Thus, we’re brought not merely to a transcendent cause of the universe but to its Personal Creator.”

So modern science has joined together with ancient philosophy to demonstrate that a timeless, powerful, non-physical being created the universe because he decided to. God did not have to create us. God chose to create us. We should respond to that by choosing to get to know him.

For more detail on this topic, the best place to go is the man who (re-)started it all. William Lane Craig’s On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision has an excellent popular level explanation of the cosmological argument among other topics.

*The universe’s beginning to exist is only necessary for this argument. If the universe were eternal, that does not disprove the existence of God. Aquinas made many arguments for the existence of God assuming the universe was eternal because it was simply too easy to prove if the universe had a beginning.

Image credit: Deshaping by Daniel Frančišković, used under Creative Commons

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Rights and Responsibilities

People today are very concerned about making sure they get the rights they are due. That stems partly from how we got started:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Those words set the United States apart in 1776. People are born with rights. They are not privileges granted by government; they are granted by the Almighty, and a good government is the one that recognizes and protects those rights.

But there's a problem with the way many Americans — including many American Christians — think of their rights. It is an error to think that God only granted us rights. He also gave us duties:

"As God’s slaves, live as free people, but don’t use your freedom as a way to conceal evil. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor" (1Pet 2:16-17 HCSB).

"Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor" (Rom 13:7).

"So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matt 7:12).
Is that enough to make the point? God expects us to fear him, love our neighbor as ourselves, and respect our government leaders among other things. Even though we have rights, we are expected to behave as if other people have a claim on us.

Our society generally recognizes this. We have freedom of speech but a duty to tell the truth, and there are penalties for libel and slander. We have a freedom to assemble but most see a duty to do it in a way that is not a nuisance — and most see closing down highways during rush hour as a violation of that duty.

But when things don't go our way, we tend to focus on our rights to the exclusion of all else. We want our rights to be honored and, all too often, don't care about the affect on anyone else. Americans don't like this, but "my rights" are not the most important thing in the world. My duty to my neighbor may occasionally requires that I set aside some of my rights and privileges. My duty to the duly elected government may require that I do things I don't want to do.

This is something we have to keep in mind all of the time. We need to be mindful of our duties in traffic ("do to others what you would have them do to you"), during the several times a year we pay various taxes, and when we have unwanted trash in our hands and no convenient garbage can. We also need to keep this in mind when we're at the grocery stores and restaurants — the other customers and the staff matter to God. And occasionally the government has to remind us of this. Sometimes the government has to ask us, even tell us, to do things for the greater good.

That's not to say the government never goes too far, but if we are considering pressing for our rights, there are some questions that we should ask ourselves:
  • How will my actions affect my neighbor?
  • Is the government just flexing its muscles, or is it asking me to do something for the sake of my neighbor?
  • If everyone acted like this, what would the result be?
Don't be too quick to demand your rights. We are occasionally obliged to set aside our rights for the sake of our neighbors. If Paul was willing to give up meat (!) for the sake of another's conscience (1Cor 8:13), what might God ask you to tolerate?

To make sure I'm clear, I'm not saying everyone should be a doormat for the state. I'm saying "my rights" cannot be our first priority. Love of neighbor and obedience to God's word must take that place.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Introduction to Theology Proper

“Taste and see that the LORD is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).
Now I get to write about God. I’ve been chomping at the bit, because this is a topic that makes my heart sing.

pastry assortment
Does that seem odd? As J. Gresham Machen wrote, "Many Christians today have a horror of theology; they suppose it must necessarily be a cold and lifeless thing.” Enjoying studying God would be odd if studying God were like memorizing logarithm tables. But what if it were like getting to know the most beautiful, clever, and fascinating person you’ve ever met? Would it be odd then? I don’t think most people would regard it so.

Theology can be made dry if it is treated like facts and figures, but when it is treated like the privilege of getting to know the maker of the universe it cannot be. God is an eternal, infinite being with the wisdom and power to make a universe, yet he condescends to disclose himself to us. There is an unimaginable beauty and glory that can only be experienced at his invitation, and he invites us to come. Though he is perpetually surrounded by adoring angels, he wants us to know him and has made a way for us to do so. How can we respond to this with anything less than enthusiasm?

Theology is not only exciting and beautiful, it is also life-giving. JI Packer wrote, “There is no peace like the peace of those whose minds are possessed with full assurance that they have known God, and God has known them, and that this relationship guarantees God’s favor to them in life, through death and on forever.” CH Spurgeon, the famous 19th Century preacher said, “[N]othing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continued, investigation of the great subject of the Deity.” The joy and peace that come from God cannot be found anywhere else. As St. Augustine put it, we are made for God, and our hearts will be restless until they find rest in him.

Theology is also intensely practical. Blogger Wendy Alsup wrote, “The reverential fear that comes from truly understanding God’s character sets us on a path of wisdom and understanding. Theology, simply put, IS practical. If our study of God hasn’t broken into the ins and outs of our busy daily lives, we may have not accessed real theology at all.” AW Tozer said, “A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but to practical Christian living as well.”

Packer again (I’ll be quoting him a lot in this section): “Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you.”

Come to the study of God like a child led to the dessert buffet. It is truly all you can eat, and I promise this will make you neither fat nor sick. God’s glory is on display in the world around us and in the pages of scripture, and we get to feast. Taste and see that the Lord is good!

One of the best ways to get an appreciation for God’s character is to examine how he acts toward us. I recommend Paradoxology: Why Christianity was Never Meant to be Simple by Krish Kandiah.

Photo credit: Welleschik, used under Creative Commons

Monday, April 27, 2020

Doctrinal errors and their consequences

“Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matt 22:29).
Why does it matter what we believe about the Bible? It matters because the scriptures are how God communicates his nature and his will to us, so wrong attitudes toward the Bible affect how we live. Here are some of the common errors and the results they tend to have.

Some people almost make the Bible a deity. Besides the offense to God this represents, these people also tend to read the Bible hyper-literally, not believing that there is symbolism in the Bible that is not supposed to be taken at face-value. They tend to accomplish this feat via amazing leaps of illogic that cannot be sustained by any but the most committed. This creates a “faith” that cannot survive the real world, creating a lot of “ex-Christians”.

Naturalism/Just the words of men
These people don’t believe in the inspiration of scripture. There are people who would call themselves Christians who do not believe divine inspiration is possible. Still more would say, even if it’s possible, it didn’t happen. To them the Bible is just a book written by men, some wiser than others. When inerrancy and inspiration are lost, people pick and choose what parts of the scriptures they will believe. This part seems mean, so we’re not going to believe that. This part is hard, so it’s out. You very quickly get a religion that is Christianity in name only. The deity and physical resurrection of Christ have historically been early casualties of these processes. Sin gets watered down until basically anything goes so long as you’re “nice”, so you don’t need an atoning death of Christ, which is good because that was mean anyway. No sin means no hell so no evangelism, so the lost do not hear the gospel.

Gnosticism (New Age)
These people don’t believe in the sufficiency of scripture. Ancient Gnostics were looking for secret knowledge from or about God. Modern Gnostics, though they don’t go by the same name, are basically doing the same thing. Christianity’s nice, but the Bible doesn’t have everything we need to know about God; we have to search out the secrets the other religions have discovered. Besides the fact that the other religions (especially the Far Eastern ones) have vastly different conceptions of God than we do, opening yourself to other religions leads to an “all roads lead to Rome” approach. Moral relativism soon follows. Things are added to their faith that run completely contrary to the revealed truth of God.

Code book

Bible code example
These people don’t believe in the clarity of scripture. Bible code hunters, like Gnostics, are looking for secret knowledge, but they’re looking for it in the Bible. They think there are secret messages that can be found by reading every eighth character of the text or some such. The truth is that you can find these “codes” in just about any text of sufficient length. It’s just random chance. But their error leads them to believe that they have truths that Christians in the past were not privy to. And they tend to believe some pretty weird things, almost invariably about the end times.

“Red-letter Christians”
These people also effectively deny the inspiration of scripture, but in a different way than those above. They want to create a “canon within the canon” where the words of Jesus carry more weight than the words of the apostles. “Wait, what’s wrong with that?” It’s two-fold. First, the same Spirit by which Jesus spoke inspired the prophets and the apostles. If there appears to be conflict between them, the fault lies in our flawed interpretation.

Second, we do not have anything written by Jesus. We have the things the apostles transmitted to us as they tried to teach the lessons their intended audiences needed to learn. We must not think that we have some kind of direct link to him. One of the fundamental concepts of Bible interpretation is that the more didactic portions should interpret the narratives. In this case, the epistles explain the gospels. We cannot understand what the gospels writers meant to say independent of the epistles.

These folks often mean well. They generally are trying to push the Church to be more outward focused, more charitable. But experience has taught us that this is usually accompanied by being less gospel focused. We quickly lose sight of the mission of the Church. Sometimes, though, these people are trying to excuse moral issues that are not directly addressed in the gospels but that are addressed in the epistles.

If we’re going to live in a way that pleases God, we have to keep the word of God in its proper place, neither elevating it to godhood nor picking and choosing the parts we want to follow. We have what the Lord wants us to have in order to know him and to please him.

Image credit: "Bible code" by Cmglee, used under Creative Commons

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Are there errors and contradictions in the Bible?

“He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it” (1 Kings 7:23).
“How can you trust the Bible? It’s full of errors and contradictions!” The critics are sure the Bible is full of errors. Some of them can even give a couple of examples if pressed. But it’s easy to find lists if you search. One of Bart Ehrman’s many books is a compendium of “contradictions” he assures the reader are completely irreconcilable. (They’re not.)

Before we talk about the alleged errors, it’s important to lay down some ground rules. Rule #1: Give a text the benefit of the doubt. Any text, even those not in the Bible. If a text can be understood in two ways, and one of them makes sense, assume that is what the author meant. It’s just good manners. To put it another way, the burden of proof is on the skeptic.

Rule #2: Pursuant to Rule #1, a plausible solution is a solution. All we need to do is show that there is a reasonable way to allow the text to make sense.

Rule #3, which I borrow from Rick Cornish’s 5 Minute Apologist: “A hard passage does not imply a mistaken passage.” Some things are hard to understand. Your inability to understand it does not make it a mistake.

Rule #4: Context, context, context. The vast majority of alleged “errors and contradictions” you’ll find on the web are simply taken out of context.

Norm Geisler, in When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences, gives some guidelines for handling difficult passages.

  1. Be sure you know what the text says. Often a misquoted text will mislead someone.
  2. Be sure you know what the text means. The Bible uses some words and phrases that may not mean exactly what you expect them to mean.
  3. Don’t confuse imprecision with error.
  4. Don’t confuse perspective with falsity.
  5. Language about the world is everyday language. We all use phenomenological language.
  6. Remember that the Bible records things it does not approve.
I would add that we must remember that culture influences writing. Modern readers see quotation marks and assume, well, that it’s a direct quote. Ancients not only didn’t have quotation marks, they didn’t even have the concept. They would move from direct quote to paraphrase and back without blinking. A story didn’t have to be retold with the same amount of detail every time nor all the details in the same order.

Also, ancients gave authors a fair amount of license. Minor details weren’t important to them. They were free to round numbers. Times were not precise. People didn’t have watches, so they estimated the time in very broad terms. 10 AM would be called “about 9” by one and “about noon” by another.

Adding to the above about imprecision, realize that ancient people frequently didn’t share our interest in precision. Unless is was absolutely required, it was more trouble than it was worth. Many cultures didn’t have fractions or decimals. In the passage quoted above, the Bible’s not suggesting that pi is 3; the "Sea" was roughly 10 cubits across, roughly 30 cubits around, and was mostly circular. We joke about “one, two, many,” but some cultures literally used large numbers to mean “many.” Some have suggested that “120 years” in the Bible is a metaphor for “a ripe, old age.”

The Bible quotes people who lie. And people who make mistakes in what they say. And people who tell the same story in different ways. These are not mistakes in the Bible; they’re simply what happened.

That said, there are some places in the Bible, even in the gospels, that can’t be just brushed away. Why are two different genealogies given for Jesus? How could the sun stand still for Joshua? What day was Jesus crucified? How did Judas die? There are answers to these questions, but they’re not the kind of thing that can be dismissed as the critics being picky.

Just as there are entire books that list these issues, there are entire books that exist to answer these issues. No one has found a new “contradiction” in the Bible. We’ve been studying the same book for 2000 years; there are no surprises. So when you have a question, or when someone brings up a supposed error you can’t answer, don’t panic. Look it up. Give the word of God the benefit of the doubt, and do the hard work of finding answers to your questions.

For detailed examples, see the Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason L. Archer.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

What is the Bible for?

“... [F]rom infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:15-17).
This passage is a wonderful summary of what the word of God does for us.

It teaches us things we need to know. First and foremost, the Bible is how we know God. It makes us “wise for salvation.” It is the method God has chosen to reveal himself. The word of God tells us how to gain eternal life, and, according to Jesus, “... this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God ...” (John 17:3). We get to know God the way we get to know anyone else: By talking to him and listening to him. Communication is necessary, and this is his part of the conversation.

It is also food for the soul. Jesus said, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt 4:4). The spiritual health of a believer will be affected by how much time he or she spends in the word.

It also teaches us about people. Do you want to know about the wickedness in other people’s hearts? Do you want to know how to distinguish the lazy, the proud, or the immoral from the righteous? It’s in there. Do you want to see the dangers that lurk in the hearts of even good people? It’s in there. Do you want to know, when temptation strikes, whether you should fight or run? It’s in there.

The Bible also teaches us what God expects from us. It does this so that we can “be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” If you want to be useful to God’s Kingdom work, thorough immersion in the scriptures is required. You will be of no use if you do not know God plans, his standards, and his methods. You cannot represent him if you do not share his heart. This all comes through the scriptures.

Thy Word is a Lamp unto My Feet and a Light unto My Path
The word of God “is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105). We saw before that the Bible “makes wise the simple.” The scriptures were given to us so that we would know the way God wants us to go. It is not a map showing us everything we’d want to know, but it is a flashlight, allowing us to pick our steps carefully in a fallen world.

The scriptures also rebuke and correct us. “The decrees of the LORD are firm, and all of them are righteous. ... By them your servant is warned ... But who can discern their own errors?” (Psalm 19:9,11,12). God gave us all a conscience, but it is a fallen conscience. You can convince yourself anything you want to do is right. If you’re spiritually healthy the truth will nibble at you, but you can ignore it if you want to. The scriptures are our Jiminy Cricket, telling us where we’ve gone wrong and pointing out the right way.

The word of God is also our weapon. Paul calls it “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17). With it, Jesus fought the temptations of Satan. We can do the same (Eph 6:11).

Ultimately, the Bible transforms us. Paul wrote, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2). Either we will conform to the world, or we will be transformed by the word. No other options are given.

God did not just abandon us here to try and figure out what he wants and how to live. “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Pet 1:3-4).

He gave us this great gift to equip us for the works he wants us to accomplish through his Spirit. What do you think the appropriate response would be?

Image credit: Thy Word is a Lamp unto My Feet and a Light unto My Path by Bertram Poole

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

A Trustworthy Saying on Salvation

I've been looking forward to Paul's last "trustworthy saying," and it's one that is especially appropriate for reflection at Easter.
"[W]hen the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us,
not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.
He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior,
so that, having been justified by his grace,
we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:4-7).
I broke the passage up into meaty lines, each of which could be an Easter sermon. Read over those verses a few times and soak it in. When you're ready to start shoutin', we'll move on.

In the interest of time, let's focus on two things:

"[God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy."
Why "mercy?" Our society doesn't like this part. Why does God need to show me mercy? I'm a pretty good guy. I don't cheat on my taxes or beat my wife or kids. I'm not perfect, but I'm alright. So what's the big deal?

We don't understand that our righteous acts are all filthy rags in God's sight. Every "good deed" we've ever done has been tainted by self-interest. It was an attempt to silence our guilt, or we secretly hoped people would notice our good deeds. We want to make sure someone thanks us or admires us. So our good deeds are worthless.

But our bad deeds are legion. We've been sinning since we could walk. No one ever has to be taught to lie or be selfish. Violence comes to us naturally, as do greed and jealousy. Paul says in verse 3 we are "foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another."

It's not that we didn't quite measure up, weren't quite good enough. We were wicked, rebellious, and obstinate. We didn't just not deserve mercy; we deserved wrath.

But God, who is rich in mercy, loved us and took upon himself the penalty for our sins. He made a way so that we could be reconciled to him. He “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions" (Eph 2:4-5). (Here's some mood music to help you reflect on this truth.)

The second thing is that ...

"He saved us ... so that ... we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life."
I never get tired of talking about our adoption in Christ. God did not save us solely to rescue us from hell. He did not intend that we should become servants in his kingdom. No, his plan was that Christ should be "the firstborn among many brothers and sisters" (Rom 8:29). How great is the love the Father has lavished upon us that we should be called children of God! (Here's another song reflecting on the grace of God.)

God saved us so that we could be adopted into his family and through that have the hope of eternal life. That promise is something we should always cherish, but this very odd Easter season it should hold a special power. None of us is promised tomorrow, but right now many people are wondering if they will see another Easter. People are confined to their homes hoping to see their relatives again. But Christians have a hope that transcends this life, and the world needs to see that we do not fear death because we know that death has already been defeated.

And there's something else the world needs to see. If we focus only on our justification and our hope in Christ, we'll miss the point Paul was trying to make here. As he did in other places, Paul rolled out this powerful theological teaching to drive home a very mundane lesson.

"Remind the people ... to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always gentle toward everyone. At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived ...

But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done..." (3:1-5).

Reflecting on our salvation should produce humility. We were not saved by the good things we did but in spite of what we were, and we should respond to the people around us as people of grace, people who know that everything we have is a gift. Are the people around you acting like panicky, selfish children? "And such were some of you." Are people around you lashing out in fear or anger? "There but for the grace of God go I." Reflect on the grace you have been shown and respond to the sinners around you with the love of Christ and the patience of, well, a saint.

Paul ends this passage with "And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good" (3:8).

God did not save us because of the good deeds we have done, but he saved us to do good deeds. He wants us to live like children of the King.

So in this crazy time, whether you're watching the news from the safety of your couch, venturing out of your home to forage for food, or having to go to work, "be gentle toward everyone". Remember what you were and would still be were it not for the grace of God. And "love your neighbor as yourself." Remember most of all that the lost around you need to hear about the hope that you have in Christ Jesus.

Monday, April 6, 2020

What do we believe about the Bible? Sola Scriptura

“And [Jesus] continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7:9).
The struggle during the Protestant Reformation was over salvation, specifically whether we’re saved by faith alone or if good works are required, but a necessary battle was over the authority of the scriptures. What was the ultimate authority for the Church — the Bible or the traditions as taught by the Roman Catholic Church?

The Roman Catholic Church teaches the dual authority of tradition and scripture, but it is scripture interpreted according to their tradition, and when push comes to shove, if some tradition cannot be supported by scripture, tradition wins. On the other side, RC Sproul says, “Luther and the other Reformers said that only one authority ultimately has the absolute right to bind our consciences. Luther did not demean the lesser authority of the church or the importance of historic church councils such as Nicea and Chalcedon. His point was that even church councils do not have the same level of authority that the Bible has. This focused attention on the nature of and basis for biblical authority.”

It is incumbent upon us to diligently and prayerfully study the scriptures. Then we have to do what it says. Every other authority has to be subordinate to the word of God.
This does not mean that tradition is not important. The apostles taught the first generation of the church, who taught the next, who taught the next, etc. We should not ignore what they taught. But it is not scripture, and if we are convinced that they are in error, we have to follow what we believe is the teaching of scripture. As Jesus repeatedly showed in the gospels, religious traditions can run off the rails. We must always be testing tradition against scripture.

That does not mean, however, that the Bible means whatever you think it means. Many have taken the reformation slogan of “sola scriptura” and perverted it into “me and my Bible are all I need.” Instead of “sola scriptura” this error has been called “solo scriptura”.

The doctrine of the clarity of scripture comes with the caveat of diligent, educated, prayerful study. It assumes that God has given wisdom and insight to other believers and you’ve consulted their work. It assumes you’re reading the biblical text in proper grammatical, historical, and theological context. It assumes you’re keeping the sum total of the Bible’s teaching in mind.

“Me and my Bible” tends to result in heresies of every stripe. It has led people to deny the deity of Christ, to support racism, and to divide churches over tertiary issues.

Instead of “solo scriptura”, ie, my Bible all by itself, we should seek the help of educated believers who have dedicated their lives to the study of the scriptures. We have to learn to study the word well, to learn theology (which is what we’re doing right here) so we know what the right answer isn’t, and to use good Bible study tools like commentaries and Bible dictionaries. To borrow from Isaac Newton, we see further by standing on the shoulders of giants.

God wants us to know him and his will through his word. He has promised that he will help us to understand it. But it is the height of hubris to refuse the helps that he has given us through our brothers and sisters in Christ because we are expecting to be provided everything supernaturally.

“The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:9b-10).

The word of God is a treasure that is worth the effort, humility, and occasionally expense to learn to handle it properly.

For more on the authority of scripture, see “Scripture and Authority” in Everyone’s a Theologian by RC Sproul.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

A Trustworthy Saying on Endurance

There's a reason why most new year's resolutions are broken before the month is out: Perseverance is hard. We don't like doing hard things. Unfortunately, Jesus calls us to do hard things. He calls us to work hard, to suffer, and to endure through the hard times. Paul invoked this in the next of his "trustworthy sayings":

If we died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him.
If we disown him, he will also disown us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful,
for he cannot disown himself. (2 Tim 2:11-13).

I used to do "verses I wish weren't in the Bible." This would be a good candidate for that series. I spent a lot of time thinking about this passage and looking through commentaries trying to make it not say what it appears to say, but I couldn't.

If we died with him, we will also live with him
This saying starts off pretty positively. If you have placed your trust in the death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and to make you right with God, according to Paul you have died with Christ (Rom 6). And so the believer will live with him, probably referring to the future, but there is also a sense in which he have eternal life now.

Paul said, "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his" (Rom 6:4-5). Or in Jesus' simple statement, "Because I live, you also will live" (John 14:19b). We have hope, not because of what we have done, but because of what he has done.

If we endure, we will also reign with him
And then things get hard. "If we endure." If we endure what? Whatever the world, the flesh, and the devil throw at us? Probably, but especially that first one. Up to this point Paul has been reminding Timothy to expect persecution for the gospel. We have to endure. Jesus "for the joy set before him he endured the cross" (Heb 12:2), and we're expected to do no less (cf, Matt 10:22). But he has promised that those who endure will reign by his side (eg, Rom 8:17, 1 Cor 4:8). But that is if they endure.

If we disown him, he will also disown us
And then things get ugly. Paul didn't make this up. Jesus himself said, "Whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven" (Matt 10:33). The commentaries point out that there are more than one way to deny Christ. You can do it verbally, but you can also do it by your actions (eg, Titus 1:16). Christians throughout the ages, even today, have been offered the trade of denying their Lord to save their life, but so many deny him by their actions to make money or to make their lives a little easier. We are offered the opportunity to deny him daily, and we have to reject that opportunity daily. "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23).

But all is not lost. Jesus was betrayed twice. Judas, loving money, payed him false honor while delivering him into the hands of the Jews. Peter, fearing men, denied even knowing him. One of those men died in sin. The other died repentant after a long life of service. No single act of denial is fatal. Because ...

If we are faithless, he remains faithful
The Lord knows we are dust (Psalm 103:14). He wants us to endure. He wants us to deny ourselves and take up our crosses. But he knows "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak". We are not to presume upon his generosity, but we can trust in his grace (1 Cor 1:8-9).

Paul wrote this to Timothy to remind him that persecution will come and to encourage him to stand strong. Paul wanted him, and us, to persevere. We don't know what lies ahead for any of us or for the Church, but we know we were promised "in this world you will have trouble." Our response should be to "put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes ... so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand" (Eph 6:11, 13).