Monday, February 1, 2016

Fairy Tales

In the post-Christmas season, we tend to contemplate the earthly ministry of Christ. Let's start with how Luke begins the tale:
"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar — when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene — during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness" (Luke 3:1-2).
This story occurred during the period of time when the lives of seven different historical figures overlap. Why would someone waste ink and parchment on a detail like that?

Luke wanted to make sure we knew that the story he was about the tell is grounded in history. The story of Jesus didn't happen "once upon a time." It didn't happen "a long time ago, in a [place] far, far away." It happened "in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar ...."

Why is that important? So that you and I can know the apostles "did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power" (2Pet 1:16).

The Gospel is not just a nice story to tell sitting around the campfire; it is supposed to turn your life upside down. So it's important to know that this really happened.

Monday, January 11, 2016

On Human Trafficking

It's Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Not only does human trafficking still happen, it still happens in the West. There are slaves today in the United States of America. More than a dozen cases of human trafficking were reported in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex over the last eight years. Slavery is as much of a problem as it's ever been, but now it's under the radar.

In the past I reviewed and recommended the book Not for Sale. I'd like to encourage you again to read it. It will begin to reveal to you the depth and breadth of the problem. It will also give you some tips on how to identify forced labor in your own community because, as the author of the book found out, the closest slavery ring may be operating out of your favorite restaurant.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Johannine Christmas reading

St. John doesn't get much love at Christmas. Here's a little something from him on the subject:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. (1)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (2)

(1) 1 John 1:1-2
(2) John 1: 1, 14, 10-12

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

What Does 'Believe in Jesus' Mean?

Evangelical Christians throw the phrases "believe in Jesus" and the more-or-less synonymous "ask Jesus into your heart" around freely, so much so that they've entered into American pop religion. The problem is we rarely take the time to explain what they really mean which can result in people having a very confused, un-biblical understanding.

So what does it really mean to "believe in Jesus?"

What it isn't
First, let's look at some things that are commonly mistaken for the real thing. Believing in Jesus isn't just believing that he's real or that he really was a historical person. It's not even believing that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

It's not believing Jesus cares about you. It's not praying to him. It's not believing he will heal you or help you with your problems with work, money, or family.

What it is
The New Testament word we translate as "believe" carries a lot of meaning with it. It includes trust, reliance, and dependence on the object of the belief.

An example would be believing a chair can hold you up. Standing there looking at it, saying it could hold you up isn't biblical belief. Sitting on the edge of the chair so that some of your weight is still on your feet isn't biblical belief. Sitting solidly in the chair with you feet in the air, so that you would fall if it broke, is believing the chair will hold you up.

How does this relate to Jesus? To believe in Jesus, you have to
1) agree that you need Jesus to forgive your sins
2) believe that his death was sufficient for the forgiveness of your sins
3) give up any notion of ever being good enough to please God/go to heaven/earn forgiveness on your own.

Additionally, Jesus always talked about belief paired with repentance. You aren't called to "believe" but "repent and believe." So along with the above, you also must decide to change the way you live — from doing it however you feel is best to living the way Jesus says.

So to "believe in Jesus" you have to trust solely in Jesus' work on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins and devote your life to following Jesus. It's a life with no other safety net; if Jesus fails you, you're doomed. But that's OK. Jesus won't fail.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Christian Caricatures 2

I can understand when people can't believe in some element or another of the Christian gospel. I hate it, however, when they reject the gospel because they've picked up a bad copy, and there are a lot of caricatures of the gospel out there.

One version I've seen looks something like this:

Why does Jesus have to pester you "worship me, worship me?" It's great how you saved us and all, thanks, but go away now.

After you get past the "oh my gosh I can't believe you actually said that" response, how would you reply to that?

The problem seems to be that this person sees Christian evangelism as Jesus saying "Worship me" as thanks for his past act of saving us. So the person making this error has picked up on the "Jesus died to save us from our sins" part of the message but is missing that you have to make a conscious decision to respond to that act.

My response would be to point out the part that is missing:

It's like someone saying that, because antibiotics were discovered, we no longer have to worry about that infection you've got. No! You still have to take the drug.

Yes, Jesus essentially "created" salvation. You still have to take him up on it.

This may have its root in how we talk about "believing" in Jesus. "Believe that Jesus died for your sins." OK, I do, great, see ya. There's so much more to it than we so often let on. More about that next time.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Christian Caricatures 1

I can understand when people can't believe in some element or another of the Christian gospel. I hate it, however, when they reject the gospel because they've picked up a bad copy, and there are a lot of caricatures of the gospel out there.

One I've seen a going around recently looks something like this:

"I love you so much, and if you don't love me back I will torture you for eternity."
Appalling, isn't it? Just enough contact with actual Christian teaching to sound (very, very superficially) like the gospel — for about three-tenths of a second. But some people actually see this and "Yeah, yeah, Christianity really is stupid!"

No, I don't think this kind of thing drives away Christians. But we have a large pseudo-Christian fringe society that knows some of the lingo and has a grasp of a few of the concepts, and they rely on that as their religious experience. Things like this only encourage them to not take Christianity more seriously, to not go deeper, closer and become actual Christians.

So I don't think we should let these caricatures stand. We should correct them when we can. But the people spouting (or reading) these things are probably not the deep, thoughtful conversation type — at least not about this topic, not right now. So we need sound-bite sized responses to give them a little something to chew on, a rock in their shoe.

So if you had to put the gospel into a sound-bite, how would you do it?

John 3:16 is a great summary but I wouldn't want to use it for two reasons: First, "believe" is a word that has been abused and misconstrued; in current English usage, it bears very little resemblance to what the word in that verse really means. Second, it's too familiar. When people see it, they don't really see it. It's like when you see a stop sign, you don't actually read the word "stop" every time.

So here's what I've come up with. 

You've rebelled against me and so must be punished, but I love you so much I'm willing to take the punishment for you.
What do you think? There's so much missing. I'd love to have a paragraph, but a compound sentence is probably the most we can get away with. I'd love a better summary if you've got one, though.

Are there any other caricatures of Christian teaching that you've come across?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

When is Divorce a Sin?

A recent Christianity Today story looked at people's opinions on when divorce constitutes a sin:

Overall, about four in 10 (39 percent) Americans say divorce is a sin when one partner has committed adultery. A similar number says divorce is a sin, even in cases of abuse (37 percent) or abandonment (38 percent).

By contrast, about a third (32 percent) of Protestant pastors say divorce is a sin in cases of adultery. That drops to about a quarter for divorces in cases of abuse (28 percent) or abandonment (27 percent).

Many are surprised to hear that some think divorce in the case of abuse is a sin. I'm surprised that some think divorce in the case of adultery is a sin. Alright, so when is it a sin?

So what are the foundational texts on divorce? Let's start with Jesus:

"I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (Matt 5:31-33, emphasis added).

"I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery" (Matt 19:1-11, emphasis added).

In both cases, he seems to say that the sin — adultery — comes from remarriage.

The other NT passage on divorce is from Paul:

"A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife" (1Cor 7:10-16, emphasis added).

Again there is this idea that remarriage is the problem.

So when is divorce a sin? I don't think it is. Remarriage is a sin unless the divorce was caused by adultery.

What about abuse? Get out of there! You don't have to keep living with that person. But that doesn't mean you can remarry. And there's the rub.

Our society is so hedonistic it can't conceive of a life of celibacy. Even in the church, people just assume divorce means remarriage. But people do it. Some people live their whole lives without ever having sex. Some are widowed at a relatively young age and never remarry. And people can live celibate lives after separating from a bad spouse.

Do we want to do that? Of course not. But righteousness has to come before pleasure. The Lord has called us to live above the level of normal people. We bless those who curse us, give 'til it hurts, and forgive as we have been forgiven. Sometimes we have to choose celibacy to honor our God.

So does this mean divorce is always OK as long as you're willing to stay single from then on? No.

"'The man who hates and divorces his wife,' says the LORD, the God of Israel, 'does violence to the one he should protect,' says the LORD Almighty" (Mal 2:16).

God doesn't like divorce. Jesus made it clear: "What God has joined together, let no one separate" (Matt 19:6). This is not something that should be done lightly.

This isn't for people who aren't getting along. This isn't for people who have "fallen out of love." Divorce should not happen because of "irreconcilable differences." But when it does happen, it's not the end of the world. If you're willing to pay the price.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What Do You Do With a Worldview?

Making sure your worldview is in line with the scriptures is hard work. Is it really worth the effort?

Yes. Your worldview will affect how you live. A worldview can affect how you treat people. It can affect how you see yourself.

Let's examine what than can look like. Consider the nature of humanity. Let's try to apply this Christian view to our world.

One of the key points here is that when we apply our faith to our world, we have to set aside our prejudices and ideas and presuppositions that come from other places. It doesn’t matter if you tend to vote Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or Green. If you are a Christian, you need to think about the things of this world, including politics, as a Christian first and act accordingly.

What does the nature of humanity tell us about human institutions?

Humans are made in the image of God, but the image is distorted. That means that we can do good things, but we can also do very bad things. Left on their own, people will generally do bad things. As the old saying goes, power corrupts; human institutions tend to become corrupt, and the more powerful they are, the faster that seems to happen.

What does that tell us about governments? That means that no human government is going to be all good. That doesn’t mean human governments are all bad, but you can’t assume they’re above reproach. Some people in our society tend to want to put a lot of faith in the government. Is that perhaps misguided?

What does that tell us about the Church? The Church, because it has people in it, is going to show signs of sin. But when we look at what the Bible says about God, we see that he is all-powerful, and he always preserves a remnant for himself. Even if the Church became almost totally corrupt, there would still be a godly remnant that our Lord could work with to renew his Church.

Now we need to take it a little closer to home. Let’s look at the fields in which we work. Some may be surprised at the notion that Christian theology might affect how you think about your field. But if our God created everything, it only makes sense that He might have something to offer about every part of it.

One of the best examples of this comes from the history of science. Modern science is what it is only because of the Christian worldview. The basis of modern science is the scientific method. Essentially the scientific method is 1) observe, 2) make a generalization (a hypothesis), 3) test your hypothesis, 4) make a prediction (a theory), 5) test your theory. This was a novel approach.

You may be thinking, but what about the ancient Greeks? Prior to Christianity, “science” consisted of observation and … observation. They didn’t try to predict natural laws because in their worldview, the gods were capricious and temperamental. If you tried to predict how things would go, they might just change the laws of nature. (Now math isn't science. The Pythagorean theorem or the concept of zero are different kinds of things from a theory of gravitation.)

But the Judeo-Christian picture is of an unchanging God of order and law who can be depended on to keep the natural laws the same. A biblical worldview made the notion of a scientific method possible.

Now consider the field of education. What might the fact that we’re specially created by God imply about the question of learning? What might the fact that we’re created in the image of God suggest about how students are dealt with? What might the Fall add to that question? What might the truth that God made males and females different add to questions that are discussed in educational circles? Everyone needs to work these kinds things out for themselves in their own fields.

I want to emphasize that we’ve barely scratched the surface on the nature of humanity, and we didn’t even touch any of the other big questions. What I’m proposing here is not easy – in fact, it will never be finished. We’ll always be struggling to know Christ more and to be more like Christ, so those will obviously be on-going chores. We’ll never run out of people to evangelize, so that chore will never be finished either. We said last week that studying to defend the faith must be continuous or you’ll forget. But this is something different. If you commit to doing this now and until you die, you will always be re-evaluating your worldview for correctness and completeness, and you will always be looking for better ways to apply the faith to this world. The other parts are never complete because we’ll never run out of work; this one will never be complete because we’ll always be learning. But don’t let that discourage you – it’s a worthwhile goal, and doing in imperfectly will still leave the world much better than not doing it.

So how does one make sure he has a Christian worldview? This is going to sound odd, but it is NOT reading the Bible. One, because you always read the Bible through your preconceived notions. You need to look at a properly biblical worldview as a whole and then see where you’re deficient. The other reason is because getting a properly biblical worldview out of the Bible requires synthesizing everything the Bible says about these subjects – that takes a long long time.

After you get a good handle on what the Christian faith says about the world in general, start looking at how to apply it to specific aspects of the world. One thing to do is read – there are books about applying our faith to just about every field; look up yours.

Also, talk to other believers. Don’t just think these things to yourself or you might find yourself wandering off into left field. Follow Lewis’ example and find some thoughtful Christian friends to discuss these things with. It’ll be much better than talking about the latest movies you’ve seen all the time anyway.

I’ve laid out a pretty ambitious picture, I know. Remember, we will represent Christ wherever we go; doing it well, though, is hard. It requires time, effort, preparation, thought, and persistence. This is not a destination; it’s a lifestyle. Is your Savior worth some holy sweat? Are your unsaved friends and family worth some holy sweat?

We can't make the world change. But we can show the world what it looks like when life is lived God’s way.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

What is a Christian Worldview?

Christians need to learn to see and think about the world through the lens of scripture — that is, they need to develop a biblical worldview.

Worldviews are frequently described as the answers to a series of questions. The questions vary, but the ones I mentioned before are useful. Here I will list the questions again and answer them in some detail, but remember that whole books have been written on this topic, so my answers will naturally be limited.

1) What is the nature of God?
First and foremost, God exists. He is eternal, meaning he always existed and always will. He exists independent of the universe, which he created. He can influence the natural world but is not bound by it or the rules that govern it. God is spirit, which is neither matter nor energy. God is neither male nor female but has chosen to use masculine terms to communicate his nature.

2) What is the nature of reality?
The physical world we experience really exists, but that is not the only reality. There are spiritual components to the natural world, too. The world was created by God, is dependent on God, and continues to exist only by his good pleasure. The physical reality we currently experience will not continue indefinitely. Our universe is largely orderly — it obeys regular, consistent physical laws unless told to do otherwise and thus can (usually) be understood. [This is why modern science had to wait on the Judeo-Christian worldview. The ancients observed but were loathe to predict because of the capricious gods they believed in.]

3) What is the nature of human kind?
A lot of the answer to this question can be pulled out of Gen 1:26-17, 2:18, Rom 3:10, 3:23.

We have a interesting picture of man painted in these scriptures. We are made in the image of God; alone of all God’s creatures, we are the image of God. But we are sinful creatures; the image of God is distorted in us because of our sinful nature. We also learned that from the beginning God made us male and female. God designed sexuality; it is not a societal construct but the plan of our creator. And we learned that we are communal creatures – God recognized at the beginning that Adam needed an appropriate companion. We are not meant to live in isolation.

[Notice that we didn’t find all of our verses together. That is why we have to study theology. If we just read the Bible on our own, we’ll come across all of these verses, but putting them all together properly takes a lot of time and effort, and it is best to go outside of ourselves for this – both because we can’t do everything, so we should let the professionals do it, and so that we can check our understanding of the Bible against other people. If we aren’t careful, we can come up with some weird stuff sometimes. We have to check our beliefs against other godly, intelligent people to make sure we haven’t accidentally wandered off into left field somewhere. Even such a great mind as C.S. Lewis had a group of friends he regularly met with to discuss ideas and make sure no one had strayed too far off the reservation.]

4) What happens to a person after death?
"It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" (Heb 9:27 KJV). I don't quote the KJV often, but sometimes you just can't beat the wording. People live once then face judgement and then the just desserts of their choices.

5) Why is it possible to know anything at all?
Because God made us to know and put us in a world that can be known — one that is, in fact, intended to reveal God to us. For that reason, our senses are (largely) reliable, so we can trust what they tell us about the world around us.

6) How do we know what is right and wrong?
Right and wrong are based on the nature of God. We know them because he has revealed it to us. Some of it is coded into human nature (thank you Adam and Eve), but some of it isn't. Even that part that we seem to know at an instinctual level, though, can be clouded, distorted thanks to the fall. But the fact that some humans think evil things are good doesn't disprove the existence of good and evil any more than than the existence of colorblindness disproves the existence of color.

7) What is the meaning of human history?
Human history is the story of our interaction with God. It is our creation, fall, and redemption. It has meaning only in context of that story.

That's a quick summary of the way Christianity describes the world. Every other religion or system of thought has competing answers to those questions. Some say there is no God or there are many gods or we are all god. Some say the physical world is all that exists; some say the physical world is an illusion. How you think about these things influences the decisions you make in your life, so it is important to start from a solid foundation.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Making Him Known: Applying the Faith

We are here to know Christ and to make him known. To effectively make him known, we need to be godly men and women who are ready, willing, and able to share the faith, defend the faith, and apply the faith to our world.

Sharing the faith is pretty easy clear. Defending the faith isn't hard to figure out. What on earth is "applying the faith?"

I've struggled with how, exactly, to explain that one myself.

The word of God, the Bible, tells us how to live our lives. It is the basis for our moral behavior. It should also inform our other behavior.

There is a tendency among Christians to divide our lives into the secular and the sacred. We have our jobs, hobbies, and political beliefs; the sacred covers church, quiet times, morals. We carefully keep the two separate – we go to the Bible for advice on family life on occasion, but generally we say Jesus has something to say about the sacred, but what does he have to say about the mundane things of life? We go to college, and they teach us how to think about our fields. We get political ideas from our parents and friends, political commentators, and politicians.

The problem with this is two-fold. One, Jesus wants to influence every part of our lives. Two, Jesus made the world and everything in it, so he has something to say about everything in it – government, education, science, law, and anything else you can think of.

There is no “secular” to the Christian. Our beliefs need to be expressed in every aspect of our lives. I’m not talking about taking Christian morals into our lives, though we need to do that too. Everything we do, every decision we make, every opinion we hold should be influenced by the Christian faith.

How do we do that? First, we have to develop a Christian worldview.

What exactly is a worldview? Basically, it's your ideas about how the world works. Everybody has a worldview, though they probably don’t know it, and they probably couldn’t describe it if they had to. But you can learn to recognize other people’s worldviews and react appropriately.

So what is a Christian worldview? It is when your ideas about how the world works are taken from the Bible. It’s really more than that, though.

I like the way George Barna describes it: “A biblical worldview is thinking like Jesus. It is a way of making our faith practical to every situation we face each day. A biblical worldview is a way of dealing with the world such that we act like Jesus twenty-four hours a day because we think like Jesus.” A common way to describe a worldview is in terms of its answer to certain questions. The list of questions vary depending on who you ask, but we’ll use these:

What is the nature of God? Some worldviews say that there is no God to have a nature. Others describe God in terms of infusing all of creation – they say everything has a little of the divine in it. The Judeo-Christian worldview describes a single, all-powerful, loving but just God who is eternal, invisible, and morally perfect, among other things. This first question is foundational – the answers to all the other questions are going to be related to your ideas about God.

Next, what is the nature of reality? You make not think you have any thoughts about the nature of reality, but you do make some assumptions. Some people think that reality is exclusively the physical world. Others think reality is exclusively a spiritual world. Whether you think about the natural order as created or independent, as orderly or chaotic, and as objective or subjective will determine how you interact with the world.

The other questions, quickly, are: What is the nature of human kind? What happens to a person after death? Why is it possible to know anything at all? How do we know what is right and wrong? And what is the meaning of human history?

Again, there are other questions people will use to describe a worldview, but these seem to work pretty well. Here’s the kicker, though: To have a biblical worldview, you have to answer these questions in line with the scriptures. That is why we talked about studying theology. We have to live what we believe, but to do that we have to actually believe the right things.

Some of you are probably thinking that, having grown up in church, you’ve surely got a properly Christian worldview – and you might indeed have a biblical worldview. But Barna’s research suggests that only 9% of professing born-again Christians have a biblical worldview. It’s not their fault. The last hundred fifty years or so have seen a marked decrease in teaching Christians what they’re supposed to believe. If we don’t know what the Bible says about different issues, we can’t very well act on that, can we?

And that’s part of the problem. We all have a worldview, and by our age it is very much ingrained in us. If we examine ourselves and find that we don’t have a properly biblical worldview, it is going to be difficult to change it – but we have to do it!

A worldview is just how we look at the world; applying the faith to our world does not stop there. Once we’ve taken information in and processed it, we have to decide how we’re going to act on that information. We’re going to make decisions, form opinions, take chances, choose options – and we have to learn to let our faith guide us in that.

The reason this is so important is that we act based on our worldview. If you want to be more godly, you have to make sure you are making decisions based on a biblical worldview. Eventually, your reactions will also be based on that Christian worldview, but the conscious, voluntary actions will come first. Again, if we want to act like Jesus, we have to learn to think like Jesus.

We represent our Savior here, and we will never do that properly until we are making decisions like he would make them if he were here in our place.

Our society is terribly messed up, and it is in no small part due to the failure of modern Christians to act like Jesus in our world. Folks, since the Fall we have been locked into a war between good and evil. We know what the outcome of the war will be, but the individual battles are often up to us. In that war between good and evil, in the last 60 years or so the Christian Church has hardly even showed up. We have retreated at every turn, and our society shows it.

Now more than ever, the next generation is at stake. The saying is that character is caught more than taught. Well, a worldview requires a lot of both. We have to model for them what we want them to believe and how we want it to affect their lives. We also have to make sure that we make clear to them what the Christian faith has to say about our world and what difference it should make in their lives. This one has to be caught and taught.

You may be thinking that you’ll raise your kids in a good Christian home and take them to church and send them to church camp and all that good stuff. Statistics put out by the Southern Baptist Association itself show that kids that grow up in Baptist churches – doing all those things good church kids do – and then go to Baptist colleges (not secular, not Christian – Baptist) abandon the Christian faith 85% of the time.

Children start getting trained to have a non-Christian worldview in Kindergarten if not sooner. Depending on what you let them watch on tv, what books they read, and what happens in school, your kids will probably be trained in every conceivable way to reject Christian beliefs. It’s obvious from that little statistic from the SBC that just raising them in church isn’t enough. We have to be intentional about preparing our kids to come out of college as a Christian, and we have to start about age 5 or, if they're older than that, ASAP.

How does the world poison our kids? It tells them that there is no such thing as absolute truth. It tells them that they are biological accidents rather than special creations of God. It tells them that, if God exists, He is neither holy nor just – in fact, He’s probably just a senile old grandfatherly sort who just wants them to have fun. It tells them that religion has no place in any aspect of life except church on Sunday and that if they want to have a normal life, they have to keep all that stuff in a box that they only open on Sunday.

This is what we have to learn to combat.