Monday, July 28, 2008

Assurance: Presumption or Promise?

The notion than a person can know with certainty that he is saved and will join Jesus in heaven upon death has long been a fixture of Protestant and especially Evangelical theology.

Today, though, there are many voices who say that this is the height of presumption. How can we suggest that we know for sure what will happen to us after we die? Am I God? I don’t even know what I had for breakfast last week – how can I know my heart well enough to say I am surely saved?

Isn’t it dangerous to suggest that people can know they are saved – wouldn’t they take that knowledge and rest on their laurels rather than being about the work of the kingdom?

What if people think they’re saved and are wrong – isn’t it better for people to wonder and search rather than be wrongly assured of their safety?

You know, those are all good questions. The one problem is that assurance is totally biblical.

Confidence in our salvation is sprinkled throughout the Bible, but one apostle makes it particularly clear. “I write these things … so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13, emphasis mine).

But this isn’t what our friends worry so about; it’s not the easy-believism, pray a prayer and go on with your sinful life kind of assurance that, frankly, is rife in Evangelicalism today. Reading 1 John is like standing in front of a mirror. It will ask you to test how you live, how you love, and whom you love before it lets you walk away with assurance – and that is how it should be.

Assurance is biblical, but it's only for the believer who is willing to ask himself the hard questions. To that believer the Bible offers hope, security, and support through sickness, trials, and even his final moments on this earth – no mean treasure.

Still, though isn’t it presumptuous of us to suggest that we know what God thinks of us? Hardly. “It cannot be wrong to feel confidently in a matter where God speaks unconditionally, to believe decidedly when God promises decidedly, to have a sure persuasion of pardon and peace when we rest on the word and oath of Him that never changes” (JC Ryle, Holiness).

It is not presumption to rest on the promises of God.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

One Among Many

Reflections on Leviticus

I’ve been putting this off for some time because, though it may seem at times like I’m spoiling for a fight (and maybe it’s sometimes true), I really do like to avoid conflict – especially the truly personal, heartfelt conflicts that arise when this topic is discussed.

When you’re in Leviticus, eventually you’re going to have to bring up chapters 18 and 20. And they bring up the topic of homosexuality. So I’d like to discuss discussing homosexuality.

We do not want to stand for anything less than the truth, and the truth is that, unless you stand on your head and squint just right, the Bible clearly condemns homosexual conduct.

We also don’t want to cause unnecessary offense, and that is something Christians often manage to do on this topic. I think the key to properly discussing this issue is to do it like the Bible does.

Leviticus 18 lists homosexual relationships as one among many sins that got the Canaanites evicted from the Promised Land, and Leviticus 20 lists this as one of many crimes that warranted the death penalty – including adultery and incest.

In the New Testament, Romans 1 lists homosexuality as one of the symptoms of a decaying humanity along with idolatry and disobeying parents. 1 Corinthians 6 lists this sin as one that will keep you from inheriting the Kingdom – just like greed and drunkenness.

My point is that the Bible never treats homosexual relations as a special sin. It is one among many perversions to which humans may fall; it is one of the many things that offend God.

If the Bible doesn’t treat it as a special sin, neither should we.

Again, we shouldn’t shy away from identifying it as sin. But when we make too much out of it, we only push lost people away from the gospel.

Ray Comfort is known for advocating using the Law of Moses to help people see their sinfulness in evangelism, but even he advises against accusing an adulterer of adultery. “Picking on” someone’s favorite sin is only going to make him defensive and cause him to back away from you and your message. Everyone is guilty of greed and lust and lying and stealing – focus on the things he thinks he doesn’t do wrong, not the thing he knows about.

There is no homosexual in the US who doesn’t know Christians think his lifestyle is wrong. We don’t need to remind them of that. We need to help them see that they are just like us – fallen humans who sin a hundred times a day in ways we don’t even recognize, sinners who need a savior because we are filthy in every conceivable way.

If we want to reach people living a homosexual life for Christ, we have to learn to treat them just like average, ordinary sinners – just like us.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

On Puppies, Pain, and Everlasting Life

It’s been a long couple of weeks. We had a stomach bug make a slow trip through the house; during that our puppy got badly hurt and had to be put down. It’s been a physically and emotionally draining couple of weeks.

At times like these it’s good to remember that “the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom 8:20-22).

As we groan through the labor pains, we look forward to the day when God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4).

Life on this planet is hard sometimes, but we can trust in three things:

God is in control, and He has a reason for the way things are. And He has promised to make it right in the end.

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor 4:18).

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Bible and Capital Punishment

The Bible and the Ballot Box 2

If we want to be faithful followers of Jesus, we have to let our faith inform every aspect of our lives – not just what we do on Sunday. Nowhere is this more important than how we, as citizens of a republic, let our faith shape how we vote and otherwise influence our government.

Few political issues cause as heated arguments between Christians as capital punishment. Both sides argue from the Bible. Both sides approach the issue with a great deal of passion. I have no illusions about changing anyone’s position, but there is one side in this debate that commonly calls the other’s compassion and devotion to Christ into question. My goal is to convince that group – those opposed to the death penalty – that the other side is making a reasonable and biblically acceptable stand.

The Mosaic Mandate
We should start this discussion by addressing the elephant in the corner:

“If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death” (Lev 24:17).

The Mosaic Covenant required the death penalty for quite a few offenses. Yet none of us really wants to start imposing capital punishment on rebellious children – well, occasionally, but I get over it quickly. How can we use the Law to impose the death penalty for murder but not cursing your parents, adultery, or Sabbath breaking? We can’t. That’s ok, because we are not part of that covenant – and praise God!

But we can take two important concepts from Moses. First, capital punishment is not murder. The same God who said, “Do not murder,” also prescribed death as the punishment for many crimes including murder. There is a difference. That doesn’t mean we have to employ it, but the death penalty is obviously not murder.

The second thing we take from the Law, and related to the first, is, since God instituted the death penalty, capital punishment is not inherently immoral. Too often liberals have said just the opposite, but liberal Christians cannot make that statement without impugning the Almighty Himself.

The Noahic Covenant
Long before Moses, God gave a command to Noah:

“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen 9:6).

Many have framed their argument against the death penalty around the inherent dignity and value of all human life. Here we see God using the same basis for the institution of capital punishment. He says, because human life is so valuable, the appropriate punishment for taking a life is to forfeit your own.

This passage is also in the Old Testament, but we cannot cast this aside as easily. The Mosaic Covenant was binding on the nation of Israel. This is clearly presented as a universal statement. And if this no longer applies to us, does God’s promise to never again wipe out humanity with a flood (v 8-11) also expire?

The Roman Rulers
If the OT were the sole support of capital punishment, those who oppose it on biblical grounds would have a better case. The truth is, though, the NT specifically mentions capital punishment:

“For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong … if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:3-4).

The sword only serves one function. If this is not talking about capital punishment, what can mean?

This passage is more striking when you look at the preceding paragraph:

“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (12:19).

Leave room for God’s wrath. The ruler is an agent of God’s wrath.

Forgiveness on the Mount
There is one other elephant in the room. Jesus, in fact the whole NT, has a lot to say about forgiveness and revenge:

“But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt 5:39).

I think when Jesus told us to forgive and not take revenge, He meant exactly what He said. But He didn’t mean anything more than what He said.

Jesus tells us how to live life as a subject of His kingdom. But His commands do not tell us how to run a country. As a matter of fact, if you run a criminal justice system according to this principle, you cease to have a criminal justice system.

As Greg Koukl has pointed out, if we can’t give someone the death penalty because “Jesus would forgive,” we also can’t give them life in prison. We can’t give them five years, five days, or five minutes in prison. We can’t even give them a $5 fine. We have to forgive. If Jesus didn’t mean that we can’t have any criminal punishments, then He didn’t mean we can’t use the death penalty.

The Silent Church Fathers
My final appeal will be, again, to tradition. If Jesus’ instructions to forgive require discontinuing capital punishment, we should expect the early church fathers to mention that. They took Jesus’ commands on this topic very seriously – even to the point of a radical pacifism.

The fact is they didn’t talk about this much. The only references I could find to the death penalty in the first couple of centuries of the church were from Tertullian who complained about unjust application of it to Christians but seemed to assume it was a legitimate punishment in the state’s arsenal.

So What?
In an earlier piece I said you shouldn’t vote for someone who holds a position you are convinced is recklessly immoral. But I also don’t think you should reject someone for a carefully considered position you disagree with.

I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind about supporting capital punishment here. In truth, you can be a conservative and reject capital punishment, or you can believe it should be used sparingly. You can reject it as no longer necessary or as an overly dangerous tool in our flawed legal system. I find it justifiable and occasionally necessary but in dire need of serious reform.

The question is not whether you can support capital punishment. The question is whether you can see how a reasonable person could believe that capital punishment is acceptable biblically. If you can do that, then this is not an issue that should drive you away from voting for a candidate.

The next Bible and the Ballot Box will enter into the always-unpleasant battle over abortion.

The Bible and the Ballot Box 1: Helping the Poor Biblically
Politics, Religion, and Brotherly Love
Voting for Candidates You Disagree With
Capital Punishment Reform
Immigration Reform and Christianity
Christianity and the Environment: 7 Principles
7 Principles and 1 Hot Topic

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Obama, Alexander, and the Gospel

After being sick for a couple of days I get out of bed, turn on the computer, and find out that Sen. Obama has pronounced that we all should teach our kids Spanish. Sooo many things I could say about this, but I want to focus, at least here, on two aspects – let’s call them the civil and the gospel.

Civil Suicide
Alexander the Great conquered a huge chunk of the world by military might. After he conquered them, he Hellenized them – he made them Greek. How did he do that? He changed their language. A language and a culture are intertwined, and you cannot grasp one without the other. This is true even when you technically speak the same language – have you ever encountered the Queen’s English?

Normally, immigrants to a country learn the tongue of their new country. For our nation to choose to teach our children the language of the immigrants would be to loosen our grip on our culture – and there is a distinct American culture, despite what some may say. It would also lessen the motivation for those immigrants to learn the American common tongue. All in all, it’s a bad way to run a society.

Gospel Mandate
Even though it’s a bad civil policy, it’s probably essential for Christians to do just what Sen. Obama has suggested. The number of souls that speak only or mostly Spanish in this country is staggering. While it may make good sense to urge them, for their own sakes, to learn English as quickly as possible – and as loving neighbors we should do that – it is more important to reach out to them with the gospel in whatever language they will be able to understand.

Sometimes the needs of the country and the needs of the Kingdom conflict. When that happens, we have to err to the side of the Kingdom. If we can do that without supporting stupid, self-destructive public policies, we should; if we can’t, then we do what’s right and let the chips fall where they may.

I'll have some more to say about this at My Three Cents.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

New blog

I've started up a new blog, My Three Cents, as a place for all my ponderings and, especially, RedBlueChristian posts that don't really fit here. You might check it out some time.