Monday, June 29, 2020

God is spirit

“God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

Though we could talk about God’s nature and character for thousands of pages, I’m going to limit myself to a few topics that our culture tends to get really wrong.


First off: God is a spirit. God predates both matter and energy, so God cannot be either of those things. What is spirit? Honestly, we don’t really know. I’m sure theologians and philosophers have ideas, but really we don’t know anything for sure except that it is neither matter nor energy.

I would say spirit is what God is made of except we are part spirit. But we’re also part matter. However, if the spirit is separated from the matter we continue as spirit, so whatever spirit is, it’s fundamental to identity.

What does it mean that God is spirit? First, it means God is immaterial. He has no body (despite what Mormons say). Some think this makes God less real than physical things, but, as Wayne Grudem points out, since God’s spirit predates and made the physical world, that spirit is more real than matter.

His being immaterial is part of the reason it is unlawful to create an “image” of God — he cannot be properly represented by any image, so any attempt would produce something beneath him.

“But the Bible talks about God having eyes and hands and speaking and smelling.” Yes. It also talks about him having wings. It describes him as a fire and as a wind. Many figures of speech are used to help us understand God, including anthropomorphisms like having hands.

One of those anthropomorphisms is the use of gender. God is not male or female, but God has chosen male pronouns as well as terms like Father and Son to communicate with us. Many people today want to misgender God, but had God wanted to use female pronouns, he would have done so. We need to seek to understand what he is saying about himself by the terms he uses to describe himself.

God’s being spirit means he is invisible. We cannot see spirit. Except when God wants us to. We call those events theophanies. There have been times when God has appeared visibly, though some of these may have been merely visions. On occasion God has even used some kind of physical form to communicate with people. If God can make a universe, creating a physical representation shouldn’t be that hard, but that’s not his normal mode of existence. God told Moses that no one can see him and live (Ex 33:20), so those times when people have “seen” God have been either visions or just the tiniest glimpses of the whole.

Because God is spirit, he can be everywhere (ie, “omnipresent”). Paul said God “is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:27-28).

“How can God be all around us and we not know it?” But we know other things are like that. We live awash in the earth’s magnetic field, cosmic rays, and radio signals. And we’re blissfully unaware of all of it — until an aurora reminds us of the magnetic field. God’s presence is just one more thing that surrounds us that we can’t sense. Unless he wants us to.

God pervades the universe. As Solomon said, “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain [God]” (1Kings 8:27), but he chooses to be especially “near” some places and some people (more figures of speech). He makes himself perhaps more tangible at times, in certain places, and to some people. But he’s always there.

Believers should find God’s omnipresence both alarming and comforting. We cannot hide from God. He will always see our sin. As Jonah found out, we cannot run so far that God cannot find us. But far more importantly to most of us, we cannot wander so far God cannot find us, nor can we find ourselves in any danger where we are alone. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fire, we do not suffer alone, whether the one in the fire with us is visible or not. As David said,

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast (Psalm 139:7-10).
God has promised, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb 13:5). We should live our lives like we believe that.

For more on this, I recommend “The Character of God: ‘Communicable’ Attributes (Part 1)” in Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem.

Image credit: Aurora by Richard Droker

Part of Christianity 101

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Review: Post-Christian

Post-Christian linkI received a review copy of Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture by Gene Veith. (By the way, if you haven't checked out his blog, I recommend it.)

Post-Christian is a sequel of sorts to his Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture which was published in '94. That book was looking at what postmodernism was doing/would do to our society. We've obviously traveled quite a ways down that road since then. "Postmodern Times discussed the sexual revolution in terms of extramarital sex; now the issues are homosexuality, pornography, and sex robots. In the 1990s we were deconstructing literature; in the twenty-first century we are deconstructing marriage. ... Pluralism has given way to identity politics. Relativism has given way to speech codes." Now, he says, we have arrived at "post-postmodernism". Academics are struggling to figure out exactly what that will mean for us, but one thing is clear: the near future will be post-Christian, so he wants to look at "what we are left with when we try to abandon the Christian worldview."

Fortunately — at least from a certain point of view — "Post-Christian ways of thinking and living are running into dead ends and fatal contradictions."

The book has four parts: 1) How we relate to reality, 2) how we relate to our bodies, 3) how we relate to other people, and 4) how we relate to God. Each section has an arc where he describes the current situation and how we got here. He then shows the problems with the current state of affairs (problems that even secularists admit). The last chapter in each section suggests how Christians can offer solutions to those problems.

That arc is, to me, the best thing about the book. If you want to read how we got where we are, you can read those chapters. If you only want to read (or to review) his ideas on how to meet this challenge, you can easily find just that material.

And his ideas are worth reviewing. I'm not going to say he has a step-by-step plan to win America to Christ. Nor will everything he suggests be easy. But you do come away with a kind of game plan. 

There are things that some Christians need to take on in the academy. I was reminded of CS Lewis' comment from "Learning in War-Time": "Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered." There are some problems that need to be met head-on in the ivory tower.

There are things churches need to do. And there are things individual Christians can/need to do to make a difference. For example, theologians need to formulate, churches need preach, and believers need to practice a proper theology of the body. And if we do, when the sexual revolution inevitably collapses on itself, the world may be attracted to a consistent Christian sexual ethic.

He proposes a way of interacting with the world around us that is different from Dreher's "Benedict Option" — he calls it the "Luther Option" — where we are in but not of the world, living out Christian hope, praying and working for the good of the "city where I have sent you into exile."

I believe his most important point is that the church in the west has become just as secular as this society; we have to fix that, possibly with the help of the church in the developing world, China, and the Middle East, embracing both in their biblical/moral stances and their supernaturalism. We have to stop apologizing for what we believe and trying to find ways to make our beliefs more palatable to this world. That doesn't convert the lost; it just makes us more like them.

I highly recommend the last arc on religion. He shows that the west may be post-Christian, but that doesn't mean they're atheists. The post-postmoderns are also post-secular. The "Nones" are more likely to be "spiritual but not religious" or, as he puts it, modern pagans, than atheists. And Christianity has always converted pagans. "The task is now how to reach people who hold false religions" — many of whom may not even realize they have a religion. "If post-secular non-Christians are 'spiritual but not religious,' the church would do well to recover its own heritage of Christian spirituality."

And that is what I would like to see in a third book. I hope he makes it a trilogy and writes "Post-Secular," expanding on the Luther Option and how churches and the believers in the pews can take advantage of the post-secular mindset. That, frankly, would not have fit in the current book (which already weighs in at 320 pages), but it's a conversation that the church desperately needs to have.

This book that we have, though, is a useful tool to get us thinking in the right direction, and I recommend you spend some quality time with it. I came away encouraged that the fight is not over; it's just a new round, and Christianity is more than equipped to meet this new challenge.

My verdict? I think I'm going to buy my pastor a copy. Four stars.

Thursday, June 18, 2020


There are two things we need to be sure of:
  • Racism is a blight on human civilization and has been for centuries.
  • Racism is merely a symptom of the disease that afflicts all humans.
That first statement has been well-covered lately, so I'm going to focus on the second because, if racism disappeared tomorrow, we would still be afflicted by the root sickness.

Immediately after the fall we see a husband turn on his wife. Shortly thereafter we see brother turn against brother. As soon as there were enough people, groups formed, and we have had group against group ever since. It has been family vs family, tribe vs tribe, nation vs nation. A man will side with people who live near him, people who look like him, and people who act/talk/think like him against those who don't. Human beings always find some way to form a group and exclude those who don't fit some arbitrary standard. Not just exclude; hate.

People say that children don't start out racist, they have to learn that. Maybe that's true. But they don't have to be taught to divide into us and them, to exclude those who are different, and to see themselves as better than the other group. Cliques form in elementary school. It's not long before we have cool kids, rich kids, athletic kids, and nerds. People don't really grow out of it as much as they become more sophisticated about it. People separate into groups based on where they live, how much they make, and what kind of jobs they do. And, of course, sports teams.

We do it so readily that it's easy to turn nation against nation if you can convince your people that "they" are somehow less than them. "They" obviously have inferior blood or an inferior ideology. We should kill them and take their resources!

What does God think of this?

The acts of the flesh are obvious: ... hatred, discord, ... dissensions, factions ... and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal 5:19-21)
The fall of Adam caused two rifts. It created enmity between God and Man, and it created enmity between Man and Man. Jesus died to fix both.

As such, the Lord and the apostles have a lot to say about the situation we find ourselves in.

"He doesn't look like me." → "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt 22:39).

"He doesn't think like me." → "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt 22:39).

"He's been mean to me." → "Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Col 3:13).

"But you don't understand what they did to me." → "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord" (Rom 12:19).

"But he's a horrible, horrible person." → "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you" (Luke 6:27-28).

"No, you don't get it; he thinks things that are backward and old-fashioned." → "We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves" (Rom 15:1).

"But I have rights. I have to stand up for myself." → "But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also" (Matt 5:39).

We have to turn our backs on the world's ways and follow the example of Jesus in the power of the Spirit.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Gal 5:22-25)
We will never heal the divides between people when we are constantly looking for new ways to exclude. That is sin, and it must be killed. It must be killed in the church so that we can show the world the way things are supposed to be. Then, perhaps, they will see that we have what they need — a Savior who can change hearts and lives.

Monday, June 8, 2020

God can be known

“This is what the LORD says:
‘Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they understand and know me...’” (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
Can we know God? If we can, what can we know? Isn’t God too big for us to comprehend?

Blind Men Appraising an Elephant - Ohara Donshu
There’s an old tale of a group of blind men who encounter an elephant. Each touches a different part of it and thinks the elephant is like a rope (the tail) or a fan (the ear) or a snake (the trunk). This is supposed to teach that we all get little glimpses of God and shouldn’t think we have the whole picture, the whole truth.

The problem with this illustration is that, in reality, the elephant can talk. We are not stumbling and feeling our way, trying to figure out God. He has told us what he wants us to know.

It is true that we cannot know God fully. He is infinite, and we are finite. We have less of a chance of fully understanding God than ants do of understanding quantum mechanics. But we can understand what he has chosen to reveal. This is true because God made us to know him. Jesus said, “This is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). God’s plan is that there should be a day when “no longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Heb 8:11).

God reveals himself to us through general revelation (the world around us) and special revelation (specific messages he has given, now recorded in the Bible). He has revealed what he wants us to know, what he knows we can understand.

As Spurgeon said, “There must be knowledge of God before there can be love to God.” So he has revealed things about himself, his ways, and his plans. The passage above from Jeremiah continues: “[L]et the one who boasts boast about this: that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.”

He wants us to know his character, that he is kind and just and righteous. He wants us to appreciate these things about him, and he wants us to act like him. So we will be exploring God’s nature and character in the days ahead.

Now how do we get to know God?

In a sense, we get to know God the same way we get to know anyone — by spending time with him. We talk to him through prayer, and he talks to us through his Word. This includes knowing certain facts about him. But it is more than that. If you know a person but don’t know that this person is funny or kind or creative, do you really know that person? No. But merely knowing those facts is not sufficient to know that person, either. You have to experience that on a personal level.

So how does that apply to God? Let’s turn to the reigning expert on the matter, JI Packer, in his classic Knowing God:

“How can we turn our knowledge about God into knowledge of God? The rule for doing this is simple but demanding. It is that we turn each truth that we learn about God into a matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.

“Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself, the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God. It is an activity of holy thought, consciously performed in the presence of God, under the eye of God, by the help of God, as a means of communion with God.

“Its purpose is to clear one’s mental and spiritual vision of God, and to let his truth make its full and proper impact on one’s mind and heart.” 
It also requires living in light of what he has revealed to us. “Knowing God involves, first, listening to God’s Word and receiving it as the Holy Spirit interprets it, in application to oneself; second, noting God’s nature and character, as his Word and works reveal it; third accepting his invitations and doing what he commands; fourth, recognizing and rejoicing in the love that he has shown in thus approaching you and drawing you into this divine fellowship.”

Does that sound like a lot of work? It’s not a task for the lazy. God wants us to put some effort into it, to show that we’re serious. But the effort is rewarded handsomely.

The go-to work on this topic, and one that every Christian should read, is Knowing God by JI Packer.

Picture credit: Blind Men Appraising an Elephant by Ohara Donshu

Part of Christianity 101

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The Existence of God 3/3: The Moral Argument

“You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).
Can we be good without God? The last argument for the existence of God I want to look at is the moral argument. It’s one that is frequently misunderstood by people on both sides, so we must tread carefully.

In On Guard, William Lane Craig describes the moral argument in this syllogism:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
This is a modus tollens form, and it is a valid argument — meaning, if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true as well. But are the premises true?

If God does not exist, objective morals do not exist? Why not? The real question is, how could they? What’s wrong with a lion killing a gazelle? What’s wrong with a bear killing a rival’s cubs? This is just the circle of life. This is survival of the fittest. So what’s wrong with a man killing a child? What’s the difference? If naturalism is true, we’re all just meat. Humans are merely slightly smarter animals. What makes them too special to kill? Though most atheists will not admit that the answer is “nothing,” some will. Darwin saw human morality as nothing but a product of evolution and not really binding. Sadly, those few who acknowledge this tend to take it to its logical conclusion, for example Peter Singer, who believes infanticide is less of an offense than killing a cow. If there is no God, then murder can be illegal, impolite, or inefficient, but it cannot be immoral.

Do objective moral values exist? Of course they do, and anyone who tells you otherwise will betray that notion the first time someone wrongs them. We don’t think murder or rape are merely impolite. They’re immoral. When someone is robbed, they are quite certain they’ve been wronged. And, deep down, everyone knows this. There is a moral code that runs through humanity. As C.S. Lewis put it,

“Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of doublecrossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to -- whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired.”
If morals are just cultural or just a matter of opinion, Lewis says, there’d be “no sense in preferring ... Chrisitan morality to Nazi morality.” But we believe the Nazis were really, truly wrong. Why? How do we know that they are wrong? “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.” We get that idea of a straight line, of the way things ought to be, from our creator.

Two objections must be dealt with. The first is the all too common misunderstanding of this argument as “atheists cannot be moral.” That is not what the argument says. We do not deny that atheists can behave morally. We do not deny that atheists can know what is and is not moral. We say that atheists cannot explain what “good” means. “Can we be good without God?” is the wrong question. The right question is “can there be good without God?” The answer is “no.”

The second objection says that some people are amoral, therefore everyone does not know what is moral, so the argument doesn’t work. But that’s not right. There are people who do not see anything wrong with killing or lying. There are also people who cannot see the color red. Defective people do not disprove the existence of the thing they are defective about. We know they are defective because of the experience of the vast majority of humanity.

So we’re left with the conclusion of our syllogism: God exists. There must be an external source for this moral information. If it only comes from inside us, it’s not real. If it’s as real as we all know it is, there’s only one explanation for how we all know it.

So what do we know about this God? From the first argument, he is eternal, immaterial, powerful, and personal. From the second, he is incredibly wise and desired human beings. From the third, we see that he is moral. We know there is right and wrong, and we know that we do wrong. How do we know that this God is the Christian God? The evidence that the Bible is divinely inspired shows us which god is God.

Is this all that we can know about this God? Not at all. He has chosen to reveal himself to us. And that is where we turn next.

For more on the moral argument, see Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.

Part of Christianity 101