Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Going Deep

Bible and coffee
As the new year approaches, you're probably starting to think about what Bible reading plan you'll use next year. There are lots to choose from, but most come at the subject from one perspective: breadth. Most have you read the Bible in a year; some have you reading the NT twice in a year. If that's what you want to do, more power to you.

We can approach the Bible differently, though. Having a broad familiarity with the Bible is good. So is having a depth of knowledge. It's good to get into the Bible; it's better to get the Bible into you. So if you've read through the Bible more than a couple of times, perhaps it'd be a good year to slow down. Way down.

Bible-in-a-year plans abound, but basically if you average three chapters a day you'll get through the Bible in about a year. What if you, instead, read one chapter three times? Don't just read the chapter but ask it questions and spend time reflecting on what you learn. Yes, that means it would take you three years to read through the Bible. But you'd probably know it better.

Other approaches: John MacArthur talks about reading a book every day for thirty days (breaking up longer books into sections that are treated the same way). With this approach, it'll take several years to read through the Bible.

Maybe thirty times through is more than you've got the patience for; how about five times? Reading a short book, for example Ephesians, through in one sitting every day for a week will help you see the whole message of the book and how the parts connect.

Don't be afraid to read commentaries, either. Going slowly through a book with a commentary in hand, written by someone who's spent years studying that book, can be very illuminating.

I think my approach in the coming year — the next few, actually — will be to read a book through a couple of times and then go a chapter at a time (maybe less). I'll read the passage once to get the big picture then go through it again asking questions of the text and meditating and praying on the answers.

What questions? These have been endlessly useful:
  • What is the main message of this passage?
  • What does this tell me about God?
  • What does this tell me about human nature?
  • Is there anything here I need to know, stop doing, change, or start doing?
There are other questions you might ask, of course (see below), but these are easily applied to any passage and easy to remember.

But whatever approach you take, I hope you'll make a plan to be in the Bible regularly in the coming year. The world is constantly trying to conform us to itself. Either we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds, or we will be conformed to the world. There are no other options.

Other questions:
The 5 W’s & H in Bible Study
7 Arrows of Bible Reading

The New Testament Out of Order
7 Tips for Reading the Bible in a Year

Image via Pixabay

Monday, December 20, 2021

Celebrating Christmas Beside Xmas

A traditional X-mas gnome?
CS Lewis has a cute little essay called “Xmas and Christmas” that pretends to be a description by Herodotus of antics on the island of Niatirb.

He describes the “Exmas Rush” as the fifty days of preparation for the holiday Exmas when people scramble about buying cards and gifts the recipients don’t want and the giver can’t afford to give. In the end “the sellers of gifts no less than the purchasers become pale and weary ... so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think some great public calamity had fallen on Niatirb.”

But some celebrate a different holiday, “Crissmas”. A religious feast centered around “a fair woman with a new-born Child”. The few who celebrate this holiday behave very differently than those who celebrate the other day.

The writer assures us the claim that Exmas and Crissmas are the same holiday “is not credible” because “it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in.”

This fun little essay presents a healthy way to look at the commercialization of Christmas. The world hasn’t ruined Christmas, for they were never celebrating it. They have their own feast day, which happens to coincide with ours — just as Christmas and Hanukkah might. They even have their own songs. As Christianity Today recently reported, the most-played Christmas hits “celebrate love, snow, and chestnuts before getting around to Christ.”

And though Exmas and the Rush can “distract the minds even of the few from sacred things,” they don’t have to.

So let the worldlings have their holiday. Do your best to step back from theirs and focus on ours. Let them worship family or capitalism or whatever it is they get on about.

We’ll focus on “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”

Image via Pixabay. Incidentally, I had to go to page 5 before I found an actual religious image when I searched for "Christmas".

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

The Humiliation of Christ

When believers pass away, you’ll often hear someone say, “Even if they could come back, they wouldn’t.” Who would? How traumatic would it be to leave heaven and come to earth?

Christ knows.

In his great high priestly prayer, he said, “Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (John 17:5). Before the incarnation, God the Son existed in perfect loving union with his Father and the Spirit, worshiped by angels, and free from the trials of a mortal existence. Then he who
“was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness” (Phil 2:6-7 NRSV).

One day, “the heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain” him (1Kings 8:27); the next he is neatly tucked into Mary’s womb with room to spare. One day he hears angels call him “holy, holy, holy” (Is 6:3); the next he literally cannot hear, for he has no ears. The one who owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalms 50:10) chose to become the child of a poor couple in a poor land ruled by an empire that put very little value on human life.

The infinite became finite. The Almighty became an embryo. The Judge was willing to be treated unjustly. All because the Eternal chose to die.

Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was amazing, but let us not lose sight of the fact that it was the last in a long line of sacrifices that he made. For us.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021


What was it like waiting for the Messiah to come?

God had promised to fix things from the very beginning (Gen 3:15). God made similar promises to Abraham (Gen 12:2-3), to Moses (Deut 18:15), to David (2Sam 7:16), and again and again through the prophets to Israel. Messiah will come and bring healing and justice. He will bring righteousness and knowledge of God. He will free the oppressed and give sight to the blind. He will cause the nations to follow the God of Abraham. For over a thousand years, Israel heard these promises and waited. And waited.

What was it like for the faithful, wondering for generations when this would all take place?

It was just like it is for us today as the faithful wonder when Christ will return to finish what he started.

Let the celebration of Christ’s first advent remind you of his second. This is a busy time of year, but try to stop and focus on what we’re waiting for.

We’re not waiting on a baby this time. We’re waiting for a King. We look for the day when every knee will bow. He will cause wars to cease. He will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Death will die. Earth will be healed. We will be free from even the presence of sin. And we will see the face of our Savior.

God fulfilled his promises once. He will do so again. Christ is coming.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Image via Pixabay

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

It’s Daily Devotional Buying Season

Reading the Bible
It’s that time of year when people start thinking about their next devotional or getting one for someone else, so I want to tell you about some good ones.

I like devotionals with a lot of scripture in them. Human opinion is fallible, so let’s focus on what isn’t.

Meet the Bible by Philip Yancey and Brenda Quinn is the best I’ve found with respect to that. It goes through the Bible mostly chronologically. Each entry is largely scripture with a little commentary actually related to the passage. Entries are undated, so you can easily start whenever you like. It's a big book because the entries are longer than most devotionals due to the length of the scripture quotations.

The Songs of Jesus by Tim and Kathy Keller is a much smaller book with shorter entries in the same style. It divides the Psalms up into 366 sections with devotional thoughts.

For some people, a devotional is all they read — they rarely read in the Bible itself. For those people I especially recommend devotionals with more scripture. Those who will also open their Bible can get away with the verse-a-day style devotionals.

Through the Bible Through the Year by John Stott is one I’ve recommended before. It also goes through the Bible more or less chronologically, starting with one or two verses and then devotional commentary that actually deals with the verse(s) in context. Each entry also includes recommended further reading in the scriptures. This one starts in September, but you can easily start the Sunday before Christmas by starting with week 16 or the new year in week 18, then going back to page one next September.

God's Wisdom for Navigating Life also by Tim and Kathy Keller takes a verse or two from the various OT wisdom books and gives a devotional on the topic of those verses.

Holiness Day by Day by Jerry Bridges is a collection of excerpts from his many books with an applicable verse attached. The more I read of Bridges, the more I think we should just read everything he writes. This is a good way to get a sample of a great many of his books (which you will then probably want to read in their entirety). It is all about helping us to grow more Christ-like. Entries aren’t dated; they’re just “Week 1/Monday”, etc. So you can easily start this one next Monday if you like.

I do hope you spend time in the Bible every (or at least most) day whether you read a devotional or not. You might also think about making it a more than once a day thing. If you normally spend time in the scriptures, for example, in the morning, then perhaps a short devotional at lunch could help you recenter. If living the Christian life in this fallen world seems easy, we’re probably not doing it right. Intentionally turning our thoughts back to our Lord throughout the day can help us stay focused on his character and mission.

Image via Pixabay

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Systematic Theology Buyer’s Guide

I really hope that you’ll go deeper into theology than what I was able to do here. I hope you’ll encourage your friends and family to learn a little more about what we believe and why.

To that end, I want to offer some tips on buying systematic theology books.

These works tend to come in four sizes I’ll call small, medium, large, and sets. Small ones can be about 200 paperback novel-like pages. Medium runs closer to 400-500 textbook-sized pages. Large books tend to run around 1200 pages. Then you have multi volume sets. One author may offer books of more than one size. Length determines how much depth the author can go into. It also determines how much the author can split hairs. For those really, really interested, a set can be a wonderful investment. For those who just want to get their feet wet, there’s nothing wrong with starting small.

Now to name names. There are lots and lots of systematic theologies out there. I haven’t read many at all. But these are the ones I like of the ones I’ve read.

Wayne Grudem’s popular Systematic Theology has a number of great features. Every chapter ends with “questions for personal application” and a bibliography which lists other works from many different backgrounds where you can go deeper on the topic; this is very broad, including Arminians, Reformed, Dispensational, and even Roman Catholics. He then gives a scripture memory passage and a hymn that correspond to the topic of the chapter. Appendices include a glossary, historic confessions of faith, a compilation of the scripture memory passage from the book, contemporary worship songs classified by chapter, an annotated bibliography, and a closer look at a debate on what the words usually rendered “only begotten” mean. The extras make this a really useful book to teach from. Be aware Grudem is a Calvinist and charismatic, and certain sections will reflect that. Also, there is a recent second edition that reflects changes to his positions and also includes new material, making it a few hundred pages longer than the original.

Grudem’s large volume has been edited to form a medium, Bible Doctrine, and a small, Christian Beliefs. They don’t have all the extras, but they do offer discussion questions at the end of each chapter.

Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology doesn’t have as many extras as Grudem’s work, but it does contain study questions and a helpful outline at the beginning of each chapter. And I think it’s a bit more readable than Grudem’s. Erickson is Reformed Baptist, but I think his reformed position is a little less obtrusive than a lot of reformed writers.

Erickson’s large volume has been edited to form a medium Introducing Chrisitan Doctrine. There are multiple editions of both. If someone asked me to recommend one book but didn’t want to tackle a large one, this is what I’d suggest.

Tony Evans’ Theology You Can Count On to my knowledge only comes in a large volume. It contains application points and discussion questions at the end of each chapter. You’re probably aware that Evans is a great communicator, and this book reflects that. It’s very easy to read, and if you’re familiar with him, you can read it in his voice, which is kind of fun. He’s not reformed, but he does not soft-peddle the sovereignty of God.

All of the larger works I read, you might say, laterally, meaning instead of reading them cover to cover, I read each one’s section on, say, Christology. Evans’ is the one I most want to go back and read cover to cover. I really enjoyed his book.

Other small works of note:
Know Why You Believe by Paul Little is very small, but a great introduction for someone who isn’t up to a longer work. If I was going to give a book to someone a little reluctant, this would be it.

Concise Theology by JI Packer isn’t my favorite of his books (see below), but it is typical Packer (meaning quite good). Packer was a Calvinist Anglican, and it shows in his positions.

Affirming the Apostles’ Creed by JI Packer is also included in his Growing in Christ. I absolutely love this one. I’d force this one on everyone I know if I could get away with it.

5 Minute Theologian by Rick Cornish (a little thicker than others, but still small) was written as an introduction for his teen sons. It’s 100 short chapters; one a day will take you just over three months. I have recommended it before as well as the companion books 5 Minute Apologist and 5 Minute Church Historian as devotionals. They’d be good for anyone.

Other medium works of note:
Everyone’s a Theologian by RC Sproul is also available in audio form as Sproul’s “Foundations” class. It’s a good book, typical RC. I really love hearing him teach, so I highly recommend his class which is basically the audiobook. When Christian Audio does their twice a year sale, the course is very much worth $7.49. Sproul was Reformed Presbyterian, and he’ll do his best to convert you, but if you don’t mind that, you can really enjoy this work.

Basic Theology by Charles Ryrie isn’t my favorite, but he's a dispensational Baptist, which offers a different perspective on some issues from these other guys, and it’s pretty well written.

Finally, Growing Deep in the Christian Life by Chuck Swindoll is technically a medium-sized systematic theology, but it’s unlike any other book I’ve come across. In Swindoll’s usual easy, pastoral style, he looks at issues from a different angle. I would recommend it to complement any other systematic theology.

As for sets, I haven’t tackled any for more than a few pages. There are many written from a number of theological perspectives. In the not-too-distant future I hope to get cozy with Calvin’s Institutes and Chafer’s set, maybe balancing them with Oden’s Arminian point of view.

If you’re only going to read one, read something fairly close to the views of your church so you can explain why you believe what you believe. If you’re going to go deeper, reading something from a different point of view will help you better understand why you believe what you believe -- or force you to modify your beliefs, and that’s not a bad thing either. No one has perfect theology. Semper reformanda, “always reforming”, is a good motto for every thoughtful Christian.

Image via Pixabay

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

An Evangelical Creed

The Apostles’ Creed is a beautiful summary of the essentials of the Christian faith. But it’s so broad that heretics can recite it with a straight face. The Nicene Creed is much more specifically trinitarian, but it is still pretty “ecumenical” -- meaning that believers of all stripes can attest to (most of) it. What would it look like to create a summary of the things Evangelical Christians believe? Here’s my attempt as such a creed:

We believe in one God,
Infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth,
The maker of heaven and earth, of things visible and invisible,
Eternally existing as three distinct persons: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The Father, who loves us and adopts us as his children,
Sent his Son into the world to reconcile sinners to him.

The Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father,
Begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father,
Having two natures, indivisible but without confusion,
For us and for our salvation became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and was born of the virgin,
Lived a righteous life,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died for our sins, and was buried;
The third day he rose again in the flesh, as the prophets predicted.
He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father
Where he intercedes for us.
From there he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end.

The Holy Spirit, the comforter, the giver of life, who spoke through the prophets and apostles
Was sent by the Father and the Son to convict sinners, regenerate hearts, and conform believers to the image of Christ.

And we believe in one universal church, a nation of priests called to be a holy people,
The inspiration of the scriptures
The forgiveness of sins through faith alone,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting in the world to come. Amen.

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Living in the Problem of Pain

night fall
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless” (Psalm 10:14).

“Why does God let bad things happen” is a very different question from “Why did God let this happen to me” or, worse yet, “to my baby”. What do we say to people — or to ourselves — when their world has just collapsed on them?

Suffering can either push you away from God or draw you near to him. Let it make you draw near to God.

Yesterday you knew God was good. You knew God was sovereign. You trusted that he had a plan that he is working out in this broken world. All of that is still true. God is still good. And he still loves you.

How can we believe God loves us in the midst of the pain? Our feelings will lie to us and tell us he doesn’t. We have to remind ourselves of the truth:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).a

The cross proves God’s love. Don’t let the Devil tell you that God doesn’t love you, because you know he does. He loves you more than you can understand.

When you lose your job, your heavenly Father loves you. When your house burns down, he loves you. When your life burns down, he loves you. When he takes your baby to heaven far earlier than you wanted, he loves you. And he loves your child more than you do.

People will offer suggestions for why this has happened. Don’t listen to them. They don’t know. No one knows but God, and he rarely tells us why. But you know it’s not because God doesn’t love you and your family. You can trust his heart in the plan he is working out.

Job is the quintessential sufferer. We all know what befell him. As Sproul said, “Ultimately the only answer God gave to Job was a revelation of Himself. It was as if God said to him, 'Job, I am your answer.' Job was not asked to trust a plan but a person, a personal God who is sovereign, wise, and good. It was as if God said to Job: 'Learn who I am. When you know me, you know enough to handle anything.'”1

We have to remind ourselves when things are easy and when things are hard: God is powerful, God is sovereign, and God is good. He does not promise that we won't have hardship, but he promises that nothing will be wasted and he will see us through. And one day, he will make beauty from the ashes.

There’s another thing people will say you shouldn’t listen to: “God never gives us more than we can handle.” He absolutely does. When these things happen, God doesn’t want you to lean on your own strength because he thinks you can handle it. He knows you can’t. He wants you to lean on him. His grace is sufficient for you; his power is made perfect in weakness (2Cor 12:9).

God never promised not to give us more than we can handle. His promise is, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb 13:5).

What do you read when your world’s falling apart? The Bible. God has given us a treasure trove of comfort in his word. Many people turn to the Psalms of lament, like Psalm 10, 13, 22, 88, or 102 (among many others). I find more comfort in the passages that magnify our vision of God: for example, Psalm 23, 46, or 139 or the ending of Job (38-42) or Isaiah 40-45. Perhaps a little bit of both would be helpful.

a If someone wants more like this to meditate on, consider Rom 5:8, Gal 2:20, 1John 4:9-10.

1 RC Sproul, Surprised by Suffering

Image via Pixabay

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Living the Solution to the Problem of Evil

broken chain
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matt 9:35).

CS Lewis wrote, “If tribulation is a necessary element in redemption, we must anticipate that it will never cease till God sees the world to be either redeemed or no further redeemable.”1 If God is not going to end the problem of evil until he ends the world, what do we do until then?

Sharing The Gospel
First and foremost, we need to let the pain of this world remind us that people need Jesus. They need to hear the real gospel, not some watered-down self-help version. People need to know, “We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are ... rebels who must lay down our arms.”1

When we “lay down our arms” — when we repent of our sinful ways — and trust Jesus to be our righteousness before God, we are transformed by the Spirit, adopted by the Father, and promised that joy forever will eclipse the pain of this world. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations ...” (Matt 28:19).

Living The Kingdom
Second, we need to live in this world the way it ought to be.

“I have argued so far ... that the ultimate answer to the problem of evil is to be found in God’s creation of a new world ... with redeemed human beings ruling over it and bringing to it God’s wise, healing order. ... I now want to suggest that part of the Christian task in the present is to anticipate this eschatology, to borrow from God’s future in order to change the way things are in the present, to enjoy the taste of our eventual deliverance from evil by learning how to loose the bonds of evil in the present.”2

I’ve seen several versions of a cartoon where one character says, “Sometimes I’d like to ask God why he allows poverty, famine, and injustice when he could do something about it.” The other says, “I’m afraid he might ask me the same question.” Sin will exist in this world until Jesus returns. Disease is a part of this world. But so much of the pain people experience could be removed or at least eased if we could just get our act together and do something about it.

There are lots of reasons why people are poor, but people are hungry because no one feeds them. Injustice exists because we act unjustly or allow others to. We cannot stop cancer or hurricanes, but we do not do all we can to alleviate the pain the natural world causes.

When we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”, it means more than merely making Earth more like God’s ultimate kingdom, but it does not mean less. In the Old Testament, we see again and again that God wants his people to help the poor and to create just laws and see that they are applied impartially. To God, real religion and real piety are as much about our neighbor as it is about him:

“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” (Is 58:6-7).

As NT Wright said, “The Christian ... is thus under obligation both to honor the ruling authority, whatever it may be, and to work constantly to remind that authority of its God-given task and to encourage and help it to perform that task: to do justice and love mercy, to ensure that those who are weak and vulnerable are properly looked after.”2

And we are under obligation to do so ourselves, whether government does its job properly or not. We also are to be people of forgiveness and reconciliation. We are to be living examples of God’s healing and grace in this world.

To live out God’s solution to the problem of evil means “to live between the cross and the resurrection on the one hand and the new world on the other, and in believing in the achievements of the cross and resurrection, and in learning how to imagine the new world....”2

Saying God will make everything right in the next world will sound like pie in the sky to unbelievers. Living like his Kingdom has come on Earth as it is in Heaven will make it much more believable.

“We are not told -- or not in any way that satisfies our puzzled questioning -- how and why there is radical evil within God’s wonderful, beautiful and essentially good creation. One day I think we shall find out, but I believe we are incapable of understanding it at the moment, in the same way that a baby in the womb would lack the categories to think about the outside world. What we are promised, however, is that God will make a world in which all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, a world in which forgiveness is one of the foundation stones and reconciliation is the cement which holds everything together. And we are given this promise not as a matter of whistling in the dark, not as something to believe even though there is no evidence, but in and through Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection, and in and through the Spirit through whom the achievement of Jesus becomes a reality in our world and in our lives. When we understand forgiveness, flowing from the work of Jesus and the Spirit, as the strange, powerful thing it really is, we begin to realize that God’s forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of others, is the knife that cuts the rope by which sin, anger, fear, recrimination and death are still attached to us. Evil will have nothing to say at the last, because the victory of the cross will be fully implemented.”2

For more on a practical approach to the problem of evil, see NT Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God.

1 CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain
2 NT Wright, Evil and The Justice of God

Image via Flickr

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Problem of Evil (1/3)

Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field” (Gen 3:17-18).

Why does God allow evil and suffering in the world?

There is pain and suffering in the world because there is sin in the world. Humans do evil things to each other because they are sinners. We are all doing evil things to each other all the time. We kill and steal and deceive and mistreat. He will not stop us from doing the evil in our hearts. This is the path humanity chose. He cannot end evil without ending evil. He will do that one day, but not today. For today “he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2Pet 3:9). Until then, we live in the fallen world we created.

But what about natural evil? Couldn’t God at least stop the world from hurting us? That, too, is part of the curse for our sin. The world “will produce thorns and thistles for you”. The thorns and thistles are part of the punishment, but they are also for our benefit — they are “for” us. The pain and suffering caused by the natural world tells us that everything is not right with the world. It keeps us from getting too comfortable here.

Why is that a good thing? Because happy people in a fallen world have a hard time seeking God. We see time and again in scripture and in life that the poor and sick are much more open to the gospel than those who are sitting fat and happy. Does that seem cruel? It’s the opposite of cruel — it just recognizes our real need. “Suppose a person lives his entire life experiencing nothing but prosperity and happiness, yet dies without a right relationship with God. What has he gained? Actually, he has lost everything.”1

Humanity’s real problem is our separation from God. Not only are we alienated from our true purpose and nature, we are born on a course for damnation. “Man, as a species, spoiled himself, and ... good, to us in our present state, must therefore mean primarily remedial or corrective good.

“The Human spirit will not even begin to try and surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it. Now error and sin both have this property, that the deeper they are the less their victim suspects their existence; they are masked evil. Pain is unmasked, unmistakable evil; every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt.”2

And so at times God puts us on our backs to make us look up. “It sometimes seems that it is only when suffering, pain, or grief invades our lives that we begin to be sober and direct our thinking toward the things of God in a significant way.”3

But that seems cruel to some. “Let me implore the reader to try to believe ... that God, who made [humans], may be really right when He thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children are not enough to make them blessed: that all of this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched.”2

Therefore real love does not seek to make broken people happy in their brokenness; it wants to make them recognize their brokenness and turn to the cure. If this sometimes seems worse than the disease, it’s because we have forgotten the ultimate outcome of the disease.

To speak of the cure brings us to the answer to the problem of evil.

“If we again ask the question: ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’ and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself.”4

As John Stott said, “I could never believe in God if it were not for the cross.”5 Whatever God is doing in our world, he did not insulate himself from the pain and suffering we face. He came down here and lived through the worst of it with us. He didn’t come as a king but as the poorest of the poor. He came as part of an oppressed religious and ethnic minority that lived under harsh totalitarian rule. And he suffered more than just a few years of physical pain.

“Just imagine every single pain in the history of the world, all rolled together into a ball, eaten by God, digested, fully tasted, eternally. In the act of creating the world, God not only said, let there be pretty little bunny rabbits and flowers and sunsets, but also let there be blood and guts and the buzzing flies around the cross. ... God’s answer to the problem of suffering is that he came right down into it.”6

In Christ, God suffered with us. Through Christ, God will heal the world and make everything right. One day those who responded to suffering by turning to God will see that it was all worthwhile. As Mother Teresa said, “In light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth, a life full of the most atrocious tortures on earth, will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.”

One day we will live in a world with “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4). Justice will be done. God will right every wrong. We will see the glory achieved by our “light and momentary troubles” (2Cor 4:17) and know that it was all worth it. The God who always keeps his word has promised it.

You should definitely go deeper on this topic. The single best book I’ve found on the subject is CS Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, but any of the books below would be worthwhile.

1 Jerry Bridges, The Gospel for Real Life
2 CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain
3 RC Sproul, Surprised by Suffering
4 Tim Keller, The Reason for God
5 John Stott, The Cross of Christ
6 Peter Kreeft in Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith

Image via Pixabay 

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Problem of Evil, Part 0

How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrong?” (Hab 1:2-3).

How can a good, sovereign God allow evil and suffering in the world? I said before that this is the final exam of Christian theology and apologetics. Now that we’ve covered all the bases, we should be able to address this difficult topic.

The Bible doesn’t pretend this isn’t a problem. All of Job and Habakuk as well as several Psalms and some passages in the New Testament address the question in one form or another. The scriptures do not give us a nice, pat answer, though. Instead they give us a big God.

Just about every post of this project could be a book; that’s doubly true about this. There are many good books written on the topic, and it’s worth everyone’s time to read a few. Everyone will be touched by this at some point.

The problem with the problem of evil is that it’s more than an intellectual problem. Yes, it’s a conundrum philosophers debate ad infinitum, but when it comes home, it attacks the heart more than the mind. When that happens, all the books in the world won’t help. We have to prepare our hearts and minds beforehand.

The intellectual problem has been called the “armchair question” — the question we ask when we’re sitting in our comfortable chairs wondering why God allows evil things to happen over there. “Why does God let children starve in Africa?” The heart problem has been called the “wheelchair question” — the question we ask when we’re suffering, wondering why God let this happen to me. “Why did God let my baby die?” To the best of my meager ability, I’ll speak to both in turn.

Image via Pixabay 

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Jesus' Incomparable Character

Two things that are required to make a fictional character interesting are flaws and character growth. Sherlock Holmes’ brilliance would be completely insufferable if he wasn’t also an egotistical jerk with terrible social skills. Batman’s superpower of awesomeness would be intolerable if it weren’t for his trust issues and the relationship problems they force him to navigate.

So how can Jesus be such a compelling character? He has an impeccable moral character. He never misspeaks, never makes a misstep. He never misunderstands anyone and always has the perfect response ready. Today such a character is called a “Mary Sue” and derided as completely uninteresting. But he’s not.
Too Good to be False

Tom Gilson’s new book Too Good to Be False: How Jesus' Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality shows that the life of Jesus as portrayed in the gospels is something different from any other person in history or in fiction — a character that is “too consistent, too unique, and too extraordinarily good to be mere legend” that still manages to be magnetic. “In both history and literature, the powerful people are never the noble, self-sacrificial people.” Except Jesus. He’s the one person whom absolute power did not corrupt.

This book catalogs the things in Jesus’ life we overlook because we’re too used to them: amazing things in his character, the way he leads, the things he never says, and other truths we’re too familiar with to notice. “I’m not saying it leads to ‘new truths,’ for most ‘new truths’ in Jesus studies are deceptive and false; they’re the stuff that cults are born of. These discoveries are of the ‘how much more’ variety instead: how much greater, more loving, more clearly God, our Savior is and was than I’d ever realized.”

This serves as an apologetic argument. Skeptics say Jesus’ miracles are impossible. Take those away, and he’s just an ordinary moral teacher — “a ‘fairly ordinary rabbi story,’ plus special effects.” What Gilson shows is that his character eclipses his miracles in improbability. He also shows that such a character, even if one person could create such a thing, cannot have come about by the communal evolutionary process skeptics claim created the gospels.

However, I don’t really know how many skeptics will be persuaded by this line of argument. Let’s face it, most skeptics are skeptical of everything but their own skepticism. Those who are wavering or wondering, perhaps the curious and the seekers, may find this persuasive. But not the Dawkins fanboys.

And Gilson knows that: “This book isn’t primarily about rounding up skeptics’ ideas and proving them wrong, anyway. It’s mostly about gaining a fresh new vision of Jesus. My primary aim, for those who are already convinced he’s worthy of their worship, is to show you even more reasons to fall on your knees in wonder before him.”

Yes, apologetics can lead you to worship. I know because I experienced it in Tom Gilson’s new book. I think it will do that for you, too.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

An Eternal Perspective

For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 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” (2Cor 4:17-18).

What good is it to know we’ll go to heaven “some day”? It gives us an eternal perspective which can and should transform the way we live.

Hope for hard times
Embracing the knowledge that to die is to be with Jesus and that we will once again live and walk upon the Earth can give us comfort and strength during trials. What is in store for us is far, far better than what we have now, so we can endure “light and momentary” trials. (It might be edifying to remind ourselves what Paul considers “light and momentary troubles” in 2Cor 11:23-27.) For centuries, and even today, Christians have faced suffering and even death boldly because they know “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). In the end, anything the world can inflict on us is just one more thing the Father will use to make us more like Jesus (Rom 8:28-30). And the “worst” it can do is send us to live with him forever.

Encouragement in the everyday
Sometimes life is hard; a lot of the time life is just boring. Our lives are filled with sweat and drudgery. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward” (Col 3:23). The truth that we will have physical bodies on a literal earth restores some of the lost dignity of this world. Physical things matter. And honoring God in the small things matters because he sees all. “God wants you to remember that while you are ironing clothes and scrubbing floors; Jesus Christ is coming back someday to take you to be with Him forever.”1

Encouragement to work for the Lord
Life is hard. Living for Jesus is harder. Working for Jesus can be harder still. But it’s worth it. There’s an old saying: “Come work for the Lord. The pay is low, the work is hard, and the hours are long, but the retirement benefits are out of this world.” And that’s what Paul teaches in 1Cor 15. After reminding them of the evidence that Christ rose from the dead, he tells them that Christ’s victory will not be complete until he conquers death by raising us all from the dead. Then death will be swallowed up in victory. “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1Cor 15:58). God will have ample time to reward us for our labor on Earth 2.0, so we should work faithfully.

Clarity on priorities
We all have the same 24 hours every day. The Lord may give us 80 years of those days, and he may not. Let the knowledge that what happens here will not be the end of it spur us on to good works. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t rest and relax. God has commanded that we do! But this should help us focus our efforts and how we use our time. As the saying goes, “You can’t take it with you, but you can send it on ahead.”

Randy Alcorn tells us, “Heaven should affect our activities and ambitions, our recreation and friendships, and the way we spend our money and time. ... Even if I keep my eyes off of impurities, how much time will I want to invest in what doesn’t matter? What will last forever? God’s Word. People. Spending time in God’s Word and investing in people will pay off in eternity and bring me joy and perspective now.”2 So store up treasures in Heaven (Matt 6:20). “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col 3:1-2).

Encouragement to holiness
Finally, and most importantly, the sure hope that we have in Christ Jesus should cause us to strive to be holy. The New Testament emphasizes this over and over. “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1John 3:3). Knowing that this Earth and the things of this life will pass away, “what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. ... So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him” (2Pet 3:11-12, 14).

“If my wedding date is on the calendar, and I’m thinking of the person I’m going to marry, I shouldn’t be an easy target for seduction. Likewise, when I’ve meditated on Heaven, sin is terribly unappealing. It’s when my mind drifts from Heaven that sin seems attractive. Thinking of Heaven leads inevitably to pursuing holiness. Our high tolerance for sin testifies of our failure to prepare for Heaven.”2

Some people fear too much thinking about Heaven will make us no earthly good. I don’t think that’s a realistic danger. The people who do the most for the Lord seem to be those who are most entranced by him and the hope we have in him. This is not a call to spend all day thinking only about Heaven. It’s encouragement to develop a realistic perspective about the things of this world and what really matters in life and let that shape the way we live. Because of “the joy set before him,” Christ endured the cross (Heb 12:2). In Christ, because of the joy set before us, we can endure as well.

1 Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On
2 Randy Alcorn, Heaven

Image via Pexels

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Believer's Final Fate

mountain lake
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away ... And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He 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 21:1-4).

Heaven will be on Earth.

The Great White Throne of Judgment (Rev 20:11-15) will be a terrible thing for those who have rejected Jesus. For his followers, though, it will be there that our salvation will be made complete. Those whose names are found in the Book of Life will not have to pay for their sins because Jesus has already paid. Instead our adoption will be fully realized as we reign with Christ in the new Heaven and new Earth.

We talk about going “to Heaven” when we die. And that’s where we’ll be for a while. But we were made to live on Earth, and that is where we will live after the resurrection. Heaven will be on Earth because God will be there. People debate whether the Earth will be replaced or renewed; I fall into the latter camp because “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay” (Rom 8:19-21). But whether the Earth is totally new or totally renewed, we will live on Earth.

What will that Earth be like? Earth. “If we can’t imagine our present Earth without rivers, mountains, trees, and flowers, then why would we try to imagine the New Earth without those features? ... He promises us a New Earth. If the word Earth in this phrase means anything, it means that we can expect to find earthly things there — including atmosphere, mountains, water, trees, people, houses — even cities, buildings, and streets.”1 It will be Earth, but it will be an unfallen Earth.

What won’t be on the new Earth?
“No death, no suffering. No funeral homes, abortion clinics, or psychiatric wards. No rape, missing children, or drug rehabilitation centers. No bigotry, no muggings or killings. No worry or depression or economic downturns. No wars, no unemployment. No anguish over failure and miscommunication. No con men. No locks. No death. No mourning. No pain. No boredom.”2

No boredom? Won’t sitting around playing a harp all day be boring? We have to separate popular culture from the scriptures. There will be worship. And there will be work, responsibility. Believers will judge angels (1Cor 6:3). Jesus’ words about his followers being responsible for things in the Kingdom of God (eg, Matt 25:14-30) should be taken literally. There will be work to be done, but it will be good work, fulfilling work, work without the frustrations created by living in a fallen world.

The new Earth will be Eden restored. The mission of Adam was to enlarge the garden until it filled the whole world. The new Earth will be as if that had been fulfilled. That doesn’t mean we’ll live a primitive existence, though. What would the world be like if we had filled the earth and subdued it (Gen 1:218) without the fall? There still would have been technological advancements. There would still have been cultures. But no pain, no weeds, no wars, no disease. That is the world we will live in. The good things about this Earth will be better, and the bad things will be gone. 

And the best part is God will be there. There will be no temple “because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev 21:22). The new Jerusalem will be the holy of holies, and we will all have free access to it and to him. We will no longer be separated from God by sin. We will see his face and live with him and he with us.

Life in this fallen world is hard. Either you die young or you live long enough for your body to fail you. We earn a living by fighting with thorns and thistles and fallen people. Every beautiful thing decays or erodes or otherwise passes away. And God is hidden from us, separated from us by our sin.

Life on the new Earth will be unfallen bodies that never grow old or experience pain. It will be work that is meaningful and fulfilling, never frustrating or boring. It will be gardens without weeds, beauty without decay. It will be getting to know the saints that came before us. And it will be ever growing knowledge of the infinite God who called us in Christ Jesus before the foundation of the world.

Come, Lord Jesus!

I highly recommend Randy Alcorn’s Heaven or at least the abbreviated Q&A version (a mere 60 pages).

1 Randy Alcorn, Heaven, emphasis in original
2 Randy Alcorn, Heaven: Biblical Answers to Common Questions

Image via Pixabay 

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Return of Christ to Judge the Quick and the Dead

A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28-29).

Jesus is coming back. That is good news for some, bad news for others.

“According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1Thes 4:15-17).

This return will be quite literal, physical, and unmistakable (Luke 17:24). When will it happen? No one knows. Life will be carrying on just as it always has, and then it’ll happen (Matt 24:36-39). It’ll be unexpected, coming “like a thief” (Matt 24:42-44, 1Thes 5:2-3, 2Pet 3:10).

What comes next is greatly debated, but at some point after that, whether it’s immediately, seven years, or a thousand years, everyone else will be raised to life also, and Christ will judge everyone.

“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:11-15).

This is what we call Hell. Heaven was created for us (cf, John 14:2-3); Hell was not. It was created for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41). But humans who have persisted in sharing their rebellion will share their fate.

Jesus taught about this a lot, sometimes speaking of fire (eg, Matt 13:42), sometimes darkness (eg, Matt 22:13) but both including “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The phrase “gnashing of teeth” has come to refer to deep sorrow in our culture, but in the OT, it is always a show of anger (eg, Psalm 37:12), therefore it probably is in the NT, too. So even in Hell, the wicked will still be in rebellion against God.

That answers one of the common objections to the idea of Hell: “What is fair about eternal punishment for finite sin?” But that objection assumes people stop sinning in Hell. “A filthy, vile person on earth will exist eternally as a filthy, vile person.”1 In the end, God will let people be who they are, who they have wanted to be. As Lewis says:

“In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They [do not want to be] forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.”2

Is all the talk about fire, darkness, and worms metaphorical? Probably. If so, they’re metaphors for things that are worse, simply bringing it down to language we can understand. Whatever Hell will really be like, it is something so terrible that Christ died to keep people from going there.

Will Hell be the same for everyone? No. Despite popular misconception, Jesus actually taught that some sins are worse than others (eg, John 19:11), and Jesus made it clear that the day of judgment would be worse for some than for others (eg, Matt 11:21-24). We do not need to fear that God will treat everyone like a mass murderer. Everyone will receive a just sentence.

Can we really be happy knowing some people are being punished? We can, and we must. Some people simply do not want God, not on his terms. God must deal with sin. “Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it: or else for ever and ever the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves. I know it has a grand sound to say ye’ll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside. But watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.”3

Will Hell really last forever? There are an increasing number of evangelicals, even some surprising ones, who believe Hell will be finite. I would love to believe that, but I can’t find that in the scriptures. But infinite or finite, it is something to be avoided at any cost (Matt 5:29-30), and we should do all we can to help as many as we can avoid it.

For more on Hell, I highly recommend The Great Divorce by CS Lewis.

1 Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On
2 CS Lewis, The Problem of Evil
3 CS Lewis, The Great Divorce

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

What Happens When We Die?

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1Thes 4:13).

Death is not the end. When our bodies cease to function, the immaterial part of us — let’s call it our spirit — continues to exist. A day will come when all spirits will have bodies again (more on that later). Death is temporary; that’s why the New Testament frequently refers to it as “falling asleep.” One of two things will happen to our spirits while they wait for bodies.

One of the thieves crucified with Jesus came to trust in him. Jesus told him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). And it’s the same for all believers: To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (cf, 2Cor 5:6-9). When our bodies fall asleep, our spirits will “depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Phil 1:23). Sproul says, “There is joy in living, so we hold on to life with a passion. Yet for Christians, death is even better, because we go immediately to be with Christ, a hope verified by Christ’s resurrection.”1 Death has been called the last enemy, but in some ways it’s more of a frenemy because, in wounding us, it takes us to be with our Lord and those who have gone on before us.

This “intermediate Heaven” is not our final destination, however. Our spirits will wait there for the day when they will have new bodies like Christ’s resurrected body. Randy Alcorn uses the analogy of someone flying to their new home but having a layover in another city. While there they spend the afternoon enjoying the company of relatives who meet them there, family they haven’t seen in years. But as wonderful as that visit is, they’re not home yet.2 The intermediate Heaven will be a temporary stop, a layover on the way to our true home (again, more later).

But what about unbelievers? If the intermediate state of believers is just a foretaste of the ultimate fate that awaits us, the same is true for the intermediate state of unbelievers. Jesus said they go to “Hades”, a place of torment (Luke 16:23) where they will await their final fate (Rev 20:11-14) the “lake of fire” we call Hell. Does this make you uncomfortable? Good. It should. It is a terrible thing, but it is necessary.

If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? ... I said glibly a moment ago that I would pay ‘any price’ to remove this doctrine. I lied. I could not pay one-thousandth part of the price that God has already paid to remove the fact.3

God sacrificed a great deal to rescue people from Hell. But not everyone wants to be rescued, not if the requirement is to bend the knee to their maker. I have wept, ugly cried, over good people I know who refuse that “self-surrender”, but the distastefulness of the doctrine does not make it untrue.

But what makes it true? How do we know any of this is true? Maybe when we die, we really do just turn off like a light.

There are an increasing number of books out there that explore near-death out-of-body experiences as proof that humans have an immaterial component.4 But for proof of Heaven and Hell, we’re really just going to have to take the word of the Man from Heaven, the one who lived and died and rose again. He is the one who promised us Heaven; he is the one who warned about Hell. Will we call him a liar?

So what do we do with this? We need to live like it’s true.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.5

So let’s live in a way that makes the gospel attractive. And don’t forget to actually share the gospel with those who need to hear it.

For more on death, I recommend “The Authority of Christ Over Death” in Theology You Can Count On by Tony Evans. For more on Hell, see the chapter of the same name in CS Lewis’ The Problem of Pain.

1 RC Sproul, Everyone's a Theologian
2 Randy Alcorn, Heaven
3 CS Lewis, “Hell” in The Problem of Pain
4 For example, Gary Habermas and JP Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality
5 CS Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

Image via Pixabay

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Introduction to Eschatology

Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?” (Rom 8:23-24).

The basis for our hope in Christ is his death and resurrection. The content of our hope is that we, too, will conquer death in Christ Jesus, and then our justification and adoption will be fully realized. That is what the Doctrine of Eschatology (or “Last Things”) is ultimately about.

Theologies usually cover Last Things last. In terms of the Apostles’ Creed, we’ll be looking at how Jesus “shall come to judge the quick and the dead” leading to “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting” and all that will transpire.

There really isn’t much to a “mere evangelical” eschatology. Committed Christians disagree about most of the details beyond the very fact of it. Will the Millennium be literal or figurative? Will it come before or after Christ’s return? Will the Rapture come before or after the Great Tribulation — if there is one? There are lots of interpretations of the biblical data. And that’s OK. So I’m not going to go into any one theory of how the end times will shake out. It doesn’t matter how we believe events will unfold.

What matters is that we believe Christ will return, that evil will be conquered, and that he will live with his people forever and that we live our lives in light of that.

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The History of Israel as a Parallel to Salvation

Aivazovsky, Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea
We believe we are justified by grace apart from works. But after that? Is sanctification the work of God or of our own effort? Yes. We find a great picture of this in the history of Israel.

When God freed the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt, he did it by his power alone. He brought the plagues. He split the sea. He destroyed Pharaoh’s army. All they had to do was go when he told them to go.

When God freed us from our bondage to sin, he did it all. He broke the hold the rulers of this world have over us, triumphing over them by the cross. All we have to do is come when he says come.

After they passed through the waters, though, they had to strap on a sword. At the Red Sea they were told, “The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Ex 14:14). After that, they were told, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites” (Ex 17:9).

But they did not fight in their own power. When God was with them, they could take on the enemy with only 300 men (eg, Jdg 7). When God was not with them, no force was large enough for victory (eg, Josh 7).

We, too, can only fight sin by the power of God. Under our own power, defeat is certain. Under his power, victory is inevitable because “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:37).

Why should we fight this fight? First, God said so. But he said so as a result of what he had done for his people. God’s instructions to Israel were prefaced with “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex 20:2). To us the word is, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Rom 12:1). God only wants us to respond to what he has already done for us.

Second, what God wants is that we reach out and take what is good. To Israel, he said, “You will possess their land ... a land flowing with milk and honey” (Lev 20:24). The Promised Land was going to be worth the trouble to take. The Christian’s promised land is to be conformed to the image of Christ so that we can experience the life he made us for and reign with him (Rom 8).

In the conquest of the Promised Land, their mission was to destroy the evil remaining in the land and give it all over to God’s rule. In sanctification, our mission is to destroy the evil remaining in our lives and give it all over to God’s rule. It’s hard work, but it will be worthwhile. And like the conquest of Canaan, God will not do it without us, and we cannot do it without him.

Image: Aivazovsky's Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea 1891

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Eyewitness Testimony

There is so much evidence to support the Christian faith it can be overwhelming. How do you keep it all straight? I want to suggest a way to help you demonstrate that the gospels are based on eyewitness testimony.

We’re going to take one passage of scripture and use it as an outline to present the evidence.

I’m not good at memorizing things, but I have committed this passage to memory, and so can you. However, if you carry a pocket Bible or New Testament, you only need to put a ribbon there. If you have a smartphone, you can get tons of free Bible apps; you can usually bookmark or “favorite” a passage.

The passage is Luke 1:1-4

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (NIV84)

Highlight the words I highlighted. If the app won’t highlight words, mark the whole verse. Either commit to memory or make a note of why these words are important. I know space is limited in a pocket testament’s margin, so I’ll give you a succinct note to jog your memory.

Luke claims these things were handed down by eyewitnesses to the events of the gospels. The simplest evidence is the names and places found in the gospels.1

Names: Jewish names in Palestine were different from Jewish names in other parts of the Roman Empire (eg, Egypt). And we know which names were common enough to need to distinguish people with the same name (aka disambiguation).

The Gospels use the correct Palestinian names in the correct numbers and always disambiguate the correct names. For instance, Simon was the most common male name in Palestine. In the gospels, Simon is the most common name, and it is always disambiguated (eg, Simon Peter, Simon the Leper, Simon the Zealot). Jesus was also a very common name, and so the Lord is always referred to (in public) as “Jesus of Nazareth.” Thomas was not as common and so did not require disambiguation. If these stories were made up by people outside of Palestine, they could not have known what names to use and which were common.

Places: It can also be shown that the gospels show great familiarity with the geography of Palestine. They cite many towns, even small obscure ones, and know directions, locations of bodies of water, and where one would expect to find gentiles or tax collectors 
 all things that were hard to discover pre-internet. For example, the gospels show Nazareth was a tiny, insignificant place (John 1:46) as archeology bears out.

So, in short, the gospels are made up of material that clearly originated in and around Judea and Galilee. That’s point one.

Your note: “Jesus of Nazareth” to remind you about common names, disambiguation, and geography. If you have more space (such as in an app), perhaps add “Simon Peter, Simon the Leper, Simon the Zealot”.

Carefully investigated
Luke says he “carefully investigated” all of this. Some translations will say something like “I have followed all things carefully from the beginning”. That means carefully investigated. Highlight what you have.

For Luke to have “carefully investigated” means he had to talk to the people involved. And if they were around for Luke to talk to, they were at least available to the writers of the earlier gospels (Mark and Matthew), too. And the first readers could talk to them, as well.

Besides the apostles, there were other witnesses. We find these people named in the gospels. Only a few people Christ healed are named, probably because they are known to the audience. People like Bartimaeus, Malchus, Joanna, and Susanna could attest that they were healed. Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross, was “the father of Alexander and Rufus”, two men apparently known to Mark’s audience. Luke mentions Cleopas, who talked with the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus 
 someone familiar to his audience. All four gospels name people who could have shared their stories to those first readers.

That’s point two, that witnesses were still around and known to the Church.

Your note: Luke 24:18 Cleopas 
 you might want to go to that verse, highlight the name, and write “witness” in the margin. If you have more space, perhaps add Mark 15:21 (the line about Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus) or Mark 10:46 (Bartimaeus).

The fact the gospels were based on eye-witness material that came from the witnesses was important to the early church. They wanted people to know that these things weren’t fairy tales but the truth.

Luke wanted his audience to know this didn’t happen once upon a time but “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar...” (Lk 3:1).

Peter said, “We did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2Pet 1:16). John said, “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” (1John 1:1). Paul said, if the gospel story isn’t true, “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1Cor 15:19).

That’s point three: It mattered to them that this was a true story.

Your note: Luke 3:1, 2Pet 1:16

It mattered to them that this was a true story. It matters to us. This isn’t a myth about the fall of a city or where rain comes from. It’s the history of how God came to rescue us and adopt us as his children. If the story of the Gospel is true history, then it really should change how we live our lives.

1 For more on this, see Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels?

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Truth About the Color of Compromise

The Color of Compromise
One of the books mentioned in many racial reconciliation reading lists is Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. The Amazon listing calls it a “timely narrative of how people of faith have historically — up to the present day — worked against racial justice. And a call for urgent action by all Christians today in response. ... Equal parts painful and inspirational, it details how the American church has helped create and maintain racist ideas and practices. You will be guided in thinking through concrete solutions for improved race relations and a racially inclusive church.” That sounds like a good counter-weight to Voddie Baucham, so I decided to give it a go.

After an introduction, Tisby begins with a historical survey of the many awful things white Americans — and particularly white Christians — have done to black people. He begins in the colonial era and continues through 2019. Some of it you’ve heard before, but some of it will be new. Much of it is terrible. There’s a whole lot of human depravity on display. Then he offers things he thinks will help white Christians make amends to and peace with black Christians.

So how’d it go?

Tisby says, “The goal of this book is not guilt.” Yes it is. His whole enterprise depends on white people feeling guilty. The question is whether they ought to feel guilty. Set aside for the moment the question of our responsibility for the sins of our forebears. What have today’s white Christians actually done to black people?

The Modern Christians' Sin
He gets into this in Chapter 9, “Organizing the Religious Right at the End of the Twentieth Century.” A repeated refrain in this book is “racism never goes away; it adapts.” What form has racism taken in the post-Civil Rights era? Talk about “law and order”, “state’s rights” (aka federalism), and “limited government” is racist. So is opposing racial set-asides, abuse of the welfare system, and communism. Claiming that capitalism will lift poor black people out of poverty? Racist. Stiffer punishment for drug offenses involving crack cocaine? Racist, even though it was supported by the Congressional Black Caucus.1

In short, white evangelicals are still racist today as demonstrated by their tendency to vote for conservative Republicans. Because conservative Republicans are racists as demonstrated by their tendency to support policies Tisby doesn’t agree with.

And, of course, they voted for Trump in large numbers (Chapter 10). He trots out the usual “proof” of Trump’s racism: a housing lawsuit from 1975. An ad calling for a return of the death penalty in NY in 1989. Questioning Obama’s citizenship. The wall. The “ban on Muslim immigration” that wasn’t. A tendency to quote the wrong news sources. He is a racist, so people who voted for him are racist.

He eventually admits, “Evangelical support for Donald Trump can be attributed to a combination of policy issues they thought he would champion as well as an intense dislike of Hillary Clinton.” And “White evangelicals looked to Trump to support their pro-life stance. They wanted him to oppose gay marriage and, of vital importance, to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices who would protect and promote their policy interests.”

But that doesn’t matter because Trump is a racist, and “Black people recognized the pattern of prejudice from Trump, and they showed their distaste at the polls. Eighty-eight percent of black voters ... supported the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. By contrast, 58 percent of white people voted for Trump.” Of course, Bill Clinton garnered 83% of the black vote in 1992,2 Gore 90% in 2000, and Kerry 88% in 2004, so maybe black people are just reliably Democratic voters and their rejection of Trump is nothing special. It seems like he’s trying to spin a narrative here. (Frankly, he wants white evangelicals to vote Democrat. We’ll come back to this.)

Ultimately “Christian complicity with racism in the twenty-first century looks different than complicity with racism in the past. It looks like Christians responding to black lives matter with the phrase all lives matter. It looks like Christians consistently supporting a president whose racism has been on display for decades. ... It looks like conversations on race that focus on individual relationships and are unwilling to discuss systemic solutions.” In other words, if you didn’t want to support the BLM organization, voted for Trump, and/or don't think the nation is still structurally racist, you're a racist.

Generational Guilt
So that covers our racism today. Are white Christians responsible for the racism of the past? His case that we are is limited to a section of the last chapter where he talks about reparations. Other authors have gone into much more detail making the case for reparations, so maybe he didn’t feel the need or didn’t want to dedicate the space to a more thorough case. He should have. A couple of pages that take a few Bible passages out of context are not convincing.

He thinks the church today (ie, of the last 40 years or so) is not only responsible for our forebears’ sins but is just as guilty of racism as those who defended slavery. That claim bears a burden of proof he does not meet. So where does that leave us?

If the diagnosis is wrong, the proffered cure is questionable. But I do want to look at some of what he prescribes.

He wants us to be more aware of racism by watching documentaries about racism and following “racial and ethnic minorities and those with different political outlooks than yours” (emphasis added) on social media, listening to their podcasts, and reading their blogs. I doubt he means Voddie Baucham, George Yancey, and Thomas Sowell. He wants you to find black liberals to listen to.

He wants us to make friends with ethnic and racial minorities. That’s great. Everybody needs more friends. That’s easier said than done, or we’d all have more friends.3

And he tells us to develop a lifelong commitment to racial justice by doing things like joining an organization that advocates for racial and social justice (these organizations are, of course, completely apolitical on issues outside “racial and social justice”), donating money to these organizations, and by voting. But Republicans are racists, so ...

And he wants us to create “Freedom Schools” to teach everyday [white] Christians about “systemic injustices such as mass incarceration, police brutality, underfunded schools, and healthcare inequality.” By now I think it’s fair to assume he means the Democratic take on all these issues.

Then he offers some better ideas. As part of reparations, he wants white churches to “pool resources to fund a massive debt forgiveness plan for black families.” I could get behind that ... if we didn’t limit it to blacks. He suggests funding black-led church plans and religious organizations. “Black Christians have an abundance of innovative ideas ... What they often lack is funding.” Well, what most churches lack is funding. There are far more poor white churches than there are rich ones. But the idea isn’t terrible if we see it as rich churches sharing with poor churches (something my church has a history of). He also recommends funding currently bivocational pastors so they can just pastor. Much of what he says I could get behind if we’re not approaching it as something someone “owes” someone else but as the way the rich in the Church could share their wealth with the poor.

How does this book relate to Critical Race Theory? It doesn’t use the name at all, but it does share some of the ideas Voddie Baucham warned about. For example, “racism is a system of oppression based on race” or “racism as prejudice plus power.” So while anyone can be prejudiced, only white people can be “racists.” He never straight up says, but he strongly implies that all white people are racist, and they’re definitely all complicit in this system of oppression. He also never says but obviously assumes that unequal outcomes are proof of racism.

I am surprised by the reports that so many pastors have been so profoundly affected by this book. It did not have that effect on me. One reason might be that for some reason I read Chapters 9-11 first then went back to the beginning. I saw how terribly he handled the period I lived through and know something about. Perhaps if you started at the beginning, revisiting how horrible human beings can be to each other, you might be less critical when you read Chapters 9 through 11. However, it seems obvious to me his “proof” of our racism today is our failure to vote Democratic, and his solution for it is largely to vote Democratic. Your feelings about the Democratic Party one way or the other shouldn’t keep you from seeing that this is more about politics than race. He wants your guilt over racism to convince you to vote Democrat as penance.

Chapters 1-8 will take you through the terrible, terrible, terrible history of white people being inhumane to black people in this country. Not only did people who claimed to follow Christ fail to stand up for what was right, they very often sided with the wrong. We can talk about “cultural blindspots” all we want, but there have been Christian abolitionists since at least Gregory of Nyssa (d. 378). There were certainly abolitionists in the colonies and in the fledgling United States. That people chose to go along with their culture instead of listening to the scriptural opposition to the institution of slavery is inexcusable. But you have to do more than take a few scriptures out of context to prove that we are responsible for their sin today.

We have to acknowledge the gross sins of the people who came before us, just as we have to acknowledge ours. And we have to keep it in perspective — we’re all sinners. If God can use Peter and Paul, God can use anyone. We shouldn’t give Jonathan Edwards a pass on slavery, but it doesn’t disqualify everything he ever wrote, just as Martin Luther King’s adultery doesn’t disqualify everything he did.

The book is probably worth reading if you want the history lesson in the first 8 chapters, but Chapters 9 and 10 are not a good use of your time. Chapter 11, has some good ideas mixed in with some bad ideas. I would love to see the Church being the Church, the rich sharing with the poor, showing the world what the love of Christ should look like. I just don’t want us doing it out of a misplaced sense of guilt.

1 If Tough Anti-Drug Laws Are 'Racist,' Blame Black Leaders
3 Especially men, since “according to a recent survey, the percentage of men with at least six close friends has fallen by half since 1990, and men today are 5X more likely to say they don’t even have a single close friend than they were thirty years ago.”