Friday, November 8, 2013

Biblical universes...

     I invested too much in a email theology question on Matt 24:24, so I had to post it...

"For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect."

God's got it all right there, in His palm
      You (my friend) picked a great verse to hone our interpretive edges on...  I think one of the key points/ideas here is that of potentiality, or possible futures.  God knows all things exhaustively, both actual (that which His will has brought or will bring about) and possible (the alternate courses open to His sovereignty that He wisely rejected). 
     Our verse falls into the latter category:  the persuasive power of the false prophets (ordained by God, of course) is such that without the preservative power of the Spirit, the elect would fall away.  We see at least 2 other examples of potentiality in Matt, the 1st just 2 verses earlier (24:22) and the 2nd in 11:21-24;  God knows exactly what would have happened under different circumstances, which He completely controls.
     So the bottom line:  is it "possible" that the elect would/could fall away during the time of Matt. 24?  Arminians would say so, but when we think about what God has ordained from a 30,000 foot view (the previous paragraph), that assumes no other verses about what God does with the elect.  If God did choose this alternate universe where the elect are deceived, the Scripture given after His creation of this universe would differ from ours.  For example... "What shall separate us from the love of Christ?... those pesky false teachers!"  Or "I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand... except the deceivers at the end of the age." (Jn 10:28)
     No, with what God says elsewhere, it is not possible for the elect to be deceived;  God has promised to keep them in His power (1 Pet 1:5).  Without it, we would fall, and it is this potentiality that Jesus warns us.  These warnings are another means of preserving grace:  Christ's sheep hear the warnings and flee from false christs.  

Photo courtesy of lauroroger

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Good = ?

When you've got a hard heart, only one thing will break it...
     I have been struggling with bitterness this week;  I was passed over for a promotion at work.  And even worse, the guy who got it is a good friend and a strong believer!  So, my battle with self-pity and dissatisfaction has been severe and recurrent, like a bad case of gastroenteritis. 
     A few days before the hammer of rejection fell on my head, my wife and I were discussing a relative who has been never been married and would very much like to be.  My wife has strong matchmaking tendencies, and expressed her desire to "just see my relative happy!";  I responded with Ps 84:11 & 85:12:

"For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly...Yes, the LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase."

     What my relative needs to do, I explained to my feisty wife, was change their definition of "good";  if God, in His inexpressible wisdom, has providentially denied us something we want, that thing must be bad for us.  In every society, there is a worldly definition of "good"... so when we are presented with the opportunity for more riches, romance, prestige, entertainment or the physical appearance of a 25 year old, the obvious question is "How can God NOT want me to have that???"  This disconnect between our perspective and God's goes all the way back, of course:  "So when the woman saw that the tree was good..." (Gen 3:6).  What God defined as death, Eve, in her sinful desires, defined as good.  Then there are the instances in Scripture where God gives unbelievers "good" things to blind them and accomplish their damnation (Ps 73:17f, Isa 2:7-12, 10:12, Rev 18:2-8). 
     So in the pit of my self-absorbed dejection, God brought to mind this point and I realized a false
Of course God wants me to have this!
seed of redefining "good" had crept into my heart and was sprouting its poisonous fruit.  No matter how much we want a new job, a new spouse, or new children (especially new children!), God knows exactly what circumstances and/or finances will conform us to the image of His Son.  For Paul, the Great Physician prescribed a full dose of suffering and crushing responsibility for His patient (2 Cor 11:23-28).  If anything, we can be happy that we get a little less!  Whatever toy or temporal pleasure He withholds from us must be, by definition, "bad".  So the next time you're frustrated with the allure of something you can't have, ask yourself:  "Is this good for me?"

Photos courtesy of stebulus, 401(K) 2013

Persecution, anyone?

     Isn't it incredible when you see God's promises come true?  The wonder and renewed certainty of the truth of God in Scripture is one of the many ways He upholds us and nurtures us in the middle of this "la vida loca".  Less than an hour ago, a notable verse came true for me...
"Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,..."  (1 Tim 3:12)
Our suffering is nothing compared to His...
    No, I wasn't crucified or flogged, nothing that would merit inclusion in Foxe's Book of Martyrs.  But according to our verse, the hatred of the world against God must find expression in some way, so I got a tiny dose of civilized Western persecution today.  Yesterday, I had an extended conversation with a JW at work, the most recent of many.  The last point he made was to ask for one instance in the Bible where Jesus was called Jehovah (or Yahweh).  So I walked him through Isa 6 and its N.T. exposition, Jn 12:41:  in Isa, the glory is explicitly emanating from Jehovah, and John just as explicitly tells us that the Person Isaiah saw was Jesus and he prophesied about Him for us.  My coworker had never seen this connection before, and was a little speechless (he usually gets mad when I stump him).  So today, he asked where I had gone to school (he meant my religious education).  I held up my hand in a big, fat zero, and told him that I had no formal training in theology.  He asked about my mentor, where did he study?  I was able to repeat my gesture, and his response was classic:
"Well, that would explain why you're so confused!"
     I said nothing, and he quickly told me he was just joking, and so I goodnaturedly chuckled and mentioned that's exactly what they said about someone else:  "Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus."  (Acts 4:13)  I too am a common, uneducated man.  But I know Jesus, and His words about the work of the Holy Spirit in the New Covenant ring true:
"It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me..." (John 6:45)
"When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you."  (John 16:13-14)
     We live in an unparalleled age of information, and we must avail ourselves of this incredible access and bounteous documentation.  But no education, formal or informal, can replace the supernatural Presence of God in His people.  The Holy Spirit is our divine Expositor, so learn to listen to Him as you preach the One who sent Him.

Photo courtesy of Bo Insogna

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Letter to the Senator...

     I have never cared about something enough to write to my legislators... or it could be that I've been deeply pessimistic about liberal legislators listening to a Christian conservative.  But the recent budget battle got me thinking about a political issue that transcends parties and that will quickly reduce us to financial ruin and slavery.  Please consider contacting your elected officials to beg them to take immediate steps to wean us off our national addiction.
 October 18, 2013                                                                                        
I'm begging you two for some sanity...
Dear Senator Murray,
     I am writing to convey my deep concern over our nation's economic path.  I, like most of the country, was unable to avoid the media frenzy surrounding the recent congressional battle to raise the debt ceiling, and I can't help but feel that we are one step closer to the complete ruin of our country;  but my angst is not rooted in the strife between the 2 sides, or the amount of procedure, committees and red tape utilized by our government.  The impending sense of doom I feel is rooted in what was not said, what was not mentioned or even hinted at on one channel, or printed in one article I read in the last 2 weeks.  The Tyrannosaurus Rex in the closet is the obvious reason why we need to raise the debt ceiling:  we spend more than we earn
     I am not a CPA, and I don't have a degree in finance, but this is one thing that every teenager getting his first paycheck learns pretty quickly:  you can borrow only so much before your friends get mad at you, the bank repossesses your car and the bankruptcy court forces you to sell your assets/toys.  For decades, we as a nation have elected representatives from both parties that enable us to enjoy a lifestyle significantly more expensive than the one we can afford, a privileged existence buoyed by subsidies, entitlements, legislative pork like the AEP dam project, etc. 
      So like any junkie being confronted by their caring, pleading family, we are faced with a simple choice:  cut back on the flow of destructive, addictive spending and start paying off the mountain of debt we already have, or we will overdose and kill ourselves and our nation.  This is the subtext of the last 2 weeks that has gone unspoken and thus unheard... this is the huge clot in our national artery, unseen and deadly.  No one wants to discuss it, but you of all people can't be ignorant of it.  As Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, you are uniquely positioned and qualified to join the conversation on how we can save our country... I beg you to join me in correctly diagnosing and treating our national disease.
Brett Schlee
Photo courtesy of orcmid

Friday, September 27, 2013

"Only Evil Continually..."

"...but the way of the wicked shall perish."
     I've always loved the King James Version... I just finished James White's "The King James Only Controversy", and so I freely admit the translation's shortcomings, but will echo him in calling it "venerable".  The title is from Gen 6:5, and describes unrestrained human sin before the time of the Flood.  So God acted justly, and wiped those naughty folks out, right?  And in these enlightened, more wholesome days, we have transcended our origins, completed our 12-step program for sin addiction and cleaned ourselves up.
     Or not... the only difference between the pre-Flood age and ours is that adjective "unrestrained";  since that little shower, God has been pleased to hamper our destructive desires and pursue His plan of redemption, starting with the tower of Babel and running down through history to the preaching of the gospel today.  Which brings us to the point of my post...
"Have you ever prayed that God would protect you... from you?"
     It's an interesting thought, but it's supremely biblical:  when it comes to reasoning and weighing out the enemies of the elect, Satan and the world usually get top billing.  If there is mention of our inner corruption, we often hear terms like "sin nature" or "the flesh".  And while the latter term at least is seen in Scripture, I am concerned that all too often, we deflect the force of what God must overcome to save us... namely, ourselves (Mic 2:1, Matt 12:34-37, Mk 7:20).  I'll explain:  I had the worst dream last night, and the main thing that terrified me about it was the bad guy.  It was me;  I was doing something horrible to someone I loved, without even thinking about it.  Yeah, I know dreams can be hazy and disjointed, just mental leftovers, all mixed together coming out of our subconscious.  Most of my dreams (and likely yours) are like that;  rather benign visions of flying or scenes from home/work that are too good/bad to be true.  
"You've got mail..."
     But it can be very healthy to be reminded of where we come from... sin really isn't something we do, it's who we are and God is actively holding back and protecting every person in the world from what we really want:  to enshrine ourselves and destroy anyone who won't worship us.  I've watched too many post-apocalyptic movies, and so that's how I picture a world without God's handcuffs.  
     So, think about it, and join me in thanking God on your knees that, for some mysterious reason, He decided to stop you in your tracks with His glorious gospel and rescue you from the bad guy... the one you see in the mirror every morning.

Photos courtesy of freefotouk, Rich Man

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Answer to Child Hunger?

Not the kids we're talking about...
     You've probably seen news stories or been handed flyers with the disturbing message "17 MILLION KIDS GO HUNGRY";  my wife encountered this concern at a local store and received a pamphlet with basic items she could purchase to alleviate this problem.  The items she donated would be packaged into backpacks, and then given to needy kids.  I've often wondered:  in a country where the overweight/obesity rate is 61.8%, how could this be?  I wrote a letter to the manager of this program that follows below, but succinctly, the only way to explain kids going hungry in the richest nation in the history of the world, with ample food stamp programs and food banks in every city, is that their parents just don't care about them.  Such people are so obsessed with their own financial gratification that they can't be bothered to feed their kids... and instead of holding them accountable for such inhuman callousness, we do their job for them.  Imagine telling a wife with 2 black eyes from regular beatings from her abusive husband:  "If your husband isn't treating you right, we'll give you a backpack with a first aid kit... you can use it on your black eyes!"  Any sane person would physically drag that woman out of that house and call the cops... exactly what should happen with kids suffering from neglect.
Dear sir,     My wife recently received an appeal when entering a local store for your program (I'm sorry I don't know the name... it's not printed on the handout).  She was told it was for kids, to fill backpacks for weekend meals.  Is this accurate?  Assuming so, I have heard of similar drives and even proposals by the government to ensure that school-age children are adequately fed.
     Obviously, I have no problem with giving food to kids... it's a lot better than handing out pistols or drugs!  But I did want to ask the question if such programs are doing more harm than good.  "How is this possible?" you might ask.  "Ensuring kids get healthy, hearty meals is something we all agree is necessary and essential!"  And I would agree with that basic statement... but who is responsible to feed kids?  Again, assuming you don't hold radical fascist views on child rearing (i.e. that the government should oversee/control parenting), the clear answer is "Their parents."
     We live in a society where most of the population is fabulously wealthy by world standards:  just about everyone has cable TV and a cellphone, to say nothing of daily nutrition.  But for the rare folks at the bottom of the economic ladder, our governmental programs have removed financial inability as an excuse for child hunger;  anyone with children can get ample government assistance for their meals.  I have several members of my extended family who receive such assistance;  I have a good idea of the amounts involved.
     So the only reason that kids, even of the poorest parents, would not be regularly fed is gross neglect by said parents.  Such behavior should be criminal (and is, I think) and their children should be removed from their care.  So with this perspective in mind, I hope you can see my concern:  programs such as yours assume the best thing for kids in this situation is to feed them and enable their parents to continue neglecting them.  It's likely you have never thought about this point of view.  Instead, I believe the best thing we can do expect adults to live up to their responsibilities, and hold them accountable when they fail to do so.  When you look at the history of our country, you see such personal responsibility at the core of our deepest values as a society.  I applaud your concern for kids and your desire to help where you can;  but I would counsel you towards a wiser approach that trains parents to care their children, rather than training them to expect others to do it for them.
Photo courtesy of FMSC

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Lemme make it up to you...

     I was recently telling a friend that I could help them in a tangible way... he's been out of work for a
Awww.... isn't that sweet?!?
while and is struggling to make ends meet.  He was grateful and replied "Hey, when I get back on my feet, I'll pay you back!"  I thought about that for a second, and was able to put it this way:
"Imagine if you had just come to faith in Christ and were contemplating the depth of His grace in taking your punishment for you on the Cross.  You were suitably impressed and replied to Him,  "Wow Jesus! Thanks a ton! That's incredible how you helped me out... hey, gimme a while to get back on my feet and then I'll make it up to you.  I'll pay you back and then we'll be square again!"
Can we "help" God?
     Such a person would not understand grace, would not comprehend the debt we owed/owe Him and certainly not realize what God's intentions are for His children post-conversion.  Of course, the meager assistance we can offer our loved ones doesn't measure up to God's grace;  it's pitiful in comparison.  But it should be given in the same spirit:  as an overflow of goodness out of a heart of holiness (Jn 7:38).  Thus the best response to generosity is simple praise and thankfulness to God first, and then our benefactors as we have opportunity.  The reflex of repayment of grace usually stems from a delusion of self-sufficiency and/or a spirit of pride.

Photo courtesy of Marion Doss, Kalexanderson

Friday, June 28, 2013

You let your kids do what???

Okay kids!! Who wants a long one?
     There are some things that are culturally acceptable to leave to parental discretion:  when (or if) to give them a cellphone, clothing guidelines, and what movies to watch.  But there are just as many taboos for the children of those who seek “Good Parent” status:  playing in traffic, handling/throwing sharp objects, and letting your kids listen to/develop a taste for country music (wishful thinking there!).  So there is one thing I must include in the latter list, a parental decision I've heard countless folks talk about as a noble, libertarian step towards growing independent young people capable of free thinking;  but in reality, it is even more dangerous than handing a loaded gun to a little tyke, and if any children do survive it, it is manifest proof of the merciful grace of God.  What is this shocking dereliction of parental duty?  I've heard it put this way...
"Oh yes, we are Christians and believe the Bible, but we don't want to force our religion on our kids.  We permit them to explore other faiths, and when they're old enough, they need to choose what they will believe for themselves."     
      I know you've heard this said, and I must admit that the way it's phrased, it almost seems unAmerican to disagree with this democratic approach.  I mean, the best way to guarantee that kids will hate something is to make them do it, right?  So, a low-key approach to Christianity, to the claims of Jesus and the Bible, is surely the approach with the highest probability of keeping them in the church.
      Yes, I know... playing devil's advocate is a dark gift of mine, one I hope to (but usually fail to) use for good.  So let's explore this idea by seeing what the Scripture says (and if the proponents of the low-key approach truly do "believe the Bible") and then by testing the consistency of "reverse psychology" parenting.
"And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." (Deut. 6:6-9)
      I don't know... sounds kinda pushy to me.  I mean, talking to your kids about God and His word all the time?  They'd be sick of it in a week!  But one inescapable conclusion your kids would be forced to at gunpoint is that you take the Bible seriously, that every decision, event, question and even thought is weighed and judged in light of what God says, and that He is the ultimate Determiner of reality and Judge of morality.  What do kids (and everyone else) hate more:  a person whose actions are explained and are true to what they profess, or someone who doesn't explain why they do what they do and/or says one thing and does another?  One of the most winsome qualities, even to the lost, is a willingness to suffer for conviction... thank God in His wisdom to guarantee us suffering in this life (2 Tim 3:12)!  So to stop beating a dead horse,  God commands us to saturate our children in His truth and to protect them from all deception (2 Tim 2:16, 3:5)... end of discussion.  Obviously, we can't convert them, but kids raised in faithful homes will be forever changed, most often for the better, fulfilling God's general promise to sanctify them (1 Cor 7:14)
      Even more succinctly, the consistency of the laissez-faire attitude to religion can be checked by inserting any other potentially fatal activity into the premise:  
I'm sure they're really nice once you get to know them...
"We're not drug addicts/gang members/cult members on a compound in the middle of nowhere, but we want our kids to make their own decisions, so we let them explore other options..."? 
Or "Yeah, we got vaccinated, but our kids don't like shots very much, so we're letting them decide if they want to risk getting polio/smallpox/tetanus"? 
      Just try dropping that line in conversation, and watch your "Good Parent" status get revoked!  What's really at the heart of religious experimentation is the belief that all religions are basically the same/valid;  if you truly believe something is fatal to your children, you do everything in your power to isolate them from it.  False religion has a 100% fatality rate... and it's extremely contagious.

Photos courtesy of Anonymous9000, One lucky guy

Saturday, June 22, 2013

"I can't imagine that God...!"

     Anytime I hear that opening, I cringe;  rather than humbly looking to our Creator to define the
God does what???
good for us, the speaker (usually unconsciously) is basing what God should and shouldn't do on his/her personal morality, which is cultural and highly subjective. A coworker hit me with it recently, and this is my response:

     I want to capture your original thought, and my best recollection of your exact words is:  
 "I can't imagine that the people who faithfully follow other religions, doing good, that they'll get to heaven and Jesus will tell them 'Get out!' "       
     Is that close? So if you'll bear with me, I'd like to show you God's reaction to other religions in the Old Testament and then in the words of Jesus Himself. One of the first, side-by-side contrasts between the distinct faith of Israel and other religious practice was the attempt of what's called syncretism, the combination of elements of 2 faiths. Nadab and Abihu, Aaron the High Priest's sons, must have thought similarly to you, that there was a basic commonality between religions, and that the worship of Israel could be built upon and supplemented by other traditions. So they brought "strange fire" to the altar of the Lord in Leviticus 10:1 "which He commanded them not." Some scholars think this practice was Egyptian or Canaanite, but definitely outside the practice specifically given to them at Mount Sinai... how does God respond?
"And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD." (Lev 10:2)
      Hmmm... well, that was pretty early in the Bible; maybe God hadn't got the memo on acceptance yet. Here's another one: Elijah, a prophet of Israel's God, arranges an "interfaith conference" with the prophets of Baal, a Canaanite storm deity, atop Mount Moriah. But his intent isn't to discuss worship methods, or exchange notes on prayer techniques... he wants to prove to the people, once and for all, which God is the one, true God, the sovereign king that commands their allegiance. Elijah gives his 450 "colleagues" a head start and ample opportunity for their god to demonstrate his power, but nothing happens! Then Elijah prays to his God and fire shoots down from the sky, visible to all and proving that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob alone is genuine. So in a spirit of brotherhood and unity, after the dust settles, Elijah gives all those prophets of Baal a pat on the back and wishes them better luck next time, right?
"And Elijah said to them, "Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape." And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there. " (2 Kings 18:40 
There's plenty of other evidence in the Old Testament of God's utter hatred of all religion save His own (Deut 13:1-18, 18:20, Josh 24:20, 2 Kings 17:7-23, etc.); but surely Jesus, who loves everybody, takes a different approach?  Not so much... operating from the basis already laid down and accepted (that all other gods/idols were false and God hates them), Jesus clearly delineates the only path to acceptance with God, the only way that God will tell people at the pearly gates "Come in!":   Himself.
All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Matthew 11:28
“Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. “ John 14:6
      Jesus's followers affirm Him completely and also agree precisely with each other on this vital point...
And there is salvation in no one else [besides Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." Acts 4:12
“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” 1 Timothy 2:5
      So if you're using the Bible as your authority, as your source of truth, you have to answer the question "Can a person get to God/heaven through Muhammed/Buddha/whoever?" with a resounding "No! Only through Jesus!" My fear for you is that the Bible is not your authority; perhaps you have come to believe that there are genuinely good people in all religions (refuted in Romans 3:10), or that our sins really aren't that bad (not according to Gen 6:5), or as one woman told me “It's God's job to forgive!” (proven wrong in Exo 20:5). I'll leave you with one more verse that defeats universalism all by itself:
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:36)   

Photo courtesy of quinn.anya

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A tidbit from my house...

There's a heart of stone for ya...
     I rejoice that I have been blessed with a sensitive daughter...  she has, like every unregenerate person, the base programming of stubborn hardheartedness, but I think her naturally fearful disposition works with the biblical training we've tried to give her.  The result is what seems to be contrition over sin;  she doesn't understand the extent of our bent towards evil or our inability to overcome it, but she certainly does know when she's done wrong.
     I was lifting weights yesterday while watching a video on the computer (you have to fit it in sometime, right?);  I had scooted the chair back from the desk to make space in front of it.  It is a favorite game of in our house to race to the computer chair, and then fight over it, taunting the loser in good sport.  I think my daughter was trying to initiate this competition last night, but we have had several accidents with her playing with/tripping over my dumbbells...  I had to move the chair back to where I had put it.  She didn't like this, and as I bent down to get my weights, I could see her body language was indignant.  The next thing I felt was her little foot, lashing out at just the right height (with her in the chair and me bent over) to nail me exactly in the Adam's apple.
     Thankfully, she didn't hit me squarely;  her foot glanced off, so I was able to salvage some composure as I straightened up with a stern look on my face to inform her that we don't hit or kick people when we're mad. The guilt on her face (and I think shock) was plain, and I sent her over to her mother for her to confirm the inherent evil of violence motivated by anger (our "rough play" can get intense, so I wanted to stress the heart intent in this case).  The suitably scolded child then retreated outside.
     After about 5 minutes, I realized she was still in the back yard;  I glanced out there and beheld her in a classic pose of sullen gloom, squatting and clutching her knees.  I came up behind her and asked what she was thinking about.  She didn't respond, so I inquired more specifically, if she was thinking about hitting and kicking when we're mad.  She turned, and her face was distorted into tearful distress, the moisture just starting to flow.  I held her for a while for comfort, and then asked if she understood why we don't hit or kick when we're mad;  she shook her head side to side.  I started to recall the account of Cain and Abel, what happened to Cain when he failed to see his anger as sin and how we all have that in our hearts.
     I think it clicked with her... the next time she playfully was kicking me, I could see a moment of panic as she quickly apologized.  I explained that I knew she was just playing and that she wasn't mad.  But this isn't the end, as any parent knows:   just like a child, we all must be continually reminded of God 's truth and our sin and need for grace.  And even if she has some grasp of how horrible sin is to God, He must grant the elect His Spirit to regenerate them.  This is a distinction we must hold tenaciously:  there's no one we want to see converted more than our kids, and there's no one we can more easily delude with false assurance.
Both these pics were so good, I couldn't decide!
     There's some excellent works on the fine line between a depressed sinner and a contrite convert:  I would recommend Jonathan Edwards' The Religious Affections and Matthew Meade's The Almost Christian Discovered.  It's important to understand the doctrines of grace and cling to the perserverance of the elect.  But how do we know if someone's truly converted?  How sure can we be?  These are timeless and timely concerns, for folks of all ages.

Photos courtesy of gabork, Fergal Mac Eoinin

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Wait... who's your Brother?

      I have greatly profited from the teaching of Paul Washer for many years, and just today, I was flabbergasted by the incredible parallel he drew to Christ from a famous O.T. figure.  I have read of several similar links made by the most insightful of the Puritans, but no one in the last 200 years.  He's started a  series in Ephesians, and he was getting excited trying to communicate the vast quantity of blessings implied in 1:3, the ones we have in Christ Jesus.  Here's a rough paraphrase of his thoughts...
Is this enough?

"Imagine you're one of Joseph's brothers during the famine, and your stomach is making noises you've never heard before.  You are sent to Egypt and are brought before the lord of the granaries, who alone has access to all the grain you and your family need to survive.  You look at all the grandeur of His palace and the dignity of his person, and you know you're not worthy to ask him for a piece of bread, let alone grain for 70 people.  But then the facade is dropped, and you realize he's your brother who loves you and desires to bless you.  So here in Ephesians, we see the Anointed Saviour of God, the Lord of all the treasuries of Heaven, and you're not worthy to touch the hem of His garment... but then you are made to see that He's your Brother, and all the good things of God, even the ones you don't know exist, everything is yours in Jesus."

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Caution! Well-known Verses Ahead!

     I had an epiphany of context today... an insight on a familiar verse.  Any sound bible teacher will
I wonder if they mean works-righteousness?
tell you those verses are the most dangerous:  the ones you know by heart, that you've heard quoted over and over again in a variety of settings.  Every Christian knows them, if not by reference, then by content.  And thus they're often the most misunderstood... this danger is likely the reason America's professing Christians are:
  1.  by majority Arminian ("...that WHO-SO-EVER (!) believeth in Him...";  Jn 3:16), 
  2.  non-confrontational ("Judge not, lest ye be judged.";  Mt 7:1),
  3.  and are beginning to doubt if hell even exists ("...because God is love.";  1 Jn 4:10).  
So obviously, the best way to approach these potential pitfalls is with one eye on the text and the other on our own misconceptions.  I've been reading in Jeremiah and came across the best known verse in the book.  No, it's not 17:9 ("the heart is deceitful above all things..."), or 6:14 ("Peace, peace when there is no peace"), or even 31:31ff ("Behold the days are coming... when I will make a new covenant...").  I am utterly confident that the most famous verse in Jer. is 29:11:
"For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope."
     And taking my own advice, I paused and studied the immediate context.   Backing up one verse, I was devastated by the implications of 29:10:
"For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place."
This beautiful scenery looks little different from behind bars...
     This has happened to me before (like when one reads the 2nd verse after Jn 3:16, or the 5th verse after Mt 7:1);  and in the grand scheme of things, with a "big picture" perspective, vs. 10 fits perfectly with vs. 11:  it's great news that the exiles would return to the Promised Land and the enjoyment of God's favor.  But look at it again, highlighting one little detail:  this would happen after 70 years.  Put yourself in their shoes...  29:1 says Jeremiah is writing to those exiled with King Jeconiah (or Jehoiachin) which occurred around 597 B.C.  Jerusalem was destroyed in 586, so these expatriates could have been in Babylon a couple years, but not more than 10.  It's safe to say the Jews were not enjoying the warm hospitality of Babylon (Ps. 137:3) or the benefits package of slavery (not exactly that of a CEO).  So a rough paraphrase of Jeremiah's message could be understood like this:
"You're not liking Babylon?  You wanna go back home to your own land?  Too bad!!!  You and your families will be here 60 more years!  You'll probably be cold and dead by the time God has mercy on Israel and restores your people to Canaan (Ezr 3:12)!  Only after decades of toil and heartache and misery will your children return to the homeland... and God is letting you off easy!"
     So do you see how the context of 29:11 should shape our understanding of it today?  Instead of a magic wand waved over our problems to make them disappear instantly, often God's promises have wonderful and beautiful fulfillments that we will not see in our physical lifetimes.  We must apprehend (one of my favorite words... "to grab hold of") these truths and God's hope by faith and trust Him in the dark, depressing (yet temporary) times of our lives.  Only then will we know the power of "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Heb 11:1).

Photos courtesy of williamcho, Fernando Silveira

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Calvinist Punchline...

     I heard this great description of Arminian soteriology (study of salvation) in an introductory summation of
"Really, Steve?!?  You're a Calvinist??"
the doctrines of grace;  Al Martin had lamented the hollow straw men that abound to misrepresent a logical, systematized understanding of what the Bible says about how God saves us.  He referenced a great book, which J. I. Packer introduces with the simple, central thesis of Calvinism:  GOD SAVES SINNERS!  So, Mr. Martin turns around and explores (around the 49 minute mark) how a cooperative view, where God waits for and requires men to turn to Him on their own initiative, could be characterized;  I cracked up laughing, and I hope you do, too:
"That's the confession of a Calvinist.  He doesn't have the Father, as it were, ignorant of whom He wishes to save; and the Son dying really for nobody in particular to secure nothing for sure; and the Spirit, as it were, willy-nilly hoping to accomplish something somehow for somebody that may have been in the mind of Christ when He did something on the Cross for nobody in particular... is that a caricature?"
     Then the Scriptural evidence of God's choosing:  the same word is used when David chooses and gathers his ammunition to gun down Goliath
"The picture is not of David standing there with arms folded with all those stones saying now: 'You've been lying there for hundreds of years in the brook... you've all experienced the same washing of the babbling brook and it would be the height of impudence for me to exercise any kind of favoritism!  I would like five stones;  would you please wiggle up on the shore and I will use you in my conquest of Goliath?'  Now we wouldn't picture language like that when dealing with historical events... David CHOSE five stones!  He reached in with his grubby hand into the brook and pulled out five stones!  When the Scripture says that Almighty God chose a people in Christ, it means just that.  For reasons that lie locked up in His own heart, He chose."
 Photo courtesy of Daniel Semper

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Reaping and Sowing

     It has been a while since we were in 2 Cor... the thrust of chapter 8 continues in
My personal favorite...
chapter 9, and likely the best passage in the Bible on giving is supported with O.T. texts and examples. A tragedy of our culture of churchianity is the influx of the prosperity gospel; I know it shouldn't be difficult for you, so imagine your favorite false teacher while you read these verses, whoever it is from TBN or your local community that twists and perverts the Scripture's teaching on money.
The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. (2 Cor 9:6-8)        
     Now, we all know how easy it is to take one verse out of the Bible and build a theology around it... vs. 6 is the Holy Grail for the wolves looking for tasty meal of sheep (or more properly, the sheep's wallets). What could be more persuasive than the question "Financially, do you want to reap sparingly or bountifully?"? This is true especially for the carnal church member who views church as a ready-made social network to sell to/benefit from. On one of our bus routes, there's a church called "Abundant Faith International Christian Center"... Jn 10:10 is another prime target of misuse for those preying on those unsatisfied with the eternal perspective of simple, self-denying godliness. So as supposed biblical justification for a divinely-empowered get-rich-quick scheme, "You reap what you sow" is in the top three, easy, a supposed proof text for a bible bait-and-switch.
"You give me your money, and God will give you His!"
     But when we take a step back and consider how Scripture itself interprets Scripture (rather than a televangelist with a private jet), it's more clear, and more reasonable that vs. 6 is not talking about a "financial seed" given as a loan to God to expect repayment on (with 1000% interest!), but about a heart attitude of generosity and love, a biblical apprehension of how God thinks about money and what He expects us to do with it. If every New Covenant believer really is indwelt with God the Holy Spirit, and in the process of being led into all truth and righteousness (Jn 16:13), the best judge of each individual's responsibility and ability to give is that individual. So no external pressure based on the insufficiency of the Old Covenant is necessary... no coercive manipulation, which is the trademark of our religious hucksters, is proper in collection and/or requesting of funds for local fellowship needs.
     Every households' needs and situation can be unique, but the stinginess of the old nature must be checked, too. Some folks are naturally more concerned for the well-being of others (like my wife), but some are cold and callous (like me). So as a side note and counterbalance, I remember a question from a newly married couple a few years ago; they couldn't agree and for the sake of discretion, I'll remain silent on who thought what. But their question was simple: "Should we give/tithe on our gross income or the net (before or after taxes)?" My answer was equally concise: "Do you want God to bless you on the gross or on the net?" Not only would "net giving" put earthly taxes before our obligations to God, but it would also treat Him as most Americans do the IRS... as an institution to be avoided through loopholes. Let's be honest: the poorest American has more wealth at his disposal than virtually all others in the whole of recorded history. Shame on us when we prioritize a newer car or an Iphone higher than the blessing of loving our brethren (other Christians first, then unbelievers as we have opportunity) financially. And think about it: proper financial discipline and priorities are sure to spill over and be translated into godliness in other areas.
     As I've stated elsewhere, Social Security should be a poor substitute for Church Security, the holistic care that the Body of Christ renders to itself. So we've got God's love of giving and His generosity as a model for ours (2 Cor 8:9); next time we'll get into the promised divine supply extended for all Christian giving, and the incredible "food-chain" of grace initiated by God and continued through us.

Photos courtesy of dmich140, gregkendallball

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Worst Slur Ever...

     I started a post on 2 Cor (long overdue!), and then was blown away by the most memorable, blatantly offensive accusation by my less-than-Friendly Neighborhood Atheist;  he'd made hints and veiled allusions on this topic before, but this day I was taken aback by the blatant, X-rated insult this man made at the Person of Jesus Christ.  It's so bad I can't actually relate it (Eph 5:4, 12)... I guess the best way to give context is to ask you to imagine an individual who utterly hates God ascribing to His Son the vilest, pornographic intent.  As I tell FNA, I was speechless;  I had no meaningful, truth-conveying response.  I could only gape.  So this is an excerpt from an email, my best after-the-fact attempt to prove something I hope you never encounter:  a slur based on the supposed homosexuality of Jesus.


    I gotta admit... you've danced around accusing Jesus of homosexuality before, but I was not expecting the offensive situation you described in profane terms.  Congratulations, I was a bit shocked.  You often switch between arguing a non-theist position and a Roman Catholic one (like yesterday);  how many Roman Catholics would be appalled by that insinuation?  So I'm writing to give you the answer I couldn't yesterday...
     So you also challenged me to prove that Jesus wasn't homosexual, which is another first for me.  Of all the objections to Christianity/the Bible, that's not one I run across much.  After some thought, I can prove beyond a reasonable doubt (is your doubt reasonable?) that Jesus was not gay or involved in homosexuality, and I can do so from the biblical characters who hated him most... the Pharisees.
     These guys despised Jesus for His claims to authority, His popularity and His undeniable power over Which one of you convicts me of sin?" (Jn 8:46).
What lawyer would ignore the strongest evidence?
sickness and demons.  They were the ones, under the High Priest Caiaphas, who orchestrated the trial that ended in the Crucifixion.  The Pharisees had accused Jesus of several things:  dalliance with demons (Mt 12:24), breaking the Sabbath (Mk 3:1-6), and finally blasphemy and plotting to destroy the Temple (Mt 26:61, 65).  None of these things were true, of course, but if you read one of the gospel accounts (have you ever done that?), you are constantly peppered with the Pharisees, scribes and rulers' attempts to concoct any excuse to denounce and execute Jesus.  But for three years, they are unable to do so... no charge would stick!  According to the law, Jesus lived a blameless life, so much so that he could ask (with the expectation of deafening silence in reply) "
     So in a strictly religious, fundamental society where working on the Sabbath was a grievous crime, if Jesus was involved in any sort of homosexuality, why wouldn't His mortal enemies use that as ammunition against Him?  In a society where adultery was punishable by death (Jn 8:1-11), how in the world would a famous man like Jesus be gay and not be executed, as the Law of Moses required?  That was exactly the sort of immorality the Pharisees would drool over, not only to discredit Him, but to drag Him out of the city and stone Him.  Even Herod the king couldn't get away with sexual impropriety without public outcry (Mt 14:3-4).  Instead, Jesus's enemies had to pay people to fabricate crimes against Him, something completely unnecessary if sodomy was an element in the life of Jesus.  So your accusation presupposes religious authorities that are far more open-minded and tolerant of homosexuality than even us crazy fundamentalists today!  You must see that historically, first century Israel was anything but welcoming toward a sexual orientation with Canaanite cult associations and Greek mythological ties... most Jews of the day (especially the pious ones) were fiercely xenophobic and disapproving of anything that hinted of foreigners.
Something you'd never see in Jerusalem...
      So it's clear you've painted yourself into a corner;  you can't just dismiss the Bible as corrupted and unreliable as you've done in the past.  You used information from the Bible (Jesus was surrounded by male disciples, He liked children, etc.) in your accusation!  You can't have it both ways... the Bible can't be reliable enough to throw mud at Jesus, but not reliable enough to exonerate Him.  Since you've already gotten your hands dirty, you must concede that there is no logical reason to think Jesus was homosexual, and every reason not to. 
     The only reason to continue this slander is the atheist's creed, summed up by Doug Wilson:  "There is no God, and I hate Him!"  Admit it... you fervently despise Someone you don't believe exists.


Brett Schlee

Photos courtesy of Gulliame Paumier, SalFalko

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Do you have Your Best Life Now?

     You know you want it... there's something basic about humanity that, like water, desires and follows the path of least resistance.  I'm talking about a life filled with peace and abundance, ease and happiness, a glee in disdaining hardship and mocking rejection of the possibility of disaster.  Greek philosophers pondered the methods to achieve this utopian existence, and one branch in particular, the Epicureans, theorized that all men should seek and order their lives to minimize pain and maximize pleasure.
     I've been studying in the Psalms for some time now, and I do want to return for more posts in 2 Cor, but
Not on my Top 10 list...
this topic was too timely to ignore.  You probably have heard of "Your Best Life Now" by Joel Osteen, so I want to intrigue you with a new perspective, a "certain point of view" in which the book genuinely and biblically reflects this earthly life for a select group.  That's exactly what I thought as I read these verses:
"For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek.  They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.  Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment.  Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.  They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.  They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth.  Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them.  And they say, "How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?" (Ps 73:4-11)
     Sounds great, huh?  These folks have everything one could want, "more than heart could wish" (vs.7 KJV).  We can easily bring this into a modern context:  big houses, nice cars, beautiful spouses, exotic vacations, unrivalled success in their professions... nothing seems to be lacking in this idyllic picture of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" (or maybe the show "Cribs" for my MTV generation!).  They have no worries, no concerns, and certainly no stress regarding a divine judgment... they don't even think there is such a Judge (vs. 11).  So it's at this point I have to come clean...  I pulled the passage above out of context to make a point:  the people that Asaph (the author of the psalm) is describing, the only people who have their best life now are the "arrogant" and the "wicked" (vs. 3, 12)
     I guess the best way to sum it up is the proverb "Ignorance is bliss";  in many instances, ungodly people can and do enjoy a period of divine mercy;  this is in addition to what theologians call it "common grace", describing earthly blessings that all sorts of people are given.  Also, the patience of God is showered upon unbelievers as evidence of God's mercy and willingness to pardon sin (Rom 2:4). When He has every right to obliterate all of us in the womb at our first moment of selfishness, instead He graciously grants the wicked decades of life, and many (if not most) are given glimpses of the gospel, given opportunities to hear of the saving power of the blood of Christ.  But to no avail:  the material bounty they enjoy is enough to drown out the appeal of God in Christ (like the "cares of the world";  Mt 13:22).  
Not the place you want to see an old church friend...
     I ran into an old friend a couple of days ago, a sad story of failed discipleship:  at a previous church, I had started meeting with this young man.  He was excited to meet and usually showed up, but I couldn't help but notice he made no real effort in investigating the text of the Bible for himself.  He was full of excuses and had no shortage of free time, but always managed to avoid actually reading the Scripture (like a kid getting out of cleaning his room!).  So I was shocked to see him this week twice in one day:  the first time he was walking into a casino (one of our bus routes runs right in front of one) with another man, and was just finishing a cigarette.  Then about 4 hours later, I was grabbing a snack right in a grocery store before the last run of the night;  I turned the corner and there he was!  I chatted him up for almost 5 minutes... he had a WIC voucher in his cart (Washington's low-income assistance for mothers and young children) and told me that he was working for minimum wage with a wife and baby to provide for.  He was living in a small apartment in the rundown part of town.  I asked him where he was attending church, and surprise, surprise, he told me it had been a while since he darkened the door of a church.  In retrospect, the best thing I could think was "Well, at least he's not rich!".  The worst thing, the most damning thing you could wish for someone in rebellion against God is prosperity. 

Photos courtesy of Amazon, Michael Kappel

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

American Polytheism

King Kamehameha the I
     If I saw that title, I'd probably expect a post on Mormonism... but no, my wife and I are not vacationing in Utah, but Hawaii (or "Hawai'i" if you show off your local flair)  We got in last night, so after almost 24 hrs. here, I can honestly say this is the most religious spot in America I've seen lately (this is likely due to my residence in the region with the lowest church attendance and religious affiliation in the nation!).  I'm sure if I lived in the Bible Belt, I might have a different perception;  so in most places in Hawaii, you see statues, monuments and plaques to historic figures, royalty from the monarchy that ruled the islands until 1893 and continued as important personages into the 20th century. 
     The religiosity of Hawaii is subtle, yet pervasive;  unlike most other states, the native population of the islands continues to influence the culture.  Most of the lower 48 contained tribal peoples, but through the governmental policies of the 1800's (which I am not supporting or condoning), the indigenous culture was largely abolished.  Yet in Hawaii, you have virtually all the hallmarks of a distinct worldview, complete with language and religious beliefs.  So in case any of you have the plans or the privilege of visiting these picturesque green dots in the Pacific, you might benefit from some disjointed spiritual insights gleaned from the museums and historic sites.
     As I started with, Hawaii's native culture is polytheistic ("...for as many as your cities are your gods, O Judah!" Jer 2:28).  It seems to me that there is a great similarity between the animism of Asia and Africa and Hawaiian belief:  most elemental forces (wind, water, thunder, etc.) have a deity, and there are many other hybrids... half-human, half-animal, humans transformed into animals then deified, you name it!  I learned later in our trip that tribal chiefs were considered the descendants of deity, and there was an intricate system of showing reverence called kupu, which was in force until the mid 19th century.  When a chief walked by, everyone fell to their faces;  when entering the home of a chief, one removed their clothing;  even the possessions of the chief were believed to have sacred significance, and must be revered;  violations of kupu were punishable by strangulation, immolation and other unpleasantries you don't see on tourism commercials.
     Everyone has encountered the word "aloha", the Hawaiian equivalent of hello and/or goodbye, and I
Deceiving beauty...
discovered that it also has a connotation of love and affection.  I was educated that this is due to the perception of all humanity as one o'hana ("family").  In conversations with a couple locals, this taint of universalism came up repeatedly, and I suspect that even the climate of the islands works against a true grasp of biblical truth in this area... in a place of stunning beauty, where the people are friendly and taught overt hospitality with their own language, it's awful hard to admit that all humanity is desperately corrupt, and that God is rescuing His elect through the gospel, separating them from Satan's progeny (including all adherents of this welcoming, tolerant religion) into His household.
      After my stay in the 50th state (I'm finishing this on the plane back), and especially after a most educational trip to the Bishop Museum, I am disturbed to admit that my first response to the original beliefs of Hawaii (and it continues to nag me) was conceited arrogance:
"Sure, those kooky islanders had some strange ideas, but America came in and took over.  So now that we're in charge, all those backward natives will and have seen the obvious superiority of American culture and Christianity, they'll convert!"
The "takeover" of Hawaii is a particularly dishonorable bit of history:  a group of American businessmen arranged a military coup and deposed the last queen to further their financial assets;  she showed serene restraint and didn't resist physically for the sake of her people, but instead petitioned and put her trust in the United States to do the right thing, only to be disappointed... the islands were annexed about 5 years later.   
     So such shallow reasoning might've been harder to shake 50 or 60 years ago, but the further we "progress" into a postmodern world that is enamored with any mystical replacement for Biblical truth, the more we must prepare and expect to respond apologetically (instead of egotistically!) with a clear presentation of the distinctiveness of the gospel.  It is interesting that Satan seems to have only a few basic systems of deceit with which he works to obscure/replace the truth (but who can blame him... if it ain't broke...).  The similarities common to most religions occur in Hawaii too, making it simpler for us to hammer home the revealed truth of God's Word, the Creator of all the world.  I can tell you from experience the societal ills in the mainland are present in Hawaii (again, the "entertainment" of 2 prostitutes having a screaming match is hard to find in the brochures!), so the remedy of Jesus offered in Scripture is just as relevant and necessary as everywhere else.

Photos courtesy of my ancient, but trusty camera