Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Meeting an old friend...

     I met a man today I hadn't seen in decades, someone who knew me pretty well in the most rebellious, licentious period of my life prior to conversion.  We traded email addresses and I
Our lives before Christ...
continued my appeal to him to turn to Christ in light of the trainwreck his life since then had become:

     ...As bad as that may be, it reminds me of something I have told my stepson repeatedly (God has given me two stepsons age 18 and 23 and one daughter age 5):
"Pain can be a very good thing;  it tells us that something is wrong, and that we need help desperately."
     The consequences of your sin have cost you much in this life, but the consequences of sin after this life are much worse.  God is holy, and He will judge all sin;  wicked people like you and me have no hope in ourselves to escape God's wrath.  So I think the best way to think of the pain and consequences of prison and drug abuse is like this:  A person in the first stages of cancer will start to have mysterious symptoms (insomnia, pain, lack of appetite, etc.).  He might not connect the dots right away, but the symptoms will get worse and worse, and will eventually force him to go to the doctor.  So the symptoms might be horrible, but if they alert him to the much greater danger of cancer, they serve a good purpose.

     Friend, one of the Scriptural tests of a person's faith is the continual lifestyle they live;  1 John 3:6-10 puts it plainly:
"No one who abides in him (Jesus) keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.  Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he (Jesus) is righteous.  Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.  No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.  By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother."
     So the pattern of a true believer's life is not one of perfection, but a direction towards obedience and greater love for God, evident to everyone they know.  When they sin (and they do sin), God causes them to repent and so they don't "keep on sinning".  Ask yourself honestly... does this sound like you?  Based on how you described the last several years of your life, I would have to say no. 
     You know better than anyone:  I wish someone would have come to me, when we knew each other years ago, and looked at my life and said "Dude, you think you're a Christian?  Why are you sleeping
"Lemme tell you about when I was baptized.... Hic!"
around and getting drunk all the time?  How could a Christian, one "born of God", keep on sinning?"  The symptoms of my life proved that I was sick with a deadly disease, a corruption of the soul that we all are born with (Romans 5:12).  Whatever religious things I experienced in my life at/before that time were worthless;  just as Jesus said in Matthew 7:21-23:
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  On that day (the day of judgment) many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name (i.e. all those religious activities that don't change the inner man)?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'
    I hope I've presented the truth of the Bible clearly;  my greatest hope for you is what I myself have experienced:  a true repentance and turning from sin, a 180 degree turn toward God and the forgiveness in Christ's sacrifice on the Cross.

Photos courtesy of chi-ryu, Bob Elderberry

Monday, January 27, 2014


     I was chatting up a friend of a friend the other day, and we started into a discussion on the gospel; 
Calvinism never looked so beautiful!
this guy used the title of "pastor" on his ministry website, and so I was eager to hear his position on man's ability to respond to God.  He took on the tone of voice you'd recognize in a heartbeat, the one people use when laying down their first presupposition in an argument, the one they know no one would question. Are you hearing it in your head?  And what he said was this:
"Well, we all have free will!"

     I wasn't sure if we had time for a full exposition of the doctrines of grace, so I let him develop his point;  he cited a classic text to buttress the strength of human choice... Josh 24:15:  "And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve...".   I inwardly grimaced at the fallacy that is so rarely questioned, namely that if God commands us to do a thing, we must have the innate power to do that thing.  I always want to point out to the proponents of this idea: "So if the greatest commandment is to love God supremely, we can do that, right?  Then why did Jesus die, if we can merit heaven by our supreme love of God?"  But I have been reading through Joshua periodically during breaks in the bus and I came to this passage yesterday;  it turns out, Joshua makes my case for me!
     The Israelites make their choice in vs. 16, proclaiming their loyalty to God and their desire to serve Him.  What's Joshua's response?  Does he rejoice in and affirm their free-will choice to follow God? Not in the slightest!  "You are not able to serve the Lord, for He is a holy God."  This seemingly makes no impact on the congregation, and I think they hear what they want to hear, repeating their pledge to serve God.  Surely then Joshua congratulates them?  Maybe the Israelites thought Joshua was testing them, trying to trick them by discouragement.  But sorry... his response only deepens the culpability of the Israelites:  "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve Him." (vs. 22)  You get the sense that Joshua is shaking his head, hearing his people condemn themselves, knowing what is right, yet lacking the wisdom to see their own evil inclinations (i.e. David in 2 Sam 12:5).  I guess a modern equivalent could be a mortgage loan officer
Racking up debt you can't pay...
(pre 2007, of course!), knowing the folks in front of him can't afford the house they're buying, yet helpless to stop them from signing themselves into bankruptcy.
     What can we say in conclusion?  The reformed position is not that men have no choice, but that we have free will in anything not contradictory to our nature.  So as inveterate God-haters, fallen human beings have no potential in our nature to love God, to choose Him, or to obey Him or His gospel.  Isa 64:6-7 says poignantly:
"We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.  We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you..."
     This reality puts the grace of God in its proper, magnificent setting:  God is pleased to save (at the supreme cost of His beloved Son) not His friends, or those in allegiance to Him, or even people who are neutral or undecided... but God chooses and saves people who despise Him with all their hearts, who would spit in His face and kill Him if they had the power.  He changes us from the inside out and grants us a new nature that can choose, obey and love Him, so that "in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace toward us in Christ Jesus." (Eph 2:7)

Photos courtesy of nerdcoregirl, 4thgloryofGod

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Could you defend Sola Scriptura?

     Tough question, right?  And that's assuming you could first define Sola Scriptura;  so to put the cookies on the bottom shelf (which I need on a regular basis), we're talking about the Reformation belief that Scripture alone is the final authority that rules and defines our religion and our lives.  The Westminster Confession puts it this way:
"The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.... The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture."  (Ch. 1 Parts 4, 10)
     So I was listening to one of my favorite programs (James White's The Dividing Line) and he featured a Lutheran calling into Catholic Answers, a well-known forum for Roman apologetics.  I only had to listen for about 30 seconds to the caller before wanting to apply my palm directly to my
Would this work if applied directly to the forehead?  You never know...
forehead;  he didn't cite one verse or have one coherent response, and he went right along with the host's categorization of Roman Catholicism as a "Christian denomination".  He just regurgitated the mantras "Well, I believe..." and the worthless "People have been arguing about this for hundreds of years...".  One of the questions used to stymy this man was quite interesting though, and I thought it would be worthy of exposure and discussion:
"Did Jesus write anything down or ever command His apostles to write anything down?"
     I think my first response to hearing this was "Ummm... Well, I believe...!", which is useless.  This question has this effect because we know the answer in the most literal sense:  no, Jesus wasn't an author or didn't directly commission any N.T. books.  The Catholic host built upon this and established the basis for the Roman view of apostolic succession:  since Jesus did commission apostles (under Peter) and give them the keys to the kingdom, they (and their successors in Rome) must be the foundational authority we look to and understand Scripture under.
     After a couple minutes of reflection, a verse occurred to me in a way heretofore not applied, with its appropriate setup question:  why did all those apostles start writing stuff anyway?  Were they bored, or were they counting on those huge book royalties, or was it all to get on the New York Times bestseller list?  2 Peter 1:21 informs us that "...men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit."  So the Holy Spirit influenced the N.T. apostles (and their close associates) to write Scripture... but where did they get the Holy Spirit from?  From Jesus (Jn 14:16ff)!  And what does the Spirit tell the apostles and inspire them to write?
"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." (Jn 16:13)
     With this one small step, we see that Jesus did speak through the Spirit to the apostles;  as Luke puts it in Acts 1:1 "...I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach".  His 3 year ministry with them and His forty-day seminary course after His resurrection were just the beginning of what Jesus personally, through the Spirit (vs. 2), would teach the 12.  And it would be ludicrous to think that the Holy Spirit, after relaying Jesus's words, independently thought to Himself:  "Yeah, that's pretty good stuff... this guy better write it down so he doesn't forget!"  The command to write and the authority to pen new Scripture came from Christ Himself through the Spirit, and we are blessed with a rock-solid standard to know the truth (instead of popes who contradict themselves).

Photo courtesy of Salfalko

Friday, January 3, 2014

Can we tone down the Gospel?

"And they're off!!!"
    I was on my best behaviour that day:  for some reason, I have a reputation as a theological pit bull and my anonymous sister in Christ had done her level best to put the muzzle on, pleading for my utmost patience with her new friend.  I understand:  we've all been there, introducing people we love and esteem greatly, and it's our greatest hope that they love each other as much as we love them.  We arrange the place, the time, the atmosphere... and if we could borrow God's heart-changing power for just a second, it might be scary how far we would go to make them get along!
     I shook his hand and waited for a good moment to start with some gentle inquiries;  this man professed Christ, but it's tragic that in America in the 21st century, that and $5 will get you a mocha at Starbuck's, but nothing else.  I asked about the gospel and we were off to the races, galloping down the trendiest and most relevant perspectives on what can only loosely be called theology.  Of course, the further we went down that track, the more distant Scripture became in our rear view;  but the lowlight I want to respond to today was one I know you've heard, both in theory and practice:

"If we tell them about sin, judgment and hell, they won't like us and they'll think God is a big meanie!"
     I don't want to immediately dismiss the usual motive behind this approach:  just like my sister-in-Christ, when we speak to the lost, we have two people we love, we introduce them and earnestly desire that they would love each other as much as we love them.  Obviously, this is not a bad motive and one could easily classify this as "love for neighbor" (i.e. the lost individual);  their best interest and greatest good is to know and love Jesus, so how can we not present Jesus in the most winsome way?
     But there's something else that transcends love for neighbor, another law that is the greatest commandment:  "Love the LORD your God with all your heart..." (Mt 22:37).  Our role as messengers of Christ to a lost and dying world is not primarily for them... it's for Him and our love for Christ necessitates that we obey Him (Jn 14:15, 21, 23).  And furthermore, we are not left to guess how we are to promulgate His gospel;  the Scriptures are replete with the essential context of God's message of salvation, namely His sentence upon sin.  From the second chapter of the Bible onward, we learn He must judge and punish all disobedience.  All of God's prophets and messengers start with this clarion call to humanity; so there's an extremely relevant blueprint for evangelism (and a dire warning) tucked away in Ezk 3:16-19:
"And at the end of seven days, the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.  If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.  But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul."
     We have heard a word, the final word, from God in the Person of Jesus Christ (Heb 1:2).  If a person
"He said what?!?"
neglects or spurns Him and His gospel, they do not turn from their wicked way (Jn 3:18) and lie under God's condemnation for sin.  It is required by God that, just like Ezekiel, we warn them and accurately convey His sentence of death upon them for their sin.  That's an inherent part of the job description of "messenger" many seem to have forgotten... they just deliver the message.  They don't get to change it, soften it, edit it or add to it.  The maxim "Don't shoot the messenger!" is predicated on this fact;  when you have to give your boss the bad news of coworker's insubordination, you sure don't want him to blame you for your coworker's words!  
     But if we do take it upon ourselves to polish up the message, their blood will God require at our hand.  So as much as we would desire the objects of our evangelism to love and know Christ, it comes back to the reality that the final outcome of each encounter really isn't up to us;  God has commanded the means of His salvation (the gospel in its full context;  Rom 1:16) and sovereignly planned and effected the result (Jn 1:12,13, 6:44).  His Holy Spirit convicts folks of their sin (Jn 16:8), not us.  In closing, listen to Paul back up Ezekiel with the exact same analogy:
"Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God." (Acts 20:26-27)
May we follow in his footsteps and innocence.

Photos courtesy of Paulo Camera, spotzilla

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

True humility

If only...right?
     It is the greatest joy to watch an endeavour bear fruit both praiseworthy and good, something you have taken ownership of and invested in at high personal cost, and then say "I wish I could take the credit... but it's all God!"  I believe this joy is only available through the humility of an authentic grasp of the sovereignty of God and the working of His Spirit in us to "will and to work His good pleasure" (Php 2:13).  Or to put it another way, only Calvinists know that "every good gift and every perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of lights..."
     We are so quick to take the credit, aren't we?  The only thing we do faster is shift the blame!  Can you imagine the scene in Eden if eating the fruit did what Eve thought it would?  She would be vindicated as humanity's first feminist, and she would have herself to thank for it (with a shout-out on award night to the serpent!).  But instead, Eden is the prototypical horror story about what happens when we presume to supplement God's wisdom, to esteem our own judgment above His, and when we just want a little bit of the spotlight, darnit!  And that's exactly what a synergistic view of salvation does:  God gets most of the glory... He sent Jesus and all that, but when it came time to walk down to the altar and pray the prayer (or insert your own desired evangelical ritual), that was all me, man!
     No, it really wasn't;  when God irresistibly calls His elect and they first exercise the faith and repentance given to them, they really do choose God... because He chose them first (1 Jn 4:10, 19).  So everything of worth in us, from conversion to glory, has its origin and empowerment from God, and we just ride shotgun, where we occasionally get to pick the radio station.
     Along with this tidbit, I also have a heartbreaking episode to relate:  we were headed home from
"Is the dark side stronger?"  "I've got something strong in my diaper..."
church a couple weeks ago, and we had just finished reviewing my daughter's lesson.  I had returned my full attention to the road (who doesn't multitask?) when I heard from the back seat:  "Dad?  Do you sin?"  I don't think I had grappled with my depravity yet that day (ignorance is bliss, right?), so her question hit me hard:  who doesn't want to be the virtuous paragon of righteousness for their kids?  Isn't it "quicker, easier, more seductive" to set yourself up as their role model;  that way, you get the credit for their successes!   But I gave my little darling the only answer I could:  "Yes honey, I sin... that's why I need Jesus.  I need to be forgiven for my sin, so I repent and believe that Jesus died for me."  That's the best we can do for our kids:  tell them the truth that the only answer to the conflagration of God's judgment is the pressurized, fire-retardant foam of the grace of Jesus Christ.  Luther said to sin boldly, and a big chunk of his main idea was that only sinners can be forgiven, while the self-righteous openly mock the idea they need a Saviour (Mark 2:17).  The most seasoned, mature saints must affirm this...precisely the reason why they're mature!  So sit back on the first day of 2014, and relax in the fact that your moral effort (and subsequent failure) has nothing to do with your standing before God (Heb 4:10):  Christ has done it all and gets all the credit.

Photos courtesy of Biblestuff, chaines106