Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Archive for the ‘The Bible’ Category

The Soft Atheism of Low Expectations

THANK GOD IM AN ATHEIST

Not many Americans would call themselves atheists; only about 3% according to Pew Research.  But that doesn’t count the practicing atheists.  I’m thinking about all the people who religiously go to church on Sundays but live the other six-and-a-half days as though heaven is empty and the Bible is fiction.

I’m not even talking about secret sins that weaken our testimony. Think about all those honest, open conversations between Bible believers, those of us who call ourselves Evangelicals.

Surely, we can all agree that friends must be able to speak honestly to each other, and without condemnation.  But when another follower of Christ confides in me that he’s undermining his jerk supervisor at work, what am I supposed to do with the New Testament idea of honoring God by the way I treat those in authority? (1 Peter 2:19) Atheism says the boss is a loser: he’s got it coming.  But a godly friend ought to sympathize, “Man, I understand why you’re so angry.  But I’m wondering if there’s a place for your faith in all of this. What do you think?”  No condemnation there!

When a married woman confides that her conversations with the new single guy at the office have gone well beyond innocent flirtation, what’s a friend in the faith to do? Atheism says we’re living in a whole new world: this seems harmless enough. But a friend who is also a believer has a different take. “Can we pray about this together?  It may feel harmless right now, but are you running away from sexual immorality, or tip-toeing toward it?” (1 Corinthians 6:18)  True friendship does require honesty, right?

In this week’s message on dealing with bad bosses, Pastor Cole reminded us how often we give each other a pass for doing evil.  Instead of coaching our fellow saints with faith and wise counsel, we tend to shrug and suggest we’re all only human. But that’s what atheists believe.  Followers of Jesus counter with 2 Corinthians 5:17.  “I am a new creation in Christ: the old has gone, the new has come!” Saints encourage each other to set our affections on this above, not the things of this world.

Suggest to a child that he’s not as capable of a B-average, and you’ll soon have a D student on your hands!  Tell a teenager it’s impossible to resist fornication, and she’ll soon agree with you wholeheartedly.  Imply to a Christian friend under fire that nobody seriously expects to be holy all the time, and you’ll soon have an unholy friend in an ungodly dilemma.

Being the salt of the earth requires more than merely influencing pagans and unbelievers next door.  It means we are willing to rub off on our friends at church as well.

To catch this week’s message, click Take this Job and Love It.

Lift up the Cross!

 

 

The Carnivore’s Bible

BURGER BASHMost Americans will be vegans within fifty years if current trends continue.  Think about it and you’ll agree this is not a radical idea.  Meatless menus and days without meat become more popular every year.  With each passing season, our affection for animals increases, along with the conviction that they must have rights, too. And very soon, there will be synthetic meats that boast of added nutritional benefits with the same great taste. You can imagine the labels: No animals were harmed in the production of this food product.

In 2070, our great grandchildren will look back on our generation with horror! No one will understand why we insisted on serving dead animals to our children and our dinner guests!  Quite suddenly, most of the shoppers and chefs of 2017 will seem like heartless barbarians.  We will join that long, death march into infamy only a few paces behind the slave owners, racists, and sexists who came before us.  We will be condemned and stigmatized for failing to adopt values of an unborn generation still 100 years away!

No, that’s not fair.  It’s not even rational.  We are all products of our particular day and age- Millennials and Generation Z are no different than Boomers in this regard.  You don’t know what you don’t know.  But keep this injustice in mind that next time you are tempted to scowl at those heartless Neanderthals who populate the Holy Bible.

The toughest thing about reading through your Bible in a year happens early on: the challenge of slogging through one scene of Old Testament battlefield carnage after another.   Why did Samuel slash King Agag to ribbons while condemning King Saul for not doing it first?  Why are women and children occasionally killed along with the soldiers in one battle or another?  We are perplexed that the Almighty God not only approves of such conduct but sometimes commands it must be done.

In fact, many of the heroes and heroines of the Bible walked the Earth some three thousand years ago.  Read that again: 30 centuries ago! The Ammonites and Jebusites and Amorites who surrounded their homeland were not enlightened, 21st Century humanists.  For most nations of that period, warfare was not about self-defense: it was the economy, stupid!  Most nations gleefully invaded their neighbors to expand their own territory, feed their own people, and bring home stolen treasure and prisoners of war to work in the fields. Most communities were not even bound by religious commands that they should not kill, much less not declare war.

Some like the Philistines or the Amalekites were so lacking in principle or human decency that they would launch sneak attacks year after year.  If terrorist neighbors persisted in waging war and killing your trusting subjects year in and year out, a desperate king’s only option might well be to finally make an example of one of those nations.  By inflicting such horrific death and damage to men, women and children alike, that king might hope to avert future bloodshed. It was a scorched earth strategy. Today it’s called the Nuclear Option.

Indeed, that rationale explains God’s command that the Amalekites would perpetually live under a divine curse.  When the Israelites first emerged from bondage in Egypt, they were weakened, broken in spirit, unskilled in desert survival, and utterly defenseless. The Amalekites not only chose to attack but came sweeping in from the rear.  This enabled them to first slaughter the stragglers- the lame, the sickly, the aging, and children leading flocks of livestock- before coming face to face with the armed men who could fight.  The divine curse that God decreed after that heartless act extended to future Amalekites like Samuel’s King Agag and Queen Esther’s Haman, a descendant of Agag. God made an example of them for the sake of other nations.

Some of the things that unsettle our tender sensibilities in the Twenty-first Century actually saved lives amid the cruel and uncivilized laws of survival of 800 BC.  And some of the ethics of the Hebrew people, so foreign to us, were actually advanced behaviors in a world where human trafficking, warfare, plural marriage, racism, and oppression of women were protected by the laws and traditions of most societies.

When Jesus taught us, “Judge not that you be not judged,” he did not suggest we should not evaluate good or bad behavior.  In context, he actually taught that we should not impose a standard for others that we would never apply to ourselves; do not judge with unjust standards lest you be condemned the same way. It’s a principle to keep in mind when we’re tempted to disparage Samson or Samuel or David.

Bible heroes met God on the mountaintops but they had to live their lives in the valleys. So do we.  Why not learn from the lives our God’s ancient people without disqualifying them because they didn’t live long enough to learn from us?  I always take along some grace when I journey through the Bible; the kind of grace Jesus carried for carnivores like me.

Lift up the Cross!

 

 

Lethal Injection and Legal Crucifixion

BEHIND BARS

I lost my enthusiasm for capital punishment just about a decade ago.  For most of my life, I had assumed the death penalty must be okay because it has the Old Testament stamp of approval.  Then as I was doing some research for a Bible Study on John 8, Christ’s defense of the woman caught in adultery struck a nerve.

Don’t misunderstand: Christ never condemns capital punishment.  He came to fulfill the Old Covenant, not abandon it.  But when a “lynch mob” approaches the Lord asking for his verdict on a woman they’ve just caught in adultery, he apparently notices the injustice the narrative makes so clear.  If the woman is guilty because she was actually caught in the act of adultery, where is the man who was obviously in bed with her?

Jesus seems to affirm capital punishment when he suggests it’s okay to follow through and stone her.  But he adds that telling caveat, “But let one of you who has never sinned cast the first stone.” (John 8:7)  This underscores the problem of selective condemnation; a practice he denounces on other occasions as well.

  • Don’t condemn others for sinful behavior you practice as well.
  • Don’t destroy someone else for an offense you have often committed in your heart.
  • And of course, the clear implication here is that we shouldn’t execute a woman caught in adultery if we allow her partner in sin to walk away in freedom.

To borrow a phrase from American liberalism, capital punishment should be legal but rare.  (I feel the same way about war.) It should be rare because compelling DNA evidence and reliable eye witnesses are frequently not available.  Because of faulty memories, political pressures, and lingering racism, it’s apparently not so hard for an innocent man to find himself locked away on in an American prison.  It’s bad enough to lose twenty years of your life for a crime you didn’t commit; worse still to be rushed off into eternity with no chance to ever correct that injustice.

Of all people, Christians should be most sensitive to the possibility of an innocent victim being wrongly convicted and sentenced to lethal injection or a firing squad or a cross.  It happened to Jesus.  What’s more, in recent years groups like the Innocence Project have seen dozens of wrongfully accused men and women finally set free from prisons- some from death row.

I suppose extreme measures could still be legal for profound cruelty that goes beyond the pale.  A civilized society might decide to execute serial killers or terrorists who brutally murder scores of innocent victims.  A nation does have divine authority to wage war and execute justice in defense of its citizens.  One might draw a bright clear line in the sand, but the standards for imposing capital punishment should be more bullet proof than those for sending someone to prison. The evidence should leave no doubt the defendant is absolutely the one.

So I’m troubled by the news from Arkansas that eight inmates are about to be executed in 11 days before the state’s supply of potassium chloride expires.  The governor says it’s necessary; that many of these men have occupied death row cells for more than twenty years.  Perhaps, but it looks like a celebration of death by government. It naturally arouses the dread that destroying eight human lives with a hasty deadline in mind must surely increase the odds that a wrongly accused man gets the ax.

Okay, maybe that’s emotional, but I get emotional about unborn babies as well. We’re talking about human life here. And it seems to me that the sanctity of human life relates to more than the issue of who is responsible for what happens to a human in a womb. Being pro-life means I also care about what happens to a human being in a death row holding cell. If there is a chance he’s an innocent man, it’s unjust and irreverent to impose a penalty that could never be corrected.

Lift up the Cross!

Lights Out!

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Have you ever awakened from a nightmare so jarring that your heart continued to race even after you opened your eyes?  What now?  Like most people, you probably reached over and switched on the lamp.  Within two seconds, those clarifying beams of light had cast out the darkness and vaporized those lingering gremlins.

Jesus called his followers the light of the world.  “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden,” he explained.  “Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” (Matthew 5: 14 – 15)

The Lord has a simple point: don’t conceal your power.  And yet we do.  For instance:

I bury the light of Christ when I suppose unbelievers need to be reassured I’m just like them.  Where did I get this deadly idea that being transparent means I show off my sin nature?  I struggle to be completely inoffensive by laughing off self-destructive behavior, winking at temptations, and self-censoring every honest word that might possibly reveal how differently I see life!

  • The problem here is that unchurched people don’t really fear that Christians aren’t like them.
  • They are actually convinced we are just like them- except that we pretend to believe quirky, obscure religious ideas that make us strangely nervous when we talk about them. Nobody takes that stuff seriously.

My witness is more compelling when neighbors and co-workers realize I care about them even though I am quite different from them.  Because I believe the most important assets in life are spiritual and supernatural, I reject materialism.  I am completely convinced that I’m going to live forever- just like Jesus promised those who live in him.  I believe that God has high expectations for me, so I make demands of myself even as I show grace to everybody else.  I can smile through my tears because God is in control.

My unchurched neighbors don’t really believe Christians are never sad: they just think we’re hypocrites with synthetic smiles.  It’s harder to dismiss my story when it’s apparent that I sometimes experience sadness or frustration: I just refuse to be ruled by misguided emotions.

No wonder multitudes aren’t streaming into American churches for answers: they don’t have any questions!  We in the Church have convinced ourselves that the only way to get close to lost people is to turn off the light!  “They don’t know Jesus! Hurry! Lights out!” I dare not let them see that I’m different!  Put a bag on it!

That’s why lost people assume we’re just like them- except that we go to churches on Sunday mornings to talk about religious ideas we don’t honestly believe. Why would they possibly aspire to change anything to become more like us?  In our hearts, it’s painfully clear we’re already just like them.

Let’s you and I do something radical and unsettling for Easter.  Tell someone you care about that you’re going to live forever!  Smile and trust God’s promises even when your heart is broken. Define what holy really means and then explain why it hurts so good. Let your transparent life raise questions in the hearts and minds of the clueless.

Turn on the Light and leave ’em wondering!

Lift up the Cross!

Wishful Blindness

SAD GIRLShe could be your daughter. Perhaps she’s one of your friends.  She’s an extraordinary girl in many ways, but there are girls like her everywhere. She believes she is a liberated woman.  You can see she’s trapped.

She’s like a lot of other girls, a victim of her own wishful blindness. She is entangled in the spell of an angry young man.  On occasional Friday nights, he seems like the strong, masculine presence who can cradle her in feelings of safety and belonging.  But most times he’s only selfish, tense, distant, distracted, and ungrateful.

She insists they’re not ready for marriage, all the obligations and burdens you accept in exchange for something that’s just a piece of paper.  Yeah, except she’s ready.  It’s why she waits for him to come home at night, does his laundry, straightens the apartment, and helps pay his bills.  If she weren’t ready for commitment, she would have already given up on him.

Her wishful blindness came to mind last week as I read through John 12.  Jesus laments that he’d give anything to rescue the trapped, self-destructive Israelites crowding the streets of the city all around him.  “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.” (John 12:40)

Anybody can see the power of God and the glory of eternity in this one of a kind rabbi named Jesus; anybody except all his wishfully blind countrymen who are so afraid of change that they continue to give a dead end avenue one more chance- and another, and another. This kind of blindness is sometimes confused with fearlessness, but in fact it’s nothing more than undiluted dread, the terror of coming up empty.

Unbelievably, there is none so blind as he who will not see.

Lift up the cross!

 

God Likes Millennials

millennialsMillennials are truly the generation that gets no respect.  Everyone seems to agree they are entitled, cynical, and obsessed with their image on social media.  What’s more, they do strange things with their hair, run away from commitment, and are confused about sexual ethics. (They also like selfies too much, but don’t pretend you don’t.)

So I could assert that God loves them, but critics would reply, “Sure, but God loves everybody.  Duh!”  So let’s put it this way: God likes Millennials.  And there are wonderful qualities we should all appreciate in their generation.

For instance, Millennials know that God doesn’t live in a building.  You might demur, noting “We all know that.”  But in fact, quite a few of us in previous generations have behaved as though God does live in church buildings and waits for us to drop in on Sundays.  Until recently, most churches have ministered out of a fortress mentality: “everything that matters happens here in this building.” And saints have retreated to the holy bunker not only to worship; but to pray, to plan, to eat together, even to celebrate uninspired Christmas parties. Didn’t Jesus say something about a lamp hidden under a bushel?

We’re changing now because Millennials asked, “What’s so special about this stuffy old building?  God is out there… and so are the neighbors we’re supposed to love and care for!”

Paul tried to alert us to this reality centuries ago. Speaking to the pagan intellectuals on Mars Hill, he explained, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.” (Acts 17:24) Rather, he pointed out that even some of their own Greek poets had rightfully supposed the Creator God is all around us in the cosmos he fashioned, and that it is “in him we live and move and have our very being.”

That long-suppressed truth completely demolishes the false construct practiced by so many believers: that life is segmented into church life, family life, career life, recreational life, and consumer living.  On one hand, it means we should get over the myth that spiritual things only happen at church.  And on the other hand, we must embrace the fact that God is out there working all around us, and if we really love him, we must join him.  He’s at work in your office on Capitol Hill.  He’s on the scene in your classroom.  He is involved in the truck stop when you pull your rig off the road for dinner.  No more church life versus my life: it’s all God’s life.  Am I in or out?

I long ago stopped complaining about how liberal the Millennials are:  we were all lefties when we were their age.  “If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re older, you don’t have a brain.”  Time and faith bring profound changes.  So I’m confident we’re going to see some spiritual giants rise among this disrespected generation. They won’t be perfect, but they will rescue the church from hypocritical attitudes we tolerated too long.  There’s a lot to like.

For the companion message from Acts 17, click:No Interruptions, Only Invitations

And lift up the Cross!

Learning to Live in the Mystery

living-in-the-mysteryPredestination may be the most offensive word in the Bible.  I know what you’re thinking: the Bible is full of words that offend one faction or another. What about incest, submission for wives, or the use of abomination to describe sexual activities now accepted by law?  The difference is that the mere mention of predestination can instantly create emotional rancor among saints who otherwise agree on nearly every other scriptural idea. For some reason, it can get church people riled up. It can send otherwise serene pastors into denunciation mode.

You don’t have to be a Calvinist (I’m not,) to recognize the idea that God selects some people in advance is clearly taught in Scripture.  “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined…” That is the clear teaching of Romans 8:29. There’s no question about God sealing some in advance.  The real debate centers on what is meant by “those he foreknew.”

  • Some suppose it means God knew them in an exclusive way.   That is, God knew some with a familiarity or a preference he did not express for others. Reformed theologians support this with verses like Romans 9:13, “Esau  I hated, but Jacob I loved.”
  • Others understand that an omniscient God can know in advance who will someday trust him, so he predestines those people- the ones already on track to someday choose him. Advocates of this viewpoint point to  John 3:16, the promise that God loves the whole world so much that Jesus came to die for them all.

It’s important for the saints to remember that there are serious men and women of great faith and integrity on both sides of the issue.  There are no ulterior motives on either side; no one attempting to distort clear teaching in order to water down the truth or justify some old sin now in fashion again.  The recognized voices in both camps root their convictions entirely in scripture.

I happen to be one of those who believe that God knows in advance who will eventually trust him, and that he somehow seals them ahead of time.  But I have huge respect for Christian thinkers who don’t agree: there’s absolutely no doubt that John MacArthur and John Piper and David Platt are godly warriors who would love to see the whole world saved. In fact, some of the most outstanding leaders of the Great Awakening could be called Calvinists. The celebrated sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, was preached by Jonathan Edwards, an evangelist who was convinced God selects some and deselects others.  He preached to everyone he could get to listen because he had no idea who was elect and who was not.

At Providence, we’re halfway through a series of 12 messages called “Fire and Spirit.”  The main point is that the God of the New Testament is not ashamed of the Old Testament. There are profound mysteries at the heart of our faith.  We can’t boil it down to an outline or a pithy slogan or a tidy formula: the mind of God is too vast for you or me to understand.  That’s why it’s so important that you and I learn to trust God at all times and be comfortable with mystery: the things we can’t comprehend yet.

And when I find that other holy men and women read a particular Bible verse in a way that differs slightly from the way I read it, my first response must not be “What’s wrong with you?”  The central ideas of Jesus Christ and His Gospel are so clearly expressed and so broadly accepted, it’s okay if you and I don’t completely agree on every mysterious idea that awaits us in God’s Word.

No matter what you or I believe about the Elect, only God knows who they are. Neither proponents of Calvin nor advocates or free will can detect them in advance: only after the fact. What’s important for now is that we all cooperate to get the Gospel to every creature. We all agree on that.  Let’s begin there.

To hear Pastor Cole’s companion message on Living in the Mystery, “click here.

Lift up the Cross!

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