Sunday, December 29, 2013

Favorite Books of 2013

At the end of each year I like to look back at the books that I read during that year and to highlight those that stood out to me. Just to be clear, this list has nothing to do with books that came out in 2013. It only relates to books that I read this year. Some are new, and some are old. Here you go.

Fiction Top Ten
10. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. This novel has hit all kinds of bestseller lists. It is a very well-written novel from the perspective of a teenage girl with cancer. It follows her relationship with her boyfriend, another cancer patient. It deals very honestly with their experiences. It is dark and doesn't offer a lot of answers, but it does have beauty and promotes honesty (especially between adults and children).
9. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. I am not a big Sci-Fi fan, but I thought this book had layered themes and memorable characters. If you don't know, it takes place in the future and follows the story of a prodigy named Ender who is recruited to help save earth from aliens. My wife and son have read some of the follow-ups to the book. I will probably delve into those later on. I also saw the movie. It was not great, but it did a decent job of telling the story.
8 & 7. Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis. I put these together because they are part 1 and part 2 of a single story about time traveling historians who get stuck in WWII. Connie Willis is my wife's favorite author, and I read these mostly to be able to talk about them with her. I ended up loving them. Great characters and a great exploration of classic themes relating to determinism and fr
ee-will. They aren't quick reads, but they were worth the time.
6 & 5. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. Like I said, these aren't books that came out this year. These were my first Jules Verne reads. I loved them both (especially Around the World). Great adventure stories.
4. The Kings and Queens of Roam by Daniel Wallace. My all-time favorite movie is Big Fish, which is based on a novel by Daniel Wallace. That got me curious about his other books, so I ordered this one. It's a quasi-mythical story about two sisters who have a complicated relationship in a quasi-mystical town called Roam. I found it thoroughly intriguing and moving. It deals with themes of love and pain and jealousy and forgiveness. In some loose ways it reminded me of C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces (an all-time favorite).
3. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I got this book on a whim because it was cheap on kindle and it sounded interesting. I liked it enough that I am currently reading my second Walker Percy novel. As I read The Moviegoer I found it puzzling, difficult, and totally engrossing. I wasn't always sure what it was about, but I couldn't look away. It is a philosophical novel that follows characters who are trying to make sense of life. I think I would need to read it again to get a greater sense of it, but it was certainly a memorable read.
2. An Unfinished Season by Ward Just. This was another kindle deal purchase. This novel is a coming-of-age story that I found totally involving. The narrator felt like a realistic and vivid character. I thought that the novel dealt powerfully with father/son themes, and also explored the mystery surrounding male/female relationships. This novel was a gem.
1. Watership Down by Richard Adams. For some of you readers out there, I feel a bit embarrassed that I had no knowledge of this book. I only found out about it because a friend recommended it. It's about adventure, alienation, and . . . rabbits. It felt to me like a cross betwThe Lord of the Rings and The Wind in the Willows (both favorites of mine). It was a great and memorable book.

Non-fiction Top Ten
10. Five Views on Law and Gospel edited by Greg Bahnsen. I enjoy reading these books that present different views. This one was timely in light of teaching through Galatians at church. It also helped me to understand the different views and better solidify my own position on the subject. If you have never read any of these kinds of books, they are worth checking out. If there is a Christian debate on a subject, there is certain to be one of these books on it.
9. Hate Mail From Cheerleaders by Rick Reilly. This book was a lot of fun. Rick Reilly is a witty and insightful sports columnist and this book was 100 of his favorite columns. Reading it was like eating candy.
8. Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley. I read this after attending the Drive Conference at North Point Church (the church that Stanley pastors). It included an honest narrative of his own personal journey as well as some great thoughts about how to attempt to reach a wide range of people, while still leading them into depth as they follow Jesus.
7. The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers. This was another book that I read because of my wife. It was a rich book about how our minds are a reflection of the mind of God. It gives insight into how Sayers approached her fiction (she was a successful mystery writer).
6. What Is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung. This book is about exactly what the title says. We live in a time when different opinions are emerging about the purpose and priorities of the church. I felt like DeYoung promoted his conclusions while being relatively fair to those who take a different viewpoint. I didn't always agree with him, but I thought it was a worthwhile read.
5. The Secret Holocaust Diaries by Nonna Bannister. Another book whose title describes it quite accurately. It gave insight into one young woman's experience and tragedy, and it also dealt with themes of forgiveness and sacrifice.
4. Telling Secrets by Frederich Buechner. This book explored how telling our secrets is the path to finding healing from our pain. That said, Buechner certain practices what he preaches. He invites us to find healing through revealing our pain to others and being honest about it. This was timely for me because this is a lot of what God has been doing in my life this year.
3. Simply Christian by N.T. Wright. This book is a sort-of modern Mere Christianity. Wright seeks to explain the basics of Christianity in a way the invites non-Christians to believe, and also informs believers to grasp the heart of their faith. Very worthwhile.
2. Invisible Girls by Sarah Thebarge. Sarah is a close friend of my wife, and this was a memoir about her experience with breast cancer, and also her experience befriending a Somali refugee family. It was honest and beautiful and redemptive.
1. Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. This may be a strange book to put at the top of my list, but it was unique and helpful. While the author does not remotely subscribe to a Christian worldview, he reflects truths about humanity. The basic premise is that intelligence is more than just IQ. Social awareness and delayed gratification and empathy play a major part in being smart in a more holistic way. The book has good applications for leadership, for marriage, and for getting attuned to what is going on behind our own actions as well as those of other people.

There you go. Feel free to share books that you read. I would love to get more ideas.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Compassion, Victims, Offenders, and Johnny Manziel

Compassion or No Compassion?
If you are a sports fan (or even if you aren't) you are probably aware of Johnny Manziel. Last season Manziel became the first Freshmen ever to win college football's highest honor, the Heisman Trophy. Since that time, his life has been a trainwreck. He has been in the tabloids on a consistent basis, making bad decision after bad decision. He has regularly alienated his family, his teammates, his coach, and his fans.
A couple of weeks ago, I heard a sports radio show in which one caller said that he felt compassion for Manziel. The host responded by saying that he felt no compassion for Manziel, since he had been handed a silver platter, and then had made all of these bad decisions on his own.
Is Johnny Manziel worthy of compassion? This question brings up a bigger issue.

Victims or Offenders?
A while ago I was having a conversation with my friend Phil Shahbaz and he made a comment that stayed with me. He said that when people behave badly, they do so because they are acting out of a place of pain. His point was that when we, as church leaders, interacted with people who were rude or angry or condescending, that we needed to step back and recognize that their bad behavior was an opportunity for compassion.
Phil's point might seem obvious to many, but this was not the case with me. While I smiled and nodded, in my heart I disagreed. I thought, "No, we don't sin because we are victims of pain. We sin because we are sinners." After all, I attended The Master's College. I embrace evangelical theology. At the core of what I believe about humanity is the teaching that our primary problem is that we are sinful rebels who have offended God and gone our own way. When we behave badly, we don't reveal that we are victims; we reveal that we are guilty.
The more I thought about Phil's comment (and my reaction to it), the more I began to conclude that it is overly simplistic to conclude that we are simply victims or simply offenders. After all, Phil was not denying that we are sinners. And I was not denying that we have pain that impacts us. But most of us champion one of these realities at the expense of the other.
For the record, this is not just a Christian problem. Every four years we get a solid dose of this debate. I know I am oversimplifying here, but most conservatives say that the problem with society is that people are not taking personal responsibility. People need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, own their mistakes, and stop mooching off others. For the most part, conservatives are harder on crime, and they are less supportive of government intervention in bailing people out of their messes.
On the other hand, liberals tend to say that people find themselves in bad situations because they have been kicked around and received a tough lot in life. They are in favor with giving people more chances, and they support government involvement in helping people who are down on their luck.
So, what does the gospel of Jesus say about this? Are we victims or are we offenders?
Scripture definitely does not paint us as innocent victims of this world. We are all sinners, enemies of God, children of wrath. We all have turned away from God to go our own way. In the garden Adam and Eve willfully chose to sin despite the fact that God had shown nothing but goodness to them. We are not simply victims of our difficult circumstances.

Victims and Offenders?
Not simply victims . . . but we all have certainly been victimized. We live in a broken world, surrounded by broken people. Even those of us who grew up with both of our parents around were still raised by broken and sinful people. We grew up with broken and sinful siblings. We've had broken and sinful teachers, broken and sinful friends, broken and sinful neighbors, and broken and sinful employers. The culture around us assaults us with temptations toward further brokenness. Some people in our world have been horrifically victimized through molestation or physical abuse at the hands of those who should have protected them. We all have experienced the crippling pain of loneliness and rejection and harsh words. While we are not simply victims, it does us very little good to overlook the fact that we all have pain.
Through the gospel, Jesus comes to us not only to bear our personal sins, but to bear all of our pain. He does not simply make of innocent before God, but he gives us life in God. He does not simply promise us a future in which we will no longer be guilty, but a future in which we will have no more pain and death, and in which every tear will be wiped away. Jesus acknowledges both our guilt and our pain and he sets us free from both.

Unqualified Compassion
On a practical level, this reality has huge implications not only for how we think of our own pain and sin, but also in how we relate to others. We all experience times when others behave badly toward us. If we see those people simply as victims, then we will dehumanize them by robbing them of the chance to grow and take responsibility for their actions. If we see people simply as offenders, then we will have no compassion on them, since their bad behavior is all their own fault. But if we embrace the gospel, something profound happens. We are able to have compassion on others, even while we hold them responsible for their actions. I can believe that those who hurt me are wrong and sinful. And yet I have compassion that their pain is so deep that they would lash out at me.
As a Christian I can have compassion for prisoners, even when they are guilty of crimes. I can have compassion on the divorced man, even if he was unfaithful. I can have compassion on the pregnant teenager, even while believing that she made bad choices. Compassion is not reserved for the innocent, but can be freely given to all.
Thank God that compassion is not reserved for innocent victims. After all, Christ compassionately came to die for sinners. He freely showed us compassion, and yet he did not dehumanize us by excusing our decisions. We can do the same. The gospel allows us to give people the dignity of believing that their actions have true significance, but it also sets us free to show compassion even to those who exploit their freedom by hurting themselves and others.
With Jesus, compassion is unqualified. It is offered to all. And the more that we realize that we are recipients of divine compassion, the more that we will be set free to offer that compassion to others.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Is Gender Real?

On Monday, August 12th, California became the first state to pass a law allowing K-12 students in public schools to access whichever restroom and locker room they want. The law will also allow students to choose whether they want to play girls’ sports or boys’ sports based on their self-perception and regardless of their birth gender.

Making the Climb
Imagine a ten year-old girl standing before a rock wall. On the rock wall are 50 handholds, intended to assist her in the ascent. Her gym teacher says to her, "Go ahead and climb." But then, before she begins, the gym teacher says, "Hold on a moment. I am pretty sure some of those handholds are not reliable. They look like they could support your weight, but they will simply fall off if you grab them. I don't want you to be fooled by them, so I am going to go ahead and remove them."
After removing the faulty handholds, the teacher says, "Now we're ready. Go ahead." But then suddenly says, "Hold on. If some of those handholds were unreliable, I wonder if any of them are solid. I don't want you to count on a handhold when it won't support you. So, here is what we will do: I will remove all the handholds. That way you won't be fooled by any of them. You won't assume that there is anything upon which you can rely." Then, after removing the rest of the handholds, the teacher turns to the girl and says, "Okay, now get climbing."
The above illustration could be applied to the way our culture approaches many issues. We enjoy deconstruction. We like to look at assumptions and tear them down so that we can start from scratch. We like to question even our most sacred cows. This applies to religions, politics, the nature of humanity, and just about everything else. While there is something positive about questioning assumptions, tearing down is destructive if it is not followed with a sense of rebuilding. We want to remove the unreliable handholds, but we still need handholds. If nothing is solid, then we cannot climb.
I think this illustration has special significance for the new law concerning transgender students. While its intent is to accommodate students who feel disenfranchised, it does this at a steep price. It tells children that gender is not a real thing.

Given or Chosen?
Imagine that I said to you, “I am technically white, but I feel like in the deepest part of me I am black. So, I want to be able to mark ‘African-American’ on my job applications and I want to be free to apply for scholarships that are offered to minorities.” I would imagine that you (and everyone in America) would be offended by this. Rightfully so. Then, if I said, “Why can’t I just decide that I am not really white?” you would confront me with the objective realities about my ethnicity. I can’t just change my race by a decision of my will. The reason is that race is something real, not something that is perceived.
This new California law, in essence, says that gender is not real because it can be changed by the decision of the will. If it is no longer useful to us then we can discard it like an outfit that no longer fits. If a boy says, "I want to be treated like a girl," what do we say? If we took the above logic from the race example, we would say, "I understand that you may feel like a girl, but the reality is that you are a boy. There are certain objective realities outside of yourself that inform us of this reality. I am willing to talk to you about how you are feeling, but we are going to treat you like a boy because that is what you are." However, in the logic of this new law, we now say, "If you want to be treated like a girl, then we will treat you like a girl." The not-so-subtle message is that gender is utterly incidental to who we are. It was not given to us. It is chosen by us.
Actually, what I just said is not completely accurate. The message is not that gender doesn't matter. Gender can matter . . . if a person decides that it matters. If being a boy matters to a child, then he can fully enjoy being a boy. If a girl is enthusiastic about being a girl, then she is free to act in light of this. Boys and girls are both welcome to make gender important to themselves. They are also open to define masculinity and femininity however they wish. This reflects the broader treatment of objective truth of our Western culture. Is gender important? Only if it is important to you.

Is Gender Real?
Over the years, there certainly have been unhelpful stereotypes about men and women. There have been assumptions that have caused damage and confusion. Those should be torn down. They are unstable handholds that will not help children understand reality. But we are now in the process of removing all the handholds. 
We started by saying, "Don't trust every assumption about gender. There is nothing strange about a boy writing poetry. There is nothing wrong with a girl liking sports. Some of those past assumptions are not helpful." But now we are saying, "There is nothing you can trust when it comes to gender. There is no starting point. You simply start from scratch and decide how you think gender fits into your life." This is the same as removing all the handholds and then asking the child to climb the wall.
Are we really at the point of concluding that there is nothing we can objectively say about masculinity and femininity? If so, then this is very sad. This is a disservice to our children. We are not helping them by removing faulty handholds unless we replace them with something solid. We need to be able to say, "This is what it means to be a man, and this is what it means to be a woman." Otherwise we have told them that gender is not a real thing.

Many people have responded to this new law with fear that this will put students (especially young girls) in vulnerable positions. I share in this concern. I think voices need to be heard. There needs to be compassion for children wrestling with issues about their sexuality, but there also needs to be protection for students whose privacy would be violated through this law allowance.
But while I think one response is to step in the gap for vulnerable students, I think a door is opened for another response. Those of us who are Christians may end up finding ourselves as some of the few in our culture with something solid to say about masculinity and femininity. We don't want to erect unreliable hand holds just to have something to say, but through God's Word we are given a picture of God-given gender. We could end up being unique in our culture by presenting a solid and beautiful picture of how God created men and women as equal-yet-different creatures who bear his image.
In our current setting, it is all the more important that we give our children a solid understanding of manhood and womanhood. They certainly will not get this by default in our current cultural setting. A lot needs to be said about this, but I don't want to make this post so long that it is unreadable (hopefully I haven't already done this). I want to follow up with some specific thoughts about what Scripture says on this subject. But for now, I want to warn that the removal of deceptive handholds is only helpful is we can point to other handholds and say, "There! You can rely on that fully, and it will never crumble under your weight!"

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

You Asked: Questions on the Holy Spirit, Part 2

This is the second of two posts, following up our Deeper event on the Holy Spirit. In the previous post I gave some answers to five questions that we were not able to address in the Q&A time. Here now are some answers to five more. Also, I am again including the video of the event. If you didn't attend, watching it will give you some context (and also will hopefully be an enjoyable experience).

Deeper #4 from Life Bible Fellowship Church on Vimeo.

1. If Jesus was 100% God, then why did he need the Holy Spirit to empower him?
During the Deeper event, we talked about the fact that the Holy Spirit empowered Jesus throughout his life. In Matthew 3:16 the Spirit descends on Jesus as a dove. In Luke 4:17-21 Jesus says that the Spirit of God has anointed him to proclaim the good news of God to the broken and needy. John 3:34-35 says of Jesus, "For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit." Jesus himself credited the Holy Spirit with the miracles that he did (Matthew 12:28). The Spirit clearly empowered Jesus during his life.
But why would Jesus, the eternal Son of God, need the Holy Spirit. The answer is both simple and complex. He needed the Spirit because he was human. That is simple enough. When Jesus took on humanity, he became like us in each way (Hebrews 2:14-18). As a man he became utterly dependent on the Holy Spirit for the fulfillment of his calling.
Many of us, however, want to cry out, "But he was God! Why would God need God?!" This just reflects the mystery and the wonder of the incarnation of Jesus. He didn't simply look like a human being. He WAS a human being. He took on full humanity. He modeled for us the Spirit-led life. And, food for thought, if the Son of God was dependent on the Spirit in order to fulfill his calling, how much more should we cry out in dependence on the Spirit for what God has called us to do!

2. What is the baptism of the Holy Spirit?
We need to think of the baptism of the Holy Spirit in two senses. (1) There was an event in which the Spirit baptized the church. (2) Anyone who comes to Christ is individually baptized by the Holy Spirit.
(1) In Acts
2 the baptism of the Holy Spirit takes place on a macro-level. He comes upon believers and they are miraculously empowered and transformed. This is the event to which Jesus pointed when he said in Acts 1:5, "For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." Jesus also seems to prefigure this event in John 20:22: "And with that he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'" The Spirit, at Pentecost, came upon believers in order to indwell them forever.
(2) Many people came to Christ after Pentecost, but they did not miss out on the baptism of the Holy Spirit. They missed the event of the Spirit's coming in power, but upon their conversion the Spirit came upon each of them. We see this happen from time to time in the book of Acts (8:15, 10:44, 19:5-6). And throughout the New Testament we are told that the Spirit indwells all believers.
This brings us to a point of definition. What exactly is the baptism of the Holy Spirit? In short, it refers to when the Spirit comes to indwell a believer, making them new and sealing their adoption into the family of God. At this point the believer is given spiritual gifts and empowered for boldness and godly living.
Some Christians believe that there is a "second blessing" related to the baptism of the Holy Spirit. In short, they believe that a person becomes a believer and receives the Holy Spirit, but then later on the Holy Spirit comes upon them in power and seals their conversion. He gives them powerful spiritual gifts or brings dramatic change. This just doesn't seem to be something that Scripture supports. Certainly we do see plenty of cases when someone will have a post-conversion event that brings dramatic change into their lives, but we do not receive the Spirit in parts. Upon salvation, we receive him in full. We then live lives that are fully reliant on him, not waiting for him to come in a greater way in the future.
While I want to be respectful to other Christians who believe in the second blessing, I also want to give a warning. Those who embrace the idea of a second blessing sometimes also embrace the idea that the Spirit's presence in believers' lives is always accompanied by sign gifts, such as speaking in tongues. This is simply unbiblical. Not all believers have the gift of tongues. No believer has every spiritual gift. God does as he pleases in this area. We must not fall into the trap of looking to a specific gift of the Spirit in order to validate his presence. The greatest sign of the Spirit's presence if the fruit he brings (Galatians 5:22-23, Ephesians 5:1-21), not miraculous gifts.

3. What is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit?
In Matthew 12, Jesus speaks of the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit and says that it is the sin that will not be forgiven in this age, or in the age to come. Some people have said that this sin is suicide. Others have said that it is simply rejecting Christ. What is the sin and can it be committed today?
For starters, blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is not suicide. Suicide is nowhere in the context when Jesus speaks of the unpardonable sin. Suicide is certainly wrong. It is a selfish decision driven by despair. When someone who seems to be a Christian commits suicide, it shakes us. But it would not be right to conclude that a person who commits suicide "loses" their salvation. It may make us question what was going on in their heart, but it is a never identified as an unpardonable sin.
In the context of Matthew 12 (as well as Mark 3 and Luke 11) Jesus is speaking to Pharisees who accuse Jesus of casting out demons in the name of Satan. When they make this accusation, Jesus says that they have blasphemed the Holy Spirit. Why? Because they saw the work of the Holy Spirit through him, and they identified it as satanic. But why would this sin be unpardonable? Probably because it was the point of no return. If they were going to come face to face with the work of the Holy Spirit and reject it as satanic, they were too far gone to return. It seems unlikely that Jesus was saying that if they repent and cry out for forgiveness, it will never be given.
But are we in danger of committing the unpardonable sin today? In one sense, probably not. Jesus seems to speak of it as something specific to his time, when people saw the Son of God doing the works of the Spirit. In another sense, though, there is a valid warning for us. The Pharisees were filled with competitive jealousy for Jesus, and so they called his works satanic. Likewise, Christians can be filled with jealousy against other "successful" Christians and ascribe their success to Satan. May we all be wary of putting ourselves in a position where we could be attributing the work of the Spirit to Satan. None of us want to go down that road.

4. When Jesus was on the cross, crying out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?", did the Holy Spirit leave him?
This is a tricky one. I think we need to plead ignorance on a large part of what was going on during this time. When we read this, many of us conclude that the Father turned his face away from Jesus. While this may be the case, Scripture does not say this. Many of us might conclude that the Spirit departed from Jesus. Again, Scripture does not say this.
So, what was going on and why did Jesus say this? Let's start with what we do know.
While the cross and atonement are always debated, Scripture teaches that Jesus bore the wrath of God on the cross. He was punished for the sins of humanity. Does this mean that during those hours on the cross the Father and the Spirit turned away from Jesus? While this is possible, this is never explicitly said.
When Jesus cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" he is quoting David from Psalm 22. In Psalm 22 David cries out to God in a time of great danger. He cries out that God has forsaken him, but it doesn't seem appropriate to conclude that, when David cried that, the Father had turned his face away from him and the Spirit had departed from him. David was simply looking at the horror of his situation--enemies closing in on him, friends abandoning him, physical pain imminent--and he wondered where God was. When Jesus was on the cross, his enemies had closed in on him, his friends had abandoned him, and he was experiencing excruciating pain. By all accounts, God had forsaken him. Instead of rescuing his servant, he had given him over to his enemies. Just as every human being has experienced the pain and horror of abandonment, Jesus was truly abandoned on the cross.
Again, this is tricky. I don't think we can be dogmatic that the Father turned his face away or that the Spirit left him. I think we can conclude that he bore the full weight of our sins, and that he experienced the full weight of being abandoned by everyone who could help him--including God himself.
While we can't know everything that went on while Jesus was on the cross, we can be confident that he carried the weight of all our sins and all our fears. He finished the work that was necessary to bring us to God. He was abandoned so that we could be included in God's family.

5. Does the Holy Spirit convict unbelievers?
The Spirit has always been at work. He indwells believers, but he is also at work in the world. In fact, he works to draw unbelievers to Jesus. When Jesus predicted the coming of the Spirit, he said, "When he comes, he will convict the world about sin and righteousness and judgment" (John 16:8). The Spirit not only teaches and comforts believers. He convicts the world. While he doesn't indwell unbelievers, he is at work glorifying Christ to all the world.
So, if you are praying for someone who is an unbeliever, you can pray that the Spirit will convict him or her of sin and righteousness and judgment. You can pray that God will draw them to himself through his Spirit. While the Spirit dwells with believers in a special way, his work is much broader than us.

I hope these answers have helped. Feel free to interact, ask follow-ups, disagree, and engage in any way. The Spirit is at work in and through us. He is more powerful, more comforting, and more present than we realize. The more we keep in step with him, the more we will experience the risen life that Jesus brings.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

You Asked: Questions on the Holy Spirit, Part 1

On August 4th at Life Bible Fellowship Church we held a Deeper event on the Holy Spirit. Below is the video of both sessions, as well as the Q&A time. As usual we did not get to all the questions, so I am following up with a post.

Deeper #4 from Life Bible Fellowship Church on Vimeo.
These questions will make more sense if you attended the event and if you watch the video. But even if you didn't (and don't), I hope that this post will still be helpful and informative.

1. Is the Holy Spirit always empowering believers, or only at special times?
In the Old Testament, we see the Holy Spirit temporarily empowering men and women for specific tasks. This happens with warriors like Sampson or kings like David or prophets like Isaiah. By contrast, the Holy Spirit indwells believers permanently. When Jesus promises the coming of the Spirit in John 14:16 he says, "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever--the Spirit of truth." The Apostle Paul says in Romans 8:9: "You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ."
The Spirit indwells believers forever, and not only when he needs to do something that we would consider to be amazing. Our whole lives are meant to be transformed by his power, his leading, and his presence. The same Spirit who empowered warriors, gave wisdom to kings, and spoke through prophets now lives within us.
This said, we are still commanded to walk by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16), keep in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:25), and be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). The Spirit is always powerful, but we do not always tap into his power. We can quench his voice (1 Thessalonians 5:19) and grieve him by walking in the flesh (Ephesians 4:30). His power is always with us, but our experience of that power will depend on whether or not we walk with him.

2. Does the Holy Spirit ever leave a believer?
In Psalm 51:10-11 King David, after committing adultery and murder, prays,
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Why was David afraid that God would take the Holy Spirit away from him? Most likely it is because this is what happened to David's predecessor Saul (1 Samuel 16:14) when God rejected him as king. David feared that God would likewise end his own kingship and take away the royal anointing of the Holy Spirit.
David had a real, genuine fear of losing the Holy Spirit. Should we?
The short answer is No. David lived in a time when God gave his Spirit, often temporarily, to empower his people to accomplish certain tasks. By contrast, God has now given his Spirit to all believers forever (John 14:16-17). The Spirit is our guarantee of adoption into the family of God (Romans 8:15-17). He is with us forever and will never be taken away.
This question is often related to the question, "Can Christians lose their salvation?" While this is debated, I come down firmly on the side of No. I believe that Scripture backs this up. Feel free to check out this previous post that explores this question.

3. Romans 8:26-27 says that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us. Does he still intercede for us when we ask for things that are not good for us?
Romans 8:26-27 says this: "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts know the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God's people in accordance with the will of God."
While Christians will always debate whether or not this passage speaks of a Spirit-given prayer language, a bigger point is clear. When we are at the end of ourselves and we don't know how to pray, the Spirit helps us. He intercedes for us.
This doesn't mean that he will affirm every prayer that we pray. It may be that God is teaching me patience through a difficult co-worker. I could pray that God would lead this co-worker to resign. The Spirit is not going to shrug his shoulders and get on board with my selfish and short-sighted prayers. This is great news. Sometimes I don't know what to pray about a situation. I can just tell God when this is the case. "God, I am hurting and confused and frustrated. I don't even know what to ask you to do!" You know who does know? The Holy Spirit. We can trust him to step in and bridge the gap. What a wonderful gift!

4. Should we still be speaking in tongues today?
The Holy Spirit gives believers all kinds of gifts, including speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, and interpretation of tongues. These are often called the sign gifts. Some Christians think that these sign gifts were only around for the Apostolic age, and that they are no longer present today. Those who hold this belief are called cessationists. In my opinion, this is based on some pretty flimsy use of the New Testament. No passage says that these gifts are no longer around. The go-to passage of cessationists is 1 Corinthians 13:8-10: "Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears."
Cessationists will claim that this passage tells us that tongues and prophecy will cease. They are right about that. The question is simply, "When?" Paul says that these gifts will no longer be necessary when completeness (or "the perfect") comes. So what is "the perfect." Cessationists will say that the perfect is the end of the Apostolic age and the complete revelation of God's written Word in the New Testament. While this interpretation is not impossible, it seems incredibly unlikely. It seems much more reasonable that the perfect is speaking of the return of Christ, the redemption of all things, and faith turning into sight. That is when our partial knowledge and experience of God will come to a point of maturity and completion.
So, in short, the New Testament does not seem to teach us that any of the Spirit's gifts have stopped being given.
To be fair to cessationists, they are not saying that the Spirit is no longer at work. They believe that the Spirit is at work, but that the sign gifts are no longer necessary now that we have the full revelation of God through Scripture. While I don't agree with their stance, we need to be careful not to paint them as people who reject the ministry of the Spirit today.
This said, Paul goes to great lengths in 1 Corinthians 12-14 to warn against seeking certain sign gifts for their own sake. God gives gifts as he sees fit. No one has all the gifts. Speaking in tongues is a rite of passage for Christians. Just as not everyone has the gift of teaching or mercy or administration, not everyone has the gift of tongue of prophecy or healing.
So, how should these gifts be used today? The short answer is, in an orderly way as the Spirit leads. They are meant to build up the body of Christ. They are meant to bring encouragement and exhortation and grace to God's people. If you want to delve more into how this is played out practically, check out this brief video from John Piper. I think he puts it really well.

5. How can we, as individuals and as a community, hear and act on the leading of the Spirit?
I love this question so much. May this be the cry of all of our hearts.
I tend to think of 3 key ways for believers, and churches, to open themselves up to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
First of all, we open ourselves up to the leading of the Spirit when we open ourselves up to God's Word. The Spirit inspired the authors who wrote God's Word (2 Peter 1:21), so he has already spoken through it. If we want to know what the Spirit is saying, we should expose ourselves to God's word in a spirit of prayer, humility, and responsiveness. The more that individuals and churches interact with God's Word this way, the more we all will hear the voice of the Spirit and allow ourselves the opportunity to follow his lead.
Second of all, we open ourselves up to the leading of the Spirit when we open ourselves up to God's people. If we truly believe that each Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, then we believe that the Spirit can speak to us through our brothers and sisters in Christ. The Spirit leads us away from isolation and into community. As other Christians are involved in your life, the Spirit can give them insight into what God wants to say to you. The more that believers use their gifts in the context of the church, the more that churches will experience the leading of the Spirit. Open yourself up to God's people in small groups, in friendships, and in the context of your church leaders.
Finally, we open ourselves up to the leading of the Spirit when we take simple steps of obedience. We may not know where the Spirit is leading us down the road, but we often know what he is leading us to do right now. The more we listen to his voice, the more clearly we will hear him. The more we choose to ignore the sound of his voice, the more we will train ourselves to quench him (1 Thessalonians 5:19). When the Spirit calls you to stop and pray, or confess a sin, or speak a word of encouragement or rebuke, or sign up to serve at church, listen! He who is faithful with a small thing will be entrusted with more.

This post covers only half of the extra questions, so keep your eye open for part 1, coming soon.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Millennials Leaving Church, and the Nature of Church

Every once in a while some writes something that gets the entire blogosphere moving. This happened about a week ago when Rachel Held Evans wrote a post called Why Millennials are Leaving the Church. Evans did not claim to have the final word on the subject, but she cites some specific reasons why she believes that millennials are leaving churches, and what can be done. She treads some familiar ground, saying that millennials want church not to be about do's and don'ts, not about culture wars, not about excluding people, and not about squelching those with tough questions.
I personally, as a 35 year-old, resonate with many of these things. I don't think that church should be about impersonal morality. I think the calling of the church is to engage with the culture instead of retreating from it or combating it. I believe all should be welcome at church. And I believe that we should engage with difficult questions.
At the same time, there is an assumption behind the article that I think is very telling, and I would like to talk about it in this post.
For starters, this post is not meant to answer in full the question, "Why are millennials leaving the church?" There is no single answer. There are a variety of reasons why anyone leaves any church. Some of us will agree or disagree with the conclusions and suggestions of Held Evans (Trevin Wax wrote a post in response that I thought was very helpful).

Is Consumerism a Forgone Conclusion?
At some level the conclusions of Held Evans make the assumption that people relate to the church as customers. The church is an organization, run by pastors and elders and boards and priests, and then people attend as patrons. While past patrons may have been satisfied with contemporary music, coffee bars, and culture wars, the younger patrons are not. Therefore we need to rethink our product (or at least the presentation of our product).
I am all for creativity and evaluation. But I want to challenge the implicit assumption that church practices should be driven by the customer. We can be consumer-driven in many ways. More people will come if we just give them the music they want. More people will come if we have the right kids program. More people will come if we stop talking about hell. More people will come if we provide free coffee and a Starbucks environment.
As a church leader, I know how easy it is to be driven by these things. But we can also be consumer-driven by the things mentioned by Held Evans. More young people will come if we just sound more politically liberal than conservative. More young people will come if we talk about social justice and environmentalism. More young people will come if we downplay sexual ethics and talk more about the poor.
It is not a step forward if we trade one form of Christian consumerism for another.
Now, should the church be more involved in caring for creation, meeting the needs of the poor, and giving a holistic view of holiness? Absolutely. But not because millennials want it.
In fact, I think it borders on arrogance when any of us concludes that what we really want is what Jesus wants, while others are settling for something less. Jesus calls us to die to ourselves. He calls us to profound humility and brokenness. He calls us to recognize our own darkness and desperation. I don't think any of us fully want that. Part of us does, but a big part of us is repulsed by this. We only respond to this call by God's grace. We all must be careful not to overestimate the nobility of our own desires.

What is the Church?
Going along with the evaluation of consumerism, we must ask what the nature of the church is. When I as a Christian say, "The church is boring/self-consumed/mis-directed/apostate/etc." what exactly am I talking about? What is the church? A building is not a church. And a meeting on Sunday mornings is not the church. Biblically speaking, WE are the church. Believers are the church. So if the church has problems (and she surely does), then the problem is not theirs. The problem is ours. We must all own the church with all her wonder and all her failures. The church is us. I am a part of it, even if I choose to step back critique it.
In all of this, I don't want to communicate that there is not a significant responsibility given to church leaders. As a pastor, I see myself as hugely responsible for the tone at Life Bible Fellowship Church. All of my fellow pastors and elders feel the same. We are the leaders. We organize the programs. We preach the sermons. We make decisions. The problems at the church should be especially felt by those in charge.
At the same time, I want to challenge the idea that any of us would look at the church and say, for example, "They don't care for the poor." Even if this was true, and no one in the church was caring for the poor . . . that means that the person making the critique is also not caring for the poor. If you have a heart for the poor, or sex slaves, or unborn children, or God's creation, use your gifts to serve the church and the community. Very few church leaders will be anything but thrilled if congregants initiate godly activities. Sometimes they will turn into formal church programs and sometimes they won't. But if you are a believer, then you are part of the church. The church is not them. The church is us. So listen to the voice of the Spirit and step forward to follow his lead. Start praying, start serving, start discipling, start organizing. Help the church to be what she is called to be.
Again, this is not to say that leaders do not bear responsibility, and it is not to minimize the failure of leaders. Truth me, we feel that weight. But forward movement happens not when people leave because the church is not living up to their standards. Forward movement happens when God's people own God's calling not only for their own lives, but for the church as a whole.

A Warning about Being Critical
We all know that criticism can be constructive or destructive. I don't want to tell any of us to stop being critical. We should be bothered by sin and apathy in the church. But I do want to give a warning for any of us who tend to be critical.
As I said before, I am 35 years old. To some of you, that is old. To others of you, that is young. But I just want to say that at 35 I am already far less critical of other people and other churches than I was 5 years ago. And I am significantly less critical than I was ten years go. This is not to say that we automatically become less critical when we grow older, but age can bring perspective. And perspective often softens us.
As a younger man, I was very discontent about the church. As a young youth pastor I wanted us to be far bolder, do far for in the community, be far more connected to other churches, and be far more generous than we were. In my later 20s I still felt a great discontent while I was a college pastor. I wanted the church to be less partisan with politics (something I still want) and to be far more overtly compassionate to unbelievers. I wanted people to get off their rears and start serving, praying, and evangelizing.
Age can bring complacency, and that is not good. It is good for younger people to bring energy and clarity to the church. As we age, we can focus on our own lives and families and budgets and lose sight of the bigger mission of the church. The fresh energy and perspective is welcome. I am not asking millennials to stop being passionate or stop being critical. I am simply saying that you are likely to be more compassionate and less critical at a later stage of life.
If you are bothered by young families who seem to settle into suburbia and talk only of swimming lessons and square footage . . . good! We should be more concerned with the kingdom. But realize that child-raising can be consuming and that it is a high calling and that it can tend to exhaust those doing it.
If you are bothered by people who don't give generously . . . good! We all need to be challenged on that. But please realize that the older you get, the more you have dependents and commitments that demand from you financially. This doesn't excuse greed or complacency, but we should all seek to be understanding and compassionate. When you see a lack of financial generosity in others, practice generosity in heart toward them.
None of us should give in to complacency. But don't throw in the towel when you see complacency in others. Follow the voice on the Spirit in your own life. And he is not calling you to tear down or to abandon. He is calling you to build up and serve.

Don't Waste It!
If you are young and single, or married with no children, just realize that you are more uniquely suited to serve Jesus than anyone else in your church. It is much easier for you to go downtown and serve the poor, to go on foreign mission trips, to engage in campus ministry, to spend late nights discipling younger people. Take advantage of this! Serve Jesus and his church be making the most of your current setting! Everyone will benefit from this.
As someone who is not far out of the millennial group, I just want to encourage those who are millennials: Don't spend this amazing and unique time in life by sitting on the sidelines criticizing. Engage fully. Use your gifts. Serve Jesus and his people. And do your best to show compassion to those who seem to be missing out on the big mission of God. Chances are, in a few years you will find yourself battling the same apathy and complacency that now seems so repugnant.

Once again, don't take this as the final word on this big question. Just take it as one (important) factor that should be present in this discussion.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Project "One-Thing-At-A-Time"

This past Sunday at Life Bible Fellowship Church, I encouraged believers to ask themselves if the Spirit was leading them to do something special in the month of August. We all want change in our lives, but we can get overwhelmed when we try to take on a new habit or practice indefinitely. But many of us can try something new for a month and see how God impacts us during that time.
I shared that I have felt led by the Spirit to try something for the month of August. I am calling it One-Thing-at-a-Time.

Sociologists have recently been talking about something called "Continuous Partial Attention." The idea is that, due to our phones, our computers, our televisions, our iPads, our iPods, and the many other devices that we have, we are rarely giving our full attention to any one thing. How many of us have seen a couple sitting across from each other in a restaurant, each on their own phone, not interacting with each other at all? Perhaps the more difficult question concerns how many of us have done that very thing.
I have found recently that I am rarely doing only one thing. If I am watching a movie, I am also playing a game on my iPad. If I am reading, I am also watching a television show. If I am watching sports, I am also playing some game on my phone. If I am playing with my sons, I am also checking the scores.
Sometimes it is unavoidable and harmless to multitask. We listen to music while we run. We talk on the phone while we in the car for our kids. We read a book while we eat. There is nothing evil about any of these. Frankly, there is nothing evil about the habits that I named above. But for me, these habits have made me ask questions about my contentment and my focus. More importantly, they have made me wonder if I am drowning out the voice of God's Spirit by surrounding myself with constant noise.
So, I don't feel that it is realistic to say that I will never again read while watching, or play a game while watching, or listen while playing. But I do think that I can try something new for a month and see what God does.
I share all of this partly for my own sake, and partly for the sake of anyone reading this. It is for my own sake so that I get concrete enough to follow through. It is for your sake so that it can possibly cause you to ask questions about your own habits and about how you can create more space for God's voice in your life.
So, here are some specifics during the month of August:
1. If I am reading something, I am reading. No music. No TV shows.
2. If I am watching something, I am watching. No reading. No playing a game on my iPad. No checking scores.
3. No more watching something on the iPad while I eat, get dressed, brush my teeth, etc. Fine to read while eating, but I want to break myself of the need of constant noise and entertainment. For goodness sake, I think I should be able to brush my teeth without needing to watch something while I do it.
4. If I am playing with my sons, or hanging out with my wife, no watching something in the background or constant checking of scores. Just be in the moment. Enjoy it. I won't regret it.
5. Listening the music while driving or running is fine. But there is no need to do it all the time. Some quiet space is good.
None of this is meant to be legalistic, but I know myself. Some of you are like me. If I don't get specific, I will let myself off the hook. I want to listen to God's voice in my life. I want to focus on what he has called me to do. I want to eliminate the background noise and see what happens.
What I am talking about here may resonate with you. If so, consider doing the same thing during August. I would love to hear how it goes. If this causes you to do something different for August, go for it. The Spirit leads us all in different ways. The most important thing is that we listen. As the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 5:25, "Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit."

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Demands of Idols

This past Sunday at Life Bible Fellowship Church, Pastor Gary Keith spoke on the acts of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). One of the acts of the flesh is idolatry. As he spoke, the concept of idolatry really stuck with me.
Today very few of us bow down before pieces of wood or stone or gold. The whole concept seems silly to us. So, we may feel convicted when Paul talks about sexual immorality, jealousy, malice, or drunkenness. But when he speaks of idolatry, we get a pass.
Or do we?
In his book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller says this:

The Bible often speaks of idols using the religious metaphor. God should be our true Savior, but we look to personal achievement or financial prosperity to give us the peace and security we need. Idols give us a sense of being in control, and we can locate them by looking at our nightmares. What do we fear the most? What if we lost it, would make life not worth living? We make "sacrifices" to appease and please our gods, who we believe will protect us. We look to our idols to provide us with a sense of confidence and safety.

For me, the most striking part of this quotation is when he says that we make sacrifices to appease and please our idols. Gods demand sacrifices. Throughout the Old Testament, and in many religions throughout history, animals have been sacrificed in order to appease the gods. When we think of an idol as something that demands a sacrifice, we can more easily identify the idols of our hearts.

If my idol is money, then I am willing to sacrifice my integrity in order to rake it in. I will cut corners, cheat on my taxes, and embezzle from my company. I will sacrifice the needs of my church or people who have run into hard times because I need the money for myself.
If my idol is success, then I am willing to sacrifice my relationships with loved ones in order to climb the ladder. I will work non-stop, compete with everyone, and neglect my family in order to fill my tank with the accolades that come along with being successful.
If my idol is my family, then I am willing to sacrifice the broader world in order to give them everything possible. Involvement in church and in God's work will take a back seat to recitals, sporting events, and other activities. The great irony of this idol is that it is deceptively selfish. We tell ourselves that we are putting our family first, but it is really a way for us to fill our own tank at their expense. By placing too high a value on our family we end up ruining it.
If my idol is the approval of others, then I will sacrifice truth and authenticity in order to get it. I won't tell anyone that they are wrong. I will smile and nod and approve and reinforce. I will sacrifice even my own identity so that this god can give me the approval for which I so desperately crave.
Idolatry is not a problem of the past or of tribal communities. It is a problem for all of us.
What are your idols? And what sacrifices have you offered to them?

The great news when we come to the gospel is not that God doesn't demand a sacrifice, but instead that he himself has provided the sacrifice that he demands. He sent his Son in order to fulfill all that he requires. The true God, the one and only, invites us to a peace-filled relationship based on the sacrifice that Jesus offered for us all. This is why he is the only God worthy of trust and worship.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Jerry, Jim, and Justification

Today I was listening to a sports talk show called Max and Marcellus, and I heard a conversation that captured my attention. The co-hosts were talking about Jerry Buss (the former Lakers owner) and his son Jim Buss, who is currently guiding the Laker franchise.
Jerry Buss was one of the most successful owners in sports history. Max and Marcellus were discussing the fact that, even though Jim Buss has been involved with Laker management during a number of championship teams, he will only receive credit for what he accomplishes after his father's death (which took place this past February).
You can listen to the conversation here, with the pertinent conversation taking place from about 25:30 to 26:45.
Max said this about Jim Buss: "The tragedy for him is that he will only be judged on what he does without his father. So if he wants to validate his existence, he had to wait for the person he loved most in the world to die." He then lamented the difficult situation this creates for Jim Buss. He wants to grieve his father's death, but he also wants to validate his existence. This is a deep conflict because, as Max went on to say, "There has to be a wish somewhere in you--I want to show everybody what I'm worth."

I thought the comments were poignant. They apply not just to sports, but to all of life. We all want validation. We all want to matter. We all want to prove what we are worth. We all long to have our existence justified.
But what if your existence can only be justified through the death of someone else?
I couldn't help but revel in the irony. The conclusion was that it is up to each of us to justify our existence. And in some cases, the justification requires the death of another. The gospel of Jesus is all about justification. But the message is not about someone dying so that we could justify ourselves. The message is about someone dying so that, through him, we can be justified. He justifies us, and that justification comes only through his death.

Justification is much deeper than simply forgiveness. Justification gives us access to God. It allows us to approach God's throne with boldness instead of cowering in fear. Romans 5:1-2 says, Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. True justification is not simply being able to stand before other people and feel good about ourselves. True justification is when God is okay with us, and when we can stand before him without shame.
But Max is absolutely right about the fact that we all, deep down inside, long to be validated. We long to be shown to be worth something. We long to be valuable. We long to matter. The gospel of Jesus tells us that we matter, but not because we have accomplished something great. We have not proven ourselves to be especially smart or talented or diligent or virtuous. Quite the opposite. The gospel of Jesus tells us that we matter because God has made us matter. We can only enjoy justification if we plunge into the humble pie of grace. We shouldn't matter--but we do!

Whether we find ourselves in the shadow of someone great, or whether we are simply trying to make our way in the world, we all long for justification. I pray that we can all experience this justification that is only given, and never earned.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Are We All Label-Makers?

The Scenario
Imagine that you are the head of an organization that promotes pacifism. For some of you this is easy; others of you would find a triathalon easier. Still, stick with me.
You are the head of a pacifist organization and you open up a magazine to read the following quote from the celebrity:
"I am a pacifist. That said, I do think that war is okay in certain cases. For example, if our nation is attacked first, then we have the right to respond in kind. And I actually think there are cases when we must go to war in order to protect ourselves, even if we haven't been attacked. On top of this, I also think it can be valid to go to war if our financial interests are threatened to the point that our economy could be in peril. But I want to impress upon you that I am a pacifist. From the bottom of my heart I hold to pacifism, and I deny anyone to say otherwise."
As you begin to process what you have just read, you receive a phone call asking for your comments on what this celebrity has said. You respond in a way that is simple and succinct: "The person who said this is not a pacifist."
The next day the celebrity gives a press conference to respond to your comments about him not being a pacifist. He looks deeply hurt. "I am shocked at the hurtful nature of the comments that were made against me, " he begins. "The comments are arrogant. How dare anyone else judge what is in my heart! I know, deep down in my heart, that I am a pacifist. No one else has the right to say otherwise!"
Again, asked for comment, you might respond like this:
"I am not in any way judging the sincerity of this man. I am not even saying that his position is wrong or immoral. I am simply saying that he is not a pacifist. If he wants to be labeled a pacifist, he must change his views about war and retaliation. If he doesn't, then it is simply inappropriate to give him the label. After all, being a pacifist has to mean something."

The Logic of Labels
I think most of us can follow this logic. Most people would not think that you were arrogant to say that the celebrity was not a pacifist. You were not judging their heart, but rather stating a fact. He simply doesn't meet the criteria of the label. You don't get to be a pacifist and still support war in that way. You don't get to be a vegetarian and still eat meat all the time. You don't get to be pro-life and yet support abortion-on-demand. You don't get to be Green and yet support the destruction of certain protected areas or species. If our labels don't mean something, then they are worthless labels.

Who Decides What a Christian Is?
It seems that we grasp this reality in many areas of life, but not when it comes to Christianity. It seems increasingly common for people to take it upon themselves to define Christianity on their own terms. Oddly enough, it does not seem to be as prevalent with other religions. With Christianity, however, a person can deny the historic creedal or moral realities that have gone hand in hand with defining Christianity, and yet still claim to be a Christian. "I'm a Christian, but I think that people can get to God through other religious expressions and not just through Jesus." "I'm a Christian, but I think that in the end God will not send anyone to hell, but will save everyone." "I'm a Christian, but I don't think there is anything wrong with pre-marital sex, homosexuality, or getting drunk every once in a while."
If a pacifist is supporting a war, it would not seem out of bounds to say to him, "You are not a pacifist." At the very least you would seem justified in saying, "You are not acting in line with pacifism." But, culturally speaking, it is absolutely out of bounds to say, "You are not a Christian," to someone who claims to be one. The typical response is, "Who are you to judge me?! How can you know what is in my heart?!"
The pacifist is not judging the celebrity for saying that he is not a pacifist. The celebrity is free to believe whatever he wants. And he can take a shot at convincing the pacifist that he is right. But he needs to drop the label. The simple fact is that he is not a pacifist. Those of us who are Christians need to realize that we are not creating Christianity. We don't create what the Bible means, nor do we create who Jesus is or what he did. Those of us who are Christians simply decide that we want to embrace Jesus, embrace his gospel, and embrace a way of belief and conduct that was handed down. The label means something; the label existed before us; and we must value the meaning of the label if it is going to have any significance.

Those of us who are Christians are compelled to find productive ways to talk to others about Jesus and the gospel. But we must not fall into the trap of accepting everyone's definition of what it means to be a Christian. We are subject to the gospel of Jesus, to Scripture, to God himself, and to historical Christianity (to a certain level). We must find ways to gently call others not to define their own version of Christianity. We must find ways to say to others, "You are certainly free to believe that, but that is not a Christian belief."
And all of us, Christian or not, would do well to rediscover the value of objective labels. If our communication is going to mean anything, then we must submit ourselves to the meaning of words and labels. It is meaningless for me to call myself a pacifist if I mean something different than what everyone else means. Similarly, it is meaningless to call myself a Christian if I reject some (or several) of the historical and biblical definition of what it means to be a Christian.

Our labels must mean something. A label is only significant if its meaning transcends individual definition.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Questioning the Old Testament: Ananias and Sapphia, Life after Death, and Judgment on the Sins of Christians

I wrote a previous post that followed up on a Deeper event at Life Bible Fellowship Church. The event was about the connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament. You can listen to it in its entirety through our podcast, either through iTunes or on our website. The event ended with a Question/Answer time, and I am blogging about some of the questions that we didn't get to. I hit the biggest (and most common) question in the previous post. In this post, I will hit three others.

Assuming that Ananias and Sapphira were believers, did they lost their salvation when they were judged?
In order to demonstrate the continuity between the OT and NT, I mentioned that judgments by God show up in the NT also. Ananias and Sapphira (in Acts 5) are a prime example of this. In the story, Ananias and Sapphira sell their property and give a portion of the price to the church. There was nothing wrong with them only giving a portion of what they received. The problem was that they deceptively said that they were giving the whole price. They were bringing deceit into Jesus' church, and pumping themselves up falsely.
The Holy Spirit allows Peter to discern their deceit, and both Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead instantly.
So, the question is whether or not they "lost their salvation." This begs the bigger question about whether or not a person can lose their salvation.
We all know people who at one time appeared to be Christians. Then, later on in life they live in such a way that makes us wonder if they are truly Christians. Others live in open defiance of God and don't even claim to be Christians any more. What do you conclude about these people? There are three basic options:
1. They were Christians at one point, and now they are not Christians. They "lost" their salvation.
2. They were Christians and they are still Christians. Once you believe in Jesus, nothing can undo that, even if you openly deny believing in Jesus.
3. They appeared to be Christians, but now they have revealed that they are not Christians.
Without making this too long, I believe that the third option is the most biblical. Speaking of "losing" your salvation is a strange concept. We come to God only by his grace. We receive salvation as a gift. It seems odd that, since we did nothing in order to gain our salvation, we could do something that would allow us to lose it. At the same time, it is thoroughly unbiblical to call someone a Christian when they themselves are not even claiming to be a Christian.
So, that said, back to Ananias and Sapphira. In this case, we have to plead ignorance to some extent. The story is not about the nature of salvation. It is about the purity of the church and the seriousness of sin within the church. Ananias and Sapphira may have been true believers who sinned and ended their lives badly. They would not be the first. One of the best kings in the OT (Uzziah) was judged by God and struck with leprosy late in life. Other believers throughout history have made bad decisions that lead to their death. This does not mean that they were sent to hell.
When we talk about Ananias and Sapphira, we might be tempted to say, "Their sin at the end of their life did not undercut their godly lives before then." This is the wrong way to think about the issue. The better statement would be, "Jesus died for the sins of his people. That covers the sins in the past, the sins in the present, and the sins in the future. If you die as a result of a sin that you commit, that sin is not somehow outside of the covering sacrifice of Jesus."

Why does the Old Testament say so little about the afterlife?
The New Testament gives us a good amount of information about what we can anticipate after death. Believers anticipate being "with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8) in a place that is "much better by far" (Philippians 1:23). In Revelation we see scenes of believers in the presence of God, worshiping and enjoying rest and comfort. And the final Christian hope is that our bodies will be raised, just as Jesus' body was raised. We will be given new, redeemed bodies and we will live on a new, redeemed earth in the presence of God forever.
The Old Testament is a bit more fuzzy on its own. In fact, in Jesus' day the Jews were divided. The conservatives, the Pharisees, believed that there would be a final resurrection. The liberals, the Sadducees, believed that there was no afterlife. This debate comes to the forefront in at least two passages (Matthew 22: 23-33 and Acts 23:6-10).
Jesus clearly affirms that there is life after death. There is a resurrection to come. While it doesn't seem quite fair to say that the OT is clear on this, there are hints about it. Job 19:27, Isaiah 26:19, and Daniel 12:2 are some of the most prominent.
So, why was it not more clearly laid out? Again, we have to plead a bit of ignorance. There have been many things that were not revealed to the patriarchs. Then there were many things that were not revealed to the Israelites. Then there were many things that were not revealed to the prophets. Then there were many things that were not revealed to the apostles. There are many things that are not revealed to us. God has always revealed himself, but he has done so gradually. He knows what we need to know in order to trust him.
As a quick note, Jesus seemed to think that the Jews should have known that there was a resurrection. He says that the Sadducees know neither the Scripture nor the power of God when they deny the resurrection. We may think that the OT is fuzzy on this, but Jesus thought it was clear enough for people to understand.

As Christians we still sin. What judgment is there for the sins of Christians?
As part of the Deeper event, I talked about the fact that people in the Old Testament were not saved from their sins by obeying the law. They were not forgiven through the sacrifices. They were saved, ultimately, through faith in God. And each believer (OT or NT) only receives forgiveness from sins through the sacrifice of Jesus. So, all the sins of OT believers were judged when Jesus died for them.
But what about us? For those of us living on the other side of the cross, the case is the same. Our sins, past and present and future, are all forgiven because Jesus died for them on the cross. This does not simply mean that Jesus was judged for the sins that we committed as non-Christians. He also died for the sins that we would (and will) commit as Christians.
This is the glory of the cross. It revealed God's grace and his justice. When Jesus returns there will be a final judgment. Every person's sin demands judgment. We will either be judged for our own sins, or our sins will be judged at the cross. All believers, before Christ or after Christ, are free from the penalty of our sins because Jesus was judged for all of them!

I thought I would include one more somewhat-mystifying question:
Do you mean that we should not put criminals in prison or have our soldiers fight against evil?
This question is odd to me. I am not sure where it came from. My best guess is that this comes as a result of the teaching that God is the ultimate judge. He promises to avenge, so that we don't have to. The context of this point was to show that it is not bad news that God judges sin. It is good news. We don't have to take revenge because God is the judge.
This does not mean that we don't still have laws, punishments, and order in our society. This is an important distinction between the OT and the NT. In the OT, God's people were a nation. They had their own laws, borders, army, and legislative system. In the NT, God's people are the church. In some sense we have our own sphere and domain, but in another sense we live as citizens of our individual cities and states and countries. So then, the question is how we should conduct ourselves as citizens of God's kingdom, but also as citizens of the United States (or any other earthly nation).
Just a quick plug. We did a series called "American Christian or Christian American" at Life Bible Fellowship Church, and we covered this subject through the 10-week series. You can check it out in our sermon archives. The series took place in September-November of 2012.
In short, does God's promise to be the final judge mean that Christians should oppose prisons, war, the death penalty, etc.? The answer is "not necessarily." Christians should not always be in favor of war, nor should we always be in favor of the death penalty or other criminal punishments. God is a God of order. He is not opposed to people looking to set up order. A necessary component of order in a fallen world is punishments and even the instigation of death (through war or other means).
This is messy and we must take each case on its own. In the bigger picture, though, we should differentiate between a desire for order and justice and a desire for revenge and retaliation. As a Christian, I want criminals to be caught and punished. But I am free from agony if this doesn't happen. Why? Because God will judge. As a Christian, I want those who have wronged me to be held accountable and experience appropriate consequences. But I have been given the freedom to proceed in life if they never admit their wrongs and never suffer consequences. Why? Because God is just and he will take care of it.
Christians have a valuable role in society as lawmakers, police officers, soldiers, and judges. But we all proceed in our lives, seeking a semblance of order and justice, knowing that God is the ultimate judge and that this is a sobering and hope-giving reality.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Questioning the Old Testament: The Children Punished for the Parents' Sin

This past Sunday we had our fourth Deeper event at Life Bible Fellowship Church. This one revolved around the connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The two key questions were
(1) Is the God of the Old Testament the same God that Jesus revealed?
(2) Is the path to God revealed in the Old Testament the same path that is revealed in the New Testament.
We finished with a Question/Answer time, and I was not able to get to all the questions. For the next few posts, I will be answering some of the remaining questions.
Here is the question for this post:
In reference to Exodus 34:6-7, why would God punish someone for someone else's sin?
Here is the text for Exodus 34:6-7: And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation."

There are multiple instances in the Old Testament of a person's sins having consequences for other people. Whole families or nations are punished because of the actions of a father or a king or a small group of people. This seems unjust to us. Shouldn't people simply be punished for their own sins? Why should someone else's sin impact me?
There are a few factors that can help us to understand this reality.
1. No man is an island. Throughout both the Old and the New Testaments is the idea that people's actions impact others, for better or for worse. There is not only guilt for individuals, but guilt for nations, guilt for families, and guilt for clans. This is often called corporate guilt.
The fact is that we all know that our actions have an impact on others. This is especially true for those who are in authority. If parents make poor decisions, whether financial or legal or moral, this brings consequences on children. If military leaders make poor decisions, this has a significant (and even fatal) impact on the soldiers under their charge. If kings or presidents make poor decisions, this can have a crippling impact on an entire nation (or multiple nations).
While this might not give us a final answer on why God would enforce consequences on the descendants of those who sin, and why he told Israelites to wipe out entire nations, including non-combatants like women and children, it can help us to understand that corporate guilt and consequences are a normal way of life in a world in which we are all connected to one another.
2. No one is innocent. Often we will talk about the immorality of innocent people being punished for the sins of the guilty. We need to be careful when we say this. We are not as innocent as we think we are. And, often, the people being punished for the sins of others are not innocent at all. Often the nations that are punished have partaken in the sins the bring guilt of their kings. Often the children that are punished have taken part in the sins of their parents. We need to be careful not to assume that the punished group is innocent, just because they are being punished for the sin of their representative.
This, of course, does not solve the problem of a future generation being punished for the sins of their ancestors. Clearly, the future generation is not yet guilty of the sin for which they will suffer consequences. But a wider context for Exodus 34:6-7 might help us with this. God says something similar in Exodus 20:5-6 when the Ten Commandments are given. Here God says: I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to the thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
It is not too big a stretch to wonder if this context speaks into Exodus 34:6-7. Is it reasonable to think that perhaps the "of those who hate me" can be read into the third and fourth generation? After all, this is what he says earlier in the same book.
Whatever the case, though, we must always be careful when we talk about people being innocent. Every person has guilt before God. As much as we may see certain people as relatively innocent, but Scripture continues to point to our guilt. We must be willing to adjust our perspective to that of God.

3. Many punishments have far-reaching effect. If I robbed a bank and went to jail, I would be experiencing a punishment. But so would my wife and children. Without any special punishment from the state, they would experience natural consequences. My financial contribution to the family would stop. My presence as a husband and father would be compromised. There might be public shame that they would experience. The point is that my family might complain, "You are punishing us!" And, in a certain sense, they would be right. My actions would not only impact my children, but also my children's children. Sometimes our consequences necessarily impact people who were not a part of our crime.
It is worth considering the fact that the punishment given by God to these original sinners might simply be a punishment that, by definition, has an impact on future generations. If the punishment was loss of land or poverty or military loss, then this punishment might still be impacting people generations later. Sometimes a nation will lose a war and have the pay reparations. Or they may lose some land. Or they may simply be crushed by the loss of life. Sometimes our actions have natural consequences on our descendants.
4. Representations, for better or worse, is a key part of the gospel. It seems unfair to many of us that one person would be punished because of someone else's sin. But this not only happens occasionally in the Old Testament, this is what has happened to all humanity. Romans 5 teaches that we all are counted guilty because of Adam's sin. We were all in Adam, he was humanity's representative, and when he fell into guilt, we all fell into guilt. If we don't like this, then we need to be careful. After all, Paul goes on to say in Romans 5 that we all gain life through a different representative: Christ. We find ourselves guilty for the sin of a representative (although each of us has sinned enough to earn our own guilt), and we find ourselves justified for the obedience of a representative (even though we had no righteousness of our own). This is core to the gospel. What we see in the Old Testament is consistent with it.

I find the above four points to be really helpful. That said, I recognize that this does not eliminate the fact that this question is tough for us. I don't assume that these points fully resolve the issue. In addition to these thoughts, we must always show a willingness to trust God. Sometimes his actions will make perfect sense to us. Other times they won't. But through his gift of his Son, we have embraced that he is good, he is gracious, and he is trustworthy. This doesn't mean that we don't look for answers, but it does mean that we do so with the backdrop of trust.