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.