I invite you to look at--

My Website where you will find: ordering information and chapter summaries for The Beauty of God for a Broken World; audio sermons; a few poems and hymns; and some other essays.

My Videos where you will find a few two-minute videos on various subjects related to The Beauty of God for a Broken World.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

When Does Human Life Have Value to God (2)

(For part 1 of this essay, go to the blog below this one. I have a couple of odds and ends to add to the subject--perhaps this next week.)

3.      When do human beings bear the image of God?

Our two previous questions naturally focused on the origin of our individual souls and our personhood. I think it is helpful to view the image of God from a Christ-centered perspective because Christ is the original image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15). Human beings are images of God only in a secondary sense (1 Corinthians 11:7). More frequently, human beings are said to be in the image of God or according to the image of God. So, perhaps it is best to call us God’s image bearers rather than God’s images. At any rate, we bear the image of God as we are “conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29). We are images of the Image. When is that true of us?

A.     God’s children will bear God’s image fully and finally at the resurrection.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul wraps up his lengthy discussion of Christ’s resurrection and ours by saying,
The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven. 48 As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly (vv. 47-49).

Similarly, the apostle John says,
Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is (1 John 3:2).

This full and final imaging is what God was aiming at when He created Adam and Eve.

B.     Adam and Eve bore God’s image partially, yet truly at creation.

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Genesis 1:26-27).

When God made our first parents, He pronounced them, along with the rest of creation very good (v. 31). They were very good, but not finished because they did not bear the image of God as completely as redeemed men and women will.

C.      Human beings now bear God’s image brokenly and progressively.

After the flood, God said to Noah, “Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6). This would make no sense if the image of God had been completely lost at the fall.

The likeness to God, which was damaged at the fall, is being progressively renewed in those who have become God’s children through faith in Jesus Christ.
Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, 10 and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him (Colossians 3:9-10).

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).

So all human beings bear God’s image in some measure; the image is being renewed (perhaps think of polishing a silver or brass metal mirror) by the work of the Holy Spirit in God’s born-again children.

4.      What aspects of our humanity does the image of God encompass?

If we had confined our meditation on the image of God to creation and to our progressive renewal by the Spirit, we might have concluded that our likeness to God only included the spiritual aspect of our humanity. After all, the invisible God does not have a body. Starting with Christ and the resurrection, however, leads us to a different conclusion. Not only our souls, but also our bodies will conformed to the image of Christ.
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; 21 who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself (Philippians 3:20-21).

On the one hand, Scripture teaches that the Son of God took on flesh and blood so that He could die for people who have bodies (Hebrews 2:14-16). On the other hand, it is equally true that God made human beings with the kind of bodies we have because the Son of God was going to take on that kind of body. The bodies God gave us are the right sort of thing to be transformed and glorified. These bodies, not some other kind, are fit to reflect the image of God, who is Jesus Christ.

You may still ask, “Well, what is the image of God?” The answer is…. I don’t know. But being image bearers enables us to know and love God, to know and love people, to create new things, to rule over the animal kingdom and ultimately to reflect the glory of God.

Being in the image of God does not mean that we do all of those things all the time or even that we do them very well. It means that we have the capacity to develop those characteristics, but their development is always imperfect and defective in this life. I have written that we have the capacity to develop these characteristics, but it would be truer to say that God is developing them. We are His workmanship.

From the womb to the tomb, God is at work fashioning His people into unique image bearers. The infant who dies before it breathes will gleam in glory with a different hue than the aged martyr or the forty-five year old retarded believer who stumbles and falls beneath the wheels of a truck. Yet all will shine. Since His children are God’s work, it is God’s prerogative to say when the earthly part of His fashioning is complete.

From this perspective, an elect Down’s syndrome infant and a believing, end-stage Alzheimer’s patient are moving toward conformity to Christ; a strong, attractive, intelligent hater of God is not.

5.      When does human life have value to God?

God values the lives of His children, from conception to the grave and beyond into glory because He is looking forward to completing glorious images of His eternal Image. If we ask when the individual human being has a soul, and only grant value when that is the case, we are left without adequate moral guidance. At the beginning and at the end of life there are situations when we are not sure. If instead we look at God’s goal for human life and recognize that God is working toward that end, then every stage of life has value to God.

God also values the lives of those who reject Him because by their creation in His image they still reflect something of His power, wisdom and love. Therefore, they also must be objects of our compassion and care, just as they are for God (Matthew 5:43-48).

When the lost are raised for the final judgment, their bodies will, no doubt reflect what their souls have become. The God whom they have rejected will strip away all remaining vestiges of His image from their bodies and souls. Only then, will they be utterly cast off and thrown into the garbage pit of the universe, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Luke 9:48).

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

When Does Human Life Have Value to God?

I have been teaching an adult Sunday School class on ethics, so I have been reading and reflecting on the question: When does human life have value to God? I think I have something fresh to add, but bowing to FaceBook pressure, I’ll split the essay into 2 or 3 parts. I hope you can stand the suspense.

There are, of course, some passages of Scripture that bear directly on the subject. We see God’s care for the unborn child in Job 10:8-13 and Psalm 139:13-16. Exodus 21 prescribes penalties for men who are fighting and incidentally strike a pregnant woman “so that her children come out” (v. 22). Whether this phrase describes a premature birth or a miscarriage, in either case there is a penalty. Not all instances of killing (fatal accidents, for example) received the death penalty in the Old Testament. Even the death of a slave a few days after a harsh beating was not punished because the slave was the master’s property (vv. 20-21), but the generally humane treatment required for slaves shows that God cared for them (vv. 26-27). Neither slaves nor the unborn child was regarded as sub-human.

However, abortion and end-of-life decisions are sometimes unhelpfully discussed in terms of two unanswerable questions: (1) When do we have souls? (2) When are we persons? Fortunately, there is a third question that sounds similar, but is actually quite different: When do human beings bear the image of God. This question has a clear scriptural answer, and it enables us to understand our true worth in God’s eyes.

1.      When do we have souls? There are three principle ways in which God may give us souls.

A.      Some suggest that God creates each soul directly since He is the Father of spirits (Hebrews 12:9) who gives us our spirits (Ecclesiastes 12:7). In this case, we still have the unanswered question of when God inserts our souls into our bodies. Also, the direct creation of souls leaves us wondering why our temperaments often resemble our parents so much.

B.      However, God is often does things by using intermediate agents or processes. (For example, He feeds the animals, but the carnivores still have to hunt Psalm 104:21, 27). So perhaps our souls are passed on from our parents, as Hebrews 7:9-10 may suggest. If that is the case, it seems possible that we inherit our souls at the time of conception. However, many fertilized eggs are expelled without ever being implanted in the uterus. If these all have souls and if they all go to heaven, they may constitute the majority of saved people. This is certainly possible, but it seems exceedingly strange.

C.      A third suggestion is that our souls may emerge from the physical development of our brains. At death, the soul could continue to exist apart from the body where it arose. Job says to God, “Your hands fashioned and made me,” and then he notes that he is clay or dust (Job 10:8-13; 33:4-6). Job does not say, “You made my body,” but “You made me,” apparently including the soul along with the body. If this is true, we still do not know when the developing baby has a soul.

The most we can say for certain (regardless of how God gives us souls) is that by the sixth month of pregnancy, the baby has a soul because by that time John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:15, 41-44). We have even less revelation on when the soul leaves the body. Is the soul still present during the end stages of senile dementia or when an automobile accident leaves a twenty-year-old in a persistent vegetative state?

2.      When are we persons? This question may be answered in three ways, but none of them seems particularly helpful.

A.      We are persons when we have souls, but Scripture does not clearly indicate when we have souls.

B.      Perhaps we are persons when we have developed certain mental, emotional and volitional capacities. On this reckoning, the family dog has more claim to being a person than a newborn human being does.

C.      Perhaps we are persons when we have a unique, human genetic identity (in other words, at conception). If we accept this answer, then clearly we are valuable to God from that moment onward. However, to call a fertilized egg a person stretches the normal understanding of person almost beyond recognition. Another problem with this view is that genes were unknown in biblical days. Therefore, it is unlikely that the church needed to wait for modern genetics in order to comprehend our value to God. (It is helpful, however, in a modern context to insist that the developing fetus is not a blob of a woman’s tissue. He or she is a genetically unique individual.)

I have discussed souls and personhood mainly in order to show that Scripture does not give us enough information on these subjects to help us answer the question: When does human life have value to God? In my next post in a day or two, I’ll weigh in on a more fruitful approach: When do human beings bear the image of God? So stay tuned for the next exciting installment. J

Saturday, November 12, 2011

I Like to Think of God As...

“I like to think of God as….” I cringe whenever I hear those words. Who cares how you like to think about God? The real question is whether your understanding of Him is true.

Unless your conception of God is determined by what God says about Himself, you have about as much chance of being right as frog would of understanding a man. In Scripture, God mocks fools who imagine that their religious observances will hide their wickedness: “You thought that I was just like you” He says (Psalm 50:21).

God’s forgiveness also goes beyond human comprehension. He urges us to turn from our sins, promises His pardon, and then adds, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).

When God called Moses to lead His people out of Egypt, He first identified Himself as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). Next Moses asked His name, and “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am’; and He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, “I am has sent me to you”’” (Exodus 3:14).

“I AM” signifies that God is eternal and unchangeable. He is who He is, not what we imagine Him to be. And what He is, is more strange and complex than our distorted ideas of Him.

The gods that people have made up for themselves are generally simple. There are gods of love and gods of war; gods of fertility and gods who protect travelers. Each god knows his job, and he sticks to it. There is a god who is defined by absolute unity and sovereignty; another god includes in his being all that is; a third loves America and approves of its crusade for democracy.

The God who has revealed Himself in the Bible is none of these. His complexity is overwhelming. He is high above us, yet all of Him is present in every place. He is as ferocious as a lion and as gentle as a lamb. He sends rebels into eternal torment, but sacrifices Himself to save sinners. He is both one and three (though His oneness and His three-ness refer to different aspects of who He is). Though He is complex, yet He is also simple because He cannot be divided into parts. He is beyond our comprehension, but since He has made us in His image, we can know Him. He is beyond the power of language to describe, but His descriptions of Himself are true, and they may be understood by ordinary people.
I began this essay with the way you think about God. Far more important is the way God thinks about Himself and how He has revealed Himself to us. Almost equally important is what God thinks about you and me.

Again the answer is rather complex. On the one hand, we are hated and abhorred because of our sins (Psalm 5:5-6). On the other, “The Lord takes pleasure in His people; He will beautify the afflicted ones with salvation” (Psalm 149:4).

Though we are ugly in ourselves, we become beautiful when God saves us. Though we are hateful in our sin, God takes pleasure in us when He makes us beautiful. Our beauty, however, is not truly ours, for it is the beauty of Christ who covers our ugliness with the glorious robes of His righteousness. This comes about only through personal faith in Christ (Philippians 3:9).

Do you know this God? Does He know you? “The firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, ‘The Lord knows those who are His’” (2 Timothy 2:19).

(Published in the Allentown Morning Call, November 12, 2011)

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Place of Creeds

These paragraphs are part of my contribution to a FaceBook conversation on the importance of the great Trinitarian creeds of the early church.

How we think about the ancient creeds and other doctrinal formulations makes a great difference in how we value them. The creeds are not human improvements on Scripture as though God didn't know what He was doing when He inspired the Bible. God gave us Scripture as a progressive and historical revelation precisely because our salvation is rooted in history, not in abstract ideas. Neither should we think of the creeds as additional revelations from God supplementing the Bible.

I think the best way to view them is to say that the Holy Spirit has been at work in the Church as a whole to enable the Church to understand Scripture and to defend the truths of Scripture from error. This is one way in which the church is "the pillar and support of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15). Spirit-guided meditation on Scripture by a host of godly teachers throughout the centuries has gradually increased our understanding of this precious treasure, the word of God. After all, the Spirit gives some the gift of teaching (Ephesians 4:11), and we learn not just from current teachers, but from those in the past as well.

I regard the Trinitarian formulations of Nicaea and Chalcedon as Spirit-guided gifts to the Church enabling the Church to stay true to the most important teachings in Scripture--the teachings about Christ and the gospel. The creeds are not infallible, as Scripture is, but neither can we safely make light of them. History shows us that whenever churches neglect or muddle the doctrine of the Trinity, they soon lose Christ.

I see a tendency among modern evangelicals to become impatient with clear thinking on these issues. Doctrine is no substitute for a warm, vital relationship with Christ, but a warm, vital relationship with Christ usually only lasts a generation or so after the loss of clear doctrinal teaching.

Nicene Creed (AD 381)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How to Become a Christian

From a FaceBook correspondent: “If someone walked up to you and asked, ‘What must I do to become a Christian?’ how would you answer that?”

The shortest biblical answer to a similar question came in response to the Philippian jailer who asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31). Notice, however, that the question and response imply a large amount of shared information. The jailer knew that he needed salvation, that salvation was possible and that he was not yet saved. He already knew who Jesus was and that Christians claimed He was the Lord over all creation. He also understood what Paul meant by believing in the Lord Jesus. This information was available to him because Paul and Silas had been preaching in the city for many days.

In 21st century America, we can no longer assume that the people we meet understand any of this. Therefore, I would begin by trying to find out where the inquirer was in his spiritual journey. If he were a Hindu, he might have no concept of creation or final judgment or the uniqueness of Christ’s incarnation. I might need to start with Genesis 1 and move on to the Ten Commandments and the Old Testament sacrificial system before he had the mental furniture on which to place the deity of Christ, His sacrificial death for our sins and the uniqueness of His resurrection. This kind of preparation may be more or less extensive lasting from several visits to as little as a few minutes.

If an inquirer has a rudimentary grasp of the big ideas, I would probably draw the familiar bridge diagram on any scrap of paper available, using verses from one book (Romans) to avoid constant and confusing flipping throughout the whole Bible.

I often then follow up with a diagram illustrating the exchange that takes place—Christ takes our sin and gives us His righteousness. I would probably use Philippians 3:7-9 with this diagram. I describe faith by saying that as sinners, we have our backs turned to God and we are going our own way in life. Faith is turning to Christ from our sin and trusting in His death and resurrection for our salvation.

I might suggest a sample prayer: “Lord, I know that I have sinned, and that I deserve to be punished for my sins. Thank you for sending Jesus to die for sinners. Thank you for raising Him from the dead as proof of His victory over sin and the devil. I now receive Him as my Savior and I want to follow Him as my Lord and Master. Thank you for the precious gift of your Son. In Jesus name, Amen.”

However, I don’t think it is always necessary or even advisable to have the inquirer pray the sinner’s prayer a line at a time. I remember one lady who thought she was a Christian before she came to our church. In the course of a membership class, she came to me privately and asked how to be sure she was a Christian. I went through the gospel as outlined above, and then I left her in my office to do her own business with God. After 15 or 20 minutes, she came out glowing with fresh assurance in Christ.

I know that God uses the simple formulas for evangelism that have been developed in the past one hundred years. I also know that many people “pray the prayer” and are not saved. Furthermore, God is not confined to our methods of evangelism.

Two young ladies in recent years have come to Christ by listening to sermons in church. One of them said, “I prayed for several months for Christ to come in. It took a long time, but finally He did.” The change in her life is amazing. The other young lady left a difficult home situation to live relatives. They required the her to attend church. At first, her countenance was the perfect picture of resentment and despair. After several months—she is not sure how or when—Christ came into her, gave her faith and transformed her whole outlook on life. She is now a joy to look at.

My father suffered for years with doubts about his salvation. I remember him saying, “I’ve received Christ many times, but I don’t know if he has received me.” At his request and based on a rather humble and shaky confession of faith, I baptized him. Many years later, I learned that his baptism had settled his doubts. Baptism was God’s seal on his faith, the reassurance he needed that God had accepted him.

The bottom line is that we may try to mass-produce converts, but God deals with people one by one. To the humble inquirer after salvation my basic counsel is, “Cast yourself on the mercy of God in Christ. Call out to Him to save you. Cling to Christ and don’t let go because He will never disappoint you.”

For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” For “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:11, 13).

Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Psychology and Faith

I spoke last week to a woman who was greatly distressed because her church was making a slight change in a common liturgical formula. When the celebrant says, “The Lord be with you,” the people respond, “And also with you.” Her church is planning to change the response to, “And with your spirit.”

“What gives them the right to do that?” she demanded. In her eyes, the pastor was arbitrarily altering what God had ordained. I tried to explain that the exchange was not in the Bible and that both versions were acceptable to God, but I’m not sure she understood. She was stuck in an early, immature stage of faith, like children who will not allow their parents to skip a page or alter a line in their favorite Dr. Seuss book.

Or consider the teen who is afraid to go to a certain college because the teaching there might be unsettling to her faith. In such a case, one might appropriately ask, “Which is more important, the doctrines you believe or the truth?” However, that may be the wrong question. Perhaps what seems most important in her crazy, unsettled world is the security of anchoring her heart in an unchanging, unchallenged system of belief.

These sorts of encounters lead to a broader question: What does psychological development have to do with faith? Various attempts have been made to link the two. A friend has asked me to comment on the theological soundness of James Fowler’s work on stages of faith development and Scott Peck’s stages of spiritual development. Hence, this blog post. For a chart summarizing their views click on the link—Fowler/Peck chart.

I am not an expert in developmental psychology, but I find it relatively easy to think of people whose spiritual development bears a resemblance to the stages described by Fowler and Peck. For example, I have seen people questioning their faith in their early twenties (as they suggest) and either abandoning it, or coming to a deeper, more personal experience of Christ.

At the level of observation and description, the work of psychologists like Fowler and Peck can be very helpful. We do see people progressing through or sometimes stuck in various stages of spiritual development. However, I see several major limitations to the whole project.

The first is that the end-point of spiritual development is defined without respect to ultimate truth. A person may be a spiritually mature Buddhist, Muslim, Mormon or Baptist. This is unacceptable for those who hold to a biblical worldview. For us the pattern for maturity (both individually and corporately) is conformity to the character of Christ (Ephesians 4:13-16).

A second limitation of psychological descriptions of faith or conversion is that they inevitably end up in what the late British Christian neurophysicist Donald M. MacKay liked to call the “nothing buttery” syndrome. Love, morality, appreciation of beauty and all our joys and sorrows are “nothing but” a physiological response within our brains to certain external stimuli. Conversion is “nothing but” a radical change of attitude and viewpoint resulting from certain psychological stresses.[1]

In a similar vein, a fascinating sermon by C. S. Lewis discusses how the higher, richer aspects of human life are transposed into the lower, poorer realms of physiology and descriptive psychology.[2]

If the richer system is to be represented in the poorer at all, this can only be by giving each element in the poorer system more than one meaning. . . . If you are to translate from a language which has a large vocabulary into a language that has a small vocabulary, then you must be allowed to use several words in more than one sense. . . . If you are making a piano version of a piece originally scored for an orchestra, then the same piano notes which represent flutes in one passage must also represent violins in another.[3]

So a psychologist might describe the conversion of Malcom X to Islam using the same terms as he would use to describe conversion from political apathy to fervent activism in the Tea Party. Again, the same language might describe conversion from atheism to Christ. Psychological tools and language are not rich enough to describe the work of the Holy Spirit in spiritual terms. That is a limitation, not a fault, in the psychological method. It only becomes a fault if the psychologist assumes that his description is complete delineation of what is happening in the lives of his subjects.

Let us now return to our original question, about Spirit and Nature, God and Man. Our problem was that in what claims to be our spiritual life all the elements of our natural life recur: and, what is worse, it looks at first glance as if no other elements were present. We now see that if the spiritual is richer than the natural (as no one who believes in its existence would deny) then this is exactly what we should expect. And the sceptic’s conclusion that the so-called spiritual is really derived from the natural, that it is a mirage or projection or imaginary extension of the natural, is also exactly what we should expect; for, as we have seen, this is the mistake which an observer who knew only the lower medium would be bound to make in every case of Transposition. The brutal man never can by analysis find anything but lust in love; the Flatlander never can find anything but flat shapes in a picture; physiology can never find anything in thought except twichings of grey matter. It is no good browbeating the critic who approaches a Transposition from below. On the evidence available to him his conclusion is the only one possible.
        Everything is different when you approach the Transposition from above, as we all do in the case of emotion and sensation or of the three-dimensional world and pictures, and as the spiritual man does in the case we are considering.[4]

A third limitation relates to ways in which Christians might use psychological descriptions of how faith matures. I see positive contributions and a need for caution.

Contributions. Observing the normal progression of faith can help pastors and parents in several ways. First, it may keep us from expecting more maturity than is realistic for most children and for most early teens. Immature faith can still be genuine faith. Second, when we observe someone who is stuck at an immature level of faith, we may be better equipped gently to guide that person toward greater maturity. Third, we need to realize that some people do not have the mental or emotional capacity to progress as far or as fast as others. They may truly love and trust the Lord, but never move on to the kind of confidence that will enable them to respond calmly and kindly to people who challenge their faith. They may always resort a flight or fight reaction that is born out of fear and insecurity.

Cautions. The greatest danger for parents and pastors is probably the temptation to think we can protect our children from apostasy by using psychological insights and methods. Psychological techniques cannot transform group conformity that is common among our teens to confident, independent faith in their twenties. No one grows from the family of Adam into the family of God. Each one must be born into it. Neither can psychological methods of altering behavior produce the fruit of the Spirit. Fowler and Peck may help us see what is going on in the lives of those under our care, but as always the true “weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses” (2 Corinthinas 10:4).

[1] For a helpful response to this kind of reductionism, see Donald M. MacKay, “Man As a Mechanism,” in Christianity in a Mechanistic Universe, edited by Donald M. MacKay (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1965).
[2] C. S. Lewis, “Transposition,” in Srewtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces (Collins: London, 1965).
[3] Ibid., 80-81.
[4] Ibid., 85.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Hell Is a Hot Topic--Again

[This essay of mine was published in the Allentown Morning Call on Friday, August 12, 2011.] 
         Hell is a hot topic again. The recent book, Love Wins, by Rob Bell suggests that eventually all people will be saved. This would not be surprising if it came from a liberal theologian who opines that the Bible is a collection of myths. Bell, however, believes in the divinity, virgin birth, miracles and resurrection of Christ. What shall we make of his proposal?
         (1) Bell has apparently been troubled by a sense that eternal torment is incompatible with God’s love. We ought to be disturbed by the biblical images of hell, but that does not mean we should cast them aside. As I point out in The Beauty of God for a Broken World, God Himself weeps over the doom of the lost. If Bell were right—that all will eventually be saved—I suspect God would not grieve so much at the necessity of judgment.
         (2) Bell is standing in a lonely spot. Apart from a few individuals throughout church history, he doesn’t have much company. The major branches of the Christian church—Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant—have historically taught that some people will suffer torment in hell forever. Most defections from this consensus have been among people who think that the Bible is bunk, not among those who take it seriously. The smaller number, who believe the Bible yet deny the classic doctrine of hell, usually opt for annihilationism, the doctrine that the unsaved will simply cease to exist, either after death or after an appropriate period of punishment.
         Bell’s proposal implies that the vast majority of the great theologians of the church have completely misunderstood one of the major doctrines of the Bible for the past 2,000 years. That in itself ought to give us pause.
         (3) The Biblical evidence for eternal punishment in hell is clear. Those who worship the beast “will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night” (Revelation 14:10-11). When Jesus divides the “sheep” from the “goats” at the judgment, “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).
         It does no good to note that the Greek word translated “eternal” may mean “age-long.” In the first place, that is a rare usage. In the second place, the meaning of a word depends on its context. Everyone agrees that “eternal life” means life that goes on forever. Therefore, “eternal punishment” must mean punishment that goes on forever.
         (4) While it is true that God takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33:11) and that “he is not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9), we must not conclude that the doom of the lost represents a defeat for God’s love and power.
         God’s plan for the world encompasses all that takes place throughout history, including His decision to permit certain sinful actions that grieve Him, and His decision to punish such behavior. God’s plan is a victory for His love because by allowing human beings to rebel, He opens a way for Himself to express His infinite, saving love toward unworthy, but believing sinners.
         “God being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5). God’s love does not fail of its purpose. His love does indeed win.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus

In Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman claims that there are thousands of errors in the New Testament and that this completely undermines the orthodox Christian faith. Here is a link to an Excellent Review. If that is too detailed, here are my brief responses to the issue.

1. We do not have the original manuscripts of the New Testament. We do have more abundant attestation for the text of the New Testament than we do for any other ancient book. No one complains that we don't know what Julius Caesar wrote or what Tacitus wrote even though we have far less certainty about the text of their writings than we do about the New Testament.

2.  God gave us an inerrant message, not an inerrant piece of paper. Suppose you were offered two choices: First, a perfectly accurate copy of someone's vague speculations about God; second, a perfectly adequate copy of an inerrant message. Which would you choose? I would take the second, and that is what we have. God did not choose to preserve perfectly accurate copies of the original manuscripts, nor did He preserve the originals. I suppose if we had them, we would worship them. People would go on pilgrimages to see them. Whoever had them would get rich. He gave us what is best for us.

3.  When we look at the various readings of the manuscripts, it becomes perfectly clear that none of the credible variants teaches any new doctrine. In other words, take any of the alternate readings and you will still be reading truth.

4. No doctrine of Scripture depends on one particular variant, so no doctrine is lost if one concludes that it is not taught in a certain verse.

5. I say these things, not because I have been told them, but because I read through the Greek New Testament every year. (Well, this year I am reading every other day in Greek and on alternate days in Latin.) I read an edition of the New Testament that lists various readings where there is any serious question of the correct reading. I often go through those alternate readings, so I can affirm what I have written from personal examination.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Occult

In response to a friend whose friend is interested in the occult, I recently wrote:

There is a little bit on neo-paganism in chapter 5 of my book The Beauty of God for a Broken World. Regarding the occult more generally:

(1) The English word comes from a Latin root meaning "to cover up, hide, conceal." People are attracted to the occult because it promises to give hidden knowledge and to open up mysteries not available to the common run of humanity. Its appeal is similar to the appeal that conspiracy theories have for a certain kind of person.

(2) The Bible also speaks of mysteries, but they are a different kind of thing. The Bible's mysteries are things not previously known or discoverable by human reason, but now revealed for all to see.

(3) I compare them thus. The occult arts profess to reveal dark mysteries to the initiated. The Bible reveals bright mysteries in a public fashion. The difference between a bright mystery and a dark mystery is this. A dark mystery is like a cave. An apparently friendly enemy lures you into the cave with the promise of finding hidden treasure, but once you are inside and can't see anything, he pushes you down into a hundred-foot-deep hole. A bright mystery is like the sun. You can't look at it for very long, but by its light you can see and make sense of the world around you. Such are the mysteries of the Trinity, the incarnation and the atoning death of Christ.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

When Not to Forgive

After last week’s sermon on Psalm 109 (Vengeance Belongs to the Lord), I received this question via e-mail. 

Hi Pastor,
In yesterday's sermon you said that we didn't have to forgive others unless they were repentant. I was wondering where in the Bible that comes from. I know of many verses that tell us to forgive, but don't know of any that say we shouldn't.

Here was my response.

Good question. I didn’t have time to fill out all the details in yesterday’s message.

Of course, we are always supposed to forgive in the sense of not holding a grudge, wishing someone ill, or trying to get even. We are to let it go so that we are not churning inside because of an offense. We trust God to take care of things. However, Luke 17:3-4 tells us to forgive our brother if he comes to us and says “I repent.” The implication is that until he repents it is premature to extend full forgiveness. God does not forgive the unrepentant, and we cannot be fully reconciled to people who refuse to repent. We can be kind to them. We can love and pray for them, but if we prematurely say to them, I forgive you, then they assume everything is OK without having to face up to their sin. This is ultimately harmful to them. The same thing is implied in the process for church discipline in Matthew 18:15-18. If the offender does not listen, he is not forgiven, but taken to task by the church.

These situations obviously envision a very serious offense, not the ordinary kinds of things that we ought in charity simply to overlook.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Rest and Worship

(This is the tail end of a sermon on Psalm 95 that I preached on July 10, 2011. It is available in MP3 format on my website.) 

Psalm 95 connects two ideas that might not seem to fit together, worship and rest. How do they fit together? In the first place, only those who worship the Lord will enter into His rest. That is the primary thrust of Psalm 95. In the second place, our worship is not supposed to be a chore. It is part of our rest. The popular understanding of corporate, public worship has changed greatly in the past few decades. 
1. It used to be common to regard the sermon as the chief act of worship. Everything else was just the preliminaries that warmed people up spiritually and prepared them to listen to the sermon. So worship was something for us; worship was to instruct us and help us in our daily living. 

2. Then we went through a phase that regarded worship as a performance on our part for God. We were giving God pleasure by our worship. Worship was our work, our effort, our performance, and God was the audience.

3. Now, I suspect that many people regard worship as a feeling produced in themselves, primarily by the music. For that reason, the musical portion of the service has increased dramatically in most churches because music stimulates feelings, and worship is all about feelings. First, we worship; then we listen to the sermon. The musical act of worship elevates our feelings. The sermon gives us practical advice. So the whole service is about us. That is the modern idea; even when people
 say it is not about us, it really is. 

Psalm 95 tells us something about worship that we need to hear. We only truly worship when we are resting in finished work of Christ and in the power of the Spirit of Christ. So worship is not a work we do for God; it is a rest. And resting in Christ is worship because when we rest in Him, we are magnifying His all-sufficiency. 

Worship is not just a feeling or simply a time of instruction. Worship is a kind of dialog or conversation in which we hear the word of God, and we respond to God with repentance, trust, praise and the offering of ourselves and our substance. If we are resting in Christ, the conversation is not a stressful, draining labor, but a renewing of the soul in the presence of Him who is our life.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

4 Reasons Why Harold Camping Is Wrong

Harold Camping of Family Radio has predicted that Christ will return to rapture His church on May 21, 2011. His whole approach is wrong for the following reasons.

1)     Jesus said, “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). Jesus did not know the day or the hour while He was on earth, but of course, now He does.

2) “The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). The Bible is written in such a way that even simple people can understand how to be saved and how to live. It is not filled with coded messages that can only be unraveled with careful calculations, mystical insight, or computer programs.

3) It will always be possible to manipulate numbers in order to come up with a new date for the second coming. The false prophecy of Christ’s return in 1844 came to be called “The Great Disappointment.” In 1988 thousands of pastors received a booklet by Edgar Whisenant (which I still have). He predicted the return of Christ between September 11 and 13. The next year he said he’d been a year off, and I received another booklet. I guess he either ran out of dates or money because I didn’t get one in 1990. Harold Camping has also been wrong before (1994). Will he live long enough to hope that the third time will be the charm? If he doesn’t someone else sure will.

4) The apostle Paul wrote, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). In Paul’s day, Judaizers were adding Jewish circumcision and other Old Testament ceremonial laws to the gospel. Harold Camping has added leaving the apostate churches (i.e. all the churches) to the gospel as a requirement for being saved. It is a false gospel, which falls under the curse of God.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Church and Israel

What should the church’s attitude toward Israel be in this age?

This question (supplied by Mark & Julie Perry) needs to be addressed from historical, moral and theological perspectives.

Historical. Beginning in the nineteenth and continuing into the twentieth century, calls for a Jewish homeland emanated from three sources:
Ø  Influential Christians who believed that the Bible predicts a re-establishment of the Jewish state and a mass conversion of the Jews before the return of Christ.
Ø  Jewish Zionism, which arose somewhat later, motivated by both secular and religious concerns.
Ø  Political leaders from America and Europe who sympathized with the persecution of the Jews under Russian pogroms and the German Holocaust. These leaders recognized that Jewish refugees would end up somewhere, but they didn’t want them all showing up on European or American doorsteps.

Early calls for a Jewish homeland never materialized, but in 1947 a UN Resolution authorized the establishment of Jewish and Palestinian states. Israel declared its independent existence in 1948. The Arab states, refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist, immediately attacked.

The war of Jewish independence resulted in the expulsion or flight of over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs. Except for Jordan, the neighboring Arab nations refused to grant citizenship and civil rights to the refugees. This refusal has resulted in a large number of stateless Arabs who are demanding the right to return to Israel and reclaim lands that they or their ancestors once inhabited. If this ever took place and they were granted citizenship, the Jewishness of the nation of Israel would at once be compromised.

In the years since its creation, modern Israel has been in an almost constant state of siege, fighting major and minor wars and suffering from ongoing terrorist attacks.

Moral. Unfortunately, many Christians (especially in the United States) have adopted an uncritically supportive stance toward Israel. God’s promise to Abraham (I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, Genesis 12:3) has been cited to prove that our national blessing is dependent on always siding with Israel. However, God Himself has never adopted an uncritical support for His people. Just read the prophets. If we want to adopt a biblical attitude toward Israel’s actions, we ought to weigh them by the biblical standards of justice and mercy, which God commanded Israel to show even toward aliens (Deuteronomy 10:16-19).

On the other hand, Israel is often blamed unfairly by western media.
Ø  The issue of stateless Palestinians should not be laid at Israel’s feet alone. The United States and Europe have taken in millions of Muslim refugees, people whose religion and cultures were vastly different from the majority of their citizens. Why did the Muslim nations surrounding Israel refuse to grant citizenship to their own co-religionists?
Ø  Although Israel has at times exacerbated tensions by its harsh treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in general its restraint under constant threats to its survival can hardly be matched by any other nation in history.
Ø  We ought not take the words of Israel’s enemies at face value. Too often their blatant lies have been reported without correction. When talking western reporters, they have condemned suicide bombers, but when speaking to their own people, they have praised and supported them.
Ø  Time and time again, Israel has been blamed for killing civilians, but Palestinians targeting Israel with their rockets have not been blamed for using those civilians as human shields.

These considerations taken together indicate that evaluating Israel’s actions is not easy. The situation is morally complex and often morally ambiguous. Christians, in my view, should not lend unqualified support to everything Israel does, but neither should we be unduly negative. We ought to stand up for Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself.

Theological.  Numerous Old Testament prophecies predict the regathering and conversion of Israel in the latter days. It is unreasonable to suggest that these prophecies have been completely fulfilled in ancient times, that they have been taken over by the church, or that they have been set aside by God because of Israel’s sins. Romans 11 clearly looks forward to a future for ethnic Israel.

The prophetic status of Israel today can best be described in the language of Ezekiel 37. Ezekiel saw a valley filled with scattered dry bones. As he watched, the bones came together and flesh grew upon them, but the bodies were still just corpses. Finally, the Spirit of God breathed into them “and they came to life and stood on their feet.” (One wonders on what else besides their feet they might have stood J.)

The Lord explained that the bones represented the whole house of Israel that was to be regathered and made to live again. For 2000 years Israel was dead, dry and scattered. Now the bones have begun to come together again, but still there is no spiritual life in the vast majority of the Jewish people. The state of Israel is openly hostile to Christian evangelism.

From a theological perspective, the church ought to be praying for God to outpour His Spirit on His ancient people, just as He promised He would (Zechariah 12:10). We should not fall prey to the notion that Jews can be saved through Judaism without conscious faith in Jesus Christ. They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge (Romans 10:1-4). Therefore, the church needs to support the evangelism of Jewish people both inside and outside of Israel.

Finally, Scripture does not enable us to date the return of Christ by referring to the reestablishment of the State of Israel. Jesus’ prophecy that “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Mark 13:30) probably refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, not to the end-time events that were foreshadowed by that destruction. Therefore, Christians should not become feverishly excited about the second coming of Christ. We should live faithfully and diligently every day as though He might come in the next blink of an eye, but we should plan for the future as though we might live to see our children’s children’s children.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden is dead

And this morning crowds gathered around the around the White House and at Ground Zero in New York to celebrate. I was glad, but I was not in a celebratory mood.

I was glad because our government has finally brought to justice a man who has done great harm to our country. As I argued in my book The Beauty of God for a Broken World, God’s justice is one aspect of His beauty. It arises from His love for His Son and His love for His own intrinsic righteousness. Even on the human level, we can recognize that a just society is more attractive than a city or nation where ruthless thugs rule the roost. God has given human governments the responsibility for exercising the temporal portion of His vengeance (Romans 12:19-13:5). The eternal portion of His vengeance God reserves for Himself.

So I am glad that bin Laden has been brought to justice. However, celebration is another matter.
For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again, but the wicked stumble in time of calamity. Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles;  or the LORD will see it and be displeased, and turn His anger away from him (Proverbs 24:16-18 ).

The soul of Osama bin Laden is now, no doubt, suffering the torments of God’s wrath. At the final resurrection, his soul and body will be reunited to endure forever the fiery judgment of Hell. It ought never to be a matter for rejoicing when any human being is consigned to such a fate.

In the previous sentence, I wrote never, but I didn’t quite mean it. I meant never in this life. There will come a day when all of heaven’s angels and all of Christ’s redeemed will shout for joy, praising God for His just judgment of the wicked (Revelation 19:1-6). But that day has not yet arrived. Our hearts are not yet pure enough to celebrate the judgment of bin Laden because mixed in with our celebration there will inevitably be a self-righteous smirk and the soul-deadening satisfaction that comes from taking our own revenge.

So let us thank God for the justice that has been done. Let us thank our President and his elite forces for their diligence and professional expertise. But let’s hold off on the cake, the dancing and the fireworks.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Where was God?

The tsunami that wreaked havoc in Japan on March 11 raised the same question that every other natural disaster brings to the fore: Where was God? People want an answer in twenty-five words or less. God’s answer encompasses the entire Bible from Genesis 1 through Revelation 22, so any summary is necessarily something of a distortion. Nevertheless, I will try to point out a few biblical truths that are sometimes left out of the discussion. (I explore these concepts more fully in chapter 3 of The Beauty of God for a Broken World -- click for a summary of the book.)

1. When God finished creating the earth and its inhabitants, He pronounced the result “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Nevertheless, the creation was not yet in its final state, for God told Adam and Eve to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). The word translated “subdue” means to subdue by force. God placed the first couple in a perfect garden, but the world outside was wild. Men and women were given the task of taming the wildness, not only for their benefit, but for the benefit of the whole creation.

2. Hebrews 2:8, quoting from Psalm eight’s description of man, says, “You have put all things in subjection under his feet.” Then in a massive understatement the verse continues, “But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.” Because of sin, Adam and Eve and their posterity were not able to fulfill the divine command of Genesis 1:28. As God said to the man after the fall,

Cursed is the ground because of you;

In toil you shall eat of it

All the days of your life.

Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you.

Genesis 3:17-18

3. “The whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth,” but when Christ returns “the creation itself will be set free from its slavery corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21-22). So the final redemption of lost men and women will result in the transformation of the world. The creation will become all that it was meant to be.

4. In this present age earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and droughts bring much misery and destruction. Both the good and the evil suffer such things, and no one is entitled to point a finger and say, “They must have been worse sinners than others” (Luke 13:1-5). We suffer individually and corporately because sin has alienated us from God, and God’s curse has prevented us from exercising benevolent dominion over the earth.

5. For the most part, scientists are able to describe the physical mechanism behind natural disasters. In the case of the Japanese tsunami, the Pacific plate of the earth’s crust is gradually moving under the plate beneath northern Honshu. When the stresses became great enough, the earth fractured and the sea floor rose by several meters.

6. The physical mechanism, however, is only part of the explanation. Behind everything that happens is the concurring power of God, “who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). God does not set aside the laws that He has built into His world (at least, not very often), but He works in and through them. He is the judge of all the earth, and if He chooses to settle accounts with human beings one by one or in larger numbers, that is His prerogative.

7. While we are rightly disturbed in mind and heart by the massive devastation of March 11, the Bible, with full awareness of such disasters nevertheless proclaims that God’s mercy is greater than His judgment (Exodus 34:6-7). That mercy is available to all who will repent and trust in His crucified, risen Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:4-9).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Greatest Gift

Several years ago on one of my trips to Siberia I taught the Old Testament to prospective pastors.  The gratitude and responsiveness of my students were very rewarding, but my most affecting experience occurred outside of class.

After church one Sunday I had lunch with a refugee family from Kyrgystan.  The couple have five children, ten years old and younger.  I think that if the wife had not looked so worn, she would have been a handsome woman.  These people have virtually nothing.  The man picked us up in a car that had to stop three times in twenty minutes for the radiator to be filled.  He cannot get a regular job because he has no working papers.

His wife had cooked a pot of pasta.  There was a little sauce on it, and I think I found two tiny specks of meat.  Our hostess gave me a big bowl of pasta.  A student with me received a little less, and my translator had about half as much.  The parents stood and watched us eat, but did not eat themselves.  I hope they and the children had something earlier, but I am not sure.  The children were in another room, so I only saw a two-year old boy for a few minutes.  He held his hand up for me to shake, but after a while he began to cry and was removed.

After the pasta, the hostess poured us some tea and put two kinds of homemade jam on the table.  I had already told the hostess how full I was because I wanted her to know that the lunch was more than adequate.  Now I praised her jam.  It was very good.  When we left, the lady presented me with a liter jar of homemade strawberry jam.  A few days later, I sent them a small gift bag provided by a family in my church.  The bag contained some toothpaste, a matchbox car, some granola bars and a few other odds and ends.  I wondered if that car was the only toy the children had to share.  Afterwards, their pastor told me with evident emotion that they were very grateful. 

To me this jar of jam represented the life of that poor woman's family.  I felt guilty, as if I had personally taken food out of the mouths of her children.  I wanted to dump the contents of my wallet on the table, but that would only have shamed her and her husband.  She gave away the little she had, but she did not simply give it to a strange preacher from a distant land.  She gave it to God.

One day as Jesus sat in the temple, He "began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums.  A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent.  Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, 'Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on'" (Mark 12:41-44).

I have never in my life received a gift as great and as precious as the gift of this Kyrgystani woman.  It humbles me because I have never given so much to anyone either, not even to God.  Her gift teaches me to be thankful, not for my comparative wealth, but for the lesson that God humbles the rich through the poor.  I, as an American, am by that very fact one of the rich people of the world, and I certainly need to be brought down.

No!  I must take back what I have just written.  I have received a greater gift than that jar of jam, but the greater gift came from an even deeper poverty.  On the first Christmas, the Son of God left the glories of Heaven for the pigsty of Earth.  He left the adoration of angels to be stigmatized as an illegitimate son of Mary.  He left eternal blessedness to bear God's crushing curse on our sin.

The Bible says, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9).  Because He became poor, the now risen Christ is able to offer you the greatest gift of all, eternal life.  Will you humble yourself and receive Christ that you may be rich?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Once a Year or Never

This is a bit of poetic drivel I wrote several years ago for my own entertainment. Perhaps it will entertain you as well. It is intended to be read aloud--but not too loud.

Once a Year or Never

(Being a poor poet’s imitation of Ogden Nash)

Most people think windows ought to be done in the spring and in the fall,
But I think they ought to be done once a year or not at all.
Cleaning windows is an awful chore and a terrible laborium,
And the space between the panes is a natural laboritorium—
An entomologist’s delight and Miss Muffet’s sorest fright.
What are those glass menageries
With plants and smallish creaturies?
They might be called terrariums.
Perhaps they’re planetariums.
I think I’ll call my viewing ports my little spiderariums.
If I cleaned my windows in the spring and in the fall,
I would say I do it by the semi-annu-all.
If each four years I try to do them sorterly,
May I say I clean my windows quarterly?
My neighbors are ashamed.  With me they are quite vexed.
I’ll start my annual cleaning in the year that’s after next.

                                                             John K. La Shell