Friday, July 31, 2009

Bait and Switch

Ever go to a store where there is supposed to be an item on sale, but when you get there the item is sold out and the clerk tries to sell you instead another more expensive item. If this is done deliberately, it is called a bait and switch. Sometimes Christians, if we are not careful, can appear to be running a bait and switch. We tell people salvation is a free gift of God's grace and those who have faith in Him receive it apart from anything they can do. Then when they accept Christ, we tell them they are expected to obey the following list of rules and criticize them, often harshly, if they do not. How do we correctly approach this issue so as not to be involved in or appear to be involved in a bait and switch.

The solution to this dilemma is not to duck the clear teaching of Scripture that salvation is a gift (Romans 3:24; 6:23; Ephesians 2:8, 9) received by faith (Romans 4:5; 3:28; Galatians 2:16) apart from works we do to earn it (Titus 3:5; Galatians 2:21; Romans 11:6). (Note that "believe" in Scripture generally means to have faith and is not just speaking of intellectual assent but reliance on God's promises; see John 1:12; 6:29; 3:16-18; 1 John 3:11-13.) But Scripture also teaches the result (not the cause) of salvation is a changed life (Titus 2:11,12: Ephesians 2:10; James 2:20). This change is motivated not by a desire to earn salvation, but by love toward God for a salvation already received (2 Corinthians 5:14-15; 1 John 4:18-19; Romans 8:15) and is not a result of our own efforts to change but is God's work in us (2 Corinthians 3:18; John 15:5; Colossians 1:29).

In view of this, while we need to beware of making good works or the resolution to do good works a condition for salvation, (note that the resolution to do good works by the natural man is worthless, and without Christ's power we can do nothing; John 15:5), it is reasonable to explain to people that if they accept God's gift of salvation He will, as a result, send His Spirit into their lives to transform them with the goal of making them like Christ (Romans 8:29). The person who categorically rejects this probably does not have genuine faith. But when a person becomes a believer and we feel compelled to correct them, whether individually or as part of a group, we need to do so with care, recognizing that they stand before God based on His grace (Romans 5:1) and not their performance. This does not mean we should not correct them (we are required to do so; see Galatians 6:1), but if we approach it correctly, we will do it with a different attitude. Then perhaps we can avoid the appearance of a bait and switch.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Black and White

Can right and wrong any longer be seen as black and white or only as various shades of gray? Before we can answer this we need to get certain rabbit trails out of the way. To say that ethics are absolute does not mean all ethical decisions are easy. To say that the multiplication tables are absolute does not mean that all mathematical problems are easy. However if 2 x 2 = 4 sometimes and =5 other times and =3 other times, then no mathematical problem can be solved. Another red herring is to believe that if morality is black and white, then human nature and human institutions are always black or white. The Christian position is that all human beings individually or collectively are sinners (Romans 3:23, Jeremiah 17:9, Isaiah 64:6), and therefore are commonly various shades of gray. This just means that virtue must be measured by something higher than us.

But a more serious objection is that people in different cultures have differing standards of right and wrong. But is truth determined by whether everyone can agree on it. Scientists disagree on whether dinosaurs were cold-blooded or warm-blooded. But that does not mean there is no right answer to this question. If most of the people in this country once generally believed it was appropriate for individuals of other races to ride in the back of buses, did that make it right?
Also this picture of differing standards is not entirely true. Yes, there are variations in moral codes. But not so much that there is not a general consensus on the basic principles (see C. S. Lewis' book, "The Abolition of Man") . What we have looks like a deposit, entrusted to us in ancient times, which various cultures have distorted to meet their philosophies and circumstances.

But it is interesting that people, no matter how hard they protest against the constraints of traditional ethics, will then turn around and defend very loudly their own ethical principles. They may have not any objection to eliminating unborn humans but will deplore loudly the fate of endangered species. They will mock chastity and the sanctity of marriage but will constantly vilify those who oppress the poor.

Now do not get me wrong; unlike with relative truth it is possible to attain to relative morals. We call such people sociopaths and tend to lock them away to protect ourselves from them. But before we adopt this as our standard we might want to ask ourselves this question: if morals are only a delusion, why is it so hard for us to rid ourselves of them. And if there is something in them, perhaps we should start our search for what the real standard is by looking at the deposit that has been handed down to us.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Victor's Query

If I am more than a conqueror (Romans 8:37), why do I not always feel victorious? I realize that being victorious does not mean I will have no problems. Jesus assures me of that (John 16:33). But Scripture repeatedly assures me I am the victor (Romans 8:37, 2 Corinthians 2:14, 1 John 5:4, 5). What does this mean?

There are those who would say that there is something I need to do to obtain the victory. Yet as I look at Scripture (see verses above), I do not find that there is any implication that victory for the believer is conditional. (There is controversy about the overcomer passages in the letters in Revelation 2-3, but I am convinced that obscure passages of Scripture should be explained by clear ones.)

Or maybe the problem is we do not believe we are victors. I believe this is at least a part of the truth. If we do not believe we are victors, we will be much less likely to live like it and feel like it. But I believe there is more to it then this. I believe the victory promised in Scripture is a victory from God's perspective. We are told that we are God's workmanship, created to carry out His purposes (Ephesians 2:10), and that He is working all things together for good to conform us to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-30). Life is like an adventure story; while the protagonist (us) may be in a tight spot (driving off a cliff, about to be eaten by cannibals, surrounded by enemy soldiers), the writer (God) is making the whole story and knows we will triumph.

We look at the present moment and feel beaten down; God looks at the whole story and proclaims us victorious. Let us therefore live our lives in view of the fact that we have already won. When Christ said, "It is finished," the real war was over, and we have become conquerors with Him.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


As I understand it, one of the great fears of actors or actresses is to be so stereotyped in a particular role or in limited types of roles that they are seen as not being able to play anything else. Therefore, they have real trouble finding work. I am afraid that evangelical Christians are in danger of being cast solely in a particular role: that of political reformers. Now I do not want to deny that a Christian has an obligation to work for justice in the political realm (Deuteronomy 16:18-20; Psalms 82:1-4; Proverbs 14:34; 16:12; 29:4). But are we, perhaps, confusing an aspect of the Christian life with the main focus.

I believe one reason we tend to be out of focus in this area is because of a common misconception. It is thought that the departure of the United States from Christian values is superficial, the result of a few politicians and media moguls, and if we can just pass a few key laws we will return to those values. I am very cynical of this. While there were undoubtedly a few individuals who led this nation in its departure from traditional values, had they met a firm wall of determined Christian conviction, they would have been entirely unsuccessful. What they did meet, by and large, was a sand castle of superficial Christian adherence that was easily knocked over. I am convinced that any large-scale, national return to Judaeo-Christian principles must involve a change of heart by citizens in general. That does not mean that those working in the political arena should lay down their tools. But they should be prepared for a long and laborious struggle, which needs to be conducted with patience, firmness, and love.

Friday, July 17, 2009

A Preoccupation with Clothes

Some people have a preoccupation with clothes. Now do not get me; wrong clothing is important. (Don't go out without it.) It protects modesty, provides warmth, and serves a decorative function. But it is possible for it to become an obsession that rules our lives.

I am convinced that the organization is the clothing of the body of Christ. Yet too often we want to make the organization and how it is structured one of our main concerns--even to the point of dividing from those who organize differently. Yet Scripture says surprisingly little about the structure of the church organization. It lays down certain broad principles, such as that leaders should be qualified (1 Timothy 3:1-13), that the people should be subject to leaders (Hebrews 13:17), and that the leaders should not lord it over those under their care but lead by example (1 Peter 5:1-4). But it gives few specific details of how the church is to be organized. Now I am of the opinion that God is not shy. Further, I am convinced Scripture teaches that God commands what He intends to command (Deuteronomy 4:2; Proverbs 30:5,6; Matthew 15:9). If God had wanted to produce a detailed manual of how the church organization should be structured, He could have--look at what He did with the instructions for building the Tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 25-40). I must therefore must conclude, that while some church organizations may violate broad Biblical principles (such as putting the authority of men over that of the word of God (Galatians 1:8, 9; Matthew 15:3-9; Acts 17:11), God intended to leave a considerable freedom on how the church operates.

Now, on hearing this, we might conclude that we have major flexibility to reorganize the church to meet the church's current situation. I do not necessarily disagree with this. But if someone thinks that the key to solving all of the church's current problems (real or imagined) is simply to restructure the organization, I must disagree. This is really a symptom of the same old malady of preoccupation with the organization. While I am not urging laziness or sloppiness in the way we organize to do the work of God, I do believe that the emphasis should be on the power of God, not on our organizational ability (Zechariah 4:6; Psalms 20:7; 1 Samuel 17:45). Only then will we get beyond our preoccupation with the clothing of the body of Christ and focus on the Head.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Case for Scepticism

I am a sceptic. Granted I am a Christian of the old fashioned, dogmatic sort, still there are things I am sceptical about. For instance, I hear frequently of polls which indicate that a large portion of the population believes in relative truth. I have even heard of polls that say large portions of evangelical Christians believe in relative truth. I am sceptical of this. In my opinion, no one believes in relative truth. When we get up in the morning and turn the key in our car's ignition, we expect it to start. And if it does not, we call a repair man. People do not generally walk out of fifth story windows and expect to slowly float down. And if they do, we regard them as candidates for psychiatric help (if they survive). Few would look on with indifference if they found out their children were being taught that 2+2=5 or the earth was flat or London was the capital of France.

What, then, do they mean by saying that truth is relative. This is usually only resorted to when certain uncomfortable theological or moral ideas, such as the existence of God or the concept that honesty is the best policy, get in the way of what they would like to do. The problem is, while it is difficult to imagine a world in which truth is relative (and I have a good imagination), it is even more difficult to imagine a world where some truth is relative and some is not.

Now some will say that what matters is not what is true, but what works. But to say something works is to say it is true that it works. Or others will say what matters is what is truth for me. But this is to say that it is true some things are true for me. The reality is that if truth is relative I cannot know anything. The very concept of knowing (along with every other concept) becomes ridiculous. So I would encourage you to exercise your scepticism. If someone says truth is relative stand up and firmly assert, "It ain't necessarily so."

Saturday, July 11, 2009


"Just accept yourself for who you are, and everything in your life will fall into place." This is common modern wisdom: just be who you are, and that's all that matters. But will this idea stand up to examination?

To understand a concept, sometimes it helps to understand what it is trying to combat. What the self-acceptance concept is geared to combat is what I will call the performance mentality. The performance mentality is the idea that to have value we need to be successful. While there are variants of what this looks like, it generally involves such things as money, status, power, appearance, being attractive to the opposite sex, and the accumulation of things.

Now if we turn from the blatant material things to the realm of morality, we are once more faced with the principle of performance. We are confronted with a series of rules we are obligated to keep if we are to be considered a good person. Is there any wonder that most people carry with them deep feelings of guilt and inadequacy. We are also faced with the problem that whatever we do is not good enough -- there is always some higher level of performance we have not yet attained. We are on a endless treadmill that we never see the end of. And if we do manage to convince ourselves that we have attained it (whatever "it" might be), we are left with the uneasy feeling we are not really being honest with ourselves.

It is clear why it is attractive for a person in this mindset to be told to just accept themselves as they are. But there are problems. If we accept ourselves just as we are, we leave ourselves just as we are. We are left with no goals, no direction in life, and no sense of purpose. Also, I think if we are honest with ourselves, we will recognize there are things in us that, for both our own sakes and the sakes of others, are best not actualized. Now one way around this is to say that these things are not our real self but things we have somehow acquired later. We may also conclude that if we find our real self, we will find our meaning and purpose. We are therefore left on a perpetual quest for our real self. Sounds like the performance mentality in another guise.

Having searched far and wide, I am convinced there is only one answer to this dilemma -- the Christian gospel. It starts by explaining that there is a reason we feel guilty and inadequate. We are guilty and inadequate (Romans 3:23; 2 Corinthians 3:5, 6). This, I admit, is not a cheerful diagnosis, but sometimes it is necessary to face a situation to deal with it. The person who is not willing to face the diagnosis that they have cancer will likely die of it, but the person who accepts the situation and gets treatment may be cured. The good news of the Christian faith is that God has provided a cure for our guilt and inadequacy. Jesus Christ came and died on the cross to pay the price for all the wrong things we ever did (Romans 5:8; John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:21), and based on faith in Him and not our performance (Ephesians 2:8, 9; Romans 3:28) we are accepted by God (Romans 8:33, 34; John 3:18). But though He accepts as we are, He also begins to change us into who He wants us to be. He sends His Spirit to dwell in us and transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18). He also works in us to accomplish His purposes in the world (Ephesians 2:10). But this is not done out of a performance mentality, to earn something from God, but out of love for the God who has already redeemed us (1 John 4:18, 19; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; 1 Corinthians 6:19, 20). It is only here that I see a workable balance between acceptance and performance.

It is therefore ironic that Christians, who have the only real answer to the problem, so frequently fall back into the performance mentality. Then, when we are worn down by this mentality we turn to the psychologists to learn we need to accept ourselves. It is not in the scope of this post to deal with the question of the value of modern psychology and what, if any, contribution it can make to Christians in helping them live their lives. But I do believe, in this one particular area, that there is only one real answer. And if we neglect it, we are like people who go around begging for quarters when we have a debit card for a large bank account in our back pocket.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Basis of Unity

What can be done about the scandal of the present divided state of the Christian church. It reminds me of the situation Paul deplored at the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:11, 12). Is there any road toward that unity which the Bible commands (1 Corinthians 1:10; Philippians 2:2; John 17:21). One of the first temptations is to say, "Let's throw out theology. After we do that, surely we can all come together." But if we throw out theology, what do we have to unite around. If we try to unite everyone who calls themselves a Christian, we find they have almost nothing in common.

If we try to unite based on a subjective experience, we end basing our faith on something questionable and unstable. In the realm of the purely subjective, how do I know if I am encountering God, Zeus, Satan, my own psychological quirk, or the pepperoni pizza I ate for supper. We can also try to base our unity on human authority. But we soon find there are a number of competing human authorities all with conflicting and dubious claims.

This brings me back to theology. If Christianity is anything at all, it is a belief system. If such a system has no objective basis of belief, what meaning does it have at all. It is only based on such objective boundaries that any meaningful unity is possible. The problem is how to draw those boundaries, not to include everyone (this is not possible), but so as not to be totally fragmented like we are. The basis of the Christian belief is the Bible. This is especially if one affirms, as I would, the accuracy of what the Bible claims for itself--that it is the word of God (2 Timothy 3:16, 17) and true in whatever it asserts (John 17:17).

But how do we approach Scripture so as to decide what the important issues are and to avoid dividing over every difference in interpretation. (Or worse, picking out the things that appeal to us and dumping the rest.) I would like to make a couple of simple suggestions for doing this. I am convinced that not just the content but the emphasis of Scripture is inspired. That the important things (for example the nature of God, the nature of Christ, the sinfulness of men and the way of salvation) are repeated over and over again in Scripture. God knew we need to be continually reminded of these things, but a teaching based on little or no Scripture needs to be seen as incidental.

Also, I am convinced that Scripture makes direct statements affirming the importance of key teachings such as the nature of God (Deuteronomy 13:1-3), the nature of Christ (1 John 2:22; 4:2), the sinfulness of men (1 John 1:8-10) and the way of salvation (Galatians 1:8,9). This is not intended to be a complete list, but examples of the places where we need to draw the line. Unfortunately, we all too frequently tend to draw the line in places that have no such emphasis in Scripture. I do not claim that there will be no disagreement about the applying of these principles or that they will end all contention, but I believe that this is the direction we need to go if we are to move toward any kind of broader unity in the body of Christ.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Way of Growth

We live in an age of immediate gratification. We want everything now. We have instant coffee, fast food--why not instant spirituality? But is this what the Scripture really teaches?

Now don't get me wrong, I would affirm that salvation itself is instantaneous. When we recognize that we are sinners (Romans 3:23) and that sin involves punishment (Romans 6:23), and when we recognize that Christ died for those sins (Romans 5:8) and we can be saved by trusting in what He did rather then what we do (Ephesians 2:8,9), we immediately have eternal life (1 John 5:11-13). But going on with Christ is not pictured this way.

We are called to be involved in a process of transformation (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 12:2)which is likened to walking (a step by step process)(Galatians 5:16; Colossians 2:6-7). It is also pictured as a process of growth (Colossians 2:19; 1 Peter 2:2; 1 Corinthians 3:1-3) and as an exercise program(1 Timothy 4:7,8; Hebrews 5:12-14). We are also called to be involved in the process of working God's will in the world (Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:28,29). Also, the Christian life is likened to a fight (Ephesians 6:10-12; 2 Timothy 2:3,4) and to a race (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Hebrews 12:1,2).

All this leaves the impression that living for Christ is a lifelong process, not something that is done in one easy step or by following some magic formula. This is not to deny that there may be turning points in our lives where we recognize we need to get serious about living for God or need to trust in His power rather than our own. But these are simply steps in the process, and we should not think we have arrived, but press on from there (Philippians 3:12-15). The danger here is that we may rest on past laurels rather than going on further, or else become discouraged because we cannot seem to get the latest spiritual quick fix to work for us. Instead, we should go forward in the knowledge that God is at work in our lives and that, wherever we are, God is not finished with us yet.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


Why are Evangelical Christians (often labeled as the Religious Right) frequently regarded as being motivated by hatred? Being of that persuasion myself, I have wonder what justice there is in this. It would be nice to put it all down to media distortion and people reacting to our disagreement with their lifestyles, but this is perhaps a little too easy. I have unfortunately seen, heard and read of too many cases of Christians living up to the stereotype for me to be able to just shrug it off. Why do those who claim to represent a God of love often react with vitriol.

I have a suggestion. Could it be that, because our beliefs have in former times, at least in the United States, been held in respect, we have come to regard this as an entitlement. We see it as our right and react with anger when people do not respond to us in this way. But Jesus said not to be surprised if the world hates us (John 15:18-19). Nowhere in Scripture are we given the idea that if we follow Christ everyone will respect us and we can live a comfortable life (see John 16:1-4).

I believe it is time for Christians in the United States to let go of the past. I am convinced we can not go back, only go forward. I believe we must accept the fact that we are Christians in a pagan nation and rebuild from there. And I believe we must do it based not on a sense of entitlement, but based on confidence in the One who said that He (not we) would build His church (Matthew 16:18). I do not want to minimize the power of God, who is capable of changing the situation quickly if He chooses, but I am convinced we need to be willing to start from the ground up and be in it for the long haul.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

John 3:16

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.