Thursday, December 31, 2009

Casting out Demons

Demon possession sounds like something out of a horror movie. Yet casting out demons was practiced by our Lord and His disciples. Today, some claim it is the key to spiritual freedom. Others claim it no longer applies or cannot apply to Christians. What does the Scripture say? We must start with a question of translation. A more strict translation of "demon possession" is "have a demon" or "demonization". The question is, what are the symptoms of this condition, and do they amount to "demon possession"? They include physical ailments (Matthew 9:32, 33; 12:22; Luke 13:16), seizures (Luke 9:38-42), supernatural abilities (Acts 16:16-21), and exceptional strength (Mark 5:3, 4; Acts 19:16). Note that not all illness is caused by demons, as shown by "demonization" being listed as one of the afflictions Jesus healed (Matthew 4:24; Luke 7:21; 9:1). There were also two men dwelling naked among tombs, cutting themselves and reacting violently toward anyone nearby (Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39). One of these is said have had a legion of demons, showing them to be an extreme case. There are cases where Satan fills people's hearts to sin, but it is not clear if this the same sort of thing (John 13:27; Acts 5:3).

Also, when a demon is confronted, the demon will sometimes speak (Mark 1:21-28; Luke 8:26-32; Mark 1:34) and, in one case, also act (Acts 19:13-16) through the demonized person. But this seems to be a temporary thing that happens at the point of confrontation. If a demon can have continuous control of the actions of its host, the only example I can find is the demoniacs among the tombs mentioned above. I would therefore conclude that "having a demon" does not necessarily involve possession. Scripture is not clear on whether a Christian can have a demon, but much depends on what this means. If it means possession, I would say probably not. But since having a demon seems to mean being in some way afflicted by a demon, I see no basis for believing a Christian cannot have a demon.

What place, then, does casting out demons have for us today? It is frequently mentioned in the New Testament, nor is there a basis for saying it is no longer valid. However, when we go to the epistles, where the Christian life is systematically dealt with, it is not mentioned. (Though these do give generalized principles for dealing with Satanic influence; see Ephesians 6:10-20; James 4:6-10; 1 Peter 5:6-10.) What I am forced to conclude is that, while it is an appropriate procedure, it is not the standard way to deal with every situation nor the key to Christian spirituality. (Many of our spiritual problems come from our own sinful nature; see James 1:14-16; 1 John 1:8-10.) Nor is it necessarily more effective than prayer, as prayer was recommended when it failed (Mark 9:29). Nonetheless, there may be situations where it is the appropriate approach. But it is not a panacea for all a Christian's spiritual problems.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Expecting the Unexpected

When Christ came the first time, few if anyone seemed to get it. Not only did His enemies not understand what was happening, but His own disciples were confused (Matthew 16:21-23; 20:20-28; Mark 9:30-32; John 16:29-33). Nor is this totally surprising, because it was difficult to know how to fit together the Old Testament prophecies regarding the First and Second Advents. Should we expect the Second Coming to be any different?

The fact that Christ is personally, physically, literally coming back is clearly taught in Scripture (Acts 1:9-11; John 14:1-3; 1 John 3:2, 3; Matthew 24:30, 31). But the details of the events surrounding that coming have been much disputed. Most who have endeavored to approach these events have gone to two extremes. There are those who have all the events figured out in great detail. There are others who have taken the specifics so symbolically it is hard to see how anything could be certain. Also, both sides have those so dogmatic about their interpretations they are willing to divide from those who take a different approach. Could the truth lie somewhere in between?

It is clear that a certain amount of prophecy is symbolical. (No one expects an actual animal such as that described in Revelation 13:1, 2 to roam the earth.) On the other hand, there comes a point where one can interpret passages in such an allegorical manner they can be made to say anything. This allows everyone to read in their favorite opinions and prejudices. There also is a tendency on both sides to interpret prophecies in terms of current events. People therefore jump to conclusions that Napoleon or Hitler or the Pope or whatever current figure we happen to dislike is the Antichrist. May it not be better to wait and see how the prophecies are really fulfilled rather than jumping to conclusions prematurely? Is it possible that God puts less value on our being clever enough to figure out all the details before hand (1 Corinthians 3:18-20; 8:1-3) than on trusting Him even when things do not turn out as we expect (2 Corinthians 5:7; Hebrews 11:6)?

Now do not get me wrong. I do not want to forbid the study of the prophecies of the Second Coming. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for us (2 Timothy 3:16, 17). What I am suggesting is that we hold our interpretations with a light hand and avoid dividing over them. It was the Pharisees and Sadducees who had everything pegged (John 8:45-53; 9:13-34; Matthew 28:11-15; Acts 4:1-3). And they were totally wrong. Extreme dogmatism on things where the Scripture is not dogmatic can be a dangerous strait-jacket. I am not accusing either side of having reached this point. But I do think there are pitfalls, real and potential, that need to be avoided.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Can We Legislate Morality?

"You can't legislate morality." This is often heard when we try to legislate based on Christian principles. But is this true, and what does it mean? To make this more difficult, there is a confusion between two meanings of the word "morality". Let's look at what the options are.

The first meaning of "morality" is principles of right and wrong. It is difficult to see what else we do legislate. We say murder or racial discrimination is wrong, so we make it illegal. Now we could say that all legislation should be based solely on convenience. This means if it happens to be convenient to kill 6 million Jews in gas chambers, this is an appropriate thing to do. But let us put aside the initial reaction to this and look at it logically. The first question is, "Convenient for whom?" One might respond for society. But society exists for the good of the people in it. If not, why should we support it? Now this implies that what is good for them is solely the pursuit of selfish pleasure. And this ultimately leads to anarchy. Also, this is certainly not a position a Christian can accept on any level (Matthew 7:12; Philippians 2:3-11; Romans 13:8-10).

But the issue is not quite so simple, for there is a second meaning of "morality". One can, at least in theory, make a distinction between "morality" and "justice." "Justice" is the clear-cut requirements a society should place on the behavior of its people. "Morality" is seen as the expression of the inner character of a person. That a person does not steal or murder is a matter of justice. Whether they are kind or patient is a matter of morality. I would agree that, under this definition, we cannot legislate morality. You cannot make someone a better person just by passing laws. The problem is, there are things our society regards as morality that are, from the Christian perspective, a matter of justice. We regard the ideal for sexual behavior of one man and one woman for life as being a fundamental requirement of the societal structure (Matthew 19:1-12). If not committing murder is a matter of justice (Exodus 20:13), than the question concerning the unborn is whether they are in fact human from the point of conception and therefore should not be killed (Psalms 51:5). The issue is what behavior falls under which category.

It is not my purpose to come up with a legislative agenda. I am convinced that we are not going to Christianize this or any other nation simply by passing laws. But I do believe a Christian must stand for justice in society. This is, I believe, a difficult, long-term task in which we need to pick our fights and how we fight them carefully. But I do want to clarify a confusion that makes this more complicated.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Family Values

If we put second things before first things, we can lose not only the first thing but the second thing as well. (See C. S. Lewis' essay First and Second Things printed in his book God in the Dock.) If we ask what Evangelical Christians have put first in recent times, the first answer that comes to mind is family values. Yet never have family values been at a lower ebb, including among Evangelical Christians. Is there some relationship?

Now do not get me wrong; I am not opposed to family values. I am firmly convinced that God's ideal is one man and one woman for life (Matthew 19:1-12), that sexual activity outside this context is wrong (Hebrews 13:4), and that the parents have the primary responsibility for raising the children resulting from their union (Ephesians 6:1-4). But even a correct position can become distorted if it is blown out of proportion.

If we make something central when it does not belong there, it can become a panacea for solving life's problems. We look for the perfect mate expecting to be made unfailingly happy. Now in Christian circles, it is frequently recognized that marriage and family is something you need to work at. As an antidote to the "Some Enchanted Evening" view of instantaneous romantic perfection, this is a good thing. But it can backfire and produce a legalistic burden. If my family, for whatever reason, falls short of the picture-perfect ideal, then obviously I have not worked hard enough. And if someone else does not meet this standard, it is easy to condemn.

We need to realize that we are imperfect people in an imperfect world (Romans 3:23; 8:19-23). If we recognize this, we will be able to enjoy those good things God has given us (1 Timothy 4:3-5; James 1:17). But if we put anything on too high a pedestal, we can end up losing it. Sometimes the easiest way not to obtain something is to try too hard. We will settle for nothing less than perfection and will ruin the good things we have, seeking it. And when this does not work, we can end up going from person to person looking for the perfect match. We can even throw out family values entirely, concluding they do not work. Whereas if we keep our expectations within reasonable bounds, we can learn to love the real people God has put in our lives.

I am not in any way suggesting the abandonment of family values. But family, like everything else, needs to be put in the perspective of the total work that God is trying to produce in our lives (Ephesians 2:10). For it is God who genuinely claims the first place in our lives (Matthew 22:36-38; Isaiah 43:10-13). To attempt to put anything else, however good, in that place will only result in its destruction.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christianity vs Science

Are Christianity and science enemies? Some would say they always have been. Others would claim science came from Christian assumptions. That the idea the world was created by a orderly God who is separate from creation was the basic understanding that made science possible. While I agree with the latter conclusion, I would like to approach the question from a different angle.

Before science, the chief source for the study of the natural world was Greek philosophy. But, while the philosophers had some knowledge, they also reached many false conclusions. The reason was their emphasis on abstract thinking rather than actual observation of the physical world. (The Greeks did vary in this. Aristotle did make some observations. But the general tendency was in the other way.) Underlying this was the ideal of the philosopher as one who sat in his study and contemplated the universe, as opposed to someone who actually worked with his hands to examine the facts.

Modern science deserted this position to base its conclusions on observation and experimentation, resulting in greater accuracy. It is my contention that the source of this change was Christianity. Christians believe that God is the one who directly created all things (Genesis 1, 2). (This is as opposed to Plato, for example, who saw God as spending His time contemplating the Good and the world being made by the Demiurge, a lesser deity.) Further, when God became a man, He became a carpenter, someone who worked with His hands (Mark 6:3). Also, the evidence presented for the truth of Christianity was not abstract reasoning, but what the believers had seen and heard: the miracles (Acts 10:38), the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-11), and the fact God had predicted the future (Isaiah 44:24-28). While Christianity denies that we can only believe what our senses show us, it does use those senses as a starting place for understanding the things that cannot be seen (John 1:18; 1 John 1:1-3). This is also the starting place of modern science.

Another factor is the change in approach to knowledge at the end of the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages had great respect for authority, not only in the area of theology, but in every area. As a result, they had a hard time questioning the Greek philosophers in areas outside theology. At the end of the Middle Ages, there was a movement in different disciplines to question the traditional authorities and to attempt to understand truth for oneself. In theology, this resulted in the Protestant Reformation. In investigation of the physical world, it resulted in modern science. (These movements were not derived from each other, but came from the same impulse.) But this is not a desertion of Christian principles, but a freeing of genuine Christian thinking from Greek philosophy and dubious authority. I would therefore conclude that science was the result of and not contrary to correct Christian thinking.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Who Does God Work In?

Who does the Holy Spirit work in? And what do we need to do for Him to work in us? What does the Scripture say about this?

The Scripture says that the Spirit is at work in every believer (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29; Romans 8:9). In Galatians 2:20, the faith mentioned, in context, is saving faith (see Galatians 2:16-21). We are told that in Christ we have all things pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3) and are made complete (Colossians 2:10). I would therefore conclude that the Holy Spirit works in every believer.

However, there is a command in Scripture for us to respond (Ephesians 5:18; Galatians 5:16). These verses do not say in so many words what we are to do, but the implication is that we are to fit in with what the Spirit is doing in our lives, by obeying God. Further, in these verses, as in other passages of Scripture (Hebrews 5:14; Colossians 2:19; 1 Timothy 4:7, 8), it speaks of a process, of God transforming us over time. It is also important to realize that the power to do this comes not from us but from God (John 15:5; Romans 8:8). Otherwise we are in danger of becoming puffed up with pride or cast down by despair. Now there are many who reach a point in their life when they make a decision to seriously follow God or to rely on God's power rather than their own. I would not at all dismiss these experiences; there are many times God teaches us a new truth or makes an old truth finally become real to us. But I am convinced, based on Scripture, that these experiences are the result rather than the cause of God's working in our lives. Also, I think it is a mistake to require our experiences of others, in whom God may be working in a different way.

Scripture does not give us any formula for starting the Spirit's working in our lives. If this existed, you would expect it to be clearly taught throughout Scripture. But we are missing any clear-cut statement of what the correct set of conditions are. There are various commandments (for example Romans 12:1, 2 or 1 John 1:9), which are pressed into service as conditions for God's working in our lives, but there is no basis for concluding that this is correct. The problem with such conditions is they can discourage the one who tries them and does not see the immediate increase in spirituality that is promised. (I have been there). It also encourages individuals or groups to see themselves as the only ones in whom God works and to look down on others who do not use their particular approach. But if we recognize that God works in all His people, changing them over time as they respond, we can avoid these errors.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Uses of the Law

"If we cannot be saved by our good works, why did God give the Law with all its commandments, if we are not saved by doing them?" This is an objection I have run into many times and would like to deal with. However, in approaching this, I am aware that among those who believe in salvation by grace there are substantial disagreements over how the Law and its purpose should be understood. One of the more useful categorization of the uses of the Law is the one by Martin Luther, which mentions three uses. But let's see if it stacks up to Scripture.

The first use is as a muzzle that serves to restraint gross outbreaks of sin. We see this purpose frequently pointed out in the Old Testament--that the people seeing sin punished would avoid it (Deuteronomy 13:11; 17:13; 19:20). This does not change the nature of those involved, but merely restrains them out of fear (like a muzzle on a wild beast). But it does make civil society possible.

The second use is as a mirror to show us we are sinners and need a savior (Romans 3:19, 20; Galatians 3:23-25; 1 Timothy 1:9-16). This use of the law cannot save, but seeing my sin sends me to Christ for salvation. My bathroom mirror may show me that I need a shave, but the mirror cannot remove my whiskers. I need a razor to do that. Paul puts this forth as the primary use of the law. There are those who would put forth something else as the primary purpose, but I believe we can rely on the direct statements of Paul in this regard.

The third use of the law is as a measuring stick to tell those who are already saved how they should live (Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8-12). Now it is clear in Scripture that we cannot fulfill the requirements of the law just by knowing them; we need the work of the Spirit of God in our lives (Galatians 5:14-26; Romans 8:3-9; 2 Corinthians 3:15-18). But we also need (and Scripture gives us) specific commands to know whether how we are living fits with how God wants us to live. There are also specific provisions of the law that were done away with at the coming of Christ (Galatians 4:1-11; Colossians 2:16-23: Hebrews 10:1-14). But the substance of the law is to be written in our hearts (Hebrews 8:10) so that we will observe it. Further, when it speaks of not being under law but under grace, it speaks in context not of a change of times, but of the new state of the believer, who is saved by grace and no longer subject to the penalty of the law (Romans 6:14, 7:1-6; Galatians 5:18; 2:19-21).

Therefore, the law has uses, but it cannot in itself save or transform the individual. Only God's grace can do that.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

May the Best Man Win?

It seems like our whole culture is based on competition. Whether it's parlor games or sports, school or business, everything we do revolves around it. But while I do not want to nitpick over such things as games, I do need to ask, is this attitude genuinely Christian?

An underlying concept of our society and especially our economics is that if we all work for our own self-centered ends, somehow it will all iron out (as in Adam Smith's magical hand of God) and produce an optimal state of society. It is easy to see the attraction of this point of view. I can live for myself, compete as viciously as I want to meet my goals, and somehow it will all turn out right in the end. But does reality really work that way? Do those who cut every corner, break every rule, and use every other person as a pawn in their game end up making this world a better place? I haven't seen it. Further, I am convinced that the state of our society and even our economy is a direct result of this philosophy. Not that I espouse socialism, because that is merely the majority uniting together to use the government to further their selfish goals by taking money away from those who have more.

The Bible takes a radically different attitude. It says there is only one truly meaningful competition. To qualify for it, you need to be saved by the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8,9). In this competition to be a leader, you need to become a servant (Luke 22:25-30); to humble yourself is to be exalted (Luke 18:9-14), to save your life you must lose it (Matthew 16:24-27), and the last shall be first (Matthew 20:1-16). In this, we are called to love others and treat them as we wish to be treated (Matthew 22:39; 7:12). We are to put other people's interests before our own and not to promote ourselves (Philippians 2:3-11; Romans 12:3-5). And there will be a judgment, where all we have done will be evaluated according to how it meets these principles and everything that does not will be burnt up (1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10).

How then are Christians to live in a world riddled with competition, where even Christian ministries compete with each other for influence. First, it is helpful to know that this is not what life is really all about. Also, while we may not be able to get out of competing, we need to do this with justice and honesty, doing the best work we can and treating others (even our competitors) as justly as possible. I know from personal experience how hard this is to do or even to know how to do in the business world. But we must make the attempt. And, above all, we must not take the earthly competition too seriously (Ecclesiastes 9:11), for it is not the real goal of life (Jeremiah 9:23, 24).

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Defending the Faith

"You cannot argue anyone into the kingdom." This is true, but it is often used as an excuse to avoid any kind of reasoned defense of the Christian faith. We are exhorted to build relationships and love people into the faith and avoid intellectual confrontation. I do not, in any way, want to minimize the need to love people. An arid intellectualism or rigid legalism that shows no love for others is not only unattractive but unbiblical (Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 13:8-10; 1 John 3:11-18). But does this mean totally deserting all reasoned argumentation?

First, it needs to be established that no one comes to God without a work of God in their lives (John 6:44; 10:27; 16:8-11). No method of any type is any use if God is not at work in a person's life. But God can use many different methods to bring people to Christ. So we are wise not to cast any tool aside in our efforts to reach people.

It is the fundamental assertion of Christianity that it is not just a good feeling, but it is the truth (John 1:14; 4:24; 8:32; 14:6; 17:17; Galatians 3:1; Ephesians 1:13; 1 Timothy 3:15). This implies something that will stand up to intellectual examination. Certainly, the apostles regarded it as such. They claimed to be witnesses of actual events that proved their point (1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Acts 2:33; 3:15). They argued for the truth of God from His work in nature (Romans 1:18-20; Acts 14:15-17; 17:22-34). The Old Testament also puts forth arguments for the truth of God (Isaiah 41:21-24; 44:9-20; 24-28). After the Scripture was written, this practice continued into the ancient church, with apologists such as Justin Martyr taking up the practice of giving reasons to accept the truth of God. It is true the Scripture warns against too great a reliance on human wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:1-5; 3:18-20; 8:1, 2. But to say that reason can be abused does not mean it has no place (1 Peter 3:15).

The problem with throwing aside contending for the truth is it can leave us at the mercy of the subjective. There are those other than Christians who can behave in a loving manner (and, unfortunately, sometimes Christians who don't). There are those other than Christians who claim powerful subjective experiences. How does one judge which is right? Worse, how does one avoid the contention, "We'll do what works for us, and you do what works for you." There needs to be an objective basis for saying Christianity is the truth and not just one of many good stories out there. Or you end up arguing who has the better experience. I am not against subjective experiences. (I've had a few myself). But total reliance on them rather than objective fact will make it hard to reach many for Christ and will cause others to be anemic Christians once they are reached. Truth and love are both requirements; they are not options, let alone mutually exclusive.