Thursday, April 29, 2010

Predestination and Evangelism

It is claimed that if God chooses who will be saved (Ephesians 1:4), it negates the need for preaching the gospel (Matthew 28:18-20). Scripture teaches that God is in control of all things (Ephesians 1:11), but it also teaches us we have a responsibility to obey God's commands (John 14:21). This is beyond human comprehension (Romans 11:33), but much about God is beyond human comprehension. God's normal way of communicating His truth is through a human preacher (Romans 10:14), and we have the obligation to be involved in this (1 Peter 3:15). If God has chosen who will be saved, He will see they get the message. But we are the agents He uses to accomplish this. If we refuse, God will still accomplish His purpose, but we are responsible for our disobedience. This does do away with motivating people by explaining how people will go to hell if we do not evangelize. But the guilt-trip approach seems as likely to overwhelm as to motivate. Also, it makes people so driven they may use any method, no matter how questionable, to get the job done.

But it is claimed that belief in predestination historically has been opposed to evangelism. The Protestant Reformers, who held this teaching, worked to evangelize all of Europe. John Calvin smuggled preachers and Bibles into France, others preached God's grace at the risk of their life, and some, like William Tyndale, gave their lives. That Protestants did not immediately send missionaries to foreign lands is not surprising. They were embroiled with troubles at home, and control of the sea was in the hands of the Catholic countries of Spain and Portugal. Even when nominally Protestant nations gained control of the sea, they were frequently more interested in making money off their subjects than spreading the truth of God. But William Carey, who started the missionary movement, was a Calvinist.

Much has been made of the opposition from Calvinists to William Carey's missionary ambitions. But in Carey's pamphlet defending his position he never mentions Calvinism, even to correct misunderstandings of it. In fact, the main issues that Carey addresses were practical, such as, "where will we get the money?" and, "the natives will kill us." Note that Carey was not asking them to agree in theory to preaching the gospel in other lands, but to actually send people out as missionaries. As for the famous incident at the beginning of Carey's career where he was told to sit down by the leader in charge of the meeting, it is not absolutely clear what was said, but one version suggests that the objector thought that the only way the gospel could be preached in far-off countries would be if the gift of tongues was restored. Again, this is raising a practical difficulty. Now it would be simplistic to say no one has ever taken Calvinism as a reason not to evangelize. But the thesis that Calvinism is generally opposed to evangelism does not hold up.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


There is a powerful and highly addictive desire. It can be stronger than alcohol, drugs, or sex. This desire is esotericism. (Please pardon the big word, but I do not know a smaller one that will do.) This is the desire for mysterious, hidden knowledge. Now I realize there will always be things that are known by some people and not others and are hard to understand. Also, there will always be individuals who discover something first. But esotericism is the desire to know something because it is mysterious or little-known. It is the pride in knowing something that other people do not know.

Freud would trace this back to a cover-up for a desire for sex (which seems to me to say more about Freud than about psychology). The problem with this is it starts with the assumptions that we are (for reasons that are not altogether clear) so shocked by our sexual desires that we repress them and that they come out in our subconscious mind as something else. This may have made sense in 19th century Vienna, but makes no sense in 21th century America. In our highly sexualized culture, to attribute something to repressed sex seems extremely dubious. I suspect that in many cases it is exactly the opposite. Especially since Freud made sex more esoteric, many have involved themselves in it more out of the desire to have experiential knowledge of this mysterious secret than out of simple sexual desire.

This desire is highly problematic from a Christian point of view. It originates from pride, which is not an acceptable Christian motivation (Proverbs 16:18; 1 John 2:16). Neither is trust in your own knowledge (1 Corinthians 3:18; 8:2,3). Jesus said He did nothing in secret (John 18:20,21). Note that "mystery" in Scripture means something before unknown, which God has now revealed, or something beyond human understanding. But esotericism is also suspicious from any point of view. It causes people to choose a position not on the evidence, but on whether it can allow them to feel superior to others. It discourages them from asking whether the reason the ordinary person does not believe this view is that it is preposterous.

Therefore, we should avoid falling into this mindset, for there is nothing so well calculated as this to lead an individual off into bizarre opinions with little evidence. Also, while we must be careful of judging (Romans 2:1,2; Matthew 7:1-5) and rebuke error with gentleness (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:24-26), it is helpful in evaluating opinions to recognize this as a possible motivation. The more so since this tends to be an error of the intelligent and the scholarly. But it is also not uncommon on the ordinary, practical level to find someone pushing a mysterious secret, unknown to others. When you meet this it should throw up a red flag. It does not prove the point being made is false. But it is two strikes against it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Teaching All Things Christ Commanded Us

How do we teach the truth of God? Scripture does not prescribe a specific method of teaching, though it gives many examples. I would take it that God leaves open the use of different methods, based on the personality of the teacher, the nature of audience, and the nature of the subject. It does, however, prescribe the content: all things Jesus commanded us (Matthew 28:20), the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), all of Scripture, which is stated to be profitable (2 Timothy 3:16,17). We are therefore presented with a wide freedom of method and a very definite requirement regarding substance. Herein lies a problem.

There is a modern tendency to prescribe what methods should be used for teaching. Further, these conclusions are based not on the Bible, but on current educational theory. This would mean God left His church to stumble along, only to discover recently from secular sources the right way to teach . Also, the current trends in secular education, far from inspiring confidence, give one pause as to why we would want to imitate them. Many of these techniques seem to come from the psychological theory of behaviorism. This theory claims human thinking and human responsibility are an illusion; we do what we are conditioned to do by past experience. (It should be noted that not all psychological theories would go this far.) Now if thinking is an illusion, then behaviorism, which is the result of thinking, is also an illusion.

This approach abandons presenting the truth and the reasons for believing it and then leaving it to the student to think it through and apply it. Instead, it tries to find methods that manipulate people into applying it. We are told people are not able to apply Scripture for themselves. (If they cannot apply it, it is unclear how the teacher is supposed to know how to apply it.) If people cannot apply Scripture, it is normally because they do not understand the concepts involved. But all this is beside the point; the real purpose of this type of methodology is not to help people know how to apply Scripture, but to get people to apply Scripture. The idea is that in wanting to please the teacher or the group, they will be gently pressured into doing what the lesson requires, for the wrong reasons (see Matthew 6:1-18). This can be very awkward if you do not happen to agree with what the teacher is teaching. To avoid this and because it fits in better with the method, those who use it generally stick to simple obvious applications that it is hard to disagree with on principle. This ignores the vast areas of Biblical knowledge that cannot be taught in this way.

I am very much in favor of making Bible study interesting and making Bible study practical. But I am opposed to confining people to a simplified message in order to try to force them to change their behavior.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Evolution of Religion

The idea of the evolution of religion is often used to oppose conservative Christianity. I have problems with evolution in biology, but applying it to other disciplines without proof or mechanism is illegitimate. Also, while biological evolution is largely in the unobservable past, religions continue to appear in the full light of history. While I am committed to a specific theological view, I think it helpful to look at how religions develop and ask how this applies to Christianity.

Most new beliefs are started by a leader or small group of leaders. These represent a definite departure from previously held beliefs. To gain converts you must be sufficiently different to be noticeable. Once such groups exist they can develop over time. Some leader may take them off in a different direction. Now time and geography can cause a group to drift apart into two (for example Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy). But these are minor deviations and take a long time to produce. If there was ever a fundamentally different belief that grew up slowly in the community, I do not know of it.

Now the leaders of new movements are of three types. Some are interpreters; they take the beliefs of a group and interpret them in a different way. (A good example of this is Martin Luther.) This person does not claim any new information and presupposes a existing belief system. The second type is the philosopher whose thoughts are given a theological veneer. A good example of this is Confucius, who after about 2600 years is still recognizable for what he was. The third type of leader is the prophet, who claims supernatural revelation. That there were people who made this claim is an historical fact (for example Mohammad, Mary Baker Eddy, Joseph Smith and Ellen G. White). There are three possible explanations for them. They may be con artists, they may be having some sort of psychological experience, or they may genuinely be in touch with supernatural powers. (Note, if you believe in supernatural powers there may be evil supernatural powers that delude people.)

In Christianity the logical originators are Jesus and his disciples. There is simply no reason for positing later, anonymous originators, especially considering the time frame involved. While some have claimed questionable ancient originators for their beliefs, there are reasons involved, and the people making this claim are normally not anonymous. Also, Christianity as it has come down to us is clearly of prophetic origin. That it was originally one of the other types and was distorted into the prophetic type in (at most) a couple of hundred years is preposterous. And since the obvious originator is Jesus Christ, we are left with the basic three possibilities, that He was a conman, a madman, or who He claimed to be, God come in the flesh. But that He was a philosopher or rabbi who was afterward changed by his followers into the Son of God does not fit the normal pattern.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Why Don't We Just Go Out and Sin?

If we are saved by grace, why don't we just go out and sin? This is an objection often made to the teaching of salvation by grace through faith. How do we deal with this?

The first thing we should note as a preliminary is that saving faith must be a sincere faith. God knows the heart and is not going to be fooled by outward appearances (1 Samuel 16:7; Matthew 6:6; Romans 2:16; 1 Timothy 5:24,25). This answers another related question, of whether I believe in deathbed repentance. My answer is, yes I do (Luke 23:39-43), but it has to be a sincere repentance. The person who decides to live in sin with the idea they can repent on their deathbed will not, barring a total change of heart that includes repudiating their original choice, be able to sincerely repent.

If, then, a person has a sincere faith it will have certain results. They will recognize they are a sinner (Romans 3:23) and were in danger of eternal punishment (Romans 6:23). Involved in this is the idea that God is the One who should be obeyed and that not obeying Him has negative consequences (Galatians 6:7,8). Are we, then, to conclude we should go back to the thing that was wrong and that nearly destroyed us (Romans 6:21,22)? Also, if we have genuine faith we will recognize that God paid an incredible price to deliver us from the punishment we deserved (John 3:16; Romans 5:8). Our logical response should be love of God ( 1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15), which results in obedience to His commandments (John 14:21; 1 John 5:2). How far this will go in any individual's life will depend on their choices, but genuine faith should produce results (James 2:20; 2 Peter 1:9). Could one of the reasons we do not see as much of a result as we would like in the lives of professing Christians be failure to teach clearly the content of the gospel?

Also, when a person comes to Christ, the Holy Spirit comes into their life to work to change it (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:9; Philippians 2:13) and begins to work through them to minister to others (Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:29; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6). Again, how far this working will go in a particular individual depends on their response to it (Galatians 5:16; Ephesians 5:18; Philippians 3:12-14), but we should expect an effect in their lives.

I would therefore conclude that the result of salvation by grace is a changed life (Titus 2:11,12) and that the logical response to it is to present ourselves to God to carry out His purposes (Romans 12:1,2: 6:12-14). We should be careful of judging others, though (Romans 2:1,2; Matthew 7:1-5), but should correct others with gentleness (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:24-26). And remember the case of Lot, whose soul was tormented over the deeds done in Sodom (2 Peter 2:6-8), and who despite appearances was a saved man.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Baptism of the Spirit

What is the baptism by the Spirit, and how does it relate to water baptism and baptism into Christ? While I do not want to blow this out of proportion, nonetheless I think it valuable to look at what the Scripture says on the subject. In 1 Corinthians 12:13, it says we are all baptized by the Spirit into one body, Christ's church (Colossians 1:18). Some would distinguish between this baptism by the Spirit and the one mentioned elsewhere in Scripture (Matthew 3:11; Acts 1:5; 11:16). Now the word "by" used in all cases means "by means of", "with," or "in". The same form or a similar form appears in all the references to baptism by the Spirit. Therefor, Christ baptizes us by the Spirit into the church. Also, if there is a second baptism, it is difficult to know from Scripture what it is and how we obtain it. I conclude that baptism by the Spirit happens at salvation and that filling is the proper word for the working of the Spirit after conversion. Baptism by the Spirit started at Pentecost (Matthew 3:11; Acts 1:5), but afterward occurs at salvation (Acts 11:16). Taken this way, there is a parallel between Spirit baptism and water baptism. Baptism by the Spirit puts us in the body of Christ; baptism by water puts us in the organizational church, the visible manifestation of that body.

Related to this is being baptized into Christ, being identified with His death, burial, and resurrection. Again the Scripture indicates that this is true of all believers (Romans 6:1-10; Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:11-14; note that in Galatians 2:20 "faith," in context, is saving faith). It therefore makes sense to equate baptism into Christ with Spirit baptism. Also, water baptism is a picture of this, at least in the form of immersion. (I am not dogmatic about the form of baptism, but I do believe that immersion preserves the full symbolism.)

Further, there is no Scriptural basis for saying speaking in tongues is a necessary sign of the baptism by the Spirit. Now I do not see any basis for saying tongues have passed away, and 1 Corinthians 14:39 would give the benefit of the doubt to those who speak in tongues. But while all are baptized by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13), not all are given the gift of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:29-30).

It is helpful to know our baptism into Christ is an established fact, rather than something we need to somehow obtain, though we should live in light of it (Romans 6:11-23; Colossians 3:1-4). Also, it is important to see growth in Christ as an ongoing process (Galatians 5:16; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Hebrews 5:14), rather than a one-time event, which can encourage people to stop there, instead of go on with Christ. Understanding this ultimately leads to an affirmation of the real unity of the body of Christ (Galatians 3:28-29; 1 Corinthians 12:12,13). This issue is nothing to divide over, but understanding it does put things in perspective.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Does God Choose?

An issue there is considerable dispute over, and which frequently produces a strong emotional reaction, is the idea that God chooses who will be saved. I understand the reaction to this teaching and have only one reason for holding it. Taken in the simple, straightforward way, Scripture clearly teaches it(Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:1; Acts 13:48; Romans 8:29-30; 9:22,23; John 1:13; 2 Timothy 1:9). There are also verses speaking of God's control over all events, including those involving human choice (Ephesians 1:11; Romans 8:28; Psalms 135:6; Genesis 50:20; Daniel 2:21; 4:35; Acts 4:27; 2:23). The common response to this that God simply foreknew these things and did not determine them (1 Peter 1:1, 20; Romans 8:29; Acts 2:23). But if this is so, could not God have said things in a clearer way? Now God can foreknow things in one of two ways; either He foresaw what would happen or He planned it that way. Also, to chose a person you must know about them. God knew Jeremiah and chose him as a prophet before he was born, but God did not just foresee Jeremiah would become a prophet; God made him one (Jeremiah 1:5).

But how does this fit with our doing something to accept salvation, which implies a choice on our part (John 3:16; 1:12; Acts 2:38; 16:31; Romans 4:4,5; 10:9:10; Revelation 22:17)? Also, we are called to make the right choices and held responsible for those choices (Deuteronomy 30:19,20; Joshua 24:15; Ezekiel 18:30-32; Romans 1:18-20). It is difficult to reconcile God's control of all things and human responsibility. J. I. Packer in his book "Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God" says that how they fit together is beyond human understanding. I would agree with him. But I am convinced the Bible affirms both. We do choose, but what we choose is determined by the providence of God, without God being the direct cause of evil. How He does this is beyond human comprehension. But one thing that puts this in perspective is to recognize that people reject God because they want to reject God and that only the power of God working in their lives can change that (Romans 3:11; John 6:44,45; 1 Corinthians 2:14). The problem with our choosing God is not with God, but with us, and in calling us to Himself, God overcomes our natural tendency so that we choose to come to Him.

But in the final analysis the biggest problem with the idea God chooses who will be saved is it conflicts with our human understanding of God's love and justice. I am familiar with this struggle, having experienced it myself. But ultimately I am faced with the fact that God is beyond my human understanding (Isaiah 55:9; Romans 11:33), and if He says He chooses who will have faith, that is what I need to believe. Even if I struggle to make sense of it intellectually.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Christianity and Psychology

What is the relationship between Christianity and psychology? Is it necessary if Christians are to minister to people, or is it contrary to Christianity and not to be listened to? Where does the truth lie?

Psychologists on the whole are sincere individuals who want to help people who are dealing with pressing concerns. But the problem is the lack of proven theory to work from. They are in the position of medicine before the discovery of microorganisms. That medicine knew some useful things like how to set bones; it also taught false things, such as bleeding as a treatment for disease. It would have been hard for someone then to know which was which. I do not see this as a criticism of psychology or psychologists. No one knows what they do not know.

There are in psychology a number of basic approaches, and most psychologists are eclectic, choosing treatments from different theories depending on what makes sense to them. This is like having different sets of Newton's Laws without knowing which is true and choosing results from different sets of laws. Would you get on an airplane built by this approach? There is a current theory that many mental disorders are biochemical. Whether this is the equivalent of the germ theory of disease for psychology remains to be seen. I have no problem with it in principle; it is a proven fact that the ingestion of certain substances affects the mind. Perhaps there are cases where the body produces the same effect without the external agent. But I prefer to reserve judgment.

One of the results of incomplete knowledge in this area is the tendency to read in philosophical assumptions. We can claim our behavior is determined by circumstances, so we are not responsible for our actions, or that we should accept ourselves no matter what, or that absolute independence is the ideal. But those who oppose psychology can go to the opposite extreme. In their zeal to uphold responsibility, they can lose compassion for the person they are counseling.

The bottom line is we are sinners saved by grace (Romans 3:21-31; Philippians 3:7-16; 2 Corinthians 3:4-18; 1 John 1:5-10), and we cannot expect to be completely well adjusted. Therefore, for minor mental foibles, considering the imperfect state of psychological knowledge, we are better off seeing them as part of life and dealing with them through Scripture and common sense. But in the case of crippling problems we need to deal with them as best we can using the methods available. I would urge caution in choosing treatment on the part of the person or their caregiver. We must be on guard against treatments that are opposed to Christianity or just do not work. (Going to a Christian counselor is a help but is not a guarantee.) But above all, you must realize you are dealing with a discipline where we do not know all the answers and judge accordingly.