Saturday, March 30, 2013

Old Erich Proverb - Accomplishment

We do not accomplish things for God; He accomplishes things through us.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Voice from the Past - Chesterton

On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realised the new wonder; but even they hardly realised that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.

G. K. Chesterton, 1874-1936, The Everlasting Man, The Strangest Story in the World (Dover Publications Inc., 2007, p. 207)

How does Easter change everything? How can we live in light of it?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Tale of an Empty Tomb

The resurrection is the heart of Christian teaching and one of the most contested aspects. Some would reject it because they claim science refutes the possibility of miracles. But science tells what happens if nothing interferes, but cannot say whether there is something that can intervene. If we cannot write off miracles in principle, we need to ask what the evidence for the resurrection is.

The most popular alternative is that it was a legend that grew up over time. But we need to remember that the resurrection was, from the beginning, the centerpiece of Christian belief (see 1 Corinthians 15). Without the resurrection it is difficult to see what Christianity is even about. If Jesus had been merely a failed Jewish messiah or a wandering rabbi or a moral philosopher, He would have vanished into obscurity. Now there is abundant evidence to support an early date for the writing of the New Testament. But even the critics generally concede that there are four books written by who they claim to have been written by: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, and Galatians. These attest to the fact of the resurrection and its centrality to Christianity. If they were indeed written by Paul, it was about 20 years after the event. Further, people were from the beginning willing to die for Christianity. Now people will die for a lie, but who will die for some vague legend? Tradition tells us almost all the original apostles and their immediate followers died martyrs' deaths. Even if this is discounted, Nero, within about 30 years of the resurrection, was putting people to death for being Christians. Also, Christianity had critics from the very beginning, and they would have noticed if Christians had simply changed their story.

Another possibility is a conspiracy, either by the disciples or Jesus Himself. This has many of the same objections as the legend theory. Further, it has the problem of how they would have pulled it off and what they thought were going to get out of it. Chuck Colson relates this to his involvement in Watergate. He asks, if a small group of people with all the power of the presidency could not cover up the Watergate scandal for more than a short time, how could we expect a bunch of powerless Galileans to have pulled off a swindle to fool all history? There are also the ideas of hallucination, wishful thinking, or mystical experience. This might work to explain the support of a few immediate followers but does not explain it being accepted by anyone beyond the inner circle. There has been the occasional person who has claimed to see Elvis Presley alive. But is it likely that any large number of people will make this the basis of their belief system, let alone die for it? I would conclude that the explanation that best fits the evidence is the resurrection really happened and therefore Christianity has a solid basis.      

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Drawing of God

It is the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart that draws people to God (John 6:44; Acts 16:14; 2 Corinthians 4:3,4). Now I, being of a Calvinistic persuasion, believe God brings people all the way to Himself (Acts 13:48; Romans 8:29,30; John 10:27,28). But even if someone rejects this full position, they need to recognize that the building of Christ's church involves the work of God in people's lives (Matthew 16:18; 1 Corinthians 3:5-7; Acts 2:47). And whether the ultimate determiner of whether a person comes to Christ is their choice or God's choice, it is not the ability of the person who presents the message. Now I am not advocating sloppiness or carelessness in presenting the message of Christ. But I am claiming we should be very careful of employing manipulation or anything that might be deceitful in carrying out the work of God (2 Corinthians 2:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:3-5; 1 Peter 3:10). For the work of God is based on God's power, not our cleverness. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

What Transforms?

The Bible speaks of God wanting to transform His people from who we are to are to who He wants us to be (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 12:1,2; 8:29). The Greek word here refers to transformation from the inside. It is where we get our word metamorphosis, the change of a caterpillar into a butterfly from the inside. This is not merely the result of putting on a mask or gritting our teeth and trying harder, but is something God works in us (John 15:5; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6; Ephesians 2:10). This is important, but it can lead to various misunderstandings. This is not some one-time event that instantaneously makes us holy, but a process that goes on throughout the Christian life (Philippians 2:12-16; Hebrews 12:1,2; 1 Timothy 4:7,8). Now I do not want to put down people's spiritual experiences, because I believe God can use particular spiritual experiences to minister to people and bring them forward on the journey to being the people God wants them to be. (There may be some experiences that are not genuine, but unless they contradict Biblical teaching, it is not for me to judge.) But the problem comes when we exalt any one experience to be all that is necessary to be spiritual or when we see following a particular formula as all we need to follow God. Further, it is a mistake to claim everyone must have our particular experience to be truly spiritual. If we make some one experience the standard for judging spirituality, it  leads to pride and complacency if we feel we have attained to this artificial level of spirituality or discouragement if we have tried and failed.

We can also conclude that we have no part in contributing to this transformation. But Scripture does call us to respond to what God is producing in us (Romans 6:12-14; Galatians 5:16; Colossians 2:6,7). There is no indication that this involves some high-flown secret, but merely the decision to go along with what God is working in our lives. But it also involves trusting in the fact that it is His work and not something that comes from us (Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:28,29; Psalms 127:1,2). Nor does this negate God's using various things in our lives to help bring about this transformation: the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16,17; Hebrews 5:11-14; Psalms 19:7-14), prayer (Ephesians 6:18-20; Philippians 4:6,7; James 1:5-8), and the fellowship of other believers (Hebrews 10:24,25; Ephesians 4:11-16; James 5:13-16). The key thing we need to recognize is that none of these things are simply mechanical, that they all depend on God working in us to use and apply them to change us. We need to resist both the idea that we can trust in our own abilities and diligence to produce God's work in us and the idea that we can sit passively and expect this transformation to happen automatically without our engagement. There is a paradox here, but we must beware of oversimplifying the process either way.   

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Touch of Humor - Easter

What is the right perspective on Easter? How can we maintain it?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Old Erich Proverb - Knowledge

Knowing God's truth is meant to change my character, not reinforce my ego.

Friday, March 22, 2013

A Voice from the Past - Leo the Great

In our Nature, therefore, the Lord trembled with our fear, that He might fully clothe our weakness and our frailty with the completeness of His own strength. For He had come to this world a rich and merciful Merchant from the skies, and by a wondrous exchange had entered into a bargain of salvation with us, receiving ours and giving His, honour for insults, salvation for pain, life for death: and He Whom more than 12,000 of the angel hosts might have served for the annihilation of His persecutors, preferred to entertain our fears, rather than employ His own power.

Leo the Great, 400-460 AD, Sermons of Leo the Great, Sermon LIV, IV (translated by Rev. Charles Lett Feltoe, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. XII, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clarke and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, p. 166)

How does this give perspective on Christ and what He did? How should this affect how we live?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Do We Need to Know?

Do we really need to know what and why we believe? Cannot this best be left to professionals, and the rest of us simply get on with living the life? But how can we go on with living the Christian life if we do not know what the Christian life involves. Would you ride in an airplane built by someone who knew nothing of aerodynamics? Now there is a danger of having knowledge that is totally theoretical and never applied. You also would not want to trust an airplane builder who had only read about building one in books and never actually done it before. But it is hard to apply something we do not already know. Scripture calls us to be both knowers (2 Timothy 3:16,17; Jeremiah 9:23,24; Hebrews 5:11-14) and doers (James 1:21-27; John 13:17; Titus 2:11-14). And while I do not want to minimize the assistance of other believers, there is no place in Scripture that indicates that someone else can live the Christian life for us (Hebrews 12:1,2; Philippians 2:12-16; Romans 6:12-14).

Nor can we merely ignore the question of why we believe what we believe. I am convinced that there are good reasons for believing Christianity is true, and we need to understand and know them. We live in a hostile culture. We need to have reasons for what we believe, or we will be blown over by the opposition or even by tribulation and strong temptation. How can we stand for something in the midst of difficulties if we have no idea why we believe it? Also, it tends to make our faith something that is superficial and not quite real if we do not know why we believe it. If this does not cause us to question our faith, we can at least end up watering it down to fit the opinions of those around us.  Also, if we want to communicate what we believe to others, we need to know why we believe what we believe (1 Peter 3:15; Acts 1:8; Matthew 28:18-20).

Now it needs to be noted that Christian truth has, in many cases, been encumbered by technical language. Some terms are necessary for understanding the basic concepts. But others of these are unnecessary technicalities and should be dispensed with. I would suggest starting with the Bible itself and aids that will help you understand the Bible and working from there. There are some hard ideas simply because the truth of God goes beyond our human understanding and also because some concepts clash with our current culture. But if we throw out all the hard concepts, we are left with simple moralism and have no real message. Christianity is not simply about our moral improvement, but about God invading history and invading our lives to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. And if we are to live in accordance with that, we need to understand it and know why we believe it.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Pitfall of Self-Righteousness

Pride is a very destructive thing, not only to our relationship with God, but also our relationships with others (Proverbs 16:18). One of the most insidious forms of pride to which a Christian is tempted is self-righteousness. It often sneaks in disguised as a good thing, zealousness for God or His truth. It can then cause all manner of strife and  quarrels, claiming it is just trying to do what is right. It then contends against everyone who disagrees, feeling it knows all the answers (1 Corinthians  3:18; 8:1-3). Now there are truths that are worth standing up for and worth fighting over. But we need to ask ourselves before we enter into a conflict, "If this ends up alienating friends, splitting a church, or destroying a ministry,  will it really matter in the cold light of morning who was right?" There are cases where it will. But we need to be sure it is about God's truth and not about my ego (Philippians 2:1-11; Romans 12:16; Ephesians 4:1-3).

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Breaking the Language Barrier

One of the criticisms that has been leveled against the Evangelical Christian church is that we speak our own language. But is this a bad thing, a good thing, or something in between? Now any group with its own particular knowledge and concerns tends to develop its own language; this is almost unavoidable.  Different occupations, hobbies, and enthusiasms develop certain technical terms to help them communicate regarding the things they are concerned about. This is an aid to communication because without the terms there is no easy way to express the concepts involved and meaningful communication becomes very difficult. However, this same language can become the basis of pride and exclusion. (I am someone who is in the in-group and knows the jargon.)

Now one of the problems we face, as Evangelical Christians, is that many of the words we use and the concepts they convey are no longer current in our culture. It is not enough to tell people to just speak English, because many of the things we talk about require detailed explanation to be clear. Words like justification, atonement and born again have no simple equivalents in ordinary English; they must be explained. But these words have the virtue of having been discussed and fought over for centuries and given a precise meaning no other term can have. There are, however, complicated technical terms which are not only unnecessary, but serve no purpose other than to show how educated the user is. There are other words that are simply jargon and serve no purpose other than to show I am part of the group that understands these things. There is pride in being in the right clique.

Based on this, I would make the following suggestions. Be aware that the people around us frequently do not understand our language and behave accordingly. Do not make statements and simply assume they understand them or carry on a conversation in their presence that is gibberish to them. Avoid feeling or appearing to feel superior because you are the one who knows the vernacular. Consider your audience. This can be hard, especially if you may be speaking to different types of people and do not want to confuse the one and bore the other. But it must be attempted. C. S. Lewis said that one of the tests of whether you truly understand your theology is whether you can turn it into ordinary speech. I would agree with him on that. Also, frankly I believe it is a good practice to eliminate or at least minimize words in your Christian vocabulary that serve no useful purpose. And we need to be sure we understand the meaning of the words we do use and do not just mouth them because it is how Christians talk. For if we want to reach the world, we need to talk to people in a language they can understand and that does not seem to be pushing them away.   

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Touch of Humor - Headship

What is the Biblical teaching on men being head of the home? How can we distinguish it from competing views?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Old Erich Proverb - Valley

When you go through the valley of deep darkness, remember God is there with you.

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Voice from the Past - Tertullian

From God you may learn about that which you hold of God; but from none else will you get this knowledge, if you get it not from God. For who is to reveal that which God has hidden? To that quarter must we resort in our inquiries whence we are most safe even in deriving our ignorance. For it is really better for us not to know a thing, because He has not revealed it to us, than to know it according to man's wisdom, because he has been bold enough to assume it.

Tertullian, 160-220 AD, A Treatise on the Soul, Chapter 1 (translated by Peter Holmes, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume III, Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, p. 182)

Is it better to remain ignorant rather than go beyond what God has revealed? How can we avoid being presumptuous like this?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Fooling the World

One problem we face, as Evangelical Christians, in trying to communicate with the world is that we try to give the impression we have our act together. This often is a product of our political involvement. Then when some high-profile Christian fails or statistics show we do not always practice what we preach, our entire message is undercut. Now I am not saying we can live in a totally hypocritical way and expect people to take our message seriously (Matthew 5:13-16; Titus 2:1; 1 Peter 3:16). But when we make the principal issue our behavior, we set ourselves up, like Peter, for a fall (Matthew 26:31-35; 2 Corinthians 10:12,13; Proverbs 16:18).

Scripture says we are sinners (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6) saved by the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9). The result of this is that God is at work in our life to transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:11-14). But this is a process, and we have not yet reached our goal (Philippians 3:12-16; Galatians 5:16,17; 1 John 1:8-10). This puts us in the position of those who are headed in the right direction but have not attained to it yet. We are not allowed to get up on our high horse and tout our own uprightness. Nor are we encouraged to lay aside the standard because we have not achieved it yet.

G. K. Chesterton, in his Father Brown mystery The Secret of Father Brown, puts forth two different approaches to looking at criminal behavior, and by extension, sinfulness. One approach is to look at various types of behavior as something totally alien from yourself, as something you could never do. This often goes with seeing those who do such things as strange, inexplicable creatures you have nothing in common with. It tries to keep people from doing these things by making them look too horrible to consider. It also kills any compassion for those who do such things. Therefore, it allows these things to sneak up on you unawares because you are not on guard to resist them. Further, once you find you are capable of doing such things or find someone who does them to be relatively human, it breaks down all barriers for opposing these behaviors. But the right attitude is to avoid such things, not because you think yourself incapable of them, but because you realize that you, as a sinful human being, are capable of such things and must be on your guard against them. Then you can have compassion for those who do them, because you see the possibility of the same behavior in yourself. And you are not forced to abandon the standard just because you fall short of it. But you will have a different approach when advocating it to others. For it is only when we quit looking down on people and meet them where they are that we can hope to convince them of anything.   

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Face of the Enemy

I do believe it is helpful to realize that we have enemies in the spiritual realm who want to destroy us (Ephesians 6:10-13; 1 Peter 5: 8-10; 2 Corinthians 11:1-3). That the problems we encounter are not just accidents, but there really is someone out there working against us. But there is a danger in carrying this so far that we start to see everyone who opposes us or disagrees with us as an agent of Satan. There are two problems with this. Satan is smarter than that. He and his minions can be subtle, sneaking in unawares and getting two people who think they are doing what is right at odds with each other through clever misdirection (2 Corinthians 2:11; 11:14; 1 Timothy 3:6,7). Also, we are not as right as all that (1 Corinthians 3:18; 8:2,3; Proverbs 26:12). If we believe that we are always right and that no one else, especially anyone who disagrees with us, could possibly have anything useful to contribute, we are the ones who have fallen into the snare of the devil, not those who oppose us.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Life Is a Story not a Formula

We like formulas. You put in the right ingredients, crank things out, and get your answer. So we look for formulas for the good life, formulas for the good marriage, formulas for being spiritual, formulas for raising children, formulas for serving God, formulas for reviving the church, formulas for reforming society. And there is only one problem with these formulas: they do not work. Life is more complicated than that. Life is much more of a story or a journey, full of twists and turns and surprises we would never have anticipated. Not a formula.

Now it is true that salvation is simple-- for us. It is simple because it involves trusting totally in the work of Another. It is not something we do, but a gift we receive (Romans 6:23; 3:23-28; Ephesians 2:8,9). But it required considerable work on God's part to bring this about and it happened in a way that cannot be boiled down to a simple formula (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21). It plays out more like a story than a pat formula, and even those who followed God, including the angels, seemed surprised at how it turned out (1 Peter 1:10-12; Luke 9:43-45; Mark 9:9-10). There are those who would bridle at this, thinking that if it is a story, it must be false. But this seems much closer to reality than a formula, which is just too simple. Our growth in Christ is pictured much more as a lifelong trek than a quick fix (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 3:12-16; Hebrews 12:1,2). Our service for God is pictured in the same way (2 Corinthians 3:5,6; 2:14-16; Colossians 1:28,29). Even history as a whole is something God is working out to His desired conclusion (Ephesians 1:11; Matthew 16:18; Isaiah 43:10-13).

What should we conclude from this? If we live our lives based on formulas, we will be discouraged when they fail or become complacent if we think we have gotten them to work for us. We can conclude it is useless to try to live for God or that it is only possible for a few super-spiritual people and can give up trying, or at least trying very hard. We can go rushing from one formula to another, hoping against hope we will finally find the one that will work. Or we can convince ourselves we have truly obtained spirituality and need look no further, cutting ourselves off from the next thing God wants to do in our lives. And perhaps setting ourselves up for a future spiritual failure when we are attacked at a weak point (1 Corinthians 10:12,13; Proverbs 16:18; Matthew 26:31-35). Or we can lay aside formulas and embark on the step-by-step journey of being changed into the people God wants us to be (Galatians 5:16; Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 2:6,7).

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Touch of Humor - The Contention

How can we avoid contentions over minor things? What can we do when they come up?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Old Erich Proverb - Path

The way of the cross is not the easiest path through life, but it is the only one to the right destination.

Friday, March 8, 2013

A Voice from the Past - Spurgeon

When I cannot rejoice in what I have, I will look forward to what shall be mine, and will still rejoice. Hope will live on a bare common and sing on a branch laden down with snow. No date and no place are unsuitable for hope. Hell alone excepted, hope is a dweller in all regions. We may always hope, for we always have grounds for it: we will always hope, for it is a never-failing consolation.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, 1834-1892, The Treasury of David, Vol. 2, Psalm 71:14 (Hendrickson Publishers, p. 210)

How important is it to have hope? How can we maintain hope in difficult times?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Writing the Gospels

Why are the first three gospels so much alike? To answer this, it is important to understand that people of ancient times had a different attitude toward writing than we do. We put a high premium on being original. They put a much higher premium on telling the story exactly as it came down to them. The Roman histories show the same tendency, often retelling the same incidents  in every similar terms. Therefore, the similarities do not prove they were not accounts derived from eyewitnesses.

Now the claim has been made that the writers of the gospels give us all the information they knew. But this does not fit the material as it stands. In every gospel there is material not found in any of the others (Mark 7:31-37; 8:22-26; 14:51,52; Matthew 1:18-2:23; 9:32-38; 17:24-27; Luke 1:1-2:52; 10:25-42; 16:19-31). There are incidents found in any two of the gospels not found in the other one (Mark 1:21-28 and Luke 4:31-37; Mark 9:39-40 and Luke 9:49-50; Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4; Mark 6:45-56 and Matthew 14:22-36; Mark 7:1-8:21 and Matthew 15:1-16:12; Mark 11:20-26 and Matthew 21:18-22; Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13; Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10; Matthew 11:2-19 and Luke 7:18-35). I am forced to conclude that the writers were selective on what information they used and that there is no basis for assuming they were ignorant of what they did not. Now it is sometimes claimed that Mark was written first and that Matthew, an apostle, would not have copied from Mark, so the gospels could not have been written by whom they are claimed to be written by. Whether Mark was first could be argued, but Mark was claimed to have written his gospel based on the memories of Peter. I cannot imagine Matthew being too proud to make use of the memories of Peter.

Another problem is that the gospel writers use the same saying in different contexts, particularly in Matthew and Luke. One opinion on this is that they had a list of sayings and just fudged together contexts for those sayings. In my opinion, the better explanation is that Jesus taught the same or similar things at different times. One of the characteristics of any speaker is that they tend to repeat the same points and illustrations. This is true, not just of a bad speaker, but also of a good speaker. A good speaker realizes people need to hear the same thing more than once for it to stick. This would also explain why we have different versions of similar sayings (Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27; Matthew 22:1-14 and Luke 14:16-24; Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-26).

There are also other, more minor differences, going down to the very words used (it is clear they did not word-for-word copy from each other, though they record the same incidents). While this is not how we would write things, none of this disproves that the gospels were written by who they are claimed to be written by.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Tower Builders

There was a man who wanted to build a tower into heaven. So he moved to a village of tower builders. The people there reassured him that if he worked hard, he could reach the home of the One Who Dwells Above. As he looked around he saw that there were many types of towers. Some were simple but others included side rooms that were dwellings for those in need. Still others included all manner of complicated structures that made no sense to the man at all. But none seemed very tall, and no matter how hard their owners worked, the towers seemed to crumple and fall back down. Now the man began to build, but the next morning the top of his tower had fallen over and lay in rubble at the base.

After a few frustrating days like this an older man came up and asked, "Have you considered the elevator?"

"What is that?" replied the man.

"The One Who Dwells Above knew that we would never be able to build a tower to heaven," stated the older man. "So he came down at great cost to Himself and built an elevator up to His presence. And those who take the elevator will one day remain there with Him forever."

"Do not listen to him," said a villager standing nearby. "Those elevator people are lazy and do not work hard to build things like we do. Surely the One Who Dwells Above is not at all pleased with them.

So the man went back to his work.

But the man became curious. So he walked over to where the elevator people lived. And he saw the elevator that went up out of sight. But around the base he saw buildings. Some contained places to help the needy. Others were complicated structures that made no sense. Some even seemed to be attempts of the people to build their own towers. But there was no question of the builders being idle.

"Why do you build these buildings," the man asked a passerby,  "if you believe you can go right into the presence of the One Who Dwells Above through the elevator?"

"If someone goes up in the elevator into the presence of the One Who Dwells Above, they are changed," replied the passerby. "Then they want to build out of love for the One Who Dwells Above and for their neighbors."

So the man went away puzzled.

But the next week the rains came and the man's tower collapsed.  And as the man stood there wet and discouraged, he felt something pulling him. And he remembered the love of the One who had reached down to build the elevator. And he left the scattered remnants of his own efforts and stumbled through the muck to the village of the elevator people. He hesitated for a moment before the door of the elevator . Then he pushed the button. And his life was never the same again. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

A Touch of Humor - Weekly Schedule

Do churches sometimes unnecessarily separate families? What is the best approach to this?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Old Erich Proverb - Stumbling-Block

The gospel has always been a stumbling-block, but we must be sure people stumble over it, not over us.

Friday, March 1, 2013

A Voice from the Past - Charles Hodge

God requires nothing irrational of his rational creatures. He does not require faith without knowledge, or faith in the impossible, or faith without evidence. Christianity is equally opposed to superstition and Rationalism. The one is faith without appropriate evidence, the other refuses to believe what it does not understand, in despite of evidence which should command belief.

Charles Hodge, 1787-1878, Systematic Theology, Volume I, Theology, Introduction, Chapter III, 5,C,4 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1982, p.55)

Is this understanding of faith true? How should we understand the relationship of faith and reason?