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21 Things People Say To Damage Christian Credibility

Page history last edited by Capri 5 years ago

 

21 THINGS CHRISTIANS SAY THAT HURT THEIR CREDIBILITY

The issue of Christians and credibility is very important to me as I am more than a little vexed at the impulsive proliferation of chain letters by Christians on the net, causing a lot of damage to our credibility (unintentional on the part of naive or easily suggestible Christians, deliberate deception on the part of hoaxers). This directly feeds the fire of lies anti-theists choose to believe about Christianity based on simply bigotry, disillusionment, or bad experiences with frauds claiming to be Christian and acting anything but.

We get accused all the time of spreading lies because chain letters that misuse God's name do contain lies and half-truths. But what the Christophobes are deliberately forgetting to mention is that it isn't the Christians who are the actual liars, it is the hoaxers who start and restart faux Christian chain letters. Many Christians get deceived because emotions, sense of religion, and desire to share anything that mentions God/Jesus are exploited and used against us so we just share and reshare stuff that has hit us right in the heart before we have even thought to look the item(s) up to see if they are in fact, true, or even if they have taken and twisted a simple Bible passage to make us feel as if we are sinning by not sharing the viral. Such chain letters are IMO, not from God, however loudly they shout that they are.

Here is a compilation of articles in a series on the various "stupid" things people say that damage our credibility. Things coming from both Christians and non-Christians. It is from a wonderful Christian site that contains some of IMO the very best articles I have read. This doesn't touch on the chain letter problem itself, but on some of the prevailing attitudes that contribute to it, and goes way beyond it. I especially love what he says about such statements as "All sins are equal in the eyes of God" and "One white lie will send you to hell". I don't have the eloquence or theological know-how enough to express it, but I've never agreed with those statements and always found them to be a direct contradiction to God's love and a belittling of his character, not to mention how that attitude turns people off Christianity altogether. Such attitudes could suggest that failing to pray every night is worse than committing rape, and yes, there is a disgusting chain letter touting this attitude.

That is not from God, it is not real Christianity.

So, enough of my ramble, here are the articles about the things people say that do damage, unwittingly r deliberately, to our credibility as Christians.

I've reposted them all on one page so one doesn't have to click and hit the back button to go to the next item.

Here is the whole set.

* * *

21 THINGS CHRISTIANS SAY THAT HURT THEIR CREDIBILITY

by Ted PaulAugust 18th, 2014

Michael Patton (President of Credo House) has written a series of 21 articles called, “…and other stupid statements”. Obviously the title is meant to provoke curiosity. But the issue of credibility is one that Christians are well aware of. The Bible, after all, is full of miraculous events and people.

But there are some things Christians say that Michael believes are “stupid statements”.

Credibility Problems of Christians

The reactions to Michael’s articles have been quite varied.

After reading some of these articles you may even find yourself saying:

What could he possibly mean by that!

I’ve said that before!

I’ve heard that so many times and it always annoyed me!

What the big deal with that?

Who cares?

Whatever your reaction is, we hope that you’ll find one that piques your interest.

21 Things Christians Say that Hurt Their Credibility

You can’t use the Bible to prove the Bible

You can’t out-give God.

Christianity is dependent on your character witness.

Good question. I will find the answer and get back to you.

If the Bible is not inerrant, then Christianity is false.

If there are modern day prophets, then the canon is still open.

God comes before my wife.

I don’t want to know about God, I just want to know him.

Everyone who disagrees with me is a liar.

In heaven, we will be bowing down before the thrown of God 24/7

Nothing could be further from the truth.

When we get to heaven we will be timeless.

All sins are equal in God’s sight.

The Bible says it, therefore it’s true.

The trinity is like 3-in–1 shampoo.

One white lie will send you to hell for all eternity.

I was going to preach this, but the Holy Spirit led me to this.

Belief is no good without practice (Part 1)

Belief is no good without practice (Part 2)

Belief is no good without practice (Part 3)

You ask me how I know he lives…he lives within my heart.

You can’t use the Bible to prove the Bible

I have heard this statement many times. It can come from Christians or non-Christians, but mainly I hear it from unbelievers this idea that the Bible is inadmissible as evidence for itself. If I were trying to use the Bible to prove the validity of the Bible (from the perspective of many outsiders), this is circular reasoning. This statement is not only wrong, but completely misunderstands its own argument; ironically, it makes the exact circular assumptions that it accuses believers of.

1. The “Bible” is not one book

When we are talking about “proving” or evidencing the truths of the Gospel message, we have to put our historian hats on (not our religious hats). The argument is meant to place Christians in this rather odd situation where they sound like they are saying the Bible is true because it says it is true. But the Bible is not one book. In fact, the term “Bible” is not in the Bible. The Bible is a collection of works that spans over a thousand years, written by dozens of authors, some who are connected, some who are not. All together there are sixty-six books in the Protestant Bible.

When we are talking about the claims of the “New Testament,” we are talking about the story of Christianity, the very foundation and apex of Christianity as it deals with the incarnation of Christ, who he was, and what he did. But even then, to say one can’t prove the New Testament with the New Testament is quite ill-informed and unreflective. The designation “New Testament” (along with its list of books) is not even in the New Testament. Like with the whole Bible, it is just a name given to a certain related corpus of writings that speaks about the story and implications of the advent of Jesus Christ. There are twenty-seven books in the New Testament.

If one were to look at this with a historian’s eye, to say we cannot use the Bible to prove or evidence the Bible is about the most misguided thing one could possibly say. What does that mean? Are you saying that we cannot use the testimony that the book of Matthew gives to evidence Mark? Or that one cannot attempt to piece together Galatians with the Book of Acts? Of course you can. In fact, you must. These twenty-seven documents, all written around the same time, all telling similar stories, must be used to prove or evidence each other. If not, the historian is not being a historian, but something entirely different.

2. One must assume the inspiration of the Bible to say the Bible can’t prove the Bible

You see, if a person says, “You can’t use the Bible to prove the Bible,” he probably doesn’t realize he is borrowing a bit from the Christian worldview in order to even make such an assertion. What is being borrowed? The idea of the basic unity of Scripture or the single-authorship of the Bible. The only way to say the Bible can’t prove the Bible is to presume the inspiration of Scripture. Otherwise, there is no reason to link the canon of Scripture together in such a way. For the non-Christian especially, the Bible should be seen as sixty-six ancient documents, all of which stand or fall on their own. In order to make them stand or fall together, one must assume a single authorship of some sort. At that point, the argument becomes self-defeating, as the very statement (“You can’t use the Bible to prove the Bible”) proves the Bible!

3. Most events of ancient history have no more than one contemporary witness (if that many)

The twenty-seven ancient documents called the New Testament are unparalleled in ancient history as far as their testimony. The contemporary multiple attestations for the story of Jesus (eyewitness or not) are without equal. Look to the sources we have for other ancient historical events and people, and you will find that they have nowhere near the amount of documented writings discussing the central claims.

Yet when it comes to the claims about Christ, we are talking about twenty-seven documents in the New Testament alone! And all of these come within sixty to seventy years after the events. And if you expand the data beyond just Scripture and allow extrabiblical sources to be considered, then we are talking about dozens and dozens more from early church fathers (whose testimonies cannot be ignored simply because they believed; what if we did that with the seemingly miraculous landing on the moon? “All those who do not believe it happened, step up to the evidence table!” Uh, no.) and from ancient historians such as Tacitus and Josephus.

In the end, the story of Christ has plenty of independent documentation, all of must prove or evidence the rest. So in this sense, we must use the Bible to prove the Bible or else we are not being historians, but religious zealots, fighting to keep hold of our unbelief through stupid statements.

You can’t out-give God.

It was my first semester in seminary. Kristie and I were already living hand to mouth, trusting in the Lord for his provisions. With Katelynn just born and Kylee on the way, we looked with hopeful anticipation for the provisional hand of the Lord. Yahweh-yireh, “the Lord will provide.” If the Lord wanted me there, he would have to daily open his hand to our needs. Truly, it was a wonderful experience that I would not wish upon anyone. Does that even make sense?

Our income consisted of four sources: 1) My part time job at the DTS Library. I shelved books. Not big pay. 2) My Indian scholarship ($2100 per semester). Yes, I am 1/8 Cherokee, believe it or not. 3) My family who gave what they could. 4) My home church. This is where the majority of our support came from, but it was very sporadic. Some months there would be nothing. Other months, people would give in abundance. Throughout this time, I tried to remain faithful in giving to the Lord. He was the one who provided and I was determined to exercise my Christianity in a way that gave me more opportunity to trust in him.

At one point we had gotten very far behind on many of the bills. We did not have any money to buy groceries. Things were not looking good. We prayed and prayed and then resorted to begging friends and family for a few more dollars. They did what they could. However, what they gave was not near enough to get our heads above water. Our bills were stacked up to just over $5000. At the end of our rope, salvation came through a $5000 check we got in the mail from just one donor at our home church. Just in the nick of time!

Take a detour with me for a moment. I have heard many Evangelical sermons on giving. I have listened to testimony after testimony from those who had prioritized the Lord in the tightest financial circumstances. I had read the passage about the “widow’s mite.” You know, the one where the lady was commended by Christ for giving her last two dollars to the Lord. I knew all the clichés: “I just keep shoveling out, but God has a bigger shovel!” Or, my favorite, “You can’t out-give God.” And, yes, how about our Evangelical go-to passage in Malachi 3:10 : ” ‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘to see if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.’” Test the Lord and see if he does not bless you.

Now, back to my story. I tested the Lord that day. I gave to him of my first fruits. I gave to him before the late electric bill, the car payment, and the bread box. I prioritized Him above my children, wife, financial integrity and all else. I had just enough to catch up on my bills so long as I put his claim on hold. But I gave to him part of what I needed. Why? Because he is faithful. Why? Because you can’t out-give God. Why? Because he called on me to test him.

However . . . Two weeks later, threats of collection, electricity cut-off, and growling stomachs of my family made me wonder: Did he just fail the test? Did I just out-give God?

Ten years later, I don’t have any “success” stories concerning the size of God’s shovel. There are still no lack of stories from people (which I don’t doubt) concerning how God blessed them with great financial abundance due to their sacrificial giving. But no matter how I try to manipulate my own story, it always seems that my shovel is bigger than God’s.

I am certainly not discouraged by this. And, if you find yourself in a similar situation, you should not be either.

Let me list a few reasons, beyond my own subjective testimony, why I believe the “You can’t out-give God” statement can be very misleading.

First, the passage most often used is Malachi 3:10. In that passage, God does indeed call upon his people to test him. They were “robbing” him of tithes and offerings (v. 8). He tells the nation that if they will prioritize him through their giving, he will bless them. However, there are three things to take into account:

First, he is speaking to a nation, not an individual. Notice in verse 9: “You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you.” Therefore, it is talking about national blessings, not individual blessings.

Second, this is the nation of Israel to whom he is speaking, not our nation. Verses 11-12 describe the blessings under the Mosaic Covenant that were/are particular to Israel, not to us. We are no longer under the Mosaic Covenant, for its blessings or its curses.

Third, even if we could draw an eternal principle out of this passage, we must understand that when it is assumed that the nation of Israel was being obedient to the Covenant, experiencing its blessings, there was always provision for the “poor” of the land. In Leviticus 14:21, we have a stipulation for a faithful Israelite who was giving to God, but remained very poor. God allowed him to give less than was required. Why didn’t this faithful Israelite have more? As well, there is no indication in Leviticus 25:39 that the poor man selling himself into slavery was disobedient. God calls upon fellow Israelites to have mercy on him and those like him. Further, Deuteronomy 15:7-11 demonstrates that God listens to the prayers of the poor when they are neglected. It even says that “The poor will never cease to be in the land” (v. 11; emphasis mine). And this was under the Covenant!

Concerning the widow’s mite, let’s read the story:

Luke 21:1-4

“And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And He said, ‘Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.’”

My first thought when reading this is, why was she so poor? She was the most godly of the bunch. The others, who were rich, were rebuked because they gave so little. But this poor lady, in her faithful service to God, gave all she had. If this was the state of her heart (rather than the first time she did this), then it seems that her shovel was bigger than God’s, and Christ loved it!

Paul spoke about how he, in his Christian life, had learned to live in abundance and poverty (Phil. 4:12). Paul most certainly was a sacrificial giver. Why did he ever experience need? It would seem that his shovel was sometimes bigger than God’s.

Conclusion

In Evangelicalism, we don’t like the Health-Wealth Gospel. You know, the one that says God wants us to be healthy and wealthy. We rightly call this a serious aberration of the Gospel. We even call it heresy. However, do we not promote a quasi-wealth Gospel when we say that God’s shovel is bigger than ours with the implication that if we give money to God, he will give us more money back?

Though I am certainly imperfect here, I do believe what I heard a pastor say the other day: “There is no greater indication of your spiritual life then your giving habits.” He went on to say, “It is impossible to be a good Christian if you are not giving.” The old saying, “If you want to know where someone’s priorities lie, thumb through their checkbook,” is true. However, I do not believe that we are to give with some idea that the bank account of heaven is obligated to wire transfer directly to our earthly bank accounts when we give sacrificially. God may or he may not.

But won’t we experience “blessing” when we give, even if it is not financial? I suppose. But it really depends on how you look at it. When we give sacrificially to the Lord without expectations, we are acting out the blessing that we already have been given: a perspective that is in alignment with reality. The widow gave because she knew that this was not her home. She gave all she had because she was already sold out to God. She knew that the treasures of this earth are nothing to be compared to the glory that is to follow. If you believe this—if you truly believe this—you are already blessed. The belief itself is the blessing. Maybe God’s shovel becomes bigger than yours and maybe it does not. Our blessing is our ability to trust God. Our giving is an expression of that trust.

We should expect to suffer in this life. Sometimes that suffering will come in the form of financial suffering. Sometimes it will be other things. But to think and preach that there is some guaranteed way to avoid the cross of financial suffering is not a message that we carry.

As John Calvin puts it in his commentary on Psalm. 125:3:

“We are here warned that the guardianship of God does not secure us from being sometimes exercised with the cross and afflictions, and that therefore the faithful ought not to promise themselves a delicate and easy life in this world, it being enough for them not to be abandoned of God when they stand in need of his help. Their heavenly Father, it is true, loves them most tenderly, but he will have them awakened by the cross, lest they should give themselves too much to the pleasures of the flesh.”

Christianity is dependent on your character witness.

I was discussing religion with a gentleman not long ago. It was a very interesting conversation in which he recounted to me how he used to be a Christian in a Baptist church. But he left Christianity for Buddhism not too long ago. He explained that the reason why he left Christianity was because of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In short, he felt that Christians were on the wrong side of this issue.

This is representative of so many in our cultural Christianity. This gentleman’s argument was simple:

Christianity is determined as valid or invalid upon the character of its adherents.

In other words, if Christians do not act a “good” way, then Christianity itself is discredited. In this man’s mind, Christians were on the wrong side of the conflict, therefore he left Christianity for something more suitable in keeping with the character that he supposed should accompany those who follow the true God.

I am going to make a statement here that I suppose is going to make many of my readers upset. Here it goes:

Christianity is not validated upon the character of its adherents.

Did you get that? Let me repeat.

Christianity is not validated upon the character of its adherents.

So many times I hear people give excuses why they are not Christians. They will refer to Christian so-and-so who did this or that terrible thing. They will look to the character of Christians and judge, based on this character, whether Christianity is true. Not only this, I often hear Christians who affirm such a validation method. I have heard Christians say that Christianity is validated by how we treat one another.

This simply is not true.

Thankfully, God did not confine the validation of his message to the character witness of sinners. If he did, we are all in trouble. Why? Because your character is grossly lacking. The character of the Christian community is weak at best. The character of Christian leaders is shaky and brittle. The history of the church, no matter what tradition, does not always have a pretty track record.

I often tell people not to look to me for confirmation of their Christian belief. This is important. If, for some reason, I was to renounce my faith, leave my wife and family, and take up the banner of atheism, I am certain that many people would be discouraged. Rightly so. My students would ponder how this could be seeing as how I seemed so convinced of the truthfulness of Christianity before. They would be discouraged and many would be disillusioned. But even if I were to renounce the faith, this is no real reason for anyone to give a second thought to whether Christianity is true or not. Christianity is not based upon my character. While the spead of the Gospel is somewhat dependant on Christians (as God has made it so), it’s veracity is not dependent on the faithfulness of its followers.

Many people refer to this passage in support of such a view:

John 13:34-35 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The idea would be that so long as we love one another, then Christianity is validated. Therefore, we should not do theology or apologetics, but just set an example and Christianity will be evidence through our character. As much as I appreciate the desire for Christians to act like Christians, this is a dangerous misunderstanding of this passage. It places the validation of Christianity upon our character witness. But the passage does not suppose the truthfulness of Christianity is dependent on our character. It does, however, suppose the truthfulness of our Christian confession is dependent on our character. If we don’t love one another, it does not make Christianity any less true. It only makes our profession to be Christian less true. Likewise, if we do love one another, Christianity is no truer than before.

Christianity is based solely on the historic person and work of Christ.

Let me repeat.

Christianity is based solely on the historic person and work of Christ.

As I told this gentleman, “Christianity is true if Christ rose from the dead. If he did not, it is false. That is it.” It does not matter how Christians respond to the conflict in Palestine, Iraq, or any other place. It does not depend on whether you are nice to your neighbor or a murderer. It does not depend on whether all Christians are unified or divided. It does not hinge on your character or mine. It does not even depend on our perseverance in the faith. Its truthfulness is solely a matter of history. Is Christ who he said he was?

Paul tells the Corinthians,”If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). Notice he did not say “If you Corinthians don’t promote peace and justice and be nice to one another, then our faith is in vain.” Its about what Christ did, not what you do. It is about the incarnation. While our character might make Christianity more attractive, our character does not have a vote in truth. It is about history first, the rest will follow.

We need to be reminded of this as our country is increasingly becoming “post-Christian.” If we ever give the impression that Christianity is validated by our character witness, God forgive us for misleading so many. We are poor, weak, and broken, but the foundation of Christianity—the historic God-man Jesus Christ—is forever strong.

Good question. I will find the answer and get back to you.

The other day I was listening to a radio program. The speaker is someone who is very popular in Evangelical apologetics. He is someone that I have learned a lot from and whom I respect a great deal. However, he propagated something that I think is a very poor apologetic response to questions for which the individual does not have answers. It goes like this:

Apologist teacher: “We need to be ready to give an answer for our faith.”

Student: “But I am scared. What if someone asks a question that I don’t have an answer for.”

Apologist teacher: “Don’t be scared. It is okay if you don’t know. Don’t feel bad about your lack of knowledge. You just need to remedy it. Tell them that it is a good question and that you will go find the answer and get back with them about it.”

However, I find this sort of carte blanc response disturbing and quite demeaning.

I am not saying that it could not be a good answer in certain circumstances for certain questions. But when it comes to our defense of the faith we had better be more prepared and more reflective. What do I mean by this?

Think about it. Let’s put this in a particular situation. You are an enthusiastic Christian who believes deeply in the Gospel. You are talking to a co-worker about Christ one day. They begin to tell you about why they don’t believe in God. The crux of their issue is the problem of evil. “How could a good God allow evil?” That is their question. You respond, “I don’t know. Good question. I will research this some and get back to you next week.”

What you have just done here is illegitimized your faith to this person. As well, you have diminished the seriousness of the question and the person asking it. To this person, your faith is carried even though you have not dealt with one of the most serious theological questions that anyone can ask. You have just told the person, “Hmmm…Good question. Never thought of that.” Once this person (who obviously does think deeply) recognizes that you have not personally wrestled with this issue, they will see your faith as shallow and fake. By essentially saying, “I have never thought of that,” you have just lost your representation.

Not only this, but you have also belittled the person by demeaning the question. How did you demean the question? By not engaging it, but simply saying “I will get the answer and come back.” Quick fix, eh? How do you know you will get the answer? Is it really that easy? Is it as simple as “getting the answer and coming back.” You are saying to this person, “I know that this is the main reason why you reject God. You may think you are a smart chap, but you are not that smart since I can simply go get the answer and come back in no time!”

I am not saying that we have to have an answer for everything. But this is the point: Most pop apologetics today are concerned with good Evangelical cliché answers. It is not about engaging the issue. It is not about wrestling with problems. It is about “getting the answer and coming back.” Sometimes there will be good answers. Other times there will be many legitimate options. Still, other times there will be no answers, just an understanding of the difficulty.

This is why Christian discipleship of the mind is so important. We need to show others that we are not disqualified due to intellectual shallowness. We need to have wrestled with the issue ourselves. We need to show them that we understand the problems not simply because we have read a question/answer book on the subject, but because we have been in the same place and asked the same questions. We have engaged and wrestled with the question personally. Therefore our answer comes from the depth of who we are, even if the answer is “I don’t know.”

Another example: Think about this. You are witnessing to someone and telling them about Scripture as God’s word. They begin to inquire about the contents of Scripture saying, “So many people have different books in their Bibles. How do you know that the books you use are the right ones?” You say, “Good question, I will get back to you on that.” Say what? You have not even wrestled with a foundational question such as this? How real can your faith actually be? That is what is going through their mind.

Or, how about this: They ask you how you know historically that Jesus rose from the grave and it is not just a Christian myth. You respond, “Good question. I am going to find out and get back to you on this.” You are going to find out how you know Jesus rose from the grave? You are going to find out how you know Jesus rose from the grave?? You are going to find out how you know Jesus rose from the grave???? You, a Christian, are going to go (future tense) to find out why you believe the central element to the Christian faith is true? And you expect this person to follow you?

This comes in all areas of theology. As a Calvinist (one who believes in unconditional predestination) I am often asked many questions about why God did not choose everyone. I don’t have an answer for this. It disturbs me too. But this is not from lack of studying or reflection. I know all the options. I have spend many a night dealing with this with the Lord. Hoever, I don’t have a good answer. But I do have an informed answer: “I don’t know.” Sometimes an informed I don’t know is better than an unreflective text book answer. Why? Because it legitimizes the question (and the one asking) and legitimizes your faith. You have shown that you are a real person, not a theological bot. Theological bots are simply concerned with the “right” answer to everything, not the struggle and the depth that accompanies true belief.

We are not theological bots. God wants us to love him with all our understanding. But our discipleship process must engage issues truly. We need to avoid surface level shallow defenses of our faith. They do more harm than good. And, remember, on some issues, informed agnosticism is the best and most effective position to have.

If the Bible is not inerrant, then Christianity is false.

Consider this story (adapted from a true story):

Greg Jones was an evangelical Christian, active in his church, a regular preacher, teacher and served on the elder board. He says that he was addicted to fundamentalism. He slept, ate, and drank the truths of Christianity. After a decade of faithful service to the church, he is now a professing atheist who rejects the naivety of all that he held to so dearly. Why? Well, as he tells the story, he says that he was awakened out of his slumber of fundamentalism through many encounters with “the truth.” Chief among these encounters was when he finally realized that the Bible was “full of errors.” He describes his turn by referencing the discrepancies that he found throughout Scripture and being unable to come to a way to reconcile them. “For years,” he describes, “I was the best at answering the skeptic with regards to any objection that he could levy against the Scriptures. I knew how to reconcile any supposed contradiction. It became like an art form that I was proud of. No matter how difficult the problem, I could find a way out. After a time, I don’t know why, but I began to reflect upon the lengths that I had to go to make it all fit together. I realized that the art of answering the contradictions became a subjective smokescreen that I raised not only to those I was responding to, but also to myself. I had to be honest with myself. John says ‘No one who is born of God sins,’ then turns around and says “If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father.” Which one is it? There are literally hundreds of problems like this in Scripture. My answers may have satisfied those I taught, but they no longer satisfied me. Eventually I realized (sadly, I might say) that I had to let go of the inerrancy of Scripture. Once I did that, I had to let go of Christianity all together.”

This description is a common testimony of many who have walked away from the faith. But this blog is not about walking away from the faith per se, but with the danger of the doctrine of inerrancy. When Greg rejected the doctrine of inerrancy because of his inability to reconcile the discrepancies, did this necessarily mean that he had to walk away from the faith?

Here is the question: Is the doctrine of inerrancy so central to the Christian faith that if one were to deny it, he or she should pack their bags and search for a new worldview? In other words (and let me be very clear), if the Scriptures are not inerrant, does that mean the Christian faith is false?

Most of you know that I hold to the doctrine of inerrancy. I call my view “reasoned” inerrancy which does not suppose a particular wooden hermeneutic to be tied to it. (You can read more about it here).

Having said this, I believe that this doctrine, while important, is not the article upon which Christianity stands or falls. I believe that the Scriptures could contain error and the Christian faith remain essentially in tact. Why? Because Christianity is not built upon the inerrancy of Scripture, but the historical Advent of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christ became man, lived a perfect life, died an atoning death, and rose on the third day not because the Scriptures inerrantly say that these events occurred, but because they did, in fact, occur. The truth is in the objectivity of the event, not the accuracy of the record of the event. The cause and effect must be put into proper place here. The historical event of the incarnation caused the recording of Scripture, Scripture was not the cause of the events. Again, Christianity is founded upon the Advent, not the inerrant record of the Advent.

Think about this: Do we only trust the historical records of those accounts that have an inerrant witness? Are the ancient histories inerrant? I have never heard anyone say that Polybius (c.200-after 118 BCE) was inerrant in his records of Roman history, yet we treat him as generally reliable. As well, Josephus (37- after 93 CE) is seen as a generally reliable Jewish historian, but not inerrant. Those who write history books for our schools today do not have to submit a resume with credentials of inerrancy before they are approved by the publishers to write upper-level history textbooks do they? No. Why? Because it is a well accepted understanding that people can give a reliable and truthful witness, even if they are not inerrant. What if we followed the example set by Greg in the above story. Once we find a discrepancy of any kind in any work, this renders the entire work untrustworthy. If this were our method of historical inquiry, we would be completely agnostic to all of history. We would end up saying that all works written by historians of past are complete lies and fabrications, because they are not inerrant.

Thankfully, this is not the dilemma that is presented to us in understanding history (or any other discipline). We understand that people, while errant, can give us generally trustworthy accounts. Those who hold positions as university professors, scientists, engineers, historians, mathematicians, politicians, and just about every other career must rely upon the general trustworthiness of the witness of other errant individuals.

Let’s take this same approach with the Scriptures for a moment. Let’s assume that the Scriptures are not inerrant. (Please, at least attempt to go there with me!). Let’s take it a step further and say that the Scriptures are not inspired at all. Here then is the situation: the Scriptures are a collection of 66 ancient historical records, given through various types of literature. The records, like any other record, may have errors-historical, scientific, or otherwise. Now that we are rollin’, let’s say that John did indeed make a mistake about the number of women who came to the tomb of Jesus after His resurrection. Does this make the testimony of John completely false? Does this mean that the entire testimony of John is now wrong at every turn? Of course not! Any historian who followed this methodology would quickly find himself out of a job, for he would have no sources for his research. If the Scriptures were like any other records of history with minor discrepancies, then this would not justify a total rejection of the events they record. Their credibility is based upon the assumption of general historic reliability as evidenced through the rules of historic inquiry—which do not include a criteria for inerrancy.

Let me take this one more step further. The fact is that we don’t even need the Scriptures in order for Christianity to be true. Remember, the Christian worldview is Christocentric (centered around the Advent of Christ), not bibliocentric (centered around the Bible). It is because of God’s grace that we even have the record of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. But if for some reason God had decided to withhold His grace and not record these events in Scripture, does this mean that the events did not take place? Of course not. Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection are historical events that happened whether or not we have inspired records.

You may say to me, how would we know about the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ had it not been recorded? This is a good question, but you must first take this next step of concession. Not only is it true that Christianity is not dependent upon inerrancy, inspiration, and recording of the events, but it is also not reliant upon our knowledge of the events. Theoretically speaking, God could have sent His Son to die for the world and raise from the grave and not told anyone at all and Christianity would still be true. The point is that Christianity stands or falls upon the historical truth of the Advent of the Son of God, not the record of these events through Scripture. How God decides to communicate these events, should He choose to do so, is not the issue. I suppose, for the sake of arguement, God could have used unwritten tradition, the testimony of angels, dreams and visions, or direct encounters.

Now, apologetically speaking, there is no reason whatsoever, I believe, for one to reject the general historical reliability of the Scriptures if presented as such. If one were to accept the Gospels, for instance, like any other historical writing, then they would have to be persuaded of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth based upon honest and solid historical inquiry. If they did not, then, in my opinion, their methodology is flawed by other unjustifiable presuppositions such as the impossibility of miracles.

Why did Greg feel compelled to reject the entirety of Christianity because of a few supposed errors? Because that is what he was taught by conservative, well meaning Christians. I believe that we often times, in our zeal for the Scriptures, create a false dilemma suggesting that belief in inerrancy and total rejection of the Christian message are the only two options. These are not the only two options. The Scriptures can be generally reliable historical accounts and the Christian faith still be true.

To those of you who are struggling with or reject the doctrine of inerrancy, while I believe you are wrong, this does not mean that you have grounds to reject the historicity of the death, burial, and resurrection of the Son of God as recorded in Scripture. There are 27 ancient documents that have historical credibility that must be referenced just like any other ancient document (not to mention the witness of dozens of first and second century historical documents that are not included in this New Testament canon). If you reject Christianity based upon your belief of the errancy of these documents, you must also reject all the records of ancient history.

To those of you who believe in inspiration and inerrancy, your belief is on solid ground. But please be careful not to create a false dilemma concerning a strict adherence to your persuasion. While the authority of God’s word is of central importance, Christianity is Christocentric, not bibliocentric. Christ is still Lord, even if the Scriptures were never written.

What is the danger of inerrancy? Making it the doctrine upon which the Christian faith stands or falls. Again, while I hold to this doctrine, I am not even convinced that it is a linchpin of Evangelicalism.

If there are modern day prophets, then the canon is still open.

I am not a charismatic. It is hard for me to describe myself as a traditional cessationist either. I refer to myself as a “de facto” cessationist. What does this mean? Essentially, when it comes to the so-called supernatural sign gifts such as gifts of tongues, prophecy, workers of miracles, etc, I have never seen anything which would convince me that there are modern day manifestations of these gifts. There certainly could be, I just have not seen them. (I have written about it here.)

Concerning the gift of prophecy (the idea that one can speak on behalf of God in a “thus-says-the-Lord” type way), I have never seen this either. I would love to have God speak to me, or better, through me, in such a way, but he never has. I have never heard the voice of God and have never been his spokesperson other than through my interpretation of Scripture. Although, I must admit, I had a strange occurence twenty years ago. I had a drunk I gave a ride to in downtown Oklahoma City tell me that God told him I was going to be a preacher. At that time in my life, it was a joke to think such. It was not enough for me to think much of, and the guy was drunk!

I could not make a very strong argument that God has stopped sending prophets or stopped speaking directy to people. My theology does not demand such. I have simply just never seen one. However, there is an argument out there that more traditional cessationist’s (those who’s theology argues that the supernatural sign gifts have ceased in the first century, usually with the death of the last Apostle or the completion of Scripture) make to argue their case. It is an argument that I think is very weak and fails to understand the nature of prophecy and the nature of what constitutes Scripture. It goes like this:

If the gift of prophecy is still being given and there are people out there who speak directly on behalf of God, then the canon is still open.

What this means is that if God is still speaking in any way, whatever is spoken, by virtue of it being God’s words, needs to be added to Scripture. Maybe a new book, letter, Psalm, or just a page added to the end of the Bible, this argument insists that a belief in modern day prophecy demands an open canon.

I disagree.

Here is the basic problem I see with such an argument: It misunderstands the nature of prophecy and the nature of the canon.

1. Nature of prophecy: There is no reason to think that prophecy always has corporate or salvific implications. To think that everything that God has ever said is relevant to all people simply cannot be defended. Prophecy can be individualistic. While it is true that the nation of Israel had their prophets that spoke concerning the nation as a whole and the future of the nation and the church has had its Apostles and prophets who spoke on behalf of God concerning the Gospel, the nature of the church, and the consummation of all things, this does not mean this is all prophets speak about. In fact, there are plenty of indications that many of prophets spoke to individuals about rather mundane things such as the location of lost donkeys (1 Sam 9:6, 20), an adulterous affair (2 Sam 12:7), and corporately about issues with no transcendent purpose at all such as acts of God in nature (Acts 11:28). One could argue that these “non-transcendent” prophecies were setting the stage for the prophet so he could qualify to speak about more transcendent issues, but this does not seem to be the case. What transcendent issue did Nathan speak about? What about Abigail?

In the end, while prophets were given by God to speak about issues of paramount importance, they were also given to speak about rather non-consequential stuff as well. Therefore, the drunk who told me I was going to be a pastor could certainly qualify even though his “prophecy” was of no ground breaking importance.

2. Nature of the canon: This is related to the first, but involves a slightly different assumption. The supposition here is that the canon of Scripture is made up of everything that has ever been inspired. Here inspiration equals canon. If it is inspired, it should be added to the Scripture.

But why would we ever assume such a proposition. Scripture is not made up of everything that has ever been inspired. There is very good reason to believe that there were a lot of inspired words from God that never made the canon cut. A great example of this is the early years of the prophet Saul. While were are given some background to his story on how he was called to be a prophet, we don’t know anything about how he was established among the people as a legitimate spokesperson for God. Yet as we follow the narrative in 1 Samuel, we see that Saul considers him an already established prophet due to many prophecies that we don’t have recorded in Scripture. Notice what Saul says in 1 Sam 9:6: “Behold now, there is a man of God in this city, and the man is held in honor; all that he says surely comes true. Now let us go there, perhaps he can tell us about our journey on which we have set out” (emphasis mine). We don’t know all that he said that came true since it is not part of the canon. This is a definite occurrence of God speaking through someone that was not recorded in Scripture. Therefore, the principle “if it is inspired, it belongs in Scripture” fails here. We could do the same with many of the Prophets. Look at Nathan. We barely have anything from him. His most famous encounter is when he indicts David for his affair and murder, but are we to suppose that this was his only prophecy? He was already a respected prophet, yet Scripture does not record his prophecies. What about Christ? Everything he said was, by definition, inspired. Yet we obviously don’t have an exhaustive account of all that he said. In fact, even John says that there were many other miraculous signs that Christ performed which were not written down, letting us know that even signs, wonders, and miracles were not always recorded because of their non-transcendent purpose.

John 20:30-31

“Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;

31 but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

Therefore, I think that it is evident that not everything that God says belongs in Scripture. The canon of Scripture is made up of everything that God has said that is relevant to all people and, normally, pertains to salvation history.

Again, I am not a charismatic. I have never heard the voice of God. Nor have I seen what I believe to be modern-day prophets. However, I don’t think that it is wise to attempt to argue for a theology that demands the cessation of God speaking today, especially if the argument’s main thrust is that if God is still speaking, then the canon is still open. This argument simply does not work and is contrary to the biblical evidence.

God comes before my wife.

Here is a question I recieved from someone as a follow-up to my last blog.

Question:

I have a deep love for the lady who I’ve been dating and I’m getting set to pop the question to her.

I love apologetics. You know that. I love teaching it as well. However, apologetics is not God. It is not the gospel. No one’s ministry is God. I have told my Princess repeatedly that God will always be #1. She must be second place. I must put her before that without putting her before God. How can I teach and defend the gospel if I am not living it? Part of living it means giving my wife the proper place in my world.

So while I’m on that, let me ask you how you make a division. How do you keep up a life of study properly with a life of marriage? I know if I give all of my attention to study, well she’s deprived and that’s not right. On the other hand, if all I do is give her attention, well we don’t eat. I have to do both. I’d like your insight.

Answer:

Let me start by saying that Kristie and I love each other deeply and we are totally committed to each other. However, we have not had a “good” marriage by any stretch. I am not sure I should be saying this. Not because Kristie would not approve, but because it exposes something that causes me a great deal of shame to reveal. I wish that I could say that I had even a typically decent marriage, but I don’t think this is the case.

Kristie and I are worlds apart. Not only in personality, but spiritually as well. Well, let me qualify this some. I am not saying that one of us is super spiritual while the other is a dud, but that we are different. Kristie has never resented my ministry and has, at times, served as an encouragement. But she is not that interested in what I do. Theology is not her thing. The same is true for me with regard to her priorities. Sometimes it feels as if we are like magnets turned the wrong way. Our relationship is, for lack of a better word, clumsy. We have good chemistry in a very real way (which I am so thankful for), but, from a human standpoint, we are not a “match made in heaven.”

There is a lot more that can be said.

I don’t, at this point in my life, have a nice red bow that is coming in the form of a “but…” I am just giving you some of the background so you can understand my answer. If Kristie and I were to allow our relationship to go in a direction that “seems” natural, I think we would drift completely apart, she in her world, and I in mine. I could very easily say to myself that my work and ministry are far more productive than the treadmill of problems that come by way of my marriage. My ministry could easily get separated from my marriage and become the de facto priority of my day (and it sometimes does when I am in one of “those” moods).

However, I would say from experience that if your marriage is not going well, nothing is going well. Your ministry, insights, and everything else will suffer when your wife is not your priority. And if it does not, then that may be an even bigger problem: apathy. Apathy toward your marital relationship. Solution: Redirect all passion to ministry. What a terrible place to be. Understandable, but terrible.

“But, but, I am doing so much good in ministry. I suck at marriage.” I know how it feels, but don’t separate the two. Your marriage is and should always be your first and foremost ministry. Even if it is not as “successful” as your other pursuits, don’t compare them. Before God, you are called to love her and give yourself up for her as Christ did the church, even if you are worlds apart. Christ and the church were worlds apart, too.

(Sheesh…what self-therapy here.)

“But what if my wife keeps me from ministry? What if she only serves as massive speed bumps to my ‘calling’?”

I try to keep this in mind: God does not really need me. As much as I like to think I am significant (i.e., if I don’t get this blog done, this class taught, this person’s theology corrected, who will?), my family must come first. It is so easy to forget this or to become bitter towards your wife. There is a reason why we are told to treat them tenderly.

Your passions should not be divided, but they often will be. When it comes to the big decisions, always choose your family. When it comes to the big decisions, always choose your family. When it comes to the big decisions, always choose your family. That is something, I believe, you will not regret on your death bed. God has numerous ways to get done that which we felt like we were supposed to. If you are married, your primary area of service is your wife.

“But who comes first, God or my wife?”

Not a good way to put it. Not good at all. It is like saying, what comes first, God’s commandments or God himself. Most certainly, there are times when you will have to follow God rather than your wife, but this is not saying that God will ever call on you to neglect your responsibility to love her in order to serve him. While it is true that you put God first, I don’t know how to separate that from putting your wife first. In other words, you put your wife first precisely because you put God first.

For those of you who have a passion for ministry, do not separate this from your passion for your family. Don’t become bitter, apathetic, or dismissive towards the wife that God has given to you. She is your first ministry. If you do well with her, you have done better than one who writes, speaks, blogs, and preaches for God to the neglect of his wife.

As hard as it is for me to say, if your ministry is not providing for your family, find something that will.

I don’t want to know about God, I just want to know him.

Albert Einstein once said “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing . . . so is a lot.”

I have been in discussions with a gentleman who reads this blog and, occasionally, will take one of my theology courses. The main topic of discussion is the necessity of theological discourse for the average Christian. Whether it be big words, concepts, or ideas, this gentleman does not think such things are necessary for the Christian life. He prefers the simplicity of loving God and leaving the rest to the theologians. His basic argument is that such things can and often do take away from our ability to live the Christian life due to their “side-tracking” nature.

Let me paraphrase a comment he would typically make:

“Whether you are a Calvinist or an Arminian, a traducianist or creationist, believe in soul sleep or intermediate bliss, believe in transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or memorialism, none of these ultimately makes any difference. In fact, these beliefs serve more to bring about sinful divisiveness than anything else.”

In other words, this is illustrative of those people who would say, “I don’t want to know about God, I just want to know him.”

This attitude with regard to theology is not uncommon at all. In fact, it seems that it has a lot of truth to it. It would seem that simplicity in our confession and faith would ultimately bring about the most unity and acceptance as well as provide more energy for the things that really matter. Right?

Well, if you are saying that more knowledge is dangerous, I agree. Knowledge can puff up. Knowledge can provide ground for strong opinions, lack of perspective, and, ultimately, division. But if you are saying that because of the dangers of knowledge it is not worth the risk, I disagree.

Let me give you an illustration that I think provides a sufficient parallel to the current issue. Knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot. Knowledge of what? Well, anything. But most specifically, we could apply this to relationships. When we enter into a relationship with someone, we take risks. Relationships involve us becoming vulnerable. When we allow someone to get to know us, there is always the possibility of misunderstanding, rejection, and a sort of Trojan horse pregnability of our heart. The same is true concerning those with whom we enter a relationship. Knowledge about them is dangerous. Not only for them, as they expose themselves, but for us as we put our own idealism about them on the line. In other words, you may know someone from a distance who you have placed on an idealistic pedestal. Once an opportunity comes for you to deepen that relationship, closing the blissful distance, you are entering into dangerous territory. Why? Because now you are opening yourself up to knowing the real person. All masks will soon come off and then you will have to nuance this relationship based upon your more up-to-date and accurate knowledge of the person. This process is certainly reciprocal and it is risky—it is dangerous—for both parties. While new discoveries will certainly bring about joy and depth in the relationship, they can also bring about a great deal of pain and emotional distance.

When the fear of relational knowledge becomes so great that people guard themselves against all forms of vulnerability, disorders follow: schizoid personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder (AvPD), social anxiety disorder. Such people become closed and guarded, hoping that this will leave them protected, safe, and secure.

While people might rationalize their timidity due to the reality of the dangers that are involved when knowledge is attained, this rationalization is misleading. The avoidance of knowledge causes us to neglect a basic need of humanity—intimacy.

I fear that this is often the case when people rationalize their avoidance of theology. Theology is simply coming to understand God at a deeper level. Yes, there are risks, just the same as any relationship. There are risks of misunderstandings, changing your ideals, opening yourself up to criticism, and coming to know both the wonderful and (what might be perceived to be) the not-so-wonderful things about God. There is also the possibility of division and strife as you defend what you believe to be true. But is this really any different than any other relationship?

What I find is that people have a theological disorder when it comes to truth. They are theophobic (theology, “study of God” + phobia, “fear”; or veriphobic (veri, “truth” + phobia, “fear”). Really it is simply a rationalization of some sort of a Theology Avoidance Disorder (ThAD). It is saying to God that you are not interested in coming to know about him, his word, or his truth (at least in any detailed way), but you, nevertheless, want to experience all the benefits of the relationship.

Symptoms of Theology Avoidance Disorder:

Increasing apathy toward theological issues

Belief that theological discussions are counter-productive since they often cause divisions

Isolating one’s theology from their relationship with God

Separating “devotional time” from “study time”

An increasing antagonism toward labels

But let’s continue the illustration. Women, how would you feel if your husband or boyfriend approached you the same way? What if he said, “Listen, I want to have a relationship with you, but I really don’t want to know too much about you. If I do, I may be disillusioned and you may not like me. There are also going to be opinions that I have about you may not be shared by others who know you, such as your mom, dad, and brother. Therefore, if we are to have a relationship, let’s keep all knowledge to a simple minimum. I don’t want to know about your past, future plans, or anything that might make me uncomfortable. Nothing divisive. Just give me your name and tell me that you love me. That will be enough.” The answer is simple. You are asking for a superficial relationship that protects your ideals and is “safe.” But the reality is that it is not a relationship at all.

I know that this illustration is simplistic, but it does catch the mood of what I am trying to say. Ignorance is bliss, but bliss is not God’s will for us. He is not asking you to be in a minimalistic blissful relationship that is safe. Nothing about knowing our God is safe in that sense. It will often cause confusion, disillusionment, hurt, division, and distance. But isn’t that the truth of all relationships? They also bring about joy, comfort, hope, peace, and unity.

God has invited us to take the risk of coming to know him. He has revealed himself and provided a lot of information about himself. The Bible is filled with knowledge of our God. A little knowledge of him is dangerous . . . so is a lot.

I am not saying that knowledge is all there is to our relationship with God, but it is foundational. The effort to come to know God, even if we come to some wrong conclusions, is an indispensable part of the process of “doing” the relationship. It is the same in all relationships.

Either way, the adoption of a Theology Avoidance Disorder is not a Christian option.

Everyone who disagrees with me is a liar.

*Added to the “. . . And Other Stupid Statements” series. Please note:there is intentional overstatement with the title for rhetorical effect. If you don’t like it, there is a good possibility that anything you say can and will be used against you in this blog and eventually turn into an “. . . And Other Stupid Statements” post of its own :)

Yes, I got another one of those emails calling me a liar. It comes with the territory. It was not that my particular view was wrong, misinformed, or even misguided. Nope. I was a liar. I was deliberately misleading people. I know the truth, but I withhold it so that I can consciously exchange it for something that is false. The old bait-and-switch.

I am often humored by extreme rhetoric that Christians will employ, but never more so than when people become so loose with the accusations about lying. Maybe humored is the wrong word: it’s a disturbed type of humor.

The presupposition is this: Whenever someone teaches something you disagree with, the rhetoric employed to combat such is accusations of lies. In other words, if someone does not teach the truth in your opinion, they are lying. Period. No question about it.

I have said this before, but let me give the list again: If I were to employ such rhetoric, here is how I might sound:

Mormons are liars. They all seek to lead people to hell.

Paul Copan (who is an Arminian) is a liar. His theology is full of misdirection.

John MacArthur (who believes in ipsissima verba) is a liar. Don’t listen to his lies.

Francis Beckwith (who is a Roman Catholic) is a turncoat liar. Don’t follow him in his attempts to undermine truth.

Clark Pinnock (who is an Open Theist) is a liar. He is trying to pull everyone into his deception.

I. Howard Marshall (who does not believe in inerrancy) is a liar. He seeks to distort God’s authority.

William Lane Craig (who is a Molinist) is a liar. He has been at the misleading game for some time.

You see the reasoning. All of these people are those with whom I would have some theological disagreements, major and minor. Since I am right and they are wrong about the issues, they must be liars. That is the only solution, right?

Be careful with such rhetoric. Better, just stop it.

I read it on blogs and hear these accusations in debates. It is the default position in the media. Christians—well-meaning Christians—use such rhetoric in blogs, sermons, books, articles, and on Facebook. All the while proclaiming to defend the faith.

According to the dictionary, a lie is “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.”

There are a couple of things to note here. A lie is intentional and deceptive. It is not simply something that is untrue. There is the supposition of intent with deception to make someone believe something that they know is false.

I believe that there are indeed many times when people teach something that could truly be called a lie. I could give many examples. But when our default position is that when someone else teaches something we believe to be wrong that they are lying, we have big problems.

Four come to mind immediately.

1. Most of the time, people who teach wrongly about something are not lying, they are just convinced of a wrong position. It is that simple. No need to implicate the person’s morality. There are many things that I believe and teach that are wrong (if I knew what they were, I would change). I am not lying when I teach them. I may be deceived by a lie, but my deception is genuine. In other words, people who teach something that is not true usually truly believe that it is true. Therefore, they are not lying.

2. Extreme rhetoric such as this can often be a sign of personal insecurity about our own position and our ability to defend it. I see it all the time. If you are ignorant but passionate about your own position, things are often more black and white than they would otherwise be. I just tweeted this today, “Often, the more militant you are, the less confident you are. Calm down. Be cool. Excessive combativeness can evidence insecurity.”

3. Using such rhetoric is emotional manipulation. The one who uses it is normally attempting to play on people’s emotions in order to heighten the sense of urgency for them to reject the opposing beliefs. While defending what we believe to be true is mandated in Scripture, we are to do it with “gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). Calling someone a liar as the default method of engagement and evaluation of their teaching is not gentle and shows no respect.

4. It does not really work. Our generation is already suspicious of people’s ability to come to know truth to the exclusion of other alternatives. Rhetoric such as this is a clear sign of hostile ignorance and will quickly only serve to disperse your audience. A few loose accusations such as this and they won’t trust anything you say (or you will have to resort to only preaching to your choir).

Truth, doctrine, belief, and the Gospel are too important to spice up with emotionally charged rhetoric that is easily dismissed. I do believe Mormons are wrong—seriously wrong. But I don’t think that they are necessarily being intentionally deceptive. I do believe that Arminianism is wrong with regards to election, but I don’t think that Arminians are liars. They simply are personally convinced of something that I am not. (This is not meant to say that I believe that the error of Arminians is equally as wrong as the error of Mormons—don’t go there!).

Main Point: People, including myself, may be deceived, but it does not mean that we are deceiving.

People believe things for a reason. The best way to engage the issue is not to assume intentional deception, but to be willing to study and learn in order to find out why people believe what they believe. You may end up discovering that they have good reasons for believing the way they do, even if you remain personally unconvinced.

If you want to represent your position well, don’t attack the opposition with such rhetoric. The key is to be cool. Passionate, but cool. Then, when and if you do feel it necessary to employ such rhetoric, it will be seen as intentional and serious. People will take you seriously.

Whether you are a pastor, teacher, blogger, poster on this blog or a breathing person (that covers everyone), be careful. This is simply an ad hominem (attacking the person rather than the position) argument. You should be confident enough in your position not to have to resort to such childish maneuvers. Anything else dishonors God as much as you believe the opposing belief is dishonoring God.

1 Pet 3:15: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

Don’t forget the last part. Be cool.

In heaven, we will be bowing down before the thrown of God 24/7

My tenth installment into the “. . . And Other Stupid Statements” Series.

Premise: We often make heaven such an esoteric place that no one really wants to go there.

Since I was young, I was excited about getting to heaven. We all were. I remember when my mother told my older sister, Kristie (yes, my wife’s name is also Kristie), about heaven. She told her that Christ was going to come someday to take us there. Upon hearing this, Kristie quickly ran out of the room. When my mother called to her and asked her way she was leaving so abruptly, she said, “I am going to get my shoes so I can be ready to go.”

But I also remember having my hopes dashed by something that produced a great amount of guilt. During a Sunday School session, while we were discussing heaven, the question on the table was if heaven was forever, what were we going to be doing all that time. Wouldn’t we be bored? The teacher responded in a way that is representative of many people’s understanding of heaven: “When we get to heaven, we will be bowing down before the thrown of God twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”

Talk about taking the wind out of the Superman sails of a little boy such as myself! I had big plans for heaven (which included flying 3-5 hours a day). It was hard enough for me to bow down before the throne of God for five minutes a day, much less for all eternity 24/7. Simply and unspiritually put, that does not sound like too much fun. The answer was always the same when I would timidly admit my fear of ultimate and eternal boredom: “When you are in heaven, sinless and in perfect submission to God’s will, you will be perfectly and joyfully content bowing before the throne of God all day, everyday.”

I would think to myself (although I would never admit it), I am not sure that I want to go there. I mean, I love God and certainly don’t mind bowing before him, but 24/7? If this is something that I will enjoy, it probably is not really me in the resurrection. For years I lived with the unspoken shame that I did not really want to go to heaven.

It was not until many years later that this burden of guilt and fear was taken off my shoulders. It was not until then that I found out that “When we get to heaven, we will be bowing down before the throne of God 24/7″ was a stupid statement.

Where it comes from:

As best I can tell and remember, the primary reason why many people believe this is from the book of Revelation:

“And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and day and night they do not cease to say, “HOLY, HOLY, HOLY is THE LORD GOD, THE ALMIGHTY, WHO WAS AND WHO IS AND WHO IS TO COME.” And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.” (Rev 4:8-11)

The idea is that, just as the four living creatures worship God in this way day and night without ceasing, so will the twenty-four elders. These twenty-four elders are representatives of Israel and the church, and, thus, all the inhabitants of heaven, including us, will be bowing down before the throne of God 24/7.

But I don’t believe the Bible presents such a view of heaven. In fact, I think Evangelical “heavenology” is in as much a need of a major overhaul as just about any other doctrine. In fact, even my previous hopes about heaven don’t pass biblical muster. I believe with a more systematic and biblical view of heaven things change quite a bit.

Other misunderstandings I have since come to realize were wrong about heaven:

The eternal heaven is separate from the Earth

In heaven we will be able to fly (or do anything we want)

In heaven we will know everything

In heaven, you will not love anyone more than another

In heaven there will be no challenges, advancements, or failure

Where it goes away:

I often tell people today that one of the biggest surprises that Evangelicals will have when they get to heaven is not how different it is, but how similar it is.

A few points:

Not “Plan B.” This is the most important thing for us to realize. Our love affair with Gnosticism (i.e. spirit=good, material=bad), finds its way into our view of the afterlife. Unless we greatly qualify what we mean, I think that it is more proper for Christians to speak of the “New Earth”—a physical earth—rather than heaven. God is not on “plan B.” In other words, God did not create all that there is, have a plan, implement it, only to say “Shucks, that did not work. On to ‘plan B’” when Adam sinned. God’s activity through Christ is about redemption, not calling a Code Red. God is restoring all things, not re-imagining all things. Revelation 21-22 speaks about our final abode as a recreated earth. This recreated earth is the restored earth. Restored to what? The way things were supposed to be. We find quite a bit of imagery, from the rivers to the restored tree of life, that mirrors the Garden of Eden.

“Can’t do anything we want? Like fly?”

Why would we think we could? Because it is heaven? And God’s ultimate will for us is to be able to do anything and everything? Although I cannot be sure, I have no reason to believe that I will be able to defy gravity on the new Earth. Gravity is good and necessary now, and will be then. It is not the result of sin that gravity came into being. Why would God move to a “plan B” that does not have gravity?

“But won’t our bodies be ‘spiritual bodies’ with ‘power’?”

“So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. (1Co 15:42-44)

Yes, but the idea here does not refer to the ontological quality of our bodies (i.e. what we will be able to do), but the spiritual state of the physical body without sin. It is “spiritual” not in the sense that it will be ghost-like and it is “powerful” not in the sense that it will be able to defy the natural laws that God originally intended, but it is spiritual and powerful in that it will not be controlled by the flesh any longer. The sin principle will have been extinguished. This will be the greatest change we will notice.

What will be the same? We will be eating and drinking. We will not communicate through ESP, but with lips, tongue and breath, following the laws of physics. We will have five fingers on each hand, five toes on each foot, two eyes, two ears, hair, finger prints, tear ducts and so on. All of which will perform the function which they were originally intended. Why? Because we have to have them to function! Again, “Plan A” restored, not “plan B.”

Relationships will take effort. Food will be digested from the stomach, to the small intestine, to the large intestine. If you close your eyes while walking, you will trip and fall. We will need to eat to sustain our bodies (Rev. 22:2). Physical pain will serve as a warning if you touch something hot. We will need to learn before we can accomplish. And so on. There is no reason to think that any of this will change since none of it came into being as a result of sin.

Our relationships will take effort. Our mannerisms will give us away. You will have times when you want to be alone. We will have distinct personality characteristics. Some will be more shy than others. We will not all look, act, and be the same. Some will have greater talent in one area than another. I probably will not (immediately) be able to slam a basketball. Heck, Kristie was not too far off when she went to get her shoes upon hearing about heaven’s reality. I have no reason to believe that shoes are a result of the fall!

In sum, we have every reason to believe that whatever was not brought into being through sin will stay the same.

Restored stewardship. Now we get to the “What will we be doing?” part. Of course we will be worshiping God in sinless fellowship, but this worship will come by fulfilling the original intent. There will be no need to “fill the earth” though procreation (Gen. 1:28), but there will be the mandate to subdue it as stewards of God’s creation.

Christ gives us a glimpse into our stewardship when he tells of the Parable of the Pounds (Matt. 25:13-31). Read it. In it Christ teaches that what you do here matters for eternity. How you invest your life in this age, determines your responsibilities in the next. While salvation comes to all by grace alone through faith alone, this does not mean that there will not be rewards in heaven. Some people will be in charge of many things and some will be in charge of fewer: “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’” (Mat 25:23). In Luke 19:11-27, it is described as stewardship over “cities.” I don’t think we should be too literal with this, but the fact is that we will have great responsibility. We will have jobs. We have every reason to believe that we will have to be on time to work, have certain job requirements, have a certain skill set, deal with others who are “under” us, and have successes (and, possibly, sinless failures). The labor that we do will not be from the sweat of our brow any longer (Gen. 3:19). In other words, we will find joy and contentment in what we are doing. We will all love our jobs!

In these things, we will worship and fellowship with God. Far from spending all of our time bowing down day and night before the throne of God, heaven will be full of varied activities, responsibilities, pleasures, and accomplishments. God will bring heaven down to the new Earth and for all eternity we will fellowship with God the way he originally intended, being his vice-regents on the new earth.

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Rev 21:3-4)

Far from being a place of endless boredom and monotonous activity, heaven (i.e., the new Earth) will be a place where we realize together with God the glory of his original intent.

To me, that sounds much better than anyone can hope. And I did not even have to make it up!

Nothing could be further from the truth.

For my Intro students…

As I have been reading and reviewing books and blogs over the years, my approach has changed. This was not an overnight change, but something that just happened the more involved I became in engaging those who were serious about teaching and learning with intellectual honesty and integrity (something that, I am sad to say, does not often characterize Christian leaders and teachers). There are certain characteristics that I have found in people’s teaching that immediately alert me to the realization that I am wasting my time (which I don’t a whole lot of!).

Here are some key issues that tap me on the shoulder and demand my attention be redirected:

Overstatement

Unqualified Superlatives

Non-Contingent Propositions

Hang with me. I will explain.

This is probably not the list you expected. Many of your lists would include clarity, systematic presentation, grammar and spelling, and reference support. Those things are important to me as well (although you may not have noticed from my writing!), but the above list is what I notice most, especially in presentations and arguments that are theological in nature.

Overstatement, unqualified superlatives, and non-contingent propositions, are related and can be thought of as different ways of saying the same thing. In fact, you might say that they all belong in the same semantic domain that we might call “imbalance.” Once I detect imbalance, I usually have a hard time going on. Think of phrases like these:

“I am absolutely certain that . . .”

“There is not a doubt in my mind . . .”

“The church has always believed . . .”

“Everyone knows that . . .”

“It is perfectly clear . . .”

“No educated person believes . . .”

“Nothing could be further from the truth.”

And the like.

It is the tendency to represent your case without what many people call “epistemic humility”—a real understanding that you could be wrong. We all have a problem saying “I could be wrong” or “in my opinion” because we feel as if in doing so we are making concessions that undermine our case. We like to give our readers and listeners continued and perpetual confidence in the argument of our presentation. We feel that if we don’t gain this confidence at every point and turn, we have poked holes in our own vessel and that by the end of the voyage, our ship will be sunk. Therefore, everything must be air-tight. There is no room for personal opinion since the subjectivity that it presents gives way to uncertainty. There is no room for contingency, no room for insufficient data, and no place for the legitimacy of the opposition, even to the slightest degree. If we believe what what we are saying, we must justify this belief beyond any possibility of a doubt.

But, ironically, especially in a hyper-critical postmodern world, we give credit to our case when we do represent the transparency that accompanies real contingency and the revelation of epistemic humility. We show that we have a broader understanding of the issues. It evidences an honest wrestling with the subject of the proposition. In the end, when we do come to a conclusion on the matter, even with all the contingencies that we have worn on our sleeve, readers become more confident in your ability to think with integrity and have a greater confidence in your conclusions.

Notice what Strunk and White have to say in their popular book on writing style. Also, notice that this is not a book about how to write theology, but how to communicate through writing. The wise and timeless principles expressed here can be applied to any communication venue (even an argument with your spouse!)

“When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise. Overstatement is one of the common faults. A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm.” (Strunk and White. Elements of Style, Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 7).

Do you understand what they are saying? Once you characterize yourself with this type of imbalance, it is very rare that you will gain an audience. Well, let me say this another way: Once your arguments carry such imbalance, it is very rare that you will gain an audience except with those who already agree with you. The object of your enthusiasm becomes diminished, finding relative balance in the strengths of your other overstatements.

Here is where it gets very important: If Jesus Christ is the object of your enthusiasm, does his death, burial, and resurrection find equal qualification with your belief that your church is the one true church, that the world was created in six literal days, that the anti-Christ is Obama? Overstatement can destroy our testimony. With such a methodology the discharge of the Gospel becomes hamstrung.

Let me back up and say that if someone uses unqualified superlatives, overstatements, or non-contingent statements wisely and sparingly with intentionality, so long as their credibility has thus been established, I will not only tolerate them, but listen to them with a greater degree of interest and consideration. Why? Because they show themselves to be balanced and worthy of consideration.

Please note, this is not a postmodern concession to relativism, for I am not advocating that people hide convictions or not take stand for what they believe. Neither am I saying that you cannot have great degrees of certainty and assurance about many of your convictions. I am simply telling people that if you overstate your case, no matter what it is, I will have a hard time listening to what you have to say. And I think I speak for many.

I would be careful and consider whether or not you are wasting your own time in writing and teaching if these overstatements characterize your approach. We honor God when we stand up for the truth, but we don’t honor him when we misrepresent the truth to accomplish our presupposed agenda that has not been critically thought through. God help us all to use our words wisely, especially those of us who are teachers.

When we get to heaven we will be timeless.

Continuing with my series — “. . . And Other Stupid Statements” —

I would like to register a complaint. In truth, I would like to register many complaints about the common Christian view of the afterlife, but I start here. This complaint is important because it not only represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the afterlife (i.e. heaven), but of the very nature of God, for to have this view of the afterlife, one must either be some sort of modified pantheist or an atheist.

Let me make my proposition and then repeat the above charge:

The statement, “When we get to heaven, we will be timeless” represents a fundamental misunderstanding of Christian theology. To have this view of the afterlife, one must either be, as I said, either a modified pantheist or an atheist.

Much of Christian theology carries the assumption that in eternity (heaven), believers will be like God, timeless. This belief goes back quite some time in pop theology.

Notice the concept in the hymn “Almighty Father of Mankind” (emphases added in all)

Therefore in life I’ll trust in Thee,

In death I will adore;

And after death will sing Thy praise

When time shall be no more.

Or how about “The Christian’s Guide,”

When old earth shall cease to travel,

And when time shall be no more,

With our loved ones we will gather

Over on the other shore,

Where all sorrow will be over,

Where all tears are wiped away,

Where with angel voices blending

We shall sing in endless day.

Or take this stanza by James Thomson (1700-1748) in “A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton,”

While in expectance of the second life,

When time shall be no more, they sacred dust

Sleeps with her kings, and dignifies the scene

Or how about the most well known “When the Roll is Called up Yonder,”

When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more,

And the morning breaks, eternal, bright and fair;

When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore,

And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

If that were not enough “evidence” for our expectation of future timeless existence, we also have biblical proof:

Revelation 10:6: “And sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer” (emphasis mine).

But I don’t believe that there will ever be a time when Christians (or any of creation) will experience timelessness. I believe that we will always experience a succession of moments. There will always be a past, present, and future for the Christian.

I will deal with the passage in Revelation shortly, but let me first explain how it is theologically and philosophically impossible (not merely improbable) for any of creation to ever experience timelessness:

Timelessness is a characteristic of God alone. Paul tells Timothy that God “alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.” (1Ti 6:16 ESV). While believers are promised eternal life, this does not imply the same kind of eternal life that God possesses. Though there is a sense in which we will see God with our eyes, there is also a very real sense that we will never see God in his essence. He exists in an “unapproachable light.” The phrase “whom no one has ever seen or can see” uses the word dunatai which speaks of our ability or capacity to accomplish that which is spoken about. Humanity, indeed, all of creation, does not have the ability or capacity to see God in his essence. Why? Because of his transcendent nature.

Transcendence is a quality that is God’s alone. Indeed, transcendence is a foundational qualification of being God. Transcendence, in this sense, is to be separate and above all things created. God is not the creation. He is not “in” the creation. Creation is not a part of him. To believe otherwise is pantheistic.

When God created all things, he created them ex nihilo “out of nothing.” In other words, creation was not made from some preexisting “stuff” that God used and molded into our universe. Neither is the universe created out of God’s essence itself. There was nothing before creation but God (Heb 11:3). Therefore, God created space, matter, and time. But God is not made up of space, matter, or time. God is the “First Cause” of all things. He is the “Necessary Being” that makes sense out of existence. In this way, because he is God, he is transcendent to space, matter, and time.

God is not a part of time. If he were, he would not be God. He would simply be the most powerful being that we know of in our universe, a sort of “Superman.” If we believed that God was a part of time, we would be, philosophically speaking, atheists. But the definition of God is not “The most powerful being in the universe” but the one who created all that there is and is transcendent and sovereign over it. God cannot be in time because it is a necessary characteristic of divinity to be timeless. God does not experience a succession of moments in his essence. This is not to say that God does not act in time and experience time in his activity or in the incarnation of Christ or the presence of the Holy Spirit. It simply means that the essence of the Triune Godhead is not in time, but transcendent to it.

We now must examine how far off it is for us to entertain the idea that people, part of God’s creation, will one day be timeless. To be timeless is, by definition, to be God. Timelessness is not all he is, but it is for him alone. If we maintain that at death or in the resurrection we become timeless, we are saying that we are going to be joined with the essence of God. This is pantheism. In other words, we are saying that one day we will be God! If we were to deny God timelessness, then he would not really be God, and we would be atheistic, philosophically speaking.

“What about the passage in Revelation? Doesn’t that say that we will be timeless. Sorry Michael, I am going with the Bible rather than the philosophy of man.”

The passage in Revelation does not in any way speak to the ceasing of time. The version I used above is an unfortunately obscure translation from the King James Version of the Bible. Due to its influence and obscurity here, this train of thought has made its way into much of Christian culture. The phrase, “that there should be time no longer,” translates the Greek, hoti chronos ouketi estai. Literally, it is “that time no longer is.” In the context, the seventh Angel has just revealed the seven voices of thunder (which John was instructed to seal up). The events that follow show the angel bringing this stage of the tribulation to completion. The idea behind “time is no longer” is that the duration has run its course. “Time is up,” the angel declares, “Its over.”

Take note of other translations here:

ESV Revelation 10:6 – and swore by him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, that there would be no more delay,

NAB Revelation 10:6 – and swore by the one who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them, “There shall be no more delay.

NAS Revelation 10:6 – and swore by Him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and the things in it, and the earth and the things in it, and the sea and the things in it, that there shall be delay no longer,

NAU Revelation 10:6 – and swore by Him who lives forever and ever, WHO CREATED HEAVEN AND THE THINGS IN IT, AND THE EARTH AND THE THINGS IN IT, AND THE SEA AND THE THINGS IN IT, that there will be delay no longer,

NET Revelation 10:6 – and swore by the one who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, and the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, “There will be no more delay!

NIV Revelation 10:6 – And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, “There will be no more delay!

NJB Revelation 10:6 – and swore by him who lives for ever and ever, and made heaven and all that it contains, and earth and all it contains, and the sea and all it contains, ‘The time of waiting is over;

NLT Revelation 10:6 – He swore an oath in the name of the one who lives forever and ever, who created the heavens and everything in them, the earth and everything in it, and the sea and everything in it. He said, “There will be no more delay.

TNIV Revelation 10:6 – And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, “There will be no more delay!

The KJV is the only translation whose wording allows for the misunderstanding.

In short, we will not ever become timeless precisely because we will never become God. The dictum is true: once timeless, always timeless. Once time-bound, always time-bound. There is a sense, as Paul says, that you and I will never see God because we are not able to do so. We will not be able to peek through the curtains of time and see what no eye can see. God will forever remain holy and timeless, even though manifestations of him along with his activity will always be ever present with us in time and through the incarnate Christ.

In heaven (and hell) and forever more, you and I will experience time, space, and matter. The only way that time could ever be no more is if God destroyed all of creation, leaving only himself. But he has promised otherwise.

All sins are equal in God’s sight.

Added to the “and other stupid statements series.”

During my ordination, one of the questions that I was asked by a seminary professor was “Are all sins equal in the sight of God?” I hesitated. Not because I did not have a strong opinion on this, but because I was not sure what the answer was that he was looking for. Are all sins equal in the sight of God? My ordination may have depended on the answer.

It is very common within popular evangelicalism to answer this question in the affirmative. This was one of the main assumptions in a book that I just recommended last week. Most find this theological concept very appealing and accept it, I am afraid to say, without doing much homework.

I think this tendency to assume that all sins are equal in the sight of God comes by means of three influences.

1) A reaction by Protestants against the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal sins (sins that kill justifying grace) and venial sin (sins of a lesser nature that do not kill justifying grace).

2) A tendency within our evangelistic church culture to express common ground with unbelievers—i.e., if all sins are equal in God’s sight, then your sin is not worse than any other. This way we are not coming across as judgmental or condescending.

3) Some biblical passages that have been interpreted in such a way (discussed below).

I don’t believe, however, that all sin is equal in God’s sight. I do believe that telling people that it is does serious damage to people’s understanding of the character of God and of the seriousness of certain sins. There are many reasons for this, but let me start with a reductio ad absurdum and them move to a biblical argument.

I often ask people who say that all sin is equal in the sight of God if they live according to their theology. Think about this. If all sin is really equal in the sight of God, and one really believes this, then God’s consternation and anger will be equal for whatever sin we commit. Equally important is the fact that our relational disposition before God should suffer equally from the conviction of the Holy Spirit for all sins. Most Christians understand what it means to have a conscience weighed down by unrepentant sin. But this weighing down normally only comes from those sins that we perceive to be more severe. If it is true, however, that all sin is equal in the sight of God and one actually lived according to that theology, then they should be just as troubled spiritually and just as repentant before God when they break the speed limit as when they commit adultery. After all, breaking the speed limit, even by 1 mph, is breaking the law and breaking the law is sin (Rom 13).

But nobody does this. We all see speeding down the road as water under the bridge of God. Apparently our conscience bears witness that it is not as bad as other things, even if we confess differently. Either that or the ability for our theology to actually affect the way we believe and think is non-functional in this situation.

Next (and more importantly) I think that it is biblical and necessary to say that some sins are more grievous in the sight of God than others. This also translates into the non-politically correct assumption that some people are sinners to a greater degree than others. Even though Protestants may not agree with the theology behind the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins, there are many instances in the Scriptures where degrees of sin are distinguished.

1. Christ tells Pilate that the Jewish leaders have committed a worse sin than him, saying, “He who has handed me over to you has committed the greater sin” (Jn. 19:11, emphasis mine).

2. Certain sins in the law are distinguished in a particular context as an abomination to God, implying that others are not as severe (e.g. Lev. 18:22; Deut. 7:25, Deut. 23:18, Isa. 41:24).

3. Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is set apart as a more severe sin than blasphemy of the Son (Matt. 12:31)

4. Proverbs 6:16-19 lists particular sins in such a way as to single them out because of their depraved nature, separating them from others.

5. There are degrees of punishment in Hell depending on the severity of the offense (Lk. 12:47-48).

6. Christ often evaluates the sin of the Pharisees as greater than the sins of others. You strain out a gnat while you swallow a camel (Matt. 23:24). If all sins are equal, Christ’s rebuke does not make any sense. (See also Lk. 20:46-47)

7. Similarly, Christ also talked about the “weightier things of the law” (Matt. 23:23). If all sins are equal, there is no law (or violation of that law) that is “weightier than others.” They are all the same weight.

8. Unforgiveness is continually referred to as a particularly heinous sin (Matt. 6:14-15; 18:23-35).

So where does this folk theology come from? Most people would refer to Christ’s comments in the Sermon on the Mount. Most particularly, reference is made to Matt. 5:27-28 as justification for this way of thinking.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery’” but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt. 5:27-28 27).

Is there a difference in the eyes of God between thinking about adultery and actually doing it? Absolutely. If we say anything other than this, I believe we do damage to God’s character and encourage the act based upon its premonition. The point Christ makes in Matt. 5:28 is not that lust and the actual act are equal, but that they both violate the same commandment, even if the degrees of this violation differ. Thus, Christ was telling people – and particularly the religious establishment of the day that thought they were safe because they had fulfilled the letter of the law – that the law runs much deeper. The spirit of the law is what matters. Therefore, if you have ever lusted, you have broken the sixth commandment. If you have ever hated your brother, you have broken the fifth commandment (Matt. 5:22). But, again, the breaking of the principles of the commandment is the issue, not the degree to which it is broken.

This is the same argument that James makes in Jam. 2:10 when he says “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” He is not equating all sin, but showing how any violation of the law, no matter how small, is still breaking the whole of the law because the law is connected to such a degree.

Think about this (another reductio): if you believe that adultery and lust are equal in the sight of God, then here are the consequences: any man or woman can justify divorce based upon the fact that in Matt. 5:32 Christ condemns divorce except for marital infidelity. All they need to do is make the safe assumption that their spouse has lusted to some degree during their marriage. This will make their divorce justified and biblical. In the same way, if a man were to lust after a woman on the internet, he might as well commit the actual act since in God’s eyes he already has. Or (I am rolling), if you have ever lusted after a girl, then you are under God’s mandate to marry her since in God’s eyes you are one with her (1 Cor. 6:16).

I think that this way of thinking is not only wrong biblically, but it also has repercussions that lead to a distorted worldview and to discrediting the integrity of God and the Gospel of Christ.

It is true. All people are sinners (Rom. 3:23). All people are sinners from birth. But not all sin is equal.

I think this is a safe way to stay humble and accurately represent the biblical witness:

While not all people sin to the same degree, we all share in an equally depraved nature.

In other words, no one is less of a sinner because of an innate righteousness about which they can boast. All people have equal potential for depravity because we are all sons of Adam and share in the same depravity, even if we don’t, due to God’s grace, act out our sinfulness to the same degree.

If you disagree with this, just think—really think—about what you are saying about God. You are saying to an unbelieving world that your God is just as angry about the act of going 56 in a 55 as he is about the act of one who rapes and murders a six-year-old girl. Do you really want to go there? Do you really think this position is sufficiently supported to justify such a belief? Can you really defend it? If the Bible teaches it, fine: we go with the Bible and not with our emotions or palatability decoder. But I don’t believe that a viable case can be made for letting our theology argue for such a belief. I can’t think of many more things in Evangelical pop-theology that is more wrong, more damaging, or more misrepresentative of God’s character and the nature of sin.

I answered with the above answer during my ordination. I was relieved when I saw the approval of the ordination committee. They were all concerned that I might be one who, even with seminary training, retained this belief that most Evangelicals have. I have often wondered whether or not they would have passed me if I had answered according to the traditional Evangelical folklore, saying that all sins are equal in the sight of God.

The Bible says it, therefore it’s true.

Just because the Bible says something, this does not make it true. We follow the Bible in what it teaches, but not everything it records is intended to be teaching in the proper sense. Our goal as Christians is to be good interpreters of the Bible, being able to discern when something is being taught or when something is being told.

Here are five ways that we can mistakenly believe that the Bible is teaching truth or principles when it is not.

1. Some parts of the Bible are incidental to the bigger picture, not intending to teach any principle.

Be careful that you don’t try to find a principle in every passage. Not every verse or chapter of the Bible has an “application” in the traditional sense. For example, the chronologies of Matthew and Luke are not intending to teach a principle in and of themselves. They are simply attempting to give necessary background material so that Christ as the Messiah can be substantiated.

2. You have to distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive passages.

This is related to the previous and is especially relevant to narrative books such as Acts. We must be very careful with narratives since their primary purpose is to tell a story that is relevant to the bigger picture of redemption, not to give us prescriptive commands to live by. For example, in Acts chapter 1 we are told that the Apostles “cast lots” to discover who God wanted to replace Judas among the twelve. This is not giving principles on how to elect a pastor! It is simply saying this is what happened, nothing more, nothing less.

Another example (although not narrative) appears in Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Paul tells Timothy to “bring him his cloak” (2 Tim 4:13). There is no abiding theological principle saying that Christians are to bring people coats! It is simply teaching us that Paul asked Timothy to bring him his cloak. Paul was cold! Nothing profound.

3. Different types of literature have different types of truth.

You cannot interpret a Psalm the same way you do a Proverb. And you can’t interpret a Proverb the same you you do an epistle (letter). And you can’t interpret an epistle the same way you do apocalyptic material. They all follow different rules. And the truths that they communicate will be understood according to those rules. For example, a Proverb is a general truth of wisdom that does not necessarily apply or hold in every situation. Just because the Bible has proverbs does not mean that we are to sanctify the way we interpret the proverb. In other words, just because it is in the Bible does not mean that it is a truth that does necessarily apply in every situation. Psalms are songs and need to be understood under such imagery. Epistles are letters and need to be understood under the “rules” that apply to a letter. And then there is Ecclesiastes…don’t get me started there!

4. Sometimes the author does not want you to take him literally.

Authors can exaggerate, speak candidly, be sarcastic, or be in bad moods. This will effect the way we are to interpret them. This will also effect the “truth” that they are teaching. For example, Paul says that “all Cretans are liars” (Titus. 1:12). Does this mean, since it is in the Bible, that at the time Paul wrote this every individual who lived in Crete continually lied? No. We use exaggeration as rhetoric all the time. We don’t intend people to take us literally.

Another example is in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. He says about false teachers: “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing” Matt. 4:9 “All of this I will give to you if you will worship me.” Out of context, that looks fine. God will give us many blessings if we worship him. The problem is that this is a quotation from Satan when he tempted Christ! This verse is in the Bible, but it is not true. We need to be careful that we are mindful of who is talking, when, and how their words are to be understood. I hear people quoting Job’s friends all the time as evidence for certain characteristics of God. But Job’s friends are not presented in a positive light. Some of what they say is true, but much is wrong—even if it is in the Bible.

When interpreted correctly, I believe that the Bible always speaks the truth. But when interpreted incorrectly, it goes without saying that the incorrect interpretation does not represent the truth. If the Bible says it, this simply means that God wanted whatever it says to be included. We believe that the Bible is true in whatever it teaches, but whatever it says is not always meant to teach in the way we often assume. Be careful with God’s word. It is the most wonderful book in the world, but it is also the most dangerous.

The trinity is like 3-in–1 shampoo.

Alternate title: “Trinitarian Heresy 101″

“The doctrine of the Trinity is like an egg: three parts, one thing.” Ever heard that? How about this, “The doctrine of the Trinity is like a three leaf clover: three leaves, one clover.” Or how about THIS, “The doctrine of the Trinity is like water: three forms (ice, steam, liquid) one substance.” But the greatest I ever heard was by a guy in one of my classes. He said that he thought that the Trinity was like 3-in-1 shampoo: three activities, one substance.”

Stupid statements. Creative, but stupid. Don’t use them. Any of them. Ever.

Explanation coming… Hang with me.

Last week I taught a group of kids about the doctrine of the Trinity here at the Credo House as part of our Theology for Kids series. The ages were anywhere from 7 to 13. Though I regularly teach this subject to adults, this was the first time that I taught the doctrine of the Trinity to kids. I was surprised that it went well. It is confusing enough for adults, how much more for kids?

Teaching the Trinity, I have found, is more about giving basic principles of what it is and then shooting down illustrations about what it is not. Proper Trinitarianism is about a delicate balance between the unity and diversity in the Godhead. Christians believe in one God, i.e., one essence, who eternally exists in three separate persons, all of whom are equal.

We often employ illustrations that help us to make the ineffable, effable, the abstract, concrete. But when it comes to the nature of God, especially with regard to the Doctrine of the Trinity, illustrations should only be used to show what the Trinity is not.

Let me list the three major heresies or departures from orthodoxy with regard to the Trinity:

1. Modalism: The belief that God is one God who shows himself in three different ways, sometimes as the Father, sometimes the Son, and sometimes the Holy Spirit. It describes God in purely functional terms. When he is saving the world on the cross, he is called Jesus. When he is convicting the world of sin, he is called Holy Spirit, and when he is creating the world, he is called Father. The error here is that this is contrary to what we believe: one God who eternally exists in three persons, not modes of functionality. It is not one God with three names, but one God in three persons.

2. Tritheism: The belief that we have three Gods, all who share a similar nature, but not the exact same nature. In this, the nature of God is either distinguished or divided, which destroys the unity of God. We don’t believe in three persons who share in a species called “God,” but three persons who share in an identical, united nature.

3. Subordinationalism: This is a subset of tritheism, but deserves its own category. In other words, if you are a subordinationalist, you are also a tritheist by definition, even if you don’t recognize it. The subordinationalist says that there is one God in three persons, but the essence of each person exists in a hierarchy. For example, many believe that God the Father is the greatest and the most powerful. Coming in second is God the Son, followed by the second runner-up, the Holy Spirit. Orthodox trinitarianism confesses an essential equality among all the members of the Godhead. None are greater in essence than the other.

 

Here is a “Trinitarianism Heresy Test Chart” I have created. Keep this by your bed.

 

Notice:

If equality is denied, on the opposite side it points to subordinationalism.

If diversity is denied, the result is modalism.

If unity is denied, the result is tritheism (or polytheism —many gods).

With this in mind, let me now cover the “stupid statements” and why they don’t pass the test:

1. The Trinity is like 3-in-1 shampoo. This can only point to modalism or tritheism. It is modalistic if you are saying the shampoo performs three functions, yet is one substance. But you can also break down the various elements that perform each function and see them separately. That is tritheism since all of the elements are not the same. They may work together to perform a specific goal, but they are not really the same substance.

2. The Trinity is like an egg. This is most definitely tritheism. While the egg is one, each of the substances that makes up the parts (shell, white stuff, and yoke), are most definitely distinct. The yoke is completely separate in nature from the shell.

3. The Trinity is like water. This is a modalistic illustration. Ice, steam, and liquid are examples of the same nature which at one time or another has a particular mode of existence. Sometimes it is liquid, sometimes it is ice, and sometimes it is steam. God is not sometimes Son, sometimes Father, and sometimes Spirit. He is eternally each, always at the same time.

4. The Trinity is like a three leaf clover. This is a form of tritheism. Each leaf of the clover is a separate leaf. It does not share in the same nature as the other leafs, but only has a similar nature. In the Trinity, each member shares in the exact same nature.

5. The Trinity is like a man who is simultaneously a father, son, and husband. This is an often used illustration, but it only serves to present a modalistic understanding of God that is false. Father, son, and husband only describe various functions of one person. Each function cannot exist in a simultaneous relationship with each other, can’t talk to each other, and cannot exist in an eternal relationship with each other.

6. The Trinity is like a person who is one, yet has a spirit, soul, and a body. This one, like the first, can commit either a tritheistic or modalistic error, but cannot be used to illustrate the orthodox definition of the Trinity. It is modalistic in that the spirit, soul, and body are three functions of one conscience or person. But it can also be tritheistic when one considers that the spirit is not the exact same nature as the body (or the soul if you are a trichotomist—another lesson).

In the end, I do not believe that there are any true to life illustrations that can or should be used to teach or describe the Trinity. The Trinity is not a contradiction (i.e. one God who eternally exists as three separate Gods), but it is most definitely a paradox (a truth that exists in tension).

This graph is helpful in describing the Trinity. It is called the “Shield of the Trinity.”

It is always best to remember that the Father is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and the Son is God, but they are not each other.

One more thing. I often tell my students that if they say, “I get it!” or “Now I understand!” that they are more than likely celebrating the fact that they are a heretic! When you understand the biblical principles and let the tensions remain without rebuttal, then you are orthodox. When you solve the tension, you have most certainly entered into one of the errors that we seek to avoid.

Confused? Good! That is just where you need to be.

One white lie will send you to hell for all eternity.

Repost from the great crash 0f 08

I have heard this since I was a very young Christian. It seemed somewhat reasonable as it was explained to me by pastors in sermons and by Christians as they explained the seriousness of sin. Their theology goes something like this:

All sin is so bad that even the smallest of sins deserves eternal punishment in hell. It does not matter if it is losing your temper at a lousy referee, not sharing your Icee, or speeding 36 in a 35, every sin deserves eternal torment in Hell. Why? Although it may seem unreasonable to us (as depraved as we are), it is fitting for a perfectly holy God who cannot be in the sight of sin, no matter how insignificant this sin might seem to us. In fact, there is no sin that is insignificant to God. Because He is infinitely holy, beyond our understanding, all sin is infinitely offensive to Him. Therefore, the punishment for all sin must be infinite.

I have to be very careful here since I am going against what has become the popular evangelical way to present the Gospel, but I don’t believe this is true. Not only do I not buy it, I think this, like the idea that all sins are equal in the sight of God, is damaging to the character of God, the significance of the cross, and I believe it trivializes sin. Let me explain.

First off, I don’t know of a passage in the Bible that would suggest such a radical view. It would seem that people make this conclusion this way:

Premise 1: Hell is eternal

Premise 2: All people that go there are there for eternity

Premise 3: Not all people have committed the same number or the same degree of sins

Conclusion: All sin, no matter how small, will send someone to hell for all eternity

The fallacy here is that this syllogism is a non-sequitur (the conclusion does not follow from the premises). Could it be that people are in Hell for all eternity based upon who they are rather than what they have done?

Think about this. Many of us believe that Christ’s atonement was penal substitution. This means that it was a legal trade. God counted the sufferings of Christ and that which transpired on the Cross as payment for our sins, each and every one. Therefore, we believe that Christ took the punishment that we deserved. But there is a problem. We are saying that we deserve eternal Hell for one single sin, no matter how small. I don’t know about you, but I have committed enough sins to give me more than my share of life sentences. I have committed sins of the”insignificant” variety (I speed everyday) and significant variety (no description necessary!). So, if Christ were only to take my penalty and if I deserve thousands upon thousands of eternities in hell, why didn’t Christ spend at least one eternity in Hell? Why is it that he was off the Cross in six hours, payment made in full? Combine my sentence with your sentence. Then combine ours with the cumulative sentences of all believers of all time. Yet Christ only suffers for a short time? How do we explain this?

You may say to me that I cannot imagine the intensity of suffering that Christ endured while he was on the cross. You may say that the mysterious transaction that took place was worse than eternity in Hell. I would give you the first, but I will have to motivate you to reconsider the second. Think about it. Do you really believe that the person who has been in hell for 27 billion years with 27 billion more times infinity would not look to the sufferings of Christ and say, “You know what? Christ’s six hours of suffering was bad. It is indeed legendary. But I would trade what I am going through any day for six hours, no matter how horrifying it would be.” You see, what makes hell so bad is not simply the intensity of suffering, but the duration. Christ did not suffer eternally, so there must be something more to this substitution idea and there must be something more to sin.

I believe that Christ did pay our penalty. I believe that hell is eternal. But I don’t believe that one sin sends people to hell for eternity. Sin is trivialized in our day. Sin is first something that we do, not something that we are. In other words, people think of God sitting on the throne becoming enraged (in a holy sort of way) each time that someone breaks the speed limit. It is only the cross of Christ that makes Him look past the eternally damning sin and forgive us. Don’t think that I am undermining the severity of sin, but I am trying to bring focus to the real problem that has infected humanity since the Garden.

The real problem is that we are at enmity with God. From the moment we are born, we inherit the traits of our father Adam. This infectious disease is called sin. This disease issues forth into a disposition toward God that causes us to begin life with our fist in the air, not recognizing His love for us or authority over us. It is rebellion. While this rebellion does act according to its nature, the problem is in the disposition, not so much the acts. When we sin, we are just acting according to the dictates of our corrupt nature. But the worst of it—the worst sin of all—is that we will never lower our fist to God. We are “by nature, children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3) and as a leopard cannot change his spots, so we cannot change our rebellious disposition toward our Creator (Jer. 13:23).

This disposition is that of a fierce enemy that cannot do anything but fight against its foe. Paul describes this:

Romans 8:7-8 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

We are of the “flesh,” therefore we commit deeds according to the flesh. Does this mean that the person in this state does no good at all? Well, it depends on what you mean by “good.” Can an enemy of God love his neighbor? Of course. Enemies of God can and do all sorts of acts that the Bible would consider virtuous. But from the standpoint of their relationship with God, they cannot do any good at all (Rom. 3:12). Giving a drink to someone who is thirsty with the left hand while having your right hand in a fist clinched toward heaven does not count as “good” before God. Why? Because we are in rebellion against Him. This is our problem.

This I propose is the only sin that keeps people in Hell for all eternity.

It is important to understand that hell not is filled with people who are crying out for God’s mercy, constantly hoping for a second chance. People are in hell because they have the same disposition toward God that they had while they were walking the earth. They do not suddenly, upon entrance into Hell, change their nature and become sanctified. They still hate God. People are in hell for all eternity, not because they floated a stop sign, but because their fists are still clinched toward God. They are not calling on His mercy. They are not pleading for a second chance. They are in hell for all eternity because that is where they would rather be. It is their nature. As C.S. Lewis once said, “The doors of hell are locked from the inside.”

Christ, on the other hand, was the second Adam. He did not identify with the first either in disposition or choice. He gained the right to be called the second Adam who would represent His people (Rom. 5:12ff). He is not spending eternity in Hell because he was never infected with the sinful nature which caused him to be at enmity with God. His fist was never clinched toward the heavens.

Will one white-lie send someone to Hell for all eternity? No! To say otherwise trivializes sin and makes God an overly sensitive cosmic torture monger. Sin does send people to Hell. People will be punished for their sins accordingly. But the sin that keeps people in Hell for all eternity is the sin of perpetual rebellion.

I was going to preach this, but the Holy Spirit led me to this.

Does my title give me away? So much for being coy with my proposition. Let me say that this post is going to get me in trouble with some dear friends who preach God’s word every week. My message to them: Bear with my critique. I pray that my thoughts will be considered as “wounds from a friend”—a very fallible friend.

Here, let’s start this way. Have you ever heard someone (probably a preacher or teacher in the church) say something like this:

“I had prepared all week to teach on __________, but the Holy Spirit changed my lesson at the last minute.”

I have. Dozens of times. The idea it conveys is that the particular message that was prepared was not of God (at least at that time) and this new message was most certainly of God. In fact, the new message is miraculously of God! Why? Because I did not really prepare for it. It must have been God who prepared it. “I just step back when that happens and let God do his thing. Who am I to interrupt God?”

Can I say something? (Wait, let me hide behind something first . . .There.) That is a stupid statement!

My basic thesis is this: The type of assumptions required to adopt the occurrence of such homiletic detours is irresponsible both to yourself and to your audience and misunderstands the way God works in the life of the church.

Let me give you some characteristics that I see in such statements. They can:

Neglect the Holy Spirit. The idea that is conveyed is that the Holy Spirit is not present in the sermon/lesson preparation process. Without God’s presence and guidance in the study, does he somehow show up at the pulpit? There is no justification for such thinking. In fact, I would argue that we are in more need of the Spirit’s guidance in the study than we are when we deliver. If the Spirit is not present when you are in preparation, how can he be there when you deliver? The delivery is simply the product of your life, study, preparation, and daily walk with God. If this is true, why would God miraculously change what he has been preparing you to present? Can he not make up his mind? Did some new unforeseen circumstance arise that caused him to adjust, shift, or compensate for? Be careful.

Blame the Holy Spirit. The idea that God changes the sermon or lesson can be an attempt to discount your involvement and responsibility in what is being presented. Maybe you did not prepare and you are seeking someone to blame? Maybe you want to say something that you don’t think will gain people’s favor? Maybe you are just trying to blame the Holy Spirit?

Be manipulative. The third commandment, in principle, has nothing to do with swearing, but everything to do with protecting God’s reputation. When we claim that God miraculously changed the lesson or sermon, we may be manipulating the audience. In other words, it may be another way of saying, “This sermon is really from God.” In doing this, you are using his reputation by way of putting a “hands-off” authentication on your teaching. After all, if God changed your mind at the last minute, whatever criticism that someone might have must concede its fury; otherwise, the critics might find themselves at enmity with God himself. That type of approach is manipulative. The best we can do is prayfully hope that God has guided our lives, thoughts, and studies to qualify us to represent him when the time comes.

Arise from a gnostic bent. I think that people assume that this is a norm in the pulpit because we have the tendency to separate the mundane from the sacred. We often believe that if it is from the Lord, it will have a halo around it. Halos don’t seem to appear in studies that are filled with struggle, doubt, and, often, timidity in our conclusions. We seek the halos to rise above the mundane to sanctify us in a different way. However, we must live thoroughly converted lives, recognizing that the wall between the sacred and the “secular” is not really present, and it never was. It is no more spiritual to study than to preach.

But . . . What about . . .

I can hear it coming. What about Jude in the New Testament? I am just following in his footsteps.

“Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” (Jud. 1:3)

Doesn’t Jude here demonstrate that he was going to write about something but the Holy Spirit led him somewhere else? Yes, but this cannot be applied to what I am speaking about. Jude is not saying that he was just about to write on the subject of salvation, but the Lord miraculously changed his lesson. He is saying that he purposed to write about salvation, but he was convicted of a greater priority instead. To put this in our current situation, it would be like me saying that I have been intending to preach on marriage, but I feel it is more important at this time for me to start a series on dealing with false doctrine due to its current influence in our culture. The reason for the change is not some last minute anointing of the Holy Spirit, but because of the expediency of the subject for the current situation. It says nothing about preparation and study. It is assumed that Jude is prepared to speak to the issue of his conviction precicely because of the presence of his conviction.

In the end, we need to be careful. From conception, preparation, to presentation, we can only hope that God is guiding it all. Can God change our sermon or lesson while we are in the pulpit? Of course. The question that you have to ask yourself is whether or not this is a model that we should expect. Your message can be further shaped, nuanced, and impassioned while you are teaching, but this is not really God changing your sermon. Preach what you prepare for and prepare for what you preach.

Belief is no good without practice (Part 1)

It was in my expository preaching course that I learned it. It was driven into my teaching psyche and intended to become a part of my basic presupposed knowledge of ministry. Without it, all your preparation would be in vain. Lacking this, your message will fail to do what God actually intended it to do.

It is the message for a new generation. It is something emergers know and they know that they know it. It is what I hear on blogs, read in books, and a continued favorite among those who are despondently depressed and shamed when surrounded by “fundamentalists.” It is pridefully stated as if this epiphany is going to miraculously wake a sleeping Evangelical culture of John MacArthur and John Piper groupies.

What is it?

“Belief is no good without practice.” Wake up and smell the manna!

Sounds reasonable doesn’t it. Let’s put it another way.

“Belief is not the end, it is a means to an end. The end is doing not believing.”

In preaching, it goes like this:

“If you don’t have a way in which people can apply the lesson to their lives today, you have not really done anything.”

Another:

“Introduction. Body. Three points of application.”

A friend said it the other day. We visited a church led by a young seeker-friendly preacher. After the lesson he said, “Now I really liked that sermon.” “Why?,” I asked. “Because it has so much application,” he responded. “That is what I need—application.”

The idea here is that belief, in and of itself, is not the end game that God has for us. God primarily wants us to be active in our practice. Good works, being nicer to people, acting out our love, giving to the poor, self-sacrifice, not cheating on tax-returns, avoiding certain web-sites, bringing home flowers to your wife, forgiving your father, protecting the unborn, knowing when to set down the beer, taking your daughter out on a date, remembering to say “I love you” (don’t just suppose they know), and trading your Hummer for a Honda. These are all things I can do today. This is what we need. Right?

emergentos moschos skubula

(Excuse the French). Nice translation: “What a load.”

I am not saying that application is not important or that it is not an essential end. What I am saying is that it is not the only or even primary end.

God cares more about belief than he does practice. Belief, truth, doctrine, theology, and, yes, being correct, is more important than all the good works one can ever practice.

The “why” is more important than the “what.”

The “how come” is more important than the “when.”

The “because” is more foundational than the “so that.”

In fact, I believe the “what?” “when?” and “so that?” have no meaning outside the “why?” I also believe the “what” can exist alone in many cases and serve to bring great glory to God.

What I am saying is that God is glorified in our right belief. God receives great pleasure in correct doctrine. It is God’s first desire that we believe correctly. Belief, truth, doctrine, and theology are not merely a means to an end, but are the end themselves. Yes, this “end” will, more often than not, have natural consequences that will produce certain effects (i.e. good works), but the substance is in the truth understood and believed.

Oh that Jeremiah could be resurrected and speak to this pragmatic generation who wants to set aside knowledge and understanding for minimally based practice. He may say what he said before:

Jeremiah 9:23-24 “Thus says the LORD, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the LORD (emphasis mine).

This is about boasting (something we are not supposed to do?). While we are not to boast about things that are of themselves empty, we are commanded to boast about something. Something that our generation is increasing preaching as being among the unboastable areas of life: understanding. “Let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me.”

I was in a small group venting about my expository preaching class ten years ago. I said, “They are trying to get me to pull out direct immediate application—something for the people to do—out of every sermon.” I complained about this. My group of young seminarians were divided. I told them that not only were some passages of Scripture not able to produce direct immediate application without sinful manipulation, but sometimes, I told them, “God simply wants us to believe what he said. This is application enough!”

We have downgraded belief, truth, doctrine, and “understanding” to a secondary level of importance. It has become the handmaiden of immediate application. We are losing our reason for boasting.

In reality, application is the handmaiden of truth. God wants us to know and understand him. Statements such as “Belief is no good without practice” fails to understand that belief is the foundation of practice and that belief—right belief—brings as much glory to God as anything.

Preaching right belief and understanding, unfortunately, has become the red taped taboo of our generation. Avoidance of such is justified in the name of baseless pragmatism. It is the Evangelical and Emerging misdirection that could alleviate the church of the only legitimate reason we have for boasting. I believe that it is the crisis of the church today.

Friends, if people believe correctly—and I mean truly believe—they will act correctly when the situation calls for it. Not only this, but their good works will be done for the right reasons, based on a motivation of truth. Knowing and understanding God will change lives by bringing people in a right orientation with the way things actually are.

I know that not everything can be understood. I know that God has not revealed himself to us fully. And I know that there is legitimate room for disagreement on many things. But this does not alleviate us of our search for God. Theology, truth, doctrine, understanding, and belief are foundational to all else. God rejoices in correct doctrine.

Lewis Sperry Chafer, the late founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, used to end each class with this statement, “Men, give them something to believe.” I end with the same.

See Part 2

Belief is no good without practice (Part 2)

Part one in a nutshell: God is glorified by right belief. Right belief is foundational to right practice.

In Peter Rollins’ book How Not To Think About God (a book I enjoyed and recommend) it is said that we are to love God as a newborn baby loves his mother. Rollins says that the baby does not need to know anything about his mother to love her. He simply recognizes her as his mother and rests in her protection.

The point he makes is that the Christian life, like the newborn, is not so much to love God by knowing or understanding him, but to be known, understood, and loved by him. While this has much to commend as we as children of God recognize and find protection in our Father’s love, the analogy does not provide a sustainable or stable illustration of the Christian worldview. It can also be misleading, giving people the impression that God does not care about what you think about him or whether you understand or know him.

What we must realize is that the baby is unable to move beyond its state which necessitates the passivity of his interaction. As many of you know, my wife Kristie and I have been blessed with four children, two girls (10 and 9) and two boys (5 and 2). Not too long ago Zack was an infant. I remember holding him in my arms and was talking to him. One day when I was doing this Will (my then three-year-old son) profoundly informed me that Zack could not understand. “Daddy, Zack does not know what you are saying!!” was his comment. I said to Will, “This is how you learned to talk and understand. If we keep talking to him someday he will be able to respond.”

Though there is a part of me that desired my children to stay a small, helpless, innocent newborns, there is a greater hope—a great anticipation—that one day they will grow to understand and know me. There is the great hope that we will one day have a relationship that is not one sided. In this relationship I will, among other things, tell them my name, let them be involved in my life, share with them things about myself that I would not share with others, and hope that they would love and trust me based on what I have revealed to them. I will hope that they will come to know and understand me.

It is the same thing with God. A relationship is never meant to stay one sided. God did not make newborns to perpetually remain in a state of passive interaction where love comes by default. God created people to grow in our understanding.

The writer of Hebrews exhorts his audience to mature in their thinking. They had become like newborns in their faith which was not a good thing.

Hebrews 5:12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.

“You ought to be teachers” assumes that they needed to grow in their understanding. But sadly these people were like newborn babes, ignorantly feeding off their mother’s milk once again. The time for immaturity in our faith has passed for all of us.

Let me use Jeremiah again and expand on it a little more:

Jeremiah 9:23-24 “Thus says the LORD, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the LORD (emphasis mine).

We are not to boast in our supposed wisdom, strength, or riches. But we can boast in our relationship with God. This relationship is defined very particularly in this passage. It requires knowledge and understanding. We can only know and be satisfied in God to the degree that our understanding of Him is growing. The Hebrew word here for “understand” is one that communicates comprehension based upon reflection. This does not mean that we will exhaustively understand God or any one thing about Him. But it does mean that which He has revealed about Himself is essential to our relationship with Him.

What are these things? God is one who “exercises loving kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth” and that he “delights in these things.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I see this as quite a bit of information here—quite a bit of doctrine, theology, truth, correct information. Who is this God that you love? He is one that is kind, but He is also just. Each of these characteristics go far beyond the information that a newborn can have of a parent. It goes far beyond a theology of milk that says our love for God can stay and grow in a state of joyful agnosticism.

God is good. God is righteous. God will provide. God loves us. God has a plan for the future. God is involved in history. God will not lie. God does not change. God made us in His image. God will not drop us. God will feed us. God will clothe us. God is in control of the good and bad. God gives us comfort. God cares when we cry. God will heal the wounds. These are all statements of belief. This is theology. While we can and should enjoy being loved and understood, our relationship must become reciprocal. The Christian faith is one of understanding God, not simply being understood by him. You cannot have a perpetual relationship that is one sided. There is really no such thing.

Proverbs 2:3-6 “For if you cry for discernment, Lift your voice for understanding; If you seek her as silver And search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will discern the fear of the LORD and discover the knowledge of God. For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth comes knowledge and understanding.” (emphasis mine)

Again, while God cannot be understood exhaustively, he can and must be understood truly. He himself has said as much.

Beliefs are foundational to all else. Don’t ever think you can have right practice (orthopraxy) without right belief (orthodoxy).

See part 3

Belief is no good without practice (Part 3)

Belief is no good without practice is a stupid statement. Yes, I have read James (once or twice).

My argument has been pretty simple so far. God is glorified when he is known truly. God is glorified by our trust in what he says. It is God’s great pleasure to reveal himself to his children. God is glorified when he is known and understood. God desires orthodoxy and right belief.

But some of my comments have made some people very uncomfortable, especially this one (emphasized in italics):

I was in a small group venting about my expository preaching class ten years ago. I said, “They are trying to get me to pull out direct immediate application—something for the people to do—out of every sermon.” I complained about this. My group of young seminarians were divided. I told them that not only were some passages of Scripture not able to produce direct immediate application without sinful manipulation, but sometimes, I told them, “God simply wants us to believe what he said. This is application enough!”

In our Evangelical/emerging climate, we have those who seem to have come to some sort of personal epiphany about the problem with the church. “Doctrine divides and causes problems.” Fair enough. “Christians have the tendency to have an arrogant attitude about doctrine, systematically condemning those who don’t agree with them on everything and, in doing so, fail to express love. They elevate correct doctrine above love.” Agreed. “Therefore, we should quit talking about doctrine and just love each other.” Time out! Love without truth is not Christian.

“But what does being doctrinally correct actually do? How can it help the world today? How does it alleviate oppression? How does it feed the hungry? How does it promote equality? And what about the environment?”

You see? There you go again. You think that this life is about you. You think it is about man. You think that if it does not effect the world within the next hour or day or week, according to your standards, it is a bad stewardship of your time.

“Belief is no good without practice.” Translation in our generation: “Since right belief (doctrine, systematic theology, understanding, etc) does not evidence itself in practical matters immediately and causes people to be arrogant, we should not even worry about belief at all and just get out there and “do” what we know is right. Orthodoxy is bad. Orthopraxy is good.”

This fails to understand that right belief itself is the application—the ultimate application. How so? Because belief will always produce of itself. This belief will sometimes evidence itself in ways that are immediate and sometimes in ways that become an integral part of a person’s life and personality. (Hang with me).

Let me give some examples of beliefs that are easy to apply immediately:

We should do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

We should forgive one another.

We should carry each others burdens.

We should seek justice for the weak.

But what about the beliefs that don’t seem to be tagged with this type of immediate application? What about God’s sovereignty? God’s nature? Human sinfulness? The second coming? What about the genealogies of the Bible? What about the doctrine of creation ex-nihilo? What about the canon of Scripture, the definition of predestination, the flight to Egypt (all of them), the historicity of the Bible, the arguments for God’s existence, the doctrine of sola Scriptura, sola fide, the Reformation, or hell and the wrath of God?

“Sorry Michael. Our generation, through a series of epiphanies, has made those teachings and beliefs off-limits because of their counter-productive tendency to divide. Plus, they don’t have any direct application to our lives. If someone is to have an opinion about them, lets just keep it at that—an opinion.”

The problem with this line of thinking is that it puts God in the practical application box of our own design. We get out easy by calling foul with regard to doctrine. But, in the end, we end up with a load of rubbish that exiles God to the unknowable. The acceptable “application” of our generation could be applied to any religion. There is nothing distinctly Christian about them. When we do this, we tell God that since his revelation only has limited application we are going to wear selective earplugs while listening.

I believe that all good is defined by the degree which we listen to, understand, and believe the whole council of God, both in his world and in his Word. I also believe that when we say that what you believe about doctrine does not matter as much as what you do, we have fundamentally misunderstood, misdefined, and mishandled what belief means. In doing so we are creating an artificial preservative that we are trying to dress up like the real thing, but whose substance has limited shelf-life.

When we listen to God, when we prioritize truth, doctrine, understanding, and belief, when the time is right, you will see that we have changed, not from the outside in, but from the inside out. We are what we believe, not what we do. This is Christianity 101. It is about belief first. Belief must have content.

For example, take the Theology Proper (the doctrine of God). God has revealed himself as one who is the creator of all things, who transcends all of creation, being holy, unchangeable, without any need whatsoever (aseity), who loves man but will not let the unrighteous go unpunished. It is only when we have intellectually wrestled with and reflected upon it that we can recognize his majesty. It is only when we recognize his majesty that we can recognize our sinfulness, hopelessness, and helplessness without him. It is only by doctrine—right doctrine—that we can come to a state of brokenness. It is only in this brokenness that we can worship him truly. This belief—when truly understood and believed—will produce a fragrance of a character which is in conformity to Christ. Call the fragrance “application” if you will, but it is only present because of an understanding and belief.

But what you must understand is that this brokenness is application. It is not the place holder for application that will come later.

It pleases God to be known as Trinity. Knowing God is application.

Worship is expressed as the deepest longings of our heart are fulfilled by coming to know our creator and all that he has revealed to us and we rejoice in this knowledge.

We need to recognize that giving people the truth is our first priority. The fragrance produced by this truth will be inevitable. It is the nature of belief to find expression. I can’t always tell you exactly what this expression will look like and in what manner it is identified. But the belief is the foundation. The belief brings great glory to God. Belief is always enough. So long as it is true belief, the fragrance will permeate from us. If it does not, then the belief is not there. This is what James meant: “Belief is not true belief when it does not have a fragrance.” But he was not trying to elevate the action above its source.

Will there be people who believe—truly believe—but don’t have this fragrance? No. Never.

What is our mission? To do our part to make God known. Truth, orthodoxy, belief, and understanding are foundational to Christianity as the substance is foundational to the aroma produced.

You ask me how I know he lives…he lives within my heart.

The longer I am in ministry, the longer I teach theology, the more I see that some things are not quite as clear as they used to be. At one time, I had pretty much everything figured out. Ministry was just about transferring this information effectively. That is the peril of theology. If you want to have it all figured out, don’t get into this business!

At the same time, there are many things that I have believed and about which I continue to grow in conviction. One of these, ironically, is the simplicity of the Christian life. The center point is really not too difficult. God wants us to believe him. Trust, belief, conviction, assurance. These are all words we use to describe this act of the will – faith.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines faith this way:

Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.

Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.

Loyalty to a person or thing; allegiance: keeping faith with one’s supporters.

The theological virtue defined as secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God’s will.

The body of dogma of a religion: the Muslim faith.

A set of principles or beliefs.

Each one of these, in the right context, could describe some aspect of the Christian faith. But we need to go one step further in understanding this term “faith” in a particularly Christian way.

The Reformers sought to distinguish true faith from false faith. The battle cry of sola fide (justification by faith alone) demanded that they define faith in a precise manner.

As started by Luther and developed further by Melancthon and others, the understanding of faith was expressed in three separate yet vitally connected aspects: notitia, assensus, and fiducia.

1. Notitia: This is the basic informational foundation of our faith. It is best expressed by the word “content.” Faith, according to the Reformers, must have content or substance. You cannot have faith in nothing. There must be some referential, propositional truth to which the faith points. The proposition “Christ rose from the grave” or “God loves you” for example, provide a necessary information base or notitia that Christians must have.

2. Assensus: This is the assent, confidence, or assurance that we have that the notitia is correct. Here we assent to the information, affirming it to be true. This involves evidence which leads to the conviction of the truthfulness of the proposition. According to the Reformers, to have knowledge of the proposition is not enough. We must, to some degree, be convinced that it is really true. This involves intellectual assent and persuasion based upon some degree of critical thought. While notitia claims “Christ rose from the grave,” assensus takes the next step and says, “I am persuaded to believe that Christ rose from the grave.”

But these two alone are not enough, according to the Reformers. As one person has said, these two only qualify you to be a demon, for the demons both have the right information (Jesus rose from the grave) and are convicted of its truthfulness. One aspect still remains.

3. Fiducia: This is the “resting” in the information based upon a conviction of its truthfulness. Fiducia is best expressed by the English word “trust.” We have the information, we are persuaded of its truthfulness, and now we have to trust in it. Christ died for our sins (notitia). I believe that Christ died for my sins (notitia + assensus). I place my trust in Christ to save me (fiducia). Fiducia is the personal, subjective act of the will to take the final step. It is important to note that while fiducia goes beyond or transcends the intellect, it is built upon its foundation.

The Church today seems to lack #2. Nominal Christianity lacks #3. Postmodernism lacks #1 and #2.

The change occurred during the Enlightenment. Rene Descartes introduced the criteria of absolute certainty (absolute assensus) about all things. Hume responded with radical skepticism (non-assensus) about all things. Kant provided a mediating position which provided the basic framework for our current epistemology. Kant proposed that while we cannot be certain about all things, there is no reason to be skeptical about everything, either.

He relegated all knowledge into two categories: 1.) The real world, which can be known and understood through observation (the phenomenal), and 2.) that which cannot be known because it is unknowable (the noumenal). Religion and all matters concerning the knowledge of God and metaphysics were placed in the noumenal category. Kant was basically saying, you can believe in God, but you cannot believe in Him like you believe in your friends, car, or your popcorn machine. However, when you believe in God, you must understand that your belief is not based in knowledge and intellectual conviction, but in faith.

Hence came the now popular dichotomy between faith and reason. Hence rose anti-intellectualism in the church; hence came the unbiblical banishing of assensus from the Christian faith. Unfortunately, the church has bought into this Kantian philosophy and has been plagued with it for the last 200 years.

We have a song to commemorate this. You know the one? It goes like this, “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.” In other words, I don’t have any true assensus, therefore I appeal to emotional conviction and say it is from the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it could be from the Holy Spirit, but it could just as well be self-produced or from a demon. How do you know the difference? Many in the evangelical church today have the right information (notitia) but they blindly trust in that information without considering it in a critical manner. Notitia and fiducia without assensus is blind faith.

Please do not get me wrong. I am not saying that this kind of faith cannot be real, but I am saying that it is dangerous. The more I read about those who have “walked away from the faith,” the more I see that their faith was void of this important element that solidifies the truth in their heart.

This can be illustrated by the different seeds in the Parable of the Soils. Two of the three seeds that take root (believe) fall away after a “short time” (it is interesting that we don’t know how short the “short time” is – another blog). Why do they fall away? One reason is probably because they are not really persuaded of the truth. In the end, other truths prove more convincing. Like the character “Pliable” in Pilgrim’s Progress who is never convinced of any particular truth, there are those who wander from “truth” to “truth” based upon the expediency of the day. In the end, I fear, there are many out there who, like Pliable, are really not convinced of who Christ is and what He did.

Am I saying that assensus is the most important aspect of faith? Not at all. All three are equally important. What I am saying is that it is the most neglected. When assensus is neglected, Christianity has no more legitimacy than any other worldview. This is unfortunate. While I believe every other worldview must necessarily exclude assensus to survive, Christianity is the only worldview that does not.

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