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Soteriology in the Middle (Part III)

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16

 

In this post, my third and final post on soteriology, I wanted to think about the atonement.  Along with the resurgence of Calvinism and the dawning of what some call Neo-Calvinism in recent years, there has been an accompanying resurgence of a debate that has been going on amongst Christians for hundreds of years- the extent of the atonement.

Wayne Grudem defines the atonement this way:

“The atonement is the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation.  This definition indicates that we are using the word atonement in a broader sense than it is sometimes used.  Sometimes it is used to refer only to Jesus’ dying and paying for our sins on the cross.  But…since saving benefits come to us from Christ’s life, we have included that in our definition as well.”[1]

Norman Geisler defines the atonement as “the substitutionary death of Jesus on behalf of our sins, whereby the just died for the unjust in order that God’s justice may be satisfied and His mercy justify the unjust.”[2]

 The idea of the atonement as articulated by the above theologians reflects the biblical teaching of the doctrine of atonement well.  The Bible tells us that God created human beings to know Him and to be known by Him in a relationship of peace, unity, and love.[3]  But our first human parents disobeyed the commands of God which were given to protect mankind and preserve the relationship with God they’d been graciously given.[4]  As a result all human beings are sinners from their core.  All humans break the law and heart of God in their actions, desires, and imagination on a daily basis.  This is the case because having a sin nature we are bound by natural inclination toward sin.  This is the result of inheriting a corrupt nature from Adam and Eve, sort of like human children that contract deadly diseases from parents who have engaged in sinful activities which have compromised their own health.[5]

Because of mankind’s sinful nature and sinful actions all humans deserve to experience the judgment of God.[6]  When someone breaks the law in human society it is common knowledge to us all that the guilty deserve to experience the consequences of breaking the law.  The Bible tells us that breaking God’s holy law carries with it the death penalty.[7]  This includes the experience of physical death upon which our soul separates from our bodies,[8] spiritual death in which our souls are separated from relational peace with God,[9] and the second death which is the experience of eternal conscious torment of body and soul in hell.[10]

 The good news for humanity in spite of our sinful condition and guilt before God is that the atonement is real, and its benefits are available to us through faith in Jesus.  Jesus lived a perfect life for us where we could not.  Though sinless,[11] He died in our place for our sins[12] on the cross experiencing and satisfying the penalty we deserved to undergo as spiritual criminals who have broken God’s holy law.[13]  In doing so He soaked up the wrath of God due us like a sponge absorbs water.[14]  He rose again from the dead conquering Satan, sin, demons, death, and hell on our behalf.[15]  Those who recognize their need for His penal substitutionary death accomplished in their place, and trust that it was sufficient to provide for their forgiveness and acceptance by God apart from any ritualistic, religious, or moral works performed by them are indeed forgiven, and experience the gift of new birth (regeneration).[16]

 

THE DEBATE

All Christians agree that the benefits experienced by those who have the atonement of Christ applied to them through trusting in Jesus are truly blessed with undeserved amazing grace.  They agree that only those who believe in the biblical gospel get to experience the merits of Christ’s atonement. The debate amongst Christians is in regard to the extent of Christ’s atonement.  Who does Jesus actually intend and desire to experience the merits of His atonement made on the cross?  When He voluntarily died on the cross did He intend to provide atonement for all individual sinners, or only the elect?

Some would affirm the doctrine of Limited Atonement or Particular Redemption which declares that Jesus died in a saving (atoning) way for the elect only.  Others would say that Jesus’ atonement is intended for and sufficient to save all individual sinners, but it is only efficient for those who respond to the gospel in faith.  This is what we would call the Universal Atonement view.  This latter view is not to be confused with Universalism which is a heretical view that has seen a recent rise in popularity in America due to the teaching of certain influential pastors.  Universalism basically teaches that since Jesus died for all people, all people will ultimately be saved and make it into heaven.  All biblical and gospel believing Christians reject such a view as heretical and demeaning to Jesus and the justice of God.  This being the case, Universalism will not be discussed in the rest of this post in detail.

 

Calvinism on the Atonement

On the Limited Atonement side of this debate are theologians such as John Owen.  He expressed the common reasoning behind Calvinist thinking on the atonement this way:

The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either: (1) All the sins of all men, (2) all the sins of some men, or (3) some of the sins of all men. In which case it may be said: That if the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so, none are saved.  That if the second be true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth.  But if the first be the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins?  You answer, “Because of unbelief.”  I ask, Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it be, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not, He did not die for all their sins!”[17]

 Similarly, John Piper articulates his belief in Limited Atonement this way:

“Christ died for all the sins of some men.  That is, he died for the unbelief of the elect so that God’s punitive wrath is appeased toward them and His grace is free to draw them irresistibly out of darkness into His marvelous light.”[18]

 

Neo-Calvinism on the Atonement

 Though by his own admission he doesn’t appreciate the title, Mark Driscoll is held up by many as the poster-child for what is being called New Calvinism or Neo-Calvinism, and his view on the atonement which he terms Unlimited-Limited Atonement is increasingly becoming a predominant view of the atonement held by young Reformed Christians.  In explaining Unlimited-Limited Atonement Driscoll writes:

“At first glance, Unlimited and Limited Atonement are in opposition. But, that dilemma is resolved by noting two things. First, the two categories are not mutually exclusive; since Jesus died for the sins of everyone that means that He also died for the sins of the elect. Second, Jesus’ death for all people does not accomplish the same thing as His death for the elect. This point is complicated, but is in fact taught in Scripture (1 Tim. 4:10; 2 Peter 2:1).

Simply, by dying for everyone, Jesus purchased everyone as His possession and He then applies His forgiveness to the elect by grace and applies His wrath to the non-elect. Objectively, Jesus’ death was sufficient to save anyone, and, subjectively, only efficient to save those who repent of their sin and trust in Him. This position is called Unlimited Limited Atonement or Modified Calvinism.

Therefore, Modified Calvinists like the Mars Hill elders do not believe anything different than Arminians; we simply believe what they believe and more. Lastly, perhaps the Old Testament sacrificial system provides the best illustration of this both/and position. The High Priest would offer a sacrifice for the sins of the whole nation on the Day of Atonement; this is, in effect, unlimited atonement. Then, each worshipper would repent of their own sins as demonstrated by the giving of their own sacrifices for their sins; this is, in effect, limited atonement.”[19]

 

The Bible on the Atonement

Personally, I think the Unlimited-Limited Atonement position has far more to commend it biblically than the traditional view of Limited Atonement.  My differences with Driscoll’s view aren’t in regard to the extent of the atonement but are over the means of the application of the atonement.  While Driscoll affirms a version of Universal Atonement he also affirms the classic Reformed understanding of Irresistible Grace which, in my opinion, wrongly teaches that regeneration precedes faith (see Part II of this series of posts on www.crossconnection.net for discussion of this).  I would part ways with him on that point.  But in regard to the biblical witness on the extent of the atonement I believe Driscoll is right on, and that his Calvinist comrades have real challenges in squaring the intricate details of their Limited Atonement view with some clear statements of scripture on the issue.

 

Compelling Verses

As a formerly committed Five Point Calvinist let me give you some of the verses I found compelling (or troubling) as I began to shift to a universal understanding of the intent of the atonement.

1 John 2:2- “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.  And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”

 John is addressing believers in these verses.  This is clear from the phrase “my little children” as well as the context of the entire book of First John.  Here he clearly says that Jesus’ death was not just for those who were believers already, but for those of “the whole world” also.  The common explanation of John’s meaning offered by those who believe in Limited Atonement is that he didn’t mean every individual person when he used the term “world.”  Instead they say he meant the believers to whom he was writing and all the other believers in Christ living in different parts of the world.  One of the glaring problems with this interpretation is that in the context of his book John tells us that the “world” does not represent God’s people, but in fact represents the realm, influences, and practitioners of evil throughout the globe.  Later in this same chapter John tells exactly what the “world” is to him:

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that [is] in the world–the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life–is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever. Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour.”[20]

 According to John the “world” for whom Christ died is the entire world of evil influence, antichrists (non Christians), and the sinful impulses common to every member of the human race.  It is strange that some would try to designate the concept of the “world” in verse two as other believers living in places different from the audience to whom John was writing when John describes the world in such depraved, sinful, and unregenerate terms.

 

2 Peter 2:1- “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, [and] bring on themselves swift destruction.”  

 Here the apostle Peter is beginning a long section of Scripture detailing the marks, work, and fate of false teachers.  He will go on to explain that because they’ve led many astray from the truth of God that they will ultimately “utterly perish in their own corruption.”[21]  The thing we need to notice here is that these false teachers who are destined to utterly perish according to Peter were apparently “denying the Lord who bought them” by teaching a false gospel and denying Christ.  When Peter uses the term bought he is employing the language of redemption in reference to false teachers he believed would ultimately experience the eternal judgment of God!

If everyone for whom Christ died will ultimately be saved, how is it that these false teachers will utterly perish even though they were purchased by Christ?  Clearly this is a challenge for advocates of Limited Atonement which is sometimes called Effectual Atonement because this system conveys the idea that all for whom Christ died will effectually be drawn to Him for salvation.  Apparently that was not the case for these false teachers who were bought by Christ.

In response some Calvinists say that the false teachers weren’t really bought by Christ on the cross.  Instead, in an effort to find a way to cling to their doctrinal system in the face of such clear teaching, they insist that what Peter meant is that they were identified with those bought by Christ merely because they associated themselves with God’s people.  The problem with that idea is that it is not what the verse says.  Scripture says the Lord “bought them.”  It doesn’t say they were merely associated with those who were actually bought.

 

John 3:16- “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

This is a favorite verse of advocates of Universal Atonement.  To them it affirms undeniably that Jesus was given to the death of the cross for the sins of all individuals in the world.  It affirms that Jesus’ death was atoning and intended for the entire human race, but that only those who believe out of the human race actually receive the benefits of the atonement applied to them for salvation.  In response, adherents of Limited Atonement say that what John meant was that God gave His Son for the elect scattered throughout the entire world, and not every individual sinner in the world.   

J.C Ryle ably refutes the interpretation of this verse offered by advocates of Limited Atonement in his commentary on John.  Since Ryle makes the case for the universal meaning of John 3:16 so clearly, allow me to quote him extensively on this point.

“Some think…that the word ‘world’ here means God’s elect out of every nation, whether Jews or Gentiles, and that the ‘love’ which God is said to love them is that eternal love with which the elect were loved before creation began, and by which their calling, justification, preservation and final salvation are completely secured.  –This view, though supported by many great divines, does not appear to me to be our Lord’s meaning.  For one thing, it seems to me a violent straining of language to confine the word ‘world’ to the elect. ‘The world’ is undoubtedly a name sometimes given to the ‘wicked’ exclusively.  But I cannot see that it is a name ever given to the saints.—For another thing, to interpret the word ‘world’ of the elect only is to ignore the distinction which, to my eyes, is plainly drawn in the text between the whole of mankind and those out of mankind who ‘believe.’  If the ‘world’ means only the believing portion of mankind, it would have been quite enough to say, ‘God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that the world should not perish.’  But our Lord does not say so.  He says, ‘that whosoever believeth, i.e., that whosoever out of the world believeth.’ –Lastly, to confine God’s love to the elect, is taking a harsh and narrow view of God’s character, and fairly lays Christianity open to the modern charges brought against it as cruel and unjust to the ungodly.  If God takes no thought for any but His elect, and cares for none besides, how shall God judge the world?”[22]

 

1 Timothy 4:10- “…the living God…is the Savior of all men, especially those who believe.”

Paul teaches the same thing here that John does in John 3:16.  Though God is especially the Savior of believers (the elect) because the merits of the atonement are actually applied to them through faith, He is also the Savior of all individuals because His atonement was sufficient for their salvation as well.  The difference between those Jesus is “especially” the Savior of and those He’s not especially the Savior of isn’t about who His atonement was intended for; it’s about who believes the gospel so that the atonement may be applied to them.

 

What About Verses that Teach Jesus’ Death was Specifically for Christians?

Some claim there is biblical support for Limited Atonement in verses that specifically describe Jesus’ atonement as being accomplished for His people without reference to unbelievers.  An example of such a verse would be Acts 20:28: “…shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”

Advocates of Limited Atonement point out that this verse says Jesus (God) purchased “the church” with His own blood, and not all individuals.  While it is true that it says Jesus purchased His church with His blood, it is also true that it doesn’t say that Jesus didn’t purchase those who don’t come to faith in Him.  In light of the universal language of other clear passages of Scripture it would be perfectly reasonable to affirm that Paul has in mind those who actually benefit from Christ’s redeeming work on the cross through faith, while not denying that He also died for those who don’t come to faith as well (such as the false teachers in 2 Peter 2:1).  It is an inference to say that since Paul affirms that Jesus died for His church that he is also saying Jesus didn’t die for anyone else.  We use language like this every day in communicating with one another.  For instance, when I say “I love my wife and work to provide a livelihood for her.” it doesn’t follow that I don’t love my daughter and also provide a livelihood for her through my work.

 

Answering the Big Question

When you get into a discussion on the extent of the atonement the proponents of Limited Atonement almost always fall back on the same question.  This question was popularized by Calvinist theologian John Owen and was noted earlier in this post.  To quote Owen again, he asked, “…why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins?  You answer, ‘Because of unbelief.’  I ask, Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it be, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not, He did not die for all their sins!”[23]

While at first glance this question might seem to pin the believer in Universal Atonement with a logical problem from which they cannot escape without becoming particular redemptionists, this is not the case.  Two things need to be pointed out in response to Owens’ famous logic problem.  First of all, whether or not the teaching of Scripture is easily graspable within the confines of what we consider human logic isn’t the issue.  The question of the truth of a doctrine isn’t resolved by whether or not it is logical to us, but whether or not it is actually taught in Scripture whether it makes sense to us or not.  The truth is that the Bible affirms that there are infinite spiritual realities that are true, and to which we are subject that we cannot understand in our finiteness.[24] For example, consider the reality of the Trinity.  The Bible affirms that the Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God, there’s only One God, and that the Father, Son, and Spirit are not each other.  Is that beyond human logic?  Absolutely!  Is it true and affirmed by all biblical Christians?  Yes!  Why should we not approach understanding and explaining the biblical data on the extent of the atonement with the same humility and trust in the Scriptures?

Secondly, the question is based on a faulty view of the application of redemption.  It muddies the water and places the provision and the application of redemption as occurring simultaneously at the cross.  If this is true, the elect were forgiven for their sins at the moment the atonement was made for them when Jesus died on the cross. On the contrary, the Bible seems to teach that though the provision was secured for our forgiveness through the atonement at the moment it was accomplished on the cross, the application of the provision isn’t granted until we believe the gospel during the course of our lives.[25]

As far as the sin of unbelief itself is concerned, to be sure, it is a sin for which we stand deserving of judgment like every other sin.  But “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.”[26] And when faith is enabled through the power of God’s Word and a sinner repents of the sin of unbelief, the merits of the atonement are applied to them and they are forgiven for their prior unbelief as well as every other sin they’d committed to that point, or will commit in the future.  The promoters of Limited Atonement are the ones who want to make unbelief a special category of sin.  If we distinguish rightly between the time that the provision of atonement is made for all sins (the cross) and the time that the application of the provision is granted (faith and conversion) we come out biblical and without conflict and confusion.  But whether it feels logical to us or not the Bible is clear that those who experience God’s judgment do not do so because atonement was not made for them, but because they refuse to believe that it has.

“Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? Hebrews 10:29


[1] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Page 568.

[2] Geisler, Norman. Systematic Theology: Vol. III Sin & Salvation. Page 254.

[3] Colossians 1:16

[4] Genesis 3

[5] Genesis 6:5; Romans 5:11-14

[6] Romans 3:19-20

[7] Romans 6:23

[8] Genesis 2:17

[9] Romans 5:1; 1 Corinthians 6:17

[10] Revelation 21:8

[11] Hebrews 4:15

[12] 1 Corinthians 15:3

[13] 1 Peter 3:18

[14] Romans 5:1; 9

[15] 1 Corinthians 15:4; John 16:7-11

[16] Ephesians 1:13; 1 Corinthians 15:1-2; Galatians 2:16; 3:13-14

[17] Owen, John. The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.

[18] Piper, John. What we Believe about the Five Points of Calvinism.

[19] Driscoll, Mark. http://cdn.marshill.com/files/2005/11/20/20051120_unlimited-limited-atonement_document_9143.pdf

[20] 1 John 2:15-18 NKJV (Emphasis added)

[21] 2 Peter 2:12c NKJV

[22] Ryle, J.C. Expository Thoughts on the Gospels. Vol. III. Page 154.

[23] Ibid

[24] Deuteronomy 29:29; Romans 11:33-36

[25] Ephesians 1:13; 2:8-9

[26] Romans 1-:17b NKJV

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Random Thoughts On Leadership

Over the years, I have been very laid back about most things.  That has been good and bad.  The good is that I haven’t over-hyped our church or goaded people into doing things.  (No fleshly results). The bad is that at times I should have been much more intentional in imparting vision, mobilizing, and motivating in direct ways.  I thank God that He brings us along.  I am increasingly enjoying getting out in front of things now. That’s not a natural gift for me, but perhaps, an imparted skill.

God can use our personalities, and I believe He desires to do so, but woe to us when we substitute our personalities for Spirit led living and leading.  People want to follow leaders.  We need to constantly be careful about how we lead.  May we develop churches that follow Jesus first and foremost.  I think it is easier for people to follow people than to follow God.  Let’s not take advantage of that.

King David ordained his son Solomon to follow in his place.  He did this while he still had influence and power.  Moses ordained Joshua.  Paul appointed Timothy.  The models of older pastors raising up younger pastors and handing off ministry to them is very attractive to me.  I have been a senior pastor for 20 years, and a pastor for 23 years.  I look forward to the next season of my life in preparing the guys that will take our church forward.  I am thankful for the models that have been presented to us, i.e. Bill Ritchie & Daniel Fusco, as well as others.

Not everybody in our church thinks like me.  I don’t why I thought they did.  I am continuing to learn to listen to the voices of the faithful saints as they share ideas about ministry and community interfacing.  Pastors are unique animals, and I think that at least for me, I sometimes lose the pulse of the man in the pew.  It is good to talk with the folks in our church and hear their ideas.

Back to the idea of leading….there is a great need for people to be Spirit led, and to receive vision from the Lord…but I also believe that we pastors need to share vision and provide opportunities.  I know that I am preaching to the choir.  My thought is that our brethren need to always be Kingdom minded and Kingdom motivated, but (possibly) expressing that in two ways.  1) According to how God is leading them in their day to day lives, without our direction. 2)  According to how God might impart to me, (as their pastor) larger events and opportunities.  I pray that the people in our church act both independently and corporately.

I don’t like making mistakes, but I love learning form from them. Wink

Early on in my marriage, I had a suspicion that God might be calling me to be a pastor, but I never realized how important it would be that He gave me a “pastor’s wife” as my wife.  My wife has radically enhanced my ability to serve as a pastor.

Speaking of training up the next generation of pastor’s…don’t forget to help their wives grow into their respective position as a pastor’s wife.  Some guys are held back or hindered because their wives were not nurtured and helped to grow into their position as a pastor’s wife.

I heard a pastor once say, “It’s good to be afraid again”.  He spoke of the fact that at that time in his life, he was taking a big step of faith and following a new course for life.  His entire routine was being set aside, and a new lifestyle was being developed.  His “fear” was refreshing to him, because it signaled utter dependence upon Jesus, instead of nominal dependence sought out in the routine of life.

God’s grace IS sufficient.

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A “Theology of suffering”: Develop it and pass it on–there’s trouble ahead!

A number of our church members are refugees from Burma/Myanmar.  Needless to say, based on their personal experiences with the government of Burma, they have zero trust that anything the government has agreed to recently will actually change the situation for their families, other Christians, and other ethnic minorities that still live in that country.

My associate pastor and his wife are from Syria.  They are the only members of their immediate families that live in the U.S.  His wife’s parents live in Homs and have had to move to a village in the hills outside of the city–a village that has had the electricity cut off by the military and food  and medical supplies severely limited.  They don’t know yet whether their home in Homs has survived the bombings.

Suffice it to say that for some of our church members and almost ALL of the refugees that our church reaches out to, government or ethnic oppression has been a way of life.  Personal SUFFERING as the result of the decisions of others has been the norm in their lives, not the exception.

Ministering to these people from the truths of God’s word isn’t a great challenge.  His word has much to say about the subject of suffering and most of it has to do with suffering that is the result of persecution rather than the suffering that results from disease and so forth.

And in this process, something has become painfully and convictingly apparent to me:  I need to tighten up my “theology of suffering” to include that which is the result of animosity from others due to being known as a follower of Jesus.

As I survey the history of the church in the United States even right up till today, outside of a few strands within the African-American church,  a “theology of suffering” has never really been developed and passed on to American Christians as part of that which will help them mature in Christ.

Here’s my take on why this is and what I believe pastors need to consider:

First–In my opinion, America is not now and has never been a valid political and governmental expression of the Kingdom of God.  No earthly government or political system can be an expression of the Kingdom of God.  If the United States or any other country actually was, then Jesus was mistaken when He clarified to the Pharisees what the Kingdom of God actually is, (Luke 17:20,21).

Second–During the entire history of the Christian church, there have only been a few countries where being a follower of Jesus actually “pays” rather than “costs” in any substantive way.  The United States has been the greatest example of this.

Third–If we’re being honest, the sheer fact that we as pastors need to define New Testament words and terms like:  “persecution”,  being “reviled”, being “hated”, being “defamed”, being spoken against as “evildoers”, or “suffering for righteousness sake” for our members should tell us something about the odd environment that we live and minister in.

Fourth–If that isn’t clear enough, then the reality that we need to find examples of what this type of treatment looks like from church history or from what is currently taking place in many countries around the world, should set off our alarm bells!

Let’s face it–life for the follower of Jesus in America just isn’t that similar to what is described as the norm in the New Testament or what others in church history or in other countries today experience.

But…….if we’re paying attention at all to what is happening in this country,  then we know that radical changes have begun and will more than likely continue–even if the current administration suffers a defeat in the next election.

What kind of changes?  Changes that I believe  will make it possible for us to give examples of the things above, (included in my 3rd point), FROM WITHIN our own country and perhaps even our own personal experiences.

Personally, I believe that God is permitting things to unfold in such a way that the requirement to find examples from history and other countries will be removed—we’ll be living it.  We’ll be fully biblical in a way that we always thought we were, but maybe actually weren’t.

I’m convinced that God is steering the foolish decisions of many powerful and influential leaders in our country so that not only will it be clear to everyone that the Kingdom of God and the United States of America are not one and the same, (which many Christians don’t understand right now), but also so that those who truly are citizens of His Kingdom will know by experience themselves a greater number of the truths of His word.

In other words, I don’t believe it will be long until 2 Tim 3:12 Yes, and all who desire to live Godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution, becomes a description of our own experiences and not just those from history or other countries.

Now please don’t misunderstand me.

–I’m NOT praying that God destroys the country I’ve been blessed to be raised in and have served as part of the military.  The country that has probably done a better job of representing some Kingdom principles in its interaction with other countries than most other countries and that has provided resources for me and and thousands of others to go and live in other countries to spread the good news and help with expanding His Kingdom around the world.

–I’m NOT eager to suffer persecution or any of the other things that the bible seems to indicate could be the norm for someone who follows Jesus.

–And, I’m NOT saying that we should abandon the freedoms we have in this country that God has blessed us with so that we really can have a meaningful influence on the political system or government we live under.  By our vote, our voices, and many other means, we can and should try to move the government and political system towards standards that are in line with righteousness and are ultimately best for all citizens.

So, because of all the above, I believe each and every pastor would do well to develop a “theology of suffering” and then pass it on BEFORE the reality of what so many others have experienced becomes a part of our experience.

 

WI

Word and Image

I was speaking with a couple of friends and one mentioned a book he was reading that spoke of the Image centered church of the Middle Ages and the Word centered church emerging from the Reformation.  The church of the Middle Ages employed Image by reason of societal illiteracy and its own theological presuppositions and institutional needs.  The church of the Reformation changed its theological presuppositions and institutional philosophy and Image gave way to Word.  The prevailing of the Word over Image has done much to shape the western world, but today, a media saturated culture is promoting Image over Word.

In the course of this conversation I said that it will be interesting to see what wins out – Word or Image.  But I think that verdict is in – Image is eclipsing Word.  This same friend told me of a theological discussion he was having with his nephew.  My friend recommended a book to his nephew and his nephew wanted nothing to do with any printed media.  He wanted his uncle to direct him to Youtube or maybe something on Facebook.  He didn’t know how to relate to Word, Image dominated his learning processes.

Image is eclipsing Word.

Please note, this young man wasn’t disposed against truth, but inclined toward truth conveyed by Image.  This calls for a few comments and questions – and please add your own.

  • The church in utilizing Image, should not change its theological presuppositions and minimize Word.
  • To what extent should church employ Image in service of Truth?
  • Is the media redefining the essence of the church or just the methodology of the church?
  • When does Image become image – aesthetics devoid of content?  When does Image become image – Image for appearance’s sake?
  • Image is not to supplant Word, both should be employed in service of Truth.
  • Is Image the same as Word in a different form?  Do Image and Word convey the same content?
  • The church’s greatest mistake will be to understand that the emphasis on Image is to be translated mainly into media.
  • The church’s greatest opportunity in this milieu is not creating cool graphics and relevant film.  The church’s greatest opportunity and challenge is creating true Image – the Image of Christ.  We are being conformed to Image of Christ – Image is crucial!  As the saints are transformed into Image, Image joined with Word and alongside Word can be a formidable apologetic.
  • Community should be Image.
Creative_Wallpaper_On_the_road_022508_

“How Can We Know The Way?”

I have been meditating on Psalm 1 the last couple of days. And like most everything else, it is spinning me off on a rabbit trail…

 

O How Happy

There is a direct and unmistakeable link to a persons’ emotional state and who they listen to. Oh how happy is the one who is NOT heeding the counsel of those who don’t have a passionate, personal, growing relationship with Jesus (with the end goal of being like the ones they are taking advice from).  Instead, they find great delight in God’s word, so much so they roll it around in their hearts and their minds day and night.

Would to God that in the endeavors we are participating we would never replace the “time well spent” simply reading His word, retelling ourselves His word, thinking on His word and mulling over the words, names, phrases, repetitions that ‘pop’ to the surface. The word “Entertain” comes to mind.

“To receive into the house and treat with hospitality, either at the table only, or with lodging also.

To keep, hold or maintain in the mind with favor; to reserve in the mind; to harbor; to cherish. Let us entertain the most exalted views of the Divine character. It is our duty to entertain charitable sentiments towards our fellow men.” 

-Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary of the American English Language

As bits and pieces of God’s word come to our remembrance, entertain them. Ask yourself “What’s being said or done here? What could have been said or done?” And muse on it. Great happiness will be found, treasures undug, lying dormant, waiting to be discovered.

We Americans are great at reading the Bible through over and over, and there is great benefit from this. But are we able to slow to an imperceptible crawl (apparently) and really take our time in theses precious passages, mining them with joy to see how Jesus is made known better to us?

“When He came into the world He said, “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me…Lo, I have come (in the volume of the book it is written of Me), to do Thy will, O God.”

Hebrews 10:5 & 7

Where is Jesus in my reading? Where do I see Jesus in this passage?

Now, I am NOT saying we twist the scriptures until we think we see Jesus. Rather, read the scriptures, close your eyes and try to recite to yourself what you just read (to the best of your ability), read it again (see a pattern?), until you have a pretty good grasp on the text. And then allow the Holy Spirit to begin to speak to you from what you are reading.

 

*I know I am preaching to the choir.* But choirs go over songs again and again and again until they are proficient enough to perform…and there still is room for improvement, true?*

The result? Being like the tree that is firmly rooted and established, bearing fruit in time to the glory of God, heat and drought and blight coming and even in the midst of it your leaf shall not wither and God Himself will bless the labor of your hands, your relationships, your marriage, your children, your ministry.

 

O How Unhappy

Those who don’t find delight in “knowing God and making Him known…by letting myself be known (to coin a new twist on an old phrase- Click Here) are anchored to nothing. They live out their substanceless lives at the mercy of the prevailing trend, thought or breeze, that is here one second and gone the next, ever being blown towards their own unending end, miserable that it is, in it’s realization and in it’s reality.

They are chaff.

They are chaff driven.

They shall not stand, implying they will fall.

Neither in the judgment, at which they will fully realize their great lack at having lived intangible lives,

Nor in the congregation of the righteous, where they were supposed to be, but their eyes are now opened, maybe for the first time, to the horror that the path they tread their whole life long is to perpetually crumble under their feet for all eternity, never landing, never gaining solid purchase, grasping and gasping that they are lost and can never be found.

 

“How Can We Know The Way?”

Thomas queried.

Jesus replied, “I am the way…”

There is no shortcut, no alternative route (no, not even on Google Maps) to walking the way of the righteous than getting to know Jesus.

 

May I encourage you in your reading of His word…slow down, walk the path slowly, and allow yourself (and encourage your people) that this is not a contest, we’re looking for Jesus.

Sheep-Lost

Most Is Not Enough

The heart of God is amazing.  He is far beyond us regarding His concern for people.  Every one counts.  God is concerned for every person on this Earth.  He cares for the ones that we overlook and that we might sadly consider “out of reach”.  He seeks those ones who would take “too much effort” to love and care for.  He is concerned for the “less thans” and the insignificant.  He seeks those who have estranged themselves from Him, either through negligence or by determined choice.

In Matthew 18, the disciples asked Jesus about who was the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus brought a child before them, and said, “3unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus didn’t start by saying who was greatest. He started by saying what one had to be like to even enter.

Children were not highly esteemed in those days. On one occasion, they were considered a nuisance by the disciples.  They were not high on the pecking order of who was important.

Jesus went on to teach about the heart of God regarding those who were not highly valued.

Matthew 18:12-14 “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? 13And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. 14Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

A good shepherd is not satisfied with having most of his sheep.  He values all of his sheep.  It would take a lot of effort to leave the ninety-nine and find the lost one.  One might think that having most of the sheep would be acceptable.  If one was lost, it was probably their own fault, or so it could be reasoned.  Why put forth effort to reach one when ninety-nine were safe?

In joining these two ideas together, Jesus teaches us this lesson:  God loves those considered less important, and those who might be considered too much trouble to take care of.  Jesus joined the idea of being like a child and the one lost sheep.

The world may think as follows: “Children are not shakers and movers.  They are not world changers.  No one wants to grow up and be like a child.  They aren’t that important.  The lost sheep is too much trouble to find.  It is their own fault that they are lost.  There are ninety-nine faithful ones who have chosen to stay.  That is a good percentage, and a one percent loss is acceptable.”

Jesus goes on to teach us in verse 15-20 about how to restore a sinning brother.  It is a lesson on how to seek and restore a lost sheep that we might consider “too much trouble”.

It is true that we cannot force people to stay in the flock of God, and that sometimes they may need to be asked to leave, lest they hurt others.

The main point on this passage is that God’s heart desires all people, including those who seem insignificant, and those who have gotten themselves lost.

May we rejoice over the ninety-nine.  May we pray for and seek out the one.

immigration

Aliens

Last week I jumped into the political fray on the issue of homosexual rights, I figured I’d continue the controversy and tackle political hot topic #2, immigration. As with the marriage debate, this one is fueled by great emotion and is often used as a political campaign weapon. The “right” cries foul in favor of lowering debt and taxes, while the “left” plays the human rights card. It’s an emotional debate for sure; one that causes division in our society as well as within the church.

While it may not be entirely correct to say that a majority of American Christians lean “right of center” politically, I think American (especially evangelical) Christianity tends to be more socially conservative. Within this group it is almost a curse word to be labeled “Liberal,” which is exactly what I am sometimes called when I discuss this topic with acquaintances. I truly want to have an honest discussion about this important issue, but I’ve found very few people who can leave their emotions at the door. Furthermore I think it is unfortunate that we seem to have slid to a point where any [apparent] threat against a conservative position is seen as a threat against the kingdom of God, as if “USA” were synonymous with God’s Kingdom (it’s not, by the way). How do we openly discuss issues such as this when we’re unable to do so civilly? Again, a reframing of the debate is [I think] necessary.

As with much of the western world, America is watching national debts multiply faster than gremlins in a downpour, which – at some point – will likely require an increase of taxation. As it stands now illegal immigrants have become the scapegoat for this problem of increasing debts, and since I’ve yet to meet anyone who actually likes paying taxes (I just had a meeting with my CPA this morning in fact), we clearly have a recipe for frustration and anger.

I live and minster in a fairly conservative town that, perhaps more than any other in America, could be labeled “Anti-illegal immigrant.” Fifty miles from the Mexican border, Escondido has a nearly 46% Hispanic population. At the direction of the city, law enforcement regularly sets up “license checkpoints” which have been highlighted several times on the national news and challenged by the ACLU. Several years ago we garnered national attention when a city ordinance passed that prohibited landlords from renting to illegal immigrants. I’m not sure what came of that one, but I’m sure it has been hung up in court. Each of these measures are the result of decreasing revenues and increasing costs; the easiest place to point is the illegal immigrant population.

Please don’t misunderstand, from a political stand point, I agree; if people are going to immigrate to our nation then it should be done legally. We are, and will continue to be a nation of immigrants. My grandparents (on my father’s side) immigrated here from Italy, and I’m grateful that they did. That said, if I grew up south of the border and could provide a better life for my family by moving north, I’d likely do that however I possibly could. Our biggest issue with such immigrants is not that they’re lazy, cause they’re not. It’s not that they don’t pay any taxes, because they do (i.e. sales taxes, many of them pay payroll taxes under fictitious Social Security numbers, property taxes as renters, etc…). As conservatives, our biggest issue is that we’ve been baited, by political rhetoric, to believe that they (“aliens”) are the cause of our fiscal problems. I’m not convinced that they are.

Sure, they’re using civil and social services as they live in our communities, but these services are offered to anyone who meet the criteria for receiving them. Thus the problem is not the low income immigrants as much as it is the social services themselves. Many conservatives are not exactly proponents of such social programs in the first place. If you provide social services, people will utilize those programs; but then you cannot turn around and be mad at the people using the programs that you provided. This being the case, I’m convinced that the best way to change the discourse is divert our attention from those using the services to the services themselves.

Is it the mandate of our constitution that we provide such services (i.e. health and welfare)? Is it the place of the government to provide them, and therefore tax the people to do so? Or, is it actually something that we, the church, should look to do for the fatherless, widows and strangers in our midst?

For much of history this was a domain occupied by the people of God. At some point in the last century the church vacated that sphere and abdicated their responsibility. The vacuum left by the church’s absence was ultimately filled by the government, who must provide such services via taxation and not charity. The need of services for the fatherless, the widow and the stranger will never go away, as “the poor we will have with us always.” But would we rather share the love of Christ by willingly meeting the needs of those who have them, or will we horde what we have? If we are unwilling to render unto God what is His in loving our neighbor, we will certainly be required to render unto Caesar what is needed to meet a need that will never go away this side of the Kingdom of God.

Daniel’s article yesterday is a good reminder. Preaching the gospel and living the gospel are not mutually exclusive realities.

Just saying…

For the LORD your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward: He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

– Deuteronomy 10:17-19

But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?

– 1 John 3:17