Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Vessels of Wrath and Vessels of Mercy

We’ve been looking at the question of whether God really prepares some people for destruction and others for glory. How and to what extent is his sovereignty exercised within the human heart?

Romans 9 is much misunderstood where this subject is concerned. In yesterday’s post I made the case that nothing in the first 18 verses of the chapter deals with the subject of individual salvation. Paul’s subject there is God’s election of nations and other groups to strategic roles in human history for his own sovereign purposes.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Anonymous Asks (99)

“What should I do about my ‘privilege’?”

The Lord Jesus once told a story about a man who tested three of his servants by bestowing upon them varying degrees of privilege. To one he gave five talents of money to invest, which a marginal note in my Bible tells me was something in the order of 100 years’ wages for a laborer. That was a huge privilege, not to mention a mammoth responsibility. To another servant he gave two talents, or forty years’ wages. To a third he gave a single talent to manage, which is still more than I make in six years.

All three servants were exceedingly privileged.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Right There in Front of My Face

From the Department of Missing the Obvious, let me present John 3:16, which I have been hearing my entire life without really hearing it.

This happens. Unfortunately it happens quite a bit. Bear with me. Perhaps the three things I am going to share with you today about God’s love are perfectly evident to you, and always have been.

Let’s just say they didn’t jump out at me, even though they were always right there in front of my face.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Time and Chance (42)

Forty-two Saturdays into our study of Ecclesiastes, we come at last to the phrase which we have taken as our theme: “Time and chance happen to them all.”

Why do things happen to us the way they do? Ancient mythology makes reference to three goddesses who were thought to assign individual destinies to mortals at birth. The Greeks called them the Fates. The unsaved talk about “Lady Luck”, usually on their way to the casino, personifying an imagined force to which nobody can really appeal, but which every gambler hopes to have on their side. Even atheists find themselves inexplicably using the phrase “It was meant to be”, as if a random roll of the dice could actually signify intelligent purpose.

But in a world without revelation and with no sure way to know if there is a God or how he operates, we can only blame time and chance for the good and bad things that come our way.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Bucking or Buckling?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

I promised last week we’d talk about this subject some Friday in the future, and there’s no time like the present.

Tom: IC, we opened a can of worms on the subject of authority and just how the Christian ought to respond to it. That’s not something evangelicals have had to worry about too much in the West for many years, but it’s a topic that’s becoming increasingly relevant as governments begin to encroach on the freedoms we currently enjoy in the interest of a “just society”.

So how about it? Got any grenades to lob on this subject?

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Train to Tribulation and the Road to Hell

Thanks for coming back.

In yesterday’s post we were attempting to understand the massive collectivist “winds” that are blowing across the modern world right now. The purpose was to help Christians see that these are nothing new, nothing unexpected, and nothing untypical of mankind. The language changes, maybe, but the forces at work are always the same.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Let’s Get Together and …

“They said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name…’ ”

I’m going to write today as briefly, as bluntly and yet as informatively as I can.

I will do this because I feel we are dangling presently on a precipice of a major social crisis. The Christian position in this must be made clear, and made clear now, if Christian choices are to be well made.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

What Does Your Proof Text Prove (12)

“If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.”

Growing up in an evangelical community, it was understood that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses were not our fellow believers. These groups were commonly referred to as cults, and considered spiritually dangerous. Pairs of these odd-looking “missionaries” would occasionally make their way through our neighborhood from house to house ringing doorbells and soliciting opportunities to talk to people about the tenets of their belief system. On more than one occasion I heard this verse from 2 John applied as a warning about them: “Do not receive them into your house or give them any greeting.”

As a result, when I was home alone and saw through the peephole of our front door two pasty white guys in matching snappy haircuts, bleached shirts, neatly pressed dress slacks and sensible shoes, I promptly made myself scarce for fear of violating John’s instruction. Hey, the word “Hello” might accidentally slip from my lips and cause me to “take part in their wicked works”.

Is that really the sort of thing John had in mind?

Monday, June 22, 2020

Anonymous Asks (98)

“Are Christians supposed to be perfect?”

We all know Christians sin. This is the reality we live with. I was just making another pass through the apostle John’s first letter, where we find these familiar words: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Whatever might be the expectation of us, and whoever might be expecting it, the fact is that we fail, and fail with some regularity. The longer we walk with Christ and the better we know his word and his character, the more clearly we will see our own spiritual inadequacy. So any Christian who claims sinlessness is lying, not just to the world, but more importantly to himself.

That is what is actually happening in our lives, but what is supposed to be happening?

Sunday, June 21, 2020

A Little Monday Morning Quarterback

Have you ever been in a disagreement that got out of control? I have.

People are different. Some respond to criticism by trying to placate the other side, even groveling if necessary. They are willing to cede any intellectual or moral position in hopes of ending the argument, even when they believe they are in the right. They take the proverbial knee ... or occasionally the literal knee.

Others fume and fuss and become emotional when the logic of a critique disturbs their received worldview. They take correction personally, as a negative commentary on their character rather than a learning opportunity. Easily baited into debating hypotheticals, they can even find themselves arguing positions they don’t really believe because they are so caught up in trying to “win”.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Time and Chance (41)

Bible readers whose systematic theology requires them to downplay or overlook the distinctions scripture makes between the Old and New Covenants are faced with more than the occasional conundrum in interpreting Ecclesiastes. And yet any number of older commentators read and exposit the book as if its primary value is as directly-applicable advice to modern Christians.

It most surely is not.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Empty-Somethings

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The Telegraph reports an Italian court has ordered a divorced father to pay child support for his 28-year-old son, who has already meandered through one degree in literature and has now enrolled in a post-graduate course in experimental cinema.

Tom: I bring this up, Immanuel Can, because this is not an isolated case. Most parents have not been nailed for child support, but many all over the world have their adult sons and daughters living in their homes well into their thirties and beyond.

The phenomenon has a name in Italy. They call it bamboccioni, which essentially means “chubby children”. You had what I thought was a better idea, IC. How about “empty-somethings”?

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Even More Offensive

In my previous post, “Offensive Christianity”, I argued that many of us misunderstand the choice we have in facing Christ: we think it’s between faith and doubt — but in scripture, it is between faith and being offended.

Everybody struggles with doubt. And perhaps we tend to think that when we do, it signals something very, very bad. Maybe it means our faith has failed. Maybe it means we were never sincere in the first place. Maybe it means we’re lost.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Of Meth Heads and Christ Figures

People are complicated, Christians included. They are not all one thing, either good or bad.

Friends of whom I once thought very highly have later shown the world sides of themselves I never knew existed, betraying and deceiving loved ones, harboring unimagined secrets and bad habits, or getting involved in situations that seem incomprehensible to those who thought they knew them. Equally, people who lived quite openly and despicably in sin have on occasion shown evidence of tenderness, affection or intelligence I never thought possible for them.

People are complicated, and they will surprise you.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Call and Answer

As I have probably mentioned from time to time, it is my habit every morning to try to read one chapter of the Old Testament and one chapter of the New. Other Christians I know do much the same thing. More than once we have found ourselves sharing with one another how remarkably one passage seems to dovetail with another.

Coincidence? Perhaps. But the unity of scripture is a real phenomenon, and it should not surprise us when that inherent thematic oneness expresses itself in remarkable ways. This morning it is in the form of a call and answer.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Anonymous Asks (97)

“Does God make mistakes?”

The Song of Moses says this about God: “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice.” David wrote, “This God — his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true.” Another psalm says the Lord’s understanding is “beyond measure”. The prophet Isaiah said, “O Lord, you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.” Even the pagan prophet Balaam was forced to concede that “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”

Does this sound like Someone who makes mistakes? The writers of scripture claim our God is morally impeccable, utterly reliable, and acts in absolute harmony with reality. If we accept their testimony then, no, God does not make mistakes.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

More Than Accurate

“My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right.”

In his first letter to the churches in Corinth, as he so often does, Paul appeals to the authority of the Old Testament in making his argument. He says, “For it is written.” Apparently that settles the matter.

Incidentally, Paul is quoting from the book of Job. The text at the top of this post comes from Job as well.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Time and Chance (40)

The writer to the Hebrews notes that one of the Lord’s objectives in his incarnation was to “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery”.

That slave metaphor is not particularly flattering. And yet we can see a slave’s mentality at work in Ecclesiastes. Solomon, the Preacher, has lived his life making decisions for everyone else around him. He has been the greatest king of his generation; autonomous, powerful, captain of his own destiny. As he considers his own looming demise, he cannot stop obsessing about the various ways in which his own agency is being gradually stripped from him as he ages. This, he says, is “vanity” and “a great evil”. Death is the great leveler of humanity, and the Preacher does not look forward to being leveled.

That preoccupation is a form of slavery, one from which only Christ can free us.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Evolving Christianity

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Billions of blue, blistering barnacles ...
Erik Jones asks the question “Was Christianity Designed to Evolve?

Tom: Now, Jones is Church of God, the Sabbath-keeping sect out of Texas that originated with Herbert Armstrong, so we’re certainly not going to find ourselves in agreement with their particular emphasis on law-keeping and Jewish holy days, a hint of which bleeds into Jones’ article.

We will also be unsurprised to find Jones’ answer to his own question is a resounding ‘No’.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Offensive Christianity

“It has been customary to employ the category ‘doubt’ where one ought to speak of ‘offense.’ The relationship … to Christ is not either to doubt or to believe, but either to be offended or to believe.”
— Søren Kierkegaard,
Training In Christianity

I have said this before, and I’ll say it again: the opposite of faith is not doubt.

Doubt dwells with faith, just as stress dwells with growth. Growth of muscles happens by straining them. Growth of skills happens by them being tested. We become by overcoming. Faith needs stress, needs tests, needs stretching into new areas, needs maturing — and where this process is happening, doubt will be present as well. It is the thing faith needs to conquer.

The uncertainties of life are the gymnasium of the soul.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Who Does the Washing?

“If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”

A very simple thought this morning, but perhaps an important one.

It is helpful to recognize what is being symbolized in our Lord’s marvelous display of love and humility at the very beginning of John 13. When Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, the spiritual issue being addressed is not their eternal salvation. Judas had his feet washed right along with the rest of the disciples, and subsequently went to “his own place”. So the “share” at stake in allowing the Lord to wash our feet is not our “heavenly portion”. Salvation is settled separately, as Jesus told Peter: “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.”

One man had his feet washed who had never consented to take a bath: Judas. His footwashing did not help him in any way, shape or form. He went right out and betrayed the Lord only moments later. If anything, the footwashing he had received testified against him.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Unhelpful Friends and Uneasy Times

When Job’s three friends came to show him sympathy in his time of distress, they wept, tore their robes and sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him because they saw that his suffering was very great.

The week of silence was a genuine gesture of solidarity and goodwill, but everything Job’s friends did from that point on was a bit of a bust. Why? Because they opened their mouths and started talking — and arguing at great length — about something they weren’t going through and clearly didn’t understand.

We Christians may be at risk of doing much the same thing with respect to the current racial tensions in the U.S.

Monday, June 08, 2020

Anonymous Asks (96)

“How can I avoid the appearance of evil?”

Let me take a wild guess here: you read from the King James Version of the Bible.

Actually, it’s not really that wild a guess. If we use the very convenient BibleHub website to take a look at a broad spectrum of English translations of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 (which is where the phrase “the appearance of evil” originates), we find only six of the 28 versions listed there translate it that way, and three of those are King James variants. Of those six, the KJV is by far the most widely read, so this rendering of the verse is still very common today despite being more than a little misleading to modern readers.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Christ-Plus®

In the upper room, Jesus sets out God’s program for his disciples. The Son of Man is to be glorified, and God glorified in him. This necessitates him going away, first to the cross, and then to the Father, where he intends to make his preparations to receive his disciples, and then return for them. Only three things are really required of the disciples in all this: believe, love one another, and wait patiently for his promised return.

This is God’s program in a nutshell. Unsurprisingly, three of the Lord’s disciples voice objections to it, and offer subtle improvements to make it more palatable to them.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Time and Chance (39)

Boy, there is a lot about death in Ecclesiastes.

If you’re counting, the words “dead” and “die” occur six times apiece, “dust” and “death” three times, “one place” (guess where?) twice, and “Sheol”, “burial” and “stillborn” once each.

To top it all off, the infamous chapter 12 contains such an impressive stack of poetic aging-and-death metaphors that the first thing most Christians do upon finishing the book is scramble to the New Testament post-haste in search of something to wash the taste out of their mouths. I find the last nine verses of Romans 8 usually do nicely.

Friday, June 05, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Rules of Combat

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Okay, I’ve got one for you, Tom.

I was having a discussion with a Christian academic over Calvinism. He leans toward it, though in a rather unorthodox way, and I … don’t. Here’s his perspective on the fact that doctrinal disagreements exist:

“I’ve been blessed by teaching and worshiping in schools and churches which take no stand on the [controversial] divide, all my life. I have become convinced that agreement on this will never be reached. As a Calvinist, I posit that this is the way God wants it. It is apparently best for the church and the world that there be both [sides], but that we find ways to love one another and to work together, without suppressing our different biblical understandings.”

Immanuel Can: Is it like that, Tom? Is an I’m-okay-you’re-okay attitude the way to deal with major doctrinal controversies in the local church?

Thursday, June 04, 2020

The Heights of Accommodation and the Depths of Evil

“Well, you know, many roads lead up the mountain …”

So he said to me.

People say stuff like that all the time when they want to avoid facing God. “I can do it my way,” they say, hoping that saying it strongly enough will make it true. Or, they say, “Everybody’s got a piece of the truth, but nobody’s got it all,” like the story of the blind men and the elephant (if you know that little tale).

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Congregations in Boxes

If you are anything like me, you have probably watched no end of amateur Christian video uploaded to YouTube in the last two months. The medium definitely has its limitations.

Still, there is a certain amount of courage required to record your thoughts to be replayed in a public forum. The whole thing is pretty stark: it’s basically a person in a box. You are seriously exposed.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Not Done in a Corner

From the scientific perspective, peer review is the litmus test of reliability.

The idea is this: that in order for a newly published academic theory to have any credibility with either the scientific community or the general public, it is necessary for independent parties to test it: to carefully read through the documentation that supports it; to re-calculate the mathematical formulas that lie behind it; to examine the steps by which the theory was constructed and certify that its conclusions were arrived at in accordance with normal scientific procedures; in some cases even to re-perform whatever experiments are alleged to prove it and examine their results for consistency.

You cannot do science off in some dark corner and then refuse to allow anybody to see what you have been up to. If you do, nobody will believe you at all.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Anonymous Asks (95)

“Do you have to say certain words to become a Christian?”

Entering into a relationship with God is not like signing up to play for a ball team, getting initiated into a college fraternity or joining MENSA. There are no tests to pass, no dotted lines to sign on, no secret handshakes and no code words like “Open, Sesame” which must be spoken to allow access to God.