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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Is Suicide the Unforgiveable Sin?

Question: What happens to a person once they commit suicide? I have always been taught that they go to hell. If all sins are equal, then why is this one so unforgivable?

Answer: There is nothing in Scripture that teaches us that suicide is the unforgivable sin.  I believe it has been the teaching of the Catholic church that all Suicides go to hell, but this isn't explicitly taught in the Bible. 

If one wanted to build an assumption about suicide and salvation, it's not hard to imagine that suicide is not a good sign that a person is heaven-bound – since it is such a final and unrepentant act of rebellion against God.  Also, no suicide in the Bible is of a righteous person (Saul, Judas, etc).  And if it’s true that the New Birth leads to new life, then suicide is a horrible report card on whether the Birth has happened.  It’s a not a good report card on a person's inner journey.

However, while all of that is true, and while the Bible teaches that a person who is heaven bound is born anew and as such should be increasing in their love for God and man (including themselves)... still, no person who experiences new life lives perfectly without sin. (1 John 1:8). 

And thus you are correct in assuming that NO SIN is unforgivable... (with one exception, which I’ll comment on in a second) and that NO Christian is without sin.  In one sense, a Christian dying while committing suicide is not terribly different than a Christian dying while committing adultery.  Neither is a good way to go out but both have happened to true Christians before.  If we believe that we are saved by grace through Christ and not by acts of righteousness (Rom 3:21.22), then it is faith and God's wonderful mercy and not any one act of sin that determines heaven or hell.

The idea that all suicides MUST go to hell is partly built on the faulty idea that a Christian is forgiven, and heaven-bound, but only if they can repent of each and every sin they commit after the New Birth.  And obviously Suicide is an act that no one can repent of because it is their last act.  But this idea of "YO-YO" salvation based on our moment by moment "performance" violates the very idea of Adoption which the Bible repeatedly uses as a descriptor for what happens in Salvation (Rom 8:23).  If I am adopted into God's family, by grace, then one sin does not kick me out (1 John 2:1).  In fact, nothing can keep me from the "love of God in Christ Jesus"... not hardship or danger or sword, or a bad week where I sin repeatedly. (Romans 8:28-39)

 Now, there IS one sin that is unforgivable.  Jesus said: 
Matt 12:31  And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven..."  

So there IS an unforgivable sin – the sin against the Holy Spirit.  Could that be suicide? What could that mysterious sin be?  I believe this isn't as complicated as some make it.  What does the Holy Spirit come to do?  He brings the saving benefits of forgiveness to human hearts.  So this means, everything is forgivable except this one thing:  the rejecting of forgiveness. That’s a sin for which there is no forgiveness.

So we can say that suicide could only be the unforgivable sin IF it is a person's deliberate sin against the Holy Spirit, an final rejection of his saving benefits and healing touch. Then suicide marks a person for hell.  But in all reality, that person was probably headed there already.  Suicide isn't the magic act that condemns a person, but it may be the final outward sign of a continual, inward rejection of grace.

While we cannot make pronouncements of anyone's eternal destiny based on any one act of sin, (or many acts of righteousness for that matter!) we can say this:  Christians should be living out new Life in increasing love and victory, but only God knows the heart.  Suicide is, at best, a mark of a defeated Christian who did not access God's power for New Life in a critical way.  At worst, however, it may be the outward expression of the spiritual death that hangs over this person's soul, evidence of still being dead in sin, and therefore a dark harbinger of their eternity. (Eph 1:1-6)

It's up to God to know what suicide means for any individual person.  If they claimed to be a follower of Christ, their salvation was not determined by enough good works, or the absence of all sin.  Thank God!  It's about grace.  And we shouldn’t assume any such individuals are in hell.  However, grace works.  So suicide, while not directly corresponding to damnation, is surely an ending no Christian who claims to have God's power at work in them would want to choose.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Is there a Difference Between a Believer and A Disciple?

QUESTION: Is there a difference between a Believer and a Disciple?
http://www.questionsfromatheists.com/2016/03/if-christian-becomes-atheist-doesn-that.html. If you walk away from the faith - were you ever truly saved?

ANSWER: Thanks for the question.  I’ll summarize the argument from the article, and then respond to it.

The author saw the light when they realized that Christ’s offer of salvation is totally divorced from his call to followership.  One can merely believe the beliefs about Jesus, and not love or follow Jesus, and still be saved.  This liberated him from having to think that every Christian would automatically be a fruit-bearing, obedient disciple, since it seems in the real world that a lot of professed Christians walked in disobedience and failure.  So he had to believe either that the Holy Spirit had failed, and that God was  guilty of breaking his promise of “eternal life”, OR that these people simply were never Christians in the first place which seemed to deny their clear experience.

Rejecting those two options, the author now believes that “belief” in Scripture means simply ‘assent to truth’.  In other words, if I simply agree mentally to the idea that Jesus is a Savior, I have eternal life in that moment.  Following Jesus after that moment then, is optional, and a choice some Christians make and others don’t make.  And the reason to be a disciple then, and not just a believer is because many rewards are offered in heaven and to not follow or love Jesus after “belief” will cause you to suffer loss in heaven.

I understand why the author feels forced into this view, with certain verses in Scripture and experience suggesting it, but I think he’s actually not handling all the relevant Biblical data well.  So I think it’s an error to divorce salvation from discipleship and I’ll explain why.  But first, I should mention what his view has going for it. Two things:

  1. It very clearly affirms the Biblical teaching that salvation is by grace through faith and this is not our work, but wholly God’s.  One does not get cleaned up to take a bath, and the gospel is the bath, it washes us clean and no clean up prior to its reception is required.

  1. It effectively addresses verses that deal with reward in heaven and the neglected idea that just as the experience of hell will not be uniform, neither will the experience of heaven.  Faithful discipleship will yield reward in the New World.

Now, I poked around the articles by this same author just to see if he was going to deal with some very obvious Scriptural push back that came to mind.  I didn’t see him address it, so I remain skeptical until I see how he handles two ideas that recur in Scripture a lot:
  1. The idea that faith is not defined in most cases the way he defines it: as mere assent to certain propositions as knowledge.  In fact, faith is most often shown as a rich, beautiful term describing a whole person turning to Christ.  When it IS described as “mere belief” it is rebuked as unable to lead to salvation.

  1. The idea that it is quite possible for believers to lose their standing in grace.

Let me defend those two critiques. 

The bible connects belief and discipleship on almost every page – Jesus most often of all.  To imagine that Jesus’ repeated call to discipleship is not connected to his offer of salvation, you have presume that every time Jesus calls people to “follow” he is talking to people who are already-believers, and every time he calls people to “believe” in him, he’s talking to non-believers.   

Now, the author said he struggled when he connected belief and discipleship because he felt he had to overcomplicate the gospel message with complex definitions about what faith meant.  Ironically, if you separate them, you have to really overcomplicate the gospels, because you have to decide when Jesus was talking only to “believers” or to non-believers and why.  To claim that every call to follow was given to people who already believed strains the text to the breaking point.

One potent example: Matt 19:16-22. The case is the rich young ruler who wants eternal life.  Jesus turns him to the law.  He confidently asserts he’s obeyed the law, to which Jesus says, “One thing you lack.”  And then He calls for total commitment to himself, demonstrated in the selling of his possessions and following Jesus.

To maintain the divorcement of belief and following, our author must assert that this young man WAS ALREADY a believer.  If Jesus only called believers to discipleship, since Jesus is clearly calling the man to follow him, he must already be a believer.

But is that reasonable to assume?  He walks away from that conversation in tears, “grieving”, Matthew recounts.  Why?  Because he was going to go to heaven and get eternal life, but he was just going to miss out on some rewards?  No, the grief is only understandable when it’s connected to his first request – “how do I gain eternal life?”  This is what he assumes he is missing out on.  Did Jesus call after the man to say, “no my brother, don’t be sad, you are already saved because I know you already have “belief” in me (whatever that means).  I just want you to get your full reward in addition to eternal life!”?

No, he did not.  In fact, Jesus not only says no such thing, he also mentions directly following this how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:23).  So obviously what’s at stake in this exchange is eternal life.  Heaven.  Salvation.  Not rewards in heaven – heaven itself.  And it hangs on a clear call to repent.

At this point a word should be said about works-based salvation. Is Jesus putting works forward as the condition of salvation?  Not at all, as I argue in this post..  Jesus was shrewdly using the law as a teacher to drive the man toward Grace.  But what I also argue is that Jesus’ demand would have broken the rich man who relied on his wealth like an idol – and thus would have brought him to a faith-filled dependence on God’s mercy alone to be saved.

In other words, if he really applied what Jesus said, he would not get life by it, by rather he would die by it!!  Die to his idols, pride and self-sufficiency – and only then would he live – by grace.

This is so consistent across the gospels.  Jesus said, one must ‘lose his life for my sake, and live.”  Jesus said, “Whoever does not deny himself cannot be my disciple”.  The author here would try to convince us that he only said such things to already-believers whom we ought to presume were saved by merely thinking Jesus was a life giver.

But in Luke 14:25, it says that Jesus gave this challenge to “great crowds”.  These were all believers?  I supposed one could argue that since they were traveling with him they must already believe in him.  Perhaps, but then we consider that when Jesus went from town to town his message was consistently, “repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)

That one sentence tells us that belief in Jesus is something more than mere mental assent to a doctrinal position.  Faith then, is a robust thing, which includes repentance.  Connecting faith and repentance happens almost universally when the gospel is presented for salvation.  In the early church, for example: Acts 2:38-39:
“Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

So while we agree that Salvation is by faith alone, we see that the condition of “faith” is something richer and deeper than mere “belief”.  It is more like, “believing loyalty” as Dr Michael Heiser puts it.  Looking all over scripture at this majestic theme of salvation by grace through faith, what can we say such “believing loyalty” look like?

It looks like this (and none of these descriptors ought to be construed as “work”):

  • A broken and contrite heart (Ps 51:16-17)
  • Confession of sin (Ps 32:5)
  • Turning from sin (Matt 11:20 – note you can turn from sin without stopping all sin.  Repent means to “change the mind” – it denotes a repudiation of sin, which one can do before one even stops the sins.)
  • Belief – believing in the truth of God’s appointed means of reconciliation, Jesus Christ, born, crucified, raised from the dead (Romans 10:9).
  • Trust – a thing is true, therefore is worthy of trust.  So faith is a whole person casting of your sin and self onto the mercy of God in confidence he will save (Romans 10:11).
If we want to know for sure that when the Bible says “faith” it means more than mere “conviction in the mind something is true” – we need only look at when such a definition IS implied, it is strongly rebuked.

So in Romans 6:1 Paul addresses those who hear the good news of God’s unmerited favor by faith alone, and take it for permission to live in sin.  This is abhorrent to him.  He’s not merely saying, it’s a bad idea to sin all the more because God is so gracious because you might lose out on some reward.  He’s saying that it’s not consistent with the act of faith that brought you into Grace in the first place, and that act of faith is synonymous with dying, to self and to sin.

Again, this dying is not a work.  It is not something we do to earn salvation, it is part and parcel of true biblical Faith, without which we cannot be saved.

James most notably uses faith in the sense of “mere assent to certain doctrines”.  For he says, in 2:19:
“You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe—and they shudder.”  
Clearly, to simply believe a doctrine, no matter how true, is useless.  If demons have true beliefs and their doom is certain, how can it be that humans could, by the mere presence of true beliefs in their minds about Jesus, be saved?

We can also add John to the list of those who assume that saving faith is something more than mere "assent to truth", and that continuing in an ongoing, unrepentant patterns of sin is inconsistent with the new life grace works into those who are born again.
1 John 3:6: “Anyone who continues to live in him will not sin. But anyone who keeps on sinning does not know him or understand who he is.” 

So the category of “believer who is saved but is unrepentant and keeps on undeterred in sin” is not a real category.

Therefore, a "believer" in New Testament parlance is synonymous with "disciple".  When a person comes to Jesus in saving faith, they come as a disciple ready to follow, or they haven’t really come.  They come broken, repentant, confessional, trusting and believing.  None of these things indicates sinlessness, none of these things is a work, none of these things earns salvation - these qualities merely define faith through which God’s grace becomes operative in our lives for salvation and sanctification.

Now, is every repentant believer following Jesus well?  Of course not.  And the Bible certainly has a category for these people.  But they are not called “non-disciples”.  They are called young, or weak, or immature (Heb 5:11-14).  There are ignorant believers in the book of Acts who have much to learn about the way of Jesus, but they are still called disciples (Acts 19:1).

In fact, think of the incoherence of Acts if the apostles truly did divorce belief from followership, believers from disciples.  When Acts says Paul “taught the disciples”, or when it says the council “wrote to the disciples” or when it says Paul “strengthened all the disciples” we would have to conclude all these references are to only half the church.  These would have to be references to only the sold-out ones who had truly repented of sin and taken on Jesus as Lord.  Are we to assume the “mere believers” are just hanging out at the fringes of the New Testament community, continuing in sin, not loving Jesus at all, but somehow intellectually accepting that he’s the Messiah?  Of course not.  In fact the term “believers” is used interchangeably with “disciples” (Acts 16:1).

Also, the letters of Paul would also make no sense if we divorce believing from following.  Clearly, the letters indicate many in the churches were ineffective, disobedient, struggling, and sinful.  I am all those things at times, but I still think I’m a disciple.  And Paul also thought of such imperfect followers as the “saints” (1 Cor 1:2).  They were all “holy ones”, by the merit of Jesus, even if immature, and struggling with the old life.  And yet, if they struggled so much that nothing in their lives showed the regenerating activity of the Holy Spirit, Paul actually urged them to evaluate if they were saved. (2 Cor 13:3)  

This is only understandable if saving faith works.  Living things grow.  Yes, living things can also struggle; living things can be very unhealthy.  But all living things show some signs of life.  If there was no sign of life, it's hard to deny that Paul questioned if someone was saved.  Good deeds are not required to be saved – being saved leads inexorably to good deeds.

Now, your second question – Is the apostate someone who was never saved? 

Well, this author has a bit of a unique position.  Like a strong Calvinist he believes that God’s grace is effective and all saints persevere to the end without losing their salvation.  So if a saint does repudiate the faith, the Calvinist is forced to believe that such persons were never saved in the first place.

The author here parts company quite radically with that view and suggests that even if you repudiate the faith, if you ever expressed belief in Jesus (and remember his definition of belief is “mere assent to God’s truth”) you are saved nevertheless.  Yes, even if you become an atheist (same author, different post).

He loses me at that point.  This is to imagine that while God lays out faith as the only condition of salvation, yet if one expresses every sentiment in direct opposition to what we defined as “saving faith”, no belief, no trust, no repentance, no confession – that person will nevertheless be saved if at any point in their lives, they did one time assent to certain facts about Jesus.

This puts God in a terribly coercive posture, one that negates the will of the free moral agent made free in God’s Image.  To appeal to the prior free decision to believe to make this coercive “saving” fair or just, simply does not match the emphasis in scripture on how you finish your race, over how you begin it. 

Two core examples show this is what matters to God.
Ezek 33:13: When I tell the righteous person that he will surely live, but he trusts in his righteousness and commits iniquity, then none of his righteousness will be remembered, and he will die because of the iniquity he has committed.

And Jesus in his parable in Matt 21:28-31
“But what do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘My son, go, work in the vineyard today.’ 29 “He answered, ‘I don’t want to!’ Yet later he changed his mind and went. 30 Then the man went to the other and said the same thing. “‘I will, sir,’ he answered. But he didn’t go. 31 “Which of the two did his father’s will?” “The first,” they said.
The simple way out of this problem is to open up a third possibility.  Instead of saying the apostate is saved against his own wishes AND instead of saying that he was never saved in the first place, even if lasting and deep evidence of new life suggested that he was – perhaps it is possible that a truly saved man can shipwreck his life of faith.

This may seem to fly in the face of “once saved always saved” but that probably ought not to matter if this 3rd way agrees with Scripture.  In fact, when we look at Scripture, Apostasy is a live possibility for every writer, and the Lord Himself.  Paul names two elders who “have suffered the shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim 1:19).  These apostate elders are assumed to have had faith, and now assumed to be lost.  Jesus refers to plants from gospel seed that sprout up as really alive as any other seedlings. But some die and others produce fruit.  No mention in the parable of how the ones that are choked or die from shallow roots “were never really Christians after all”.

Maybe the best way to think about this, is that new life in Christ is like physical life.  Just like salvation, physical life is never given by merit.  It is bestowed as a gift from parentage which we did not earn or deserve.  But once given, this life goes a long way toward its own growth and flourishing.  It has internal unction, like our spiritual life lead and fed by the Holy Spirit inside.  Yet we are called to nurture this life, just like a man nurtures the life his parents gave him by exercise and good nutrition. 

If one neglects the gift-life given to him, he may become very unhealthy.  If he refuses to partner with that Life, He may become so unhealthy that he looks just like a cadaver.  It would take a close examination to see any signs of life, but they may still be there.  But finally, would it not be possible, just as a man can choose to drive his own physical life away by suicide, that the believer can commit spiritual suicide?

All Calvinists would deny this is possible from verses that speak of the security of the believer (John 10:28 etc.).  Without negating those, we note that the entire book of Hebrews, was written to impel Jewish disciples to not defect from faith in Christ at risk of their own souls (Heb 6:1-6).  This one book by itself suggests true apostasy is a live option for every believer.  Why else write the book?

To suggest that the writer was only writing to Christians whom he knew could not defect from salvation, to threaten them into better behavior, casts a terrible light on the author’s motives.  A more natural assumption is to take the writer at face value: Heb 6:11-12
Now we want each of you to demonstrate the same diligence for the final realization of your hope, 12 so that you won’t become lazy, but imitators of those who inherit the promises through faith and perseverance.
Some Christians will disagree with this possibility, and that’s not the really important thing.  What’s most important is to realize that it is far more important how one ends their race than how they began it.  And that’s true no matter if the bad end proves that the good beginning was false OR even if it was real!  The emphasis is still, end well!  The author of the article, suggesting the end of your race is irrelevant as any indicator of your standing in faith doesn’t add up.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Why Does God Rename People?

QUESTION: I find it very confusing that the names of people seem to change with each chapter in Genesis. Why is this? I ask cause I have a hard time with the whole identity thing at times cause i was given up at 12. I woke up one day and was known as a totally different person. Do you think the people of the bible found it hard to have God change their names? Why would God one day wake up and decide to change someone's identity?

ANSWER: I can understand why having your name changed due to abandonment could make you feel like your identity was being stripped.  And you are right that your name does make a person feel connected to who they are. But if you look at the times that God renames people, it’s very good that God changes names, because he’s trying to replace a deficient identity with a much better one.

So for example, Abram means exalted father.  But after God blesses Abram in Gen 17, he is called Abraham – "father of many". Because he has been called by God to a much, much bigger calling than merely having a great household with many riches and servants. He is told that through him ALL the nations will be blessed.  So in renaming him, God raises his purpose, and calls him into a life that’s so much bigger than he could have ever imagined.

He wasn’t destroying his identity, so much as moving him into his TRUE identity.  But that identity was not something he could have known outside of relationship with God. He couldn’t just pick a new name for himself.  It has to be given by God.  For God knows all our secrets and hidden potentials and he knows what only HE can do with us. 

So he’s an expert in taking what is small and limited in us, and expanding it wildly. Then he gives us that new identity, and amazing things happen.

It's true, Abraham resists his new name from God.  But that just indicates how attached we can be to an old person, disappointing and disappointed, yet familiar. We're limited by our past and can't imagine the power of God and what he can do in us, through us. Just think, for the man who has no kids, his given name is a bitter irony: Exalted father, childless!! God steps in and says, not just you’ll have a son, but you’ll be the father of MANY NATIONS!! More than he could ask or imagine. That’s the power of God’s grace in renaming us in Christ.

Jacob’s name change is also like this, only more drastic. Jacob means, “one who grasps the heel” – metaphorically this meant, deceiver, or usurper.  The guy who trips other people up.  And that’s who he had been up to the name change.  He makes his way in life by being sneaky.  By telling lies.  By being smarter than the next guy and cunningly outwitting his opponents. Trying to stay one step ahead of his manipulations, with his Father, his older brother, Esau, and his father in law, Laban.

When God calls him back to his homeland, he has to face all his lies and trickery. He probably doesn’t want to go, but he’s burned his bridges with Laban - and learned what it is to be on the receiving end of deception.  So he goes back humbled.  But he’s terrified.  He gave Esau good reason to want him dead, and Esau had the means to do it, and had made the threat. 

On the way home, he separates his family and belongings into two camps to protect them, he sends gifts on ahead to placate his brother.  But he has no peace.
That night, he meets God.  The Angel of Yahweh (some think this was a pre-incarnation of Jesus himself) wrestles with him.  This is so profound!  Jacob has tried to get what God was willing to give him all along – by his own means.  Deceiving and struggling with others to get the blessing that God would give him freely.

So now he literally wrestles with the Angelic figure, and in the process God wounds him.  But Jacob, desperate and insecure still, asks for a blessing – knowing somehow he is having a divine encounter.  And the Angel first asks him his name.  Why?  The name Jacob is not just a name – it’s a confession!  To name his old name is to confess who he WAS – a deceiver, “the one who grasps the heel”.  That’s not who you will be, God is trying to tell him, but  I can’t bless you until you can say it and see it – Jacob. 

And then, God gives him his new name, his God-identity:  Israel - "the one who wrestles with God".  For Jacob wasn’t to be the man who gets what he wants by back-channels.  He is to be the man who gets the blessing by being in the face of God, fighting there, pouring out his strength before God, and not being satisfied with anything less than God’s touch, God’s way, even if it wounds him. 

He had been "Jacob", trying to get God’s blessing avoiding pain, now he is Israel not avoiding the pain by cleverness or deception, but struggling with God in the open, and blessing follows.  The Bible says, he leaves that encounter limping, but the "sun shone down on him".  The clouds have lifted, he knows who he is.

I hope you can see just how beautiful this name changing business is. Peter was Simon… and Simon was particularly loud and impetuous, rash and impulsive.  And despite that natural wiring for flakiness, which got him into a lot of trouble, Jesus sees the gifting for leadership, for faith and courage – and so nicknames him “Rock”. Peter.

In a sense, the Gospel renames ALL of us. In older Christian traditions, now unfortunately lost, Christians would often get renamed at baptism, and you’d never hear their old name again. What a great way to think about coming out of darkness of sin, into the light of grace.  You get a new identity in Christ, no longer unloved, now loved. No longer alone, now adopted. No longer sinner, now “Christian” – literally “little Christ”. Rev 2:17 says it like this:
"Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. I will give the victor some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name is inscribed that no one knows except the one who receives it."
So maybe ask yourself, what was my old name (identity) and what is my new name in Jesus? God might surprise you with his answer.

Do We Shorten Our Lives by Being Disobedient?

Thanks for your question.

The Bible has a lot to say about this.  It does not definitively correlate the length of our lives with our obedience, however, Scripture does in fact say that when we get on God's page, his commandments do lead to longer life.  They are said to be for our benefit and flourishing, and thus would be conducive to long life.

This just makes sense.  If God is our Creator then he knows how the human machine runs best and his moral duties and commands are like the operator's manual for ourselves and our lives with others.  And to not follow the manufacturer's instructions would lead to malfunction and shorter life.  So Moses will say about God's commands:
Deut. 5:33:  Follow the whole instruction the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live, prosper, and have a long life in the land you will possess.
And again God's promise to Solomon:
1 Kings 3:14:  If you walk in My ways and keep My statutes and commandments just as your father David did, I will give you a long life.”
Again if you find God's wisdom, you conform your life to God's good way and it leads to happy outcomes including longer life:
Prov 3:13-16
Happy is a man who finds wisdom
and who acquires understanding,
14 for she is more profitable than silver,
and her revenue is better than gold.
15 She is more precious than jewels;
nothing you desire compares with her.
16 Long life is in her right hand;
in her left, riches and honor.
Some of these promises should not be considered to be merely the special favor God supernaturally puts on the obedient.  It's that the obedient avoid life shortening behaviors by living God's way which GENERALLY lead to longer life. 

For example, the overarching command to love our neighbor as ourselves, means the obedient will not engage in behaviors that abuse themselves or others, which lead to incarceration, or vengeance, addiction, violence, or other bodily harm.  People in Christian medical sharing co-ops pay very reduced monthly premiums.  Why?  Because the people in the pool covenant to not engage in behaviors prohibited in God's Word, drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, addictive substances, gluttony.  They all will (on average) live longer, therefore will pay less medical costs because of their obedient lifestyles.

Now, on the other hand, the Bible takes note of the times when the disobedient seem to live long and prosper.  For example:
Jer. 12:1-2: You will be righteous, Lord, even if I bring a case against You.  Yet, I wish to contend with You: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do the treacherous live at ease? 2 You planted them, and they have taken root. They have grown and produced fruit.
And again:
Ps. 73:1-4: God is truly good to Israel, to those whose lives are pure.  2 But my feet had almost stumbled. They had almost slipped because I was envious of arrogant people when I saw the prosperity that wicked people enjoy. 4 They suffer no pain. Their bodies are healthy.
So there are times when those who are disobedient live long and prosper.  It could be that part of their long life is due to the fact that they obey God's design instructions in SOME areas, but they are disobedient in other areas.  For example, they obey the Bible's instructions that relate to physical health, but in their arrogance they are hard-hearted and greedy and cruel. 

JP Getty lived a long time - 83 - but he was a man of 4 marriages, sexual immorality, acrimony and conflict in his home, estrangement from his children and a tight-fisted, angry man who once refused the ransom demand for his own kidnapped grandson.  The Bible acknowledges these examples when disobedience DOES NOT correlate to shorter life.

Then, on the opposite side of this, sometimes, the obedient live very short lives. Very recently, a wonderful man, Nabeel Quarishi, a gifted Christian speaker, a medical doctor, a defender of the Christian faith, died.  Stage 4 stomach cancer found last year.  And he was 34, leaving a young wife and a little daughter behind.  Why?  It cannot be because he was flagrantly disobeying God or his good instructions for life.

We don't always know why obedience isn't ALWAYS connected to long life, or disobedience to short life.  But we know that God is generous with everyone, the righteous and the unrighteous.  Jesus said, in Matt 5:45-46: "God causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."  It's God's grace to all of us that we live even for the next moment, and the next.  God doesn't owe us a single moment, all of life is a gift.

So with a kind of child-like trust, we entrust to God those situations which do not match, when bad behavior does not correlate to shorter life, or vice versa.  And we can be happy that God is gracious to us all, that in some sense, as measured by the spiritual demands of God's holiness, NONE of us is obedient.  

And so every breath, every moment we live, no matter how long or short, we are living on grace.  None of us has EARNED a long life.  It may be we have done things that on average will lead to a long life, and God's commands and promises should be seen as blessing us that way.  And disobedience can have many natural consequences, some of which are to curtail physical health and longevity.

But the most important thing is that as long as we live, we remember God blessed all us disobedient ones by sending his own Son to extend our lives indefinitely!  I quote the Apostle Paul at length:
Rom 5:7-10: We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. 8 But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him.  9 Now that we are set right with God by means of this sacrificial death, the consummate blood sacrifice, there is no longer a question of being at odds with God in any way. 10 If, when we were at our worst, we were put on friendly terms with God by the sacrificial death of his Son, now that we're at our best, just think of how our lives will expand and deepen by means of his resurrection life!  THE MESSAGE
So the most important thing is that every moment we live we are able to call God our Father, Abba, whether sick or well, old or young, well fed or hungry.  One day, long or short, this life will end.  Then what?  For us in Christ, made new by his forgiving love, true Living only then begins.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Is Allah the same as the Christian God?

Question: I heard a Christian teacher say the other day that the name Allah is the name of a demon, not God.  Not being a Muslim or an Arabic speaker, I was wondering if there’s any truth to that?

Response:  Well, I also am not an Arabic speaker... so like you I have to rely on what other people tell me about this subject.  And what other people say is often confusing!

For example, a Muslim scholar I read said that Allah stems from the Arabic verb “ta’allaha” , which means “to be worshiped”. Thus in Arabic, the word “Allah” means “The One who deserves all worship”.  They also made the point that Allah is fairly close to the Hebrew "El" and "Elohim" which usually refer to the one true Creator God... The difference there is that Elohim can be pluralized (Allah cannot) and so can be used for "gods" or when the context demands it,  the God, where it’s usually rendered "God of Hosts".  So it's possible that Arabic, having derived semantically from Aramaic would have derived it's meaning for Allah from "El".   When I was in Israel, I worshiped with some wonderful Arabic Christians whose Arabic translation of the Bible often used "Allah" for "Elohim".

On the other hand, if you look farther back than 6th century Arabia where Islam developed, the etymology (word origin) of "Allah" does seem to hearken back to dark pagan roots - and this is why the teacher you heard made his assertion about Allah being the name of a demon.  For example, the Encyclopedia of Religion says Allah derives from pre-Islamic times, from Babylonian "Bel" which means "Lord".  The ancient Phoenician and Canaanite deity also carried this title, Ba'al, meaning Master, or Husband.  And so other Christians I know in Muslim lands specifically avoid the use of Allah for Muslim converts - because of these pagan connections.

Not this cuts to the chase of the great question in our day with Islam in the news every night:  Is Allah the same God that Christians and Jews worship?  Well, many Muslims take great pains to defend the notion that they worship the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus.  If this assumption is approached from the macro to the micro, we can both agree and disagree with it.  

At the macro level of broad Theism, I think they are correct: Muslims, like Christians and Jews, are Theists who believe in one, personal, all powerful Author of the universe.  Which means we are fixated on the same Being, even if we hold to different details about His being and character.  Muslims and Christians use the same arguments for God against atheists, for example.

It would be like two groups of scientists studying the Sun, one from Southern hemisphere, one from the north.  Some of their observations may seem different.  Some might even be irreconcilably different, and therefore one or both are error.  But it's not unreasonable that despite these differences they are both generally studying the same entity, since so many observations match exactly: the big, hot, glowing orb that appears in the Eastern horizon every morning.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details.  And because the image of the Christian God and Allah are so different in the details, Christians often resist the idea that we are worshiping and praying to the same God.  At the micro level of the details of God's character and being, vast and irreconcilable differences appear between Allah and the God revealed in Jesus.  And so to pray or worship one is to dishonor the other by affirming that which is not true of God.

But if we understand all this, then word etymology (which might have been a big deal to the teacher you heard) is really much less important than what's going on in the person's mind who uses the word, Allah.  It is finally, just a word.  So on one hand, we mustn't think the word is "cursed" or that Muslims who use the term Allah are really Satanists.  That's immature thinking.

For the word "god" after all, was never the name for the one, supreme all powerful Creator of the universe and the Christian Faith UNTIL the Roman missionaries saw the Germanic and Saxon pagans using some version of "gott" and then redefined it for them.  There is nothing inherently orthodox/ beautiful/ truthful about the word "God".  The way my pagan ancestors in ancient Europe used the word originally, "gott" likely was the name of a demon!  (More on that in a second)  Yet the word was infused with NEW meaning as Roman missionaries decided it was the best word to render the Greek word "Theos" or the Latin "Deus".

But let me get back demons for a second.  If the image of God (whatever word we use for Him) is deficient because, in our fallenness, we suppress the knowledge of God, then we are guilty of idolatry.  That is, we have made up a fake god (Rom 1:21-28) and projected ourselves onto it.  Well, from a Christian perspective, all idols are nothing at all, yet behind every deficient view of God in the mind of the worshiper, represented by his fake idols, are real spiritual powers hostile to the true God. Hence, behind every idolatrous conception of God is demonic deception.  (This is Paul's argument in 1 Cor 10:20).

Therefore, if the differences between Allah and the Lord are vast, then at that mirco-level, in the heart of the religious adherent, to worship and serve Allah is to serve a demonic power other than the one true God - even if you believe many true things about God along with Christians.  If a Christian thinks this is too harsh a thing to say to all Muslims, didn't Jesus say this about everyone who rejected his Messiahship?  (John 8:44)

So what are the critical micro (irreconcilable) differences between Allah and the Lord?  The one Muslims are most exercised about is God's Triune nature.  When I traveled to Israel, the Muslims in downtown Nazareth had a giant banner hung in the street in front of the Church of Mary - "Allah has no sons!!"  Subtle.

But the difference that might be even more significant in our world is this: Allah loveth not his enemies, nor the unbeliever.  Yes, you can find the phrase, "Allah the merciful and compassionate" on many pages of the Koran, but in doctrine and practice, this Deity does not love the unbeliever and has no compassion on his enemies:
“God loves not the unbelievers” (III.25)
“God loves not evildoers” (III. 30)
“God loves not the proud” (IV. 40)
“God loves not transgressors” (V. 85)
“God loves not the prodigal” (VI. 140)
“God loves not the treacherous” (VIII.60)
“God is an enemy to unbelievers” (II. 90)
In complete contrast to this, the God of Christianity died for us in Christ while we were his enemies. (Romans 5:8-9) And Jesus said, 
"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, . . . what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5.43-48) 
The very fabric of Christian salvation and ethics are built on this stunningly different vision of God. So while the claim is that Muslims worship the God of Moses and Jesus, and in the big picture they are Theists, when we press deeply this Deity is nothing like the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  

And while it may be inflammatory to say so, every Christian nevertheless believes (as every Muslim also believes) that those who do not see God as revealed in their religion is under some kind of spiritual deception. We don't for that reason hate those with a different view, any more than the agnostic/atheist must automatically hate all religious people because they think they're wrong.

To cycle back to the actual words used for God, if a Muslim is converted to Christ, he make look back on his use of the word "Allah" and admit, much of what I thought about Allah has been changed by Jesus Christ, and I see Satan blinded me and much that I worshiped was a lie.  But he may also say, "I had some truth, I believed in one, true, good creator God - that hasn't changed but i know him better."  In either case he may not stop using the word “Allah” to refer to God, and I would have no problem if he did not drop it.  We of European ancestry can be thankful that the word “God’ itself was redeemed from paganism to carry the honor of the one, true Maker of Heaven and Earth, enfleshed in the Word who was with God and WAS God.  Should a Christian convert of Arabic descent feel differently about the word “Allah”?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How To Talk to A Non-Christian about Hell

QUESTION:  I recently had a conversation with my brother who is not a Christian, he has a very liberal "Christ Consciousness" view of Jesus and does not believe in hell. He asked me why he would go to hell and not me. I felt very uncomfortable and unprepared to respond to the question. Can you please help?

RESPONSE:  Thanks for your question, and I can appreciate the difficulty of this topic – especially when it gets out of the theoretical and into the personal.  It’s gets touchy.  In fact, just recently, Bernie Sanders, questioning a Christian nominee seemed to imply that just holding to the idea of heaven and hell is hateful!

But actually, it’s best that the topic does turn personal, not by starting with his personal eternal destiny, but rather with yours.  Before you talk about heaven, talk about this thing all Christians believe about themselves:  you yourself are qualified for hell.

You should be adamant about your conviction on this. See, you know you; you know your heart; you know your posture towards a holy God.  You are an authority on your own inner world.  And you know in your quiet heart, you’re among the people whose pride and depravity make you fit for hell.  Say it as baldly as that.  It might not immediately reduce the offense your brother is feeling about hell, but to put yourself in the cross-hairs of it, takes all the presumed arrogance and hate out of the equation.

See, the first thing you’re trying to fix is the misconception that Christians believe hell is the destiny for the especially bad people.  And conversely, that Christians believe we're the especially good people.  Add to this the safe bet that irreligious people think our confident goodness is bound up in certain political positions - positions he undoubtedly thinks are in some cases downright wicked!  Needless to say, this whole picture is offensive to outsiders to Christ.  They feel morally better than many others, including many Christians, whose sins and hypocrisies they take great pleasure in pointing out.

Well, no well-instructed Christian believes this moralistic view.  How can we?, when we read of Jesus pointing to tax collectors and prostitutes and tells the good people of his day, "they are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you."  (Matt 21:31)?  Clearly we believe something more subtle is going on than simply “good people go to heaven”.

But don't move too quickly to say, it's only those who "believe in Jesus" who go to heaven.  This is premature and offensive.  Why?  Because your brother might wonder, what is efficacious about an affirmation of belief?  What is meritorious about making a simple belief statement - especially when he perhaps questions whether Jesus even existed?  But even assuming Jesus belief is warranted, what kind of God makes eternal salvation contingent on true beliefs?  Is God also sending people to hell for not believing in Copernicus?  Are flat-earthers condemned?

Well, of course we must define what "believing in Jesus means".  When we say that those who "believe in Jesus are saved" and those that are not are condemned, what we are not saying is that they are condemned for not believing something.  No, according to Jesus himself, people's condemnation is warranted PRIOR to any beliefs we may or may not have about Jesus.  Read:
John 3:19 And the judgment is based on this fact: God's light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil.
And:
John 5:45: Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. Your accuser is Moses
Jesus was adamant that people have the light of moral goodness set before them, in Conscience and in the Moral Law, and that we have denied the light and broken the law (that's what his reference to Moses is about).  That is the assessment of Jesus.  That is really where this conversation has to start.  Does your brother feel that he is a law breaker before God?

He will likely say something like, "I'm not perfect, but I'm definitely a good person".  A good question is to then ask, how do you know that?  Ironically, a lot of non-Christians think Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is their guiding ethical code, and their pride in living by that code is what gives them confidence before God.  "I just love, like Jesus said, I think that's good enough, that's all God wants."

But this comes from not really reading the Sermon carefully.  Essentially Jesus puts the achievement of true goodness out of the reach of EVERYONE in that talk.  For it's in the Sermon that Jesus spiritualizes the Law.  Adultery is more than not sleeping in the wrong bed, it’s a heart thing too.  A simple curse (heart murder!) puts a person in danger of hell. (Matt 5:22)

This is the discussion you need to have FIRST, before you talk about "believing in Jesus", whatever that means.  EVERYONE is in danger of hell, because according to Jesus the standard is impossibly high.  Jesus says in that sermon, “be perfect.”  That rules me out.  This implies that hell is a default destiny - separation from God is not tied to your response to Christ, it PRECEDES your response to Christ.

So believing in Christ must begin with believing His assessment of our default posture before God.  Second, to believe in the mission of Jesus which he one time stated as, “I have not come for the well, but the sick.”  (Matt 9:12)  He said those words in response to some very high moral performers looking down on the sad company of losers and sinners he was hanging with.  So he's clearly talking about coming as a spiritual doctor for the morally ill.  

Is your brother one of the "sick" Jesus came for?  Or is he one of the "well"? The whole question of hell hinges on his answer to that question.  When I've asked that question of a seeker before, I got a troubled silence.  He didn't want to say he was "sick" because he believed everyone is inherently good.  But he also didn't want to say he was "well" for clearly Jesus considered the "well" outside the scope of his mission and he likes to think he's more on "team Jesus" than Christians are.  How should he answer?

Let your brother chew on this question for a bit, and it might be helpful to ask if he thinks his moral performance outshines people like Mother Teresa or Gandhi.  If he balks at being compared to two known "saints" simply point out that both Teresa and Gandhi were deeply convinced they were among the "sick".  While Gandhi never became a Christian, he was tormented by his own inner darkness.  The man your brother might say could not possibly be hell-bound wrote in his autobiography:  
"It is a constant torture to me that I am still so far from Him whom I know to be my very life and being.  I know it is my own wretchedness and wickedness that keeps me from Him."    - Gandhi

Until your brother is as convinced as Gandhi or Teresa were of their own fallenness, the very idea of hell will remain offensive.  He'll likely have host of questions about the justice of hell:
  • why eternal punishment for temporal offenses?, 
  • how could anyone enjoy heaven while hell goes on?, 
  • isn't retributive punishment inherently unjust?, 
  • why the frightful intensity of the pain? 
CS Lewis gives excellent replies to these and other objections in his chapter on Hell in Problem of Pain.  

But once he comes to the conviction that he is morally ill, and feels spiritually separated from God, these objections will fade and hell ceases to be a barbaric doctrine and becomes more an inevitable consequence of God's goodness.  Bringing him there, however, is not your job, as Jesus made clear:
John 16:8: "When [the Holy Spirit] comes, He will convict the world about sin"
At the moment when one experiences this conviction, not from false humiliation or human shaming but from God, the game changes.  A person so convicted gets humble, and desperate.  And this desperation begins to show what it means to "believe in Jesus".

Believing includes many ideas, the most elementary of which is to believe in the bare historical facts about him.  But the more significant ideas of "belief" include
  • CONFESSION: Coming to see yourself as Jesus sees you.  Wholly unable to save yourself, wholly self condemned.  
  • REPENTANCE, a repudiation of a life lived loving our own way, seeking our own godhood.  This would include acts of evil done for selfish pleasure, as well as acts of moral righteousness done for selfish pride.  
  • TRUST, the total casting of oneself onto the mercy of God through Jesus work on the cross to receive his absolution for sin.
Why then would you go to heaven and your brother would not?  Not because you’re better than him.  In one sense, because of the opposite - because you clearly feel yourself to be worse off before God than he does.  You believe you have a mortal ailment, he feels he is one of the "well".  So you grasped, by confession and repentance and trust, the healing that was offered to you by God through Jesus Christ.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Is The Prohibition Against Cross Dressing in Deut. 22:5 Still Valid?

QUESTION: Is Deut 22:5 prohibition on cross dressing no longer a law for Christians since Jesus came and fulfilled the law?  

Deuteronomy 22:5:  A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this. NIV

RESPONSE:  You correctly understand that the ceremonial Law of Moses is no longer binding on God’s people.  In fact, the cross lifts all the duties of the Law as a means to be made right with God.  The moral duties, however, remain as a guide for Christian discipleship.  The question for this passage then is, does it fall completely within the ceremonial law which has been abrogated by Jesus work, or is there some moral content which remains that aids Christian maturing?

To find out let’s remember that all the Law is about “being holy as I the Lord am Holy” – and “holy” has a sense of separation as well as moral purity.  So very often, the ceremonial restrictions of the law are about maintaining separateness while there seems to be no moral content to the command itself.  But because a LACK of separation would LEAD to impurity, the two are tied together.

For example, the Israelites were not to shave their heads above the ears (Lev 19:27).  There is no moral content in this command – it’s about hair!  This is ceremonial law with no ongoing responsibility for the Christian believer.  Ah, but if we know the context of ancient Canaanite pagan worship, we see God doesn’t give the command without any moral concern whatsoever. 

In Canaan, many of local priests would shave their heads in devotion to Baal.  So the hair command is about maintaining strict separateness so that Israel will not be like those who worship false gods.  And when we think about all the moral issues that went along with that worship (adultery, family breakdown, disease, prostitution, infanticide), suddenly the weirdly restrictive rules are given a moral imperative.

It’s the same with Deuteronomy 22:5.  A little bit of research reveals that almost every pagan culture has practiced some form of cross-dressing in worship rituals.  Theodore Burgh, in his book “Listening to the Artifacts” said that in ancient Mesopotamia, transvestites, men dressed like women, played and danced in the cult of Ishtar, performing erotic dances and pantomime.

In Canaan religion, their god Baal had a consort, the goddess wife Asherah and worshipers would engage in ritual prostitution with male and female cult prostitutes at hillside shines.  This was to encourage these gods to mate and make the earth fertile.  The Bible indicates that these cult prostitutes has specific dress (2 Kings 10:22; 23:7) for such ceremonies, as they played out the orgies of the gods.

So, the command against cross dressing likely had this in mind.  It was meant to keep Israel away from all practices that had anything to do with pagan worship – which, as mentioned above, led to every kind of evil that destroys people, children and society.

Since we don’t live in Canaan where such pagan rituals thrive, what is there to take from such a command?  First, this command confirms that there is male and female dress codes in all cultures and all times.  Second, this gender dress-coding is independent of the actual styles or modes of dress.  Which is to say that what exactly constitutes male and female dress is a culturally bound thing, but having differences in male/female dress is universal. 

For example, we can’t just think of pants as male, and dresses as female (as my grandma used to think).  Ancient peoples wore robes, both men and women, which to us all look like dresses or skirts, but somehow they knew the difference between male and female robes.  Dress codes change constantly, but everyone in all cultures knows when someone is trying to dress like the opposite gender.

Now, if we don’t follow the dietary restrictions of the Law, should Christians ignore this concern for gender distinction in clothing?  

When it comes to sex and gender Jesus taught us that the lasting moral designs of God are embedded in the creation account… which supersede Mosaic restrictions and permissions (Deut 24:1).  There we see God’s sexual design infused into the duality of human gender, male and female.  He makes us distinctly bifurcated into two and yet both are made in his Image.  So the difference is as sacred as the Image itself.  When Eve is made from Adam, we see God in their diversity – but then this very diversity is blended into a communal oneness of marriage when the “two become one flesh”.

All of this is holy. 
  • The Image,
  • The separating of the Image into Two,
  • The blending of the diverse image bearers into marital oneness again.

This all is holy because it is like God.  God is a unity of diversity.  So any world where one or all of these three things are diminished or denied is a world of weakened human flourishing.  Because it’s a world where the beauty of God’s unity-in-diversity design is marred.

Ironically, the modern doctrine of gender fluidity destroys the beautiful complementarity between the genders, while at the same time invoking the sacredness of gender to do so!!  How?  Well, the message today is that you can pick your gender.  But when you express a different gender than the one assigned to you at birth, everyone knows exactly the mold you must fit into in order to be that gender!

If a man wishes to be a woman, he mustn’t simply declare it.  He knows instinctively what he needs to do to express that gender: soften his skin, surgically shave his brow and chin, acquire breasts, wear softer, more colorful clothing, soften his voice, grow his hair long and paint his nails and face.   In other words he must conform himself to instinctual patterns of femininity.  “Gender is a social construct,” we hear, therefore the line between male and female must be very blurry indeed.  But if we wish to cross that line embrace this ancient gender archetype!

Well, Christians believe that these gender archetypes are so enduring and inescapable precisely because they relate to our spiritual makeup.  Thus masculinity and femininity are sacred because they both, in complementary ways, express the Image of God.  That’s why Christians treat them as inviolable and resist transgenderism (even if we readily acknowledge and have compassion for that real and troubling psychological condition).  God speaks through Nature and human nature is clearly built on male and female, therefore we Christians don’t presume to challenge that or erase what is inerasable.

But it’s not surprising that when cultures suppress this truth, sex starts to become a free for all (see Romans 1).  Ideas have consequences, and if a society carries the idea that sex is not designed and carries no implicit higher meaning, then whatever makes you feel good sexually becomes our only guiding principle.  In such a world, unlimited sexual experimentation would not only be allowed, it would be encouraged because we are now the gods who get to invent meaning.  We get to take this accidental outcome of Nature (sex) and express it however we want (even while we bow to these inbuilt gender archetypes!).

So, we may not live where priests cross-dress to incite sexual intercourse that spills the bounds of committed, monogamous, heterosexual love - but given our current doctrines on gender, perhaps we do live in Canaan after all!  To this extent, Deut 22:5 may not be binding on believers, yet it hints strongly at the beauty and inviolable duality of human gender from Creation.

Now let me be clear:  this doesn’t mean Moses should be used to dictate any particular modes of dress for male or female Christians today.  Styles are very culturally relative and similar modes can have male and female versions.  Even so we affirm gender distinction, expressed in our clothing, built on the sacred masculine and sacred feminine and the dance of Oneness between them.  This duality reflects God back to us so beautifully, Christians cannot go along with  any way of thinking or dressing that intentionally tries to blur it.