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Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Right Side of History

This past weekend, I traveled to Minnesota to visit friends and take in a college football game. I saw no shortage of roadside election banners there, as the state is voting on a couple of deeply polarizing issues. On the ballot this week in Minnesota (and in several other states) is a proposal to amend the state constitution with a definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. In all likelihood, by the time you are reading this essay, the votes will have been counted a decision announced. And unsurprisingly, the announcement of a winning side of the proposal will do almost nothing to keep the debate from continuing.

It is not my point in this short column to offer a full defense of the traditional family, although I believe that Scripture undergirds such a position unequivocally. Instead, I want to discuss the merits (in this case, the demerits) of one common argument for expanding the legal right of marriage to homosexual couples.

Not infrequently, I’ve seen those in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage appeal to being “on the right side of history.” One version of this argument juxtaposes pictures of segregationist demonstrators from the 1950s alongside pictures of opponents of same-sex marriage from today, with the caption, “Imagine how ridiculous you will look in fifty years.” The message is obvious: there is a certain sort of inevitability to the eventual legality of same-sex marriage, so it would be best to advocate it now.

What should we make of this appeal? Even on a simple logical level, it is an abject failure as an argument. It has no more validity than any other appeal to the crowd; “everybody else is doing it” might be emotionally compelling, but it hardly proves that the thing that everybody is doing is good.

Suppose, just for sake of argument, that global warming is an actual threat and that it is caused by human activity (industrialization and so forth). And further suppose that the doomsayers are accurate, and that our pollution results in the utter decimation of our planet and the extinction of the human race. If this is going to happen, who in their right mind would encourage us all to start polluting, so that we’ll be on the right side of history? But is this not the same kind of argument being offered by the proponents of same-sex marriage?

My hunch is that, in the near future, same-sex marriage will indeed become a commonly accepted practice in our nation. So is support for same-sex marriage a move to the right side of history? Maybe so, in the short term. But the Bible has much to say about the future, and because God ultimately wins, siding with His opinion is to be ultimately on the right side of history.

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Is Christianity a Religion, part 2

In last week’s essay, I gave half of my answer to the question, “Is Christianity a religion?” If the word religion is understood to refer to rites and ceremonies that are supposed to earn us favor with God merely through our participation, I insist that Christianity is not a religion. Scripture is abundantly clear that none of our works, even those done in church, have any hope of bringing us into right standing with God.

That said, there is an error on the other side of the ditch that we must also avoid—and frankly, I’m not sure which ditch is more crowded. While some seek assurance in religion as a ritual, others find religious ceremony and such not only meaningless, but obviously meaningless. For these folks, authentic Christianity is solely a matter of the heart, and their creed is that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship.

This position is well-intentioned, but I think it fails to take seriously what Jesus himself says about being one of his disciples.

The rites that some churches call sacraments, Baptists typically call ordinances. There are reasons that I prefer the latter designation, but the most relevant one to my point here is that these acts (namely, baptism and the Lord’s Table) are ordained specifically by Jesus. Jesus’s final instruction to his disciples before he ascended is this: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20). Therefore, part of being an authentic follower of Jesus is submitting oneself to baptism. Jesus’s own instructions make this unmistakable.

We have similar instruction from Jesus about the Lord’s Table. Just before his betrayal and death, Jesus observed a Passover feast with his disciples. During the meal, “he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” Paul highlights that last statement of Jesus as the basis for the church’s continuing observance of the Lord’s Table (1 Corinthians 11:23–26).

In light of these Scriptures, no one can rightly claim to follow Jesus while remaining separate from the church that he has established, for baptism and the Lord’s Table are functions of the church, the body of Christ.

I understand that many folks today are deeply suspicious of organized religion. Unfortunately, churches have given people sufficient reason for their distrust. And yet, if we take Jesus’s teachings seriously, claiming to follow Jesus while refusing to be baptized or participate at the Table is not authentic Christianity. We must rightly insist that Jesus of Nazareth established something that is more than a religion; but we must also insist that the teachings of Jesus are not less than a religion, as well.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2013 in Conservatism, Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology

 

Is Christianity a Religion, part 1

Is Christianity a religion?

Not surprisingly, my answer here is going to depend almost entirely by what we mean by the term religion, for its dictionary definition and its meaning in popular usage are often at odds with one another. My trusty American Heritage dictionary offers the following relevant meanings: “1a. belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe…. 3. a set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.” I suspect that most of the controversy here centers on the word practices: in what sense are certain practices essential to being a Christian?

People have always looked to rituals, rites, and ceremonies as a way to gain favor with God, and not wholly without reason: the Bible itself gives us chapter after chapter (and even entire books, like Leviticus) that detail the proper procedures for sacrifices and feasts days and the like. It simply cannot be asserted, by anyone who takes the Bible seriously, that the Christian God is opposed in principle to rituals. God clearly institutes a religion, in every sense of the word, in the Old Testament.

And yet it is also the case that we, as people, have a tendency to misunderstand the proper use of religion in this sense. We are tempted to think that, if we do a ritual properly, we can somehow manipulate God into looking on us with favor. For this reason, we find God regularly rebuking his people, even in the Old Testament when such sacrifices were still demanded. For instance, God says this in Psalm 50:

I will not accept a bull from your house
or goats from your folds.
For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.

God’s point is clear: none of our religious ceremonies are intrinsically valuable, because the God of the Bible has no needs. There is nothing that we can do that bring us the favor of God; this precisely Paul’s point when he insists that if God’s favor “is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6).

This is still true in the New Testament age in which we live: the religious acts which Jesus ordained (baptism and the Table) don’t work magically, as though if by doing them correctly, we obtain right standing with God. Salvation is not by works, even religious works.

This is half of my answer. Next week, I intend to argue that spirituality apart from biblical religion is also inadequate.

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2013 in Conservatism, Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology

 

The Christian Message, part 4

I’ve spent the last couple of essays unpacking the significance of Paul’s summary of the gospel: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). In the last essay, I attempted to explain why, biblically, we need someone to die for our sins. Scripture is clear on this: sin merits eternal punishment from God. Accepting this truth is not easy on our pride, but it is essential to embracing the gospel. As I often remind our church: the good news is only as good as the bad news is bad. Jesus didn’t die to save us from bad complexions, flat tires, empty bank accounts, and faulty hot water heaters. A person who delivers us from such things deserves our gratitude. Jesus, however, demands our worship, because he has done far more than provide a more comfortable life—he has laid down his life as a ransom for ours, opening the way to eternal life.

What, then, are we to do with this news? The short answer is that we are to believe this news, but the short answer might be misleading. We have already seen that while the gospel message includes historical truth, it is not only historical truth. That is to say, it is not sufficient merely to acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth died and rose from the dead. To paraphrase James: the devils even believe that much!

No, the kind of truths that we’re discussing here are the kinds of truths that you cannot believe in such a simple sense. It is rather like believing that the building that you’re sitting in is on fire; to believe something like that, and to believe it for real, demands some kind of response. Likewise, one who truly believes that Jesus died for his sins cannot remain unchanged.

Let me suggest two ways that change should be evident in the life of a person who actually believes the gospel. The first we’ve already mentioned: one who believes the gospel will become a worshiper of Jesus. There is a substantial difference between being generally favorable to Jesus (something many would profess) and embracing Jesus as your God. Jesus demands worship, and worshiping Jesus reshapes all our other priorities.

The second consequence flows from the first: those who truly believe that Jesus died for their sins begin to forsake sin. Paul says it this way: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1–2).

Even though I’ve been brief, it should be apparent that believing the gospel introduces radical change in a person’s life.

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology

 

The Christian Message, part 3

The core of the gospel message is this: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Paul is making two kinds of claims in this verse. One is historical: Jesus of Nazareth truly did live and die (and rise!). The other is doctrinal: Jesus died for our sins. Both of these claims are vital to the good news; the doctrinal claim tells us why the historical claim should matter to us. The reality is that scores of ancient men were executed on Roman crosses; Jesus’s death is significant only because of the meaning that Scripture ascribes to it.

But the explanation seems to require its own explanation: why would we ever need someone to die for our sins? To be told that Jesus died for our sins seems to solve a problem that few would acknowledge having. Most folks are happy to concede that they are not perfect. However, we also tend to think that, in terms of general morality, we are about average—if not a little above average. (Although most people can’t, by definition, be above average.) We are quick to insist that there are some people who really are truly awful, and in comparison, we tend to think we’re not all that bad. Certainly, our faults don’t deserve death!

Unfortunately for us, comparing ourselves with other people sets the bar far too low (see 2 Corinthians 10:12). The standard that God holds us to is infinitely more demanding: we must “be holy in all [our] conduct”; we must “be holy as I am holy,” God tells us (1 Peter 1:14–16). Why would God hold us to such an impossible standard?

God demands perfection because, if he didn’t, he would be implying that he really isn’t all that important. Think about it this way: God says that we are to love him with our whole being. And yet instead of loving God, we tend to value other things higher than we value him: money, sensual pleasures, and a thousand other things. If God simply overlooks what we’ve done, he would be agreeing with us that he is not all that important. God would, in essence, be denying that he is God!

But God doesn’t do this. Rather, he says things like, “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (Isaiah 42:6).

It is for this reason that sin (which is nothing other than having other gods before God) demands death in God’s universe. Death is fair; Paul calls it the wages of sin, and he reminds us, very straightforwardly, there no one is righteous (Romans 3:10).

It is only when we acknowledge that we merit punishment from God that the gospel message becomes good news to us. If I deserve death, but Jesus died for my sins, perhaps there is a way that I can avoid the damnation I deserve. That will be our topic next week.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology

 

The Christian Message, part 2

The message of Christianity (a message that Paul insists is of first importance in 1 Corinthians 15:3) is the gospel. We noted last week that, at minimum, the gospel makes historical claims: Jesus of Nazareth died and was buried, and he arose and was seen by witnesses. Paul strongly emphasizes these historical claims; according to him, if Jesus did not actually arise from the dead, there is no point at all to being a Christian. In fact, he says that if there is no resurrection, Christians should be pitied more than anybody else, for they have utterly wasted their lives.

Now why would he write that? Surely, even if Christianity is not historically or literally true, many millions of people derive comfort from Christian churches, both from participation in the familiar rituals and from relationships with other believers. The teachings of Jesus would still give us sound moral guidance, wouldn’t they? So why would Paul insist that Christianity is worthless without the literal, historical resurrection of Jesus?

The fact that some are ready to disagree with Paul indicates that the common Christianity of our day is not the same message that Paul proclaimed. And the chief difference is one of doctrine.

You see, Paul did not merely say that Jesus died, but that Jesus died for our sins. In addition, he twice notes that Jesus’s death and resurrection were according to the Scriptures. This is to say, then, that it is not sufficient to believe merely that Jesus died and rose again; the reason that Jesus died and the meaning of his resurrection are also vital to the gospel.

Jesus’s death, according to Paul, has something to do with our sins. Now, sin is an unpopular word in our day, but it is central to the Bible’s message. One confession of faith puts it this way: we are all “sinners, not by constraint, but choice; being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God, positively inclined to evil; and therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin, without defense or excuse.” This is certainly no flattering description, but it is one supported by Scripture (to choose only two of many passages: Romans 1:20 and Ephesians 2:1–3).

So we are sinners. And to connect our discussion back to the gospel, here is the key biblical idea: “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). What this means is that, if we are sinners, we have merited eternal condemnation. This death is rightfully ours.

If you understand this, you are now in position to see why the gospel is good news; you can see the value in Paul’s proclamation that Jesus died for our sins. And in next week’s essay, we’ll see why that truth is the very core of the Christian message.

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Theology

 

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The Christian Message, part 1

What is the central message of a Christian church? The correct answer to this question must always be the gospel. This answer, of course, merely suggests the obvious follow-up question: what is the gospel? For this answer, I don’t think we can do better than to look at the explanation given to us by Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 15:1–6:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.

While calling this gospel a message of highest importance, Paul highlights two historical facts that are essential to the gospel: that Jesus Christ died and that he was raised on the third day. Each of these events is supported by evidence. The evidence of his death is that he was buried, and the evidence of his resurrection is that he then appeared to a host of folks who ended up believing the Christian message.

This is to say that, at minimum, the gospel message makes claims about historical reality. There is no reason for a church to exist if it does not believe that Jesus literally died and literally rose from the dead. As Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 15:14–19:

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Give special attention to that last verse: Paul insists that Christianity is less than worthless if it merely provides a measure of comfort in this life. Such a benefit falls far short of the eternal promises that the gospel offers, and these eternal promises are empty if Christ’s resurrection is not historical fact.

But the gospel is not only fact; it is doctrine. And we will see this aspect of the gospel in next week’s essay.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral

 

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