Thursday, July 12, 2012

What is sin? A Meditation.

This may seem a quite basic question, and you may think this particular pastor has spent a bit too much time in his office. Doesn't everybody, even non-Christians, have a pretty solid idea what sin is? I mean, a whole lot could list at least 4 of the 10 commandments, and that would get you started at least, wouldn't it? That's true, but the question I'm asking is less "What kinds of things are sin?" and more "What makes sin sinful?"

A lot of people, including a lot of Christians, think of sin as being roughly equivalent to "breaking a rule." That is, life is something like a baseball game with God as Cosmic Umpire. Everybody knows the rules, knows that there are penalties for breaking them and, if they believe the Bible, understands the penalties for rule-breaking are ultimately severe. But there is a great sense that God's "rules," like the rules of baseball, are finally arbitrary, rooted in not much other than God's personal preferences. For example: There is no particular reason why a base runner should have to "tag up," why the strike zone should be where it is, why the distance between bases is precisely 90 feet and not, say, 150 feet, why there are three outs per team, per inning, or 9 innings in a standard game. The reasons are located in the essentially arbritrary decisions of Mr. Doubleday back when, added to 150 plus years of baseball tradition since. Likewise, many people think, there is no good reason beyond God's personal preferences why non-marital sex in all its forms,  drunkenness, coarse talk, pride, taking what isn't yours instead of working, rage, "and things like these" are all sinful instead of acceptable.

But such thoughts are off base in more ways than one. First, and most subtly, it is the very influence of sin upon us that leads us to think that God's moral laws are abritarily, rather than transcendantly, founded. We think "Well, I know I shouldn't, but since 'nobody's perfect,' isn't all this wrath and judgment business over my little indiscretions really all a bit much? Why is God so worked up about things?" But God's moral laws are not, in the final analysis, arbitrary. They are rooted in His character, in the kind of being He is and in the manner in which He as the Triune God exists and relates between the Persons. His moral law is based not on arbritary decisions: e.g., "I think I'll declare non-marital sex sinful instead of holy." Instead it is based on the facts of God's own character; the way that He behaves and the kind of being He is requires those specific commands be given to creatures who, after all, are made in His image to be like Him and partake of His nature (2 Peter 1:3-4).

Moreover, because sin is not simply the breaking of some arbritary rule, we need to see it for what it is: An attempt to declare revolution, dethroning God and putting us in His place. When we sin what we are saying is that we are sufficient bases to determine the true, the right, and the good, that our character exceeds that of God, and that we, rather than God should ultimately be followed and obeyed. It is, in all of its varieties an attempt (to borrow a phrase from D. A. Carson) to "de-God God." It's not just rule-breaking; it's rebellion, treason, sedition, a miniature revolt against our Creator in whose image we are made. Thus when we sin we aren't simply choosing to do other than God would want; we are setting ourselves up as God and telling the real one to shuffle off. That act of traitorous war-making on God, which we repeat every. single. time that we sin is really sinful and why its just penalty is death.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Holding the line

It seems to me that the hardest thing in the world is to preach and believe the Bible as it lies on the page. It is quite easy, by contrast, to depart either to the right or to the left. If we depart to the right, we become one or another variety of fundamentalist, who seek to make the Bible say more than it in fact does, or make it speak clearly about issues on which it either has little to say or leaves freedom for the individual believer's conscience. Thus, fundamentalists warned us against the evils of coffee, games played with cards (even if there was no money involved), Bible translations other than the KJV, songs other than the ones in their hymn book, even non-intoxicating levels of drinking, playing games on Sundays, interpretations of eschatology other than pre-trib/pre-mil, and so on. These warnings elevated matters of either personal choice or conviction to matters of "biblical" obedience, often out of good motives, but nevertheless restricted people's freedom to follow Jesus as He might lead.

We are not, thankfully, in much danger of the evangelical church re-embracing the excesses of fundamenatlism. To do so would be a serious departure from Gospel and one from which I am glad that evangelicalism has largely escaped. But we are, I think, in danger of an equally serious one: departing from the Gospel to the left. By that, I mean all the variety of the ways that we remove from our beliefs that which we no longer wish to discuss or affirm. In some churches, this means not preaching through books of the Bible, and particularly the Old Testament, because that might bring up things we'd rather not discuss. This has led, unsurprisingly, to staggering levels of biblical ignorance as people with no sense of the broad sweep of the Bible don't know how it fits together or why the Old Testament is even there. It can also mean ignoring or minimizing passages that teach contrary to what we want to do. One particular favorite in this regard is 1 Timothy 2:12, which seems to offer a pretty much unconditional prohibition on women having teaching authority over men. Worst of all is the tendency to reduce the Gospel by making it more about serving people and doing nice things than warning them to flee the just wrath of God and embrace salvation and new life by grace through faith in Christ.

Thus the challenge is to hold to the line, proclaiming all that God says with fidelity. It means preaching and obeying the whole of Scripture, not just the parts we find most congenial. It means helping people understand how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament and why that matters. It means neither adding to, nor taking away, by either deliberate oversight or ignorance, what the Scripture has to say. It means especially that we keep the Gospel which saves people from death the center of all things and that we show how living in obedience is connected to that message no matter where we are in Scripture.

Evangelicals and the closet

A thought experiment regarding the current direction of our culture:
  1. Try to think of all the places outside of the evangelical Church where "coming out" LBGT would hurt your career prospects.
  2. Now try to think of all the places outside of the evangelical Church where "coming out" as a Bible-believing evangelical Christian would hurt your career prospects.
It is at least interesting to me to note that there are, if you think about it,  many more places where coming out evangelical would hurt your career advancement than coming out gay, lesbian, etc. We as a society no longer frown on what used to be defined as immorality. Now we celebrate that, and what we now condemn are what are seen as immoral and/or retrograde beliefs. Thus evangelicals are closeted and people engaged in all sorts of immorality no longer feel any shame: from fornicating to adultery, from porn to "friends with benefits" and all the variations of being gay, lesbian, etc., whatever blows your hair back is good, baby. Let your freak flag fly! It's a weird world, to say the least. Put more biblically, I am grieved to see non-Christians (and some Christians!) on the one hand becoming hard-hearted and calloused toward sin (Eph. 4:18-19) and on the other hand see Christians so afraid of the disapproval and jeers that we will not "come out of the closet" to share the Gospel with people who need most to find freedom from their slavery to lust.  

Be bold, my friends! A world gone crazy needs the life and freedom granting power of the Gospel now more than ever.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

All the Single Ladies

I have been a pastor now for close to 11 years. In that time, I've had my theology of sin regularly affirmed by both my own behavior and that of my parishioners. We truly are a depraved race of rebels, me included. But for whatever reason, there are some sins that I find more troubling than others. And one of the ones that bothers me a lot is the number of young Christian women I see who are willing to make serious compromises in their romantic lives for the sake of a relationship with a dude. I've dealt with this so often that I practically have a speech prepared. The speech itself doesn't usually work, since most people who are "in love" don't have ears to hear a rebuke, even if it is one delievered in love and with their long-term future in mind. But in the possibly vain hope that I will save someone a lifetime of heartache, here's the guts of "The Speech."
  1. Don't date and don't marry a non-Christian. Despite clear Scriptural teaching, lots of Christian girls wind up married to non-Christian men. This is because they so deeply long for a man to pursue and love them that his faith, or lack thereof, is deemed a non-issue. They may rationalize dating him on the hope he will come to Christ later. Some do. But most don't. And a man who says he is a Christian but who doesn't go to church is simply a liar. So is a man who can't articulate his faith in Christ-what he believes about Jesus. If I had a dollar for every woman I know who married a man who wasn't a believer and who wasn't interested in church when they were dating who now comes to church alone, I might not be rich, but I could definitely take Karen to a very nice dinner. Ladies, don't underestimate the value of common faith. It's a Scriptural command and that should be sufficient to obey. But please consider this too: if you want a deep connection at the heart level, you won't have it with a man who doesn't share the deepest commitments of your heart. Instead you will be frustrated, sad, and continually praying for God to break through to the man you love while you try to raise your children to know the God their father rejects. It's painful and God wants to spare you from it because He loves you.
  2. Don't date and don't marry a man who isn't a real man. I don't mean you need a guy who can rip a phone book in half with his bare hands or pull nails out of the wall with his fingers. I mean you want a man who is responsible, who can not only get, but also keep, a job and who works hard at the one he has. I mean you want a man who opens doors, pays his bills on time, doesn't live beyond his means, doesn't live with his mother beyond a year out of college, doesn't blame others for his failures, and who is a leader instead of a passive follower who lets you decide everthing. You want a man who treats you as a prize to be won and who will lay down his life for you, since daily doing that is what Scripture requires of him (Eph. 5:23). You want a man who has put away both childish things and immoral things. If some of these things aren't true, he isn't worth your time. You should walk away before you wind up married to a man who frustrates you for life.
  3. Keep your sexuality pure. Perhaps no commitment is harder to keep than that of reserving sex for marriage, especially when you are deeply in love. But keeping sex (in all its forms!) out of the equation actually helps your relationship immeasurably. First and foremost, doing so honors God, who set it up and blesses marriage and marriage alone as the appropriate context for that fire to burn. Second, purity keeps you from thinking you have more than you've got, mistaking committed love for emotions, hormones, and temporary passion. Third, it also guards your heart, so that do you do not wind up feeling used when the relationship ends (as most will). Fourth, godly men aren't attracted to ungodly women. A man who is really following Christ with all his heart won't find appeal in a woman who is only following Him with half of hers. Finally, when saved for marriage, there is a security, a depth of passion, and a freedom that comes from sharing sex with just your spouse that the promiscuous will never know.
  4. Be willing to wait. Lonely married is far lonelier than lonely single. Lonely single people have hope. Lonely married people are often hopeless, having long since resigned themselves to the idea that this is as good as it will ever be. Don't be one of them. Wait for the Christian man who truly is a Christian man.

Apostasy and Apologetics

Apologetics begins out of a genuine heart for lost people and a deep desire to see them embrace the faith in Jesus Christ which will give them new life in both the present and eternity. And it also begins with the recognition that a great many things Christians believe are confusing, hard to swallow, or otherwise totally alien to average unbeliever in general and to the apologist's non-Christian friends in particular. And underlying all apologetic efforts is a passionate conviction, even if left unarticulated, that if the faith can be sufficiently clarified, explained and rightly presented, then the non-Christian(s) that the apologist loves will intend place his/her/their trust in Christ and be saved from sin, death, and hell. In other words, apologetics begins with noble motives of love for the non-Christian.

However, it can and often does turn quickly toward apostasy. It frequently proves a short jump from "clarifying and explaining the faith correctly" to softening it down to a level felt to be more palatable, removing hard teachings, sharp corners, and rough edges. The apologist's motivation often leads to simply eliminating or explaining away scriptural statements that, on their face, are pretty clear and don't require much explanation. For example, no one reading the New Testament, and in particular Jesus' teaching on the subject, can come away from that concluding that Hell is something other than a place of eternal conscious torment away from God's presence or that consignment to that place is anything less than permanent. Likewise, there is no biblical evidence supporting women as elders/pastors or having teaching authority over men, the holiness of homosexual relationships of whatever label or type, or a view of Scripture as less than the authoritative, divinely inspired, inerrant Word of God.

Yet today, we find evangelical pastors and leaders espousing all of these views. Why? I think in most cases, it is because they find the actual teaching of Scripture in these areas too hard, presenting too high an obstacle for the unbeliever to clear to come into the Kingdom of God. To put it as charitably as possible, their apologetic desire for people to come to Christ stands in the way of faithfully preaching the Word of Christ. And though their love for people and desire for them to enter God's Kingdom is commendable in itself, it is loaded with serious problems.

Number one, it rests on the assumption that God didn't really mean it, or that the Bible isn't "fully" (i.e., in every place) inspired, or that there is some "trajectory" or arc from Scripture to the current day from which we can infer a different teaching about hard passages than the Bible itself presents. That is problematic in itself, since the Scripture's unreliability about "hard" teaching doesn't exactly fill a person with confindence about "easy" teachings like Jesus' death and resurrection as the hope of forgiveness and eternal life. But the bigger problem is that it sets up the apologist himself or herself as the final arbiter of truth, determining what is truly biblical and what isn't. And as a basis for building a new life, that's a pretty shaky foundation.

Number two, it assumes the apologist is "more gracious" or "more loving" than God. If it is true that the Bible is indeed God's Word (and if it isn't, then the whole debate is absurd!), then the apologist's feeling that softening hard truths is better than leaving them hardened presumes that God is less interested in seeing people converted than the apologist. Yet the idea that humans love their fellow humans more than the God who sent His Son for the rebellious is not just wrong, it's blasphemous. Moreover, if God is really loving, then we must conclude that He gets to define what love is, and apparently, it includes telling people the real truth, hard edges and all. After all, which is better, telling a man with stage 4 cancer that he needs aggressive chemo, radiation, etc. or that he should go home and eat a fudgsicle and he will be fine? One is "harder" for sure, but that road is also the one that leads to life and freedom, while the other feels better but leads to death.

Number three, it does not produce what it promises. The dirty little secret of almost every effort to round off the corners of the Christian faith is that they do not produce converts. The people who bought Rob Bell's books, and Brian McLaren's, and countless others, from Schleiermacher's on back through time, were largely the disgruntled children of the orthodox and evangelical. They aren't reaching new people so much as helping people who find their parents' faith distasteful to still call themselves Christians. But such efforts lead not to a revitalization of the church, but to its decline. The last 20 years, which have witnessed the rise of both the megachurch and the "emerging church" as major influences in evangelicalism, and which have both sought, in divergent ways, to make Christianity "easier" have also witnessed a declining percentage of actual Christians.

Finally, it assumes that becoming a Christian is actually easier than it is. It is true that our message is so simple that even a child can understand it and believe it. But there is simply no easy way to tell someone that he or she is a sinner deserving of God's wrath, and that Jesus' death and resurrection is the only hope of eternal life. Nevertheless, those who try to cushion the blow for the non-Christian act as if the only thing separating  him/her from fully embracing the Gospel and the new life that flows from it is a good presentation of the right information and a decision to embrace it. But that's not actually true, at least not fully. What actually separates the person from God is the very sin we proclaim as part of our message. And that sin makes the transformation of a non-Christian into a Christian the most miraculous thing that can occur. Indeed, it is an impossible thing, apart from God's own power. We must therefore not forget our role: we are to proclaim the Gospel, hard edges and all, and God who is rich in mercy and love, will save those whom He has called.