In Christ Alone

How can man approach God?[1] People from the Aztecs to the Zulus have asked this since the dawn of humanity, and man has imagined thousands of answers.[2] These answers boil down to three possibilities.

  1. Man cannot do anything to approach God, and therefore can never approach Him.
  2. Man does something, or a group of things, to earn the right to approach God.
  3. Man cannot do anything to approach God, but God in His grace brings man to Him.

These possibilities are exclusive, as each includes a world view that is inconsistent with the others. It is logically impossible to select 1 and 3, for example, or some other combination.

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Equation of Sin

Sin can be illustrated by an equation, and that can help us understand it and reduce it.

Our Sunday School class is studying the New Testament book of James, written to the Jewish Christians of the diaspora by James the brother of Jesus in the late 40s AD. James was the pastor of the church in Jerusalem, and He provides powerful, practical advice for successfully living the Christian life. The first eight verses of chapter 1 discuss the Christian’s need for wisdom and God’s promise that He will provide it, so long as the believer asks in faith. Verses 9 to 11 mention the transitory nature of life, and the consequent even more transitory nature of riches.

James 1:12-18 takes a different track, discussing the nature of temptation and sin, and explaining that God cannot tempt or be tempted, but instead creates His people and provides every good thing for them. One could summarize these verses with the following equation:

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Rotten Wood

How to eliminate rotten wood – the thoughts, word, and actions that drag you down, whether they seem big or small – in your life.

The wooden plank on the deck gave a soft “squish” as I stepped down. I pushed a little harder with my heel and the wood collapsed, leaving a hole in the deck, and exposing the dirt several feet below. “Ugh” I thought, and began to check the rest of the deck for rotten spots. In total, only five boards needed to be replaced, all touching each other in the same part of the deck. I looked up. There was a leak in the gutter above the rotten spots, and I recalled seeing a nearly continuous stream of water hitting this part of the deck during several rainstorms over the past several months. While working on the deck, and lying in bed thinking about it, I recognized many parallels between rotten wood and sin in our lives.

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How to Know the Will of God

We think that knowing the will of God is the hard part. We are wrong. God freely tells us His will in His time. The hard part is our unwillingness to do what He commands. 

In Bible Fellowship we were discussing John 9, the healing of the man born blind. During the conversation we noted how the man heard Jesus tell him to wash in the pool of Siloam, and he trusted and obeyed the word of the Lord. Later when confronted by the Pharisees he boldly told his story; that he was blind and now he could see. The formerly blind man didn’t exaggerate the truth and he didn’t “soft pedal” it to soothe his inquisitors. By obeying Jesus’ command and by telling his story with courage, this man was following the will of God for his life. This comment occasioned the question “how can we know the will of God in our lives?” Though we did not have time to delve into it then, I promised my class that I would write on the topic this week.

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Halloween

On those infrequent occasions when modern man considers the landscape of religion throughout the world, he is likely to think of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and a smattering of smaller faiths. These religions, the “big five”, encompass the beliefs of more than two thirds of the world’s population, though there are innumerable sects and denominations within each. It was not always so.

Of these, before 500 BC only Judaism and Hinduism existed, and even they were different in many respects from the religions by those names today. Instead the world was a bubbling cauldron of tens of thousands of tribal and regional religions. The Greek pantheon, which became the Roman pantheon, the Celtic religion, and the later Norse pantheon, are among the most well known today in the West. Even after the advent of Buddhism in the early 5th century BC, Christianity in the first century AD, and Islam in the 7th century AD, these tribal and regional religions played an important role in the lives of their followers.

No one knows where the holiday today known as Halloween originated, but there is widespread agreement that it came out of the cauldron of Christian and pagan influences in Europe in the Middle Ages. Some link it to the Celtic festival of Samhain (summer’s end) while others to the Roman feast of Parentalia (the festival of the dead). The name “Halloween” is a contraction of “All Hallows Eve”. The common belief was that the souls of those who had died wandered the earth until All Saints Day on November first, when they would be taken to purgatory. All Hallows Eve, therefore, was their last chance to take revenge on their enemies. To avoid recognition, however, the souls would disguise themselves. Those targeted by the souls of the dead could do something good for them and perhaps avoid retribution. Also, the poor would go from house to house in the Middle Ages on All Saints Day receiving food in exchange for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day, November second. From these practices followed the modern customs of dressing in costume and “trick or treat” on Halloween.

During the Reformation, Protestants objected to Halloween as “Popism” and tried to eliminate pagan influences from the Church. The Puritans in New England opposed the holiday but later Scottish and Irish immigrants brought it with them into the New World. Subsequently celebrating Halloween became widespread in America among all social classes and ethnic groups.

Like all things, holidays take on the color of their surrounding culture. The lives of medieval men and women were surrounded by death. The healthiest could and often did perish in an instant, and as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wrote in Leviathan “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” As a result Halloween was heavily influenced by death, its main images being skeletons, corpses, and ghosts, or dealers in death, such as witches, demons, and even the unlucky black cat.

Halloween in America today is less about death, which seems distant in a land with good public health, excellent medical care, and where people die in hospitals instead of at home. Rather Halloween is more about sex. A quick look at almost any costume catalog reveals sexy pirate, foxy lady, sexy wench, sexy gangster, Aphrodite, nurse knockout, passionate princess, and a host of revealing costumes for women and even young girls. Men’s and boy’s costumes are more about violence and arrogance, with outlaws, commandos, and fictional superheroes as standard fare. There are, of course, still the historic Halloween standards of witches, ghosts, ghouls, zombies, and other bloody, rotting and scary costumes. And in the interest of fairness, many children and even a few adults dress up as animals, fruits, vegetables, (modest) princesses, and other fun and wholesome choices.

Christians today sometimes eschew Halloween entirely, sometimes participate wholeheartedly and without discretion, and sometimes celebrate a variation, such as “fall festivals” common among church groups. The Bible does not categorically state what the Christian response to Halloween is, since Halloween is a much later development. Nonetheless it does provide principles to guide our conduct.

First, believers in Jesus Christ should never fear. Some people feel that pumpkins, black cats, and other images of Halloween are so associated with this holiday that Christians must not be associated with them at all. This is false; the God who made pumpkins and black cats allows people to use, and even misuse, what He has given them, and uses their actions for His greater plan. Other people fear the images of death. This must not be, because death is a result of our sin and must be faced, and also because Jesus Christ conquered death once and for all at the cross. Still others fear the magic and what they perceive as demonic influences. Evil spirits undoubtedly have significant influence on the world, as do good spirits, and their influence is not confined to Halloween. However, Christ won the final victory, and if our eyes are on Him, we have nothing to fear.

Second, believers in Jesus Christ should avoid sin at all costs. Most everyone fears death, but few fear sin. This is remarkable because sin leads directly to death, and not just physical death, but spiritual death as well (James 1:14-15). When sin is wrapped in such an alluring package as a scantily clad, beautiful young woman, we fear it even less. While sex between husband and wife bears the imprimatur and magnificence of heaven, the same act between anyone else will result in eventual destruction (Proverbs 7). But sex is not the only good thing which if misused becomes sin. Power and pride, so laudable when directed rightly, so lamentable when directed wrongly, and so prominent a theme in the men’s Halloween costumes, can also lead to sin (Habakkuk 1:11).

Our family enjoys decorating, carving pumpkins, going to fall festivals, dressing up in costumes, and eating treats on Halloween. God made, either directly or through the handiwork of man, every pumpkin, every treat, and even every costume and decoration. He will use it all for His perfect purposes and His glory. Our responsibility, not just for Halloween but for every day, is to avoid the twin dangers of fear and sin. In so doing, we can enjoy all of the abundant life that He gives those who love Him.

World Evangelism

Should we tell others about Jesus? If we don’t, the stones will cry out.

Evangelism, loosely defined as trying to get others to believe and practice a particular religious faith, has received a bad reputation in many circles in the last century. David Livingstone, the famous 19th century explorer-doctor-missionary in Southern Africa, reflected his times in his belief that Civilization, Commerce and Christianity would help Africa and the undeveloped world out of poverty and into relationship with Christ. He did not support European colonialism but others in his era did, and the association of the “3 Cs” with colonialism generated a backlash against missionary work in the post colonial era.

Evangelism also presupposes that the evangelist knows the true religion and the one being evangelized does not. Such a claim to knowledge cuts against the grain of moral relativism (“there is no true religion”) and can suggest that one man is inherently superior to another. It is difficult for any man to preach a belief system without importing his unseen cultural biases into his message, and the inherent conflict in trying to change another’s way of thinking can result in violence.

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Israel at the Time of Hosea

The Kingdom of Aram (modern Syria) had long been a major military threat to Israel, and Israel had been forced to devote many resources to defense against its northeastern neighbor.  During the days of Jehoahaz (816-800 BC), crushing defeats at the hands of the Arameans had reduced Israel’s army to “not more than 50 horsemen, 10 chariots, and 10,000 footmen (2 Kings 13:7).”

An adventurer named Zakir had successfully gained power in the small kingdoms of Hamath, Luash, and the regions nearby, situated northeast of Aram. Hoping to expand his power the king of Aram, Ben Hadad III, formed an alliance to overthrow Zakir and seize Hamath and Luash. According to the Stele of Zakkur, found in 1903 near Aleppo, the Aramean coalition laid siege to the city of Hazrach (cf. Zechariah 9:1) near Damascus, and was defeated. Zakir’s victory destroyed the army of Aram and led to their precipitous decline. These events occurred around 790 BC, and within 30 years Aram had grown so weak that Israel had gained control of Damascus and Hamath themselves (2 Kings 14:28). The borders of Israel expanded almost as far as they had reached under David and Solomon.  Assyria, which would destroy Israel itself in 722 BC, was relatively weak since the passing of Shalmaneser III (859 – 824 BC).

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Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Epidemics, and other Misfortunes

Misfortunes and even disasters are part of life. Are they natural phenomena, are they judgments from God, or are they both?  

Hurricane Sandy has just swept through the east coast of the US, killing at least 100, leaving six million without power and causing at least $3 billion dollars in damages. In March 2011, an earthquake (magnitude 9.3), tsunami and radiation accident in Japan killed 15,870 and caused $235 billion in damages. In January 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Leogane in Haiti, killing at least 316,000. Disease epidemics relentlessly cycle through populations. Such catastrophes occur constantly somewhere in the world, and terrible suffering and loss is an inevitable result.

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Be Thou My Vision – Fixing Our Sight on God

God is not the giver of blessings; He is the blessing. God is not the enabler of accomplishments; knowing Him is the accomplishment. God is the center of our provision and the center of our ambition. And yet why is that so easy to say and so hard to do?

One of my favorite hymns is the Irish “Be thou my vision”, its words are attributed to Dallan Forgaill in the 6th century and its tune an Irish folk song, “Slane”.   The theme is that God alone should be the vision and goal of every Christian, just as He was for Paul in Philippians 3:7-14.

What does it mean to have God for our vision in our purpose for life?

The modern mantra of finding ones’ purpose for life seems to be “follow your inner star”, “find your dream” or “do your own thing.”  The idea is that within each person is something that will guide him or her to meaning and fulfillment in life if only he or she follows it.  Books, music, and movies parrot this idea relentlessly, and many people simply accept it as truth.  Under certain assumptions this could be logical:

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When a Christian Ends His Own Life

Will a genuine believer in Jesus Christ who kills himself still go to heaven?

My wife called me at work several weeks ago; the morning was good but the news was not. Our daughter had been perusing her friends’ posts on Facebook and saw some from one family that were unclear but disturbing. We called them, close personal friends for over 15 years, and learned that their oldest son had killed himself.

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Why is God so Demanding?

We want a God who will accomplish our will, not His. We want a God who will deliver us from misfortune to fortune. We want a God who will let us alone. But the real God loves us too much for that.  

How many people would describe God as a “cosmic kill joy”, the purveyor of “hellfire and brimstone”, and the Angry One who is “too judgmental”? Why have Christians sometimes taught that the wrathful, vengeful God of the Old Testament is not the same God as the loving, forgiving One of the New Testament? How many of my patients, especially those from Catholic traditions, endure a guilty, joyless relationship with their Creator? Why does it seem that no one is ever good enough to please Him?

The God described in the Bible possesses non-moral attributes such as His power, His knowledge, and His eternal existence. He also possesses moral attributes such as holiness and moral perfection. Ultimately God is the Holy Other, absolutely unlike anything else in the universe (Isaiah 46:9, Jeremiah 10:6). The angels in Isaiah 6:3 proclaimed “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory.” The Hebrew word “holy” (קדוש qadowsh) describes something completely set apart from anything else, and the use of the word three times provides the greatest possible emphasis. The term also connotes absolute moral purity and freedom from defilement. There is not the slightest hint of wickedness, or even selfishness, in God.

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Key Concepts of Paul in Salvation – Romans

The Apostle Paul emphasized righteousness, faith, redemption, and justification in his letter to the Romans.

The book of Romans has been described as the magnum opus of the Apostle Paul.  In it, Paul laid out his theology of Christ and salvation in his clearest, most concentrated style.  Scholars have labored to plumb the depths of Paul’s words and concepts for centuries, and much is still to be written.   Luther and the other Reformers found in the first five chapters of Romans their fundamental idea for the Reformation, justification by faith alone.

Righteousness (δικαιοσύνη dikaiosynē) to Paul was not a result of good works, earned by the person, as though he could gain a favorable account with God by his deeds.  Rather, righteousness is a standing imparted by God as a result of faith (Romans 4:3), which is itself a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9).  For centuries, Christian scholars have contrasted righteousness by faith, a Pauline Christian teaching, with righteousness by works, a Judaistic teaching.  E.P. Sanders work minimized “righteousness by works” in Judaistic teaching in the first century and emphasized “righteousness by covenant”.  This has significantly shaped the modern discussion, and borne some good fruit by improving Jewish-Christian understanding.  However, Sanders’ “covenantal nomism” has a serious flaw.  If the Jews are saved because they are God’s covenantal people, but must still perform good works to stay in that relationship, salvation still depends on works.

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The Bible and the Nature of Man

No form of government, no powerful leader, no set of laws, and no group of social programs will fix our shattered world. 

Man is a magnificent and tortured creature. He is capable of the brilliance of Newton, the dedication of Paul, and the courage of Shackleton. He is also capable of the stupidity of the Three Stooges, the wavering of Congress, and the cowardice of Pontius Pilate. The same race that produced Washington and Lincoln also produced Mao Tse Tung and Shaka Zulu. We are industrious and lazy, courageous and cowardly, selfless and selfish, and clear headed and confused. The Bible has much to say about the character of man.

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