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Friday, February 19, 2021

Some words of hope and encouragement for LGBTQ friends who have regrets or questions about their choices

We had grown up together as young men in a Christian school and then attended the same Christian college together for a year. Now, many years later, my friend was a transgendered atheist with a body that had been extensively and expensively transformed by chemicals and surgery. At a breakfast together one morning my friend said (I don't remember the context), "If I would repent, I would then be in the category of a eunuch."

So I thought of that friend (and others in the LGBTQ community) when I read the following passage in Isaiah this morning for my time with the Lord: "Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, 'The Lord will surely separate me from His people.' Nor let the eunuch say, 'Behold, I am a dry tree.' For thus says the Lord, 'To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant, to them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial, and a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off" (Isaiah 56:3-5).

Not only is such a person as my friend in the biblical category of a eunuch (someone who is not able to live out their natural gender sexually), but in a way so are many gay men and women, because if they would choose not to live out their same-sex desires, they would have to live celibately, at least for a certain period of time. I do believe it's possible for sexual "orientation" to change (there are many real-life examples, easily accessed online) but it doesn't usually happen quickly and sometimes not at all, of course. So for a time, at least, or for the rest of their lives in some cases, people with same-sex attraction who choose to live according to biblical morality will be those who "make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven," as Jesus said in Matthew 19:12. And people like my friend who have surgically altered their sexual organs are those "who were made eunuchs by men" (same verse)--the "men" being themselves and the doctors who assisted them.

So the hope and encouragement offered to eunuchs in Isaiah 56 is directly applicable to any LGBTQ friends who have regrets or questions about their lifestyle choices. (And I know there are many who do, even when they have loudly proclaimed the opposite, because I've talked to some and read the stories of many others online.) God promises, if you choose to follow his ways, you will not be a "dry tree." That's one of your fears, right? That if you repent of your desire to have a same-sex partner (or multiple ones) and don't act on it, you will be unhappy and unfulfilled the rest of your life. You can't imagine living without something that is so important to you right now. But realize, like every true Christian has, that our desires and priorities can change over time (and sometimes even quickly) when we turn away from being our own god and master and turn to Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord. I myself have strong propensities toward certain sins, as a result of both heredity and environment, but now looking back on my life I am so glad for when I have said no to them and so regretful for when I indulged them. My perspective has changed significantly and so have my desires. That's not to say those wrong desires don't ever rear their ugly heads and even win the day sometimes, but I am truly happy that I concluded that they were wrong and decided to fight them rather than let them define my identity and lifestyle. And I have seen God replace them with much better fruit, so I have emphatically not become a "dry tree" because I chose not to live according to my sinful orientation. No, I have seen the truth of some other words of Jesus, when he says, "Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, he is the one who will save it" (Luke 9:24).

God also promises, "To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant, to them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial, and a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off." The idea of a "name" in Scripture is tied to the issue of identity, which I know is another significant reason why many LGBTQ friends hesitate to even consider a commitment to biblical morality. Giving up the practice of your preferred sexuality or gender would seem to be giving up who you are, and everyone always tells us that being who we are is the most important thing in life and the best path toward happiness and success. But the Bible tells us that we were made in the image of God and the best thing for us is to recover that image (marred because of sin) by finding our identity in Jesus Christ, taking his name upon us, and allowing him making us more like him (because he is the only perfect person who has ever lived in this broken world).

That's what the "covenant" Isaiah mentions is all about, by the way. "I will be your God," he says, "and you will be my people." God promises to forgive all our sins and adopt us into his family so we can have an identity as his sons and daughters (and heirs) that will last forever--one that we will never regret or question. As a part of his covenant people, we also receive the blessing of many brothers and sisters that we didn't have before--a new community of mutual love and acceptance that transcends different backgrounds because we are all one in Christ. I know you may not be able to imagine that happening, because Satan and his system (called "the world" in the Bible) work overtime to make you think Christians are all bigots and backstabbers, but if you can't see it in your mind, you'll just have to believe it because God said it's true. And his Word is far more trustworthy than the opinions and theories of very limited and finite humans.

That issue of faith is alluded to in Isaiah's reference to "keeping the Sabbaths," because that practice was a way for people in the Old Testament to show that they trusted God's promises even though they couldn't see all the evidence ahead of time. They had to be willing to stop work for one day each week and believe that God would provide what they needed when the time came. In the same way, we must "rest from our works" spiritually by not trying to make ourselves good enough to earn God's favor and not trying to figure out everything by ourselves. Instead we should say to God, "I will rely on Jesus' death to take away my sins and his resurrection to give me a new life, and I will trust in what you say to know what's really best for me."

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

What is love? (the meaning of agape in the Bible)

I was recently editing a book by a long-time pastor I respect and noticed that he defined agape love in the Bible as "self-sacrificial action on behalf of others," or something like that. I wrote a version of the following comments on the manuscript and he ended up changing his definition to what I suggested, so I must be on to something! :)

I would suggest that agape love itself (narrowly defined) is not an action, but a desire of the heart that produces actions. And it is not merely self-sacrifice, because then non-Christians could have it without any reference to God, as long as they are sacrificing for someone else. In 1 Corinthians 13:3 Paul says, “If I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” The person described there has self-sacrificial actions, but according to Paul does not actually have love. That and other passages like Romans 5:5 seem to indicate that love itself is actually something in the heart, which is then manifested in actions. Plus, because it can only be produced by the Spirit and is directed toward God, it must include spiritual purposes (to set it apart from merely human self-sacrificial love). So my working definition of agape is “a Spirit-created desire of the heart for the spiritual good of others, which produces self-sacrificial actions on their behalf.”

In other words, I don’t think agape = action for the reasons stated above (e.g. “God so loved the world that he gave…” His love was the reason for His action of giving). And I also think “spiritual” needs to be added before “good” to accurately capture the biblical meaning of the word (same example).

Agape = action is problematic because we can do sacrificial action for our wives (or whomever) without actually loving them in our hearts (like “this people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are from me”). And even if it is heart-driven action, it might come from wrong motives in the heart, like selfish ones.

Emphasizing the goal of spiritual good helps because otherwise unbelievers could practice agape love, and the Bible says it’s a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 3:24) that is shed abroad in our hearts by the Spirit (Rom. 5:5). That part of my definition is what sets the use of agape in the NT apart from its infrequent use in the ancient world (and the other Greek words for love, of course). My belief after studying it is that Jesus “coined the term” (or at least co-opted and changed it) in order to communicate these ideas.

I illustrated the importance and implications of our definition of love in a recent Facebook post, which elicited some interesting responses:

What do you think about this? I'm wondering if one of the reasons why the younger generation of Christians are so open to unbiblical ideas about sexual morality is because we have failed to draw a clear distinction between the world's definition of love and the Bible's. "Love is love," they say. But the primary New Testament Greek word for love (agape) means something so different from the way we usually use the word in our culture. Here's what "love" means in the Bible: "A Holy Spirit-created desire in the heart for the spiritual good of others, which issues in self-sacrificial action on their behalf." This kind of love can only happen by the power of God transforming us from the inside out (Rom. 5:5, 1 Cor. 13:3), like God's love it is focused on and acts for spiritual and eternal goals (John 3:16, Gal. 6:1-2), and it is clearly not based on feelings or the attractiveness of the object (Matt. 5:44, Rom. 5:10). Since this is so different from the way "love" is used in our culture, I wonder if we should use different words for one or the other, and if so what should we call them?

Maybe we should start using the term "agape love" when we're talking about the kind of love that God has and we should have as well (as long as we understand it correctly, of course:).

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Why You Need a Good Church

You believe in God, but you don’t think you need to go to church. Or you attend church, but you do not see any need to become a member of one. If so, there are increasing numbers of people who think the same way you do. But is this a good trend? Take a moment to examine it with me…

In this article I won’t be discussing the issue of what a good church is and isn’t, though I do cover that in the book I mention at the end. Here I simply want to suggest some reasons why you need a good one—especially if you believe in God.

According to the Bible, which repeatedly claims to be the Word of God to us, the church is God’s idea. It is not merely a human invention, like clubs, sports teams, support groups, and other attempts we make at developing community among us. In Old Testament times, God called a group of people out of the rest of the world to be His worshippers and servants (the people of Israel), and when Jesus came He told His disciples, “I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18). He then proceeded to organize this assembly of believers (the meaning of the word “church”) by giving instructions about its administration through His appointed spokesmen, the apostles (see 1 Tim. 3, 1 Cor. 11, etc.). These directions included such topics as how people could become members of the church, how they should worship God when they came together, how to meet the financial needs of members, and perhaps most importantly, what kind of person should be a church leader and what those leaders should do.

That issue of leadership, which the Bible addresses repeatedly, is one of the most important reasons for not only attending a good church, but also making a commitment to membership in one. Take just one verse, for example: Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

The idea of “authority” in the spiritual realm may seem strange to you, or perhaps it conjures up images of witch trials and mass suicides by unquestioning, mindless followers. But notice that God says that true spiritual authority (in the church He has established) is something that is good for you, and even something that is necessary for your spiritual health. After all, the definition of spiritual sickness would have to be disobeying God’s commands, which He has given us for our good—and this is a command God has given us! We all need mature, loving leaders who can “keep watch” over us through their teaching, counsel, and accountability, if our goal is to become more spiritually mature ourselves.

In this short article I have said nothing about the helpful relationships we can develop in a good church, the needs that can be met, and the desires that can be fulfilled when we become members of what the Bible calls “the family of God” (1 Tim. 3:15). To learn about those benefits and more, please take a look at a book I co-authored, Life in the Father’s House: A Member’s Guide to the Local Church. You can order a copy here

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Satan and God are both at work in your entertainment... Who will win?

I am so often amazed at how an ancient collection of books like the Bible can be so relevant and even sufficient to answer the difficult questions we face as Christians even today. For example, I was recently listening to a song by a non-Christian artist who has practiced and advocated many things that are abhorrent to God in his life, yet is so obviously gifted with incredible musical talents, and questions were going through my mind (as they often do)... 

Where did he get this amazing talent? Has Satan empowered him so that he would influence people to turn away from God? If so, should I not listen to him and enjoy his talents? If I do, would I be participating in the evils of his life and how the devil is using his music for evil purposes? Or can I thank God for his talents and enjoy them, as long as I am discerning and don't let it influence me toward evil? Fortunately for me, as often as these questions come into my mind, I also think of answers that come from the Scriptures, and I can process the whole thing in a way that honors God. 

What are those answers? Well, rather than "re-invent the wheel" here by writing new material, I'd like to share with you the following excerpt from my book Who Are You to Judge? Hopefully it will help you to think and choose wisely regarding this important area of our lives that we could call...     

Entertainment and the Popular Arts

What kinds of movies, television, music, novels, etc. can a Christian enjoy, and still be honoring to God? No other issue has been the source of more friction between Christians in our media-soaked, pleasure-worshipping society, and no other issue has given rise to as many legalistic rules in an attempt to keep us from being “contaminated by the world.” Some Christians say we should avoid movies altogether, others say only G-rated ones are acceptable. Some say no secular music is good to listen to, others add “Christian contemporary” as a taboo because it sounds too much like what unbelievers are producing. On every issue in this general category, there are many examples of Christians who are far too “loose” in their practice, but on the other hand many over-react to the dangers of modern media by going “beyond what is written,” and are therefore susceptible to all the dangers described in this book. So how can we understand this issue in a way that avoids the extremes and maintains a biblical balance?

        A Matter of the Heart

First, we need to understand that the Bible offers very few specific rules about this issue, if any, and therefore we should not expect to find easy answers that apply to everyone. It is mostly an individual matter of “the heart”—a term which in the Bible means our “inner man,” where we think, desire, worship, and make choices (“mind” and “will” are aspects of the heart). In Mark 7:18-21 Jesus says that “whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him…that which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man.” He then goes on to say evil comes “from within, out of the heart.” What we take into our eyes and ears can certainly tempt or influence us, as we will discuss, but it cannot necessarily cause us to sin. So the response of our hearts to what we see and hear is the ultimate issue in morality. This is very important to understand, in order to avoid legalism in this matter. An activity that might be wrong for one person might be right for another, depending on what is happening in their hearts.

Some Christians, either in creed or merely in practice, advocate a rejection of any kind of artistic expression and enjoyment. But that approach is clearly inconsistent with Scripture.  As T. M. Moore points out,

Anyone who reads the Bible, paying careful attention not only to the words of the text but also the forms of God’s revelation, will be struck by the widespread and varied use of the arts for communicating God’s purposes and will. The Old and New Testaments alike make abundant use of the arts: visual arts (the Tabernacle and Temple and all their decorations, the pillar of memorial stones on the banks of the Jordan); musical arts (psalms and spiritual songs); literary arts (story-telling, poetry, perhaps even drama, all kinds of metaphors and images); and a wide variety of abstract and visionary art forms (the first chapters of Ezekiel and Revelation, for example). 

We could add to that list the fact that the apostle Paul seems to have enjoyed reading the Greek poets, because he quoted from them in his message on Mars Hill in Acts 17:28. And to mention a different but related issue, he also seems to have been a spectator at the Greek Olympics and other sporting events of his time, because he makes frequent reference to them in his letters (e.g. 1 Cor. 9:24-27; Heb. 12:1-2). 

So there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the art forms that people enjoy today, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying them, even as “mere entertainment.” This is important to discuss because some Christians point out that the Bible does not mention “entertainment,” and therefore infer that it is somehow a questionable concept.  But of course the Bible does not mention pizza or toothbrushes either, and that does not make those things bad. And the Bible does contain the idea of entertainment, if not the word itself. One of the themes of the book of Ecclesiastes, for instance, is that God wants you to “enjoy life” (Eccl. 9:9) when it is centered on Him.  He tells us to “eat, drink, and be merry” several times in the book (5:18, 8:15, 9:7), and says that you should “follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes” (11:9).

        The reference to eating and drinking is especially helpful in understanding how God wants us to enjoy ourselves (in moderation, of course). Some of the food and drink He has given us, and some of the eating and drinking we do, are merely for utilitarian purposes, to nourish our bodies. But beyond that He has blessed us with enjoyable food and drink, and we partake sometimes merely for the pure pleasure of it, not simply to keep ourselves alive. And this is according to His design—just as He has designed the arts for our enjoyment, as well as for our edification.

        What About Secular Artists?

        Most Christians will admit that modern forms of entertainment are not sinful in themselves, and that they can be used by believers for godly purposes. But many have a problem with anything produced by unbelievers, because it almost always contains ideas that are contrary to God’s Word and depictions of behavior that God has forbidden. Plus unbelieving artists often live very ungodly lifestyles. We must remember, however, that unbelievers can indeed produce things that are acceptable and helpful to Christians. This is obvious in the scientific realm, of course, because we benefit from the medical and technological skills of unbelievers all the time. But it is also true in the realm of the arts, as evidenced by Paul’s use of the work of Greek poets, which I mentioned above. Most Christians can appreciate the music of Mozart and Tchaikovsky, for example, even though one was a libertine and the other a homosexual. So why can we not enjoy the good work of modern-day artists, even though they may not be godly themselves?

        The book of Ecclesiastes is again helpful in this regard, because it says that to His people God “has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give to one who is good in God’s sight” (Eccl. 2:26). The abilities that unbelievers have, including their cinematic, musical, and literary skills, have been given to them by God so that they can produce art that can be beneficial and enjoyable to Christians. This does not mean that all the art or entertainment produced by the world is okay for Christians to enjoy, but it is certainly reasonable to assume that some of it is. 

[If you would like to read the rest of the chapter, which contains seven principles from Scripture that apply to our choices regarding entertainment and the popular arts, you can purchase a copy here. You can also read about those principles in a series of blog posts that begins here.]

If my writing is a blessing to you, please consider supporting me using the Patreon button on the right side of this webpage.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Why I Am Not A Progressive Christian

I don’t think being “progressive” is a good thing, unless it means we are making progress toward a better understanding and application of the original meaning and intent of Scripture. That is the only kind of progress that God encourages and commends in the Bible itself. Progress beyond what the Bible meant and intended when it was inspired by the Holy Spirit, as if it needs to be updated or improved based on modern thought, is consistently warned against in Scripture. In fact, the repeated message from God throughout biblical history is that God’s people should return to the Scriptures and recover their original meaning and application, not update or improve upon it. Let’s walk through a survey of what God says about this “from beginning to end,” starting with the beginning of the Bible, then the end, then everything else in between (and especially Jesus)…

NOTE: In this article I’m referring to progressive Christianity (see a definition here), not progressive politics, though there are some parallels between the two—like the issue of how the Constitution is understood and applied. The difference is that the Constitution can be wrong and in need of correction—and even for that I suggest that the standard should be the timeless truth of God rather than current theories, trends, and preferences that so often change with the wind. It’s also interesting to note that the word “liberal” has been used for both theological and political beliefs, and that those who are “liberal” or “progressive” in the one often are in the other as well—with a few notable exceptions like Andrew Klavan. So it would seem that there is an inevitable connection, to some degree at least, between what we believe about God and what we believe about politics. (See here for an interesting article about that.)

The Beginning of the Bible

In Genesis 1 God speaks everything into existence, and then in Genesis 2, as soon as He creates humans, He speaks a command to them (not to eat of that one tree in the Garden). In Genesis 3 Satan casts doubt on the Word of God by tempting the woman with “Did God really say?” The devil also gives a “nuanced” new interpretation of what God said that changes only a few words but ends up promoting the opposite of what God intended. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the very first (and most tragic) story about our sin shows God’s enemy doing basically the same thing that progressive or liberal Christians do when they cause people to doubt the Scriptures rather than encouraging trust in them. God knew that Satan would do this all throughout history in one way or another, and He wants us to ask the question, “Does the way I talk about the Bible cause people to question its truthfulness, authority, and relevancy?” If so, we are being more like Satan than Jesus Christ (more on His perspective later).

God then reveals His written law through Moses as a standard that He will constantly call people to return to rather than advance upon. On the eve of their entrance to the Promised Land, for example, both Moses and Joshua make this point clearly:

Now this is the commandment, and these are the statutes and judgments which the Lord your God has commanded to teach you, that you may observe them in the land which you are crossing over to possess, that you may fear the Lord your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, you and your son and your grandson, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged.  Therefore hear, O Israel, and be careful to observe it, that it may be well with you…. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…. You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, His testimonies, and His statutes which He has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 6:1-17)

[The Lord said to Joshua,] “Be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”

The End of the Bible

It is also no coincidence that the Bible ends with this warning: “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city.... For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Revelation 22:14-19).

In the second-to-last book of the Bible, God says, “Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 3-4).

And the fourth-to-last book of the Bible says, “This is love, that we walk according to His commandments.... For many deceivers have gone out into the world.... Whoever transgresses [literally, “goes beyond,” a synonym for "progresses"] and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son.  If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.”

Just like He did when He delivered the first part of His revelation (the Mosaic law) 1500 years before, God is saying, “I’ve given you a written Word that is what I want to say to you for all time. Don’t add to it or try to improve it; rather always come back to it as the standard for truth, trying to understand it better and apply it with wisdom to whatever situation you might face. Satan and his servants will always be the ones who want to make you question whether it’s all true or whether it really applies to you.”

Someone might say at this point, “But you believe that parts of Scripture don’t apply to us today, like the sacrificial laws in Leviticus or the tongues instructions in 1 Corinthians.” No, I actually do believe that even historically-bound texts apply to us, though I would say they apply to us in a different way than they did to the original recipients, because of the changes in the way God has worked in the world in different ages. And—this is key—I believe God told us in the Word that these changes would occur. The cessation of animal sacrifices is attested by so many passages (like Hebrews) that it’s a consensus among Christians, though the tongues issue rests largely on our interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:8 and the nature of the gift in Acts. But wherever we land on issues like that, we “conservatives” believe the text of Scripture was true and sufficient when delivered—it’s just a matter of interpreting and applying it correctly. Progressivism, on the other hand, says that the original meaning of the text was in error and needs to be corrected in light of modern “knowledge,” or that it simply isn’t enough to understand and solve modern problems. That kind of “progress,” as you can see from the passages in this article, is never predicted or approved of in the Bible like the historical stages are (e.g. the “better” covenant in Hebrews and the “fuller” knowledge in 1 Corinthians 13).

Everything in Between (and especially Jesus)

The prophets, the Psalms, and the wisdom literature of the Old Testament are filled to overflowing with references to the timeless truth of the written Word of God and calls to return to it rather than improve or re-interpret it according to the spirit of the age. (And keep in mind that a lot of development in human culture took place over the 1500 years following the writings of Moses.) Here are some examples:

[5th Century BC, 1000 years after Moses:] And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel. Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law. Ezra the scribe stood at a wooden podium which they had made for the purpose…. They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading. (Nehemiah 8:1-8)

[7th Century BC, during the reign of Josiah] Then Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan who read it…. And Shaphan read it in the presence of the king. When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes.  Then the king commanded Hilkiah the priest…“Go, inquire of the Lord for me and the people and all Judah concerning the words of this book that has been found, for great is the wrath of the Lord that burns against us, because our fathers have not listened to the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us”….  Then the king sent, and they gathered to him all the elders of Judah and of Jerusalem. The king went up to the house of the Lord and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests and the prophets and all the people, both small and great; and he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord, and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to carry out the words of this covenant that were written in this book.  

Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens…. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts…. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:89, 98-100, 105)

The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

Even when the Old Testament prophets predict a new covenant (in the future kingdom of the Messiah), they don’t say the existing Scriptures will be proven wrong or somehow improved—they say the Scriptures will be “fulfilled” in various ways that actually honor rather than denigrate or cause them to be questioned. Notice what Jeremiah 31:31-33 says, for example: “‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord.  ‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.’” Similarly, Ezekiel 36:26-27 says, “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.”  

The future age of the New Covenant will not be better because antiquated, inaccurate ideas in the Old Testament will be corrected and improved—no, it will be better because people will actually understand and obey those Scriptures more than they did before.

Jesus Himself echoed that truth over and over again in his interactions with the Jews, as He doggedly refused to give any ground to the “progressive” or “liberal” sects like the Sadducees (who, interestingly, denied the Resurrection, among other parallels with modern thinkers). And He never condemned the Pharisees for believing in the truthfulness (and even “inerrancy”) of the Old Testament—rather He rebuked them for not truly understanding and obeying it. Here are some examples:

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-19)

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life….  Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me.  But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words? (John 5:39-47)

Jesus answered them, “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), 36 do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? (John 10:34-36)

The apostles, whom Jesus chose to deliver the final parts of His “once-for-all” revelation, could not have been more clear that our goal as Christians should be to trust and apply the written Word as it was originally given and intended. Referring primarily to the Old Testament (and only by extension to their own writings), Paul and Peter say this:

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

We have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (2 Peter 1:19-21)

One-and-a-half millennia after the first books of the Bible were written and hundreds of years after the rise of Greek philosophy, Alexander’s world empire, and the Pax Romana, these men said that even the ancient Old Testament books were completely true and applicable to their age and the ages to come. God had told them that their writings would have the same character (1 Corinthians 14:36-38, 2 Peter 3:16), so no doubt today’s “progressives” would have them rolling over in their graves (if there were no Resurrection, as many believe).

That half-joke leads me to my conclusion, which is to highlight the extreme danger of the progressive or liberal views of Scripture by saying that they are indeed a slippery slope. (Just because that’s the name of a logical fallacy in argumentation doesn’t mean it’s not a real dynamic in many people’s experience.) Why should we believe in the Resurrection of Christ if other accounts in Scripture are merely mythological, and then how could we have a confident expectation of our own resurrection through a union with Him (Romans 6:8)? Speaking of logic, I think we can safely add a preface to Paul’s “syllogism” in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19:

[If the Scriptures contain myths and you can’t know whether its stories are true, then you can’t be confident that Christ has been raised (because that’s a whopper of a tale).] 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.

On the other hand, if Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead and is still alive 2000 years later, than it’s possible and even very likely that all the other fantastical stories are true, and that we do have a confident hope for the future.

POSTSCRIPT: Here’s another “syllogism” to summarize my main point in this article:

Progressive Christians say they believe God speaks through the Bible (to some degree at least). The Bible itself warns against progressing beyond the original intent and meaning of the text by adding to or modifying the original intent and meaning, to which the Bible repeatedly calls us back. So progressive Christians should hear this message from God and seek to modify their beliefs and lives to be more consistent with it. Otherwise their Christianity makes no sense, because the book that is foundational to their Christianity (in any scheme) weighs in against the kind of house they’re building upon it. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

An open letter to Francis Chan about healing

Dear Brother Francis, 

I don't know if you remember me, but we had some seminary classes together. I recently reached out to you via email for some input after reading your very good book on marriage and listening to some of your thought-provoking discussions about church ministry. (I couldn't find anything but an old and possibly defunct email address, so if you didn't get it and happen to read this, I'd still love to ask your advice on some things.) I admire and appreciate many things about you. But shortly after I wrote my email to you, I happened upon this video and was concerned enough to write this open letter, hoping that you and/or others might somehow benefit by reading it.

First of all, let me recount a few things you said in your "Last Message to America"...

You said that you were taught and believed for years that supernatural healing doesn't happen anymore.

You said you've been thinking for a few years that the "sign gifts" like healing are still operative today, but didn't experience them yourself until a recent trip to a village in Asia, where you said things like "Be healed" and everyone you touched was healed.

You said the village was a difficult place where the people had never heard the gospel before and when you were preaching it, you said to yourself, "I have no power, I'm speaking through a translator. You need to do something" like signs and wonders in order to convince them to believe (the full quote is below in the comments).

You said, "This is no different than if Jesus walked through this village...I am Jesus right now." 

Here are some thoughts for you about each of those...

Don't misconstrue or misrepresent the "cessationist" perspective. Cessationists (at least myself and the ones I respect) are not saying that God no longer heals supernaturally today--we believe he does. We're just saying that there are no apostles anymore and therefore God doesn't do it in the same way. You are not an apostle, so you shouldn't expect the exact same things to happen with you as happened with them, and you shouldn't describe it in the same terms (that has scary potential for misleading people about your role, by the way, especially in cultures like that). Was there prayer for healing being offered by you or others at the village? I believe that people are healed through prayer, "if the Lord wills," so certainly God may have chosen to heal people in response to those prayers (even when they're offered in the midst of some errors). But do you think he will heal "on command" or always answer "yes" to such prayers if people have enough faith? If so, that is unbiblical and dangerous teaching, which has been refuted so often and conclusively that I don't need to address it here.

Don't allow your experience to have more authority than the sound interpretation of Scripture. This is not safe nor wise, to borrow Luther's phrase, and it's led to most of the heresies and cults throughout church history. We have to view our experiences through the more objective lens of Scripture and not the other way around, and we need to recognize and guard against the ever-present tendency to get that backwards. We should ask ourselves, "What would my beliefs and terminology be if I based them entirely on the Bible, without factoring in my experiences (because experience can be so misleading)?" I know you're probably thinking that you are basing everything on the Bible, but I just wanted to challenge you as a brother that I got the vibe while listening to you that you might be putting experience too high on the authority scale. For example, you seem to think and imply that what happened in the village proves your recent thoughts about signs and wonders to be true. But nothing could be further from the truth, for many reasons (some of which I will discuss below). I remember driving a Prime Time shuttle to and from the airport when I was a seminary student (Did you ever do that? Many of us did) and talking to a number of Mormons who gave me their testimony about how someone had showed them a verse in the book of Mormon that says that God will reveal the truth of that book if we pray and ask him to. They prayed and then had a supernatural experience that was so profound "it could only be from God," so they knew that the Book of Mormon was true. But as I lovingly told them, I wouldn't deny their experience, but it proves absolutely nothing except that they had an experience. That leads me to...

Don't forget that Satan can do miracles too. In fact, you've probably never considered this (I had never heard it before), but it seems to me that the only future signs and wonders predicted in the New Testament (to happen after its writing) are ones done by Satan and demons. The New Testament never clearly says that God will do signs and wonders after the initial stage of the church, but it does say that the forces of evil will do them in order to deceive people. (Read more about this here.) I know you quote John 14:12, like everyone does, but you can't base a whole theology on a verse like that, considering the way Jesus regularly spoke in irony and hyperbole and there are a number of different ways to understand that passage. At the very least, I think we can safely say that Jesus did not mean that our works would be more amazing signs and wonders than he performed: he raised several people (including himself) from the dead and fed 5000, for example, and no one after him has outdone those miracles, let alone every believer. Given that, it's much more likely that he was speaking ironically and meant that even the typical ministry of his people in the New Testament age would be greater than what he did, which leads me to...

Don't underestimate or understate the power of the gospel. What caused me the most concern was when you said "I have no power" when you were preaching the gospel (full quote in the comments below). With all you know of the Scriptures, I can't believe you would say that--unless something is clouding your mind like a desire for "more" and/or some false teaching that you've opened your mind to. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16)! I know you know that verse (and many others that say the same thing), so again, why would you even say something like "I didn't have any power"? If you no longer believe that the gospel's power is sufficient to save people without "signs and wonders," I suggest you definitely have been led astray by a desire for "more" and/or some kind of false teaching. Furthermore, as I'm sure you also know, people can be converted to Christianity because they see signs and wonders without even understanding the gospel, let alone embracing it truly in their hearts. I know you know this because you've preached about false conversion, and I also know you know about the reality of demonic power because you've preached about that too. So don't you realize that demons might heal people (or even use the amazing power of the mind that is behind many healings) to get people to focus more on supernatural experiences than on the real, lasting power of gospel discipleship?

Why couldn't you just pray for the sick, encourage them to pray themselves, make sure they know that God does not promise to heal every sickness at all times, and teach them how to trust and thank God even if he does not take away their suffering (like Jesus did in the Garden, etc.)? Why couldn't you take that clearly biblical approach rather than using questionable terminology like "I healed them" or "everyone I touched" or "the gift of healing" etc. That terminology had a specific purpose and application for special people like Christ and the apostles in validating their credentials to deliver God's written revelation, which is contained and completed in the New Testament (Heb. 1:1-2, 2:3-4, Jude 3, etc.). Do you think your prayers will have less real power if you simply ask for healing and then trust God to do what is best for the spiritual health of people (which is sometimes allowing sickness to continue)?

Don't say "I am Jesus." I understand our union with Christ and that we are his "hands and feet" in the world, and I even agree with you (as I explained above) that, in a sense, we are doing works like he did on his behalf and in his place in the world today. But though the Bible says (over and over again) that we are "in Christ" and other similar phrases, it never says we are Christ. That very important distinction must be upheld in our terminology, to maintain both the ontological uniqueness of Christ and also the historical uniqueness of his life and ministry. The fact that you would use those words makes me wonder again if you are being negatively influenced by false teaching, since it echoes the way some heretical Word/Faith teachers talk. 

I hope you believe that I'm only writing this out of love and concern for a brother who has been used greatly of God (much more than I have). I am not a "company man" and have also progressed beyond the teaching of our seminary background in various ways. But I don't want to see someone with so much past fruit and future opportunity deviate from what the Scripture itself teaches (2 John 8-11).

In Christ,


Friday, October 23, 2020

Favorite Songs - How Great You Are, by me and others

(Are there some songs that never get old for you? You can listen to them over and over again, even after you've just listened to them, and you still enjoy them? When they also make you think about interesting and important stuff, you get the kinds of songs I'm talking about in this series of blog posts.)

I've had the privilege over the years of improving some contemporary worship songs by modifying their lyrics--one example is that I've added the rest of the Psalm into some songs that use only a small part of it, so we could sing the whole song that God inspired. In the case of this one ("How Great You Are"), the lyrics were very sparse but I loved the tune and thought it deserved some more extensive words from Scripture to describe how truly great our God is. So about 20 years ago Bob Tevlin and I came up with this hymn/praise song hybrid that still moves me today. If you can put up with the amateur vocals, I hope it will be a blessing to you too. 

How Great You Are
You are so faithful, Lord You are glorious
Holy and righteous, Your sovereign choices are just
For Your love endures forever; Your mercy never ends
Majestic Lord yet still my precious Friend
How great You are, how great You are
You are the Mighty King,
Who has come to reign in me
How great You are, how great You are
I give You all the praises of my heart
You are deserving of all the praises Lord
For You have raised me, to a new life I'm born once more
For You walked the road to Calv'ry
there You bore my sin and shame
You nailed it to the cross and took my blame
How great You are, how great You are
You are the Holy Lamb,
Who has come to rescue man
How great You are, how great You are
I give You all the praises of my heart
You have been given a seat in the highest place
Your lovingkindness has left me with no debt to pay
For Your life became a ransom, now my life has been redeemed
You intercede for me eternally!
How great You are, how great You are
You are the Gracious Lord, 
And I am Yours forevermore
How great You are, how great You are
I give you all the praises of my heart

© 1993 Maranatha Praise, Inc.\Christ For The Nations Music (Admin. by The Copyright Company)\(Maranatha! Music [Admin. by The Copyright Company]) Shannon Wexelberg.  Additional verses by Robert Tevlin and Dave Swavely. 

 All rights Reserved. CCLI #2799265