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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Metaxas Miracle

The story of what just happened to me last night could be added to the chapters in the back of Eric Metaxas' book Miracles as another example of what he believes that word describes.

I loved Metaxas' book about Bonhoeffer so much that I was thrilled to see this new one at my local library a month or so ago, and I checked it out. I was not so thrilled when I saw some of the content, and have often thought of writing a review of it here on my blog, even to the point of renewing the book a couple times. But I never got around to doing that, and got a notice from the library that it was due the next day and couldn't be renewed anymore, so I grabbed it out of my pile and set it on my desk to remind me to take it back in the morning.

Then the really "miraculous" stuff started happening. I was preparing to teach a class for that next day at a local school and one of the topics raised in the textbook was the different opinions among Christians about whether miracles still happen or not. Thinking through how I would present both sides of that debate made me think of the Metaxas book, which happened to be sitting on my desk in front of me, and made me think again about writing something. Then during a break from my prep I saw a controversial tweet by Metaxas that someone had posted on Facebook, where he quoted Bonhoeffer as saying that every sermon should have "a shot of heresy" and said that he was about to interview the author of The Shack on his new book. Which made me think even more about Miracles and convinced me to finally write about it. If I used the kind of language that appears in the book, I would say God gave me this miracle of amazing coincidences and unmistakable supernatural impressions to get me to write this article. So if you don't like what I say, you'll have to blame Him, because He spoke to me and led me to do it through these miraculous signs and promptings, etc.

I don't talk like that, actually, and that's why I didn't like parts of the book. Many of Metaxas' general thoughts about miracles are good, and I agreed with the whole section defending the ones depicted in Scripture. But there are problems with his discussions of modern day miracles, which unfortunately makes much of the book problematic. One of those problems is that he summarily dismisses (in one paragraph) the view of many Christians who do not believe that all the kinds of miracles depicted in the Bible occur today, and he misrepresents them too. On page 72 he describes such Christians as "dispensationalists," but if he would have taken even a modicum of time and effort to look into this further, he would have found out that many "cessationists" are not dispensationalists. In fact, most of the teachers I find persuasive from that perspective are not dispensational, and I myself am not.  (See my book Decisions, Decisions at the link on the right for my own discussion of the issue.)

But the biggest problem with the book is that Metaxas hasn't done enough careful work in discerning and understanding the issue of miracles itself. He fails to distinguish (especially in his example chapters at the end) between the "remarkable providences" that God does all the time (and at all times) and the "signs and wonders" that He has only done at specific times in history to usher in new eras of Divine revelation and validate the messengers who delivered it (see Hebrews 1:1-2 and 2:3-4). What happened to me last night is an example of the former, as are many of the examples Metaxas records in the final chapters. But many of the miracles depicted in Scripture are unique and unrepeatable today, precisely because they were intended to be "signs" pointing to the unique and unrepeatable phenomenon of new Scriptural revelation being delivered by God to His people.

Ironically, Metaxas makes a good case for this idea himself on pages 18-19, though he doesn't seem to recognize the impact it should have on his understanding elsewhere:

"The parting of the Red Sea is another example [like the resurrections from the dead] of how atypical and staggering such things were at the time they occurred.  God very much meant it to be so. If the Red Sea parted every few years it would have meant nothing when it parted 3,500 years ago so that the Israelites could escape the approaching Egyptian soldiers. We could then regard its parting just in time for the Israelites to escape Pharaoh's army as a happy coincidence of timing.  But since the Red Sea never parts of its own accord--it is many hundreds of feet deep where the Israelites would have crossed--we may conclude that God was intentionally doing something inexplicably and toweringly attention-getting. That was plainly the point of it. It is not in any way presented in the pages of Exodus as something that might be taken for granted. It was meant to be taken--and was taken--as epochal, as a hinge in the history of the world."

Compare that to a story Metaxas tells in his example chapter called "The Power of God." in which a friend of his felt a strong impression in a worship service to lay hands on his pastor and "suddenly began to feel what he very distinctly describes as 'a warm sphere' emanating from the center of his stomach. Brad says that he uses the word 'sphere' specifically and deliberately, because it wasn't a vague, 'gooey' feeling. 'No,' he says, 'this was an actual sphere, a ball, an orb that I could tangibly feel.' He describes it as 'warm, round, and pulsating.' Then, while this was happening, he became aware of his prayer for the pastor 'taking on a life of its own.'"

In contradiction to his cogent explanation of the uniqueness of the biblical "signs and wonders," Metaxas believes that the parting of the Red Sea and his friend's worship experience are both miracles, and uses the same word to describe both. And that is the problem with many of the miracles he describes in the last section of the book... I won't deny that people experience such things, but I would call them "remarkable providences" that God does constantly in the lives of His people, rather than using the same terms the Bible reserves for "atypical and staggering" things like bodily resurrections and the Red Sea.

Other examples in that last section of the book, however, raise another concern I have about Metaxas' apparent lack of discernment. He mentions earlier in the book that Satan and demons can do "signs and wonders" as well, but he doesn't seem to realize that could be happening in some of the more obviously supernatural events relayed in his examples (especially when the people involved may be under the influence of false doctrine, like his Roman Catholic friends). Some of these fantastic occurrences may have been merely imagined, of course, because our minds are extremely complex and can convince us of unreal experiences (take dreams, for example). But there are supernatural powers at work other than God, and according to Scripture his enemies actually have a penchant for "signs and wonders" (Matthew 24:24, Mark 13:22, 2 Thessalonians 2:9, Revelation 15:13-14, 16:13-14.)

I know these issues are difficult to fully understand and explain, and that my understanding and explanations may create even more questions than they answer. So in humble recognition of that difficulty, let me end this discussion by throwing out an idea in the form of a question. I've been thinking along these lines lately, especially after studying the passages I just mentioned in Revelation, but I realize I might be missing something and may need someone to correct me...

Are there any New Testament prophecies that say or imply that God will do "signs and wonders" after the Scriptures have been completed? In other words, the NT writers made numerous predictions of things that would happen after the time they were writing.  Whether those things would happen soon after they wrote or long after depends on our interpretation, of course, but everyone agrees they were predicting future events beyond the time when the Scriptures were written. And although they predict a lot of "signs and wonders" happening by the power of Satan and his demons, I don't see any prophecies saying that God would be doing those things during the church age. On the contrary, I think other passages imply that He would not be doing the same kinds of miracles any longer (1 Corinthians 13:8, Colossians 2:18, Hebrews 2:3-4). Obviously those "cessationist" proof texts are much disputed, but I'm wondering if the lack of future prophecy about Divine "signs and wonders," coupled with the predictions about demonic "signs and wonders," might corroborate the idea that the only ones occurring during the church age will be counterfeit ones that are the result of either demonic or self deception. And when you study church history, it does seem that most of the movements and individuals who strongly emphasized "signs and wonders" have been theologically heterodox or questionable at best. Remember, please, that I'm not referring here to the many "remarkable providences" that all Christians have experienced, but claims of performing "signs and wonders" just as Christ and the apostles did.

If the Bible does not predict God doing more such "signs and wonders" beyond the New Testament, but repeatedly says counterfeit ones will occur, we should at the very least be extremely careful and even skeptical about those that are reported.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The real meaning of the rainbow

People think of various things when they see a rainbow, but I want to tell you what it really signifies. I chose both those words carefully and purposefully: "really" because regardless of how any movement or ideology might use the rainbow, or how any individual mind might construe it, that won't change the fact that God himself created it and communicated its meaning long ago. And I chose the word "signifies" because God actually calls it a sign of something important we all need to know.

Genesis 9:8-17 tells us that God made a covenant with Noah and all of his descendants, that he would never again destroy the earth by flood. He said, "I set my bow in the cloud, and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth" (v. 13). Notice that God says it is "my" rainbow--it belongs to him, so he has the right to say what it means, and we have a responsibility to recognize and respect that pronouncement. This is like how people today expect others to honor the name they have chosen for their children, or perhaps chosen for themselves (if they change their name)--except our responsibility regarding the rainbow is much stronger because of Divine authority, coming from the one who created us and gives us everything good we have.

What does the rainbow really mean for us? When considered in the context and compared with other Scriptures, it clearly speaks of God's plan of redemption and forgiveness for people who deserve His judgment because of our sins. The reason God won't destroy the earth again by flood is not because the people who survived were good--in fact he clearly says the opposite (Gen. 8:21, 9:20-27). It's because there was a plan to save people from the eternal punishment we all Romans 6:23 says, "The wages of sin is death [in the context a spiritual death], but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

So when you see a rainbow, God wants you to think about Jesus! How he was the best thing that ever happened to this planet, how he was the Son of God who fully revealed the divine nature to us, and how he "died for our sins according to the Scriptures...and rose on the third day" (1 Cor. 15:3-4). And because of the occasion for the inception of this sign, we can't eliminate the idea of the judgment we deserve for disobeying what we know to be right, or ignoring God's law by making up a morality of our own. That's what people were doing before they were destroyed by the flood, and that's what we're still doing today. And I'm not only talking about the kinds of sins that the rainbow has come to represent in our culture...heterosexual immorality is just as bad, and the "spiritual adultery" and "spiritual idolatry" that we all have in our hearts is even worse (James 4:3-10). Just loving and desiring other things more than Christ himself is enough to make us spiritual criminals deserving of judgment (see the first and last of the Ten Commandments).

"All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way"--wandering around blind and endangered on a God-made landscape like the one in the picture above. "But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him"--thankfully the rainbow reminds us that we have a Good Shepherd who has shown the "no greater love" of laying down his life for us! (Isa. 53:4-6, John 10:11-18)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A New Verse for "If" by Rudyard Kipling

I've been inspired by Kipling's classic poem for many years, and today I imagined a fifth verse that he might have written since he passed on to the next life...


If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
And the "newly discovered" fifth verse, sent from the next life...
If you can keep in mind that “Man” is in Adam,
   Until Christ becomes a new one to him;
If you can keep the Divine and human balanced,
    Giving God the glory due Him;
If you can grasp what’s really life and really live it,
   Give up what can’t be kept for what’s been won:
A new heaven and earth, with God’s presence in it,
   Then—most of all—you’ll be His Man, His Son!

Monday, April 13, 2015

"The Israel of God" in Galatians 6:16

“Those who will walk by this rule, peace on them, and mercy, even on the Israel of God.”


Who or what is “Israel”?  Statements by the apostle Paul, such as “not all Israel is Israel” (Rom. 9:6) and “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26), clearly reveal that the question is one that can only be settled by careful exegetical and theological consideration. Simply assuming that Israel is an earthly nation, or a plot of land in the Middle East, does not reflect a thoughtful reading of the Word.

As I understand it, the most fundamental and important meaning of “Israel” in Scripture is God’s covenant people, who were gathered together in an earthly nation throughout most of the Old Testament era, but now are spread throughout the world in the New Covenant kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, the church today is the extension and completion of Old Testament Israel, so that through Christ we receive all the promises made to that ancient people (both now and in the future).

It is beyond the scope of this paper to explain and defend that understanding thoroughly—for that I refer you to O. Palmer Robertson’s excellent book The Israel of God (P&R, 2000), or other books that discuss the distinctions between “dispensationalism” and “covenant theology.” But here I want to address one very specific issue: Is the New Testament church ever called “Israel” in the Bible? I’ve often heard my dispensationalist friends say, “The church is never called ‘Israel.’” I think they’re wrong about that, and if so, it reflects on the bigger theological issues.

It seems to me that the church is called “Israel” in many ways in Scripture, without using that exact term (see the last section of this paper). But I also believe the exact term is used in Galatians 6:16, and the term is actually used for the purpose of affirming the continuity of Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church. So I would like defend the use of the word “Israel” in referring to the church, and the “covenant theology” behind it, by entering into a thorough exegetical discussion of this disputed verse. Hopefully those who take the time to work and think through it will not be too quick to make the statement I mentioned above. And perhaps some may find themselves more open to a greater continuity in God’s plan through the ages.

There are basically two views propounded as to the identity of "the Israel of God" in Galatians 6:16: Either the phrase refers to all believers (both Jews and Gentiles), or it refers to believing Jews only (whether they believe currently or will do so in the future). My conclusion is that Paul was referring to all believers in a manner that would bolster and conclude the argument of the epistle, which is that Gentile believers should not be required to live as ethnic Jews under the Mosaic economy. I will present several arguments for that view, which will include criticisms of the opposing view and answers to some objections.

          Support from the Syntax of the Verse

The case for the "all believers" view begins first with considerations from the syntax of the verse itself, which would be entirely unnatural if Paul referred to a large group ("those who will walk by this rule"‑‑meaning all believing Jews and Gentiles) and then added a reference to a small part of that same group (believing Jews). It would be like saying, "I cheer for the football team and the linebackers," and like that sentence it would be nonsensical unless there was some clear contextual reason to view the word "and" (Gk. kai) as meaning "especially" or otherwise distinguishing the part from the whole. Taking the kai to indicate "especially" is very troublesome, because if Paul wanted to communicate that idea he could have used a very common construction containing the word malista (translated "especially"), which he did in fact use in an almost identical arrangement in Galatians 6:10 (cf. Acts 25:26; 1 Tim. 4:10, 5:8, 5:17; 2 Tim. 4:13; Tit. 1:10; 2 Pet. 2:10). 

If the "especially" connotation is eliminated as unlikely, then the "believing Jews" view is left with a "team and the linebackers" structure defies the normal use of language. One commentator suggests that this kind of wording may be found in Mark 16:7, but admits that he knows of no other possible example. (And even that example in Mark is questionable because  there are other viable explanations for the wording of the verse.) So it seems more likely to me that the connected phrases in Galatians 6:16 are describing the same group of people and the kai is being used in an explicative sense that can be translated "even," "namely," or "that is." Therefore "the Israel of God" is appositional to "those who walk by this rule.” This syntactical construction is not overly prevalent in the New Testament, but it is more common than the awkward one suggested above by most "believing Jews" proponents. Examples of the explicative use of the particle are John 1:16, 1 Cor. 3:5, 8:12, and 15:38.  In those verses the phrase after the kai is not something different from and additional to the phrase before the kai; rather the second is merely restating the first in a different way.

I am aware that some proponents of the "believing Jews" view say that "those who will walk by this rule" is referring only to the Gentiles rather than to all believers. They base this idea on the possibility that the pronoun hosoi takes a definite form rather than an indefinite. But even if it does, the limitations implied in the definite are in need of no other explanation than the one already provided by the words "who will walk by this rule." It is a definite group of people in that it only includes those who are justified by faith alone, but it still includes all who are justified by faith alone, whether Jew or Gentile.

Another item of syntactical support given for the "believing Jews" view is the idea that Paul could have made "the Israel of God" clearly appositional if he would have left out the kai. Thus the last part of the verse would read, "peace and mercy upon them, upon the Israel of God." Because Paul included the kai, the argument goes, he clearly intended to separate "them" and "the Israel of God." The problem with this argument is that the word order in the Greek text reads, "And those who by this rule walk, peace upon them and mercy, kai upon the Israel of God." Since there are no punctuation marks in the Greek text, an ommission of the kai by Paul would have resulted in this meaning: "peace upon them and mercy upon the Israel of God." The only way that Paul could retain the combinational benediction ("peace and mercy" bestowed together) and communicate the appositional sense in this syntax, therefore, was to add the kai as a kind of punctuating conjunction. In modern English we would use a comma: "Peace and mercy upon them, the Israel of God." In ancient Greek Paul needed to use the kai: "peace upon them and mercy, even upon the Israel of God."
Finally, exegetical arguments for the "all believers" view cannot be complete without addressing the strongest support for the opposing view, which is the fact that the Greek preposition epi ("upon") is used in Galatians 6:16 with both groups. Because the verse bestows peace and mercy "upon them and upon the Israel of God," the argument goes, therefore Paul meant to differentiate the two groups. This argument is strong because such a structure is common in New Testament Greek when the writer refers to two separate groups or ideas (e.g. Matt. 27:25; Heb. 8:8), but several considerations render it inconclusive.  First, the New Testament sometimes uses one epi with two separate groups (e.g. Matt. 5:45), indicating that the two syntactical structures are interchangeable and that neither necessarily conveys a distinct emphasis. Second, there is at least one other New Testament occurrence of the preposition appearing twice with two appositional objects (Rom. 10:19; cf. Heb. 10:16), so that construction is not entirely without precedent. And third, if the kai is indeed used in an explicative rather than a copulative sense, then the grammar of the verse is already unusual and we should not expect too much normality in the other features.

          Support from the Immediate Context

Verse 15 also supports the idea that Paul was referring to both Jews and Gentiles as "the Israel of God." That verse says, "Neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation [or creature]." In addition to restating Paul's recurrent theme that ethnic or physical characteristics do not determine whether one is a "son of Abraham" (see next argument), that verse also uses the term "a new creation," which sounds very similar to the term "one new man" in Ephesians 2:15. That may be significant because in the latter verse Paul is explicitly referring to the Jews and Gentiles being consolidated into one people of God. So it is possible that the "new creation" may be referring to "the Israel of God," rather than to the regeneration of individual believers, as it is often understood.  Regardless of the validity of that notion, verse 15 still unmistakably has the concept of "no more ethnic distinctions in the people of God" and fits perfectly with a reference to the Gentiles being included in "the Israel of God."

Also, in verse 15 Paul says, "May it never be that I should boast, except in the cross." Considering the life he lived prior to conversion, described in Philippians 3:2-8, it would be difficult to eliminate the idea of Jewish ethnic pride from his statement.  In other words, Paul is saying (at least in part), "The only thing that distinguishes me from anyone else is the grace of the cross. I would not differentiate myself in any way from a Gentile believer, least of all by upholding a racial distinction that false teachers are using to indicate superiority." So when he applies the term "Israel of God" to Gentiles also in verse 16, Paul makes explicit what has been implicit in his preceding words. The parallels to that passage in Philippians, by the way, are striking:  there the Apostle says to Gentiles as well as Jews, "We are the true circumcision" (v. 3), meaning that a Gentile believer can be said to be "of Israel" just as much as Paul, who was "of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews" (v. 5).

           Support from the Larger Context

The most significant support for the idea that "the Israel of God" includes Gentile believers is a theme that Paul weaves throughout the book of Galatians in his attempt to prove justification by faith. That theme is the inclusion of the Gentiles into the spiritual lineage of Abraham (Gal. 3:7‑9; 3:14; 3:18; 3:26‑29; 4:26‑28; 5:16). Since that lineage is undeniably implied in the word "Israel," Galatians 6:16 is merely reminding the reader about what has been taught throughout the epistle. This answers the objection that there is no other instance in the New Testament where the church is explicitly called "Israel." That may be true, but one can say the same thing with different words. For instance, the phrase "by faith alone" does not appear in the Bible in connection with justification (as Roman Catholic theologians are quick to point out), but we Protestants hold tenaciously to that slogan and support it by saying that the idea is clearly expressed in many passages. Another example would be the term "three in one" (or "trinity"): although those exact words are not used to describe God in the Scriptures, the concept is clearly communicated by the use of other words.  

Similarly, terminology like "sons of Abraham," "blessed with Abraham," "Abraham's seed," and "heirs according to the promise" are simply other ways of expressing the concept that believing Gentiles are a part of the covenant people that has been called Israel (cf. Rom. 9:6‑9; 24‑30; 11:17‑24; Eph. 2:11‑22; Phil. 3:3-5; etc.). Trying to defend the idea that "Abraham's descendants" and "Israel" refer to two different groups, on the other hand, is an exegetical nightmare. (The explanation that "sons of Abraham" merely means "to be like Abraham in some way" falls flat because the other similar terminology mentioned above cannot mean that, and also because the Judaizers and Jewish believers would not understand the phrase that way when they heard it.)

Many of the “believing Jews” proponents say that the word "Israel" must mean ethnic Jews, because the word always refers to the ethnic people in the New Testament. First, I’m not sure that idea even fits with the Old Testament use of the term, because proselytized Gentiles were also considered to be a part of Israel (see Robertson, pp. 184-185). Second, as I mentioned above, there are other ways to say "Israel" than "Israel," and those other similar terms do often speak of a covenant people that includes Gentiles as well. Third, the word "Israel" is indeed used to refer to the “spiritual” people of God, as opposed to the ethnic, in at least one case (Rom. 9:6—and notice that Paul says the same thing in two other ways in the following verses). Fourth, we know the meaning of words primarily from their context rather than from their lexical catalog, though the latter is important to consider. And finally, “covenant theologians” are not overly concerned with this problem, because we do not believe that God intended to continue calling the elect "Israel," but rather that He would give His people a "new name" or "another name" (cf. Isa. 56:5; 62:2; 65:15). This could be a reference to the church, which takes the name of Christ (Matt. 16:18), or it might simply be a way of saying that the constituency of "Israel" would be so different that the name would no longer be appropriate for common use. In other words, there is no reason even in the covenantal scheme that we would frequently find God calling the church "Israel." We would only expect it to happen when there was a specific point to be made, like in Galatians 6:16.

The Judaizers themselves provide the last support that I will mention in this paper. Paul pronounced a curse on them in the beginning of his discussion (1:8‑9), and undoubtedly one of his purposes throughout the book was to directly and specifically confront their error. He even resorted to acid sarcasm at one point in his polemic against them (5:12). Most commentators present the idea that the Judaizers filled their propaganda with references to Jews being "sons of Abraham," and thus Paul attacked their error head on by boldly stating that the believing Gentiles were also "sons of Abraham." Would it not be therefore natural to assume that the Judaizers also ranted about the glories of the ethnic nation of Israel, and that Paul, wanting the Gentile believers to know that they did not need to return to the trappings of that fleshly institution, ended the epistle by reminding them that they themselves are a part of "the Israel of God"? 


In closing I would like to add an observation that does not really serve as a support for my view, but would provide an illustration of its superiority if it is indeed the best interpretation. I read a Master's thesis about this specific issue in Galatians 6:16, in which I thought the author exhibited commendable objectivity and candor in presenting the considerable support for the "all believers" view. It appeared to me, however, that although his careful consideration led him to reject the "believing Jews" theory, he could not bring himself to accept the "all believers" view because of his theological predisposition against covenant theology. Though I would never denigrate such a predisposition (if it was formed by careful study), the alternative conclusion he presents to the two traditional views was shocking to say the least. He ends up claiming that Paul must have been referring to the Judaizers as "The Israel of God," even though the apostle had consigned them to hell at the beginning of the epistle! One wonders which view this man would have embraced if he had not been so afraid of covenant theology.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Es of Entertainment, #7 -- Eliminate Anything You're Not Sure About

This post will be about the seventh and final biblical principle that can be applied to your entertainment choices, to make sure they are pleasing to God and beneficial to you. In the previous posts I've discussed Exalt God, Exercise Biblical Discernment, Expose Evil Rather than Enjoying It, Economize Your Time, Edify Your Brothers and Sisters, and Excise Anything that Tempts You to Sin.  Here is the last of the seven Es...

Eliminate anything you’re not sure about. Romans 14:23 says, “He who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.” This is a warning that no one should act against his or her conscience. It is not spiritually healthy to do so, and it is also displeasing to God.[1] He who doubts that what he doing is right, the Scripture says, is condemned if he does it (“condemned” here means guilty, or sinning). From the context, we know that this statement applies even to activities that are not wrong in themselves, like eating meat that had been offered to idols. Yet we are told that someone who eats meat, or does anything else the Bible does not address, is sinning if he is not sure it is right. How can this be? Well, Paul explains in the second half of the verse: “Because his eating is not from faith: and whatever is not from faith is sin.”

If we think something is wrong to do, and we do it anyway, it is a sin—even if God never said that the activity itself was wrong. This is because our choice has not been made because of faith, but because of some other motive. So it is not the action itself, but the choice, that is displeasing to God. A helpful illustration in the realm of entertainment would be a woman who was taught while growing up, by her parents and her church, that listening to “rock music” is always wrong. That style of music is “of the devil” and “worldly,” the argument goes, and we should not enjoy it even if it has good words, because that would be compromising with the devil and the world. This is a legalistic view that goes beyond Scripture and does not proceed from a sound interpretation of the Word.[2] However, any idea has a certain power when you hear it over and over again from the people you love and respect, especially when you are a child. So the woman in our illustration has been convinced that it is wrong for her to listen to any music with electric guitars and drums.

Now suppose a group of friends from work give her a hit album for her birthday and say they want to hear what she thinks of it when they take her out for dinner the next night. If she decides to listen to the album, while she still thinks it is wrong to do that, she will be sinning, because at that moment something is more important to her than pleasing God. It will not be her faith in Him that motivates her to do it, but her fear of what her friends will think, or perhaps her own curiosity. Should her conscience be realigned, or retrained, so that she could listen to something like that without feeling guilty? Yes, I think it should (see below).  But until that happens, she should not listen to the music, because it will come between her and God if she does. It will damage the most important relationship she has, because when she prays to him she will not be able to pray “in faith,” believing that He hears her. Instead she will be thinking something like this: “I don’t know if I should be doing this—God might be upset with me.”

Your conscience is like a diagnostic program running at all times on a computer. Depending on the information it has been given, it will judge whether you are doing the right thing or the wrong thing.  If it judges that you are doing the wrong thing, it will flash a “warning light” (we call this “feeling guilty.”) That warning light of guilt is very helpful in keeping us from moral crashes, but sometimes a conscience can be overactive on a particular issue, because it has been given wrong information. So like a computer, it can be reprogrammed with different and better information, so that it will not set off an alarm when it is not really necessary. Your ultimate goal should be to have a conscience that is fully informed by Scripture, which will only keep you from doing that which is displeasing to God, and not from good things you have the freedom to enjoy (see Rom. 14:22). 

So your conscience may need to be re-trained on a particular issue or issues, but as long as you think something is wrong, don’t do it. Because if you act against your conscience repeatedly, then you will develop what the Bible calls a “seared conscience” (1 Tim. 4:2, Titus 1:15, Ephesians 4:19). In such a conscience, the warning light has been ignored so often that it no longer flashes anymore, and we find ourselves blind and enslaved to sins that will eventually destroy us. As Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25 say, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”

The old saying, “Let your conscience be your guide,” is not entirely true. Your conscience can be wrong, and may need to be re-trained, as in the case of the women who cannot listen to any “rock” music. But though your conscience should not be your guide in determining the truth, it should be your guard in the sense that it can keep you from wrong paths that lead to destruction. We should never push past this guard, but sometimes we might persuade it through biblical reasoning to move out of the way. On the other hand, we need to be constantly “arming” our conscience with more principles from Scripture, so it can protect us from choices that would hurt us in the end.
This principle of conscience applies to your entertainment choices, as well as all other areas of your life.  If you are wondering whether or not God wants you to watch that movie, listen to that music, read that book, or whatever choice you face, it is better to be safe than sorry. Don’t let an insignificant form of entertainment get in the way of the most significant relationship you will ever have! As Romans 14:17 says, “For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

[1] For more verses about the importance of having a clean conscience, see Acts 23:1 and 24:16, 1 Timothy 1:9, and Hebrews 13:18.

[2] The arguments used against contemporary musical styles can sometimes exhibit award-worthy creativity. Some say that if the rhythm in music is emphasized more than the melody and harmony, it is ungodly. Another argument is that some types of music are acceptable to God because of where the primary beat falls, but others are not acceptable because the primary beat falls somewhere else. These ideas do not arise from the exegesis of Scripture, to say the least, and upon closer inspection are actually inconsistent with Scripture. When we take into account the types of instruments that were used in Old Testament worship, which included tambourines, cymbals, and the guitar-like “lyres” and “lutes” (Psa. 68:24-25, 98:4-6, 149:3, 150:1-6), it is likely that the music of the Jews was quite heavy in the rhythm department. And given the lack of professional composition in most cases, the beat was probably falling all over the place!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Es of Entertainment, #6 -- Excise Anything that Tempts You to Sin

In my previous posts I've discussed five principles, all starting with the letter E, that will help make your entertainment choices EEEasier (get it?).  For the fifth one, Edify Your Brothers and Sisters, I wrote about how we should be careful "not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister," as Paul says in Romans 14:13.  And not only do you need to make sure that you do not tempt others to sin, but you need to excise (“cut out”) any kind of entertainment that will tempt you to sin.  This surgical language comes from the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:29-30:

"If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell.

This  has been called the principle of “radical amputation,” because Jesus is clearly saying that we must sometimes take radical and even painful steps if we want to stop sinning.  In the figurative picture painted by Christ, the excising of the eye and hand will lessen the ability and opportunity to sin, and will serve as a reminder of its consequences, which will make the offender think twice before sinning again.  Likewise, we must make it harder for ourselves to sin, by eliminating opportunities and temptations that we know will lead us astray.[1]

The application of this principle to your entertainment choices should be fairly obvious:  If something that you watch, read, or listen to influences you toward evil in your heart or actions, stay far away from it.  If you find yourself consumed with a particular hobbie, to the point that it has become more important than God, get it out of your life until such a time that you could enjoy it in moderation and propriety.  It is indeed legalistic to say that no Christian should ever enjoy “worldly” forms of entertainment, as we have pointed out, but it is also reasonable to assume that some Christians should avoid some or all of them at certain times in their lives.  This is often the case with young believers, because they have not yet developed the knowledge of Scripture and the skills of discernment necessary to take in most modern entertainment without being negatively influenced by it.   Even though I believe that the teaching of the college I attended was legalistic regarding this issue, in a way I am grateful for the strict rules of the school (no TV, movies, etc.), because they forced me to step away from the modern media for a while, to learn the Word of God, and to look at the whole field of entertainment with a more perceptive and critical eye.[2]  
Romans 13:14 says, “The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand.  Let us therefore lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.”  “Make no provision” comes from a Greek verb that was used, in military parlance, for supplying the front lines in battle.  An army cannot fight and win without provisions, and our flesh cannot prevail against the Spirit unless it has material to work with.  So we need to “cut off the supply lines” to our flesh by avoiding any kind of entertainment that tempts us to sin.  And if you don’t know for sure whether something is spiritually dangerous to you, then you can apply the seventh and final principle, which will the be subject of my next post…

[1] For further consideration of this principle in Matthew 5:29-30, see Jay Adams’ book A Theology of Christian Counseling (Zondervan, 1979), Chapter 16.
[2] This dynamic is one of the reasons that legalism regarding entertainment is so prevalent, especially among young or immature believers.  Many of them probably do need to distance themselves from the entertainment of the world, or build some “fences” in their own life, until they can grow stronger spiritually.  But the problem arises when they transfer their “fences” to everyone else, and accept or promote the teaching that everyone else must live by their standards.  Likewise, the problem with my college was not the strict rules they had for the students (I can see a certain wisdom in that), but the problem was that they taught and implied that the rules were Divine standards equal to the commands of Scripture.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Es of Entertainment, #5 -- Edify Your Brothers and Sisters

Exalt God, Exercise Biblical Discernment, Expose Evil Rather than Enjoying It, Economize Your Time...these are ways I discussed in previous posts that you can honor God and benefit yourself spiritually when it comes to what you do for fun and relaxation.  Here is a fifth E of Entertainment...

Edify Your Brothers and Sisters.  When we consider how we will have fun or be entertained, we should ask ourselves how we can build up others through it, because the Bible says, “Let all things be done for edification” (1 Cor. 14:26; cf. Rom. 15:2).  This principle can be stated negatively as well, in the sense that we should never do anything that causes a brother or sister to sin (Rom. 14:13; 1 Cor. 8:13).   This is especially important in regard to the issue of entertainment, because it is such a matter of the heart, and different hearts respond in different ways to what they see and hear.  For example, you may be able to listen to a certain type of music with a clear conscience, but someone else might experience flashbacks to his sinful past when he hears that music, and be tempted to sin.  So if you crank that music up while he is riding in your car, you could become a stumbling block to your brother.

In Luke 17:1-2 Jesus says, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks should come, but woe to him through whom they come!  It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to stumble.”  The term “little ones” includes all believers, but it has special reference to children, who can be so easily influenced by the schemes of Satan.  And as someone once said, “Where we walk, our children will run.”  If you love the world too much, your children will probably love it with an unholy passion.  If you expose them to too much evil before they have developed sufficient skills of discernment, they will fall under its spell and be spiritually ruined.  So be careful that you do not hurt your brothers or sisters, especially the “little ones,” by the entertainment choices you make.  And the next principle, in my next post, will keep you from hurting yourself...

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Es of Entertainment, #4 -- Economize Your Time

So far in this series of posts, I have discussed the first three of seven principles for a Christian approach to entertainment:  Exalt God, Exercise Biblical Discernment, and Expose Evil Rather than Enjoying It.  Here is another E that will make your choices EEEasier...

Economize Your Time.  Ephesians 5:15-16 says, “Be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.”  Although it may not be sinful for you to watch TV, it certainly would not be wise for you to watch too much of it!  And that applies to any form of “entertainment.”  The modern media is so enthralling and effective at capturing your attention and affection, that you must be “careful how you walk,” lest entertainment becomes more important and time-consuming than the things that really matter.  Movies, TV, and music dominate the lives of so many people today, including Christians, that they do not even have time to think about anything spiritual, let alone to serve and worship God.  Add to those things net-surfing, computer games, sports, and other hobbies, and we have a society so saturated in entertainment that we are drowning in it!  Our souls are so constantly submerged in a sea of pleasure-seeking, that we rarely break the surface to contribute anything useful to the Lord or others.

Satan wants you to waste your time, and he is busy producing various forms of entertainment to help you do just that—in spades.  This is one way that “the days are evil,” and one reason why you must plan and work hard to “make the most of your time.”  That means, first of all, that you should set strict limits on the amount of time and money you spend on entertainment.  That part of your life should be only a footnote, whereas the main page should be filled with hard work, studying the Scriptures, worshipping God, and loving and serving others.  So often those really important things are the footnote, and our pursuit of pleasure is what preoccupies the mind, consumes the energies of the body,  and drains the checkbook.  And so we epitomize the godlessness of the last days, becoming “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:4).

Another application of this principle, however, is that when we do enjoy various forms of entertainment, we should seek to find some “redemptive value” in them.  When we are told to make the most of our time, that includes the time we spend having fun.  So ask yourself, “How can this leisure time be spiritually profitable in some way?”  For example, you could choose to play sports more than watching them, so you will get exercise and build relationships with others for the sake of the gospel.  Another way is to research and find the kind of movies, music, and books that have something interesting and insightful to say about the world that God has made, or even God Himself.  What you observe in that kind of art can make you a better person (when you “take Jesus with you”), and can also help you build bridges to unbelievers, so that you can share the gospel with them.  So before you spend two plus hours watching a movie, or an hour listening to a CD, I challenge you to consider whether or not it will have any redemptive value.  Will you learn something, be inspired in any way to be a better person, or otherwise be able to thank God for those hours (Rom. 14 again)?  If not, why waste that time, when it could be used in a way that is much more profitable?[1]
If a “fun” activity has no redemptive value in itself, then you should find ways to make it more profitable.  An example of this would be a day my sons and I spent recently at an amusement park—something we don’t do very often, but we got the tickets for that day at a significant discount.  So to make the most of our time, we invited another man and his son, who needed some encouragement and discipleship in the faith.  We spent the day growing our friendship with these two brothers, and also talking about spiritual issues when the opportunity arose.    So the day was not just about having fun, although we did do that, but it was also about fulfilling the Great Commission by “making disciples.”[2]  Now this is not to say that it would have been wrong for me to go alone with my sons that day—I could have thanked God for the friendship I was building with them.  But how much more profitable it was for us to have another clearly spiritual purpose for the day, which we could pray about before and after our trip.  And that provides a good transition to the next principle…

[1] I remember renting the movie Pulp Fiction one time, because a Christian friend told me it was his favorite film ever.  I kept waiting for some kind of “redemptive value” to grace the screen, but nothing even came close.  So I vowed that I would never waste two hours of my life watching that movie again, even though it was interesting, in a sick sort of way, and funny at times.  So many movies are like that—they are slick and “well-made” by cinematic standards, but have no profit in them whatsoever.  As someone has pointed out, movie critics and fans are always commenting on whether a movie is made well, but never stop to ask why it was made in the first place!  What’s the point of a movie like that, except to be find amusement in evil and make money for the people who produce it?  Christians should learn to ask that kind of question more often.
[2] Someone once defined discipleship as “a friendship for spiritual purposes,” and I think that is a helpful definition, because it reminds us that we don’t have to be studying the Bible at every moment to be “making disciples.”

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Es of Entertainment, #3 -- Expose Evil Rather Than Enjoying It

Ephesians 5:10 summarizes the first two principles we discussed about a Christian approach to entertainment, Exalt God and Exercise Biblical Discernment, by saying we should be “trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.”  Then verses 11-12 say, “And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret.”  This verse gives us the principle Expose Evil Rather Than Enjoying It. 

God hates sin, and we should too.  Therefore it is wrong for us to enjoy it in any way.  Unfortunately, so much of modern entertainment is designed with that in mind—to make money by appealing to our sinful nature.  This is obviously the purpose of most sexual content, and much of the violence—especially when it is motivated by ungodly revenge and uncontrolled rage, or fixates on the gory details.  But there are other, more subtle ways in which the popular arts appeal to our sinful nature, such as covetousness (beautiful stars, rich characters, exotic locations, etc.) and pride (hero worship, humanistic themes, motivations of self-glory, etc.). 

A specific danger that is worth mentioning along these lines is the “glorification” of evil.  Sometimes the villain is portrayed in such a way that the audience is drawn into his evil behavior, to the point of vicarious enjoyment.  A classic example of this is the movie Batman, in which Jack Nicholson’s Joker has more fun than anyone else (by far), and audiences seemed to appreciate and remember this psychotic murderer much more than any of the “good guys.”  Another example, and a rather surprising one, is a Bibleman episode where the Scripture-quoting hero is basically boring compared to the villain, who gets to star in his own MTV-like music video.  After watching this show, my children could not quote any of the Bible verses, but they were dancing around singing over and over again,  “I am the prince of pride, I got an ego ten miles wide!”  So whether it is Batman or Bibleman, be careful that you do not “participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness” by enjoying sin vicariously.[1]

Perhaps the most prevalent problem with today’s popular art (and some of yesterday’s) is the way it makes light of matters that should be taken seriously.  God and religion are played for laughs, and jokes about sex have almost become synonymous with the concept of “comedy.”  But the Bible is very clear that both of those matters are not to be treated as humorous in any way.  The third commandment, says “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain,” and the hottest hell is reserved for those who mock God (see Psalm 73:8-9, 17-20).  And it may surprise you to learn that Ephesians 5:4‑6 uses similar language in regard to sexuality:

There must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.  For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.

So it is a sin worthy of God’s anger and condemnation to be amused by jokes about Him, and it is equally wrong to laugh at any kind of sexual immorality.  God wants His name to be treated as holy, and marital intimacy to be viewed as sacred, because it was designed as a picture of the relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:31-32).  “That sounds legalistic,” you might think, “to say that we can’t laugh at any 'dirty jokes'!”  But remember that legalism is going beyond what is written, and this is something that is clearly written in the pages of Scripture.  Such things we must obey and teach, even if they contradict the culture around us, or fly in the face of our own accepted practice.
First John 2:15-16 says, “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.”  This passage has often been quoted to support extra-biblical, universal rules of behavior like “don’t go to movies” or “don’t listen to secular music.”  Notice, however, that once again the concern in this passage is a concern about the heart.  John does not say that we cannot watch or listen to anything that comes from “worldly” artists, but he does say we are not to love the lust and pride that is in them, and is often presented by them.  So I can enjoy (and thank God) for the good things about a Shakespearean play, for instance, while making sure that I do not rejoice in any sin that is glorified, or humor that is inappropriate.  I can also “expose the evil” by explaining to my British literature students how and why it is wrong.  And to use another example of classic British literature, I can split my sides with my friends and older children as we enjoy the unique and insightful humor in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, while skipping scenes like the “virgins in the castle” and the cartoon depicting God.  I can “expose” those examples of inappropriate humor by explaining to my family and others why those parts are wrong, and in doing so we can enjoy a spiritual benefit, as well as a good laugh.  We should not watch movies like that too often, however, because of the next principle, which I will discuss in my next post…

[1] Again, this does not mean that it is necessarily wrong to watch Batman, any more than it is wrong to watch Bibleman.  We just need to make sure that our hearts do not rejoice in the evil depicted.