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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.]

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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. 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), 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.