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Monday, June 7, 2021

Reformers before the Reformers (yes, true biblical faith existed in the Middle Ages)

I made an amazing discovery tonight as I was looking for biblical statements made during the Middle Ages to be included in a list of historical documents that contain the system of doctrine for a new non-profit ministry I'm working on. 

I already had included early church statements like 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 (55 AD) and the Apostles' Creed (300-400 AD) and later Reformation statements like the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Westminster Confession (1646), but I was hoping to find something medieval that captured a biblical worldview consistent with the Scriptures. The difficulty with finding such written statements, of course, is that the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church (and the Orthodox churches in the latter half of the Middle Ages) controlled what was published and preserved during that time and did not allow anything to endure that contradicted their corrupted dogma.

But my search led me to a fascinating list of beliefs held by the Waldensians, a movement that started in the 1100s in France, spread throughout Europe in the following centuries, and was eventually enveloped into the the Protestant movement at the time of the Reformation.

What's so fascinating about this particular list is that it's probably very accurate historically, unlike a lot of what is written about the Waldensians. Everyone wants to claim them as forbears, from Mennonites to Anabaptists to Seventh Day Adventists to feminists and more, so accounts tend to be prejudiced and shaped according to each writer's point of view. But this list comes from a Roman Catholic scholar who does not agree with anything the Waldensians believed and is highly skeptical of most accounts coming from those who do. So he probably got pretty close to the truth with his list.

Before I tell you what's on the list, here's a footnote from the article documenting what I just said, so you can see that I haven't made it up: "Pius Melia, D.D., The Origin, Persecutions, and Doctrines of the Waldenses, pp. 101-129. This section of Melia's book.... not only cites several original Waldensian and inquisitorial documents for each point in the original and in translation, but in addition, each doctrine mentioned is answered from the Roman Catholic point of view."

So what did the Waldensians believe? Well, Melia's list (with the article author's additions) reads like a doctrinal statement of affirmations and denials that Reformational Christians today would be proud to have written. Here it is:

The Church of God has failed.

The Holy Scriptures alone are sufficient to guide men to Salvation.

The blessings and consecrations practiced in the Church do not confer any particular sanctity upon the things or persons blessed or consecrated.

Catholic priests have no authority; and the Pope of Rome is the chief of all heresiarchs.

Everyone has the right to preach publicly the word of God.

Every oath is a mortal sin.

Purgatory is a dream, an invention of the sixth century.

The indulgences of the Church are an invention of covetous Priests.

There is no obligation to fast, nor to keep any holy day, Sunday excepted.

The invocation of Saints cannot be admitted.

Every honor given in the Church to the holy images of paintings, and to the relics of Saints is to be abolished.

To this list, he adds doctrines that belong to the period between the Hussite revolt and the Lutheran Revolution:

Auricular Confession [to priests in a confessional booth] is useless, and. . .it is enough to confess our sins to God.

The definition of the church is, "the whole of the elect from the beginning of the world to its end." and that regarding ministries, "the holy Catholic Church is the congregation of all ministers and people obeying the Divine will, and by obedience united."

It is necessary to receive the Eucharist under two kinds. [everyone should take both the bread and the wine.]

To these I [the author of the article] would add, 

The church and the state should remain as separate authorities.

The Eucharist is to be viewed as a memorial, not as a sacrifice.

Wow... How about that? There's an amazing confluence between those persecuted medieval believers and many of us today! I myself would agree with almost everything on those lists, with a few exceptions where I think the ideas are overstated, which is typical and understandable among groups who are being exiled and killed for their faith - they tend to radicalize to one degree or another when they're so violently cut off from the institutional church and become reactionary against those who are persecuting them.

So I would include this Waldensian "doctrinal statement" as an example of one that contains the system of theology (though not all the specific points, of course) that has been believed by all true Christians throughout the history of the church. I hope you've found it interesting and encouraging!

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Spirit and truth in worship (and social media)

I posted the vlog below this past week and after I did, God brought an interesting insight to mind as I was thinking about John 4:21-24, where Jesus says this to the Samaritan woman (in answer to her question about whether to worship in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritans worshipped):

"The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."

There are many applications of Jesus' words here, especially when we realize that "worship" biblically is not only referring to corporate worship when believers gather to sing, pray, learn from the Word, etc., but also to what we do the rest of the week as well. And that would certainly include what we do on social media (that should be worship for God just as much as church is).

The application of Jesus' words to our social media practices, I think, are very similar to what I'm saying in the video below, and what Jesus says in the passage I discuss there (Matthew 6:1:5):

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.... And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.

Notice (from the italicized words) that the wrong motives are what ruined the otherwise good practices of the hypocrites in Jesus' day. And that is what can ruin our social media practices today, even if they are otherwise good ones - or, in other words, even if our posts on social media are true, our motives can be wrong and thus make them displeasing to God (and harmful to ourselves and others).

The "truth" part of "spirit and truth" in John 4 is probably intended for the Samaritan woman and others who might say, "It doesn't matter if what I'm doing is biblical as long as I love God (or my motives are good)." The "spirit" part, however, is probably more for the Jews who so often did the right things for the wrong reasons. And that was somewhat new to me - I usually think of "spirit" as referring to our inner engagement or passion in corporate worship. But when we take into account the historical context I just mentioned, it seems more likely to me now that Jesus was referring to the motives we have for everything we do in life.

So when we post something on social media, Jesus would say that we should examine what we do carefully to make sure that we are being truthful according to His Word, but also that we are being motivated rightly in our hearts. 

For more on this, check out my "In the Light" vlog at (1) Social Media Pharisees? - YouTube :

Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Real Zombie Apocalypse

I've never been much for zombie movies; in fact, I can count on one hand those I've seen (and none of them completely): parts of the original Dawn of the Dead (turned it off after I started to get sick to my stomach from seeing people - though loosely defined, I know - eating the organs of other people); an edited version of 28 Days Later (because it was on sale and I was interested in the director and the post-apocalyptic London); the non-subtitled Korean version of Train to Busan (that's right - I didn't understand anything they were saying, but it wasn't hard to figure out what was going on); and now, just recently, I watched some of The Girl With All the Gifts (fast-forwarding a lot after the grossness started, just to see what would happen to the characters).

I guess I should add that I tried two episodes of The Walking Dead once (mostly out of curiosity, because there was so much buzz about it). I found the over-frequent gory deaths of the zombies disturbing to begin with, but then was really turned off when that kind of pornographic violence was perpetrated by "the good guys" on live humans as well.

I'm sure I'll lose many of you who like this kind of "entertainment" (if I haven't already) by saying that I don't understand the appeal of such over-the-top gore, unless it taps into some primeval feature of sinful human nature that doesn't exist in me (I have many vices, but that doesn't happen to be one of them...yet). I'd like to know how Christians can possibly justify watching that sort of thing over and over again, let alone enjoying it. But I'm only referring to the gory killing when I say that... while I was perusing The Girl With All the Gifts (which I do not recommend, by the way), I thought of another possible appeal of zombie movies that led me to some real-life reflections.

I think our interest is captured and adrenaline starts surging when the protagonists in these stories are up against seemingly insurmountable odds (something that other kinds of stories make good use of as well, of course - The Matrix and Lord of the Rings come to mind). The hordes of flesh-eating attackers are nearly impossible to escape, and even more to the point, the real human survivors are almost always a tiny minority compared to the walking dead.

This also may tap into a deep knowledge inside our hearts, because it actually happens in the real world of humanity (in the spiritual realm)! Do you realize that? Ephesians 2:1-3 describes the state of "the world" (meaning all the people who have not been "born again" by the Spirit, as Jesus says in John 3): "You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind."

God says that most of the people on this planet are dead yet walking around - the walking dead! Spiritual zombies. They are not in their right minds but under the control of something like a contagious fungus (as in The Girl With All the Gifts, or whatever other explanation might be offered) - or, in this case, someone: "the prince of the power of the air" (Satan and demons, who are very much like the machines and agents in The Matrix or Sauron and the Ring in Lord of the Rings). Like the zombies of lore, those who have not yet been spiritually awakened are dominated by their selfish desires and fleshly passions (much like a passion for flesh-eating) - more like animals than the way humans were meant to live (with a higher purpose and a heavenly mindset). In the real world, those who have been regenerated ("born again") are as different from others as the living humans are from the zombies in those made-up stories.

I remember noticing that sad dynamic in my father when I lived alone with him for a number of years while I was a teen (my parents were divorced). I had been spiritually awakened through learning the Bible at a Christian school, and so in my immature, halting way I wanted to know more about spiritual issues, talk about them, etc., but he had no such interest whatsoever. He just wanted to do his crosswords, drink his Manhattans, watch baseball, date his girlfriend, and play his horns on the weekend (he was a clarinet and sax pro). The difference between us was so obvious that I actually wondered at times if he was really human, because my human experience included an inescapable concern for God, or at least an inescapable knowledge that He was concerned for me. But nothing like that existed in my dad.

That spiritual deadness continued until the last few weeks of his life, when he found out that he was going to die from terminal lung cancer and asked me if I would teach him what I had learned about the Bible. As I did, I saw his spiritual eyes opening and his heart warming to the truth of the gospel. He said things that would have never come out of his lips before, like "I've wasted my life; I wish I would have lived for God instead of myself" and "I deserve to go to hell, and I know I can only be saved by the mercy of Christ who died for me." It was amazing to see this transformation, and I had no doubt that he had been made alive by the Spirit of God for the first time - a spiritual zombie changed into the kind of human that God had originally designed us to be, just in time to meet his Maker. (Kind of like what happens in Warm Bodies, a zombie movie I forgot to mention that was very different from the others, though I still did feel queasy during some parts.)  

Notice that Ephesians 2 also mentions "this world" and "the rest of mankind." There you have, in reference to the reality we live in, the additional dynamic where some of us "survivors" (those "still living") are a small minority compared to the waves of spiritually dead people surrounding us. In fact, such spiritual zombies control most of the institutions in "this world," from government to business to entertainment and so on. So we have to band together and somehow stand against all the forces that are trying to destroy us spiritually in this post-apocalyptic setting (post-Fall, that is: the Fall was a world-ruining apocalypse if there ever was one). 

For all of you who have been exposed to zombie stories (and any of you who like them, if you're still with me), perhaps seeing the parallels between the imagined world of those stories and the real world we live in will motivate you to be a hero who is willing to be different and fight against the tide of unbiblical influences and ideas that attack us. They are so prevalent that they can seem to be right, but are really just a product of a world that has been ruined and minds that are enslaved to selfish desires, which feel good at the moment of satisfaction but in the end turn out to be merely myopic and destructive. 

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:).