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January 12, 2006

On Tuesday we began a short series on assurance of salvation, a series that was rudely interrupted by my site crashing. I sought to show that, in many ways, contemporary evangelicalism can create an atmosphere in which many who consider themselves may have false assurance of their salvation. A decision-based system of conversion and regeneration has been historically proven to create many who believe they are Christians, yet who show little evidence of conversion. I looked in particular at assurance given to people based on their sincerity such as in an appeal that says “If you just prayed that prayer and meant it with all your heart, then God will know you as one of His own.” Such an appeal is dependent upon at least one human factor: sincerity.

Today I will begin to tie this into assurance of salvation, beginning with three affirmations.

It is possible and even normal for the Christian to experience assurance of salvation.

John MacArthur calls assurance of salvation “the birthright and privilege of every true believer in Christ.” This assurance is not only possible but should be the normal experience for any believer in Christ. Romans 8:16 teaches that assurance of salvation is part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…” Matthew Henry says the following about this verse: “But those that are sanctified have God’s Spirit witnessing with their spirits, which is to be understood not of any immediate extraordinary revelation, but an ordinary work of the Spirit, in and by the means of comfort, speaking peace to the soul. This testimony is always agreeable to the written word, and is therefore always grounded upon sanctification; for the Spirit in the heart cannot contradict the Spirit in the word.” 2 Peter 1:10 goes so far as to command us to pursue this assurance. “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.”

Yet even more clear than these verses is 1 John 5:13. As John wraps up this epistle he reveals his purpose in writing it. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” God has seen fit to provide us an entire book in the Bible that will teach us to know that we have eternal life. Surely, then, we can agree that God intends that we have assurance that we are His children.

Having seen that it is both possible and normal for the Christian to experience assurance of salvation, we now turn to a second point which seems nearly contradictory:

It is possible and even normal for the non-Christian to experience a false assurance of salvation.

A foreshadowing of one of the most terrifying scenes the world will ever experience unfolds in Matthew 7, in a section often titled “I Never Knew You.” “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” When the final judgment comes, there will be many who will be shocked to learn that they are not true believers. They will go to the grave confident that they are saved, but come to the judgment and find that they are to be cast out of Jesus’ presence. This ought to be sobering for all who consider themselves Christians. No wonder that Paul sought confidence in his salvation, declaring in 2 Timothy 1:12 “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.”

It is educational, of course, to look at the grounds for assurance of those who only think they are true believers. We will look at this in more detail in our next article, but for now notice the short phrase, “Did we not…” There is much we can learn from those few short words. Those who have false assurance have placed their hope in themselves and in their own efforts. They appeal to their own work rather than Christ’s.

We’ll now turn to our third affirmation, which should provide great comfort to those who struggle in this area.

It is possible and even normal for Christians to have doubts about their salvation

There is nothing unusual about occasionally doubting one’s salvation. The only thing unusual about doubt would be to experience it and not deal with it, wrestling with it, until it has been quelled by the power of the Spirit. A survey of many of the great believers of our day or of days past would prove that it is common to deal with some level of doubt. This is usually not a consuming doubt that drives a person to constant depression and despair, but a more occasional doubt that can be overcome by the ministry of the Spirit.

Don Whitney lists several important understandings about this type of doubt. First, doubting assurance is not the same as experiencing unbelief. A person can have a strong, vibrant faith in Jesus Christ while still feeling some level of doubt. We must not make doubt and unbelief synonymous terms, lest a person feel that his brief periods of doubt indicate serious unbelief in his heart. Unbelief presupposes a denial of many important points of doctrine where as doubt is mere uncertainty about them. Second, there are many causes of doubt. We can doubt because of the attacks of Satan, because of trials or difficult circumstances, because of sin in our lives or even a mental or physical condition. Doubt is not necessarily brought about by overwhelming sin in our lives. Third, spiritual immaturity may contribute to doubt. With greater maturity comes a greater understanding of God and our position before Him through Jesus’ atoning death. Thus we would generally expect doubts to decrease as a person grows in spiritual maturity. Fourth, sensitivity to sin may cause confusion about assurance. Believers, through their reborn hearts, are blessed with a greater sensitivity to sin. This heightened understanding of the gravity of sin may lead young Christians to doubt. Yet it should be noted that this increased understanding of sin is actually a mark of the Spirit’s work with a person’s heart. Fifth, comparisons with other believers may cloud assurance. Comparing oneself to other believers may emphasize the immaturity of a person’s faith. We must understand that people mature only with great effort and over a great amount of time. It is often unrealistic to compare oneself with a believer who is far more mature. Finally, childhood conversion may affect assurance. A person who was converted as a child may feel that he was deceived when he made the decision. He may feel that his decision is somehow less meaningful because Christianity is all he has ever known.

We see, then, that there are many possible reasons that may lead Christians to lose their assurance of salvation. Some of these are internal factors and some are external. Some of them may, in fact, be given by God Himself to test and sharpen us. So the believer can have confidence that some doubt is common to the Christian life and that, while doubt is a symptom of living in a sinful world, it is not necessarily sinful to struggle with it.

By way of brief review, we have seen that assurance of salvation is possible for the believer, that false assurance of salvation is possible for the unbeliever and that it is normal for Christians, from time to time, to experience doubt about salvation.

We will conclude tomorrow by looking to the basis of true assurance.

January 11, 2006

The End of the SpearMy friend Randy Brandt, who blogs at Contend 4 The Faith, has written a short article speculating on whether or not the producers of the upcoming film The End of the Spear have committed financial suicide with their casting. Let me fill you on the controversy.

But first, here is a brief synopsis of The End of the Spear: “A savage killer from a remote Amazon tribe becomes grandfather to the grandchildren of the North American man he killed. End of the Spear is a dramatic feature film based on the true story of the documentary film Beyond the Gates. The screenplay for End of the Spear was written from the perspective of Mincaye one of the Waodani tribesmen from the spearing raid that killed five North American missionaries.” The missionaries are Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Jim Elliot, Ed McCully and Roger Youderian. This story has previously been told in both books and film. It is a powerful story and one most Christians are glad to see on the big screen. It seems that the film is well-made and faithful to the actual events.

However, as Randy points out, controversy is brewing. “A controversy is growing as the movie’s January 20 release date nears. It revolves around actor Chad Allen, who plays both Nate Saint and Steve Saint in the movie, with the Nate Saint role being a key part of the story.” The actor’s site tells us why this actor might cause some controversy in Christian circles. “Courageously, in the October 9, 2001 issue of The Advocate, Chad came out as a gay man. He also acknowledged past problems with drugs and alcohol. He also has spoken to a number of groups and at events about gay rights issues including taking part in a forum on Larry King Live on the issue of gay marriage.” Allen has spoken at Youth Pride events and has acted in a production called Corpus Christie which is described below:

“The play, set in modern-day Texas, features a hard-drinking gay named Joshua and 12 other gay male characters, most of whom bear the names of Christ’s apostles…

Different from other boys because he is a homosexual, Joshua grows up in isolation and torment, an object of scorn. He flees Corpus Christi in search of a more accepting environment, gathering along the way of a group of disciples who are bound to him by his message of love and tolerance.

According to Time magazine, McNally’s play is “a serious, even reverent retelling of the Christ story in a modern idiom — quite close, in its way, to the original.”

Randy also points to an article which describes his obviously New Age spirituality:

Two years ago, (Allen) co-founded his production company Mythgarden, with Robert Gant and Christopher Racster. “We’re working to bring the next generation of gay and lesbian storytelling to the screen, and we’re really excited about that.” Their upcoming project, Save Me, takes place in an “ex-gay” ministry that’s run by Judith Light, in which Allen and Gant begin a relationship. Also coming up is a project called The Way Out, which they are co-producing with David Duchovny. “It’s the story of two gay men who fall in love in a senior citizens home, and it looks at the issues of elder gay housing. It’s a fantastic love story.”

Allen also stars in the upcoming film End of the Spears, based on the true story of a group of Christian missionaries that make contact with the Waodani, a notoriously violent Ecuadorian tribe. Having grown up in a Roman Catholic family, Allen saw this project as a challenge he wanted to undertake. “There were a lot of people on both sides that weren’t particularly interested in me doing this movie. I am from a Christian background, but I have a personal spirituality that spans the distance from Buddhism to Hindu philosophy to Native American beliefs. That aside, this movie is about the power of love. I knew it was an opportunity to bridge these two disparate communities that are believed to be enemies- the gay and the Christian communities.”

Thus the question is, did the producers of this movie take too great a risk in casting a known homosexual in the role of the Christian hero? Will Christians refuse to watch the movie because of this actor? And further, should Christians support such a film or should they avoid it?

To be honest, my first reaction to this controversy was sheer frustration. Millions of Protestants were only too happy to watch a devout Roman Catholic portraying Jesus in a film written and produced by an even more devout Tridentine Roman Catholic - a film that really did little more than recreate the mass and the stations of the cross. Is it possible that many who were only too glad to watch a Catholic portraying our Lord and were willing to label Mel Gibson a great man of faith, are the same ones who will be protesting a homosexual portray a missionary? Is there not a great inconsistency here? Should we not hold that theology is of foremost importance?

And so, like Randy, I will ask you: Do you intend to see this film? Do you feel that Allen’s involvement in the film will damper your enthusiasm for it? Did the producers of this film fall upon their own spears?

January 10, 2006

King for a Week is an honor I bestow on blogs that I feel are making a valuable contribution to my faith and the faith of other believers. Every week I select a blog, link to it from my site, and add that site’s most recent headlines to the left sidebar of my site. While this is really not much, I do feel that it allows me to give honor where I feel honor is due.

It should come as no great surprise that Phil Johnson’s Pyromaniac would eventually win this award. Phil entered the blogosphere only six or eight months ago, but has already made a significant impact. Always willing to speak his mind, Phil has made a great number of friends (and more than a few enemies). Phil is known in the blogosphere for his love of Charles Spurgeon, his defense of cessationism, his unique style of branding and his constant editing after he has posted an article (something which drives RSS users to distraction).

I have come to deeply respect the Pyromaniac and have benefitted greatly from his foray into the blogosphere. And so, for the next week you will be able to see the most recent headlines from his blog in the sidebar of my site. I hope you will make your way over to the site and look around.

I continue to accept nominations for King of the Week. If you have a site you would like to nominate, feel free to do so by clicking on the “suggest” button below the King of the Week box. Thanks to those of you who nominated this week’s honoree.

January 10, 2006

If I were to ask you, “How do you know that you are a Christian?” how would you respond? Where do you look for your assurance of salvation? Do you look inside yourself? Do you look to the past - perhaps to an act or decision you made? Or do you look outside of yourself? I have written in the past about the doctrine of assurance of salvation, a belief John MacArthur rightly calls “the birthright and privilege of every true believer in Christ.” Today I want to tie it in to another topic that is a concern of mine. I speak of “Decisional Regeneration,” a term that describes much of what we understand by conversion in modern evangelicalism.

Before we turn to decisional regeneration we must first define regeneration. J.I. Packer thoroughly defines regeneration as “…the spiritual change wrought in the heart of man by the Holy Spirit in which his/her inherently sinful nature is changed so that he/she can respond to God in Faith, and live in accordance with His Will (Matt. 19:28; John 3:3,5,7; Titus 3:5). It is an inner re-creating of fallen human nature by the gracious sovereign action of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5-8). This change is ascribed to the Holy Spirit. It originates not with man but with God (John 1:12, 13; 1 John 2:29; 5:1, 4). It extends to the whole nature of man, altering his governing disposition, illuminating his mind, freeing his will, and renewing his nature.” Regeneration, said simply, is the Spirit’s act whereby He gives to man a new nature which frees his will and gives him a disposition towards God. This definition is thoroughly Reformed, and thus thoroughly Biblical.

A survey of Christian doctrine would find three predominant views on when regeneration occurs. Do note that each tradition would have a slightly different definition for the term.

The first is known as baptismal regeneration. The Roman Catholic tradition, as well as that held by Anglican, and Lutheran groups, believe that regeneration occurs at the moment of baptism. When a child is baptized, the Holy Spirit immediately regenerates that person. The Catholic Catechism typifies this view: “Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte ‘a new creature,’ an adopted son of God, who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature,’ member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.” (Pg.354, #1265) This view has been deemed false by the vast majority of Protestants who believe it undermines the plain teaching of the Scriptures.

The second view is that the Holy Spirit regenerates a person at a time of God’s choosing. We could call it “monergistic regeneration” to indicate that it depends solely on God. This regeneration does not depend on man or on any desire or decision on his part. The Spirit moves in the person, giving him a new nature and allowing him the capacity to express faith and a desire to know and trust God. This view is closely associated with Calvinism and the Reformed faith and its high view of God’s sovereignty.

The third view is the one we are concerned with and it emphasizes a decision, hence the term decisional regeneration. This view, quite a late addition to Christianity, was popularized by Charles Finney and is now the majority view in evangelicalism. In this view man has been wooed by the Spirit to the point that is now able to have faith in God and he then expresses that faith in a decision to follow the Lord. When he makes this decision he is immediately regenerated. While the decision is internal, it is often expressed in a prayer, a physical action such as raising a hand or walking to an altar or even in something as simple as marking a decision card.

Jay Adams writes “The great theological difference between modern evangelism and biblical evangelism hinges on this basic question whether true religion is the work of God or of man. At best, the doctrine of ‘Decisional Regeneration’ attributes the new birth partly to man and partly to God.” When God and man cooperate in salvation, it becomes important to appeal to human emotion and desires and to secure a human response to what the Bible tells us is God’s work. We allow man to play the role of God and decide for his own salvation. Man allows the Spirit to enter his heart through an act of decision rather than believing that the Spirit does a work apart from the will of man. Decisional regeneration, then, suppresses the teaching that God alone is active in salvation, in giving life, and that man is utterly helpless apart from Him.

The risk we take in telling people that they have been saved after they have marked a card or raised their hand, is that we know only that they have made some type of decision. This decision may be sincere and well-intentioned, but it does not necessarily indicate that the Spirit has regenerated the person. The legacy of Charles Finney in church history is largely one of failure, of creating masses of people who believed they were Christians, but most of whom showed no evidence. They were assured by their decision which they could always regard as a milestone in their lives, but while they had raised their hand, and no doubt felt sincere when they did so, they had never turned to Christ. Why had they not done this? Because the Spirit had not done any work in them and they were, thus, unregenerate. They had attempted to make themselves believers, a task which can only be done by God. The same problem prevails today. When we tell people that their decision is indicative of their salvation, we may give them false hope. We may give them assurance that is not ours to give. The biblical reality is that God gives salvation to whom He wishes. “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.” (John 5:21)

In the past I have focused on the outward sign of a person’s belief that he or she has been saved, whether this sign be marking a decision card or raising a hand. Recently I have become concerned with another facet of evangelical conversions. While I have struggled with this for some time, a web site I visited yesterday spurred me to write about it. To further my research on a topic I will soon be writing about I was visiting the site raptureletters.com and noted the letter the site contains that exhorts people to turn to the Lord. It climaxes with the following prayer: “Father I admit I am a sinner, and I will turn from my sin and do good. I believe that Jesus was your son and that He came here to die for me so that my sins would be forgiven. I ask you to forgive me and I will repent of my sins. In Jesus name I pray.” The author of the site then writes, “If you just prayed that prayer and meant it with all your heart, then God will know you as one of His own.”

What struck me in that letter, which is quite typical for the content of an evangelical altar call (and, in fact, I have heard many, many similar appeals) is that there is an undeniably clear human requirement for salvation. The prayer will only be effective, we may note, if the person means it with all his heart.

Now while all Protestants affirm, at least in theory, that salvation is wholly an act of God, it must be admitted that in such an appeal for salvation there is added a human requirement: sincerity. And so I return to the question with which I opened this article. When you seek assurance of your salvation, where do you look? Will you take refuge in the sincerity of your prayer? Will you comfort yourself by saying, “I meant it with all my heart”? If you take refuge in your own sincerity or in the passion you felt years ago when you prayed a prayer, you are building your assurance on shakey ground.

I will continue this discussion tomorrow with some suggestions on how we can build assurance on the solid truths of God’s Word.

January 06, 2006

John Piper has just announced to the members of Bethlehem Baptist Church that he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Please pray for him, that God would see fit to heal him and extend his ministry to his family, his local church and to all of us who have so benefitted from his teaching.

Here is the text of the letter that was sent to his church family:

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Dear Bethlehem Family,

I hope this letter will encourage your prayer, strengthen your hope, and minister peace. I am writing with the blessing of the other elders to help you receive the news about my prostate cancer.

At my annual urological exam on Wednesday, December 21, the doctor felt an abnormality in the prostate and suggested a biopsy. He called the next day with the following facts: 1) cancer cells were found in two of the ten samples and the estimate is that perhaps 5% of the gland is affected; 2) my PSA count was 1.6, which is good (below 4 is normal); 3) the Gleason score is 6 (signaling that the cancer is not aggressive). These three facts incline the doctor to think that it is unlikely that the cancer has spread beyond the prostate, and that it is possible with successful treatment to be cancer-free.

Before going with Noel to consult in person with the doctor on December 29 about treatment options, I shared this news with the Bethlehem staff on Tuesday morning, December 27, and with the elders that evening. Both groups prayed over me for healing and for wisdom in the treatment choices that lie before us. These were sweet times before the throne of grace with much-loved colleagues.

All things considered, Noel and I believe that I should pursue the treatment called radical prostatectomy, which means the surgical removal of the prostate. We would ask you to pray that the surgery be completely successful in the removal of all cancer and freedom from possible side effects.

With the approval of the executive staff and elder leadership, we are planning surgery in early February. The recovery time is about three weeks before returning to a slow work pace, and six weeks to be back to all normal activities.

This news has, of course, been good for me. The most dangerous thing in the world is the sin of self-reliance and the stupor of worldliness. The news of cancer has a wonderfully blasting effect on both. I thank God for that. The times with Christ in these days have been unusually sweet.

For example, is there anything greater to hear and believe in the bottom of your heart than this: “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10)?

God has designed this trial for my good and for your good. You can see this in 2 Corinthians 1:9, “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” And in 2 Corinthians 1:4-6, “He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God … If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation.”

So I am praying: “Lord, for your great glory, 1) don’t let me miss any of the sanctifying blessings that you have for me in this experience; 2) don’t let the church miss any of the sanctifying blessings that you have for us in this; 3) grant that the surgery be successful in removing cancer and sparing important nerves; 4) grant that this light and momentary trial would work to spread a passion for your supremacy for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ; 5) may Noel and all close to me be given great peace—and all of this through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever, Amen.” I hope God will lead you to pray in a similar way.

With deep confidence that

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting. The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

1 Corinthians 15:54-57
Pastor John

With Sam Crabtree, Lead Pastor for Life Training
Kenny Stokes, Lead Pastor for Spreading
Tim Johnson, Chairman of the Council of Elders
Ross Anderson, MD, Bethlehem Elder

January 03, 2006

King for a Week is an honor I bestow on blogs that I feel are making a valuable contribution to my faith and the faith of other believers. Every week I select a blog, link to it from my site, and add that site’s most recent headlines to the left sidebar of my site. While this is really not much, I do feel that it allows me to give honor where I feel honor is due.

This week’s King of the Week is Between Two Worlds, which is owned and operated by Justin Taylor. Justin’s site is primarily a listing of news that is of interest to Christians. Justin is also a contributor to the Reformation21 blog.

As I understand it, Justin has about the easiest job in the world. He is listed as the author (or editor) of four books, but has never written more than a chapter for any of them! He merely writes the introduction, has little-known people like J.I. Packer and John Piper write the content, and then puts his own name on the cover. It has to be a great gig! All joking aside, I had the privilege of meeting Justin at last year’s Desiring God National Conference and he and I have become friends through this crazy thing we do called blogging. I have come to see that Justin is the real deal. I admire him and am glad to see him using his talents to further the kingdom.

I continue to accept nominations for King of the Week. If you have a site you would like to nominate, feel free to do so by clicking on the “suggest” button below the King of the Week box. Thanks to those of you who nominated this week’s honoree.

January 03, 2006

I recently posted a review of Dave Swavely’s recent book Who Are You To Judge?, a book which discusses judging and legalism. I recommend that you read the review before you continue with this article. I would like to discuss a particular application of Swavely’s teaching. At one point he discusses gambling and provides the following scenario:

Imagine a man named Bill, who has gambled two times in his life, while on vacation in Atlantic City and Reno. In both cases he did it merely to have fun, and maybe to win enough to pay for his hotel room that night. He took $20 with him to the casino, which is about what he might pay for other vacation fun, like video games or movies. He planned to leave when the $20 was gone, or when his set time limit was up, whichever came first. Both times he quit when his time limit was up, one time leaving with about the same amount of money he started with, and the second time with about $120. In the first case he was thanking God that he had a new experience that was enjoyable, and in the second case he was thanking God that his hotel room was paid for (see Romans 14:6 for why thanking God is important in situations like this).

Following this scenario, Swavely makes the following affirmations:

  • Gambling can be addictive and can ruin someone’s life.
  • It is wrong to lust for money, or even to gamble with money that would otherwise be giving to the Lord.
  • Gambling to earn money to pay bills or debts is an unscriptural approach to finances.
  • He would vote to keep gambling illegal in his state because of the bad effects it has on culture.

Yet even with these affirmations he cannot say that it was necessarily wrong for Bill to enjoy the games he played for a couple of hours. He also feels that he should not judge others who enjoy this type of restrained gambling. Hence a blanket statement that “gambling is wrong” is legalistic. The biblical basis for his argument is that the Bible does not mention gambling even though it clearly existed in the Greco-Roman world. None of the verses people cite against gambling are actually discussing gambling itself, but rather draw inferences about the practice. He believes, then, that a discussion of gambling must boil down to the motives of the participant. “I believe that wanting to get rich is a sin, because the Bible says so, and therefore anyone who gambles with the goal and desire of getting rich is sinning. The sin is not the act of gambling, however, but the attitude of the heart. And it is simply not correct to assume that everyone who gambles does so out of a desire to get rich.”

Swavely points out, correctly I believe, the absurdity of taking arguments against gambling too far. There are some who feel that card-playing of any type is sinful because cards lead to gambling (in which case my grandmother committed a grave sin when she taught me how to play “Go fish!”). This is the same type of person who may argue that dancing ought to be forbidden solely on the basis that dancing leads to lust and then to sexual sin (or, as the joke goes against Southern Baptists, sex ought to be forbidden because it leads to dancing). All humans, and not just Christians, tend to build “fences” around certain activities that they deem sinful in order to keep people from even approaching a particular sin. We see clear examples of this in Scripture where the Pharisees created ridiculous rules in order to protect themselves from violating any of the ten commandments. The great irony, of course, is that the rules they created were themselves violations of the very heart of the commandments. We can be guilty of the same sin.

Here are some of the things the Bible says about money that may be applicable to gambling:

  • All I have belongs to God (“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).
  • The normal means of gaining money is through work (“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands” - Ephesians 4:28).
  • It is better to earn money than to gain it quickly (“Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it” - Proverbs 13:11).
  • Covetousness and greed are wrong (“You shall not covet…” - Exodus 20:17).

Swavely would teach that a Christian can abide by these principles and still participate in gambling. He may be right. But one area that Swavely does not deal with, that I feel is important, is that gambling is always done at the expense of someone else. Casinos make vast amounts of money. Of course any business tries to make money, but casinos do so without delivering much in the way of a product or service and they deliberately prey upon people and their finances. Casinos exist to enrich a few at the expense of many and if they were not succeeding admirably, they would not continue to exist! While Bill may be a responsible gambler, the money he “earns” from his two hours of fun may just have come from a person who played the slots with his last $20 in an attempt to earn enough to buy food for his family, something Swavely says the Bible forbids. It may have come from a compulsive gambler who is ruining his life and his relationships with his family. In other words, gambling does not happen in a void. Most Christians would not accept money from the lottery, even if they found a ticket rather than purchased it, because the money is considered tainted. I believe we might have to say the same is true of money dispensed from a casino.

An article published by a Presbyterian denomination states there are three reasons that people gamble: dissatisfaction, depression and despair. While these may all be valid some of the time, there are some people who gamble just for fun. They are not dissatisfied with their finances, and are not depressed or filled with despair. While some people may enjoy a game of Monopoly or Sorry, others may enjoy playing Poker or Blackjack. Thus a person may desire to gamble from pure motives. In such a case I am not convinced that gambling is wrong. It is more difficult to say that it would be wrong for Bill and some friends to gather in his basement to play poker together, each bringing $20. Is this a worse way of spending money than, for example, going to a movie or even going out for dinner at a steak house? Are they violating any scriptural principles? If this is not an unscriptural way of spending time and if these men are not violating any biblical principles, we have no right to judge them, do we?

What do you think?

December 31, 2005

Brokeback Mountain is becoming a hit film. Opening in limited release in select markets, it has generated a lot of buzz and seems primed to become even more popular as it opens in more theatres.

Here is a description of the movie (copyright Focus Features):

From Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ang Lee comes an epic American love story, based on the short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx and adapted for the screen by the team of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Set against the sweeping vistas of Wyoming and Texas, the film tells the story of two young men – a ranch-hand and a rodeo cowboy – who meet in the summer of 1963, and unexpectedly forge a lifelong connection, one whose complications, joys and tragedies provide a testament to the endurance and power of love. Early one morning in Signal, Wyoming, Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet while lining up for employment with local rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid). The world which Ennis and Jack have been born into is at once changing rapidly and yet scarcely evolving. Both young men seem certain of their set places in the heartland – obtaining steady work, marrying and raising a family – and yet hunger for something beyond what they can articulate. When Aguirre dispatches them to work as sheepherders up on the majestic Brokeback Mountain, they gravitate towards camaraderie and then a deeper intimacy. At summer’s end, the two must come down from Brokeback and part ways. Remaining in Wyoming, Ennis weds his sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams), with whom he will have two daughters as he ekes out a living. Jack, in Texas, catches the eye of a rodeo queen Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway). Their courtship and marriage result in a son, as well as jobs in her father’s business. Four years pass. One day, Alma brings Ennis a postcard from Jack, who is en route to visit Wyoming. Ennis waits expectantly for his friend, and when Jack at last arrives, in just one moment it is clear that the passage of time has only strengthened the men’s attachment. In the years that follow, Ennis and Jack struggle to keep their secret bond alive. They meet up several times annually. Even when they are apart, they face the eternal questions of fidelity, commitment and trust. Ultimately, the one constant in their lives is a force of nature – love.

Rotten Tomatoes, a site that collects movie reviews, provides the following brief synopsis: “A beautifully epic Western, Brokeback Mountain’s gay love story is embued with heartbreaking universality, helped by the moving performances of Ledger and Gyllenhaal.”

Here is a second, significantly different (and more honest) description of the movie as provided by WorldNetDaily editor David Kupelian. Note the difference between a summary provided by a Christian as compared to a secular publication.

In Brokeback Mountain, a film adaptation of the 1997 New Yorker short story by Annie Proulx, two 19-year-old ranchers named Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) have been hired to guard sheep on a rugged mountain in 1963 Wyoming. One night, the bitter cold drives Ennis into Jack’s tent so they can keep each other warm. As they lie there, suddenly and almost without warning, these two young men – both of whom later insist they’re not “queer” – jump out of the sack and awkwardly and violently engage in anal sex.

Too embarrassed the next morning even to talk about it, Ennis and Jack dismiss their sexual encounter as a “one-shot deal” and part company at the end of the sheepherding job. Ennis marries his fiancée Alma (Michelle Williams, Ledger’s real-life girlfriend) while Jack marries female rodeo rider and prom queen Lureen (Anne Hathaway). Each family has children.

Four years later, Jack sends Ennis a postcard saying he’s coming to town for a visit. When the moment finally arrives, Ennis, barely able to contain his anticipation, rushes outside to meet Jack and the two men passionately embrace and kiss. Ennis’s wife sadly witnesses everything through the screen door. (Since this is one of the film’s sadder moments, I wasn’t quite sure why the audience in the Portland, Oregon, theater burst out in laughter at Alma’s heartbreaking realization.)

From that point on, over the next two decades Ennis and Jack take off together on periodic “fishing trips” at Brokeback Mountain, where no fishing actually takes place. During these adulterous homosexual affairs, Jack suggests they buy a ranch where the two can live happily ever after, presumably abandoning their wives and children. Ennis, however, is afraid, haunted by a traumatic childhood memory: It seems his father had tried to inoculate him against homosexuality by taking him to see the brutalized, castrated, dead body of a rancher who had lived together with another man – until murderous, bigoted neighbors committed the gruesome hate crime.

Eventually, life with Ennis becomes intolerable and Alma divorces him, while Lureen, absorbed with the family business, only suspects Jack’s secret as they drift further and further apart. When, toward the end of the story, Jack dies in a freak accident (his wife tells Ennis a tire blew up while Jack was changing it, propelling the hubcap into his face and killing him), Ennis wonders whether Jack actually met the same brutal fate as the castrated “gay” cowboy of his youth.

Ultimately, Ennis ends up alone, with nothing, living in a small, secluded trailer, having lost both his family and his homosexual partner. He’s comforted only by his most precious possession – Jack’s shirt – which he pitifully embraces, almost in a slow dance, his aching loneliness masterfully projected into the audience via the film’s artistry.

Kupelian shows that this film is pro-homosexual propaganda aimed at advancing an unbiblical agenda. “Lost in all of this, however, are towering, life-and-death realities concerning sex and morality and the sanctity of marriage and the preciousness of children and the direction of our civilization itself. So please, you moviemakers, how about easing off that tight camera shot of Ennis’s suffering and doing a slow pan over the massive wreckage all around him? What about the years of silent anguish and loneliness Alma stoically endures for the sake of keeping her family together, or the terrible betrayal, suffering and tears of the children, bereft of a father? None of this merits more than a brief acknowledgment in Brokeback Mountain.”

This film has taken the image of the cowboy, a figure still revered by Americans, and used it to advance a lifestyle that is forbidden by Scripture and harmful to society. “The result is a brazen propaganda vehicle designed to replace the reservations most Americans still have toward homosexuality with powerful feelings of sympathy, guilt over past “homophobia” – and ultimately the complete and utter acceptance of homosexuality as equivalent in every way to heterosexuality.”

Kupelian’s article is well-written and convicting. I highly recommend that you read it.

December 30, 2005

Earlier this week Canadians received news of the 78th murder of the year in Toronto, our nation’s biggest city. Of these 78 victims, 52 have been killed by gunfire, a rather tragic record for the city. The victim of this murder was a 15-year old tenth grade student who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jane Creba was with her mother and older sister on Yonge Street, within a busy shopping district lined with stores, and was enjoying Boxing Day sales when gunfire erupted. Two rival gangs shot at each other despite the crowds. Creba was killed and six other bystanders were injured.

For some reason this crime has impacted Canadians in a way others have not. I have often lamented that pretty, white (and usually blonde) girls receive the most media attention following killings or abductions and this may or may not have led to more significant media coverage for this shooting. It may also be the meaninglessness of a crime in which a girl was killed who had nothing to do with the dispute. Or maybe it is simply that any one of us could have been the victim of that crime as most Torontonians find themselves wandering Yonge Street at some point in the year. This type of crime is largely foreign to Canada, though it seems violence of this type is becoming increasingly common.

Canadian politicians are outraged by this crime. Strangely, many of them have pointed the blame at the United States of America. Toronto’s mayor, David Miller, says this crime is “a sign that the lack of gun laws in the United States is allowing guns to flood across the border that are literally being used to kill people in the streets of Toronto.” He also said that “The U.S. is exporting its problem of violence to the streets of Toronto.”

It is interesting that this violence happens during a federal election campaign. Paul Martin, Canada’s Prime Minister, whose government has just been ousted in a non-confidence vote, recently declared that, if re-elected, his party will ban handguns. “What we saw yesterday is a stark reminder of the challenge that governments, police forces and communities face to ensure that Canadian cities do not descend into the kind of rampant gun violence we have seen elsewhere.” Of course the Liberal Party’s move is really meaningless. The verbiage of the proposal is as follows: “Banning handguns through an amendment to the criminal code that would invite provinces and territories to participate to make the ban national… Legitimate target shooters who meet requirements would be eligible for an exemption to the handgun ban.” Canada already has a ban on guns except for legitimate target shooters, security guards and ‘collectors’. In other words, this is empty, political verbiage and there would be no real change.

CNN, in an article about the Canadian reaction to this shooting quotes John Thompson, a security analyst with the Toronto-based Mackenzie Institute. He says “the number of guns smuggled from the United States is a problem, but that Canada has a gang problem — not a gun problem — and that Canada should stop pointing the finger at the United States. ‘It’s a cop out. It’s an easy way of looking at one symptom rather than addressing a whole disease.’” And that is exactly the case. Canadians have long felt a sense of superiority when contemplating violence south of the border. I think, though, that we have lost our innocence.

I find it interesting that Canadian politicians are blaming America for allowing guns to enter Canada. Yet ultimately it is a nation’s responsibility to keep out what it deems to be forbidden. Two days ago I crossed the border from the United States into Canada after spending a week in Atlanta. As I approached the Canada Customs kiosk at the border I am quite sure I saw the border guard put down a newspaper. She looked bored and more than a little grumpy. She said, “How long were you gone?” I replied, “One week.” She then said, “How much are you bringing back with you.” I told her “six hundred dollars.” She said, “You’re okay,” indicating that we were free to go. And we drove off. We answered two questions, showed no identification and did not undergo any type of inspection. Now don’t get me wrong: I know that the border guards cannot take the time to search every vehicle that passes from the United States in Canada. I also know that as a white male with two children and a pregnant wife I am probably considered fairly low risk for whatever it is they might try to intercept at the border. But two questions?

Following a previous visit to America we approached a border crossing late one night. The border guard was sitting with his feet propped up on a desk, leaning well back in a chair and reading a novel. As we approached the kiosk he slid the window open without putting down his book and said, “How long were you out.” I said, “Four days.” He said, “Value of the stuff” (by which I assume he meant “stuff” we had purchased or received as gifts). I said, “two hundred dollars.” He nodded and slid the window closed. I could have had my car stuffed from floor to ceiling with handguns!

Just yesterday my wife remarked that it seems the primary responsibility of a Canadian border guard has more to do with collecting revenue for goods purchased abroad than it is with stopping forbidden goods from entering the country. I wonder if that might just be the case.

Hal Lindsey (yes, that Hal Lindsey) wrote an article for WorldNetDaily where he imagines what Paul Martin might have said when he met with Condi Rice in October and brought his concern to her attention. “Madame Secretary, Canadians are breaking Canadian smuggling laws and we are powerless to prevent it. What does the United States propose to do to solve our border inspection problems?” And indeed, why should Canada blame the United States for something that is clearly our problem?

Lindsey hits the mark when he says, “The problem isn’t guns. It is people who are unwilling to admit responsibility for a problem. So instead of fixing the problem, they attack the symptom. Canada chose to assign responsibility for its social ills to an inanimate object. Failing in that effort, they are now trying to assign responsibility for their social ills to the United States.”

Guns are not the problem. It is the people that cause the problems. Casting blame is as old as evil itself. We need only look to the first book of the Bible to see evidence of this. “The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’” He blames her and she blames the snake. All the while they deny their own responsibility. And that is exactly what Canada’s politicians are doing. Rather than facing the true issues, issues of the heart of man, they consign the blame to something, anything else.

As a Canadian I am ashamed of the reaction of these politicians and even more ashamed that they would seek to leverage the tragic, senseless death of a young girl for political gain. Paul Martin and David Miller do not speak for me on this issue.

December 21, 2005

Every believer carries a measure of the guilt for Jesus’ death. If it were not for our willful disobedience to God’s perfect Law, we would have no need of a Savior. We acknowledge in song that it was our hands that drove the spikes into His’ and sometimes speak about driving the nails into Jesus’ hands every time we sin. We speak figuratively, of course, knowing that although we were not present at the time of His death, we bear the guilt of providing the need for His death.

In the Bible we are given a brief glimpse of a man who was present while Jesus was nailed to the tree. This man was a Roman centurion, a commander over 100 soldiers of the Roman army. We know little about the man except that he was probably a hardened solider and commanded a detachment of what were most likely Syrian-born soldiers. He had, in all likelihood, presided over the crucifixion of hundreds or even thousands of men and must have become hardened to the agony these men endured.

It is likely that this man was present from the time Jesus was brought before Pilate right until the Lord’s body was lowered from the cross and given to Joseph of Arimathea. He may even have been present with the detachment of soldiers that aided in Jesus’ arrest the night before His crucifixion. This man would have accompanied Jesus from the time the Jewish leaders brought him to the Praetorium. He would have ordered his men to beat Him, caring little for who He was, knowing Him only to be another in a long line of people he was commanded to execute. He would have been nearby when his men dressed Jesus in a robe, pressed a crown of thorns onto His head and walked Him to Golgotha. He would have given the order to proceed with the crucifixion.

The centurion is mentioned in three of the four gospel accounts. He is mentioned not for his cruelty, ruthlessness or ability as a soldier. He is mentioned for something far more important, for a marvelous transformation that occurred immediately after the death of one of his prisoners.

Having seen so many crucifixions, the centurion knew what to expect from prisoners. Most people who were sentenced to be crucified were criminals, brigands, thieves and murderers. He had heard countless men scream in agony while being whipped and plead for their lives before Pilate. From their crosses he had heard them shout curses to men below and blasphemies to God above. The behavior of the thieves on either side of Jesus was all too common, as they mocked and ridiculed Jesus as he hung between them.

Perhaps it was during this time that the centurion began to notice that there was something different about Jesus. Where most men cursed and swore, Jesus, as His hands were nailed to the wood, cried out for God to forgive those who were causing His suffering. Or maybe He noticed the tender mercy in Jesus’ voice when He spoke to the penitent thief beside Him, promising that the same day he would be with Jesus in paradise. Perhaps he was amazed that during such suffering Jesus could look down at His mother and ensure that her future was secure by telling John to take care of her. Certainly the three hours of darkness that accompanied Jesus’ suffering would have marked this as an execution unlike any other.

We can only guess when the centurion began to realize that perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus was exactly who He claimed to be. What we do know is exactly when He knew with full certainty.

Just before He died, Jesus cried out “It is finished.” Immediately after that He said “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” At that very moment Jesus died. At that same moment a violent earthquake shook the land with such ferocity that rocks were split. Matthew tells us “when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!” Luke expands on this saying “when the centurion saw what had happened, he glorified God, saying, “Certainly this was a righteous Man!”

And just like that, the man who presided over Jesus’ execution, the man who ordered the nails to be driven into His hands and feet, became the first person to become a believer after Jesus’ death.

What an awesome, exciting testament this is to God’s divine grace! God was willing and eager to save one of those primarily responsible for the murder of His Son. A man who watched Jesus be scourged, who watched his soldiers mock and abuse Him and who probably enjoyed every minute of it, suddenly cries out in terror, realizing that He has killed an innocent man. His cry of terror is also an expression of faith as he confesses his new-found knowledge that Jesus was the Son of God.

I am certain that this story served as a great encouragement to many people in the early church. Though many of them carried the guilt for having killed the Lord, the realization that God could save even those who held the nails, would have proven that He is a God of love and forgiveness. It would have reassured them that, like this centurion, they could gain God’s favor through Jesus’ sacrifice.

This centurion’s miraculous conversion continues to serve as an encouragement today. Just as we share the centurion’s guilt for driving the nails into Jesus, so we can share the victory He won that day. As with this soldier who lived and died almost 2000 years ago, we need only have faith to believe that “truly this was the Son of God” and we, too, can be forgiven for the part we played in this terrible, unjust execution.

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