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December 21, 2009

Not too long ago I received an email from Luke Muehlhauser who blogs at Common Sense Atheism. He introduced himself as “a former Christian who now writes one of the most popular atheism blogs on the ‘net,” and asked if I would be interested in a brief exchange of letters. This is not the first time I’ve been asked if I would be interested in such a thing and always I’ve said, “no.” But this time I was somewhat intrigued, and especially so after Luke sent through his first missive. We have agreed to write three letters each, simply interacting about what we believe, what we don’t believe, and how we got here. I hope you will find the results interesting.

You can read Luke’s first letter to me, here.

And now, here is my response.


Dear Luke,

I thank you for your letter of December 15, 2009. It was interesting to read of your early days as a believer and your gradual conversion to atheism. The civility you’ve shown in this communication and ones before it have given me confidence that we can enjoy some effective back-and-forth, not always a given when a Christian and an atheist write to one another. Thank you for offering me the opportunity to respond to you.

I feel that if this series of communications is to be at all effective, we are going to have to be both careful and charitable with our premises. In your opening letter you provide a long series of statements that together effectively say, “All thinking people acknowledge that the foundations of the Christian faith are complete nonsense.” You state each of these as accepted fact of the kind that no intelligent person could possibly deny. You offer no proof for any of them, but simply list them as a long series of unfounded statements. You say:

  • that what the church had taught you about Jesus was untrue or gravely misleading.
  • that even the most conservative scholars agree that many of the New Testament letters are forgeries.
  • that the books of the New Testament are written by very different authors (a point no Christian would dispute) who have very different theologies (a point that, at the very least, requires great nuance).
  • that the gospels contradict each other all over the place.
  • that if there is any consensus about Jesus it is that he is a failed apocalyptic prophet who was convinced that the world would end in his generation.
  • that the religion of Jesus is completely different than the religion of Paul. The unmistakable conclusion is that the religion of anyone who has had their theology formed by the writings of Paul (and, presumably, the other New Testament writers) is not Christ’s Christianity at all.

Thus, only half way through your first letter, we have (presented as accepted and indisputable fact) gospels that are nonsense because they constantly and fatally contradict one another and letters that are nonsense because they are nothing more than the inventions of later religious zealots. In other words, we have no Christian faith, at least for anyone who has any ability to think for himself. So where does this leave me?

In one short paragraph you have gone from personal narrative describing your own “deconversion,” to providing a long string of statements that must immediately put me on the defensive. If all of the statements you made were true, or, at least, if I believed they were true, I would have deconverted long ago. If all of the premises you’ve listed are true and accepted as fact by any thinking person, I would have to be either hopelessly naive or terribly stupid to be a Christian. Surely you see how such statements are fallacious. You and I both know that we can appeal to scholars and experts and consensus as a means of offering proof for any statement we care to make. If these communications are to be useful, we will need to refrain from such sweeping and antagonistic statements. Otherwise we will have one side cheering, the other side jeering, and neither side learning very much about the other. If these letters are to contain civil discourse, we’ll both need to be willing to affirm that the other is intelligent and rational and has chosen his path based on the thoughtful weighing of evidence. This is true for me and, from what I’ve read on your blog, it is true of you.

Another brief point before I continue. I do not wish to cede to you the term “deconversion.” After all, if you deconverted from Christianity, I could as easily say that I deconverted from atheism (or functional agnosticism, perhaps) when I became a Christian. In either case there is the assumption of certain beliefs and premises and the letting go of others. I propose one of two things: either we both stick only to “conversion” or we each use both terms however we see fit.

My Story
You asked for the story of my faith journey, so here goes. It begins much like your own, with being raised in a Christian home. I was raised by parents who had recently deconverted and become Christians. I was raised to know the Bible, to know Christian theology and to understand that theology is more than beliefs; it is beliefs that call for action. When I was fifteen or sixteen I had something of a crisis of faith (as do so many other young people who are raised within a religious tradition). As I began to foresee my life apart from my parents, I realized that I had to think about my Christian faith to determine if it was something that I truly believed or whether it was merely something foisted upon me by my parents—something akin to family traditions or genetic traits. Was my faith like my nose, an unfortunate byproduct of being born a Challies? Or was it a gift, something that I could truly embrace? It was in this time of searching that I came to accept the Christian faith as more than tradition but as truth. I’ve often since described this as “making the faith of my parents my own.” I was no longer simply an obedient child honoring his parents by going to church and going through the motions of religion, but a committed follower of Jesus Christ who would follow him even if my parents turned away. I cannot point you to an exact moment in time when I became a Christian, but I do know that I am one today and that I have been one for almost twenty years now. For this growing desire to determine whether I was truly following Christ and for this undeniable need to follow him, I give thanks to God.

I have never seriously doubted the claims of the Bible—that God is the creator of the world, that we humans are a sinful bunch who have committed an act of cosmic treason against this Creator by rejecting him, that Christ came into this world to offer hope to sinners, that he died and rose again, and that simply by placing our faith in him we can be forgiven for our sin and can be granted the gift of eternal life. The more I come to understand the Bible and the more I come to understand life, the more I see that the Bible is startlingly accurate in its description of the way the world works, the way life works. God has given us the Bible as an amazing and a unique resource. Some people see the Bible as a collection of tales or as a book of moral fables. I understand it as a lens like the lenses in a pair of glasses. It is a means God gives us by which we can see the world through his eyes. We see him as he wishes for us to see him; we see ourselves much more clearly than we otherwise could; we see the past, the present and the future in ways we could otherwise never understand. We see the broad picture of who God is and what he is accomplishing through the world. And when I look at the world through that lens, through the lens of the Bible, I do not see pointless suffering; I do not see contradictions (though I’ll grant you a few apparent absurdities); I do not see malicious design; I am horrified by hell but when looking at my sin and God’s holiness cannot deny its necessity. In all things I see a God who has a purpose and who is carefully and sovereignly carrying it out. I know atheists are prone to portray Christians as unthinking (trust me, I’ve read Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris and others), people who have made up their minds and have subjugated intellect to emotion, but I would like to believe this is not true of me. I have studied the world, I’ve studied my own heart, and I’ve seen that the Bible truly does get it right. At the very least I can’t deny that it gets right its description of me.

Who I Am
Many Christians have come to realize that if we are to understand anything of the Christian faith we need to begin in one of two places, with what we know to be true of God or with what we know to be true of humans. In my life I’ve known myself better than I’ve known God and so I’ve started with what is true of myself. And one thing that is most basically true of me is that I am not a good person—not all the time, anyway, and certainly not nearly often enough. No matter how we wish to define morality, I am not a moral person. Not consistently, anyway. Some of my earliest memories in life are memories of deliberately and joyfully hurting other people. I’m 33 years old now and, as much as I hate to admit it, I still have plenty of moral failings. I still hurt people, and often I hurt the people I love most and who love me most. I often place myself first when I should be thinking foremost of others. And those are just the things I do. Were we to catalog the things I think and desire, those crimes of the mind and heart, we would need a lot of time and a lot of paper to even begin to quantify and catalog them. Always I have known of this lack of morality within me, this desire to harm instead of help, to take instead of give. It is the Bible that has given me the words to describe it. The Bible calls it sin. It is no small thing to say, “I am a sinner.” But it is the start of a great journey, for an admission of sin is an admission of moral culpability.

Before I sign off from this first letter, I would like to give you something to chew on—a description of yourself from the Bible. Do allow me to be candid here. I say these things not to be arrogant or insensitive, but merely to frame things in biblical language (a habit I try to emphasize in my own life). I am not ashamed of how the Bible describes you and feel it would be a useful piece of background information. You have mentioned your dissatisfaction with philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God. And, indeed, you and I could undoubtedly argue such things from now until Christ returns (or the world ends) and such arguments become moot. As far as the Bible is concerned, though, God’s existence is self-evident. The Bible expends little effort in defending the existence of God because God takes the view that his existence needs no proof beyond the very fact that we are, that the world exists. Other evidences exist, to be certain, but they are less important and less obvious than the evidence we already have available to us. We call this “common grace”—grace common to each of us that ought to be sufficient to convince us of God’e existence.

The Bible often uses the word “fool” to describe a person who either denies God’s existence or admits it but refuses to submit his life to him. “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God,” wrote a poet several thousand years ago (see Psalm 14). That is the Bible’s position. God, through the Bible, calls you a fool, Luke. This is not a judgment on your intelligence (you may be a very intelligent fool); rather, it is a moral judgment. In the book of Romans it says, “For what can be known about God is plain to them [those who deny the God of the Bible], because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” The biblical position is that you are without excuse before God for your denial of him. You have no right to plead ignorance. From the world around you, you are able to know that God exists and that he is powerful. And so in most cases all those long, philosophical proofs for God’s existence are not all that important. And that, I suppose, is why the Bible does not expend time making most of them. In denying that God exists you are willfully, deliberately closing your eyes and your mind to the greatest evidence he has given you. You have chosen to be a fool. That is what the Bible says.

You asked me to ask you some questions. So here is one I’ve got. I began thinking about this after reading Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem, a book in which he describes his conversion from Christianity to agnosticism. In the book he shares a few of the things he misses most about being a professed Christian. Most notably, he misses being able to give thanks. He realizes what a great life he leads, what a “blessed” life he leads, and feels like he owes gratitude to something. And yet there is no one to whom he can give thanks. This leaves a void in his life and one he regrets. “I have such a fantastic life,” he says, “that I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for it; I am fortunate beyond words. But I don’t have anyone to express my gratitude to. This is a void deep inside me, a void of wanting someone to thank, and I don’t see any plausible way of filling it.” I admire Ehrman for this admission because I am sure there is always the temptation to deny that he has lost anything with all he feels he has gained by leaving faith behind. After reading those words—poignant and honest words—I began to wonder how other atheists who have turned from the Christian faith have dealt with the loss of God. What have you lost? Who do you thank?

Thanks again for the opportunity to discuss such things.


December 12, 2009

One of the things I enjoy about blogging is that a blog is, in a sense, a living media. It is a reflection of my life, of what I am thinking of at a certain time or in a certain place. Occasionally I go back and read something I wrote years ago and post it again, offering new reflections on it or even just leaving it as-is. Such is the case today as I began thinking about an amazing (and seasonal) word. This one was first posted about 18 months ago.


For the past few weeks I’ve been transfixed by a word. That may sound a little bit strange but it is exactly what’s happened. It keeps coming to mind and I keep pondering it, trying to gain a sense of its meaning. Though the word appears just three times in Scripture, twice in Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming of Christ and once in Matthew in the fulfillment of that prophecy, it’s a word we have all used and a word whose meaning most of us know. Our children read about it every Christmas and our pastors mention it in their Christmas sermons. That word is Immanuel. God with us. God is with us.

I sense there is a lot to this word and to the truth behind it that I’ve never thought about before and I know that there must be great application to my own life. I hope to spend more time studying it and discerning how God wants me to live based on the awesome fact that “God is with us.” But even now as I’ve meditated upon this word I’ve been profoundly moved. How can we ever exhaust the wonder of God, the One who created the heavens and the earth, taking on human flesh? And even then, how can we but marvel that He did not come in the form of a great and mighty warrior, but in the form of a tiny, helpless baby. God in flesh; God in human flesh. Like every baby before and since He entered this world through pain and agony, sweat and blood. Though He was the power that had created the world, He depended upon His mother’s breast for physical sustenance. Though He upheld the creation by the Word of His power, He needed His parents to protect and nurture Him as a helpless infant.

What mind could conceive of a God who would walk this world and be so misunderstood? Why would God come to earth only to have almost everyone He encountered ignore His divinity? How could people see God and not understand?

Yesterday my pastor preached on John 8, one of two chapters dealing with Jesus’ time at the Feast of Booths. Here, as in so many passages of the gospels, we see people trying to figure out who this person is. They accuse Him of being a Samaritan and of being possessed by Satan: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” They wonder how He could claim to know Abraham: “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” They ask if He is going to commit suicide: “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” They are utterly bewildered, blinded by their own ignorance and their own hatred of all that is good and true. Before them stood “God is with us” and all they saw was a wicked and perverse man who blasphemed their faith.

As Jesus’ ministry continued, people continued to seek but not find His identity. Even as He stood trial the questions continued. “Are you the King of the Jews?” asked Pilate, and then “So you are a king?” Pilate was incredulous, unable to understand who this man was. Even His beloved disciples wondered and wavered.

As I sat in church yesterday and pondered the mystery of so many who were unable to see that God was with them, standing before them, I was struck by the fact that this will not always be so. Jesus came to earth incognito, announced only to a group of shepherds as they tended their flocks in the night. Suddenly the dark night was disturbed and God’s glory shone all around. An angel announced the birth of Jesus and immediately a host of angels poured forth their praise at the wonder of it all. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” To so many others, though, Jesus appeared just as a man, walking the dusty roads of Israel. No angels foretold His coming; no trumpets blew as He approached. Even today, Jesus is present with us through the Word of God. He is quietly but powerfully present there, though just as when most people looked at Jesus and saw only man and not God, today most people look at the Bible and see words but not Word.

But this will not always be. God gives us today, He gives us now, to understand who Jesus is and to humble ourselves before Him. He tells us that today is the day we need to put our faith in this God who came as man. When Jesus returns to earth, He will not come incognito. He will come with all of the power and the glory and the honor that are rightly His. When He returns to earth, there will be no mistaking who He is. When He comes again, every knee will bow before Him and every tongue will confess that He is Lord. And God will be glorified in every one of us. There will be no mistaking who He is.

December 09, 2009

Today I want to share the long-awaited news about my next book. I write what I do here because I really want this process to be as transparent as possible. I would not be writing books if it were not for you—the visitor to this web site. I feel that I owe it to you to share with you what I’m up to.

It has been almost two years since the release of my first book The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. Writing the book was an unforgettable experience and it was very encouraging and gratifying to see that it was generally well-received. I’m often asked how well it has sold. To be honest, I don’t know. Twice a year I receive statements that include sales figures. The trouble is that I’m not so good with numbers and I really don’t know how to read the reports. I do know that the book has gone through several printings. Beyond that, I’m pretty much clueless. But I have received a great deal of encouraging feedback and am pleased with both the book and the way it was received. I am thankful for Crossway’s partnership as its publisher.

Since I wrote The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment I’ve often been asked the obvious question: what next? That’s a good question, of course. I have deliberately been biding my time. I’ve been in no real hurry to jump into my next project. A few ideas have come and gone, but none have been intriguing or original enough that I’ve wanted to dedicate a year of my life to them. The commitment to a certain topic is really a commitment to spend at least six months reading and writing about it and then a further six months (at minimum) doing interviews about it, speaking about it, preaching about it, and so on. The last thing I wanted to do was find a topic that would bore me and leave me dreading it.

Earlier last year I got myself an agent. I did so primarily because it makes me feel cool (you can command instant respect in any situation by having your phone ring and declaring to the room, “Sorry, I need to take this. It’s my agent.”). But also I knew that a good agent would be invaluable in helping me discover new ideas and in crafting those ideas into worthwhile books. I had several agents who had expressed interest in representing me but eventually settled on Andrew Wolgemuth (who from this point forward will be known as Agent Andrew). Andrew and I first connected during spring training and as long-suffering fans of bad teams (he’s a Royals fan and I’m a Jays fan) we shared an instant bond (which has since been strained by Zach Greinke winning the Cy Young). A few months ago Agent Andrew and I began crafting book proposals and, when we were happy with the results, he sent them off to a list of several publishers.

That led to five publishers sending offers to me. With Agent Andrew I drew up a list of criteria for evaluating them. There were many factors we could have considered: financial (what were they willing to pay and what royalty were they offering?), marketing (how much effort would they put into marketing the book? Did they have a plan for the marketing?), audience (who reads the books from this publisher?) and even physical (hardcover or paperback?). It was remarkably difficult to choose. It was a case of an abundance of riches—each of the proposals had real strengths and very few had glaring weaknesses. But in the end I had to make a decision. And I did. More on that in just one moment.

First, let me tell you about the book. The book’s working title is The Next Story. I’m really pleased with the title, but it does have a downside in that it is remarkably difficult to pronounce (try saying it out loud). It is a book about technology in general and digital technology in particular. Even the least technical among us are being pressed from all sides by technology. Like it or not, we rely upon it in unprecedented ways. Many people feel that they are analog creatures in a digital world. Christians are beginning to awaken to this reality and are trying to think critically and biblically about many new realities brought about by technological developments. Yet, there are few helpful and sympathetic voices for those who wish to do so but have no idea how. I’m hoping to fill this gap, creating a book that will help Christians think well about technology. I do not intend to discuss Facebook and Twitter and whatever will be big and popular next month. I want to discuss technology in the bigger picture so that the book will be applicable today, tomorrow and ten years from now.

If all goes well, the book will be published in hardcover in the spring of 2011. And it will be published by Zondervan. I’m guessing that this will be a surprise to a few people. Frankly, it is a bit of a surprise to me. But in the end it was clear that Zondervan had the best all-around offer, from the financial, to the marketing, to the audience. Zondervan will take the book to a whole new audience, I’m convinced, and will work hard to help me find interesting speaking opportunities. They put together a fantastic proposal and I had no hesitations in signing on with them.

I intend to begin the writing process very early in the new year. While I won’t quite be able to do so on a full-time basis, I do hope that I can spend most of my time on it for at least a couple of months. That should give me a very good start, at the very least. I hope to have the book completed within six months or so. It typically takes 9 months or so from a book to go from manuscript to print and that brings us to early 2011—the earliest date I’m likely to actually have a copy of the book in my hands.

I expect that I will be talking about the book a lot more in the months to come. I will occasionally ask you for help (mostly in your prayer support, I’m sure) and will let you know how things are progressing. I know there is a great deal of collective wisdom represented by the readers of this site and I hope to take full advantage. I also hope to do a few family and technology seminars next year—so let me know if your church or conference would be interested in hosting one. I have found the previous seminars I’ve led amazing opportunities to both teach and learn. Beginning next month I’ll be turning my attention to technology and theology and the convergence of the two. I can’t wait.

December 07, 2009

Every year, sometime in December, I begin to think about all the books I read that year, trying to determine which ones I liked the best and always wondering just how many I actually read. Every year I’m disappointed to find that I haven’t kept very good records so I really do not know how many books passed through my hands (my estimate this year would be between 100 and 150). Fortunately, because I review many of the books I read, I can at least generate a list of favorites.

Note that these are my favorite books. That is an admission that this is a subjective list of the books that I most enjoyed this year, not the books that were necessarily objectively best or most important (though hopefully there is some degree of correlation). Also, I’ve only included Christian books here. Except for the final book, the one I’ve determined is my absolute favorite, these come in no particular order.

November 29, 2009

If I ever attain any meaningful level of success in this bizarre, online world, I’m quite sure I’ll owe it all to LeechBlock. It’s a little tool I found about six months ago and I can say without a trace of exaggeration that it changed my life. There was a time that I was unable to keep myself from wasting vast amounts of time on the internet. Often it was subconscious; I would suddenly become aware that I had stopped working and started surfing. I had inadvertently left behind what I had been doing and was checking in at Facebook or Twitter or any one of these other time-sucking distractions. Thanks to LeechBlock, those days are over.

LeechBlock is an add-on for Firefox (which is the most commonly-used web browser after Internet Explorer and one that is superior to it in almost every way). Firefox allows anybody to create extensions for their browser—extensions that will in some way extend and expand its functionality. LeechBlock is just such a tool. It is the brainchild of James Anderson who just happens to be an assistant professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte.

The premise is simple. It is meant to be an external form of self-control for those of us who do not have sufficient self-control in and of ourselves. Here is what James says about it: “LeechBlock is a simple productivity tool: an extension for the Firefox web browser designed to block those time-wasting sites that can suck the life out of your working day. (You know: the ones that rhyme with ‘Blue Cube’, ‘Pie Face’, ‘Space Hook’, ‘Hash Pot’, ‘Sticky Media’, and the like.) All you need to do is specify which sites to block and when to block them.”

It is not meant to replace tools that offer parental controls and will not keep you from stumbling across nasty sites on the Net. That is not its purpose. What it will do, though, is allow you to compile a list of the sites that suck away the minutes and hours of your day and choose the times during which you will be blocked from those sites. So in my case I listed Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader, Drudge Report and others like them and set the program to block these from 9 to noon and 1 to 5. That gives me a window to check in while I eat my lunch but otherwise I have no access to these sites during the working day. And that has proven a huge blessing.

I learned two things. First, I learned that I spent far more time on these sites than I would have thought. Or, perhaps more properly, I learned that I visited them many more times every day than I would have imagined. The amount of times LeechBlock had to intervene and scold me was both shocking and humiliating. Second, I learned that these sites really were sucking my time away from me. As soon as I installed LeechBlock it was like I added a couple of hours to my day. Not only did my productivity increase but so did my spirit. I had known that I was wasting vast amounts of time but had not had the self-control to stop myself; I found it very depressing and carried it like a great burden. It was a great relief to me to find that self-control, even if it took a Firefox add-on to do so.

One of the great features of LeechBlock is it allows you to create a custom message that appears when you attempt to visit one of the sites you’ve blocked. In my case I made one that reminded me of the value of time. You can see it here (though I shrank it a bit here—if you want it, let me know and I’ll email it to you):


Now I know that not everyone needs a tool like this one. But I can testify that there are others who do and I am among them. I’ve recommended LeechBlock to friends and they’ve told me how much they’ve benefited from it as well. So I’m not alone! If you are in need of an external source of self-control, consider it. It may just change your life too. You can learn more about it and download it here.

November 25, 2009

Last week saw the release of The Manhattan Declaration, a document crafted by Chuck Colson, Robert George and Timothy George and signed by a long list of Evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox leaders. I have not been able to gauge the interest in the Declaration or whether it has had an immediate impact. But I have seen a bit of buzz about it through the Christian blogosphere. Today I want to address it, even if only briefly.

Here is a brief description of the document:

Christians, when they have lived up to the highest ideals of their faith, have defended the weak and vulnerable and worked tirelessly to protect and strengthen vital institutions of civil society, beginning with the family.

We are Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians who have united at this hour to reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good, and to call upon our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in defending them. These truths are:

1. the sanctity of human life
2. the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
3. the rights of conscience and religious liberty.

Inasmuch as these truths are foundational to human dignity and the well-being of society, they are inviolable and non-negotiable. Because they are increasingly under assault from powerful forces in our culture, we are compelled today to speak out forcefully in their defense, and to commit ourselves to honoring them fully no matter what pressures are brought upon us and our institutions to abandon or compromise them. We make this commitment not as partisans of any political group but as followers of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

It is, then, a declaration on these crucial issues of the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage and the sanctity of religious liberty. Among the more notable signatories, at least to readers of this site, is Dr. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Unfortunately a portion of The Manhattan Declaration site is down now so I cannot refer to the list of signatories to reference other names.

Some Evangelicals have chosen to decline signing the Declaration on the basis that it is a joint statement by Evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox leaders. I am among those whose conscience will not give me freedom to add my name to the 100,000+ who have already signed.

Rather than write a lengthy defense of my refusal, I thought I would direct you to some useful articles.

John MacArthur offers this explanation as to why he will not sign. “It assumes from the start that all signatories are fellow Christians whose only differences have to do with the fact that they represent distinct ‘communities.’ Points of disagreement are tacitly acknowledged but are described as ‘historic lines of ecclesial differences’ rather than fundamental conflicts of doctrine and conviction with regard to the gospel and the question of which teachings are essential to authentic Christianity. … [It would] relegate the very essence of gospel truth to the level of a secondary issue. That is the wrong way—perhaps the very worst way—for evangelicals to address the moral and political crises of our time.”

James White writes “There is no question that all believers need to think seriously about the issues raised by this declaration. But what is the only solution to these issues? Is the solution to be found in presenting a unified front that implicitly says ‘the gospel does not unite us, but that is not important enough to divide us’? I do not think so. What is the only power given to the church to change hearts and minds? United political power? Or the gospel that is trampled under foot by every Roman Catholic priest when he ‘re-presents’ the sacrifice of Christ upon the Roman altar, pretending to be a priest, an ‘alter Christus’? Am I glad when a Roman clergyman calls abortion murder? Of course. But it exhibits a real confusion, and not a small amount of cowardice, it seems, to stop identifying the man’s false gospel and false teaching simply because you are glad to have a few more on the ‘right’ side of a vitally important social issue.”

Frank Turk also declines, saying “It assumes a big tent for the definition of what it means to be a ‘believer’, assumes that law is greater than grace in reforming the hearts of men, and provides moral reasoning that those who are unbelievers have no reason to accept — because they are unbelievers. And in making these three items “especially troubling” in the ‘whole scope of Christian moral concern’, it overlooks that the key solution to these moral concerns is the renovation of the human heart by supernatural means established by the death and resurrection of Christ.”

To varying degrees I agree with each of these critiques though on the whole my thoughts line up mostly closely with John MacArthur’s. In my view, this line says it all: “Going back to the earliest days of the church, Christians have refused to compromise their proclamation of the gospel.” It is good to speak of the gospel, but what does the term mean if used by Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox? Each has their own understanding of the term—the term that stands at the very heart of the faith. I just cannot see past this issue.

I see that there is much more to lose than to gain in joining together across these denominational boundaries. I would not and could not sign it.

October 23, 2009

If you were one of the four million people to read the bestselling book Freakonomics, you will pretty well know what to expect from the long-awaited sequel SuperFreakonomics. It has five chapters, each of which stands on its own and each of which ties varied economic data into some kind of a cohesive whole. It is just as interesting as its predecessor and sticks very closely to the formula that made the first book such an unlikely hit.

The first chapter is titled “How Is a Street Prostitute Like a Department-Store Santa?” and this chapter is a lengthy look at the economics of prostitution. The authors draw out all kinds of interesting conclusions about prostitution and especially about how prostitution has changed over the years. For example, they show that the wages for prostitutes have fallen drastically over the past hundred years. The reason is pure economics and goes back to the law of competition. “Who poses the greatest competition to a prostitute? Simple: any woman who is willing to have sex with a man for free. It is no secret that sexual mores have evolved substantially in recent decades. The phrase ‘casual sex’ didn’t exist a century ago (to say nothing of ‘friends with benefits’). Sex outside of marriage was much harder to come by and carried significantly higher penalties than it does today.” In other words, in decades past women held closely to their virginity and were unlikely to give it away to anyone but their husbands. Today a man has, in the words of the authors, “a much greater supply of unpaid sex.” According to the laws of supply and demand, prices must then fall. In our generation only 5% of men lose their virginity to a prostitute; in days past it ran as high as 20%. Today more than 70% of men have sex before marriage; in days past it was just 33%. Premarital sex has proven a free substitute for prostitution. Once the domain of the professional (at one time one in every fifty American women in their twenties was a prostitute!) premarital sex is now the realm of any woman. This has driven down wages through a strange but sad kind of free market force. I guess this gives us something to think about the next time we hear about the falling levels of prostitution. Though we rejoice when prostitutes find another line of work, it does not necessarily mean that we have cured one of society’s ills. It may point to changing market forces based in turn on declining morality.

There was something else in this chapter that gave me a lot to think about. In their research the authors found that certain sexual acts have always commanded a premium; some are more costly than others. That is no surprise. Acts that are taboo in society are going to cost more than acts that are considered “normal.” What is interesting, though, is to see that this is a moving standard. As society has become increasingly sexualized, acts that were once taboo are now considered bland or boring. What once commanded a premium is now considered barely worth thinking about. This got me thinking about sin and about the very nature of sin. Have you ever had one of those moments where you found that sin was suddenly taking charge of you? If you think about it I’m sure you can come up with a moment when you realized that it was no longer you who was in charge, but sin. Sin had taken over; sin was taking the lead and you were just following along. It is a terrifying place to be! Sin always wants more, always demands more. It is progressive, beginning with something small but always demanding more and greater. Give it an inch and it will take a mile. The economics of prostitution shows the progressive nature of sin. Just in a brief look at rates and wages we can see how society has changed as women have become more willing to give their bodies away and as the vulgar and invasive and degrading has become mainstream.

This book illustrates why I love reading and why I always seek to read widely. I rarely regret reading Christian books and have benefited from such books immeasurably. But I would be impoverishing myself, I think, if I were to read only Christian books. Here in a book that is not in any way “Christian” I found all sorts of interesting facts, interesting ideas, that I can grapple with. They are issues that I can think about within my Christian worldview and use them to uncover great truths about people and about the God who created them.

October 21, 2009

Last night was one of those nights where the kids kept me up for pretty much the whole thing. This morning I tried to do some writing but my brain was still clearly lying in bed. Therefore I am going to post something I wrote a couple of years ago; it is a topic that has been in my mind a good bit lately and I hope you can benefit from it.

It’s no secret around here that I love the book of Proverbs and consider it my “home page” in the Bible. I read through Proverbs at least once a year and, whenever I’m not sure what else to read, I turn to it. And while I love Proverbs and envy the wisdom of Solomon I find something really sobering about his life. Whenever I consider Solomon, I am faced with the question of how a man of such great wisdom and discernment could end his life so far from the Lord. How did such a wise man become so foolish? How did such a discerning man stray so far? If Solomon was the most discerning man who ever lived (besides Jesus, of course), and discernment is the application of wisdom, then how do we account for his spiritual digression? How can a truly discerning man be disobedient? How did Solomon, who was so wise and so discerning, end up so far from the Lord?

Solomon’s wisdom is unparalleled by any other human. The Bible tells us that the Queen of Sheba once came to Solomon, having heard of his great wisdom, and “told him all that was on her mind.” There was nothing she asked that he could not answer, for “Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her.” We know that “God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all other men…” In the history of mankind, there was no one like Solomon. He was extraordinarily gifted by God.

“Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.” He was richly blessed, with wealth and power beyond measure. “He had 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horsemen, whom he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem. And the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah. And Solomon’s import of horses was from Egypt and Kue, and the king’s traders received them from Kue at a price. A chariot could be imported from Egypt for 600 shekels of silver and a horse for 150, and so through the king’s traders they were exported to all the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Syria.”

When the Queen of Sheba witnessed Solomon’s wisdom and gazed at all his wealth, the Bible tells us that there was no more breath in her. She was completely overwhelmed. I have felt the same as I’ve read about his life and have read his proverbs. The man’s wisdom and discernment is clearly unsurpassed among men. And yet there is more to the story.

It is always a shock to turn to the tenth chapter of 1 Kings and to read about Solomon’s downfall. It is awful to hear how a man with such wisdom strayed so far from God. “Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, ‘You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.’ Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart.” I find the next verse instructive. “For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father.” His wives turned away his heart so that it was not wholly true to the Lord his God. Solomon’s heart was at first divided between women and God, but it soon turned away altogether. He allowed the lust of his heart to overcome and overwhelm his love for God.

This is sobering, is it not? A man with the wisdom of Solomon, a man who had had the Lord appear to him twice and who had heard the Lord directly command him not to turn after other gods, turned away nonetheless. Though he was a wise man, the Lord told him “you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you.” How could this happen?

Ironically, I believe that we can find the key to Solomon’s downfall in one of his own proverbs. In Proverbs 19:27 we read “Cease to hear instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge.” There are some proverbs that are multi-layered and which require great thought. This is not that kind. That meaning of this one is plain. Those who cease to listen to wise instruction, instruction based on the fear of the Lord, will quickly stray. While we cannot know for certain, I am increasingly convinced that this is what happened to Solomon. While he was young, he was visited by God and was endowed with great wisdom and discernment. When he was only a young man, but still a king, he called out to God in what seems to be a healthy apprehension of the difficulties he would face as king:

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant David my father, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you. And you have kept for him this great and steadfast love and have given him a son to sit on his throne this day. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”

God was pleased with Solomon’s request, replying “I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.” Solomon knew his weakness and, in humility, cried out to God and asked for His strength. As a little child cries to his father for help Solomon cried out in dependence on God. God was pleased to hear, pleased to answer, and pleased to give to Solomon far more than he asked. Solomon asked for discernment, but was also given great wisdom, great wealth, and great power. God lavished gifts upon him.

But as Solomon grew older, he began to depend less on God. I believe he began to depend on his own wisdom and to stray ever-further from God’s instruction. Where there was once humble dependence on God, there was now dependence on himself. In so doing, he strayed from words of knowledge, and strayed from God Himself. John Anderson once preached a sermon in which he said, “Erring from the words of knowledge is direct rebellion against the authority of God, whose law binds us to believe whatever he reveals. The language of obstinate error is, I prefer my own wisdom and my own will in such a particular to the wisdom and will of God himself.” Solomon preferred his wisdom to God’s wisdom, his ways to God’s ways. The whole earth once “sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.” But I believe Solomon soon allowed his own earthly wisdom to overtake his mind. He ceased hearing instruction and strayed from words of knowledge. He strayed from wisdom. He strayed from God.

Wisdom and discernment, then, are character traits that, like the moon, can wax and wane. They are gifts of God, but gifts that we can throw away. They are gifts that need to be nurtured and maintained. We cannot take them for granted, taking refuge in the fact that we may be wise and discerning right now. We need to continue to strive after them and to seek them. We need to learn from Solomon that even the wisest man today may be the greatest fool tomorrow. We depend on grace, even to sustain our wisdom and discernment.

If Solomon could stray so far from the Lord, I know that I can too. This is a sobering thought. This is a terrifying thought, even. But the solution to avoiding the folly of Solomon is clear. I need to take care that I never cease to hear instruction. I must live with an intense focus on God’s Word, never believing that I have learned enough, never believing that I’ve arrived. I must know that from this day to the day I die, I need to maintain a humble dependence on God. I must trust that His words of instruction will continue to edify and strengthen me, protecting me from straying from the words of knowledge. I will never outgrow my need for His sustaining grace.