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November 15, 2008

Yesterday, while reading a book about the history of the English Bible, I came across the story of John Rogers, a Bible translator who worked first with Tyndale and then independently after Tyndale’s death. It’s a story I’ve read before and one that is so powerful. Rogers was eventually arrested, tried, and found guilty of heresies against the Roman Church and against the sacrament. Such heresy carried with it the penalty of death and Rogers was to become the first of many martyrs under the reign of Mary I (Bloody Mary). Here is how Foxe described his last moments.

When the time came that he should be brought out of Newgate to Smithfield, the place of his execution, Mr. Woodroofe, one of the sheriffs, first came to Mr. Rogers, and asked him if he would revoke his abominable doctrine, and the evil opinion of the Sacrament of the altar. Mr. Rogers answered, “That which I have preached I will seal with my blood.” Then Mr. Woodroofe said, “Thou art an heretic.” “That shall be known,” quoth Mr. Rogers, “at the Day of Judgment.” “Well,” said Mr. Woodroofe, “I will never pray for thee.” “But I will pray for you,” said Mr. Rogers; and so was brought the same day, the fourth of February, by the sheriffs, towards Smithfield, saying the Psalm Miserere by the way, all the people wonderfully rejoicing at his constancy; with great praises and thanks to God for the same. And there in the presence of Mr. Rochester, comptroller of the queen’s household, Sir Richard Southwell, both the sheriffs, and a great number of people, he was burnt to ashes, washing his hands in the flame as he was burning. A little before his burning, his pardon was brought, if he would have recanted; but he utterly refused it. He was the first martyr of all the blessed company that suffered in Queen Mary’s time that gave the first adventure upon the fire. His wife and children, being eleven in number, ten able to go, and one sucking at her breast, met him by the way, as he went towards Smithfield. This sorrowful sight of his own flesh and blood could nothing move him, but that he constantly and cheerfully took his death with wonderful patience, in the defence and quarrel of the Gospel of Christ.”

November 01, 2008

The American presidential election is almost upon us (even those of us who do not live in the United States). One of the fundamental issues in this election regards distribution of wealth. Many people have become alarmed at Obama’s statements about the redistribution of wealth. I think it is useful to provide a Christian perspective on inequality of wealth. To that end, I am posting the seventh chapter of Wayne Grudem’s book Business for the Glory of God (Used with permission of Crossway Books).


Some inequality of possessions is fundamentally good and provides many opportunities for glorifying God, but also many temptations to sin; and some extreme inequalities are wrong in themselves.

It may seem surprising to us to think that some inequalities of possessions can be good and pleasing to God. However, although there is no sin or evil in heaven, the Bible teaches that there are varying degrees of reward in heaven and various kinds of stewardship that God entrusts to different people. When we stand before Jesus to give account of our lives, he will say to one person,

“You shall have authority over ten cities,”

and to another,

“You are to be over five cities” (Luke 19:17, 19).

Therefore there will be inequalities of stewardship and responsibility in the age to come. This means that the idea of inequality of stewardship in itself is given by God and must be good.

In a similar teaching, Paul, speaking to believers, says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10). This implies degrees of reward for what we have done in this life. Many other passages teach or imply degrees of reward for believers at the final judgment. Even among the angels, there are differing levels of authority and stewardship established by God, and therefore we cannot say that such a system is wrong or sinful in itself.

Inequalities are necessary in a world that requires a great variety of tasks to be done. Some tasks require stewardship of large amounts of resources (such as ownership of a steel mill or a company that manufactures airplanes), and some tasks require stewardship of small amounts of resources. And God has given some people greater abilities than others, abilities in artistic or musical skills, abilities in mathematics or science, abilities in leadership, abilities in business skills and buying and selling, and so forth. If reward for each person’s labor is given fairly and is based on the value of what that person produces, then those with larger abilities will naturally gain larger rewards. Since people are different in abilities and effort, I don’t think there could be a fair system of rewards for work unless the system had different rewards for different people. Fairness of reward requires such differences.

In fact, God has never had a goal of producing equality of possessions among people, and he will never do so. In the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25), agricultural land returned to its previous owner and debts were canceled, but there was no equalizing of money or jewels or cattle or sheep, and houses inside walled cities did not revert to the previous owner (v. 30).

Some people have seen an argument for equal possessions in 2 Corinthians 8, but there Paul did not say that God’s goal was equality. For example, he did not tell the wealthy Corinthians to send money to the poor Macedonians mentioned in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5, but only that they should contribute their fair share in helping the famine-stricken Christians in Jerusalem:

…as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness (2 Cor. 8:13- 14, ESV; the Greek word isotΣs also means “fairness” in Col. 4:1, where it cannot mean “equality”).

Nor does the book of Acts teach some kind of “early communism” when it says that believers had all things in common. It is important to look at the passages carefully:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts … (Acts 2:44-46).

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-35).

These texts certainly show an amazing level of trust in God, generosity, and love for one another, all as a result of a remarkable outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s power in a time of great revival. But it is a great mistake to call this “early communism,” for (1) the giving was voluntary and was not compelled by the government, and (2) people still had personal possessions, because they still met in “their homes” (Acts 2:46), and many other Christians later still owned homes, such as Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12), Jason (Acts 17:5), Titius Justus (Acts 18:7), many Christians in Ephesus (Acts 20:20), Philip the evangelist (Acts 21:8), Mnason of Cyprus (Acts 21:16, in Jerusalem), Priscilla and Aquila in Rome (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19), Nympha (Col. 4:15), Philemon (Philem. 2), and other Christians in general to whom John wrote (2 John 10).

Immediately after the description of such amazing generosity in Acts 4, there is in chapter 5 the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who lied about the sale price of some land. But Peter tells them there was no need to do this:

“While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:4).

It is significant that this story occurs immediately after the paragraph that says “they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). It reminds us that all of that generosity in Acts 4 was voluntary and was not intended to nullify the ideas of individual ownership or inequality of possessions. When Peter says,

“While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?”

he reaffirms the idea of private property and keeps us from the mistaken idea that the church was establishing a new requirement that Christians give up all private property, or that Christians all had to have equal possessions. Acts 5:4 guards against such misunderstandings.

Later in the New Testament, when Paul gives specific instructions to those who are wealthy, he does not tell them to give up all their possessions, but to be generous and to set their hearts on God, not on their wealth:

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life (1 Tim. 6:17-19).

So we should not think of all inequalities of possessions as wrong, or as evil. In fact, inequalities in possessions provide many opportunities for glorifying God.

If God gives us a small stewardship with regard to material possessions or abilities and opportunities, then we can glorify him through being content in him, trusting in him for our needs, expecting reward from him, and being faithful to our commitments. In fact, those who are poor often give more sacrificially than those who are rich. Jesus saw a poor widow put a penny in the offering, and he told his disciples,

“Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12:43-44).

And James tells us,

Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:5).

Thus, the Bible does not teach a “health and wealth gospel” (at least not until heaven!). In this present age, there are inequalities of gifts and abilities, and there are also evil, oppressive systems in the world, and because of these things many of God’s most righteous people will not be rich in this life.

As for those who have large resources, they also are to be content in God and trust in him, not in their riches, and both James and Paul suggest that they face greater temptations (see 1 Tim. 6:9-10; James 2:6-7; 5:1-6). Those who are rich have more opportunities and also more obligation to give generously to the poor (1 Tim. 6:17-19) and to the work of the church (Luke 12:48; 1 Cor. 4:2; 14:12b).

Inequalities in possessions, opportunities, and abilities provide many temptations to sin. There are temptations on the part of the wealthy or those who have other kinds of large stewardships to be proud, to be selfish, to think too highly of themselves, and not to trust in God. On the other hand, those to whom God has entrusted less have temptations to coveting and jealousy and not valuing their own personal position and calling in life, to which God has called them, at least for the present time.

In addition to this, there are some extreme kinds of inequalities in possessions and opportunities that are wrong in themselves. Poverty will not exist in the age to come, and so Jesus’ statement, “the poor you always have with you” (John 12:8) is best understood to mean “always in this age.” It does not mean that poverty will last forever, even into eternity. Poverty is one of the results of living in a world affected by sin and the Fall, and by God’s curse on the productivity of the earth after Adam and Eve sinned (Gen. 3:17-19).

We should seek to help the poor and seek to overcome their poverty. John says,

If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (1 John 3:17).

And when Paul went to Jerusalem to confirm the validity of his teaching in conversation with the apostles there, he found that they were in agreement, and then added,

they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do (Gal. 2:10; see also Matt. 25:39-40; Acts 2:45; 4:35; Rom. 12:13; 15:25-27; Eph. 4:28; Titus 3:14; Heb. 13:16).

The emphasis in the New Testament is on helping poor Christians, especially those who are near us or who come to our attention (see 1 John 3:17; Matt. 25:39-40; Rom. 15:25- 27; 2 Corinthians 8-9). But it is also right to help non- Christians who are poor and needy, as we see in the parable of the Good Samaritan who helped someone in need from a different religious background (Luke 10:25-37). We also see it in Jesus’ teaching, where he told us,

“love your enemies, and do good and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35; compare also Jesus’ practice of healing all who came to him, not just those who believed in him as the Messiah).

So the New Testament emphasis on helping the poor shows us that there is an extreme kind of inequality that is not good, a point where people are in poverty and should be helped. (Just what “poverty” is will vary from society to society and will also vary over time within any one society.)

But is there an opposite extreme of having too much wealth? In contrast to many admonitions to help the poor, there is no corresponding command in the New Testament to take some wealth away from the very rich, and there is no teaching that a large amount of wealth is wrong in itself. But there are strong warnings against spending too much on oneself and living in self-indulgent luxury:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you… . Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days… . You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter (James 5:1, 3, 5).

James does not here imply that all those who are rich are evil, for in this same passage he speaks of the fraud and murder committed by these rich people, implying that he is speaking about the rich who are wrongdoers (James 5:4, 6). Paul says that Timothy should tell “the rich in this present age” that they are “not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” Paul does not say that the rich are to give away all their wealth, but that they are “to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:17-18).

Yet James clearly warns against a kind of “luxury and self-indulgence” that is wrong, that shows little or no concern for others, and that does not take seriously the stewardship obligations that God bestows along with great wealth. It seems that those who are wealthy can too easily slip beyond a level of spending on themselves that is appropriate to their place in life and spend excessively and ostentatiously on themselves while neglecting to give generously to others.

But the distortions of something good must not cause us to think that the thing itself is evil. The evils of poverty and excessive, self-indulgent wealth must not cause us to think that God’s goal is total equality of possessions, or that all inequalities are wrong. Inequalities in abilities and opportunities and possessions will be part of our life in heaven forever, and they are in themselves good and pleasing to God, and provide many opportunities for glorifying him.

October 25, 2008

Apparently Oprah loves Amazon’s Kindle reading device. She loves it so much that she featured it on her show. Amazon responded by whipping up a coupon code which will remove $50 from the price of the Kindle should you decide to order one (something they, for some reason, chose not to do when I reviewed it). I’m not sure how long this promotion lasts, but I can’t imagine it will be more than a day or two. So if you’ve been looking at the Kindle and haven’t been able to decide whether or not to get one, well, perhaps this will help your decision.

Simply click here or on this little banner:

Once you’re on the payment screen, look for the coupon code area. Enter OPRAHWINFREY and $50 will be taken off the price. Shipping is also free.

October 22, 2008

Yesterday I received an interesting email from a reader of this site. He had a question about abortion and, specifically, about abortion in the case of incest and rape. Here is an excerpt of his question:

We’re not living in a theocratic nation like the Old Testament Israel. Whether we like it or not, we’re living in a democratic nation where people of varying beliefs, not God, make the laws. To what extent, then, can we impose Christian values by law? especially in case of abortion by incest and rape? I understand we can make a good argument against abortion in general without having to resort to biblical teaching. However, what about in cases of abortion by incest or rape? Are we supposed to work to ban those as well?

As a Christian, i believe abortion is wrong. And because it is based on the absolute truth of the Bible, there are no exceptions. I also reject the view that when it comes to morality one’s private views and public views must be distinguished. But i don’t know where to draw the line when it comes to abortion by incest or rape. To what extent do we ‘compromise’ (is that the right word?) or stop short when creating or voting for laws?

This is a good question and, strangely, one I had been discussing with my wife just hours before this email showed up. It is my conviction that some evangelicals and pro-lifers have given away the moral high ground by making a false and irrational distinction between children who are conceived by choice (or at least by the choice to engage in sexual intercourse) and children who are conceived by rape or incest (though, of course, most incest is also rape). If the argument against abortion was “You made a bad decision, now deal with it!” then this argument would make sense. Those who did not choose to have a child would be exonerated and could justly terminate their pregnancies. But this is not our argument. The argument from Scripture is simple: a fetus is a human being. A fetus has the same “humanness” as an adult and thus has the same right to life. A fetus is fully human. A fetus is as fully human if she is conceived by choice as if she is conceived by brutal force. Of course I affirm that rape is a horrific crime—undoubtedly one of the worst crimes a person could commit and one whose full spiritual, physical, mental and emotional impact I am sure I cannot adequately understand. But the brutality of the crime does not change the fact that is indisputable from Scripture—even a child conceived by rape is fully human.

I feel that another aspect of this reader’s question deserves a response. He asked “to what extent, then, can we impose Christian values by law?” Here I think we need to pause to distinguish between values and morals. It used to be that we spoke of morals—truths that were applicable to all people. Societal morals were built upon a Christian foundation so that society widely accepted that homosexuality was wrong, that abortion was forbidden, that truth was a virtue, and so on. These morals stood above society, giving structure and imposing themselves on all people. But in recent decades, coasting in alongside a naturalistic worldview, morals have been diminished and have been replaced by values. Where morals are absolute, values are inherently subjective. Each of us may have our own sets of values. Society dictates that you are required to respect my values while I am required to respect yours.

So to what extent can we impose Christian values? Well, in a sense we do not seek to impose Christian values at all. Instead, we seek to impose Christian morals. We affirm that the Scripture gives us absolute standards of right and wrong and we seek to live within these boundaries. Again, these morals stand over and above us and call us all to obedience. They are vertical rather than horizontal. So we do not face our society with an attitude implying that we both hold to values and I hope that you will accept mine. Instead, we face society with the conviction that God’s morals are good and absolute. We can impose these morals on others without fear. Were a national leader to find himself in a position of being able to eradicate abortion, he could do so from a moral standpoint and do it without regret or hesitation. In such a case he has no need to concern himself with another person’s subjective values.

However, it is unlikely that such a day will come. It is unlikely that a person will ever be in a position where he can take us directly from where we are today (the celebration of abortion) to where we would like to go (the abolition of abortion). And here we can draw inspiration from moral victories of days past. I think it is most helpful to turn to a man like William Wilberforce and his battle to end slavery. Slavery was essentially a value held in days past. Society may have frowned on slavery as somewhat less than savory, but it ultimately left it to the discretion of the individual. If one person’s sense of value allowed slavery, then it was acceptable to him. But Wilberforce and the abolitionists took the moral high ground and decreed rightly that slavery was abhorrent and immoral.

One of the lessons from Wilberforce’s fight and eventual victory is that incremental victories are still victories. To borrow a cliche, Rome wasn’t built in a day; neither was it destroyed in a day. The cultural and political climate that welcomed abortion was the culmination of many societal forces. There were gradual steps away from biblical truth, gradual relaxing of traditional gender roles and small but steady changes in the understanding of human rights. It was the confluence of many forces that legalized abortion. Similarly, it is likely that it will take many years and many small, incremental changes to effect the status quo. While we must always keep the end in mind and desire nothing less than the full and complete abolition of abortion, we do not compromise if and when we accept and rejoice in incremental changes. Thus if laws were changed to forbid abortion except in cases of rape and incest, I believe Christians could support such legislation. They might do so with heavy hearts, knowing that unjust abortions would continue, but they could do so with clear consciences rejoicing in the righting of many wrongs.

Of course even here we make one exception (and allow me this brief aside, if you will). If the life of a pregnant mother is in grave danger so that both she and the fetus will surely die should the pregnancy continue, we affirm that an abortion is permissible. This is no light decision, but one that is acceptable in the light of this sinful world we inhabit. I have known people who struggled and struggled to get pregnant and who rejoiced in finding that God had finally blessed them with a pregnancy. But they soon learned that this was an ectopic pregnancy and they were forced to abort the child lest both mom and baby die. This is a heart-rending decision but one I believe we can support from Scripture. It is a sad consequence of human sin.

Abortion is so awful, so despicable, so abhorrent that I have to think it will, indeed, be abolished some day. It is my hope and even my conviction that we will someday regard it as we now regard slavery. We will shake our heads and wonder how we could ever have lived in such a society. Children will learn in school of society’s ambivalence to so great an evil and express proper shock and disgust. And I hope and pray that Christians will lead this fight and ascribe all glory to God when the battle is finally won.

October 20, 2008

It was quite a while ago that I received an email from a father, concerned about the task of sharing the gospel with his children. While I answered the email then, I also filed it away for further thought. Today I want to answer it in a little bit more detail. Here is what this reader wrote to me:

I have such a hard time grasping this notion of election as a father. God made the very emotions in me (love, care, would lie down in front of an 18-wheeler for my children….he gave me that). But nothing can assure me that i can have an influence in whether their “number was called”?

I would appreciate any thoughts you have on this as I’m really struggling with it. Also struggle with why so much of Bible addresses us as decision making/choice making creature, appealing to us to recognize something and depart from sin and accept Christ. If God is simply “zapping” us with irresistible Grace, then it seems rigged and the begging / pleading to turn away sin and accept Christ is really not genuine? I just haven’t been able to reconcile these two paradoxes of Truth that seem to exist between Calvinisms viewpoint and choice.

I certainly understand the heart behind this question. I, too, am a father and one who is deeply concerned about the eternal welfare of my children. I love them so deeply and desire nothing greater than that they would turn to Christ in repentance and faith. Like this reader, I am sometimes tempted to express frustration with the way God has chosen to save a people for himself. But through it all I know that his ways are good; his ways are the best.

I will break my answer into three parts.

First, I think we need to have much greater confidence in God’s sovereignty than in the ability of our children to choose God without his foreordaining grace. This is why Calvinistic theology begins with “T” for Total Depravity. This doctrine tells us that without God’s grace, none of us could ever turn to him. We are so radically depraved that we are unable, totally unable, to follow God or to even want to follow God. Thus if we properly understand human nature, we will thank God that he has not left us ultimately responsible to choose whether or not we would want to be saved. The Bible tells us clearly that we would never make such a choice; we could never make such a choice. So we need to take refuge in God’s sovereignty and not make it an occasion of fear or dread. Our hearts are so wholly polluted by sin that God’s election is the only way that anyone could be saved, ever.

Second, I think it is helpful to see predestination as something that is of far greater concern to God than to us. While we see from Scripture that God has predestined his elect to eternal life, I’m not sure that it is helpful for us to think too much about who is among the elect and who is not. God has not seen fit to reveal that information to us. Charles Spurgeon once said something along these lines: “if a stripe were painted down the backs of the elect, then I’d go around lifting up coat-tails.” But there is no such mark; we cannot know infallibly who is among the elect. Human experience tells us that some people who seem to have everything going for them—great natural ability, an early interest in the Christian faith, a childhood spent in a Christian home—turn away from Christ while others come from the most unusual and rebellious circumstances and are drawn to him. Some people we could have sworn were Christians have fallen away while some who were utter rebels have had their hearts turned to God. We just cannot know who is counted among the elect.

When it comes to the task of preaching the gospel, we sometimes make a false distinction between the means and the end, assuming that since God has ordained the end we ought to take little interest in the means. When we hear of hypercalvinists, we hear of people who do just this. These people insist that, since God has already ordained who will be saved, we need to have little involvement with calling people to turn to him in repentance and faith. They say that we have no business extending the free call of the gospel to those who are unregenerate. But nothing could be further from the truth. While God has, indeed, ordained who will be saved, he has not told us who he will save. And so we are called us to take the gospel message far and wide, preaching it to all men and allowing God to work the gift of faith into those whom he has chosen for life. Our task in evangelism is not ultimately to win people to Christ but to faithfully preach the gospel message. If we have preached that message, we have done what God calls us to. We then leave the results to him.

Third, we need to be careful in how we understand God’s work of election. The Bible does not describe this work as “zapping” or “random” or anything of the sort. We know that God has chosen a people for Himself but he has not told us why or how. Scripture does not say that certain people “had their number called” and others did not. Instead, we read that God chose some because he had special love for them. There is nothing random about it. It is difficult to illustrate this, but I think we could turn to adoption as an example, albeit an imperfect one. When a couple sets out to adopt a child, they have a large number of potential children available to them. But somewhere in the process of adoption they set their heart on a particular child. It is not that they have chosen this child randomly and (hopefully!) they have not chosen this child for what he or she can do for them. Instead they have chosen to love this child, setting their affections upon him. I do not think many adoptive parents look at their selection of a child as random or arbitrary. Furthermore, their selection of a particular child is not unfair to the other children. One child was graciously selected for the special blessing of adoption while many others were not. Giving a gift to one person does not make it unfair to withhold a gift from another.

Too often, I think, we approach this subject from the point-of-view that every person deserves a chance to go to heaven. We see our sweet children and are unable to believe that they justly deserve an eternity of separation from God. And so we deem it unfair that they may not be among the elect and hence can never turn to Christ. But Scripture tells us that all men, even children, have turned away from Christ. All men have committed an act of cosmic treason and deserve to be punished for it. God chooses to extend grace to some, but not all. But the very fact that it is grace tells us that it is not deserved; it is a free gift.

I conclude by pointing again to the goodness (Psalm 107:1, James 1:17, Psalm 84:11) and sovereignty (1 Samuel 2:6-7, Psalm 135:5-6, Proverbs 16:9) of God. God is good and does only what is good. This is as true in election as in any other area. When the Lord calls us home and when we stand before him, we know that none of us will question God’s wisdom; none of us will deem him unfair or unkind. We will rejoice in his goodness and will rejoice in his sovereign choice.

October 15, 2008

This is a short story I wrote a little over three years ago. It represents what may be the only time I’ve ever written fiction for this blog. While I’m quite sure I haven’t thought about this story since the day I posted it, that changed yesterday when it suddenly made its way into my brain. I re-read it and thought it would be fun to post it for you. It’s just a silly little parable with a rather obvious meaning. Enjoy!

*****

“Hey, Drew! What’s happening?” That’s Darryl talking. He’s the guy who does second-level technical support in the office. If his minions can’t get the job done, they call on him. He’s the big gun. But he’s known around the office primarily for being a hockey fan, and not just a guy who dabbles in the game either. This guy is hardcore. He has had season tickets for as long as he can remember, and those things aren’t cheap in Toronto. He spends thousands of dollars every year and goes to every home game. If the Leafs are on the road, he’s in his living room, watching the game. Sometimes he even travels to Buffalo or Ottawa to cheer on the team. Every year he buys a new team jersey. Not the imitations, mind you, but the genuine jersey endorsed by the team - the one with the draw strings and the little vents under the armpits. The ones that cost $350.

“Oh, hey man. Not much,” said Drew. Drew is in the sales team and has an office down the hall from Darryl.

“Doing anything exciting this weekend?”

“Not really. I was just going to hang around with the family. Maybe mow the lawn.”

“I’ve got an extra ticket to the game on Saturday. Do you want to go?”

Darryl is always giving away tickets to the game. Hockey is not nearly as enjoyable when a fan watches the game alone. And his wife had long since tired of going to the games with him.

“I don’t know. I’m not a big hockey fan.”

“Dude! These are eighty dollar tickets! People wait in line for hours for these things.”

Drew looked around the room. He looked everywhere but at Darryl. A bit sheepishly he replied, “Problem is, I don’t really understand the game. You know, it’s all good for you, but for me it’s kind of embarrassing sitting in a room with 20,000 people who all know what’s going on when I don’t have a clue.”

Drew had grown up in England and had just moved to Canada a few years earlier. Like all Brits he had a fascination with soccer (well, football, actually), and also enjoyed watching some rugby. He had never really caught on to cricket, though he had had to play it all the way through school.

Darryl lowered his voice a little bit. “This game will be perfect for you. There are so many people in the country that don’t understand the game anymore that the league has decided to make Saturday night games Inquirer Games.”

“What’s an Inquirer Game?”

“It’s a lot like the regular game, but it’s designed specifically for people who just aren’t comfortable stepping into an arena. Some people have had bad experiences with arenas in the past, and some just don’t understand what’s going on. So these games try to bridge that gap.”

“But I just wouldn’t enjoy it! I don’t know when to sit down, when to stand up, when to cheer, when to boo!”

“Drew! It’s an Inquirer Game! It doesn’t matter if you stand or sit. You can boo or cheer whenever you want. Heck, you can do the wave all on your own if you want.”

“Have you seen the rule book for hockey? It has to be 300 pages. At least! I’ll have no idea what’s going on!”

“You don’t need to know the rules to have a good time. Just go, be yourself and have fun. It’s going to be a great night!”

Drew sighed. He felt defeated. “Alright, I’ll go.”

*****

Saturday night rolled around and precisely two hours before game time, Darryl pulled up in front of Drew’s house. Drew was waiting anxiously inside the door. He gave his wife a quick kiss and walked out to the car.

“This is going to be great,” Darryl said. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

“I thought you’d be wearing your jersey.”

“I usually do, but not for the Inquirer Games. They ask us not to in case they make other people feel like there is some kind of dress code. It can also offend out-of-towners if they’re cheering for the other team.”

As they drove Darryl chatted, rambling on about the Maple Leafs - his favorite players, the strength of the organization and the growth in the popularity of the sport. Drew nodded politely when appropriate and answered questions when required. But mostly he sat in silence.

Finally they pulled into a lot near the stadium that was prominently marked with a sign emblazoned with the word “Inquirers.”

“Lots of parking,” Drew remarked as he watched a man in a blue vest cleaning up bits of paper and trash from the ground. Other men in blue blazers were directing traffic.

“Yup. A stadium can’t survive if there isn’t lots of parking, can it?” said Darryl cheerfully.

They walked towards the arena. As they approached the door, another man in a blue vest smiled warmly a took a step towards them. Plastered to his vest was a printed sticker that read, “Hello My Name Is STAN.” “Hi! My name’s Stan. Is this your first time here?” He seemed genuinely friendly.

Darryl replied for both of them. “Not for me, but it is for him. I’m Darryl and this is Drew.”

“Welcome! Welcome! We’re glad to have you here today. Tonight we’re hoping that everyone will wear name tags. Is it okay if I make one for you?”

Darryl nodded. Stan walked over to a table that had stacks of stickers and a few Sharpies lying on it. He returned a moment later with stickers for each of them. After putting the stickers on their chests and handing them a few pieces of paper they shook hands with Stan and walked into the stadium.

“You know,” Darryl said. “They usually call this the ‘Air Canada Centre.’ But for Inquirer Games they prefer to call it an activity centre.”

A table laden with coffee and donuts stood inside the front door. “Grab something to eat. They know that some people don’t have time to eat before they get here, so they always have lots of donuts and coffee at these Inquirer Games.” Drew mumbled something he thought sounded polite. But by this time his eyes were wide. He looked around the activity centre, taking in the thousands of seats, quickly filling with other people, most of whom were wearing name tags.

“24E and 24F. Here we are!”

They sat down. Their seats were red and padded. Quite comfortable, especially in comparison to the hard benches that pass for seating in the stadium back in London. Drew took the opportunity to look through the papers Stan had given him.

“What’s with the suggestion card?,” he asked Darryl.

“If you think of some things that would make the game better, jot them down and turn the card in at the end of the game. They’re always looking to make the game better.”

“But I don’t know anything about the game. I don’t even like the game!”

“But that’s what makes your input valuable. Just tell them what would make you like the game.”

Drew shook his head.

“Is that a band down there?” he asked, pointing to a group of guys hastily arranging their instruments just beyond the glass on the far side of the activity centre.

“Yup. They’re called The Forwards. They play during the Inquirer Games. There’s still an organ that plays during other games, but they know that it’s an old-school instrument and people don’t really relate to it anymore. So they brought in a band. These guys rock!”

A few minutes later the band began to play, “Take Me Out To The BallGame,” substituting a few words here and there to make it appropriate to hockey. The words flashed up on the video screens overhead and a few people joined in the music. Most just talked amongst themselves, biding their time. A few minutes later they launched into a rocking version of “The Good Old Hockey Game.” They bypassed the verses and chose instead to simply repeat the chorus.

Oh! The good old hockey game,
Is the best game you can name;
And the best game you can name,
Is the good old Hockey game!

Five minutes after the game was supposed to have started the announcer sounded over the loudspeakers. Drew glanced to Darryl and whispered, “Aren’t they going to sing the national anthem?”

Darryl smiled. “No, some people don’t like it. Especially Americans. So they don’t sing it at these games. I mean, come on! Nobody ever sings the anthem anymore excepting at sporting events, so they leave it out.”

The announcer spoke up. “Ladies and gentlemen. We’d like to welcome you to tonight’s game featuring the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Ottawa Senators.”

Drew quickly tuned him out. Or he did until the announcer began to introduce people.

“Tonight’s facilitator for the Toronto Maple Leafs is Roooonnnnnn Wilson!”

“What’s a facilitator?”

“They used to call them coaches, but people associate that with hierarchy. So at these games, instead of telling the players what to do, they facilitate a game plan where all of the players contribute. Quinn’s job tonight is to help all of the players understand how they can be better players and better people.”

Players began to file onto the ice.

“Hey Darryl, why aren’t they wearing uniforms?”

“It’s an Inquirer Game. If they wore uniforms they wouldn’t fit in, would they?”

“So how do we tell them apart? They’re all wearing jeans and t-shirts.”

“That’s the point, man. We’re here for them as much as they’re here for us. We don’t need to be able to tell them apart.”

“Aren’t there usually lines on the ice? A red one and two blues?”

“You’d see them if you came back next week, but they take them off for these games. They confuse people too much.”

“Gotcha!”

The game began with a bang. The Leafs won the faceoff and their forwards sped down the ice. It was then that Drew noticed the net was undefended. “What happened to the tender?”

“You call him a goalie in hockey. We don’t need ‘em. This is a celebration! No goalies means more goals and that means more celebrating!” Darryl stood up and did a spontaneous, solo wave. No one seemed to disapprove.

The puck found its way into the opposing team’s net and the crowd went wild. The band struck up a rousing chorus repeating the words, “Go Leafs Go” just a few times too many.

The referee waved his semaphore (whistles being far too obnoxious, outdated and difficult to understand) and the action began again.

Drew was beginning to enjoy himself. This wasn’t so bad, was it? No one cared if he knew the game or not. No one cared if he didn’t know when to cheer or boo or even if he despise the game itself. They were just glad that he was here to celebrate with them.

Two hours later the game wrapped up with the home team winning 86 to 73. Drew’s face was positively glowing. His eyes were bright and his hands were red from clapping.

“So did you have a good time,” asked Darryl as he headed towards the parking lot, his voice hoarse from shouting and cheering.

“I did! It was great.”

For a moment Drew looked pensive. A little quieter he said, “But it wasn’t really hockey was it? I mean…I still don’t know anything about the game.”

Darryl smirked. “Not if you mean hockey the way your grandpa played it. And not if you mean hockey the way the rule book tells you to play it. But you had a good time, right?”

“Yeah, it was great!”

“Then that’s what matters, right? You had a good time.”

“I guess so. Do you have an extra ticket for next Saturday?”

October 06, 2008

Though this article discusses homosexuality, I do not intend for it to speak about the rightness or wrongness of such a lifestyle. I am sure my thoughts on whether homosexuality can be reconciled with the Bible hardly need explanation. Instead, today I want to look at one very interesting result, one very interesting development, that has come with the widespread acceptance of homosexuality. I have thought about this a little bit in the past but had my mind drawn to it again this weekend while reading Al Mohler’s book Desire and Deceit: The Real Cost of the New Sexual Tolerance. In this book, like Culture Shift before it, Mohler compiles some of his best blog posts and articles dealing with a common theme. In this case he writes about contemporary issues related to sexuality. And while there is much to glean from the book, one issue in particular give me a lot to think about.

I have sometimes wondered if, when The Lord of the Rings was first published, people looked with a certain suspicion upon the relationship of Sam to Frodo and Frodo to Sam. Here are two characters who loved one another deeply and who had a relationship forged in the fire. It is clear that in these characters, Tolkien was describing friendship as he had seen it in soldiers who had fought in the World Wars. He described a kind of intimate friendship that somehow seems so odd to our modern sensibilities. And in modern times many people have read homosexuality into that relationship, wondering if Tolkien, either deliberately or subconsciously, was creating gay characters.

Similarly, I have wondered if, when people first learned of Abraham Lincoln’s deep friendship with Joshua Speed, they raised their eyebrows. After all, Lincoln and Speed even shared a bed and wrote letters sharing their love and appreciation for one another. Recent historians have offered this relationship as proof that Lincoln was homosexual.

In both cases we’re seeing clear evidence of postmodern thinking. Today we think nothing of imposing our own understanding on historical texts, interpreting them as we see fit. We think little of original meaning and much of contemporary interpretation. Thus there are feminist readings of literature, gay readings of literature, African-American readings of literature, and so on. Every group, every interest, is free to read history and literature as they see fit. In an age with few absolutes, who can tell anyone else that they are wrong? And in both cases I realize that I am showing evidence of the pervasiveness of homosexuality in our culture. The fact that I would even wonder such things reveals that the presence of homosexuality is always just beneath the surface in our culture. I am reasonably certain that I can answer my own questions. No! When people read The Lord of the Rings they did not see homosexuality and when they first heard of Lincoln and Speed they did not even question whether they had been having sex in that bed. And here is an interesting part of the fallout of the widespread acceptance of homosexuality. We see homosexuality everywhere around us, whether it exists there or not. Things that are pure and normal we see as somehow being evidence or potential evidence of homosexual behavior.

In and of itself that may not mean too much. But according to Dr. Mohler, who follows the line of thinking from a Touchstone article written by Anthony Esolen, there is at least one sad consequence: it is marking the end of deep and meaningful friendships between boys. Writing about the scene between Sam and Frodo, Mohler writes “As Esolen suggests, a reader or viewer of this scene is likely to jump to a rather perverse conclusion: ‘What, are they gay?’” This is an “ignorant but inevitable response” to such a situation. It is simply the way our minds work today. “As Esolen understands, the corruption of language has contributed to this confusion. When words like love, friend, male, female, and partner are transformed in a new sexual context, what was once understood to be pure and undefiled is now subject to sniggering and disrespect.” I saw an example of this recently, in reading C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair with my children. There Lewis writes “Though [Jill’s] tongue was never still, you could hardly say she talked: she prattled and giggled. She made love to everyone—the grooms, the porters, the housemaids, the ladies-in-waiting, and the elderly giant lords whose hunting days were past. She submitted to being kissed and pawed about by any number of giantesses, many of whom seemed sorry for her and called her ‘a poor little thing’…” “Make love” has obviously been sexualized sometime between 1950’s England and 21st century North America. How might people understand Jill’s actions today?

Here is where it gets even more interesting and important. Says Esolen “Open homosexuality, loudly and defiantly celebrated, changes the language for everyone. …If a man throws his arm around another man’s waist, it is now a sign—whether he is on the political right or the left, whether he believes in biblical proscriptions of homosexuality or not. …If a man cradles the head of his weeping friend, the shadow of suspicion must cross your mind.” Gone is the innocence that would allow us to see a man love another man without assuming that their relationship involved sex or at least the desire for sex. Men and boys, including Christian men and boys, are suffering the fallout. “The sexual revolution has also nearly killed male friendship as devoted to anything beyond drinking and watching sports. …The prominence of male homosexuality changes the language for teenage boys. It is absurd and cruel to say that the boy can ignore it. Even if he would, his classmates will not let him. All boys need to prove that they are not failures. They need to prove that they are on the way to becoming men—that they are not going to relapse into the need to be protected by, and therefore identified with, their mothers.” And so boys feel that they need to prove to their peers that they are not homosexual. They do so by recklessly pursuing sexual experience with girls and by distancing themselves from meaningful friendships with other boys. Those who fail in both accounts are labeled as “fags” and subjected to the torment that follows. Boys have always had a lot to prove, but added to their burden today is proof of their sexual identify.

The proof that Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed did not have a homosexual relationship is in the very fact that they unashamedly wrote about their love and regard for one another. In a more innocent age they had nothing to prove and nothing to hide. They were able to be friends—close, loving, intimate friends—without bearing the burden of perverse assumptions. Their heterosexuality, their normalcy, was assumed. We make no such assumption today.

My mother has often remarked that men, and Christian men in particular, go through life lonely—forsaken by other men who should be their friends. And I think she is right. I wonder if we, too, bear the burden of perverse assumptions. Maybe we, too, from our early days feel the need to prove that we are not homosexual. And we do this by fleeing emotional or spiritual intimacy with other men, assuming that such relationships are unworthy of men—real men.

The societal prevalence of homosexuality is not going to lessen anytime soon. While Christians must continue to insist that homosexuality cannot be reconciled with Scripture (and you may like to read Dr. Mohler’s book to learn more about why this is the case) we must also not allow it to usurp friendship and to reframe the way we, as Christians, and Christian men, view and understand friendship. We have far too much to lose.

September 29, 2008

One of the joyful challenges I face in maintaining this blog is answering the questions of Christians who are wrestling with issues related to Reformed theology. I receive many questions from people who are new to the doctrines of grace or who are fighting through them for the first time. I try to answer as many of these questions as I can, though admittedly, a few do get away. Some time ago a reader asked about Calvinism and evangelism. He wrote this: “Given the tenets of total depravity (the spiritually dead are unable to choose God), unconditional election (saved through God’s sovereign choice) and irresistible grace (once God chooses you and regenerates you, you can’t NOT embrace Him)… what does a Calvinist see as the purpose of proclaiming the Gospel? Does a gospel presentation simply provide the context in which God ‘pulls the trigger’ of regeneration and faith for those He has already chosen? (cf Acts 13:48.)”

I understand the confusion many Christians feel when they consider evangelism in a Calvinist context. After all, if God is entirely sovereign, and if His grace is irresistible, what possible use can God have for us? Why would He bother using us in evangelism? This question introduces an apparent antinomy—an appearance of contradiction between conclusions which seem equally logical, reasonable or necessary. The antinomy we face is what we perceive as tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. In short, how does our responsibility to evangelize interact with God’s absolute sovereignty in the salvation of souls?

I went about answering the question by first looking at several things that, according to Scripture, God has not called us to do in our evangelism.

We cannot help others realize the desperation of their situation or convince them that God exists It is the Holy Spirit who must do these things. Men are willfully ignorant of them. 2 Peter 3:5 says “For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God.” The hearts of men are hard and only God can soften them.

We cannot convince unbelievers of their sinfulness. It is the Spirit who convicts men of sin. Before He died Jesus foretold the coming of the Holy Spirit and said “When he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). I believe this is one area we tend to get wrong. We often feel it is our job to convict others of their sin. But while we can tell people that they are sinful, it is only the Spirit who can actually convict them.

We cannot convince them of the necessity and wonder of Christ. A man needs the grace of the Spirit in his heart before he can see this. Isaiah 53:2 prophecies about Christ saying “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” Sinful humans can neither appreciate nor desire Christ without the Spirit first working in them.

We cannot produce repentance or faith. Once again, those are God’s works and His alone. We can speak of the reality and importance of them, but cannot bring them about in others.

The Bible also teaches us several things things that we must do in regards to evangelism. These are things God tells us we must do if we are to obey Him and faithfully represent Him.

We must pray for the lost. God delights in using our prayers to accomplish His purposes. We should pray for salvation and pray that God would grant the person a heart of flesh; pray that God would use circumstances, either specific or general, to bring people to a realization of their desperation; pray that God would confirm what we are saying through other people or circumstances; pray that God would remove the peace they have in their unrepentance; and pray that God would put people in our lives that we can share our faith with.

We must show our faith in our lives. We need not only to speak about God and what He has done, but we also need to show in our lives that we have changed. Our day-to-day lives are a great testimony to unbelievers.

We must share our faith. When opportunities present themselves we are to act as the messenger to deliver the message, free from our prejudices and opinions. We are to present the purity of the gospel, not our spin on it. This, of course, requires knowledge of the Bible and of God’s character. A prerequisite to sharing our faith is strengthening our faith by learning about God and growing closer to Him.

We must invite others to hear the message. We are to invite people to church and other evangelistic occasions. I Corinthians 14:25 speaks of the potential of church services where it speaks of an unbeliever hearing the “secrets of his heart [being] disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” The Bible asks how a person can believe unless he hears the message. It is our job to share that message.

So here are the things we need to do—the things God invites and commands us to do so that He might reach His people.

To be consistent with Reformed theology we must say that if a person is one of the elect, he will come to faith and repentance. It is divinely predestined that this will happen and it is impossible for it not to happen. But God has not shared with us two vital pieces of information. He has not told us just who the elect are and how they will be brought to repentance. He has decreed that we are to share the message with everyone, in every way possible (within the bounds He sets in His Word). Charles Spurgeon once said “if all the elect had a white stripe on their backs I would quit preaching and begin lifting shirt tails” (or something to that effect). God has not put a visible mark on the elect, so we are to treat all men as if they are among the elect, and are to share the Gospel far and wide. We need to share it with a sense of urgency.

It is critical that we realize that we are not to measure success by the visible results. A convincing response to evangelism does not necessarily indicative of a biblical method of evangelism. Perhaps this was best proven by the Catholic Church during their “convert or die” campaigns among the native populations of South America. Allow me to post a length quote from J.I. Packer’s wonderful book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.

If we forget that it is God’s prerogative to give results when the gospel is preached, we shall start to think that it is our responsibility to secure them. And if we forget that only God can give faith, we shall start to think that the making of converts depends, in the last analysis, not on God, but on us, and that the decisive factor is the way in which we evangelize. And this line of thought, consistently followed through, will lead us far astray.

Let us work this out. If we regarded it as our job, not simply to present Christ, but actually to produce converts—to evangelize, not only faithfully, but also successfully —our approach to evangelism would become pragmatic and calculating. We should conclude that our basic equipment, both for personal dealing and for public preaching, must be twofold. We must have, not merely a clear grasp of the meaning and application of the gospel, but also an irresistible technique for inducing a response. We should, therefore, make it our business to try and develop such a technique. And we should evaluate all evangelism, our own and other people’s, by the criterion, not only of the message preached, but also the visible results. If our own efforts were not bearing fruit, we should conclude that our technique still needed improving. If they were bearing fruit, we should conclude that this justified the technique we had been using. We should regard evangelism as an activity involving a battle of wills between ourselves and those to whom we go, a battle in which victory depends on our firing off a heavy enough barrage of calculated effects. Thus our philosophy of evangelism would become terrifyingly similar to the philosophy of brainwashing. And we would not longer be able to argue, when such a similarity is asserted to be fact, that this is not a proper conception of evangelism…

…It is right to recognize our responsibility to engage in aggressive evangelism. It is our right to desire the conversion unbelievers. It is right to want one’s presentation of the gospel to be as clear and forcible as possible. If we preferred that converts should be few and far between, and did not care whether our proclaiming of Christ went home or not, there would be something wrong with us. But it is not right when we take it on us to do more than God has given us to do. It is not right when we regard ourselves as responsible for securing converts, and look to our own enterprise and techniques to accomplish what only God can accomplish…only by letting our knowledge of God’s sovereignty control the way in which we plan, and pray, and work in His service, can we avoid becoming guilty of this fault.

It is not difficult for a Christian to know if he has, indeed, evangelized. He has done so if he has proclaimed the message of sin, death, Savior and forgiveness. If he has done this he has evangelized successfully. He cannot and must not evaluate his efforts in the light of who responds to the message. Don Whitney likens the evangelist to the mailman. The mailman has fulfilled the obligation of his job when he has delivered the mail to me. The measure of success in his job is to carefully and accurately deliver the message. How I respond to the letters I receive is none of his concern. And the same is true of the evangelist. He faithfully delivers the message and leaves the results to God.

Ultimately we need to understand that God has not seen fit to share with us exactly how human responsibility and Divine sovereignty interact in evangelism. While we need to always remember that God is the only one who can bring about salvation, He has decreed that we will be the instruments He uses to take the Good News to the world. And that is what we must do, all the while asking God to equip us to be worthy ambassadors for Him.