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July 26, 2006

King for a Week is an honor I bestow on blogs that I feel are making a valuable contribution to my faith and the faith of other believers. Every week (or so) I select a blog, link to it from my site, and add that site’s most recent headlines to my left sidebar. While this is really not much, I do feel that it allows me to encourage and support other bloggers while making my readers aware of other good sites.

It is the Christian’s lot to be underappreciated. Whether this is good or bad I don’t know. But I do know that Phillip Way’s site, Pastorway, has to be considered underappreciated. There are few bloggers I’ve encountered that write more consistently and few that write at such length, all the while maintaining such depth. From what I’ve observed, Philip’s efforts in the blogosphere are inextricably connected to his ministry at Maranatha Community Church where he serves as pastor. His daily “Time In The Word” columns (TIME standing for Together for Inspiration, Motivation, and Encouragement) are usually tied directly to a current sermon or sermon series. They are always worth reading. And so I’m glad to nominate Pastorway as this week’s King for a Week.

In the coming days you will be able to see the most recent headlines from this blog in the sidebar of my site. I hope you will make your way over the site and look around.

I continue to accept nominations for King of the Week. If you have a site you would like to nominate, feel free to do so. Thanks to those of you who nominated this week’s honoree.

July 25, 2006

Over the past few weeks I have noticed a fair bit of discussion in the blogosphere about the subject of influence. Various bloggers have been attempting to define influence and to understand which bloggers are the most influential. This is a surprisingly difficult topic for influence truly is difficult to measure and define.

It is tempting to understand influence in ways that are easily quantifiable. Blogs have long been ranked primarily in two ways: traffic and inbound links. Traffic refers to the quantity of visitors a site receives and a site that receives a great number of visitors is perceived to be more influential than one that receives only a few visitors. Inbound links refer to the number of links to a blog from other blogs. The blog directory BlogStreet says simply, “Influential Blogs are those blogs which are blogrolled by other Top Ranking blogs.” This metric is premised on the understanding that bloggers will link mostly to sites that they consider worthy of attention. By placing a link on their site to another site, they are, in a sense, giving it a vote of approval and admitting influence.

I believe that these are both unsatisfying measures of influence. And yes, I understand that in saying this, I am indicating that a tool like Truthlaidbear is mostly useless. I have long observed that traffic and influence are not always related. It seems clear that it is not only quality or influence that draws readership, but controversy. Blogs that dwell on controversy (and in the Christian sector “controversy” is, unfortunately, often synonymous with “discernment”) tend to attract a lot of readers but I am not convinced that these sites hold influence proportional to their readership. Inbound links should be a measure of influence, but links are often tossed about with little thought, thus reducing their meaning and effectiveness in determining influence. Yet, because they are easy to measure, they continue to be the most common measures.

Adrian Warnock recently proposed several measures of influence. He proposed the following: The number of people who read your site or your “hit rate;” The number of people who read more than one page and then become regular readers; Your ability to send your readers to other websites and/or to cause them to want to buy certain products; The number of people who link to you in a blogroll; How many comments you get; How many other bloggers link to specific posts you write and interact with them; WHO reads your blog – if the leaders of your field pop by and then take your ideas to influence others, you have a bigger direct influence than someone who is read only by “novices;” How much of an impact positively or negatively you have on your readers.” These metrics are generally not easily-quantifiable and are thus, in some ways at least, less satisfying. However, I believe they are also quite useful. I’ll discuss each one very briefly.

The number of people who read more than one page and then become regular readers. I’m not entirely sure what Adrian means by this, but I assume he is discussing the number of pages per visit—how many pages the average visitor reads when he visits a site. This is a reasonable measure of influence, but can be easily upset by the way a blog is constructed. For example, some bloggers prefer to post the complete text of many articles on the main page of the site. A visitor to this site can read several day’s worth of articles without visiting a second page. On the other hand, some bloggers prefer to post only excerpts of each article on the main page. Such blogs will have a much higher number of pages read per visitor, and yet this has nothing to do with influence. Either way, this is very difficult to quantify.

Your ability to send your readers to other websites and/or to cause them to want to buy certain products. Or, put more succinctly, your ability to convince a reader to take a particular action. I consider this an important measure of influence and in many applications the most important measure. After all, for a blog based around politics or selling goods, this is the only measure that really matters.

How many comments you get. This metric is, at least to some extent, a byproduct of the number of visitors a site receives. Yet it is also an indication of the level of interest generated by a site’s posts. However, it can be influenced by the themes and contents of a particular site. When it comes to blogging, controversy generates buzz and excitement. I have often lamented the fact that an article describing some great work of God is likely to receive a lot less attention than an article expressing anger or disgust about another person. Controversy sells.

How many other bloggers link to specific posts you write and interact with them. This is an important measure of influence within the blogosphere and even beyond the blogosphere. After all, a person who chooses to discuss an article written by another blogger is admitting that the other person has some level of influence over him.

Who reads your blog – if the leaders of your field pop by and then take your ideas to influence others, you have a bigger direct influence than someone who is read only by “novices.” In other words, a site is influential if it influences other influencers.

How much of an impact positively or negatively you have on your readers. This one is nearly impossible to quantify, but is intriguing as a somewhat abstract idea. There are certain blogs that almost always leave me encouraged and satisfied while there are others that leave me beaten down and discouraged, even after only a short visit. Perhaps we can extrapolate long-term impact from these short-term experiences.

I think something needs to be added because different blogs have different emphases. For example, a site that directs people to other resources has a different, less-direct influence than one that is based primarily around teaching or exposition. Mitch Ratcliffe, who has done a good bit of thinking on this topic writes, “When looking at influence, we have to dig very deeply into narrow spectrums of network relationships.” He goes on to “contend that there are layers of influence based on different interests among writers, *but* the existing relationships we have with the writer (or podcaster or…) do carry over into areas where they are not necessarily “expert” or consistently writing about. Understanding how those marginal relationships can be amplified is important to seeing into the flow of influence.” In other words, bloggers are not influential within a void, but are influential within a particular area. That area may be as wide as the blogosphere or a sector of the blogosphere, or as narrow as only a small portion of it.

Joe Carter has also discussed influence recently and has determined that the most influential bloggers may be those who link most to others. “John Schroeder makes the intriguing claim that linking is a form of blogging servant leadership. ‘He’s absolutely right about everyone wanting to be a Chief (agenda-setting thinker blogs are one example) and no one wanting to be an Indian (i.e., value-adding linker blogs). While most bloggers tend to be both, I’m becoming more convinced that the truly influential bloggers will be those who spend the majority of their time on linking-style activities. Justin Taylor is a prime example. I work on a university/seminary campus and hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear some version of ‘I heard on Justin Taylor’s blog…’ He’s the kind of servant leader we could use more of in the blogosphere.” Without belittling Justin’s blog (one of my favorites) or Justin (a friend and I guy I want to grow up to be just like, even though we’re about the same age), I disagree with this claim. I do think link blogs like Justin’s hold some type of influence, but surely the greater influence is in the hands of those who write the material these blogs link to! Justin is clearly influential, but I am not convinced that this is a product of the number of other sites he links to.

So how do we measure influence? Truthfully, I don’t know that we can. There are clearly a few blogs in each sector that every other person knows or seeks to emulate. There is not a political blogger in the world who does not know of Instapundit. There is not a Christian blogger who does not know of Evangelical Outpost. These bloggers have somehow become influential and I would like to think they have done so simply by posting large quantities of good information and by dedicating themselves to the task of blogging. I do know that several companies are attempting to create a tool that will analyze the blogosphere and quantify the influence of each blog. I am eager to understand their methodology and to see the results of their efforts. I hope that, within the Christian blogosphere especially, we can have bloggers who do not seek to be influential, but who seek to serve others and to serve the Creator through this task. If He gives influence, may these men and women use it to honor and glorify Him.

As an aside, I noticed that Matt Galloway, who has also invested effort in understanding the blogosphere, has imagined a “Blog Influential trend tool.” “What would a Blog Influential trend tool like? It would have to have a way to set the base to be known Influentials within the area of interest - instead of a doomed to fail attempt at the whole blogosphere.” In other words, a person wishing to understand a particular sector of the blogosphere, but it technological, religious or political, would need to map the trends at only a handful of the most influential blogs. I suspect that Galloway is correct, and that whatever tools are created in the coming months and years, will use this type of methodology to map trends within the blogosphere.

July 24, 2006

Early this morning I finally finished my slow and thoughtful reading of Jerry Bridges’ The Discipline of Grace. I rarely dwell so long on a single book, but because of the sheer quantity and quality of Bible-based teaching within this book, I felt compelled to read it slowly and meditatively. It was well worth the effort and the time spent.

Yesterday I read about the importance of disciplining myself to make choices that glorify God. Bridges says that “the practice of putting off sinful attitudes and actions and putting on Christlike character involves a constant series of choices. We choose in every situation which direction we will go. It is through these choices that we develop Christlike habits of living.” I was intrigued by this. I soon thought back to a time a couple of years ago when I discovered, much to my surprise, that I excelled in the not-too-spiritual gift of discouragement. I realized, through God’s work in my heart, that I was often being a discouragement to other people. I tended towards the pessimistic and sarcastic and seldom sought to bring encouragement. And so I put some effort into cultivating a spirit of encouragement. I initially found this to be a difficult task. One would not think it difficult to be an encourager, but I found that it truly was difficult to reverse course. I would be encouraging for a short time but would soon slip back into old patterns. I continued to be a discourager.

One day it occurred to me that I was going to have to discipline myself to encourage others. And so I took the strange and seemingly-artificial step of calendaring time to encourage others. It sounds strange, I know, but I opened up my Outlook calendar and created a 5-minute appointment recurring every three days. The appointment simply said “Encourage!” And so, every third day, while I was hard at work, a little reminder would flash up on my screen. “Encourage!,” it said. And I would. I would take the opportunity to quickly phone a friend or dash off an email to someone I felt was in need of encouragement. This felt very artificial. I felt like a fraud as I, with a heart of discouragement, attempted to be an encouragement to others. But as time went on, it began to become quite natural. I soon found that I no longer felt the same spirit of discouragement within me. Encouragement slowly became more natural. What had begun as a discipline that felt artificial, soon became a habit that felt natural.

There was a lesson in there for me. I agree with Bridges who often says “discipline without direction is drudgery.” Had I disciplined myself to be encouraging without first being convicted by the Spirit of my sin, and I had I attempted to be an encourager without first setting a direction that honored God, I doubt that He would have blessed my efforts. But I believe that He did bless them. I can still be as discouraging as anyone I know, but I also think that discouragement is no longer as quick to arise as it was before. More and more I find that I tend towards encouragement rather that discouragement. After a couple of months I was able to remove the recurring appointment from my Outlook calendar, for encouragement began to come naturally.

Bridges writes, “Habits are developed by repetition, and it is in the arena of moral choices that we develop spiritual habit patterns.” I believe this was proven true in my experience. “It is through righteous actions that we develop holy character. Holiness of character, then, is developed one choice at a time as we choose to act righteously in each and every situation and circumstance we encounter during the day.” I think there are some who feel that discipline brings about holiness. These are men and women who are unbelievably disciplined. They get out of bed at the same time each day, spent 22 minutes praying and 17 minutes reading the Bible. They feel that this discipline leads them closer to God. But I disagree. It is not discipline or commitment or conviction that makes us holy. Rather, “we become more holy by obedience to the Word of God, by choosing to obey His will as revealed in the Scriptures in all the various circumstances of our lives.” Conviction, commitment and discipline are necessary to making the right choices, but true spiritual growth can come only when we choose to obey God’s commandments, one at a time.

Discipline, commitment, conviction and Godly habits are closely related. It is important that we are disciplined, but only after we have been convicted and have set a direction towards godliness. At this time discipline and commitment can be used by God to work in us His holiness. Discipline is but a means to a much higher, more Christ-like end. It is a cruel master but a wonderful servant.

July 21, 2006

Series - I had considered posting the third part of my series on children who die in infancy, but I’ve decided to hold off until next week. The discussion on the previous two entries continues to go strong, so I thought I would let that carry on before posting the third part. So stay tuned for that next week. At the very least it is bound to be controversial.

Extreme Makeover - A few days ago I mentioned in A La Carte that our next-door neighbor (or next-wall neighbor since we live in a townhouse) is having an extreme makeover done on her house. This is not quite the Ty Pennington variety of Extreme Makeover, but the builders intend to do at least $10,000 worth of work between today and Sunday afternoon. The organization, Walls of Hope, is a charitable organization that helps families by transforming their living space through the efforts of volunteers and donors. We are not exactly sure what they intend to do, but we know it involves a lot of painting, laying new flooring, and so on. Two or three television stations have been hovering around and the family was featured on newscasts last night and this morning.

This family is new to the neighborhood and has somehow already raised the ire of many of the nearby homeowners. We, on the other hand, have already come to enjoy the family and look forward to getting to know them better. Here is the family’s biography from the Walls of Hope website:

Barb considers her children a “wonderful gift”. A mother’s love, however, isn’t enough to properly appoint a home and make it safe and comfortable for four children. Barb and her family have had to move many times over the years. At the end of June, they are moving once again - Barb hopes this time will be the last. Unfortunately, the new family home had mold in the basement and attic as well as other fundamental issues that delayed the move and put undue financial stress on Barb.

As a single mother, Barb makes many sacrifices but is an optimist at heart. Walls of Hope will be helping her and her family make their new space livable and uniquely their own.

Sarah is 17 years old and comes from Barb’s first marriage. Sarah is a straight ‘A’ student and has made the honour role at her high school for 5 straight semesters. Sarah is an enormous asset in the family. [Tim’s note - our children absolutely love Sarah and come spilling out of the house as soon as they hear her voice outside.]

Barb’s 3 sons - David (13), Matthew (12), and Christopher (10) all come from her second marriage. Each of the boys does extremely well academically and each has tested as gifted in some areas.

David is an enthusiastic boy with tons of nervous energy. He is very chatty, a little impulsive but quick to smile and wants everyone to be his best friend.

Matthew is very introspective, a deep thinker and methodical learner. Matthew is meticulous in his appearance and all mannerisms. He is very sensitive but does not show emotion easily.

Christopher is a bundle of energy. He never stops moving and frequently wears out even the hardiest companion. Christopher has a delightful sense of humour but takes a very long time to bond with anyone new in his life. [Christopher has tons of energy but has not yet managed to wear out my son. They can often be seen chasing eachother (or a football) in the yard.]

All of Barb’s sons have a very difficult time dealing with changes, whether big or small.

All three boys have been diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) - specifically Aspergers. At the same time as this diagnosis was made, the youngest and oldest sons, Christopher and David were also diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome. Testing also confirmed Barb’s suspicions that her boys also suffered from Celiac Disease. Barb’s middle son Matthew is also hearing impaired.

Despite all these challenges, Barb believes that anything is possible with enough faith. Walls of Hope has answered Barb’s prayers and will be making the family’s dreams come true with a home makeover on the weekend of July 21 to 23, 2006.

They are an interesting family. Shortly after we moved into our house, the one next to us was placed on the market. We immediately began to worry just a little bit, wondering who it was that would end up sharing a wall with us. After all, a bad neighbor can make living in a townhouse an excruciating prospect. At one point we heard that the family thinking of buying the home had four teenagers, three of whom were autistic. I rolled my eyes and whispered a prayer that this family would find another place to live. But I was soon shocked at my own behavior and repented of it. After all, a person who can hold together a family with three autistic children is exactly the sort of person I would love to meet, for she must be a person of character. We have already benefited from knowing this family and look forward to getting to know them better.

Writing Day - With writing projects piling up around me, I have decided to set aside this entire day to write. I have several formal writing projects I need to take care of before July slips away from me. I am both excited and intimidated at the prospect of having to write for the next eight hours. I think it will be a great discipline and am sure that it will be good for me. I tend to do my best writing when I feel inspired to do so, but I think it is important that I teach myself to write during times set aside specifically for the purpose. I would appreciate it if you would remember me in your prayers today as I try to get a good deal of writing accomplished. I have been praying that God would give me wisdom, discernment, humility and ability, for some of what I hope to do is definitely beyond my natural capabilities.

Weekend - I am hoping to have a quiet weekend. I keep attempting to take my son to a Bluejay game and perhaps I can finally make the time tomorrow. Failing that, we’ll be trying to keep cool and trying to get away from the constant noise that is sure to come with the construction projects next door. And, as always, I’ll be posting here. Enjoy your weekend!

July 20, 2006

In the article I wrote yesterday I began discussing the issue of what happens to children who die in infancy. I looked at the view which states that all children who die are immediately ushered into heaven and I pointed out what I feel to be a serious flaw with that argument. Today I’ll continue this discussion by commenting on the other two positions popular among Christians and end with a statement of my beliefs.

But before I do that, I’d like to return briefly to yesterday’s article. I tried to be as responsive as possible in the comments area, so it may prove valuable to read the comments posted there. I would like to respond to a concern expressed by a couple of people who suggested that the idea of an infant going to hell is repugnant.

I would tend to agree that the thought of a tiny infant in hell is repugnant. Such a view, though, presupposes that people who go to hell are the same age in hell as they were when they died. I think it is more likely that in eternity age will be of little consequence. Those who died old and infirm will likely be restored to when they were more able-bodied and when they were of sound mind. Or so I would think. I would also suggest that infants will be made older. Gene Bridges said it like this: “In heaven, wouldn’t you, in a sense, age up, age down, or both? You would age down in the sense that if you were past your prime when you died, you’d then revert to an optimal time of life—both mentally (in the intermediate state) and physically (in the final state). But you’d also continue to mature—in that same ageless and youthful state—to mature intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.” This is speculation, but speculation that seems consistent with what we know of God and of hell. Also, it seems clear in Scripture that, just as not all who are saved will receive the same degree of reward, so all who are condemned will not receive the same degree of punishment. It may well be that children, should they be condemned, will receive a much lighter degree of punishment than those who have committed many more and many greater sins. In my mind this is similar to how Christians are saved by grace but rewarded, at least partially, on the basis of works. Finally, God knows not only what a man has done, but what is in his heart and what he is capable of doing. An infant who died when still tiny, may well have gone on to lead a life in which he committed terrible and horrifying atrocities. God knows. We do not and we cannot.

Let’s turn now to the final two understandings of what happens to children who die in infancy.

The Children of Believers Are Saved

This view is held by many Reformed believers, especially those with firm beliefs in covenant theology. These people believe Scripture teaches that God continues to work through covenants, much as He did in Old Testament times. As God made a covenant with Abraham that extended not only to him but to his children, and thus entered into a relationship with both Abraham and Isaac, in the same way He sets apart to Himself the children of believers today.

This is the view of the writers of the Canons of Dort which says “Since we must make judgments about God’s will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.” While it speaks of the salvation of infants of believers, it does not speak about the children of unbelievers.

The Westminster Confession takes a slightly different view, choosing not to explicitly mention the covenant. “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth. So also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” The question that might arise in response to this answer is “who are the elect infants?” I believe the writers would answer in a similar fashion to the Canons of Dort, indicating that believing parents can have assurance where unbelieving parents can not. In short, this view presupposes that God’s act of election foresaw which children of believers would die in infancy, and He sovereignly elected those children to be numbered among the elect. God graciously provided salvation for these children through His covenant.

I have more sympathy for the view of the Westminster Confession than that of the Canons of Dort. The Confession explicitly states that elect infants will be saved. And I agree that, if God has seen fit to elect children who die in infancy, they must be saved. I believe the Canons of Dort steps outside the clear teaching of Scripture when it says “godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.” This is a possibility, but hardly something that is made plain in Scripture.

We Can Have No Assurance

Surprisingly I was able to find little formal and well-articulated support for this view. I find this surprising because where Scripture does not explicitly state a doctrine, we might expect Christians to be slow to speculate. It would seem that this view requires the least amount of speculation. Herman Bavinck believed we could have no assurance saying “I would not wish to deny, nor am I able to affirm.” Cornelius Venema concurs, saying “caution is preferable to the confident denial or affirmation of this possibility.”

The weakness in this view is simply that it is not very satisfying. As inquisitive beings we wish to have answers to all of our questions. Stating that we do not and cannot know does not satisfy our desire to know.

My view

I suppose it would be unfair to do all this research and not indicate what I believe, so I will provide a few thoughts. I grew up in churches that had strong views on covenant theology and believed in the doctrine of presumptive regeneration (which states that children of believers are presumed to be saved until they prove otherwise). The view I was taught was that children who die in infancy and are members of believing families are saved, but that we can have no certainty about the children of unbelievers. I abandoned this view on the basis of empirical evidence long before I abandoned it on the basis of Scriptural evidence. I saw countless spiritual delinquents living with the belief that they were saved simply because they were children of the covenant. The inestimable privilege of growing up in a Christian family was reduced to a license to sin. Parents refused to challenge their children and felt little need to share the gospel with them. When I did turn to Scripture to wrestle with this issue I was not surprised to learn that it cannot be adequately supported. I am thankful that my parents did not support this view and that they constantly challenged myself and my siblings to know and believe and trust the gospel.

After doing much study and reflection on this topic, I find myself simply shaking my head and realizing I am unable to know from Scripture what happens to all infants who die. While I would like to believe that all children are immediately ushered into heaven, I simply do not find Scripture to support the idea that God will categorically overlook the imputation of Adam’s sin that is held against all humanity, and even the tiniest child. It seems to me that those who adhere to the view that all children are saved must gloss-over or downplay original sin, and that is something I cannot do. Children who die in infancy are as fully implicated in Adam’s sin as I am and are thus fully deserving of hell. While that does not necessarily indicate that God will not or cannot save them, I do not find evidence in Scripture that He always will. I also do not find strong support for the idea that only the children of believers will be saved and that all the children of believers will be saved.

What I believe we can know from Scripture is that at least some children who die in infancy will be saved, for the Scripture speaks of John the Baptist who was filled with the Holy Spirit while still in the womb. At least one child was saved before birth. If we are justified by faith as a free gift, and if we believe in our total inability without His grace, surely God, who creates tiny babies, can speak to their hearts in a way that can fill them with the Spirit. If God, through His grace, wishes to save an infant, I’m sure He can. But as to the extent or wideness of this grace, I cannot speak for God does not tell. I would also assume that, just as God is gracious to show mercy to generation after generation of believing families, it is likely that children who die in infancy as members of Christian families are more likely to be numbered among the elect than those who are members of unbelieving families.

And so my view seems to hover between the second and the third. I believe we can have little assurance about the eternal destination of all children, but that we can have some degree of assurance about some children. Scripture does not state that all children are saved and it does not say that all children are condemned. My position falls between these two. I believe, as did the Puritan divines, that “all elect infants dying in infancy go to heaven.” As with the rest of God’s elect, we will not infallibly know who these people are until we are ushered into God’s presence. And at that moment I am convinced that we will all be overwhelmed not by how few there are, but how many. I have concluded that in His wisdom God has chosen not to reveal what happens to all children who die in infancy. Thus it is best not to speculate or to comfort ourselves with false assurances, but instead take confidence in what we do know—that God is just, but gracious. I am left crying out with Paul “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!”

An article explaining John Piper’s understanding of this issue concludes with reflections on George Mueller’s sermon text after the death of his wife. His three points were: The Lord was good, and did good, in giving her to me. The Lord was good and did good, in so long leaving her to me. The Lord was good and did good, in taking her from me.” This is an attitude of great faith. Mueller knew that God always does good. We must conclude the same, even if God chooses to give us an infant for only a short period of time. I hope and pray that I would have the strength and faith to thank God for the time I’ve spent with my little Michaela, even if He took her from me after only three months. For certainly He was good to give her to me and to leave her with me for this long. Who am I to believe that He could take her from me too soon? He knows best and He does best. This must be my refuge.

Having discussed children who die in infancy, I’d like to turn in another article to a defense of my view that my children are likely unsaved.

July 19, 2006

It seems that people were surprised to learn, in an article I wrote last week, that I presume my children to be unsaved. The article, What’s Dead Looks Dead, expressed my belief that my children (ages 6, 3, and 3 months) are, at this time, likely unsaved and are thus spiritually dead. The subsequent discussion was very interesting and the commenters ranged from Reformed Baptists to Roman Catholics and just about everyone between. I was honestly very surprised at the reaction, for I had not thought that what I wrote was so controversial.

The comments turned quite quickly to a discussion of what happens to children who die in infancy. I’d like to discuss that issue along with my previous posts over the next couple of days.

There was a time that the issue of what happens to children who die in infancy was near and dear to the hearts of almost every family. It is only in recent days and in industrialized nations that the infant mortality rate has plunged. Only a few short decades ago almost every family knew the pain of losing children. I am grateful that I live in an age when this issue is, in many ways, abstract. Then again, we live in an age where countless millions of children are aborted each year. God has blessed us with the knowledge, understanding and technology to drastically reduce the number of children who die in infancy. Yet this same knowledge, understanding and technology has been used to terminate untold millions of lives. So perhaps this is an issue that is as relevant to our day as to any day.

When we examine the issue of what happens to children when they die, we will find four predominant views among believers. The first is that all children who die in infancy are saved. If one view holds an edge on the others in terms of the quantity (and perhaps even quality) of adherents, this would likely be the one. While all admit the Bible is not explicit in stating that every child who dies in infancy is saved, they believe it can be deduced from a study of relevant passages in Scripture. The second is that the children of believers are saved. This view, held by a minority of Christians, is dependent upon a belief in covenant theology, something that would put it at odds with many believers. This view indicates, then, that while the children of believers are saved, the children of most, if not all unbelievers, are reprobate. The fourth view is that we can have no assurance. This view simply states that there is not sufficient evidence in Scripture to make a firm determination. Eventually we must simply admit that this is an area in which Scripture is silent and leave it to God to work out. The final view is that unbaptized infants are not saved while baptized infants may be. This is the view of the Roman Catholic church and Protestant denominations which teach some form of baptismal regeneration. Because this view clashes with the beliefs of the vast majority of Protestants I will not address it at this time, for it would require in-depth understanding of the Catholic doctrines regarding baptism, something that is outside the scope of our discussion.

I’d like to briefly examine each of the first three teachings.

All Children Who Die In Infancy Are Saved

As mentioned earlier, this seems to be the predominant view in Christian circles, both mainstream and Reformed. Among the many notables who have held to this view are R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, John Piper, B.B. Warfield and Charles Spurgeon.

This view teaches that God, out of His grace chooses to save all who die in infancy. While adherents affirm the seriousness of original sin and acknowledge that all infants have inherited a sin nature from Adam, they also teach that God chooses to extend special grace to these infants. Sproul says “infants who die are given a special dispensation of the grace of God; it is not by their innocence but by God’s grace that they are received into heaven.” (Now That’s A Good Question, page 295). Sinful nature, then, is not sufficient reason for God to condemn the child, for where salvation is by grace, damnation is by works. Those who have not had opportunity to do works which explicitly and willfully reject God are not condemned to hell.

John MacArthur, in his book Safe In The Arms of God points out that the Bible consistently refers to the inhabitants of hell as being those who willfully committed sins and rebellion. He believes God does not condemn infants because: they have no willful rebellion or unbelief; they have never suppressed the truth; they have no understanding of sin’s impact or consequences; they have no debased behavior; and they have no ability to choose salvation. MacArthur concludes “there is no place in Scripture in which a person suffers the judgment of damnation on the basis of anything other than sinful deeds, including the sinful deed of disbelief—a conscious, willful, intentional choice to disbelieve. Furthermore, God does not charge people with sins until sins are committed.” (page 89)

John Piper, after acknowledging the presence and importance of original sin, says “if a person lacks the natural capacity to see the revelation of God’s will or God’s glory then that person’s sin would not remain—God would not bring the person into final judgment for not believing what he had no natural capacity to see.” In response to Romans 1 which speaks of God’s revelation through nature as leaving those who have never heard the gospel without excuse Piper says “if a person did not have access to the revelation of God’s glory—did not have the natural capacity to see it and understand it, then Paul implies they would have an excuse at the judgment.” He concludes: “The point for us is that even though we human beings are under the penalty of everlasting judgment and death because of the fall of our race into sin and the sinful nature that we all have, nevertheless God only executes this judgment on those who have the natural capacity to see his glory and understand his will, and refuse to embrace it as their treasure. Infants, I believe, do not yet have that capacity; and therefore, in God’s inscrutable way, he brings them under the forgiving blood of his Son.”

Having thoroughly studied this view, I believe that it fails to satisfactorily reconcile itself with the doctrine of original sin. So allow me a moment here to discuss original sin. Some theologians, Wayne Grudem and John Frame among them, believe that this term is misleading and prefer to speak of inherited sin. They are probably correct in their belief that this is superior. Still, for sake of ease, I will stick with the more common terminology. Paul teaches in Romans 5 that somehow, when Adam sinned, we all sinned. He begins this argument in verse 12 where he writes, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…” He continues in verse 19 saying, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” He teaches in verse 16 that all men have been held accountable for Adam’s sin: “For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation.” He repeats this point just two verses later saying, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men…”

Original sin, according to Desiring God, is “the sinful tendencies, desires, and dispositions in our hearts with which we are all born.” It is the only explanation in all the world for the sin problem that plagues all of humanity. It is the only explanation for our sinful natures. It is something inherent in all of us and immediately manifests itself in all manner of sin and depravity. This doctrine tells us that we do not become sinners when we sin, but that we sin because we are sinners.

Romans tells us in clear terms that were are born sinful and that Adam’s sin is held against all humanity. What it does not tell us is how this happens. But we know that somehow Adam’s sin is imputed to us. It is held against us as if we sinned in Adam’s place. There are several understandings of how Adam’s sin is imputed to us, but the best seems to be the representative view which teaches that God appointed Adam as representative for the human race. In his position as representative, Adam made a decision and took an action that affected all those whom he represented. This is similar to how the President of a nation, as representative of the people, can declare war on another nation, thus bringing every citizen of one nation into a state of war with every citizen of another nation. So not only have we inherited a sinful nature from Adam, but “we are also regarded as having sinned in Adam such that we are guilty of his act as well (imputed sin). Imputed sin is the ruin of our standing before God and is thus not an internal quality but an objective reckoning of guilt, whereas original sin is the ruin of our character and thus is a reference to internal qualities. Both original sin and imputed sin place us under the judgment of God” (Desiring God).

Original sin and the imputation of Adam’s sin are problems that plague even the youngest of human beings. Because they are inherent to all people, children are as fully and justly condemned as adults. The Bible makes no exceptions. The teaching of Scripture is clear: even if I never committed a sin throughout my entire life, I would still be justly condemned to hell because of the original sin of Adam. This sin is imputed to me because Adam, as representative of the human race, sinned on my behalf. We see the pervasiveness of this sin by the fact that Jesus had to be born of God rather than man, for that is the only way He could be born freed from the burden of original sin. As such He was pure, not just in His actions but also in His very nature. Adam’s sin was not imputed to Christ. If we are to believe that Christ stands as our representative in the act of redemption, we must also believe that Adam stands as our representative in the act of becoming a fallen people. We cannot have one without the other. Even children are born with a nature opposed to God.

When Sproul indicates that children “have not had opportunity to do works which explicitly and willfully reject God” he does not seem to account for the imputation of Adam’s sin to our account. When MacArthur says that the unregenerate are damned because of “a conscious, willful, intentional choice to disbelieve,” he also does not seem to reconcile the fact that Adam made a conscious, willful, intentional choice on our behalf and that this is imputed to us. And thus Adam’s sin is held against us. And so these men can make an argument that answers sin, at least to some extent, but not, as I understand it, a sinful nature.

July 18, 2006

The moment a person forms a theory his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.” (Thomas Jefferson)

Last night a reader of this site took the time to send me a link to an article I had somehow missed reading last week. It was written by Dr. Albert Mohler and discussed the subject of “confirmation bias.” Dr. Mohler traces an article written by Michael Shermer of Scientific American as he discusses a study based on this topic. Schermer discusses “A recent brain-imaging study [that] shows that our political predilections are a product of unconscious confirmation bias.”

As a fiscal conservative and social liberal, I have found at least something to like about each Republican or Democrat I have met. I have close friends in both camps, in which I have observed the following: no matter the issue under discussion, both sides are equally convinced that the evidence overwhelmingly supports their position.

This surety is called the confirmation bias, whereby we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence. Now a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study shows where in the brain the confirmation bias arises and how it is unconscious and driven by emotions. Psychologist Drew Westen led the study, conducted at Emory University, and the team presented the results at the 2006 annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, while undergoing an fMRI bran scan, 30 men—half self-described as “strong” Republicans and half as “strong” Democrats—were tasked with assessing statements by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, in their assessments Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own candidate off the hook.

This is no great surprise, as experience shows all of us that we are much more willing to grant clemency to people whom we like and support than those with whom we disagree. What is particularly interesting about this study, though, is the source of the brain activity that formed these judgments. “The neuroimaging results, however, revealed that the part of the brain most associated with reasoning—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—was quiescent. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex, which is involved in the processing of emotions; the anterior cingulate, which is associated with conflict resolution; the posterior cingulate, which is concerned with making judgments about moral accountability; and—once subjects had arrived at a conclusion that made them emotionally comfortable—the ventral striatum, which is related to reward and pleasure.” What the researchers saw “was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.” In other words, when people assessed the statements made by President Bush and John Kerry, they reacted with emotion rather than reason.

Like Dr. Mohler, I am “suspicious of all efforts to reduce human consciousness and cognitive activity to measurable or observable studies of the brain. There is a connection there, no doubt, but biological reductionism (and its close cousin, biological determinism) is a woefully inadequate explanation for human thinking and behavior.” To reduce human cognitive function, thinking, feeling and believing to mere imaging results is clearly inadequate in explaining the intricacies of the brain, the will and the heart. I don’t believe that we can ever neatly map out human reason or that we can ever solve how and why humans love, feel and believe. And yet there is likely some truth in the results of this study, for we are no doubt prone to make judgments based more on emotion than reason. Michael Shermer says, “The implications of the findings reach far beyond politics. A jury assessing evidence against a defendant, a CEO evaluating information about a company or a scientist weighing data in favor of a theory will undergo the same cognitive process.” In other words, confirmation bias can show itself in any number of situations.

Dr. Mohler writes, “We are unquestionably inclined to seek evidence that confirms our bias and to discard or discount evidence to the contrary. There may be biological evidence of this fact (indeed I assume there must be such evidence), but the main factor behind this problem, from a human perspective, is the Fall. The corruption of the race involves the corruption of our cognitive abilities. Confirmation bias is just one more evidence of the Fall; one more reminder that we are fallen creatures whose minds are not only finite, but corrupted. The human mind is truly amazing, but we all have to deal with conflicted thinking, limited knowledge, fragile memory, and emotional influences.”

When we affirm the doctrine of the fallenness of man, we affirm that through the Fall we have been corrupted in every way. The depravity of man extends to every area of his being so that nothing remains untouched. We are unable to use our minds without allowing emotion to interfere with reason. Clearly this poses a threat to intellectual integrity. “The reality of confirmation bias and its threat to intellectual integrity is one reason that Christian thinkers must read widely and think carefully.” Christians bear the responsibility of knowing their sin and thus knowing their proclivity for all manner of sin—even the sin of confirmation bias. For if we are able to admit that confirmation bias is a result of the Fall, we must also admit that it likely comes naturally to fallen men and women and that we are all likely to slip into it from time to time. I did not have to think long or hard before seeing areas where I am prone to make snap judgments and to allow emotion to override more measured reason. And, as the subject of discernment has been much on my mind in recent days, I also see how people to seek to be discerning may be particularly prone to this bias.

Here is an application Dr. Mohler drew from his reflections on the subject: In order to avoid confirmation bias “We must not limit ourselves to reading material from those who agree with us, fellow Christians who share a common worldview and perspective. Instead, we have to ‘read the opposition’ as well — and read opposing viewpoints with fairness and care.” If we are to avoid this bias, we must deliberately stretch ourselves. As I read this I thought back to the review I posted just a couple of weeks ago about the book While Europe Slept which was written by a homosexual. When I posted that review, several people questioned the validity of reading and reviewing such a book. These questions arise often when I read and review books that are written by unbelievers or by those who write from a liberal Christian perspective. Yet I think these books are important, for it is all too easy to delude ourselves, sometimes deliberately and sometimes inadvertently, into thinking that we are fair and unbiased when the reality may be far different. I believe, like Dr. Mohler, that it is important that we read the opposition. I believe that there is nothing to fear in doing so, provided that a person is well-grounded in the truths of Scripture.

John Calvin, in his Institutes wrote “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.” We can look outside the Christian bookstores for truth. We would not look outside a Christian worldview to find eternal truths, but we may still find truths outside the church and perhaps even truths to which Christians are oblivious. To ignore or to reject these truths, especially on the basis of confirmation bias, would be to dishonor God, the very source, the fountain, of truth.

July 17, 2006

There was a time when Christians used militaristic language without shame. In fact, only one or two generations ago, Christians often spoke of being part of an army fighting against the forces of darkness. Hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers” were sung often and were sung proudly. But in recent years, this type of language has fallen out of favor in the church. Many feel that this language serves to deter the unchurched from responding to the gospel. They are, it seems, not willing to allow themselves to be conquered by an army.

Brian McLaren discusses this metaphor in A Generous Orthodoxy: “The human race has been conquered by an alien power or powers (Sin, the Devil, and Death are the most common antagonists, although Paul’s more ambiguous ‘principalities and powers’ could also be included). Jesus goes to battle with the alien power(s), and appears to be defeated in death, but his death turns out to be the undoing of the antagonist. In this metaphor, military terms such as battle, defeat, and conquering are predominant.” McLaren advocates rejecting this type of language and replacing it with something more appropriate for our culture. This language, he would argue, is contextual and Christians are under no obligation to describe Christianity with such terms.

But some Christians feel we need to rediscover this military language. Stanley Gale, author of Warfare Witness: Contending with Spiritual Opposition in Everyday Evangelism, is one of these. Warfare Witness is a book dealing with spiritual warfare, a topic that has received surprisingly little attention in Reformed circles. There is a great deal of material available within mainstream evangelicalism that proposes any number of misguided strategies for dealing with spiritual opposition. While there has clearly been a lot of interest in this topic in recent years, Reformed Christians have no doubt been guilty of not paying sufficient attention to it. Gale seeks to remedy this, and does so in a book that is endorsed by Philip Ryken, T.M. Moore and Sinclair Ferguson.

Gale believes that it is beneficial for Christians to have a militaristic understanding of the spiritual battle that rages around us, for this is the language God chose to use. He writes, “Some might not feel comfortable with the military concept and terminology. Yet…this is exactly the way our King and Commander would have us understand the nature of evangelism and approach to the work of witness…All of us enfolded into the king of God, as children of God and heirs of life, are servants of the Most High and soldiers of the cross.”

Gale begins with the Christian’s commission which is, of course, the Great Commission. After His glorious resurrection, and before He left this earth, Jesus gave His people their marching orders in the familiar words of Matthew 28:18-20. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The church is now given the responsibility of “making disciples of all nations.” And the Scripture presents this commission and its fulfillment in decidedly militaristic terminology. Scripture presents the work of redemption in militaristic terms, “in the work of Christ to bring it about, of the church to carry it out, and of individual Christians to live it out.” We see this under three headings: Christ’s Mission, the Church’s Mission and the Christian’s Identity.

Christ’s Mission - From its earliest mention, Christ’s mission was portrayed in terms of combat. In Genesis 3:15 God promises a Savior: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” We see a promise of two combatants with a battle raging between them. The culmination of Christ’s work, portrayed in Revelation, is filled with military language, leading us to see that “our salvation is the result of military intervention by our Lord” in which He performs a mission of mercy, grace and love.

The Church’s Mission - The church’s mission is also described in militaristic terms. We lay siege to the gates of hell. Jesus builds His church against a backdrop of spiritual opposition that seeks to overcome her. “The church operates in enemy territory and contends with enemy opposition.” The church, then, is a body, an army, marching out to war. We are army that fights in victory, not for victory, for the victory has already been won by Christ. We have to be both an invading army and an inviting army, both inviting people to join us and marching out to recruit them. We are to go! “The ‘go’ of our Lord’s Great Commission is the go of invasion. It is not the ‘go’ of a casual stroll or pointless wandering, but the go of military mission.” And when we go, we baptize, recruiting people into active service for the King.

The Christian’s Identity - Every local church represents an outpost of God’s army. Paul refers to those in other churches as “fellow soldiers” and urges Timothy to be a “good soldier of Christ Jesus.” Gale points out that when we were recruited into God’s army, we were given a rather strange set of clothing, not a camouflage uniform, but the brilliant white robe of Christ’s righteousness. We are not to be an army who hides or blends in, but an army that stands out. And our work as Christians is to wage war. “We are outfitted with weapons suitable for the nature of the combat we are called to undertake. Our tactics reflect military strategy, conducted in the wisdom of God. We stand on the truth against the assault of error. We pray against the opposition we face in mission.”

Gale believes that an understanding of this military model provides many benefits. First, it reminds us who we are. We have been rescued and are now called to join the cause of liberation from the devil’s tyranny. Second, it reminds us of our task. To follow Christ means that we are to do what He says and to fight for His cause. Third, it speaks to motivation. We obey the Lord because we love Him, are indebted to Him, and owe our lives and liberty to Him. Because Christ’s motivation to save us was love, we must have the same motivation as we seek out the lost. Fourth, this model reminds us why we fight and exhorts us to fight with God’s weapons in God’s ways. Fifth, it reminds us that we have a mandate and one from which we are often distracted by Satan. We are to stay true to our mission and to realize that we are not at peace but are at war.

“In Christ’s kingdom there can be no conscientious objectors. In Christ’s church, there is no inactive duty. To be a disciple is to be a solider of the cross…The term of enlistment is a lifetime, beginning with conversion, ending with the discharge papers or transfer to the church triumphant in heavenly rest, where we are eager to hear the words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”

I feel that Gale does quite a good job of defending his position that the military mandate is inexorably connected with the Scripture’s portrayal of Christ’s redemption, the church’s mission and the identity of the believer. But let me ask you: do you feel that this is a necessary metaphor, a helpful metaphor, or merely a contextual metaphor and one that should likely be abandoned, at least during our time and in our culture?

July 13, 2006

King for a Week is an honor I bestow on blogs that I feel are making a valuable contribution to my faith and the faith of other believers. Every week (or so) I select a blog, link to it from my site, and add that site’s most recent headlines to my left sidebar. While this is really not much, I do feel that it allows me to encourage and support other bloggers while making my readers aware of other good sites.

This week’s King for a Week is Married Life, a blog ministry of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The site features four authors who “hope that through this blog you will encounter a wealth of theologically informed, practical ideas designed to make an immediate difference, ultimately an eternal difference, in your marriage and family.” Most weeks they feature “Romantical Mondays: Starting our Week off Right!,” “Thursday’s Thoughts for Parents,” and “Miscellaneous, but Meaningful, Stuff on Marriage.” There is much wisdom to glean from these men and I’d encourage any married person to read it.

In the coming days you will be able to see the most recent headlines from this blog in the sidebar of my site. I hope you will make your way over the site and look around.

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

July 13, 2006

A few nights ago, in our time of family worship, we read Exodus 6, a chapter that serves as a prelude of sorts to the plagues which are about to befall Egypt. The chapter begins with God telling Moses that He will soon deliver the Israelites from their centuries of slavery. “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will send them out, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land.” God then explains this promise, telling Moses how He would deliver the people. He prefaces His explanation with a simple phrase: “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Lord.’” That phrase, “I am the Lord,” is repeated several times in the first nine verses of the chapter.

This is a passage often pointed to by people who feel they have discovered contradictions in Scripture, for when God says, “I am the Lord,” he also says, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them.” Yet, according to the Bible, God had used that name with the Patriarchs. By saying that He did not make Himself known by it, it seems that He is saying they were not able to see or understand the fullness of the name. But now, by delivering the Israelites, God will make Himself known as Lord. This name, Lord, is the “Tetragrammaton” which is translated into English as either Yahweh or Jehovah. Keil and Delitzsch explain this as follows. “[God] was about to reveal Himself to Israel as Jehovah, as the absolute Being working with unbounded freedom in the performance of His promises.” By revealing Himself as Jehovah, God would reveal something about Himself, namely, that He is a promise-keeping God.

Of all the uses of this phrase in the first few verses of Exodus 6, the one that most caught my attention was the final one. After all of His promises to the people, promises to bring them out from under the yoke of slavery, to exact judgment against the Egyptians, and to bring them into the promised land, God finishes with a small but powerful sentence: “I am the Lord.” As I read it, I paused briefly as I thought it was a peculiar phrase to use. Why, after making so many promises, would God simply state His identity? But as I pondered this, it became clear. I was reminded of some words found in the hymn “How Firm A Foundation” where the hymn-writer, John Rip­pon, asked simply, “What more can He say than to you He hath said?”

That is a good question. In this passage, what more could God have said? Why did He not say more? The reason is simple: God could not say more. There is nothing more that God could say to prove that He would fulfill His promises. He could not swear by anything, for what is there that is greater than Himself? He could not append the words, “I promise” to the end of His statement, for these would be meaningless compared to the greatness of His name. In saying “I am the Lord,” God gave the Israelites all the assurance they could have and all the assurance they ought to have needed. For when God reveals Himself as Jehovah, He is not merely revealing a name, but also His character. The character of God is inseparable from His name. God is Jehovah not only in name, but also in deed.

What more could God say than “I am the Lord?” Nothing. God is Jehovah, the promise-keeping God. We can have confidence that God’s character and His name can never be separated. This was true for the Israelites and it is true for us today.