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Christian Living

August 05, 2009

Several months ago I received an email from a person who had happened by this blog. As you will see in the excerpt of that email, she had been searching for information about original sin and its application to babies who die in infancy (or who die because of abortion). Google led her here. This is what she wrote:

I volunteer at a pregnancy resource center here in Southern California. I teach a post abortion Bible study for women. Until yesterday, I believed that all aborted babies, including two of my own, were in heaven with their Father. Then I had a conversation with a family member who thinks otherwise, and after that conversation I went looking for additional information. I found your two columns on the doctrine of original sin. I’ve been on the verge of tears ever since last night. The idea staggers me. I’m not writing to argue the point. I understand it’s what you believe and, for all I know, you may be right. Meanwhile, all the years of peace that I enjoyed seem to have evaporated. You may be doctrinally accurate, but I am utterly miserable. I feel like I’m back at the edge of the religious hell hole I crawled out of some years ago. Not a good place to be. I will have to do some serious thinking and praying.

The articles she references state my position on children who die in infancy—that the Bible simply does not tell us beyond any shadow of doubt whether all children who die in infancy are saved. I understand the position of those who declare “instant heaven” for any child who dies in infancy and I do hope that this is the case. However, I do not find that the Bible tells us one way or another. Important to the discussion is my understanding of the doctrine of original sin. From this doctrine we know that no person is born innocent. Rather, in some mysterious way all of us fell in Adam and because of his sin are born as sinners. There is no one who is entirely innocent before God, even in the womb. It was this doctrine that so surprised and so upset this woman as she came to understand its implications. After all, a biblical understanding of original sin must have implications to everyone who ever lived or died.

While her story and her state is sad, I find it remarkable that a professed Christian who has had two abortions and ministers to others who have had abortions has never been faced with the doctrine of original sin. She has never come face-to-face with her own badness and with the overwhelming, inherent badness of others. She staggers under the weight of learning that all human beings are conceived as guilty sinners before God and the necessary implications of this. Yet this is hardly a new teaching and is not something that only a select few Christians believe. It is theology that is not far from the very core of the Christian faith. A person who does not understand original sin cannot truly understand anything else. How can we understand the cross, the atonement, without first properly understanding sin?

What’s even more sad is the fact that her hope has ultimately been placed in her babies being in heaven. For her to be thrown back into this “hell hole” means that she’d been finding peace in spite of her sin, not because of the finished work of Christ on her behalf. Her peace, such that it was, was built on the shaky foundation of God taking care of her babies. What we see is that she is still ultimately carrying the guilt of her sin. As my friend Julian said when I discussed this with him, “She needs a bigger cross, not just an assurance that her babies are in heaven.” And that is exactly what she needs! She needs a cross that can both forgive her and give her the assurance that God’s ways are best; she needs assurance of forgiveness that comes through Christ’s completed work there at Calvary.

It is interesting to think as well about how her pastors and counselors must have helped her think through this issue. The easy way is to give pat answers and quick lines about David’s baby being in heaven and about God being a God of grace. There may be arguments to make along those lines, but they can only provide so much comfort. The much harder—but cross-centered—way is to point her to the cross for the forgiveness of her sins (regardless of whether or not her babies are in heaven). As Julian said, “She needs to own that guilt and that possibility, then cast it on the cross of Jesus. Then, take her back and show her the cross again, and the grace and goodness and kindness and mercy of God and teach her to hope in that, not in some obscure verses that may imply some hope for the salvation of babies.” It is here, at the cross, that she can properly own her guilt and then cast it on the cross; it is here at the cross that she can receive forgiveness—true forgiveness; it is here at the cross that she can crawl out of that religious hell hole and know that she stands righteous before God, believing that his ways are always best.

July 15, 2009

There's Treasure Everywhere

I’ve always loved Calvin & Hobbes. My friend Brian first introduced me to the comic strip back when I was a young teen and I immediately fell in love with it. (Here is a must-have for any true fan: The Complete Calvin & Hobbes). The strip works on at least two levels. There is the philosophical level where Calvin and his tiger discuss topics of science, philosophy and religion that are clearly far beyond the grasp of a six-year old mind. Yet they reflect the questions most people wrestle with during their lives. And then there is the more realistic level, where Calvin is just a young boy doing what boys do: learning to ride a bike, going to school, imaging himself as a superhero or astronaut, building snow forts, fighting with girls, and digging for treasure. Every young boy is convinced that there’s treasure everywhere. Any boy with a strong imagination will realize that there truly is treasure everywhere.

As you well know, I use this web site to discuss a wide variety of topics. I post personal reflections, book reviews and links to other sites I recommend. I write articles about theology, current issues, sexuality, philosophy and just about anything else that crosses my mind. I may not offer reflections that are particularly deep and original, but surely no one can complain about the variety!

One of the great benefits of having this site and of committing to contribute to it each day is that it has forced me to think a lot and to think widely. My wife will be the first to tell that she often has to snap me out of moments of thought where I am present in body but absent in mind. She will also have to testify that I often use her as an initial audience for what I am thinking about. I am quite convinced that my eclectic range of interests often frustrates and bewilders her. She is good to put up with me. Every day my mind wanders. Sooner or later it rests for a while on a particular subject—some news tidbit I’ve seen on the Internet or a word or phrase or idea I’ve read in a book. And then I just have to let my mind run for a while to see what I think about what I’ve discovered and to see how it relates to the Christian life. I often think best while writing, jotting down my thoughts as they come to me. I often turn to the Bible, allowing the thoughts to lead me through the Bible, helping me understand what God says about the issue.

The more I have thought about different topics, the more I’ve realized that there is theology everywhere. And this is what motivates me to write; it’s what motivates me to read and to think and to explore. Everywhere I turn I see theology, whether in a book about the atoning work of Jesus Christ or in a book about the future of business or in a biography of a man who lives half a world away. Sometimes the theology is lying on the surface, exposed and easy to see. Sometimes it is hidden within and just needs to be coaxed out. But always there is something to think about, something to wrestle with, something to help me think deeply about how Christians are to live in this world.

Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not one of these people who watches R-rated movies and tries to read into them some kind of redemptive theology that is simply not present. But it seems that every time I read the news and every book I read I find something that is profound, something that is or should be theological. Everything I read seems to provide some starting point for deeper reflection.

And I guess this is what this web site has become. It’s become a place where I try to unearth treasure. It’s a place where I write down and post my thoughts about a theology of, well, everything. When I read about technology I want to understand how this technology will impact the church. When I read about psychology or current events I want to learn how Christians need to respond. When I read about history or economics I want to see what the Bible has to say about these things. I want to know how they impact me as a Christian and how I should think about them and react to them to the glory of God.

As I continue to try to grapple with these things, I realize more and more my dependence on the Holy Spirit. He leads me into truth. He leads me into and through Scripture where the answers can be found. And ultimately he leads me to Jesus Christ who in turn points me to the Father, so I can bring the glory and the praise to Him. I can see that I need to improve in my ability to allow myself to be led to the cross and to share the shadow of the cross as it falls over all areas of theology. But I know, and am convinced, that there’s a theology of everything. There’s treasure everywhere. And I get such a thrill out of finding it.

July 06, 2009

The more I grow in my knowledge of the Lord (through my knowledge of his Word) the more I see the utter centrality of the church, the local church, in his plan for his people. The more I learn of him, the more I see what a jewel the church is—what a blessing, what an honor it is to be part of something so amazing, so other-worldly. This is something that has been brought home to me in recent years primarily by the joy and privilege of being part of a faithful local church. But it has also been emphasized through many of the books I’ve read.

Last week I read Ligon Duncan’s Does Grace Grow Best in Winter? (see my review) and followed that with Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck’s Why We Love the Church (check in tomorrow for a review). One is a book about suffering and the other is a book specifically about the church. And yet the theme is the same. I will have more to say about Why We Love the Church tomorrow. But for today I wanted to share something I read in Duncan’s book—something that really grabbed my attention.

You may be familiar with these words from the first chapter of Colossians:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.

They are words I have read many times and yet somehow Duncan’s application of them was entirely fresh. In the chapter in which he discusses these verses he is explaining what God may be accomplishing through your suffering and one of the four points he brings up is this one: Building up the church. Have you ever considered this before, that through your suffering God is strengthening the church? He says, “Our suffering aids the maturity of the whole body of believers. It is extraordinary that our suffering is designed not only to work godliness in us as individuals, causing us to prize Christ more, but also to work maturity within the whole church.” And this is exactly what Paul points to in the opening verses of Colossians. “Suffering is God’s instrument to bring about the maturity of the whole church. God ordains for our suffering, as a participation in the suffering of Christ’s body, to bring about in the church the purposes of Christ’s affliction. In other words, sometimes God appoints his children to suffer so that the whole body will become mature.” We all know that as members of the church we are to rejoice together and to mourn together, but do we understand that these occasions of mourning are given for our maturity? If we truly are a body, each part dependent on the other, then it cannot be any other way. One person’s suffering is every person’s suffering; one person’s maturing is every person’s maturing.

And as you think about this, can’t you see how it is true? Can’t you think to some of the Christian men and women whose suffering you have witnessed and see how their example has served to strengthen the church? I can think of many examples. Some of them are people who suffered far away from me, far from my local church, but whose suffering served to strengthen even those Christians whom they had never met face-to-face. Others of them are people who have been a part of my local church, my local congregation, whose suffering has been witnessed by only a few; but those few have been strengthened by their witness. I think of people who suffered through illness or joblessness or the loss of a child; they grew in maturity through the suffering but, remarkably, so did those of us who wept with them.

Duncan says, “These ‘lacking; afflictions of Christ’s do not indicate that his suffering was insufficient for our salvation. They are simply a recognition that when you become a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, you become a part of his body. Since you are part of his body, your sufferings are his sufferings. What are the sufferings that are lacking in Christ’s affliction? They are the ones that have not been experienced yet by his body, the church. They will continue to be experienced by his body until he comes again and makes an end of all suffering for his people.” Duncan goes on to say, “The apostle Paul is telling us something amazing. The afflictions of the body of Christ are intended to bring it to maturity. That is to say, God ordains, by the Spirit and by faith, for our suffering to bring about in the church the purposes of Christian affliction. These purposes are: Christ in us, the hope of glory, and every one of us being made mature in Jesus Christ.”

So I guess this is something we ought to keep in mind in those times that God calls us to suffer. Our suffering is not pointless; it is not meaningless. At least in part, our suffering is mandated by God so we can strengthen and edify our brothers and sisters in Christ so that they, and we, may strive toward Christian maturity. “Your suffering does not just belong to you. You are members of a body. Your suffering is for the body’s maturity as much as it is for yours. Your suffering is there to build up the church of Christ. It is there for the people of God to be given faith and hope and confidence in the hour of their trials. Your suffering is also the body’s suffering because one of God’s purposes in suffering is the maturity of the whole church.”

June 15, 2009

If you’ve never read Lou Priolo’s Pleasing People, well, it’s a good thing to add to your list of things to do. The book takes aim at the human desire to orient our lives around pleasing people instead of first and foremost pleasing God.

In one of the chapters, Priolo looks at clothing ourselves in humility and here he offers some wisdom on the subject of forgiveness. As the father of three young children, and as the owner of a proud and sinful heart, I have endless opportunities to teach about forgiveness and to practice both forgiveness and repentance in my own life. I’ve had to tell my children that true repentance doesn’t involve the word “but” (“I’m sorry I smacked you but you shouldn’t have said that to me…”). But then I’ve seen that I can fall into the same sin. I’ve had to tell my children that true repentance doesn’t drag up the past and use forgiven sin against others. But then I’ve seen that I can do the same thing. Though I’m many years older than they are, the lessons about forgiveness are still coming.

In Pleasing People Priolo portrays the heart of forgiveness as being a promise. Here is what he says: “Forgiveness is fundamentally a promise. As God promises to not hold our sins against us, so we also must promise not to hold the sins of those we’ve forgiven against them.” This is, of course, the foundation of the forgiveness God promises to us: that He will never hold our sins against us. On the day of judgment we know that He will not suddenly charge us with sins that have been forgiven us through the blood of Jesus. We have faith in God and trust in this promise. Without this promise our faith is hopeless. Praise God that he offers us this manner of forgiveness!

The promise of forgiveness, says Priolo, can be broken into three parts. First, you promise not to bring up the offense to the forgiven person so as to use it against him. Second, you promise not to discuss with others the sin you have forgiven. Third, you promise not to dwell on the forgiven offense but to remind yourself that you have forgiven the offender in the same way that God has forgiven you for a multitude of far greater sins. Thus when you ask forgiveness you secure these promises for yourself.

Seeking forgiveness cannot be confused with apologizing. An apology is not the means to reconciliation (which is to say that “I’m sorry” and “Please forgive me” are not the same thing). If I apologize to a person I’ve offended and he subsequently apologizes to me, we still have not taken responsibility and truly humbled ourselves. We haven’t tied up loose ends and, to use Priolo’s term, the ball is still up in the air. Apologies are not enough. We must seek forgiveness and its fruit—reconciliation.

According to Priolo, true forgiveness looks something like this:

  1. Acknowledge that you have sinned. Let the party you’ve offended know that you acknowledge wrongdoing. This is humbling but necessary. Acknowledge not only that you sin but that you have sinned against this person.
  2. Identify your sin by its specific biblical name. Do not simply acknowledge generic sin but acknowledge specific sin and call it by its biblical name (which keeps you from acknowledging something society may label as sin but the Bible does not). This ensures that you have thought deeply about your sin and have seen how it fits into what the Bible calls sin.
  3. Acknowledge the harm your offense caused. This is also humbling. You must acknowledge that your sin has had consequences and that you are owning up not only to the sin but also to the harmful consequences your sin brought about.
  4. Demonstrate repentance by identifying an alternative biblical behavior. Show that you have truly considered your sin by explaining what you should have done instead. Show what the appropriate alternative behavior would have been.
  5. Ask for forgiveness. This puts the onus on the offended party to accept your repentance and to extend forgiveness to you. It completes the reconciliation between the offender and the one who has been offended.

These are simple steps, to be sure, and even obvious ones, but serve to display and prove true humility and true repentance. They bring about true and lasting reconciliation—the kind of reconciliation we experience with our God despite far greater, far more grave, offenses.

June 12, 2009

Yesterday I described the book as The Perfect Technology. There was perhaps a little bit of hyperbole involved, but I think the point was well-taken. I was actually surprised to see how many people agreed with me. Maybe as Christians we are unusual in this regard; maybe Christians are, almost by definition, readers and, thus, people who will toss away their books only with great caution. This is good, I think, as Christians tend to be too pragmatic, prone to believe that any innovation that claims to make life immediately easier or more convenient (without violating any clear teaching of Scripture) must be good.

Today I want to carry on with a few more thoughts about reading in a digital world and I want to focus in on one issue in particular.

I have witnessed recently what I consider a disturbing trend—Christians coming to church armed not with a Bible but with an iPod or an iPhone or another hand held device. With many versions of the Bible available in electronic formats and with the widespread popularity of MP3 players, cell phones and other digital devices, I guess it just makes sense to some people to bring Scripture in that electronic format. Pragmatists that we are, I believe many Christians have done this without thinking at all about the implications.

I want to encourage you not to bring an electronic Bible to church. I want to encourage you today to bring to church a Bible—an old fashioned kind of Bible, with ink printed on paper and slapped between two covers made of cardboard or leather or pleather. I also want to encourage you not to get into the habit of doing your daily Bible reading using an electronic device. I think we stand to lose far more than we gain.

In the past couple of months I have spent a fair bit of time reading the works of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman—gurus of the technological age. I tend to prefer Postman as I find him not only more accessible but also more accurate and more realistic. McLuhan is prone to hyperbole, excessive hyperbole even, and I find that this detracts from his effectiveness as a communicator (though I know that many would disagree with me on this point).

McLuhan is undoubtedly best-known for his catchy little phrase, “the medium is the message.” It sometimes helps to emphasize that little word is as if to stress that the the medium and the message carried by that medium cannot be neatly separated. This is exactly what McLuhan emphasized time and time again—we cannot afford to fall into the trap of believing that media are neutral, simple bearers of a message. “The medium is the message.” In a classic case of McLuhian hyperbole, he would say that the content of a particular medium “has about as much importance as the stencilling on the casing of an atomic bomb.” He turns the equation right around, saying that the content is nothing, the medium is everything.

I think McLuhan makes an important point and one that we discount at our folly, though he overstates his case here and elsewhere. Still, where McLuhan is so important is in understanding that every medium carries with it a message that necessarily impacts the content. We like to think that we are smart enough, holy enough, to draw complete and utter separation between medium and content. Christians do this all the time when we assume that there is no difference between singing songs from a hymn book and singing songs via a projector and Powerpoint. We do this when we listen to sermons online instead of listening while seated in a pew. But what if we are fooling ourselves? What if the medium really does radically shape our perception, our understanding, of the content it carries? What then?

This is where Neil Postman comes in. In Technopoly Postman says that, when two technologies come into competition or conflict (two technologies such as the Bible printed on paper and the Bible on an iPod), it is more than technologies that are squaring off, but rather, entire worldviews. Every medium, he says, carries with it some kind of an ideological bias, “a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing more than another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.” Thus, again, the method we use to convey information is inseparable from the content of that information. And even more so, every medium carries with it both content but also a worldview. When we read the Bible electronically, we read the very same words, but in a way that influences us toward a different worldview, a different way of understanding the reality of those words.

Postman also adds to this discussion a phrase that is so simple but so important: a technology does what it was created to do. Over time, a technology will play out its hand, to to speak, and it may do so in ways we would not expect. Had Gutenberg known what would happen through the invention of the printing press, do we believe that he still would have invented it? That printing press was instrumental in forever changing the Roman Catholic Church (of which he was a faithful son). How many other technologies have played out their hands in completely unexpected ways? Should we not be on our guard, then, when considering such new innovations?

So where does this leave us? It leaves us wondering what ideological bias, what predisposition, is carried in the book and in the electronic book. It causes us to wonder what skill or attitude is amplified in the book and what skill or attitude is amplified in the iPod.

But I will have to take this up in another article. Check in next week for that.

June 08, 2009

I was skimming headlines and noticed a story about some activists on a college campus who were planning to cover all of the school’s mirrors for a day. I did not read long enough to see why they wanted to do this, but I assume it was somehow meant to draw attention to a problem the school or government was covering up. You know how these college-aged activists are, always thinking they are so clever and profound. They make me laugh, really, as if with their eighteen years of life experience they understand all of the world’s problems and are equipped to lead us all in doing great things about it. At least in this case they got me thinking about life without mirrors.

Now I’m not one of those metrosexual guys who spends half of my life primping and preening in front of a mirror. My bathroom isn’t stocked with hundreds of different kinds of moisturizers, hair products and body sprays. But I still wouldn’t want to start my day without a quick peek into the mirror. I still want to make sure that my weird and wiry hair isn’t doing anything too obnoxious or that the afflictions of age (primarily those thick black hairs that seem to grow suddenly out of strange places) are not protruding from places they shouldn’t be.

There is something comforting about peering into a mirror every now and then. Certainly there is usually no reason to gaze at myself when I go into a bathroom but, like you, I always make a cursory check to ensure that nothing too weird is going on. If I eat a poppy seed bagel (my favorite!) I have to check that there isn’t a seed stuck between those two teeth that are just a tiny bit crooked and always (always!) manage to trap a seed. Few things are worse than trooping around all day and only realizing at the end of it that I’ve had a piece of parsley or spinach stuck to one of my teeth or that I’ve had a ridiculous cowlick (or, more commonly, that I’ve had a Dora the Explorer sticker stuck to my pants). You know the feeling.

All this talk of mirrors draws me to the closing verses of the first chapter of James. You no doubt know the words well:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

As I read these verses and began to meditate upon them I was reminded immediately of those activists on the college campus. I realized that I would never intentionally head out to a meeting or an appointment without first checking a mirror to make sure that everything looked just about right (or as right as it can, anyways, based on what I’m working with here). Covering all the mirrors in our house would bother me! And then I was struck by the way James portrays the Bible as a mirror for the heart. I thought of how loathe I am to begin my day without peering into a mirror but how little it troubles me when I begin the day without peering into the mirror of the Word.

I know there have been times when I’ve forgotten to check a mirror before heading out. Most of the time it hasn’t mattered, but there have been a couple of occasions when I realized only when it was too late that I had forgotten to shave or that I was still showing clear evidence on my face of having eaten a chocolate cookie earlier in the day. I could have saved myself embarrassment by just checking the mirror. I know there have been times when I’ve forgotten or neglected to look into the mirror of the Word, the perfect law of liberty, to assess my heart. Most of the time it hasn’t shown, but I know there have been occasions when I gave clear evidence of this to the people I encountered. There have been other times that I’ve read the Bible, but have not allowed it to penetrate or to take hold. I’ve been just the person James warns about who “looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” I have looked quickly, glanced briefly, but have not looked long enough to allow the Scripture to reflect back to me my sin and God’s standard of holiness. I have gone merrily on my way having already forgotten to be both a hearer and a doer.

God’s Word has the unique ability to give great clarity to what God demands and expects of us. It also unmasks our sin and our rebellion. I would be a fool not to gaze into this mirror every day. I would be a fool to go about life without regularly looking into this amazing mirror.

June 02, 2009

Pacific Campaign

The Pacific Campaign of the Second World War has always fascinated me. In many ways, it seemed like a nonsensical series of battles between the United States and Japan. As the Americans sought to curtail Japanese aggression in the East, they fought their way across the Pacific Ocean, moving slowly and deliberately from island to island. Tiny, seemingly insignificant pieces of rock, jutting from the midst of a boundless ocean, hundreds of miles, thousands even, from the nearest mainland, became fierce battlegrounds. Tens of thousands of lives were lost in conquering these tiny little islands. And yet these islands were far more important than their size may have indicated, for they were able to serve as air bases from which strikes could be launched against other islands, and eventually against Japan itself. The insignificant islands were crucial stepping stones across the vast Pacific Ocean.

There are many lessons we can learn from the Pacific Campaign. Some apply to warfare, but others apply far beyond. One of the most important is this: little things lead to big things. This is as true in warfare as it is in the hearts of men and women.

The Spirit constantly challenges me to deal with little sins. As with so many other believers, I often tend to feel that I’m a pretty good guy. I have never committed any of the really “bad” sins. I’ve never killed anyone, I’ve never committed adultery and I’ve never stolen anything big enough for anyone to notice that it’s missing. I pay my taxes, stick near the speed limit, and try not to hate people. But while I have not committed those big sins, I’ve come to realize just how open I have become to the little sins. To use our military metaphor, while the mainland has not yet been conquered, I can see how I’ve gleefully allowed island after island to fall to Satan. Surely concentrated attacks on the mainland cannot be far behind. Surely big sins will follow these little ones.

BRIDGING THE GULF

The Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon, likens Satan’s attacks to bridging a gulf. “If it be desired to bridge a gulf, it is often the custom to shoot an arrow, and cross it with a line almost as thin as film. That line passes over and a string is drawn after it, and after that some small rope, and after that a cable, and after that the swinging suspension bridge, that makes a way for thousands.” Not too long ago, the Toronto press reported on a local man who had committed a horrifying murder. A bit of a loner, this man began to use his home computer to look at pornography. Soon light pornography was not enough to satisfy him and he began to look at things that were increasingly perverse. Before long he was seeking after child pornography. And one day, as he was looking at these horrible acts played out on his computer screen, he looked out his window and saw a young girl walking by all alone. Without planning, without having seriously considered that he might do this, he snatched her from the street. A couple of days later, the police found her body. The man turned himself in and confessed to the crime, insisting that he had not meant to do something so horrifying, so evil. It is likely true that this was not an act that had been planned for a long time. Satan had conquered island after island in this man’s heart until he finally reached the mainland. A series of small beginnings led to a horrible end. Spurgeon warns against allowing these little sins. “Oh! take heed of those small beginnings of sin. Beginnings of sin are like the letting out of water: first, there is an ooze; then a drip; then a slender stream; then a vein of water; and then, at last, a flood: and a rampart is swept before it, a continent is drowned. Take heed of small beginnings, for they lead to worse.”

Stories like that of the man who murdered the little girl terrify me. It’s not that I am drawn to pornography or have ever considered seeking out child pornography. Rather, it is the lesson behind the story—the lesson that little things lead to big things. Thomas Brooks, the Puritan, wrote, “Greater sins do sooner startle the soul, and awaken and rouse up the soul to repentance, than lesser sins do. Little sins often slide into the soul, and breed, and work secretly and undiscernibly in the soul, till they come to be so strong as to trample upon the soul, and to cut the throat of the soul.” If this is true in the life of an average guy who murdered a little child, could it not be true in my life?

LITTLE SINS

In God’s Way of Holiness, Horatius Bonar wrote, “The avoidance of little evils, little sins, little inconsistencies, little weaknesses, little follies, little indiscretions and imprudences, little foibles, little indulgences of self and of the flesh, little acts of indolence or indecision or slovenliness or cowardice, little equivocations or aberrations from high integrity, little touches of shabbiness and meanness, little indifferences to the feelings or wishes of others, little outbreaks of temper, or crossness, or selfishness, or vanity—the avoidance of such little things as these goes far to make up at least the negative beauty of a holy life.” Jerry Bridges is astute in pointing out that “it is in the minutiae of life where most of us live day after day.” Few of us are regularly faced with the outright decision of whether or not to commit adultery, but each of us is faced each day with the temptation of stealing a single lustful look or allowing a single lustful fantasy to play out in our minds.

We may think we avoid evil by fleeing the sins we perceive to be greater. But Jesus dealt harshly with such thoughts. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” Jesus gave no quarter to sin. He knew that sin begins in the heart and it begins not with a great act of sin, but with many small acts. Surely Cain first grumbled against Abel, and then plotted against him before finally murdering him. Surely David allowed himself to think lustful thoughts and surely he went to the roof of his palace knowing what he might see. Those little sins led to breathtakingly horrifying, ungodly acts of lust and anger.

DECLARING WAR

The truth is, that every sin, whether large or small, is a declaration of war against God. In the recent Israeli-Lebanon crisis, we saw this principle played out. The Hezbollah sent a few troops across the border into Israel. They did not send an entire army, but only a small squad of soldiers. Still, this was as much a declaration of war as if they had sent every solider under their command. Israel perceived this for the statement it was and reacted accordingly. In the same way even a small sin is a declaration of war against God. After all, Adam and Eve did not commit adultery and did not murder—they merely ate a piece of fruit that God had told them not to eat. This may seem only a small sin, but it is a sin that has made all the difference.

I have been challenged in my life to guard against the small sins—those sins that seem so small, so insignificant. I have come to see through Scripture and through human experience how those sins soon lead to others. They are but the beginnings of much greater sins. Each and every one, no matter how insignificant it may seem, is a declaration of war and an act of war against the Creator. And if I do not guard against these sins, soon island after island will be conquered and only the mainland will remain, weak and unprotected. Thanks be to God that He provides the strength and the power to reconquer and reclaim islands that have already fallen to the enemy. He has won battles, but by the grace of God he will be pushed back, further and further from the mainland, and will not win the war.

May 27, 2009

Some time ago I was reading the site of a Roman Catholic apologist and read a statement that showed a misunderstanding of Protestant theology. And there may be good reason for this error. The author said simply, “Protestants do not believe in confession.” The statement is correct only insofar as Protestants do not practice auricular confession (confessing ones’ sins to a priest in order to receive forgiveness). That statement along with others I have heard and read shows that there is a misunderstanding about the Protestant view of confession. That God calls us to confess our sin is clearly supported by Scripture. The Bible offers us clear teaching on this subject. Yet this is not an aspect of Christian living to which Christians tend to give a great deal of attention. Today I want to look just briefly to the practice of confession.

Leviticus 16:21 shows that confession is an integral part of forgiveness. “Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness…” Though confession is implicit in asking for forgiveness (an admission of wrong-doing is necessary before one is able to properly ask for forgiveness), the Biblical model is one of explicit confession. The priest did not simply send the scapegoat into the wilderness as a sign of forgiveness. Nor did he simply mumble a few platitudes and consider that sufficient. Rather, he first laid his hands on the animal and confessed the sins of the nation. The implication is that the priest would have confessed specific sins rather than simply offering a vague admission of guilt.

Psalm 32:3-5 shows the burden of unconfessed sin. “When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; And You forgave the guilt of my sin.” David says that while he refused to confess his sin his bones wasted away, God’s hand was heavy upon him and his strength was sapped. The burden was psychological, spiritual and probably physical as well. Finally, after David confessed his sin before God he experienced God’s forgiveness. At the close of the psalm we see a radical transformation. David is glad - singing and rejoicing in song. David shows us that confession is a necessary aspect of spiritual health.

Most Christians have, at one time or another, learned the acronym A.C.T.S. as a model for prayer. Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication is a good and a logical way of ordering prayer. There is logic in this model. Giving God the adoration due his name will inevitably prepare us for confession. Focusing on God’s attributes will help us see where we have fallen short of his standards. A part of our adoration is focusing on the attributes of God that we shared with him before our fall into sin. For example, we may give God glory for being perfect in holiness. As we do this it opens our eyes to the fact that this perfection is God’s standard for us. He demands and expects no less from us. Once we have established who God is and what he has done we cannot help but see how our lives and character fall short of the perfection he demands. The reaction of a contrite and broken heart can be nothing other than confessing our sinfulness before him as we begin to pour out our requests before him.

So what does confession actually look like? Here are a few pointers:

Confession is specific. Like most things in life, and in the Christian life in particular, speaking in specifics is superior to speaking in generalities. We commit specific sins and thus need to confess them specifically. Consider, for example, someone who struggles with feelings of jealousy. Praying “I confess that I am a jealous person” is less specific than praying “I confess that I am jealous of the talents You have given to someone else.” The more specific we are, the more we show to God that we have thought about our sins and that we are truly sorry for them. A vague admission of sin shows that we are only vaguely repentant.

Confess the consequences. True confession involves looking not just at the sin we commit but also at how this sin has affected us. It is more than an admission of guilt but is a process of soul-searching to see where sin has taken root in our lives. So we need to search our souls and then confess not only the sin but also the effects of the sin. “I confess that I am jealous of the talents you have given to someone else” is a good place to start, but praying “I confess I am jealous of the talents you have given someone else, and this makes me resentful towards you for not blessing me in this way. It also damages my relationship towards this person…” shows that I have searched my soul and seen how my sin has affected me.

Confession precedes forgiveness. Confession leads us to ask for forgiveness. Confessing leads us to fall on our faces before God, literally or figuratively, to ask for forgiveness. A confession is not, in itself, enough. In our court system a criminal may plead guilty for a misdeed, but this does not necessarily indicate that he is sorry for what he has done. Similarly we need to ask God for his forgiveness, not just confess our sins to him.

Confession before someone we have harmed. There may be times where our sin requires us to confess and ask forgiveness from someone our sin has affected. We must be careful with this because there are times when our sin should remain only between ourselves and God, especially if revealing it to others would only hurt them further and damage relationships. Knowing when it is appropriate to confess before men and when it is best to confess before God is a matter of wisdom, dependent on knowing the Word of God and being filled with his Spirit.

Confession before Men. At times it may be wise to confess our sins before a friend or other trusted individual. This is an aspect of confession that we often overlook, perhaps because it is not part of our Protestant heritage or perhaps because it is so unnatural for us to want to confess sin to others. Confession is therapeutic (in the best sense of the word). While we may not have to confess our sins to a person we have sinned against (again, this is dependent on specific situations), it may still be helpful to confess this sin to a close friend so this person can then pray with us, pray for us, and help us believe in God’s assurance of forgiveness.

On his album The House Show, Derek Webb provides a lengthy spoken introduction to his song “I Repent” where he says that often it might just be the best thing for us if our deepest, darkest sins, the ones we work hardest to hide, were exposed to the world and broadcast from the rooftops. After all, if our sins were exposed, we would have no way of hiding from them and we would have to deal with them. Of course this is exactly how our sins have been exposed to Jesus. Jesus sees and knows them all. Yet, praise be to God, if we know him, all our sins have been forgiven! Having confessed our sin and asked for forgiveness, we have God’s assurance that he has forgiven us. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” We need to believe in this promise, believing that our sins have been paid for by Christ. Naturally, our reaction should now be one of joy as we thank God for allowing Christ to take our sin upon himself. Finally, having confessed to him and having thanked him for forgiveness, we can pour out our requests to him, asking that he would help us turn from our sin and become more and more like his Son.

Confession, then, is an integral part of the Protestant faith and a necessary part of our Christian walk. While vastly different from Roman Catholic confession, it is no less important a part of the faith.

May 07, 2009

When I was a child my father would occasionally take me to work with him. Dad did not work in an office so this was not a typical “take your child to work” situation. Dad was a landscaper and a day with dad was a day in the hot sun. It was a day of hard work, hauling, digging, planting, watering, tending. As a child I would grow discouraged at how little I could do in comparison to dad. By the time I had hauled a couple of flats of plants from the truck to the garden, he would have hauled a hundred. By the time I had dug a hole big enough to fit a rose, he would have finished a dozen. Even when I did get something done quickly, he would almost inevitably tell me that I had done it poorly and would tell me to go back and do it properly. After a while I would wonder if there was any reason at all to even help him. What could I really accomplish in comparison?

And yet at the end of the day dad would thank me for my help and would stop and buy me an ice cream or another treat. And he would give me a few dollars as payment for what I had done. Despite false starts, despite carelessness, despite weakness, I really was able to help dad out. Together we got the job done, even if my half of the work was, well, a lot less than half.

A few days ago I was reflecting on how good God is to allow us to work with him and to sometimes do his work on his behalf. When we share the gospel with unbelievers or when we preach the gospel to our brothers and sisters in Christ, it is easy to see our own inadequacy, our own shortcomings. It is easy to grow discouraged, knowing how little we can accomplish. Why bother with our fractional percent when God is the one who must provide all of the power?

As I was thinking about these things, I came across a great illustration in Gorden Cheng’s Encouragement: How Words Change Lives (published by Matthias Media). He describes an occasion where his work, foolish though it may seem, really does make a difference.

*****

When the entire family decides to plant baby lettuce on a Saturday afternoon in the backyard, certain realities apply and certain home truths about family dynamics and gardening knowledge must be taken into account. My wife is extremely well aware of these realities; the rest of us are somewhat aware in a descending order that begins with me, and gradually drops down to our seven-year-old (who, truth be known, is starting to get quite good and is beginning to ask question about my ability in this area), down to our four-year-old and finally to our three-year-old. The latter two contribute enthusiasm and a certain degree of, let’s say, unrestrained passion about how things ought to be done and who ought to do them first. As a direct result of this scenario, it is fair to suggest that every single task that needs to be completed in the garden takes three to five times longer than if Fiona (my wife) were to do it herself. Digging a furrow takes longer. Putting plants into the furrow takes longer. It is an activity fraught with risk both to the baby lettuce and to the dogs underfoot. At least one adult is employed for the entire gardening period keeping an eye on the most recent location of the pitchfork, and helping recover small plants from under a layer of newly thrown mulch. Snails, as the oldest of us have now realized, are not potential pets—but we haven’t yet had the heart to tell the two youngest, and so the location of their mollusc collection has also turned out to be one of those things that just has to be carefully monitored.

But for all the slow, distracting and sometimes dangerous things that happen in our garden, there is no doubt that all of us really are gardening. Every single one of the children’s mistakes, and a good number of mine as well, will be overruled by grace. The good things we do really are good things. In the kindness and providence of God, the children (and I) are becoming better gardeners than when we first began. When we stand in the garden in the summer sunshine we will be happy because we really did it.

And that is how it is with God and us, his fellow workers, in his church. We really are helping him. Those who see our efforts may laugh at what we do. We ourselves may become frustrated and upset by mistakes and lack of competence. We may become dimly aware, from time to time, that what we thought was useful and helpful was, unfortunately, nothing of the sort. But provided that we keep our focus on what God says in his word, and continue to speak that same truth in love, the gospel we speak will continue to transform our own lives and the lives of others. And that gospel work will result in a growth that bears fruit into eternity.

May 04, 2009

DenethorIn The Lord of the Rings Tolkien writes about a kingdom called Gondor which for many years has had no king. While waiting for the rightful heir to come and claim his throne, a series of stewards has been placed in charge of the land. The steward in charge at the time of the events described in the book is named Denethor and he has two sons, Boromir and Faramir, both of whom figure prominently in the story (and subsequently, in the movie). As steward of the land, Denethor had the power of the king but without the title and without the full measure of honor. He was able to make decisions and to pass judgment. He received the respect and admiration of the people of the land. His primary task was to do whatever was best for the land in the absence of its rightful ruler. In all he did he was to remember his position—to remember that he was not and never would be the king. As a constant reminder of his temporary position he was forbidden to rule from the king’s throne.

“…awe fell upon him as he looked down that avenue of kings long dead. At the far end upon a dais of many steps was set a throne under a canopy of marble shaped like a crowned helm; behind it was carved upon the wall and set with gems an image of a tree in flower. But the throne was empty. At the foot of the dais, upon the lowest step which was broad and deep, there was a stone chair, black and unadorned, and on it sat an old man gazing at his lap.”

That man, of course, was the steward. Where the king was allowed the full honor of sitting upon the throne, surrounded by splendor, the steward was consigned to rule from a plain, unadorned chair that sat at the foot of the throne.

Denethor was not a very good steward. He dreaded the day the king would return, for he knew that with the return of the king would come his own return to obscurity. He jealously guarded the power that had been given him and did not look forward to the day when he will have to relinquish the kingdom to its rightful owner. This attitude affected his every decision, and he often ruled based on his own desire for preservation rather than on the basis of what would be best for the kingdom he was sworn to protect. We find him saying:

“…the Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.” To this Gandalf replied “Unless the king should come again? Well, my lord Steward, it is your task to keep some kingdom against that even, which few now look to see.”

The steward was failing in his duty to properly care for what had been entrusted to him. We learn later that he had been going beyond the care of his office and had become corrupted by the enemy. His abuse of what had been entrusted to him led to his own corruption.

This concept of stewardship is one that has been largely lost to our time and our culture. We understand ownership, borrowing, leasing and mortgaging but have little knowledge of stewardship. Yet it is a crucial concept in the Bible. Scripture tells us that we are to regard all that God gives us as if we are stewards, not owners (See, for example, Luke 12). This is true of wealth; it is true of talents; it is true of opportunities and children and spouses and property and businesses and everything else. Where God has given richly, much is expected in return. At no time does God give us full and final ownership of what He has given us. He gives us but the opportunity to be stewards of his gifts.

Stewardship is more difficult than we may think. How tightly we like to cling to those things that we regard as ours. How tightly we cling to our money and how quick we are to set our hope in the uncertainty of riches (1 Timothy 6:17). How difficult it is to release our children to the care of God, knowing that we are but stewards of them for the short time God grants them to us. How prone we are to hold fast to all of the wrong things. How hard it is for us to understand that we do not occupy the throne. No, we are those who sit in the steward’s unadorned stone chair, far below, in the shadow of the throne.

Denethor held fast to the wrong things. Drunk with corruption and power and unwilling to hand over the kingdom, Denethor, steward of Gondor, eventually took his own life, ending his years of poor stewardship. He would rather die than give up the power that he thought was his. He would rather die than humble himself before the king.

Denethor’s son, Faramir, took his father’s place as the next in a long line of stewards. And no sooner did he do this than Aragorn, the heir to the throne, returned to Gondor. Faramir was faced with all that was so important to his father. Would Faramir be like his father? Or would he be a faithful steward?

“Faramir met Aragorn in the midst of those there assembled, and he knelt, and said: “The last steward of Gondor begs leave to surrender his office.”…Then Faramir stood up and spoke in a clear voice: “Men of Gondor, hear now the Steward of this realm! Behold! One has come to claim the kingship again at last. Here is Aragorn son of Arathorn…Shall he be king and enter into the city and dwell there?” And all the host and all the people cried yea with one voice.”

Moments later, when the new king has been crowned, it is Faramir who leads the cries of “Behold the king!”

Faramir was everything his father was not. He was a good and faithful steward who looked forward to the return of his king and who was willing and ready to hand what had been entrusted to him to its rightful owner. Faramir proved his character.

It is said that Queen Victoria, who reigned over England for over 63 years said, “I wish Jesus would come back in my lifetime. I would lay my crown at His feet.” Would you do the same? Will you lead the chorus of “Behold the King!”?

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