Who Needs Theology When You Can Have Jesus? You Do.

I ran across two videos online yesterday. The first was one I had seen before by Jefferson Bethke, called “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus,” and the other was by Thabiti Anyabwile called “Why is Theology Important?

I’ll be concise and say that I love the second video, but the first video doesn’t sit right with me.

I understand what Jefferson Bethke is getting at, but I think he is a bit misguided in his approach and his choice of words.

Kevin DeYoung has written a very good response to Bethke’s video and to statements like “God hates religion.” That response can be found here: Does Jesus Hate Religion?  Kinda, Sorta, Not Really

In think that many Christians have overplayed their hand when it comes to trying to make a hard dichotomy between Christianity and religion, or saying that people don’t need theology, all they need is Jesus. That’s a false dichotomy.

Throughout the Old Testament, God Himself established what could be called a “religious” system of rituals, symbols, rules and ceremonies – all of which pointed to Jesus and were then fulfilled by Jesus. In James 1:27 we are encouraged to practice “pure religion which is pleasing to God.” (James 1:27).

As I have written about extensively on this site, Christianity is unique compared to all religions of the world, which all share a common method of obtaining salvation: earning it. In this sense, it is right to say that Christianity can’t be bunched together with other world religions. Timothy Keller, in his writings has put it this way: that Christianity is neither religion nor irreligion, but something completely different: salvation by grace unto a relationship with God. I agree.

And yet, it would seem that what God hates isn’t religion per se, but bad religion which leads to self-righteousness and self-justification and any other practices which do not align with His heart. He chastised the Israelites in the Old Testament, not for being religious, but for distorting their religion for selfish purposes which did not align with His heart. The solution God gave them was not that they cast off religion, but that they get back to the heart of God.

It is important to remember that self-justification and self-righteousness don’t only come about through religion; there are plenty of non-religious ways that people seek to justify themselves and get a sense of self-righteousness, e.g. through morality, career, achievements, family, etc.  In fact, apart from Jesus every person is pursuing self-justification in one form or another, and most of these forms are not through religion.

One of the particular dangers of “bad religion” is that it gives people a false sense of security in being right with God. However the same could be said of an anti-religious stance which is just as condescending and self-righteous in its own right…

This is why theology is so important. Theology is not opposed to relationship with God, rather it is what Anselm of Canterbury called, “Faith seeking understanding.” If Christianity is about a relationship with God – and it is – then it is of utmost importance that we get to know this God for who He is through how He has chosen to reveal Himself to us. Furthermore, theology directly affects the way we live practically.

The fact is, like it or not: we are all theologians. You are a theologian, whether you think of yourself as one or not, because you have conceptions and ideas about God: who He is and what He is like. That makes you a theologian. Whether you are a good theologian or not is a different question, but the fact is that you are a theologian. Even atheists are theologians.

Check out this video of Thabiti Anyabwile talking about why theology is important:

What is Eid al-Adha?

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Carrying off an animal to be sacrificed during Eid al-Adha

Last night as my kids were getting ready for bed, they were looking at a calendar hanging on the wall, and they noticed that today is a holiday: Eid al-Adha. They asked me what it is; I knew it was an Islamic holiday, but I wasn’t exactly sure of the details, so I looked it up.

Eid al-Adha means “Feast of Sacrifice” in Arabic, and it comes at the end of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Eid al-Adha commemorates how Abraham’s faith was tested when he was asked by God to sacrifice his only son.

The Biblical story, found in Genesis 22, states that God tested Abraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice “your son, your only son, whom you love,” and that this son was Isaac. In spite of that, Muslims believe that this son was not Isaac, but actually Ishmael. The Qur’an’s account of this story does not list the name of the son explicitly, but Muslims believe that it was Ishmael, not Isaac – because the Arabic people are descended from Ishmael, whereas the Jewish people are descended from Isaac. It is important to keep in mind that the Muslim traditions and the Qur’an came about much later (hundreds and in some cases, thousands of years) than the biblical texts.

Another difference between the Islamic version of this story and the Biblical one is the location where this takes place. In the Bible, this sacrifice took place on Mount Moriah, which is the future location of Jerusalem, and specifically the Temple. As such, it is the same hill upon which Jesus would later be crucified.

Islamic tradition states that during this time, Abraham was tempted by the devil not to obey God. For this reason, part of the Hajj includes the throwing of rocks at a three large columns in Mina, where it is believed that Abraham was tempted by the devil.

In the biblical account of the story, God provides a ram to be a substitute for Abraham’s son, to die in his place, so that he can live. This, particularly in light of the location on Mount Moriah, is an important foreshadowing to the biblical concept of substitutionary sacrifice, the greatest of which is Jesus – after whom no more sacrifices are to be offered, because no more sacrifices are needed to atone for sin or to facilitate fellowship with God, since Jesus has accomplished those things in their fullest form, forever.

Muslim tradition, on the other hand, states that as Abraham attempted to kill Ishmael, either the knife was turned over in his hand, or copper appeared on Ishmael to prevent Abraham from killing him, and then Abraham was told that he had fulfilled the command. No mention is made in the Qur’an of an animal replacing the son, only that he is replaced with a “great sacrifice.” This sacrifice was taken to be the institution of regular religious sacrifice, which is now practiced every year on Eid al-Adha, where Muslims around the world slaughter an animal to commemorate Abraham’s sacrifice and to remind themselves to obey the way of Allah.

However, there is some Islamic art which has historically shown Abraham sacrificing an animal in place of his son, like in the biblical account.

The greatest difference between Christianity and every other religion in the world, including Islam, is the belief about how one is saved, or justified (made right with God). Whereas every other religion and philosophy says that it is based on your obedience, your performance, your compliance and adherence to certain rules and ordinances, Christianity says that it is by the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus on your behalf – and the story of Abraham and Isaac, and how God provided a substitute, is one of the greatest pictures of this salvation by grace in the Old Testament. Isaiah later speaks of how the Messiah will be slaughtered, like a lamb, and as a substitute for the people (Isaiah 53). Jesus is later referred to as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29).

Please join me in praying that especially now during Eid al-Adha, God would open the eyes of many Muslim people to see Jesus as the true and ultimate sacrifice, given by God on their behalf, so they can rest from their labors of trying to justify themselves, and receive justification and salvation as a free gift of His grace.

Famous Last Words

Guatama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, is his final teaching to his disciples said this:

“Behold, O monks, this is my last advice to you: Work hard to gain your own salvation.”

Source: Buddahnet

Others have translated this sentence in this way:

“Strive without ceasing to earn your salvation”

Compare that with the final words of Jesus, who, as he hung on the cross, surrounded by his mother and a few of his closest disciples, said with his final breath:

“It is finished.”

The word he used: Tetelesti, is the word that a painter would use when he put the final touch on a work of art. It is the word you would use, when you make the final payment on your loan. It is a word which conveys a sense of satisfaction with an accomplishment.

Jesus was saying: “It is accomplished! What I came here to do: it’s done!” The implication is that there is nothing that needs to be added to it. He did it.

The thing which sets Christianity apart from all other religions and philosophies in the world, is that Christianity is about good news, not good advice.

Good advice says: here are some principles. If you follow them well enough, you will be saved.

Good news says: here is something that has been done for you, on your behalf, and as a result, you will be saved.

In Buddhism or Islam, for example, you are not saved by anything that Buddha or Mohammad did for you, you are saved by your own works; salvation comes by following the teachings or adhering to the pillars of the religion.

In Christianity, however, you are not saved by following the teachings of Jesus; you are saved by what Jesus did for you in His life, death and resurrection. In Christianity, you are not saved by your works, but by the work of God, in Christ, on your behalf.

In Christianity, you are not saved by following the teachings of Jesus; you are saved by what Jesus did for you in His life, death and resurrection.

Christianity is unique in that it says that your salvation is inextricably tied to historical events, which either happened or didn’t. If they didn’t happen, then we are wasting our time, Paul the Apostle argues in 1 Corinthians 15. And yet, all of the historical and anecdotal evidence points to the fact that they did indeed happen.

The gospel is good news, not good advice!

(For the rest of the message I taught on this subject at White Fields Church, click here.)

More Stable than the Mountains

Whenever you look at the mountains, remember this:

“For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake, But My lovingkindness will not be removed from you, And My covenant of peace will not be shaken,” Says the LORD who has compassion on you. (Isaiah 54:10)

Last weekend, after church, we went camping at our favorite spot in Grand County, Colorado. Here’s the view of our backyard up there:

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We were right along the Colorado River.

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Colorado River with Never Summer Range behind

Some of us in our family had had a cold before going up there, and for me and the baby it got worse – to the point where my wife had to take baby home early. I stayed with one of our kids, and we had a good time.

On the way home, we drove through Rocky Mountain National Park. I was already congested, but the pressure was too much, because I developed an ear infection. I got antibiotics for it and am on the mend now.

My biggest concern was whether I would still be able to run the Sunrise Stampede 10k today or not, but I felt well enough to go for it, and I heard that the rule with running when sick is “the neck rule”: if it’s above the neck, you’re good to go and running might help it; if it’s in your neck or below, then don’t run because running will make it worse.

I ran the race, and I’m glad I did. I ran the 10k in 53:26, 1:35 faster than my last year’s time for this race, and 21 seconds faster than my best 10k time in training.

One of these days I’ll get below 50 minutes…

The Sunrise Stampede is a great event that is in its 32nd year. Proceeds go to support the special education department of the St. Vrain Valley School District.

White Fields Community Church was a sponsor this year, so in addition to the 8 people from church who ran the race, we had others who staffed the booth and got to meet many people, and share with them about Jesus and what God is doing at White Fields.

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Some of the runners from White Fields at the Sunrise Stampede

At the race I met someone from the community who is a reader of this blog! It’s always encouraging to have those kinds of interactions and to know that people are reading and being blessed by what is shared here.

Tomorrow morning White Fields will be having our outdoor service. The band has been preparing and I’m excited to share on the topic of the gospel: what it is, what it isn’t, and what it means for us to be gospel-centered people and a gospel-centered church.

Come on out and join us for this special service if you’re in the area!

White Fields Community Church fényképe.

Here’s our worship pastor, Mike Payne, with a quick video about it:

Want to Join a Korean Doomsday Cult?

This past Sunday I received a message from someone who attends White Fields. She said that she was in Alta Park in Longmont when a couple approached her who were from the Worldwide Mission Society Church of God, seeking to evangelize her.

When she told them that she is a Christian, they questioned her salvation and told her that Jesus had claimed that he would come again as a man, give his church a new name, and that in order to be saved, one needs to be part of this church, and adhere to several “new covenant requirements” including keeping all of the feasts mentioned in the Book of Leviticus.

They mentioned that they belonged to a branch of this church which had recently started in Boulder, and that they were planning to start a Longmont branch soon as well.

I had never heard of this group before, so I looked them up. Turns out they have some pretty crazy doctrines, which, unsurprisingly, they kept quiet about in this interaction in the park.

Who are they and what do they believe?

The Worldwide Mission Society Church of God (WMSCOG) was founded by Ahn Sahng-Hong in South Korea in 1964. He was a long-time Seventh-day Adventist, until he split off to establish his own religion.

They believe in God the Father and God the Mother, and they believe that their founder, Ahn Sahng-Hong (deceased) was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ (this is what the people in Alta Park were talking about when they said Jesus came back as a man and gave his church a new name), and that his wife (still alive) is the incarnation of God the Mother.

Ahn Sahng-Hong’s wife, Jang Gil-ja, is not only considered to be divine as God the Mother, but she is also known as “The Bride of Christ” – because she was married to Ahn Sahng-Hong, whom they believe to be the reincarnation of Christ.

Along with referring to him as “Christ Ahn Sahng-Hong,” they also believe that he is the Holy Spirit and they baptize and pray in the name of the Father, Son and Ahn Sahng-Hong.

I just threw up a little bit in my mouth as I wrote that…

They teach that all people were originally created as angels in Heaven, but then sinned against God and were sent to Earth as a second chance to return to God. The only way for humans to be saved and return to heaven is by keeping the Levitical feasts and following the teachings of Ahn Sahng-Hong, which includes believing in God the Mother, AKA Jang Gil-ja, Ahn Sahng-Hong’s wife, who gives everlasting life.

When you lay it out like this, it’s pretty clear how crazy this is. Not only is it a cult of personality, it is a radical deviation from Biblical doctrine. It’s not surprising that they keep most of this stuff to themselves when they go out preaching in parks.

And yet, the WMSCOG is growing very rapidly. They boast of 450 churches in Korea and 3000 around the world.

The member of our church who met them concluded her message to me by saying that this whole experience made her realize how unprepared she was to explain and, if necessary, defend what she believes and why.

How should you respond if you are approached by the WMSCOG? Or by any other pseudo-Christian group that has their own heterodox interpretation of the Bible?

There is one thing which is common to every religion in the world, other than Christianity: they teach that salvation is something that you have to earn. The gospel message of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, teaches that salvation is something that Jesus earned for you, and which is given to you by God as a free gift.

Notice that the soteriology (doctrine of salvation) of the WMSCOG is one of salvation by works.

Here’s what the Bible has to say:

“for it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast,” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

On the matter of feasts and Sabbaths:

“Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).

“But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain” (Galatians 4:9-11).

The gospel is not a call to celebrate feast days and Sabbaths in order to obtain salvation, it is the good news of who Jesus is and what He has done for you, in order to save you. Anyone who teaches that such things are necessary for salvation is not only wrong, they are creating a different gospel.

Jesus said that when he would return again, he would come to judge the living and the dead. The teachings of the WMSCOG are not only incorrect and dangerous, they are heretical; both in their deification of Ahn Sahng-Hong and Jang Gil-ja and in their teaching of salvation by works, which goes contrary to the clear teaching of the Bible that we are justified by God through faith in Christ and his finished work on the cross.

In the big picture, this is just another re-branding of an old, and widespread lie: that you can (and must) work your way to God. The good news of the gospel is that salvation is not earned by your performance being good enough, but on the sufficient sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Rest in that, and be on guard against those who teach otherwise.

For more on the Worldwide Mission Society Church of God and sources for this article, check out these sites:

Aren’t Justice and Mercy Incompatible by Definition?

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Recently at White Fields we have been studying through the Book of Jonah. Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria – a violent and imperialistic nation which posed a clear and present danger to the very existence of Israel. And Jonah was called to take them a message which carried with it the promise of mercy if they would repent of their sins and turn to the Lord.

Archaeologists and historians who have studied the Assyrian Empire report things such as human sacrifice, furniture upholstered with human skin, pyramids of human skulls, how they would put hooks in the faces of captives and leading them around by chains…

So it is not surprising that one of Jonah’s hesitations with going to Nineveh was that he didn’t think it would be fair for God to show mercy to people who did such terrible things. Jonah struggled with the question of how God could still be just if he were to forgive these sins and show them mercy.

This is a question many people struggle with:  If you forgive someone, then what about justice?  Can anyone just do anything they want and then say sorry, and suddenly it’s okay, and there are no repercussions? Where’s the justice in that?

For this reason, some people are hesitant to forgive those who have hurt them: because it kind of feels like in that case, they are getting away with it, or you are saying that it wasn’t a big deal — even though it was. (More on this topic here: Does Forgiving Mean Forgetting?)

One of the great promises of the Bible is that God is just, and even if we don’t see it in our lifetime, there will be justice.  Nothing is hidden from the eyes of God, and He will deal justly with every hurtful action and every wrongdoing. This gives us great comfort in the face of injustice, corruption and unfair and unethical behavior that we see or which touches our lives.

In the Psalms, the Psalmist often bemoans the injustice that he sees in the world: that those who lie, cheat and steal get ahead, at the expense of those who are fair and honest. Nice guys finish last. Good doesn’t always defeat evil. However, the Psalmist then goes on to comfort himself with the knowledge that, in the end, God will bring about justice: there is no wrong deed that will not go unpunished.

There’s only one problem with that:    ALL of us have done wrong things. Without exception…

So the problem with justice is: if God is totally just and judges every wrong deed, then that means that He will have to not only judge those who have sinned against us, but He will have to judge us as well.

But then, the Bible gives us the good news: for those who turn to the Lord, He will give them mercy!

But here’s the thing:   The definition of Justice is:  Giving someone what they deserve. On the other hand, the definition of Mercy is:  NOT giving someone what they deserve.

So, by definition: if you show someone mercy, then you are no longer being just! The two are diametrically opposed. So, if God shows mercy, doesn’t that mean He is no longer being just? Does one of God’s attributes therefore contradict another one of His attributes?

Isn’t mercy therefore a travesty of justice?

One of the great tensions of the Old Testament is the question of how God can be both Just and Merciful at the same time.

In my last post I wrote about another one of these great tensions: the question of whether the covenant with God is conditional or unconditional.

Neither of these tensions are actually resolved in the Old Testament. They only find their resolution in the New Testament – in Jesus.

The way that God can be both just and merciful at the same time, is because Jesus took all of the righteous judgment that we deserved, so that God could show us mercy. In this way, God remains completely just, and yet is able to show mercy without compromising his justice. In this way, He is both just and the justifier of the one who trusts in Jesus by faith. (Romans 3:26)

In Jesus, the Judge of all the Earth came to the Earth and took our judgment HIMSELF, so that we could be saved. It was the ultimate act of grace. 

Whereas justice is giving someone what they deserve, and mercy is not giving someone what they deserve, grace is giving someone something they don’t deserve.

Jesus is the answer to all the riddles.

Is God’s Love Conditional or Unconditional?

As a young Christian, I remember hearing that God’s love is unconditional. And yet, I also heard that it was necessary to believe in Jesus and embrace the gospel in order to become a child of God and receive salvation. Is that a “condition”? Is God’s love really unconditional?

I saw an interesting conversation online yesterday. It was a discussion over what was being taught at a certain church in regard to salvation, the love of God and the work of Jesus on the cross.

Recently William Paul Young, the author of The Shack, released his first non-fiction book: Lies We Believe About God, in which he lays out what he believes. I happened to see this book on the shelf at Walmart recently, alongside a bunch of other books in the religion/spirituality realm which I hope that no-one will ever read because of their aberrant/heterodox theology and claims about God.

Here’s a word of advice: As a rule, don’t buy books about God / Spirituality / Theology from Walmart.

Basically, in Lies We Believe About God, William Paul Young comes out as a full-fledged universalist; he believes that all people will be saved, that God doesn’t require anything of us, that the idea of Hell is a creation of Medieval Christendom for the purpose of manipulating people into submission, and that no matter someone does or believes, they are a child of God and will therefore be saved and have eternal life.

Of course, these beliefs fly in the face of what the Bible clearly teaches and what Christians have taught and believed for 2000 years. For an explanation of the content of this book and a response to it, check out this great article from the Gospel Coalition.

How this ties into the online discussion that I witnessed yesterday, was that this church which had embraced the views of Wm. Paul Young and had taken a hard turn towards universalist theology. As a result, some people had left the church while others had embraced this teaching.

The crux of both this online conversation and the beliefs of William Paul Young is the question of whether the love of God is conditional or unconditional. The one thing that was assumed as true by all, is that God’s love is unconditional, which then created some issues, questions and difficulties for those on both sides…

Some made the conclusion that if God’s love is unconditional, then even the requirement that one must believe in Jesus constitutes a condition! Therefore, they conclude: ‘believing in Jesus must not be necessary for salvation.’ Furthermore, they conclude: ‘God does not require anything of us in order to accept us as his children, since he loves us unconditionally, and therefore all people are children of God simply by virtue of having been created, and therefore all of the promises of the Bible which pertain to the “children of God” belong to all people universally, no matter what they do or believe.’

Others, who hold orthodox Christian beliefs, disagreed with this, pointing out that Jesus himself clearly taught that unless one believes in Him they will not have salvation (John 3:18), and that the status of “Child of God” is reserved for those who believe (John 1:12). They struggled, however, to explain how these things did not constitute “conditions” – which would then contradict the claim that God’s love is “unconditional.”

So what is the answer? Is God’s love conditional or unconditional?

First of all, I do believe that God loves all people, but the question of whether all people have salvation or are in a covenant relationship with God is another issue.

This question of whether the covenant with God is conditional or unconditional is one of the great tensions of the Old Testament. In some places, it seems to be saying that God will love and bless and be faithful to his people unconditionally, no matter what they do. Yet, in other places it seems to be saying that the covenant is conditional, that certain requirements must be met in order for it to apply.

This tension builds and builds throughout the Old Testament, but is never actually resolved… UNTIL we get to Jesus!

In Jesus, the question is answered and the tension is resolved. The message of the gospel is that Jesus met all of the conditions of the covenant so that IN HIM (and only in Him) God can love us and accept us unconditionally.

The message of the gospel is that Jesus met all of the conditions of the covenant so that IN HIM (and only in Him) God can love us and accept us unconditionally.

Jesus is the answer to all the riddles.

Is God’s love conditional or unconditional? The answer is: Yes.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus met all the righteous requirements of the Law, he fulfilled all of the conditions of the covenant, once and for all, on our behalf, so that if we are “in Him” by faith, then we are declared righteous, we are justified, and we have become children of God. Apart from Jesus, there is no such promise or hope. This is why the gospel is truly good news!

Much aberrant theology comes from deficient Christology.

May we be those who make much of Jesus and who celebrate the gospel: “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to His saints.” (Colossians 1:26)

Why Ethics Depends on Origin

In my last post I mentioned how much I appreciated the intellectual integrity of Penn Jillette for saying that he respects Christians who share their faith and evangelize, because if you really believe the gospel, then the only appropriate response is to share it with others.

Today I’d like to address the opposite approach: a very common and yet completely contradictory set of beliefs about the meaning and value of life.

I recently came across this quote from well-known atheist Steven Pinker, author of the book, “How the Mind Works.”

“When it comes to ethics, ethical theory requires free rational agents whose behavior is uncaused. Now, ethical theory can be useful even though the world as seen by science does not really have uncaused events.” – Steven Pinker

Do you catch what he’s saying? He’s essentially saying that ethics are useful to society, but that they really have no basis in reality. In other words: ethics help society function, but in a view of the world in which there is no God who created you, ethics are completely baseless.

To put it simply: if there is no God who created you, there is absolutely no rational reason for saying that you are any more important than a stick. And you really have no original thoughts or creativity. Everything you do is programed, nothing is uncaused. You are just a hunk of matter, and therefore your life is utterly insignificant.

And yet, Pinker is saying that in spite of this, we should live as if human life is special and we as human beings are valuable, because it is helpful to the functioning of society, even if it isn’t true.

Here’s the point: an atheistic/humanistic worldview is incredibly conflicted.

On the one hand, modern Western society is obsessed with self-esteem. Our schools put a huge focus on telling kids that they are unique and valuable. We affirm that every life has innate value. And yet, at the same time we have a secular worldview which says that if there is no God, you still have to live as if human beings are significant, even though in reality they are not at all.

In other words, if your origin is insignificant and your destiny in insignificant, then the conclusion is that your life and everyone else’s life is insignificant. However, at the same time we are told to believe that we must pretend that it is.

That’s not intellectual integrity, that’s intellectual schizophrenia.

Atheism has an inherent problem with human rights: on the one hand our modern Western culture believes in individual human rights, and yet on the other hand, there is a push for an existential and eschatological narrative which undermines the very foundation for believing in equal individual human rights.

I have written more on this subject here: Atheism and Human Rights: An Inherent Problem.

Christianity, on the other hand, tells us that human beings were created by God, in His image, and therefore our lives have innate value and purpose – even if there is nothing that we can contribute to society, such as in the case of handicapped individuals.

Furthermore, the message of the gospel is that the lord of the universe left His heavenly throne and came to the Earth in order to save us by giving His life in order to redeem us — which means that you and your life have more value than you can even comprehend.

Modern Western culture has held onto the belief in individual value and human rights, something which has its basis in Christian doctrine and theology, while trying to eschew Christian doctrine and theology in the areas of origin, existence and destiny.

Ethics depend on origin. If you believe that human life has equal and inherent value, please remember where that idea comes from: the Word of God.

True Colors

I saw a quote today posted online that said this:

“Occasions make not a man fail, but they show what the man is.”
Thomas à Kempis

A Conversation

It reminded me of a conversation I had with my dad a few years ago. We were talking about a prominent pastor who had committed sin which resulted in him to losing his position and ministry along with the respect of his peers.

I commented to my dad, “I guess he showed his true colors.”

My dad wisely and graciously responded, “Maybe those aren’t his true colors. Maybe that was just something he did in a moment of great weakness and darkness.”

In other words: I was suggesting that the good things this man had done for years were really just a facade, and finally his true self was revealed. My dad on the other hand was suggesting that maybe the terrible things the man had done were more of an anomaly than the true essence of who he was.

The Issue

Should we determine a person’s character based on their worst moments or on their best moments?

That’s not a very easy question to answer.

Surely no one would say that we should judge Adolf Hitler’s character based on his best moments. However, all of our greatest cultural and even faith heroes are people who had dark moments in which they did bad things. Martin Luther King Jr. committed infidelity. Moses was a neglectful father. Martin Luther had a racist rant. The list could go on.

Despite the fact that we like clean-cut distinctions, to label people either “good” or “bad” – the messy reality of life is that all of us do both good things and bad things. We commit sins which hurt others and grieve the heart of God, and we do wonderful things which benefit others.

So, which you is the real you?

An Example

David and Saul. Both were kings of Israel. Both were chosen by God for the people. Both began very well – and both committed grievous sins which had tragic effects for both their lives and the lives of many others because of their position as king.

And yet, one of them is called “the man after God’s own heart” whereas the other is remembered as an anti-hero with no concern for God. 

It could even be argued that David’s sins were worse than Saul’s. Saul attempted murder, but David actually committed murder and adultery.

However, the great difference between the two men is that David, when confronted with his sins, was quick to repent and turn back to God. Saul, on the other hand, when confronted, stubbornly persisted and resisted God.

This response to God of humility and willingness to repent – this fundamental desire to live for God and please God, seems to be at the heart of what separates these two men.

The Promise

There is a sense in which I agree with the above quote from Thomas à Kempis, and yet I am hesitant about what I perceive to be its inference.

I agree with the quote in as much as it is saying that ALL people are fallen and therefore the reason we sin is because we are sinners at heart; our very nature has been corrupted and opportunities to sin simply reveal this fact.

However, it seems that the inference of this quote is that in a given situation, some people fail and others do not – and this reveals their fundamental character. Furthermore, a person who does not fail in that given situation should feel a sense of pride that they are fundamentally better than those who did fail.

If this is indeed what is being inferred, this attitude, while commonly held,  is contrary to the gospel.

The message of the gospel, that God took on human flesh in order to pay the price for your sin and redeem you, has 2 simultaneous effects on the person who really understands it:
1) it makes you incredibly humble – because it tells you that you are not fundamentally better than anyone else. You are made of the same stuff and you are in the same boat: a sinner who is hopeless without a savior,
2) it makes you incredibly confident – because it tells you that you are loved by God, and that He is wholly committed to you, forever.

The promise of the gospel is that if you will repent of your sins and turn to God – like David did – and put your faith in what Jesus did for you, then not only will God justify you, but He will also redeem you, and as part of that He will sanctify you, from the inside out by the power of His Spirit – and the end result will be that the “true you,” the version of you free of sin, which He created you to be, will ultimately be revealed.

Romans 8:19 says, For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.
1 John 3:2 says, We do not yet know what awaits us when He appears, except that we will be like Him.

The real you is the you that you are in relation to God – the you whom God declares you to be – and if your faith is in Jesus, then the you whom He is making you into by His Spirit: the version of you without the corrupting effects of sin which have marred the image of God that you bear.

The promise of the gospel is that it will be so for those who have embraced God’s offer of salvation in Jesus.

Politics and Identity

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Over the past few weeks, I, like many of you, have been following the political developments in the U.S. In such a caustic and antagonistic climate, I would much rather be known for my stance on Jesus Christ and the message of the gospel than for my personal convictions about political matters. That is the drum that I will beat and the hill I will be willing to die on.

Why is it that the political climate is so caustic and people are so divided? According to many sociologists, philosophers and theologians, the issue is one of identity: namely, that one of the most common ways that people create identity is through “the exclusion of the Other.”

According to Zygmunt Bauman, “We can’t create ‘Us’ without also creating ‘Them.’ Social belonging happens only as some other contrasting group is labeled as the Different or the Other. We bolster our identity by seeing others in a negative light and by excluding them in some way.” (Modernity and Ambivalence, p. 8)

In other words: I can feel I am one of the good people because I know I am not one of the bad people. Therefore the “Other” must be degraded, excluded and/or vilified in order for me to have a sense of self-worth.

Croatian theologian and professor at Yale University, Miroslav Wolf, in his book Exclusion and Embrace, says that the reason we indulge in these attitudes and practices is that by denouncing and blaming the Other it gives us “the illusion of sinlessness and strength.”

One great example of this, Timothy Keller points out, is: “If I find my identity in working for liberal political and social causes, it is inevitable that I will scorn conservatives, and the same goes for conservatives regarding liberals. In fact, if the feelings of loathing toward the opposition are not there, it might be concluded that my political position is not very close to the core of who I am.” (Making Sense of God, p. 145)

In order to do this, Wolf says, we must “over-bind” and “over-separate”: To over-separate means to fail to recognize what we do have in common, and to over-bind means to refuse other people the right to be different from us.

This practice is common in many areas, not just in regard to politics.

Keller goes on to say: “If my identity rests to a great degree in being moral and religious, then I will disdain those people I think of as immoral. If my self-worth is bound up with being a hardworking person, I will look down on those whom I consider lazy. As the postmodernists rightly point out, this condescending attitude toward the Other is part of how identity works, how we feel good and significant.” (Ibid.)

Jesus himself gave an example of this:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 ESV

Jesus is describing people who excluded, degraded and vilified others for the purpose of bolstering their own sense of self-worth, value and identity. However, much to their surprise, Jesus tells them that God does not play this game – in fact, he is very much opposed to it, because it is rooted in pride and self-justification rather than humility.

What then is the solution?

The solution is this: we must find our identity not in being better than others, but in who we are in God’s eyes, because of what Jesus has done for us. We need an identity which is centered on the Cross.

The fact that Jesus went to the cross to die for our salvation is both a profound statement of our sin and failure, and at the same time the greatest expression of love and of our value to God. In this sense, my identity and value is not based on me being better than other people – rather it does not allow me to see myself as better than others. I, like them, have sinned and fallen short. My value, according to the gospel, is that God loves me so much that he was willing to pay the greatest cost and hold nothing back; he is that devoted and committed to me.

May we be those who find our identity in Christ, rather than in our political or other affiliations, and may the way Christians express their political views not be a hindrance to the message of the gospel.