Is Church an (un)Necessary Evil?

A few days ago I received this comment on one of my posts called The Impact on Kids of Dad’s Faith and Church Attendance:

Laura says:

What is the benefit of attending church? A person is demanded to surrender personal faith in Jesus and personal relationship with Jesus Christ to become a Borg in a socialist swamp. It’s great for becoming robotized, lobotomized, Romanized, and institutionalized.

But its pointless for knowing Jesus Christ personally.

Don’t go. Jesus isn’t welcome there. Conformity is King. Not Jesus.

I was tempted to ignore the comment, but I think this view of church is actually pretty widespread, even amongst professing Christians, that it warranted a response. And since I’ve recently started the Theology for the People Podcast, I figured this would be a good topic to discuss in more detail there.

You can check out the episode here: Podcast Exclusive – Church: a Necessary Evil?, or by listening in the embedded player below.

Podcast Exclusive – Church: An (un)Necessary Evil? Theology for the People

In this episode Nick and Mike discuss a comment that came in to the Theology for the People blog claiming that church is only good for "becoming robotized, lobotomized, Romanized, and institutionalized," and is "pointless for knowing Jesus Christ personally." This comment represents a not-uncommon attitude to "organized religion" in general and church in particular. This episode includes discussions about the Bible, Jesus, American history, and Henry David Thoreau. The book recommended in this episode is The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History  — This episode is sponsored by · Anchor: The easiest way to make a podcast. https://anchor.fm/app

Was Jesus Racist? Why Did He Call a Gentile Woman a Dog?

There is a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics. Recently I received the following question:

Recently [a friend and I] were talking about the event in Mark where Jesus encounters the Syrophoenician woman and the way he interacts with her – which can seem very cold or harsh. We did also read, but not focus our discussion, on Matthew’s account of it. My student leans toward Jesus’s behavior representing a racist shading to his approach.

I was wondering if you could speak into this, but also it may give an opportunity to speak into how this affects our modern lives.

Great question. I know many people have found this passage puzzling or even disturbing.

The passage in question is found in Mark 7:24-30 and the story is also told in Matthew 15:21-28. It involves a time when Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon, which is in modern-day Lebanon. During his time there, unsurprisingly, he encounters a woman who is a Gentile (non-Jew), who appeals to him as the “Son of David” (a Messianic title), and asks that he heal her daughter. Jesus initially rebuffs her request, saying that it would not be right for him to give the bread which belongs to the children to dogs. She pushes back, saying that dogs are willing to eat the crumbs which fall from the children’s table. Jesus is impressed by her faith and persistence and heals her daughter.

Dogs and Puppies

If you’ve ever been to developing countries, you may have noticed that there are two kinds of dogs: street dogs and pet dogs. One of the biggest challenges for me when I visit places like Ukraine or Mexico is that I like to run for exercise, but there are sometimes street dogs who instinctively chase after people who are running!

Street dogs are often dangerous and diseased. They present a real threat to anyone walking down the street. Pet dogs, on the other hand, are companions who can become part of a family: “fur babies”!

This same distinction existed in Jesus’ time. In the Middle East at this time, especially because of the way that waste was disposed of in open dumps, there were packs of feral street dogs who roamed the streets and presented a very real danger to the people. On the other hand, people also kept dogs as pets, and part of the family.

The Jewish people were in the habit of referring to Gentiles (pagan, non-Jews) as “dogs” – essentially referring to them as “street dogs” who were diseased and dangerous, and therefore to be avoided. As you can imagine, this kind of thinking would have been entrenched in the minds of Jesus’ disciples, having grown up as Jews in Israel.

So when Jesus refers to this woman as a “dog” – part of what he is doing is playing into the Jewish culture of that day – which would have been held by many of his disciples – which considered the Gentiles to be “street dogs.” However, instead of using the common word for “dogs,” Jesus uses the word for “pet dogs” or “puppies.” By doing so, think about what he is saying: he is essentially saying, “Yes, many people where I’m from (including some of my disciples) might consider you a diseased and dangerous street dog, but I view you as a pet dog, i.e. one who can become a beloved part of the family.”

By saying this, Jesus was challenging the way that his disciples thought about Gentile people. They would have been looking around there in Tyre, wondering, “Why have we come here to these ‘dogs’ – these filthy, disease ridden people? And Jesus is saying, “No, these are people who can become a beloved part of the family.”

Was Jesus Ethnocentric?

In Matthew’s account of this story, Jesus states that he has come to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Does that mean that Jesus was ethnocentric, or perhaps a Jewish nationalist?

By calling this woman a “pet dog” he was insinuating that she could live in “the house” and be part of “the family.” These latter two metaphors are used throughout the Bible to describe the people of God. Following the metaphor, Jesus is describing that she, as a Gentile (not part of God’s covenant nation of Israel) could be brought into the house and become a member of the family. This is similar to what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 11, where he talks about how Gentiles have been “grafted in” to the “olive tree” of God’s people, which began with Israel.

God’s plan for salvation, throughout the Bible was for the whole world. In John 3:16, Jesus makes it clear that his mission is a global mission, for God so loved the world.

However, God’s plan for global evangelization was to work through Israel to the world. Israel was to be God’s missionary people, a light to the nations. In fact, in Deuteronomy, God tells them that the purpose of the Law of Moses, was so other nations would see who their God was by observing the goodness of those Laws. Israel was to be a lighthouse to the nations. This is why the Psalms and the Prophets talk about how the nations will rejoice, and the nations will come to the Lord. The word “nations” is synonymous with Gentiles.

However, many times Israel fell short of this, becoming ethnocentric and nationalistic, and taking their “chosen status” as a mark of superiority over others instead of what it was meant to be: the mark of them being chosen to carry out God’s work of bringing light to the Gentiles.

Jesus’ focus was to Israel, because it was through Israel that God wanted to reach the world. He had come as the Jewish Messiah and in fulfillment of the Jewish ceremonial system: as the ultimate prophet, priest and sacrifice, to fulfill all that was written in the Hebrew Scriptures. After his resurrection, Jesus commissioned his disciples to preach the Gospel to every creature, all the nations, and to take the gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria(!), and to the ends of the Earth.

In the ancient world, it was common for each nation, and sometimes for each town or tribe, to have their own God. However, the God of the Bible claimed to be the God of all the world, and Jesus claimed to be the Savior of all the world. He was not just one of many ways to come to God, he was the way, the truth, and the life – and no one can come to the Father besides through Him. (John 14:6)

This was considered scandalous in the Roman Empire, where their governing mentality was that anyone can believe anything they want as long as they don’t claim that their god or religion is right and somebody else’s is wrong. That is very much like today’s modern Western culture, actually! But the Christians could not comply with this: the God of the Bible is not just a local deity, but the creator of the entire universe, and Jesus was the savior of the entire world.

Jesus’ focus on Israel was a missional strategy and calling, not a qualitative judgment on either Israel or other nations. In fact, multiple times in the Gospels, Jesus points out how a Gentile showed more faith that those in Israel.

What Does this Mean for Us Today?

There is no place for racism or ethnocentrism with God. This is not to say that you cannot or should not be a patriot, or someone who loves your country. What it means is that we recognize that other nations are made up of people created in God’s image, who have the same intrinsic value and worth. Since they are loved by God, they should be loved by God’s people. There is no place for any sense of superiority or disdain, when we recognize that we were also “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind, but God…made us alive together with Christ.” (Ephesians 2:3-4)

In Christ, we are now part of a new humanity, the “family of God,” in which there is no longer Jew nor Greek, and we will be part of that great multitude in Heaven made up of every tribe, tongue, and nation, which will worship before the Throne. To be chosen by God is to be chosen to be part of His mission to bring the truth of His love and grace to the world.

My Top 10 Books of 2020

I read 35 books in 2020 (including the Bible!). Here are a few of my favorites (other than the Bible), in no particular order:

  1. A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture, Mark Thompson

I read this book as part of my research for my Masters dissertation, which was on the topic of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture, and whether belief in this concept was novel to the Reformation period, or if it had precedent in the patristic period as well.

2. The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History, Nathan Hatch

Great short essays about the history of thinking about the Bible in America, particularly in regard to radical individualism and the rejection of tradition and the church in the interpretive process. Sadly, it is out of print, but used copies are available to order.

3. On Christian Doctrine, Augustine of Hippo

A true classic, written between 397 and 426 AD. The main topic of this book is about how to interpret and teach the Bible.

4. Fire Road: The Napalm Girl’s Journey through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness, and Peace, Kim Phuc Phan Thi

The autobiography of the woman from the famous photo of a girl burning in napalm in Vietnam, and how she became a Christian.

5. The Burning Edge: Travels Through Irradiated Belarus, Arthur Chichester

An engaging travel log through the area hit by the fallout of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster by one of my favorite YouTubers.

6. On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts, James K.A. Smith

Theologian James K.A. Smith gives a biography of Saint Augustine while retracing his steps from North Africa to Italy and back.

7. Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture, Mark Yarhouse

Mark Yarhouse teaches at Wheaton College, an evangelical divinity school in Illinois. This book gives and important framework for understanding the issues related to gender dysphoria from a Christian perspective, including much of the research that has been done on the topic, and advice for parents and those who seek to minister to people and families.

8. Taking God At His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me, Kevin DeYoung

An accessible study of what the Bible teaches about the Bible.

9. How to (Not) Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, James K.A. Smith

This is a thinking person’s book about culture in our postmodern age. Smith uses terms like “epistemic pelagianism” to describe the idea that people can figure out everything on their own without the help of God. He discusses Charles Taylor’s idea of the “imminent frame,” i.e. the present world, and its shortcomings. So many important thoughts in this book, although it’s not the easiest read.

See also: What is Epistemic Pelagianism?

10. Légy Jó Mindhalálig, Móricz Zsigmond

A few years ago I decided to read the required reading for Hungarian secondary students. This is a classic novel about a student in Debrecen, Hungary, a city where I lived for over 3 years.

Did Jesus Heal a Centurion’s Same-Sex Partner?

A while back a friend shared a TikTok video with me in which a young guy was teaching something from the Bible which he portrayed as something people had overlooked, or about which they had been unaware, which could be potentially paradigm-shifting.

What this young man claimed is that the gospels tell us that Jesus healed a centurion’s servant, but that the word used there for “servant” actually means a same-sex lover. Thus, his conclusion was that by doing this, Jesus essentially affirmed and condoned, rather than condemned, homosexual sexual relationships.

The story of this healing is found in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10, and is about a Roman centurion who comes to Jesus and begs that Jesus heal his servant. Jesus agrees and says he will come to the centurion’s home, but the centurion says that he does not deserve to have Jesus under his roof, and that he has faith that all Jesus has to do is say the word, and his servant will be healed.

Did Jesus Heal a Centurion’s Same Sex Lover?

The word in question is the Greek word “Pais.” Interestingly, the word Pais literally means boy. There is another Greek word for servant, the word doulos, but the word pais was used to designate a young, male servant boy.

Pederasty and Sexual Abuse

As Preston Sprinkle explains in his excellent book, People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue, it was common in the Greco-Roman culture of Jesus’ day for homosexual sex to be part of the power differential in a relationship, but only as long as the dominant partner was older, of higher social standing, and in the penetrating role. This is often referred to as pederasty, in which older men would have dominant sexual relationships with teenage boys. Both modern psychology and laws would deem these relationships to be unethical and illegal for multiple reasons, as they are abusive and harmful; not only are they an abuse of power, but these relationships were physically, sexually, and psychologically abusive to the younger victim.

Furthermore, Sprinkle goes on to explain that such relationships in the ancient world were not at all like our modern conception of a gay couple in a loving, consensual, co-equal relationship. For example, the penetrating partner in such relationships was not necessarily considered “gay” or “same-sex attracted,” rather this was an act of subjugating the passive partner and was about asserting power.

Pais Alone Doesn’t Imply a Homosexual Relationship

However, there is actually no indication that this centurion had such a relationship with his servant boy just by use of the word “pais.” While these relationships did exist, to assume that this centurion was sexually abusing his servant boy based on the simple fact that he had a servant boy, would be like reading that a man had a wife and then assuming that he must have abused his wife, because some people do that. It’s a major assumption, in other words, that requires a giant leap that is not indicated by anything in the text.

In fact, Luke uses the word doulos (the general word for servant) to describe this boy (Luke 7:2). Furthermore, of the 24 uses of pais in the Greek New Testament, it is never used of a homosexual relationship. So, the idea that this specific servant boy was being sexually abused by his master is definitely not something that ancient readers would have automatically assumed based on the use of the word pais. Furthermore, since any such relationship would have been abusive in nature, to say that this is an example of Jesus condoning or affirming a homosexual relationship is far-fetched and misguided; certainly no one would argue that Jesus, by healing this servant, was affirming or condoning of the sexual abuse of a minor by an older man in position of power.

Would Jesus have healed a gay person?

Although it is very unlikely that this passage is speaking about the healing of a centurion’s same-sex partner, the question remains: Would Jesus have healed a gay person? I think the answer to this question is also very simple: Yes.

Here’s why I say this: because Jesus’ healing of people never hinged on, or depended on, their level of personal righteousness. When Jesus healed the man born blind, he never brought up that man’s struggle with bitterness, greed, or envy. When Jesus healed the man with the withered hand, he never brought up that man’s struggle with lust. Healing is an act of grace, and grace – by definition – is not something that is earned or merited, it is a gift from a God who gives to undeserving recipients.

The message of the gospel is that God shows grace to sinners, and that’s good news for a sinner like me, and for you as well. As Paul tells us in Romans 2, the kindness of God often leads us to repentance.

Recommended Resources for Further Study

I highly recommend the above mentioned book, Preston Sprinkle’s People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue. Preston addresses the topic of homosexuality with scholarly insight and tons of empathy and love. Furthermore, I recommend Justin Thomas’ online course on Biblical Gender and Sexuality. Justin is the lead pastor of Calvary: The Hill on Capitol Hill in Seattle, Washington, and a fellow leader in Calvary Global Network.

Does Proverbs Condone Bribery? – Interview with Benjamin Morrison

On this site there is a page where readers can submit questions or suggest topics . Recently I received the following question from a reader in Ukraine:

Outside of proverbs, bribery is spoken against. Inside proverbs we see both direct opposition to it, but also some almost-approving of it. I won’t list verses which speak against it because they’re numerous and easy to find, but I’d like to hear your thoughts regarding verses like these:

A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers.
Proverbs 17:8 ESV

A gift in secret averts anger, and a concealed bribe, strong wrath.
Proverbs 21:14 ESV

Corruption and bribery are major topics here in Ukraine and we’ve dealt with this question a few times.

That’s a great question. To answer it, I reached out to a friend who lives in Ukraine where he serves as a pastor and missionary: Benjamin Morrison.

Ben has lived in Ukraine for 19 years and is the Lead Pastor of Calvary Chapel in Svitlovodsk, Ukraine, and the Director of City to City Ukraine.

We had a great discussion on this topic, which I think you will really enjoy and benefit from. In this video we discuss the nature of the Book of Proverbs, different scenarios in which bribes are asked for or offered – and how to respond in each, as well as some personal stories. Finally we end the conversation on a note of how the gospel helps and empowers us to face corruption and bribery and other things that are wrong in the world. Enjoy!

Reader Questions: With Whom Did Jacob Wrestle, Bible Commentary Recommendations, & the Trinity in Heaven

Here on the site there is a feature where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

The following questions were recently submitted:

With Whom Did Jacob Wrestle?

In Genesis 31:22-32, who did Jacob wrestle with: the Angel of the Lord? Archangel Phanuel? Or ???

In Genesis 31, we read that Jacob was about to meet with his brother Esau and he was greatly afraid, assuming that Esau wanted to kill him. The night before their meeting, Jacob ventures off alone into the wilderness, and there encounters a man with whom he ends up wrestling until daybreak. The man touches Jacob’s hip, dislocating it, but Jacob refuses to release his grasp on the man unless the man agrees to bless him.

The man consents to blessing Jacob, and changes his name from Jacob (conniving) to Israel (wrestles with God).

Jacob then calls this place Peniel, which means ‘the face of God,’ and says: ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been spared.’

So, let’s take stock: Jacob wrestled with a man, but then he claimed that the man he wrestled with was God, and that he had seen God face to face, yet he had not died.

Who did Jacob wrestle with? He wrestled with a man, who is also God… There is only one such man: the Divine Son, the second person of the Trinity: Jesus.

This story in Genesis 31 is one of many Christophanies in the Old Testament: appearances of Jesus before he was born as a baby in Bethlehem.

The first chapter of the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus has existed since eternity past, that he is God, and that he is distinct from the Father, who is also God. We are told that no one has ever seen God the Father, but the Divine Son has made him known. We are told in Colossians that Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God.’

In other words: when we see God in human form, we are seeing an appearance of God the Son, i.e. Jesus before he came as a baby in Bethlehem.

As for the ‘Archangel Phanuel’: Phanuel is a form of transliteration of Peniel, which means ‘the face of God.’ The ‘Archangel Peniel’ is only mentioned in an apocryphal book called the Book of Enoch, which has never been considered Holy Scripture, neither by the Jews nor the Christians. We have no substantial reason to believe in the existence of any archangel by that name, as the inspired authority of the Book of Enoch is dubious and suspect. The reason Jacob called the place Peniel is because he understood that he had come face to face with God.

Bible Commentary Recommendations

Which Bible commentary is the closest to the word of God: Life Application Bible Commentary or the Bible Knowledge Commentary. Would you have a recommendation?

I’m not very familiar with the Life Application Bible Commentary, but I do know the Bible Knowledge Commentary, and I think it is quite good. My top recommendation for a commentary series would be the New International Commentary of the Old and New Testaments. The Word Biblical Commentary is also quite good.

Will We See the Trinity in Heaven?

When we get to haven will we see God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, with Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father. Please explain.

I believe the answer to this question is: Yes, we will see the three persons of the Godhead as separate persons. For example, in Revelation, John sees Jesus as separate from the Father several times. What is not clear is if we will ‘see’ the Holy Spirit, since I can’t think of any instance in the Bible when the Holy Spirit is seen.

The best, most concise summary of what Christians believe about the Trinity, the triune God revealed to us in the Bible, is found in the Athanasian Creed:

This is the [universal Christian] faith:

That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity,
neither blending their persons
nor dividing their essence.
For the person of the Father is a distinct person,
the person of the Son is another,
and that of the Holy Spirit still another.
But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one,
their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.

What quality the Father has, the Son has, and the Holy Spirit has.
The Father is uncreated,
the Son is uncreated,
the Holy Spirit is uncreated.

The Father is immeasurable,
the Son is immeasurable,
the Holy Spirit is immeasurable.

The Father is eternal,
the Son is eternal,
the Holy Spirit is eternal.

And yet there are not three eternal beings;
there is but one eternal being.
So too there are not three uncreated or immeasurable beings;
there is but one uncreated and immeasurable being.

Similarly, the Father is almighty,
the Son is almighty,
the Holy Spirit is almighty.
Yet there are not three almighty beings;
there is but one almighty being.

Thus the Father is God,
the Son is God,
the Holy Spirit is God.
Yet there are not three gods;
there is but one God.

Thus the Father is Lord,
the Son is Lord,
the Holy Spirit is Lord.
Yet there are not three lords;
there is but one Lord.

Athanasian Creed

The creed goes on and it worth reading, but the point is that the three persons of the Godhead are not only functionally distinct, but are ontologically distinct. This means that just as they have been distinct from eternity past, they will be distinct from eternity future, although they are persons of the one God.

Thank you for the questions! 

For any further questions or topics you’d like me to address, fill out the form on this page: Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

Is the “Baptism in the Spirit” the Same as Being “Filled” With the Holy Spirit? Yes and No. Here’s Why.

A question I am frequently asked is if there is a difference between the “baptism” of the Holy Spirit, and being “filled” with the Holy Spirit. Are they two different words which describe the same thing? The answer is: in some cases ‘Yes,’ and in other cases ‘No.’

Let me explain:

Understanding the Three Relationships the Holy Spirit Has with People

Throughout the Bible, we can see three distinct relationships which the Holy Spirit has with people. I would say that there are no less than these three, and no more than these three.

However, there are various terms and phrases which are used by the biblical authors to describe these relationships, and here’s what leads to confusion: some of the biblical authors use the same words to describe different relationships!

And yet, by looking at the context and the meaning of what the authors are describing (by the inspiration of the Spirit), we can see that three distinct relationships with the Holy Spirit are described in the Bible.

These three relationships can be easily remembered by connecting them to three simple prepositions: With, Upon, and In.

With – Conviction. (All People)

The Holy Spirit is WITH all people, bringing conviction about 3 things: sin, righteousness, and judgment.

In the Gospel of John chapters 14 &16, Jesus tells his disciples (at the Last Supper) that he is going away, but he will send the Spirit. Then he tells them about the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth… You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

John 14:16-17

Jesus then tells them that the work of the Spirit with people is that he brings conviction about sin, righteousness, and judgment. The Spirit speaks to people, to bring conviction that they have sinned, that God is righteous (and they have fallen short of his righteousness), and that a day is coming when God will judge the world, i.e. they will have to stand before him in judgment because they have fallen short.

In other words: the work of the Holy Spirit in the world with all people, is that he is bringing conviction of sin and the need for a Savior.

In Genesis 6, God says that his Spirit will not always strive with humankind. In other words, the Spirit is striving with people, to bring about conviction of sin which will lead to repentance in some cases, or a hardening of hearts in other cases.

What this means is that God’s Spirit is speaking to people’s hearts in the deepest jungles, in closed countries, as well as to the hearts of your loved ones. It is possible to harden your heart to the voice of the Spirit, as we are told in Hebrews 4:7, among other places.

The ultimate rejection of the work of the Spirit in this way is what constitutes the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit: rejecting the work of the Spirit to bring conviction leading to repentance and embracing the Savior.

Upon – Empowerment. (Some People)

Throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament, we see a second relationship with the Holy Spirit, in which the Holy Spirit empowers people to fulfill particular callings that God has put on their lives.

Sometimes this empowerment manifests itself in supernatural gifts, such as with Saul in 1 Samuel 10, or with the charismatic gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 & 14.

This empowerment is often described by the term “upon” in the Old Testament, and in some places in the New Testament:

“And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon [Samson]” (Judges 14:9)

And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49)

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

This empowering relationship was described by the anointing with oil of priests, kings, and prophets in the Old Testament. The oil symbolized the empowering of God to fulfill a calling he has put upon our lives.

It seems that this empowering is sometimes given by God to people who are not believers, and who do not have saving faith. Example of this might be King Saul in 1 Samuel 10, or the high priest Caiaphas in John 11:49-52, who prophesied that Jesus would be killed in order to die for the nation. Furthermore, talking about the supernatural gifts of the Spirit, Paul seems to imply in 1 Corinthians 13 that it is possible to exercise spiritual gifts and not be a Christian! Jesus himself says that some people who cast out demons will not go to heaven (Matthew 7:22-23)

Furthermore, the word Messiah (anointed one) carries with it the connotation that the Spirit is upon this one, to empower him to carry out a unique mission from God: to atone for sin and bring salvation to the world. This is why Isaiah 61, which Jesus quoted in Luke 4 in Nazareth when he announced that he was Messiah, says:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound

Isaiah 61:1-2, quoted in Luke 4 by Jesus and applied to himself

This is an important distinction from the next relationship with the Holy Spirit, and I will explain why it is so important as we go on.

In – Indwelling. (Those who have been born again through faith in Jesus)

Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper that the Holy Spirit had been with them, but would soon be in them (John 14:16-17).

This indwelling of the Holy Spirit was something which was prophesied and predicted, but which never happened until after Jesus had died and risen from the grave.

In Ezekiel 37, God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel, telling the people about a future day when he would place his Spirit inside of his people.

Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:13-144:30, and 2 Corinthians 1:225:5 that when we put our faith in Jesus, and believe the gospel, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit as a guarantee that we have been redeemed by God, and he see us through until our redemption is complete.

The Spirit within us sanctifies us, guides us, teaches us, reminds us of the words of Jesus (John 16:13-15).

It is incorrect to say, as some do, that “God is within all of us.” What the Bible teaches is that God’s Spirit is only within those who have placed their faith in Jesus and been redeemed by Him.

Where these distinctions bring clarity

These distinctions bring clarity to some things, for example: in Psalm 51, David, having sinned with Bathsheeba, prays: “Do not take your Holy Spirit from me.”

Without making these clear distinctions in relationship, we might draw the conclusion that if we sin, we are in danger of God removing his Holy Spirit from us who are believers. And since Romans 8:9 says:

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

Romans 8:9

We might then conclude that we are in danger of losing our salvation if we sin, since God might remove his Spirit from us. However, it is important to remember that David had the Spirit with him (bringing conviction), and he had the Spirit upon him (as King to fulfill his calling).

David was not, therefore, worried about losing the indwelling of God’s Spirit, but rather the convicting and comforting presence of the Spirit, and/or the empowering power of the Spirit in his life.

Furthermore, it helps us understand how people like Saul, in the Old Testament, were able to do things by the Spirit of God upon them, and yet it seems that they were not amongst those Old Testament saints who died in saving faith (cf. Hebrews 11).

Where it gets confusing: Luke and Paul use the same words to mean different things

Here’s where it gets interesting and here is the source of some of the confusion on this topic: Luke and Paul use the same terms to mean different things in their respective writings!

Luke, in his writings (Gospel of Luke & Acts of the Apostles), talks a lot about the Spirit, but he does so exclusively in regard to the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Seriously, look into it: there is no direct reference to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Luke or Acts.

Paul, on the other hand, focuses mostly on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

So, when Luke talks about the disciples being filled with the Spirit of God in Acts, he is talking about empowerment, not indwelling. This is clear from the context, but it is also clear from other clues. A great example of this is how it says in Luke 1 that John the Baptist would be “filled with the Spirit” from birth. This filling cannot be understood as the indwelling of the Spirit, since: 1) John could not have trusted in the gospel before hearing it and understanding it (see Ephesians 1:13), and 2) since Jesus had not yet accomplished his saving work through his life, death, and resurrection.

Furthermore, it is important to note that in John 20, after his resurrection but prior to his ascension, Jesus imparted the Holy Spirit to his disciples:

And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

John 20:22

And yet (and this is important!), prior to his ascension, he told those same disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit had come upon them to cloth them with power from on high, to empower them to carry out the mission he had given them (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8).

The Holy Spirit then came upon them on the day of Pentecost, 10 days after Jesus’ ascension.

So we see that the imparting of the Holy Spirit by Jesus in John 20 prior to his ascension was for them to receive the Spirit indwelling them, but the coming upon of the Spirit in Acts 2 was a separate event for the purpose of empowering them.

For these empowering events, Luke uses the terms “filled with the Holy Spirit” and “baptized with the Holy Spirit” interchangeably. Paul, on the other hand, uses the term “filled” with the Holy Spirit to speak of the indwelling work of the Spirit. The meanings of the two uses of the word “filled” are clear from their contexts and what they describe the Spirit doing in each case.

It is in this way, therefore, that Luke can describe believers being filled with, or baptized with, the Holy Spirit multiple times, such as in Acts 4, where people who are already believers receive a fresh filling of the Spirit, leading to even more boldness. The key here is that while they already have the Holy Spirit indwelling them, there is apparently need for fresh fillings of the Spirit for empowerment. Thus, to sing songs in which we ask for the Holy Spirit to fill us is acceptable and right, as long as we understand that we are asking for empowerment from God’s Spirit, not sealing by God’s Spirit.

Hopefully this explanation helps you as you read the Bible, seek the Lord, pray, worship, and serve!

Annihilationism & Hell: Is Every Soul Eternal?

Recently a friend reached out to me with some questions regarding “annihilationism” and “conditional immortality.”

Will Every Soul Live Forever, or is Immortality Conditional?

One of the key questions in this discussion is this: Although the Bible clearly teaches the promise of eternal life for those who have been redeemed by Jesus, does the Bible teach eternal death for those who die in their sins?

“Conditional immortality” is the term given to the belief that the souls of those who die apart from redemption in Jesus will not go on living forever. They believe that immortality is conditional, meaning that only the souls of those who put their faith in Jesus will live forever, but not the souls of those who do not.

The central argument for conditional immortality in the Bible comes from Genesis 3 and Revelation 22, which talk about the Tree of Life, which was present in the Garden of Eden and will be present again in the New Jerusalem. In Genesis 3 we are told that the people were cut off from it, lest they eat of it and live forever in their fallen state. The idea is that if the Tree of Life is in the New Jerusalem (Heaven), it provides people with eternal life, but to be cut off from Heaven is therefore to be cut off from the source of eternal life.

Conditional immortality is also related to the idea of “annihilationism”

Annihilationism or Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT)?

Annihilationism is the belief that unredeemed souls will be “annihilated,” i.e. snuffed out in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 21:15) and cease to exist for all eternity. Seventh Day Adventists in particular argue that since Hebrews 12:29 says that God is a “consuming fire,” those who have not been justified and sanctified through Christ will be consumed by his presence and cease to exist.

In contrast to this is the traditional belief about Hell, held by the Church Fathers and the majority of Christians throughout history, that Hell is eternal conscious torment (ECT).

The key arguments against the ECT view of Hell, and in favor of annihilationism are two-fold:

  1. An eternity of punishment for sins committed in a finite lifetime seems unfair, i.e. “the punishment doesn’t fit the crime”
  2. The view of Hell as eternal conscious torment is not Biblical, but is imported from outside philosophies.
    • The ECT view is often blamed on Platonism, or Hellenism more generally, or from medieval assumptions influenced by writings like Dante’s Inferno

Rather than unquestioningly accepting these claims, we should examine if what they claim is true.

What Did Jesus Say About Hell?

Some might find it surprising that most of our understanding about Hell from the Bible does not come from the Old Testament, but from the words of Jesus.

13% of Jesus’ teaching and half of his parables were about Hell, judgment, and the wrath of God.

What that means is that Hell is not a peripheral issue, but is a major theme of Jesus’ teachings. If you claim that Jesus was a good teacher, you have to deal with the issue of what he taught about Hell.

Examining Jesus’ teachings, we find that the view of Hell as eternal, conscious torment was not a later addition to Christianity in the Middle Ages, nor the influence of Platonism or Hellenism, but rather people who simply accept the words of Jesus at face value.

Here are some examples of what he said:

  • Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matt. 25:41)
  • And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt. 25:46)
  • [but some] will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  (Matt. 8:12)
  • And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:47-48)
    • Here Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 66:24

In Luke 16, Jesus tells the story of a man who suffered in Hell after his life on Earth ended, which means that his soul was not snuffed out when he died, but continued living.

Because of the simple clarity of these verses, the great majority of Christians throughout history have accepted that the teaching of the Bible is that Hell is eternal, conscious torment.

Eternal Separation from God

In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, the Apostle Paul describes Hell in this way:

those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,

2 Thessalonians 1:9

Once again, we see an example of the eternality of the destruction which will be suffered by those who do not know God and who reject the gospel.

Rather than being unkind or heartless, these messages are written to those who are alive so that they can turn from their ways and be saved. As Ezekiel 33:11 says:

As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die?

Ezekiel 33:11

It is the heart of a loving God that warns and pleads, knowing the gravity of what is at stake. It is because God cared so much that he came to this Earth to give his life, that people might be saved.

A Message from Beyond the Grave

In the Gospel of Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells a story about a rich man who died and suffered torment in Hades. Jesus shares that this man longed to be able to send a warning to his family members who were still alive that they should not make the mistake that he did, of not trusting in and walking with God.

For those who are alive, this is a very important story because it helps us to understand the urgency of responding to the gospel and receiving the gift of salvation and life that is extended to us in Jesus.

Unjust Punishment?

The question still remains as to whether it is fair for Hell to be eternal, since life on Earth is finite.

Here 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is helpful, which tells us that the essence of Hell is separation from God and his glory.

Since God is the source of beauty, life, joy, peace, and goodness – to be separated from God and his glory is to be cut off from those things for eternity. In other words: what makes Hell hellish, is that God is not there. What makes Heaven heavenly, is that God is there.

Furthermore, since Hell is the destiny of those who have rejected the grace of God and relationship with him, and have essentially pushed God away or turned their back on Him, Hell is the final culmination of them getting what they wanted in their lifetime.

In Genesis 6:3, God says something very serious: “My Spirit will not always contend (or strive) with man.” If a person continually rejects the offer of God’s grace and the conviction of the Holy Spirit, the time will come when God will give them what they insisted upon, forever: life apart from God. This giving people over to their ungodly desires is the essence of God’s judgment (see Romans 1:18-31).

Hope Beyond the Grave

Faithful Christian teachers in history, such as John Stott, have believed in annihilationism, but this view has always been a minority viewpoint, mostly because it seems to contradict the straightforward teachings of Jesus.

What we do know is that the message of the gospel is truly good news, and that there is an urgency to this gospel because of the reality of Hell.

What is “Epistemic Pelagianism”?

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor eBook: Smith ...

Looking for some light reading? How about an audio book for your next leisurely drive? This might not be it. If you’re looking for a short but extremely thoughtful book with intensely helpful cultural insights, then here you go:

I have been a fan of James K.A. Smith for several years now, and I recently read his book, How (Not) to Be Secular, which is a summary and study guide of Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age.

Smith’s purpose in writing a book about a book is that A Secular Age is both intimidating in its size and is written in a way which is inaccessible to many readers who would benefit from its content. I for one, though I am intrigued by Taylor’s book and its analysis of modern secular culture, balked at the 900+ page tome.

The Imminent Frame: Haunted by Transcendence

Smith’s book introduces you to Taylor’s key concepts and arguments, as well as some of his key terms, such as his analysis of the secular mindset as the “imminent frame.” This reminded me of a conversation I had with a relative years ago, who is my same age (an older millennial); when we started talking about the existence of God, she said, “Maybe God does exist, but: who cares?”

The imminent frame is only concerned with what is right in front of them, “the here and now”, and yet, Taylor explains that exclusive humanists who inhabit the imminent frame are “haunted by transcendence.” Smith points this out by quoting lyrics from The Postal Service:

And I’m looking through the glass
Where the light bends at the cracks
And I’m screaming at the top of my lungs
Pretending the echoes belong to someone
Someone I used to know

The Postal Service, “We Will Become Silhouettes”

Basically, no matter how much a person claims to not care whether God exists, or there is life after death, they are haunted by thoughts of it. I remember another family member describing how utterly terrified she was of dying, yet when I asked her what she believed about life after death, she said she doesn’t know, and assumes there is nothing. I don’t believe her: why be afraid of nothing? There is a nagging, haunting hunch in the heart and mind of every person, that there is something more than this life and this world… A God to whom they will answer, an existence beyond the grave.

Another aspect of the secular, exclusive humanism is the concept Taylor called “the buffered self”, which refers to the idea that an individual is an island unto themselves: that there is a firm boundary between the self and others, as opposed to the “porous self” which characterized people in previous eras.

Epistemic Pelagianism

James K.A. Smith’s book is not just a summary though, he also applies many of Taylor’s ideas to Christianity: both how Christianity contributed to and is influenced by this modern secular age.

I first listened to half of this book via audiobook on a drive to climb La Plata Peak, a Colorado 14-er. Later on, I picked up a hard copy to read as well, as there are some parts of the book which aren’t particularly well-suited for digesting properly listening at 1.5 speed while driving at dawn through the mountains.

One phrase Smith used, which my friend who was listening with me in the car ended up discussing for a while afterwards was: Epistemic Pelagianism. It’s the kind of phrase that forces you to hit the pause button and break it down in order to unpack what these two words together mean.

  • Epistemology = the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Epistemology deals with questions like, “How can we know that what we believe is really accurate or true? To what degree do we have the capacity to accurately discern truth and/or reality?”
  • Pelagianism = Pelagius (354 – 418 AD) was a theologian who denied the doctrine of original sin. He argued for the innate goodness of human beings and for absolute free will. Pelagius argued for these things in contrast to Augustine of Hippo, who taught from the Scriptures that human beings are fallen, and our fallen condition affects our will and nature.

“Epistemic Pelagianism” therefore refers to the idea that as human beings, we are capable of figuring everything out by ourselves, without any help from God.

Epistemic pelagianism denies the fact that we don’t see everything clearly. It denies the idea that, apart from God’s intervention in our lives, we are fallen, limited beings whose hearts are not pure. It places far to much confidence, to the point of hubris, in our ability to accurately discern and interpret the data we take in, in a way that can lead us to all truth, apart from any intervention or help from God.

Rather than epistemic pelagianism, the Bible teaches us that without God’s help, we cannot see clearly, and are incapable of objectively assessing and interpreting things. We need God to remove the blinders from our eyes, in order for us to see clearly.

This biblical epistemology leads us to humility rather than hubris; it leads us to the conclusion that we can’t see or know everything, that we can be wrong.

The Bible teaches that we only see in part, as in a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12), that a natural person is incapable of comprehending all truth apart (1 Corinthians 1:14), that our hearts are fundamentally broken and have a tendency to mislead us (Jeremiah 17:9), and therefore it is possible to hear and not understand, to see and not perceive (Acts 28:26).

There are things that we can know (Romans 1:19), but even in those cases we have a tendency to suppress that knowledge if we don’t like the conclusions it would lead to (Romans 1:18)

Thus, confidence in our ability, or willingness for that matter, to comprehend and follow the truth, apart from God’s intervention, is misguided. Instead, we need to take a more realistic and humble view of ourselves, which admits that we need outside assistance in order to receive, comprehend, and appropriately respond to the truth.

Conclusion

Ultimately, we see that theology shapes the way you view all of life. Modern exclusive secularism is based, at least in some part, on bad theology which is clearly refuted in the Bible. Good, robust, comprehensive Biblical theology therefore, is an antidote to many modern philosophical pitfalls.

If you’re looking for an accessible book that helps you understand Charles Taylor’s piercing insights into the exclusive humanism which is prevalent in many of today’s Western cities, as well as the cracks in those theories, and ways in which the gospel uniquely speaks to people today, check out James K.A. Smith’s book How (Not) to Be Secular, but make sure to take the time to break down and digest each sentence.

If There Is No Pain in Heaven, How Can There Be Joy?

A few months ago, on a long car ride, a friend asked me an honest question: “If there is no pain in Heaven, how can there really be joy?”

He went on to explain how all of his deepest joys in this life have, in some way, included pain. Whether it was love, faithfulness, or comfort set upon a backdrop of heartache or suffering, or whether it was a great obstacle which was overcome, it seems – he said – that in order to have great joy, there must be some sort of pain involved.

At first, this might sound like a strange question; after all, who wants pain? Wouldn’t the absence of pain equal joy? Isn’t the great hope of Heaven the absence of pain?

But on further examination, it seems there may be something to my friend’s question.

The Single Note on the Piano

I have friends who live in Southern California, where the weather is “perfect.” Year-round temperatures are mild. It’s dry, but not too dry. There’s an abundance of sunshine. Several times I have flown out of Denver in the snow, to arrive in SoCal to beautiful, warm, sunny weather – no matter what month of the year.

But that’s exactly it: the weather is the same all year long. It’s great – but there’s no variation. There’s no opportunity to wear coats, or layer up. They don’t experience four seasons.

It’s like playing a single note on the piano: it might be a wonderful note, but if there’s no variation, even the best note gets old…

Will Heaven be the same way: a single note on the piano? Even if it is the most beautiful, good, glorious note that has ever existed, won’t that single note get old after some time – much less for eternity? How will we appreciate goodness, if there is nothing bad to cause us to appreciate the good? Can there really be joy apart from pain?

Pain Without the Curse

Recently I’ve been climbing some of Colorado’s highest mountains. My goal is to climb all 54 of Colorado’s 14ers: peaks over 14,000 feet (4267 meters) above sea level. Every climb is difficult. It saps your energy. You end up hurting and tired. It takes days to recover. And yet, there is something great about it, something addictive and enjoyable – despite the pain.

On the summit of La Plata Peak (14,343 ft / 4,372 m)

This year I’m working on running 1000 miles by the end of the calendar year. Oftentimes when I head out the door I tell my wife, “I hate running.” It makes my heart beat out of my chest. I sweat. I breathe hard. It hurts. I can’t wear sandals because I have several missing toenails. And yet, I actually love running – just not when I’m walking out the door.

Whether it’s climbing mountains or running, or something you voluntarily do which involves choosing pain, the pain of those activities is not the result of the curse of sin and death.

The gospel, the core message of the Bible, is that the world, and all of us in it, have been corrupted by the curse of sin. This curse affects all of creation, and it affects us in myriad ways: physically, mentally, and spiritually. This curse is the cause of sickness, disorders, and death. It affects our very nature, to our ability to comprehend, to our ability to do what is right. It is what is at the root of racism, hatred, pride, and malice of all sorts. And the good news of the gospel, is that Jesus Christ came and took this curse upon Himself in order to put it to death and set us free from it.

The promise of the gospel is that the day is indeed coming when, because of what Jesus did, those who have received His grace by faith will dwell eternally with God, and “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

Adventure Awaits!

Heaven is described as a garden city where we will dwell on a “new Earth.” In this city, we see the restoration of Eden from Genesis 1-3: the garden paradise God created for the people He made. In this New Jerusalem we will be reunited with the Tree of Life (Genesis 2:9, Revelation 22:2), which gives healing and life forever.

The New Jerusalem that awaits us, AKA Heaven, is not only the restoration of Eden, but the fulfillment of what Eden would have been if sin had never entered the world!

And here’s what is interesting: In Eden – God gave his people work to do! What this tells us, is that Heaven will not be an ethereal experience of floating on clouds, bored out of our minds for eternity, but it will be a tangible, physical place – a new Earth, but without sin and its curse!

See also: Playing Harps in Heaven? Don’t Be Ridiculous

In other words, we can expect that Heaven will be full of meaningful, fulfilling work, as well as opportunities for adventure and discovery.

I expect there will be hikes and games that make your legs burn! Physical work and activities which push your muscles to their limits. Yes: pain – but the kind of pain which is not the result of sin, rather that which accentuates and enables greater joy!

The ultimate joy of Heaven will be the immediate presence of the Lord. He will be our light! And the joys of this world are but a foretaste, a faint whiff of what is to come! Maranatha!