The Gospel of John (Part One)

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

THE GOSPELS OF Matthew, Mark, and Luke are remarkably similar, while John is quite different. This does not mean there are four “versions” of the Gospel. Through the four gospels the Good News is told from the perspective of four different writers. Why four unique explanations of the Gospel? Each of the writers had a specific audience in mind as they addressed the ministry of Jesus. Also, each gospel shows a unique relationship or experience with Christ. The writers expressed that element through targeted arrangements of the historical data of Jesus’s life. Given the immense amount of information in the Gospel of John, I will divide this article into two parts.

A Brief Look at The Synoptic Gospels

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are considered synoptic, meaning they include many of the same stories, often in a similar sequence, with similar or sometimes identical wording. The Greek word for “synoptic” is συνοπτικός, which means “seeing all together.” Regardless, the priority of each of the gospels was to focus on the message of the Good News. For example, Luke’s gospel correlates with the Book of Acts. There are seven corresponding themes in Luke and Acts: (1) salvation to the Gentiles; (2) progression of the Gospel throughout the ancient world; (3) the Holy Spirit; (4) the importance of prayer; (5) wealth, poverty, and marginalized society; (6) Christianity as the true Israel; and (7) treatment of Christians under the Roman Empire.

Why Did John Write His Gospel?

The Gospel of John presents an amazing exposition on Jesus Christ, and is perhaps the most succinct and elevated view of God found anywhere in literature. John presents a record of our Savior’s profound teaching, convincing arguments, and declarations of His divinity and relationship with the Father. This differs from Matthew, Mark, and Luke in that there is no genealogy of Jesus’s birth or childhood; nor does John list the numerous miracles, parables the ascension, or the Great Commission.

While some New Testament scholars believe the purpose of John’s gospel was to combat Docetism—the doctrine, important in Gnosticism, that Christ’s body was not human but either a phantasm or of real but celestial substance, and that therefore his sufferings were only apparent—and to oppose those who retained loyalty to him. John clearly states, “…but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (20:31, RSV). John tells about how Jesus dealt with individuals, what He preached to the crowds, how He trained the disciples, His debates with the religious leaders in Jerusalem, and a wonderful explanation of the gift of eternal life. John also describes the gathering storm Jesus would face soon as a result of his confrontation of “established religion” and its leaders. John’s gospel account has been received by believers worldwide as the best recitation of the way of Jesus—not just the way in which we are able to come to the Father, but also the way we are to interact with the fallen world in which we live.

At the outset, John chose to introduce Christ as the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1-3, RSV). John tells us, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (v. 4). He is clear that Jesus is the Word incarnate who brings truth, grace and salvation. Jesus is God.

John was a personal witness to the ministry of Jesus. His gospel is an inspired record of the teachings, miracles, and crucifixion of Jesus as he saw them. His purpose was to set forth the evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, and that it is only through faith in Christ alone that we are saved. John repeatedly cites events that support this claim, often using words such as “witness” and “testimony.” He identifies many who can corroborate the acts of Jesus: Andrew, Philip, Nathaniel, Thomas, and Nicodemus to name a few. John’s gospel also provides details on Jesus’s arrest, trials before Pilate and Caiaphas, the scourging, His crucifixion and resurrection, and accounts of those who saw the risen Jesus before His ascension.

A Detailed Exposition

The first eighteen verses are sometimes referred to as the prologue—a somewhat misleading designation in that it tends to suggest the material covered in these verses is more introductory than substantive. John’s presentation of the Logos in the opening paragraph serves as an historical and theological summary of the entire book. He tells of  Jesus’s preexistence (prior to creation), His work in Creation, His incarnation, and His rejection by the world. John teaches of Jesus’s gift of eternal life to all who will receive Him. The Gospel of John is a sound and critical foundation on which to begin building our relationship with Jesus. The prologue is a poetic overture that combines the major theological principles that form the foundation of the entire Gospel.

In The Beginning

John begins with a majestic announcement regarding the very essence of Jesus Christ: “In the beginning was the Word.” Jesus was, is, and forever will be the Word—existing before time itself. The Word was not a created being. Rather, the Word is God and was with God at the moment of Creation. Heraclitus of Ephesus mentions “the Word” in his secular writings. He lived near Miletus, the birthplace of philosophy, and is best known for his belief that things are constantly changing (universal flux), that opposites coincide (unity of opposites), and that fire is the basic material of the world. He stated that God was always present: “Having harkened not to me but to the Word (logos) it is wise to agree that all things are one. Greek philosophers specifically believed that logos was the principle of reason or order in the world” [emphasis added]. This dovetails quite nicely with the doctrinal principle that Jesus was the Logos, co-creator with God the Father, and that He sustains (orders) all things.

John states that it was through the Word that all things were made. Remember, Genesis 1 tells us “God said” and it came to be. Words were spoken. Jesus (the Word) was the active agent in Creation. Paul writes in Colossians 1:15-17 that Jesus is is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; that in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, adding, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (RSV). Hebrews 1:2 reminds us that through Jesus God created the whole world. Life (zôê) is one of John’s favorite words. Zôê refers often to the supernatural life that comes from God, and which Christians share through faith in Jesus Christ. John says God (in His relationship with believers) is both the “bread of life” (6:35) and the “light of life” (8:12). John wants us to see Jesus as the light of men.

The True Light

It is important that we see Jesus as the light of men. It enables us to see God at work in the world. God gives “light” in the sense that He has endowed mankind with reason, intelligence, and the ability to discern between right and wrong. But the coming of the true Light has a far more important purpose. This light is given that we might comprehend the difference between life in the flesh and life in the Spirit. Had Jesus not come, bringing light to all, the human race would still be wandering the earth in spiritual darkness, cut off from fellowship from the Father following the expulsion of our first parents from the Garden of Eden. Some biblical scholars believe the primary meaning of “bring to light” includes illuminating man’s true nature outside of Christ.

John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (RSV). This a remarkable assertion of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. I would not be surprised if this is the point where most secular philosophers of the First Century took exception. Although these learned men believed in logos as a representation of eternal Reason, a claim that this eternal concept became flesh would give them much pause. By declaring that “the Word became flesh,” John answered the Docetics who, while acknowledging that Jesus was divine, could not bring themselves to accept the fact that He was also fully human. They would claim that Jesus only appeared to be a real man.

There is a critical explanation in John 1:18—”No one has ever seen God.” Jesus made Him known. The Old Testament states that God appeared to man at various times, but such appearances were always partial and incidental. God said to Moses in Exodus 33:20, “No one may see Me and live.”) While no one has seen God Himself, John tells us that Jesus is “at the Father’s side.” Some scholars see this verse as “close to the Father’s heart” or “in the intimate presence of the Father.” This is precisely why Jesus could say that when the disciples saw Him they saw the Father. Jesus was a living interpretation of the Father—the means by which the heart and the will of Father was made known.

Initial Ministry

The second chapter of John’s gospel brings us to a wedding in Cana of Galilee where Jesus turns water into wine. This act has become a bone of contention among many atheists, scoffers, and doubters. They see it as a cheap parlor trick. This miracle is provided to set forth a sign—Jesus performed a wondrous deed that points beyond itself to reveal some aspect of the person of Jesus and to evoke faith on the part of those to whom it is given. The Greek word sêmeion (“sign”) indicates that the miracle at Cana showed Jesus’s “self-manifestation.” Hillsong Worship performs a song called “New Wine.” I believe some of the lyrics provide an insight regarding Jesus’s miracle at the wedding. Lyrics include, “In the Crushing, In the Pressing, You are Making New Wine… Make Me Your Vessel, Make Me an Offering, Make Me Whatever You Want Me to Be… Cause Were There is New Wine, There is Power.”

John retells the day when Jesus cleansed the temple. Arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus went to the temple courts. The Greek word hieron used by John refers to the entire temple area with its buildings and courts. This is where He found men selling animals for sacrifice (undoubtedly at a profit) and exchanging foreign money so visitors could pay the temple tax. This seems to be a type of forced tithe. In comparison, when the pastor at my church announces the collection of offerings and tithes, he says, “If you are visiting with us today for the first or second time, this is not for you. We just want you to enjoy your visit with us today.” Tradition during the First Century, however, was that, for any Gentile who came up to the temple to worship, prayer had to be offered in the middle of a cattle yard and money market. This entailed purchasing an animal to be sacrificed. Jesus was appalled by the commotion connected with the marketing of these animals and the changing of currency in His Father’s house. Accordingly, he chased the men and their animals from the temple and set their birds free.

The New Birth and Living Water

In the third chapter we are introduced to a Jewish Rabbi called Nicodemus. This Rabbi was among many who were attracted by Jesus’s miracles but not openly committed to following Him. The religious leaders saw Jesus as a heretic rather than the central figure of Christianity. Nicodemus was likely an honest seeker who wanted to know more about Jesus. He could have chosen to see Jesus at night because he didn’t want other rabbis to see him talking to this so-called heretic, or perhaps he wanted to meet with Jesus away from the pressing crowds in order to have His undivided attention.

Nicodemus addressed Jesus with the honorable title “Rabbi.” Regardless of his personal doubts about the ministry of Jesus, Nicodemus chose to be respectful. He correctly saw Jesus as a teacher sent by God. He intended to ask Jesus how he could inherit eternal life, but Jesus broached the subject first. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:5, RSV). Nicodemus was confused. This did not make sense. How could a man return to his mother’s womb and be born anew? Jesus explained, saying that which is born of flesh is flesh, but that which is born of Spirit is spirit. He told Nicodemus that man must be lifted up to the Father as the Son is lifted up. He told Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (v. 16). Jesus wanted Nicodemus to understand that the heart of the Gospel was not a philosophical observation about God’s character, but a declaration of redemptive love in action.

John sets forth further insight regarding eternal life in chapter four. When Jesus arrived at Sychar (possibly at ancient Shechem or the village of Askar), He stopped at a well where He met a Samaritan woman who was drawing water. Jesus asked the woman for a drink from her container. She was shocked that He would drink from her vessel because Jews were not to associate with Samaritans. They were considered to be “unclean.” Ignoring the woman’s comment about custom, Jesus said that if she knew who He was she’d have asked for “living water.” He spoke of “streams of living water” that will flow from within the believer, which we also know is the Holy Spirit we receive when we accept Jesus as the Christ.

Jesus’s Healing Ministry and Other Miracles

Jesus encountered a royal official in Capernaum whose son lay sick. When this man learned that Jesus had come to town he went and begged Jesus to come heal his son who was at the point of death. Jesus challenged the man, saying, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (4:46). The man insisted that unless Jesus came to his home right away his son would die. Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live” (v. 50). The man believed the words of Jesus and headed home. Amazingly, the man professed his believe (v. 51) to his servants before he saw evidence that his son was well. As a result of his faith, his son was healed.

John recalls Jesus’s healing of a paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda (5:1-18). Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead at Bethany where Mary and her sister Martha lived (11:1-44). Mary is the same woman who anointed Jesus’s feet with perfume. Admittedly, this is an incomplete listing of the healing and miracles of Jesus.

The account of Jesus feeding the five thousand (6:1-15) has been deemed as a “miracle” that took place in people’s hearts. They overcame basic human need and selfishness, choosing instead to share what they had. This meal is also considered by some New Testament scholars to be sacramental in nature. Each person received a fragment of the bread and fishes. It constitutes a miracle—something wonderful that actually happened. Those who are uneasy to accept this event as a genuine miracle are likely an example of the natural mind denying God as Creator’ One who has absolute authority to act within His own creation as He chooses.

Some time after the feeding of the five thousand the disciples set out for Capernaum by boat (6:16, 21). The trip was said to be about five miles. The crossing was extremely difficult. The Sea of Galilee lies approximately six hundred feet below sea level. Cool air often flowed over the Sea, displacing warm moist air hovering over the water. Violent weather conditions occurred rather quickly. The original Greek for the phrase “started across the sea” (6:17, RSV) is êrchonto, and is translated “they were trying to cross the lake” [emphasis added]. Jesus appeared on the water “during the fourth watch of the night” (Mark 6:48), which is between the hours of 3:00 and 6:00 a.m. The disciples had been attempting to sail the rough seas for at least nine hours. They had rowed three or four miles when they saw Jesus walking toward the boat on the surface of the raging sea. His appearance frightened them—they did not recognize Him immediately and perhaps thought He was a ghost. Jesus said, “It is I; do not be afraid” (John 6:20, RSV). Scripture tells us that immediately after Jesus declared His identity the boat reached its destination without further incident.

We’re told in John 21:25, “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (RSV).

Jesus Claims Divine Authority

Jesus said in John 5:19, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise” (RSV). He added, “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will” (verse 21). Jesus said He only did what He saw the Father doing. This does not mean that He merely imitated the Father. Rather, it shows the continuous relationship that exists between the Father and the Son. Jewish leaders believed the prerogative to raise someone from the dead belonged solely with God, and they did not see Jesus as God. Jesus claimed that the Son makes anyone live whom He chooses. This was not arbitrary, but is consistent with what we read throughout the New Testament (see Romans 9:18). Jesus later commissioned the disciples, and indeed all believers, to go forth and do these same things in the Name of Jesus.

Jesus said the Father had given to Him the authority to execute judgment. He adds, “And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me. His voice you have never heard, His form you have never seen” (v. 37, RSV). God turned judgment over to the Son because through His incarnation Jesus learned what it means to be human, faced with temptation. In addition, He had been given the authority to judge because He is God’s Anointed One. Jesus noted in verses 28 and 29 that the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.

Opposition in Jerusalem

It is clear from Scripture (7:1-52) that Jesus was aware the Jews wanted to take His life. We read in chapter five that the Jewish leaders held an intense hostility toward Jesus, and were eager to kill Him. Their indignation stemmed from Jesus’s claim that God was His Father, thereby equating Himself with God (5:18). The disciples thought that if Jesus wanted to carry out a public ministry He should go to the capital city and make Himself known (7:3-5). In response, Jesus said His time had not yet come. The word “time” in this verse is from the Greek word kainos, meaning “a right or favorable time.” It was not necessarily a moment in time from a chronological standpoint.

The Feast of Tabernacles began in Jerusalem (7:1). As crowds gathered, there was an undercurrent of discussion about Jesus. Some called Him “a good man,” and remarked that they believed His teachings were positive and helpful. Others claimed Jesus was a heretic who was deceiving the people and leading them away. Gonzalez (2010) said that Christianity was not deemed a new religion in the early days, but a heretical sect within Judaism. After the crucifixion of Jesus, many Jews believed Christianity was a heresy that was spreading from town to town, tempting “good Jews to become heretics” (p. 42). Sentiment among the Jewish population was that Christians might once more bring the wrath of God upon Israel. This attitude had really root during the latter part of Jesus’s ministry and played a part in His trial and execution.

Jesus waited until the Feast was well underway before He went into Jerusalem (7:14). It is possible He waited several days until the initial excitement of the Feast had subsided so His followers would not be as likely to put on a ceremonial demonstration. Such display would have been met with serious consequences, and it was not yet time for Jesus to be taken and tried. In any event, the crowds at the Feast marveled at the knowledge Jesus had concerning Scripture, especially because He had not received formal teaching. He publicly stated that His teaching came from God, adding that anyone who speaks on their own authority does so for their personal benefit. Of course these words came as a stinging rebuke to the Pharisees and high priest. Jesus reminded the crowd that even Moses did not speak for himself, but was a representative of God the Father.

We see in verses 21 through 24 that Jesus continued to speak out against the established “religion” of the day. He saw the Pharisees as hypocrites. John reminds us that the Jewish leaders were outraged when Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, telling him to pick up his mat and walk (5:8). However, these same religious leaders were known to break the Law when it suited them. For example, they performed circumcisions on the eighth day after the birth of the child (the age at which the procedure must be done) even if it fell on the Sabbath. Because the law regarding circumcision was given to the Jews as part of the Abrahamic Covenant, the church leaders thought circumcision took precedence over the regulation regarding “work” on the Sabbath.

It was on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles that Jesus boldly announced, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water” (7:37-38). This remark about the thirsty recounts Isaiah’s ancient summons: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost… Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David” (Isaiah 55:1,3, NIV)). Jesus’s claim that He could supply those who were spiritually thirsty with streams of living water. This made quite an impression on the crowd gathered at the temple. When some in the crowd said Jesus must be a prophet, someone said, “‘This is the Christ.’ Still others were saying, ‘Surely the Christ is not going to come from Galilee, is He?'” (7:41). It was believed that nothing good could come from Galilee (see John 1:46).

Jesus Offends the Religious Leaders

When Jesus spoke again to the people, He said, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8:12, RSV). This remark was made before a group of religious leaders. John 8:3 notes that the Pharisees brought before Jesus a woman accused of adultery. The NIV footnote indicates “the people” is an arbitrary interpretation of the Greek word autois, or “them.” The RSV translates autois “them,” referring to the Pharisees present when the woman was brought forth.

The Old Testament contains many examples  of “light” as a metaphor for spiritual illumination and life. Psalm 27:1 says, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (RSV). Darkness was often thought to represent ignorance and death. Jesus essentially told the Pharisees, “I have come to be the light of the world.” The religious leaders decided that they must discredit the godly claims of Jesus. One of them said, “You are bearing witness to yourself; your testimony is not true” (John 8:13, RSV). In other words, they said Jesus’s claims were nothing but his opinion. Perhaps they were been concerned that Jesus might be right—stating a theological truth—but they believed He could not possibly prove it. This might be why Herod and the religious leaders taunted Christ: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” (Luke 23:37, RSV).

When Jesus said, “I bear witness to myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness to me” (8:19), the Pharisees began to use ridicule to discredit Jesus. One of them sarcastically asked, “‘Where is your Father?'” Jesus answered, ‘You know neither me nor my Father; if you knew me, you would know my Father also'” (v. 20). In essence, they told Jesus, You’re living in a fantasy world. They did not understand that Jesus spoke to them of the Father (v. 27). Jesus further riled the Pharisees when He claimed to be the One who will set men free from the wages of sin (v. 31). He tells the crowd, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God; I came not of my own accord, but he sent me (v. 42). To know God as Father is to love the Son who was sent by Him. The religious leaders could not allow Jesus to stand before the temple courts and declare His divinity, so they challenged His pedigree. They said, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (v. 48).

The Pharisees thought it was incredulous that Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (10:10-11) [emphasis added]. He was basically stating that His entire life was sacrificial. Jesus was saying He was “the perfect sacrificial lamb.” This caused great division among the Jews, both the religious leaders and the crowds.

Jesus encountered His Jewish adversaries at the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem. The crowd asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (10:24). In response, Jesus said the works He does are done in the Father’s name, and they bear witness to Him [Jesus]. He told the crowd they do not believe Him because they are not His sheep. He said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand” (v. 27-28). Certainly, this enraged a number of Jews, especially the Pharisees. Jesus boldly remarked, “and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand” (v. 30). The crowd took up stones to stone Him. He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John at first baptized, and there he remained for some time.

Please join me in the next day or two for the second half of this crucial topic;

References

Gonzalez, J. (2010). The Story of Christianity Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

 

 

 

 

Secret Opioid Memo

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A confidential government document containing evidence so critical it had the potential to change the course of an American tragedy was kept in the dark for more than a decade. The document, known as a “prosecution memo,” details how government lawyers believed that Purdue Pharma, the maker of the powerful opioid, OxyContin, knew early on that the drug was fueling a rise in abuse and addiction. They also gathered evidence indicating that the company’s executives had misled the public and Congress.

Bottles of Opiate Prescriptions

There has been a recent wave of lawsuits against opioid makers and members of the Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma. Opioid abuse has ravaged America over the past two decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 1999 to 2017 more than 700,000 Americans have died from a drug overdose. Approximately 68% of the more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017 involved an opioid. In 2017, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioids and illegal opioids like heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl) was 6 times higher than in 1999. On average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.

The confidential Justice Department “prosecution memo” represents a missed opportunity that might have changed the course of the opioid epidemic. It also suggests that Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family knew far earlier than they admitted that OxyContin was being abused. The memo had the potential to change the course of the opioid crisis but was kept from circulation for more than a decade. The report states that Purdue Pharma executives were implicated in the crisis.

The Department of Justice chose not to pursue felony charges against those executives, paving the way for a settlement that ended a four-year investigation. The settlement did not produce any vital changes to industry behavior regarding the prescribing of narcotic painkillers. Secrecy surrounding the memo is emblematic of a legal process that favors the suppression of corporate information. If disclosed, this information could benefit the public’s health and safety. It is truly extraordinary to see after all these years that the opioid industry is finally being held to account.

Analysis of the DEA database obtained by the Washington Post reveals that a relatively small number of pharmacies—15 percent—distributed roughly half of prescription opioids nationwide from 2006 to 2012. It seems the DEA wasn’t paying attention to its own data, instead relying on drug companies and pharmacies to police themselves. In one engaging multimedia story, the Post took a close look at a southwestern Virginia area that was flooded with 74 million opioid pills over seven years—enough for 106 pills per resident every year. Journalists from over 30 states have now published over 90 separate articles based on the previously undisclosed DEA data.

It’s unbelievable that millions of oxycodone and hydrocodone pills flooded poor communities in Appalachia as pharmaceutical companies and the DEA failed to heed signs of large-scale inappropriate prescribing. Yet there is a certain liberation in being able to point to specific data, which might help assign responsibility for what may be U.S. health care’s most fateful systemic failure in recent history.

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It is bad enough that many doctors and pharmacies were little more than “pill mills” supplying untreated addicts with their drug of choice rather than treating legitimate pain patients. It is quite another to know that nearly 35 billion opioids — about half of all distributed pills — were handled by just 15 percent of the nation’s pharmacies between 2006 and 2012. A single drugstore in tiny Albany, Kentucky purchased nearly 6.8 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills during that period, equivalent to 96 a year for all 10,000 or so men, women and children in surrounding Clinton County. This was the most on a per capita, per county basis in the United States.

There is always a tension between discretion and disclosure—between keeping the public informed about the workings of large medical treatment systems and permitting specialists who operate them to handle delicate matters in private. Nowhere is that tension more relevant than in health care, where medical expertise, proprietary information and patient privacy are all at a premium. Like all good things, however, those may be taken to an extreme or turned into excuses for unwarranted concealment.

Any ordinary person who learned that a single pharmacy in small-town Kentucky was handling millions of potentially addictive pills over a seven-year period might have sounded an alarm, even if government bureaucracy, industry leaders, and doctors did not. Unfortunately, no ordinary person could know—until now.

For more information, click here: OxyKills.com

Signature in the Cell: The Definition of Life

“What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side,
    made earth overflow with your wonderful creations. Oh, look—the deep, wide sea, brimming with fish past counting, sardines and sharks and salmon”

(Psalm 104:24-25, MSG).

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

CHRISTIANS TODAY ARE FREQUENTLY looked upon with suspicion as a subculture that holds strange, old-fashioned, narrow-minded views on the origin of the universe, the nature of man, and the existence of a supreme being. In certain circles, especially politics and academia, there is a degree of condescension, suspicion, and contempt. The world sees Christians as “haters” or “bashers,” labeling us  elitist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, homophobic, and delusional. Unfortunately, this is due in part to the words Christians use when taking on today’s culture. Still others say Christians are on the opposite side of science, believing in a fairy tale God, holding irrational beliefs as to the origin of life and the universe. Although Christians are called upon to be ready to defend the Gospel at any time, 1 Peter 3:15 provides a clear admonition that when doing so we are to show courtesy and respect.

Darwin Portrait

In Darwin’s time, few, if any biologists talked about biological or genetic information. Today, they routinely refer to DNA, RNA, and proteins: carriers or repositories of information. Biologists tell us that DNA stores and transmits “genetic information,” that it contains a genetic message, including instructions—a genetic blueprint or digital code—regarding how the life it “represents” should be assembled. Biology has recently entered its own information age. Scientists seeking to explain the origin of life have taken note. Life is not made up of mere matter and energy, but also information. Since matter and energy existed before life, this critical aspect of living organisms is now center stage. Inanimate matter cannot write the information necessary for life. At some point, biological information came into existence. Consequently, theories that claim to explain the origin of life must answer the genetics question.

It’s a Matter of Information

What exactly is “biological information?” Beginning in the 1940s, mathematicians and computer scientists began to define, study, measure, and quantify information. They made distinctions between several types of information. What kind of information does DNA contain? What kind of information must origin-of-life researchers explain the origin of? DNA contains specific information that deepens the mystery surrounding life. Most of us use the term information to describe some piece of knowledge. According to the standard definition, information holds two distinct meanings: (i) facts provided or learned about something or someone; and (ii) what is conveyed or represented by an arrangement or sequence of things. The second definition is on point regarding our discussion on the origin of biological or genetic information. It refers to genetically transmitted information. The specific “code” of life itself. It is a rather dubious claim to state that genetic information came from nothing; that it “wrote” itself. Moreover, information specific to the second definition equals an arrangement or string of characters that accomplishes a particular outcome or performs a function of communication.

Indeed, DNA contains alternative sequences of nucleotides that can produce some specific effect. This certainly indicates that DNA contains information or, if you prefer, instructions, regarding life. Neither DNA nor the cellular machinery that uses its information is conscious. As an appropriate comparison, neither does software “code” comprehend the existence of the software program itself. Yet clearly software contains a kind of information or instruction. Strikingly, its code is made up of some combination of zeros and ones: yes/no, left/right, this/that. How much more complex is the genetic code of a living organism?

Information theory was developed in the 1940s—81 years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, which he claimed explained the development of the rather complicated and sometimes messy process of speciation. In was in the 1940s that MIT engineer and mathematician Claude Shannon was studying an obscure branch of algebra. Few people were paying attention. He had taken nineteenth-century mathematician George Boole’s system of putting logical expressions in mathematical form and applied its categories of “true” and “false” to switches found in electronic circuits. I am reminded of my study of basic electronics and electrical systems in the 1970s as a high school student, wherein the movement of energy through a circuit was determined by whether a switch was “open” or “closed.” Shannon’s master’s thesis has been called “possibly the most important, and also the most famous, master’s thesis of the century.” It eventually became the foundation for digital-circuit and digital-computer theory. Today, structures exhibiting specified complexity in living organisms are completely unknown and unknowable apart from the DNA, RNA, and proteins that establish their genetic features.

Applying Information Theory to Life

Obviously, there is a tremendous amount of variation between species. Species—groups of similar organisms within a genus—are designated by biochemical and other phenotypic criteria and by DNA relatedness, based on their overall genetic similarity. You may recall from ninth-grade biology class that living organisms (whether animal or plant, zebra or zucchini) are divided into seven levels: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.

Classification System.png

There are five kingdoms, which are determined by how living organisms obtain their food, the types of cells that make up their body, and the number of cells they contain. Phylum gives us a grouping of physical similarities. Class designation narrows similarities even further. For example, the reason man is considered a mammal is because we too drink milk from our birth mothers. Order is based on taxonomy—a checklist of characteristics that determines how organisms are grouped together. Orders are then divided into families. Because they share much genetic information, organisms in a family are said to be related to each other. Genus is a way to describe the genetic name for an organism. Species is the most specific classification of living organisms, hence the word used to label the category. The root for this term comes from the Latin specificus meaning “constituting a kind or sort.” Accordingly, when we identify a subject in conversation, we are said to get specific.

Consider species with which we are familiar. We recognize zebras by their stripes, elephants by their trunks, giraffes by their long necks, bald eagles by the color of the feathers on their heads, and monarch butterflies by the patterns on their gossamer wings. Species are defined by their traits. This is true across all life. Mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish, starfish, sea urchins, crustaceans, arachnids, insects, worms of all kinds, shellfish, octopi, snails, corals, jellyfish, sponges, mosses, ferns, grasses, orchids, fruit trees, fungi, algae, bacteria, and all the life forms on earth possess unique combinations of traits. The origin of species is a question of the origin of traits. If you want to know the origin of zebras, you need to discover the origin of stripes. The origin of plants is bound up in the origin of trunks. Giraffe origins are inextricable from the origin of long necks. The origin of any species is found in the origin of the traits that define them. Examination of traits must include microscopic observation.

Let’s Get Specific

Somatic cells (i.e., non-reproductive cells) divide through a process of cell division termed mitosis. In both animals and plants, before the nucleus breaks down, structures that look like flexible noodles (called chromosomes) appear during a period termed prophase. Through prometaphase, the membrane surrounding the nucleus breaks down. The process continues through a complicated sequence of events. Because the process of nuclear division is so complex, it suggests a functional role for chromosomes. If chromosomes were inert and irrelevant to heredity, why would cells take such care to pass them on via such a unique and detailed cycle?dna helixThe answer to the how of DNA function is intricately bound up in the structure of DNA. Any potential structure for DNA must show how it could carry complex hereditary information. The architecture cannot simply repeat unchanging units. Chemically, the structure of DNA would need to be stable over many generations in order to pass traits along to future generations. For example, elephants produce more elephants each generation, giraffes more giraffes, bald eagles more bald eagles, and so on. The stable framework of DNA is the only explanation for this phenomenon. In addition, DNA must suggest a method by which it can be replicated. Without consistent transformation of genetic information, hereditary traits would become diluted and, ultimately, extinguished. Theoretically, this would result in a gradual fading of features familiar between parent and offspring, and, consequently, between homo sapiens.

Biologists eventually discovered the double helix, the structural relationship between DNA and chromosomes. DNA doesn’t exist in chromosomes as a long, straight stretch of helix. Rather, chromosomes represent dense forms of DNA. This is accomplished by packaging of DNA—cells wrap these helices around proteins in progressively higher levels of concentration to form the familiar chromosome shape. When sperm and egg fuse, the chromosomes of the sperm join the same nuclear compartment as the chromosomes of the egg. Interestingly, these paternal and maternal chromosomes exist as individual entities, carrying coded information from each parent. In other words, since both the father and the mother provide an equal number of chromosomes, both parents make an equal contribution to the features of the newly conceived offspring. Given the intricate science of heredity, it is simply impossible for the DNA of a giraffe to morph into the DNA of a chimpanzee. An offspring mimics its parents, period.

Remarkably, the physical basis for heredity—the nature of the very code of life—was not uncovered until nearly 100 years after Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species. This is indeed a significant bone of contention. Without this genetic information, Darwin could not have accurately argued for the origin of species. If he had no concept of how traits were written in a genetic code, he could not have identified the origin of any particular trait. In addition, he had no biogenetic knowledge that giraffes cannot become buffaloes. Moreover, reptiles cannot develop into mammals. It is simply not possible—not even through mutation. In other words, Darwin could not logically argue that through survival of the fittest a salamander became more adept at surviving in trees, leading them to eventually become birds, flying from tree to tree in the acquiring of food. This violates the very code of speciation.

What Are the Odds?

Carl Sagan Photo.jpg

The arguments presented by today’s New Atheists fly in the face of logic and probability. They espouse their theory on the origin of life amidst a vacuum of proof. Indeed, despite mathematical probability. I was a huge fan of Carl Sagan. My father and I used to watch his weekly television program on PBS. I loved hearing him utter those famous words, “…billions and billions.”  Sagan went to his grave viewing the universe as nothing more than molecules in motion. Granted, we and everything around us are comprised of molecules. Looking at the atom, we see a tiny universe unto itself—protons and neutrons orbiting a nucleus. Stepping back, we can see each atom orbiting other atoms in myriad combinations specific to the type of substance it is—air, water, carbon, hydrogen, grass, trees, the family dog, the food we eat, even the screen on which you are viewing these words. In fact, molecules of light are making it possible for you to see your computer screen.

BigBang

Sagan, and others, would have us believe this finely-tuned orchestra of atoms circling atoms, planets circling the sun, the Milky Way circling other universes, just “happened” at some indiscriminate point in the observable past, when the universe just burst forth from a singular point of extremely hot and extremely dense matter. Matter, incidentally, which they claim popped into existence out of nothing. They fail to explain why it is okay for their theory to violate the laws of thermodynamics. Something cannot come from nothing. Energy cannot create itself. Further, prior to the Big Bang (which, by the way, is a term that does adequately describe the point when the universe began) time, space, and matter simply did not exist.

Donald Page of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Science has calculated the odds against our universe randomly taking a form suitable for life as one out of 10,000,000,000124 which is a number that exceeds all imagination. Astronomers Fred Hoyle and N.C. Wickramasinghe found that the odds of the random formation of a single enzyme from amino acids anywhere on our planet’s surface are one in 1020 and, in addition, that there are about two thousand enzymes. The probability of these enzymes assembling randomly in a pattern that could define life is only one part in (1020 ) 20,000 or 1040,000. This is an outrageously small probability that could not be achieved even if the entire universe consisted of a dense organic soup. This is just one step in the formation of life. Nothing has yet been said about DNA and where it came from, or of the transcription of DNA to RNA, which scientists say cannot even be numerically computed.

Scientists have yet to thoroughly explain mitosis and meiosis. The first term mitosis refers to a cell dividing into two clones of itself, each with the same number of chromosomes. On the other hand, meiosis describes cell division that produces four cells (called gametes). These gametes are more commonly called sperm in males and eggs in females. Unlike in mitosis, the gametes produced by meiosis are not clones of the original cell, because each gamete has exactly half as many chromosomes as the original cell. A chromosome is a thread-like object (scientists literally called them threads or loops when they were first discovered) made of a material called chromatin.

dna

Chromatin is made of DNA and special structural proteins called histones. One way to think of a chromosome is as one very long strand of DNA, with a bunch of histone proteins stuck to it like beads on a string. Chromosomes are stored in the nuclei of cells. If you compare the diameter of a cell nucleus (between 2 and 10 microns) to the length of a chromosome (between 1 and 10 centimeters, when fully extended!), you can see that a chromosome must be scrunched up into a very small package in order to fit inside a nucleus. The average chromosome is about a thousand times longer than a cell nucleus is wide. The situation is a bit like how a very long snake can coil up into a tight ball. This process is known, but the mechanism is not understood.

Joey Lagarbo, a scientist who works in the field of genetics, stated, “I completely understand where [this] comes from but at the end of the day it will only confuse you more. There are 46 chromosomes in a diploid human cell or 23 pairs of homologous chromosomes. Each of these 46 chromosomes do replicate but are still attached to each other by a centromere (that’s how we get the prototypical X shape of a chromosome). Each replicated chromosome is composed of two sister chromatids that are attached at the hip by a centromere; they are NOT completely separated. In other words, we went from 46 ‘I’ shaped chromosomes to 46 ‘X’ shaped chromosomes.” Someone responded to Lagarbo’s explanation by saying, “I understand this, but if someone could explain [the] conceptual problem it would be very much appreciated.”

A Change of Worldview

Jean Paul Sarte.jpgI want to share something about Jean-Paul Sartre. He was a French atheist and existential philosopher, most noted for his 1943 Being and Nothingness. Sartre promoted an anti-deterministic philosophy. In other words, science not based on causality. That’s scary! This is a type of existentialism based on the “logic” that existence precedes essence, and that matter is only defined by what man thinks it is. Man, according to Sartre’s initial philosophy, first materializes into the world, encounters himself, and only afterwards defines himself. There is no “definition” of anything outside of man’s opinion as to what it means to him. This is an anti-materialistic worldview that stands at odds with the scientific basis of existence. He wrote, “The effect of any form of materialism is to treat all men—including oneself—as objects, which is to say as a set of predetermined reactions indistinguishable from the properties and phenomena that constitute, say, a table, a chair, or a stone.”

The problem is that man is said to be free to choose—to invent himself and the physical universe. There would therefore be no genetic code for anything, let alone ethics. No ontological proscription for how man should behave. This is the very essence of moral relativism: The view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to culture and the zeitgeist of each historical period. No standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. Amazingly, Sartre underwent a deathbed conversion espousing the grace of God and the “creatureliness” of man. Reversing himself, he said, “I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God” [emphasis mine].

Divine Design

The astronomical evidence for God must be strong when atheistic scientists admit that the universe exploded out of nothingness. Agnostic astronomers now claim that supernatural forces were at work in the beginning, leading them back to a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. But the scientific evidence for God does not end with the Cosmological Argument. For many, the precision with which the universe exploded into being provides even more persuasive evidence for the existence of God. This evidence, technically known as the Teleological Argument, derives its name from the Greek word telos, which means “design.”

The essence of the Teleological Argument is this:

  • Every design has a designer
  • The universe has a highly complex design
  • Therefore, the universe has a Designer

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) wrote, “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” William Paley (1743-1805) made the now-famous argument by his commonsense assertion that every watch requires a watchmaker. Imagine you’re walking along in the woods and you find a diamond-studded Rolex on the ground. What do you conclude is the cause of that watch: The wind and the rain? Erosion? Perhaps some combination of natural forces? Not at all! There is absolutely no question in your mind that some intelligent being made that watch, and that some unfortunate individual must have accidentally dropped it in the woods.

Our universe is, in fact, even more complex than that watch—containing a planet with a myriad of improbable and independent life-supporting conditions that make it a tiny oasis in a vast and hostile universe. Odds noted above that Princeton’s Donald Page put forth, and which astronomers Fred Hoyle and N.C. Wickramasinghe added to some time later, support intelligent design. These highly precise and interdependent conditions (which are called “anthropic constants”) make up what is known as the “Anthropic Principle.” In essence, the Anthropic Principle states that the universe is extremely fine-tuned (designed) to support human life here on earth. But this concept is more than a mere supposition. It is dependent on particular conditions:

  1. Oxygen Level. On earth, oxygen comprises 21 percent of the atmosphere. That precise figure is an anthropic constant that makes life on earth possible. If the oxygen level was just a few percentage points higher, fires would erupt spontaneously; if it were a few percentage points lower, human beings would suffocate. We know this is true from numerous summits at Mount Everest that require climbers to gradually acclimate to lower levels of oxygen higher up the mountain. Typically, climbers must supplement their need with bottled oxygen or risk dying from high-altitude cerebral or pulmonary edema (HACE or HAPE).
  2. Atmospheric Transparency. The small window astronauts must hit reflects the exacting standards by which the universe has been designed. While the atmosphere presents a reentry problem for astronauts, its present qualities are absolutely essential for life here on earth. The degree of transparency of the atmosphere is an anthropic constant. If the atmosphere were less transparent, not enough solar energy would reach the surface. If it were more transparent, we could be bombarded with a lethal amount of solar energy. Moreover, the atmospheric composition of precise levels of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and ozone are in themselves antropic constants. (This is why we’ve heard near-doomsday warnings about a thinning of or a hole in the ozone layer.)
  3. Moon-Earth Gravitational Interaction. If the gravitational interaction between the moon and the earth were greater than it currently is, tidal effects on the oceans, atmosphere, and rotational period would be too severe. If it were weaker, orbital changes would cause serious climate instability. In either event, life on earth would be impossible.
  4. Carbon Dioxide Level. Precisely the correct amount of carbon dioxide is maintained naturally in the earth’s atmosphere. In fact, forests play a critical role in the global carbon cycle by absorbing carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, storing carbon above and below ground, and producing oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis. Consider the danger of increased “carbon footprints” created by various forms of pollution, including transportation and manufacturing. The phrase  greenhouse gases is based on the increased “greening” of our trees, which is causing higher concentration of carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere.
  5. Gravity. The gravity that is pulling earth’s inhabitants to the surface is also an anthropic constant. Its strength may be frightening and mysterious, but it couldn’t be any different for life to exist. If the gravitational force were altered by 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000001 percent, our sun would not exist, and, therefore, neither would we. Now that’s precise design!

Typically, atheists respond to the concept of an Anthropic Principle in one of two ways. Some admit there’s some kind of Designer. Astronomer Fred Hoyle had his atheistic beliefs shaken, responding to this concept by agreeing that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, chemistry, and biology. Although he was vague, Hoyle recognized that the fine-tuning of the universe requires intelligence. Other atheists admit design but then claim there is no Designer. They say this precise tuning “happened by chance.” This flies in the face of basic logic. How can the universe be designed (indeed, finely-tuned) without a “tuner?” Pianos cannot possibly tune themselves. Nor could the universe have “designed” itself.

Concluding Remarks

John Glenn, on his return to space in 1998 aboard the space shuttle Discovery, said, “To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible.” Nearly 2,000 years ago Paul wrote, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20, RSV). Evidence of a heavenly Designer is clear, but man often takes it for granted or, more typically, sets out to prove a negative: There is no God, therefore God did not create the universe. C.S. Lewis, in his iconic book The Screwtape Letters provides great insight into this tendency we have to take for granted the amazing world around us. It seems that in our empirical world we are too busy to slow down and contemplate the universe and our place in it.

All instruction, all teaching, all training, comes with intent. Someone who writes an instruction manual does so with purpose. Every cell in our bodies contains a very detailed instruction code, much like a miniature computer program. A computer program is written in the language of ones and zeros: 110010101011000. The way they are arranged tell the computer program what to do. The DNA in each of our cells is very similar. It’s made up of four chemicals: adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine. When mapping genomes, scientists abbreviate these chemicals A, T, G, and C. These are arranged in the human cell similar to the following: CGTGTGACTCGCTCCTGAT. I find it remarkable that there are approximately three billion letters arranged in code for every cell in a living organism. The very function of each cell is determined by how the code is written.

We’re often told by “scientists” that God does not exist. They don’t leave it there. They also add that science cannot prove the presence of a metaphysical concept or an ephemeral being. Of course, the “logical” conclusion they come to is God is not real. The irony is not lost on me that they are trying to prove a negative by using the same science that actually points to several critical points: (i) the universe began as a very hot and very dense singularity; (ii) energy and matter cannot create itself; (iii) the universe is expanding, and will ultimately cease to exist due to entropy and chaos; (iv) all physical elements, from from the subatomic level to the the endless expanse of the universe, orbit each other in an extremely well-tuned dance; (v) the Anthropic Principle provides a critical examination of five major factors which, if altered even one tittle, would cause the extinction of all forms of life on earth.

The laws of physics, when applied uniformly and fairly, indicate that the universe could not have created itself. The scientific principle cause and effect fails to support the birth of our universe from nothing, as there is no known explanation for the cause of the singularity or the cause of the “explosion” that formed everything. Scientists who accept that the universe was formed from the Big Bang believe their assumptions are true. However, they too rely on “faith” to conclude that that the universe was born at the precise moment of the Big Bang from an infinitely small point of hot, dense matter for which they have no explanation of its original source. Simply stated, they have absolutely no theory for the original source of this matter and energy. William Paley’s logical conclusion was that every watch requires a watchmaker.

Repent, Believe, Follow

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

I WANT TO HAVE A CONVERSATION about what it means to truly follow the way of Jesus. There are, unfortunately, nearly as many explanations of this critical theology as there are people who believe in it. Certainly, this is not what Jesus intended to happen in the Body of Christ. We see this in the numerous denominations, dogmas, philosophies, and factions present in the church today. Admittedly, most believers are making an honest attempt at presenting Jesus in a manner that attracts non-believers to Him. There is, however, a percentage of ministers and laypersons whose focus is on culture rather than Jesus.

Some in the ministry believe the best way to attract others to Jesus is to downplay the ugly side of His ministry: the wrath of God, the wages of sin, the nature of a fallen world, the dark side of the human heart. They think that zeroing in on these vitally important doctrines will cause new believers to lose heart, and block non-believers from coming in from the cold to hear the truth. Instead of shouting the truth of the Gospel from the mountaintop, they create “warm and fuzzy” messages, start coffee clatches at church, and ply the common man with “lights and music.” They create an atmosphere of pageantry, of pomp and circumstance, rather than proclaiming critical points of doctrine.

Truly, this is a matter of spirituality—how we go about following Jesus in word and in deed. The way of Jesus is about loving and saving the world. It is personal, not disembodied, abstract, convoluted, fleshly. Many churches in the United States today are glaringly impersonal: programs, organizations, discussion panels, techniques, general guidelines—about information rather than knowledge. For me, accumulation of information is not synonymous with the acquiring of knowledge. Facts don’t lead to change. Knowledge does.

Many who consider themselves “followers” of Jesus today seem to embrace the ways of their surrounding culture as they go about their daily living “in the Name of Jesus.” This is quite dangerous. It is as if they are going along with the world at work, at school, in the marketplace, while espousing the way of Jesus only while at church or in the company of other believers. It is as if they see Christianity as a religion and not a relationship. In other words, many are Christians in name only. They are “fans” of Christ, but not “followers.” Personally, this is a fairly recent change for me that came about through humility and complete honesty. It is a critical prerequisite to becoming a disciple of Christ.

Jesus presents us with a different way; one that is separate from the world, not a supplement to it. It is grounded in a personal relationship that can only grow through true repentance. Ah, but what does the word repentance really mean? If you want to discover an interesting but troubling truth about most mainstream Christians today, ask them to explain what it means to repent. Some will tell you it means reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs. They believe it simply means saying to God, I am sorry. Please forgive me! But a literal translation of the Greek μετάνοια (“metanoia”) indicates a transformational change of the heart. It involves turning away from a life of sin and not going back. It’s “doing a 180.”

Jeremiah 35:15 says, “I have sent to you all my servants the prophets, sending them persistently, saying, ‘Turn now every one of you from his evil way, and amend your doings, and do not go after other gods to serve them, and then you shall dwell in the land which I gave to you and your fathers.’ But you did not incline your ear or listen to me” (RSV) [Italics mine]. Personally, I did not take this step for decades. Typically, I made a profession of faith, but acted in a manner that was not consistent with my profession. In the vernacular, I “talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.” And isn’t the way of Jesus in reality a walk?

In essence, failing to walk out our profession of faith is wrong thinking and wrong living. One of the most stinging rebukes I’ve experienced was when my younger brother said, “I can’t stand you and I don’t trust you. You are nothing but a hypocrite!” Ouch! At the time, my reaction was one of anger. But my brother was right. I understood the what of following Jesus, but I had yet to practice the how. I was living a fleshly life like the rest of the world. My behavior was chock full of justification—ruled by anxiety, depression, selfishness, and chronic pain. My defense mechanisms, despite holding an undergraduate degree in psychology, included denial, rationalization, and projection. I justified my behavior because of how others had behaved toward me.

These excuses are ways of the flesh, involving coping strategies common to culture but not a proper part of the way of Jesus. Much of these mechanisms are terribly destructive. They are highly ineffective in promoting lasting interpersonal relationships. I know this because of the impact they’ve had on my life—divorce, loss of numerous jobs, no true close friends, estrangement from my family. Such behaviors are often useful in getting ahead in a secular world (albeit with considerable negative consequences relative to human connection), but not in the community of Jesus. They frustrate any attempt to become part of the Kingdom of God.

The Jesus Way

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Take a second look at what you just read. He said He is the way, sure, but He didn’t stop there. He also said He is the truth and the life. This statement is made up of three distinct parts. To ascribe to one of these three concepts is to invite failure in our Christian walk. The Jesus way is predicated upon to the truth He gave us about the life we can have through Him. Follow me for a minute here. Merely having information about Christianity (the way) will not produce truth in our everyday activities. Consequently, we will never achieve the life we can have in Him. Reading about the life we can have in Jesus is useful only in a “quiz bowl” competition on the Bible. We’ll get the question right, but we will miss the means by which we can come to know the truth about the information, and, therefore, live in a manner that is victorious.

In other words, the Gospel gets only partial attention in our churches today. The concept of Jesus as the way is the most frequently evaded metaphor among Christians today. This is because we don’t always hear the entire truth. Jesus, in His statement we read in John 14:6, sets out in plain language that the way comes first. We cannot know the truth, and then appreciate and live the life, without first entering into the way. This crucial step can’t be skipped if we are to become disciples of Christ. The way of Jesus is the only means by which we can obtain the ability to practice and come to understand the truth of Jesus Christ. This involves living Jesus seven days a week—in our homes and workplaces, at school and in the marketplace—not just on Sunday!

This is how the “local” church (our part in the Body of Christ) demonstrates the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus. We are told to leave everything behind, take up our cross (personal sacrifices needed for complete service), and follow Him. But what does it mean to follow Him? What do we need to give up in order to make this commitment real for us? I believe Jesus was stating an imperative: in order to follow Him we must live an authentic, committed life for Him and through Him. The beautiful life Jesus lived—marked by a passionate love for and unwavering obedience to God and a compassion for people—must be learned and practiced. It must not be theoretical (head knowledge); instead, it must be demonstrated through action (heart knowledge). We cannot live like Jesus without following Jesus.

More Than Mere Consumers

It seems the American way is the way of consumerism. I am not casting aspersions on our wonderful system of democracy, nor am I putting down the idea of open markets, free enterprise, and equal opportunity for success. Our country needs to return to the concept of providing equal access for obtaining an education and earning a fair living. These are, without a doubt, opportunities that are unique to the United States. Further, this is completely different from wealth. Equal opportunity leads to a level playing field for the accumulation of wealth. Opportunity begets wealth. It is not proper to take wealth from those who have obtained it and give it (without merit) to those who have not worked for it.

Perhaps this is why many of our churches today seem to be churches of consumerism. It is not appropriate, however, to market our churches in the same way we market and promote goods and services. When we approach “church” in this manner, we risk getting off message. This is typically not an intentional diversion. Rather, it is a symptom of using the wrong message (indeed, the wrong mechanism) for growing our congregations. It puts emphasis on “congregation” (the size of a church’s membership) rather than on the Body of Christ. Congregation is not the same thing as church.

Today’s churches, especially the so-called mega-churches, increase membership through marketing. Leaders of these types of congregations believe the quickest and most effective way to get people to come to services is to identify what they want and give it to them—satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the Gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem-solving, warm feelings, and the like. I see this specifically as a problem with the ministry of Joel Osteen. He promotes “the best life now,” saying, “everyday is Friday” (whatever that means), and tells his followers they need only stop seeing themselves as sinners, losers, damaged goods, hopeless and helpless. It’s not the concept that’s wrong; it’s the approach. This method leaves sin and repentance out of the message. Whenever we water down the Gospel, making it less harsh (in other words, more “palatable”), we step out of the way of Jesus.

The End of Me

“Follow me” is one of the greatest commands spoken by Jesus during his earthly ministry (see Mark 1:17). This statement, however, is preceded by the commands repent and believe (see verse 15). The Kingdom of God is at hand. In other words, He is the Kingdom. It is what Jesus revealed in His ministry. Our access to the Kingdom can only be obtained through repentance—a decision to leave one way of life (one reality) and enter another. It requires a complete change of mind and heart. In my own experience, I was unable to appreciate any victory over sin (especially over active addiction) until I came to believe, completely and entirely, that there is only one way to achieve it: the way of Jesus. My hope is you are able to grasp this sooner rather than later. It will revolutionize your life.

This requires what Kyle Idleman (2015) calls coming to “the end of me.” But what does this mean? In a nutshell, it means “death is life.” The Bible says life’s real prize is hidden. We have to know where to look for it. Paul wrote, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3, RSV). It indicates that to live the life that is hidden in Christ we must first die to ourselves. Jesus made this clear when He said, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14, RSV).

Idleman writes, “Death is nobody’s favorite word. We tiptoe around it with nicer names. Someone passed on. They’ve gone ahead. They crossed the river” (p. 194). He says we tend to do whatever we can to live in denial of our eventual death. Perhaps you’ve heard the lyrics from Joe Diffie: “Well I ain’t afraid of dying, it’s the thought of being dead… prop me up beside the jukebox if I die, Lord I want to go to heaven, but I don’t want to go tonight.”

Jesus said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Matthew 16:25-26, RSV). Jesus was not speaking of our physical (literal) death, but was speaking of a spiritual reorientation of our focus. To die to self is to set aside what we want and focus instead on loving God with everything we’ve got and valuing others as highly as we value ourselves (see Matthew 22:37-39). This moves us away from self-centeredness and closer to becoming openhearted followers of Christ who care deeply for others. We cannot serve God or others while enamored with ourselves.

Paul said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21, RSV). Focusing on ourselves is easy. It’s what we all do in the flesh. It’s part of our fallen nature. The moment Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and partake of the forbidden fruit, they put self-knowledge ahead of fellowship with God. As a result, their walk with the Father was forever changed. It is only through adhering to the command of Jesus to follow Him that we can ever hope to put God and our fellow man ahead of ourselves. This concept is, as I stated at the beginning of this article, found only through repenting (turning away from self and our sinful ways), believing that Jesus is the way to the Kingdom of God, and following Him.

True (spiritual) life is found only through the laying down of our physical (carnal) life. We are not wired to turn from our physical world and embrace the metaphysical. Indeed, we cannot grasp spiritual concepts merely by thinking about them. We can begin by taking steps each day to surrender. We cannot hope to comprehend the way of Jesus without denying ourselves. Jesus said, plainly and simply, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23, RSV).

Jesus is our way to God. Moreover, Jesus is God’s way to us. God comes to us in Jesus, speaking the words of salvation. Those words necessarily begin with one simple but crucial step: repentance.

References

Idleman, K. (2015). The End of Me: Where Real Life in the Upside-Down Ways of Jesus Begins. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publications.

Perdew, Baylock, R., and Phillips, K. (1993). Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die) [Joe Diffie]. On Honky Tonk Attitude [CD recording]. New York, NY: Epic Records

New Series: Let’s Go to Theology Class!

Beginning September 2, 2019, I will start a weekly blog post, providing a summary of lessons assigned in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology at Colorado Christian University.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

THEOLOGY IS AN ATTEMPT by faith to understand itself, its object, and its place in today’s world. Trevor Hart (1995) calls this exercise faith thinking. Although theology is typically undertaken as part of a higher education endeavor, the activity known as “Christian Theology” should be an inevitable consequence of life as a thinking Christian. Systematic Theology is defined as “an integrating discipline that studies how the church may bear enduring, timely, and truthful witness to God as revealed in Jesus Christ.” Theology today specifically denotes the contemporary effort to speak about God in an orderly way.

Theology is not a formal discipline in Scripture—the topic most related is wisdom. Biblical knowledge of God is (at its very core) relational, involving whole persons within God’s covenant community, and contextual, inviting freedom for discerning obedience. This dovetails nicely with the renewing of our minds through Christ. Responding to divine inspiration, as believers we are to pursue the understanding of God and His will for us (see Romans 12:1-3). The practice of systematic thinking—avoiding obvious contradictions and aspiring to orderly reflection—seems theologically essential given the Gospel’s claim of one God, and the doctrine of salvation through faith alone in Christ Jesus alone.

Systematic Theology affirms the approach of sola scriptura (Scripture alone) as final arbiter of truth. This is the approach Martin Luther used as he prepared the 95 Theses he presented to the Catholic church at the outset of the Reformation. The Bible, not priests or the pope, have ultimate authority over every aspect of Christianity. Given the tendency of man to muddy the waters—adding his own instruction regarding the Christian life—it must be held that Scripture alone provides the information needed to walk in the faith. Indeed, Scripture is God’s special revelationi.e., particular divine self-disclosure by Word and Spirit  (see Hebrews 1:1-4).

Trevor Hart believes that regardless of our intellectual resources, we are called upon to bear faithful witness to the source of our life and hope. Naturally, not all of us are called to be evangelists or apologists in an official capacity. He says, however, “But just as surely as there is a ‘priesthood of all believers’ in God’s church, so too there is a theological prerogative belonging not only to an elite academic priesthood, guardians of the sanctuaries of learning, but to all God’s people” (p. 2). Faith must seek to understand itself. Faith—when it is truly faith rather than a mere intellectual assent to a proposition—will always seek to enter into a fuller and deeper knowledge of that which matters to it most. Such study must have an interrogative rather than doctrinaire attitude.

First Peter 3:15 says, ” Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (RSV). Matthew Henry (1997) says in his commentary on this verse that we are called to sanctify God before others through word and deed. In addition, we are to be able to defend our faith with meekness, thereby explaining the ground and reason for what we believe. This is the very basis of apologetics—discourse that shows and tells why the Gospel deserves respect and, ultimately, allegiance. Because Christianity is the way to life, not just an intellectual system, apologetics deals with goodness and beauty, affections and practices, as well as truth. Indeed, Christianity is more relationship than systematic religion. Aapologetics is anything we can say or do that helps people take Christianity more seriously than they did before.

Granted, apologetics is not theology per se; it is, however, the manner by which we apply systematic theology to the spreading of the Gospel. It is is the mechanism by which we are commanded to “defend” or explain why we believe what we believe. For me, apologetics is God’s call on my life. I intend to study systematic theology and apply what I learn to defending the Gospel, whether in written form or in point/counterpoint exercises with today’s New Atheists. It’s interesting to note that I thoroughly enjoyed performance in forensic competition as a high school senior, especially as a member of the debate team!

The Format

In presenting these synopses, I will adhere to the following basic format.

  • An applicable Bible verse. Bible verse that sets forth what Scripture states regarding the subject.
  • Statement of the Topic. Clear statement of the subject (or thesis) will be provided.
  • Statement of My Response to the Assignment. An abridged version of my answer to the assignment.
  • Application to Daily Walk. Detailed description of how the weekly lesson can be applied to our daily Christian witness.
  • Concluding Remarks. Summary of the lesson in a manner that will clearly state what was learned and the implications of the lesson on today’s church.
  • “See Also.” List of recommended reading or further study will be provided in order that you might be able to expound on the subject and, therefore, apply it to your daily witness.

I look forward to sharing with you what I learn in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology. Hopefully, this will help us all to be better equipped to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, and to do so with all confidence, meekness, and fear.

References

Hart, T. (1997). Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

 

“Is My Life Worth Living?”

“The purpose in a man’s mind is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Proverbs 20:5, RSV).

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, RSV).

IT IS OBVIOUS THAT purpose can guide life decisions, influence behavior, shape goals, offer a sense of direction, and create meaning. For some, meaning is defined by what they do—doctor, lawyer, construction worker, teacher, welder, chef. Others seek meaning through spirituality or religious beliefs. Unfortunately, some never find meaning for their lives. I cannot think of a more sad state than existing without knowing why you exist, or where you’re going.

A Matter of Worldview

We are talking about worldview. Everyone holds a worldview, which Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet (2008) define as “the framework of our most basic beliefs that shapes our view of and for the world and is the basis of our decisions and actions.” Sire (2015) says a worldview is a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or unconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic makeup of our world. [Italics added.]

I agree with Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet (2008) that truth is absolute; if not, then nothing is true. They consider (p. 64), “If a worldview is true, we can expect to find at least some external corroborating evidence to support it. This does not mean that something is true because there is evidence for it, but rather evidence will be available because something is true.” [Italics added.] It is critical to note that evidence is always subject to interpretation, and interpretation also can be subject to bias. As it’s been said many times, worldviews function somewhat like a pair of eyeglasses. When you begin wearing glasses, the rims can be quite distracting. In a short while, however, you lose your awareness of the rims and even the lenses. You forget you’re wearing glasses.

Accordingly, we can lose perspective on our assumptions, presuppositions and biases, especially with the passage of time. Entwistle (2015) warns us that assumptions and biases affect data interpretation. He said, “…what we see depends, to some degree, on what we expect and are predisposed to see.” (p. 93) Our ability to know is both dependent upon and limited by the assumptions of our worldview. In my Christian worldview, I recognize God as the unique source of all truth, and that this truth is absolute. In other words, it is not relative, but it is universal and unchanging. Truth is not absolute on its own merits; rather, it derives ultimately from God. I do not believe, however, that the Bible contains all that we need to know: e.g., we don’t consult the Bible to understand how to change a tire or perform brain surgery. Scripture does contain everything we need to know regarding God, the spiritual life, and morality.

We begin developing our worldview as young children, first through interactions within our family, then in social settings such as school and church, and from our companions and life experiences. Increasingly, our media culture is playing a key role in shaping worldview. We are a culture saturated with powerful media images in movies, television, commercials, music, gaming, and social media. What we watch, listen to, and read, impacts the way we think.

The lack of a sound basis for the meaning of life can cause a gnawing sense of being unfulfilled. This perception underlies everything we do. For example, we can be “busy” with many things, yet wonder if what we’re doing makes any real difference. Life, by its very nature, presents itself one day at a time: a random and unconnected series of activities and events over which we seem to have little or no control. If a sentiment of disconnectedness develops in our everyday existence, boredom sets in deep within our soul. To be “bored” does not mean we have nothing to do; it means that we question the value of the things we are so busy doing. Here is the great paradox of life: Many of us are busy and bored at the same time!

Symptoms of a Lack of Purpose

Interestingly, boredom might be rooted in resentment. If we run around all day like a crazy person, doing this and that, yet wonder if our busyness means anything to anyone, we easily feel used, manipulated, or exploited. Is this not often how a parent feels when he or she is constantly doing for their children, but the children appreciate nothing? In this state of mind, we begin to see ourselves as victims pushed around and made to do things by people who do not acknowledge us or take our contributions seriously. An inner anger starts to well up inside us—an anger that eventually settles into our hearts. Left unresolved, this anger leads to resentment, which has an effect on us much like a poison.

Perhaps the most damaging expression of our looming sense of unfulfillment is depression. When we start to believe our life has little or no effect on those around us, we can easily fall prey to sadness, depression, and regret. This can morph into guilt. It must be our fault that no one appreciates us, right? Perhaps we don’t do enough. Maybe we did the wrong thing. We begin to think it’s all our fault. This guilt is not always connected to just one event; sometimes it is connected with life itself. We feel guilty just for being alive. The realization that the world might be better without us becomes a sort-of “sub plot” to our life. We look in the mirror and, “Is my life worth living?”

Boredom, resentment, and depression are all symptoms of our sense of being disconnected. We cannot help but see life as a broken connectedness. We feel as though we don’t belong. Not surprisingly, this often leads to loneliness. This is what is meant by being in a room full of people at a gathering but feeling all alone. We experience this  because we don’t really feel like we’re part of the community. And it is this paralyzing sense of separation from others that establishes the core of much suffering in the world. When in this state of feeling cut off from the community, we quickly lose heart. Ultimately, if we don’t address this sentiment, we see ourselves as passive bystanders. We tend to live life “on the bench.”

Americans Increasingly Turn to Suicide

There is now a potential for us to believe our past, even our present, no longer carries us to the future. Instead, we go through life worried, cut off, without any promise that things will improve. Perhaps this is at the crux of one’s decision to commit suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide was the tenth-largest cause of death in America in 2017, claiming the lives of more than 47,000 people. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54. There were more than twice as many suicides (47,173) in the United States in 2017 as there were homicides (19,510).

No Sense of Roots

Henri Nouwen wrote, “Most of us have an address but cannot be found there. We know where we belong, but we keep being pulled away in many directions, as if we were still homeless.” I had a t-shirt years ago that had a rather interesting quip written on it: I Have Gone to Find Myself; If I Return Before I Get Back Keep Me Here. Does this not address the very struggle we all face when attempting to define the meaning of our existence. This “rudderless” life leads to our being tossed to and fro on the ocean in search of a port—any port—in the storm. For me, this pervasive sense of meaninglessness and loneliness led to some rather damaging behavior—infidelity, job hopping, geographic changes, and addiction. I learned that when we feel an inescapable sense of disconnectedness we will being to lie to ourselves. Not only about what the meaning of life is (or should be), but about the serious damage our addictive behaviors and activities of distraction are causing—both to us and to those around us.

What is the Answer?

If you are familiar with Scripture, you will likely remember that Jesus does not respond to our worry-filled way of living by saying that we should not be busy with everyday activities. Instead, His response is quite different. He asks us to shift the point of our focus—to essentially relocate the “center” of our attention, to change our priorities. Jesus wants us to stop focusing on “many things,” and instead focus on the “one necessary thing.” He does not preach of a change in activities as a means of finding a meaningful life. That would be akin to putting a temporary bandage on a bleeding wound. When we ignore critical wounds in the flesh, we risk developing a puss-filled infection that can spread to our bloodstream, thereby causing a “systemic” infection.

Instead, Jesus speaks of a change of heart. This change is what’s needed to make everything different even while everything appears to remain the way it was. Let me be clear: Many of us are living lives that are in need of drastic change. That’s a given. When we focus on the one necessary thing, we begin to tap into the resources needed to realize an effective change in our direction. This is what Jesus meant by His comment to the disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? …do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:25, 31, 33, RSV).

I believe it is only when we understand the importance of Jesus’s urgent instructions to make God the center of our lives that we can better see what is at stake. We will understand who we are, why we are here, and why things happen the way we do. This cannot be achieve through our human wisdom or understanding. We can’t grasp the things of the Spirit while focusing on the flesh. A heart set first on the Father’s kingdom is also a heart that is properly oriented toward the spiritual life. Thankfully, Jesus provided an exemplar for us to follow when refocusing our attention in this manner.

We see that Jesus was not merely a zealot who ran around the Holy Land espousing some “new wave” approach to life. He was not interested in seeking a “self-fulfilled” life. Rather, everything we know from Scripture is that Jesus was concerned with only one thing: To do the will of the Father. From His very first public utterance in the Temple, He made this abundantly clear. “‘Why were you searching for me?’” he asked. “’Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?'” (Luke 2:49, NIV). The footnote provided for this verse at blueletterbible.org says, “be about my Father’s business.” Jesus was quick to tell his disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19, RSV). In other words, Jesus wants us to understand that without God nothing is possible. Moreover, with God nothing is impossible.

Consider this thought: Jesus is not our Savior simply because of what He said to us or did for us of His own accord. He is our Savior because what He said and did was said and done in obedience to the Father. Paul expressed this in Romans 5:19: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19, RSV). This speaks of an all-embracing love—for the Father and for us. We cannot understand the impact of the richness of Jesus’s ministry until we see how everything He did was rooted in one thing: Listening to the Father and obeying out of the power of a perfect and unconditional love.

When Jesus said He is the way, the truth and the life, He was not merely stating that everything He said was true. It was, of course, but He meant something much deeper. He was not speaking of an idea, concept, or doctrine, but He was talking about true relationship. I believe that’s why we cannot quash the nagging sense of meaningless alone; rather, it must be understood through relationship with Jesus and with the Father. It is only by first loving God, then loving our neighbor as ourselves, that we can hope to find the connectedness many of us are desperately searching for day after day. When our lives become a continuation of Jesus’s life and ministry, we begin to see the paramount importance of being connected with Him and the Father in order to experience connectedness to our “selves” and others.

Concluding Remarks

It is in and through the Father’s kingdom that we find the Holy Spirit, who will guide us, heal us, challenge us, and convict us. This is the very mechanism for renewal. Moreover, this is not merely hitting the “heavenly lottery.” The words, “all other things will be given you as well” express that God’s love and care extends to our whole being. When we set our sights on Him. we come to understand how God keeps us in the palm of His hand. We learn not to worry, project, or become hopeless. We avoid the trap of emotional upset, including anxiety and depression. We become lifted up into God’s unconditional love and care. A change in our hearts leads to a change in our perspective, and this is the very meaning of developing a Christian worldview.

References

Entwistle, D. (2015). Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity, 3rd Ed. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books

Phillips, W., Brown, W., and Stonestreet, J. (2008) Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview, 2nd Ed. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing.

Sire, J. (2015) Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept, 2nd Ed. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press.

The Nature of Man; The Nature of Sin

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members” (Romans 7:15, 19, 20, 22-23, RSV).

“Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3, RSV).

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

THE DOCTRINE OF SIN has become increasingly controversial in recent years. In fact, it is often stated by those of a liberal philosophy that conservative concepts and values concerning man and his sinful nature are archaic. Today’s New Atheists typically accuse Christians of being narrow-minded, backward, or elitist. How can Christianity claim unequivocally that man is (by his very nature) sinful? Or that the only means by which man can be “saved” is through faith alone in Christ Jesus alone? The above Scriptures indicate that as human beings we are prone to follow the desires and passions of our flesh and our minds.

Paul is presenting us with a description of an ongoing struggle with sin in Romans 7:14-25. He describes himself as a “prisoner” of sin, doing the evil he does not want to do, and not doing the good he does want to do. This is what is meant by being in bondage to sin. Paul sees himself as a “wretched” man crying out for deliverance. His self-portrayal in this passage demonstrates a man who is captive to sin in two aspects: in both his conscious choices and decisions, and also in his unconscious reactions to people and circumstances. It has been said that habitual sin is lodged somewhere in our unconscious responses to stimuli.

It would appear that Paul finds himself settling on options he does not want to choose, and responding habitually to situations and people in ways which he does not want to act. From a psychological perspective, these unconscious choices qualify as habitual sins. The accepted psychological definition of habit is a conditioned, automatic response to a stimulus, performed apart from conscious thought or choice. That may sound simple and innocent on the surface, but when it comes to unconscious behavior we are talking about compulsion. The average person wishing to discontinue a habit deemed to be unhealthy or, in the present application, sinful, sees a gradual or (sometimes) immediate decrease in said behavior. But what of those individuals who are not able to change their behavior? Psychiatry would have us believe there is a neurotic or psychological component to the habitual practice of that behavior.

Compulsion is a state of mind in which an individual feels an irresistible urge to perform an action. The word also connotes the action itself. In such a state, the individual feels compelled to say, think or do something they are unable to resist which, even at that very moment, appears to him or her to be harmful, absurd, pointless, or unhealthy. Of course, this is the very root of addiction. The command to perform the action comes from within and is contrary to the conscious will. We can now see the dilemma of defining the type of behavior Paul describes in Romans 7.

The conflicts underlying habitual performance of sinful acts are (according to Paul) unconscious. Such conflicts are varied and involve difficulties like fear, hostility, hatred, rejection, persistent self-doubt, despair, and self-destruction—all of which run contrary to the instinct to act in such a manner as to assure continued health, safety, and life. Of course, Paul’s argument is that once a Christian becomes aware of his or her tendency to sin (while in the flesh), the nature of sin and its concomitant consequences should provide some degree of strength or ability to decrease sinful acts in order to promote spiritual growth. He realizes that his sinful nature (that which resides in his flesh) seeks instant gratification regardless of the consequences of giving in to temptation. In other words, he does not see a “human” remedy for this problem; only a spiritual one.

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:24-25, RSV).

THE NATURE OF MAN

Psychological Aspect

Most of us realize that human nature consists of a myriad of characteristics, including how we think, feel, and act. These characteristics are said to occur naturally. Perhaps one of the oldest debates in human history is whether man is basically good or essentially bad. Certainly, this speaks to our overall tendencies. Accordingly, man is both inherently good and inherently bad. We all have the capacity to love and care for others (to one degree or another) on a sliding continuum. Additionally, we have the capacity for being bad: mean-spirited, selfish, hateful, prejudice, deceptive (even murderous under the right circumstances). The extent to which we lean toward one extreme or the other is deeply rooted in a number of factors: childhood experience, personality, culture, geography, demographics, and the like.

You likely remember the tales of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein. Each story gives us a particular viewpoint on the nature of man. Robert Louis Stevenson showcased the capacity within man to turn to the left or to the right—to do good or do evil. Dr. Jekyll was a member of the privileged class—a wealthy physician of public renown. He possessed an underlying evil nature which he could not control. When this sinister side took over, he said, “It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous personalities—the good and the bad were thus bound together—that in the agonized womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling.”  Mary Shelley painted a different picture. The monster Frankenstein said, “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”

When discussing the nature of man, we are examining whether man is a product of his environment (nature) or the result of an amalgam of his interpersonal experiences (nurture). I believe we are impacted by both. We’re speaking of “temperament,” which is a term we typically see in theories of personality development. I have found in my undergraduate studies in psychology that there are both empirical and theoretical links between childhood experience and adult personality traits. Personality seems to have an unavoidable influence on behavior. Temperament is often seen as a constitutional predisposition, observable in pre-verbal infants and animals, and tied, at least theoretically, to basic psychological processes. Personality traits are assumed to be acquired patterns of thought and behavior that might be found only in organisms with sophisticated cognitive systems.

I subscribe to Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. He agreed with behaviorists relative to classical and operant conditioning, but added two additional criteria: (1) mediating processes occur between stimulus and response; and (2) behavior is learned from the environment through the process of observational learning vis-a-vis modeling behavior of primary caregivers and other significant individuals in our world during childhood and adolescence. I also support cognitive behavioral therapy to help clients address and defeat their “irrational” beliefs regarding the world and and their own sense of worth. This can be effective with people struggling with addiction and (what used to be labeled) neurotic views of the world. Further, it dovetails nicely with basic Christian doctrine: We must come to see ourselves not as we see ourselves, nor bound to the sum of all our past mistakes; rather, we must see ourselves as God sees us as believers—a new creation, clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

Spiritual Aspect

Scripture sees unregenerate man as enslaved to sin and possessing a corrupt nature. In this regard, man is in need of transformation through rebirth. When a person chooses to believe the Gospel, he or she identifies with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, the old nature is crucified with Christ. Paul says of the regenerate Christian, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day” (2 Corinthians 4:16, RSV). The “old man” or the “old nature,” as expressed by Paul, is man as he was before he was reborn and sanctified by the grace of the Spirit. Don Steward of blueletterbible.org says, “The natural man may be defined as an individual who operates entirely on human wisdom.”

Although not everyone believes in an all-powerful Creator, both atheists and theists are tasked with explaining the innately fallen nature of humans. Mankind is capable of showing kindness and love and sacrifice on one hand,  and cold, calculating selfishness, hatred, deception, and murder on the other. I don’t believe these extremes are present to the same extent in every human being. I do, however, believe there is an underlying sinful and evil nature in mankind. In other words, the potential to be both good and bad exists within us all to varying degrees. Admittedly, many people have difficulty buying into the idea that from the moment of birth we are not innocent and inclined toward goodness. Instead, we are inclined toward sin.

“Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Romans 5:12, RSV).

Dr. Werner Gitt of Answers in Genesis believes it is impossible to understand human nature apart from biblical revelation. Despite my becoming a “born-again” Christian at age 13, I struggled for decades with the concept that I was less than what I have the potential to be. It’s been said to me recently that I don’t give myself enough credit for my accomplishments. Ten years ago, I would have been in complete agreement. But when I undertake an honest and thorough moral examination of myself, I see glaring character defects, repeated selfish and mean-spirited acts, forty-plus years of active addiction, numerous incidents of lying, cheating, and stealing, and the tendency to want “maximum results with minimum effort.” This is beyond laziness. It is akin to the sense of “absolute entitlement.”

Frankly, I am okay with this assessment. It finally makes perfect sense to me, and, accordingly, provides the opportunity for lasting change. I’ve said many times that no “human effort” (neither mine nor the relentless intervention of others) could rescue me from active addiction. Moreover, I have come to recognize (anew) the spiritual battle we all face daily, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Native American, or atheist. I see how I’ve been a pawn in the struggle between flesh and blood, good and evil. There are powers of darkness that want to recruit us to go to war against God and Jesus Christ; against goodness and honesty, kindness and selfless service. Paul was well-aware of this concept, and he made it an integral part of his ministry.

A Personal Example

It is with some trepidation that I confess to a particular habit I have found hard to stop. I am quite fond of sex and enjoy feeling the nearly-euphoric closeness one experiences during sexual relations. For me, there is unfortunately a dark underside to this stimulus. At some point it became a form of escape. The physical sensation of achieving orgasm served as a perfect way to mask depression, anxiety, even physical pain. In this regard, these sensations became yet another form of “self-medication.” Naturally, this is not what sex is meant for. At least not when it becomes a compulsion. Moreover, the act of masturbation became yet another addiction. In fact, I was told years ago by a psychologist who specializes in addictive behaviors that because I tended to mix masturbation with the use of addictive substances that enhance the physical sensations of sex, I needed to address both issues. He said, “If you don’t, it’s like having two broken legs but only having a doctor set one of them.”

In its excessive form, masturbation becomes a compulsive (perhaps neurotic) act. When it is found in this form, it serves the purpose of allaying anxiety or other uncomfortable emotions. The root of this (and I don’t mean to sound Freudian here) may stem from a number of causes. A neglected or rejected child, who early in childhood may have learned to resolve the fear of isolation or insecurity by indulging in earlier infantile pleasures, will resort to masturbation as a satisfactory relief or consolation. The obvious downside to the persistent habit of masturbation, especially while viewing pornographic images, tends to cause the individual to objectify or sexualize women. This flies in the face of establishing meaningful relationships with a member of the opposite sex.

I am happy to report that by seeing pornography and masturbation as yet another addiction, I have applied the same methods to this compulsive behavior that I have been able to apply to my struggle with substance abuse. I could admit here that I have only recently become drug-free after yet another relapse, but I would rather focus on the fact that I am clean and sober today. I finally grasp the paramount importance of taking it “one day at a time.”

THE NATURE OF SIN

David said, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 199:11, NIV). This is truly the only means by which we can hope to defeat habitual sin. Much like physical exercise—which strengthens our calves or our core muscles over time—the continual practice of sin will serve to strengthen our bad habits. It is true that Christians are often tempted to sin. It’s impossible to completely avoid temptation while we exist in the flesh. Sadly, many end up giving in to such enticement on a regular basis.

It is one thing to recognize our vulnerability while clothed in a fleshly body, but it is a completely different matter to give up and give in to the same sin time and time again. Although I don’t believe recurrence of habitual sin will nullify the saving grace and power of Jesus’s sacrifice, I think habitual sin tends to fill us with guilt, shame, and regret. It can cut us off from fellowship with God. Once this separation occurs, we become increasingly vulnerable to the practice of sin. Indeed, this becomes a vicious circle. Moreover, it taints our testimony, causing us to look like a testiphony

For me, I tend to fall into habitual sin when I fail to believe that holiness can result in a happier, healthier, successful life. In addition, I think the root of habitual sin is not necessarily a battle for self-control. Paul was clear about this in Romans 7. Instead, the root of habitual sin can be found in the need to “feel good.” We have a difficult time quitting a behavior for which we gain something—a sense of euphoria, peace, or happiness. In this manner, said habitual actions are a form of self-medication. Or, worse, an attempt at assuaging the pangs of guilt and the sense of failure we might be experiencing. Regarding chronic use of pornographic images, for example, those who use it to feel good are actually creating a false reality.

John said, “All wrongdoing is sin” (1 John 5:17a, RSV). But it is also more complicated than that. Although sin is simple by its nature, it can create complex illusions that are very difficult to identify and deny. Urges and motivations are quite complicated, often causing a tangled mess in our soul and spirit. In his epistle, James wrote, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire… Then desire, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death” (1:14, RSV). James had never taken a course in psychology, but he thoroughly understood two things: what sin is in its basic form; and the concept that each of us is pulled in directions specific to our own desire. This is precisely why not everyone who drinks alcohol will become an alcoholic. It also explains why not every man or woman is enticed or drawn in by viewing pornographic images.

I believe every sin is, to a great degree, a repeat of the original sin when our first parents decided to eat the forbidden fruit to fulfill their desire to be “like God.” They were not ignorant of God’s instructions. They possessed enough information to make an informed decision to obey or disobey. In fact, God told them that eating the fruit would be wrong and that they would be far happier if they refrained from eating it (see Genesis 2:16-17). Satan misrepresented the truth and told them they would be far happier if they ate the forbidden fruit. In fact, he said to Eve, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5, RSV). This sounded good to Eve.

We become enslaved according to what we believe. Accordingly, it becomes quite difficult to give up that which we’ve embraced as a means to escape an uncomfortable situation or alleviate a troublesome emotion. This makes habitual sin impossible to defeat through the power of self-denial. While in the grips of a habit that produces in us a great sense of relief or euphoria (consider the brain chemistry of dopamine, oxytocin, seratonin, and endorphins), we are powerless to stop the rewarding behavior. We can only defeat such a habit through the power of a greater desire. Sure, self-denial is necessary, but self-denial is only possible (especially over the long-haul) when it is fueled by desire for a greater joy than what we have decided to deny ourselves. One way to express this is the common phrase, “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.”

In other words, when we desire a closer relationship with the LORD more than we desire continued physical pleasure, we are better equipped to extinguish habitual sin. This is achievable only by walking in the Spirit and not according to the flesh. We must renounce the lies we have believed, repent for having persistently believed them, and begin to exercise faith in God’s promises through obedience to Him. Until we believe we will experience the abundant life Jesus talked about, we will remain in bondage to our flesh, our neurotic or irrational beliefs about how best to achieve peace, joy and happiness. We will continue applying a bandage to our wounds rather than seek to have them healed.