Sin’s Lost Dominion

Romans

Paul began his letter to the Romans by setting forth the theme: The righteousness of God (see Romans 1:1-17). In this letter, Paul tells us how to be right—with God, ourselves, and others. Paul also explains to us how one day God will make all of creation right. This is what is meant by restoration, the biblical meaning of which is “to receive back more than has been lost to the point where the final state is greater than the original condition.” This type of restoration is broader in scope than the standard dictionary definition. The main point is that someone or something is improved beyond measure. Throughout the Bible, God blesses people for their faith and hardships by making up for their losses and giving them more than they had previously. Job comes to mind.

Romans was not written for daydreamers or religious sightseers. We have to think as we study Romans, but the rewards will be worth our effort. If we grasp the doctrinal message of Romans, we’ll have the key to understanding the rest of the Bible. Moreover, we will have the secret of successful Christian living. In fact, Paul sent this letter to believers in Rome in order to provide them with a clear declaration of Christian doctrine. We need to reexamine our commitment to Christ as we read Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

Chapter 6 is a crucial part of Romans. Paul wanted believers to understand that when we’re saved, we become new creations in Christ. We are granted access to the mind of Christ. In fact, we’re told to put on the mind of Christ. It is with this in mind that Paul says believers must die to sin and live to God. He presses the importance of holiness in the first two verses of Romans 6.

Freedom From Sin’s Grasp
Sin’s Power is Broken

“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer” (Romans 6:1-2, NIV).

If God loves to forgive us and wash us in the blood of His Son, why not give Him more to forgive? If forgiveness is guaranteed, do we not have the freedom to sin as much as we desire to? Paul’s forceful answer, of course, is By no means! Such an attitude—deciding ahead of time to take advantage of the grace of God—shows that a person does not understand the seriousness of sin and its consequences. It is akin to premeditation. Paul tells us in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin is death. God’s forgiveness does not make sin less serious; His Son’s death for our sin shows us the dreadful seriousness of sin. It is not something to be trifled with. Accordingly, God’s mercy must not become an excuse for careless living and moral laxness.

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Paul does not explain away the free grace of the Gospel, but he shows that justification and holiness are inseparable. The very thought that sin should continue simply to ensure that grace might thrive was abhorred by Paul. He taught that true believers are dead to sin, meaning they’ve been freed from bondage through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s point was that although we cannot out-sin the grace of God, we must reckon our bodies dead to sin—we should no longer be dominated by it. After all, as Romans 6:6 says, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (NIV).

Buried With Him; Raised With Him

“That’s what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we’re going in our new grace-sovereign country. Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life—no longer at sin’s every beck and call! ” (Romans 6:3-6, MSG).

The above translation is from Eugene Peterson’s The Message. It is quite compelling. When we’re a new creation in Christ we develop a desire to become one with Him. The best way to express that underlying desire to others is through a change in character and a modification of behavior. We become willing to follow His commands. Baptism teaches the necessity of dying to sin, and being buried from all ungodly and unholy pursuits. We rise to walk with God in newness of life.

Romans 6:10 tells us, “The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (NIV). Martin Luther wrote in his Commentary on Romans, “From this we clearly see what the words of the Apostle mean. All such statements as: 1. ‘We are dead to sin,” 2. ‘We live unto God,’ etc., signify that we do not yield to our sinful passions and sin, even though sin continues in us. Nevertheless, sin remains in us until the end of our life, as we read in Galatians 5:17: ‘The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other.'” However, Luther adds, “But to hate the body of sin and to resist it, is not an easy, but a most difficult task.”

A Living Sacrifice

“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourself to God as those who have brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:12-14, NIV).

The Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible footnote for Romans 6:12 says, “Having proved the sinfulness of both Jews and Gentiles and that both must be redeemed alike by Christ through faith and grace, Paul now takes up the argument of the divine method of dealing with sin and the secret of a victorious holy life… the questions come up that if salvation is free and apart from works—if the more heinous the sins the more abundant the grace to pardon—then may we not go on in sin so that the grace of God may become magnified? God forbid” (p. 287).

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Luther notes in his preface to Commentary on Romans, “This Epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul” (p. 101). He states in the body of his Commentary that we are not found in a state of perfection as soon as we have been baptized into Jesus Christ and His death. Having been baptized into His death, we merely strive to obtain the blessings of this death and to reach our goal of glory.

“What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourself to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness. But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:15-18, NIV).

Paul is describing licentiousness in the above passage. Literally, a license to sin. You’ll notice Paul asks the same question he put to the Romans in verse one, just in case they didn’t get it. This time he expands on the slavery example that he mentioned in verse seven. In verses fifteen through eighteen he states that the master you choose leads either to righteousness and life or to sin and death. One way or the other, we will serve somebody. The option to live life without serving either sin or righteousness is not open to us.

Eugene Peterson, in The Message, says “So, since we’re out from under the old tyranny, does that mean we can live any old way we want?” (Romans 6:15, MSG). This is a rather eye-opening interpretation of Paul’s words. Since we’re free in the sanctification of God, can we do anything that comes to mind? Hardly. I believe Paul’s intent is to clarify the fact that if we offer ourselves to sin it will be our last free act.

Paul is telling us the buzzword for this section of Chapter 6 is yield. It means “to place at one’s disposal, to present, to offer as a sacrifice.” The flow of Paul’s argument in Romans is to first set forth the fallen condition of all men, then the Gospel message of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. Paul is appealing to the believers in Rome to offer themselves unto God, bowing to His will for them, because of all that God has done for them. Also, it’s important to note that Paul is focusing on “living sacrifices” instead of the dead sacrifices God required under the Law of Moses (see Romans 12:1).

Sin Shall Not Reign

Paul’s point is this: “That means you must not give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives. Don’t give it the time of day. Don’t even run little errands that are connected with that old way of life. Throw yourselves wholeheartedly and full-time—remember, you’ve been raised from the dead!—into God’s way of doing things. Sin can’t tell you how to live. After all, you’re not living under that old tyranny any longer. You’re living in the freedom of God” (Romans 6:12-14, MSG). Luther writes, “This is understood not only of lusting after earthly goods and temporal possessions, but also of aversion to temporal affliction and adversity. He who has Christ by faith does not desire the things of this world, no matter how greatly they may allure Him” (p. 104).

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This doesn’t mean we become unaffected by temptation just because we’re saved by grace. We are susceptible to both pleasure and displeasure. The key is to refuse to let sin reign in our lives. Again, we are not under the Law but under grace. This is true because the Law has been fulfilled by the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. Jesus tells us in John 8:34, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (NIV). Luther notes Paul’s point as follows. “The apostle here meets the objection: How can anyone resist the onslaught of sin and passion? To this he replies: Sin shall not have dominion over you nor triumph over you, no matter how fiercely it may tempt and assail you, provided you do not yield to it. But he who is without faith in Christ is always dominated by sin, even when he does good…” (p. 105) [Italics added].

Every man is the servant of the master to whose commands he yields himself; whether it be the sinful tendencies of his heart, in actions which lead to death, or the new and spiritual obedience implanted by regeneration. Paul rejoices in verse 18: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (NIV). We have a new Master if we want to obey Him. We became enslaved to righteousness. God gave us a new Master; not a license to sin. Paul told the Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery” (NIV). As believers, we have been purchased from the bonds of slavery to sin.

Concluding Remarks

When we accept Christ as Savior and confess our faith in Him, our past is blotted out through His atoning blood. Regardless of the nature of our offenses. Our past literally disappears from the sight of God. Psalm 103:10-12 tells us, “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (NIV).

When we’re born again, we identify ourselves with Jesus in His crucifixion. We can honestly say, “I am crucified.” Surely, we have no nail holes in our hands and feet, no scar in our side, but in a “legal” sense, as God looks upon us, He sees us crucified with Christ. We are not only crucified with Christ in His death, we are raised up with Him in his resurrection, unto a new creation. When we die with Christ, we die to our anger and resentment. Illicit lusts and desires are dealt with. Unclean habits no longer hold power over us. But let us not forget that just because we are born again we are not incapable of sinning. It is imperative that we identify with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. We must decide that we have been quickened—raised up together with Christ in new life. Only then will we be able to face the demonic powers of Satan. Our mantra must be Sin shall not have dominion over me because I have been raised from spiritual death with Christ.

References

Kennedy, F., Germaine, A., and Dake, Jr., F. (2008). Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible. Lawrenceville, GA: Dake Publishing, Inc.

Luther, M. (1954). Commentary on Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.

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Courage & Calling: Embracing Your God-Given Potential

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. —Frederick Buechner

God calls people. Whether it is the calling of Abraham to leave the land of Ur, or the calling of Moses, confronted with the burning bush, or the calling of Isaiah who encountered the glory of God, or the calling of the apostle Paul to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles, an awareness of call is both mysterious and powerful. A calling is always a demonstration of the love and initiative of God, but through vocation we also come to an appreciation that God takes us seriously. It becomes the fundamental fact of our lives; everything about us is understood in light of this call. Many have said they’re not qualified to serve the Lord. You’ll be happy to hear that God does not call the qualified. Instead, He qualifies the called.

Called of God: The Three Expressions of Vocation

  • The general call—the invitation to follow Jesus, to be Christian
  • The specific call—a vocation that is unique to a person; that individual’s mission in the world
  • The immediate responsibilities—those tasks or duties God calls us to today

Finding Your Unique Purpose for Life

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Erik Rees wrote a wonderful book called S.H.A.P.E. Finding & Fulfilling Your Unique Purpose for Life. Rick Warren notes in the forward to the book, “God has given every creature he made a special area of expertise to fulfill its purpose. For instance, some animals run, others hop, some swim, others burrow, and some fly. Each has a particular role to play based on the way they were shaped by God.” This is true for us as well. We were all uniquely designed and “shaped” by God to do certain things. None of us are an assembly-line product. We are a custom-made, one-of-a-kind, original masterpiece.

Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (NIV). Rick Warren says, “Instead of trying to reshape yourself to be like someone else, you should celebrate the shape God has given you.” God wants you to truly understand and accept who he has made you to be. He longs for you to experience the release that comes with simply living as the person He created you to be. Can you be anything you want to be? Perhaps. I don’t know. But you can be everything God wants you to be. And you become that by discovering your uniqueness.

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This call on your life by God is actually your Kingdom Purpose, which Rees defines as “…your specific contribution to the Body of Christ, within your generation, that causes you to totally depend on God and authentically display His love toward others… all through the expression of your unique shape.” The Bible says, “Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits” (MSG). Your Kingdom Purpose, however, is more than a career. It’s a special commissioning from God to make a significant difference on this earth. It’s the banner of your life that you carry and wave for God’s glory. Your Kingdom Purpose is very much a reflection of your faithfulness to God. The more time we spend with God, the more we learn of His goodness and faithfulness—and the stronger we become in Him.

Your Special S.H.A.P.E.

Rees explains the acronym S.H.A.P.E. He says, “As one of God’s custom-designed creations, your potential for significance and excellence is revealed by the S.H.A.P.E. God has given you. Rick Warren coined the term. He believes whenever God gives us an assignment, He always equips us with what we need to accomplish it. Warren (and by adoption, Rees) notes the following breakdown of  S.H.A.P.E.

  • Spiritual Gifts: A set of special abilities that God has given you to share His love and serve others.
  • Heart: The special passions God has given you so that you can glorify Him on earth.
  • Abilities: The set of talents that God gave you when you were born, which He also wants you to use to make an impact for Him.
  • Personality: The special way God wired you to navigate life and fulfill your unique Kingdom Purpose.
  • Experiences: Those parts of your past, post positive and negative, which God intends to use in great ways.

Wise stewardship of your life begins by understanding your shape. You are unique, wonderfully complex, a composite of many different factors.  What God made you to be determines what He intends for you to do. Plain and simple. Your ministry is determined by your makeup. If you don’t understand your shape, you end up doing things that God never intended or designed you to do. When your gifts don’t meet the role you play in life, you feel like a square peg in a round hole. This is quite frustrating, as I’ve learned firsthand. Not only does it produce limited success, it is also an enormous waste of your talents, time, and energy.

Just Be You!

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If you could press a rewind button on my life, you would see that for many years I was running away from God and toward the devil. I wanted to do whatever felt good at the moment. That included sexual promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse, shirking responsibility—first, chores at home, later, employment—and taking whatever I wanted from whomever had it. Consequently, it is natural for me (indeed for anyone with such a past) to want to start all over again. My struggle with addiction was nothing short of insurmountable. First, I had to want to stop drinking and drugging. I had to admit I had a problem. Then I had to want to do something about it. Once I came to grips with my addiction, I had to stay consistent. I had to get up every day and “quit” all over again. One day at a time. Relapse seemed to be my middle name.

We were not created to conform. We were not created to compare. We were not created to compete. Yeah, I know: That one sounds iffy. What’s wrong with a little competition to sharpen your skills? Fine. But it’s not your propter quod. You were also not created to compromise. Especially when it comes to Christian doctrine or your witness. Instead, you were created to contribute to God’s kingdom and make a significant difference with your life. You were created to just be you! God is saying to each of us, “Just be you. Be who I shaped you to be.”

Part of the Body; Part of the Plan

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There is one Body of Christ, but there is diversity of gifts within the Body. A diversity that God has ordained in order to ensure the health of the unified whole. Romans 12:8 essentially instructs us to hone our gifts and talents in order to maximize our S.H.A.P.E. Our calling is a gift from God. We don’t earn it, nor do we pick it for ourselves. We don’t need to be pre-qualified in order to serve. As I noted, we are equipped by God for God. Second Timothy 1:9 says, “He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (NIV). After all, we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ to do good works.

We long for work that is meaningful, joyful, and significant. We long to know that the work our hands and the work we do with our minds and through speaking is good, that in word and deed we are doing something that is fundamentally positive and worthwhile. Meaningful and rewarding. What a wonderful sentiment. Work that we enjoy and where we feel we are doing something significant and valuable. We long to know that we are making a difference. In situations where we turn from God and run amok, selfishly doing whatever feels good, taking prisoners, manipulating loved ones, lying to employers, shaming our parents, we cannot help feeling empty. We might deny it, drown it in booze, anesthetize it with opiates, but it’s there, like a dangerous undertow, pulling us further and further from shore.

As Unto the Lord

We’ve heard it said, “Whatever you do, do it as if unto the Lord.” Colossians 3:23 says, “Servants, do what you’re told by your earthly masters. And don’t just do the minimum that will get you by. Do your best. Work from the heart for your real Master, for God, confident that you’ll get paid in full when you come into your inheritance. Keep in mind always that the ultimate Master you’re serving is Christ. The sullen servant who does shoddy work will be held responsible. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t cover up bad work” (MSG). While Paul was speaking at the time of those who were slaves, the principle would be applicable to all regardless of the work they are called to do. Frankly, the fundamental features of vocational integrity are simple. They include (i) knowing yourself and (ii) being true to who you are.

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For this to be true, we need to be sure that what we are doing comes from God; we take joy and pleasure in our work or responsibilities because they are given to us by God. Whether it is the task of raising children, running a business, providing pastoral leadership for a church, or leading the worship team, it is from the hand of God, a gift to us. We need to have a sense that what we are doing is “done for the Lord.” It is something we do with a “God-ward” orientation, something we offer back to God. In other words, our work is both given to us by God and is offered back to God. Paul addressed the aspect of “call” in 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. Paul essentially tells Timothy to fulfill his call and to do so with diligence, focus, and courage. Paul’s words are applicable for a religious call or a non-religious vocation.

This Thing Called Diligence

The theme of diligence comes through often in the apostle Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, but especially at the high point of his second letter to Timothy, where Paul urges him to proclaim the message and to be persistent in this task (2 Timothy 4:2). Diligence involves persistence. Timothy is urged to persevere in his work “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable… with the utmost patience.” In other words, it involves doing our work with care and commitment that does not waiver depending on the level of affirmation we are getting on that particular day. We do what we do because it needs to be done and our Christian character literally compels us to do it.

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But more, diligence also involves what Paul speaks of later in that same chapter when he calls Timothy to “carry out your ministry fully” (v. 5). Diligence includes thoroughness. Which means there is no substitute for hard work. Just one more thing my father told me as a teen that has taken me decades to grasp! There is no easy task—easy in itself. For an athlete to perform well, hard work is involved, regardless of how gifted or talented that athlete happens to be. And much of that hard work happens behind the scenes, in rigorous fitness programs that continue day in and day out, far from the eyes of sports fans. Musicians can only become accomplished at their task if they practice with thoroughness and persistence, which provides little reward for affirmation. But the same principle applies to all of us. Attention to detail must be a personal commitment or it is not a commitment at all.

Concluding Remarks

Regardless of our calling—the specific work to which we are called—we can never say that we do not have time, that our work is too important or not important enough, or that our calling is so all-consuming, that we have no time to offer hospitality along the way, care for the poor, generously share our material resources and, finally, give time to prayer and seeking God’s direction and inspiration. It is important to stress that we can become distracted from our calling. I can think of no finer example of tenacity regarding calling than the ministry and the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

When Jesus reminded us to love our neighbor as ourselves, work was part of that. In fact, from my personal experience the workplace is where it is easiest to “lose it” regarding our treatment of others. It helps me to think of everything I do at work as a way to express God’s love to others. Don’t focus on the crap. Don’t focus on the aspects of your job you hate. Instead, remind yourself to spotlight the positives. If you do nothing else, at the very least think of how you can use work as an expression of love. If you work as a way to show love, then you’ll find yourself enjoying your work more because your boss is more impressed with you and you have a better attitude. It’s a great start to doing your work as unto the Lord.

At times our vocation is undermined because of pride. We are unwilling to accept what God has given us because we are not prepared to accept some aspect of our calling—it may appear to lack the prestige, the status, or perhaps the financial reward we believe we deserve or want. We are always looking ahead—doing what we do so that we are noticed, so that we will be promoted, so that we obtain another job, perhaps. And the consequence is that we are consumed with ourselves. Whatever the reason, if we are not true to ourselves, we are simply living a lie. The longer we live the lie, the sooner it will be that we are nothing more than hollow men and women.

Our only hope is to intentionally embrace the call of God. This is joy, and it will sustain us and give life to those with whom we live and work. There is great joy in knowing what God has called us to be and do, and to act with courage and humility in response to a needy world. Joy is found in giving ourselves fully—eagerly and passionately—to this call. For this to happen, though, we must learn to think about our vocation as God sees it.

The Twenty-Third Psalm

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1-3 God, my shepherd!
    I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
    you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
    you let me catch my breath
    and send me in the right direction.

Even when the way goes through
    Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
    when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
    makes me feel secure.

You serve me a six-course dinner
    right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
    my cup brims with blessing.

Your beauty and love chase after me
    every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
    for the rest of my life.

©2006 Eugene Peterson (from The Message)

I am certain many of you are familiar with Psalm 23. It is one of the most read and most quoted Bible passages. It is perhaps the best-loved psalm. It has delighted the child, rejoiced the faithful, emboldened the dying, and comforted the grieving. It has been read at countless funerals, most likely due to its reference to the Valley of Death. Depth and strength underlie the simplicity of this psalm. Its peace is not by way of escape; its contentment is not complacency: there is readiness to face deep darkness and imminent attack. And who can’t relate to that? The climax of this passage reveals a love which does not lead to material gain, but to a relationship with the LORD Himself.

This psalm is built on the metaphor of the shepherd, a common figure in Israel. Indispensable to the flock, he is its constant companion, its guide and source of provision, its physician, and its defender. Although the term “shepherd” was commonly applied to rulers in the ancient Near East, God is not often called Shepherd (see Genesis 48:15; 49:24). Psalm 23:1a is therefore especially striking in its claim: The LORD is my Shepherd. David has claimed an intimate relationship (He is my shepherd).

Shepherd and His Flock

The rest of 23:1 seems to flow naturally from the assertion that the LORD is our shepherd. God is, after all, the possessor of all things, and Himself has all things. Everything belongs to God. And with such a provider, we cannot lack materially. Whether feeding on fresh and tender grass (v. 2), drinking at quiet waters (v. 2), or feasting at the table of his host (v. 5), every material need is abundantly met. Matthew 6:26 says, “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more valuable than they?” Of course, Psalm 23 also speaks of God’s ability to provide just what is needed. Sheep, who cannot drink from rushing waters, need to be led to those which are still. Perfect provision will continue, since it is given for His name’s sake (Psalm 23:3). God’s giving is consistent with His character; since this does not change, neither will His habits of provision for His flock.

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With God as his shepherd, David can rest. He restores my soul (Psalm 23:3a) does not refer to God’s restoration of wayward sheep but to how He imparts new life to the sheep. It can rest in the shepherd’s protection, comforted by the rod (v. 4), a weapon used for defense of the flock. Restoration is also found at quiet waters (v. 2), literally translated as “waters of restfulness.” Although the metaphor changes from the pasture to God’s table, the emphasis on rest continues. There is no further need to fear enemies, for as God’s guest (v. 5), David’s protection is the concern of the LORD, his host. The foes, unable to harass, must look on as David feasts at God’s table.

Now, instead of being pursued by enemies, David is pursued by goodness and love (Psalm 23:6). Goodness is the steady and faithful kindness which is unending and undeserved. Follow is too mild; these things chase David. What is more, he has nothing else to fear, since surely could be rendered “only.” David knows the rest which comes from joy. His head is anointed with perfumed oils (v. 5b), an action that symbolizes festivity, honor, health, and blessing. His cup overflows, symbolizing a life “overblessed” in every way by God.

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With God as his shepherd, David knows he will always be led in the “right paths,” as paths of righteousness (Psalm 23:3) should be translated. He need not find his own paths but only follow the staff of the Shepherd, taking direction from its gentle guidance (v. 4). The Shepherd may lead into the valley of the shadow of death, but this too is one of His right paths. In 23:1-3, David speaks about God; when he moves into this dark valley, he speaks to God (v. 4). When he needed God the most, God was there.

Of all that comes from having God as his Shepherd, David is most delighted with God’s presence. It seems that is what he lives for! The center of the psalm (23:4) resounds with this affirmation without which none of the good gifts would be possible. Without the shepherd, there is only a harassed and helpless flock (see Matthew 9:36). Without the host, there is no banquet. Of all the places where the psalmist might choose to be, he longs to stay in God’s presence all his days. From the first verse of this psalm to the last, the focus has been on God. The search which has occupied humanity—for provision, rest, guidance, and fellowship with the divine—ends in God.

Justification versus Sanctification

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Justification and sanctification are not the same thing. The basic dictionary definition of justification is “the action of showing something to be right or reasonable.” The theological definition is “the action of declaring or making righteous in the sight of God.” Sanctification is an ongoing process. It comes from the Greek word hagiazo, which means to be separate or set apart. As we’ll see later, sanctification is not the same as salvation. We’ll also see that justification is a transaction and sanctification is a transformation.

Justification is a Transaction

In Christian doctrine, justification is God’s act of removing the guilt and penalty of sin, and imputing His righteousness through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Romans 3:22-24 says, “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (NIV).

Eugene Peterson provides the following translation of Romans 3:21-24: “But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ” (MSG) [Emphasis added].

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We are justified, declared righteous, at the moment of our salvation. Justification does not make us righteous, but rather pronounces us righteous. Our righteousness comes from placing our faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. His sacrifice covers our sin, allowing God to see us as perfect and unblemished. Certainly, it should be obvious that this is something we simply cannot accomplish on our own. Martin Luther, in his Commentary on Romans, says, “St. Augustine writes in the ninth chapter of his book Concerning the Spirit and the Letter: ‘He does not speak of the righteousness of God, by which God is righteous, but of that with which He clothes a person when He justifies the ungodly.’ Again in the eleventh chapter he comments: ‘But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested; that is, God imparts it to the believer by the Spirit of grace without the work of the Law, or without the help of the Law. Through the Law God opens man’s eyes so that he sees his helplessness and by faith takes refuge to His mercy and so is healed.'”

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Romans 5:18-19 sums up this concept quite nicely. “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the one man the many were made righteous” (NIV). It is because of justification that the peace of God can rule in our lives. It is because of justification that believers can have full assurance of their salvation. It is the fact of justification that enables God to begin the process of sanctification—the process by which God makes us in reality what we already are positionally. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2, NIV).

Sanctification is a Transformation

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The very moment we are saved in Christ we are also immediately sanctified and begin the process of being conformed to the image of Christ. As God’s children, we are set apart from that moment to carry out His divine purposes. Hebrews 10:14 says, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (NIV). Peterson’s translation says, “It was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some very imperfect people. By that single offering, he did everything that needed to be done for everyone who takes part in the purifying process” (MSG).

Sanctification is different than salvation. It is important to differentiate between the two concepts. Jesus gave his life on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. His blood washes away our sins and frees us from eternal suffering and damnation. Believers are save because of what Christ has already done. We can do absolutely nothing to earn salvation. Sanctification occurs as a result of salvation. But sanctification does not stop there. Instead, it is a progressive process that continues in a believer’s life. This is because even as Christians we still have the capacity to sin. We find ourselves in a spiritual battle the moment we confess Christ as Messiah and decide to follow Him. Paul describes this inner battle in Galatians 5:17: “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not [able] to do whatever you want” (NIV).

Paul notes in Romans 15:16 that through the grace of God he became a minister of the Gospel to the Gentiles so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Paul’s ministry was not merely to win converts to Christ; he intended to see people become sanctified. He says, “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done…” (v. 18). Obedience leads to sanctification. Romans 6:17 says, “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (NIV).

Sanctification is the Key to Spiritual Growth

Sanctification is both a matter of position and progression. Indeed, we’re told to work toward perfection—that is, maturity in Christ. We’re to move from milk to solid food. We are sanctified because Jesus Christ has saved us and yet sanctification continues to work within to transform us into the likeness of Christ. Sanctification is the responsibility of every believer in Christ. When we choose to pursue sanctification in our life, positive growth occurs. It is important to remember this is a process, and cannot be rushed. Like a newborn baby that gradually matures unto adulthood, so is the work of sanctification in the life of a new Christian. The work of sanctification will ultimately be completed in every believer’s life when Christ returns.

Paul writes, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23)

 

Are Science and Christianity at Odds?

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This question has been the fuel for countless discussions, arguments, and debates for centuries. I spend several hours a week viewing YouTube documentaries on apologetics, postmodernism, Israeli-Palestinian relations, Islam, creationism, evolution, and atheism. Having undertaken a systematic study of worldviews, I’m reminded that nearly no one simply creates his or her own worldview. We inherit a great deal of our worldview from our parents, primary caregivers, school, and church. I must always keep my own worldview in mind—including biases, prejudices, presuppositions, and misconceptions. This is critical. Not only do we interpret information according to our worldview, it is our worldview that filters what we see or what we deem relevant.

“The conflict between religion and science is unavoidable. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science” (Sam Harris).

ORIGINS OF A CONFLICT

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Science is at war with religion. This conflict can be traced back to the Dark Ages during which the church quite vigorously forced its dogma and control on church members. Anyone who questioned church authority was summarily punished. Some of science’s forefathers—Galileo, Copernicus, and Bruno—were persecuted. What we miss, however, if we hold this “abridged” history of science versus religion are the numerous examples of Christianity and science getting along just fine, answering the many questions we have about us, our planet, and our universe.

If we refuse to have at least an open mind about a different paradigm or worldview, we’ll never have the opportunity to think for ourselves. Education is extremely important, but just how important is public education? Public schools teach that science and education are incompatible. Period. This wild and unverified conclusion is reckless. Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) said, “All attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule.” Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, wrote, “I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise… It subverts science and saps the intellect.”

Many believe science and Christianity are at odds, but the opposite is actually true. There is no underlying conflict between Christianity (currently the world’s largest religion at 2.4 billion believers) and science. Naturally, this does not mean that religious antagonism to science does not exist. Believers often take on science with a vengeance. But science history shows that such claims of antagonism are often exaggerated or unsubstantiated. Let’s remember that science (as a sustained and organized movement) emerged in Christian Europe. During the sixteenth century, people from every culture studied the natural world, and yet modern science appeared first in Europe among a civilization primarily shaped by the Judeo-Christian worldview. To be blunt, Christianity provided the philosophical foundation and spiritual motivation for doing science. The Christian worldview—with its insistence on the orderliness of the universe, its emphasis on human reason, and its teaching that God is glorified as we seek to understand His creation—laid the foundation for the modern scientific revolution.

MOST SCIENTIFIC PIONEERS BELIEVED IN GOD

Most scientific pioneers were theists, including prominent figures such as Copernicus, Newton, Pascal, Kepler, Pasteur, and Planck. Many of these individuals intently pursued science because of their belief in the Christian God. Francis Bacon believed the natural world was full of mysteries that God means for us to explore. This is often referred to as God’s general revelation. Kepler wrote, “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God, and which He revealed to us in the language of mathematics.” Newton believed his scientific discoveries offered convincing evidence for the existence and creativity of God. He said, “This most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.”

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This argument is lost on atheists like Christopher Hitchens, who discounts the religious convictions of these scientific giants. He said belief in God was the only option for a scientist at that time in history. But this puts Hitchens in a pickle. If religious believers get no credit for their positive contributions to society (e.g., shaping modern science) simply because “everyone was religious,” then why should their mistakes be used to discredit them? This is truly a double-standard. To make the case that religion “poisons everything,” Hitchens has to ignore much evidence to the contrary. Dawkins accepts that some early scientific pioneers may have been Christians, but he believes Christian scientists today are a rarity. He said, “Great scientists who profess religion become harder to find throughout the twentieth century.”

NATURALISM VERSUS THEISM

Naturalism is a scientifically oriented worldview that completely denies the existence of God and the soul. Rather, it holds that everything arises from natural properties and causes; supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted. The term seems to have no precise meaning today. Different philosophers over the centuries have proffered myriad definitions. But naturalists have always attempted to align philosophy more closely with science. Adherents to this philosophy assert that natural laws are, well, natural—that they govern the structure and behavior of the natural universe all on their own without input from a Creator or Intelligent Designer.

Theism holds that there is a personal creator and sustainer of the universe who is omnipotent, omniscient, essentially good, omnipresent, and eternal. Christianity believes that the Creator has revealed Himself to humankind in the person of Jesus Christ, a member of the trinity of God, who was resurrected from the dead in confirmation of His deity. Christians believe in the supernatural world, including the One True God, spirit, angels, and miracles. Here’s the deal! Naturalism and theism are at odds with each other, not science and Christianity. Naturalism is intrinsically atheistic because it sees nothing outside of the natural or physical world.

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Have you found yourself asking, Why does the natural world make any sense to begin with? Albert Einstein once remarked that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. Einstein understood a basic truth about science—it relies upon certain philosophical assumptions about the natural world. These assumptions include the existence of an external world that is orderly and rational, and the trustworthiness  of our minds to grasp that world. Science cannot proceed apart from these assumptions, even though they cannot be independently proven. Oxford professor John C. Lennox makes a provocative statement: “At the heart of all science lies the conviction that the universe is orderly.” Without this deep conviction science would not be possible.

In order to further expound on the complexity of explaining the universe, take a look at the following excerpt from Stephen Hawking’s seminal book A Brief History of Time?

When most people believed in an essentially static and unchanging universe, the question of whether or not it had a beginning was really one of metaphysics or theology. One could account for what was observed equally well on the theory that the universe had existed forever or on the theory that it was set in motion at some finite time in such a manner as to look as though it had existed forever. But in 1929, Edwin Hubble made the landmark observation that wherever you look, distant galaxies are moving rapidly away from us. In other words, the universe is expanding. This means that at earlier times objects would have been closer together. In fact, it seemed that there was a time, about ten or twenty thousand million years ago, when they were all at exactly the same place and when, therefore, the density of the universe was infinite. This discovery finally brought the question of the beginning of the universe into the realm of science.

According to British physicist, broadcaster, and educator Paul Davies, the intelligibility of the universe points toward a rational foundation. He says science is based on the assumption that the universe is thoroughly rational and logical at all levels. Every single level! Atheists claim that the laws of nature exist without any basis in reason and that the universe is ultimately absurd. As a scientist, Davies said he found this position hard to accept. He said, “There must be an unchanging rational ground in which the logical, orderly nature of the universe is rooted.”

CONCLUDING REMARKS

This brings us full-circle. It’s not Christianity that is at odds with science—it’s naturalism. Problem is, people like Richard Dawkins believe there is a conflict between science and religion because they think there is a conflict between evolution and theism. However, the conflict is between science and naturalism, not between science and a belief in God. It’s not simply that the order of the universe fits better with God in it. There is a much deeper link. An ordered, rational, logical universe is what we would expect from a God who created us in His image. Forming true beliefs about the world is one way we reflect the image imprinted in us by God.

Science depends on the assumption that the world is orderly and that our minds can access this reality. Even the most secular scientists presume that nature operates in a law-like fashion. This conviction  is best explained by the pioneers of the scientific revolution, who believed the cosmos is orderly because it was designed by the rational Creator of the universe who desires for us, as beings made in His image, to understand, enjoy, and explore His creation.

 

 

Is Faith Irrational?

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The truth about God is too important not to be seriously investigated and honestly and fairly discussed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for friendly conversations about religion to escalate into shouting matches—and this helps no one. Belief and unbelief are two sides to the same coin. The debate over faith and spirituality is here to stay. However, it does no good to vilify the other side. If any real ground is to be reached, we need to change the tone of this conversation.

WHY ALL THIS HOSTILITY AGAINST RELIGION?

It wasn’t too long ago that the idea of books on atheism and apologetics becoming New York Times best-sellers would have been hard to imagine. So what happened? Why are people reading books bashing God and ridiculing the faithful, or proffering a defense of the Gospel? Of course, that’s a rather complex question.

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First, we live in a much different world following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The events of that horrific day, when 2,996 people were murdered and more than 6,000 were injured, are burned into our collective memory. We all had front-row seats to religious fanaticism run amok. Until that day, such zealotry had always been going on “somewhere else” in the world. It is impossible to overstate how drastically the events of 9/11 changed our world.

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In the days that followed, the cultural conversation turned to the role and value of religion in the public square and throughout the globe. Such conversations are certainly legitimate and appropriate and, if conducted properly, can be quite healthy. But events like 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013, or the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016, helped create the cultural context in which the hyper-aggressive claims of today’s militant atheists could actually be entertained by a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles.

Second, there is a growing undercurrent of unbelief in America. A Newsweek cover story written by John Meacham, published on April 16, 2009, titles “The End of Christian America,” reported that “the number of Americans who claim no religious belief or affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent.” Why is this? While sociologists have more than enough polling data to analyze, I think Timothy Keller offers a plausible explanation in his book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism:

Three generations ago, most people inherited rather than chose their religious faith. The great majority of people belonged to one of the historic mainline Protestant churches or the Roman Catholic Church. Today, however, the now-dubbed “old-line” Protestant churches of cultural, inherited faith are aging and losing members rapidly. People are opting instead for a non-religious life, for non-institutional personally constructed spirituality, or for orthodox, high-commitment religious groups that expect members to have a conversion experience. Therefore the population is paradoxically growing both more religious and less religious at once.

This post 9/11 rejection of God and religion has its roots in pluralism and secularization. It seems a growing number of people—on both sides of the God question—are no longer content to “play church.” It is likely many see “religion” as a training ground for extremism, dogma, elitism, and narrow-mindedness. Either what people believe is true and they are going to attempt to live out their faith in all areas of their life, or it’s false and people shouldn’t waste their time going through the motions of their childhood faith if belief makes no difference whatever.

So these two factors have generated a cultural conversation about faith and God in the 21st century. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for those who attempt to share the Gospel. In addition, the events of 9/11 and after also created room in culture for militant atheists whose advocates tell anyone who’ll listen that if we get rid of religion, we can free ourselves from what they call childish nonsense. Atheism, of course, is not new. It’s been with us for quite a long time. The media fueled atheism, starting perhaps with the April 8, 1966 cover story of Time magazine, “Is God Dead?” Friedrich Nietzsche infamously said Gott ist tot God is dead) in his 1882 collection titled “The Joyful Pursuit of Knowledge and Understanding.”

What is new, however, is the biting and powerful rhetoric, as well as the cultural visibility, of these so-called militant atheist, the likes of which include Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Bill Nye. Naturally, their visibility has increased secondary to the explosion of the Internet, blogs, and 24/7 media coverage of every imaginable topic. The more controversial and polarizing, the better. Hoping that something hits the mark, these militant atheists tend to throw everything at people. They appeal primarily to the emotions, lacking any evidence regarding the non-existence of God. Granted, it’s impossible to prove a negative. But these individuals skillfully dodge the concept of proof and instead use sarcasm and innuendo to rattle their theist counterparts and paint religion—especially Christianity—as delusional.

SO, IS FAITH IRRATIONAL?

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A distinct feature of the rhetoric being espoused by the militant atheists today is their belief that religion is blind, irrational, and, well, just plain stupid. This is evident in the title of Richard Dawkins’ seminal work: The God Delusion. His intent is clear—those who believe in God are fools who have been brainwashed by their parents and ancestors into believing something absurd. Dawkins thinks religious people are deluded. I find myself asking, What could possibly cause Dawkins and others like him to be so adamantly against religion? Why resort to attacking fellow citizens simply because they believe in God? A major reason is because Dawkins has decided religious belief is not based in evidence. He said, “In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence.”  In other words, he believes religious faith is blind but in other disciplines—especially science—we demand physical proof for what we believe. Dawkins concludes that religion is a “nonsensical enterprise” that “poisons everything.”

Dawkins’ definition of a “delusion” is “a persistent false belief in the face of strong contradictory evidence.” Now wait just a minute! Isn’t it nearly impossible to prove a negative? What is this strong contradictory evidence? Daniel Dennett—an American philosopher, writer, cognitive scientist, atheist, and secularist—claims that Christians are addicted to their blind faith. According to militant atheist Sam Harris, “Faith is generally nothing more than the permission religious people give one another to believe things strongly without evidence.” Harris said, “Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.”

Doubting Thomas

Dawkins often cites the story of doubting Thomas as proof that Christianity requires blind faith. When the other disciples reported that they had seen the risen Christ, Thomas refused to believe until he could see the nail marks and put his hands where the nails had been and into Jesus’ side where He had been speared. A week later, Jesus showed up and gave Thomas the evidence he demanded. Then Jesus said to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29, NIV). True to form, Dawkins says this Scripture passage proves that Christianity opposes reason. He adds, “Thomas demanded [physical] evidence… the other apostles, whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence, are help up to us as worthy of imitation.”

BIBLICAL FAITH

The fact that some Christians may have so-called “blind faith” is not the same as Christianity itself valuing blind faith and irrationality. Frankly, the Bible does not tell us to irrationally believe something in the face of reliable physical evidence to the contrary. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (NIV). Eugene Peterson, in his translation of Hebrews 11:1, writes, “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see” (MSG) [Emphasis added]. To me, this wonderfully written paraphrase shows that Christianity does not require blind faith in face of scientific evidence to the contrary. Hebrews 11 (the “faith” chapter) explains trust in God.

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Many individuals—believers, non-believers, and agnostics alike—have a gross misunderstanding of what constitutes faith. Faith is not merely a manner by which we “fill in the gaps” in the absence of, or in the face of, real, tangible, evidence. Carl Sagan, for example, once said, “Faith is believing in something in the absence of evidence.” This is a rather narrow definition. Let’s take a closer look at the word substance. It comes from the Greek word hupostasis, meaning “a placing or setting under, a substructure or foundation.” This word can also be translated as “confidence.” The Greek word for evidence, elengchos, means “that by which a thing is proved or tested; conviction.”

Biblical faith comes from careful observation and the weighing of all available evidence. Faith, therefore, is dynamic rather than static. The militant atheists like to lump all religions together and dismiss them with sweeping generalizations. But Christianity is unique in valuing the role of the mind which includes the proper use of reasoning and argumentation. In fact 1 Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have…” (NIV). The King James Bible uses this same terminology: the substance of things hoped for. Jesus tells us to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. God said to Israel, “Come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18, NKJV).

EVERYONE HAS FAITH!

When people hear the word faith, they typically think of religion. No doubt religious people have faith in God. Christians have faith in the Word and many unseen things such as heaven, angels, and the spirit. The point that’s often passed over is that Christians are not the only ones who have faith—everyone does. Everyone has faith in something, including Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. If you don’t have faith, you wouldn’t eat, leave your house, get in an airplane, or go to the fiftieth floor of a skyscraper in an elevator car.

The philosophical revolution over the past few decades has lead to the strengthening of the traditional arguments for God’s existence with new insights and evidence. In their writings, militant atheists hardly interact with these arguments, and, until recently, they have refused to engage leading Christian thinkers in public. As part of my class on World Views at Colorado Christian University, I watched a debate between Dinesh D’Souza and the late Christopher Hitchens. I was shocked by Hitchens’ vilification of Christianity and the vitriolic and mean-spirited comments he threw at D’Souza in an attempt to throw his opponent off his game.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Faulty views of Christianity and its followers are not countered solely by good arguments, but also through relationships. The apostle Paul spoke of imparting not only the truth of the Gospel, but also his very own life. We typically refer to this as our “witness.” Perhaps Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens simply haven’t gotten to know thoughtful and intelligent Christians who value the role of evidence and reason. In other words, believers who grasp the importance of 1 Peter 3:15.

If the human condition limits our ability to know what is true, how do we determine what to believe? It’s been said that we have no criterion for truth—only the means to recognize error. In other words, our knowledge is finite but our ignorance is infinite. Philosophy has long recognized this fact and uses dialectics to assist in our quest to understand what is true. This process involves repeated and thorough criticism of our assumptions. After all, our Christian worldview is more inherited than undertaken by us. Of course, most atheists are fond of stating that faith is defined as believing without evidence. This is actually a faith that mirrors Hebrews 11:1. Even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith the existence of law-like order in nature and throughout the universe that is at least comprehensible to Christians.

 

Ephesians: Grace in Everyday Life

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The book of Ephesians allows us to take a closer look at the grace God extended to us by raising us to new life in Christ. God wants us to live our lives out of a rich experience of His grace on a daily basis. Interestingly, we forget that as believers we still need God’s mercy and grace just as much as we did before we knew Jesus as Lord and Savior. When we forget the grace of God, we can fall into two distinct errors. We can become filled with spiritual pride, or we can live with a complete sense of failure as we get a glimpse of what the human heart is really like. In fact, we read in Scripture that the heart is the seat of indwelling sin—the heart is the spiritual part of us where our emotions and desires reside. Nothing can ensnare us more than our natural instincts running wild.

DO YOU HAVE A HEART FOR GOD?

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The Bible mentions the heart almost 1,000 times. It is important to note that God also has a “heart.” Of course, we’re not speaking of the physical, beating, four-chamber organ that pumps blood throughout our corporeal bodies. God has emotions and desires, and it is His wish that we develop our heart—our emotions and our focus—after His heart. Acts 13:22 tells us David was a man “after God’s own heart.” This is not an easy undertaking. The human heart, in its natural condition, is evil, treacherous, and deceitful. I was able to take an uncomfortable but critical look at my own heart during a class at Colorado Christian University on Worldviews. My Christian “walk” did not match my Christian “talk” for nearly my entire life. I had a pastor tell me once, “I don’t think you have a heart for God.” It was like getting punched in the stomach!

“The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis. 6:5, NIV).

Whether we know or understand our own heart or not, God does. Psalm 44:21 tells us, “Would not God find this out? For He knows the secrets of the heart” (NASB). Jesus “knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25). Based on His intimate knowledge of the heart, God has the capacity to judge man righteously. Jeremiah 17:10 says, “I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve” (NIV). Jesus pointed out the fallen condition of our hearts in Mark 7:21-22: “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly” (NIV). All these come from within us and make us unclean.

Evil Within

In other words, we all have a heart problem. Since sin is lodged within our very hearts, and is in no way peripheral to our experience, it is indeed capable of exerting enormous influence over our heart. Naturally, this has an impact—good or bad—over our behavior and, ultimately, our character. Of greatest consequence is the fact that the human heart is both deceitful and unsearchable. No one understands the importance of knowing the heart more than an alcoholic working his or her way through the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Step Four strongly recommends making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. This exercise is intended to bring the alcoholic to the real problem—character flaws.

THE REDEEMED HEART

It is important that we understand such indwelling deceitfulness requires constant watchfulness. The apostle Peter tells us, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8, NIV). Accordingly, it is important that in our struggle to guard our hearts we commit all things to Christ. In 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, Paul said, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. They have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretense that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (NIV).

I Am Redeemed

The redeemed soul, by the grace of God and His indwelling Spirit (Romans 8:13), must press on toward perfection. Does this mean we must get everything right and never make a mistake? No. That would be impossible. In Christian doctrine, perfection means maturity. Our role in this process is to cooperate with God. Allow our thoughts to be taken captive to obeying the commands and example of Jesus. It is through obedience that we can put to death the deeds of the body (Philippians 2:12-13). Furthermore, we need to do this daily for as long as we possess our physical bodies.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

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We must never think that our work of contending against sin—in crucifying, mortifying and subduing it—is at an end. Again, we are not literally to become perfect and without sin. We’ve all sinned and fall short of ever hoping to earn God’s glory. We are not save by good works. Frankly, we’re not capable of consistently practicing only good works. We are, however, saved onto good works. We are to avoid the practice of sin, which amounts to knowingly, willingly, repeatedly sinning without repenting. Remember, the word repent means to “turn away from.” It involves “doing a 180!” Again, I do not possess the innate capacity to do this. I can be absolutely adamant about not gossiping or judging, but five minutes later I’m doing it again.

True victory will come to those who die having fought the good fight day after day.

 

A Light in Darkness: A Christian Response to Moral Relativism

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AMERICA IS IN A DARK season. The news is chock full of stories about murders, mass shootings, racial unrest, sexual immorality, genocide, terrorist threats, rampant drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide. This is the backdrop against which biblical principles are being challenged and pushed aside in a modern culture of pluralism and so-called open-mindedness. Atheists today have taken on a militant posture. No longer content with merely not believing in God as a personal choice, they have taken to calling Christians delusional, stupid, crazy, elitist, bigoted, gullible, narrow-minded. Richard Dawkins—author of The God Delusion—says, “Religion is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness.” Christopher Hitchens said parents “forcing” their Christian faith on their children is nothing short of child abuse. He compares belief in an all-powerful deity to believing in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Karl Marx said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”

Gallup on American Opinions on Moral Acceptability

News stories on the networks and in newspapers show a growing moral and social crisis in America today. Our nation has been taking a position against God in landmark cases for the last five decades: teacher-led prayer was forbidden in public schools (1962); Roe v. Wade sanctioned abortion on demand all throughout America (1973); display of the Ten Commandments was forbidden on publicly-owned property (2005); Obergefell v. Hodges sanctioned same-sex marriage (2015), and today the debate over gender identity issues are in full swing. Ask Americans about their personal views on moral issues, and they are more likely than ever to hold a liberal position. Ask them specifically about morality in America, and you will see they are becoming more pessimistic with each passing year. A recent Gallup poll found a widening embrace for numerous moral issues, including record-high acceptance for gay relationships, divorce, pornography, polygamy, and physician-assisted suicide.

CHRISTIAN MORALITY

Christian morality used to be something people were afraid to violate. In May 2017, Gallup and LifeWay Research released polls indicating 4 out of 5 Americans are worried about the moral state of our country. One poll shows 77 percent believe the country’s values are getting worse—the highest level since Gallup started tracking this topic in 2002. Historically, social conservatives, including evangelicals and other people of faith, have been the most negative about American morality; raising concerns about the liberal shift on issues involving family, sexuality, and sanctity of life. Democrats and Republicans look at the issue of morality differently—liberals and moderates are concerned over declining moral values, but, their focus is on the growing lack of respect or tolerance for others. They are also worried about the lack of proper parenting, which many believe to be at the root of this moral downturn.

“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”

Some believers, me included, feel the reason morality is failing is because far too many laws regulating moral behavior have been repealed. A great deal of Christian pastors, apologists, evangelists, and writers have taken heed to the falling numbers, but decades of pitting “Christian worldview” against “moral relativism” has caused the forming of habits that are rather hard to break. For example, many Christians assume the reason for rampant immorality in our culture is due to people rejecting the idea of absolute right and wrong. Many believers think discussions over morals are likely to end with, “Well, you have your truth, and I have mine. Let’s just agree to disagree.” I believe disputes over morality in America are stronger today than they’ve ever been. But if we view these disputes through the lens of “moral relativism,” our understanding of today’s culture will suffer—our Christian witness will be severely blunted.

DO BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES SHAPE YOUR VALUES?

The apostle Paul says, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5, NIV). Certainly, this is not an easy task. Moreover, it is not necessarily helpful to “preach” down to those we disagree with given the heavy-handed presence of moral relativism in America. How can we apply a Christian worldview to social and political issues? In addition, how can we communicate biblical morality effectively in a secular society?

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First, it is important that we interpret Scripture correctly. Too often, Christians have expressed their sociological preferences on issues like homosexuality and abortion without proper biblical exegesis. The result is often a priori conclusions built upon the foundation of improper proof-texting. We should take a lesson from the apostle Paul’s direction that the first priority of Christians is to preach the Gospel. He refused to allow individual distinctions to hamper his effectiveness. In fact, he said, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22, NIV). As believers, we must stand firm for biblical truth; however, we must recognize the spiritual needs of those with whom we vehemently disagree regarding lifestyle or moral convictions.

Second, Christians should carefully develop biblical principles which can be applied to contemporary social and medical issues. Too often Christians jump immediately from Scripture to political and social programs. Unfortunately, they sometimes neglect the important intermediate step of applying biblical principles germaine to a particular social or cultural situation. Foundational biblical precepts that undergird the law of God in the Old Testament are essentially values or social norms steeped in Jewish law and tradition. The Torah contains 613 commandments or precepts, which include “positive” and “negative” commands. Christians in the 21st century are not obligated to fulfill the requirements of the Law of Moses. This is the central message of Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Colossians. In fact, Colossians 2:14-15 tells us that on the cross, Jesus took away the requirements of law-keeping. Of course, there are laws in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy that Christians are bound to, but this is not because they are in the Mosaic Law. Rather, as Christians we are bound to obey the command and example of Jesus. We are to tread gently, motivated by love, not hatred.

Love should characterize Christians, especially when the days are dark and filled with hate.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

We must look to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles to determine the “rules” of Christianity. I am not saying that the laws of the Old Testament are meaningless. Not at all. Examples of what the Hebrews did and how God responded—blessings versus curses—are great lessons for us today. Paul writes, “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did… These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us…” (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11, NIV).

For the Christian, the current social crises are indeed troubling. But Jesus called us “the salt of the earth and the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13). In these dark days we need to respond as salt (i.e., godly preservative in a rapidly declining culture) and light (i.e., evangelists who shine brightly in a dark society). We need to cultivate a biblical perspective on the current social crises. And we need to respond as God’s people, with God’s perspective, regarding the events of these days.

Will we let our light shine in the midst of this dark season of uncertainty? Will we keep our focus and trust on Him as our sovereign King? Will we point others to Him as we allow our light to shine for Him? Or will we live in a manner that serves to detract others from Christ? We cannot forget that it is our joy and privilege to shine as lights in the darkness.

The Great Deceiver

Satan thinks he has everything figured out, and he plans to deceive the whole world through his unholy minions.

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Unfortunately, the world is littered with con artists and so-called snake oil salesmen who make it their life’s work to masquerade as something they are not. Today, that scourge often shows its ugly face through Internet scammers, identity thieves, and door-to-door fraudsters. None can equal the greatest con artist of all time—Satan, whom Jesus calls “a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44). Satan’s biggest con is yet to come and will be unleashed on unsuspecting humanity in the person of the Antichrist.

HIS RECEPTION

After God raptures His church, not a single believer will exist anywhere on Earth. All true followers of Christ will have been transported to heaven to be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17), making the entire planet fertile territory for the father of lies—at least for a while—some are able to see the truth and trust Christ as their Savior. Satan’s vehicle for achieving world domination will be the Antichrist—the “man of sin” and “son of perdition”—descriptions that characterize his embodiment of damnation, eternal punishment, and utter destruction (2 Thessalonians 2:3).  The Antichrist’s first deception will be to broker a peace treaty or initiative: “And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week; and after half of the week he shall cause sacrifice and offering to cease; and upon the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator” (Daniel 9:27, RSV).Peace Middle East.jpg

He will seem like a great leader, someone who can help solve all the woes plaguing the post-Rapture world, and people will receive him with open arms. However, he could not care less about peace or humanity. He will be evil, ruthless, and utterly self-centered; and his ultimate objectives will be to rule the world and be worshiped by God. Unfortunately, he will fool billions by using “power, signs, and lying wonders.” He will operate “according to the working of Satan” (2 Thessalonians 2:9). To make matters worse, God will send people a “strong delusion, that they should believe the lie” (v. 11).

Ever willing to believe a lie, however, the masses will flock to him and see him as a savior. He will con everyone. “All the world marveled and followed the beast [Antichrist]. So they worshiped the dragon [Satan] who gave authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast” (Revelation 13:3-4). The scope and authority of the Antichrist’s reign will cover “every tribe, tongue, and nation,” including Israel (v. 7).

HIS DECEPTION

Interestingly, the Jewish people will be the most vulnerable to the Antichrist’s promises because, throughout their history, they have wanted little more than to live in peace—and peace is exactly what the Antichrist will offer them. To encourage them to trust him, he may use the outcome of the battle of Gog and Magog. The prophet Ezekiel foretold of a future attack from Gog on the land of Magog that probably will take place early in the post-Rapture era. Gog and its allies “will go up against a land of unwalled villages… to a peaceful people, who dwell safely, all of them dwelling without walls, and having neither bars nor gates… against a people gathered from the nations… who dwell in the midst of the land” (Ezekiel 38:11-12). God says Israel will be “gathered” from the nations and subsequently settling in the land which God have to His servant Jacob” (Ezekiel 28:25).

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Gog will attack while the nation enjoys something it has longed for: safety, without the necessity of walls, bars, or gates. In other words, Israel will have let down its defenses. God will stem the invasion, but it seems the Antichrist will claim the credit. He will appear to bring peace and seduce the Jewish people into placing their confidence in him. However, then he will demand they worship him as God. He will oppose and exalt himself “above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (2 Thessalonians 2:4).

HIS PSEUDO RESURRECTION

Satan will also deceive the Gentile nations. His pseudo-messiah (in the person of the Antichrist) will somehow suffer a mortal wound, but will astonishingly be healed and resurrected from the dead. Revelation 13:3 says, “I saw one of his heads as if it had been slain, and his fatal wound was healed. And the whole earth was amazed and followed after the beast” (NASB). In his obsession to be like God, Satan will construct a fake unholy “trinity.” He will play the part of the father, with the Antichrist as the son, and the False Prophet as the spirit.

Whose Deadly Wound Was Healed

Just prior to the return of Jesus Christ, the greatest political leader in the history of mankind will emerge from Europe. After taking over that region by political cunning and deceit, he will launch a military campaign that will result in his acquiring “authority over every tribe and people and nation” (Revelation 13:7). His empire will be the most extensive in all of history, encompassing the entire world, and his rule will be the most demonic the world has ever experienced. He will begin his rise to power as a dynamic, insightful, visionary leader who will astonish the world with the cleverness of his solutions to world problems. In this regard, he will seem to be the “savior” of the world. As he amasses power, however, his true nature will be revealed. He will set his sights on the elimination of Christianity and Judaism. It is actually for this reason he is identified in Scripture as the Antichrist, for he will stand against (anti) God and Jesus Christ.

HIS CAREER MOVE

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The rapture of Christian believers—a global event—will launch the career of the Antichrist. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul provides a detailed narrative regarding the events surrounding the rise of the Antichrist. The Antichrist cannot rise to power until the one who holds back unfettered lawlessness is “taken out of the way” (v. 7). The rapture of the church is the seminal event that will catapult the Antichrist to power. This is facilitated by worldwide chaos and pain. Of course, the Antichrist will appear to have all the answers to all the world’s problems. He is expected to take over the European Union and rule from Rome.

The Antichrist will rule for seven years—a period the Hebrew Scriptures call “the time of Jacob’s trouble,” and the New Testament calls the Tribulation (Jeremiah 30:7; Matthew 24). At the midpoint, Satan is cast to Earth “as a profane thing” (Ezekiel 28:16), and conditions on Earth deteriorate rapidly. It appears Satan will enter the body of the mortally-wounded Antichrist and indwell him, deluding a vast majority of surviving humanity into thinking their world ruler actually miraculously came back to life—an attempt to emulate Jesus’ resurrection. The seven-year period of the Great Tribulation will begin when the Antichrist negotiates a treaty that will bring true peace to the Middle East, enabling the Jews to rebuild their temple.

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Interestingly, one of the myths about the Antichrist that has developed in modern times is that the world will be so enamored with him that all nations will surrender their sovereignty to him. This is not biblical. Rather, Scripture indicates that the world will resist his despotic rule. Of course, this is the catalyst for the Third World War (see Revelation 6). Global conflagration will result in the initial death of one-fourth of all humanityapproximately 1.5 billion people in today’s terms. According to Revelation 8 and 9, as the Great Tribulation reaches mid-point, the war will escalate into a nuclear holocaust, resulting in the deaths of an additional one-third of those still alive—this is another 1.5 billion people. This should be considered a bitter-sweet victory because in the process one-third of the Earth will be destroyed and half of its remaining population will be killed. Seemingly as an attempt to restore law and order, the Antichrist will institute a one-world economy and a single global religion.

THE ANTICHRIST: SATAN INCARNATE

When the Antichrist becomes Satan incarnate, he will become a megalomanic; a tyrant obsessed with himself and the Jewish people. Satan has an insane, all-consuming hatred for the Jews. He hates them because they gave the world the Holy Scriptures and sent the Messiah to Earth through the House of David. Satan knows that salvation comes to all mankind through the Jewish nation. Therefore, he wants to destroy the Jews in order to stop this from happening. What Satan fails to realize, however, is that salvation has already been accomplished. This is precisely what Christ meant when, in His last minute of life, He sighed and said, “It is finished.” Some biblical scholars believe the Antichrist will become obsessed with Israel to the point that he neglects his global empire, leading to revolt within his ranks.

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In the prophecy given by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount, the first thing he warned believers about was a counterfeit Christianity (Matthew 24:4-5). The word Antichrist is mentioned four times in John’s epistles (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3). John clearly explains what he meant by the term—meaning “against Christ” or “enemy of Christ.” End-time prophesies show that religious people—including professing Christians deceived into accepting a counterfeit Christianity—will oppose many of the teachings of Christ.

YET ANOTHER BEAST

This con will continue as Satan installs and controls yet another beast (Revelation 13:11), the False Prophet, who will exercise great power and authority, trying to force everyone to worship the Antichrist (whose mortal wound was healed). Through Satan’s power, he will perform miracles and direct people to construct an image of their ruler (v. 14), which he will somehow animate, “that the image of the beast should both speak and cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (v. 15).

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Then the False Prophet is directed by Satan to seal “both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their forehead, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name… his number is 666” (vv. 16-18). Today, people speculate the mark could involve smart-chip technology. The number seven is almost always associated with God, and the number six is traditionally associated with man. Three sixes indicate the unholy “trinity” of Satan.

THE MAN OF LAWLESSNESS

Paul indicates the “man of lawlessness” (Lucifer, the devil) will put on a big show with counterfeit miracles, and wonders. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 Paul describes this man as the Antichrist who will come on the global scene at the beginning of the Day of the Lord—events that take place at the end of history (Isaiah 7:8-25). The Bible often refers to this as that day during which God personally intervenes in history, directly or indirectly. Some biblical scholars believe this is referencing a period of time (or special day) when Christ will reign throughout the world prior to when He cleanses heaven and Earth for the eternal state of all mankind. Some believe this refers to divine judgment that will take place toward the end of the age. In any event, the ultimate or final fulfillment of the prophesies concerning the Day of the Lord will come at the end of history when God, with wondrous power, will punish the wicked and fulfill all His promises.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Satan will employ all manner of trickery in hopes of realizing his greatest ambition: to be God. Lucifer has always wanted the glory that belongs solely to the Most High, and he wants to possess and rule God’s Kingdom. In reference to Lucifer, Isaiah 14:12-14 says, “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of dawn! You have been cast down to earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself the Most High'” (NIV) [Emphasis added].

But he will not, hallelujah! He will be brought down “to the lowest depths of the Pit” and eventually be cast into the Lake of Fire forever (Isaiah 14:15; Revelation 20:10). And so will end the story of Satan and his evil quest to rule the world through the Antichrist and become higher than God Almighty. Satan is the great tempter. His aim is to get us to stumble and sin over and over. After all, misery loves company. Luke tells us Satan was behind Peter’s three denials. Even in this instance, however, God set the boundaries. He said to Peter, “Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon [Peter], that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32, NIV). Jesus essentially told Satan, “You will not destroy Peter. You will only make him stumble tonight. I find this to be extremely encouraging!

The blinding light of Satan gives way to God’s light. When we renounce the designs of the devil and trust the power and wisdom and sovereignty of God through Christ, we fulfill God’s purpose in letting Satan live (rather than destroy him at the moment of his rebellion). We glorify in the ultimate authority of Christ Jesus over all aspects of creation.

There is still time to choose where you will be. How horrible it would be to trade our eternal glorified bodies and our boundless fellowship and communion with God for the passing pleasure of sin here on Earth! Why not choose to be a part of the Bride now? Choose to be one of those who accepts God’s judgment and direction in their lives.

Saying the sinner’s prayer is simply a way of declaring to God that you are relying on Jesus Christ as your Savior. There are no “magical” words that result in salvation. It is only faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection that can save us. If you understand that you are a sinner and in need of salvation through Jesus Christ, here is a sinner’s prayer you can pray to God: “God, I know that I am a sinner. I know that I deserve the consequences of my sin. However, I am trusting in Jesus Christ as my Savior. I believe that His death and resurrection provided for my forgiveness. I trust in Jesus and Jesus alone as my personal Lord and Savior.

Thank you Lord, for saving me and forgiving me! Amen!”

 

The Jesus Way (Part One)

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Jesus taught an alternative to the dominant ways of the world, not a supplement to them. It is sad how often we see the world—in fact, even fellow believers—unquestionably embrace the habits of high-profile men and women who lead large corporations, conglomerates, universities, nations, and causes; people who show us how to make money, win wars, manage people, sell products, manipulate behavior, and instruct our young. We take absolutely no time to contemplate how many of these “ways” violate the way of Jesus. What is the Jesus way?

The Heart of Jesus

The heart of Jesus was pure, but what is a “pure-hearted” person? Dictionary.com says to have a pure heart is to be without malice, treachery, or evil intent. This person would be honest, sincere, without guile. Jesus, of course, was without guile. He had no evil thoughts or intent and was without sin. Peter, who traveled with Jesus for over three years, described Him as a “lamb unblemished and spotless” (1 Pet. 1:19). Jesus was purposeful, tenacious, and dedicated to serving the will of the Father. He was so focused on His task that He knew when to say, “My time has not yet come” (John 2:4) and when to say, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

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Jesus saw the good in everyone and everything. His very thoughts were pleasant. Children flocked to Him. He could find beauty in the butterflies and the lilies of the valley, joy in worship, and possibilities in the midst of even the worst of circumstances. He would spend days surrounded by multitudes of sick people and yet remain compassionate in every instance. It is phenomenal that He spent more than three decades wading through the muck and mire—the horrible consequences of man’s sin and fall from grace—yet still saw enough beauty in us to die for our mistakes.

His Teachings and Miracles

During the three years between His baptism and His death and resurrection, Jesus traveled throughout the land of the Hebrews ministering to the people. His ministry can be divided into two key aspects. First were His teachings. Looking to Scripture, we see that Christ taught from a position of authority (Matt. 7:29) and wisdom (Matt. 13:54). The crowds were astonished and amazed by His lessons. Even those who doubted Jesus was the Messiah were stirred by His words.

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The second aspect of Jesus’ ministry revolved around His miracles. The Bible records 35 such incidents during His three years of public ministry. These amazing events range from walking on water (Matt. 14:25) to raising people from the dead (Matt. 11:38-44). It’s worth noting that these are only the miracles that were written in Scripture. In fact, if every one of them were written down even the whole world would not have enough room for the books that would be written (John 21:25).

THIS WEEK’S TOPIC:

Gender Dysphoria

Gender has become a matter of uncertainty. Rather than male or female, many see gender as a “relative” matter—on a continuum. They consider gender or sexual identity to be less a reality given at conception than a matter of personal discovery. Transgender questions today carry an urgency unimaginable five years ago. The debate has become all-encompassing. Issues such as civil rights, protection from persecution and discrimination, culture, education, acceptance, spiritual ramifications, and counseling are complex. One main question is whether it is appropriate for parents of so-called transgendered children to allow their kids – who have not yet reached the end of puberty – to define their own gender and establish their goals and life values relative to gender identity and sexuality.

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Most churches and Christians find themselves exposed due their lack of knowledge and understanding—about gender issues and grace. What does the Bible have to say about living life in a gender-nonconforming way? What can faithfulness to Christ look like for a person who desires—who might even say needs—to live such a life?

A biblical perspective on what makes us human emphasizes the role of community. Individuals are “active agents” rather than merely passive objects impacted by genetic and environmental factors. Balswick and Balswick (2014) believe the search for authentic sexuality appropriately starts with an attempt to understand how we are to behave as sexual persons. Achieving authentic sexuality, however, depends more on understanding who God created us to be as a sexual person. Sexuality includes such factors as biology, gender, emotions, thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, and values.

According to Scripture, when God created human beings He created them male and female and blessed their marital union (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:20-25). Moses, Jesus, and the apostle Paul are united in their approach to the moral norms that govern male-female sexual behavior. The God-ordained roles assigned to men and women are clearly laid out in Scripture. How does this help understand gender identity confusion? If the Bible succinctly describes our sexuality as an intended component of God’s intelligent design, perhaps gender dysphoria, along with homosexuality, is an adulteration of that design, which is clearly predicated on our “fallen nature.” Because of Original Sin, nothing is as God intended it to be. The entire universe has been adversely impacted by the Fall. 

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It could be said that dismissing the legitimacy of a person’s experiences is to dismiss the person. Certainly, we shouldn’t dismiss, but feel compassion for, anyone experiencing mental distress regarding conflict between their gender identity and their body. It is important for Christians to realize that people who experience distress, anguish, and conflict over their perceived gender identity really do exist. They’re not freaks. They’re not merely “cross-dressers” or people desiring to “gender-bend.” Their experience cannot be reduced to simply “living a lie” since most don’t feel they are lying to themselves. Actually, the opposite is true. People with genuine cases of gender dysphoria believe they’re being lied to by their body. Such an individual typically becomes convinced he or she is actually a member of the opposite sex.

Psychology Doesn’t Change Ontology

So what is the best approach to this issue?

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First, Christians welcome all into the grace of the Gospel because the Gospel is applicable and available to all (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). Accordingly, our priority must be to offer genuine love to those struggling with gender or sexual identity. We are, however, required to confront such issues with biblical truth. Fact: God made men and women different (Gen. 1:27). Sexual differences are not graded on a continuum where some men are more like women or vice versa. Men and women are different at the deepest levels of their being. Our chromosomes are different. Our brains are different. Our voices are different. Our body shapes and sizes are different. Our reproductive systems are different. Our body strengths are different. Because men and women are different, it’s philosophical impossible for a man to become a woman, or a woman to become a man.

If God made man and woman fundamentally and comprehensively different, then the idea that a man could ever become a woman is simply impossible. The differences between men and women can’t be overcome simply because one person believes they are a member of the opposite sex. Your psychology—your cognition and emotions—cannot change your ontology.

“Truth is not first produced by a method but inhabits experience itself prior to any cognitive labor.” – Andrew Feenberg

Scripture does not specifically address a contemporary understanding of gender as a socially constructed concept different different from biological sex. A Christian response to gender dysphoria is better established through a biblical theology of the body rather than by combing the Scriptures for proof texts in light of specific behaviors.

At the crux of the transgender experience is gender incongruence, an internal sense of a gender identity that is at odds with one’s birth gender. Lately, a common way to deal with that incongruence is to show a preference for one’s internal “sense” of gender as representing one’s true self in opposition to physical identity. A biblical theology of the body, however, argues that it is essential to reference the physical body when determining gender identity. The biblical definition of man and woman remains regardless of the cultural understanding of gender.

Christianity Today on Transgender Christians

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On June 22, 2018, Christianity Today published an article called “Embracing Our Transgender Neighbors on God’s Terms.” The article referenced a book written by Austen Hartke titled Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians. Hartke’s identity is as important to the book as the subject matter he covers. Hartke was born female. He experienced gender dysphoria in his youth. His decision to transition from female to male was not made lightly. Naturally, he wondered if there was a place in mainline Christianity for someone like him who didn’t agree with every iota of Christian doctrine, who was gender-nonconforming, and who considered himself bisexual. Certainly, not all believers are on the same page on this sensitive issue.

Hartke decided there was a place for him in Christianity. He was baptized in 2008, and went on to graduate from Luther Seminary’s master’s program in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Studies. He hosts a YouTube series called “Transgender and Christian” and is increasingly sought after at conferences and events. Hartke says his ministry is “to help other trans and gender-nonconforming people to see themselves in Scripture.” His main tenet is that transgender people must be embraced by the church on their own terms. He believes that if transgender feelings are real, they are therefore good and blessed by God.

In Understanding Gender Dysphoria, Mark Yarhouse sets forth three main frameworks for understanding the origins and morality of transgender phenomena and then offers an integrated framework he supports. His position is popular among conservatives who sympathize with transgender individuals while at the same time affirming the goodness of sex and gender as God designed them. He argues that gender dysphoria is a result of the Fall—a view I personally maintain—and thus an example of brokenness that deserves deep compassion rather than moral blame. Hartke’s answer to this position is that gender dysphoria “is not original sin manifesting within us. It’s the effects of the Fall showing up in the way human being treat each other.” To me, suggesting that this abuse and persecution is the true fallen condition of mankind, rather than such abuse and gender incongruence being distinct results of the Fall, seems to miss the point. I believe the Fall tends to warp and twist our world.

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In order to counter this argument, Hartke agrees that the incongruence between internalized gender and biological gender “might possibly” be a result of the Fall, but quickly asserts that “this does not mean that the person’s movement away from suffering toward affirmation of their perceived gender identity is sinful.” He compares “gender affirmation” to getting eyeglasses. To me, the glasses metaphor doesn’t hold: No one contends that there is a moral component to correcting poor vision. Obviously, choosing to express one’s gender in a way that obfuscates one’s God-given sex invariably makes a moral statement—that we are free to reject God’s design when our own desires point elsewhere. How can one hold this position without systematically rejecting Genesis 1?

Christian theology has consistently sought to distinguish desires and feelings from behavior. Greed, rage, jealousy, resentment, arrogance, depression, and the many shapes that lust can take are but a few examples of feelings or desires that every human experiences to various degrees and at various times. I believe such desires are part of fallen human nature itself (Gal. 5:17 or 1 John 2:16). Regardless, this is no excuse. Such desire is to be opposed and curbed, rather than to be given free reign (Rom. 13:14). The
Christian theological tradition has therefore sought always to distinguish between desires and acting out on desires, and between specific behavioral sins and the sinner. It recognizes that in our fallen humanity, behavior can be disciplined to some degree, while inner feelings are far less subject to human control.

Christianity understands homosexuality, bisexuality, or transgendered identity and desire within such an overall moral framework. It seeks to follow natural law (the objective truth of our bodies) and the revealed truth of Scripture, even if the truth conflicts with societal or professional opinions, such as that of psychology or psychiatry. One response to such reflection is that, while there is biblical direction which clearly forbids homosexual activity, there is no explicit scriptural reference to transgendered individuals. There are only references that hint at implications for the individual who feels discomfort with his or her identity as male or female.

THE JESUS WAY

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Jesus was the most forceful, demanding teacher who ever lived. He taught that even one’s closest family members must give way to loyalty to Him (Luke 14:26). Several words in the Greek New Testament reveal insight into the amazing compassion of the Lord, even in the face of sinful behavior. He wished that no one would suffer. That none would perish for all of eternity. Consider Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (NIV). Bromiley (1985) notes that the term tempted (as noted in the above Scripture) is touched in the Greek, stating the word “does not signify a sympathetic understanding that is ready to condone [behavior], but a fellow feeling that derives from full acquaintance with the seriousness of the situation as a result of successfully withstanding the temptation” [Emphasis mine].

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We are told in John 14:6 that Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” We simply cannot proclaim the Jesus truth then act any way we want. Nor can we follow the Jesus way without speaking the Jesus truth. Those two positions are diametrically opposed. But Jesus as the truth gets far more attention than Jesus as the way. We can’t skip the way of Jesus in a hurry to get to the truth of Jesus as He is worshiped and proclaimed. Frankly, I don’t see how we can even hope to get to the truth of Jesus without deciding to follow the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is the way that we practice and come to understand the truth of Jesus, living Jesus in our homes and workplaces.

We know that Jesus associated with the outcasts of His day. Please note I am not suggesting transgender or gay individuals should be considered “outcasts.” However, the example Jesus showed during His lifetime for those who were outcasts demonstrated compassion and concern while they were yet sinners. Granted, countless numbers of transgendered or gay individuals do not necessarily buy into the “sin” concept regarding their choices. Jesus reserved His condemnation for religious zealots who lived a hypocritical and highly judgmental lifestyle. So it is worth asking if Jesus came today, would He associate with transgendered and gay people? Would He visit them in their homes or go to their parties? Or would He only associate with “good” churchgoers?

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The Jesus way is a way of sacrifice. A way of freedom. A way of holiness. But it is also a way of compassion and unconditional love. Do we emulate Him in our churches today? Do we make transgendered and gay individuals feel welcome? Do we treat them as our equals? Can they see the love of Christ in us? Would we invite a gay couple to our home for dinner? If we find ourselves answering No to these questions, how can we expect such individuals to trust God enough to consider surrendering their sexuality to Him? How can we expect them to see God as loving and compassionate if we make Him appear to be unloving and judgmental? They already know the “abomination” texts in the Bible.We should not throw Scripture at these individuals.

The last rays of merciful light, the last message of mercy to be given to the world, is a revelation of God’s character of love. The children of God are to manifest His glory. In their own life and character they are to reveal what the grace of God has done for them. (Ellen G. White)

Concluding Remarks

Not only does the male/female relationship reflect the image of God, but their coming together in marriage to bring forth new life reflects the deepest and most intimate analogy of God’s relationship with His people. Throughout Scripture, God and His people are portrayed as husband and wife or as a groom and bride. The creation account found in Genesis lays out this gender-based, matrimonial picture and sets the stage for the eternal union of God and His people—of Christ and His bride—described in Revelation.

Gender matters. In recent years, a revisionist transgender theology has been put forth in some theological circles that violates God’s clearly articulated and intentional design for the sexes—thereby distorting His image and His plan for sexuality, marriage, family and the just and proper ordering of society. Unfortunately, the discussion regarding this issue often becomes convoluted, incoherent, or angry, degenerating into a shouting match. Regardless, we must come to grips with the fact that God isn’t silent about human sexuality. The key to this issue must be grounded in Scripture; however, we simply cannot dismiss transgendered or gay people out of hand.

In his presentation on Christians and homosexuality, Joe Dallas (2014) says, “The voice that must go out from the Christian community is one that is absolutely unsparing in truth and will not compromise under the worst conditions, yet also equally unsparing in love, saying ‘Hate us and we will love you. We will be to you what you need us to be.’ For we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, just as Paul said, and we’ll be asked what we did in this life. Surely, that interrogation will include how we responded to the responsibilities and issues of our time. May God help us on that day when we are asked to give an account of how we responded to the difficult issue [of gender fluidity and homosexuality] so that we might hear Him say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Please join me next week for The Jesus Way (Part Two): Marriage and Divorce.

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.

Bromiley, G. (1985). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, abridged. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Balswick, J. and Balswick, J. (2014). The Family: A Christian Perspective on the Contemporary Home, 4th Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Press.

Dallas, J. (2014). How Should We Respond? An Exortation to the Church on Loving the Homosexual. Colorado Springs, CO: Focus on the Family.

Gilson, R. (June 22, 2018). Embracing Our Transgender Neighbors on God’s Terms. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/june-web-only/austen-hartke-transforming-transgender-neighbors.html