The Power of Powerlessness

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy, M.A. Theology

ONE OF THE MOST confusing statements I have heard is “surrender to win.” Consider wartime principles: The Battle of Appomattox is one of the most momentous events in American history—Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, which effectively ended the Civil War. World War II ended on September 2, 1945 when U.S. General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay. By all normal accounts, Lee and Japan lost the war when they surrendered to their opponents. So, how can we win by surrendering? Because “starting” something new (presumably “good” or better) requires “stopping” something bad—surrendering our fleshly will to the source of all good and abandoning bad or evil behavior.

Our personal (spiritual) battles are not against people, but against the ruling powers of darkness. Paul says, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12, NRSV). Our enemies are not human, but rather cosmic powers (see Eph. 1:21; 2:2; 3:10). Paul is saying human existence is encompassed by cosmic forces, some clearly malevolent. Christ, through his crucifixion and resurrection, has given us power over these evil forces, but at a tremendous cost to Him, which necessarily required surrendering to the will of the Father, even unto death. Likewise, to have victory over sin and evil we must surrender to the will of the Father, and to the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The footnote to Ephesians 6:12 in the ESV Study Bible says, “This list of spiritual rulers, authorities, and cosmic forces (see 3:10) gives a sobering glimpse into the devil’s allies, the spiritual forces of evil who are exceedingly powerful in their exercise of cosmic powers over this present darkness. And yet Scripture makes clear that the enemy host is no match for the Lord” (1). Paul calls Satan the “god of this world [who] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4, ESV). This is the sole reference to Satan as “god of this world” in the New Testament. Paul contrasts the wisdom of the Holy Spirit against the wisdom “of this age or of the rulers of this age” (see 1 Cor. 2:6).

Matthew Henry writes, “Spiritual strength and courage are needed for our spiritual warfare and suffering… [our] combat is not against human enemies” (2). Klein says these powers are “…personal, demonic intelligences whose influence affects structures and spheres in the world” (3). This type of malevolent power has the capability of altering our circumstances to its aggrandizement and our detriment. Many people are shocked by the amount of evil in this world. We see its proliferation every day in our media outlets. The problem of evil begins with the assumption that God should want to eliminate evil. If God is all good but not all powerful or knowing, then perhaps he doesn’t have the ability to intervene on every occasion. Likewise, if God is all powerful and knowing but not all good, then perhaps he has a mean streak. But we are free moral agents. God cannot “choose” for us by eliminating all the wrong choices we might make.

How This Applies to Addiction

It is sometimes incomprehensible to me that as a Christian I struggled in active addiction for four decades. I have met over a hundred Christians who also struggle in this manner. The key to breaking the cycle of addiction is surrender, and you would think a Christian would understand surrendering to Christ. The First Step of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) requires the alcoholic to admit he or she is powerless over alcohol and as a result their life has become unmanageable. No one cares to admit to being powerless; it sounds like complete defeat. But I am talking about letting go—of the reins; of being in charge; of sitting on the throne; of past hurts, harms, and hangups. Yet, despite our best efforts, it is impossible to free ourselves from mistakes and baggage. Convinced we’ve been wronged, we hang on to anger and resentment. Personally, I resented family for “causing me” to become an addict. If you had my childhood, you’d use too! I became so involved in the whys of my drug and alcohol abuse that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees; there was a much larger issue at hand: no matter the cause, I needed to arrest my active addiction and move forward. I had to stop being overwhelmed by every little detail to the point where it obscured the overall situation.

Sadly, holding onto guilt, shame and grief causes unnecessary pain and suffering that can make it difficult to move forward. The longer we are in pain regarding past mistakes or harms, the more likely we forget who we were “before all this trouble began.” We identify with our pain, and unfortunately we choose destructive means for dealing with it. Proverbs 19:11 says, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” Jesus is speaking to the disciples in Luke 17 about harms and offenses committed against them. He adamantly states, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4). There is a common unifying sense in the community of believers: rebuking of a sinning brother; forgiving the offense of such a brother. Jesus wants us to see how our “being offended” is a trap or snare (from the Greek skandala) of Satan. We must not be unforgiving, whatever the offense.

No matter the scenario, we can divide all offended people into two basic categories: those who have been treated unjustly, and those who think they have been treated unjustly.

For years I was unforgiving of my family’s unforgiveness. I went too far, sending an email to one of my brothers that essentially said, “Nice Christian attitude!” The response stung: You take a couple of courses online and now you have this ‘holier than thou’ attitude!” (He was referring to my graduate studies in theology.) I had taken this stance nothwithstanding my forty years of active addiction, countless promises to get clean, apologies for stealing their money and pills. I was expecting immediate forgiveness because this time things were “different.” Thankfully, I have managed to abstain from my drugs of choice (cannabis, benzodiazepines, and opiates) for 30 months. Regardless, I am not justified in demanding forgiveness. I completed my M.A. in Theology during that time. Still, I am not justified in demanding forgiveness. I have continued to minister to others who are struggling with active addiction (through this blog and through participation in the Recovery Church Movement at my local church). Yet, I still am not justified in demanding forgiveness.

The Power to Change

Powerlessness I can understand. It makes sense that we must surrender to win. When we let go of the past, we release ourselves from negative feelings attached to it, such as guilt, shame, resentment, and bitterness. But from where do we get the power to change? After all, “letting go” is easier said than done. Past hurts and harms bring many individuals to seek counseling. People with substance use disorder struggle mightily with letting go of the past. So, admitting our powerlessness is only part one of the process. It does us no good to sit and stew in our shortcomings. God told Joshua, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). Isaiah said God will uphold us with His right hand (see Isa. 41:10). Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6).

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians covers great spiritual blessings brought to believers through the Holy Spirit. Paul discusses the “spiritual conflict” we all face, but is quick to inform us of the means by which we can admit our need for power and begin the process of changing who we are and how we behave. It is through our relationship with Jesus as Messiah that we too can come out from among the dead. As Christ was raised up and given all authority over sin and death, so we are raised with Him into the heavenly realm in identification with Him. The power by which we rise above our old sinful life is not of our own doing. Our new life is available only through the grace and mercy of the Father, predicated upon the death and resurrection of the Son. The victory of the cross has become our victory. We are no longer children of powerlessness. However, our success rests in admitting that without the victory of the cross we are powerless.

Paul says to “…put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22-24). Frankly, to be in Christ is to both hear of Him and to be taught in Him. The discarding of the “old man” and the donning of the “new man” are two sides of the same coin—one cannot operate without the other. Further, by design this is a moment by moment process. As Paul notes, we must not yield our bodies to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, thereby presenting our bodies as instruments for righteousness (see Rom. 6:13). Presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, is what Paul calls our “spiritual worship” (see Rom. 12:1). Some translations call it our “reasonable service.” The upside to this sacrifice, however, is access to a power greater than ourselves.

Human nature cannot be “reformed.” Paul says, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8). Instead, human nature must be regenerated. The “new creation” replaces the old nature. Paul eloquently describes the war between sinful man and regenerate man in Romans 7—a battle I am sure we’re all rather familiar with. Paul said, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15), adding, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (7:19). Of course, it is never enough to simply acknowledge this dilemma, for if we do it becomes a loophole: Not even Paul could stop sinning, so how can I? Reading on, we find out how Paul addressed this problem. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (7:24-25).

Not Without Christ

The expression “to have a mind like a steel trap” euphemistically means to be able to understand or grasp information quickly. I always thought the phrase referred to having a good memory. Someone with a “mind like a steel trap” could recall something that was in his trap. But what of steel versus steal? Nothing steals happiness and fuels pain more than being trapped inside your own head. Many of us are trapped inside the “mirror box” of our mind where every anxious worry, painful past memory, and self-deprecating judgement is reflected back to us, stealing our contentment; our self-acceptance. This is sometimes referred to as the trappings of life—the objects, activities, and other imagery associated with a particular condition, situation, or position in life, such as wealth, power, and prestige.

Do you live your life based on the expectations of others? Are you living your life trying to conform and keep pace with everyone else? Have you become so comfortable in your discomfort that you cannot see your way clear of your trappings? These questions are presented not as judgments but as an opportunity to dig deep beneath the piles of untruths that have been heaped upon us throughout our lifetime. Our “trappings” reveal the truth of who we are and what we create and experience. We tend to fall into the trappings of a situation or desire when something is missing in our life. The more “temporary” these trappings are, the more “temporal” our life feels to us. The result often features a sense of discontentment regardless of what we have accomplished or accumulated. The self-centered fear of not getting what we deserve or desire, or losing what we already have, poisons our mind, “keeping score” in a manner that is doomed to provide any true meaning.

Jesus warned, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21). Making “earthly” treasure our goal leads to anxiety about our lives, what we will eat or drink; or about our bodies, what we will put on. Jesus asks, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt. 6:25). Instead, we should focus on the kingdom of God and His righteousness—our spiritual needs—and all these things will be added unto us (see Matt. 6:33). There is what we need, and what we think we need. It is only through trusting the Father for our needs that we can walk in the abundance of life of which Jesus speaks (see John 10:10).

Regarding these “trappings,” Paul says, “We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5, NRSV). He uses “warfare” imagery here to remind us of the battle for our minds. The weapons of this warfare are not physical but spiritual, such as prayer, faith, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God. For it is by by the Spirit that we tear down strongholds of wrong thinking and behavior, not human reasoning or will power. The Greek transliteration of verses 4 and 5 is, “for the weapons of the warfare of us [are] not fleshly but powerful to God to overthrow of strongholds, reasonings, overthrowing every high thing rising up against the knowledge of God, and taking captive every design to the obedience of Christ” (4). Henry writes, “Thus the weapons of our warfare are very powerful; the evidence of truth is convincing. What opposition is made against the gospel by the powers of sin and Satan in the hearts of men! But observe the conquest the word of God gains” (5).

Greear writes, “…the gospel can change a heart, a community, and the world when it is recovered and applied… [but] it is essential that we distinguish religion from the gospel. Religion, as the default mode of our thinking and practices, is based upon performance… [but] the basic operating principle of the gospel, however, is not surprisingly an about-face, one of unmerited acceptance: I am accepted by God through Christ; therefore, I obey” (6). We love Christ because He first loved us. Love for God grows out of an experience of the love of God (see 1 John 4:19). Jesus told the disciples that the way to fruitfulness and joy—the “secret” to the Christian life—is to abide in Him. From the Greek (meno), abide literally means “to make your home in.” When we make our home in Christ, spiritual fruit begins to spring up in our daily affairs. True spiritual fruit comes only from getting swept up in intimate, loving encounters with Christ: to live as He lived and love as He loved.

References
(1) ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2273.
(2) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Entire Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1153.
(3) William W. Klein, “Ephesians,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Revised Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 165.
(4) Alfred Marshall, The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), 730.
(5) Matthew Henry, Ibid., 1129.
(6) J.D. Greear, Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2011), xiv.

“I Don’t Go to Church. Too Many Hypocrites!”

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

MY FATHER DECIDED TO quit going to church “cold turkey” just about a year after I had accepted Christ as my Savior and received water baptism.* I was fourteen and was considering becoming a pastor. My father’s choice was based on his opinion that church leaders wanted more of his time and money, and the congregation was “full of a bunch of hypocrites.” This was in the early 70s and I did not have any means of going to church without my family. Today, many churches focus on youth, and provide transportation for young Christians who do not have the means of getting to services. One of the most common reasons that people give for rejecting Christianity is hypocrisy. But this allegation alone does not make it so, nor does it address the nuances of believers who say one thing but do another. Incidentally, I was one of those hypocritical Christians for decades. My “secret life” was full of sinful behavior and active addiction. But God used my hypocrisy for His glory (see Rom. 8:28). Coming to a decision to repent and get clean and sober, I began to seek sanctification and growth as a Christian. This led me to discover the ministry God was preparing for me all along.

The man said, “God wants me to tell you something.” That got my attention. He continued: “Everything you have been through since your birth until this very moment has been ordained by Him to mold you into the person He has called you to be.”

Hypocrite. What a horrible thing to be called. The first time I heard that word leveled at me was from the mouth of my youngest brother. We were sharing a house, along with our mother, when he confronted me. “I don’t want you living here. I hate you and I think you’re a hypocrite.” Sadly, he was right. Looking back over the previous thirty years, I saw nothing but hypocrisy. I was teaching Bible study at two county prisons while high on oxycodone I kept stealing from family members. Early in recovery from alcohol I was chairing AA meetings while high on marijuana. My life was full of lies and denial. My heart was conflicted. Yet I continued to live a dual existence. The Holy Spirit would not leave me alone! I felt convicted and would often cry out to God, apologizing, asking Him to “fix me.” To make my hypocrisy “go away.” But that’s not how it works! We are free moral agents, with freedom to choose. When we walk in the flesh, we feed fleshly appetites. Our self-will runs riot and we live a life of excess and abuse. God cannot choose for us; we are free to decide. And the choice is simple: A or B. God or Satan. Good or evil. Freedom or bondage. Hypocrisy or authenticity.

Truly, man cannot serve two masters. First, it is insanely ridiculous to think that we can be devoted simultaneously to two different responsibilities, ideals, or people. Legally, or perhaps “secularly,” it would seem possible to serve more than one interest. However, human nature does not allow us to have equal loyalty toward two things that are the complete opposites of each other. The conflicting pursuits are painfully obvious. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matt, 6:24, ESV). The apostle John writes, “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning… No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:8a, 9). Paul warned about loosing the light of the gospel. He said, “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:1-2).

Christians are not immune to sinning. John was talking about the practice of sin in 1 John 3:8. My own hypocrisy brought me to the point where I confronted my premeditated habitual practice of sin. I realized how this was no different than planning on drinking or getting high (a relapse) and not reaching out to someone before I used my drug of choice. A conscious decision! As I wrestled with this behavior in my life, I commented to my cat that perhaps I should have the letter H tattooed on my forehead; then, when someone asked what it meant I could tell them that I am a hypocrite. (My cat meowed and walked away.) Shortly after coming to this realization, I watched The Passion of the Christ. It was my third attempt, and this time I made it through the torture scene, all the way to the end. Today, when I think about sinning on purpose (watching pornography, for example), I remember those scenes from The Passion, and what the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life on Earth was like. To say He suffered does not begin to describe it. There are no words. This though helps me to not abuse the grace of God. Some days it still requires a conscious effort (at least for now) to say no to temptation, but I am spurred on by a desire to grow in sanctification and to serve God. I choose to walk in the light and to avoid living in the darkness—that place where sin thrives; where I holed up during my active addiction.

What We Can Learn

We can we learn from those who struggle with habitual sin. First John 5:18 says, “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.” What does John mean by “does not keep on sinning?” Surely he is not suggesting Christians no longer sin. Paul clearly notes the struggle he faced. He said, “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience? Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise… I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it” (Rom. 7:14-19, MSG). But John and Paul tell us there is a way out. John writes, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him… everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (1 John 5:1, 4, ESV). Paul says, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom. 7:24-25).

In the same manner that Jesus was “born of God” (see Luke 1:35), we are spiritually reborn and are alive in Christ through His atoning death and resurrection. It is because of our status as children of God, renewed in Christ, that we now possess the power to say no to habitual sin. We have been justified by faith (see Rom. 5:1), acquitted of our trespasses because Jesus paid the sin penalty for us. We have been reconciled with the Father through the Son (see Rom. 5:11). Regarding John’s comment (1 John 5:18) that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, Matthew Henry notes two distinct categories of people mentioned in the verse: (i) those who belong to God, and (ii) those who belong to the wicked one. Whoever is not of God falls under the power of Satan, and they do works that support his cause. Those who belong to God have been led to the Father by the Son, and they favor and love both. In fact, believers are “…in union with [the Father and the Son] by the indwelling and working of the Holy Spirit” (1).

What then is the proper definition of a hypocritical Christian? Sarah Stonestreet says, “A concept like hypocrisy requires a standard of morality or moral conduct with which a person generally agrees, but fails to act accordingly. Every person has some kind of standard by which they make moral judgments… Christians have a clearly defined moral standard which is found in the very nature of God and revealed in his word. Our standard is God’s own perfect goodness” (2). Hypocrisy has no place in the life of a true Christian. Jesus warned, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:3-5). Stonestreet says, “Whether or not Christianity is objectively true does not rise and fall on the subjective experiences of human beings.” Admittedly, there are many hypocrites in the Christian church, as there are in any of the world’s religions. When someone who professes to be a Christian continues to violate the principles or doctrines of Christianity, or acts in a manner that is not an exemplar of Jesus Christ, it prompts skepticism about the story of God’s unconditional love and grace.

Love is the very foundation of Christianity. The apostle John writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:7-8). As I related in my blog article “Love: The First Great Commandment” (Nov. 8, 2021), we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and (secondly) we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Admittedly, it is not easy to love an enemy. In the same manner, it can be hard to love a hypocrite. In fact, most Christians consider a hypocritical believer to be an enemy of the gospel. One of my former pastors once said to the congregation, “The number one attraction to the gospel is Christians. Unfortunately, the number one detractor to the gospel is Christians.” This was why my father decided we were no longer going to church. The number one reason most people avoid God or religion today is duplicity of believers. Wallace writes, “A common objection to Christianity often sounds something like this: “Christians do not practice what they preach. They say one thing but do another. If the Christian God exists, He doesn’t seem to be powerful enough to transform His followers… I don’t believe the Christian God exists” (3).

Jesus had harsh words regarding this matter: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 6:1). He told the Pharisees, those great religious leaders of the Jewish faith, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23). He called them “…blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” (23:24). Jesus also said hypocrites are “…those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). Paul wrote of hypocrites, “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (Titus 1:16). Of course, no one is perfect. Christians are capable of acting in ways contrary to their beliefs. The difference is a matter of repetition and attitude. James writes, “…confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16). John says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Nominal Christians

I once heard the expression “Creasters” and asked what it means. It is a colloquial expression for believers who only go to church on Christmas and Easter. As tongue-in-cheek as this expression is, “nominal” Christians run afoul in a more troublesome manner. To be a nominal Christian is to be one in name only. Jesus said to the disciples, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness'” (Matt. 7:21-23). To best understand this verse, consider the context. Jesus was concluding His Sermon on the Mount, adding a final warning about true faith. Jesus predicts that false Christians will claim to know Him, using all the right words, and may even make a great impression, but they will not belong to the Lord. A person can seem like a Christian in the eyes of others, but if their heart does not belong to Christ then in God’s eyes they are not “of Him” and will be sent away from His presence. Only those who do the Father’s will and who are known of God will enter heaven.

Something has gone terribly wrong. One third of the world call themselves Christians, but a significant proportion of them are missing. Many of them are missing from our churches. Many others are present, but are missing out on the joy of truly knowing and following Christ.

Not all nominal Christians are evildoers, intent on leading the elect astray. Some truly believe they are Christians because their parents are (or think they are) Christians; they went to church regularly growing up; maybe they attended a Christian parochial school or are enrolled at a Christian university. They “believe in God” and celebrate Christmas, but have not made a deliberate personal choice to accept the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus as the Messiah. They have not accepted Him as their Savior and Lord. An increasing number of Christians in the Western world fit this category. The term “cultural Christianity” has become popular. From the website gotquestions.org, cultural Christianity “…is religion that superficially identifies itself as ‘Christianity’ but does not truly adhere to the faith. A ‘cultural Christian’ is a nominal believer—he wears the label ‘Christian,’ but the label has more to do with his family background and upbringing than any personal conviction that Jesus is Lord. Cultural Christianity is more social than spiritual. A cultural Christian identifies with certain aspects of Christianity, such as the good works of Jesus, but rejects the spiritual aspects required to be a biblically defined Christian” (4). Cultural Christians remain silent regarding controversial topics such as abortion or homosexuality, and they do not share the Christian faith with others.

Concluding Remarks

When my father decided we were no longer going to attend church as a family, he did not say he stopped believing in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, nor was he per se rejecting biblical principles. What occurred in the family, however, was a gradual drifting away from those beliefs. We suffered in many ways over the years because of that decision. Solomon said to fathers, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). Raising and training a child within the context of this proverb means that it must be grounded in the Word of God. Paul writes, “…from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15-17). Teaching children the truths of Scripture will provide them with a solid foundation for their faith in Jesus Christ, thoroughly equipping them to do good works; and preparing them to give an answer to everyone who asks the reason for their hope (see 1 Pet. 3:15). This is vital to preparing our young adults to withstand the onslaught of secularism, pluralism, and moral relativism they will encounter in secular academia when they leave the home for higher education.

It is critical that Christians grow in their faith, becoming committed and authentic believers in Christ. In today’s post-Christian culture, atheists tend to focus on the mistakes and the disingenuous behavior of Christians in the workplace and the marketplace. I recall screaming at “some idiot” who ran a stop sign several years ago. On the front of my car was a plaque that said Jesus First! (Not cool!) I have been candid in many recent posts about my hypocritical lifestyle in the past, even during times I professed to be a Christian and during my active addiction. The burden became so great that I had no choice but to address it. Christ said, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:1-2). Certainly, this applies to those who steer others away from the gospel by their hypocrisy! We are in no wise perfect as Christians, but we must strive daily to match our outward behavior to our Christian worldview and to live a life that points to Jesus.

References

(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1254.
(2) Sarah Stonestreet, “The Church is Full of Hypocrites!” Breakpoint: Colson Center (Nov. 8, 2021). URL: https://breakpoint.org/the-church-is-full-of-hypocrites/
(3) J. Warner Wallace, “Does Christian Hypocrisy Falsify Christianity?” Breakpoint: Colson Center (Oct. 4, 2018). URL: https://breakpoint.org/does-christian-hypocrisy-falsify-christianity/
(4) “What is Cultural Christianity?” Got Questions (July 14, 2021). URL: https://www.gotquestions.org/cultural-Christianity.html

* Water baptism is meant as an outward sign or public confession of one’s faith in Christ alone for salvation.

Love: The First and Greatest Commandment

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

“And he said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets'” (Matt. 22:37-40, ESV).

LOVE. WE HEAR THAT word hundreds of times a week. Most of us take the word love seriously. Waiting, as it were, for what feels like the right time, to say “I love you” to a new lover in our lives. Comedians spoof those who are quick to blurt it out on a first date, along with How many children do you want? Me, I’d like five! When a new puppy eats our favorite sneaker, we say, “You’re lucky I love you!” We “love” pizza and wings, ribeye steaks on the grill, hot apple pie, a favorite Eagles song, our home town. We love our children. Our “best bud” from college. We love films like American Graffiti and The Terminator. We love “to cook,” or “to read books.” We might even love our jobs. Then, we’re told as believers in Christ to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. We’re told the gravity of this love: this is the great and first commandment.

But “all” is such a huge word. A footnote in the ESV Study Bible says to love with all of one’s “heart,” “soul,” and “mind” does not represent rigid compartments of human existence, but rather together refer to the whole person (1). This command originates in Deuteronomy 6:5 and encapsulates the idea that total devotion to God includes a duty to also obey the rest of His commandments (see Matt. 5:16-20). How is any of this even possible? Who can “obey the rest” of God’s commandments? All of the rest of God’s commandments? I cannot. Even with a change of heart and a desire to serve and to obey, to be a new creation in Christ, I cannot. Human nature will not allow for flawless performance of any set of rules or laws. Our will tends to get in the way of God’s will. Our ego says we can figure things out with our human intellect. Our shame says we’ll come back to God after we’re better. But we never get better. Not on our own.

Heart Knowledge

The lion’s share of what I “know” about Scripture, about God and His plan for redemption, is still in my head. I say this because I don’t always live as if I am redeemed and set free. On good days this is not an issue. I seem more “willing” to obey or feel like one of the saints. But on other days, not so much. If “worldview” is not just a set of basic concepts for living, but an orientation of the heart, as described by James Sire (2), then it is not effective to simply “believe” in Christian principles in our mind. Moreover, it is in our heart that we ask What do I believe to be true? Why do I believe it to be true? How does this apply to my everyday life? How does God expect me to act? We all ask the same four great questions: What is the origin of our universe? What is the purpose of our existence? How do we determine morality? What is our destiny when we die? To examine our worldview, we must look at the presuppositions, convictions and values from which we try to understand and make sense of life and the world around us. Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet clarify this even further, stating, “A worldview is the framework of our most basic beliefs that shapes our view of and for the world, and is the basis of our decisions and actions” (3). It is a mindset and a will set.

For any of us to be fully conscious intellectually we should not only be able to detect the worldviews of others but be aware of our own—why it is ours and why in the light of so many options we think it is true.

Surely, worldview is settled in the heart. We are told to love the Lord God with all our heart. But what happens if we know about God, or Jesus, or Christian doctrine for that matter, but such knowledge resides in our mind as “information” or data rather than in our heart? Can we demonstrate a Christian worldview without having Christ in our heart, where our worldview lives and breathes? And if Christ is in our mind but not in our heart, what does our worldview look like? Are we truly Christian? Is this why the Bible says Christians are known by their deeds? Acts 11:20-26 describes the ministry of the early disciples: they preached the Lord Jesus; the hand of the Lord was upon them; they exuded the grace of God; they were faithful to the Lord; they were steadfast in their purpose; they were full of the Holy Spirit; and because of them a great many were “added to the Lord.” They were first called Christians in Antioch as a result of their ministry (Acts 11:26). They were “in the way of Christ.” A “nominal” Christian is not Christian. He or she is not a “follower” of Christ. In such instance, Christianity is merely a religion.

A Living Theology

I like the concept, “A speaking God needs a hearing church.” This dovetails nicely with the principle that ours must be a living theology. Augustine of Hippo taught, “There are two things on which all interpretation of scripture depends: the process of discovering what we need to learn, and the process of presenting what we have learnt” (4). How can we teach what we do not understand and which we do not live? In this same vein, Hart calls Christian theology “faith thinking” (5). This is what is required for integrating Christianity into our larger picture of the world and our place in it. I believe apologetics involves bearing faithful and articulate witness to the source of our life and our hope (see 1 Pet. 3:15). Hart says, “The fact that we believe… implies, of course, an initial degree of understanding, however partial. After all, we could not properly be said to believe something of which we had no conception, something of which we could make no sense whatever” (6). And so Christian faith is driven by a desire to know more of that which is its source and raison d’être. But we must rail against a doctrinaire attitude. Hart says, “A theology of relevance to the society within which it is forged will of necessity be one which speaks the language of that society… we have to meet people and to address them where they are” (7).

A “living” theology is not one of detachment. Rather, it must be paired with spirituality, for our spiritual life is now, not some day in the great beyond. Granted, it is not easy to speak frankly about heaven and hell, sin and damnation, or to claim that Christ is the only way of salvation available to man. I believe the only way to avoid the strong dichotomies of theological detachment is to see all and do all through the eyes of love. We do not share Christ as the way to salvation for the sake of being elitist or narrow-minded, but to share the unmatched love and mercy of God. Growing in true knowledge of God changes our view of everything else. Kapic writes, “It is not that we lose sight of all except God, but rather that we view everything in light of God and through the story of his creation and redemption” (8). We begin to live the fundamental edict that all men are created equal by God, and that God desires all men to be saved. Life and theology must be inseparable. Martin Luther wrote, “It is through living, indeed through dying and being damned, that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading, or speculation” (9). We learn Christian doctrine to participate more deeply, passionately, and truthfully with others.

Please know this: I am not “like Christ” in everything I do. Often, I make decisions “in the flesh.” Honestly, I thought it would be easier to love others, to withhold judgment, to not harbor anger or resentment, to be honest about my motives and actions, once I “became a Christian.” You can imagine the rude awakening! None of us simply “become” like Christ because we recite a prayer, renounce our sinful lives, and rely upon the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus for redemption. I raised the question during one of my master’s degree classes whether the the act of Christ dying on the cross is what “saves” us from sin? What I meant is this: Don’t we have to respond to the act of Christ dying on the cross in order for it to have any effect? Scripture does not tell us that the mere fact of Jesus’ death is what saves us. If that were true, all would be saved! Rather, it is our choice to accept Jesus as the Messiah and to identify with His atoning death for our sins that saves us. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). We cannot “behave” our way into heaven.

There is no real life, no “life that is truly life,” no “more and better life than you ever imagined,” no “the way, the truth and the life” outside of Jesus. Certainly no “Life-charged life.” [I]f we want to know Jesus, if we want to immerse ourselves in the richness of the Jesus life, then we must become life-long students and lovers of the Scriptures—Derek Maul. *

Jesus loves the Father. He was sent to do the Father’s will. When the Pharisees berated Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath, He said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). He added, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel” (John 5:19-20). Jesus later said, “…but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (John 14:31). Jesus told the disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). Before His ascension, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).

The love I speak of is far from typical. Paul defines it for us in 1 Corinthians 13. One of my favorite translations is from Eugene Peterson’s The Message: “Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. Love never dies” (10). The Greek word for “love” in 1 Corinthians 13 is agapē—unconditional Christ-like love that transcends all other forms. It is the love that motivated Christ to submit Himself to crucifixion. He said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13).

Love spurred Jesus on, healing, teaching, setting captives free, raising the dead, casting demons from the bodies of the tormented. It is through love that we are expected to do as Jesus commands. Without love, it is impossible to serve Christ. To be “in the way” of Christ is to put oneself second. We show God’s love by listening to others; by being generous with our time and our assets; by encouraging others rather than putting them down; by performing acts of kindness; by being a prayer warrior, interceding on behalf of those in distress. When we love as Christ loves, we do so without regard to what it might cost us. Kristi Walker writes, “Jesus is the reason we even know what love is. In laying down His life for us, He taught us everything we need to know about true love. Love is self-sacrificing, generous, unending, not a temporary feeling or attraction. Because of God’s love for the world, we know love is also undeserving and often unreciprocated” (11).

Love God; Love Your Neighbor

Jesus told us to love God with all our being! But what does that look like? Spiritual love is not self-love, but self-sacrificing love. John writes, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1). The cost of our adoption is immeasurable. He reminds us, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death” (v. 14). Then, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (v. 16). We are not to love in word or talk, but in deed and in truth. As Jesus prepared to leave the disciples and return to the Father, He said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Which commandments? All of them? The “original” ten? The 613 total commandments established by the Jewish priesthood? No, that would be impossible. The Law was given not to control our behavior, but to show our need for a Savior. Jesus did not abolish the Law when He came; rather, He fulfilled the Law (see Matt. 5:17).

To love God is to seek His will. James tells us, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8a). Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). Some translations call this our reasonable service. Although I like the second wording, I appreciate the ESV translation that our reasonable service equals “spiritual worship.” David Jeremiah writes, “To be a living sacrifice seems an oxymoron because sacrifices are usually dead. So how are Christians supposed to be living sacrifices? With sacrificial service, or worship, that is reasonable for someone who is genuinely grateful for what they have received from God” (12). Paul notes in Romans 12:2 that we are made ready for service through transformation: being changed from the inside out. This change necessarily involves a change of heart. You may recall our worldview is settled in our heart. Zacharias said, “…that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:74-75).

John said, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). Henry writes, “The Spirit of God is the Spirit of love. He that does not love the image of God in his people has no saving knowledge of God” (13)(italics mine). To love your neighbor as yourself is to recognize him or her as a child of God. God loves them enough to have sacrificed His Son on the cross in a brutal death as a propitiation for their sins. Christ laid down His life to save all from the wages of sin. He wishes that no one should perish (see 2 Pet. 3:9)—neighbors, friends, loved ones, even our enemies. We must love others through action: putting their needs first as we would want others to do for us; forgiving them as we are forgiven; causing them no harm; sharing with them the same love Christ has shown us. Henry reminds us, “For it is God’s nature to be kind, and to give happiness. The law of God is love. The provision of the gospel, for the forgiveness of sin, and the salvation of sinners, consistently with God’s glory and justice, shows that God is love” (14).

References

(1) EVS Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 1870.
(2) James Sire, Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept, 2nd.ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2015), 14.
(3) W. Gary Phillips, William E. Brown, and John Stonestreet, Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview, 2nd. ed. (Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing, 2008), 8.
(4) Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching, Book One, II2 —IV4 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press World’s Classics, 2008), 8.
(5) Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1995), 1.
(6) Ibid., 3.
(7) Ibid., 5.
(8) Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 26.
(9) Martin Luther, in Kapic, Ibid., 41.
(10) Eugene Peterson, The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006), 1683-84.
(11) Kristi Walker, “What is Love?” Christianity.com (Aug. 15, 2019). URL: https://www.christianity.com/wiki/christian-terms/what-is-love.html
(12) Dr. David Jeremiah, The Jeremiah Study Bible, NKJV (Franklin, TN: Worthy Publishing, 2013), 1561.
(13) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1250.
(14) Ibid., 1250.

* Please visit Derek Maul’s website at https://derekmaul.blog/ for many great thoughts and studies and for information on books he has published.

Jonah: A Reluctant Servant

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

THE THEME OF THE Book of Jonah is simple: The LORD is a God of boundless compassion, not just for “us” but for “them”—the wicked, the disobedient, the Jew, and the Gentile. Some scholars consider Jonah’s story to be an allegory, using fictional characters to symbolize theological principles. Specifically, some believe “Jonah” represents Israel in its refusal to carry God’s mission to “other nations.” No doubt Israel felt “chosen” and was reluctant to share its status with others. But Jonah is identified as an actual historical figure (see 2 Kings 14:25); his story has elements of prophetic narrative like those of Elijah and Elisha (1Kings). Jesus likened His own impending death and resurrection to what Jonah experienced when swallowed by a giant fish and regurgitated on the beach after three days and three nights (see Matt. 12:40-41).

God’s Sovereign Control

God is sovereign over everything, as expressed in Scripture. He is King, Supreme Ruler, Designer, Lawgiver of the universe. He is sovereign over events on Earth, as expressed in Scripture. God’s sovereignty is infinite, but He cannot will or do anything that is against His character. Grudem writes, “God cannot lie, sin, deny himself, or be tempted with evil. He cannot cease to exist, or cease to be God, or act in a way inconsistent with any of his attributes” (1). We have been given a portion of God’s power—mental, spiritual, persuasion, authority. Grudem writes, “…when we remember that the sum of everything that is desirable or excellent is found in infinite measure in God himself, then we realize that it could not be otherwise: whatever excellence there is in the universe, whatever is desirable, must ultimately have come from him, for he is the Creator of all and he is the source of all good” (2) (italics in original).

David decreed, “The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psa. 103:19, ESV). David would often pray, “Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all” (1 Chron. 29:11). Jeremiah said to God, “Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you” (Jer. 32:17). Paul said of Christ, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Eph. 3:20).

God’s Determination

The Book of Jonah shows God’s determination to make sure His will is carried out. Jonah finds out first hand what can happen when we tell God no! Jonah was unwilling to go to Nineveh, so he tried running away. We know from Genesis 3 that hiding from God is impossible. God knew precisely where Adam and Eve were hiding in the Garden when He asked, “Adam, where are you?” I believe God was saying, Adam, consider where you are compared to where you were before you disobeyed Me. Adam and Eve decided to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil so they could know as God knows; to look within themselves to determine what is good and what is evil; to decide the meaning of life. At that point, man lost his “vertical” (heavenward) orientation with God, exchanging it for a “horizontal” orientation (within and between self and others). Indeed, the number of worldviews is as varied as those who hold them.

When Jonah was thrown into the angry sea by the superstitious crew, they put him back in the path of God’s will. God’s plan will always be accomplished. Whenever God calls on us to “go forth” and perform a task, He begins with a single request. He told Jonah, Go to Nineveh. Any “call” to mission from God is a heavy obligation. Because we are not equipped to comprehend God’s plan all at once, He reveals it to us one step at a time. If God were to reveal the entire journey up front, we would not need faith in Him to equip us for the mission. God says, I know where I am sending you. Trust me and I will get you there. His determination must become our determination. Consider how Jesus was determined to accomplish God’s purpose (a plan for redemption) regardless of what it would cost—humiliation, severe physical pain, mocking, (temporary) separation from the Father (see Matt. 27:46), and death. Crucifixion is so gruesome the Romans coined the phrase excruciate to define the punishment: ex meaning “out of” and cruciate meaning “from the cross.” To excruciate is “to cause great agony or torment” by nailing someone to a cross. It is a slow and agonizing death. Christ willingly paid the wages of our sin. We have a plan of redemption because of the unwavering resolve that characterized His entire life.

Determination gives you the resolve to keep going in spite of the roadblocks that lay before you. 

Determination is our ability to make difficult decisions and accomplish God’s goals based on the truths of God’s Word without regard for what may be encountered. It is the ability to set ourselves toward Godly pursuits and not allow ourselves to be distracted or discouraged. “Put false ways far from me and graciously teach me your law! I have chosen the way of faithfulness; I set your rules before me. I cling to your testimonies, O LORD; let me not be put to shame” (Psa. 119:29-31). Paul wrote, “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). Jesus told the disciples, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Proverbs says, “Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established (italics added).”

We often hear about the determination of men and women in the mission fields of the world. Mattew Egwowa, of the Ibru Ecumenical Centre, writes, “The syndrome of waiting for God is an old syllabus of the classical believers, but now is an emergence of end time radical believers—the revolutionists: Enough is enough. Such movement begins with a determination; and the launching pad is courage. Courage is despising danger and braving the risk to achieve your goal” (3). Determination is carried on the wings of necessity. It must fly in the face of fear. God said, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:10). Egwowa says, “Until fear goes, God cannot come to your aid [and you] cannot tract the supernatural intervention of the Almighty God; fear must leave for faith in God.” In other words, the determined man must not only be fearless, but must also be soundly rooted in faith. Jonah’s strongest objection to bringing the message of repentance and forgiveness to the Ninevites was his hatred for the Assyrians.

The Need for Repentance

The need for repentance is universal and is not bound by time, geography, nationality, race, or culture. God prepared to destroy the ancient city of Nineveh because of its rabid sin. It had become as evil as Sodom. As with Jonah, there are times when we might not want God to forgive those who have hurt us. Jonah hated the Ninevites, and he did not want them to be saved. Nineveh was the oldest and most populated city of the ancient Assyrian civilizations, located near the modern city of Mosul on the Tigris River. The Assyrian army sacked a number of cities, which included Jonah’s home town of Gath Hepher. He may have seen his mother and father slain and his siblings captured. He was not able to assuage his anger and resentment of Nineveh and the Assyrians under his own power. As Christians under the New Covenant, we understand God’s position on forgiveness. We struggle with forgiveness, but our salvation is rooted in it.

Unforgiveness is one of Satan’s powerful weapons. He knows it is impossible that no offenses should come (see Luke 17:10), so he sways us to anger and indignation. The Greek word for offense (adíkima) means “malpractice, wrong, tort, misdeed.” Interestingly, the NIV translation of 17:10 is, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they came.'” Jesus had been talking to the Pharisees since Luke 16:14. Now, however, He turned to the disciples. The Greek word that covers “things that cause people to sin” (skandala) means “traps,” but symbolically this includes anything that causes people to fall back into sin. Jesus said this trap is so egregious that “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17:2). Remarkably, the “trap” of Jonah’s refusal to let go of the offense by the Assyrians caused him to sin by disobeying and God and running from His calling. God loves obedience more than sacrifices (see 1 Sam. 15:22). He expected Jonah to obey His command in spite of the anger and resentment he held against the Ninevites and Assyrians. And He expects our obedience in forgiving others.

Paul said in his second letter to Timothy, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:24-26). The “snare of the devil” should be with the offending party, not with the one who is offended. It is human to react adversely to being wronged, but we are called to seek help from the Lord to let go of the offense, allowing the other party to “own it,” forgiving them in love and grace. This is why John Bevere divides all offended people into two categories: (a) those who have been treated unjustly, and (b) those who believe they have been treated unjustly (4).

I became so ensnared when my family refused reconcile with me after forty years of my active addiction, manipulation, lies, thefts, and defiance. My thought was, Hey, I mean it this time! Now, I have been clean for twenty-nine consecutive months, and I have completed a B.S. in Psychology and an M.A. in Theology. My daily mission is directed toward those who still struggle with active addiction and those who have quit and want to change their lives forever. My offense was great despite the truth of my behavior. I had in fact become unforgiving of their unforgiveness. Perhaps there is no trickier trap than “justifiable” anger. One of my mentors remarked that until I forgive my family members (e.g., of their unforgiveness), they cannot forgive me. It is a spiritual axiom that I was standing in the way of God’s blessing me with forgiveness and reconciliation from my mother and my siblings.

God’s Full Assurance

Many have wondered why God used Jonah to carry out His will after Jonah refused to go to Nineveh. Foremost, our LORD is the God of second chances. When God commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah’s immediate reaction was, Oh no. Nope. Not going to Nineveh. In defiance, Jonah bought a ticket to the farthest place west that was known at the time—go any farther and you will sail off the edge of the planet. He went to “the end of the world” to escape God’s will. As he was on the boat, a tempest of severe weather struck the ship. The crew ultimately tossed Jonah overboard as a sacrifice hoping to calm the angry sea. Well, that’s the end of that, right? Jonah will surely perish and God will send someone else to deliver His message in Nineveh. Jonah 1:17 says, “Then God assigned a huge fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the fish’s belly three days and nights” (MSG). I can only imagine Jonah’s state of mind while laying among partially digested food and stomach acid!

“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the hear of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD'” (Jonah 2:2-9).

I find it noteworthy that Jonah knew for certain it was God who tossed him overboard in a tempest and had him swallowed by a giant fish. Jonah acknowledged God’s sovereignty when he said “your waves and your billows passed over me.” Jonah experienced utter darkness in the belly of the fish and got a taste of Sheol. And then, “The LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10). He was being given a second chance. Ever have one of those? Maybe more than one second chance? I’ve lost count of how many second chances God has given me over the decades. A friend of mine who owns a Christian bookstore reminded me that God casts our sins into the sea of forgetfulness. I don’t think this means God cannot “remember” what we have done, but it does mean our offenses have been forgiven and will not be “recalled” or held against us. We have been redeemed through Christ.

To illustrate that God has separated us from our sins as far as the east is from the west, my friend brought out a globe. “Take your fingers and walk west around the globe,” she said. She kept turning the globe, telling me to continue “walking” around the globe four times. Then she asked me, “As you walked toward the West, did you encounter the East?” I had not. Then she had me walk up the globe toward the north pole, and down the other side to the south pole. She said, “What happened regarding North and South?” Walking up the globe I encountered the North Pole, and as I walked down the other side I encountered the South Pole. I greatly appreciated the illustration.

The Mission; the Command

Here’s where the story comes down to “street level.” As Christians, we have a commission to go to every corner of the globe sharing the gospel and making disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to follow all that Jesus taught the disciples (see Matt. 28:18-10). Why are we going in the opposite direction? When we get outside the will of God, we give in to our fear. We rationalize our actions (e.g., they probably won’t believe in Jesus!), or we say, “Let someone else go, I’m no missionary.” God sends whom He needs to send for each mission; the one who can best carry His message. Quite often what God needs to say in the situation can only come from the person He sends! Imagine how convinced Jonah was about God’s intentions after being regurgitated from the belly of the giant fish!

Chris Hoke wrote an amazing memoir (5) about his work as a minister to the homeless, migrant farmers, and prisoners. His experiences opened up a whole world where some lives seem to matter less than others: drug addicts, alcoholics, people suffering from mental illness, the incarcerated, the “illegal” alien. We need to erase margins that often stand in the way of inclusion—where the “demonizing” ceases and the “disposable” are no longer tossed aside. All people, even the most troubled, are worthy of a second chance. Why is it so easy to demonize people? What are we afraid will happen if we reach out and embrace the outcast? I had the nasty habit of judging people for most of my life. When I renewed my commitment to be “in the way” of Christ, I looked closely at this tendency and noted a need to promote or prop myself up at the expense of others. Coming back to Christ gave me at least a desire to put myself second and to stop judging others, but this character defect was deeply rooted and in need of “weeding.” Chris Hoke’s ministry to life’s “less than” individuals is refreshing.

Concluding Remarks

Jonah allowed his anger and resentment toward the Assyrians and the Ninevites to thwart his obedience to God. He no doubt felt “justified” having witnessed the Assyrians kill his parents and snatch his siblings. Perhaps Jonah was “left behind” to warn others to comply with the enemy or suffer the same fate as his family. This is a familiar theme in the first Star Wars movie. Luke Skywalker returns to his village to find it burned to the ground and his aunt and uncle murdered. It was at that moment that a darkness began to move in his soul. Luke tried to rush his “jedi” training so he could avenge his village and his aunt and uncle. Obi-Wan Kenobi taught Luke to calm his anger and search diligently for the “force.” Jonah was similarly blinded by hatred and resentment. These emotions are not fruit (“evidence”) of the Spirit at work in our lives, but are examples of the flesh controlling our actions.

We cannot hide from God. Once “called,” we will be pursued to whatever end we ultimately choose—stay or run. As with Christ Hoke, and with Jonah’s mission to Nineveh, God sends whom He needs to send for the circumstances at hand. God’s message could only be delivered by Jonah—ultimately, forgiveness and redemption. It is as if we’re to come away with the lesson, If Jonah could put aside his strong feelings against the Assyrians for murdering his parents and focus on performing God’s will, we can forgive those who have offended us and get on with our calling. God’s judgment might be “delayed,” but it will always be exercised. Nineveh’s repentance was short-lived, leading to their destruction 100 years later. God is jealous and avenging; slow to anger but mighty in power. Maybe there is a deeper message in the eventual destruction of Nineveh (and of the entire world). Jesus wants more than nominal “believers.” Believing in Christ is not the same thing as being in Christ. Nineveh went to great lengths to show God they feared Him: “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest of them to the least of them” (3:5). Yet, they had no true change of heart.

Justice means “getting what we deserve.” Mercy involves receiving undeserved vindication. All have sinned. And the just punishment for sin is death: spiritual separation from God and eternal damnation. Thankfully, we are granted redemption through salvation under the New Covenant. God loved us enough to ask Jesus to suffer an unbelievable death as a propitiation for our sins. He who knew no sin became sin for us (see 2 Cor. 5:21). His ordeal was so incredibly horrific that it is incomprehensible. Mel Gibson and Jim Caviezel created scenes in The Passion of the Christ that many Christians are unable to watch. It took me three attempts to watch the film through to the end. I find it helpful whenever confronted with premeditated or habitual sin to remember what the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life were like. I also recall Christ saying to “nominal” Christians, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness'” (Matt. 7:21-23).

References

(1) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 217.
(2) Ibid., 219.
(3) Mattew Egwowa, “Characteristics of Determination,” The Guardian: Conscience Nurtured by Truth (Nov. 13, 2016). URL: https://guardian.ng/sunday-magazine/ibru-ecumenical-centre/characteristics-of-determination/
(4) John Bevere, The Bait of Satan: Living Free From the Deadly Trap of Offense (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2004), 7.
(5) Chris Hoke, Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders (New York, NY: HarperOne), 2015.

Integrating Christian Theology and Psychology: Part Five

Steven Barto, B.S., Psy, M.A. Theology

WE LEARNED IN THE previous installments of this series that psychology is a discipline with a rich history. Plato and Aristotle, for example, created elaborate theories that attempted to account for a myriad of developmental issues: memory, perception, learning. Initial philosophers and theorists took an eclectic approach, exploring matters such as determinism, responsibility, mind versus body, empiricism, harmony, rationalism, and self identity. This tended to pull early theorists in many directions. When psychology emerged as a separate discipline, the initial impact tore in two the early influences of philosophy and religion. Today, psychology consists of a number of disciplines and concentrations. For the Christian, psychology must be infused with theological beliefs about our place in God’s world. Many evangelicals and other denominational Christians see no place for psychology or secular counseling in the church. In this installment, I will discuss free will and the personality. In the final installment, I will present the concept of “religious” or “Christian” counseling.

Free Will

Free will has been considered countless times by theologians such as Augustine, Martin Luther, Alvin Plantinga, C.S. Lewis, and Wayne Grudem. Admittedly, it is the concept of free will that muddies the water most when discussing religious faith and psychology. Christianity teaches that man has the freedom to choose or reject God. Everyone is free to choose A or not-A. This designation is different than choosing A or B. If you’re offered a choice of A or B, then you are being given a choice between, Do you want an apple or an orange with your lunch? In this scenario you cannot choose something other than an apple or an orange. You are not free to pick anything you want, but rather to make your selection from the choices offered. If you’re just offered A, then it’s still a choice. In the example of A or not-A you must choose God or not God.

Augustine’s definition of free will is built on Plato’s “seeking of the good principle.” Augustine addresses man’s choice between good and evil (right and wrong). He said we are also free to accept or reject the love and grace of God. Luther said, “God… foresees, purposes and does all things according to His immutable, eternal and infallible will” (1). When asked why we perform evil deeds, Luther replied, “The human will is like a beast of burden. If God rides it, it wills and goes whence God wills. If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan wills” (2). This is not the same as believing a benevolent God rides us to do good, while an evil devil rides us to do evil. We choose whom to allow in the saddle, so to speak. Plantinga writes, “…belief in God is not the same thing as belief that God exists, or that there is such a thing as “god” (3).

The drive of philosophy to get the “big picture” has heavily influenced the understandings of Christian theology. Consider the problem of evil in a world created by a loving and caring God. Atheists and skeptics claim this dichotomy either proves God does not exist, or He does exist and is unable or unwilling to abolish evil. Plantinga puts the argument of skeptics this way: “If God is benevolent as Christian theists claim, He must be just as appalled as we are at all this evil [in the world]. But if He is also as powerful as they claim, then presumably He is in a position to do something about it. So why does He permit it?” (4). Plantinga cites the free will defense, which claims we are free with respect to an action. He explains, “If a person is free with respect to a given action, then he is free to perform that action and free to refrain from performing it” (5).

A world containing individuals who are capable of both good and evil simply indicates such individuals are free to choose how they will behave. God created man with free will; He cannot cause them to do only what is right. Plantinga reminds us that what God created “went wrong” when our First Parents exercised their free will to disobey God. It might sound as though this contradicts man’s freedom to choose, but it does not. We are free to obey or disobey, but we are not free to choose the consequences of our decision. Frankly, free will must involve moral agency.

Theories of Personality

Questions regarding mind versus body, nativism versus empiricism, nature versus nurture, and genetic components of behavior have been examined over the decades in hope of understanding the human personality. The goal has been to arrive at a unifying theory of human nature. For example, are we inherently aggressive? Freud said yes; humanists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow said no. Sigmund Freud believed aggression and emotional traps are rooted in a person’s early childhood experience—especially the dynamics of one’s relationship with a parent or primary care giver. B.F. Skinner described a form of learning in which a voluntary response is strengthened or weakened depending on its association with either positive or negative consequences. The strengthening of a response occurs through reinforcement. Skinner called this theory “operant conditioning.”

Maslow created a visual, which he termed the “hierarchy of needs.” This pyramid depicts various levels of physical and psychological needs that a person progresses through during their lifetime (6). Frustration at any level of “actualization” makes it nearly impossible to move to the next level. For example, if a child’s physiological needs are not met, developing a sense of safety and security is difficult to achieve. Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory states that virtually all forms of behavior can be learned (good traits and bad) simply through observational learning. Although he did not believe man precisely mimics those whom he or she observes, he believed man makes a deliberate, conscious decision to behave in the same way. This is crucial for understanding why violent men often come from a violent home (7).

Personality is one of man’s most important assets. It shapes our experiences from birth and will do so as we get older. It impacts our accomplishments, expectations, health, options, and behavior. For example, someone with a terrific personality is affable, pleasant, nice to be around, easy to get along with. Someone with a terrible personality may be aloof, hostile, aggressive, unfriendly, dominating, difficult to get along with. Many forces and factors shape personality during childhood and young adulthood. After that, our personalities stay pretty much the same throughout our lives. A new study shows a correlation between personality traits observed in children (as young as first graders) and adult behavior. Does the child share? Is he or she aggressive or demure; sociable or shy? Christopher Nave says, “We remain recognizably the same person” (8).

I believe it is unwise to resign people to “fate,” especially through such a glib and simplified approach as above. Personality is complex and changeable in different situations and with different people. I find myself vacillating at times depending on the social setting. I might drop an f-bomb in certain circles, but it is not likely I will do so while in church or while interacting with fellow believers or church leaders. I was often told during active addiction that I was a “Jekyll and Hyde.” Take a moment to consider how we hold many traits. Try writing down as many adjectives as you can think to describe what you are really like. If you do not hold yourself in high regard, whatever the reason, your list may present a dark and unhappy personality. The opposite will be true if you think well of yourself. Our personality is a collage of feelings we’ve adapted over the years in response to our environment—forces and factors that shape who we are. Personality refers to enduring characteristics, but these may change over time in response to new and forceful stimuli and circumstances.

Personality and Religion

Religion teaches that individuals are responsible for their actions, and identifies bad behavior as transgression. Schnikter and Emmons believe religion is overlooked and marginalized in personality psychology, despite the fact that religion was of great interest to the founding theorists of the field. Schnikter, et al. write, “Because of the recent surge in empirical research on religion from a personological perspective this claim is no longer convincing. One of the hallmarks of personality psychology that distinguishes it from other fields is its focus on a comprehensive understanding of the person. Accordingly, personality psychology should have a distinctive relationship with the psychology of religion” (9). Because religion and spirituality are concerned with our transcendent self, Schnikter and Emmons believe personality psychology is a worthy study subject.

René Descartes viewed human personality as the product of an interaction between divine and primal forces. Jean-Paul Sartre theorized that personality traits are developed through the projects we choose in life, and because we can choose what we devote our lives to we can change our character traits. Webber writes, “An individual’s character is that person’s collection of character traits, and these can be defined as relatively stable dispositions to think, feel, and behave in certain ways in certain situations. Two traditional examples are bravery and cowardice, the dispositions to think, feel, and behave in a brave or cowardly manner in the face of real or apparent danger” (10). Consider, then, the generous man or woman. He or she frequently offers aid to neighbors, has several favorite non-profit organizations or charities, and tithes unselfishly at church. And there’s the alcoholic or drug addict who comes to know Jesus and experiences a radical change in character. He stops abusing alcohol or drugs and joins a church. Through his transformation, he begins to give generously to the church and volunteers his time for groups and programs. He passes the message of transformation along to newcomers.

When a person visits a psychologist or a psychiatrist, that person’s problems or concerns are being understood and addressed through the lens of the practitioner, also known as his or her theory of personality. Most psychological theories deny spirituality or downplay it at best. Secular counseling typically denies the spiritual dimension of humanity. Many of today’s personality theories have roots in the Enlightenment philosophy begun by Descartes. While these theories give us helpful insight and understanding, their philosophical foundations tend to be rationalistic, materialistic, and evolutionary in nature. Enlightenment theory lends itself to doubt and skepticism, limiting what they assign to a belief in God, a created world, and the concept of right versus wrong.

From a Christian perspective, Ladd (11) outlines three ways in which scholars have interpreted what can be called the anthropology of Paul:

Scholars of an older generation understood 1 Thessalonians 5:23—where Paul prays for the preservation of the spirit, soul, and body—to be a psychological statement and understood Paul in terms of trichotomy… spirit, soul, and body are three separable parts of man. Other scholars have seen a dichotomy of soul and body. Recent scholarship has recognized that such terms as body, soul, and spirit are not different, separable faculties of man but different ways of viewing the whole man.

Generally, psychology says man cannot change his personality. Christianity agrees in part. When an individual accepts the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on the cross, and identifies with His death, burial, and resurrection, his or her character begins to change. Paul said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). Paul further tells us to put off our old self, which belongs to our former manner of life, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, putting on the new self (see Eph. 4:22-24). Henry speaks of this transformation: “By the new man, is meant the new nature, the new creature, directed by a new principle, even regenerating grace, enabling a man to lead a new life of righteousness and holiness” (12) (italics added). This is what Paul meant by “all things.”

Isaiah said we must forget “the former things” and instead “do a new thing” (see Isa. 43:18-19). We should walk in a manner worthy of our calling in Christ (see Eph. 4:1). Yet, we are not left to our own (human) devices. Paul provides us with the necessary spiritual guidance. In the Book of Romans, he presents perhaps the closest thing in the New Testament to systematic theology. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 present the core of Christian doctrine, and as such is one of my favorite sections of Scripture. Paul changes the focus of his teaching in Romans 12 from theological to practical. Now, we are instructed to present our bodies as a “living sacrifice,” which is considered reasonable (do this at the very least) given the cost of our redemption. Practically speaking, our service requires a reorientation of our thinking: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (see Rom. 12:2). Henry writes, “Conversion and sanctification are the renewing of the mind; a change, not of the substance, but of the qualities of the soul” (13).

Concluding Remarks

For millennia religion and psychology stood in staunch opposition. The early theorists of psychology, however, were theists and philosophers. They remarkably shared a similar quest to understand the whole man: body, mind, spirit. It is not surprising that this centuries-old search passed through stages such as determinism, empiricism, rationalism, good versus evil, and self identity. In order to grasp the existence and attributes of God, we must move from knowing about God to knowing God. This is how we come to grips with who we are in Him, and who we are without Him. In so doing, we are in a better position to accept His forgiveness, grace, mercy, and salvation. It is through accepting that we become “a new creature.” However, we do not loose our personality; nor are we magically rendered immune to “being human.” Instead, transformation begins in the heart (spiritual) and proceeds through the mind (renewal of thoughts). The “old us” that dies with Christ is our unregenerate sinful self. The “new us” is our regenerate self that rises with Him in righteousness. Through spiritual growth, we move from “spiritual” to “practical” change—newness of character. Transformation, regardless of its impetus, necessarily requires a belief (faith) in the potential for change, and must be followed by action steps (practical) that allow us to begin “walking the new walk.”

References

(1) Hergenhahn and Henley, An Introduction to the History of Psychology, 7th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Publishing, 2014), 97.
(2) E.F. Winter, Erasmus & Luther: Discourse on Free Will (New York, NY: Continuum, 2005), 97.
(3) Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), 1.
(4) Ibid., 9.
(5) Ibid., 29.
(6) Duane P. Schultz and Sydney Ellen Schultz, Theories of Personality, 11th ed. (Boston, MA: Centage, 2017), 250-251.
(7) Schultz, Ibid., 343-350.
(8) Christopher Nave, “Personality Set For Life by First Grade,” Live Science (Aug. 6, 2010). URL: https://www.livescience.com/8432-personality-set-life-1st-grade-study-suggests.html
(9) Sarah H. Schnikter and Robert A. Emmons, “Personality and Religion” in Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research, O. P. John & R. W. Robins, ed. (New York, NY: Guilford Press, 2021), 707–723.
(10) Jonathan Webber, “Sartre’s Theory of Character,” European Journal of Philosophy (2006), 94-116.
(11) George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B.
Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 1974.
(12) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1150.
(13) Henry, Ibid., 1087.

The End of Me

Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.A. Theology

KYLE IDLEMAN’S BOOK The End of Me introduces us to the concept, “Where real life in the upside-down ways of Jesus begins.” In other words, the ways of Christ are often completely opposite of what we think might work. We think coming to the end of me means we cease to exist as an individual. It is Idleman’s belief that we need to be broken to be whole. I would add that we need to realize our brokenness—the mere presence of brokenness in our lives will mean nothing if it remains an undiscovered reason for our misery. Scripture speaks of many such dichotomies: mourn to be happy; humbled to be exalted; authentic to be accepted; helpless to be empowered; disqualified to be chosen; weak to be strong. No one knew this better than Paul.

Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20, ESV). He noted that through our own weakness we are made strong in Christ (see Phil. 4:13). He said, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Idleman quotes Colossians 3:3: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” We can only come to the end of ourselves through accepting our brokenness and our weakness. This is how Romans 8:28 operates in the lives of those who follow Christ. Psalm 34:18 reminds us, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”

Following Jesus means striving to be like Him. He always obeyed His Father, so we must strive to do the same (see John 8:29; 15:10). To truly follow Christ means to make Him our Savior and LORD; our redeemer and Master. Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:38-39). You cannot be “half a disciple.” When we cherry pick which verses to follow, or in any way serve self or the flesh instead of Jesus, we are not in the way of Jesus. “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63).

For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living(Rom. 14:8-9).

Regarding coming to the end of ourselves in order to find Christ, Idleman recalls a conversation with a church member: “I was returning a call to a man named Brian. I read [in] my notes that his eighteen-month-old son had died a few weeks earlier. I didn’t know the details, but as a father of four, I can’t imagine such a loss. I said a prayer as I dialed his number. Brian answered with a monotone Hello. Having had many conversations like this over the past twenty years, I knew there was not much I could say. So, after expressing my heartbreak for his loss, I allowed silence to settle into our conversation. After a few moments, Brian spoke four words I was not prepared for. I backed over him(1). After describing how their son opened the door and went outside, playing in the driveway, Brian explained how he discovered Jesus in a way he never had before. He said, “I feel like I reached this point in my life when I had absolutely nothing left, and it turns out that for the first time in my life, Jesus has become real.” When he reached the end of himself, Brian discovered Jesus.

We tend to fear any program of recovery or self-improvement that requires annihilation of “self.” Alcoholics often balk at Step 3 in the Alcoholics Anonymous program, fearing a loss of identity—Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him (2). Powell says, “Why don’t more Christians, myself included, look more like Jesus? Ego. You might call it ‘the flesh.’ I believe our definition for ‘ego’ closely parallels Paul’s definition for ‘flesh’. The ego is who you think you are. It’s your false identity, your body image, education, theological knowledge, clothes, friends, social status, job, successes and accomplishments. And, as Paul says, your ego is against your Spirit. Everyone has an ego, and I believe one of the major tasks of spiritual maturity is recognizing and letting go of the ego’s lies in favor of something better” (3).

The First Step

Idleman calls the end of me “where real life in the upside-down ways of Jesus begins.” This is the real paradox: at the end of me I find real life in Him. It is the same paradox as surrendering to win. Idleman writes, “[Jesus] is saying, ‘Down with the kingdom of this world and up with the kingdom of God” (4). Admittedly, I sometimes find myself feeling good when I spend money. Typically, my purchases are on items that will make me feel good or look good. Whenever we overspend to binge on the material things of this world we are establishing “idols.” Perhaps we do not like to look vulnerable. Personally, I don’t like to look “poor.” I cannot think of a better example of putting earth’s treasures and man’s respect before God! This is something I have finally come to examine closely.

Today, man has become masters of illusion, experts at covering pain, abusers of medication, slaves of financial debt, followers of fads, and partakers of loneliness. We don’t realize that we are broken, and that the only solution for being broken is to feel our brokenness. Another paradox: brokenness is the path to wholeness. Idleman believes real life begins at brokenness. He writes, “Broken things are precious. Broken people reveal the beauty and power of God. Flaws are openings(5). I could not agree more. I have found my illusory life has limited my spiritual life and hindered stepping into God’s will for my life. My prayer today is simple: God, take my broken pieces and remold them into what seems best to you. We all must become willing to let the cracks in our facade show, but we find this extremely difficult. Social media posts, for example, allow us to edit our appearance, our lives, our opinions. We post for acceptance, not authenticity.

Nouwen writes, “What is our true vocation in life? Where can we find the peace of mind to listen to the calling voice of God? Who can guide us through the inner labyrinth of our thoughts, emotions, and feelings?” (6). He speaks of people who “know” the story of Christ and possess a deep desire to let this knowledge descend from their minds into their hearts. The trip from our brain to our heart—a mere eighteen inches—can be one of the longest journeys we will take in our lifetime. We all have a sense of “heart knowledge,” and we know it can give us the proper perspective on life, on love, on God, but we fail to make the leap from head to heart. The prophet Ezekiel wrote, “And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezek. 11:19). Paul said, “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Rom. 10:10).

It’s a Matter of Spirituality

In his chapter “All These Other Things,” Nouwen says, “The spiritual life is not a life before, after, or beyond our everyday existence. No, the spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of pains and joys of the here and now. Therefore, we need to begin with a careful look at the way we think, speak, feel, and act from hour to hour, day to day, week to week, and year to year” (7). I learned a term in my undergraduate psychology studies: metacognition, which is an awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes. Essentially, it is “thinking about what you are thinking about.” For me, this can be the underlying source of my opinion or behavior at any given moment. In this regard, it is a lot like metadata: a set of data that describes and gives information about other data.

To become aware of what we are thinking, we must honestly and courageously confront our many self-deceptive games. For example, a mood of resignation will prevent us from actively searching for the life of the Spirit. My spiritual frustration came from deciding that I was unworthy of salvation; of God’s love. I decided He could not possibly use me. This led to a sense of being unfulfilled. I had a gnawing sense that I was useless and worthless. This caused a lot of inaction in my life, which led to boredom. Nouwen writes, “To be bored… does not mean that we have nothing to do, but that we question the value of the things we do” (8). This is a brilliant revelation! He further notes that boredom is often closely linked to resentment. Huh? When we wonder if what we do means anything to anyone, we easily feed used, manipulated, and exploited, which can lead to anger and resentment. If we remain in this state, we begin to ask, “Is my life worth living?” and depression is not far behind.

Life has a way of pouring us out. It takes away a loved one, our job, our home. It can also take away our health and our hope. We come to the point where we’re holding onto nothing. We feel empty and hopeless. But we need to be empty to be filled, and God loves to fill empty things. There are many examples of this in Scripture. Jesus filled 5,000 empty bellies (see Matt. 14:13-21); He filled the empty soul of the woman at the well (see John 4:7-26). When we surrender to Christ, we set the stage for restoration. He heals our brokenness and makes us whole in Him. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

When We Help Others

Our ability to remember even the smallest of details from a past experience is truly remarkable. The older we get, the more we have to remember. Our memory plays a significant role in our emotional well-being. Trauma, failure, grief, pains, joys, satisfaction—all are stored for our recall, whether by choice or as baggage. Most of our emotions are tied inextricably to our memory. Nouwen notes that we “…perceive our world with our memories… our memories help us to see and understand new impressions” (9). Accordingly, when we engage in helping others—whether as a professional or a lay minister—the first questions are always directed to memory. The emotional pain most commonly encountered when counseling others is a suffering of memories. It is not unusual for us to bury painful or traumatic events deep inside our being. Individuals who repress such events often come from a family who does likewise. “We’re not going to talk about this ever again!” This is prevalent in a family who lacks intimate communication.

What is buried cannot be healed. By cutting off the past, we paralyze our future actions. I read a passage from a book on Buddhism years ago that provided the following warning: If we fail to deal with emotional hurts of the past, they will impact our future, wherein our actions will not so much be undertaken by us than driven by our memories. Scheler says, “Remembering is the beginning of freedom from the covert power of the remembered thing or occurrence” (10). Nouwen believes when our memories remain covered with fear, anxiety, or suspicion, the Word of God cannot bear fruit in our lives. He further makes a remarkable comparison: “The strategy of the principalities and powers is to disconnect us, to cut us off from the memory of God” (11). Paul said, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12) (italics added).

Ferguson says, “We have seen through union with Christ… all that is his by incarnation becomes ours through faith… when we are joined to him there is also a sense in which his life and power become available to us to transform our lives” (12). Jesus has paid for our past, and He has sanctified our present, so that our past may not dominate our present Christian life. This is a key factor in making sure the power of our past experiences do not destroy us in the present. Indeed, we are more than conquerors through Christ (see Rom. 8:37). As we grope for direction, meaning, and purpose, our quest must not be hampered by the hurts and sins of our past. Unresolved trauma and anger color what we see in others. It is not ideal to see our lives as a long list of randomly chained incidents and accidents. This has no place in the ministry of reconciliation.

A man walks down the street, he says, ‘Why am I soft in the middle, now? The rest of my life is so hard I need a photo-opportunity, I want a shot at redemption. Don’t want to end up in a cartoon graveyard… there were incidents and accidents, there were hints and allegations—Paul Simon.

Nouwen compares revolution (on a societal level) to transformation (on a personal level), and he turns to Christ for further comparison. He writes, “The liberals and progressives are fooling themselves by trying to make an intolerable [world] a little more tolerable” (13). Revolutionaries do not want a better human being, but a new human being. Revolutionaries must face self-reflection; in their quest to improve society they are also fighting their own reactions, fears, and ambitions. Radical activism must begin with radical self-examination. If, as we’ve discussed above, life means breaking down the barriers to our painful past, conversion and social change both derive power from a source above and beyond the corporeal. Nouwen says Jesus has taught us that changing the human heart and society are not separate endeavors, but are “…as interconnected as the two beams of the cross” (14).

Concluding Remarks

Kyle Idleman tells us that when we come to the end of our ropes, “real life” begins in the upside-down ways of Jesus Christ. People believe there is “something out there” that might give meaning and purpose to their lives, but they can’t seem to discovery what it is. The Bible tells us life’s real prize is hidden, and we have to know where to look. Scripture is our treasure map. Paul writes, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Idleman says “the end of me” is where real life begins. Jesus told the disciples, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many [but] the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13-14). In other words, we can expect a tough path when we choose the road less traveled. It crosses through death, but it leads to life.

When Christ calls someone, he bids them come and die. He told Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Of course, Jesus is not telling us physical death leads to life; He is talking about dying to ourselves. Today’s post-Christian culture wants nothing to do with this “nonsense,” because for them life is all about celebrating ourselves, finding more for ourselves. But you cannot get there from here. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25). He sums up this heavenly principle by adding, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (16:26).

References

*True Christianity requires a commitment to follow Christ; to be “in the way of” Christ; to live according to the Christian worldview in all circumstances. It involves a denial of self.

(1) Kyle Idleman, The End of Me (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishing, 2015), 11.
(2) Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, 4th ed. (New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services), 2002.
(3) Frank Powell, “9 Ways Your Ego Prevents You From Experiencing God,” Frank Powell: Restoring Culture Through Christ. (n.d.). URL:
https://frankpowell.me/ways-ego-christians-god
(4) Idleman, Ibid., 26.
(5) Ibid., 37.
(6) Henri Nouwen, The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016), 5.
(7) Ibid., 7.
(8) Ibid., 10.
(9) Ibid., 224.

(10) Max Scheler, On the Eternal in Man, trans. Bernard Noble (New York, NY: Harper and Bros., 1960), 41.
(11) Nouwen, Ibid., 230.
(12) Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009, 1981), 103.
(13) Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (New York, NY: Random House, 2010, 1972), 22.
(14) Ibid., 25.

Only the Elect: An Exegetical Study

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

HOW CAN YOU KNOW if you are one of the “elect?” By simply trusting in Christ alone through faith alone for salvation. Regardless of whether faith leads to election, or election causes us to believe, what is sure is that our belief is evidence of our election. Clearly, the Gospel of John suggests anyone who believes in the atoning death of Jesus Christ is saved: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17, ESV).

Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). He wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (see 1 Tim. 2:3-4).

Praise God, the breadth of His divine love is the whole world. Peter writes, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as the ultimate atonement, we have been redeemed from the wages of our sinful lives.

Did God Limit Salvation to “A Chosen Few?”

Paul wrote, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29) (italics added). Paul also wrote, “Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:4-5) (italics added). Ephesians 1:3-14 provides a list of all spiritual blessings we have through Christ. We are chosen by the Father; redeemed by the Son; sealed by the Holy Spirit. Of critical importance in this study is “as he chose us in Him.”

But what does it mean to be firstborn among many brothers? Romans 8:29 says those who love the LORD and are called according to His purpose were “foreknown” by Him, and consequently were “predestined” to be conformed to the image of Christ. As is often the case when studying Scripture, it will help us understand election by looking at Rom. 8:18-29, which is presented as one big paragraph in my ESV Study Bible. There is a global theme here: creation itself will be set free from the curse; the children of God will go from bondage to freedom; those who are “called” are those whom God knew would choose Him, consequently those who chose Him are predestined to be “in Christ” through faith. God’s “sons and daughters” are believers who have the rights of inheritance to all that God has in store for them. It is also a logical conclusion that if all mankind has been subjected to the consequences of the sin of our first parents (Adam and Eve), then all mankind is also eligible to receive the blessings of salvation through Jesus Christ (the Second Adam).

Jesus is the firstborn among many brethren (see Rom. 8:30). The firstborn of a mother is referred to in the Bible as one who “opens the womb” of his mother (see Exodus 13:2). Jesus was born from His virgin mother, and is referred in Scripture to the Firstborn, the Second Adam. He is the foundation for the lineage of believers who believe in Him and are “in the way of” Christ. Jesus is the “firstborn” because He is the One appointed by the Father to be in authority over all things (see Col. 1:13-23). Moreover, He is the One who is the cornerstone for God’s plan of redemption. He is also firstborn due to His relation to man and the universe as both He and His followers are related to God. We are told in Scripture that we are “adopted” by God as His own children (see Gal. 4:5; Rom. 8:15; Eph. 1:5).

Paul expounds on several key elements of our salvation through Christ in Romans 8. We are delivered from sin and death through the activity of Christ’s atoning death. Part of being in Christ necessarily includes dying with Him so we can be freed from condemnation and spiritual death as a just punishment for sinful living. Jesus said He came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (see Matt. 5:17). The Wycliffe Bible Commentary says, “Sin as a rebellious force against God was condemned in the flesh of Christ. God pronounced judgment on sin in the flesh of Christ in order that the requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us who are not walking (living) in accordance with the flesh but in accordance with the Spirit” (1) (additional italics added).

We are still left with the question of “election,” which often leads to a conversation about free will versus predestination. Christians refer to “being saved,” which features a new relationship with God and others, renewing of the heart and mind, growing in faith and obedience, and more. Galan and others published a great reference guide on this issue. The authors wrote, “Before seeing two ways to answer [this] question, let’s focus on the points with which all Christians agree. Regarding God’s merciful work of salvation, Christians agree that: 1. Because of sin, all humans need God’s grace; 2. Salvation from sin and condemnation is an act of God; 3. Salvation is accomplished only by grace through faith in Christ; 4. Works, good works or works of the Law, cannot lead one to salvation” (2).

Depravity: Human sin affects every area of humanity in every person. It means that people continue to make choices, but every choice is tainted by the effects of sin.

Issue 1 discussed by Galan is free will and total inability. Calvinists and Arminians (not to be confused with Armenians) agree on the total inability or depravity of man—without the prior intervention of God’s grace, humans cannot come to Him on their own. The entirety of the human race is tainted by sin. Paul said, “As it is written: none is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). We are dead in our transgressions and sin (see Eph. 2:1). The effects of sin are devastating. But God extended his grace to us all, enabling us to come to Him. Arminianism calls this measure of grace “prevenient grace.” In Latin, prevenient means “to come before.” The phrase a Dei per dominum Christum Iesum praeveniente gratia is rendered “a predisposing grace of God through Jesus Christ.” It signifies an “irresistible” grace that enables us to respond to God as unbelievers. Yet, we have the will to reject this call. We are granted the ability to believe, but we must choose to exercise faith in the act of believing.

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect, exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you” (1 Pet. 1:1-2).

Issue 2 discussed by Galan is election. The Bible clearly tells us that God elects. God chose Israel from all the nations of the earth from which to bring forth a Savior (see Deut. 7:6-8). But God’s choice to save people is not based or conditioned on who they are. God, as King, chooses freely to save people in Christ. Paul wrote, “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13). Galan further explains: “God’s election respects human free will because it is based on [God’s] foreknowledge. Because God knows how all choices will turn out, God foresees who will choose to follow his calling and who will reject it” (3). In other words, everyone who believes is elect. Some biblical scholars use the term corporate election, meaning God is electing a group of people made up of individuals who have chosen to follow Christ. He did predestine the church to be an elected people, leaving individuals to choose whether they become part of this group.

Klooster examines the views of John Calvin and Karl Barth in deciphering the concept of election. He writes, “…first… election is said to be conditional (based on divine foreknowledge of who will respond to the gospel in faith) and/or corporate (based on God’s choice of a people who will serve him), in which particular persons participate by faith… second, election is in Christ in such a way that it does not specify particular persons’ ultimate destiny. Jesus Christ is both the electing God and the elected human” (4). Klooster outlines six principles of election:

  • Election is a sovereign, eternal decree (see Eph. 1:11).
  • Election involves God’s gracious plan to rescue humanity (see Rom. 9:11; Eph. 1:7)
  • Election is “in Christ” (see Eph. 1:4-5, 11; Rom. 8:29)
  • Election involves both salvation and the means to that end (see 2 Thess. 2:13; Rom. 10:14-17)
  • Election is personal and specific, referring to “those whom God foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified” (see Rom. 8:29-30, Rom. 9)
  • Election’s ultimate goal is God’s glory and praise, “…in order that we… might be for the praise of his glory” (see Eph. 1:12) and “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (see Eph. 1:10; Matt. 13:27-30, 24:31; 1 Pet. 1:1, 2:9)

Concluding Remarks

I once remarked that God sees all time at the same time. This is quite beyond human understanding. He also hears everyone at the same time. I am reminded of the scene in Bruce Almighty where Bruce has decided to see what it is like to be God. He hears literally hundreds of millions of voices all at once. God tells him this represents the prayers of mankind! To say God knew, before the foundation of the world, that man will fall from grace, and that He knew who would repent, is simply amazing. In accordance with His divine love, He predetermined a plan of salvation. He would send His Son, Jesus, to be the ultimate propitiation for the sins of all mankind; sins that had not even yet occurred! But He left the decision up to us whether to become one of the elect. What truly matters is that God created humanity, humanity sinned, and God has provided salvation through Jesus Christ.

References

(1) Charles F. Pfeiffer & Everett F. Harrison, editors, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1990, 1962), 1206.
(2) Benjamin Galan, et al., Free Will vs Predestination: Calvinism and Arminianism Explained (Peabody, MA: Rose Publishing), 2011.
(3) Ibid.
(4) F. H. Klooster, “Elect, Election,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 268.

History of the Church Part Five: Colonialism and Evangelism

Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.A. Theology

SO FAR WE HAVE explored how the Christian church began, the “marks” and underlying doctrine of the Christian church, Islamism and the Crusades, and the impact of dissension and the Protestant Reformation. In Part Five, I will expound on colonialism and evangelism. Of concern to many individuals over the life of the Christian church is whether colonization deliberately included forcing Christianity on indigenous peoples. Whether missionaries were agents of imperialism or a separate activity meant only to share the gospel. And whether these “lesser evils” are of no concern given the spreading of the gospel.

Colonialism is defined as “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.” A good example of this concept is how three major powers occupied Afghanistan over the centuries: the British, the Soviets, and the United States. Colonization is sometimes done for the sake of increased security in a region, as in the case with Afghanistan. Rashid writes, “Afghanistan’s geo-strategic location on the crossroads between Iran, the Arabian Sea and India, and between Central Asia and South Asia, has given its territory and mountain passes a significance since the earliest Aryan invasions 6,000 years ago” (1). Regarding Medieval expansion Mumford notes, “When these limits were overpassed, the medieval town, as a functioning organism, ceased almost by definition to exist; for the whole community structure was a system of limitations and boundaries; and their breakdown in the city revealed an even wider dismantling through the whole culture” (2).

Gonzalez writes, “In the Western world, the attitudes of Christians toward colonialism were widely divergent,” adding, “Many Christians of profound convictions protested against the treatment of people in some colonized areas [yet many] were convinced that their enterprise was justified by the benefits the colonized would receive” (3). Some have objected over the years to the concept that God placed the benefits of Western civilization and Christian faith in the hands of white people. I certainly understand this objection; in fact, I wrote in the margin of my copy of Gonzalez, Why say “white people?” Without malice or prejudice, some Christians believe God placed the gospel in the hands of Europeans and North American settlers as “…the so-called white man’s burden: to take to the rest of the world the benefits of industrialization, capitalism, democracy, and Christianity” (4). To the extent that this is likely true, I pray that “white” men and women always share the great news of the gospel with respect and without any air of superiority.

Liew and Segovia write about, “…the process of theological (political-liberationist) as well as critical (imperial-postcolonial) engagement with the relation between the colonialist project and the biblical tradition,” adding, “Worthy of note in this regard is the formation of a network of theologians devoted to the formulation of a Christian theology with poverty and oppression at its core” (5). To me, this approach aligns with the life and ministry of Jesus, who came to minister to the poor, the captive, the homeless and hungry, and to set people free from hopeless oppression (see Luke 6:20-21, 16:19-25; Mark 12:41-44). Yet, the main focus of the story of Christianity is not about “social justice,” but salvation. (See my article Identity Politics in Social and Biblical Justice, June 27, 2021.)

There was an anti-colonial reaction to the work of colonizers whether or not they came bearing the good news of the gospel. Modernity, an intended benefit of colonization, often brought about the dislocation of vast masses who became landless, the destruction of many of the endemic cultural patterns that had sustained societies for centuries, and growing disparities in living conditions between rich and poor. But this is more a result of racial and cultural arrogance than the efforts of missionaries. Gonzalez notes, “The church was deeply influenced by all these circumstances and ideas, but the relationship between colonialism and missions was very complex” (6). Unfortunately, it has often been alleged that missionaries were agents of colonialism, but this was not always true. Further, there were many cases where missionaries reached regions that had never been visited by white traders or colonizers.

The “Mission” of Missionaries

It is true that the colonial expansion of the West—particularly the Protestant West—coincided with its missionary expansion, with the two sometimes impeding each other. Gonzalez said one of the most remarkable characteristics of the missionary movement during the nineteenth century was “…the formation of missionary societies.” Forerunners for the movement were the Society of Promoting Christian Knowledge (S.P.C.K.), founded in 1698, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (S.P.G.), founded in 1701 (7). Many such “societies” were formed from this modest beginning. It is important to note that during this time most Western settlements had little or no official relationship with missionary enterprises. This was the “official” position in the new colonies of North America.

Spencer addresses the positive and negative aspects of Christian missions. He asks, “What if we had empirical, long-term, statistically significant evidence that Christianity increased the general well-being of surrounding populations? It turns out we do.” The basic assumption of many in our culture is exactly the opposite. They claim the Christian ethic is repressive, and that it detracts from human flourishing. Nineteenth-century history is considered by some scholars to bring the legacy of colonialism, which is far from positive in most cases, and is blended with the history of Protestant missionaries. Christian missions are sometimes described as a form of cultural imperialism, viewed as negatively as economic and social colonial oppression. Spencer writes, “This confusion of missions and colonialism, though, appears to be in error” (8).

Samson writes, “Perhaps the most obvious problem, one which has attracted revisionists in recent years, is the dilemma raised by traditional critiques of Christianisation [sic]. If missionaries were always racist colonialists, how did they make converts?” Samson adds, “Instead of being the dupes of colonialism, whose actions must be limited to the subjectivities of victimisation [sic] or resistance, they can be regarded as active agents in their own histories” (9). Etherington said, “…writing[s] about the relationship between colonialism and Christianity [are] still permeated by disputes about the role of organised [sic] religion in sustaining white supremacy, despite an emerging consensus among historians that Christianity was a two‐edged sword that could undercut as well as sustain domination” (10).

Gonzalez leads us on a necessary quest to understand missions to the original thirteen colonies. For example, colonists were not “…free…cultivating their own land, but indentured labor working the land [now] owned by a colonial company” (11). As to religious freedom, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania led the new world in that direction. Yet, Gonzalez notes the evils of colonization in the New World included mistreatment of Indians. The British wanted their land, and to reach that goal the British followed a policy of extermination and confinement. Thankfully, others (including true missionaries) thought religious tolerance was best because it was God’s will. Conversion to Christianity must be accomplished through an apologetic and evangelism that serves only to provide a defense (a reason) for the hope that is in a believer in Christ to anyone who asks, but to do so with gentleness and respect” (see 1 Pet. 3:15).

Concluding Remarks

It is unfortunately true that abuses and ulterior motives lurk in nearly every corner of human endeavor. I think it is interesting to track and analyze historical, social, and theological developments. The “birth” of Christianity did not happen in a vacuum. Rather, its roots are in Judaism. During the first century of the Christian church, most people considered it a heretical sect of Judaism and not necessarily a “new” religion. The progressive thread of salvation and redemption can be seen throughout the entirety of Scripture. Judaism and Christianity have “rolled with the punches” so-to-speak, developing alongside cultural diversity, colonialization, and purposeful evangelism. Obviously, there are pros and cons to missions achieved alongside global expansion.

Numerous Christians in academia and the church see globalization as a two-edged sword. Some of the more egregious actions taken in the name of conquest or expansion included domination of indigenous peoples, the taking of land in the name of expansion, and forceful servitude (slavery). It would be nice if this had not occurred specific to the world in which missions were conducted, but it was likely unavoidable. Consequently, it can be difficult to see the “good” impact Christianity has on new populations under such circumstances. From a positive perspective, the missionary movement necessitated a spirit of cooperation that seemed to bring churches and denominations together in pursuit of the Great Commission (see Matt. 28:19-20). Gonzalez stated that missionary societies often pulled members from more than one denomination. This helped curb “competing” messages and rivalries among witnessing missionaries.

I think it is necessary to separate the sociocultural impact of colonization from the religious impact of missions. Certainly, most Christian missionaries who bring the gospel to remote parts of the globe have a singleness of purpose: to share the good news of Jesus Christ. I would conclude that colonization was not specific to evangelism. Of course, globalization was not always undertaken with pure motives. It seems the lion’s share of colonizers intended to benefit from expansion, industrialization, increased labor forces, additional sources of raw materials and minerals, agriculture, hunting and trapping, and eventual resale of real estate for profit. Of those colonizers, some intended to bring indigenous peoples out of their primitive state of existence. A smaller percentage, although their prime objective was economical, were practicing Christians who brought the gospel with them. I see no reason to pitch the baby out with the bathwater.

References

(1) Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2000), 7.
(2) Lewis Mumford, The City in History (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1961), 313.
(3) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christiantiy, Vol.II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 417.
(4) Ibid., 417.
(5) Tat-Siong Benny Liew and Fernando F. Segovia, Colonialism and the Bible (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2.018), xiii.
(6) Gonzalez, Ibid., 418.
(7) Ibid., 418.
(8) Andrew Spencer, “How Christian Missionaries Changed the World for the Better,” Institute for Faith, Works & Economics (Feb. 10, 2014). URL: https://tifwe.org/the-truth-about-missionaries/
(9) Jane Samson, The Problem of Colonialism in the Western Historiography of Christian Missions, Vol. 2 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Publishing, 2021), 511.
(10) Norman Etherington, “Recent trends in the historiography of Christianity in Southern Africa,” Journal of South African Studies, 22:2, 201-219, DOI: 10.1080/03057079608708487.
(11) Gonzalez, Ibid., 276.

Our Miraculous Sun

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

“[The sun’s] rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat” (Psa. 19:6, ESV).

WHAT IS OUR SUN made of and what keeps it burning? How hot is it and will it ever burn out? What is the distance from Earth to the Sun? Gazing at the stars at night, it is exhilarating to see a shooting star or recognize a constellation. Seldom, however, do we glance at the Sun during the day and marvel at its properties and its place in our existence. Yet, we know from the pain of sunburn and the many occurrences of skin cancer that the Sun contains damaging rays in addition to beneficial ones. What are these rays made of and how do they travel millions of miles to earth?

Set me where as the sun doth parch the green,
Or where his beams do not dissolve the ice;
In temperate heat where he is felt and seen;
With proud people, in presence sad and wise;
Set me in base, or yet in high degree,
In the long night, or in the shortest day,
In clear weather, or where mists thickest be,
In lost youth, or when my hairs be grey;
Set me in earth, in heaven, or yet in hell,
In hill, in dale, or in the foaming flood;
Thrall, or at large, alive where so I dwell,
Sick, or in health, in ill fame or good:
Yours will I be, and with that only thought
Comfort myself when that my hope is nought.

—Henry Howard

The Sun is a hot ball of glowing gases whose gravity holds the entire solar system together, keeping everything—from the biggest planets to the smallest particles of debris—in proper orbit. The connection and interactions between the Sun and Earth drive the seasons, ocean currents, weather, climate, radiation belts, and auroras. It is fascinating that our Sun, with a radius of 432,168.6 miles (695,508 kilometers), is not an especially large star—many are much bigger. But it is still far more massive than Earth. It would take 332,946 Earths to match the mass of the Sun. The Sun is 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) from Earth and yet its energy travels this distance in approximately eight minutes.

Orbit and Rotation

The Sun and everything in its orbit is located in the Milky Way galaxy. Amazingly, the Milky Way is so expansive we can see it even though we are part of it. Our Sun is located in a spiral arm called the Orion Spur that extends outward from the arm of Sagittarius (see illustration below). From there, it orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy, bringing the planets, asteroids, comets, and other objects along with it. Our solar system moves at an average velocity of 450,000 mph (720,000 kph). Even at this speed, it takes about 230 million years to make one complete orbit around the Milky Way. Its nearest stellar neighbor is Alpha Centauri.

A large spiral with several major and smaller ones, and bar in the middle.

The Sun rotates at an axial tilt of 7.25 degree as it orbits the center of the Milky Way. Because it is not a solid body, different parts of the Sun rotate at different rates. At its equator, it spins around once about every 25 Earth days, while at its poles it makes one full rotation every 36 Earth days. Astrophysicists and cosmologists believe the Sun formed from a giant rotating cloud of gas and dust called a solar nebula. As the nebula collapsed—due to its overwhelming gravitational pull—it began to spin faster and flattened into a disk. Genesis 1:2 states, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” As the cloud collapsed, most of its material was pulled toward the center to form our Sun, accounting for 99.8% of the mass of the entire solar system. “And God said, ‘Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Gen. 1:3-5).

“The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes” (Joel 2:31).

Like all stars, the Sun will someday run out of energy. When it starts to die, it will swell so big that it will engulf Mercury and Venus and most likely Earth. Scientists predict the Sun is a little less than halfway through its lifetime. Although most scientists believe the Sun will last another 6.5 billion years before it shrinks down to a white dwarf, exactly how far the dying Sun will expand, and how conditions will change, aren’t yet clear. Its enormous mass is held together by gravitational attraction, which generates immense pressure and temperature at its core. The Sun is already growing brighter. In any event, Sun’s radiation will become too much for life on Earth to handle. As we will explore in the Section “Biblical Concepts of the Sun,” God will destroy the Earth with fire.

“Waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn” (2 Pet. 3:12).

Red Giant Earth - Wikimedia

The core of our Sun is approximately 27 million degrees Fahrenheit (15 million degrees Celsius), creating conditions that sustain thermonuclear fusion. Atoms combine to form larger atoms, which ultimately causes the release of a staggering amount of energy. The surface of the Sun, called the photosphere, is 300 miles thick (500 kilometers), and is not a solid surface like the surface of planets. The temperature of the photosphere is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (5,500 degrees Celsius). Above the Sun’s photosphere are the chromosphere and the corona, which comprise a rather thin solar atmosphere. Solar flares and sun spots occur in this area above the surface. Visible light from these top regions of the Sun is usually too weak to be seen against the brighter photosphere, but it is observable during total solar eclipses as a red rim around the Sun. Strangely, the temperature in the Sun’s atmosphere increases the farther it rises above the surface, reaching as much as 3.5 million degrees Fahrenheit (2 million degrees Celsius).

Biblical Concepts of the Sun

“Sun” (Heb. shemesh) is first mentioned along with the moon as the two great luminaries of heaven (see Gen. 1:14-18). Shemesh is translated as “sun” 119 times and “sun rising” 9 times. The Sun and the Moon are referenced in the Old Testament as “deciding the seasons,” for agriculture and for religious festivals. The lunar and solar year was used to determine the length and subdivisions of the years subsequent to the Mosaic period. Sunrise and sunset were the only non-artificial means for telling the hour of the day. The Jews recognized three periods of time throughout the day: when the Sun became hot, about 9:00 AM (see 1 Sam. 11:9; Neh. 7:3); the “double light” or noon (see Gen. 43:16; 2 Sam. 4:5); and “the cool of the day” shortly before sunset (See Gen. 3:9).

Worship of the Sun is one of the oldest forms of false religion (see Job 31:26, 31:27), common among the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and other pagan nations. Israel was warned against this form of idolatry (see Duet. 4:19, 17:3; 2 Kings 23:11; Jeremiah 19:13). Native religions find their inspiration in the natural world. From early times the Sun has been recognized as an important source of life. Many myths describe the chaos that would ensue if the Sun were to disappear. Followers of Shintoism believe Amaterasu is the sun goddess. Worshiping the Sun as the most prominent and powerful agent in the kingdom of nature was widely diffused throughout the countries adjacent to Palestine. The Arabs paid direct worship to the Sun, but did not erect any statue or symbol (see Job 31:26; 31:27).

“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3).

The Sun is often mentioned in Scripture in connection with the common cycle, routines, and activities of life (see Eccl. 1:3-5, 6:5, 12:2). “Under the Sun” or “under the heavens” refers to the universality of human experiences everywhere in the world. The Sun is critical for sustaining life on Earth. It is also a source of blessing. God causes the Sun to rise on the righteous and on the unrighteous (see Matt. 5:45). Jeremiah 31:35 says the Sun provides light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night. The Sun is also said to carry a negative force. In most cases it is the absence of sunshine that is noted in connection with God’s judgment: “The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes” (Joel 2:31). Thus Joel prophesies that in connection with the coming Day of the Lord, “I will display wonders in the heavens and on earth; blood, fire, and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and inspiring Day of the LORD comes” (Joel 2:31).

“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:19-21).

The ultimate result of God’s plan for redemption will restore man’s relationship with God for those who believe in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Restoration applies also to all of creation. Peter tells us the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved (2 Pet. 3:10). Isaiah writes, “All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree” (Isa. 34:4). Johnathan Merritt writes, “[W]e note that the picture of fire in the Scripture is most often something that purifies rather than destroys. The presence of God and the Holy Spirit are associated with fire, for example, but this doesn’t mean that coming into contact with God will destroy you. Rather, It transforms you. It burns away the old creation to reveal the new creation in Christ.”

Henry writes, “That day will come, when men are secure, and have no expectation of the day of the Lord [that] the stately palaces, and all the desirable things wherein worldly-minded men seek and place their happiness, shall be burned up; all sorts of creatures God has made, and all the works of men, must pass through the fire, which shall be a consuming fire to all that sin has brought into the world, though a refining fire to the works of God’s hand.” This fits hand in hand with what will become of us if we set our affections on Earth and all it has to offer, seeing all these things shall be burned up. God’s righteous fire both purifies and destroys. God’s plan for redemption provides for our salvation and for purifying the Earth for the coming of a new heaven and a new Earth.

References

Learn to be Fervent

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

What Does it Mean to be Fervent?
On Fire for Jesus!

THE BIBLE TELLS US what is meant by fervent. “Fervor” is necessary for advancing God’s kingdom, and is put forth by spirit-filled Christians who boldly share the gospel with others. Fervent is sometimes referred to today as “passionate.” Being fervent is a critical component of apologetics (see 1 Pet. 3:15). Scripture features many stories about having passion for sharing God’s message. Paul said, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1, ESV).

Merriam-Webster says fervent means: (a) very hot : glowing (like the sun); (b) exhibiting or marked by great intensity of feeling (e.g., zealous).

Under the header “Marks of the True Christian” in the ESV Study Bible (1) regarding Romans 12 it states, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (12:9-11) (italics mine). Paul essentially tells us to maintain our passion in serving God. To be “fervent for God” means to have an intentional, passion-filled heart for Him. We must align ourselves with God’s plan and purpose for our lives. Because of His saving grace, we are to give ourselves entirely to God. This is our reasonable service. Spiritual service and worship ultimately mean offering our whole lives to God. We are to determine what is expected of us and learn how to apply our new-found resources to all situations confronting us. Fervor suggests an imperative.

Fervent (zeontes or ζέοντες in the Greek) is an extension of zeo (ζέω)—a verb that primarily means “to boil with heat, be hot.” Figuratively, it means “earnest.” Regarding our Christian walk, the phrase can be translated to “boiling in our spirit for God.” It is a clear call from Paul that we are to avoid becoming lukewarm, tepid, or bored as we pursue God. “Lukewarm” is an extremely important concern for believers. God said, to the church in La-odice’a, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16).

“Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Rom. 12:11).

Jesus reminded His disciples, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matt. 5:13-14). Part of our being fervent for the gospel is to acknowledge our roles as salt and light onto the world.

Fervent Prayer

Prayer must always be a large part of the Christian lifestyle. The New King James Bible translates James 5:16 as, “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Fervent prayer is that which is “impassioned, forceful, passionate, heartfelt, powerful, or wholehearted.” Henry writes, “In a day of affliction nothing is more seasonable than prayer. The spirit is then most humble, and the heart is broken and tender.” He adds, “…when a righteous person, a true believer, justified in Christ, and by his grace walking before God in holy obedience, presents an effectual fervent prayer, wrought in his heart by the power of the Holy Spirit…it avails much” (2).

The English Standard Version of the Bible translates James 5:16, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” James offers a challenge in 5:12-20 to reverse negative patterns of action (especially wrong speech) in the community of believers by choosing the way of righteous wisdom. It is critical that we note that effective prayer includes confessing our sins to one another and praying for members of the community of believers. Consider how this concept played an important role in the ministry of Jesus. James is speaking of prayer put into action, or made operative. The point of James 5:13-18 is that prayer is important and God answers prayer, so we must make it a priority.

It is very exciting and rewarding when we experience a spiritual awakening regarding the goodness of the gospel. Each of us is a building block for the entire church to experience this kind of awakening. What does it take to achieve the marks of a true Christian? It takes a gospel-centered church. It also involves being saved unto good works. Healthy local churches feature prayer, sharing, discipleship, teaching the Word of God, and corporate worship. Further, we must have a living theology. We need to get God out of our heads and into our hearts. Augustine of Hippo said, “Moral character is assessed not by what a man knows but by what he loves” (3).

Paul said we are to “pray without ceasing.” We need not pray endlessly, 24/7, to meet this suggestion. Instead, we are to pray to the LORD regardless of circumstances. Begin with gratitude; get real with God (forego stiff, “religious” proclamations); find time throughout the day to talk with God; tell Him what He already knows; pray while waiting (for the bus, for a friend, for a return phone call, etc.); sing songs of praise during the day; quickly confess to God if you mess up; pray no matter the circumstances. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul commands us to stop being anxious and instead, “…in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6). He told us to be watchful and thankful (Col. 4:2). He told the Ephesians to see prayer as a weapon for fighting spiritual battles (Eph. 6:18).

As we go through the day, prayer should be our first response to every fearful situation, every anxious thought, and every undesired task that God commands. We should also show gratitude for blessings and successes through prayer. A lack of prayer will cause us to depend on ourselves instead of depending on God’s grace. Unceasing prayer is, in essence, continual dependence upon and communion with the Father. I believe there is a tenet to be learned here: being fervent or passionate about God must accompany fervent prayer, without which we will likely be tossed to and fro by our circumstances. When we take our eyes off Jesus amid the storm, we begin to sink and to drown. There is much to be fervent about as a believer in Christ, and it begins with the forgiveness of sins and the power to life a victorious life through Jesus.

References

(1) ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2179.
(2) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1229.
(3) Cited in Henry Chadwick, Augustine: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 54