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Is Salvation Easy?

At beginning of certain sermons on the Christian doctrine of salvation, I have sometimes asked rhetorically: Is salvation easy? Most of the time most people seem to at least nod that it is. Some have shouted out a resounding “Yes!” even with an added “Hallelujah!” only to soon discover that’s not the answer I will be delivering. Actually, no, salvation is not easy according to the Scriptures.

I was at a funeral once, when at the end of his message the preacher talked about how easy it is to be saved. He succinctly summarized the gospel saying, “Jesus died for your sins, all you need to do is accept his forgiveness and ask him into your heart. It’s all really quite simple and very easy. If you want to receive Jesus as your Savior just raise your hand right now,” he concluded. A few hands went up. The preacher said, “Praise the Lord!” and that was that. I saw no attempt at further counsel with those individuals, and there was no indication that there was any need for it since it all was made to sound so easy.

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But it really isn’t easy! Salvation is hard!

This is where someone might interject, “But what about what Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30?”

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” ESV

Doesn’t this mean salvation really is easy? Well, yes and no. Salvation through faith in Jesus is easy compared to trying to save oneself through a commitment to a self-righteous legalism. This is not true, however, because salvation is possible but much more difficult through a system of works righteousness (i.e. earning one’s salvation); it is true because earning salvation through our own efforts is impossible. Compared to trying to earn one’s salvation through adherence to legalistic standards, salvation through faith in Jesus is easy because it is possible. In itself though this does not mean that salvation comes and is completed in us without great difficulty.

Jesus also said in the Sermon on the Mount:

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. ~ Matthew 7:13-14

So here, according to Jesus, salvation is hard; it is damnation that is easy!

After a conversation with a rich young man, who chose to walk away from Jesus rather than walk away from his wealth,

Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” ~ Matthew 19:23-26

Salvation apart from the power of God’s grace is not harder to achieve; it is impossible! Just as impossible as it would be for a camel to go through the eye of a sewing needle. And he really is talking about a sewing needle not a special gate within a gate in a city wall that would be possible for a camel to pass through if it was unloaded of cargo. The comparison here is on what is possible verses what is impossible.

The disciples extrapolate Jesus’ statement about the rich to apply it to everyone in general, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus doesn’t correct them to say salvation is actually easy for some and hard for others. He says salvation is humanly impossible, but made possible only by the power of God!

Salvation is not easy for anyone! It is hard!

One reason why we mistakenly might believe it is easy is because we don’t take the multidimensional nature of salvation into account. Salvation is more than justification and forgiveness of sins; it also involves new birth. Salvation involves not only a change of status from guilty to not guilty; it also involves a change of heart. Who would say giving birth or being born is easy? Who would call a heart transplant a piece of cake?!

Salvation is also not just a one time event; it is a lifelong process from the point of justification to the return of Christ and the resurrection of the body in the New Heaven and New Earth. It is not just entering through the narrow gate; it also includes the journey on the hard road. And this is not to mention the arduous and often painful journey to the gate in the first place.

We see the difficult journey of salvation reiterated in the preaching of the apostles in the early church too.

When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. ~ Acts 14:21-22

Genuine Christian faith is not just a one time commitment; its is a lifelong commitment that requires endurance. We have need for an enduring faith. The good news is we can count on the sustaining grace of the one who promises that he will never leave us or forsake us (Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5).

The multidimensional nature of salvation is evident in the fact that the Bible describes individual salvation as a past event, an ongoing present tense process, and a future hope of full redemption when Christ comes again in glory. We can say that we have been saved; also that we are being saved; and that we will be saved at some point in the future.

Salvation is also multidimensional in that it involves grace, faith, and good works, albeit in different ways.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. ~ Ephesians 2:8-10

We must not put a period where the word of God has a comma! We are saved by grace, through faith, AND for good works. Look at the way Titus 2:11-14 describes the work of grace.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Grace is not just what God does for us; grace is also what God does in us! Grace not only brings forgiveness of sins and new birth; grace also trains us in righteousness to be zealous for good works! This training is not easy!

Good works ARE NOT the cause of salvation; they are the effect of salvation. Grace is the cause; faith is the way we receive it; and good works is the fruit.

It seems that it’s pretty common for the difficulty of salvation to be downplayed if not outright denied. This happens in circles from fundamentalist to liberal, albeit in different ways.

Salvation was certainly not easy for Jesus to procure through his suffering and death on the cross. But we may deceive ourselves into thinking that Jesus paid it all so nothing is required of us. I once saw a church sign that said, “Jesus paid it all; You get to keep the change.” Wrong! The hymn writer got it right, “Jesus paid it all; all to him I owe!”

The gift of God is free, but it is not cheap! Neither is it easy to receive. We must receive it through faith. Faith, the saving faith the Bible speaks of, is not even possible apart from the grace of God, but that doesn’t mean it comes easy because of the grace of God. Trusting Christ and Christ alone for our salvation and with our lives and eternity is made possible by the grace of God, not easy!

Biblical faith is to trust and obey! Obedience is not separate from faith, it is the other side of the same coin. And we must believe in our hearts, at the very center of our will and being, not just in the back of our minds. (For the connection between faith and obedience see John 3:36; Romans 1:1-6).

A New Testament professor I once had said when it comes to salvation there is no “if/ then.” That professor is a universalist, who puts a period where the word of God has a comma. There is no period after grace in Ephesians 2:8. Faith is required! But what God requires he also provides, but still this should not be interpreted to mean that it is easy.

Although we exercise faith by the power of God, it doesn’t mean its not a work out. Saving faith does not come easy! Sometimes we do need to cry out in the strain, Lord, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

There is an if when it comes to salvation despite what people like William Paul Young say. Young says:

The Good News is not that Jesus has opened up the possibility of salvation and you have been invited to receive Jesus into your life. The Gospel is that Jesus has already included you into His life, into His relationship with God the Father, and into His anointing in the Holy Spirit. The Good News is that Jesus did this without your vote, and whether you believe it or not won’t make it any less or more true.

Young says this in chapter 13 of his book, “Lies We Believe About God,” wherein he argues that it is a lie that “you need to get saved,” which is the title of the chapter.

On the day of Pentecost, when the crowd responds to Peter’s sermon by asking “what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37), Peter said something quite different from Mr. Young, who also wrote The Shack.

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

Likewise in response to the Philippian jailer, who asked “what must I do to be saved?,” Paul and Silas responded with, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:30-31).

If you read the New Testament you will see that salvation is not really easy and there are a lot of “ifs” that cover the multiple dimensions of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Here’s a sample of a few.

because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. ~ Romans 10:9-10
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” ~ John 8:31-32
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. ~ Colossians 1:21-23
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. ~ Galatians 6:7-9

Grace is free but, as Bonhoeffer said, it is not cheap. Salvation is a gift, but receiving it is not easy. The journey, as John Bunyan, the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, well knew is hard. The destination, however, is more than worth the pain and hardship. Jesus not only made the destination possible; he made the journey possible too. Sometimes we need to be reminded that Jesus didn’t die on a cross so we can relax in a recliner. Jesus took up his cross so we could also take up ours. Jesus didn’t die so we wouldn’t have to; Jesus died and was raised again so that we too could die to ourselves in order to truly live for God. With humans this is impossible; but with God all things are possible!

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Does Belief in the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Make one a Christian?

So you believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? Do you believe it was a miracle of miracles that really happened in time and space, an actual historical event, not just a metaphor? If yes, great! But does that alone, belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus a Christian make? Maybe not!

I do believe it is necessary to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus to be a Christian, but I don’t believe everyone who believes in it is. I know the reality that many Christian theologians and pastors for philosophical reasons do not accept the bodily resurrection as a historical fact. Because of their naturalist presuppositions they rule out the possibility of supernatural miracles a priori. In this case not only the resurrection is ruled out, but other miracles recorded in the Bible as well.

Since I’ve been a pastor in the United Methodist Church, I’ve had more than a few lay people tell me, to their dismay, that they’ve had preachers who tried to explain away miracle stories in naturalistic terms. The most common story explained this way, apparently, is the one of Jesus multiplying the loaves and the fishes. Rather than actually miraculously multiplying a meager five loaves and a couple of fish (the modern American country boy in me likes to envision this as a few saltines and a couple of sardines) to feed thousands with plenty of leftovers, the naturalist explanation is that Jesus just inspired individuals to share what they really already had with them. Of course, one who would preach this as a mere metaphor for inspired generosity, might be a bit more reluctant to preach the resurrection stories as mere metaphors too even though that is what he or she really believes. Yet, evidently, not everyone is as timid in that regard. I know of churches who have also been alarmed by their pastors denial of the bodily resurrection too. One lay person said a pastor he had in a Episcopal church said he didn’t believe in life after death at all. He taught that eternal life was a metaphor for the good life of peace and justice here in this world as it is and nothing more.

But what if a person really does believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? Does that mean she or he is authentically Christian? Well, not necessarily. There is another important question. What does the bodily resurrection of Jesus mean to you?

In his book, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003), N.T. Wright gets to this question in his conclusion. There he tells of a Jewish scholar who believes that Jesus was truly bodily raised from the dead; yet he does not believe Jesus was the Jewish messiah or the divine Son of God.

The Jewish writer Pinchas Lapide has declared that he believes Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. Indeed, he believes this far more solidly than many would-be Christian theologians. But this belief does not make him a Christian. For him, the resurrection does not ‘mean’ that Jesus is in any sense, whether messianic or divine, the ‘son of god’. Rather, it means that he was and is a great prophet to whom Israel should have paid attention at the time. ~ N.T. Wright p. 721

So you believe in the resurrection. But what does that mean to you? What do you believe it means about Jesus of Nazareth?

Jesus meant for his miracles to be more than just displays of power; they were signs with symbolic import. They served to draw attention to his identity as the messiah and king of Israel. They also served to reveal his identity as the divine Son of God. As I shared in a previous post when Jesus calmed the storm on the sea, his disciples asked, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41 ESV). The answer based on the allusions to the Old Testament present in the story, startling as it may have been, is this man, Jesus, is the embodiment of Israel’s God!

If a person believes that Jesus really was raised bodily from the dead, but that he was only a manifestation of one of many valid gods in a pantheon of myriads of different gods who also may be helpful to connect with an impersonal “ground of being”, are they Christian? If a person believes that Jesus was only one of many ways to be saved are they really Christian? If people believe Jesus was really raised from the dead, but was only a man who achieved divinity as myriads of men before him, or that he was the first man to reach the threshold for optimum God consciousness, does that make them Christian? What of someone who believes Jesus being raised from the dead vindicated him as the greatest moral teacher, maybe even the greatest prophet, but not the divine Son of God in a unique sense? How about someone who sees the resurrection as an indication that Jesus may be their best bet to bring them good luck for success and fortune in this world?

John, who also records Jesus declaring,  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), says he wrote his Gospel, “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). 

The apostle Paul declares:

.. if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. ~ Romans 10:9-10

Belief in the resurrection of Jesus is a requirement for salvation, but not the only one; Confession that Jesus is Lord is as well. Context determines meaning. The God here referred to is no impersonal ground of being which is legitimately manifested through myriads of gods or natural forces. This is the God of Israel who claims to be the one and only true God, the Creator of heaven and earth, who gladly intervenes and acts in history. And this is the personal God, who became incarnate (John 1) in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, who also gladly shares the divine title “Lord” with his Son (see also 1 Cor 8:5-6).

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Icon of the Resurrection – Wikimedia Commons

In the ancient world miracles served an authenticating purpose (see Craig Keener, Miracles, (Chapter 1; Baker Academic, 2011). The resurrection of Jesus from the dead vindicated him in his claims and what he taught and revealed about God and eternal life, including salvation and damnation. The resurrection also vindicated the historical claim of the God of Israel to be the one true God and the world’s rightful Sovereign.

N.T. Wright puts it this way:

The resurrection constitutes Jesus as the world’s true sovereign, the ‘son of god’ who claims absolute allegiance from everyone and everything within creation. He is the start of the creator’s new world; its pilot project, indeed its pilot. ~ The Resurrection of the Son of God p. 731

You believe Jesus was raised from the dead? Great! Have you confessed Jesus as Lord in the sense above? Even better!

 

 

Criticizing the Church

Christians have received their fair share of criticism throughout the history of the church. Some of that criticism has been well deserved and much needed. That’s true whether it’s come from outside the church or, prophetically from within. Reproof and correction is two-thirds of the word of God if you consider 2 Timothy 3:16’s formulation that Scripture is for teaching, reproof, and correction. All three are needed if we are to receive the “training in righteousness” of which the same verse speaks. As Proverbs 6:23 says: “For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life” (ESV) Christians should not only expect reproof and

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The Prophet Jeremiah

correction, we should desire and love it. The truly wise certainly will.

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid. ~ Proverbs 12:1

Not all criticism is equal though. Constructive criticism is good; but not all criticism is constructive. Some criticism of the church is indeed godly and prophetic. The reproof from Jesus himself in Revelation chapter 2 and 3 come to mind. Other criticism aimed at the church in general or at individual Christians in particular, however, is not intended to bring life, and it is not of God. The devil, which literally means “the one who slanders,” specializes in criticism himself. Another name for the evil one from the Hebrew is Satan. Satan means the adversary or “the accuser.” The criticism of the devil is anything, but constructive. To slander is to direct false and damaging accusations against someone. It is to bear false witness. Of this the evil one is the master and that in more ways than one.

And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. ~ Revelation 12:9-11

Satan uses criticism to stir up hostility against Christians and to pressure the church to conform to the ways of the world. Much of the positive change that has taken place in the history of the church has been in response to godly prophetic criticism. We would call this transformation more into the image of God by the renewal of the mind. Not all change, however, is for the better. A lot of change in the church has been in response to slander. The result has been conformity with the fallen world, which is still under the sway of the devil. If we change too hastily in response to criticism we just might find ourselves dancing with the devil rather than walking with the Lord. Some of the bad criticism has come from people outside the church; lately much of it has come from within. Interestingly, Robert Louis Wilken, in his book, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, notes how Enlightenment arguments against orthodoxy, much of which comes from “critics” within the church, in many ways mirrors—sometimes uncannily—the arguments of pagans against the church in the ancient Roman Empire.

Wisdom is knowing the difference between genuinely prophetic godly criticism in which there is life, the life of God, and criticism that is ultimately destructive and leads to death. One will lead us on a hard, narrow path to life; the other on a wide, easy path that leads to destruction. May God give us discernment to know the difference and courage to take the right path.

On A Change of Mind Indeed

In a recent address the current president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, Bishop Bruce Ough, implored his colleagues to be open to having Christ change their minds. Some major metanoia (Koine Greek for repent which more literally means “a change of mind”) is certainly in order. Unfortunately, Bishop Ough’s idea of a change of mind seems to only go in one direction as his use of the common progressive buzz words would indicate. According to Bishop Ough, if we would only be open to Christ changing our minds we will find ourselves “freed to replicate Jesus’ pattern of expanding the boundaries of whom God loves and includes in the Kingdom.” It’s no mystery that he thinks that of necessity would involve the Church accepting and even celebrating everyone under the rainbow, so to speak, including the behavioral expression of what he sees as God-given sexual orientations and gender identities.

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The truth is the true Church already welcomes and includes everyone from any background and has since Jesus gave the great commission, although the Spirit, as Bishop Ough alludes to in his reference to the Book of Acts, had to guide the church into the full meaning and implications of the mission to the Gentiles. As the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 indicates, the blessing of God’s election of Israel was always meant to include the Gentiles, that is all the peoples of every nation on earth. By its very nature the Church commissioned by Christ Jesus and set apart by the Spirit of God is inclusive of all people of every nation and background, including those whose sexual desires have been corrupted by sin (i.e. all of us).

This certainly does not mean, however, that every set of sexual desires, proclivities, and practices will be included, commended, or recommended in the church. The genuine inclusive nature of the church is summed up well by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. ~ 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV

Because of God’s great love for the world and everyone in it, we are all invited to come as we are, but not to stay as we came!

Now I know some are going to continue to argue that sexual immorality here, as elsewhere in the New Testament, does not really condemn all sexual activity outside of natural marriage traditionally understood as a covenant union of one man and one woman. And I know some are going to argue that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, never really condemned committed same-sex unions (although it is becoming impossible to believe that sex confined to monogamous marital unions is a satisfactory norm for progressives as I and others have demonstrated before–see here and here). The official position of the so-called “centrist” (“contextualist”? see Dr. Chris Ritter’s assessment of the re-branding here) movement, the Uniting Methodists, is: “We believe our differences on the questions of same-sex marriage and ordination stem from differences over biblical interpretation, not biblical authority.”

Some sincerely believe this, I’m sure. But undoubtedly there are others who know this is not true, but will go along with it because it is obviously more marketable than just admitting that they are in fact rejecting the authority of Scripture. One of their leaders, Adam Hamilton, certainly one of the most influential United Methodist pastors in America, is clearly on record saying that he does not believe that all Scripture is inspired by God. He also diminishes the special inspiration of the Bible in general when he says the Bible is inspired “in the same way and to the same degree as many contemporary preachers and prophets and even ordinary Christians have been inspired by the Spirit in every age” (Making Sense of the Bible, 294 as quoted by David Watson in Scripture and the Life of God). It is just not credible that the progressive “centrists/contextualists” have the same view of the authority of Scripture. How far we have fallen from John Wesley’s view of Scripture!

In his introduction to his notes on the New Testament Wesley said:

The Scripture therefore of the Old and New Testament, is a most solid and precious system of Divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess. It is the fountain of heavenly wisdom, which they who are able to taste, prefer to all writings of men, however wise, or learned, or holy.

As always the question is not whether someone says they too believe in the authority of Scripture, the question is, what exactly do they mean by the authority of Scripture? I don’t think traditionalists and progressive/centrists mean the same thing at all.

Nevertheless, some are still going to make the more marketable argument that they really do still have a high view of Scripture but simply believe the church has historically misinterpreted the Bible to condemn all forms of homosexual relationships. They will insist the Bible says nothing in condemnation of committed same-sex relationships. Some, I do not doubt, are genuinely sincere in this belief, although I sincerely believe they are sorely deceived. As Dr. Tim Tennent says in his assessment of this claim, “the exegetical case for this is not defensible.” (see full article here)

Although I know some sincerely believe the revisionist arguments, it’s not a given that everyone making these arguments is sincere.

In their book, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition, Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams relays the following regarding the revisionist arguments of the now deceased Yale professor, John Boswell:

Commenting on Boswell’s book, Homosexuality, Intolerance and Christianity, gay author John Lauritsen writes: It is not surprising that Professor Boswell has been enthusiastically hailed by the gay Christians, to whom he appears as a new Savior who will rescue them not only from queer-hating religionists, but from gay liberation secularists as well, by demonstrating historically that it’s all right to be a gay Christian. . . . I cannot remember reading a more frustrating book. Undeniably, it is a formidable work of scholarship. . . . On the other hand, Boswell’s arguments, his use of evidence, are fatally flawed by his doomed attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. . . . It is regrettable that one must be harsh on a work with such considerable merit, but willful dishonesty in a scholar must not be condoned. . . . We should invite John Boswell to join gay liberation wholeheartedly; he has skills and knowledge that we need. To join us, Boswell must first extricate himself from the impossible position he’s in: attempting to reconcile Christianity and homosexuality. It would be an act of maturity for Boswell to graduate from Christianity to secular humanism….. (Unchanging Witness, location 7734-7745 Kindle edition).

Revisionist arguments that find support for homosexual relationships in the Bible have repeatedly proven to be untenable. Despite the vitriolic epithet given to traditionalist Christians above by John Lauritsen, we are not driven by hatred of anyone. Rather we are driven by a love for the God who washed us, sanctified us, and justified us, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of our God and a desire to live faithfully with integrity according to God’s word.

I agree with Bishop Ough that we do indeed need to be open to change. But the change I envision goes in a different direction. As I’ve said before, the way forward is the way backward—the old fashioned way of repentance! United Methodists do indeed stand at a crossroads.

Thus says the Lord: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls….” Jeremiah 6:16

Will United Methodists respond as the majority in Israel did at the time as the rest of Jeremiah 6:16 reveals? “But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.'”

The way forward is the way back! For those with ears to hear, you “shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it’ …. (Isaiah 30:21).

Celebrating in Heaven With Billy Graham: Thank You Jesus!

Over the past week, I’ve had the honor of presiding over the funerals of two precious saints of the Lord. One, Mrs. Pattie Mae Swisher, was 94. She served as a Sunday School teacher for young children for 50 years, among other invaluable service rendered in the church. What a testimony to faithfulness! The other beloved saint, Doris Kurfees was 87. Doris was a woman with a servant’s heart and a mind renewed by word of God, which dwelled in her richly even though dementia inhibited her expression of it over the past couple of years. Doris served well, adding a touch of beauty as much as she could to everything she did to bless her family, the church, and the community. Both Pattie and Doris were sweet spirits who were much beloved because they both loved much.

I’ve just been thinking about what it must be like for both of them as they entered into the joy of the Lord in Heaven at about the same time as Rev. Dr. Billy Graham. He went home to be with the Lord February 21st, just a few days after Pattie and only two days before Doris. Would the celebration of their entrance into the heavenly kingdom of God pale in comparison to Rev. Graham?

I saw a cartoon of Billy Graham standing at the pearly gates with millions waiting to say billy graham goes to heaventhank you. But from what I know of Rev. Graham he would point them all back to the cross and say that they all, including him, should only give thanks to Jesus. Indeed, Brother Billy said himself,

I won’t be in heaven because I’ve preached to large crowds or because I’ve tried to live a good life. I’ll be in heaven for one reason: Many years ago I put my faith and trust in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to make our forgiveness possible and rose again from the dead to give us eternal life. ~ Billy Graham 

thankyoujesussign In light of Jesus’ parables on the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), I know there is an abundance of joy in heaven over each sinner who repents. I think there will also be plenty of celebration over each saint who is welcomed into God’s heavenly kingdom after death. And considering what the Apostle Paul said about the seemingly weaker members of the body of Christ being indispensable and worthy of more honor ( 1 Cor 12:21-26), I think there will be also be plenty of honor for the countless number of saints, who weren’t known much at all outside of their own communities.

Whoever enters into the joy of the Lord and that eternal rest from the trials and tribulations of this fallen world can only thank God for what he has done for us through Christ and what he has done in us and through us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thank God for all the saints in glory—like Pattie, Doris, and Billy Graham—whose gifts, whatever they may have been, were used to build up the body of Christ in love here on earth! To God be the glory!

Something Should be Done! But What?

Something should be done! When it comes to the epidemic of mass murder, I don’t think there is anyone who disagrees with that. When it comes to exactly what should be done, of course, that’s a different story.

Many, including me, are quick to offer prayer and call others to it. Others are just as quick to dismiss it as a nuisance and distraction from the “real” solutions. Many, on both sides of the gun control debate seem certain what solutions are needed and/or which are not. But maybe the fact that prayer is so easily dismissed or even engaged in so lightly is part of the problem. I’m not saying it is the only thing we should do, but it certainly should not be dismissed or even offered lightly as just a polite courtesy for that matter. I think we sometimes offer prayers, but fail to really pray. Saying prayers and actually praying may be two different things. We should pray with expectancy and faith that God will really move in powerful ways to change hearts, minds, and legislation where necessary. Neither should we assume that we already know exactly what needs to be done. We should pray seeking divine wisdom and the faith to obey. We pontificate too much and pray too little. God, help us!

Something needs to be done! But what? As with any major problem, this is multifaceted. I don’t think the best solutions will be reached through the blame game played in the arena of partisan politics. The political parties hell bent on gaining or maintaining power by making their political opponents look bad may not be the best source for real solutions apart from ulterior motives. I don’t think we can name call our way to the best solutions either.

What exactly is it that we want to stop? That may sound like a stupid question, but if we really want to find solutions, I think we should be asking at least as many questions with the desire for real answers as we spout off pat answers and offer simple analogies to make those we disagree with look stupid or worse.

What do we want to put a stop to? We need to be specific. Do we want to reduce the overall number of murders each year? Or do we just want to focus on preventing mass shootings? What’s the difference?

Well, according to the CDC there are a little more than 11,000 homicides by firearms committed each year. According to one database, Statista, the vast majority were committed with handguns. There is a very significant category, however, where the type of firearm was not stated. Where identified, rifles, presumably of all varieties, only accounted for 374 homicides in 2016—knives and other cutting instruments were used in more than 1600 homicides. Although it would be good to know more about that unidentified firearm category, which accounts for a little more than 3,000 homicides, if the aim is to reduce overall homicides by firearms through gun control measures, then the handgun should clearly garner most of the attention. Barring a repeal or amendment of the 2nd Amendment, however, a handgun ban is not viable—not that I think we should repeal the 2nd amendment.

If, on the other hand, we want to prevent mass shootings at schools, then the focus could be on semi-automatic rifles, but then again, handguns are still more commonly used. Apart from a total gun ban, what more could be done to keep the guns out of the hands of those likely to commit mass murder? And would a gun ban actually keep these things from happening? Making it harder to get a semi-automatic rifle would not eliminate mass-shootings, although it might reduce the number of deaths during each incident. If handguns are still easily accessible, then what would prevent someone, or multiple shooters as in the case of Columbine, from bursting into a school with multiple handguns still capable of murdering multiple people rapidly?

Those aren’t rhetorical questions. I don’t know the answers for sure, but I don’t think simply focusing on gun control measures as the simple solution is the answer, even without considering the need to amend or repeal the 2nd amendment.

It may very well be time to invest in increased security measures at our public schools. Too many schools are just too vulnerable in our increasingly volatile society. How can we increase security to protect our children in our schools?

Legislative measures and security logistics, while important is still not enough. How do we address our culture’s and popular entertainment’s glorification of gratuitous violence. There’s something in us that seems to enjoy gratuitous violence for entertainment—I think of the popularity of movies like Saw, for example. Without violating the First Amendment, what do we do? Can we not think of anything other than adding more laws to the books anyway?

What about bolstering and equipping children’s very first institution of nurture, education, discipline, and authority: the family? Can we really address these issues without making moral judgments about right and wrong, and teaching about good and evil in the family? Parent’s need to be parents and not just the ones with the troubled kids who might be likely to commit murder, but also those with kids who might be likely to bully and gossip at the expense of other kids, which stokes the already burning fires of resentment and anger in those who have been alienated at home and among their peers.

There is talk about mental health, but what if we no longer know how to differentiate between mental problems and moral problems as a society. Psychiatrist Scott Peck, long lamented the lack of the recognition of evil as a clinical category. Being better equipped to provide mental health to troubled teens is important, but still insufficient, I suspect. I’ve heard some say law enforcement needs the ability to apprehend kids who make the kind of threats that the shooter in Florida apparently made; but how long could they be retained against their will for making threats; and how effective would mental health treatment be if you are dealing with a true sociopath?

What can really be done right now? Is there anything that most people can agree on? I don’t think the majority would agree with a gun ban. Would a majority even agree with additional “common-sense gun laws”? Perhaps, but I don’t know.

If we want to prevent mass shootings at our schools, what can the majority agree on now? Increased security at our schools? I don’t know.

The fires of resentment and contempt are burning pretty hot in our country right now. That is a danger in and of itself. What can we do to cut off the fuel supply?

Maybe less blame-throwing and more cool-headed cooperation on the things most actually agree on. Is there anything left that the majority of us actually agree on?

God, help us!

Moreover, I don’t think we can continue to ignore the larger philosophical and theological issues that may contribute to the multifarious epidemics we seem to have all at the same time. As I’ve said before, America seems to be firmly in the grip of each of the seven deadly sins. Hedonism seems to be the reigning value. Should we be surprised that we are reaping the effects of the nihilism that comes with it? (See my article on a conversation with a teenager who talked about what he would do if he were to shoot up a school and the topic of hell)

We may need prayer, real, fervent, godly prayer, more than anything!

God help us! Deliver us from evil! Show us the hard path to life. Amen.

Becoming More Childlike During Lent

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. Of course I’m not talking about the fuzzy stuff that builds up in your dryer vent. Lent is that period of humble preparation leading us into the celebration of the Easter, and the new life we have through the resurrection of Christ. Lent is a period of 40 days traditionally marked by fasting. Sundays, however, are not counted as part of the Lenten days of fasting; Sundays are always feast days, and, being the Lord’s Day, are always commemorative of the resurrection of Jesus and the beginning of the New Creation in Him. Every other day during the season of Lent is a day of fasting and self-denial.

Lent is a special time to be reminded that though we may be tempted to think of ourselves as stars who don’t really need God, in truth we are but dust, the residue of the cosmos and the stars within it. Lent is that special time of year to be reminded that we need to humble ourselves in dust and ashes in the face of the temptation to exalt ourselves above the stars like the prideful king mentioned by the prophet Isaiah.

 How you are fallen from heaven,
    O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
    you who laid the nations low!
 You said in your heart,
   “I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
    I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
    in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
    I will make myself like the Most High.”
But you are brought down to Sheol,
    to the far reaches of the pit.  

Isaiah 14:12-15 ESV

The language of this taunt directed toward the human king of Babylon may faintly echo a more ancient fall—that of Satan himself. As Jesus said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14b). The latter, Jesus himself provides the greatest example for us (Philippians 2:1-11).

Exaltation of self also seems to always involve a demotion of God—if only in the minds of those exalting themselves. In some way God becomes less than the revelation of God we find in the Bible. It seems the more significant we become in our own eyes, the less significant and personal God becomes in our minds.

I’ve seen a meme floated around social media to mock theists—those, like me, who believe in an intelligent and personal Creator who cares intimately for creation, especially humans whom he created in His image. The graphic was of a model of the entire universe with a message of incredulity to the effect that theists are silly to believe that a being would have created all of this just to have a personal relationship with them. What may be surprising is that not only atheists have circulated this mean to mock Christians. Even other Christians, who consider themselves non-theistic, have circulated it too. universe modelAs I mentioned in a couple of articles around Christmas, not everyone who considers themselves to be Christian believes in a personal God—some are pantheists or even self-declared atheists of some sort.

Now the meme is a caricature of the historic Christian faith. Some immature Christians may hold the view that the entirety of the cosmos revolves around them, but there is plenty in the cannon of Scripture, like the book of Job, to show us otherwise. Yet though the God revealed in the Bible is a transcendent, He is also a personal God, who created the universe and reigns sovereign over it. And He does seek a special covenant love relationship with us.

Ironically, Albert Einstein described belief in a personal god like this as “childlike,” preferring instead an impersonal pantheistic view of God—that the universe itself may be divine in some way. Jesus, did, say, nonetheless, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 18:3). He would go on to connect this with humility. Faith in the all powerful yet personal God revealed in Jesus Christ and the Bible requires humility.

I have counseled with life-long church members who have shared their struggles in believing in the miracles mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed, for example. They have said they just can’t believe in this virgin birth thing or the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I ask if they believe that God created the universe? At first they usually say yes, but when I probe a little deeper something else becomes evident. I ask, “So you believe that God could create everything that exists out of nothing through the spoken Word, but you can’t believe that God could handle a virgin conception and raising His only begotten Son bodily from the dead?” The truth is when people struggle to believe those things, they also lack faith in a God who is an intelligent and personal Creator. It would be like saying I believe someone could build the Dallas Cowboys’ Stadium, but couldn’t handle making a mousetrap!

Faith in the God revealed in Jesus and in the Scriptures requires humility. If God is powerful enough to create the entire universe, surely He could also handle having a personal relationship with any human being he wants. I’m sure He could even handle becoming human Himself in the person of Jesus, our Lord.

Interestingly, it seems the more we exalt ourselves, we also, paradoxically, think less of ourselves. That is, the more we think about fulfilling our own desires and that we are, as expressed in the Poem Invictus, the master of our fates, and the captain of our souls, the less we think of humanity as a whole. Rather than special creatures, each created in the image of God, regardless of ability, we think of human worth in terms of usefulness because of ability. This doesn’t usually bode well for those on either extreme end of the age continuum, or the disabled, or those we might perceive to be inferior because of ethnicity, race, or some other reason.

The image of God in humanity is stamped on the entirety of our being, collectively and individually. It is not limited to any particular trait or function. God designed each of us with the capacity to reflect His character into creation and to be in a holy relationship with Him and each other, first to be loved and then to love. We are always loved before we really begin to love God and others. “We love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Sin has inhibited and distorted our original God-given capacity as image-bearers. That capacity is inhibited and distorted in different ways and to different degrees in all of us. A person’s individual worth is not determined by his or her ability to express that capacity in this fallen world where sin still remains in all and reigns in most. Rather our worth and dignity is inherent in God’s original design for each of us in the garden of Eden and his purpose (telos) for us in the New Creation, where sin will no longer inhibit our capacity, spiritually or physically, to express and fully reflect God’s holy love and righteousness into the world. Ironically perhaps, it also takes humility to recognize our true worth and the priceless worth of each of our neighbors created in the image of God.

Faith requires humility; humility receives love as the love of God is “poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5). And those who recognize they have been so loved, love as they have been loved.

The crisis in the church today in the Western world is really a crisis of faith. Unbelief is at the root of all that ails us. Faith requires that we become more childlike; faith requires humility.

Father, for the sake of your Son Jesus, by the power of your Holy Spirit, make us more childlike during this season of Lent. Amen.