Friday, May 18, 2007

Is God an Indian Giver?

Our worship team has been struggling over singing one particular song by Matt Redman called Blessed Be Your Name. Don’t misunderstand me, we love the song, but our struggle has been over the meaning of the bridge in the song which says,

You give and take away
You give and take away
My heart will choose to say
Lord, blessed be Your name

Our struggle is over what it means to say that God both “gives and he takes away.” I know this comes from Job 1:21, after Job has discovered that he has lost everything, including his children. He says,

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken way, may the name of the Lord be praised.

So, it seems Matt Redman is at least being true to the Bible in that he is quoting it, but this does leave me with a couple of questions. First, is Matt quoting this verse out of context? Secondly, does God literally give and take away? To answer this question, we have to examine this quote within the context of Job, examine what this means in the context of the song Blessed Be Your Name and then talk about what it means for God to be “in control” or sovereign over our world.

Within the context of the book of Job we are told that one day the angles came to present themselves before the Lord and Satan shows up. The Lord asks him if he has considered his servant Job and he explains that Job is an upright person. Satan then says that Job will curse him if he were to lose everything. So, the Lord gives Satan permission take away everything as long as he does not touch him. Satan then takes most his family and property. It is after this that Job uses the quote from above.

After this the Lord again asks Satan about Job and talks about his faithfulness even after Satan took things from him. The Lord actually says, “And he maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.” Of coarse Satan says that if the Lord will allow him to cause him pain, then Job will curse him. The Lord says that he can as long as he spares his life.

It is after this that Job begins to speak and curse the day he was born. He also claims his own innocence and he wants God to respond to his question of “why.” Of coarse Job’s friends accuse Job of some wrong doing, which is the cause of his suffering. They perceive that God is punishing him, but we have already seen that God believes Job to be righteous and of integrity. In the end of the book, God finally responds to Job, not by telling him “why”, but by telling him that he is God and Job is not. In the end, the Lord accepts Job’s plea of forgiveness and restores him to a place that was even better than we see at the beginning of the book.

We could summarize this book as follows:
1. Satan roams around accusing people before God. He accused Job of being unfaithful and he believed he could prove it if Job lost everything
2. Satan was the one who took things away from Job
3. God gave Satan permission to take things away from Job, thus making God ultimately in control of the situation.
4. It was clear that Job did not understand the situation. He blamed God for taking away things from him when it was really Satan
5. Job’s friends also thought it was God, but that Job had done something wrong to deservers God’s punishment
6. God does not defend his own actions; rather he leaves them to be mysterious. He does say that Satan “incited” him against Job, but he answers Job by basically saying that he is God and Job is not.
7. In the end, it was God who restores Job to a greater place

In the song Blessed Be Your Name, Matt Redman gives several contrasts to explain that he will bless the name of the Lord in ALL situations. Whether in a time a plenty or in the wilderness of life, whether God is pouring our blessings or in the dark times of life, in the sunshine of life or in the times of pain and suffering. He then concludes by saying that God gives and he takes away. If this song is taken as one whole picture of how God works in our lives, it would suggest that God CAUSES both the good and the bad in our lives and our response to that it to praise God no matter which he brings. Satan is actually the one taking things away in the book of Job, while God is the one giving. God is still sovereign over both aspects. I think this is what Matt Redman is trying to say in his song.

Now I want to turn to the second part of this essay and examine the conclusion that we have reached so far. If God, as the book of Job says, does not actually take things away, but allows and gives Satan permission to take away, is God therefore really the one responsible for taking things away? If this is true, then Matt Redman’s song is actually being faithful to the book of Job and to the character of God. If not, then Matt Redman has some explaining to do.

To answer this question, I want to turn to some philosophy. Philosophy often encounters a question about the existence of God called “The Problem of Evil.” Basically the questions says, “If God is all loving and all powerful, then God surely would not want humans to suffer due to his love and surely could prevent suffering from happening if he was all-powerful. Because evil exist there must not be a God or God must not be all-powerful or all-loving. Christian Philosophers have answered this question primarily on two grounds. First, Christians have blamed evil on human free-will. It is said that humanity freely rejected God which has caused evil in the world and God thought it better to created free creatures with the capacity for evil rather than creatures with no freedom and no chance of going wrong. The second response says that we need to mature and it is by overcoming evil in the world that brings maturity. Suffering is really part of the program. In both defenses, the key principle is this: Evil could be permitted by an all-powerful and loving God as long as the evil brings about greater good in the world.
If God gives and takes away, this also means that God directly or indirectly causes all the evil that happens in the world. If this is the case, God has to be defended for more than just allowing evil; God must be defended for causing the evil. There is a difference between saying God “allows” evil and God “causes” evil. Let me explain.

For God to allow something means that things that happen may not be what God intended, but for some greater purpose, God will allow it to take place. To say that God causes things to happens means that nothing happens that God does not ordain to happen. This would mean that all the sin and evil in the world are indirectly or directly caused by God.

Let me give you an illustration using 9/11. If God is the direct or indirect cause of this event, it means that God is totally to blame for that tragedy. We would have to argue that God caused this event in order to bring about some other event that was even greater in order to justify God’s actions. On the other hand, we could say that God allowed the planes to fly into the buildings, but that this was something that God would have rather not happened. But, because it did happen, God will work in the circumstances to accomplish a greater good. The first of these situations places the blame entirely on God. The second places the blame entirely on the people who freely chose to fly the planes into the building.

At this point, I know it will be argued that if God allows evil, is not God the one who is ultimately responsible for it. I think the answer is yes, but that does not mean that God causes it. Here is an example. I am a pastor of a contemporary worship service and I chose to hire Tracie as our worship leader. Tracie has chosen to play this song on Sunday and to play the bridge, which I have been discussing in this blog. Tracie knows that I am not fond of this bridge, but she and the band think musically it is the best thing to do. I would rather her not play it. However, I have given her permission to play the song, although I could have stopped her. I did not cause her to play the bridge, I am just allowing her to do it. The reason I chose to allow it to happen is (1) The song will be better off in the end musically wiht bridge. (2) We could use this as a learning lesson about God’s sovereignty (If you are reading this blog, then it worked (3) It teaches our band to wrestle with theological questions while planning worship (4) It may inspire conversation at the lunch table after the service. So, I am allowing the bridge to be played, although if Tracie had not come to me and asked, she would have assumed I would not have let her play it. I did this because in the end, we can use it to bring about some great things.

Going back to the options of “causing” or “allowing,” in both cases God is completely sovereign in that God’s will ultimately happens. It is just that the means to the end is different. In the first, God accomplishes his will by determining events to happen, in the second, God accomplishes his will by working through free choices and events. The question we have to answer is this: Which scenario makes the most sense out of what we see in the Bible? In the Bible, do we see a God who causes all things or do we see a God who is powerful enough to work though free choices? I believe with all my heart that we see the later. Ultimately, I think this is the message of the book of Job. Satan took away from Job, but God allowed it to happen because it helped build Job’s character and it built the relationship. It was God who gave back to Job more than what he had to begin with. Job grew in his understanding of God. Notice Job’s last reply,

I know that you can do all things, no plan of yours can be thwarted…. My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.

Job admits that he did not understand God before, but now he does. So, maybe Job misunderstood God when he said that God gives and he takes away? In the end he found out that God is really the ones who gives by taking free choices and the work of Satan and accomplishing greater purposes than we can know. Maybe the storms of life are not caused by God, but are brought upon by ourselves, or someone else brings suffering to us, or Satan is bringing suffering upon us, or nature is causing us to suffer. God allows those things to happen knowing that he can redeem every situation that we find ourselves in.

Going back to Matt Redman’s lyrics, I understand the point he is trying to make that we should Bless God’s name no matter what is happening in our lives. However, I think it is wrong of him to say that God is an Indian giver and gives things to us just to take them away again. John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world that he GAVE his only son, whoever believes in him will never perish, but have eternal life.” That is the context in which we should see God giving. God gives salvation as a free gift!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Starbucks and CS Lewis

Starbucks in an effort to stimulate discussion has just printed a new coffee cup which reads,
Why in moments of crisis do we ask God for strength and help? As cognitive beings, why would we ask something that may well be a figment of our imaginations for guidance? Why not search inside ourselves for the power to overcome? After all, we are strong enough to cause most of the catastrophes we need to endure.

The statement is attributed to Bill Schell, a Starbucks customer from London, Ontario. Starbucks is selecting various quotes from people and printing them and hopes to get responses at /wayiseeit. The have made a disclaimer that the quote is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the company.

Several Christians that I have talked to were pretty upset about this cup. The quote is obviously a slam on religion and prayer. Personally, I think the idea that Starbucks has is incredible. I am sure they selected this quote because they knew it would create an incredible discussion. It is a discussion that has been going on for years and year between those who believe the explanation of the universe can be explained in natural terms verses those who believe there are some things nature cannot explain; therefore we must turn to the supernatural for the answers. Naturalist or Atheist holds the first, while Supernaturalism or Theist holds the latter.

After reading this quote, I was struck by the two things that this author of this quote attacked. He claimed that theism was merely a matter of the mind and not in reality. I am a big fan of CS Lewis and Lewis tends to use three arguments to counter this attack.
1. Argument from Reason

Lewis’ argument from reason comes out of his book Miracles. In this book, his main goal is to show not only that miracles are possible, but that miracles are lead us to see how God works in the world. As Lewis begins his defense of Christianity (Supernaturalism) he says that we must assume two things: If Naturalism (the belief that there is no reality outside of nature itself) is true, then every finite thing or even must be explained in terms of the total system of nature. In other words, we must be able to explain everything in terms of nature itself. Second, if anything exists which that we cannot explain in naturalistic terms, then naturalism can not be true.
Lewis claims then that there is one thing that naturalism cannot account for and that is reason itself. It is by reason that science determined that there could not be a reality beyond nature itself. Lewis argues that if there is no reality beyond nature itself, we would not have rationally come to that conclusion. The very act of proving that there is no god actually proves that there must be.

Lewis explains this by saying that there are two ways of using the word “because.” When we say, “Grandfather was sick today because he ate lobster, we are using it as a cause and effect relationship. The lobster caused him to be sick. In the sentence “Grandfather is ill today because he has not gotten out of bed,” the word because takes on a ground and consequence relationship. We are deducing that grandfather is sick because he has not gotten out of the bed. The bed did not cause his sickness; rather it indicated that he was sick.

When we believe something to be true, we must begin with the ground consequent relationship. In other words, B must follow logically from A. At the same time, all events are connected to other events, so they must also be linked in a cause and effect relationship. Lewis then concludes that naturalism can only account for the cause and effect relationship and these beliefs can be held without rational grounds for believing them. For example, I can believe Tennessee is the greatest college football team because I am a Tennessee fan. This belief is cause and effect, but it does not have to be grounded in rationality.

In order to “reason” something to be true, it must take on a ground and consequence relationship. In other words, our reasoning must follow from something that is known. So if we are to explain the reason for the origins of the universe, there must be something outside of the universe to ground our belief in. Therefore, naturalism faces a difficult challenge that supernaturalism does not. For the supernaturalism, Lewis says, can ground the reason for the universe in something outside of the universe itself. Lewis goes on to conclude:

For him (the supernaturalist), reason- the reason of God is older than Nature, and from it the orderliness of Nature, which alone enables us to know her, is derived. For him, the human mind in the act of knowing is illumined by the Divine reason. It is set free, in the measure required, from the huge nexus of non-rational causation; free from this to be determined by the truth known. (Miracles 34-35 Words in parenthesis added)

In other words, the supernaturalism gives the best understanding of how humans can think rationally about the universe.

2. Argument from Desire

The second argument Lewis uses for his defense of Theism is called the Argument from Desire. In his own life he called it his chasing after “joy” He defines joy in Surprised by Joy as, “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” He distinguishes it from both happiness and pleasure because it is something you want to experience, but it does not truly make you happy. Joy is not in our power to have, and pleasure is. It is the chasing of joy that brought Lewis to Christianity. (Ironically, he later marries a lady named Joy.)

In Mere Christianity Lewis outlines this argument more fully. He says that if we are honest with ourselves, we would all have to admit that we have longings in our hearts that this world cannot satisfy. We want something that we cannot have. Of coarse we all can agree with Lewis that we have bad times in which the thing or things we desire seem distant from us. There are many people that feel stuck in a dead end job and desire some occupation that brings true fulfillment or there are single people who desire a romantic relationship with another person. There are people that feel life has become a drag and they need to experience something fresh. However, Lewis goes on to say that even when we have found the best possible scenarios for our lives, we still find that they cannot completely satisfy our deepest longing. At first they may excite us and temporarily fulfill us, but that feeling will soon fade away.

Next Lewis argues that if there are no earthy pleasures that can satisfy our desire or longing, then we must assume that earthy pleasures were never meant to satisfy us, but that we were created for another world. Earthy pleasures really act like sign posts, pointing us to the real pleasure. The problem occurs when we seek earthy pleasures as an end onto themselves rather than use them to point us to something beyond the pleasures and beyond ourselves, namely God.

Lewis says that there are three ways we can pursue desire. He calls the first, the fool’s way. The fool’s way is when a person thinks they can fulfill their desires with earthy pleasures. They believe that if they could just find another job, or another spouse. If they could have some more experiences, then they would be truly satisfied. They believe that their desires can be fulfilled with earthy pleasures. The second pursuit of desire is the way of the disillusioned; sensible man. This person decides that their desires cannot be met at all, so they had better stop expecting so much from their experiences. If they can lower the bar, so to speak, then they will not be disappointed all the time. The third option, Lewis calls the Christian way. This path is to say that our desires can be met, but they will not be met in this life. Again, if they encounter a desire that this life does not meet, they know it will be met in the next life.

Some people have responded by arguing that Lewis has a low view of this world and that we should not expect much from this life if we take his approach. In other words, we should just sit back and wait for heaven and be pleased with what we have. On the contrary, Lewis says that the problem is that we are too easily pleased with this life. We become so caught up in the small pleasures of this life that we miss the eternal fulfilling pleasure of God. Lewis says,

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are too easily pleased. (Weight of Glory 26)

Our quest for desire or joy leads us to God because God is the ultimate source of joy. When God created the world, he created glimpse of this joy to arouse in us a desire for God. When we find that earthly pleasures do not satisfy, then we know that we need to seek the thing behind the pleasure itself, which is God. When we find God, we find our desire satisfied. We find complete joy.

3. Argument from Morality

Lewis begins his famous book Mere Christianity addressing the problem of morality. He begins his argument by stating that there are some things we can learn by mere observation. For instance, we can learn a lot the world by watching people argue. When two people argue, they are appealing to some type of standard of right and wrong in which they expect that the other person knows as well as they do. He calls the standard of right and wrong the Law of Human Nature. As further evidence that this law exists, Lewis points out that people are always making excuses when they mess up. If there was no standard of right conduct, then we would not need to make excuses for messing up. To summarize thus far, Lewis believed there a law that governs right behavior and that this law is not learned, but it is something each person is born with.
Next he addressed two objections to the Law of Human Nature. The first objection is that this law is just our herd instinct like the instinct to eat etc. Lewis argues that feeling a desire or impulse to do something is not itself the law of human nature. He gives the example of hearing a cry for help from a burning building. A person will have two different impulses, one would be to run and protect themselves and the other would tell them to help the person. He says that we will then find within ourselves a third thing that tells us which one to follow. The third thing is the moral law. He goes on to suggest that our impulses are like keys on a piano, but without sheet music we have no idea which key to play. Likewise, the moral law tells us which impulses to act upon in a given situation. Sometimes it is the weaker impulse that the Moral Law tells us to use.

The second objection is to say that the Law of Human Nature is just a social convention that is learned by education. Lewis agrees with this in part because we do learn some things from parents and teachers. However, we learn two different things from them. We learn both social conventions and we learn real truths. Social conventions would be things like which side of the road to drive on, or socially acceptable table manners. Real truths would be like mathematics. Lewis suggests that the Law of Human Nature belongs to the latter category. He believes this for two reasons. First, because the moral ideas of one society does not differ greatly from another that of another. For example, some people believe in monogamy in marriage while others practice polygamy, but regardless of which society you are in, you cannot have sexual relationships with anyone you want.

Secondly Lewis says that if we make a judgment that one society is more moral than another, then we can only do this by appealing to the Law of Human Nature or a standard of right and wrong. His Lewis’ own time, England was confronted with the evils of Nazi Germany. The only way England could accuse Nazi Germany of being evil would be for them to appeal to a set standard of conduct.

If there is a Moral Law that governs the way people ought to behave, then this law must tell us something about our universe. The universe can either be made up entirely of matter and space and this matter and space has arrange itself in the way it has by chance or there is something behind the universe like a mind that has a purpose behind it. If there is a Moral Law, then we must believe that there is more to our universe than matter and space. If there is a mind behind the universe, this mind must be very concerned with right conduct.

The next distinction Lewis proposes is to say that if there is a mind behind the universe, then we either have to believe as the pantheist do that God is beyond good and evil and that the universe is almost God. In this view, good and evil depends on the perspective one takes. Nothing in and of itself is bad or good. The other view is the one help by Christians, Jews, and Muslims, that God is good. Lewis concludes that if we take the distinction between good and bad seriously, which we must if we have followed his earlier thought we must believe in a God that is completely good and who is completely opposed to evil. This God does care about right conduct.

Lewis makes one final distinction in his argument. He presents the option of dualism as compared to Theism. Dualism is the belief that there are two gods, one who is good and the other who is evil while theism holds that there is one God with no equal who is completely good. He concludes that, although dualism is compelling in ways, that theism must prevail. He argues this by first stating that the reason people are cruel to one another is because of money, or power, or safety. But, Lewis argues, these things are all good in and of themselves. The badness is when these things are pursued in the wrong way. This means that evil cannot exist by itself because it must get these things from the good power. If this it true, then the evil power cannot be as great as the good power. Instead, Lewis says the Dark Power was created by God and was good when he was created, but has somehow gone wrong. In short, if we believe in a real right and wrong, which is evident from observation, then we must conclude that there is a real power behind the universe that is good and wants his creation to behave in a certain way.

In conclusion I want to briefly mention three things that are important for Lewis’ overall strategy. First, Lewis believed in what I want to call “top down apologetics.” For example, Lewis bases his apologetics on the assumption that our thoughts and actions come from outside of ourselves and that these things reveal to us a greater reality. For example, he thought our ability to reason, our desires, and our morality all come from a being that is greater than ourselves who is rational, who has created us to find our satisfaction in itself, and who greatly cares about right and wrong. He claimed that those persons who argued against a belief in God like Sigmund Freud thought that God is a recreation of our own wishes. We fashioned God in the image the we perceive God to be. Lewis on the other hand, believed that the reason we have images of God is because God existed first. We can perceive of God because God is really there.

The second thing stems from the first. Christianity can not be completely proven to be true just as naturalism cannot be proven to be true. Lewis’ attempt to prove the existence of God and Christianity is to say that Christianity gives the best explanation of the universe that we live.
Thirdly, Lewis does not think we can believe something that we are convinced by the evidence is not true. In other words, someone who has done all the research and concludes that there is no God cannot simply drop that belief and believe there is a God. In order to change a belief, Lewis believes there has to be more evidence given. In his essay called, Religion: Reality or Substitute, Lewis says that faith is the power to believe what we honestly think is true until cogent reasons give us honest reasons for changing our minds. In other words, we cannot believe something to be true if we find that the evidence for proves it false. In order to change our beliefs, we have to have solid reasons for doing so.

There three things are important for understanding Lewis because many people say that Lewis never proves that there is a God or that Christianity is true. However, Lewis is not saying that he can prove it beyond any doubt, however, he is claiming that he can show evidences that the probability is that God exists and that Christianity is true. He does this by asking his readers to look around and take note of what they experience, the arguing about right and wrong, the chasing after desires that are never satisfied, and the arguments about the existence of God. The best explanation for these things is that there is a God who has created us with a purpose.

As we think about the quote on the Starbucks quote, it is important for us to learn a lesson from Lewis. Although there are good arguments made by naturalist about why God does not exist, there are just as many good arguments, such as the ones I shared from Lewis, that show the evidence leans in favor of the existence of God. As for me, I will continue to believe in God!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Power to Save or the Risk to Love

One of the greatest philosophical questions that is often asked is, “Can God create a rock so big that God cannot carry it?” The point of the question is to suggest that there may be some things that God himself cannot do. If a person is to believe that some people will be eternally separated from God, then that person must be able to live with the fact that God cannot save every person. This is an argument some Universalists make in defense of universal salvation.

The argument for universalism can be stated two ways. First, Gulley and Mulholland, in their book If Grace is True, claim that if God desires the salvation of every person then surely God has the power to do what God desires to do. Gulley and Mulholland say those who believe people will ultimately spend eternity separated from God either believe (A) “God doesn’t want to save all his children “or (B)”that God can’t save all his children.[1]

The second way to state the same argument is to state three contradictory premises as Thomas Talbott’s book The Inescapable Love of God does. (1) God’s redemptive love extends to all human sinners equally in the sense that he sincerely wills or desires the redemption of each one of them. (2)Because no one can finally defeat God’s redemptive love or resist it forever, God will triumph in the end and successfully accomplish the redemption of everyone whose redemption he sincerely wills or desires. (3) Some human sinners will never be redeemed but will instead be separated from God forever.[2]

Tallbott maintains that there is sufficient evidence in Scripture to warrant a belief in all three of these premises, yet one of them must be false. Calvinist would have to reject premise 1 and conclude that God did not desire to save every person. Arminians would have to reject premise 2 and conclude God could not save every person. Gulley/Mulholland/Tallbott conclude both premises 1 and 2 are true, making 3 false. That is, they believe that since God desires the salvation of every person and has the power to accomplish anything that God wills to do, then all people will be saved.

The Calvinist tradition accepts premises two and three, rejecting premise one. They hold that God surely accomplishes God’s purposes and redeems those that God wills to redeem. However, it is clear that not everyone is redeemed; therefore, God must not extend redemptive love to everyone. Calvinists claim God does not want to save every person. I think this type of belief, although it has strengths when dealing with the sovereignty of God, poses serious problems to the character of God.

Daniel Strange attempts to deal with this problem by suggesting that we have altered the meaning of God’s love. God exists for the very purpose of glorifying God’s self; therefore, the definition of sin is failing to bring glory to God. Since God’s glory is the thing which is at stake, we must view God’s character as relating to God’s glory. In order to keep God’s glory intact, God must punish sin and those who sin. The reason God punishes sin is because God hates it and it is in God’s nature to punish it. You may ask, “What about God’s love?” Strange goes on to define God’s love primarily as God’s love for God’s self through the Trinity. He adds this: “To say, as Universalists do, that God must endlessly pursue reconciliation for him to be good is an attempt to subvert God into humankind’s servant.”[3]

Strange’s attempt to redefine God’s love within the framework of the Trinity does not help his position. As Jerry Walls and Joe Dongell point out, “The doctrine (of the) Trinity above all shows that God necessarily exists in an eternal relationship of perfect love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God’s will must always be understood as an expression of his essential nature of perfect love.” Just as Strange uses the Trinity to explain that God’s love exists for the purpose of God glorifying God’s self, Walls and Dongell point out that the Trinity shows that God’s nature is to love others. God is glorified not in self love, but in redemptive love. God shows the same love within the Trinity as God shows for God’s creation.[4]

I also want to suggest that God is not glorified by choosing certain people for salvation by overriding their freedom, but rather God is glorified in bringing people into a relationship with God that they have freely chosen. What kind of love would it be to force people to love us? I know that I would rather allow people to freely choose to love me and risk them rejecting me than I would in forcing others to love me. I believe this is God’s choice as well.

This brings me to the second option regarding our premises. Instead of rejecting premise 1, we could reject premise 2. This position holds that God desires the salvation of every person, but some people will ultimately be separated from God for eternity. This is called the Arminian position, named after Jacob Arminias, who rejected the Calvinist teaching of individual election for salvation. The main criticism of this move is to say that this position places limits upon the power of God to achieve God’s purpose in saving the world. Universalist and Calvinists claim that this makes God a failure.

John Sanders defends the Arminian position by admitting that there are times in which God desires a certain outcome and that outcome does not happen. This will inevitably be the case when God gives creatures freedom to choose or reject God. Obviously the World Trade Center incident was not God’s will. God’s will was rejected, causing a devastating tragedy. Likewise, it could be held that God preferred that Israel follow Jesus instead of crucifying him. Here is the crucial point though: “God does not fail in his overarching purposes.” Sanders claims that it was God’s overarching purpose to establish the conditions which humans could experience the love of God and respond to it freely.[5]

The Universalist, and Calvinist attack of the Arminian position is that it places limits on the power of God to save all that God desires to save. In response to this, I want to note that in reality, God was free to create any kind of world that God wanted to create; however, God created a world where we are given the freedom to make a moral choice for or against God. A quote from C.S. Lewis may help.

God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a world which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I can not… Why, then did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. [6]

I believe that God felt free will was so important, that God was willing to limit God’s own power so that free will could be possible.

We may wonder why God would choose to create a world like this where God could be rejected forever. John Eldridge says, “God is the person who takes immense risks.”[7] God gave us the freedom to reject God, which brings with it heart break, suffering, and devastation. However, with Eldridge, Lewis, and other Arminians, I believe the risk God took is the only thing that would bring about true love. Eldridge goes on to say, “God wants to be loved. He wants to be a priority to someone.”[8]

Jerry Walls reframes the original three claims made by Tallbott in a way that I believe makes sense of the world that we DO live in. He says, (4) Since God’s eternal nature is perfect love, he sincerely extends his grace to all his human creatures and does everything he can to elicit from them a free response of trust and love. (5)Although free creatures can decline God’s love, his ultimate purpose of glorifying himself cannot be defeated since his love is demonstrated whether it is accepted or rejected. (6) Some sinners will never accept God’s love and will forever be separated from him.[9]

God can show love to people and have them reject it without detracting from God’s will. God has achieved God’s purposes in that God loved even those who reject God. This is not to say that God does not desire salvation for all, however, God’s ultimate desire is to love all and be loved by all. This love relationship can only happen where freewill exists.

I believe it is God’s desire, because God truly loves us, to form our characters in such a way that we become more like God and we become fulfilled in our lives. God cares deeply about the quality of the relationship. In order for this to take place, we have to freely cooperate with God in the process. This means that some people no matter what God does, will not cooperate and will freely reject God. This does not diminish God’s power, because God is more concerned with the quality of the relationship than God is the quantity of people who become Christians. This means that God’s love is still universal, but that this love transforms our lives.

I have been challenged by knowing that God is a risk taker. Not only is God a risk taker, but God has chosen to take a chance on me. I think modern Christianity has become so complacent because we are afraid to take a risk. We are afraid to invest in relationships because we fear that we will be hurt. We are afraid to invest financially because we are scared we will loose our investments. We are afraid to involve ourselves in ministry because we are afraid of failure.

Knowing that God is a risk taker should change the way we look at the world. If God is willing to take risks with the universe, we should be able to trust the God of the universe to be with us when we take risks. One of my former preachers, Wayne Sparks, said it like this. “In Christianity today, we only want to ride a bike with training wheels when God wants us to be riding a motorcycle.” I do not mean that to be taken literally, but we have to be willing to take some risks in life because that is when we find that we can trust God and be fulfilled.

[1] Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, If Grace is True (New York: Harper Collins 2003.) 91. This argument is set up in the chapter entitled “The Will of God”
[2] Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (Universal Publishers: Salem, Oregon 1999) This argument occurs in chapter 4 entitled, “The Pictures of God”
[3]Daniel Strange, Universal Salvation: The Current Debate ed. “A Calvinist Response to Talbott’s Universalism” Ed. Robin Perry and Christopher Partidge ( Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003)
[4] Why I am not a Calvinist, 217-221. Dongell and Walls conclude their book by arguing that the real issue in the debate between freewill and predestination is not the sovereignty of God (God’s power), but rather the character of God (God’s love). The issue, they say, is whether or not God loves everyone. They conclude that the Arminian position (freewill) is the better option.
[5] John Sanders, Universal Salvation “A Freewill Theist’s Response to Talbott’s Universalism”
[6] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity (Harper San Francisco: New York, 1980) 47-48.
[7] John Eldridge, Wild at Heart ( Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville 2001) 30-31.
[8] Ibid., 36.
[9] Jerry Walls, Universal Salvation “A Philosophical Critique of Talbott’s Universalism”

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Paul: Controversies and Commitment Part Six
Was Paul Arrogant?

When reading Paul there is no doubt that he comes across as arrogant at times, at least in our way of thinking about arrogant. We tend to think of anyone who talks well of themselves as arrogant. So, for example, when Paul defends himself and his credentials to the Galatians, we think Paul is really bragging. Again, when he is sarcastic to the Corinthians about them being “smarter” than he, we think he is being boastful. We all know that Paul was a very brilliant man. He was trained under one of the finest teachers and may have had a good grasp of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic.

I want to say in defense of Paul that, while in our standards he seems a bit arrogant, he was actually very humble for his own time. When Paul brags about his credentials or mocks others when they think they are smart, he is actually using a common form a rhetoric in which the goals was to establish credibility with the audience so they will listen to what he had to say. This explains his autobiography in Galatians and Corinthians.

In both of these places, perhaps more than any other, his apostleship was being questions. In Galatia a group of people came in after him and was probably teaching them that they must become a Jew before they could be a Christian. They may have told the Galatians that Paul was not a “real apostle.” Paul had to defend himself and his apostleship before they would respond to his teaching.

In Corinth in appears that Paul was again followed by another teacher, possibly Apollos, who was skilled in the art of logic and Greek philosophy. He may have appeared to be smarter than Paul and so at least some of the Corinthians decided Paul was not that smart. Perhaps they even felt they were smarter than Paul for having learned from a great man like Apollos.

A great testimony to Paul’s humility is that he never talked bad about Apollos. We even are led to believe that the two of them really got along and preached similar things. Paul’s problem is not with Apollos, but with people who claim one person over another and neglect the gospel of Jesus.

We do see Paul in several places telling folks to follow his example as he follows the example of Christ. For example, In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul talks about his own freedom and how he has all the freedom that any other apostle has. He has the right to depend on people for money, but instead he works. He says he becomes a Jew to the Jew, the Gentile to the Gentile so that he might win some. He then goes on to say that he wants the Corinthians to follow his example and use their freedom responsibly.

This does seem somewhat boastful for our day and time, but I think maybe we have a misunderstanding of humility. Let then examine what it means to be humble. CS Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity says that humility is NOT thinking bad about yourself, rather, it is not thinking of yourself at all. Most of the time, we think that the humble person is the one who beats themselves up all the time. When you meat a humble person you would probably walk away thinking, “That person never thinks about themselves.” A person who is negative all the time thinks about themselves all the time.

If this is true, then Paul is actually teaching true humility in this passage. He is telling the Corinthians to stop thinking about themselves, and use your freedom in a way that builds others up. In Philippians he tells them to follow his example in humility and defines it as follows,

Be like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vein conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

He then goes on to give this example from the life of Jesus in the hymn known as the kenosis hymn in Philippians 2:6-11.

I would conclude by using these two definitions, one by CS Lewis and the other by Paul himself, that he was not arrogant. Paul actually wrote these words from a prison. He put his own life on the line for the well-being of others. Paul did use his own life as an example to follow. Not that he was special, but he believed that he was trying to model the life of his Lord, Jesus. He was showing others how to do this. After all, in tells the Corinthians, that he does not boast in his strengths, but he does boast in God who uses his weakness. To God be the Glory!
Paul: Controversies and Commitment Part Five
It’s the End of the World as We Know It

In Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians he writes about what it will be live in the end. Some have taken this to mean that one day before the great tribulation when God will judge the world, Jesus will rapture up the church into heaven. The controversy stems from these verses.

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.

In order to talk about these verses, let me set the context. Paul is writing to encourage the Thessalonians because they were upset about the people who had died missing out on the coming of Jesus. Paul and other Christians believed that Jesus had been resurrected and would soon come back to gather the Christians in a final resurrection. The Thessalonians did not want their loved ones to miss out. Paul goes on to say that the time of this will be a mystery.

I think some people have misunderstood Paul in this passage. I think we are taking his words literally when they are meant to be figurative. Paul is actually using language to describe the meeting between a king who is coming back. The king would be received with a trumpet blast and the people would come out to meet him. The coming in the clouds is symbolic for coming with power. This image from Paul does say that he believed Jesus would come back with power and that Jesus’ followers would meet him and live under his reign. This would be the great resurrection when all the dead would rise. Paul is really drawing from his Pharisee background and understanding it through the eyes of Jesus.

Paul also addressed this issue of Jesus’ coming in the second letter to the Thessalonians. This time he was trying to calm them down because some of them thought Jesus had already come. Paul was reassuring them that this had NOT happened yet.

In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul adds to his teaching on the coming of Jesus. He tells the Corinthians that sense Jesus was resurrected in bodily form; we could expect to do the same. One day Paul says we will exchange our corruptible body for one that will never perish. Again, it seems that Paul still believes that one day Jesus will return and at that time, the resurrection will take place and Jesus will redeem the whole world.

To properly understand Paul we have to see that Paul did not divide up the second coming of Jesus with a rapture. Paul writes as if they are the same event. Jesus will come in power and we will be resurrected. The folks that try to take Paul’s teaching in Thessalonians and make it fit into their timetable in Revelation are doing an injustice to both Paul and John of Patmos.
Paul: Controversies and Commitment Part Four
Paul on Election

One of the greatest area of debates centers on a couple of obscure passages about election and predestination. Some of concluded that Paul believed that God created some people for salvation and others for damnation. This is normally referred to as “double predestination.” Others believe that Paul taught that God elects some to salvation and leaves the rest in a state of fallenness and they will never respond positively to the gospel.

I want to proceed in two ways. First I want to examine some passages that have often been misunderstood and have led many peolple to believe that Paul beilved that God predestined some individuals to salvation and others to damnation. Then I will turn to one passage that makes clear what Paul believed!

The first of these passages occurs in Romans 8 when Paul says,

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

The argument says that God first predestines us and then he calls us before we are justified. It is said that Paul believed individuals were called and elected to salvation before they experience salvation. In response to this I would say three things.

Golden Chain of Calvinism: Foreknowledge- Predestined- Called- Justified- Glorified. However, Calvinists believe that God predestines not according to his foreknowledge, but rater he foreknows because he has predestined.
If God knows our future actions, then what the text could be saying is that those whom God knows will respond in a positive way, he will make sure that they are conformed to the likeness of Christ. After all, this is the goal of being a Christian.
It makes since then to say that those who are going on to be Christ-like would be call, justified, and then glorified.

The next passage also occurs in Romans. This time we find it in chapter 9. The passages in question can be summarized to say,

God commanded that Esau serve Jacob before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad-in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls…. It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy… Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden… Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

The context of chapter nine is located with a smaller segment of chapters 9-11 and within the broader context of 1-11. Chapters 1-3 make the argument that all people have sinned, Gentiles and Jews alike. 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Chapters 4-5 make the argument that even though the law showed us our sin, Abraham before the law was righteous before God because he believed in the promise. Paul says that Jesus is the promise and through one man, sin entered the world, through one man we can be righteous. Chapters 6-7 make the case that even though we cannot live by the law without sinning, we do not have an excuse for doing it now that we have Christ. In Chapter 8, Paul tells us to live by the Spirit, who will guide us. Chapters 9-11 are about what role Israel has in all of this. Romans 11:32 nicely sums up the first part of the book by saying, “For God has shut up all disobedience so that He may show mercy to all. The bondage of sin spreads to all, but thankfully, the offer of mercy is given to all.

The question being raised in Romans 9 is, “Has the word of God given to Israel failed?” This is a valid point, since Paul has argued that Jews and Greeks are both sinners and that salvation comes in Jesus, not in the Jewish law. Paul’s answer is as follows:

- Just because they are a descendant of Abraham, they are not children of the promise of Abraham. Paul uses the example of Jacob and Esau, who were both descendants of Abraham.
- Then Paul says God is totally just in bringing salvation to the Gentiles as well as the Jews because God has the right to act this way. Paul uses Pharaoh and the example of the potter and the clay to illustrate this.

- At the end of chapter nine, Paul says that the reason why Israel did not arrive at the salvation through the law was because they did not pursue it by faith and it was a stumbling block to them.

I conclude that God does show mercy on those whom he wills and Paul is using this to justify God’s choosing to show mercy to the Gentiles as well as the Jews through Jesus Christ. God is not withholding salvation to certain people, but including all people in the plan of salvation.

The final text in question is Ephesians 1.

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will… For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith- and this not from yourselves, it is a gift from God.

The first point worth noting is that the passage is more about what happens in Christ than about predestination.
1. every spiritual blessing in Christ
2. chosen in Christ
3. predestined us as adopted sons in Christ
4. Redemption in Christ
5. All things are summed up in Christ
6. Obtained an inheritance in Christ
7. Sealed in him.
8. Listened to the message of truth in Christ

Larger context: Paul is writing to gentiles who have now heard the gospel message. 2:11-15 tells that the gentiles were formally cut off from the commonwealth of Israel, but through Christ, the two have now become one. In 3:6, he says that the Gentiles are now fellow heirs of Christ and partakers of the promise. Paul uses this unity then in chapter four to encourage unity in the church.

Verse 1:13 makes it clear that In Christ the message was preached, but in order to be sealed with the Holy Spirit, it requires belief. 2:8 and 3:17 also suggest belief is the work of faith.

I want to look next at a passage that seems to say what Paul believed about election and predestination. In 1 Timothy 2, Paul urges Timothy to be in prayer for everyone.. WHY! Paul says,

This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants ALL people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for ALL people.

I added the all caps to ALL. This seems to say a great deal. Paul believed that God's offer of salavtion was both inclusive and exclusive. It was inclusive in that Paul believed that God desires the salvation of everyone, thus ruling out the view that says God elects some to salavation and others he leaves for damnation. Paul says that salvation is exclusive in that it comes soley through Jesus Christ, meaning that pluralism is not true. Not all paths are equal paths to God. Jesus is the way of salvation.

To summarize Paul’s view of election, I would say the following: (1) Israel was God’s elect nation, but they failed to be the light of the world that God wanted. (2) God chose to bring salvation to the world through Jesus Christ. (3) God chose to bring salvation to the Gentiles as well. (4) When anyone accepts Jesus by faith, they become one of the elect. (5) God’s predestination and election are not exclusive in that they are given to a select few, rather it is inclusive in that it involved God’s predetermined plan to bring salvation to the world through Jesus.

Paul: Controversies and Commitment Part Three
Was Paul a Male Chauvinist?

Paul did seemingly have some difficult things to say to women, especially when judged by 21st century standards. The simple answer to the question, “Was Paul a Male Chauvinist?” is absolutely, but so were all men in the Ancient Near East. Paul was a man who viewed the world as a 1st century person and we could not expect anything other than this. His world was dominated by men.

In light of this, maybe we should be asking a different question. Maybe the question should be, “How did Paul’s newfound faith in Jesus change the way he viewed women?” Instead of trying to make Paul one way or the other, we should instead try to understand how Paul wrestled with the grace of God and his male dominated view of the world.
To begin with, let’s examine again what may be Paul’s earliest letter, Galatians. In this letter, Paul makes an amazing statement, especially when we understand his male dominated world-view. In Galatians 3:28 Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Notice that Paul believed that in Jesus, all persons are equal. This makes sense when we look at Genesis and notice that the reason women were under the authority of men was the result of sin. If we find salvation in Jesus, then original creation is restored. The problem though is that most of society was not in Christ Jesus and they operated out of a different world view. So for Paul, the grace of God in Jesus meant that men and women were equal. If this is the case, how do we make sense of some of the other writings of Paul?

In 1 Corinthians we have two different places where Paul addresses the role of women. In both chapters 11 and 14 Paul is addressing issues with the Corinthian worship practices. His instruction to women in chapter 11 is to cover their head WHEN PRAYING or PROPHESEYING. If this is Paul’s instruction, then it must be assumed that women were praying and prophesying in church. This leads us to chapter 14 where Paul seems to contradict himself. He tells the women in verse 34 not to speak in the churches.

Remember again that Paul is trying to help the Corinthian church to bring order to their worship service. Apparently people are speaking in tongues and this gift is being valued above the other gifts that the spirit gives. Paul tells the Corinthians in chapter 12 that all gifts are equal, in chapter 13 that love is above all gifts, and in chapter 14 that prophecy is preferred because it builds up the whole church, not just the individual.

So, why does Paul tell the women to shut up in church when he has already told them to pray and prophesy with their heads covered? Honestly, I am not sure, but my theory is that the women were the ones causing the commotion both inside the church and outside of it. Let me explain. I think the women were taking their new fond freedom in Christ and using it in ways that offended those people outside the church and causing commotion in worship.

In chapter 11 Paul is trying to tell the women that they still need to follow the customs of the culture so that the church will still be credible to those on the outside. The last thing the church needed was to draw negative attention to themselves. As we have already seen, Paul is not a T-Totaller when it came to following the law or customs, but he did want the church to be respectable to the society. Although Paul believed women were free in Christ, we also believed in being a Jew for the Jews and a Gentile for the Gentiles. In order to reach those outside the church, those inside must be credible.

In chapter 14 I believe Paul is trying to solve the problem of the worship being disorganized and if I am right the women were the root cause of it, then it makes sense for him to instruct the women to be silent. I also think that he means they should be silent in the area of speaking in tongues, not necessarily in praying and prophesying. Remember, the problem is not that they are praying and prophesying, but that they are using tongues in the wrong way. To solve the problem, Paul told them to shut the tongues up!

In both Ephesians and Colossians Paul gives the Christians a household code to live by. In both these letters he addresses the roles of the husbands, wives, children, and slaves. In both letters he tells the wives to submit to their husbands, children to obey their parents and slaves to be obedient to their masters. In Paul’s day this was a no brainier. Everyone would have already known this. Paul does something different though. Paul adds to this the responsibly of the male. He is to love his wife and treat the children and slaves well.

In both of these passages Paul does believe the man is ahead of the household, but this would have been common sense in the 1st century. However, his Christian conviction causes him to tell the men to act like Christ towards those whom they are responsible for.

We also see Paul giving this same instruction to women in the pastoral letter of Timothy. He tells him that he is not to let women speak in church because men are over women. Rather, they are to submit and learn from the man. This is a rather odd passage to me because it seems to be somewhat out of character from the other passages that Paul uses to address these issues. Paul does say all of these things in other letters, but this letter does not add Paul’s though about the other side.

Some people may suggest that Paul did not write this and therefore we are clear of having to explain it. While this would be easy, it may not really be fruitful. I think the answer may lay again in the specific problem Paul is addressing. He may have had so much success with his advice to the Corinthians about women keeping quit that he decided to make it standard in all his churches. It also may be possible that the women who were uneducated in this culture were having a difficult time with understanding Paul’s teachings and they may have been leading people astray so Paul encouraged them to talk privately with their husbands. It could also have to do with the false teachers who seemed to follow Paul around misleading the women and in turn, they would mislead others in public worship.

Whatever the case may be, it is clear to me that Paul’s Christianity, while not eradicating his 1st century mindset, did lead him to changing some of his views. It appears that he did have helpers who were women. Women did prophecy and pray in the churches. Women were considered equal in Christ. Paul thought it was important to teach husbands how to love their wives. It seems that Paul actually had quite a radical view of women for his day and time.

While Paul was a radical in this issue, it is also clear that he was hesitant to allow the women’s new freedom to compromise the message of the gospel to those who were not Christians. Paul felt it was important to maintain societal norms in order to keep peace between the church and the culture.

Paul: Controversies and Commitment Part Two
Paul and the Law

If I were to try to find the most basic thought in Pauline theology I would say it is was his insistence that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was made available to both the Jews and the Gentiles. In his letter to the Romans, he writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” For Paul, this insistence meant that Gentiles could become Christians without becoming a Jew first.

In what may have been his first letter that we have, Galatians Paul lays out an argument for this very thing. In Galatians 1:6-10, Paul writes that his issue with the Galatians is that they have abandoned their faith in Christ for another gospel. This other gospel seems to be the teaching that the Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised in order to be a Christian. After defending his own apostleship, Paul launches into a two-step argument in Galatians 3 and 4.

In chapter 3 Paul begins by quoting two passages in Genesis about the life of Abraham. He says that God promised to bless the nations through Abraham and that Abraham believed this by faith and was righteous because of his belief. Paul’s conclusion is that anyone who has faith in God is blessed through Abraham. Paul then quotes several more OT passages and uses them to conclude that the law brings the opposite of faith. The law brings a curse.

In Pauline fashion or in the style of rhetorical writing, Paul handles two objections. First, why the law if it brings curses. Paul says that the law was an intermediary between the promise made to Abraham and the time of Jesus due to human sin. Secondly, Paul handles the objection that the law is then contrary to the promise. He responds by saying that it is not a contradiction, but a guide to Christ.

In Galatians 4, Paul adds the second step to the argument by comparing the law to a slave and the promise to a child.

Slave= Hagar = law
Child= Sarah= promise

The point Paul is trying to make is the both slaves and children are born under guardians, but one day, the child will be set free. We are all born as slaves to those things that we are not really gods until the day that we are set free because Jesus has made it so. We are now adopted as sons of God. Accepting the law is to go back into slavery.

Paul concludes that a Gentile should not be circumcised for two reasons. (1) The Jewish law is not necessary for salvation because of Jesus. (2) Being circumcised would mean going backwards from where you already are. The law was pointing ahead to Jesus and therefore is not necessary.

In the letter to the Romans, Paul makes a very similar argument. It is more in depth this time so I will only point out the things that he seems to add to the argument that he made in Galatians.

Before Paul gets to Abraham has an illustration of belief in the promise, he points out the both Jews and Gentiles are guilty of sin. In Romans 3 Paul equals the playing field by saying “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.” Paul then gives a different reason for the law and that reason was to reveal to humanity that they had indeed fallen short.

Paul then goes on to say that apart from the law, faith in Jesus will bring righteousness to people. Everyone has sinned and death is the result. However, everyone can be righteous because of Jesus Christ.

For Paul it seems the law had a three part function. (1) The law distinguished between Jews and Gentiles. (2) The law brought condemnation on the world. (3) Finally, and most importantly, the law pointed ahead to Jesus.

Just as Paul wrote and taught that Gentile Christians do not need the Jewish law to have salvation in Jesus, he did believe that behavior mattered. In both Galatians and Romans, the letters which primarily address the law verses grace, Paul goes on to explain the character in which a believer in Christ should have. We generally talk about these things as the fruit of the Spirit. In Galatians 5 Paul says that we should live by the Spirit and by doing so the spirit will produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. In the same vein, Romans explains that we are to live by the spirit rather than by our sinful nature.

It seems that although Paul truly believed that we were saved apart from the law, when we live by the Spirit of God we will instinctively follow the law. We will do this not by obeying the Old Testament rules and regulations, but by having a character changed by God.

Paul’s insistence upon an ethic of “love” also must play an important role in dealing with Paul and the law. Notice in Galatians, after the discussion about circumcision, Paul tells the Galatians to exercise their faith in love and not to use their new found freedom for selfishness, but to love their neighbor. In 1 Corinthians before dealing with a food dispute, Paul reminds the Corinthians that love builds up. He then goes on later to say that all things done without love amounts to nothing. In Romans Paul says that they should not own anyone anything accept love because love fulfills the entire law.

Although Paul may have had a small disagreement over what Gentile Christians needed to do in order to have salvation in Christ, he by no means believed behavior did not matter. Over and over again, we see Paul stressing the importance of obeying Christ. As a matter of fact, Paul continually reminds the Gentile Christians of how they were before they found Christ and how they should not act as a result of Christ.
Paul: Controversies and Commitment Part One

Paul, behind Jesus, was the most influential person in the development of Christianity. Paul’s letters are the earliest New Testament writings that we have. After Luke’s writings, it contains the most volume of any of the New Testament literature. However, if you follow the line of thinking that Luke was a disciple or follower of Paul, then Paul should get some credit for the content that Luke wrote. Of coarse there are some letters that Paul is traditionally given credit for in which scholars have recently cast some doubt upon. Even if this is true, there is not doubt these letters were at least written in the Pauline understanding of Christianity.

Paul being the most influential Christian thinker after Jesus has causes some to be uneasy. For example, Paul sometimes seems to negate the Jewish law and say that Christianity should be accepted entirely on faith and that salvation is solely the work of divine grace. Many women in particular find Paul’s words about women to be quite offensive. Oftentimes Paul is quoted to defend a view of Christianity in which God chooses some people for salvation and leaves the rest to damnation. Some groups of people use Paul to scare people into Christianity by saying that God will sometime soon rapture the church to heaven and then judge the rest of the world severely. To top in all off, Paul comes across at times as arrogant and self-righteous. In the following blogs, I hope to address some of these issues. Maybe I can help change some perceptions of Paul or maybe I will give you more ammunition to fire at him.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Baptism: What is it Good For
This blog is taken from interview questions that I was asked to prepare for. Some students at Chattanooga State are interviewing pastors for a reaserch paper. Here are my answers to the questions

What is the significance of Baptism in your church?

Being United Methodist, I have a long standing theology of baptism that goes back to John Wesley. Wesley believed that baptism was a sacrament of the church and that when an infant received baptism that person was regenerated (born again, saved). At the same time, Wesley also believed that a person had to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and make a profession of faith. The later Methodist had a hard time working out the tension in Wesley’s belief. While Methodist still practiced infant baptism, conversion and profession of faith were emphasized. Baptism became more symbolic than anything else. However, in the last 40 years or so, Methodism has experienced an awakening of sorts and is not rediscovering the meaning of baptism as a sacrament of the church. Therefore, the Wesleyan understanding of baptism incorporates both elements of Sacrament and Symbolism.

Baptism is a sacrament of the church in that it is a “physical object of creation that becomes the bearer of divine presence and therefore is a means of conveying God’s grace to us.” Baptism itself is not “salvation”, but it is one mean by which salvation can be experienced.

The sacramental view of baptism makes perfect sense in Wesley theology. We believe humanity was created in the image of God, capable of making a free decision to worship God. However, due to the fall, the image of God has been so distorted that we have no choice but to reject God. However, due to the grace of God and Jesus’ death and resurrection, the power of sin in our lives has been conquered. Through God’s grace we can repent and give ourselves back to God. It is God’s grace than enables us to see ourselves as a sinner and to repent. This grace is called “prevenient grace.” This is the grace that comes before. God’s prevenient grace works through the world we live in and calls us to repentance. Because of this grace, we can repent and be forgiven. Baptism is one of the ways in which God covey’s God’s saving grace. It is in baptism that we make a covenant with God and with the congregation. In making the covenant we are then a part of the body of Christ, the church.

Baptism is also a symbol in that we follow the example of Jesus when he was baptized in the gospel. Jesus also commanded us to “baptize one another.” The earliest disciples practiced baptism so we also baptize as they set the example. The water symbolizes the washing away of our sins. It is also the “outward sign of an invisible grace.” Baptism, like circumcision in the Old Testament is a sign of our commitment to God.

Who can be baptized?

The document “By Water and the Spirit” says, “There are no conditions of human life that exclude persons from the sacrament of baptism.” It then goes on to say that even if a person does not fully understand the implications of baptism, they can receive the sacrament because baptism is not about the person being baptized, rather it is about what God is doing to the person being baptized. We have no idea how God is working in their live. Again, Baptism is a means by which God offers salvation to the person being baptized.

This also means that the Methodist church performs infant baptism. We do this with integrity because we believe that God’s grace is a free gift that is offered to us without us doing anything to merit it. If this is the case, who better to receive the sacrament of baptism than an infant who has done nothing to deserve it? This is not the same thing a baby dedication. In baby dedication, the parents are making promised to God while in infant baptism; God is making promises to the child.

This does not mean that Methodist believe the child is some how magically regenerated. The infant will one day make a confession of faith and confirm the vows made at the baptism by the parents. At the same time, we believe that something special has happened to the child in that God has entered into a covenantal relationship with the child.

One of the best ways of explaining what happens in a sacrament is this: There are three aspects involved in a sacrament. Is it a (1) Valid Sacrament (2) Effective Sacrament (3) Normal Sacrament.? The first and primary role is played by God. God validates all sacraments. God is the one making the covenant with us and God always keeps God’s commitment. The second involves our role. We make the sacrament effective by our faith response. God has come to us and shown grace to us and enabled us to freely respond to God’s grace. When we respond in faith, the sacrament becomes effective in our lives. Finally, a normal sacrament is normal when it is done by the proper folks in the church.

Here is an example: Billy Bob and Mary Jo bring their infant son Harley to be baptized in the church. After the baptism, Billy Bob and Mary Jo move and fail to find a new church home. Harley grows us outside of church and does not really understand what is going on until finally one day his girl friend takes him to the Baptist Church revival and he goes forward and makes a profession of faith. Based on our three criteria you would say: Harley’s baptism was valid, because God validates it. Even though Harley did not confirm his baptism in the sixth grade, this was not fault of Gods. God was still working in his life the entire time. Harley’s baptism was made effective when he made his public confession of faith in the Baptist Church revival. (I hope he will come back to the Methodist! lol) Finally, it was a normal baptism because it was done in the church by the proper person.

According to your Church’s teachings, does baptism in, and of itself, suffice to make someone a Christian? Is there any permanent spiritual change to the person?

I would answer this question with a Yes and a No. Baptism is surely a means for making someone a Christian, but not by itself. In order for someone to become a Christian, they would have to respond positively to God’s grace in baptism. The amount of change a person makes as a result of the baptism would depend on their faith response to what God offered through the baptism. Baptism can be salvific (a means of salvation) when a person accepts God’s grace by faith.

Can a baptized Christian ever choose to be re-baptized within the Church? If the person who was baptized in a different Christian denomination chooses to join your Church, would they require baptism?

A person who is baptized cannot be rebaptized primarily because baptism is a gift of God’s grace that God is bestowing on us. God is the one making a commitment to us and by being rebaptized we are saying that God failed to live up to God’s commitment. I can understand a person wanting to be rebaptized because they have failed at their end of the commitment, but we should find other means to show this. The person can reaffirm their vows at baptism, since this is what they have failed to live up to. However, God was not the one who failed. Being rebaptized would signify that the whole baptism would be invalid and it is not.

The same is true for someone coming to the Methodist church from another denomination. Even when we may have some theological disagreements with other denominations, we recognize that the individual’s baptism is a gift from God and that it is valid because God is the primary player. Therefore, we accept any baptism from a Christian denomination.

Can someone who is not baptized, but who professes beliefs in your Church’s basic doctrines legitimately call him/herself a Christian? Can someone be “saved” or gain eternal life without baptism?

I know I have said this quite often, but again salvation, God’s grace, and baptism are all gifts from God. We do not do anything to earn or merit them. Being baptized is no different. Baptism is not the only means by which God gives salvation. Someone does not have to be baptized to have salvation. However, baptism is import for people who confess the Christian faith. While it may not be what saves a person, it surely represents the work and act of salvation that God is doing in your life. It is a means of God’s grace and it can be salvific. I would wonder why someone who professed to be a Christian would not want to be baptized. It is a way to open the door to Christian discipleship and growth. We would ask that someone be baptized when they join the church because baptism brings a person into the church universal and into the local church.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Chris Tomlin “O Favored One”

Again, for the second year in a row, Chris Tomlin stole the show at the Dove Awards, winning six categories, including best male vocal for the second year. There is no doubt Chris Tomlin is the most successful Christian artist out. Personally, I think some of the songs he has written are amazing and I am grateful for his hard work and dedication to God because through his work we all draw closer to God in worship.

I am somewhat perplexed about a comment that Chris Tomlin made after the Dove Awards when asked about his success. He responded by saying

He must increase and I must decrease. I know this is nothing that I do; I just know that the presence and favor of God is with me." I'm just overwhelmed by the whole thing." "Ultimately, all of this is the favor of God. I'm just trying to be faithful to God and continue to write songs that give people a voice to worship him."

The part of interest to me is the two reference to God's favor. It leads me to ask: (1) What does it mean for God to favor you. (2) How does a person become favored? (3) Why would Chris say the favor of God rest apon him and that is how he explains his success?

The best example of ‘Being Favored” in the Bible in my mind comes from the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The NRSV translates the angle’s announcement to Mary in Luke 1:28 to say, “Greetings, favored one.” Then in verse 30 the angels says that Mary has found “favor” with God. In the next chapter the angles appear to the Shepherds and sing “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors. (Luke 2:14)”

Each usage of the word “favors” has a different definition, however all three of the words have the connotation of “divine grace and acceptance.” Joel Green in his commentary on Luke summarizes the announcement to Mary as follows, “God has given his favor to one who had no claim to worthy status, raised her up from a position of lowliness, and has chosen her to have a central role in salvation history. (NICNT)”

If this is the definition Chris Tomlin is using in his comment, he is saying that God thatGod's favor or grace or acceptance falls upon him.

The next question is in regards to how a person is favored. If what I have said above is true, then being favored has nothing to do with who you are or what you do. It is a gift from God. In Mary’s case, she was a poor young woman, not a person of notable worth. However, God chose her to play an important role. I think Mary represents all of us in ways. None of us deserve merit from God; however, God shows grace to us. I am sure Chris Tomlin would admit that he has done nothing to merit God’s grace in his life; however, God does use him.

I also should note that Mary responds favorably to God’s grace. She says that she is the Lord’s servant. Chris Tomlin seems to have responded positively to God’s grace and calling. He is reaching a lot of people in the name of Jesus.

The answer to the third question is that Chirs Tomlin may have
a skewed definition of “Divine Favor.” Follow the logic with me.

Q- Why are you so popular?

A- God Favors me

Q- Why does God Favor You!

A- Because I am Popular

C- Therefore anyone who is not popular is not favored

This would mean that of all the people writing Christian music, God has chosen to show favor to Chris Tomlin as evidenced by his popularity. (1) I am positive that God uses lots of songwriters and singers besides Chris Tomlin. (2) Success in the world does not always equate with God being glorified. I think there are lots of people who say things that anger God, but in the eyes of the world would be successful. Mother Teresa did not make millions of dollars, but I am convinced that God showed her “favor” and blessed her work in Calcutta.

Let me close by saying that I think Chris Tomlin is a great worship leader who serves the church well. He is a faithful singer and song writer out of a response to God’s favor. HE is responding to the same grace that God shows all people. His music is one avenue that people use to worship. God also uses other singers, song writers, preachers, lay folks, etc. He often does not even use them in that order. Some lay folks are changing the world in more powerful ways than us preachers. I believe God shows us all “favor.” We all have a grace we do not deserve. Will we be a faithful as Chris Tomlin in responding to this grace?

I wish Chirs Tomlin would just say

1. God has blessed me with the gift of writing songs and leading worship

2. God has shown a tremendous amount of grace to me, therefore, I give my ability back to God.

3. God works in powerful ways with the gift that God has given me.

Therefore, I cannot take credit!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Where Do We Really Stand

In the book of Joshua the Hebrew people under Joshua’s leadership inhabit the “Promise Land.” I know there is a great amount of debate among scholars as to how this happened, but in the end, no matter how they arrived, they did get there. At the end of the book, after all the land has been divided, Joshua makes a memorable (or what should have been) speech. In Joshua 24 we have Joshua reminding the Hebrews of all the wonderful things that God had done for them in getting them to this place in their lives. He then issues this challenge,

"Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. 15 But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."
Then the people answered, "Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods! 17 It was the LORD our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. 18 And the LORD drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the LORD, because he is our God."

The remarkable think about this text is that Joshua is challenging them to serve God who has done all of these things for them. The only thing they have to do is give us their foreign gods.

It may be important at this point to explain why this may be such a difficult thing for them to do. In the Ancient Near East, people really believed that when you worshipped a deity, they would directly impact the world around you and they would either help you or hurt you. They would normally worship the god who they believed would do the most for them. Sometimes, instead of choosing one over another, they would just decided to worship several for good measure. If Yahweh, the god of the Hebrews did not work out, then they may turn to Baal, a Canaanite storm god.

According to the passage above, the people had decided to worship Yahweh because Yahweh was the god who would do the most for them. He was the one who had delivered. Then, Joshua responds to them by saying,

19 Joshua said to the people, "You are not able to serve the LORD. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. 20 If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you."
21 But the people said to Joshua, "No! We will serve the LORD."
22 Then Joshua said, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the LORD." "Yes, we are witnesses," they replied.
Joshua here seems pretty certain that they are just blowing smoke. He knows they are only doing this out of selfishness. He knows they only want something from God. He knows that they will never be willing to really commit. Joshua then says this,
23 "Now then," said Joshua, "throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel."
24 And the people said to Joshua, "We will serve the LORD our God and obey him."
Joshua asks them to yield their hearts to God. He asks them not to be half-hearted in serving God because they want something good; rather he wants them to be committed to God because of who God is!

The interesting thing is when you turn to the next book of the Bible, Judges 3, it says, “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD; they forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs.” Just after Joshua had passed away, the same people who had said they would serve the Lord were already worshipping other gods. Why? Because they were not committed to God, they were committed to themselves.

Ironically, I find Christianity in a similar vein. Why do we become a Christian? To escape Hell, to feel forgiven for our sinfulness, to get rich, to be popular, to be intelligent, to find some kind of emotional peace, to make our spouse happy. I could go on and on with my fragmented run-on sentence. The point is that often times we only use God and Jesus as a selfish gain instead of having an honest commitment. We are too far away from the Hebrews of old. We want God because it feels good instead of loving God because of who God is.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Tastes Great, But Less Filling

I do not know about you, but I am becoming more and more uncomfortable with where I see mainline Christianity going these days. When I look around at the trends I see in churches, I am reminded of the beer commercial that said, “It tastes great and it’s less filling.” I think the Christianity that is seen by most Americans looks good on the outside, but it fails to deliver in changing people’s lives. Most of the time I see Christians who are just as selfish as the ever were, but they have just clothed it in Christian language. I see Christians who are greedy with their money, who have a total lack of interest when others in the world are starving, who want to turn to violence whenever a conflict happens, who worship Christian stars instead of God, who use the Bible to exclude others from the church…. I could go on and on.

I know that last paragraph was pretty harsh, but I think it needs to be because I believe the church desperately needs a wake up call. Before I move into some specifics, I do want to say that I believe Jesus was and is God and I believe that Jesus came to bring salvation to the world. I am not criticizing Jesus at all; I am criticizing out lack of effort in trying to actually follow Jesus. I believe when the church truly seeks to understand and follow Jesus, the church transforms the culture. When the church seeks to follow its own selfishness, the church allows the culture to transform it.

That being said, here are several issues I see the church having to really work on in the future:

1. Pop-Christianity: When I survey the places I see the church growing I am reminded of my middle school days when New Kids on the Block was famous. Every girl in my middle school was swept up by this band. Of coarse there have been several bands that have replaced New Kids on the Block as the popular band, but the phenomenon is still the same. It seems that we always want somebody to be famous so we can look up to them.

When I look at the contemporary Christian movement, I see a similar pattern. We, even as Christians want to place our worship leaders and great speaks as celebrities so that we can look up to them. We hang on every word they say and every lyric they sing without ever stopping to wonder if it is actually Biblical or not. We flock into churches that put on weekly concerts where the music vibrates in your chest. We watch live rock stars that are flown in from out of town perform and then we say we have experienced God. We listen to the same speakers over and over and we begin to think the words they have spoken must be the only way to every read the Bible.

2. Prosperity Christianity: The greatest challenge our society has is that we are greedy. Our whole economy is based upon greed. We are always asking ourselves how we can get more money and accumulate more things.

My wife always runs in to turn the channel when I watch the Trinity Broadcasting Network because I get so angry at what I see. I normally hear the message that if you give money to God by donating to TBN, then God will bless you monetarily and spiritually. If you just have enough faith, God will heal you from your sickness. It seems to me that we are taking the same principles we find in our society and making them Christian so that we do not have to face our greed problem.

3. Calvinistic Christianity: The fastest growing group of Christians is among Calvinists. Calvinism is a theological system passed down from John Calvin. One of the things that distinguish Calvinism from other theological systems is that they teach that God elected or chose particular people before the world was formed to receive salvation. This means that all of those persons who were not chosen or elected, God chose to pass over, leaving them outside of God’s mercy and grace and leaving them condemned to their sins.

One of the reasons I think many people are turning to Calvinism is that this type of theology allows for persons to exclude the people who are different from them. If you believe God excludes most of humanity, then as human, we surely have the same right to be exclusive on earth.

For the time being I have pointed out three things that I see as becoming popular among Christians today and I find all three of these things troubling. The main reason they are so bothersome to me is that they seem to go against the very things that Jesus himself modeled in his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus taught us that we were to worship God only, that we were to pick up our own cross and follow Jesus. We are to be inclusive in that Jesus welcomed people who were on the outside of society.

The gospel was never meant to be easy or comfortable. Jesus’ choice to follow God meant that he would die on a Roman cross. Paul’s choice to follow Jesus meant that he would also die at the hands of the Romans. Christianity is not popular or cool. It is a dangerous and hard commitment. I do think that God wants us to be BLESSED, not necessarily HAPPY all the time. Blessed is a peace that comes from the inside that tells us in the midst of life, God is with us. It is a joy that does not always taste great, but it will always be filling.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Screwtape and the Christian Life

I have just finished reading the book Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis. This makes the third time I have read the book and I love it every time. The book contains fictional letters written from a demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood. Wormwood is a young tempter who is trying to make sure his patient rejects God. Throughout the book, Screwtape gives advice to Wormwood through these letters. Lewis deals with a number of themes related to the Christian life as he cleverly writes these letters.

Screwtape’s first effort is to help Wormwood keep his patient from becoming a Christian by keeping him from thinking about Christianity as true or false, ut for him to see it as just another opinion. Once he fails at this and his patient becomes a Christian, he tries to get Wormwood to attack his patient’s Christian faith by leading him to worldly friends, attacking his chastity, and by attacking several important aspects of his spiritual and devotional life. When this fails, Wormwood thinks he can lead his patient down the wrong road by using the war to break his faith. Screwtape tells Wormwood to keep him alive because if he were to die in the war, all hope would be lost for leading him away from God. Sure enough, Wormwood looses and his patient dies in a bombing raid.

In the last letter Screwtape says that in the end the patient saw Wormwood, who had been tempting him and then understood all along all the things that had been negatively affecting him. Reading this book for the third time made me raise some interesting questions about spiritual warfare. Do we really have a demon or demons who are out there trying to tempt us? Do we also have angles helping us? How real is spiritual warfare?

Most of the time I attribute my sin to the fact that I am a fallen person who still has some pride issues. When I think about all the things that I have done wrong, I can’t help but realize how selfish I truly am. I can account for all my wrong doing by attributing it to myself. However, thinking about spiritual warfare makes me wonder how much of the things I do can be attributed to evil forces in the world.

Even if there are demons in the world, I guess the main point is that I have to be able to take responsibility for my own actions. If we believe temptations are psychological or produced by demonic forces, we are the ones who can say yes or no to the temptation. In taking responsibly, we can also take action by praying that God would give us the means to lead us away from temptation and that God would deliver us from evil. After all, Jesus died on the cross to defeat the evil in the world.