Friday, December 16, 2011

On the death of Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens passed from this world into the next yesterday (Dec. 15, 2011). Based on his world view, he passed into nothingness. Based on a biblical worldview – which I believe teaches “true” reality -  he passed either into the presence of God forever, or into separation from the presence of God forever. Sadly, every indication points to the second of these two being his destiny. Hitchens affirmed his atheism until the last. But Hitchens was more than an atheist – he was an anti-theist.

What’s the difference?
An atheist does not believe in God. An anti-theist not only does not believe in God but also vehemently speaks against the God he doesn’t believe in. His 2007 book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, with chapter titles like, “The ‘New’ Testament  Exceeds the Evil of the ‘Old’ One", makes his views clear. He wanted religion (all religion, not just Christianity) destroyed.
Assuming he had no death-bed change of belief, what should we think about the death of such a man?
On the one hand, I rejoice that the voice of an enemy is silenced. He’s not alone in his views, and I suspect others will rise to fill the void in the voices-against-God. But I will not miss his wicked words.
But on the other hand, I do not rejoice in the ultimate fate of this person who, despite his anti-theistic views, was created in the image of God but, because he rejected the free gift of eternal life through Christ, is now forever separated from God. His fate is just, but sobering.  The Bible, which Hitchens rejected, says, “Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,” declares the Lord God, “rather than that he should turn from his ways and live? (Ezek. 18:23, 33:11). I rejoice God deals justly with the wicked, but it is sad that even this evil, wicked man never understood the grace of God.

Monday, November 7, 2011

I'm part of the 99%

I am part of the 99%. I’m one of the people in our country that has less than the top 1%.

So what? (and please, read this with the sarcasm I intend!)

Before you begin throwing rocks at me, let me add a few disclaimers:

1. I know some in our culture have made money through less-than-scrupulous means. The Bernie Madoff’s of the world should be dealt with. I am not advocating “anything goes”.

2. I know some corporations have acted in less than scrupulous ways, and should be dealt with. But, remember that “corporations” don’t do anything. People within the corporations do things.

3. I know the poor need legitimate help, appropriate to their situation and according to biblical principles. I am not advocating we ignore those truly in poverty, here or abroad.

4. I know we face some serious economic questions. College education is expensive, and the crisis of school loan debt is real. Medical costs and medical insurance costs are high. I don’t have any easy answers to these questions. I simply do not want to convey that I am minimizing these or other real social issues.

5. I know the tax code is a mess and needs serious re-working.

So, then, why do we throw rocks at the top 1%? Maybe because we feel it’s “not fair” that they have more than the 99%. Or, perhaps it’s because it’s much easier to throw rocks at a small group to which we don’t belong than to look at ourselves.

Why don’t we get upset with the top 50%? Or the top 25%? Why don’t we demand they give up some of their money?

I recently looked at the 2010 census data concerning income. Did you know that roughly 50% of the households in America make more than $60,000 per year and slightly more than 25% earn more than $100,000 per year? (25% is roughly 20 million families). If these top 25% would each just throw in an extra $1,000 per year, we’d have an extra $20 billion in the whatever-the-money-should-go-to fund.

But whether we throw rocks at the top 1%, or top 25%, or top 50%, the fundamental flaws behind the rock-throwing are the same. Here’s what I see behind the scenes:

1. A belief that wealth is inherently evil. Another verison of this is "I believe if they have more wealth than me, it's particularly bad". The Bible does not teach wealth is evil! (see my previous post, cleverly called “Is Wealth Inherently Evil?”).

2. A belief that saving isn’t good - at least, we should rethink our 401(k) plans and such. The Bible does not teach against saving. In fact, Proverbs 13:22 says, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children” and Proverbs 30:25 commends the ant for preparing in the summer for their later needs. Saving is not condemned in Scriptures.

3. A belief that we should redistribute the wealth of those who have to those who do not (key problem, though, is how do you define “those who have”?). Some, wrongly, claim Acts 2:44-47 as normative for culture today. However, the difference between voluntarily pooling resources within the church to care for the needs of the church and a government or some other external agency forcibly redistributing resources is huge. We’ve seen two examples of this (forced redistribution) that have been found wanting and have created more problems than they solved. One is called welfare, the other is called socialism. Nowhere in the Bible is the Acts 2 circumstance prescribed as normal. The norm in Scripture is to work for what we get (e.g., 2 Thess. 3:10-12)

4. Closely related is a belief that corporations are generally bad (if not all, then at least many) and should give away their earnings. One person recently wrote that "Maybe God’s dream is for the bankers to empty their banks and barns so folks have enough food for today.” (By the way – if you know who said this, (a) don’t post his name, and (b) I’m not criticizing him, just using a statement he made to make a point). Keep in mind that many corporations are useful and have nothing morally questionable attached to their reputation. (If you don’t think corporations are useful, check out the name of the manufacturer of the computer or phone you are using to read this post!). Corporate decisions are made by and carried out by people. So, if a corporation is involved in something questionable, call the people involved into accountability and picket the specific company directly! Without corporations, we’d have far less wealth in our country to worry about. We’d have little to redistribute.

Okay, having said all that, what is the heart of the issue?

It’s not business; it’s not wealth; it’s not the 1% (or the 25% or the 50%).

It’s the heart.

Greed and its ugly twin sister materialism are at the heart of the problem. It’s not wealth that Scripture condemns; it is greed and “the love of money”. And greed isn’t defined by what someone has; it’s defined by what he thinks about what he has, whether a little or a lot.

Let’s quit throwing rocks at those who have; let’s quit demanding that they give their stuff to us. Let’s look in our own wallet and choose to be selfless and generous with what we have. Let’s challenge those with whom we have influence to be generous. Let’s help young people learn to stay out of debt (I’m convinced consumer debt puts too many people in the “I don’t have enough to make ends meet” category) and help those in the debt mess learn how to get out. Let’s get out of our comfort zones and help those who need help – in ways that really meet their long term needs.

We have some real problems in our culture. Most, however, we can solve by beginning at home, not by throwing rocks at Wall Street or at the 1%.

I am part of the 99%. I am part of the solution.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Is Wealth Inherently Evil?

Whether from “Occupy Wall Street” or from the blogs of some Christian writers or from certain books addressing poverty, I repeatedly hear the message sometimes implied and sometimes directly that “wealth is evil”. Is this true?

The answer is a resounding, “Absolutely not!” Unlike pornography, which is inherently evil, money itself has no moral value, positive or negative. Our attitudes toward wealth can become problematic. The tendency of those with wealth is to think they are self sufficient (i.e., no need for God), to use their wealth as power, and to be selfish. But the problem lies in the person, not the wealth. And it’s a tendency, not an absolute truth.

                 Want some biblical examples that support wealth is not necessarily bad?
Abraham was “very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold” (Gen. 13:2). Never is he chastised or criticized in Scripture for being wealthy.
God reminds Israel that it is He Himself "who is giving you the power to make wealth” (Deut. 8:18).
Hannah, in her prayer of dedication of Samuel, acknowledges, “The LORD makes poor and rich; He brings low, He also exalts” (1 Sam. 2:7)
The Psalmist says of the man who fears the LORD, “wealth and riches are in his house” (Ps. 112:3).
Proverbs applauds the reward of labor when it says “Poor is he who works with a negligent hand, but the hand of the diligent makes rich” (Prov. 10:4) and “Wealth obtained by fraud dwindles, but the one who gathers by labor increases it” (Prov. 13:11).
Proverbs also affirms the benefit of ownership and wealth, “House and wealth are an inheritance from fathers” (Prov. 19:4a).
Solomon concludes “Furthermore, as for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, he has also empowered him to eat from them and to receive his reward and rejoice in his labor; this is the gift of God” (Eccl. 5:19).
And Paul addresses attitude, not wealth itself, when he tells Timothy to “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (1 Ti. 6:17-18).
Now, having said this, do I believe “all is fair in love and making money”?
Absolutely not.
Wealth obtained fraudulently, by theft, by other illegal activity, or by some sort of human rights abuse (and I mean real human rights abuse, like slavery or sex trafficking) is, as Hawkeye Pierce put it, “ill-gotten booty” (stealing a line from the TV show MASH, although I have no idea which episode!). As the Proverbs say, “Wealth obtained by fraud dwindles…” (13:11) and “He who oppresses the poor to make more for himself or who gives to the rich will only come to poverty”.
I acknowledge the Scriptures contain multiple warnings about the danger of riches, especially the danger of feeling self-sufficient and the danger of oppressing the poor. But the warnings apply to attitudes about wealth, not the wealth itself (1 Tim. 6:9).
So, if we are among the wealthy, what should we do?
Be generous. Give to legitimate needs. Generously.
Be helpful to those who need help (such as the poor), which does not mean “just throw money at the problem”. (Read When Helping Hurts by S. Corbett and B. Fikkert to see one paradigm about how to really help. What we should do depends on the circumstances of the one who needs help. You won’t agree with everything they say, but that’s okay.)
Be careful. Trust in God, not in our own abilities and what we own.
Be careful (part 2). Avoid using credit debt, and if we already in it, get out! Some of us have built so much debt we have functionally lost access to our resources so we cannot be generous (i.e., we pay the bills and have too little left).
Be fair and just to those who work for you.
Be kingdom focused. That doesn’t mean we stop working here to build wealth; it means thinking differently about how to use our wealth. As David Platt says, “Why not begin operating under the idea that God has given us excess, not so we could have more, but so we could give more?” (Radical, 127, emphasis his). Enjoy what God gives (Eccl. 5:19, 1 Tim. 6:17b), but limit our lifestyle so we have the freedom to be generous.
No one is entitled to the wealth of the rich. That’s called “welfare” or, in its more serious forms, “socialism”. Interestingly, when we hear “rich” we usually think, incorrectly, it means “someone with more than I have”. Compare what you make with the rest of our culture… and then the rest of the world. Many of us - a high percentage of Americans - are rich but we don’t think we are! We are fooled. We want to point at the 1% forgetting that many of the 99% is still rich! Those of us with resources should choose to give generously; which is something much different than someone taking our resources and redistributing them for us.
Wealth isn’t bad; greed and selfishness are. Be generous with what God has given you.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A review of "Radical"

I haven't written in some time...

Some time ago, I was asked to write a review of David Platt's "Radical" for another site. I love his premise; but I have some significant problems with some of his specifics. Thought I'd post the review here, even tho' it's a bit long for a blog post.

A Review of David Platt’s Radical
Roger Fankhauser, D.Min.

David Platt makes a needed challenge in his book, Radical, as condensed in the subtitle, Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream.[1] He summarizes the book with these words:
Throughout this book we have explored a variety of bold claims about our purpose in life that are contained in the gospel yet contradicted in the American dream. Claims such as these: Real success is found in real sacrifice. Ultimate satisfaction is found not in making much of ourselves but in making much of God. The purpose of our life transcends the country and culture in which we live. Meaning is found in community, not individualism; joy is found in generosity, not materialism; and truth is found in Christ, not universalism. Ultimately, Jesus is a reward worth risking everything to know, experience and enjoy. (183)
He then challenges his readers to try a radical experiment: for one year, to pray for the entire world, to read through the entire Word, to sacrifice their money for a specific purpose, to spend their time in another context (such as a missions trip), and to commit their life to a multiplying community (church). (185)

Many of the principles in the book hit the mark, and provide a cry for believers to get out of their comfort zones and follow the Jesus of the Bible (13), a cry that churches and Christians need to hear. He wants the reader to abandon the “American Dream” version of Christianity, with focus on the self, and instead radically follow Jesus. He wants the church to actively and radically commit to global missions, including giving generously to the poor. I agree wholeheartedly with his overall goals. However, the problems in the book prevent me from recommending this work to anyone except those with a strong knowledge of the Scriptures who can “filter out” the problems and appropriately apply those principles that are biblically valid. The problems center on the author’s view of the gospel and evidence of salvation in the life of the believer.
Platt begins with a challenge that the church, as a whole, has “missed what is radical about our faith and replaced it with what is comfortable” (7).  He believes that following Christ demands total devotion to Christ, and a willingness to give up anything (“radical abandonment”, 10) in order to follow Him. He acknowledges the high cost of discipleship but wonders (rightfully), if the cost of nondiscipleship is even greater. So, he asks, do we really believe He is worth following as Jesus commands us to follow, not as “a nice, middle-class, American Jesus” (13)? “We need to return with urgency to a biblical gospel” (19).

In developing his definition of the gospel, Platt says that it is fundamentally “the revelation of who God is, who we are, and how we can be reconciled to him” (28). And so he summarizes:
This is the gospel. The just and loving Creator of the universe has looked upon hopelessly sinful people and sent his Son, God in the flesh, to bear the wrath against sin on the cross and to show his power over sin in the Resurrection so that all who trust in him will be reconciled to God forever. (36)
If Platt had stopped here, his gospel message as it pertains to eternal life  would be clear and concise (see my earlier post on the meaning of "gospel"). It is at this point, however, that the author takes a wrong turn. Even though he used the words “all who trust in him”, he then invites the reader to “consider with me the proper response to this gospel” (37), which, he says “surely evokes unconditional surrender of all that we are and all that we have to all that he is” (37) and that each of us “need to consider whether we have ever truly, authentically trusted in Christ for our salvation” (37). He presents a caricature of many gospel presentations, adding what he sees as correctives: 
We have been told all that is required is a one-time decision, maybe even mere intellectual assent to Jesus, but after that we need not worry about his commands, his standards, or his glory. We have a ticket to heaven, and we can live however we want on earth.  Our sin will be tolerated along the way…. Here the gospel demands and enables us to turn from our sin, to take up our cross, to die to ourselves, and to follow Jesus… Jesus is no longer one to be accepted or invited in but one who is infinitely worthy of our immediate and total surrender. (38-39)
In His caricature, he presents a straw man, that “we can live however we want…. our sin will be tolerated along the way”. I know of no one who teaches this; and his argument certainly runs counter to Paul’s words in Romans 6:1-2! Believers who sin run the risk of serious consequences, including the possibility of physical death. Anyone who tries to be honest with the Scriptures would not teach that “we need not worry about his commands”.
He recognizes that his corrective makes salvation sound as if it is a result of obedience, but says we are saved from our sins by a free gift of God of grace. This gift of grace, however, changes our hearts so that we “want Him so much that we abandon everything else to experience him. This is the only proper response to the revelation of God in the gospel” (39). I agree with the author’s desire to challenge believers to radically follow Christ, but his gospel definition has blurred the distinctions between our change in legal standing before God (justification) and our practical living (sanctification). He here (and throughout the book) implies that one who has truly, authentically trusted Christ is necessarily a disciple / follower of Christ.  He necessarily links certain actions and attitudes of the person to their eternal standing, as will be seen in his discussion of reaching the poor. And so, at best, what is required for salvation becomes unclear.

Having given his definition of the gospel, he next reminds the reader, correctly, that the source of the power to live radically for Jesus does not come from their own strength.  He warns the reader about letting “American dream” mentality creep into the church, instead of relying on the power of God to accomplish His purposes. Referencing the early church, he concludes, “I cannot help but long to be a part of this kind of scene in the church today. A scene where we refuse to operate in a mind-set dominated by an American dream that depends on what we can achieve with our own abilities…. A scene where the church radically trusts in God’s great power…” (53). The source of that power is the Holy Spirit. Platt incorrectly implies, using Luke 11:13 (“… how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”), that God will give us the Holy Spirit in answer to our prayers, rather than understanding that the Spirit already indwells us (Rom. 8:9). Despite this flaw, however, he rightly argues that real power flows from the Holy Spirit, not from our own abilities.
The specific application Platt addresses that requires this power is extending God’s glory to the ends of the earth. “Jesus commands us to go. He has created each of us to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.” He desires that “our hearts should be consumed with making the glory of God known in all the nations” (77), a desire in line with Matt. 28:19-20. Anything less than radical devotion to this end, he argues, is unbiblical Christianity (64). And, he concludes, the command to take the gospel to the ends of the earth is intended for each follower of Christ. We are to “be consumed with making the glory of God known in all the nations” (77). However, “it is not uncommon to hear Christians say, ‘Well, not everyone is called to foreign missions.’” (72). Unfortunately, he is unclear about whether a follower of Jesus can have a legitimate passion for ministries at home (I use the word “legitimate” to differentiate those who are actively involved in some form of ministry and those who, in reality, use these words to excuse themselves from any ministry). Platt does include a few examples of work on home soil, but in other places, his words communicate a different message:

As we have seen all over Scripture, God’s heart is for the world. So when we say we have a heart for the United States, we are admitting that we have a heart for 5 percent of God’s heart, and we are proud of it. (76)
His use of a percentage like this is misleading. I have a friend who will soon be moving to Kolkata, India. I would never describe him as having a heart for only one quarter of one percent of God’s heart!

I do not disagree that the average Christian in the United States needs to become more globally involved with  God’s purposes in the world, but what becomes unclear in Platt’s writings is whether a believer can have a commitment to world missions, with a specific passion to carry it out on a local level. I think of my daughter who has committed five years (and counting) of her life to serving full time in an inner city ministry in a major U.S. city. She has a passion to reach the world, but the venue God has given her is within the U.S. I think his intent is “both / and”, but his words tend to convey only the “uttermost”.  Acts 1:8, however, says the disciples would be witnesses not just in the uttermost parts of the world but also at home (Jerusalem and Judea).
The next question Platt addresses is, “How do we make God’s glory known to all the nations?” (87, emphasis his). His answer is, “The megastrategy of Jesus: make disciples” (90). His views of disciple-making are healthy. “Any Christian can do this” (90), implying that all believers should be involved in making disciples. The process of making disciples, he argues, is not programs and classes (although he acknowledges they have their place), but happens in the context of relationships. And in that context, “making disciples is not an easy process. It is trying. It is messy. It is a slow, tedious, and even painful at times” (93). He challenges his readers to be reproducers of God’s Word, not simply receivers of it. Instead of asking what we can get out of it, he says we should instead ask “How can I listen to God’s Word so that I am equipped to teach this Word to others?” (102).

Platt then moves to a “blind spot” in American Christianity – materialism, and the related issue of neglect of the poor. After a brief introduction to the problem of global poverty, he concludes, “Anyone wanting to proclaim the glory of Christ to the ends of the earth must consider not only how to declare the gospel verbally but also how to demonstrate the gospel visibly in a world where so many are urgently hungry” (109). I agree with Platt that this is a huge global need, one the church cannot ignore. But, while he makes some valid points which I will discuss below, the connections he makes between reaching the poor and our salvation reinforce the confusing gospel he presented earlier in the book:
The Bible nowhere teaches that caring for the poor is a means by which we earn our salvation. The means of our salvation is faith in Christ alone, and the basis of our salvation is the work of Christ alone. (109).
On this, I agree. But then he adds these strong statements:

Yet, while caring for the poor is not the basis for our salvation, this does not mean that our use of wealth is totally disconnected from our salvation. Indeed, caring for the poor (among other things) is evidence of our salvation… Caring for the poor is one natural outflow and a necessary evidence of the presence of Christ in our hearts. If there is no caring for the poor in our lives, then there is reason to at least question whether Christ is in our hearts. (110, emphasis his)
The phrase, “a necessary evidence” trumps the words “there is reason to at least question”. It carries more weight than that. In the realm of logic, a “necessary” condition is “what is required for something to be the case”.[2] In other words, in this case, if care for the poor is missing, the person is not saved (justified), based on Platt’s words. I hope he simply chose his words poorly, but this does not seem to be the case: “More pointedly, if our lives do not reflect radical compassion for the poor, there is reason to wonder if Christ is really in us at all” (111), and “rich people who neglect the poor are not the people of God…. What scares me most, though, is that we can pretend that we are the people of God” (115), and “Our neglect of the poor illustrates much about where our hearts lie. But even more than that, the way we use our money is an indicator of our eternal destination.” (138).

I agree that care for the poor is a blind spot for many believers and churches and is an issue in which the church must become more involved. It is an issue I am evaluating in my own life. Platt, however, makes it a subjective test of one’s justification. But, failure to have a passion for the poor can come from many different problems, including ignorance of the problem and/or how to address it, maturity, disobedience, and so on. But these are all sanctification issues, not justification issues. To necessarily link the two results in evaluating one’s legal standing based on works, not on the object of faith, Jesus Christ and his work on the cross.
Despite this serious error, Platt does offer some sound counsel in this chapter. First, he reminds the reader that wealth is not inherently evil; that the Bible does not condemn riches. Second, he challenges the false assumption in our culture that if we follow God, He will necessarily bless us financially. Third, he questions the financial priorities of the American church: “Every year in the United States, we spend $10 billion on church buildings” (118). Fourth, he raises the question of whether we trust Jesus enough to meet our needs when we give radically. Fifth, he asks, “Why not begin operating under the idea that God has given us excess, not so we could have more, but so we could give more?” (127, emphasis his). He closes with the challenge that “You and I both have a choice. We can stand with the starving or with the overfed… We can stand with Jesus while we give away our wealth, or we can walk away from Jesus while we hoard our wealth” (140).

After reminding he reader that God has no “Plan B”, that is, that God chooses to use His people to carry the gospel to the uttermost parts of the world, Platt closes his main argument by pointing to the “risk and reward of the radical life.” After reminding the reader of the concept that the world will hate his followers because it hated Him, he transitions to the reward that comes from following Jesus: “Are we willing to obey the orders of Christ … Are we willing to risk our lives to go to great need and great danger… to accomplish an eternally significant task and achieve an eternally satisfying reward?” (171). He summarizes:
Yes, Jesus promises great reward, but his reward looks much different than what we might expect. The reward of the American dream is safety, security, and success found in more comfort, better stuff, and greater prosperity. But the reward of Christ trumps all these things and beckons us to live for eternal safety, security, and satisfaction that far outweigh everything this world has to offer us” (171-172).
Although he does not address the concept of reward for the believer at the Bema seat, I agree wholeheartedly with his overall point that the choice that ultimately it costs us more to not follow Christ than it costs to follow Him. The benefit of discipleship far outweighs the cost. He concludes that the key to taking back our faith from the American dream is recognizing that death is a reward and believing that this world is not our home (179).
He closes the book by inviting the reader to the experiment mentioned at the beginning of this review, “to see if radical obedience to the commands of Christ is more meaningful, more fulfilling, and more gratifying than the American dream” (184).
In summary, Platt offers a compelling call to set aside the “American Dream” version of the Christian life, and to radically follow Jesus. This offer calls us to follow the real Jesus, to wholeheartedly embrace being a biblical disciple. As a whole, what he addresses is a necessary wake-up call for the American church. Unfortunately, in the midst of his offer, he offers a seriously flawed gospel and a seriously flawed view of works as “necessary” evidence of the presence of Christ in the believer’s life. I would challenge us to take the key concepts presented in the book, rework them in the context of the right gospel, with a correct understanding of the connection between discipleship and our justification, and seriously confront the American church to be radical for Jesus Christ.

[1] David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2010). Future references to the book will list within the text of this review the page number(s) cited from the book.
[2]  Julian Baggini and Peter S. Fosl, The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 158.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Back from Africa

After a long absence from my blog, I thought I’d post a short (?) summary about my trip to Ghana this summer:

This marked the fifth year God allowed me to travel to Ghana. And each trip, despite some similarities, is different! This year, it rained. And rained. And rained. I think we had more rain this summer than we had the previous four summers combined! Coming from 100+ degree heat in Texas, and no rain to speak of in months, it felt great, but it did impact our free time and it hindered some from attending. And this year, I led the team for the first time. Since I already knew the general routine, and we had no “rookies” with us this trip, it wasn’t hard, but it felt a bit different being “the man” J . And this year, most of those attending the conferences were new to us.

In Accra, we had some new and some returning participants, but in Abetifi, everyone was new to us. The denominational leadership we worked with the last four years had transferred to a different region, and all the participants from last year graduated from the program. So, with all new faces, we weren’t sure how we would be received. We were, in fact, very well received – maybe even more enthusiastically than before (and the previous group was very enthusiastic!). In previous years, the participants were local church leaders, but this year, the participants were all pastors. Since there are more churches in the region than pastors, each pastor is responsible for several churches – up to six! So, even though the total number of participants was down from previous years, the training actually impacted more churches.

Every year, I ask the question, “why go back”? Here’s one reason, from one of those who attended in Accra: “I can tell from the teaching of this subject that the sermons I have been hearing are not based on genuine knowledge of how to study the Bible… I really don’t hear the Word. I am also guilty because for many years of preaching and I have followed in the same line of what I now disapprove. I have never been exposed to this method of studying the Bible so pray with me that I will faithfully become a disciple and peach from very deep and genuine study of the Word. Would you permit me to arrange for such teachings to be conducted for some others?” The “method” looks at the test to determine what the original author communicated to his audience, then thinks through how that applies in a given cultural context (“Observation – Interpretation – Application”).

And then there are people like David, a local farmer we met last year. On a day the rain let up enough to get out, we walked to his farm, hoping we could see him and his family again. David saw us walking up the road and ran to meet us! We talked about many things, including the gospel, and, just was we were about to leave, his brother walked up carrying five coconuts he had just cut out of one of their trees. We knew we couldn’t leave just yet. He cut the tops off the coconuts, and we enjoyed both the refreshing coconut milk the fresh meat. It’s difficult being half a world away and wondering how the family is doing, and wondering how God is moving in their lives. Please pray for David and his family!

And there is the commitment and passion of those who attend. Just as the last training session in Abetifi started, the power went out, which is not an unusual event. Todd, a friend from Arizona who was part of the team, was about to begin teaching Romans 8, verse by verse. But, with no power, the room was pitch black, with only the glow of Todd’s computer screen lighting the room. He asked if they wanted to continue in the dark, and they all enthusiastically said “YES”! For the next hour, they listened and took notes by the light of their cell phones (an aside: almost everyone has a cell phone; they buy minutes as they go.) Their enthusiasm to listen and learn was humbling. Their response sparked in me a greater passion for learning God’s Word! (Just as Todd finished the session, the power came back on!)

My repeated praise is that it is an incredible blessing to be able to pass on some of the training I received (2 Tim. 2:2). I hope to return to Ghana again, and other doors may open as well (I’ve recently been invited to Nepal, which is an interesting story in itself – at least to me!)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Straw men - Make Believe Arguments

Straw man arguments.
This is probably not one of my more interesting posts (no comments, please!), but I’m tired of seeing them when someone tries to build the correctness of their view.
Why do we create a caricature of someone’s position, attack that caricature, and think we’ve advanced our own view? We set up a story that doesn’t really represent the view of another, knock that view down, and think we’ve won. However, the logic in this is seriously flawed! It’s called a “straw man argument”. These show up everywhere – in personal arguments, in politics, everywhere. Sadly, this approach even pops up in Christian contexts. Here’s one example:
“If there’s going to be an Armageddon, and we’ll be in heaven already raptured up just in time, it really doesn’t matter if you have acid rain or greenhouse gases prior to that. Or, for that matter, whether you bombed civilians in Iraq. All that really matters is saving souls for that disembodied heaven”.
This author tries to make the point that his view of the kingdom and heaven is more biblical than the traditional view (which includes, “when I die, I will be in heaven”). Some people who don’t agree with his view might well believe that “it doesn’t really matter”, but I doubt that’s the main teaching of Bible-based Christianity. I, for one, believe that we enter heaven at the moment of death and I believe in a future rapture. However, between now and then, my stance is not “it doesn’t matter.” I believe we should be good stewards of God’s creation while we are here, for His glory, for my immediate benefit, and for benefit of generations to come. I like to see the mountains; I prefer blue skies to the brown skies I saw in Beijing. And the fact that I don’t get as excited about some issues (e.g., “global warming”) as other people has nothing to do with my views about heaven or the rapture. It comes from doubts about the soundness of the science behind the story (or other factors, depending on the issue!)
Here’s another example:
“We have been told all that is required is a one-time decision, maybe even mere intellectual assent to Jesus, but after that we need not worry about his commands, his standards, or his glory. We have a ticket to heaven, and we can live however we want on earth.  Our sin will be tolerated along the way.”
This particular author wants his readers to take a more biblical view of discipleship and to live accordingly (which I commend, by the way). He view is that the proper response to the gospel message should be “unconditional surrender of all that we are and all that we have to all that he is.” The problem with his argument, though, is his description of the response allegedly required by those who hold a different view than him. Again, a few may hold the view that “we can live however we want” and that “our sin will be tolerated.” But most within Bible-based Christianity do not; those who teach that the response should be belief in Jesus (“whosoever believes in Him… has eternal life”, John 3:16, et al), would never teach we can live like we want and tolerate sin (Romans 6:1-2).
It seems that the straw man approach only convinces two groups of people: (1) Those already in the arguer's camp, and (2) those not well-read enough to recognize that the description of the other position is not a sound description (This doesn't mean they aren't intelligent. They just aren't aware of the options related to the issue at hand). The rest who believe differently will see the straw man and not be convinced.
What should we do with this?
(1)    Watch for straw-men arguments. Don’t be swayed by them. The author may have some valid points, but make sure the logic he or she uses to support them is sound. Do options other than the straw man exist? What are they? By the way, even if the other option isn’t a caricature, there may still be other options. Presenting only two views when others exist is called a “false dichotomy”. Usually (but not always) more than two options exist to consider.

(2)    Avoid using straw men in our own argumentation. If we want to say something about someone else’s view, try to accurately reflect their view.
Okay. Not fascinating. But I got it off my chest. Read carefully - think carefully!
(By the way, if you know who the authors are who wrote these examples, please don’t mention their names. I’m not interested in criticizing them, but instead the logical problem of their approach).

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Get Unfuzzy - Musings on the Gospel

What is “the gospel”?

We asked some African pastors the meaning of “the gospel”. They said, “The good news”. Technically, they were absolutely right. But we were more interested in hearing what they thought was required to receive eternal life. Then, in some recent reading, the topic of “the gospel” popped up repeatedly (as it should, I suspect, when reading “Christian” material!). David Platt, in his book Radical, says “We need to return with urgency to a biblical gospel”. The back cover of Richard Stearns’ book, The Hole in Our Gospel, asks this: “Have we embraced the whole gospel?” Plus, the support team of well-known speaker, someone with some “interesting” ideas about the Holy Spirit, said his evangelistic campaign would simply be a “gospel” presentation. The term “gospel” shows up repeatedly.

So, what is the gospel? Does it always mean the same thing?
I suspect when we hear or read the word, the first idea that pops in our head connects “gospel” with “what must I believe or do to receive eternal life”. I’ve concluded “gospel” is one of those words we often use, but we aren’t always clear about what we mean. And so we’re unintentionally fuzzy in our conversations about the gospel. Let’s get “unfuzzy”.[1]

The basic meaning of “gospel” is, as the African pastors responded, “good news”.[2] However, this “good news” often speaks of more than what we must believe for eternal life. True, it sometimes is a technical term with this meaning. But, in its broadest sense, the “gospel” refers to the full story of the person and work of Christ. Just as “salvation” has past, present, and future aspects, so too has “gospel”. It includes the past, present, and future aspects of our relationship with Him, based on His work on our behalf, and the past, present, and future work of God. The context must tell us whether the author is referring to the whole story or some part of the story.
Romans serves as one example where “gospel” means more than what I must believe to receive eternal life. In Romans 1:6-8 and 1:12-13, Paul calls his readers “called, beloved of God, saints, brethren”; he thanks God that their faith is being spoken of by others; and he says he longs to see them and be encouraged “each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine” (some translations use the words “mutual faith”).  It seems clear in the introduction that Paul views the Roman readers as believers. It is to this believing audience that he says he is “eager to preach the gospel”! To believers??? He then goes on, in his magnum opus, to lay out the core truth of justification by faith alone, but so much more (just read Romans 6-8!). Thus, at least in this passage in Romans, “gospel” is much broader than the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus or the requirements for justification.  (Want a few more examples? Look at Mark 1:1, 1 Cor. 1:17-18, 2 Tim. 1:10, and 2 Tim. 2:8.)

Sometimes, then, “gospel” is much broader than the requirements for eternal life. When we read the New Testament, and we come across the word “gospel”, we need to think “the good news about Jesus Christ”. But we need to let the context tell us whether it refers to the whole story or some specific aspect of the gospel.
The “gospel of the kingdom” is one such specific aspect. The phrase itself occurs only four times (Matt. 4:23, 9:15, 24:14, and Luke 16:16), although other passages infer the idea (for example, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, Matt. 3:2). Both Jesus and John the Baptist declared to Israel that the promised King they were waiting for had arrived. Had Israel, as a whole, received Jesus as King, this promised form of the kingdom would have appeared. But she didn’t, she rejected Jesus (John 1:11), and the kingdom offer was deferred (Acts 1:6). Matthew 24 implies this “gospel of the kingdom” reappears at the end of the age, just prior to the physical return of Jesus. There is a yet-future kingdom on earth over which Jesus will reign, whether the new heavens and new earth (as some hold) or a kingdom on this earth before the new earth (as others, like me, hold). This message is still part of the gospel, the good news, but the “gospel of the kingdom” looks at a particular aspect of the gospel, pointing to some future time when Jesus returns. (On a side note – someone commented on another post that doctrine is a “hot topic” and is often divisive. However, we can’t avoid it. How one understands the doctrine of the kingdom influences how one understands this aspect of the gospel!)

The “gospel of your salvation” is another specific aspect:
In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise (Eph. 1:13)
This is the aspect of the gospel most frequently thought of when we simply say “the gospel”. This is the message “for by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:8-9) or “whosoever believes in Me shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). This aspect of the gospel is necessary for someone to receive eternal life now, to enter into a relationship with Jesus, to be “justified” (declared “not guilty”, Rom. 5:1), to be ensured of an eternity in heaven (“and these whom He justified, He also glorified”, Romans 8:30b). This aspect of the gospel says, simply, we are “saved” by faith alone in Christ alone. Anything else is, as Paul calls it, a “different” (false) gospel!
So, what is the gospel? It depends! It is good news. It is good news about Jesus. If we mean, “what is the gospel that results in justification”, it is “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” If we mean, “what is the gospel as it relates to my life as a believer”, it might mean that Jesus ascended into heaven and gave each of us the Holy Spirit, who gives us the power to say “no” to sin, or it might mean that in Him we have the ability to be salt and light (in word and deed) in the world. If we mean, “what is the gospel related to the afterlife”, it is that we are guaranteed entrance into heaven because of Jesus’ completed work. If we mean “what is the gospel as it relates to the final outcome of this world”, it is that Jesus will one day physically reign on earth as prophesied in the Old Testament (the “gospel of the kingdom”) and that Satan will be bound. When we (or Paul, or…) preach “the gospel”, the message could well include the entire story, or we could limit ourselves to just part of the story. So, whenever we see the word “gospel”, think “good news”, but ask, “What part of the good news? Let’s get “unfuzzy” in our thinking!

[1] My apologies to Darby Conly, the artist and author of the comic strip “Get Fuzzy”
[2] Our word “gospel” comes from two Greek words, euangelion (euaggelion) and euangelizo (euaggelizw). The first, a noun, means, “good news” and the second, a verb, means “to communicate good news about something”. Roughly half the time, this verb is translated simply with some form of “to preach”; the other half, it includes the phrase “good news” or “gospel”, as in “preach the gospel”. The two words show up 130 times in the Greek, and the word “gospel” shows up about 100 times in the English, depending on the translation. The word “gospel”, often has a descriptor attached to it, such as the gospel: of the kingdom, of Christ, of Jesus Christ, of our Lord Jesus Christ, of His Son, of the glory of Christ, of God, of the blessed God, of the grace of God, of your salvation, of peace, etc. It most frequently stands alone (about 60% of the time).

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Danger Will Robinson!

The old - and cheesy - TV show "Lost in Space" featured a robot who waved his arms, saying "Danger Will Robinson" whenever he sensed a problem.

I think the warning applies to us. "Danger Will Robinson!". One of my great concerns for Christianity, especially American Christianity, is that we do not know God’s Word. We do not think theologically. We do not evaluate life through the eyes of Scripture. We do not take advantage of opportunities to learn God’s Word. We don’t actively and seriously pursue growing and living in Christ or helping others to grow in Him (discipleship).
What do these problems I sense look like? A few examples - and I know some of you will disagree, but that's okay. It's my blog :-)
(1)    From a popular book: “If there is no sign of caring for the poor in our lives, then there is reason to at least question whether Jesus is in our hearts... Caring for the poor is a necessary evidence of Christ in our hearts." (Really? Is that the basis for our justification?).

(2)    “We need more Jesus and less Paul” (Really? Are the words of Jesus in Scripture more inspired than the words of Paul?)

(3)    Making statements that seem to be pulled from thin air, not from the text, such as: “Hip hop music is bad. In fact, Michael Jackson’s moonwalk is the dance demons do in hell.” (Yep, I really heard this from a pulpit, somehow connected to Romans 8:1).

(4)    Arguing from emotions and passion instead of wrestling with the text to first see what it says. (Really? We start with passions and then move to truth?) Emotions and passions are good, but we must start with truth. I’ve had multiple discussions over the years about the death penalty. Inevitably, those opposed argue from statistics, flaws in the system, and emotions rather than wrestling with passages like Genesis 9:6, the many references to “they shall be put to death” in Leviticus 20, and Romans 13:4. My point here isn’t to argue for or against the death penalty; it is that we must start with Scripture (whatever the issue) and then look at issues, not the other way around.

(5)    Focusing on one issue at the expense of others. This feels like “if you don’t have the same passion as I do for this issue, then you are wrong” (Really? Can’t someone be equally passionate about another biblical issue?). When we turn a single issue into the litmus test for one’s spirituality, we are wrong, even if the issue is legitimate (see #1 above!).

(6)    Downplaying the importance of doctrine vs. “practical” teaching. (Really? How can we practice truth without knowing truth?) We’ve turned “doctrine” into some kind of dirty word. Granted, if we stop with doctrine, we can become dry in living out God’s truth, and, granted, some doctrines are more important than others. But the bedrock of doctrinal truth must support the practical application of God’s Word. And doctrine, correctly taught, is immensely practical!
There’s more, but you get the point.
What do we do about these problems?
The solution is simple… we need to learn the Scriptures. See what the text says, understand what the author intended, and then figure out what it looks like in our world (observation, interpretation, application). Read in context – to help ensure the verse says what we think it says.
And we need to make a priority of sitting under solid teaching. But I am concerned we choose to stay at home when we have opportunities to learn. Be careful – not every teacher on “Christian” radio or TV provides solid teaching, and not every book in the “Christian” bookstore is worthy reading. Regardless, we must put ourselves in places to learn God’s Word so we can live God’s Word for our good and His glory!
Let’s avoid the dangers. Let’s “long for the pure milk of the Word” (2 Pet. 2:2) and “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18).

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Justice for Caylee?

Casey Anthony was found “not guilty” of murdering her child.(For those outside the United States, this was a highly publicized trial of a mother accused of murdering her two-year old daughter, Caylee).

As soon as the verdict was announced, Facebook buzzed with opinions. Most of the comments I read reflected amazement that she had been acquitted. Some posted comments about “no justice for Caylee”.
I did not watch all the trial, and I really don’t know if the mother is guilty or not. I have an opinion, but I’ll keep it to myself. So what happened?

(1)    Keep in mind “not guilty” does not necessarily mean “innocent”.
(2)    Within our judicial system, the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
(3)    A jury decided she was not guilty. Not the state, not the judge, not the judicial system, not the press (well, the press didn’t get to officially decide). A jury of twelve regular people, like you and me, made the decision.
(4)    For the jury to find a defendant guilty, the prosecution must convince the jury “beyond a reasonable doubt” that she is guilty.
(5)    The jury, apparently, was not convinced “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In fact, a Reuters news story stated that “State Attorney Lawson Lamar praised prosecutors' efforts and conceded that their circumstantial case was not enough to remove reasonable doubt for jurors.” Lamar added, "This is a dry-bones case. Very, very difficult to prove." One report claimed the problem was lack of convincing evidence, not superlative legal work by the defense. Regardless of the reason, the jury wasn’t convinced. And since we were not in the deliberation room, we don’t know why, exactly, they were not convinced.
So, where does “justice” fit into this scenario?
Some cases are messy. We want justice for the victim; we want the guilty party convicted. But, even if we think someone is guilty, even if the jury’s opinion is that the defendant is guilty, if the jurors aren’t convinced “beyond a reasonable doubt,” justice cannot allow them to say “guilty.” Justice must also protect the accused. And so sometimes we’re left frustrated. (I have no idea in this case what the jury thought. I’m just making the point that justice requires a higher standard than opinion).
Our system isn't perfect. Perfect justice hasn’t happened in Caylee’s situation. The guilty party is free, whether the mother actually did it, or someone else did it (and I'm not saying who is to blame for this). Sometimes justice doesn’t happen in this world. But I am grateful we have a perfectly righteous judge who will eventually sort everything out. He knows the truth in this case.
Personally, I am grateful God doesn’t always deal with us on the basis of justice. In myself, I deserve judgment because by nature and practice, I am a sinner. But He has dealt graciously with me when He forgave me of every single sin (Col. 2:13). Jesus satisfied God’s righteous demands for sin when “He who knew no sin became sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). Justice: The price paid in full. Grace: Someone else paid it for us, and God freely gave eternal life when we believed in Jesus, the “someone” who satisfied God’s justice.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Out of touch?

Are we Christians out of touch?

In a survey of 16-29 year old American’s, two questions in particular disturbed me. When asked to indicate what phrases describe present day Christianity, 72% of outsiders (non church-goers) said Christianity was “out of touch with reality” and 70% said it was "insensitive to others”. By contrast, only 32% of church-goers said Christianity was out of touch and 29% said it was insensitive.

I know enough about surveys to take these numbers with a grain of salt. The questions might be biased; those surveyed might not be a statistically valid representation of the group.

I also know enough about the world we live in and the message of the Bible to know that a high percentage of “outsiders” will claim Christianity is out of touch with reality, in part because their view of reality and God’s view of reality are vastly different.

And, I know enough of the world’s standards that the definition of “tolerance” has changed to mean we must not only accept the person, we must condone their lifestyle. So, if we take a stand against a lifestyle, some may label us “insensitive”.

Even with these disclaimers, though, I think we can learn something from the numbers. Within the church, we need to be aware of real issues in our world and address them within the context of the Scriptures. We should be aware that “outsiders” really do see us differently than we see ourselves. And we should take those perceptions seriously.

Here’s just one example. About the same time I read about the survey above, I just happened to read of another disturbing survey. This second survey reports that only 6% of women in America (not limited to Christians) between the ages of 18 and 23 in a dating relationship are not having sex. Six out of every one hundred. Assuming the statistics are even close to valid (and I think they are!), if we ignore the sexualized world that confronts us, and if we don’t deal with this world honestly and openly, we are out of touch. We teach, correctly, to “flee immorality” and to abstain from sex until marriage. But, do we honestly help people – the 18-23 year olds inside the church - to deal with the artificial reality of the world that confronts them while challenging them to live out God’s reality? Do we help them live like the 6%, or do we just assume they'll make the right choice?

Do we look for ways to influence the world for the better; to change the artificial reality; to show the world that its “reality” is artificial, no matter what moral issue is addressed? I can't answer for the church at large. But I want to. I want the world to see that Christianity really does make a difference.

As we deal with the issues of the world, how do we respond to people who disagree with us, or with people who need help? That’s the heart of the second issue – insensitivity. Of course, some will always see Christianity as “insensitive” because we cannot condone certain behaviors or because we don’t respond the way they think we should. Regardless, we can always deal graciously with those “outside” the church (or inside the church, for that matter). I recall a young man who once lived a gay lifestyle saying he couldn’t start listening to the words of Christ seriously until someone started loving him with the love of Christ. As our culture slides further into a post-Christian culture, let’s make sure that if people are offended by us or believe we are “insensitive,” we have not given them any real basis for their conclusion. Let’s exhibit the love of Christ to a world that desperately needs to see the reality of Christ through His people.

(Sources: The first survey was reported in The Hole in Our Gospel, by Richard Stearns. He, in turn was citing data reported in UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. The second survey was reported in Premarital Sex in America by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Marriage - redefined?

The groom and groomsmen wore zoot suits; the bride was stunning in her gown as she walked the aisle. Family and friends celebrated with the couple as they committed their lives to one another, and I had the privilege of performing the ceremony. They gave me one simple statement to include in the content of what I said: “We would like to place strong emphasis that marriage is FOREVER, and that is the only way we see it. Our trials and hard times will only bring us closer to one another, and closer to God.” This couple got it right.

That’s the good news.

Now for some bad news.
Earlier in the week, seventy clergy of a particular denomination signed a statement at their state conference that said they would “offer the grace of the Church’s blessing to any prepared couple desiring Christian marriage,” including same-sex couples. They added, “We realize that our church’s discriminatory policies tarnish the witness of the church to the world, and we are complicit.” Granted, seventy signatures represent less than 10% of the voting membership of the convention, but that such a statement originated within a church conference is noteworthy.

A few days later, I read this concerning a different, but historically more conservative, denomination: “The church has abandoned its denominational commitment to traditional marriage. Gone is the standard for ordination that requires pastors, ‘to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman …, or chastity in singleness.’”   The change removes a celibacy requirement that kept many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from becoming ministers.

When the church starts declaring “this is okay” in relationships, she does so with the presumption that she is representing God. So, how does she know God’s purposes? Does she read it through human experience, human opinions, church leaders, cultural forces, (all of which are subject to change) or someplace else?

I vote “someplace else”.

 To know God’s purposes with certainty, God must reveal Himself. And I believe He did so through the Bible. And in this book, He defined marriage very clearly:

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24, see also Matt. 19:5, Eph. 5:31)

 According to these words, marriage unites one man to one woman (his wife, singular) for life (“joined”). God formed the union, designed for permanence (“let no man separate, Matt. 19:6).

Our culture redefines marriage, or says it isn’t even important. The message of the Bible swims upstream against the flow of culture. We shouldn’t be surprised when the world acts like the world, when it says something different that the Bible. We should do what we can to influence the world positively to align with biblical principles, but nonetheless, we shouldn’t be surprised.

But we should be surprised when any church or denomination says “the world’s way is okay” contrary to God’s Word. Standing for God’s Word isn’t wrongly “discriminatory,” it’s standing for what is right.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A crucial message from the past...

Deet and her fiancĂ© lived in Holland before World War two started. They watched Hitler rise to power; they saw Jewish neighbors lose their property only because they had been born Jewish. They became involved with the resistance, and helped rescue many Jews. She lived in fear, but continued to do what she was convinced was right. “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you” and love of Jesus motivated her. Shortly before the war ended, her fiancĂ© was killed by the Nazis. She lived in the world at its darkest; she chose to “love her neighbor” despite the risk to her own life.

Deet turned 91 years old today. She spoke at the conference I attended this week (Acton University). She spoke of how she “played dumb” with the Gestapo to protect her friends. She spoke of how hard it was to forgive the Nazis after the war. She spoke of the life she lived in order to avoid capture.  In the Q & A time that followed, I asked her, based on her experience, “what message should I pass on to my grand children”?
Her answer was the epitome of simplicity: Know God’s Word; Love Jesus; Live God’s Word.
It worked in the darkest of times. What better advice for any time, any place?