Monday, 3 October 2016

Patmos – Baxter Kruger book review

Although I have visited C.Baxter Kruger’s blog before, this was the first time that I have read one of his books. The book description for Patmos really grabbed my attention and was enough for me to break my sabbatical from blogging to pick it up and to do a review of it; the novel is about a guy named Aiden (from modern North America) who somehow lands up in a cave on Patmos with the apostle John for company. What follows are three days of conversations and experiences that will forever change his theological views and his relationship with God.

There are several conversational topics that are brought up along the way, from John’s explanations of his own gospel and the book of Revelation to what he insists are poorly translated texts in Aiden’s modern English Bible. Many of the conversations that we are invited to share in are amazingly beautiful simply because of the centrality and emphasis of Christ in all of them. My personal favorite chapter deals with the nature of the Trinity which was highly insightful but then again what else would you expect from someone who runs a website called The main emphasis in Patmos though is the idea of separation verses union. Did God in Christ reconcile the world to Himself or is mankind still separated from God but now able to find our way back home? That statement can be interpreted and misinterpreted in numerous ways and it probably will be by many readers. Many will no doubt read universalism into it which the book sometimes did seem to imply even though it never directly speaks of it.

One cannot help but draw comparisons with The Shack when reading Patmos. The concept is similar in that you have this story taking place in a remote place where a guy has this supernatural encounter resulting in a lengthy dialogue that turns the persons world upside down. The story is also used as a means to share certain truths about God (and destroy some false ones) which, on a personal note, I believe to be a powerful and underused method for teaching. I think that it is so easy to take a ‘left brained’ approach to God and systematically put all of our ideas into these neat little boxes that we can make sense of. But fictional works like Patmos and The Shack are probably closer to Jesus’ own style of teaching people about God and about kingdom living. Many of the red letters in the New Testament are found within the parables told by Christ Himself so there is definitely something special about conveying theological truths through the means of stories.

One of the small criticisms that I have is that even readers with a bit of a Charismatic background like myself might find it hard to keep up with the amount of dreams, visions and mystical experiences that are crammed into the three days which cover John and Aiden's time together. I found myself making a conscious decision to not think about it too much and chalk it off to a tool for the author to keep the story flowing and moving in the direction that he wanted it to go in. But let me emphasize that even if you disagree with the author on some of his ideas, Patmos contains so many wonderful ideas and truths that have for the most part been forgotten by the Western church at large, that one would be hard pressed to read it and not be touched by something of the beauty of Christ in it. I really did enjoy Patmos; it is more than just a novel in that it will have you chewing on the theology behind it just as much as the story within it. I love how it portrays the gospel as the news that Jesus is not just some accessory that we add on to our lives but rather it is the good news that He has received us into His own life. Our oneness with Christ and the oneness enjoyed between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as seeing in John 14 and 15 is perhaps my favorite portions of scripture and Baxter’s book expounds on this theme in such a way that you cannot help but excited about it. I highly recommend giving it a read.

You can learn more about the book or buy it by clicking over here and you can connect with the author on Twitter by clicking here.

I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Book update

Hi all

Just a quick message to those of you who have come here looking for new posts only to see that nothing new has been uploaded recently. The reason for this is that I have being working on my book on the cross again. I am pleased to say that the first draft has finally been completed and that I have started work on the second draft already. I am trying to keep the momentum going while it lasts but I am sure that I will be back here adding new content again soon.


Saturday, 23 July 2016

What is sound doctrine?

I am a theology nerd. If you want to have an awkwardly silent conversation with me just ask me about what I do for a living, tell me about your car’s engine and your new shiny phone or bring up some celebrity gossip. I just can’t bring myself to get excited about 'normal' things but ask me about how chiastic structures within scripture influences our hermeneutics (please do, I’m still waiting for this to happen at a party) and my face will light up and we will chat all through the night. So theology is important to me, it effects how we view God, how we view the world and how we treat others. And don't misunderstand what follows either, sometimes we need to correct people who are clearly teaching things that are in error and could cause division and harm down the road.

But I want to focus today specifically on what the Bible speaks about when it refers to sound doctrine which is a bit more specific than theology as a whole. About 9 years back I was in a church that believed its mission was to re-indoctrinate the church with our specific brand of fundamentalism. Right belief (orthodoxy) for us was more important than anything else, perhaps even more so than right living (orthopraxy). Of course this was not openly admitted, I’m not sure people were even aware of it but it was nevertheless evident in our fruits. This was what I thought of when I thought about sound doctrine. But let me shock you and state right at the beginning that sound doctrine has nothing to do with our opinions about Calvinism, our view of eschatology or what we think about dispensationalism. When the authors of scripture wrote about sound doctrine they did not have baptism or the cessationism in mind either. One friend of mine with a similar background says that his old church leaders complained that “when people start talking about love sound doctrine goes out of the window”. It is a common perception that sound doctrine refers to ones intellectual confessions apart form their actual lifestyles. So here is a statement of my own, when people start talking about love we are starting to discover what sound doctrine really is.

Let me explain by looking at scripture itself, many people call the Paul's letters to Titus and Timothy the Pastoral Epistles, if you are familiar with my ecclesiology then you are probably aware that I would disagree. I actually think that Titus and 1 Timothy in particular would better be known as the ‘Sound Doctrine’ epistles. Let’s look at some of the content from each epistle to see why I say that.

 In Titus chapter 2, Paul starts us off with these words:-

But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.

let me emphasize that at this point, Paul does not see a squirrel, put down his pen and run off after it, coming back hours later to continue with a new train of thought. No, Paul spells out the things that Titus should be training and teachings others that is in accord with sound doctrine. Verse 2 - 5 carries on:-

"Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God."

I hope that caused you to sit up straight, Paul is not talking about the qualifications of elders here but about what is important pertaining to sound doctrine. He mentions things like self-control, love, purity and kindness. One would expect Paul, of all people, to get into things like the atonement and the sovereignty of God, instead he continues on in the same manner, telling Titus to encourage the young men to be self-controlled and to be an example to them by doing good, showing integrity and so on. He even goes as far as telling him to teach the slaves to honor God by honoring and submitting to their masters. Paul then wraps up the chapter on sound doctrine by giving us the ‘why’ of it:-

"For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. These, then, are the things you should teach." - Titus 2:11-15

Let me give credit where it is due, much of what I picked up above came from an excellent article written by Keith Giles on the same topic. But let me share a little extra from 1 Timothy as well.

As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.  The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.  Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions. – 1 Timothy 1:3-7

From here onward Paul shares a little bit about things that are contrary to sound doctrine. Interestingly, he does not bring up either evolution or young earth creationism. Rather, he mentions things like ungodliness, sin, profanity, violence, sexual immorality and so on (see verses 8-10). The rest of chapter 1 is devoted to the saving grace and mercies of Christ and how THIS belief deliveries us from all forms of ungodliness. The next 4 chapters lay out much of what was covered in Titus chapter 2, the importance of prayer, modest dress, submission, self –control etc etc. This continues on until we get to chapter 6:3 where Paul starts to wrap up, he starts off this section with these words:-

Teach and urge these things.  If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. – 1 Timothy 6:3-5

Then again in verse 20 and 21:-

O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith.
Grace be with you.

Wow. Doesn’t this change everything? I think I want to be a fundamentalist again and start pushing doctrine. But this time, it will be different; I’m not going to impose my philosophies on others and anathema those who disagree with me. This time, I am going to encourage others to good works, toward holiness and to follow in the footsteps of Christ. This time, I will look at 2 Timothy 3:16-17 differently:-

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable (not for a good college education but) for teaching, for reproof, for correction (toward right living), and for training (not in self righteousness but) in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped (not for recognition as a spiritual guru but for) every good work.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Jesus ruling with an iron rod – Bible translations gone wild

“...and He will rule the nations with a rod of iron” - Revelation 19:15

Perhaps it is because of how we use this phrase in modern language but whenever I have read this verse in the past I had this image in my head of some communist dictator just blasting anyone for the slightest of offenses. It always seemed so at odds with who Jesus is as revealed elsewhere in scripture. One could say the same thing about much of the book of Revelation actually. But as I have stated elsewhere, I believe that my previous understanding of the book of Revelation was deeply flawed and that, when read in the right way, it actually fits very well with what we read of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Much of the violent imagery in Revelation is actually written in a way as to purposefully contrast the violent ways of Babylon and the dragon with the nonviolent way of the Lamb (which is the title most often used of Jesus in Revelation). Consider for example the first part of the same verse I am discussing where it says that “From His mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations” and also 2 verses earlier how He rides in to battle with a “robe dipped in blood”. I see two choices here; one could ignore everything that Jesus previously said about loving ones enemies or about those who live by the sword and go with a violent interpretation of Jesus. Or one could recognize the same Jesus who conquers by laying down His own life (Rev 5:6-13) and realize that the blood on His clothes is His own (remember He is riding into battle) that was shed for His enemies and recognize that the sword is not in His hand but rather in His mouth, making it more likely a symbolic gesture that He wages war with the truth of His words rather than a literal sword gripped between His teeth.  

So what do I make of Him ruling with an iron rod then? Does Jesus finally give up on the good shepherd act for the superior way of a harsh overlord? You probably already figured that I am of the “Good shepherd” persuasion but allow me explain why. Firstly, the rod of iron mentioned here is believed by many scholars to be referring to a shepherd’s staff. To quote Eldred Echols from his commentary on Revelation entitled, “The Dragon’s Defeat”, “The crook is used to control the sheep. The hook was used to pull the sheep back into line”. This idea has support in Micah 7:14 which says “Feed my people with thy rod” in the KJV or as the NLT puts it, “Protect your people with your shepherd’s staff”. One is also reminded of Psalm 23:4 which says, “Your rod and your staff comfort me”; Psalm 23 is also of course the famous “The Lord is my shepherd” chapter.  The idea of iron might just be symbolic of strength or truth as it is occasionally used elsewhere in the Bible. But what makes this interpretation most compelling is the fact that the Greek does not actually say “RULE the nations with a rod of iron” but rather “SHEPHERD the nations with a rod of iron”. It is the same word we see in John 21:16 where Jesus says to Peter “FEED my sheep”. It is used again in Acts 20:28 where it says, “FEED and shepherd God’s flock”. In 1 Peter 5:2 again it is translated as “CARE for the flock that God has entrusted to you.” There are other similar examples in scripture as well but the point is clear.

Once I had discovered this I started to look up the Greek words in other verses where I could remember the word ‘rule’ or ‘ruler’ popped up. I remembered Jesus’ words to His disciples that the rulers of the gentiles like to lord and exercise authority over others. I remembered in John 12 where it said that Satan was the ruler of this world. The few verses I looked up with the word ‘rule’ in them all had different Greek words to the one used in Revelation 19. I subtitled this post Bible translations gone wild because this discovery was made during a Bible study and the 4 translations that we were working with all read “rule with a rod of iron”. Later on I discovered that only 5 out of 23 translations that I could find used the word shepherd rather than rule. One can only assume that the popular violent interpretation of the chapter as a whole as well as influence of past translations may have influenced the translators  to say ‘rule’ rather than ‘shepherd’ in most cases.

Despite my protests, one does however have to acknowledge the idea of wrath and judgement in the context of verse 15 as well but not at the expense of letting go of the God who also gave us the Sermon on the Mount. Understanding wrath as a handing over of someone to their own destructive ways (see Romans 1:26 and Isaiah 1:31) and viewing chapter 19:15 in light of chapter 16:6 we can see that evil has a way of destroying itself. The hugely anticipated battle in Revelation 19 is rather disappointing if you are looking for some action when you realize that God wins the war without a single shot actually being fired. Chapter 5:5 tells us that the battle has already been won on the cross. One of the central points John is trying to make in the book is that we don’t fight like the world does but rather we are victorious in imitating the Lamb.

And they have defeated him by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony (martyrdom). And they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die. – Revelation 12:11

So if you are like me and this verse puzzled you in the past then take comfort, He is still the same yesterday, today and forever. Even in Revelation.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

The "What if" question everyone has about nonviolent resistance.

Whenever the topic of nonviolence is mentioned in a conversation there is a question that without fail will always come up, the wording may vary but it will always be something along the lines of, “But what if someone had to break into your house and threaten your family?” It is a natural question to ask because everybody wants to keep their loved ones safe from potential harm and while I imagine that there are thousands of people out there better qualified to answer this question than I am I will nevertheless try to answer it first by using a simple illustration and then by looking at an example from the life of Jesus as well.

Imagine for a moment that there was a man who had two children, he loved both of them dearly despite their flaws and shortcomings. Imagine that one night the two kids got in to a fight and one pulled a gun out on the other. What would the father do? Would violence against the aggressor be his only option or might he try something else? No doubt he would first try to calm the situation down hoping that no one would end up getting hurt. His concern would be for not only the son whose life was in immediate danger but also for the son whose life was in danger of forever being ruined were he to pull the trigger. There might even be some physical restraint exercised in the ordeal but certainly the priority would be that no harm would come to either son. If the trigger were to be pulled the father might even resort to stepping in front of the bullet himself, giving his life to save another.

The big difference between the initial question that I asked and the story that I set up is that I made it personal by making the aggressor part of the family. No longer was the perpetrator faceless but we gave him an identity and value in the fathers eyes. Doesn’t our Father in heaven value all people in a similar manner? As humans we simply cannot know every person on earth so intimately and affectionately, we all have our favorites that we would do anything for, the people whom we have close bonds with. But God is not limited in the ways that we are, He knows each one of us by name. God saw us while we were still being formed in the womb; He can look at all mankind and say that He desires that none would perish.

There is a portion of scripture that comes to mind when I think about this scenario. It causes me to believe that God is like the father in the story I told, it is recorded in Romans 5:6-11:-

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for someone who is especially good. But God showed His great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.

Follow me

While I was thinking about the classic, “what if someone broke into my house” argument I also realized that a similar scenario had indeed taken place in Jesus’ own life, leaving us with no doubt as to how a Christ follower should react in the face of violence. The story does not take place in a home but in a garden on the night of His arrest and the family He was with was not His flesh and blood relatives but the ones He Himself considered to be His real family (Mark 3:33-34).

Looking at the various accounts as they are recorded in the gospels we pick up quite a few details from this event. We know that it was night time and that Judas arrived on the scene with a large contingent of Roman soldiers and temple guards (John 18:3) who were heavily armed (Matthew 26:55). One of men with Jesus, identified as Peter in John’s account, goes into survival mode, takes out a sword and cuts a man’s ear off (John 18:10). Peter’s reaction was really the response that the question this article was written about would justify. Except that Jesus rebukes him for his action and despite the danger that He himself was in, we see something remarkable take place. Jesus’ response reveals that He was concerned with the well being of all parties involved. We see it as He heals the wounded man’s ear (Luke 22:51) and also in Him telling the soldiers that He was the one they wanted and to let His disciples go (John 18:8).

Jesus’ response reveals to us at least three things. Number 1, there is always an alternative to violence, even if it means laying down your own life for another. Number 2, the heart of God was for the well being of all parties involved. In the same way that He wanted to protect His disciples, He didn’t want to harm even those who sought to kill Him. Then lastly number 3, we do not overcome evil by doing evil but we conquer it by doing good. Romans 13:20-21 says, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.” Burning coals in scripture has a cleansing connotation (Isaiah 6:6-7), meaning that you do not conquer your enemy by becoming like him and destroying him but you overcome evil by showing him the love of God and making him like you.

This is nice theology in theory but one cannot say how they would react in the heat of a moment if they found themselves in a dangerous situation. I do however believe that nonviolence and enemy love can be learned as we learn to follow Christ. I used to drive around with a knife in my car and anytime I stopped at a specific traffic light where smash and grabs were common (both my wife and father-in-law have been robbed there), I would take the knife out thinking that I would not hesitate to thrust it into the arm of anyone who would break my window. After my initial encounters with Anabaptist literature and a more honest look at the Sermon on the Mount I ended up taking the knife out of my car and started praying for these people instead. For me it was a start, it wasn’t so much an embracing of pacifism but a deliberate action to renounce violence and start intentionally seeking the well being of others, even those who would harm us.

I don’t know how I would react if something had to actually happen one day, I hope that I never have to learn the answer to it either. I am pretty certain though of how Christ would want me to respond. It's not the easy way, it's certainly not the popular way but it is the way of Jesus modeled for us on the cross.

PS – I stumbled upon the website linked below last week, it seems to be a great resource for learning about nonviolence, if you want to learn more about nonviolence and if it actually works, check it out.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Does all really mean all? – Revisiting Universal Redemption

A few years back when I first decided to study the different views of hell I wrote a blog post on Universalism which is the idea that all people will eventually be saved. In my original post I dismissed it rather nonchalantly and have felt ever since that I needed to revisit it with something a bit more thorough. Over the last few years I have continued my study and while I am more convinced than ever that scripture teaches conditional immortality as opposed to universalism or eternal conscious torment, I do feel that I have a better understanding of where Universalists are coming from these days than I had previously. In fact, I can appreciate their understanding of the character of God more than that of the traditional view which paints a picture of a merciless judge whose anger is never satisfied and looks nothing like Jesus. Nevertheless, I think that they are in error and that the consequences of it are rather grave (pun intended).

So let’s get right to the question in the title of this post, does ‘all’ mean ‘all’ in the sense that Universalists believe it does? These are some of the scriptures that you might find come up in these sorts of conversations:-

Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.  - John 12:31-32

Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.  – Acts 3:20

Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. - Romans 5:18

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. - 1 Corinthians 15:22

When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. - 1 Corinthians 15:28

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. - 2 Corinthians 5:18-19

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. - Ephesians 1:7-10

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. - Philippians 2:9-11

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. - Colossians 1:19-20

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” - Revelation 21:5

The case for Universalism might look compelling from the texts above nevertheless I believe that the ‘all’, the ‘everything’ and ‘the world’ as they are referenced above refer not to every human being but rather to all who are in Christ and the creation as a whole one day being redeemed. There are several reasons for believing this which I will lay out point by point while simultaneously revealing why I find universalism to be incorrect.

It’s not faithful to Jesus’ own teachings

One thing I admire about universalism is the focus it has on the person of Christ. I believe it accurately paints God as merciful, gracious and loving toward all. I too believe that God’s mercy, grace and love are beyond measure and comprehension! Likewise, I also believe that God desires that none would perish and that He wills for all men to be saved. I believe that God looks exactly like Jesus but it is precisely for this reason that I find it ironic that many Universalists cite Jesus as the reason they hold to their view. I had already started writing this article when I came across Benjamin Corey’s latest series of posts; he believes that the scriptural evidence points toward conditional immortality but has confessed that he is attracted to the idea of universalism, one of the things he said in a recent post is “the more I see God as revealed in Jesus, the more this position (universal redemption) seems to be the one most consistent with the doctrine of God as exampled by Christ”. This seems to be a common idea in the writings of Universalists which I find puzzling because Jesus’ own words throughout the New Testament seem to contradict the idea that all will eventually be saved. While I am in full agreement with them about the character of God as revealed in Jesus, I do believe it is dangerous to separate His character from His teachings, consider the following verses for example-

Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, only those who actually do the will of my Father will enter. – Matthew 7:21

Work hard to enter the narrow door to God’s Kingdom, for many will try to enter but will fail – Luke 13:24

Jesus spoke often in this way and one has to ask, if ‘all’ means ‘all people who ever existed’ then what does ‘not everyone’ mean? It does not say that some will struggle to enter before eventually coming right. The idea Jesus gives is that the road that leads to destruction is a busy one in contrast to the road that leads to eternal life and that it is final in its destination.

Jesus’ parables seem to contradict universalism

Many of Jesus parables provide insights into the final judgment as well. The story of the wheat and the weeds reveals how the weeds will be gathered together and ‘burned up’ (Matthew 13:24-43).  The parable of the evil farmers says that those who the kingdom is taken away from will be ‘broken to pieces’ (Matthew 21:44). Similarly, the parable of the Great Feast says that those who ignored the Kings invitation were ‘destroyed (Matthew 22:7).

One of the things that I find to be vital to universalism is the idea that life after death is eternal for everyone and that there will be opportunities in the afterlife for repentance and union with Christ. But looking at something like the story of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew 25 where five of them ran out of oil and they were excluded from the marriage feast gives no indication that there is hope of a second chance for those who woke up too late to enter the party. These are all words from Jesus’ own mouth and it is just a few examples from one of the gospels. Similar words and parables are spoken elsewhere as well (consider Luke 19:27) but I feel the point has already been made that a Christ centered eschatology requires a holistic approach to both how He lived and what He taught.

A common false assumption

Many of the lists I see where scriptural evidence for universal redemption is presented use verses like 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 to point out that Christ died not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world and that God is no longer counting the sins of people against them. But I think it is a faulty assumption to tie forgiveness of sins and eternal life together as though they were the same thing. Yes, forgiveness is essential to restoring a right relationship with God but consider a practical example of what I am trying to say. If I forgive someone who has wronged me I have no ill feelings toward them but it does not necessarily mean that any sort of a relationship has been established between us because they might still wish evil on me.

Forgiveness is the first step toward reconciliation but it remains of no value to the offender if they do not receive it and make amends. Consider the men who crucified Jesus, His words to them were, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”.  Does this mean that His executioners were ‘saved’ because they had received forgiveness? I don’t think so; I just think that Jesus was not holding their sin against them. If I were in his place I probably would have been thinking, “these guys are gonna poop in their pants one day when they see me at the pearly gates” but, fortunately for us, God is not like me. This is why Paul follows verses 18 and 19 with verse 20 which says,”We speak for Christ when we plead likewise that you be reconciled to God”. Would the prodigal son have been restored to his position in the family if he had never gone home and instead remained in the mud with the pigs? No, there is no indication that the father in that story held anything against his son for wasting his inheritance but there is also no reason to believe that the son would have eventually benefited from his father’s love, mercy and grace had he never returned home.

Over a hundred verses suggest otherwise

There is a common saying that scripture should interpret scripture. In another post I have shared well over a hundred verses that speak of the end of those outside of Christ in descriptive language, using terms and phrases like perish, destruction, destroyed, the second death, consumed, burned up, melting away, ash and ‘as though they had never been’. Unlike eternal conscious torment which relies on three New Testament verses from two different books and universalism which relies mostly on some of Paul’s words and the last two chapters in book of Revelation, conditional immortality draws from almost every author and book throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.

While I do not think that we should count up our proof texts in deciding on a winner, I do think that the weight of scripture leans one way and that the verses that are less clear should be interpreted in light of the ones that are more plainly understandable. A piece of the puzzle can be misleading when it is not viewed as part of a larger picture.

Does God always get His way?

While universalism makes room for hell, judgment and even free will, I think the idea that all mankind will eventually see things God’s way is a misplaced hope. Irresistible grace applied to the scripture that says that God desires that none would perish and all would be saved would contradict scriptures like Jude 10-11 and all of the other verses that speak of men perishing. If immortality or eternal life is a gift of God to those who are in Christ alone, it seems a dangerous assumption to say that that life will be eternally sustained (even if it takes a billion years) for those outside of Christ until they eventually repent of their own free will. The only scripture that comes close to saying something like that is Revelation 21:25-27 but I do not think in light of everything else we read in the Bible that infinite opportunities for repentance would be the best interpretation of those verses. The gates that are never shut simpy indicates to me that there is total peace and no outside threat to those in the New Jerusalem.

Does rejecting universalism limit grace?

Universalism says that “Love never fails” and that “God’s mercy endures forever”. Does rejecting universal redemption then reject these scriptural sayings? I believe not, for as someone once said, the immortal God came as a mortal man to earth and conquered death so that mortal man could live forever. On the cross love defeated the enemy we call death, this is the very definition the Bible gives us of love (1 John 3:16) thus Jesus, with his last breath, could whisper, “It is finished”. There is however I believe a place away from God where failure IS a certainty; a place where death IS inevitable, not because God failed but because men failed to recognize love and mercy when it was extended toward them.

Some may struggle with the idea of a loving and good God that pushes the ‘destruct’ button or the ‘torture them forever’ button on the wicked and I am one of them. I have written about that elsewhere so I will not repeat what I said over here again (though I would recommend reading that article by clicking over here). What I will say here though is that I agree with C.S. Lewis when he said that “The doors of hell are locked from the inside”. Sometimes, love and grace do not get there way, we see it now and we will see it later on before it can be said that Christ has become ‘all in all’. It cannot be said that it is a failure of love, grace and mercy if some are lost then anymore than it is a failure of love, grace and mercy when accounting for evil in the present. We know a day is coming when all the pain, the hate, the death and evil around us will be no more but we cannot deny its current reality.

What Christ in all means

Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.  – Acts 3:20

When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. - 1 Corinthians 15:28

The popular view of hell imagines a future creation where Christ one day reigns in and through a small percentage of humankind while the vast majority of people suffer eternal conscious torment. I picture this (for illustrative purposes only) like heaven being located in, let’s say Australia with a giant wall built around it and every other place on earth is then hell where most of humanity went. In this view God’s justice is never in all eternity satisfied as He continually needs to torment those who rejected Him. This does not fit well with what I believe scripture teaches about the restoration of all things in Christ.

Universalists try to fix this by saying that hell will one day be empty; it is essentially in their view a place that is constantly decreasing in population. This makes more scriptural sense but ignores most of the things we have discussed above regarding the destruction of the wicked. So I agree that hell will be a place constantly decreasing in population, how I see it though is that hell is a place outside the city of God (Rev 21 & 22), a place where people have being left to their own destructive devices (Romans 1:25), a place where evil runs its natural course until one day there is nothing left but what is in Christ.

The strongest among you will disappear like straw; their evil deeds will be the spark that sets it on fire. They and their evil works will burn up together, and no one will be able to put out the fire. – Isaiah 1:31.

God as all in all then must refer to a new creation where, like in Genesis, we can say that everything, not just people but everything, the whole of creation is very good indeed. This leaves no room for continued evil but it does not necessarily mean universal redemption either. For me, conditional immortality is the logical conclusion to arrive at.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Unchurching by Richard Jacobson book review

I received a pre-release review copy of Unchurching from Speakeasy. As soon as I heard of it I jumped at the opportunity to get my hands on a copy because I am a huge fan of Richard’s ‘Church Anarchist’ animated videos. If you have never seen them before, I highly recommend clicking here and checking them out. They are short, easy to understand and great at communicating simple truths about the differences between organic churches and institutionalized ones.

Richard’s book, much like his videos, reveals that he is a great communicator. I have probably read around 20 books on what it means to be the church, most of which were from the perspective of house/organic churches and I am glad to say that this is not just more of the same recycled information again. Unchurching adds fresh perspectives to the conversation while still covering the essentials as to what it means to be the body of Christ here on earth. One of the main themes in the book explores what it looks like to live in community and how to pursue that using the biblical illustration of the church as a family. He also takes a look at the priesthood of all believers, how institutional churches actually stifle it and how we can rediscover it once again. Two main ideas stuck out here for me; firstly, Richard’s perspective on how the 5-fold ministry equips the body for ministry is out of the box and refreshing. Then secondly, his treatment of the subject of men and woman as equals is fantastic. He takes us beyond the usual quibbles over headship and goes right back to Genesis starting with the first man and woman revealing God's original intentions for them.

I won’t go into his explanations here but I will comment that for the church to truly be one and for the priesthood of all believers to be fully realized I think Unchurching is a great catalyst for believers who are seeking to take a step in the right direction and realize it as more than just a doctrine that we give lip service to.

What I found to be most insightful and unique to this book though is the discussion around the institutional churches identity and how it is affected once it has taken the step to incorporate itself. There is a little bit of a history lesson showing where corporations come from as well as some legal talk explaining what corporations are. In essence, a corporation is a fictitious person that exists in perpetuity, so, when a church incorporates itself, it is the corporation rather than the congregation that legally becomes a church. What that boils down to is that you can leave a ‘church’ as can every other person who attends it and yet still have a 'church' in theory (even if it's just an empty building) which is alien to how scripture speaks about the community of believers. Richard then asks the questions, has the church in the process of gaining limited liability and tax exempt status sold its birthright? And what does the church lose when it does not value its identity? Regardless of how you answer these questions they are important ones to be asking.

I enjoyed this book even though it is, as the author states himself, meant for a specific audience. This book is primarily meant for those who are ‘unchurching’, not because they have given up on God but because they sense there is something more to being a community of Christians than attending certain programs in specific buildings on specific days. Unchurching is not about ‘unchurching’ at all but about pursuing a deeper relationship with God and those around us. Only those who are looking for that already will probably see it in this book and that is probably how it is meant to be anyway.

Unchurching has not being released yet, I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy for review purposes but you can read a sample portion of the book as well as keep up to date with news related to the official release by clicking over here.