Friday, 31 July 2015

Pursuing holiness

I was not entirely happy with my last post. It’s not that I didn’t mean exactly what I said in it or express my ideas satisfactorily. It is just that it felt incomplete in some way, so consider this to be part 2 or a follow up on that one. It may help to go and read that post first (you can do that by clicking here) but to summarize here, the bottom line was that I expressed the feeling that the new gay marriage laws in America don’t really have much to do with the church and we have possibly being using it as a scapegoat to divert attention away from ourselves and the sins that are far more abundant in our own lives. So let me pick up from there and share what was not said in ‘part 1’.

The kingdoms of the world and the Kingdom of God are meant to be polar opposites. So I find it peculiar that we as the church get so caught up in the affairs of the world while our own standards and fruits appear to be no better or worse than theirs. I do not fear a world that is worldly; it is to be expected. I do however fear for a church that looks and preaches no differently than the culture around it does. One of the themes that seems to be prevailing in the 21st century church is that we are all messed up and broken and that is okay. I agree with the first part of that statement but not with the second. A few weeks ago I read an article on the BBC news website where a pastor said that every church should have a drag queen in the congregation and those that do not should go and get one. It is one thing to listen to and love the outcasts in society, to grant everyone equal right and recognize that we ourselves are all broken in our own ways as well but it’s something else when we as the church start celebrating and glorying in our brokenness.

One of the other bloggers who participated in the gay marriage synchroblog last week shared an analogy in their post of the church being a hospital for sick people. I agree (and it was a great post), but let’s also remember that people don’t go to hospital to celebrate their diseases but to overcome them. Yes, we all miss the mark; we are all on a journey and in an ongoing process of being transformed into the likeness of Christ. And it is important that we are gracious to one another and allow God to do His work in people rather than guilting them onto the religious treadmill of self works and self righteousness. But let’s also be clear that there is no room in the body of Christ for willful, deliberate leaven to do its thing. To trade holiness for licentiousness is to throw the atoning work of the cross back in Jesus’ face.

Despite the overwhelming testimony of the New Testament authors, it has somehow become taboo and judgmental to correct and admonish one another. Sure, this is sometimes done not out of love but from ones own pedestal. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. “Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray” (Proverbs 10:17). “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future” (Proverbs 19:20). Scripture repeatedly tells that, in a spirit of love, humility and gentleness, we are to admonish (Acts 20:31, Romans 15:14, Colossians 1:28, 3:16), correct (Romans 15:7, Galatians 6:1), warn (2 Thessalonians 3:15), rebuke (Luke 17:3-4, 2 Timothy 4:2) and confront one another (Galatians 2:11) when it is needed.

It is not pleasant but love, real love, is not indifferent or neglectful to what causes harm to individuals and the church community as a whole. In the first three chapters of Revelations Jesus has some strong words for the churches in Asia but He ends off with the assuring words, “those I love, I rebuke and chasten”. In extreme cases where people continue in their sin and rebellion, we are even called to cut people off (Matthew 18:15-17, Titus 3:10-11, 1 Corinthians 5:1-11). Going back to the hospital analogy, sometimes in a body, amputation becomes necessary (although it is always a last resort). Even then, it is done out of love for the body as well as the individual in the hopes that they might repent and be restored.

Let us not lower the bar by saying that, “we all have our dirty spots”. Rather, let us take hold of Christ’s hand as He pulls us out of the mud we have being playing in and while we are getting dragged out, make sure one or two people grab onto your limbs as well that they too might be lifted out with you.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Some things to consider regarding the gay marriage debate

This post is part of the July 2015 Synchroblog on "Gay marriage". Check out the links at the bottom of this post for all the other contributions that were made for this months topic.

Occasionally I will jokingly tell my friends that I am a conservative who prefers the company of progressive Christians. The truth though is that I wouldn’t feel comfortable planting my flag in either of those camps. The gay marriage debate would be one of many examples where I don’t think my thoughts would satisfy either party very much. And rather than having a compromise view somewhere in the middle I feel that in many instances there is a third way of seeing things as well. Allow me to explain…

Firstly, let’s talk about ideals. Ideally, I would like to believe that every family would have two parents in every home. That those parents could naturally bear their own children and that each child would grow up with their biological mother and father in an environment where they would be nurtured, protected, provided for and loved. Unfortunately though, our world is broken and ideals are rarely if ever realized. Spouses fight and sometimes separate, people with young children pass away while others cannot conceive through no fault of their own and all parents in raising their children to some degree miss the mark of perfection. Yes, all of creation suffers and has been affected by the failings of individuals as well as the failings and the decay within others and creation itself. Do I think that homosexuality fits in here somewhere and misses the mark of Gods ideal? Sorry to disappoint all of my affirming friends but yes I do. I think that scripture, whether you want to refer to the letter or the spirit of it, conveys that as well. But this is where I want to step off of the conservative platform and address some other issues that I see.

According to a recent blog post that I read, only 3% of people in the USA identify as LGBT (1). That is not 3% of the church but 3% of the total population. Consider then that among church pastors, who are meant to be the cream of the crop so to speak, that 20% percent admit to viewing pornography at least once a month and the same number admit to having had an affair while in the ministry. Statistically speaking, a whopping 50% of pastors marriages will end in divorce (2). And according to a survey done by Pornhub, the bible belt of America watches and downloads significantly more gay porn than any other area in the US does (3). I mention all of this because I suspect that when the world looks at Christians who claim the moral high ground and preach the sanctity of marriage; they must think of us; “You are kidding right?”    

To be honest, I don’t think that the legalization of gay marriage has anything to do with the church. Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 5, when specifically dealing with sexual immorality, that we have nothing to do with judging those outside of the church. I know that pastors fear that they are going to be forced into performing same sex wedding ceremonies and possibly lose their jobs for not towing the line and I do feel for anyone put in that situation where they have to do something against their will but this is to some degree one of the consequences of the church getting in bed with the state which should have never happened in the first place. I cannot recall anywhere in scripture where Christians performed civil service duties on behalf of the state, neither can I recall anywhere where someone was fired from their spiritual gifting as if that were even possible.

Even if we somehow conclude that it is the duty of the citizens of ‘the Kingdom not of this world’ to give the ‘kingdoms of the world’ a holy makeover by means of political coercion, we should recognize that the law has no ability to influence the inner man. My guess is that the law to legalize gay marriage did not alter anybodies sexual orientation. The law may restrain and discourage certain behaviors (drugs, violence etc) but simply has no power to sanctify and renew the person who is ruled by whatever his vice may be.  

There is also something that Jesus once said that I have been thinking of as well. In Matthew 19:8 Jesus said to the Pharisees that Moses permitted men to divorce their wives because of the hardness of their hearts even though it was not the ideal God had set out in the beginning. It made me think that if someone who is gay wants to commit themselves to one partner for life and perhaps adopt a child and raise a family, then surely it is a better situation than having them sleep around with multiple partners and have those orphaned children possibly grow up with nobody they can call their family. I know single moms who are doing a fantastic job raising kids by themselves, once again it is not ideal but sometimes in specific situations it was probably a better option than staying in a marriage that was emotionally or physically unhealthy. It is entirely possible that a gay couple can do a better job raising a child than a straight couple could. And if you are younger than 35 there is a 50% chance that you grew up with 2 moms and 2 dads anyway. Again, none of those situations are ideal but why do we focus on the homosexuality and excuse things like divorce which is more common and more than likely a little closer to home?

Without ignoring it, there are simply bigger fish for the church to fry than the issue of gay marriage; I suspect that most Christians like to single out homosexuality precisely because it is not something that they personally struggle with. Before we remove the gay splinter from someone else’s eye, perhaps we should look at the planks of lust, divorce and remarriage (which scripture equally condemns) out of our own eyes first. These are much larger issues in the church today; they are the three fingers that point back at us when we are all up in our neighbors faces.

I think the same grace that is extended to people broken in other ways should be extended to our gay neighbors as well. Sure, we are products of the choices we make, but Lady Gaga was not totally wrong when she sang "Born this Way". In a broken world people are sometimes born with hormonal imbalances just as other people might have fertility issues. One may accept things as the way God has ordained them but I believe that God can redeem all things to their original order (Genesis 1:31). Some things need to be repented of while other things may require a supernatural act of healing. Sometimes that line is not so easy to see but the place that we turn to in both situations will be the same. That place is the cross of Christ.


2 – Stats taken from Death by Church by Mike Erre, pg 23-25

click on the links below to see what others wrote about

Carlos Shelton - About Gay marriage
Justin Steckbauer - Gay marriage, LBGTQ issues and the Christian worldview
K.W. Leslie - Same-sex marriage
Leah Sophia - marriage equality again
Paul W. Meier - Gay Marriage – Love is the Narrow Gate
Tim Nichols - Imago Dei: Loving the different
Tony Ijeh - Thoughts on Gay Marriage
Jeremy Myers - Two men in one bed (Luke 17:34)
Tara – Justice for All
Michelle Torigian – Marriage Equality: The Constantly Expanding Love of God
Lifewalk Blog – Here I am
Mary – A Recovering Evangelical Writes about Homosexuality
Liz – Same Sex Marriage Stuff: Part 1
Loveday – Gay Marriage in Africa, USA, and the World
Jea7587 – Loving Your Gay Neighbor, Part 2
D. L. Webster – Questions of Interacting with Differing Beliefs
Glenn Hager – Love Wins

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

3 Views of Hell – What they have in common and where they differ.

For the last two years or so I have spent some time looking into the various Christian theological views on hell. One of the things that soon struck me was that the various positions all hold within them areas of common ground, things that set them apart and then areas where two of the views will be pitted against the one of them. I thought that I would highlight some of those areas as it is quite an interesting exercise to look at.

Before I get started, let me just offer a brief definition of each of the three main views.

1 – The traditional view which can be described as ‘eternal conscious torment’ would be by far the most popular position in the church. Before Rob Bell came along most were probably not even aware that alternative interpretations even existed. This traditional view basically says that all who are not born again will one day be resurrected after death to suffer an eternity in the fiery flames of hell.

2 – Universalism teaches that the traditional view goes against Gods loving nature and that God will continue after death to woo those who never accepted Christ in this life. Hell is seeing more as a purgatorial place where the refiner’s fire will eventually win everyone over.

3 – Conditional Immortality teaches that eternal life is a gift given only to those who have believed the Gospel of Christ. The wicked are raised for final judgment but will taste of the second death when they are thrown into the Lake of Fire. This view does allow for a finite period of time of suffering before one eventually ceases to exist.

So looking at each of them a bit closer, what do they hold in common and what sets them apart from each other? First off, let’s mention what they all hold in common. All three views affirm that there is only one way to God and that is through Jesus Christ. Then even if they cannot agree on what hell is, they all do acknowledge it and agree that it is not a place that anyone would want to end up in. So it is probably unfair and ignorant of anyone to suggest that any of the views seek to downplay the severity of sin or the need for evangelism in this life. While there certainly will be some who see the alternate views as a licence or loophole to loose living, from the people I have listened to all three camps seem to be orthodox when it comes to stressing the importance of holiness and evangelism.

With that out of the way, let’s look at some of those differences that I mentioned between the views.

Traditionalists and Universalists believe that everyone receives Eternal life.

Conditional Immortality, as the name suggests, teaches that eternal life is a gift and not a given for all people. Believers are raised to eternal life but unbelievers will taste of the second death (John 3:16, 6:40, 51, 8:51, 11:25-26, 1 John 5:11-12) and ultimately cease to exist. Traditionalists and Universalists take the biblical language of death to be figurative and hold to the Platonic philosophy of the human soul having being created immortal or alternatively at the time of the resurrection of the dead believe that God will give everyone indestructible bodies.

Annihilationists and Universalists believe in the end of all human evil.

Annihilationists teach that the wicked will perish, be destroyed or consumed in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 21:8). Universalists teach that all will eventually be won over and pass from darkness to light. By either method God will eventually be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:24-28) in these views as evil is defeated and done away with. The traditional view stands apart here as evil is never eradicated but continues to exist eternally parallel to the Kingdom of God but contained in the mother of all prisons where it no longer holds influence or power over those outside of it.

Our choices in this life bear eternal consequences   

All three camps warn that we have this life to live and after that we will face judgment (Hebrews 9:27); where the split comes in is that Annihilationism and Traditionalism teach that this judgment is final and irreversible (Matthew 25:1-13) and based on the decisions that one made in this lifetime. Universalism though includes the belief in second, third, fourth or even infinite chances to repent and be saved after death. Appeal is made by Universalists from verses like Revelation 21:24-25 and Psalm 136:1 to support their view.

Is justice primarily retributive or restorative?

Traditionally, justice is viewed as being retributive. In the age to come God makes things right by punishing His enemies in an eternal fire and rewarding His followers with a place in heaven. But in the other two views justice is more about the restoration of all things to their original place as it was before the fall (Acts 3:21, Revelation 21:1-8). Annihilationism says that those who choose to remain outside of Christ will perish and have no part in the new creation while Universalism says that no person will remain outside of Christ forever and every human being ever born will experience this restoration.

Punishment is eternal

In the traditional view of hell punishment is an ongoing conscious torment experienced by the lost person in the flames of hell (Revelations 20:10). In the Annihilationist view punishment is eternal in the sense that death is forever (Psalm 92:7, 2 Thessalonians 1:9) and God’s judgment thus bears eternal and irrevocable consequences. Universalists though see punishment as temporal by appealing to the original Greek word ‘aionion’ which is translated as eternal in some places in scripture (Matthew 18:8, Revelations 20:10) but can also mean ‘a temporal age’ as seen in Romans 16:25.

The meaning of death

Lastly, the meaning of death is disputed among Annihilationists and those who hold to the opposing views. Conditional Immortality holds to the literal meaning of the word so for example, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) gets taken at face value. The same could be said of other words in the bible such as destroy, destruction, perish and consume. Traditionalists and Universalists reject this idea and teach rather that death refers to a state of separation from God. The wages of sin therefore becomes a state of being rather than the inevitable outcome of choosing to remain outside of Christ (Genesis 3:3).

This article is not meant to confuse anyone but was intended to provide some basic information on the three views of hell for those who may not have been exposed to anything outside of what is popularly taught. The point was not to push or refute any of the arguments here either, if you are interested in my personal views you could click herehere or here to have a look at them. Wherever you find yourself on this one, I would like to hear from you, do you think your position has been fairly represented above? Are there more similarities and distinctions that I may have missed? How important is this issue to you? I would love to know.

In Him.

Friday, 10 July 2015

What does it mean to blaspheme the Holy Spirit?

Going back about fifteen years I was part of a typical cell group that met every Tuesday evening. One particular week, I can recall a girl visiting for the first time and asking what the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit was. It was immediately clear that no one had ever given it any serious thought and the topic was pushed aside rather quickly. The girl never came back again and for some reason it is something that has always stayed with me. Recently someone asked me the same question once again and this time I promised to walk through it with them until he gained peace on the topic. I get the impression that many others too fear that they have at some point committed the unforgivable sin and it has left them spiritually in tatters. It certainly does not help that there are so many conflicting opinions out there either; some believe to blaspheme the Holy Spirit means to have ‘verbally cursed’ Him at some point, others teach that suicide is the unforgivable sin, still others say that it means to deny Christ after once having been an active follower of Him. After some personal meditation on the subject, I would like to offer an alternate view, please don’t consider this to be a ‘teaching’ but rather a collection of thoughts I am currently processing. I would sincerely appreciate any feedback from people on what I have to say as well. I am putting it out here more for feedback and to process my own thoughts than anything else.

So let’s start with that famous verse, I like Mark’s account best:-

Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies 
they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but 
is subject to eternal condemnation – because they said, “He has an unclean spirit”. 
Mark 3:28-30

Let’s break this statement down into four parts and really consider the words in each section.

Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and 
whatever blasphemies they may utter…

Starting off, the bible says that on the cross Jesus bore and took away the sins of the whole world (John 1:29); God has, in Christ, reconciled all men to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:18). Some of you make think by making such statements that I am a universalist which I am not even though I do technically believe in ‘universal reconciliation’ in the sense that God has reconciled all men to Himself. The subtle but vital difference though is that I do not believe in 'universal salvation'. Scripture clearly teaches that reconciliation and salvation are not the same things:-

For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His 
Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. 
Romans 5:10

Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, 
and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ 
reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has 
committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for 
Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ's behalf, 
be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we 
might become the righteousness of God in Him. We then, as workers together with 
Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says: "In an 
acceptable time I have heard you, And in the day of salvation I have helped you." 
Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. 
2 Corinthians 5:18-6:2

 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to 
reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, 
having made peace through the blood of the cross. And you, who were once alienated 
and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body 
of His flesh through death, to present you holy and blameless, and above reproach 
in His sight – if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are 
not moved away from the hope of the gospel… - Colossians 1:19-23

Similarly, we have often assumed that forgiveness equals salvation but scripture does not teach that either. Jesus says in our foundational text that “all sins will be forgiven the sons of men” (except for one), Paul reiterates in 2 Corinthians 5:18 that God no longer counts our sins against us (see also 1 John 2:1). When Jesus hung on the cross He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do (Luke 23:34).” Should we assume that all those who were present and participated in Christ’s beating and execution will be saved? I don’t think so. What I think scripture teaches us is that God has done His bit; He has pursued us but not forced Himself on us either. Essentially He has put the ball in our court and reached His arm out to us; the option of grabbing hold of His hand is purely up to us. While Paul says God has reconciled Himself to us, he continues in 2 Corinthians 5:20 to say, “…we implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God”.

but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness…

So here is the single exception to the rule, those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven of their sin and are subject to eternal condemnation. 1 John 5:16-17 speaks of sin which leads to death and sin which does not lead to death and I wonder if John is touching on the same topic here. If it is the Spirit which sets us free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2) then it must be a rejection of the Spirit which keeps us in bondage to death.

 subject to eternal condemnation…

He who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life – Galatians 6:8

A clear contrast can easily be made between eternal life and death in scripture; those who receive the Spirits witness as to who Jesus is and are born of the Spirit are those who receive the gift of immortality in Christ.

He who hears my word and believes in Him who sent me has everlasting life, and 
shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. - John 5:24

“And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and 
believes in Him may have everlasting life…” - John 6:40

I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, 
he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give 
for the life of the world. – John 6:51

Jesus said to her, “I m the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though 
he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do 
you believe this?” – John 11:25-26

Those who are subject to eternal condemnation as Mark 3:29 puts it and have blasphemed the Spirit are the same ones who never believed in Jesus, who never ate of His flesh and became partakers in His life.

because they said, “He has an unclean spirit".

 I want to quickly add something about the context of Mark 3:28-29 over here. Many have said that because in the story Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees for attributing His works to the power of Satan then that must be the unpardonable sin. I think it misses the bigger picture of what is going on in the passage. If my children ask me for chocolate thirty minutes before dinner and I say no it is not going to help them to ask for candy or chips either; the rule is not “no chocolate before dinner” but “no eating any junk food that is going to spoil your appetite before we sit down to eat”. This text is more than just a protective proof text for bogus faith healers to keep us from testing the spirits; rather it is about people who reject Christ for who He is as has been revealed to them by the Spirit (John 15:26, 16:13-15), the Pharisees were clearly doing that and Jesus is warning them here that they are treading thin ice. Should they continue to stubbornly resist the Spirit they would certainly die lost and condemned.

So what is the unpardonable sin?

It should be obvious by now where I am going but consider before I spell it out quickly some of the works of the Holy Spirit as well as scripture reveals them to us. Firstly, He convicts the world of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8), He reveals Christ to us (Luke 3:22, 1 Corinthians 2:10-14) and is the one who baptizes us into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). By the Spirit we are granted everlasting life (Galatians 6:8), given access to the Father (Ephesians 2:18) and sealed for the day of redemption (Ephesians 4:30).

I submit then that the unforgivable sin is the ultimate and final rejection of the Holy Spirits witness and work in the world which is to point us to Christ in whom alone we have salvation.

He who has the Son has life and He who does not have the Son does not have life – 
1 John 5:12.

Really, it is as simple as that. Whether someone can harden their heart to the point of no return while they are still breathing or it can only happen at the point of death is another point worth exploring perhaps some other time. My friend Jeremy Myers has a little saying which I love and wholeheartedly agree with, it goes something like this, “If you fear that you have committed the unpardonable sin it is a sure that you have not.” The mere fact that you care about such a thing is proof that He is still pursuing you. So take heart, perhaps things are not where or what they should be but its certainly not to late to fix that.