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The Hope That Is in Us

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

 

Like most Christians, I’ve heard plenty of teaching on 1 Peter 3:15.  Indeed, I’m responsible for a fair amount of it myself.  Typically, and rightly so, this verse is often brought up in the context of evangelism.  In particular, teachers are concerned with the phrase, “Being prepared to make a defense.”  They use it to argue that we need to Know Our Bibles.  Gotta be ready to debate all those deluded denominationalists right into the baptistry!

However, during my recent Texas odyssey, I heard a fascinating sermon from Jeff Wilson that pointed out that this application is misguided.  The text doesn’t say, “Being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for your specific beliefs on salvation.”  Instead, it says, “Being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”

That’s very different.  We might be tempted to slap a generic definition on “hope”, but the context doesn’t allow us to do that.  In 1 Peter 1:3-4, Peter is very specific that the hope is our hope of an eternal inheritance in heaven. 

Indeed, he is very specific about the reason for that hope.  It is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  When we are making a defense of the reason for the hope that is in us, we are talking about the resurrection and what it means for us.

1 Peter 3:15 is thus another piece of evidence that first-century Christianity was much more resurrection-centric than its 21st-century variant often is.  “The gospel” isn’t the 27 books of the New Testament.  It is the good news that eternal life is possible through the risen Lord.  The vast importance of the cross is undeniable, but without the empty tomb, the cross is meaningless.  Don’t take my word for it.  Take Paul’s word for it, in 1 Corinthians 15:17.

“But what about baptism???” the legions of battle-hardened personal workers might cry.  Frankly, if our teaching on baptism doesn’t start with the resurrection, we’re doing it wrong.  As per Romans 6, baptism is best understood as a spiritual union with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.  If you are buried with Him, you will rise to walk in newness of life like He did.

In fact, the more we exalt the resurrection, the more we also exalt baptism.  If the resurrection is the central event of Christianity, it ought also to be the central event of becoming a Christian.  What does the sinner’s prayer have to do with the resurrection?  Nothing!  What does baptism have to do with the resurrection?  Everything!

This is the hope that is in us, the hope that we must defend whenever anyone asks.  Christ is alive!  The Scriptures prove it.  Because He is alive, we can live too if we follow Him.

If that’s the defense we make, we might find a whole lot more people who are willing to listen.

Compassion in Jonah

Friday, February 08, 2019

 

A few weeks ago, after I finished going through Jonah in my daily Bible reading, I posted on Facebook, “I love the book of Jonah!  It is both warm and subtle.”  In what is perhaps a sign that I deadpan too much on Facebook, most who responded thought I was joking.  Those who took me seriously, seriously disagreed.

Apparently, an explanation is in order!

I think part of the problem is that when most Christians think of Jonah, they think of the eponymic prophet and his encounter with the not-whale.  The story is dramatic, but it is admittedly not very cozy.  However, the book is not about Jonah’s ingestion by a great fish, nor even about his preaching mission to Nineveh.  As impressive as those things are, they’re not the point.  Instead, the theme of the book is God’s efforts to teach His wayward prophet compassion.

Think about it.  In the opening scene of the book, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, and Jonah heads in the opposite direction, presumably because he isn’t terribly interested in saving the Ninevites.  At this point, God would have been fully justified in turning Jonah into a grease spot.  However, he doesn’t.  Instead, He sends Jonah on his undersea journey to give him time to repent, just as He wants to give Nineveh time to repent.

Jonah does, and once he’s back on dry land, he grudgingly goes to Nineveh.  Then, he warns the people of God’s impending judgment, even though he really wants to see them destroyed.  However, the outcome is exactly what God wants to see, and exactly what Jonah doesn’t want to see.  The city repents en masse, and disaster is averted.

Jonah, however, remains as hard-hearted as ever.  He camps out on the hills above the city, hoping that God will change His mind and destroy it (the opposite of Abraham’s perspective on Sodom, if you think about it).  In one last attempt to correct His wayward prophet, God raises up a plant to shade him and then kills it.  When Jonah gets upset, God points out that if Jonah is right to get emotionally attached to a plant, God is right to feel compassion for a city filled with human beings.

This is a story that gives me a great deal of hope.  It clearly reveals the depth of God’s compassion, not only for Nineveh, but for one of His own who repeatedly refuses to get it.  I’m glad I serve a God like that, not least because of all the times when I have repeatedly refused, and probably still do repeatedly refuse, to get it.  I am a daily witness to the greatness of His mercy.

Second, the story of Jonah illustrates God’s patience.  Despite multiple provocations, God doesn’t give up on Jonah.  Instead, He continues teaching him, right up to the last sentence of the book.  As a disciple of Jesus, I know that I am very much a work in progress, and I am thankful that God will patiently continue His work in me and not give up on me.

Is a book filled with storms and judgments stereotypically warm?  Well, no, but every time I read it, I find myself warmed anyway.  The conflict in it isn’t God’s fault, but Jonah’s.  The compassion, though, all belongs to God.

Pessimism and the Future of the Church

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

 

On my recent week-plus swing through Texas, I shared a number of meals with and otherwise talked to a number of old friends.  One of the themes of those conversations was pessimism about the future of the Lord’s church, at least in the United States. 

Admittedly, reasons for such a bleak outlook seem abundant.  Day by day, our nation appears to be growing more wicked and less tolerant of genuine Christianity.  A greater percentage than ever before of children “raised in the church” are leaving it.  Attendance is declining nationwide.  Et cetera, et cetera.

Despite all the gloomy statistics, though, I’m not convinced that the gloom is warranted.  First of all, human beings are rotten at predicting the future.  Whatever you think the world is going to be like 20 years from now, you’re almost certainly going to be wrong.  In the past 20 years, which is not all that much time as history goes, the United States has had to endure 9-11, the War on Terror, the Great Recession, and the celebrity of the Kardashians. 

The 20 years to come will hold just as many surprises, both bad and good, and anybody who tries to predict the future by extrapolating current trends is foolish.  Where will that leave the church?  Who knows!

Second, if we think the world is going to wrack and ruin, we have lots of company among God’s people in the Bible.  Some of the godly gloom-and-doomers are obvious:  Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and a host of other prophets.  Some, though, are less so.  In Psalm 12:1, David writes, “Help, Lord, for the godly man ceases to be, for the faithful disappear from among the sons of men!”  Yes, that David—the one who was about to lead Israel to the pinnacle of its righteousness and historical attainments.

Similarly, Paul has to argue in Romans 9:6, “It is not as though the word of God has failed.”  Why?  Precisely because it appeared that the word of God had failed!  Paul had seen the people of God—the Jews—reject the Anointed of God en masse.  We think of the first century as a time of tremendous success, but that’s not how it looked to the Jewish brethren alive then.  To them, it seemed as if God’s great purpose had been defeated.  Only the Holy Spirit could reveal that all along, God had been aiming at another purpose altogether.

So too today.  It may be that our purposes—for our country, for our churches, for our families—are being defeated.  However, God’s purpose is not being defeated.  I believe that He is as active in history as He ever has been, but His work today is unknowable. 

Perhaps we are on the cusp of a spiritual renaissance in this country, and God will be glorified in that.  Perhaps He is using our riches to establish first-century Christianity across the globe, and He will be glorified in that.  Perhaps He is waiting until the iniquity of the American has become full to come in judgment against us, and yes, He will be glorified in that too. 

The future is uncertain.  The victory of God is not.  We don’t have to worry about what tomorrow will bring because He’s got it under control.  Literally. 

Instead, our place is to work, not grow weary, and not lose heart.  Whatever God’s purposes may be, we know that they will always provide a place for those who hold fast to Him.

Gillette Ads and the Truth

Friday, January 18, 2019

 

Let me begin with some general observations about the nature of truth.  Contra both Pontius Pilate and many in our society, I believe in objective truth.  For me, this conviction follows naturally from my faith in the capital-T Truth.  If God is, then light and darkness, right and wrong, and truth and falsehood also are.  Something is either true or it isn’t.  Binary.  On-off.

If something is true, it is true regardless of source or context.  If my best friend is praising some attribute of mine and he’s correct, that’s the truth.  If he comes to me in love and correctly points out a mistake I’ve made, that’s truth too. 

For that matter, if my worst enemy on the planet (whoever that might be) publicly denounces some flaw of mine, with 100 percent evil intentions, ignoring all the bad things he’s done to me, guess what?  My enemy has told the truth.  Maybe the conclusions that he wants others to draw from the truth aren’t justified.  However, his enmity does not give me the right to deny or ignore my flaw.

I think most brethren are on board so far, so let’s start talking about the Gillette commercial that has engendered so much controversy recently.  First of all, like any business that sells ads, Gillette’s motives are entirely commercial.  They don’t care about morality or cultural change.  They want to sell razors, and if acting like they care about the values of others will sell razors, that’s what they’ll do. 

In Gillette’s eyes, if this ad campaign sells more razors and does not change the bad behavior of one bully or sexual harasser, it will have been a success.  If it makes America a better place and does not sell more razors, it will have been a failure.  Them’s the facts, and criticizing Gillette for that is like criticizing a vulture for eating carrion.

I think too that the ad is meant to take sides in the culture wars.  It is meant to appeal to those who seek to minimize, de-masculinize, and diminish men.  The ongoing destruction of the two-parent family is both cause and effect here. 

Furthermore, the ad focuses on bad behavior by males while ignoring bad behavior by females.  If you don’t think that junior-high girls can be even more vicious bullies than junior-high boys, you’ve got another think coming.

Having said all that, you know what?  Everything in that commercial was true.  Far too many men have behaved badly for far too long, “Christian” and non-Christian alike.  They have taken advantage of their power to exploit and abuse those who are weaker.  It continues to be a serious problem to this day.  Bullying, sexual harassment, and worse are rampant.

I don’t care who calls that out as wrong.  It’s wrong.  Every last one of us knows that the Bible condemns both that behavior and the heart that lies behind it.

If we deny that, if we reject or minimize the truth because of its source and its context, if we focus on the motives rather than the message (Philippians 1:15-18 notwithstanding), we have lost the right to claim that we are defenders of truth.  In fact, we have become every bit as post-modern as those we oppose.

Truth doesn’t belong to us.  Truth doesn’t belong to them.  Truth belongs to God.  Either we acknowledge it, or we don’t.

Merciless Progressivism

Thursday, January 17, 2019

 

The other day, I read this fascinating op-ed by David Brooks.  It tells the story of a member of a punk-rock band who called out the band’s lead singer for sending an unwelcome explicit photograph to a woman, leading to his banishment from the punk-rock scene.  A few years later, someone discovered that she had mocked a nude photo of another girl in high school.  She too got called out and shunned.

As always, I am struck by the bizarrely puritanical turn that American progressivism has taken.   Sure, progressives are generally very tolerant of many things that the Scripture describes as sinful.  However, underneath that façade of tolerance lies an ironbound code of conduct. 

If it comes out that you’ve treated somebody in a way that progressives disapprove of, WHAM!  The hammer will fall.  All of your friends will reject you, and they will never again let you back into the circle of the elect.  It’s exactly the kind of behavior that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about in The Scarlet Letter.

Though it’s hard for us to get our heads around the idea, progressives like this are very moral people.  Even though they deny that there is any such thing as absolute right and wrong, they behave as though there is.  They reject the authority of the Bible, but in their judgments of others, they appeal to the authority of progressive thought.  They are more unbending in their insistence on their beliefs than the fieriest church dragon any of us have ever known.

However, for all their zeal, their ethical system has a serious, indeed fatal, flaw.  It offers no hope for mercy or forgiveness.  You get to feel all self-righteous when you denounce others, but when you slip up and somebody denounces you, it’s all over.  You will find no place for repentance, though you seek for it with tears. 

Here, we encounter one of the great things that Christ has done for us.  As Paul observes in Romans 3:26, the blood of Jesus makes it possible for God to be both just and our justifier.  He can simultaneously insist on the righteousness of a perfect moral code and forgive those who don’t live up to it.  We see the seriousness of sin revealed in the crucifixion, but the power of the cross makes it possible for all of us to move beyond our sins.  Without Christ, either God’s law is unimportant, or our transgressions must haunt us forever.  With Him, we can find grace through His self-sacrifice. 

In other words, Christianity offers hope.  Progressive philosophy doesn’t.  Progressives are either justified by works or not justified at all. 

By contrast, a church is (or at least ought to be) a community of people who have confessed their inability to justify themselves through their own righteousness.  We’ve all messed up, so we are able to welcome and enfold somebody else who has messed up and wants another chance.  We are merciful because we have received mercy.

Without that source of mercy, progressives are left with a grim choice.  Either they deny the importance of the standards that they prize, or they reject all who violate those standards.  Laws or people.  You pick.

In Christ, we don’t have to.

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