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The Bible and the Poverty Problem

Thursday, April 11, 2019

In 2003, social scientists Isabell Sawhill and Ron Haskins noticed three striking differences between poor people in America and the nonpoor.  First, poor people generally hadn’t completed high school; the nonpoor had.  Second, nonpoor people kept a steady job; poor people didn’t.  Third, nonpoor people got married before having children; poor people had children before getting married.

From their data, Sawhill and Haskins concluded that young Americans who 1) finished high school, 2) got a job, and 3) got married before having children had only a 2 percent chance of falling into poverty.  Since that time, conservatives as varied as Ben Sasse and Ben Shapiro have adopted this solution as their own.

However, the single most elegant means of promoting this program isn’t found in a report from a Washington thinktank or a political candidate’s platform.  Instead, it is found in Scripture.  As Moses observes in Deuteronomy 10:13, the commandments of God are for our good.  The godly path is the wise path, and it generally will lead to a more prosperous life.

Some might have trouble locating “Finish high school,” in the Bible.  My father didn’t.  If he quoted Ecclesiastes 9:10 to me about my schoolwork once, he quoted it a hundred times!   He understood that discipline and hard work were essential not only to education, but everywhere in life.

The others are more obvious.  1 Timothy 5:8 was very much on my mind when I refused to marry my wife until I found a job (much to her annoyance, actually).  I was not about to establish a household until I could provide for it.  Sure, I was providing for it at the rate of $23,500 a year (in 2005), but that was a whole lot better than providing for it at the rate of zero!

Similarly, all Christians are aware of Hebrews 13:4.  Young disciples who honor the marriage bed and shun sexual immorality because of the obvious spiritual dangers will consequently also avoid the less obvious economic dangers.  Single motherhood is usually a one-way ticket to poverty (and a lot of other problems besides), but the great majority of women who don’t sin sexually don’t end up as single mothers.  If the Christian husband will remain committed to his wife, that percentage goes up to about 99.9 percent.

God’s way works.  It doesn’t work because He upends bags of money on you when you pray for riches, Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar to the contrary.  It works because the Biblical values of self-discipline, hard work, and sexual continence are economically useful values.  Nearly always, people who practice these things will rise. 

What’s more, you don’t have to have read the sociological studies and thought deeply about the long-term consequences of your actions to benefit.  God has already done the thinking for you.  Obey Him, and it will be well with you. 

Of course, all of the above is a “nearly always”.  Just as there are exceptions to nearly every proverb in the book of Proverbs, there are exceptions to this.  There are godly people who find themselves in poverty through circumstances beyond their control, serious health problems being the chief of these.  However, those things are the exception, not the rule, and we should not ignore the rule because of the exceptions.

Sadly, the same forces that have struck at religion in America also have attacked this simple engine for prosperity.  The more people deviate from God’s plan for work and the family, the worse they fare economically too.  The dimensions of this national disaster are becoming clearer with every passing year.

The most potent cure for the disease isn’t found in Washington, but in the word.  If people devote themselves to the teachings of Christ, the problem of poverty will, if not disappear, at least greatly diminish.  Those who refuse to do so have no one to blame but themselves.

Interceding Moses, Interceding Jesus

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

 

It’s rare that I read something online that really makes me stop and think.  This essay, however, is quality work.  It grapples with the question of why God in the Old Testament does things that strike us as evil.  Particularly, why does He nearly annihilate mankind during the flood and almost do the same thing to Israel in Exodus 32 after the Israelites sin with the golden calf?

I thought the author’s analysis of the second question was particularly insightful.  He notes that God does not say to Moses, “My wrath burns hot against them, and I will consume them.”  Instead, He says, “Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” 

Moses, of course, does not let God alone, and after the ensuing conversation, God agrees not to destroy the Israelites.  However, this conversation never would have happened if God had not provoked it by asking Moses not to have it.  Effectively, God is saying, “Moses, talk me out of this.”  Moses’ intercession kindles God’s mercy toward a people that manifestly does not deserve it.

These mysteries are profound, but I think we can go deeper still.  God does not merely say “Let Me alone,” because He wants Moses not to let Him alone.  Instead, God says that because part of God does want it to happen, not merely with respect to the sinful Israelites, but with respect to all sinful people everywhere.  His perfect holiness finds our sin repugnant, unbearable.  It demands that He separate Himself from us.

And yet, as much as God wants us to let Him alone, He wants us not to.  James 4:5 says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that He has made to dwell in us.”  Our spirits reveal that we are His children, and He can no more abandon us than we could abandon our own children. 

Simultaneously, then, God longs both to reject and to embrace us.  This is not a contradiction in His nature.  Instead, it reflects the contradiction in our natures.  We are created as the children of God, but we behave as the children of wrath.  As He says in Hosea 6:4, “What shall I do with you?” 

His answer is to say, “Let Me alone,” both condemning evil and inviting the intercession from Moses that will tip the scales in favor of mercy.  In this, though, Moses’ intercession is nothing more than a shadow of the intercession of Christ.  If Christ does not intercede, if the holiness of God is not deterred from its course, God’s wrath will burn hot against us and consume us too.

In response, though, Jesus offers far more than Moses did.  Moses recalls to God His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but Jesus inaugurates a new covenant.  Moses forestalls the punishment for sin, but Jesus takes it upon Himself.  “Let Me alone,” God says, both to us and about us.  “No,” Jesus replies, and His intercession opens the door to mercy and fellowship for eternity.

Salvation

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

 

During my last two appearances in the pulpit, we’ve considered both mankind’s biggest problem and the only possible solution to that problem.  Only Jesus can possibly save us from our sins. 

However, knowing the what doesn’t tell us the how.  I can know that a jack can help me to change a tire, but unless I know how to use the jack to change the tire, that doesn’t help me much.  Similarly, the knowledge that we can be saved through Jesus doesn’t tell us how to lay hold of that salvation.

Sadly, the devil has sown a great deal of confusion on this subject.  Some in the world believe things that aren’t in the Bible at all, such as that you only have to be a good person.  Others take part of what the Bible says about salvation and act like it’s all you have to do. 

If we want to help people like this, we have to know the whole counsel of God, and we have to declare the whole counsel of God.  This evening, then, let’s consider the Biblical pattern for salvation.

Assuming that a sinner recognizes his need for salvation, the process of being saved begins with BELIEF.  To establish this point, there’s no reason to turn anywhere other than John 3:16.  We saw last week that Jesus is our Savior, but His salvation is only for those who believe in Him.  Only they have the hope of eternal life. 

However, many people are mistaken both about the meaning and the significance of belief.  Let’s start with the former.  Lots of people think that faith is nothing more than acknowledging something as true, that we believe that Jesus is the Son of God in the same way that we believe that Paris is the capital of France. 

Biblically, that’s not accurate.  The only time belief is used in this way in Scripture is in James 2, where it’s talking about the demons’ belief in God.  That is not saving faith!  Saving faith isn’t mere mental assent to the existence of Jesus.  It is trust in Him and loyalty to Him.  Saving faith is inseparable from action.

This truth is a stumbling block for many.  They turn to passages like Ephesians 2 and talk about being saved by faith, not by works.  However, that’s a misreading of the text.  In Ephesians and Romans, when Paul is talking about salvation by works, he’s talking about the works of the law of Moses.  He’s talking about salvation by perfect law-keeping.  His point is not that we have to do nothing in order to be saved.  It’s that we can’t earn our salvation.

In addition to belief, the Scriptures emphasize that REPENTANCE is a necessary part of our salvation.  As Shawn and I observed during the evangelism class last quarter, repentance is generally one of the main problems that people have with becoming a Christian.  Next week, I intend to preach a whole half-hour study sermon on repentance, so you can think of this as a quickie point for people who don’t struggle with the truth. 

For purposes of this study, though, consider 2 Corinthians 7:10.  In this text, Paul distinguishes between two kinds of grief:  worldly grief and godly grief.  Worldly grief is grief at God’s word that does not produce a change of heart.  When the rich young ruler went away grieffully, that was worldly grief.  We see this kind of grief today with people who accept that they’re in an unscriptural marriage but never separate.

Godly grief on the other hand, is grief that produces repentance, which is a sincere resolution to stop sinning and live righteously.  Repentance itself is entirely mental.  The Greek word here literally means “changing your mind”. 

Thus, somebody who repents of their sins doesn’t have to eradicate all those sins before they are baptized.  However, genuine repentance is always followed by action.  If somebody’s life doesn’t bring forth fruits worthy of repentance, that’s reason enough for us to call their original repentance into question.

CONFESSION is the next thing that we must do to lay hold of God’s gift of salvation.  Here, let’s look at Romans 10:9-10.  The first thing that we ought to notice here is that Paul didn’t believe that salvation was the result of Just One Thing.  He certainly affirms the necessity of faith for salvation, but he also says that you have to offer a confession that Jesus Christ is Lord.  A little earlier in Romans, he talks about the necessity of baptism.  Anybody who takes one of those passages out of the context of everything Paul says about salvation is guilty of the worst kind of proof-texting.  Rather than focusing on one thing a New-Testament writer says about salvation, we need to focus on everything he says.

Also, let’s pay attention to what kind of a confession this is.  Often, when we hear the word “confession” our mind turns to a confession of sin.  Confessing our sins is certainly a Biblical concept, but when we find people in the New Testament doing that, it’s people who already have been saved.  That kind of confession is extremely important, but it’s not part of the process of salvation.

Instead, the confession that does accompany salvation is what Peter describes as “the good confession”.  It is a statement claiming Jesus Christ as our Lord, as Jesus Himself confessed His Kingship before Pontius Pilate.  There are many different confession formulas in Scripture.  The exact wording doesn’t matter.  However, it is supposed to be a pledge of faith.  If we confess Jesus before men, He will confess us before His Father in heaven.

The process of salvation concludes with BAPTISM.  As with repentance, this is a subject that can require a half-hour study all its own, at least!  I’ll be preaching that sermon next week too because sometimes baptism is an issue with people.  Sometimes, though, it isn’t.  I’ve seen people choose to be baptized after studying only one passage having to do with baptism.  If that’s the case,  Acts 2:37-38 will serve as well as any. 

This is another text that contains a subject we’ve already studied, in this case repentance.  Also, it’s contextually apparent that Peter’s audience in this context already believes.  That’s why they’re asking him what they can do to escape the wrath of God for crucifying Jesus.  The only step that’s missing is confession, but that shouldn’t bother us.  When we’re telling a story to our friends, we don’t cover every detail every time.  Instead, we bring out only the details that are significant to the story. 

Luke is doing the same thing.  He’s hitting the high points of what happened, not mechanically going through every little detail of every story of conversion.  People who demand that every detail be in every story are expecting something that nobody actually does.

Second, notice that Peter is appealing to these Jews to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.  This does not mean that they are being baptized because their sins already have been forgiven.  If that’s so, why are they crying out “What shall we do?” five seconds earlier? 

These are people who know they are not forgiven, and Peter is telling them what they need to do in order to be forgiven.  Only through baptism can they, and we, receive forgiveness of sins.  If we believe in the Jesus of the gospel, and we want to be saved according to the terms of the gospel, we must obey the gospel through baptism.

The Opinions of the Fool

Monday, April 08, 2019

 

Some proverbs are easier for us to handle than others.  The grayer we get, the better we like Proverbs 16:31!  Others, though, should make us pause for some sober self-examination.  On this list, I would include Proverbs 18:2, which reads, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”

It’s very easy for us to make this proverb about somebody else.  There’s that know-it-all at work, that pompous bore on Facebook.  Don’t they ever listen to themselves?  Don’t they ever realize how clueless they sound?  Don’t they ever shut up?  Maybe we could figure out some discreet way of getting them to read this, and it would cure them!

Proverbs 18:2 is certainly strong medicine, but it’s supposed to be taken internally.  God doesn’t mean for us to go around labeling others based on how insufferable they are:  “They’re a fool, and they’re a fool, and they’re a fool, and. . .”  Instead, He wants us to consider whether we’re seeing a fool when we look in the mirror.

To paraphrase the webcomic xkcd, someone is always wrong, and not just on the Internet.  There are wrong people at work.  There are wrong people in our neighborhood.  There are wrong people at church.  We can tell that they’re wrong because they don’t agree with us.

All too often, we respond to people like that by sticking our fingers in our ears and telling them the Truth at top volume.  If we’re aren’t in the mood for confrontation, we check out of the conversation and count ceiling tiles while they blather on, secure in the knowledge that whatever they say, they will continue to be wrong.

Guess what doing that makes us.  It makes us fools.

Here’s the thing.  We might think they’re wrong, but they don’t think they are.  They have some reason for saying what they’re saying.  If we don’t want to end up on the wrong side of Proverbs 18:2, we need to give them an honest hearing.  Yes, I know it’s out of fashion to listen to people we don’t agree with, but we ought to try it anyway.

First, even people who are so absurdly, ridiculously wrong that they disagree with us still can tell when we aren’t paying attention to them.  They appreciate it when we hear them out respectfully, and they don’t appreciate it when we don’t listen.  It costs us nothing to be courteous, and courtesy is worth a great deal.

Second, the better we understand them, the better equipped we are to help them understand us.  We’re much more likely to be persuasive when we address their actual beliefs and arguments, rather than our pre-conceived caricature of those beliefs and arguments.  There is no substitute for hearing a position explained by someone who endorses it.

Finally, and I hesitate even to bring this up, it’s always possible that in some disagreement, our position might be the one that’s, um, not-right.  I know; I know—everyone who is reading this has got it all figured out.  But what if we don’t?  Hypothetically speaking, that insufferable, pompous bore on the other side may have a point, but if we don’t listen, we will never realize it.  I’d rather be embarrassed for a little while and right thereafter than wrong forever.

Fools want to be right.  The wise want to be wiser.  The path we go down is entirely up to us.

Psalm 28

Friday, April 05, 2019

 

To You, O Lord, I call;
Do not be deaf to me;
If you are silent, I’ll descend
To depths of misery.
With pleading in my voice,
I cry to you for grace;
Regard the lifting of my hands
Toward Your most holy place.

O do not drag me off
With those who practice sin,
Deceiving all with words of peace
While evil lurks within.
According to their works,
Give them their due reward,
For surely they must be undone
Who do not fear the Lord.

How blessed is the Lord,
For He has heard my voice!
With all my heart, I trust in Him,
And with my song, rejoice.
Our refuge and our strength,
He saves us from all harms;
O Lord, bless Your inheritance,
And bear us in Your arms!

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