Monday, April 29, 2013

The Historical-Critical Method and how it Influences our Conclusions

Former vice-president and professor at the Fuller Theological Seminary, Harold Lindsell, called the Historical-Critical Method (HCM) “the Bible’s greatest enemy.” Why?

Our methods often determine our conclusions. If I investigate life through a pair of upside-down glasses, everything will look upside-down, and I will conclude that the world is upside down. If instead my lens is gray, I’ll conclude that life has a gray tint.

We see life through our lenses – our methodological assumptions and scholarly tools. If methodological naturalism is our guiding lens, natural causation is the only thing we will see. Consequently, we will conclude that all scientific causation is natural and non-intelligent.

Our presuppositions give birth to our conclusions. Regarding the HCM, Grant Osborne, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, writes:

  • The truth is that most scholars end up with conclusions remarkably similar to the presuppositions with which they began their study (Lindsell, The Bible in the Balance, 282)
Our starting point is usually our terminus. If we analyze the Bible through the HCM lens, our conclusions will be influenced by this method to the denial of the divinity of the Scriptures. HCM approaches the Bible with the assumption that it can be understood in the same way as any other book - from a strictly human perspective. Hence, the human author writes what he does solely out of human motivations. Consideration of Divine motives or intentions has no place in this analysis. The identification of a Divine imprint is simply outside the scope or interest of the HCM.

If the only thing that you have in your hand is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. When your tool box is the HCM, the Bible suddenly looks entirely human. Its formation is consequently understood in terms of a clash between warring interest groups, colliding cultures and a response to the pressures of the times. No room for a Divine or a prophetic hand here!

For instance, the Book of Isaiah is consequently understood as a political history and not a divine prophecy, according to the HCM. What then is done with Isaiah’s prophecies which, almost 200 years earlier, had named King Cyrus as God’s chosen tool to release Israel from captivity:

  • [God] who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, ‘Let it be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Let its foundations be laid.’” This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus. (Isaiah 44:28-45:1)
Isaiah lived and prophesied in the 8th century BC, 200 hundred years before Cyrus made his grand entry. And since such a miraculous and precise prophecy does not coincide with the HCM’s non-miraculous assumptions – only human explanations are permitted here – then this prophecy couldn’t have been prophecy. Therefore, Isaiah must have been written after Cyrus liberated Israel to return to the Promised Land.  

However, “facts” must be produced that will support the theory. Unfortunately for the HCM, there are many evidences that Isaiah had been written prior to Israel’s exile to Babylon and subsequent liberation by Cyrus. Also, Isaiah’s language does not reflect any Aramaic influences as do the post-exilic Prophets. Furthermore, Isaiah portrays a pre-exilic setting – a concern about the advances of Assyria when Israel was still in their land.

However, these facts present little difficulty for the HCM. Without any hard evidence, the HCM – in this case, it is called the Wellhausen Hypothesis (WH) – came to the rescue by inventing a second “Isaiah.” According to this invention, the First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) was written pre-exilicly, when Israel was still a nation, while the Second Isaiah (chapters 40-66, containing the Cyrus “prophecy”) was conveniently written post-exilicly. 

However, upon subsequent examination, it was objected that this hypothesis simply didn’t fit the facts. Several pre-exilic Prophets resemble (or actually quote from) the allegedly post-exilic Second Isaiah (Zeph. 2:15; Nahum 1:15; Jer. 31:35), suggesting that Second Isaiah is a creative invention and not reality.

Furthermore, according to the WH, First Isaiah should be focused upon the earlier Assyrian threat, while Second Isaiah (chapters 40-66) the later Babylonian threat and conquest.

However, when you have an appealing theory, the facts are easily ignored. The late Old Testament scholar Gleason Archer found that Babylon is mentioned nine times in chapters 1-39 and only four times in chapters 40-66, in contradiction to the assertions of the WH. Archer adds:

  • Conservative scholars have pointed out at least forty or fifty sentences or phrases which appear in both parts of Isaiah, and indicate common authorship. (Survey of Old Testament Introductions)
  • There is no doctrine set forth in 40-66 which is not already contained, in germ form at least, in 1-39.
However, the HCM is like melted ice cream. When it fails to conform to its stick, sandwich or cone, it can easily be poured into any other container. Consequently, when the WH was invalidated by new findings, it simply found a new container. Suddenly, a third Isaiah was confidently brought on stage, and when these three Isaiahs couldn’t contain the facts, an entire school of Isaiah’s, writing over long period of time, was postulated.

Who cares about the facts when Isaiah can be “explained” in an entirely non-miraculous manner! Consequently, the WH is still being taught as fact in many seminaries.

What is the impact of the HCM? Theologian J.I. Packer laments that the HCM:

  • Raises a doubt about every single Bible passage, as to whether it truly embodies revelation or not…It destroys the reverent…approach to the Bible without which it cannot be known as “God’s Word.”
With the HCM in charge, Christianity can no longer be Christianity but a mere human attempt to grope after a god of one’s own creation.

However, does the HCM shed light upon Scripture? Not according to C.S. Lewis:

  • My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these [HCM] guesses has on any point been right; that the method…shows a record of 100 per cent failure. (Lindsell, 287)
Lindsell observes that the HCM practitioner:

  • Has nothing but his own opinions on which to depend. And his opinions vary so widely from those held by others who use the same methodology that nothing but confusion and uncertainty result from the used of this method that nullifies Scripture while it subjects it to the whims of sinful man. (287-88).
Why then does it remain popular? Well, why does the belief that the universe sprang into existence uncaused from nothing remain popular? Neither have any factual support! However, they both have their appeal as a bulwark against the claims of the Biblical faith.

The atheist and author of the Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, candidly explained his rejection of the Christian faith:

  • I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning [and moral absolutes]; consequently assumed that it had none…We don’t know because we don’t want to know. It is our will that decides how and upon what subjects we shall use our intelligence. Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless. (Ends and Mean)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Gospel: A Matter of Specific Truths or Experiences

How specific must the Gospel message be? People answer this question in various ways. Emergent Church guru, Tony Jones, writes that it isn’t even about a set of doctrines or beliefs:

  • Jesus did not have a “statement of faith.” He called others into faithful relationship to God through life in the Spirit…he was not concerned primarily with whether individuals give cognitive assent to abstract propositions [His teachings] but with callings persons into trustworthy community through embodied and concrete acts of faithfulness. The writers of the NT were not obsessed with finding a final set of propositions. (Jones, The New Christians, 234) 
This is clearly inaccurate. In a sense, the Apostle Paul did have a “statement of faith!” He had been very specific about the Gospel he was preaching, so specific that he warned:

  • But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:8-9)
Paul was very definite that there are a set of teachings that comprise the Gospel. In his mind, Peter was acting out a different and poisonous gospel when he withdrew from eating with Gentile believers upon the arrival of the Judaizers (“false brothers,” Gal. 2:4; the “circumcision group,” 2:12). Because Peter cowardly withdrew, Paul accused him of requiring the Gentiles to become Jews to qualify for Christian fellowship (Gal. 2:14).

Instead, Paul argued that fellowship was based on grace and not on following the Law, as Peter already understood. Meanwhile, the “circumcision group” had professed faith in Christ but also insisted that it had to be combined with circumcision. This would make the believer a Jew and enable him to also follow the Law in order to be saved.

The Jerusalem council had dealt conclusively with this question. The circumcision group contended that believers in Christ had to first become Jews:

  • Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses." (Acts 15:5)
However, the council nixed that motion. Similarly, Paul warned that the Galatians were following Christ for naught if they also trusted in performing the good deeds of the Law (Gal. 3:1-5). A trust in good deeds was incompatible with trust in Christ:

  • You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal. 5:4) 
To many of us, including Jones, this simple addition of the requirement of fulfilling the good deeds of the Law seems quite innocuous. Hadn’t the Jews been saved under the Mosaic Covenant prior to the Cross? What then could be so wrong about simply insisting on the very thing that God had ordained beforehand!

However, to Paul, such a theology was accursed. The Law was supposed to lead us to Christ and then step aside after it had performed its duty (Gal. 3:23). Bringing back what had been fulfilled was a matter of adding to salvation. It was also a matter of denying the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning death, and this addition undermined the Gospel!

The Gospel is very specific. It can’t be added to; nor can anything be taken away from it:

  • I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Rev. 22:18-19; Deut. 4:2; 12:32)
God’s Gospel was so specific that any adding or subtracting represented a capital offense. Meanwhile, Jones claims:

  • The writers of the NT were not obsessed with finding a final set of propositions. 
Although “obsessed” is the wrong word, the “writers of the NT” had the highest appreciation for the proclamation of the exact teachings of the Gospel – so high that any possible distortion carried frightful warnings, while the preaching of the unadulterated Gospel was associated with great blessings:

  • For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor. 1:18)
  • "Now I [Paul] commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (Acts 20:32)
In contrast to Jones’ assertions, the Gospel had to accord with the truth about God. The Samaritans had a religion similar to that of the Israelites. The Samaritan woman explained to Jesus that their main difference was one of geography:

  • Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem." (John 4:20)
Against this observation, Jesus emphasized truth:

  • "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth." (John 4:21-24)
According to Jesus, salvation was a matter of worshiping God according to truth, according to the specific revelation given to the Jews.

We are obsessed today with discovering a new gospel – one that might bring all religions together. However, in order to do this, the ground-rules have to be changed. Instead of a collection of teachings (and these will differ from religion to religion), a common experience of God is now to be the new gospel – a common “language” or Tower of Babel around which all can rally. Sociologist, writer and speaker, Tony Campolo, advocates this very solution:

  • A theology of mysticism provides some hope for common ground between Christianity and Islam. Both religions have within their histories examples of ecstatic union with God, which seem at odds with their own spiritual traditions but have much in common with each other.
  • I do not know what to make of the Muslim mystics, especially those who have come to be known as the Sufis. What do they experience in their mystical experience? Could they have encountered the same God we do in our Christian mysticism? (Tony Campolo, Speaking My Mind: The Radical Evangelical Prophet Tackles the Tough Issues Christians Are Afraid to Face [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004], 149, 150.)
However, Jesus’ Gospel was a preached message to be believed, not mystically experienced:

  • Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:14-15; NKJV)
Grace came in the form of good news to the shepherds, not in the form of an ecstatic mystical experience:

  • But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)
The good news was a revelation of hope, not a new technique to experience God. Even in the Old Testament, the Jews were primed to receive a saving message, not a mystical high:

  • How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!" (Isaiah 52:7) 
In fact, in Scripture there is no hint whatsoever of a salvation or union with God through learning techniques to achieve a mystical experience. Frankly, the God of the Bible cares nothing about mind-altering techniques. Instead, He cares about believing and obeying His teachings (Mat. 28:19-20).

What then does the Sufi experience? Well, whatever it is, it is not a saving union with Christ! This alone comes through believing the Gospel message:

  • Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the [Gospel] testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:10-12)
Campolo’s hope is not a Scriptural one. However, God’s loving concern and plan for all humanity is, but we have to allow God to achieve His glorious plan in His own way. He does seem to prophecy a time when all who are left in the end will be saved:

  • On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The Lord has spoken. In that day they will say, "Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD; we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation." (Isaiah 25:7-9)
Frankly, I don’t know how it will all play out. However, I know God well enough to know that He has a perfect plan in which:

  • Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven. The Lord will indeed give what is good, and our land will yield its harvest. Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps. (Psalm 85:10-13)
Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, but they pursued this goal in their own way, to their own destruction. Ironically, they pursued the very thing that God had already planned to give them (1 John 3:1-3)! However, they mistakenly thought that they knew better how to achieve this goal than did God. In this, I think that they represent the arrogance of this age, the arrogance of the well-fed and well-endowed, assured that they can come to God (or become God) in any manner they so choose.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Gospel, Evangelism and Justice: They Go Together

I have been riding the NYC subways for 25 years, and I can tell you that it’s rare to see someone reading a Bible. In fact, I can’t remember seeing one white person so engaged! The same fate seems to be stalking the proclamation of the Gospel. It is routinely discredited. One pastor/theologian diminishes evangelism as “recruiting”:

  • "When the world sees us doing evangelism, they just see us recruiting. When they see us doing justice, they see God's glory." 
However, for those of us who share the Bible to unbelievers, we know that it’s more than recruiting. Sometimes, this act can become infused with the presence of the Spirit. There are occasions when even the unbeliever will acknowledge this. The Apostle Paul refers to this supernatural encounter:

  • But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. (2 Cor. 2:14-17) 
Paul associates our supernaturally becoming “the fragrance of the knowledge of him,” not with performing social justice, but with proclaiming “the word of God.” Certainly, we are required to seek justice. However, this should not be at the exclusion of evangelism.

Paul reminds us in many ways that God works supernaturally through the proclamation of the Gospel:

  • I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. (Romans 1:16) 
Salvation is a supernatural phenomenon that requires supernatural means. The Gospel is that means.

We have a tendency to think that our age is so different and so antagonistic to the Gospel that we have to resort to other means. Therefore, some repeat words wrongly attributed to St. Francis:

  • Preach the gospel whenever you can, but use words only when necessary.
Paul described a time suggestive of our own:

  • There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God-- having a form of godliness but denying its power. (2 Tim. 3:1-5) 
Certainly, such times would require different means. Such people wouldn’t give the Gospel a listening-to! Not so! Paul concluded his catalogue of horrors with a reaffirmation of what he had always preached:

  • Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Tim. 4:2-4)
We might think that, in view of such resistance to the Gospel, some new form of seeker-sensitivity is warranted. Not according to Paul or even according to Jesus. When He sent His apostles out on their grand commission, He instructed them against any form of picking-and-choosing among His teachings:

  • Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28:19-20)
He gave His disciples no indication that they could set aside any of His teachings if they turned out to be unpopular. Of course, we need to present the Gospel with sensitivity, compassion and understanding. We can even dust off our feet when it is rejected. However, Scripture never gives us permission to set it aside.

Passivity, Quietism, and the Church’s Non-Response to Mounting Injustice

Christians are very divided regarding our response to injustice, especially the mounting injustices directed towards Christians and the church. Yes, we generally agree that we should love and pray for our enemies. We even agree that we should rejoice in the midst of loss and hardship, as Jesus taught:

  • Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets. (Luke 6:22-23)
However, does rejoicing preclude active involvement? We generally would say that it shouldn’t. We regret the fact that the church became largely quiescent under Hitler and Jim Crow, and boast that, if we had been there, we would have been involved.

However, there seems to be a disconnect when the injustice occurs to our fellow brethren in Christ. One pastor wrote to explain why he wasn’t going to march with other churches protesting their unjust and discriminatory expulsion from the NYC public schools where they had been renting space on Sunday mornings. He claimed that we are to rejoice when we are persecuted. Although this is true, the pastor also claimed that rejoicing precluded “fighting for one’s rights”:

  • Unfortunately, one cannot rejoice at persecution while fighting for one’s rights in persecution. The two cannot go together, even if one mixes one’s protest with prayer.
However, the Bible doesn’t seem to separate rejoicing from protesting. Take the example of Paul and Silas who had been imprisoned at Philippi for preaching the Gospel:

  • About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. (Acts 16: 25)
As a result, a powerful earthquake sprang open all of the prison doors. The jail-keeper, thinking he had lost his prisoners, was about to kill himself. Paul intervened and the jailer received Christ. However, this isn’t the end of the story. Officers subsequently informed them that they were officially released and that they were to leave. Paul surely rejoiced at this, but this didn’t prevent him from exposing the injustice:

  • But Paul said to the officers: "They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out." (Acts 16:37)
Rejoicing and protesting can coexist! They did in the mind of Christ. Although He willingly went to His execution, this didn’t prevent Him from protesting the injustice:

  • Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, "Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour--when darkness reigns." (Luke 22:52-53)

Here is my letter to the pastor:

I want to take issue with your position to not march on behalf of the churches now being coerced to leave the NYC schools.

While I agree with you that we should rejoice in all circumstances, including this discriminatory action, I don’t think that rejoicing precludes either being prophetic by denouncing the injustice or by taking legal action.

However, you believe that there is only “one appropriate response,” and that rejoicing does preclude legal action. Therefore, you wrote:

  • Unfortunately, one cannot rejoice at persecution while fighting for one’s rights in persecution. The two cannot go together…
Instead, I think that they must go together. We might rejoice in the midst of our health problems, but this shouldn’t keep us from going to the doctor. We might rejoice in the midst of seeing our brother’s home in flames – we know that the Lord will work even this for good - but this shouldn’t prevent us from helping him put out the fire.

Even if you feel no overriding concern or justification to preserve your place in the NYC school, your brethren do. And we are responsible for them:

  • Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins. (James 4:17)
I think that today many Christians are afraid of appearing chauvinistic – a focus on me and mine - in their concern for their brethren. However, it seems that this is the very posture that Jesus would have us take:

  • "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:34-35)
When the brethren loose their jobs, buildings and even lives to discrimination, we have a responsibility to combat the injustice and to stand beside them, even in protest, even as we encourage them to rejoice in our Lord. If we are neglectful of this central responsibility, the world will not see our mutual love and will be deprived of the witness of our oneness. They will conclude, “We do not see their love for one another. Christ therefore seems irrelevant to them.”

I don’t think that our passivity will win hearts. During my brief period as a teacher in a public school, I too thought that Jesus had been teaching passivity – to turn the other cheek at the misbehavior of the students. This only won me the deserved contempt of the teachers. They didn’t find anything virtuous in passivity but rather, a clear display of folly. Instead of bringing glory to my Lord, I had briefly demonstrated that the teachings of Jesus (wrongly understood) had no place in the real world.

Instead, I have found that the teachings of the Bible display great wisdom (Deut. 4:6-8) that will impress others with the Light of wisdom. If we simply rejoice while we allow our homes to burn and our brethren to be murdered, we will only earn scorn of others. However, if we show them another way (and I think that it’s the Biblical way) of rejoicing in the confidence of our Lord, as we proceed in wisdom, people may be drawn to this wisdom.

You admit that the children of these schools will suffer loss as the churches are banished from their midst. Well, aren’t these children worth our efforts to stand our ground? Mustn’t we plead for them? Mustn’t we expose the works of darkness (Eph. 5:11)?

Please forgive my unsolicited advice. I think that we are entering increasingly troubled times – times through which the brethren must stand together in worship but also in word and in deed. I pray that you will reconsider.

The Boston Terrorists

When a deadly virus strikes, it is important to identify it. Health officials would be remiss if they simply stated, “Oh, Bill died of a disease.” Instead, the virus must be identified so that it can be quarantined, counteracted and those in harms way can be warned.

It’s the same way with a terrorist organization. It is not enough to simply catch one of its perpetrators. The danger still remains. It has to be identified and also counteracted. Its agenda and modus operandi must be understood and made known in hope of neutralizing the danger.

However, this is the very thing that the media refuses to disclose. Although the media has disclosed that the Boston terrorists are brothers- Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev from Chechnya, Russia and that they had been granted asylum in this country – the media refused to mention the critical fact that they are Muslims, although it was very apparent, as a quick visit to the web will indicate. Tamerlan even wrote, "I'm very religious."

  • Tamerlan says he doesn't usually take his shirt off so girls don't get bad ideas: "I'm very religious." 
  • Tamerlan says he doesn't drink or smoke anymore: "God said no alcohol." A Muslim, he says: "There are no values anymore," and worries that "people can't control themselves."
  • Tamerlan says his girlfriend is half Portuguese, half Italian girlfriend and converted to Islam: "She's beautiful, man!"
It is important to note how being “very religious” – even to the point of not drinking or smoking – can also mandate terror. What’s the matter with our nation, our media?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Bible as God’s Word: A Little Bit of Proof

Many ask me to prove that the Bible is God’s Word. Not wanting to downplay the evidence, I usually say:

  • Well, there many types of proof – fulfilled prophecy, miracles, changed lives and societies, wisdom, internal and external consistency, and the very nature of the Bible.
This usually elicits a burst of invectives. However, if the inquirer seems serious, I might attempt to share with them one family of proofs. One of my favorites is the wisdom of Scripture – how it provides us with the very truths we need to navigate this often exasperating sojourn we call “life.” It’s a wisdom intelligently designed to optimally meet our needs and those of society. Here are just a few of the many examples of how Scripture psychologically gave me exactly what I needed.

I am always second-guessing myself, wondering, “Did I say the right thing? ...Did I say it with the wrong motives? … Could I have said it more effectively?” Although this perfectionistic preoccupation can promote self-improvement, it can also drive us crazy. I needed to lay it aside before it laid me out, and the Holy Spirit did this for me through applying Scripture to my life:

  • I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
What a relief! My failures were no longer my own. They belonged to my Savior who promised that He would work all things for my good (Rom. 8:28), even my worst failures and nightmares, my worst humiliations! I was now free to fail. Not that failures no longer hurt, but I now know who will lift me out of my discouragement (1 Cor. 10:12-13), and He has proved this to me repeatedly. Consequently, Biblical truth allows me to constructively face my challenges without being overwhelmed by them.

We are also self-obsessed with questions of our goodness and worthiness. One of the greatest threats to our psychological well-being is the dread of not being worthy. This might take the form of a deep and abiding sense of shame, insecurity or inadequacy. We might even worry that we are not even worthy of God. Therefore, it is such a relief to realize that none of us are worthy. We are all sinners who need the Savior:

  • "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one." (Romans 3:10-12) 
This had certainly been true of me. Even though I attempted to suppress this truth of my moral inadequacy before God, it would continue to resurface to my great shame. I tried to beat back the ugly truth with assertions that I was really a good and loving person. I was engaged in a costly war with myself, and the result was desperation and depression.

Instead of deriving my sense of worthiness or adequacy from myself, I needed to find it from another source, and Scripture informed me that Jesus is that source:

  • God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21) 
I could begin to accept the fact that I am entirely unworthy, because, in the eyes of my Savior, I am now entirely righteous. I could now face the once-shaming truths about myself and take responsibility for my behavior, because I have been assured of my ultimate worth before Him!

My wife can now charge me with being insensitive, and I can readily apologize. We’re restored! Others can regard me as unworthy, but that’s okay because I am now defined, not by what others might think, but by what my Savior thinks.

For the longest time, I had been feeling condemned. Even after Christ came into my life, I still had that sense. My feelings were so forceful that everything else – even Scripture – appeared as merely hollow words in comparison. I felt that even God condemned me! Finally, however, Scripture broke through, took hold of my self-contempt and torn it apart, like a lion tearing apart red meat. What a consolation it has been to learn that:

  • Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1) 
This taught me conclusively that my feelings of condemnation and rejection had nothing to do with God rejecting me, but just my own aberrant reactions! I could now laugh at these once terrifying feelings, knowing that they have nothing to do with my ultimate status! It’s like receiving a letter saying that there has been a warrant issued for your arrest. However, upon reading it more closely, you find that the letter is actually addressed to someone else.

Many say, “Well, I’m glad Christ worked for you, but many find consolation through psychotherapy.” I didn’t. I had seen five highly recommended psychologists, and each left me worse off that I was before.

Yes, they all affirmed that I was “okay,” but I could never believe them. I knew what my feelings were telling me, and they talked with a greater authority than the psychologists. I just knew I wasn’t “okay.”

Besides, their affirmations rolled off my back as if it was made of Teflon. Perhaps this was because I had been giving myself false affirmations all my life. I told myself I was the greatest but actually felt that I was the least. After a while, these affirmations became no more than an addiction. I needed them but got little out of them. However, having believed them – and this distorted my thinking and perceptions - they alienated me from reality, wisdom, and honest relationship. Because I perceived the world through my distorted self-affirmations, I also regarded others through this grid. They were either superior or inferior to me. If they were seen as “superior,” I resented them. If “inferior,” I disdained them.

However, these affirmations bore little resemblance to reality, while I subsequently found that the Biblical affirmations brought me in touch with a deeper reality. Now, perceiving myself as an object of God’s mercy, I began to regard others with mercy.

Besides, our sense of okay-ness requires more than the affirmation of other people. They all say different things, and every experience - every success and every failure – sings a different song. Which was I to believe? Therefore, to base my worth on either the opinions of others or on my socially approved accomplishments meant that my worth was like the stock market – booming, crashing, and the cause of constant instability and insecurity.

Not only does Scripture tell us what to believe, it tells us what to avoid. It is not simply that certain acts are regarded as “sin.” These acts also destroy. Sin is worse than eating junk food. The latter just destroys the body. Sin destroys everything about us. It contaminates our thinking and passions (Rom. 1:21-32). For one thing, as a result of sin, we carry around unresolved guilt and shame. We even project our shame and self-contempt on others, convinced that others regard us in the same way we feel about ourselves. However, Scripture relieves us of these blinding burdens we carry:

  • If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. (1 John 1:9-10) 
Instead, we often try to cover over this problem with a variety of palliatives – successes, sex, drugs, popularity. However, there is nothing that gives the relief and cleansing the way that confession does.

What makes the affirmations of Scripture so powerful – so life transforming? For one thing, they illuminate what had been shadowy and confusing. Once I began to understand myself in its light, I found that I began to understand others. With the assurance of God’s love and forgiveness, I could begin to face myself. As I saw my needs and insecurities – I had previously run from these and denied them – I could also see those of other people. As I began to face my denials and rationalizations, I began to understand the same defensive maneuverings I saw in others. As I received God’s compassion for me, I could more readily extend it to others.

While Scripture is foolishness and contemptible to the one whose eyes haven’t been opened (1 Cor. 2:14), it is the scalpel in the hand of the Holy Spirit. It cuts deeply to remove malignant tumors (Heb. 4:12) – attitudes and ideas that fail to accord with holiness. Such cuts are always painful (Heb. 12:5-11), but they identify and remove cancers that threaten well-being. They expose jealousy. However, they also provide the perfect antidote:

  • All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future--all are yours. (1 Cor. 3:21-22)
In light of God’s assurances that He wants to eternally give us the world, jealousy had to take a back seat. And I had been jealous, even of the spiritual successes of others, convinced that they would receive heavenly reward and recognition, and I wouldn’t. However, Scripture assures us that all of God’s people are one, and “all things” would be ours. We had become joint heirs with our Savior (Rom. 8:17).

This is just what I needed to know. This truth stomped all the vitality out of my jealousy. I now rejoice as others rejoice!

Westerners have invented a new god, a god who is non-judgmental and non-punitive. Momentarily, this god might feel comfortable. However, once we have suffered victimization, our thoughts turn to justice, even revenge. Therefore, it is so liberating to know that we have a God who cares deeply about justice:

  • If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink” [ Proverbs 25]…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:18-21)
It is only because we have the assurance that God will bring justice (also through the legal systems He has ordained – Rom. 13:1-4) that we can devote ourselves to love. It is also because we know the undeserved love of God for us! Without this knowledge, revenge would become a way of life.

When I read about the estimated 170,000 Christians being murdered yearly simply because they are Christians, I want to grab a machine gun or suicide belt and right the wrongs. But my Lord informs me that He has a better way. He’ll deal with it! Instead, I should pray, love my enemies, and address the wrongs with righteous means. How liberating and personally enhancing!

This represents just a small sampling of the ways that God and His truth has infiltrated to bring us new life. Volumes can be written on this subject. Jesus had taught:

  • "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)
Not only has He set us free from sin and its various penalties. He has also set us free from so many things that have kept me in prison – fears, lusts, rationalizations, denials, addiction to self-affirmations, and many forms of self-deceptions.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Self-Acceptance, Worth, Social Approval and Madness

Have you ever attended an I am Perfect rally? I hadn’t, so I went to see what “perfect” looked like. I was informed by a volunteer:

  • This is about the way that society defines and values us according to our performance and appearance – whether we’re too heavy or old or just don’t measure up to the current social standards.
So far, I could endorse her rebellion against these superficial social standards. However, I wanted to take it one step further:

  • I really agree with you, but if it isn’t society that judges a person’s value, where does it come from?
She struggled to come up with an answer. Finally, she responded:

  • Well, we give ourselves our value. That’s what this rally is about. We tell ourselves that we are perfect just the way we are.
Most people in Western cultures would agree. This is something that has been drummed into us as persistently as “you need to do what will make you happy” or “you need to believe in yourself.” However, we are very limited and, rationally, have little basis to believe in ourselves.

I think that this skepticism should also pertain to “I am Perfect.” Are we really perfect? I therefore asked her:

  • How about the serial rapist? Should he regard himself as perfect?
She understood her dilemma. Not everyone is justified in calling themselves “perfect!” Therefore I continued:

  • Who then is justified in calling themselves perfect? If we are honest with ourselves, we are a self-centered and selfish people. I understand that we need to feel good about ourselves, but should we do so by blinding ourselves to who we really are?
I went on to explain that, as a Christian, I now had the courage to face the truth and admit that I am far from perfect, while, at the same time, I am assured that I am totally accepted and loved by my Savior. We need both truths – the bad news and the good news.

However, she stated that she too is a Christian. I therefore asked,

  • How then can you encourage others to say, “I am perfect,” when we really aren’t?
Her answer came surprisingly easy:

  • Christ works for me. I can’t expect everyone else to believe the way I do.
Sadly, for her Christ is no more than a self-help strategy. He is not the Truth. Rather, He – or the belief in Him - is something that merely works like a pill or an exercise routine. He is not a Person but her personal self-improvement technique.

I wanted to ask her that, if Jesus is really the Savior and the only way to the Father, doesn’t she have a responsibility to regard Him as such and to share Him with others? However, she saw where the conversation was going and excused herself. Lord, help us!

Doubt and Faith: Daniel Taylor and Scot McKnight

Guru of doubt and author of the popular Christian-postmodern The Myth of Certainty, Daniel Taylor, has written once again on this subject: The Skeptical Believer. New Testament scholar, Scot McKnight has begun a blog series praising this book. He writes:

  • “The Skeptical Believer. No, it’s not a contradiction in terms. It’s a simple, everyday reality for many people of faith” And, he contends (and I agree), “it’s acceptable to God.”

While doubt is acceptable to God, trials are also acceptable to God. However, these tools aren’t supposed to be the end-product of the Christian life but just the means to get us there. Here’s my response to McKnight’s glowing review:

Taylor writes with the same postmodern skepticism as unbelievers do. And it’s an illogical jumble. Let me just take some of the statements you’ve affirmatively quoted:

  • Another point he makes in his opener: “the suspicion that anyone who claims to know most anything with certainty is Blowing Smoke”
According to Taylor, claims of certainty are claims as empty as smoke. This would mean that Taylor is also “blowing smoke,” because this is a statement of certainty! Here is another example of Taylor “blowing smoke”:

  • With this he closes down the intro: “All evidence is resistible. All arguments are assailable. … All Arguments… leak.”
With this, he also invalidates his own arguments! The tool of Taylor’s trade is radical skepticism. If only he would apply this same standard to his own statements!

This is not to demonize all doubt. As F. Buechner stated so graphically: “Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith.” Indeed, doubt is a tool to build great faith. Doubt is not its final destination, as Taylor suggests. Nor is doubt the pinnacle of faith!

Taylor's position is not only illogical, it is inconsistent with the Christian faith.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Word of God: Hidden Glory

God hides His glory in the humblest of places, like the birth of the Savior and Creator of the world in smelly, manure-filled stall. What good could come from such a stench-filled place! Curiously, He did the same thing with the most concentrated, life-transforming wisdom this world has ever known. He placed it in a book written by human hands, in human language, portraying more human failings – the Bible.

Had not the shepherds been  alerted by angels to this strange event, they might have passed by Jesus’ manger only to laugh in scorn at the poor family “cursed” to give birth in such squalor. Failing to see the glory contained within its pages, passers-by, even seminaries, now scorn the Bible as a mere human document.

I just lifted from the web a saying ascribed to Martin Luther:

  • The Bible is alive; it speaks to me. It has feet; it runs after me. It has hands; it lays hold of me!
Whether or not Luther actually wrote these words, I think they indicate that there is glory in its pages – a glory that will be perceived only by heavenly intervention.

Jesus referred to its cleansing hands that have laid hold to us and won’t let us go:

  • You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. (John 15:3) 
He prayed to the Father “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). In a glorious way, this Word is able to cleanse and sanctify us. It did so for Moses after He had spent 40 days and nights with the Lord. His face had been so transformed that it glowed, and he had to cover it.

Some people wrongly think that the glow was merely the product of being with God all that time. However, according to Scripture, it was a product of the Word, “because he had spoken with the Lord” (Exodus 34:29). And when He finally spoke with the Israelites, there was not a word about his incredible mountain-top experience. Instead, it was all about God’s words.

This is because God stands behind this Word. Paul calls it “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16.) Later, he reiterates the power of this Word to cleanse believers of their sin and its tarnishing effects:

  • Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word. (Ephes. 5:25-26) 
How can mere words cleanse? They can’t, apart from the Holy Spirit. In the hand of God, the Word is able to make surgical incisions to expose and remove cognitive malignancies:

  • For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
These malignancies consist of our sinful thinking that opposes itself to both life and God.

Peter describes this saving Word as “living and enduring,” imbued with divine attributes:

  • For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever." [Isaiah 40:8] And this is the word that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:23-25)
It is so incredible that Scripture is endowed with divine attributes, that many want to deprive Scripture of this honor. They do this by pointing out that Christ is the Word of God (John 1:1). However, in no way does this verse suggest that there is only one Word of God – Jesus – and therefore, Scripture cannot also be the Word of God.

However, Peter explicitly states that this Word of God which saves is that very Word “that was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:25). There is no getting away from the fact that God uses Scripture to evoke understanding and miraculously transform us. In this regard, Peter makes a radical statement we tend to gloss over:

  • Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:2-3)
Amazingly, God imparts to us every spiritual blessing through the knowledge of Him! This can happen in very simple ways.

For decades, I had suffered from severe depression and panic attacks that left me utterly devastated. Nothing could lift me out of these attacks. I was left utterly powerless. Many nights, I could not sleep, pray, or even read the Bible. When I did read the Bible, I could only understand the simplest statements. However, on a number of occasions, I would read a simple statement like, “And the Lord heard him.”

I experienced nothing short of an explosion as the Spirit made these words come alive for me. The depression was swept away as if they were no more substantial than scattered crumbs. I knew that my God had heard me and nothing else mattered!

I had many such experiences, However that had been many years ago. After the depression and panic attacks shriveled away, these intense illuminations also bid me farewell, but not what they had taught me.