Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Who Are You Thankful To?

"Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.

I had a discussion with my 8 year old daughter recently about true blessings. I won't go into the specifics, but it generally concerned her acting as if we "owed" her something after we had already given her quite a few extras and she really wasn't appreciating them. She was expecting things rather than being grateful for what she had already been given. I talked to her about something we'd spoken about before. We talked about the many blessings in her life and how when we become accustomed to something we tend to take it for granted. Saying the words that there are people living in horrifying poverty just doesn't seem to sink in if we don't actually see these people every day or live in those circumstances ourselves. We tend to forget just how blessed we really are. My point is simply that most of us should not have trouble thinking of something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

But I admit to sometimes struggling when I look at verses like the one from 1 Thessalonians and hear God telling us to rejoice and give thanks in all circumstances. I am more than willing to concede that I, living in the financially blessed American middle class, should be able to do so and when I don't it is the result of my own personal failing. But then I look at people like those in these pictures and ask, "What about them? How are they supposed to rejoice and be thankful?"

And yet many people living in poverty exhibit far greater appreciation for what little they have than those of us who possess far more, at least materially. Michael Ramsden, an apologist with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, once commented that he believed one problem in the world is not that we have nothing to be thankful for, but we have no one to be thankful to. I think this is a profound conundrum on Thanksgiving for many people. I read a Facebook comment earlier today in which someone said that Thanksgiving was their favorite holiday because it is for "everyone," regardless of what religion you belong to or where you were born. There is a seed of truth in that, but there is a problem as well.

Who are you grateful to? Oh, I don't mean for the obvious things. Two dear friends of mine just gave me tickets to the Baltimore Ravens game this weekend (my wife has never been to an NFL game). In that situation I know who to thank. But what about the air I breathe? What about the fact that we live on a planet that has the right environmental factors to produce crops? I'm not talking about the surface details like football tickets. I'm talking about the fact that our most fundamental needs for survival are capable of being met. Yes, I am grateful to the farmers who bring us food. But if the Earth was not configured the way it is, it would not matter how much effort was put forth by the farmer, we could not produce crops. Who do you thank for those things?

These are the needs that are more foundational than anything else. If they aren't met, nothing else matters. Yet on this holiday when we are thanking people for football tickets, familial companionship, our job, or those lovely floats going past Macy's, who do we thank for the foundational things?

I thank God. In the theistic worldview, there is an ultimate source for these blessings. Even more so, in Christianity that source is a Person capable of being thanked. It makes no sense to thank some ill defined concept of "Nature" or "Mother Earth." Unless the bestower of these blessings has a will and chose to bless you with them, there is nothing to thank.

So I ask you to reflect this Thanksgiving not just on what you have to be thankful for (if we really think about it, there should be plenty of those things) but on who you are thankful to. If you find yourself struggling to find an answer, drop me a line. God bless you all and happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Reason and the Supernatural

In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis provides a fascinating argument on how our use of reason points to the existence of the supernatural. To understand the supernatural, though, we must first define what we mean by the “natural.” According to Lewis, “The Natural is what springs up, or comes forth, or arrives, or goes on, of its own accord: the given, what is there already: the spontaneous, the unintended, the unsolicited.”[1] The Naturalist assumes that this is all there is. However, if “any one thing exists which is of such a kind that we see in advance the impossibility of ever giving it [a naturalistic] explanation, then Naturalism would be in ruins.”[2] According to Lewis, our use of reason is just such a thing that defies naturalistic explanation.[3]

Reason implies inference. If we directly witness a phenomenon through our senses then we do not conclude it’s truth based upon reason but rather through our immediate observation. If however, we use our powers of inference to draw additional conclusions based upon the things that we have witnessed with our senses, then we have resorted to reason. If I conclude that the sun rose this morning because I witnessed it, I have not arrived at that conclusion through reason. However, if I infer that the sun must have risen this morning because it has risen every other morning during my lifetime, even though I have not left my house and have not personally witnessed the sun today, then I have reached my conclusion through reason.

Naturalists advance their arguments through the use of reason. They present various evidences and infer that Nature is all there is. But if Nature is “the whole show,” then everything, our reasoning abilities included, must have developed of their own accord. This begs the question of whether a naturalistic explanation for our reasoning abilities can be found.

According to natural selection, useful traits are preserved. The ability to use inference to point toward truth (as opposed to flawed inferences that point to falsehood) is useful. Therefore, people with the habit of drawing objectively truthful inferences would be at a competitive advantage and this trait would be passed on to their offspring. This is a particularly important point for naturalists. They must concede that objective truth exists in order to avoid finding themselves in an un-affirmable contradiction (by claiming the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth). Explaining how we came to develop our habits of inference is hardly reassuring if those inferences do not point to the objective truth that naturalists and super-naturalists both acknowledge exists. Thus naturalists must justify within their worldview not only that we use inference but also that our inferences are reliable.

But the statement, “inferences that point to objective truth are useful” is itself an inference. The naturalist may collect evidences of how these types of inferences have proven to be useful in the past, but the supposition that they will continue to be so and will therefore generally be preserved is an inference. How are we to know that this inference is true? Should we come to that conclusion because it is useful? That is begging the question. We can only conclude that our reasoning abilities point to ontological truth by using our reasoning abilities. That is circular reasoning. After all, if our reasoning abilities actually pointed to falsehood, we may be absolutely convinced that they point to ontological truth but we would be unfortunately mistaken. Unless we first presuppose the value of our reasoning we can never prove that we have the ability to know ontological truth. All truth ends up being unknowable. This brings the naturalist back to the same problem of un-affirmability, being forced into the position of “knowing” that all truth is unknowable.

Naturalists may respond that they are willing to presuppose the value of reason. But this is precisely what they must not do if they are to be consistent with their worldview. Their basic premise is that all things can be explained by naturalistic means. But by presupposing reason, they are now claiming that all things other than reason itself can be explained by naturalistic means. If we grant any exception then there must be at least one thing outside the natural. Therefore, our ability to reason through inference shows that at least for this one thing, the supernatural must exist.

[1] Lewis, “Miracles,” 214 (emphasis in original).

[2] Lewis, “Miracles,” 217.

[3] The ensuing explanation is a summary of Lewis’ argument in his chapter titled “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism” in the book Miracles along with a few of my own elaborations. Lewis, “Miracles,” 217-23.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Inherent Value of Free Will

I am in the process of writing a more detailed evaluation of C.S. Lewis’ theodicy in The Problem of Pain and will post it on the website as soon as it is available. But I wanted to share one brief criticism I have of Lewis (and anyone who knows me knows that I have been highly influenced by Lewis in my own apologetic methods, so please do not take any criticisms I launch his way lightly). Lewis brilliantly combines elements of free will, natural law and soul-making theodicies in his book. However, one argument he raises is that God allows some pain to enter into our lives as a teaching tool. Basically, Lewis’ premise is that true happiness lies only in a relationship with God. Imperfect humans insist upon looking for happiness in earthly things, but these inevitably disappoint. Before we will ever find true happiness, we must completely surrender our will to God and turn it over to Him. This, however, is far from an easy process. At one point Lewis even compares it to a form of death, and it naturally involves pain. Because we have free will, we must be free to refuse to surrender our will to God. In fact, because our will is fallen, we will refuse to surrender it without God’s help. So God allows some pain in our lives so we will learn not to depend upon earthly things but instead to rely upon Him. Our free will is what permits us to make this choice. One way of viewing Lewis’ argument may be that God allows those earthly things to disappoint us.

I do not necessarily have a problem with this argument per se. My criticism is that Lewis overlooks an enormous gap in his theodicy and has left himself open to a pretty strong objection. Why should God permit us to have free will in the first place? Granted, we can only decide to surrender our will to God if we have free will. But if we did not have free will, humanity never could have chosen to fall either. If none of us had free will, we could not refuse to subject our will to God. We would have no will to surrender. Freedom, then, is a means to an end. It is a necessary means in order to achieve the end of surrender. But if surrender is not necessary, why have freedom?

Take the example of Adam and Eve. Lewis says we cannot surrender our wills to God because they are fallen. But before Adam and Eve’s sin their wills were not fallen. Yet God also granted them freedom. Adam chose what to name the animals. They both freely chose to eat the forbidden fruit. If freedom opened the door to rebellion, and it was not necessary in order for Adam and Eve to choose surrender (because their wills were not yet fallen), why give them freedom in the first place?

My point is simple: a free will theodicy cannot place the value of freedom solely in being a means to an end. Freedom must have inherent value in itself, regardless of whether it in turn is a means to achieve some other desirable end. If freedom is inherently valuable, then some degree of pain will be permissible in order to preserve that value. Lewis fails to acknowledge the inherent value in freedom and in doing so leaves himself open to the question of why God should have granted us freedom in the first place.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Little Green Men?

Yahoo! News published an article today announcing that astronomers have discovered a planet approximately 120 trillion miles away that is "just like Earth." It is situated in what is called the "Goldilocks" zone, making it not too cold nor too hot, so it could contain liquid water. It is also neither too big nor too small for the proper surface, gravity and atmosphere to accomodate life.

If the conclusions stopped there, I would agree that this is a very exciting discovery. What disappointed me about the article, though, was the unwarranted speculation. I think this serves as a warning against the human nature to get overly excited about what we want to be true and start making all sorts of suggestions that go far beyond what is warranted by the evidence.

Penn State University's Jim Kasting said this planet is a "pretty prime candidate" for harboring life. It seems a bit premature to make statements like that. For example, the planet is so close to its sun that it orbits every 37 days. Therefore, it cannot have Earth's cycle of seasons as we orbit over a period of 365 days with one half tilted closer to the sun during part of the year, then tilted away during the other. The seasons are crucial to plant growth. With such a short year, I, for one, am skeptical whether any substantial plant life could exist on this planet.

The planet also does not rotate very much, so that one side is almost always bright, the other always dark. Temperatures on the planet range from up to 160 degrees farenheit on the bright side down to 25 degrees below zero on the cold side. Certainly, any area of the planet that is exposed to these temperature extremes is not conducive to any form of life of which we are aware. The article somewhat acknowledged this by saying that it would be "shirt-sleeve weather" in the "land of constant sunrise." What it glossed over, however, is that this would leave a much narrower habitable zone than we have on Earth. Besides, constant short-sleeve weather is not ideal for life either. If the climate always remained constant, you could not have the regular seasonal cycles that I mentioned above that are necessary for many forms of life.

Perhaps the most bold proclamation comes near the end of the article. Without even knowing whether liquid water actually exists on this planet, Steven Vogt of the University of California at Santa Cruz declares that "because conditions are ideal for liquid water, and because there always seems to be life on Earth where there is water, ... 'chances for life on this planet are 100 percent.'" Understand that Vogt is not talking necessarily about little green men, but at least single cell bacteria.

Vogt's statement could serve as a prime example for introductory logic students about common logical errors that people make. First of all, just because "conditions are ideal for liquid water" does not necessarily mean that water will exist. Consider the Large Hadron Collider, the particle accelerator that lies beneath the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva. Inside that collider, scientists have used large magnets to set up ideal conditions for particle beams to collide. Yet anyone who operates the collider could tell you that it often requires a good deal of patience before anything happens. Merely having ideal conditions for a collision does not necessarily mean that a collision will occur.

The bigger logical issue lies in the syllogism Vogt advances. It could be expressed in logical terms as follows:

P1: Conditions on this "Goldilocks" planet are ideal for liquid water.
P2: Wherever there is water on Earth there is also life.
C: Therefore, there is a 100% chance of life on the "Goldilocks" planet.

I already discussed the problems with premise 1. Ideal conditions for a result do not guarantee the actuality of that result. But even assuming premises 1 and 2 are both true, does that support the conclusion?

There are many hidden assumptions in Vogt's argument. First, he assumes that the alleged relationship between water and life on Earth will be mirrored on the "Goldilocks" planet. The mere fact that two things are correlated here does not mean, absent additional evidence, that they will necessarily be correlated elsewhere. Many other factors could come into play. But more importantly, Vogt's argument provides an excellent opportunity to illustrate to students of logic the danger of confusing correlation with causation.

"Correlation" refers to an observed relationship between phenomena. "Causation" refers to a cause-effect relationship between the two phenomena. However, a logical fallacy occurs when you confuse correlation with causation.

Take the following example. Suppose a researcher notices that in the same months that ice cream sales are at their highest, so are the number of deaths by drowning. When ice cream sales go down, drowning deaths likewise decrease. There is a definite correlation between these two phenomena. Is the researcher therefore warranted in concluding that eating ice cream causes us to drown? Leaving aside the obvious joke about waiting at least one hour before you swim, the researcher who rushed to this conclusion would be overlooking the obvious possibility that there is no direct causation between these two phenomena, but instead that they are both caused by some other 3rd factor, in this case the warm summer temperatures. More people buy ice cream in warmer weather than when it is colder outside. Likewise, warm weather inspires more people to swim, which in turn leads to more instances of drowning. The mere fact that we observed a correlation between ice cream sales and drowning does not mean that one caused the other.

Vogt made the same elementary logical mistake. He observed that there appears to be a correlation on Earth between the presence of water and the presence of life. But that does not mean that the presence of water causes the presence of life. In fact, there currently is no single theory of the origin of life that is accepted by even a simple majority of scientists in the field. Biologists, frankly, have no clue how the very first life occurred on Earth. Vogt's implication that the mere presence of water easily leads to the development of life is simplistic at best. Is water necessary? Most likely. Is it sufficient? Far from it. The number of other factors that go into building even the most basic single-cell organisms are mind-boggling.

The article concludes with Vogt stating, "It's pretty hard to stop life once you give it the right conditions." I understand that news agencies love the sensational. If you have two options to choose from, one that makes the story look novel and exciting and another that is more reserved, the exciting one generates more readers. And Vogt seems to have provided Yahoo! with that sensationalism. But the statement that "it's pretty hard to stop life once you give it the right conditions" is so far outside the warrant of the evidence that I can only encourage anyone to slow down, don't believe everything you hear, and evaluate the evidence for yourself. Life is actually remarkably easy to stop, even once it has begun. Just ask the dinosaurs or any of the species that have disappeared into extinction. But in the end Vogt doesn't even know how it began in the first place, let alone how difficult it is to keep it going.

This new discovery is exciting. But the evidence is a far reach from being able to support a "100% chance of life" on the "Goldilocks" planet. Let's not rush to judgment. Take it slow. Follow where the evidence leads, and try as hard as you can not to take that one extra step beyond what is justified. Otherwise you will end up stepping onto the wrong path, and before you know it you will be so lost in the woods that you won't be able to find your way back.

God bless.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Free Will, Sovereignty and Reformed Apologetics

"Reformed apologetics" refers generally to a category of Christian apologists who cast extreme doubt upon the ability of non-Christians to objectively evaluate the evidence for Christianity without being unduly influenced by their fallen nature, including fallen reasoning abilities. Two of the most prominent apologists in this camp are Cornelius Van Til and Alvin Plantinga.

Reformed apologists criticize classical and evidentialist approaches because both attempt to find a common ground with non-Christians as the starting point for their arguments. They are “actually seeking a method that assumes man’s self-sufficiency to arrive at truth” [Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman, Jr.,
Faith Has Its Reasons: Integrative Approaches to Defending the Christian Faith (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2006), 260]. Someone following the reformed approach would say, “I cannot approach data objectively because my perception is distorted by sin and prejudice” [William Dryness, Christian Apologetics in a World Community (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 59]. Because sin so distorts people’s reasoning abilities, there can be no logical common ground between the Christian and non-Christian on which to build an apologetic.

Within the reformed camp there are some slight differences of opinion about how best to give a reason for our faith to non-believers in light of their fallen state. Alvin Plantinga argues that belief in God is properly basic, similar to our belief in the existence of other minds [Boa and Bowman, Faith Has Its Reasons, 248-51]. Neither can be objectively proven but they are necessary presuppositions in order for us to function. Cornelius Van Til argues that we must presuppose a transcendent God in order to make sense of reality, but all non-Christian worldviews fail to accomplish this goal [Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics. 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 36-37].

While reformed perspectives, to their credit, demand that we focus on the presuppositions non-Christians bring to our discussions, when taken too far they remove our free will in order to remain consistent with their own premises. Cornelius Van Til explains his position as follows:

"If obedient to the will of God, man would be accomplishing genuine results. The controlling and directing power of his will would be the will of God. It would be by his own will, however, that he would reach the goal that God has set for him. If disobedient to the will of God he would be going counter to the expressed will of God for him. Yet he would not be able to frustrate the plan of God either as a whole or in any detail. Man as a creature cannot will anything either by way of obedience or by way of disobedience except in a relation of subordination to the plan of God."
[Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 36].

But Van Til’s position ultimately results in no free will. His illustration implicitly includes three options. If a person wills that which is consistent with both God’s will and God’s plan, then God allows the action to take place. If a person wills something that is inconsistent with God’s will but still consistent with God’s plan then God also allows that action. But if a person wills something that is inconsistent with both God’s will and God’s plan then God does not permit the action to take place. In fact, God overrides the individual’s will so that the person is utterly incapable of willing such an act in the first place. Ultimately, the individual is only “free” to choose that which God plans for the person to choose.

Van Til sacrifices free will in his attempt to preserve God’s sovereignty. These two concepts can be reconciled, however, if the mode of existence for the creator is transcendent to that of his temporal creation. Humankind lives a temporal existence, traveling through linear time, perceiving that future events are determined by our free choices. But as the creator of all things, God is also the creator of time. Therefore, he exists beyond time. As Norman Geisler explains,

"as an eternal Being God does not really fore-know anything. He is eternal and, as such, He simply knows in one eternal Now everything there is to know. God sees all of time – past, present, and future – from His lofty perch of eternity; whereas human beings looking through the tunnel vision of time can see only the present."
[Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002), 1:583 (emphasis in original)].

While the reformed approach includes the important insight to be aware of non-Christian presuppositions, it takes too restrictive a view of humankind’s will; a view that Norman Geisler demonstrates is not necessary in order to preserve the sovereignty of God.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Where's the Gentleness and Respect?

Time and time again when I am speaking to someone about the truth of Christianity, one of two objections almost inevitably arises. The first is how a loving and omnipotent God could allow pain and suffering in the world. I have explored that topic elsewhere and we'll have to reserve any revisitation for another day. The second objection is how Christians, who supposedly exemplify Christ's love to the world, throughout history have been directly responsible for so much hatred, pain and bloodshed.

It truly amazes me how many so called Christians will pick and choose what they like from the scriptures while ignoring passages that clearly and unequivocally condemn their actions. Specifically, I am writing today about the plans by "Dove World Outreach Center" in Gainesville, Florida to commemorate the 9th anniversary of 9/11 by holding and encouraging "International Burn a Quran Day."

AOL News story

I obviously do not believe the Quran is true. I also take issue with many Muslim groups who refuse to allow anyone the privilege of exposing it to intellectual criticism. But that does not mean we should be burning it.

This calls for a dose of common sense. We are called to answer the non-Christian world with "gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15). Put the shoe on the other foot. How would members of the Dove World Outreach Center react to a call to hold an "International Burn a Bible Day?" Would they feel respected by those calling for such an event? Would they be angry, furious even? Then how do they expect Muslims to react, and how do they honestly believe they are fulfilling God's command to interact with gentleness and respect? Please allow me to be abudantly clear to these alleged Christians. You may think you are acting for God. You are not. In fact, what you are doing is the exact opposite of what He has commanded. This is a horrible idea and you are showing an utter disregard for your Creator by doing this. You owe the entire world an apology, including your fellow Christians who, thanks to you, will now be associated with the actions of about 50 people who are willfully defiant of the Word they claim to hold so dear.

It does not avail anything to claim that Islam is a violent religion and that more drastic measures than usual must be taken. First, what are you doing, exactly, to disprove Islam? Nothing. You are figuratively spitting in their faces, which will only serve to provoke animosity toward the gospel.

Second, Peter did not allow any exceptions to the command to show gentleness and respect. In fact, the entire point of the command is that the worse a non-Christian reacts, the better you appear to the world around you because you continue to be courteous.

Finally, before you are too quick to label all Muslims as violent, remember that if the actions of certain sets of believers were sufficient to label an entire worldview, there would be plenty of evidence to attach the same label to Christianity:

Army of God
Concerned Christians
Scott Roeder

Following the "logic" of the Dove World Outreach Center, these incidents should justify encouraging a world wide burning of Bibles.

This is precisely why we are not to interact with the world through antagonism, provocation and violence. If you want to disagree with Islam, do so by explaining to the world why it's doctrines do not hold up to logical or existential scrutiny. But in taking actions like this Quran burning, you are turning people away from Christ, not bringing them closer to Him.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander." 1 Peter 3:15-16 (NIV).

It will surprise no one to see this passage leading off a blog entry written by a Christian apologist. Sometimes I think that memorization of this verse should be mandatory for anyone entering into the apologetic realm. In truth, there is probably nary a Christian defender who hasn’t quoted it from time to time. We are more than eager to give our “answer” to you, sometimes even when you are not asking; even if it means raising our voice to speak over the top of you just to make sure we get out everything we (in our infinite wisdom) believe you simply must hear.

No, apologetics is not always done with “gentleness and respect.” Sometimes, those who speak maliciously of us are perfectly justified in doing so. But the problem is not limited to only the formal apologists. Too many Christians fail to understand that they are routinely giving answers in their every day lives. They may not realize it, but the world is watching. Sometimes questions are never explicitly asked, they are only formulated in the mind. Then the astute observer watches the behavior of the Christian masses and arrives at a conclusion without ever uttering a word.

So Christians, be on your guard. “Gentleness and respect” should define your entire lifestyle, not just your word choice in particular conversations with non-believers. This begs the question, are we as a group living our lives this way, such that anyone who speaks maliciously against us would be ashamed because of our good behavior?

Author Anne Rice is best known for her series of vampire novels, the most famous of which was made into the Tom Cruise/Brad Pitt film, “Interview With the Vampire.” In 1998 she re-joined the Catholic Church that she abandoned in her youth and turned her writings over to the Christian genre. But last month, the following entry appeared on her Facebook page:

"For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being 'Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."

Quarrelsome? Hostile? Disputatious? Infamous? Many Christians upon hearing those adjectives would immediately begin presenting their defense. That’s not Christianity! Christianity is defined by love. In fact, the gospel points us to the ultimate definition of love in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ! We may start citing evidence about how the laws of the universe show God’s love for us and how He demonstrated this love by sending His son to die on the cross. All the while we are devoting our attention to disproving these descriptions rather than asking the more important question: Why were they attached to us in the first place?

The easy answer is “sin.” Human nature is to deflect any wrongdoing as far away from ourselves as possible, and Christians are no different. If someone is speaking poorly of us, it must be because they are still trapped in their sinful nature and are fighting against the gospel tooth and nail. And that is true, to a certain extent. But usually we carry that excuse way too far.

We love the sin excuse because it enables us to avoid the uncomfortable task of having to peer into the looking glass. If the problem is in “them” then we never need to look inside ourselves.

Dorian Gray sold his soul so that every sin he committed in his life would show upon the portrait he concealed from view rather than upon his perfectly young face. The horrid appearance taken on by the portrait over the years haunted him. It tore at his conscience until he finally decided to destroy it, destroying himself in the process. After all, the portrait was the true Dorian, not the fa├žade that walked the streets each day.

How many of us are Dorian Grays? To what ends would we travel to avoid having to face our own sins? As Christians we like to believe that we have already come to terms with our sinful natures. After all, isn’t that what happened when we accepted the gospel in the first place?

Our nature? Perhaps. But we still have a difficult time accepting individual sins. Is it possible that we are called quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious and infamous because we have engaged in conduct deserving of those titles?

In an interview, Anne Rice said that the last straw in her decision to leave the Catholic Church was the realization of the lengths that the church would go to in order to oppose same-sex marriage. Her comments are not reserved to the Catholic Church. She takes the Christian community as a whole to task. So have we as Christians done anything in connection with this issue to earn the labels she attached?

I believe homosexual activity is immoral and unbiblical. Anyone who has perused the resources on the Ten Minas website can explore my reasons for coming to this conclusion, but it stands on both secular and biblical grounds. But I am also not above accepting some blame for how this issue is handled.

I recently saw a picture of a Christian at a rally against homosexual marriage carrying a sign with a picture of two hangman’s nooses bearing the title “The Solution to Same Sex Marriage.” Where was the gentleness and respect in that?

Too often Christians forget who the real enemy is. Non-Christians are not your opponent. They are the people you are trying to rescue. Yet we treat them as our mortal enemies, launching venom and hatred instead of love and understanding.

We use the tag line, “Love the person, hate the sin,” but nobody has ever been converted by a slogan. We need to stop thinking we can address the world in two second sound bites and instead reflect upon how we sound to others.

I have heard Christians tell homosexuals that they do not really feel sexual attraction for members of the same sex. It is a learned behavior, not a biological drive. It seems that many of us are afraid that if we concede they just might legitimately be feeling what they claim to feel, that would somehow show that God “messed up” in His design.

Did God “mess up” because the rest of us feel the urge to sin? We are more than willing to chalk our own sinfulness up to the fall of humankind but for some reason will not grant that same privilege to homosexual dispositions. That sin must be the result of a conscious choice, not a fallen nature! Why? I cannot presume to know what others are thinking, but I would venture a guess it is because of our own prejudices and fear. God is not in danger of imperfection just because homosexual attraction is sincere. We need to get over our personal trepidation and accept this.

We also need to get past the fear that accepting the sincerity of the biological attraction somehow concedes that it is moral. I would never dream of telling a practicing homosexual that they do not genuinely feel attraction for a member of their same sex. Nor would I dream of denying that they love their partners with a romantic love. How presumptuous would I be to do so? Am I God? Can I see into their heart? Who am I to stand in such a holier than thou position and tell them what they are and are not feeling? Yet this is what Christians do every day, and we wonder why we are called “hostile.”

In the end it does not matter. I am more than willing to concede their love is real. The question is not whether their feeling is true (since when is Christianity about discouraging love?). It is about whether certain actions are moral, and a sincere, biologically driven desire to engage in a certain activity does not make it correct. After all, what is morality if not a set of rules that tell us when we should avoid behaviors that we sincerely desire to engage in? If morality only banned activities that nobody wanted to do, there would be no need for morality.

Ultimately, it should make little difference to the Christian whether the homosexual drive is a biological predisposition or a conscious choice. Yet we expend countless efforts telling people that they do not even know what is going on inside their own hearts. Can you imagine anything more offensive than that? What right do we have to complain when people refuse to accept the gospel when we begin by telling them that we know them better than they know themselves?

We preach that homosexuals cannot make good parents. After all, they set a poor example by actively promoting a sinful lifestyle and passing that worldview on to their children. Yet Christians who oppose any drinking of alcohol whatsoever do not form political action groups to oppose adoption by a social drinker. We do not advocate taking away the children of Hindu families because they teach their children idolatry. I would guess that most Christians would find such practices horrid. But we tell homosexuals that they are unfit parents and do not see the double standard that we set.

Love the sinner, hate the sin? When someone hears from us, “You don’t really love your partner and you have no business raising your child” they don’t feel loved. We are attaching the sin to the sinner and hating both. In our zeal to reject the sin, we do not acknowledge how ridiculous some of our tactics have become. Besides, why do we expect a non-Christian to care what the Bible says about his or her behavior anyway? Our priority for them should be to present the gospel and introduce them to Christ. Correcting sin within the church is our priority, but trying to correct it outside the church without the gospel is a futile effort.

This is only one of many examples I could give, but it is the one that appears to have driven Anne Rice away. We hate homosexuals, don’t believe that women are intelligent enough to make their own decisions about their bodies and refuse to let any card-carrying Democrat into the pews. Are these accurate perceptions? They shouldn’t be, and there certainly are solid moral truths underlying some of them that we must learn to respectfully express. But perhaps, just perhaps, we are more responsible for earning these labels than many of us would like to admit.

Friday, July 02, 2010


The phrase “the truth will set you free” has so worked its way into our collective consciousness that it can be applied to any number of scenarios. Psychoanalyst Anne Miller has written a book titled “The Truth Will Set You Free” about facing and overcoming early psychological traumas. Artist Owen Maseko opened an exhibition this year about human rights abuses in Zimbabwe called “The Truth Will Set You Free.” On August 10, 2009, the New Health Dialogue Blog used “The Truth Will Set You Free” in the title of a blog entry about President Obama’s health care reform initiative. But how many people know the origin of this adage?

Like many of today’s common phrases, it originally appeared in the Bible. This particular aphorism comes from a saying of Jesus in the gospel of John. Chapter 8, verses 31 and 32 read as follows:

"To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, 'If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'"

Nowadays people will use this common phrase and imply that the “truth” it refers to is whatever agenda they are seeking to advance at the time. In reality, the “truth” it is speaking of is the message of Jesus – the gospel of salvation. Christ taught that we are all slaves to sin. We love sin so much that we cannot possibly lay it down of our own accord. Many people believe that Christianity actually enslaves, not frees people. But that is because they do not see sin as something to be avoided.

Think of a drug addict who is offered the opportunity to enter into a 30 day residential rehab program. If they do not want to escape their addiction, they will resist entering the program with every fiber of their being. Why would they want to undertake something that will restrict their “freedom” to use drugs to their heart’s content. But if they see their addiction as a set of shackles that is tying them down from which they desperately want to escape, all of a sudden that rehab program looks like a ticket to freedom.

The gospel is no different. Salvation through Jesus Christ frees us from our addiction to sin. That doesn’t mean we will never sin, but we will recognize sin for what it is, loathe it, and live our lives as recovering sinners, just as a recovering alcoholic is never “cured,” but always on the alert to avoid temptation. But one thing we are completely free from is the judgment against our sin by God. When the Father looks upon us in judgment at the end of days, He will see Jesus’ perfection rather than our imperfection for anyone who has accepted Christ as his or her Lord and Savior.

This weekend Americans will celebrate their Independence Day. We rejoice in the freedoms we enjoy, hopefully cognizant of others in the world who are not so fortunate and honoring those who have sacrificed to give us this opportunity. When American Christians remember our secular freedoms on Sunday, I encourage you to also remember the freedom you have in Christ Jesus. Our country has set us free. Let us be glad of that. But the truth of Jesus Christ has given us far greater freedom than anything we could be granted by human authority. Honor your country, your leaders, and those in military service. Worship the Lord your God.

Monday, June 21, 2010


We have just posted the text from a powerful sermon on the TMM website dealing with the possessed man of the Gerasenes. It tells the story from a perspective you likely have never considered before. Special thanks to Interim Pastor Ken Osborne of Grove Church for giving us permission to post his words so you all can benefit from them. I cannot encourage you enough to read this message. It will move you to new heights in our calling to bring Christ's love to the world:


Monday, June 14, 2010

The Idolatry of Autonomy

I was reading an article today by the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, an openly gay minister, in which he was arguing that "Much of the church continues to bury its head in homophobic sand." To some extent I agree with him. Much of the way evangelical Christianity has treated homosexuals deserves the disgust that it incites. I believe that homosexual practices are sinful, but that does not mean we should be committing violent acts against them or calling them derogatory names rather than reaching out in love with the gospel of Jesus Christ. I know of a recent incident in which a middle school child was hit several times between classes because he is being raised by a homosexual couple at home. Regardless of how you feel about the issue, please tell me what that child did to deserve a beating. We cannot be afraid to give God's answer to anyone who asks of Him, but we must do so with gentleness and respect.

That being said, the point of this post is not to raise the issue of homosexual morality, at least not specifically. One particular comment by the Rev. Guess caught my eye. Toward the end of his article he said, "Maybe it's stubbornness or a calling on my part but, as a gay person, I refuse to let religion lay claim to naming what's holy and what's not, without insisting that I -- and those of my kind -- have some say in writing the definitions." Writing the definitions of what is holy and what is not. When exactly did we as a society move so far from the truth that we actually began to believe that this was a proper endeavor for fallen humanity? No man, woman, child or man-made "religion" defines what is holy. Only God defines what is holy.

I am convinced that this is the single largest obstacle to many people coming to faith in Christ...they want to be completely autonomous rather than acknowledge their subservience to a transcendent God. We want to be able to define for ourselves what is right and what is wrong. Of course, we do not only want to create these definitions for ourselves, but we want others to be bound by them too. After all, we expect others o live up to our sense of morality.

God told Adam and Eve that they had full reign over the Garden of Eden with one narrow exception, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Yet when the serpent promised them that eating of the tree would make them "Like God," they both partook and suffered the consequence. The chief sin from the very beginning was trying to replace God's authority with human autonomy. We want to put ourselves in place of God. That is what Adam and Eve did and it is precisely what Rev. Guess is asking to do in the realm of defining holiness.

Humility requires us to acknowledge that it is not all about us. There is a power greater than ourselves to whom we are subject. That power defines holiness, morality and truth. We must be willing to bow to that authority's determinations, even if we want something different. God bless.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

"Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
...And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!"

That is the little known fourth stanza of "The Star Spangled Banner" by Francis Scott Key, the poem that became our National Anthem. On this Memorial Day, please pray for everyone who defends freedom. My father lost his entire flight crew in Vietnam. Every year on this day I thank God that he was spared and also thank Him for the sacrifice those men made.

Slowing down on the blogs

You may have noticed that I have not been posting to the blog as often as I used to. For that I apologize. The reason is that I simply do not have as much time as I used to, but for good reason. In addition to trying to be a good husband, a father to two children, my obligations to my local church and my "day job," I have recently enrolled in seminary. I am not going along the path to become a pastor. Actually, I am pursuing a Master of Arts degree in Christian Philosophy and Apologetics. My calling is to be a teacher and an apologist, not a pastor. Fortunately, there are plenty of writing assignments while pursuing this degree, so perhaps I will post portions of them from time to time along with other periodic reflections. Stay tuned. In the meantime, I do try to make regular posts on the TMM Facebook page, so click on the link to the right if you want to stay up to date on all things concerning this ministry!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Some Things Never Change

April 18, 2010:
“Tale-Yax was walking behind a man and a woman on 144th Street in the Jamaica section of Queens around 6 a.m. April 18 when the couple got into a fight that became physical, according to police, who pieced together what happened from surveillance footage and interviews with area residents.

“Tale-Yax was stabbed several times when he intervened to help the woman, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said. She and the other man fled in different directions, and Tale-Yax pursued the man before collapsing. Authorities are searching for the man and woman.”

“The homeless man lay face down, unmoving, on the sidewalk outside an apartment building, blood from knife wounds pooling underneath his body.

“One person passed by in the early morning. Then another, and another. Video footage from a surveillance camera shows at least seven people going by, some turning their heads to look, others stopping to gawk. One even lifted the homeless man's body, exposing what appeared to be blood on the sidewalk underneath him, before walking away.

“It wasn't until after the 31-year-old Guatemalan immigrant had been lying there for nearly an hour that emergency workers arrived, and by then, it was too late.”


Approximately 30 AD:
In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

Luke 10:30-37


I wish I could remember who said it, but there is a quote that says something along the lines of the following:

“The fallenness of man is at once the most independently verifiable fact and yet the most willfully resisted truth.”

As this story shows us, some things never change. I wonder how many people who are lambasting those who walked by would actually have done any differently if they were in that position. We all like to think we would do better, but usually when we are put to the test, we fail.

In this case, I guarantee you that most of the people who walked by convinced themselves that this person was simply drunk, or had chosen that place to fall asleep and therefore did nothing. In fact they are probably still justifying their actions to themselves this morning. The fallen human soul has an incredible ability to justify some of the most atrocious acts we carry out, acts that we would condemn if we saw them in others.

Everything about this story is tragic. But the sad ending is that most people reading this story will condemn the actions of the passers by without realizing that this is but one more example of mankind’s fallen nature, and this event really should cause them to look inside themselves. People don’t like self-reflection, at least not when it leads to self-condemnation. But that is often the first step in the Christian gospel.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Crossing the Boundary Stones

“And here at the outset I must deal with an unpleasant business. It seems to the layman that in the Church of England we often hear from our priests’ doctrine which is not Anglican Christianity. It may depart from Anglican Christianity in either of two ways: 1) It may be so ‘broad’ or ‘liberal’ or ‘modern’ that it in fact excludes any real Supernaturalism and thus ceases to be Christian at all. 2) It may, on the other hand, be Roman. It is not, of course, for me to define to you what Anglican Christianity is – I am your pupil, not your teacher. But I insist that wherever you draw the lines, bounding lines must exist, beyond which your doctrine will cease either to be Anglican or to be Christian: and I suggest also that the lines come a great deal sooner than many modern priests think. I think it is your duty to fix the lines clearly in your own minds: and if you wish to go beyond them you must change your profession.”
(C. S. Lewis, Christian Apologetics in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics)

This advice applies far broader than just the Anglican Church. What makes you a "Christian"? In order for that word to have any meaning there must be boundary lines that define it. If a Christian is "x", then by definition that means he or she is not "not x." Truth is by definition exclusive. We must heed Paul's warnings in Ephesians to maintain unity, but the quest for unity cannot go so far as to make us universalist. Many of Christ's claims were exclusive. He is the way, the truth and the life, not a way, a truth and a life. We must be unified within certain boundaries, but a boundary-less Christianity is no Christianity at all.

There are pastors in Christian denominations today who deny the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the exclusiveness of Jesus' atoning death or even the existence of a real, personal God. Echoing C.S. Lewis, I ask these pastors why they maintain their affiliation with Christianity? There are organizations (such as the Unitarian Universalists) who would openly welcome their theology. Why continue to affiliate yourself with an organization whose precepts you do not accept instead of joining one with which you do?

Unfortunately, too many Christian denominations are tolerating this type of behavior. In our effort for unity we refuse to hold people accountable when they step over those boundary stones. We can have an open and honest discussion of what those boundaries should be. But the postmodern approach taken by many Christians today is simply to let everyone define their own boundaries, until we end up with a hodge podge group of people all claiming unity but with no uniformity whatsoever.

What makes someone American? They must have been born in the United States or gone through the citizenship process. What makes someone a lawyer? They must have gone through law school, passed the bar exam and been licensed by their state. What makes someone a member of a fraternity? They must have gone through the pledge process and been accepted into the group by the brotherhood. What makes someone a Christian? Do we have an answer? Every label requires a definition. Why are we so afraid to talk about the definition of Christianity?

This isn't insensitivity. It is common sense. I am not saying that you must believe the precepts of Christianity. What you choose to believe is up to you (although you must also accept the consequences of your choice). Believe what you want. I will defend your right to your honestly held beliefs. I may disagree with you and would love to have the opportunity to discuss it, but I am not going to force you into anything against your will. But I am saying that if you want to call yourself "Christian," then you are declaring that you accept at least the basic precepts that the term is supposed to evoke. If Christianity has no boundaries then it is only a synonym for "humanity." It seems that many "Christian" churches today want to be the Church of Humanity rather than the Church of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps you think this is desirable. Perhaps you believe that anyone who calls themself "Christian" should be entitled to use that label. But as I mentioned before it is unbiblical. It also makes true evangelism impossible. How do you tell someone about Christ? Which Christ? If we cannot even agree on the answer to that basic question then we cannot agree on our message. This leads to confusion and eventually the death of your group identity.

Jesus welcomed sinners, but he still required that they come to Him on God's terms, not theirs. As his emmissaries, we must do the same. Where will you set the boundaries?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The New Age Dilemma

For anyone who does not know, "New Age" refers to a loosly structured collection of beliefs that finds its roots in many of the doctrines of eastern religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism. It also has a pantheistic or panentheistic focus. I do not intend to go into a prolonged discussion of the many nuances of the New Age, but a few summary points are needed in order to understand the points I would like to make.

"New Age" is a broad term that can refer to many different beliefs systems that share a general common foundation but may differ on quite a few particulars. Basically, they adopt the eastern belief that "all is one." When you look at another individual you believe that there are two persons there. There is an "I" and a "you." In reality, according to New Agers, all of reality is only "one." This whole perception of differences between you and another person or you and a tree or anything else in the universe is really an illusion. In reality we are all part of this one unified divine nature. Through various techniques we can escape this illusion of individuality. Most New Agers believe in some form of reincarnation, such that this escape from individuality can come over several lifetimes. Also, a new age of enlightenment is coming, sometimes referred to as the "Age of Aquarius" (hence the title "New Age").

That is a very broad outline of a diverse system, but it will do to illustrate two points I would like to make.

The first point deals with a logical test for truth called the test of "undeniability." Basically, this test says that if it is impossible to deny something, then it must be true. The classic example is the denial of your own existence. Think of the freshman philosophy student who asks his professor, "How do I know that I exist?" The classic response from the professor is, "And whom shall I say is asking?" You cannot make the statement "I do not exist" without using the word "I." But the moment you say "I" in formulating your question, you are assuming there is an "I" asking the question. You assume your own existence in your attempt to deny it. Therefore, your existence is undeniable and must be true.

A slight twist to this analysis applies to the New Age. New Agers deny that they are individuals, instead believing that everyone is part of of the same unified whole. The deny the "I"/"you" dichotomy. But again, in saying "I am part of a unified one" the New Ager is assuming that there is an individual "I" making the statement. Even if we were to rephrase the statement as "I believe there are no individuals but rather just one unified whole" the statement still assumes the existence of an "I." New Age beliefs fail the test of undeniability. They attempt to deny something, not realizing that in their attempt they are affirming the very thing they are trying to deny. This is a fundamental problem with New Age philosophy at its core. The same could be said for other eastern religions that invoke the same concept.

A second problem stems from the pantheistic aspects of New Age beliefs. It is not just that all is one, but that "one" is divine. Therefore, if all is "one" and "one" is divine, then all is divine. In more lay terms, everyone and everything is God.

In this respect New Agers deny that they are atheistic. They may have a different concept of God than theists, but they still believe in God. Logically, though, their position amounts to atheism. Atheists deny the existence of God because they do not believe the evidence supports that there is a transcendent being; i.e., a being that exists above the rest of us. The theist would say that reality is like two floors in a building. We live on the first floor and God lives above us on the second. The atheist denies that there is a second floor. The ground level is all there is.

Now look at the logical ramifications of the New Age position. They claim that there is this higher level to reality called the "divine." But by making everyone part of that divine, they elevate all of reality to that higher level. In essence they take everything from the first floor and move it up to the second. But in the end all of reality still exists on only one level. There is no transcendent God because no aspect of reality transcends any other. Logically speaking, then, New Age belief is the equivalent of atheism. This is not a realization that most New Agers would accept, but it is the logical outworking of their philosophy. In their quest for spirituality they actually deny the very thing they claim to be seeking.

Far more could be said abotu New Agers than is included in this short post, but ultimately their other beliefs make little difference if the foundation upon which they are built collapses. The New Age movement is growing in America today. Therefore, Christians must make an effort to understand its beliefs and logically evaluate its position. God bless.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Big Bang Machine

I just read an interesting article about the world's largest particle accelerator/atom smasher underneath the Swiss-French border at Geneva. At 17 miles long this thing is a monster. Essentially scientists smash proton beams together at really high velocities then watch to see what happens.

Some people fear that these scientists could create a black hole and suck the entire Earth into it. I can't say one way or another how likely that possibility is, so I will just continue to pray that it doesn't happen.

A couple of things interested me about this article. First was that the link to the article from Yahoo! called the accelerator a "Big Bang Machine." That line made me wonder if scientists were trying to create a machine that would simulate the Big Bang itself; i.e., a machine that attempts to create time, space and matter. Now that would be interesting.

Of course, when I clicked on the link and saw the article I learned that they were talking about the particle accelerator that I already knew about. If you read carefully you will see that scientists are attempting to simulate "conditions nearing those after the Big Bang" (emphasis added), not the Big Bang itself. Still exciting stuff, but kind of a let down after the expectations engendered by the "Big Bang Machine" title.

Still, the article was fascinating. Scientists are trying to discover why anti-matter exists and whether they can find evidence for the theoretical Higgs boson, a particle that gives mass to other particles. The problem with particle physics, though, is that the movement of particles is unpredictable. Scientists can only speak in terms of probabilities when it comes to the motion/velocity of particles. So actually coordinating the collision of particles is pretty tough. Particles don't necessarily do what we want them to do.

These scientists overcame this problem by using "powerful superconducting magnets to force the two beams to cross, creating collisions and showers of particles." When I read this, two things came to mind:

(1) This seems to support the conclusion that even at the quantum level events are "caused." In other words, the scientists caused particles to move in the direction they wanted by using the magnets. It is still a matter of probability, but there does appear to be a cause/effect relationship. This seems to run afoul of people who argue that the universe does not require a cause by resorting to the fact that the initial moments of the universe were governed by quantum mechanics rather than Newtonian mechanics. Even in quantum mechanics events are still caused. I admittedly may be overreaching what the evidence from the magnets supports, here, as the article only contained limited information, but it was my intial impression. More specifics as to the methodology used by the scientists would confirm whether they actually helped cause a collision.

(2) If scientists needed a 17 mile long accelerator to get the beams "up to speed" and had to use powerful magnets to force them to travel in the correct direction, I was wondering what caused these particles to collide immediately after the Big Bang when the universe wasn't 17 miles long and large magnets didn't exist. Again, the article has very little information. The only thing I can think of is that the magnets simulate the effect of gravity upon the particles after the Big Bang. Because the universe was so compact the attraction of gravity was as strong as if the particles had been accelerated over 17 miles. Also, because the universe was so small it limited the space for the particles to escape each other thereby making collisions more likely. But I would be interested in talking to someone who knows more about particle accelerators and how they work to explore this in more detail.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Examine the Temple of Your Heart

Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. "It is written," he said to them, "'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it a 'den of robbers.'" Matthew 21:12-13

The temple complex was supposed to be dedicated to the worship of God, but the money changers were using it to engage in commerce. Too often we take was is supposed to be dedicated to God and allow it to be dominated instead by the desires and lusts of mankind.

The Christian's heart is the temple of the Holy Spirit. It is supposed to be dedicated to God. What type of things are you allowing to enter in? Jesus calls mere thoughts sinful because He knows that we indulge in thoughts. It is not just that we see an attractive person walk by. Where do you allow your mind to wander afterwards? It is not just seeing your neighbor's new 30 foot boat. What fantasies do you allow yourself to indulge in afterwards?

Is God still first in your heart or do you allow lust, the love of money, or any other non-Biblical desire to take His place?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Roman Catholic Bank Account

A few months ago I was listening to a homily during a Roman Catholic Mass. For the uninitiated "homily" is the name that Roman Catholics use to refer to a sermon. The priest was explaining an analogy he heard as a child that was used to help explain theology. The person who told him this analogy said that salvation is like a bank account. When God gives us saving grace, he makes an initial deposit into that account. Throughout the rest of our lives we either make deposits or withdrawals from that bank account based upon what we do with our lives. Venial sins are only small withdrawals. Mortal sins close the account completely leaving a zero balance. If we have a sufficient balance when we die then we get to go to Heaven. If not, we go to Hell.

If you were to peruse the Internet for Protestants talking about Roman Catholicism you would probably come across many similar analogies describing Catholic theology. Most Protestants describe Catholicism as "faith plus works." For them, this priest's analogy sums up Catholic theology very well. So the next words out of this priest's mouth may shock them. After describing this analogy he said, "That is bad theology."

That's right, this priest denied the "faith plus works" analogy. Some of you may react to this by saying, "This priest obviously was not preaching true Catholic theology. If he was, he would have embraced that analogy." But this is partially why I encourage people to learn about a position from someone advocating it, not just by listening to what its opponents have to say.

Imagine how frustrated you get when someone says that Protestants believe that once you accept Jesus as your savior, you are free to sin to your heart's content. You can live as indulgent of a lifestyle as you choose with no eternal repercussions, so go ahead and sin!

True, there are some people in this world who think like that, but they are not really saved. The vast majority of Protestant theologians would tell you that if you have truly accepted Christ then the Holy Spirit begins to change who you are. None of us will be perfect, but we are free FROM sin not free TO sin. Anyone who has the attitude that they are free to go on sinning is essentially spitting in Christ's face, defying His will for their life, and is not truly saved.

Imagine how you feel when people continuously repeat that Protestants believe you are free to sin as much as you want and therefore Protestantism is a morally repugnant theology. You probably want to scream, "That is just not true!" It is a straw man argument where someone makes up a caricature of their opponent's position that is not true then proceeds to tear apart this false version of the position, all the while telling people that the caricature is the opponent's true position. It can be extremely frustrating.

If you can identify with that, perhaps you can begin to understand how Roman Catholics feel when Protestants constantly describe their beliefs as "faith plus works." That may be what Catholicism looks like through a pair of Protestant glasses, but it is not how any Catholic theologian would describe their faith.

Before I go any further, let me be clear that I am not Catholic. I disagree with much of their theology. I believe their elevation of Tradition to the same level of authority as scripture is extremely dangerous. Papal infallibility is directly contradictory to Romans 3:10-18. The Immaculate Conception of Mary contradicts Luke 1:47 in which Mary says that she needs a savior. The perpetual virginity of Mary requires a real stretch in your interpretation of the many passages about Jesus' brothers and sisters and requires us to virtually ignore the word "until" in Matthew 1:25 (i.e., Joseph did not have union with Mary "until" Jesus was born). The doctrine of transubstantiation ignores Jesus referring to the wine as the "fruit of the vine" even AFTER he has referred to it as His blood. Finally, asking the saints to pray for us goes against God's command not to "consult the dead on behalf of the living" (Isaiah 8:19). These are only a few examples of my many differences with Catholic theology.

I am not Catholic and I sincerely doubt that anyone will ever convince me to become one. That being said, I disagree with many Protestant theologies as well. I remain unconvinced that R.C. Sproul's strict Calvinism can adequately explain the compatibility of a loving God and all the suffering in the world. I believe that the Episcopal structure of church government finds its origin in a power structure that began in the second century with Ignatius and was not the way the first century church was organized. I do not accept the Pentecostal view that speaking in tongues is the first gift of the Holy Spirit.

But I also do not believe that these differences of opinion should separate us. Salvation is the free gift of God. That is what grace is all about. We do not earn our salvation. God gives it to us. I believe this to be true. R.C. Sproul believes this to be true. Episcopals believe this to be true. Pentecostals believe this to be true. And believe it or not, Roman Catholics believe this to be true. If you accept salvation as God's free and undeserved gift, you are saved. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). If you believe this, you are saved. I believe that Roman Catholics believe this scripture to be true.

The misunderstanding lies in the phrase "not by works." Protestants look at all the rituals Catholics follow (such as Reconciliation, the Eucharist, etc.), hear Catholics say that these sacraments are means to receive God's grace and conclude that the Catholic believes that they must perform certain deeds in order to be saved. However, this is looking at Catholic theology through a Protestant lens. We use our Protestant understanding of "grace" and insert it into the Catholic teaching. Low and behold we conclude that the Catholic believes in (at least partially) salvation based upon works.

But we are saved by what is in our heart. If an individual's heart contains true faith then that individual is saved. But if this is true, shouldn't we ask what is in the Catholic's heart before we decide whether or not he or she is saved? This requires us to ask sincerely what THEY believe, not what we think they believe. This requires listening. Listen to what Catholics say they believe. Don't assume you know based upon your own interpretation of Catholic teachings.

Please allow me to illustrate. When Protestants hear that Catholics think they receive God's grace by participating in reconciliation, we hear, "By confessing their sins to a priest, Catholics believe that God grants them salvation." But this is not true.

Catholics believe in two different types of grace: saving grace and sanctifying grace. Again, I do not agree that scripture teaches this two tiered system of grace, but the purpose of our analysis is only to determine if Catholics believe that salvation is by God's free gift, however they believe the particulars work out.

When a person comes to accept that Jesus died on the cross for their sins, God grants that person saving grace. This is a one-time transaction. When this grace is given, the individual's sins are forgiven. The later sacraments do not grant saving grace. God freely gives saving grace to a person only once.

However, Catholics also believe in something called "sanctifying grace." Imagine if you wanted to live on Mars. You do not have the physical capabilities to do so. You would have to undergo a number of physiological changes in order to make this possible. Similarly, even after receiving saving grace humans lack the spiritual capability to exist in heaven. We need to undergo a number of spiritual changes in order to make this possible. The debt owed from our sins is no longer an obstacle to our entrance into heaven, but our lack of spiritual capability is. After we receive saving grace, God makes these spiritual changes in us through the free gift of sanctifying grace.

God grants sanctifying grace via the sacraments. Through this process we become more and more like Christ. This is very similar to the Protestant concept of sanctification. However, Catholics do not believe that you MUST participate in these sacraments in order to receive sanctifying grace. God does grant sanctifying grace through these sacraments, but sanctifying grace is God's free gift to grant to whomever He chooses however He chooses. This is what has led the Catholic Church in recent years to acknowledge that it is possible for those outside the Catholic Church to go to Heaven.

So whereas Protestants speak of salvation and sanctification, Catholics would speak of saving grace and sanctifying grace. The concepts, while not identical, are actually far more similar than most Protestants understand.

According to Catholic theology, people do not "earn" sanctifying grace. If a Protestant is feeling overwhelmed by the temptations of the world we pray for God's sanctification. We may find it in any number of places: a Bible passage, a prayer group, a particular sermon, etc. There is no end to the things that God may use to strengthen us. If a Catholic is feeling overwhelmed by the temptations of the world they partake of the sacraments. They believe that God sanctifies them through those activities. But this no more means that they are "working" for their salvation than a Protestant is earning his or her salvation by asking God to give them strength to be a true disciple of Christ.

While it is true that Catholics believe you can lose your salvation, so do many Protestants (Methodists, for example). What Catholics or Methodists call "losing your salvation" Presbyterians or most Baptists would say is someone who was never truly saved to begin with.

Personally, I find this to be a matter of perspective. I believe in the perseverance of the saints. This is because God is timeless. He created time and therefore exists outside of time (hence the Bible's description of God as "eternal"). It is nonsensical to say, from God's perspective, that someone "lost" his or her salvation. The events of 200 years ago are just as present to God as the events of 200 years into the future. God does not exist linearly, one day after another as we do. He exists simultaneously in all times. Therefore, God saves people in His ever-present "now." He does not wait to see if you maintain your faith because He does not "wait" for anything.

Catholics and Methodists think of God in linear terms. Their theology assumes that God exists in the same linear sense as we do, but this is a false assumption. In order to accommodate free will they believe we must be free to reject God. But if we exist within time and God exists outside of time, we are free to exercise our freedom within time while God is freely sovereign outside of it. There is no past, present or future to God. There is only His ever present "now."

However, while I believe this is an incorrect theology, I do not believe this difference of opinion disqualifies anyone from salvation. The key question for salvation according to Ephesians 2:8-9 is whether you trust God alone for your salvation and not your own strength. Despite the plethora of misconceptions that exist among Protestants about Roman Catholic theology, I believe (based upon Roman Catholic sources) that modern Catholics do trust solely in Jesus Christ for their salvation.

That being said, I think there are some dangerous things about Catholic theology. Your average person in the pew is not going to open up a theology textbook, and the structure of the Catholic system is ripe for misinterpretation. The average Catholic parishoner who hears that he or she should confess their sins to a priest may assume that this is something they must "do" in order to achieve salvation. Therefore, while I believe the official teaching of the Catholic Church is adequate to be classified as "Christian," it would not surprise me in the least if there are many parishoners who are trusting in their own strength. And as I said before, I do not believe that the Bible supports the notion that God grants sanctifying grace through the Catholic sacraments.

However, I believe it is a mistake for Protestants to exclude Roman Catholics from the broad pantheon of Christianity. I know that this will not make me particularly popular among my conservative Christian brethren. I can only encourage you to investigate Catholic Theology for yourselves using Catholic sources. I recommend "Theology for Beginners" by F.J. Sheed.

The average Protestant website will tell you that Catholics believe that faith in Christ is only the first step toward salvation. Beyond that, Catholics must earn their way into Heaven by their deeds. A careful examination of Catholic theology, however, shows that this is not true. It is perfectly understandable that the average Catholic grows increasingly frustrated by the Protestant apologist repeatedly caricaturizing their position as "faith plus works." They can only scream, "That is not true!" so many times before they throw up their hands in exasperation.

After the homily, I spoke to the priest who rejected the bank account analogy. I praised him for explaining Roman Catholic theology far better than most. I wished some of my fellow Protestants could have been sitting in the pews. Many misconceptions could have been cleared up. The priest said he believed that if the Catholic Church had sat down and talked to Martin Luther instead of demonizing him we might not be separated today. I don't know if he is right or not, but clearly the schism was handled poorly. Raw emotions run deep and I believe they may still be dividing us today. Many Protestants and Catholics do not want to admit that we may be part of the same body of Christ. This leads to them setting up straw man versions of each other's positions, probably genuinely believing the straw men to be true. But if we are ever to overcome these differences we must listen to each other.

I do not agree with Catholics, but I sympathize with them and I believe they are brothers and sisters in Christ. I will continue to discuss with any Catholic why I believe many of their practices are mistaken, but I fully expect to see them in the next life (without having to wait through purgatory).

God bless you all.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Devil Strikes While the Defenses are Down

Forgive me if this post if filled with typographical errors. I got about 5 hours of sleep Thursday night followed by about 2 1/2 on Friday. Then in what I am convinced was a twisted joke designed to torment me, daylight savings time began Saturday night meaning I lost an hour of sleep that night too. Finally, I was supposed to be in Salisbury, Maryland by 8:00 this morning (about a 2 1/2 hour trip) so I woke up at 4:30 am to get ready and get out the door.

To add insult to injury, at about 6:45 am I was driving through Dover, Delaware when the "Check Engine" light came on in my car and the engine started sputtering. This was not good news. I pulled into a drug store and checked the oil. It was a little low but nothing that should have caused the problems I was having. Nevertheless, I waited until the store opened (at 7:00), bought a few quarts and filled it up. With a "glass is half full" sense of optimism I turned the car back on hoping that the check engine light would now be off. No such luck.

Now I needed to find a service station and hope that my car made it there without the transmission falling out the bottom. I found a place about a mile up the road (thank goodness for GPS) and arrived right when they opened (7:30). Considering Dover is over a hour from Salisbury, making it to my destination by 8:00 was not going to happen.

I will gladly give a free plug here to Winner Ford in Dover. The folks that work there were extremely courteous. They agreed to take a look at the car (even though it was not a Ford) and eventually gave me the diagnosis. I need some new ignition coils along with a whole slew of other items (I checked with a mechanic friend of mine afterward and all their recommendations were on the up and up; insert another generous plug here about Winner Ford's honesty). The bad news was that they did not have the parts in stock (a problem I have had repeatedly with my make of car no matter what service station I go to). The earliest they could get them in is tomorrow morning. So my car had to spend the night in Delaware, about an hour and 20 minutes from home. Rental car here I come.

Lest you start to believe that the purpose of this post is just one long rant about what a bad last few days I have had, let me reassure you that there is a point and I will try to get to it. The point is that I am tired. I am really tired. When I got home my two year old son wanted to use me as a jungle gym. When he was done I didn't think I would even be able to get up off the floor for a month.

It is times like these that are the most dangerous. When we are weakest we are most subject to temptation. This can occur when we are tired, angry or any other time when our defenses are down. I often tell my clients when their deposition is taken to beware of a common trick some lawyers use. I have seen lawyers deliberately speak in a very belittling tone. It is not so much in what they say (because that would show up in the transcript) as in how they say it. A really good lawyer will have this down to an art. The lawyer on the other side knows that people do not think before they speak when they are angry so they deliberately try to make my clients mad in hopes that they will say something in anger that will doom their case.

The same is true for Satan and the temptations of this world. Beware of the times when you are very tired or angry because it is then that the temptation to sin is strongest. Discipline yourself. When you get into one of these states, make every effort to get God on your brain. Use whatever method works best for you. Pray. Sing a hymn. Listen to a good lecture or sermon.

However you need to do it, fix your sights on Jesus. An idle mind is the devil's playground, but with Jesus blocking the door to your house, Satan won't be able to get in.

God bless you all.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Free Gift of Grace

There is a story about a group of Christian scholars sitting in a room debating what distinguishes Christianity from all other world religions when C.S. Lewis walked into the room. When the question was posed to Lewis he gave a one word answer, “Grace.”

I don’t know whether the story is true or not. But either way it is a profound answer. Only Christianity among all the world religions offers you eternal life as a free gift. You do not do anything to earn it. In fact, as an imperfect being you can never do enough to earn it. We do not “work” our way into the kingdom. God simply gives us the keys.

I am always perplexed by belief systems (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses) who claim to use the same scriptures as other Christian denominations. Even under the alternate “New World Translation” used by the Witnesses, there are some things about their theology that simply do not make sense.

Specifically, the Witnesses insert personal works into the salvation formula. Your eternal destiny is somehow tied into how good of a life you have lived here on Earth. This is admittedly a simplification and they would likely explain the salvation process in much more detail, going into how Jesus undid the effects of Adam’s sin, etc. But after they have gone into all this detail, the conclusion they arrive at still ends up based in your personal good deeds. The question is whether this conclusion is supported by their own scriptures.

A couple of passages from the Bible come to mind. In order to be as fair as possible to the Jehovah’s Witnesses (because they translate the scriptures differently) I have copied the two passages from the New World Translation so that it is clear that the translation does not alter the ultimate conclusion:

PASSAGE #1: Matthew 20:1-16
“For the kingdom of the heavens is like a man, a householder, who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vinyeard. When he had agreed with the workers for a de•nar´i•us a day, he sent them forth into his vineyard. Going out also about the third hour, he saw others standing unemployed in the marketplace; and to those he said, ‘YOU also, go into the vineyard, and whatever is just I will give YOU.’ So off they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour and did likewise. Finally, about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing, and he said to them, ‘Why have YOU been standing here all day unemployed?’ They said to him, ‘Because nobody has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘YOU too go into the vineyard.’

“When it became evening, the master of the vineyard said to his man in charge, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, proceeding from the last to the first.’ When the eleventh-hour men came, they each received a de•nar´i•us. So, when the first came, they concluded they would receive more; but they also received pay at the rate of a de•nar´i•us. On receiving it they began to murmur against the householder and said, ‘These last put in one hour’s work; still you made them equal to us who bore the burden of the day and the burning heat!’ But in reply to one of them he said, ‘Fellow, I do you no wrong. You agreed with me for a de•nar´i•us, did you not? Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last one the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I want with my own things? Or is your eye wicked because I am good?’ In this way the last ones will be first, and the first ones last.”

Passage #2: Luke 23:39-43
But one of the hung evildoers began to say abusively to him: “You are the Christ, are you not? Save yourself and us.” In reply the other rebuked him and said: “Do you not fear God at all, now that you are in the same judgment? And we, indeed, justly so, for we are receiving in full what we deserve for things we did; but this [man] did nothing out of the way.” And he went on to say: “Jesus, remember me when you get into your kingdom.” And he said to him: “Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.”

In these two passages we can see a descending scale. Jesus’ parable in Matthew speaks to God’s sovereignty. The denarius is a metaphor for the salvation granted to all who come to Christ (the householder). Regardless of when in your life you come to Christ or how much work you put in thereafter, all true believers are granted the same salvation.

The parable includes five groups of workers:

(1) Those who worked 12 hours
(2) Those who worked 9 hours
(3) Those who worked 6 hours
(4) Those who worked 3 hours
(5) Those who worked only 1 hour

All of these workers agreed to work for the householder. But despite the different amounts of work they each put in, all five groups received the same payment. The amount the received had nothing to do with the amount of work they put it. They all agreed to come to the vineyard and work it, but that alone was enough for the owner to graciously give them the reward.

The same is true of Christ. True believers agree to put their faith in Christ. Part of that means working for the kingdom. After all, Jesus is not only our Savior, He is also our Lord. When you accept Him as your Lord that means you are agreeing to do His will.

So when we become believers we agree to work the vineyard. But we have no idea how long we will be working. God may call some of us home after 30 years. For others perhaps it will only be 30 minutes. Jesus does not give us our “denarius” based upon the amount of work we put it but rather based solely on our acceptance of Him as both Savior and Lord.

Some people may object by pointing out that even those who came at the eleventh hour still put in one hour’s worth of work. But that is the point of the passage from Luke. The robber on the cross next to Christ admits that he did nothing in his life worthy of reward. Yet when he asked Jesus to remember him, he was asking the householder to enter the vineyard. Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus gave him his denarius.

This passage allows us to add a sixth category to the parable:

(6) Those who worked 0 hours

Yet even the robber in this sixth category was given his denarius.

The New World Translation attempts to alter the conclusion of my argument by inserting the comma after “today” rather than before it (so that Jesus is saying that he is telling the robber “today” rather than telling the robber that he will be in paradise “today”), but ultimately it does not matter. It makes little difference when the robber would enter paradise. What matters is when he died. He was in the process of being executed when Jesus said he would receive his denarius. The opportunity to do good work for the kingdom is gone. All he can do at this point is profess his faith. If his works were to be evaluated by God after his death, the balance sheet is certainly going to come out in favor of condemnation for this man. Yet Jesus invited him to paradise.

I have heard Jehovah’s Witnesses say that Jehovah will evaluate how they lived their life and decide their fate for the afterlife. Regardless of how you feel about any other issue the Witnesses raise, these two passages alone (which I have taken from their translation of the scriptures) should cause them to take a serious second look at their theology. When your eternal destiny is at stake, you must be very careful to ensure that your worldview is consistent with what you claim as its foundation.

Christ does not weigh your good deeds versus your bad deeds and decide whether you are worthy of salvation. Christ said this with His own tongue. The fact is that God is perfect. Unless you are perfect, any eternal communion with God would create a stain upon His holiness. ANY bad work, even one, is enough to disqualify you from eternity with God. Only by having Christ’s righteousness imputed to us can we have any hope of heaven. If you continue to depend upon your own righteousness, you will be in for a surprise when you stand before the judgment seat and learn that you are not as good of a person as you may like to believe. Accept God’s free gift in the spirit in which it is offered. Come to the throne in humility and with a trembling heart and you can be saved.

God bless.