Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

What does it take to be a good spiritual leader? What does following Jesus mean?

Theology that hits the spot

Theology that hits the spot

I think it’s pretty clear from the gospels that if Jesus did anything, he certainly died for our sins in obedience to God his Father. He did this not because it was fun and thrilling, but because he though it would be effective on our behalf. I’m sure that Jesus would have preferred to go do fun things, have nice vacations, etc. But instead, he chose the suffering and the death. And for those of us who claim to be Christian, we should be careful that we are not living our lives in the constant pursuit of pleasure as well. There is no place for that in Christianity – we need to be about the work of identifying with Jesus’ example of suffering, self-denial, self-sacrifice.

Matthew 16:24-27:

24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.

25 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.

26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

27 For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds.

Matthew 23:12-12:

12 Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

John 12:25-26:

25 He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.

26 If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.

Our lives are supposed to be about taking up our crosses and following Jesus. Not having fun or pursuing thrills. Sometimes I say that to people I mentor who have been raised in the church, who love to read devotionals and Bible study, who love to go to church. And what I find is that they disagree and think that the purpose of life is to do easy things that make them feel good and that make other people think that they are something special. It is an article of faith for them that you can make a difference for God by choosing the easiest, funnest and most thrilling option throughout your life and that God will work this into an effective life. But Jesus didn’t think like that. In fact, I cannot think of a single case in the Bible where Jesus chose fun and thrills. Jesus chose the cross. He was not trying to have good feelings or to be liked by lots of people. And we are supposed to be following in his steps.

Christian self-sacrifice is all about denying desires and interests which interfere with our ability to follow Jesus. For example, one of my goals is to follow Jesus through charity. So I went into a field that was not easy for me, took jobs that I did not like, and put away investments instead of spending – all so that I would be able to invest in others as a way of imitating the self-denial and self-sacrifice of Jesus, with the goal of making a difference. I am trying to stop looking out for number one, and starting looking out for Jesus. And if I have to do things that I don’t feel like doing, well so much the worse for me. And let me tell you, investing in people who then betray you at the deepest level is no fun. And yet I must keep giving away money to people joyfully, even after this happens. I have to continue to care for others and to deny myself. It is not good for my self-love and self-esteem to be hurt when I invest in others, but it is following Jesus.

So I want to say three things about this based on my own personal experiences.

The first thing to say is that a good spiritual leader is one who leads us to be more like Jesus. And that means helping us be better less interested in fun, less interested in thrills, less interested in travel, less interested in vanity. And so on. For example, if what you are trying to do with your life now is the exact same thing that you were trying to do with your life before you became a Christian, it’s a good sign that you are deceiving yourself that your plan is from God. A good spiritual leader is able to spot when you are wrapping your pre-conversion desire in a cloak of religious language. In my own case, if you ask me to lead you, you’ll find that I’ll push you away from things that do not work to serve God. But there’s more to self-denial than just avoiding fun, there’s self-control. Don’t do stuff just so that you can tell everyone about it on Facebook. An outspoken supporter of intelligent design I know proudly posted that she had been admitted to a prestigious graduate school on her Facebook page, and she lost her academic adviser. We need to have humility, wisdom and self-control if we expect to have an impact for Christ. A good spiritual leader can sense when you are just doing stuff in order to impress other people, and he will tell you not to do that.

The second thing to say is that a bad spiritual leader does not make us more like Jesus. A bad spiritual leader is someone who says yes to other people in order to be liked by them. He is not able to understand what will and will not work – especially in areas where he has no experience. A bad spiritual leader is someone who is more concerned about making a name for himself by using Christianity to become popular and admired. A bad spiritual leader is someone who lacks self-control. Instead of looking around to others to see how he can help them, he looks out for himself and undermines others for his own benefit. Instead of seeking the good of others, he helps himself to good things for his own appetites, and takes away the good things that others need. I also think that in general, a bad spiritual leader is someone who lacks life experience. For example, do not take advice on professional and financial matters from someone who is still a student in her late 20s and who has never worked a paid job. She will not know what you should do financially or professionally.

The final thing I have to say is about the kind of person who rejects a good spiritual mentor and chooses a bad one. I want to advise you to be careful about rejecting people with real experience of following Jesus. That is, people who have actually engaged in acts of self-denial, self-sacrifice, etc. in order to be more like Christ. People who have studied things they did not like. Worked at jobs they did not want to. Given away money to people who did not appreciate it. Mentored people to serve God who were rebellious and emotional. Do not choose people who are easy to control, e.g. – people who are younger or less mature than you are, to be your mentor. Do not choose people who say yes to your desire to feel good or to have fun because they only want to be liked by you. Be careful of choosing advisers who lack maturity and who are easy to manipulate because of their need for attention. It’s better to prefer the people who labor in service to others without wanting attention drawn to themselves. It’s better to prefer the people who tell you no and point you towards self-denial, self-control and self-sacrifice. This is real spiritual leadership – pointing you towards the example of Jesus.

If you look back in your past and see yourself making bad decision after bad decision because you hid things from good spiritual leaders so you could have fun, you know you are vulnerable to doing this. If you know you have sought out the approval of poor inexperienced leaders deliberately, then you ought to know better. You cannot make a bad plan work by pushing away mature spiritual leaders and surrounding yourself with young, immature, emotion-driven advisers. You need to prefer people who tell you the truth about what you are doing, even if it is uncomfortable for you – that is the wise thing to do. Do not seek out advisers who tell you that your feelings are the voice of God speaking to you – that is just telling you what you want to hear. The first part of exercising self-control is not letting your emotions affect strategic decisions.

If you want to read more about self-denial, here’s a lecture to read by Charles Finney.

Filed under: Mentoring, , , , , , , , , , ,

A popular reason why people leave Christianity: disappointment with God

Part 2 of a brilliant series by Bradley Wright. This time he explains how people leave Christianity because they expect God to meet their needs and he doesn’t.

Excerpt:

In a study of religious deconversion, we analyzed 50 on-line testimonies posted by former Christians, and in these testimonies we found four general explanations for deconversion. The first explanation, which I wrote about last week, regarded intellectual and theological concerns about the Christian faith. The second, which I elaborate here, regards a failed relationship with God. Almost half (22 of 50) of the writers expressed sentiments that in some way God had failed them by His not doing what they thought He should.

God’s perceived failure took various forms, most of which fall under the general heading of “unanswered prayers.”

One way that people felt that God had failed them happened when He did not respond to requests for help during difficult times. A young man raised in a Baptist church epitomized this feeling of failure when he wrote about God not answering his prayers about family difficulties. He wrote: “The first time I questioned the faith was when my grandmother shriveled up in front of me for 6 month’s due to cancer. I was 13 & my mother & father [were] getting a divorce. My father told me I should have been aborted. I prayed to God but nothing fails like prayers.”

So you can see here where people have this expectation that it is God’s job to give them good health. But is that anywhere in the Bible? Is it God’s job to make us healthy so that we can have a happy life, even if we are busy spending that happy life ignoring him and not knowing his character. When you ask a serious Christian what it is like to be a Christian, we will tell you that what God is about is NOT making us healthy or happy, but instead giving us time and peace to study him, to make plans to serve him, to execute those plans, and to have (sometimes unhappy) experiences that cause our sympathies to change as we feel what God feels. In short, life is about getting closer to him, and suffering and sickness is one of the tools God uses in order to get us to know him as he is and to participate in the relationship.

Likewise, a woman raised in a Methodist household described her step-father as “cruel and abusive” to her, and she could not understand why “if God loves me, why won’t he protect me instead of letting this happen to me?”

I think the reason why God allows suffering like this is to create people who take his rules about sexual morality seriously. When I was growing up I had front-row seats to the divorces of many of my friends. I remember vividly talking to children who cried to me about how they felt when their mothers invited new men into the house after the divorce. Pain and suffering like this is a reminder to us that the moral law is real, that God expects us to follow it in order to prevent harm. One of the reasons why I am chaste is because I listen to the stories of men whose girlfriends aborted their babies, the stories of women who cohabitated and then were betrayed, the stories of the children of divorces. And from this I learn that morality is real and it matters.

In a variation of this theme, some deconverts lamented God’s inactivity amidst spiritual difficulties. A man in his forties, a former elder at a charismatic church, wrote: “In my own life, no matter how much I submitted to ‘God’ and prayed in faith, ‘sin’ never seemed to leave me. Well, what’s the point of being ‘saved’ if you aren’t delivered from ‘sin’?”

This is why accurate theology matters. No serious Christian thinks that you stop sinning after you become a Christian, and no serious Christian thinks that prayer alone is a solution to sin. To stop sinning, you need to engage more than the spirit, you need to engage the mind. Most people want to spiritualize things because prayer is easier than study. But if you want to stop sinning, the best way is a combination of prayer and study. If you want to stop premarital sex, study how premarital sex affects STD infection, risk of divorce, future marital stability, oxytocin, quality of marriage, and so on. Study the risks of divorce. That’s how you stop sinning. Some people want to dumb Christianity down to the level of superstition then they complain that it doesn’t work. But Christianity is better when you learn more and work harder.

A former Southern Baptist described the various good things that God failed to give him: “God promises me a lot in the bible and he’s not come through. Ask and it shall be given. Follow me and I will bless you. I promise you life and promise abundance. Man should not be alone. I have a plan for you. Give tithe and I will reward you. All broken promises. This god lacks clarification. This god lacks faith in me. He wants my faith. I want his too.”

Do you know what I expect from God after reading the Bible? I expect what Jesus got: pain and suffering during obedience. What kind of simpleton reads the Bible and thinks that it is about getting goodies from God? That is NOWHERE in the Bible. It’s projecting Santa Claus onto God and that isn’t going to work – God has other plans for us, and those plans involve work and pain. People become Christians because they want to be like Jesus, and they understand that Jesus was not having fun. He was doing a job, and he wasn’t happy or appreciated.

Other writers took a different approach to God’s failures. They too sought God’s help, but when they did not receive it, they simply concluded that God did not exist. A former member of an Assemblies of God church explicitly linked unanswered prayers and the existence of God: “How many humble and totally selfless prayers offered up to and ignored by the imaginary skydaddy does it take for the average person to finally throw in the towel and say [God doesn’t exist]!!!!” His answer: “Too damn many.”

It’s so strange to me that people think that the best way to see God interfere is to pray. The way I see God working in my life is when I go home and listen to some debate about the problem of evil, and then the next day some atheist asks me out to lunch to talk about why God allows evil. Maybe instead of doing easy things, we should actually invest in our relationship with God and then see if he responds by giving us work to do. Maybe a relationship with God is about serving him, and the joy is about seeing him reward those efforts by working with us and through us. Maybe God has more for us than just entertainment.

Still others sought a tangible sign of God’s presence. A former Pentecostal exclaimed: “There were many nights while in bed I would ask God to show me the truth, or give me some type of sign to show that he or she existed. These prayers would never be answered. So I would just go on with my life having doubts.” Likewise, a former Baptist missionary wrote: “I’ve begged God to show himself to me and put an end to my inner torture. So far it hasn’t happened and the only thing I know for sure is that I have unanswered questions.”

I think this paragraph is interesting, since I consider things like church, praying and singing hymns to be less practical when compared with practical and difficult things like chastity, apologetics, charity, studying hard things, getting a good job, committing to caring for others who have special needs, etc. If you want to feel the presence of God, then do the right thing and take the punishment for doing it. That’s what Christianity is really about.

The example of Dan Barker

I’ve actually written about this before in the context of Dan Barker, a charismatic fundamentalist praise hymn singer and writer who expected God to validate all of his irresponsible ministry decisions. Eventually, he fell away from the church because he had this ludicrous Santa Claus caricature of God that didn’t match reality. Dan Barker is the complete opposite of everything I consider a manly Christian to be. He is the polar opposite of what I recommend to men when I recommend that they study math, science, engineering and technology, avoid music, singing and dancing, and prefer apologetics and conservative politics over speaking in tongues and apocalyptic fiction. This man, when he was a “Christian”, was the complete opposite of the WK Christian man model. Men should be practical.

I think that Christians should protect themselves from the Dan Barker outcome by being aware of how emotional experiences and praise hymns warp your view of God. God is a person, and he has a goal for you – to know him. To achieve that goal, it may not be effective to just give you everything you want. It may be the case that God has to allow you to experience some suffering, to form your character and to bring your goals in line with his character. Children have to grow up, and shielding them from pain and responsibility doesn’t allow them to grow up.

Filed under: Mentoring, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Is the story of the woman being stoned for adultery in John 7-8 authentic?

Here’s the leading conservative New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace to explain.

Excerpt:

One hundred and forty years ago, conservative biblical scholar and Dean of Canterbury, Henry Alford, advocated a new translation to replace the King James Bible. One of his reasons was the inferior textual basis of the KJV. Alford argued that “a translator of Holy Scripture must be…ready to sacrifice the choicest text, and the plainest proof of doctrine, if the words are not those of what he is constrained in his conscience to receive as God’s testimony.” He was speaking about the Trinitarian formula found in the KJV rendering of 1 John 5:7–8. Twenty years later, two Cambridge scholars came to the firm conclusion that John 7:53–8:11 also was not part of the original text of scripture. But Westcott and Hort’s view has not had nearly the impact that Alford’s did.

For a long time, biblical scholars have recognized the poor textual credentials of the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11). The evidence against its authenticity is overwhelming: The earliest manuscripts with substantial portions of John’s Gospel (P66 and P75) lack these verses. They skip from John 7:52to 8:12. The oldest large codices of the Bible also lack these verses: codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, both from the fourth century, are normally considered to be the most important biblical manuscripts of the NT extant today. Neither of them has these verses. Codex Alexandrinus, from the fifth century, lacks several leaves in the middle of John. But because of the consistency of the letter size, width of lines, and lines per page, the evidence is conclusive that this manuscript also lacked the pericope adulterae. Codex Ephraemi Rescriptusalso from the fifth century, apparently lacked these verses as well (it is similar to Alexandrinus in that some leaves are missing). The earliest extant manuscript to have these verses is codex Bezae, an eccentric text once in the possession of Theodore Beza. He gave this manuscript to the University of Cambridge in 1581 as a gift, telling the school that he was confident that the scholars there would be able to figure out its significance. He washed his hands of the document. Bezae is indeed the most eccentric NT manuscript extant today, yet it is the chief representative of the Western text-type (the text-form that became dominant in Rome and the Latin West).

When P66, P75, Sinaiticus, and Vaticanus agree, their combined testimony is overwhelmingly strong that a particular reading is not authentic. But it is not only the early Greek manuscripts that lack this text. The great majority of Greek manuscripts through the first eight centuries lack this pericope. And except for Bezae (or codex D), virtually all of the most important Greek witnesses through the first eight centuries do not have the verses. Of the three most important early versions of the New Testament (Coptic, Latin, Syriac), two of them lack the story in their earliest and best witnesses. The Latin alone has the story in its best early witnesses.

Even patristic writers seemed to overlook this text. Bruce Metzger, arguably the greatest textual critic of the twentieth century, argued that “No Greek Church Father prior to Euthymius Zigabenus (twelfth century) comments on the passage, and Euthymius declares that the accurate copies of the Gospel do not contain it” (Textual Commentary, 2nd ed., loc. cit.).

It is an important point to note that although the story of the woman caught in adultery is found in most of our printed Bibles today, the evidence suggests that the majority of Bibles during the first eight centuries of the Christian faith did not contain the story. Externally, most scholars would say that the evidence for it not being an authentic part of John’s Gospel is rock solid.

But textual criticism is not based on external evidence alone; there is also the internal evidence to consider. This is comprised of two parts: intrinsic evidence has to do with what an author is likely to have written;transcriptional evidence has to do with how and why a scribe would have changed the text.

Intrinsically, the vocabulary, syntax, and style look far more like Luke than they do John. There is almost nothing in these twelve verses that has a Johannine flavor. And transcriptionally, scribes were almost always prone to add material rather than omit it—especially a big block of text such as this, rich in its description of Jesus’ mercy. One of the remarkable things about this passage, in fact, is that it is found in multiple locations. Most manuscripts that have it place it in its now traditional location: between John 7:52 and 8:12. But an entire family of manuscripts has the passage at the end of Luke 21, while another family places it at the end of John’s Gospel. Other manuscripts place it at the end of Luke or in various places in John 7.

The pericope adulterae has all the earmarks of a pericope that was looking for a home. It took up permanent residence, in the ninth century, in the middle of the fourth gospel.

Wallace teaches at the ultra-conservative fundamentalist Dallas Theological Seminary, and is the foremost evangelical manuscript expert in the world.

Why is this important? I think it is important because this story is very prominent for a great many Christians, especially Christian women, who use this to justify a variety of positions that are inconsistent with the rest of the Bible. These Christians do not like the idea of anyone being judged and so they are naturally inclined to blow this disputed passage into an entire theology that repudiates making moral judgments on such things as capital punishment. In fact, in another post, I was accused of being the equivalent of one of the people who wanted to stone the woman taken for adultery because I oppose fornication and single motherhood. That’s how far this has gone, where some Christians, especially Christian feminists, have leveraged this passage to redefine the Bible so that women are no longer responsible to the Bible’s moral rules and can never be blamed for acting irresponsibly.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What is the “unforgiveable sin” in Mark 3 and Matthew 12?

Take a look at these two puzzling passages from the New Testament.

Mark 3:28-29:

28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter,

29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”

Matthew 12:30-32:

30 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.

32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

What can it mean?

Well, here’s a post by Dr. Paul Gould to shed some light on it.

Excerpt:

Taken in isolation, it is hard to make sense of this passage—how is it that all kinds of sins can be forgiven but one sin will not be forgiven? What is going on here? Well, here is a principle of sound biblical interpretation:

Principle #1: In order to correctly understand a passage, we must always look at it within its context.

And what is the passages context? The broader context can be found in Matthew 12:22-32. In this broader context we read of Jesus performing a miracle (he performs an exorcism and heals a blind and mute man), we read of the crowd’s amazement and wonderment over the identity of Jesus (“Could this be the Son of David?”), we find the slanderous (and murderous) charge of the Pharisees, and we find Jesus’ response to the Pharisees charge (both his reasoned response to their explicit charge that he drives out demons by Satan’s power as well as his warning to the Pharisees if they continue to attribute to Satan what is in fact the work of God’s Spirit).

After looking at this passage in context, we find that the “unforgivable sin” is (basically) attributing what is in fact the work of God’s Spirit to His ultimate enemy, Satan.

Fair enough, you say, but there are other problems passages that talk about the unforgivable sin—Hebrews 6, 1 John 5, and Hebrews 10 come to mind. What about those passages? Well, here is our second principle of biblical interpretation:

Principle #2: Always interpret unclear passages in light of the clear teachings of Scripture (as a whole).

And what is the clear teaching of Scripture related to sin and forgiveness? It is this:

Forgiveness of sins is a consequence of man’s repentance, and repentance is a consequence of the activity of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. So in the end, it seems that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is nothing more or less than the unrelenting rejection of His advances.

So, the only unforgiveable sin is the sin of deliberately rejecting God’s efforts to draw you into a saving relationship with him. What does this mean for you? It means that if you are a Christian and you believe the essentials of the faith, then you aren’t going to be able to lose your salvation by performing sinful actions. You can’t sin your way out of God’s forgiveness, because if you accept Jesus’ death as payment for your sins, then it covers all your sins. I do think that the Bible is very clear that you can lose your salvation by “the unrelenting rejection” of God’s advances. But that’s not a description of any Christians, it’s a description of someone who does not believe in Jesus.

Filed under: Commentary, , , , , , , , ,

Does the New Testament book of James undermine salvation by faith alone?

Theology that hits the spot

Theology that hits the spot

Are people brought in a right relationship with God because God provides for their salvation, or must we do works in order to earn our place with God in the afterlife?

The Bible is pretty clear that God provides our salvation from our rebellion by himself, all we have to do is accept it.

Look at Romans 3:21-30:

21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,

22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction;

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;

25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;

26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

27 Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.

28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the Godof Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also,

30 since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.

Here’s theologian R.C. Sproul, to explain a passage from the Bible that seems to contradict the passages that teach that faith alone is sufficient for salvation.

Here’s James 2:18-24:

18 But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.

20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?

21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?

22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected;

23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God.

24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Sproul explains the apparent conflict:

What James is saying is this: If a person says he has faith, but he gives no outward evidence of that faith through righteous works, his faith will not justify him. Martin Luther, John Calvin, or John Knox would absolutely agree with James. We are not saved by a profession of faith or by a claim to faith. That faith has to be genuine before the merit of Christ will be imputed to anybody. You can’t just say you have faith. True faith will absolutely and necessarily yield the fruits of obedience and the works of righteousness. Luther was saying that those works don’t add to that person’s justification at the judgment seat of God. But they do justify his claim to faith before the eyes of man. James is saying, not that a man is justified before God by his works, but that his claim to faith is shown to be genuine as he demonstrates the evidence of that claim of faith through his works.

So yes, works are important as a sign to others that you believe what you say you believe, but not important for balancing your sins. Your sins are already paid for by Jesus, what you do in your life doesn’t add or take away anything from that. But I will say that if you can see that a person is spending a great deal of their time performing actions that are consistent with a concern for God’s purposes and reputation, then that’s a good sign that his faith is in good shape. Yes, even if he doesn’t do as much Bible study, devotions, singing and praying as he should. The important thing about actions (works) is that you can look at a person’s life and see evidence that he is taking God seriously – that Jesus is his leader, and that Jesus’ character is informing their decision-making and prioritizing.

Filed under: Commentary, , , ,

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