Of Suffering and Evil

I was visiting my parents home in Pennsylvania about a month ago and was blessed by the fact that both of my brothers were there as well. This rarely happens anymore so it really was a special time. Naturally, my mom had scheduled us to sing in church together, seeing that all of us can at least change notes…and sometimes carry a tune (them more than I).

So my brother Seth chose a Shane and Shane song called “Though You Slay Me”. I love this song. It is melancholy and hopeful at the same time, and there is a reason for that.

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Christianity has a theology of suffering. In fact, the “problem of evil” was a very large part of my embracing the Doctrines of Grace. God either has to be in sovereign control over all things or the following two options are true: suffering is meaningles-or God is impotent (or both). These options though are not able to be derived from the Bible, which is were we draw our knowledge of God. So we are left with option 1: God is in sovereign control of evil.

Many Christians would acknowledge this, but to varying degrees. I would guess that the majority of Christendom would advocate that God is sovereign over the ends, but what about the means? God must have to let it ride because- you know, free will.  BUT is this what the Bible says?

Genesis 50: 19-20 “But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

God most certainly controlled the ends…but He also most certainly was not passive in the means.

What does Paul tell us to expect as Christians?

Phil 1:29 “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”

This is part of God’s plan. Not some uncontrollable thing that God has to work around.

To address the immediate objection: “Doesn’t this make God the author of sin?” I will most quickly and emphatically answer “NO!”

To use an analogy I have heard; No one in their right mind would condemn Shakespeare for the murder of King Duncan. Shakespeare may have wrote the play but Macbeth done dood the deed.

This is just a fraction of the level of disparity between our level of existence and God’s. He is the play writer but He does not commit the sins in the play Himself. God was not surprised by Adam and Eve’s sin. He had planned to redeem mankind before He had ever created the world. (Rev 13:8) Why? Because everything is about God showing His glory, His awesomeness, and His holiness. And so as not to confuse anyone, it is not about God needing to receiving glory  (see Austin Fischer’s book “Young, Restless, and No Longer Reformed”, and also see the following interactions between Kevin DeYoung and Austin) but rather about Him showing His glory. No action did this greater than the cross.

We suffer now, but there will be a day when all sorrow will cease, where there will be no suffering. Those whom God saved will live eternally in peace in His presence.

So until then, we can quote Romans 8:28 with full confidence because we know that God also controls the means. No suffering is pointless, though we may not see or understand. Take heart Christian, your Lord loves you; so cry out with Job “Though he slay me, I will hope in him”

With Great Pomp

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Paul is on his way to Rome. He had been accused, threatened, and had several attempts made on his life. Currently he is under arrest and having to appear, numerous times, on trial. Now comes the most recent judge-King Aggripa, and his wife Bernice (lovely name). Festus catches Agrippa up on the situation that was left to him by Felix-with some minor exaggerations to make himself look good (hey-we’ve all done it). Apparently Paul’s situation fascinates Aggripa because he wants to hear directly from Paul.

Back up-Paul was under arrest because the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem had arrested him in the temple. Ironically, Paul had gone to Jerusalem trying not to be a contrarian, but they had their agenda. The Jews wanted to kill Paul but the Roman tribune stepped in. He than assembled the Chief Priests, Pharisees and Sadducees and put Paul on trial before them. Paul knows he is going to be sentenced to death but, being the very educated man he was and recognizing his audience, saw an opportunity-and took it. He stated that he was on trial for the thing that the two religious camps disagreed over the most-resurrection. This could not have been more true. Paul was preaching the resurrection of Christ. Things got violent and the Romans stepped in and took Paul away. Paul than pulls out his Roman citizen I.D. card (not very easy to get) and says he has a right to trial before Caesar. So Paul is on his way to Rome. God has told Him this was His will.

Fast Forward-Paul has now had 2 additional trials before Felix and Festus, and here comes Agrippa. Here is how Acts 25 describes the situation:

“Then Agrippa said to Festus, ‘I would like to hear the man for myself.”…So the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city.” (Acts 25:22-23a)

You never know what God has for you. Paul was being persecuted for preaching the truth and sharing the gospel. Yet he was not, seemingly, being blessed for his faithfulness. Instead he was under arrest and appearing before trial after trial. But look at what God is doing with this situation-not in reaction to men’s actions mind you, but providentially. Paul is getting to preach the gospel to more and different people than had he not been arrested and on his way to Rome. These are not more peasants either, but men of great influence. And this is exactly what God had said “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” (Acts 23:11b)

Just as his ancestral father Joseph, Paul was wrongly being persecuted in accordance with God’s plan to spread His Word and save His people.

Christian, do not be discouraged when you feel persecuted. When the world, with great pomp, parades you out as a religious numbskull, or a backwater-moron, use the situation to proclaim the gospel faithfully.

As my former Pastor said “Don’t waste your suffering”

Trust the New Testament? By the #’s

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I was re-watching a presentation given by Dan Wallace, the CEO of The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, on the reliability of the New Testament.  Every time I look at this topic I am increasingly more amazed by the truth the data presents. (Note: the information in this post comes mostly from the presentation linked below, but some of the numbers have been updated according to the CSNTM website’s most recent information).

Let me drop a few numbers here:

-We have just around 5,900 hand-written Greek Manuscripts (the language the NT was written in) containing the New Testament, either in part or in whole.

-We have over 10,000 Latin Manuscripts, one of the 1st languages the NT was translated into.

-We also have somewhere between 5-10 thousand manuscripts of varies other ancient translations such as Syriac, Coptic, etc. That may seem like a large disparity (between 5 and 10 thousand) but the truth is we just are not sure how many there actually are.  We do know that it is no less than 5,000.

Why is this impressive? Because for the average ancient work, we have no more than 20 manuscripts. That is not a typo- 20, a two and a zero, and this is being generous. Homer is the only exception but even Homer’s 600 is a far cry from the 20,000-25,0000. Oh, and that 20+thousand doesn’t even include the quotations from earlier church fathers. We could reproduce the NT several times over just off of their quotes alone.

Oh, and there is one more thing- time.

The earliest, again being generous, copy of any other ancient work comes from over 500 years after the document was originally written, this time including Homer.

For the New Testament we have a fragment, P52 (pictured above) of John from no later than 150 AD, and some papyrologists have dated it as early as 90 AD. That is a mere several decades after the events described took place! We have quite a few manuscripts from the first several centuries as well, some being entire copies of the NT.

This is an unprecedented amount of textual evidence that is entirely unmatched in historical academia.

There is nothing in all of the ancient world that comes even close to having the historical veracity of the New Testament.  If you believe that Julius Caesar existed, than there is no historical grounds for denying the events of the NT. If you believe anything you learned in history about Egypt, Babylon, Rome, or Greece; than it is intellectually obtuse to disbelieve the accounts in the NT. I am not trying to name-call, I am simply stating that if someone denies that the NT, as we have it today, contains what the original authors wrote; they are either ignorant of the information, or coming at the information with a strong bias.

Remember, because of the way the texts were copied-by anyone who could write, and from all over the place geographically-there was never one group in control of the text to make wholesale edits. If someone would have tried to insert a doctrine, or take a doctrine out, it would have been immediately discovered because it wold be the only one of its kind, and when compared to the rest of the manuscripts, it would stand out like the Pope at a cowboy church (I would love to see the expression on the Pope’s face when he sees them baptizing in a water trough filled from the garden hose attached to the stage).

It has been cleverly said that we have a 10,000 piece puzzle with 10,001 pieces. Nothing has been lost from the original autographs so, even though we do not posses the original manuscripts, we can with the utmost confidence trust that we have the word of God as written by the followers of Christ.

This is just the tip of the iceberg because there are textual variants and differences, but again, we have more information than needed, not less.

All this to say: Christian, trust the Bible; non-Christian, trust the Bible.

It contains the Words of Life. No man comes to the Father except by Him who is declared through out all of its pages, that is Jesus Christ; who died and rose so that we may have eternal life and fellowship with God. Something not possible without Him, for He forged in blood the way for the defiled to commune with the Holy.

The words contained inside the Bible our true and this is what these words are for:

“Now Jesus did many other sign in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John 20:30-31

Here are some additional resources for those interested in going deeper. As always, feel free to ask questions.

Books: The King James Only Controversy by James White

Videos:

 

Also check out Daniel Wallace’s short videos on iTunes U about textual criticism.

 

Captain America is not a Christian

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When it comes to the vast majority of Christian media out in the market for consumption, I do not hold a popular opinion. The opinion I hold is not flattering and garners a lot of reaction from many of my Christian friends. I dislike – no, I strongly disapprove of – the vast majority of the material Christians are putting out into the theaters, radio, iTunes, and books. The reason is simple: It lacks essential truth and it lacks quality content.

 

From the beginning of Christianity, there has been the struggle of how to share the gospel with the world without being unnecessarily standoffish. I actually agree with this philosophy. The gospel is what gives hope or offends; we do not need to add to the offense because of our immaturity. BUT…we also cannot water down the gospel to make it more palatable for the unsaved world.

 

Many Christians would, on the surface, agree with me on this principle. However, in practice, this has played out very differently. For example, I have a hard time listening to a Christian radio station due mostly to the theology, or lack thereof, coming out of my speakers. I do also have an issue with the quality of music on many mainstream Christian radio stations, though, I will admit, it has been getting better over the past 10 years – slowly.

 

This is not an indictment on all Christian artists, as there is a lot of good quality music – theology aside for a moment – that is not played on the radio. My sentiments also apply to the movies that Christians are producing.

(Note: Yes, I will be making sweeping generalizations. I understand there are exceptions. I am addressing the vast majority of what I have seen and heard because this is what the vast majority of people are listening to and watching.)

 

There are two main problems that are evident to me:

1.There is a serious lack of good, Biblical theology being presented in these mediums.

2.The overall production and artistic quality of these materials is embarrassing.

 

Concerning point 2: I will briefly touch on this. Our testimony as Christians is tied to what we do. If we produce sub-par content, we hurt our mission of spreading the kingdom. If Christians only did color-by-number Christian-themed paintings and tried to have them hung in an art museum beside great works of art by secular artists, we would have unnecessarily brought offense to the gospel. This is the way much of the mainstream Christian media has been perceived by the secular world (in terms of quality) and, I would argue, correctly so.

 

I will be the first to admit it is getting better, but I will also say we should never have been putting out material that was of poor quality to begin with. I will also say I am glad there is a heart for this type of evangelizing – that is to say, using modern media– and that there is an acknowledgment that the quality needs to be better. Still, we need to be improving quicker, and we cannot be sacrificing theological content to do so.

 

To point 1: For those of you who react to the word theology, thinking it is some kind of thing only those “intellectual Christians who do not actually evangelize” do, I will first say that that is an incorrect perception. But secondly, I will reword and say that the message of these mediums is weak. This has typically been done so that the message will be more palatable for the unsaved world.

 

There is this idea that we can take the Bible out of the Christian principles and still have the principles. It is true that it is still wrong to steal whether you say, “God commands mankind not to steal,” or if you just say, “Stealing is wrong.” The problem is, you have stripped away the authority behind the morality. Try to explain why stealing is wrong without God. Because it is detrimental to society? Says who?  Probably the person you stole from – but so what? Who cares? As a Christian, we cannot simply revert to social contract theories. I will write another post on the grounding of morality in the future, so know that I understand I am oversimplifying and leaving a lot unsaid on this topic. For now, understand that this kind of teaching has opened the floodgates for secular humanism to impose its postmodern ideas of relative truth. It is not enough to say something is wrong without stating the transcendent authority behind why the thing is wrong.

 

It was made incredibly evident to me that we have watered down the content of the Christian message to almost non-existent proportions when I was seeing Christians actually get excited when Captain America, said “There is only one God, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t look like that.” Yay!!! God was mentioned in a non-Christian movie! Please, Captain America is not a Christian. His character is a portrayal of a person who grew up in a time when the majority of Americans would have identified as Christians who believed in God, but this belief was more tied to the idea of patriotism and a cultural identity  than to a strong Christian belief system and true Christian Body life.

 

I do not deny that the WWII era was more culturally Christian, but a modern parallel is the southern culture in America. Just because everyone believes in God and goes to church does not a strong actually Christian society make. If we have a nominal understanding of the Bible and functionally live as if Christianity is a once-a-week event instead of being the essence of our entire lives, then there is no comparison to the Christianity of the Bible. I think I can say with confidence that Paul would have been very disapproving of American Christianity, even from the greatest generation.

 

The reason we get so excited when we even just hear God mentioned in the mainstream is because there is such a famine of Christianity in our culture that we jump at anything. We have a lot of blame to shoulder for this. The material we believers have been putting out has progressively been removing strong Christian truths in a bait-and-switch evangelistic methodology. “Get them in with a feel-good story, then we will give them the real stuff.” The problem is, we never get to the “real stuff.” Watered-down messages do not draw the unbelievers; they undermine the believers.

I am resisting giving specific examples of songs and movies (currently) because I want people to have principles to apply to what they listen to and watch. If I start naming specific movies, some readers will ignore what I am trying to communicate because I am attacking things that have emotionally impacted them.

 

On that note, I am not at all saying that God cannot, and has not, used these materials to His glory. He uses us fallen human beings to spread His kingdom, so I firmly believe that He can use any defective thing he finds on the side of the road to bring Him glory and accomplish His purposes. That does not mean we do not try as hard as possible to do our best and to put out the best material we can. Yes, “all our righteousness is as filthy rags,” but we are called to holiness. Yes, it is not our works that save us or determine our value before God, but faith without works is dead.

 

Here are a couple good principles to filter your media through:

  1. Is Jesus Christ mentioned? You cannot have a true gospel presentation without Christ.
  2. Are there Biblical principles being taught without us being told that they are Biblical principles?
  3. Is the product of such a quality that you would not be embarrassed to show it to your unsaved friends? i.e. Do the actors make you cringe when they deliver an emotional line?…resisting example….resisting example…”You’re on the daddy team”…sorry.

 

Call me critical, but please understand that my desire is that we use these mediums and use them well. I want the same thing the people who make these songs and movies want, and that is the spreading of the gospel and exhortation of the Body. If we do not produce quality products, though, they become a detriment to that goal instead of an effective medium.

 

This is true of any other scenario. You will not go to a restaurant that has bad food, you will not buy from a store that has bad products, and the reputation of those establishments has been established by the quality of their goods.

 

I apologize if I sound like a curmudgeon; that is not my goal. I love music, and I love movies. I want to be able to enjoy Christian material in these mediums and share them to encourage other believers, and I want to be able to use these mediums as materials for the lost world. Right now, there is little in the main stream that I can in good conscience use for either of those purposes.

 

And as always, please feel free to comment or ask questions in the comments section below!

Free Will

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What does it mean to have free will? Commonly, persons who hold to the Doctrines of Grace (also known as Calvinism/Calvinists for theological shorthand) are accused of believing that people are robots doing only what they have been programmed to do.  Calvinist are accused of saying that human beings do not have “free will”.

So again I ask, what is free will?  By this, is it meant that humans have autonomous decision making ability? That is to say, a will totally free from outside influences? This is logically untenable and experientially an impossible position for which to advocate. We are so  incredibly fickle as creatures that we make decisions based off of what we ate for breakfast, and how it made us feel physically or emotionally.

The counter to that is to say, “Yes, but what I ate for breakfast doesn’t determine what I do, it just influences it.” Ok, maybe I can grant that, as long as there is the understanding that autonomous decision making does not exist because, by definition, autonomous free will means making decisions without external influence, determinant or not.

So, let me now make the argument that we never do anything that we do not desire to do. “Sure I do,” you may say “I get up and go to work all the time and I hate it, but I do it anyway.” This does not disprove my statement. “When I am dieting, I choose not to eat ice cream even though I desire it.” Again, this does not disprove my point. You are choosing to do the things you desire the most. You desire they paycheck and means to live in the first example, and you desire the benefits of the diet more than the ice-cream in the second example. Take any decision that you make and you will realize you will ALWAYS chose the course of action that you desire the most.

However, to risk sounding contradictory, a persons holding to reformed theology, or at the very least Calvinism, will affirm that human beings are free beings, but limited in our freedom due to our natures. We can only choose the things we desire and simply put, our sin nature does not allow us to chose God, who is the only autonomously free being. He must take out our hearts of stone and give us a heart of flesh that desires Him.

This truth is commonly mischaracterized by making this merciful action by God analogous to God dragging people into heaven kicking and screaming like He is violating their free will. Ok. If you want to be technical, God is changing your heart “forcefully” but let us be clear, this is an act of LOVE, not violation.

If your friend is unaware that they are headed toward a cliff, it is not a violating act to grab them and change their direction. This saving act would be met with life-owing gratitude. Our response should be the same to God as the friend’s, who was just saved from the cliff, would be…humbled, heartfelt gratitude and thankfulness.

It is also common to accuse those who believe in election of having an arrogant theology. “You think you are so special because God has chosen you. How arrogant!” (in fact, see this article from the satire site Babylon Bee…which I find humorous). While I grant that there are arrogant people who believe in the doctrine of election, it is most certainly not exclusive to reformed theology. If you start reading comment sections on the inter-web you will see the arrogance radiating brightly from both camps…welcome to human sin nature.

If someone is calming to be something other than a wretched sinner in need of God’s saving grace, then they have completed missed the point of God’s electing mercy. We are so worthless and dead in sin that we NEEDED a savior because we could not chose God on our own. This is what is meant when a Calvinist says that human beings do not have a free will: Our will is enslaved to sin.

And where is this doctrine derived? For if it is not in the Bible I want no part. Here are some good references:

“As it is written‘None is righteous, no, not one.'” Romans 3:10

“All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Romans 3:12

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23

“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Romand 8:7-8

“No one comes to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up in the last day.” John 6:44

 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears  much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5

“Even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” Eph 2:5

“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses…” Col 2:13

For other fantastic resource on this topic, (for by-no-means simply take my word on the matter) see Johnathan Edwards essay “The Freedom of the Will”, Martin Luther’s “The Bondage of the Will”, and this sermon by John Piper.

Christian, rejoice in the fact that you are loved and chosen for adoption by God. Understand that faith comes by hearing the Word of God; so go and fulfill the great commission. We are the instruments to whom He has graciously gifted the privilege of spreading His kingdom for the hope of the lost, and the spreading of His glory.

Take ye, all of it.

I sometimes think chapter and verse divisions where the worst thing that ever happened to the Bible because it is so easy to pick and choose what we want to read in a way that ignores context. For example, I cannot count the amount of times I have heard someone claim passages from John 15 but ignore verses a few lines before or after.

Looking at John 15:12-17 and let’s see if this sounds familiar:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you”

Good so far…

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends”

Good, good…

“You are my friends if you do what I command you.

Not as commonly quoted but still good for a poster…

“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends,  for all that I have heard from the my Father I have made known to you.” 

I think most preachers would acknowledge that Jesus is talking to the disciples but that these statements still apply to all believers…

“You did not chose me, but I chose you and appointed you …”

Uh Oh…

“…that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, He may give it to you.”

Whew…back to safety…

“These things I commanded you, so that you will love one another.”

Great! Everyone love one another!

So why is it that many churches would attempt exegetical acrobatics to explain why the first part of v.16 does not apply to all believers, but EVERYTHING else in this passage does?

We cannot pick and chose what passages we like based on if they fit into our theology or not. We need to let the Bible determine our theology. This should go without saying but, we cannot pre-determine what our source material should say if we are studying to know what our sources material does says.

And why would you want to skip over this glorious truth? God has chosen us, through no merit of our own, and loved us. He has promised that, though there will be persecution, He will not orphan us (14:18) because He has chosen whom He will adopt (Eph 1:4-5). This is not unfair or unjust. God is under no obligation to extend mercy to anyone, but because He loves He has decided to adopt children, justly deserving punishment, into His kingdom.

So why witness you ask? Well let me ask you the same question-Why do you witness? I would venture to say it is for the same reason. Because “faith come by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” We do not save anyone ourselves, it is purely of work of the Holy Spirit. It is a gift and privilege to be part of the miracle of salvation. This is the method God has chosen to spread His kingdom and His glory.

In parting, here are a few guidelines to follow for proper exegesis: Read each passage carefully. If there is something that gives you pause, ask questions, look at the context and do research; but-most importantly-when you are reading, do not pick and chose what works for your preconceived theology. Scripture is not to be taken piecemeal,  you must “take ye, all of it.”