Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Theology Over Hot Dogs? The Importance of the Church.

Though I may be wrong, I think few Christians would deny that the Church is important.  However, when you ask some people what they think the Church is, it becomes clear that what they think the Church is, and what God says the Church is, are two different things.  Here are a couple of misconceptions:

Some people think that Church is just showing up at a place once a week and watching something take place.  They may participate in some of the singing, and they probably will yawn through the short sermon, but for the most part Church has become for many people a spectator sport, especially with the advent of music teams, worship performances, etc.  Church for them is an event that one attends, much as one attends a baseball or football game.  This is so far removed, of course, from what one sees by reading the New Testament; however, it has become a part of the culture of modern Western-Christianity, and many people who profess to be genuine believers simply take this outlook for granted.

On the other hand, some people think that Church is just getting together with other believers, in any context.  This is closer to the truth, but is still far from the Biblical reality.  They emphasize fellowship, which is important, but they stop far short of what the Bible describes as Christian fellowship.  They balk at the notion of a “service,” and will ascribe such a thing to legalism and formalism.  For such people, a Church service is no good; they would rather go to the park and talk theology over hot dogs.  Fellowship among Christians is truly in short supply, and ironically our technological society has begun replacing Biblical fellowship with media.  So the voice of such people need to be heard – but not without caveat!  The New Testament Church is much bigger than talking theology over hot dogs.

What then, is the Church?  Let me give a functional definition.  When one looks into the New Testament, one sees that the Church is the community of God’s called-out people (ekklesia) who worship together (Eph 5:19,20), pray together (1 Tim. 2), disciple one another (Rom 15:14), submit to spiritual leaders together (Heb 13:7,17), hear and respond together in faith to Spirit-filled preaching (2 Tim 4:1-5), who hold one another accountable (Gal 6:1-5) and who share with each other (1 Tim 6:17).  All these things can be illustrated by definite examples in the book of Acts.  And this is not a complete list.  All the “one-anothers” of the New Testament go here as well.  And it becomes immediately clear that limiting the Church to an event, or restricting to theology over hot dogs is far, far from all that God has for us in the Church.

And I must emphasize the importance of the gathering of the people of God here.  God does special things when God’s people gather to pray, to sing, and to hear God’s word preached.  In the New Testament, we rarely read of great things happening through private prayer – though this is important! – but we read of buildings shaking when God’s people pray together (Acts 4:23-37).  

Media now allows us to watch or hear sermons over the internet, and this is a great blessing, and we should use it.  But we should never, never let media replace corporate worship.  Why?  Because God didn’t ordain the internet, he ordained the Church.  And so I can expect God to do special things in the Church, especially through the preached word in the gathering of God’s people, that I can’t expect elsewhere – not even John Piper on YouTube.  In his biography on Lloyd-Jones, Ian Murray narrates a story about a witch who came to one of Lloyd-Jones’ services (I think at Westminster Chapel).  She was actually on her way to take her own life, when she passed the Church building and heard a service in progress.  For some reason, she went in – and as she entered, she said that she felt a power, not a dirty power which she knew through witchcraft, but a clean, holy, wonderful power.  And it changed her.  God was working in the gathering of his people!

Don’t miss the great blessing of the Church.  Theology over hot dogs just won’t cut it.

Monday, March 14, 2011

10 Books that I thank God for

My friend Brian Hedges gave a list of 15 authors (in 15 minutes!) that have greatly influenced him over his life.  I can't reduplicate that accomplishment, because 1. I don't read as much as Brian, 2. it would take me more than 15 minutes, and 3. I can't really point to that many authors and say that they've had a dramatic influence on me. But there are a few books that I can point to and say, "Man, I'm really, really glad God put that book in my path."  Of course, let me say at the outset that the Bible has certainly influenced me.  But that is in a league all by itself.  It is Inspired with a capital "I".  What I'm talking about here are inspired-with-a-lowercase "i" -books and writers  (I hope you get what I meant by that).  Here they are:

1.  Redemption Accomplished and Applied, by John Murray.  I almost get teary-eyed every time I think about the first time I came across this book in Joshua's Christian bookstore in Abilene, Texas.  At the time, I was very confused about a lot of things relating to redemption.  And there it was, in that ugly brown and yellow cover, calling me to drink in the wisdom of its author.   As its title implies, this book explains, in two parts, the accomplishment of redemption and its application.  In the first part, Murray covers the necessity, nature, extent, and efficacy of the atonement.  In the second part, he lays out in a very Bible-saturated, God-centered way, how God applies what Jesus did on the cross to his people.  This book has done more to shape my understanding of salvation than any other book outside the Bible.  Thank you, Lord, for this book and for this man of God.

2.  Romans, by John Murray.  I guess you've figured out that I like this guy.  What Spurgeon said to his students about Matthew Henry, I would say of Murray: "If you have to sell your coat to get his works, do it."  (I actually don't have all his works, but these two books that I do have are more than worth their weight in gold.)  This commentary is, in my opinion, the best out there.  I know that it is a little out-dated in terms of modern scholarship, but so what.  As far as accuracy of interpretation goes, combined with deep devotion and reverence, no other commentary on this very crucial epistle even comes close.

3. The Sovereignty of God by A. W. Pink.  A lot of people are down and out on this writer, and I have to confess he was full of strange eccentricities.  But so am I, and I thank God for this book, if for no other reason than because it was the instrument that God used to open my eyes to the reality of Himself.

4. Basics of Biblical Greek, by William Mounce.  It may seem strange for me to put a grammar on this list, but learning New Testament Greek was one of the most important things that has ever happened to me.  And this book is a very good place to start.  If you ever do get it and work through it, I would encourage you to follow up on it by getting Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics by Daniel Wallace.  And get a Greek NT and read through it!

5.  History of the Reformation by George Fisher.  I love history, and I love the history of the church.  And few parts of church history are more invigorating (at least, for me) than that of the reformation.  It is refreshing to go back in history and hear the wind of the Spirit blowing and witness his mighty works.  And this book does it very well.  I have read it several times, and each time has been a terrific journey.  Strange to say, it was given to me by a then-Roman Catholic friend of mine (hey Mike) who got it at a Goodwill store!  Thank you, Jesus, for your strange providences!

6.  This was John Calvin, by Thea Van Halsema.  Speaking of the Reformation and of strange providences, my mother found this book for me at a garage sale.  This is not an in-depth biography of Calvin, but it is one of the best.  I prefer to it all the others I have read, for it makes the man and his times come alive.  I've probably read it over 10 times, and it has been a great blessing to me every time I have read it.  By the way, I have read Calvin's Institutes as well as several books on his theology by Warfield and Boettner and others.  But I have found that you will never really appreciate Calvin until you understand his life.  And this book is probably the best place to start.

7. The Law and Its Fulfillment, by Tom Schreiner.  Again, it will seem strange to some people that this book, which deals with a very specific theological issue (the relation of the law and the gospel and how it applies today) is on this list.  But when I first started studying the Bible, I struggled for a long time with this issue - until I read this book.  No more.  It is very well written, very Biblical, and very balanced.  I thank God for this book, for I might still be confused if I had not read it!

8.  The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, by Bruce Metzger.  This book is a helpful introduction to textual criticism of the New Testament.  It is a very interesting book in itself, but for me it helped close a chapter in the whole King James Version debate.

9. The Second World War, by Sir Winston Churchill.  As I said above, I love history.  And I think for two reasons: 1. Understanding the past helps to get a sense of where we are today, and 2. it is delightful to see God's hand of providence working in the myriad of human events.  (And it is a great mine for sermon illustrations!)  Next to church history, I like military history, so I've read a lot of books on World War 2, but none so grand as this.  It is actually not a book, but 6 volumes and over 5000 pages.  The best volumes are the first and second.  By the way, I would add to this Churchill by Sir Martin Gilbert, which is the definitive biography of the man (you should probably get the 1000 page condensed version - which is what I read, by the way).

10.  Future Grace by John Piper.  Most people will probably point to Desiring God as the definitive Piper book for them, but for me it was this book.  Future Grace really helped me to see better than any other book how the promises of God function in fighting sin.

My Journey in the King James Version Debate

I grew up reading and hearing the KJV, so I have an affinity for this old English version of the Bible.  I also grew up in a denomination that for the most part believed that using any other version, even 400 years later, is wrong, and I inherited this view and held it for many years. With many others, I believed that the KJV is the only English version of the Bible that we should read, study, memorize, and preach out of.  However, I have to say that I no longer hold that view.  In fact, I would argue that there are several modern English versions of the Bible that are far better translations than the KJV.  How does someone who was a rabid KJV-onlyer learn to embrace versions like the NASB or the ESV?  This is my story of how it happened to me.

 What initially convinced me to really embrace the KJV-only position was the reading of books from that perspective that compared the KJV with other versions and then argued that the modern versions were "altering" God's word.  It's not just a change in language, from an ancient English idiom to a more modern idiom (like the NKJV, although most KJV-onlyers would also reject this version as well), but that there are real changes in sentences and paragraphs that actually change the meaning of the verse or verses.  More to the point, these fellows argued that modern translators were not only altering the Bible, the changes seemed to indicate unorthodox views on the part of these guys.  The classic text is 1 John 5:7, which in the KJV reads, "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one."  Almost every modern translation deletes this verse.  Heresy, right?  Also, most modern translations also either omit or place in brackets passages such as Mark 16:9-16 and John 8:1-11.  How could any real Bible do this?  Add to this the "evidence" in books such as New Age Bible Versions  by G.A. Riplinger, that actually argues that modern translations are secretly advocating a new age theology.  This was the first step in my journey.  I was a genuine KJV-onlyer.

However, this was not the only argument in their repertoire.  The next (and more fundamental) argument is that the manuscripts in the original languages that the modern translations are translated from are far inferior to the text that the KJV is based on.  The argument is basically this:  the manuscripts that support the KJV far outnumber the manuscript support for the modern versions (this is generally true, by the way).  The text that the KJV is based on is called the Majority Text (actually, this just refers to the NT Greek text, but the NT is were the action is mostly for this debate), whereas the modern versions are based on what is called the "Westcott-Hort" text, which in turn was based primarily on two manuscripts, known as the Vatican Manuscript (in textual criticism parlance this is denoted by B) and the Sinai Manuscript (denoted by the Hebrew letter, aleph).  The KJV-only guys make the following points:

1.  It just makes sense that if God is going to preserve his word, he would do it in the majority of manuscripts.  Just a note: again, when they refer to the Majority Text, this is the Greek NT text, not the OT text, which because of the practices of the Masoretic scribes, does not have a numerous progeny.

2.  The Westcott and Hort text (WHT) is based on two manuscripts which disagree with one another in numerous places.  Since they disagree so much, how can they be reliable witnesses to the original text?

3.  The WHT comes from a manuscript tradition known as the Alexandrian manuscript tradition.  That is to say, it had its locus in Alexandria, Egypt.  The problem is, this is where a lot of real heretics were located and taught, and it is hard not to hypothesize their probable influence in this textual tradition.

4.  The canons of modern textual criticism are simply wrong.  In fact, we don't need textual criticism which tries to tell among the variants which reading is best, because we already have an in-tact text that does not need such textual criticism to determine the text.

Another argument that is often used in the KJV debate is that God has blessed the KJV in ways he has not blessed modern versions.  Think of the Great Awakening, etc.  No such movement has been seen since.  C. H. Spurgeon not only used the KJV, he also preferred it to the RV that came out near the end of his ministry (although he did preach one sermon from the RV).  It just seems that God is behind the KJV, not only in its textual tradition, but in the blessing which has graced its use since the early 17th century.

These, at least, were the arguments that stuck in my mind, and they were convincing - at first.

But the argument came down like a house of cards.  Here's how it happened.

First, it occurred to me that the argument that modern versions are altering God's word is not an argument at all unless they are right about the manuscripts on which the various versions are based.  That is, it is not heretical to delete 1 Jn 5:7 if it wasn't in the original text in the first place!  The same goes for the other passages.  So the debate is either won or lost on the textual critical level.

So, is the text that the KJV based on superior to all others?  Again, for me the lightening rod for the whole debate was this passage in 1 John 5.  The Majority Text argument had made sense to me.  But then I found out that 1 John 5:7 is not in the Majority Text (MT)!  Actually, the New Testament Greek Text that the KJV is based on is the Textus Receptus (Received Text).  This is not the same as the MT, although some writers for the KJV-only position do not make this clear.  In fact, 1 Jn 5:7 which is in the Received Text (RT), is only found in a tiny number of Greek manuscripts, and all of these are of incredibly late date in terms of their composition.  In fact, it is found in no Greek text before the 10th century, and the very first time it is even recorded is in a debate between two Spanish monks in the 6th century (some argue that Cyprian quoted this verse, but this is extremely debatable).  At this point, it became very hard for me to embrace 1 John 5:7 as being in the original text (though, by the way, I have never stopped believing in the Trinity).  I tried to find some literature that would be able to defend this verse, but alas not one single writer could make a convincing argument.  Even E.F. Hills, who writes probably the sanest defense of the KJV, could not help.  It was at this point that I came to realize that the KJV is not a perfect translation.

This was a watershed moment for me.  You see, one of the arguments for the KJV is that it represents a text that is free from textual variations and for which we can have no doubts about the text.  (Which, I think, is psychologically the reason why those who embrace the position do so - and it saves them from having to think too hard about textual issues!)  The same, we are told, cannot be said of modern translations, which are full of alternate readings, etc., and whose very existence cast doubt upon the authenticity of God's word.  I had found out the KJV is wrong in at least one reading, and that there are variants from the KJV text that are in fact better.  I then found out that the RT itself has gone through many editions, that among the class of texts known under the rubric of the RT there are variants.  And then to top it off, I found out that the KJV itself has gone through several editions and that the text most think of as the 1611 KJV is actually a later edition (the last was in the middle of the 18th century) and that there are real changes between the different editions.

At this point, I had to admit that the RT did not have a very sound foundation in terms of evidence.  However, the RT is very close to the MT, and the KJV represents the MT more faithfully than any other modern version (with the exception of the NKJV).  In other words, though I could no longer say that the KJV did not have any objectionable readings in it, I could still support it over most modern versions because I still found it plausible that the MT represented the original text.  So I had moved from a RT-KJV-only position to a moderated MT position.  And I now embraced not only the KJV but also the NKJV.

I stayed here for a long time, until I read Bruce Metzger's The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration.  I won't go into all the details, but suffice it to say that I found this book very enlightening as an introduction to textual criticism.  In particular, I realized that the fact the the MT represents a majority of manuscript evidence is simply due, not to a conscious faithfulness on the part of most scribes to the original text, but rather to the historical division of the church into east and west.  Further, modern translations are not based solely on the WH text (as KJV-only guys would have you to believe) but rather upon an eclectic text that takes into consideration all available evidence, and which is determined as objectively as possible through the science of textual criticism (which, by the way, should not be confused with historical criticism or a critical attitude towards the Bible as God's word!).

Further, modern translators behind versions such as the NIV, NASB, ESV, etc. are not - as commonly claimed among the KJV-only crowd - a bunch of heretics.  They all had to sign documents saying that they were committed believers in the inerrancy of the original autographs.  These men are very scholarly, very knowledgeable, and committed Christians.  They have an abundance of textual manuscript evidence that the KJV translators did not have, and, I believe, a better understanding of the original languages.  Today I still read the KJV, but I have also read the Bible through in the NASB, NKJV, and ESV.  Though I prefer versions that are more literal (like the NASB) over those that are based on the principle of dynamic equivalence (like the NIV), most modern versions are preferable to the KJV in terms of accuracy of translation and approximation to the original text.  And this is where I think I'll stay.

The Cross is the answer to my cross

Suffering is perhaps the thorniest problem for theists. If there is a God who is loving and powerful, how come there is so much suffering? It seems that the presence of suffering presents us with a dilemma: either God is powerless to stop it (then he is not omnipotent, and therefore not God) or he is not loving enough to stop it (and therefore unworthy of worship).

Many theists, including Christian ones, protest the above implications by saying that suffering is the necessary concomitant of free will, for free will implies the ability to choose that which is not for our good. God could have made us without free will, but then we could never known what love was, and we could not have been truly human. You can't be human without free will and you can't have free will without the possibility of suffering.

I've always been bothered by that line of reasoning, even though it is at first very compelling. It's actually convinced quite a few people. However, I don't find it convincing because I believe in heaven. Okay, I know some of you who just read that statement think I must be typing this very late at night. Non sequitor, right? Well, bear with me. Heaven is a place, according to the Bible, where the just are made perfect. No more sin, no more crying, no more suffering. Wait a minute...no more sin implies that we can't sin any more. That we can't choose that which leads to suffering any more. But are we any the less human in heaven? Do we have any the less free will? You see, heaven is an eternal testament to the reality that humanity and free will and sinlessness are not contrary the one with the other. God could have made us with free will and yet without sin.

So why suffering? I think Norman Geisler was closer when he said that the world in which we live, though it is not the best of all possible worlds, it is the way to the best of all possible worlds. Suffering is not good in itself, but God has allowed it as a means to supreme goodness. I think this is borne out in principle by Romans 8:28: "And we know that God works all things for the good of those who love him, to those who are the called according to his purpose." This verse does not say that all things are good, but that God is working them out for our good. Presumably, the good we will experience as a result would never be experienced apart from the preexistence of the suffering. Paul makes this even clearer in 2 Cor. 4:16-17, where he says that "we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction [by the way, Paul suffered greatly in his lifetime], which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory."

We see this principle worked out in many smaller ways. An athlete endures a tremendous amount of pain to gain something through it, whether fame or just the feeling of accomplishment. No pain, no gain. And the gain is better because of the preceding pain.

However, though I feel like I'm getting somewhere, this argument still doesn't completely do it for me. It doesn't answer all the questions. However, I have come to believe that there is a way to grapple with the reality of pain and suffering without having to know all the answers - and without having to be an atheist.

How? Because I believe in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. John Stott once wrote that if it were not for the cross, he could not believe in God. When I first read that, I thought he was blaspheming, but the more I've thought about it, the more I find myself agreeing with him. Yes, as a matter of fact, if it were not for the cross, I would be an atheist.

What does the cross have to do with the problem of pain? The cross tells me that God is not sitting on his throne careless about human suffering. Far from it: he entered the world of suffering and pain by becoming a man, entered into it fully by suffering its pain and rejection. He was "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief....he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed" (Isa 53:3,5). Not only so, since the Lamb of God - another name for Jesus Christ - was ordained to be the Lamb of God "from the foundation of the world" we know that God planned it this way before there were any men to sin against him. God purposed to embrace for himself all the horrible suffering that we endure long before anyone had suffered at all. God made the world knowing that the pain that he would allow he himself would embrace.

And more than that, on the cross, Jesus endured more than rejection and pain imposed by men. When Jesus cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!" he revealed the true horror of his suffering: his own Father had turned his back on him. Take all the suffering in the world, the greatest injustice and it does not come even close to what Jesus experienced on the cross. Why did he do this? Was it because he is some sort of a divine masochist? Far from it. The apostle Paul tells us why: "For he [God the Father] made him [God the Son] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (2 Cor 5:21). He died so that men might be justified, forgiven, and given eternal life. So that the present order of things might give way to a greater glory.

So I don't have to have all the answers. But if God himself freely chose to embrace suffering by becoming a man - i.e. he did not cheat, Jesus was fully man and his divinity did not lessen the pain and suffering which he experienced - if God in his infinite wisdom chose to embrace suffering himself, well then, if he wants me to embrace it, then I will. I will keep my eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of my faith, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is now set down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Heb 12:1-2). That is, the Cross is the answer to my cross.

Doing What Is Right In Our own Eyes

There is a verse in the book of Judges that is repeated at least once, and it reads, "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (Judges 17:6;21:25). The first of these verses precedes an almost humorous account of a man and his house of idols, and the second follows a sad depiction of the evil that was taking place in Israel at that time. In both cases, the point is the same: anarchy and wickedness were the norm rather than the exception, and the reason for this was owing to the fact that there was no ultimate authority in the land.

But that's always the case: where there is no ultimate authority, anarchy and evil inevitably follow. This is true in government in general, but especially in the arena of morals. If there is no ultimate authority, anything can be legitimatized. But this, sadly, is precisely the case in our culture today: we are without a king, without a reference point for differentiating between right and wrong, between truth and lies. Every man does that which is right in his own eyes.

In other words, we are living in a culture which cannot correct itself from within. There is no mechanism built into the current philosophies that can carry any real weight in addressing the issue of evil. If you call something "evil" you are only inevitably met with derision and told to go mind your own business.

That doesn't mean the current culture doesn't try to address the issue of evil. The only problem is that the new morality is without any real definition and without any basis for moral authority. In the place of the authority of God we have enthroned a sickly, saccharin sentimentalism that vaguely calls all men to love and tolerate each other.

But in a post-modern culture, even the call to "love" is dubious. What is love, anyhow? Stripped of our Christian foundations, we are left to define it for ourselves. In other words, to redefine it so that it does not get in the way of our self-serving appetites. I'm sure Hitler would have said that the genocide of the Jews was a loving act, at least from his perspective. And where there is no ultimate authority, who are we to say that he was wrong?

Don't get me wrong, I don't approve of Hitler, and I do think men should love each other. But I say that from a Christian position, where it makes sense to love others because God has revealed his character as love and calls men to be like him. From a Christian perspective, love has both meaning and foundation. However, I get the distinct impression that while the post-modernists want to get rid of the Christian ethic, they are hijacking Christian terminology without keeping its roots, and it just won't work.

It reminds me of a debate between the Christian philosopher Fredrick Copleston and the atheist Bertrand Russell, as told by Ravi Zacharias. He narrates, "At one point in the debate, Copleston said, 'Mr. Russell, you do believe in good and bad, don't you?' Russell answered, 'Yes, I do.' 'How do you differentiate between them?' challenged Copleston. Russell shrugged his shoulders as he was wont to do in philosophical dead ends for him and said, 'The same way I differentiate between yellow and blue.' Copleston graciously responded and said, 'But Mr. Russell, you differentiate between yellow and blue by seeing, don't you? How do you differentiate between good and bad?' Russell, with his genius still within reach, gave the most vapid answer he could have given: 'On the basis of feeling - what else?' I must confess," continues Zacharias, "Mr. Copleston was a kindlier gentleman than many others. The appropriate 'logical kill' for the moment would have been, 'Mr. Russell, in some cultures they love their neighbors; in other cultures they eat them, both on the basis of feeling. Do you have any preference?'"

And that is precisely the problem. We have reduced the matter of morality to personal preference because we have gotten rid of God and his word. And as a result, as it was in Israel of old, in America every man does that which is right in his own eyes. God help us.

Christian Counseling is for Christians

I was listening to a radio talk-show program yesterday when a lady called in and in the midst of her conversation mentioned that she had been divorced. When the talk-show host asked if she had tried to make the marriage work, she replied that they had "even tried Christian counseling." As if to say, that if trying "Christian counseling" didn't make it work, then nothing would.

The way she said that made it sound as if there is something magical about Christian counseling, and it got me to thinking. Christian counseling is not for everybody. Christian counseling is for Christians. And what I mean by "Christian" is not just anyone who claims that name: what I am referring to by that title are people who believe in the authority of the Bible, who believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the only Savior of the world, and whose lives have been changed from the inside out, who have received the grace of God by faith alone and not by works. What I am saying is that if you are not a Christian in the above sense, it doesn't make sense for you to pursue Christian counseling for your problems. What you need is the gospel, not Christian counseling.

Let me give you several reasons why:

1. Christian counseling is based on the principle that the Bible is the authoritative the Word of God. If you don't believe that, you can't really benefit from Christian counseling. If the Scriptures are not your authority, then you are your own authority, and when the going gets rough and you want to squirm out of any Biblical commitments you have made, it will be easy to do so since you don't believe that the Bible is God's word in any case. If you are going to make the hard choices that the Bible confronts us with, then you need to have the rock solid assurance that the Bible is not just another religious anthology. And if you don't believe the Bible is the word of God, then you are not a Christian, and so Christian counseling is not for you.

2. Christian counseling, if it is indeed Christian, is gospel-oriented. Note how the apostles counseled people in the epistles. It was not "husbands love your wives because it will create social harmony in the home," but "husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it" (Eph 5:25). Such an exhortation is meaningless if you don't believe in the gospel. And so it is in every sphere of Christian life: we are properly motivated to do the right thing when we are motivated to do so by the gospel. Motivation to get a better marriage, or to get sober, or whatever else, is not Christian motivation unless it is grounded in the gospel. But again, if you are not a Christian, such motivation is useless, and Christian counseling is not for you.

3. The New Testament ethic assumes conversion. Non-Christians are not exhorted to live like Christians in the New Testament. They are exhorted to repent and believe the gospel. It is useless to get people dressed up when they are dying, and people who want to spend their energies fixing unconverted people's lives and marriages and whatever else are only wasting their time, because what primarily needs to change is not their relationship to their spouse or themselves but their relationship with God. Until that is settled, everything else is only putting bandages on cancer. "Without faith, it is impossible to please God" (Heb 11:6). If you are not a Christian, you don't need Christian counseling; you need to repent of your rebellion against God and to put your faith and trust in the Son of God.

Confidence vs Certainty

This is another note springing from my reflections on the conversation between Alistair McGrath and Richard Dawkins. One of the things Dawkins kept complaining about, was that many religious people are not willing to consider that they are wrong. This breeds a kind of contempt for others, a contempt that finds its expression in an extreme case in homicide bombers or in religious persecution. Religious faith, it seems, breeds arrogance, and arrogance breeds persecution. So religion (in Dawkins' eyes) is a very bad thing, the root of all evil.

A few preliminary remarks. First, getting rid of religion (which is what Dawkins wants to do) is not the answer to getting rid of persecution. McGrath rightly pointed out that the 20th century should keep us from that conclusion: the Soviet union, for example, was an atheist state that tried to eradicate religion by means of the gulags and other methods of torture and persecution. And atheism was not just "coincidental" to the Soviet program, as Dawkins wants to believe - atheism is the foundation for the Marxist program! Other examples could be adduced. What McGrath pointed out was that persecution is not something tied only to religion or religious faith, rather it is something rooted in human nature. In the French Revolution, when Madame Roland was about to be guillotined, she looked at the statue personifying liberty in the Place de la Revolution and said, "Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name." In other words, human nature can take any cause (even the cause of liberty) and use it as a pretense for committing criminal acts.

But then Dawkins is in a sense right. Religious faith can breed an arrogance that leads to persecution. There is no need to debate this fact. History is replete even to the present day with examples. Of course, that does not mean religion is in itself bad; just as Roland's words are not meant to revile the true cause of freedom and liberty. But Dawkins' point is taken: as religious folks, we need to be careful lest we carry with us a mindset of superiority and pride - a mindset which can have very deleterious effects.

But what I want to take issue with is the idea that this pride springs from certainty. Dawkins thinks that they only way to avoid this is to live with doubt. Of course, Dawkins is confident that he is right (otherwise he wouldn't debate and write books like The God Delusion!), as are other atheists. And even the most spineless relativist is confident in his/her relativism. (Which is kinda strange, if you ask me.) So they are okay with confidence but really down and out on certainty.

Does certainty then necessarily lead to a persecuting spirit? No. Especially not the certainty tied to the Christian faith. If I am certain that I am saved by grace - if I am certain that my sins are forgiven not because of anything I have done but solely through the atonement of Jesus Christ - if I am certain that God loved me before I loved him - then there is no room for pride or arrogance let alone a persecuting spirit. And even though a Christian believes that unbelievers are under the wrath of God, this should not lead us to persecute them but to love them and to pray as the apostle Paul prayed, "Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved" (Rom 10:1). Paul's attitude towards unbelieving Jews should be duplicated in our own attitudes towards those around us who do not believe. There is no contradiction between being certain and being loving. And so-called Christians who persecute others have never really themselves understood the gospel.

Dawkins and another Straw-Man

I was listening/watching a conversation between the celebrated Christian theologian and apologist Alistair McGrath and the grandfather of the new atheism Richard Dawkins. To be totally honest, I think in terms of the debate that Dawkins clearly got the better of McGrath, who was weak on several points. I am not an atheist. And Dawkins' arguments aren't very convincing still. But I do wish that McGrath would have done a little bit better!

One of the things that came up in the conversation was the improbability of the universe and how theists (and especially the intelligent design folks) use this argument to point to an intelligence behind the universe, namely God. Dawkins' response to that was to say that, if he exists, God must be more complex that the universe and so it follows that he is more improbable than even the universe itself! So in a sense, the atheists are throwing the argument back in the faces of the theists.

But are they? As I pondered what Dawkins said, I began to see that really the argument doesn't really backfire at all, and what Dawkins was doing was simply to build a straw-man argument and then proceed to beat up the straw-man and then to triumphantly proclaim himself the victor over all comers-on.

It is similar to what has happened around the cosmological argument for God's existence. Over the years, atheists have responded to this by saying that if everything has a cause, then God has a cause. But if God has a cause then he is not God! Pish. I say "pish" because I know of no theist who ever stated the cosmological argument in that fashion. No theist ever said that everything has a cause, therefore the universe has a cause, and that cause is God. That is not the argument. And when atheists respond to that, they are only shadow-boxing. What theists say is something rather more along these lines (stated in a syllogism):

Everything that begins to exist has a cause. (Major Premise)
The universe began to exist. (Minor Premise)
Therefore the universe has a cause. (Conclusion)

I hope you see the difference. Theists go on to say that the only adequate explanation for such an event as the universe is the Being we call God (who never, by the way, began to exist!).

Ok, how does this relate to Dawkins' argument? When Dawkins says that God is more improbable than the universe and therefore the argument for his existence cannot be based on the improbability of the universe, he is making the same mistake. When theists talk about the improbability of things, they are speaking only of things which come into existence. If something, or someone, has always existed, then it is stupid to talk of the probability of that thing/person's existence. To put it in terms of probability theory, the probability of event A, given A, is 1 (i.e. P(A|A)=1). But God by definition, if he exists, has always existed! So Dawkins' argument doesn't even make sense. It is a non sequitur. You can't take an argument which relates to things coming into existence and then turn it on something which has no beginning and no end.

So I think the argument from the improbability of the universe still stands.

What is the point of Prayer when God is Sovereign?

What is the point of prayer when God is sovereign? I've often pondered this question, but recently when the daughter of a friend of mine became severely ill, it came home to me with force. My friends are in Cambodia as missionaries, and I'm sure that thousands of people were praying for them. But why? God knew their need. God was able to meet their need. So if God really wanted to help them, he didn't need my prayers either to inform Him or to empower Him. Further, I don't see why a multitude of prayers empower or inform God any better than one prayer. So why pray?

Interestingly, Jesus who told us that "men ought always to pray and not to faint" (Lk 18:1) is also the one who said that "your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things" (Mt 6:32) and "your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask him" (Mt 6:8). So our Lord himself, as it were, poses the very problem.

Even more interestingly, he prayed. Sometimes all night (Lk 6:12). So evidently Jesus didn't see a problem between God's omniscience and omnipotence and our responsibility to pray. Hmm. I guess if I can't figure this out, at least I can prompt myself to prayer by the example of the Lord.

But maybe the reason we see a problem is because we misunderstand the purpose and function of prayer. What if prayer isn't meant to inform God or to empower Him? If prayer's purpose lies somewhere else, then the apparent contradiction disappears.

How then, would prayer function, if not to provide God with information or empowerment? I think Psalm 50 gives us a clue. Here God says, "Offer unto God thanksgiving; and pay thy vows unto the most High: And call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me" (verse 14,15). In this passage, prayer functions to express our need of God, and our reliance upon him in the time of our need. The outcome of it all is that God receives the glory in our deliverance because he is the one we were looking to for the deliverance.

So as I have meditated upon this in the past few days, I have come to this conclusion: prayer is not meant to inform God but to express our need for him and to deepen our trust in him. Prayer is not meant so much to draw God out to us as it is to draw us out to God. And, in fact, this means that prayer isn't pointless even when we pray and God doesn't answer the prayer with a "yes", because we are drawing near to God, and it is more important for me to be built up in faith in God than it is for my problem to go away. God is more important than healing, more important that food, more important than rest, more important than anything else. And prayer is the heartbeat of a person who feels that reality.

The Heart of the Matter: The Breastplate of Righteousness – Eph. 6:14

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