Prayer and the knowledge and sovereignty of God. What’s the point?

Q: What’s the point of prayer? After all, if God already knows what we need before we ask, why do we need to ask?

A: First, prayer includes more than simply asking God for things. It also includes praise, thanksgiving, and confession of sin. Still, it’s right to focus on specific requests, since such prayers dominate Scriptural examples and instructions.

As to the question about God’s knowledge: Prayer – even the request – is not simply a way of getting what we want/need from God. It’s a means of forming a personal relationship with him. God knows what we need, but he wants us to ask him for it. In doing so, we learn to be dependent on him. We learn the proper relationship between Creator and created. We need. We ask. God has. God gives.

Q: I have heard it said: “We pray, not to change God, but so that we ourselves might be changed.” Is that what you’re saying above? Is the primary purpose of prayer to bring about an internal change?

A: Prayer does change us, and it’s good that it does. But I’m hesitant to say that the primary purpose of prayer is internal change. That’s simply not how the Bible usually puts it. Take, for instance, Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 6:18-20. Paul asks the Ephesians to pray for the Lord’s people, and to pray specifically for him, that he would preach the gospel without fear.

Now, there’s the possibility that by praying in this way the Ephesians would be changed internally: They would become more dependent on God. They would see God’s hand in missions. They would become less self-focused and more others-focused. They would see the need for boldness themselves. Etc.

But Paul’s main point isn’t that they be changed, but that their prayers for him would lead to his boldness in sharing the gospel. In other words, Paul is implying a cause and effect relationship here. The Ephesians pray. God answers. Paul preaches fearlessly.

Q: I’m uncomfortable with using the phrase “cause and effect” relationship when talking about prayer. It seems too much like magic. Are you saying the Ephesians’ prayers caused Paul’s boldness? Does that mean that without the Ephesians’ prayer Paul wouldn’t have been bold?

A: That seems unlikely in this case, given that Paul’s whole ministry prior to his work with the Ephesians was characterized by boldness. Still, it does seem that there might be some instances where God will only give us something if we pray for it. James writes “you do not have because you do not ask.” (James 4:2)

I don’t think that Paul is drawing such a straight line between the Ephesians’ request and Paul’s boldness. Perhaps we could say that the Ephesians’ requests “contributes” to Paul’s boldness. But even then, it isn’t the request itself that contributes, but God’s response to that request.

Here it’s important to remember that God is not a formula but a personal being with an independent will. We are called to address him as Father and the father-child relationship is the lens by which Jesus instructs his disciples to approach prayer. The Father is not bound to our requests, but neither is he deaf to them. He hears and then chooses his own response. To the extent his response is connected to our request, our request contributed to that response. But we must always remember that God is able to act apart from our request.

Q: You speak of God “responding” to our prayer requests. Does such language impinge upon God’s sovereignty? Is it right to say that the Creator responds to his creation?

A: It may be that we are now in the realm of mystery, where language begins to fail us, but this is the way the Bible speaks. God is outside of time, but we experience God in time. And, in time, in relationship, we see an interplay. God’s people call out for help. God hears. God acts. If “response” is not the right word to describe what we experience, I do not have a better one.

Q: It still doesn’t make sense. How does God’s sovereignty relate to our prayers? God knows all things and can do all things. Why should prayer matter?

A: We might as well ask why anything we do matters. God knows I need food and he has the ability to make it appear on my table. Does that mean that my work for that food is useless? Obviously not. We have the capacity to see that two things contribute to my stomach being filled: (1) God’s divine provision and (2) human actions. God’s provision is the ultimate source of food. Human action is often the means by which God provides. It’s a secondary, but usually necessary step. We see that God is able to work apart from human action, but he often works through it. The two actions – human and divine – are not mutually exclusive – but find harmony in the will of God.

This principle is harder to see with prayer, but it’s still there. I think it’s hard to see because prayer sits at the intersection between human action and God’s action. That is, when we pray we act, but our action is indirect, it’s merely a request for God to act. Perhaps this is why prayer can seem confusing to us. Still, the principle applies. Like other human action, prayer becomes the means by which God acts in the world. God can act apart from prayer, but sometimes he uses it in a more direct way, as we see throughout the Bible.

Q: Ok, it’s starting to make sense. Can you summarize this for me?

A: It’s good to see how prayer fits into a robust picture of God’s sovereignty, but the primary lens Jesus gives us to see prayer is the parent-child relationship. My own children have taught me a lot about prayer (good and bad). They come to me with requests all the time. This demonstrates dependence. It shows that they understand that I can provide. As a father, I won’t always give them what they ask for, because I know that they don’t always ask for things which are (ultimately) good for them or for others.  Often, I give them things without them asking for them. But there are some things that they only get if they ask for them.

There could be a danger in thinking of God too much like a human father. Human fathers can be manipulated and worn down. Human fathers sometimes need their kids to ask because they don’t already know what their child needs. Human fathers lack the perfect will of the heavenly father. “God is not a human” (Num 23:19).

Dangers noted, and with proper reverence in our hearts, we ought to come to God as our Father, through the Spirit, in the name of His Son. Understanding these relationships ought to help us understand prayer. Hopefully, it also helps us pray.

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What does it mean to “Pray in the Spirit”?

“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” Ephesians 6:18

What does Paul mean when he says that we should pray “in the Spirit”?

First, we should not be surprised to see prayer connected with the work of the Spirit. The Spirit makes spiritual conversation possible and effective. The Spirit empowered the prophets to speak God’s words. He speaks through the Bible. He testifies to us about Jesus’ identity as God’s Son (John 15:26). The Spirit empowered the disciples to preach the gospel at Pentecost. So, if prayer is conversation with God, then it makes sense for the Holy Spirit to be involved.

Yet, it’s still unclear what it means to pray in the Spirit. After all, God speaks to us through the Spirit, but if we think of prayer primarily as us speaking to God (which Paul seems to do in the rest of the context of Eph 6:18) then what role does the Spirit play?

The most extensive teaching on the connection between prayer and the Spirit is found in Romans 8:26-27.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

The entire chapter of Romans 8 is about the work of the Spirit. We have been set free because of the “law of the Spirit” (8:1). Those who are set free live, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (8:4). They “have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (8:5). They are therefore “in the realm of the Spirit” and the Spirit lives in them, just as they belong to Christ (8:9).

This inner spiritual reality creates in us an obligation, to “put to death the misdeeds of the body” (8:12).

The Spirit also brings about our adoption as children of God (8:14-15). The Spirit communicates this reality directly to our own spirit (8:16) so that by the Spirit we can come to God as our “Abba, Father” (8:15).

This glorious reality – our freedom, our adoption, our inner transformation – is set aside present suffering, and not only our own suffering, but the groaning of all of creation. Yet, since we know that we are God’s children, and therefore heirs of the promised glory, then we can continue to live with hope (8:18-25).

This is the context for the “weakness” Paul refers to in 8:26. In the midst of our present suffering, we do not even know what to pray for. Along with the rest of creation (8:22), we can only groan inwardly. Things aren’t right, and we’re stuck in the tension between suffering and hope. It’s here the Spirit steps in and enables our communication with God. We may not know what to say, but the Spirit is able to search our hearts and minds and intercede on our behalf (8:26-27).

This context of struggle and suffering in Romans 8 is not too far from the context of Ephesians 6. In Ephesians 6:10-17 Paul instructs his readers to prepare for spiritual battle in advance of a “day of evil” by putting on God’s armor. In Ephesians 6:19-20 he specifically asks the readers to pray for him in his own spiritual battle, that he will remain fearless even though he is in chains for the gospel.

And, when he asks them to pray, he asks them to pray “in the Spirit.” In light of Romans 8, what does he mean?

1.       Pray with a recognition of the indwelling Spirit. Seeing that the personal presence of God is with you as you pray should change your outlook, from simply reciting a list of requests to communing with the living God.

2.       Pray that the Spirit will search your heart and mind. You may not know what to pray. Ask God to bring the right things to mind and, when you can’t even do that, ask the Spirit to intercede on your behalf.

3.       Pray, confessing your sins and asking for a renewed Spirit. By the Spirit we put to death our sin and we do that through confession. One evidence of praying in the Spirit, then, is a recognition and hatred of our sin.

4.       Pray to your Abba. Through the Spirit we are adopted as God’s children. We approach our Abba with the same confidence and trust a young child approaches a good and generous parent.

5.       Pray with hope. Are you in a time of present suffering? Are you in the midst of a spiritual battle? The Spirit helps you know that your suffering is incomparable to your future glory, that your temporary defeat will be swallowed up in Christ’s ultimate victory.

Vision Sunday

Vision Sunday

This post is a summary of Sunday’s message at Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship, given as we look forward to our next year of ministry.

In today’s parlance, when we speak of a “vision”, especially of an organization, we mean, specifically, a vision for the future. In this post, however, I’m not only concerned with imagining our future, but with understanding our past and present as well. Our task as a church depends first and foremost on what God has done for in the past and what he will do for us in the future. Between these two poles – our justification already won through the gospel and our glorification promised by the gospel – lies our work in the present, our response to the gospel, Christ working in us.

In the Old Testament God often encouraged Israel by reminding them of His past deeds, His future promise, and His present commands. He rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. He promised to bring them into the Promised Land. Their present response to His past work and their future hope? Be strong and courageous and obey His word.

In the New Testament we see something similar. God has saved us through Jesus’ death and resurrection (past). He promises us eternal life with Him (future) – and in the shorter term that he will transform us more into the people he desires us to be. Our proper response? Be strong and courageous and obey His word.

The first two elements of this formula – past and future – are the gospel, that Jesus died for our sins, that He rose again, and that He will return to make all things new. The third – the present – is our response to the gospel.

The call to our church is to receive the gospel and respond to the gospel.

Receive

The gospel is first something which we must receive.

We were once far from God, but we have been “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13). His sacrificial death on the cross destroyed the wall of hostility built up by our sin (Eph 2:14-15). In demolishing that wall he has formed those who believed into one body, the church, and has reconciled that one body to Himself (Eph 2:15-16). We as a church stand now as a people who have access to the Creator and Preserver of the universe, the Father, through the Spirit (Eph 2:18).

We receive this gospel through faith. We do not bring ourselves near. We do not reconcile ourselves to God. We do not barge into his presence. We are brought in by God Himself. We are saved by grace.

Respond

Having received this gospel, we respond.

This response is what it means to be a follower – a disciple – of Jesus. To the extent that our response as a church – what we value, how we think, what we do – is faithful to God, we will be “successful” as a church. By “successful” we mean “found faithful in his sight.” So what is a faithful response to the gospel?

This list is not definitive, but we believe it encompasses the major aspects of discipleship: we respond in worship, in fellowship, in growing knowledge (cognitive and applied) of His Word, and in mission.

Worship: Like the leper who returned to Jesus after he had been healed to bow down and worship him, we, having been healed from a disease worse than leprosy, lay down our lives to him. Worship is a whole life posture. But it is experienced and given in the act of praise – singing and declaring out loud the goodness of God. This is why we gather on Sunday mornings not, first of all, for our benefit, but to declare the praises of Him who saved us.

Fellowship: There is a spiritual unity within the body of Christ that exists whether we participate in it our not. Yet Paul sees this spiritual unity as calling us to a practical unity. The body is built up only insofar as “each part does its work.” Achieving spiritual maturity is something we do alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ. To respond to the gospel is to love the family of believers. To love the family of believers is to know and respond to their needs – physical, spiritual, emotional.

Knowing God’s Word: We need more than mere knowledge. Knowledge without love puffs up. It gives us a dangerous self-confidence. But we do need to be transformed by the renewing of our mind and that renewing of the mind comes through consistent meditation on the Word of God. By the Spirit of God, the word planted in us grows and bears fruit. That fruit is virtue informed by the likeness of Christ: his love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Mission: Our mission is to make disciples and we do that by “letting our light shine” before the world in the hopes that the world will see it and glorify God. In the context of Jesus’ teaching that light is our good deeds; our acts of service and love. But, when Jesus sent out his disciples he sent them out not only with good deeds, but with a message: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” We bear that same mission – acts of love combined with the proclamation of God’s love. His kingdom is near and accessible by faith through the works of Jesus.

If we do these things well, we will be well on our way toward a faithful response to the gospel:

If in our worship we become continually aware of the presence of God, if in our fellowship we encourage and build each other up,
if in our application of the Word we grow into the image of Christ, if in our works of service we demonstrate Christ’s love to our neighbors, then we cannot help but become the light of the world and fulfill our purpose as a church

Having these broad principles in mind, how do we, Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship, properly respond to the gospel? How do we do these things at 2260 Porter St in the year 2018?

Below are a few specific goals for the next year:

Worship: Increase worship attendance. We could do this with a poor motive, to make ourselves look great, but it is nevertheless a good end to seek. Why? Because God is worthy of our worship. This increased attendance can come from two sources: (1) those who attend already, attend more regularly or (2) new attenders. Studies have shown that frequency of church attendance has dropped steadily in recent years and this is impacting church attendance numbers. This is a problem because other studies have shown that frequency of church attendance correlates to other measures of spiritual maturity.

What you can do: Come. Invite friends and family. Help make Sunday morning awesome, especially for newcomers.

Fellowship: Potlucks. You know what’s hard for new people to join? Small groups. Small groups are key to spiritual development, but they’re also awkward for a lot of people. It turns out that mid-sized groups can be a lot more conducive to socialization. Hence: potlucks. On the first Sunday of each month we’ll be holding potlucks after church along with BFG classes specifically for new attenders. The idea is to remove the awkwardness of the small groups for new people, while still providing them to take a “next step” in getting to know our church. (And eventual incorporation into Bible Fellowship Groups is still the ultimate goal). And, if there are no visitors, we still get the bonus of good food and fellowship around the table.

What you can do: Bring delicious food. Sit with someone new. Invite friends, specifically on the first week of the month.

Growing in knowledge: Helping people in individual and coordinated studies. One of the key “inputs” for spiritual growth is regular Bible reading. Yet, this remains one of those things which people struggle with the most. Our goal is to find ways to encourage and equip people to grow in that discipline.

What you can do: Recommend devotional material or practices that you find helpful.

Mission: Evaluate and (maybe) launch Safe Families for Children at WPBF. Safe Families for Children is a para-church ministry associated with Bethany Christian Services that places children in homes when there is an urgent and temporary family need. It is designed to head off the need for foster care, which is often extremely disruptive to children. We are evaluating to what extent we as a church should be involved. The extent we’re involved depends a lot on whether God is calling individuals and families in our church to participate – and whether those called are willing to respond.

What you can do: Pray about possible participation in Safe Families for Children. Let leaders know if you’re interested in helping out in some way.

Hope in the Lord

Our aim is to be faithful to God. We don’t know the end result of that faithfulness. The fruit of our labors, and the timing of that fruit, is up to God. Still, we can and should pray to see the fruit of the gospel and, even, to dream about what it might look like.

Here is what I am envisioning: Sunday morning we have a sanctuary filled with people, from every age group, from all kinds of backgrounds, some new believers, some seasoned, all worshipping God in Spirit and in truth. Our songs bring glory to God and our sermons faithfully expound the word of God and equip his people for life throughout the week.

During our BFG hour small – but expanding – groups encourage one another, pray for one another, and actively invite new people in. On potluck Sundays new attenders learn about church and stay to enjoy food and fellowship.

Throughout the week individuals put into practice the fruit of the Spirit, encouraged by regular time in the word and prayer. They function as the salt of the earth in their homes, in their leisure time, in their studies, and in their jobs. They are filled with peace and joy and love. In the times when they are alone, they act with integrity. All consider ways they can serve others, though each will have their own way of doing this. As a church, we have a team of people practicing true religion – caring for children in need – either through Safe Families, Attic After School, or by simply and organically caring for the needs we become aware of around us.

These acts of service and this palpable love shown by our congregation – combined with a willingness to share the good news of the gospel – invites others to receive and respond to the gospel, then to join us at the table, then to grow in maturity, and then to reach out in love.

Sermon Summary: Stand

Note: As part of my sermon  preparation, I’m going to be condensing the main points of the sermon into a 500 or less word blog post. This is my first attempt.

Text: Ephesians 6:10-13

“Put on the full armor of God.”

In the Christian life we find security and rest. God has saved us by grace through faith apart from works. We rest in that reality. But the Christian life is also a battle. We fight, not for the grace of God, but from the grace of God. Jesus has already won the war, but as we wait for his return we must fight individual skirmishes. How do we win them?

In their fight believers are prone to three errors: We ignore the battle and grow complacent. We misidentify the enemy. We fight out of our own strength. If we’re going to win, we must recognize the battle, identify the enemy and his tactics, and fight from God’s strength.

Let’s first examine the battle. Our enemy is “not against flesh and blood.” Our enemy is the devil and evil spiritual forces. The Bible has plenty of examples of human enemies. Paul himself could have pointed to the Romans, Jewish religious leaders, pagan cult leaders, and even false teachers within the church. Yet, we must recognize the spiritual enemy behind the human enemy.

Jesus calls us to love our human enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Our battle is not, ultimately, against them, but against the spiritual powers standing behind their actions. The devil himself wants us to direct our hatred against other humans. In doing so, we step off the path on which Jesus leads us.

How does the enemy attack? God calls us to stand against his “schemes” and to raise our shield of faith against his “fiery arrows”. His primary weapon is deception. He lies. His influence can lead to persecution and the temptation to deny the faith, or pressure which by which he leads us to compromise our faith. He brings fear and discouragement to stop us from acting out of faith. And finally, his most common attack, is to tempt us into sin.

Each of these situations presents us with a battle. We can decide to follow God or give in to the devil’s schemes. God calls us to stand, to be firm and undefeated, to have a godly resolve, to resist, and to prevail. We prevail when we hold true to the faith in the face of persecution or pressure, when we persevere through fear and discouragement, and when we resist temptation by submitting to God.

We put ourselves in a position to win when we first surrender ourselves to God. We gain life by losing it. We’re strong when we recognize our own weakness and trust only in God for our strength. “Submit yourselves, resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

What sets Christianity apart from the other world religions?

A couple of years ago I asked a group of teenagers if they could tell me the difference between Christianity and other religions. Here were their common responses:

  • Christianity has different holidays

Yeah, that was all they could come up with. Other than that, they said, all religions are basically the same.

And, if all the religions are basically the same – except for externals like what holidays are celebrated – why would anyone choose one over the other? Or why would anyone say that one religion is superior or inferior to the others? Why not just be vaguely “spiritual” but not dogmatically religious?

Of course, there are significant differences between the world’s major religions, beyond just the days we take off from work and the rituals we follow. The differences are profound and far reaching.

And here we face an objection from the irreligious: If there are so many religious beliefs, what is it that sets your religion apart from the crowd of religions?

For Christians, the answer is found in one word, and that word is found in the name of our religion: CHRISTianity. What sets apart Christianity, is Christ.

I want to offer 6 ways that Christ sets Christianity apart.

  1. The historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. This evidence forces us to look more closely at the claims of Jesus and at the theological meaning of his death.
  2. Christians follow not only a teaching, but a person. Muslims follow the teachings of Mohammad and Buddhists the teachings of Buddha. Christians follow not only the teachings of Jesus, but the (living) Person of Jesus as well.
  3. Christ “in us” is the source of our “good behavior”. We do not practice what is good through a sheer act of will, of submission, or secret knowledge, but through the indwelling work of Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
  4. We are saved by grace. God rescues us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, by grace alone through faith alone. We cannot earn even a part of God’s favor. Other religious systems may have a god who displays mercy, but only Christianity shows how salvation is from God from first to last.
  5. Our God is both high above, and intimately close. Philosophical arguments lead us to a transcendent God. Christ shows us that this transcendent God is also intimately close to us, empathizing with our suffering, indeed entering into our suffering in order to rescue us.
  6. In the cross we understand Justice, Love, and Forgiveness. How can we make sense of our deepest philosophical questions? The cross. We see the justice, love, and forgiveness of God fully displayed on the cross. We see both our deepest need, and the most profound answer to that need.

Christianity is not just one among many religions, indistinguishable from the others. It stands out to me as profoundly beautiful, and not just because of its teachings, but because of the Person who stands at the center of our rescue, the person of Jesus Christ.

Is God’s judgment passive or active?

One of the questions that plagued me in my early Christian life was whether God’s acts of judgment were just. I was thinking particularly of Israel’s conquest of Canaan and, of course, hell. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that these still bother me, though to a different degree and in a different way.

One common way that apologists handle the question of God’s just judgment is by emphasizing its passive nature. That is, they emphasize that in God’s judgments He is simply giving us over to our own desires. For example, C.S. Lewis says the following:

“There are only two kinds of people – those who say, “Thy will be done” to God or those to whom God in the end says, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”

Is the passive description of God’s judgment biblical?

This idea of God’s passive judgment certainly seems to get God off the hook. He doesn’t so much “send” people to hell as He lets them go there. It’s hard to find fault with such a God. The question, then, is whether this conception of his judgment is biblical.

Let’s begin with Proverbs 26:27 as an example: “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it; if someone rolls a stone, it will roll back on them.” The person is digging a pit as an act of evil. They are setting a snare; a trap designed to bring harm. The irony is that the very way in which they intend to do harm comes back to harm them. God’s judgment here – this is not mere Karma – is indirect. We see something similar in Proverbs 29:6: “evildoers are snared by their own sin.”

Next, we can turn to Romans. In chapter 1 Paul declares “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of the people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (1:18). But part of this wrath that is being displayed is God simply allowing sin to progress to its natural end: “Therefore, God gave them over in their sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (1:24). And then again, “God gave them over to shameful lusts” (1:25). In other words, God’s judgment in this case is primarily seen as him allowing sin to take its natural course – rejection of God which leads to disobedience which leads to a more corrupt self, and ultimately to death.

Aside from proof texts, this idea that judgment is God’s “giving over” of people to their rejection of him matches a systematic way of looking at the Bible: God is the source of life. Sin separates us from God. Therefore, sin separates us from the Source of life. The natural course of sin is death. Extrapolate that out eternally, and you have Hell: Eternal death as eternal separation from God.

I think, then, that this view of God’s judgment is a helpful way of looking at the “natural” consequences of sin. Sin, by its nature, is destructive. And, for the person who holds onto it, it is eternally­ self-destructive.

But, I think this view of judgment is also incomplete.

God’s active judgment

God’s judgment is also described in more active terms. God is seen not only as giving people or nations over to their rebellion, but as punishing those people and nations.

God judged Adam and Eve through the curse. He sent the flood. He sent plagues on Egypt. He directed Israel to take over the land of Canaan. He summoned the Babylonians and Assyrians as agents of his judgment against Israel. He is often described as a warrior, fighting against the wicked and the oppressors. These images cannot be viewed simply through the lens of “giving over.” I’m not sure fire coming down from heaven – a common description of God’s judgment (i.e., 2 Kings 1:14) is ever a “natural” result of sin.

The same thing is true when it comes to the words of judgment in the New Testament. A number of Jesus’ parables end in a description of judgment. Matthew 25:28-30 is illustrative: The master replies, “take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags… And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Or Jude says, referring to God’s active judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah as an example, “They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7).

God’s judgment as active punishment against wrongdoers also matches a systematic way of reading the Bible: God is holy and just. Our sin is an offense to his holiness and justice. God is obligated by his justice to punish wrongdoing. Extrapolate this out eternally and you have hell.

So which way of looking at God’s judgment is correct? Should we view it as passive or active? Well, I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. The Bible supports both. They are two sides to the same coin. The one shows us the self-destructive nature, the insanity, of sin. The other shows us that sin is worthy of just punishment.

So, what about the justice of God’s judgment?

The idea of God’s judgment as a “giving over” of humanity to its rebellion would answer my objection, but only if it were a comprehensive picture of God’s judgment. It’s not. The Christian still needs an answer for God’s active judgment.

It’s hard to find fault with God’s justice in general. It’s clear that justice includes punishment for wrongdoing. But what makes God’s judgment seem unfair to so many is that it doesn’t seem to be proportional to the crime. How could anybody really deserve the sort of torments described by Jesus?

I think we get hung up on this for two reasons. We downplay the holiness of God and we downplay the seriousness of sin. We forget that God is infinitely holy – so a sin against Him is of infinite offense – and we think of sin as a small matter – as a weakness or a mistake – when in reality it is a conscious rebellion against the One who gives us life and breath. I think that if I had a clearer understanding of those realities, I would be less scandalized by God’s judgment.

Trusting in the goodness and love of God

As I wrestled with these doctrines I continued to ask God for wisdom. He led me to some of the answers above, but the intellectual answers could only get me so far. I came to a place where I could understand it, but I was yet to the place where I could accept it. For that I needed to lean on God.

I came to the following conclusion: I do not understand (at a deeper level) the judgment of God. But I do understand (at the level of trust) that God is good and loving. He will not, in the end, do anything that violates perfect justice. I can trust Him that He will act justly, even if I cannot fully comprehend that justice. He is good and loving, He is patient and kind, He is gracious and merciful. I know that through the cross. And, because I can know those things through the cross, I can also trust that He will continue to act with justice, love, and mercy.

Is the uniqueness of Christianity evidence of the truth of the resurrection?

On Sunday I gave as one piece of evidence for the resurrection the following claim:

The disciples’ belief in the resurrection could not have arisen so suddenly out of any “natural” developments in religion. It was in contradiction to the Messianic hopes of Palestinian Judaism and in contradiction to pagan cosmology. (And, therefore, not a conglomeration of Judaism and paganism.) The best explanation for the disciples’ belief, then, is the resurrection. This truth, along with its sudden acceptance among otherwise orthodox Jews, the post-resurrection appearances, and the evidence of the empty tomb, gives strong historical evidence to Jesus’ resurrection.

A friend of mine asked me how I would respond to the skeptic who asked about the similar claims of other religions. Here’s my attempt to do so:

The argument against this apologetic could be phrased in this way:

Apologist: Christianity appeared suddenly with a distinctive view of the world and some explanation of that worldview is required. The best explanation is that Jesus rose from the dead.

Skeptic: Other distinctive religions have arisen suddenly, doesn’t the same argument work for them?

Which religions? 

First, I would want to ask the skeptic which religions they are referring to. If they mean Judaism, then Christians would affirm the supernatural nature of Judaism’s origin, since Judaism forms the basis for Christianity. If they are referring to Buddhism or Hinduism then I would instruct them to do more study on those religions since Hinduism had a very slow and varied development over many centuries and Buddhism was originally an offshoot from Hinduism, without a sudden start. The list of religions that fir the skeptic’s claim is probably smaller than he assumes.

The closest similarities to Christianity in terms of distinctiveness and sudden acceptance are Islam, which arose suddenly during the 600’s and Mormonism in the 1800s.

A more precise argument

But at this point we should clarify the apologist’s argument more closely. He is not saying: Because Christianity is distinctive it is true. For, a belief’s distinctiveness has no bearing on its truth. Otherwise, the most bizarre beliefs would be seen as most likely to be true. The apologist is also not saying: Christianity is true because its distinctiveness arose suddenly. If they were, this would appear to apply to Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism of the major religions, but even so, it’s not the argument.

To say that a belief is true or false based on the origin of that belief is, in most instances, a case of the “genetic fallacy.” If a pluralist were to say to a Christian “you are a Christian because your parents are Christians, therefore your beliefs are not true” a Christian could respond, “you are a pluralist because you were raised in a culture where pluralism is the predominant worldview, therefore your beliefs are invalid.” Neither the pluralist nor/or the Christian is making a real argument for the truth or error of the other person’s beliefs.

Instead, the apologist’s argument is more subtle. He argues, instead, that if a belief arose suddenly then we need a historically plausible explanation for that new belief. If a friend of mine came up to me believing that aliens were about to invade the planet then I would want an explanation for this person’s new belief. Perhaps he had a deep-seated paranoia that finally bubbled to the surface. Perhaps he was on drugs and hallucinating. Perhaps he had an encounter with an alien! Regardless, this new belief would require some sort of explanation.

Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism

Here’s where we can bring Christianity back in. The earliest followers of Jesus burst onto the scene with the belief that a man Jesus of Nazareth, who had claimed to be the Messiah and had been crucified by the Roman authorities, had risen from the dead and should be worshiped and given reverence. We would want an explanation for that belief. And here Christians have a strong case that the best explanation for that belief is the historical resurrection of Jesus.[1]

Can a Muslim make the same case for the origin of Islam? Islam originated with Muhammad and the apparent revelations he received from an angel, teachings that are documented in the Koran. Like Christianity, historians would seek an explanation for Muhammad’s beliefs. Muslims argue that his beliefs came from actual encounters with an angel. Others would seek some other explanation.

There are at least two important distinctions between Christianity’s and Islam’s origins: First, it was a mass of early Christians who believed in the resurrection, not only the disciples, but hundreds who saw the resurrected Jesus. Second, there was corroborating evidence for the resurrection – the empty tomb. Whereas Muhammad’s visions were private, the disciples’ beliefs were public and falsifiable.

What about Mormonism? Like Islam, Mormonism originated from an apparent revelation, though in this case it was by means of physical objects: supposed golden plates discovered and translated – with the help of an angel – by Joseph Smith. Here, once again, the historian requires an explanation for the beliefs of Smith and other early Mormons, though again the case differs from the origin of Christianity. First, I would argue that Mormonism’s distinctives in relation to Christianity are not as distinctive as Christianity’s from its surrounding culture. The most significant distinction between Christianity and Mormonism is its rejection of Jesus’ divinity, which is really a very old and frequent heresy. Second, though, we have the supposed golden plates themselves. There were indeed a select group of people (intentionally limited) that testified to either seeing it in a vision or to even touching the physical objects themselves, but their future testimony is not uniform. Some changed their stories about the plates. This either points to a more subjective/visionary experience, or deliberate falsification. Of course, I am no expert on Mormonism, and will have to refer the reader to some other resource to explore the details, should they be interested.

And so, I think the apologists argument stands as a (relatively) unique argument for the truth of the resurrection. It is possible that other religions could make similar claims, and each would need to be evaluated on its own. And so, I wouldn’t hang my hat entirely on this single argument. It does fit nicely as one of many pieces of evidence which point to the truth of Christianity.

[1] I’m not going to make the case here, but instead refer the reader to several books including Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, Craig’s On Guard: Defending your Faith with Reason and Precision, and Dodson and Watson’s Raised?: Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection. I also gave a brief outline of alternative views in this post: Alternative theories to the resurrection.