Monthly Archives: April 2014

Can we compare the death penalty to abortion?

I’ll just come out and statement my position up front: I oppose abortion but support, at least in principle, the death penalty. For some, this may seem like a conflicting position. I hope to convince you it is not.

I can think of a few good reasons to oppose the death penalty. You may believe that there are too many innocent people wrongly convicted. You may believe that too many are convicted on too little evidence, or because of bias within the courts. You may not trust the State to carry out such weighty matters of justice. In fact, all the “good” reasons I can think of to oppose the death penalty are because I don’t trust the State (I might be showing a bit of political bias here) to carry out justice. These might all be perfectly good reasons to oppose the death penalty in a lot of different situations but, for me, based on how I read Romans 13, they don’t warrant opposing the death penalty in principle.

I understand the above arguments, and variations thereof, but there is one argument I sometimes hear which I think entirely erroneous. The argument goes like this: “You can’t be ‘pro-life’ before birth and ‘pro-death’ after birth.” In other words, the argument states that if you oppose abortion you must also oppose the death penalty.

I think this is a bad argument. In fact, I think this is a downright offensive argument. No offense to those who hold it (I love you Joel!) but this argument drives me crazy.

The problem with this argument is that it frames the question entirely as a life/death issue, as if that is all it was: “Pro-life” before birth means opposing abortion and “pro-life” after birth means opposing abortion. There’s a certain attractive simplicity to this argument but it ignores the other fundamental principle in both issues: Justice!

Abortion is wrong not just because it takes the life of a precious baby, but because it takes the life of an innocent baby! It takes away the life of someone who has done nothing to deserve it. Abortion is murder, not just killing. Abortion is unjust. I’m pro-life because I believe that every life is precious and because I believe it is an affront to justice.

When the death penalty is enforced it is done so for the sake of justice. A man who slaughters innocent people in cold blood and is then executed by the states gets justice. We may still find his death tragic (I do) and we may still hope that he finds forgiveness from the family of the victim and from God but we cannot say he did not deserve the punishment he received from the State as it wields the sword as a servant of God’s wrath.

In both cases a life is lost. In an abortion it as an innocent life. In the death penalty it is a guilty one. That makes all the difference.

I believe there is biblical precedence for this position. In the Old Testament there is a clear command – “You shall not murder.” And yet, the following detailed law code allows for the death penalty for numerous infractions, including in the case of murder. The Old Testament sees murdering someone as wrong but receiving the penalty for that murder as right. What makes the difference? In the first case, the life was taken unjustly. In the second case, the life was taken as an extension of justice.

While many of the details of the Old Testament law code no longer apply, the underlying principles still do. There is a fundamental difference between a life taken unjustly and one taken as an extension of justice.

So I believe the argument that compares abortion to the death penalty to be wrong.

But I also believe it to be offensive.

Do we really want to compare the execution of a baby to that of a murderer or a rapist? Do we really want to compare the innocent to the guilty? Do we really believe that the two are one and the same thing? I’m offended for the sake of the aborted! I’m offended on their behalf.

I understand wanting to be consistently pro-life. After all, every life is precious to God, even the lives of those who are worthy of receiving the death penalty. But don’t ignore the other half of the equation. Don’t ignore the driving force between the arguments here. Don’t ignore justice. Both life and justice matter to God. In fact, justice matters to God because life matters to God (see Genesis 9:5-6). Those who shed innocent blood are worthy of judgment. Those whose innocent blood is shed are not.

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What if he repents!? When God’s mercy is more offensive than his judgment

Most people I talk to that are skeptical of God’s character are skeptical of his judgment. They want God to be merciful to everybody, or at least the vast majority of people. They like God so long as he’s “loving” and “gentle” but turn away from descriptions of his wrath. When they say, “God’s not fair”, they mean “he’s not fair in his judgment.”

This past week, though, I spoke to someone who was more offended by his mercy than his judgment. This young woman told me boldly, “I hate a lot of people. I don’t think it’s wrong to hate.” I know this young woman, and I also know that she has been seriously wronged in her life. I could go into details but I won’t. Suffice it to say, from a human perspective, she has every reason to hate at least a couple of the people she hates. From the outside, it’s clear that her hatred is eating her alive, destroying her from the inside, but from her perspective she feels justified.

I attempted to encourage her from Romans 12:17-19. Here we are encouraged to forswear revenge and to seek peace because we can “leave room for God’s wrath.” In other words, wrath isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not ours to wield. We trust God to be the judge because he’s the only possible perfect Judge.

The young woman understood the passage but it didn’t make her feel better. She responded angrily – “but what if he repents?” She understood the mercy of God, but it offended her. She knows that if her enemy repents before God his sins will be forgiven and at the core of her soul she does not want that to happen.

I was immediately reminded of the story of Jonah. He was called by God to preach to Nineveh. Nineveh! Nineveh, at one point in its history, was the capital of the Assyrian empire, an empire that became the bitter enemies of the Israelites. Jonah was told by God to “preach against [the city], because its wickedness has come before me” (Jonah 1:1).

Jonah went in the exact opposite direction. He did not want to preach to Nineveh and it wasn’t just because he feared for his own personal safety. He didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knew something about God. He knew God was merciful. What if they repent? Is God really going to let them off the hook?

God had other plans and brought Jonah to Nineveh against his will. Finally Jonah relented and preached to Nineveh the message God gave him – “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” And, almost shockingly, the very next words of Scripture say, “The Ninevites believed God.” They repented. They fasted. They cried out to God. And when God saw them repent he did exactly what a merciful God would do – he relented. He showed compassion on the city. He forgave.

Jonah was angry. This is exactly what he feared would happen.

“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:1-3)

This is exactly what this young woman doesn’t want to happen. The possibility of her enemy’s repentance and God’s mercy offends her. I even understand why.

God’s response to Jonah was essentially this: I made this city grow and flourish and I love its inhabitants. I love its people, even in their sin. My wrath was ready to be unleashed but I gave them a chance to repent and they did. Why are you angry with my love?

Maybe God’s mercy offends you. Maybe you’ve been wronged deeply. Jesus gives a tough command – to love our enemies. Part of loving our enemies means being open, and even eager, for God’s merciful response to their repentance. And we can only be open to God’s mercy when we ourselves are captured by his love, his love for the whole world.

Book Review: Raised? Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection

Raised? Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection showed up on my doorstep on Good Friday. I had been hoping it would arrive before Easter and the timing was just perfect.

In this short book, Jonathan Dodson and Brad Watson make the case for the plausibility of the resurrection and draw out the implications of the event. Raised is written for skeptics and for those who doubt the claims of Christianity. The book is nicely compact, containing only four manageable chapters. (As an aside, I think more books should be about this length).

In chapter 1, the authors make the case for the resurrection. They do so by demonstrating that both Jews and Greeks would have been incredulous about the resurrection. It would have been seen as either impossible or undesirable or both. Yet, thousands of both Jews and Greeks immediately began professing the risen Lord, in many cases to their own detriment. The most plausible explanation, say the authors, is if Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Chapters 2 outlines how the resurrection fits into God’s cosmic plan of rescue. Chapter 3 gives some nice explanations of faith, sin, and salvation. Chapter 4 draws out personal implications of the resurrection. The authors show how the resurrection gives us a new authority, identity, and mission.

I found Raised? to be a nice book to read through on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It’s short enough to work through in a few sittings. Some others who reviewed the book found it to be a little too academic. For me, this makes it more uplifting than a lot of other Christian “fluff” out there.

Its intended audience, though, is unbelievers or skeptics. The book is apologetic and evangelistic. Chapter 1 is apologetic (and I expected the whole book to be this kind of book) and the rest of the book is really not much more than the basics of the gospel – well presented. I found this book to be very much in the line of the writings of Tim Keller. Specifically, I would describe this book as The Reason for God light. It’s much shorter and more focused but it accomplishes many of the same goals. Keller and these authors share the same vision of the resurrection and the differences between “religion” and gospel.

Keller presents a more compelling case in Reason for God and it’s a better all around apologetics book but Raised? has one big advantage – it’s shorter length. This length makes it a lot more accessible – and easier to hand out. Now to find the right person to give it to…

I received this book free from the publisher through the Book Look Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

How do the Cross and the Resurrection drive the core values of our church?

Today is Good Friday. This is the day we remember Jesus’ death. In a couple of days we’ll be celebrating His resurrection.

Jesus’ death and resurrection are at the center of Christian thought and practice and, for each Christian, these realities should drive our individual daily lives. But the cross and resurrection are not just the center for individuals, but ought to be the center for churches as well.

I am perhaps especially mindful of this since I serve as a pastor. I was encouraged earlier this week to prepare a 5-10 minute “welcome message” to be presented before the sermon which would draw out some of the key implications of the resurrection and I thought one way to approach would be to draw out some implications for our church. With that in mind I sat down to answer this question: How do the cross and the resurrection drive the core values we hold as a church? Our core values are: Biblical Truth, Loving Relationships, Gospel Mission, and Trusting God.

Biblical Truth:

It’s through the Bible in the first place that we know the details of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’s in Scripture that we find the words of life and the way of salvation which continually drives back to the cross and to the resurrection. But Jesus’ resurrection also points Scripture. Since Jesus rose from the dead in time and space He is trustworthy in all He says. Since He has a high view of Scripture, so do we.

Loving Relationships:

Jesus commanded his disciples “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). He spoke this command shortly before going to the cross, the most powerful presentation of His love and this is the kind of love we are called to live out in church life. It’s this kind of love which draws us to “not only look to [our] own interests, but also to the interest of others” (Philippians 2:4).

The resurrection gives us one more reason to sacrifice for others in love. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead then we should live for ourselves – eat, drink, and be merry. But if this life isn’t all there is then it’s OK for us to give up the temporary for the eternal.

Gospel Mission:

After Jesus rose from the dead He gave His followers this mission: Go and make disciples. This is our mission, too. The news of the resurrection is too good to keep quiet about – it’s the power of God for salvation. It compels us to action. And, we go out on this mission knowing that we go with the power and presence of our resurrected Savior.

Trusting God:

As a church, while we hope for “success” we know that our main objective is obedience to what God has called us to do. It’s fine for us to focus on our obedience because we trust God with the results. We seek first the Kingdom because it’s God that supplies all of our needs. How do we know we can trust God? We can trust God because He kept His promise to win us salvation. Jesus took our sins upon Himself and endured Hell on our behalf. Then He rose from the dead. He proved His faithfulness by following through on His promise and proving His power through the resurrection. He is a trustworthy God. He will accomplish all things according to His purpose. We just get to come along for the ride.

Words of Caution regarding John Hagee’s “Four Blood Moons”

Disclaimer: I have not read John Hagee’s book about the blood moons and I have not followed the conversation very closely. However, I think some preliminary words of caution are in order.

Background:

The argument, as near as I can tell, follows a few lines of reasoning. First, the Bible speaks about the moon turning to blood and “signs in the heavens” as events which accompany the End Times. Second, when a lunar eclipse happens the moon takes on a red coloring (hence the name “blood moon”). Third, there will apparently be four blood moons in a row, which fall along the cycle of Jewish Holidays. This is, apparently, a rare event. Fifth, on occasions where this has happened in the past something significant has happened to the state of Israel. The conclusion is that we should take take this most recent event as a sign from God that something (in regards to Israel) is going to happen. That something is probably a big deal and might even be the Second Coming of Christ.

Words of Caution:

First, from my perspective this whole thing is based on eisegesis of the text (reading into the text) and not exegesis (trying to understand the original authorial intent). If you find the discussion of signs and the “moon turning to blood” a convincing argument you should ask yourself this: Did the author of those Scriptures intend for them to be read with a lunar eclipse, or four lunar eclipses in mind? Did they intend for us to interpret that text as a rare cosmological event? Such original authorial intent seems extremely unlikely to me. Imposing that event onto the text seems like a blatant anachronistic reading of the text.

Second, it seems to confuse the various ways in which God speaks. He speaks through creation and history, yes, but this speech is ambiguous and unclear. In other words, we get good data from science and history but we need to interpret it through the lens of Scripture. The “blood moon” issue flips the script. It seems to be interpreting Scripture (“moon turns to blood”) through history and natural revelation.

Third, I get worried any time I hear of a “new” way to read Scripture or a new “code” which unlocks some “hidden” meaning. I went to Amazon and perused the introduction to “Blood Moons: Decoding the Immanent Heavenly Signs” by Mark Blitz, who Hagee also mentions in the introduction to his book and I was worried, though not surprised by what I read. Blitz says that “God chose to hide His messages in the ancient Hebrew alphabet. You will find that the written Hebrew language is like a decoder ring to understanding what God is hiding.” From the context I don’t think he’s talking about the Scriptures but that God has hidden meaning within the actual letters of the Hebrew alphabet. He describes this as a code that unlocks the meaning of Scripture. Once you see the “hidden image” through the Hebrew language, you see Scripture in a whole new light. Once you see Scripture through the lens of the Blood Moons you have unlocked the secret, the code. Perhaps Blitz or Hagee develop their arguments beyond this but at face value this interpretive method is, at best, highly problematic.

I don’t mean to be harsh, but the whole affair feels more like astrology with a veneer of Biblicism. It’s interesting and un-authoritative at best and dangerous – because it teaches people to read natural revelation and Scriptural revelation in the wrong order – at worst.

We shouldn’t overestimate our knowledge of the End Times. No one knows the day or the hour. We watch. We pray. We long for His return. We strive to be ready at all times. We continue to preach the gospel.  All these things are clear because they are clearly revealed in Scripture. Be careful you don’t get caught up in the sensational.

What does it mean to live as a foreigner?

Hebrews 11 says that Abraham lived “like a stranger in a foreign country” even while living in the Promised Land. He lived as an alien and a stranger, not interested in returning to his homeland and “longing for a better country.” He was searching for a “city with foundations, who architect and builder is God.”

Hebrews 11 is given for us to emulate the faith of the heroes mentioned within. So how do we emulate this aspect of Abraham’s faith? How do we live as foreigners and strangers in this world?

What it doesn’t mean

First, this isn’t a passage that teaches platonic dualism. Some might read the passage to mean that Abraham was a stranger in the physical world who was longing for a spiritual home. Being a foreigner in this sense means that our “true home” can only be found when we escape from our bodies and from our physical world.

But a “spiritual” reality isn’t the hope in Hebrews. The hope of Hebrews is in “a better resurrection” (11:35) and for an enduring and eternal city. Our hope is not simply in what happens when we die, but in what happens when Christ returns “to bring salvation to all who are waiting for him” (9:28), which includes a new heaven and a new earth.

Christians aren’t strangers on earth because of our physicality. We’re strangers because of our faith. Abraham’s faith set him apart. It made him a foreigner on earth and a citizen of heaven.

Second, this passage isn’t telling us to be grumpy or to seek “escape.” Abraham may have been longing for a country of his own, but he wasn’t seeking escape from the place God had placed him. His attitude must have been similar to that of Paul who stated, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). He longed to be at home with Jesus, but he was by no means seeking to escape from this world.

Once we realize we’re foreigners and aliens because of our faith, it can be tempting to throw up our hands and say, “Just get me out of here God.” But that’s not the attitude we’re called to. We’re called to contentment, peace, and joy. We’re called to live life with a mission. This present age may not be our ultimate home, but it is the home God has called us to cultivate and enjoy.

What does it mean?

If this passage isn’t about ontological dualism and it isn’t about pessimistic escapism, what is it about?

First, to re-iterate, Abraham was a foreigner because of his faith, which in Hebrews also means his obedience. Living as a stranger means living out an ethical reality. 1 John 2:15-17 clears things up for us a bit:

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

We live as strangers when we do not “love the world.” And, in this case, “the world” refers to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” To be a stranger in this world means to reject the sin that this world offers.

Matthew 13:22 is helpful as well:

The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.

We live as strangers when we are not caught up in the “worries of this life the deceitfulness of wealth.” We live as strangers when we realize that this life is not all there is, that our wealth and worries are temporary realities, and that we have something greater to look forward to.

A new perspective and a new identity

Living like a stranger means living with a new perspective and identity. The new perspective is an eternal perspective – the realization that anything that is offered to us in this age is as temporary as a tent (11:9) but that in the age to come we will inherit an enduring city.

The new identity is a switch in citizenship. You may not feel at home in this world. Maybe you’ve felt like you’ve lost a bit of your citizenship. You have. But take heart. Those who embrace their new identities as foreigners and strangers on earth receive the favor of God. “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (11:16b).

Book Review: Daughters in Danger by Elayne Bennett

Daughter’s in Danger by Elayne Bennett is a book that will fill you with righteous indignation.

Elayne Bennett is the Director of the Best Friends Foundation, an in-school program which encourages teenage girls embrace “self-respect through self-control.” The program helps teach girls to make positive life choices about sex, dating, drugs, and alcohol. While the program showed positive results in DC schools, the Obama administration defunded it and other community-based abstinence education programs in favor of contraception only programs. The chip remaining on Bennett’s shoulder is apparent throughout the book and she returns again and again to both the Best Friends program’s model for wisdom and its opponents to demonstrate the fault lines in our country.

What are our daughters in danger from?

Bennett focuses on a few key issues – violence, STDs, rape, bullying, and shattered identities. She tells a lot of high profile and scary stories, most of which take place either in secondary school environment or on college campuses. She may be a bit overly sensational here but her goal, I think, is to show what leads to the dangers our daughters face.

Why are our daughters in danger?

Our daughters are in danger, says Bennett, primarily because of elements in our culture which put them in danger. In particular Bennett goes after feminists.

Bennett sees two kinds of feminism. “Good” feminism, she says, promotes respect for women in the home and in the workplace, supports equal pay for equal work, and does not tolerate sexual harassment. Bennett embraces this kind of feminism. She frequently holds up strong and confident women as ideal models for young women.

Bennett strongly opposes what she calls “progressive feminism.” This left wing of the feminist movement promotes “sexually liberated” women. It promotes an androgynous view of humanity which denies any differences between male and female. Progressive feminism devalues the role of men. It sees fathers as superfluous, or it outright blames men for all the problems of the world. It despises marriage and the family, openly pursuing its demise. Finally, it looks down on motherhood and child rearing as something demeaning and second-class.

To illustrate the above, Bennett quotes several progressive feminists:

“The nuclear family must be destroyed. Whatever its ultimate meaning, the break-up of families now is an objectively revolutionary process.” (Florence Kelley)

“We can’t destroy the inequalities between men and women until we destroy marriages.” (Robin Morgan)

This form of feminism, says Bennett, is putting our daughters in danger. It undermines the parenting and family structures children need to thrive. Bennett points out that ” children born to unmarried women fare far worse on every measurable variable than children raised in intact families.” (61) Progressive feminism also creates an overly PC culture, especially at schools and universities, which prevents from addressing real issues for girls. It encourages a highly sexualized culture where the messages on TV, movies, and music actively promote sex outside of marriage and deviant sexual behavior, all without showing the real  the  consequences. The end result is the our daughters, left without fathers, mothers, or role models, have nowhere to learn important character traits like self-control, humility, or self-worth that is disconnected from sexuality.

Bennett sums up her attack by concluding:

“The left wing of the feminist movement has played a major role both in advocating the policy changes that caused a shift toward single parenthood and in oppressing discussion of its consequences … While the evidence of the ill effects of single parenthood becomes more obvious, feminists grow more aggressive in their attack not only on the proponents of marriage but on marriage itself.” (58)

So what can be done?

Having diagnosed the problem, Bennett addresses what can be done. In a series of chapters with titles such as “What Mothers and Sisters Can Do” and “What Fathers and Brothers Can Do” Bennett shows how daughters can be protected from much of the danger around them.

If the problem is the breakdown of the family and the culture Bennett sees the solution in rebuilding the family and the culture. She stresses the importance of healthy marriages, connected families, and parents who live out the values they teach in the home. In regards to culture Bennett encourages schools and universities to put policies in place which protect young women and she encourages universities especially to challenge the alcohol driven “hook-up” culture.

Bennett also places a lot of value in peer groups. In fact, the Best Friends program, as the name implies, focused on helping teenage girls protect each other by forming constructive groups of friends.

Finally, Bennett praises the place of faith in the life of young women. She quotes one study which says that “those who are deeply involved in religion report better mental health, in fact, they do drastically better than their non churchgoing peers who are twice as likely to be depressed, the times more likely to rate themselves as emotionally below par, and seven times more likely to feel overwhelmed” (201).

Conclusion

This book matches the reality that I see every week with the youth who attend our After School program. Those young women (and men) who have difficult or fractured home lives are the most likely to be facing emotional problems or engage in risky and/or self-inflicted behavior. Those who come from stable homes tend to fare far better. The erosion of culture (I feel like an cranky old man just saying those words!) has led to a moral relativism which does these girls no favors. Many are simply lost. They are not “liberated.” They are enslaved.

This book is a wake-up call. Perhaps more apt, it is an alarm. But, it also leaves you with a sense of hope.

I really only have two critiques. First, I like structure and sometimes the book felt a little unstructured. She tended to jump around a bit more than I like. Second, as I said before, the chip on her shoulder is evident. This makes her combative and I think it might make her an easier target for critics. I get the sense that this book was written for a base that already agrees with her (like me) but that for some, her not-so-conciliatory tone will cause some to turn off their ears before they get to the meat of her argument. Ultimately, Bennett’s tone will either be seen as a positive or a negative, depending on your point of view.

Ultimately, this is a book I will pass along. The first place it’s going to is the wife of our youth pastor who is a mentor for a lot of “daughters in danger.” But I hope it moves on from there. If you have a daughter, as I do, or you’re in a position to work with young women, I recommend this book to you.

I received this book free from the publisher through the Book Look Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”