Monthly Archives: May 2014

Apologetics Roundup (Book Recommendations)

As preparation for a recent Sunday Night series at church I read a number of apologetics books. Here’s a brief roundup of what I read:

Despite Doubt: This book served as our primary guide. It seeks to correct a common error in Christianity, the divorce of faith from knowledge. Wittmer’s thesis is that faith means committing to what we know, not to what we don’t.

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism: Tim Keller’s book is excellent on multiple levels. He answers some tough objections to the Christian faith such as “There can’t be just one true religion” and “Science has disproved Christianity.” His answers are rigorous and intellectually satisfying.

Raised? This short and concise book specifically addresses the question, “Did the resurrection actually occur?” The authors do a fine job of demonstrating the truth of the resurrection and of drawing out some of its implications.

The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity (Case for … Series): It’s an oldie but a goodie. I didn’t read the whole thing, just the chapter on Hell, which is very well written. This was an important book for my wife when she first got serious about her faith as a teenager.

Bonus: Where the Real Conflict Lies: Plantinga’s thesis is that there is a real conflict between science and naturalism and only apparent conflicts between science and theism. This is a heavy book, but important for anyone struggling with how religion and science can go together.

What apologetics books have you found most helpful in life? What would you recommend to others?

God is Just not Fair by Jennifer Rothschild (Book Review)

ImageDoes God really hear my prayer? Is he concerned about what happens to me? Did he make a mistake? Is he even there? These are just some of the questions Jennifer Rothschild addresses in her new book God is Just not Fair. Her book is laid out in six parts, each with several small chapters designed to encourage the reader to trust God in the most difficult circumstances of life.

Like Nick Vujicic, Rothschild’s words carry more weight because she has experienced suffering. In her case, she has been totally blind for most of her life and recently struggled through a bout of depression.

God is Just not Fair is a book written to believers seeking encouragement. It’s not really an apologetics book. She answers weighty questions, but not in a particularly weighty manner. Personally, I wish she had gone deeper in a few areas, but that was not really the intention of her book.

Her intention, instead, is to point her readers to God as person, not just as the answer-giver. Near the beginning of the book she equates faith to a blanket. When we experience suffering our blanket gets holes in it. What does God do when our blanket of faith gets holes?

“God doesn’t fill the holes in our blankets with answers or solutions. He fills the holes in our blanket of faith with himself. Philosophy, intellectual answers, or religion alone will never be enough to repair the holes in your faith. Only God can fill the missing pieces.”

There’s a lot of truth in this and I can attest in my personal journey of doubt and faith that God has often met me in this way. Still, rigorous books which answer these tough questions are great. And, while this book gives a lot of great answers, it didn’t quite deliver to my expectations.

In the end, God is Just not Fair, while theologically sound, lacks the originality, depth, and insight to be a great book.

Hypocrisy: Who is most susceptible and why is there so much in the church?

Pastor John at WPBF had a great message this morning on Romans 2, Paul’s stinging critique of religious hypocrisy. It also sets us up for Romans 3:10-11 and our universal need for a Savior.

Next week, professor and author Mike Wittmer will be a guest speaker at our church. In our Sunday night services we’ve been working through the themes he talks about in his book Despite Doubt. I just finished re-reading chapter 20, “Fruit,” which has an enlightening section on hypocrisy. To the charge, “the church is full of hypocrites Wittmer responds: “Of course the church is full of hypocrites. Where else would you find them?” He explains:

“People only fake what is valuable. Do you know what you’ll never hear? ‘Larry isn’t really a sexual predator. He’s just pretending.’ Or ‘Sally didn’t embezzle the money. She only made it look that way.’ No one pretends to be a gossip, nag, or pompous windbag, because no one wants others to think that’s what they are. Only desirable qualities attract posers…” (Despite Doubt, 146-147)

This doesn’t make hypocrisy acceptable, of course, but at least it’s helpful in understanding why it’s so common. The other obvious reason why there is such a perception of hypocrisy, of course, is that we really are a bunch of hypocrites. We really want to serve God but often it’s just easier to pretend than to actually do it. At church we often say, “This is a hospital for sinners and Jesus is the one who heals.” In other words, we readily admit we are sinners. I’m not sure if the fact we admit our hypocrisy makes matters better or worse.

What scares me is what Wittmer says next. Some people are more susceptible to hypocrisy than others. It worries me because I fall within the category of “most susceptible.” Lifelong Christians are in the greatest danger, especially those in vocational ministry.

“If the first thing people say about you is that you’re a Christian… then you have an incentive to keep it going long after your love for Jesus has cooled. Hypocrisy is particularly tempting for pastors and seminary professors. We have a financial incentive to pretend, because if we no longer believe we’re going to have to find other jobs.” (Despite Doubt, 147-148)

As a pastor I’m aware of this danger. It can be easier to preach to others than to preach to myself, to appear righteous rather than to be righteous, to put in the work for my job rather than for my relationship with God. What saves me from despair is my trust in the continual work of Jesus’ grace in my life, the grace that both saves and sanctifies hypocrites like me.

Decision Making: Tightrope, Field, or Playground?

It can be tough to make decisions, especially the big decisions of life. It’s even tougher if you have the wrong view of the process.

Here are three metaphors for how some people make decisions.

The Tightrope: Some people view life as a tightrope and each decision as an attempt to stay on that tightrope. You have to go to exactly the right college, find exactly the right job for you, and somehow find and marry The One (out of billions). Make a wrong move and you fall off the tightrope. Since doing everything perfect can be a little tricky, this can be an especially stressful way to view life. While secularists can view life in this way, Christians may be especially prone since we are (rightly) concerned with staying within the “will of God.”

The Open Field: On the other side of the spectrum are those that view life as an open field. Here there is only one rule: Do whatever you want. Boundaries are artificial constraints so get rid of them. Go to college, or don’t. Marry somebody. When that’s not fun anymore, marry somebody else. For a time this approach feels like freedom until you realize there really is a pretty solid constraint in life: Reality. On face value this doesn’t feel like a very Christian view but when you add “cheap grace” with the all-too-common Therapeutic Deism of our day you get something theologians call Antinomianism (anti-law): If it’s all about grace, it doesn’t really matter what we do, so we might as well do whatever makes us happy.

The Playground: Finally, let’s imagine a playground. Our imaginary playground has a fence, some posted rules, and a few different places to play (swings, merry-go-round, slide, etc.)

Fence: God gives us boundaries in life, like the 10 commandments. Don’t murder (or hate) is one boundary. Don’t commit adultery (or lust) is another boundary. Don’t worship idols (anything other than God) is another boundary. These boundaries keep us and others safe. They help us thrive.

Posted Rules: In addition to commands that tell us what not to do, God also tells us what we should do. Love God. Love your neighbor. Be generous. Take care of your family. Comfort the brokenhearted. Just like a playground is a lot more fun when kids are playing well together, life is a lot more fun when people treat each other kindly.

Places to Play: Within these boundaries there is freedom. You can go play on a swing, or a slide, or a merry-go-round. You can play basketball or soccer or kickball. You can’t cheat or steel or push but you still have a lot of freedom. God has provided us with a beautiful world and he has given us the freedom to enjoy it. If we obey God’s commands and align our values to his we find he has really granted a truer kind of freedom.

As you can tell, I prefer the playground metaphor to the other two. However, even this metaphor breaks down. The main problem with this metaphor is that the point of a playground is all about having fun and that’s just not the point of life. Fun is a good gift from God that we should receive with thanksgiving, but it’s not the point. Sometimes God calls us to make really tough choices, choices that may lead to less fun and not more, but that are still the right choices to make.

The “secret” to decision making, from a Christian perspective, doesn’t come from some personally packaged word from God that shows up on your door one morning. Instead, it comes from getting to know the commands of God, learning to value the same things that God values, gaining an eternal perspective of life, and then setting to work on the task before you, doing it with all your might for the glory of God.

Money has nothing (and everything) to do with salvation

Yesterday I preached on the Christian’s relationship with money. Specifically, I compared hoarding and generosity and the relative wisdom of each. The rich fool who hoards on earth is met with judgment while the generous store up for themselves treasures in heaven. (See Luke 12:13-21; 22-34 and 1 Timothy 6:9-10; 18-19)

Some could unfortunately and incorrectly interpret these passages to mean that our salvation depends on what we do with our money. So I want to clearly state salvation has nothing to do with money. We’re saved by grace through faith in Jesus alone. You can’t “give” your way into heaven. Generosity does not atone for sin. The poor have no advantage of the rich or the rich over the poor.

But, if I’m going to take Jesus’ teaching seriously on the matter I must admit that salvation has everything to do with moneyThis was certainly true for the rich fool (Luke 18:18-19), Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30), and the early Christians (Acts 2:42-47). I don’t mean that salvation depends on what we do with our money but that what we do with our money clearly reveals the location of our hearts.

When we’re saved we switch allegiances. We turn from serving a plethora of false gods to serving the one true God and Him alone. God is a jealous God who demands our complete allegiance. He won’t share his throne in our lives. Money is one of those potential gods we set up in God’s place. This is why Jesus says  “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 16:13)

Salvation has everything to do with money because salvation reshapes our attitude toward money. We move from the position of ownership (it’s mine, I do what I want), to stewardship (it’s God’s, he uses as he wants). We move from serving money to serving God. we change from people who pursue their own temporary kingdom to those who seek first the eternal kingdom of God.

Most importantly, we begin to develop the mind of Christ who was willing to become poor (literally) so that we might become rich in spiritual blessings (2 Corinthians 8:9). The atonement of Christ and his example empowers us to hold loosely our material possessions so that we might lay hold of life that is truly life (1 Timothy 6:19).

Delusional

Proverbs 28:11 should probably be a scary verse for a lot of people in America: “The rich are wise in their own eyes; one who is poor and discerning sees how deluded they are.” I know it scares me.

Don’t get me wrong. Material possessions are a blessing from God. Money, in and of itself, is not evil. The Bible teaches that wealth is often the result of hard work and a tangible blessing from God. If you consider yourself rich, I don’t mean for this post to condemn you. I know far too many generous and godly people to believe that great wealth is always a cause of problems. It can, in fact, be a great tool for the gospel.

But the Bible also consistently and repeatedly warns against the dangers of wealth. For many, material gain is a snare. It’s a trap. It chokes out spiritual life. The love of it is the root of all kinds of evil. “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:9).

Proverbs 11:4 says that “wealth is worthless in the day of wrath.” When you die your money will do you no good. It is worthless. The best you can hope is that you will pass it along to your heirs. But it’s not just that “you can’t take it with you.” If you’re not careful, it might just bring you down with it!

Wealth is dangerous because, according to Proverbs 28:11, it has a potential delusion-inducing effect. “The rich are wise in their own eyes” the text says. This makes sense. “Hey,” I may say to myself, “look at all the money I was able to make. I must be a pretty smart and intelligent and good and worthy. You know, I probably even deserve all this.” This language sounds pretty reasonable doesn’t it? It sounds reasonable to me, and it’s exactly the kind of language we’re warned about.

Moses warned Israel about this kind of pride. “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful not to forget the LORD your God… You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth…” (Deuteronomy 18:10ff). Failing to remember God’s provision ultimately leads to pride, to being “wise in your own eyes.”

I am reminded of Proverbs 3:7 “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.” And I am reminded of Proverbs 16:18 “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Agur, who wrote part of the book of Proverbs wisely prayed, “give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’” (Proverbs 30:8-9)

This path to destruction is well worn. God brings blessings. Our sinful nature causes us to forget the source of those blessings. We’re deluded into believing it came from our own wisdom, independent of God. We become “wise in our own eyes,” forget God, and are filled with pride. Then we face the same fate as the rich fool in Luke 12. We see how much we have earned, build bigger barns to store all our stuff, imagine our life of future comfort and pleasure, and then face the judgment. “This is how it will be,” Jesus says, “with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

How can we avoid the delusions of wealth? 1 Timothy 6:17-19 gives us the answer:

17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

Put your hope in God. Be rich in good deeds. Be generous and willing to share. In this way we take hold of the life that is truly life.

God’s justice, human justice, and individual ethics

In recent discussions relating to the death penalty I have discovered that I make distinctions when I speak about justice. Sometimes I am referring to God’s absolute justice, sometimes to a “common grace” form of justice revealed to humans, and sometimes I am referring to individual ethics. I think it’s important that we recognize that these three forms of justice not only stand in continuity, but are also distinct in some important ways.

God’s Justice

God is eternally just and fair. All justice flows from his character. God’s justice is absolute and universal. It springs both from his eternal love and holiness.

According to God’s justice, in our sin every person deserves death (“for the wages of sin is death”) and eternal seperation from God. Even a single sin we might call small seperates us from God and puts us under his eternal wrath. This might seem unfair to us as humans but this is both just and fair because of the eternal character of God. Thankfully that’s not the end of the story.

God sent Jesus who died on the cross for our sin. In doing so, Jesus took the penalty for our sin. God’s justice was applied to Jesus, who experienced seperation and death on our behalf. If we come to Jesus in faith God is just in applying the penalty of our sin to Jesus and Jesus’ righteousness to us. In the cross, God’s love and justice meet. In God’s justice, then, even a murderer like Paul, can find forgiveness and eternal life in place of guilt and eternal death. Again, this may seem unfair to some, but it is in line with the absolute justice of God.

Human Justice

What would happen if we attempted to apply God’s absolute justice to human interactions? I think that would be problematic to say the least. If we applied the punishment part we have justification for severely punishing even minor offenses! If we applied only the merciful part of God’s justice we would never have grounds for any punishment. “Oh, you killed somebody? Don’t worry, Jesus took your sentence, you can go free.”

So why shouldn’t we apply God’s justice to human interaction? I can think of at least three reasons. (1) We’re not authorized to take the place of God. (2) We’re dealing with a different set of relationships. God’s justice as described above relates to humanity’s relationship with God. Justice as it plays out in societies has to do with our relationship with one another.* (3) God does give us guidelines for justice and they are not in relation to God’s absolute justice.

So what guideliness does God give us for justice? This is a complex question and a probably even more complex answer. But, my overly simplistic answer is that God has revealed to us through common grace (conscience) and through Scripture a system of both rights and duties that we are obligated to uphold (in the case of rights) or perform (in the case of duties). As an example: I have a duty to feed and care for my two small children. The civil law rightly calls my failure to perform this duty “neglect.” And, I have a right to life, which means that to take my life is a deprivation of my right. The law rightly calls this deprivation of the right to life “murder.” If someone commits an offense – does not perform a necessary duty or deprives someone of a fundamental right – they are subject to just punishment and that punishment should be proportionate to the crime. Disprortionately small punishment for a major crime (slap on the wrist for murder) or disproportionately serious punishment for minor infractions (lifetime improsonment for stealing some bread) are considered unjust and unfair. Likewise, punishing someone who is not guilty, or failing to punish some who is guilty, is also both unjust and unfair. For shorthand, I refer to this system of justice “proportionate retributive justice.”

Just because something is “just” or “fair,” however, doesn’t mean we’re authorized to take action. If somebody steals stuff out of my house, it might be “fair” for me to go steal stuff from them, but that doesn’t mean it would be right for me to do that. Instead, it would be right for me to report the theft to the authorities and leave justice in their hands. This is by God’s design. Not everyone is authorized to inflict just punishment. From Romans 13, anyway, it appears that that obligation and authorization is reserved for those whom God specifically grants authority.

Individual Ethics

I need to make one final distinction, though. Individuals, especially believers, are driven in their ethics by more than justice. For instance, I would argue that there is no just duty to support a particular little girl in Indonesia to whom I am not related. Yet, I believe that I should support her in order to fulfill God’s command to generosity and caring for the poor. In other words, I believe I have personal ethical responsibilities and duties that go beyond the kind of justice described above.

Additionally, I believe that I am personally obligated to love my enemy and to, on purpose, take efforts to be reconciled to them, even though to do so would not fit the picture of “justice” above. If somebody hits me, not only am I not authorized to hit them back but I am obligated to revoke vengeance and be open to reconciliation if it is possible. In other words, I give up my right to justice because of a personal ethic.

How this plays out

Here’s how this distinction plays out. I’ll use a personal and minor infraction. Somebody stole my laptop out of our church one Sunday morning.

Personally, I should give up any vengeance against them. If they came to me asking for forgiveness, I am obligated to forgive them.

In regards to the State, if they were caught and proved guilty, it would be just for the State to impose some proportionate (probably minor) penalty.

In regards to God, their eternal destiny is only dependent on whether they accept free salvation offered in Christ. God would be just in either condemning them or saving them based on their decision. For their sake, I hope they choose to obey God and believe in Jesus.

What do you think? Is this distinction helpful? Does it make sens? Or, is it contradictory?