Category Archives: Christianity

The two paradigm shifts that finally helped me find peace with the doctrine of election

This post isn’t a defense of a theological position, though it contains a fair amount of theology. Instead, it’s the story of my theological journey (thus far) regarding the doctrine of election. I’m not even exactly sure how to categorize where I currently stand, or where I would fall on some Calvinist/Arminian spectrum.

When I was a teenager most of my angst, as near as I can recall, came from three places – worry about why I didn’t have a girlfriend, fear of death, and frustration that I either could not understand, or did not want to accept, certain theological positions of those around me. I found the doctrine of election, of predestination, particularly noxious. To me it was an offense to man’s free will and to God’s love and justice. I believed that God could simply not be good if God predestined certain people for salvation, and not others. And, since God was good (to think otherwise is certainly the most terrifying of all possible realities) predestination must be false and so I sought every possible escape hatch I could find. This feeling persisted into my college years, and I think that the book Why I’m Not a Calvinist still sits on one of my bookshelves. It’s been a number of years since I read it and I remember it being quite good. I would still recommend it (along with other complementary books on the subject).

Since that time I’ve had two major paradigm shifts in my thinking that have helped me “find peace” with the doctrine of election. The first one was in my conception of God. The second one was in my conception of the doctrine itself. It’s important that both came to me at about the same time. I should say that the two were in process at the same time since each was years in the making.

I’m telling this story now because in a couple of months I will begin preaching through the book of Ephesians, and right from the start Paul declares that God “chose us in [Jesus] before the creation of the world… in love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:4-5). The topic is inescapable. And since I want to be faithful to the whole council of God, I’m preparing now for what I plan to say on the subject.

Paradigm shift #1: From formula to Person

The first paradigm shift started when I was a freshman in High School, though it took years to come to fruition. During that time I began to realize that God was not a formula to be solved, but a Person to be known and trusted. In my theological wrestling I was trying to reduce God to a series of finite propositions. The problem with this methodology was that it rested on a misunderstanding of who God was. I wanted him to conform to my understanding of things like justice and love and fairness. But if God was really God, this was never going to work, and through God’s grace he let a light bulb come on in my head. I realized then that God was a Person who could be known – even if not fully known – and who could be trusted – even if I didn’t understand all of his actions. When that happened all I needed was to know two things about God, that he was good and that he was powerful. From there I could simply trust his person that he would never do anything which violated those two first principles. Instead of deciding whether or not God was good based on based on my judgment, I accepted that he was good, and adjusted my judgment accordingly. I didn’t need to understand everything anymore, I just needed to trust him.

The second major step logically flowed from the first but the foot didn’t fall for me until I took Systematic Theology in Seminary some 13(?) years later. My professor, Mike Wittmer, was explaining that certain elements of God’s divinity were incomprehensible to finite minds. In the created realm certain things could not be true – something could not be three and one at the same time – but in the uncreated realm this was possible. Hence, the Trinity. These attributes of God are therefore a mystery to us which will never be understood but which are no less true. Furthermore, God is glorified in this mystery, because it helps us know that we are really talking about God and not something devised by man. If we could fully understand or quantify God, then it would be likely that we were really speaking of something other than God. Such is the case with the apparent paradox between God’s election and man’s free will. It would seem, from the human perspective, that either man is free or God is sovereign. The one would destroy the other. If God chooses, then man’s “choice” is a mere illusion. If man chooses, then God is not fully sovereign (at least, not the the kind of sovereignty required by the doctrine of election). But in the uncreated realm, man’s freedom and God’s sovereignty can exist without contradiction. It’s a mystery. And, for my story anyway, that was a big paradigm shift.

At the time I had an objection: My professor argued that God’s mystery added to his glory. My argument was that it was not God’s mystery which added to his glory but his revelation. Isn’t Jesus, God’s ultimate self-disclosure, “the radiance of God’s glory?” I still think I had a point, but now I know that the flaw in my argument was that it was a false dichotomy. God is glorified in his mystery (because then we know we are reaching towards the divine) and in his revelation (because then we know the character of his divinity: his holiness, his justice, his love).

Paradigm shift #2: A shift in how I understood the doctrine of election

The second shift had to do with how I understood the doctrine of election. This shift is connected (though I don’t know the nature of the relationship) to a broader shift in my thinking – from an individualistic worldview to a community oriented worldview. For a long time everything was connected to the individual, and the individual only. This was particularly true in my theological thinking. It’s all about me and my relationship with Jesus. The broader community – the church – exists solely for the purpose of helping individuals come to know Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, to get out of hell, and to live a reasonably holy life. I perceived election in the same paradigm – God capriciously picking out some random assortment of individuals for personal salvation. For fairly obvious reasons this seemed blatantly unfair (especially if human free will was a mere illusion and so man had no real say in the matter). Now, I don’t want to discount the importance of the individual’s relationship with God. We all will ultimately stand on our own before the judgment seat and we are each accountable for our own response to God. But sometime around my time in Seminary I added an important component to my faith: a more robust theology of community.

Specifically, I began to see the connection between a believer’s “election” and God’s election of Israel. God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (individuals, to be sure) in order to create for himself a community and a nation. That nation, Israel, was God’s chosen people. They were his elect. As members of his chosen people they received certain privileges: the law, the prophets, the priestly system, victory in battle, supernatural abundance from the land, etc. They also had certain responsibilities: a requirement to follow the law or experience the weight of the curses and exile from the land. They had a mission: to be a light to the surrounding nations. God’s election of Israel, then, was both exclusive and inclusive. It was exclusive in the sense that out of all the nations God only chose Israel. It was inclusive in the sense that if other nations were to see Israel acting out its mission they could themselves glorify God and be “saved.” Consider Ninevah. The story of Jonah includes the story of their repentance and salvation, even though they were not part of God’s people. Or consider Ruth. She began as a foreigner, but through faith she became a member of the people of God. She joined the elect.

Israel never quite fulfilled its mission as the people of God. It consistently turned to idols and therefore experienced the curse of the law and was sent into exile. Even after its return from exile and renewal of the covenant, it remained a shadow of what it was.

But the mission of the elect was fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is the “chosen one” par excellence. Those who are united to Jesus through faith become part of the chosen people. To borrow the metaphor from Paul: “You [Gentiles] have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root” (Romans 11:17). Notice the connection between predestination and our relationship to Christ in Ephesians. We were chosen “in him”. We were predestined for adoption “through Christ.” Later in Ephesians 1 Paul states the “we were also chosen in him, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity to the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of salvation” (Ephesians 1:11-13a). I added the italics to highlight the progression of the “we” who are chosen and predestined as a first to put their hope in Christ to the “you” who were later included in Christ when they heard and believed the gospel. When that happened, it could be well said that they are part of the “us” who were “chosen in him before the creation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4).

The implications of this paradigm shift for the doctrine of election are significant for me. Most importantly, it emphasizes the responsibilities and mission of the people of God. Israel’s mission was to be a a light to the Gentiles by faithfully holding to the covenant and bringing the prophetic warning of coming judgment. The church has a more explicit mission, to invite people to become united to Jesus through faith and, in so doing, become part of the people of God. It adds an inclusive element to what is usually seen as a radically exclusive doctrine.

But I want to hasten to add that this new paradigm does not remove the mystery of God. For me, this explains well how Paul is using “chosen” and “predestined” in Ephesians, but it doesn’t carry as easily over to Romans 9 where we see another sort of glory revealed: The glory of God’s sovereignty to show mercy on whom he will show mercy, apart from human will. When I read Romans 9 I always need to fall back onto my first paradigm shift and decide to trust God, not my ability to solve an equation. I’m not sure I will ever (on this side of glory) be fully satisfied with Paul’s answer to the question posed in Romans 9:19 (Q: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will? A: “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?”), but I know my Father in heaven well enough, and I see his love and goodness clearly enough, to find rest in him.

Refugees and immigrants: A case study in Christian political engagement

Immigration, either from Mexico, or through refugees coming from Syria or surrounding nations fleeing from war and violence, is a hot topic in the news these days, and an important one for Christians to think critically about. There’s a lot on the line, both for those immigrants seeking a better life, or really any life at all, and (potentially) the future of America.

The purpose of this post isn’t to take one position or another, at least not a national political position, but to think about how this issues is understood through different lenses, and then think critically of the various positions being held. [Edit: Upon further reflection, this didn’t quite turn out to be true, see the quote from O. Alan Noble below which reflects the sort of position I find most compelling.]

What is clear

What is clear is that Christians ought to have compassion for those in other countries who are seeking to escape from war, violence, persecution, or extreme poverty and that Christians ought to have compassion for those neighbors in the United States who are especially vulnerable to injustice – including immigrants. As I have elsewhere argued, and where many others have been doing for a while now, the Old Testament is full of instructions to care for widows, orphans, and aliens living within the land. The call to care for strangers and sojourners is directly tied to Israel’s status as foreigners and strangers in Egypt. This principle in the Old Testament is consistent with the general principle of all Scripture that Christians should have compassion (that leads to material care) for those who are especially vulnerable. I can’t think of a single Christian I know – Republican or Democrat, Trump supporter or Trump detractor – who doesn’t agree with this.

What is less clear

What is significantly less clear is what role the Civil Government – in this case the American government – should do.

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Imagine that it was the “Right” that was calling for more open borders and the “Left” that was calling for tighter borders and controls and let’s also imagine that the “Right” was still heavily populated with evangelical Christians who were using the Scriptural argument above as a key part of their argument. I can picture the complaint of the “Left” already: You need to leave God out of politics. We live in a secular world. Do you want us to adopt all the laws of the Old Testament, too? Do you want us to become a theocracy!?

I think that the current more-open-borders-because-we-should-have-compassion-because-the-bible-tells-me-to position (sorry, I should shorten that name) is at least somewhat open to that charge. That position, to the extent that it argues for a one-to-one relationship between Israel and the United States, ironically makes the same mistake that it often complains those of the “Moral Majority” school of making.

The conservative argument against the more “compassionate” position of those calling for more admission of refugees is that, while it’s the role of the church and individual Christians to show compassion, it’s the role of the Civil government to restrain evil by bringing about justice for its citizens and protecting its borders from outside threats. If more immigration and refugees pose a threat to the people of this nation, then it would be the role of the government to protect its citizens by enacting greater controls, more “extreme vetting,” building a wall, or even banning immigration from certain countries.

I am sympathetic to this argument because I generally believe that the sanctioned role of government is rather limited. I also find it somewhat ironic, since those arguing in this way want to see religion and religious beliefs play a larger role in government in many other areas.

(As an aside, since I can’t help but compare most political issues back to abortion, it’s interesting to note that one of the legal justifications for abortion is that you’re not a citizen until you are born. Only citizens have rights under the constitution so only babies which have been born have the right to life (regardless of whether or not they are living humans, which they are). On the other side of the political spectrum, I’ve seen conservatives argue that non-citizens (read: refugees) don’t have rights since they are non-citizens while liberals argue for a more inclusive vision for mankind that doesn’t worry so much about citizenship.)

And so on one side of the spectrum we have a very simple God-and-government position: The Bible tells us to be compassionate towards strangers and foreigners and the vulnerable so we should have a more open immigration system. And on the other side we have a very simple separation-of-Church-and-State position: Yes, we need to be compassionate as individuals and a church but it’s the role of government to protect its own citizens from threats and not to worry about non-citizens.

A muddy middle

It should come as no surprise, if you’ve made it this far, that I want to argue for a more nuanced position than either two extremes. I admit it’s not fleshed out, but I will state my position as follows: I want a government that acts within its own realm of responsibilities and within its own character in a way that is informed by a biblical worldview. Let me unpack that:

A government that acts within its own realm of responsibilities. I don’t want my government to do everything or to take the role of the church or the role of the family. There are some “goods” which, while nevertheless good, are not the task of a civil/secular government to do. I don’t want my government doing evangelism or running church services, for instance. But, it is within the realm of the government to regulate its borders and it’s also within the realm of the government to act justly towards all mankind in a way that acknowledges a shared humanity (more on that last part in this post). It might not be the role of the government to care for refugees, but it might be the role of the government to make it possible for kind-hearted, gospel-driven citizens to do just that.

A government that acts within its own character. This may be a specifically American desire but America was founded on certain principles which I would hate to see lost or trampled on. Two of those principles are religious freedom and equality of persons. So, when Muslims are specifically targeted for exclusion, or when Mexican immigrants are demonized, we are acting outside of our character as a nation.

A government informed by a biblical worldview. I’m not saying I want a theocratic state, but I do want my government to be informed by a biblical worldview. In this case, I want it to be informed by an ethic of compassion towards the vulnerable as described in the Old Testament injunctions cited above, and then weigh that against relative threats to security and then act wisely and justly towards all people.

What we have then are (potentially) competing interests. The government ought to act in the best interests of its citizens – including security – and it ought to act in a way informed by biblical compassion for those who are especially vulnerable – including non-citizens. This is a muddy middle, perhaps, but it’s also the hard work of governance.

O. Alan Noble suggests just this sort of balanced position, arguing for community-based resettlement programs that makes room for the church to help refugees integrate into those communities. Addressing Muslim immigration in particular he states:

“Both extremes [Islamophobia and Mass Immigration] carry tremendous rhetorical weight in an election year, but neither reflects the kind of resettlement we actually do in the US. Carefully planned, community-based resettlement programs can help those in need, strengthen communities, offer new opportunities to share the gospel, and mitigate the major concerns about Muslim immigration.”

Two final notes

In many cases, the threat which immigrants and refugees plays to the American public seems to be trumped up out of proportion to the actual threat (see Ed Stetzer’s CT article). Sometimes immigration is even framed as an outside invasion, and not as families desperately seeking to get out of a horrible situation (which I think more accurately characterizes the vast majority of circumstances). We shouldn’t be naïve about the possibility of danger, but we should try to be accurate about just what danger there might be.

What if the government closes its borders entirely? What can Christians in America do then? Well, even before that happens the most direct way to help refugees for most of us is by working through organizations which have contact with refugees oversees. At the end of last year my family was able to contribute to Syrian refugee relief through the SBC.  If we want to care for immigrants and refugees, we need to do more than just complain about our government (though I have long maintained the role of advocacy) but be willing to be creative about how we can directly or indirectly love our neighbors in Jesus’s name.

In Defense of School Vouchers

Update 11/28/2017 – When it comes to education I’m guided by the following principles. (1) I want parents to have a real choice in the education of their children – public/private, religious/secular, homeschooling. (2) I want this to be a choice for all parents, irregardless of income. (3) To the extent that this is seen as competing with quality public education is a problem but, ultimately, a false dichotomy. (4) The devil is in the details and I’m far less certain about those.

Original Post:

Donald Trump recently picked Betsy DeVos to be his secretary of education. She’s a controversial pick for several reasons and I am certainly not qualified to say one way or another on whether she is a good choice. But one of the reasons why she is controversial is because she is a proponent of school vouchers, the idea that parents who want to send their children to a private school could get money from the state to do so. As I understand it, they would get the equivalent of what it would cost the state to educate their child in a public school. This is a complex issue but I want to offer my own brief defense of the policy.

Public State Schools are Not Religiously Neutral

I would not always have defended the idea of education vouchers and my main reason would have been that this would have constituted a breach of the separation of church and state (see objection 2 below). My thinking was this: Public schools are religiously neutral institutions. Religious education should take place in the home and in the church/mosque/synagogue. Religious schools, by my estimation were, by and large, a luxury, and Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) parents who wanted to give their children a “religious education” were at no real disadvantage if they could not afford a private school.

Several things shifted my thinking on this, but all fall under the realization that my assumption that public schools were religiously neutral was deeply flawed. First, was my experience of being married to a science teacher at a Christian school that worked hard to integrate all the subjects with a Christian worldview. This helped me break down the spiritual/physical dualism that had tainted my theology, especially me theology of education. Second, I read several books which should how modern thinking was, at many points, fundamentally at odds with the biblical worldview and, importantly, that it was therefore necessary to have “thick” communities of faith which infused the Christian worldview at every level (see Leslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society and Stanley Hauerwas’ Resident Aliens.

Third, I came to the realization that the government establishes state schools to meet its own ends as a state. Such a school will not be morally neutral but will serve the “civil religion” of the nation, even if done in secular terms. Indeed, I have concluded that we have a civil religion in our nation which is not religiously neutral and, indeed, is often antithetical to the Christian worldview which Christian parents are tasked with passing along to their children.  Francis Schaeffer puts it like this:

“In the United States the materialistic, humanistic world view is being taught in most state schools. … We must never forget that the humanistic position is an exclusivist, closed system which shuts out all contending viewpoints – especially if these views teach anything other than relative values and standards. Anything which presents absolute truth, values, or standards is quite rightly seen by the humanist to be a total denial of the humanistic position.” (A Christian Manifesto)

These conclusions have led my wife and I to choose to send our children to a private Christian school. I do not think this is a mandate for all Christian parents – there are many other factors at play here – but my wife and I feel sufficiently compelled to use Christian education as a key tool as we seek to disciple our children. Many other Christian parents have come to the same conclusion (as well as Jewish and Muslim). My point is this: Children who go to public schools still get a religious education. They are still taught a worldview. And, in many ways, that “humanist, materialist” worldview will stand in opposition to the biblical worldview. State schools are not religiously neutral institutions.

Lower-Income parents who do not want their children educated in State schools are at a distinct disadvantage

This means that religious parents who don’t want their children being taught a competing worldview will essentially have to pay twice for the education of their children. First, they pay for their education by paying their taxes, collected and distributed as the state sees fit. Second, they pay for their education by sending their child to a private school.

This also means that poorer parents will not be able to send their children to private schools. Private schooling is expensive. While in some cases a school or church can offer a certain number of scholarships, the cost of private education makes it impossible for many even middle-income parents, and for nearly all lower-income parents.

If private education is a luxury, then this isn’t a big deal. But, if private education is an essential part of being able to pass along important aspects of your worldview and not having it undermined by an education designed to serve the purposes of the state, then asking a specific group of parents – religious ones – to double pay for their education seems to only unfair, but unjust.

Objections

Two objections are typically raised. First, that providing parents with vouchers which they can use to pay for a portion of their education at a religious school amounts to a breach of the separation of church and state since, presumably, it means tax dollars being sent to a religious institution. My first response would be to say that state schools are also not religiously neutral institutions, they simply express their religious tenants in secular/humanist terms. My second response would be that the money allocated is simply what the person would have (on average) paid into the tax pool. For more on this check out the Supreme Court Ruling Zelman v. Simmons-Harris which includes a five point Private Choice Test for constitutionality.

The second objection is that this would involve taking money away from public schools. That could certainly be the case but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, if it did cut into money allocated to public schools I would favor overall increases to education funding in order to close the gap.

Conclusion

For the sake of time I had to leave out a lot. My wife and I are fine with “double paying” so that we can send our children to a private school. God has blessed us with the means to do so and I am happy that I can contribute to the public school system. There are many things which I appreciate about public schools and I am beyond grateful for the teachers in my own public school, several of whom were great Christians and mentors. Nevertheless, I believe that many parents who see religious education as an obligation and who fear their own worldviews are being undermined in the state schools are financially unable to send their children to their school of choice. It is those parents for whom I believe a voucher system would be both fair and just.

Appendix: The strongest objection

There’s a final objection for which I do not yet have a response. For a school to be able to be able to participate in a school voucher program it would need to meet certain qualifications. Those qualifications would be determined by the government. For instance, in a school voucher program in Ohio that was deemed constitutional (see Zelman v. Simmons-Harris) participating schools were not allowed to have faith as one of the considerations for enrollment. This would have disqualified the school to which we send our daughter. And, for many religious schools, this would be a deal breaker. At some point, the qualifications for participation could undermine the purpose of the school, but it’s hard to see a way around the state – even if through a third party accreditation agency – requiring some level of oversight.

I stand by my post as “a” defense of school vouchers since I think they are, indeed, defensible. But it’s possible that there are simply too many complicating factors to doing them well. Or it’s possible that those challenges can be overcome. Or, perhaps there are other options available and as yet unexplored. So, this post is “a defense”, but certainly not the “definitive defense.”

Connecting the dots between service and spiritual growth

The focus in 1 Corinthians 12-14 (and the focus of tomorrow’s sermon) is the spiritual growth – the “edification” – of the congregation; not necessarily the spiritual growth of the individual. But it’s worth asking, how does using your spiritual gifts contribute to your own spiritual growth? Here are a few answers:

Understanding that all gifts have a source in God (12:4-6) – and not in ourselves – enables us to have the sort of humility necessary to kill our pride and follow God. That truth also enables us to respond in worship and gratitude, the hallmarks of Christian obedience.

By using our gifts for the purpose for which they are intended – the common good (12:7) – in a community where others are doing the same, we can be built up far more than we ever could be on our own. The sorts of gifts described here are not lost when they are used, but are multiplied. You are able to benefit not only from the gifts God has given you, but from the gifts God has given others.

By seeing that every gift has a role to play, and that the diversity within the body is essential to its proper working, we can move from the immature mindset of dependence, and the arrogant mindset of complete independence, to the mature mindset of interdependence. This mindset is essential because it corresponds both with the world in which we actually live, and the community in which God intends us to live. We can only truly recognize this reality when we actively participate by using our gifts.

Most importantly, though, the use of gifts to serve other people is how we put action to the command to love God and love our neighbor. Following Jesus in this way is the best way to grow into spiritual maturity and become more like Christ.

On Comparisons between King David and Presidential Candidates

Several years ago a church in our area went through a very nasty split. The pastor had been caught in serious sin but refused to let go of the church or give up the pastorate. This pastor, and those devoted to him, warned detractors that they faced the judgment of God if they went up against the “Lord’s anointed.” His call was not from men, but directly from God. When other leaders in the church objected that his sin disqualified him from ministry he compared himself with King David and thus only accountable to God. The church eventually expelled him from ministry (and is doing great as far as I can tell) and this pastor planted a new church, right around the corner from my house. While this whole thing was going on a friend asked me to weigh in on how the comparison between the role of pastor and the role of King of Israel. As a response I wrote the post “Dear Pastor, You are Not King David”, which is still one of the most viewed posts on this blog.

I’m seeing this same comparison to King David a lot recently. This time it’s not in the context of the role of pastor, but the role of President. I have seen this comparison used, so far exclusively, to defend Donald Trump. I really do understand why some reasonable people feel as though it is responsible (though messy) and necessary (though painful) to vote for Donald Trump in order to prevent Hillary Clinton from appointing judges who will set back both religious liberty and abortion laws for decades. I disagree with this argument (as stated here and here) but I can understand it. But what pains me as a pastor is when I see sloppy, and dangerous, interpretations of Scripture, used purely for political reasons. I have become too numb to try to argue with anyone to vote or not vote for a particular candidate. But I am still passionate that Scripture not be abused for political reasons. If I had seen this argument once I would have ignored it, but it has become prevalent enough to warrant a response.

Allow me to restate how the argument is framed: God has used all kinds of people throughout history to carry out his will, even people who were morally sketchy. He used David, who committed adultery and murder. He used Samson who was hot tempered and easily seduced. Maybe God is using Trump in the same way. Trump has good policies (so the argument goes, though I personally have serious issues with some of them) and his character is not great, but God has used people of poor character in the past so we shouldn’t worry about Trump.

Let’s see what’s wrong with this argument:

First, it ignores the big differences between Israel and America in terms of government and selection of leaders. Israel was a theocracy. God ruled the nation through the king which he directly appointed, first through the prophet Samuel and then through family succession. In America, we have a democracy selected by the people. In Israel, the individual people took no responsibility for the selection of its leaders. In America, we do. We are called to act responsibly, seeking to love God and love our neighbors.

Second, and relatedly, it confuses God’s sovereign will with God’s moral will. Since these are theological terms, I will take some time to explain. In short, God’s sovereign will is what he actually does in history.  One of those things is the establishment of authorities. God established David and Solomon. He also established Barack Obama. I know that God set up Barack Obama as the president because that’s what happened in history and God is sovereign over history. If Trump becomes President, then that’s who God made president. If it’s Clinton, then a Clinton presidency is within God’s sovereign will. In accomplishing God’s sovereign will he will sometimes establish good leaders and he will sometimes establish bad leaders. Sometimes it’s a blessing for the nation. Sometimes it’s an act of judgment. (It’s hard to not view this election in terms of God’s (well deserved) judgment on our nation.) We don’t know God’s sovereign will until it happens.

God’s moral will, on the other hand, is what God wants us as humans to do. He wants us to love Him. He wants us to love our neighbors. He wants us to obey his commands. God has revealed his moral will to us in Scripture and he commands us to live in accordance with his moral will. To do this requires discernment and wisdom. We have to act on what we know is right and wrong and we have to act during times of moral ambiguity. Sometimes we have to think “what is most likely to occur?” or, perhaps, “what from Scripture tells me what I should expect will happen?”

Let’s bring this back around to the comparison between Donald Trump and King David. The comparison points to God’s sovereign will – God has, throughout history, used morally suspect leaders for a good purpose. This is, of course, true. And we should thank God for his mercy. But the conclusion – we should not worry about morally suspect leaders – does not follow. We should instead be asking the question – what from Scripture should we expect will happen if we elect a wicked person?

That brings me to number three. These comparisons cherry pick David and forget both the consequence of his sin and the history of Israel. Israel’s history is a pretty bleak one. The nation was quickly divided and conquered by outside forces. Why? What happened? Again and again the nation was ruled by kings who turned away from God and thus incurred his judgment. They were idolaters. They were wicked. They were proud. And they caused the nation to fall. And where did that seed of wickedness and judgment begin? There were seeds of it already in David. Does this in some way nullify God’s sovereign action? Am I saying God made the wrong choice? By no means. What I’m saying is that the moral character of the leaders of Israel contributed to its ultimate downfall.

I think we have reason to expect the same thing in this case. Let’s consider two more pieces of Scripture. First, take note of a pair of Proverbs in chapter 28. Verses 12 and 28 basically say the same thing: “when the wicked rise to power, people go into hiding.” Why do people go into hiding when the wicked rise to power? Because wickedness leads to injustice, and injustice to suffering. There is a direct correlation between the wickedness of the leader and the fear of the people. Second, it is wise to note that there are qualifications given for elders and deacons and that those qualifications have to do with the character of those being selected for leadership. Why are those qualifications in place? Because for a church to survive it needs leaders who have character. A wicked church leader guts and destroys a church, even if his theology is otherwise excellent. He will bully the flock. He will take advantage of it. Can God still use such a man for good purposes? You bet, and he has, but God has given his church the responsibility to act in accordance with his moral will.

But, you say, we aren’t looking for a pastor (or elder or deacon), we’re looking for a President. We don’t need someone who is a choir boy. Those qualifications for elders/deacons don’t apply here. You’re right. Those qualifications don’t apply. But the principle still applies. Character matters in leadership. Maybe there is a different set of qualifications, but character still matters.

Fourth, these comparisons are inevitably paired with a minimization of sin. I don’t think they necessarily have to, but they always are. Trump’s language isn’t abusive and lewd, it’s “locker room talk.” He’s just not PC. He can be “a little rude,” or “a little crude.” He “has faults.” He’s “not polished.” Sorry, but this minimization of sin is not becoming for believers in the gospel. Vote for him if you must but at least be honest. It’s a harsh conclusion I know but from my judgment Trump is a “wicked” man. He is a bully. He is full of pride and arrogance. His sexual liaisons and speech prove not only that he is unfaithful, but that he is a “fool” in the biblical sense of the word. He is a chronic liar. Friends, let’s not minimize this. If we seek to justify him because he has the “right policies” then we lose our credibility and prophetic voice, and we desperately need both of those. We’re called to speak truth to the powerful and the weak, to our enemies and our allies. Let’s do that. Let’s not cover up what is going on here.

As soon as these comparisons happen (either for pastors or Presidential candidates) I see Christians turn off their moral radar and begin justifying sin. Every time. Either it’s that the sin isn’t so bad (he just fell once, we need to show mercy, let he who is without sin cast the first stone) or it suddenly doesn’t matter because we’re not dealing with an ordinary individual. We’re dealing with God’s chosen. We’re dealing with the “anointed.” We’re dealing with someone who is called be God to sweep in and save America from evil Hillary.

Yes, those were words I read, and they were written without a hint of irony. Trump took the place of God in Isaiah 40. Trump became, for this “Christian” writer, the one through whom God would save, through whom God would reign. Friends, such words are borderline blasphemy. Our anointed Savor and Lord is none other than Jesus Christ and Him alone!

So, where does that leave us? I believe that character matters. Must the President be perfect. No, I don’t think so. But we need to use wisdom and judgment to ask, what characteristics are necessary for him to act in such way that will provide justice for my neighbor. I think honesty matters. Faithfulness. Humility. A teachable spirit. Fairness. Care for others. A willingness to be wrong. Coolness under pressure. Etc. All of these things will affect how a President leads and thus whether or not such a presidency would be good for my neighbor.

Judge for yourself. We are in difficult times and the situation is complex. Search the Scripture and search the heart of God. But whatever you choose, seek God’s moral will. God will handle his sovereign will. Thanks be to God that he can use anyone for any purpose. But make your decisions based on his revealed Word.

God bless,

Steve

Seven ways reading (and applying) Scripture contributes to spiritual growth

How does reading (and applying) Scripture contribute to spiritual growth? Here are seven answers from Scripture itself.

The Bible is a source of knowledge. The Bible is God’s revelation to us. The Bible does not give us everything there is to know, but it gives us what we need in order to know and please Him. While right knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to right action, right knowledge is necessary for right action. When we read the Bible we attend ourselves to the Source of all true knowledge.

The Bible is a source of light and guidance. The knowledge that we receive from the word has a particular quality – it is a light and guide in our lives (Psalm 119:105). In this journey of life there are many perils, many pits we can fall into, many ways we can get off track. The Bible lights the way. Instead of stumbling around in the darkness we can see clearly where we are going. Most importantly, we can see Jesus, the light of the world, and follow in his footsteps.

The Bible is a source of wisdom. Wisdom can be described as “applied knowledge.” The Bible doesn’t only grant knowledge but it teaches us how it ought to be applied. The psalmist says that because he meditates on God’s laws he is “wiser than [his] enemies” and has “more insight than all of [his] teachers” (Psalm 119:98-99). This wisdom gives us skill in living. It helps us see what is coming down the road. It gives us the long-term perspective, the eternal perspective, and, of critical importance, God’s perspective.

The Bible is a like a nourishing root system. Psalm 1:2-3 describes the righteous man as the one “whose delight is in the law of the LORD and who meditates on his day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose lead does not with – whatever he does prospers.” The tree is firmly planted. It is secure. It produces fruit. God’s word nourishes our souls and it keeps us firmly rooted in the faith, indeed by pointing us continually to the person and work of God it roots us in God himself. And, as we are rooted, we will bear spiritual fruit.

The Bible is a firm foundation. Ephesians 2:20 says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” The apostles and the prophets are those who gave us the New and the Old Testaments, both of which point us to Christ. The emphasis in Ephesians 2 is on the foundation of the church, but what is true of the church universal is also true in our lives. The truth of Scripture gives us a firm foundation. Like the trees root system this allows us to survive the storms of life. If we neglect Scripture, as individuals or as a church, our foundation will begin to crumble.

The Bible is a means of resisting temptation. One thing will always get in the way of our spiritual growth – the “sins which so easily entangle” (Hebrews 12:1). So how do we throw off those sins? By reading and applying Scripture. The psalmist states, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I may not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).

The Bible is an implanted seed. James 1 describes two kinds of birth and two things that grow. On the one hand there is evil desire, which grows and gives birth to sin, which in turn gives birth to death (James 1:14-15). On the other hand, God “chose to give us birth through the word of truth” (James 1:18). That word is also called the “word planted in you” (James 1:21). If we do what the word says, it will lead to freedom and spiritual blessing (James 1:25). When we read and apply Scripture it is like a seed growing within us which, by its nature, will bring about growth and spiritual fruit in the proper time.

 

Important note – Reading the Bible is not enough. When I was younger I thought of reading the Bible in an almost magical way. I assumed that as long as I read the Bible every day I would stop feeling tempted to sin. That didn’t happen. In fact, sometimes in seasons where I was reading the Bible the most the temptations were also the greatest, and so were my falls. At times, I became disillusioned and discouraged. But looking back I realized that I was doing what James warned about:

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (James 1:22)

I was assuming that listening was enough and so I was deceiving myself. I expected magic, when what God wanted was obedience.

Jesus gives the same warning in Matthew 7:24-27. Both the wise and the foolish man listen to the words of Jesus. But only the wise person puts them into practice. The foolish man hears, but fails to put it into practice.

So, if you want to grow spiritually, continue in the word. But know that just reading the Bible isn’t enough, it needs to be put into practice.

 

Conscience and voting for a pro-choice candidate

Some time ago Rachel Held Evans wrote a controversial article encouraging pro-life Christians to vote for Hillary Clinton. At the time I included a response (the post below) as an appendix to a separate blog post on what I mean when I say I will vote my conscience.

Now, as I watch my Christians friends react with horror – rightly – at Donald Trump’s latest words, I am seeing several of them openly consider a vote for Clinton. I can’t fault their decision to turn away from Trump. But, I want to caution against casting a vote for a pro-choice presidential candidate.

As always, I want to offer a few disclaimers: I am speaking in my personal capacity, not as a pastor. I am speaking for myself, not for my church. The issues are complex. I don’t know all – or even most – of the answers. I will not judge another’s conscience. I simply want to share my own thought process in the hope that it will be instructive and beneficial to others, and because I feel compelled to do what I can to protect and advocate for the unborn.

 

Why I can’t vote for a pro-choice presidential candidate: 

First, while perhaps some aspects of when exactly life begins are debate-able (fertilization/implantation) I think science and common sense, apart even from theology/revelation, puts it well before the baby actually exits the womb. And yet, Clinton doesn’t even oppose these late term abortions. The DNC’s shift left this year – including calling for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment – demonstrated that they are moving away from an “abortion should be legal but rare” position. This is disturbing.

Second, and related, while not every moral issue is a political issue, this one is. The fundamental role of government is to protect and promote basic human justice – including and especially the right to life. Abortion, then, falls into the scope of what governments are supposed to address. It also falls into the realm of what Christians should care about – concern for the most vulnerable of our neighbors.

Third, since abortion ends a human life, and since it is accepted culturally and protected politically, it falls into the realm of a systematic evil – much like slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional racism. It therefore needs to be opposed at the systematic, including the political, level. The laws surrounding abortion are unjust. We should advocate for the government to replace unjust laws with just ones, all while working the cultural and economic issues as well.

Fourth, voting for a pro-choice candidate – especially one as extreme as Clinton – is to offer at least my tacit approval to her position. In doing so I become a participant in the systematic evil. To do that, even if it serves some practical purpose, is dangerous and, for me at least, would not be done “in faith.”

Fifth, if my third point holds any water and abortion can be compared with slavery or institutional racism, then to argue that we should focus on the cultural/economic issues which make abortion in-demand is sadly comical. Can you imagine turning the same argument on slavery? (Well, since some Christians disagree about whether slavery is wrong – which they did at the time, shouldn’t we just focus on reducing the “economic necessity” of slavery? After all, racism is a cultural/moral issue and changing laws won’t “change hearts”).

As we see with this final example, and what I contend, is that when it comes to abortion, the issue is both cultural/economic/moral and political. Both are important. While Trump rules himself out on the economic/cultural/moral side of the equation. Clinton rules herself out on the political side.