Tag Archives: Christianity

Sermon Summary: Stand

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

Text: Ephesians 6:10-13

“Put on the full armor of God.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What sets Christianity apart from the other world religions?

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

  • Christianity has different holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which religions? 

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

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

A more precise argument

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

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

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

Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Resurrection: Does it matter?

A Christian friend once asked me, “Does it really matter if Jesus was raised from the dead?” Can we still have the Christian faith without the resurrection?

Let’s see what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. There was apparently a group of teachers in Corinth who were teaching against a final resurrection. But, says Paul, “if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised” (1 Cor 12:13). But if Christ has not been raised then “our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor 12:14).

If Christ was not raised:

  • The apostles were “false witnesses of God” (1 Cor 12:15) since they made the resurrection the foundation of their faith. And if they are false witnesses about the resurrection then we cannot trust any of their testimony.
  • “Your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 12:17). Jesus took the penalty for our sins on the cross, but it was His resurrection that proved Christ’s divinity. And His divinity is necessary for his sacrifice to be sufficient to cover the sins of the entire world. If he was not divine, his sacrifice could not cover the sins of the world, nor my sins, nor yours.
  • “Those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost” (1 Cor 15:18). Without the resurrection we don’t have a foundation for hope after death. Those who die are lost forever.
  • “We are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19). Christians are called to daily take up their cross and follow Jesus. The Christian life is one of sacrifice, which Paul knew first hand: “I face death every day… If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained” (1 Cor 15:31,32). Indeed, if Christ has not been raised then we should be hedonists: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Or, to put in another way: YOLO.

But, since Christ has been raised:

  • Not only has Christ been raised, but his bodily resurrection is available to those who put their faith in him. Why? Because He is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Cor 15:20)
  • The reign of death which came through Adam has been overcome by the resurrection, ushered in by Christ. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Christians are not merely children of Adam and inheritors of sin and death, but children of God, living now with his resurrection life (1 Cor 15:22).
  • Christ has defeated every enemy. In his death he disarms Satan by paying for our sins. In his resurrection he proves his power over death itself (1 Cor 15:23-26).
  • Our mortal, perishable, dishonorable, and weak bodies will be clothed with immortality, glory, and power (1 Cor 15:42-44).
  • Our “labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:59). What we do on this earth matters because it matters for eternity.

Must it be a bodily resurrection? Can’t we have the same sort of hopes with a mere spiritual resurrection? No. The Christian hope is not only a hope of being rescued from a fallen world (though it is), but of the redemption of the physical world, including the redemption of our physical bodies. Our final hope is not that our spirits will go to heaven to live with God, but that God will dwell with us on a new earth. We don’t have this final hope, though, if we don’t have the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Tim Keller’s three barriers to faith

In his introduction to The Reason for God Tim Keller shares some of his own spiritual journey and describes three “barriers” to embracing an orthodox Christian faith. I found his categorization especially helpful because these barriers resonate with many of the same barriers I see others experiencing today.

Keller’s religious upbringing vacillated between conservative and liberal forms of Christianity. The conservative side of his upbringing emphasized traditional Christian doctrines and the liberal side expressed doubts about those doctrines and emphasized social activism. Keller thought he saw something wrong in both of these camps:

“The people most passionate about social justice were moral relativists, while the morally upright didn’t seem to care about the oppression going on all over the world. I was emotionally drawn to the former path… But I kept asking the question, ‘If morality is relative, why isn’t social justice as well?’… [Yet] How could I turn back to the kind of orthodox Christianity that supported segregation in the South and apartheid in South Africa? Christianity began to seem very unreal to me…”

This “unreality” stemmed from three barriers that lay across his path; an intellectual barrier, a personal barrier, and a social barrier.

The intellectual barrier came from tough questions posed against Christianity: What about other religions? What about evil and suffering? What about God’s judgement? This barrier was overcome in part through reading books and examining arguments.

The personal, interior barrier, came from the transition from an inherited faith that rested on the authority of others, to a personal faith. This barrier couldn’t be overcome intellectually, but through Keller coming to grips with his own needs, flaws, and problems, and by developing a personal relationship with God.

The social barrier stemmed from his search for a group of Christians who cared about both justice and objective truth about God. Finding this group was an essential turning point for Keller.

These three barriers were intertwined and dependent upon each other. He didn’t work through them one at a time, but together.

I can especially relate to the first two barriers – the intellectual and the personal. My intellectual doubts were bound up with my personal struggles. And, as I worked out my relationship with God, some of my intellectual doubts became less difficult as I learned to simply trust God without knowing all the answers. Yet, the intellectual answers gave me more confidence that I was trusting in an objective reality, and not my own wishful thinking.

I was blessed with never having a major struggle with the social barrier. I have always been able to be part of a community of faith that, while always far from perfect, encouraged me and aided my spiritual journey.

Yet I see that many others either separate from a faith community because of the intellectual or personal barriers, which only makes those barriers more formidable, or the separation from the faith community precedes intellectual and personal barriers. In other words, the social barrier for many is tied inextricably to the personal and intellectual side of faith.

As a pastor concerned with helping people overcome barriers it’s important for me to see and properly diagnose these three barriers. Not every barrier is intellectual, or internal, or social. Intellectual answers won’t help everybody, at least not in the same way they did for me. Nor should we dismiss all intellectual questions as ways of avoiding the commands of God. And, we should see the importance of community, which give the context in which those struggling can overcome their personal and intellectual barriers.

Book Recommendation


The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism

A Positive Case for the Bible

In the last post I answered several objections to the Bible as God’s Word. In this post, I want to offer a positive case.

The Bible is unique

Why should we think that the Bible might be such a word from God in the first place? For one thing, the Bible claims this position for itself. That’s not sufficient to believe that it is, of course, but if it didn’t make that claim we could rule it out. Second, the Bible stands out among all the other books. Most astounding to me is its breadth, depth, diversity, and unity.

The Bible was written over a 1500-year period by over 40 authors. The authors were from different backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives. They spoke and wrote in different languages. They wrote using different literary genres. They spoke about many controversial topics. And yet, the Bible is remarkably unified. It tells a single grand story. All the pieces fit together (though how they fit together is often the topic of fierce debate). It bears all the marks of human authorship that you would expect from a such an array of authors, but its overall continuity speaks to a grander scheme.

The Bible transcends cultures. Each book, of course, is written in its own cultural context, with its own questions and concerns. Yet none of them simply accept the norms of the culture out of which they were written. They affirm and reject different aspects of that culture, and the basis of that affirmation or rejection is the same: the presence and character of an unchanging God. When the books of the Bible are taken together, we see clearly how the Bible stands above culture. This isn’t a typical line of reasoning for a defense of the Bible, but a book that transcends culture is what I would expect from a God who transcends culture.

A church member who just started reading her Bible came up to me and said, “the Bible is weird.” It sure is, and that’s often the case because it doesn’t fit our own cultural expectations. And what else should we expect from such a book, if it really came from God? Unless you think any single culture is the embodiment of the whole truth, you would expect such a book to affirm and challenge aspects of any culture in which it was written and is read.

The Bible constantly shows itself to be reliable

As I’ve read the Bible, it has shown itself to be a reliable witness of the truth. First, I find in it great wisdom. Even those who don’t believe the Bible is God’s Word recognize the truth with which it speaks on any number of topics. Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount is widely recognized as an ethical masterpiece. Second, its historical accounts reliably match what we know from archaeology and cultural investigation. We can’t prove the Bible through archaeology, but because the Bible contains historical accounts, those accounts can be checked against other historical data.[1]

The Bible interprets my world

Finally, I find in the Bible an interesting scenario in which if fits with and interprets the world around me. Let me give an illustration:

The Bible says that people are made in God’s image but that they have fallen into sin. This doctrine fits with what I see in both myself and the world around me. I see both beauty and ugliness, goodness and evil. The Bible helps me see where the goodness and beauty come from, God’s creation. And, it helps me see where evil comes from, the rebelliousness of man. I see both in my own soul, recognizing that I am a person, higher and distinct from the animals, and at the same time, that I am a worm, fallible and driven by selfish desire. In that sense, then, the Bible provides a worldview with which my own experience fits. I spoke in a previous post about the explanatory scope of theism. The same is true for the Bible. The worldview it presents has a broad explanatory scope for the ethical and spiritual world available to my senses and intuitions.

The Bible also surprises. For instance, it tells me that I can be saved from my guilt and sin by the sacrificial death of the man Jesus born 2000 years ago. What!? Where did that come from? And, incredibly, I believe it! Is that something I would have come up with on my own? No way. Is that something I think humanity would have come up with on its own? I don’t think so. The “be good and God will accept you” seems like a lot simpler path to salvation to me! In fact, that’s the path every other theistic religion presents. They are all about how we get to God. But in the Bible we have the story of how God reached down to us.

When I consider the message of the cross this story makes perfect sense! If God is holy and we are not then we’re not able to save ourselves. And if we need someone to save us, that person would have to be both God and man. And that Person would have to take the punishment we deserve, etc. So, there’s a logic to it, but it’s a logic that is clearly from God, and not from man. It’s a wisdom, but it’s a heavenly and not an earthly wisdom.

Not proof, but confidence

The reasons given above do not prove that the Bible is God’s Word, but they do give me confidence that it is what it claims to be, and that is sufficient for me.

If you’re unsure about the Bible, I encourage you to read it. Even if you don’t think that it is God’s Word, I suggest that you familiarize yourself with its contents. I can describe it in a post, but there’s really no alternative to reading the source material. From there perhaps you’ll be able to discern if it is from God or not.

A different way to get to the Bible. Looking ahead…

There’s another way I get to the truth of the Bible: The historical resurrection of Jesus. But how those two relate, and why it’s not a circular argument, is the subject of another post.

[1] Note: The two biggest contemporary objections to the reliability of the Bible are in the fields of the origins of life and the existence of miracles. I’ll deal with those in a separate post.

Book Recommendation

Can We Still Believe the Bible?: An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions

Should we all be agnostics?

Let’s say you find the Moral Argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, or some other argument for God compelling, does this mean you should be a Christian? Not necessarily. What do these arguments really say?

What can we know from logic and our senses?

First, they show that some Supreme Being exists (for brevity I’ll henceforth refer to this Being as God). It is not irrational to believe in God. In fact, the evidence points strongly in the direction of theistic belief. Second, they say something about God’s nature.

From the cosmological arguments we can see that God must be outside of the universe, He must be timeless, He must be uncaused, He must be a necessary being (from Leibniz). On top of that, he seems to be some sort of Mind or Will which could decide to create one sort of world as opposed to another. We would then describe Him as a Creator. He must be free, for if He were constrained then that higher constraint would be what we mean by God.

From the moral argument we can see that He is the source and foundation of all moral goodness, and from that goodness, issues commands which are to us the foundation for our moral obligations.

We might add to this knowledge evidence from the world we see around us. God has created a world of life, a world with recognizable beauty, and the capacity of His creatures to recognize His existence. Yet we also live in a world of great pain, confusion, and a proliferation of different perspectives on life.

The limitations of our logic and senses

This observational evidence is ambiguous. It requires an interpretation. It tells us something, but we’re not exactly sure what. From our observations and logical capacities, we can confidently say some things about God, but there’s much more we would have to leave unsaid.

Add to that the fact that we are finite and limited creatures seeking to understand an Infinite and Unlimited Being. Given such a vast ontological gap, how could we even begin to say anything intelligible about this Being. I recently read a quote that said: “Show me a worm that can comprehend man and I’ll show you a man that can comprehend God.” This was written by a Christian preacher intended to invoke worship, but in me it was a temptation to despair. The worm is too limited to think or speak intelligibly about man. Are we too limited to know or say anything intelligible about God?

I’ve come to the conclusion that the list of things we can say about God are limited if, that is, our knowledge comes only from our own seeking.

But there’s another way in which we might know God and be able to believe and say more than a limited number of things about Him: He would have to communicate with us.

The nature of revelation

At this point it will be useful to bring in the theological word “revelation”. When applied to God it refers to God showing Himself to humanity. We’ve already seen two ways in which He does this – the physical and moral world. He made a physical and moral world which are accessible through physical and moral senses. However, as we’ve seen, this is insufficient to say a great many other things about God, for that we need a more specific form of revelation, what theologians call “special revelation.”

Here’s where language comes in. Given that we have the capacity for abstract thought through language, that seems like the mostly likely means by which God could give us such a revelation. He could speak to us in a number of ways. He could verbally communicate (a voice from heaven), he could communicate directly to our minds (think an inner, real, but inaudible voice). He could send supernatural messengers. Etc.

Now, this communication, if always private in nature, could create a problem. What would prevent someone from claiming to speak on behalf of God? (Indeed, what does today?) It would make sense, then, for there to be some sort of authoritative source written down which could be referred to again and again to test a supposed “revelation” against.

In this way God could communicate truth about Himself, about us humans, and about our world in a way that is both comprehensible and authoritative. But, the question is, did He in fact do these things and, if He did produce such a book, which one?

And that takes me to the end of this post. Christians, myself included, believe that God has indeed communicated to us in this way, and that this communication is what we find in the Bible. The defense of that argument is the subject of the next post.