Posts tagged ‘Righteousness’

A Holy Week for Unholy Times

art-cathedral-christ-christian-208216.jpgThis week is the beginning of what is, in the history and tradition of the Christian Church, called Holy Week. It is a commemoration of the final week of Jesus’ life before His death on a cross in anticipation of His victory over death on Easter.

Yesterday, we celebrated Palm Sunday, which recounts Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey while crowds hail His arrival by laying palm fronds at His feet (John 12:13). Palms were a symbol of Jewish nationalistic pride. In 164 BC, after the Greek tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had persecuted and murdered many Jews, was defeated, the Jews waved palms in celebration of their victory. On Palm Sunday, the crowds are hoping that, just as their Greek oppressors were taken down almost two centuries earlier, Jesus will be the revolutionary who takes down their Roman oppressors.

Then, this Thursday, we will observe Maundy Thursday. The word “Maundy” is a derivative of the Latin word mandatum, which means “command.” On this night, Jesus gives His disciples two commands. This first command is one of love:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (John 13:34)

The second is a command given when Jesus institutes a supper, which we now call the Lord’s Supper. Jesus instructs His disciples:

Do this in remembrance of Me. (Luke 22:19)

Thus, on Maundy Thursday, Christians across the world will partake in the Lord’s Supper – not just to obey a command, but to receive what Jesus promises in this holy meal: “the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).

The day after Maundy Thursday is Good Friday – the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything good about it. Jesus is arrested by His enemies and condemned to die not because He has committed a crime, but because the religious elites of His day hate His popularity among the crowds in Jerusalem. Even the man who condemns Jesus to death on a cross, Pontius Pilate, knows that it is “out of envy that they had delivered Him up” (Matthew 27:18). This is a dark, unholy moment. As Jesus says to His accusers when they arrest Him: “This is your hour – when darkness reigns” (Luke 22:53). And yet, even in this dark, unholy moment, holiness cannot and will not be defeated. Righteousness will reign. For even though Jesus’ enemies commit an unholy crime against Him, He is giving His life for them. His sacrifice is what makes Holy Week truly “holy.”

The times in which we are living right now feel dark and unholy. “Stay-at-home” restrictions are getting stricter. The curve of infections and deaths from COVID-19 is rising steeper. For millions of people, life is getting harder. And yet, this week – Holy Week – can remind us that holiness is found in the most unholy of places. After all, an ancient instrument of torture and execution – the cross – has now become a worldwide symbol of consolation and hope. And so, even if this week feels unholy, this week can still be a Holy Week – not because we live in a holy world, but because we have hope in a Holy One.

April 6, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Castro’s Death and the Christian’s Hope

cuba-1638594_1920

When news first came a little over a week ago that the longtime brutal dictator of the island nation of Cuba, Fidel Castro, had died, the reactions to his death ranged from the viscerally ecstatic to the weirdly and inappropriately sublime.  Many reports simply sought to chronicle the events of Castro’s life without much moral commentary, but, as Christians, we know that a man who, over the course of his raucous reign, murdered, according to one Harvard-trained economist, close to 78,000 people is due at least some sort of moral scrutiny.  As Cuba concludes a time of mourning over the death of a man who himself brought much death, I humbly offer these few thoughts on how we, as Christians, should ethically process the life of one of history’s most famous and infamous leaders.

We should not be afraid to call wickedness what it is.

It is true that there were some bright spots in the midst of Castro’s morally dark oppression of Cuba.  Cuba’s literacy rate, for instance, stands at 99.8 percent thanks to its government’s emphasis on education.  It has also been reported that the robust healthcare system there has resulted in one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world at 5.8 deaths per 1,000 births, although The Wall Street Journal has called this number into question.

Whatever good Castro may have done should not excuse or serve as rationalization for his gruesome human rights violations.  As ABC News reports:

Over the course of Castro’s rule, his regime rounded up people for nonviolent opposition to his government and subjected many to torture and decades-long imprisonment.

In a January 1967 interview with Playboy magazine, Castro admitted there were 20,000 “counter-revolutionary criminals” in Cuba’s prisons…

Under his dictatorship, Castro arrested dissidents and gay citizens and forced them into labor or prison, according to human rights groups. He is also responsible for mass executions of people who spoke out against his government.

There is simply no way to mask or minimize the atrocities that Castro committed.  They were – and are – evil.  As Christians, we should be willing to call evil for what it is – not only for the sake of upholding moral standards, but for the sake of being honest about the way in which Castro’s immorality took countless human lives.

We should remember those who Castro brutalized and pay attention to those who are currently being brutalized.

The website cubaarchive.org is devoted to remembering those Castro murdered.  The stories in the “Case Profiles” section of the site are heart-rending.  In one case, a tugboat carrying children was intentionally sunk by order of Castro himself because the people on it were trying to escape Cuba.  In another case, U.S. citizen Francis Brown was given a lethal injection at a Guantanamo hospital that ultimately killed him while, on that same day, his daughter’s full term unborn child was murdered by doctors at a Havana hospital.  These stories should not be forgotten.  These are victims who should not fade into the recesses of history, for they remind us who Fidel Castro really was – an egomaniacal madman with no regard for any life besides his own.

These stories should also lead us to seek justice for those currently suffering under oppressive and brutal regimes.  The stories of people in places like Syria, Iraq, and Sudan should demand our attention and touch our hearts.

Though we should not eulogize Castro’s life, we also should not revel in his death.

It is understandable that many have celebrated the death of a despot like Castro.  Indeed, Scripture understands and points to this reality: “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy” (Proverbs 11:10).  But even if this is an understandable and natural reaction to the death of a dictator, we do well to remember that God’s reaction to the death of the wicked is more measured: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways” (Ezekiel 33:11)!  God refuses to rejoice at the death of the wicked because He understands that such rejoicing ultimately serves no purpose. For when the wicked die, they stand eternally lost and condemned.  This helps no one and fixes nothing.  This is why God’s preference is not death, but repentance.  Death is merely the result of wickedness.  Repentance is the remedy to wickedness.  God would much prefer to fix wickedness than to let it run its course.

As Christians, we are called to mimic God’s character in our responses to the death of the wicked: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice, or the LORD will see and disapprove and turn His wrath away from them” (Proverbs 24:17-18).  These verses caution us not to revel in the death of an enemy while also reminding us that God will render a just judgment on the wicked.  And God’s justice is better than our jeers. 

We should find our hope in the One over whose death the world once reveled.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of God’s refusal to rejoice in the death of the wicked is the fact that the wicked once reveled in the death of His perfectly righteous Son.  The Gospel writer Mark records that when Jesus was on the cross:

Those who passed by hurled insults at Him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save Yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked Him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but He can’t save Himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”  (Mark 15:29-32)

For God not to rejoice in the death of the wicked when the wicked rejoiced in the death of His Son reveals not only God’s gracious character, but His perfect plan.  For God deigned that, by the mocking of the wicked, wickedness itself should be defeated.  Indeed, at the very moment the wicked thought they had succeeded in defeating God’s Holy One, God’s Holy One had accomplished His mission of opening salvation to the wicked.  Our hope, then, is not in the death of a wicked man, but in the crucifixion of a righteous One.  His righteousness is stronger than Castro’s wickedness.  That is the reason we can rejoice.

December 5, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

The ISIS Atrocities You Probably Haven’t Heard About

isis

ISIS must be stopped.  It’s difficult to come to any other conclusion when story after story of the group’s atrocities continue to pour in.  In a horrifying iteration of violence that has become ISIS’s trademark, a woman named Alice Assaf recounted how when jihadis marched into her town over two years ago, they killed her son for refusing to disown his faith in Christ, murdered at least six men by baking them alive in ovens, and killed 250 children by massacring them in dough kneading machines at a local bakery.

Are you sick to your stomach yet?  I certainly was when I read the news story.

But too many people have not read this story.  Stories about emails and Tweets among the two major party presidential candidates have relegated ISIS’s atrocities to the background.  Certainly, this year’s presidential election with all of its crazy ups and downs is important.  But when many people lose track of, or, I fear, even lose interest in ISIS’s activities, something has gone tragically wrong.

Just last August, it was being argued that we should ignore, or at least downplay, ISIS’s crimes.  During an official visit to Bangladesh, Secretary of State John Kerry explained:

No country is immune from terrorism. It’s easy to terrorize. Government and law enforcement have to be correct 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. But if you decide one day you’re going to be a terrorist and you’re willing to kill yourself, you can go out and kill some people. You can make some noise. Perhaps the media would do us all a service if they didn’t cover it quite as much. People wouldn’t know what’s going on.[1]

The Secretary of State was arguing that by featuring terror attacks in the headlines, we are only emboldening the terrorists by giving them what they want – free publicity, which leads to more recruiting power, which leads to more killings.  As it turns out, however, even as ISIS’s publicity retreats, the atrocities continue.  A lack of headlines does not seem to temper ISIS’s bloodlust.

We must understand that what drives ISIS, ultimately, is not a desire for fame, for land, or for money.  A theology is what drives the group.  I am sympathetic to Muslim theologians who argue that ISIS’s theology is not Islamic or representative of Allah in any meaningful or traditional sense, but even if this is the case, ISIS nevertheless has a theology.  It has a conception of a god who calls and commands its adherents to do the things they do.  And the things this god calls and commands them to do are horrifying.  But they will continue to do them, whether or not the world is watching, because they think their god is watching – and is pleased with them.

This is why we must continue to pay attention.  We must continue to pay attention because we serve and worship a God who does not order the execution of the oppressed, but cares about the plight of the oppressed and invites us to do the same.  We must continue to pay attention because we serve and worship a God who hates injustice and promises to confront it and conquer it with righteousness.

Perhaps what was most shocking to me about the article I read outlining ISIS’s bakery massacre was the headlines in the “Related Stories” column of the website I was visiting:

All of these articles carried datelines of August and September of this year.  ISIS is still on the loose, even if we don’t see it or know it.  Perhaps it’s time to see and notice once again.  After all, the blood of those it has slaughtered is crying out.

Are we listening?

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[1] Jeryl Bier, “Kerry in Bangladesh: Media Should Cover Terrorism Less,” The Weekly Standard (8.29.2016).

October 31, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Using Kids to Kill

Turkish Attack


Women cry during a funeral for victims of the attack on a wedding party that left at least 50 dead in Turkey.
Credit: Ilyas Akenginilyas Akengin / AFP / Getty Images

Late last week, word came that more than 50 people had been killed at a wedding party in Istanbul when a suicide bomber walked into the party and blew himself up.  In a nation that is always on high alert because it has seen so many of these types of terrible attacks, how did a terrorist slip into this party unnoticed?  Officials estimate that the suicide bomber in question was between 12 and 14 years old.  In other words, no one noticed the bomber at the party because this bomber was, in relative terms, a baby – a child.  And children are harmless – or so we think.

Exploiting kids to kill its enemies has been a longstanding and and cynically promoted strategy of ISIS.  Reporting for USA Today, Oren Dorell, citing the expertise of Mia Bloom, a researcher at Georgia State, explains:

In the initial seduction phase, Islamic State fighters roll into a village or neighborhood, hold Quran recitation contests, give out candy and toys, and gently expose children to the group. This part often involves ice cream…

“To desensitize them to violence, they’re shown videos of beheadings, attend a live beheading,” Bloom said.

Then the children participate in beheadings, by handing out knives or leading prisoners to their deaths, she said. The gradual process is similar to that used by a pedophile who lures a child into sex, “slowly breaking down the boundaries, making something unnatural seem normal,” she said.[1]

In another article that appeared in USA Today last year, Zeina Karam explains how ISIS teaches kids to behead their victims:

More than 120 boys were each given a doll and a sword and told, cut off its head.

A 14-year-old who was among the boys, all abducted from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, said he couldn’t cut it right. He chopped once, twice, three times.

“Then they taught me how to hold the sword, and they told me how to hit. They told me it was the head of the infidels,” the boy, renamed Yahya by his Islamic State captors, told the Associated Press last week in northern Iraq, where he fled after escaping the Islamic State training camp.[2]

All of this is ghastly, of course.  The thought of children being trained to commit brutal acts of murder feels utterly unthinkable to us.  But why?

Scripture is clear that all people, from the moment of our births, are sinful.  To cite King David’s famous words: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5).  So that a child could or would commit a sinful act should not be particularly surprising to us.  Little kids commit all kinds of sins – everything from lying to defying to hoarding – all the time.  But the thought of a child committing murder seems different.

Theologically, the thought of a child committing murder seems different because, at the same time all people are born sinners, we are also born as bearers of the image of God.  In other words, at the same time we all have sinful inclinations, we also have a righteous Creator who has endowed us with a moral compass.  When this moral compass is violated, guilt ensues, for we cannot fully escape the mark of our Creator.

God’s mark proves to be particularly poignant when it comes to the sin of murder.  This is why God’s image is specifically invoked against the taking of a life: “I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind” (Genesis 9:5-6).  To watch one person kill another person is so completely incongruous with who God has created us to be, it cannot help but startle us.

In a human, then, there are two tugs – one that is of sin and the other that is of righteousness.  And these war against each other.  ISIS has fanned into a giant, roaring flame the inclination to sin in the lives of little children.   This is sadly possible to do because of humanity’s sinful state, but it will not escape the judgment of God.  In the words of Jesus:

Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.  (Luke 17:1-2)

Christ does not take kindly to those who intentionally and systematically lead children into sin.   After all, He made them in His image and He cares for them out of His love.  May His little ones be saved from those who would harm them.

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[1] Oren Dorell, “Here’s how the Islamic State turns children into terrorists,” USA Today (8.23.2016).

[2] Zeina Karam, “Islamic State camp has kids beheading dolls with swords,” USA Today (7.21.2015).

August 29, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

A County Clerk, Gay Marriage, and What’s Right

Credit: Ty Wright/Getty Images

Credit: Ty Wright/Getty Images

It’s not often a small town county clerk becomes a household name. But Kim Davis has managed to pull of just such a feat after going to jail last week for refusing to issue marriage licenses from her office. The Washington Post reports:

The Kentucky clerk drew headlines for refusing to issue marriage licenses to all couples, gay and straight, after the Supreme Court ruled earlier this summer that same-sex couples have the right to marry. An Apostolic Christian, Davis has said it would violate her faith to put her name on a marriage license for two people of the same sex.

She was sued by several gay couples and was ordered by [Judge] Bunning to begin issuing the licenses this week. When Davis defied the judge’s order, the couples asked for Davis to be held in contempt and fined.

But Bunning decided to jail Davis, saying fines would not be sufficient to compel compliance because Davis’s supporters could raise money on her behalf.

“The idea of natural law superseding this court’s authority would be a dangerous precedent indeed,” Bunning said.[1]

Not surprisingly, demonstrators, both in support and in protest of Mrs. Davis, gathered outside the courthouse where she was sentenced:

Ashley Hogue, a secretary from Ashland, held a sign outside the courthouse that read, “Kim Davis does not speak for my religious beliefs.”

“This is so ugly,” she said, wiping away tears. “I was unprepared for all the hate.”

Demonstrator Charles Ramey, a retired steelworker, downplayed the vitriol.

“We don’t hate these people,” he said, holding a sign that read, “Give God his rights.” “We wouldn’t tell them how to get saved if we hated them.”[2]

On the one hand, I am somewhat puzzled why Mrs. Davis, if she could not in good conscience carry out one of the duties for which state taxpayers are compensating her, did not simply resign her position.  After all, for Mrs. Davis to refuse to issue marriage licenses not only to same-sex couples, but to all couples, and to make it incumbent on the clerks who work for her to follow suit hardly seems the best way to handle a personal religious objection, as Ryan T. Anderson, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, makes clear in this thoughtful article.  Mrs. Davis explains her reasoning in the USA Today article: “‘If I left, resigned or chose to retire, I would have no voice for God’s word,’ calling herself a vessel that the Lord has chosen for this time and place.” Her explanation begs the question: would she really have no voice for God’s Word if she was not a county clerk? Couldn’t she be a witness for Christ in ways that involve less emotional, political, and rhetorical volatility than refusing to issue marriage licenses?  And what does she do when she has to perform other duties that could – and perhaps should – violate her conscience, such as legally licensing divorces for couples who are not splitting for biblically appropriate reasons?  I’m not sure I completely understand Mrs. Davis’ thinking.

On the other hand, I am also not unsympathetic to her plight. Here is a government worker who was thrown in jail because she, in her vocation, was seeking in some way to abide by what God’s Word says about sexual boundaries. A Christian theology of work says that no matter what we do, we ought to view ourselves as “working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23).  Mrs. Davis seems to be trying to put this theological truism into everyday practice.  I should also note that she does not appear to have arrived at her practice of refusing to issue marriage licenses lightly. Her conversion to Christianity came on the heels of a history littered by broken marriages and broken hearts. Since her conversion, however, she has maintained a strong stance on biblically informed sexual standards.

This is one of those theologically, ethically, legally, and relationally thorny situations that seems to be increasingly common in our day and age. As Christians, how do we respond? Is Kim Davis right? Or should she resign if she cannot, in good conscience, issue marriage licenses?

In the book of Daniel, we meet a man who, like this county clerk, held a government job. Indeed, he held a very prominent government job. Under the reign of the Persian king Darius, this man Daniel “so distinguished himself among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom” (Daniel 6:3). Daniel’s upward mobility, it seems, was virtually limitless until, one day, as he went about carrying out his duties, the laws of the land changed in a way that violated his conscience:

The administrators and the satraps went as a group to the king and said: “O King Darius, live forever! The royal administrators, prefects, satraps, advisers and governors have all agreed that the king should issue an edict and enforce the decree that anyone who prays to any god or man during the next thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into the lions’ den. Now, O king, issue the decree and put it in writing so that it cannot be altered – in accordance with the laws of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed.” So King Darius put the decree in writing. (Daniel 6:6-9)

As a worshiper of the God of Israel, Daniel could not, in good conscience, follow the king’s edict to pray only to the king – even though he was serving the king as a public official. So what does Daniel do?

Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. (Daniel 6:10)

I have sometimes wondered why Daniel didn’t try to negotiate some sort of compromise. Couldn’t he have stayed downstairs in a private room to pray to the true God rather than going upstairs and kneeling before an open window so everyone below would know exactly what he was doing? Couldn’t he have simply put off praying altogether in order to comply with the edict without committing idolatry against his God? After all, the edict was only in place for thirty days. In this instance, Daniel, according to his conscience, could do neither. He had to live out his faith, even if his faith was in conflict with his vocation as a public official and his status as a citizen of Persia.

You probably know the rest of the story. Daniel’s sentence was not just a jail cell, but a lions’ den. Daniel was willing to go to his death for his confession of faith. But, miraculously, “God sent His angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions” (Daniel 6:22).

It’s not difficult to draw parallels between Daniel’s story and Mrs. Davis’ story, save that we do not yet know how Mrs. Davis’ story will end. For us who are looking on, there are a couple of lessons I think we can take away from Daniel’s story. First, Daniel’s refusal to obey Darius’ edict had nothing to do with a political victory and everything to do with theological fidelity. I fear that, all too often, we can prioritize the politics of an issue like gay marriage specifically over a biblical theology of what marriage is generally. Any stand that we make must never be simply for the sake of winning a political battle, but for the sake of staying true to God’s Word. If people perceive that our theology is being leveraged merely as a means to political power, they have every right to be cynical of us and even angry at us. I’m fine if people, as I’m sure they did when Daniel was willing to be thrown to the lions, question our sanity, but we must never give people a reason to question our spiritual sincerity. Second, Daniel served and supported his governing authorities in every way he could until he couldn’t. This couldn’t have been easy for him. The Persians, after all, were pagans who shared none of Daniel’s theological commitments. But rather than fighting them, Daniel supported them in his work. He took a contrarian stand only when it was theologically necessary. I worry that, because of the deep suspicion and animosity that plagues our political system, we have become so devoted to fighting with each other on every front that we have lost our ability to take credible stands on the most important fronts. This is not to say that we can never be engaged in the political process – we do live in a democratic republic, after all – but it is to say that our governing authorities are first and foremost gifts from God to be supported by our prayers rather than political enemies to be bludgeoned by our anger.

As I think about Mrs. Davis’ predicament, I can appreciate her stand.  My prayer for her, however, as she remains steadfast in her opposition to a Supreme Court ruling, is that she also proves stalwart in her commitment to love those with whom she disagrees. A strong stand may be good in the face of a morally untenable court decision. And she has decided to take one. But love – even when it’s love for the gay couple that comes walking through the door of the county clerk’s office – is absolutely necessary for Godly, gracious relationships.  I hope she’s decided to give that.

______________________________

[1] James Higdon and Sandhya Somashekhar, “Kentucky clerk ordered to jail for refusing to issue gay marriage license,” The Washington Post (9.3.2015).

[2] Mike Wynn and Chris Kenning, “Ky. Clerk’s office will issue marriage licenses Friday – without the clerk,” USA Today (9.3.2015).

September 7, 2015 at 5:00 am 3 comments

Common Question: How Were People Who Lived Before Jesus Saved?

Credit: Anthony van Dyck, 1622

Credit: Anthony van Dyck, 1622

Last weekend at the church where I served, we talked about Jesus’ audacious claim that faith in Him and Him alone is the way to salvation. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus says. “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

The truth that salvation is through faith in Christ alone raises a perennial theological question – one that, once again, came to my attention in an email I received after last weekend’s services:  If people can be saved only by faith in Christ, how were those people who lived before Christ saved?

At the heart of this question lies an assumption – that people before who lived before Christ were somehow saved in a different way than those who lived after Him. The apostle Paul, however, would beg to differ. He points to one of the most famous characters in the Old Testament, Abraham, and specifically asks the question, “How was Abraham saved?” His answer is unmistakably clear:

Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3:6-9)

Paul announces, “Here is how Abraham, perhaps the most famous character in the Old Testament, was saved: by faith.” How does Paul know this? Genesis 15:6, of course: “Abram believed the LORD, and He credited it to him as righteousness.” Importantly, Paul says that God “announced the gospel in advance to Abraham.” In other words, before Jesus came to save sinners, God announced that Jesus would come to save sinners.  For example, the prophet Isaiah, some 700 years before Jesus’ advent, speaks of a servant who will be sent by God to take away the sins of the world:

Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered Him stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5)

So how were people saved, forgiven, and made righteous before Jesus? By believing that Jesus would come to save, forgive, and make them righteous. How are people saved, forgiven, and made righteous now? By believing that Jesus has come to save, forgive, and make them righteous. In other words, people both before Jesus had come and now that Jesus has come are saved in the same way. They are saved by Jesus.

Oftentimes, people harbor a misconception that people who lived before Christ were saved by following God’s Law while people living after Christ’s advent are now saved through faith in Him. Nothing could be further from the truth. People have always and only been saved by Jesus Christ and His work, even as Jesus Himself says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” God’s gospel has always been the only plan for our salvation.

If your life is anything like mine, plans are constantly changing. While writing this blog, I had to move an appointment because things on my calendar changed. Last week, as I was coming home from a trip to Dallas with some friends, we got a flat tire and plans, due to circumstances beyond our control, changed – we got home later than we expected.  Plans are constantly changing. And oftentimes, it can be frustrating.

The promise of the gospel is that even if our plans change, God’s plans are sure and certain. The plan for our salvation always was, is, and will continue to be Jesus. There’s no need to look for another plan.

April 20, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Righteousness from God

"Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth" by Marco Palmezzano, ca. 1490 Credit: Wikipedia

“Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth” by Marco Palmezzano, ca. 1490
Credit: Wikipedia

Because the gospel is the crux of our Christian faith, we can never ponder it, speak of it, or write about it too much.  This is why I was delighted to stumble across this passage from Ezekiel while reading devotionally a few days ago:

The righteousness of the righteous man will not save him when he disobeys, and the wickedness of the wicked man will not cause him to fall when he turns from it. The righteous man, if he sins, will not be allowed to live because of his former righteousness. If I tell the righteous man that he will surely live, but then he trusts in his righteousness and does evil, none of the righteous things he has done will be remembered; he will die for the evil he has done. (Ezekiel 33:12-13)

What a beautiful explanation of the gospel and what kind of righteousness saves.  Ezekiel is clear:  you cannot be saved by your own righteousness!  Indeed, even if you act righteously, just one evil act erases all memory of your righteousness.  As James writes: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10).  To receive salvation, you need another kind of righteousness that is not your own.  You need a righteousness that comes from God.  The apostle Paul brings clarity to what kind of righteousness this is:  “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22).

Besides reminding us that our own righteousness does not and cannot save us, Ezekiel’s words also remind us that the gospel is not confined to the New Testament.  In both Testaments, the message of the gospel is consistent:  it is God’s righteousness, not our own, that saves us.  As God promises through the prophet Isaiah, “I am bringing My righteousness near, it is not far away; and My salvation will not be delayed.”

December 9, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Casting Stones

Credit: Ciro Miguel via Flickr

Credit: Ciro Miguel via Flickr

From the department of the inane but entertaining, the real estate site Movoto.com recently published its list of America’s most sinful cities.  Surprisingly, the city famed for its profligate sinfulness, Las Vegas, didn’t make the list.  An article in The Street explains how the list was compiled:

The study analyzed 95 of the nation’s 100 most-populous communities…to see how often locals commit the Catholic Church’s seven major sins:  Envy, Gluttony, Greed, Lust, Pride, Sloth and Wrath…

[They then matched] each behavior on the church’s 1,400-year-old list of sins with a modern-day measure of immorality.

For instance, [they] gauged Wrath by looking at the FBI’s annual report on each U.S. city’s violent-crime rate – the number of murders, robberies, aggravated assaults, rapes and non-negligent manslaughter cases reported each year per 1,000 residents.[1]

Here’s what the study found.

Coming in at number five is Milwaukee.  According to CDC obesity rates, Milwaukee falls prey to the sin of gluttony.  Spot number four belongs to Pittsburgh, which struggles with pride.  In this city, there is one cosmetic surgeon for every 3,170 residents.  Minneapolis garnered spot number three.  Over 30% of Minneapolis’s residents are inactive, making this city super slothful.  Place number two belongs to Orlando, which, like Minneapolis, struggles with sloth.  And spot number one belongs to – drumroll, please – St. Louis!  Movoto found “the Gateway to the West places number two for Wrath and Envy, with 20 violent crimes and 65 property incidents per year for every 1,000 St. Louis residents.”  If it’s banal carnality you want, St. Louis is the place to go.

Of course, it’s hard to take a study like this too seriously.  But I have to admit, I breathed a sigh of relief when my town of San Antonio didn’t make the list.  Then again, I used to live in St. Louis.  I went to seminary there.  So I guess that means, according to this article, I once lived in a den of iniquities.

What makes a study like this one so comical for Christians is that we know that sin defies such simplistic statistical quantification and comparison.  This is the apostle Paul’s point when he writes, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23).  There is no difference, Paul says, between one sin and another in God’s eyes.  Every sin leads to death.  Every sin leads to damnation.  Before God and apart from Christ, sin is sin.  Period.

This is why, when an angry mob of religious leaders seek to have a woman caught in adultery stoned for her sin, Jesus disarms this mob’s self-righteous pretenses by saying, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).  Underlying this statement is an assumption that we have no right to use our own self-styled righteousness as a benchmark against which we can measure and condemn other people’s sinfulness.   The only benchmark that may be used to distinguish righteousness from sinfulness is God’s.  Everything else is just casting stones.

So, although I won’t cast stones at my old seminary town, I will eat concrete if I ever return for a visit.  And if that previous line doesn’t make any sense to you, just click here.


[1] Jerry Kronenberg, “5 Most Sinful Cities in America,” The Street (7.17.13).

August 19, 2013 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Where Human Justice Cannot Tread: The Case of Trayvon Martin & George Zimmerman

Martin Zimmerman

Credit: The Associated Press

We will never know for sure what happened.

Well, we will never know for sure all that happened.  There are a few things we do know.  We do know that on the night of February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida, an altercation took place between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.  We do know that this altercation left Trayvon Martin dead of a single gunshot wound, fired at intermediate range.  We do know that George Zimmerman was the shooter.  And we do know that on Saturday, July 13, Zimmerman was found “not guilty” of both the charges of second-degree murder and of manslaughter.

As the trial of George Zimmerman unfolded before a nation of breathless spectators, it became clear to many pundits and reporters – regardless of how these pundits and reporters hoped this case would turn out – that the prosecution was in trouble.  Consider this from ABC News:

Prosecutors started strong with a powerful, concise opening statement from Assistant State Attorney John Guy, in contrast to the silly knock-knock joke and seemingly disorganized and meandering defense argument …

But then something happened that many would have thought improbable as this case received wall to wall coverage leading up to Zimmerman’s arrest.

What the state hoped would be proof that Zimmerman initiated the altercation and that he, not Martin, was on top as they grappled on the ground, did not appear to proceed as planned …

With each witness there were either facts that we now know are not true (like hearing three shots, when there was only one) or indications that their memories have somehow become clearer since the incident itself.[1]

The prosecution’s witnesses, in their testimonies of what happened that night, gave conflicting and confusing accounts.  Coupled with the fact that the burden to prove that Zimmerman shot Martin in something other than self-defense rested on the prosecution, the prospects for a conviction were grim for the state.  Again, ABC News summarized the prosecution’s problem well:

Prosecutors still have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not “reasonably believe” he was “in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm” during their altercation. That is a heavy burden to bear.

It turns out, as the verdict this past Saturday revealed, that it was a burden too heavy to bear.

Along with the wide range of human emotions that a trial such as this one elicits, this trial has also exposed the limits of human justice.  The jury found George Zimmerman “not guilty.”  This does not necessarily mean that Zimmerman committed no crime.  It simply means that, in the opinions of the jurors, there was not enough evidence to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty of a crime.  The jurors’ verdict does not pretend or presume to rule on George Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence as a matter of fact.  It simply says that Zimmerman will not be incarcerated as a matter of the law.

The justice of our God is much more comprehensive and, as strange as it sounds, just than the justice of our courts.  For our God is concerned with infinite transcendent justice rather than with limited legal justice.  Indeed, our God is passionate about justice.  God shouts in Amos 5:24:  “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”  Where human justice falls short, God’s justice does not.

Ultimately, regardless of the verdict, the justice rendered in that Florida courtroom can only be provisionary and incomplete.  Even if George Zimmerman had been found guilty, his incarceration would not have undone the painful problem of death, which is finally what this case – and every murder case – is all about.  But the painful problem of death cannot be solved in any courtroom; it can only be solved on a cross.  Only Jesus can bring justice to death by conquering it with His life – a life that will finally and fully be revealed on the Last Day.

So while a Florida court has ruled, we are still waiting for Jesus to rule – or, to put it more clearly, to reign – when He returns on the Last Day.  And, blessedly, the justice He will bring on that day will be far better than the justice we have in these days.  For His justice does much more than merely rule on tragedies; His justice fixes them.


[1] Dan Abrams, “George Zimmerman’s Prosecution Woes: Analysis,” ABC News (7.1.2013).

July 15, 2013 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Clothing the Naked

Arrest of Jesus

“The Taking of Christ” by Caravaggio, 1602

It must have been a terrifying ordeal.  The man who twelve men had followed, loved, learned from, and staked their lives on was being arrested by an angry mob, led by a man who used to be among their ranks:  Judas.  Mark depicts the scene like this:

Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared.  With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders.  Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.”  Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed Him.  The men seized Jesus and arrested Him.  Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.  “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture Me?  Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest Me.  But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.”  Then everyone deserted Him and fled.   A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus.  When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind. (Mark 14:43-52)

This final detail about this young man who flees naked is unique to Mark’s Gospel, leading many scholars to believe that it may have been Mark himself who, overcome with fear, fled the scene.  But what is recorded here is more than an incidental historical detail.  What is recorded here is a tragic historical pattern:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as He was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.  But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?”   He answered, “I heard You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” (Genesis 3:8-10)

Mark wasn’t the first to flee the Lord naked and afraid.  Adam did too.

In the Bible, nakedness is often used as a symbol of shameful sin:

  • “Your nakedness will be exposed and your shame uncovered.  I will take vengeance; I will spare no one.” (Isaiah 47:3)
  • Jerusalem has sinned greatly and so has become unclean.  All who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans and turns away. (Lamentations 1:8)
  • “I am against you,” declares the LORD Almighty. “I will lift your skirts over your face.  I will show the nations your nakedness and the kingdoms your shame.” (Nahum 3:5)

Sin and nakedness go hand in hand.  But the promise of Scripture is that when sin leaves us shamefully naked, Jesus clothes us with His righteousness:  “I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of His righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10).  Even as we flee from the horror of the cross naked in sin, Jesus draws us back to His cross, covering our nakedness with His atoning blood.  The death on a cross that once caused everyone to flee now beckons all to its promise of salvation.  During this Holy Week, this is what we remember.  And this is what we believe.

March 25, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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