Posts tagged ‘Sin’

Abortion, Absolution, and Pope Francis

francis

In a letter dated Sunday, November 20, Pope Francis announced that any woman who has had an abortion can now be forgiven for that sin by a priest.  This move toward priestly absolution for abortion began a full year ago when the pope announced a “Year of Mercy.”  Before this special year, only ecclesiastical higher ups could absolve someone of an abortion unless a particular region gave special disposition to its local priests to absolve this sin, which the Catholic Church in the United States had already done.  The pope’s announcement of a Year of Mercy gave this right to priests worldwide.  And now the pope has extended this right into perpetuity.  In his missive, the pope explained:

We have celebrated an intense Jubilee Year in which we have received the grace of mercy in abundance. Like a gusting but wholesome wind, the Lord’s goodness and mercy have swept through the entire world. Because each of us has experienced at length this loving gaze of God, we cannot remain unaffected, for it changes our lives…

Lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God’s forgiveness, I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion. The provision I had made in this regard, limited to the duration of the Extraordinary Holy Year, is hereby extended, notwithstanding anything to the contrary.

When the pope first announced his Year of Mercy, The New York Times ran an editorial by Jill Filipovic titled, “The Pope’s Unforgiving Message of Forgiveness on Abortion.”  In her piece, Ms. Filipovic decries the idea that those who had obtained an abortion should need forgiveness.  She writes:

Instead of treating women as adults who make their own decisions, the pope condescends to “all the women who have resorted to abortion,” saying he is “well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision.” The threat of excommunication, at the very least, makes the church’s views on women’s rights clear. Offering forgiveness is a softer version of the same judgment: that the millions of women around the world who have abortions every year are sinners. Inviting women to feel shame and guilt for their abortions isn’t a mercy; it’s cruelty.

At issue for Ms. Filipovic is the fact that abortion would be classified as a sin at all.  For her, forgiveness for an abortion is neither needed nor desirable.  What is needed is a wholehearted endorsement and promotion of abortion itself.

The biblical position on abortion and forgiveness undermines both the Roman Catholic Church’s strange view of absolution, especially before this recent papal pronouncement, along with the secularist’s cynicism toward the sinfulness of abortion.  The secular view of abortion and forgiveness is inadequate precisely because the emotions of “shame and guilt,” contrary to Ms. Filipovic’s assertion, should be the affective outcome of any sin, including abortion.  Our sin should make us feel bad – at least if we take what God commands seriously.  Only God’s gospel can remedy our shame and guilt as it releases our sins to Christ on the cross.  Abortion cannot be excused and explained away.  It can only be forgiven.

Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church’s view on abortion and forgiveness also will not do.  The now former restriction on priestly absolution for abortion seems to have been largely meant as a threatening deterrent against particularly grievous sins, as is explained in the Baltimore Catechism:

The absolution from some sins is reserved to the pope or bishop to deter or prevent, by this special restriction, persons from committing them, either on account of the greatness of the sin itself or on account of its evil consequences.

This restriction overlooks the fact that, theologically speaking, every sin is an affront against all divine law, therefore making any sin damnable.  It also overlooks the fact that to make forgiveness difficult to obtain via a barrage of ecclesiastical red tape takes what is meant to be a gift from God and perverts it into a work of man.  This makes the forgiveness spoken of here antithetical to the gospel rather than the center of the gospel, for the gospel is never about what we do, but about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

So where does this leave us?  It leaves us here:  if you are a woman who has had an abortion, there is hope beyond shame, release beyond burden, and wholeness beyond brokenness.  Not because there shouldn’t be any shame, any burden, or any brokenness.  And not because you can somehow claw your way out shame, burden, and brokenness by a work, even if that work is a work of self-debasing sorrow before a bishop or a priest. No, there is hope and release and wholeness because of Jesus.  After all, He suffered death to conquer death, which means, even if a life has been lost to abortion, that life can be recovered too.  And your life can be made new.

That’s the promise abortion needs.

November 28, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

More on Baton Rouge, Saint Paul, and Dallas

Let’s try a little thought experiment.

Imagine you’re a police officer in Baton Rouge.  You’ve been called to a convenience store where a 37-year-old man named Alton Sterling has been reported to have recently threatened another man with a gun.  You approach Mr. Sterling and pin him to the ground when someone shouts, “He’s got a gun!  Gun!”  Fear takes over.  Shots are fired.  And Alton Sterling lies dead.

Now imagine you’re a police officer in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  You pull over a vehicle that has a broken taillight.  The man inside, Philando Castile, dutifully explains that he has a concealed carry permit and has a firearm in the vehicle.  When Mr. Castile reaches for his license and registration, however, you think he’s reaching for his gun.  Fear takes over.  Four shots are fired.  And Mr. Castile dies in front of his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter.

Finally, imagine you’re a 25-year-old black man named Micah Xavier Johnson who has watched other black men be shot and killed in altercations with the police under suspicious circumstances time and time again.  You see protest after protest against these shootings by Black Lives Matter, but in your mind, these protests do not equate to real action.  After the tragedies in Baton Rouge and St. Paul unfold, you seize on these moments to exact revenge.  At a protest in Dallas, you, with anger coursing through your veins, aim your arsenal of firearms at twelve officers, killing five of them, only to finally be taken down yourself by law enforcement officials.

Are you still with me?

Now, let’s do a little math.

Fear + Anger = Eight People Dead

At this point, I need to include some caveats.

First, don’t misunderstand the intent of my thought experiment.  I am not trying to exonerate bad behavior by asking us to imagine ourselves in each of these men’s shoes – by asking us to empathize with them.  Empathy never tries to excuse sin, but it does try to understand people because, when we understand people better, we can understand what leads to a week like the one we just experienced better and, hopefully, take steps to prevent another week like this one from happening again – ever.

Second, the facts in all these cases are still unfolding.  When 49 people were shot and killed by a terrorist at an Orlando nightclub, I offered an encouragement on this blog for people to patiently wait for the facts rather than jumping to conclusions about the shooter’s motives.  The same caution applies here.  It could be that one or both of these officers in Baton Rouge were animated by naked racial animus and shot and killed one or both of these men in cold blood.  If this were the case, the equation above would still hold, albeit on the anger side rather than on the fear side.  It could also be that, as more facts surface, one or both of these officers were not animated by fear, but by a legitimate concern for self-defense.  Turning to Dallas, it could be that Mr. Johnson was clinically insane and not in his right mind when he carried out these horrific attacks.  If this were the case, what he did still could not be excused, and his anger and hatred would still loom large, but it might be understood a little differently.  Carefully sorting through the facts – and being patient enough to do so – is incredibly important in tragedies like these.

Third, I am not a law enforcement official.  I know some law enforcement officials, and I have nothing but the utmost respect and love for them.  Honestly, if I had to walk in their shoes, I’m not sure that the altercations with Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile would have gone down any differently.  I can imagine myself becoming very frightened very quickly.  The fact that so many law enforcement officials keep their cool when tensions are high is a testimony to the character and competence of so many of these men and women.

Fourth, I am not a black man.  I have heard enough stories of incipient and systemic racism against black men, however, that my heart breaks.  I would not want to live under a cloud of such constant suspicion.  I would not want to have to teach my son the lessons of what little slights, sideways glances, and clinched purses could mean.  If I had to endure that day after day, I would be angry too.  And if someone was to needlessly take the life of someone that I loved, I can’t say I wouldn’t be tempted to exact an eye for an eye.  The fact that so many African-Americans keep their protests peaceful and focused on change rather than turning them into opportunities for revenge is a testimony to the character and compassion of so many of these men and women.

What has happened this week, then, is not an indictment of the masses, but the fruits of a few.

But…

Even though what happened this week was not by our hands, this is not to say it couldn’t have been by our hands.  Remember the equation?

Fear + Anger = Eight People Dead

Have you let fear take over your heart any time this week?  How about anger?  Is anything from the way you manage money to the way you treat your family to the friends you avoid to the grudges you hold to the politics you have that is driven by fear or anger? The results of your fear and anger may not be eight dead, but are the results in any way good?  Let’s adjust the equation a little bit.

Fear + Anger = Plenty That Is Not Good

Is this true of you?

Fear and anger are part of the human condition and are devastatingly etched into the annals of human history.  One needs to look no further than the night before Jesus’ death.  When Judas betrays Jesus into the hands of the religious leaders, Peter goes from being so angry at what is about to beset his Master that he cuts off the ear of a man in the mob that has come to arrest Jesus to being so fearful at what is transpiring with his Master that, just hours later, when a servant girl asks him if he knows Jesus, he denies his Savior and friend.  Fear and anger coalesce into one necrotic night.

The truth is this: there’s plenty of fear and anger to go around – among the masses and, if we’re brutally honest, in our hearts.  The equation holds true for us all.

So, on the heels of a terribly tragic week, let me conclude with two gentle reminders:

“Do not be afraid” (Luke 12:32).

And…

“Refrain from anger and turn from wrath” (Psalm 37:8).

Think on these things.

July 11, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

True Confessions

Confesson 1I love to read all sorts of things. Theological tomes. Biographies.  Histories.  The Bible.  I love to read op-ed pieces in newspapers and long form journalism – an art form I am concerned is all too quickly disappearing – in newsmagazines.

I love to read. But I don’t always like what I read about.

Case in point. This past week, I was scrolling through my newsfeed when up popped a story about a pastor who had to resign from his church because of serious ongoing turpitude. I wish I could say I’m surprised. But I’m not. I’m not surprised because I’ve seen far too many of these kinds of stories for them to shock me.  I’m not surprised because I know the human heart can be a dark place, leading people to do dark things. I’m not surprised because I know my heart can be a dark place, leading me to do dark things.  I’m not surprised.  But I am heartbroken. I am heartbroken when I think about the pain, regret, and fear this brother in Christ must be experiencing. I am heartbroken by how his story is being talked about on social media.  An Internet mob has predictably descended on Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and comment walls to attack and destroy this man in a sickening display of schadenfreude. This man is in my prayers and, if I can be so bold, he should be in yours.

It is out of my heartbreak that I want to sound a warning not only to my brother pastors, but also to all Christians: Satan hates you and is out to destroy you. This is why Revelation 9:11 calls Satan “the Destroyer.” Satan wants to destroy you along with all the people you love and all the people who love you. Indeed, the sin of this pastor has not only compromised his security and livelihood, it has also deeply wounded his congregation – exposing them to ridicule in the hot spotlight of a nationally trending news story – as well as, I’m sure, emotionally devastating his family.

A few years back, in The Asbury Journal, David Werner asked an important question: “How is your doing?” He asked this question in the spirit of John Wesley, who took great care always to connect “how one was doing internally (in one’s soul) … to what one did, or how one lived out the Christian life externally (in one’s actions).”[1] In other words, Wesley wanted Christians to seriously consider how well their actions comported with their words and worldview.

So, let me ask you: How is your doing? Are there any “doings” that you are hiding? Is there a sin that remains secret? Now is the time to confess it, repent of it, and receive forgiveness for it. Now is the time to share it with a pastor, a counselor, or a trusted friend in Christ so you can be held appropriately accountable for it and, ultimately, be absolved of it.

The apostle Peter exhorts us to two important “doings” when he writes, “Be self-controlled and alert” (1 Peter 5:8). Both parts of Peter’s admonition are critical. If you cannot control yourself, your ability to help and lead others will be inevitably compromised and, in some instances, discredited and destroyed. And if you are not continually vigilant, watching out for Satan’s tricks and traps, he will use your slumber toward righteousness to take you down before you even know what hit you. Being self-controlled and alert is key.

But even more important than Peter’s admonition is Peter’s invitation in the verse prior: “Cast all your anxiety on God because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Sin tells a sinister, but enticing, lie. It promises you that if you fall to it, it will release you from your anxiety. “Imbibing too much alcohol can help you lighten up and have fun,” whispers sin. “Misusing God’s gift of sex can give you a much needed thrill in a hard knocks world,” says sin. But, in the end, sin never helps your anxiety. Instead, it only adds to your anxiety pain, hurt, brokenness, and guilt.

Peter reminds us that only God can take our anxiety because only God has taken care of our anxiety by taking care of our sin on the cross of His Son, Jesus Christ. So lay your anxiety – and your sin – on Him. In the words of the old hymn:

I lay my sins on Jesus,
The spotless Lamb of God;
He bears them all, and frees us
From the accursed load.
I bring my guilt to Jesus,
To wash my crimson stains
White in His blood most precious,
Till not a spot remains.

There is a chance that this man who has had to resign from his church will not serve again as a pastor.  But even if his vocation as a pastor has passed, his vocations as a husband and as a father still stand.  My prayer is that, out of his pain, this man serves in these callings from God repentantly, patiently, and lovingly and that he finds his comfort in what God has called him:  His forgiven child.

My prayer is that you find your comfort there too.

_______________________________

[1] David Werner, “John Wesley’s Question: ‘How is Your Doing?’” The Asbury Journal 65, no. 2 (2010): 68.

May 25, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Spiritual Speech About Social Concerns

ConfusedLast week on this blog, I discussed a video showing some members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing a racist chant. In my analysis, I cited Byron Williams of The Huffington Post and his use of theological language to address the incident:

America’s approach to the original sin of racism maintains an aspect of arrested development. It is too easy to temporarily transfer our moral indignation toward a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma that no longer exists than it is to take the more difficult path that could lead to a meaningful transformation …

The expelled students have already succeeded in dismantling their fraternity chapter. Shouldn’t they be given opportunity for redemption? In lieu of expulsion, could the university have found another way to educate all involved about the poisons of racism?[1]

Williams attaches a lot of theological freight to his analysis of this incident – and, I would argue, rightly so – with words like “original sin” and “redemption.” But I would also argue that he does not frame his theological terminology in a particularly Christian way. Williams’ description of “redemption,” for instance, is more closely aligned with AA’s call to make amends than it is with Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. To be clear, I by no means think that these students should not have to make amends. Indeed, I think such action would be extraordinarily salutary – both for the people they hurt and for the offending students themselves. I only point out Williams’ unconventional use of theological language as an example of how, while many in our culture still have strong theological instincts, such instincts are often not expressly Christian in their content or context.

In an article for The Weekly Standard, Roman Catholic theologian Joseph Bottum frames the issue of racism and its attendant issue of white privilege, as does Williams, in the theological terminology of original sin:

“All have sinned,” writes St. Paul in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Christians in Rome, even those who have “not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression.” And so too are we all guilty of racism, even those who have never harbored an explicitly racist thought or said an explicitly racist word or performed an explicitly racist deed. “We have to get away from this idea that there is one sort of racism and it wears a Klan hood,” as Berkeley law professor Ian Haney-López explains. “Of course, that is an egregious form of racism, but there are many other forms of racism. There are racisms.” Racisms under which we all suffer.[2]

Bottum astutely notes that for all the talk of secularism’s encroachments on Western society, our essential impulses are still spiritual. Just look at how we talk about racism as not just a set of actions, or even as a worldview, but as a blight for which we must make atonement.

But as strong as our spiritual impulses may be, something is missing:

The doctrine of original sin is probably incoherent, and certainly gloomy, in the absence of its pairing with the concept of a divine savior – and so Paul concludes Romans 5 with a turn to the Redeemer and the possibility of hope: “As sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Think of it as a car’s engine or transmission scattered in pieces around a junkyard: The individual bits of Christian theology don’t actually work all that well when they’re broken apart from one another.

We are stuck in a societal Anfechtung, Bottum says.  For on the one hand, our culture does indeed have strong spiritual impulses.  This is why we confess and agonize over “original sins” like racism.  But on the other hand, our spiritual impulses do not lead us to the relief of Christ’s cross. Instead, our impulsive anxieties are left to stew in their own juices until they inevitably begin to search for relief and redemption in other ways – in our day, usually in the ways of our body politic. In large part, we in the West have traded the theologia crucis for legislative sausage making.

In many regards, this way of theologizing is merely the inexorable upshot of the liberal Protestantism of the twentieth century. As Bottum explains:

Early in the twentieth century … the main denominations of liberal American Protestantism gradually came to a new view of sin, understanding our innate failings as fundamentally social rather than personal. Crystallized by Walter Rauschenbusch’s influential Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), the Social Gospel movement saw such sins as militarism and bigotry as the forces that Christ revealed in his preaching – the social forces that crucified Him and the social forces against which He was resurrected. Not that Christ mattered all that much in the Social Gospel’s construal. Theological critics from John Gresham Machen in the 1920s to Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1950s pointed out that the Social Gospel left little for the Redeemer to do: Living after His revelation, what further use do have we of Him? Jesus may be the ladder by which we climbed to a higher ledge of morality, but once there, we no longer need the ladder …

The Social Gospel’s loss of a strong sense of Christ facilitated the drift of congregants – particularly the elite and college-educated classes – out of the mainline that had once defined the country. Out of the churches and into a generally secularized milieu.

They did not leave empty-handed. Born in the Christian churches, the civil rights movement had focused on bigotry as the most pressing of social sins in the 1950s and 1960s, and when the mainline Protestants began to leave their denominations, they carried with them the Christian shape of social and moral ideas, however much they imagined they had rejected Christian content.

When I read Bottum’s analysis of our current situation, I can’t help but think of Rudolf Bultmann, the famed twentieth century German theologian, who sought to free Christianity from its so-called “mythical” trappings – trappings like Jesus’ miracles, Jesus’ teachings, and, ultimately, Jesus’ very resurrection. I wonder if this old liberal theologian isn’t smiling down on us right now. After all, his project of demythologizing Christianity has now been completed, probably more thoroughly than he could have ever imagined. For Christianity in secular society has indeed been stripped of all its mythical trappings – including, as it turns out, Christ Himself.  We are left only with the residual ghosts of Christian morality to convict us of socially abhorrent sins without the historical cross of the resurrected Christ to comfort us in all sin.

Of course, orthodox Christians cannot accept Bultmann’s project or its outcome. But even if we cannot accept it, it is important that we understand it. For if we do not understand the theological shape of our secular society, we will perhaps miss opportunities to offer our salvific rest of the story to our society’s guilt-ridden part of the story.

And that would be a sin.

_________________________

[1] Byron Williams, “It’s Not Unconstitutional to Be Racist,” The Huffington Post (3.11.2015).

[2] Joseph Bottum, “The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas,” The Weekly Standard (12.1.2014).

March 23, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Humans: Never for Sale

Credit:  texasgopvote.com

Credit: texasgopvote.com

Shortly before the new year, The New York Times published a short, heartbreaking article featuring stories from U.S. sex trafficking victims. Though there were only two stories, these were all that was needed to shock and grieve their reader. I share one of the two here:

Now 32, Genesis was offered her first hit of crack cocaine by her mother when she was 13. By 18, she had a criminal record. She spent her teenage years in and out of strip clubs before becoming the property of a violent pimp. By 21, Genesis had lost a baby and become addicted to drugs.

For years under a violent trafficker, Genesis said she was never allowed to leave his house. The rooms were bugged, the bathroom had no doors. She said her pimp used to tie her and other women he trafficked to a weight bench, beat them and starve them …

“I didn’t know I was in hell,” she said. “I thought it was just life. Over those years I was held hostage, shot at, beaten with a pistol. And somewhere in my sick mind I thought this is how life is supposed to be.”[1]

If only Genesis’ story was unique. But it’s not. Sex trafficking is a much broader problem. Though it’s hard to track because so many victims of sex trafficking do not report their experiences, the Department of Justice estimates that as many as 300,000 children may become victims of sexual exploitation each year.[2] Even if the numbers are lower, one case of sex trafficking is one too many.

The sadness of human exploitation struck me in a new way as I was reading Revelation 18 in my devotions this past week. John is describing the fall of Babylon, a city symbolic of the world’s evil. John describes the decimation of this world’s systemic sin once and for all:

“Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come!” The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more – cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men. (Revelation 18:10-13)

John’s Babylon sold many things to enrich itself. But most tragically, it sold the “bodies and souls of men.”

John’s Babylon is not far from us. Every time a young lady is prostituted out to the darkest of men, “bodies and souls of men” are sold by pimps – just like in Babylon. Every time a woman performs simulated sex acts at a club for a gaggle of wide-eyed gawkers, “bodies and souls of men” are sold by the adult entertainment industry – just like in Babylon. Every time a person sits hidden behind a flickering computer screen, staring at erotic images of the most carnal of acts, “bodies and souls of men” are sold by the porn industry – just like in Babylon. Every time a scared woman is counseled and even cajoled to abort her baby even though everything inside of her is telling her not to, “bodies and souls of men” are sold by the abortion industry – just like in Babylon.

How sick.

As heart-rending as human trafficking may be, John promises that, mercifully, this sick industry will meet its end. The “bodies and souls of men” will not be sold forever. Babylon will fall. And when Babylon does fall, the merchants who made their money off the pain of people will grieve their destruction and cry, “Woe” (Revelation 18:19)! But those who have been oppressed and sold will celebrate their liberation and shout, “Rejoice” (Revelation 18:20)!

May that day of rejoicing come quickly.

If you need help out of being trafficked, click here.

_______________________

[1] The Associated Press, “Sex Trafficking Shelter Filled With Survivor Tales,” The New York Times (12.29.2014).

[2] William Adams, Colleen Owens, and Kevonne Small, “Effects of Federal Legislation on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children,” Juvenile Justice Bulletin (July 2010).

January 26, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment

It’s Time For A Change

Credit: Mateusz Stachowski

Credit: Mateusz Stachowski

Periodically, I receive email solicitations encouraging me to “take a stand.” I need to “take a stand” against abortion. I need to “take a stand” against sexual immorality. I need to “take a stand” against poverty. There is a whole myriad of things against which I need to “take a stand.”

Now, on the one hand, it is important to stand for truth in a world full of lies. The apostle Paul makes this clear enough when he writes of the armor of God: “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist” (Ephesians 6:14). Indeed, I have written about the importance taking a stand elsewhere. On the other hand, if all we’re doing is standing against sin in our world, we are falling woefully short of our calling as Christians.

When Martin Luther sparked a reformation of the Church by posting 95 theses for discussion to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, his first thesis described the heart and soul of what it means to be – and for that matter, to become – a Christian: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”[1] The Christian life, Luther asserted, is grounded in repentance.

In Greek, the word “repentance” is metanoia, which is made up of two parts. The prefix meta means “to change” and the noun nous refers to the mind. To repent, then, means “to change your mind.” For instance, if a husband wants to divorce his wife because he is no longer happy in his marriage, for him to repent would mean that he stop thinking his marriage is all about his happiness and instead see it as a reflection of the commitment that Christ has to His bride, the Church. Repentance requires a shift in one’s worldview. It asks a person to stop thinking the way he used to think.

When Christ launched His ministry, He launched it with a message of repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Christ’s desire was not just to take a stand against sin, but to change people’s minds about sin. He wanted people who looked at infants as disposable entities who could be left outside to die – which many in the ancient world did – to change their minds and believe that every life is precious to God. He wanted people who believed it was fine to sleep around – as many in Jesus’ day did – to change their minds and instead be faithful and tender to their spouses. He wanted people who looked past the impoverished – as the rich man in Jesus’ story about the beggar Lazarus did – to change their minds and offer what they could in Jesus’ name.

I have heard many a discussion about the sins that beset our culture and how the Church should respond to these sins. Sadly, more often than not, people want the Church only to “take a stand” while ignoring the fact that, first and foremost, the Church is to help “make a change.” The Church is to call people to repentance.

How can the Church do this? By making two shifts.

First, we must stop looking at people who are far from God as merely evil and start looking at them as lost. Looking at people who are far from God as merely “evil” incites our indignation. Seeing them as “lost” arouses our compassion.

I heard a story last week at a conference I was attending about a man who was at the deathbed of his brother. His brother was a recalcitrant non-believer. He refused to trust in Jesus, even as he was drawing his final gasping breaths. As this man stood by his brother’s bedside, trying to comfort him, the thought passed through his mind: “This is the last time my brother will ever experience any comfort. After this, it will only be eternal separation from Christ.” If that doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what will.

There are millions of people headed for the same destiny as this man’s brother. How can we only get angry at them as evil without caring for them as lost?

Second, we must stop playing only defense when it comes to evil and start playing offense. I get the impression that some people think if we could just outlaw certain evils, our problems would be solved. But legislation against evil only defensively curbs it. It doesn’t offensively change people’s mind about the fundamental nature of right and wrong. This is why legislation passed in one Congress is so easily reversed by the next Congress. As Christians, our legislative efforts need to take a backseat to our desire to understand and empathize with how our culture thinks so we can winsomely respond to what our culture thinks. If you need a good place to start learning how to do this, I would recommend reading The Reason for God by Timothy Keller. I would also add that changing people’s minds takes time. Sometimes, it takes lots of time. So be patient! A mind changed is worth the wait.

“Taking a stand” may reveal the sin in our world. However, “making a change” – repentance – conquers the sin in our world because it leads people to Christ. And I’d much rather win against sin instead of just complaining about sin.

____________________________

[1] Martin Luther, “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” (October 31, 1517).

September 22, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Weary from Work

It’s that time of year again.  You know, the time of year when school begins, extracurricular activities increase, social events get scheduled, and work projects pile up.  This time of year is difficult and wearisome for many – from parents right down to their kids.  When the calendar fills up, it can be easy to throw your hands up in resignation.  How does one navigate the wiles of overwhelming obligations?

It must be understood that becoming weary from a sometimes heavy workload is simply part of living in a sinful, fallen, broken world.  This is why, after the first man Adam eats of the fruit of the tree of which God has warned, “You shall not eat” (cf. Genesis 2:16-17), God says to Adam:

Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return. (Genesis 3:17-19)

When sin enters the world, Adam’s work gets hard.  He must earn his wages by the sweat of his brown and be nicked and pricked by thorns and thistles.  And he cannot escape this.  He must simply deal with this.

So where, then, is the hope for those weary from work?  The hope is in Jesus.  There’s a reason Jesus contrasts His work with our work in the world by saying:

Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Jesus says this because He knows whereas the brokenness of this world’s work can drain us, the glory of His work can fill us.  Jesus’ work on our behalf on the cross and our labor under His name for the sake of His Kingdom can bring contentment and joy like no other work can.

Finally, we can take comfort in the promise that the wearisome work of this world will not go on forever.  The prophet Isaiah speaks of a time when “instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow” (Isaiah 55:13).  Rather than the thorns and thistles of Genesis 3, Isaiah reminds us that in eternity we will enjoy lush pines and myrtles.  In other words, the pain of this world’s work will be wiped away in favor of work that bring joy, peace, and fulfillment.  Work lasts forever.  Wearying work, however, does not.

So if you feel overwrought by your work right now, take heart that you will one day feel overjoyed by serving God in glory.

September 2, 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

More Than A Little

Apple 1I suffer from calorie creep.  It’s amazing.  If I wake up in the morning and commit to making wise food choices, staying away from sweets, and considering the calories of what I put in my mouth before those calories get there, I can usually keep the number of my calories down and the quality of my calories up.  But if I don’t…

It only takes a little.  “I’ll just have a little bit of ice cream for dessert,” I think to myself after lunch.  But it’s amazing how much ice cream I can cram into even a little bowl.  And by the time supper rolls around, a second bowl of ice cream begins to sound awfully enticing.  The more junk food I eat, the more junk food I want.  A little always turns into a lot.

“It’s just a little white lie.”  “We were just kicking back a little.”  “A little bit of fun never hurt anyone!”  It’s amazing how many times I have heard these statements or statements like these as excuses for sin.  How are they excuses?  They’re excuses because they sanction sin by arguing that what they’re supporting is only “a little” sin.  But a little always turns into a lot.

Solomon makes this precise point when he talks about the sin of laziness:  “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man” (Proverbs 24:33-34).  Solomon says that sin adds up faster than you think.  And this means that sin can wreak havoc in your life quicker than you think.

When the apostle Paul is writing to the Galatians, he warns them against tolerating even a little sin with a metaphor:  “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” (Galatians 5:9).  Paul says that just like it only takes a little yeast to make bread rise, it only takes a little sin to make wickedness rise.

The other day, I came across some thoughts from the Archbishop Chaput, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, worth citing here:

We live in a culture where our marketers and entertainment media compulsively mislead us about the sustainability of youth; the indignity of old age; the avoidance of suffering; the denial of death; the nature of real beauty; the impermanence of every human love; the oppressiveness of children and family; the silliness of virtue; and the cynicism of religious faith.  It’s a culture of fantasy, selfishness, sexual confusion and illness that we’ve brought upon ourselves …

As the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb observed more than a decade ago, “What was once stigmatized as deviant behavior is now tolerated and even sanctioned; what was once regarded as abnormal has been normalized.”  But even more importantly, she added, “As deviancy is normalized, so what was once normal becomes deviant.  The kind of family that has been regarded for centuries as natural and moral – the ‘bourgeois’ family as it is invidiously called – is now seen as pathological” and exclusionary, concealing the worst forms of psychic and physical oppression.

My point is this: Evil talks about tolerance only when it’s weak. When it gains the upper hand, its vanity always requires the destruction of the good and the innocent, because the example of good and innocent lives is an ongoing witness against it.  So it always has been.  So it always will be.[1]

His last paragraph is key.  A little bit of evil will ask you to tolerate it so it can get itself in the door of your life.  But once it gains access to your heart’s hallways, it will grow – gradually, perhaps, but inexorably.  And what it asked for itself in the name of tolerance it will not give to goodness.  For it has come to destroy goodness.  It has come to destroy you.  And that is why Jesus has come to destroy it.

Stand firm, then.  For even a little sin is a little too much.


[1] Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, “A Thread for Weaving Joy,” Voices Online Edition, vol. XXVII, no. 1 (Lent – Eastertide 2012).

August 12, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Adam Is For Real

Adam and Eve 1 editIn 1906, theologian and philanthropist Albert Schweitzer published The Quest of the Historical Jesus, surveying theologians’ attempts to understand who Jesus was historically apart from what Schweitzer thought to be the layers of mythologizing that had been overlaid on Him by the Bible.  Schweitzer finally concluded that Jesus saw Himself as One whose suffering and death would bring in the Parousia, or the final appearance of God.  In Schweitzer’s own words:  “He must suffer for others…that the Kingdom might come.”[1] But Jesus proved mistaken in His imminent expectations of God’s Kingdom and Christianity has been grappling with Jesus’ failed apocalyptic expectations ever since:

The whole history of “Christianity” down to the present day, that is to say, the real inner history of it, is based on the delay of the Parousia, the non-occurrence of the Parousia, the abandonment of eschatology, the progress and completion of the “de-eschatologising” of religion which has been connected therewith.[2]

Interestingly, Schweitzer later abandoned his quest for the historical Jesus, considering it futile.  After all, reconstructing who Jesus was apart from and skeptical toward the record of Jesus in the Bible is a tall order!

Over one hundred years after Schweitzer’s quest, Christianity Today published an article titled “The Search for the Historical Adam.”[3]  Much like the quest for the historical Jesus a century earlier, this quest seeks to reconstruct who Adam was quite apart from the biblical record of him.  But this quest questions not only what Adam did and did not do – for example, “Did he really eat some forbidden fruit?” – this quest questions whether Adam even existed.  The argument against Adam’s existence, which is where the shining stars of this quest have broadly landed, runs thusly:  because evolution is true, a historical Adam cannot be.  Instead, the human race emerged out of the chaos of natural selection, albeit this natural selection was guided by the detached hand of theism, rather than according to the simple and succinct word of the personal Creator.

It is important to note that cries to dispense with a historical Adam are not few and far between, nor are they outside the mainstream of Evangelical Christianity.  Consider this argument against the existence of a historical Adam:

What is a “given” for Paul is the saving event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The other things he says, especially about sin, the Law, and eschatology, are reinterpretations that grow from the fundamental reality of the Christ event. Recognizing this relieves the pressure that sometimes builds up around a historical Adam…We can now recognize that Adam is not the foundation on which the system of Christian faith and life is built, such that removing him means that the whole edifice comes crashing down. Instead, the Adam of the past is one spire in a large edifice whose foundation is Christ. The gospel need not be compromised if we find ourselves having to part ways with Paul’s assumption that there is a historical Adam, because we share Paul’s fundamental conviction that the crucified Messiah is the resurrected Lord over all.[4]

From where does such an argument against the historicity of Adam arise?  From J.R. Daniel Kirk, and associate professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, a one-time bastion of classic evangelical orthodoxy.  Denying the historical existence of Adam has gone mainstream.

Contrary to the sentiments of many, I would argue that it is theologically and logically necessary for the historical Adam to have existed.  It is theologically necessary because no mythical character can account for real sin.  And the apostle Paul identifies Adam as the original sinner:  “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).  It is logically necessary because it is incoherent to make an argument for Christ’s death and resurrection, boldly contradicting the consensus of the scientific community that dead people do not come back to life, on the one hand while arguing against the historicity of Adam because of the general consensus of the scientific community concerning evolution by natural selection on the other hand.

What Professor Kirk engages in is nothing less than a full on gospel reductionism.  That is, Professor Kirk is willing to cede the integrity and veracity of the biblical record on whether or not Adam really existed as long as he can hold on to the gospel that Christ died and rose again.  But once one lets go of what the Bible says in general, he will not be able to hold on to what the Bible says about the gospel in specific for long!  The church body of which I am a part, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, has explained it this way:

The Gospel is not normative for theology in the sense that beginning with it as a fundamental premise, other items of the Christian system of doctrine are developed as provisional, historically conditioned responses to a given situation which will need to be revised for another situation.[5]

This is precisely what Professor Kirk does in his article.  He assumes that we can reinterpret the historicity of Adam for our situation because Paul’s insistence on a historical Adam was only a “provisional, historically conditioned response to a given situation.”  But this false view of Adam can only lead to a false view of the gospel.  In the words of G.E. Ladd, who was addressing those who were undermining the historicity of the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ life:

Jesus was a historical person.  His words were historical events.  His deeds involved other people; but they were far larger than the boundaries of personal existence.  His deeds included interpersonal fellowship, healings of bodies as well as minds.  His mission created a new fellowship of men; and this fellowship after the resurrection because the Christian church which has become one of the most influential institutions in Western culture.  All of this happened in history; and it is only because certain events first happened in history that other results were experienced in their existential dimension.  Existential import results only from historical event.[6]

What is true of Jesus is true of Adam.  The existential reality of sin can only be meaningfully explained by an existentially historical Adam.  Evangelically orthodox Christians must settle for nothing less.


[1] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Mineola, Dover Publications, Inc., 2005), 387.

[2] The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 358.

[3] Richard N. Ostling, “The Search for the Historical Adam,” Christianity Today (6.3.2011).

[4] J.R. Daniel Kirk, “Does Paul’s Christ Require a Historical Adam?Fuller Theology News & Notes (Spring 2013).

[5] The Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, “Gospel and Scripture” (November 1972), 9.

[6] G.E. Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1968), 64.

May 13, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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