Tag Archives: Salvation

What Google says the Bible advocates

Correcting what the World thinks “the Bible advocates”

I’m depressed. Go to Google, type “Bible advocates”, and see the popular suggested searches that appear: “violence”… “killing non believers”… “slavery”. You can’t even get “love” to appear. Type an L to try and prompt it, and you won’t get anything. Google just sits there, confused, not suggesting anything. Same with F (for forgiveness) and J (for joy). P (for peace) just gives you “polygamy” and “death penalty”.

So today, I am fixing it. Some of that stuff is treated in the Bible, but none of it is what the Bible is about. Here is what it is about:

Google suggestionWhat the Bible is really about
A“abortion”, “child abuse” Abundant life, Atonement
B(no suggestions) Baptism, Begotten son
C“child abuse” Christ, Carry your cross
D“death penalty” Divinity
E(no suggestions) Eternity
F(no suggestions) Forgiveness, Freedom, Father
G“genocide” God, Grace
H (no suggestions) Holy Spirit
I“inc” Incarnation
J (no suggestions) Jesus
K“killing” King of kings
L (no suggestions) Love, Lord
M (no suggestions) Mercy, Messiah
N (no suggestions) All things new
O (no suggestions) Only begotten son
P“polygamy”, “death penalty” Peace, Prayer
Q (no suggestions) Quiet
R (no suggestions) Redemption
S“slavery”, “stoning”, “socialism” Salvation, Sacrifice, Son of God, Sabbath, Service, Freedom from sin, Defeat of Satan
T“the bible advocates slavery, violence, genocide” Trinity, Truth
U (no suggestions) Unity
V“violence” Virgin birth
W (no suggestions) Worship, Will of God
X (no suggestions) Example of Christ, Crucifixion
Y“yelp”, “yale” Pray
Z (no suggestions) Zion
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God, condemnation, and the “unrepentant sinner”

We all have sin. Scripture says so. Christians say so; even conservative Christians say so. Why, then, is there so much talk nowadays about how people are “in sin” and therefore condemned to God’s judgment? Do we have to quit our “sin” in order to be Christians? Do we have to quit our “sin” in order to be saved?

What is an unrepentant sinner?

A major idea of modern Christianity in America, non-controversial in even the most conservative circles, is that “ex-sinners” are welcome. “Ex-sinners” are non-problematic for us; many of us think of ourselves as “ex-sinners”, and rightfully include our deliverance from sin as a cornerstone of our personal testimony. “All have sinned” is thus held to be a thing primarily of our personal pasts, and our term for people who meet this test is “repentant sinner.”

What, then, of the “unrepentant sinner”, whose “sin” is still acknowledged to be in the present? People quote verses like “wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of heaven” to show that his choices are: (1) to desist from a certain list of sins (see below) or (2) be condemned to eternal hell. But then, in effect, his salvation stems from his behavior and we are back under the law; Christ did not come simply to change up the line of reasoning by which sinners are condemned.

If we only welcome “ex-sinners”, then another way of phrasing our message to the world is: “Go clean up your act, and then you are invited to join us,” or at least, “You may join us provisionally so long as you clean up your act.” The line of reasoning is that we must protect ourselves from the unrepentant sinner (often quoting the warning of 1 Corinthians 5:11). But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Whereas we, in our imposition of prerequisites and conditionals, are like the early days of Alcoholics Anonymous, turning away the “unrespectables” to protect their program, only to find in the end that, “We were intolerant. How could we guess that all those fears were to prove groundless? How could we know that thousands of these sometimes frightening people were to make astonishing recoveries and become our greatest workers?”

In the parable of the sowerone major point lost on our non-agricultural generation is the shocking wastefulness; Christ as the sower makes no distinctions about where he spends himself. He scatters as liberally to the poor soil and the thorn bushes as to the good. If he made no such distinctions with his grace, if he made no such judgments about who is worthy to receive his largess, then why should we make such distinctions? I think Christ’s point is that you and I, as we are out there sowing, have no idea where is the good soil and where the bad. Sometimes the most radiant Christians (e.g. Paul) come from the most surprising and least worthy places (e.g. Paul). Christ himself said, “Whoever is forgiven much will love much.”

“Acceptable” sin

In our contemporary Christian culture, we have come around to a conventional wisdom that breaks down “sins” into three categories:

  1. Acceptable: Those that can be freely practiced without reflection, hesitation or misgiving. These include eating unclean food, breaking the sabbath, and (increasingly) remarriage after divorce.
  2. Borderline: Those that can be practiced now and again, so long as it is due to “weakness” and you feel shame (aka “repentance”) about it. This covers pretty much the whole range from alcoholism to sexual sin.
  3. Horrifying: Those that are so egregious they must not be practiced, ever. This category is largely theoretical, used as a debating tactic when shock value is needed; it’s mainly just murder and bestiality.

It is adherence to this conventional wisdom that fuels our entire modern culture war. People whose “sins” fall into the “acceptable” category are readily welcomed and embraced by the church, whereas those who are relegated to “borderline” status are offered a false correlation: between being acceptable to Christians and living in constant shame.

Here is the problem: it’s all a cultural construct. Even conservative churches now readily take in those who would have caused a great scandal just a generation or two ago. Rightly so. The weight of scripture is overwhelmingly against the drawing of niceties between different kinds of sin. James says “Whoever obeys the whole law yet breaks it at just one point is guilty of breaking it all.” Paul makes a similar point when talking about circumcision. And Christ himself equates one of our “horrifying” sins (murder) with words spoken in anger and contempt, a practice so common among contemporary Christians that it is seen as totally “acceptable” (if not “encouraged”!)

Christ’s plucking grain on the sabbath, Peter’s vision of eating forbidden food, Paul’s railing against the need for circumcision: these are not meant to be line-item deletions of three specific legal requirements, leaving the rest of the law in full force. They must be read as they would have seemed to the original audience, as wild and revolutionary, sweeping and scandalous, not chipping away at the cornices of the law, but swinging at the foundation stones with a pickaxe.  If we are to tolerate unrepentance towards the “acceptable” sins, then we ourselves are the transgressors when we refuse equally free welcome, grace and acceptance to all.

Errors of judgment and license

Unfortunately, many instinctively revolt against this line of reasoning because it is open to abuse. Always has been. That doesn’t make the theology wrong. Paul was God’s pioneer for grace-instead-of-law, and he was constantly having to defend it against the legalists on his right and the licentious on his left. Sin still has the power to destroy, but so does the knee-jerk, unthinking, reflexive application of the law.

As brothers and sisters, we are not to stand idly by when we witness destructive sin at work in a person’s life. Simple human mercy demands that much, to say nothing of scripture’s commands that we care for each other and bear one another’s burdens. But we must remember: there is more to knowing what needs to change in a person’s life than simply knowing whether or not Hebrew law is being obeyed. It is the blanket application of law— without love, without reflection, without relationship— that cannot survive in the heart of the true Christian.

Related Links

What is sin? It’s not that simple.

Be loved. I double-dog dare you.

Be loved. I double-dog dare you.

Show of hands: if a sweet little girl mistook you for a famous movie actor, how many would be flattered? Probably most? At one point in my life, I would have assumed that. And how many would react with shame? How many would feel hot tears of hurt and anger welling in their eyes? How many would perceive mockery and want to lash out?

Once, I couldn’t even have conceived of these responses, but lately I’ve begun to wonder: they might even be the majority reaction. Because here’s the problem: to believe that someone else could think well of us, we have to think well of ourselves. To believe that we can be loved, we have to love ourselves. And that, I think, is a lot less common than people realize. How much more difficult, then, to be able to accept and believe in the love of a perfect and infinite God? This is the reality seen in scripture. But, like a doctor who must wait for some natural recovery before the body can tolerate surgery, I think God’s biggest challenge with many of us is to heal us enough that we can tolerate his healing: is to grow a kernel of love inside us large enough that we will be able to tolerate his love.

Beating us over the head

I was reflecting on this recently in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians; specifically, in the part I had always blown off before. You know how, when you’re having a serious discussion, you have to kind of ease into it? Like, “Hey, how ya doing, howsa wife, howsa kids, great, me too, well, listen, here’s what I wanted to talk about.” There’s some small talk. It doesn’t mean anything. So that’s what I used to do with this scripture. I would just kind of mentally skip over it, like “that’s just the nice pious-sounding intro before he gets into the REAL scripture.” Here’s a sample:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.

Now, I’m not going to read out the whole thing, but it goes on, and on, and on like that. Easy to blow past, but let’s dig in for a second:

  • He has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ (v3)
  • He chose us to be holy and blameless in his sight (v4)
  • In love He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ (v5)
  • His glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the one he loves (v6)
  • In him we have redemption (v7)
  • The riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding (v8)
  • We were chosen for the praise of his glory (v11-12)
  • Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal (v13)
  • The Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance (v14)

Do you see what I’m saying? Every verse is chock-a-block with the reality that God’s love for us knows no bounds. It’s like Paul is trying to beat us over the head with it, verse after verse, because he knows how resistant people are to this message.

The thing in us that hates us

Our world is not much of a place for unconditional love, especially lately. People who were supposed to be there for us, aren’t. Mothers leave, fathers leave. School friends turn against us and bully us on Twitter. Eventually, we internalize all of that external rejection, and then the voices in our heads become our own worst enemy. Gene Wolfe imagined it as an internal torturer, calling it “the thing in you that hates you.”

Whatever replaces “being loved” in your life, more likely than not, there is a multi-billion dollar industry supplying it to you.

Whatever may be wrong in our lives, don’t we say, “It’s my problem, it’s up to me to fix it?” But the truth is, no matter who you are, no matter how powerful and clever and creative you are, you didn’t create your sin by yourself, and you are not going to solve it by yourself. If you’re into alcohol, there’s a multi-billion dollar industry making it and serving it to you. If it’s shopping or food or pornography or gambling, there are multi-billion dollar industries for all of that too. Drugs are a multi-billion dollar black market. You didn’t come up with that sin by yourself.

A man in a twelve-step recovery program was once asked “Which step takes the longest?” Do you know what he said? It’s step 1: “we recognized that we were powerless, and that our lives had become unmanageable.” Other steps, people may take a month, or two months, or a year, but that step 1… people will stay out in the howling storm, demons of addiction shrieking around their ears, shouting how they’ve got it under control and they don’t need help, for a decade, or two decades, or five.

Not a “nice to have”

Let’s take another look at that first passage from Ephesians that we started with: “Lord Jesus Christ”, “in Christ”, “through Jesus Christ”, “in the One he loves”, “In him”… in these two paragraphs of scripture alone, Christ is mentioned 10 times. God has a plan of redemption, but it is not one in which we save ourselves. In this plan that I am talking about, Christ is not an optional add-on. Christ is not an “also ran”. Christ is not a “nice to have”. Rather, Christ is the cornerstone. Without the power of the blood of Christ unto redemption, the whole thing would collapse. But with Christ, that which is dead in sin can be made alive. That which is lost can be saved. And even those years that were a loss to sin can be made into gain for the good of God’s kingdom.

To me, one of the most beautiful and memorable promises of scripture speaks to this exact point, in Joel 2:25, when God promises, “Then I will restore to you the years that the locust swarm devoured.” Out of soil that the devil has sown for death, God can make many good, green and living things to grow.

How Jesus is like nonfat milk

3 Ways Jesus is like nonfat milk

Milk is a starting place.
Milk polarizes.
Milk explains why Jesus had to die.

I don’t have to tell you that when it comes to milk, people have strong preferences. In no other area of life will 1% of butterfat raise such ardent passions. Yet in so many ways, this familiar white beverage is like Our Savior. Milk is a starting place. Milk polarizes. Milk even explains why Jesus had to die…

Milk is a starting place

We are born, I believe, with a desire to seek God. Even many atheists will agree with this, though they offer it to explain why “people had to invent God”, whereas I believe it falls into the same category as all our other in-born desires like food and water and sleep— in no other area is our desire for something held out as evidence that it doesn’t actually exist.

Yet, despite our desire for God, to us in our natural state, he is not particularly accessible. People are as often offended by God’s purity and God’s power as they are attracted by it. Especially in the 21st century America, these qualities of God seem opposed to values like openness and democracy. It runs contrary to our DNA nowadays to simply trust the powers that be to have our best interests at heart (as God has).

Into a world like this, Jesus comes to render God the father into an accessible human shape. In my “faith” conversations with non-believers, they often want to start by talking about objections: “How could God…” and “Why should God…”  and “Why doesn’t God just…” and so on. These are all valid questions and I think that all believers wrestle with them, but they don’t make a very good starting place.

Christ has so much to teach, but in several places, the bible encourages us to start with our times tables before we move on to wrestle with algebra and trig. “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it,” says 1 Corinthians 3:2, and 1 Peter 2:2 says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” Far from insult or condescension, these passages simply reflect the fundamental truth that learning about the deep things of God is like any other area of learning: you have to start at the beginning if you are to make any sense of it.

Milk polarizes

We have it right in my own family: to my brother-in-law, whole milk is a rich, creamy treat, while nonfat is flavorless blue water. To me, nonfat is clean and refreshing, while whole is gloppy and clogging.

Jesus has a similar polarizing quality. The apostle Paul says, “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16) He’s talking about the incense burned in the parade when Roman armies returned in triumph, marching captives before them toward execution. To the Romans, the incense meant victory and life, but to the captives, it was the stench of their utter destruction. All this even though the smell itself never changes.

Milk explains why Jesus had to die

As I mentioned, I like nonfat milk on my cereal. Once, my family went camping, and the only milk anyone brought was whole. “Well,” they explained, “you can just add water to the whole milk.” I countered, “Then I’ll just have watery whole milk!” You see, the problem is, I don’t like the butterfat, and whole milk still has it no matter how much water you add.

I am sometimes asked, why did Jesus have to die for our sins? Some have even claimed that Christ’s death on the cross is evidence that God is cruel and vindictive. By this line of reasoning, the sins we commit should be balanced against the good things we do, and if the good outweighs the bad, then God should be satisfied.

The problem is, this is just like trying to turn whole milk into nonfat by adding water. If you do, it will just give you an unappetizing frankenbeverage. You can never turn one into the other by adding something (like water); what is needed— the only real solution— is to take something away.

You may have heard the joke that you’ll never find a perfect church, and even if you do, you’ll mess it up when you get there. God’s problem with having the likes of us with him in heaven is, we’d do the same thing. Heaven is characterized by what it has, but also by what it has not: “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

When Jesus gave his life for us on the cross, he accomplished that. He turned something unappetizing to God, clogged by gloppy sin, into something delightful and refreshing.