A Firm Foundation

Liquefaction in 1964 Niigata Earthquake

Earlier this year, I attended an informational meeting in my area about an upcoming study of liquefaction susceptibility in my state. What’s that, you ask? Well, sandy soils, under certain conditions (mainly earthquakes), can suddenly liquefy, losing all bearing strength. This may go unnoticed when it happens in unpopulated areas, or it may be a puzzling phenomenon when a large “sand boil” suddenly appears in a farmer’s field, but it can be disastrous when it happens underneath a city full of densely populated buildings. After all, large buildings also tend to be heavy buildings, and we often have to rely on the bearing strength of the soil under the building to support it when there’s no good rock underneath. Now, the eastern part of my state has a fault zone capable of producing high-magnitude earthquakes, combined with a very thick “liquefaction-susceptible” layer, which is not a good combination. The 1964 earthquakes in Alaska and Japan are probably the most famous examples of liquefaction, and the picture above from the Niigata, Japan quake is probably the best example of the danger: no matter how well you design the building, and no matter how well you build it, if the support suddenly disappears, gravity will bring it down!

Inadequate foundations aren’t just an issue in structural design, though: people can run into the same problems in their own lives. Everything visible “above ground” can be picture perfect, but the foundation needed to survive a catastrophic event is lacking. We can have success in our jobs, be leaders in our communities or experts in our fields of study, have kids that are school valedictorians academically and all-stars athletically, and own homes that are the very picture of having “arrived”. We can achieve all our life goals and all those society thinks we should achieve – “living the dream” –  but what of our foundation? What happens when all our accomplishments are yanked out from under us like the support under those buildings in Japan? If we’re trusting in our own achievements, or our family name, or our connections to the right people, we will be in for a rude awakening. As it turns out, society can actually be quite fickle, and today’s adoring crowd can become tomorrow’s angry mob. And things like cancer and tornadoes don’t check the résumés of those they strike. Nearly anything you try to build your life on can prove to be an inadequate foundation. An accident can turn the athletic superstar into a quadriplegic and disfigure the most beautiful model; a market crash or a coup can bankrupt the wealthiest person; and the most brilliant scientist can find themselves at the mercy of a brain-ravaging disease like Alzheimer’s. What do you do when your nightmare becomes your reality? Will you topple when the solid ground under you suddenly turns to quicksand? Or does your life’s foundation extend to bedrock? Is there even any kind of “bedrock” we can build our lives on, that isn’t susceptible to failure?

Indeed, there is! And the answer is  as close as the Bible. Jesus tells us:

“Everyone who comes to Me and hears My words and acts on them, I will show you whom he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who has heard and has not acted accordingly, is like a man who built a house on the ground without any foundation; and the torrent burst against it and immediately it collapsed, and the ruin of that house was great.” [Lk 6:47-49]

Whether it’s storms or earthquake-induced liquefaction, being locked into an unmovable foundation is key. The apostle Paul wrote that “the firm foundation of God stands” [2Tim 2:19], and that this foundation is Jesus Christ [1Cor 3:11]. The author of Hebrews wrote that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” [Heb 13:8]. In this world of shifting sand, something firm and unchanging sounds pretty good, if you ask me. They say the only constant in life is change, but, thankfully, there is one constant that does not shift or give way, and that is Jesus Christ. He is the bedrock that can keep you standing through it all. So what’s your life built on: the Rock of Ages, or the shifting sands of effort and circumstance? Choose wisely, friend.

Skipping the Easy Questions

I’ve been studying for a big engineering exam for most of 2018, and have learned a few things in the process (OK, a lot of things…). One has been the need to be familiar with the subject matter. I know, that seems more than a little obvious, but let me explain. One of the subject areas covered in the exam will be bridge design. There are plenty of areas of building design that I need to study, but bridge design is one area I have absolutely zero experience with, and never had any intention of pursuing. Don’t get me wrong; I like seeing a well-designed, aesthetically-pleasing bridge as much as anyone, but I would’ve never in my life cracked open the 1,600+ page bridge manual if it weren’t necessary for this exam. So this has been one area I’ve tended to avoid in my exam preparations. Aside from the lack of experience with that whole subject, I’ll admit that there was a bit of intimidation at the 4″ thick binder. How could I ever hope to learn enough about all the intricacies of that code to apply it correctly? But then I realized something after taking a couple of practice exams: the bridge questions I was skipping to focus on areas I was more comfortable with were actually opportunities to make up time. As I reviewed the solution keys to the practice exams, I realized that many of the bridge questions were actually relatively straightforward questions… if I knew where to look. I was only shooting myself in the foot skipping them to work out longer steel design problems that weren’t worth any more points. Now what does that have to do with Christianity? Let’s work through that today.

Too often, Christians let the objections of skeptics go unanswered because it’s unfamiliar terrain for them. And yet, I would dare say, most objections are easier to answer than people assume. It’s understandable to hear that a prominent critic of Christianity, like Sam Harris, is a neuroscientist, and be intimidated by the fact that an obviously intelligent person like him doesn’t think Christianity is true. Similarly, one might shy away from confronting a famous Oxford biologist like Richard Dawkins. Yet, if you actually look at their objections, they often are the same type of objections anyone could make; their credentials don’t really add any weight to their objections. When Dawkins, for instance, asks “Who made God?“, you don’t have to debate genetics with him to answer that. You do have to understand what Christians mean by “God” since Dawkins doesn’t. But when he leaves his specialist’s niche to discuss basic questions of metaphysics and theology, he sets aside his specialist’s credentials and proves to be just as amateur a philosopher as anyone. This is just like if an expert witness testifies in court. Suppose the leading expert in the world on forensic entomology witnesses a hit & run accident and is called to testify in court; despite his world renown as an entomologist, his credentials are meaningless when it comes to this case. He’s just another witness who may or may not have useful testimony.

So what is the Christian to do when confronted by objections to the existence of God, or the historicity of the resurrection, or other common questions?

  1. Don’t panic. These are far from shocking new objections. They’ve been answered over and over again throughout the centuries; skeptics just don’t like the cold, hard truth.
  2. Be honest. If you don’t know how to answer, admit it. Nobody likes to feel like they’re being played, so don’t just make up something untrue or questionable to try to silence the objection. Acknowledge that it’s a question you hadn’t investigated sufficiently before, offer to get back to the person, do your homework, and then actually get back to them about it.
  3. Prepare ahead of time. How? Don’t be biblically illiterate. Sadly, there are atheists who know the Bible better than many who call themselves Christians. This simply should not be. God’s Word is supposed to be our “delight” [Ps 1:2, 119:47], and yet too often it languishes on the shelf, unopened, in Christian homes. Have you ever asked a grandmother about the grandkids she delights in? Or a rabid football fan about their favorite team? Those are some “subject matter experts” that delight in their area of expertise! Can we learn God’s Word better than a sports fan learns his team’s stats? I hope so. If that’s not the case for you, here’s some questions to consider. Are you reading the Bible daily? If so, are you thinking about what you read, or just checking it off your list? When you come across a passage you don’t understand, do you follow up with prayer, reading alternate translations, checking multiple commentaries, or talking to a more mature Christian? You don’t have to memorize the Bible (although if you can, by all means, go for it!). But understanding how it’s organized, the background of each book, the key points addressed in each book, and so on, can help immensely. Learning about church history is a valuable resource as well. The creeds and catechisms written over the centuries are especially compact summaries of the Christian faith, with great thought put into every word. There are lots of good (and typically free) resources available online, but you need to find good, theologically sound sources before you’re put on the spot.

You, Christian, may be the only “subject matter expert” on Christianity that an unbeliever ever consults. There are many who mistakenly assume that a preacher has ulterior motives for speaking to them about God, and won’t step foot in church or talk to him on a plane. You may very well find that you have better opportunities to introduce people to God than many preachers do. So don’t skip the easy questions, and don’t let answerable objections hinder your friends from recognizing the truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Steel Day 2018

Leslie Robertson

I’m always thinking about potential topics for future posts, but sometimes I don’t have to go looking for topics – the topics find me. Such was the case when I was watching the preview release of the AISC documentary “Leaning Out”. This was one of those rare situations where I could get continuing education credit for my engineering licensure while watching something that would be of general interest to non-engineers as well. Produced by the American Institute of Steel Construction to commemorate their 10th annual “Steel Day”, this excellent documentary combined a review of the history of the design and construction of the World Trade Center in NYC with a biography of its lead structural engineer, Leslie E. Robertson. Perhaps you’re wondering what this has to do with defending Christianity. Well… let’s work through that today.

In the documentary, Robertson shares that he enlisted in the Navy at age 16 to serve in WWII, where he saw 3 buddies killed. After the war, he became a pacifist, and campaigned against war and the proliferation of nuclear arms. But then he mentions that, after seeing his buddies killed, he could never believe in a benevolent God. That was a bit unexpected in an engineering documentary, but traumatic experiences can leave lasting impacts on us, as that experience did for him. Seeing your friends die is awful, whether in war (where it has to be at least somewhat expected given the fact that each side is actively trying to kill the other), or in the many ways lives are lost every day in the civilian world. What grieves me, though, is the lasting blinding effect on this otherwise brilliant designer, and knowing there are dire, eternal consequences for him that need not be. Spending the next 70+ years since WWII rejecting God, and facing an eternity separated from his Creator should have never resulted from the loss of his friends, thus making a tragic event much worse. But what of his reasoning, that a benevolent God would not let his friends die?

I don’t know if he’s really thought through what God “not letting his friends die” would entail. Should God alter the thoughts of enemy soldiers so they never target them? Should He miraculously alter the trajectory of incoming shells, or make bullets bounce off his friends? Not to be irreverent about the death of his friends, but saying a good God wouldn’t let your friends die, and acknowledging what that would entail, are two different things. I’m sure, like most engineers, Robertson has had a critic or two say he should’ve done things differently on a project. In fact, he did take some unwarranted criticisms after September 11th from people looking for anyone to blame for the deaths of their loved ones in the collapse of the towers. Yet he would be completely justified in saying that those people didn’t understand the extreme detail and care he poured into that design.  Could they have done any better if they were in the same situation? I think not. Yet, sadly, that is exactly what he is doing to God when he says God shouldn’t have let things happen the way they did. I have a lot of respect for him as a brilliant engineer, but he’s keeping a double standard when he defends his own designs, but doesn’t allow that God might have His own reasons as well.

Robertson’s very ability to reject God like he has is proof that the presence of evil or suffering is not an adequate reason to reject God. Free will, the ability to choose between alternative options, is a gift from God. He could’ve easily made us like robots, repeating “I love you, Lord” when programmed to do so, and singing His praises when He hit our “Play” button. But forced love isn’t really love, is it? Instead, God gave us the option to truly love Him, which also means the potential to truly reject Him. And, sadly, free will brings other consequences as well. We can freely love our fellow humans, or freely do them harm, even killing them, just as Robertson’s friends were killed. Nevertheless, the fact that He’s given us this capacity to choose between good and evil, and the all-too-observable fact that we often choose evil, does nothing to negate either God’s power, goodness, or ultimate existence. Tragedies like what Leslie Robertson witnessed don’t cause me to doubt the goodness of God, but rather the goodness of man.

Robertson’s rejection of God mirrors the old reasoning of Epicurus, which assumed God’s benevolence is in opposition to His power. For instance, “If He’s omni-benevolent, He isn’t omnipotent, because He didn’t prevent situation X from happening; or if He’s omnipotent, He isn’t omni-benevolent, because He still didn’t prevent situation X from happening.” God not acting the way we want Him to act is seen as either a sign of powerlessness to change the situation, or apathy regarding it. But this is to ignore the fact that God is a free agent. He’s not a force of nature, like gravity, which must act a certain way under certain circumstances. Just because God has the power to do something doesn’t mean He has to, or even that He should. It is entirely possible that God has other priorities than we do, and, given our very finite minds and His omniscience, it’s rather likely that His priorities are sorted out better than ours. If this has been a sticking point for you like it has for Mr. Robertson, I urge you – plead with you – to not let this issue keep you from being reconciled with your loving Creator.

The Call

The Preacher, by George Harvey, 1840

“When I was 15 I received a ‘call to the ministry.'” So begins chapter 1 -appropriately titled “The Call” – of Dan Barker’s book godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. After detailing his Christian “credentials” for the rest of the chapter he ends with “If I was not a true Christian, then nobody is.” Whether he was or was not, God knows. Analyzing his deconversion story may be a subject for another day, but what caught my eye for this week was his observation (in hindsight) that, “I could only stick it out in each church for about 18 months before feeling the ‘call’ to move on,” and “It’s always interesting how God always seemed to call me exactly where I wanted to go”[1]. Interesting indeed. What should we think about being “called”? Let’s work through that today.

Continue reading The Call

“Who Made God?”, Part 2

Richard DawkinsLast week, we looked at how famed British atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell objected to God by asking the question “Who made God?” Then we saw why this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God, and actually does nothing to invalidate the concept of God. But Russell wasn’t the only one to get stuck on that question. So, this week, I’d like to review Richard Dawkins’ similar objection. Let’s work through that today by jumping straight into the relevant quotes from Richard’s book “The God Delusion”.

“The whole argument turns on the familiar question ‘Who made God?’, which most thinking people discover for themselves. A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us escape.”[1]

“Seen clearly, intelligent design will turn out to be a redoubling of the problem. Once again, this is because the designer himself (/herself/itself) immediately raises the bigger problem of his own origin. Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a Dutchman’s Pipe [a plant Dawkins was using as an example] (or a universe) would have to be even more improbable than a Dutchman’s Pipe. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance…. Design is not the only alternative to chance. Natural selection is a better alternative. Indeed, design is not a real alternative at all because it raises an even bigger problem than it solves: who designed the designer?” [2]

“In any case, even though genuinely irreducible complexity would wreck Darwin’s theory if it were ever found, who is to say that it wouldn’t wreck the intelligent design theory as well? Indeed, it already has wrecked the intelligent design theory, for, as I keep saying and will say again, however little we know about God, the one thing we can be sure of is that he would have to be very very complex and presumably irreducibly so!” [3]

Dawkins’ fundamental objection here is that he believes God would have to be “complex”, and that this would require a prior cause that leads to an infinite regress, like your kids asking “Why?” after every answer you give.  Now, I see two issues here.

First, he seems to be thinking of God as some kind of cosmic machine. For instance, even a simple plastic gadget might require a very complex, carefully controlled machine to manufacture it. That machine, itself composed of gears and pistons and electronics and whatnot, had to be produced by something prior. The machine’s complexity – i.e. it’s composition of multiple interrelated parts – requires explanation by a prior cause, like another machine that produced the gears, a designer, and so forth.  But the gadget and the machine that produced it are both contingent and not self-existent. Self-existence is what ends the infinite regress that Dawkins stumbles over. Of course, a materialist might opt for a self-existent universe, but even if that were possible, it can’t ever cause anything to change. You might as well wait for your pet rock to do some tricks. That need for a free agent to initiate anything drives us toward God, but that is the one place Dawkins can never let himself be taken.

A second issue is that he confuses the complexity of the brain with the simplicity (or unity) of mind. Hardly surprising for an materialist evolutionary biologist to only see the neurons of the brain at work during design, but this is an important distinction. While mind and brain are typically paired, it is mind that is essential to design. A dead brain perfectly preserved in a jar in the lab will never design anything, even though it is still quite complex. Why is that? Because design necessarily requires 2 things: purpose and choice. These two essential characteristics of design entail 1) a mind to plan out a purpose, and 2) agency to make a choice between competing alternatives so as to achieve that purpose. Therefore, rationality and consciousness are the key attributes of a mind that make design possible. God is immaterial mind, while the brain is a contingent, physical object; it is hardware that can form, develop during our lives, atrophy, and eventually cease to function. While the brain is a complex system of interconnected neurons, all of the aforementioned stages confirm that brains are also contingent; they begin to exist and cease existing at some point. Mind, however, is not complex, but simple. Now, what does it mean to speak of the simplicity of mind (not to be confused with being simple-minded)? Namely this: that mind cannot be subdivided. A mind is simple as opposed to complex; it is a unitary whole not composed of parts. In fact, if Dawkins were to open any of several systematic theology texts [4] and read the opposing side, he would find that “simplicity”, or “unity of being”, or “noncomposition”, or “indivisibility”, has been an attribute of God recognized by Christians for nearly 2000 years. If he were to argue his case for a “complex designer” because he objected to the traditional formulation of divine simplicity, I could be more sympathetic to his objection. But I’ve yet to see any indication that he has even engaged with that issue. So for him to object to God because of his complexity is to object to a god of his own making, and not to the God of Christianity.

 


[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), p.136.
[2] ibid, pp. 146-7.
[3] ibid. p. 151.
[4] For example:
Geisler (2011), Systematic Theology in One Volume, Chapter 30 – “God’s Pure Actuality and Simplicity”;
Grudem (2000), Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Chapter 11 – “Incommunicable Attributes of God”;
Berkhof (1938), Systematic Theology, Part 1, Ch. VI., Section D – “The Unity of God”.
Boyce (1887), Abstract of Systematic Theology, Section 2 – “The Simplicity of God”;
Hodge (1872), Systematic Theology, Vol 2;  Ch. 5, Section 4 – “Spirituality of God”;
Thomas Aquinas, 1274, Summa Theologica, Vol. 1, Question 3 – “Of the Simplicity of God (in 8 Articles)”;

“Who Made God?”, Part 1

Bertrand Russell in 1924

Have you ever heard the objection, “Oh yeah? But who made God?” The answer, of course, is that nobody made God, but this has still been a stumbling block to a lot of people, so let’s work through that today.

Let’s start by looking at this question as famed atheist Bertrand Russell posed it in 1927 in his “Why I Am Not a Christian” speech. Next week, we’ll take a look at Richard Dawkins’ recycling of the question in 2006. First, let’s hear from Russell, considered by some to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, in his own words:

“I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography,  and I there found this sentence: ‘My father taught me that the  question, “Who made me?” cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question, “Who made God?” ’ That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.”[1]

To speak of God (at least, in the Christian understanding of the title) as needing a cause, is to speak irrationally. That is like asking “Who moved this unmovable object?” Or ” When did this beginningless entity begin to exist?” If the terms are correctly understood, they are understood to be contradictory and the question invalid. For part of being “God” is being eternal and possessing necessary existence (i.e. He always existed, and He has to exist for anything else to exist). If you’re thinking of any entity that could be “made”, you’re simply not thinking of God.

Consider the following scenario. A clever young man gets an idea for a truly useful gadget that everyone will want. He starts making them in his garage, but quickly outgrows that, and soon he is forming a company and building a factory. More hiring, more expanding, and soon the company has grown and has to have several layers of management at multiple factories. Now several years after that humble beginning in a garage, Billy, a new worker at the newest factory is going through employee training. He learns who will be his Line Foreman, and Shift Supervisor, and Department Manager, on up the chain of command until finally, it stops at President and Owner. Now, young Billy raises his hand, and asks, “Who’s his boss?” Nobody… he’s the owner,” comes the answer. But Billy persists, “Yeah, but who appointed him owner?” The trainer responds, “Nobody appointed him owner; he’s the original owner… he founded the company. It wouldn’t even exist without him.”

Now, was the company trainer trying to trick Billy when he said nobody needed to appoint John as president because he founded the company? No, of course not. Founding a company necessarily means you exist before the company you found. But what if the “company” is, instead, all of reality? And the founder is God? His pre-existence means there can be no other entity around to appoint Him or “make” Him, and this stops the infinite regress of the causal chain that concerned Russell.

The fact that people ask “Who made God?” is actually a testament to the self-evident nature of the law of causality; we instinctively recognize the relation of cause and effect and look for it everywhere. But this also demonstrates the common misunderstanding of it that Russell also fell prey to: people tend to think that this principle states that every effect has a cause. If that really were the case, then “Who made God?” might be a legitimate question. But here’s the problem: it’s a sloppy sentence – a shortcut that doesn’t always work. While we can be intellectually sloppy like that in our day-to-day observations, applying any statement universally requires more intellectual rigor. To correct the statement, we need to say, “everything that begins to exist has a cause.” Something without beginning would not require a cause, nor could it have a cause. Russell does acknowledge this as a possibility in the last sentence quoted above, but then assumes that the eternality of the physical world (or universe) is just as adequate an explanation as God, which is his second mistake.

Most people can be excused for thinking “everything must have a cause” because everything we observe did begin to exist at some point, so the shorter wording appears to apply universally; but a philosopher of his stature should not be caught by such careless wording. Granted, he fell for this when he was young, learning it from an author he respected, but to continue to believe that confirms something observed elsewhere about the skeptic: though portrayed as intellectual rejection of God, their reasons are very often emotional or volitional instead [2]. The tragedy here is that John Stuart Mill would come to such a bad conclusion, not seek out a better explanation, promulgate his error, and that it would be picked up by someone like Russell and passed on to succeeding generations. Folks, I don’t mind if you question Christianity, and you’re certainly not going to come up with a question that’s going to stump God; so by all means, test everything and hold on to what’s good, as Paul would say [1Thes 5:21]. But don’t forget to question your skepticism too.


[1] Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not A Christian”, speech delivered 3/6/1927 at Battersea Town Hall, England.
[2] J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity, (Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2013), p. 132.  Also online here.

The Right Answer… for the Right Reason

Know why you picked “A”…

If you’ve read this blog much this year, you know I’m hoping to take and pass a 16-hour engineering exam later this year. Needless to say, it’s on my mind a lot as I’ve been doing a lot of studying this year. Working through some practice problems the other day, I got the answer right, but for the wrong reason, and it got me thinking. In the actual test, I might not mind if I get an answer right in spite of a mistake in my calculations, or misreading the question. But when preparing for the test, the importance of understanding the why behind the answer is critical. If I get the answer right on the test by accident, then I may still get credit (at least in the multiple-choice morning session of the exam). But if I get the answer right by accident when I’m practicing for the test, and don’t verify my reasoning against a worked-out solution, then I’ll go into the real exam with a false confidence, thinking I know how to solve a problem type that I really don’t. Besides the potential repercussions at the test, there are consequences in my daily work, since the SE exam is, after all, a test of an engineer’s competence in actual structural design. For instance, suppose I find a clever shortcut for masonry shearwall design that will save me time on the exam, but I don’t realize that it only works for the particular scenario in the practice problem, and not for all cases. If I don’t understand why it worked there, then I may not understand why it doesn’t work on the exam, or why it doesn’t the next time I’m trying to meet a deadline and have a real-life shearwall to design. It’s all fun and games until real people’s lives are depending on your work being right. But… what does any of this have to do with the Christian faith? Let’s work through that today.

Don’t be content that you know the right answer; study to understand why it’s the right answer. Did you come to Christ because your parents were Christians and that’s what you grew up with? I’m glad for the end result of salvation, but, honestly, that’s a terrible reason for believing in Jesus. That’s no different than a Hindu in India, a Muslim in Saudi Arabia, or an atheist in China. Did you become a Christian because it makes you feel good? Again, if genuinely saved and that was your entry point, I rejoice at the end result, but believing anything because of how it makes you feel is also a terrible reason to believe it. Did you become a Christian because you’d hit rock-bottom and needed rescue? If that’s what it took for God to get your attention, then I’m thankful you turned to Him before it was too late. As Spurgeon said, “Happy storm that wrecks a man on such a rock as this! O blessed hurricane that drives a man to God and God alone!”[1] However, we all need rescue, whether we’re a homeless drug addict or a billionaire with a dozen mansions, and Christianity isn’t merely a self-help program for the down and out.

What is a good reason to become a Christian? Simply this: because Christianity is true. No amount of cultural acceptance or warm fuzzy feelings or self-improvement can make up for its falsity if it’s not true. But likewise, no amount of opposition can overcome it if it is true. But supposing it’s true, why should you repent of sin and confess Jesus as your Lord and Savior [Ro 10:9-10]? Is it because you need a little “helping hand”, a crutch, a nudge in the right direction? Hardly! That is like the pilot of a plane telling the passengers, as they hurtle earthward in a steep dive, on fire, the plane breaking apart from the speed of the descent, with seconds left to live before the inevitable crater and fireball, that they are experiencing some engine difficulties, and to make sure their seat belts are fastened and that they… “breathe normally”. The situation for them and us is far more dire!

You see, we are sinners. We tend to not like the condemnation that comes with that title, but it’s true, even if you were a “good kid” who’s grown up to be a model adult. Even on your best day, you still can’t say you’re perfect; none of us can. But it gets worse: when the Bible says we have all “fallen short of the glory of God” [Ro 3:23], it’s not just talking about what we’ve actively done against God, but what we haven’t done for Him. For instance, a child can be disobedient to his parents both by doing what they told him not to do, and by not doing what they told him to do. But God is the perfectly just judge who can’t be bribed, who won’t play favorites, and who will enforce a requirement for perfection in order to pass His exam. That’s pretty bad news for all of us. Can you see why a “little help” doesn’t cut it? This is why the Bible repeatedly explains that our good works won’t save us – can’t save us [Ep 2:8-9, Ti 3:5-7, Ro 11:5-6, Ga 2:16, 2Ti 1:9]. Salvation is a one-sided deal that has to come from God if it’s going to succeed.

Is it then just “fire insurance”? A “Get Out of-Hell Free” card in this Monopoly game of life? Hardly! The situation is far better than that simplistic (and frankly, selfish) view can even recognize. You see – incredibly – God actually loves us [Jn 3:16, Ro 5:8], and desires that no one perish [Ezk 33:11, 2Pe 3:9], such that He would send His Son to pay the penalty for our sins. That God would lavish such kindness and love and mercy on me is staggering! How could I reject that? And having accepted the free gift [Ro 6:23], how then could I see His gift as something to take advantage of and move on like nothing happened? No, thankfulness and worship of God are the only legitimate responses. And in fact, He created us to glorify Him, the only one truly and self-sufficiently worthy of glory [Is 43:7, 11, 48:11]. And from that gratitude and love to Him who first loved us, we give our lives in humble service to Him as our Lord [Jn 14:15].

As Christians, we are told to share what we know with a world in dire need of the Good News we have received, but may we never share false information that steers people down the wrong path. There have been far too many cases of people rejecting Christianity in response to a mere caricature of it, and often a poor one at that! As Christians who are “ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us” [2Co 5:20], we need to take that responsibility seriously. As C.H. Spurgeon once said, “Salvation is a theme for which I would fain enlist every holy tongue. I am greedy after witnesses for the glorious gospel of the blessed God. Oh, that Christ crucified were the universal burden of men of God.”[2] May we be faithful to our calling.


[1] C.H. Spurgeon, “Morning & Evening”, Aug 31.
[2] Spurgeon, “Lectures to my Students” (Hendrickson: Peabody, MA, 2014), Vol 1, Lecture 5, p.83.

Are You Certain About That?

The Discovery, by Norman Rockwell, 1956

Certainty about something brings a sense of security, but is certainty possible in matters of belief? Skeptics often recoil at the confidence Christians have in knowing that God exists, that the Bible is His message to us, and that His way is the only acceptable way to live. The nerve of those Christians! How arrogant to express such certainty about such things! Can we be “absolutely certain” of things like the existence of God, life after death, and so forth? Or are they like childhood beliefs in Santa Claus that will be seen through inevitably? Let’s work through that today.

To an extent I will grant the skeptic their case against absolute certainty, although probably not for the reason they might hope. True “absolute” certainty is only possible with exhaustive, comprehensive knowledge.[1] However, that is called omniscience, and only God possesses it. Therefore, technically, I would say absolute certainty exists but is impossible for us mere mortals, finite as we are. However, it’s “all in who you know”, as they say, and I would offer that the Christian doesn’t need to possess that ultimate level of certainty because he knows the One who does. God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, said, “I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure'” [Is 46:9-10]. I know the Writer of this grand play, so whether or not I know how the next scene will unfold, I can be certain of how it ends (spoiler alert: God wins), and I can rest easy in that knowledge. As Dr. Douglas Groothuis said, “we can live wisely within ignorance if it is bracketed by knowledge.”[2]

Now, I said I would grant the skeptics their rejection of absolute human certainty, but does this mean that I don’t think Christians can be “certain” about the One whom they have staked their life on? Hardly. Absolute certainty comes with complete knowledge, which is God’s alone, but knowledge is something we may possess to varying degrees, just as we may be loving or merciful or holy to a degree, while God possesses all these attributes perfectly. Just because we aren’t perfectly loving like God, doesn’t mean we can’t understand and demonstrate love to a great degree. Likewise, we may have a more than sufficient confidence about various things in life, even if we can never attain absolute certainty. How certain can we be of things? I would suggest that our certainty is proportional to the authority from which we receive our information. For instance, if you were looking for information on finite element analysis for structural design (an interest of mine), and your choices were between me and Edward Wilson, you would hopefully go with Wilson, one of the key figures in the development of that analysis method. You could have far greater certainty in the veracity of his statements than mine given that he really did “write the book” on that now-common method of analysis. You could have more confidence in my statements on the subject the more I referenced legitimate authorities on the subject like him, or demonstrated that my statements matched up with cold, hard reality via testing or logical necessity. The closer we get to legitimate authority on a subject, the closer we get to certainty about it. The closest I can get to absolute certainty in life is when I rely on the all-knowing Author of life itself.

Of course, if it were just a matter of knowledge of data, I could misinterpret the data, just as 2 scientists can look at the same data and interpret it quite differently depending on the assumptions they bring to the table. However, it’s not data we have come to know, but rather a personal, relational Creator who knew us better than we know ourselves before we were even born. And He has set His Holy Spirit in us [Gal 4:6] as a testimony [Rom 8:16], a seal [2Co 1:22], and a pledge [2Co 5:5, Eph 1:14]. This is why the apostle Paul could speak so forcefully when he stated, “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.” [2Ti 1:12] This is why John summed up his purpose in writing his first letter thusly: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” [1Jn 5:13] This assurance for the Christian comes not from turning a blind eye to evidence the skeptic thinks contradicts our beliefs, but rather from “Christ in you, the hope of glory” [Col 1:27], and that is a hope that does not disappoint [Rom 5:5] .

Am I absolutely certain that God exists and the Bible is His true revelation of Himself to us, and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? Due to my finitude, I would say I can’t be absolutely certain of that. But I would also say that I’m far more certain of those things than I am of my sitting here in front of a computer typing these words. I could be in a coma right now dreaming about blogs and office deadlines and commuting and all the other thousand little things in what I consider my daily life, living out my own little version of The Matrix. But even in that extreme case, when all of the external world around me is questionable, I still have the evidence of His Spirit in me, and I still know that God necessarily exists, that His Word endures forever, and that “my Redeemer lives”! And I’ll take that degree of certainty, absolute or not,  over anything else this world has to offer. Blessings, y’all.


[1] h/t to Bruce Waltke, in his lecture series on the Book of Proverbs, featured on www.biblicaltraining.org for this insight. See his lecture, “Hermeneutica Sacra“.
[2] Douglas Groothuis, Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness – A Philosopher’s Lament (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2017), p. 49.

The Need for Self-Examination

The Apostle Paul, by Rembrandt, 1657.

Some people take a Friday off to enjoy a 3-day weekend or go somewhere interesting. I used a vacation day this past Friday to spend Friday and Saturday taking a 16-hour long “practice exam”. Am I just a glutton for punishment? Too nerdy for my own good? Extremely bored with poor taste in recreational activities? Those may be distinct possibilities, but I also have a real test like that coming up in a couple of months, and the practice exam showed me areas where I was deficient and need to focus my studies. I think there’s a spiritual lesson here for Christians and non-Christians alike, so let’s work through that today.

The apostle Paul had instructed his Thessalonian readers to “test everything; hold fast to that which is good.” [1Th 5:21] when it came to doctrine they were hearing. But when he wrote to the Corinthian church, he urged the Christians there to not just examine truth claims critically, but themselves as well. “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” [2Co 13:5] Why should they be so concerned with self-examination?

  • The stakes are high. Albert Barnes wrote in his 19th century commentary on this passage: “So important are the interests at stake, and so liable are the best to deceive themselves, that all Christians should be often induced to examine the foundation of their hope of eternal salvation.” Eternity makes for high stakes indeed. As the author of Hebrews writes, “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” [Heb 9:27]. Just like with my upcoming test, it is far better to examine yourself ahead of time and find out that you are not meeting the standard while there is still time to do something about it.
  • We won’t be the ones doing the grading on Judgment Day. On my practice exam, I did better in areas like steel and wood design that I have more experience in, and worse in masonry and concrete that I have less experience in. But passing the SE exam is not based on my subjective standard, but rather on an independent standard. I can’t appeal a failing grade by saying “but look at how well I did on steel design!” I have to make sure I’m meeting the test standard, not my own. Sadly, many assume they will be able to justify themselves before God because they met their own standard rather than His.
  • t’s not a team event. Studying together is good, and encouraging each other is good, but the choices I make in the engineering exam are on me, so I need to understand what I’m doing. My colleagues can’t help me there. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if your parents were Christians, or that you have a friend “on the other side that can vouch for you”.
  • No retakes. With my test, as much as I would rather not, I can retake it next year if I don’t pass it this year. But failing the ultimate exam, with God as your examiner, will not be something you can afford to fail; all grades are final – no retakes or appeals. You can hopefully see why Paul urged believers to examine themselves.

How do we examine ourselves? Obviously, if you don’t believe God exists and/or have never trusted Jesus Christ for your salvation, then you are not “in the faith” as Paul would say, and you will not pass that final exam on Judgment Day. But perhaps you’re not that type, and you’ve actually grown up in the church and attended your whole life. Does that count? Not for salvation. Many have gone through the motions of the Christian religion without the saving benefit of Christ. One of the more sobering passages in the Bible is where Jesus says that many will say to Him “Lord, Lord…” and His response will be “I never knew you.” [Matt 7:22-23] It seems there is more to being a Christian than simply self-identifying as one. In fact, Jesus said we could differentiate between the “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and genuine followers by their actions: “you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” [Matt 7:20-21] Similarly, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” [Jn 14:15].

So is it in doing good works that we earn our salvation, like every man-made religion? Hardly, for it is “by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” [Eph 2:8-9] But notice the very next verse: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” [Eph 2:10] We aren’t saved by our good works, but rather for them. Ellicott, in his commentary on this verse, describes good works as “an inseparable characteristic of the regenerate life”, which dovetails well with James’ statement about the relationship of works and faith: “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? … faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” [Jam 2:14,17] Passages like John 15:8, 1 Peter 2:12, and Matthew 5:16 all highlight that our conduct as Christ followers should cause other people to glorify God, whether here on earth or at the final judgment.

That conduct – our actions – flows from our thoughts. And the Bible informs us that “those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” [Rom 8:5], and that the Christian is to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” [Rom 12:2], for we are a “new creation” in Christ [2 Co 5:17]. In fact, without God’s Holy Spirit indwelling us, our minds are “hostile toward God” and we “cannot please God” [Rom 8:7-8]. This contrast between the inclination of our old unredeemed nature and our new nature in Christ then provides a “practice test” for examining ourselves. Do I yearn for God, and to be conformed to the image of His Son [Rom 8:29], or are the things of God a chore and a drudgery to be endured? The answer to that question is telling. Of course, desire doesn’t always translate into action. Christians may still fail, even grievously, as King David, the “man after God’s heart” [Ac 13:22] still managed to do. But, as John MacArthur says in his commentary on Romans 8, “their basic orientation and innermost concerns have to do with the things of the Spirit”[1]. He continues, “A test of saving faith is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. ‘You can be certain of your salvation,’ Paul is saying, ‘if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you'”[2]. Whether I’m celebrating when I get my results back, roughly 3 months after my exam, or gearing up to retake it next year, the fact that “I know whom I have believed” [2Ti 1:12] is something to celebrate every day from here into eternity! Blessings, y’all.


[1] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Romans 1-8 (Chicago: Moody, 1991), p.417.
[2] ibid., p.420.

“This Old House”

Gasometers (coal gas storage buildings) in Vienna, Austria in 1901.

Conversions of old structures for new uses is painstaking, tedious, and frustratingly limited, but also capable of producing amazing results. In fact, the results are often more amazing because of the starting point. To take an old, decrepit building, and transform it into a vibrant masterpiece that then becomes the focal point of a rejuvenated city center is even more impressive than if the same masterpiece had been built from scratch. Its history is a priceless contribution. For instance, the buildings pictured above were some of the largest storage buildings in Europe for coal gas when they were built over 100 years ago. Now, in one of the more interesting conversions I’ve seen, they are called Gasometer City, and house an entire community of over 600 apartments, plus shops, restaurants, a movie theater, and more. That’s pretty neat, in my opinion. Bringing an abandoned dead building, good for nothing but demolition, back to life and making it beautiful again is an act of redemption, and I think we see the same thing played out in the lives of people being transformed by the skilled hand of the Master Artisan and  Architect of our faith. So let’s work through that today.

I see a lot of similarities between the renovations we do to old buildings and what God does to us. In fact, God’s not just in the renovation business; He started it. And He keeps doing it day in and day out. Don’t believe me? Think about it: God could’ve just started over when Adam & Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden; He could’ve started completely over when He wiped out most of humanity and saved Noah and his family; He could’ve just razed the whole structure of the universe and started clean at any point – but He didn’t. Instead, He redeemed a broken humanity. He set in motion a plan, and sovereignly guided it every step of the way, so that spiritually dead humans would be brought to life, becoming walking testaments to the power, wisdom, and love of God.

  •  Just like the old decrepit building slated for demolition, there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves [Eph 2:1,8-9]. We needed an Investor to come along and pay to buy us off the auction block – to redeem us – and make us new again [Mk 10:45]. Sometimes, people want to convert a historic abandoned building and make it something special again, but decide the price is too high. They can start fresh somewhere else, or maybe even demolish the antiquated building and  build a new one cheaper than what it would take to rehabilitate an old building. They give up on the old building they wanted to save because the price is just too high for them. Yet, such was His great love for us that God paid an unfathomable price: the life of His Son [1Pe 1:18-19, Rom 5:8-10].
  • God takes burned-out, rock-bottom, homeless drug addicts as well as superstars that have climbed the ladder of fame and fortune and found the “top of the world” to be empty and meaningless; He takes trusting little kids and repentant old rebels on their deathbed;  His offer of salvation is open to men and women, rich and poor, young and old, illiterate and diploma-collectors, people of all colors and nationalities – everyone [Gal 3:28, Col 3:11, Rom 3:29]. But no matter where you are in life, the “before and after” couldn’t be more dramatic: you’re a “child of wrath” beforehand [Eph 2:3-5], and a child of God [Rom 8:14-17] after He purchases you. Now that’s an “extreme makeover”!
  • Generally, it’s easier to make a new building look like an older one that’s been fixed up than it is to actually restore and improve the existing structure. It’s far more challenging when you are constrained to working with what’s already there. Yet God, in His supreme power and wisdom, accomplishes His work both in us and through us, even with all our flaws and orneriness and outright stupidity sometimes. And though He makes us a “new creation” [2Cor 5:17], this isn’t like some “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers” where He replaces us with a doppelganger. Rather, there is continuity, for I am the same person I was before. Yet there is contrast of purpose as I live for the glory of God rather than my own glory. My history doesn’t have to be my future, and yet, my history is still an integral part of the story of God’s amazing work in this world. I am reminded of going to Spokane, Washington several years ago and visiting a shopping mall that had been an old flour mill. Part of the attraction of the place was the paradoxical continuity of use yet contrast of purpose – the history of what it had been compared with what it had become. Honestly, its history made it a more interesting shopping mall than the majority of purpose-built malls I’ve visited.

In closing, I leave you with some of the last words of one who knew a thing or two about God’s renovating work of conversion and sanctification. John Newton was an English slave ship captain turned minister and abolitionist, and the author of perhaps the world’s most famous hymn, “Amazing Grace”.  Here, in the twilight of his life, he summed up the profound gratitude of the Christian heart for the amazing grace that redeems dilapidated wretches:

“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be; but I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”[1]


[1] John Newton,  paraphrased from the original longer quote in the Christian Spectator, Vol. 3, 1821, p.186.
h/t to Pastor John Michael for the quote 😉

At the intersection of faith and design