“Breadth and Depth”

Breadth Depth“Breadth and depth” is a term used to denote the knowledge expected of applicants for the Civil Professional Engineer exam. The morning exam tests for general engineering knowledge over a wide area (breadth), while the afternoon exam wears you out in one area like structural or water resources (depth). I took an online class on structural connection design last fall from Dr. Bill Thornton, one of the leading experts in the world in that area, that reminded me of this distinction. While he is a very capable engineer in general, I probably would not have signed up for the class if he had been teaching on concrete design, or timber design. I’m sure he could’ve taught me a thing or 2 in those areas as well, but the draw of his class was that he has devoted much of his long engineering career to one specialty, structural steel connection design, and become a world-renowned expert in that area. He has exemplified having a wide general knowledge base and a thorough specialty knowledge. What lessons are there for us here?

While academic and professional learning is beneficial, and striving for the higher end of the spectrum is admirable, there is an area of learning that can yield rewards far beyond one’s career, even into eternity. In Paul’s final letter before his execution, he tells Timothy to “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”[1] But how do you handle accurately something with which you aren’t familiar? Your first time using any new tool, toy, computer program, or any other unfamiliar item is often pretty clumsy. How do you get better? You study it and practice it. So then, as Christians charged with the solemn responsibility to “go and make disciples of all nations”, we have to ask ourselves, are we striving to develop “breadth and depth” in our spiritual knowledge? It seems there is a spectrum of different degrees of knowledge possible, both in the secular sense (like Dr. Thornton’s career) and in the spiritual sense (like our daily walk with Christ):

  • Shallow knowledge over a narrow area – Are you an “amateur Christian?” Is this Christian life just a Sunday hobby for you? John 3:16 is powerful, but the Bible is an inexhaustible gold mine of truth being overlooked if that’s as far as you’ve explored your beliefs. God will not be a hobby for anyone!
  • Shallow knowledge over a wide area – Are you a “jack of all trades and master of none”? Do you know a lot of different Bible stories and comforting verses, but only scratched the surface in terms of meaning, significance, and connection? All those separate stories are joined up below the surface as part of God’s big story. Dig deeper!
  • Deep knowledge over a narrow area – Are you a “specialist”? So fascinated with eschatology (end-times), angels, or some other narrow field that you’ve neglected all other areas? Focus on an area of study is great for growth, but just like an athlete that only trained one arm or one leg, unbalanced growth isn’t necessarily good. Diversify!
  • Shallow knowledge over a wide area & deep knowledge over a narrow area – Are you a “hybrid”? Both a specialist and a generalist? Have you dived in and become an “expert witness” in one area (i.e. the historical reliability of the New Testament), but are still able to answer general questions outside that area? Great! Now pick a new area to grow in!
  • Deep knowledge over a wide area – If you’re in this boat, quit reading my blog and start your own! This level of knowledge is a rare and special blessing not to be kept to yourself, so start applying all that knowledge! Every generation needs a Charles Spurgeon, or a C.S. Lewis to shed God’s light on all different subjects in profound ways. Is there a point where you’ve “made it”? No, not this side of heaven. But like I said earlier, God’s Word is inexhaustible, so never stop learning!

So which one are you? More importantly, which one will you become? “To whom much was given, of him much will be required.”[2] Here in America, one can easily, relatively cheaply, and with zero risk to one’s life, accumulate a biblical reference library that many preachers in other countries couldn’t amass in a lifetime, and might very well die for if they did. We have multitudes of Christian radio stations that are illegal in other countries. The internet has opened the floodgates of study materials, podcasts, blogs, curriculum (often free), and even online degree programs. We have more ability to study and understand God’s Word and share with others than humans have had since Jesus was here to ask in person. We are… without excuse.


[1] 2 Timothy 2:15, NASB.
[2] Luke 12:48, ESV.

“You Can’t Handle the Truth!”

cant-handle-the-truthIn the movie “A Few Good Men”, Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson famously go back and forth in court with Nicholson finally shouting back from the witness stand the classic line “You can’t handle the truth!” The truth can certainly be a powerful, devastating force at times. But what is truth? The Bible records Pilate asking Jesus that very question almost 2,000 years ago.[1] It’s a big question, but let’s look at one small aspect now.

Truth can be defined as the “ideal or fundamental reality apart from and transcending perceived experience.”[2] This indicates that truth is not subjective since it “transcends perceived experience”. In other words, a statement is true when it corresponds to the object it describes rather than the perception of the observer. Hence, it may be described as objective truth. A color-blind person may incorrectly perceive some colors, but the actual color may be  independently verifiable by the wavelength of light being reflected from an object. That a particular apple’s appearance corresponds to what we call “red” is then objectively true regardless of how, or even if, we perceive it. Likewise, the statement that there is life on other planets may or may not be true; but if true, it will be because of such life existing and not because of our knowledge of it.

What then are we to make of claims today that “everything’s relative”, or that something may be “true for you, but not for me”? First, isn’t it a little ironic to use an absolute term like “everything” to deny absolutes? In fact, both of these statements are actually self-refuting. They “commit suicide” as Greg Koukl would say. What’s implicit in the relativist’s first statements is that everything is relative except their absolute statement. How convenient. But “everything” includes that statement, which puts it in the same category as saying “white is black”. Their 2nd  claim implies that statements may be simultaneously true and false for 2 different people, except for their statement that is assumed to apply equally for everyone. But I can simply apply the claim to itself and say that “true for you, but not for me” is exactly that – not true for me – and ignore it. Ideas have consequences, and because of this self-refuting nature, the concept of relative truth can lead to very real absurdities. Bob may sincerely believe that he can jump off a cliff and fly (without a hang glider or other aid), while his friend John sincerely believes he can’t and pleads with Bob not to jump. Is this a case of “true for Bob, but not for John”? Is John wrong to try to help his friend see his error?  Applying his knowledge of physics and its correspondence to reality to the situation tells John his belief that John will plunge to his death would actually be true for both of them, in spite of Bob’s sincerity to the contrary. That Bob cannot fly on his own is true for all people, for all time, and in all places. That is the nature of truth; we do not create it by our beliefs or statements, but rather discover it.

We can determine when statements about our material world are true (i.e. the law of gravity) by testing them. But what about immaterial truth claims? Are these actual truths or simply opinions? Can we test for truth? Yes. A true statement will always satisfy the 3 fundamental laws of logic[3]:
The law of identity – a statement is identical to itself and different from another statement. A thing is what it is. Saying “Hitler was evil” and saying “Hitler was good” are not equivalent!
The law of noncontradiction – a statement cannot be both true and false at the same time in the same way. For a very clear (if somewhat harsh) verification of this law, the medieval Muslim philosopher Avicenna proposed this demonstration: “Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.”[4]
The law of excluded middle – a statement is either true, or its negation is true. There is no middle state between existing and not existing.

There are other tests for truth, but these are foundational prerequisites, for no matter how coherent or comforting a claim is, if it fails these tests, it simply can’t be true. And this is how “relative truth” fails.


[1] John 18:38, NASB.
[2] “Truth”, Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language,  1996 ed.
[3] J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 132. See also D.Q. McInerny, Being Logical, (Random House, 2005), p. 26-28.
[4] Avicenna, The Book of Healing, Part IV, Metaphysics I, commenting on Aristotle, Topics I.11.105a4–5, published 1027.

Drama!

RetroTVWhat is one thing that all “reality TV” shows have in common (besides being unrelated to reality for the most part)? Drama, and lots of it! Making a “mountain out of a molehill” seems to be mandatory for all participants. But maybe that aspect isn’t too far from real life; between work, school, our friends, and our family, we may have the makings for a lot of drama in our lives, too. Some people seem to thrive on drama and make drama where there wasn’t any before. What is it that defines this type of personal drama? While drama has historically referred simply to performing or acting out stories before groups (i.e. theater), we usually have a little more in mind when we think of someone as a “drama queen”, for instance.

Drama is all about every little event being “big”, critical, life or death, whether in reality or the TV shows that lay claim to that title. Drama magnifies our little annoyances while simultaneously minimizing the sometimes big problems others are enduring. Drama focuses on the short-term rather than long-term because what seemed so important at the time often fades in significance with the perspective of time. But treating a small insult as the trivial thing it really is hardly keeps viewers “tuned in” to shows on the TV screen (or on the screen of our personal life). Yet Christ tells His followers to think long-term, seeking His kingdom and His righteousness, to expect trials and not dwell on them, and even to pray for those who persecute them.[1] The Apostle Paul tells us to bless those who persecute us and not to repay evil with evil, but rather to overcome evil with good.[2] Peter tells us it is better, if God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil and not to be surprised at suffering as Christians.[3] And the Apostle James tells us to “consider it all joy when you encounter various trials.” [4] What? Was he crazy? Putting up with trials may be admirable, but he didn’t seriously expect us to be joyful when things go wrong or people hurt us, did he? Actually, he did, because our joy comes from God, not our circumstances. And God can use our actions in those bad circumstances to cause a chain reaction beyond our best hopes.

Much of what I do as a professional engineer is built on applying Newton’s third law – that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. But with people, it doesn’t seem to be such a linear, predictable relationship. Our actions, unfortunately, often cause disproportionate  reactions that can spiral in a dramatic, but vicious, cycle. But what if we broke that cycle before it even started, and our responses played out the life-changing (good) drama that only Jesus Christ can work in us and in others through us? Imagine, for example, a reality TV show where the stars didn’t take every little thing and blow it out of proportion, but instead forgave the one who had insulted them. Imagine the “constructive drama” that would unfold by living out the forgiveness and grace of God in our daily interactions with people. Could that vicious cycle become a cycle of grace and love, of “provoking one another to love and good works”[5] with results exponentially good rather than bad? It could, but not in our own strength and wisdom. Been there, tried that, failed miserably. Maybe you have, too. That’s because only the Holy Spirit in us can accomplish that superhuman love for others that is really the distinguishing mark of a true Christian: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”[6] How does this Christian love react to drama? Paul provides a famous description of this kind of drama-quieting love in his letter to the Corinthians. Though often used at weddings, this love is to color all our relationships:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”[7]

Selfish drama can’t survive that kind of selfless love. Until next week, God bless! 🙂


[1] Matthew 6:33, John 15:20, Matthew 5:44, NASB.
[2] Romans 12:14, 17, 21, NASB.
[3] 1 Peter 3:17, 4:12-19, NASB.
[4] James 1:2-4, 12, NASB. See verses 3 & 4 for why we should be joyful in trials.
[5] Hebrews 10:24, KJV.
[6] John 13:35, NASB. Also see “The Mark of the Christian”, a powerful little book by Francis Schaeffer from 1970.
[7] 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NIV.

The Bookcase

BooksThis week’s entry is the posting of a new page on this site called The Bookcase, a collection of some of the reference books I’ve found useful in my studies. Hopefully, you may find something beneficial for particular questions you might have as well. As this will be a growing list, I’m posting it as a permanent page rather than a weekly post. Check it out in the menu at the top of the page! If you have specific questions and want recommendations, just ask. Thanks 🙂

Irreducibly Complex Bridges

20100703-bridges7This week, I want to take a break from the series on defining Christian terminology to look at something from the talkorigins website that an atheist friend sent me a while back claiming to show how Michael Behe’s term “irreducible complexity” (IC hereafter) is “plainly silly” using an example of a stone bridge. If you’re not familiar with any of this, Michael Behe wrote a book in 1996 called “Darwin’s Black Box”, questioning evolutionary theory and proposing that some observed biological systems defy evolutionary explanation because they are “irreducibly complex”. Behe has defined this term as “a single system which is necessarily composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.”[1]

Think of an engine stripped down of all unnecessary parts. You can’t remove parts like the pistons, the spark plugs, the crankshaft, etc, without making the system nonfunctional. The theory of evolution rests on functioning (specifically, self-replicating) organisms reacting to unguided mutations and subject to natural selection to filter the resulting set for specimens with improved survivability. But natural selection doesn’t work on a nonfunctional system as there’s no improvement to select for. Appeals to “neutral evolution” where a mutation doesn’t have to have an actual benefit are just an appeal to chance, which is already stacked against evolution as most random mutations are harmful.[2] In our engine example, this means that adding a crankshaft to some cylinders won’t fulfill any function that could allow the engine to survive while the other parts like pistons and spark plugs are being gradually added. If you’ve ever had some daunting DIY repairs to do on your own car, you know there are some repairs where you can replace one component each night after work and still get to work the next morning while the overall repair is in progress, and then there are those long weekend projects where the car will be “dead” until the repair is completely done. An IC system is likewise dead until it’s complete.

Now, with that background, the talkorigins site has an interesting critique of Michael Behe’s idea of “irreducible complexity” where the author suggests that a “Mullerian Two-Step” defeats Behe’s entire argument. Is this “Mulllerian Two-Step” a dance move named after scientist H.J. Muller? Well, kind of – it does sidestep the key issue. In the words of the talkorigins author, “Only two basic steps are needed to gradually evolve an irreducibly complex system from a functioning precursor: 1) Add a part. 2) Make it necessary. It’s that simple. After these two steps, removing the part will kill the function, yet the system was produced directly and gradually from a simpler, functional precursor.”[3] The author’s argument is that a bridge composed of 3 stones may have a topping stone added, which does not add any functionality to the bridge, allowing the removal of the original middle stone, making the added topping stone necessary to the function of the bridge (see the illustration from the talkorigins page below).

Mullers Stone Bridge Allegedly, this proves that an irreducibly complex structure can be developed from piecewise addition of parts in accord with evolutionary theory. Yet, if you notice, the original 3 stone bridge in his example is already irreducibly complex. No single stone can be removed from his “functional precursor” without destroying it’s function. All 3 stones are required to be in place and working together to have a passable bridge. So what does this devastating argument actually prove? Simply that one irreducibly complex structure can be transformed into another irreducibly complex structure with stepwise, evolution-like steps. This does nothing to explain away the original irreducible complexity, which is the core objection to unguided evolution.

When you see atheist claims to destroy/devastate Christianity (or anything else opposed to a materialistic worldview, such as Intelligent Design/Irreducible Complexity), step back and carefully look at a) the assumptions, b) the connections between premises, and c) the conclusions, and you’ll likely find the claims of obvious superiority exaggerated. Whether you subscribe to Behe’s arguments or not, this “Mullerian Two-Step” is based on a flawed foundational assumption that the precursor is functional but not irreducible also. Therefore, it simply isn’t a valid defeater for Behe’s theory.  Next contestant?


[1] Behe, M.J. 2004. “Irreducible Complexity: Obstacle to Darwinian Evolution.” In Debating Design: from Darwin to DNA, Ruse, M. and Dembski, W.
[2]
See footnote 2 of the talkorigins article for an admission of this inconvenient truth from H.J. Muller himself: “…for this reason we should expect very many, if not most, mutations to result in lethal factors ….” Other scientists have made similar admissions, and, of course, our own experiences of diseases like cancer seem to confirm this daily.
[3] http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/ICsilly.html, accessed 2015/03/03.

Translating Christianese, Part 6

repent sign 2As we roll on through the list of  “church talk”, we come to the word “repent”. Maybe you find that offensive. Maybe that word makes you think of “fire and brimstone” revival preachers or eccentric guys with signs on the street corner saying the end of the world is coming next week. But what does that word actually mean? Let’s look at that today.

Basically, to repent is to do a 180°, to think differently after something. But real repentance goes deeper than that, delving into our motivations. When we see various calls to repent in the Bible, some form of the Greek word  μετανοέω (metanoeo) is typically being used. This means to have “regret accompanied by a true change of heart toward God” and indicates regret after careful reflection, resulting in a wiser view of both past and future. [1]  A critical distinction here is between this genuine repentance and another word translated as “repent” in English: μεταμέλομαι (metamellomai). This word expresses “the mere desire that what is done may be undone, accompanied with regrets or even remorse, but with no effective change of heart.” It is often “nothing more than a selfish dread of the consequences of what one has done.”[2] This is the repentance of a man who turns from his criminal ways simply out of fear of of being caught, but given enough assurance of getting away with something, commits another crime in spite of his earlier outward signs of “repentance”. This isn’t meaningful repentance like the first (metanoeo). It’s only when we see our behavior from the perspective of God’s perfect standard that we begin to repent and understand our need for forgiveness. Otherwise, we view ourselves as “not that bad…”, at least “good enough…”, maybe even “pretty good”. Viewed in that light, our sin is simply minor shortcomings and “oopsies”. But in reality, we don’t have to be an ax-murderer or a Hitler to warrant condemnation. Every little lie, cheat, lost temper, every little thought or act contrary to God’s design, condemns us  by His standard of perfection. Understanding then, the magnitude of even our smallest offenses against such an unyielding standard, juxtaposed against the amazing, self-sacrificial grace and mercy  of God that offers us undeserved redemption and adoption as beloved children – repentance is the only logical response. But this repentance is authored by God; we can not work up this change in our own strength. Charles Spurgeon said “The Spirit of God enlightens us to see what sin is, and thus makes it loathsome in our eyes.”[3] It is not a single act, but a lifelong attitude of self-examination and seeking to be more like Jesus that is part of the sanctification process described 2 weeks ago. In the words of Spurgeon, “Repentance is the inseparable companion of faith.”[4]

This then is the repentance we speak of; not a condescending judgment, but rather an earnest plea to join us on the path we daily walk. Nobody’s perfect, and we’ve all said and done things we wish we could take back. We can all shed tears of regret with or without God, but only genuine repentance can provide hope with the tears. For “repentance and forgiveness are riveted together by the eternal purpose of God.” [5]


[1] 3340 – metanoeo, The complete Word Study New Testament, 2nd Ed, ed. by Spiros Zodhiates, 1992, (Iowa Falls, World Bible Publishers), p. 936.
[2] 3338 – metamellomai, ibid., p 936.
[3] Charles Spurgeon, “All of Grace”, Kindle Edition of Christian Classics: Six Books by Charles Spurgeon, location 1399. Also available at The Spurgeon Archive.
[4] ibid, location 1369.
[5] ibid, location 1332.

Translating Christianese, Part 5

With a lot of terms like faith, sin, holiness, righteousness, atonement, grace, justification, and sanctification in our toolbox of terms, let’s look today at 2 terms that incorporate these concepts and see what Christians mean by the terms “saved” and “born again”.

Some people hear Christian pleas for them to “be saved” and recoil from it, feeling that needing to be saved from anything is a sign of weakness. What are we being saved from? Is Christianity just “fire insurance” to save us from a funny-looking guy with a pitchfork in some underground cave called hell with a big lake of fire? Are we to be “saved from ourselves”? From sin? From the “world”? From our present misery? What if we feel like life is going pretty good right now,  and we don’t want to be “saved” from anything right now? But the question shouldn’t be whether we feel like we need saving, but simply whether it’s true that that’s what we need. When I learned to scuba dive in college, one condition we were warned about, particularly in our deepwater class, was nitrogen narcosis, or the “rapture of the deep”. That’s where the diver’s judgment and motor skills are impaired because of pressure effects on dissolved gases in the blood. The primary danger in this often euphoric state is that the diver doesn’t recognize the danger they’re really in. He may, in fact, have never felt better than when he is in the most danger. This is the reason the Bible says “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts…”[1], and this is the reason for the Christian’s urgent pleas. The next breath is not guaranteed to any of us. So while we are saved from our own self-destructive behavior, and the power of sin in our lives, and sometimes from our present troubles, we are primarily saved from getting what we deserve: God’s perfect, unwavering, unrelenting justice. The result of that, apart from Christ’s atonement,  is permanent separation from God, which is what hell is (despite whatever jokes or caricatures you’ve seen to the contrary).  So are we simply after “fire insurance”? The Bible tells us that we were created to glorify God[2], and until we do so with our lives, we will always be missing the mark, missing our life’s purpose. So no, our salvation is tremendously important for this physical life as well as eternity. In fact, we are told that though physically alive, we were “dead in our sins” and only become truly alive when we are saved. How? Simply “that if you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” [3] While all of the terms the last few weeks play a part in this work of salvation, this is where the rubber meets the road. 

If being saved is the result, being “born again” is the start of that process. The term comes from a passage in the Bible where a religious teacher named Nicodemus comes to talk to Jesus at night and admits that God is obviously with Jesus for Him to do the miracles He did. Jesus then tells him that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”[4] If this makes you do a double take, don’t feel too bad – Nicodemus did too. With the brain gears grinding and smoke coming out his ears, Nic asked Jesus how a man could go back into his mother’s womb. But Jesus told him this was a spiritual birth, a regeneration. In the words of Matthew Henry, “to be born again is to begin anew. We must not think to patch up the old building, but begin from the foundation.”[5] Mr. Henry’s analogy is appropriate; not only will plastering over the cracks in our walls not fix the problem, even major structural repairs to the framework of our lives won’t help with a foundation built on quicksand. Our lives apart from God are just pretty house facades covering rotten boards and cracked, shallow footings. It’s a total loss and needs to be gutted and rebuilt, but it all starts with the foundation. Only with new piles driven down to the bedrock that is Christ can our house be built securely.  But this starts with God regenerating us, making us spiritually alive and able to respond to His free gift of salvation. Only God has the power to initiate this in us.[6]

There’s a lot more that could be said about both of these terms (and others have!), but hopefully this has given you some new insight into these 2 common phrases. Questions or comments are always welcome. I may not have all the answers, but I’ll do my best to point you to the One who does. 🙂


[1] Hebrews 3:7 (ESV)
[2] Isaiah 43:7
[3] Romans 10:9 (NIV)
[4] John 3:3 (NIV)
[5] Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible in One Volume, ed. Leslie F Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), p. 1517.
[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1994), pp702-703.

Translating Christianese, Part 4

Translating Christianese 4Last week, in discussing atonement, I quoted Charles Spurgeon, a preacher from the 1800’s who described Christ’s atoning sacrifice as the “just Ruler dying for the unjust rebel”. The week before, I looked at righteousness, which can be defined as justness. What then do Christians mean when we talk of “justification”? Justification comes from the Greek word δικαίωσις (dikaiosis, meaning “the act of pronouncing righteous”[1]),  and can be defined as “an instantaneous legal act of God in which He a) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and b) declares us to be righteous in His sight.”[2] We can draw some important points out of this definition. First, this is something God does, not us. Only the judge has the authority to declare someone condemned or pardoned. The defendant has no say in the decision. Second, it’s a judicial declaration, not based on us earning it by good deeds. Third, declaring someone right is not the same as making them right. We are not made morally perfect people by this action, but rather declared as such in God’s sight because of us placing our trust (faith) in Jesus Christ to save us from the death sentence we were under, by virtue of Christ’s perfect righteousness. But if God is just, how can He ignore our guilt and simply declare us righteous?  One result of Christ’s substitutionary atonement discussed last week is “imputed righteousness”. Imputation is a “transfer of benefit or harm from one individual to another”.[3]  Imputation isn’t a common term, but there are some common examples of it in our daily lives. The actions of an employee breaking the law in the course of his job duties may be imputed to his employer. A friend’s accident in your car can be imputed to you. Below is an example from one state’s laws regarding imputation of driving negligence:

“Any negligence of a minor … when driving any motor vehicle upon a highway, shall be imputed to the person who signed the application of the minor for the license. That person shall be jointly and severally liable with the minor for any damages caused by the negligence.”

And so our sins were imputed to Christ, and He was held fully liable for them, while His perfection was imputed to us, in a merciful exchange that satisfied God’s justice even though we deserved punishment.

Going back to that important distinction earlier about God declaring us righteous versus making us righteous, one might wonder if we can simply continue on our selfish, sinful life journey after this atoning, justifying encounter with our Creator. That brings us to the term “sanctification”. Sanctification is “a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives.”[4]  This definition brings up several points. First, this is a separate process from justification. While our efforts can never justify us, they do contribute toward making us holy, or “set apart”. Second, this is a cooperative work. We cannot do it without the power of God’s Holy Spirit in us, but He also won’t let us be lazy or apathetic and say that we can’t change or that we’re just waiting on God to change us. Third, it is a continual process. God uses our life events and our responses to them to mold us into who He destined us to be in this life, and to prepare us for an eternity in heaven. So this process won’t stop until the day we die. Fourth, this should not be an abstract concept, but should have actual results that others can observe and see there is something different about us. Read Corrie ten Boom’s account of the behavior of her sister Bessie in the Nazi concentration camps they were at, and you will get a beautiful picture of what someone farther down the journey of sanctification looks like. Fifth, because of our role in it, it will vary from person to person. I have had the honor of knowing some saintly people over the years, who, while not perfect, reflected Christ far closer than I ever have, and likely ever will. My humble prayer is that I could be half the servant of God they were. Sixth, becoming more like Christ will affect every facet of our lives. There can be no holdouts, no secrets, no private pleasures. But when we do yield those up to Him, He takes away our cherished mud pies and replaces them with gems of joy we didn’t think possible.

Today was a summary of a few of the many things that could be said on these two concepts. Tune in next week as we tie some of these ideas together and look at probably the 2 most common Christian terms: “saved” and “born again”. Enjoy!


[1] dikaiosis, www.Biblehub.com/greek, accessed 2015/02/08.
[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1994), p.723.
[3] “Imputation”, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, by Grenz, Guretzki, & Nordling, (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 1999).
[4] Wayne Grudem, ibid., p 746.

 

Translating Christianese, Part 3

Dictionary Entry - AtonementThe last couple weeks, I’ve gone over the depressing situation we find ourselves in with 3 terms: sin, and holiness and righteousness. Not that they’re depressing in themselves, but they are in the context of our sin in light of God’s holiness and righteousness. And if the story ended there, it would be a tragedy. But today’s first term is “atonement”, and it brings real hope. Our second term, “grace”, explains why.

If God is perfectly just and can’t lower His standards to accept us in our sinful condition, and we can’t rid ourselves of  this dark stain of sin in each of us – what’s the solution? Atonement is the act by which God’s justice is satisfied by the perfect, voluntary, substitutionary sacrifice of His Son, Jesus. Sin put us in debt to God, a debt that we could never pay, but which a perfectly just God could never overlook. Who can pay this debt? Can one in bankruptcy and without a job  ignore his own creditors and offer to pay off his friend’s mortgage?  Of course not. His own creditors would say he owes them first. Only someone with money can pay off a debt, but we’re all spiritually bankrupt on our own. And so we come to a problem: only man owes the debt, but only God can pay it.[1] However, God did something remarkable: He came to earth as the man Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, the only one able to satisfy His legal demand for justice, and voluntarily offered Himself as the payment for the judgement against us. In effect, the judge stepped down from behind the bench and paid the fine we could never pay. This is the atonement needed for us to be reconciled to God, made available to all through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.*   Charles Spurgeon once said,

“The doctrine of the atonement is to my mind one of the surest proofs of the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture. Who would or could have thought of the just Ruler dying for the unjust rebel? This is no teaching of human mythology, or dream of poetical imagination. This method of expiation is only known among men because it is a fact; fiction could not have devised it.”[2]

(Lest I forget my goal of translating church lingo, the “expiation”  Spurgeon referenced is sometimes considered a synonym for atonement, although it can more specifically mean the part of atonement dealing with the covering of sin by Christ’s sacrifice. In that more specific meaning, expiation is the means of “propitiating” (appeasing or satisfying) God. To recap, “one propitiates a person, and one expiates a problem.”[3])

As Spurgeon mentioned, this idea of atonement is unheard of in human-invented religion. When every other religion says “you must work hard and earn your way into heaven/paradise/nirvana/eternal reward/etc, Christianity says “For 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.”[4] What then is this grace that drives this supremely sacrificial saving gesture? Grace is commonly remembered as “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense, or as “completely undeserved (or unmerited) divine favor”. It is God not asking us to “clean up our act” before we come to Him, because we never could. Ironically, grace isn’t fair. We tend to think about fairness when we feel we’ve been wronged, but not so much when we’ve wronged others. If God were fair, He’d simply say “you failed the perfection test” and obliterate all of us. Yet He lovingly extends credit to the debtor if we only accept. Contrary to performance-based religion, God’s grace frees us from pursuing self-righteousness (and failing), so we may simply accept the free gift of our Creator[5]. This gift is His sovereign love for us before we even could love Him, extended to us by His atoning sacrifice for us, covering our sin and paying the penalty for us that His justice demanded, thus satisfying God, reconciling us to Him, and opening the door to new life, both here and eternally.

What does that new life look like? Accepting God’s gracious offer starts a lifelong process that can be divided into the 2 terms we’ll look at next week – “justification” and “sanctification”. See ya then 🙂


* It should be noted that while Jesus’s sacrifice made salvation possible for each of us, not everyone will automatically go to heaven He won’t force us into heaven; we still must accept the offer.

[1] Anselm of Canterbury, “Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man?), 1474, as in “Systematic Theology” by Norman Geisler, p. 833.
[2] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, from his message “Just and the Justifier”, in his book “All of Grace”, (1886) included in the 6 book collection “Charles Spurgeon: Christian Classics Collection”, Kindle Edition, Location 680. To read this excellent sermon from the “Prince of Preachers” online, you can go here.
[3] “Propitiation”, www.theopedia.com, accessed 2014-02-01.
[4] Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)
[5] Romans 6:23 (NASB)- “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Interestingly, the Greek word translated as “free gift” comes from χάρις (charis), the  root word for grace.

Translating Christianese, Part 2

Christianese DictionaryThis week, I wanted to look at 2 more examples of Christian jargon: holiness and righteousness. So let’s jump right in.

Holiness means to be “set apart”, to possess “otherness”, or to be “different”.[1] It’s been said that “it’s much more popular to speak of a loving God than a holy God”[2], but it’s important to understand all of God’s characteristics (to the best of our ability) rather than just imagining Him how we want to Him to be. God is holy in that He is completely separate from everything and everyone else. How is this separateness revealed? He is self-existent while all else is contingent (i.e. we need water, oxygen, etc. to exist). He is infinite, while all else is finite. He is perfect, and two or more perfect beings cannot exist simultaneously and be different without one being “less perfect” than the other. Therefore, only one perfect being can exist. In each case, God is in a category of His own, differentiated from all else, and therefore holy.  However, what about where God tells us to “be holy, because I am holy”[3]? This doesn’t mean God expects us to be perfect like He is, but rather that He wants us to be set apart, different from the world. For example, furniture and utensils in the Jewish temple of the Old Testament were considered holy not because they were made of gold or of a certain design but because they were devoted exclusively to God’s service. Likewise for us, to be holy is to be dedicated to serving God, abstaining from anything that would taint that.

Related to holiness is the term “righteousness”, which is simply the quality of being “just” or “right”.  For example, our justice system tries to punish the unjust. In fact, one definition of justice is: (n) “the quality of being just; righteousness; moral rightness.”[4] That doesn’t always happen with human justice, but it is our goal. One thing that differentiates God from us is His perfect justice. Looking at opposing conceptions of deity, the Greek or Roman “gods”, for example, were just as petty, manipulative and dishonest as we are. God, however, is perfectly righteous, for it is an intrinsic moral attribute for Him[5], a part of His inherent character.  His righteousness then provides a set standard of justice that doesn’t change with the latest ideas or fads. We can build on that standard and describe human righteousness as conformance to God’s ethical and moral standards.[6] The Christian view of humanity, on the other hand, is that we are most definitely not righteous. The apostle Paul writes “as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one'”[7].  That may sound harsh and too much of a generalization, but is it really? Have you always been perfectly just in all of your dealings your whole life? If we’re honest, none of us can make that claim. Again, Paul writes, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[8] Generalization? Not really. If the world wasn’t such a messed up place, the nightly news would be a very different broadcast. Evil, malice, ill will, wrongdoing, bad blood – whatever you call it, it’s all sin. We see it the world over. But when the standard is perfection, then it suddenly becomes very personal. It’s not just the serial killers, the rapists, the terrorists, the brutal dictators and warlords – it’s you and me.  It’s the “white lie”, the pirated software, the “padded” résumé, the angry response in traffic, and a thousand other ways we all fall short of the mark of perfection and find ourselves condemned, unrighteous and without any way to fix it.

Last week, we looked at what sin means. This week, we’ve seen what God’s holiness and righteousness means and how we are unrighteous in our sinful condition. This then leads us to a dilemma: how, in our guilty condition, can we approach a just and impartial judge who uses a standard of perfection? What good deeds could we ever do to satisfy that standard? There aren’t any. Justice demands not lowering the bar, yet we can never reach the bar on our own. Understanding the utter hopelessness of this situation is critical to understanding the importance of the next week’s terms: grace and atonement.

[1] ἅγιος (Hagios), www.BibleHub.com Greek Concordance, accessed 2015/01/24.
[2]Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002), p. 568.
[3] Leviticus 11:45 & 1 Peter 1:16
[4] “Justice”, definition 1, www.dictionary.com, accessed 2015/01/15.
[5] Geisler, p. 569.
[6] “Righteousness”, Nelson’s Foundational Bible Dictionary, 1st Ed. (2004).
[7] Romans 3:10, paraphrasing Psalm 14:3.
[8] Romans 3:23.

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