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.

Jargon, or Translating Christianese, Part 1

DictionariesI took an online class this past fall about designing bracing connections and the instructor mentioned a term I wasn’t familiar with: “column shedding”. I looked online and didn’t see any explanations, so I asked my boss if he’d heard the term before. He hadn’t, so I asked the instructor and learned that it described a situation where 2 braces intersecting a column that should have opposite loads of tension and compression both go into compression because the highly-loaded column “sheds” some of its load into the braces.  Now I know a new engineering concept, and “knowing is half the battle” (anyone else remember that from the old G.I. Joe cartoons?).

The instructor in that class had used a bit of jargon: “the specialized language of a trade, profession, or similar group, especially when viewed as difficult to understand by outsiders“. Why do we use jargon in the first place? Because it’s a shortcut. If everyone in the conversation understands the terms, you can condense a big concept or a whole series of concepts into a short statement and not lose any of the meaning of your message.  And when that’s the case, it makes for efficient communication. The pitfall is in the assumption that everyone understands the concept represented by these specialized terms. We often learn on-the-job via “trial-by-fire” scenarios where we learn just enough to accomplish the task at hand, but never go back to learn the theory behind the application. So sometimes even when people know the terms, they may not understand the entire concept behind them.

Have you gone to church or listened to a preacher on the TV or radio and heard what sounded like jargon? Insider talk? “Christianese”? Church lingo? Maybe it was your first (or only) time in a church and it sounded pretentious, like they were trying to see how many impressive seminary words they could squeeze in. Maybe you’ve been attending church for a while, and feel embarrassed to ask now. Either way, some definition of terms might help clear up the muddy waters. So in this series of posts, I’ll try to define a couple of common church terms in non-“churchy” terms each installment. Since I went over faith in detail last week, we won’t rehash it today. You can read that post here.  Now, let’s look at another term: “sin”.

Sin is one of those terms that none of us really like. Being told you’re a “sinner” or “living in sin” or that what you’re doing is “sinful” sounds so judgmental. But much like going to the doctor, it’s better to get the bad news and learn how to treat an illness than to be told you’re fine when you’re really dying from a curable disease. Just as with the doctor’s judgment of our physical condition, God looks at us and tells us we have a problem we can’t fix on our own, and what’s worse is that it’s fatal. Our shorthand terminology for it is sin, and it can mean falling short of the mark, disobedience, rebellion, or ignoring a command. The Bible’s statements that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) may sound harsh at first, but it really is a true diagnosis of humanity. Turn on the TV news, open the newspaper, go to any news website; the world is a messed-up place. Something’s wrong and it affects all of us, from the poorest villagers to famous celebrities to the most powerful world leaders. That’s because the problem is inside us and no amount of money, fame, plastic surgery, or respect and adoration can fix it. Our current “me generation” is simply an acting out of the pride and rebellion against God that Milton summed up so well over 300 years ago in Paradise Lost when he wrote Satan saying “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”[1] Whether it’s open rebellion or simply falling short of God’s perfect standard, the effect is still the same: separation from God. In the end, that’s what hell is, eternal separation from God because of our sin. And when Christians talk about sin, it’s not to be condescending, but more like a former drug addict saying “I got help, and you can too!” Despite our often flawed delivery, we are to speak the truth in love and humility, knowing that we’ve “been there, done that” (and often still do err in willful disobedience to God even though we know better).

Atheists say there are millions who are “good without God”. The problem is that “good” doesn’t cut it when the standard is perfection and “nobody’s perfect”. But to learn more about God’s standard, tune in next week for a look at “holiness” and “righteousness”.


[1] John Milton, Paradise Lost, (1674), Book 1, Line 263.

Blind Faith?

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at FreeDigitalPhotos.net“Blind faith”. I’ve heard atheists use the term as an insult to Christian opponents – “I believe in science and not blind faith like you.” Surprisingly, I’ve heard some Christians use it almost as a badge of honor  that they had such complete blind faith.  So what is the biblical perspective on faith? Is it really “believing something strongly in spite of a preponderance of evidence to the contrary” as atheists would claim? Is it a step into the unknown, taking God at His word, so to speak, with no reason whatsoever, as some Christians would claim? Or is there another option? What does the Bible itself say?

Hebrews 11:1 is the most famous definition of faith in the Bible: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Here, and in most other places translated as “faith”, the Greek word used is πίστις (pistis) or one of its related forms. This word can be translated as faith, belief, trust, confidence, or proof. Looking at secular Greek sources, Herodotus used it to refer to a pledge or military oath[1].  Other secular authors such as Aeschylus, Democritus, and Appian used the word to denote evidence from the senses or from eyewitness testimony, or proof of intent deduced from observed actions [2].  The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo used the term pistis in his writings 156 times with the sense of evidence in over 50% of those instances [3]. Aristotle used the term to describe various “proofs” for convincing someone of your case through reason and logic [4]. This word for faith sounds like it was often used by secular sources as a justified belief based on observation, logical or philosophical reasoning, or testimony and solemn oaths. But we can dig a little deeper yet. The word pistis is derived from the Greek word πείθω (peitho), meaning “to persuade”. Are you persuaded blindly by any assertion you hear, or by evidence, by sound reasoning,and by common sense? It makes sense then that Aristotle would use pistis to describe the proofs of the art of rhetoric (persuasion).  It seems that Biblical faith is anything but blind. Rather, it is “God’s divine persuasion” [5]. It is also interesting that the word translated in Hebrew 11:1 as “conviction” in the NASB translation is ἔλεγχος (elegchos) which means proof, and is derived from ἐλέγχω (elegcho), a verb meaning “to convince with solid, compelling evidence; to expose, refute or prove wrong.” [6] Faith could be said to be God’s divine persuasion of the reality of the supernatural things we can’t observe with our natural senses.

So then, if our faith is more of an evidentially persuaded trust by definition, are there any supporting passages to confirm that is what biblical writers like Paul understood when using words like pistis and elegchos? Below is a partial list of supporting passages.

 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he [Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” Matthew 22:37-38

“And because of His words, many more became believers. They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.’” John 4:41-42 (NIV)

 To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.” Acts 1:3 (NASB)

 But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good…” 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (NASB)

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 1 John 4:1 (NASB)

We are to love God with all that we are, including our mind. Jesus repeatedly appealed to the evidence He presented to people, not the least of which was Him being alive after being scourged, crucified, and having a spear run through His chest.  Paul tells us to  examine everything carefully, while John urges discernment specifically in spiritual matters. In the end, I have to say that we don’t check our brains at the church door, and if we do, we’re not following the example set before us in Scripture. For while blind faith in the truth may still benefit us, it is an accidental benefit that could just as easily be a blind faith in error (such as cults). Thorough, honest investigation only destroys faith in error; but it only builds faith in what is true.


[1] The Histories, Book 3, Chapter 8, Herodotus. Viewable in English or Greek at The Perseus Project.
[2] Pistis as “Ground for Faith” in Hellenized Judaism and Paul, David M. Hay, Journal of Biblical Literature, 1989, 3rd Quarter, p. 461.
[3] ibid. p.463.
[4] Rhetoric, Aristotle, Book 1, Chapter 1:3, 4th century BC, Kindle Edition. The word pistis or one of its forms is translated as “proof” here and throughout the rest of the 3 books.
[5] Biblehub.com word study of pistis (Strong’s #4102).
[6] ibid, word study of elegchos (Strong’s #1650).

Church PDH?

The Cathedral of the Madeleine - Photo by Jason McCool, 2014PDH – Professional Development Hours – both a blessing and a bane for engineers. Some states don’t require any at all, while others have a variety of acceptance rules that differ from state to state. As I filled out the continuing education logs for the last of my license renewals coming due at the end of the year, I found I had accumulated over 60 hours of PDH over the last 2 year renewal cycle, more than twice what any one state required. Despite the inconvenience PDH can be sometimes, I’ve learned a lot of good stuff through various seminars, conferences, webinars, and self-study courses. But as good as some of the more convenient webinars and self-study courses have been, the seminars and conferences I’ve participated in have been especially beneficial. We don’t have the time or resources (or desire, oftentimes) to be experts in every aspect of our profession, so it’s great to hear subject matter experts and be able to actually interact with them and ask that one question you’ve always wondered about. While I can learn about a new design method or innovative product from reading a trade journal or hearing one of those experts lecture about it in theory, talking to other engineers at a conference who have actually used that method or specified that product on a completed project is priceless. We better ourselves and the profession by our participation and interaction with fellow engineers. In fact, that interaction is key to the success of conferences. At one conference you may be the attendee learning something new, while at another one you may be one of the presenters teaching something new to others. Either way, interaction helps stretch us and take us out of our comfort zone enough to grow. Did going to conferences or seminars sometimes interfere with both my business and personal schedules? Yes, but I am a better engineer in the end because of making that investment.

Church is a similar investment. While there’s no commandment in the Bible that “Thou shalt go to church”, there are verses like Hebrews 10:25 that warns against “forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some….” Acts 2:42-47 provides an example of early Christians regularly meeting to learn doctrine, pray, praise God, fellowship together, and share with each other. They met both in the synagogues and in fellow Christians’ homes. In fact, it’s a little misleading to even talk about “going to church”, for the Bible says that we are the church, whether we meet in a fancy building, a rented gym, our own houses, or in a cave under cover of night like Christians in some parts of the world are forced to do. So besides it being encouraged in the Bible, why should we attend “church”? Like my engineering conferences,  we get the chance to learn from subject matter experts (preachers) that have invested the time in seminary learning Greek, Hebrew, Systematic Theology, Epistemology, and so on. We also can learn from other Christians in the body that may not a have a Master of Divinity degree, but still have a lifetime of powerful lessons God’s taught them that they can share.

For myself, I know that hearing different perspectives stretches my mind and challenges my preconceptions and attitude I might bring with me.  Talking in small groups and classes can expose us to a variety of different readings of scriptures we think we’re familiar with, and force us to prayerfully reason through the different possible interpretations. Just like teaching a session at an engineering conference, leading a Bible study, teaching a Sunday school class, or teaching youth will definitely stretch us and push us to the next level.  Our active attendance provides us a chance to meet with role models to see faith lived out in the flesh. We know we are to be holy even as He is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). We have the pattern of great men like Paul who tell us to follow their example in pursuing God (Philippians 3:17). But we need to “see it lived out”, as John MacArthur says. One place we see that is at church, and so we don’t forsake gathering. Will we find hypocrites there? Certainly, but seek out those who model Christ faithfully, and do likewise. Will church be an inconvenience sometimes? Yes, but that’s the nature of investments of any kind. Just like a good conference gets me to look up from my little problems I’m working through, corporate (i.e. group) worship also takes the focus off of ourselves and lifts our eyes up to God. It makes us look at our priorities, and contributes to our sanctification.

Can we get a lot of these benefits from TV sermons and books and magazines, private prayer time, or Bible studies with friends? Sure, to varying degrees. But Paul tells us that we are each different parts of one body, each with a different role to fill. We can’t all be the eyes, or the hands, etc. When we do “forsake the gathering together”, we are effectively cutting ourselves off from the local body of believers, and in so doing, amputating the Body of Christ. So attend, but don’t just attend – participate, study, grow, mature, train (yourself and others), and never stop learning, for you will never exhaust the limitless library of God’s PDH program.

Hide & Seek

Paul speaking to the Athenians at the AreopagusOver the last couple of decades in the engineering field, I’ve had the opportunity to use several different pieces of software aimed at speeding up different aspects of engineering design. At my current job, I use several different programs for specific tasks like wood design,  steel design, or general purpose structural analysis. When they work like I think they should, life is generally good. On the other hand, when the results aren’t what I was expecting… well…. Deadlines approach quickly as I try to figure out whether the program has a bug in it, or if it is calculating something I’ve been neglecting all these years. Did the software  developers interpret some building code statement differently than I did? Who’s right? I hate not knowing why something isn’t working, and when these things happen, I’ll spend the time to get to the bottom of it. Several times, I’ve found serious program bugs that the developers corrected when I reported them. Other times, I learned I was the one that was wrong. But every time, I learned far more about a particular aspect of building design in the process of researching the issue than if things had gone smoothly. In a deadline-driven world, though, it’s all too easy to do a cursory review and say “Oh good, looks like it worked, moving on.”

Philosopher Peter Kreeft makes an interesting point about this: “We investigate what we are surprised by, not what we already know or think we know and take for granted [1].” A common complaint about God is His “hiddenness”. The skeptic says, “If only God would plainly reveal Himself to me, I would believe.” But inherent in that seemingly open-minded statement is a demand housed in the word “plainly”; namely, that God reveal Himself to me in the time and place and method of my choosing. Not only would this be different for each person, but it also would reduce God to some genie working miracles on demand. Our desire for God to make Himself known to us in the way we choose is, in effect, a desire to reverse roles and make Him subservient to us.

Instead, God has revealed Himself in His own way, first through the general revelation of the natural world, with it’s grandeur and design that are apparent to the simple and unlearned, and yet, ironically, even more apparent the deeper we explore fields like astronomy and genetics. Second, through the specific revelation given the various prophets and writers collected in the Bible. So why does He not give us “more”? It might be that He does not reveal Himself to us completely to keep us searching. Like a puzzle, we fill in what we know of Him from general and special revelation, but if He gave us every piece of the puzzle, would we still hunger and thirst for Him? Would we think we had Him all figured out (as if we could figure out an infinite God) and stop chasing after Him to focus on something else we don’t grasp yet? By keeping some of Himself just out of view, does He excite our curiosity and drive to learn? Could a deliberate hiddenness be one way He draws those to Himself who wouldn’t otherwise come to Him, who would be content with where they are? The apostle Paul, in his discussion with the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17, states that “…[God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us…” The word translated as “seek” comes from the Greek word ζητέω (zeteo), meaning “to seek in order to find; to seek in order to find out by thinking, meditating, reasoning; to strive after.” This isn’t casual skimming here; this is intensive searching, analyzing, studying. This is like the last 10 minutes of an open-book final exam – pages are flying as you frantically search for what you can’t quite remember. The word “find” comes from the Greek word εὑρίσκω (heurisko) meaning “to find, learn, discover, especially after searching” or “to find by inquiry, thought, examination, scrutiny, observation, hearing; to find out by practice and experience.” To use the college example again, this isn’t flipping the textbook open to the right page and stumbling on the answer. It’s more like the time in college I spent most of the night working one awful thermodynamics homework problem – I was definitely groping for the answer then![2] And if we ignore the collection of direct communication that God has provided, even if it’s maybe not what we want to hear, then we will be groping in the dark, though He is “not far”.


[1] Peter Kreeft, Summa Philosophica (South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine’s Press, 2012), p. 16.
[2] FYI: if your teacher normally assigns multiple problems and you get an assignment with only one problem, watch out! 😉

Getting Fitted for Heaven

Tailor´s_shop_-_Werkstatt_2As we draw near to Christmas, you can hear various “Christmas” songs on the radio and in stores and whatnot. Many of them would perhaps be better described as “winter holiday” songs, as they seem to be be completely unrelated to the story of Christ’s birth, which is, after all, the whole point of the holiday, but I digress.  One classic Christmas song that many are familiar with (or at least the first stanza), is “Away in a Manger”.  But tucked away in the 3rd stanza is this little gem:

“Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay,
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray!
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care
And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.”
– Away in a Manger, 3rd Stanza

We sang this version of this classic Christmas carol from the late 1800’s at church a couple of years ago, and that last line just really struck me. “Fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.” This life – the good times and the bad, the boundless joy and the heart-rending sorrow, the blessings and the trials – is a fitting process God uses to prepare us for our eternal life. And if you don’t know about that going on, this life can seem meaningless, chaotic, and tragic. One can see God’s blessings as simply good fortune/luck/serendipity, and the trials we are all subjected to ever since mankind’s initial rebellion against God as bad luck/cruel fate/karma. One can ask “Why me?” One can feel constantly blindsided by “life”. Or we can submit to the alterations of the Master Tailor, who takes our filthy rags[1] and clothes us with His righteousness[2,3,4]. He doesn’t alter the clothes to fit us (much as we might prefer in our pride), but instead alters us to fit the clothes. Like a child wearing his father’s 3-piece suit, His righteousness doesn’t fit us at all. But then He takes our deformities of pride, lust, anger, and selfishness, and straightens our crooked limbs and stretches us until we conform to His image[5]. Having been so fitted for heaven in this life, we really will feel “right at home” when we get there.


[1]  Isaiah 64:6 – “…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”
[2] Isaiah 61:10 – “…[H]e has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness…”
[3] Matthew 22:11-13 – part of Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast, where the king (God) invites his chosen people (Israel) to a wedding feast, but they refuse. He then sends out the invitation to all. Verse  11 picks up with “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend’, he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.” Our attempts at righteousness – our rags – can never earn us a seat at God’s banquet. Only Christ’s “new clothes” make us presentable to a holy, perfect God.
[4] 2 Corinthians 5:21 – “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” This is called “imputed righteousness”, where our sin is imputed, or charged, to Christ’s account, and His righteousness is imputed to us, declaring us righteous (through Him and not of ourselves).
[5] Justification could be likened to this initial “fitting” where we are clothed with Christ’s righteousness, while sanctification would correspond to that life-long gradual molding and conforming to God’s intent for us.

Back to Basics

Free Body Diagrams, Shear and Moment Diagrams, & Equilibrium EquationsI took an online class this fall taught by one of the leading experts in the world on connection design. He chairs several structural committees and has written much of the reference material for connection design for 30 years. I was struggling to follow what he was doing, and some other people were too, judging by the questions being asked. He chided us – rightfully so – for having become too reliant on computers and forgetting our “first principles”. For the structural engineer, these are things like free-body diagrams, moment and shear diagrams, and the equilibrium equations. These are foundational analysis methods for us, and it’s incumbent on the engineer to be familiar with the basic principles at work in complex situations. Sometimes, we might get lost in more advanced classes because we didn’t really comprehend the basic material when we studied it. Other times, it’s a case of never using it in practice and forgetting it. But in either case, the engineer lacking in these areas is responsible for correcting the situation, whether by studying hard to learn it anew, or refreshing old memories. In a class, it might be embarrassing to not remember the basics, but on the job many tragic engineering failures were ultimately traceable to neglecting basic principles.

Likewise, Christians have “first principles” that are critical for them to understand. Doctrines about the Trinity, our sinful nature, salvation, justification and sanctification, and the deity of Christ, are not just “Christianese” buzzwords or dry, musty subjects for seminary classrooms. These are not concepts reserved for the “professional Christians” to preach about on Sundays. Rather, these are foundational explanations of what it means to be a Christian, and our understanding of them impacts our daily lives whether we know it or not.  Like my class instructor, the writer of the book of Hebrews also chided his readers, saying, “For even though by this time you ought to be teaching others, you actually need someone to teach you over again the very first principles of God’s Word. You have come to need milk, not solid food.” (Heb 5:12). There is an expectation of all of us to continue growing and maturing in our faith, both for drawing closer to God in our own lives, and for being able to pass on the what we’ve learned to those we care about (which should be everyone, by the way). 

So how do we start living this out? Consider what Luke wrote in Acts 17:11 about when Paul came to speak at the Jewish synagogue in Berea: “Now these [Bereans] were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.”  When you hear a preacher, do you zone out, or think about your shopping list or tasks to do later? Does the sermon go in one ear and out the other? Could you remember the main points after a few days? How can you apply lessons in your life that you don’t even remember? Instead, let me suggest taking a page from the Bereans’ playbook of intentional listening  – take notes, go home to study each day, and confirm the truthfulness of what was said and how it can apply in your life. Just like notes and homework help reinforce our academic lessons, we need to internalize and comprehend far more important spiritual lessons.

Or maybe you are striving to learn, but getting watered-down milk  at your church and left craving some meatier material to sink your teeth into. Then be proactive.

  • Seek out mature Christian mentors to learn from. They may be old with the wisdom gleaned from a long life, or they may have packed a lot of painful lessons into a short life while attending the “school of hard knocks”. Be prepared to learn in humility from whoever has something to teach you, always verifying their teaching against God’s Word. And remember, discipleship doesn’t happen in an hour every Sunday. It’s usually a long-term, committed, intensive, small-group or one-on-one training.
  • Read the classics. If there’s one benefit to our “Information Age”, it’s that many of us have more resources at our fingertips than most people throughout history have had even if they traveled to large historic libraries.  Our problems often aren’t as unique as we like to think, and you may find your question was actually answered centuries ago.
  • And above all, follow in the footsteps of the Bereans and go back to the source: Scripture. Like them, that is the standard we measure everything else against.

I say this not as a criticism of anyone, but rather as a challenge to all Christians – myself  included – to ensure we understand the groundwork of first principles that provide a foundation for an unshakeable faith.


von Braun’s Surrender

Wernher_von_Braun_smallHere’s an interesting story from WWII. Wernher von Braun developed the V2 rocket program for the Nazis, surrendered to the Americans, and played a primary role in developing the Saturn V rocket that enabled us to land a man on the moon. But why did he surrender to the Americans?

On May 2, 1945, upon finding an American private from the U.S. 44th Infantry Division, von Braun’s brother and fellow rocket engineer, Magnus, approached the soldier on a bicycle, calling out in broken English: “My name is Magnus von Braun. My brother invented the V-2. We want to surrender.” After the surrender, von Braun spoke to the press:

“We knew that we had created a new means of warfare, and the question as to what nation, to what victorious nation we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision more than anything else. We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through, and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.”

Let that sink in for a minute. One regarded as the greatest rocket scientist of all time chose who would get his powerful knowledge – knowledge that could be used for incredible good or evil – based on the idea that only a people guided by the Bible could be trusted with that knowledge. Why is that? What is it about the Bible that would offer him any hope that the US would not abuse this advantage once they had it?

First, the Bible sets the standard of right and wrong outside of man’s control. No king or president or prime minister (or even popular majority) can redefine what is right or wrong. Right is what is consistent with God’s unchanging character, while wrong is whatever is contrary to that, no matter who does it or how many do it. Thus, no one is above God’s law.

Second, the Bible establishes a standard binding not simply our outward actions, but our innermost thoughts as well. Not murdering someone isn’t good enough, for God sees the motives of our hearts and says we are not even to hate our brother, even if we never act on it. Similarly, stealing, lying, and every other unethical behavior all start with a thought, and Jesus addresses the problem (the action) at the source (the thought) as no other religion or worldview does.

Third, the Christian concept of grace flies in the face of any other world religion when it cleaves merit from salvation. The Bible tells us that there is no amount of good deeds that can earn our salvation. Rather, it is a freely and lovingly offered gift from God for us to either gratefully accept, or reject at our own peril. This then removes the motive of self-interest from the good deeds we do for others. We then help others not to “score points” with God, but to express our gratitude for all He’s done for us and pass on our blessings to others – “Freely you received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).

So in the end, a people guided by the Bible would perform good actions generated from right thoughts and pure motives. Will a whole nation of people all do that? No. Will any of us consistently do that 100% of the time? Not in our own strength. Only God’s transformative renewal in us can accomplish that. But von Braun correctly saw that the people with that as their aim would be a better safehouse for power than the nation without such a standard.

Would someone with incredibly destructive knowledge entrust it to our country now, knowing the world would be a safer place because of our integrity and our adherence to an unwavering divine standard of right conduct? Sadly, I think it would be questionable.

“Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent, and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” – Revelation 2:5, Jesus speaking to the church of Ephesus and just maybe to us as well.

“Spaghetti Bowls” & The BIG Picture

Large highway interchange under construction in South AfricaEvery week for the last couple of years I have driven through a large highway interchange under construction just a few blocks from my office (and probably will for another year).  Recently, a large portion of my commute has turned into a multiyear construction zone as that highway and it’s associated bridges and ramps are reworked to add more lanes. This isn’t as bad as it might sound. I actually enjoy watching these large-scale construction projects, and try to see as much as I can while driving through (without causing an accident).
For a classic “spaghetti bowl” interchange, multiple elevated highway crossings are being built at the same time from one end of the project to the other. Some interchanges can have 5 different levels of highways crossing over and around and through each other in a dizzying display of coordinated chaos. While the new interchange here is no record-breaker, there were still 7 cranes in a relatively small area lifting multiple girders into place after the Friday afternoon rush hour one day.  Coordination like that and long-term sequencing of future events that often have to be completed in a specific, precise order to even be feasible are critical to the success of one of these projects. Complications like weather and working around existing traffic with minimal interruption  only add to the challenge.
As an engineer, I know that every step of the project has already been mapped out long before spectators like me ever see the actual construction begin. Even knowing that, it’s still fascinating to watch large projects like interchanges take shape. When you see several ramps being started at various points around the perimeter of the interchange, it can make for a lot of questions of how they’ll eventually snake through the future maze of crossings to connect. Ironically, all my questions 2 years into watching this project unfold were already answered on the plans before I even knew this project was going to be built.
Similarly, we see life unfolding little by little, never seeing the detailed plans except in hindsight, if at all. Some might say there is no “master plan” at all. I think our view is a very narrow and short-sighted, ground-level view that leaves us bewildered by new changes. We make plans to merge or exit, and suddenly find barricades across our path and a giant “DETOUR” sign confronting us. Meanwhile, God, that greatest of engineers, sees the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10) and is arranging the construction zone of this world according to His master plan.  Sometimes it may inconvenience us, sometimes we may even suffer in the process (Acts 9:16), but we can know that His plan is the best overall good that can be accomplished in this world. Paul tells us in Acts 17 that “…He determined the times set for them and the exact times they should live. God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each of us.” And God told Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).  We can take comfort in the fact that whatever we may go through in this broken world, it’s not a surprise to God. His plans are robust ones; He can take all of our hurts and pain, and even our rebellion, and accomplish His plan. In fact, in the story of Joseph, we see that He can even take the  betrayal of one’s own family and turn it for good : Joseph told his brothers “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:19-20). Will we always see the good result in the end like Joseph? Not necessarily. Many missionaries have been killed by the very people they desperately loved and to whom they wanted to bring the good news of Christ, and the fruit of that sacrifice didn’t reveal itself till many years later. But our faith – our trust – is not in chance or karma or serendipity. We trust in the all-knowing Creator who designed all we see, from the smallest subatomic particles to the largest galaxies, from the simplest salt crystal to the complex system of tens of trillions of cells making up our own bodies. He lays out the master plan – the big picture – and fine-tunes the details like no human engineer ever has. Just a thought from my commute to yours 🙂

At the intersection of faith and design