Tag Archives: Grace

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.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

“Christ with Thorns”, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1865-1879.

As I sat here this Memorial Day weekend working homework problems, I also thought about what this holiday means here in the US. For some, it may just be a long weekend away from work, but it’s really about remembering the soldiers who never returned home from all the various wars, soldiers who sacrificed their lives to save their brothers-in-arms next to them on the battlefield; soldiers who paid with their lives for the ultimate good of their fellow Americans back home; soldiers who often died trying to protect people they didn’t even know in other countries. They paid the highest price any person can be asked to pay, and prove the old saying that freedom isn’t free. But this reminder of selfless sacrifice brought to my mind an even greater sacrifice.

Jesus Christ told His disciples that “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”[Jn 15:13] But then He didn’t stop there. He continued, “You are My friends if you do what I command you.” It’s good to remember the cost required in the offer of “the free gift of God” [Ro 6:23]. As Paul says, the Christian has been “bought with a price” [1Co 6:20], and that at no small cost. Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, laid His perfect, blameless life down for us fallen wretches – “the just for the unjust” –  that we might be redeemed [1Pe 1:18-19]. The wages of sin (i.e. the just compensation for it) is death [Ro 6:23], yet the only one to ever walk the face of this earth who didn’t deserve to die, voluntarily chose to sacrifice Himself to pay for our salvation. And while death on the cross was certainly a painful, torturous, humiliating way to die, that paled in comparison to the agony of bearing the perfectly just wrath of God that each and every human deserves [Ro 3:23]. The grace offered us is not the “cheap grace” so palatable to the world, but rather a “costly grace”, as Bonhoeffer would say [1].

It can be easy to not grasp that cost in a culture that tends to view God as some old grandfatherly figure who should simply exist to spoil the kids (and if He doesn’t fit that silly image, then He probably doesn’t exist). After all, “‘God is love’, right? And how could He not love someone like me?” But this distorted view of God ignores the fact that we are all lawbreakers on death row, in desperate need of a pardon. And so the Gospel, literally the “good news”, doesn’t seem like such good news because we never grasped how bad our situation is. A right understanding of the Law that condemns us helps us understand why we need salvation, and why Jesus’ sacrifice was the only way to provide that salvation such that God could still be just while also the justifier of sinners like us [Ro 3:26].

As a time of solemn remembrance of the weighty sacrifice of others on our behalf passes by, it is good to remember the fragility of such human sacrifices and the endurance of Christ’s sacrifice, once for all [He 7:27].  The U.S. President Ronald Reagan once said, “Freedom is never more than one generation from extinction.”[2] Sadly, the greatest sacrifices soldiers (or any other human) can make may all come to naught, despite the best intentions, the best training, the most careful planning, the boldest action, and the most heroic effort.  Sometimes, our best effort simply isn’t enough to win the day. Other times, the success hard-won by those deadly sacrifices is undone by the foolish actions of others afterward. Those times are painful reminders of our own finitude, both in terms of power and wisdom. But Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient, complete, and impossible to undo. His victory over sin and death is unparalleled, truly epic in achievement, and confirmed by His resurrection from the dead. And yet, it is not just some distant story of past derring-do, passed down to you to think about once a year. It is a sacrifice made that you personally – right here, right now, may live – joyfully reconciled with your Creator in this life, and resurrected to be with Him for all eternity. Don’t let another year go by without considering the supreme sacrifice made on your behalf by Christ Jesus, and accepting His gift of life and His calling to be a disciple.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 45.
[2] Ronald Reagan, speech to the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce annual meeting, 1961-03-30.

The Design of Salvation, Part 2

“Christ with Thorns”, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1865-1879.

Last week, we looked at some other ways God could’ve designed our salvation, although none of them really seemed adequate. We started off confirming that we really do need salvation; but then saw that we can’t buy eternal life, or be born into it, or get it by title or position, or earn it through good deeds, or pass a test to get it. And God’s perfect justice prohibits Him just ignoring our rebellious condition and rewarding us anyway. That’s the bad news. But this week, let’s dig into the beautiful distinction that separates Christianity from all the man-made religions of the world, and what makes the gospel truly… “good news”.

What is that distinction? Grace. “What does that even mean?” Glad you asked!  God’s grace can be defined as His “goodness toward those who deserve only punishment.” [1] Salvation is a free gift of God [Rom 6:23, Eph 2:8-9], for that’s really the only way we could get it. God is never obligated to show us this favor, and the fact that He does makes faith (or trust) in Him the only reasonable response on our part.[1] Like any gift, it has to be accepted to be effective. If it’s the dead of winter, and I’m homeless and freezing, and someone gives me a big down jacket, but I don’t accept it and actually put it on, I still freeze to death!

A gift is, by definition, free to the recipient. And while God’s grace is free, it isn’t cheap. How so? As Herman Bavinck puts it, “God must punish the wrong. God is love, indeed, but this glorious confession comes into its own when love in the Divine being is understood as being a holy love in perfect harmony with justice. There is room for the grace of God only if the justice of God is first fully established.”[2] And how is that perfect justice satisfied? Jesus, the second person of the Triune Godhead, became as one of us, but lived the perfect life we never could, and then died in our place, paying the penalty we all deserved. [Rom 5:8] We each sin, and the penalty for sin before a perfect and just God is eternal separation from Him. But Jesus became our proxy, our representative, our substitute. And while I could never pay off the penalty for my sin (hence the eternal aspect of it), Jesus’ sacrifice was a sufficient and complete payment. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus, this gift offered to us freely cost more than the worth of the whole universe.

And what is this gift? And how do I accept it? This is none other than the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life. If you read last week’s post and understood that you don’t meet God’s perfect standard and that He doesn’t grade on a curve, then you understand that you are, like every other human ever born, a sinner. And as mentioned above, the penalty for sin is severe: death and eternal separation from God. As AA would say, admitting you have a problem is the first step; but that’s not enough. Repentance is more than just acknowledgment of a problem or even remorse over it. It is a renouncing of sin and commitment to forsake it. But we are enslaved by sin, and only Jesus can break its power over us. [Rom 6:6,22, Jn 8:34,36] We must turn from sin and to Christ, looking to Him alone, and trusting in His work to make us acceptable to God. [Heb 12:2] This trust is also called faith. Paul wrote to the Romans that if one confessed with the mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believed in his heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, they would be saved. [Rom 10:9-11] It’s two sides of the same coin: the sincere heartfelt trust in Jesus’ saving work (which was proven sufficient by His being raised from the dead), combined with genuine repentance of past sin and commitment to follow Christ wholeheartedly (summarized in confessing that He is Lord of your life), will save you. You can’t have Him as Savior and not as Lord. [Jn 8:31,14:23]

Why would God do any  of this? The answer is… love. That word has been watered down a lot in recent years. People say they love a lot of things these days – food, their favorite sports team, a hobby, and on and on. But love isn’t simply a feeling of enjoyment or a momentary attraction. Emotions come and go, and are often quite selfish in origin, but love is a willful giving of oneself to another. Paul writes to the Romans that “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Love in word only isn’t really love, for love necessarily results in action, as God’s love for us certainly did.

In the end, God’s way of doing thing really is the best choice among the alternatives for accomplishing His purpose in saving mankind from its rebellion, reconciling us to Him, redeeming us and repairing our brokenness, and ultimately, bringing glory to Himself, for He is worthy of it. Despite the “armchair quarterbacking” of skeptics, the gospel message really is the best way to balance sovereignty and free will, and allow the maximum number of people to voluntarily take part in God’s redemption.  Only God’s grace walks that fine line between love and justice, making God “the just and the justifier”, as Paul wrote. [Rom 3:26] Only God’s grace makes the ground level at the foot of the cross for men and women of every nation to come with open hands to receive what they could never earn, whether rich or poor, old or young, powerful or destitute, educated or ignorant. Only grace could meet all God’s design parameters and accomplish His purpose with such elegance and faithfulness to His perfect nature.


[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), pp. 200-1.
[2] Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids Eerdmans, 1956) p. 260.

The Design of Salvation, Part 1

“Golgota” by Mihaly Munkacsy, 1884

There are many critics of how the Bible describes God’s plan to save the human race, but it’s far easier to criticize someone else’s design than to work through what’s actually the best choice to accomplish a particular goal yourself. If you had the job of providing a means of salvation to a stubborn and rebellious people – many of whom don’t even think they need to be saved from anything  and want to actively resist any rescue attempt – how would you do it? How would you design salvation?  Let’s look at some alternatives and see whether those criticisms are really justified or not.

First off, is salvation even necessary? In case you haven’t read the newspaper, watched the news on TV, or gotten on the internet in a while, it’s pretty obvious that the world is a messed-up place. People are messed up. We like to think we’re not as bad as _____. Just fill in the blank with the person or group you tend to look down upon, because we all do that. Comparison comes naturally to us. But the fact is, none of us are perfect. A lot of times that doesn’t bother us because we assume that God grades on a curve. “Nobody’s perfect, but my saintly old grandma would surely get bumped up to a high A. I may not be as good as her, but I’ll certainly still pass, probably with a high B, or maybe even a low A. People like Hitler will obviously get an F. That guy that cut me me off on the highway the other day may be a borderline C, but God certainly wouldn’t fail me – I’m a good person.” Right? Well, God doesn’t grade on a curve, and there’s only 1 passing score: perfection. That’s bad news for all of us. Turns out, we’re in the same boat as Hitler and all the “really bad” people  that we feel so superior to according to our subjective grading curve. We have a serious problem, and need a serious solution. What are some options?

  • Would you make salvation dependent on earthly power? Is eternal life a gift not to be wasted on the masses? Are only the movers and shakers – the Pharaohs and Caesars of world history – worthy of it? Most of us are in that category of “the masses”, and probably wouldn’t pick that option. But historically, those in power wouldn’t have minded rigging the system to favor the powerful. However, power can actually be a hindrance in that it tends to blind us to our real needs that only God can meet. [Mk 8:36] Thankfully, God makes salvation available to the leaders of superpowers and the untouchable outcasts in the filthiest slums, and everyone in between.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on wealth? How much should tickets to Heaven cost? What value do you place on eternal life?  Judging by how much people will spend on surgery to try to retain the fleeting looks of youth, I imagine eternal life could fetch quite a price – maybe enough to price most of us out of the bidding.  There are many people with prideful hearts that would love to simply throw some money at God to purchase life eternal rather than pay the costlier price of submitting themselves to Him. “$100 to go to Heaven when I die, and I can live however I want until then? I’m in!” But what about when the price is $10,000?  $1 million? $1 billion? Even if it’s only a few dollars, any price you could come up with would be out of reach for somebody. Of course, there’s also the question of whether you would really enjoy Heaven if you just bought your entrance guarantee and spent the rest of your life living like the devil. Yet God makes salvation available to all, from the richest fat cat to the most destitute, bankrupt beggar.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on knowledge? Would people need to pass an exam, or be some type of Illuminati? Would you have a bridgekeeper asking obscure trivia like in Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail?[1] The Gnostics believed one needed “secret knowledge” beyond what the ignorant masses could ever hope for. I remember struggling in certain classes in college, and the frustration of being the student that just didn’t understand what everyone else seemed to grasp so easily. It was frustrating then, and it was just a class grade on the line, not eternity! So as much as I appreciate knowledge and enjoy learning new things, I thank God He didn’t make my salvation dependent on how much I know. On a related note, what if I’m in a car accident and suffer brain trauma and have amnesia and mental retardation as a result, or if I develop Alzheimer’s and can’t even remember what I learned the day before? Would my loss of knowledge put my salvation at risk? Thankfully, it’s not our IQ or our learning that saves us, for God makes salvation available to the genius and the dunce alike, to the scholar with a string of letters after his name and the illiterate orphan.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on race or ethnicity? The idea of one group of people being intrinsically more valuable than others is generally reprehensible to us now, but preference for those like us still creeps in to our thoughts, it seems. I can’t help but notice (and be amused at) how very white and European Jesus – a Jew from the Middle East – has typically been portrayed by Western artists in the centuries since. Yet God is no respecter of such shallow traits like nationality or skin color. He makes salvation available to the Jew and the German, the Russian and the American, and every other nationality there is. Likewise for every skin color: “red, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight”, as the old children’s song goes.
  • Would you make salvation unconditional? Everybody goes to heaven/paradise/eternal bliss in the end? That sounds very loving and good at first. But it seems like it might be a little awkward if you were an innocent victim brutally beaten to death, and you meet your very unrepentant murderer in heaven. Might you feel a little slighted? Might you wonder where justice is when the victim and the laughing victimizer get the same reward? We have to minimize the justice of God for this option to appear feasible. Yet God offers salvation lovingly while still being just.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on good deeds? That is the probably the most common approach in man-made religions. And I get it: we understand the need for justice, and so we naturally think good should be rewarded and bad punished. But what about the one who realizes the error of his ways late in life? What good can he possibly do at the end to offset a life of selfishness, greed, dishonesty, theft, or murder? What hope is there for him? Or what of the child who gets hit by a car before she has much opportunity to earn credits in her “account”? But even with a long life of good behavior, it’s still not perfect behavior, and so it still falls short.  Works appeals to us because we do understand working and earning benefits, but also because we don’t understand the hole we’re actually in. So we think it is something we can work our way out of. In reality, if it’s on us to get ourselves out, the situation truly is hopeless.

I have to say, I’m not very impressed with any of the alternatives above. Are there other alternatives to what God did that you can think of that might’ve worked better? I don’t think there are, but I’d love to hear if you think I’ve missed something. It’s easy to criticize a plan without actually having a better option. But it’s when we work through the problems and consequences of alternatives, that we see the superiority of a plan we might’ve dismissed at first. Design is all about making choices to accomplish a specified purpose, and now that we’ve eliminated some alternative choices, join me next week for Part 2, where I’ll look at God’s actual choice for offering salvation, how it accomplishes His purpose, and why it really is the best design for rescuing us from our desperate situation.


[1] If you don’t know what I’m talking about there, your life is incomplete. Watch that scene from Monty Python on YouTube to catch up: https://youtu.be/Wpx6XnankZ8

Old Testament Law and the Design of Redemption

Moses & the 10 Commandments, by James Tissot, late 19th century.

Why don’t Christians follow all the laws of the Old Testament? Why do we think it’s OK to ignore all those prohibitions on eating shellfish and bacon, and wearing mixed fabrics, and so on? Are Christians hypocrites in doing so? I have heard that charge from skeptics before, so let’s work through that today.

I was listening to a theology class on my phone the other day, and the teacher stated that God made the old Mosaic covenant of the Law, with all of its sacrifices and rituals, as a temporary state of affairs[1]. This made me think of how we as engineers sometimes have to plan for the lifecycle of a product. We typically design the product to resist certain loads, to survive in certain environments, and to have certain functions. But sometimes, we also have to design temporary structures or products where the end of the product life is also a significant part of the design, such as designing to facilitate deconstructing it at the end of its life. Think of something like temporary structures for large concerts where quick and easy disassembly of stages are a key part of the design. While many temporary structures for things like world expos have remained in use after the event they were built for (i.e. the Eiffel Tower),  their purpose was to fill a role tied to a specific event; and when the event came and went, they either needed to be transitioned to a new purpose, or removed. This is exactly what we see in the Mosaic laws. Some, like prohibitions on murder, theft, etc, are moral laws that will remain in effect for as long as humanity endures. But other portions that were ceremonial or cultural had a planned life cycle with a replacement in mind from the beginning.

In the beginning, God created humans with basically only one rule to follow: “Don’t eat from this one tree, and I’ll count that obedience as righteousness. Break that rule, and die.” [Ge 2:16-17] They were under a “covenant of works” [2]. But they did break that one simple rule, and spiritual death, or separation from God, was the result. The necessary consequence of sin (rebellion against God, or failing to meet His perfect standard) is separation from Him, or death. But God promised an eventual solution in the “fullness of time” [Ge 3:15, Mk 1:14-15, Ga 4:4-5, Tt 1:2-4, 1Ti 2:6], and in the meantime, made merciful allowances for humans, where He would accept animal sacrifices as substitutes for the guilty person. The animal sacrifices didn’t really do anything to cleanse us of those sins against God [He 10:4], but they were a constant reminder to us that the payment for sin is death [He 10:3], that in all fairness, it should be us paying that price, and also that God in His mercy had provided (and would provide) a substitute.  He could’ve just left humans in that state of spiritual death until they died physically, at which point they would be eternally separated from God (i.e. in hell). He could’ve  started over with new free-willed creatures each time the previous ones disobeyed. Or He could’ve made creatures without free will that would never disobey…  but also never freely love. Instead, He chose to demonstrate His love and mercy in a way, and to a degree, that would not have been possible in those other scenarios; He extended grace – unmerited favor – to them and offered a way to be reconciled to Him, through the keeping of a prescribed set of laws, though the law was “only a shadow of the good things that are coming.” [He 10:1] But really, even from the beginning, it wasn’t the keeping of these laws that saved people –  it was the trust in God’s promise of a future Messiah that resulted in the keeping of the Law. For no one born in sin could keep God’s law perfectly, so the law served not to save us, but to convict us and drive us toward Him who could save [Ro 3:20]. In fact, throughout the history of God’s interaction with man, He stated that He desired hearts that obeyed Him out of love rather than mere outward ritual [De 10:12, 1Sa 15:22, Mic 6:6-8 Pr 21:3, Ho 6:6]. But bringing that about would require a transition to a new phase of the lifecycle of redemption, where internal changes could be brought about, through the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit [He 8:10, Ezk 36:26-27, Ro 8:8-9].

And so, at the right time, God the Father sent God the Son to live a perfect life, fulfilling the covenant of works that Adam & Eve failed at, and then becoming the perfect sacrifice that really could cleanse our sins. If you read through the book of Hebrews, which compares Christ’s work to that of the old Law, there are two words that summarize that book: “better” and “completed”. Over and over again, the author of Hebrews makes the point that Christ’s work is better in every way than the Mosaic Law, and that Jesus completed, or finished, what was incomplete in the Law.

Lastly, there is still another phase to go. We are told of a future time when God will remake this world, and we will dwell in a “new heaven and a new earth”, and the dwelling of God will be with men [Re 21:3]. In the beginning, God walked in the Garden of Eden with Adam & Eve, until they broke fellowship with Him. Then we were told that when Jesus was born, He would be called Immanuel: “God with us” [Is 7:14, Mt 1:22-23]. And John tells us that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” [Jn 1:14]. And after Jesus’ mission was complete, the Holy Spirit would dwell in believers permanently. But then when God’s plan of redemption is completed someday, He will dwell among a redeemed and glorified people forever. And so, through a long process (from our perspective), God will redeem His people, and restore what was marred in man’s initial rebellion. Thus God’s design lifecycle for His plan of redemption will be complete. But that first phase exemplified in the Old Testament law has already been completed in Christ, and there’s no going back to that once you’ve tasted of the goodness of that second phase of God’s plan.  So no, Christians are not hypocrites for not following various ceremonial and cultural laws of the Old Testament, but rather we are simply following along with God’s phased plan of redemption.


[1] Dr. Gerry Breshears, audio lecture, as part of Biblical Training Institute’s “Academy” program.
[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Ch. 25: The Covenants Between God & Man”.

The Unwanted Cure

“Family Doctor”, by Grant Wood, 1940.

What would you do if you found out you had cancer? You’d probably be in shock first, but as that initial shock wore off, what would be your plan? Would you aggressively fight for your life? Would you follow your doctor’s advice like you never have before? Would you sell all you had to finance treatment? Would you consider experimental medical procedures  if more typical medical solutions didn’t work? Or would you just carry on with life as it was before you got the diagnosis? Would pursuing the cure be too much work to bother with?

We all have a disease – a terminal disease called sin [Rom 6:23].  This disease has a cure, though. That cure is called the Gospel. Gospel literally means “good news”. If you had an advanced stage of cancer, and certain death was fast approaching, and someone told you that there was a treatment regimen that would cure you of the cancer, saying that was “good news” would be an understatement! But getting the benefits of that cure requires something so basic, you might not think about it: it requires admitting that you have cancer. You obviously wouldn’t need a cancer cure if you didn’t have cancer.

But the Gospel is a cure for a problem we don’t want to admit we have. Like an alcoholic or drug addict, admitting we have a problem is the first step. People can see God’s grace as offensive because they don’t think they need it. I’m afraid one reason people in our generation think they don’t need it is because all they’ve heard from Christians is “God loves you.” And while that’s true, they hear that over and over again and think, “Why wouldn’t He? I’m a pretty good person.” I’ve had several friends and family members now that have battled cancer, undergoing surgeries, chemo, radiation, or some combination. Some won that fight, others lost. But chemo and radiation and surgeries are only ever good news when you understand that your sickness is going to kill you. Almost every book in the New Testament warns us that if we choose to follow Christ, we will suffer trials, hardships, mockings, torture, imprisonment, and death. Is that being overly dramatic? Ask the Christians being beheaded in the Middle East, or the Christians imprisoned in North Korea and Iran. Read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Read Paul’s account of his own sufferings. Why go through that? All of those people understood what God saved them from, and just how good the Good News really was. As Peter said when Jesus asked if the 12 disciples would abandon Him like the fickle crowds had, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” [Jn 6:68 NET]

So is there anything that confirms the diagnosis? The Law of God is the test that reveals the need for the cure of the gospel of grace. His Law reveals our inability to keep His perfect standard. It shows us that being “pretty good” doesn’t help. We can win the Nobel Peace Prize, and every humanitarian award there is, and still find ourselves failing to meet God’s perfect standard just like Hitler and all the worst examples of humanity. Talk about a blow to one’s pride! The best we could ever hope to do isn’t enough. That’s the bad news; that’s the cancer diagnosis. We’re going to die without intervention. But it gets worse. We’re going to die as rebels and traitors before a perfectly just God. And He wouldn’t be just if He didn’t punish lawbreakers.  What are we to do? What can we do? Nothing, really. You might wonder, “Are we just ‘dead men walking’ then? Pretty much. “That’s kind of depressing, isn’t it?” Yep….

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. Where we are powerless to stop this disease, God provides a cure, as only He can. And notice the design of His cure: both powerful to save, and available to save. God’s salvation is not limited only to the rich who can afford it, or the genius who can comprehend it, or those of some supposedly superior race who deserve it, or of a particular societal class entitled to it, or to those born into the right family to inherit it, or those who have lived long enough and worked hard enough to earn the cure, or to those who showed the most potential. Those are all ways us humans might try to determine who qualifies for something so precious, if we were in charge. Rather, God sent Jesus, his only Son, to live the perfect life we never could, to fulfill the Law in every detail, and to be the only sacrifice that could satisfy what justice demanded. God’s gracious gift of salvation is open to the Wall Street banker and the Main Street beggar, the quantum physicist and the ignorant child, people of all races, the upper crust and poorest of the poor and all the middle class in between, the zealot that has sought after God since he was in a crib and the militant atheist on his deathbed, the sons and daughters of privilege to the loneliest orphan, the child prodigy to the unknown pariah. Maybe you’ve heard Romans 3:23, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”, and felt the condemnation there. That’s good, actually, but only as a start! The truth hurts, but nothing like the consequences of ignoring it. Now keep reading to the end of that sentence in verse 24: “… being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” [Rom 3:23-24] We’ve all sinned, but see the unsurpassable love of God!  – that we may be justified before Him simply by trusting in the redeeming work of Jesus. Have you acknowledged the sickness of your sin? Have you laid aside your pride and trusted Jesus alone to cleanse you of the gangrene of your soul? Or will you choose to turn down the free cure?


For further reading, Alexander Maclaren does a beautiful job, far better than I ever could, of explaining the passage from Romans referenced above.
Alexander MacLaren, Expositions of Holy Scriptures: Romans & Corinthians, Romans3:19-26. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/maclaren/rom_cor.ii.vii.html

 

A Two-Pronged Attack

Infantry land on Utah Beach on the east side of Cotentin Peninsula, while Airborne parachuted in from the west. US Army Brochure.

73 years ago, on June 6, 1944, the largest amphibious assault in history hit the beaches of Normandy, France, to begin a slow marathon to Berlin, the seat of Nazi power. To facilitate gaining a foothold on the Nazi-controlled continent, the landings at 5 separate beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast were also coordinated with airborne infantry dropping behind enemy lines to clear the way inland for the (hopefully) successful beach landings. The foothold was costly and took time, but it eventually led to Allied victory over Hitler. But what I want to discus today is a different kind of attack: one on a grander scale even than D-Day; an attack with bigger objectives than the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation; an attack formulated by a greater Supreme Commander than General Eisenhower.

What I’m writing of is God’s assault that He launches against the walled fortress of each human heart. You see, we are rebels every one, fit only for court-martial and subsequent execution by a perfectly just Ruler over all.  When the standard is perfection, there are no “little sins”, no peccadilloes, no “white lies”, no minor indiscretions. Not acing that test is the same as failing, and since none of us are perfect, we all fail. But God, in His sovereignty and amazing love and grace, doesn’t leverage His omnipotent power against us, obliterating us like so many flies in a nuclear blast.  Instead, His purpose was not to destroy us rebels, but to redeem us, to transform “children of wrath” [Eph 2:3] into “adopted children of God” [Eph 1:5].  How does He do that? There are many ways to analyze His strategy, but I see a two-pronged attack of reason and love at work.

We find justification for believing in God’s existence and in the truth of what the Bible records about Him through science and philosophy, or our observations of the world around us and our critical thinking. We can apply logic to the question of God’s existence in the form of arguments such as the Cosmological, Teleological, Axiological, and Ontological arguments, among others, and rationally deduce that God exists. With the Cosmological and Teleological arguments in particular, we can support those premises with our scientific observations of the universe around us. Indeed, the apostle Paul tells us that God’s eternal power and divine nature can be clearly seen from what is created, so that men are without excuse [Rom 1:20]. We can examine the historicity of the biblical manuscripts, their supreme coherence, both internally and with the external world,  and their explanatory power in comparison to other religions and ideologies, and see that Christianity provides the  most reasonable explanation of human history, of our paradoxical greatness and wretchedness, as Pascal would say.

Not everyone would surrender based on evidence and reasoning, though. Some might shy away from those avenues to God, thinking they were too complicated to bother with, or beyond their abilities. Some on the other end of the spectrum would dig in their  heels all the more in response to reasons contrary to their views. They would feel the directness of cold, hard logic, and batten the doors of their fortress all the more. Childishly, we can resent being told anything contrary to our desire for personal autonomy, even when it’s for our own good. But defenses strengthened against one attack may yield to another. And God has a flank attack:  He loves us. Not with some momentary warm fuzzy kind of so-called love that soon passes, but with a sacrificial love for those who hated Him. For, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” [Rom 5:8, I Jn 4:10,19], “the just for the unjust” [1 Pet 3:18]. Because He created us in His image [Gen 1:27], we have intrinsic value, even if the rest of the world tells us we aren’t smart enough, attractive enough, cool enough, or any other comparison they can find to feel better at our expense.  And when people look at our past mistakes and ask, “Who could ever love someone like that?”, the answer is, God. He did, He does, and He will. Love is a powerful craving in all of us, and we seek it in all the worst places sometimes. And those pursuits don’t satisfy, so we keep running to the next big thing that we think will be the end of our search. All the while, our loving Creator awaits, extending an invitation to each of us, not desiring that any should perish {Ezek 33:11], but still obligated by His perfectly just nature to punish all who reject his loving offer of salvation [Rom 2:4-6].

Some yield to God’s logic and others to His love,  but they are just two sides of the same divine battle plan to redeem a chosen people. For me, 25 years ago, my sinfulness, God’s perfection, and my need to come to Him on His terms rather than mine were as obvious and rational to me as 2+2 equaling 4. There was simply no justifiable reason to reject God’s gift. And the deeper I have dug, and the more I have researched other worldviews and religions, the more 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” [2 Tim 1:12]. Whatever way God uses to reach you, don’t reject His offer. It does require unconditional surrender on our part – something our prideful hearts bristle at – but like the Nazis in WWII, we’re actually on the wrong side, and the best thing we can do is surrender to our just, but loving, Lord.

The Patience of God

The Deluge – Gustave Dore

Skeptics will often point to examples in the Old Testament of the Bible that they say show God to be a very malevolent, genocidal, vile Being. But what if some of these examples actually showed the patience and grace of God instead? Think that’s a tall order? Let’s dig into that this week with three examples.

  1. In Genesis 6-9, we read the account of The Flood, of which Noah and his family were the sole survivors. God wiped out the entire population of the earth at that time, except for 8 people. Was that an act of brutality or justice tempered with grace? Well, consider this: in Genesis 6:3, we are told that God started a 120 year countdown timer for mankind. Why? Continuing on, we read of how thorough man’s wickedness had become – that his every inclination was only toward evil, all the time [Gen 6:5, 11-12]. But Noah was “blameless among the people of his time” [Gen 6:9 NIV]. God could’ve just instantly started over from a clean slate, but He chose instead to redeem the mess we humans had made of everything, and rebuild the human race from a faithful servant. Not only that, He gave the corrupt people around Noah 120 years to repent. Peter reinforces this point when he tells the recipients of his first letter that “God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built” [1 Pet 3:18-20 NIV]. In his second letter, he calls Noah a “preacher of righteousness” [2 Pet 2:5]. We don’t get a lot of details about this time frame, but we can infer that Noah was bearing witness of God’s impending judgement in word and deed, but nobody else saw fit to turn back to God. When they passed up the offer of grace, all that was left was the just punishment.
  2. In the book of Joshua, we read of the Israelite conquest of Canaan after the Exodus from Egypt. The slaughter of the various Canaanite peoples is often cited as divine genocide, but was it? For that answer, we need to turn back several books and several centuries earlier, to Genesis and the history of Abraham. There, God makes a covenant – a solemn binding agreement – with Abraham and tells him that his descendants will spend 400 years as slaves, but then will return to live in the land, but not until then, “for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit” [Gen 15:16 NET]. These people would continue their moral slide into complete depravity, and yet God would allow them over 400 years to turn from their sin. But finally, God would use Israel to punish the people of Canaan. First, however, He tells them, that the land they are about to  conquer is not theirs because of any merit on their part, but rather “it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God is driving them out before you” [Dt 9:5]. What had they done to warrant this punishment? Leviticus 18 lists a variety of sexual sins such as incest, adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality, as well as child sacrifice. This chapter begins and ends by saying that these were the practices of the people of Canaan that God was driving out before Israel, and they are not to follow the Canaanite example [Lev 18:3, 24-30]. Interestingly, verse 28 adds that if they do, Israel will be “vomitted” from the land just as the Canaanites were about to be [Lev 18:28 NIV]. And in fact, many of the times that Israel was invaded and taken into exile, it was described as punishment for their rebellion against God.  So was the Canaanite conquest divine genocide? No. Rather it was divine justice that God also used against His own people when they did the same evil the Canaanites did. And it was only done after an even longer forbearance than the pre-Flood world was given. It’s also interesting to note the language in Deuteronomy above: the Lord was “driving them out” before the Israelites. This was not an extermination order to hunt these people down and kill them wherever they went; they were “free to flee” that area and live.
  3. This last example marks the beginning of the overall conquest of Canaan above, and also comes from the book of Joshua. Starting at the end of chapter 5 through the end of chapter 6, we read of the fall of Jericho. The people of Jericho had already heard of the miraculous parting of the waters when the Israelites left Egypt 40 years before, and the defeat of 2 other kings east of the Jordan River on the way there [Jos 2:10]. They were scared [Jos 2:11], and maybe some of them fled as people often do in times of war, but some didn’t. This wasn’t some sudden appearance like an alien ship suddenly coming out of warp in a sci-fi movie; this was a long process with plenty of warning. But even then, after the Israelites crossed the Jordan River (again, miraculously), and were at Jericho, there was still opportunity for the people of Jericho to repent. Have you ever wondered why God had the Israelites march around the city once a day for 6 days, then march around 7 times on the 7th day before He caused the walls to come crashing down? Why not just do it immediately? Or why not use giant hailstones like He did later against the 5 kings of the Amorites (Jos 10:11)? Or fire and a surface-rupture earthquake like with Korah’s rebellion against Moses [Num 16:1-40]? Here, even for the rebellious people of Jericho that refused to flee the coming judgement, there was still grace – a final 6 days’  grace before the end.

The prophet Ezekiel said that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather desires that they turn from their ways and live! [Ezk 33:11] In all of these cases, there are actually delays of judgement to allow whosoever will the opportunity to repent, to turn to God while there’s still time. God is still extending grace to people today, an open invitation to lay down our rebel arms and surrender. Don’t sit behind your fortress walls of skepticism, thinking they will protect you. Death shreds all those defenses and will leave you exposed before the God of the universe, where, having rejected His grace, perfect justice will be the only option. There are no plea deals, no grading on a curve, no excuses accepted. But it doesn’t have to be that way – call on the name of the Lord Jesus while it is still called “today”! [Heb 3:15]

The Down Low

The Good Samaritan - Vasily Surikov (1874)
The Good Samaritan – Vasily Surikov (1874)

In the Christian view, every person is made in the image of God and has intrinsic value.[Gen 1:27] This doctrine, sometimes referred to by the Latin term imago Dei, is serious enough that God gives it as the basis for capital punishment when someone murders another human.[Gen 9:6] That each person really does have such high value, as an essential characteristic of their humanity, is nice in theory, but how does that play out? Are the nobodies really as important as the bigwigs and high rollers? While God certainly can use both, it seems like He uses the low people and the “foolish things of the world” to accomplish His work more than the wise and powerful.[1 Cor 1:27-29, James 2:1-5] So, in treating the passed-over people with dignity and respect, we may be closer to working in God’s plans than we are when working with the great and mighty.

Consider that the first disciples called by Jesus were not religious teachers, law experts, or powerful princes. They were only simple fisherman, but notice how God used this fact, as people hearing Peter’s speech were amazed that these weren’t “learned men”.[Acts 4:13]  What they were was honest, humble men, able to report exactly what they saw and heard of the events of Jesus’ ministry on Earth.[Acts 4:19-20] And that’s exactly what was needed of those first disciples – honest eyewitnesses to tell the story. God later used the exact opposite of those rough and tumble fishermen when He selected Saul of Tarsus to be His ambassador. Saul was a Pharisee, the cream of the crop in devotion to the Jewish Law, with a familial and educational pedigree to match. [Acts 22:3, 26:4-5, Phil 3:4-6] Yet his stature and accomplishments blinded him to seeing God’s witness, and ironically, he persecuted the people (Christians) that had found the fulfillment of the Jewish Law he so zealously followed. God had to bring him low before He could build Saul the Pharisee into Paul the Apostle. Once that happened, however, God used Paul’s understanding of the Jewish Law and prophecies to explain His plan of salvation via rich, deep theological treatises like Paul’s letter to the Romans, among others. Paul counted all his previous accomplishments as insignificant compared to the knowledge of Christ.[Phil 3:7-8] Each type of person God called had their purpose, but all needed humility before they could be used to full effect. In fact, God’s entire plan of salvation for the human race wasn’t brought about via the juggernaut of the Roman empire (although He used them to enable the quick spread of His truth when the time came). Nor was it accomplished by Alexander the Great, or any other “great” rulers. Instead, His plan revolved around a small nation, a small tribe, and a nondescript family from a small town, all to bring forth a Savior who would change everything! Indeed, in God’s economy, He chooses to exhibit His power and accomplish His goals specifically through our weakness [2 Cor 12:9], that it may be evident to whom the credit is due.

This inherent value of all people, no matter their position in life, has had significant implications for every Christian. How God values people is how we should value people. Consider the long history of Christians reaching out to those neglected and rejected by the rest of society. Christians started (as in, originated) charitable hospitals in the 4th century to minister to any of the sick at a time when only certain rich or privileged citizens could get medical care.[1] They started asylums to at least try to care for the insane.[2] Christians, as a whole, have consistently opposed infanticide, child abandonment, and abortion from the beginning, recognizing the worth of these most defenseless members of society, and working at great cost to themselves to protect them.[3] They started schools to teach people to read and write wherever they went. In fact, Neil Postman points out that 17th century New England had “quite probably the highest concentration of literate males to be found anywhere in the world at that time.” Equally impressive was women’s literacy rates that far exceeded the best male literacy rates in England at the time. What caused this anomaly? Says Postman, “the religion of these Calvinist Puritans demanded that they be literate.” In addition, Postman also notes that almost all early New England towns passed laws requiring schools be established to teach reading, writing, and grammar, for the express purpose of combating the schemes of Satan.[4] The pilgrims believed that if God has graciously provided His plan in writing, it behooves us to be able to read and comprehend it. But when we read and comprehend it, we are confronted with challenges through the Bible to care for, defend, and help those who can’t take care of themselves. And I couldn’t even begin to list all the Christian charities dedicated to helping orphans, the poor, the starving, the sick, the illiterate, the refugees, the homeless, the handicapped, and on and on. But why? Are we simply “scorin’ points for the afterlife” as Weird Al Yankovich once sang?[5] On the contrary, “we love because He first loved us.”[1 John 4:19] We bless others because of how richly God has blessed us. And no, I’m not talking about that offensive, false, “prosperity gospel” that focuses on fleeting, fickle fortune.  If I lost everything in life, up to and including my life, God’s grace would still make me more blessed than all the riches of all the billionaires in the world. With that in mind, how can I not want to share whatever I do have with others, but especially the free – yet priceless! – good news of salvation through Jesus?

In the Bible, we see the gospel of Christ reaching out across all borders and divisions that typically separated people; gender, class, race, nationality, age, status, education – the invitation was open to all.[Gal 3:28, Col 3:9-11, Rom 10:11-13] In Christ, there are no castes, no untouchables, no one off-limits to reach out to. There is no minimum amount of wealth to “buy in” to heaven, no minimum (or maximum) IQ or educational knowledge to serve God, no minimum number of years invested or minimum number of good deeds required to be saved. He truly makes it so that whoever will can be saved, from the poorest beggar to the richest king, from the grade school dropout to the rocket scientist, from the sweetest child to the most hardened criminal. We all approach the cross of Christ on the same low footing. Without Christ, we are all equally guilty, and yet, all still intrinsically valuable and loved in God’s sight.


[1] Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p.155.
[2] ibid., p. 160.
[3] ibid., pp. 48-60.
[4] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, (Penguin Books, 1986), pp.31-33.
[5] Weird Al Yankovich, “Amish Paradise”, 1996, the nevertheless cleverly funny parody of “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio.

 

“Now Hiring: Evangelists”

St. Paul Preaching at Athens - by Raphael
St. Paul Preaching at Athens – by Raphael

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a trend among product vendors to label their marketing as “evangelism”. Autodesk, producer of the Revit software I use (along with I don’t know how many other programs) has “Technical Evangelist” as an actual job title. These are the people usually doing the blogs and seminars and webinars, telling us design professionals how their product will be so incredibly helpful to us in our day to day jobs. And while dictionaries may describe this type of evangelist as “someone who talks about something with great enthusiasm,”[1]  I’d like to suggest that there’s more to these companies’ choice of job titles than just their employee’s attitude. But for that, we have to look back at the origins of the word.

Now maybe you’re familiar with evangelists as preachers. Maybe you’re cynical toward Christianity because of televangelists you’ve seen on TV: maudlin, maybe a little crazy, but like clockwork when it came to asking for money. I understand. But set aside those impressions for a moment, and come back with me to a time before the word was sullied with such behavior. If we dig into the Bible, we’ll find the following statement in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church: “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved…”[2]  The noun “gospel” above is εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion) in the Greek. Likewise, the verb phrase “preached to you” (or “proclaimed” in other translations) is εὐηγγελισάμην (euēngelisamēn). Remember that in it’s transition from Greek to Latin to English, the “u” became a “v”, and you can then see the root of our word evangelist or evangelism in both of these. But the “eu” at the beginning of both of these words is why companies sometimes call their marketers evangelists: “eu” means good in Greek. The other root, ἄγγελος (aggelos) means a messenger. This is the same word we get “angel” from, for angels serve as messengers of God. Put together, an evangelist is a messenger proclaiming good news or tidings. So when a vendor sends a technical evangelist to talk to me, they’re hoping to deliver a “gospel” of sorts (i.e. good news). And if their product really does work the wonders they promise –  well then, that would be good news!  The key point is, it’s not enthusiasm, but the content of their message that (hopefully) justifies the job title. “Good news” is at the very heart of the word evangelist, by definition. If it’s not good news to the audience, then evangelist may not be the most appropriate job title. But if it really is good news for the people you’re going to, then there’s also a reason to talk about it “with great enthusiasm”.  It’s not just an act then.

Now, what of the original evangelists? Does the Christian gospel actually bring good news? Indeed! Paul’s statement above speaks of the gospel (or good news) “by which also you are saved.” Many see the news that we are all sinners, worthy of condemnation by a just and holy God as bad news – even offensive news – and stop there. But is that part really “news”? When you look at the nightly news, or read the papers or look back through history books, can you honestly say humans are not fallen creatures? In spite of all our scientific and cultural advances, overall, we excel at finding better, more efficient ways to destroy and kill. We tend to be like the classic arch-villian of comics and movies – so much potential for good, yet so often choosing evil. In our heart, in those quiet times of reflection, we recognize that something is wrong at the core of us. And no amount of cultural progress or species evolution could ever fix it. Christianity not only explains our potential for good (we were created in the image of the one truly good God), but also our actual failure to realize that potential (we have all inherited a terminal disease called sin, that is, rebellion against our good Creator). Christianity recognizes the depressing problem that we can’t “fix” ourselves no matter how hard we try, but also proclaims the rest of the story – the amazing solution that God has intervened to do what we never could! Now that’s news.

Allow me to illustrate our trying hard to be good, but still failing. I never learned to swim until high school, when I took swimming lessons. After getting chided by my coach for doing something incorrectly, I flippantly remarked, “Oh well, practice makes perfect”, at which she snapped back, “No! Perfect practice makes perfect!” She was right. Practicing swimming strokes wrong will never make you a better swimmer, no matter how sincerely or devotedly you practice. Religious devotion or trying to lead a “good life” (by whose standard, anyway?) can likewise never succeed. That’s because the standard to meet is perfection. But, as the old sayings go, “to err is human,” and “nobody’s perfect.” In every other religion, you must earn salvation. Only Christianity proclaims this supreme unfairness, that God, in the person of Jesus, perfect and without sin, would become a human like us, to offer Himself as a sacrifice in our place, taking the punishment we justly deserved, that we might be justified and acceptable before God despite our utter inability to ever “measure up.” That’s not just good news – that’s GREAT news! And with news like that, how could we not proclaim it?


[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/evangelist, accessed 8/8/2016.
[2] 1 Corinthians 15:1, NASB.