Tag Archives: Jesus Christ

“This Old House”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Against Such Things…”

Christopher Hitchens vs the Apostle Paul

The famous (and vocal) atheist Christopher Hitchens once wrote a book claiming that “religion poisons everything.” Is that true? Let’s work through that today.

For this topic, I’d like to narrow the scope in a couple of ways: 1) by looking at the Christian religion specifically, and 2) looking simply at some observable effects of it that Christians and atheists can perhaps agree on. Poison typically has the effect of harm, destruction, or death, so if Christianity is in that category of religions that “poison everything”, as Hitchens claimed, those effects should be readily apparent. On the other hand, if it instead redeems and heals what is already poisoned, that effect should be apparent as well. As Jesus said, we are known by our fruit [Mt 7:20, Jam 2:18].

Now, we need to start by clarifying what we mean by Christianity. I am referring specifically to the way of life characterized by sincere profession of trust in Jesus, the Son of God, as one’s Lord and Savior, and the subsequent life of living out the precepts and commands of Him and His disciples, as recorded in the Bible. For instance, if a person claims to be Christian, but is out cheating on their spouse [Heb 13:4], cheating on their taxes [Mt 22:17-21], stealing the tips off the tables in restaurants they visit [Dt 24:14-15, Jam 5:4], and running over little old ladies trying to cross the street and driving off laughing maniacally [Ex 20:13, Ro 13:9], hopefully we can all agree that person does not represent Christianity. “Poisonous” may be an apt description of that person, but we shouldn’t conclude that Christianity is poisonous based on that person’s behavior. Of course, none of us Christians represent Christ perfectly, but the point to remember is that the abuse of the term “Christian” does not negate the proper use of it. So what should we look at to judge the effects of Christianity? Let’s look at how the Bible says the Christian should live.

  • It shouldn’t be too controversial to say that murder is bad. But Jesus took the basic commands of the Mosaic law such as not murdering, and ratcheted them up quite a bit by saying that the real issue was the angry thoughts that might lead to murder Mt 5:21-22]. Jesus addressed the motivations behind evil actions [Mt15:19-20]. Do you think the number of murders or attempted murders would go down  if people didn’t get angry at each other in the first place? I should think so.
  • Jesus said the 2 greatest commands were to love God with our whole selves, and to love our neighbor as ourselves [Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18, Ga5:14, Jam 2:8]. He then went on to redefine “neighbor” in His story of the Good Samaritan as not simply those living next to us, or even those of our own tribe or group, but as anyone we extend love towards [Lk 10:25-37]. Would the world be a better place if everyone acted like good neighbors to everyone they met? I imagine so.
  • Jesus went a step further though, for the “good Samaritan” in His story hadn’t been directly hurt by the Jew he took care of. But Jesus tells us to love even our enemies, and to bless those who persecute us [Lk 6:27-28]. Would humanity living out that precept, even imperfectly, be poisonous, or be healing? It seems to me that it would be awfully hard to stay enemies with someone if both sides were committed to loving the other. And lest one think this was an isolated teaching, Jesus died forgiving the people crucifying Him [Lk 23:34]; the first Christian martyr, Stephen, mirrored that behavior as he forgave the people stoning him to death [Ac 7:60]; and the apostles Paul [Ro 12:14, 1Th 5:15] and Peter [1Pe 3:8-9] reiterated that precept to their readers years later.
  • How did Jesus say the world would recognize we are Christians? Was it by a certain style of clothing, or a certain diet, or maybe certain symbols like crosses and fish…. No, it was to be by our love [Jn 13:35] and our unity [Jn 17:20-23]. Could the world use a little more love and unity? It surely couldn’t hurt.
  • How did Paul say husbands are to love their wives? “As Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” [Eph 5:25]. Can anyone think for a minute that that kind of unconditional, self-sacrificial love would poison marriages today?
  • Peter tells his readers to expect to suffer for Christ, but to make sure their suffering isn’t simply the punishment due for bad behavior like stealing and murder [1Pe 4:15-16]. Paul tells the Ephesians [Eph 4:28] that the one who used to steal not only shouldn’t steal anymore, but should work hard so he has something to share with others in need! That sounds like the makings of model citizens to me.
  • Lastly, when Paul listed out the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – he finished by pointing out that “against such things there is no law” [Ga 5:22-23]. And that really highlights the oddity of Hitchens’ characterization of religion: things that are poisonous are usually prohibited or restricted, but the ideals of the Christian life are generally acknowledged as virtuous traits. Rather than being prohibited, these traits have historically been not only permitted, but promoted.

That’s just a sampling of the fruit of genuine Christianity, but that seems like good medicine rather than bad poison, if you ask me. Are there some false religions out there that are harmful? Certainly. Have some people claiming to be Christians also done great harm? Sure. But I would challenge anyone to show that a person actually living out the precepts of Christianity is poisoning society. Indeed, I would submit to you that Christ is the only antidote to an already-poisoned society. Don’t throw the cure out with the poison.

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.

Exceeding Expectations

The Entry into Jerusalem – Giotto, 1305

Oftentimes as an engineer, my solution to a client’s problem isn’t what they wanted to hear: a building owner (or his architect) may have a daring, grand, idealistic vision of their building that the laws of physics simply won’t permit. And so structural engineers sometimes have to be the bearers of bad news. Of course, in the long run, their building not falling down and killing them is actually pretty good news, in my humble opinion. Occasionally, clients have much more realistic expectations, and I get the opportunity to exceed those expectations. They’re hoping for a bearable solution to one problem, and I get to help solve multiple problems. Those are good times that remind me of what I love about engineering.

The Jews had a similar “down to earth” expectation of what their Messiah would be. If you’re not familiar with Church lingo, “Messiah” comes from the Hebrew word for “Anointed One”. And while many think of the word “Christ” as being part of Jesus’ name, it’s actually just the Greek word for that same title. Christ and Messiah are synonymous. Now, to be clear, it’s not so much that the Jews had low expectations, per se – they just didn’t didn’t have high enough expectations. God’s plan was so much bigger than anything they were anticipating, that many didn’t even recognize it. Even with the clarity of hindsight, many today still don’t. The Jews were looking for a bold, triumphant solution to one problem – oppression of their nation (by the Romans at that point) – while Jesus brought the bolder, but humbler, solution for the problem of all humanity. They wanted the conquering hero riding in to Jerusalem on a war horse, not the sacrificial “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”, riding in on the foal of a donkey [Jn 1:29, Mt 21:6-11]. Even Jesus’ disciples, after the resurrection, were still stuck on this idea of restoring the kingdom of Israel rather than the Kingdom of God [Act 1:6]. How sad it would be for all of us Gentiles (non-Jews) if God had given them the merely localized, national  salvation they wanted. But instead, He sent Jesus to free all who will receive Him: Jew and Greek, men and women, citizens and slaves, kings and peasants – even Americans like me! And this freedom is not some temporary thing that can be taken away by the next empire to rise up; Christians from the catacombs of ancient Rome to the prison camps of modern North Korea have experienced this freedom, even in their bondage. Rather than a divine King “dwelling” with His people like when God led the Israelites out of Egypt, we have the Holy Spirit residing in each Christian believer [1 Cor 6:19-20].

However, God’s good news of salvation can sometimes sound like bad news to our sin-plugged ears. Like the building owner or contractor who wants the project engineer to say “yes” to some requested deviation from the plans, we don’t like the idea of submission or obedience, or limitations on our supposed freedoms by God. We think, in our insecurity, that we’ll be cheated by God. And yet, He takes our “freedom” that is actually nothing more than enslavement to sin, and gives us true freedom [Jn 8:32,36]: freedom from fear of our circumstances[Ps 56:11]; freedom from the fear of death now, and ultimately from death itself [1Cor 15:54-57]; freedom to love and serve God as we simply could not do on our own [1Cor 2:14, Heb 11:6]; but most importantly, freedom to bring glory to God, which is actually what we were designed to do. As long as we run from our Creator and His solution to our problem, we will always be falling short of our true, ultimate purpose in life.

But we can trust the omniscient One who “sees the end from the beginning” [Is 46:9-10]. In spite of the temptation to think (in our arrogant finitude) that “if I were God, I would do such-and-such”, His ways really are better. I can’t really fault Israel for underestimating God: it seems pretentious to hope for as much as God has lavished on us. As Paul wrote, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” [Ro 11:33] Indeed, understanding that His perfect plan will far exceed our expectations, we can truthfully say with Paul, “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” [Eph 3:20]

Have there been times in your life where you’ve only seen how God was working in hindsight? Have you gone through bleak trials and come out on the other side knowing that the trial, though unwanted, was the best thing for you in the end? It’s been said that God desires our holiness rather than our comfort, and that getting us there may be an uncomfortable, though necessary, process. Have you gone through that molding process and, looking back, realized the wisdom of God’s ways over ours? Something to chew on this this week. 🙂

Another New Year and Still No Return of Christ

One of many predictions of Christ’s return that didn’t pan out.

As I write this, another year has passed into history, and a new year has crested the horizon. Skeptics like to point out that Christians have been saying Jesus is coming back soon – any minute now – practically since He left. “Enough already! Haven’t all these failed predictions convinced you Christians that none of this is true?” they ask. What of that? Does Christ’s not returning as He promised (yet) show Christianity to be false? Let’s work through that today.

First off, does Jesus say exactly when He’s returning? No. Predictions of exact dates are based on the all-too-fallible interpretations of mere humans. And Jesus specifically said that no man knew the day or the hour of His return [Matt 24:36,42,44], so these attempts to predict such a date are actually contrary to what Christ taught. While we are to pay attention, be prepared, and live accordingly [2Pet 3:11,14], we portray Jesus as a liar if we try to say He is returning at such-and-such a time. But why was God so vague in all the end-time references in the Bible? Why “tease” us like that? I would suggest that maybe He wanted to prepare us for what was to come, but not let our procrastinating tendency get the better of us.  What if God had actually said that Jesus would come back on March 11th of the year 4377? Honestly, I don’t think many of us would have a real sense of urgency about broadcasting the good news of salvation to those who need to hear it if we knew the deadline was thousands of years away. Meanwhile, people are dying every day separated from God. The situation has been, and continues to be, urgent, but our limited perspective blinds us to it. Given a definite date, far beyond the end of our lives, we would say it wasn’t a problem, forgetting that the task of evangelizing the world is a long-term project (humanly speaking). Simply put, we would blow it off, while the world lay in dire need of the Good News we so casually held onto.

Secondly, this ridicule of skeptics due to Christ’s delay is exactly what Peter says will happen in his 2nd letter, when he warns that mockers will come, asking where Christ’s return is, and saying that all has been the same since the beginning of creation. But Peter reminds his readers that it hasn’t really been the same since the beginning – God judged the earth once with a flood, and will judge the earth again. Third, Peter offered his readers an important reminder that I want to focus on today: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” [2Pet 3:9]

People tend to think about the Second Coming of Christ as something that can happen at any time, and should’ve already happened since it was anticipated so long ago (by human standards). OK, fine – let’s look at the alternative. What if Christ delays coming back for a million years? Or a hundred million years? Our sun has enough hydrogen to burn for several billion years, and geologically, the earth is good for several hundred million more years of supporting advanced life forms. So is there any reason He couldn’t delay a really long time from our perspective? We humans tend to have short attentions spans (Twitter, anyone? Just saying…), and we tend to think that any delay is an unreasonable delay.  But what would be the end effect of such a long delay? We Christians would have more time to evangelize the world so that in the end, the number of people that died without hearing the Gospel would be minuscule compared to the overwhelming masses of people over thousands (or millions) of years who did hear and had the opportunity to repent. For instance, imagine if He had returned in His disciples’ lifetimes, as they appeared to have been expecting. It’s estimated that only 1 out of every 360 people in the known world were committed Christians in AD 100, after the disciples had been evangelizing the world for 70 years. But that ratio has been decreasing ever since. Now, almost 2 millennia later the number is closer to 1 in 7.[1] Even in human terms, I can understand waiting 2000 years to allow those kinds of numbers of perishing people to come to Christ. While I don’t think a time would ever come when the world’s population is entirely Christian, or even majority Christian [Matt 7:13-14], I could see a time when the number of people unable to hear a gospel presentation and decide for themselves whether to accept or reject Christ approaches zero. Is that God’s plan? I don’t know, but it could explain why He tarries, “not desiring that any should perish” [v9].

As Bill Mounce says, eschatology (the study of end times) is primarily ethical. It’s not intended to provide a detailed map of future events, but rather tell us how we should live in light of what’s coming, being always ready, and working faithfully until He returns.[2] Christ’s not returning yet is not reason to doubt His eventual return, but to be grateful for His patience in allowing more people the opportunity to hear and choose wisely. It’s also a reminder for us Christians that our work is not yet done, and as long as there are still people dying without Christ, it is incumbent on us to not slack in our service of bringing them the Good News, no matter the cost. So I ask you today, to not let another year slip away unprepared to stand before Christ, for whether Christ ever returns in any of our lifetimes, we are nevertheless guaranteed an appointment before Him after our deaths [Heb 9:27]. Make sure you’re ready, and then help others do likewise.


[1] Lausanne Statistics Task Force, as cited by William Lane Craig in On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (David C Cook, Kindle Edition), Kindle Locations 2707-2708. Ratio of 1 in 7 is the estimated number of committed Christians to non-Christians, in 1989. Nominal Christians are not included in either category. If all nominal Christians were included with non-Christians (worst case), the current ratio would still only increase to 1 in 9. Such estimations are necessarily imprecise, for only God truly knows the heart, but this does, it seems, provide a lower bound on the ratio of Christians to non-Christians worldwide.
[2] Bill Mounce, in his lecture on Mark 13 in Biblical Training Institute’s Academy curriculum.

The Twin Pillars of Christmas & Easter

National Building Museum, Washington DC, 2017. Author’s photo.

As the Christmas celebrations wrapped up, a friend shared the following quote yesterday from atheist New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman:

The God of Christmas is not a God of wrath, judgment, sin, punishment, or vengeance. He is a God of love, who wants the best for people and gives of himself to bring peace, joy, and redemption. That’s a great image of a divine being. This is not a God who is waiting for you to die so he can send you into eternal torment. It is a God who is concerned for you and your world, who wants to solve your problems, heal your wounds, remove your pain, bring you joy, peace, happiness, healing, and wholeness. Can’t we keep that image with us all the time? Can’t we affirm that view of ultimate reality 52 weeks of the year instead of just a few? I myself do not believe in God. But if I did, that would be the God I would defend, promote, and proclaim. Enough of war! Enough of starvation! Enough of epidemics! Enough of pain! Enough of misery! Enough of abject loneliness! Enough of violence, hatred, narcissism, self-aggrandizement, and suffering of every kind! Give me the God of Christmas, the God of love, the God of an innocent child in a manger, who comes to bring salvation and wholeness to the world, the way it was always meant to be.”[1, emphasis mine]

I get it. We tend to like the “God of Christmas”: the God who sends Jesus to be born as one of us, the God who so loved the world that He sent His Son for us, the God who is “pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel!”[2] Unless you have some psychosis where you resent being loved, who wouldn’t want “that God”? But here’s the thing. God isn’t one-dimensional. We often complain about books and movies where the character development is shallow, and each character has one personality trait that is exaggerated to the exclusion of all others. Then, why do we want God to be equally one-dimensional? Can He not be loving and just? But justice requires the judgement that Bart resents. Can He not love us, and punish evildoers? It’s hard to complain of the “problem of evil” if you specifically reject a God who judges and punishes evil.

What I think Bart is missing is that the “God of Christmas” is necessarily the same “God of the Cross”. You can’t have the manger without the cross, or the cross without the manger; they are twin pillars  in God’s plan of redemption.  We must not forget that the birth of Christ is not really functional without the other pillar: Easter. These two events, separated by about 33 years, mark the beginning and completion of a critical phase of God’s redemption plan established before the world was even formed. If Jesus had simply materialized at the cross to be a sacrifice for our sin, he wouldn’t have lived a sinless life [2Cor 5:21, Heb 4:15] to be an unblemished sacrifice [Heb 9:14]. If Jesus had been born and lived His perfect life, only to die the familiar and final death of men, then He would’ve been a great teacher and role model, but not our redeemer bringing eternal life, and we would be no better off than before He came. We can’t have one without the other. While we may feel more comfortable with the lowly child Jesus, the incarnation through a virgin birth was the necessary beginning that must end in the crucifixion and resurrection. The purpose of Jesus becoming that “innocent child in a manger” that would satisfy Bart, was to become the sacrifice that would satisfy the wrath of God that Bart resents.

Does wrath make you uncomfortable? It should. Left to face the perfectly fair justice of God on our own, wrath is rightly ours to bear. But that doesn’t have to be our fate. For God so loved the world, that He sent His Son [Jn 3:16], not to stay a sweet lowly baby, not to merely be a good teacher, and not to be an interesting story to ponder centuries later, but to be the mediator between us and God [1Tim 2:5], to be our great High Priest [Heb 2:17-18, 7:25], to pay the price for sin that we might receive the free gift of God [Rom 3:23-24, 5:8, 6:23]! There is no dichotomy here – the  God of Christmas and the God of the Cross are one and the same. For that sweet baby came to be our ransom and take the wrath of God; and the cross and subsequent resurrection were the culmination of God’s love for us in sending Jesus to redeem us, and Jesus’s love for us in sacrificing His life for us. Christmas and Easter are both necessary pillars supporting God’s plan for our salvation. So give me that God, that is big enough to orchestrate a plan so much grander and better than anything Bart Ehrman, or me, or anyone else could ever come up with. Give me that God, who is loving and just, whose wrath is righteous, who is the only one who can be trusted with vengeance, who judges fairly and consistently, yet whose mercy and grace are unfathomable.  Give me that God, who loved me while I was His enemy, with a costly, sacrificial love, but also loves me enough to not let me stay wallowing in my sin. Rather He disciplines me, convicts me, molds me, even though it’s uncomfortable, but it’s for my own good, even when I can’t see that far.

In short, give me… the God of the Bible.


[1] Bart Ehrman’s blog, from Christmas Eve, 2017, https://ehrmanblog.org/christmas-reflection-2017, accessed 2017-12-26.
[2] Charles Wesley, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, verse 2.

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 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

 

Tis the Season… but for what?

“Carols” – Nikiphoros Lytras, 1872

As I write this, it’s almost Christmas, one of my favorite times of year! One of the things I really enjoy about it is the Christmas carols. Not that I have any singing abilities, but I still love to sing them anyway, and unlike the rest of the year, people don’t look at me like I’m crazy when I sing them in December.

However, not all songs popular at Christmas time actually have anything to do with Christmas. For Christmas is not a celebration of magical snowmen, underdog reindeer, or interior decorating. Not that there’s anything wrong with singing about Frosty, or Rudolph, or decking the halls with boughs of holly. It’s just always been a bit of a letdown for me, hearing “Christmas” songs with no Christ in them. It’s like going to a big concert and only seeing the opening act. It’s all about the headliner, and if you miss them, you basically missed the concert. Likewise, if you miss Christ, you really missed Christmas.

So what is it about the old Christmas hymns I love so much? The story. I’ve always been a stickler for wanting to know the lyrics to songs, whether I was listening to heavy metal, dance club remixes, folk music,  or anything else. And I’ve been surprised more than once at how a good beat and some catchy riffs can get a lot of people taking in, and even singing along with, some pretty disturbing, messed-up, dysfunctional songs. But lyrics matter. Garbage In, Garbage Out, as you learn in programming. But in the old Christmas hymns I find rich veins of solid gold – little mini-sermons of good, sound theology that point me to God, and remind me of the events of long ago, why they are so vitally important, and why the gospel really is “good news”. Join me for a little buffet of Christmas carol goodness.

“Hark! The herald angels sing: Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild; God and sinners reconciled.”
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel. “[1][Mt 1:23, Jn 1:14, Rom 5:11, 2 Cor 5:18-21]

Reconciliation between the perfect, holy God and us incorrigible sinners! What a staggering thought!How can this be? Not by anything we could do, but only by His mercy! I don’t know about you, but makes me want to sing out:

“Gloria in excelsis Deo”.[2][Lk 2:14]

“Glory to God in the highest” sang the angels as they announced the momentous event to the shepherds.  And indeed, this was the start of a most glorious phase of God’s plan: the Incarnation!

“Silent night! Holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight. Glories stream from heaven afar; Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour, is born! Christ, the Saviour, is born!”[3][Lk 2:11]

“Christ” is from the Greek, and means “Anointed One”, as does “Messiah” from the Hebrew. After 400 years of silence since the last prophet had brought a message from God, an angelic choir was now belting out the news. The plan known to God from all eternity was now in full effect and being revealed to us humans. The world was ready and  all the pieces were in place as Christ the Savior took center stage, in a lowly manger of all places.

“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head”[4][Lk 2:7]

So often, we look to the proud and mighty to save us. Yet Jesus, through whom all was created, and who has the only real power to save, came in utter humility. No palace would’ve been too good for the King of the universe and beyond to be born in, yet He humbled Himself to be born as the lowest of the low. Why?

“Fear not, then, said the angel, Let nothing you affright.
This day is born a Savior of a pure Virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in Him from Satan’s power and might.”[5][Lk 1:34-37, Lk 19:10, Mk 10:45]

“O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.”[6][Mt 1:6, Mk 12:35 ,Mt 1:21, 2 Tim 2:8, 1 Cor 15:19]

He did not come to heal the sick, or feed the hungry or bless the poor, even though He did all those things. But He came above all else, to pay the penalty for our sin, to ransom us from the grip of Satan, to save us and reconcile us to God, to do what no one else could do, what no amount of hard work or good behavior could ever accomplish, to give His life for ours. And His arrival was accomplished through the virgin birth, not only to break the chain of human sin, but also to provide an extraordinary, naturally impossible sign that this was a supernatural work of God. Skeptics may mock the Virgin Birth, but would it really be much of a sign of something unprecedented happening if it were possible via nature alone?

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope–the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine![7][Rom 3:10-11, Phil 2:10]

Have you ever felt depressed? Worthless? Trapped in your bad decisions, your bad habits, your shortcomings, your human frailty? Now, consider how much worth must you have for the Son of God to come live as one of us, and then, in a shocking display of sacrificial love and mercy, take the punishment we all deserved? Not that we have that worth because of anything we did. Thankfully not, for then we could surely lose that worthiness by other actions. Rather, we are image-bearers of God, and loved by Him before we even existed. This was indeed a new morning compared to all that had come before. This was a game-changer that can only result in hope, rejoicing, and worship. But was that just a one-time deal?

“How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.”[8][Acts 16:30-31]

This last carol reminds us that this is not simply a story of what happened once and is no longer applicable to you and me. Rather the gift of heaven 2000 years ago is a living gift that still can make you a “new creation” if you but receive it. More than anything you could ever give or receive this Christmas, this truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

What does the sampling above tell us? That God reached down to us to reconcile us to Him, that those who are willing may receive the gift of redemption He offers, that our souls feel their worth only in Him, that we can truly have hope, that Jesus was born King and God, but also our sacrifice, for Christmas is only a signpost pointing toward the atoning sacrifice of the cross on Good Friday and the glorious victory of Easter morning. That’s all -just the greatest news in all of human history!

As R.C. Sproul would say, “everyone’s a theologian”; the only question is whether your theology is true or false. This Christmas, set Frosty and Rudolph and Santa and the rest of the gang aside and take some time to reflect on what Christmas really means. Digging out some old Christmas hymns will put you on the right track.

Merry Christmas!


[1] “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – stanzas 1 & 2 – Charles Wesley, 1739. Baptist Hymnal (2008) #192.
[2] “Angels We Have Heard On High” – refrain, traditional French Carol, date unknown. United Methodist Hymnal (1989), #238.
[3] “Silent Night, Holy Night“, stanza 2 – Joseph Mohr, 1818. Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), #281.
[4] “Away in a Manger” – stanza 1, attributed to Martin Luther, date unknown. Baptist Hymnal (2008) #205.
[5] “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” – stanza 3, traditional English Carol, date unknown. The Hymnbook (1955), #166.
[6] “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel” – stanza 4, translated by John Mason Neale, 1851, but poem dates to 7th century. Psalter Hymnal (1987), #328.
[7] “Oh Holy Night” – stanza 1, Placide Cappeau, 1847. Baptist Hymnal (2008), #194.
[8] “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – stanza 3, Phillips Brooks, 1868. Baptist Hymnal (2008), #196.
(This was just a small sampling of great Christmas carols. Know of some more good examples? Comment with your favorites and what they mean to you!)

“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.