Justification: by grace or works?

Saint Paul

Saint Paul / Bartolomeo Montagna (1481)

Does the Bible contain contradictions? It can appear so.

Paul wrote, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28), and a few lines later, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (Romans 4:2).

James, on the other hand, wrote, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? . . . You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:21, 24).… Read the rest

Noah’s flood, God’s wrath?

construction of Noah's ark

Construction of the ark, from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

According to Romans 1:18, the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. It seems at first that Noah’s flood could be Exhibit A.

Except that a careful reading shows that nowhere in the Genesis account of the flood does “wrath,” “anger,” or any synonym occur!

The first time “anger” occurs in the King James Bible is Genesis 27:45 to describe Esau. “Wrath” first occurs is Genesis 39:19, which describes Potiphar after his wife accused Joseph of attempted rape. Abraham asked God not to be angry in Genesis 18:30 when the two were bargaining over the fate of Sodom.… Read the rest

How to rejoice when it seems unreasonable

jumping for joyChristians know that the Bible says, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) and “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

In fact, those are the texts of two popular rounds that are probably going through your head right now.

We know what the Word says. That doesn’t make it easy for us to wrap our minds around what it really means or how to do it. Sometimes, life is so miserable that there doesn’t seem to be anything to rejoice about at all.

And yet Paul, the man who wrote those words, didn’t exactly have an easy life.… Read the rest

The peril of pride in privilege or pampering: Ephraim and Manasseh

Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh (detail) / Benjamin West, 1766-68

Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh (detail) / Benjamin West, 1766-68

Perhaps nothing so starkly displays the fall more starkly than comparing the first verse in Genesis (which begins, “in the beginning”) and the last (which ends, “in a coffin in Egypt.) Unfortunately, the story gets worse from there.

Until his death, Joseph was Egypt’s prime minister and held nearly unlimited power. Lord Acton’s saying, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely” is only partly correct.

Power reveals and intensifies the level of corruption already present. Strong faith in God reduces that level substantially. If sons of godly people show themselves corrupt, it’s because they did not inherit faith.… Read the rest

Who is that virtuous wife?

woman as wisdom

Wisdom portrayed as a woman

Proverbs 31 ends with a description of a virtuous wife. More than one Christian woman has confessed a love-hate relationship with that chapter. Men have their own frustrations with it.

Here is a caricature that captures the problem: this wonderful woman possesses every virtue. She effortlessly runs the household. And a prosperous business. Everyone respects her. Her husband adores her, but he spends all his time hanging around the city gate chattering with his buddies.

Many women look at her in frustration, because some of her stellar characteristics are completely absent from their lives. Many men look at her in frustration because their own wives fall so far short of that ideal.… Read the rest

Burning but not consumed : Moses, God, and a bush

Moses and the burning bush

Moses and the burning bush / Raphael, ca. 1515

Fire appears in the Bible a lot.

  • God is like a refining fire (Malachi 3:2).
  • His word is like a fire and like a hammer that breaks the rock (Jeremiah 23:29). Three friends of Daniel spent some time in a fiery furnace.
  • Elijah called down fire on the men sent to arrest him (2 Kings 1:10, 12).
  • James and John wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans (Luke 9:54).
  • Tongues of fire appeared over 120 people in the upper room on Pentecost (Acts 2:3).
  • And during the Exodus God appeared as a pillar of fire at night (Exodus 13:21-22).
Read the rest

What’s a faithful Christian community?

Holy wisdom

Holy wisdom icon (Yaroslavl) / Russian, 17th century

Paul’s epistle to the Colossians is the only one he wrote where he hadn’t founded the church.

The church was rife with heresy, and its leader Epaphras visited Paul in prison to get some guidance. Paul addressed the epistle not to the church at Colossae, but to the saints and faithful there.

Paul’s opening prayer for the Colossian saints, and I’m sure for all Christians anywhere, was that they would “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9).

Death and triumph

Christ Enthroned : Vivarini

Christ Enthroned / Bartolomeo Vivarini (1450)

What human experience is more common than death? It happens to everyone, but nothing is more mysterious. Some of us regard it with despair, stoicism, or bewildered resignation.

Some of us have the faith to rise above all that and look past death. Wishful thinking or delusion? No. It’s the expectation of a certain triumph.

It occurs to me that there is one human experience as common as death, and that’s birth. If a child in the womb has any thoughts or feelings or expectations about birth, no one knows what they are.

Counting winners and losers on Good Friday—and Easter

The Resurrection of Christ / Noel Coypel, 1700

The Resurrection of Christ / Noel Coypel, 1700

What is winning? And what is losing? In a baseball game, it’s obvious. At the end of the game, the team with the most runs wins. The other loses. In life, the distinction is not nearly as clear cut.

This is Holy Week. On Good Friday, it looked like Jesus lost. The two thieves crucified on either side of him had different views. On Easter, it turns out Jesus, and the second thief, won.

The chief priests gloated in triumph. “You claimed to be the Christ. Well, if you’re the Christ, let’s see you come down off that cross, loser!” His friends, those who dared to show up at all, cowered at a distance.… Read the rest

Sin: Whatever Is Not of Faith

Sin

Society acts like it’s a good thing!

Lent is a time of preparation for Easter, during which Christians are encouraged to ponder their sin and their own mortality. Sin can be difficult to face. Quite apart from the fact that no one really wants to think of their own evil, it can be difficult to identify what sin is.

Despite the claims of an odd team of Christian legalists and enemies of Christianity, biblical Christianity has no list of rules or prohibitions. The Bible says, “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

That verse comes at the end of a chapter that demonstrates that something can easily be sin for some people, but not sin for others.… Read the rest