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).

Upon close examination of these verses in context, however, the apparent contradiction disappears. Continue reading

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.

The first time anger or wrath is ascribed to God is Exodus 4:14 when Moses was trying to beg off from his assignment.

God’s grief

If God’s wrath doesn’t explain the flood, what does?

The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth and his heart was filled with pain.

So the Lord said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth—men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air—for I am grieved I have made them. But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.—Genesis 6:5-8

God sent the flood out of grief. And why would he be grieved?

Take another look at the creation story. God made a man before the earth was fit to live on. Then he planted a garden. The man became God’s partner in creation, naming all of the beasts.

Then God made a woman, told the two of them to be fruitful and multiply, then he left. Contrary to centuries of foolish teaching, this is not a blame-the-woman story.

As soon as God left, the serpent showed up—”craftier than any of the wild animals God had made” (Genesis 3:1).

Notice. The serpent was not craftier than any of the other wild animals. The serpent was not one of them at all. The man had not named him.

The serpent’s name is Satan (Revelation 20:2). The devil comes immediately to take away the seed, God’s word (Mark 4:15). It would have been impossible to draw the man away from God after such a long and intimate relationship, but the woman was new and inexperienced.

If she had resisted the serpent’s suggestions, God’s Plan A (immediate destruction of the devil) could have gone into effect. As it was, God moved to Plan B (redeem humanity and then destroy the devil).

Fallen humanity became more and more evil. Genesis 6:4 makes cryptic reference to the Nephilim and sons of God. These appear to be fallen angelic beings (or demons) who had taken physical form and had sex with humans. In other words, the moral degradation of those days exceeds anything the world has seen since.

God decided to start over with Noah, of whom it is written that God favored him, and with his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law, of whom no such thing is recorded.

God’s mercy

Noah's ark

Noah’s Ark / Edward Hicks, 1846

God sent the flood in grief and accomplished the complete annihilation of the people of mixed human and demonic parentage. And he sent it with mercy.

  • From the time Noah was commanded to build the ark until the day the flood started was 120 years—plenty of time for anyone to repent if they were so inclined (Genesis 6:3).
  • God promised Noah a covenant—something like a contract. As with Adam in the garden, God took Noah as a partner (Genesis 6:18).
  • God told Noah to take a breeding pair of every animal on the ark with him (Genesis 6:17), but he didn’t have to round them up. They simply came to the ark at the same time Noah and his family entered (Genesis 7:8-9).
  • The flood did not begin until seven days after God closed the ark (Genesis 7:10), giving anyone so inclined one last chance to repent. The death of the body is not the end for a person. There is a second death, and that is what anyone who repents avoids.
  • After an unparalleled storm, everything on the surface of the earth was dead, but Noah and those with him on the ark were high above it, floating safely on the water.
  • Genesis 8:1 says that God remembered Noah. It’s not like he ever forgot. Whenever the Bible says that God remembers, it always implies movement toward and on behalf of whom he remembers. The word for “remember” in Hebrew combines the ideas of faithful love and timely intervention.
  • The water receded. It must have felt to Noah like it was receding painfully slowly, but after sending a dove out three times, it finally came back with an olive leaf (Genesis 8:11). The vegetation had all died, too, but it grew back to provide food for the survivors before they left the ark.
  • Noah had taken along animals to sacrifice (Genesis 7:2), and when he offered the sacrifice in worship on dry land, God promised never to curse the ground or destroy all of life again—even though he knew that Noah’s descendants would be inclined to evil from childhood (Genesis 8:21-22).
  • God established the covenant promised before Noah began his work. As a sign of the covenant, he laid down his weapon (Genesis 9:8-17).

God’s covenant with Noah

Noah's flood subsiding

The Subsiding Waters of the Deluge / Thomas Cole, 1829

The covenant adds meat to appropriate food for humans. It institutes capital punishment, which, believe it or not, is a kind of divine mercy in providing clear consequences for sin.

It also somewhat hedges the promise never to destroy all life on earth again. God promised never to cut off all life with a flood.

When human wickedness again reaches its pre-flood level, God will destroy the earth with fire. And then make a new heaven and earth, having finally finished the work of redemption and destroying the devil.

Between this covenant with Noah and the end of this world, God initiated covenants with Abraham, Moses, and the risen Jesus. The latter can cleanse people from sin and make them perfect. All God requires in return is that a person want to be cleansed and restore the intimacy with God that existed in Eden.

The sign of the covenant is the rainbow. Modern translations specifically say “rainbow,” but the original Hebrew does not. God literally said, “I will set my bow in the cloud” (Genesis 9:13).

In every other instance of the Hebrew word means the kind of bow used to shoot arrows. An instrument of killing. An instrument of war.

As a sign of the covenant with Noah, God set his weapon in the cloud. Never again will he use it against the human race.

When Jesus returns to earth to claim his final victory, his weapon will be a sword. Not a physical sword, but his word. God spoke the universe into existence. Jesus will speak final destruction of evil.

And the bow? It surrounds the very throne of God, as much a sign to him as to Noah and his descendants (Revelation 4:3; 10:1). The Greek word means only “rainbow.” It has no hint of ever being a weapon.

So God sent the flood from grief, not wrath. It killed those worthy of death, and God’s mercy shines through the entire narrative for anyone who takes the time to notice.

God’s wrath is revealed against unrighteousness and ungodliness—not against people. He is not willing that any should perish, but all come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Be assured that when the final destruction of this world comes, it, too, will be accompanied by God’s grief over those who refused to repent.

Until then, there’s still time.

Photo credits:
Construction of the Ark / Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Noah’s Ark (Hicks 1846). Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.
Subsiding Waters of the Deluge. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

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. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has struggled with those commands. Why else would David Young have written a book called Joy? Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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.

Who is this ideal woman, really? And for that matter, who is her husband? Continue reading

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).

Fire can symbolize destruction of evil, refinement of believers like gold, finishing of believers like pottery, the presence of God, the action of the Holy Spirit and much more. Continue reading

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). Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. That was Friday. On Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead.

One powerful lesson of Good Friday is that we can’t tell who’s winning and who’s losing based on what things look like at any moment. God, who sees the end from the beginning, has declared himself the winner over Satan.

He has also said that, regardless of appearances, we, his people, are more than conquerors through Christ. As the saying goes, “Read the back of the book. We win.”

  • Regardless of what’s happening to our investments?
  • Regardless of how sick and frail we might be?
  • Regardless of how strained our relationships might be?
  • Regardless of whether we achieved any of the goals we set for ourselves in our youth?

Yes. We win, because God wins. If we’re feeling whipped and beaten, well, it’s only Friday. The victory comes on Sunday.

Two criminals

Jesus was not crucified alone. In popular parlance, he was crucified between two thieves. Actually, these guys were not ordinary thieves. They were at least armed robbers. They may have also been Zealots, a sect of Jews that committed acts of terrorism against the Romans.

The way I have always heard this passage explained is that the first criminal joined the chief priests in mocking Jesus, but the second criminal was a believer and expressed faith in his kingdom. What does Scripture really say?

39 Then one of the criminals hanging there began to yell insults at Him: “Aren’t You the Messiah? Save Yourself and us!”

40 But the other answered, rebuking him: “Don’t you even fear God, since you are undergoing the same punishment? 41 We are punished justly, because we’re getting back what we deserve for the things we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!”

43 And He said to him, “I assure you: Today you will be with Me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43, HCSB)

The first was certainly heaping abuse on Jesus, but it was more scolding than mocking. Since he acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah, he was clearly a believer, but a disappointed and frustrated one.

He believed correctly that Jesus was Messiah, but he believed incorrectly that the Messiah should overpower the Romans and restore the Jewish kingdom. And here was the Messiah on the cross next to him.

There wasn’t much time left for him to get to work, to get himself and the two loyal followers on each side of him off the cross and defeat the Romans. And so the first criminal rebuked his Messiah for acting like a loser.

The second criminal rebuked the first, and then turned to Jesus and asked to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom.

It is rare in the New Testament for anyone to address Jesus by name. The disciples usually call him Master or Lord. The religious leaders rarely address him at all. I have not taken the time to investigate carefully, but in skimming through Luke, the only other person I noticed addressing him as Jesus was a demon.

But it is striking that the first criminal explicitly acknowledged Jesus as Messiah or Christ and the second one didn’t.

I have seen the suggestion that this man felt sorry for the harmless lunatic in the center and decided to spend his last moments humoring him. At the very least, then, Jesus’ answer shows that simple kindness can have a great reward.

I think it more likely, though, that both criminals were believers. The second somehow recognized that Jesus’ crucifixion was not the defeat that it appeared. He somehow knew that at the end of the story, God and his Messiah win, no matter how desperate things looked at the time.

That is extraordinary faith, to look at a man dying on a cross and see a coming king. On any view, this man’s dying moments make him a tremendous role model for us.

Which criminal are you?

Crucifixion by Hans von Tübingen showing the good thief on the right side of Christ, and the impenitent thief on the left side of Christ with a devil.

Crucifixion by Hans von Tübingen showing the good thief on the right side of Christ, and the impenitent thief on the left side of Christ with a devil.

But I want to turn back to the first criminal, because I see in him how we all too often act ourselves.

How many times have you said or heard people say something like,

  • I tried prayer, and it doesn’t work.
  • I prayed when my mom got sick. Lots of people prayed, but she died anyway.
  • How could a loving God let that child die?
    • or allow cancer to exist?
    • or allow earthquakes and floods to harm so many people?

How many of people who complain like that are Christians? Many, if not most. Many of the rest are ex-Christians, having allowed accusations like that to turn them away from faith.

The first criminal acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, but his attention was focused on his own needs and his own conception of what the Messiah should do.

When his Messiah failed to meet his needs his way and in his time, he became bitter and critical. We have probably all done that from time to time, and we certainly know others who have.

But here’s the problem. That’s a question to ask on Friday. The first criminal did not realize that Sunday would bring his Messiah’s great victory. Every Christian since then has known for sure.

How long must Friday’s questions make us forget the inevitability of Sunday’s victory?

Photo credits:
Resurrection / Coypel. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.
Crucifixion / Tübingen. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

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. The chapter begins with the commandment that Christians with strong faith should accept those with weak faith.

Who is the person with weak faith? The one with scruples. The one who suspects that something might be wrong without any clear scriptural prohibition.

That may come as a surprise, but it shouldn’t. Let’s take the example of two of the notorious “biggies” that everyone thinks of regarding sin: whom you sleep with and what you drink.

The New Testament forbids sexual immorality in many ways and many passages. Moral sex takes place between two people of the opposite sex who are married to each other. Everything else is sinful.

But regarding drink, the Bible prohibits drunkenness, but never forbids any particular beverages. According to Paul’s definition of strong and weak faith, the person who can drink anything in due moderation without a qualm has strong faith. The person who honors some list of forbidden beverages has weak faith.

On further examination, however, the whole issues is more nuanced. It might help to look at Paul’s example in Romans 14 and a possible modern parallel.

Meat sacrificed to idols

pagan sacrifice

Example of a pagan sacrifice: Marcus Aurelius and members of the Imperial family offer sacrifice in gratitude for success against Germanic tribes: Bas-relief, Capitoline Museum Rome

Romans 14:2 says, “One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.” That’s not a slap at vegetarians (of which I’m sure there weren’t any in Paul’s society.) The verse points to a controversy modern Christians might relate to only with difficulty.

Just as the Jews offered animal sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem, so did every pagan shrine in towns and cities throughout the Roman Empire. Their priests sold whatever meat they didn’t use in their rituals. It was difficult, maybe even impossible, to know whether meat for sale had or had not been part of a pagan sacrifice.

Also, temples were sort of the restaurants of the day. Eating a social meal at a place where sacrifices were offered was a commonly accepted practice; the Christian who chose not to have anything to do with such gatherings essentially cut himself off socially from everyone but other Christians. And that makes it difficult to share faith with unbelievers.

So how careful about eating should a Christian be?

When Paul addressed the issue in 1 Corinthians 8, he commanded that love, not personal knowledge, should guide the decision. Then he laid out the following case:

  • There is only one God, and idols don’t qualify. They amount to nothing. Their priests therefore sacrifice animals to nothing. Nothing of spiritual significance happens to the meat.
  • But not all Christians know that. Some with weak faith think that food sacrificed to these inconsequential non-entities is defiled.
  • Strong Christians have freedom to eat whatever they want, but eating or not eating doesn’t bring anyone closer to God.
  • But if a weak Christian sees a strong Christian eating in an idol’s temple, he might be tempted to do the same, even though his faith isn’t strong enough for him to be sure it’s all right.
  • For the strong Christian, there isn’t anything wrong with eating the meat, but there is something wrong (unloving) with putting any kind of stumbling block in front of his weaker brother.
  • Therefore it is better to choose not to exercise freedom if it is likely to harm a fellow believer.

Paul could have just as easily pointed out that the weak Christian might also be tempted to become judgmental. We have to look to Romans 14 for his thoughts about that.

Not only is the weak Christian likely to judge anyone who doesn’t live up to his scruples, but the strong Christian is likely to judge the weak Christian for his weakness.

That having scruples means being spiritually weak is the clear and obvious meaning of the text But it’s amazing to me the number of Christians with a long list of legalistic prohibitions who argue with it. They think they’re the strong ones. Unfortunately, it’s easier to be unloving than loving in discussing the point.

Yoga

Yoga at a gym

Yoga at a gym

I just finished reading a magazine article that warns Christians against practicing yoga. After all, yoga is an integral part of the Hindu religion.

The Hindus have a saying, “There is no yoga without Hinduism and no Hinduism without yoga.” Hindu yogis themselves flatly assert that there is no such thing as Christian yoga.

But just as in the case of the meat, the issue is not as simple beneath the surface. Now for full disclosure, I occasionally attend a Cyntergy™ class at my gym. It is a blend of yoga postures and Pilates. I have never been to a dedicated yoga class, but I would willingly attend one that isn’t overtly Hindu.

Among my small collection of exercise DVDs is one called Praise Moves: The Christian Alternative to Yoga by Laurette Willis. In her introductory comments she tells the story of her own involvement with yoga and her realization that its spiritual aspects were preventing her from getting much spiritual benefit from her church.

Willis began to experience the fullness of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ only after she gave up yoga. She didn’t want to lose the exercise benefits, so she invented an alternative.

At one point she stresses that none of the moves are yoga, but they might look like it. After all, there are only so many postures that the human body can beneficially take. But I recognize not only postures, but entire sequences of postures from my Cyntergy™ class. Willis just has different names for them and combines them with Scripture.

I wrote earlier about athests embracing a godless religion. They go through all the motions, but get no substantial spiritual benefit (or harm, depending on their viewpoint) from it.

Willis and the man who wrote the article were both involved in yoga as a spiritual discipline, including the study of chakras and what all else. For them and anyone else who have experience Hindu spirituality through yoga, yoga is spiritually dangerous. It can easily suck them back in. They are weakened by their past, and returning to anything that goes by the name “yoga” would be sin for them.

But since there are only so many postures the human body can take, the postures themselves have no more spiritual significance for a strong Christian than eating in an idol’s temple had for Paul.

It might be very true that there is no Hinduism without yoga and no yoga without Hinduism. But it is certainly possible to exercise using yoga postures without Hinduism. Technically, it’s not doing yoga, but it’s easier to call it yoga than talk around it.

A strong Christian can take classes that use yoga postures, learn their standard yoga names like “down dog,” and experience no more spiritual consequences than an atheist’s “prayers.” Provided, of course, that the instructor isn’t teaching Hinduism along with the moves and poses.

The issues of meat sacrificed to idols and yoga are the same. The strong Christian has freedom to partake. For the weak Christian, partaking is sin. And the strong Christian must be mindful not to put any kind of stumbling block before weak Christians. Let all thoughts, words, and deeds about the matter be done in love.

Photo credits:
Sin. Some rights reserved by Corey Balazowich.
Marcus Aurelius sacrifice relief. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Yoga at a gym. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.