Saturday, March 26, 2011

How Error Can Help Us

Anyone who has studied the Christian heresies in the early centuries of the church is aware that the many errors that arose in the church actually helped the church to define who Jesus is. In the long run, the church was actually helped by being forced to better interpret the Bible.

A recent error (I will not call it a heresy) is called Christian Reconstruction or Theonomy. It is the notion that the OT civil laws should be adopted wholesale by all nations today. They say that only the sacrifices and feasts have been fulfilled by Jesus and are the only part of the OT Law that has been abrogated. Hence, the civil aspect of the Law is still in force and God expects us to obey it.

Most Christians disagree with this, saying that only the moral aspect of the Law is still valid today. They say that the laws that God gave to Israel were only for them though we can learn principles of wise and just government from them. I agree with this latter approach.

It is a small minority, almost a fringe element, that holds that to Theonomy but many others use Theonomic principles when it suits them. Let's take, for instance, the issue of immigration in America. We have laws restricting immigration though there is controversy both about the laws themselves and the enforcement of those laws.

Many want firmer measures to enforce those laws; others have tried to use to the OT laws to support the opposite position. They want an open door policy on immigration. The OT does say to welcome aliens and strangers and take good care of them. There was definitely an 'open immigration' policy in Israel.

So, they say, the US should adopt the same policy and let multitudes to remain in this country who have not followed legal immigration procedures. You can make this argument based in OT law, but are you willing to be consistent? Will you apply all OT laws and punishments? Are you suggesting that Theonomy is the solution to immigration but not to anything else? Do you want to stone adulterers and homosexuals? I doubt it. When Uganda recently passed harsh laws forbidding homosexual activity, Christians said that this was wrong. Some of these same Christians are supporting open borders based on OT law.

When we say 'let's examine what the Bible says about X,Y or Z' should we not have a clear understanding about why certain OT laws existed? (And let's not condescendingly attribute a lack of mental and moral development to ancient peoples.) One of the main purposes that Israel existed was to bring the revelation of the true God to the world. They did not go out and evangelize. Rather they were to welcome all to come and learn about Him.

The call of the church is to make disciples of all nations, going out into the world to preach the gospel. It is the church that has to have an open door policy, not the nation in which it resides. The most proper application of the OT law regarding immigration is towards the church and not secular governments. The purpose of the law is to propagate the knowledge of God. That is now done by the church, not the nation of Israel.

Now some will say that the NT always leans on the side of compassion rather than justice and that our laws should be compassionate. But is that the purpose of law, any law? Laws are to establish justice, not compassion. Mercy ought to be shown sometimes in the administration of the law, but the laws themselves exist to give order to a society and to punish wrongdoing. When a person enters the country illegally then he has done wrong. Expulsion is not too harsh a punishment.

Governments administer justice; the church administers mercy. We need to remember this "separation" of church and state functions. There is no contradiction between the church feeding and clothing an illegal immigrant and the government arresting and deporting the same person. Both ought to be done. It is no different from prison ministries. We go to prisons to minister to those who are suffering, though some of that suffering is caused by the government enforcing the law in their case. We do not suggest that they be let out of prison because the Bible teaches 'compassion'.

So if we want to make a case for an open immigration policy we must make it on other grounds. We must be careful not to use the OT law in a inappropriate manner. Paul warned against those who would be "teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions. But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully." (1 Timothy 1:7-8) There is a proper use of the Law. Let us use it wisely and not for merely promoting our own politics.

Monday, March 21, 2011

23 minutes with Rob Bell

Two books have recently become best-sellers in the Christian book trade, both on the subject of Hell. Most people have heard about Hell and have an opinion about it. Upon reading this post, I trust that you will have a good idea of my own view on Hell. but even more you should have an idea of how I think that we should approach the subject.

The first book written was by Bill Weise and it is called "23 Minutes in Hell". It is a disturbing tale in which Mr. Weise tells of experiencing Hell for 23 minutes. He depicts Hell as a real place where people consciously suffer unspeakable horrors. He uses this testimony to get people to think seriously about Hell in the hopes that all will repent and avoid it.

The second book (which I confess I have not read) is by a pastor named Rob Bell. It is called "Love Wins". According to the reviews of this book it is an attempt by the author to bring up some troubling issues about Hell. However, since I have not read the book I will only comment generally on some of these issues.

There are a couple of ways that we can, as Christians, approach the subject of Hell, or any other Bible subject. We can study what the Bible says about it and accept it regardless of whether or not it seems right or good to us.

Or we can hope that the Bible 'really' says what we think is good and just. We may want to believe what the Bible says, but we subject the Bible to our own moral sensibilities. Then we try to make the Bible fit our own idea of what is true. That way we can say that we believe the Bible without actually submitting ourselves to it. We interpret it accordingly.

This inevitably leads to self-deception. We need to renew our minds to what the Word actually says. Some seem to be saying that the fact that God is love means that whatever the Bible says it cannot mean that good people will go to Hell. Richard Mouw, a supporter of Bell's views, says that he knew a nice rabbi who prayed for him everyday. When the rabbi died he hoped that Jesus would accept that rabbi into Heaven. I, too, hope that he made it to Heaven, but it does not seem like the man believes in Jesus as Savior. It seems (only God knows his heart) that he ultimately rejected Jesus. That is worse than any other sin one can commit. That is worse than genocide or torture or anything else a person could do. Why do we Christians take it so lightly?

I read one commentator who said that Ghandi, the peaceful liberator of India, must certainly be in heaven today. Why? Because of his good works? Has this commentator read the epistles of Paul? Good works do not earn us heaven. Only faith in Christ saves us. Ghandi,a Hindu who understood the New Testament quite well, almost certainly never committed himself to Christ.

Now that does not mean that God did not use Ghandi to free India. But it does not make him eligible for Heaven. God also used Cyrus, the Persian king, to free the Jews after the Babylonian Captivity. That would not qualify him for salvation either. God does not save people because they have done good, or even great, things. All our righteousness is as filthy rags.

You might be agreeing with me on these points though you may be thinking, 'yes, but how do we present this to others - should we threaten everyone with fire and brimstone? Should we not make the gospel attractive to others?'.

I think the Bible answer here is very simple: speak the truth in love. We cannot leave out either part. We must always minister in love, but this does not preclude stern warnings about Hell. "On some have compassion ... and others save with fear." (Jude 22) A friend of mine in college was saved while he was in youth group. I asked him what convinced him to give his heart to the Lord. He said that he did not want to go to Hell. Some would say that this is not a good motive. Jude has no problem with it at all.

I actually find that having your sins washed away in the blood of the Lamb and escaping Hell to be a very attractive gospel. It's far better than wishy-washy notions of 'generous' orthodoxy.

Final point: I think that it is counterproductive, and even dangerous, to publicly say that we are not sure that all unbelievers are going to Hell. If we are not sure, then the world will think that they can reject the gospel without consequence because God is "generous". We should not equivocate on major doctrines like Hell and let the world think that God will let them into Heaven because they do not 'deserve' Hell.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Evangelical Self-flagellation

Have you ever noticed, like I have, that evangelicals, when examining the church, seem to indulge in a bit of self-flagellation? Oh no, you say, self-flagellation is for some extreme ascetics in the Catholic Church or something, not for us who believe in salvation by faith alone! We do affirm sola gratia, all right, but we still see ourselves as sinners. I think this affects our view on the church.

Let me illustrate what I am saying. When a church grows very large and builds big buildings we have the tendency to assume that "they are all about numbers". We love to put down those who are very successful. It is assumed that the gospel is being watered down and the people are not being challenged.

Is it really right to draw this kind of a conclusion if we do not know the hearts of the leaders or the people of these congregations? Do we know for a fact that this is the case, or do we think that it must be this way for one reason or another?

It kind of reminds me of Hollywood's view of big business. A big corporation is often assumed to be successful because it is greedy, unscrupulous and even ruthless. But do these negative assumptions actually make sense? Why would others do business with those who are unscrupulous? I never did. When I ran my business I avoided the unscrupulous like the plague and so did other business people. You do business with others because of mutual benefit. Bald-faced greed will get you nowhere.

We have a prejudice against the big and successful. We Americans root for the little guy, the underdog.

Then again, we also have the opposite tendency, once again on the negative side. When we see declines in churches we assume the worst once again. It is because the ministry is not doing its job or the people do not want to commit to the truth. Once more, we should not jump to conclusions based on our general impressions. They are more often wrong than not.

I propose a measured approach to these things. First, let's not make unwarranted assumptions - either good or bad. Unless we have personal, and correct, knowledge of a situation, we should assume nothing. We need to realize that, in general, growth is a positive thing and decline is negative. But every case needs to be judged on its own merits. Churches go up and down for various reasons.

Some of those reasons are demographic. A church of largely old people is probably going to decline. A church where there is decreasing population will probably decline; a church where there is increasing population will probably increase. The Southern Baptist Convention (the largest denomination in the US) is declining. There has been speculation as to why this is the case. It might simply demographic. Southern Baptist churches are mostly in rural areas and older cities of declining population. Other churches may be growing rapidly because they are in places of growth.

I do not want anyone to think that I view the church with rose-colored glasses. I know that there are many problems in the church today. But let concentrate on helping and blessing the church we are in rather than unfairly criticize other churches we most likely know nothing about.