Friday, October 10, 2014

Pleasure - a Christian approach

'...but she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth'  (1 Timothy 5.6)

Christians, historically, have had a reputation for looking with disdain at pleasure.  But, is it really true that the orthodox Christian teaching is that all pleasure is sin?   No.  What has been the consistent teaching of Christians on this subject is that pleasure, particularly physical pleasure (and, to a certain extent spiritual pleasure), is that there are dangers involved in the experience.

There is a difference between recognising the hazards of pleasure and condemning pleasure. If Christian teaching was that pleasure was sinful, then we would be taught to feel guilty about it.  But that is not taught.  What is taught is that Christians should beware of the spiritual dangers involved when we feel pleasure.  For every Christian's 'old nature' can and does exploit pleasure to strengthen itself at the expense of our 'new nature'.  Even spiritual pleasure can be risky, since the sinful nature will take times when such pleasure is absent to build a case against the new nature as a 'buzz kill' and a joyless waste of time that could have been spent in 'dissipation and drunkenness'.

But the dangers of physical pleasure to the soul are more common.  In the developed world today, more physical pleasure is available than ever before.  Thus today's Christian should treat pleasure with even more caution than ever before.  If we don't then the current deplorable situation we see today among Christians will be the story of our personal life.   According to a recent survey, 50% of Christian men (and 20% of Christian women) are addicted to pornography (!) No wonder Christian divorce rates are the same, or higher, than the divorce rate among unbelievers.  Christians are falling victim to alcoholism at an alarming rate.  Obesity, and it's consequent health damage, is epidemic among Christians, far more so than among people of any other religion.  Internet and video-game addictions are robbing Christians of whole periods of their lives that they can never get back.   As St. James would put it, 'My brethren, these things ought not to be so'.

This is why Christians have historically treated pleasure as they have - because we have always had the same human tendencies to take God-given experiences of pleasure and ruin them by letting our sinful natures take over.  What St. Augustine in his writings called 'voluptuousness' is what Christians today might call 'addiction' to pleasures that make our old nature so strong and well-fed that our new natures are unnecessarily crippled as a result.

'...You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore'  (Psalm 16.11).

St. James did say, 'Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights...' (James 1.17)  Pleasure is one of those gifts.  Plenty of Scripture testifies to the fact that God has created - and Himself experiences - pleasure.  Jesus knew that people saw '...the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' (Luke 7:34).  A far larger body of devotional literature and hymns written by Christians also testifies to the positive side of pleasure.  A great Lutheran chorale has the title 'Jesus has Come and Brings Pleasure Eternal' (LSB 533 - tune: Jesus ist kommen, grund ewiger Freude).

The key to understanding the Christian view of pleasure is the distinction between Heaven and Earth. On this Earth we have pleasure - but mixed with danger.  In Heaven we shall have pleasure 'pure and free from sin's alloy' - to borrow a phrase from William Dix.  Then, in immediate and full communion with God, and His heavenly host, as Paul Gerhardt put it in his great Eastertide chorale 'Auf, Auf, Mein Herz mit Freuden!':  'He brings me to the portal that leads to bliss untold.  Whereon this rhyme immortal is found in script of gold: "who there my cross has shared, finds here a crown prepared.  Where there with Me has died shall here be glorified'.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Women 'Saved through childbearing' ?

As our dear daughter-in-law, Monica has borne a tenth grandchild for our family, my thoughts to to 1 Timothy 2.1-15 and the enigmatic phrase about women. “she will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith and love and holiness…” 

As for 'through childbearing', Lenske reminds us that the GK “dia” does not invariably mean “by means of” (“through”). It may mean “along with” (genitive of accompaniment). The “she” who is saved (given the context) is also the female sex itself, of which at least half of all Christians are members (St. Theodore of Mopsuestia says the “woman” who is “saved through childbearing” is Eve and all Christian women). 

As with all Christians, faith and love and holiness are required for a living relationship with God our Saviour. The Greek here also uses the article “the” as in “The Childbearing” that has “saved” (rehabilitated) the female sex (despite the woman being “deceived” and a “transgressor” she now is the bearer of the Christ-child. 

It is orthodox to call the Virgin Mary the “theotokos” – the “bearer” of God, whose obedience to God compensates for the disobedience of Eve. “Childbearing” includes the calling of motherhood and childrearing (Lenske) making this a very pro-life text! 

Women who bring children to baptism are living out their sanctification by applying their faith to their motherly vocation. In other words, (to paraphrase St.Paul) “A Christian woman will live out her salvation through her vocation, if in child-bearing, with faithful motherhood, characterised by love”.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Limitations of Apologetics

This past week, many have been talking about the debate between the popular evolutionist Bill Nye and the Australian creationist, Ken Ham. As his opponent used Ham's faith in the Bible against him repeatedly, words from St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 2 came to mind, My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, SO THAT YOUR FAITH MIGHT NOT REST ON MEN'S WISDOM, BUT ON GOD'S POWER'.   

With those words, St. Paul expresses something that Christian apologists should share with him, namely his embrace of the paradox that however mighty the word of God is, its use carries with it much that 'human wisdom' will consider weak and unpersuasive.

St Paul's contention is that Christian faith is not a human achievement produced by wise human reasoning, but instead a gift from God to each individual believer.  And, furthermore, to have faith is not to have been convinced by human arguments.  To have faith is to have been convinced by the mysterious power of God’s Holy Spirit, working through either his sacraments or his word.  As he put it, `This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in WORDS TAUGHT BY THE SPIRIT, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words'(vv13-14).
If people are tempted to wait for convincing  human arguments or convincing salesmanship to succeed with their minds before they believe, they may never believe.  And even if  convinced by a good sales pitch to become a Christian, what kind of faith would that be if it were merely another human argument?
The difficulty in accepting this is that, in ordinary life, we make decisions based on clever reasoning or sales pitches all the time.  Yet, St Paul did not want that kind of thing to be used to explain Christian faith.  Nor, did he want people to believe in Christ only because they bought a human argument.  He wanted them to believe because God Himself had convinced them through the power of His Word.  Only that way could God get the credit for changing people's lives.  Only that way would people credit conversion to the `power of God'.  This was St Paul's announcement to the Corinthians: That Christ had sent him to: [1Cor. 1.17] `...preach the gospel - not with words of human wisdom, LEST THE CROSS OF CHRIST BE EMPTIED OF ITS POWER'.

What St.Paul wanted his hearers to realise was that the word of God is a positive, though mysterious, force – powerful enough to work the miracle of creating and nourishing faith in the hearts of many who hear it – but not overwhelmingly convincing to every human being.

The Good News about Jesus of Nazareth, that He has made atonement for human sin by His death on a cross, and that through faith in His redeeming work, we can be forgiven and have eternal life is based on real historical events and not myth, but even writing to the generation in which the eye-witnesses were still living,  St. Paul recognised that it was - even back then - not easy for many to believe.  As he described it.  ‘Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’  ( 1 Cor. 1.22-24).

No wonder many today find that even the most skilled debaters, such as debated last week, fail to convince everyone to believe.  It is sadly inescapable that many sinful, resistant, proud, rebellious, human hearts will not be moved by God's word and judge much of what is in the Bible to be foolish.  As Jesus Himself was described as the ‘stone the builders rejected’, so the holy scriptures are vulnerable to a similar fate.  God’s eternal and almighty Son, took on such a humble form during His earthly ministry, that He was easy to despise, so is the Bible.  

And this was not a failure on  God’s part.  It was deliberate.   Please let that statement sink in for a moment.  The aspects of biblical revelation that seem foolish are not mistakes on God’s part.  He intentionally made some Bible stories hard to believe.  As. St. Paul argues in this epistle.  ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are…’ (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).  

Jesus once explained why He told difficult parables by quoting Isaiah 6.9-10, saying, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."  9 And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant,
 10 he said, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that 'seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand'  (Mark 4.9-10).

It is significant that, as one observer noted, Jesus Christ, after His resurrection, could have gone back to Pontius Pilate and made it unmistakable that He was the victor over all, even the power of Rome, but Jesus chose not to.  Instead, the risen Christ appeared so subtly that even among His own disciples, 'some doubted' (Matthew 28.17).   

God desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, but that does not mean He desires it to be easy.  It’s like a teacher in school who desires all her students to get ‘A’s and graduate with honours.  But that does not mean that that same teacher is going to make every test so easy that everyone get’s ‘A’s, nor is she going to make it impossible to fail.

In a similar way there is no contradiction between God’s desire that everyone be saved and His use of difficult things such as we find in Scripture and His love for us.

God both loves us and challenges us.  He both provides salvation for free (at His expense) and stretches us through tests of our loyalty toward Him and faith in Him.  If people fail in meeting those challenges, it is not God’s fault, but the sinner’s fault.

God does not send any test of faith that is impossible to endure.  With every temptation there is a way of escape that we might be able to be saved and to bear with things that make others abandon  God and perish.  

Sometimes we are required to honestly admit our own weaknesses before we can benefit from the strength of others.  A person faced with a great physical weakness may have a very difficult time unless he admits his weakness and looks to others who are physically stronger to help him. 

A person who is swimming in deep water with 1000 miles to go to get to land would
be foolish to refuse the help offered by a passing boat.  He would have to admit his limitations, and let himself be rescued or death by drowning would be the only outcome.

The trouble in realm of faith is that people often don't understand that their sins have placed them a 1000 miles from God.  Their guilt has spiritually bankrupt them before God.  Just being an ordinary human being places one in a most extraordinary position of weakness before God.

It is God's word, the Bible, that lights up the balance sheet and shows us the overwhelming
overdraft in our accounts.  It is God's word which lights up the waves and shows us the impossible swim that faces us without His help.

Indeed the Bible itself is the lifeline extended by God. Its message about Christ, strengthened and empowered by the Holy Spirit of God, is all we need to which to cling and we are lifted from the waves, redeemed forever and all our debts paid.
As S.Paul taught: `...the message of the cross is foolishness to those WHO ARE PERISHING, but TO US WHO ARE BEING SAVED IT IS THE POWER OF GOD'.  To the Romans he wrote: `I am not ashamed of the Good News about Christ, for IT IS THE POWER OF GOD TO SAVE THOSE WHO BELIEVE'  (Rom. 1.17).

St Paul's commitment to this message with Christ's work on the cross as its centre is what he meant when he said: `...I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified'.  

When we recognise this, then we too, with St Paul, will be determined to `...know nothing...except Jesus Christ and him crucified' -- not our own pride, not our feeble strength, not our sincerity, nor the overrated goodness of our hearts, not our salesmanship, debating skills or wise human arguments, not even our scientific evidence  -- BUT ONLY JESUS CHRIST!   `the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom' the Bible says.  May that reverent respect for God and His ways, be ours through faith in Christ's Jesus unto life everlasting. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

'sola scriptura' today

‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’  (Jesus in Matthew. 24.35, Mark 13.31 and Luke 21.33)
One of our mottos as Lutherans is ‘Sola Scriptura’ (Scripture alone). This describes how we choose to limit what we regard as God’s authoritative word to the words of the Bible.   It is a position on divine revelation that requires an explanation to our friends, neighbors and family who, as never before in our lifetime, may not only fail to understand it but may even find it offensive.
The easy part is explaining that we believe to be divine revelation what we know Jesus of Nazareth believed to be God’s word.   He was crucified to redeem us from our sins and and rose again from the dead, so He is in a unique position to know!  He believed in the authority of the writings of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms and so we believe the Old Testament is God’s word—as Jesus did (Luke 24.44)  We also believe what the apostles of Christ have written to be divinely inspired, as they themselves believed (2 Peter 1.21)  Only ’Scripture’ is ’breathed out by God’ (inspired) in this way (2 Timothy 3.15).  It is easy to assert that, as Christ and His apostles did, so we believe that the Bible we hold in our hands is the most perfect thing we human beings encounter on a daily basis.
The hard part is explaining that we treat other people’s religious impulses and insights as of lesser authority.  One might think that simply pointing out that other people ’are not Jesus’ and that the apostolic witness was unique would be self evident, but not these days.   Alien to many people’s thinking today is the apostolic willingness to ‘let God be true and every man a liar’  (Romans 3.4).
Unlike people today, the apostles did not ‘believe every spirit’  (1 John 4.1).  St. Paul went so far as to say,    ‘even if we (!) or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.   As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.   For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ  (Galatians 1.8-10).
The polite thing to do today is ‘please man’.  If someone feels divinely inspired, even if their ‘gospel’ contradicts that apostolic Gospel, we are supposed to listen and make approving noises.
Yet, with every possible sensitivity to people’s spiritual intuitions and religious feelings, we choose to say ‘no thank you’ to their new twist on God, and we should do so carefully, as St. Peter teaches, when he says, ’Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,  but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame’  (1 Peter 3.13).
It is lamentable but true that, when it comes to new religious insights, ’people ruined it’ and nobody’s spirituality can now be trusted to have the same authority as the Bible.  In all humility, ’Sola Scriptura’ is simply a Lutheran ‘self-limitation’ that we reckon will do us less harm than ‘believing every spirit’ would do.   We may be wrong to limit ourselves this way, but we have been burned in the past and we have scars.  Please understand.
We can only hope that people will be polite enough to permit us to obey God rather than men and the freedom to choose between their voices.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

“Life after death - proven”

The world is rightly fascinated by that growing body of testimony consistently coming from people who have been resuscitated after clinical death and lived to publish their experiences.  People who have come back from hell feel as though they have been given another chance by the grace of God.  People who have had heavenly experiences and been re-united with loved ones in paradise have said that death no longer frightens them since they have been there and done that.  Even the blind report being able to see during these experiences, some for the first time in their lives.   They say they never felt more alive than when they were ‘dead’.

Lutherans should have mixed reactions to this.  On the one hand, we rejoice that further evidence is available  (if more were needed) that God, heaven and hell are real and our souls do survive death and every human being does live forever, as the word of God teaches.  

We also rejoice that these things, formerly considered mere doctrines, have now been proven scientifically, since vivid experiences had by souls cannot be explained away as ‘brain activity’ when a brain has been disabled.  So writes renowned Harvard professor of brain surgery, Dr. Eban Alexander, in his best-selling book, ‘Proof of Heaven’ – having himself been a disembodied soul, his body comatose with meningitis for seven whole days.  

On the other hand, we should not take people’s experiences as anything more than ‘tours’ of the afterlife given to their souls by forces beyond their control.  Because they vary so much from person to person, little ‘objective’ data about the afterlife has accumulated as a result of these ‘tours’.

Some of these souls – particularly unbelievers - may even have been deceived during their time away from the body, much as they are deceived whilst in the body into false belief and doctrines of demons.   Testimonies from disembodied souls that contradict the Bible cannot be trusted since ‘God…does not lie’ (Titus 1.2)

Believers know that God will not let any souls ‘blow His cover’ or see what He does not want them to see.   Speaking of himself, St. Paul wrote, ‘I know that this man was caught up into paradise - whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows - and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter’. (2 Corinthians 12:3-4).  

We mortals cannot survive even clinical death without God’s permission.  Although an amazing resuscitation suggests that, with modern medical technology, we can give ourselves ‘second chances’, we really can’t.   Many resuscitations fail, and those that succeed only succeed with God’s help and approval.   

Meanwhile, we may say with St. Paul, ‘If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.  I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better’  (Philippians 1:22-23).

'Speaking of Life...'

As our nation’s president begins his second term and a new congress moves forward into 2013, pro-life Christians contemplate this year the 40th anniversary of the legalization of abortion, the supreme court decision known as ‘Roe v Wade’.

 As we lament a decision that has resulted in the tragic loss of over fifty-five million lives, our grief is further compounded by the facts that legislation overturning Roe v Wade seems less likely than ever and our tax dollars will be funding these killings more than ever - with no escape in sight. A real-time counter showing the world-wide tally of aborted children growing by the minute at

 “What can we do?” is the question. Yet we should not ask that question in despair. For the answer to that question has remained the same since the beginnings of Christianity in Roman times. We are to ‘speak the truth in love’, as St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians (Eph 4.15) and we are to ‘speak truth to power’ - an American tradition going back to the revolution that launched this nation.

 Even if we are not able to legislate the culture of life that we embrace, we can and must still preach it. We must speak of life, and let the Church of Christ prevail against the gates of hell rather than the other way round (Matthew 16.8).

 We should also note that abortion is on the retreat as a choice, despite all its political support. The latest report from the Center for Disease Control shows that abortions declined by 41,057 compared to last year, a one-year drop of nearly 5%, the largest drop recorded by the CDC in more than ten years. Moreover the report documents abortion rates and abortion ratios lower than any seen since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973.

According to CBS news, ‘The CDC says that “multiple factors are known to influence the incidence of abortion” and goes on to list several: the supply of abortionists, pro-life laws such as waiting periods, parental involvement, increased acceptance of non-marital childbearing, population shifts, the economy, and factors such as contraception impacting fertility’.

We need not give up, but should continue to speak up and speak out as people who know the true freedom from death that comes from faith in Christ Jesus our Lord.

As the secular culture promotes its culture of death, we owe it to our neighbors to to promote our culture of life; not aiming to force Christian morality on them by law, but offering our neighbor a faithful and blessed alternative to death. We can remind our neighbor that there is love and support to be found in God that provides them with a ‘choice’ they may never have considered.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Joy of Faith Exercised

'Surprised by Joy' is the title of one of C.S.Lewis' books in which he describes how his faith was exercised by the death of his wife, Joy.

Joy is not something that people naturally expect to be associated with suffering.  For Christians, however, it is different; because, when suffering affects believers, there is, in the midst of it all an exercise of faith.  And there is joy in that exertion.  It is a bitter-sweet joy, but it is a joy nevertheless.  Perhaps it is a joy that only believers can know.  It is the profession of the faithful that, if we feel joy in the midst of pain, it is because '...the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us’ (2 Corinthians 4.7).

The apostle St.Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians contains great wisdom for us as we ‘groan’ over the troubles of life. He knew all about troubles! He writes, ‘We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body’.

In these times of ease and convenience we don’t like hardship. When difficulties present themselves, rather than rise to the occasion as believers, we act like spoiled children who cannot put things in perspective and fall to pieces rather that react like people who trust God.

In our affluent world we are particularly vulnerable to reacting badly to hardship. We are challenged by the example of St. Paul, who saw hardship as part and parcel of life on earth. The outward circumstances of life in which ‘stuff happens’ combined with his own physical limitations did not deter him from praising God and seeing a divine purpose working itself out in his life, nevertheless.

We have this treasure in clay jars, so that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us’, he wrote. The weaker he felt, the more the apostle saw the strength of God and His grace being sufficient and, indeed ‘perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor. 12.9). So what, if God said no to his prayers, that the ‘thorn in his flesh’ be taken away?  He would live with it, if that was God’s will, and even ‘rejoice’ at the exercise of faith that was involved.

He offers us comfort when he writes, ‘though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands’ (2 Cor. 4.16-5.1).

Deferred glory and deferred comfort was worth celebrating for St. Paul and should be for us, too. We fix our eyes on the glory that awaits us beyond this life, just as Jesus fixed His eyes on the accomplishment of our redemption. ‘For the joy that was set before Him, He endured the cross’ (Heb. 12.2).
After all, we are all beneficiaries of the suffering of Jesus that accomplished the forgiveness of all our sin and opened the kingdom of Heaven to all believers.

As Christ is risen and has re-assumed His glory, so He promises that He goes to prepare a place for us who trust in Him, in a glorious world to come.

Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling’, and God expects us to be ok with that. The glory is coming.