Star Trek and my rejection of Calvin

uss_wells

Star Trek and the Prime Directive

I’m an avid Star Trek fan. I have probably seen almost every episode of each series in the franchise, and all the films so far except for maybe two. One of the major themes that occurs in ST is the Prime Directive, the overarching law made by the federation that no ships encountering a more primitive civilisation shall intervene or interfere with their culture in any way. Later on, we were introduced to the timeships, which came from a future federation, covered by a temporal Prime Directive, which forbade them from interfering in a timeline by changing events, which would affect the future. This is a recurring theme in science fiction, since the possibility of travelling back in time always carries consequences for the future. The very appearance of timeships from the future surely poses problems for the temporal Prime Directive, since who knows what that might change, considering all the possible variables present. To be able to predict accurately, one would need to know everything that was going to happen, forever. This is impossible… unless you’re God. Yeah, only God would have the ability to ‘alter a timeline’. Hold that thought…

Calvinism

117629-004-9f92c82fI was introduced to the basic doctrinal argument/ debate of Calvinism v. Arminianism in Bible College: Laying aside the complexities and details, to boil this down, Calvinism is the belief that salvation is entirely down to the work and choice of God (predestination) and has nothing to do with any decision or effort on our part, since we are all incapable of saving ourselves from our inevitable all-encompassing sin, and salvation is set in stone and unalterable, whereas Arminianism is the belief that we can choose to follow Christ and then choose to stop following him. Coming from a pentecostal evangelical fold that is avidly Calvinist, I was already immersed in that theological perspective enough, and perusing over his doctrine I came to admire and respect it as a wonderfully concise and ordered theology that draws perfect little pictures from scripture; it is very easy to argue scripturally, and very hard to refute. I have never read his Institutes – they’re quite extensive – but they have been boiled down and explained so precisely by his followers, there is little need to, except for his most devoted disciples. However… there were bits of it I was never comfortable with, and I sought to marry the two views, while still describing myself as in the Calvinist camp, due to the enormous amount of supporting scripture in the New Testament.

My main objections were twofold, with a third growing on me over time:

1. ‘double predestination’

Once you adopt the belief that God has chosen his ‘elect’ and that this was done ‘before the foundation of the world’ then you have to agree with double predestination i.e. if God has chosen some to be his elected inheritors of his kingdom of heaven, then that means he has also chosen all the others to be eternally lost/ punished/ burning in hell. The moral compass we all have must scream at us that double predestination is unjust! If your father said to you that your brother would inherit his whole will but you would get nothing, and that he had decided this even before both of you were born, would you not be insensed at such a ridiculous decision? The standard answer to this was always that we were not to question God’s ways, decisions or ‘wisdom’ but this dismisses that natural inbuilt sense of right and wrong we have all been given, by God! Had I been told this doctrine before my conversion, I would have concluded that the Christians’ God was a total jerk and had obviously not elected me! I would have refused to even wish to follow such a ‘loving creator’.

2. MY choice

The clear recall I had of the process I underwent myself when I chose to follow Jesus was something I just had to raise each time I was presented with the ‘clear’ scriptures of Calvinism. It had to be rewritten in my memory as something that God had done: this was ‘irresistible grace’ (one of the key points of Calvinism), and I could have done nothing to avert that moment in time or stop it happening, when I made the decision God called me. Each time, though, I felt like I was in a science fiction story as a robot that had never been aware that he was not a human!

I even wondered at times why we were singing “I have decided to follow Jesus…”!!

3. Hyper-Calvinism

In time, I came to the realisation that so often, Calvinists fall into the trap of hyper-Calvinism, as if it isn’t possible to be a ‘moderate’ Calvinist, and one will always end up believing that not just our decision the moment of salvation, but every single event that occurs, and every action we take, is predestined to happen too. Me sitting here typing this has been ordained by God to happen! This takes the robot analogy to an extreme, since every part of our lives has been pre-programmed by an inventor and/or code-writer.

If all this is the case, then why do we bother at all with anything? Once this has become ingrained, certain beliefs and behaviours may follow in some cases, such as;

  • Pharisaism and a superior attitude that ‘we are God’s chosen ones’
  • a belief that moral behaviour is not important since salvation is set in stone anyway
  • preachers who believe that no appeal to others to come and follow Jesus is needed, since ‘his elect will be drawn by the Holy Spirit anyway’
  • the church need not be concerned with society’s problems since this is God’s will and has been ordained by God to happen to a world that has fallen from him – when you add in the prevalent belief that we are in the last days, then no desire to change society for the better can be stirred. Why waste energy trying to bail more water out of a sinking ship?

Any objections I raised that cast doubt on the Calvinist position was routinely shot down. It was as if questioning Calvin was equivalent to doubting scripture! “Is it not possible that God’s ‘election’ of us is based on his omniscience and knowing who will choose to follow Jesus?” was refuted with a clear “No, God the Father is the one who makes all the decisions and chooses whom he will save, from before time began!”

This unwavering adherence to reading scripture in such an unquestioning way has led to some tragic situations, like I blogged on before. However, as with many dogmatic positions, it favours certain parts of scripture over others, though adherents would never wish to admit to this. Just a few verses, off the top of my head, that appear to undermine predestination:

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1Tim. 4:16)

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. (Heb. 10:36)

You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matt. 10:22)

Trying to fit this into the perfect picture of God selecting us before we were even born creates a lot of tight hoops to jump through. Or you can just ignore the hoops as insignificant (which is impossible for fundamentalist inerrantists!)

Quantum theology

I have long tried to present theology as similar to our quantum universe. Without going into the intricacies of quantum mechanics/ physics, let’s just say that it is now known that certain things in the micro-particle world defy logic and present clear evidence for two truths/ facts to co-exist in our universe, at the same time. For me, the apparent ‘contradictions’ in scripture are also contained in a concise way in the mind of God, the Creator of this quantum universe (in a way that is totally illogical to mere mortals).

However, it would be better if we could find things that do fit into a logical understanding, yes? If God wishes to be revealed to us, and that we should know him, then a clearer knowledge of him in our minds must be within his will. I realised that my original idea (most likely not original to me in that nobody else ever asked it) held some weight; what if God, at the beginning of time, knowing all things that were to happen, saw me on that day in 1979, seeking him and asking for him, and decided, there and then, that he would jump ahead of me (like a time traveller going backwards to ‘fix’ a timeline) and provide that ‘irresistible grace’ for me to respond to and so give me the means and the power to be able to follow him, since he would know that alone, I could not do so, and would fail at any attempt to be a ‘faithful disciple’?

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jer. 29:13)

God looks down from heaven on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. (Ps. 53:2)

As I said, this was rejected by those who had studied Calvin: “No, God chooses us, we have no part in the process!” However, it has always struck a chord in my heart, since we know that in Eden, God clearly gave freewill to Adam and Eve; it was their choice to eat the fruit that was forbidden, and there was no high fence around the tree!

When we go to the favourite passage of Calvinism, we can analyse it quite easily:

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Rom. 8:29-30, emphasis mine)

Note those two words I highlighted: the Greek word for ‘foreknew’ is proginosko, but I don’t even need to go into any depth on that. It is used 5 times in the New Testament, and each time simply means what it translates as – ‘knowing beforehand’. The passage states first that God had foreknowledge of us, and then he predestined us! The choice was ours, but the empowering and the process is all his!

Still not with me? Confusing? This is deep theology, and trying to simplify it is an uphill task – I have gone over this a fair bit to make it easy to read, believe me. Let’s try the trusted tool of explanation for these things that Jesus used; the parable.

The Parable of the Determined Son

A father was asked by his children, what he would like for Christmas. He answered them that there was nothing specific that he’d like, except for one thing that he knew was far too expensive for them to buy him, even if they pooled all their savings, and he told them he knew that. They were to buy some smaller presents and not worry about it. The youngest child later told his older siblings that he was going to save up enough money to buy this present by going to all the neighbours and asking them to pay him for washing their cars or tidying their garden. No amount of explanation from them that he’d never earn enough would deter him.

They realised how determined their youngest was as he started putting money into his piggy bank, so they told their father. The father did not wish to dishearten the youngest by telling him to stop his quest, nor let him be disappointed, so late one night he sneaked into the boy’s room and put the amount of money needed into the piggy bank. When Christmas approached, the youngest came to his siblings and asked them to count his money with him to see if he had enough. When they added it up, they of course could not believe that it was all there!

What does this mean?

The youngest child had been the one to decide to get this present and put his heart into achieving it, but he was never going to be able to. The father saw the love and determination his son had, and provided the means for the son to be able to give his father the present he knew he wanted and that the son wished to give. If we are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” as Jesus commanded us (Mark 12:30), then this must require effort on our part, borne from love. Such love produces action from us, or it is not love (John 14:152115:101John 2:33:225:3). Yet this action cannot produce any ‘saving power’ (Eph. 2:8-9) or achieve what was accomplished by Jesus on the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18). God foresees all these actions, this determination to seek him, and intervenes to save us before we think that we must do these things to save ourselves.

To go back to Star Trek, what then is God’s Prime Directive? Freewill! The answer to the question of why he doesn’t intervene in the world more than he does, is that we know that he always left us to our own will and he will not make ‘first contact’. The ST version can be ignored once a civilisation develops warp drive and is about to embark on space travel, and so God ignores his own Prime Directive until we are the ones to seek him! For God to enter into our lives uninvited breaks that and makes a mockery of our statement that we are ‘left to our own free will’!

c-s-lewisI’m not rejecting predestination, I’m rejecting Calvin’s narrow and shortsighted interpretation of it.

I don’t accept his version, I accept what I read in my Bible.

I’m not saying that God does not ‘elect’ us to salvation by his own power, I’m saying that he doesn’t select us. Scripture teaches election, Calvin teaches selection. After all, when we elect someone, they have to stand for election in the first place!

In Calvin’s defence, though, he didn’t get to see Star Trek!

Grace be with you.free-will

Star Trek and my rejection of Calvin. (full)

uss_wells

[This is an enhanced and lengthened version of a previous blog for external publication. If you prefer a shorter version, you can read it here.]

Star Trek and the Prime Directive

I’m an avid Star Trek fan. I have probably seen almost every episode of each series in the franchise, and all the films so far except for maybe two. One of the major themes that occurs in Star Trek is the Prime Directive, the overarching law made by The Federation that no ships encountering a more primitive civilisation shall intervene or interfere with their culture in any way. Later on, we were introduced to the timeships, which came from a future federation, covered by a temporal Prime Directive, which forbade them from interfering in a timeline by changing events, which would affect the future. This is a recurring theme in science fiction, since the possibility of travelling back in time always carries consequences for the future. The very appearance of timeships from the future surely poses problems for the temporal Prime Directive, since who knows what that might change, considering all the possible variables present. To be able to predict accurately, one would need to know everything that was going to happen, forever. This is impossible… unless you’re God. Yeah, only God would have the ability to ‘alter a timeline’. Hold that thought…

Calvinism

117629-004-9f92c82fI was introduced to the basic doctrinal argument/ debate of Calvinism v. Arminianism in Bible College: Here I’m laying aside the complexities and details of all the ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ which Calvin wrote, to boil this down to the most basic debate; Calvinism is the belief that salvation is entirely down to the work and choice of God (predestination) and has nothing to do with any decision or effort on our part, since we are all incapable of saving ourselves from our inevitable all-encompassing sin, and salvation is set in stone and unalterable, whereas Arminianism is the belief that we can choose to follow Christ and then choose to stop following him. Coming from a pentecostal evangelical fold that is avidly Calvinist, I was already immersed in that theological perspective enough, and perusing over his doctrine I came to admire and respect it as a wonderfully concise and ordered theology that draws perfect little pictures from scripture; it is very easy to argue scripturally, and very hard to refute. I have never read all of his ‘Institutes’ – they’re quite extensive – but they have been boiled down and explained so precisely by his followers, there is little need to, except for his most devoted disciples. However… there were bits of it I was never comfortable with, and I sought to marry the two views, while still describing myself as in the Calvinist camp, due to the enormous amount of supporting scripture in the New Testament. What has surprised me is how much he is revered, to the point of being almost as ‘divinely inspired’ as the Holy Bible itself! There is not one school of theology that has all the truth, and certainly no theologian who has infallibility. That should be a ‘given’, yet Calvinists usually get very obtuse if you even dare to question any point that Calvin makes. How dare someone as lowly as you or I stand up to challenge him! I knew this attitude existed in a successful church I belonged to for many years – the senior pastor was not to be doubted!

My main objections were twofold, with a third growing on me over time:

1. ‘double predestination’

Once you adopt the belief that God has chosen his ‘elect’ and that this was done ‘before the foundation of the world’ then you have to agree with double predestination i.e. if God has chosen some to be his elected inheritors of his kingdom of heaven, then that means he has also chosen all the others to be eternally lost/ punished/ burning in hell. We are all endowed with a moral compass, a sense of justice, and Christians are always arguing with atheists that such a moral compass has to have been instilled in us by a divine creator, or else we would have rampant moral relativism, with no agreed sense of right and wrong within any society. Having this moral compass must scream at us that double predestination is unjust! If your father said to you that your brother would inherit his whole will but you would get nothing, and that he had decided this even before both of you were born, would you not be insensed at such a ridiculous decision? No factor in your (yet to be lived!) life, character or behaviour (or of your brother) would have any bearing on the outcome! You’d wonder why you should have bothered being any sort of good or obedient son at any time, wouldn’t you? The standard answer to this was always that we were not to question God’s ways, decisions or ‘wisdom’ but this dismisses the natural inbuilt sense of right and wrong we have all been given, by God! Had I been told this doctrine before my conversion, I would have concluded that the Christians’ God was a total jerk and had obviously not elected me! I would have refused to even wish to follow such a ‘loving creator’. The problem I see is that many who blindly accept this are safely cocooned in a subculture of fellow believers where their ‘picture’ of God is easy to like and acquiesce to, since God ‘smiles’ on them (and has smiled since the beginning!). It does not produce a very pleasing picture of God to those outside the scope of that smile… but then again, if ‘God has not chosen to smile on them, then so be it’ – my soul cannot help but scream out against that portrayal of my Lord and Saviour.

2. MY choice

The clear recall I had of the process I underwent myself when I chose to follow Jesus was something I just had to raise each time I was presented with the clear scriptures of Calvinism. It had to be rewritten in my memory as something that God had done: this was ‘irresistible grace’, and I could have done nothing to avert that moment in time or stop it happening, when I made the decision God called me. Each time, though, I felt like I was in a science fiction story as a robot that had never been aware that he was not a human!

I even wondered at times why we were singing “I have decided to follow Jesus…”!!

3. Hyper-Calvinism

In time, I came to the realisation that so often, Calvinists fall into the trap of Hyper-Calvinism, as if it isn’t possible to be a ‘moderate’ Calvinist, and one will always end up believing that not just our decision the moment of salvation, but every single event that occurs, and every action we take, is predestined to happen too. Me sitting here typing this has been ordained by God to happen! This takes the robot analogy to an extreme, since every part of our lives has been pre-programmed by an inventor and/or code-writer. Have you seen those scary sci-fi movies from the 70s and 80s where the protagonist in the story only finds out at the end that either they, or everyone around them, has been a programmed machine all along?

If all this is the case, then why do we bother at all with anything? Once this has become ingrained, certain beliefs and behaviours may follow in some cases, such as;

  • Pharisaism and a superior attitude that ‘we are God’s chosen ones’
  • a belief that moral behaviour is not important since salvation is set in stone anyway (though I have never encountered this belief personally, it would seem to have been something Paul had to address (Rom. 6:1) )
  • preachers who believe that no appeal to others to come and follow Jesus is needed, since ‘his elect will be drawn by the Holy Spirit anyway’
  • the church need not be concerned with society’s problems since this is God’s will and has been ordained by God to happen to a world that has fallen from him – when you add in the prevalent belief that we are in the last days, then no desire to change society for the better can be stirred. Why waste energy trying to bail more water out of a sinking ship? (This has also led to some families ‘home-schooling’ their children but with zero education since they see it as unnecessary in a world just about to be overthrown/ redeemed!!)

The Hyper-Calvinist position is surely self-defeating in preaching the gospel to God’s creation! When I was a good little smart atheist (before I decided to become a Jesus follower at 14), I argued with the Christians in my school, throwing up all the philosophical quandaries I knew they hated. A favourite was “if your God is so good and just, why does he allow so much suffering in the world?” This was especially good to use when we had just heard news of some atrocity somewhere, or heard how a little toddler had been beaten to death by their own parents! The answer was always ‘freewill’ – God gave man free will to do as he wished, in Eden, and did not interfere with man’s choice to ‘go his own way’. So all the suffering in the world is down to us, and ‘original sin’, and our foolish desire to continue ‘walking away from God’. However, once you encounter this hyper version of the Calvinist, you have to throw your hands up in horror as you realise that they are rejecting freewill and stating that every event in history is preordained… so that toddler who suffered was because ‘God ordained it’!!! YES!! If I am ‘blind’ to see this ‘scriptural truth’ I am happier to not be as blind as them!

Any objections I raised that cast doubt on the Calvinist position was routinely shot down. It was as if questioning Calvin was equivalent to doubting scripture! “Is it not possible that God’s ‘election’ of us is based on his omniscience and knowing who will choose to follow Jesus?” was refuted with a clear “no, God the Father is the one who makes all the decisions and chooses whom he will save, from before time began!”

This unwavering adherence to reading scripture in such an unquestioning way has led to some tragic situations, like I blogged on before. However, as with many dogmatic positions, it favours certain parts of scripture over others, though adherents would never wish to admit to this. Just a few verses, off the top of my head, that appear to undermine predestination:

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1Tim. 4:16)

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. (Heb. 10:36)

You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matt. 10:22)

Trying to fit this into the perfect picture of God selecting us before we were even born creates a lot of tight hoops to jump through. Or you can just ignore the hoops as insignificant (which is practically impossible for fundamentalist inerrantists!)

Quantum theology

I have long tried to present theology as similar to our quantum universe. Without going into the intricacies of quantum mechanics/ physics, let’s just say that it is now known that certain things in the micro-particle world defy logic and present clear evidence for two truths/ facts to co-exist in our universe, at the same time. For me, the apparent ‘contradictions’ in scripture are also contained in a concise way in the mind of God, the Creator of this quantum universe (in a way that is totally illogical to mere mortals).

However, it would be better if we could find things that do fit into a logical understanding, yes? If God wishes to be revealed to us, and that we should know him, then a clearer knowledge of him in our minds must be within his will. I realised that my original idea (most likely not original to me in that nobody else ever asked it) held some weight; what if God, at the beginning of time, knowing all things that were to happen, saw me on that day in 1979, seeking him and asking for him, and decided, there and then, that he would jump ahead of me (like a time traveller going backwards to ‘fix’ a timeline) and provide that ‘irresistible grace’ (one of the key points of Calvinism) for me to respond to and so give me the means and the power to be able to follow him, since he would know that on my own, in my own strength, I could not do so, and would fail at any attempt to be a ‘faithful disciple’?

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jer. 29:13)

God looks down from heaven on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. (Ps. 53:2)

As I said, this was rejected by those who had studied Calvin: “No, God chooses us, we have no part in the process!” I do know why they maintain this; they are keen to stand on the truth that it is grace from God that saves us and nothing of effort, so to admit that we make the choice might undermine Jesus’ perfect work. However, it has always struck a chord in my heart, since we know that in Eden, God clearly gave freewill to Adam and Eve; it was their choice to eat the fruit that was forbidden, and there was no high fence around the tree! My proposal was not that salvation is achieved by our effort, but by God’s empowering of an initial choice we make that we wish to turn around (repent) from the walking away and walk towards God. With no grace, that desire would come to nothing, like the alcoholic who might desire to stop drinking but find no strength to do so. The desire to become righteous will not produce righteousness, but God stepping down to meet us at that point where we turn and look back is the way he imputes righteousness upon us.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matt. 5:6)

This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. (Rom. 3:22)

When we go to the favourite passage of Calvinism, we can analyse it quite easily:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Rom. 8:28-30, emphasis mine)

Note those two words I highlighted: the Greek word for ‘foreknew’ is proginosko, but I don’t even need to go into any depth on that. It is used 5 times in the New Testament, and each time simply means what it translates as – ‘knowing beforehand’. The first line of verse 29 states first that God had foreknowledge of us, and then he predestined us! The choice was ours, but the empowering and the process is all his!

Still not with me? Confusing? This is deep theology, and trying to simplify it is an uphill task – I have gone over this a fair bit to make it easy to read, believe me. Let’s try the trusted tool of explanation for these things that Jesus used; the parable.

The Parable of the Determined Son

A father was asked by his children, two sons and a daughter, what he would like for Christmas. He answered them that there was nothing specific that he’d like, except for one thing that he knew was far too expensive for them to buy him, even if they pooled all their savings, and he told them he knew that. They were to buy some smaller presents and not worry about it. The youngest child later told his brother and sister that he was going to save up enough money to buy this present by going to all the neighbours and asking them to pay him for washing their cars or tidying their garden. No amount of explanation from the older siblings that he’d never earn enough would deter him.

They realised how determined their youngest was as he started putting money into his piggy bank, so they told their father. The father did not wish to dishearten the youngest by telling him to stop his quest, nor let him be disappointed, so late one night he sneaked into the boy’s room and put the amount of money needed into the piggy bank. When Christmas approached, the youngest came to his siblings and asked them to count his money with him to see if he had enough. When they added it up, they of course could not believe that it was all there!

What does this mean?

The youngest child had been the one to decide to get this present and put his heart into achieving it, but he was never going to be able to. The father saw the love and determination his son had, and provided the means for the son to be able to give his father the present he knew he wanted and that the son wished to give. If we are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” as Jesus commanded us (Mark 12:30), then this must require effort on our part, borne from love. Such love produces action from us, or it is not love (John 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1John 2:3; 3:22; 5:3). Yet this action cannot produce any ‘saving power’ (Eph. 2:8-9) or achieve what was accomplished by Jesus on the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18). God foresees all these actions, this determination to seek him, and intervenes to save us before we think that we must do these things to save ourselves.

To go back to Star Trek, what then is God’s Prime Directive? Freewill! The answer to the question of why he doesn’t intervene in the world more than he does, is that we know that he always left us to our own will and he will not make ‘first contact’. In Star Trek, the Prime Directive can be ignored once a civilisation develops warp drive and is about to enter space and travel at faster than light speed, and then any space-travelling civilisation can make contact (as the Vulcans did when they were the first to see Zefram Cochrane’s warp signature). So God ignores his own Prime Directive once we are the ones to seek him! For God to enter into our lives early and uninvited would break that and make a mockery of our statement that we are ‘left to our own free will’! However, the moment of our decision, seen by God from his vantage point at the beginning of time, is the moment he is able to fill our piggy bank with all the grace we need to be righteous enough to be saved.

The Calvinist can come back with a retort like the quote from Jesus’ own lips: You did not choose me, but I chose you… (John 15:16), but this must be taken in context (as always). Jesus was addressing the Twelve, the close apostles he had called to… “follow me” and in his words and prayers, he draws a distinction between his present disciples and those who are to come after (e.g. John 17:20). Even if you do take ‘you did not choose me’ to literally apply to every Christian in all eternity, you can still ask the question ‘what caused Jesus to choose this one but not that one?’ The Calvinist, in their headlong rush to destroy any vestige of belief in ‘salvation by works’, insists that it is purely the choice of God alone and our decisions have zero bearing on that. In that I see God with a hand-cranked basket of lottery balls, lifting out names as they turn and land over the rest, and God must roll up his sleeves like a magician to show ‘look, no trick!’ as he ‘proves’ to us all that there is no reason to it other than pure fortune. There has to be some mechanism by which God makes the choice, and I propose it is as I have laid out.

c-s-lewis

I’m not rejecting predestination, I’m rejecting Calvin’s narrow and shortsighted interpretation of it.

I don’t accept his version, I accept what I read. To be fair to Calvin, though, he didn’t have Star Trek.

I’m not saying that God does not ‘elect’ us to receive salvation by his own power, I’m saying that he doesn’t select us. Scripture teaches election, Calvin teaches selection, and these have a subtle distinction. After all, when we elect someone, they have to decide to stand for election in the first place!

Grace be with you.

The sin of Sodom will destroy this nation!

This is something I’ve blogged about before, specifically. The overall issue is one I repeat quite a lot since it’s one of my ‘hobby-horses’ i.e. something that people who know me might say I bang on about quite a lot. Guilty! I keep saying it because it seems that nobody wants to hear it these days. Now I feel even more sympathy for the Old Testament prophets, the weird bunch of misfits!

It should be safe for me to say that in God’s eyes, all sin is sin, and all that we might think are ‘righteous acts’ are to him, relatively, no more than ‘filthy rags’ – thank you, Isaiah! (64:6). God cannot bear sin in his presence, and so crafted the master plan of the atoning blood of Christ for all our sins to be covered so that he can no longer see them… A MASTER PLAN INDEED! Praise his holy name.

However, might it also be possible that certain sins or vices anger God more than others? He really did get very irate at that idolatry thing in the Old Testament, for instance, so might there be some things that we should avoid in order to placate his wrath against us? The way many preachers rant about certain things, you’d think there’s something in that! If it is true that God will judge now as he has done before (but in an age of grace that’s a HUGE debate!), then we would be wise to take note. Take just one example: Sodom (and Gomorrah – it’s often forgotten, poor city). Sodom is a byword right through the Bible for God’s judgment; prophets of the Old and writers of the New refer to it as an example of how God can expunge an entire city (sorry, two cities) in one act of divine retribution for their acts of disobedience – he reigned down fire from heaven upon them! In these references, there are differing approaches or contexts; idolatry is mentioned (e.g. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos & Deuteronomy 29), as is ‘sexual immorality and perversion’ (Jude). However, Ezekiel is particularly specific – as with most prophetic utterances, he is actually addressing Jerusalem, and comparing ‘her’ with her ‘sisters’, the other cities:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. Samaria did not commit half the sins you did. You have done more detestable things than they, and have made your sisters seem righteous by all these things you have done. Bear your disgrace, for you have furnished some justification for your sisters. Because your sins were more vile than theirs, they appear more righteous than you. So then, be ashamed and bear your disgrace, for you have made your sisters appear righteous.

(Ezek. 16:49-52)

So in order to be careful we do not suffer the same fate (if we truly fear it may happen), then let us enact laws and campaign for such vices to be legislated against and hinder their development. Since one of the clearest ones is greed; Ezekiel said “this was the sin…”, we need to ensure our government provides for the poor and needy, and restrains the greed of individuals. If we let them become too arrogant and unconcerned (and let’s not forget overfed i.e. gluttony), we might incur such unquenchable wrath from God.

I find it incredible that greed (and gluttony) are hardly mentioned in evangelical pulpits. Well, no, I’m not surprised – the religious right mind control police have their agendas, and they are as clear as crystal to me. There are many Biblical references to the consequences of greed, or of not looking after the poor and needy – loads, in fact, and they are very scary (look them up)! Greed is even called idolatry in the New Testament (Eph. 5:5 & Col. 3:5)! We may think that idolatry is an ‘old thing’ but it actually still pervades everything today – it is when I see people making themselves very rich from “the preaching of the gospel” that I get irate myself and think of ‘the moneychangers at the Temple’, which is the only time we read in the gospels that our Lord Jesus let his anger get physical! Divine wrath indeed!!

But take heart, Ezekiel goes on to tell us in the rest of that chapter that God will restore the fortunes of Sodom (and Samaria), once the sin of his own people has been exposed and they are contrite and repentant for the worse things that they have done (and they – sorry, we – shall be restored too), and he foretells of the new covenant he will make for us. Praise him for his grace!

Let us repent of such things, and help ‘restore Sodom’s fortunes’ by showing the way of that new covenant.

Grace be with you.

Sympathy for the Devil

Yeah, I know! The Rolling Stones beat me to that title by a lifetime! I was originally going to title this “I think Satan gets a bum deal!” but something about that didn’t feel right.

Why do I think that? Well, he gets blamed for many things that have nothing or very little to do with him!

My son came to me with a video he came across about Satanic symbolism recently found… on an energy drink can! YES! I could not help but laugh, but not at him… I’ve been ‘around the block’ and seen it all… Proctor & Gamble… The Care Bears… Cabbage Patch Dolls… SpongeBob… Harry Potter… and that’s just off the top of my head! And who of our generation could ever forget backward masking? Though I did know a guy who turned his vinyl record player backwards by hand, and he did hear a message: “You are ruining your stylus!!

[For the younger generation: vinyl records were flat disks that rotated slowly and the stylus was the needle that ‘read’ the ‘memory’ on them.]

Ozzy Osbourne: The Prince of Darkness!! Huh? Have you seen his reality show? These promotions of the ‘dark side’ and the rebellious spirit that goes with it, flipping two fingers to the ‘establishment’ is just that – promotions! Marketing promotions aimed at a demographic, usually the younger generation. And such subtle (or not so subtle) images and ideas do work in advertising or else they’d be dropped.

Satan is showing forth his power over the world by getting his wee symbols on marketed products, yeah! And real witchcraft looks exactly like JK Rowling portrayed it in Hogwarts!

If you wish to go looking for symbols, it ain’t that hard. Only today I noticed one; if you have the new Candy Crush Soda game on your phone, look down at the lower left corner on the home screen – if you’re heavily into ‘Zionist conspiracy’ you’ll latch onto that one! No, I don’t see evil in these markings any more than I could hear ‘Hail Satan’ in “tsud eht siteb eno rehtona” or any other ‘wop woo ebb wah nyek’ sounding recording that those guys kept playing until I was supposed to say “Oh, I hear it now!” just to make them go on to the next church youth group!

Where do I see evil then? Where might the influence of the Devil be found? I see it in individuals and corporations who have ludicrous amounts of money yet spend half their life trying to avoid paying tax on their fortunes (which Jesus unequivocally commanded us!). I see it in politicians who care not one jot for the poor. I hear it when Bob Geldof swears, but not in those expletives: in the incredulity he has at how little major nations are giving to help beat the scourge of ebola! I see it in the relative apathy shown by our press at atrocities in our world when there’s a better headline about The X Factor or Big Brother – it’s only when there’s little to report on celebrities or wannabes that real news takes centre stage. And I also see the evil in wanting to promote bad news above even the slightest good thing that might be happening out there. No wonder Christians today think “it’s all getting worse!”

Now there is something to address: how much of this ‘evil’ is within our churches too? How many preachers promote forms of politics or certain politicians whose record may not be squeaky clean? Right away, I find myself reflective, and is that not how we are meant to be? Recognising the sin within ourselves? If I’m brutally honest, that greed that is so apparent in the billionaire is present in me too. Who would turn their nose up at inheriting a good amount of cash? The apathy that I decry is also right there when I find myself switching the TV channel over from pictures of suffering to see that comedy show.

What exactly is Satan’s role in the universe? What is his ‘job’? His aim? Is it not to ‘deceive the elect’? How did he tempt Eve in Eden? Was it not by saying that she could become greater than what God planned for her? He tempted her to take pride in herself, in her ability to decide between good and evil, and to find pleasure in being able to judge others. It is actually in that recognition of his intentions, that his aim is to get us to look at others’ sins and failings and not our own faults, that we can defeat him. If he wants us to be blind to our own limitations and our need for Jesus and his forgiveness, then surely each of us seeking to change ourselves first and foremost is the most efficient way to defeat him? I shall repeat myself again: Revival is never about them, it’s always about you!

On second thoughts… all those things that Christians love to find and point out, out in the world that show the extent of Satanic influence, all those symbols and children’s shows and pop songs, maybe they are actually his ploys! Carry on as you were…

Grace be with you.

 

P.S. Here’s a wee poem what I wrote as a younger me, many moons ago (forgive the limited blog formatting, please):

DARKNESS

When the darkness falls

The moon has gone

And the stars behind the clouds are hid,

The angel calls

My spirit on

And my anxious fears to death are bid

But will I stand

Against the tide?

Will courage fail me at the test?

Or fate demand

That flight will bide

And put my skittish soul to rest?

 

How can I know

If I’ll be strong

Before the day of judgement dawns.

Time will show

If I am wrong

To think I’m king among the pawns.

Through trying times

I’ll have to learn

To learn from every trial I face

And face my crimes,

Those crimes that churn

Within my darkest, hidden place.

 

The greatest voyage,

It is said,

Has to start with the first step.

But this wise adage

Has conveyed

A truth which in our minds has slept.

To beat the rise

Of evil

In everything I see

I must surprise

The Devil

By seeing the sin in me.

 

Shanky’s Hollow, Mourne Mountains

25/8/95

Why I hate testimonies!

This will conclude with what I have come to believe is one of the greatest faults within evangelical churches, which serves to actually undermine discipleship with Christ! In a recent discussion around two songs, both entitled ‘Take me to church’ I stated that just as I, as an imperfect individual, need to accept fair criticism, so also an imperfect church needs to do the same.

I am fairly certain I have mentioned this before in bits and pieces across all my previous blogs, but I’m just wanting to lay down something a bit more concrete. Yes, I do hate testimonies!

34 years listening to them and seldom not just wanting to fall asleep! Also getting to the point of missing our New Year’s ‘watchnight’ services because they’d be a total of four hours (with a welcome tea break, mind you) mainly full of… testimonies!

Not that I doubt the individual testimonies of my brothers and sisters! Nor that their own stories are unique and do testify to the saving grace of God. I just got tired of the same old, same old… [for those who maybe do not practice this cultural phenomenon, you are asked to speak before the church and relate what God has done in your life, how he saved you from the consequences of your sins, changed your life, provided for you, answered prayers].

Yes, they certainly can be valuable. I was even asked myself to testify for a Father’s Day service, and asked specifically to tell of how I was miraculously healed from a brain haemorrhage and stroke, and it is a story of how I faced death, spoke with God, received assurance that I’d not die in intensive care, and yes, I would see my grandchildren (first granddaughter born only two years later!).

So why and how do I find myself just hating them and dreading the next round of them? As with many religious things we participate in, they’re more cultural than scriptural  – just for example, where do our two services on Sunday come from? Testimonies that I hear tend to take on a pattern, human nature being what it is, and follow an unspoken, unwritten code and definition that people tend to fall into in order to fulfil the ‘criteria’ that make it what it is. I often hear preambles like “I’m honoured to be able to stand here and testify for my Lord Jesus” or clichés like “he died in my room instead” (which I somehow always hear as ‘room and staid’ since it might almost make as much sense to an unchurched person as the ‘proper’ one that rolls off our tongues!), or worse: “he’s now my own and personal saviour” since both ‘own’ and ‘personal’ mean the same thing, and create a redundancy, and I believe it to be a corruption of ‘my Lord and personal saviour’ and leaving out ‘Lord’ (whether intentionally or not) leads to a belief I shall come to later.

No, I end up purely anticipating a formula that sounds roughly like this:

“I’m honoured… [see above]. I was a terrible sinner. I was

a) raised in a Christian home,

or b) not raised in a Christian home but was made to go to Sunday school,

but I turned my back on all that when I grew up.

I lived a life of [insert various vices here. Common ones like smoking, drinking and going to pubs are fair enough, but feel free to add in ‘greater’ sins if applicable e.g. cheating on (or better, beating) your spouse].

I carried on in this miserable life until one day, I gave in to this guy at work/ friend from schooldays/ uncle or aunt who had been asking me incessantly about going to church with them, and I attended the gospel service. I was so moved by the message and felt God calling me. I raised my hand, said the sinner’s prayer, and now I no longer [smoke, drink, go to pubs… as applicable from above] and I’ve never looked back, even though that was x years ago. [END].”

[N.B. Add in a few clichés as noted above when describing your moment of salvation]

Many seem to almost revel in just how bad a person the testifier was before their encounter with Jesus, to the point that it can sound like a glorification of sin to me! I thought this was peculiar maybe to just my Northern Ireland culture but a bestselling book years ago was ‘Hell’s Angel’ by Brian Greenaway, an English believer who went around testifying to the violent life he lived in a chapter of bikers before becoming a Christian. He related in an interview how an old lady came to him after a service and said “oh I wish I had a testimony like yours!” Greenaway said that he felt like punching her in the face (yes, God’s grace takes time to work on some of us!). He could not believe that she’d been listening to how awful things were for him and still wish that she had experienced a similar life. There it was, a clear desire to have something terrible from which to have been ‘saved’ in order to lend kudos to one’s testimony! Heaven forbid we should have a boring one!

Yet no testimony should be boring! If we only were to recount to ourselves all the great things in which we have seen God’s work and hand in our lives, and what we have learnt along the way, it should never be mundane to listen to; that is, if we have a walk to recount…

1. I AM a sinner!

First point I wish to make about these ‘off the shelf’ testimonies is that they seem to talk about being a sinner until that day we changed and never went back to the ‘life of sin’ yet nowhere do I read of us achieving perfection this side of heaven! The righteousness we have is imputed to us through Christ’s perfection, once we accept him. We are just deemed righteous by God through Jesus. If you’re not sure what this means, look up those two words in a dictionary. It should be clear. We are all sinners and continue to be so. I have thought of my life as being suddenly changed in a flash, yes, that moment I accepted Christ as Lord and saviour, but I saw no instant change in myself. That has taken time and is still ongoing, every day, every year. Like that day 27 years ago that I made vows to my wife in love, and I became a married man, my life changed, but it has been a journey of ups and downs, good and bad, ‘for better, for worse’ with Karen that is still ongoing, and my marriage was not set down in concrete form on that wedding day. I’ve made mistakes in how I’ve treated my wife, as has she with me, as has any married person. The same applies to the Christian life, and by focussing purely on that one day and stopping your testimony there, you imply that you have been a good saint ever since. This was not my experience; I was a well-behaved boy of 14. I’d done no more than a few detentions for not doing homework, looking curiously at certain magazines we found on a disused railway, and trying to light cigarettes with my best friend without puffing on them, and thinking it was just our luck to purchase a pack that were all duds! I can safely say I have been more of a sinner since my conversion than before. Hence why I can also not sing certain songs that talk of “sinking deep in sin, sinking to rise no more” or that “my life was full of sin and confusion” – that certainly is the experience of some, but not all of us, and so these ‘expected’ testimonies become the preserve of those who can declare such a life, leaving others feeling somehow short-changed. No, I am thankful that I have no real bad past to haunt my dreams and disturb my sleep. I got enough of that conviction when I experienced Holy Spirit revival (blogged here) – again; after my conversion!

2. We cannot keep ourselves

I saw a graph for usage of gym membership over the months of a year, put up on Facebook for a laugh. Of course, January has the highest peak, decreasing over the year to maybe a short peak before the summer months (must get back into that swimsuit!). We all know why. How many New Year’s resolutions last into February, really? I decided some time ago to stop making resolutions just once in the year because our nature will always disappoint us, and not just at the expected time (we do expect to break those resolutions sometime, don’t we?). I make resolutions when needed and if I don’t keep them, I just try again. Finding that it has been a mistake to put trust in our own nature to keep to it just makes the devil on our shoulder laugh while the angel on the other shoulder commits hara-kiri in dishonour! So it is with many new converts. Too many, I fear. When doing door-to-door work in my native East Belfast, which has a church on every street corner, I lost count of the people I encountered who said “oh, I tried all that church stuff and became a Christian x years ago, but I couldn’t maintain it.” This probably outnumbered those who said their reason for turning their back on churches was ‘other Christians’ which were numerous too! It is a wonderfully simple concept that I grasped early on; that it was nothing to do with my efforts but all rested on the finished work of Calvary and it was Jesus that kept me forever, forgiving me of all my sin repented of (in fact, I memorised 1John 1:9 before my salvation!), and not up to me to keep myself; I cannot do it, but he can, praise his name. This misconception has led to many making that ‘resolution’ to follow Jesus, only to fall at some natural hurdle, and say to themselves “well, I tried it, but I couldn’t do it. It’s not for me!” In other words, it’s for ‘religious’ people, for those of us who have the resolve to live like monks in a perpetual state of piety and self-denial. This is where I take a second issue with these ‘standard’ testimonies, since they only add to this confusion and misunderstanding, by inadvertently implying that once the sinner’s prayer is said, everything is rosy and we ‘live happily ever after’ – saying “I’ve never looked back” says that to me, that the testifier has had no problems following Jesus, and so a new convert who encounters issues in their walk is likely to feel themselves inferior and unworthy of Jesus; yet we are all unworthy (Romans 5:8). Were a testifier to say that they have encountered problems and doubts in their life since following Christ, and discuss it openly, my ears would most certainly prick up! But, no, testimonies are meant to be just all positive and gushing!

3. The story isn’t over!

A major problem that is present in most Protestant churches derives from where they came from. The first protestants opposed some of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church, and the general feeling, borne from Luther’s assertion that “the just shall live by faith alone” (Galatians 3:10-12) was that Rome had imposed an ongoing dependence upon the priesthood and their administration of sacraments deemed vital to a believer’s life. This was rejected since we are believed now to all be saints, as Paul addresses all believers in his letters, and each of us capable of coming to Christ on our own, serving him in our individual lives without meeting the requirements of any church or denomination (or church leader). I can safely say that you’d be hard pressed to find a protestant church that would deny this: whatever rituals or ordinances they may require of a member would be qualified as not vital to one’s salvation or relationship with Christ. However, from this stance comes a mindset that tends to reject any attempt to state how we need to serve Christ by good works (which our salvation is not dependent upon):

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. (Eph. 2:8,9)

even though in the following verse God fully expects them from us:

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:10)

Here is the problem I alluded to at the outset:

While salvation is dependent solely on Christ’s work on the cross, this does not mean that we have absolutely nothing to do for him! We can find the extreme doctrine that we need not worry about any acts of service after that initial decision, not even praying or reading our Bible (yes!). Thankfully, most evangelical churches will reject this nonsense, and preach that we must repent from sin and live righteously, but the call to ‘live right’ simply falls into trap #2 mentioned above. It implies, yet again, that one must make an effort to avoid certain things or behaviours, or the company of ‘sinners’ (even though Jesus sought to sit, eat and drink with them!).

No, new converts must be taught that our decision to follow Jesus is exactly that: we start following him! It is that simple, even though it brings many problems and dilemmas into our lives. Note that ‘the sinner’s prayer’ is found nowhere in scripture! Just saying it does not make you a follower of Jesus; your salvation may hinge upon the decision, but your earthly life does not just come to an end as you take up your selected pew and sit out the rest, waiting for death or his return! To me, many believers look like they’ve done just this, even with their personal pew cushions to comfort their long-suffering butt! Your salvation decision is a glorious moment, never to be repeated, but it is only the start of a long and wondrous journey, with just so much to learn. And like that one leper out of the ten, should we not go back to our saviour, fall at his feet and offer thanks, and seek to know just how we can thank and serve him? We need to make him our ‘Lord and personal saviour’! Did Paul not admonish us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”? (Phil. 2:12)

Yes, I approach my life with such fear and trembling, since many times I have found myself challenged and made to feel uncomfortable. Remember when your parents scolded you for bad behaviour or a wrong attitude? A good child will feel remorse, and want to do better, and please their parents. So are we with God: let us take up our cross as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, listening intently to his words and trying to emulate him. You have problems with sin in your life? Welcome to the club! If you want a good lament on that read about Paul’s ongoing struggle in Romans 7. In that brain wrestle, he goes through the tensions that exist in churches and individual believers… surely we cannot just live an entire life of reliance upon Christ based on one event outside of our control? We must have something to live by, and this is what the law was given for, so… we must turn back to it for instruction on ‘right living’… but, that in itself held us captive to nothing but the knowledge of sin, and I find myself at war within my own spirit over this… how do I get out of it? He reaches his answer in the following chapter: we who have his Spirit within us, who experienced the change of heart at that moment and didn’t just mouth some words in a ritual, have this ‘law of Christ’ working in us, and indeed, his own work imputed to us, not just his achievement for our salvation, means that our striving is not required (not by works) but our acceptance of his perfection grants us victory:

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Rom. 10:4)

We can reject the idea that we need to religiously strive after our salvation and gain it on merit. Surely we can also refute the notion that it’s all about just one raising of a hand? Here’s my favourite word again: balance. The truth of our walk, The Way, which is actually him (John 14:6), is that beautiful middle choice of simple surrender to his will. My journey started not with a raising of a hand or a formulaic prayer, but it was a prayer, to a God I was not certain was there. His reply has never left my ears. As I complete this, I’m listening to ‘What a Friend I’ve Found’ by Delirious: “Jesus… friend forever.”

Grace be with you.

[As an aside, when I think about all the testimonies I’ve heard, another implication is that the only way to ‘win’ someone to Christ is to invite them to a gospel service. I cannot recall even one that said they found Jesus outside of this formula, yet there I was, praying for God to accept me, long before I set foot across a church door! Was I, like Paul, just one ‘abnormally born’ (1 Cor. 15:8)? Can we not witness in all areas of our life? The three people I have led to Jesus in my own life were not in such a gospel service.]

 

Conservative v. Liberal

Here are a couple of truths: Politics is a vastly complex topic. Theology is a vastly complex topic.

However, we always crave simplicity. Would that I could draw some cartoons for you! Ok, here’s ONE:

Backbiter-Poles-apart

Nice and simple point, eh? No, I didn’t draw it, but in an effort to maintain this ‘simplicity’, I shall address both topics of politics and theology through the oft-quoted terms of ‘conservative’ and liberal’…

Politics

Right-wing political viewpoints tend to value the individual above society, and play down any importance of ‘state-interference’ in one’s ‘personal affairs’. Left-wing political viewpoints seek to address problems that arise in society by legislating against unfair practices and individuals who cause disadvantage to others, valuing the role of ‘the state’ above the concerns of the individual.

One can find the extremes of these viewpoints fairly easily. North Korea is one of the last bastions of ‘the state as religion’ that must be obeyed without question, while the free-market ideas of Thatcherite and Reaganite neocons actually require a suspension of belief that ‘society’ even exists! The majority of us who reside in the middle, along a long, long sliding scale from left to right, understand that we need a balance of the rights and freedoms of the individual with the laws and controls of government upon our society for the protection of all citizens against unscrupulous entities. Such is the basis for (as I said) very complex debates and negotiations.

Applying labels such as ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ is very tricky, since it may only apply to the here and now. For example, free-market ideology was, at one point, the preserve of liberals like William Gladstone, who was the British PM four times, before the rise of Marx, Socialism and the British Labour Party, which rose to replace the Liberal Party’s place at the head of British politics. One wonders what Gladstone would think of his beliefs being adopted in the late 20th century by the party he opposed, but this serves to highlight such complexities.

Theology

These labels become even more difficult to attach in theological discussions, particularly as the political distinctions have transferred, and many use the labels (even as insults) to attempt to delineate who is speaking ‘the truth’ and who not. The common perception is that ‘conservative’ churches/ denominations/ ministers adhere to long-established doctrinal truths, while their ‘liberal’ counterparts are those who appear to embrace ‘new ideas’ and theological stances from ‘outside’ orthodox faith. This is far too simplistic. Yes, I myself have used such labels, even in my own blogs, but I know what I mean by them, so I shall outlay my distinctions:

I disagree with many, many fellow believers on many points. Note I said ‘fellow believers’ since I do not try to paint myself into my own little corner with a 50-point thesis that one must agree with to be called my ‘brother in the faith’. Theology is so gloriously complex that many viewpoints can be heard and argued, but not completely refuted. What do I stand on, then?

These two truths stand against all false theology, clearly and unequivocally:

Firstly, Jesus said

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Quite indisputable then, yes? This is not an interpretation of an apostle like Paul or a later theologian upon a debatable statement. These are the very recorded words of Jesus himself: no exceptions, he said. For me, transgressing this to include others who do not believe in him is a truly liberal stance that is errant. Therefore, many preachers who are viewed as ‘conservative’, such as John Hagee and Joel Osteen, are, in my book, liberal! Even Christian universalists (not multi-faith universalists) can be conservative by this definition. Unsure about that? Here’s an excellent blog on that which I could not better, if you’re interested:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/formerlyfundie/why-some-christians-are-universalists/

Secondly, our means of salvation are outlined in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:8,9)

The doctrine of grace was established from the start. It is by faith, not works, so the edifices of churches that came later, like the Roman Catholic church, with its insistence on the ceremonies and sacraments meted out by the church priesthood, and all those ‘legalists’, who maintain that we need to obey the Mosaic Law, seek to undermine the grace of God and Christ’s complete work of redemption through Calvary. The term ‘vicarious atonement’ which is the linchpin of the Christian faith means exactly what it says on the tin: Jesus has done it all, paid it all, so I am free from any further requirements to achieve salvation. He achieved it for me. Not sure you like that? I couldn’t care less if you don’t, it’s the gospel! The glorious, wonderful, graceful, encompassing good news that we do not need to strive to gain heaven anymore. Still not convinced? Go and read the epistle to the Galatians. And then read Romans as well, if you’re up to it.

So in my book, even the Church of Rome is liberal! Why do I feel like I’m sounding very narrow in my opinions, when in fact, I am much more accepting than most of my fellow evangelicals? Any difference in doctrine or practice that does not undermine the two points I laid out above, is not in opposition to my gospel, the one that my whole faith is built on. There are many doctrinal points I will not agree with, but those points are minor, and secondary to faith and salvation. If you find such differences to be irritating to your sense of ‘rightness’, I gracefully suggest that you look into the roots of your indignation, and ask if it comes from things you were raised to believe or that you heard from pulpits and not from any knowledge of the gospel that saved you.

If you worry that some very dubious churches do actually hold to these two points, here’s the litmus test: Do they add to them in any way? In other words, if they claim to have exclusive right to truth, they are a sect; avoid them! A true church will accept that others also have the right to claim citizenship of Jesus’ Kingdom and his salvation, and they won’t try to stop you from attending them. If a church ‘looks down their nose’ at other churches, well then there’s an attitude problem – deal with that as God leads you.

When you seek to attach these labels to viewpoints or opinions (or even people!), remember to use the theological ones, and not the political ones, which have practically nothing to do with Jesus’ message and everything to do with the culture in which you live i.e. ‘the world’!

[Now thinking that I may need to go back and revise a few of my own blogs!]

Grace be with you.

Brian Houston and Chrislam: my brief take on it.


I’m not going into a huge debate on this topic. I’m sure there’s already about ten million comments out there! What struck me when I listened to Houston was something I actually wonder has been picked up much. It comes down to my constant rant: be informed!

That applies to you too, Houston! You see, you said “way back in the Old Testament… we had Muslims…”

Point of information: Islam was founded by Muhammad in the 7th century, WAY past even the NEW Testament! A little bit of education hurts nobody, Brian!
Let me surmise that maybe, just maybe, you mean the Ishmaelites, known today as the Arabs. Yes, they were around then. They are also descendants of Abraham, but through his concubine Hagar, not his wife Sarah. Yes, they knew who Yahweh (the Great ‘I Am’) was (as did the captive Israelites in Egypt when Moses told them “‘I Am’ sent me!”). We even read in the account in Genesis 16 & 17 how it was Sarah who forced Hagar out of Abraham’s house through jealousy, but that God sought her out and commanded her to return to Abraham and made promises of blessing to her and then to Ishmael. Yahweh was known to all these peoples and their descendants, but of course, they all at various times turned away to other gods and served their own desires and agendas (including the Israelites many, many times!). So, IF you mean that, Brian, then we are in agreement; they have always really known who God is, now they all just need to come to an understanding of who exactly Jesus is.

What Muhammad did was to turn his people away from this one true God to worship yet another. We say “we worship God!” Muslims say “we worship God!” However, this does not mean the same god, as many on both sides would try to make us believe. Did this ‘same god’ who gave us his sinless Son to fulfil his whole law and redeem (and offer freely his forgiveness to) all who would come to him, then seven centuries later, decide to tell another bunch of people that they had to undergo all this religious law-keeping again in order to please him and maybe work for a chance of redemption? I think not!

Mr. Houston, we have a small problem here in Northern Ireland when we talk about you, since we have to ask if someone means “Hillsong Brian Houston, or local Brian Houston?” – we have a local Christian singer-songwriter here of the same name. Actually, I believe he’s emigrated to Nashville now but maintains links here! Point is; just because you have a namesake, this does not mean that you are him! Obviously! We need to disambiguate (distinguish which one we mean) before we talk about either you or the other Brian. So it is with ‘god’. Are you then still trying to say that both Christians and Muslims worship the same god?

IF that is what you mean, you’re talking rubbish! And you undermine everything that Jesus accomplished for me and you, since you suggest that there are other religious ways to obtain God’s mercy. Islam is a false religion! And shocker for some: so is Judaism!! As is also the attempts to take Christians back to law-keeping!

My God is nothing like this Muslim god, who demands ritual, works, religion, and a lifetime of blind devotion to a tiny hope that you might just do enough for him. My God gives generously of his grace to all who would only believe and trust him: He is generous and faithful, and loving and giving, and I am assured of his gift of eternal life. Now he simply asks such things from me as devotion, praise, prayer, seeking, working for him and his kingdom, and my regenerated heart responds to that positively. I give to God not because I fear I must, but because I know he loves me.

I shall choose to believe you were simply a bit confused about timelines and applied ‘Muslims’ anachronistically to the Ishmaelites, unless I hear you spouting heresy like this again, sir.

Grace be with you.