Holding space

Me at my desk!

Sometimes things occur in such a sequence or a timing that I’m almost converted to hyper-Calvinism! ALMOST, but not quite!

One early morning recently I was flicking through my Facebook feed. I came across three posts from entirely different sources, in this sequence;

First, one of the many posts I have read from my friend Patrick. We were friends before Facebook, even though I’ve never met him. He lives in the US, and we were members of a Yahoo writing group, spread across the UK, Ireland, Norway, Brazil, Canada and the US. Now most of us have become Facebook friends and the group on Yahoo is hardly used. Many like to belittle ‘Facebook friendship’ and while I agree it is no substitute for ‘real friends’ whom we meet in person, I know that I have been able to experience empathic emotions of joy and sorrow for many through social media that I have not physically met. The people at the other keyboard thousands of miles away are still people!

Patrick shared a beautiful piece about love. I thought it was his own words since he is a great wordsmith, but he assured me the bulk of it was a well-known and oft-quoted piece. His addition were his words to his late husband, Thom. You see, they were together for about 13 years, but took up the chance to marry when it was legalised. Shortly after that, Thom died from a heart attack, in Patrick’s arms. His grief was tangible. I shed tears for him, real tears – they’re even returning right now; damn empathy! I know he loved Thom, and counted him as his soulmate. He is still grieving over him, after many months. Who knows how long his healing will take?

The second post I read was this truly beautiful blog. It’s short, give it a read:

PEOPLE WHO HOLD SPACE WILL HEAL THE CHURCH

The third one, which must have been posted by one of my atheist friends (yes, I do have friends of many persuasions!), was a humanist blog having a go at a Christian Facebook page (it’s short too):

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/progressivesecularhumanist/2017/06/christian-facebook-page-fights-rainbow-flag-emojis-loses/

Here was my original thought which I planned to posit as an answer to the ‘Warriors for Christ’:

Yeah, if you’re preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, you need to point out all the ramifications of it. That includes listing sins as Jesus himself warned us about, so start proclaiming warnings to the very rich; the millionaires who might wish to come and join the church. You might not be thinking about what I mean since it’s not something that is prevalent (or even counts as extant) in our peculiar wee subculture, but it was the clear warning that Jesus gave to his disciples after the ‘rich young man’ left him, unable to give up his wealth;

Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Matt. 19:23,24)

I’ve said this a lot in previous blogs, simply because I read it in scripture. Jesus said it. Greedy people are condemned right alongside the ‘sexually immoral’ and Paul even commands the Corinthian church to not have anything to do with them, and not even eat with them! (1Cor. 5:11). Yeah, I can hear all your excuses now before you even comment, so please don’t bother. If you’re adamant about following the Bible and doing what Jesus did, you’d simply want to warn rich people, because ‘in love’ you’d want to make sure they would know if they continue in their sin, Jesus has given them the sternest warning!

So before I posted this, I had to ask myself if I wanted ‘The Warriors’ to start shouting to the world about the sin of greed and excess wealth? Actually, no!

I’ve known people who have faced the gauntlet of the screaming faces as they approach an abortion clinic/ advice centre, all telling them they’re murderers. I’ve known people who have entered churches to be told by a red-faced preacher what awful sin their sexual orientation causes them to do. However, I do not know of anybody who has wealth to be challenged so openly by any church! I’m always calling for preachers to list all of the sins they can find in our holy book, cause I’m sure there are a few we all need to be told about ourselves; nobody’s perfect. In light of of all this, I have no desire for anyone, rich or poor, straight or gay, Christian, Jew, Muslim or atheist, to face a blanket condemnation as they visit any church, or encounter a Christian organisation on the internet. While I often place blame for the world’s woes on the super-rich, the real blame lies not in those people, but in the sin of greed that is prevalent in them.

So I decided not to reply to the Warriors.

One of our church leaders came across a homeless man outside the building, who was thrown out of his parents’ house when he ‘came out’ – I’ve often heard of ‘come out and get thrown out’ but here was a real example! He was gay before he came out, now he’s gay and homeless! Kudos to the parents and a high five!

Whatever problem there is in my life, Jesus is working on it, through his Spirit in me. He can do the same with every other follower who goes after him. I just want to be the one who heals the church from this abject hatred of certain people/ things (that is what it is, face it!), by holding space, as Kaitlin so succinctly blogged it.

Grace be with you.

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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.

Gift or Reward?

ParentingSupport-1600x600So often I see links across things that seem to others to be totally unrelated. Maybe it’s the sort-of-skewed way my (unofficially autistic) brain works, like an internal synesthesia. The main way this occurs is in lessons I find myself applying from theology to politics, (or sometimes vice versa), or in seeing patterns in scientific phenomena that reflect the mind of God; the problems within quantum mechanics portray the paradoxes in scripture. Stuff like that.

What I do not see so easily is how certain politicians try to apply a verse or two of scripture to justify a political position that is at direct odds with biblical teaching. So many of the things that are held up as ‘Christian values’ are at best only selective to the detriment of ignored ones, or just plain false! Knowing full well the difficulty of trying to apply theological concepts into the complex society we occupy, not least being that the majority around us are not followers of Jesus, let me suspend that skepticism for once and offer what surely must be the most basic and fundamental principle of our Christian gospel: grace!

The gift

Pocket_Money1I was sitting watching a daytime phone-in show with my mother, who has to stay with us for a period to recover from her latest stroke. The question being asked was “should your children work for their pocket money?” The usual reasons given were that children must learn not to expect ‘something for nothing’ and be taught that work brings reward. Fine. Fair point. Then I remarked to my mother; “we didn’t have to work for our pocket money, Mum! You and Dad just gave it to us without a condition, but I remember doing a reasonable share of the chores around the house. I recall Dad throwing me a duster and saying that we should tidy the house for you coming home. I was to dust and he hoovered. I didn’t object.”

So in my childhood, I wasn’t made to work for my pocket money, but that never made me lazy or caused me to grumble about chores (well, I was a child, so I’m sure I grumbled a bit, but I never refused to do work around the house). Why was that? Did my parents not spoil me by giving me unconditional pocket money? Some friends thought I was spoilt, since I got gifts from my parents even right between my birthday and Christmas! However, they did not just give me anything I demanded; they had limits and boundaries. They were great parents, very giving and generous, but not spoiling. I learnt the value of money and of my good parents. I strive to reassure Mum now that looking after her in her old age is just repaying all the faithful years she gave me.

Heavenly parenting

That is how it is also with my heavenly Father. Mum and Dad did not raise me ‘in a faith’ in God; I discovered Jesus for myself. I knew very quickly, I recognised this ‘Good Good Father’ since he was my good parents times a million! How generous is he? The gift of eternal life, freely given, with no preconditions, for someone undeserving as me. Those of us who have experienced grace must surely grasp it! Our Father is not a pushover, he does not spoil us, he has his limits (it’s called sin!), so I know I cannot just do as I like and not displease him. Just as I felt shame when I displeased my earthly parents, so I also feel shame at sinning. No shame, no relationship, I say. But on top of that, there is the most incredible, all-encompassing, belief-busting, incredible truth of grace that all sins in my life are forgiven, without condition! My salvation is secure. What is insecure is my closeness to God: that is down to me completely since there is only one flawed member of this relationship. He desires nothing else but my fellowship with him and his presence in my life: obedience to his commands is the best way for me to maintain that.

Not by works

The single most repeated phrase within evangelicalism regarding the preaching of the gospel of Christ is that salvation is not by works:

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….

Ephesians 2:8,9…

I realised that my willingness to help out around the house (not gleefully, I’ll admit, and seldom without direction from Mum or Dad) came from a sense of responsibility, not a desire for reward. It was because I belonged to this family, where I was loved and nurtured, and provided for. It was simply borne from gratitude. My works were not to gain something as low as money, nor even my parents’ approval or love. I already had that in bucketloads! They were a response to the love…

… For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

… Ephesians 2:10

The works I do as a Christian must come from a sincere heart that simply wants to please my Father, and not even to ‘repay’ God for the gift of the Son crucified for me, since we know we can never repay that. Just as my mother does not expect any sort of ‘repayment’ for her parenting, so our Father God knows in his infinite wisdom that we mere mortals can never repay Calvary!  That is the Debtor’s Dilemma i.e. why should I think I must repay it? [which John Piper covers very well in his book Future Grace].

‘Remuneration theology’

As I pondered the debate on the TV, I realised that if I had been taught to earn my pocket money, then when Dad threw that duster my way, I would have replied “what are you paying me?” In other words; “what’s in it for me?”, and right away I saw the flaw in this ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ mentality. A society built on the sole principle of reward is not one of love, giving, volunteering, sacrifice, common cause, or altruism, but a collection of individuals all grasping for their share, asking one another “what’s in it for me?”Milton-Friedman

Seeing an old interview of Milton Friedman, one of the chief architects of the recent outing of the old heresy masquerading as ‘free enterprise’ and a ‘pure’ form of capitalism, I clearly heard this attitude in his words, as he vaunted self-interest and the desire for personal gain as the paragon of human endeavour and mocked ‘virtue’ as never having achieved anything! I truly could not think of anything less Christian than that! Not in the light of the gift of grace!

People often talk of sin being disobedience towards God. That is it in a nutshell, so when I realise that I am not forgiving and loving everyone I meet, even my enemies, I am disobeying Jesus’ direct commands. That is sin! Imperfect me fails this test over and over,… but I’m getting there. In all my dealings with those around me, whom I encounter every day in my life (and on t’internet), I have to be a living example of obedience to those amazing and compelling, yet devastatingly difficult, words Jesus spoke on that mountainside in Judaea almost 2000 years ago. If  we are to apply ‘Christian values’ to our nation, our society, to the world around us, is this not the archetype? We are to love unconditionally, as we have been. We are to forgive any wrong done to us, unlike the unforgiving servant, who was cleared of an almighty debt, yet failed the test. Believe me, I don’t want to write these words! Life would be actually easier were I to just follow the herd and agree that there are people I am perfectly entitled to hate, and join in the chorus of disapproval, and reject and dispossess them of what they have to claim for myself. But that is a false gospel; it is a direct contradiction of those awkward commands in favour of an agreed accommodation with the world that we can behave just like those who have never known the grace of God.

We cannot!

quote-there-s-nothing-in-this-world-so-sweet-as-love-and-next-to-love-the-sweetest-thing-is-henry-wadsworth-longfellow-55-68-87

In accepting that Jesus has my best interests at the forefront of his thoughts and intentions as he gives me these commands, then giving up those ingrained cultural principles, and maybe some cherished feelings of animosity towards others means that I can exchange my tiny box for his huge one, and trust it is worth it when he asks me ‘deal or no deal’!

The Christian message is not one of rewarding good behaviour, it is one of creating right behaviour in response to the gift of love.

Grace be with you.

Child beheaded for striking parents!

isis-flagA few weeks ago, I did something I truly wish I had not! I warn you now not to do the same. I was merrily googling about something political, for information; in my search bar I had included the word ‘atrocities’ and then, for some reason, within the search results, I clicked on ‘images’! Despite not typing in anything to do with ISIS, the first images that appeared were ISIS atrocities! I looked, for too long, far too long, I was mesmerised. It was almost certainly less than a minute, but that was all it took to burn those pictures into my brain. I have some failing memory in my advancing years; how I wish it would fail me now – the pictures will haunt my nightmares until I leave this Earth.

In no shape or form will I ever join in the politically-motivated rhetoric of branding all Muslims as barbaric or savage, but those people in ISIS must be the most debased and disgusting humans on this planet right now. I cannot think of anyone worse. In the past we’ve had the Nazis (white Europeans) and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (Asian atheists), amongst other savages, so ISIS are not wholly unique, but they are making the effort to top the list with fervour. The most recent report that I read was how they executed 19 young women who refused to take part in ‘sexual jihad’ – I’ll spare you the details.

However, my headline ‘shocker’ has nothing to do with ISIS or Muslims whatsoever. It would have been a tabloid headline in 16th century Geneva (had they been reading tabloids then)! Church history scholars will realise that this is referring to post-reformation Geneva, a city state founded on and run by the principles of Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ and his interpretation of the Bible. One reliable source records that it was a teenage boy, called Phillipe DeVille and that he was tied to a stake and then beheaded. Another source claims it was a girl, but there is no argument against the fact that it did happen, as punishment for lashing out at both parents. Many other unruly children were subjected to harsh punishments, and many adults were beheaded or burnt at the stake for disagreeing with Calvin, or the council who made his ‘Institutes’ as authoritative as the holy scriptures. You can read of the executions of Servetus and Gruet elsewhere, if you can stomach it, and the various debates over how much Calvin himself was involved. His followers tend to try their best to defend him and downplay that he really wanted these men killed, or wished for a swift execution, etc., and that is understandable if you’ve based a whole load of your theology on his writings. The evidence against him, however, is pretty damning. We can say things like “it was a different time he lived in” and I’m glad if we can agree that in the 21st century Western world, we have moved on from ‘that time’.

Calvinism is not the debate I’m entering into, though. I can label myself a Calvinist for the side I drop onto from the fence on the ever-present debate on election and the visibility of the church, but I’m not an ardent disciple of his theology at all. No, the real problem for me is that this utterly heinous act comes directly from our Bible, from the Mosaic Law in the Old Testament:

Anyone who attacks their father or mother is to be put to death. (Ex. 21:15)

If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid. (Deut. 21: 18-21)

Had it been a Calvinistic interpretation of some obscure verse, I could dismiss it, but it’s not. It’s as clear as it reads in my own Bible that I cherish. And here lies the problem with those who wish to ‘return to the Law’: The real problem.

The ‘divisions’ of the Lawmosaiclaw

Many who call for a return to observance of the Mosaic Law understand that there are many things in it that seem petty and unnecessary for us e.g. men should not shave the sides of their head, and clothing should not be made with mixed fabrics. Some are outdated; a man who left the Amish community after his personal conversion from their heavily-ritualised living had an infestation of woodworm in his barn. He read the appropriate law and burned the barn down! They didn’t have effective pesticides in those days but we do now.

So in order to be able to dismiss some laws and not others, some try to distinguish them into categories, like ‘moral’, ‘ritual/ ceremonial’, ‘dietary’, ‘clean and unclean things’, etc., but the problem here is that such a division was never in the original. There’s no ‘book of ceremonial law’ or ‘chapter x: the moral code’ there. They’re written in a continuous though quite diverse manner. All the laws as written were to be adhered to uniformly and consistently. As with all legal codes, moral dilemmas ensued with interpretations of just how they could be applied, like just how far could one walk on the Sabbath, for instance, and so interpretations were added. I have often heard things like “when Jesus criticised the Pharisees, he wasn’t attacking the law, but all the ‘ordinances’ that were added on to the law, ‘by man'”

However, even if we were to remove all such additional commentary, and then divide up the Mosaic Law and assign them all into various categories, and then say that we should only keep the ‘moral’ ones, we are still left with the ones quoted above; they’re clearly to do with morals – they even tie into the fifth commandment, ‘honour your father and your mother’ (though that was addressed to adults who were not to forget their elderly parents). Note that it even extends beyond physical violence – Ex. 21:17 states: Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. [emphasis added]

If you truly advocate a return to law-keeping, then note that Paul made it clear that we cannot keep just part – we must adhere to it all, and to not do so would invoke a curse! He even talks of the law as slavery!!

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’ (Gal.3:10)

And so we find ourselves faced with a command, a moral one, that must be adhered to. Are we to take our unruly and rebellious teenage children to the legal authorities for execution? As I recall the images I saw on my google page, some of them of children… I must ask: would there be much difference between that and what we must set up were we to go back to the days those laws were written for? If you can comprehend what this means, you have begun to be mindful of the difficulty we face. There are some theologians who believe the Mosaic Law to have been written by man – it is truly a very difficult thing for fundamentalists to argue against!

Paul & the Galatians

You see, there’s a lot of talk about the gospel offending people these days, and it’s worn as a badge of honour by many: “I don’t care if my faith or my Bible offends people, I’m saying it anyway!” – and they refer to Paul talking about the offence and the ‘scandal’ of the gospel. Today it’s usually to do with a ‘laxness’ in morals in modern society, as well as in some churches, or a disregard for ‘the law’, or not calling sin, sin. However, this was not what Paul meant by ‘the offence of the cross’!

It’s true! The gospel of Jesus is offensive! Paul states that clearly: Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offence of the cross has been abolished. (Gal.5:11). But… Paul is not describing an offence against a ‘lawless faith’ that disregards sin and its consequences and punishments. No! He’s preaching to the Galatians against ‘the law’! And he is talking about the Law as written in the scriptures, not any ‘man-made additional ordinances’. Why is this man, who was a fervent Pharisee, zealous for the Hebrew scriptures and a persecutor of the traitorous Christians, now saying that he’s not for going back to the Law!? He is addressing the church in Galatia, which has been infiltrated by legalists who are trying to get them to be circumcised, and Paul, a circumcised Jew himself, screams “NO!” at them.

Let me explain: Some had entered the Galatian church after Paul, and taught that believers need to be circumcised according to the law, and then told the Galatians that Paul preached the same message. Paul denied this, and in his letter he reels on these usurpers in one of his most venomous writings. What Paul is talking about to the Galatians in the passage quoted above is the offence that the gospel causes to these people; the ones who wish to take the Galatian church back to following the Mosaic law. The case where ‘the offence of the cross [would have] been abolished’ in chapter 5 is made if what the Galatians have been told (that Paul preaches circumcision too) were true. Were Paul to be preaching this, then there would be no offence caused to these pious, religious, law-keeping perverters of the gospel. Hold on! He’s calling law-keepers ‘perverters’ of the gospel? Yes! He addresses this at the outset of the letter: Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. (1:7)

Christ and Our Cross

Christ and Our Cross

The offence of the cross is what so many find hard to grasp; which is that grace is extended to whomever would believe and follow Christ, and is not dependent on works at allI exhort you to read the whole epistle, maybe even in The Message paraphrase, since it captures Paul’s anger that many other translations seem to dilute. Be aware, as you read it, that it most certainly is not a “hello, chums! Hope you’re all feeling well today!” sort of letter; far from it!

 Law v. Grace

It was this ‘offence’ of the gospel of grace that caused Mohammad to rebel against it since he could not accept the very idea of vicarious atonement. Vicarious what? It means that someone took the place of punishment for the sins of another; they paid the cost, and took the consequences. This is the very lynchpin of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He paid it all, for the sins of anyone who would accept that vicarious atonement and not rebel against it; it is the will of God that we should partake of it, since God knows our weakness and how we cannot achieve such atonement for ourselves. Paul labours on this throughout Galatians, and touches on it in other epistles, notably Romans.

Now a perfectly natural reaction to this news is to take an attitude of “so all my sins are forgiven!? That means it doesn’t matter if I sin or not!” Some even went to the extreme of saying that we should sin all the more, since this glorifies God by displaying the majesty of his grace that forgives those sins that we commit. As ‘The Teacher’ wrote in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc. 1:9), and this attitude which we see in some modern churches that ‘sin is no longer an issue’ is as old as the gospel itself. It pervaded Gnostic thought and philosophy, and Paul dismissed it directly to the Roman believers:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Rom. 6:1,2)

[The ‘Last Days’ began with Jesus’ ascension to heaven!]

Paul’s theology outlines beautifully how we have died with Christ on the cross, to sin, and arose again to salvation and new life, and anyone who has died has been set free from sin. (Rom. 6:6-8). Unfortunately, though, many who have been appalled at those who grant others a ‘license to sin’ (I call them ‘licensers’ in my book) then react in a human way and begin to reject the doctrine of grace, preferring a more ‘righteous’ way of living, and they gravitate back to a code that they can refer to for precise guidance. My problem right away is that we are called to be righteous, not self-righteous, and in this I see a problem arise, which leads to conceitedness, with fellow brothers and sisters thinking that they are ‘better’ than other believers, when in fact, the beginning of the following after Jesus is humility; we are to deny ourselves (Matt. 16:24). Jesus lays out just how much sin resides in us in his Sermon on the Mount, and Paul declares that he himself is the chief of sinners. (1Tim. 1:15) – he recognised that once he was aware of his own fallen heart, there could be nobody else he could judge as beneath him.

I have never met the man I could despair of after discerning what lies in me apart from the grace of God. – Oswald Chambers

I have come to believe that this was the very intention of Jesus in pointing to our hearts and saying “there lies sin!” Why else would he convict us so badly, rebuke us so sharply? Only to teach us that each of us has been forgiven, completely, totally, so we cannot wish to judge others or belittle them. We will then react to grace in a positive way, like the single leper from the ten healed, who returned to Jesus to give thanks.

How then do we deal with the licensers? Why can they not feel what that one leper felt and desire to serve Christ in a totally non-selfish way? (And why is it that so many who preach about personal wealth and health by faith then fall into this trap?). More importantly, why do we have this struggle between law and grace?

Cheap grace

dbonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945) was a modern martyr for the gospel, executed by Hitler’s regime for maintaining his stance against the evil he saw around him. His most famous work was ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ and his death was a testimony to what he wrote. He saw much of this ‘license to sin’ in his day too (just as it was in the first century, and still is in the 21st century), and he coined the term ‘cheap grace’ to describe what he perceived these people were doing with the gospel of true grace (or ‘costly grace’). For Bonhoeffer, cheap grace was a perversion of the gospel where grace was used as an excuse for sin, since it was easier to view it that way and live a life without discipleship, without ‘following after’ Christ, which would cost much to any disciple, maybe even to the point of their own life; we are to take up our cross, and we would do well to grasp just what that phrase means. Bonhoeffer certainly did!

To get a better understanding of this, let us first go back to Martin Luther, since his reformation has been blamed for offering Christians licence by taking them away from the long-standing doctrines and sacraments of the established church. On the contrary, what was probably the spark that lit his fire of passion to call for a serious debate within the church was an event one Saturday evening; on his way home, he found a parishioner lying drunk in the gutter. Luther picked him up and brushed him down, and rebuked him for his drunkenness, telling him that he must go home and sober up for the morning to be able to get to the confessional for his sin. The man dismissed his priest, drawing out of his pocket a bill signed by the Pope which he had paid a good sum for, saying “see! The Pope himself has absolved all my sins! I can do as I like!” Licensing existed in the Roman Catholic church too! Luther was appalled at such an attitude: he was a true disciple – he was not intending to enter the priesthood, but did so after promising God he would if hemartin_luther survived a severe lightning storm in the Alps. His word was his bond. As he read his Bible more, and sought the Lord, his grasp of the doctrine of grace did not diminish his desire for ongoing costly discipleship. No, it was a comfort to him, that his place in heaven was assured, that he need not strive any more, but in the heart of a true disciple, it offered strength to the resolve to follow, not the excuse to carry on with life just as before and forget about following. Jesus always laid out difficult conditions for following him. Some of these are too difficult for some!

Bonhoeffer built on this foundation, and wrote some excellent stuff on the differences between cheap grace and costly grace. I prefer to call costly grace ‘true grace’ since this is what flowed from Jesus’ blood on the cross in the first place, and was what Paul and all the apostles, and good church founders throughout Christian history have known. But Bonhoeffer explains why he calls it ‘costly grace’:

It is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.

It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.

It is costly because it condemns the sinner, and grace because it justifies the sinner.

Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son.

The answer and the antidote to cheap grace is not to return to the law. Paul lays out just how twisted a logic that is, since we are leaving our means of salvation, by grace, through faith, and going back to that which never could save. Abraham was justified by faith, not law, long before the law came! No, the answer to cheap grace is not a return to the Law, but to preach, and live by, true costly grace.

I cringe when I see the likes of Joel Osteen look at the camera and say to viewers to recite his own version of the ‘sinner’s prayer’ (which is not in the Bible, by the way) and then say “congratulations, you are now in the family of God!”. Yes, my own salvation started at a moment with a prayer like that, but with little to no teaching on those TV screens about commitment and discipleship, is that single prayer not simply sewn on stony ground? When I first decided to follow Jesus, I knew from the outset that following him as a disciple was not just praying the prayer, or even believing the belief: it was living the life!

There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path. 

– Morpheus

The Law fulfilled

And now comes the objection which I am bound to hear. It is the clever objection that is always proposed, and it is taken from the very words of our Lord in his Sermon on the Mount, right before he talks about how much sin is within our hearts:

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:17-20)

Putting this up against what we have discussed about grace just sounds like a contradiction, but it is due to misunderstanding on three points:

1. Fulfilment

No, the Law has not been abolished, say the legalists. Correct. However, Christ had not come to abolish them but to fulfil them! They miss that tiny little word but and then the word fulfil gets overlooked. I don’t even need to get into the nitty-gritty of the original words since the English suffices (save to point out that the Greek for fulfil, plero-o, is the root of our word completion). Once Jesus finished his work on Calvary, it was done, all the requirements of the Law were completed and fulfilled in a most perfect way that all of mankind striving, for all of eternity, could never accomplish. For me, any return to what went before, dishonours and insults my Lord’s finished work – it says that it wasn’t enough, and tries to circumvent that which is offensive about the gospel. It’s legalists who cannot shoulder that offence, and they may as well convert to Islam, since it’s much the same as what they advocate, in my humble opinion!

2. The Law AND the Prophets1375452838_prophet

In many of Jesus’ references to the Law, it is termed ‘the Law and the Prophets’ – this is one division that did exist in the Hebrew scriptures, though again done so by men; they had the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (the last one usually consists of Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs, but the categorisation has changed at times). However, Jesus, when talking about what he has come to fulfil, includes the prophets. To analyse the messages of the prophets in a soundbite, it is that they were always standing on the fringe of society calling the people back to God. It usually consisted of “you keep God’s laws as precisely as if you were ‘straining out a gnat‘ yet your hearts are far from him!” Jesus sought to put these together; yes, there is the law, but don’t forsake what my prophets told you, that a heart turned towards me is more important. Through Isaiah, God said how he had tired of all the sacrifices of rams and bulls and lambs. He wanted them to just love and desire him, and Jesus’ call to his disciples hinged on their hearts. Without the prophets’ message, without heart change, law-keeping means nothing to God.

3. Surpassing the Pharisees

Right after this passage, Jesus launched into one of his most difficult passages about how we should live and follow him, how every little thing we do in our innermost thoughts can be sinful against God, and while we may hide it from others, we cannot hide it from the Father; he knows our hearts, every waking thought, and every sleep-filled dream. I analysed it in minute detail in my book; it’s very tricky to heed and live by, but it lays out what Jesus meant: the Pharisees keep the laws, perfectly, precisely, like clockwork, but that is just all show for others to see their righteousness. “I want you to be different,” says our Lord,”so that you can have an inner righteousness that is greater than theirs, and then shines forth from a heart that has changed.”

A final point to make is that the anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven phrase is actually not saying that we must keep it all, every last bit. It means you cannot set aside one of them – just as Paul warned, if you wish to live by the Law, you cannot set even one aside; you must be enslaved again to keep them all (which includes the child-killing). When reading Galatians, I don’t see Paul saying “don’t keep this law” or “you can ignore that one.” No, he simply warns that they come as a package, and that package is fulfilled, and covered by grace, by Jesus’ blood, buried with his baptismal dip into the Jordan river. Trying to keep them is putting the chains back on that were removed when grace was preached to you.

Still not convinced? Still think that you can choose which laws you like and which you don’t? Which means that you’re ‘cherry-picking’ scripture – heaven forbid! Or that maybe stoning children to death for being rebels is a good idea after all!? I’ll let Paul have the final word – read them carefully:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is required to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal. 5:1-4)

Alienated from Christ!? Fallen… from grace!? Harsh words indeed!

Grace truly be with you.

[now that I realise this is my longest blog yet, I’m wondering were I not better to make a video where I just read out some ‘zany’ or ‘shocking’ bits of the Law, smile and point at the camera (maybe with an American accent) and say “you sure you wanna go back to the Law? ‘Cos that’s the laaawwww!”] Not me, though. 😦

Spirituality v. Salvation

SP-043-Prabhupada-on-Vyasana-folded-handsI had a Saturday job briefly when I was at school. I was a vegetarian and had started buying from a wholefood shop in our town centre; I responded to their window ad for a worker. We had a fair number of Krishna devotees who shopped with us, but one was particularly evangelical in his fervour to spread the message of Krishna and hung around outside to accost customers and passers-by with his literature. One poor man had been cornered up against our window and could not escape, so my boss felt sorry for him and went outside, shouting “Hey Jim, someone on the phone for you!” The man, whose name we never knew, looked up in bewilderment before realising what was happening, then said “Oh, thanks!” and said to the proselytiser before him “sorry, I have to go and take this!”

Once inside, my boss reassured him that the offending man would go away in a minute and he could escape. He then thanked us for rescuing him and went on his way.

I myself was approached by this religious fanatic once as I left the shop, and it was then that I realised why he chose to stand there. He asked me if I was a vegetarian. Customers exiting a wholefood shop – what are the odds? When I said that I was, he then said “Oooohhhh! That means you must recognise one of the four spiritual laws!” When I told him that my reasons for my vegetarianism were to do with modern farming and land utilisation, etc. and that I ate fish, he lost interest. Even when I tried to bring Jesus into the conversation, he wasn’t having it. He never wanted a discussion with me, just to persuade me to ‘join his religion’! Sadly, too many Christian proselytisers have the same attitude.

He was trying to find something ‘spiritual’ within me that would maybe witness to him that I was on the same hymn sheet as him (or chant sheet!), and he could use this to springboard into drawing me further along the spiritual path (his one). However, ‘spirituality’ is another topic that is subjective: some think that doing no harm to any animal is spiritual and so meat-eating is very unspiritual, yet some find some ‘spirituality’ in hunting animals for sport!

Where we can find common ground with people of other faiths or of no faith on principles like ‘live and let live’ or ‘treat others how you’d like them to treat you’ may serve us well for sharing this Earth and for living in a pluralistic and mixed society, but many Christian denominations seem to wish to find this as grounds for ‘coming together’ and believing that we all share the same spiritual ‘path’ to salvation and eternal life. The opposite of this are denominations that find no value whatsoever in the thoughts and philosophies of anyone outside their narrow definition of what is ‘true religion’!

Both beliefs are wrong! Our path to eternal life is not found on any path of ‘spirituality’ or even law-keeping; it is found in a person. The true scandal of this is the basis for the rejection of the Christian gospel by many; both atheistic people, who cannot accept that salvation is not achieved by doing good, and religious people, like Mohammad, who created a whole new religion to counter the easiness of Jesus’ yoke (Matt. 11:30).

When I watch films like ‘Gandhi’ and see how great (though flawed) a man he was, I am brought to a sense of humility, that this man who actually does not share my faith in Jesus, is an example of selfless non-violent action that cost mahatma-gandhi-quote-nations-greatness-measured-by-how-it-treats-weakest-membershim freedom and prestige in this world. That does not convince me that he has found eternal life – that is only through Jesus – but it does show me that I am not such a great example of what a Jesus follower should be like. I should be better!

Just because I have been given the gift of salvation freely does not mean I am exempt from any efforts to follow in the steps of the greatest and most humble of all: God the Creator, the Word, who left his place to become a baby, a simple carpenter, then a bloody sacrifice on a shameful cross. In fact, if I make no such effort, I betray that I’m not a true Jesus follower (Luke 9:23). I just have this compulsion that I have to prove him in me, not my own ‘spirituality’. When I do find others who display knowledge of some ‘spiritual law’ then I’ll try to show them who is the most perfect example of spirituality, that they might see where salvation truly lies. There is a difference.

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.