Monday, September 22, 2008


A Whole-Bible Explanation of the Gospel

I. God - God has always existed and always will be. He is only one God, but exists in three distinct and cooperating persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Nothing else is eternal but God. He is perfect and glorious in all his attributes. He is infinite, sovereign, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, majestic, almighty, and holy. He is loving, gracious, kind, good, self-revealing, purposeful, faithful, and true. Many of these attributes would not be possible if he were not a three-in-one God. God is a spiritual being, without need of a physical body, though he chooses to reveal himself in terms of our bodily experience and God the Son became physically and fully human in the incarnation of Christ.

II. Creation - God was and would have continued to be fully self-sufficient and perfectly glorious without any creation, but he chose to create the universe with its stars and planets, various forms of life, angelic and human beings. The angels were made without bodies to serve God and the humans he would create, but they have sometimes appeared to humans in bodily form to communicate God’s messages. Satan and evil spirits are angels originally created good, who rebelled against God in pride and jealousy. God has allowed them to continue in existence as evil beings, until a future judgment brings them to their doom. None of them is eternal or all powerful.

God made humans, male and female, to be the apex of his creation and gave them the responsibility of ruling over and caring for the rest of creation. God’s purpose was to live among his people as their God and to enjoy a family-fellowship with them. Adam and Eve were specially created in the image of God, without sin, to found the human race. All people on earth have descended from them.

III. Sin and Death - God had graciously given Adam and Eve the entire universe, with a specially planted garden as their home. They had free permission from God to eat from every tree except one, which represented a desire to decide what is good and evil independently from God. When tempted to disobey God (by Satan, speaking through a serpent), Adam and Eve rebelled. As God had warned them, this brought death to the human race: (1) mortality and certain physical death; (2) moral death through the darkening of the mind, perversion of the emotions, and enslaving of the will; (3) alienation among humans because of self-centeredness sin brought with it; and (4) separation from fellowship with God. A holy God could not have close fellowship with sinful people. This separation would ultimately result in (5) an eternal isolation from God and his goodness in a punishment designed for the rebellious angelic beings.

Besides the internal changes within humans and the future judgment that resulted from rebellion, God placed a curse on his creation because of human sin. This was partly a punishment, and partly a self-protective discipline. Some of the results of this curse were painful toil, painful childbirth, and a frustration of the potential of creation. Sin and death had directly threatened God’s purpose of living with his people. But God had a plan to restore that purpose and to fulfill it for his own glory and for the benefit of humanity.

IV. Substitution - God planned to restore people to himself through the atonement of substitution. God would accept the death of an innocent sacrifice in place of the deserved death of the sinner. A system of animal sacrifices, temple ceremonies, and priests demonstrated both the problem of sin that brings death and the solution of redemption through a sinless sacrifice. But the animal sacrifices could not truly pay the penalty owed by humans in God’s image. (Neither could human sacrifice, which God specifically condemned.) They only painted a picture of a perfect substitution that God himself would offer some day.

V. Savior - Throughout the Old Testament God promised to send a savior who would be the true substitute, who would defeat sin and Satan, who would restore the cursed creation to its original purpose of being a place where God could live with his people. The New Testament presents Jesus Christ as the Savior who met the requirements of God’s promises (being both God and Man in one person, being born through the proper line, and sinlessly meeting all the righteousness of God’s law). Jesus’ death on the cross was his willing substitution in place of sinners. His resurrection from the dead was his victory into which he invites us. Jesus’ return, which could happen any day, will complete our salvation through our resurrection and glorification.

VI. Repentance and Faith - The good news of Jesus Christ is that if we will repent and believe, we will be set free from sin and its results for ever. Repenting means that we take responsibility for human sin—the specific acts of sin we have done and the rebellious heart that we inherited. We recognize that we deserve death in all its forms, and nothing we do (not religious ceremonies, good deeds, trying harder, or anything else) can make up for our sin. Faith means we put our trust fully in what Jesus did in paying our penalty and earning our acceptance with God. We are not called to a generic “faith in God,” but to a specific faith that God has provided a way through his perfect substitute, and that only Jesus can free us from sin.

VII. New Creation - When we repent and believe, we become part of the new creation where God is remaking his sin-spoiled world into its original purpose so he can live in it with his people. The Holy Spirit applies the work of Christ to our hearts to transform us from rebels into fellowshipping children of God. The change is a life-long project done in partnership with other believers. We cooperate with God in renewing our minds to think about things like God does. This leads to behavior that demonstrates the image of God and the character of Christ. We become part of the church, through which God makes disciples who follow Jesus and devote their lives to joyful service to him.

We look forward to a new creation of the universe also, when all the effects of sin will be purged away and the original conditions of God’s world are restored. The unrepentant angels and humans will be judged and sent to their chosen destiny. The repentant and believing humans will be rewarded for the faithfulness of their lives since trusting in Jesus. They will be confirmed in their righteousness from Christ, never to rebel again. To the great glory of God and to the great pleasure of believers, God will live among us and be our God, and we will be his people forever.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


Helping God with Creation

HELP WANTED: Creation Assistants. Immediate need
for architects and craftsmen to build a universe out of
nothing. No experience required. Contact God.

Wouldn’t it be great to tell your friends and brag to your grandchildren, “I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he . . . gave the sea its boundary . . . , and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. I was the craftsman at his side . . . rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.”

Of course, those verses in Proverbs 8 do not refer to you and me, but what if we could have assisted God in his work of creation?

Imagine watching God place the stars in the night sky and saying, “Lord, could you put a bright one right about there . . . no, a little to the left. Perfect! From here it looks like a big dipper in the sky.” Or, imagine chiseling some of the smaller details in the Grand Canyon with your own hands or designing the thorns for the rose bush.

Maybe you would have advised him to give Adam two ears and one mouth, so people would listen twice as much as they talk. What if you had asked God to skip the mosquitoes right from the start? In this idea he overruled you, but he did include your suggestion to put some mountains in Antarctica, even though people wouldn’t live there.

Of course, God did not ask for our help in creating the physical universe. We came along much later. But (wonder of wonders) he does ask for our help in the New Creation. Human sin has spoiled God’s “very good” work of creation and brought God’s curse of death and futility, resulting in decay, weeds, sweat, and pain. Now, as followers of Jesus empowered by the Holy Spirit, we work alongside God in the remaking of human beings and the rest of creation for eternity.

Our involvement in the new creation is not optional, only for a few super-spiritual saints, but required for all of us. Romans 8:9-18 spells this out: “If the Spirit of God lives in you . . . if Christ is in you . . . [you] have an obligation . . . . If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” Many Scriptures in the New Testament tell us what our part is in remaking our own lives and in assisting others in their transformation.

We know that the essential work of New Creation was completed by Jesus Christ when he died and rose again. The cross set in motion the inevitable results of removing sin and its effects from creation, bringing to completion the transitional unfolding of God’s plans, and consummating the ultimate purpose of creation—God living with his people.

We are commanded, however, to partner with God in four aspects of the New Creation: The New You (sanctification); The New Community (influence); The New Humanity (evangelism); The New Earth (kingdom). Let’s get started, and learn as we go.

Saturday, September 09, 2006


Can We Really Pray Like David?

The Imprecatory Psalms (Psalms 28, 35, 52, 58, 59, 69, 109) have been a mystery for Christians, with outright prayers for God to punish enemies with horrible vengeance. What bothers us is not that we never think of praying for vengeance but rather that this seems contrary to Christian attitudes and principles. Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

Common explanations of these prayers do not quite satisfy:
1. Progressive Revelation: David didn’t hear the sermon on the mount, so he can’t be held responsible for its teachings. However, David should have been familiar with Exodus 23:4-5, Leviticus 19:17-18, and Job 31:28-30. Also, progressive revelation does not explain Paul’s imprecatory prayer in 2 Timothy 4. The real explanation must go deeper.

2. Honest Human Reaction: David was expressing the feelings he had, though it was wrong to desire such things. While Scripture often records the sinful thoughts and actions of people, it usually indicates something in the context to warn the reader not to copy the wrongs. Instead, these Psalms support the prayers by appeal to God’s righteousness.

3. God’s Dispensational Purpose: In the Old Testament, we are told, God dealt with man in accommodation to his ideas. Many wrong practices and ideas were allowed, in order to bring about the main purpose of preparing for the coming of Christ. Patriotism with hatred of enemies was essential to the survival of Israel during those times. But these prayers are very individual and not focused on national survival.

4. Poetic Exaggeration: David didn’t really mean literally that God should, for example, “blot out from his book” these enemies. He was overstating for emphasis. However, even if we soften the details by this explanation, it is the thought that counts, and the thought is still clear.

We can find a proper understanding of these imprecatory prayers by looking with our eyes open at Paul’s prayer regarding Alexander the coppersmith in 2 Timothy 4:14-16. Alexander did Paul much evil, and Paul asks God to reward him accordingly (imprecation). In the same context Paul’s fellow believers forsook him in his trial, and he asks God not to lay it to their account (intercession). Why the difference, since all caused trouble and suffering for Paul?

Paul did not pray a curse on those who did it through their frailty or fear. The imprecatory prayer is for the one who acted deliberately and in defiance of God’s Word. This seems to be the pattern in the Old Testament examples also.

Behind the imprecation is a concern for justice as an expression of God’s character, not merely payback for the one praying. The enemy is seen as an enemy of God’s holiness, not as a bother to the believer’s convenience. In nearly every imprecatory prayer there is a vital truth involved which, more than personal retaliation, is the reason for the request.

Christians do not ask that the failures or even the sins of other believers be laid to their charge. Their sins have already been paid for on the cross. God’s holiness has been satisfied. In contrast the one who has heard the Gospel and has withstood the words is rejecting the Substitute, and insists on bearing the reward of his own works.

Most of the time, even toward unbelievers, our prayers will echo that of the dying Stephen and of Jesus himself. They rightly prayed that the sins of their executioners not be laid to their charge. There was the possibility and likelihood that they would repent of their sins and turn to God for mercy.

The objects of the imprecatory prayers in the Bible (King Saul, Doeg the Edomite, Alexander the coppersmith, Judas) by their open rejection of God and his truth, left no grounds for a hope of repentance, leaving proper grounds for the rare prayer for God’s vengeance. David was not free to take his own revenge, and neither are we. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. I will repay.” These prayers are merely a request for God to do what he claims as his exclusive right.

Let’s keep reading with our eyes open.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Like a Little Child

Mark 10:15 quotes Jesus declaring, “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” We all know how a little child receives the kingdom, don’t we? Children are so innocent, so humble, so unpretentious, so trusting. That is the way we all must receive the gospel, too. We must lose our sophistication, swallow our pride, forget our cynicism and suspicion. Right??

Well, maybe that isn’t right, though that is the typical Sunday School lesson or sermon on this text. Let’s look with open eyes and see what Mark is really teaching.

The first problem with the standard interpretation is that children are not innocent, humble, and trusting. Anyone with young children (or grandchildren) knows this. Because of corrupting sin, children don’t need to be taught to be selfish and grasping or boastful and domineering. These sinful things come naturally, and show up at an incredibly early age.

Phrases like, “It’s mine!” “I saw it first!” “I will do it myself!” and “I want it now!” are more characteristic of children than the more romantic ideals of humility and trust. And, all our sophistication and worldly wisdom don’t eliminate these sinful attitudes from us as we grow up.

So, receiving the kingdom of God like a little child must mean something other than becoming sweet, humble, and trusting.

An even bigger problem with the typical understanding of Jesus’ words is that it would become a gospel of salvation by works. If children really were naturally humble, innocent, and quick to believe, and we were admonished to become like them, our salvation would depend on us cultivating certain traits of righteousness.

Our learning of proper attitudes and eliminating their opposites would be prerequisites, and the basis, of our entry into the kingdom. It is hard to find any page in the Bible that does not specifically deny that our entrance into God’s kingdom depends on our moral improvement of ourselves. Jesus must have had something else in mind.

What, then, did Mark teach us when he said we must receive the kingdom like a little child? The context of the statement in Mark is the disciples’ grasping for power positions in the coming kingdom. They argue about who is the greatest (9:34). They tell others to stop their ministry because of not being part of the “in” group (9:38). They send away those who are bothering Jesus with insignificant children (10:13). They are preparing themselves to be big shots in the kingdom.

Along with telling his followers to become last and least, serving others (9:35), Jesus adds that welcoming a little child is welcoming him (9:37). A child is not a powerful person, nor can he or she grant power to others. A child is worthless when it comes to worldly status and clout. A helpless, weak, nobody of a child has nothing to trade for the kingdom or its benefits. We know a child can whine and cry, and today’s adults may be too ready to give in to a child’s demands. But in reality, all the child can do is hold out empty hands to receive an undeserved gift.

Unless we receive the kingdom of God like a little child, we will never enter it.

Let’s read with our eyes open.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


The Prayer of Jabez

“O that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.”

This prayer of Jabez is recorded in 1 Chronicles 4:10. It has been widely promoted through a series of big-selling books by Bruce Wilkinson as a model prayer for us, if we want to be prosperous, influential, or fruitful in ministry.

If we read with open eyes, we notice that “God granted his request.” This has been taken to mean that God is bound to grant the same request to anyone who says the prayer. The Chronicler, however, does not recommend that others pray in this way, much less promise that it guarantees success.

There are many prayers recorded in the pages of Scripture. In Genesis 17:18 Abraham prays, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing.” In Exodus 32:18 Moses prays, “Now show me your glory.” The tax collector in Jesus’ Luke 18:13 parable prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The Gerasenes in Mark 5:17 “began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.” God granted all these requests.

How do we know which prayers we should make our own and which are merely specific to the stories in which they appear? Most people answer that question according to their own desires. We pray the ones that appeal to us and avoid the ones that don’t. (This is similar to how we handle the Bible’s recorded promises to other people: we put Jeremiah 29:11 on our walls, but not the parallel promise in Jeremiah 21:10.)

If a Bible prayer expresses well the intentions of our prayers, there is nothing wrong with using that quotation as our prayer. The same thing goes for material from other sources. If a Shakespearean quotation (or a line from a movie, or a nursery rhyme, or a prayer written in a book) expresses well the intentions of our prayers, we can use it as our prayer. However, this is not the same thing as placing extra confidence that God somehow is obligated to answer this prayer because someone in the Bible—or some holy person outside the Bible—used these words in a prayer.

The prayers in the Biblical Psalms were written to provide God’s people with words to express their thoughts and needs. We ought not approach them as magical formulas to use in superstitious ways, but as appropriate expressions for the various kinds of prayer we engage in. C. S. Lewis often reminded people that prayer is a request, not some kind of power over God.

The disciples approached Jesus in Luke 11 and asked for instructions in prayer. He did not answer, “When you pray, pray what Jabez prayed.” He gave them (and us) the model we know as The Lord’s Prayer.

Let’s read with our eyes open.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


Quoting Scripture When Tempted

Lots of books and sermons advise us to follow Jesus’ example of resisting temptation by quoting Scripture. Many Bible teachers leave us hanging, or mislead us, about how this actually works.

1. Quoting the Bible to Satan is not like a magician’s magic words. The God-given resource against sin is not an abracadabra. It must be accompanied by some understanding of both temptation and God’s word.

2. Bible verses do not convince Satan of the truth and cause him to therefore stop tempting us. When Jesus said, “It is written” and gave a Biblical principle during his temptation (recorded in Matthew 4 and Luke 4), Satan did not respond, “Oh man, how could I have been so stupid. I see it now. Thanks for enlightening me. Never again will I ask anyone to confuse physical food with the greater need for spiritual nourishment.” Quoting the Bible is not a means of changing Satan’s mind. We need not argue with the temptation.

3. I have heard preachers say that God’s words are so contrary to Satan’s thinking that they actually hurt him when they are spoken. In the presence of such holy words, they say, he covers his singed ears and runs away. This explanation, along with the previous ones, is refuted by the fact that Eve in the garden of Eden quoted God’s words. Her quotation had none of the effects that Jesus’ quotations had.

By the way, I would make much less of her “addition” to what God told Adam (“neither can we touch it”) and of her “subtraction” (“freely”) than many commentators do. After all, Jesus added “only” to his quotation of Deuteronomy and made other adaptations to his own context.

Why did quoting God back to Satan work for Jesus and not for Eve? If we know the answer to this question, we will be more likely to find success when we do it.

When Jesus quoted Scripture, he made it clear not only that he saw the lie embedded in the truthful statements of the temptation, but that he rejected the lie and was committed to the truth of the Scripture he quoted. Jesus didn’t change Satan’s mind, but he persuaded Satan that his own mind was made up to follow the revealed will of his Father.

Eve, on the other hand, made it clear that she was open minded about the fruit. She wanted the lie to be true (if she even knew it was a lie). She wanted to make her own judgment about the subject. We get in trouble with sin when we fail to discern the lie and when we put God’s truth on an equal basis with other “evidence” to consider.

Quoting appropriate Bible verses when we are tempted is a key resource. But it is effective to the extent that we reject temptation’s lie and fully accept God’s corresponding truth.

Let’s read with our eyes open.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Are All Sins Equal Before God?

We often hear a claim that all sins are equal in God’s eyes, even though humans rate some as worse than others. There are Biblical references that may seem to uphold this idea.

James 2:10-11 makes the point that if someone “keeps the whole law, yet stumbles at just one point,” he is “guilty of breaking all of it.” Galatians makes a similar point about the unity of the Law and the obligation of people under that Law to continuously keep all of its provisions. The person who disobeys every command and the person who only disobeys one are both law breakers.

Matthew 5 records Jesus’ words about the commands that “you have heard that it was said.” A man who looks lustfully at a woman has committed adultery already in his heart. A man who is angry with his brother has put himself in judgment for murder.

The Bible, read with open eyes, does say that it takes only one sin to become a sinner and that each and every sin is equally condemning before God’s law. It also says that sins of intention are still sins, even when they are not acted out. However, to conclude from this that all sins are equal is invalid reasoning. It is also dangerous, since it could encourage a sinner to decide, “Since I’ve already committed the heart sin, I might as well go ahead and do the act.” Clearly, while both are sins, the action does harm to more people than the thought.

When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus did not say that they were all equal. He told which was the first and greatest, and which was second (Matthew 22:37-40). He also distinguished between lighter and heavier matters in the Law (Matthew 23:23). Violating a heavier matter is worse than violating a lighter matter, though the scribes were expected to violate neither. On trial before Pilate, Jesus called his judge a sinner, but assured him that he was not the greatest sinner (John 19:11).

I John 5:16-17 tells us that all wrongdoing is sin, but some sins lead to death and others don’t. This is an important distinction, because it affects our prayers for our brothers.

All sins are not created equal. If we mean to say that any sin, however small it seems in human opinion, separates us from God, let’s say that. But let’s not say that all sins are equal in God’s eyes. And let’s keep reading with our eyes open.

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