Monthly Archives: February 2015

Thus Far The Lord As Helped Us

I love hymns. I didn’t grow up singing too many and for a long time, I saw them as slow, boring, and irrelevant. I much preferred the latest Hillsongs offerings with a side of Chris Tomlin. There’s nothing wrong with contemporary worship music (for the most part), but my adoration of God has been aided by an exploration of those songs handed down to us from generations past. One of my favourite hymns is ‘Come Thou Fount’, written in 1757 by Robert Robinson. It’s a beautiful reflection on God’s sanctifying grace and contains a very curious lyric in its second verse.

Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

If you’re like I was on my initial exposure, you will wonder what in the world is going on in this lyric. The only Ebenezer I knew was Scrooge, and he’s more synonymous with miserly conduct than exemplary Christian character. What is an Ebenezer and why does it need to be raised?

To get the reference, you need to go back to the ministry of the prophet Samuel. Let’s set up the scene. In the time of Samuel’s call to ministry as a child, the people of Israel were in a low place morally and as a result were getting crushed in battle. In an effort to force God’s hand for their victory, they brought the ark of the covenant out from the temple and into battle with them. God, not being one to be extorted, gave victory to the Philistines and allowed the ark to get captured. However, also not being one to let His enemies triumph over Him, He made the Philistines suffer in the ark’s presence until they had no choice but to return it. For twenty years after that, the ark stayed in the house of Abinadab, not the Tabernacle, and Israel continued doing whatever was right in its own eyes.

Still waiting for Ebenezer? Well this is something Samuel brings into the picture. After 20 years absence, he reappeared on the scene calling the people to repent, which they did at a big ceremony at Mizpah. The Philistines heard about a large gathering and tried to crash the party. However, unlike the last time God came in to fight for His people and gave them the victory.

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.” – 1 Samuel 7:12

Ebenezer means ‘stone of help’. In this scene, it represented an acknowledgment of God’s providence bringing His people thus far, and a trust in His ability to continually keep them. For the rest of Samuel’s ministry, the people did not lose any more territory to the Philistines, and even took back some land from them.

How do we commemorate God’s faithfulness to us? It’s likely that many of us don’t take the time to do so. It’s easy to see the negative in life. Pain by its very nature demands our acute attention. When life presents us with obstacles, as it frequently does, our immediate response is to study, analyze, and look to solve it. And whenever we accomplish some objective, we see very quickly that there’s another mountain left to climb. As the saying goes, “Life offers no rest for the weary.”

Even when life is going well, it’s easy to get caught up in the daily grind of life until religious devotion begins to feel like an imposition. Our hearts tend to yearn for anything which allows us to neglect God. The hymn’s third verse pays tribute to this fact.

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let that grace now like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above

Inertia will draw us away from God. Your experience in faith will attest to this. So we need a way to create momentum back towards fervent devotion. And God in His grace has given us the tools to do so.

Though we talk about raising an altar as something we do, Ebenezer is all about God’s grace. The effort required on our part is simply turning our eyes back to God. We commemorate His work, His goodness, His faithfulness. “Thus far You have brought us; and by Your good pleasure, You will take us home.”

One area it’s helpful to reflect on is in the area of sanctification- that is the process by which God’s Spirit transforms our hearts to make us more like Christ. While the Bible is full of moral commands and implores us to make an effort towards holiness, we are also assured of God’s Spirit in us making our efforts meaningful. It’s one of the paradoxes of scripture

“…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” – Philippians 2:12-13

Our sin is perhaps the biggest argument against God for most of us, especially when it comes to recurring sin. “If God is at work in me, why do I still…?” Your consciences will quickly fill in that blank. And in addition to our self-awareness, we have a spiritual adversary who the Bible calls the accuser. How do we stand firm against this attack of doubt? We raise Ebenezer

God is not just the author of our salvation, but also the perfector.  He doesn’t simply give us a blank slate and ask us to keep it clean; He makes our hearts clean, slowly and meticulously over the course of a lifetime. When we sing songs of adoration, or allow ourselves to be transformed b His Word, we are walking by the power of His grace.

So when we are burdened by the weight of our recurring sin, of our ill tamed flesh, and of our recurring resistance to good works, let us not despair. Let us reflect of how God has changed us since our salvation. Too often we compare ourselves with others: are we more prone to lust than our brother? Does our sister give more freely of her time and money to charity and ministry? How often though do we compare ourselves to our past?

When we can see clearly how far God has brought us, we are encouraged to trust God to complete what He has started in us. We can lean even more deeply into God’s grace to make us into the person God intends us to be.

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Let’s Talk About Hell, Shall We? Part 1

Has this ever happened to you? You’re hanging out with some friends of diverse or no religious affiliations and having a good time. Then someone makes a comment along the lines of, “I sometimes forget you believe I’m going to Hell when I die.” How does anyone respond to that?

Hell is the theological equivalent of racist uncle Jerry for many Christians. While we try to present our faith with a vibrant focus on social justice, ecumenical unity, dynamic Christian community, relational evangelism, and culturally relevant language, Hell is one aspect of Christianity that refuses to become appealing. No matter how we try to dress it up, it’s shocking and rude.

I actually have a lot of empathy with Christians whose doctrine excludes a belief in eternal conscious punishment. It’s a tough one to hold and if I could reject it with any intellectual integrity, I might. But scripture doesn’t give us this freedom if we are to accept it as God’s authoritative revelation.

Doctrinal dismissal, however, is only one way we reject the doctrine of Hell. Many of us avoid Hell by simply never talking about it. Out of sight, out of mind. I’m personally guilty of this. Remarkably few non-Christians play meaningful roles in my life and my knowledge of their pending eternal destiny rarely affects how I interact with them. I’ve posted almost 70 times on this space and mentioned ‘Hell’ three times: Twice in direct quotes from the Bible.

Rejecting Hell- whether doctrinally or by avoidance- is an easy way of dealing with it, at least on the surface. It makes for better public relations. I propose, however, that a more robust engagement with the doctrine of Hell allows us to understand how it fits with God’s love, and can equip us to better communicate it to those who don’t believe. A comprehensive treatment of the topic goes far beyond the scope of my abilities, but I’d like to present the following three points as a guide for further study.

Point 1: Hell is a Verdict

This isn’t a point that is widely disputed, but I think it’s often misunderstood. Does God really send people to Hell for not believing exactly the right set of propositional statements? Or is He so narcissistic as to punish people for not praising Him? How can a loving God send people to Hell? Shouldn’t God understand that we’re only human?

Here’s the story of mankind according to the Bible. God created man as the masterpiece of His creation. We bore His image and had a mandate to nurture and care for the rest of creation under His authority. We enjoyed a degree of harmony with all creation of which we only see glimpses today. But the desire to be like God was the downfall of our race. We weren’t content to reflect His image but desired to craft our own image.

There are many Christians who look at the significance of Genesis 3, not as a historical account, but a metaphor for the drama played out in our society today. This is not necessarily  to say that it didn’t happen, but that debating over the historicity actually obscures the message of the text.

Cultural introspection reveals the outworking of this drama in the battle for freedom. We demand the freedom to choose our own destiny and strike out against any argument that imposes external rules on our behaviour. We organize movements demanding freedom of marriage, freedom to terminate unwanted pregnancy, freedom of information, freedom to bear firearms (more an American issue than Canadian), freedom from censorship, freedom to choose alternative healthcare, and even freedom to die on our terms. We band together against oppression in any form and as a result are a generation unmatched in social justice activism. We only favour restriction as it applies to others. Let’s restrict the freedom of the wealthy to accumulate wealth at the expense of the working class. Let’s restrict the freedom of religious educational institutions to institute a code of conduct for its students. This is not to evaluate these movements/arguments, but to highlight a common trend in them all. Give us more freedom; take away the ability of others to restrict my freedom. Ultimately, we want to be masters of our destinies to the maximum extent possible.

A sovereign Creator stands opposed to this craving for independence. We cringe when Jesus says, “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve(Matthew 4:10).”We’re not opposed to the idea of serving God and those who want to should be able to do so in peace. But give us leeway to serve other gods. There are so many things to live for, so many ‘gods’ we can serve and to tie all of humanity down to one seems unfair. The problem is that, again according to the Bible, all of creation belongs to one God and worship is His due. As a Canadian citizen, I am free to disagree with my government’s ideology but obligated to be loyal to the state. This argument is the reason why, despite being labelled a hero by many in the media, Edward Snowden remains stuck in Russia unable to return to the United States. While his actions sparked a more informed debate on domestic spying that is likely to lead to NSA reforms, he was not free to release those documents and is now charged with espionage and potentially treason.

Why does the Bible make belief in Jesus the essential ingredient in salvation? Because rejection of Jesus is submission to another Lord. John’s gospel says, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (John 3:19).” Jesus comes with an invitation to walk in God’s light, but people preferred to make their own way in darkness. The apostle Paul also presents salvation in the language of submission and Lordship in his letters to the Colossians and to the Ephesians

He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son,  in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.  – Colossians 1:13-14

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins  in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. – Ephesians 2:1-3

Here’s something many rarely consider: If Hell is a verdict based on rejection of Jesus, then its execution in the afterlife is actually a delayed sentence. This is in fact, something the Bible also talks about.

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. – 2 Peter 3:9

Or do you show contempt for the riches of His kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? – Romans 2:4

Many of us get multiple opportunities to reject Jesus and indeed not many commit to serving Jesus the first time the gospel is heard. The picture of humanity we have in scripture is of a people constantly being wooed by their creator, urged to stop being led on by other gods and find true life in His kingdom. Hell is a verdict that God will execute eventually but in the mean time, He is making every effort to extend grace and a way out.

Click for part two

Let’s Talk About Hell, Shall We? Part 2

Point 2: Hell is not Torment for Torment’s Sake

What comes to mind when you think of Hell? For most of us, it’s a mostly naked, male muscular demon ruling over a cavernous domain of fire. The joke goes, once an engineer was mistakenly sent down there and by the time the error was discovered, he had installed air conditioning making it more bearable. We politely laugh as someone repeats that joke for the thousandth time, but miss the assumption underlying this and many other discussions on Hell: the suffering in Hell is a feature that is both punitive and avoidable. In other words, it’s a belief that God made Hell uncomfortable out of malice.

One prominent feature in our notion of Hell is the fire and brimstone, and this comes directly from the pages of scripture. By far the most common picture the Bible paints of Hell is a place of eternal flame (See for example Matthew 13:50, 25:41, Revelation 20:15).

What many don’t realize is that fire is not the only image the Bible gives of Hell. It’s also described as being shut out of the great feast (Matthew 25:10-12), being cast into the outer darkness (Matthew 22:13, 25:30, Jude 13), and being excluded from the city of God (Revelation 22:14-15). Jesus also uses the refrain ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ to describe the experience (Matthew 8:12, 25:13, Luke 13:28).

These two metaphors (fire and darkness) are meant to highlight theological, not physical, realities of Hell. I’ll give two points of proof. First, the Bible is clear that our bodies don’t go to Hell. We fear fire and darkness because we interact with the world as bodily beings. Literal fire and darkness, as far as I understand, will not present much problem for the unfettered souls of man. The second reason is what fire and darkness represent. God’s first recorded action is creation. Before He spoke, the world was formless and dark. Hell’s darkness represents a return to that and the fire represents destruction and deconstruction. Fire consumes; that’s what it does. We as a species have managed to tame fire by allowing it to carry out controlled destruction so we can reap some benefits, but fire itself is a destructive force. In a sense it reverses creation, bringing darkness and formlessness from order and beauty.

If we accept this, then we can say that Hell is an exile from God’s creation. It is to spend eternity without God and unable to benefit from the fruit of His work. It’s essentially receiving what we’ve asked for our entire lives: freedom from God. There’s a phrase the Bible uses a number of times to illustrate this: God giving sinners over to their desires (Psalm 81:11-12, Acts 7:42, Romans 1:24, Ephesians 4:17-19, 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12). It’s used a form of judgment so that those who resist God are eventually allowed to go their own way.

Theologians, inspired by reading scripture, have coined a term ‘common grace’. Common grace is that gift that God gives to all people allowing them to seek their prosperity here in this life. The earth doesn’t test for faith in Jesus before responding to the farmer’s efforts with fruit. Christians and non-Christians alike are gifted with intellect and creativity to make a living. The danger in common grace is that it is taken for granted and used as an excuse to continue living as though God is not the rightful ruler of all things. We treasure God’s gifts but deny the giver. But one day, common grace will be removed and all will see exactly how dependent we truly are on God’s providence.

For He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. – Matthew 5:45

The Lord upholds all who are falling
and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to You,
and You give them their food in due season.
 You open your hand;
You satisfy the desire of every living thing.  – Psalm 145:14-16

Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before Him. But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.  – Ecclesiastes 8:11-13

None of this is to deny or explain away the torment of Hell. There isn’t a single verse in the Bible that promises any comfort but many speak to its torment. ‘Weeping and gnashing of teeth’ is meant to describe pain and misery. But it’s not as though God adds to the misery of Hell to make a point. To be separated from God is to be separated from all that is good. When we see ‘God is love’ and ‘God of all comfort’ and ‘The Lord of peace’, we begin to sense the cost of His total absence.

Click here for part three

Let’s Talk About Hell, Shall We? Part 3

Point 3: Hell is the Final Triumph of Good over Evil

Three months ago, thousands of voices in the United States and Canada erupted in unified fury at the decision of a grand jury in Missouri not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. When given voice to their fury, protesters bemoaned what they saw as justice deferred. They were denied not only the verdict they desired but the opportunity for a case to be made. The state prosecutor released documents to the public in an effort to assure that due process was indeed respected in this case, and justice was accomplished, not averted.

We are all too familiar with the pain of justice deferred. We rejoice when the guilty finally get theirs but know that all too often, they don’t. The prophets (Jeremiah 12:1-4, Habakkuk 1:1-4,12-17) and the poets (Psalm 94:1-6) of the Old Testament wrestle with God over this. Why do the evil prosper and the good suffer?

We generally fail, however, to bring this complaint inwards. Why do we get away with some of the things we do? Sometimes we bear the consequences of our error, but often we get away with. We are quick to ask why the guy who cuts us off on the highway going 140km/h doesn’t get pulled over but not why we continually get away with our occasional (or habitual) forays into prohibited driving. We make excuses for ourselves so we don’t have to think of ourselves as lawbreakers. Yes I parked in the handicap spot but it was cold and I was only going to be a minute. As a general rule, we assume the worst of others and the best of ourselves.

We never verbalize this but we would love for sweeping justice to spread through the earth excluding ourselves. Jesus exposed this in a story recounted in John’s gospel. His opponents brought to Him a woman caught in the act of adultery and asked Him to pronounce judgment. Jesus replied with one of the most famous sayings in scripture: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).

Can we accept ourselves as sinners? Perhaps. Sinners with excuses but sinners nonetheless. In the Old Testament, God instituted a system to deal with individual sins, with people receiving atonement though the sacrifice of livestock. As the financial cost of wrongdoing began to add up, the depth of the people’s sin was exposed. It was expensive to deal with sins individually, but not to deal with them was to be separated from God. What was needed was a way to atone for sin once for all.

This is why the cross of Jesus is at the centre of the Christian religion. Jesus comes down, lives a sinless life, and takes upon Himself our sin paying for it with His life. He offers us the most one-sided exchange in all history: He gives us His righteousness and takes in return our sinfulness. The moment we accept this exchange is what Christians call salvation, though it takes a lifetime to grow into the fullness of Jesus’ righteousness. God places His Holy Spirit inside believers, transforming us moment by moment- slowly and painstakingly- towards the perfection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ appearance raises the stakes. Before He came, the most moral members of society would point out how many of God’s laws they had kept. But Jesus comes to be THE way and nothing short of His righteousness is acceptable. If we reject Jesus, then we must be perfect as He is because there is now no other way to atone for sin.

Jesus speaking: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates Me hates My Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would have no sin; but now they have seen and also hated both Me and My Father.” – John 15:22-24

Jesus here isn’t saying that people were perfect before He came, but that His presence makes them guilty of flat out rejecting God. The oath of allegiance we swear to God is not a vague commitment to good deeds, but conscious submission to Jesus as ruler of our lives. If we reject Jesus or accept Him as any less than God in the flesh, our guilt before God is sealed.

The Christian religion gives us a glimpse at the end of the world as we know it in what we refer to as the apocalyptic texts in the Bible. These can be somewhat difficult to decipher and there’s a lot of disagreement about what events certain passages are referring to, but one thing that is eminently clear is that God wages war against all manner of sin and He wins (Revelation 19:11-21). The world is divided into two camps: those who fight with God and those who fight against Him. Those who fight with God don’t do so because they are nicer, smarter, more virtuous, or better in any way; they are simply those who have accepted the rule of God over their lives.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:26-29

Heaven is full of these weak and foolish. Hell isn’t a indictment on the relative quality of one’s humanity, but a reality because we are broken, selfish humans. And while it will never be an attractive doctrine, we can’t deny that God’s love and justice necessitates that He punish wrongdoing. In His grace, He has chosen to delay the punishment and to give a way out, but it must eventually come to be. We need not be tied to any physical descriptions of the place, but we cannot deny that all who reject God’s authority in this life will experience life apart from His common grace in the next.

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy,  to the only God, our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.  – Jude 1:24-25

Miracles and the Activity of God

Many of us know the story of Jesus walking on water in the gospels. In this story, Jesus has his disciples cross the Sea of Galilee by boat while he stayed behind to pray. The disciples find themselves caught in a storm which causes them to panic. Then something cool happens.

“And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”” – Matthew 14:25-27

This happens to one of those Bible stories that’s made its way into the public consciousness. It’s made it’s rounds in the world of internet memes and even received attention from the sacrilegious satirical show, Family Guy. Why is it so popular? Because it’s unusual and spectacular. John’s gospel recounts this story as one of seven signs point to the divinity of Jesus. Here the creator exercises his dominion over the laws of nature. Who wouldn’t want to see that?

Reading the gospels in their entirety though, it’s remarkable to observe that Jesus only pulls this trick once. We have no indication that he ever does it again. It’s not for lack of opportunity either because we see at least three other boat related events in the gospels (Mark 3:7-10,Luke 5:1-3, John 21:4-8) in which walking on water would have been helpful.

How many other miracles does Jesus not perform as often as we might like? Water to wine is a great party trick that only gets shown off once. Feeding crowds with a child’s lunch, paying his taxes from a fish’s mouth, escaping an angry mob by simply walking through them, miraculous haul of fish, resurrecting His buddy Lazarus, and the list goes on.

Even today, doesn’t it seem like God doesn’t work miracles as often as we might like? I count myself among a large number of Christians still seeking God for deliverance from recurring sinful habits and/or debilitating addictions. Prayers for miraculous healing continue to flood prayer hotlines and fill private devotions around the world. We hear the stories of God giving miracles to others and wonder, “When will mine come?”

God freed Peter, Paul, and Silas from prison, but Jesus’ cousin was beheaded after his incarceration. Lazarus was resurrected but Stephen died a martyr. John the apostle was promised a long life, but Peter was given no assurances beyond the moment.

Sometimes God intervenes miraculously in our lives, and sometimes He doesn’t. There are times God prefers to work under the normal laws of nature and sometimes he circumvents them. But He is always working for the good of his children. There has never been, nor will there ever be a time when God is not looking out for us.

There might be some Christians whose faith is closely tied to experiencing God’s grand miracles. Like Peter, they want to stay on at mountain at the transfiguration. That’s where the journey of faith is most exciting and less difficult. Even the rebellious children of Israel during the Exodus believed when God was performing miracles. Their problem was in how they acted when they felt God was silent or distant.

“Why doesn’t God move like He did in Biblical times?” God’s activity between what we see in scripture and in our daily lives seems seriously reduced, if not in power then in frequency. This question plagued me for years as a Christian and for a time, I allowed myself to believe that He doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore. I stopped asking God for anything beyond the probable.

What we need is a proper sense of perspective. Scripture records hundreds of years of history featuring a large number of people. We have a highlight reel of God’s activity. If your initial engagement in a sport is watching game highlights, you’ll likely find live games boring. I wonder what it was like to the first generation after Israel settled in Canaan, hearing their parents tell about the sun standing still during a battle and their grandparents telling how they saw water flowing from a rock and their great-grandparents telling of crossing the Red Sea on dry land. Would they have considered their experience with Yahweh somewhat underwhelming? During the Assyrian assault on Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem received encouragement from Isaiah’s prophecies but how about those in the surrounding towns? Who assured them of God’s coming victory?

God does miracles for many reasons: to show His power, to rescue His people, in answer to prayer, to demonstrate power above His enemies, etc. He restrains Himself also for many reasons. Sometimes it’s so that we  can walk through trials and grow towards maturity(James 1:2-4). Perhaps the miracle we seek would actually hurt us (1 Kings 3:1-3,11:1-4). And sometimes, it’s so we become more dependent on His grace (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). His actions are determined only by His sovereign will and His will is always perfect.

God still makes things happen that only He can. We will all experience his grace at work in our lives. For some of us, it will be in spectacular, visibly miraculous ways. Some of us may never see all God is doing behind the scenes. All we see may be delayed answers to prayers or persistent trials without satisfactory closure. I’ve at times felt like a Baptist surrounded by Pentecostals, or maybe just a Pentecostal doing something wrong. Until my first experience with fundraising for missions, I’d never experienced a ‘miracle’ firsthand. That didn’t mean God wasn’t working, it just meant I wasn’t able to see it.

“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” – Deuteronomy 29:29