Happy Leap Day

Soren Kierkegaard compared the faith of a Christian to a leap. In this, he was not saying that faith begins with a leap—that we enter Christianity by making a leap of faith. Rather, he was saying that all of faith is a leap. He spoke not only about leaping across a chasm to the other side, but also of the leaps performed by ballet dancers. For most of us, such a leap would be a clumsy jump; but for the trained dancer, the leap is graceful and appears effortless.

Kierkegaard’s point is that no one is persuaded to become a Christian through reason and logic. Logical arguments exist to prove the existence of God, but no one has ever been won to faith by a logical argument. These arguments reinforce the faith of believers, but unbelievers generally find ways to resist the power of the logical proofs. Some proofs should be resisted, such as Anselm’s ontological proof. (We first define God as the best of all possible beings: the wisest, the most powerful, the most beautiful, etc. We then state that it is better to exist than not to exist. That would certainly be true of a piece of chocolate cake. Since we already said that God is the best of all possible beings: hey, presto: we have proved the existence of God.) Other logical proofs, such as those regarding a First Cause and a First Mover, are more convincing. (I was just reading such a proof by John Locke last night. The first thought was produced by the first thinker. If the first thinker arose in time, then there was a time when no thought existed. Atheists are willing to accept that condition, but most people struggle to explain how the first thought could come into being within time.)

Kierkegaard was by no means the first to suggest that reason and logic can lead to faith. Martin Luther described reason and logic as the mother or grandmother of the devil. Human thinkers who rely upon reason and logic can never work their way to the truths of God. (Luther would have hated the approach of Rene Descartes.) Rather, we begin with God and his revelation, and we use reason and logic to interpret and understand and apply those truths that God has revealed. Whenever we trust our reason and logic over God’s Word, we put ourselves in the place of God. As a result, we reject the paradoxes which are not below reason and logic but are so far about them that they cannot comprehend the paradoxes of God’s truth.

There is a place, then, for reason and logic in the practice of apologetics. But they cannot be the foundation of apologetics. The foundation must remain the Bible. God’s Word creates faith and strengthens faith and sustains faith. Reason and logic have their place, but only when they serve God’s Word and do not seek to become its masters.

Modern Christianity, at least in North America, tends to diminish reason and logic, but not for the relationship involving God’s grace and his gift of faith. Rather, modern evangelism often resorts to emotional appeals to draw people into faith. Events are manufactured to inspire the flow of emotions that makes people responsive to an invitation. Then, at the peak moment of emotional fervor, the invitation is delivered. This sort of manipulation of the human mind and will is justified by its practitioners according to two false teachings: that faith is a conscious decision of the human mind or will; and that once a person acquires true faith, that faith can never be lost.

Both false teachings are easily corrected by God’s Word. “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s Law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7) “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Ephesians 2:1). “If salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13). “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12).

Every day each Christian leaps into the arms of a loving and merciful Father. Every day each Christian leaps by means of the cross of Christ into the kingdom of God. Every day the Holy Spirit carries each Christian from sin through repentance to redemption, from rebellion through grace to reconciliation with God. As we observe a leap day—not a once-in-a-lifetime day, but a regularly scheduled correction to the calendar—so we rejoice in the leap of faith that brings us to a right relationship with the God who loves us and who rescues us from all sin and evil. J.

A message from God (part two)

The Bible is the Word of God, the only trustworthy communication we have with the Creator of heaven and earth and the Redeemer of sinners. As God’s Word, the Bible can be used to test and judge other messages—not only dreams and visions, thoughts and feelings, but also preachers, teachers, and writers. If their message contradicts the Bible, their message is not from God. Because our understanding and interpretation of the Bible’s message can sometimes be diverse and unclear, I have written about how to reconcile different Christian interpretations of the Bible here.

But once we have acknowledged that the Bible is God’s Word, that it is the only test of other messages, how can we be sure that the truth of the Bible is true for us? Written long ago in foreign languages and foreign cultures, the Bible might not seem like a very personal message to Christians in the contemporary world. Therefore, some Christians seek and trust additional connections to God, additional ways that they can receive his Word and apply it to their lives.

Jesus knows everything. He knew this yearning for closeness could lead to problems. Therefore, Jesus promised that he could be found. “But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29); “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Where did Jesus promise to be found? Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Some Christians are frustrated with the Christian Church on earth. It is filled with sinners. It sometimes fails to protect members and visitors from sinners in offices of power. The Church sometimes neglects the most needy and pays too much attention to worldly wealth and power. Yet Jesus promised to be present where people gather in his name. A study on discipleship I took when I was in high school proclaimed, “There are no Lone Ranger Christians.” The Church is the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ. Those things that happen in the Church give us a closer relationship to Jesus—closeness that we will not find by enjoying Creation, meditating quietly in our rooms, or waiting for dreams and visions and quiet voices.

We see sinners in the Church. Jesus sees saints, already forgiven through his work. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). Because the Church is his Bride, Christ does not allow us to seek a relationship with him apart from the Church. If you love him, you must love his Bride and see her with his eyes. When we see the sins committed in the Church and remember that those are forgiven sins, we are reminded that our sins also are forgiven through the cleansing work of Jesus.

What happens when people gather in Jesus’ name? The forgiveness of sins is proclaimed and believed. The Word of God is read and explained. Prayers are raised to God on behalf of the Church, its members, and the world in which we live. Sacraments also happen in the Church. It is no mistake that Paul uses baptismal language when talking about Christ’s cleansing of the Church, “by the washing of water with the Word.”

To some Christians, Baptism is a thing they did for God, an act that shows that they love and trust Jesus. They see Baptism as obedience to a commandment. But Baptism is a gift from God. It makes a Christian new every day, able to obey the “new commandment” to “love one another.” Studying the commandments does not make us better; God’s grace and forgiveness makes us better. Only through God’s grace and forgiveness are we restored to our Maker’s plan, being transformed into the image of Christ. Baptism is one of God’s expressions of this grace.

The other expression of God’s grace is called the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and the Sacrament of the Altar. Again, some Christians eat and drink at the Lord’s Table as obedience to a command. They are remembering Jesus and showing that they love him. But Paul calls this Sacrament participation in the body and blood of our Savior: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (I Corinthians 10:16). Jesus says of the bread, “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you.” He says of the wine, “This is the cup of the New Testament, given for you for the forgiveness of sin.” He urges Christians to “do this often, remembering me.”

A quiet whisper like the one Elijah heard, a message from the Lord that springs into the mind unbidden, might seem like the closest relationship a believer can have with the Lord. But receiving his body and his blood in the Sacrament is even more intimate than hearing a whisper or receiving a message. It seems that the Christians most determined to experience God through dreams and visions and inner thoughts and voices are those who are neglecting the intimacy of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The Bible urges us to cling to these Sacraments for confidence of our salvation and for connection to the Lord. I joke with Jesus about receiving messages from him through the radio, but Jesus earnestly reminds me to base my relationship with him upon the Bible, the Church, and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. J.

A message from God (part one)

The Lord Jesus and I have a running joke. Since Jesus knows everything, he knows that I am only pretending, but I like to think that he sends me private and personal messages via the songs I hear on the radio. Whether it’s a recent song such as, “If it’s meant to be, it’ll be,” or a classic rock song like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” I treat the lyrics as encouragement to trust that a job change is coming soon. Even break-up songs can be heard as a promise that soon I will leave my current job for something better.

Jesus knows that I accept only the Bible as genuine messages from him. He said it himself: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Luke 24 shows Jesus using the Hebrew Bible (Moses, the prophets, and the writings) to explain his rescue mission, including his death and resurrection. Moses and the prophets spoke and wrote as inspired by the Holy Spirit. The apostles chosen by Jesus did the same. We can trust the Bible to be God’s Word, trustworthy and true, fully reliable in whatever it reports. No other message that claims to be from God—dreams, visions, or inner voices—comes with that guarantee.

Over the years I have known several Christians—in person or through the Internet—who believed that they received personal messages from God outside the written Word of the Bible. I do not want to single any of these Christians out for argument or debate. God can do whatever he wants. If he chooses to send a dream to one person and a thought to another person and a song on the radio to a third person, the Lord is quite capable of doing so. He doesn’t need my permission. But I want to share a cautionary tale about accepting every such message as heaven-sent, without “testing the spirits” (I John 4:1) by comparing the current message to the Bible.

Two men—I’ll call them Moe and Joe—had similar frustrations about religion and Christianity, although they lived in different parts of the world and at different times of history. Moe and Joe were both perplexed by the many religions in the world, including various differences in Christian teaching. Groups of Christians read the same Bible yet offered different interpretations of what is written. Moe and Joe both sought a direct and personal relationship with God. They wanted the Lord to confirm the truth to them so they could believe the truth and share it with others.

Had Moe spent more time studying the Bible, he would have been prepared for what happened to him. Moe would have know that “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (II Corinthians 11:14), and he would have remembered Paul’s warning that “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8) As Moe sought a personal relationship with God to reveal truth to him, Moe was met by an angel of light who claimed to be the archangel Gabriel. This angel gave Moe messages to recite, purportedly messages from God that had been preached by all the prophets but had been changed over time. These messages included moral teachings that greatly resemble those accepted by Jews and Christians. But they also included statements that Jesus is a prophet but nothing more than a prophet, that God has no Son, and that each person is responsible for his or her own salvation. Some people think that Muhammad (or Moe) made up the messages he received; others believe he did receive the recitations of the Quran directly from an angelic figure. I cannot judge Muhammad, but I can judge his message to be false because of what it says about Jesus.

Likewise Joe (Joseph Smith Jr.) in the state of New York received heavenly visitors who provided him access to “Another Testament of Jesus Christ,” the Book of Mormon. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints believe that the Book of Mormon is from God; most Christians believe that it is not. The proof is found in comparing its message to the writings of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles. Once again, the messages do not agree. Some people think that Joe invented the messages of the Book of Mormon; others believe he did receive those writings from heavenly figures. I cannot judge Joseph Smith, but I can judge his message to be false because of what it says about Jesus.

With Moe and Joe in mind, I encourage every Christian to be slow to accept any dream or message or thought or feeling as a personal message from God. “Test the spirits.” Study the Bible to know God’s Word so you can distinguish truth from falsehood. Don’t be angry when another Christian uses God’s Word to correct a message that you think came from God, because that is one of the purposes of the Bible (II Timothy 3:16-17). And tomorrow I will write more about having a personal relationship with Jesus that goes beyond reading, hearing, learning, and sharing the written Word of the Bible. J.

Transfiguration, Mardi Gras, and Lent

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record an event in which Jesus glowed with light. He had gone to the top of a mountain to pray, bringing with him Peter, James, and John. While he was praying, his face began to shine like the sun, and his clothing turned brilliant white, whiter than any bleach could make them. Moses and Elijah joined the four men on the mountain, speaking with Jesus about the rescue mission he was soon to fulfill in Jerusalem. (Note—this is the first time that Moses was permitted to set foot in the Promised Land. This indicates that Jesus, in his rescue mission, was completing the work that Moses had started centuries earlier.) After Peter babbled something about setting up three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, the group was surrounded by a cloud—not a natural cloud of water droplets, but the supernatural cloud of God’s glory. From this cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased—Listen to him!” The disciples fell to the ground in terror, but Jesus touched them and told them not to be afraid. When they opened their eyes, it was just the four of them again, and Jesus was no longer glowing with light.

In recent times, the custom among traditional churches has been to hear and contemplate the descriptions of this event on the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. (The traditional Christian calendar begins around the start of December with roughly four weeks of Advent. Next come the twelve days of Christmas, followed by the season of Epiphany. During this season, Christians consider the evidence that Jesus is God’s Son and the world’s Savior. After Epiphany comes the penitential season of Lent, consisting of forty days plus six Sundays. Lent concludes with Holy Week, which ushers in the seven weeks of Easter. After those seven weeks, the Church celebrates the holiday of Pentecost, and then about half a year passes before Advent starts again.) The thought of Jesus glowing with light in the presence of three apostles and two Old Testament heroes seems a fitting conclusion to the thoughts of Epiphany while Christians prepare themselves for the somber observance of Lent.

In the days that fasting was more common in Lent, Christians used up the last of their luxuries—milk, eggs, and the like—on Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday kicks off the season of Lent. How this sensible consumption of items that would spoil if they were not eaten turned into the modern Bacchanalia of Mardi Gras is not hard to guess, sinful human nature being what it is. My point is not to criticize the excesses of Mardi Gras; that would be too easy. But remembering the Transfiguration of the Lord on the last Sunday of Epiphany is itself, in a way, a Mardi Gras for traditional Christians. During Lent, Christians remember their sins and their need for a Savior; we repent. At the same time, we recall that Jesus is the Savior we need, and so we experience the joy of our salvation even in the gloom of Lent. This last Sunday of the season, remembering Christ’s Transfiguration, wraps up the glory of Epiphany for Christians.

At times Christians have overemphasized Lent and penitence and gloom and sorrow. Currently, the opposite trend seems to be stronger. Many Christians want all their spiritual experiences to be uplifting, exhilarating, and inspiring. They prefer not to talk about sin and repentance. They marginalize the cross, reducing its importance. They want to feel the glory today, to bask in the glow of Jesus, and to make every day a celebration. Like Peter, they want to extend the good times, to make permanent what God intends to be only a passing event in the life of a Christian.

God can provide beautiful times like the Transfiguration where and when he pleases. The useful times in the life of a Christian, though, are not the mountaintop experiences. The useful times are the dark nights of the soul, the times when God seems distant, the times when we believe not because faith is easy but because faith is needed. Those are the times when we grow. Those are the times when the Lord does his best work through us.

Someone has said that anxiety and depression are a normal reaction to the world as it is right now—that anyone who is not anxious and depressed simply is not paying attention. That position is overstated, but it contains a kernel of truth. We see the joy of salvation best when we understand from what evil we have been saved. The celebration of Easter is made greater by the observation of Lent. Or, as Richard Nixon said, “Only if you have been in the deepest valley, can you know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.” J.

I have a dream

It began at a gas station. I had just filled the gas tank of my car, and I was prepared for a long drive home. I had not been home for a while, and I was looking forward to returning.

The service road was crowded with traffic, so I had to wait a bit for a gap before I could leave. But soon I was on my way, merging onto the Interstate. Almost immediately I passed some construction, and some of the vehicles in front of me pulled over into the site, but I kept on driving.

The next thing I knew, I was on Washington Street in my childhood hometown. Some trees next to the street were in bloom, covered with flowers. I pulled a branch to my face and sniffed, but I smelled no odor.

After that I was home. I knew people were sleeping, so I was moving quietly from room to room. Suddenly, I heard the Beatles singing “Paperback Writer.” I knew that my alarm was going off, and my first thought was worry that the alarm had been playing every morning while I was away.

Then I woke. My alarm was playing “Paperback Writer,” as I had set it to do last night. I had not been away from home, and my alarm had not been disturbing my family during my absence.

Most of the dream makes sense: my returning home after an absence, my departure somewhat delayed by traffic, passing through construction—all that I understand. But I am trying to decipher the odorless flowers close to home.

Any suggestions? J.

Church and state and God’s wrath

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:1-5).

Americans sometimes speak as if we invented the separation between church and state. That separation already exists in the Bible. Early Israel—under Moses, Joshua, and the judges, including Samuel—was a theocracy; God was ruler over Israel. But already in his farewell sermon (the book of Deuteronomy), Moses guided by the Holy Spirit anticipated the time when Israel would be ruled by a king. The ultimate king is, of course, Jesus, but the kings of Israel and Judah were pictures of Jesus, preparing the way for his coming as surely as priests and prophets prepared the way of the Lord.

Only Jesus is permitted to hold the two positions of priest and king. Saul and Uzziah were both punished by God when they attempted to do tasks assigned to the priests. Likewise in the New Testament, God’s work is done by church leaders and by human governments, but the work they do is carefully distinguished.

Church leaders proclaim the commands of God largely to diagnose sin, to call for repentance, and to offer forgiveness to sinners. Preachers must speak of the wrath of God, but they do not exercise the wrath of God. Human governments pass laws that regulate behavior to protect citizens from sinners. Governments enforce penalties for murder, robbery, false witness, and other sins, declaring them crimes against the state and punishing people convicted of such crimes.

When the church tries to punish sinners, it steps on the government’s feet. Aside from excluding obviously unrepentant sinners from the blessings of the church, Christian leaders can do little with churchly power to overturn evil in the world. We call upon Christians to do good works, to imitate Christ, but we do not convey God’s wrath when Christians fail. Instead, we continue to call for repentance and continue to promise forgiveness through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When the government tries to forgive sinners, it steps on the church’s feet. Governors and Presidents have power to pardon criminals, but a governmental pardon is not forgiveness. Forgiveness comes from the cross of Christ through the work of the Church.

Christians have a dual citizenship. We are loyal to human government and take part in its actions. We also belong to the kingdom of God, and our first loyalty is to Jesus. When the government opposes God’s ways, we follow God’s ways, as Daniel did in Babylon and as Peter and John did in Jerusalem. But—even though Christians are called to reach out to their neighbors with the good news of forgiveness through Christ—it is right and not sinful for Christians to report a crime to the police. It is right and not sinful for Christians to testify truthfully in court about crimes they have witnessed. Christians may serve as police officers, jurors, judges, and even executioners. When these actions bring punishment to sinners, the wrath of God is being exercised. The final wrath of God will be expressed on the Day of the Lord, but his wrath works through human government today to limit sin and evil in the world and to protect all people from sin and evil.

Faith in Christ spares sinners from the wrath of God on the Day of the Lord. Faith in Christ does not spare sinners from the wrath of God exercised by human government. Prison officials do not witness to prisoners, but they permit Christians to enter the prisons and witness to prisoners. If a criminal comes to faith in prison, that criminal is a forgiven sinner spared God’s wrath on the Last Day, but that prisoner must continue to serve his or her sentence in the world under the authority of human government.

Human governments consist of sinful humans. They sometimes make mistakes and do what is wrong. In a democracy, Christians are free to vote for the leaders they expect to make the fewest mistakes. They are free to send messages to their leaders, advising them to do what those Christians, informed by the Bible, believe to be right for the government to do. Christians even have freedom to gather together and protest wrong decisions made by the government. Christians remain subject to human government, which represents the authority of God. We owe our leaders honor and respect, even when we feel that they are mistaken—even sinful—in what they say and do.

Church leaders describe the wrath of God to warn sinners of the coming Day of the Lord, the punishment that will be dealt to sinners. But we do so to call for repentance. Rather than constantly preaching fire and brimstone and the wrath of God, Christians should be known for pointing to the cross, showing how Christ consumed the wrath of God to spare us the punishment we deserve. Christian leaders should be known for proclaiming the love and mercy and grace of God, not only his wrath.

Church leaders often call believers to discipleship or to holiness. We remind people why we were made—to love God and to love our neighbors—and we encourage one another to do good works. But the commandments of God do not cause sinners to do good works. The commandments do not create discipleship or holiness. The commandments describe what Christians should do, but the forgiveness of God gives Christians power to do good things. The commandments describe the perfection of Jesus, but the forgiveness of God transforms us into the image of Christ, changing sinners into saints. Knowledge of the wrath of God does not, by itself, redeem sinners; knowledge of the wrath of God moves sinners to repentance, opening their minds and hearts to hear and believe the good news of redemption through Christ.

In this way the Bible distinguishes between the functions of God’s wrath under human governments and in the Christian Church. J.

Happy St. Valentine’s Day

I stopped by Walmart on my way home from teaching last night. I had to chuckle as I walked past the Valentine cards; three white-haired men were inspecting the cards, all standing in front of the “Wife” selections. There’s nothing like last-minute shopping for romantic gestures.

Every Leap Year I read the works of Soren Kierkegaard as part of my daily devotions. I just happen to be halfway through Stages on Life’s Way, which is very appropriate for St. Valentine’s Day. For those unfamiliar with Kierkegaard, he was a theologian in the Danish church (therefore Lutheran), although he never served a congregation. Instead, he published (at his own expense) essays on philosophy, theology, and life in general. Many of his books were written under pseudonyms, which gave Kierkegaard the freedom to pursue lines of thought that were not his own. That’s why it’s risky to quote Kierkegaard—you can never be sure that he meant what he wrote, that he wasn’t setting up a straw man through his pseudonym.

Stages on Life’s Way presents itself as a series of works found in a bookbinder’s shop and published by the bookbinder because he had no idea what had happened to the author. The first work is based on Plato’s Symposium: five men gather for a banquet, and each delivers a speech about love. The second work is a scholarly discussion of love and marriage, attributed to a certain Judge William. The third, “Guilty? Not Guilty?” is a diary supposedly fished out of a Danish lake. The diarist writes in the morning, recalling a love affair/engagement of a year before; then he writes at midnight about his sense of guilt for having broken the engagement. Since Kierkegaard had done exactly that—been engaged and broke the engagement—one might suspect that the diary is somewhat autobiographical. In actuality, the work is an exploration of romance, anxiety, depression, worry, and the like. Great reading for Valentine’s Day!

Kierkegaard is sometimes blamed for the Existentialist movement in modern philosophy. He actually was a defender of traditional Biblical Christianity. Kierkegaard insisted that faith must be subjective, but he didn’t mean that in a post-modern sense of “believe whatever you choose to believe.” Instead, he meant that theological statements must be deeply personal to have any value. A list of proofs for the existence of God is helpful to hardly anyone: the believer already believes without the proofs, and the unbeliever already rejects all the proofs that are presented.

Which brings me back to the white-haired men searching for a preprinted card that will express their love for their wife—and doing so long after the most suitable cards have already been purchased. Wouldn’t a handwritten message be more suitable than a Walmart greeting card? Or have these men run out of ways to say, “I love you”? Flowers and chocolate are nice, but nothing is more endearing than a piece of paper that has been handled and rejected by countless husbands over the past three weeks before it finally leaves the store in the hands of a desperate man a few short hours before midnight on February 13. Or so it struck me last night. J.

The cup of wrath

God’s eternal and unchanging nature is love. In love he responds to sin and evil with anger; but in love he also finds a way to rescue sinners from his anger. On the cross, Christ faced the wrath of God, consuming it fully so no wrath is left for sinners who trust in Christ.

Before going to the cross, Christ prayed, “Let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). He prayed about the cup of God’s wrath, which is described by the Old Testament prophets: “Wake yourself, wake yourself, stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering” (Isaiah 51:17); “Thus the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me, ‘Take from my hand this cup of wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it” (Jeremiah 25:15); to Judah, God says, “You have gone the way of your sister; therefore I will give her cup into your hand. Thus says the Lord God: You shall drink your sister’s cup that is deep and large; you shall be laughed at and held in derision, for it contains much; you will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow. A cup of horror and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria, you shall drink it and drain it out, and gnaw its shards and tear your breasts; for I have spoken, declares the Lord God” (Ezekiel 23:32-34). Imagine in heaven a cup with your name written on it. Every time you sin, a drop of poison falls into that cup, the poison of the wrath of God. For every lie, another drop of poison. For every careless deed that causes harm, another drop of poison. For every neglected opportunity to help a neighbor, another drop of poison. Imagine that cup of God’s wrath waiting for you when the Day of the Lord comes, the Day when all sinners will be judged.

But now that cup is empty. Jesus took your cup and drank all that it contained. In exchange, he gives you his cup, the cup of salvation (Psalm 116:13; I Corinthians 11:25-26). As in a comic movie, one cup is poisoned and the other is pure; but Jesus purposely takes the poisoned cup and gives to you and me the cup that is pure.

For this reason, Christians do not fear the wrath of God. Nor are we terrified of the Day of the Lord. Because Jesus drank the cup of wrath and gave us the cup of salvation, we are confident that we belong to the Lord and will dwell in his kingdom forever. The wrath of God is real; but Christians will never face that wrath. It was consumed and finished on the cross, granting us forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.

No one can teach the whole message of Scripture without speaking of the wrath of God. God’s commandments (his Law) show us why we deserve his wrath; God’s promises (his Gospel) show us how we are spared his wrath through the saving work of Christ. God is love, which is why Christ provided an atoning sacrifice to save us from God’s wrath. No Christian should seek to be a wrath-monger; we should always delight to share the grace of God with sinners. The purpose of teaching the Law is to show our sins and our need for a Savior. This leads to repentance and the joy of sharing the Gospel, which shows us our Savior. The full message must be taught for sinners to come to repentance and faith and thus receive the Lord’s salvation. J.

The wrath of God

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).

About a month ago, my friend and fellow blogger InsanityBytes and I had a conversation at her place (See, there’s this thing called biology) about the wrath of God. IB was speaking against “Christian wrath-mongers,” those who emphasize the wrath of God to such an extent that they scarcely leave room for his love and mercy and forgiveness. In particular she has been disturbed by another blogger who persistently describes the cross of Christ in terms that smack of violence, hatred, and abuse. While I agree with her that the third blogger has badly misstated his description of our redemption at the cross, I also found it necessary to reply to her suggestion that the wrath of God is not real, that it does not exist.

Now, had IB said, “The wrath of God no longer exists for Christians because it was consumed at Christ’s sacrifice on the cross,” I would have joyfully agreed with her. To negate the wrath of God in its entirety is to drain the cross of its power. Granted, other descriptions of the cross still have power: that Christ paid the debt of sinners, that he offered a ransom to reclaim sinners from the enemy, that he fought the enemy (the devil, evil, sin, and death) and won. Any single description of redemption is incomplete. To remove God’s wrath from the equation, though, is not a valid option, since the Bible clearly teaches about God’s wrath.

I promised to study the Bible and report upon the wrath of God. I found that—depending upon which English translation of the Bible one uses—the word “wrath” appears roughly 200 times in the Bible. “Anger” and “angry” show up another 275 times, and “fury” is mentioned 70 times. The Hebrew and Greek words translated as wrath, anger, and fury are correctly translated; the various words all have the meaning of “anger, fury, indignation, ire, wrath.” While they are sometimes used to describe the anger and wrath of humans—and, in some cases, even warn against those qualities—by far the larger number of instances attribute wrath to God. Often that wrath is reserved for the Day of the Lord (Judgment Day), but frequently God’s wrath is a response to sin happening in the present world. Sin makes God angry.

When I sin, I hurt myself. When I sin, I harm my neighbor. When I sin, I damage God’s creation. When I sin, I defy God and declare independence, as if I could rule my own life. For all these reasons, God is right to be angry at sin.

Someone might counter that God’s nature is love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness—and God never changes; he is the same yesterday, today, and forever. All that is true. But God is also holy and good, and a holy and good God must respond to sin because of his love for all that he made. When my sin harms my neighbor, God is angry; when my neighbor’s sin harms me, God is angry. A holy God cannot let sin and evil go without atonement; evil must be countered and not merely ignored.

Because Christians are holy people, we also should be angry about sin. For a Christian to shrug and say, “Oh, well, another mass shooting; another child abducted; another fatal overdose; another person abused. There’s so many problems, it just doesn’t matter any more”—that would be cold hearted, unholy, and not like God. Sin should offend us. Evil should anger us. Like God, we should feel righteous wrath toward those who do wrong in this world.

But the Bible does warn Christians against anger and wrath. Wrath is included in lists of sins that God does not accept. Jesus equates anger—anger that causes us to shout insults—with murder. How do we reconcile these teachings with righteous wrath?

The Bible advises us, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). Anger can be a powerful temptation to sin. God cannot be tempted and never sins; his wrath is always righteous. Our wrath can push us into sin, which is why we need to handle wrath with care. When anger is selfish, when it comes from inconvenience to us and not from rejection of evil, such anger is sinful. Jesus calls that kind of anger murder. God’s wrath toward sin is never murderous anger; it is always holy, righteous, and just.

When the Israelites at Mount Sinai had Aaron build them a gold calf to worship, God was angry. “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.’” (Exodus 32:9-10). Moses interceded for the people, and God relented from his wrath. The intercession of Moses is a picture of Christ’s intercession; what Moses did was only possible because of what Christ would do. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:6-9).

God’s eternal and unchanging nature is love. In love he responds to sin and evil with anger; but in love he also finds a way to rescue sinners from his anger. On the cross, Christ faced the wrath of God, consuming it fully so no wrath is left for sinners who trust in Christ.

(To be continued) J.

You will know the truth

Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

Why do Christians who read the same Bible and trust the same Bible have different versions of the truth? I’m not asking about people who read the Bible and purposely edit what they read to suit their purposes. I’m asking about people who expect to find the truth in God’s Word, yet disagree with each other about what that Word says and means.

For fans of big words, the answer to this question lies in hermeneutics. In simpler terms, even faithful Christians may approach the Bible in different ways, having different assumptions about what the Bible contains. One Christian may treat the Bible as a rulebook and may search the Scriptures looking for rules and regulations. That reader sees the historic accounts of the Bible as examples of what happens when one person obeys God’s rules and when another person breaks God’s rules. Another Christian may treat the Bible as a set of promises from God. That reader sees the historic accounts of the Bible as people acting out God’s plan of salvation. To the first reader, Genesis 22 (Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac) shows a believer giving his best to the Lord. To the second reader, the same chapter shows Abraham and Isaac acting out the drama of Good Friday, as a father is prepared to sacrifice his son.

How do we know which approach is correct? The best answer is, “Scripture interprets Scripture.” When a reader is confused about one passage in the Bible, that reader searches for other parts of the Bible that address the same topic. The other passages add clarity to the message of the confusing passage. To understand the apocalyptic language of the book of Revelation, a reader should be guided by the clear teachings of Christ in Matthew 24 & 25 and those of Paul in I Thessalonians 4 & 5.

Of the various mistakes that many Christians make while reading their Bibles, the two most common (at least in western culture) is to trust their reason and to trust their feelings. Both reason and feelings (head and heart) are important when reading the Bible, but reason and feelings should both be shaped by the words of God, not the other way around. Reason is a tool that helps the reader to interpret the Bible correctly; it assists in leading to other passages that provide clarity. Feeling is a tool that helps to apply the message of the Bible to a person’s life. God’s commandments can prompt a sense of sorrow which leads to repentance; God’s promises can prompt a sense of joy which accompanies faith. But so long as we live in this sin-polluted world, both reason and feeling are tainted by sin. Our heads and our hearts, even after we come to faith, are unreliable guides to truth. Both should be placed under Christ’s Lordship; both should be ready to surrender to the Bible’s message even when that message seems wrong to the head or to the heart.

Reason rejects paradox, but many of God’s truths are paradoxes. God is one, but he is three Persons. Christ is entirely God and entirely human, yet he is one Person, one Christ. The Bible is God’s Word, entirely trustworthy and true, yet God delivered that Word through human individuals who each had his own style of writing. Every attempt to make these teachings reasonable results in false teaching. One Christian makes the Father, Son, and Spirit sound like three gods rather than one God. The next Christian reasons that the three Persons are simply the same God under different names—that Jesus is the Father and the Spirit as well as the Son. Both approaches sound reasonable; both are wrong.

Feeling can carry a Christian many directions away from the truth. One Christian reads the commandments, begins to repent, and is overcome by sorrow and guilt which blocks true repentance and keeps that Christian from hearing the promises of God. Another Christian, having felt the joy that accompanies faith, yearns to continue in that joy. That reader avoids the passages that speak of sin and judgment and so avoids the guidance that God’s Law provides for our lives on earth.

Everything should be judged by the Bible, the messages God delivered to the world and to his people through Moses, the prophets, and the apostles. Any dream, any vision, any message that claims to come from God (whether audible or heard only within) should be compared to the Bible, which we know comes from God and is trustworthy and true. A message that seeks to change the message of the Bible—whether by direct contradiction or by subtle reinterpretation of the Bible—is not a message from the God who gave us the Bible. Even if that message makes sense to our heads or feels good in our hearts, the Christian must still “test the spirits” (I John 4:1-3) to be certain that the message is not false.

Head and heart are important parts of our beings. They were created by God and have been redeemed by Christ. We use them both to find God’s Word in the Bible and apply that Word to our lives. But, until Christ appears and makes everything new, neither can be trusted in the same way the Bible should be trusted. Scripture interprets Scripture—only by this rule can we come to know the truth and to receive freedom through that truth. J.