Science: likable, but limited

I like science. All through school, I got As in science classes. My book collection has several books on science.

Granted, some of those science books are old… nearly as old as I am. Back in the 1960s, my parents collected the Time/Life collection of books on nature and on science. I was later able to acquire a copy of the same collection. While their information is not up to date, the books are valuable to me for three reasons: they make an attractive display on the living room shelves, they bring back childhood memories, and they allow me to compare current scientific statements with those made a generation ago. The history of science can be as enlightening as its current status.

My library has more recent scientific books. When I see news stories about scientific topics, I click on their links to the source papers behind those articles and read the summaries that the scientists themselves published. I believe that my understanding of science is equal to—and probably greater than—that of the average American citizen.

I dislike seeing science (and accusations of being “unscientific”) used as a political weapon. I dislike seeing science (and accusations of being “unscientific”) used to control conversations about religion and about morality. Science observes the world around us, experiments with elements of that work, and seeks to understand what the world contains and how its contents work. Science cannot measure or evaluate anything outside the material world. Science cannot make ethical decisions about how data regarding the world is used. Science tells people how to create bombs; science cannot tell people whether they should use those bombs.

Science cannot tell us whether we exist in a computer simulation rather than what we would call “reality.” Nor can science tell us whether our lives and surroundings are elements of someone’s dream. Using the scientific method, people measure the world around them. They assess changes in that world. They seek rules to explain those changes. They make predictions about the future, based on those rules, and the accuracy of their predictions measures the accuracy of their rules. Science is based on observation, experimentation, and careful consideration of what has been observed. Considerations of what is right and what is wrong can be based on scientific observations, but those moral considerations are not, themselves, scientific.

Science changes. Scientific rules are adjusted based on new information, new observations, and new experiments. Flexibility is a strength of science. It allows knowledge and understanding of the world to grow and to become more accurate and more helpful. But flexibility is also a weakness of science. People cannot make science the foundation of their lives, the source for meaning of their existences, precisely because science is constantly changing, adjusting, and reacting to new information and new interpretations of information.

Therefore, calling a person’s religious beliefs or political beliefs “unscientific” is pointless. Using science as a measurement of truth or of value is unscientific—using science for those purposes is an act of faith, not an act of science. People who trust science to lead them to all truth have made science the center of their religion; they are no longer thinking and acting scientifically. People who judge the opinions and beliefs of their neighbors according to scientific measures of the world are not acting like scientists. Putting faith in science alone is the kind of intellectual suicide which some devotees of science accuse religious people of committing.

I like science. I enjoy technology, medicine, and other benefits that have come from science. I am grateful to have a scientific understanding of the world in which I live. But my faith is not in science. My faith is in the God who create those things that science studies. My faith is not limited by science; my faith transcends the limits that science cannot break. My world is larger than the world of those who limit themselves to what science and measure and observe. For that I am also grateful. J.

When I find myself in times of trouble

John Cassian (360-435) wrote that times of trouble come to the Christian from three causes: as a result of that Christian’s sin, as an attack from Satan, and as testing from the Lord. Regretfully, Cassian did not offer any clues how to discern which of these three is the result of any particular trouble. Moreover, he did not address the likelihood that a trouble may come from two of these causes or even from all three at once.

The best defense against the first source of trouble is a life of continual repentance and faith. Repentance is not a practice that can be accomplished once and concluded; repentance is an ongoing condition, a continual element in the Christian life. In his model prayer, Jesus taught his followers to pray “forgive us our trespasses” immediately after praying “give us this day our daily bread.” Like our need for food, our need for forgiveness comes each day. Each day we sin and need a Savior; each day our Savior is present for us, removing all our sins by his work. Each day we turn to him in faith, trusting his promises. Each day he keeps his promises. Therefore, if trouble should come because of our sin, the work of Christ removes that sin and ends that trouble. Our daily repentance and faith assures us that any trouble we have is not a result of our sins—because those sins are already forgiven and forgotten by God. Our daily repentance and faith assures us that any trouble we face must be an attack from Satan (or from the sinful world around us) or a test from the Lord, or (most likely) both at once.

In today’s world, tests are seen as examinations in school, exercises in which the teacher discovers how much each student has learned. God does not have to test us in this way; he already knows what we believe and the strength of that faith. The origin of the idea of testing, and its meaning in Biblical times, comes from refineries. Metals are tested by enduring heat: impurities are burned away, so that the surviving metal is more pure. So God permits Satan and the sinful world to test his people, putting us through the heat to purify our faith. God does not test us because he hates us, and God does not test us because he doubts us; God tests us to strengthen us and to purify our love for him.

Job was tested by Satan. Satan was permitted to strip away Job’s wealth and to kill Job’s children. He then was permitted to strike Job with a disease along the order of chicken pox or shingles. Job’s wife told him to reject God, but Job continued to trust God. Job’s three friends visited Job and sat with him in silence. (Their presence during his trouble was supportive friendship, a model that should be imitated.) Job endured depression, part of the test, and Job spoke about his problems. His friends tried to answer his questions, becoming part of his affliction and part of his test. They told Job that God does not make mistakes, that Job deserved whatever was happening to him, and that Job could end his trouble by identifying his sin, repenting, returning to God, and trusting God. Even in his depression, even in his questions, Job had not stopped trusting God. He rejected the suggestion of his friends that he deserved to suffer. In the end, God vindicated Job, telling his friends that they were wrong, but offering to forgive their sin against God when Job interceded for them.

God never answered Job’s questions about why Job was suffering. God did not tell Job that Job was being attacked by Satan (although God’s allegory of Leviathan, the sea monster, was a huge hint about Satan and his opposition to Job). Following the test of Satan’s attack, God restored Job’s wealth, giving him twice as property as he had lost. Ten more children were born to Job. They did not replace the ten children who had died; Job was now the father of twenty children—ten alive with him on earth, and ten alive with God in Paradise, waiting for the resurrection.

Job suffered, even though he did not deserve to suffer. His troubles were not caused by his sins; his sins were removed by his Redeemer and could not bring trouble to Job. Job became a picture of the Redeemer, of God’s Son Jesus Christ. Jesus also would suffer without deserving to suffer. He would endure the cross, not because of his own sins (for Jesus never sinned); he would endure the cross on behalf of all the sinners of the world, including Job, his children, his wife, and his friends.

In times of trouble, Christians can be pictures of Jesus, as Job was a picture of Jesus. We accept trouble, not because we deserve it, but because we are living on a battlefield. Satan and the sinful world attack the children of light. We respond by trusting God, the Source of life and light. Instead of examining ourselves to see what we have done to deserve trouble, we repent of our sins and trust God’s promises that all our sins have been removed. Testing strengthens us, burning away impurities, drawing us closer to God. Whatever hardship or loss we endure, we can use it to remind ourselves of the cross of Christ and the victory he has already won on our behalf. J.

A fun little quiz about depression

  • 1. Depression is:
    • a. A passing feeling of grief or sadness at a time of loss or stress.
    • b. A long-term period of despair during which nothing, including life itself, seems to have any value.
    • c. A sensible reaction to this messed-up world and my messed-up life.
  • 2. Depression can be recognized as:
    • a. Feeling out-of-sorts, unhappy, and a bit gloomy.
    • b. A long period (generally three months or more) during which sadness and gloom prevails and nothing seems to offer any joy or reason for hope.
    • c. Any typical day.       
  • 3. Depression can be defined as:
    • a. A person’s choice not to be happy or content.
    • b. A symptom that something is wrong in a person’s physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual health (or some combination of the above).
    • c. Definitions are pointless. Depression is depression. 
  • 4. Christians respond to depression by:
    • a. Calling it a sin, based on verses such as “do not be anxious about your life” (Matthew 6:25), “Be strong and courageous; Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed” (Joshua 1:9), and, “Cast all your cares upon Him, because He cares for you” (I Peter 5:7).
    • b. Recognizing that godly people with strong faith can still face depression, based on verses such as “And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough now, O Lord; take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers’” (I Kings 19:4), “Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord” (Psalm 130:1), and, “My soul is sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38).
    • c. Ignoring it, since nothing can be done about it anyhow.        
  • 5. When it comes to depression, Christians should:
    • a. Trust in the Lord and not turn to doctors, counselors, or medicines, because they are worldly, and trusting them means not trusting the Lord.
    • b. Thank the Lord for doctors, counselors, and medicines, receiving these blessings as gifts from him to help us continue living in a sin-polluted world.
    • c. It doesn’t matter.   
  • 6. The best help a Christian can offer someone who is depressed is:

a. Tell them to cheer up, remind them to pray, and encourage them to increase their faith in God.

b. Spend time with them, listen to them, pray with them, and let them know that it is OK to seek help from worldly professionals as well as from the Bible and the Church.

c. Nothing makes any difference anyhow.

  • 7. When people talk about committing suicide, their family and friends should:
    • a. Ignore them, since they’re only trying to get attention and don’t really intend to hurt themselves.
    • b. Listen to them, assure them that they are loved and needed, and encourage them to get professional help.
    • c. Be glad that they won’t have to deal with that person much longer.
  • 8. When a Christian succeeds in committing suicide, he or she:
    • a. Has committed an unforgiveable sin and is barred forever from God’s presence in the new creation.
    • b. Has succumbed to temptation and committed a sin, but is still covered by the grace of God which forgives all sins through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
    • c. Has won a victory over the cruel and oppressive world in which he or she was living.
  • 9.Depressed people who make life-threatening choices—including abuse of drugs and alcohol, cutting their skin in non-fatal ways, eating too much, or starving themselves—are:
    • a. Making mistakes that are unrelated to depression and suicide and should be handled as individual (albeit bad) decisions.
    • b. Choosing a slower form of suicide which is still sinful, since they are not caring for the bodies that God created; however, their choices should be discussed within the context of their depression.
    • c. Free to do whatever they wish, since they are only hurting themselves.
  • 10. Depression is:
    • a. Most common among teenagers and the elderly, among the poor, and among people dealing with other physical ailments.
    • b. As likely to oppress people of any age, gender, economic status, overall health, and religious beliefs.
    • c. It doesn’t matter.

SCORING YOURSELF ON THIS QUIZ:

For every A, give yourself one point; for every B, give yourself two points; for every C, give yourself five points.

If your score is nine or less: you need to improve your math skills.

If your score is ten to fourteen: you need to learn more about depression.

If your score is fifteen to twenty-four: you understand depression better than the average population.

If your score is twenty-five or higher: you need to be getting help. Talk to a religious or medical professional about your feelings. Allow trusted family members and friends to know what you are feeling. Contact someone who can work with you—even over the telephone. Understand that you are a valuable person, your life is worth living, and you are in the midst of a temporary situation that can be resolved.

J.

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.

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.

The house on the rock

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:24-27).

Jesus is the rock. He is the only foundation on which a solid life can be built. Everything else is sand: our money and possessions, our good works and efforts to be good, our understanding and our feelings and even our faith. If we trust anything in ourselves to rescue us from sin and evil, then we will not be rescued. True faith is not a virtue in ourselves that we can trust; true faith means trusting Jesus, putting all our confidence in him and putting no confidence in ourselves.

Many people try to build their lives on God’s Law and on their obedience to that Law. Most religions encourage that kind of thinking. The religions of the world share a common moral code, the ethical principles that God has written in every human heart. This moral code, these ethical principles, tell us why we were made. They explain what God expects from us. Knowing the rules is not good enough. We must not only know them but do them. Doing them requires perfection. No short cuts are provided; nor can we find loopholes or second chances. Either we obey the Law in all its requirements, or we have broken the Law—no middle ground exists.

Jesus does not want us to build our lives on sand. He sets high standards and demands perfection from us so we see how badly we need to be rescued by his righteousness. His high standards are not the rock; his kingdom and his righteousness are the rock. Jesus himself is the rock. As we seek his kingdom and his righteousness, we discover his blessings—gifts given to us because God loves us, not because we deserve them. Nothing we do, not even the way we trust Jesus, earns us a place in his kingdom. We have a place in his kingdom because of what Jesus has done—because of his life and death and resurrection. We build our lives on this rock, because the rock of Christ’s righteousness is his gift to us. J.

I never knew you

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that Day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons in your name and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Jesus’ words seem harsh and frightening, warning that it is possible to call Jesus Lord, to do miracles in his name, and still not be known by him! How then can we be sure that he knows us and will claim us as his people on the Last Day?

Jesus wants us to do the will of is Father. His Father’s will is not just the Law—not just that we do not hate, do not lust, do not swear oaths, do not resist an evil person, love our enemies, give to the needy, pray, fast, forgive, and do not worry. Yes, that is the Father’s will for our lives; he created us so we would live that way. But if perfect obedience to this Law is the only way to earn a place in heaven, we are in desperate trouble. Our righteousness is not good enough; we are not perfect like God.

The Father’s will is to change us, to make us perfect. His will; is to give us the kingdom (Luke 12:32)—he gives the kingdom as a gift, a blessing, not a reward for good deeds. Those who come to Jesus on the Last Day boasting of the things they have done for him will show that they did not truly know him. Even if they call him “Lord” and worked miracles in his name, so long as they boast of their accomplishments, they demonstrate that they never knew Jesus. They failed to know him because they looked at themselves and at the things they did. Their treasures are on earth, in their own good works; their treasures are not in heaven, in the righteousness of Jesus. Because they did not know Jesus—because they did not seek God’s kingdom and righteousness in Jesus—Jesus will say that he never knew them.

Not only do we call Jesus Lord; we also believe his promises. We seek his kingdom and his righteousness, not in our good deeds, but in his blessings. We build our lives on him, not on ourselves. Because our lives are built on him, we do not need to fear that, on the Last Day, Jesus might say to us, “Go away—I never knew you.” J.

Judge not

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2).

Some people use these words to escape any criticism from others. Even if they are doing something wrong or believing something contrary to the Bible, they still claim to be free from judgment because of these words of Jesus.

But Jesus did not say “judge not” to silence Christians and their rebukes of sin. Jesus tells us to “watch out for false prophets,” saying, “by their fruit you will recognize them.” Elsewhere in the Bible Christians are told to encourage, exhort, and correct one another by the teachings of Scripture. If someone is doing something that God says is wrong, Jesus calls upon his people to respond. If someone believes something that God says is untrue, Christians are told to respond with the truth. In neither case should we ignore the problem.

When Jesus tells his people not to judge, he makes a distinction between present behavior and eternal existence. Jesus gave us a set of rules, describing the lives he wants us to live. Jesus said do not hate, do not lust, do not swear oaths, do not resist an evil person, love your enemies, give to the needy, pray, forgive, fast, do not be anxious. Jesus does not want us to use these commandments as weapons against one another. We all have sinned; we all have broken these commandments. We all need a Savior. Yes, we should use these commands to encourage one another to do right. We should use these commands to explain to one another why we all need a Savior. Jesus forbids us to use these commands to distinguish genuine faith from hypocrisy. He does not want us to use these rules to decide who is saved and who is lost. If we try to judge other people according to these teachings, we will end with the realization that all of us are lost according to these standards.

To remind us that his Law condemns all of us as sinners, Jesus threatens to judge us by these standards if we use them to judge others. Measuring our lives by these standards, we see how badly we have fallen short of God’s plan for our lives. We desperately need his gift, his blessings, his promise to rescue us. This is true for each of us; therefore, it is true of our fellow Christians.

Christians frequently fall into the trap of the Pharisees, thinking that obedience to God’s Law makes us better than other people. We persuade ourselves that our obedience makes us good enough to inherit a place in heaven. Anyone who judges by the Law, without the blessing of the Gospel, will see failure and condemnation in every life, aside from the life of Jesus. When Jesus says “judge not,” he means this: Do not use the Law alone to measure a life, but see it through the Gospel promise. See that those who trust in Jesus are those forgiven by Jesus, credited with his goodness and therefore counted worthy of heaven. Measure your fellow Christians this way, and also measure yourself this way. Trust the promises of God—not the commandments—to rescue you from evil and to shape your life. J.

Practicing righteousness

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).

To this point, Jesus has discussed prohibitions found in God’s Law: do not murder, or even surrender to anger; do not commit adultery, or even surrender to lust; do not resist an evil person. Even the positive commandment, love your enemies, is largely a prohibition against treating people in response to what they have done in the past or what they might do in the future. Each of these commandments relates to our neighbors, the people we encounter in this world.

Jesus now speaks of positive things and of things pertaining to our relationship with God. He describes three things God expects us to do: giving to the needy, praying, and fasting. Jesus does not question whether we will do these things—he firmly says, “When you give… when you pray… when you fast….” These are positive actions, but Jesus adds one prohibition: we are not to do these things in a way that calls attention to ourselves from other people.

In this tightly-knit set of teachings, Jesus repeats a refrain. He says that what we do to impress people here on earth will be ignored by our Father in heaven. Only the things we do secretly, thinking about God and not about other people, are seen and rewarded by God. Our relationship with him is an inner relationship, a matter of the heart. When we start trying to impress people—when we want to be recognized on earth as holy, religious, spiritual, or good-hearted—we omit God from our spiritual life.

Other religions know this as well. What matters most in many religions is a relationship with the divine. Things done for attention here on earth are ignored in heaven. God is our first priority; everything else is forgotten as we draw near to God.

Many teachers would frown even at Jesus’ mention of a reward from our Father in heaven. If we do holy things to earn a reward, we are not really doing them for God. What sounds like a paradox is actually sensible: Whatever we do on earth to earn a reward earns no reward; whatever we do to serve God without seeking a reward will be rewarded.

Jesus plainly says that God rewards those who seek him. His reward is not measured in worldly ways—in money or influence or even good feelings. We are not invited to tell God what reward he should give us. God chooses the rewards he gives. He has already given us gifts and blessings, including the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life in the new creation. We have the kingdom of heaven. We will be comforted. We will inherit the earth. We will be satisfied. We will be shown mercy. We will see God. We will be called sons of God. What reward do we need or want beyond these gifts? God chooses fitting rewards for those who seek him. He has selected rewards for all those who set aside the things of this world because their hearts already are in the kingdom of heaven. J.

Salt and light

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16).

Salt and light are both good. The chief value of salt two thousand years ago was that salt preserved food. Jesus suggests that his people have value by preserving this world and enlightening it.

Jesus also warns that we are capable of failure. Salt in his day was not bought pure from stores. Salt came with impurities. As Jesus remarks, if the true salt leaches out of the mixture that is labeled salt, what remains is only gravel. When a lamp is lit and then hidden, that lamp also is useless. God wants us to be useful, not useless. He wants us to benefit the world.

These verses about flavorless salt and hidden light are reminders that Christians can lose their faith. The teaching “once saved; always saved” is not Biblical. (See Ezekiel 33:12-13 and Hebrews 10:26-31.) The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God to call us to faith and also to keep us in the one true faith; but when people spurn the Word of God, they starve and destroy the gift of faith. God does not want Christians to live in fear that we might someday lose our faith. The Bible frequently speaks of election—that our salvation depends upon God’s infinite power, not on our weak human powers. But Jesus calls one sin unforgiveable: the sin against the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit calls a person to faith and that person refuses the Spirit’s call, that person has rejected the gift of salvation by grace through faith.

Dead people cannot make themselves alive. Resurrection depends upon a miracle of God. Living people can damage and destroy their lives. We were dead in our trespasses and sins. Through the Word, the Spirit calls us to life. Now we retain our saltiness and keep our light unhidden as we continue to draw strength and power from the Word of God.

We are already blessed. The rewards earned by Jesus belong to us as a gift. We do not have to try to earn them by being good. Why, then, should we bother to do good things? We want to be good so we can be useful to God and can benefit the people around us. As Paul wrote, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10). Now that we have been rescued from our sins, we are able to accomplish God’s plan for our lives. We also want people to praise the God who has saved us. When we harm others, we bring shame to the name of our Father. If we, as Christians, have a reputation for doing what is wrong, we bring shame to the name of Christ.

Instead, we want to glorify God. We want to be the people we were meant to be. Therefore, we study God’s commandments. We see the things we are told not to do—for example, we are not to murder, we are not to commit adultery, we are not to break our oaths. We see the things we should do—we should give to the needy, we should pray, we should fast. All these things we do, not for ourselves, but to bring glory to God.

Other religions teach the same positive and negative commandments. People all over the world value the same virtues Christians value, because the Law of God is written in their hearts. Mohandas Gandhi agreed with the ethical teachings of Jesus, but Gandhi remained Hindu. He chose not to be a Christian; he did not see Jesus as the unique Son of God or as a Savior. Since the ethical teachings are consistent throughout the religions of the world, we see that we cannot remain salt and light simply by doing the good things Jesus commands and not committing the sins he condemns.

We are not saved by our good works; we are saved by the grace of God. That is not permission to sin. Even though our good deeds do not earn us a place in the kingdom of heaven—even though nonChristians may equal or surpass us in doing good things—we still have a blessing. We belong to Jesus. Therefore, to bring honor to his name, we try to imitate him. To help other people in this world, we try to obey God’s commandments. To try to be the people we were created to be, we try to live up to the high standards of Jesus our Lord. J.