Two questions for Calvinists

As those of you who know me realize, I really enjoy working through the theology of Calvinism / Arminianism, although I don’t like the belligerence that characterizes both sides of the discussion at times.

I just posted this on facebook to a Calvinist friend:

“There are two questions I’ve not heard satisfactory Calvinist responses to (most don’t even understand the question). I’d love to hear your take.

1. The most natural interpretation of Calvinism, to my mind, is basically “Faith is a work. No work of ours can save us. Therefore faith is a work of God alone.” But Romans 4:1-6, under the most natural interpretation, implies that faith is *not* a work. Do you agree?

2. Most Calvinists believe that God alone elects who will *get* saved, but seem to lapse back into something Arminian-like when it comes to *sanctification*. If I were Calvinist, I would insist that we have no more choice in how well we follow Christ after salvation than we had in getting saved before. Every one of the common Calvinist arguments applies as strongly to sanctification as to justification. Even Paul says “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, *yet not I, but the grace of God with me*.” [1 Corinthians 15:10].

So some Christians are chosen to follow Christ more completely in this life than others.

What do you think?”

To my readers, too: what do *you* think?

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Evil spirits

Those of us who believe evil spirits exist tend to think of them as putting thoughts in our heads, but suppose that they also often stir up passions within our hearts? Maybe instead of thinking of them as wandering disembodied intelligences that also have will and desire we should instead think of them as wandering disembodied passions that also have will and intelligence. Maybe along with thinking “I wonder if that thought is from a demon” we should sometimes think “I wonder if that sudden rush of emotion is from a demon”. This view seems to fit the Biblical references to evil spirits about as well as the traditional one. (See 1 Sam 16:14-15,23; 19:9-10 for example.)

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Seeking God’s blessing

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago.

The sermon today was on John 6:26-36.

Jesus miraculously fed the crowd.
  Spiritual “anointing”
Recently when I taught, God spoke to people through me in an evident way. I love that. But today, in Sunday School, everything I planned went wrong.
They looked for him again because they wanted more.   Me: Lord, I’m so frustrated at how Sunday School went. How can I worship you this morning, when I am angry and discouraged about Sunday School?
Jesus answered them and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.   Jesus: Why are you seeking me? What did you learn when I anointed your teaching? Did you learn that I am the source of fruitfulness and meaning? Did you learn that it is worth seeking me above all? Or is it only that you loved the experience of knowing I was doing something supernatural through you?
  Me: (sputtering) Well … well … I know that you give meaning in an eternal sense, but I also wanted things to go well this morning. When it didn’t, that messed up my joy. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it just did.
Do not work for the food which perishes,   Jesus: Think about it, Kevin. After an “anointed experience”, the joy fades for you in a day or two. How often will you need your anointing fix?
but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.” Your joy can be more permanent than that. I know you like to see me at work through you, but, you know, I’m still at work even when I don’t use you. Your joy in what I am doing doesn’t have to fade whenever it isn’t happening through you.
Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?”   Me: OK. So how can I  have that joy now? What do I need to do?
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”   Jesus: Just let go and trust me. You don’t need to be personally successful.
So they said to Him, “What then do You do for a sign, so that we may see, and believe You? What work do You perform?   Me: But how can I trust you to be meaning and fruitfulness for me if you aren’t going to keep giving me experiences like that?
Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘HE GAVE THEM BREAD OUT OF HEAVEN TO EAT.’” After all, that’s how it works with other people! They have all these stories about how you make them fruitful! As long as they obey, and surrender to you, then you reach people through them. As long as they have faith, you show up.
Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven.   Jesus: You miss the point. It was never their experiences of anointing and fruitfulness that mattered. It was always just a matter of God being in it.
For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” What is “anointing” after all? Isn’t it the Holy Spirit’s presence and work? That’s all that was every really important. The anointing isn’t an experience, it’s a Person.
Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.”   Me: OK, then give that to me.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.   Jesus: You know what to do. Just keep abiding in Me.
But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe.” The reason you are struggling is because you aren’t responding in faith right now. (Ouch!)



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End times

I keep running into people who tell me that end-times theology doesn’t matter.

Here’s why it matters to me:

  1. The clearer my understanding of end times gets, the easier it gets to understand Scripture. Like it or not, a lot of Bible passages point to end-times events, and the better I understand the Scriptural perspective of end times, the clearer those passages get.
  2. As Christians, we are called to wait for Jesus to return and set up the kingdom of God on earth.

Speaking of this second point, I had this conversation with another Christian recently:

Me: I like to point to Christ as the answer when someone tells me they want to see social injustices like racism eliminated.

Him (interrupting): Well, that‘ll never happen.

Me: Actually, it will, when Jesus returns.

Him: Oh, well … yeah, I guess so.

This stuff makes a difference!

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What is the gospel?

I tend to think of “the gospel” as “what you need to believe to be saved”. If you don’t have to believe it to be saved, then while it may be true, it isn’t part of the gospel.

Now I’m wondering, is that what the gospel means in Scripture? A book I’ve been reading sent me back to the New Testament for another look.

It’s certainly good news that in Jesus we are offered forgiveness of sins. But there are other things about Jesus that are good news too. Does the New Testament use “gospel” to mean all the good news about Jesus, or does it mean very specifically the offer of personal salvation through His death for us and nothing else?

The question reminds me of the charismatic churches that talk about being “full gospel”. What they mean, I think, is that Jesus doesn’t just offer forgiveness, he offers healing and prosperity and so on. I don’t share their views about guaranteed healing and prosperity for believers, but set that aside for the moment and notice that when they call healing and prosperity part of the gospel, they aren’t implying that you must believe in that healing before you can be saved. They’re just saying that the good news doesn’t end with forgiveness. Not only can you find pardon for all your sins, you can find other blessings as well.

When Jesus walked on earth, there was a lot of good news about him. He healed and cast out demons. He taught with authority and insight. He said the kingdom of God was near. He demonstrated the compassionate heart of God.

Since his resurrection and ascension, there are more things that are good news. He has been made both Lord and Christ, and has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. He is the reality that all the Old Testament rituals were pointing to. All of God’s goodness is summed up in him. He has called us to follow Him. He is our perfect example.

Of course none of these other blessings does us any good until we’ve received forgiveness in his name, but is it accurate to call them part of the gospel anyway?

If this is what the gospel means in Scripture, does that affect what we should think of when we talk about “sharing the gospel”?

Let me know what you think.

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Praying for our nation

My quiet time verses yesterday morning were the concluding paragraph of 2 Chronicles.

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia — in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah — the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout his kingdom, and also[put it] in writing, saying, Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all His people, may the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up!'”  (2 Chronicles 36:22-23).

First, some background. The books of 1 and 2 Chronicles tell of the rise and fall of the nation of Israel. In the last chapter, just before these verses, the nation of Israel was wiped out, its leaders were killed, its capital was burned down, and the temple was destroyed. The chapter makes it really clear that all this was not because God had failed them but because He was judging them.

These two verses hold out a sliver of hope for Israel. It’s the end of the book, but not the end of the story. It shows that God still has some measure of mercy for Israel. Who knows whether He may restore them more fully in the future?

It’s really important that Cyrus acknowledges that all His power, including that over Israel, comes from “the LORD”. When the word LORD is capitalized that way, it means that it is a translation of the Hebrew word Yahweh. In other words, Cyrus is calling Israel’s God “the God of heaven” and giving Him credit for his power.

As I read these verses, it reminded me of the general discouragement that a lot of conservative Christians are feeling about our nation these days. Most of my Christian friends these days feel as though they are under a constant barrage from secularism in politics and in the culture.  I agree with them about this general sense of being under attack. It’s a hard world in which to live as a Christian.

(I don’t think Christians have a monopoly on persecution. I think it’s also a hard world for atheists and gay rights activists and feminists and all sorts of groups that feel like they are battling the status quo. There’s more than enough hostility to go around. More on that some other time, perhaps.)

Anyway, today is the National Day of Prayer. The verses above remind me that even in hostile territory God is in charge. They remind me that even in the middle of judgment God can show a measure of mercy and restoration. They remind me that even leaders who worship other gods can be led to show favor to Yahweh’s people. It encourages me to know that today a lot of us will be crying out to God together for our nation.

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Exodus 23:20-21

In Exodus 23:20-21 God says to Moses and the Israelites:

Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Be on your guard before him and obey his voice; do not be rebellious toward him, for he will not pardon your transgression, since My name is in him.


When did this happen?

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Why Saturday?

One of my children asked today (Easter) why God waited all through Saturday until Sunday before raising Jesus from the dead.

I think it relates to the Sabbath.

First, consider the very first Sabbath way back in Genesis 2. It says there that God set the Sabbath apart as holy because on that day He rested from all His work.

Why did God need to rest? Because He was tired? Of course not. The significance of God resting is that He was finished. He rested from all His work because it was complete. The Sabbath marked a recognition that there was nothing left to do.

What was one of the last statements Jesus made on the cross? “It is finished.”

I suspect the Sabbath after the crucifixion is meant to remind us that God’s second great work — the work of redemption — was finished with the death of Christ about 2000 years ago. Nothing needs to be added. We don’t have to mix our own good works in with what He did. He doesn’t need to be crucified again. That Saturday in the grave stands for the fact that everything had been accomplished.

A day later, the new creation began with the resurrection of Christ, the “second Adam”.

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Fasting and suffering

I heard a sermon about fasting just a little bit ago. I have lots of thoughts about fasting and lots of questions too.

Generally Christians say fasting is spiritually important because:

  • Somehow the physical process makes us more attuned to the spiritual world.
  • Somehow suffering hunger weakens the hold of the flesh on our lives.

I am particularly skeptical of the last claim. I think the value of suffering is overrated.

I find this verse really convincing:

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. (Col 2:20-23)

This says it straight out: at least sometimes “severe treatment of the body” is “of no value against fleshly indulgence”. I’ve heard there were people who flogged themselves in order to gain spiritual status or power somehow. That seems very mixed up. How is it really any different to say that the pain of hunger is what makes fasting beneficial?

There is a value to being willing to suffer. While suffering has no spiritual value of its own, it is nevertheless the side effect of some good things. That is why people can say “no pain, no gain”. For some things, if you aren’t working hard enough at them that it hurts, you aren’t working hard enough at them to help either. It isn’t the suffering itself which is beneficial, though, it’s the other stuff. If we shy away from suffering too much we can lose out. It’s in this sense that Paul said

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

It’s not that beating up on his body made him more spiritual; it’s that being disciplined means being willing to suffer for the sake of a more important goal.

Because of that it is sometimes practically helpful to resign ourselves to suffering. Once we expect it as a matter of course, we can have the will-power to keep pushing through it. I think that’s what this verse means:

Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. (1 Peter 4:1-2).

Often we need to suffer for others. Love usually involves sacrifice of some kind. The point of the sacrifice, though, is that it will actually help someone in some way. It usually doesn’t make my love any purer to hurt myself just for the sake of proving how much I am willing to lose.

This verse is interesting:

Then David said to Ornan, “Give me the site of this threshing floor, that I may build on it an altar to the LORD; for the full price you shall give it to me, that the plague may be restrained from the people.” Ornan said to David, “Take it for yourself; and let my lord the king do what is good in his sight. See, I will give the oxen for burnt offerings and the threshing sledges for wood and the wheat for the grain offering; I will give it all.” But King David said to Ornan, “No, but I will surely buy it for the full price; for I will not take what is yours for the LORD, or offer a burnt offering which costs me nothing.” (1 Chronicles 21:22-24)

In this story, David is offering a sacrifice to express his repentance to God for having sinned. It would be evading responsibility for him to shift the burden of that sacrifice to someone else. So, again, first of all, the cost isn’t really the point; it just follows logically that if you give a gift to God, it costs you.

But it may be that in this case David is saying something more than that. He may be saying that the very cost of it is the point somehow. He may be saying that a sacrifice that hurts is worth more. If so, I think we should understand it as saying that offering something of value to him was a better expression of his desire to give to God than offering something worthless would have been. Perhaps there are times when we give someone something to show we love them, and we choose to give something that costs us because it communicates how deeply serious we are in our love.

In the case of fasting, I don’t think that suffering is the point. I do think suffering is linked to it, though.

  • First, I think fasting is often an expression of distress. Thus people often fasted when they were already suffering. (In fact, when people are suffering enough, they lose their appetite anyway.)
  • Second, in many cases in Scripture, fasting was an expression of deep repentance. It is associated with sackcloth and ashes. People are setting aside their sense of entitlement to luxury and comfort to say, “we recognize we have sinned and no longer claim happiness as our right”. The point is, though, that people who fasted weren’t seriously planning on starving to death, nor were they throwing away all their clothes when they put on sackcloth. These things weren’t suffering, exactly, they were symbols. That’s why the Scripture connects fasting not with suffering but with humiliation. In repentance, fasting was a sign of having lowered one’s pride,of having renounced one’s self-centered demandingness.
  • Third, there are other verses about fasting as an ongoing discipline (once a week, say). As a matter of practical fact, when fasting has become a discipline, it just won’t feel humiliating or painful every time. It will become a matter of course. If fasting was all about the suffering, that would remove the point of the fasting. But if fasting is a symbol, then it doesn’t have to hurt. It just has to mean the right thing.

All of which, I realize, has answered my question for me. Someone tonight said that fasting is “cutting off the flesh”. But that isn’t it – rather, fasting is the expression of having already “cut off the flesh”. If we renounce the flesh in our hearts then fasting is a natural way to symbolize and affirm that choice. If we don’t, fasting doesn’t help at all. Fasting doesn’t cause renunciation of the flesh, it proceeds from it.


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Faith and weariness

I read this yesterday:

But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.

“For yet in a very little while,

He who is coming will come, and will not delay.

But my righteous one shall live by faith;

And if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”

But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul. (Hebrews 10:32-39)

I was struck by the phrase “you have need of endurance”. The people addressed in this letter had once joyfully endured persecution, but now they were getting weary of believing. Their determination was flagging. The writer exhorts them to keep hanging on until the end.

One of the things I’m struggling with these days is having faith. In my daily life, I keep encountering things that overwhelm me with fear and I just give up for a day or two. God keeps pulling me back to the place where I have to make a conscious decision to trust him again and move on in joy.

The challenges to my faith are not big things, not major persecution or anything. Just things like a class that didn’t go well, or a car that broke down and will cost more than we have to fix it, or having to confront someone about their sin when it makes me very uncomfortable to do so. What God seems to ask me to do is not just follow through but do so with confidence and joy.

The interesting thing is that having faith like that – choosing to trust and stop worrying – is exhausting for me. I find myself completely worn out at the end of the day if I’ve done well. I can’t quite figure out why. My suspicion is that fear and other strong emotions are pulling hard at me at a deep, mostly subconscious level, and I’m spending all day fighting them off without quite realizing it. Because of that, having faith these days is literally hard work.

Things ought to get easier with practice. Whatever emotional resistance I’m encountering these days will eventually be trained out of my default psychological setting, and believing with joy will come more naturally. That’s what character growth often consists of.

I think it’s interesting that faith can be tiring. I haven’t heard other Christians say they’ve experienced this, but I’ll bet a lot of them have. I think the taxing nature of faith is linked in some way to several Scriptures besides the one above, such as: Luke 22:40-46 (note v 45), Romans 4:18-21, Galatians 6:9, or James 1:2-4.

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