Category Archives: Commentary

Bible study: what does the Christian concept of “grace” mean?

A good shepherd rescuing a lost sheep who had no hope
A good shepherd rescuing a lost sheep, who had no hope

My friend Wessel sent me this sermon a few days ago because I was looking for a good sermon on grace. Some of my friends pitched in with sermons, but this one from a South African church was BY FAR the best. I’ve listened to it 3 times already. The speaker sounds exactly like one of best friends from university, Andrew, who is from South Africa.

I’m testing out a new file download service, so I hope this works… here is the MP3 file. (7 megabytes, 30 minutes) [FIXED!]

Let me know if you can’t download that.

The text of the sermon is Genesis 48:1-20:

1 Some time later Joseph was told, “Your father is ill.” So he took his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim along with him.

When Jacob was told, “Your son Joseph has come to you,” Israel rallied his strength and sat up on the bed.

Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me

and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you.’

“Now then, your two sons born to you in Egypt before I came to you here will be reckoned as mine; Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are mine.

Any children born to you after them will be yours; in the territory they inherit they will be reckoned under the names of their brothers.

As I was returning from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan while we were still on the way, a little distance from Ephrath. So I buried her there beside the road to Ephrath” (that is, Bethlehem).

When Israel saw the sons of Joseph, he asked, “Who are these?”

“They are the sons God has given me here,” Joseph said to his father.

Then Israel said, “Bring them to me so I may bless them.”

10 Now Israel’s eyes were failing because of old age, and he could hardly see. So Joseph brought his sons close to him, and his father kissed them and embraced them.

11 Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children too.”

12 Then Joseph removed them from Israel’s knees and bowed down with his face to the ground.

13 And Joseph took both of them, Ephraim on his right toward Israel’s left hand and Manasseh on his left toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them close to him.

14 But Israel reached out his right hand and put it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger,and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Manasseh’s head, even though Manasseh was the firstborn.

15 Then he blessed Joseph and said,

“May the God before whom my fathers
    Abraham and Isaac walked faithfully,
the God who has been my shepherd
    all my life to this day,

16 the Angel who has delivered me from all harm
    —may he bless these boys.
May they be called by my name
    and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac,
and may they increase greatly
    on the earth.”

17 When Joseph saw his father placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head he was displeased; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head.

18 Joseph said to him, “No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.”

19 But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.”

20 He blessed them that day and said,

“In your[c] name will Israel pronounce this blessing:
    ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’”

So he put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh.

So, in this story, God continues his tradition of choosing the lowly people in the world instead of the people who are seen as “better”. God does this in many cases, because he has a big heart for people who are born in a bad position. Normally in the world, people always choose what they think is best for them. They choose the prettiest girl. They choose the most tallest man. Those who need a little extra help or care are passed over. God sometimes does the complete opposite of this. Instead of choosing the obvious “best person”, he chooses a much lower person, and he lifts them up to do great things.

Consider 1 Corinthians 1:26-31:

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called.Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.

27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are,

29 so that no one may boast before him.

30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

The speaker in the sermon explains the idea of grace by talking about sheep and shepherds. He explains that unlike clever homing pigeons, sheep are prone to wandering off and they aren’t able to find their way home. Sometimes, they get lost, and sometimes they even wander into danger. A bad shepherd would just say that he only wanted to have the best sheep – the smartest ones or the richest ones or the best looking ones or the most popular ones. But a good shepherd is sorry for the sheep that needs the most help, and is the most lost, and in the most danger. God is like a good shepherd. God sends his Son to die to atone for the sins of the bad sheep in this world, even when they didn’t deserve it. (John 3:16-17) That’s grace. But he also arranges the world in a way that bad sheep have an opportunity to reach out and find him. (Acts 17:24-27) That’s grace, too.

In my own life, I have often found myself being excluded or discounted by people, usually because of my skin color or because of my early childhood poverty or because I just struggle to understand what I’m expected to say and to do. But a funny thing often happens. Right when I am feeling the worst about being excluded, God comes along and gives me something special to do, that makes me forget about being excluded. And that’s been my experience of grace, ever since I was little and even to this day. The honor of being allowed to participate in God’s plan makes me forget what it feels like to be excluded. The very best things I’ve achieved in my life are the times where God showed me someone who started out life in a terrible situation (usually because of the selfish decisions of their irresponsible parents) and then I participated in God’s plan to lead them out of the mess they started out from.

I think one of the biggest reasons why some Christians stick with Christianity through thick and thin is that they have this experience of grace. This experience of grace means that no matter what, that sheep is going to loyal to that shepherd who chose him when he was at his lowest and most vulnerable. The first part of the choosing is obviously Jesus dying on the cross to atone for your rebellion. But after that, God carefully reveals himself to the sheep. And then there is the guidance that helps the sheep to avoid destroying himself with sin. If the sheep makes mistakes, the good shepherd has already laid down his life to pay for them. This is a lot of effort being put into this rescue operation. It’s difficult for people who have never experienced grace to realize how real and life-transforming it is. For those who have not experienced it, I really recommend that you pray to God, in the name of Jesus, and ask him to give you grace.

There are still things in my life where God has decided that he is not going to fix it. And, strangely enough, that doesn’t make me disloyal to him at all. Why not? Well, you have to read the Bible and understand that Jesus was not spared from suffering or death in his loyal obedience to God. He wasn’t given everything he wanted to feel happy all the time. When you understand that this is the character of your shepherd, then it’s much easier for you to put up with the things you lack, too.

Don’t dismiss best practices for Christian living as “legalism” and “denying grace”

Telling a woman how to make wise decisions protects her
Telling a woman how to make wise decisions protects her

On Sunday, I listened to a very interesting discussion between Sean McDowell and Jessica van der Wyngaard on Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable show. The topic was on the pros and cons of purity culture. I didn’t know a thing about “purity culture”, and had never read any books about it. I didn’t really disagree with anyone on the podcast, but I did want to say something about it in a blog post.

Description:

20 years ago Joshua Harris was the poster boy of the evangelical ‘purity movement’ having authored the bestselling book ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’. Today, Harris regrets writing the book, and has also recently changed his mind about Christianity.

Justin is joined by Jessica van der Wyngaard, director of the documentary film ‘I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye’, and Christian apologist Sean McDowell, to discuss purity culture, singleness and the Joshua Harris story.

The MP3 file is here.

First, here’s a brief summary of what everyone said on the podcast:

  • JW: the book urged people to give up dating in favor of courting and suggested other rules that would guarantee a successful marriage to your soul-mate
  • JW: some of the rules proposed by the book were not Biblical
  • JW: I’m not a virgin and I’m in early-30s, but I accept that we should teach what the Bible says about abstinence
  • SM: purity culture is the idea that if you remain sexually pure, God will give you a spouse and bless you in the future
  • SM: purity culture is the idea that if you have premarital sex, you will be tainted forever
  • SM: I’m afraid that those reacting against purity culture will build a sexual ethic solely based on their shame, their hurt, their concern about legalism, and this will not help the next generation
  • SM: let’s have a balanced Biblical approach to sexuality instead
  • SM: there is scientific data to back up the Bible’s teaching that marriages work better when sex occurs only within a marriage
  • SM: it’s a mistake to define your spiritual standing based on whether you are a virgin or not
  • SM: following the Bible’s rules for sexuality is an important part of discipleship
  • SM: the Bible is replete with examples of people restoring their standing before God through forgiveness and redemption

Right now, we are living in a secular culture where people are hooking up, having premarital sex, living together, and breaking up far more often than in the past. There is this pattern of choosing partners based on secular criteria: outward appearance and ability to entertain. And this approach to dating – choosing people for the wrong reasons, and trying to force a commitment using premarital sex – is now common practice, even among Christians.

I think people should have a plan to counter this trend that’s realistic and guided by studies and evidence. For example, studies show that people who have no sexual partners before marriage are more likely to still be married 10 years later. Studies show that cohabitation negatively impacts the stability of a future marriage. It’s difficult to accept that this is the way the world is, but if a stable marriage is a goal for you, then you should care about the best practices for having a stable marriage.

Take a different example. Suppose you have a lot of shame and bad feelings over having run up $90,000 of student loans. Now your retirement will be much more difficult. The answer to these feelings of shame is not to say that you can invoke “grace” and that will make everything OK. It won’t. It might help you to make better decisions going forward, but that debt is going to affect your future spouse, your future marriage and your future children.

There are real costs to these behaviors for your future, and being forgiven through Jesus’ atonement isn’t going to instantly make the effects of those choices disappear. It’s good to warn young people about these costs. It’s also good to help people who have made mistakes undo the damage by investing in them. I don’t want us to throw out evidence-based best practices as “legalism”, because they help us to reach the discipleship goals specified for us in the Bible.

The goals of the Bible (e.g. – not aborting, not divorcing) are good goals. If we find out from science that premarital promiscuity or cohabitation reduce our odds of achieving that goal, then it’s a mistake to dismiss that evidence because it make us feel bad about our past. It’s not legalism to investigate evidence and consult wise advisors in order to choose how best to achieve goals like marriage. That’s actually being wise.  Making good decisions doesn’t give you the right to be proud and compare yourself to others, but it is good to make good decisions for yourself, and to share your reasoning with those who ask you.

I agree with the speakers that purity culture is wrong to promise people a happy marriage if they only keep their virginity. That’s just the prosperity gospel, and it really is not a Biblical view of the Christian life.

People who choose to have premarital sex haven’t separated themselves from marriage. But studies indicate that they have damaged the stability of their future marriage if they do nothing to counteract the effects of their choices. And I think there is more to counteracting these bad effects than just stating to your partner “Jesus forgives me, so you can’t judge me”. The focus of the “no-rules because I feel ashamed” crowd doesn’t seem to be on taking the damage seriously and fixing it. Their focus seems to be on not being judged.

I don’t think that a cursory response (“don’t judge me!”) is adequate to undo the damage from premarital sex. But if a person is willing to be honest about their past, and put in the work to understand the effects of premarital sex on their future marriage, renew their minds, and re-establishing their bonding ability, then they should be able to fully counteract the damage. I have met people who have done this, and you can see in their choices and lifestyle that there’s been a complete turning against their former use of sex for fun and attention and self-esteem. It’s not “idolizing virginity and idolizing marriage” to look at the data, and make choices that are likely to lead to a stable marriage.

How should we respond to doubts and challenges to Christian beliefs or practices?

The tracks are out ahead, and Spider-Man has to save the day
The tracks are out ahead, but Spider-Man arrives just in time to save the day!

Something happened this week that really provided the watching non-Christian world with a good example of what it means to be an authentic Christian. It was such a good story, that I shared it with my non-Christian co-workers. They were so impressed that they asked me to go to lunch with them so they could tell me why they abandoned their faiths after being raised Christian.

The story starts with a famous Christian musician named Marty Sampsons expressing doubts about Christianity, because he was exposed to challenges to his faith, and not getting any answers from people in the church. Instead, when he expressed his doubts, people who had formerly treated him very well started to insult him and post condemning Bible verses on his Instagram. Instead of listening to his questions, and actually putting in some effort to craft a plan and where everyone could work together, his critics just refused to learn anything or do anything with him to work on the problem.

To be honest, this is often what church people do when they are confronted with challenging thoughts or behaviors. In my office, one of my co-workers who had been raised in the church and then left it in college asked me “what did you expect? People leave the church all the time because this is how Christian parents and church people respond to doubts and challenges. They insult you, drag up everything personal that you ever told them, and slander you to other people. It’s a hate mob. They specialize in being judgmental. They don’t put in any effort to actually solve the problem. And that’s exactly why people DON’T go to church.” He actually used the word “unchristian” to describe church-trained Christians who responded to Mary Sampsons.

I have to admit, my co-worker had a point. I’ve experienced the unwillingness of Christians to take doubts and challenges seriously myself. When I express concerns about whether the church is preparing young people for the challenges of college, the church parents and leaders always stand above me, and reply with Bible verses, sermons, commands, judgments or worse. They don’t want to get down into the trenches and work with me to solve the problem. And there’s always the offer to “pray about it”. That response seems to just dump every problem on God. What I’d really like to see is people in the church who interrupt their happy lives in order to do something self-sacrificially with the people who have the challenges, in order to solve the problem.

Most of the people who responded to Marty Sampsons on his Instagram were not effective to solve the actual problem. But there were two exceptions.

CBN had the story:

Two Christian apologists have reached out with some helpful ideas for Marty Sampson, the former worship leader and songwriter for Hillsong Worship who publicly announced he was struggling to believe anymore.

Using their online platforms, they’re offering resources to assist the singer. Apologist and author William Lane Craig made Sampson the subject of his Aug. 26 podcast titled A Musician Struggles With His Faith. In the 23-minute program, Craig answers Sampson’s questions dealing with his doubts about the Christian faith.

[…][Dr.] Craig also recommended for fellow believers to support Sampson in his search for the answers to his questions, instead of blasting him with judgmental comments.

“Now is not the time for condemnation and criticism,” Craig told his listeners. “Now is the time to say, ‘Here are some resources that can help you in your search, and I’ll come alongside you and help you as I can.'”

Craig is a research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and a professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University and the founder of the ministry Reasonable Faith.

Likewise, apologist and author Mike Licona and his wife, Debbie, posted a YouTube video in which they discuss Sampson’s questions for those Christians who may find themselves doubting their faith. In the 38-minute video, the couple talks about several books and other resources for people to use.

In the video, Licona, associate professor in theology at Houston Baptist University and the president of the ministry Risen Jesus, said the questions “are difficult questions, and they’re deserving of thoughtful, reasonable answers.”

Debbie Licona, the wife of famous evidential Christian apologist Michael Licona, also arranged a discussion between two Christian scholars and an atheist scholar about the resurrection.

And here’s why this was the right thing to do:

  1. Marty felt edified by the Debbie-arranged discussion, and he was not insulted by it. It was certainly much more practical and thoughtful than the responses on his Instagram, where some Christians just posted Bible verses threatening him with Hell.
  2. The right way to engage a non-Christian is always self-sacrificial love. If you are taking your time, money and effort to think of a plan, and then self-sacrificially invest in that person co-operatively, then you are doing love the right way. Debbie’s approach is correct because she is putting in work in order to get involved in the other person’s life from alongside them, not standing over them.
  3. Debbie’s approach follows the evidence-focused model in the Bible. God is always having his prophets or his Son use evidence to confirm their claims to non-believers. Just think of Moses and Pharaoh, or Elijah on Mount Carmel, or Jesus with the healing of the paralytic or the resurrection.
  4. Salvation is a gift from God. God is the General who is in charge of the overall effort to save someone from their rebellion against him. Individual Christians are just some of the tools he uses to achieve his aims. Outcomes are none of our business. Our business is to pursue his goals for other people in a manner that is consistent with Christ’s example of self-denial, self-sacrifice, humility and use of evidence.

So, the next time someone asks you questions about Christianity, or refuses to go to church, or whatever, you need to remember who you are working for, and respond like Debbie did. Don’t act in a way that pushes them further away from God. Take challenges to Christian belief and practice seriously. Control your tongue. Read books. Invest yourself. Come alongside the challenger, and solve the problem co-operatively.

Bible study: responsibilities and obligations in Philippians 1-4

Bible study that hits the spot
Bible study that hits the spot

Here are some parts of Philippians that speak to an issue that I think is a problem today for many Christians – self-centeredness.

Philippians 2 talks about the importance of not being self-centered, but instead being focused on the needs of others.

Phil 2:1-8:

2 Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion,2 make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

And Phil 2:19-23:

19 But I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, so that I also may be encouraged when I learn of your condition. 20 For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus. 22 But you know of his proven worth, that he served with me in the furtherance of the gospel like a child serving his father.

Nothing very complicated here, it’s important to look out for the interests of others and to be concerned about their welfare.

I think it’s a good idea to be practical about partnering with people, and instead of just speaking words like “I care” or “I’ll pray for you”, try to find out what needs to be done and do it. Solve the problem with actions. Prayer is important, of course, because so much of what happens to that other person is in God’s hands. You aren’t going to be around all the time, but God is, so talk to him about the other person and what you’re planning to do. But you must also do your part, and do it intelligently and effectively. (The New Testament book of James talks about the need to accompany good wishes with actions that solve the problem)

Also don’t just stand back and give orders while feeling righteous. Many people want to influence others by just quoting the Bible, putting on pious airs, or using mere words. This doesn’t work in any area of the real world. Instead, take a more active approach. Think about the problem that is preventing someone from serving Christ well, and then act to make it easier for the person to do the right thing.

I’ve been able to achieve good success by praying AND performing supportive actions, rather than by issuing commands or prayer alone. For example, I’ve gotten people to transition for useless careers into IT careers, got them to pay off their high-interest debts, got them to switch their majors from something useless to something useful, got them to move on from an abortion or a divorce, got them to not commit suicide, listened to their health problems, helped them pass the GRE or the GMAT or something, got them to take a better job, got them to do a public speaking engagement, taught them how to debate their atheist brother, sponsored a Christian speaker at their university, helped them recover from bad parents, etc. It’s pretty fun to partner with people to further the Kingdom, but if you just leave it at prayer and giving orders, you won’t get the same good results.

All it takes to move from prayer alone to prayer and solutions is to think about other people like a puzzle, and then sacrifice some of your time or your money to build them up. I have a lot of experience doing this, but it’s not something that I learned to do in church. Church doesn’t teach you to be practical about following the Bible intelligently and with your own initiative. It’s set up to favor emotions (singing) and passive listening. To be active, you have to think about the Bible from a higher strategic level. Think about who Jesus is, and then follow his example. Don’t read the Bible in order to just feel happy or sound pious, instead try to make a plan to really DO good. Your goal should be to achieve a result in line with Jesus’ character and goals.

By the way, part of being able to partner with other people to solve problems with actions is being capable yourself. Don’t study stupid things in college. Don’t get into debt. Don’t try to fill your days with fun and thrills. Instead, study hard things, get hard jobs in the private sector, save your money, and learn useful skills. That way, you’ll be able to do more when something more than passive words or feelings is needed. One time, a woman I knew severely hurt her hand at work. She has OCD, and liked to clean the stairs in her house every day. She has a furry cat who drops fur everywhere. So she was lugging this heavy vacuum up and down the stairs every day. And spending a lot of time ironing with an old-fashioned heavy iron, too. So I bought her a hand vacuum and a fancy new iron. With the extra time she saved, she was able to do more reading, public speaking and helping others. Doing Christianity well means making yourself strong, so you can look after others with more than just feelings, piety and prayers.

Philippians is my favorite book of the Bible. And the most important thing about Philippians is that it’s good to be focused on other people, and not on ourselves, and to think of the interests of others, not our own interests. It’s good to get down into the weeds of other people’s problems, and act to self-sacrificially to solve them. Read the book (it’s short) and see if there are not people who you could partner with by helping them solve problems so they can be more effective.

How to test a white conservative to see if they are racist

Let's take a look at the left's accusations of racism
Let’s take a look at the left’s accusations of racism

I’ve noticed that a lot of people on the left like to cry “racism” whenever anyone disagrees with them about any of their policies. If a conservative opposes Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, banning all guns, infanticide or gay marriage, the response from the left is always to cry “racism”. As if there is no content at all to the conservative worldview. Let’s take a look at this.

Here is a Daily Signal column by famous Jewish conservative Dennis Prager:

So here is a way to show it is a lie.

Ask any white conservative, including one who supports Trump, the following three questions:

1). Do you have more in common with, and are you personally more comfortable in the company of, a white leftist or a black conservative?

2). Would you rather have nine white leftists or nine black conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court?

3). Would you rather your child marry a black Christian conservative or a white non-Christian liberal?

A white racist would prefer the whites in each case.

I have asked these questions of thousands of Trump supporters at lectures and on my radio show.

Not once has a white Trump-supporting conservative said he or she would be more comfortable in the presence of a white leftist than a black conservative, or would prefer an all-white liberal Supreme Court to an all-black conservative Supreme Court.

Not once has a white Christian conservative said he or she would prefer his or her child marry a white non-Christian liberal rather than a black Christian conservative.

If you’re an honest leftist, this should present a powerful challenge to your belief that all white conservatives are racist.

Now, I’m not white (and one day in the future I’ll be revealing more about me and my story), and I talk to white conservatives all the time. They are tired of being called “racist” when trying to make the case for conservative views, e.g. – school vouchers, legal gun ownership, protection of the unborn, etc. Since I agree with them, they want to grab me and bring me to their debates and have me explain all the reasons why I hold the conservative beliefs that I do – just to take skin color out of the equation. Because their reasons are my reasons. We read the same people: Thomas Sowell, John Lott, Mark Levin, Victor Davis Hanson, Francis J. Beckwith, Ryan T. Anderson, etc. My arguments and evidence are the same as theirs.

The non-racism of white conservatives should be no surprise to anyone. Who is the favorite economist of white conservatives? Thomas Sowell, a black economist. And who is the favorite Senator of white conservatives? Ted Cruz, a Cuban lawyer. And who is the favorite radio show host of white conservatives? Ben Shapiro, an orthodox Jew. And who is their favorite Supreme Court Justice? The most conservative one, Clarence Thomas – who is black. And who leads the favorite think tank of white conservatives? Kay Cole James, a black woman, who is president of the Heritage Foundation. And white conservatives love legal immigrants, and love to hear their stories of becoming citizens by following the rules. They love to hear anyone express love for America.

White conservatives couldn’t care less about another conservative’s skin color. Or sex, for that matter. They only care about one thing: that the person loves the Constitution, the Declaration, the Bill of Rights, and the founding ideals of the country as a whole.

It’s actually the secular left that is obsessed with dividing people into groups and making them feel like victims. They want to push these groups into supporting a bigger secular government, higher taxes and less liberty. A successful black conservative and a legal immigrant would be their worst nightmare.

Update: just this morning, one of the white conservatives in my office, who was really upset that Trump is getting blamed for gun violence, invited me and a white progressive co-worker for lunch next Monday. He was trying to make me talk to the progressive in the office, and I was. But we were going long, so now we’re going to lunch!