Tag Archives: Gospel

Jesus’ death on the cross is sufficient to reconcile rebellious humans to God

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

I thought I post this passage from Colossians for everyone to think about, because I had some thoughts about it.

Colossians 1:15-23:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.

16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.

17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.

19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,

20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.

22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—

23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

I don’t think anyone can read this and think that there is anything that they have to do in order to contribute to their reconciliation with God. This passage is really clear – when it comes to being reconciled with God, Jesus does all the work. You can’t do anything to add to the solution, because Jesus is the whole solution. This is what Christians mean by Jesus is our savior. He saves us from the wrath of God by taking our punishment for us.

The reason I am posting this is because I have been having some discussions with Reformed theologians, and they are very suspicious of me having definite plans for my life. It’s very strange. The more I talk about things that I’d like to do in order to be a friend of Jesus, and treat him as Lord in my prioritization and decision-making, the more suspicious they get that I am trying to merit salvation.

The even stranger thing is that these Reformed people are clearly making a lot of decisions in their lives that reflect Jesus’ commands and Jesus’ priorities. I am sure that the Reformed people would be outraged if I asked them if their own plans and decisions were meant to contribute something to their own salvation. But I also think that they are hyper-sensitive to any sort of planning or allegiance to God that involves thoughtful decision-making. And they can sometimes be very passive, which I think is a consequence of their commitment to determinism (i.e. – they think that God is the sole determiner of whether a person is saved or not, and there is no human agency or human responsibility involved in having faith, not even in response to God’s initiative to save).

Being a Christian means treating Christ as Lord, i.e. – leader. Naturally, if Jesus is your leader, then you are interested in making decisions that respect his leadership. This is completely separate from the issue of Jesus as Savior. I think the Bible is very clear in urging people to trust Jesus, and I think that this trust comes out in actions. Jesus says that if you love him, then you should obey his commands. Christianity is not just something that I do in my mind, by having the right answers to theology questions. When I am faced with a decision about how to act, I can trust in Jesus by making a decision that respects Jesus as leader. Trust is one of the components of Biblical faith, the others being accurate knowledge and rational assent. Trusting in Jesus is not something that is an add-on to Jesus’ work of atoning for my rebellion against God with his death on the cross. Trusting in Jesus is, however, a necessary component of my faith in Jesus.

Tim Keller explains basic Christian doctrines to Nick Kristof in the New York Times

Investigation in progress
Investigation in progress

When I saw this New York Times article, and I had to blog about it. Although I am more conservative than Tim Keller on many issues (economics, race issues, intelligent design vs Darwinism), he does a pretty good job of explaining and defending basic Christian doctrines to Nicholas Kristof. Kristof one the secular leftist columnists who writes for the New York Times, which is one the most secular and most leftist media sources.

The format of the article is question and answer, and I’ll choose a few that I really liked. (The questions were all good, by the way)

Excerpt:

But let me push back. As you know better than I, the Scriptures themselves indicate that the Resurrection wasn’t so clear cut. Mary Magdalene didn’t initially recognize the risen Jesus, nor did some disciples, and the gospels are fuzzy about Jesus’ literal presence — especially Mark, the first gospel to be written. So if you take these passages as meaning that Jesus literally rose from the dead, why the fuzziness?

I wouldn’t characterize the New Testament descriptions of the risen Jesus as fuzzy. They are very concrete in their details. Yes, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus at first, but then she does. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24) also don’t recognize Jesus at first. Their experience was analogous to meeting someone you last saw as a child 20 years ago. Many historians have argued that this has the ring of eyewitness authenticity. If you were making up a story about the Resurrection, would you have imagined that Jesus was altered enough to not be identified immediately but not so much that he couldn’t be recognized after a few moments? As for Mark’s gospel, yes, it ends very abruptly without getting to the Resurrection, but most scholars believe that the last part of the book or scroll was lost to us.

Skeptics should consider another surprising aspect of these accounts. Mary Magdalene is named as the first eyewitness of the risen Christ, and other women are mentioned as the earliest eyewitnesses in the other gospels, too. This was a time in which the testimony of women was not admissible evidence in courts because of their low social status. The early pagan critics of Christianity latched on to this and dismissed the Resurrection as the word of “hysterical females.” If the gospel writers were inventing these narratives, they would never have put women in them. So they didn’t invent them.

The Christian Church is pretty much inexplicable if we don’t believe in a physical resurrection. N.T. Wright has argued in “The Resurrection of the Son of God” that it is difficult to come up with any historically plausible alternate explanation for the birth of the Christian movement. It is hard to account for thousands of Jews virtually overnight worshiping a human being as divine when everything about their religion and culture conditioned them to believe that was not only impossible, but deeply heretical. The best explanation for the change was that many hundreds of them had actually seen Jesus with their own eyes.

The part in bold is what distinguishes a person who has studied apologetics from the average Jesus-hollering Bible thumper who cannot speak except in Bible verses. We have too few people who can argue historical analysis (e.g. – the criterion of embarassment) and quote authorities on the historical Jesus (e.g. – N.T. Wright). I really think that we need to start shaming people who argue for Christianity by quoting the Bible, as if non-Christians accept the Bible without any kind of historical analysis.

Here’s another:

What I admire most about Christianity is the amazing good work it inspires people to do around the world. But I’m troubled by the evangelical notion that people go to heaven only if they have a direct relationship with Jesus. Doesn’t that imply that billions of people — Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus — are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian families around the world? That Gandhi is in hell?

The Bible makes categorical statements that you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:11-12). I’m very sympathetic to your concerns, however, because this seems so exclusive and unfair. There are many views of this issue, so my thoughts on this cannot be considered the Christian response. But here they are:

You imply that really good people (e.g., Gandhi) should also be saved, not just Christians. The problem is that Christians do not believe anyone can be saved by being good. If you don’t come to God through faith in what Christ has done, you would be approaching on the basis of your own goodness. This would, ironically, actually be more exclusive and unfair, since so often those that we tend to think of as “bad” — the abusers, the haters, the feckless and selfish — have themselves often had abusive and brutal backgrounds.

Christians believe that it is those who admit their weakness and need for a savior who get salvation. If access to God is through the grace of Jesus, then anyone can receive eternal life instantly. This is why “born again” Christianity will always give hope and spread among the “wretched of the earth.”

I can imagine someone saying, “Well, why can’t God just accept everyone — universal salvation?” Then you create a different problem with fairness. It means God wouldn’t really care about injustice and evil.

There is still the question of fairness regarding people who have grown up away from any real exposure to Christianity. The Bible is clear about two things — that salvation must be through grace and faith in Christ, and that God is always fair and just in all his dealings. What it doesn’t directly tell us is exactly how both of those things can be true together. I don’t think it is insurmountable. Just because I can’t see a way doesn’t prove there cannot be any such way. If we have a God big enough to deserve being called God, then we have a God big enough to reconcile both justice and love.

As you can see from the article, Christians can and should prepare themselves to answer these basic questions, because there are a lot of people on the secular left who can’t find anyone who can answer them. We lose a lot of young people because we focus too much on feeling good and being liked, not enough on giving other people’s questions the respect they deserve. Keller quotes historians like Wright and philosophers like Plantinga. He defends the Bible verses he cites using the criteria of embarrassment. He defends the existence of God by appealing the creation (Big Bang cosmology) and design of the universe (cosmic fine-tuning). If questioned, I know from his writings that Keller is able to put scientific meat on his assertions. It is very important that Christians understand that Christianity is a religion that from the beginning was started by a man who appealed to evidence (miracles) to ground his claims.

As you can see from Keller’s responses, there is a lot more to defending the faith than simply quoting the Bible as if non-Christians all believed it. Some pastors do that – citing the Bible as if just saying the words will have a magical effect on people’s views. I call this the “magic words” approach to apologetics, and it’s not Biblical. I think the pastors who do this (Al Mohler, Russell Moore, etc.) have been influenced by Mormon epistemology. The right way to defend the faith is to put more effort into it – crafting intelligent responses that are persuasive and effective with your intended audience.

Apologetics in the gospel of John

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

John is my favorite gospel, because the thing reads like a well constructed essay. The author makes a number of claims about who Jesus was, and supplies evidence for each claim. There is nothing extraneous to John’s thesis, the whole thing that he wrote is designed to make a case.

My friend Eric Chabot wrote a post on his blog on the use of apologetics in the gospel of John. (H/T J. Warner Wallace tweet)

Here is his thesis:

In this post, I will highlight some of the different ways John utilizes apologetics in his testimony of who Jesus is.

He talks about how God has his messengers use evidence:

3.Signs and Miracles

While actions by other prophets such as Ezekiel and Jeremiah etc. show some significant parallels to Jesus, Jesus is closer to the actions of the Jewish sign prophetssuch as Moses. “Signs” have a specific apologetic function in that they are used to provide evidence for people to believe the message of God through a prophet of God. Hence, the signs Moses does proves he is truly sent from God.  Moses had struggled with his prophetic call when he said “ But they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’ (Exod. 4:1). God assures Moses that  the “signs”  will confirm his call:

God says, “I will be with you. And this will be אוֹת “the sign”  to you that it is I who have sent you” (Exod. 3:12).

“If they will not believe you,” God said, “or listen to the first sign, they may believe the latter sign. If they will not believe even these two signs or listen to your voice, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground, and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.” (Exod 4: 8-9).

We see the signs are used to help people believe.

Moses “performed the “signs” before the people, and they believed; … they bowed down and worshiped” (Exod. 4:30–31)

So what did Jesus do?

“Works” are directly related to the miracles of Jesus (Jn. 5:20; 36;10:25; 32-28; 14:10-12; 15:24) and is synonymous with “signs.” Interestingly enough, when Jesus speaks of miracles and he calls them “works” he doesn’t refer to  Exod. 4:1-9, but to Num. 16:28, “Hereby you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these works, and that it has not been of my own accord.” For example:

Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me” (John 10:25).

If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me;  but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” (John 10:37-38).

But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me (John 5: 36)

“Sign”(sēmeion) is used seventy-seven times (forty-eight times in the Gospels). As far as the “signs’ Jesus does,  29:18-19; 35:5-6; 42:18; 61:1). In John’s Gospel, Jesus performs three “signs,” at the beginning of his ministry; the water turned into wine at Cana at Galilee (2:1-12), the healing of the son of the royal official at Capernaum (4:46-64), and catching of the fish in the sea of Galilee (21:1-14). The link between the first two signs in Jn 2:12 while the link between the last two are seen in Jn 7:1, 3-4, 6, 9. Jesus follows the pattern of Moses in that he reveals himself as the new Moses because Moses also had to perform three “signs” so that he could be recognized by his brothers as truly being sent by God (Exod 4: 1-9). In the exchange between Nicodemus said to Jesus, Nicodemus said, We know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him” (John 3:2)

Also, regarding miracles, in some cases the miracle is a witness against those who reject this evidence. John grieved: “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him” (John 12:37). One result, though not the purpose, of miracles is condemnation of the unbeliever (cf. John 12:31, 37).

The gospel of John is so good. Or is it that Jesus is just so good to not be like some idiot who just says things that no one can test? That would be stupid and annoying – it’s much better for Jesus to do these signs so that people could believe him about his identity and purpose. Do you like Jesus? I like Jesus.

I read John a long time ago, when I was about 10 or 11 years old.I can’t remember what I thought of it, but it probably had a very good effect on me as far as making me think that Christianity was something that I ought to look into. The gospel of John is that good. Philippians is still my favorite book of the Bible (because it’s practical, duh), but John is the best introduction. It’s the first thing a non-Christian should read to at least understand what Christianity is all about. Everybody should at least know that!

Tim McGrew lectures on alleged historical errors in the gospels

Lets take a closer look at a puzzle
Lets take a closer look at a puzzle

Today’s post features a lecture given by Dr. Timothy J. McGrew. He is a Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University, but he also specializes in historical apologetics.

Here are a couple of Dr. McGrew’s videos – with slides! – on alleged errors in the gospels.

Alleged errors in Mark and Matthew:

In this lecture, entitled Alleged Historical Errors in the Gospels, Dr. Timothy McGrew critiques seven of the strongest objections to the historical reliability of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. This is about 55 minutes of content followed by fifteen minutes of Q&A.

More on this talk here. (including MP3)

Alleged errors in Luke and John:

In this lecture, entitled Alleged Historical Errors in the Gospels, Dr. Timothy McGrew critiques the strongest objections to the historical reliability of the Gospels of Luke & John. This is about 55 minutes of content followed by thirty minutes of Q&A.

More on this talk here. (including MP3)

Bio of Tim McGrew:

Dr. Timothy McGrew is Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University. He specializes in theory of knowledge, logic, probability theory, and the history and philosophy of science, and he has published in numerous journals including Mind, The Monist, Analysis, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, and Philosophia Christi. His most recent publications include the article on “Evidence” in The Routledge Companion to Epistemology (forthcoming), a co-authored anthology in The Philosophy of Science (Blackwell, 2009), and a paper (with Lydia McGrew) on the the argument from miracles in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell, 2009).

Always remember not to get bogged down in these low-level issues, though, until you have agreement from the skeptic about the higher order issues, e.g. – does God exist? etc. Scientific arguments first, historical and philosophical arguments second, Bible “errors” last of all. Proiving inerrancy is never the first step in a discussion about Christian theism – always start with God’s existence and the mainstream science. The Bible difficulties should come at the very end of the discussion, once easier matters have been settled.

What does “Christian fellowship” mean?

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

Philippians is my favorite book of the Bible. When I study Philippians 1, I use D. A. Carson’s “Basics for Believers” commentary.

Here is the part I want to talk about today:

Philippians 1:1-11:

Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you,

always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all,

in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now.

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.

For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me.

For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.

And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment,

10 so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ;

11 having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

Now just read that and reflect on how passionate, and even unstable and emotional Paul sounds about this love he has for this church. Ask yourself this: what is the basis for these feelings? Read it again, and write your answer down. I’ll tell you mine in a minute.

Now here is D. A. Carson.

He writes:

As often in his letters, Paul begins with a warm expression of thanks to God for something in the lives of his readers. Here the grounds of his thanksgiving to God are three in number, though all three are tied to the same theme.

The first is their faithful memory of him. The NIV reads, “I thank my God every time I remember you” (1: 3). But others suggest “I thank my God every time you remember me,” or something similar. The original is ambiguous. For reasons I shall not go into, I think Paul is referring to their remembrance of him. Later on he will thank the Philippians for remembering him so warmly that they sent funds to support him in his ministry. But here the vision is broader: he perceives that their interest in him is a reflection of their continued commitment to the gospel, and that is why he thanks God for them.

The point becomes explicit in the second cause of his thanksgiving: “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now . . .” (1: 4– 5). Their “partnership in the gospel” injects joy into Paul’s prayers of thanksgiving: “I always pray with joy,” he writes. The word rendered “partnership” is more commonly translated “fellowship” in the New Testament. What precisely does the word mean? In common use “fellowship” has become somewhat debased. If you invite a pagan neighbor to your home for a cup of tea, it is friendship; if you invite a Christian neighbor, it is fellowship. If you attend a meeting at church and leave as soon as it is over, you have participated in a service; if you stay for coffee afterward, you have enjoyed some fellowship. In modern use, then, fellowship has come to mean something like warm friendship with believers.

In the first century, however, the word commonly had commercial overtones. If John and Harry buy a boat and start a fishing business, they have entered into a fellowship, a partnership. Intriguingly, even in the New Testament the word is often tied to financial matters. Thus, when the Macedonian Christians send money to help the poor Christians in Jerusalem, they are entering into fellowship with them (Rom. 15: 26).

The heart of true fellowship is self-sacrificing conformity to a shared vision. Both John and Harry put their savings into the fishing boat. Now they share the vision that will put the fledgling company on its feet. Christian fellowship, then, is self-sacrificing conformity to the gospel. There may be overtones of warmth and intimacy, but the heart of the matter is this shared vision of what is of transcendent importance, a vision that calls forth our commitment. So when Paul gives thanks, with joy, because of the Philippians’ “partnership in the gospel” or “fellowship in the gospel,” he is thanking God that these brothers and sisters in Christ— from the moment of their conversion (“ from the first day until now,” Paul writes)— rolled up their sleeves and got involved in the advance of the gospel. They continued their witness in Philippi, they persevered in their prayers for Paul, they sent money to support him in his ministry— all testifying to their shared vision of the importance and priority of the gospel. That is more than enough reason for thanking God.

[..]Implicitly, such an apostolic stance asks us what gives us our greatest joy. Is it personal success? Some victory for our children? Acquisition of material things? “I have no greater joy,” John writes, “than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” Paul reflects exactly the same attitude. Paul adds, “It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart . . .” (Phil. 1: 7). Probably this was written against the background of Stoic influence that was cautious about whole-life commitments, especially if they involved the “passions.” Be cool; do not be vulnerable; do not get hurt. But that was not Paul’s way. “It is right for me to feel this way about all of you,” Paul insists, regardless of what the contemporary culture says. “I have you in my heart”: my whole life and thought are bound up with you.

More:

So strongly does he want the Philippians to recognize his devotion to them that Paul puts himself under an oath: “God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (1: 8). The significance of the oath is not that without it he might lie. Rather, he puts himself under an oath so that the Philippians might feel the passion of his truthfulness, in exactly the same way that God puts himself under an oath in the Epistle to the Hebrews. There the point is not that otherwise God might lie, but that God wants to be believed (Heb. 7: 20– 25). So Paul: God is my witness “how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.”

Here is no mere professionalism. Nor is this an act, a bit of showmanship to “turn them on” to the apostle. Rather, it is something that repeatedly bubbles through Paul’s arguments. It recurs, for example, in chapter 4: “Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!” (4: 1).

Both from Paul’s example and from that of the Philippians, then, we must learn this first point: the fellowship of the gospel, the partnership of the gospel, must be put at the center of our relationships with other believers. That is the burden of these opening verses. Paul does not commend them for the fine times they had shared watching games in the arena. He doesn’t mention their literature discussion groups or the excellent meals they had, although undoubtedly they had enjoyed some fine times together. What lies at the center of all his ties with them, doubtless including meals and discussion, is this passion for the gospel, this partnership in the gospel.

What ties us together? What do we talk about when we meet, even after a church service? Mere civilities? The weather? Sports? Our careers and our children? Our aches and pains? None of these topics should be excluded from the conversation of Christians, of course. In sharing all of life, these things will inevitably come up. But what must tie us together as Christians is this passion for the gospel, this fellowship in the gospel. On the face of it, nothing else is strong enough to hold together the extraordinary diversity of people who constitute many churches: men and women, young and old, blue collar and white, healthy and ill, fit and flabby, different races, different incomes, different levels of education, different personalities. What holds us together? It is the gospel, the good news that in Jesus, God himself has reconciled us to himself. This brings about a precious God-centeredness that we share with other believers.

Does what Carson writes make you think of the Lord of the Rings book 1? (“The Fellowship of the Ring”) It sounds like Christians are supposed to band together in common purpose in order to complete a quest. They are not supposed to just be hanging out to pass the time. There is planning. There is cooperation. There is danger. There is achievement. There is adventure. I think that he loves the church in Philippi because they have entered into this fellowship of the gospel with him.

More:

Already in verse 4 Paul has insisted that whenever he prays for the Philippians, he does so with joy and thanksgiving. Now he gives us the content of his prayers for them: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ— to the glory and praise of God” (1: 9– 11).

[…]Second, what Paul has in mind is not mere sentimentalism or the rush of pleasure spawned, for example, by a large conference. “I pray,” Paul writes, “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.” The kind of love that Paul has in mind is the love that becomes more knowledgeable. Of course, Paul is not thinking of just any kind of knowledge. He is not hoping they will learn more and more about nuclear physics or sea turtles. He has in mind the knowledge of God; he wants them to enjoy insight into God’s words and ways, and thus to know how to live in light of them.

So here is my main point: I think that we need to stop looking at other people on the surface level – age, skin color, wealth, clothes, etc. – and start to dig deeper underneath to find out where each person stands with respect to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our criteria should not be present ability. We should choose those with desire, intensity, and willingness to learn hard things. If a person can demonstrate their desire to do grow in knowledge and depth of insight, you should be spending your time, money and effort with that person first. Don’t pick the people who you like for surface reasons, pick the people who you can engage in fellowship with.