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Why I Don’t Recommend Study Bibles

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

kjvThe other day someone handed me a photocopy of a page out of her King James Study Bible published by Thomas Nelson.  She had copied the pages containing comments on Acts 22:16, the passage where Saul is commanded to be baptized.  One glance at these comments reminded me of why I don’t recommend Study Bibles.

The contributor’s notes printed below this passage begin by saying “some believe that this statement teaches baptismal regeneration, that baptism is required for salvation.”  Already he has presented an inaccuracy, or at least he has failed to set forth an objective representation of all sides of the issue.  Baptismal regeneration is a doctrine that began in Catholic tradition which implies that the sacrament of baptism itself is the power by which rebirth takes place.  Accordingly, baptismal regeneration holds that baptism is “required for salvation.”  However, another point of view is not presented: the scriptures can still require baptism without teaching baptismal regeneration.

The New Testament presents baptism as a matter of when the believer is saved, not how. Take Romans 6:3-4, for example:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

The death of Jesus saves us (1 Pet. 1:18-19; 3:18; Acts 4:12).  There is nothing else–including baptism–that will serve as a substitute.  But when does God bring a soul into contact with that death?  Some argue that this happens at the point of belief.  But many have believed without being saved (Jn. 12:42-43; Jas. 2:19).  According to Paul, we are baptized into Christ’s death; that is, when a person believes God’s word and is baptized, God saves him by the blood of his Son.

What I’m saying is that it is possible to make a distinction between the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, as it is commonly understood, and the biblical requirement of baptism for salvation.  This study Bible does not allow such a distinction.

After making this opening observation, the contributor lists five factors for the reader’s consideration, which he hopes will negate the force of Ananias’ plain command: “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”

Historical Revision

First, he argues that “the historical narrative of Paul’s conversion in chapter 9 shows that he was saved and filled with the Holy Spirit before his baptism.”  This is a fabrication.  It is appalling to imagine a reader sincerely looking into this important matter, only to come to this comment and end his examination, trusting that the information he has been given is true.

Nothing in the historical account of Saul’s conversion, whether we’re looking at Acts 9, 22, or 26, suggests that he had been saved prior to his baptism.  The facts are simple to understand: 1)  Saul was on his way to Damascus when he encountered the risen Lord who appeared in a flash of light which caused him to fall to the ground.  2)  Saul heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  3)  When Saul asked for identification, the Lord replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”  4)  Jesus instructed him to go to Damascus and await further instructions.  5)  When Saul rose from the ground to obey the command, he discovered that he had been stricken with blindness.  6) In Damascus, he prayed and fasted for three days before Ananias appeared.  7)  When Ananias appeared, he laid his hands on Saul to restore his sight and allow him to be filled with the Holy Spirit (more on this later when we get to Cornelius).  8)  Then Ananias commanded him to be baptized, pointing out that he still had sins to wash away.  His language reveals that this is involved in “calling on his name.”

If anything, Acts 22:16 tells us Saul still had sin before his baptism and that his submission, prayer, and fasting were not enough to receive forgiveness.  Ananias’ instructions place baptism as the last thing necessary before salvation would be granted from the Lord.


The next factor given in the study Bible is the account of Cornelius’ conversion in Acts 10.  This time the contributor gives us a reference, saying, “He was clearly saved and baptized with the Spirit before he was baptized in water (10:47).”  Again, the reader is being misled.  The comments make a “clear” case out of something that never happened.

Cornelius was baptized with the Spirit prior to his water baptism, but nothing is said about his being saved.  In fact, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is never associated with salvation in the New Testament.

Aside from the vague reference to Saul’s baptism of the Holy Spirit in Acts 9:17, which, as we’ve seen, preceded salvation, there is only one other record of this phenomenon in the New Testament.  On the Day of Pentecost, the apostles were “filled” with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in tongues (Acts 2:4).  They, of course, were already in a saved state.

What about Cornelius?  While Peter was preaching the gospel to him and his family, the Holy Spirit “fell on all who heard the word” (10:44).  This amazed the Jewish observers because “the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (10:45).  Like the apostles, Cornelius and his family were speaking in tongues.

Later, in Jerusalem, Peter reported this significant event to the apostles, saying “the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning” (11:15).  Because Peter had to take the apostles’ minds back to the “beginning” in order to find a comparison, we are able to infer that Holy Spirit baptism was a rare occurrence.  As far as they were concerned, it had occured only twice–once among the apostles in Jerusalem to foster in the Christian era and a second time among Cornelius’ household to signify the gospel’s value to the Gentiles.

What comes next in the Cornelius account is intriguing.  After the whole family was filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  He then commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (10:47-48).

Why would Peter insist on a water baptism after seeing they had already been baptized with the Holy Spirit?  What was the purpose?  Notice he spoke of water baptism as being administered “in the name of Jesus Christ.”  Earlier, in Acts 2:38, Peter had expounded on the significance of this baptism: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  Upon their obedience to that command, three thousand souls were added to the Lord’s body that day (2:41).  Peter was asking Cornelius to do the same thing the multitude at Pentecost did.

In Ephesians 4:5, Paul states there is “one baptism,” meaning there is one baptism that counts.  He could not have been talking about the baptism of the Holy Spirit, since that phenomenon was rare and was not connected to the matter of salvation.  Baptism in water for the forgiveness of sins is the “one baptism” of Christianity.  As in the case of Saul of Tarsus, Cornelius’ account does not mitigate against baptism.  To the contrary, it emphasizes its importance.

More Strangeness

The contributors next three points will be handled more briefly.  He argues next that “Regeneration, not water baptism, washes away our sins (Tit. 3:5).  In fact, Paul helps us to see more properly the relation of baptism to regeneration by minimizing baptism (1 Cor. 1:14-17).”  It is strange to me that the writer does not see water baptism in the phrase “washing of regeneration” in Titus 3:5.  Regardless, as I stated earlier, the Bible does not teach that the power of regeneration is in the water or that it is the water that washes away our sins.  This is a worn-out strawman argument that needs to be dispensed with.  God grants regeneration, though, at the point of full obedience to the gospel, which includes baptism in the name of Jesus.

Concerning 1 Corinthians 1, the issue was not baptism but the spirit of division that had crept into the church at Corinth.  Paul did not downplay baptism itself but rather the people who administer the baptism, a point that is clear if the reader looks at the text without prejudice.

The contributor’s fourth argument is bizarre.  He appeals now to “the other apostles,” citing 1 Peter 3:21, which states, “Baptism…now saves you.”  You can pick any apostle you like–you can study Jesus’ words for that matter–but you will not find one statement arguing that salvation takes place before baptism (Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3:3-5; Acts 2:38; 1 Pet. 3:21).

The comments end by rewriting the verse: “Be baptized, and wash away thy sins by calling on the name of the Lord.”  A clever ploy.  By adding one word consisting of two letters we have changed the means of salvation into an amorphous “calling.”

There is no justification for adding a preposition into Ananias’ instructions.  The participle “calling on his name” is modified by the instruction to “be baptized.”  Peter stated as much in his address on Pentecost (Acts 2:21, 38), and again in his first epistle, where he describes baptism as “an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Pet. 3:21).

Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg of confusion that is dissemenated by the popular study Bibles on the market.  If you are struggling with a passage, get a good dictionary of Bible words, a concordance, some comparative translations, and approach commentary with great caution.  After you have consulted these and have arrived at a conclusion with an open mind, you can be certain of God’s word.  It’s as simple as that.

Society’s New Bad Word

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

The world uses many names to demean Christians and pressure them to capitulate to its influence, but one word stands out above all others as the most dreaded weapon in society’s linguistic arsenal: fundamentalist.

“Fundamentalist” as a formal religious designation was coined in 1920 by Curtis Lee Laws of those read “to do battle royal for the Fundamentals.”  The dictionary defines “fundamentalism” as “religious beliefs based on a literal interpretation of the Bible regarded as fundamental to Christian faith and morals.”  But since the 1920s the word has evolved into a pejorative with political implications, invoking images of bomb-wielding terrorists and intolerant, unloving preachers with a Pharisaical approach to religion.  Fundamentalism today is regarded as anti-intellectual, resistant to culture, intolerant of opposing views, anti-science, and violent.

Opponents of conservative faiths have worked hard to develop these negative connotations.  In an essay entitled, “Why Fundamentalism Is Wrong,” Scott Bidstrup defines fundamentalism as

any religion, that when confronted with a conflict between love, compassion and caring, and conformity to doctrine, will almost invariably choose the latter regardless of the effect it has on its followers or on the society of which it is a part.

Note also the statement by renowned atheist Richard Dawkins, whose book The God Delusion has sold over 1.5 million copies: “[fundamentalism] subverts science and saps the intellect.”

The danger that results from fundamentalism’s bad press is that it tempts Christians to move away from the basic doctrines revealed by God to shape Christianity into a religion that pleases him.  If we ignore these elements, Christianity vanishes from existence.

Divorced from its political nuances, a fundamental is a primary principle, rule, law, or article, which serves as the basis for our faith.  It is an essential part of the whole.  No organization can continue to exist without its fundamentals.  The church has many good works which are not essential to its existence, things like church camps, orphan homes, Bible schools, Christian colleges, visitation programs, etc.  While these may be beneficial, they are not essential.  We could do away with one or all of them and still have the church for which our Lord died.

Paul spoke of the fundamentals in Ephesians 4:4-6 by listing seven “ones”:

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

The apostle left no room for improvement or innovation in these seven matters.  Being “one,” they are essential to Christian faith.

In Hebrews 6:1 the writer encourages us to “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation….”  Far from being a call to abandon the fundamentals, this is a warning against being satisfied with only the essentials and not growing in the faith.  Inherent in the statement is a need for a “foundation” on which faith can be built.

Christianity has a number of essential parts that determine the authenticity of our religion.  We must profess a belief in the existence of God (Heb. 11:6) and confess that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for our sins (Mt. 16:16; 20:28; 1 Cor. 15:1-4).  We must embrace the Bible’s claims for inspiration, a concept that introduces a number of other fundamental beliefs (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  Christians need to understand the distinctive nature of the church of Christ (Eph. 4:4-6) and unashamedly preach the gospel to all nations (Mt. 28:19-20).  Without these basics, and others, we cannot call ourselves Christian, for these things are elemental to the Christian faith.

Perhaps “fundamentalism” is one of those words that has run its course.  Having been stripped of its original meaning it is no longer useful in conveying these important principles.  Nevertheless, Christian people cannot forget their moorings.  Without the basics, we are nothing.

The Worship Hour: Less Is More

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

WorshipWorship times have always been controversial.  On the one hand, there is the crabby old guy who shows more concern for the pot roast his wife put in the oven before they left for church than the condition of his soul.  On the other hand, there are the folks, many of them worship leaders, who would be happy to camp out at church all day.  They argue that in heaven we will be worshiping for an eternity so we had better get used to it.

Given today’s busy culture, I don’t think that we can improve upon the one-hour worship service.  One hour is enough time for several hymns, two public prayers, the Lord’s Supper, the collection, and a well-organized, thoughtful sermon.  If the service is conducted well, members of the church will leave satisfied and visitors will come back wanting more.

This is the main idea of Dave Browning’s article, “The Case for the Hour-Long Church Service.”  Browning argues that “the longer you perpetuate an elongated service, the more you run the risk of alienating the very people you want to reach.”  Outsiders who visit our church services may not have the stamina for a lengthy period of worship.  But if they are truly looking for answers and the church leaders have done their job of directing the congregation in scriptural, uplifting worship, they will come back for more.

Many methods can be used to draw people to the gospel, but the worship service still ranks as the best way to introduce somebody to Christ.  What do we tell the more timid church members who feel they are not ready to conduct a personal Bible study with a friend or family member?  “Just invite them to church.”  This is reason enough for us to put some thought into the organization of our worship hour.

Then there is the primary objective: praising God.  I know some Christians who measure the success of a worship service by the amount of time that was invested into it.  Short ceremonies make weak Christians, so the thought goes.  But who says that longer worship is better?

As a general rule, shorter sermons and shorter prayers are the result of much preparation; lengthier speeches sometimes betray a poor process.  Blaise Pascal once wrote a friend, saying, “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”  How many sermons are long simply because the preacher did not have time to make them shorter?  I’m not talking about sermonettes.  Granted, some sermons are woefully lacking in content.  That’s a subject for another time.  It is possible to preach a sermon in a about 30 minutes that is instructive and challenging.

Jesus never argued for lengthy worship.  Take his discourse on prayer, for example: “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt. 6:7-8).  After discussing how not to pray, Jesus said, “Pray then like this,” and gave a model prayer containing only 52 words.

None of the biblical sermons, including Jesus’, matches up in length to even today’s sermons, which typically range from 20 to 40 minutes in duration.  And these were preached before we discovered Attention Deficit Disorder.

I have heard it argued that in the old days Christians didn’t worry about time: “Back in the day we put the Lord first.  The sermon may have lasted two hours.  We didn’t care!”  While it may be true that some preachers spoke for long periods of time, two hours was by no means the standard.

Ira North labored at the Madison Church of Christ in Tennessee for 32 years and during that time built it up to be the largest congregation among the churches of Christ in the world.  In 1983, a year before his death, he wrote Balance, his “tried and tested formula for church growth.”  In the chapter entitled “Time Is Treasure,” he says,

I am convinced from many years of church work and study and observation that not only can the church have an effective worship service in one hour, but you can have a more effective, soul-stirring and heart-warming one…You can excuse long, drawn out services and defend them all you want, but while you do it your crowds will dwindle away and your future will be impaired.

N.B. Hardeman, whose Tabernacle Sermons drew crowds of 10,000 and more in the 1920s, kept his sermons to 30 minutes.  He famously advised his preaching students, “If you can’t strike oil in 30 minutes, quit boring!”

The preacher is not the only person in control during the worship hour.  An orderly worship service requires teamwork between the preacher, the person making the announcements, the song leader, the men leading prayer, and those serving the Lord’s Supper and distributing the collection plates.  It doesn’t matter how much preparation the preacher puts into his sermon if the others do not share his concern for time.  For this reason, those who are leading the worship should gather for a quick pre-service meeting and prayer to ensure that they will work together to provide a time-efficient, orderly, scriptural, and uplifting worship hour that strives to please the Lord.

While there are, no doubt, some insincere individuals who are interested in nothing more than getting in and getting out as quickly as possible, at the heart of this issue for me is the salvation of lost souls.  With a brisk, joyful service the lost can be attracted to deeper study through other worship opportunities, Bible classes, and personal Bible studies.

Jesus used every opportunity to seek and save the lost.  This is one that we should not take for granted.

Striving for Excellence

Friday, January 16th, 2009

Pearl S. Buck said, “The secret of joy in work is contained in one word–Shovelexcellence.  To know how to do something well is to enjoy it.”

It’s easy to get burned out when you feel incapable of doing your job well.  Everybody knows the drudgery of being the square peg in a round hole.  On the other hand, it feels good to do something well.  We can see the truth of Buck’s statement.  The difference between those who enjoy their work and those who don’t is excellence.

Excellence is far more attainable than most people realize.  The reason why we often fail to achieve it is that many of us have never paused to consider what it involves.  Excellence requires four ingredients:

1.  Knowledge. It is impossible to do anything well without knowledge.  Mechanics have to know cars, executives must be competent in business, doctors have to study medicine, cab drivers have to learn the city streets, etc.

When it comes to matters of faith, it is impossible to serve God without an understanding of his will (Eph. 5:17).  Many believers have taken on huge projects in the name of religion without first learning what it is that God really wants them to do for him.  These works may be impressive, but that doesn’t mean they are pleasing to God.

Consider what God said to his people through the prophet Amos:

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen (Amos 5:21-23).

We are stunned when we read that God did not accept the worship of his own people.  But the explanation is quite simple.  They were not worshiping with excellence.  That is, they took action without considering what God wanted.

2.  Diligence.  The most common word translated “diligence” in the New Testament is spoodah, which means “speed, eagerness, earnestness, energy, or promptness.”  Basically it means, “Do it now, do it right, do it well.”

It is important to know how to do the work–as I just said, knowledge is the first ingredient of excellence.  But if we lack spoodah, the work is never going to get done.  Along with competence, excellence involves the willingness to take action with eagerness, energy, and speed.

3.  Efficiency.  Some know what is to be done and have the energy to do it, but they have not paused to consider what is the best way to do it.  Sometimes it’s not how hard you work, it’s how smart you work.

4.  Scrutiny.  This may be the hardest ingredient to digest.  Once we learn God’s will and are enthusiastic about doing it and have set out to do it in an efficient manner, we must be courageous enough to examine it to see if there is room for improvement.

Too often we’re distracted by the flaws in others to see our own mistakes.  Paul said, “But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor” (Gal. 6:4).  Have you ever felt pleasure at someone’s failure?  This is what Paul condemned.  It is fine to “boast” (the concept of boasting in the New Testament is similar to rejoicing), but let that boasting come from improvements in your own work, not feeling good because your work isn’t as bad as someone else’s.

Strive for excellence.  Work is a blessing when it is done right.

What Is the Answer to Teen Pregnancies?

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

A new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that teen pregnancies have risen for the first time in about 15 years. Overall our nation’s teen birth numbers rose three percent from 2005 to 2006. Significant increases in teen birth rates were noted in 26 states, with Mississippi topping the list at 68 births for every 1,000 women. The national birth rate was about 42 per 1,000. None of these numbers, of course, take into account the number of pregnancies that were ended by abortion.

One thing that everyone agrees on is that this is not good for our country. A baby is a big responsibility, one that is too big for today’s teenagers to handle, especially unmarried teenage girls who, if they keep their babies, will have to raise the child without the assistance of a father.

Experts disagree, however, over what has caused the spike in teen pregnancies. Some criticize abstinence-only programs that do not teach teenagers how to use contraception, but many conservative organizations argue that the most common form of sex education focuses on contraceptives and that the new numbers serve as evidence that it is failing.

Another report out of Johns Hopkins University lends credence to the claims of critics of abstinence-only programs, announcing that there is not much difference between teens who take a pledge of virginity until marriage and those who don’t: whether or not they took the pledge, the study said, most do not stay sexually pure until marriage.

Much thanks goes to William McGurn of the Wall Street Journal for pointing out that this fatalistic study is flawed. As it turns out, the author of the study, Janet Elise Rosenbaum, reached these results by comparing teens who take a virginity pledge with a very small subset of other teens: those who are just as religious and conservative as the pledge-takers. It appears that this is another in a long line of studies published by trusted sources that takes aim at Christian virtues by reporting the results of less-than-honest research.

The Bible’s position on premarital sex is clear. In 1 Corinthians 6:18, Paul writes, “Flee from sexual immorality.” The word that he uses, also translated “fornication,” is rendered from the Greek porneia, which refers to every form of sexual intercourse outside of marriage. This definition includes homosexuality, adultery, and premarital sex. Using the same word in another passage, Paul listed sexual immorality among sins committed by the unrighteous who will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-11; cf. Gal. 5:19-21).

The Bible teaches that a sexual relationship is something that is good and important in a marriage relationship (Prov. 5:15-20; 1 Cor. 7:5; Heb. 13:4). Sex in itself is not evil, but sex is prohibited outside of the marriage relationship. One of the reasons God has made this prohibition is because a sexual relationship is a big responsibility. Teenagers are not ready for this kind of intimacy, let alone the burdens of childrearing. Children deserve better, and God’s word promotes the best environment for them: a home with a father and a mother.

The truth is that when teenagers are brought up under biblical standards, they are less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, pregnancies are less frequent, and many do wait until marriage before having sex. Sure, many Christian teens make mistakes, but even many of these come back to the Lord and renew their commitment to purity afterwards. God’s word has the answer to problems like teen pregnancy. The world may not be sharing it, and that is disappointing, but the saddest fact is that the church is not sharing it, and that is a shame.

No Resolutions

Monday, December 29th, 2008

While I was in Chattanooga over the holidays, I opened up the local newspaper and found an article about a new church in the area.  The pastor was talking about his slogan for the New Year: “Make ‘no resolutions’ your only resolution!”  This unique approach to faith, he hopes, will draw in seekers who are weary of trying to achieve spiritual results on their own and are ready to turn their lives over to God.

The concept of doing nothing in the name of God is not new.  Years ago we started hearing “Let go and let God!” from church leaders promoting passivity.  Making no resolutions for the New Year is just a different version of an old idea.

These non-ambitions are rooted in the Reformation’s knee-jerk reaction to Catholicism’s works-based salvation.  What started with salvation by faith alone has become living by faith alone.

The results of not making goals and not pushing toward the ideals God has established for humankind are disastrous.  Nothing in the Bible suggests that we ought to throw our hands in the air and give up so that God can take over and do all the heavy lifting for us.  In fact, a close consideration of the Scriptures actually encourages goal-setting.

The most common word for sin in the New Testament is hamartano, a word that literally refers to missing the mark or falling short of a goal.  This connotation was still with the word in New Testament times, as Romans 3:23 demonstrates: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Failure to stop sinning and pursue God’s goals results in certain condemnation, as the writer of Hebrews explains: “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.”

John the Baptist preached, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Lk. 3:8).  He saw repentance as an internal changing of the mind that produced right actions.  This is illustrated by Zacchaeus, who set his goal before Jesus, saying, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor.  And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Lk. 19:8).  Jesus did not correct him but rather gave him a commendation.

Paul, that great church builder who established more congregations than any other servant of Christ, frequently stressed making resolutions to follow Christ in his preaching.  Consider the following cluster of illustrations he used in a letter to the Corinthians:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize?  So run that you may obtain it.  Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.  They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.  So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.  But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:24-27).

Analogies to the athletic world were understood in Corinth, where the Isthmian Games were held every other year.  Paul was encouraging effort, not passivity, comparing Christians to athletes in rigorous training.  His language in the last verse emphasizes the severity of this effort more than the English translations have indicated.  Taken literally, Paul’s words have him giving himself a black eye and making himself a slave to his spiritual goals so that he does not become disqualified.  Paul is speaking of strict discipline while some church leaders, like the one mentioned before, are encouraging their members to become couch potatoes.

The idea that Christianity involves letting go and giving God control comes from passages like Philippians 4:13, where Paul says he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him.  But this statement has to be tempered by what the apostle has already writing in his letter to the Philippians.  In chapter 2, verse 12, he tells them, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  And in the next chapter, speaking of himself, Paul says, “But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).  Far from lulling his readers into complacency, Paul is motivating his readers into a zealousness for God.  They did need the strength of Christ, but not so that they could wait for him to do all the work for them.  Christ’s strength is meant to help us endure as to push forward and strain for the goals that most of mankind miss because they are satisfied with the world.

So if you make resolutions, keep making them.  If you don’t, now is the time to start.  You will never get anywhere if you fail to plot a course.

Should the Church Fight Climate Change?

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

It’s freezing outside, making this a good time to address the polarizing subject of global warming. The idea that man has caused the earth to warm at alarming rates has few skeptics these days, even though there is mounting evidence that climate change is one thing of many that we simply cannot control.

Earlier this month it was reported that Dr. James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) and an adviser to Al Gore, made another huge blunder, leading to more doubts about whether we can trust the scientific community’s claim that man-made greenhouse gases are destroying our planet. Hansen announced that last month was the “hottest October on record.” Christopher Booker writes,

This was startling. Across the world there were reports of unseasonal snow and plummeting temperatures last month, from the American Great Plains to China, and from the Alps to New Zealand. China’s official news agency reported that Tibet had suffered its “worst snowstorm ever”. In the US, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration registered 63 local snowfall records and 115 lowest-ever temperatures for the month, and ranked it as only the 70th-warmest October in 114 years.

The anomaly was explained when it was discovered that GISS had carried over figures from September to October, which would obviously make October appear to be warmer than it really was.  A GISS spokesman explained that the reason for the error was that they were obtained from another body, and that GISS did not have resources to exercise proper quality control over the data it was supplied with.  But it is hard to interpret this as a mistake, since Hansen has been caught making similar blunders in the past.  In 2007, for example, he was forced to revise figures which had inaccurately reported the 1990s to be the hottest decade on record, changing them to show that this distinction really belongs to the 1930s.

After reading the facts, one begins to feel as if the wool is being pulled over his eyes–which isn’t half-bad, since it is so cold outside.

Although the march to correct climate change is ill-advised, some religious leaders are trying to pull Christians into the fray.  Brian McLaren, a leader in the Emerging Church Movement, spoke at a recent Hope08 conference, saying the world “is on a precipice” as it struggles to deal with the three “tremendously frightening crises” of climate change, poverty and war.

Is climate change an issue churches should be involved with?  Can Christians conscientiously cavort with environmentalists to protect the planet?  One example from China argues otherwise.  Yesterday, Chris Horner, author of Red Hot Lies, was interviewed on the Glenn Beck Show.  During the course of the interview he mentioned that China wants to sell carbon credits to Europe and the U.S.  This is curious, because China is one of the biggest polluters in the world.  Where did they get the carbon credits?  Their experts have crunched some numbers to see what effect their forced-abortion policies have had on the environment and have found that China is slowing the trend toward climate change through population control.

China’s proposals are only the tip of the iceberg.  Give environmentalism some time and see where it takes us.  Abortion won’t be the only atrocity upheld in the name of Mother Earth.  Already Christian leaders like McLaren are putting the planet ahead of spiritual matters like sin and redemption through Christ.  If more churches join the fight against climate change, there’s no telling what religion in America will look like in a decade.

The church doesn’t have any business delving into politics and environmentalism.  Leave the fiction of man-made climate change to creative people like James Hansen.  If anyone is interested in the truth, they can still find it where churches are preaching the gospel.

At the Falling of the Leaf

Friday, November 14th, 2008

Alabama is beautiful this time of the year. Autumn is winding down, and we might have one or two more weeks of beautiful fall foliage—those reds, yellows, and browns. The earth has shifted on its axis like a person turning in his sleep to avoid the daylight creeping through his window, and we breathe a sigh of relief as the temperatures drop below that of the average person’s body heat. It gets hot here in the summertime. This gives Alabamians a better perspective on autumn than, say, people from Canada. Canadians don’t know what three months of 90-degree temperatures feel like. Autumn for them is a precursor to winter, which in Canada is terrifying.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti wasn’t Canadian, but he did have a pessimistic outlook on fall, as his poem, “Autumn Song,” demonstrates:

Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the soul feels like a dried sheaf
Bound up at length for harvesting,
And how death seems a comely thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

Something tells me Rossetti was writing about more than the change in the seasons. Perhaps he penned these words in the autumn of his life. Life, it seemed, was over, making death “a comely thing.”

Job took a different approach to this period of his life. While defending himself to his friends, those “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2), he said, “Oh, that I were as in the months of old, as in the days when God watched over me, when his lamp shone upon my head, and by his light I walked through darkness, as I was in my prime, when the friendship of God was upon my tent” (Job 29:2-4). The word “prime” can also be translated “my autumn days.” Evidently, Job’s sorrows came upon him in the period of his life when he was ready to harvest the fruits of all his labors. He was wealthy in possessions, family, and friends. Of course, we know that all of this was cut short by Satan’s evil schemes, but Job incidentally makes an important point in his perspective on old age. Life can be good at the fall of the leaf, as long as a person has lived his life so as to have something to harvest in that time.

Life is a gift at any age, but our days are short. Job described it as a “breath” (Job 7:7). And James famously asked, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (Jas. 4:14). If we are not careful, we’ll take our lives for granted and become bitter about the struggles we have to endure. Endure the trials, but don’t forget the blessings. Life is good, especially when the friendship of God is on your tent. That’s true at any age, whether it’s winter, spring, summer, or fall.

The Day After

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

When I got home last night after teaching a class at the little college just over the mountain from my home, a glance at the television set told me that the votes had been counted and that Barack Obama would be the 44th president of the United States.

I didn’t vote for Barack Obama.  I couldn’t in good conscience pull the lever for a man that advocates abortion and promotes homosexual lifestyles.  I disagree with the idea that the answer to America’s economic woes is to spread the wealth around.  I’m nervous about Mr. Obama’s lack of experience and the path that he took to get to where he is today.

However, I believe in democracy.  America voted yesterday, and a transfer of power is coming January 20th not by force or tyranny, but by the will of the people.  That is the way it ought to be.

John Adams said, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”  I’m not sure what he meant by that, but perhaps he feared that America would forget what life was like under Great Britain when they were not free.  A democracy commits suicide when it quits believing in itself and refuses to accept the results of a general election.  If we let that happen, America dies.

Even Christians who are opposed to the liberal social agenda can find something to appreciate in an Obama presidency.  Barack Obama is this country’s first black president.  Forty years ago the idea of a black president was unthinkable.  Obama’s presidency is a sign that we’ve entered a post-racial age.  This has come not a day too early.  Christians worship a God who does not respect persons, one who created all men equal, as the Declaration of Independence explains.  Barack Obama may not end the sin of abortion or homosexuality, but maybe he symbolizes the end of a great sin that is often overlooked in our churches–the sin of racism.

This morning I was driving along, enjoying the beautiful fall foliage, when my eye caught a McCain-Palin sign, above which someone had posted another, larger sign with bold black lettering that read, “Don’t Blame Me!”  I don’t know who lives in the house where this sign is posted, but whoever he is, he needs to step back from politics and take a deep breath.

I’m reminded of a poem by Yeats:

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?

There’s more to life than politics.  We may have a new president come January, and he will certainly wield an influence over this country, but our lives will continue for the most part the way they always have.  We still have our careers and the bills and the kids’ homework and errands to run.  There will be weekends with friends, holidays with family, and church services with brothers and sisters in Christ.

For Christians there is a higher mission.  Obama ran on change, but the political arena changes little.  The gospel is God’s power for change.  Now that the election is over, let’s refocus and do our work as ambassadors for Christ.

The Fastest Growing Churches in America

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

Every year Outreach Magazine releases a list of the fastest growing churches in America.  This year, the #1 slot belonged to a church right in my backyard: The Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama.

Last year a friend and I visited Highlands’ campus to hear John Maxwell lecture on leadership.  It wasn’t a religious service, but we were able to see from the church’s facilities one reason, at least, that so many people flock to Highlands for worship every Sunday.  I have never seen a church building like the one located on Highlands’ Grants Mill campus.  Large, flat panel television monitors decorated every wall, a bright, well-equipped children’s center was visible, there was a Starbuck’s in the lobby, and the auditorium featured comfortable seating and a first-rate P.A. system.  Every comfort imaginable was provided.

It would be naive, though, to think that comfortable facilities is all that it took to make the Church of the Highlands the fastest growing church in the country.  In fact, a quick glance at Outreach’s list for 2008 suggests another possibility.  Only one of the churches in the top ten is ostensibly affiliated with a denomination.  The rest of the churches wear names like “Elevation Church,” “Triumph Church,” or “The Rock.”  The community church movement has not been shy about its objective of removing the “barrier” of denominational affiliations from the names of their churches.  The strategy seems to be working.

I have made references before to a recent study showing that Americans are losing interest in denominational affiliations. Forty-four percent of American adults have left the faith of their childhood for another. The demographic benefiting the most is the one that carries people who claim no religious affiliation. People moving into that category outnumber those moving out of it by a three-to-one margin. These changes in affiliation are swelling the ranks of nondenominational churches, while Baptist and Methodist traditions are showing net losses.

The churches of Christ once grew and thrived because of a nondenominational spirit.  It is my conviction that the public’s distaste for denominationalism is nothing new.  The success of these community churches once belonged to the churches of Christ.  The reason they are growing faster than we are today is because they are promoting this spirit, while we are talking about something else.

This is tragic because the churches of Christ have a unique approach to Christianity, combining doctrinal purity with a nondenominational appeal.  The community churches may have the nondenominational appeal, but they cannot claim doctrinal purity.  They would rather draw from cultural mandates than scriptural authority.  But the churches of Christ seek to restore the New Testament church, which was neither unscriptural nor denominational.

Take a lesson from the fastest growing churches in America.  People don’t want division.  They’re seeking unity.  Let’s show them what true unity is all about and build churches on the solid foundation of God’s Word.  Growth is sure to follow.