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Can Hypocrisy Hurt the Pro-Life Cause?

Friday, June 5th, 2009

george_tiller_croppedIt may be a little late for a post on the slaying of Dr. George Tiller, seeing as how thousands of blogs have posted their observations, but I have a few things on my mind that I want to get out there, particularly with respect to the way the media has handled the murder.

An inexcusable, horrific act was committed when Dr. Tiller was gunned down in at the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita last Sunday. Despite the differences one may have with the victim, every person who respects life condemns this criminal act.  Murder at any stage of life is wrong.

With that said, I want to turn to the way Tiller has been depicted by the media in the aftermath of his murder.

In a memorial service held in Dr. Tiller’s honor, Katherine Ragsdale, president of Harvard’s Episcopal Divinity School, called him “a man who was a saint and a martyr.”  She said, “He was a prayerful man who put his life at risk to protect others and died for it.”  This is the same woman, by the way, who gave a speech here in Birmingham in 2007 calling abortion a “blessing.”

Colleen Raezler has done a superb job of assembling a number of statements that paint Tiller as a martyr who died for a virtuous cause.  One example she cites gives a fair representation of how the news organizations are reporting on the controversial doctor’s life:

On ABC’s “Good Morning America,” host Diane Sawyer gave Lee Thompson, another Tiller lawyer, the same opportunity to portray him as a misunderstood servant of women. She asked, “Given the controversy and given the danger, why was he committed to doing this? What was it exactly that he wanted to make sure that he was accomplishing?” Thompson replied, “The fact that he is one of, if not the only one of too very few doctors who perform these services speaks to his dedication and his courage throughout his life.”

These comments and others like them are a transparent attempt to stifle the opposition to abortion in this country.  According to the latest numbers, that opposition appears to be taking an effect, as for the first time a majority of Americans identify themselves as “pro-life.”  Liberal proponents of abortion, however, hope they can manipulate Tiller’s murder into an effective tool to use against the pro-life camp.  If they can blame everyone who opposes abortion for the isolated act of a madman, they might be able to turn the tide back towards their agenda.

The charge of hypocrisy works in the opinion polls, it is true, but it is meaningless.  Just because one pro-lifer was a hypocrite, that doesn’t mean his message was wrong.  All the charge of hypocrisy does is cue others in on the fact that one particular person doesn’t really practice what he preaches.

The facts are that Dr. Tiller’s life’s work is an embarrassment to pro-choice advocates who claim that the abortion debate is about women’s rights.  Tiller became a multi-millionaire by killing 60,000 unborn children in his clinic.  He was one of only three doctors in the country who would perform partial-birth abortion, a practice so gruesome that most Americans object to it.

It is hard not to be intimidated by media organizations and influential spokesmen who try to discredit the pro-life movement through subterfuge and deceit.  But clarity is restored to the abortion debate every time the facts are examined.  Don’t forget the facts.  They are, as John Adams said, “stubborn things.”

John 3:16…and 17 and 18

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Without question, the best-known verse in the Bible is John 3:16. Martin Luther called it the Bible in miniature, and some even go so far as to say that if the Bible were lost except for John 3:16, we would have all the Scripture we need in order to be saved. Here is how the Golden Text reads: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Guy N. Woods outlined John 3:16, saying,

In it we are told of the greatest giver (God), of the greatest gift (his only begotten Son), of the greatest measure (the world) and the greatest future blessing (eternal life). It is a refutation of Atheism (it begins with God); of agnosticism (it reveals God), of Calvinism (it extends God’s provisions to all the world, and not to an arbitrarily selected few), of Unitarianism (it establishes the deity of Jesus and shows him to be of the same nature as God), of Oneness Pentecostalism (it demonstrates God and Christ to be separate and distinct persons), of Universalism (it reveals that men will perish who refuse the way of escape) and the doctrine of denominational creeds which allege that Jesus died that God might love us whereas this teaches that Jesus came to the earth and made salvation possible because God loved us. (John, 66-67)

Is John 3:16 all we need? Jesus didn’t think so. John 3:16 is just one verse in a lengthy conversation with Nicodemus. And when we look at the whole picture, we are better able to flesh out what Jesus meant to summarize in this verse.

John 3:16 has often been cited to support the idea that a person can be saved by faith alone. In other words, it has been argued that since John 3:16 does not mention baptism or other commands, belief without any corresponding action is all that is necessary for salvation. Those who make this claim have not carefully studied the whole chapter.

The following information gives context to what Jesus proclaimed in John 3:16:

  • Near the beginning of his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5). “Water” is clearly a reference to baptism. Later in the narrative we read of Jesus and John baptizing in the Jordan River (Jn. 3:22-23; 4:1-2).
  • In the two verses prior to John 3:16, Jesus alluded to the bronze serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness as a symbol of the crucifixion. In consulting the original account of that event, it is evident that the case of the bronze serpent was one of obedient faith: those who were bitten by the fiery serpents were not healed by merely believing in the bronze serpent; they had to look upon it to live (Num. 21:9).
  • In the verses following John 3:16, Jesus explains what he means by “believe” in terms of “coming to the light.” In verse 21 he says, “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” What is meant by “does what is true” and “works” in this statement? Do these terms not apply to the conditions for salvation described in verse 5? If not, then the only alternative is to apply them to the meritorious works of the Law of Moses, which is powerless to save, according to the gospel (Rom. 3:27-28; Eph. 2:8-9).
  • Finally, the last verse of John 3 reads, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” The close observer will notice that John the Baptist, who is speaking here, uses the terms “believes” and “obey” interchangeably. The faith of John 3 is like the faith throughout the New Testament—an obedient faith.

John 3:16 will remain the favorite text of Christians. But if we are not careful, we will damage a priceless piece of revelation with reckless interpretation. We must be careful in our excavations not to separate the Golden Text from its context.

Cheap Humility

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

lebronLeBron James has been named the NBA’s 2008-09 Most Valuable Player.  The Cleveland Cavaliers forward had an outstanding season, leading his team to an NBA and franchise-best 66-16 (.805) record. He averaged 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.69 steals and a career-best 1.15 blocks in 37.7 minutes per game.

Upon receiving the reward, James responded with a well-worn cliche: “I’m humbled.”

Humbled?  He was just named Most Valuable Player!  Cameras are flashing in his face.  Coaches and sports journalists are slapping him on the back.  How is this teaching him humility?  I know James was just trying to be modest, but I am weary of celebrated multi-millionaires looking into cameras and broadcasting their humility to the world.  When LeBron James was awarded the MVP, he was exalted. If he wants a taste of humility, I would suggest that he take the ACT.

Jesus taught us to aim for humility, but he meant for us to do more than mouth the word.  One of his most familiar axioms reads, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Mt. 23:11).  He wasn’t talking about waiting until you are exalted and then saying you are humbled.  Far from it.  His point was that the accolades of men really do not matter.  True exaltation comes from God, who respects the quality of humility.  Humble yourself through service, and God will lift you up.  “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility towards one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’  Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Pet. 5:5-6).

During Jesus’ trials and crucifixion, he was stripped naked no less than four times.  First, he was stripped for scourging.  After they scourged him, they clothed him again, only to strip him a second time to clothe him in a scarlet robe so they could mock him.  They stripped him a third time, so they could put his own garments back on him, and stripped him a fourth time for the crucifixion.  This time, he would not get his clothes back; the soldiers cast lots for them at the foot of the cross.  If violence were all there was to Roman crucifixion, that would be enough.  But it was more than violence.  The victim was made a public spectacle.  His accusers would gather around him to laugh.  After death occurred, the body was customarily left on the cross as food for the crows.  Thankfully, Joseph of Aramathea spared Jesus this last humiliation by burying him in his own tomb.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to receive an award.  I just have a problem with cheapening the concept of humility by attaching it to glory.  The Bible teaches us to “give honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:17; cf. 1 Pet. 2:17).  But we are also taught to humble ourselves by serving one another (Mt. 20:26-28; Gal. 5:13).  Only then will we receive the greatest reward in heaven.

Update (5-26-09): Judge Sonya Sotomayor after Barack Obama announced her as his pick for the Supreme Court: “Thank you, Mr. President, for the most humbling honor of my life.”  Sports stars are not the only ones confused about the meaning of humility.

Abigail’s Answer

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

How a Woman Saved David from Himself

Before David became king of Israel, his life was chaotic. Saul wanted his head on a platter, and survival for David depended on staying one step ahead of Saul, keeping his men on the move, and hiding out in caves.

While in hiding, David came to the Wilderness of Paran, near the territory of a wealthy man named Nabal (1 Samuel 25). Nabal may have had business sense, but his character left much to be desired. The Bible describes him as “harsh and badly behaved” (v. 3). Twice, people who were close to him called him “worthless” (vv. 17, 25). He is also called a “Calebite” (v. 3), which may be a reference to his clan, but it seems more likely that this description has to do with the literal meaning of the name “Caleb,” which is “dog.” His own name, Nabal, meant “fool.” If we were to judge this man by the names he was called, our estimation of him would not be good: he was a dog and a fool.

David, on the other hand, had been gracious to Nabal without ever having met him. While he and his men camped in Nabal’s territory, they had protected his shepherds from raiders and anything else that would seek to harm them. They had been as a “wall” of protection to Nabal (v. 16). The time for shearing sheep was at hand, a time for feasting and celebration, and David and his men asked Nabal to provide them with food and drink for the celebrations. This would not have been an unusual request in those days, but Nabal was furious. He refused, saying, “Who is David? …Shall I take my bread and my water and my meat that I have killed for my shearers and give it to men who come form I do not know where?” (vv. 10-11).

David was the anointed successor to the throne in Israel. He was not accustomed to this kind of treatment, especially since it came from a man who owed him so much. He drew his sword and prepared his men for battle.

But Nabal had a wife named Abigail. She was “discerning and beautiful” (v. 3). Abigail brought gifts to David and convinced him not to seek revenge against her husband and her people. There is much wisdom in her words. She explained that God would seek vengeance against her husband for what he had done to David. And then, she explained to David, “my lord shall have no cause of grief or pangs of conscience for having shed blood without cause or for my lord taking vengeance himself” (v. 31).

Abigail’s words convinced David to show mercy. And about ten days later, the Lord struck Nabal dead, and Abigail became David’s wife (vv. 38, 42).

The story of Nabal is a familiar one. All of us have felt mistreated and wanted revenge. Perhaps some of us went as far as getting revenge, only to feel the “pangs of conscience” for heaping more sin on top of the wrongs that were done to us. The counsel of Abigail is wise. If we look closely, we can find at least three lessons regarding vengeance:

1. The seeds of our good works take time to germinate. Solomon said, “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days” (Ecclesiastes 11:1, emphasis added). Likewise, Paul encouraged us not to grow weary of doing good, saying, “for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). God promises to reward our good works, but there is no guarantee that these rewards will come soon, or even in this lifetime (cf. Matthew 5:11-12).

2. Only God is in a position to exact vengeance. If David had gotten even, he would have only added his own bloodguilt to Nabal’s evil (1 Samuel 25:33). God, on the other hand, is righteous and was able to return the evil of Nabal on his own head (v. 39). We are not in a position to bring justice to the world. Therefore, we are advised, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leaeve it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengenance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19).

3. Since we cannot bring justice, our only response to evil is to “overcome evil with good.” Paul continues his discussion of revenge, saying, “To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:20-21).

Revenge can be tempting, but in the end it only leads to regret. Let God make things right, and be patient as you wait for him to act. In the meantime, combat evil with good. After all, the best way to defeat an enemy is to make him your friend.

Reflections on Easter Sunday

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Last Sunday was Easter, a time for the ushers of the church to be on guard.  Easter Sunday, along with Christmas, is one of the few days of the year that much of the American population shows up at church.  Not that I’m complaining.  I’m happy to welcome these once-a-year guests in their bright spring clothing.  Maybe something moved them enough this year to produce a return visit.  It’s quite possible that an old tradition like Easter could be what triggers someone into faithful service.  You never know.

We had about sixty visitors last Sunday, and the auditorium was filled to capacity.  As usual, I worked the resurrection into my sermon.  It’s not that I believe Easter is a part of New Testament Christianity–the early Christians celebrated the resurrection on the first day of every week, not just one day a year.  But since much of the world is focusing on Christ’s resurrection anyway, Easter is a good opportunity to turn empty tradition into true devotion.

This year I reflected on the fact that history does not make sense without the resurrection.  How else can you explain more than 2 billion people gathering to their respective places of worship to celebrate Easter?  Is it possible that a myth created out of whole cloth evolved into this?

Rituals and movements are based on something.  For instance, I believe that in the sixth century B.C. a Hindu prince named Siddartha Gautama became dissatisfied with his religion’s way of dealing with the problem of suffering and developed the Eightfold Path of Buddhism.

I believe that around this time a child named Confucius was raised by a single mother in China.  He became a cabinet official of the Duke of Lu, only to resign at the age of fifty-five and become a respected teacher.

I believe that a thousand years later a man named Muhammad denounced the polytheism of his people and demanded that they follow Allah.  He claimed to be a prophet, and his teachings were recorded in the Qu’ran.  Under the banner of a new religion called Islam, he was able to unite the Arab peoples like no one before him.

There is no doubt in my mind that Moses led the descendants of Abraham out of Egypt in about 1445 B.C.  In the wilderness he received the Law from God and a group of people, now known as Jews, developed from that heavenly doctrine.

I believe all these things because, if it were otherwise, history would not make sense.  To challenge these basic facts is to leave the present picture of our world and its cultures unexplained.  Granted, religion has its share of myths, but even these are based in fact.  The ancient Japanese people in some dark quadrant of history discovered they were on a series of islands and imagined that Izanagi had dipped his spear into the ocean and formed those mountainous regions with the drops that fell from it when he removed it from the sea.  Many eastern cultures worshiped ancestors, for although they glimpsed a life beyond this one, the truth had not been revealed to them.  Homer, knowing nothing of the God of Moses, made his gods in the image of man.  Aside from these, religion can be condensed down into actual events, without which the entire human history cannot stand.

At the time of Christ’s birth the Jews had already been persecuted for 700 years by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and now the Greeks and Romans.  Despite this, while other ancient civilizations vanished, the Jews persisted.  The Hittites, Ammonites, Persians, and Babylonians have long been relegated to the ash heap of time, but even today the Jews persist.  Through numerous captivities, persecutions, and dispersions, they have survived.

The explanation behind the Jews’ tenacity is the social structures that are so important to them–the things that make Jews, Jews.  These they reinforced by passing them down to their children, teaching in the synagogue, and reinforcement through ritual.

Now, enter Christ: a thirty-year-old man from an insignificant town in Galilee, a carpenter’s son.  He preaches for three years, gains a following of low- to middle-class believers, and is crucified by the religious establishment, something that wasn’t all that unusual in a time when the Roman Empire crucified as many as 30,000 Jewish males.

But two months later, 10,000 Jews are calling Jesus the Son of God and putting their faith in his ability to save them from their sins.  Not only that, but they have given up those social structures that gave them their national identity, such as animal sacrifices, worship on the Sabbath, and the priesthood.  What explains this willingness to jettison beliefs that kept the Jews intact for so many centuries?

The only thing that can explain the origin of the Christian faith from Jerusalem is the resurrection of Christ.  Thousands of Jews began to profess faith in him in the days following his resurrection because there were over 500 credible witnesses who could attest that he had risen from the dead.  No legend could have erupted this quickly.  A dead Savior would not have produced this big of a following.

Easter is one of the earliest Christian traditions that does not originate from the New Testament.  It has held on for almost 2,000 years because of the substantial event that is behind it.

Let the skeptics keep digging for Jesus’ bones.  They’ll never find them.  Christ left his tomb a long time ago.  Everyone has his useless pasttime.  Some of us go fishing, some collect stamps.  And the deniers of the resurrection are with the children, shovel in hand, digging in the backyard for buried treasure.

Why Poetry Matters

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

My recent post on line breaks in the Bible didn’t draw much attention.  I’m not surprised.  Most people run from poetry as if it had the ability to free itself from the book binding and chase people around the room.

Notwithstanding this public distaste for verse, the fact remains that a third of the Bible is poetry.  Why would God choose such a complex form of communication for something so important as revealing his will to mankind?

Maybe the answer lies in understanding what poetry is.  W.H. Auden said, “Poetry must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective.”  More than anything else–more than rhyme and meter, metaphor and simile, assonance and enjambment, or any other poetical devices–I think it’s the “unique perspective” that frustrates people the most.

Poetry skews the familiar just enough to get us to meditate upon it.  This is what makes it valuable.

After I read the following lines from Ted Kooser, I have never looked at a wheelchair the same way again.

“A Rainy Morning”

A young woman in a wheelchair,
wearing a black nylon poncho spattered with rain,
is pushing herself through the morning.
You have seen how pianists
sometimes bend forward to strike the keys,
then lift their hands, draw back to rest,
then lean again to strike just as the chord fades.
Such is the way this woman
strikes at the wheels, then lifts her long white fingers,
letting them float, then bends again to strike
just as the chair slows, as if into a silence.
So expertly she plays the chords
of this difficult music she has mastered,
her wet face beautiful in its concentration,
while the wind turns the pages of rain.

One of the problems with modern translations that approach the text through dynamic equivalence (attempting to translate the thoughts of the writers rather than the words) is that by simplifying the language, they destroy the poetry.

Take, for example, the ESV’s translation of Psalm 78:33: “So he made their days vanish like a breath” (ESV).  Compare this rendering with the NIV: “So he ended their days in futility”; or the New Living Translation: “So he ended their lives in failure.”  The more abstract passages have deprived us of the imagery afforded by the idea of “breath.”  Not only do we lose the original wording, but we lose the poetry as well.

Consider a lengthier example from Psalm 73.  The ESV reads:

For they have no pangs until death;
their bodies are fat and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out through fatness,
their hearts overflow with follies.  (Ps. 73:4-7)

Now read the bland attempt of another translation that takes it upon itself to make the meaning “clearer”:

They seem to live such a painless life;
their bodies are so health and strong.
They aren’t troubled like other people
or plagued with problems like everyone else.
They wear pride like a jeweled necklace,
and their clothing is woven of cruelty.
These fat cats have everything
their hearts could ever wish for! (NLT)

It’s hard not to blush when you get to the fourth couplet and read “fat cats.”  If we didn’t know better, we would think Asaph listened to jazz and had a closet full of zoot suits.

A common statement about easy-to-read translations is, “I can understand God’s word when I read this!”  But the truth is, you may not be reading God’s word.  Comprehension is an important goal, but updated idioms and a watered-down vocabulary do not always help us reach that goal.  When it comes to poetry, the twists and strange perspective improve our understanding.  Only when we get comfortable with them will we really be making comprehension our goal.

Relational Evangelism

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

God wants people to obey the gospel from the heart. Even though he has unlimited power, he exercises incredible restraint to wait for us to respond to the costly gift of his Son Jesus, who died on the cross. We see this restraint in 1 Timothy 2:4, which tells us God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Despite the fact that his desire is for all to be saved, he gives humanity a choice by revealing the truth and leaving it up to us to decide whether or not to obey it.

Because conversion cannot be forced, Paul expresses gratitude for those who had obeyed the gospel in Rome: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (Rom. 6:17, emphasis added). This is real obedience. Their response was a genuine belief in the gospel’s power to save.

When a person is coerced into obedience, he will not remain faithful. There is no love for God in his heart, only a feeling produced by pressure applied by another person. Either he will recognize the insincerity of his heart, or the other person will tire and withdraw the pressure, and he will fall away.

Despite what we know about the ineffectiveness of coerced responses to the gospel, we have a tendency to fall back on this strategy to bring the lost to Christ. Our tactics are sometimes not all that different from an intervention staged by family and friends to confront an addict. After years of saying nothing, we blitz the prospect with scare tactics and arguments, hoping one frantic conversation will undo years of sin and false information.

Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head. That’s assault, not leadership.” Before you can teach someone the gospel, you must win his heart. After all, teaching, if it is done right, penetrates the heart. Solomon said “wisdom will come into your heart” (Prov. 2:10). As in the Parable of the Sower, evangelism is not unlike farming. First the ground must be properly cultivated, then you can sow, expecting a crop.

Start working on your relationships with those whom you want to reach with the gospel. You must win a heart before you can turn it to Christ. Evangelism requires effort. Jesus described the soul-winner as a “laborer” (Mt. 9:37-38). There are no shortcuts to evangelism. Labor for lost souls. Your work will not be in vain.

Line Breaks in the Bible

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

One-third of the Bible is written in poetry.  It would follow, then, that a devoted student of the Bible would study carefully the nature of biblical prosody in order to mine every possible nuance of divine truth from the rich caverns of God’s word.  But the reality is that few Christians even realize they are reading poetry when they approach, say, the book of Psalms, let alone make the time to understand its devices.

Biblical poetry is a deep and complicated study, one that would take several articles to explore.  For now, I would like to limit this discussion to the fundamental question of line breaks in the Bible.

One disadvantage of the King James Version is that it does not make a distinction between the prose and poetry of the text.  The Revised Version (NT: 1881, OT: 1885), known in the U.S. as the American Standard Version, was the first English Bible to typeset biblical poetry in indented poetic lines.  This precedent has been followed by most modern translations in recent years.

It should be pointed out that, as far as we know, line breaks did not exist in the original Hebrew manuscripts.  However, as Robert Lowth argued in his monumental work, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1753), there is a definite balancing of thought in Hebrew poetry.  This “sense rhythm,” as it is sometimes called, is reflected in the Masoretic text on which most modern translations of the Old Testament are based.

Furthermore, the inspired writers of biblical poetry wrote with great passion, and, as Merril Unger has pointed out, unconsciously produced the phenomena which later developed into more definite ideas of meter.  Just because these writers predated the study of formal meter in poetry, that doesn’t mean we should not seek out the natural rhythms that flowed from the expressions of their emotions.

Perhaps the reason most Bible readers ignore line breaks in their Bibles is because they can be pretty confusing.  Most of us like to have as many tools as possible in our Bibles–chain references, two column formats, footnotes, page numbers, chapter and verse divisions, headings, etc.  All of this crowds the page, which is bad for poetry.  To compensate for this, translations that give attention to poetic lines use a system of indentation and line breaks that is somewhat complicated and, as I have discovered, never explained in the preface to their versions.

The majority of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, the balancing of thought in verse so that one line is an echo of another.  Deeper meaning occurs to the reader as he meditates upon the relationship of the lines.  As Lowth pointed out, parallelism takes three basic forms: synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic.  Psalm 19:1 is an excellent example of synonymous parallelism:

     The heavens declare the glory of God,
       and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. (ESV)

The second part (also called the second colon) repeats what is said in the first colon, only in different wording that provokes the reader’s meditation.  This is an example of a bicolon (parallelism with two cola, or parts).  Sometimes tricola appear in which the verse occurs in three parts (cf. Ps. 18:35).  It is important to understand this before trying to dicipher all those line breaks and indentations in your Bible.

As a rule, each verse, or thought, begins with one indentation.  A line with two indentations signifies the second colon.  This is plain in the example cited above.  However, three indentations occur in many examples, such as in the following bicola from Psalm 137.

     If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
        let my right hand forget its
     Let my tongue stick to the roof of
           my mouth,
        if I do not remember you,
     if I do not set Jerusalem
        above my highest joy! (ESV)

In the first bicolon, “let my right hand” begins the second part of the verse.  “Skill” is indented three times because it is merely the rest of the second line, not a new colon.  The same thing happens with “my mouth” in the second bicolon.  All of this is necessary because of cramped space on the page.

Here is what it would look like if the translators did not have to work around two columns and a chain-reference down the middle of the page:

     If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
        let my right hand forget its skill!
     Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
        if I do not remember you,
     if I do not set Jerusalem
        above my highest joy!

Now the reader can plainly see the three bicola. The meaning is clearer, but the format would never work in a two column Bible.

Here’s another example from Habbakuk 3:17-18:

     Though the fig tree should not
        nor fruit be on the vines,
     the produce of the olive fail
        and the fields yield no food,
     the flock be cut off from the fold
        and there be no herd in the stalls,
     yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
        I will take joy in the God of my
           salvation. (ESV)

If it were not for the three indentations in line two, the reader would think “blossom” was the second part of the verse.  The same goes for “salvation” in the last line.

This discussion may seem overly technical, but I believe it is very important to the understanding of the poetry of God’s word.  The Lord would not have couched his will in poetry unless he regarded it as an essential and effective way of communicating it to us.  That places a burden upon me as a believer to learn how the poetry of the Bible works.  Discussions of imagery, rhythm, and parallelism are important to this, but all of it begins with a basic understanding of the line breaks in our Bibles.

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.