Get Out Of Jail Free Card!

Consider this:  A guy cheats on a couple of exams in school, flirts with a woman who is married, and lies on his taxes one year so he could have some extra cash for his wife and kids for Christmas.  Now, is it fair, is it just, to send this guy into an eternity of torment and misery . . . billions of years just for starters, for these little faus pas?

Universalism says that God will never send anyone to an eternity in hell.  Sounds like pretty good news, you say?  Puts a whole new spin on the good news of the Gospel.  Maybe a few years for either rehab or punishment, but eternity?  Naahhh.

Universalism thinks that after a while in a torture chamber, even the most hardened vicious criminal would look at Heaven and think, “Why am I suffering here if a loving God is willing to let me join Him and the redeemed over there in their free-wheeling banquets and parties?”  Pastors Philip Gulley and James Mulholland write that you can call over to this loving God and get His grace applied, even post-mortem, and that is Why God Will Save Every Person, the partial title of their book on this theme (not worth buying).  Given God’s limitless love and grace, you can pretty much do whatever you want in life, and at some point, He will figure you’ve paid your “debt to society” and give you a Get Out of Jail Free card.

The issue though is plainer than Gulley and Mulholland pretend it to be.  Theirs is an itemization of sins and their reasonable refusal to accept that a loving God would punish someone eternally for temporal malfeasance.  “Let the punishment fit the crime,” one might say.  Sounds fair to our western civilized minds, maybe even just, but we will not go into that detail of the differences between fairness and justice.

There are no errors in Gulley’s and Mulholland’s logic.  Begin with their premises and it is impossible to come rationally to a different conclusion than they have.  So let’s look at their premises, because if a logical progression is predicated on faulty assumptions, you will wind up at a wrong, however logical, conclusion.

The first premise is that the church, as a whole, has been judgmental and presented an angry God who will not tolerate sinful actions.  The second is that our experience with God will provide a clearer picture of what God is like than a dusty old book that is unreliable at best, and somewhat fantasy at worst.  The third is that if people see how wonderful Jesus is they will want Him and His grace.  The fourth is that anyone will choose what is best for themselves if someone shows them why it is best, and God is so persistent that He will never give up on you, ever.

The first premise actually holds water.  The church has been Angry Godjudgmental and made God look like an angry grandfather in the sky just looking for anyone having too much fun so He could zap them with lightning bolts and yell, “Stop that!”  Not just the “church,” that ethereal “they” on whom it is so easy to blame everything, but I have been judgmental and frightened people away from the grace that could save them.  The sin of the Pharisees was that they thought they could see clearly, and so their sin remained (John 9:41), even as they loaded people with burdens they would offer no help to bear (Luke 11:46).

This is not news. Jesus reserved His harshest comments, not for the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) nor for the cripple from the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-14), but for religiously serious.  It seems our human nature culls us into a lethargy, that once we have figured something out, anyone who has not advanced to “our level” is either stupid or evil.  And we judge without reference to the unseen issues of the heart: where one has come from, what has happened that has shaped him/her, what the hidden motivations and desires are.  We evaluate based on outward appearances while the Lord looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7b).

The other premises, though, show major fault lines that easily crack if examined at all.  The Bible is an infallible rule of faith and practice, presenting The God Who Is There as the I AM, a perfect balance of grace and truth, mercy and justice.  One’s experiences with God must be evaluated on the basis of what the Bible says, not what I wish it said, not from my very limited and shortsighted view.  There are “spiritual experiences” that one can have that have nothing to do with God, but “feel” right.  “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness.” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15)  In our society, how we “feel” has taken preeminence over what the Bible teaches.

The third and fourth premises, that everyone will choose Jesus if they really see Him and that with God’s persistence, eventually everyone will see Him and how good He is.  I have addressed the heresy of the third premise before (July 19, 2015), so suffice it to say that the Pharisees and religiously serious got a front row seat to see and know Jesus . . . and they chose to crucify Him.  That choice was still forgivable while they were alive.  My sins were my choice to crucify Jesus; I put the nails in His hands just as forcibly as the Roman centurions on Golgotha, but I have been forgiven.

In The Great Divorce C.S.Lewis presents a more accurate description of why some people will wind up in a place that is separated from the life and joy and peace and everything good that God designed for all people.  I offer nor find any comfort in this warning, but the fact is that “Milton was right. The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words, ‘Better to reign in hell than to serve in Heaven.’  There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery.  There is always something they prefer to joy – that is, to reality . . . There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whoGeorge MacDonald.jpgm God says in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’  All that are in hell choose it.  Without that self-choice there could be no hell.  No soul that seriously desires joy will ever miss it.  Those who seek find.  To those who knock it is opened.”

Now there’s a Get Out Of Jail Free card, but there are constraints on when and how to use it.  Next week, , I will examine some of those.

Of Specks and Logs

Here cum da judge.jpg”Judge not, and you will not be judged . . .” is arguably the best known and most quoted statement of Jesus, at least in the west.  Yet most people probably do not have a clue as to where he said this, who he was speaking with, anything about its context or where to find the reference.  So I will not judge you for not knowing some of this 😉, but let’s take it in context.

Matthew 7 and Luke 6 both report this statement by Jesus within the so-called “Sermon On The Mount,” a basic outline of Kingdom Principles that were intended to guide His followers into living in right relationship with Father, with each other, and with the world at large.  The more comprehensive summary of His teaching is in Matthew, so I will confine my remarks to the apostle’s report.

To get a feel for this “sermon” I recommend you read from 5:1 to 7:29 at a single sitting without interruption.  Or even better, have someone read it aloud to you and pretend you are one of those first listeners hearing this One teaching “with authority and not like the scribes” (7:29).  If you ever attended a synagogue you will understand that the “authority” of the rabbi rests on his knowledge of “Rabbi ben So-And-So who said that when Rabbi ben You-Know-Who explained what Rabbi ben Whats-His-Name meant when he was writing about what Rabbi ben Etc was really meaning to say that etc etc etc.”  Their authority always rested on what someone else said in their history.  Now along comes Jesus and says, “Yeah, I know what the rabbis told you, but I say to you . . .”  Now that was Authority.

If you do not take my recommendation to read the Sermon for yourself, or have it read to you,  you will just have to take my word for what The Rabbi said and meant. 😊

Ten Commandments 2The sweep of this sermon is to reorient our thinking from the narrow, limited view of what will work in this life to get what we want, to thinking from an eternal view of what will please a Daddy who is in Heaven.  A navy lawyer once told me that all the laws on all the books in all the countries of the world are simply a reflection of our human inability to obey the Big Ten.  Jesus explanation of the Ten Commandments did not make them easier, but rather He went to the heart of the matter, why we seem unable to obey them.

Beginning with an upside-down world in which things people wanted to avoid, like poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger, persecution, He asserted these were the Kingdom Principles which would most satisfy.  Then He goes on to redefine righteous living beyond the obedience to Pharisaical traditions and call us back to the Creator’s plan.

Then comes the “Judge not” phrase.  However, read in context, Jesus did not command us not to judge, but to do so carefully.  “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (7:2).  What He is telling us here is to realize that when we judge we must mix judgment with mercy the same way Father does, because the tape measure we use to size others up will be used on us.  After all, he goes on to say, “Do not give dogs what is holy and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (7:6).

How can you tell dogs from pigs without judging?  Back up a couple sentences and we will find His answer: “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (7:3-5).  An interesting consideration a dear friend brought up as we discussed this idea: when a speck is in your own eye, does it not feel like a log?  Perspective covers a lot of ground here; when you hold your thumb close enough to your eye, you can block out the sun even though our star is big enough to hold 1,300,000 earths!

While Jesus words are specific for “speck” and “log” (as a wise friend says, Don’t be impressed, you can look it up), the idea is clear that to overlook one’s own flaws in order to straighten out someone else is a recipe for disaster.  But look closer and you will see His point which has nothing to do with ophthalmology.  What He is looking for is restorative help when someone’s vision is blocked.

Specks and Logs.jpg

He never intended for us not to judge.  He only wanted us to mix judgment with the mercy for which we hope, to judge with the intent for restoration.  The warning then is given that those who will not respond to loving correction will attack you if it is offered, so be careful to whom you offer corrective advice, even when it has been learned in a crucible of your own correction.  It hurts to have something in your eye; it always feels much bigger than it is; it is frightening to let someone else go poking and picking in your eye to help, but it is the best way to get rid of the specks and logs.  We rarely do it on our own.  “It is one thing to take a splinter out of my own finger, and quite another to offer it to a physician and let him decide how much it will hurt.” (C.S. Lewis)

Isaac AsimovSo if you wish to correct me, just come to me with the intent to restore me to a right relationship with Father.  That is what I want most in this life and the next.  “Any of you, by the way, are free to criticize anything I say.  If you do, I might learn something.”  (Isaac Asimov)

31 Things to Do in 2018

I made one New Year’s resolution that I have faithfully kept since 1969, of which I am very proud.  Pretty awesome to make one almost 50 years ago and still be kept?!  Well, my 1969 New Year’s resolution was “I will never make a New Year’s resolution again.”  Not so awesome anymore, huh? 😉

While resolutions may have some benefit, especially if they motivate you to lose a few pounds, bark less at your wife or kids, drive more sensibly, the fact is that most NYR’s are over before the end of January, and we’re back to our old habits.  Like they say, “Old habits die hard.”   So it is not the making of a New Year’s resolution that matters; it is the KEEPING of the resolution.  To resolve is to deal with a matter conclusively; i.e., it should never come up again!  Like wedding vows, like joining the army, like contracts to do business.  To resolve is to settle the issue once and for all.

2018 CalendarCrossway came up with a pretty cool list last week of things that can be done in 2018, not so much as a New Year’s resolution, but as a motivator to living for God more effectively.  The list is posed as a series of questions rather than a list of “resolves.”  With 31 of them you may want to parcel them out one a day for every month with 31 days: January, March, May, July, August, October, and December.

Read over the whole list and think about taking one of these each day this month.  No guilt trip over breaking your New Year’s resolution, just an encouragement to find the Presence of God in your daily life.

“You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.”  C.S.Lewis

  1. What’s one thing you could do this year to increase your enjoyment of God?
  2. What’s the most humanly impossible thing you will ask God to do this year?
  3. What’s the single most important thing you could do to improve the quality of your family life this year?
  4. In which spiritual discipline do you most want to make progress this year, and what will you do about it?
  5. What is the single biggest time-waster in your life, and what will you do about it this year?
  6. What is the most helpful new way you could strengthen your church?
  7. For whose salvation will you pray most fervently this year?
  8. What’s the most important way you will, by God’s grace, try to make this year different from last year?
  9. What one thing could you do to improve your prayer life this year?
  10. What single thing that you plan to do this year will matter most in ten years? In eternity?
  11. What’s the most important decision you need to make this year?
  12. What area of your life most needs simplifying, and what’s one way you could simplify in that area?
  13. What’s the most important need you feel burdened to meet this year?
  14. What habit would you most like to establish this year?
  15. Who is the person you most want to encourage this year?
  16. What is your most important financial goal this year, and what is the most important step you can take toward achieving it?
  17. What’s the single most important thing you could do to improve the quality of your work life this year?
  18. What’s one new way you could be a blessing to your pastor (or to another who ministers to you) this year?
  19. What’s one thing you could do this year to enrich the spiritual legacy you will leave to your children and grandchildren?
  20. What book, in addition to the Bible, do you most want to read this year?
  21. What one thing do you most regret about last year, and what will you do about it this year?
  22. What single blessing from God do you want to seek most earnestly this year?
  23. In what area of your life do you most need growth, and what will you do about it this year?
  24. What’s the most important trip you want to take this year?
  25. What skill do you most want to learn or improve this year?
  26. To what need or ministry will you try to give an unprecedented amount this year?
  27. What’s the single most important thing you could do to improve the quality of your commute this year?
  28. What one biblical doctrine do you most want to understand better this year, and what will you do about it?
  29. If those who know you best gave you one piece of advice, what would they say? Would they be right? What will you do about it?
  30. What’s the most important new item you want to buy this year?
  31. In what area of your life do you most need change, and what will you do about it this year?
    1. Repeat: “You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.”  C.S.Lewis

All-Powerful OR All-Good?

Batman vs Superman1.jpg

For those of you who might not be comic book fans, or at least more interested in Marvel’s Avengers than in The Justice League of DC comics, the Lex Luthor character is one of Superman’s continual nemeses.  In the most recent iteration of Superman and Batman, Lex shows up as a brilliant, though maliciously evil, scientist.  The movie was panned by the critics, an assessment with which I agree.  Do not bother renting the video nor streaming it when it becomes available; one of the rare comic book movies that was a total waste of 151 minutes.

However, the movie does a good job in presenting the argument that God must not exist. In a significant point in the movie, Lex confronts Superman with a brief story of how he was abused by his father, and came to the conclusion that “if God is all-good, He could not be all-powerful; if He is all-powerful, He is not all-good.”  batman-vs-supermanAbout the only coherent and useful scene in the movie: to present an atheist’s view of God.  Sadly, even though the “good guys” win in the end, the challenge from Luthor is left unresolved.

Recalling my recent fall that resulted in a broken back, one could wonder, “Well, c.a., why do you continue to believe in a God who could not catch you when you fell, or better yet, prevent you from falling in the first place?  After all, didn’t God promise Jesus His angels would ‘bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone?'”  (Psalm 91:12)  Why could not such promises apply to you?”

Interestingly, this was the same promise quoted to Jesus by Satan when the evil one was trying to get Jesus to assert His own authority apart from the Heavenly Father’s.  (Matthew 4:5-6)  Even if we assume Jesus never hit his thumb with a hammer nor stepped on a nail, one has to wonder what the demons thought when they succeeded in getting the Roman soldiers of Jerusalem to capture Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, and proceed to beat the living daylights out of Him.  Is God the Father all powerful or all good?  How could He possibly be both and allow His own Son to suffer and die?  (What the devils were thinking is a subject for another blog another time.)  This issue for today is The Problem of Pain.  If God is all good, why does He not do something to prevent His children from pain.  If He is all powerful, can He be all good?

This problem arises because of God’s allowance of free will and His time frame for justice.  Free will, by definition, means that one can choose good or bad.  This was the same choice for the first couple in the Garden of Eden: trust (believe in) God or trust Satan (and your own reasoning).  Choose His way or another, but since He is the source of all good, the source of all order and sense in the universe, any other way will become bad, disorderly and senseless.

God’s time frame for justice arches over the ends of the universe He created.  So allowing for free will means He will not change a bat into a feather simply because someone decided to hit another in the head with it.  He will not defuse a suicide bomber’s vest at the moment of detonation and turn it into a radio.  But His justice will mete out what is right one day, though for the time being, the poor victim at the bat’s end will suffer and the bomber will inflict terrible damage.

This does little for the victims of abuse or of a bomber in the immediate.  If the abuser or bomber repents, there is hope even for him, and there may be elements of redemption for his victims as well.  But rest assured that Abraham’s confession of faith will stand in the end: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”  (Genesis 18:25)

C.S.Lewis covered this subject with much more clarity and wit than I can, so I give you his words to describe the process (with a strong recommendation for the book 😉 ):

“There is a paradox about tribulation in Christianity. Blessed are the poor, but by judgement (i.e., social justice) and alms we are to remove poverty wherever possible. Blessed are we when persecuted, but we may avoid persecution by flying city to city, and may pray to be spared it as our Lord prayed in Gethsemane. But if suffering is good, ought it not to be pursued rather than avoided? I answer that suffering is not good in itself. What is good in any painful experience is for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads.

“In the fallen and partially redeemed universe, we may distinguish (1) the simple good descending from God, (2) the simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3) the exploitation of that evil by God for His redemptive purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which accepted suffering and repented sin contribute. 

“Now the fact that God can make complex good out of simple evil does not excuse – though by mercy it may save – those who do simple evil. And this distinction is central. Offenses must come, but woe to those from whom they come; sins do cause grace to abound, but we must not make that an excuse for continuing to sin. The crucifixion itself is the best, as well as the worst, of all historical events, but the role of Judas remains simply evil.

“We may apply this first to the problem of other people’s suffering. A merciful man aims at his neighbor’s good and so does ‘God’s will,’ consciously cooperating with the ‘simple good.’ A cruel man oppresses his neighbor, and so does simple evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his knowledge or consent, to produce the complex good – so the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool.  For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.”  C.S.Lewis, The Problem of Pain