1 John 2:28-3:10

Now John shifts his focus to the confidence that Christians can have in Christ. Having seen the dangers of false teaching, it remains now to see how we are to live.

v28. John begins by urging his children to “continue in [Jesus].” These types of exhortations have appeared and will continue to appear all throughout this book (cf. 1:12-14; 2:20, 24, 27, etc.). Since a person cannot “continue in” something they are not already in, this is yet another reason to remember that John is writing to believers–to people who are already in Christ.

The reason they are to continue in Christ is so that “when He appears we may be confident and unashamed before Him.” It is unclear if the “we” here refers to the apostolic community or to the general church. If the community (as in chapter 1), then John is saying that if his children in the faith falter, he himself will suffer loss, much as any father is embarrassed when his children get into serious trouble. This is actually my preferred view, because I tend to think this ties back into the overall purpose of the book, which is how to have fellowship both with Christ and with one another. After all, if these believers do continue in Christ, then John can be confident, which would only enhance their fellowship with him.

If, on the other hand, the “we” refers to Christians generally, the message is simply that if we do not remain or abide in Christ, then we will be embarrassed when He returns. In fact, whichever view of “we” we take, this ends up being the bottom line. If we want to be confident and hear “Well done my good and fail servant,” we must “continue in Him.” Such praise from Jesus is simply not guaranteed to all believers, even if their eternal salvation from Hell is.

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The Galatian Heresy (Gal 3:1-6)

What happens when you put the wrong fuel in your car? In won’t go very far, right? So what happens when you try to run your Christian life on the wrong “fuel”?

Galatians is one of the most passionately written, emotionally and spiritually challenging books in all of the Bible. Paul’s anger and sarcasm drips from its pages as he battles what he sees to be not only an enemy of the gospel of Jesus Christ but a heresy devilish enough to endanger the entire church. Very often, evangelical ministers, following Martin Luther, argue that in this book Paul is defending the idea of justification by faith alone. Specifically, they say that he is attacking “the Judaizers”–Jewish Christians who taught that Gentile Christians needed to submit themselves to the Law of Moses–for teaching that salvation is by faith in Christ plus keeping the Law.

But what if that isn’t what Paul is saying at all? It is certainly the case that Paul is frustrated that Jewish Christians were telling Gentile Christians that keeping the Law was a requirement. But the question is, what were these people saying that keeping the Law was a requirement for?

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Thoughts on the Election

I know that conservatives are reeling from last night’s loss of Mitt Romney to President Barack Obama. There will be a lot of questions now about what went wrong. Some will argue that the party needs to moderate its stances, that it is too conservative. Others will argue that Romney lost because he ran as a moderate, and what really wins is a truly conservative candidate.

I have my own opinions about the place of conservatism is the politics of winning an election, but I’ll leave that aside. I want to focus on what I think is a deeper issue, since it is a fundamentally ethical and theological one.

Paul said, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom 12:18, ESV). The context is particularly interesting. He had just been telling the Roman Christians to bless those who persecute them. Roman Christians . . . the ones who were living with persecution unlike anything we in America have ever faced. Of course, Paul’s line of thought was nothing new. Jesus had already said, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”(Matt. 5:44b).

I want to juxtapose those thoughts with some modern American wisdom literature. The central premise of Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People is that people want to feel important and, whatever else we do, we should treat them like they are. And that, I would suggest, is more than just good advice. It is based on a deep theological and philosophical truth: people are important. They are important because of what they are–human beings made in the image of a divine, benevolent Creator who loves them deeply and unconditionally. Paul says to live at peace with people you disagree with. Jesus says to bless them. Dale says to treat them like they are important. All of them are getting the same idea: since people are precious in God’s eyes, they should be treated like the precious things they are.

That takes me back to the campaign we all just endured and the soul-searching the Republicans are already now doing. President Obama’s entire campaign was predicated on disqualifying Romney. I think it largely worked, just as Romney’s entire campaign during the primaries was predicated on disqualifying his opponents (which, again, I think worked). Romney tried to cast a semi-positive message with promises to take the country in a better direction, but there is no denying that his campaign was also extremely negative. Now, people will quickly complain that they don’t want to see negative campaigns, to which political junkies will immediately point out that campaigns go negative because it works. So my point here is not as trite as to say we need more positive campaigns (although I think we do). It is this: Romney’s central task was to convince a large enough portion of people who had voted for Obama that they had made a mistake and to vote for him instead.

In other words, he needed them to admit they were wrong.

This campaign was never about Obama and Romney. It, like all campaigns, was about the voter. When you tell a voter that they cast their vote for a socialist, anti-American, child-murdering Marxist whose whole goal is the destruction of America, you make become defensive–not defensive of Obama, but defensive of themselves. All the polls demonstrate that people fundamentally like Obama as a person. Just like voters took a second look at Romney when the first debate proved he wasn’t the ogre the Obama campaign had portrayed him to be, Obama voters were just never sold on the rhetoric of Obama’s fundamental danger to this country.

You see, it isn’t just good spiritual practice to treat people with whom you disagree (even Obama) with dignity and respect and trust God with the results. It turns out to be good politics, too. A basic rule in politics is that the guy people like more tends to win, because the guy people like more makes them feel better about themselves.

In light of that, as the debate among conservatives about what went wrong begins, I want to point people back to the fundamental notion of the basic dignity of mankind. All people deserve respect, to say nothing of the office of the presidency itself. Conservatives need to base their philosophy, policies, and political methods on the recognition of that fact. And that means starting with respecting the dignity of the voters with whom they disagree. Telling them (implicitly or explicitly) that they are voting for a communistic Muslim who hates America is simply offensive to them, as it would be if someone said the same to you. Preach the truth, but do so in love.  Help people who have to admit they were wrong save face. Be gentle with them. Be kind to one another. You’ll find that to pay dividends if you do so, and if you still lose your political arguments (and someone necessarily will), you can hold your head high, still be gracious, and know that you have kept your integrity. On the cross, Jesus forgave his murderers. I think we can agreeably disagree with fellow Americans of differing political persuasions.

America, Politics, and Morality

There’s a lot to be said about the relationship between politics and morality in America. Hopefully we have a lot of time to say it. But before we try, I want to offer a framework for thinking about the issues.

Most of us agree that we must get our fiscal house in order or face national bankruptcy. What we disagree on is how to do that. This isn’t a political blog, we don’t need to wade into policy questions. I’ll leave that to the politicos. I’d rather make a more fundamental point.

The government isn’t the problem. We are.

In other words, we have a moral, not political, problem. We elect people to take care of us. We empower them to take people’s money and give it to others (often, ourselves), and we justify this by saying that “those people” don’t need that much, or they can accord to sacrifice that bit for the good of all. And lest anyone think I only have liberals in mind, let me say that conservatives seem to be just as guilty of this mentality. Almost all of us get some type of subsidy from the government, whether our pet tax-break or that needed entitlement.

Think of it this way: would you vote for someone who promised to take away your tax break, your subsidy, your entitlement?

Just as people say they hate Congress, but their congressman is good, so the thought process is, “All entitlements except mine are bad.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with getting help from Uncle Sam when things get desperate. But we must recognize that every dime we get, we got from someone else—from our friends and neighbors.

We have a remarkable capacity for generosity. We help each other. But to the extent that that we use the power of government to take from others what they would not willingly give, we engage in theft. Until each of us decides to stand on our own and be responsible for ourselves, no political answer is possible. No politician will be able to do the right thing, because it’s too easy for us to elect someone who will cater to our demands.

But someone may argue that they won’t survive without government help. And just here, the moral problem becomes most obvious. Who do we trust to take care of us? It’s easy to ask others to give up their entitlements, but Christians should be the first lay down their claims to other people’s money, because we recognize neither our necessities nor our abundance comes from the Oval Office, but  from the Throne of Heaven (James 1:16-18). In that, we declare others more important than ourselves (Phil. 2:3-5). In putting others first, we seek the Kingdom of God by making ourselves the last and putting all others first (Matt. 6:33; 20:16). Maybe then our politicians could do the right thing. More importantly, perhaps God could use our faith to demonstrate His power to provide for His own. What kind of witness would that be for Christ?

I’m not looking for a savior. I found Him in 1987. I’m looking for Christians to trust Jesus with more than just their soul, to lead by example, and show America what it means to be free. And if that’ is true, then watever we say about morality and culture, we should always keep in mind that it starts with us.

A Plea for Sanity

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:9-11, NIV)

There is no doubt she was guilty. There was no doubt that, according to the Law, she deserved to die (Lev. 20:10). She had no defense. She could offer no excuses. What is more, there is no indication that the woman caught in adultery even so much as asked for mercy or forgiveness.

It is easy to get caught up in all the theology and scholarship surrounding the text. Why wasn’t the man brought with her? What was Jesus writing on the ground? What exactly was going on in the Pharisees’ mind? How were they trying to trap Jesus? What about the relationship of this passage to the rest of the Gospel of John? Is it part of the original writing? Who wrote it? Does it belong in the Bible? How does it fit into the context?

All of these are important questions, and I think we should be sure to offer answers to each of them. We should not, though, get so caught up in those questions that we miss the force of the story. For whatever value those questions have, there is one far more important we should be asking ourselves:

How is it that, if the one and only man who ever had a right to condemn anyone chose not to condemn this obviously guilty woman, we are so comfortable condemning others? Put differently, if the perfect Person didn’t condemn an imperfect person, why do imperfect people confidently condemn other imperfect people every day?

I ask this of myself just as I ask it of you. And as I ask it, I’m reminded of Alice’s conversation with the Cheshire Cat:

Alice didn’t think that proved it at all; however, she went on `And how do you know that you’re mad?’
`To begin with,’ said the Cat, `a dog’s not mad. You grant that?’
`I suppose so,’ said Alice.
`Well, then,’ the Cat went on, `you see, a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.'”

If only we were as insightful as that old Cat. It is certainly mad to do precisely the opposite of what the sane person does. If Christ, then, does not condemn; indeed, if He does not even require our defenses and excuses, but simply looks at us in all our miserable guilt and does not condemn; still more, if far from condemning, He takes our condemnation on Himself in an act of pure love; then is it not pure insanity for me to think for one moment that I should, or even could, judge someone just as sinful as myself? To issue such a judgment seems to me to stand in the very place of God. More, it is to judge God Himself, for it is to tell Him that our judgment is more just than His. So yes, perhaps we’re all a little mad.

Does God Hear the Prayers of the Lost?

It is often said from pulpits that the first prayer God hears from a person is their prayer of salvation. Is this true? Does God hear the prayers of the lost? In one sense, the obvious answer is yes. God is omniscient and omnipresent. It is not as if God is unaware of what non-Christians are saying or doing. Of course He hears their prayers. But when people ask the question, they seem more to have in mind the question of whether or not God honors the prayers of the lost.

There are several aspects that need to be considered. First, it seems that God does not particularly honor the unbeliever’s prayers. Isa. 45:20b says, “They have no knowledge,  who carry about their wooden idol and pray to a god who cannot save.” If nothing else, this definitely shows that prayers to anyone except the True God are worthless. Yet at the same time, Jesus says in Matt. 5:45 that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Thus, although God may not specifically honor prayers to false gods, that does not keep Him from showing His kindness to everyone. In other words, God doesn’t make a person’s life miserable just because they refuse to worship Him. Instead, He allows them the same graces He provides humanity in general (even though humanity in general rejects Him).

Two other passages offer more details on this issue. First, in Rom. 10:9-10, Paul says that whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. We have already discussed why this isn’t referring to salvation from Hell in another post, so we will limit our remarks now to recognizing the fact that it is those who believe in Jesus and call upon Him who are delivered from danger. This implies that one must be a believer if his prayers for deliverance are to be heard. And yet in Jonah 3:6-10, Nineveh, after hearing Jonah’s prophecy of doom, repented of their sins and were spared. Many have taken this as a reference to their individual salvation, but the text says nothing about that one way or the other. Actually, the entire point of the story of Jonah is that God wants to have mercy on all mankind, whether they follow Him or not. How do we square these two passages?

The answer tells us a great deal about the way God answers prayer generally. The context of Rom. 10:9-10 is Paul’s discussion of Israel and their rejection of Christ. They were about to be destroyed as a nation if they did not turn to Jesus (as it happened, they were destroyed a few years later in AD 70). It is important to note that while Israel may have been unbelievers, unlike the Gentiles, they still had (and have!) a special relationship with God. Their destruction was punishment for a particular sin: the rejection and crucifixion of their King. Nineveh, on the other hand, averted their destruction by doing what Israel would not, namely, turning for their sin.

It seems, then, that while God does not honor the prayers of the lost generally, He certainly judges all men according to the common sense of right and wrong inherent in us all (cf. Rom. 2:14-15). Unbelievers are just as capable of turning from their sin, and thus from their judgment, as believers are.

Yet this does not mean that just because a person is a believer that God is going to honor their prayer, either! Two examples should be enough to demonstrate this point. Isa. 1:10-20 is startling in its sharpness. God was extremely angry with Israel, and during His warnings, He says specifically, “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood” (Isa. 1:15, NIV). God clearly refused to hear the prayers of a sinful Israel. And yet a similar warning is repeated in a very specific application in the NT. Peter warned husbands against mistreating their wives “so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1 Pet. 3:7). The fact that sin hinders prayers is consistent with what we read in Isaiah. God honors not the prayers of the believer, but the prayers of the righteous, which is to say, those who walk before Him. James says this explicitly in James 5:16b, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” He said that after five chapters of explaining what it means in practical terms to be righteous.

So does God hear the prayers of the lost? A more appropriate question is whether or not God hears the prayers of the unrepentant heart. God may hear all, and He may cause His grace to fall on all in general terms, but those who are living in sin can expect to be essentially put on ignore by Heaven. This includes both believers and unbelievers. Only those who walk daily in faith and righteousness can expect God to honor them so that if they ask they will receive, if they seek they will find, and if they knock the door will be opened (Matt. 7:7).