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.

Ministry Endorsement! Christ Alive Care Ministries

Acts 17:2 Ministries is very proud to endorse Christ Alive Care Ministries. First, in their own words:

Welcome to Christ Alive Care Ministry’s Website. We hope the information available to you will be helpful and that you will be motivated to keep us in your prayers as we circle the communities with the Love of Jesus Christ. Founded by Rev. Wilson Varkey and Pastor V.U. Varghese, the ministry has been consistently dedicated to sharing the Good News of the Gospel in the Indian villages and exerting valuble services to the orphans and poor in the community.

The goal of the organization is to do its part in fulfilling the Great Commission of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” Also the ministry is dedicated to serve the poor in the community by rendering their requirements and fostering the helpless. We are registered in India as a non-profit, charitable organization and are now partners with Touch The World Ministries based out of Morganton, North Carolina in our child sponsorship program. Our main focus is building partnerships with local and international churches for the recruitment of faithful brothers and sisters who have a desire to reach the unreached and come work with us in village outreach where we do open air evangelism. We wish to offer you and your church the oppurtunity to be a part of these Great Commission works and invite you to contact us regarding how you can show Christ to others and share with them the love and plan of salvation.

I discovered the ministry through my friendship with Adam McNutt, who serves as their director of North American operations. I have always believed in the importance of missions, even if God has not called me to personally go and serve in another nation. Yet I am convinced, if not by anything more than my own experience, that people are more effective at sharing their faith in their own cultures. I am certainly in favor of sending missionaries to foreign lands! Yet over and over again, we have found native missionaries can do in a few weeks or months what foreign missionaries may have to spend years, or even a lifetime, accomplishing. If you don’t think so, just imagine how much more uncomfortable you would be around, say, a Buddhist from another country, dressed in traditional Buddhist garb, trying to tell you about the benefits of Buddhism, as opposed to if someone from your own town were to have that same conversation with you!

When you support CACM, you are supporting local, native missions. These are people who have a deep desire to reach their own, and if Western Christians can provide them the financial means to do so, I think God expects no less!

But further, please specifically pray about sponsoring a child. Before we say anymore about that, take a few minutes and watch this brief video (not produced by CACM) that presents, I think, a fantastic strategy to fulfilling the Great Commission:

Why has the Church spent so little time on child evangelism? If we can reach children for Christ in areas that are not Christian, they can tell their friends about Him, and a whole generation can grow up to become native evangelists!

You can sponsor a child for as little as $15 per month. Further, because we believe in the ministry of CACM so much, we are offering a free copy of our twelve week course (complete with twelve MP3 commentaries!) To Give A Reason For Our Hope to anyone who sponsors a child, PLUS two free months of membership in our private correspondence program (normally $30 per month).

Please go to their website now and consider sponsoring a child. Tell a friend (or two), and share some of the blessings God has given you with the “least” of His children.

Main Site: http://www.cacmindia.org

Sponsor a child: http://www.cacmindia.org/sponsor.php

Has Lot’s Wife Been Found?

[H]asn’t there been actual physical evidence to prove the story of Lot’s wife being turned to salt?

This is, unfortunately, one of those stories that gets repeated a lot (pun intended) without people doing much fact-checking. Sodom and Gomorrah, which God destroyed for their wickedness (see Gen. 19), were near the Dead Sea. As it happens, there is a rock formation that looks like a woman looking behind her, and that formation has been called “Lot’s Wife.”

There are reasons, however, to reject the claim that this is actually the woman whom God turned into salt for disobeying Him. The most obvious is that the rock is simply much larger than any human being. The second is that there is no reason to believe that a rock formation in the shape of a human would have survived thousands of years, and even if it did, it is less likely that it would still look like a person all these years later.

Apparently, such rock formations, from small to large, are not uncommon in that area. It’s certainly possible that one of them could be Lot’s wife, but it would be impossible to identify which one it would be.

While we’re on the subject of Lot’s wife, though, I would like to point out one more common misunderstanding. Gen. 19:26 says, “But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.” Most people argue that she “looked back” because she longed for her life back in Sodom, and that is the real reason for her judgment. Such an idea is certainly consistent with the rest of Scripture. James 4:4 says that to be friends with the world is to be enemies with God. But I think a closer examination of the passage teaches a much deeper lesson.

Lot took his wife and two unmarried daughters with him (Gen. 19:15), and most people just assume that these were the only children Lot had. Yet the same story also says that Lot tried to warn his sons-in-law, but they thought he was joking (Gen. 19:14). That means that Lot had other daughters who were married, which means it is still further possible that he had grandchildren. So why did Lot’s wife turn back? It is certainly possible that she may have longed for her life in Sodom, but try to put yourself in her shoes just a moment. It was not just her home and social life that was being destroyed. She had children and possibly grandchildren still in the city. Her emotional devastation at losing them clouded her judgment.

There is a direct correlation in the New Testament to this. Jesus said in Luke 14:25-27,

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

God demands absolute love for Him. Few Christians appreciate just how radical this really is. It is easy to say that we should love God more than our families when our families are, with us, striving to please God. But what happens when following Him puts us at odds with them? Christians throughout the centuries have learned the hard way that sometimes they have to choose between Him and their loved ones. Lot’s wife experienced just such a choice. Would she obey God, or would she disobey Him for the sake of her family? Her sin was not that she loved her children so dearly. It was that she chose them over the will of God.

There is a lot that we can learn from her story. Whether or not we ever find her physical remains, her judgment stands in our mind as a firm reminder of the dedication God requires from His children.

Can God Create A Rock So Big He Can’t Lift It?

One of the most common charges atheists make is that the concept of God is incoherent, that is, that is contradicts itself. For example, a married bachelor is incoherent because the two terms are mutually exclusive. If I am married, I can’t be a bachelor, and if I’m a bachelor then I can’t be married. That is a simple example of incoherence, but others are very complicated. For instance, it is common to hear politicians accusing one another of being incoherent. Recent examples in American politics include Democrats accusing Republicans of worrying about deficits while blocking tax-increases and Republicans accusing Democrats of being for the lower and middle class while both blocking energy policies that would decrease gas prices (i.e., off-shore drilling) and simultaneously proposing policies that would increase them (i.e., “cap and trade”). If a position is incoherent, it can’t really be true.

Arguments about whether or not “God” is a coherent term run from very simple to very sophisticated. The simplest of these is to ask questions such as, “Can God create a rock so big He can’t lift it?” The implication is that if God is able to do anything, then He should be able to create such a rock. Yet if He does, then He would not be able to lift it, which would mean that He wasn’t really able to do anything. Or some may ask, “Can God remember a time He didn’t exist?” to imply that God is either omnipotent or omniscient, but He can’t be both.

These types of questions focus on God’s omnipotence by defining it as “the ability to do anything.” It is important to acknowledge here that, in one sense, the critic is right. There are some things that God cannot do. Many Christians have been tempted to respond by saying, “No, God’s omnipotence just means that He can do anything that can be done.” On the one hand, technically, they are correct, but it leaves them open to rendering God impotent. For instance, this may allow someone to say, “Well, God can’t do miracles, because miracles aren’t things that can be done.” If we accept the fact that miracles are impossible, then the statement must be true, but a God that cannot do miracles hardly seems worthy of being called God, and, in any case, is not the God of the Bible.

It is better to maintain the definition of omnipotence as “the ability to do anything” and insist that we are actually talking about any thing. Incoherent concepts themselves aren’t really things, because self-contradictory things aren’t real. Married bachelors can’t possibly exist, so it is meaningless to talk about them. The “idea” turns out not to be an idea at all. We can’t ask God to make a married bachelor, because God can do anything, but married bachelors aren’t things.

In other words, omnipotence means that God can do anything that actually has meaning.

Self-contradictory ideas like a rock so big that an omnipotent being can’t lift it are self-contradictory and thus have no meaning. They may sound like they mean something, but actually they are just words strung together. Even God cannot violate the law of non-contradiction, not because He is under that law, but because that law derives its meaning from what God already is. God is One. God Himself does not be and not be at the same time, and since everything gets its being from Him, then nothing in the universe can both be and not be at the same time. To say that anything does is meaningless, and so to ask god to do anything that violates the law of non-contradiction is meaningless.

There are serious debates that can be had about the coherence of the God-concept. Silly questions like “Can God create a rock so big He can’t lift it?” isn’t an example of one.