Our church’s statement of faith and my latest response

This is mainly meant for those who attend our church but also a result of the discussions I mentioned in my last post:

“As members of Evangelical Fellowship Church we believe:

  • in the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testament, as the inspired Word of God,      inerrant in the original manuscripts; and that these are the supreme and final authority in faith and life (2 Tim. 3:16)
  • in one God, eternally existing in three persons:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit as professed in the Apostles’ Creed, namely:

We believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried;

He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

We believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. 

  • that man was created in the image of God, that he sinned, and is thereby separated from God and unable to save himself from condemnation
  • that the Lord Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures as a      representative and substitutionary sacrifice; and that all who believe in Him and repent are justified through His shed blood
  • in the present high priestly office of our Lord Jesus Christ; and in “that blessed hope,” His personal, imminent and future return to earth.”

 

1. Regarding the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures 

I believe that the Scriptures are indeed God-breathed and our only reliable source to know God through Jesus Christ who is not only God’s final word and exact representation but also the key to understand the Scriptures in their actual intent to lead us to Himself and to restore God’s image in our lives through a reconciled and growing relationship of love and obedience.  It also needs to be said that while God’s Word is inerrant, no human interpretation can claim that same inerrancy and we need to remain humble and open for correction when it comes to our personal or denominational view of certain doctrines.

Taking into account what God has said to people at different times, in a different language, to a very different culture, and in a great variety of literary forms, we ought to do our best to discern carefully what is timely and what is timeless, what is literal and what is symbolic, and how God’s will is faithfully translated and applied to our specific context, culture and language.  I believe that the Scriptures are clear enough where it matters most, in showing us our origin, our need for redemption, and Jesus Christ as the way and the truth and the life that leads us back to the Father and back to our true humanity.

2. Regarding the 3 articles of the Apostles’ Creed 

There is not much to say other than my full support of a Trinitarian view of God without which the statement “God is love” would be nonsensical before the point of creation.  I fully believe that God created everything out of nothing and sustains everything by that same powerful Word.  The questions of “How” and “When” within a modern scientific framework are not addressed by the Creed.  I believe they are secondary to the questions of “who” and “what for?” which have far reaching relevance for our personal lives today.

 I believe that the eternal Son of God incarnated in fully human form through supernatural conception within the virgin Mary, emptying himself voluntarily of his divine glory and use of his divine power apart from the direction and enabling of the Father.  Through Jesus’ life and death within time and space of human history the Father has been revealed directly not just in words but also in visible emotion and deed. 

Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension are the basis and proof of Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament promises regarding Messiah’s coming, salvation and lordship.  The Father has handed all judgment over to the Son and He will exercise that judgment when he returns visibly in power and glory to this world.

I believe that the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, not just a description of God’s power and invisible activity in this world, as he can be grieved, blasphemed and lied to.  I believe that the Holy Spirit ultimately is the only one who can convict of sin, give us an understanding of Christ and His work on behalf of us, and to create the faith in Christ that constitutes and ushers in a new birth and a new life, relating to God as a beloved Father rather than an enemy.  The true church is not confined to buildings, organizations or denominations, it is comprised by all whom Christ knows as His own and who share the same Holy Spirit that seals them as children of God.  I believe that just like Christ himself we will be raised with a new body by the power of the Holy Spirit and that this will happen regardless of the manner with which our natural bodies died, decomposed or were buried.  I believe that all and only those who have accepted God’s grace in true repentance and faith will share the joy of being in God’s presence without end.

3. Regarding the additional bullet points added to the Creed 

I believe that humanity in its original creation reflected God’s character and glory untarnished and enjoyed uninterrupted fellowship with their Creator.  The act of mistrusting God, disobeying His command that was designed to protect them from a broken relationship (which leads to death by cutting us off from the source of life) and rebelling against Him shattered this image and lead to alienation from God.  It also incurred the wrath of God by bearing the consequences of the curse, which entailed not only a physical separation from paradise and mortality, but also much difficult labor, pain and dysfunctional male-female relationships.  The condemnation of sin is rooted both in God’s character of goodness and holiness which will never compromise with any kind of evil, and also in the verdict of the law that must condemn every law breaker.  While God condemned the original sin, he does not completely turn away from his beloved creatures – he clothes them and covers their shame, and he promises a human descendant that will ultimately shatter the power of evil by being mortally wounded himself. 

While the curse is universal and experienced by every human being because we all share the same condition of a fallen world, and the same wicked heart that is bent on asserting its own will over God’s will, Christ’s atoning death in our place as a sinless sacrifice provides the cleansing that reverses the curse and enables people to enter God’s presence by having their punishment paid in full by Christ Himself.

In the use of the Old Testament’s imagery and foreshadowing, John the Baptist is pointing us to Jesus as the lamb that carries the sin of the world.  Since the original separation from God was relational, salvation from this separation can only be relational as well – in a response of faith in God’s free and undeserved gift of grace.  Outside of that personal embrace, the experience of alienation from God with all its consequences continues, in spite of the finished act of reconciliation from God’s end. 

As far as Christ’s continuing ministry is concerned, I believe he intercedes on behalf of all of us, not only those who are already his “sheep” but also those who are not part of the herd yet (John 10:16; 17:20).

Jesus Christ who remains the same yesterday, today and forever, is the kind of shepherd who cares even more about the one sheep that is still lost than the ninety-nine who are safely in his fold. If we pursue his example and if we are serious about having God’s true image restored in us, our desire and effort as individuals and as a church need to be the same. 

I have also come to believe that Christ’s emphasis of His unexpected, incalculable and imminent return to earth contradicts much of dispensational teaching today, never mind all the contradictions to Christ’s teachings about suffering and the role of believers in advancing the kingdom of God.  Jesus’ words never did promote the kind of escapism and carelessness regarding this present creation that many fundamentalist preachers display today.  Our task as the church is to faithfully follow him, love others the way that he loved and still loves us – in serving body, mind and soul –  and through word and example proclaim God’s goodness and grace in such a way that others get a chance to truly encounter Him in all the depth of mercy and grace that is greater than our sin.

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Universalism reexamined

I promised an update after several conversations with some elders and other good friends, and after having taken a long second look at what I described earlier as a “hopeful universalism”.  It’s good and helpful to receive pushback and constructive criticism regarding one’s views – especially when it sticks to the issues and refrains from personal attacks.  And in the end, that is what being open-minded is all about – not insisting on having it all figured out but being willing to change as we examine together the pros and cons, always ready to look at things from a perspective that is not necessarily our own.

One thing that became very clear to me when I tried to be as unbiased as possible, was that while it is certainly possible to interpret what Scripture mentions as “apokatastasis” (the “restoration” of all things – Acts 3:21) in a universalist way, it is by no means the only possible interpretation nor able to be proven conclusively.  And that would apply to all the other Scriptures I had mentioned before as well, including Philippians 2:10-11.

And while it seems congruent and appropriate in one sense that God’s desire (and ability!) to save all people, would be the foundation of a universalist hope (and accordingly any punishment in the afterlife understood as ultimately restorative and not just punitive), we still have to come to terms with the actual INTENT of Jesus’ warnings regarding our present choices and their consequences.

And here I have to admit that exactly the opposite undergirds the severity of the terms Jesus chose to describe the pain and darkness of a complete separation from God, no matter whether we understand this separation as an actual place or an inner condition.  The thrust of these statements is not to give hope but to describe the utter hopelessness of such a place away from the light and love of God.

So when it comes to preaching and teaching (completely independent of how God will actually sort things out in the end) I need to be faithful to THAT intent along with the whole emphasis on the goodness of the good news that invites us into the kingdom of reconciliation and of peace with God and with one another as we gratefully accept and submit to the rule of God in Christ.

I believe that depending on the audience, we must use at times the harshness of Jesus’ warnings (particularly when people feel “safe” for all the wrong reasons or when God’s judgment and goodness is being questioned), and at other times exalt the tender love and grace of God instead when people feel unworthy and are overwhelmed by shame.

My previous posts were particularly motivated by a concern for people who feel disillusioned by their experience of “church” and what they perceive to be the church’s message.  That concern has not changed.  But I’m also aware of the fact that there are just as many today who feel that the Christian faith is irrelevant because they see themselves as basically morally good and therefore deserving of God’s acceptance.  That is not a scriptural view of “goodness” or the basis of God’s acceptance.  It needs to be pointed out that God offers us His acceptance IN SPITE OF moral corruption and rebellion against Him, and that the Son of God had to die a brutal death to show us the depth of both human evil and of God’s grace in bearing our own deserved punishment.

The Bible says very little about the details of the future kingdom, but it consistently points us to the cross where any meaningful future has its foundation.  That needs to be emphasized and that needs to be preached, not speculations about how God might or might not satisfy our own sense of fairness and justice, or the speculation what love will or will not conquer.

 

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A time to pause, a time to reflect

After meeting with some current and former elders from our church and after hearing their thoughtful questions, challenges and concerns, I’ve decided to take a longer leave of absence from the blog.  I want to spend some time digging deeper into the Scriptures, particularly in regards to the themes of morality, holiness and divine judgment, and how they ought to have their rightful place in my own preaching and teaching.

It may well be true that I have been too lopsided and one-dimensional in talking about love and atonement.  And only a closeminded person would reject such admonition and criticism.  I will keep you posted on the things I’m learning and where I think course corrections are necessary.  I appreciate your prayers as illumination and conviction by God’s Spirit is even more necessary than a sharp mind!

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An attempt to clarify my views to my own church

Since the pastoral subcommittee has asked me to submit a clarification regarding some controversial doctrinal views and statements, I will try my best to give you a clearer picture and hopefully a better understanding where I’m coming from and what I believe.

1. The process of understanding God and endeavoring to interpret Scripture faithfully

How can created beings with limited minds – confined to space and time – grasp and truly understand their unlimited, omnipresent and eternal creator? They can’t, at least not fully. But as Christians we believe that God has come down to our level in many ways throughout human history to communicate with us and reveal Himself in a way that is sufficient to know Him adequately within our limitations. God meets us where we are, not only geographically but also within the confines of human culture and what our minds can comprehend at any given time. The culmination of that revelation is found is His own incarnation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and without that focal point and interpretative lense, it is impossible to understand Scripture the way it was intended, particularly in its intent to give us life through connecting us with God in a deeply personal relationship of love which is rooted more in our daily walk and life than in an intellectual understanding of our minds (Hebrews 1:1-2; Luke 24:25-27; John 5:37-40).

Most of Scripture comes to us in the form of story, not abstract statements or a list of systematic doctrinal beliefs. The story of Jesus is embedded in the wider story of God’s election of Abraham and God’s dealings with the Jewish people. The story of the Jewish people in turn is embedded in the wider story of creation and redemption of humanity and God’s primary purpose to establish His glorious kingdom here on earth. Much of that is communicated not only in Semitic language but also within the worldview and thinking of Ancient Near Eastern culture which is much different from 21st century Western and scientific thought. So there are many elements to be carefully considered and examined before jumping too quickly to a direct Bible reading that is only interested in the questions: What does this say to me? How does this answer MY questions and interests? One prime example would be the Creation story in Genesis which gives no indication of intending to give us a scientifically accurate explanation of the universe in modern terms but instead introduces us to the person of God as the origin of everything that exists and the purpose of His creation. The language, world view and cultural paradigms it uses focuses solely on the original readers of Genesis not on us today. So to be truly faithful to Scripture we must always remember that the Bible (in its various parts) was written FOR us but not TO us, as Old Testament scholar John Walton points out.

Other elements to consider are literary forms (poetry and hyperbole for example are NOT intended to be taken literally) and often the immediate context and teachings of the same author on the same subject will give us important clues whether something that is being said reflects a true or false view of God. Just a couple examples again: the sayings of Job’s friends sound perfectly orthodox and Job’s own statements almost blasphemous until we hear God’s actual verdict about them (Job 42:7). And Paul’s command to not let women teach or speak (1 Timothy 2:12) would be contradicting much else he’s said on the same topic if we don’t examine the immediate context of false teachers and their teachings regarding women mentioned in the same letter and of the cultural significance of patriarchialism and female roles within the Greco-Roman world of the first century and within the Jewish community as well.

Other elements in the Bible such as future prophecy cannot be properly understood either without their application for the immediate readership (Revelation is first and foremost a book of encouragement, hope and comfort for the persecuted church, not of timetables!) and the primary purpose of awakening the church now to integrity, faith and service in the present (Romans 13:11-14). Wherever we come instead with our own curiosity and speculation, we are refused by the Lord Himself to know the details (Matthew 24:36-44). I believe it’s a tragedy and a disgrace that most of evangelical literature on end time subjects blatantly ignores Jesus’ warning and makes money of people’s curiosity instead, and is leading people to focus on escaping the world rather than engaging it and showing it Christ’s love as lights of the world.

2. Sin and Atonement

The narrative of the Bible revolves around a big problem that humanity is unable to solve but that God has confronted and overcome in Jesus Christ. A correct view of sin and what the death of Jesus accomplishes is crucial for a proper view of God and for a relationship of love with Him that is free from fear and condemnation. Whatever interpretation people may have regarding the atonement (and there are quite a few!), I believe two things we can all agree on: the cross of Jesus solves what happened in the Garden of Eden and the God who solved it on Golgotha is the same God who originally created humanity and engages them after what we label the Fall. I cannot claim that my reading of the early chapters of the Bible is better or closer to the truth than the reading of other interpreters but before we embrace typical and historically dominant readings too quickly, let’s remember that the official church within Christendom for many centuries clinged to an interpretation of central Christian beliefs that we as Protestants view as false and misguided today. With that caution in mind, I currently see the following as the actual core of the sin problem the way the Genesis narrative presents it:

The emphasis in all the days of creation is what’s common to them: God’s judgment and evaluation that ALL that he created is good! And yet in the middle of the Garden we find a tree that represents the possibility of knowing something that is not good but evil. And that kind of knowledge does not lead to eternal life (defined by Jesus as knowing God through Jesus – John 17:3) but to death. In other words: this tree poses a rather staggering question: Is it possible that man can do something that would undo God’s value judgment of good? It seems that by placing the tree of knowledge front and center God wanted that question to be engaged and answered rather than hiding it from humanity because of its inherent damage and danger. The second element that is emphasized in the narrative is the element of nakedness. God created Adam and Eve naked and that nakedness is judged as good. The very first thing that changes after eating the forbidden fruit from the tree is not God striking the first people dead or withdrawing from them because of the presence of unholiness but a radically changed self-perception: they are all of a sudden ashamed of their nakedness – of that which God judged good and they are afraid of what God’s reaction will be, so they hide from Him to avoid coming into His presence! The original separation from God is first and foremost self-chosen and based on an inner reality of a skewed view of themselves and of God, a pattern that continues with Cain and is perpetuated by humanity throughout its history. The God who engages humanity after ignoring God’s commandment not to eat is the same God who according to Paul loved us while we were still ungodly, sinners and enemies (Romans 5:6-10). This is an important insight because many people believe that God’s default disposition is wrath towards the ungodly and only those who have accepted Christ are in a “safe zone” that protects us from this wrath. This is utter nonsense in my opinion. God loves not because at some point He chose to love us (or only a select few according to Hyper-Calvinism) or because something happened on the cross that enables Him to switch from wrath to love, but because He IS Love and the cross is just a demonstration how deep and utterly amazing that love is (1 John 4:8-9). Even God’s wrath flows from His love and is not opposed to it. Just like we feel wrath towards a child being abused, God has a wrath towards everything that hurts or destroys life and love. It is anchored in His love, it is not the hissy fit that we sometimes imagine on the basis of the sinful human wrath we are so much more familiar with! As a matter of fact, it takes 2000 years in human history before God’s anger is ever explicitly mentioned in the Bible (Exodus 4:14). Even at the presence of overwhelming global evil at the time of Noah, God’s emotion is described first and foremost as grief (Genesis 6:5-6). Love does grieve when the beloved go astray and basically destroy themselves and others. The story of Jonah and Nineveh is another powerful illustration of that same truth of God’s concern and passion to save rather than condemn. The continuing narrative of Genesis and a good chunk of the Old Testament describes how humanity tries to find other means of validation on their own terms after having misunderstood God’s unchanged disposition of love towards the sinner as an impossibility in their view because of the evidence of their transgression. God allows Israel to explore the avenues of pride, social comparison, relationships, the law and religion to show that they don’t work.

God among other things chooses the human (!) invention of sacrifice to illustrate how atonement and forgiveness are provided: not in the heathen perverted thinking of trying to appease God and turn away His wrath through the human initiative of giving up something that is precious to us but exactly the other way round: through the divine intiative of providing a substitutionary gift that is not obtained by human effort and by a God who already wants to forgive long before the actual act of sacrifice is ever happening. God doesn’t need anything from us before He is willing to forgive. We are the ones who consistently demand judgment and sacrifice and God shows that He is willing to provide it in order to give undeniable evidence of full payment of our sins by His own hand. The unspeakable happens when God chooses to allow to be tortured and killed in the person of His Son to demonstrate in His own body how far the good shepherd is willing to go to demonstrate His love and grace: by freely giving up His own life for the lost who are still His precious and His beloved in spite of their lost and wretched state. All of this is in stark contrast to the pharisaic understanding of a holy God who would never dwell with the unclean and unholy. In their view people have to change first before God can accept them. Jesus’ throughout His earthly life demonstrates the actual good news: God accepts sinners and has shockingly close fellowship with the unclean, He invites them to come as they are and it is this unconditional acceptance that enables people to change as a consequence.

3. Faith and Salvation

If the above view and interpretation of the root problem of sin is correct, then faith is the ability God provides to see beyond the blinders and see Him as He really is, including His offer of grace for the sinner that is based on His character and nature. Abraham whom Paul uses as the key witness regarding the nature of faith had no clue about the details of the cross of Jesus Christ but his relationship with God is described as made right nonetheless, simply because God promised to bless him and Abraham took God by his word. It also explains why Enoch could have such a close walk with God and be taken directly into His presence. It explains why David could be forgiven for his adulterous and murderous actions by an act of simple confession. Salvation is based on who God is (and continues to be) and what He provides because of His nature, NOT on anything we do or understand. This is why Jesus says we cannot enter the kingdom of God unless we become like a little child. Little children cannot do much other than accept the love and care provided for them. They do not have great intellectual abilities yet but they do sense whether they are loved or not and respond to it. The core of salvation is being reconnected with God in spite of our acts of rebellion and it is possible because God reconciles and forgives without any contribution coming from us. Salvation is not about a place we go to after we die (that’s just a bonus in the whole package) but it is the dynamic process of becoming what we were always meant to be – beloved children of the Heavenly Father who reflect His image and character of love in all their thinking and acting. Hebrews says that it is impossible to please God without faith. Some misunderstand that phrase as saying: God needs to see faith in our lives before He can be pleased with us – which basically would turn faith into a human work! What it really means is that we cannot do anything to make God love us more than He already does. Faith simply accepts this amazing gift that is already ours and that is what is pleasing in God’s eyes. Faith is a gift and it enables us to see with our inner eyes that which is already real but unseen to the natural eye. Salvation is not a ticket, it is a realization and the changed life that results from that realization. And it is ultimately the Holy Spirit who illuminates hearts and minds to see what we weren’t able to see before, using the Word of God to help us see God’s love and already accomplished act of reconciliation for the entire world from His perspective. Whoever sees it and accepts it, is able to reap the benefit of consciously walking in this reality of peace, love and freedom. If it were not so, we would always have to wonder whether we have either done enough or understood enough to qualify for God’s acceptance. The letter to the Hebrews again is abundantly clear that we can know for sure (based on the atonement) that God’s throne is a throne of grace and that we can come boldly into His presence with the assurance that He will always receive us and help us. The main obstacle is our own guilty conscience, not something God needs to see first (Hebrews 10:22).

4. Hell and the Christian Hope

Since Jesus Christ is the ultimate and final word of God we need to take all He said seriously, including His warnings about hell. The existence and power of divine love does not simply eradicate the existence of severe suffering ultimately rooted in inner separation from God and being estranged from His life.  The New Testament is full of examples how this suffering is experienced both before and after death for those who do not embrace God’s love and grace and therefore remain in darkness. But the nature of that suffering is not a negation of God’s universal love, far from it. It is the result of a personal choice not to step into the light which in turn is caused by a fear of punishment of evil deeds if that step was taken (John 3:16-20). It is also a necessary element of a love that would end to be true love the moment it becomes coercive. The question arises whether the darkness and suffering of hell continues as an endless reality of conscious torment and excruciating pain or whether there is any hope that even this suffering could be used redemptively by God. Scriptures that seem to negate this kind of hope (Mark 9:43-48; Matthew 25:46; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Revelation 20:10, 21:8; 22:15) stand side by side with Scriptures that envision a much brighter ultimate conclusion (Ephesians 1:10; Acts 3:21; Isaiah 45;22-24; Philippians 2:10-11; Romans 11:32).

I have chosen to describe myself as a “hopeful universalist” for the following reasons:

There simply is not enough evidence in the Bible to claim that love – given enough time – overcomes all sinful resistance of men. And if the punishment and pain of hell has an ultimate redemptive purpose it is hard to see what exactly will ultimately change peoples’ mind – who having experienced great torment, typically choose to bite their tongues and curse God for the pain rather than repenting and giving glory to Him (Rev. 16:9-11). Even though the term “eon” does not mean eternity in terms of endlessness, the suffering Jesus warns his followers about continues into the “eons of eons” – so at least it feels like it is endless. It is hard to know what that experience will be like since we don’t know how exactly we will experience time after death and in another body. If Jesus wanted to give a word of hope along with the stern warning, he could have easily done so but he chose not to. This points us to the utter seriousness of the choices we make in this life and the very real potential to experience horrible and lasting consequences beyond physical death.

I still believe that it is possible that God’s love and redemption will have the final word and not mankind’s sinful rebellion in its majority for the following reasons:

1. If hell is endless, it is hard to see how the damage of Adam is far outdone by what Christ accomplished (Romans 5:16-21).

2. The Bible is abundantly clear that saving faith is a gift of God and directly linked to his election. Israel’s unbelief is part of God’s plan (and originates in God’s own hardening of their hearts!) to save the Gentile nations and he is able and determined to turn Israel back to a saving faith in its totality when the full number of Gentiles has come in (Romans 9-11). If Paul is correct that God wants ALL people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4) and if ALL things are possible with God (notice the context of the question in Matthew 19:25-26!) how can sin ultimately prove to be stronger than the oath God has sworn Himself to accomplish His universal saving purpose (Isaiah 45:23)?

3. If love according to 1 Cor. 13 never ends, the love of God for the lost doesn’t end with death either. It’s hard to see how the good shepherd wouldn’t be able to find and save the lost even beyond death.

4. Many godly men and women throughout church history have clung to this hope (particularly within our own spiritual tradition of German Pietism – including Theophil Krawielitzki, the first housefather of the Fellowship Deaconry), based on the same passion and love God has for all the lost and the confidence that God in His power and sovereignty will accomplish ALL he has set out to do.

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A timely word about necessary lessons from history

I am reposting Bill Leonard’s entire article from the Associated Baptist Press here:

 

Opinion: The Bible tells me. So?

By Bill Leonard

(ABP) — Everybody is quoting the Bible these days. In the church and the public square Bible-based rhetoric and mandates echo throughout the culture, often with varying, even contradictory, interpretations. Such convictions can be deep and culture transforming; they can also be mistaken, perhaps even dead wrong. The Bible may say it and we may believe it, but that doesn’t always settle it.

Christian history suggests as much. Lent, the season of reflection and repentance, offers opportunity for those of us who live in and out of the Bible to acknowledge that the church’s history is full of acts and imperatives thought to be grounded in Holy Scripture that led the church to make horrible mistakes. Reflecting on those errors, and their sinful ramifications (it is Lent after all); we might revisit our own claims to be “Bible-believing Christians.”

Such reflections came home to me on a recent Sunday when our pastor reminded us that the church has produced some of “history’s best bullies,” asserting that their actions were “Bible” while undermining good faith. Even the briefest illustrations signal a broad, tragic ecclesiastical legacy.

When the 4th century puritanical Donatist sect was rebaptizing and reordaining persons who had received those rites from morally questionable bishops, St. Augustine initially attempted, with little success, to reconvert the radicals to Catholic faith. As their doctrines gained increasing influence, he acknowledged that punitive responses might be necessary to protect the faithful from Donatist heresy.

In The Correction of the Donatists, Augustine cited Jesus’ words “compel them to come in” (Luke 14: 16-23), and wrote: “Why… should not the Church use force in compelling her lost sons to return, if the lost sons compelled others to their destruction.”

When the Donatist Bishop Petilian responded that such action contradicted Christ’s teaching of love of neighbor, Augustine reminded him that the Savior used a whip to punish money-changers in the Temple. The saint’s arguments helped establish a “biblical” rationale for church/state aggression against heretics, sowing the seeds of Inquisition.

The 13th century quest for Catholic orthodoxy led to crusades against the dreaded Cathars, charged with denying papal authority, the sacraments and other heresies. In Heresy in the Roman Catholic Church: A History, Michael Thomsett writes that Cathars were “required to wear a yellow cross on their clothing … serving as a symbol of shame.”

The crosses were called las debandoras, (“winding machines”) “but they are more accurately described as ‘a millstone around the neck.’” That text (Luke 17:2-3) was frequently used to support cases against persons convicted of heresy and excommunicated by the church, then turned over, as Thomas Aquinas wrote, to the “secular tribunal to be exterminated thereby from the world by death.”

Maryland, the first Catholic colony, issued a Toleration Act (1649) offering religious tolerance to Protestant and Catholic settlers alike, but warning that “whatsoever person or persons within this Province … that shall deny the holy Trinity the father son and holy Ghost, or the Godhead of any of the said three persons of the Trinity or the Unity of the Godhead, or shall use or utter any reproachful speeches, words or language concerning the said Holy Trinity, … shall be punished with death and confiscation or forfeiture of all … .lands and goods….” Not great news for Unitarians, certain Anabaptists and non-Christians. They were better off in Rhode Island.

Catholics weren’t alone in seeking biblical support for legal sanctions against dissenters. In colonial Massachusetts, Records of the Governor declared of Quakers: “The doctrine of this sect of people … tends to overthrow the whole gospell & the very vitalls of Christianitie ….” The colony passed legislation (1658) banishing Quakers “on payne [sic] of death.” Two years later Bible-believing Puritans hanged Mary Dyer for preaching Quaker views, the first woman executed in America.

And then there were the Baptists. In an 1822 address to the South Carolina legislature, Baptist pastor Richard Furman insisted: “Had the holding of slaves been a moral evil, it cannot be supposed, that the inspired Apostles, who feared no the faces of men, … would have tolerated it for a moment, in the Christian Church….” The biblical writers, Furman said, let the master/slave relationship “remain untouched, as being lawful and right.”

He concluded: “In proving this subject justifiable by Scriptural authority, its morality is also proved; for the Divine Law never sanctions immoral actions.” “Biblical defenses” of slavery flourished throughout the antebellum South.

And what of us? While grateful that such destructive misuses of Scripture are no longer acceptable, we must ask ourselves: what texts are we using to promote practices for which later generations will call us to account?

For which of our “biblical defenses” will our children or grandchildren be compelled to repent? Good questions for reflection, perhaps even repentance, then and now. Lent, you know.

 

Bill Leonard is James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies at the School of Divinity, Wake Forest University.

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Interpreting hell in the light of the Gospel

I feel that the time has come when I must declare my mind honestly. I believe that endless torment is a hideous and unscriptural doctrine which has been a terrible burden on the mind of the church for many centuries and a terrible blot on her presentation of the gospel.”

John Wenham

Let me say at the outset that I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine, a theological and moral enormity, a bad doctrine of the tradition which needs to be changed. How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God, at least by any ordinary moral standards, and by the gospel itself… Surely the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is no fiend; torturing people without end is not what our God does.”

Clark Pinnock

When we try to understand what the Bible is teaching about God, humankind and salvation we are much like someone sitting before a huge 5000 piece puzzle cardboard box trying to see where each piece fits within the large frame.  The only difference is that there is no completed picture to guide us where any individual piece might go and we have not one person but millions and billions of people with the same pieces in front of them and a great variety of opinions where those pieces belong and what the final completed picture looks like.  Our opinions are highly influenced by parents, pastors and Christian teachers, books, traditions and last not least our own biography and some key experiences that had a lasting impact on us.

I am certainly no exception in that regard – no one is!  I can only share here my limited views and the reasons why I dare to hope that God’s victory over sin will not be limited to rescue a small minority from unending separation and torment but might very well include every beloved creature of His in the long run.  At the same time, I will also try with the utmost sincerity to take Jesus’ warnings of hell and its awful reality seriously, not belittling for one moment the long lasting consequences of our choices and the certainty of judgment and punishment in the afterlife.  Just because I disagree with much of the traditional understanding does not make me automatically a heretic or else the entire Protestant Church is heretical as well.  “Protesting” long held views in the history of the Christian church because of abusive practices and new ways of looking at the same Scriptures is nothing new at all.  It’s easy to fling around terms like “heretical” or “revisionist” without ever trying to entertain the possibility that even a majority opinion and widely held interpretation MAY be wrong.

It would be easy to write a several hundred pages book on the subject of hell but let me try to condense it to the main arguments and scriptures that made me rethink what I used to believe:

1. Scripture is emphatic about the fact that it cannot be properly understood unless it is interpreted through the lens of Jesus and His sacrifice on our behalf expressing God’s desire that we might have life through Him (Luke 24:25-27; John 5:39-40; Hebrews 1:1-2).

2. Scripture also describes this eternal life predominantly in relational terms which becomes part of our personal experience through a joyful and willing embrace of the indescribable gift of God’s love and forgiveness in His Son and living with Him in inseparable communion and fellowship (John 1:12; 3:16; 17:3; 1 John 5:11-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:10).

3. Scripture indicates that both in this life and in the after-life there will be people rejecting God’s Son and rejecting His love that would change their life (John 1:11; 3:18-20; 2 Thessalonians 2:10; Revelation 21:8).

4. Scripture uses a number of metaphors to describe the condition and suffering inflicted by hell: Fire / fiery furnace/ burning sulfur / Lake of Fire (Matthew 5:22; 13:50; 18:8; Luke 16:24; Hebrews 10:27; 2 Peter 3:7; Jude 7; Revelation 14:10; 20:15; 21:8); Darkness / outside / away from The Lord (Matthew 8:12; 25:30; Luke 13:27-28; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Revelation 22:15); Destruction (Matthew 7:13; Philippians 3:19; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; 2 Peter 3:7); Eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46), weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12; 13:42; 24:51), suffering / agony / place of torment (Luke 16:23-24,28; Revelation 14:11).

5. Scripture unequivocally expresses God’s love for all (especially for the lost!) and His desire to see every human being saved (John 3:16; Romans 5:8; 1 Timothy 2:4).

6. God not only has no pleasure in the destruction of the wicked but also weeps over those who willfully reject His love and good purpose (Ezekiel 33:11; Luke 13:34; 18:41-42).

7. While God’s love is never coercive, it is ultimately only because of His choice and His gift of faith that we can believe and are able to come to Him (John 6:44; 15:16; Acts 13;48; Romans 9:16; Ephesians 2:8-9; Hebrews 12:2).

8. God is able to accomplish anything he wants regardless of Satanic opposition or human rebellion.  One irrevocable part of God’s will is that every single knee will bow and every tongue confess Him as their righteousness (Psalm 22:27-29; Isaiah 45:22-24; Philippians 2:9-11; Revelation 5:13).

9. One of the great mysteries that Paul addresses is the question of unbelief among God’s chosen people.  Romans 9-11 highlight God’s sovereignty in both election and temporary hardening, ultimately aiming at an all-encompassing salvation of both Gentiles and Jews.  The initiative lies entirely with God here and accordingly God receives all the praise at the end of this reflection on God’s ways and judgments.

10. An infinite penalty cannot satisfy justice by definition.  God’s justice is carefully and fairly measured, not only in reward but also in punishment (Matthew 11:24; 18:34-35; Luke 12:47-48; Romans 2:5-11; Colossians 3:25).

11. The Hebrew and Greek terms usually rendered “eternity / eternal” do in many cases not refer to an endless period of time but to a generation or an age of indefinite length; human history is described as a sequence of ages (some examples: Matthew 24:3; 28:20; Luke 20:34-35; 1 Corinthians 10:11; Ephesians 1:21; 2:7; Colossians 1:26; Hebrews 6:5).

12. Even in punitive forms of judgment we often see God’s restorative intent in and through the punishment (Job 5:17-18; Isaiah 26:9; Jeremiah 9:7-9; 32:37-39; Zephaniah 3:8-9; Malachi 3:2-3; 1 Corinthians 5:4-5; Hebrews 12:11).

I will openly admit that none of the mentioned Scriptures conclusively prove that a universalist interpretation can be the only way to reconcile both the necessity of a future punishment and at the same time an unshakable confidence in God’s ability to save.  Annihilationists (such as Wenham, Pinnock and John Stott) are able to make a strong case for their position as well.  Taken exclusively by themselves, the Scriptures addressing the subject of hell don’t offer any hope that they may be just temporal or have an ultimate refining purpose.  And I think there is a good reason for that.  The horror of a darkness that follows any refusal to enter the light needs to be described as nothing less than condemnation, death and a state of utmost anguish of the soul.  Not in order to malign God’s character but to show what truly is at stake.  The choices we make regarding the offer of free grace don’t change God’s disposition toward us (love never ends) but they form us in such a way that it becomes increasingly difficult to see and embrace grace at all.

In a consecutive post I will be responding to some common objections, especially the notion that somehow evil would go unpunished or the question how God could ever make the abused share heaven together with their abusers.  These are all good points but also miss some of the most important aspects of grace which is anything but a get-out-of-jail card to avoid pain.  The Bible is full of stories where former mortal enemies are restored to each other by the power of grace.  These stories are still full of evil and great pain but God shows sovereignly His ability to bring good out of evil (Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers), yes even Sodom is given a perspective of hope (Ezekiel 16:55) in spite of the hopeless sounding verdict in Jude 7.

I will not judge those who arrive at different conclusions but personally I have a hard time understanding why an actual fulfilment of God’s desire as described in 1 Timothy 2:4 would be such a terrible thing that we have to warn everyone not to believe it and not wish for it to happen.  To me this would only amplify God’s glory not diminish it.  And no one who truly loves the way God loves will do anything but pray for every prodigal to come home.  Whether it will happen or not, Christians may disagree on.  I just wish we could all share at least in the desire of the Father that none would perish rather than falling back into the sinful pattern of wishing revenge and boundless suffering on those who deserve it in our own mind.  Whatever hell is, it is not God’s torture chamber.

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The certainty that flows from love

This morning I said goodbye to a very special lady.  Anita had been suffering from MS for over 30 years and after frequent infections that took an additional toll on her body, God decided to take her home just about 3 hours ago.  I had never seen Anita out of her bed or wheelchair but she always impressed me with her keen insights and made me laugh with her wicked sense of humor.  I’ve never heard her complain about her illness and ever increasing weakness.  And while she always was grateful for visits, prayers and words of encouragement, I am sure I was the one more blessed in these encounters.  She carried herself gracefully, confidently and made everyone feel at ease.  She was the kind of person who saw right through any pretense and also wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.  The impact she left on her family, her friends and her church will still be felt for many years to come.

Just before Anita took her last breath on this side of eternity, I read to her from the end of Romans 8.  I just want to quote verse 32 here:

“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”

There are many things I don’t have the slightest clue about, even though I am a pastor and sometimes people have the expectation that we ought to be experts at all things spiritual.  I don’t know what exactly happens after we die.  I don’t know what heaven or our new bodies will be like and how it will still be connected to a restored earth in the future.  I’m not sure how our spirit/soul has a sensitory experience apart from a functioning brain and how we experience “time” in the afterlife.  I also have no idea to what degree those who have passed on are still spectators of our current lives.

But one thing I’m certain of.  It’s not the kind of certainty that can easily be explained (or explained away).  It’s just there.  And while I see no need to turn it into an argument or want to claim that everyone needs to have it, I’m just grateful to discover its presence in me.  The certainty I’m talking about is the certainty of love.  As certain as I am about the love that flowed from Anita’s bedside to her family and vice versa, I am certain that the cross of Jesus is God’s eternal “I love you!” sign.  It’s the kind of love that will sacrifice the dearest and best it can give, including the gift of its own life.  There is no other place in all of human history where God showed up and spoke so clearly, not just through mere words but the very act of laying down His life for us in the person of His Son.  And Paul’s rhetorical question is appropriate here: how would He possibly now withhold anything we need from us?  It’s impossible!

It’s only because of this certainty that I love my “job” (I prefer to refer to it as my calling).  To have the certainty that our existence in this vast universe is not an accident, that we were loved beyond measure before galaxies and our own parents even existed, and that the love of God never ends and calls us consistently and patiently to grace, joy and wholeness, gives me strength, comfort and the ability to speak confidently about the unmovable rock on which we stand and the unshakable hope of God’s future that awaits us.

It never ceases to amaze me how God works most powerfully through those who barely have a voice to speak.  Again and again my own faith has been renewed and strengthened most by those who were weak or suffering, yet clinging to God and blessing those around them – the handicapped, the poor, the persecuted.  From Corrie ten Boom to Anita Gray, there have been countless witnesses of the power of God’s love and grace that have carried me through times of doubt, open rebellion and confusion.  And while many things I’m curious about will remain quite uncertain for a little while longer, I will also say this in thankful acknowledgment:

I know whom I have believed and in whom I still trust – I know that my and Anita’s Redeemer lives!

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