The Fleeting Moments of Our Lives

Depending upon which translation you read, the Preacher tells us that all of life is vanity, is meaningless, or is like a vapor (Ecclesiastes 1:2).  If we spend time evaluating his claim, we would need to acknowledge that he is correct.  There are very good reasons why the Preacher came to this conclusion.

  • What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9 ESV)
  • “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is  no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten.  How the wise dies just like the fool!  (Ecclesiastes 2:15-17 ESV)
  • I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19 ESV)
  • It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, (Ecclesiastes 9:2 ESV)

The events of our lives, taken by themselves, are meaningless.  Do we really think that 200 years from now any of us will be remembered?  Do we really think that 200 years from now the events of our lives will have an impact on that generation?

What makes our lives meaningful is the type of person we become.  What makes our lives meaningful is if we utilize our life experiences, whatever they are, to become more like God.  The events of our lives are fleeting moments in eternity but what will live forever is our soul.  And we determine what our soul will be like by the decisions we make during these fleeting moments of our lives.

The end of the matter; all has been heard.   Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.  (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 ESV)

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Rules or Relationship

People have many different opinions on what constitutes Christianity and Janie B. Cheaney points out a couple of these differing opinions in a recent article.  Some believe Christianity is discovering the right rules God has setup for us and then following those rules  Others believe it is a personal relationship with Jesus. [1]

There are problems with both opinions.  Jesus preached against just following the rules the Pharisees and Sadducees had setup.  Jesus told a parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray.  The Pharisee’s prayer was about how he followed all the rules of his religion:  “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” In contrast the tax collector just humbly admitted his failures (Luke 18:9-14).  The Pharisee followed all the right rules but Jesus said that only the tax collector was justified before God.

If we view Christianity solely as a relationship with Jesus then of what does that relationship consist?   Jesus’ disciples had a relationship with him but very few were at his crucifixion.  The vast majority of his disciples deserted him in his moment of greatest need.  What kind of a relationship is that?  Can we have a relationship with Jesus and yet do what we want, ignoring what he desires?

I believe salvation requires both following the rules Jesus has given us and a relationship with Jesus.  As Jesus states, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”  So why does not our doctrine of salvation include both?

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[1]   Janie B. Cheaney, “Lord and friend”, World Magazine, September 2, 2007, p. 14.

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The Great Lisbon Apocalypse of 1755

On All Saint’s Day, November 1, 1755, Lisbon, Portugal was hit with an earthquake, tsunami, and then fire that destroyed a great part of the city.  Communication was slow in those days but when the other nations of the world heard about this tragedy, most promised to send aid.  In reality, very few nations actually sent aid. [1]  So who actually helped the people of Lisbon?  Was it the nations that promised to send aid but did not or the nations that promised to send aid and did?

Jesus’ parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:28-32 asks a similar question.  A man asked his two sons to work in his vineyard.  One said he would not but later did.  The other said he would but did not.  Jesus asked:  Which son did what his father wanted?

The same question applies to our salvation.  If we tell God we believe in Jesus and his death for our sins but then live a life that is contrary to his commands, do we actually believe in him?  Justin Martyr, one of the early Church fathers, answers this question very plainly.

“And let those who are not found living as He taught be understood to be no Christians, even though they profess with the lip the precepts of Christ; for not those who make profession, but those who do the works, shall be saved, according to His word:  ‘Not everyone who saith to Me, Lord, Lord shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven’”. [2]

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[1]   Mark Molesky, This Gulf of Fire, New York:  Vintage Books, 2015, p. 260.

[2]   Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin Martyr”, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, ed., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994, p. 168.

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Open to Criticism

In the last blog we quoted Michael Ward who asserts that true religion should be “. . .both self-critical and open to criticism from without, open to revision in the light of new knowledge and in response to new situations.” [1]  What situations should cause us to be self-critical and open to criticism about our religious beliefs?  One reason would be if there are contradictions within our belief system.  It would make sense to at least try to determine why these contradictions exist.

In this blog, we have identified three contradictions within the Christian doctrine of salvation.

  1. Our doctrine of salvation contains, in the worlds of the Christian philosopher David Elton Trueblood, “a contradiction at the heart of the system” [2] because a majority of people who have ever lived will be sent to hell for eternity even though they have never heard of Jesus. [3]  Yet God claims to be a God of love and justice.
  2. If we consider the fact that we are finite, we realize that being finite means we cannot obtain certain proof that Jesus died and rose again from the dead and yet God demands that we believe in these events if we want to go to heaven. And yet God claims to be a God of love and justice.
  3. We encounter passages in the Bible that teach salvation is through belief in God, our conduct, pattern of behavior, motivation, use of abilities, and repentance.  The Bible does not solely teach salvation is through belief in Jesus.  If we really believe that every word in the Bible is inspired by God, there must have been a reason he made these statements.

So why are not Christians addressing these questions; why do they continue to ignore them when they are raised?

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[1]   Michael Ward, “A Time to Scatter Stones and a Time to Gather Stones Together”, Imprimis, July/August, 2017, Volume 46, Number 7/8, p. 3.

[2]   David Elton Trueblood, Philosophy of Religion, New York:  Harper & Row, 1957, pp. 221-222.

[3]   John Sanders, What About Those Who Have Never Heard?, Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1995, p. 9.

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True Religion

Michael Ward is a professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University and a Fellow of Blackfriars Hall at the University of Oxford.  He asks a question that not too many Christians ask these days.

Is it possible to be too religious?  To be so interested in unity and oneness that you never look for change?  Can’t the religious impulse devolve into a kind of frigidity or frozenness, a paralysis in which the way we’ve always done things must be the way we always do things, forever and ever, amen?

True religion should always be corrigible:  both self-critical and open to criticism from without, open to revision in the light of new knowledge and in response to new situations.  Not cramping in on itself, or incessantly ratcheting up the interior tension, but periodically relaxing, taking stock, surveying new horizons. [1]

In raising the questions about Christianity in this blog, what has been most surprising to me is that most Christians simply do not ask these questions.  When I confront Christians with these questions I have yet to find one individual who has challenged the conclusions we have reached on the basis of logic, reason, and what the Bible says.  Instead the response has been to just continue to ignore these questions.  Is that the type of religion to which Dr. Ward says we should aspire.  If that the type of religion we want to basis our life upon?

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[1]   Michael Ward, “A Time to Scatter Stones and a Time to Gather Stones Together”, Imprimis, July/August, Volume 46, Number 7/8, p. 3.

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Data Driven

If you are in the scientific or business community you have heard the term “data driven”.  This term means that we base our conclusions and decision on the basis of data, not upon our intuition or personal experience, or what we have been taught.  In religion, we base our belief on faith.  Does not Paul tell us:  “. . .for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7 ESV)?  But does this mean that we ignore what data we have?

In this blog we have come to the conclusion that salvation is more than belief in Jesus and his death for our sins; it is the renovation of our soul so it becomes like God.  Part of the reason we have reached this conclusion is because of data–it is what the Bible teaches.  In my book we have listed 70 passages which support this conclusion.  Below we will give five examples.

First, in Matthew 3 John the Baptist states that one must produce fruit in keeping with repentance in order to be saved.  A belief or a resolution to change is not sufficient.  One must actually put a belief into practice.

Second, in Luke 10 a prominent person asked Jesus what he must do to obtain eternal life Jesus responded by saying he was to love God and love his neighbor.  Nothing is said about belief in Jesus.

Third, Peter in Acts 10 states that “God. . .accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right”.  Jesus is not mentioned at all.

Fourth, Paul in I Corinthians 13, Paul teaches us that love is not an emotion or feeling but an action.  At the end of the chapter he notes that:  “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).  Why is love greater than faith or hope?  If faith in Jesus is the only way of salvation, why does Paul place love greater than faith?  Paul states that without love we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2).  Even if we “have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if [we] have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, [we are] nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).

Fifth, James 2 makes is impossible to assert that salvation is only by belief in Jesus and his death for our sins.  James makes two points.  He states that faith without works is dead.  He also notes that the demons believe in Jesus but that does not mean they will be in heaven because their will is opposed to God.  We can say we believe but if our will is opposed to God we will not go to heaven.

If words have meanings then I fail to see how Christians, if they objectively consider the above passages which are just a sample of the 70 contained in the New Testament, can believe that salvation is through faith in Jesus alone.  So what will we do with this data?  Will we ignore it or will we use this data to better understand God and how he deals with us?

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A Reduced Christianity

In the past few posts we have drawn upon the work of James S. Stewart.  If you are like me you have never heard of this individual before.  Stewart is a Scottish preacher and taught at the University of Edinburgh.  He served as the Chaplain to the Queen in Scotland.  In addition, Preaching Magazine in 1999 proclaimed Steward the best preacher of the 20th century.  So maybe we should pay attention when he speaks to the essential message of Christianity as he does in his book A Faith to Proclaim.

In this book Stewart states that the problem for Christianity today is not secularism but a reduced Christianity. [1]  What is a reduced Christianity?  To me Evgeny Barabanov  explains best what Stewart means.

It turned out to be too hard to accept all the complexities and antinomies [a contradiction or inconsistency between two apparently reasonable principles or laws] of the Gospel.  And that greatest of all temptations began to rear its head—that of “simplifying” Christianity, of reducing it from being a teaching about the new life to a mere caring for the salvation of one’s own soul.

These two aspects of the Christian attitude to the world, active participation in its transformation and renunciation of its temptations, turned out to be extremely difficult to reconcile.  Heavenward aspirations often went hand in hand with execration [a detesting, loathing] of the earth.  Too often the ideal of salvation was built on a foundation of inflexible renunciation of this world.  Thus salvation itself was understood as an escape from the material world into a world of pure spirituality.  This gave rise to contempt for the flesh, the belittling of man’s creative nature and, as a necessary consequence, a special religious individualism.

It seems at times that we Christians deliberately do not wish to understand our historical failure or to admit our historical sins.  We shift the blame onto anyone we can find—the state, atheism, secularization—but ourselves always remain only innocent victims. . . The world, of course, has abandoned the Church, since the traditional groove reserved for creativity turned out to be too restricted for man. . . Today it is not the Church but the world which is creating a new civilization, and it is solving the problems with which it is faced on the basis of its own understanding of existence. . . Dragging along behind the world, the Church has been left to adopt principles which at first were alien to it, but which by now have become firmly established in spite of it. [2]

Maintaining that salvation is only by belief in Jesus and his death for our sins has its consequences.  It reduces Christianity to a concern about the salvation of our soul and ignores the new life that God has planned for us.  And because it only addresses our lives after we die and totally fails to adequately address the problems everyone in the world faces, the world ignores our message.  That is sad because the gospel does have the power to transform if we would just put it into practice.

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[1]   James S. Stewart, A Faith to Proclaim, Vancouver, British Columbia:  Regent College Publishing, 1953, p. 31.

[2]   Evgeny Barabanov, “Schism Between the Church and World”, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, ed., From Under the Rubble, New York:  Bantam Books, 1975, pp. 180-186.

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The Prodigal Son

James S. Stewart maintains that forgiveness is not the elimination of the penalty of sin but the repair of a broken relationship. [1]  An example is the well-known story of the prodigal son that Jesus told.

A father had two sons.  The younger son asks for his inheritance and left to experience riotous living.  He was soon destitute and was reduced to feeding pigs.  There he resolved to return to his father with the proposal to become one of his father’s servants because he felt he was not worthy to be his father’s son. But his father would have none of that.  Instead he organized a party to celebrate the return of his son.

Stewart also makes a point about this story that most of us have not considered.  He states that the prodigal son of Luke 15 was forgiven “but that does not mean there were not months of slow and difficult readjustment and rehabilitation”. [2]  The bitterness of the brother of the prodigal son who protested the celebration for his brother says there was much that would need to be repaired in this family’s relationships.

Do we think it will be any different as we repair our relationship with God?  Do we think that all we need to do to make our relationship with God work is a one-time confession of our failures and the rest of the time we can continue to do as we want?  So why does our doctrine of salvation teach that?

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]1]   James S. Stewart, A Faith to Proclaim, Vancouver, British Columbia:  Regent College Publishing, 1953, p. 62..

[2]   Stewart, p. 62.

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The Evidence of Our Faith

We have stated many times that because we are finite we cannot have definitive proof for events that occur away from our space and time.  That includes the death and resurrection of Jesus so are we Christians totally devoid of any evidence for our faith?

“The evidence [the apostles] offered was neither signed statements of neutral observers nor closely reasoned philosophic argument:  it was the evidence of lives changed utterly by contact with the risen Christ.  And today if anything will shake and persuade the mocker, perhaps it will not be our arguments:  it will be the degree of our own conviction.  And that depends always upon the reality of our personal commitment to the risen Lord.” [1]

Before his conversion, Lee Strobel, the author of several books on Christian apologetics, had not spent much time investigating Christianity because it seemed to him that God was just a product of wishful thinking.  He thought, from his cursory look, that Jesus was just another man and saw no reason to look further.  It was only when his wife became a Christian and he saw her transformed life that he began to investigate. [2]

Stewart quotes Nietzsche as saying:  “These Christians must show me they are redeemed before I will believe in their Redeemer. [3]  Until we include in our doctrine of salvation that it is necessary to change of our soul so it becomes like God and turn that doctrine into reality, we will not be able to show people like Nietzsche that we are redeemed.  And as a result we make it difficult for them to believe in our Redeemer.

A transformed life is the best evidence we have for our faith.  Why do we ignore it in our doctrine?  Why do we fail to implement it in our lives?

“. . .let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16 ESV).

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[1]  James S. Stewart, A Faith to Proclaim, Vancouver, British Columbia:  Regent College Publishing, 1953, 116.

[2]   Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1998, pp. 13-14.

[3]   Stewart, p. 45.

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The Resurrection of Jesus Christ

Readers of this blog or of my book will have noticed that I question why the resurrection of Jesus does not get more attention in our theology.  For much of Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is an “epilogue to the Gospel, an addendum to the scheme of salvation.  . .” [1]  That is except for Easter Sunday when it receives attention for just one day.  Why?  The Bible teaches that Christ’s resurrection is necessary for our salvation (Romans10:5-11, 1 Peter 3:21-22) but we seem to have delegated it to a minor event.

Others have asked this question as well.  James Fowler back in 2001 issued a call for a resurrection theology but I have not seen an answer to his call.  H. A Williams wrote True Resurrection in which he states that for most of us, Christ’s resurrection is meaningless because it does not have an impact on our lives. [2]  James S. Stewart asks similar questions.  He states the apostolic teaching of the resurrection is that it demonstrates that a power exists and is in action that is stronger than the evil that crucified Jesus. [3]   What the Christian community has failed to understand is that the power of the resurrection is available to us and as a result we have failed to use that power.  Stewart asks:  “Why is there such a difference between the promise and the actuality as we know it in our lives and see it in the church and in the world around?” [4]

Part of the answer is that we have reduced Christianity to a belief system.  All we need to do to be saved is to believe in Jesus and his death for our sins.  But is that what the Bible teaches?  Stewart maintains that Christianity is “a decisive relationship to a living Person”  [5], the resurrected Jesus.  What Christianity needs is to recover that decisive relationship and we recover it by meditation on the Gospel and by following the teachings of Jesus. [6]  We recover it by living the new life God has planned for us.

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[1]   James S. Stewart, A Faith to Proclaim, Vancouver, British Columbia:  Regent College Publishing, 1953. p.105.

[2]   H. A. Williams, True Resurrection, Springfield, IL:  Templegate Publishers, 1972, pp. 3-5.

[3]   Stewart, p. 122.

[4]   Stewart, pp. 137-138.

[5]   Stewart, p. 146.

[6]   Stewart, pp. 159-160.

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