Archive | February, 2019

All sins are not the same? [False ideas Christians believe about…Sin. Part 4]

28 Feb
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This week we have been fact-checking Christian statements about sin. In part 3 yesterday we looked at the phrase “all sins are the same.” Today we’re investigating its opposite: sins are different. There is an important sense in which sins are very, very different, and they are not the same.   In part 3, we saw how this statement is true in the claim the person made when they said that they are not a sinner because they haven’t committed murder or rape.  They are correct that there is a major difference between, say, shoplifting on the minor end, and human trafficking on the major end. 

As I already said in part 3, sins are equal in God’s eyes only in the sense that all humans are sinners.  But God’s word also gives evidence that all sins are not equal.  There is no doubt that some sins have much more devastating consequences, and are thus treated much more seriously by God.

Look at 1 Corinthians 6, for example, in verses 9-11 where Paul is talking about the equality of many sins.  He lists out a whole bunch of sins saying that they are equal in the sense that people who are engulfed in these sins cannot inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.  But look at his flow of thought as it continues in verses 15-20.  There he singles out one sin in particular and shows how deeply damaging it is to a person: the sin of sexual immorality.  He says in verse 18, that all other sins are committed outside the body, whereas sexual sins are against one’s own body!  What is so egregious about sexual sin is that a Christian’s body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Paul is saying, therefore, that sexual immorality is not the same as other sins!  But hear me, he is not saying that sexual immorality is the worst possible sin.  He is simply saying that it is different and should be seen that way, as it affects a person deep within.  How many of us have seen sexual immorality wreak havoc on people and relationships?  There is such a better way!  The way of Jesus.  That’s exactly what we saw last week when the writer of Hebrews quoted Deuteronomy 31:6 in Hebrews 13.  He said that Christians should be committed to keeping the marriage bed pure. 

That means that sexual expression should be between a man and a woman within the confines of marriage only.  When you are married, Christians are not to have sex with people other than your spouse.  Before you are married, you are not to have sex at all.  Why?  Because it is an intimate gift and when handled outside of a marriage commitment it hurts, it damages and can cause lasting effects.  God of course can forgive, but there are always effects to sin. He wants the best for you, so he sets up guidelines for that purpose. You can follow that standard for disciples of Jesus because God says that he will never leave you nor forsake you.

Why am I saying this?  Not to elevate sexual immorality as some super special category of sin.  No.  I am bringing it up because in the Bible we see that sexual immorality is not the same as other sins.  Think about the damage that sin does.  This is why Paul makes a big deal about sexual immorality, it does damage in relationships.  There are other sins that do massive damage as well.  Obviously, murder.  It is right for Christians to view murder as altogether different from other sins because murder is the taking of a life.  This is but one example of many.

Another is when Jesus taught, “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”  He was pretty serious about protecting children.

So sins are all equal?  Or sins are different?  Both are true.  While we all have equal sin in God’s eyes, there are sins that are way worse than others in God’s eyes.  All are forgivable.  Redemption is possible in everything.  He can teach us through it all.  Some sins, just by their nature, have more effects, more ripples on more people and on His temple, our bodies, on his body, the church, and on his creation.

All sins are the same? [False ideas Christians believe about…Sin. Part 3]

27 Feb

This week I’ve started a blog series that will run for 11 weeks, in which we are fact checking ideas that Christians believe that might be totally false or at least partially so. This week we are looking at ideas about sin. Check out the first posts here and here that introduce the series and define sin. With this post, we begin fact-checking these ideas about sin. The first ideas two are contrasts: All sins are the same vs. Some sins are worse than others.

Which is true?  The statements totally conflict with each other.  Using simple logic, they can’t both be true, can they? 

Well, yes and no.  These statements need some explanation and biblical study.  That is what we want to do in this series, asking what does God have to say in the Bible about the topic?  Does God believe that all sins are the same?  Or does God teach us that some are worse than others?

As we attempt to answer these questions, we will seek to base our understanding on God who is the truth.  That is what is so unique and fascinating about Christianity.  We don’t hold to the idea that truth can ultimately be encapsulated in statements conceived and written by humans.  Instead, we Christians believe in the radical notion that Jesus is the truth.  He told us that he is the way, the truth and the life, and we believe in him.  This is foundational to differentiating between what is false and true, isn’t it?  Jesus is the truth!  Our understanding of what is true, then is rooted in our knowledge of him. 

So when we think about sin and whether or not all sins are equal, we have to evaluate this question based on what we know of Jesus. As we study these statements, we will come back to Jesus.

Let’s start with the first statement:  all sins are the same.

Are they? Of course not, because they are so different.  We know this.  Theft of a pack of gum at the store is on a whole different order of magnitude from murder or rape.  That doesn’t make the theft right, of course.  But clearly sins are different.  Different in their impact, in their consequences, and different in their ripple effect on the community and individuals.

So why do people say “all sins are the same?”  Often this phrase comes out of Christian’s mouths in reference to God’s justice.  When I have tried to share the story of Jesus to people, our conversation often comes to the part of the story that refers to Jesus dying for our sins.  Some people are loathe to agree that they have committed sins.  They think they are generally pretty good, and I suspect most are. They haven’t committed murder or rape, so they don’t consider themselves sinners. Sure they admit to telling white lies or doing other wrong things, but to them that is not sin.  To them that is just a mistake or error. In their opinion those occurrences of “missing the mark” are light years away from rape and murder or many other really awful things. 

They have a point, right?  So in those conversations it is important to show them from the Bible that God does count all sins the same in the sense that even what they consider to be a small mistake or error is actually an indication of our essential difference from God.  Whereas God is holy and perfect, we are not, even if we haven’t committed atrocities. 

In that sense it is important that all people understand that they have sin in their life.  This is a big emphasis in Paul’s argument in the letter to the Romans.  Chapter 3 especially: “There is none righteous, no not one.” And, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  There really is a sense in which all sins are the same in God’s eyes, but only when we are discussing the idea that all people are equally in need of Jesus because of our sin.

Sure, the Bible talks about the 7 deadly sins, and the unpardonable sin.  There is much debate about what is the worst sin. We won’t be able to answer that until we’re in heaven and can ask God!  Where we have gone wrong in our culture, therefore, is when we elevate some sins above others.  In the 1920s, it was alcohol, and there was prohibition.  Then for years we made divorce out to be the worst sin.  Christians who got divorced were almost shunned.  My wife’s uncle, for example, was a missionary in Africa, got divorced, and then remarried.  But his church here stateside, even after he was remarried, will not allow him to serve in leadership in the church because he was previously divorced! 

Then divorce gave its exalted status as the cardinal sin over to another.  Think 1960s and 1970s.  What sin became the new worst sin?  Abortion.  For years abortion was put forth as the worst possible thing a person could do.  Rallies and picket lines outside abortion clinics, including worse atrocities, were justified by people who said God was somehow punishing America for this new cardinal of legalized abortion.  But time went by, and it changed again.  What was the new worst sin after abortion?  Homosexual practice.  And perhaps in many minds that one still holds to the top spot today. 

Drunkenness, Divorce, Abortion and Homosexual practice are all sins.  But we are wrong to elevate one sin as somehow worse than any other.  That is another way in which there is a proper sense of seeing sins equally.  For example, we will rail against a person who is a practicing homosexual, but we say very little about our own gluttony or lying or excessive drinking.  Again, all of us are sinners, and we need to see that.

So, yes, all sin is the same, but sins are also very different, which will see in part 4 tomorrow.

Attempting to define sin [False ideas Christians believe about…Sin. Part 2]

26 Feb
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What are some of the famous phrases that you have heard about sin?  Have you heard these phrases before?

  • All sins are the same.  No sin is worse than any other. 
  • Or it’s contrast, some sins are worse than others.
  • Love the sinner, hate the sin.

You might look at that list and think, “But wait…aren’t they in the Bible?”  In other words, “Isn’t that statement true?” 

What we are going to try to establish, and perhaps I will fail, is that each one of these statements or principles is either totally false, or somehow partially false.  Some of these statements or principles are not in the Bible.  Some, however, are based on biblical material, but misunderstood by many people. 

We are going to fact check these statements about sin, but first it is important for us to ask, what is sin?

Almost 20 years ago I attended a talk by Michael Murray who was at the time a philosophy professor at Franklin & Marshall College nearby.  He said that for years he would ask his students at F&M about the definition of evil.  There would be disagreements, of course, but what all agreed on, for years, is that the Nazi holocaust and war for world domination was evil, wrong, and sinful.  But then something happened.  As our culture changed, some students, not many, but some, started saying things like, “Well, I don’t like what the Nazis did, and I myself would never do that, but I can’t say that it was wrong.”  You and I may shake our heads at that, but it shows that there is a huge difference of opinion out there as to what sin is.  Even in my church and yours, I would guess we have some different views on what sin is.  So what is sin?

The Bible has a surprising number of ways to describe it, and there are many words for it.  In the Old Testament, one of the most common words for sin, has a very picturesque definition: “to miss the mark” or “to go astray.”  In the New Testament, we find similar definitions.  One word is the Greek “scandalon” where we get our English word “scandal”, and this too has very picturesque meaning, “to cause someone to stumble” or “fall into a trap.”

Another one of the most common words for sin in the New Testament means, “to act contrary to the will and law of God.”  Here are a couple verses using that word.

James 4:17 – Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.

1 John 3:4 – Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.

So to summarize, sin is human choice to act against God’s wishes.

But when we hear from time to time these phrases or principles about sin, it seems that people can be confused, so let’s fact check them. Check back in tomorrow for part 3 when we’ll look at our first phrase about sin that many Christians believe, but perhaps is false

Fact-checking our beliefs [False ideas Christians believe about…Sin. Part 1]

25 Feb
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Did you know Napoleon wasn’t really short? Or that oil doesn’t keep pasta from sticking? Or that the whole right brain vs. left brain thing might not be true? I found this series of false facts from Readers Digest, and some are really surprising and fun. 

When you think about these facts, it reminds us that we hold some ideas to be true, but we might be wrong. 

This blog series will be like that, except about Christianity and the Bible.  Over the centuries, Christians have come to believe statements that are either totally false, or somewhat false.  In a world of so-called fake news, we are used to having to fact-check, especially what we hear from politicians, right?  So when it comes to the Bible and theology, we Christians are people who seek after truth! 

For the next few months we’re going to be fact-checking a number of ideas that we Christians can be heard saying.  Sometimes they are statements that seem true, but they need some explanation. 

Here’s how it works.  Many authors have written articles such as “7 things Christians say that are not true.”  Just Google something like that and you’ll see what I mean.  I read a bunch of those kinds of articles, and created a master list of the phrases or ideas that these authors talked about.  I didn’t agree with every single one, I was surprised by some, and some of the statements directly contradicted each other, as we will see in this first series of posts.  In the end I had a list numbering more than 30.  So I decided to group up the ones that were related, and preach topically on them.

This week’s series is about sin.  Have you heard these phrases before?

  • All sins are the same.  No sin is worse than any other. 
  • Or it’s contrast, Some sins are worse than others.
  • Love the sinner, hate the sin.

You might look at that list and think, “But wait…isn’t at least one of those statements in the Bible?”  In other words, “Isn’t that statement true?” 

What I am attempting in this series, and perhaps I will fail, is to show that each one of these statements or principles is either totally false, or somehow partially false.  Some of these statements or principles are not in the Bible.  Some, however, are based on biblical material, but misunderstood by many people.  So let’s fact check these statements about sin.  First it is important for us to ask, what is sin? Check back tomorrow for that!

Why we can follow God’s way even when we’re scared or anxious [How God feels about our fear – Deuteronomy 31-34, part 5]

23 Feb
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What mountains are you facing? This past year, I started doctoral studies, and the thought of researching, writing and defending a dissertation feels like a vast, unconquerable mountain. If I’m honest, sometimes being a pastor of church feels that way too. As does parenting or living out the way of Jesus in our complex world. How about you? Got any difficult situations in your life? Anything that seems impossible? Are you scared? Nervous? Struggling with anxiety or fear?

If so, please know that you’re not alone. In this series of posts we have been studying Deuteronomy chapters 31-34, which describes the final days and last words of Moses, the great leader of Israel. After hearing God and Moses’s songs to Israel, we read that Moses passed on, but not before turning leadership of the nation over to Joshua. With that in mind, let’s return to God’s command to Joshua Deuteronomy 31:6-8 and 23.  “Be strong and courageous… Do not be afraid or terrified… I will never leave you or forsake you.”  Then connect those statements with Moses’ words in chapter 32 where over and over again he refers to God as the Rock of Israel.  For example in verse 4 he says, “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.”

With this wonderful message of assurance, and all the blessings in chapter 33, the very next book of the Bible, Joshua, begins nearly identically to how Deuteronomy concludes.  Turn to Joshua 1:6-9, and what do we see? “Be strong and courageous”!

Though this was a message for Joshua and the entire nation of Israel, there is a principle embedded in this for us too, when we face what seems impossible.  How does this relate to us? Turn to Hebrews 13:1-6, and perhaps we’ll see the connection.

In the first few verses, the writer of Hebrews mentions numerous actions, life choices that Christians are to follow.  Then look at the surprising quote that the writer uses to sustain why we should follow God’s way.  He quotes Deuteronomy 31:6, the very thing God said to Joshua!  When a Christian is attempting to apply an Old Testament passage to their lives, it is always helpful when that very OT passage is quoted in the New Testament.

What the writer of Hebrews accomplishes through his quote of Deuteronomy 31:6 is a powerful reminder to us that though there are many times in our lives that we Christians can be afraid, fearful or ashamed to follow the way of Christ, when we know God is faithful to us, we can have confidence that we can be faithful to him.

We can be courageously obedient as disciples of Jesus, trusting in him, living out his way of living, because he has our back. 

Ours is a society that is changing, and it could be that living in obedience to Jesus will mean that we will look different from the people around us.  We might even look strange.  And yet, what is the promise we have from God?  That he will never leave us or forsake us.

Additionally, there is the principle that in God we have everything we need, which is a direct connection to our struggle with fear, anxiety, and worry.  In Matthew 6:24-35 Jesus teaches us not to worry.  In Philippians 4:4-7, Paul teaches us to not be anxious, and in 1 Peter 5:7, we read “Cast your anxiety on him.” 

We can be afraid or anxious or worrisome in life because there are so many difficult situations we encounter.  But this principle reminds of us the rock we have in Jesus.

What is the insurmountable situation that you face?  Joshua was facing a huge task.  He was to take over leadership from Moses, leading people who didn’t have a good track record of being followers. More than that, he was to lead them in a massive invasion of a land filled with people who were more powerful than Israel.  I can see why God says over and over and over to Joshua: “Be strong and courageous.  I am with you.”

While you and I might not be leading massive amounts of people to do huge world-shaping historical events, we each have important roles that God has called us to.  We each face situations that might seem like they are too much.

Digging out of a financial hole.

Passing a test, graduating from high school.

Healing a broken relationship.

Facing a medical health emergency.

Being a mom, being a dad.

Life is fraught with so many difficulties.

And to each one of them God says, “Do not fear, I am with you!”

God’s blunt song and Moses’ blessing song [How God feels about our fear – Deuteronomy 31-34, part 4]

21 Feb

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If God were to write a song to you, what do you think the lyrics would say? The first idea that enters my mind is that God would write a song about how much he loves us. But maybe I’m wrong about that. In Deuteronomy 32, we read a song that God wrote, and it is a strange song. The occurrence of God writing a song is unique by itself. But this particular song is really interesting.

Take a look for yourself. In the song, at times Moses is praising God, and at times he is reminding the people of how sinful they were.  The psalm goes on to talk about how God will discipline them.  Nice song, huh? Imagine that. God writes a song about how he will discipline his people.

Why not just celebrate and rejoice? Moses their great leader is dying. Why not have a celebration of life service? God has brought the nation to the Promised Land. Why not rejoice?

Because Israel needed something else. They needed honesty, just as we need honesty.  We need a true assessment of ourselves.

Think about all those who didn’t get to enter the Promised Land because of their disobedience, including Moses himself!  Think of the sorrow inside Moses about his own choices.

There is a healthy aspect to all the doom and gloom in the song.  This honest assessment of Israel is meant to point them in the right direction, to obey God.  In the song, both Moses and God are responding to what they know, to what they have seen of the people.  These are a stubborn, stiff-necked people who are inclined to rebel, who are inclined to give in to temptation and to follow false gods.  This isn’t some reverse psychology about a possible future.  It is a reaction to the reality of the past.  God is literally saying to them, “I know you, I know what you are capable of, and I want so much better for you!  There is a better way than the way of self-destructive behaviors.  There is a better way than self-indulgence.  That better way is following my way.” 

As we move from God’s song in chapter 32 to Moses’ song of blessing in chapter 33, Moses proposes, once again, that better way of God, as he blesses the tribes of Israel.  Chapter 33, then, records for us the final last words of Moses, and they are a blessing over the people with a warm tone. 

I encourage you to read the whole song, but in this post I want to focus on how Moses finishes his song. Look at Deuteronomy 33, verses 26-29, and finally now we have the last words of love between the leader and his people.  You can see the old man, perhaps with tears of great affection for his people, placing his blessing on them, guiding them one final time to place their hope and trust in God. 

With that Moses climbs Mt. Nebo where God shows him the Promised Land, and Moses dies.  There is perhaps a saving grace in Moses’ death.  He’s not in prison or in house arrest waving goodbye, with people uncertain about him.  Moses died, and the book is closed on his life and leadership.  Yes, there is a period of mourning for Moses. Verse 8 tells us it lasts a whole month, but Moses symbolically, but very clearly in verse 9, transfers leadership to Joshua, and the transfer seems to go very well!  The people listen to Joshua, and obey the Lord!

Perhaps there is a sense in which God’s blunt song and Moses blessing song worked well together. Perhaps we need both the honest assessment of who we are, along with the encouragement to pursue a better way. Both are needed and good.

How God’s mercy changes the future [How God feels about our fear – Deuteronomy 31-34, part 3]

20 Feb
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Do you feel stuck? Maybe you see some light breaking through the darkness, but there is a wall, a forest that seems like it is blocking the way. Maybe it feels like you will never get past the difficult situation you face. When we are in the middle of pain, we can wonder if God has locked our future, and we have no hope. But is that how God works?

In this series of posts on Deuteronomy 31-34, we have been looking at Moses’ last words to the people of Israel, as he is about to pass on, and Joshua will be their new leader. Before Moses addresses the whole nation, first, in Deuteronomy 31:14-23, God has a private meeting with just Moses and Joshua, at the Tent of Meeting.  There God appears in a pillar of cloud, and he has a very strange conversation with Moses and Joshua. 

It’s like God gives them a glimpse inside his heart.  What we see is that God’s is a broken heart, broken because of Israel’s rebellion.  Look at verses 16-18 in particular.  It’s like God is opening a crack in the space-time continuum, and he allow Moses and Joshua to see the future. He says to them, “the people will break covenant with me.  They will prostitute themselves to other false gods.”  As a result, he says, he will leave them.  God’s protection will be gone, and Israel will be destroyed.  Woah.

Imagine being Moses and Joshua hearing that.  If you’re Moses, you could be thinking, “And I just spent the productive years of my life on this people? And it will all be for naught?” Then think about how Joshua might have felt! “I’m getting myself into a total train wreck…it will be pointless for me to lead these people.”

I have to ask, though: did they hear God’s words as an absolute future, as if it had no chance of changing?  I don’t think so.  Here’s why: Moses had been in this situation before.  Remember the Golden Calf episode that happened not long after the people were originally freed from slavery in Egypt?  They had been out of Egypt maybe a month and a half or so, and Moses had gone up on Mt. Sinai to meet with God, and there God gave him the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments.  But what was happening at the same time down below?  The people started getting antsy, feeling like Moses was gone too long, and they gave up.  They created an idol in the shape of a golden calf and started worshiping it.  God tells Moses, “You better get down there because the people are losing it.”  Moses is angry with the people, of course, and he breaks the stone tablets, but God is angrier yet.  He tells Moses that he is going to eliminate the people, and start over again with Moses.  But what happens?  Does Moses say, “Ok. Fine.” As if it was a set future, with no opportunity for a change?

Nope. Moses puts on his lawyer hat (if there is such a thing…) and starts advocating on behalf of the people, and shockingly, God changes his mind.  He is a gracious and loving God.  So this vision of the future in Deuteronomy 31:18 is not set in stone, even though God is using words like “certainly” and “I will do this and that.” We know the forgiving, merciful heart of God because we have seen it time and time again.  God is not given Moses and Joshua a picture of the unchangeable future.  This is, however, another warning, a strong caution that the people need to obey God.  To live a life of following God’s ways is far and away what is best for them, and thus we can see this passage as God loving them in the midst of warning. 

Next in verse 19, God tells Moses to get out a pen and paper and write down a song.  This is a very rare occurrence in the Bible.  God writes a song!  In chapter 32, we will get to read the song.  Before that happens, though, God has a word for Joshua, and it is the same command that Moses gave Joshua.  Compare verses 7-8 with verse 23.   See that is it nearly identical. As I said in part 2 we’ll come back to that. 

Before we get to God’s song in chapter 32, the final verses in chapter 31 talk about the Book of the Law.  We read this in verse 9, and now again in verse 24, that Moses wrote down the Law, gave it to the Levites, who were the priestly tribe, and had them place it beside the Ark of the Covenant. 

But look at verse 26.  That law, Moses says, is a witness against them, which sounds very negative, right?  Then in verse 27-29, Moses pretty much says to the Levites what God had just said to him and Joshua, that Israel will rebel.  Nice final words, Moses.  He sure sounds bitter, mentioning how difficult the people were. Then he asks the Levites to assemble all the people together because he wants to address them, and give them a piece of his mind. When the people are together, we read in verse 30, that Moses recites the song to Israel, and we will find out what the song is all about next in part 4…and it is a strange song.