Tag Archives: sin

God’s love for me is determined by my behavior? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s desires for Christians. Part 3]

27 Mar
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How many of you have secretly wondered if we have sinned so badly that God actually doesn’t love you anymore?

I remember when my grandmother was in hospice near the end of her life, and she had really struggled with anger, and with treating my grandfather with unkindness in those later years, in a moment of vulnerability, when it was just me alone with her in the room, she said with tears in her eyes and an ache in her voice, “Joel, I have been a bad Christian.”  It was heart-breaking, and yet very authentic of her.  I don’t remember her doubting God’s love or fearing that she lost her salvation, but she definitely agonized over her sin. Many of us do the same, fearing that God no longer loves us.

That’s why in the post we are fact-checking the phrase: “God’s love for me is determined by my behavior.” Let me state this clearly: this phrase we can deny wholeheartedly.  Let me just read a few passages for you. 

First Psalm 103:8-12: “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”

And then Romans 8:38-39 “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

God always loves you, no matter who you are or what you have done. 

But what are God’s desires for us? Check back in to the next post in this series, as we’ll fact-check more phrases related to that topic!

3 reasons bad things happen [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s involvement in our lives. Part 2]

19 Mar

Does everything happen for a reason? Many people believe so, but as we discussed yesterday, sometimes things happen because of the kind of world we live. What do I mean by that? What kind of world do we live in? Our world demonstrates at least the following three tendencies that very much affect why things happen.

First, something scientists call the second law of thermodynamics – this is a principle of heat transfer that says things, generally, move from order to disorder.  The technical word for this is entropy.  Things rot, they rust, they wear out, they break.  It is the super-rare exception that a car, for example, would improve its working order.  Cars break down and need tune ups.  Our bodies heal, yes, but the normal tendency is that they age and break down.  This is what Paul is likely referring to in Romans 8:21 when he says that creation is in bondage to decay.

Second, Satan is in the world, tempting, lying, and as we read in Scripture devouring. And he is no joke.  We should be cautious in our view of Satan’s influence.  I so often hear that a person is going through a difficult situation because of Satan.  But we really don’t know that Satan is responsible, do we?  If your car is broken down, it’s almost certainly not because of Satan; it is because cars follow the second law of thermodynamics, and they break down.  It seems to me that we are generally too quick to blame Satan, and maybe we blame Satan when it was actually our own fault.  He is real, though, and powerful, and he does tempt and devour.

The third way to describe our world is talk about the broken and fallen nature of people.  People are in the world using their free will in ways that are selfish and harmful.  Sometimes we are dealing with pain of our own making.  Sometimes the pain is brought on us by others.  Sometimes it is both.  Because we have free will, and we don’t always use it in a way that is in keeping with God’s Kingdom, it leads to pain. 

But does that mean God is hand’s off?  Deism is a view of God that says this.  God created the universe, he set things in motion, but is now hand’s off.  Like a bowler releasing his bowing ball.  Is God like that?

Or is God in control?  That is the second phrase we’re fact-checking.  I’m bringing them together at this point because they are related.  “God is in control” is very much connected to the idea that “Everything happens for a reason.”  Usually we think of God like that.  He is in control, and therefore the pain we’re going through must have meaning or a purpose.  There is a reason. 

But does God control things like that?  If he does, then why is there so much pain and evil in the world?  Some people state, assuming that God is good and that God is all-powerful, that he would control the world so that there would not be pain or evil. Because the world is obviously filled with pain and evil, they conclude that either God is not good or God is not all-powerful.  As a result, some say, God doesn’t exist. 

These are deep questions, hard questions, scary to bring up.  But let’s face it head on.  What do we Christians do with this situation of evil and wickedness in the world?  Is God in control? 

We Christians respond to this in a number of ways.  And that is what we will investigate in our next post, so check back in!

Love the sinner, hate the sin? [False ideas Christians believe about…Sin. Part 5]

1 Mar
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Have you ever heard a Christian say, “love the sinner, hate the sin”?  We hear that all the time.  Maybe you’ve said it yourself. On the surface it sounds really good.  We should be a people that love others no matter who they are.  What could be wrong with that?  If that was all it was, focusing on love, then there would be nothing wrong with this phrase.  It would all just be love, and we would be showering love on people. 

The problem enters with that word “hate.”  Here’s why.  I’m not saying that we should be OK with or approving of sin.  I’ll get to that in a minute. 

Unless it was a once and done slip up, which often times is not the case, a person’s sin is usually inextricably bound up in who they are.  So when we say, “hate the sin” what they actually hear is “you hate me.”  It doesn’t matter that we also said, love the sinner.  They hear “you hate me”. 

Also, notice the “love the sinner” part. Both parts of this phrase are exceedingly negative and confrontational.  The “hate the sin” part can easily be heard as “you hate me” and then the “love the sinner” part can easily be heard as “you are defining me as a sinner.” 

Is that the message of Jesus to people?  “You hate me and you are defining me as a sinner”? 

Now you may be thinking, “but that is not at all what we mean when say ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’.”  We actually mean something totally positive and encouraging.  I mean, that word “Love” is front and center, right?

But have you ever been on the receiving end of the comment?  Think about it.  Put yourself in the shoes of a person who is being told that comment about themselves.  It might not be so easy to take.  We always hear the negative way more than the positive.  We fixate on the negative.  That’s why it is said that for every negative comment you should say 10 positive statements to counteract that one negative.  In “love the sinner, hate the sin,” yes, there is love, but then what comes next?  Sinner, hate, sin.  It is 3 to 1 in favor of the negatives. 

Let’s step back a minute and analyze the motivation for this statement. What are we really hoping to communicate to people?  What should we want to say to people? In trying to answer that question, it would be helpful to ask, how and what did Jesus communicate to people?

In Luke 5:17, Jesus heals a man whose friends lowered him down through the roof to get him close to where Jesus was inside a house. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth are surprising.  You’d think he’d say, “Who are you?” Or “What is going on here?” Or at least, “you are healed.”  But instead, you know what he says? “Your sins are forgiven.”  It pretty much shocked everyone there too.  Jesus’ point, he goes on to say, is that he has the power to forgive sin. Interesting, isn’t it, that he focuses on the forgiveness part! But that is who he is

In John 5:1-17 he meets another man who needs healing, and Jesus tells him to get up and walk. The man is healed, and later when they meet up again, Jesus says to him, “don’t sin anymore so that it will go well with you.” 

So Jesus is forgiving, and he addresses the sin, asking people to stop the sin.

Back in Luke 5, Jesus calls a tax collector named Levi to follow him, and Levi agrees to become one of his disciples.  Levi is elated about his new life of following Jesus, so he throws a big party at his house, and invites his friends.  Tax collectors were pretty edgy people, hanging with a rough crowd, and Levi invites them all to the party.  Do you think Jesus says, “Uh sorry, Levi, there’s no way I’m sullying my reputation by getting involved with these sinners!”?  Nope, Jesus parties it up.  Well the Pharisees and teachers of the law spy on him, and they start accusing him of hanging with sinners.  And guess what Jesus says!  This tells us so much about his approach to sin.  He says, “I came for sinners.” 

Jesus brings life and hope and forgiveness for those in sin.  He is merciful to them.  He loves them.  But in his mercy, he calls them to a better future.  He does not want them to stay in sin.  He calls them to stop the sin and follow his new way.

It reminds me of a story I heard. In college a young man had gone to a campus ministry, but he was just going through the motions, and only went to the campus ministry because he thought it would please his grandfather.  He eventually stopped attending because his heart wasn’t it in. Then he gave up on school too, dropped out of college, got a job, and started hanging out at bars almost every night.  He got wrapped up in selfish relationships, with no boundaries, as well as pornography.  A couple years went by, and he knew he needed to finish his college degree to advance his career, and he re-enrolled.  During that process another student invited him to go to the college ministry again.  He said “yeah” but again he really wasn’t interested.  He said he would go just because he is a people-pleaser.  Figuring that the guy wouldn’t follow up on him, and he would be off the hook, he made plans to head out to the bar.  But right at the time they agreed on, the guy called, and the campus ministry visit was back on.  So he reluctantly went to the campus ministry.  During the meeting a girl shared her story, emotionally describing numerous self-destructive behaviors she had been involved in, and how Jesus had forgiven her and she was now following his way of life.  The guy thought, “that’s all stuff that I do regularly…and she is talking about it like it was wrong.”  And right then and there, he broke down and repented of his sin and decided to follow Jesus’ way.  This was just like Jesus’ own conversations with people: repent, stop sinning, receive forgiveness, and follow him.  He is a gracious forgiving God, and his way of living is so much better than we could ever imagine.

What about you? Do you need to stop sinning, receive Jesus’ forgiveness and follow his way? He came for you!

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!

How God feels about sinners…even the worst ones!

31 Jan

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Can God save the worst sinner ever?  Would he want to?  You and I might not feel like the worst sinners ever in history, but we can often feel pretty guilty about our bad choices.  In the middle of the guilt, we wonder, “How does God feel about us when we have screwed up?”

As I mentioned last week in the intro post, our continuing study in 1st Timothy brings us to chapter 1, verses 12-17.  In that section, the writer of this letter, Paul, declares that he was the worst sinner.  He calls himself a blasphemer and persecutor, a man who arrogantly insulted God.  If you want, you can read all about it in Acts 7-9.  Paul is not exaggerating.  He was part of the same religious establishment that opposed Jesus, and now a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul was leading the charge to round up Jesus’ followers and crush their movement.

Why wouldn’t God just eliminate Paul?  Instead, Paul tells us in 1st Timothy 1:12-17 that God considered Paul faithful.  Faithful?  That seems incredulous.  How could God see Paul as faithful when Paul was on the brink of destroying God’s new movement to save the world?  The reason is that while Paul had not placed his faith in Jesus, Paul was very passionate about what he considered to be the truth about God, the Old Covenant that God had with Israel.  Therefore Paul considered the Christians a cult, a threat to the truth.

So Jesus stepped in, as you can read in Acts 9, when Paul was headed to imprison more Christians.  Literally breaking out of heaven in a bright light, Jesus revealed himself to Paul, totally changing the course of Paul’s life.   In 1 Timothy 1, at the end of verse 13 Paul looks back on that momentous event when God changed his life, and Paul says he was shown mercy because he acted in ignorance and unbelief.

The word here that Paul uses to describe how much grace and faith and love God gave him is quite vivid.  The NIV uses the image of pouring, but I would argue that there is a better image.  The word is actually a compound word “over fill”.  It is the image of a cup into which a liquid is poured not just to the top, not to the brim, but overflowing.  The liquid pours out over the edges.  The container cannot contain that much!

I love that.  That’s how much grace and faith and love God gives to us!  More than we can handle.  You are the container, and God is filling you with his grace and faith and love, and he is giving you more of his goodness that you can hold!

That’s how amazing God is.

Paul continues talking about this in verse 15 where he refers to the mission of Jesus to save sinners.  Paul was the worst. Paul is using himself as an illustration of how far-reaching God’s grace is.  He was the worst of sinners.  Everyone in the early church knew this.

He was ISIS.  He was their worst enemy.  And how do you think they felt when they heard that their worst enemy supposedly changed into their strongest advocate?

No way, buddy!

How would you feel if a top ISIS leader started saying that he was now a Christian?

No one would believe him!  That’s what Paul was going through.

But the change in Paul was true, and in due time, Paul showed them that it was true.  We see clearly in Paul that Jesus has the power to save anyone and to change anyone’s life.  Even the worst of sinners.

I hear Paul saying in this passage that he was the worst of sinners, and I think “I don’t know if you were actually the worst of sinners even in your own time, Paul, but I can pretty much guarantee that with all the horrible stuff that has happened in the last 2000 years since you wrote this, you aren’t even close to the worst.”

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized it doesn’t matter who is actually the worst sinner, or whether or not Paul was the worst sinner.  What matters is that Paul saw himself as the worst sinner.

And when you can be honest about how sinful you really are, then you start to see how amazing God’s grace and mercy are.  Christian pastor and author Tim Keller has said “We only fully grasp the gospel when we understand, as Paul did, that we are the worst sinner we know.”

I’ll never forget a sight I saw at EC National Conference a few years ago.  We were all singing praise to God, a normal part of our sessions of conference.  One particular song emphasized this theme of brokenness before God, of taking our sin seriously, and a man in the crowd, without any prodding from the worship leader, got up from his seat, walked down the aisle, and got down on his knees in front of the whole assembly.  He was clearly broken up inside about his sin.

Do we let ourselves off the hook?  I wonder if we haven’t fully grasped the Gospel because we haven’t taken our sin seriously?

And if you’re thinking “Man, Joel…this sin talk dire stuff.  Bleak.”  Get ready.  What comes next is a game changer.

In verse 16, Paul says something that many people think is crazy: God showed mercy to the worst of sinners!

God shows mercy to sinners, even to really bad sinners.  And more than that, why would God do this?  Paul says that God showed mercy to him so that Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.

God had unlimited patience for sinners.  That is crazy talk.  Unlimited?  On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is no patience and 10 is unlimited patience, where do you rank yourself?

God is a 10.  He is the only one who is a 10.

When you realize how God is so merciful, so patient with you, even when you feel like the worst of sinners, what do you do?  You do what Paul did!

In verse 17 he bursts forth in praise: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever!”  Praise Him!  Paul is praising him as he thinks about how amazing God was to him.

This is who God is!  Paul is looking at the depths of evil that was in his heart and how God saved him.  And he bursts with praise.

Paul uses himself as an example of why we should praise the Lord.  But all of us have stories.

If God can save the worst of sinners, of course he can save the rest of us.

Paul is also an example for us in that he is sharing his story.  Likewise we should share our stories of God’s intervention in our lives.  And I’m not talking about only super dramatic stories.  Stories of God’s work in the non-dramatic moments are also amazing.  It is just as astounding for God to save us in a non-dramatic way as it is for God to break out of the clouds and save a Christian-killer like Paul.

All of us should have the words of praise found in verse 17 flooding our hearts and minds!

So if you grew up in a Christian family and you always believed in Jesus, that is just as awesome as if you didn’t grow up in a Christian family and have a more intense conversion experience.

Christians, be reminded of the grace, love and patience of God in saving you, pour out in praise, and tell the story!