The Surpassing Greatness of Christ: Reflections on Hebrews 1

Below is my article recently published in our church’s newsletter, with some minor edits.

Dear congregation,

Ultimate reality is that Christ is exalted above all things.  During times of change – especially during times of unplanned, unsettling, and maybe even scary change – it is so important to keep our eyes focused on what does not change: Christ is exalted over all things, and nothing, and no one, can usurp His rule and authority.  

Of course, this means that COVID-19 is under His rule and authority, and therefore it has come about because He decreed it to come about.  Far from being a surprise to Him, it was something He ordained.  Often what unsettles us is, our Lord does not always explain His reasons to us for what He decrees.  We like to be in the know, but He often keeps us out of the Trinitarian loop, and so we must live by faith.  

Even though we don’t always know why He does what He does, and even though changes like this one can throw us off emotionally, spiritually, and even physically, we need to be reminded He is exalted over all things.

The author of Hebrews spends much time making this point in chapter 1 of his Epistle.  Really, the whole Epistle is about how Christ is “greater.”  But chapter one focuses on His exaltation.  

For example, it was through Christ that everything was created.  Not only was it through Him that everything was created, but “He upholds the universe by the word of His power” (1:3).  Certainly He is exalted as Creator and in His providence.  But, there is another aspect of His exaltation having to do with Him as our Redeemer.  In order for Him to achieve this ultimate exaltation, He first had to experience ultimate humiliation, which He did when He made “purification for our sins” on the cross (1:3). (There is another sense in which the crucifixion was actually an aspect of Christ’s exaltation as well. See John 12:32-34 and Isaiah 52:13.)  After He made purification for our sins on the cross, the author tells us “He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:4).  Then, from the end of verse four through the end of the Epistle, the author of Hebrews will compare our Lord to the angels and will highlight His surpassing greatness over them.  

Let me highlight some of the author’s other statements pertaining to Christ’s exaltation.  In verse 5, the author quotes Psalm 2:7: “For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You’?”; Romans 1:4 suggests this declaration of Christ’s sonship occurred at His resurrection.  In verse 6, we are reminded that even now, during this pandemic, the angels on high our worshiping our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer.  In verse 8, the author reminds us of the eternal reality of Christ’s rule over all things: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.”  Christ is God, and his rule cannot be broken.  In verse 12, quoting Psalm 102, we are reminded that Christ never changes.  Do our circumstances change?  Absolutely.  Can these changes make us uncomfortable?  They certainly can.  When I look at my own heart, I realize that the extent to which changing circumstances impact my faith is tied directly to how much faith I put in my circumstances (rather than in my Lord).  Our circumstances do, and will, change.  This is not the first time, and this certainly won’t be the last time.  But Christ, our Lord, never changes!  He continues to rule over all things.  

One final thought.  His absolute rule is for us!  This does not mean, as we well know by this point, that our lives are always going to be pleasant.  This does not mean that He is going to orchestrate everything the way we want them to be orchestrated or the way we think they should be orchestrated.  Christ will not allow Himself to become an idol we fashion to do our bidding.  It does mean, however, He is working all things for our salvation, as Heidelberg Catechism 1 says.  This means we will experience sanctification.  It means we will draw near to Him – has your prayer life increased during this time?  What about listening to sermons online and reading your Bible?  It means we will learn to be content and rejoice in whatever our circumstances.  “I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).  Being content in any circumstance by Christ’s strength is what Paul meant by this verse.

As we continue to face various uncertainties during this pandemic, there is one thing that is absolutely certain: Christ is risen and is ruling over all things for our sake.  No one and nothing can overthrow or thwart His rule.  Let us continually set our minds on things above where Christ is seated at the Father’s right hand (Colossians 3:1-2).

In our Exalted King,
Pastor Soud

Election’s Comfort: A Challenge to My Fellow Calvinists

“When Rebekah had conceived children . . . though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad – in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of Him Who calls – she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'”

Romans 9:10-13

Ok. I know. Here goes another Calvinist quoting their favorite verse to support their ridiculous – even heretical – doctrine of election. If I have not lost your attention just on reading the title and Scripture selection, please keep hanging with me. I promise that this post is not going to develop the way you are probably imagining.

Now to the point. The doctrine of election, as understood by Calvinists, brings tremendous comfort. And while I could list many examples – assurance of salvation, for example – the point of this post is meant to challenge my fellow Calvinists, because the context of this passage shows that the doctrine of election is intended to bring comfort to an area where, I fear, many of us are rather nonplussed. I admit that God in His grace is bringing me to repentance in this very area. So, maybe this post will simply be a confession of an area where I have slipped practically into hyper-Calvinism, which is a heresy. But I ask you to pause, examine yourselves, and be honest with yourselves by God’s grace.

After all, our non-Calvinist brothers and sisters, I believe, are rightly justified in their claim that our doctrine of election means we have no evangelistic zeal. What is your reaction to that claim? My knee-jerk reaction is, look at church history! And I know in my own life I have taken opportunities to evangelize people, like the Muslim shuttle driver I met on a recent trip and the lady who cut my and my son’s hair about a month ago. And, yes, I, like many of you, want to see people saved. But, to be honest, I go to bed quite comfortably those nights I have not shared the gospel with others. That should not be the case, and it was not the case for some of the Majesterial Reformers, those who honed our understanding of Sola Gratia.

More to the point, what Paul wrote in Romans 9:6ff – the passage we most likely turn to in a discussion with someone about the Reformed doctrine of election – is in the context of his extreme anguish over the loss of those who have heard the gospel and rejected it. Here’s the beginning of chapters 9 and 10:

“I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit – that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. [And here’s the real throb of his statement:] For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers.

Romans 9:1-3

“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.”

Romans 10:1

Here are some observations:

  1. The depth of Paul’s anguish and the lengths he is willing to go for the sake of the lost are astounding. I’m sure many of us feel some anguish in our hearts when we think about the lost, whenever we do think about the lost. If not, we really need to examine ourselves. But Paul takes an oath to swear to his Roman audience that he is enduring great sorrow and anguish on behalf of the lost. Most of us might think of ourselves as evangelistic superstars if we had this kind of existential response to people rejecting the gospel. But, as you can see, Paul does not stop there. He says he wishes he could be accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of such people – many of whom, by the way, stirred up strife for him on his missionary journeys, including stoning him and leaving him for dead. Ok. Full disclosure: I’m not there yet.
  2. I can only think of two other people in Scripture who desired to be cursed and cut off from God for the lost. Moses is the first. In Exodus 32:30, Moses said to the people of Israel, after they made the golden calf: “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the LORD [at the top of Mt. Sinai]; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” Because the sacrificial system arose under Moses, we might draw the conclusion that Moses would sacrifice an animal for the people’s sin. However, in Exodus 19:12-13, the Lord explicitly forbade “beast or man” to touch the mountain – even the edge of it. In other words, Moses was going to offer himself for this “disobedient and contrary people” (Romans 10:21). This perspective is confirmed by Moses’ actual prayer to the Lord: “Yet now, if You will forgive their sin – but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written” (Exodus 32:32, NKJV).
  3. The Lord’s answer to Moses was essentially, “No.” Moses could never be a substitute for the people of Israel. Moses himself was sinful. Moses himself needed a Substitute. Which takes us to the only other Person I know of Who offered Himself to be accursed for His people: the Lord Jesus Christ. (I am so tempted right now to tear down the “cross as cosmic child abuse” argument. Suffice it to say, the Lord Jesus came willingly and voluntarily to this world specifically to be slain by the Father. That’s a different post, however.) In Galatians 3:13, Paul wrote: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree'” (quoting Deuteronomy 21:23).
  4. The point here is that Paul did not merely view the gospel as something that benefited him. So often we are content to rest in the knowledge that through the gospel we have forgiveness of sins. However, for Paul, the gospel shaped his entire life-purpose and all his relationships within and outside the church, including with those who persecuted him.
  5. Another point along these lines is, Paul was not so zealous to protect the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement that he refused to use language suggesting his own participation in it, or “worse”, his own ability to be a substitute for Israel. Paul talks about “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24). In our passage in Romans 9:1-3, he desires to follow Christ in His gospel mission of self-curse – not merely self-sacrifice – for the sake of the blessing – salvation – of the lost. Like Moses, Paul is essentially saying: “these people have the ‘adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises . . . the patriarchs’ (Romans 9:4-5), and from them came Christ. Yet, they have rejected Christ. Therefore they are cursed. But my heart’s desire is be cursed in their place so they might experience the blessing of salvation.” The gospel shaped Paul’s desires for the lost to the point that he wished to emulate Christ in His substitutionary atonement for the lost.
  6. One final observation: after the extended section on election at 9:6, Paul writes: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer for them is that they may be saved” (10:1). Whatever the doctrine of election means – and I believe the Reformed/Calvinist understanding of the doctrine is the most honest one biblically-speaking – it did not preclude Paul from praying for the salvation of those who rejected the Lord. Here’s a point of application, and one I am sure you already know: we may hold to the Reformed doctrine of election, but we also know that the Lord has chosen not to reveal to us His secret list. Far from hampering Paul’s evangelistic zeal, we see Paul desiring to offer himself for the sake of the lost and desiring and praying from the heart that the Lord would save them. Paul’s prayer in 10:1 is resonant with the Lord’s stated desire in Ezekiel 18: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (v. 23), and “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD, so turn, and live” (v. 32).

Let’s return to the main point to conclude. Paul is grieved over those who reject Christ. We have seen what the depth of that grief has cause Paul to pray and to offer to the Lord. He then gives us one of the clearest statements of the doctrine of election, in which he anticipates the objections all Calvinists have heard to their understanding of the doctrine. The point is that Paul discusses the doctrine of election to bring comfort to his anguish over the loss of unbelievers.

I wonder, brothers and sisters, do we need such comfort? Or, again, are we content to go to sleep at night with hardly a thought of the lost, comforted by the fact that at least the Lord chose us and therefore we have all the spiritual blessings of Christ in the heavenly places? Do we cling to the doctrine of election for self-serving purposes, to comfort us despite those perishing eternally this minute? For Paul, it drove him to deep anguish and to pray for those who are not saved, including those who rejected the gospel.

Let us become so anguished and sorrowful over the lost that we need this aspect of election’s comfort, as we wet our pillows with tears for the lost.

“Uncertain” Times

“You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes . . . . You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”

James 4:14-16

“We are living in uncertain times.” “The future seems so unstable.” These are refrains all around us, and not without reason. There are stories of otherwise healthy, 60-70-ish parents suddenly contracting COVID-19 and perishing. This is true of otherwise healthy 30-year-olds. Jobs have been lost, business are shutting down. Certainly this is not what most of us were anticipating 5-6 weeks ago.

The question is, are things really more uncertain now than they were before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11? From a human perspective, the short answer is no. We have just been taking “normal” for granted, because, while people around us have been experiencing personal tragedies everyday, these have been limited to their relevant circles. For example, 38.8K people lost their lives in 2019 while driving. For most of us, that is just a number, and we are thankful that our children or spouses or parents, etc. are not a part of that statistic. Those who have experienced tragedies lately tell the rest if us not to take anything for granted. “You never know how much time you have.” Uncertainty. Instability.

If we’re honest, however, without faith in and a relationship with with the one, true, and living Triune God, uncertainty and instability are the best we can hope for. Sure, very few people live their lives with the uncertainty and instability of life in the forefront of their minds. In order to function, most people set that reality aside and focus on those things that they can rely upon reasonably. Something simple as knowing that when you squeeze the toothpaste tube, toothpaste will come out, can give us peace of mind. But what happens when the one you love is taken from you? Can you, right now, guarantee that your family will all be alive when we come to the end of this pandemic? Can you guarantee you will be alive? And if not, what is your hope?

I am not speaking about fideism – confidence in our faith itself, which so often is fickle. “You just have to have faith,” some will say. But, what happens when you can’t? The God of the Old and New Testaments tells us about His faithfulness toward all who turn to Him, even when their faith falters. Faith, along with repentance, is our entrance into this relationship with the eternal, infinite, and changeless God of all things. But even faith and repentance are gifts from Him. He does not take back His gifts.

What I am not arguing is that we have any more certainty about tomorrow as Christians than non-Christians have. Above all, the Christian should know there is nothing guaranteed to us tomorrow. As James said, “You do not know what tomorrow will bring . . . . You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” Or consider Jesus’ words: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34).

What I am arguing is that, while Christians may not have any more certainty about tomorrow, we have certainty within any situation on any day. God is sovereign. A passage I memorized early on as a seminarian is Isaiah 46:9-10:

“For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all My purpose.'”

The context of the passage is not a positive one, by the way. It was not designed to make the Israelites feel good about themselves. He is actually rebuking them for their idolatry, which in this case included putting their trust in other people and political powers and idols they had made, rather than in the one, true, living God. James is arguing essentially the same point: when we make plans, we so often take God for granted and ignore Him entirely. We make our plans to increase our prosperity, failing to remember we are but a mist, and that God determines the length of our days and the success of our enterprises. This is always true.

In other words, the Christian should be the last person to take anything for granted, because we ought to be people who acknowledge our frailty and God’s sovereignty in every thought and plan and step we take in our daily lives.

Rather than seeking after our comfort, certainty, and stability here in this fallen world – a world in which pandemics can occur, because Adam sinned (and so our doctrine of sin ought to mitigate against over-confidence as well) – as Christians we ought to be pursuing God’s will every single day with renewed determination. “You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills . . . .'” Or, to use Jesus’ words again: “Seek first the kingdom of heaven and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). This is a constant, regardless of the changing circumstances, whether that change is actual or potential; it is always one or the other.

A man I admire tremendously is Eric Liddell. Some of you know his story: Scottish Olympian who refused to run his event because it fell on a Sunday, but who ran in a subsequent event, twice as long, and still won the gold; missionary to China, because he understood his life to be a race for a much more significant prize; trapped in China during WWII and sent to a Japanese internment camp in Weihsien, Shandong, China, where he would perish from a brain tumor. One of my favorite quotes of his is:

“We are all missionaries. Wherever we go we either bring people nearer to Christ or we repel them from Christ.”

While he was in the internment camp, he wrote a manuscript titled A Manual of Christian Discipleship, which you can now find as The Disciplines of the Christian Life. One of the children in the camp with Eric Liddell, David Mitchell, recalls in his remembrance at the beginning of the book: “Not only did Eric Liddell organize sports and recreation, but throughout his time in the internment camp he helped many people by teaching and tutoring. He gave special care to the older people, the weak, and the ill, for whom the conditions in camp were especially trying. He was always involved in the Christian meetings which were a part of camp life. Despite the squalor of the open cesspools, rats, flies, and disease in the crowded camp, life took on a normal routine, though without the faithful and cheerful support of Eric Liddell, many people would never have been able to manage.” By the way, Eric Liddell and another man had hour-long devotions every morning in their tiny living space through reading the Bible by the light of a peanut oil lamp and praying together.

In The Disciplines of the Christian Life, Eric Liddell defines discipleship as knowing God personally and learning from Jesus (p. 27). The one word he uses to describe discipleship is obedience, which is to the moral law, through active surrender. On page 29, he challenges us to ask ourselves:

“What am I living for – self, money, place, power? Or are my powers at the disposal of human need, dedicated to the kingdom of God on earth?

There is a direct correlation between the extent to which we are shaken by situations like this pandemic and a life focused on self, money, place, power, etc. This is true for the Christian as well as the non-Christian. Christians who are shaken by these uncertainties demonstrate that they have not been focused on God’s kingdom, but rather the things of this world; they have not been seeking God’s will and guidance each day, whatever may come, but their own ability to understand, organize, plan, and create stability, devoid of James’ qualification that we should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” On the other hand, far from being shaken, those who focus first on God’s kingdom and righteousness will be seeking ways to follow Christ and serve others, seeing this pandemic as a great opportunity. They will not feel like anything has been stripped away from them, because in their hearts they’ve already stripped away everything except following Christ. They will not be shaken or moved. “Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from Him. Truly He is my rock and my salvation; He is my fortress, I will never be shaken” (Psalm 62:1-2).

Furthermore, as Christians, we know that the things of this world are perishable, defiled, and fading. And at the same time, we know that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, “according to His great mercy, has caused us to be born from above to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4). Of course things will be uncertain here; but in heaven they are absolutely certain.

Are we in uncertain times? Yes, just as we are every single day. Let us not, as Christians, try to find our stability and certainty in our daily lives here on earth. Even worse, let us not ignore our God and Father when He allows life to cruise along uninterrupted. Let us, however, truly seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, whatever the consequences, each and every new morning. Let us repent for living for self, money, place, and power rather than following Christ and serving others. Let us keep our hope in heaven.

Are you not a Christian? I hope this pandemic is helping bring life’s uncertainty to the forefront of your mind, that you are thinking about it every day. What will you do? I hope you feel powerless in the midst of this pandemic. I also hope that you will turn to God through Christ. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17). The invitation is open. I hope you will accept it.

The Gospel and Same-Sex Relationships

Recently, one of the girls in my youth group shared a video with me titled “God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships” (available here). She shared it with me because one of her Christian friends at school was circulating it, and she wanted my input.

First, let me say that I am thankful she is thinking through her faith and challenges to it and that she is willing to engage those challenges. My response will be to address Mr. Vines’ opening contention, followed by his exegesis, and finally to address how the gospel informs our understanding of sexuality.

I. Mr. Vine’s Opening Contention

Mr. Vines begins by informing us that “marriage equality is on the rise, but despite this trend, religious belief remains a major obstacle to acceptance.” This statement raises at least two questions: (1) What is the context in which this trend has arisen; and (2) What specific religious belief is hindering acceptance?

We must ask the first question, because no trend occurs in a vacuum. The context in which marriage equality is on the rise is increasingly secular-humanistic: people want liberty, individualism, and happiness, while rejecting belief in God as necessary to experience them. According to the website, individualism is the celebration of the emancipation of the individual “from traditional controls by family, church, and state, increasingly empowering each of us to set the terms of his or her own life” (emphasis supplied). In other words, the context in which marital equality increasingly accepted is one in which God and His Word, as the inspired moral standard of our Creator, is increasingly rejected.

Understanding the context in which marital equality is on the rise helps us answer the second question. Given our secular-humanistic context, it is unsurprising that the religious belief Mr. Vines claims is hampering acceptance is the conservative Christian church.

Mr. Vines tells us that he grew up in such a church with his parents. Both the church and his parents (initially) rejected such marital equality. However, when Mr. Vines realized he was gay, he determined to study the Scriptures “intensively” on the matter, the result of which study is contained in his video. It is important to recognize that the “conservative” church takes the historical church’s perspective on this issue: marriage is defined from the beginning of the Bible and then throughout as a loving, committed, monogamous relationship between one man and one woman, within which each has a specific role. Therefore, Mr. Vines’ conclusions from his personal study are contrary to 2000 years of church understanding. Furthermore, we might ask, were Mr. Vines’ studies more “intensive” than John Chrysostom’s, Augustine’s, and the other church fathers who share a unified voice on this issue? More basically: is the level of a study’s intensity directly proportional to the validity of its conclusions? It is also worth noting that Mr. Vines sees his project as a new Reformation of sorts, as indicated by his website:

II. Mr. Vines’ Exegesis

From his study, Mr. Vines concludes that there are six “relevant” passages: three from the Old Testament and New Testament each. His thesis is: though each passage speaks negatively of certain homosexual behavior, not one of them addresses committed, same-sex relationships. In fact, he believes “the Bible never addresses the issues of sexual orientation or same-sex marriage,” and therefore other Christians should feel free to support and affirm their practicing gay brothers and sisters.

The problem is the Bible addresses both issues, and there are more than six relevant passages. Furthermore, we might say that the paradigm of same-sex marriage does not appear in the Bible precisely because the Bible from the very beginning establishes marriage as a monogamous heterosexual relationship. However, Mr. Vines ignores Genesis 2:18-25, arguably the most relevant – and certainly the most foundational – passage to the discussion. In other words, his requirements for a biblically-endorsed marital relationship stop short of the first one revealed in Scripture: heterosexual. That he has ignored this passage indicates either he hasn’t researched the literature throughout church history on the subject, or that he has simply chosen to ignore it. Again, the church has consistently defined marriage heterosexually for 2000 years, and it has appealed to Genesis 2:18ff for this definition.

II.A. Old Testament Passages

II.A.1. Genesis 19

Let’s spend some time analyzing Mr. Vines’ exegesis of the “relevant” passages. First, he takes us to Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). While he acknowledges the presence of homosexuality in these cities, he emphasizes “the only form of same-sex behavior described is a threatened gang-rape.” In other words, what Genesis 19 is condemning is lustful, violent same-sex behavior, not a loving, committed, monogamous same-sex relationship. Therefore, his conclusion is Genesis 19 is not actually relevant to the discussion.

Mr. Vines also argues from Ezekiel 16:49 that the main issue in Sodom and Gomorrah was not same-sex behavior (or desire), but “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, and [their inhabitants] did not aide the poor and needy.” Let me offer two responses. The first is from the book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, written by Rosaria Butterfield. The second will be from the context of Ezekiel 16 itself.

Dr. Butterfield was a tenured English professor at Syracuse University, where she also taught in the Center for Women’s Studies. Furthermore, she was an outspoken lesbian in a committed relationship. Now she is married to a conservative Reformed pastor, and they have several adopted children. In chapter 2 of her book, she asks, “What was the real sin of Sodom?” In reflecting on Ezekiel 16:49, she agrees with Mr. Vines: “Sodom was indicted for materialism and neglect of the poor and needy.” However, she adds: “[the passage revealed to me] that homosexuality was a symptom and extension of these other sins” (emphasis added). Furthermore, in observing that Ezekiel indicts pride first, she says: “Pride is the root of all sin. Pride puffs one up with a false sense of independence. Proud people always feel they can live independently from God and from other people. Proud people feel entitled to do what they want when they want to.” All of this sounds like the individualism celebrated by our secular-humanistic context. Dr. Butterfield continues: “This [reflection on pride as the root sin] shaped the way that I reflected on my whole life, in the context of the word of God. I realized that my sexuality had never been pure and my relationships never honored the other person or the Lord. My moral code encompassed serial monogamy, ‘safe’ sex, and sex only in the context of love. Love, grounded only in personal feelings as mine had been, changes without warning or logic. . . . My sexuality was sinful not because it was lesbian per se but because it wasn’t Christ-controlled.” So, it is true: homosexuality was not the only or even the main sin in Sodom (though, see Jude 7). However, notice that Dr. Butterfield believed in and was guided by the same essential moral code Mr. Vines suggests is required for a relationship to be biblically justified, while at the same time she argues that such a moral code was not Christ-controlled.

The context of Ezekiel 16 is significant to this discussion as well. In Ezekiel 16, the Lord is lamenting the idolatry of His people Israel. He describes this idolatry as adultery: His Bride prostituted herself to everyone who passed by. In fact, she was worse than a prostitute, because she actually paid her lovers! Certainly the Lord is using figurative language, but it is figurative language grounded in a heterosexual understanding of marriage! The Lord understands Himself to be the groom, and Israel (the Old Testament church) to be His Bride. God’s self-understanding here is consistent with the marital pattern He established in Genesis 2.

II.A.2. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13

The next two passages Mr. Vines considers relevant are Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, both of which describe the activity of one male lying sexually with another male, as with a woman, an “abomination.” More pointedly, 20:13 says both men are to be put to death. What is clear is the passages do not define the context of this behavior; in other words, it condemns it in any context (i.e. whether in a non-married, lustful context, or in committed, loving, monogamous context). Knowing this, Mr. Vines focuses on the word “abomination.” He then argues that Leviticus describes other activities, like a man having sexual relations with his wife during her period and dietary restrictions, as abominations. He assumes in his argument that anything described by the same moral indicator is held to the same moral standard and falls within the same code. To use his words, “this was part of the Old Testament law code.” However, his argument continues: the New Testament abolishes the entire Old Testament law code. He appeals to Romans 10:4 (“Christ is the end of the law”) and Hebrews 8:13 (“the old law is ‘obsolete’ and ‘aging’.”)

There are three problems with his argument. First, in both Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, there is a qualifying phrase: “as with a woman.” This phrase establishes the natural sexual relationship as heterosexual (“natural” meaning that which was established by God at creation). The surrounding passages define the boundaries of that heterosexual relationship.

Second, Mr. Vines is misusing Romans 10:4 and Hebrews 8:13. Romans 10:4 in its entirety reads: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Rather than supporting Mr. Vines’ view that Christ has abolished the entire Old Testament law code in general and for everyone, Paul says Christ is the end of the law for those who believe. Furthermore, Mr. Vines takes the word “end” in the sense of termination. What is clear from the context is, Paul means it in the sense of fulfillment. In 9:31-32, Paul says that “Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law . . . because they did not seek it by faith.” The point of 10:4 is that Christ did attain the righteousness of the law, because He fulfilled it. Therefore, what is terminated is the penalty for law-breaking for those who believe. More than that, those who believe in Christ are treated as those who have fulfilled the law just as Christ did. This understanding of Christ’s relationship to the law agrees with Christ’s self-understanding of His relationship to the law:

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law of the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle will be no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-19a

In his appeal to Hebrews 8:13, Mr. Vines ignores the distinction the book of Hebrews makes between the moral and ceremonial law. In fact, there are three aspects of the Old Testament law code: moral, ceremonial, and civil. The moral law is rooted in creation ordinances and therefore applies to all people everywhere forever. It is summarized in places like the Ten Commandments. The ceremonial and civil laws both arose with Israel and ceased when Christ came. In particular, the ceremonial law was tied to temple worship. In it, we find sacrificial regulations, priestly regulations, what defines a person as “clean” or “unclean” (and therefore able or unable to participate in temple worship), etc. Because the ceremonial law was designed to anticipate Christ through types and shadows, when Christ came and fulfilled the entire law, these anticipatory laws were no longer needed. This is why Paul writes: “Let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance is Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). The civil law applied the moral law in specific cases within the lives of the nation of Israel while they were in the land of Canaan. They ceased when Israel ceased to be a functioning, independent nation. Nor would it make sense to continue to uphold each of these civil laws in their particulars, because we live in different circumstances. We would, however, apply the moral law to our particular circumstances. A classic example of this distinction goes like this: in Old Testament times, the Israelites were commanded to install a parapet on their roofs when they built new houses. The situation was, Israelites typically installed ladders or stairs leading to their roofs, where people would spend time. This was to uphold the sixth commandment: “you shall not murder”, which, in this specific case, involved doing what is necessary to preserve life. It would be pointless to install a parapet on the roofs of most of our houses. However, installing a fence around the pool in the backyard, especially when there are small children or others who can’t swim living in the house, is a good modern-day application of the moral law to our specific circumstances.

When we look at Hebrews 8:13 and the surrounding context, we see that the author is describing Christ as a better Mediator than Moses, of a better covenant than the Mosaic covenant. In other words, the author of Hebrews is demonstrating the failure in particular of the ceremonial law. This is why he refers to the levitical priesthood being unable to bring perfection (7:11). Furthermore, these levitical priests “offer the gifts according to the law; who serve the copy and shadow of heavenly things” (8:4-5); “but now [Christ] has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises” (8:6). It is clear that the author of Hebrews has the ceremonial law in mind, because in 9:8-10 he writes that the Holy Spirit was indicating that the first tabernacle (or section of the tabernacle) “was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him [the levitical priest] who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience – [that is, the service that was concerned] only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation [that is, when Christ came, as the next verse makes clear.]” Compare this passage from Hebrews 9 with the Colossians 2 passage listed above.

This distinction between the ceremonial law and moral law is obvious from other New Testament passages as well. For example, Jesus declares all foods to be clean in Mark 7:19. Christ declared that the distinction between Jews and Gentiles, who were considered “unclean” in the Old Testament, to be void (Acts 10:28); Paul tells us that Christ removed that distinction in His crucifixion (Ephesians 2:11-16). And yet, Jesus and the apostles continued to enforce the moral law’s applicability. For example, Paul says: “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Romans 13:8-9). Note that Paul is saying love is the summary and fulfillment of the law; love is not something that stands over against the law. In other words, you cannot truly love someone if you set aside the law, specifically the ten commandments.

We should also note that the punishment for same-sex behavior, regardless of the context in which it occurs, is vastly different than the punishment for the other “abominations” Mr. Vines lists. The former earned the death penalty. Those who violated the latter were simply declared unclean, and ceremonial washings, etc. were prescribed for them to become clean again.

The third problem with Mr. Vines’ argument respecting the Leviticus passages is, the same Hebrew word translated “abomination” in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 is found in none other than Ezekiel 16, which we have already examined above. (It is interesting to note that in the other cases of “abominations” to which Mr. Vines appeals, it is a different Hebrew word.) In Ezekiel 16, this word is used to describe Israel’s idolatry, pictured so graphically as adulterous prostitution. Would Mr. Vines say that idolatry, adultery, and prostitution are still wrong? In fact, he says at least adultery and prostitution are wrong, for both are lustful activities outside the bounds of a loving, committed, and faithful relationship. I would assume Mr. Vines considers idolatry to be wrong, since that is the New Testament perspective (see 1 Corinthians 10:14 and Galatians 5:20). Thus we see that not everything the Old Testament describes as an “abomination” is permitted in the New Testament, nor is it approved by Mr. Vines’ own standard.

II.B. New Testament Passages

II.B.1. Romans 1:26-27

As Mr. Vines turns to the “relevant” New Testament passages, he begins with Romans 1:26-27, focusing especially on Paul’s description of women and men exchanging “natural” heterosexual relations for “those contrary to nature” and instead “being consumed with passion for one another.” (Ironically, one of the cross-references for Romans 1:26-27 in the Bible he shows in the video is Leviticus 18:22.) His argument is that Paul was condemning cultural conventions, because (1) lustful and adulterous homosexual behavior was common in the Roman world, and (2) Paul also describes long hair on men as “unnatural” in 1 Corinthians 11:13, which condemnation he claims most Christians understand to be culture-driven, rather than grounded in an absolute standard.

In other words, (1) Mr. Vines is arguing that Paul’s condemnation of same-sex behavior in Romans 1 is a response to Roman excess and lust, and that Paul is not addressing committed, loving, and faithful same-sex relationships; after all, “the context he was writing in was world’s apart from gay people in committed, monogamous relationships.” (2) At the same time, though he joins Paul in his condemnation of lustful and excessive same-sex behavior in his first point, he inadvertently justifies the same behavior in his second point: the kind of behavior Paul describes as “contrary to nature” in Romans 1 is no more unnatural – or wrong – than men having long hair (and who would condemn a man for having long hair today?)

Here are two responses. First, Mr. Vines’ exegesis is inaccurate. He argues that Paul is condemning only same-sex behavior that is lustful and dishonoring to the participant’s bodies. However, the text suggests Paul understood all same-sex behavior to be lustful and dishonoring to the participant’s bodies. In verse 24, Paul makes a summary statement: “therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.” He repeats this thought at the beginning of verse 26: “for this reason, God gave them up to dishonorable passions.” The rest of verse 26 and 27 explain what these lusts, impurities, and unnatural and dishonorable passions look like: same-sex behavior. In other words, Paul is saying that all same-sex behavior is lustful, impure, dishonorable, and unnatural. (Again, what makes something natural or unnatural is determined by what God establishes at creation.)

Second, the bigger issue people have with 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 is with Paul’s teaching on male headship within marriage. Paul is describing the natural order of relationships within a marriage, and he is appealing to creation to establish that order as natural. Notice, as with Ezekiel 16, the context assumes a heterosexual marital relationship, which was also established at creation.

II.B.2. 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10

The last two verses Mr. Vines says are relevant are 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. 1 Corinthians 6 lists a group of sinners who will not inherit the kingdom of God, and 1 Timothy 1 lists lawless and insubordinate people. Both include homosexuals. In 1 Timothy 1, Paul uses the word arsenokoitai. It is a compound word, made from combining ‘man’ (arsen) and ‘bed’ (koite, from which we get our word ‘coitus.’) Koite refers especially to the ‘marriage bed’, and therefore is also used euphemistically for ‘sexual intercourse’ (see A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, by Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker). For example, the author of Hebrews tells us to “let the marriage bed [koite] be undefiled” (13:4). The combination of arsen and koite give the image of a man sharing his marriage bed with another man.

1 Corinthians 6 uses both arsenkoitai and malakoi in its list of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Malakoi refers to men who are effeminate and who allow themselves to be used sexually by other men.

Mr. Vines at least acknowledges that “many modern commentators translate these as referring to homosexuals.” However, he goes on to say: “But the concept of ‘sexual orientation’ didn’t even exist in the ancient world.” The question immediately arises, what does this mean? Does he mean that the ancient world didn’t think in terms of our modern sociological psychological constructs? Of course they didn’t. Does he mean that they didn’t use our exact language to describe homosexuality? Again, this is not surprising. What is clear, however, is the Scriptures condemn both unrepentant men who are effeminate and allow themselves to be used sexually by other men and unrepentant men who share marriage beds with each other. Mr. Vines simply has given us a nonsensical statement as a smokescreen to mask the weight these two words bear on the whole issue.

III. The Gospel and Sexuality

I want to look quickly now at Ephesians 5:22-33. This passage is part of a household instructions section in the letter. What is interesting to note is that, in any household instructions in the New Testament, the instructions are always addressed to husbands and wives. There are no instructions to homosexual couples. Furthermore, in Ephesians 5, Paul is telling us that the marital relationship between a husband and a wife is a picture of the gospel. For example, Paul says, “husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (v. 25). Furthermore, Paul grounds his understanding both of the relationship between Christ and the church and the relationship between husband and wife in Genesis 2:24.

Commenting on Genesis 2:21-25, Augustine wrote: “Even in the beginning, when woman was made from a rib in the side of the sleeping man, that had no less a purpose than to symbolize prophetically the union of Christ and His church. Adam’s sleep was a mystical foreshadowing of Christ’s death, and when His dead body hanging from the cross was pierced by the lance, it was from His side that there issued forth blood and water,” through which the church was made. And Quodvultdeus says: “It is evident that since Eve had been created from the side of the sleeping Adam, he has foreseen that from the side of Christ hanging on the cross the church . . . must be created.” (Both are from The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Genesis 1-11, pgs. 70-71.) It is the union of a husband and wife alone that prefigures Christ’s union with His Bride, the church. A homosexual union has no relationship to the gospel, because Christ still has a Bride.

The Ephesians 5 passage raises some practical issues. Marriage relationships involve headship and submission. This passage and others discussed earlier clearly teach man’s headship over the woman and the woman’s submission to her husband. (Certainly, this has been abused, but its abuse does not nullify its binding nature.) The question arises, therefore, which person in a same-sex relationship will retain the role natural to their gender, and which one will take on the role natural to the opposite gender? Which woman will be treated and act like a man, and which man will be treated and act like a woman?

Furthermore, in Genesis 1, God blessed the marriage of Adam and Eve by telling them to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion” over all the creatures (1:28). While the Fall has resulted in the inability for some husbands and wives to conceive, what is clearly blessed is the heterosexual union, which, apart from the Fall, would have resulted consistently in fruitfulness. The point here is that blessing and fruitfulness – a union that in an unfallen situation would result in fruitfulness – belong together. Sadly, there can be no hope of blessing for a same-sex union, then.


Mr. Vines began with his autobiography. He grew up in a conservative Christian church and home, both of which were opposed to same-sex unions on biblical and historical grounds. However, when he realized he was gay, he embarked on his study, after which he was convinced he had a biblical justification for a loving, committed, monogamous, same-sex union. Sadly, he convinced his parents of this justification, along with several others.

Also sadly, Mr. Vines’ arguments have shown special pleading (a biased selection of “relevant” Bible passages), while ignoring the most critical and foundational passages – Genesis 2:18ff and Ephesians 5:22-33 (among other passages). Furthermore, his exegesis has shown a propensity to ignore one of the most important exegetical principles – paying attention to a passage’s context.

I say “sadly” to both of these issues, because Mr. Vines, and now his family and others, are persuaded that something the Bible and the church throughout her history condemns strongly is biblically justifiable.

Furthermore, it is sad that the church context in which this journey took place was neither able to convince him that Scripture in fact does speak to this issue – quite clearly and strongly – and that God’s grace is sufficient to transform all sinners. The church as a whole must embrace both of these realities firmly, not only with the sin of homosexuality, but with all other sins. We cannot ignore the sinfulness of sin, but we also must hope in the grace that is greater than all our sin!

What I hope comes through clearly in the paragraph above is, I am not writing from a homophobic position. I do not hate homosexuals. Nor do I think homosexuality is the only sin or the worst sin, though I certainly believe it is a sin, just as I certainly believe other things Scripture calls sin are sins. Furthermore, as a man married to a woman, I need transforming grace. I am a sinner, too!

Finally, I hope, if Mr. Vines ever comes across this post, he will trust my sympathy toward him in what must have been a very difficult time and process in his life. I hope he will see that he does not have the biblical support he believes he has and desires, and that to base his relationships on a trend in a society that is increasingly rejecting the God and Bible to which he appeals is a dangerous thing. I hope that he will see that whatever same-sex relationship he might be in is a counterfeit of the gospel, and at the same time I hope sees that Christ gives perfect love, faithfulness, and commitment to His Bride, to all who turn to Him in faith and repentance.

No Truth, No Love

A few weeks ago I preached a sermon with the same title as this post, explaining 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, with a special focus on verse 6 (you can watch it by clicking here if you’re so inclined.) My main concern was to address the twin and inverted current cultural tendencies to elevate rhetoric about “love” (and “tolerance”) while simultaneously rejecting absolute truth and our ability to know the truth. The question is, how can you be certain you are affirming “love” if you’re rejecting truth? Indeed, how can you be certain of anything if you’ve rejected absolute truth? I wanted to make the congregation I serve aware of this cultural duality and equip them to respond biblically.

Let me summarize the sermon, then interact with a comment Prof. John Lennox made at the Oxford Union.

My thesis for the sermon was: love and truth are inseparable, and therefore we must ensure we keep them together in our speech and interactions with others, especially those who disagree with us.

We know truth and love are inseparable from experience. I began with this question: if you were sick, though you were unaware you were sick, which of the two following doctors would you say cared about you and your wellbeing (i.e. which one would you say loves you) – the one who told you that you look great, there’s nothing wrong with you, not to let anyone tell you there’s something wrong with you, and went out of his way to make you feel good about yourself; or would it be the one who compassionately delivered your diagnosis and gave you the necessary treatment plan?

But more than our experience, we see that truth and love are combined in God’s nature. God is love (see 1 John 4:8; cf. Exodus 34:6f) and is the source of love (1 John 4:7). And we all know John 3:16. But it is equally true that God is truth. We see this attribute in both Testaments as well. Each Person of the Triune Godhead shares this attribute. God the Father is truth. Jesus said about Himself, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). And about the Holy Spirit Jesus says, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).

Of course, truth and love are combined at the cross as well. That the cross demonstrates God’s love is clear (John 3:16; 1 John 4:9-10), and few would argue with this point. But the cross also pronounces truth about us (we are sinners, deserving of God’s wrath and curse), about God (that He is holy and cannot simply ignore sin, but that He is also loving and provides a way of escape from His wrath for the sinner), and about salvation (there is no other way). In short, while the cross magnificently and clearly demonstrates God’s love, it is not there to affirm sinners in their sin and to make them feel good about themselves. It proclaims a diagnosis (we are sinners) and the remedy (trust in Christ’s shed blood and repentance from our sin). This proclamation of truth is love.

My second major point, after God is Love and Truth, was Where Truth is Denied, Love Unravels. I began this point by distinguishing two kinds of truth: “higher” and “lower” truth. Higher truth is God (and His Word), and therefore higher truth is a Person. Lower truth is what we typically think of as truth: things like categorical statements, logic (whether deductive [including math] or inductive [including the scientific method]), definitions, etc. The main issue I wanted to raise here was: when we reject Higher Truth, we have no objective basis for lower truth. To put it another way: rejection of God and His Word necessarily results in relativism. What may be true for you may not be true for me (rational relativism). What may be right, and therefore loving, for you may be wrong and unloving for me (moral relativism).

At this point, I’d like to interact a bit with a statement John Lennox made at the Oxford Union (which you can see here), because it is an important supplement and clarification of what I said in my sermon. My contention in the sermon was that the person who rejects Higher truth has removed any objective basis upon which to ground his or her understanding of truth or ethics. What I did not say (mostly for time), but what I think is important to understand, is what Prof. Lennox said before many atheists, including Richard Dawkins, at the Oxford Union:

“Ethical behavior, like rational behavior, of course, does not itself require religious belief. This is consistent with the fact that humans are created in God’s image as rational, moral persons.”

It is important to keep in mind that a major argument by atheists is that they are capable of being moral persons. My contention was simply that, while that is true, they have no objective basis on which to ground their ethic. They cannot adequately answer the question as to why their particular ethic is to be preferred over an antithetical ethic.

However, I love how Prof. Lennox engages in some apologetic judo. “Of course you are capable both of rational and ethical behavior,” he is essentially saying, “because you are made in the image of God Who is Truth and Love,” if I may put my own spin on it. It is because God is Truth we are rational at all, and there is any rationality at all, and Love is the summary of the God-commanded, Christian ethic.

There is so much talk of love and tolerance and acceptance today, but those with the loudest social voices tend also to reject any objective basis upon which to define those terms. God, Scripture, and the cross establish, proclaim, and give us the basis for true love. Of all people, Christians should be the most outspoken public proponents of truth and love, all while speaking the truth in love.

How Christians Make Decisions

A few years ago, my wife and I were discussing our potential future plans, and someone overhearing our conversation interjected, “I’ll just pray about it.” They were mocking us playfully. However, we must be honest: sometimes Christians have made some rather unwise decisions while boasting that they really felt like the Lord was leading them to do so. This is a potential danger of making prayer our only tool for making decisions. Furthermore, God has given us more tools than prayer alone to make decisions. So, what are these tools God has given us? Let me discuss five.


Notwithstanding unbeliever’s sometimes well-founded objections to our resorting to prayer when making decisions, this is the most obvious first step. In fact, the entire process of decision-making for Christians ought to be covered in prayer.

“Prayer,” according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism (you can find a link to a PDF version with Scripture proofs here), “is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to His will.” The Catechism is acknowledging our natural tendency to worship ourselves – we want to do what we want, when we want, and often this is in opposition to what God wants or t0 His timing. Jesus, Who only did what His Father wanted Him to do and say when His Father wanted Him to do and say it, still models this submission to the Father in prayer for us: “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me. Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

Again, as we make decisions, we must be in constant prayer. Not only do we offer our desires to the Lord so that we make a decision that glorifies Him, we also ask Him to lead us throughout the process and as we use the other tools He has given us. We must then use the other tools He has given us, so that we avoid the pitfall of making a purely subjective decision based solely on prayer.


So, we have prayed and are continuing to pray. How do we know if something is agreeable to His will? He has given us His will in the Scriptures. “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). Actually, I’ve heard this verse used to justify theological uncertainty when certainty in that clear theological area would require repentance and a change in thinking. The point here is that God revealed specific things to Moses to deliver to the people of Israel before they entered the land of Canaan. If they obeyed the words of the law, they would remain and prosper in the Promised Land; if they disobeyed, however, God would punish and ultimately exile them from the land. For us, God has revealed enough of His will that we may have confidence we are doing His will.

But, to what extend does Scripture help me make decisions? One day as a seminarian, I was talking with a Christian ministry leader, who said Scripture can’t be the final standard of all our life and faith; after all, it doesn’t tell us how to change the oil in our cars. I’ll admit I was taken aback at the time. Now, I would say that there are myriad of things that the Scriptures don’t address, nor did God intend to address them in the Scriptures. For example, they won’t say, “Mark shall not work at Walmart; Mark shall work at Target.” They will say, however, what my heart attitude ought to be as a Christian, whether I am working at Walmart or Target. “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23). After describing Christ’s humility, which He demonstrated by “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8), Paul tells us to “do all things without grumbling or disputing” (2:14).

The big question Scripture helps us to answer is, “Is this option I am considering sinful?” If the answer is, “yes”, then there is nothing left to consider. If the answer is, “no”, Scripture then wants us to ask, “it is wise?” There is an entire genre of Scripture called Wisdom Literature. The most obvious collection is in the book of Proverbs, but we find some in the Psalms, and Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs fall into this category as well. I have personally, and I have seen others, only ask the first question about sin while neglecting this second question about the wisdom of their choice, and the results are not always pretty. Thank God for His grace in response to our foolishness!

The central “Subject” of Scripture is Christ. Actually, I find the question, “what would Jesus do” to be helpful, as long as we’re not attempting to replicate the things only He was able to do as the God-man. Yet, He was fully man, and Peter reminds us that Christ was “leaving you an example, that you might follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21b). Another way to put this is, the gospel is not merely God’s power to save us initially; it governs our entire lives as Christians. Should I do something that ultimately only serves myself? The thing I’m considering doing may not be sinful in-and-of-itself, but my use of it may well be antithetical to denying myself and bearing my cross daily (see Matthew 16:24). What about tithing? The Old Testament law is clear: I must give ten percent of the best of my crops to the Lord. In the New Testament, we see that people are selling property and giving the proceeds sacrificially, without measuring income percentages. The ultimate answer to the question, “what would Jesus do?” is, He would die for sinners – for His enemies. Let our decisions be filtered through the cross.

Certainly Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is speaking to us through the Scriptures. Certainly we must filter everything we think, say, and do through the cross. But, there is one more aspect of Christ to consider:

Do we make decisions as if Christ were still in the tomb, or as if He is reigning right now over all things victoriously in heaven for the sake of His Church (see Ephesians 1:20-23), with the promise that He will never leave us or forsake us (see Matthew 28:20b)?

Scripture will not (always) give us the specifics of what we must or must not do in non-moral decisions. But it will tell us what kind of people we ought to be as we make whatever decision we end up making. Most importantly, they point us to Christ, as He reveals His will to us, dies for us, and reigns over all things while remaining with us in the Spirit.


One of the reasons non-Christians mock us for praying is because of an apparent lack of the use of our G0d-given reason with it. There are two things to say here. First, God has given us reason, and we are to use it. Second, at the same time, a Christian’s use of reason will lead him or her to very different conclusions than non-Christians on non-mathematical problems because we have very different presuppositions. Let me briefly elaborate on each.

Some Christians are opposed to the use of or developing their reasoning skill, as if it were unspiritual. If we use our reason, so the argument goes, we might become rationalists, relying on our own abilities rather than on the Holy Spirit. However, God commands us to use reason; even to reason with Him: “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will become like wool” (Isaiah 1:18). There are other places. Look through 2 Corinthians 5, for example, to see the different kinds of reasoning Paul describes there (for example, “persuading”). Anyone who has read Paul’s letters in the New Testament will see a mind well-trained in logic, and his speeches and sermons are organized rationally. (Ironically, if you were to try to persuade me that reason is unspiritual, you would have to use reason to do so, thus becoming “unspiritual” by your own definition.) God calls us to look at the facts and make deductions from them, in light of Scripture. Any decision we make is a conclusion drawn from other information. So, there’s a sense we cannot avoid using reason (even if the premises from which we draw our conclusions are, “I just really felt like I wanted to do ‘x’ instead of ‘y’). The real question is whether we will use our God-given reason intentionally, in a disciplined manner, and in a way governed by faith in the God of the Scriptures – that He is faithful to His promises, He is almighty, and He loves us tremendously.

On the other hand, simply because we’ve used our God-given reason to make a decision does not mean that our decision will agree with the non-believer. We may draw very different conclusions even with the same information. This is because we believe God exists, that He is a Personal being Who has revealed Himself to us so that we can know Him. Furthermore, we know that “He upholds the universe by the Word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3b). Not only so, but, as we saw above, all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Christ, and He is reigning as absolute Sovereign in heaven over all things here on earth. Nor has He abandoned us, but He has sent us His Spirit to be with us forever, even as He commissions His church to make disciples of all the nations. Take this information for example. There is a group of tribes who live on an island and who are cannibalistic. One of their highest virtues is deceit. The member of the tribe who can deceive a member of another tribe into a false friendship with the purpose of murdering him once the other person grows comfortable and lets his guard down is the tribe’s hero. The non-Christian would think that moving your family to that island, setting up your new residence in an abandoned village, and working to bring the gospel to such people is absolute lunacy. From the Christian perspective, we might say: “For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that Christ has died for all, therefore all have died; and He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him Who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:13-15). You can read the real-life story of missionary Don Richardson working among cannibals in Papua New Guinea in his book, Peace Child: An Unforgettable Story of Primitive Jungle Treachery in the 20th Century.

Our goal in using reason is not to agree with those who deny God and Christ. It is to draw conclusions based on the realities given to us in Scripture about Who God is and how He acts. If we were honest, and if we strove to reason consistently with these Scriptural realities that I have listed above, I wonder how many of our lives – even as Christians – might be different than they are right now.


Proverbs 11:14 says, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (see also Proverbs 15:22 and 24:6). We have prayed and are continuing to do so. We have searched the Scriptures to see if what we are considering is sinful and/or foolish. We have thought seriously about the matter, looking at the facts in light of the greater realities given to us in Scripture. But any wise person will seek the counsel of others.

What kind of counsel should we seek? Another biblical Proverb says, “faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (27:6). This does not mean that your friends will never agree with you. I’m quoting it here to show you, however, that when we seek out counselors, we should not seek out only those who will agree with us. We can always find someone who can help us feel justified about any decision we make. Wisdom, however, seeks out godly, faithful people who would hesitate to agree, or would even disagree, with us. Wisdom would weigh their “contrarian” input seriously.

Here’s a word of caution when it comes to counselors. Be wary of those who are happy to offer their advice unsolicited. (This does not apply to best friends or, especially, to spouses. Husbands especially ought to hear their godly wives and disagree with them only on very solid evidence.) I think we all have people in our lives who are happy to share their advice with us. Rather, we should select specific people we trust, who live faithfully to the Lord, who make wise decisions themselves, who use their reason, who know their Bibles, and who are known to pray a lot. Once you have found them, you should seek their input and weigh it seriously, especially when it contradicts your desires.


Dr. Harry Reeder of Briarwood PCA in Birmingham, AL talks about finding mentors and models. The counselors I mentioned above would fall loosely under his category of “mentors”. Dr. Reeder talks about finding “models” as well, whom he says are people who have run the good race and fought the good fight. Actually, in the history of the church, there has always been an emphasis on those Christians that lived – and died – well. For some traditions, this includes venerating the saints. Regardless of your perspective on that particular issue, it is helpful to read biographies and stories of faithful (I didn’t say perfect) Christian men and women to help spur us on to live faithfully as well. Often, these are stories of “saints” that have given up everything – some have even given up their lives – for Christ and His kingdom. These types of people can give us a different perspective on our own lives and can help us to answer the bigger question: what is the purpose of my life? I could write an entire post on this one issue, that once we have narrowed down the purpose for our lives, some of decision-making we are wrestling through may basically fall into place.

The Lord has given us many resources to make godly decisions. In fact, we have more resources than the non-Christian has when it comes to making decisions, and the resources we have are far superior to anything the non-Christian has. Even our reason, for example, is being sanctified in Christ so we can begin to think God’s thoughts after Him. Throughout the decision-making process, we must be praying. We turn to the Scriptures to see where our decision stands in relationship to righteousness and wisdom. We seek a multitude of godly counselors. And finally, we look at the lives of those who have run the race well. As you do so, may the Lord lead you in a life pleasing to Him.

T.H.E. P.I.T.S.

Sometimes, life is the pits. The Christian is not exempt from suffering and trials in this life. In fact, sometimes God’s people endure things non-Christians don’t even endure. A couple days ago, I read through Psalm 10 with my family at breakfast. Here are a couple verses:

  1. (v.1) “Why, O LORD, do You stand far away? Why do You hide Yourself in times of trouble?”
  2. (v.5) “[The wicked’s] ways prosper at all times.”

I told my family that the Bible is just plain real; it’s honest about life in this fallen world. Maybe this raises other questions for you about God’s goodness or power, but we’ll tackle that some other time. (If you are really curious about, that leave a comment below letting me know.)

So, what do we do when life is the pits?


T. Take Time to Read, Memorize, and Meditate on Your Bible

We need to be sure we are spending time reading, memorizing, and meditating on our Bibles. I am sure many of you have a quiet time. However, when life gets hard, it’s easy to let this special time slide. We must resist that temptation. I’d also say that we need not merely to read our Bibles. One of the psalmists wrote, “I have stored up Your Word in my heart” (Psalm 119:11). A little later he wrote, “I will meditate on Your precepts” (v. 15). Psalm 1 tells us that the person is blessed who delights “in the law of the LORD, and on His law he meditates day and night” (v. 2).

If we read our Bibles in a rushed manner, while focusing mainly on our problems, this is not going to help us. When I memorize Scripture, I find I have to slow down to process what it is saying; I have to focus on the portion of the Bible I am memorizing, or I simply won’t be able to memorize it. I struggle more with memorizing the Bible when I have many things on my mind.

Of course, meditation on Scripture by definition means it is our sole focus.

H. Ensure a Healthy Diet

Whether it’s depression or a stressful situation, we need to be sure we are consuming a healthy diet. Most of us don’t appreciate how much the foods and drinks we consume impact us, especially the foods to which we most naturally turn when life is hard. When our bodies are impacted negatively, it can have a significant impact on us spiritually as well. We are psycho-somatic beings; we are body and soul, and the two impact each other.

E. Exercise

It is natural, given the relationship between body and soul, that getting exercise is important as well. There are many benefits to regular exercise. Here’s an article by the Mayo Clinic listing seven of them. Two of the benefits they list are improved mood and better sleep. Both are critical when we are in a rough patch.

As we move on, each of the letters of “P.I.T.S.” have to do with different aspects of prayer, though they extend beyond prayer to other actions as well. This part of the acronym also roughly corresponds to the more familiar acronym “A.C.T.S.” (For those who aren’t familiar with this acronym, it stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.)

P. Praise God

When we pray, especially when life is the pits, we need to begin by praising God. Take the time to meditate in your prayers on Who God is. Later we will thank Him for what He has done and is doing. But, for now, take time worshipping God. For example: “I praise You, Lord, for You do not change. I can always count on You. Because You do not change, Your love for me cannot change. Therefore, though it doesn’t feel like it right now, I praise You, because Your love is unchanging. As it says in the Bible: ‘Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, Who does not change like shifting shadows’ (James 1:17).” Be specific in your praise of God. If you don’t know how to describe God (His attributes, which He has given to us in the Bible), the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question and answer 4, is a good place to start. You can find it here. But, notice, I included Scripture in the sample prayer. That’s always a safe place to turn for guidance in prayer.

(Let me also say quickly, what I am writing here is not law. If you mix praise with thanksgiving at this point, it really doesn’t matter. In fact, as I began writing the first draft of the previous paragraph, I realized I had quickly moved from praise to thanksgiving. It’s easy to do. Whether you begin with praise or thanksgiving, or some mixture of the two, you are beginning your prayers by focusing on God and His goodness and love toward you. That is what matters.)

However, praising God is not something we do just in our prayer life. We do so, more foundationally, when we gather with our brothers and sisters to worship God. As much as we do not need to neglect our quiet times, the Bible commands us not to forsake the gathering together with one another (Hebrews 10:24-25). This gathering is not limited to corporate worship on Sunday, though it is critical to make that a priority. It also includes small groups, meeting a brother or sister for coffee, etc. We can also praise God in our speech with those we encounter throughout the day. When I used to ask my grandfather how he was, he always responded with “Praise God.” It was a carry-over from the typical Arabic greeting (my grandfather was a Lebanese Christian, as was my other family from the area.) This may seem small, but it is a place to begin. What other ways can you simply work praise into your speech and conversation with people?

I. Intercession

We begin our prayers by focusing on the God Who is worthy of all our praise, Who sits enthroned in majesty in heaven. But before we move onto ourselves, we can intercede for others. Intercession is important and helpful during those rough times, because we cannot intercede on others in any specific way if we are only thinking about ourselves. We have to get to know others and care for them in order to intercede for them. Furthermore, as we do so, we are reminded that we are not alone in our struggles. Maybe as we ask others how we can pray for them, they will ask the same of us, and we can bear one another’s burdens. So, intercession means that we pray for others, and partly how we do so is to ask others how we can be praying for them, or just listening to them as they talk about what’s going on with them. We can also pray more broadly for the needs of the world and the broader church, especially the persecuted church.

There is another facet to intercession. We are also reminded that Christ is interceding for us. “Christ Jesus, Who died – more than that, Who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). Actually, all of Romans 8 is a great place to turn when life is hard. But, here I just want to remind you that Christ knows you intimately, knows every detail of what is going on with you, and is not ignoring your situation. He is constantly interceding for you, even as we confess our sins to the Father. And if the Father is going to hear anyone’s prayers, it must be the Son’s prayers.

T. Thank God

After we’ve praised God and interceded on behalf of others, we can thank God for all He has done for us, is doing for us, will do for us, and for hearing our prayers, whether for ourselves or for others in our intercession. Again, like in our praise and intercession, let’s be specific. Depending on where you are, thinking of specific things may take time. Take that necessary time. When we make the attempt to think of specific reasons to thank God, the list grows quite long. If you cannot think of anything for which to thank God in your current circumstances, then I would suggest you might be struggling with bitterness. Repent of this, and ask God to help your heart soften toward Him. He is always loving, good, kind, slow to anger, etc. toward us, and therefore the problem does not lie with Him. In His love, goodness, kindness, patience, etc., He will help you. (See Exodus 34:6-7 for these attributes, along with others, all of which God uses to describe Himself to Moses.)

S. Bring all your supplications to God

Finally, once we have praised God specifically, brought specific intercessions to Him on behalf of others, thanked Him for the specific ways He has and is demonstrating His love, goodness, kindness, etc. toward us, it’s time to bring our supplications to God.

We are not saving this part til last because the Bible frowns on us bothering God with our requests. “Cast all your anxieties on Him, since He is concerned for you” (1 Peter 5:7). All of your anxieties. There is none too small to escape His loving, compassionate gaze, and there is none too large for His wisdom, provision, and power. And, just like with our praises, intercessions, and thanksgivings, we need to be specific with our supplications. This is an act of faith.

The reason we wait until this point under normal circumstances to bring our supplications is to turn our hearts toward God and others first. By praising Him, we are reminded that He has all this under control, and He is intending it for our good (Romans 8:28). By thanking Him for specific things, we are reminded that He truly does care for us. In all of this, our circumstances should begin to shrink in comparison to His majesty, and our confidence in His willingness and ability to hear and answer us should grow.

This post is intended to give you practical steps to take when life gets hard. It is not intended to present a quasi-stoic response to the difficult things in life. It is not intended to suggest we should never grieve. Christians must grieve at the proper time, and we must remember that Christ grieves with us. We must also remember that we are not immune to medical ailments and conditions – like depression – that need medical treatment. I am not qualified to offer you medical advice, and if you think you are depressed, or suffering some other medical issue, I would encourage you to seek your doctor’s advice. Nonetheless, there is a spiritual component to our suffering, and that is what I’m addressing here – how do we re-orient our spiritual side toward praising God when we encounter hard times?

Because, sometimes life is the pits for God’s people. When it is, will you embrace and practice T.H.E. P.I.T.S.?

The Only Real Reason to Worship, pt. 1

Photo by Hudson Hintze on Unsplash

Having just worshiped yesterday, I thought I would begin a few posts on the only real reason to worship the One, True, and Living God (see 1 Thessalonians 1:9).  I’ll begin with a couple posts on spiritual distractions to worship (one per post), both of which are issues all Christians deal with at some level.  Then I’ll conclude with the only real reason to worship.  

So, what is the first spiritual distraction to worship?  Legalism.  Here’s how I’m using that term: legalism is anything we do with the goal and expectation of earning God’s favor apart from Christ.  In this sense, it refers more to our motivation than to specific rules.  We can use even good, biblical things, like worship, legalistically.  Typically, this legalistic motivation in worship manifests itself in legalistic attitudes.  We think: “God owes me His favor because my worship attendance record is flawless.  At least, it’s better than those other people whose attendance is sporadic, or that couple that is always tardy.  And when I come to worship, at least I dress in a way that is more respectful to God than these other people.  I mean, is he going to the beach?  Is she going clubbing?  At least I know my worship is going to be accepted, because clearly I honor God with my attendance and my dress.”  Ok, so maybe you don’t think exactly like that.  But, if we are trying to earn God’s favor in worship, it makes us feel closer to that goal when everyone else around us is falling short of it.  This is comparative legalism.  We might also call it Pharisaic legalism.  (See Luke 18:9-14.)  

There is another form of legalism: a legalism of spiritual insecurity.  Have you ever hesitated to go to worship because of sin in your life?  Maybe you had a spiritually terrible Saturday night.  Maybe you’ve been struggling in your spiritual life for a while.  Maybe you have been engaging in a particular sin habitually, and you feel guilty and hopeless.  You don’t know how you could show your face at church after that!  Have you ever felt any of these things?  The temptation at this point might be to go to church to try to repair your relationship with your Savior, to try to win back His favor.  This temptation can be rather poignant, since we often confuse God’s favor or disfavor with our current emotions.  “I feel so guilty.  God must be mad at me!”  Actually, guilt and sorrow over sin are a gracious thing from God, and therefore rather prove His favor than His disfavor with you.  So does His Fatherly discipline (see Hebrews 12:5-11).  Nonetheless, our attempts to mend our relationship with God by coming to worship is another form of legalism.  

Whether it’s comparative or insecure legalism, both are missing the cross.  The comparative legalist needs to be reminded there is absolutely no way to earn God’s favor.  In fact, comparative legalists only earn God’s disfavor (again, see Luke 18:9-14).  On the other hand, the insecure legalist needs to be reminded there is no need to earn God’s favor.  “Jesus paid it all,” as the hymn says.  Your sin did not bring you out of God’s favor; it could not, because God loved you and placed His favor on you when you were still an unrepentant sinner.

But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8, ESV

So, here’s a hint at the answer to the main question (what is the only real reason to worship God?): you cannot earn God’s favor, nor do you need to earn His favor.  You need, and must, only look to Jesus, Who alone earned God’s favor for you.

A Beggar King?

One of the most difficult things to reconcile in theology is God’s absolute sovereignty with human freedom and responsibility.    If God is absolutely sovereign, what room does that leave for my own thinking, volition, or decision-making?  Really, what do these things matter, if God is absolutely sovereign?  Furthermore, how can He hold me responsible for the things I do?  Do I even have a choice?  The simple (simplistic?) answer is, God is a Personal Being, not the arbitrary reality called fate.  Furthermore, He made us in His own image, so that we also have a will, the ability to reason, and even the responsibility to exercise our own sovereignty under Him as His viceroys on earth.

A more challenging question is: if God is absolutely sovereign, why have you titled your blog “God Begs You”?  Kings are not beggars.  They issue decrees, and those decrees are followed closely, sometimes on pain of death.  There is truth to this penal reality when we think about God as the King of Kings.  God warned Adam that the penalty for his disobedience to the first commandment, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you must not eat, because if you eat of it, dying you will die” (Genesis 2:17, my rendition).  Adam disobeyed (sinned) and died.  His sin injected sin into the whole world; now everyone sins.  Therefore all die (see Romans 5:12).  “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  Some of the words used for “sin” involve the idea of treason.  So, we must affirm that God is the absolute sovereign, and that disobeying Him brings about the death penalty.  He warned us it would.  This death includes separation from God.  We have made ourselves His enemies.

The Fates
The Fates. From

But that explanation of God’s sovereignty doesn’t come close to answering the question raised above, does it?  In fact, it seems to lend support to the objection.  The thing is, God is not merely absolutely sovereign.  He is also merciful, gracious, and loving.  In fact, when He proclaims His name to Moses, He begins by saying, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6, NIV).  While God has a just, reasonable, well-founded, and controlled anger toward rebellion against Him – and it is the more just and well-founded because He is so good – anger is not His only response to sin and the unrepentant sinner.  He is also compassionate, gracious, and loving toward us, because He sees how lost, deceived, and enslaved we are by sin.

This is why He sent His Son into this world to save us and why His Son came willingly and voluntarily to save us.  “All this is from God, Who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18, ESV).  God is so gracious, compassionate, and loving, that He doesn’t desire for any sinner to die.  Instead, He desires that sinners repent and live (see Ezekiel 18:23, 31-32).  It is the King’s grace, compassion, and love that causes Him to stoop so low as to become a beggar: “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20, NKJV).

God would do anything to bring you back to Him, so great is His love for you.  In fact, He already did.  He sent His Son to be an offering for our sin.  Will you receive this gift?