1 Jn. 4:7–16

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

Love is defined here as being initiated by God, not by us. In this way, the apostle points us to God’s love as the paragon to teach us what genuine love is: In addition to being a sacrifice (because God sent His only Son to save us, giving Him up without reservation), it acts first. Love does not wait to be asked before it acts; rather, it lavishes good on the one loved without being requested.

This is the example of genuine charity that is before us. We are not to withhold love and grant it only when others have fulfilled some conditions we have made; rather, we are to take the initiative to show love to others—especially to those who have sinned against us, even if they have not apologized to us. Do we have that kind of charity, or do we wallow in anger and hold a grudge, stubbornly withholding forgiveness until they make amends in some way? If we do the latter, we are in violation of God’s command and actually do more harm to ourselves than our debtors have inflicted on us. Remember the unmerciful servant! His king reversed his earlier debt forgiveness on account of the servant’s stubborn refusal to forgive one of his own debtors (Matthew 18:21–35). And let’s not forget that important sentence in the Lord’s Prayer:

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors (Mt. 6:12)

Notice the connection between divine forgiveness and our forgiveness of others. The two cannot be separated. Divine forgiveness of our sins is dependent on our forgiveness of others. Our forgiveness of others is the condition for being forgiven ourselves, as the Lord made clear just after He taught the Lord’s Prayer to His disciples:

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Mt. 6:14–15)

It is not surprising, then, that the apostle John in our passage tells us that “we also ought to love one another.” We are not permitted to delay forgiveness or to withhold it completely; those options are not open to us. We must take the initiative by loving the offender first, just as God first loved us, and doing so in a self-sacrificial manner—not just giving a friendly greeting (though that is commendable, as our Lord taught us in Mt. 5:47) but even more. Perhaps we could pray for the offending individual the same way we pray for our loved ones and friends, asking God to be longsuffering to them; not to hold their sins against them; to bless them with grace, salvation, prosperity, spiritual and physical health; and more. Doing this puts us in a forgiving frame of mind, and as long as we have that mind-set of love and compassion for that person, those cruel tyrants, hatred and bitterness, are overthrown and cannot control us, for it is impossible for love and hatred toward a person to exist together at the same time.

Lord Jesus, thank you for loving us even when we did not deserve it and were not even looking for your love. We thank you and praise you for lavishing on us “such a great salvation” (Heb. 2:3). Help us to put that same kind of love into action toward all people. We ask this in your name, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The biggest challenge for Protestants when discussing Catholic doctrine is not whether asking for the saints’ intercession is right, or whether transubstantiation is true, or whether Mary was really immaculately conceived, and so on. Those are important teachings in their own right and worthy of discussion; however, far surpassing them in importance is the question of authority, because the authority one chooses to follow and obey is really the primary driving force behind what one believes.

Therefore, before discussing issues like transubstantiation, the Immaculate Conception, asking saints for their intercession, Purgatory, and other doctrines, the issue of authority must be honestly confronted.

For Protestants, the only infallible authority is the Bible. That view of authority is known as sola scriptura (scripture alone). However, sola scriptura is a self-refuting doctrine, since one cannot prove the doctrine of Scripture alone using Scripture alone. This should be a huge, gargantuan red flag for Protestants: Just exactly what, then, is their authority?

This is a crucial question that all Protestants should face boldly and answer honestly.

The doctrine of sola scriptura is the belief that the Bible is the only infallible authority for the Christian faith. Just to be clear on that definition, let’s emphasize those two words: only and infallible. The doctrine of sola scriptura does not say that Scripture is the only authority; rather, it says that Scripture is the only infallible authority.

This belief is passionately maintained among Protestants and preached with full conviction. What is not maintained—indeed, it is probably not even realized—is that no Protestant really believes it. They believe it in theory, but in practice they deny it.

How do they deny it in practice? They do so by treating their interpretations and theological traditions as though they were infallible, and if you have an infallible authority in addition to the Bible, then the Bible is no longer the only infallible authority. Of course, no Protestant will actually admit that they do this; but the reality is that it does indeed happen. Whenever a Protestant treats their doctrine as though it is above question and incapable of being wrong, they are effectively declaring (though not in so many words) that it is an infallible teaching. They don’t believe their doctrine is possibly right, or mostly right, but that it is above question.

A primary example of this is their view of their canon of Scripture, that is, their official list of books that belong in the Bible. No Protestant would ever dare to suggest that the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, is not inspired. It’s simply unthinkable. Why is that? They are treating the tradition of the canon as infallible, yet where does the Bible—which they declare is the only infallible authority—say that the Epistle to the Hebrews is inspired? The reality is that the Bible does not make any such claim, so it must be that they accept it as an inspired (infallible) tradition that has its source somewhere outside the Bible.

It is not just with the canon that this happens. Confessional Protestants, such as Lutherans and Reformed, will sometimes rely on the authority of their confessional statements just as much as they rely on the authority of Scripture. Lutherans do this when they subscribe to the “quia” view of the Book of Concord. The Latin word quia means “because,” so the quia view is the belief that the Lutheran confessions are to be subscribed to because they are faithful to the Scriptures. It is very important to note that the quia view does not say that the Lutheran confessions are accepted if they accurately convey what the Bible says; it claims the Lutheran confessions are accepted because they accurately do so. Thus, the Lutheran confessions are assumed to be a completely correct explanation of Biblical truth, without any conditions. What else is that but to treat them as infallible? And when they are regarded that way, they are elevated to the same level as Scripture itself!

Another example of this is the doctrine of Limited Atonement, the idea that Christ died only for the elect and no others, held by Calvinist and Reformed Christians. I mention this particular doctrine because 1) there is no explicit, clear teaching of it in Scripture, and 2) in spite of that, those who hold to it do so unwaveringly, doggedly, and dogmatically. In my experience, some adherents of this doctrine (and I used to be one!) end up falling back on a logical syllogism to defend it rather than citing and exegeting passages of Scripture. Even when Scripture is brought forth in the attempt to substantiate the view, the attempt is inadequate at best. Nevertheless, as I said, the doctrine is embraced doggedly and dogmatically in spite of the lack of Biblical support. Now if an interpretation of Scripture is embraced doggedly and without question, in spite of the scanty Biblical support, isn’t it clear what the real authority is for those who do that? At the end of the day, it is really not sola scriptura that is followed but rather sola interpretatio.

Thus, the claim of sola scriptura that Scripture is the only infallible authority ends up being hollow, for it really isn’t followed consistently. The doctrine is proclaimed, but in practice it is denied.

So in the end, Protestants have their share of theological traditions—whether in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Book of Concord, or other official statements of faith—that they really do see as being equal in authority to Scripture. Of course, this is denied, but the stark reality is that it truly does happen in practice. And if the adherents of sola scriptura go against it so frequently, one has to wonder if the doctrine is really believed at all.

One of the common arguments against the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is the fact that Christ spoke figuratively in many places throughout the Gospels. As the argument goes, if He referred to Himself as “the Door” and “the Vine,” which are clearly figurative terms, then surely He was using figurative language when He referred to the bread and wine as His body and blood, respectively.

This is highly improbable, however, since Jesus Himself made a sharp distinction between the manner in which He taught the general populace and the manner in which He spoke to His disciples privately:

And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that

they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven. …

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything. (Mark 4:10–12, 33–34, ESV)

The indication here is that when Jesus spoke metaphorically, it was to the general populace—those who were “outside”—but when He was alone with His disciples, He did not speak in such a way, because His purpose with them was entirely different. Thus, when He was alone with those men during the Last Supper, He was not speaking in a parable when He said, “This is my body” and “this is my blood,” and His purpose at that time was not to speak in figurative language “so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven.” Such people were not His audience and company at the Last Supper.

Even if He did speak to them figuratively when He was alone with them, He would have explained the meaning, according to the Gospel account. In our records of the Last Supper, however, He does not provide any explanation for His use of the words body and blood. Why not? Could it be that no explanation was needed, since they were not meant figuratively at all? Therefore, it’s more than reasonable to conclude that He meant those terms literally.

If you have spent any time in theological discussions on the Internet or elsewhere, you have probably noticed that people have a tendency to pit one verse in the Bible against another when defending their theological system of choice. They lavish great attention on those passages that support their view while talking around or glossing over biblical texts that go against the doctrinal grain of their system.

That is the reality. However, it raises an important question: Why is this such a common occurrence? That question would not even be necessary if the unbalanced treatment of holy writ were done by people who regard the Bible as only a literary work of men and nothing more. Yes, if those individuals did such a thing, it would not be surprising. What we so often encounter, however, is the opposite: people who hold to the inspiration of all of Scripture—not just parts of it—but who, in spite of that belief, treat some parts of the corpus of holy writ with less attention, devotion, and acceptance than other parts.

The answer to that question is readily available if we recognize the lure of total, all-encompassing comprehension. I for one am convinced that the above mentioned unbalanced, dishonest handling of Scripture is the direct result of our natural need to fully comprehend all mysteries. We are not satisfied with mystery and paradox; our reason bucks and kicks at such things with the stubbornness of a mule. Consequently, we latch onto one theological system with all our might, a set of doctrines that seem to tie up all the loose ends, eliminate all mysteries, and ward off that dreaded monster, Paradox. We long for something that is neatly tied up, something we feel answers all the questions, solves all the riddles, and completely covers the sheer vastness of Holy Scripture. Viewing our theological system as the pinnacle of truth and the perfect sum of theological knowledge provides deep, incredible comfort, because then we can feel that our doctrinal search is over and we have finally tied up all those pesky loose ends.

That can provide a good deal of peace, but I think that more often than not, it’s a false peace. The problem is that any theological system is ultimately man-made. It is a fallible human attempt to understand Scripture thoroughly, and as with any man-made system, it has blind spots; that is, it is severely limited by its inability to lasso the many different teachings of Scripture into the confines of its doctrinal corral. It’s like trying to wrap our arms around one of the giant redwood trees in California: Embracing the full circumference of that arboreal giant is a vain hope. Likewise, trying to capture all of Scripture within the confines of a man-made system is equally hopeless. It’s the finite trying to wrap its mental arms around the infinite. Consequently, it is unable to cover the sheer vastness and depth of revelation, and so it cannot deal adequately with those scripture passages that go against it.

What then must we do? We must embrace both sides of a theological issue as mystery and paradox rather than be out of balance and embrace one side to the exclusion of the other. When we are able to do that, then we are the greatest of theologians, because it is only then that we will treat all parts of Scripture with the respect and attention they deserve.

This video doesn’t go in-depth, but the Lutheran pastor in it does a great job explaining some important differences between Lutheranism and Calvinism. His explanations reminded me why I love Lutheranism. Enjoy.

You can find some great gems when reading the old church fathers. I came across this one while reading one of John Chrysostom’s homilies on Matthew. In it, he is talking about the parable of the sower and the seed and is warning us of the need to fight against all the different pitfalls described there: cares of this world, riches, carelessness about hearing the Word, etc.

“Hearing therefore these things, let us fortify ourselves on all sides, regarding His instructions, and striking our roots deep, and cleansing ourselves from all worldly things. But if we do the one, neglecting the other, we shall be nothing bettered; for though we perish not in one way, yet shall we in some other. For what signifies our not being ruined by riches, if we are [ruined] by indolence: or not [ruined] by indolence, if we are [ruined] by softness. For so the husbandman, whether this way or that way he lose his crop, equally bewails himself. Let us not then soothe ourselves upon our not perishing in all these ways, but let it be our grief, whichever way we are perishing.” (Homily XLIV on the Gospel of Matthew)

In other words: Don’t be satisfied when you have victory over one area of sin and weakness, but fight against all areas of sin.

No wonder Christ said, “Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt. 26:41)

I noticed this when I read Genesis 3 in preparation for a discussion at church yesterday. I found it noteworthy that the serpent did not tell a complete lie to Eve. There was actually some truth in what he told her: “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (vv. 4b-5). The first part (that they wouldn’t die) was a lie, but the second part was actually true–the part about knowing good and evil. God Himself confirms this later on, in v. 22: “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil.”

It reminds me of used car salesmen. They’ll never tell you the things that are wrong with the car; they’ll tell you only the good things about it. Only afterward, when you drive the car off the lot and have it for a while, do you notice the problems: oil leak, engine trouble, etc.

The enemy will always mix truth with lies when he tempts us. He’ll attract us with the good things about sin–for example, that it will be fun and thrilling. And that is usually true; but he won’t tell us the negative consequences of that sin: hardness of heart, wounding our conscience, grieving the Holy Spirit, and more.

It’s not just Satan, either, that we have to watch out for. We can deceive ourselves, deliberately blocking out of our minds the negative consequences of the sin we’re contemplating and thinking only of the fleeting thrill it will give us.

We need to be like Job, who, even in the face of great loss and sorrow, which must have tempted him to curse God, “did not sin nor did he blame God” (Job 1:22).

Bible verses from the New American Standard Bible

With Thanksgiving past and the Christmas season fast approaching, I remembered this old post of mine from about five years ago. I decided to repost it now (with some edits) because it is my firm conviction that its message should be read and heeded by Christians everywhere.

It cannot be denied that this time of year holds a special place in most people’s hearts. The tinsel, glitter, Christmas trees, gift wrap, exchange of presents, good food, and everything else that our culture has made the indispensable ingredients of the holiday fill our hearts with warm, positive feelings. What is striking, however, is the overemphasis that is placed on these aspects year after year.

As a Christian who understands and values the origins of the holiday, I have long felt an aversion to this overemphasis. Too much focus is placed on these cultural misinterpretations of this very important and meaningful holiday, while too little emphasis is placed on the One from whom the holiday derives its name. I know plenty of others have already lamented the way our culture celebrates Christmas: “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Keep Christ in Christmas” have practically become proverbs among Christians. I stand in a long line of people who have spoken out against these errors, so it would seem that my dissent would be just another disgruntled voice. This is not the case, though, because I believe that these past criticisms have overlooked the root of the problem: suppression of the truth.

The first chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Romans goes into considerable detail about this. In it Paul describes the downward spiral of human depravity and the reasons for that downward spiral. He wrote:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. (Romans 1:18–23, NASB)

Without the grace of God, when people are presented with clear evidence of God’s existence, they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Not only do they suppress that truth, but they then seek to replace it with a “truth” of their own making. In Romans 1, it is false gods, worshiping creation rather than the Creator.

Our culture’s way of celebrating Christmas is really just another way that fallen humanity suppresses the truth—in this case, the truth that Jesus Christ’s birth was to rid humanity of sin and reconcile a rebellious, fallen human race to a holy God. As Charles Wesley so well put it in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”:

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

This final stanza is seldom heard, and given Paul’s description of humanity in Romans 1, it is easy to see why. Angels and shepherds are nice, but the idea that people are spiritually dead and in need of a Savior does not appeal to the world. Fallen humanity does not want to hear that it is helpless to save itself, that it is guilty of sin and headed for judgment, and that God mercifully provided a way out of this enormous mess. As a result, this crucial aspect of Christmas is not made clear during the holiday season. What is made clear, however, are precisely those things that have nothing to do with the incarnation of the Word for the salvation of mankind. As nice and quaint as Santa, reindeer, Christmas trees, ornaments, bright lights and all the other popular holiday paraphernalia are, don’t they actually suppress the truth of the holiday? Don’t they actually exchange the truth for a lie? If you don’t think they do, then why isn’t the real reason emphasized just as fervently as these other things? Why is there such a lack of emphasis on Jesus and why he came to earth? How many Christmas cards emphasize this not-so-pleasant reason for Christ’s advent—or even say the word Christmas for that matter? Many cards now avoid using that specific name and instead use deliberately vague expressions such as holiday or season. It is all too clear that Jesus Christ’s relevance to Christmas is suppressed in favor of things that are more palatable to the carnal man.

The definition of any word has essential attributes, without which it ceases to be an accurate definition, but the popular icons our culture has come to associate inseparably with Christmas are actually nonessential attributes. Would the omission of Santa Claus from the holiday eliminate the reason to celebrate it? What about Rudolph and the other reindeer? What about Christmas trees? You may think that these things are necessary to define Christmas, but the fact of the matter is that they are not.

Now I have to say that most of these things are not necessarily bad in and of themselves. Giving gifts is not intrinsically sinful, and neither are Christmas trees, ornaments and tinsel. But if we emphasize these things so much that they end up overshadowing the truth, then they become tools of suppressing the truth. What we value is made clear by what we emphasize; what we devalue is made clear by what we deemphasize. Do we push Christ into the background while leaving commercialism, materialism and the other nonessential holiday paraphernalia in the foreground?

It is long overdue for Christians to rethink our celebrations at this time of the year. If our celebration of Christmas is no different from that of the world, we need to ask ourselves: Are we helping the world in its suppression of the truth? Let’s celebrate Christmas the way God would have us do so: not by suppressing its underlying truths but by upholding them for the world to see.

The doctrine of Limited Atonement—the teaching that Christ died only for the elect—has been disputed in Christianity for a long time. Some call it Definite Atonement or Particular Redemption, but regardless of what it is called, the doctrine could have some serious implications for the gospel. To be specific, I have thought lately that if one took Limited Atonement to its logical, necessary conclusion, one would have a very weak gospel or no gospel at all—either for oneself or for others.

If you really believe that Christ died only for the elect, then when you share the gospel with someone, you cannot honestly say to that person, “Christ died for you.” In fact, you cannot even say that to yourself, since you cannot know with complete certainty that you’re one of the elect. After all, lots of people have shown great promise in the Christian life only to turn away from Christ later.

Thus, the most that honest adherents of Limited Atonement can say to themselves or others is this: “Jesus might have died for you, so believe in him, and you have a chance that you’ll be saved.” That, of course, is no gospel. What good news is it if the message promises only the possibility that Christ died for me and not rather the certainty that he did? The gospel is good news only when it assures me that Christ died for me personally. On the other hand, if I have no assurance that Christ died personally for me, then how could I personally trust in him for my salvation? There would always be doubt.

Therefore, if you believe in Limited Atonement and are consistent with that belief, it is highly doubtful that you have any good news to share with others, let alone with yourself.