Defining Idolatry

In Scripture, the sin of idolatry is not limited to the complete displacement of the true God by false gods. It also includes the worship of false gods alongside the true God. The Jezebels who wanted Baal and Asherah instead of Yahweh were certainly idolaters, but so were the average Israelites who thought of themselves primarily as Yahweh worshipers who happened to dabble in Baalism, Asherism, and any number of other “-isms” in order to cover their bases. In other words, your heart doesn’t have to be exclusively devoted to a false god in order for the act to qualify as idolatry. In fact, rarely would it be the case that pagan worship would entail the full devotion of the heart. Pagan worship, in contrast to biblically defined worship of the one true God, could best be characterized as a kind of business transaction in which the worshiper jumps through all of the right hoops in order to placate the gods and secure favors from them. It would be very easy to be an idolater while also maintaining one’s basic identity as a worshiper of Yahweh. Continue reading

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Drawing from the Well, 2/14/17

For an introduction to the series, read this.

Today I will begin working through the Nicene Creed, offering suggestions for how to teach its contents to children. This creed, in its final form, is a revision of the Creed of the Council of Nicea (AD 325) that was updated by the Council of Constantinople (AD 381), the council that settled the boundaries of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. From the latter part of the fourth century to this day, the Nicene Creed has been the primary theological statement of all branches of the Christian church: Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. Those who deny its teachings cannot rightly be deemed orthodox Christians, at least in any historical sense. Like the Apostles’ Creed, it has a follows a Trinitarian structure.

Memorization for the Week

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…

Thoughts for Discussion with Children

How many gods are there? That’s right: there is only one true God. He alone is the Creator of all things who was never created by anyone else, because he just always was. So that means everything else that was made depends on him, but he doesn’t depend on anyone or anything else at all. That’s what makes him the only true God.

But notice how the Nicene Creed refers to him: “the Father Almighty.” Was there ever a time when he was not “the Father,” or has he always been Father? That’s an interesting question, because when we follow the Bible’s teaching and say that he was indeed always God the Father, that means there must have always been God the Son with him. He wouldn’t be Father without having a Son. So, the Creed is telling us that there is only one God, and yet this one God always had someone with him. The Father always had the Son with him. There was never a time when the Father was without the Son (and, as we know as well, there was never a time when the Father and the Son did not have the Holy Spirit with them).

So, if the Son was always there, it means that he was never created, just like the Father was never created. Does that mean we really have two (or three) gods instead of one? No! There is only one God, but this one God has always been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is one thing but three persons: one “what” but three “who’s”. That’s something we can’t fully understand, but we shouldn’t expect to be able to understand God completely anyway, or else he wouldn’t really be God.

The wonderful thing about the Bible’s teaching that God has always been Father is that it means he has always loved the Son. He never had to learn how to love. When he created us, he loved us already because love is his very nature. If he had been all alone before creation, we couldn’t really say that about him. But the Bible’s teaching on the Trinity shows us that he was not all alone. The Father has always loved the Son, and the Son has always loved the Father, in the Holy Spirit.

 

Why the Pro-Life Movement Should Stay Focused

I plan to come back to my normal blogging schedule next week, beginning a new set in the “Drawing from the Well” series on the Nicene Creed. Today, I wanted to share some thoughts I have had recently about a pitfall I see in the pro-life movement.

What is the pro-life movement about? What are its specific cultural and political goals? How does it measure success? I believe the movement is primarily about one thing, and thus the success of the movement depends on the achievement of one measurable objective: the elimination of legal forms of murder in the United States and other (mostly Western) nations that currently allow it. The farther we drift from defining the term “pro-life” from that specific objective, the more fractured and weakened the movement will become. Continue reading

Would the Incarnation Have Happened Apart from the Fall?

Theological speculation can be fun because it often leads to deep thinking about how the whole system of your theology fits together. Posing “what if” questions often helps us understand more clearly the significance of doctrines that we confess. For example, when teaching on the doctrine of the Person of Christ, I often pose the question, “What if Jesus were not fully God?” In other words, what if the Arians were right all along? What would follow? According to Athanasius and other church fathers, the whole gospel would become unraveled. That is because from a biblical perspective, only God can save us. If Jesus is not fully God, he cannot reveal the true God to us and bring us into his presence. The deity of Christ is an essential component of the gospel. Continue reading

Drawing from the Well, 1/24/17

For an introduction to the series, read this.

We come today to the final article in my church’s statement of faith, based on the Baptist Faith and Message. It is focused on eschatology, or the doctrine of last things.

Statement of Faith Article for the Week

VIII. LAST THINGS

God, in His own time and in His own way, will bring the world to its appropriate end. According to His promise, Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth; the dead will be raised; and Christ will judge all men in righteousness. The unrighteous will be consigned to Hell, the place of everlasting punishment. The righteous in their resurrected and glorified bodies will receive their reward and will dwell forever in Heaven with the Lord.

Thoughts for Discussion with Children

No story is complete without a proper ending. The Bible tells us that we are living in a story that is headed toward a very happy ending. Actually, it is a very happy ending for some, but not for others. And that’s how most stories go: at the end, the hero and his friends celebrate victory, and the villains have fallen to defeat.

But everything in this story is focused on one Man: Jesus Christ. He is the hero. At his first coming, he was born as a baby to a poor family, and he came to be put to death by his enemies so that he could save us from our sins. When he comes again, he will come in power and glory, with his mighty angels, to judge all who oppose him and rescue all who love him. The Bible teaches that God will judge all people through Jesus Christ, the God-man, dividing us all up into two groups of believers and unbelievers. So, in the end, there are two places we can go: some will have life forever with God in Heaven, and some will suffer under punishment for their sins forever in Hell. There is no other option.

So there is nothing more important than knowing, trusting, loving, and following Jesus right now. That is what determines how this story will end for you. That is what will make all the difference between Heaven and Hell. And yet, when we finally come to the end of the story, we will find that it is really just another beginning, the beginning of a joyful life beyond anything we have ever imagined. And because God never ends, our life with him will never end. Praise him for that hope, and live for that coming day.

Suggested Readings for the Week: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Revelation 19:1-22:8

On the Eve of Trump’s Inauguration

During the long presidential primary season, I would have preferred that the Republican party nominate anyone on its massive slate of candidates over Donald Trump. But Trump vanquished them all. Then, during the months of the general election campaign, I saw many reasons to be critical of candidate Trump, even to the point that, for the first time in my life, I chose not to vote for the Republican nominee for President (nor did I vote for the Democrat, nor have I ever done so, nor will I ever do so unless that party undergoes massive changes). And, in spite of my expectations, Trump vanquished Hillary Clinton and will tomorrow be inaugurated the 45th President of the United States.

In the two months that have passed since the election, as I have watched the Trump transition at work, my optimism for the future has grown. Here are several reasons why:

  1. As flawed as Donald Trump is, it seems he is a far better choice for President than the alternative we had this year. Hillary Clinton is one of the most transparently corrupt politicians in history. And, had she won, it would have been a foregone conclusion that leftist entrenchment in the massive organization of our federal government would have only grown, leading to more liberal policies on abortion, further curtailing of religious liberty, the permanence of Obamacare, and a continued push for cultural accommodations to LGBT concerns. Though I did not vote for Trump, I fully understand why many Christians did, and I think it is unfair to criticize them for choosing what appeared to be a bad option, when bad options were the only options on the table.
  2. As flawed as Donald Trump is, it is important to keep in mind that we are now emerging from eight years of an Obama administration that has been a wretched one. For eight years he has governed from the far left as a globalist and presidential imperialist. And now, at the end of his presidency, Constitutional government is virtually in shambles, left-wing ideology has permeated our federal government, our foreign policy is an incoherent mess that has led to a less stable world, and the list goes on and on. Having been through the Obama years, it is hard for me to imagine a President doing much worse. And by all accounts, it looks like Donald Trump will pursue policies oriented in a different political direction.
  3. As flawed as Donald Trump is, he has assembled a very strong administration, signaling his desire to pursue conservative policies in many areas of government. I am thrilled to see, for example, Betsy DeVos, an advocate for school choice, heading to the Department of Education. I expect Trump’s Supreme Court nominees will also be good ones. So far, Trump is making good on his promise to surround himself with solid, competent people. I believe, as the saying goes, that personnel is policy, and so the transition that Governor Pence (himself a solid pick for VP) has overseen gives me reason for optimism.

Of course, we cannot be naive. President Trump is very likely to continue the kind of imperialist presidency for which Barack Obama set a new precedent. On social issues related to marriage and sexuality, I don’t count Trump an ally. I don’t know that I have ever heard Donald Trump articulate a philosophy of government that comes close to resembling the Constitutional structure of checks and balances. It is regrettable that true conservatism wasn’t on the ballot in November 2016. I fully expect that the Trump presidency will help further the coarsening of our culture, that he will pursue some policies that will require convictional Christian believers to oppose him, and that under his leadership our national debt crisis will likely get worse.

And yet, all things considered, this is a scenario that is better than the alternative I envisioned. The hard push to the left that we have seen over these eight years has been arrested. The bleeding has been staunched. That doesn’t mean the whole body is healthy, but if you were expecting to bleed to death shortly, it’s certainly a reason to be thankful.

I am approaching the Trump years with cautious optimism, praying for our new President, hoping he will come through on many of his worthy campaign promises, but standing ready to oppose him when I must.

Drawing from the Well, 1/17/17

For an introduction to the series, read this.

This week we continue working through my church’s statement of faith, based on the Baptist Faith and Message.

Statement of Faith Article for the Week

VII. BAPTISM AND THE LORD’S SUPPER

Christian baptism, being the believer’s profession of faith, is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Savior, the believer’s cleansing from sin and death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is to be done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and it should be done by immersion. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership. The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the cup, remember the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming.

Thoughts for Discussion with Children

Imagine that one day you become such a great basketball player that you make it to the NBA. If that happened, there would come a day when you would first put on your team’s jersey and play in your first game as a member of that team. Putting on that jersey for the first time would no doubt be an amazing experience; it would be the moment when you could say, “I made it. I’m part of this team.”

But of course, you wouldn’t just put on your jersey for the first game, take it off, and never put it on again. No, you would put it on for every game after that, as long as you were on that team. The jersey would mark you out every time you wore it as a member of your basketball team. If you ever left that team, you wouldn’t wear their jersey anymore. Perhaps you would wear the jersey of another team, or you would stop wearing jerseys altogether because you had retired from basketball. Team jerseys show who belongs to a team and who doesn’t when that team gathers to play basketball.

The ordinances that Jesus gave to the church are similar to jerseys. Getting baptized is like putting on your jersey for the first time. It is what marks you publicly as a disciple of Jesus, as part of his church, and therefore it is a very important step of obedience in the Christian life. In baptism, we are put under the water to show that we have died with Christ to sin (in other words, sin is not master of us anymore, even though it still affects us as long as we are in this world); then we are raised up out of the water to show that we have been raised to spiritual life with Christ, and that spiritual life will one day blossom into new life of resurrection from the dead, just as Jesus himself was raised. When a person is baptized, he is declaring publicly that he has trusted in Jesus and has been through a death and resurrection, marking a change from serving sin to serving Jesus.

But is baptism the only way we show that we belong to Jesus? No, it isn’t. Just as a basketball player keeps putting on his jersey for game after game after game, Christians also are commanded by Jesus to do something that shows over and over and over that we are still trusting in Jesus alone to save us and still following him as disciples. But unlike putting on a jersey, baptism is not something that should be done more than once. Baptism marks the beginning of our life in Christ, but Jesus gave us something else to do over and over and over to show our ongoing life in Christ: the Lord’s Supper.

So, after we have been baptized into the church, we eat and drink the Lord’s Supper as often as the church serves it to us in order to show that we are still following Jesus and trusting in him alone to save us. The bread, representing his broken body, and the cup, representing his spilled blood, are things we take into our bodies by eating and drinking to show that we don’t trust in what we have done, but in his death for us.

Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper are acts of obedience for us as followers of Jesus. But they are also acts of obedience for the church who baptizes and serves us the bread and cup. By giving these signs (or “jerseys”) only to those who show they are believers in Jesus, the church shows the difference between Christians and the world. Christians get to wear the jersey, but non-Christians don’t. That is why these two acts are so special and important.

Suggested readings for the week: Matthew 28:18-20; Romans 6; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

The Incarnation and the (Im)Morality of Abortion

I’ll be taking a week off from blogging for the Christmas holidays next week, December 25-31. I will plan the next “Drawing from the Well” post for Tuesday, January 3. In the meantime, I’m re-posting today a piece I originally wrote in December of 2007 on another blog site. It applies some basic theological insights about the Trinity and the Person of Christ to the issue of abortion.

Two important terms in theology are “nature” and “person.” Both terms help us understand the central Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. With regard to the Trinity, we have one nature and three persons. God is three “who’s” but one “what”. The three persons share the same nature, so that all three are fully God, and yet there is only one God. With regard to the Incarnation, Jesus Christ is one person with two natures. He is one “who” with two “what’s,” one person who is both fully divine and fully human. Both of these truths are great mysteries, because in our experience singular personhood is always tied to an individual human nature. We have nothing analogous to the Trinity or to the Incarnation in normal experience, so we bow before the mystery.  Continue reading

The Immaculate Conception?

The Roman Catholic Church teaches not only the historic Christian doctrine of the virginal conception and birth of Jesus Christ, but also the “Immaculate Conception” of the Virgin Mary in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne. Although born by the normal means of a sexual union of her parents, Mary was, according to Rome, miraculously preserved in her conception and birth from the stain of original sin. As a result, Mary lived a sinless life and was therefore qualified to be ark of the new covenant, the holy vessel of the Incarnation, just as the ark of the old covenant had been the holy vessel of the tablets of the old covenant. The presupposition behind this argument seems to be that God the Son required a holy dwelling place, free from all sin, for the time of his gestation in the womb, and Mary is the one human being in history uniquely qualified for this role. Continue reading