Thursday, May 2, 2019

Religion is a Matter of the Heart

They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts (Romans 2:15 NIV).

To be human is to be immersed in life (in existence, in the reality around us). There is no God’s eye view from which we can stand and with pure objectivity observe reality.

To be sure, we have gained much by our attempts to stand back and analyze reality. We’ve been doing this in various ways since the beginning of human existence. With the scientific revolution there came tremendous gains from our ability to analyze the natural world but with it also a false sense of our ability to be objective and an exaggeration of the role of detachment in knowing.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in reason. However, knowing involves more than our cognitive faculty. There is what the ancients called the heart, a faculty often ignored by moderns.

What is “heart”? For the biblical writers heart refers to the whole person immersed in reality. It refers to the whole self, intellect, emotions and will. Significantly, it’s with the heart we know religious truth, for religious truth has to do with ultimate reality, reality in its totality.

We see this in the text from Romans quoted above. Paul says that humans know the requirements of the law, meaning they have a sense of how they ought to be. The place of this knowing he calls the heart. In another place he’ll say humans are immersed in God (“in him we live and move and have our being”, Acts 17:28). God is that which structures existence. He is the source of unity and order. He is the source of law, the laws of nature and the laws of right moral conduct.

One of the better commentaries on this passage comes from John Calvin:

they prove that there is imprinted on their hearts a discrimination and judgment by which they distinguish between what is just and unjust, between what is honest and dishonest. He means not that it was so engraven on their will, that they sought and diligently pursued it, but that they were so mastered by the power of truth, that they could not disapprove of it. For why did they institute religious rites, except that they were convinced that God ought to be worshipped? Why were they ashamed of adultery and theft, except that they deemed them evils?

Religion, Calvin says, is a matter of the heart. Religions arise from our knowing in our being that there is a God and there is a way we ought to be. We are inescapably related to God and the order that flows from him, and deep down, we all know it. The religious outlook says there is a divine reality that structures our existence and we recognize our accountability to that reality. We know it in our hearts.

Christ appears as the one who embodies the order of being. He is the law of our being incarnated. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and we know it. The message Christians give to the world is surrender to the truth! The standard has appeared (Acts 17:31) and we know it. It cuts us to the heart (Acts 2:37). Acknowledge what you know to be true!

Jesus says, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37 NIV). This hearing and listening happens with the heart (the soil of the parable of the sower). The gift that comes with the law embodied in Christ is the good news of the divine reality being for us, and our believing in Christ as the one who brings good news is from our heart (Romans 10:10), but that’s for another post.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

May 2019 Church Newsletter Article: Triumphing in the Trial

At the end of this month we’ll be marking forty days since our celebration of Easter. It was at that time that Jesus left his disciples and ascended into heaven. The disciples asked Jesus just before he left if he was now going “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). They still had it in their minds that the messiah is supposed to bring in an earthly kingdom. Why is that?

Well, the Old Testament speaks of a day when God’s kingdom will be all in all. There are sweeping promises of God’s reign and rule through his anointed one when injustice and oppression will cease. Even today many Jews reject Jesus as Messiah precisely because he did not bring in this reign of literal, physical peace on earth. There is the unusual case of Pinchas Lapide, a Jewish diplomat and historian, who accepts the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection and believes that Jesus is the Messiah of the Gentiles (non-Jews) but says that only the return of Jesus to rule on earth will show him to be the Jewish messiah.

As Christians we too long for the establishment of God’s righteous rule on earth. This is what we pray for every Sunday when we say “thy Kingdom come”. When we see the horrendous evil in our world today (as I’m writing this the news is filled with the story of coordinated attacks in Sri Lanka) we cry out with the martyrs of the book of Revelation, “How long Lord?” (Revelation 6:10).

However, we believe that Jesus did not simply leave this earth. We believe he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father (Apostles’ Creed). His ascension to the Father’s right hand signifies that, in spite of what we see, he is in charge. This is the message of the book of Revelation. Jesus is the lamb who is worthy to take the scroll from the Father’s hand and administer God’s decrees for our world (Revelation 4).

We’re told in that same book of Revelation that God has sealed his people (given them a sign of his having chosen them). These people come out of the great tribulation; that is, they go through the trials of this world but they do so as those sealed by God (Revelation 7), and they overcome in the midst of those trials. How are they sealed, and by what power do they overcome?

Ephesians says we were marked with a seal, the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13), which brings us back to Jesus’ ascension. At his ascension he told his disciples it was not for them to know when the end of the age would come but they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. Their task would be serving as his witnesses in the midst of this world of tribulation (Acts 1:7-8).

When we look at our world of tribulation, with its Sri Lanka attacks and other violence, our job is to bear witness through word and deed to a new reality that has come because of Christ. We do this in the power of the Holy Spirit, and we proclaim a coming day when what God has begun in us will culminate in a world where this no more sickness, sorrow, or pain, and death will be no more (Revelation 21). And we pray, “Even so, Come, Lord Jesus!”

Sunday, March 31, 2019

April 2019 Church Newsletter Article: Easter!

As I’m writing this, the birds are chirping, and the sun is shining. The sky is a beautiful light blue. It is morning, and it is spring, one of life’s great gifts that all can enjoy. There is the feeling of the fresh and the new.

As I’m writing this, I’m also in the midst of a series of Lenten Bible studies on the passion of Christ, a story that reflects much that is old and stale about our world. What I mean is, the ugliness and violence of the human race manifested in the story. The world has been and continues to be a place of injustice and oppression, a place of self-centeredness and greed, a place of sin.

However, we can endure the ugliness of the story, even as we endured the long winter we had this year, because we know a new day is dawning. Easter is our spiritual springtime. It is a breath of fresh air after the heavy focus on sin and God’s just punishment of our sin.

As Christians we have hope. I really don’t understand how people can have hope without Easter. I think C.S. Lewis is right. Life without Easter is always winter and no spring (see his The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe). Imagine a world without spring. How horrible that would be! Yet, that is precisely the world within which many people live.

Our privilege as Christians is to announce to the world that spring has sprung! A new day has dawned! It began already before Easter in the man Jesus Christ. His whole way of being signaled a new day (even as the chirping birds and busy ants signal things are about to change). Even in the midst of his passion, Christ’s self-surrender to the will of his father signals hope in the midst of horrible injustice. God is really in control and not sinful humanity. God in Christ is breaking the pattern that has held us in bondage for so long.

How can we not celebrate with joy this great gift! How can we not announce it to a world tired of all the bickering and division, tired of all the hatred and evil deeds that spring has spring! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Glory to God in the highest! May God fill you once more with the joy of Easter and may your joy overflow to those around you!

Easter Blessings to you all!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Christianity Isn't for Everybody

The title of this post is deliberately provocative. Of course I'm not saying that God doesn't want all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). In that sense, of course, Christianity is for everybody. What I'm referring to is the fact that not everybody will express an interest in Christian faith, and we should accept this fact.

We should accept it because Jesus himself said this would be the case. In a recent reading from the Sunday gospel (July 8th) Jesus told his disciples that there would be those who would not receive the message. They were then to shake the dust off their feet and move on (Mark 6:1-13). In other places Jesus said many are called but few are chosen (Matthew 22:14) and broad is the way that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). Belief is the exception, not the norm.

We should also accept it because it will affect the way we do ministry. I believe it will cause us to act in a way more in line with the early church, and it will help us avoid unnecessary frustration while at the same time increasing our effectiveness. We will spend our time on the interested people (the thirsty of John 7:37). We will recognize the miracle of those who do believe and spend time nurturing and expanding their faith.

I'm not saying we shouldn't share our faith with those outside the church or that we should abandon praying for unbelievers, simply that we recognize that not everybody will be interested and that's okay. In fact, I believe that as we focus our efforts on the interested and the believing their lives of increasing faith will awaken interest in the unbelieving. They will act as the salt and light of which Jesus spoke and will make people thirsty.

I'm also convinced an awareness that Christianity isn't for everybody is key to the church's health. So much of the watering down of the faith takes place in the false belief that somehow everyone should be interested and if they're not it's our fault. This leads to an emphasis on generating excitement through various techniques and giving only messages which are of interest to a wide audience. Christian distinctiveness gets lost and the salt is no longer salty. Ironically, Christianity is made uninteresting in the very attempt to make it so.

The future belongs to those churches and church bodies which recognize that what they have is not for everybody, and they shouldn't expect everyone to want what they have to give. Yet strangely as they do just that they will continue to become stronger and more interesting to those around them and will grow. Jesus said this would be the case (if I be lifted up--me in my contradiction with the world expressed by the cross--I will draw all people), and we don't have to look far to see that it is so.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Luther on Civil Righteousness

Here's a quote from Luther on the human capacity to cultivate civil righteousness, the capacity of all people to develop virtue and be relatively good people. Reformed theology speaks similarly when it talks of common grace. Luther is careful to distinguish this from being truly righteous before God.
We must distinguish between the theological and the civil standpoints. God approves also the rule of the ungodly; he honors and rewards virtue also among the ungodly, but only in regard to the things of this life and things grasped by a reason which is upright from the civil standpoint; whereas the future life is not embraced in such reward. His approval is not with regard to the future life. We believe that man without the Holy Spirit is altogether corrupt before God, though he may stand adorned with all heathen virtues, as moderation, liberality, love of country, parents and children, courage and humanity. The declarations of the Holy Scriptures prove the same thing. The statement in the fourteenth Psalm is sweeping enough when it says, “The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy; there is none that doeth good; no, not one. Paul says, “God hath concluded them all in unbelief.” Christ says, “Without me ye can do nothing.”

Friday, February 23, 2018


(Below is my article for the March 2018 Salem Church newsletter.)

This month we will journey once more to the cross, the place at which Christians claim history finds its center point. We claim that there, once and for all, the wrongs of history met their match. In the person of Jesus wrong was met and overcome. He rose three days later proving that he destroyed its power.

The wrong we’re talking about is sin. At the heart of what we mean when we talk about sin is a conflict with the eternal, with God himself. It’s this conflict with the eternal that makes sin so serious. The whole message of the Bible is that human beings have become separated from their true source and grounding. Even more than mere separation, we are at odds with our true source, that which is really good, really right, really true. There is a conflict between humanity and God.

This conflict was brought out into the open when humanity put God on the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth made plain what’s in the human heart. We are at odds with the one who is The Truth. We need to be saved from ourselves, for to be at odds with The Truth means eternal destruction.

The resurrection reveals that in taking the conflict upon himself Jesus defeated it. I would be lying if I said I had it all figured out, but I am convinced that Jesus became the place where humanity was reconciled to God. When we proclaim this message God himself speaks to people inviting them to fellowship with himself, such is the power of the gospel.

As I’m writing this the world is mourning the loss of Billy Graham, the great Christian evangelist of our time. I didn’t know Billy Graham personally, but I am convinced that he put his faith in the proclamation of the gospel. He obviously believed that if he kept putting the message out there people would respond. You might say he kept the main thing, the main thing.

The gift of this time of the year is that it brings us back to the main thing, the crux of the matter. “Crux” actually comes from the word cross, reminding us that the cross is the heart of it all. Once more God is speaking to us. Do you hear him? He’s saying, I love you, come to me; at the cross you will find rest for your soul. You will be healed.

I encourage you, be renewed in your faith. Contemplate the cross of Christ. Dwell on these things. Share them with others. And, if you haven’t received them for yourself, simply surrender to the truth. Accept what the cross says about yourself and about what God has done to overcome it and then live as a new person, reconciled to God, obedient to him.

Holy Week and Easter Blessings to you all!