Lament of an Unexceptional Writer

38942-lament

Looking through some catalogs the other day, I came across the fourth volume in a five-volume systematic theology series being written by my PhD mentor, Veli-Matti Kärrkäinen.  It’s a massive 520-page tome that only represents one fifth of the entire work.  Besides these works, he has also written and edited more than twenty other books, over one hundred articles and chapters in collected works, and shows no signs of diminishing his voluminous output.  He does all of this on top of a full-time seminary teaching position that includes not only regular class responsibilities but also the mentoring of several PhD mentees.  He is also a part-time pastor of a Finnish church in Southern California since Finnish (not English!) is his native tongue.  In addition, he is docent of ecumenics at the University of Helsinki and is active in the World Council of Churches.  I’m assuming he also finds time to spend with his wife and children since he is happily married and the father of two.

I share this to make a point.  There are some people in this world who are not only exceptionally brilliant, they are exceptionally energetic and disciplined as well.  I know this because it takes much more than intelligence and energy to write books and articles.  It takes discipline and a lot of hard work.

As a writer, I have a folder in my computer entitled, “Thoughts on Files.”  When an idea or sudden flash of insight strikes me, I take a few moments to write down the beginnings of what I want to say about the issue, event, or idea.  As of this writing, besides numerous (bad and amateurish) poems, I have sixty blog posts (two of which are poems) and over a hundred and forty other “thoughts on files” saved for future development.  There are also sketches and outlines for at least three major books and several articles.  The fact is, I have tons of ideas I want to develop and communicate to others with more coming all the time.

If I am honest, however, it seems likely the vast majority will never be developed into even short works of writing, let alone a fully developed feature-length articles or full-blown books.  I could live another lifetime or two and never have enough time to write all I want to write.  Doubtless, additional lifetimes would only produce additional ideas that would continue to pile up in the “to be developed someday” folder.

When I think about it, it drives me to lament.  It does not bother me much that I may never engender a widespread readership or that my blogs will never go “viral.”  What vexes me more is the great likelihood that I will never have the satisfaction of taking all these scraps and pieces and weave them into a coherent and helpful whole that might be used by God for His glory and the edification of Christ’s body, the church.

Between the daily responsibilities of my teaching and mentoring ministry coupled with my family life and other interests, it is unlikely I have the intelligence, energy, or discipline to bring these thoughts to any semblance of full fruition.  Like the journals, letters, books, essays, memos, and poems of countless other average writers through the corridors of time, they will all turn to dust and be forgotten to the world in a relatively short span of time.

My lament, then, is not so much a lament of frustration or anger: “Why did you make me this way, God?”  Rather, it is a lament that my time and energy keep running out.  I think in my heart of hearts, I did want to make a larger and broader contribution to the body of Christ, perhaps by leaving behind a bestseller or two.  But in the end, the impact I have, though felt in much smaller ways, will be no less significant, so long as I am faithful to gifts and abilities God has given me.

They may not be gifts on a level with the exceptional whom we can certainly appreciate and admire.  Nevertheless, His gifts to me are still precious, and He only asks me to offer them up and use them for His glory.  I raise, therefore, not merely a lament, but also a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise to God for all I have been given, be it much or little when compared to other writers.

As writer-extraordinaire John Lennox puts it in Against the Flow, “We must learn to be content with the significance that God gives us . . . and contentment comes when we understand that it has pleased God to make us just as we are” (81-82).

Thank you, Lord, for gifting Your church with exceptional writers.  And thank You, too, for making me just as I am and helping me use my gifts for Your greater glory and honor.

 

What about those who’ve never heard of Jesus? Part Three

In this three-part series, we have been exploring the controversial question concerning the destiny of those who have never heard of Jesus Christ.  In part one we looked at the holiness of God and sinfulness of humanity.  In part two we examined the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as the only sufficient payment for God’s demands for justice against sin and rebellion.

In this concluding post, we will consider our responsibility as believers in the light of these truths.  We begin by emphasizing this: if Christ really is the only way to have a right relationship with God, then we have to realize how important our task is!  As representatives and ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), we have the only message (and know the only person) that can save anyone at all.  All the philosophies, all the religions and good behavior, all the money and fame, all the trends and fads, will never deliver what they promise, because they simply cannot save us from our most basic problem—sin.  Only Jesus can and will deliver!

Romans 10:13-15 says, “for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.  How then can they call on the one they have not believed in?  And how can they believe in the one whom they have not heard?  And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  And how can they preach unless they are sent?  As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”  We must take the message out to the world because without it, people cannot call on the name of the Lord and be saved.  And this acts as something of an indictment against Christians who have kept their faith to themselves and failed to follow Jesus’ clear command to take the gospel to the ends of earth (Matthew 28:18-20).

But now that we have seen the fact that apart from Jesus no one can be saved, what can we tell someone whom we are sharing the gospel with who asks about those who have never heard of Jesus?

Here are some things to keep in mind: First, the question is often a smoke screen by the individual to avoid the real issue they are currently being confronted with.  You need to realize that they may be doing one of two things: They may be pointing away from their own personal accountability before God.  If so, it is a good idea to say to them: “What about you now that you have this information?  How will you personally respond?”

But in all fairness, the person who raises this question may have a genuine concern for the lost.  If so, then they need to better understand the basic truths of the gospel message.  All people need Jesus because all have sinned; God requires perfection, and only Jesus was adequate to die for sin’s penalty because He alone was and is perfect.  And this death of Christ expresses God’s great love since He very easily could have left us all to die in our state of alienation from Him.  The fact that there is just one person in heaven with a holy God is reason enough to say that God is an incredibly gracious and loving God!

We must also keep in mind that God is fair and will judge and punish people according to what they know and do, as Romans 2:6-11 seems to suggest.  But again, we must also remember that Paul goes on to suggest in the same book that as believers, we have a solemn and sacred responsibility to boldly and continuously share the gospel with anyone and everyone who will listen.

You can also ask this of the one you are sharing with: “On the basis of what has been talked about, can you really say that you have done everything right?  What does that make you?  What does God require?  Why do you need Jesus then?”  Don’t forget to remind them that there are Christians and missionaries in virtually every country on this earth, and the reason they are there is because they truly believe that without Jesus, people are condemned.

Also, remind them that you did not make the exclusive claim.  Jesus Christ did (John 14:6)!  But again, why did He make this claim?  How did He back up such an outrageous claim?  He did so by His death and resurrection!  Tell them that if a person truly seeks God, He will send someone—even an angel or Jesus Himself—to tell them about Jesus.  He is a big enough God to do that!  But are there any examples of this?  YES!  Here is just one among a myriad:

In 1989, in Maltos of the Northern Bihar mountains, a vision of a grieving man appeared walking on the mountains after a missionary and his son died of a strange disease.  A few days later, the Jesus Film (a film about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection) was shown there.  Amazingly, the whole village recognized that the man in the vision was the Jesus in the film!  Hundreds came to Christ as a result.  For many more examples of this, I direct you to Don Richardson’s book, Eternity in Their Hearts.  But keep in mind that in every instance we know about, God brought someone into the people group to tell them about Jesus.  God first prepared them and then the missionary came and reaped the rewards of being obedient.

What about those who never heard?  It is likely they never had the humility to genuinely seek after God as He really is and on His own terms.  And you can say to those you are sharing Christ with that you really believe that this message of Christ is the only way.  That’s why you’re telling them about it!  Tell them that you want them to know the God of the universe through Jesus Christ the way you know Him—as a perfect God, but also as a loving God who demonstrated His love by sending Jesus into the world to die for sinners like you and me (John 3:16).

In 1940, a man named Warrasa Wange, a member of the Gedeo people in Ethiopia, prayed to Magano, the benevolent creator of all things, to reveal Himself to the Gedeo people.  He immediately had a vision of two white-skinned strangers setting up flimsy structures under a large Sycamore tree in his village of Dilla.  Eight years later, in December 1948, two Canadians, Albert Brant and Glen Cain came to the Gedeo people to begin a missionary work among the people.  Guess where they chose to pitch their tents?  Under a large Sycamore in the village of Dilla!  The response to the gospel, including Warrasa Wange, was phenomenal!  God had sent this honest seeker the truth found only in Jesus.

Perhaps by going or giving or praying or sending, you will be an important part of bringing such an exciting message to one of the thousands of ethnic groups still unreached with the gospel.  These are people who have not heard about Jesus, but desperately need to.  Perhaps you will be one of those who is a part of creating and telling exciting stories yet to be told about how God advances the message of salvation in His son Jesus Christ into all the kingdoms and peoples of the earth!

What about those who’ve never heard of Jesus? Part Two

We learned in part one of this series that the God of the Bible is a God who is perfect and holy, who demands that kind of perfection from all who would be in His presence.

God’s holiness explains why Jesus is so centrally important to the way of salvation.  Jesus fulfills the perfect standard of God.  And moreover, He was (and is) the only one who did or ever will!  Some biblical passages showing this might help at this point.  Consider the following examples:

In John 14:6, Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father but through me.”  In Acts 4:12 Peter states that there is salvation from sin in “no other name,” than Jesus’, for there is no other name (not Buddha, not Mohammed, not Confucius, not my own) given among humanity by which we can be saved.  In 1 Timothy 2:5-6 we read that, “There is one God and one mediator also between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom” for sin’s penalty of eternal separation from God.  And as we read in 2 Corinthians 5:21, God made Jesus Christ, who was perfect and “knew no sin,” to become a sin offering in our place so “that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”  In short, God took Jesus’ perfect holiness and righteousness and credited it to our account, simply because He loves us and wants to have a relationship with us (John 3:16).

Having said this, what can we do with all this information then?  Although some of the following will not be easy to hear, several conclusions can and must be drawn.  First, all people do have some information about God, but unfortunately, Romans 1:20 tells us they suppress, corrupt, and/or ignore it.

Second, we can affirm that God is always fair.  According to Romans 2:1-3, He judges people according to what they know and do not know, what they do and do not do, as well as by their own standards of right and wrong.

Third, we must admit that in view of Romans 3:23, no one—ourselves, most of all—is or can become perfect on our own.  Because God is holy and requires perfection (Matthew 5:20; 1 Peter 1:15-16; 2 Corinthians 5:21), all men deserve the just punishment of hell.  Thus, some people get what they deserve—namely justice—while others get what they don’t deserve—namely mercy.  However, no one gets injustice.

You must ask yourself honestly, “Do I really deserve to go to heaven?”  Who, then, does?  Can you point to someone who actually deserves to go to heaven, who earned enough “points” to please a perfectly and eternally holy and righteous God?  Chances are if you can, then your standard of holiness and righteousness is far different than God’s.  This is also called idolatry, creating God in our own image, rather than recognizing and worshiping God for who He truly is.

The fact is, Jesus Christ is God’s extreme and ultimately final expression of mercy to a lost and dying world.  Only Christ is both fully God and fully man, so only He could pay the eternal penalty for humanity’s profoundly radical sin problem.

One thing that could be brought up at this point is this fair question: Why are there so many other world religions and so many other people who adhere to high moral standards, some that appear to surpass the ethical lifestyles of Christians?  Two things can be said in response.  First, we must understand human nature made in the image of God, and second, we must understand the reality of an adversary called the devil who is doing everything he can to lure people away from the God who loves and wants to know them.

The multitude of world religions suggests a couple of things about humanity.  First, it suggests that we have an incurably religious nature that is constantly seeking to reach out to the transcendent unknown, to the immaterial realm of the spirit.  And I think that this is due to the image of God in man.  This image reaches beyond itself and looks for the divine.  Paul points this out in Acts 17, verse 27.  The result of this search, this extending beyond oneself, has been a myriad of religious perspectives.  But that only tells half of this sad story.

The fact is, human beings, because of the reality of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin (chronicled in Genesis 3), are no longer able to have an unblemished and unadulterated picture of who God really is and how a person can know and relate to Him.  Thus, God provided a special communication to us concerning Himself through what we call the Bible, and supremely through the person of Jesus Christ.  But while many know and embrace this special communication, not everyone believes in or has access to it.  Some are ignorant, some choose to ignore it, some choose to refute and destroy it, and some choose to twist and rewrite it.

All of this highlights the fact that Satan is a real threat to humanity’s ability to understand and know God.  The adversary delights in deceiving and drawing people away from God and His truth (see 2 Corinthians 11:3 and John 8:44, for example).  Thus, we would expect to find—and in fact do find—a multitude of counterfeits in the religious communities of the world.

The things I have just shared are potentially hard truths to face.  In part three, we will conclude with some encouragements and recommendations concerning the Christian’s responsibility given the fact that people can be saved through Jesus Christ alone.

Sometimes I see what the word of God says and struggle with it emotionally.  But as a Christian, I think it’s important to ask, am I willing to face this?  Am I willing to do something unpopular and stand up and say to the world that there is only one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ?

What about those who’ve never heard of Jesus? Part One

In the present-day perspective of religious pluralism and the widespread acceptance of ideological inclusivism, is it really desirable—or even possible—to talk about those who have never heard about Jesus?  For a variety of reasons, I believe that it is not only desirable and possible, but also vitally necessary to understanding the meaning and importance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But how?  How can the question concerning those who have never heard about Jesus be answered?  In many ways, the answer to this issue ultimately comes down to just a few basic things.  If we understand:

  • The nature of God,
  • The nature of ourselves and our sin, and
  • The nature of Christ’s identity and mission,

then an adequate answer can be given to the question.  But by using the word “adequate” here, does not necessarily mean “emotionally satisfying.”  While the answer shared will existentially satisfy some, it may well disturb and anger others.  And that, unfortunately, is sometimes unavoidable.  In a society which disdains certain central aspects of the Christian faith, some level of offense is an inevitable by-product of discussing the truth of its message.

Christ’s gospel sometimes does insult and offend some of our basic assumptions about life, truth, and religion.  When the apostle Paul noted that the gospel was, “a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to the Greeks,” he was well aware that some people would hate and misunderstand the message for what it was, no matter how reasonably, gently, or compellingly it was presented.

In this first part, we are going to approach an answer by looking at what the Bible says about this, and then later in parts two and three, we are going to discuss how we can answer individuals who are asking us the question when we are sharing Christ with them.

Romans chapter 1, beginning in verse 18 says that God gave all human beings a witness of Himself through what theologians have come to call “general revelation.”

The argument runs as follows: Even people who have never heard of Christ are without excuse before God for their rejection of Him because they have enough information to know there is a God, but they do not acknowledge Him as truly being God.  In fact, in the verses that follow, Paul continues to explain the ungodly results of this rejection, concluding in verse 32 that the things these people do are “worthy of death.”

It seems clear that at least for people practicing idolatry, sexual immorality, etc., the verdict is not promising.  But what about the average people of the world, those who have never done anything that bad or that evil?  Does God also condemn them?  If we continue reading in Romans 2, we see that for those people who have never heard of Jesus, God will judge them by their own standards.  Whenever they make a moral judgment, God considers that a moral standard that they must also keep themselves.

But herein lies the problem: who lives up to their own standards?  Who can honestly say, “I am not a hypocrite?”  And according to Romans 2:17ff, even the Jews who had the Old Testament Law and the Ten Commandments couldn’t and didn’t fulfill the righteous and holy demands of a perfect God.

Paul concludes his reflections on the state of humanity in Romans 3:10, when he states categorically that, “there is none righteous, not even one.”  Why?  “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (verse 23).  What does this mean?  It means just this: God is holy and He demands holiness (perfection) from those who would be in His presence (1 Peter 1:16).  He simply doesn’t grade on a curve.  You either get a perfect score of 100% or you fail completely (cf., James 2:10).

And when you really think about it, who wants a God who “fudges” and lets basically anyone into heaven?  That kind of God isn’t worthy of worship.  That’s a God who is just like us!  And it would make heaven a place just like earth, which is not the kind of heaven I—or anyone else—would want to spend all eternity in.

All of this begins to answer the first question raised above.  When we get a clearer picture of who God really is, who we are, and what He requires of us, we begin to see a very different picture than the one we may have painted of God and ourselves before.  The God of the Bible is a God who is perfect and holy, who demands that kind of perfection from all who would be in His presence.

Consequently, we will see in part two why it is so centrally important for everyone on earth to have an opportunity to hear and respond to the person of Jesus Christ.

The Reconciling Power of the Gospel

img_0127

Glancing around my theology class, I was struck by the mix of cultures present in the room.  Outside of the fact that I am from the USA, students hail from places like East Asia, India, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma), Suriname, and Singapore.

There is more significance to this list than might be appreciated at first glance.

Not only do the USA and Japan have a contentious past, Asian nations also have a long and bitter history of conflict and war with each other.  During World War II, for example, the Japanese not only bombed pearl harbor, they conquered the Philippines, Korea, as well as much of China and Southeast Asia.  As they advanced, they brutally killed and imprisoned many of the inhabitants.  Those allowed to live were sometimes raped, beaten, and treated like slaves and animals.

I mention this not to shame the Japanese.  All sides committed great atrocities against one another.  And Americans should not forget the countless innocent civilians indiscriminately killed in Japan when atomic warheads were dropped on two of their major cities.  I only share these examples to illustrate how deep the hatred and animosities still run between these countries up until the present.  For many, the pain and anger are still very fresh and very personal.

I also mention this to show the transforming power of the gospel.  Here at our seminary, these students are all sitting together peacefully, worshiping God, loving each other, praying, learning, and sharing together as devoted brothers and sisters in Christ.  In view of human history, only God could orchestrate this kind of unlikely fellowship of saints.

This is the radically profound power of the gospel.  It takes all the wrongs and atrocities of the past, all the shame, anger, bitterness, unforgiveness, and searing loss, and brings it to the cross.  Here in Christ alone, the nations of the world find genuine healing and permanent reconciliation with God and one another.  It’s one more reason I am not ashamed of the gospel because it truly is the reconciling power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, whether they were previously fast friends or even mortal enemies.

Why I Blog

10401956_754991017955807_3513041193206306806_n

People blog for a wide variety of motivations.  And as a result, the blogosphere has taken on a dizzying array of purposes and products.  Some blog because they want to chronicle their lives and the lives of those around them.  Some blog to share insights and ideas about politics and the surrounding culture.  Some blog because they want to be heard.  Some blog because they want to be famous.  Some blog because they think they have something to say and so others may as well have the chance to hear it.  Still others blog because they have too much time on their hands and don’t know what else to do with their lives.  Blogging is a popular pastime and they might as well jump on the bandwagon and join the fray.

For most, it is probably a complex and varied combination of all these reasons and more.

But in thinking over the question, it strikes me, it might be a good idea to ask myself, “Why do I actually blog?”

Here’s a first pass at an answer:

First and foremost, I blog because I am a writer.  But I do not write to be published, to become famous, or even to have something to post on my blog.  I write because I have to, because it is a calling.  Something—or perhaps it’s better to say Someone—deep within compels me to write.

Whereas some use conversation, others use silent reflection, and still others use art and music to clarify their thoughts, most of the time, I use writing.  It helps me process and understand what I’m thinking and feeling about God, His word, His world, myself, and others.  It’s also an opportunity to play around with words.  While others like to play Pokemon Go©, with their friends, their guitar, or their voice, I like to play with words.  Believe it or not, it’s almost a form of entertainment, bringing genuine joy and a profound sense of satisfaction.

I also blog because it makes public what was once only private.  There is a hope that the things written would be used by God to offer help, encouragement, and insight for those who want and need it.  Ultimately, and above all else, I blog as an offering to God, that He might somehow be honored and glorified.