Tag Archives: Jesus

Finding Hope and Joy at Christmas

I have many fond memories of past childhood Christmases as well as those spent with our own children (now grown and on their own).  Children possess both a joyous anticipation and an enduring sense of wonder over the Christmas season.

Of course, not all this wonder and anticipation grows from the soil of pure motives.  Getting as many gifts as possible always lurks just below the surface.  And yet, many much more important things helped point our hearts in the right direction, bringing a genuine sense of joy and true anticipation: the spiritual rhythms of advent season at church, the Christmas eve candlelight service, the singing of carols, rituals of tree acquisition and decoration, special indoor and outdoor ornamentations, extended times of fun and fellowship with family and friends, cookie baking and eating, special meals, foods, and movies, the reading of the Christmas story, and so much more.  These holiday traditions afforded a deep sense of Christian grounding and identity in a world filled with bitterness and fear.

Too often in my adult years, however, the only sense of anticipatory joy is born of the hope that Christmas will soon be over so a “normal” pace of life can be restored.  Somehow in the rush to make Christmas memorable, I often forget to make it meaningful in all the right ways.  That sense of wonder and hope, so prevalent in childhood, is often nearly lost.

Not only this, the challenges of life in a fallen world keep forcing me to come face-to-face with the realities of living a world marred by sin.  More importantly, they continually reveal the many ugly and dark aspects of my own soul.  I find it harder and harder to escape the obvious sins, scars, and dysfunctions that seemed much easier to brush aside in youth.  But while the demands of the Christmas season can easily make us jaded and cynical in ways that push away any deep sense of joy, wonder, or hope, it is still possible to experience these things once again.

When Simeon took eight-day-old Jesus in his aged arms, he offered thanks to God this way: “My eyes have seen Your salvation that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel.”  Simeon’s faith-filled and joyous hope helped him see that God’s coming salvation for the whole world was somehow bound up in this holy Infant.  Reading the rest of the astonishing story, we see this truth ever more clearly, that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us.

Hope and joy may be in short supply these days, but when we take Jesus in our arms and gaze amazed upon Him once again, we can recapture that sense of joyous hope that our gracious God will wondrously save and restore all who hope and trust in Him.

Are all religions alike? Responding to Religious Pluralism

I heard it again the other day.  Someone confidently stated that all religions are basically the same and that all roads ultimately lead to God.

On the face of it, the statement has contemporary plausibility, if for no other reason that it’s been said so frequently in popular culture, it no longer sounds strange or untrue.  The basic claim is that all religions are roughly equal in terms of their truth content (metaphysics), moral ideals (ethics), and overall purposes and goals (teleology).

What does sound wrong and offensive to contemporary western ears is this statement: “I believe that my religion is the only true and accurate one, and that all others are false and misleading in critically important ways.”  How can we evaluate the claim of religious pluralism that all religions are roughly equal?  Can we still cling to the conviction that our religion is actually correct and that some religions are closer to the truth and exhibit greater moral goodness than others, or is this hopelessly naïve and out-of-date?

There are a number of ways to proceed from this point.  Any fair and comprehensive defense of a specific religious viewpoint is a massive undertaking and one that cannot be provided in a simple blog post like this. What can be done, however, is a simple comparative look at some of the central claims of five major world religions.  This will help us see more clearly how similar—and dissimilar—they really are.  This is necessary because many religious pluralists are happy to state and hold to their ideology but have seldom taken an honest and accurate look at the actual claims and tenets of the major world religions.

ReligionFounderGodJesusProblemSolution
HinduismN/A
3,000 B.C.
Brahman
Many gods
Just a ManSamsara
Ignorance
Good Works
Knowledge
Devotion
BuddhismSidhartha
Guatama
583 B.C.
Irrelevant
Nirvana
Just a ManSamsara
Ego-centered
Desire
8-fold path
to Nirvana
Good Works
JudaismAbraham
Moses
2,000 B.C.
MonotheisticJust a Man or
Even a False
Prophet
Impurity
Alienation
from God
Repentance
Observe the
Divine Law
(Good Works)
ChristianityJesus ChristMonotheisticThe God-ManRebellion
Sin
Separation
Trust in the Life
and Death of
Jesus Christ
Free Gift/Grace
IsalmMuhammad
AD 570
MonotheisticA ProphetDisobedienceSubmission
5 Pillars
Good Works
Comparing Five Major World Religions

I could pursue several other lines of interest including moral, teleological, and eschatological claims, but the aforementioned aspects are sufficient to show that while there are some similarities, the major religions are, at their root, fundamentally at odds with one another, especially with respect to Jesus and the meaning and way of salvation.  All attempts to reconcile them either fail to represent them faithfully or tend to ignore or paste over these essential disparities.  In short, all religions definitely do not teach the same things.  They are frequently and fundamentally at odds with one another at numerous foundational points. We may try to become an advocate for the truth and goodness of this or that religion on the basis of evidence, life-change, historical significance, personal preference, or some other set of rationales.  We may even deny the efficacy and truth of all religions, looking to some other source and means for our hope and well-being.  But one thing we cannot sensibly continue to claim is that all religions are roughly equal and generally teach the same things.  They decidedly do not!

Why can’t we be colorblind?

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In 1992, Michael W. Smith released the popular Christian song, “Color Blind,” claiming “we could see better” if we’d all be colorblind.  The idea sounded noble enough.  After all, according to Martin Luther King, Jr., we were supposed to judge a person by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.  But even way back then, something about the notion of colorblindness bothered me.  Of course, in one sense, this points to the notion of equality.  I get and affirm that.

However, trying to ignore ethnicity tends to discount the significance of a huge part of our embodied humanity.  Contrary to the “melting pot” theory, the solution to race relations is not racial denial, abolition, or fusion.  Pretending we see no colors is both dishonest and unhelpful.  The colors are there, and they are beautiful in God’s sight.  They can be beautiful in ours as well when we openly and honestly celebrate our rich ethnicities and variegations.  We are not monochromatic but polychromatic.  To extend the metaphor to sound, we are not monophonic but polyphonic.

So far, so good.  But inevitably, some criterion or criteria must be used to determine what constitutes a beautiful symphony and a great work of art.  Postmodernity suggests that the unrestrained celebration of radical diversity is the only way to find our identity and live well in community.  There is a suspicion toward all who would suggest some sort of evaluative meta-principle or overarching narrative that might lead to and support exclusion or inequality.

Historically (and, I believe, intrinsically), human communities naturally form around standards of similarity and resemblance.  We tend to become tribal and exclusive when we simply do what is most comfortable to us, instinctively gravitating toward those who look, talk, think, and act like us.

This kind of “tribalism” was actually the default mode for most of human history.  Groups of similar people banded together for the sake of protection, survival, and general wellbeing.  But it was almost always on a small scale unless some great totalizing leader or movement fought against the natural slide toward fragmentation.  In ancient times, these were the Romans, the Ghengis Khans, the Alexander the Greats of the world.  They sought to actively impose their vision of the good life and what it means to be human upon the conquered and subjugated as well as those who willingly agreed to submit.

But this was not a blended harmony and mosaic masterpiece.  It was hegemonic domination and imposition of one cultural and ethnic vision over all others.  Similarly, many modern nation states seek to overcome small-scale tribalism by means of enforced and educationally indoctrinated nationalistic values, rituals, languages, and laws to promote unity, revenue, and power.

As a Christian, I believe in the doctrine of human sin and depravity.  It has been said that historically, it is the most easily verifiable doctrine of Christianity.  People, when given the unrestricted opportunity, will more often than not use power to oppress (rather than empower) others, especially those who are different from themselves.  As the old adage states: power corrupts, and absolute power (when possessed by anyone other than God), corrupts absolutely.

So, how do we respond to racial and social differences and the inevitable tensions they create?  First and foremost, we have to be in genuine dialogue with one another.  People who are very different from each other are less apt to depersonalize and vilify one another if they try to become friends, or at least have ongoing conversations with one another.  Looking to governments and programs to create racial harmony is only effective when individuals and groups of citizens are committed on a smaller and more personal scale to try to understand and appreciate each other.

There’s a catch, of course.  We all know that close interpersonal conversations are no guarantee of peaceful relations.  Dysfunction and hostility are not just found between insiders and outsiders.  They are frequently intercommunal and interfamilial.  This points us back to the reality that small is not inherently better unless the small is informed by and infused with more transcendent and godly values and concerns.  Again, as a Christian, I am convinced (against the postmodernity) that there are shared human values which are both transcultural and trans-temporal.  These values are grounded in and revealed by the character and purposes of God as well as His divine image stamped upon every human being.

Notions of transcendent values and the image of God lead to a second requirement for promoting racial harmony: We need some legitimate and thoughtfully arrived at reference points for interracial justice.  For example, how can we genuinely care for one another?  How can we empower and protect minorities?  How can we check and limit the powers of the elite?  And how can we do this without destroying a significant portion of everyone’s dignity and freedom?  Such ideals cannot be based within human communities (or powerfully persuasive individuals) alone.

Any notions of justice that are solely grounded in human conversations and conventions are destined to fail because they lack (and sometimes even deny any possibility of) transcendent resources for producing enduring unity in diversity.  Apart from the guidance of overarching ideals, human conversations consistently digress into shouting matches and power plays since no one can refer to anything outside of the community (or the self) to substantiate notions of goodness, fairness, and justice.

Because we all bear God’s image, every human being possesses an inherent moral sensibility and intuitive notion of justice.  These are often skewed and misaligned by sin, but by God’s grace, they are nonetheless still present.  Consequently, a lot of historical accord concerning these overarching moral principles is evident.  Still, they must be grounded beyond the physical realm in order to be truly binding and compelling.  In short, they need what philosophers and theologians call a metaphysical basis.  Unfortunately, we live in an era when metaphysics and transcendent theology has fallen on hard times.  Not many want (or are even willing) to believe that some things are trans-temporally and transculturally better for a community as a whole, especially when they might oppose and make it harder for some inside and outside that community.

In the postmodern context, I am deeply pessimistic about coming to any real consensus of shared human values.  Everyone wants to believe that paying greater attention to minority and marginal voices is a sufficient condition for finding real agreement, but it cannot (and never will be) in view of sinful human tendencies.  What makes racial and interpersonal harmony possible are enduring values like selflessness, generosity, hospitality, humility, forgiveness, and compassion, alongside prudence, self-control, and a conviction to protect the downtrodden, disregarded, and distressed.  These ideals require supportable and well-grounded definitions alongside living examples that can only be adequately applied on the basis of a moral source beyond the material realm.  Many in the contemporary context will howl and scream foul at this point, but inevitably someone’s will and moral vision will be promoted and enforced.  The only reasonable concerns here are: Which vision?  Whose will?  And why?

Contrary to what some would claim, Christianity’s devotion to the Bible firmly grounds its commitments to racial reconciliation, respect, equality, and harmony in the transcendent character of God as love and His divine image within each human being.  Against some recent revisionist histories and the “new atheists,” Christians have a long and proven (though certainly not infallible!) history of elucidating and successfully applying viable and time-tested communal virtues that create, promote, and sustain flourishing societies with more harmonious and respectful intercommunal and interracial relations.  As Jürgen Habermas (an atheist) reminds us in his 2005 book, Time of Transitions, “Egalitarianism from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life of solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. . . .  To this day, there is no alternative to it.”

Even more than this, far from being colorblind, the polychromatic vision and polyphonic symphony Christians hope in and look toward comes to us from beyond not only our world but also our time.  Revelation 7:9 tell us about a magnificent future when “a great multitude that no one [can] number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, [will stand] before [God’s] throne” offering a multiethnic concert of unbridled praise to the One who created, unifies, and rejoices in this delightful diversity of difference.

This grand gathering is both the source of and continued inspiration for our longing to see every human being appreciated and respected for what they are: divine image bearers beautifully expressing their uniqueness in multifarious unity under the loving Lordship of our glorious and gracious Savior, Jesus Christ.

Am I a disciple of Jesus?

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I just watched the film, “Tortured for Christ,” and many years ago read the book of the same title.  It’s about Romanian pastor, Richard Wurmbrand.  Opposing the Communist regime, he was imprisoned for fourteen years and repeatedly and brutally beaten for his refusal to forsake his Christian faith.

In his own words, “It was strictly forbidden to preach to other prisoners.  It was understood that whoever was caught doing this received a severe beating.  A number of us decided to pay the price for the privilege of preaching, so we accepted their [the communists’] terms.  It was a deal; we preached and they beat us.  We were happy preaching.  They were happy beating us, so everyone was happy.”

While watching the film, I was deeply convicted that I have suffered almost nothing in order to follow Jesus Christ.  When Jesus told us to make disciples, He did not tell us to build large buildings and put on entertaining services so that we could fill them with passive pew-sitters.  He told us to go and make disciples everywhere we went.  And before that, He called us to be disciples ourselves, not considering our lives as precious, but giving them away and pouring them out in service of Him for His greater honor and glory.

I have to ask myself often and honestly, am I really and truly a disciple of Jesus?  The reality is, being His disciple, as well as making disciples, is extremely difficult.  It is backbreaking, heart-rending, self-effacing work.  And following Jesus involves more than theoretical sacrifice.  It involves making concrete commitments and costly choices to follow that might result in becoming uncomfortable, being fired, straining relationships, and losing popularity.  For some, it could even mean far more—a significant loss of freedom and/or the forfeiture of one’s life.

When Peter and the apostles were arrested and questioned by the Pharisees for sharing the good news about Jesus, Acts 5:40-42 tells us that the Pharisees “beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.  Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.  And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.”  They were willing to suffer and even die for Jesus because they trusted, loved, and wanted to honor Him.  Any difficulties endured for His sake were a privilege to thank God for, not a hardship or humiliation to be avoided at all cost.  And as they obeyed Him, they experienced deep and genuine joy.

While I know in theory (and by limited experience) that there is great joy and fulfillment in following Jesus, no matter the risk or cost, I am still constantly tempted to make my life more comfortable, less arduous, and inoffensive.  I often love the world more than God, because I do not really believe he deeply cares for me and is a loving, gracious God.  I constantly think I know better how to live my life because I do not really believe God is wiser than I.  I repeatedly give myself over to sin because I do not really believe that the holiness of God is what I was designed to reflect and exhibit in this world.  And ultimately, I continue to fear hardship, suffering, and death because I love the things of this life more than the eternal things of God.  I don’t really believe that heaven will be magnificently, indescribably better than even the sweetest and most joyous moments in this life.

Am I a disciple of Jesus?  In the broadest sense of that term, I hope I can answer yes.  But in the concrete daily struggle to be faithful, I must admit, I am a continuous and consummate failure.  And yet, in His grace, He still offers the promise that He is with me always, even to the end of the age.  For all my foibles, failures, fears, and faithlessness, He remains faithful and promises that He will never leave or forsake me.  He is still in the process of making me His disciple and, praise God, the journey toward joy is only just beginning!

Did Jesus get it wrong?

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In a world that worships power, pleasure, possessions, beauty, intelligence, talent, and fame, I am continually struck by the profoundly counter-cultural nature of the Christian faith. Jesus reverses the field in almost every arena in which human beings naturally hope and long for.

Jesus got it wrong if He was trying to make everyone love and serve Him in an overwhelmingly impressive or subtly coercive sort of way.  Instead, He quietly came to live in the Galilean backwater village of Nazareth and lose His perfect life on a simple wooden cross, so that we could gain his life and be reconciled to God.  That is a love that breaks the mold of all our expectations and confounds the wise, the strong, the powerful, and the rich, so that even the fools, the weak, the insignificant, and the poor could actually inherent the earth and live forever.

In short, Jesus loves the unlovely, the unloving, and the unlovable.  He makes the poor rich and the rich poor.  He exalts the lowly and humbles the exalted.  He makes the simple wise and makes simpletons of the wise.  He makes the strong weak and the weak strong. He makes losers out of winners and winners out of losers.  He asks His followers to lose everything in order to gain everything.

It doesn’t make for much of a marketing campaign to invite all who wish to follow Him to come suffer and die.  That sounds more like a cult for masochists.  But here is where the great irony of God’s economy in Christ comes into play: Those who suffer are blessed and will be comforted; those who die in Him will rise and live forever.

Of course, the opposite is also true: Those who are unrepentant and comfortable in this life will wind up uncomfortable in the next; those who hold tightly onto to things will lose them all; those who try to save their own life now will lose it for all eternity.

No, Jesus did not get it wrong, but we do—constantly.  Instead of loving people and using things, we love things and use people.  Instead of loving righteousness and spurning wickedness, we hate the good and love what is evil.  Instead of giving thanks to God for His goodness and wisdom and patience, we ignore, defy, and spurn Him—and then blame and rage against Him when our lives fall apart.

Despite our magnificent insignificance, overweening pride, and astounding indifference toward the One who created and sustains us, He still loves us with an everlasting love. He patiently and persistently offers forgiveness, grace, and eternal life in Christ for all who will believe and trust in Him.  He, and He alone, can take our every wrong and forever make us whole and right again.

Who am I trying to please?

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I want to be popular. Most people do.  Only masochists want to be reviled, ridiculed, and rejected.  I put on a good show and try to appear like I don’t care what others think about me, but deep down inside, I desperately want to be liked and respected.

Before my time, people tried to be “hip” and “groovy.”  Growing up, the goal was to be “cool.”  Years later, everyone wanted to be “bad.”  About that time, I lost track of (as well as significant interest in) the ever-evolving latest term for being “relevant,” “popular,” and one of the “in crowd.”

Once upon a time in America, being a Christian did not automatically disqualify you from being acceptable to others.  There were enough people around who thought Christians weren’t so bad, even if they weren’t Christians themselves.  Many of the social norms and expectations revolved around some of the basic moral (but often distorted) teachings of the Bible.  People were not afraid to identify themselves as Christians, even if their understanding of that term was nominal at best.

These days, it’s not so easy to identify as a genuine Christ-follower.  It’s no longer “cool” to defend and promote a traditional view of marriage (for example) or to suggest that sincere faith in Jesus Christ is the exclusive and only means to know and spend eternity with God.

Almost 2,000 years ago, it was not popular to identify oneself as a follower of Jesus either. It was much easier to “go with the flow” and not cause trouble by condemning sexual immorality or refusing to syncretize and compromise one’s religious faith.  In fact, refusing to follow the crowd could even get you imprisoned or killed. It was not an easy time to claim and proclaim the name of Jesus Christ.

In this respect, contemporary attitudes toward certain aspects of our faith place us in a long and storied history of being ridiculed and rejected for believing in Jesus.  And this should come as no surprise.  The Bible never said it would be easy or fun to follow hard after Christ.  God never assured us that we would be loved and accepted by others for following Him. Instead, 2 Timothy 3:12 provides us with this precious and magnificent promise: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

And 1 Peter 4:1 reminds us that since Christ suffered, as his followers, we should be ready to suffer as well.  Peter goes on to say we should not be surprised when we suffer for our faith, but rather, we should “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. . . .  If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”

Jesus makes a similar promise in Luke 6:22-23 when He states, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!  Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven.”

Paul also reminds us in Galatians 1:10 that our goal in life is not to be accepted and well-liked by everyone around us.  Rather, we are to seek to please God by fearlessly and single-mindedly serving Christ.

Of course, we do not intentionally seek to be odd or offensive for Christ.  But the goal of our lives is not to be cool, but to be clear, clear about the sometimes offensive simplicity of the gospel—that Jesus died to save sinners like you and like me, and that apart from Him, there is no hope of salvation in this life or the next.  If we face suffering for saying so and living our lives in light of it, we can rejoice, just as the disciples did in Acts 5:41, and thank God that He counts us worthy to suffer shame for His name.

Betting on Jesus

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The older I get, the more I see family and friends facing their mortality.  We are not as young and healthy as we once were.  And since I’m unlikely to live beyond 100, well over half my life is already passed.  The many doors of opportunity that stood wide open in my youth are either shut or quickly closing.

And yet, of all possible lives I might have lived, the one I am in is infinitely better and more interesting than I could ever have dreamed of or imagined.  I am also well aware that many people my age cannot say that about their lives.  Instead, they feel regret, disappointment, bitterness, and pain.  Of course, I have done plenty of things to make me feel these ways, but overall, the forgiving and magnificent grace of God, alongside the indescribable life He has given, have been nothing short of fantastic.

Pascal speaks of making a wager.  He notes that in view of the possible eternal benefits, believing in God is wiser than the alternatives.  Many have criticized his wager as being foolish and naïve.  We should, after all, only believe what is true, no matter how bitter or discouraging that reality might prove to be.

However, while marveling at the grand adventure of my life, it strikes me full in the face: even if none of it is true, even if there is no God and at death I simply ceased to exist and fall into “the big sleep,” I would prefer this life to any other I might have lived.  Seeking after and following Jesus has been one incredible and undeserved adventure after another.  It has been so much richer and better than anything I might have conceived of, sought after, or accomplished on my own.  I am overcome by a profound and immense sense of gratitude.

Don’t get me wrong.  There have been many tough times and bitter disappointments along the way.  Life is hard, no matter which path you choose.  But I would not choose a different life, even if promised the world in exchange.  The money, things, fame, pleasure, and comfort that so looked so enticing in my youth now seem increasingly petty, fleeting, and insubstantial.  Life with Jesus really is better than anything or anyone else.

I also want to say that I have thoroughly and repeatedly investigated and examined the overwhelming evidences for the truth of Christianity and am more convinced than ever God is real, and that Jesus really did die for my sins and rise again.  I have experienced rich and undeniable intimacies with Him at numerous times in life, and am utterly confident that because of Christ’s righteousness, I will one day stand in God’s presence holy and blameless, with great joy.  But even if, on some incredible fluke of reality, Christianity turns out to be false, my life lived within it has been indescribably better than any other possible lifestyle or viewpoint.

Pascal was right.  There are eternal benefits for betting on Jesus. But beyond this great hope, living for Him now will produce the grandest and most incredible adventure you could ever imagine.  That’s bet worth making for this life and the next.

Would I suffer and die for Jesus Christ?

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Worldwide, many contemporary Christians are experiencing persecution and even death for their faith. I have listened with sadness and admiration to accounts of those who risked their livelihoods, lives, and families by refusing to deny their faith in Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:29 makes it clear that as believers, it has been granted to us to suffer for Jesus’ sake. It is, in fact, a gift.  And while we don’t always want every gift we receive, in God’s wisdom, He knows exactly how to give us what we need.  Suffering is a dreadful but necessary grace.

While preparing to teach church history, I read some older accounts of Christian martyrdom and persecution from the first three centuries of the church.  As a result, several things struck me, but two stand out the most.

First, it’s easy to admire the courage of these Christians with an abstract appreciation for their faith in the face of torture and death.  It’s far harder to picture myself and fellow family members standing before the examiner and facing the choice between forsaking Jesus or suffering torture and death.

When I first started walking closely with the Lord, I was convinced I would die for Him.  Thirty-plus years later, I am much more acutely aware of and honest about my cowardice and strong attachments to the things and consolations of this life.  For all my prior blustering braggadocio about being willing to “sacrifice it all for Jesus,” I now have to admit, I want a tranquil and comfortable life.

Would I really suffer and die for Jesus if offered the choice?  With all of my heart I want to say yes, but I’m also honest enough to admit it would not be easy.

In the end, I suspect I could only do so if the Lord granted grace if and when the moment arrived.  Meanwhile, I am still trusting God to help divest myself of inappropriate and inordinate affections for anything and anyone other than the Lord Jesus Christ.  Perhaps that is an admission of faithlessness, but I hope it is more a recognition of weakness and desperate need for His everlasting mercy and grace.

The second thing that struck me is closely related.  It occurred to me how grossly unprepared most professing Christians—myself included—are to suffer for their faith in any serious way.  Most (but certainly not all) Christians I know have been led extremely sheltered and comfortable lives compared to the hardships of many contemporary and historical Christians.  I certainly have.

Of course, if this has been the case, it is not necessarily something for which we should be ashamed. It is a privilege to be able to turn our freedoms and resources into opportunities to serve and care for others for God’s greater glory.  And many have done just that.  Lord, let us be legion!

But those who have lived in relative safety and ease of comfort should pause to consider: If life ever became much more difficult precisely because we are Christ-followers, would we, like the believers of yesterday and today, be willing to suffer and even die for our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? Would you?  Would I?  God grant us the grace to live humbly and boldly for Your glory, whether in life or in death.

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?