How to Kill a Church

Working on my sermon for this week and it occurred to me how many ways there are to kill a church. Here are just a few that I have identified:

  • Attack the leadership – the congregation’s problems are all their fault.
  • Make every issue about you and them, not us.
  • Never, ever, under any circumstance, volunteer to help.
  • Criticize everyone who does volunteer to help.
  • Compare your congregation to one that is bigger, wealthier, in a larger community that has far more resources.
  • Be sure to be offended by every effort to grow – both spiritually and numerically, and be sure to let everyone else know just how offended you are.

Any others?

The Loss of Transcendence and the Death of Humanity

Pardon me as I continue (sort of) my lament from yesterday . . .

We are experiencing, in increasing measure, the slow death of humanity. I don’t mean humans as such (although that might be coming), what I mean is the loss of what makes us human, what separates us from lower animal life. It seems to me that the more technologically progressed we have become, the deeper into nihilism we have fallen. We know more and can do more with greater ease than ever before, and we are far sicker than we have ever been.

What got me to thinking about this was a recent camping trip. Not that long ago it was natural to assume that a family went up into the wilderness (or, at the very least, away from the confusion of the city) to get away from the noise, the hustle, the frantic pace. You left all of that “behind” so you could unwind, relax, shed some of the stress of the “dog eat dog” world. I noticed this past weekend how all of that has changed – and not just a little bit. I was stunned to see that off-road vehicles (we used to call them ATVs) are now almost obligatory for the modern camping family. That, along with mammoth fifth-wheel campers makes most camp sites look like the infield of the Indianapolis 500 auto race. As I stood knee deep in a gorgeous little stream I had to strain to hear the birds and squirrels fuss at each other because the almost constant barrage of four-wheelers on the nearby road made it impossible to hear God’s awesome creation.

It got worse. From time to time I could look up and see the passengers in these noise making contraptions. From what I could tell they were not happy. They were in a hurry to get somewhere, anywhere but where they were. Many had scowls on their faces, but virtually all were expressionless. Here they were in quite honestly the closest thing to the Garden of Eden, and they were either bored, or actually pained. They had to get somewhere else fast, so they could not enjoy where they were or what they were doing. Every so often they would come ripping back down the road they had just zoomed up. In a hurry, oblivious to the world of creation around them. Making noise, and utterly, completely unable to here the birds and squirrels chatter and talk to them.

It was so unbelievably sad.

We, as humans, have created a world where we can control virtually everything. If it’s too hot we turn on the air-conditioner. If it’s too cold we turn on the heater. If we are bored we turn on the TV or the tablet or our cell phone. If it is too quiet we blast our stereos or plug our ear-buds into our tablets and tune out the world. I just saw an article pointing out how there are signs of increasing mental struggles of pre-schoolers because of the increasing use of “screen time,” the fact that children do not interact with their physical world, but are increasingly tied to computers, tablets, or cell phones. It has now become the norm that even when we try to “get away from it all” we pack everything up and bring “it all” with us. We haul around our stress, our anxiety, our utter inability to deal with life if we are not stimulated to the ends of our hair follicles.

We have, or at the very least, will soon lose every concept of transcendence, of the “awesome.” When we do we will have lost the very last vestige of what it means to be human. To me that is not theoretical – I have actually witnessed it. People, human beings, created in the image of the Divine God himself, so completely engrossed in technology that they cannot even recognize, let alone appreciate, the awesomeness and transcendence of God’s most holy creation.

I do not have a Ph.D in psychology, but it really does not take a psychologist to recognize that we are a sick culture. Anger, depression, anxiety – all symptoms of a decaying society are rising at an exponential rate. Children are displaying acts of greater and greater violence at younger and younger ages. Prescriptions for anti-depressants are skyrocketing. Young people are identifying feelings of rootlessness and meaninglessness like never before. And, yet, the demand for the next upgrade for a cell phone or the next greatest app is unending.

I am not naive enough to believe that all of this can be reversed if we only clicked our heels together three times and repeated with Dorothy, “I wish I was home.” But, I am equally opposed to the idea that I should just shrug my shoulders and say none of this matters. It matters, and for future generations it should matter very much.

Somehow, someway, in calm and reasoned thought or in pure desperation, we are going to have to learn how to unplug, unwind, and “deconstruct” our over-stimulated lives. Maybe when we run out of fossil fuels and we can no longer drive massive trucks that pull 40 foot fifth-wheel camp trailers we will learn how to live life patiently again. I think learning how to hitch up a horse to a wagon might be valuable for a great many of us. It would, at the very least, teach us that we need to respect and nurture God’s awesome creation.

And, it would be a lot quieter. Maybe we could learn to listen to the birds and squirrels again.

But, What Can We Do?

Kind of been in a funk lately. Everywhere I turn all I see are opportunities for me to throw my hands up in despair and to ask, “What use is it? What can I do?” I look around and in every aspect of our lives we are confronted with a nauseating concoction of racial animosity, open hostility, sexual dysfunction, and a paralyzing narcissism that threatens to destroy our nation. I cite just one example, although many more could be given: as I survey the political landscape two things are beyond debate. One, the Republican party has no answer for Donald Trump. I was desperately hoping that someone with a modicum of composure and decency would step up and challenge him for the nomination for the 2020 presidential election. Nope – be it from a lack of courage or just political calculus, no one wants to challenge his Donaldness. Too bad. Our nation deserves better. But, second, the crop of Democratic challengers is simply beyond stupefying. They are so beholden to the abortion/LGBTQ/socialism cabal that there is not ten cents worth of difference between any of them. Seriously – is it even possible to be a Democratic leader and to think independently or with originality? From what I hear and read, I doubt it.

So, once again, I ask – what can I do? Is there not something that a mere mortal can do while swimming in this vacuum of moral and ethical standards?

On the one hand, I would say unequivocally, “NO.” Just to be realistic, there are some situations that are just too big and complex for individual humans to change. Serious, lasting, and meaningful change can only be effected by large groups of people who are united, not only in purpose, but in courage and resolve. I know there are many who see the same things I see, but are just not disturbed by them (or, certainly not to the degree with which I am disturbed). Others are far more disturbed than even I am, and propose solutions that not even I am willing to consider.

But, beyond those basic realities, there is a greater reason why I tend to be more reserved in looking at global (or, at the very least, national) problems: I have what can be described as an “apocalyptic” outlook, and I believe that God remains in control of this world, and that if there is to be any kind of meaningful and lasting change, it will only come about by the working of His Spirit and under His control. Stated another way, God gives humans whatever kind of world they ask for, and right now we are receiving exactly what we have wanted for the past 75 years, if not longer. We have demanded a country that is focused entirely on the individual, so God has said, “Okay, you’re not going to like it, and it is not going to end pretty, but here ya go!” I believe that if we humbly and sincerely asked for a country that truly reflected God’s kingdom ethics, he would give it to us in such volume we could not measure it.

So, in that regard, certain passages from Scripture come to mind:

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Psalm 46:10)

Thus says the LORD to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s . . . You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf . . . Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. (2 Chronicles 20:15, 17)

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. (Revelation 14:12; see also 1:9; 2:2, 3, 19; 3:10; 13:10)

On the other hand, there is not only something that I can do, there is something that I have to do. I have to get, or keep, my own house in order. It does absolutely no good to preach to the world about its failures if the church of which I am a part promotes the same sinful behaviors in which the world indulges.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I’ll preach it straight and plain: the church needs to be restored and purified if we even have the slightest inclination to reach out to a bent and broken world.

We bemoan the sexual depravity of our western culture, and yet we allow – if not actively protect – divorces and illicit affairs within our congregations. We protect sexual abusers and predators under the guise that they are respected members of the community and even elders/deacons/Bible teachers of the church. We prohibit the man who does not have a tie or sport coat from leading worship in a public capacity, yet we turn a blind eye and glorify the man who beats his wife or physically abuses his children. And we think that God does not see?

We preach against the greed of the pagan world, and yet we violate the clear teaching of James 2:1-17 on a weekly basis. Elders and deacons are chosen, not on the basis of their spiritual maturity and godly natures, but on the basis of their success in business and their social club memberships. We cannot stock a decent food pantry or maintain a decent benevolent fund, yet we drive to our multi-million dollar church buildings in the most opulent vehicles that we can drive (note, not necessarily afford, but that we can drive).

We hire our preachers not based on their ability to challenge and confront us, but on their ability to soothe our itchy ears. Where is the voice of the prophet among Churches of Christ today? Where is the voice of John the Baptist saying, “Who told you to come to church, you bunch of snakes?” Where is the voice of Amos crying out, “Listen to me, you filthy rich heifers, you fat and lazy bums!” We have the best educated, most theologically astute core of preachers that we have ever had, and, at least from what I can see and hear from national publications, we are probably more biblically illiterate today than we have ever been in our entire history. Our preachers and elders “lead” by holding a finger up to discover which way the wind of culture is blowing so they can jump out in front of us lemmings.

Read the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation again. Underline every time the Spirit of Christ tells a congregation to repent. Underline the references to sexual impurity. Underline the references to greed and idolatry. Stop and ask yourself, “What is John’s message to these churches – are they not God’s people, are they not the saved, are they not the ransomed?” But, then read the last two chapters of the same book. Notice who John says will be excluded from the new heaven and new earth. He is not writing to pagans. He is writing to members of seven congregations of the Lord’s church in Asia. Christians. Just like you and me. Just like our congregations. And he is telling them they stand under judgment for their immoral behavior.

In a very real sense, it bothers me that I am more upset, and more indignant, with the behavior of a world that does not know any better than I am with people who – at least on the surface – should know better and act better. It is really sad that there are people whom we would consider “lost” who behave more in line with God’s kingdom than many who wear the name “Christian.”

I cannot change the world. I cannot overcome forces that the apostle Paul clearly identifies as “demonic” and supernatural. But I can, I must, make sure that those who bear the name of Christ are walking “worthy” of the calling they have received. (Ephesians 4:1; 4:17, 22, 24; 5:1, 9)

Lord, restore your church again!!

A Fascinating (and Problematic) Text

I was doing some “heavy lifting” (at least for me) in preparation for our mid-week Bible study. Unfortunately, our teacher had a last minute need to take care of, so I was unable to have all of my questions answered. So, maybe this post is a little premature – but this is a fascinating (and to me, fun) text to consider.

The text under discussion is John 12:39-40, quoted here from the ESV:

Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’

Okay, issue number one: this is NOT what the passage in the book of Isaiah reads. You can check me on this, but in the ESV the passage in Isaiah 6:9-10 reads:

Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.

So, in John the point of view of the speaker has changed from the Old Testament view. In the Old Testament, the passage is a command to the prophet – it is something that the prophet must do. In John’s quotation, it is something that has been done by an unidentified “he.” So, either John, or the manuscript from which John is quoting, has slightly altered the text. Now, digging a little deeper, I discovered that John’s rendition is perfectly acceptable if you add different vowels to the Hebrew consonants. (Technical aside here: originally Hebrew was written using only consonants. Later, “vowel points” were added underneath the consonants as a benefit to reading the text. Try this – take any paragraph and remove all the vowels. You can still read the words, but it takes some doing. So, in the text above, if different “vowel points” are placed under the consonants, you can legitimately arrive with the “point of view” that John quotes in his gospel). Fascinating.

But it gets even more fascinating.

The text from Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted (or alluded to) in all four gospels and in the book of Acts (Matthew 13:14; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39-40; and Acts 28:26). In Matthew, Mark and Luke the text comes in context with Jesus’s parable of the sower. In Mark and Luke the Isaiah passage is only  paraphrased, so we can eliminate those passages. What is fascinating is that in Matthew and Acts the text is quoted, not from the original Hebrew, but from one Greek translation of the Hebrew, called the Septuagint. Once again I quote from the ESV (for continuity):

For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.

Notice that the Greek version (quoted by Matthew and Luke in Acts) follows the Hebrew in the sequencing: heart-ears-eyes-eyes-ears-heart (in John’s quotation it is eyes-heart-eyes-heart). In the Greek version of Matthew and Acts the hardening, the stopping of the ears and the blinding of the eyes is a past event (as in the gospel of John), but it is clearly insinuated (and in the case of the eyes, clearly stated) that it is the people themselves who have made it impossible for God to heal them. In John’s version the agent is an unidentified “he” who is separate from the “I” who would heal the people.

All of the above is fodder for the textual critics, those who pore over ancient manuscripts and attempt to decipher the chain of events that leads one author to quote (or paraphrase) a text in one manner while another will quote (or paraphrase) the same text in a different manner. Quite honestly, that study is miles above my head, although I do find it immensely interesting.

No, what I find to be particularly fascinating (sorry to use a word so repetitively), is that it exists at all – either in the Old Testament message of Isaiah, or especially in the New Testament message of the gospel writers and in Luke (quoting, as he was, the apostle Paul quoting Isaiah).

Why would God command Isaiah to make it impossible (or, at the very minimum, difficult) for the people to repent? And why would Jesus quote this problematic text, and why would Paul once again quote it as he attempted to preach to the Jews in Rome?

In Isaiah, the prophet clearly understands the problem. He asks, “How long?” He struggles too. Isn’t the point of a prophetic message to encourage or to facilitate repentance? God’s response, in verses 11-13 seems to be that there must be a time where people can actually see the results of their rebellion. In other words, God is telling Isaiah, “These people are not going to take your words to heart. So, I am going to show them that your words are the truth – they will turn a ‘deaf ear and a blind eye’ to your prophecy until I prove to them that your words are my words. But by then it will be too late for them, they will be in exile. Yet, for future generations, their obstinacy will be an object lesson, and maybe their children will ‘hear and see.'” Okay, all of that is my conjecture, but it seems to make the most sense to me. A Hebrew scholar I am not – but putting all the passages together that seems to me to be the gist of God’s message.

Jesus, knowing God’s intent, then pulls those same words to use for his generation. The people to whom he speaks are just as “deaf and blind” as were Isaiah’s audience. They too are just too unwilling to accept his words as truth. Ditto for Paul’s audience in Rome.

Some people just refuse to hear God’s message. Until, that is, God acts decisively, and by then it will be too late. God sent the audience of Isaiah into exile. God destroyed the Jewish nation that rejected and crucified Jesus. Paul said that God would “cut off” the branch that was institutional Judaism to “graft in” the Gentile nations. Done, done, and done.

So – is there any message left of Isaiah’s warning for us today??

Do we have any lasting issues with racism, with class distinction, with xenophobia? Do people today still lie, cheat, steal? Is everyone completely honest as they fill out their tax reports? Is there any problem with war, nations hating nations? Do we have any problems with murdering unborn babies? Are we facing issues of abhorrent sexual behavior? Are there questions of people who refuse to accept their God-given sexual nature? Are humans more or less likely to love and take care of one another? Are we “husbanding” our earth as God commanded his first humans to do? Do we fully and completely worship God as our creator and redeemer?

No, now that I think about it, I guess not. I guess Isaiah doesn’t really say anything to us after all.

Fascinating.

The Consequences of Trivializing Sin (2)

As I mentioned in my last post, there are at least two major consequences to our minimizing or trivializing sin (The Consequences of Trivializing Sin). In this post I want to deal with consequence number two – the fact that we have lost, or fail to recognize, the pervasive “systemic” nature of sin. I will attempt to illustrate my conclusion with an example I think few would disagree with – and one that I’m sure will ruffle more than a few feathers.

The first is the way in which sexual sin has truly become systemic in our culture today. Back in the late 1950’s and 1960’s when the “sexual revolution” began to bloom in full flower, the church responded as it is wont to do, by focusing on the “moralities” of the revolution. Thus, instead of recognizing that what was taking place was a total reorientation of our sexual nature, the church focused on the length of a woman’s skirt, whether “mixed bathing” was a sin (um, that has to rate up close to the top for incorrect nomenclature. I don’t think ANYONE was arguing for mixed bathing, but swimming together was surely a hot topic), and the “sin” of dancing (the old “vertical expression of a horizontal desire”). As the revolution deepened, more strenuous objections came against pornography and guiltless cohabitation, but once again, the push back was focused on individual “acts” of sexual immorality, not the larger issue of our sexual natures being “re-imagined.” Fast forward to 2019, and now the sexual content of that harbinger of decadence, Playboy magazine, seems tame in comparison to the repugnant demonstrations of homosexuality routinely presented in “Gay Pride” parades. But, while the content has certainly become more decadent, the underlying rebellion against God’s plan for male and female sexuality has not changed. The church did not recognize it back in the ’50’s and ’60’s, but we what we are seeing today is nothing more than the ’50’s rebellion writ large.

The second area that I wanted to highlight is the area of economics. I have read, and have even heard it taught, that free-market capitalism is “God’s perfect form of an economy.” Such promoters point to the fact that in the Old Testament land ownership was described positively, and that hard work and thrift are praised both in the Old and New Testaments. I’m not sure how many of these free-market capitalists would appreciate going back to a divinely appointed monarchy, but I digress. The idea is that because God allowed, or even blessed, land ownership and hard work and thriftiness, he somehow instituted free-market capitalism as his favored economic platform.

Two comments scream out for attention. One is that in the Old Testament, no Israelite ever owned the land! It was God’s land, “leased” or “lent” to the individual farmer for a period of time. Every fifty years all “ownership” of the land reverted back to the original “owner,” but even that was provisional. All the crops, all the livestock that grazed on the crops, all the proceeds of the land or livestock belonged to God. God allowed the “land owner” or livestock manager to keep between 75 percent and 90 percent of his work, but the implication was clear – everything was God’s and did not “belong” to the man who worked the fields or kept the livestock.

Second, a system of free-market capitalism without extraordinary moral safeguards becomes a demonic system of the powerful abusing and repressing the weak. Slavery is perfectly acceptable in a pure free-market capitalism. Charging “whatever the market will bear” is perfectly acceptable, and even demanded, in a pure free-market capitalistic economy. Usury is basically mandated in a pure free-market capitalistic society. And, as our American history has proven, it is exactly that pure, undiluted free-market mindset that has been rejected in favor of a much more egalitarian capitalism, where laws and opposing forces (such as labor unions) provide a check on unbridled greed. In other words, without a strong moral framework, a pure free-market capitalism is simply impossible to maintain without utterly destroying the weakest and poorest citizens in a commonwealth.

Simply put, SIN runs rampant in a free-market capitalism, and it must be restrained by moral safeguards – such as those instituted by God in Leviticus 19 (and other texts) and as have been initiated in our own culture. It is unbiblical, and highly dubious, to argue that free-market capitalism is God’s chosen economic platform. Leaving the corners of your field unharvested, leaving grapes on the vine, ceasing all labor every seventh day (thus allowing your beasts and your workers rest), letting your land lie fallow every seventh and fiftieth year, freeing your slaves every seven years, refusing to charge interest and remitting debts every 50 years – NONE of these practices are a part of a capitalistic economy, and yet they form the bedrock morality of the Israelite economy. Let us be done with the myth that our form of capitalism is somehow favored by God!

The point that I wanted to drive home here with these two examples (and more could be given) is that SIN is not just the isolated instance of two men or two women choosing to have sex with each other, or charging usurious interest rates. SIN is a demonic force – personalized by the apostle Paul as “the prince of the power of the air” in Ephesians 2. SIN pervades every aspect of our life – there is no component untouched. If we as Christians cherry-pick what we think are the worst of the worst (typically sexual in nature and behaviors the furthest away from our lifestyle) and label them as sins while blithely turning a blind eye to the aspects of SIN that are in our favor (or worse, that we actively support), then our opponents are right to accuse us of hypocrisy.

It is past time for Christians to return to a biblical understanding of SIN. While there certainly is nothing wrong with cataloging individual sins, (and Paul certainly does that!), we need to regain that understanding of SIN that underlies all of the various biblical catalogs of sin – SIN is deeply embedded in our nature, it is not without reason that the Psalmist can say, “I was conceived in sin.” (And, lest you worry, I am NOT promoting the idea of original sin!!) I am simply saying that the psalmist had a much more “biblical” view of sin than we do, and we have his words to help us understand the idea of sin!

Not to muddy the waters even more at this point, but we really do need to return to the apostle Paul in the letter to the Ephesians, and forget the blather of Sigmund Freud!

[Authors note: some rather egregious spelling mistakes have been corrected. Sorry for the poor proof-reading!]

The Consequences of Trivializing Sin

[Continuing my thoughts from yesterday, SIN – It’s Not Just a Little Boo-boo]

I think, on a fundamental level, we just do not fully understand sin. As I pointed out yesterday, we may have a pretty good grasp of individual sins, as in moral deficiencies, but I am just not convinced that we really have a handle on SIN. This, I further believe, has at least two huge repercussions. The first is in relation to our understanding of the cross as made explicit through the act of baptism, and the second is our lack of understanding (or appreciating) the depth of the pervasiveness of sin as a systemic issue in our lives. I will have to save point two for a later post.

To set the background for my first point, let me use the only example I can speak confidently about – my own experience. During my early teen years I watched as all of my peers stepped forward and were baptized. I watched as they went into the water, and then came out of the water basically the same person. I never really noticed any changes, and in one or two cases, they actually became more accomplished sinners! I fought being baptized for this very reason – I just did not see much of a change in the lives of my friends. Then one day I too stepped forward and was baptized. I went into the water and came out of the water basically the same person. I felt a little different, at least at first, but as time wore on it was pretty obvious to me at least that there had not been much of a change in my life.

The problem was, at least as I can analyze it today some 40+ years after the event, that before I was baptized I considered myself a pretty good person. Oh, I was only too aware of my sins, but nobody is ever perfect, and since everyone around me considered that I was a pretty good person, I was only too willing to go along with the general consensus. Thus, when I was baptized I was vaguely aware that a legal transaction had taken place, that my sins were forgiven, that I was now a member of the church of Christ.

But, on an existential level, nothing had really changed. I came out just as self-centered, just as prone to anger, just as narcissistic, and just as capable of “playing the game” as I was was when I entered the baptistery. The only real difference, as far as I could tell, was that over the course of a couple of minutes I had now become an “insider” where before I was an “outsider,” and I was now “saved” where just a few minutes earlier I had been “lost.” I could now partake of the Lord’s Supper, and, as I am a male, I could lead in worship.

Outside of the generic Bible classes to which we were all being subjected, I had not been discipled. I was not at that time being discipled. In fact, no one ever took me and became my mentor, my teacher, my “discipler.”

This is just a guess, but I am thinking that my story could be repeated hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of times for young people in my generation, maybe even other generations.

If all baptism is supposed to do is to be a legal transaction, a “rite (and sometimes a right, something owed and expected) of passage” and a place marker that separates the insiders from the outsiders, the “saved” from the “lost,” then I think the main reason is because we have completely lost an appreciation of what sin really is. By extension, we have completely lost an appreciation of the meaning of the cross.

The “gospel plan of salvation” as it was presented to me illustrates my conclusion perfectly. We are taught, at least once upon a time in the Church of Christ kids were taught, to “hear, believe, repent, confess and be baptized.” That was it. That was the “gospel plan of salvation.” That was the Church of Christ equivalent to praying the sinners prayer or inviting Jesus into your heart. Notice nothing followed “be baptized.” It ended right there. Oh, in some presentations there is lip service given to “live a good life,” but really, what does that mean? For virtually every kid that ever grew up within the Churches of Christ, we WERE good kids before we were baptized (or so we thought, very, very few would have confessed to being “sons of disobedience”) and we continued to be basically good kids after we were baptized. Sin, if it was mentioned at all, was illustrated by dancing, smoking, doing drugs, having sex with our girlfriends (or boyfriends, if you were a girl), or maybe using “cuss” words or looking at magazines that were hidden behind brown wrappers at the convenience stores. That is, sin was simply a list of moral failures, a long list of things to avoid. I was never taught that SIN was a realm, a spiritual dimension of my life presided over by a malevolent “prince of the power of the air” as the apostle Paul describes him in Ephesians 2:1.

It is dreadfully difficult, if not impossible, to renounce something you never knew existed, or continued to exist, in your life.

Sadly, what I have described as my experience is the very same message I have been preaching for years. I can remember baptizing a number of young people, or at least having a part in bringing them to baptism, and then just dropping them. No discipling, no mentoring, no bringing them to an awareness of the seriousness of the concept of sin. They were “lost,” now they were “saved,” so move on to the next target. If no concept of sin, then no concept of grace, of forgiveness, of the cross.

God, save us from our arrogance!

As I am learning in my studies in Ephesians (and, thereby retroactively to other of Paul’s letters), Paul did NOT have this misunderstanding of sin. For Paul the awesome reality of the seriousness of sin was as real as the nose on his face. Paul’s converts were dead in sin, until they died with Christ in the waters of baptism (Eph. 2:1; Rom. 6:1ff; 1 Cor. 15:1ff; Gal. 3:27-28). [Aside here – I just realized today the power, and really the beauty, of Paul’s usage of the words death and dying. We are all spiritually dead outside of Christ, until we die to ourselves and to the world, so that we might live in Him. Wow.] There are only two realms for Paul – we are either in the world, or we are in Christ. The one is under the power of the “prince of the power of the air,” the other is to be ruled by Christ and his Father. Although God is ruler over all, Paul was still aware that for those who so desired, Satan was very much a power and lord of their lives.

As I mentioned yesterday, if sin is only a catalog of sins, if sin is simply a matter of mastering a few moral deficiencies in our lives, then the cross is emptied of all of its power. It should be more than obvious that agnostics and atheists can live as moral, or sometimes even more moral, lives than some “born again” Christians. If morality and ethics are the only issue, the cross becomes literally and physically meaningless. And, if the cross is meaningless, then our baptism means that we only got wet.

I have so much more to say on this issue, but for the moment, I must pause. I hope that these meditations have been valuable to you. I hope that you are reading Ephesians along with me. I hope that either through my words or through your own study you can come to grasp what Paul is telling these Christians. Sin is nothing to trifle with. Sin is not just a violation of a little children’s song. A cosmic battle is taking place, and SIN is the realm into which this world has fallen. There is only one rescue from this realm, and that is the cross of the Messiah, the blood of Jesus.

If we cannot grasp that first reality, then the second is of no use whatsoever.

SIN – It’s Not Just a Little Boo-boo

It is amazing the extent to which we humans have gone to protect our self-esteem. Take, as just one example, the topic of sin. Sin is something other people do. Better yet, sin is something that people used to do, but now, thankfully, we have moved beyond such Victorian concepts. Regardless, no one wants to consider themselves a sinner. While others might be lazy, I am thoughtful. While others are angry or violent, I am justifiably responding to injustice. While others are narcissistic, rude, selfish, I am asserting my rights. As I said, it is remarkable how no one sins anymore.

This thought occurred to me as I have been working through the book of Ephesians. I have exhibited a certain degree of naïveté regarding the book of Ephesians – I have never really studied it in depth or, to the best of my knowledge, preached through it. Okay, let’s be a little more honest and say I have been ignorant about much of Ephesians. Doggone it, let’s call it what it is – I’ve been pretty stupid regarding many of the key issues regarding Ephesians. Ephesians has been for me what it is for many Christians – the go-to book if we want to emphasize grace, or the seven “ones,” or the spiritual gifts given to the church. Everything else is pretty much just background noise.

It took me three weeks to wrap my mind around how much importance the apostle Paul puts on the church in chapter one. And, I’m not really sure I did a very good job at that. Those who disparage church membership, or the importance of the church, are in for a real shock when they meet Paul – if they get a chance to, that is.

So, this week it was supposed to be chapter two. I’m all of three verses in, and already I am swimming in molasses.

I am, like I dare say virtually all of us, a child of my culture. I have been taught, and have basically worked with the idea, that sin is a matter of moral lapses – little boo-boos from which we are called to abstain. Sin is saying a naughty word, or violating that sacrosanct childhood song we were taught in Sunday school, “O be careful little eyes what you see…” As we age the examples of sin get bigger, such as having sex with someone who is not your spouse, or maybe shooting the person who slept with your spouse, but fundamentally sin is committing a moral no-no.

I don’t think that is exactly what Paul meant by sin, or at least what he meant by SIN. As the first three verses in Ephesians 2 makes clear, SIN is something much larger. Infinitely larger, in fact.

Notice Paul can use the word sins in the plural, but he moves immediately to the real issue – that of SIN. For Paul SIN is following the Ruling Power* of this world, the “prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” (Eph. 2:2, ESV) Paul confesses that we all “once lived” among this power, and gave into the passions of our flesh and desires of the body and mind. So, the specific, individual sins are present, but they do not constitute the totality of SIN.

Let me digress just a moment. In our technological, scientific worldview, evil spirits (or The Evil Spirit) no longer exists. If we have a flat tire, it is because we ran over a nail, not because the evil sprite of travel has turned against us. If we get cancer, there must be a medical explanation, not that we are being singled out by an evil, deceased ancestor as punishment for some unconfessed crime. We are thoroughly, completely, and irrevocably scientific in all we say and do.

As I study the apostle Paul, I am not at all sure that he would agree. SIN is not just violating a little children’s song. SIN is systemic, it is the presence of a malevolent being under whom we all live (or, for Christians, lived). SIN is following the prince of the power of the air. And, read in context of chapter one, a person is either IN CHRIST or IN SIN. There is no middle ground, no neutral field.

This is significant – critically so – for one very important reason. If sin is just a moral boo-boo, if it is just not averting our “little eyes” when they see something naughty, then sin is purely within our human power to overcome. We can rationally analyze it, make the necessary adjustments to avoid it, and then, with all of our mental and emotional powers fully under our control, eliminate it from our lives.

For Paul this is all just humanistic hogwash. SIN is way beyond anything you or I can control, or even more ridiculous, eliminate. SIN is a spiritual reality, controlled by a malevolent personification of the “Prince of the Power of the Air,” for which there is only one cure – the grace of the all powerful God (Eph. 2:5, 8). And, as Paul will later argue, it took Jesus dying on the cross to effect that cure. As Paul will go on to say, Christ has defeated these powers through his death on the cross, and chapter one has already made clear that the principalities that carry out the orders of the demonic Prince have been overcome and now lay at the feet of Christ, but they have not been eliminated! The powers have been defeated, but are still present!

If we dismiss this reality, if we read Paul with twenty-first century eyes (as I have tended to do) we reject a fundamental truth of Scripture – inspired by the Holy Spirit. In doing so we moralize sin and make it something we can control, even overcome. And, in so doing, we utterly and completely underestimate the power of SIN. (And, not to make this post too long, we thereby completely minimize the event of the cross. If all it takes to overcome sin is to “be careful little eyes what you see” then the death of Jesus was totally unnecessary, and an utter waste.)

We might be able to avert our eyes when we see something naughty. We might even be able to learn how to bite our tongue and not verbally abuse a front desk clerk who fully deserves every syllable of our attack (mea culpa, I was not, and don’t ask). Agnostics and atheists alike can be, and often are, more “moral” than the little widow ladies sitting on the “amen pew.” But we will never, no how, and no way, be able to overcome the power of SIN. The only way to walk in the realm where SIN has been defeated is to live in the realm IN CHRIST, and that is one of the main points of the letter to the Ephesians.

I think I have a lot more to learn about the world view of Paul, and that points to a lot more than just naïveté. That points to laziness, sloth, indolence. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

*As my study today revealed, the word translated “course” in Eph. 2:2 in the ESV (otherwise translated “age”) can have the meaning of “ruler” or “power.” In this sense it would be parallel to, and a synonym of, the word translated “power” in the phrase, “power of the air.” So, I have chosen to follow this line of thinking, in which Paul is simply being redundant for the sake of emphasis. Paul is saying that, prior to becoming a Christian, a person followed the Ruling Authority, or Ruling Power, of this world, and in a parallel idea, followed the Prince of the Power of the Air. This, I believe, more powerfully conveys Paul’s underlying message – we are hopeless against such power without the overwhelming power of the redeeming death of Jesus on the cross.