Sin, Repentance, & Judgment: A Neglected Message

A week ago, I wrote a post I called “The Moral Majority?” In it, I outlined two misperceptions I believe are hampering efforts to turn around the culture. The first misperception is that too many of us think we still live in a majority Judeo-Christian society. We think we’ll just eventually come to our senses and everything will be alright. The second misperception is that we can live a Christian life without holiness. We blend too easily into our culture and don’t want to embrace God’s righteous standards. I’d like to follow up on those thoughts.

One of the key reasons, in my view, that we don’t live righteously is the message that the church too often proclaims—a message that doesn’t really require a change of heart and action on our part. We are told continually that God’s love is unconditional, and that He will accept us just as we are. There certainly is truth in those statements, but the implications we attach to them undercut what I would consider real salvation.

Yes, God’s love is unconditional. He loves us in spite of what we have done and what we are. But that’s not the same as saying salvation is unconditional. There are very specific conditions before we can enter into a relationship with the One who unconditionally loves us. First, we need to grasp the nature of sin, the utter selfishness behind it, and how it destroys all that God intends for His creation. Only when we come to grips with the evil that not only infests the world, but permeates us as well, can we take the next step, which is a deep and genuine repentance over the sin that we have allowed to control our lives.

Far too many evangelists, pastors, and para-church organizations skip these steps. They are eager to make converts, so eager at times that they just want people to come forward to the altar without first leading them into an understanding of their sin and the need for repentance. Without these two vital components, though, there can be no salvation. Why? Because the basic problem that separates man from God has not been addressed.

We tell these potential converts that all they have to do is accept what Jesus did for them, and then we assure them they are saved. Those whose hearts were prepared for the message are genuine converts, but I believe the majority have simply given an intellectual assent to the need for a savior and want to have what has sometimes been called “fire insurance.” I mean, who wants to go to hell?

The problem is then compounded when we declare that they can never expect to live up to God’s standards since His demands are too onerous for any of us to achieve. We solemnly assert they will probably keep on sinning as they have done before, but not to worry because they’re going to heaven anyway. We lower the expectations to where they’re already met.

This theology has its manifestation in a bumper sticker I used to see on cars that stated categorically, “Christians aren’t perfect; they’re just forgiven.” It’s almost like saying, “Hey, I’m just as bad as you, but I get to go to heaven.” What a great salvation—I can continue to sin as much as I used to, but I don’t have to bear the consequences.

No, that’s not salvation. And the reason we are a weak church, and the reason we are fuzzy over moral issues like homosexuality, can be traced to the prevalence of this diluted theology.

I am prepared to be called judgmental because of these comments. That’s fine. God has called us to be righteous judges, as long as we cleanse ourselves of hypocrisy and we offer our judgments along with the message of reconciliation. The glorious thing is that God says we can be set free from the power of sin in our lives, but we must begin with a proper recognition of the pernicious nature of that sin and earnestly desire a changed heart. That’s when the atonement of Jesus can flood our hearts with His love, all our past sins can be forgiven, and we can walk in newness of life. The only reason I’m “judgmental” is because I want people to experience victory in their daily lives.

The Moral Majority?

My main reason for writing this blog—its only real purpose—is to bring the Christian message to the forefront as we contemplate the state of our culture and the society in general. Within me resides a hope, which I trust comes from the Giver of All Hope, that what I write can aid, in whatever small way, in restoring a Biblical pattern of thinking that will, in turn, strengthen the foundations upon which our society is built.

I believe there are two chief impediments that are making it difficult to make progress. The first is a misperception that guides some of us hoping for societal restoration; the second is a profound personal failing on the part of those who claim the name of Christ.

What is that misperception? We seem to think that there is a silent majority out there just waiting for the re-emergence of Christian culture. What we fail to understand is that we are living in a post-Christian nation. Whereas, in decades past, most Americans would have subscribed to some type of Christian morality, we are now a nation bitterly divided over the nature of morality—or indeed whether such a thing as morality even exists. Jerry Falwell, as he attempted to get Christians involved in politics back in the early 1980s, started an organization he called The Moral Majority. It rested on the assumption that most Americans believed in Biblical morality.

That was the case at the Founding of the nation; even those who cannot be classified as Christian believers lived in a culture that expected people to adhere to the basic moral teachings of the Scriptures. The onset of evolutionary theory severely undercut that consensus, which eventually led to the holocaust of abortion, the drive for same-sex marriage, and a general philosophy of postmodernism, where each person constructs his own concept of morality. Polls seem to indicate that nearly two-thirds of Americans rarely gather in a church on Sundays.

Yet we continue to act as if what we promote is generally accepted by the society at large. No, it is not. Promotion of the homosexual lifestyle shows up in nearly every television program, in one way or another. It is just assumed by the media that couples live together and engage in sex routinely before marriage. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence to bolster their assumption.

The myth of the moral majority must be shattered before we can make any real progress. We have to see reality for what it is first so we’ll know how to proceed.

The second problem, though, is deeper, and it’s the primary reason we don’t have the kind of influence we seek. It has to do with personal holiness. Now, I know that word—holiness—has become a turn-off. It reeks of past attempts to focus entirely on externalities: don’t wear makeup, don’t watch television, etc. Christians have been their own worst enemy by making holiness into a repellent idea.

True holiness, though, is beautiful. It simply means one’s love for God inspires our thoughts and actions. Holiness is an attitude of the heart that seeks to please God in all we do, and it’s a joyful thing. Yes, a heart for God will lead to changing our external actions, but not because we follow a list of rules. We change because we want our lives to honor the One who brought us out of darkness into His light; we change because it connects us to His heart; we change because it brings harmony and His love into the lives of others with whom we associate.

Christians who live holy lives are attractive; they draw others to them, thereby providing an opportunity to deliver the message God has placed on their hearts: personal salvation first; societal salvation as a result of the permeation of Biblical principles into the society.

My concern is this: too many people who claim the name of Christ don’t portray the Christ they claim to know. I’ve been a Christian now for many decades. I’ve seen true holiness in action; it does exist. Yet it is not the norm. I’ve taught at four Christian institutions of higher learning and have witnessed the sad spectacle of sin destroying that which is good. We don’t talk much about sin anymore; it’s an embarrassment to mention the word in our culture. If we mention it, we’re accused of being judgmental.

But I want to say something very direct: sin is killing us. I am saddened almost daily by “Christians” who don’t act much differently than the world around them, whose language is filled with the same crudeness that we say we deplore, whose attitudes show forth in gossip, slander, and revenge. Those who name the name of Christ have no problem with “shacking up,” accepting homosexuality, or allowing the government to become God. They are endorsing the very sins that are sending our nation into spiritual darkness. Is it any wonder we hardly make a dent in the culture?

I am grateful for those who stand for righteousness; they do make a difference. But far too many who say they want to make a difference are not different themselves. That will never work. What we need is this reminder from Scripture:

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us. …

But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them; for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them.

Those are not my words. They come from Another. My job today is simply to deliver them. Your responsibility, if you say you are a Christian, is to ponder them and act upon them.

Book Review: Illusion

Frank Peretti is back. Nearly twenty years ago, I picked up my first Peretti book, This Present Darkness, and marveled at his storytelling prowess. After that, I grabbed every Peretti book that came out. Some were more graphic than others in their depiction of sin, death, and the misery men bring upon themselves, but they all were faithful to the message that sin kills, both physically and spiritually. But Peretti didn’t stop there—he always contrasted the consequences of sin with the redemption available through Christ.

Peretti has been notably absent for some time now. I went into the bookstore last week to pick up a certain novel I had heard about, only to discover it wasn’t there. As I perused the shelves, I found, to my delight, that a new Frank Peretti book is now available.

As I read the description of Illusion on the front flap, it drew me in immediately. It’s a fine mixture of science fiction, action, and romance, all within a Christian context. It doesn’t preach, but it does deliver a sobering message about those who try to play God, the potential of a marriage based on Christian commitment, and how to deal with the loss of a loved one. I refuse to give away the plot, but suffice to say that the plot, along with the character development of the protagonists, held sway in my mind over the four days it took to finish it.

Perhaps one of the reasons I found it so fascinating is that the main characters were both born in 1951—an auspicious year, to be sure, since I also was born then—and what they knew, I knew also. All the cultural connections were real to me, as was the poignant fact of the characters reaching that landmark age of sixty—not quite decrepit yet, but identifying with the man who was wondering why it no longer was as easy as it used to be to run, climb the stairs, or perform all the other daily duties in life.

Yet it’s not just a book for “old” people like me. It speaks to every generation.

If you’ve never read Frank Peretti, this is your opportunity. Try him, you may like him. If you’re like me, a Peretti fan from previous years, you should welcome this new addition to his collected works. It will also be a welcome addition to your library.

The Meaning of the Cross

On this Good Friday, I want to draw attention to another aspect of the atonement of Christ. Our traditional theological explanation is to say that Jesus died on the cross so we might escape the penalty for our sins. Most of the time we seem to treat it as a type of commercial transaction. Sure, we are grateful we don’t have to bear the consequences, but all too often we see what Jesus did as some kind of transfer: God the Father got mad at Him instead of us. Whew, that was close.

I don’t accept the idea that God was angry at Jesus, that He couldn’t stand Him at that moment because of all that ugly sin attached to Him. Well, the Father did abandon Him, right? It must have been, as the majority of preachers say, that He was pouring out judgment upon Him because He became the personification of sin. The scripture used to back that up is the one that says Jesus became sin. Yet a closer examination of the Greek shows a better translation is He became a sin offering—not the same thing.

Why did the Father turn away? Two reasons, I believe. First, Jesus had to suffer this alone. Just as any sinner separated from God will feel supreme emptiness at the Last Judgment, so Jesus had to fully grasp that experience. We’re told in the book of Hebrews He had to be made like us in all things so He could be the perfect sacrifice. He had to undergo every temptation as a man to be able to take our place. Yet until that moment on the cross when the Father turned away, He never had experienced alienation from Him. Throughout all eternity past, they were One. Now, for this one agonizing moment, He fully experienced the feeling of separation.

Second, and this is where some may say I’m speculating too much, think about the effect on the Father as well. This was new to Him also. He had never been separated from the Son. If Jesus was suffering, wasn’t the Father also? Yes, Jesus carried out the physical suffering, but both grieved in their hearts.

You see, God the Father and God the Son are not some faraway entities. They live with us, feel with us, work with us at all times. The crucifixion was an intensely personal act.

The other half of this is that we so cavalierly tell others to accept what Jesus has done for them and they can live forever. It’s much deeper than that. We need to come to grips with the personal nature of the crucifixion. We need to “see” the agony Jesus voluntarily submitted to for our sake. In our spirits, we need to view the cross as more than a commercial transaction where we dodge a bullet or have a debt paid. We need to gaze upon Jesus on that cross, realize the degree of His suffering, both physical and spiritual, and be so humbled by His love for us that we would never again want to do anything that would bring even more grief to Him.

In other words, we need a stronger sense of the absolute evil of every sin—the bottomless selfishness of every sinful thought or action—in order to bring us to a place of genuine repentance. The cross should break us down, humble us to the point where our commitment to Him is to live a life that honors Him at all times.

Salvation is not one prayer, and too often we push people into praying a prayer of salvation that may be phony. That prayer will only be real when we first acknowledge our complete spiritual poverty without Him and seek His forgiveness. When we come to that point, when we know in our spirit that we are nothing without Him, only then can we begin to walk in newness of life.

On this Good Friday, we should contemplate not some payment of a debt, but rather the kind of love that would lead the God of all creation to empty Himself of all Godhood, and to humble Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. If we understand the depth of that love, we will be changed. And that’s what it’s all about anyway.

Legislating Morality–Part Two

In yesterday’s post, I explained what I believe to be a self-evident truth: all legislation deals with right and wrong; therefore, we always legislate morality. The only question is whose morality will we legislate.

Today, I’d like to offer some examples that may not be as clear-cut as murder, theft, and fraud. For instance, there was a short time in American history when prohibition went into effect—the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages was banned by constitutional amendment. It didn’t work. That amendment was overturned by another amendment later. While it may have been well-intentioned, hoping to diminish the damage done to individuals and families by drunkenness, it wasn’t really enforceable. Neither is all alcohol condemned in Scripture; the key is to not give oneself over to the sin of drunkenness. I believe the law should instead, in a case like this, penalize public drunkenness due to the specific dangers it creates to the community.

What about drugs? Many draw a parallel between alcohol and drugs, and say they are the same and should be handled identically. However, in my view, there is rarely any reason for a person to take a drug, outside of a doctor’s prescription, if that drug’s primary effect is to impair one’s connection to reality. A person normally has to imbibe a certain amount of alcohol to reach the same state that one drug dose will create. The drug itself has no nutritional value; there’s rarely any reason for taking it other than the desire to get high, thereby endangering others. I have no objection to the drug war, so-called, as long as it is effectively enforced.

Abortion, to me, is not an ambivalent issue. This is the taking of innocent life. I would like to see the law come down hard on those who perform this “service,” in order to restore the concept of each person as inherently valuable, made in the image of God. It would also stop the downward slide of our society into hardheartedness and the development of what the Bible calls a “seared conscience.”

Homosexuality is probably the most controversial moral issue at present, particularly now that there is movement toward homosexual marriage. Our society has shifted significantly on this in the past thirty years. As someone who takes Scripture seriously, I cannot condone personally the practice of homosexuality. I believe it is a sin. But then comes the question as to when a sin becomes a matter for the civil government to punish. All criminal acts [at least those in accord with the Biblical understanding of crime] are sinful as well; not all sins are criminal acts. Pride is one of the most deadly of all sins, but we don’t pass laws putting people in prison for demonstrating pride and arrogance [Congress would be nearly emptied]. That’s something God deals with directly, and it’s the church’s responsibility to confront such an attitude.

Some will disagree with me, but I don’t think it would work very well to criminalize homosexuality. I would prefer that to be a moral issue that the church confronts, and that we work to salvage the lives of those who have trapped themselves in the sin via genuine repentance and God’s redemption.

However, there are some points at which government should play a role with this moral issue. First, it should never allow homosexuality to be accorded some type of special status in the law, and neither should it punish those who disapprove of the practice. Unfortunately, the first has occurred, and the second may be on the way. Already one courts ostracism if one speaks openly of homosexuality being a sin. Frankly, another four years of an Obama administration may see an attack on blogs like mine that refuse to bow to political correctness. We could expect as well an attack on churches that continue to be faithful to what Scripture says about this sin.

I have no problem at all with setting a standard in society by legislating against homosexual marriage. It not only makes a mockery of the original intent of marriage, but it marks the beginnings of the destruction of the family, which is the cornerstone of society. Although some try to deny it, the next step will be to legalize anything that anyone considers a marriage. Last week, I saw a news report about a women who fell in love with a building that might be demolished, so she “married” the building—in a wedding dress, no less. Absurd? Unthinkable? Not anymore.

Christians still have a voice in this nation, not only within the church, but also in civil governance. We have just as much right as anyone to argue for the kind of moral standard we believe is essential for the spiritual health of the society. Yes, morality will be legislated, one way or the other. For the sake of our future as a nation, it had better be Biblical morality that wins in the end.

The Latest Manifestation of the Sinfulness of Man

There are so many disturbing aspects of the “occupy” movement that it’s difficult to catalog them all. At its root is the desire to get something for nothing, a malady born out of an entitlement mentality that we have nurtured in our society. Where will it end?

That mentality is central to the greatest heresy of the twentieth century, one that ultimately led to the deaths of more than thirty million in the Soviet Union, even more in China, and also in smaller nations such as Cambodia, North Korea, and Cuba. We’re now seeing it at work in Venezuela. It doesn’t always begin as a full-blown radicalism, but it eventually descends to that low level.

I like to teach history because I believe we can see what went wrong in the past and avoid repeating those mistakes. At least, that is my hope. There certainly are enough object lessons from which we can gain wisdom.

The problem, of course, is that most of us are not wise. We too often reject sound knowledge and understanding. The result is to walk in darkness. Why is this? My authority for understanding why this is the case states it this way:

This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.

We have no one to blame but ourselves. We seek scapegoats. We want to believe that “others” cause all our problems, yet the biggest problem is what we see in the mirror. The “occupy” movement is simply the latest manifestation of the sinfulness of man.

Reflections on American Morality

The whole Anthony Weiner incident has left me deeply disturbed about the tenor of our society. That’s nothing new, of course, since I believe man in sinful and plays out that sinfulness continually. Yet this particular episode I find particularly perturbing. Let me see if I can explain why.

Weiner himself is what I always expected him to be; I’m less concerned about him personally than I am about other aspects of this. The media, both liberal and conservative, seem to be painting the women involved as victims of a sexual predator. There’s no disputing Weiner is a sexual predator, but if these women were victims, they were more than willing to be victimized.

One of them, Megan Broussard, has conducted interviews over the past two days, one on ABC, the other on Sean Hannity’s Fox program. I watched the latter. First of all, I was not impressed with her grasp of basic morality. She thought it would be “fun,” I guess, to banter sexually with a married congressman. Only when she feared her tweets would become public, or the pictures she sent him would be displayed on the Internet did she decide to preempt that exposure by speaking up. Even now, she doesn’t seem to have any real concept of having done anything inappropriate—at least on her part. And when asked if Weiner should remain a congressman, she had no opinion, saying that it was up to the voters in his district.

She is a microcosm of the state of morality in America at this time, I fear. She obviously doesn’t represent the morality of all, but I do wonder if she is representative of the majority: morally clueless.

Even now, only a slim plurality of Weiner’s constituents think he should step down. He may be able to ride this out. His arrogance is that great.

I think back on the Clinton impeachment. Even though it was evident that he had abused the trust given him by the electorate, and that he had committed perjury, public opinion polls indicated that about 2/3 of the country didn’t want him removed from office. I recall being dispirited over that at the time.

Just who are we as a people?

I want to believe better about us, but I don’t know if I can. After all, we put Barack Obama into the highest office in the land.

There is no golden age in our history where everyone was Christian and all was well, but there certainly was a time when we, as a society, had a keener understanding of eternal right and wrong, and when we veered off course, we at least felt guilty.

Does genuine guilt exist as a force in America anymore? Only by comprehending guilt will we ever seek forgiveness and reconciliation with God. I hold the firm conviction that nothing less than an explicitly Christian moral standard, and a firm belief in the transforming power of a Spirit-filled existence, will suffice to hold our society together. Without that basis, we will spin out of control.

I’m reminded of a quote from Christian statesman Robert Winthrop, who, in a speech to the Massachusetts Bible Society in 1849, pointed out a significant truth:

All societies of men must be governed in some way or other. The less they may have of stringent State Government, the more they have of individual self-government. The less they rely on public law or physical force, the more they rely on private moral restraint. Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled, either by a power within them, or by a power without them; either by the Word of God, or by the strong arm of man; either by the Bible or the bayonet.

Here’s the rub: do we still have enough people who live by individual self-government to make the difference, or are we in the process of losing all moral restraint? The reason I write and teach is that I believe there is still hope. I hope I’m right.