What Hell Is Not

There's no hotter topic right now than hell, thanks to a firestorm ignited by a book that hasn't even been published yet. First came a video and some marketing copy produced by HarperCollins about Love Wins, a new book about "Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Every Lived," coming from Rob Bell at the end of the month.

Then came a blog by Justin Taylor about the video and the marketing copy. Taylor, who is VP of Editorial at Crossway Publishers, pretty much concluded that Rob Bell is a "universalist" when it comes to salvation (in other words, everybody's going to heaven).Well, that got a lot of people talking, some defending Rob Bell, and others decrying him. (There's a good recap of the activity swirling around this topic at ChristianityToday.com.)

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Egypt, Bieber, Libya, Gaga and Jesus

Recently, I saw the positive side of our culture’s obsession with celebrities: people are looking for someone to follow and worship—they’relooking for a messiah.

Pastors often chide congregations for their celebrity obsession, but what if we could take that phenomena and use it for good? I think we can. And I think Jesus understood that a culture’s folly could be turned into glory. 

I realized this a few weeks ago when I was reexamining a conversation Jesus had with his disciples. 

“And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’ And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ [the Messiah].’ And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him” (Mark 8:27–30 ESV).

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The Myth of the Apolitical Church

The church is anything but apolitical. We can act like it is all we want; that won’t change the facts.

Most church systems are as complicated as our local government. We have elders, deacons, pastors, board members, committees, sub-committees, small groups, discipleship groups, and youth groups—and that’s not the end of the list. We’re not sure who is in charge of what, or whom we should direct our questions to—outside of the senior pastor, of course. So the senior pastor remains distracted. The staff remains unfocused. And most people aren’t sure what those men called elders actually do outside of meet behind closed doors.

Order is good. Government is good; bureaucracy is not. Confusion will destroy us. I suggest a change.

We need to reinitiate Paul’s model for running the church. I think we can do so within the parameters that our government has set up for us. We can meet legal requirements and Paul’s requirements at the same time.

I serve as the board president of a church plant here in Bellingham. And we’ve been subtly experimenting with this idea—more by the leading of the Spirit than intentionality. That’s exactly the way I think church business should be done. We should be intentional about letting the Spirit do His job. Acting according to the Spirit’s plans should be our goal. Business is something we do out of necessity; the Spirit’s work is something we do because we are called to it.

Paul says: “Now you [all] are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kind of tongues” (1 Cor 12:27–31 ESV).

In the church, God has appointed a hierarchy of offices:

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Spiritual Gridlock: The End of Miracles?

“My grandma is in the hospital, and she needs prayer. Can you pray for healing for her?”

“Of course, let’s pray.”

There’s nothing wrong with this dialogue, but the conversation ending there is tragic—yet, this is how most prayer meetings go. We pray to God like He is going to do all the work. We act like we don’t need to be involved. Ultimately, God does do all the hard work, but that doesn’t make us exempt.

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Is Jesus the Only Way?

 “Jesus is the only way to God” may be the most controversial claim of Christianity, so we had better have good reason for it.  And I think we do.

What does Jesus say?  Let’s start with Jesus.  We certainly don’t want to claim something for him that he wouldn’t claim for himself.  If the Gospels are historically reliable (and we have overwhelming evidence they are), then we have Jesus’ own words and we discover he claims to be the only way to God.  In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Jesus doesn’t leave much room for debate.  Indeed, Jesus says whoever rejects him “rejects the One who sent [him]” (Luke 10:16).  So according to Jesus, there’s no other path to God.  If you think highly of Jesus, eventually you have to grapple with his claims about himself.  

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What is Apologetics?

I Peter 3:15 says to “always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”  Simply put, that’s apologetics.  But in this short description, we discover three important details.  

First, doing apologetics means playing defense.  The Greek word for “defense” is apologia, from which we get the word “apologetics.”  Think about a football game.  At any time during the game, one team is trying to score (the offense) while the other is trying to stop them (the defense).  If your team has a really bad defense, you’ll get blown away.  Similarly, maybe you’ve been roughed up by some really tough objections to Christianity.  You’ve heard the challenges before.  “How can a good God allow suffering?” “The Bible is full of errors.”  “Jesus can’t be the only way to God.”  Apologetics helps us defend Christianity against tough questions.   

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Did God Not Say That?

It’s better to meditate on what God’s word actually says, but it can also be useful at times to meditate on what God’s word does not say.

Here’s what I mean. Recently, I borrowed my wife's Bible and happened upon a note (from a Beth Moore Bible study I believe) she had handwritten beside Philippians 4:6-7.

This is how the verse appears in Scripture:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

This is how my wife's note, casting the verse in the negative, appears:

“Do not be calm about anything, but in everything without prayer and without humility, without any thankfulness, do not tell God what you need.  Then, you will not have any peace, nor understanding or clarity, so your heart will be open to all and your mind will be like the sea tossed to and fro by the wind.”

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Philosophy and Spiritual Formation

I have to prepare a statement on philosophy and spiritual formation for a meeting I have later this month, and so I wanted to put up some material on the blog as a way to think through the issues. From my perspective, a purely philosophical reasoning has very little to do with spiritual formation. The reasoning which governs and orders discussions of spiritual formation is primarily theological. Now, importantly, I am not talking about philosophers or theologians, but modes of reasoning. In other words, just because someone is vocationally a philosopher, does not mean that their thought is purely philosophical. If they are Christians, they are also, by necessity, theologians.

That said, let me try to draw out some differences between philosophical reasoning and theological reasoning (for those interested in such things, I am limiting my discussion of philosophy to Christian analytic philosophy). Theological reasoning, as I understand it, is thinking along the contours of the gospel. Therefore, theological reasoning is only understandable within the church. What I mean is this: Theology takes the gospel as our foundation and plum line. Things like common sense are not large issues for the theologian, because we are, in our common nature, enemies of the Gospel. As such, theological reasoning is an attack of our natural reason - we are, as it were, led through the foolishness of the cross to come to see the cross as beauty.

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Change You Can Believe In

Change is good. Except when it’s change for the sake of change.  Then it’s short-sighted, ineffective, and not entirely useful to anyone.

But real change, deep change, heartfelt change, individual change, is its own revolution. And I don’t mean to use the term revolution too lightly.  This kind of change is nothing short of a miracle.

Here’s what I have in mind when I talk about this kind of deep, heartfelt change.  Paul was a religious man who set out to destroy the church of God (so he hoped) in order to please God (so he thought).  And one day, he encountered Jesus.  Here’s what he said:  “Who are you, Lord?”

Paul goes on to be saved, begins preaching in the synagogue, goes to Arabia, goes back to Damascus, ends up in Jerusalem, and begins his missionary journeys.  Thirty years go by, and here is what we find him now writing:  “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better [than remaining in the flesh]” (Philippians 1:21, 23).

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Banishing Sunday School Teachers

What we do in church services doesn’t matter if it doesn’t change our lives and the lives of others. Biblical illiteracy is on the rise, and will continue to be until we make discipleship part of our life.

Most of us don’t have mentors, and when we do, they aren’t spiritual mentors—they’re business mentors. We rarely think about being discipled in the ways of Christ.

When we think of education, we think of universities and colleges. Biblical education, outside of Christian schools, isn’t even part of our thought process, and that’s a tragedy. We spend thousands of dollars paying for higher education, but how much do we spend on biblical education? When I think of it in those terms, I’m terrified about our future.

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