Saturday, October 31, 2009

95 Theses

Happy "Reformation Day"!

Have you ever stopped to wonder what Protestants churches celebrate as "Reformation Day" on Oct. 31? It's all about Martin Luther nailing his "95 Theses" to the church door, right? He was protesting something; hence the name Protestant. Sure, but if you're like me, you've probably never actually read what Luther wrote.

So, I went and read it for myself. You can go here to read an English translation of it. What follows is my own paraphrase of what it says, with some of my own thoughts interspersed. Please let me know if you agree or disagree with my paraphrase and if you agree what Luther is saying. As I went through this, I discovered many concepts that even modern day Protestant churches would be wise to listen to.

For those of you who may not be familiar with some of the concepts that Martin Luther is speaking about, here's some background information.

In his 95 Theses, the primary topic that Martin Luther is concerned with is the Catholic tradition of indulgences. To understand what an indulgence is, you first have to understand the Catholic concept of penance. When you are forgiven of your sin, based on your acceptance of Jesus' sacrifice, it doesn't necessarily mean that you are freed from the consequences of your sin. Let's use a simple example to illustrate this. Let's say, in a lapse of judgement, that you leave a party one night a bit more intoxicated than you should be, and, on your way home, you get in an accident and someone gets killed. When you sober up and realize what has happened, you are horrified and remorseful at what has happened. You approach the family of the person that died, on your knees, begging their forgiveness. In an act of amazing grace, the family decides to forgive you. Unfortunately, even though they have forgiven you, that doesn't change the fact that you are probably still going to be headed to jail.

Now, in our modern day justice system, we've got this idea that a jail sentence can be shortened by "good behavior". If you demonstrate that you are truly remorseful and repentant for the sin that you committed, then it is possible that your punishment may be reduced. This "good behavior" is penance. In Catholic theology, you are expected to confess your sins to a priest and he will assign to you, like a judge handing down a sentence, something that you can do to prove that you are sorry and remedy the situation. In medieval times, penance was typically some form of discipline, whereas in modern times, it has been relaxed to saying certain prayers, fasting, a charitable deed, or giving.

To further our example, imagine that, after your sentencing by the judge, you then enter a large population of prisoners at Happy Valley Penitentiary. At this jail, they have a program of community service that has been doing wonderful things for people. The prisoners have been building schools for children, cleaning up neighborhoods, etc. Now, the next time you appear before the judge for a parole hearing, he looks at you and says, "I've heard good things coming out of Happy Valley Pen, I think we can go ahead and take a few years off your sentence." In essence, your sentence is being shortened not by your own good behavior, but based on the good behavior of other people. That's an indulgence.

Catholics also believe that when you die, you're not quite done paying the penalty for your sin. Before you can enter Heaven, you've got to stop off at the spiritual decontamination chamber so that you can finish paying for the sins you've committed. Through this process, the stains of sin are washed off your soul until you are finally purified enough to enter the presence of God. This is Purgatory.

Ok, now that you have that foundation, hopefully you'll understand Martin Luther's ideas a bit better....

95 Theses by Martin Luther, in my own words.

  1. When Jesus said "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near," He intended that the entire life of the believer be one of repentence. i.e. not just a one time act, but a wholesale change of heart and mind.

  2. This cannot be the same as the acts of penance administered by Catholic priests, because a priest only has the power to require you to do something; they cannot change your heart.

  3. But this inward change of heart is not merely internal; a change on the inside will produce a change in behavior too.

  4. It's not enough to repent once; since we continue to sin until the day we die, we must be in a state of constant repentance.

  5. The Pope only has jurisdiction over consequences that are prescribed by the Church; he can't erase the consequences that come from another source.

  6. The Pope, when he declares a sin forgiven, isn't actually doing the forgiving; he's resting on the idea that God will forgive the person because he (the Pope) asked God to grant forgiveness.

  7. God does not grant forgiveness to people who remain in open rebellion towards the leaders of the church; there is no evidence of internal change.

  8. People who have died have no ability to perform the deeds that are typically handed out by a priest to atone for the sins they have committed, therefore the Biblical laws only apply to the living.

  9. It is the grace of the Holy Spirit that the punishments that were prescribed by the leaders of the Church cease the moment you die.

  10. Priests are preaching out of ignorance when they tell someone on their deathbed that they are going to have to carry out the rest of their "sentence" in Purgatory. Let's say part of your punishment is that you need to work at a soup kitchen for a month. It would be ridiculous for the priest to tell you that you'll have to do that even after you're dead.

  11. This incorrect practice must have crept in while the leaders of the Church were not paying attention.

  12. In days gone by, you used to have to put things right first, before you were forgiven. Or, put another way, if you stole something, you have to first give it back before you can be forgiven. It was a way to test and see that you were truly sorry for what you had done.

  13. Once you're dead, the rules put in place by the Church no longer apply. The Church is an Earthly institution; once you leave this Earth, you are no longer bound to it.

  14. If you have lived in rebellion against God all your life, when you finally approach the end of your life, it's likely that you will feel a great deal of fear. This fear is amplified according to the amount of bad deeds you've committed.

  15. When you are brought to face the full weight of the things you've spent your life doing, the anguish you will feel is essentially a punishment itself.

  16. The extremes of Heaven and Hell can be represented in emotional terms as hope and despair. Purgatory is a middle ground between the two, but leads toward hope; it can be thought of as a place of "Wow, look where I almost ended up!"

  17. If Purgatory leads into Heaven, then despair should naturally tranform from fear into joy as one realizes the narrow escape from destruction and the promise of living eternally with the Author of Love Himself.

  18. It doesn't specifically say in the Bible what happens to a sinful person after death. Does the sinful condition, that a person died in, become permanent? It seems reasonable that the soul of the person can shed the sins of the past and be cleansed even after death.

  19. Just because we might be personally certain that we will be in Heaven, this doesn't constitute an "iron-clad" guarantee; it's still God's prerogative.

  20. When the Pope says he frees you from all the consequences of your sin, he's only freeing you from the consequences that the Church has placed on you. He can't free you from any natural consequences. For example, if you do something horrible, one consequence is that the community may shun you. There is nothing that the Pope can do to free you from this.

  21. Because of this, anyone who tells you that if you perform a certain act or say a certain prayer, you'll be released from any and all consequences, is incorrect.

  22. If you're in Purgatory, how can you pay for sins that you needed to pay for when you were alive? Or, to use an example, if you steal from someone, how can you repay them if you're in jail?

  23. If it were even possible to completely free someone from all consequences of their sins, wouldn't it require someone who is completely free from inward sins of the heart? And wouldn't this person have to be as close to perfect as a human being can get? This would mean for most everyone else who isn't perfect, they're out of luck; no mortal man can fix that for them.

  24. Then to tell the general public, these less-than-perfect people, that they can be forgiven of all their sins and get some sort of universal "Get Out of Jail Free" card, is simply wrong.

  25. The Pope's power over Purgatory is just like a priest has over their congregation; it doesn't come from any merit of their own; it's given by God. God is the "owner and operator" of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, not the Pope. Or in other words, the Pope is like a bouncer outside the gates of Heaven; he may have limited say over who gets in and who doesn't, but he doesn't own the place.

  26. The Pope doesn't have the keys to Purgatory on his keychain; when the Pope decides to free someone from Purgatory, he has to go ask the Lord.

  27. There was a saying in Martin Luther's time, "so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out." This was part of a fundraising campaign to raise money for St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Certain church officials were circulating the idea that if you donated to this cause, you would free someone from Purgatory. "And if you call now and take advantage of this one time offer, you'll get this certificate from the Pope himself saying that you have forgiven of all your sins! Act now! Don't delay!"

  28. That money being given to the church was certainly increasing the treasury and by the same token increasing greed. However, since the Pope, can only ask God to grant his request, he has no way of guaranteeing that the money was having any affect on the afterlife.

  29. How do we even know if the people who are in purgatory really even want to be bought out of it? There are legends told that St. Severinus and St. Pascal were willing to endure the pains of Purgatory for the benefit of the faithful.

  30. There is no complete certainty in spiritual matters. Sometime we don't even know if our own hearts are completely repentant, much less being sure that we've been completely freed from all punishements.

  31. When people pay money to help out people in Purgatory, are they really doing it because they truly want to help? Or are they doing it because they want to appear to be good people and increase their own standing? Truly humble people are an extreme rarity.

  32. People who think that by paying this money they can buy their own salvation aren't understanding the process and are likely to wind up in the wrong place. Just because they gave their money and show up with a letter from the Pope that says they don't need to do any penance doesn't mean that will have any bearing on their ultimate destination.

  33. Watch out for the people who think that these "Get Out of Jail Free" cards that they bought from the Pope even remotely resemble the amazing grace from God by which God repairs our relationship with Him. They're just cheap knockoffs, like a $20 Rolex you can buy in China.

  34. The pardons received from the Pope are only concerned with the punishments that are prescribed by other men, like the priest in your church. While it may get you out of having to do penance, don't even think that it does anything to reconcile the divide between you and God.

  35. These people who think that you don't even need to feel remorse for your sins, that you can just drop a wad of cash and take care of it, like a business transaction, are teaching something that's really against what the Bible teaches.

  36. You don't need any fancy letters from the Pope to be fully forgiven of your sins; all you need is a truly repentant heart.

  37. Everyone, whether they are living or dead, has access the blessings that God pours out. This is from God and there's no need for an official certificate.

  38. This isn't to say that the when the Pope grants someone freedom from penalties that this is necessarily a bad thing in itself. It is still worthwhile to have another Christian intercede on your behalf.

  39. It doesn't matter how persuasive of a preacher you are, you can't really hand out these pardons left and right, and then still expect people to be truly sorry for what they've done.

  40. If you're really sorry about what you've done, you're going to truly desire to make things right again. By reducing this to just tossing money in a bucket, you're trivializing this process of cleansing the heart and robbing people of the reconciliation they really need.

  41. Be careful with this idea of removal of consequences being granted by a man. People are lazy. It's a lot easier to simply get the priest to proclaim that you don't need to make amends, than to actually do something good.

  42. This pardon that you get by donating to the Church is worthless in comparison to the kindness you show to other people.

  43. You're better off taking your money and giving it to the poor than trying to buy yourself out of the consequences. At least in that case another person benefits, aside from just you.

  44. When you show love to people by the things that you do, this love has a tendency to grow and spread. You're effecting a positive change in the world. If you just pay money to lessen your sin debt, it does nothing to better the world.

  45. If you see someone in need, yet you ignore them and you keep your money so that you can buy yourself a pardon, what you've done is a selfish act. You're more likely to anger God than to please Him enough to let you off the hook.

  46. Unless you are someone who's blessed with an overabundance of material goods, you had better look after your family first, rather than blowing it all on a pardon from the Pope.

  47. If you do choose to pay money for a pardon, know that it your choice; no one is requiring that you do this.

  48. The Pope needs your prayers more than he needs your money.

  49. If you decide not to put your faith in a pardon from the Pope, you've lost nothing; you can repent and believe just like everyone else. If, however, you start thinking that you can do as you please and still have a guaranteed spot in Heaven, simply because you have this piece of paper, you're heading for trouble.

  50. If the Pope had any idea what these people were charging for pardons, he'd prefer that St. Peter's be demolished, rather than bilk the people out of their livelihoods.

  51. In fact, the Pope should reimburse these people the money that the scammers took in the Pope's name, even if it means selling St. Peter's to pay for it.

  52. It doesn't matter if the Pope himself stakes his very soul on it; trying to gain salvation my means of a pardon certificate is just plain futile.

  53. The people who try and replace the Word of God with pardons in order to line their pockets are enemies of the Church and the Pope, even though they are doing so in their name.

  54. If you're a church leader and you spend more time trying to get people to give you money than you do teaching the Word of God, you are doing somethong extremely wrong.

  55. The joy and celebration of the Gospel should be a hundred time more enthusiastic than whatever ceremony you use when honoring a gift given to the Church. It doesn't matter how much someone donated; it's never going to top God's gift.

  56. Do we really know what this great pile of "merit", that has been accumulated throughout the years by believers, really consists of? How can the Pope draw upon this when we don't really understand it? Is it possible the Pope is writing bad checks?

  57. This treasure trove that the Pope draws upon certainly isn't the material goods of the Church. That gets collected and stored away; and is typically never handed out to people.

  58. But this treasure can't be the great gift that Jesus gave us either; we don't need the Pope to hand that out, in order to share in that blessing.

  59. St. Lawrence misinterpreted this idea of distributing the "treasure" of the Church to the people. He took all the literal wealth of the Church and gave it all to the poor. While this was a good deed, it misses the point of what the Church's "treasure" is.

  60. It doesn't seem like such a crazy idea to say that the "treasure" of the Church is really the Church itself, given to us by Jesus and, by extension, the Apostles.

  61. It's clear that freeing someone from penalties imposed by the Church doesn't require some sort of "treasury", the Pope has the power to do this all by himself.

  62. The true treasure of the Church is really the good news of the glory and grace of God.

  63. The idea of handing out pardons to anyone who is willing to pay is offensive, because it makes the most wicked of men appear to be good, because they are exempt from having to make amends for their deeds.

  64. On the other hand, it is good because it places importance on the good deeds done by humble people.

  65. It used to be that the Gospel was a net that captured the hearts of rich men.

  66. Now we're no longer interested in their hearts; now we're just fishing for their riches.

  67. The people peddling these certificates tout them as the Pope doing you such a great favor, when it's really doing their wallet a great favor.

  68. In reality, the small favor that you may be gaining pales in comparison to the work that Jesus did for you on the cross. It didn't cost the Pope anything; yet it cost Jesus his life.

  69. When these scam artists show up claiming to be offering pardons from the Pope himself, what option does the priest of your local church have? They have to accept it.

  70. But if these travelling vendors start preaching something that isn't truth to the priest's congregation, it's the priests responsibility to fix the damage. So they really need to be on guard.

  71. Don't get me wrong, the Bible says that Jesus gave the Apostles the authority to forgive sins. Anyone who teaches otherwise needs to be shown to the door.

  72. But blessed are the church leaders who guard their congregation against the lure and temptation of the "easy out" presented by the pardons.

  73. The Pope gets angry at those who try to get in the way of him granting a pardon to someone.

  74. But he's going to be even more angry when he finds out how the people peddling pardons are tampering with the message of love and truth.

  75. Do we really think the a piece of paper with the Pope's name on it is enough to free someone from the consequences of committing some of the worst crimes known to man?

  76. A pardon from the Pope can only get rid of specific consequences; it can't remove the actual guilt associated with committing even the tiniest of sins.

  77. It is said that a pardon given out by the Pope is the greatest grace that he can bestow; not even Peter, if he were the Pope today, could have granted something greater.

  78. On the contrary, the ability to grant pardons is the most insignificant ability that the Pope possesses, compared to all the the spiritual gifts of 1 Corinthians 12 that he has at his disposal.

  79. Despite this power, it's repulsive to think that insignia of the Pope, that these men do business under, is in any way equal to the cross of Christ. It's at the cross, that our sins our forgiven; not at the feet of the Pope.

  80. The leaders of the church who let these ideas spread will have to answer for their negligence.

  81. This misuse of pardons makes it difficult to defend the reputation of the Pope against criticism from the people of the Church.

  82. They say things like, "If the Pope has the ability to let people out of Purgatory, why doesn't he just do that for everyone? Wouldn't that be a good thing? Instead, he's just pardoning the people who donate to building St. Peter's church. That seems like such a limited use of his power."

  83. They also ask, "Why do we have to keep holding funeral and anniversary masses for the dead? Why can't the Pope just let them all out of Purgatory and we can be done with all that? If the dead were all pardoned, then there would be no need to pray for them."

  84. How does this work? An evil man can free a saint from punishment with money, yet that saint can't free himself simply by the merit of his intense love of God? Is money more powerful than love?

  85. The old ways of bringing a man to repentence through harsh punishment are gone and obsolete, so why are we still punishing men with monetary fines disguised as pardons, as if those punishments were still in effect?

  86. The Pope has more money than the wealthiest of wealthy men; why doesn't he just pay for building St. Peter's church himself, instead of taking the money from the poor?

  87. What consequences does the Pope remove for people who don't buy a pardon, but instead deserve it by way of a humble, repentant heart? These people are doing things the right way, yet no one give them a break.

  88. How amazing would it be if the Pope would just do for a hundred people the same thing that he does for the one who paid money.

  89. If the Pope's goal is to see more people saved, and not to increase his wealth, why does he sometimes stop giving out pardons?

  90. If we don't answer these questions with reasonable answers and instead just force people to shut up, the consequences will be a loss of reputation and very unhappy people.

  91. If we could just bring these teachings in line with the truth, then the problems would go away.

  92. There's going to be people who shut their eyes and say, "Oh, don't worry about it. Don't rock the boat." We can't listen to these people; it's a problem and it needs to be solved.

  93. It's better to be one of the people who warns people of danger, even if it turns out there is none.

  94. Challenge each other to be sure you are following Christ, not someone else, when it comes to anything related to punishment, death, or hell.

  95. If you follow Christ, you can be confident that you'll make it to Heaven, even if it means passing through many trials. This confidence is more certain than any false promises made by any other man.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Boo!

Ok, time to leave some of the heavy theology alone for a bit. In light of the fact that Halloween is coming up soon, I thought I might toss out a topic that is somewhat related. In addition to that, I've got a monster blog post coming up soon and I wanted something to keep us all active and interested, yet give me a chance to keep working on that.

So, here's root question: Is there such thing as ghosts? If so, what are they?

One way of approaching this topic would be to say "Who cares? It has no bearing on salvation." While you might be right, I think it's still worthwhile to have an idea of what you believe. If you look at trends in television, this idea is slowly gaining in popularity with shows like "Crossing Over with John Edward" and "Ghost Hunters"

I have to say that I don't have a solid answer in this area, so I'm hoping that everyone else has some thoughts on the matter and we can get a discussion going. My first gut reaction is to say that any paranormal activity is the work of demons, however, there's a story in the Bible that just might blow that theory out of the water.

1 Samuel 28:1-21
[1] In those days the Philistines gathered their forces to fight against Israel. Achish said to David, "You must understand that you and your men will accompany me in the army."

[2] David said, "Then you will see for yourself what your servant can do." Achish replied, "Very well, I will make you my bodyguard for life."

[3] Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in his own town of Ramah. Saul had expelled the mediums and spiritists from the land.

[4] The Philistines assembled and came and set up camp at Shunem, while Saul gathered all the Israelites and set up camp at Gilboa. [5] When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart. [6] He inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets. [7] Saul then said to his attendants, "Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her."

"There is one in Endor," they said.

[8] So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman. "Consult a spirit for me," he said, "and bring up for me the one I name."

[9] But the woman said to him, "Surely you know what Saul has done. He has cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land. Why have you set a trap for my life to bring about my death?"

[10] Saul swore to her by the LORD, "As surely as the LORD lives, you will not be punished for this."

[11] Then the woman asked, "Whom shall I bring up for you?"
"Bring up Samuel," he said.

[12] When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out at the top of her voice and said to Saul, "Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!"

[13] The king said to her, "Don't be afraid. What do you see?"
The woman said, "I see a spirit coming up out of the ground."

[14] "What does he look like?" he asked.
"An old man wearing a robe is coming up," she said.
Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.

[15] Samuel said to Saul, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?"
"I am in great distress," Saul said. "The Philistines are fighting against me, and God has turned away from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what to do."

[16] Samuel said, "Why do you consult me, now that the LORD has turned away from you and become your enemy? [17] The LORD has done what he predicted through me. The LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors├│to David. [18] Because you did not obey the LORD or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the LORD has done this to you today. [19] The LORD will hand over both Israel and you to the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The LORD will also hand over the army of Israel to the Philistines."

[20] Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, filled with fear because of Samuel's words. His strength was gone, for he had eaten nothing all that day and night.

[21] When the woman came to Saul and saw that he was greatly shaken, she said, "Look, your maidservant has obeyed you. I took my life in my hands and did what you told me to do.

What was it Saul saw? As it says in the story, by this time, Samuel was very much dead. Was it Samuel? Or something else?


So, I've been thinking a little further on this topic and there hasn't been a lot of activity in the comments so far in the comments so I figured I'd add my thoughts to the toplevel post.

The first premise that I'll throw out there is that ghosts are, or in some way connected to, an intelligent being. Or to put it another way, they are not a natural phenomenon produced by optical illusions, or hallucinations, or strange energy effects, or something like that.

Working off that premise, there are three categories of intelligent beings that the Bible talks about:

  1. God
  2. Angels
  3. Humans

Now, each one of these types of beings has the ability to manifest itself in the physical realm, but each one also has a spiritual component also.

  1. God has the ability to manifest himself in a physical form, throughout the Bible. The most important instance is, of course, as Jesus the Son. However, it does also say that God physically wrestled with Jacob. At the same time, God has a spiritual component which is usually known as the Holy Spirit.
  2. Angels have more than one known physical form listed in the Bible. When they interact with humans, they typically take on the form of a man, however they take on a more non-human form, including one or more set of wings, when their images adorn the Ark of the Covenant. Most of the time, however, they exist in the spiritual realm, undetected by human senses.
  3. Humans have both a physical component, our bodies, and a spiritual component, our souls. The understanding is that when we die, our soul is separated from our body.

You may think that I've left a particular category out; the creatures we call demons. Actually, they are represented in the list. From what we understand from the Bible, demons are fallen angels, or evil angels. Unless this fall from grace transformed them into something completely different that the Bible fails to mention, it seems reasonable to assume that demons have all the characteristics, abilities, and powers of angels and vice versa. This may be a new idea for you, as it is to me. If an angel is able to take on human form as Gabriel did to deliver the good news to Mary, does a demon have the same ability?

But back to ghosts. Let's compare what we know about each of the categories and what we've heard about ghosts.

  1. God.

    I think we would all agree that we can take God off the list of potential sources of ghosts. If it were truly God that people were seeing, there would be no mistaking it because His brilliance would melt their faces off.

  2. Angels

    While this is possible, the typical characteristics traditionally attributed to apparitions doesn't really fit the mode of operation of Angels. In almost every story involving angels in the Bible, angels appear in corporeal form on a very specific mission or errand from God. When they show up, the make their presence known, carry out their task, and are gone. They don't show up as half-seen shadows, make objects move, make scary sounds, or any of the things that are traditionally attributed to ghosts.

  3. Demons (or Evil Angels)

    We know from the Bible that central goal of the fallen angels is to pollute and destroy the creations of God, including mankind. Not much is known about their methods, other than they are have the ability to deceive. To me, if ghosts are connected with these evil beings, I guess I really question the effectiveness of their methods. I would say that the typical outcome of an encounter with a ghost is simple fear. Not fear, as in awe and reverence; fear as in, "I need to get away from here as soon as I can." What would a demon accomplish by masquerading as a dead human and instilling this kind of fear in someone? For most people, this fear drives them to seek out comfort, safety, and good things, including light, friends, and many times God. This seems quite contrary to their purpose.

  4. Souls of the Deceased

    This option seems to best fit the descriptions of ghosts that people give and fits the description of Saul's encounter with Samuel. However, this brings up a series of major questions: What are these souls still doing on Earth? Why are they not in Heaven or Hell? After we die, are we immediately transferred to one of those places or is it possible that we linger around for some time?

I wonder if there are many things and events that go on in the spiritual world and this happens all around us, but we simply lack the senses to detect it. Imagine if humans were created without ears. You would be completely unable to detect sounds. However, if the music was loud enough, you would feel vibrations and this could be picked up by a different sense. Sometimes I wonder if the spirit world "bleeds" through to our other senses sometimes and this is what we perceive as ghosts.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Shot Out of the Canon

Ok, everyone, haul out your textbooks and fire up the search engines; we're diving into material that is not widely available like the Bible is. Let's talk about the "Early Church".

Now, the "Early Church" is an extremely broad topic, so I'm going to narrow it down a bit for this discussion. If there are other aspects that you'd like to explore, let me know and we'll create a separate blog entry for it. The particular topic I want to focus on right now is the writings and teachings of people that were present during the first hundred or so years after Jesus' death and how we respond to these teachings.

Let me set the stage a bit. Jesus, when He ascended, left behind a group of Jewish men known as "The 12 Apostles" (although there were only 11 of them left). In Mark 16:15, He says to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation." So these guys go out and start making more disciples. This group starts growing and growing and eventually becomes known as the Christian "church". At some point around AD 45, about 15 years after Christ's death, the group of people following the oral teachings of the Apostles is really too big to manage by such a small group of disciples, so they are inspired to start writing this stuff down. This way, the church doesn't stray off track while the diciples are away.

So, out of this time period, a number of books, letters, and various writings are generated by a number of different people. Some of these people were direct eyewitnesses, like Matthew and John, some were people who interviewed eyewitnesses, such as Luke, while still others were people who came to the movement through different means, like Paul and his conversion.

Now, once written, these books and letters would circulate from church to church. And as time went on, more writings appeared. The problem was that, as time passed, the people who were direct eyewitnesses died and some of the new writings started to stray away from the original teachings.

So, a problem faced the Church; of all this written material and oral traditions, which ones were true to the teachings of Jesus and which ones had strayed off the path? It made sense to collect all the trustworthy writings together in one book, like the Jews had done with the Talmud, but which ones? The debate raged on for a long time, with several groups and individuals over the years taking a stand on which writings should be included and which ones should not. Finally, between 1545-1563, the Council of Trent met (for 18 years! And I thought meetings at work took forever!) to hammer out the set of books that you will get if you walk into a bookstore and buy a Bible off the shelf.

But the question remains, what do we do with the stuff that was left out? Beyond that, what do we do with the ideas that were never actually written down, but passed down by word of mouth over 2000 years, like an extremely long version of the game 'Telephone'?

Growing up in a Protestant background, I developed an attitude of "If it's not in the Bible, then it's not trustworthy. Any oral tradition cannot be relied on; it must be discarded." However, I've discovered a weakness in my logic. Here it is: The Bible, as we know it today, was assembled by a group of men. Let me restate that. A group of men made the decision on which books were included. The key question to ask, here, is how did these men make that decision? What was their guide? It's not like they could use the Bible as their guide; it wasn't fully formed yet.

Are the writings of other people that didn't make it in still useful for learning about God? What if one of those non-Biblical sources teach something that isn't discussed in the Bible? How do we trust it? Who's trustworthy and who's not?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Spiritual Guidance Counselor

In my last blog post, Kara pointed out that I left out one of the greatest sources of truth, and that is what is commonly known as "the Leading of the Holy Spirit". She was absolutely correct; I left it out on purpose. I left it out for two reasons. The first reason is that I wanted the demonstrate that the process that Christians go through, in order to discover truth, is almost identical to the search for truth in other disciplines, whether it is science, or mathematics, or history.

The second reason I gave was that I personally don't understand it. It's actually a little more than that; I don't trust it. Don't get me wrong; it's not that the Holy Spirit is not trustworthy, it's that I do not trust my ability to recognize it. More on that in a moment. Let me first say, this is me being transparent, honest, and vulnerable, so, please... go easy.

It's amazing to me that despite this (the leading of the Holy Spirit) being a thing that is talked about on a relatively frequent basis in the Christian community, how little we actually understand it. It's one of those things that people say and assume that people know what they mean and yet people really don't understand. It's like the story of the Emperor's New Clothes; everyone is thinking it, but no one has the guts to say anything.

So let's talk about it. Think about this: when was the last time you heard someone say "God led me to ...." or "I felt the Holy Spirit's leading in this matter..." Did you understand what they meant? Did you question their guidance? Did you ask them, "What did God say, exactly?" If not, why not?

Before we dive into those questions, let me lay out the foundation. Jesus himself described a "Counselor", which we understand to be a reference to the Holy Spirit.

John 16:5-15

5Now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, 'Where are you going?' 6Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief. 7But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: 9in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; 10in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.

12"I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. 15All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.

So we know from these verses that one of the tasks of the Holy Spirit is to "guide us into all truth." But how exactly does this happen? In what ways does He guide us? I'm going to lay out three potential ways that the Holy Spirit uses to communicate with us and, along the way, point out just how little we know about each. If there are other ways than these three, I'm not aware of them.

Audible

In most cases in the Bible, audible speech was the primary way that God communicated to His prophets and people. However, if you were to poll Christians, I think you would find that most of them do not believe that God communicates in this way anymore, or if they do believe he still audibly speaks to people, they feel that it is only on very, very rare occasions. Many people would even consider you a lunatic if you claimed that you audibly heard the voice of God. Why is this? Why did God stop speaking to people directly? This method of communication is the most clear and unmistakeable. If you hear the voice of God such that you are able to repeat the words that He said, then there should be absolutely no confusion as to what He said. Unfortunately, like most people, I have no personal experience in this area, so I have only questions and very little answers.

Circumstantial

An interesting feature of the human mind is that it instinctively understands probability. You may never have been exposed to probability through academic study, yet if I tell you that I flipped a coin 100 times and it came up heads every time, you simply won't believe me. Many Christians believe that the Holy Spirit sometimes guides us through life by using our circumstances. They get to a point in their life where they need to make a choice and they begin looking for the "doors" that are open or closed to them, attributing this to the Holy Spirit. While I believe that God can and does manipulate our circumstances to guide us in a particular direction, the real challenge is to distinguish real guidance from simple coincidence. Too many times have I seen Christians assume that, because a particular opportunity is open to them, it is God's will and plunge headlong into something that turns out to be a very bad decision. So how do we know if God is trying to guide us through circumstances or not? I don't have any real solid answers here. The only thing I'm able to lean on to help distiguish is my sense of probability; the more unlikely a set of events is, the more likely it is that an outside influence, such as the Holy Spirit has a hand in it. So for example, if I'm on my way to the airport and I encounter a red light, I'll think nothing of it. However, if I hit all the lights red, my car has a flat tire, the road I was planning on taking to the airport is closed for construction, and then later I hear that the plane I was supposed to be on had engine trouble, then I might think that God had really not intended for me to be on that plane that day.

Mental

Ok, so this is the one I most want to talk about, because it is the most common, yet we understand so little. We hear this all the time. People say that God "led" them to do this or that. Even George W. Bush has said that God told him to "go and end the tyranny in Iraq." I can accept that God speaks to people, but I'm not sure how to be certain that it is true or not.

To define this method of communication, I would say the common view is that the Holy Spirit inserts thoughts into your stream of consciousness. You can't hear it with your ears, the thoughts just appear. This is similar to the concept of "telepathy", except that word doesn't fit; the prefix "tele" implies "transmission over a distance" but since the Holy Spirit is living inside Christians, there is no distance. For sake of discussion, let's give these thoughts a name; let's call this a "God-thought". All the rest are typically "Me-thoughts". It might be possible that all of your thoughts don't fall into those two buckets, but we'll touch on that later.

Here's an analogy that I've shared with a few people. Remember the classic episode of I Love Lucy where Ethel and Lucy are trying to wrap candies coming off a conveyor belt? Imagine your mind is like that conveyor belt and on it are your thoughts as they go streaming by. Instead of wrapping candies, your job is to sort those thoughts. You have two big boxes to throw the thoughts into, one labeled "God", and the other labeled "Me". The "God-thoughts" go in the "God" box, and the "Me-thoughts" go in the "Me" box. When making your decisions, you will rely heavily on whatever is in the "God" box and take everything in the "Me" box with a grain of salt.

The problem is that the two types of thoughts appear very similar and I don't feel that we as Christians have ever been taught how to properly differentiate between one type or the other. Some people have a loose "filter"; there's a lot of "Me-thoughts" that end up in the "God" box. i.e. there's a lot of times when people come up with ideas on their own and and then attribute them to God. The good news is that there's a little bit of help in this area; the Bible should be an initial "filter" before your own. If a thought crosses into your mind that conflicts with what the Bible says, it should immediately get tossed into the "Me" box. Following this principle should solve cases that blatantly contradict the Bible, so for example, if someone says "God told me I should leave my wife", you can confidently say, "Uh, no, sorry, He most definitely did not." But that leaves a whole group of ideas that are not directly contradictory to the Bible. How do we respond to someone who says "I think God is leading us to move to another state." How can we be sure? It sure looked like a God-thought when I tossed it into the box, but how can I be sure I'm not tossing my own thoughts in there?

Then there's the other side of things; people, like me, with the "strict" filter. To be safe, I, by nature, toss everything in the "Me" box. It has the advantage of never doing the wrong thing because you mistakenly thought God said it. But I can say from experience, it leaves you wondering why God never says anything to you. You feel like you're on your own. It's for this very reason that I left the Holy Spirit out of the process for determining truth; I can't be certain of the source. I think that there must be times where I may ignore the leading of the Holy Spirit because I'm chucking everything that "still small voice" says into the "Me" box.

There's also a more sinister notion here. If Satan is the "Deceiver", how does he go about deceiving? I'm pretty sure he doesn't audibly talk to us, so then does that mean he is also able to insert thoughts into our stream of consciousness? If this is so, having a "loose" filter is even more dangerous, because not only is there the chance that you might attribute your own thoughts to God, you might even toss a "Satan-thought" in there too!

So, with this analogy in mind, how can you tell the difference? Do you just guess? Jesus says in John 10:27, "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me." Can anyone please tell me what His voice sounds like?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

In Search of Truth

I made a comment on this blog recently that caused quite the firestorm of criticism, including getting my words misinterpreted on another blog. So that you don't all think that I'm off my rocker, I'd like to talk a little more about that statement. Here's what I said:

Scripture is written word. It doesn't become truth until it is read and interpreted. That interpretation is a personal opinion. To think that there is some sort of "universal" interpretation that does not rely on individual interpretation is naive. We only get close to that when the interpretations of many individuals all agree; then we can be fairly certain that we've hit upon a real truth. So, when I ask for your position, I'm asking for your interpretation of the Bible in order to see if it matches up with my interpretation. If we can agree on our interpretations, we're closer to discovering the truth.

I think the misunderstanding is in how we view the concept of truth. So, let's talk about truth.

First off, what is truth? At first glance, this seems like an easy question; either a statement or idea is true or false, and if it is true, that constitutes truth. If it were that easy, there wouldn't be at least 6 different major theories on truth proposed by philosophers. Now, I'm not going to go into all that; if you want, you can read about it yourself by clicking the link. Instead, I'm going to give you my simpler view of truth, which is probably contained in one or more of those theories, but I'm not quite smart enough to figure out which.

I believe that truth can be thought of in terms of different aspects of truth.

Absolute Truth

Absolute Truth describes the absolute, real state of something. For any given statement, there is a right and there is a wrong. There is absolute truth contained in the pages of the Bible.

However, the challenge with Absolute Truth is that is extremely difficult to know whether we've discovered it or not. Something may seem like Absolute Truth, but may later turn out it's not. If that's the case, then whatever it was couldn't have been Absolute Truth to begin with and the idea that we had was something else. This is a complicated idea, so let me give you an example. In the Middle Ages, it was generally accepted that the Earth was flat. They held this to be "Absolute Truth". However, the moment someone sailed around the world, it was discovered that this "Absolute Truth" actually wasn't true. What they thought was truth turned out to not be.

Objective Truth

Fortunately, we've got some tools at our disposal to discover truth. The process of discovering truth goes something like this:

  1. Someone comes up with idea or concept that they think might be true. (In science, they call this a theory or hypothesis)
  2. They gather evidence to support their idea
  3. They test the evidence and either prove or disprove the idea.

If you can get through all three steps and prove the concept, you can be relatively sure that you've discovered an Absolute Truth. But wait, "relatively sure"? Yep, unfortunately, sometimes the evidence can lead you away from absolute truth. Here's an example: from our vantage point living on planet Earth, the evidence seems to suggest that the Sun orbits the Earth; it sure appears that way; the Sun appears to move in the sky in pretty much the same manner as the Moon does, yet we know now that one orbits the Earth and the other does not. So, for a long time, it was considered Absolute Truth that everything revolved around the Earth. And then somewhere along the way we discovered that, what we thought was absolute truth, really was not.

For sake of this discussion, I'm going to call the kind of truth that you have the ability to prove, "Objective Truth". There's a lot of stuff that falls into this category. One plus one equals two. The sky is blue. What goes up must come down. The nation of Israel settled near the Mediterranean Sea. Jesus Christ died on the cross. These are all things that can be proven true or false.

Subjective Truth

But what if you can't prove it? What if you can't test your idea? What then? How do you determine what is truth and what is not? For example, the Bible says in John 1:1-2, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the Beginning." Is there some Absolute Truth in there? Yeah, I think so. It is generally taught that the "Word" referred to in the verse is Jesus. This is the "truth" that is taught. But can I test it out? Can I verify this truth? No. I have no way to rewind time and observe the beginning of everything and see for myself if Jesus was really there. So then how can I really know if I've got real truth or something that just looks like it?

This is the heart of my earlier comment about "interpreting" the Bible. The reality is that, for many concepts taught in the Bible, we simply don't have any means of solidly verifying them beyond all question. Does this mean I am implying that there is no Absolute Truth in the Bible like certain people have suggested? Of course not! The Absolute Truth is there; we just have a limited ability to discover it.

So what do we do then? Do we discard everything in the Bible that we can't prove? No, of course not. But the process is different than for objective truth. First off, we read the words of the Bible and formulate an idea of what we think it means to us personally. Then we need to subject those ideas to scrutiny. How does your understanding of the Bible compare to how other people interpret the Bible? Are your ideas consistent with the rest of the Bible? Does it make sense?

In this way, we can start to get closer to that Absolute Truth that we seek, but it's not like objective truth in that we can never be completely certain that what we have in our hands really is Absolute Truth or just an impostor. I believe that it's important to always be challenging those ideas and trying to "sail off the edge of the world".

Monday, September 14, 2009

Seeker Friendly

In the comments of the previous post, 4 Bums and a Rich Man, I ran up against an interesting attitude that got me thinking. In the course of the discussion, I proposed that we avoid as much as possible using Christian jargon and religious terms in order to be better understood by non-Christians. I had no idea that this would ignite the firestorm of comments that it did (41 comments and counting). To summarize my critics, I was warned against "softening" or "compromising" the message, or promoting a "Seeker Friendly paradigm"

Now, just to be clear, I will never advocate altering the Gospel message. The core of the message must remain intact. However, let's be honest for a moment and acknowledge that you can go about presenting almost any message in a variety of ways.

What took me by surprise was the level of contempt that the phrase "Seeker Friendly" was used. It was implied that the people who subscribe to this mentality are way, way off track. Wanting to know more, I googled the phrase, "seeker friendly". Of the links that I clicked on, I found that this attitude is fairly prevalent; most of the articles were in harsh criticism of this approach of running a church. Some even go so far to use the term "Sinner Friendly", which implies an even stronger derogatory meaning.

My initial reaction to Seeker Friendly churches was one of annoyance. It appears that this approach is rooted in the Political Correctness movement, and that just plain drives me up a wall. I've encountered a church similar to one that is described; in the city that I live in, there is a "church" (and I'm using that word very loosely) downtown that doesn't really require you to believe in any particular belief system. You can be Muslim, Buddhist, or whatever, just as long as you are "spiritual". I'm not sure why people even attend; I guess it must be just for a warm, fuzzy, "I'm spiritual" vibe every Sunday.

That being said, I found myself in an odd position. After reading the articles, I could definitely see where the Seeker Friendly approach has the potential to create churches that have lost the substance of Christianity. Nevertheless, I found that aligning myself with the anti-Seeker-Friendly crowd was just as distasteful to me. Underlying it all, there seems an attitude of "Christianity is supposed to be offensive! Don't baby these people; whack them right between the eyes with their sin! Make them feel the full weight and pain of it and then let them crawl to the cross." (My paraphrase, obviously)

The interesting thing to me is that these two camps of people show up in a different realm: Parenting.

On one side, you've got the people who won't ever raise their voices to their kids and punishments consist of attempts to gently persuade the child to behave. These parents are the ones pushing for "everyone wins" rules in school sports. It's easy to spot these people; they're the ones whose kids are screaming and running all around the supermarket, while the parent tries to bribe them with toys if they stop.

On the other side, you've got the people who feel that "When we acted out as kids, dad tanned our hides with his belt. You can't coddle these kids or else they'll turn out spoiled." It's easy to spot these parents also; they're the ones marching resolutely through the supermarket to the car with a crying kid slung over their shoulder, who is desperately pleading for their life. As they pass the first parent, they roll their eyes in contempt.

Coming back to the Seeker Friendly debate, I believe that neither camp is right. Somewhere between these two extremes is the right amount of love and the right amount of toughness. Based on the Bible, I think this midpoint should probably exist closer to the Seeker Friendly end of the spectrum. More on that in a moment.

Let's return to the parenting metaphor for a moment, because I think it has many similarities to a pastor shepherding his flock. Let's talk about Santa Claus for a moment. As a parent, how do you approach this concept with your children? Do you encourage your children to believe in the wonder and fun and magic of an imaginary man in a red suit bringing toys to all boys and girls? Do you let them believe that this jolly fat man stuffs himself down the chimney and brings them toys on Christmas Eve? Do you do this knowing full well that, every time you tell your children that Santa brought the toys under the tree, you're technically deceiving your children and that some day that imaginary world is going to come crashing down?

Or, do you adopt a hard-line approach and tell your children that Santa Claus not only doesn't exist, he's a tool used by Satan to distract people from the real meaning of Christmas, which is that Jesus was born into this screwed-up world in order to die a horrible, painful death in order to keep us all from burning in Hell?

I personally think my parents did a pretty good job with this topic. They taught me that Santa Claus was definitely an imaginary guy that stood for wonderful concepts and that the gifts that appeared under the tree came from them, my loving parents, who were celebrating Jesus' birth. Later on, my sister even started the tradition of baking a birthday cake for Jesus. However they also taught me that there were other kids who did believe in Santa Claus and it wouldn't be good to spoil their imaginary fun. They taught me the truth yet still made it both pleasant and easy for me to understand.

I think we need to take a step back and examine how Jesus operated. What was his approach? Did he confront people with their sin?

Let's look at a couple examples. I've specifically picked a couple examples where Jesus interacted with individuals who were generally considered to have publicly committed very basic wrong deeds; i.e. ones listed in the 10 Commandments.

The Samaritan Woman at the Well - John 4:1-26

In this story we see Jesus approaching a Samaritan woman at a well and asking her for water. Initially, she's taken aback because he's actually talking to her. John explains this by stating that Jews do not associate with Samaritans. (Side note: It's interesting to me that John takes the time to explain this. John obviously knew his audience would be more than just Jews because they would already know this) Jesus then describes a new type of water that she has a difficult time understanding. Once she starts to catch on, Jesus switches topics. He asks her a question that he already knows the answer to, where is her husband. She has to admit that she's not been very faithful on that front. Jesus' response is difficult to interpret here, because we have no idea what his tone of voice was. He confirms the fact that, not only does she not have a husband currently, she's had many in the past. Depending on his tone of voice, this could have either been a harsh denouncement, a tender expression of empathy, or simply an unfeeling statement of fact. But that is all that is said about it. They go on from there to talk about the differences in Samaritan and Jewish beliefs and the coming of the Messiah.

What do you think? Did Jesus intend to embarrass her and confront her with her sin? She must have been somewhat embarrassed to have her secrets laid bare in front of other people. It's interesting; I've always read this story and assumed that it was a private exchange between just Jesus and the woman. However, there had to be someone else there in order for it to be written down in the Bible.

Zacchaeus the Tax Collector - Luke 19:1-9

So, here Jesus is walking along and sees a short guy up in a tree. Now there are a couple things that are implied here. Zacchaeus is described as a "chief tax collector and was wealthy". Back in the day, these guys were the Roman equivalent of the IRS. The problem was that you couldn't just log onto irs.gov, look at the tax rates, figure out how much you needed to pay, and send it in. The tax collectors would come along and tell you what you were supposed to pay. Typically they charged you more that what Rome expected, so the extra would be profit for the tax collector. Imagine how you would feel if your local IRS agent was living in a mansion because some of your taxes were going into his pocket. We can assume from this that Zacchaeus was probably guilty of stealing from people. Jesus shocks the crowd by calling him down from the tree and inviting himself over to his house.

Should Jesus have condemned Zacchaeus for his sin? The crowd certainly thought so. It was apparently foremost on their mind, because they started grumbling about him being a sinner.

I noticed something else in this verse. Why is the word sinner in single quotes? In the NIV it reads:

7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner.'"

That's two examples. I'm leaving it up to you to help me find more. What tact does Jesus take when approaching 'Seekers'? Is he harsh or soft?

Monday, August 10, 2009

4 Bums and a Rich Man

I was reading a friend's blog the other day and I was struck by the discussion that was going on there. I felt like my response was going to be longer than a typical comment should be, so I decided to put my response here.

The discussion is the age-old faith vs. works debate. Someone made a comment that (and I'm paraphrasing), in effect, faith and works are the same thing, it's just that the word "works" could refer to the work of God in our life.

I disagree. While I agree that God can and will work in our lives, trying to redefine the word "works" just confuses the argument. It's almost universally understood that "works" refers to the good things that people do, for one reason or another, in response to the invitation of God to join him in Heaven. It's always about what people do, not God. When God works, we almost always use the word "miracle" to describe it.

But that's not really what prompted me to write this. I really want to respond to the two opposing viewpoints mentioned in the post. Both of these statements really get under my skin.

"Protestants claim that Catholics are not really Christians because they are trying to earn their salvation."

"Catholics think that Protestants believe they can say a 2 line prayer, live however they want, change nothing, and still get into heaven."

I think the best way to describe how I look at these statements is to start with a parable. Here goes:

The 4 Bums and the Rich Man


Once there were 4 bums, living in a back alley of a large city. Broke and destitute, they lived in their cardboard boxes, living off whatever clothes and food they could find in the nearby dumpsters.

One day, a very wealthy man happened by. He glanced down the alleyway, saw these four wretched men, and their condition broke his heart. Determined to make a difference, he picked his way through the trash and squalor in their alley and called them together. "Hey there you four, listen to me a moment", he said, "Outside the city, I own a very large mansion. The thing about this mansion is that it has so many rooms that most of them are empty all the time. Now, I worked hard to build this mansion, and I don't like to see these rooms empty, so I have a proposition for you. I'm a busy man and I'm leaving today on a business trip, but if you will show up at my mansion in a week, you may pick a room and live there. I will have my staff get you some clothes and see that you get meals 3 times a day. This is my gift to you. But right now I have to get going; See you in a week." Having said this, the wealthy man left the 4 bums, who stood there looking after him in amazement.

A week later, the wealthy man returned to his mansion and strolled down to his front gates to meet the men he had invited.

When he reached the gates, he was dismayed to find that only 3 men were standing there waiting for him. "Where is the fourth one? Why did he not come?" the wealthy man said. One of the bums stepped forward and said, "He didn't believe that you really meant what you said. He thought you were just lying to us, like so many other people have. He just decided to stick to what he knew."

"But doesn't he live in a cardboard box?" asked the wealthy man, "Wouldn't a room in a mansion be worth the risk?" The 3 bums shrugged. "Can't speak for him, but that's why we're here," said one.

"You're right," said the wealthy man, "so you are. But, before we head up into the mansion, I'm curious; how did you spend your last week in the alley?"

The first bum of the three shambled up, smelling of alcohol and smoke. "Shhir," he slurred, "I was shho happy that I wash getting out of that alley, that me and my other friendsh, we broke into a local convenience shtore and shtole some beer and cigarrettesh, so that we could throw a proper party to celebrate my good fortune. I'm ssho excited that you're doing this for us! Woooooo!"

The wealthy man's face clouded as he pondered this news for a moment, "Hmmm. Well. That's not at all what I had in mind." Then he sighed and said, "But, I suppose, I did make a promise. And you did show up. Go on then, I guess, my people will get you cleaned up."

Suddenly, the second bum shouted. "What!? That's not fair!," he screamed, incredulously.

The wealthy man turned to look at the second bum. "Oh? Why is that?"

"You mean to say that he can do all that horrible stuff and still get in!?" said the second bum, "but I worked so hard!"

"Oh?" said the wealthy man, "What did you do?"

"Sir," began the second bum, "I knew that no opportunity like this is ever free. So I started working the moment you left us. I looked through every trash can in the city for pop cans I could turn in. I checked the change slots of vending machines. I washed car windshields for people. I..."

"Well, color me impressed," said the wealthy man, "that's the kind of initiative I like to see. How much did you earn?"

The bum held out his dirty hand and proudly deposited a handful of grimy bills and change into the wealthy man's hand. The wealthy man spent a moment counting the money. "$6.85. Not bad. Now, if you follow my butler, here, he can get you situated..."

"So we're even, right?," interrupted the second bum.

"Umm, what?" replied the wealthy man.

"We're even. Square. I figure that should cover my stay here. I earned it, right?" the bum said matter-of-factly, and then added under his breath, "unlike that other guy."

The wealthy man looked sadly down at the small lump of cash and then back at the bum, "Do you really think this is enough to buy you a room in my mansion?" The bum nodded enthusiastically. The wealthy man shook his head slowly. "No, unfortunately, while I appreciate your contributions, this falls far short of the value of the room that I'm giving you. If you'll remember what I said to you back in that alley, this is a gift. All I asked was that you show up. And since you did, please accept my gift and follow this man here and he will get you cleaned up."

Finally, the wealthy man turned to the last bum, "Tell me, what did you do on your last week in the alley?"

"Sir," began the last bum slowly, "to be honest, I didn't have any parties or bring any money with me like they did. When you came to us in that alley, it overwhelmed me so much that I could only weep for the first couple days. The next day, I started imagining what it would be like to live in such a wonderful place. But then I looked down at my hands and they were so dirty. All of me was so dirty. I was so worried that I would get your house dirty, that I did the only thing I could think of."

"And what was that?" asked the wealthy man.

"I took a bath." replied the bum, "I'm sorry, I couldn't clean it all off in the fountain in the park, but I did the best I could."

"That's alright" said the wealthy man warmly, as he put his arm around the man's shoulders, "Come inside and I'll help you get clean."



The question is, can you say a 2 line prayer, live however you want, change nothing, and still get into heaven?

Yes.

Don't believe me? Check out Luke 23:40-43. This is part of the crucifixion where Jesus is speaking to the criminal next to him. The criminal freely and openly admits that he is getting what he deserved for the life he lived. I don't know exactly what he did, but it has to be pretty bad for the guy, hanging there dying on a cross, to look back at his life and say, "Yep, I deserve to die." I think we can safely assume the guy didn't live a life filled with prayer and fasting, and being all holy and stuff.

He then literally says one line to Jesus, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" and boom, he's got himself a ticket to heaven. In Jesus' own words, not John's, not Paul's, but Jesus himself.

Does this seem somehow not fair?

Ah, now see here's the heart of the matter. This will seem unfair and wrong to you if you somehow believe you are better, or more deserving of salvation than that guy.

The thing is, we all did the exact same thing as he did to gain salvation. We simply and sincerely accepted the gift that was given to us. No more, no less.

I don't care if you spend your life preaching the gospel, caring for the sick, feeding the poor, or whatever list of good deeds you want to come up with; It doesn't make you any better than the rest of us in the eyes of God. You may be a bum with $6.85, but you're still a dirty bum. We all don't deserve salvation, but he's going to give that gift to us anyway, because that's just how he does things.

So, does that mean you can go off and live your life however you you want and do whatever you please, without regard for any good deed whatsoever?

Maybe. But I'd personally advise against it.

See, we as fellow believers can't see your heart, we can't determine your innermost thoughts. All we have to go by is the stuff you do. So, if we see you doing stuff contrary to what God has asked you to, then we begin to assume that you didn't really mean it when you said it.

Unfortunately, the story of the criminal next to Jesus ends right there. Think about it, wouldn't it be a lot easier to accept if it had continued on? Imagine if it had gone this way: Jesus dies, and while the sky is black and the earth is shaking and rumbling, somehow the nails come loose on the criminal's cross. He falls off his cross, right behind the Roman soldiers who are busy peeing their pants in fear at the terrifying natural events. He's able to slip away from them and he spends the next few months in hiding, recovering from being almost crucified. Then, suddenly, he appears back on the scene and he's a changed man; no longer is he a despicable criminal, he's now spending his time leading people to Christ.

Wouldn't that seem much more "right"? We'd be able to point at him and say "See, you can tell he really put his faith in Jesus, look at all the good he's done."

Conversely, if it had happened the other way around and, right after Jesus breathes his last, the one criminal looks over at the other criminal and says, "Haha, can you believe he bought it!" we'd all be expecting the guy to show up at the pearly gates and have his ticket denied.

But that's not the way it happens. There's no more said about the criminal. I assume that a few minutes or hours later, he was most likely stone cold dead and it's up to God to determine whether his "death bed confession" is true or not.

The whole point is that there are only two key ingredients to salvation. A) God's amazing gift to us, and B) our sincere acceptance of it. Anything else is a nice gesture, but has nothing to do with our salvation.


Ephesians 2:8-9
8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9not by works, so that no one can boast.