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Is Cremation a Christian Thing to Do?

Is Cremation a Christian Thing to Do?

One question that I am asked at least a few times a month is whether or not cremation violates Christian values/teachings.  Cremation is becoming more and more popular today as an economic alternative to the rising cost of funerals and cemetery plots.  I thought I would write a blog post to hopefully shed some light on the subject.

Let me start with what I think is the easiest question concerning cremation which is the issue of how it affects our glorified bodies in heaven.  Paul, in his great treatise on the resurrection, taught that believers will one day be raised from the dead and receive incorruptible bodies: 1 Cor. 15:53- “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”  But, the question is asked, how do we receive these glorified bodies for eternity if our earthly bodies have been cremated?  Yes, I do believe that our resurrection bodies reconstitute our earthly bodies.  The resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples demonstrate that His resurrection body looked like His earthly body.

That said, it cannot make any difference how a Christian’s body is laid to rest in regard to the feasibility or appearance of the resurrection body.  To begin, if God wants to make a resurrection body that resembles my earthly body out of a pile of ashes He certainly has the power to do so.  I once had a person tell me that God doesn’t want people cremated because it’s so much trouble to make a glorified body out of ashes rather than an embalmed body.  My response to that statement was, “What trouble?  God created the entire universe simply by speaking a word (Heb. 11:3). If He can do that, He can make a body from ashes with zero trouble.”  Don’t forget that God made the first earthly body (Adam) from dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7).

We must remember that many Christians died in ways whereby their remains are not even gathered in a single pile of ashes.  There were Christians who were torn apart by wild animals under the violent persecutions of Rome.  There were believers thrown overboard on slave ships or died at sea whose remains were scattered throughout the ocean.  There were believers incinerated in explosions.  The list goes on.  In addition, the fact is God will be creating resurrection bodies for the most part from ashes.  The remains of the vast majority of believers throughout human history are no longer in the form of a corpse, but have decayed into dust.

Still others have stated that cremation is wrong because the eternal state of the body is related to the condition of the body at the time of death (i.e. people who die at an old age will look old in heaven, children who die will be children, etc.).  The support I have heard given for this is Jesus showing the scars from the nails in his hands and the spear in his side.  What He looked like in eternity is what He looked like at the time He died.  Yet, this couldn’t make sense as we see no indication that Jesus is the bloodied, bruised, swollen, and barely recognizable person He had to have been when He died on the cross.  Every indication is that He looks like the same Jesus (they think he is a ghost- an apparition of His former self) they walked and ministered with for three years.  They do not see him as some kind of disfigured zombie and we should note that the scars are not that noticeable because Jesus has to point them out to the disciples.  The scars are present simply as evidence that the person before them is the actual Jesus they knew and loved standing before them resurrected in bodily form.

Regardless of how a person dies or what is done with their remains, death for a Christian is the planting of a seed that flourishes into new life in the age to come (1 Cor. 15:35-44).  The bottom line is not whether it is possible for God to create a resurrection body from ashes, but rather is cremation the proper Christian response to handling human remains.

This is where the issue gets a bit sticky and people are divided.  In short, burning bodies has never historically been a Christian practice (or a practice of believers in the Old Testament- cf. Heb. 11:22).  A number of historians have traced the burning of human remains back to pagan rituals and practices.  Other historians, such as Stephen Prothero in his book Purified by Fire trace the cremation movement in the United States to atheists who did so as a statement of their disbelief in the resurrection.  And this is the issue.  Why is burial, and not cremation, the traditional Christian practice?  Because caring for the remains of the dead in a dignified way was a testimony to the belief of the resurrection.  In other words, Christians didn’t “discard” a corpse, but rather committed the person back to the earth from which they were made because of the belief that the Lord would one day raise them again.  This isn’t to say that Christians embalm and bury the dead trying to preserve it as long as possible so God can make a resurrection body.  No, we’ve already established God can do that from ashes or even nothing.  Christians have traditionally buried their dead as a witness to the world of their belief in the resurrection of Christ and His return one day to resurrect all believers (1 Thess. 4:14-16).

Burial has also been the Christian tradition because it best symbolizes the resurrection of believers (much like baptism by immersion symbolizes the burial and resurrection of Jesus as well as death to sin and new life in Christ).  There are numerous places in the New Testament where “sleep” is used as a metaphor for death.  In John 11:11 Jesus said that Lazarus had fallen “asleep” when in actuality he had died.  Paul makes the usage in his teaching about the resurrection body in 1 Cor. 15:51-52- “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”  For a Christian, death is in fact something like sleep- you lay down to rest to be awoken later (let me be emphatically clear that the Bible does not teach “soul sleep.”  Rather, the moment a Christian dies their soul has a conscience existence with Jesus- see 2 Cor. 5:8 and Lk. 23:43).  Thus, in burial, the remains of a Christian are “laid to rest” in preparation to be awoken at Jesus’ return.

So, does this mean that Christians should not participate in cremation?  A number of my colleagues firmly believe so.  However, I am not ready to be so adamantly opposed to it.  We should clearly not oppose cremation on the grounds that it has consequences for the resurrection body.  That is foolish.  Regardless of what happens to a believer’s remains, they will be resurrected to imperishable bodies upon Christ’s return.  If we do oppose cremation, it needs to be on the basis of the impact that may have on our testimony to the world about our belief in the resurrection of the dead.  If we support cremation, we need to instruct our loved ones that our memorial services clearly present belief in the resurrection of Christ and our resurrection bodies.  And regardless of whether you support cremation or not, the lives we live right now need to be testimonies of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his power to transform our lives today in a spiritual sense and one day in a physical sense for all of eternity.

That Was Easy: The Tragic Malignment of the Gospel

That Was Easy: The Tragic Malignment of the Gospel

In my office, I have one of those buttons from Staples that says, “That was easy!”  It’s mostly a joke I have with our church staff since most weeks we are dealing with issues and logistics that are far from easy to solve.  I thought about this button the other day while reading a new book by Scot McKnight titled “The King Jesus Gospel.”  Although I don’t agree with all of McKnight’s findings or terminology, I think he makes a powerful and important point whereby the “That was easy” catchphrase applies.  In essence, McKnight denounces what he calls the “salvation” culture in evangelicalism today.  I would prefer he use the word “decision” culture.  Regardless of the nomenclature, he is addressing what all of us would call “easy believism” in the church.

Unfortunately, many Christians today base whether or not a person is “saved,” “right with God,” or “going to heaven” solely on whether or not they said the “sinner’s prayer.”  I have seen this at times when I have been asked to conduct a funeral for someone.  My first question to the family is if the deceased was a follower of Jesus.  I have been told something to the effect of, “Oh, Uncle Jim pretty much lived an idolatrous, debaucherous life, but when he was 14 he prayed at church camp to accept Jesus so I know he’s in heaven.”  Tragically, such a belief doesn’t seem to line up with the teaching of Jesus or the authors of the New Testament.  Nowhere in the Bible do we see someone praying what we would identify as the sinner’s prayer.  Nor, do we see such terminology as “Ask Jesus into your heart.”  Now, please don’t get me wrong.  There is nothing wrong with the sinner’s prayer.  A person’s salvation begins with an understanding of their sinfulness, the redemption of Christ through His substitutionary death on the cross, and the utter inability of any of us to save ourselves.  This is many times articulated through a prayer.

The problem is when we treat the sinner’s prayer as though it were some form of fire insurance keeping us out of hell.  Sadly, we have fostered a culture within the church that says if you go through certain motions- walk an aisle, say a prayer, sign a card, and get wet in the baptistery then you are safe from an eternity of damnation.  What you do after that is optional.  Thus, the sinner’s prayer and “decision” you have made punches your ticket to heaven.

Few things could be further from what Jesus taught.  I have profoundly learned this as I have preached through the Gospel of Mark this year.  Two great lessons have stood out to me from preaching through Mark.  One, Jesus showed incredible patience and love to his disciples who at times could be knotheads beyond description.  This challenges me when I want to get frustrated with people.  Two, Jesus powerfully condemned the religious establishment of his day in how it had adulterated a true understanding of what it means to be right with God.  What I have learned is that our “decision” culture is eerily similar to the religionists of Jesus’ day.

Take for example Jesus cleansing the Temple in Mark 11:15-19.  Jesus says they have turned the house of God into a “den of robbers.”  He is clearly quoting from Jer. 7:9-11- “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’- only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?”  Notice what God says here- He is condemning the practice of the people who live egregiously sinful lives then go through the empty, external rituals of animal sacrifice and burning incense in the Temple and think that God was pleased with them!  The people were living for their sinful appetites, but thinking they were in the clear with God because of some outward rituals.

This sounds like us today.  Too many people have said a prayer and signed a card and then never gave God a second thought.  Yet, they think they are going to heaven because they have performed the ritual of the prayer, card, and baptism.  Many in our day (as the Jews in Jesus’ day) are living double lives: the life we want to live in the world and the life we live the few times we show up at church.  We must realize that such a double life, and trying to live for two masters, will always result in frustration in this life and doom in the next.

Back to the McKnight book I’m reading.  His point is principally that what makes us right with God is not simply because we have said a prayer, but because our lives are surrendered to Jesus Christ as our King (hence McKnight likes the term “King” for Jesus rather than “Savior”).  Life in Christ can begin with a prayer of confession and surrender to Jesus as Lord, but that is only the beginning of a life that is radically transformed to live for King Jesus and not king self.  True followers of Jesus are willing subjects of the King whose lives are given in obedience and servanthood.  I’m not advocating works righteousness here.  We are not saved because we do a bunch of stuff for the King.  That’s really no different than what I have been arguing against in this post, not to mention an affront to the teaching of Scripture.  No, I am saved wholly by God’s gracious gift of salvation given to me on the basis of Christ’s merits in His life, the cross and resurrection.  My acknowledgment of this results in the joyful surrender of my life to His lordship.

“That was easy” is a phrase we should never connect with salvation or the gospel.  It wasn’t easy for Jesus to provide our redemption.  Neither is salvation as easy as saying a prayer and then doing whatever you want.  The cost is high to follow Jesus- refusing to be your own king and following the King of Kings who calls us to view life differently than the world.  Being His servant is not easy, but very much worth it!



Are Mormons Christians?  And, Should a Christian Vote for a Mormon?

Are Mormons Christians? And, Should a Christian Vote for a Mormon?

There has been a great deal of attention given recently to the relationship of evangelical Christianity to Mormonism.  Obviously, this stems from a number of controversial statements that have been made in regard to Mitt Romney being a Mormon.  There is much I would like to say here, but I want to limit this post to answering two questions: One, are Mormons Christians?  And two, should a Christian vote for a Mormon?

In today’s Washington Times, Joel Osteen is quoted as saying that he believes Mormons are Christians.  “I believe that [Mormons] are Christians. I don’t know if it’s the purest form of Christianity, like I grew up with. But you know what, I know Mormons. I hear Mitt Romney- and I’ve never met him- but I hear him say ‘I believe Jesus is the son of God,’ ‘I believe he’s my savior,’ and that’s one of the core issues.  I’m sure there are other issues that we don’t agree on.  But you know, I can say that the Baptists and the Methodists and Catholics don’t all agree on everything. So that would be my take on it.”

So, are Mormons Christians?  The problem with Osteen’s understanding of Romney is that Mormons do not believe in the same God and Jesus of the Bible.  I mean absolutely no disrespect to Mormons, but it is clear that Mormonism is not Christianity.  To demonstrate this, I have listed below a sampling of a number of key doctrines providing citations from authoritative Mormon literature that comment on the doctrine.  I then show what the Bible says in opposition to Mormon belief. I think you will see the point clearly.

Mormons believe there are many gods

“Three separate personages- Father, Son, and Holy Ghost- comprise the Godhead.  As each of these persons is a God it is evident, from this standpoint alone that a plurality of Gods exists.  To us, speaking in a finite sense these three are the only Gods we worship” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine).

Deut. 6:4- “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!

Mormons believe God is not eternal

“We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity.  I will refute that idea, and take away the veil so that you may see” (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith).

Psalm 90:2- “Before the mountains were born or you gave birth to the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.”

Mormons believe God created the universe from preexisting materials

“And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth” (Abraham 4:1; Doctrine and Covenants).

John 1:3- “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.”

Mormons believe God was once a man who progressed to deity

“As man is now God once was; as God now is man may become” (Lorenzo Snow, 5th President of the LDS Church, The Gospel Through the Ages).

“God Himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!  This is the great secret” (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith).

Col. 1:17-18- “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”

Mormons believe God has a physical body

“The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son has also; but the Holy Ghost is a personage of Spirit” (Doctrine and Covenants, 130:22).

John 4:24- “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Mormons believe Jesus was not born of a virgin

“Now remember from this time forth, and forever, that Jesus Christ was not begotten by the Holy Ghost.  If the Son was begotten by the Holy Ghost, it would be very dangerous to baptize and confirm females, and give the Holy Ghost to them, lest he should beget children to be palmed upon the Elders by the people bringing the Elders into great difficulties” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol. 1).
Matt. 1:25- “[Joseph] kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.”

Mormons believe salvation is a result of grace coupled with works

“Salvation in the Celestial Kingdom of God, however, is not salvation by grace alone. Rather, it is salvation by grace coupled with obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine).

Gal. 2:16- “Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.”

Mormons believe salvation is made possible by the works of Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith

“No man or woman in this dispensation will ever enter into the celestial kingdom of God without the consent of Joseph Smith. …every man and woman must have the certificate of Joseph Smith, junior, as a passport to their entrance into the mansion where God and Christ are” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 7:289, 1869).

Eph. 2:13-16- “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.”

These, and a host of other beliefs that stand in opposition to Christianity, are clearly documented in Mormon scripture.  Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants, the KJV Bible (as far as it is translated “correctly”), and continuing revelation from Mormon leaders are authoritative Scripture.

To summarize: Mormonism teaches that God was once a man just like us who lived on a distant planet named Koleb. Because he was a faithful Mormon, he progressed from being a man and became the god of his own planet (a Mormon doctrine known as eternal progression).  That planet happens to be earth.  Jesus is the literal flesh and blood son of God and his wife (not virgin born) who appeared to tribes in North America following His resurrection, organized a church, and appointed apostles.  We can be just like God if we are faithful Mormons and become the god of our own planets one day.  This is clearly a much different portrayal of God, man, salvation, history, and eternity than is communicated in the Bible.

It is obvious Mormons are not Christians.  Having said that, Christians need to avoid inflammatory statements and attitudes directed at Mormons.  Such behavior does nothing to reach Mormons with the truth of Scripture. Sadly, a number of Christian leaders have publicly failed in this endeavor.

One more question: Given the differences in beliefs, should a Christian vote for a Mormon?  In my opinion, we need to be cautious in answering that question with a resounding “no!”  There could be an occasion where voting for a Mormon is the closest option to the Christian worldview in terms of social and economic issues.  What if a Mormon and a Wiccan were running against each other for President? (don’t scoff, we could be closer to this reality than you think!)  Who would you vote for in that election?  What about the Christian who lives in Turkey and the only option he/she has on the ballot is a moderate Muslim or radical Muslim?  For whom should they vote?  In preparing to vote, we need to carefully and prayerfully consider which candidate best resembles a biblical worldview- in a totality of beliefs, morality, ethics, etc.

Reflecting on 9/11: Struggling With the Question of Why Bad Things Happen

Reflecting on 9/11: Struggling With the Question of Why Bad Things Happen

Ten years ago this Sunday our nation was thrust into one of the greatest crises and tragedies it ever faced- the infamous events of 9/11/01. Words will never describe the grief and heartache that hit so many on that terrible day.  9/11 changed so many things for all of us.  As we look back at the scenes of planes flying into buildings, explosions and plumes of smoke, people wounded and covered in dust, and others desperately looking for their loved ones we ponder one of the oldest questions man has asked: If there is a God who is good and loving, why do things like this happen?  9/11 was a storm that shook us to the core and one we will never forget.  How do we make sense of horrific storms such as 9/11 that hit our nation? Our lives?  Our families?          

All of us have experienced storms in life, and not just the ones that have wind, rain, thunder, and lightning.  We have experienced the storms of death, sickness, pain, loneliness, hopelessness, and temptation.  We have been assaulted by family troubles, troubles at work, troubles in our marriage, troubles with friends, and troubles with our finances.  We have all experienced great disappointment, heartache, and loss.  And some of these storms, at least to us, seem like they will wipe us out.  Like the disciples in the boat during the storm we cry out, “We are perishing!”           

Some storms we experience in life are the result of the fact that we live in a world that is fallen and under the curse of sin.  Bad things happen in this world because, let’s face it, as sinners we are bad people.  What comes natural to us is violence, lust, lying and greed.  As a result we see a lot of bad things in the world.  The headlines are full of examples that show our proclivity to sin.  Sometimes we get caught up in the middle of those bad things.  A storm comes our way and we did nothing wrong- nothing to deserve it.  It just happens.  Why?  That’s a tough question that I don’t think we’ll ever be really able to answer.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why doesn’t God stop it?  Can God stop it?  We could philosophize and theologize all day on this topic. A brief blog post does it absolutely no justice, but understand just a few things:

One, not everything that happens in the world is God’s will.  I sat with a family enduring the pain of a loved one committing suicide.  One of the people in the room looked at the grieving family and said, “Well, you know this was God’s will.”  No, I don’t think it was.  It’s not God’s will for a child to be abducted.  It’s not God’s will for terrorists to fly planes into buildings.  Can God bring about positive things from tragedy? Absolutely! But recall that this world and the people God first created were perfect.  Yet, we were the ones to mess it up.  Let’s be careful about blaming God for bad things that happen.

Two, could God stop all of the evil in the world?  Yes, but if he did, what would the evidence be that we are all sinners.  Furthermore, God could stop every murderer and terrorist but he would have to deny them their free will.  And if he did that for them he would have to do that for us.  Bad things happen because people choose to use their free will to follow their sinful indulgences.  Free will is a beautiful gift from God, but because of our sin we have turned it into a terrible curse as well.

Three, the fact that evil things happen does not undermine the fact that God is good, loves you, and is all-powerful.  Why does God allow what he does?  We’re never going to fully know.  We just need to know that in all things he is present in the storm and desires for us to trust him to help us through it.

Why didn’t God stop those planes on 9/11?  We’re not going to know.  But in times of tragedy, we should focus on what we do know about God rather than what we do not know about Him.  I do know he is all-powerful and all-knowing.  I do know He loves me so much He sent His Son to die for me.  And there’s one more thing I know for sure: I’m not God.  My wife and I were thrilled beyond description when she became pregnant for the first time.  We started planning and focusing on the arrival of the baby.  But then her pregnancy ended in miscarriage.  We were crushed.  I will never forget sitting in the office of her doctor, a kind and older Christian gentleman, as he struggled with something to say to try and comfort us.  I was surprised when he broke the silence by saying, “Have you ever seen the movie Rudy?”  What did that football movie have to do with my grief over losing the baby?  He continued, “Remember that scene when Rudy is talking to the priest after he was denied entrance to Notre Dame?”  I nodded through my tears.  “And do you remember what the priest said to Rudy?  He said, ‘Rudy, there are two things that are certain in this world: One, there is a God. Two, I’m not Him.’”

I must admit at the moment I found little comfort in the doctor’s words.  However, as I look back, it’s good advice in the midst of tragedy.  None of us are remotely close to being God.  We will never know fully why He does what He does.  He truly sees from a perspective that we will never possess.  What’s left is for me to trust Him, regardless of the pain, knowing that God loves me and weeps with me and will one day make all things new for those who love Him.


Tasting the Heavenly Gift: Defending Eternal Security Against “Problem” Passages

Tasting the Heavenly Gift: Defending Eternal Security Against “Problem” Passages

Today, I want to make a final post on the issue of eternal security that I have been addressing for the last several weeks on Tough to Tackle Tuesdays.  I want to examine a few of the key biblical passages used by those who claim salvation can be lost.  These are often called “problem” passages for those who espouse eternal security because they so plainly seem to teach that a person can be genuinely saved and then lose their salvation through apostasy.  These passages are Gal. 5:15; Heb. 6:1-6; and the apparent examples of apostasy in the Pastoral Epistles.

Galatians 5:1-5

Paul is addressing those within the church, thus he is writing to people who made some kind of profession of faith in Christ.  Many of these came from a Jewish background and were unable to set aside the theology of that background even though they had responded positively to the gospel.  These individuals were known as “Judaizers.”  They believed faith in Christ was important, but incomplete.  They taught that adherence to the OT law code was also necessary.  Thus they set up a works salvation paradigm with circumcision being the primary deed necessary for salvation.  Paul shows four tragic consequences of such a belief in this passage.  Paul notes that regardless of one’s association with the church, if they reject the sufficiency of faith in Christ, they:

1. Forfeit Christ’s work on their behalf.  In other words, if a person does not accept Christ’s work solely as the basis of their salvation, they cannot be saved.

2. Places himself under obligation to keep the whole Mosaic law.  Jesus demonstrated in His conversation with the rich, young ruler, that it is impossible to keep the whole law.  Trying to obey what the law says to do will not merit salvation.

3. Falls from God’s grace.  An effort to earn salvation through self-effort will result in a rejection of the grace that God offers.  The phrase “fallen from grace” in v.4 is the key problematic phrase in this passage, but see below how this should be interpreted in the context of justification.

4. Excludes himself from God’s righteousness.  A person who tries to gain God’s favor through works will have no part of His righteousness.

These consequences reveal that the Judaizer was never saved in the first place because his faith was not completely in Christ.  “Severed from Christ” and “fallen from grace” in v.4 are not to be interpreted as losing salvation, but having been a part of the church, exposed to the gospel message, and rejecting it on the basis of adherence to works as a required merit for salvation.  Many in the church of Paul’s day were enamored by Christianity.  They saw the miracles and the powerful preaching of the apostles.  They were exposed first-hand to the truths of the gospel and they made an initial response.  However, they refused to accept Christ alone.  They came to the doorway of grace and then walked away.

It also appears that the language of justification creates a problem for those who want to see in this passage the possibility of losing salvation.  Paul was certainly not teaching that one who is genuinely justified by faith can lose his salvation by becoming legalistic.  Nowhere does the Bible teach that a person can become unjustified.

Hebrews 6:1-8

In this passage, Paul addresses individuals who have five great advantages through their association with the church:

1. They had been enlightened.  The word refers to an intellectual perception of spiritual truth.  It means to be mentally aware of something.  It carries no connotation of response- neither acceptance or rejection.

2. They had tasted Christ’s heavenly gift.  There is great debate whether or not “tasting” means simply to sample something or actually to consume it.  It seems to make little difference.  Some unbelievers can have a slight or intense interest in the gospel.

3. They had partaken of the Holy Spirit.

4. They had tasted the word of God.

5. They had tasted the miraculous powers of the age to come.

In essence, this passage can be interpreted in one of three ways.

One, the author is addressing genuine believers and salvation can actually be lost.  A practical problem with this view is that the one thing this passage does make extremely clear is that if salvation can be lost, it can never be gained again (v.6)- a view that those who believe one can lose their salvation do not espouse.

Two, the author is addressing those who are not actually saved.  The argument here is that the passage is speaking to unbelievers in danger of losing salvation in the sense that they will lose their opportunity to ever be saved.  They hear the gospel and are exposed to Christianity so much, they become immune to ever actually responding to it.  This would be something akin to an immunization given to children.  Immunizations actually gives the person a little dose of the disease.  Similarly, it is possible that a dose of the gospel without response to it can make one immune.  The example in vv.7-8 illustrates this perfectly.  The rain falls on all the earth.  Some ground produces good fruit, while other ground produces thorns.  The seeds of the gospel fall on many people.  Some respond and bear fruit.  Others do not respond and are cursed.

Three, some scholars argue that the whole passage is a hypothetical argument.  It may be a reductio ad absurdum.  This is based on the participle “it is impossible” and the infinitive, “to renew” in v.6 along with the phrase “though we are speaking in this way” in v.9. The participle is used in other passages to introduce if-then statements.  In this view, the author is saying that apostasy is hypothetical and describing what would occur if a person who was saved fell away which in fact is impossible. “Renew” means a different or new repentance.  The argument is this: Say that a person does do the five things listed above and they are the recipe for salvation:  What will happen if he falls?  He will have to have a new repentance.  The only way this could be done is if Christ came back and died again.  That is impossible.  The book of Hebrews on more than one occasion emphasizes that Christ died only once (7:27; 9:12, 28).

Millard Erickson offers an alternate view stating that the terminology in this passage does in fact speak of one losing salvation, but argues that the referents in vv. 4-6 and v.9 are the same.  Thus, forming the conclusion that the passage says it is possible for one to lose salvation, but genuine believers will never leave the faith.  In other words, believers can fall away, but they will not fall away.  I might argue semantics with Erickson’s position, but whatever interpretation one chooses should reflect the conclusion that this passage is not a threat to the doctrine of eternal security.

The Supposed Examples of Apostasy in the Pastoral Epistles

Paul writes of Hymenaeus and Alexander in 1 Tim. 1:19-20 having “made shipwreck of their faith.”  In turn, Paul handed them over to Satan to learn not to blaspheme.  In addition, Paul notes Hymenaeus and Philetus in 2 Tim. 2:17-18 of having “wandered away from the truth.”  Are these examples of apostasy in the early church?  The evidence is lacking.  We have nothing conclusive that these men were convinced of the truth of the gospel and that it had become an integral part of their life.  It may be best to view these people in terms of Paul’s treatment in 1 Tim. 6-7 of those who engage in vain discussions.  Here, Paul says that such people “swerve” away from the faith because they do not know what they are saying.  This seems to indicate that people like Hymenaeus, et al, were not true believers from the beginning.  Paul states in 2 Tim. 2:19, right after his description of Hymenaeus and Philetus, “the Lord know those who are His” as if to say these two men were not in the fold.

In conclusion, the biblical evidence clearly and strongly supports the doctrine of eternal security.

Clearly Safe: What the Bible Says About “Once Saved Always Saved”

Clearly Safe: What the Bible Says About “Once Saved Always Saved”

One frustration many people have about the game of baseball is the lack of instant replay to verify the calls of the umpires (except in the case of home runs).  The calls are subject to human error and can have huge consequences, such as the recent case of a pitcher being denied a no hitter by the errant call of an umpire at first base.  The often ambiguous nature of an umpire’s call can be a frustration to both player and fan alike.  Was the runner really out?  Or was he safe?  Fortunately, in terms of salvation, we don’t have to deal with ambiguity on the part of our Heavenly Judge.  Our salvation in Christ is secure and clearly “safe.”

Two weeks ago I wrote a post on the doctrine of eternal security and attempted to positively defend the doctrine on the basis of the larger theological construct of justification by grace through faith.  In this post, I want to explore some specific biblical passages that teach the salvation of all genuine believers is secure.  First, a little background on eternal security:

In general, the initial articulation of the doctrine of eternal security, or perseverance of the saints, is credited to Calvinism.  The “P” in the Calvinist acronym “TULIP” stands for perseverance of the saints (although it should be noted John Calvin did not create the “TULIP” acronym, adherents to his teachings did).  Eternal security is a necessary part of the paradigm of Calvinism, as the doctrines of election and efficacious grace logically demand the necessity of it.  Incidentally, in reference to eternal security, I am always intrigued at the number of people who are opponents of Calvinism that label themselves as Arminians.  I gently ask, “Do you believe you can lose your salvation?” “Of course not!” is always the reply. “Then you are not Arminian!”  Arminians believe that one can lose their salvation on the basis of biblical texts that supposedly teach apostasy and the historical evidence of the many who have abandoned the faith (more about this in next week’s post).

Despite the connection of eternal security to Calvinism, there is clear warrant for belief in eternal security based on biblical texts that emphatically and independently support the doctrine. I could list pages worth of passages, but here are just a few:

John 10:27-29– “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.

There could not be a more emphatic and definite rejection of the notion that a believer could lose their salvation than this passage.  The clause, “they will never perish,” employs the use of the double negative combined with the aorist subjunctive in Greek.  This is the most definitive literary option John had at his disposal to state that there is no possibility of something happening in the future. There is absolutely no chance that a believer will be removed from the hand of Jesus- a metaphorical description of salvation.  Furthermore, this passage reinforces the idea I shared in the previous post that a biblical understanding of salvation sees God holding on to us, not us holding on to God.  The basis of salvation is all about what God has done, is doing, and will do for us- not what we do for ourselves (see 2 Tim. 1:12).

1 Peter 1:3-5– “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

Peter uses three adjectives that powerfully describe the secure nature of one’s salvation.  A Christian’s salvation cannot “perish”– a word that was used of something destroyed by an army in battle. Neither can it be “undefiled”– nothing impure can be introduced to salvation to corrupt or spoil it.  And salvation cannot “fade”– nothing brought to bear on salvation can cause it to lose its efficacious nature.

There are a number of texts in the Bible that speak of God’s continued work in the life of a believer that brings salvation to its final completion:

Philippians 1:6– “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

Romans 8:38-39– “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Eternal security is also embedded in other biblical doctrines. Millard Erickson in Christian Theology lists a few of these doctrines that seem to demand the need for eternal security:

  • Union with Christ (John 15:1-11). Believers have been made one with Christ with His life flowing through them.  It seems inconceivable that the connection could be broken, thus frustrating the divine ideal.
  • The impartation of the Holy Spirit and new life. 1 John 3:9- “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.”  If you could lose you salvation, could you be un-born again?  Can spiritual death occur in someone who has already received the Holy Spirit?  The answer to these questions is clearly “no.”
  • Assurance of salvation (1 John 5:13).  In this verse John says the purpose for his letter is to assure his readers they can have assurance of their salvation.  How could you really be sure of your salvation if it were possible to lose it?  In addition, there is nothing in the Bible that clearly describes or defines how and when a person has lost their salvation.  With so much left to speculation about how a person has forfeited their salvation, one could never have full assurance of when they have, or do not have, their salvation intact.

Let me close this post by addressing a common criticism of eternal security: the issue of disobedience.  If salvation cannot be lost and is secure, how do we account for the misdeeds of believers- especially ongoing, even defiant acts of sin?  Surely sin of this degree, it is argued, is evidence that salvation has been lost.

First, the Bible clearly affirms that no Christian will be perfect after coming to Christ for salvation.  As inhabitants of this earth, believers still struggle under the curse of sin and the lingering effects of a sin nature (see Rom. 7:15-25).  Christians will sin.  The difference is that the great passion of their life is no longer focused on sin and self, but rather Christ and His kingdom.  Even though Christians will make mistakes, their lives are “tracking” toward the things of God, not the world.  The Bible is replete with examples of true followers of God asking for and receiving God’s forgiveness (Psalm 51) and being commanded to seek forgiveness (1 John 1:19)

Second, there is plenty of biblical evidence that the sin of believers does not lead to the loss of their salvation. Ken Keathley writes about this in A Theology for the Church where he recalls believers that have committed terrible acts of sin, such as Lot, Samson, David, and Peter, yet their faith in the end remained.  A true believer is compelled to eventual repentance and restoration (see Matt 26:74-75).  Keathley lists other evidence in the Scripture on the relationship of sin and eternal security:

  • The Bible never presents eternal security as an excuse for sin (Rom. 6:1-2).  This is a common complaint of those who oppose eternal security.  The possibility of losing one’s salvation, they argue, is the motivation for holding Christian’s accountable.  However, that construct cannot work in the paradigm of freedom (Gal. 5:1, etc.) that Christians enjoy.
  • Sin does have consequences (Gal. 6:7-9) that can result in divine chastening (Heb. 12:5-7); being rendered unfit for service (1 Cor. 9:27), the loss of reward (1 Cor. 3:13-15), and even possibly premature death (1 Cor. 11:30).
  • The Hoy Spirit guarantees that no backslider will be happy (Psalm 32:3-5).
  • An indifference to spiritual matters and a lifestyle of sin can indicate that no true conversion ever took place (Heb. 12:7-8; 2 Pet. 2:22).
  • God purges His own from whatever detracts them from His purpose and glory (John 15:1-3).

As you see from this list, believers are capable of committing sin and consequences do result.  However, despite the failures of true believers, they will never fail finally.  God will bring them to repentance and their salvation is secure

Next week we will examine some of the key biblical passages used by those who oppose eternal security and explore how they fit in to the larger framework of salvation and perseverance.  Thanks for reading!

Who’s Holding On to Who? The Issue of “Once Saved Always Saved”

Who’s Holding On to Who? The Issue of “Once Saved Always Saved”

The other day I received an anonymous letter in the mail titled, “There Is No Once Saved Always Saved!” What followed was a list of Bible passages that, in reality, do not support the author’s position. My hunch is that I am not the only pastor who received this letter. I find it interesting that some people are so passionate about “disproving” the doctrine of eternal security. They go to great lengths and expense to make their voice heard.  The letter reminded me of the time I heard a preacher on TBN enthusiastically shout, “The greatest heresy in the church today is once saved always saved!”  So, I thought a post (or posts) on the doctrine of eternal security, a.k.a. “perseverance of the saints”; a.k.a. “once saved always saved” would be fitting for Tough to Tackle Tuesdays.

To begin, the doctrine of eternal security simply makes theological and logical sense.  In the larger framework of salvation on the basis of God’s grace, and not on the works of man (Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5), the possibility of someone losing their salvation is not feasible.  The Bible clearly teaches that salvation is a gift from God given to a person on the basis of His grace and the merits of Christ at the cross and resurrection.  Salvation is something we absolutely cannot earn and do not deserve (Rom. 6:23).  The problem with the possibility of losing one’s salvation is that it leads to the question, “How do you get it back again?”  Herein lies the problem: the assumption on which every opponent of eternal security I have interacted with is that salvation can be received again (and again and again and so on).  But is that true?

Almost anything you read by someone who denies the doctrine of eternal security will include a reference to Heb. 6:1-8- the often misunderstood passage where a person “tastes the heavenly gift” (v.4) and becomes guilty of having “fallen away” (v.6).  What is especially interesting is that these proponents seldom discuss the rest of verse 6, which states that for any person who falls away “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance.”  If we are to interpret this passage as teaching the possibility of losing one’s salvation, it is emphatically stated that once salvation is lost, it can never be regained.  I have never heard any opponent of eternal security teach anything but the ability to be “saved again.”  Yet, Heb. 6:6 denies this possibility.

The notion of being able to lose one’s salvation belies the very principle of salvation by grace through faith.  In other words, if my bad deeds (or lack of good deeds) are enough to merit the forfeiture of my salvation, then the only possible conclusion is that I must be able to do something to earn it back again.  But if this were true, it stands against the linchpin of New Testament theology: salvation, not by human effort, but by God’s grace.

One of my favorite amusement park rides is the Batman ride at Six Flags Over Texas.  This inverted roller coaster features loops, corkscrews, and thrilling turns at high speeds in a train/car where your legs freely dangle below the seat.  I am relieved when I get on this ride that there is a safety bar and latch which securely affixes my body to the seat.  How grateful I am that the operator doesn’t shout out, in the absence of any restraining device, “Y’all hold on!”  Given the wild path of the ride, if it were up to me and my strength to hold on to my seat, I would certainly fall off.  But my safety is not up to me on the ride- it is in the engineering and strength of the restraints.  As a result, I can enjoy the ride and not be scared to death that I will fall.  This illustration, though possibly construed as trite or childish, seems to capture the essence of the Scripture’s teaching about salvation.  Salvation is not up to me: it is not earned by me, it is not maintained by me, and will not be consummated at the end of the age by me.  Salvation is completely the work of God.  Thus, salvation is depicted in the Bible, not by me holding on to God in whatever strength I can muster through deeds the Bible says are already tainted by sin (Isa. 64:6), but by Christ and His perfect work holding on to me.  If getting salvation and keeping it were up to me, I certainly would lose it.  But receiving and keeping salvation is up to God and He will never lose His grasp on me (John 10:28-29).

A final point to make in this post is the issue of the perceived expediency and necessity of denying the doctrine of eternal security. Simply put, opponents believe that eternal security doesn’t keep people on the straight and narrow.  A requirement of good deeds is necessary to “hold people’s feet to the fire,” so to speak, in living righteously.  Failure to do these deeds, so it is claimed, is the basis for losing salvation.  However, Paul gives eloquent defenses against this position in his letters to the Romans and Galatians.  Here, Paul argues that the basis of salvation is not works, but grace, and that grace is a sufficient motive for a life of holiness.  In Rom. 7 Paul describes that Christians are set free from obedience to the law as the necessary requirement for salvation.  This is good news since none of us can perfectly keep God’s law. Rom. 8 is then his treatise on life in the Spirit and the resulting freedom under grace.  Correspondingly, Paul makes the same argument to the Galatians in chapters 5 and 6 of that letter.  Again, he appeals to the imagery of freedom from bondage to the law- “for freedom, Christ has set us free… do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).  For the genuine believer, the grace and mercy of God is sufficient reason to live for Him.

In the next few posts for Tough to Tackle Tuesdays, I will address some of the key Bible passages that defend the doctrine of eternal security as well as look at those passages often used in its denial.

When a Child Dies Will They Go to Heaven?

When a Child Dies Will They Go to Heaven?

Every so often as a pastor I am asked by someone about the eternal destiny of a child who has died. Do they go to heaven? What about the age of accountability? What about a miscarriages or abortion- is that a child who goes to heaven?  I am always perplexed when people share with me some of the inane comments they hear from others on this subject.  Some tell me they have heard that children who have not been baptized will go to hell. Others have told me that if the child’s parents are not believers then there is no faith to “cover” the child and the child must pay for the sins of the parents resulting in an eternity in hell. Such ridiculous comments stem from skewed interpretation of Scripture or errant church tradition or both. In addition, it is equally troubling to me when I hear people say, “I don’t know,” in response to the death of a child and their eternal state.

Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Larry King had a panel on his show to talk about the issues related to the tragedy. King asked John MacArthur, a well-known pastor and author of many books, “What about a two year-old baby crushed at the bottom of the World Trade Center?” MacArthur’s response- “Instant heaven.”  King replied, “The baby wasn’t a sinner?” MacArthur again answered, “Instant heaven.” The pastor is right. It is within our sense of decency and fairness that we want to believe all children who die go to heaven. The good news is that we can go beyond our feelings on this issue. The Scripture clearly teaches that all children who die will go to heaven. So, what does the Scripture say?

To begin, the Scripture affirms that life begins at conception. Psalm 139:13-16 states, “For you formed my inward parts; You knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.  My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.” The plain sense of this biblical text coupled with the fact that an omniscient, omnipotent God is the personal Creator of all life clearly mandates that life begins at conception.  What does this mean for the issue of children and heaven?  It means that a human life that is ended because of abortion will be in heaven. The parents who suffer a miscarriage will, if they are followers of Christ, meet their child who they never saw one day in heaven.

In 2 Sam. 12 we read the story of the death of David and Bathsheba’s child. David fasts and mourns while the child is still alive and on the brink of death. He is so distraught, his servants fear he will do something to harm himself. However, when the child dies, David cleans up, worships God, and asks for something to eat. This is strange, as even greater mourning would be expected upon the news of the child’s death. When David is questioned about his behavior, he responds by saying, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (1 Sam. 12:22-23). The phrase “I shall go to him” is a telling part of David’s seemingly odd behavior and an important aspect of the issue of a child’s eternity. By saying this, David clearly believes that his child is in heaven.  He is in a place of conscious existence and furthermore a place where he will one day be reunited with his son. Some have said David’s expression is a reference to lying in an adjacent grave to his child. But clearly David is not talking about the cemetery- he is talking about heaven. Why does David break his fast and worship after hearing of his son’s death? The grave would not cause that kind of hope. Only heaven would!  David breaks his fast because of his confident assurance that his child is in the care of God and that one day he will see him again. The same is true of Abraham when it is said of him in Gen. 25:8 that he breathed his last and was “gathered to his people.” That phrase isn’t talking about the family burial plots. It’s talking about a conscious existence and reunion in the afterlife.

The story of David and Bathsheba’s son dying gives cause to reflect on an errant perspective some have about the death of a child. I have heard it said that, because he was conceived in adultery, David and Bathsheba’s child went to hell. The same is said of children today whose parents are not Christians or have not been baptized. The Scripture they state is usually Exod. 34:6-7, “The Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” A common misperception of this text is that God holds children guilty for the sins of their parents.  However, consider the words of Deut. 24:16, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” This text clearly states that each person will be liable for their own sin and will not be held guilty of their parent’s sin. So, do these two texts contradict each other? No. A child will never bear the guilt of their parents (Deut 24), but the children of a sinful generation are powerfully affected and influenced by the consequences of their parent’s sin (Exod 34).

So, the reason a child who dies will go to heaven is because they will not be held liable to sin. They are innocent. Consider the account of Jonah called to preach repentance to the Ninevites. Jonah hated the people and wanted God to destroy all of them. He certainly didn’t want the Ninevites to have the opportunity to be saved. However, God responded to Jonah’s displeasure by saying, “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11). The people who do not know their right hand from their left are clearly children and those who are mentally disabled. They are incapable of making the choice to repent. It is clear that such are the objects of God’s mercy, not judgment.

The whole issue of innocence in terms of children and God’s judgment brings up what is commonly called “the age of accountability.” At what age does a person know they are a sinner, have offended the perfect standard of God’s righteousness, and thus are liable for judgment? The key thing we need to realize is not the age of a person but the condition of a person. There is no age at which every person suddenly becomes aware of and accountable for their sin.  The Bible is silent on there being a set age.  The reason for this is that each child has their own unique development in understanding truth. The key is not age, but rather reaching a condition of moral culpability. Any child who dies before reaching this condition will go to heaven. We must also include here those people who are mentally disabled. God will not hold them accountable for what they did not understand.

Finally, we need to consider the regard that Jesus had for children. In Matt. 18:3-5 Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” Jesus saw in children a tremendous example of dependency, trust, and humility- all characteristics we should embody in our relationship with the Lord. A child was Jesus’ best illustration of a redeemed believer. Someone might say that Jesus is only using the children here as an analogy of how adults can be saved. But remember that analogies only work if they are grounded in truth. If children are not readily accepted into heaven, then Jesus’ analogy is a bad one. Becoming a follower of Christ was in many ways like becoming a child. Certainly Jesus’ regard for and teaching about children fits the biblical pattern of their innocence before God.

Mark 10:14-15- “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” I love what the 19th century Presbyterian preacher Charles Hodge said of this verse- “He tells us, ‘Of such is the kingdom of heaven,’ as though heaven was in great measure composed of the souls of redeemed infants.” Scripture clearly affirms that innocent children will be welcomed and embraced by the heavenly Father.


What Is the “Unpardonable Sin?”

What Is the “Unpardonable Sin?”

From time to time I am asked about what is commonly known as the “Unpardonable Sin.” Last Sunday night, I preached from Mark 3:20-30 which contains Jesus’ teaching about the Unpardonable Sin. I was surprised at the response afterward. Numerous people thanked me for speaking about the subject.  Some had never heard any teaching on the issue and others recounted a great deal of errant sermons and lessons.  Therefore, I thought it might be helpful for some if I put a few comments about the Unpardonable Sin on the blog.

The Unpardonable Sin is mentioned in Matt 12 and Mark 3.  Mark’s account reads, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (3:28-29).  Jesus clearly indicates that a person can commit a sin that is unforgiveable.  But what exactly is this sin?

It may be best to begin with what the Unpardonable Sin is not.  I have heard numerous people claim this sin is a variety of possible things: cursing the Holy Spirit, using the Lord’s name in vain, adultery, sexual perversion, murder, and genocide.  However, none of these meet the biblical description of the Unpardonable Sin.  It seems clear that an accurate definition of the sin based on the biblical text is that it is an ongoing, continual rejection of the witness of the Holy Spirit that Jesus is the Son of God who has come to save the world from its sins.

The Unpardonable Sin is the blatant, ongoing refusal of a person to acknowledge and embrace the identity and saving work of Jesus.  Consider the context of the passage in Mark.  The scribes accuse Jesus of performing exorcisms under the power of Beelzebul and by the prince of demons (3:22).  In essence, the scribes were saying, “This man claims to be the Son of God.  In reality, he is the son of the devil.”  The scribes had a blatant disregard for Jesus and the gospel.  They were calling light darkness and darkness light.  According to the scribes, the work of Jesus was actually the work of Satan.

Notice in this passage that Jesus warns them.  They are on the brink of crossing a line where their hearts are so hard there is no going back.  The scribes have already exhibited an unusual level of hardness of heart in their prior encounter with Jesus in regard to the observance of the Sabbath (3:1-6).  This grieves and angers Jesus.  Their perpetual attitude of rejecting God’s truth is in peril of becoming a permanent blight.

A key question is: Have people committed this sin?  The answer is yes. From the most vile sinner to even “good” people, those who continuously reject the claims of Christ can commit this sin.  Kent Hughes recounts the story of pastor Ben Haden visiting a friend in the hospital who was dying.  The pastor asked about the friend’s relationship with God.  The man replied, “I’ve always believed in God.  I know everything with Him is shipshape.” The pastor then asked, “What do you believe about Jesus?”  The man replied, “I’ve known God all my life.  I’ve tried to observe godly standards, work hard, and be honest.”  However, the pastor was persistent.  “But what about you and Jesus?”  The friend responded, “I’ve never made a place in my life for Jesus. I don’t believe in Jesus. If I did, it would upset the control I have over my life. I would have to rethink everything about me.”  The pastor said, “By God’s grace, you have time now. Rethink it!”  “No, I will die without Jesus.”  “Why do you think Jesus died?” said the pastor. “For sins” was the friend’s response.  “Your sins,” said the pastor.  “Perhaps, but it’s too late for me to rethink the place of Jesus in my life.”  And with those words the man died.

On the other hand, there are people who have rejected Jesus’ claim most of their lives and embraced Jesus toward the end.  I have known multiple people of whom this was true.  The problem is that we don’t know how long a person has to continually reject Jesus until their attitude of disbelief becomes permanent.  Thus, we are never qualified to determine whether or not someone has committed the Unpardonable Sin.  Our duty is to extend the love of Christ and share His gospel with all people.

That said, I think we can determine a few characteristics associated with the Unpardonable Sin.

First, as mentioned earlier, the Unpardonable Sin is characterized by the blatant reversal of Gods truth, i.e. calling light darkness and darkness light.

Second, the presence of knowledge is apparent.  Notice in the passage in Mark that the scribes, those learned in religious thought, are the ones in danger of committing the Unpardonable Sin. The person completely ignorant of the gospel is not necessarily the one in danger of committing this sin, it is the person in church, the one who has much exposure to the Word, who has searched the depths of theology and still calls it all darkness.

Third, is the absence of any kind of concern.  The person in danger of committing this sin could care less about their stance of calling the work of God darkness.  In my ministry, I have had a number of people come to me concerned whether or not they have committed the Unpardonable Sin.  I always share with them that the very fact they are concerned about possibly grieving the Holy Spirit is most likely evidence they have not committed the sin yet.

There has been much misunderstanding about the Unpardonable Sin.  Sadly, it has been used by some to mislead, browbeat, and intimidate people through guilt.  We need to rightly understand the words of Jesus about this issue.  Our goal is to personally be vigilant to accept the claims of Christ.  If He is indeed the Son of God and Lord of all, which He is, then it means He is the Lord of us.  We must live our daily lives in light of this revelation.  In regard to those we know who have yet to respond to Jesus and His lordship, we must not judge them as “lost causes,” but be hopeful and prayerful in loving them and sharing with them the truth of who Jesus is and what He did to secure salvation for all who will believe.

Is the Bible Inerrant and Free of Mistakes?

Is the Bible Inerrant and Free of Mistakes?

Does the Bible have mistakes in it?  For years critics of the veracity and authority of the Bible have referred to the numerous “errors” that can be found in the Bible.   So, is the Bible inerrant?  Can it be completely trusted as the words of God?

For the sake of space, I will not enumerate the supposed errors in the Bible in this post.  Suffice it to say, I have studied these errors for years as well as the very cogent explanations for each made by a wide range of scholars.  Instead, I want to focus in a wider perspective why I believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.  In my experience, I have discovered that many people who champion the position that there are errors in the Bible really do so from an ad hominem perspective rather than an argument of substance.  In other words, their insistence that errors are contained in the Bible is merely grounds for their disdain for God and Christians.  As Bill Fay said, “Every time someone says to me, ‘I don’t believe the Bible because there are mistakes in it,’ I simply hand my Bible over to them and ask, ‘Would you be so kind as to show me one?’”  Most are unable to do so.

At issue is whether or not the Bible is “inerrant.”  Many people attempt to make the Bible die a thousand deaths on points that really aren’t related to inerrancy.  On his blog, author Tim Challies lists a helpful post about inerrancy by explaining what inerrancy is not.

Inerrancy does not preclude the use of ordinary language. For example, the Bible speaks of the sun “rising.”  We know the sun does not rise, but rather the earth rotates to bring the sun into view.  The use of colloquialisms is to be expected, and does not invalidate the inerrancy of Scripture.  The same can be said here of numbers.  If I go to a Thunder game and the announced attendance is 18,261, I will tell people there were 18,000 there.  The same is true with distance.  Mapquest says the distance from Shawnee to Midwest City is 31.51 miles.  If you ask me how far Shawnee is from Midwest City I’m going to say, “About 30 miles.”  My response is not as precise as GPS, but nonetheless it is accurate.

Inerrancy does not preclude the use of loose and free quotations. In our culture, quoting someone exactly is of tantamount importance.  However, in first century Greek usage, of utmost importance was the content of what someone said.  Note that the Greek New Testament never uses quotation marks.  If one ancient manuscript reads, “I Am the Truth, the Way, and the Life…” and another reads, “I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life…” there’s no problem with inerrancy.  The content has been accurately conveyed.

Inerrancy does not preclude unusual grammatical constructions.  Biblical authors had their own unique style and vocabulary (see previous post on the inspiration of Scripture).  Some authors had very proper style and grammar (e.g. Luke) while others did not (e.g. John).  However, in no way does this undermine the accuracy or truthfulness of what was being written.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to biblical inerrancy is the question of the original autographs.  Some may argue, “I might believe that the original documents recorded by the biblical authors are inerrant, but the Bible we have today, copied for centuries by man, is full of errors.”  In reality, this argument is a non-sequitur because none of the original autographs of the Bible exist.  Since the Scripture is inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16-17), and since God is perfect, it makes sense then that the original autographs of the Bible are free from any error.

But what about the Bible we have today?  For the first fifteen centuries of the New Testament’s existence, it was passed on by the handwritten work of copyists (called the “transmission” of the text).  Did these copyists make mistakes? Absolutely!  The earliest copies of the Bible were written mostly on papyrus, a brittle medium that fell apart over time.  As copies began to wear out, new ones were copied by hand.  Sometimes these copies were made by a lone copyist looking at the document(s) needing to be replaced.  At other times a reader would read the document and multiple copyists would record what they heard.  This was no easy task.  The Hebrew language has no vowels (which must be supplied) and Greek texts were often written with no spaces between the words to conserve space on the papyrus/parchment.  What were some of the mistakes that copyists would make?

Mistakes by the ear.  If a copyist was recording what was being read to him, he may mishear what was said.  For example, a reader might say, “For many years, the book had been read.”  However, the scribe may write down “red” instead of “read.”

Mistakes by the eye.  Hebrew and Greek letters are similar and copyists may have mistaken them for something different.  If a verse had a repeating clause in it, the scribe’s eyes may go from the first one to the last one, skipping the intervening words.  They may have also repeated words or phrases moving from one line to the other.  Just imagine how tired your eyes get when reading or writing for long periods of time.

Mistakes of confusion by correction. Many times the scribe would catch his own mistake.  However, if he made a mistake after a considerable amount of the document had been copied, he would not start over again.  Instead, he would go into the margin or between the lines and make the correction.  However, future scribes might not know if these marks were corrections or notes added for clarification of the text.

Mistakes of abbreviation.  Common words or phrases were sometimes abbreviated, but later scribes might not understand these and attempt to erroneously correct them.

Mistakes of refusal to correct.  Scribes would sometimes come across what they knew to be a clear mistake by the previous copyist.  However, out of deep respect for the biblical text and process of transmission, they would refuse to correct the manuscript.  We should note that biblical scholars, even in ancient times, were aware of the mistakes made by copyists.  The vast majority are quite simple to identify.  For example, the Masoretes, who preserved the oldest Hebrew copy of the Old Testament we have today, made a comprehensive list of ancient variants and problems with the text.

So, knowing that copyists were prone to mistakes, how can we say that the Bible is inerrant, infallible, and completely true and accurate in all that it says?  Let me explain by using the New Testament as an example.  Today we have over 5,000 ancient copies, in whole or in part, of the New Testament in the Greek language in which they were originally written.  Obviously, these 5,000 copies are not exactly identical.  There are variances between the copies in terms of different vocabulary words used, phrases, or sentence structure (called “variants”).  However, of these 5,000 copies, the vast majority do have the exact same rendering for every word and sentence in the New Testament (called the “majority text”).  If there is a variant reading in a number of ancient copies, or in some of the more important, older copies, then a note to this effect is made at the bottom of the Greek New Testament (called the “textual apparatus”).  It is important to note that none of the variances deal with anything that is substantive or theological in nature.  They generally deal with conjunctions, determiners, etc.

That the majority of over 5,000 copies, made by different scholars at different times in different places, say the same thing is evidence that the majority text is God’s inerrant Word.  Add to this that copyists and ancient scholars used rigorous standards to determine the accuracy of the text.  For example, here are two (among many) of the rules they commonly used:

The rule of difficulty.  The most difficult text (i.e. to understand theologically or in plain sense) is probably the correct one.  It is far more likely that ancient scribes would have tried to simplify a text through editing than to make it more difficult.  Thus, difficult texts show that a copyist did not make an alteration.  An example I give to my students is this: Let’s say you’re a copyist and you have two copies of the same text which have different renderings and you’re trying to determine which is correct.  One copy reads, “Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily life is but a dream.”  The other copy reads, “Propel, propel, propel your craft placidly down the solution, exuberance, exuberance, exuberance, exuberance existence is but an illusion.”  The simpler rendering appears to have been simplified by a copyist. The more difficult rendering appears to be closer to the original.

The rule of antiquity.  The oldest text is most likely the best one.  Copyists dated their work or dates can be determined by the style of font that was used.  The older the text, the less time and opportunity copyists had to make alterations.

But does any of this verify that the Bible we have on our desk today is an accurate and trustworthy representation of the original documents written by the biblical authors?  One of the greatest archaeological finds ever made are the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Most people have heard of these, but they don’t know why they are so important.  They are tremendously important because they stand as evidence of all I have been talking about in this post: Namely, that God was directly overseeing the transmission of the biblical text so that what we have today is truly inerrant.  The Dead Sea Scrolls, accidentally discovered by a shepherd boy in 1947 in the caves of Qumran near the Dead Sea, were copies of the Old Testament written in Hebrew.  The scrolls were produced by the Essenes, a monastic sect of Jews living in seclusion, carefully recording and preserving the Scripture.  The scrolls date back to 200 B.C.  At that time, the oldest copy of the Old Testament was the Masoretic text (from which the Old Testament in your Bible is translated) which is dated around 900 A.D.  The absolutely amazing thing is that the Dead Sea Scrolls, over 1,000 years older than the Masoretic Text, are virtually identical.  This means that for 1,000 years God was overseeing the transmission of the text.  It’s difficult to describe just how amazing this is!  Despite the human errors of copyists, God had insured that His Word was being accurately passed on to future generations.

Everything I have written thus far helps to explain that, as far as textual criticism and the problems of transmission, the Bible stands unparalleled in its accuracy.  As for the aforementioned “errors” in the Bible- theological, historical, or otherwise- each of these has very plausible explanations.  I plan future posts in the “Tough to Tackle Tuesday” feature of my blog to specifically address some of these.

I hope you will join me in trusting that the Bible is divinely inspired by God, completely inerrant and infallible, free of any fraud or deceit, and a trustworthy guide for life.